Joseph Brodsky痴 Love of Language
The Garden of Eden
When a baby is born, learning begins in a shock. No fetus ever asks for this sudden pummeling into the birth passage, the difference in cold as it emerges, and all that new air opening out in massive unfamiliarity. A baby can again withdraw, later, into sleep. Memories from the umbilical realm can return. There, where no change intrudes, sleep can soothe with the peace of primordial belonging, the order of recurring systole and diastole, the comfort of being simply an organism. Blame birth which upset all this. Birth betrayed our original, harmonious, protected, vegetative version of ourselves. It dropped us blue and bloody, gagging for air, ending fusion with biologic space and replacing it with the abrupt upset of time. Birth gave us consciousness of an invasive present, with Edenic womb receding into the past. Eventually, as time comes to us in its increments, we can set ourselves on any number of those yellow brick roads signaling their ways into promises called the future. Authorities on all sides will guide us to the mastery, predictability, and orderliness whose gates they guard. We call these authorities parents, priests, pedagogues, and politicians. Because they preside over the safety of guarantees, traditions, rules, regulations, and formulaic steps, we can love them for propping up these assurances around us. They give us teams, families, clubs, communities, religions, and nationalities. They remedy that first, originating trauma: our expulsion from womb and into the gaping vastness around us.
The poet Joseph Brodsky more than anything loved to toy with how we deal with the fact of the primordial vastness within and without us. All cognates of the term space delighted him. The cosmos itself he saw as obstinately unfriendly, bleak, non-human. We might be born in it, meet and mate and die in it, and yet the ever-churning laws of the universe over-arch obliviously of us. As a result, his verse continuously forwards his varying tests of meter against the relentless operations of space ・to apply our own all-too-human senses of time to its timeless engines. He saw vocabulary as a parallel game. Words have meaning not only for their mimetic relation to objects in space, but more importantly also as part of the metricalities of time and its shifting sensations we feel. Words alone cannot catch our awareness of ourselves trapped, pummeled, and dwarfed in the non-human workings of cosmic laws. Words coupled with music, however, can. So if language delighted Joseph Brodsky, it did so always in contexts ・space chief among them, and music our answer to space. This nexus invites examination of space and music痴 corollaries: infinity and repetition. Thus he enlarged his poetic vocabulary. He kept returning to terms from geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, paleontology ・all the natural sciences ・so that even when he peopled it, space ・like dictatorships ・remained palpable but ominous, ineluctable. Space goaded ・like totalitarian vacuums, or like institutional inertia ・but it now did so from points prompting alternatives. We can carve out our brief, little physical lives, mixing our inherited social legends with the private relationships we may find. Puny us ・the puniness Faulkner rang in his Nobel acceptance speech ・may not be able to transform space particularly, but we may be able to position parallel humanity ・by the musicality, or art, of our consciously chosen patterns, recurrences, debts, overlappings, and recombinations.
Attuned to misfit between big cosmos and little humanity, Joseph Brodsky loved images in his poetry to meet and clash in incongruities. He loved testing the oddity in our humanity, the sport of our conceits and cocksureness ・to the point where his playfulness with linguistic registers could resemble Marx Brothers pastiche. High-brow and low-brow often clunk together as if in slapstick combinations. This drove our best critics to discomfit even as they admired him. But his mixed bag of references continued. As if it were a matter of ethics, linguistic oddities poked even into elegies and love lyrics ・so by erudite zaniness he might keep up his guard before the awful, indifferent cosmos.
This love of language of his, more than anything, let him refuse to submit to prevailing forces. If our linguistic resources get us as close as we池e going to get to divinity, most of us nevertheless don稚 get there. For profound truths that we can cite 俣reasons・that we are ever trotting out ・we usually don稚 take the care, or the joyful effort, to see and name the particularities around us, let alone to locate such subtleties and nuances in their larger, neighborly contexts. Most of us, instead, do the opposite. We follow the example of our authorities who keep imaginations and language dutifully tied to whatever protects them. Follow the money as a lovely rule suffices in the tracing of how most of us compromise, constrict, and lessen ourselves. Like the good professors in their departments, we, too, fit language and range of reference to whatever organization pays us. We, too, withdraw into the idioms and linguistic manners of whatever social class, market demographic, or other power hierarchy supports us. We call this reality. Deferring to it, we make excuses. We use terms, phrases, slogans, and expressions not only to fit in, adjust, and conform, but also to rationalize. We love to justify, to list causalities ・perhaps telling stories in doing so, but stories reduced to explanation. 典hat痴 the way it is,・we say, or, 典hat has been our history, which you, the outsider, cannot know.・nbsp; Joseph Brodsky had no patience for such imaginative ・and linguistic ・constriction. If he liked to cite scientific terms in his verse, he did so for the perspectives that terms in one field could open unto other, apparently unrelated fields. He had no patience, either, for the purism of folk roots, traditional culture, or other pop ethnicity: he knew how, lurking in such costumes, the most lunatic horrors could repeat and repeat. He knew how language circling the wagons of 典hat痴 the way it is with us・could perpetuate Palestinian & Jew, Pakistani & Indian, Serb & Bosnian, Hutu & Tutsi, Ogoni & Yoruba, Azeri & Armenian, Russian & Chechen, Greek Cypriot & Turk, Northern Irish Catholic & British Protestant, and all murderous, righteous, vicious cycles like them. Received forms of language pathetically easily ratchet into such fanaticisms, but with a bit more care other language could free us from them, too. With a healthy disrespect for prevailing authority, we might find language away from orthodoxy, explanations, and reasons. Thus he urged members of a graduating class at the University of Michigan to buy themselves good dictionaries, and use them, and so lessen the need for the costly cures of mental health professionals.
