Less Than One: Selected Essays
by Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 501 pp., $25.00
It would be tempting to say that Brodsky and Auden are the only really civilized great poets of their respective generations, and of the past few decades. Tempting, and in spite of the difficulty of saying what one means exactly, far from untrue. Civilization, in their sense of it, is an affair of basic humor, a humor which naturally pervades their being and their works, like salt in sea water. With most poets, and writers generally, there is a point at which humor stops, if it has ever started. Many poets, like other writers, can be skittish, or funny, or deeply and wisely comical; and they cultivate these qualities—as Robert Frost did, say, or as Robert Lowell did—in league with their personalities and poetic will. But humor only really exists as the spirit of civilization if it is everywhere inside it, and inside the poetry that can be its expression.
Humor is also an involuntary aspect of personality, the motor nerve of its unconscious linkage to art. Wallace Stevens is at least as great a poet as Auden or Brodsky, but his poetry is extruded on a quite different principle, one sign of which is that one knows exactly where in it the humor begins and ends. Stevens could never have written in a poem “We must love one another or die,” and then changed it to “We must love one another and die.” But possibly Goethe could: in fact on the evidence of the Roman Elegies and some of the poems in the Westöstlicher Divan he certainly could. For Goethe, surprisingly enough, was a poet of total humor, as of total civilization, despite all evidence to the contrary. And Brodsky reminds us that twenty years after he wrote “September 1, 1939” Auden expressed a desire to “become, if possible, a minor Atlantic Goethe.” Brodsky calls this an extremely significant admission, and indeed there is Auden’s humor (and Brodsky’s own in the recognition of it) in the juxtaposition of “Goethe” with “Atlantic.” It is the comic apotheosis of civilization’s possibilities, and yet—like the best humor—expressing itself with no deliberate consciousness of itself.
Brodsky’s discussion of “September 1, 1939,” which appears midway in his collection of essays, is based on a class given at Columbia University, taped and transcribed by two of his students. It is detailed and quite long, and may well, one feels, have started up a lifelong love of Auden’s poetry in many students. It is not a bit theoretical, and it contains a great deal of information—some of it controversial—about love, poetry, politics, and sex. In tone and inspiration it is not unlike Nabokov’s lectures on Russian writers and on Kafka (in the course of which he had a good deal to say about exactly what sort of beetle Gregor Samsa had been turned into in The Metamorphosis, and why he made no attempt to unfurl his wings from their wing cases and fly away). It is, that is to say, a free monologue by one poet on another’s poem, which reveals to what extent both poets possess the humor and the civilization I speak of.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.
Brodsky points out that the first three lines contain a large variety of suggestions and gambits. The opening line is both factual and metrically inert, but the second firmly establishes the trimeter rhythm, a rhythm that identifies itself from then on with any and every shift of sense and expression. The first two lines announce a kind of toughness—the seasoned observer or journalist looking out for copy—but the third line unexpectedly contradicts this image. The locality given, and the word “dive,” show a poet both confident in the idiom and geography of a new country, and drawing attention to his confidence. At the same time he is “uncertain and afraid.” The poem is, among other things, a charm to overcome those feelings, as well as to naturalize the poet’s idiom in a new country and among the hospitalities of its own ways of speech.
For Brodsky, who has also become a multilingual poet and writer, this extension of language as the vessel and vehicle of civilization is of great significance. It is the resourcefulness, and above all the adaptability, of language as poets and writers can manifest it that save cultures and societies from the night, and from the “unmentionable odour of death.” “September 1, 1939” owes its remarkable memorability and power to the fact that although civilization looks like collapsing, language does not; neither is language being subjected to the dreadful humorlessness of tyranny, to those ogres who—as Auden was later to put it in an epigram on the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia—”cannot master speech.” To master speech, as Auden and Brodsky have done it, matters far more than any amount of earnest protests or rightthinking exhortations. Brodsky refers to Hellenic Greece, and by implication to demotic Cavafy, as an example of how language can triumph when empire fails; and he emphasizes that the vitality of English, extending “from Fresno to Kuala Lumpur, so to speak,” is embodied by Auden’s poem, written at a time when the English polity was in a parlous state. No matter what their local and parochial affiliations, Auden’s readers can be inspired, partly by the poem’s aid, “to become citizens of the Great English Language.”
