I wish you were here, dear, I wish you were here. I wish you sat on the sofa and I sat near. the handkerchief could be yours, the tear could be mine, chin-bound. Though it could be, of course, the other way around.
I wish you were here, dear, I wish you were here. I wish we were in my car, and you'd shift the gear. we'd find ourselves elsewhere, on an unknown shore. Or else we'd repair To where we've been before.
I wish you were here, dear, I wish you were here. I wish I knew no astronomy when stars appear, when the moon skims the water that sighs and shifts in its slumber.
I wish it were still a quarter to dial your number.
I wish you were here, dear, in this hemisphere, as I sit on the porch sipping a beer. It's evening, the sun is setting; boys shout and gulls are crying. What's the point of forgetting If it's followed by dying?
Listening to boredom. (excerpt from 'In Praise of Boredom'; adapted from Dartmouth College commencement address) Joseph Brodsky. Harper's Magazine, March 1995 v290 n1738 p. 11
A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom. The reason I’d like to talk to you about it today, on this lofty occasion, is that I believe no liberal arts college prepares you for that eventuality. Neither the humanities nor science offers courses in boredom. At best, they may acquaint you with the sensation by incurring it. But what is a casual contact to an incurable malaise? The worst monotonous drone coming from a lectern or the most eye-splitting textbook written in turgid English is nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts right in your bedroom and spurns the horizon.
Known under several aliases—anguish, ennui, tedium, the doldrums, humdrum, the blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor, etc.—boredom is a complex phenomenon and by and large a product of repetition. It would seem, then, that the best remedy against it would be constant inventiveness and originality. That is what you, young and new-fangled, would hope for. Alas, life won’t supply you with that option, for life’s main medium is precisely repetition.
One may argue, of course, that repeated attempts at originality and inventiveness are the vehicle of progress and, in the same breath, civilization. As benefits of hindsight go, however, this one is not the most valuable. For if we divide the history of our species by scientific discoveries, not to mention new ethical concepts, the result will not be very impressive. We’ll get, technically speaking, centuries of boredom. The very notion of originality or innovation spells out the monotony of standard reality, of life.
The other trouble with originality and inventiveness is that they literally pay off. Provided that you are capable of either, you will become well-off rather fast. Desirable as that may be, most of you know firsthand that nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive. Assuming that you are not heading for poverty, one can expect your being hit by boredom as soon as the first tools of self-gratification become available to you. Thanks to modern technology, those tools are as numerous as boredom’s symptoms. In light of their function - to render you oblivious to the redundancy of time - their abundance is revealing.
As for poverty, boredom is the most brutal part of its misery, and escape from it takes more radical forms: violent rebellion or drug addiction. Both are temporary, for the misery of poverty is infinite; both, because of that infinity, are costly. In general, a man shooting heroin into his vein does so largely for the same reason you rent a video: to dodge the redundancy of time. The difference, though, is that he spends more than he’s got, and that his means of escaping become as redundant as what he is escaping from faster than yours. On the whole, the difference in tactility between a syringe’s needle and a stereo’s push button roughly corresponds to the difference between the acuteness of time’s impact upon the have-nots and the dullness of its impact on the haves. But, whether rich or poor, you will inevitably be afflicted by monotony. Potential haves, you’ll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves. Accordingly, you’ll try to devise ways of escape. Apart from the self-gratifying gadgets I mentioned before, you may take up changing your job, residence, company, country, climate; you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis.
In fact, you may lump all these together, and for a while that may work. Until the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amidst a new family and a different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, with a heap of bills from your travel agent and your shrink, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window. You’ll put on your loafers only to discover that they’re lacking bootstraps by which to lift yourself up from what you recognize. Depending on your temperament and your age, you will either panic or resign yourself to the familiarity of the sensation, or else you’ll go through the rigmarole of change once more. Neurosis and depression will enter your lexicon; pills, your medicine cabinet.
Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorized onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.
There is yet another way out of boredom, however. Not a better one, perhaps, from your point of view, and not necessarily secure, but straight and inexpensive. When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it teaches you the most valuable lesson of your life: the lesson of your utter insignificance. It is valuable to you, as well as to those you are to rub shoulders with. “You are finite,” time tells you in the voice of boredom, “and whatever you do is, from my point of view, futile.” As music to your ears, this, of course, may not count; yet the sense of futility, of the limited significance of even your best, most ardent actions, is better than the illusion of their consequences and the attendant self-aggrandizement.
For boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility. The former, it must be noted, breeds the latter. The more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become to your likes, to the dust aswirl in a sunbeam or already immobile atop your table.