Joseph Brodsky knew of George Orwell痴 observations in 撤olitics and the English Language・・nbsp; that our slogans, jargon, dead metaphors, passive voices, and abstracted terms all lurk about, waiting to spiral us into their deadlier gravities, their no-exit black holes. The poet from Peter痴 city on the Neva knew, too, that for language to show its miracle side we can never forget our proximity and vulnerability to the vast, indifferent scheme of things. The flaws built into our very humanity dictate that we will always to some degree be in thrall to systems, logic, rationality, and coherence.
Poetry, or good language, he always believed, could touch the magic in us, tease miracles out of banality, and buoy up surprises ・but always in contexts. As math charts and traces the abstracted lines of space, so the classic configurations of verse ・rhyme, meter, parallels, balance, and hierarchy ・keep us located in the larger pulls as we feel them around us. Classic prosody energizes and empowers verse as math configures and relates the physical sciences. So he exulted in the geometries of verse, with rhyme riding its accentual feet in stanzaic landscapes. Poetry for him could never separate from the tug and structures of these linguistic harnesses. Freedom for him, as for Houdini before him, depended on initial givens of weight and friction. The heights of humanity cannot distance themselves from the depths of unpleasant facts, such as how easily we give in, acquiesce, accommodate, and conform. Little boys and small countries will please bullies. Subordinates will kiss bosses・posteriors. The pulse will quicken before celebrity. Schools full of professors, like schools of fish, will put individuals to swarming in clusters.
Still, as long as we have artists with some humanity in them, we needn稚 defer merely ・as Robert E. Lee put it, finally surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia ・鍍o overwhelming numbers and resources.・nbsp; We needn稚 add such justifying gloss as Neville Chamberlain put on at Munich as he bowed to Hitler痴 bluff. But most of us, prone more often to our herd-like instincts, will mouth logic, and present the exigencies of facts, and we do so for the same reason Eve ate the apple. Explanation by ultimate knowledge always tempts. Views over causality always seduce. The lure of total safety and final shelter epitomize wishful thinking, of a piece with the wish of our bruised and stunned infant selves to return to the womb痴 peace, warmth, and comfort.
If this Nobel laureate and high school drop-out enjoyed humanity and all the 斗oose ends・of vulnerability, this gift ensued from an equation. On one side we can put little us, prey to the ravages of time and the betrayals of change. One the other side we can put our abiding temptation for the fullness of closure. In Genesis, when the serpent tempted Eve, it informed her God reserved the tree of knowledge for Himself. To know the universe, its laws, and all the workings of goodness and evil could but promote and elevate us above our own humanity ・it would have us substituting our solipsism for God.
Solipsism says everything is an extension of oneself. If we take the universe and presume a comfortable relationship with it ・one where 努e know・how things fit ・we inflate our expectations. To the degree that we presume expertise, we acquire systems of thought till we no longer notice that we merely inhabit them, treating our imaginative positions, paradigms, and views like wardrobes we take for granted. If this set of clothes seems to deliver an orderliness, and expectations for the world around us, it will seem natural and logical to us ・not invented and arbitrary ・in the way that tribes, ethnicities, and nationalities can feel correct or righteous within their cultures. Fitting inside may entitle us to dismiss everything outside, as the ancient Greeks viewed all non-Greeks as those speaking but 澱ar-bar・・barbarians. We still do it. We wall off 登thers・today in our modern, super-educated, corporate America. Our advertisers sell empowerment mythologies by the age, class, and other identity factors they and celebrity agents market to us ・all packaged by consumer styles for every demographic. Our university professors teach this same corporate imagination by modeling their own dispassionate 登bjectivity・ all departments mutually-isolated from each other by specialized jargons, all consuming information in accord with corporate texts ever more modular, segmented, divided, and sub-divided ・and all ideas and experience multiple-choice testable.
