EDNOTE.Of possible interest to Nabokovians


The Palindrome from the Perspective of Cultural Semiotics

Erika Greber
(Univ. of Munich / UC Irvine)


Ė Voz'mi-ka slovo ropot, – govoril Cincinnatu ego shurin, ostriak, – i prochti obratno. A? Smeshno poluchaetsia?

"Take the word ropot [murmur]," Cincinnatus' brother-in-law, the wit, was saying to him, "and read it backwards [-› topor: the axe]. Eh? Comes out funny, doesn't it?"

Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading1


In the following abstract, I propose to analyse the palindrome in terms of cultural semiotics and to explore the subliminal semantic concepts and metaphorological implications which are involved in the genre's postmodern renaissance and which articulate certain political anxieties (something which applies especially to the recent rise of palindrome writing and criticism in Russian, German and Serbo-Croatian literatures).2

The palindrome, a special, restricted case of anagram, foregrounds the principle of letter permutation by its strictly sequential proceeding and thus has become the prototype and symbol of anagrammatic letter revolution (in Greek: anagrammatismos, in Latin: revolutio). The permutational ‘revolutional’ principle seems to be inscribed as an archi-semantic matrix into the symbolic structure of the palindrome genre, into its unconscious -- a potential which is being activated in crucial situations of cultural change.

The idea of the palindrome is closely associated with the material and corporeal aspect of verbal signification. Animal images are used for symbolizing the palindromic processes of regression and circle: the crawfish or cancer, and the snake biting its own tail (the gnostic image of Ouroboros). Likewise, the mirror metaphor has been applied to palindrome structures. Largely a visual phenomenon, the palindrome epitomizes the spatiality of language and scripture, something indicated already on the metaphorological plane of classical terminology: "running back again" (palindromos), "stepping back" (versus retrogradus). Allowing for reversibility of the linear discourse, the palindrome represents the very idea of transformation and metamorphosis. Palindromic reversion is a device for breaking up the linearity of speech and, by implication, the irreversibility of time. Irreversibility "thematizes itself in the palindrome form by eating itself up" (a quotation from Oskar Pastior, the outstanding contemporary German palindrome poet). Sequentiality and causality of time and space are annihilated in the palindromic motion. Thus, the palindrome can be conceived of as a chronotope of revolution.

In anagrammatic and palindromic readings of words, the regular referential meaning is dismissed and signification emerges from the pure signifier, the material letter. Associations with alphabet soup letters (or with the so-called Russian bread letters) are quite to the point and underline the aspect of play and pleasure inherent in the genre. Food and eating are prominent motifs in palindrome texts, and palindrome discourse is essentially on eating and incorporation. (Cf. e.g. the Lucullan palindrome by Semyon Kirsanov, 1966, 77, and its intertextual counterpart by Aleksandr Bubnov in A lira darila, 1992, 17, displaying cannibalist motifs).

The genre of the palindrome, playful and ludic as it is, yet has a strong implication of violence. In the work of its foremost practitioners, Velemir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as some of their postmodern successors, the palindrome is closely linked to death, cannibalism, beheading, murder. That violence has long been attributed to letter permutation is explicitly testified to by a 17th century German and Latin riddle poem on the anagram, as well as by the combinatorial literature of German Baroque writers, such as Justus Georg Schottel's linguistic treatise with the martial title Horrendum bellum grammaticale / Der schreckliche Sprachkrieg (The Horrible Language War) referring to the times of the Thirty Years' War. A palindromic reading of the term ‘palindrome’ itself in its German form – Palindrom / Mordnilap – points to the idea of murder, Mord.

The palindromic letter play produces a ‘poetic cannibalism’ of mostly grotesque type, but there are also instances of frightening or macabre uses of the genre. Such a semantic janus-face is quite in line with the palindrome's old Baroque name: versus diabolicus (a name which for its part also indicates the ancient affinity of the palindrome to magic and sorcery).

Violence in palindrome texts has doubtlessly quite different motivations, but can possibly be attributed to a common ground. Letter permutation is an operation presupposing the cutting up of the whole word into parts, it is an operation in the surgical sense. And the dismemberment of the word is prefigured, as Vladimir Toporov has postulated in carrying on Ferdinand de Saussure's anagram theory, in the sacral act of the priest dismembering the sacrificial creature. By anagrammatic dismembering and dissemination of the divine name(s) into the sounds and letters of poetic speech, the priest-poet and primeval grammarian imitated symbolically the dismemberment of the body and the rearrangement of the parts on the sacrificial altar. This mythopoetic Urszene of anagrammatic practices contains the idea of mimetic correspondence between name and thing, between language sign and signified object, and accounts for the Cratylic conception regularly implied in anagrams and palindromes (nomen est omen). In this perspective, it seems significant that Toporov's own telling name contains the very omen of palindrome violence: the axe (topor). Incidentally, the name of Khlebnikov, recognized initiator of today's palindrome poetry, is a telling name with the connotation of bread, khleb, and has been cut up and sliced by later poets' letter operations – a sacred name sacrificed on the altar of the palindrome. (As the self-reflexive palindrome invites self reflection, I may add that my own name represents a "cyclical self-contained palindrome", something I was unaware of, until the Russian palindrome poet Aleksandr Bubnov dedicated a metareflexive palindrome to me playing on the name and the letters mordnilap and dealing, incidentally, with the then vital topic of putsches).

