Posts Tagged ‘George Kline’

New Year’s Day and the “gift outright”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014
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More nights than candles in the bitter Arkhangelsk region.

Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky made a habit of writing a Christmas poem every year, and “1 January 1965″ was among the earliest, penned while he while he was serving time in internal exile in Norenskaya, in the Arkhangelsk region of northern Russia.  In the old Soviet Union, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and in the Russian Orthodox calendar, Christmas falls on January 6 – hence the date of the poem.

This translation was found among his papers after his death, and later published in the marvelous collection, Nativity Poems:

nativityThe kings will lose your old address.
No star will flare up to impress.
The ear may yield, under duress,
to blizzards’ nagging roar.
The shadows falling off your back,
you’d snuff the candle, hit the sack,
for calendars more nights can pack
than there are candles for.

Remarkably, the English hews very closely to the original rhyme scheme in Russian.  The poet famously favored translations that preserved the original metrical and rhyme scheme. Given his genius for inventive rhymes and complex metrical patterns, it was a maddening task for his translators. He did compromise, however: he was usually willing to change the meaning of a line to preserve the metrics.  You can see how much he’s played with meaning with this earlier, more literal translation by George Kline:

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

Read the whole poem here – with it’s tip-of-the-hat homage to Robert Frost‘s “The Gift Outright” at the end. Think of it as a New Year’s present to yourself.

Joseph Brodsky and the point of vertical takeoff: “there is a murderer in every one of us”

Saturday, June 8th, 2013
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Kline in 1974...

Kline in 1974…

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:

Brodsky4“… 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.

brodsky2I 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.

George Kline: scholar, translator, and chronicler of Soviet bugaboos

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013
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In 1974…

George L. Kline is someone you’ve likely never heard of, unless you have an interest in Russian philosophy,” writes Michael McIntyre over at “Extravagant Creation.”

Well, that’s not quite true.  Those of us who know Russian poetry will know his translations of Joseph Brodsky, and perhaps also of Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.  The Eric Voegelin scholar Paul Caringella alerted me to McIntyre’s 2010 post, which celebrates my Bryn Mawr friend and correspondent:

What’s so great about reading Kline is that you are not only learning at the hands of someone who has thoroughly mastered his field, you are doing so via writing that is at once scholarly and accessible, that doesn’t take ten pages to explain what only needs one page.  Kline’s monographs are few in number – he seems to prefer writing articles and book chapters – and relatively brief in length.

In the academic world of publish-or-perish overproduction, that comes as a splash of sanity.  McIntyre is attuned to a side of my scholarly  friend that I had overlooked – for example, his 1968 book Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia (University of Chicago Press).  To my shame, I didn’t know George had written such a book, but I immediately made amends by ordering it for $5.60 on Abebooks.

A “chamber of horrors”?

The history George describes is a fascinating one:

Some former churches – notably the former Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad – were turned into anti-religious museums that included “chambers of horrors” exhibits that graphically portrayed torture practices used during the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1960 alone, half a million people visited the anti-religious museum in Leningrad; many groups of children were sent there by their schools and they were treated to guided tours by museum staff who provided them with extensive anti-religious commentary.  Religious instruction for children was restricted to private homes only, in groups of three or less.  Since 1962, children could be baptized only if both parents applied for it, and both parents supplied a certificate from their workplace or place of residence (the issuers of these certificates were expected to do all they could to try to dissuade the “misguided” parents).

From the posts of some of my more virulently anti-religious Facebook friends, one would think that the “chamber of horrors” is overdue for revival.  In any case, one could see why Joseph Brodsky’s “Elegy to John Donne” was such a knock-out punch in the U.S.S.R., and why George was so swept away by it, as the Book Haven explained yesterday.  Take, for example, the concluding lines of the poem:

Man’s garment gapes with holes. It can be torn,
… And only the far sky,
in darkness, brings the healing needle home.
Sleep, John Donne, sleep. Sleep soundly, do not fret
your soul. As for your coat, it’s torn; all limp
it hangs.  But see, there from the clouds will shine
that Star which made your world endure till now.

I’ve benefited greatly over the years from George’s tireless generosity, scholarly precision, and remarkable experiences.  So have others.  From “George L. Kline: An Appreciation,” included in the 1994 book Russian Thought After Communism : The Recovery of a Philosophical Heritage (edited by James P. Scanlan):

In many ways as important as Kline’s formal teaching is the informal help he has provided to a multitude of students and colleagues in the field, not only in the United States but throughout the world.  Anyone who has sought George Kline’s advice or assistance on some matter relating to Russian philosophy is fully aware of his remarkable readiness to share information from his vast store of knowledge, go over a translation, review a paper, or comment on a research project – all with the most careful and patient attention, the highest scholarly standards, and the most humane sensitivity to the needs and interests of others.

It’s a joy to discover people like George L. Kline!

Couldn’t agree more.

