In what looks like the centrepiece of his book, a collection of essays covering a variety of poets and other matters, there is an extended analysis of Marina Tsvetayeva’s Novogodnee (New Year’s Greeting); which is over seventy pages long, and is, I surmise, what Brodsky saw, and what was meant to be seen, as the virtuoso performance of his critical acumen.
It’s certainly a display - of all the qualities mentioned before. In places, it even surpasses them; as meaning leaves the earth’s gravitational field. Here are some lines from Novogodnee:
How is writing going on in the sweet life
Without a desk for your elbow, or brow
For your hand
And here is an extract from his analysis:
The mutual necessity of these details raises their absence to the status of mutual absence, equivalent, that is, to a literal absence, to the physical annihilation not only of the effect but of the cause as well – which is, if not one of the definitions, then, at any rate, one of the most definite consequences of death. (and so on for a further page).
Poor Marina! Such intimate lines, raked through the farmer’s yard. Brodsky reminds me of those Soviet apparatchiks who loaded their literary criticism with the regime’s slogans and clichés. Brodsky, imprisoned by the state, carries his prison sentence into civilian life… Of course he is not bringing in tractors and railway drivers, but it’s the same process at work: empty abstractions to hide the lack of content.
These seventy-three pages feel like a man trying to explain something for which he does not have the intellectual tools (the piece is translated, but this is not the reason: it shares too many similarities with essays in Brodsky’s own English). The result? He is like an amateur who fires a hundred arrows at the target, hoping that at least one will hit. Some do:
• Her use of different registers
• How she uses tone and argument to undercut her wilder poetic flights
• The use of the prosaic, for concreteness and intimacy
• Her scepticism of big ideas and abstractions(!)
• The dominant role of sound
There are dozens that miss.
… What a lark then for the ‘twenty-seven,
Coming, and for the departing ‘twenty
Six – to start with you and to be ending
Starting with this envy – almost jealousy – of time, with this sobbing Kakoye schchaste (“what a lark”), which slips (because of the shift to a non-standard stress on the first syllable in toboi – “with you”) into a vernacular pronunciation of “o” as “aw” in the next line, Tsvetayeva begins to speak of love almost overtly. The logic of this transition is both simple and touching: time, after all, the year, was luckier than the heroine. And hence the thought of time – all time – in which she is not to be together with “him.” The intonation of this parenthesis is the intonation of a lament for one’s betrothed. More important, however, is the role of separative force assigned to time, for her one can detect a tendency to objectify and animate time. The truth is that at the heart of every tragedy lies the undesirable version time…
…she already knew something about time…. Namely, that life has much less of a relation to time than death (which is longer), and that from the standpoint of time, death and love are the same: the difference can only be discerned by a human being. That is, in 1926 it was as if Tsvetayeva were on an equal footing with time, and her thought did not try to adjust time to it but was trying to adjust itself to time and its frightening needs. “What a lark then…/…to start with you, and be ending/With you is said in the same tone she would have used to thank time, had time granted her a meeting with Rilke. In other words, the degree of her soul’s generosity is but an echo of time’s possible generosity to her – undemonstrated but no less possible an account of all that.
It was a curious experience reading this essay, trying, through the thicket of abstraction and contradiction, and the irregular quotation, to work out what the poem is doing. It is an elegy to Rilke. After finishing the essay, and thinking of these words in particular, I realised that the poem was about the moment she heard the news of his death; that is, on New Year’s Eve 1926.
Once we recognise this we understand that the lines refer to that strange feeling, that little shock, as Tsvetayeva discovers an intellectual formula amidst her great pain; of Rilke being with her at the end of one year and the beginning of the next; which she then turns into a poetic conceit. For however sad you feel, finding such a formula can give you a lift; well expressed by her ‘What a lark.’ This little verbal play also connects her to the dead poet; for through that playfulness he comes back to life for a few moments.
And Brodsky, what does he make of this? Difficult to know exactly, but what is clear is that he has created an enormous abstraction, Time, and he forces Tsvetayeva to live inside it. It’s as if he’s replaced one of those old and beautiful Russian houses with a Soviet apartment block. All the details, that playful intimacy around the peculiar time of the year, is lost; and instead we have some tragic encounter with Separation and Distance. With Time a train carrying our heroes to different destinations. But the problem with Separation, Distance, and Time is that they can apply to almost any poem about loss, or the end of an affair. Indeed, you could argue that in order to write this kind of thing it would be better not to read the poem at all – for its concrete details get in the way of the smooth flow of idealisation. The further away from the actual poem the ideas go, the more of its content they lose; until eventually nothing is left behind; the balloon vanishes over the horizon.
hence the thought of time – all time – in which she is not to be together with “him.”
This time can apply to any day of the year. And can refer to any elegiac poem written on any date. Imagine if Tsvetayeva called this poem July 14th 1922, and instead of playing with year’s end wrote about loss, the past and the future. Would the above commentary of Brodsky need to change, at all?