There is no pretension in this, and the process, like the genius of the language itself, is essentially a humorous one. But for Brodsky there is nothing funny about what has happened to his own native tongue. He sees the effect of the Revolution on the Russian language as “an unprecedented anthropological tragedy, a genetic backslide whose net result is a drastic reduction of human potential.” Poetry may have survived, in inner or outer exile, but Russian prose could not escape in that way, or survive the embrace of the state. Because the new state could not master speech it forced Russian prose to talk its own gobbledygook. Significantly, Brodsky thinks that Andrei Platonov, the author of the fantastic novels Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, who died in 1951, is the truest and most imaginative master of Russian prose since the Soviet state began, because he successfully re-created Russian syntax and exposition to show—by his own kinds of exaggeration and distortion—what the Soviet mentality was doing to them.
What’s interesting about Platonov’s style is that he appears to have deliberately and completely subordinated himself to the vocabulary of his Utopia—with all its cumbersome neologisms, abbreviations, acronyms, bureaucratese, sloganeering, militarized imperatives, and the like….
…In a sense, one can see this writer as an embodiment of language temporarily occupying a piece of time and reporting from within. The essence of his message is LANGUAGE IS A MILLENARIAN DEVICE, HISTORY ISN’T, and coming from him that would be appropriate. Of course, to get into excavating the genealogy of Platonov’s style one has inevitably to mention the “plaiting of words” of centuries of Russian hagiography, Nikolai Leskov with his tendency to highly individualized narrative (so-called “skaz“—sort of “yarning”), Gogol’s satirical epic sway, Dostoevsky with his snowballing, feverishly choking conglomeration of dictions. But with Platonov the issue is not lines of succession or tradition in Russian literature but the writer’s dependence on the synthesizing (or, more precisely, supra-analytical) essence of the Russian language itself, conditioning—at times by means of purely phonetic allusions—the emergence of concepts totally devoid of any real content.
Soviet Russian linguistic usage became like a sort of Potemkin village, and Platonov was doing what Orwell could not have done: inventing his own sort of newspeak and subverting the entire concept of such a language from inside. But, as Brodsky points out, it is by no means clear that subversion was Platonov’s aim: the language and style he invented, with their own large volume of inchoate humor, do it for him. The hero of Chevengur gets it into his head that socialism may have emerged somewhere in a natural, elemental way; so he gets on his horse, which he has named Rosa Luxemburg, and sets off to discover whether or not that is the case. But it is language, not socialism, that emerges in a natural, elemental way, and the Soviet establishment has tried to create the one as it has created the other. It viewed Platonov with the gravest suspicion and would probably have proceeded against him if he had not already been terminally ill with tuberculosis, contracted while looking after his son, who had been in a labor camp. Chevengur and The Foundation Pit have never been published in the Soviet Union.
In “Catastrophes in the Air,” his essay on the trend of the recent Russian novel, Brodsky suggests that the anti-Soviet novel has been insensibly compelled to adopt the language strategies of its opponent. Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, for all its power and its sympathy, is socialist realism in reverse; and Brodsky comments on the moment when he felt the writing in the novel was about to take off, so to speak, while describing the daily grind of a Soviet woman doctor, but this never happened. To show the idiocy of the system Solzhenitsyn was conscientiously pursuing a technique designed to show the heroic virtues of the system. Except for immediate purposes of propaganda the message was fatally trapped in the medium, at least with regard to what Brodsky feels to be the true traditions of Russian art. That art—Gogol’s or Platonov’s art—does nothing so banal as merely guy the system, or even to make serious criticisms of it:
The power of devastation they inflict upon their subject matter exceeds by far any demands of social criticism….
…[Platonov] had a tendency to see his words to their logical—that is absurd, that is totally paralyzing—end. In other words, like no other Russian writer before or after him, Platonov was able to reveal a selfdestructive, eschatological element within the language itself, and that, in turn, was of extremely revealing consequence to the revolutionary eschatology with which history supplied him as his subject matter.
