October 28, 2019

Velimir Khlebnikov: Innovating 100 Years Before Silicon Valley

Velimir Khlebnikov: Innovating 100 Years Before Silicon Valley
Self-portrait. Velimir Khlebnikov (1909)

Think innovators are only a twenty-first century phenomenon? Think again. In 1916, avant-garde writer Velimir Khlebnikov dreamt up a mode of communication that could have been tweeted by Elon Musk: a language of numbers. Although he imagined using literal numbers to communicate, like a numerical Esperanto, he wasn’t too far off from predicting our digital age, where images and text would be translated into zeroes and ones before traveling around the world.

“We can use a number to designate every action and every image, and by allowing a number to be projected by a powerful spotlight, we can communicate with each other. […] The language of numbers is especially suited to radio telegrams. Number-talk. The mind will free itself at last from the meaningless waste of its strength in everyday speech.” (A Letter to Two Japanese, 1916)

Born Viktor Khlebnikov on this day (Old Style date) in 1885, Velimir Khlebnikov devoted his life to combining scientific and artistic means of uniting humanity and seeking universal truths. Much of that impulse came from his upbringing in a scientific family: Khlebnikov’s father was an accomplished ornithologist and environmentalist. Indeed, early in his career Khlebnikov followed directly in his father’s footsteps. He enrolled at Kazan University in 1903, where he conducted fieldwork in ornithology and even discovered a new species of cuckoo. If things had turned out differently, he might have become a bread-and-butter scientist.

But everything changed in 1905. Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War shook Khlebnikov to the core, as it did many writers of that time. Later, he would recall that his most ambitious endeavor — developing a mathematical algorithm that could predict the future — grew out of the seed that was Tsushima: “I wanted to find a justification for the deaths.” Though still enamored with scientific methods, Khlebnikov began to feel that his research would not help him answer the most pressing questions of his time. But he knew the revolutionary potential of poetry — he had always pursued writing on the side. So he decided to focus on writing instead.

In 1906, Khlebnikov dropped out of Kazan University and journeyed to St. Petersburg. There he made the acquaintance of the Symbolists, including Vyacheslav Ivanov. At first, they got along superbly. Khlebnikov’s interest in universal laws meshed well with the Symbolists’ then-preoccupation with pan-Slavism. Indeed, he took the South Slavic pseudonym Velimir under their influence. However, pan-Slavism proved not to be exciting enough for him. By 1910, Khlebnikov had abandoned the Symbolists and was on the search for writers who, like him, wanted to use poetry for unconventional ends but didn’t fully belong with the Symbolists. 1910 was also the year when he published one of his most famous poems, which took a step up from the Symbolists’ experimentalism by inventing entirely new words from Slavic roots:

О, рассмейтесь, смехачи!
О, засмейтесь, смехачи!
Что смеются смехами, что смеянствуют смеяльно,
О, засмейтесь усмеяльно!
О, рассмешищ надсмеяльных — смех усмейных смехачей!
О, иссмейся рассмеяльно, смех надсмейных смеячей!
Смейево, смейево,
Усмей, осмей, смешики, смешики,
Смеюнчики, смеюнчики.
О, рассмейтесь, смехачи!
О, засмейтесь, смехачи!

Laugh away, laughing boys!
Laugh along, laughmen!
So they laugh their large laughter, they laugh aloud laughishly.
Laugh and be laughed at!
O the laughs of the overlaughed, the laughfest
of laughingstocks!
Laugh out uplaughingly the laugh of laughed laughterers!
Laughily laughterize laughteroids, laughtereens,
laughpots and laughlings…
Laugh away, laughing boys!
Laugh along, laughmen!
(translated by Christopher Reid)

In the next few years, Khlebnikov assembled about him a series of poets who would call themselves the Futurists. Among them were Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexei Kruchenikh, the founder of zaum in Russian Futurism. Zaum as the Futurists conceived it was a “transrational” or “beyond-sense” language, designed to serve as a universal human language expressing the most fundamental ideas in humanity, much like mathematics might serve as the universal language of the sciences. A single zaum poem, Khlebnikov and Kruchenikh asserted scandalously, contained “more of the Russian national spirit than in all of Pushkin.” In zaum, the scientific pursuit of objective truth coexisted perfectly with the artistic pursuit of universality.

The cover of Zangezi (1922), an experimental "supersaga" (сверхповесть) and a crowning work of Russian Futurism.

Although Khlebnikov spent the rest of his life writing poetry, he never lost touch with his love of science. In the mid-1910s, he became fascinated with radio technology and its potential to connect the world, much like zaum was connecting human souls in extra-linguistic comprehension. It fascinated him so much that, in 1921, he published a utopian essay about the revolutionary potential of radio waves. The essay, entitled “The Radio of the Future,” imagined radio waves connecting all humans, from the richest to the poorest, from Russians to non-Russians, unifying them in the appreciation of beauty:

“The Mussorgsky of the future is giving a coast-to-coast concert of his work, using the Radio apparatus to create a vast concert hall stretching from the Vladivostok to the Baltic, beneath the blue dome of the heavens.

On this one evening he bewitches the people, sharing with them the communion of his soul, and on the following day he is only an ordinary mortal again.  The artist has cast a spell over his land; he has given his country the singing of the sea and the whistling of the wind. The poorest house in the smallest town is filled with divine whistlings and the sweet delights of sound.”

Project for a Radio Station by Naum Gabo
Project for a Radio Station (1921) by Naum Gabo, which accompanied Khlebnikov's essay.

Was Khlebnikov describing radio, or was he describing Youtube? It’s unlikely he would have found out, even if he had lived to old age. Tragically, Khlebnikov died of illness the following year, aged thirty-six. One wonders if looking at the connectivity of today’s world, he would shake his head in despair at the fragmentation of identities spurred by the internet, or on the contrary, he would marvel at the proliferation of new ideas and the connections between new people.

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