If it takes will-paralyzing boredom to bring your insignificance home, then hail the boredom. You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet infinity is not terribly lively, not terribly emotional. Your boredom, at least, tells you that much. And the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joy, fears, compassion.
What’s good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of your own, of everything else’s existence, is that it is not a deception. Try to embrace, or let yourself be embraced by, boredom and anguish, which are larger than you anyhow. No doubt you’ll find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure it as long as you can, and then some more. Above all, don’t think you’ve goofed somewhere along the line, don’t try to retrace your steps to correct the error. No, as W. H. Auden said, “Believe your pain.” This awful bear hug is no mistake. Nothing that disturbs you ever is.
My dear Telemachus, The Trojan War is over now; I don’t recall who won it. The Greeks, no doubt, for only they would leave so many dead so far from their own homeland. But still, my homeward way has proved too long. While we were wasting time there, old Poseidon, it almost seems, stretched and extended space.
I don’t know where I am or what this place can be. It would appear some filthy island, with bushes, buildings, and great grunting pigs. A garden choked with weeds; some queen or other. Grass and huge stones … Telemachus, my son! To a wanderer the faces of all islands resemble one another. And the mind trips, numbering waves; eyes, sore from sea horizons, run; and the flesh of water stuffs the ears. I can’t remember how the war came out; even how old you are—I can’t remember.
Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong. Only the gods know if we’ll see each other again. You’ve long since ceased to be that babe before whom I reined in the plowing bullocks. Had it not been for Palamedes’ trick we two would still be living in one household. But maybe he was right; away from me you are quite safe from all Oedipal passions, and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.
This talk was delivered at the opening of the first book fair in Turin, Italy, on May 18, 1988.
THE idea of a book fair in the city where, a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche lost his mind has, in its own turn, a nice ring of madness - a Mobius ring to be precise (commonly known as a vicious circle), for several stalls in this book fair are occupied by the complete or selected works of this great German. On the whole, infinity is a fairly palpable aspect of this business of publishing, if only because it extends a dead author's existence beyond the limits he envisioned, or provides a living author with a future he cannot measure. In other words, this business deals with the future which we all prefer to regard as unending.
On the whole, books are indeed less finite than ourselves. Even the worst among them outlast their authors - mainly because they occupy a smaller amount of physical space than those who penned them. Often they sit on the shelves absorbing dust long after the writer himself has turned into a handful of dust. Yet even this form of the future is better than the memory of a few surviving relatives or friends on which one cannot rely, and often it is precisely the appetite for this posthumous dimension which sets one's pen in motion.
So as we toss and turn these rectangular objects in our hands - those in octavo, in quarto, in duodecimo, etc., etc. - we won't be terribly amiss if we surmise that we fondle in our hands, as it were, the actual or potential urns with someone's rustling ashes. In a manner of speaking, libraries (private or public) and book stores are cemeteries; so are book fairs. After all, what goes into writing a book - be that a novel, a philosophical treatise, a collection of poems, a biography or a thriller - is, ultimately, a man's only life: good or bad, but always finite. Whoever it was who said that to philosophize is an exercise in dying was right in more ways than one, for by writing a book nobody gets younger.
Nor does one become any younger by reading it. Since that is so, our natural preference should be for good books. The paradox, however, lies in the fact that in literature, as nearly everywhere, ''good'' is not an autonomous category: it is defined by its distinction from ''bad.'' What's more, in order to write a good book, a writer must read a great deal of trash - otherwise, he won't be able to develop the necessary criteria. That's what may constitute bad literature's best defense at the Last Judgment; that's also the raison d'etre of these proceedings.
YET since we are all moribund and since reading books is time-consuming, we must devise a system that allows us a semblance of economy. Of course there is no denying the possible pleasure of holing up with a fat, slow-moving, mediocre novel; still, we all know that we can indulge ourselves in that fashion only so much. In the end, we read not for reading's sake, but to learn. Hence the need for concision, condensation, fusion - for the works that bring the human predicament, in all its diversity, into its sharpest possible focus; in other words, the need for a short cut. Hence, too - as a byproduct of our suspicion that such short cuts exist (and they do exist, but about that later) - the need for some compass in the ocean of available literature.
