Commentary Magazine


Less Than One, by Joseph Brodsky

For Art’s Sake

Less Than One.
by Joseph Brodsky.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 501 pp. $25.00.

In 1972, Joseph Brodsky, a poet with a prison record (for “parasitism”) at home and a high critical reputation abroad, was exiled from the Soviet Union. Brodsky, who was born in Leningrad in 1940 of Jewish parents, eventually came to the United States, where he now teaches literature at Columbia University and Mount Holyoke. A Part of Speech, the collection of his poems issued here in 1980 (almost all of them translated from the Russian), reveals a poet stunningly precise in his imagery, technically playful, and, with exceptions, chilly in temperature. Now his first volume of prose—a collection of essays on poetry, history, geography, politics, and metaphysics—has just been published to considerable acclaim.

For a poet, estrangement from so satisfying and so intricately inflected a mother tongue as Russian might be thought a sorrow more silencing than imprisonment or censorship. Brodsky, however, is a man fortified by an unflagging sense of mission. Unlike the majority of Russian and Eastern European writers living in the West, Brodsky has adopted the English language as his own, and brought to it an independence of thought, a thickness and subtlety of texture, and an omnivorous appetite for idiom that are uniquely his.

Less Than One contains eighteen essays, written over the last ten years of Brodsky’s sojourn in America; all but three of them were composed in English. The author’s photograph on the back jacket of this volume delivers some clues as to the particular qualities of mind which his readers may expect to find within: the poet, freckled, seasoned, and disdainful, scowls at us with narrowed eyes and gimlet mouth, looking less like one’s idea of an aesthete than like a Boer farmer defending his land from the mob.

The book may be understood as a kind of intellectual autobiography. The opening and closing pieces are memoirs, or what might more accurately be called travelogues through time: recollections of the poet’s childhood, a tribute to his native city of Leningrad, and, most movingly, a concluding summoning up of Brodsky’s dead parents which is intended simultaneously as a foretaste of his own mortality. In between (and no less autobiographical in nature) are observations on other poets. These include the “Silver Poets” of Leningrad: Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva (Brodsky includes here an obituary tribute to Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda, who, for decades the vessel and memorializer of her dead husband’s verse, thus became herself a poet in Brodsky’s eyes); such Mediterranean and Atlantic favorites as Eugenio Montale, Constantine Cavafy, W.H. Auden, and Derek Walcott; and novelists like Dostoevsky and the 20th-century surrealist Andrei Platonov, whose highly stylized use of language catapults them from the realm of prose (in Brodsky’s view, the bargain basement of art) into the realm of poetry.

Supplementing these more general essays are two readings, remarkable for their patience and fidelity, of individual poems. One, fifty pages long, dissects word by word W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” The second, seventy pages in length, explicates Marina Tsvetaeva’s elegy on the death of Rilke. In addition to these works of textual analysis are essays of a speculative or philosophical nature: a discourse on tyranny, a commencement address to the graduating class of Williams College developing an injunction from the Christian Gospel, and, most spectacularly, notes on a trip to Istanbul which explore some of the ethical and metaphysical divisions between East and West.

A reader coming fresh to Brodsky’s work will be struck initially by the wide and hard-hitting inventiveness of his diction. Brodsky uses language shore to shore, covering vast amounts of verbal territory in short order. His prose is tough, resourceful, and, though sometimes quite difficult or obstructed in its efforts to express everything as precisely and truthfully as possible, nonetheless glaringly alive. His prose style is notable for its abrupt shifts of gear, from a high elegiac strain, to deflating slang, to technical jargon. The deflating impulse, in particular, yields some felicitous phrases, as (for instance) when Brodsky tersely dismisses as “bald and uptight” the image of the young Lenin that adorns almost every surface of public Soviet space.

Joined with Brodsky’s tendency to drive English usage beyond its borders is a sometimes ornery independence of mind. By his own account, Brodsky is a writer who from earliest youth fought with his fists, walked out of classrooms, and disbelieved what he was told. His habit of thinking hard about time, space, and the meaning of history, his insistence on figuring out everything for himself, proved a healthy antidote to the loss of will which Soviet life induces in its subjects. Brodsky is (in consequence?) an immensely opinionated writer—such epithets as “witless,” “scum,” and “drivel” come frequently to his pen—whose own vision of the world is imprinted on every page of this collection like lines on the palms of a hand. Indeed, Less Than One may be most memorable for its heady onslaught of idiosyncratic aphorisms, observations, and verdicts, some of which are merely contrary—such as Brodsky’s contention that to “an unprejudiced man,” monotheism is synonymous with autocracy and polytheism with democracy—some overly elliptical, someeven repellent in their crabbed and arrogant misanthropy, but many of which possess a startling justice that makes one sit up and think twice.

