Lovers and Children: On Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Letter to the Amazon”

Tsvetaeva describes an ability to resist nature as a form of achievement:
Renouncement — a motivation? Translated by A’Dora Phillips and Gaëlle Cogan as Letter to the Amazon, it is exemplary of Tsvetaeva’s intense epistolary style. God, in forbidding us something, does so out of love; nature, in forbidding us, does so out of love for herself, out of hate for all that is not her.”
To put it bluntly, nature is selfish. It is a strange thing for Tsvetaeva to write. While most heterosexual unions tend to satisfy this desire biologically — by producing little versions of us, mortal beings with a limited lifespan — the best forms of union result in more lasting and more beautiful progeny, such as acts of heroism, works of art, and laws. Isn’t there something passive about letting our erotic impulses be channeled into sex and childbearing, the defaults set by our animal nature? In Aristophanes’s view, this explains why some of us can only recover our original wholeness in same-sex unions. […] Each time I give up, I feel a tremor within. She had passionate epistolary romances with two other legendary poets of her time, Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke. A case in point is a letter from 1932, addressed from Paris — where Tsvetaeva was living as an impoverished émigré — to Natalie Barney, a glamorous heiress to an American railroad fortune. What makes it compelling is the psychological mini-drama Tsvetaeva stages between two lovers — the Younger and the Older. Wouldn’t each of us prefer to father or mother the Iliad or the US Constitution, rather than a regular human child? Instead of going along with its controlling force, we must strive to cultivate self-mastery. Struggle petrified. From the plausible description of a particular mini-drama, Tsvetaeva draws a generalizing conclusion: similar tensions plague all instances of romantic and erotic love between women. He believes that our erotic pursuits are driven by the fundamental human desire — to possess the good forever. MAY 19, 2017
“LOVE IN ITSELF is childhood. She also kept up a lively, often revelatory correspondence with fellow exiles, patrons, literary protégés, scholars, intellectuals, and potential lovers. The initial violent fission causes each of us to look for the other half to make us whole again. Vacillating between confrontation and seduction, it poses a challenge to Barney, a champion of romantic and sexual partnerships between women. Which is more difficult: to hold a horse back or to let it run? “One cannot live off love,” she continues. Nature cannot be disciplined completely — it will keep breaking through, and sometimes it may win. And, given that we are the horse held back — which is harder: to be restrained or to allow our strength free rein? She had had open, intimate relations with women. In this sense all natural activity is passive, while all willed passivity is active (effusion — endurance, repression — action). Children do not have children,” the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes in her Letter to the Amazon. While most original humans were androgynous (man-woman), some were composed of two women, and others of two men. She teaches philosophy at the University of Arkansas. Renouncement? She lets us glimpse a series of episodes, as if through a crack in a door, during the course of which the Older Lover recognizes the Younger’s increasingly articulated desire for a child, for “a little you to love,” and distances herself from her restless beloved, pushing her to leave. In her other writings, Tsvetaeva had always insisted that, insofar as she is a poet, she has the right to “shake off” the natural givens, including her own female body. Women lovers cannot have children together, Tsvetaeva says — that is “the only weak point, the only assailable point, the only breach in the perfect entity of two women who love one another.”
The theme of same-sex partnership was the focus of Plato’s most famous dialogue on love, the Symposium, in which the comedian Aristophanes tells a myth about original humans, split in half by the angry gods. Yet in concluding Letter to the Amazon, Tsvetaeva brings in nature to bolster her argument: “Nature says: no. Max Rosochinsky is a translator and poet from Simferopol, Crimea. Tsvetaeva’s answer is that young women do so “without thinking, by pure and triple vital instinct — youth, perpetuation, womb.” Our instincts, in other words, are sufficiently powerful to disrupt some of our most cherished projects and deepest commitments. Hence, Tsvetaeva positions same-sex love as an affront to nature. Yet this move could be merely a provocation. It is our own nature, after all, that rebels against the ends we set for ourselves. Human nature, she suggests, anticipating Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976) by four decades, only cares about reproducing more instances of itself. In her insightful and rich introduction, scholar Catherine Ciepiela writes that Tsvetaeva’s “passionately stated case may now feel sympathetic to gay and lesbian couples who are fighting all over the world for the legal right to bear children and build families together.” By identifying the drive for biological reproduction as issuing from “selfish nature,” whose authority over us we have reasons to resist, Tsvetaeva’s essay also encourages us to reexamine our assumptions about marriage and family, and to keep thinking about other ways of being together — and of having and caring for children. Her “The Girlfriend,” a cycle of 17 poems dedicated to her lover, fellow poet Sophia Parnok, contains some of the most breathtaking love poetry in the Russian language. It is me — the earth that quakes. Yes, because controlling a force requires an infinitely more bitter effort than unleashing it — which requires no effort at all. “The one thing that survives love is the child.”
While Tsvetaeva’s adult life was riven by tragedy, she maintained a childlike capacity for love. But if that is the case, then why should we heed nature? These children are more worth having, Socrates says, because they satisfy their parents’ desire for immortality more fully, and they do so regardless of their parents’ sex or age. He is working on a monograph on Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry. The notion that Tsvetaeva’s argument is a seduction, and the mini-drama a form of bait, is further supported by the Letter’s opening paragraphs. Tsvetaeva’s argument in her essay — that a loving relationship between two partners can only be brought to completion by a child — should strike the seasoned readers of her writings as surprising. Lovers are children. Far from wanting to alienate her, Tsvetaeva’s thinly veiled confessional tone suggests that she intended to tease the woman she called “the Amazon” and “my female brother.” She wanted to get Barney to respond. Barney was wealthy and well connected, a potential patron. Socrates, as usual, makes a more radical claim. Yet here, in her Letter, she dismisses love between women, and her case is compelling. ¤
Oksana Maksymchuk is a translator and author of two books of poetry in the Ukrainian language. Nature has no absolute authority: its claims on us should be questioned, resisted. In forbidding it to us, she protects herself. It does not care about us, our reasons and motivations, our love and our integrity.