Posts Tagged ‘David Streitfeld’

“Bro – he lives!” Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to “switch off”

Monday, May 28th, 2018
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Sentenced to hard labor in Norenskaya, after a show trial.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky famously said that all that poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o.” In a sense, that can be said to be the topic of Rachel Wiseman‘s “Switching Off: Joseph Brodsky and the Moral Responsibility to Be Useless,” over at The Point. 

It was the poet’s birthday a few days ago (he would have been 78), but it was also right after Philip Roth‘s death, so I didn’t post. Yet it would be ungrateful not to say something about the man who gave so much to me.

Fortunately, David Streitfeld of the New York Times sent me this article this morning, and it’s too good not to let the world know about it. (It’s one of a series on intellectuals – here.)

Спасибо, David

Wiseman begins with the 1964 show trial, where the Nobel poet, then 23, was labeled a social parasite. Then she contrasts his position with journalist Keith Gessen‘s criticism of him:

“If a poet has any obligation to society,” Brodsky said, “it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice.” The Soviet trial judge is not the only one who has taken this attitude to indicate a lack of social conscience. The novelist and critic Keith Gessen, in a 2008 article for the New York Times Book Reviewfaulted Brodsky’s generation of intellectuals and those who followed for being “powerless to stop Putin from terrorizing the country, not because they feared him, but because after the destruction of the Soviet Union they retreated into ‘private life,’ which is what they wanted all along.” Gessen is a great fan of Brodsky the poet, but wishes he would be more of a critic. In a New Yorker essay from 2011, he condemned Brodsky for allowing himself to become a “propagandist for poetry.” Gessen searched Brodsky’s oeuvre in vain for an example that might undercut the unapologetic aestheticism that had “hardened into dogma.” Not unlike the judge, Gessen seemed to demand of Brodsky, How were you useful to the motherland? How could someone of Brodsky’s intelligence actually believe that aesthetics governs ethics and not the other way around?

In a sense, she begins to demonstrate the point the article is trying to make. It sags in midway, as she addresses growing up in the “multicultural, bubblegum Nineties” and the politics du jour (“national nightmare”) – the piece becomes predictable and rote in outlook. It fades into outrage, repetitive emotions, and the mob before it regains altitude:

Every generation of intellectuals finds a way of coming to terms with the limits of their agency. Brodsky’s chose poetry; mine and Gessen’s took the train downtown. It’s not a strict binary, of course: these two tendencies can coexist in the same individual and express themselves in different ways. But we might consider that switching off, for Brodsky, was a way of performing his social responsibility, not shirking it. In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to “indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.” He held that “art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.” What compels a poet to write is less “a concern for one’s perishable flesh” than “the urge to spare certain things of one’s world—of one’s personal civilization—one’s own non-semantic continuum.”

Gessen critiques

Hard to know what to quote because so much of it is so good. But let’s end at the ending. Those who have sent me emails know my standard footer: “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” It’s a remarkable quote, and true in just about every case I can think of. Here’s where it comes from, embedded in his remarks on the Biblical passage enjoining us to turn the other cheek:

Brodsky gives an account of the standard interpretation of the lines of scripture that inspired this doctrine of passive resistance and then goes on to mention the ending, which is less commonly quoted. The idea is not just to turn the cheek to the person who strikes you—you are also supposed to give him your coat: “No matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. ‘Look,’ the other cheek says, ‘what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.’”

As David wrote to me when he sent the link, “bro – he lives!” Then he added, “anyway, what was it exactly they used to call him?  joe the bro, no? it was a play off  ‘joe the pro.'”

С днем ​​рождения, Иосиф. It’s true. “Bro, he lives.”

Postscript: Oh, but I forgot to include the tweet David sent a few minutes earlier. It’s below. Sounds about right, except … a “green velour suit”? In the 1970s, maybe … but the 90s?  I went to twitter and a whole stream of postscripts followed, including some from James Marcus:

Postscript on 7/15: Look what I found in the garage, while looking for other records. Naturally, I was so chuffed I had to tweet:

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, going strong at 88: “I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter.”

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017
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Slowing down? Pull the other one.

Ursula K. Le Guin is eighty-eight years old. Let that sink in: eighty-eight years old. She claims she’s slowing down, but not so much that she isn’t actively participating in the Library of Congress effort to collect and publish her collected works. “What I did not realize is that being published in the Library of America is a real and enduring honor,” she says. “Especially while you’re still alive. Philip Roth and I make a peculiar but exclusive club.”

We were delighted to see her interview at the Los Angeles Review of Books with the Pulitzer prizewinning New York Times journalist David Streitfeld (I describe the occasion of our meeting here.) He’s published his books of interviews with Gabriel García Márquez, Philip K. Dick, J. D. Salinger, and Hunter S. Thompson. Can Ursula K. Le Guin be far behind?

An intriguing excerpt from “Writing Nameless Things: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin”:

Malafrena (1979), the novel that is the volume’s centerpiece, takes place during a failed revolution in the early 19th century in an imaginary European country somewhere near Hungary.

It’s one of my works that is neither fantasy nor science fiction. So what do you call it? It’s not alternative history because it’s fully connected to real European history. There is no name for it. That’s my problem, I do nameless things.

It’s been a long journey for some of these books. Fifty years ago, they were originally published as SF paperbacks.