The role of that compass, of course, is eagerly played by literary criticism, by reviewers. Alas, its needle oscillates wildly. What is North for some is the South (South America, to be precise) for others; the same goes in an even wilder degree for East and West. The trouble with a reviewer is (minimum) threefold: (A) he can be a hack, and as ignorant as ourselves, (B) he can have strong predilections for a certain kind of writing, or simply be on the take with the publishing industry, and (C) if he is a writer of talent, he will turn his review-writing into an independent art form - Jorge Luis Borges is a case in point - and you may end up by reading reviews rather than the books themselves.
In any case, you find yourselves adrift in the ocean, with pages and pages rustling in every direction, clinging to a raft of whose ability to stay afloat you are not so sure. The alternative therefore would be to develop your own taste, to build your own compass, to familiarize yourself, as it were, with particular stars and constellations - dim or bright but always remote. This, however, takes a hell of a lot of time, and you may easily find yourself old and gray, heading for the exit with a lousy volume under your arm. Another alternative - or perhaps just a part of the same - is to rely on hearsay; a friend's advice, a reference caught in a text that you happen to like. Although not institutionalized in any fashion (which wouldn't be such a bad idea), this kind of procedure is familiar to all of us from a tender age. Yet this too proves to be poor insurance, for the ocean of available literature swells and widens constantly.
So where is terra firma, even though it may be but an uninhabitable island? Where is our good man Friday, let alone a Cheetah?
Before I come up with my suggestion - nay! with what I perceive as the only solution for developing sound taste in literature, I'd like to say a few words about this solution's source, i.e., about my humble self. I'd like to do it not because of my personal vanity, but because I believe that the value of an idea is related to the context from which it emerges. Indeed, had I been a publisher, I'd be putting on my books' covers not only their authors' names but also the exact age at which they composed this or that work, in order to enable their readers to decide whether they care to reckon with the information or the views contained in a book written by a man so much younger - or, for that matter, so much older - than they are themselves.
THE source of the suggestion to come belongs to the category of people (alas, I can no longer use the term ''generation,'' which implies a certain sense of mass and unity) for whom literature has always been a matter of some hundred names; to the people whose social graces would make Robinson Crusoe or even Tarzan wince: to those who feel awkward at large gatherings, do not dance at parties, tend to find metaphysical excuses for adultery and are finicky about discussing politics. Such people normally dislike themselves far more than their detractors dislike them. Such people still prefer alcohol and tobacco to heroin or marijuana - such people are those whom, in W. H. Auden's words, ''one will not find on the barricades and who never shoot themselves or their lovers.'' If such people however occasionally find themselves swimming in their blood on the floor of prison cells or speaking from a platform, it is because they rebel against (or, more precisely, object to) - not some particular injustice - but the order of the world as a whole. They have no illusions about the objectivity of the views they put forth; on the contrary, they insist on their unpardonable subjectivity right from the threshold.
They act in this fashion, however, not for the purpose of shielding themselves from possible attack: as a rule, they are fully aware of the vulnerability pertinent to their views and the positions they defend. Yet - taking the stance somewhat opposite to Darwinian - they consider vulnerability the primary trait of living matter; they are interested in the survival of the defeatist. This, I must add, has less to do with masochistic tendencies, nowadays attributed to almost every man of letters, than with their instinctive, often firsthand knowledge that extreme subjectivity, prejudice and indeed idiosyncrasy are what helps art to avoid cliche. And the resistance to cliche is what distinguishes art from life.
Now that you know the background of what I am about to say, I may just as well say it. The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry. If you think that I am speaking out of professional partisanship, that I am trying to advance my own guild interests, you are badly mistaken. For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation - especially one on paper.
The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.
Please, don't get me wrong: I am not trying to debunk prose. The truth of the matter is that poetry simply happens to be older than prose and thus has covered a greater distance. Literature started with poetry, with the song of a nomad that predates the scribblings of a settler. And although I have compared somewhere the difference between poetry and prose to that between the air force and the infantry, the suggestion that I make now has nothing to do with either hierarchy or the anthropological origins of literature. All I am trying to do is to be practical and spare your eyesight and brain cells a lot of useless printed matter. Poetry, one might say, has been invented for just this purpose - for it is synonymous with economy. What one should do, therefore, is repeat, albeit in miniature, the process that took place in our civilization in the course of two millennia. It is easier than you might think, for the body of poetry is far less voluminous than that of prose. What's more, if you are concerned mainly with contemporary literature, then your job is indeed a piece of cake. All you have to do is to arm yourselves for a couple of months with the works of poets in your mother tongue, preferably from the first half of this century. I suppose you'll end up with a dozen rather slim books, and by the end of the summer you -that is, your literary taste - will be in great shape.
