“Everything Has Become Masculine”— Hypermasculinity and War in Victory over the Sun.
The first Futurist opera, Victory over the Sun (VOTS) by Alexei Kruchenych, is known as a brilliant linguistic, poetic, and theatrical experiment, an anti-opera which may have been the world’s first performance piece. The inspired shenanigans of VOTS even pre-date the antics of Dada.
To test the bounds of metaphor and language, nothing in this avant-garde play was supposed to make any sense. However, the creators of VOTS – composer Mikhail Matiushin, painter, avant pioneer Kazimir Malevich, and poet Kruchenych – were Futurists with a definite artistic agenda. It is unlikely that the authors of a slew of manifestos and position statements such as “The Slap in the Face of the Public Taste” and “The Word as Such” would not use the bully pulpit of a sold-out show to opine, at least a bit.
There is a message in VOTS, and a fairly distinct one, despite the disruptions of dramatic conventions. It is one born of the zeitgeist of the new era of technological war of the 20th century and the Futurist ethos, which eschewed the infirm past to seek greater human power, to become “awesome.” And this message is an antiwar one.
To give a Marxist reading of Victory over the Sun, VOTS is the Russian Duck Soup, or given the chronology, Duck Soup is the American Victory over the Sun. Both works use hilarity and irreverence in a send-up of the hypermasculinity of war. The time traveler declares "Everything has become masculine" and even female and neuter nouns turn masculine and, suitably, “hard as iron” And then the most ridiculous and antic hell breaks loose.
Like the Marx Brothers, the Futurists trample over every ideal of masculinity that ever existed. They pillory war with energy, slapstick, and rudeness. Fat Turks with drooping flags give their adversaries flowers, like 1960s hippies, malevolents lurk, strongmen declaim. Perhaps Kruchenych's disjoint war, with its neologisms for code and poetic experiments for battle cries, is more like actual war, chaotic, insane, making no sense.
Kruchenych wrote, “We aim to emphasize the significance that all sorts of harshness… dissonance, and…primitive rudeness holds for art.” In Victory, there is razlom, breaking apart, and war on all levels—linguistic, semantic, syntactic, orthographic, metaphoric, dramatic. By boasting that he had created “the only opera in the world with no female part,” Kruchenykh subverts the hyperfeminine form of opera, as Eugene Ostashevsky notes.
VOTS mocks the insipid feminine the way Groucho mocks Margaret Dumont. Like Dumont, francophone symbolists and tubercular Italian are a false and puffed up art that must be eliminated before a true feminine can emerge. Getting the Margaret Dumonts out of the way clears the way for Futurist strongwomen like Elena Guro, Kruchenych's sister in Troe.
The early twentieth century and its devastating technological wars could be not be met with decadence, prudery, and cowardice. As Annie Finch has noted, all early modernism glories in its masculinity (i.e., Joyce praising Eliot for not writing girly poems), this perhaps because of the need for soldiering at this time. Victory over the Sun mentions Port Arthur, the first defeat of a European power by an Asian one, by the land, nota bene, of the rising “sun.” Our technology loving and machine-gun toting Futurists knew of the horrific war engines introduced in the Russo-Japanese war. They needed Guros and Akmatovas who could take the heat with them.
In war, men are called upon to defend their women, their mothers, their daughters, their wives. Even Stalin dropped all talk of communist internationalism in World War II, calling upon soldiers to defend their Rodina, Mother Russia. Kruchenych's version of this was to throw Pushkin, the "sun" of Russia, whom he deemed too French, off the bridge of the ship of modernity. As Rosamund Bartlett points out, what he places there instead are the deep and ancient roots of the Russian tongue mined from Dal's dictionary. Kruchenych proclaims ZH CH SH, letters that appear in no non-Slavic alphabet, as phonemic battle cries.
The war against the sun results in a peace of people prepared to be awesome; not all can handle the liberation of the world from gravity and the word from denotation. As Kruchenych noted, life is good after victory; little gold fishes swim and there is light. So all this hypermasculinity clears the way for a very female virtue, peace.
I surmise that the Marx Brothers are indebted to Kruchenych for Duck Soup, which they must have read or intuited in the ether of early twentieth century theater. I posit that Kruchenych was a Slavophile. And conclude that women welcome the announcement that everything has become masculine when such masculinity clears the way for a powerful feminine. After all, when the male sun is overthrown, it leaves room for the female moon to romp.