Hume says that our impressions, which he believed were the source of all new knowledge, are singular. Turn them into general ideas and they lose that individuality. And the more general the idea, covering the more impressions, the more of it they will lose; until their distinctiveness will vanish altogether. Think of a person in a crowd, and what happens to that person when the crowd gets bigger… there will come a point you cannot see anyone for the crowd itself. So with an idea, a point will be reached where the idea is so general it will include no facts at all. Perfect for politicians and intellectuals. But a death sentence for a poet and a poem.
Why does the mind, when contemplating its ideas, want to be like a bird that never touches the ground? It is a perplexing question. It suggests, on one level, a certain self-sufficiency of that mind; an egoism, which doesn’t need the world and can reduce it to its ideas. This in turn suggests a certain excess, that its power goes beyond our daily needs… I’m groping, of course. There is something very odd about our mental apparatus, which allows it to escape the particular and singular, and which, if you believe the current Neo-Darwinian fashions, should not be possible. For what could be worse, for our survival, than to ignore the details of the natural world, and to sail off in our balloons of abstraction? And Brodsky waving merrily has forgotten his food and water. Surely he will perish? As indeed have many artists and intellectuals… Brodsky himself was perhaps lucky to escape the bureaucrats of the Soviet Union.
Certain ideas of the German Romantics recognised this oddity; believing that the mind was separated from the natural world, and this was the main reason for our melancholy – we are constantly striving towards a oneness with nature we cannot achieve. This highlights the problem, but doesn’t answer it. This view, however, gives us an inkling into Brodsky’s thinking. At heart he is a German idealist, creating the world out of his own consciousness, hence his views on Marx. It also explains the paucity of his critical intelligence. For to create the world out of your own head is to use a narrow range of ideas. And create he does! But his ideas always come back to those same few tropes: Time, Separation, Distance… How different from the great thinkers who are able to focus their strong intelligence, and their strong perceptions, on the real world around them, which feeds their ideas, giving them substance and strength; and reality!
Brodsky is locked up inside his own mind. So the more he writes and thinks the further he moves away from his subject, until eventually there is no poem left, only his ideas; which he can apply to all poetry and imaginative literature. And therefore none.
How good are his ideas? The first few sentences of the second paragraph would make equal sense if you turned their meanings around. Some of it is complete nonsense: death is longer than time? If you take this literally it cannot be true – what happened to all that time before we were born? I suppose it means something, perhaps it’s a metaphor, but of exactly what?
Then we have time, the observer, merging death and love; they become the same, or so it appears (but humans can tell the difference!). But why should time view them as the same? If we look back at Pope Gregory or Lord Liverpool has time made them identical? Of course, it is we that are looking back; but in what other sense should we talk of time’s point of view. Unless…
Is time God for Brodsky? Because he lost so much of it in prison? But if death is longer than time, then death is longer than God... but since we don’t know the existence of death (we are innocent of it, as Brodsky himself says) how could we possibly know its length? And if it is longer than God… One feels lost in Hume’s ‘intangling brambles’. The rest of the paragraph feels like a pen in free fall – does it really say anything of substance? Francis Bacon, writing of the old Scholastics, compared their thought, full of airy abstractions, to that of a spider spinning a web out of its own body. Isn’t this Brodsky here? Though he produces no illuminated manuscripts, or mystical ecstasies, only the wordy abstractions of a remaindered academic; Jonathan Raban’s polytechnic prose.
After I wrote this piece I read Tsvetayeva’s letter to the dead Rilke. He died on December 29th, and she wrote her reply at 10 P.M. on December 31st 1926. Here is the first paragraph:
The year ended in your death? The end? The beginning! You yourself are the New Year. (Beloved, I know you are reading this before I write it.) I am crying, Rainer, you are streaming from my eyes!
Surely any criticism needs to recapture the emotion of that particular moment; not load it with ideas, nor use certain turns of phrase – ‘you yourself are the New Year’ – to create a solar system of abstraction. She is high, taut with extreme emotion, and thus open to despair and jollity – that ‘beginning!’ – at the same time. This is what we must try to understand; and we have to try and feel it. This was the origin of the poem, and to understand it our analysis has to capture this feeling. We therefore have to keep as close as possible to the original emotion, and its portrayal in the poem. And by doing so, new insights might emerge. To use Hume’s theory, by this close criticism you are more likely to receive an impression, which can then become new substantive thought. This is perhaps why the best critics are often creative artists themselves; they are closer to the source of the poetry. They also have the tools to describe it.
Brodsky, a poet from whom you would expect better, is not even close to these feelings – he seems to be observing Tsvetayeva from the top of a tower block. His analysis, because it rarely touches the ground, turns the content of her poem into pure metaphysics. And thus
It is easy for a false hypothesis to maintain some appearance of truth, while it keeps wholly to generals, makes use of undefined terms, employs comparisons instead of instances… It is impossible that, in any particular instance, this hypothesis can so much as be rendered intelligible, whatever specious figure it may make in general declamations and discourses. (David Hume)
The balloon floats away; and we lose it amongst the clouds.