It’s a busy day, or rather I’m still trying to make it one as I labor over a rough draft. In the course of my work, I ran across this remarkable passage in a 1988 Threepenny Review interview with Joseph Brodsky. Since it’s his birthday in a few days, it seemed an appropriate way to begin the celebrations and make a quick post at the same time. The interview is with Missy Daniel, in my Joseph Brodsky: Conversations. As a journalist, I admire the deft way the interviewer takes a line of conversation that’s about to shut down, and cleverly reopens it with a slantwise question:
Daniel: You’ve said that you have been given two or three revelations in your life.
Brodsky: Yeah, well, two or three, yeah. Well, it’s actually a private matter, obviously. Fancy me talking about revelations. The reason I never told about them to anyone is simply because I thought, “Well, next thing will happen to me is I’ll be locked up.” Also, they took place when I was rather young, well, I was 22, 23. And I thought, “Well, if I’m going to mention that, well, some Jeanne d’Arc deal will …”
Daniel: This is certainly an age that doesn’t put too much stock in people who claim to have revelations.
Brodsky: Stupid of them, of the age.
Daniel: What does one know after a revelation that one doesn’t know before?
Brodsky: Ah. Sensible question. One gets certain that one is doing right. Because affirmation comes from so far away, it’s almost like – how shall I put it? – it’s simply that somebody cares to instruct you from the bowels of the universe. You sense that somebody bothered about you out there in that great infinity. Actually, both times that I had those moments which I regard as revelations, I had some sort of astronomical illumination, yeah? And I guess I’m actually rather distressed that they cease to, that nothing of the sort has happened in quite a while. But I guess the reason for that, that they haven’t happened in quite a while, is in a sense the profession or the occupation in which I am engaged, because, one way or another, I’m deliberately fishing there, yeah? Had I not been fishing there, or poaching or whatever it is, maybe I would be issued something, yeah? That’s all I can say about it. Well, I guess up there it’s arbitrary. Or maybe there are too many of us, and now it’s someone else’s turn. … I think simply when it happens you hear it. You can’t really deny it. You try to be as rational as you can be, but, well, it doesn’t work. In fact, I think one of the prerequisites for that is – well, it normally arrives when you are indeed at the end of your rope.
There was a great Russian philosopher, Lev Shestov. He was just the cat’s pajamas, I think, in that field. He maintained there are three methods of cognition. One, by analysis, another by synthesis – that is, intuitive synthesis, so to speak, which is not parallel, for instance, to analysis, but is the one that absorbs analysis, and then adds something on top of that – and the third one is the method, if you will, that was available to the biblical prophets, that of revelation. That’s a form of cognition. And according to him a revelation normally occurs when reason fails.