For Brodsky Platonov is a touchstone for what is wrong with other recent Russian prose, whether inside the Soviet system or in revolt against it. Even such a moving book as Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a “family” novel that takes place in Russia at the time of Stalingrad, suffers from being locked into the system, stylistically speaking, so that its powerful scorn for the Nazi and communist ideologies, which it regards as virtually equivalent, cannot escape from the stylistic atmosphere that they have perpetuated. Brodsky clearly has great respect also for Andrei Sinyavsky and for Vladimir Voinovich, but it might be felt that fate and history have placed them too far outside the vanished world of civilization and humor to which he and Auden in some way belong. So too do their younger successors like Vasily Aksyonov, Sergei Dovlatov, and Eduard Limonov, all writers to whom it is second nature to use fantasy and the grotesque as protest. Brodsky is probably right to suggest that as a result of the “genetic backslide” nothing in recent Russian prose has equaled what it achieved and promised in the Twenties and Thirties.
But to return for a moment to Auden’s poem, and to Brodsky’s relations with it. He perceives the way in which the art of the poem—its humorous civilization—in fact tolerates and accepts the didacticism and unease to which it gives expression. Auden’s style had always specialized in exhortation within a frame of family comedy, the threatened civilization of ourselves. In “September 1, 1939” there is a note of kidding on the level, with the charmed circle really under threat, and yet still possessing the confidence and the spell of art. Auden was wrong in thinking that the famous poem showed “the preacher’s loose immodest tone,” and in banishing it from his collected corpus. As Brodsky says, “We must love one another and die,” the modification that Auden made before deciding to scrap the whole thing, is “a platitude with a misleading air of profundity.” “We must love one another or die,” the original, is far from being a simple directive: it parodies itself in the act of utterance, confirming the “understanding” of the civilized family and its real loss of nerve, in the gesture of imitating a more impersonal and evangelical authority. The poem asserts the personal “in a rapture of distress,” while also asserting that the personal is done for, and that sterner, more comprehensive measures are needed to combat the march of false ideology.
Brodsky’s own poetry shows why this poem is so congenial to him, and so worthy of extended commentary. Many of his poems, “Cape Cod” for instance (“A codfish stands at the door”), are saturated with an Audenian fullness of humor. More important, a poem like the one on Marshal Zhukov’s funeral—one of Brodsky’s very best, to my mind—in the collection A Part of Speech, shows how naturally he joins in with the annals of civilization, and their celebration, which includes the writing of fine tributes to generals, princes, fellow poets, assorted grandees. When such poems are at their best, and alive, they are always funny, never obsequious.
There is much irony in the fact that Brodsky and Auden are so good at writing these public and commemorative poems which most other good poets—poets in the West especially—would fight distinctly shy of. It is partly because “the public” for both poets is an extension of their own large world of civilized privacy. They experience none of the anxiety and guilt which most poets today feel at the idea of privilege and grandeur—”culture is ‘elitist’ by definition,” remarks Brodsky in his essay on Nadezhda Mandelstam—the guilt that has an inhibiting effect on poetry’s becoming a part of the grace and decoration of high life.
It is equally ironic that dozens of Soviet hack poets would have been willing and able to produce elegies on the death of Marshal Zhukov—if it had been a good thing politically, which in his case it probably wasn’t—as they had produced flocks of odes to Lenin, Stalin, Kirov, Khrushchev, etc. The ease with which Brodsky and Auden move among the great in their poems is of course the opposite of the expedient sycophancy which constrained even Akhmatova to produce a poetic greeting to Stalin (she hammed it up deliberately so that friends could read between the lines). But the touch-me-not fastidiousness of Western poetry is in some ways as regrettable as the vulgar sycophancy of Soviet poets. Certainly Auden would have loved Brodsky’s poem on Zhukov and appreciated to the full its adroitly Marvellian mixture of admiration and criticism, together with the way in which meter, sound, and sentiment echo the eighteenth-century Russian poet Gavril Derzhavin’s “Bullfinch” (the soldiers’ fife), a poem celebrating the death of the great Marshal Suvorov.