IF your mother tongue is English, I may recommend to you Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. If the language is German, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georg Trakl, Peter Huchel, Ingeborg Bachmann and Gottfried Benn. If it is Spanish, Antonio Machado, Federico Garcia Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Juan Ramon Jimenez and Octavio Paz will do. If the language is Polish - or if you know Polish (which would be to your great advantage, because the most extraordinary poetry of this century is written in that language) - I'd like to mention to you the names of Leopold Staff, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wieslawa Szymborska. If it is French, then of course Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Pierre Reverdy, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Francis Jammes, Andre Frenaud some of Eluard, a bit of Aragon, Victor Segalen, and Henri Michaux. If it is Greek, then you should read Constantine Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos. If it is Dutch, then your must is Martinus Nijhoff, particularly his stunning ''Awater.'' If it is Portuguese, you should try Fernando Pessoa and perhaps Carlos Drummond de Andrade. If the language is Swedish, read Gunnar Ekelof, Harry Martinson, Werner Aspenstrom, Tomas Transtromer. If it is Russian, it should be, to say the least, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Vladislav Khodasevich, Viktor Khlebnikov, Nikolai Kluyev, Nikolai Zabolotsky. If it is Italian, I don't presume to submit any name to this audience, and if I still mention Quasimodo, Saba, Ungaretti and Montale, it is simply because I have long wanted to acknowledge my personal, private gratitude and debt to these four great poets whose lines influenced my own life rather crucially, and I am glad to do so while standing on Italian soil.
If after going through the works of any of these, you would drop a book of prose picked from the shelf, it won't be your fault. If you'd continue to read it, that will be to the author's credit; that will mean that this author has indeed something to add to the truth about our existence as it was known to these few poets just mentioned; that would prove at least that this author is not redundant, that his language has an independent energy or grace. Or else, that would mean that reading is your incurable addiction. As addictions go, this is not the worst one.
Let me draw a caricature here, for caricatures accentuate the essential. In this caricature I see a reader whose both hands are occupied with holding open books. In the left, he holds a collection of poems, in the right, a volume of prose. Let's see which he drops first. Of course, he may fill both his palms with prose volumes, but that will leave him with self-negating criteria. And of course he may also ask what distinguishes good poetry from bad, and where is his guarantee that what he holds in his left hand is indeed worth bothering with?
WELL, for one thing what he holds in his left hand will be, in all likelihood, lighter than what he holds in the right. Secondly, poetry, as Montale once put it, is an incurably semantic art, and the chances for charlatanism in it are extremely low. By the third line a reader will know what sort of thing he holds in his left hand, for poetry makes sense fast and the quality of language in it makes itself felt immediately. After three lines he may take a glance at what he has in the right.
This is, as I told you, a caricature. At the same time, I believe, this might be the posture many of you will unwittingly assume at this book fair. Make sure, at least, that the books in your hands belong to different genres of literature. Now, this shifting eyes from left to right is of course a maddening enterprise; still, there are no horses on the streets of Torino any longer, and the sight of a cabby flogging his animal won't aggravate the state you will be in leaving these premises. Besides, a hundred years hence, nobody's insanity will matter much to the multitudes whose number will exceed by far the total of little black letters in all the books at this book fair put together. So you may as well try the little trick I've just suggested. Like the proverbial proletariat, you stand to lose nothing; what you may gain are new associative chains.
Domingo à noite é talvez o momento ideal da semana para fazer um post sobre o aborrecimento, a chatice, o tédio. Em particular depois de um fim de semana excelente, de dias e noites plenos de sorriso. Com a noite a acentuar a inevitabilidade da segunda-feira (aquela coisa que o Garfield odeia), os sunday night blues batem com mais força.
É por isso a altura perfeita para falar de um textinho genial do Joseph Brodsky que está aqui. É um excerto de uma adaptação de um commencement address de uma universidade americana (Dartmouth) - pausa para aconselhar outros dois, um de Steve Jobs em Stanford e outro de Seth McFarlane em Harvard. Vão ver que vale a pena. Tudo isto me lembra também o "Into The Wild" e um poema de Sharon Olds, mas adiante.
Diz o genial senhor Brodsky: "you'll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves. Accordingly, you'll try to devise ways of escape. (...) you may take up changing your job, residence, company, country, climate; you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis."
E mais adiante: "When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface."
Não me apetece dizer mais nada, depois de ler isto, mas também me lembrei de uma música, o "Rock Bottom Riser", de Smog, porque sempre achei que era uma música sobre isto, bater no fundo e voltar à superfície. É este vídeo aqui abaixo.