Aleksander Rybczynski speaks with Joseph Brodsky
Aleksander Rybczyński: In your 1987 Nobel Prize lecture, you write: “There are, as we know, three modes of cognition: analytical, intuitive, and the mode that was known to the biblical prophets, revelation. What distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that is uses all three of them at once … For all three of them are given in the language; and there are times when, by means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem manages to find himself where no one has ever been before him, further, perhaps, than he himself would have wished for. The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of consciousness, of thinking, of comprehending the universe. Having experienced this acceleration once, one is no longer capable of abandoning the chance to repeat this experience; one falls into dependency on this process, the way others fall into dependency on drugs or alcohol. One who finds himself in this sort of dependency on language is, I guess, what they call a poet.” Can making poetry be dangerous? Or is that too far-fetched a conclusion to draw?
JB: A bit too far … How should I put it … It depends on the circumstances and on the individual. Everything, of course, depends on the particular individual. For some, making poetry may be dangerous, for others it isn’t. Depending on the context in which you operate, it also may prove to be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to. Well, it’s dangerous in one respect. Depending on individual temperament, it may result in a certain detachment from human affairs, an unavoidable distancing from oneself, or from things. If you don’t have good control over that process, it can turn you into a monster.
A.R.: So what matters is to look at yourself from a distance. In this way, as you said about yourself once, one can remain a gentleman who from time to time writes poetry.
JB: That was indeed my ambition. That was my attitude when I was young. But the longer you are at it, the less gentlemanly your behavior becomes.
A.R.: You once wrote something to the effect that it is better to look back than to look forward. That tomorrow is simply less seductive than yesterday. Isn’t it the same in literature? Its fabric is experience, that is, the past. Is literature therefore, not an escape from life?
JB: No, not at all. The human being is a retrospective animal, and that explains, among other things, why the elegy is the most evolved, the most frequent genre in poetry. The elegiac is the most characteristic attitude in poetry. It’s not an escape from life. On the contrary, you see, the premier characteristic of the future, especially of the distant future, is your absence in it. The past is the more powerful proposition; in a sense, it’s more within your control or, at least, it’s something out of which you can make sense. Basically, the human being has a certain eschatological predilection and in both the past and the future he’s not present. However, historians are perhaps more abandoned than the theologian. It’s not an escape at all.
A.R.: In the essay, “Less than one”, a piece about distance, you describe the uniform look of all the interiors of a centralized state: “And those stuccoed walls of my classrooms, with their blue horizontal stripe at eye level, running unfailingly across the whole country, like the line of an infinite common denominator: in halls, hospitals, factories, prisons, corridors of communal apartments. The only place I didn’t encounter it was in wooden peasant huts. This decor was as maddening as it was omnipresent, and how many times in my life would I catch myself peering mindlessly at this blue two-inch-wide stripe, taking it sometimes for a sea horizon, sometimes for an embodiment of nothingness itself.” It is difficult to compare a democratic state with a totalitarian one. But the West, the land of freedom, democracy, and individualism, is not free of stereotypes. What could be “the blue horizontal stripe” of contemporary Western civilization?
JB: Television. (Laughter)
A.R.: At the age of fifteen, you left school. It was, above all, an escape from falsity. Is such an escape possible and do you agree with the statement that living truthfully is the highest value?
JB: It’s difficult to say, but it’s better to manufacture your own lies and your own truth than to obey those that are imposed upon you. I don’t want to go too deeply into that. I said somewhere, that the biography of the consciousness, or the life of consciousness, starts with your first lie. Without lies, you won’t be able to define the truth. As you are lying you know more where the true story lies, right? There’s an essential dialog within your psyche that takes place. But for that you first of all have to restore the reality. I can’t think of an existence free of lies.
A.R.: But some people think …
JB: … they may, and they may even insist that they are superior to others. But I won’t buy it. I can’t buy it.
A.R.: Some artist give themselves the right to manipulate reality.
JB: No, I think, a better artist, and I speak in tremendously general terms, a better artist is the one who presents his own view as though he were participating in a fair trial. He enumerates all the opponent’s arguments and only then offers his own version of events.
A.R.: A great definition.
JB: It’s not my definition. It is a postulate of classicism in literature.
A.R.: Zbigniew Herbert never participated in the official culture during Stalinist times. He defined his opposition as “aesthetic” rather than ethical”. I encountered a similar motivation in your work. Do you think that the writer should confirm the work with his own life? Can one be trusted if one is not conscious of the question of “ethics”?
JB: The first question concerns improving or confirming with your behavior the thoughts spilled on paper. Well, that’s desirable, of course, or preferable, but a writer shouldn’t make a meal of it. His main obligation is to depend on paper. So, if there is a danger of disparity between one’s deportment and what happens on the paper, one shouldn’t really worry terribly much about that. That is, one shouldn’t correct with one’s life what’s been done on the paper. It should be the other way around. I’ve said that aesthetics is the mother of ethics and I’m absolutely convinced of that. And it gives me greater pleasure to discover, that Zbyszek is of the same opinion. He puts it more blankly. He says, “it’s a matter of taste”. And indeed, he simply couldn’t cooperate for precisely aesthetic reasons. I don’t believe that, in that respect, I’ve been so much different from Zbyszek.
