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


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?

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

  1. Stephen Tauris Juodvalis Says:

    As a Lithuanian nationalist I am flattred that the poet Joseph Brodsky waxes poetic about the city of my birth,Kaunas,Lithuania:it is another
    matter,however,when Lithuania splits after the demise of the “vanguard of the proleteriat”,USSR.Obviously the poet’s soul reflects his irreden-
    tist sentiments.He is no Pushkin.

  2. Jack and Jill Review Says:

    Jack and Jill Review…

    […]Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?” | The Book Haven[…]…

  3. komarnyckyj Steve Says:

    I’m surprised at the praise offered to Brodskyj’s deeply offensive racist poem.

    It’s much nastier than the quote suggests and I might add that Ukrainian writers were exterminated in droves as a result of the attitude celebrated by Brodskyj
    Shame on you

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    To discuss Joseph Brodsky’s imperial attitudes is not to endorse them.

    The poem is cited in the excerpt I quote from Keith Gessen’s article.

  5. Stephen Komarnyckyj Says:

    Thank you for your response

    I guess that’s right, you are not endorsing them and I apologise. Just with regard to his attitudes I would like to add

    1) The 220+ Ukrainian writers who were exterminated will languish forgotten- there will be no articles in the New Yorker and Keith Gessen and others will treat Brodsky’s odious Ukrainophobia as a harmless, almost endearing foible.
    2) A great poem? It’s an appalling piece of doggerel- the rhyme of “Mattress” and “Taras” is as bad in Russian as it is in English. One can only wonder at the power of received wisdom. The image of “spitting” in the Dnipro- a metaphor for Ukraine’s language and Independence I assume- is poisonous. I have frequently seen Ukrainians criticised for the fairly mild attempts to revive the language while having to put up with this racism- let’s call it Ukrainophobia- not only being ignored but actually celebrated. You can imagine a similar ditty penned about the USA or Ireland from a British standpoint and how it would cause great offence. Why tolerate this show of contempt for a nation which lost more people through war and genocide than any other in Europe in the Twentieth Century?

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I don’t know that anyone is considering it a mere foible. Irena Grudzinska Gross, as noted above, discusses it at length in her book. (I’ve written elsewhere about Ukrainian genocide – for example, here.)

    J.B. had a number of other offensive positions: “Spanish?!” he once said, “I don’t believe I can consider it a language.” Sexism? Don’t get me going.

    A number of people have critiqued his poems in English – Robert Hass and Craig Raine among them – and share your views.

  7. Stephen Komarnyckyj Says:

    Dear Cynthia, many thanks for your considered response to my reply. It’s worth noting that Naimark’s book was not as strong as it might have been in stating the case (eg “the order to liquidate nationalism” in the villages of 1933 which was applied to Ukraine, and the chilling quote “the ehnographic material… will be changed”). With regard to Ukrainophobia I perhaps was wrong to state that it is regarded as a foible- rather it is invisible, accepted part of the cultural wallpaper, a fabric of assumptions that shapes much discourse. If Brodky’s poem had been directed against many other groups he would have been subjected to a lot of criticism. However crass stereotypes of Ukrainians, such as those portrayed in Agnieska Holland’s recent film “In darknss” are allowed to pass unchallenged, and our consciousnss of the twentieth century is eroded. Imagine if I made a film about the Holodomor pointing up the ethnicity of some of the perpetrators, or written a poem linking the Star of David, in a calculatedly offensive manner, with the insignia of Hezbollah-I would be vilified, and rightly so. Yet the endless portrayal of Ukrainians as perpetrators and the masking of the fact that the demographic losses of Ukraine in the Twentieth century exceed those of any other european nation are simply part of the cultural fabric. Indeed, one of the defences offerred for Brodsky’s poem was that it was wicked Ukrainian nationalists, who had spread it to discredit him. Finally, his assertion about yhe quality of poetry being the guarantor of its survival is, tragically wrong- the persistence of Russian and English is a reflection of power relations and how much great literature lays buried under the asphalt of occupation and genocide while people accept the flawed assumption of cultural superiority proferred by imperlialist nations.

    I’ll leave you in peace now 🙂

  8. A Says:

    When you side with such kind of people like Brodsky and support their Ukrainophobia you are not better than they are.
    The Nobel Prize does not make you a human. And the case of Brodsky demonstrates that very well.