Come Gather Round the Writing Table: Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

I’ve been having a lot of blog-post sized thoughts lately, and instead of continuing to cram them into YouTube comments and brandishing them at my wife over breakfast, I’ve decided the best way to start off 2023 is by resurrecting my old blog. I’m a writer and I think the best way for me to kick it off will be to talk about my relationship to writing, and the best way I can think to talk about writing is to talk about a painting: The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks by the 19th century Russian painter, Ilya Repin.

So what are we looking at here? With this painting, we see a great (albeit apocryphal) scene from the history of Ukraine. The story goes that the Cossacks, a Slavic ethnic group once famous for their cavalry and for their independent streak, had successfully routed the Ottomans in battle. Afterwards, the Sultan Mehmed IV had the gall to send them a letter demanding their surrender, writing in a super ornate, pretentious way where he spends three quarters of the letter just giving his titles. The Cossacks replied by writing this famously filthy roast of the Sultan, matching his own ornate language but replacing all his titles with insults. Here’s a link containing translations of both the sultan’s original letter and the Cossacks’ reply if you want to read them, (although sadly I think it comes across a little awkwardly in English). Here’s also a wonderful recreation of the scene from the Russian film, Taras Bulba (2009).

The story is likely a fabrication, interesting in its own right in its relationship to the history of the Russian Empire and Ukrainian nationalism. But let’s leave aside the history and just look at the painting, which absolutely sends me. I actually have a reproduction of it hanging over my desk in my writing room because not only does it make me smile, but for me, it really captures what writing is. 

The painting shows all the Cossacks around the writing table laughing and shouting, all competing to contribute their own insults to the letter. I love this because it really shows the chaos that writing emerges out of. Usually when we think of someone writing, we get a picture of someone sitting down and working in solitude, pulling sentences from the substance of themselves. It’s really easy to forget from that image just what a patchwork writing really is. Writing is made from allusion and reference, subversion and pastiche, all of which relies on not only wide familiarity with a range of other texts and styles, but also the ability to discern between all that textual material. When I’m writing, I often feel like this dude with the bowl cut at the center of the scene, trying to pick out samples from the total noise of voices and remix them together into a hopefully coherent project.

There’s also a small, but amazing detail included in the bottom-left of the canvas. If you look closely, you can see a brown dog laying on the ground, and if you zoom in, it seems like he’s giving a concerned look at these frenzied motherfuckers stomping and shouting all around him.

I think the inclusion of the dog is so brilliant because it introduces the gaze of the non-human, animal other and invites us to consider from that point of view what a strange and terrifying thing language is. From the dog’s perspective, all these human beings were behaving like normal animals, just chilling and responding sensibly to the world around them. Then they started to chirp some nonsense at each other, and gradually for reasons unconnected to their immediate environment, worked themselves into this apparent fit of madness.

What I really love about the dog and the painting as a whole is it shows the often violent way which signs manifest physically. Most schools of philosophy and linguistics tend to view language as an abstract world of concepts, purely cerebral, and often in opposition to the physical. A popular metaphor is “the prison house of language,” i.e., this thing that cuts us off from the reality of the body and the physical world around us. I really like the figures in that painting, though, because they show language not as an abstraction, but as a dramatically embodied thing, as a series of emotional responses and physical reactions. A lot of those figures remind me of the work of Francis Bacon–the cheeks ruddy from burst blood vessels, the bent and prone bodies around the table, the wrinkled brown nearly toothless face cracked wide open in laughter–and this apoplexy of feeling is all in response to a damn letter.

So with that, I’d like to wish you all a happy start to the year 2023 and to invite you to gather round my own virtual writing table. Here I’ll dropping my thoughts on my reading and notes towards whatever the current project is, and you’d all be helping me out a lot if you have a look and give me your thoughts.

Hopefully you find yourself in the position of the Cossacks and not the dog.

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