My friend George Kline sent me a clip of the 1972 New York Times article that Joseph Brodsky wrote when he was only a few months out of the U.S.S.R. The article, translated from the Russian by Carl Proffer, is surprisingly long – my guess is that the New York Times gave at least 5,000 words to this newcomer (I’m estimating from the pdf I have). At first, it’s not apparent why. His thoughts appear tangled and verbose and aimless – he sounds, in fact, like a zillion other disoriented dissidents and exiles and defectors of the era. Then, suddenly, he achieves liftoff. I excerpt the turning-point below, because it kept me awake the other night after I read it, and lingered into the following day. Seamus Heaney said of his fellow Nobel poet: “Conversation attained immediate vertical takeoff and no deceleration was possible. Which is to say that he exemplified in life the very thing that he most cherished in poetry – the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and preoccupations of the self.” See if you agree:
“… if we are to recall, for example, all those who perished in Stalin‘s camps and jails – not only the artists, but the ordinary, simple people – if we recall these millions of dead souls, where can we find commensurate feelings? Can one’s own personal anger or grief or shock be commensurate with that mind-boggling figure? Even if one extends those feelings over a period of time, even if one starts to cultivate them consciously. The possibilities for compassion are extremely limited, far inferior to the possibilities for evil. I do not believe in the saviors of humanity, or in congresses, or in resolutions which condemn butchery. None of this is more than flailing away at the air, nothing more than a way to avoid personal responsibility and the feeling that you are alive and they dead. It is all just the reverse side of oblivion, the most comfortable form of the same disease – amnesia. Why, then, not set up congresses in memory of the victims of the Inquisition, the Hundred Years’ War, the Crusades? Or are they somehow dead in some other way?
If one is to call conventions and make resolutions, the first resolution we should make is that we are all good-for-nothings, that there is a murderer in every one of us, that only chance circumstances save us, sitting in this hypothetical chamber, from being divided into murderers and their victims. What ought to be done first of all is to rewrite all of the history textbooks, throwing out all the heroes, generals, leaders and so forth. The first thing that should be written in the textbook is that man is radically bad. Instead of this, schoolboys all over the world memorize the dates and places of historical battles and remember the names of generals. The smoke of gunpowder is transformed into the mist of history and conceals those nameless and numberless corpses from us. We find philosophy and logic in history. So, it is quite logical that our bodies will disappear too, concealed by one kind of cloud or another, most likely a thermonuclear one.
I do not believe in political movements, I believe in personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change – within himself, not on the outside. In place of this we are offered a cheap and extremely dangerous surrogate for the internal human disposition toward change: political movements of one sort or another. Dangerous psychologically more than physically. Because every political movement is a way to avoid personal responsibility for what is happening. Because man fighting on the exterior with Evil automatically identifies himself with Good and begins to consider himself a bearer of Good. This is no more than a kind of rationalization and self-congratulation; and it is no less widespread in Russia than anywhere else, although it perhaps has a somewhat different coloration there – because there are more physical reasons for it, it is more determined in the literal meaning of the word. As a rule, communality in the sphere of ideas has not led to anything particularly good.