…eloquent and subtle (Washington Post)… combines the precision of scholarship with the passion of the poet (The Times)… exaction of genius (Seamus Heaney).
And then you read the book:
[On Montale] death is always a song of “innocence”, never of experience…. Although less explicit [than confession] song is less repeatable; as is loss. Over the course of a lifetime psychological acquisitions become more real than real estate. There is nothing more moving than an alienated man resorting to elegy.
[Writing of Mandelstam] the superiority of this lyricism to anything that could be achieved within human interplay… is what makes for a work of art and lets it survive. That is why the iron broom, whose purpose was the spiritual castration of the entire populace, couldn’t have missed him. (Not the poem he wrote about Stalin – it would a simplification, Brodsky says.)
[The lit crit] this strophe is an apotheosis of restructuring time… Language is itself a product of the past. The return of these stiff swallows implies before the recurrent character of their presence and of the simile itself, either as an intimate thought or as a spoken phrase. Also, “flew… to me” suggests spring, returning seasons. “To tell me they’ve rested enough” too suggests past: past imperfect because not attended. And then the last line makes a full circle because the adjective “Stockholm” exposes the hidden allusion to Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s story about the wounded swallow wintering in the mole’s hole, and flying home… the conscious process of remembering turns out to be strongly rooted in the subconscious memory and creates a sensation of sorrow so piercing, it’s as if this is not the suffering man we hear but the very voice of his wounded psyche….
He is analysing Mandelstam’s
…And stiff swallows or round eyebrows
flew from the grave to me
to tell me they’ve rested enough in their
cold Stockholm bed.
About a woman, possibly his lover, who died in Sweden.
[On Marx] I was about ten or eleven [when] it occurred to me that Marx’s dictum that “existence conditions consciousness” was true only for as long as it takes consciousness to acquire the art of estrangement; thereafter, consciousness is on its own and can both condition and ignore existence.
You’ve read the extracts. What do you think? Is my hearing awry? Oh, you think so? Well, let’s explore it a little more; from my side… Then you can tell me your opinion, and if I have changed your mind. Let’s start with Marx.
This quote encapsulates the problem. Marx’s phrase is a large one, so abstract as to cover a universe of possibilities. To begin with the most obvious: what is “existence”? Our daily food; our nervous system; Pravda...
The first question we should ask, therefore, is not if this phrase is right or wrong, but whether it has any content. Or, to use a more apposite expression, can we pull the balloon of abstraction out of the air, and bring it back to earth? Brodsky doesn’t seem to be aware there is a problem. Instead, we get some word play, with the phrases reversed to prove the power of the mind. But the issue remains; for this new formulation has as much sense as the old one (it uses the same materials). The balloon sails away over the treetops… I was surprised when I read this; for it is just a meretricious intellectual game; the kind thing we get excited about when we are adolescents. A careful scholar (of “exaction”) would try to understand the phrase, to see its context, would look for the content; and if this proved impossible they would reject it, as rhetoric or pure speculation. Shouldn’t we at least go to Marx to see what he means? Brodsky, still the teenager at heart, is satisfied with the catechism as handed out by the Communist Party of the USSR; that well known thinker of nuance and sophistication. The result is that he has simply reversed the phrase, and replaced one potentially meaningless idea with another. Anyone may occasionally forget their lunch, lost inside their own fantasy:
Of a beautiful brunette in a black velvet dress, her hair falling around your fingertips, as she whispers your verses; massaging those ears with your own vanity. Your words turned into smiling tears…
However, what human can ignore the locked door of a prison cell? Could Brodsky?
We tether up the balloon. What do we see?
In this giant-scale embodiment of perfect order, iambic beat is a natural as cobblestones. Petersburg is a cradle of Russian poetry, and, what is more, of its prosody. The idea of a noble structure, regardless of the quality of the content… is utterly local.
Lenin was very much a product of his time: a narrow-minded revolutionary with a typical petit bourgeois, monomaniacal desire for power, which is in itself an extremely bourgeois concept.
Osip Mandelstam, and Russian prosody, are conditioned by architecture (and Alexander Pushkin). Lenin was defeated by the zeitgeist. Like Brodsky himself; for doesn’t this passage give him away? He speaks like a Soviet functionary (it could be irony, but I doubt it), and is thus the regime’s great success: a rebel who talks like a bureaucrat. Existence does condition consciousness, after all! Or so we must assume, if take these passages seriously.