In the aesthetic system of Russian Futurism -- and probably of the classical Avant-garde movements in general --, cut-up plays a major role (with frequent use of corresponding chiffres like cut, axe etc.) and combines with the concept of montage and collage. The eminent status of the cut-up code in Avant-garde thought might be the reason why an Avant-garde palindrome writer like Khlebnikov serves as relay for postmodern palindrome writers, even non-Russians.

Significantly, symbolic killing and extermination is a central aspect in Baudrillard's anagram concept: as the stock of letters is to be consumed without any rest, the name is annihilated so that for Baudrillard anagrammatic poetry is in effect a mode of extermination rather than manifestation of the name and the anagrammatic process is linked to the principle of self-consuming.

In palindrome discourse, self-consumption combines with self-generation. Characteristically, the palindrome is an old symbol of the idea of perpetuum mobile, the autopoietic force that keeps itself going.

In accordance with these conceptual traits, the palindrome can become an apophatic figure, the verbal possibility of non-speaking. The paradox Jacques Derrida is approaching in Comment ne pas parler is expressed by the cover cartoon: a mirror-shaped NON that marks the evacuated centre of negativity, the evacuated circle or zero. Similarly, Edmond JabŹs makes use of a meaningful palindrome in the context of cabbalistic book mysticism: n u l - l' u n, whereby progressive-regressive readings form the idea of eternal mutability of Zero into One and vice versa.

As a means of simultaneously doing and undoing, the palindrome genre seems to stand for autopoiesis, paradox and undecidability, something which possibly accounts for its boom in postmodern literature.

Khlebnikov was the first to choose revolt as a subject for a palindrome text, his long poem Razin (1920) with the Cossack Sten'ka Razin as symbolic figure of the revolutionary. After the defeat of the Communist regime, this poem's palindromic pattern was interpreted as an early anticipation of the revision of history eventually to come (Andrei Voznesenskii in 1990). It seems that palindrome writers and critics in the nineties tend to thematize revolution and change due to their increasingly conscious recognition of the ‘revolutionary’ semantics of the genre.

Contemporary Russian palindrome writers have brought forth lively poetic milieus in Moscow and Kursk with numerous activities such as a palindrome concourse, a palindrome festival and a conference on "culturologic, linguistic, literary, mathematical, magical, philosophical and other aspects of the palindrome" at a palindromic date 21.12.1991 (the next conference is scheduled for 2002), a special fanzine named amfirifma (amphibic rhyme), featured by the Kursk "Club of Palindromes and Palindromaniacs" and its main activist Aleksandr Bubnov, a well-versed author of intricate palindromes who recently received a Ph.D. with a dissertation on the linguistic features of the Russian palindrome. It seems that in post-Soviet Russia, in a cultural situation in which people would like to reverse history and make a whole era disappear, an artistic form like the palindrome which can demonstrate the reversibility of time by retrograde devices of letter magic has its own fascination and attraction. Besides, the apotropaic effect of ancient palindrome rites would be welcome -- an incantation of the symmetry of form directed against the imponderabilities of social change, an exorcism of political and economical disorder through the order of alphabet letters.

The cultural and political framework in which the palindrome genre could flourish was often one of rapid and unpremeditated change, of revolutionary situations. In Russian literary history, this would apply to the times of the leftist revolutions in 1917 and the following Civil War, the brief thaw of the Khrushchev era, the Perestroika period and the present Post-Communist era. But even the first Russian palindromes emerged during a period of radical change, namely in the Baroque period during the reign of Peter the Great and his far-reaching reforms.

What accounts for much of permutational poetry in these periods is, it must be conceded, the interest in ludism shared by Baroque, Avant-garde, and Postmodernism, yet a comparatist perspective adds specific evidence that there is more to the intensity of palindrome phenomena than just word play.

