Tuesday, May 1, 2012

on the constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland

I was thinking of what would be an appropriate way to acknowledge International Worker's Day and got to thinking about those involved in intellectual labor under communism. The State supported art production and encouraged the study of poetry and literature (much was censored or used as political propaganda) but for the most part, artists had to meet very strict requirements. Poets, writers and artists who failed to comply were often branded "social parasites" and many of them were actually sent to labor camps.

International Worker's Day celebration in Sofia, Bulgaria.

That's what happened to Joseph Brodsky. In the early 1960s, his poetry was condemned as "pornographic and anti-Soviet". According to Robert McFadden, who composed Brodsky's New York Times obituary in 1996, Soviet authorities called him "a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers" and sent him to Arkhangelsk for failing to fulfill his "constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland."

Brodsky is asked to reflect on that period in his 1979 interview for the Paris Review:

What about your younger years? How did you first come to think about writing poetry?

At the ages of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I didn’t write much, not at all, actually. I was drifting from job to job, working. At sixteen I did a lot of traveling. I was working with a geological expedition. And those years were when Russians were extremely interested in finding uranium. So, every geological team was given some sort of Geiger device. I walked a lot. The whole thing was done on foot. So you’d cover about thirty kilometers daily through pretty thick swamps.

Which part of Russia?

Well, all parts, actually. I spent quite a lot of time in Irkutsk, north of the Amur River on the border of China. Once during a flood I even went to China. It’s not that I wanted to, but the raft with all our things on it drifted to the right bank of the Amur River. So I found myself in China briefly. And then I was in Central Asia, in deserts, as well as in the mountains—the Tien Shan mountains are pretty tall mountains, the northwest branch of the Hindu Kush. And, also, in the northern part of European Russia, that is, by the White Sea, near Arkhangelsk. Swamps, dreadful swamps. Not that the swamps themselves were dreadful, but the mosquitoes! So, I’ve done that. Also, in Central Asia I was doing a little bit of mountain climbing. I was pretty good at that, I must say. Well, I was young . . . so, I had covered a good deal of territory, with those geological teams and mountain-climbing groups. When they first arrested me, in 1959, I think, they tried to threaten me by saying, “We’re going to send you far away, where no human foot ever trod.” Well, I wasn’t terribly impressed because I had already been to many of the regions they were talking about. When they indeed sent me to one of those places, it turned out to be an area which I knew somewhat well, climatically anyhow. That was near the polar circle, near the same White Sea. So, to me it was some sort of déjà vu.
In the same interview Brodsky says that for Eastern Europeans, T.S. Eliot is "a kind of Anglo-Saxon brand name." Like Levi's? the interviewer wants to know. Ya, says Brodsky, like Levi's.

Source: IMAGE

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