撤oetry Makes Nothing Happen・/font>
The poet W. H. Auden preoccupied himself for years with the question of why poetry ・the arts, civilized manners ・couldn稚 do more to mitigate evil. In his January 1939 memorial poem to William Butler Yeats, he opined his famous dictum that 撤oetry makes nothing happen.・nbsp; But Auden himself since boyhood had, among other qualities, a mechanic痴 or engineer痴 love of gears, levers, fulcrums, and other awesomely effective machinery he knew from the mining landscape around his native York. He loved the geometry, force fields, and physical interrelationships of linear causality. The inner working of a poem in many ways follow the logic of complicated machinery, especially with parts in one area vectoring, tugging, and answering parts in another. Thus he trusted in the logic of cause-and-effect. He could ask in all sincerity, if poetry has power, why so many 努ell-versed・souls turn out impotent in horrendous times. At the time of Yeats・death, one year before Joseph Brodsky痴 birth, Russian poetry, for instance, yet counted at the top of world literature. Educated Russians famously read, knew, and memorized an outpouring of literary gifts in the forms of symbolism, futurism, acmeism, and folk traditionalism. But at this very time these same people inhabited some of the worst history in the world: mass murder, prison archipelagoes, political tyranny, and systematized terror ・and all this before the September 1, 1939 outbreak of the yet-deadlier paroxysms of WWII. It agonized Auden to ask himself: if Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva were so great, and treasured so widely, why did they in fact have so little practical effect?
Joseph Brodsky answered this question by essentially not answering it ・by understanding that all the miracles, gifts, and transformations of art yet occur in that larger context ・the dumb cosmos, space, the physical universe ・which ever dwarfs us. And yet we always have two choices: to fit ourselves to the world of larger facts around us which we may honor and join, or to rebel. Language as a form of rebellion never guarantees our getting the upper hand over circumstances. Eve in the Garden of Eden erred first in entertaining that possibility ・of acquiring godly power. We have gone on repeating it ever since when we imagine joining power systems. We can of course, do this ・but when we do, we infect ourselves with the elevation conceits built into hierarchies, bureaucracies, consumer demographics, folk movements, and school departments. These entropies all mimic the workings of the relentless universe. They all distance us from the oddities and stories of our humanity, from what the Russian-American poet loved as the arts of 斗oose ends.・nbsp;
Language has peculiar properties ・grammars, etymological roots, derivations, cognates, puns ・that enable things always to evoke other things. The poet listens, not to buy into ultimate power, closure, and what Eve sought, but to trace the lines among our emotional debt packages. Artfully made, the webs of these lines form poems, each centered on some primary emotion radiating through them. As a very young man, before he ever seriously imagined writing any verse himself, Joseph Brodsky worked in Asiatic Russia on geologic surveys. In their primitive, mechanical ways the Geiger counters he used on those field trips intimated to him something about what he would soon feel also to be the magic of language ・how words don稚 just mimic hidden, buried, or otherwise latent truths, but proceed in their own ways reverberating, echoing, rephrasing, mirroring, matching, conjuring, and illuminating different sides to an ever-shifting humanity. Our variously-nuanced emotions vary by their different angles of refraction. It痴 the feeling out of them that counts ・the process, the journey ・not the destination ・not any finality, ultimate truth, or bottom line. Many years later, after he won the Nobel prize, he came across the linguistic fact that verse itself, from the original Latin, meant precisely this activity of circling back again and again, etymologically for no other purpose than the human one of checking and rechecking ・looking over and again at views, tactile emotions, sounds, smells, tastes, and further creases in the registers of humanity.
Too many teachers have no sense for this, the human ethics of response. Especially in 塗igher education,・in America and throughout the world, too many serve humanity inverted. In departments isolated from each other, too many have replaced the wider values and stories of humanity with an opposite ethics ・that of accumulation ・a sophisticated information consumerism grinding along in dispassion, 登bjectivity,・and tunnel vision. This inverted form of humanity does serve a most powerful human value ・our greatest temptation: our love of closure. But it reduces all other values to those of power, mastery, and control. The comfortable corporate specialists who serve these devices now mimic those educated Russians of whom Auden long ago despaired, memorizing their poets in cultivated isolation.
Eve did what she did. Adam followed. The serpent did its job. We have the consequences ・flawed humanity as our starting place. As we proceed, we carry with us bundles of questions, anxieties, fears, anticipation, and other issues all submerged and loosely tied as themes in us. These themes lie at the center of every individual ・to any degree we believe in people having ethical centers. Related themes inform rich as well as poor, black and white, urban and rural. The fact of literacy says that to marvelous degrees we can discern and discuss all these things in each other ・we can find and link similar humanity across all political borders, across all landscapes ・river valleys, mountain ranges, lakes, plains, tropics ・everywhere. Literacy says yes, teachers could model these connecting arts, starting with noting the various rich, incomplete, and evolving themes surfacing and re-surfacing in students. They could connect these to other students, and connect them, too, to their own out-of-school readings, to the immediate course material, and to other disciplines ・everything in the 塗umanities・・all history, psychology, anthropology, political science, philosophy, art history, history of science, musicology, stage design, literature, sociology, ethnic studies, gender studies, urban studies ・everything. E. M. Forster must have been anticipating this, for he presaged Essaying Differences when he urged a philosophy of life in but two words: 徹nly connect.・/font>