Joseph Brodsky: “betrayal invites you to descend”

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As you might have gathered, I’ve been somewhat backlogged of late.  Tonight, however, I was working on an interview transcript and checking a reference, when I ran across this passage in Joseph Brodsky‘s essay, “Collector’s Item,” in On Grief and Reason.  It seemed like the good thought to share with Book Haven readers tonight, on a day when the news has been full of lies and spies and betrayal (like every other day)…

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Back in the U.S.S.R. … at about 24

When I was twenty-four, I was after a girl, and in a big way. She was slightly older than I, and after a while I began to feel that something was amiss. I sensed that I was being deceived, perhaps even two-timed.  It turned out, of course, that I wasn’t wrong, but that was later.  At the time I simply grew suspicious, and one evening I decided to track her down. I hid myself in an archway across the street from her building, waited there for about an hour, and when she emerged from her poorly lit entrance, I followed her for several blocks.  I was tense with excitement, but of an unfamiliar nature. At the same time, I felt vaguely bored, as I knew more or less what I might discover. The excitement grew with every step, with every evasive action I took; the boredom stayed at the same level.  When she turned to the river, my excitement reached its crescendo, and at that point I stopped, turned around, and headed for a nearby café.  Later I would blame my abandoning the chase on my laziness and reproach myself, especially in the light – or, rather, in the dark – of this affair’s denouement, playing an Actaeon to the dogs of my own hindsight.  The truth was less innocent and more absorbing.  The truth was that I stopped because I had discovered the nature of my excitement.  It was the joy of a hunter pursuing his prey. In other words, it was something atavistic, primordial.  This realization had nothing to do with ethics, with scruples, taboos, or anything of the sort. I had no problem with conferring upon the girl the status of prey.  It’s just that I hated being the hunter.  A matter of temperament, perhaps?  Perhaps.  Perhaps had the world been subdivided into the four humors, or at least boiled down to four humor-based political parties, it would be a better place. Yet I think that one’s resistance to turning into a hunter, the ability to spot and to control the hunting impulse, has to do with something more basic than temperament, upbringing, social values, received wisdom, ecclesiastical affiliation, or one’s concept of honor. It has to do with the degree of one’s evolution, with the species’ evolution, with reaching the stage marked by one’s ability to regress. One loathes spies not so much because of their low rung on the evolutionary ladder as because betrayal invites you to descend.

 Postscript on 5/16:  A comment from John Adams over at “Gentle Rereader” who writes:

The year that Brodsky pursued his double-agent in love, 1964, “Meditations on the Literature of Spying” questioned the public interest in espionage fiction.  No need to resort to microfilm anymore, as The American Scholar republished the essay five years ago and has kept it up with this permalink:  http://theamericanscholar.org/meditations-on-the-literature-of-spying/

The author sometimes wrote under the code name “Roger du Béarn,” but in this instance used his own name and plain-text style.  A sample:  “To know in advance that everything and everybody is a fraud gives the derivative types what they call a wry satisfaction. Their borrowed system creates the ironies that twist their smiles into wryness. They look wry and drink rye and make a virtue of taking the blows of fate wryly. It is monotonous; I am fed up with the life of wryly.”


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4 Responses to “Joseph Brodsky: “betrayal invites you to descend””

  1. John Adams Says:

    The year that Brodsky pursued his double-agent in love, 1964, “Meditations on the Literature of Spying” questioned the public interest in espionage fiction. No need to resort to microfilm anymore, as *The American Scholar* republished the essay five years ago and has kept it up with this permalink: http://theamericanscholar.org/meditations-on-the-literature-of-spying/

    The author sometimes wrote under the code name “Roger du Béarn,” but in this instance used his own name and plain-text style. A sample: “To know in advance that everything and everybody is a fraud gives the derivative types what they call a wry satisfaction. Their borrowed system creates the ironies that twist their smiles into wryness. They look wry and drink rye and make a virtue of taking the blows of fate wryly. It is monotonous; I am fed up with the life of wryly.”

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    John – I’ve added your comment to the post. Thanks!

  3. John Adams Says:

    You might make one correction, Cynthia. My website’s title comes from the dedication of Barzun’s *Stroll with William James*: “To the gentle rereader”. Barzun not only stands up to rereading like any classic, he almost requires it for true understanding, despite his insistence on Simple & Direct writing.

    It’s flattering that you move my little comments up to the main page. I look forward to any reflections you may have regarding “Meditations on the Literature of Spying”.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, John. I’m particularly slow-witted today. Of course I know it’s “Gentle Rereader”!

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