Apart from the final sentence, which is an obvious truism, though it could be said much simpler, it is difficult to extract any substantive meaning from the piece, so full, as it is, of abstractions; of big words that can mean just about any thing: Death; Song; Loss…
Is it really the case we don’t experience death? Yes, in the narrowest of senses, if we mean experience of our physical extinction. Is this what he means? But then why write about “innocence” in a passage about elegy? Clearly we don’t write poems if we are dead! A banality everyone knows, so why include it between two soft covers? An elegy is about the constellation of feelings and memories associated with a particular person; it is about the loss of life, rather than death itself, of which we know nothing. Has Brodsky misunderstood this? Or has he raised our expectations too high, encouraging us to jump into the blank unknown of pure nothingness, where not even words exist…. It all sounds impressive, but means nothing at all; or at best it is merely the trivial dressed up as profound.
Song and loss is less repeatable than confession? When I was reading this book my head ached, so hard was it to find sense in his sentences. Are the “songs” of Pasternak to have a shorter life than his confessions, made when under government pressure? Of course once you’re dead that’s it, no more second chances; unless you believe in the eternal recurrence (I take it Brodsky is not a follower of Nietzsche). But does he really mean something so banal? Perhaps he’s referring to the single creative act as opposed to poetry readings and the retelling of old tales. Or it is one kind of poem against another, though which exactly? But then why say something so simple in a so highfaluting way? I am being too literal, you say. Should I give him poetic licence? Accept them as Delphic utterances… I am missing the point? I should submerse myself in his vatic pronouncements? Accept them as a kind of Orthodox liturgy? There is a place for everything. Literary criticism should attempt to explicate an artist and her work, and the creative act itself. The best way is usually to stick to the particulars, while bringing in a wider context, making us see the qualities of the original, and thus giving us new insights into its texture and tonality; the landscape in which it was formed. One advantage to such an approach is that it allows the reader to decide if the criticism has any worth. If it fails this test? Like balloons at a fair we let them go high into the summer sky.
“Psychological acquisitions become more real than real estate.” What are these exactly? We buy our mental experiences in the shopping mall, and we set them up in the front room; we replace our furniture with the idea of furniture, and our carpets with our memories of carpets… The phrase is both true and false, of course. It might have been good in a poem.
The feeling I get while reading these essays is of a lot written, but little said. And a pointlessness to it, a frustration at so much wasted time, for all the hours lost in a book where I learn almost nothing at all.
The first sentence in the first Mandelstam paragraph is true (if we take it in its narrowest sense). Great poetry has an intensity that raises it above everyday language. The rest is sentimental nonsense. Poetry has been turned into a gigantic idea, a colossus that threatens the state, and which reacts to protect itself against… a stanza or two. Like his criticism of Marx, and his view that consciousness is a free-floating entity, he gives ideas a life of their own. This is understandable in a regime that espoused a “materialist” doctrine, but is hardly sound philosophy. It can also create strange effects. For although Brodsky is critical of the “mass”, another reaction to the regime (how conditioned he is!), by erasing the poet’s real life he takes away his identity, and puts him in another crowd; this time of spirits alien to the state. For no longer is there a tyrant reacting against the satiric lines of one writer, of Stalin annoyed at Mandelstam; instead there is a cosmic battle between Power and People; the Bureaucratic Machine against the Poet. But let’s return to biography, of Stalin’s telephone call and his question to Pasternak: is he a genius? Envy and thus a death sentence? Or is it the measurement of Mandelstam’s survival, of how great he must be for the regime to let him live? In other words lets keep the individual poet alive; by doing so, and by concentrating on his actual life and work, we may even find some interesting questions to ask.
A short interlude, and a little conceit (it comes of reading too much Brodsky). An idea, because it contains a number of facts and perceptions, is itself a crowd. We should keep these crowds as small as possible….
His analysis of Mandelstam’s poem brings out all his worse traits: he buries it under the tower blocks of his big ideas. One is tempted not to read them and call him a genius. Then I remember the poem. The lines quoted are rather beautiful; the eyebrows likened to swallows, flying to the poet with the sad news; and carrying the memories of Olga. Olga Vaksel. By conjuring up the metaphor he has brought her to life again. The big idea, if you need one, is that of resurrection: of how we live on in other people after our deaths. And Brodsky? Its like the cacophony of a building site around a cherry tree. To build what? Something of the utmost banality: the poet feels sad and close to his dead friend, and thinks about their past together. Do we really need to be told this? And the rest of his analysis? It could refer to almost any poem. Any fool, if you think about it, can extract words from a piece and then free associate…
In his ironic but deep way Hume had something to say about this:
Obscurity, indeed, is painful to the mind as well as the eye…
… this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. (my emphasis)
But this is not the end of thought or speculation; for a clear-sighted thinker
…to bring light from obscurity, whatever labour, must needs be delightful and rejoicing.
There is a joy in reading a great poem or understanding a profound thought; and it is easy to understand why people have equated beauty with truth. Unfortunately, Brodsky, entangled inside his own brambles as he reaches for the cosmic insight, is a world away from both.