In two other contexts of enormous political and cultural upheavals in the wake of the Communist breakdown the palindrome has become topical: in Germany around 1989 and the immediate post-unification years, and in Serbo-Croatian literature between 1991 and 1995 in connection with the post-Yugoslav cultural split and war. In German feuilletons, all of a sudden the palindrome became a topic of broader public interest with unexpected participation of non-professionals (cf. faz Nov. 1989 immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall, sz June 1990, zeit July 1993, Herbert Pfeiffer's Wende-Köpfe 1993): celebration of the ‘velvet revolution’ or symptom of a desire for reversal of unification? In the Croatian capital Zagreb there arouse a debate on the palindrome's meaning as a symbol of cross-cultural interaction referring to the two dialects involved in Serbo-Croatian language, one argument being that palindromic devices are in fact two-faced speech and represent an illusionary and utopian pseudo-monolingualism, an opposite one that palindrome poetry might symbolically keep up the promise of dialog and double-/pluri-vocal coexistence in a once multicultural context (Dubravka Oraic-Tolic: Palindromska apokalipsa, 1992/1993; Dubravka Ugresic, Die Kultur der Lüge, 1995). Oraic-Tolic criticizes the conception that the palindrome's two parts are identical as utopian and questions whether the meaning has to be the same in left-right and right-left direction, from the West and from the East. Here, the space of scripture is interpreted geographically and culturally, in relation to the cultural opposition between Croatian (Western) and Serbian (Eastern) languages and cultures, whereby the palindrome form is seen as false aesthetic medium of leveling the two different branches into the artificial construct of Yugoslav newspeak. From this follows, explicitly, the announcement of apocalypse and, implicitly, the project of dissociation of the two cultures, decontamination and purification. At this point, the project turns out to be itself utopian, as this supposed cultural purity is a dangerous illusion. Also, this conception neglects the third party, the Bosnian culture which is historically defined by syncretism.

For a semiotic analysis of the palindrome in cultural terms, the stance of Juri Lotman is preferable, also because his argumentation is more precise. Palindromic symmetry is of an enantiomorphic type, i.e. mirror symmetry where as a matter of fact no part can be superimposed on the other. From this Lotman derives a dialogic conception of the palindrome, where left and right side are recognized as similar yet different. The common palindromic form may illustrate this: although the signs are materially identical (containing the same letters), they differ semantically and have different meanings. Lotman, too, translates this concept into cultural terms (e.g., "cultural communities like ‘occident’ and ‘orient’ become enantiomorphic pairs with an operating functional asymmetry"). Such a dialogic conceptualization of the palindrome's generic structure can be taken as a project of cultural dialog operating in conditions of hybridity. This could also apply to different phases within a culture which can be understood as engaging in mutual dialog, before and after a revolutionary turn.

Palindromic letter revolution and reversion is readable as an artistic form of cultural critique and as a culture's desire for reorganization and reversal.



1. Literal translation. In the authorized English version of Nabokov's novel, translated by his son Dmitrij, an anagram is used instead of the palindrome to convey the desired connotations and result in the word ‘axe’: "Take the word ‘anxiety’," Cincinnatus' brother-in-law, the wit, was saying to him. "Now take away the word ‘tiny’, eh? Comes out funny, doesn't it?" (Penguin ed. p.88)

2. Synopsis of a paper given in the Zagreb Avantgarde Symposia series. Russian version to appear in Russian Literature 1998. Serbo-Croatian translation published as: Palindromon - revolutio. In: Ludizam. Zagrebacki pojmovnik kulture 20. stoljeca, ed. Z. Bencic / A. Flaker. Zagreb: Slon, 1996, pp. 141-174.


Works Cited

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Birjukov, Sergej. 1993. Netradicionnaja tradicija, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, No.3, 219-57. (esp. “Beguscij nazad”, 221-24).

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Hansen-Löve, Aage A. 1987. Velimir Chlebnikovs poetischer Kannibalismus, Poetica 19, 88-133.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. 1979. Goedel, Escher, Bach. An Eternal Golden Braid, New York.

JabŹs, Edmond. 1973. El, ou le dernier livre, Paris.

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Kreps, Michail. 1993. Muchi i ich um. Kniga palindromov, Boston–SanktPeterburg.

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Lachmann, Renate. 1997. Myth or Parody: The Play of the Letter in Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. In her Memory and Literature. Intertextuality in Russian Modernism, Ch. 5-2.

Lotman, Jurij. 1984. O semiosfere (1984). In his Izbrannye stat'i, Tallinn 1992, 11-24. Engl. transl.: About the Semiosphere,

Lönnqvist, Barbara. 1986. Chlebnikov's ‘Double Speech’, Velimir Chlebnikov (1885-1927). Myth and Reality, ed. W.Weststeijn, Amsterdam, 291-315 (on the palindrome, cf. pp. 299-301).

Oraicę-Tolicę, Dubravka. 1993. Palindromska apokalipsa, Zagreb.

Oulipo. Atlas de littérature potentielle, Paris 1981, 1988. (on the palindrome, cf. pp. 218-26).

Pal'cikov (Elistinskij), V.I. 1990. Tartar i radar. Palindromiceskie sonety. In his Svod sonetov, Moscow, 243-79.

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Toporov, Vladimir. 1987. K issledovaniju anagrammaticeskich struktur (Analizy), Issledovanija po strukture teksta, ed. T.V.Civ'jan, Moscow, 193-238. [Reprint of: Iz issledovanij v oblasti anagrammy, Struktura teksta 81, Moscow 1981, 109-21.]

ĖĖĖĖ 1981. Die Ursprünge der indoeuropäischen Poetik, Poetica 13, 188-251 (cf. esp. sections 4, 8, 9).

Ugresic, Dubravka. 1995. Die Geschichte eines Palindroms. In her Die Kultur der Lüge, Frankfurt/M., 32-51.

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