Monday, July 07, 2014

The poet's brain in a jar

Here's a little coda to my piece in the LA Review of Books on Yuri Olesha's memoir-in-fragments, No Day without a Line. I tried so hard to get this into the piece, but it just wouldn't go ... So here it is.

In the section of No Day called Moscow, Olesha writes about several famous Russian writers he befriended in the early twentieth century. He was particularly close with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who committed suicide ... leading to this amazing memory:

When the evening after his death we had gathered on Gendrikov Lane in ... the Briks' apartment [where Mayakovsky had been living], we suddenly heard loud noises coming from Mayakovsky's room--very loud noises, unceremoniously loud, as if somebody were chopping wood. It was the opening of Mayakovsky's cranium to allow the removal of his brain. We listened in horror-struck silence. Then a man in a white gown and boots came out of the room--either an attendant or a medical assistant, but a stranger to us--and in his hands he held a basin covered with a white cloth raised in the middle almost like a pyramid, indeed, just as if that soldier in boots had been carrying a paschal cream-cheese pudding. In the basin was Mayakovsky's brain.

This scene, surreal even by Olesha's standards, defies belief. And yet, recently, an intrepid reporter from Vice Magazine, Joy Neumeyer, paid a visit to the Moscow Brain Institute. There she found Mayakovsky's brain, residing in a jar alongside those of many other luminaries. She even quotes Olesha to explain how the brain got there.

So Olesha was not making this up. As Neumeyer explains, "When a Soviet celebrity died, the brain-collection process worked in one of two ways. Sometimes, the family or the deceased had already agreed to give their brains to the Institute. Or—as in the case of Mayakovsky—they came without asking."

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