David’s won a few honors, too.

I’m not remotely ashamed of their origins, but I am not captivated by them either the way some people are. Some people are fascinated by the pulps — there’s something remote and glamorous in the whole idea of a 25-cent book. I am in the middle of rereading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Michael is enthralled by the whole comic book thing. That is perfectly understandable and I enjoy his fascination, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I am into content. Presentation is something that just has to be there.

Fifty years ago, science fiction and fantasy were marginal genres. They weren’t respectable. In 1974, you gave a talk entitled “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”

There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids — they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians.

Hasn’t that changed? We seem inundated with fantasy now.

But much of it is derivative; you can mash a lot of orcs and unicorns and intergalactic wars together without actually imagining anything. One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it.

You’ve been concerned recently about some of the downsides of the imagination.

I feel fine as far as literature is concerned. The place where the unbridled imagination worries me is when it becomes part of nonfiction — where you’re allowed to lie in a memoir. You’re encouraged to follow the “truth” instead of the facts. I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter. I really like facts. I have a huge respect for them. But there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. Is that right? Is that fair? And then, when we get these biographers where they are sort of making it up as they go along, I don’t want to read that. I find myself asking, what is it, a novel, a biography?

Read the whole thing at the L.A.R.B. here

Mystery solved! A bibliographic detective story from the Cold War era

Sunday, March 1st, 2015
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invisibleI arranged to meet David Streitfeld at a Palo Alto coffeehouse. The New York Times reporter said he is a devoted Book Haven fan, as well as an avid reader of Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. How would we recognize each other in a crowd? He would have his hardcover edition of my An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Everybody else will be reading the paperback,” he reassured me. And so it was.

He had a bibliographic puzzle for me to solve that had stumped him. He pulled a slim and aging booklet from his capacious book bag. What, he asked, was the provenance of this Wiersze, a selected “works” from the poet, which David had found for a few bucks online? I checked the WorldCat online, and couldn’t find it. It was beginning to stump me, too.

Some background: for much of his career, Miłosz was a banned writer in the land of his native tongue, Poland. After years as a attaché for the Communist government of Poland in Paris, he decided to chuck it in 1951, and asked for asylum in France. He was ostracized in Paris, where the the intelligentsia was fervently pro-Stalin, from the comfort of the city’s cafés. In 1960, he accepted an appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, which to a European seemed like the backside of the moon.

As he wrote in “Magic Mountain” during those lonely years:

 

IMG_20150227_140221-1So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.
One murky island with its barking seals
Or a parched desert is enough
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”
Endurance comes only from enduring.
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,
And climbed it and it held me.

Until Solidarity arose in the 1980s, he thought he was a forgotten writer in Poland, and had no real notion that he had a huge audience in samizdat, smuggled writing reproduced in patiently recopied editions, or mimeograph editions, or even silkscreen. This appeared to be one of those smuggled works. But when, how, and by whom? It was a mystery.

The publication has no date, except for a tiny “1957” someone scribbled lightly in pencil in the top margin of the first page, which couldn’t be trusted as anything more than a guess. David thought this short Wiersze was more recent than that, possibly the 1970s.

To the rescue.

To the rescue.

The outline of the Statue of Liberty on the cover might suggest that its provenance is American – the CIA and others had a role in making Boris Pasternak‘s Doctor Zhivago available to Russians (I wrote about that here). But, if so, why wouldn’t they have signed their efforts somewhere in this booklet, which has no dates or publication information?

Kosinska_Milosz-w-Krakowie_500pcxThe short (48 pages) Wiersze includes Miłosz’s “Treatise on Poetry,” which was published as a book by the émigré press Instytut Literacki in 1957, so would there be a need for a bootleg edition that year, as the penciled date suggests? Of course, the Instytut Literacki books wouldn’t have safe passage to Poland. (The book received a literary prize from Kultura in Paris – we wrote about visit to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.) Yet 1957 was the height of the thaw that preceded the crackdown – would it be that hard?  Miłosz’s 1947 “Treatise on Morality” is also included in the Wiersze.

There is a hero to this story, and it’s Agnieszka Kosińska, Miłosz’s longtime assistant in Kraków and editor of the mammoth Bibliografia druków zwartych, a book she had given me back in 2011. I’d forgotten I had it on my bookshelves – at 816 pages, it’s not easy to overlook, but I had. I finally ran across it in my search for my copy of Miłosz’s 1,406-page Wiersze Wszystkie [Collected Works]. On page 305 of Agnieszka’s volume, item #710 – there it is: “Wiersze. [B.m.w.: ok. 1980], 48 s.” It was published circa 1980.

In August, 1980, the Communist government signed the agreement legalizing the trade union, Solidarity, in the now famous Gdańsk shipyards. So this may be the last souvenir of the Cold War era in Poland – or who knows? Perhaps the first breath of the new era.

I also learned in my online peregrinations that the admirable Agnieszka is publishing a book of her own with Znak in the next few months, Miłosz w Krakowie, that is, Miłosz in Kraków. You can read about it here. And if you’d like to read an interesting retrospective in English (though its English is a bit problematic), check out this: “Czesław Miłosz Died Ten Years Ago” over at the Polish Book Institute here.

Images of the mystery book below. With David’s fingers.

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