A.R.: I am asking you an obvious questions …
JB: You aren’t trying to avoid them, but it’s very difficult to talk about those things.
A.R.: People, however, seem not to remember about fundamental questions; it seems they want to forget them …
JB: There is one major enemy which manifests itself sometimes as communism, or some other totalitarian system, or as a consumerist society, or God knows what, simply an individual betrayal. It’s the vulgarity of the human heart. And the only way to cure that heart, to reduce the volume of that vulgarity is presumably, in my view, believe it or not, by making the individual develop a greater taste in literature, above all, because it’s incredibly semantic. And also in the arts, in fine arts.
A.R.: Here is another difficult question. What is freedom? We fight for it; we search for it; we achieve it; but it always slips out from under us; it is changeable, capricious; each time it appears in another guise.
JB: Well, hold on a second. I know the answer to this. Freedom is the reecognized condition of the individual’s autonomy. That, of course, is not so sweet. A human being has two options: either to be free or to be happy. Freedom is not synonymous with happiness; on the contrary, very often it is synonymous with unhappiness. Once you ‚re free, you can be happy occasionally, temporarily. As any condition, happiness is a temporary condition. However, when you are happy, you cannot be free. In fact, when you are free, you are often unhappy. Unhappiness is the price one pays for being free.
A.R.: In the essay, “A Poet and Prose”, you cite Walt Whitman: “Great poetry is possible only if there are great readers.” This quote accuses poetry of hermeticism and incommunicability. Further on you say that “for language [poetry] is the highest form of existence.” One must learn that language in order to understand it. How can one convince readers made lazy by popular culture that it is worthwhile to take up the difficult task of learning that language? It seems that much fewer people read poetry nowadays …
JB: Not fewer, it’s more or less the same percentage, artificially sustained. Throughout human history, over the last two thousand years, I don’t think there was ever a period, when the audience for poetry exceeded one per cent of the entire population of society. In the good old days, of course, it was justifiable, because literature was the privilege of the few. Nowadays, when literacy is practically a universal property, it has stopped being justifiable.
However, the market operates on the basis of the old ratio. That is, the publishers, first of all, are not the benefactors of humanity, they’re simply businessmen and, therefore, they try to produce as much as they believe will make a profit. For that reason, they simply conform the volume of production to what profit can be predicted. They engage us in practices like market research. They thereby try artificially, not artificially, naturally for them, but artificially in the general sense —to limit the number of readers.
If you look around, you see the bookstores mainly segregated on main streets or university campuses. You hardly see a bookstore in front of a factory, not to mention in the countryside.
Essentially, poetry is an antropological and genetic goal. For a very simple reason. Because what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, even from the primates, from chimpanzees, is an ability to speak. Poetry is the most supreme form of speech, of human locution. So it’s something more than entertainment, something more than art. It’s an anthropological, a genetic goal. This is what we are meant to operate in the most successful linguistic manner. Linguistically speaking, we presume to have to operate. The idea is, that we have this tool, we have to master it to the maximum. And poetry is that maximum. So in a sense, it’s a universal property. It sounds demagogic but it isn’t really.
A.R.: Poetry helps also to overcome solitude…
JB: That is something else. It has all those therapeutic counselling aspects etcetera, etcetera. But that’s not the main aspect of poetry. It ‚s simply to sharpen your locution, not to make you more efficient in society, but to make the human interplay more intense.
A.R.: Perhaps it is to express that which does not let itself be expressed …
JB: Oh, no, it helps to articulate yourself, your thoughts and all your perceptions in the most efficient way. Well, it’s not exactly perhaps necessary; perhaps it’s quite comforting not to articulate yourself sometimes. It’s quite helpful to be silent. But at least it should exist within the human reach as a possibility.
A.R.: Thank you for the conversation. I will close with a quote from your last book,Watermark. I found there a moving description of the confrontation with a row of mirrors. Instead of reflecting the image of the observer, the mirrors absorbed him. In the end, nothing was left of him but a murky square. It is an unusually imagistic and suggestive description of passing and disappearance in time.
“Then there were those mirrors, two or three in each room, of various sizes, but mostly rectangular. They all had delicate golden frames, with well-wrought floral garlands or idyllic scenes which called more attention to themselvers than to their surface, since the amalgam was invariably in poor shape. In a sense, the frames were more coherent than their contents, straining, as it were, to keep them from spreading over the wall. Having grown unaccustomed over the centuries to reflecting anything but the wall opposite, the mirrors were quite reluctant to return one’s visage, out of either greed or impotence, and when they tried, one’s features would come back incomplete. I thought, I begin to understand Regnier. From room to room, as we proceeded through the enfilade, I saw myself in those frames less and less, getting back more and more darkness. Gradual subtraction, I thought to myself; how is this going to end? And it ended in the tenth or eleventh room. I stood by the door leading into the next chamber, staring at a largish, three-by-four-foot gilded rectangle, and instead of myself I saw pitch-black nothing. Deep and inviting, it seemed to contain a perspective of its own — perhaps another enfilade. For a moment I felt dizzy; but as I was no novelist, I skipped the option and took a doorway.”
The above interview was conducted during the 1994 Toronto Authors’ Festival.