Posts Tagged ‘Keith Gessen’

“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:

 

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011
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The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:


Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?