“His sobering effect”: Czesław Miłosz’s “Notes on Joseph Brodsky”

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
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Last weekend I was chatting with Joseph Brodsky‘s first translator, George Kline.  The Bryn Mawr professor befriended the young Russian poet in St. Petersburg, and went on to be the translator of the Harper & Row 1973 Selected Poems, with a foreword by W.H. Auden.  It was later reissued as a Penguin paperback – I carried that dog-eared volume with me from 1976, when I bought it in an Ann Arbor bookstore, until it was lost it in a foreign city … somewhere in Vilnius, as I recall, sometime in the late 1990s.

George thanked me for sending him Czesław Miłosz‘s “Notes on Brodsky.” I couldn’t recall having done so, but looked up a copy for myself in Stanford’s Green Library, in a 1996 Partisan Review, to make sure I hadn’t.

The piece is well worth excerpting.  “The presence of Brodsky for many among his poet-colleagues was a mainstay and as if a point of reference,” the Polish poet wrote.  Later, “whatever survived from the past has been due to the principle of hierarchical distinction.”

“Here was a man who by his oeuvre and by his life reminded us, against what today is so often proclaimed and written, that hierarchy exists.  That hierarchy cannot be contrived by syllogisms and established in a discourse.  Rather, by living and writing, we affirm it every day anew. It has something to do with the elementary division into beauty and ugliness, truth and falsity, goodness and cruelty, liberty and tyranny. But, first of all, hierarchy means respect for that which is elevated and unconcern, rather than scorn, for that which is base. …

“To go straight to the goal, not letting oneself be swayed by any voices calling for one’s attention. That is, knowing how to recognize what is important and clinging only to it. That was precisely the the strong side of the great Russian writers of the past.

“Brodsky’s life and writing tended toward accomplishment, as an arrow tends towards the aim. Yet, evidently, that was an illusion, just as in the case of Pushkin or Dostoevsky. We must therefore formulate it differently – that fate tends straight to the aim, while the one who is ruled by fate knows how to read its main lines and to comprehend, be it dimly, that to which one is called.”

His words brought back what the Miłosz had said to me on the same subject, about “maintaining one’s own vision, one’s own taste, let us say, against the current fashion of the day.”

Esse.

From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago: “I have lived a long time in the West and tried to remain faithful to a line of Polish poetry. The same applies to Brodsky and Russia. The history of poetry is the history of language. That’s why Joseph Brodsky wrote that we write to please our predecessors, not our contemporaries.”  I’ve quoted this part before, about Milosz’s crucial division between esse and devenir:

“There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.  In a way, Brodsky was a conservative voice in that sense – he had a lot of sense.”

“For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

Joseph Brodsky’s “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” onstage

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
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Artur Smolyaninov as Gorchakov and Nikita Yefremov as Gorbunov. (Photo: Sovremennik Theater)

In the Moscow Times today, a review of Joseph Brodskys “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” which Yevgeny Kamenkovich mounted on the small stage at the Sovremennik Theater – a play which the Nobel laureate never intended to be a play. Rather it’s a 14-part poem of 7,600 words, recalling his stints at the psychiatric hospitals Kanatchikov Dacha and Pryazhka over the Christmas holidays of 1963, while the 24-year-old was awaiting trial in the U.S.S.R. as a “social parasite.” His friends had hoped a diagnosis of mental instability might spare him a harsh prison sentence.  But instead he felt he was indeed losing his mind, and begged his friends to get him out.

The result, written in 1968, was “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” a conversation between two inmates, which he apparently claimed to have overheard.

His friend Lev Loseff writes in Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life:  “As time went on, Brodsky grew more skeptical of the worth of much of his early work, but twenty years after writing ‘Gorbunov and Gorchakov,’ he still consider it an ‘especially solid piece.’ The years that produced the poem were perhaps the the most dramatic in all his life: police persecution, arrest, trial, exile, return; reconciliation with the love of his life, the birth of a son, a final break.”

Loseff adds that work on the poem “truly became part of the poet’s work on himself:  the next-to-last line of the third canto contains a prayer in which the author’s alter ego asks God-in-Heaven to grant him ‘victory over silence and suffocation.’”

Not much exists in English, alas.  But the poet’s early translator, George Kline, translated a few of its cantos.  An excerpt:

And silence is the future of all days
that roll toward speech; yes, silence is the presence
of farewells in our greetings as we touch.
Indeed, the future of our words is silence –
those words which have devoured the stuff of things
with hungry vowels, for things abhor sharp corners.
Silence: a wave that cloaks eternity.
Silence: the future fate of all our loving –
a space, not a dead barrier, but space
that robs the false voice in the blood-stream throbbing
of every echoed answer to its love.
And silence is the present fate of those who
have lived before us; it’s a matchmaker
that manages to bring all men together
into the speaking presence of today.
Life is but talk hurled in the face of silence.’