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Although the majority of the essays that make up Less Than One are high in quality, a few have more feathers than flesh to them. Among the latter, “On Tyranny” is a shopworn jeremiad against the banality of evil and the blights of high technology, mass production, and overpopulation. (Brodsky, who hails from a tyrant state which houses barely thirty people per square mile, might be expected to know that evil and degradation in this world do not come from allowing parents to have as many children as their hearts desire.) “A Commencement Address,” taking its text from the Sermon on the Mount, enjoins an audience of well-to-do American youngsters to imitate Christ by turning the other cheek when hounded and overwhelmed by an invincible enemy—under the circumstances, an invitation not so much to civil disobedience as to massive self-pity.

At their best, however—which is most of the time—Brodsky’s essays combine passion, common sense, and nerve with an intellectual seriousness that has few parallels in present-day criticism. In this category belongs especially the gritty and elegiac title piece about the poet’s youth in Leningrad as a Jew, a high-school dropout, a factory worker with a library card, and, later on, a jailbird. In this memoir Brodsky describes with great precision the peculiar character of his postwar generation with its badly made clothing, its love of culture and of intellectual complexity, its rejection of Soviet reality, and its utter isolation. In “A Flight from Byzantium,” the East is held to embody the essentially spatial principle that all things are merely intertwining patterns on a carpet, whereas the West represents dynamism, autonomy, and time; the essay, written in the form of a diary, is riveting, both in its intellectual brilliance and, in quite a different way, in the intensity of its loathing for things Oriental, especially Japanese tourists. Arresting, too, is Brodsky’s portrayal of his parents in “In a Room and a Half.” Here he writes of what it is like for Soviet émigrés like himself “not to be allowed to see their mothers or fathers on their deathbed; the silence that follows their request for an emergency visa to attend a relative’s funeral”:

And then it’s too late, and a man or a woman puts the receiver down and walks out of the door into the foreign afternoon feeling something neither language has words for, and for which no howl will suffice, either. . . . No country has mastered the art of destroying its subjects’ souls as well as Russia, and no man with a pen in his hand is up to mending them; no, this is a job for the Almighty only, this is what He has all that time of His for. May English then house my dead.

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The temperament which pervades this collection of essays is one of old-fashioned conservatism running to reaction, with all that implies by way of an insistence on man’s inherent wickedness, resistance to notions of progress, enmity to Rousseauian utopianism, and, not least, disdain for the modern world. Indeed, although Brodsky today is a free man who writes much about the meaning of freedom as against the many forms of slavery which evil inspires, the freedom he has in mind is personal, inner, freedom. His belief that a poet must defend an ideal of “civilization” against modern “social reality” has seemingly dissuaded him from endorsing the political freedoms he now enjoys. In his own ostentatiously neutral phrase, Brodsky in coming to the West has merely “switched Empires” (as he writes in the poem, “Lullaby of Cape Cod”), and is as committed to criticizing the irresoluteness and materialism of the democracies as he is to berating Soviet totalitarianism for its dullness and brutality.

If this is one respect in which Brodsky may be seen to part company with many conservatives, another would surely have to do with the central conviction which animates all his work, and to which he adheres as to a religious truth: namely, that language is a supreme and lawmaking deity, and that poets are that deity’s anointed priesthood. Why? As he explains in “To Please a Shadow,” his tribute to Auden, whereas all other things in the world are subject to the depredations of time, poetry, the verbal articulation of perception, represents a restructuring of time—i.e., of nature—itself. From this stipulation of the preeminence of language over the natural world follows Brodsky’s belief that poetry, not religion, is the unique source both of metaphysical truth and of moral value: “It is this law,” he writes, “that teaches a poet a greater rectitude than any creed is capable of.” Or, as he put it in a response to Milan Kundera published in the New York Times Book Review, “an individual’s . . . aesthetics give rise to his ethics and his sense of history—not the other way around.”

Making a religion of art is, of course, not an impulse peculiar to this poet—although Brodsky may indeed be alone in restricting the realm of art to poetry. But neither, unfortunately, does Brodsky escape the intellectual and spiritual consequences of his position, most conspicuous among such consequences being the arid and cockeyed solipsism that comes of exalting man’s creation above God’s. The worship of art over all things leads him, moreover, to enter claims on its behalf which neither art nor artists can fulfill. For an example we need go no farther than Brodsky’s astonishing contention that W.H. Auden was “the greatest mind of the 20th century,” and that “reading him is one of the very few ways (if not the only one) available for feeling decent.” Finally, one cannot help noticing that although Brodsky treats admirably with the forms that poets use, he skimps on what it is that poets actually say in their poems (dismissing almost parenthetically, for instance, Auden’s Freudian, Marxist, and religious “terminology”). Yet if “A rhyme turns an idea into law,” as Brodsky maintains it does, is not a law-abiding reader obliged to pay serious attention to the ideas that poets legislate, some of which have been very awful ideas indeed?

Nonetheless, so subtle and so invigorating are Brodsky’s love and understanding of poetry and its makers, so searching and adroit his readings, that Less Than One might almost serve to vindicate its author’s energetic canonization of his own profession.

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