Brodsky’s title piece, “Less Than One,” takes us back to his St. Petersburg childhood, and “A Guide to a Renamed City” is a wonderful evocation of the former capital, a city in which a man “spends as much time on foot as any good Bedouin.” Although Less Than One is vitriolic on the subject of Russian politics, the general effect of these essays is of an intelligence as lyrical and benign as Auden’s own. The two pieces on him are outstanding, and there are equally brilliant essays on other poets, on Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam, Dante, Montale, and Derek Walcott—the last the most illuminating and understanding appraisal that has been written about the West Indian poet. There is a remarkable meditation on Byzantium, another on the background of Cavafy; and finally a section on childhood, parents, and early days in Leningrad (universally known by its population as “Peter”) titled “In a Room and a Half,” the unit of accommodation in which the young Brodsky lived with his father and mother.
I found these recollections even more entrancing, if that is possible, than Nabokov’s Speak, Memory or Mandelstam’s memoir, The Noise of Time. Born in 1940, not a propitious year, Brodsky was an only child and very close to both his parents. His mother was from Latvia, originally a German speaker; his father, also Jewish, came from a St. Petersburg family who kept a print shop. By profession a journalist and photographer, he became an officer in the Soviet navy during the war and was stationed in the Far East. After the war he was appointed a curator of the Naval Museum, situated on Basil Island in the center of the town and one of its most beautiful buildings, with wide views up and down the Neva. (When I was there on a brief stay as a tourist it was unfortunately always closed, or said to be closed, as if the authorities viewed with suspicion the idea of a Westerner taking an undue interest in Russian naval history.)
Brodsky used to meet his father there after work and the pair of them would walk home together.
There is something in the granular texture of the granite pavement next to the constantly flowing, departing water that instills in one’s soles an almost sensual desire for walking. The seaweed-smelling head wind from the sea has cured here many hearts oversaturated with lies, despair, and powerlessness.
Although now so much a citizen of the world, and a writer and poet in English as well as in Russian, Brodsky must miss his native city very much. His parents had no desire to leave it, though they schemed for years, unsuccessfully, to visit their son in America. As earlier citizens like Pushkin and Antsyferov demonstrate (“There is in this city the pathos of space,” observed the latter), to be a St. Petersburger is at once to be a cosmopolitan and a passionate devotee of “Peter’s creation.” Pushkin’s most wonderful poem, The Bronze Horseman, celebrates the great statue of Peter which confronts the Neva, and also tells a tragic tale of the floods to which the city is still liable, a tale of powerlessness and despair in the face of the brutal authority which the horseman represents. The city is founded on such ambiguities, and Brodsky also remarks that it “is the city where it’s somehow easier to endure loneliness than anywhere else: because the city itself is so lonely.” This is the loneliness of Gogol’s and of Dostoevsky’s heroes.
Brodsky’s own father was well aware of the ambiguity, being intensely proud of the Russian navy and its annals (Peter’s Admiralty is still the largest and longest building in the world) and resigned to the fact that he had to leave the navy and earn a precarious living as a commercial photographer because the Soviet authorities had decreed that no Jew could rise higher in the navy than the rank of commander. Unable to be promoted he therefore took to wearing a bowler hat. His son shares the same ambiguous pride, as befits a Russian poet, and as also befits a poet and the son of a navy man Brodsky has a great sense of flags, their history and symbolic significance. In his essay on Byzantium he comments on the fact that the Turkish empire has always represented power as unambiguously as the Soviet state today, and that its red flag, with its white star and crescent, has a decided affinity with the Soviet red flag with its hammer and sickle, a mixture of Turkish crescent and czarist cross, and in design surely one of the least graceful emblems ever devised. By contrast Brodsky yearns for the flag of the old Russian navy, “not because of its spectacular victories, of which there have been rather few, but because of the nobility of spirit that has informed its enterprise,” inspiring long voyages of discovery and the charting of unknown seas.
To this day, I think that the country would do a hell of a lot better if it had for its national banner not that foul double-headed imperial fowl or the vaguely masonic hammer-and-sickle, but the flag of the Russian Navy: our glorious, incomparably beautiful flag of St. Andrew: the diagonal blue cross against a virginwhite background.