On Grief and Reason

by Joseph Brodsky
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1510

Brilliant, imperious, willful, Joseph Brodsky continued to smoke—never mind what the doctors said. Having been under the knife several times, he knew he could die at any minute, and that awareness pervades his later work. Meanwhile, he preferred to live as he always had. There was no great shock, then, when his fatal heart attack was reported not long after the publication of this volume of essays: not surprise but regret that Brodsky’s distinctive voice had been stilled.

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Later in the same year, a new collection of poems appeared as well: So Forth (reviewed in this volume). The conjunction raises in sharp relief the question of Brodsky the (American) English writer, for while Brodsky in Russian was a Nobel Prize- winning poet—and while he continued, in America, to promote poetry, poetry, poetry over all else with a messianic fervor—Brodsky in English was a superb essayist but merely an eccentric poet.

Not that there is no connection between the sometimes embarrassingly bad poetry and the essays collected here. Again, the word “willful” comes to mind. Brodsky’s strength of will and his fearless epigrammatic intelligence fairly shine forth in On Grief and Reason, as they did in his earlier collection of essays, Less Than One (1986), but also evident in both collections is a penchant for dubious pronouncements, obiter dicta issued with great self-indulgence. No one could conscientiously read Brodsky’s essays without frequent howls of protest or murmurs of mystification—but what a feast they make.

On Grief and Reason is a splendid miscellany. The earliest piece (though not first in the book), “After a Journey,” a darkly, sometimes crassly comic narrative of a trip to Brazil “in the name of cultural exchange,” dates to 1978, but with the exception of that essay, the pieces in this volume span the period from 1986 to 1995. Included here is Brodsky’s 1987 Nobel Lecture, “Uncommon Visage,” and his brief Nobel acceptance speech. There are other occasional pieces, such as the 1993 “Letter to a President,” first published in The New York Review of Books in response to a lecture by Vaclav Havel, and the 1991 address, “An Immodest Proposal,” delivered at the Library of Congress during Brodsky’s tenure as poet laureate. (The “immodest proposal” was to print fifty million copies of an anthology of American poetry, priced at two dollars a copy.)

Brodsky was an outstanding teacher, as was attested by the lecture on W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” in Less Than One. There is another virtuoso performance in On Grief and Reason: “Wooing the Inanimate,” a lecture on four poems by Thomas Hardy, given to students in Brodsky’s course “Subject Matter in Lyric Poetry” at Mount Holyoke College in 1994 (one envies his lucky students). In addition to Hardy, the volume includes Brodsky’s extended readings of Robert Frost (the title essay) and Rainer Maria Rilke (“Ninety Years Later”). Brodsky’s classical affiliations are evident in essays on Marcus Aurelius and Horace, while his gift for friendship is manifest in the wonderfully affectionate essay that concludes the book, “In Memory of Stephen Spender.”

It would be misleading, though, not to acknowledge that a prevailing sourness runs through this collection, as it does through much of Brodsky’s poetry after his early work. His characteristic pose is that of a man without illusions, immensely cynical and knowing, undercutting sentiment (except when writing about certain friends—as in the case of Spender, noted above, and Auden above all—and when acting as an apostle for poetry).

That tone is very much on display in the evocative autobiographical piece that opens the volume, “Spoils of War,” which—with the two similar essays in Less Than One (the title essay and “In a Room and a Half”)—suggests what Brodsky could have done had he undertaken a full-fledged memoir. Ranging from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, “The Spoils of War” recalls Brodsky’s boyhood and youth in Leningrad through a series of impressionistic sketches connected by the theme of “the West.”

Here, as he often does, Brodsky takes a cliché—in this case, the love affair between postwar Soviet youth and popular American culture—and revivifies it while simultaneously turning it inside out. So he observes that “the greatest spoils of war were, of course, films!” These were mostly prewar Hollywood productions, shown with subtitles and no credits and preceded by a message on the screen: “THIS FILM WAS CAPTURED AS A MILITARY TROPHY IN THE COURSE OF THE GREAT WAR FOR OUR MOTHERLAND.” The absence of credits, Brodsky says, actually enhanced the impact of the films, imparting to them “the anonymity of folklore.” (Only much later did he learn the names of Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Tyrone Power, and others who starred in those “trophy films.”)

Yet it was subversive folklore: “The Tarzan series alone, I daresay, did more for de-Stalinization than all of Khrushchev’s speeches at the Twentieth Part Congress and later.” The very spirit of those films was alien to the “communal, collective-ordered sensibility” of Soviet society:

One should take into account our latitudes, our buttoned-up, rigid, inhibited, winter-minded standards of public and private conduct, in order to appreciate the impact of a long-haired naked loner pursuing a blonde through the thick of a tropical rain forest with his chimpanzee version of Sancho Panza and lianas as means of transportation.

This follows the script, so to speak, as do Brodsky’s recollections of the passion for jazz that he shared with many of his Russian contemporaries.

Yet he complicates the texture of this memoir in several ways. There is, for example, his odd insistence that the “great love of his youth” was an actress and singer named Zarah Leander, apparently a favorite of Adolf Hitler. It is not that readers disbelieve Brodsky when he recalls his strong response to Leander in a film in which she played Mary, Queen of Scots, but he leans too heavily on what might be called the antisentimental angle (this passion he shared with Hitler, and so on). This is a typical Brodsky move.

Thus readers are prepared for the conclusion, where Brodsky recalls the “roar” of an American-made washing-machine (into which he had tossed his “first blue jeans”) and the “joy of recognition” it produced “in the entire queue” at the laundromat:

we recognized something in the West, in the civilization, as our own; perhaps even more so there than at home. What’s more, it turned out that we were prepared to pay for that sentiment, and quite dearly—with the rest of our lives. Which is a lot, of course. But anything less than that would be plain whoring. Not to mention that, in those days, the rest of our lives was all we had.

Here Brodsky’s method is laid out for us, as it were. The blue jeans are the cliché, the roar of the machine the fresh detail that gives life—and then a sudden shift of context that takes the reader entirely by surprise. How are we to read this conclusion? It is clearly antiheroic—we are a long way from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the “dissident movement”—yet, like many an antiheroic film or book, it seems to carry its own charge of romanticism. We watched Tarzan and Errol Flynn, we listened to Ella Fitzgerald, we washed our jeans in American machines—and we ended up in Siberia.

One thing that is not ambiguous in “The Spoils of War”—or any other piece in the book—is Brodsky’s attitude toward the Soviet state, which was undiluted contempt. Back when it was still fashionable for American intellectuals to deplore Ronald Reagan’s characterization of communism’s “evil empire,” Brodsky earned the enmity of many among the literati. This led to the misapprehension, in some quarters, that he was “conservative.” This was as far off the mark as the rumor that Brodsky had converted to Christianity. In some earlier works he did seem, cryptically, to acknowledge the reality of God. That note is missing from this volume.

Indeed, insofar as this collection has a motto, it is this (from “Profile of Clio,” a lecture on history and historians; the concluding clause is repeated almost verbatim in the lecture on Hardy): “The truth about things, should it exist, is likely to have a very dark side. Given the humans’ status as newcomers, i.e., given the world’s precedence, the truth about things is bound to be inhuman.” That is not quite idiomatic (“the humans’”), and not entirely clear, but Brodsky’s role is hardly in doubt: He is going to tell us the grim truth, whether we like it or not.

Sources for Further Study

The Antioch Review. LIV, Spring, 1996, p. 247.

Chicago Tribune. February 11, 1996, XIV, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXII, February 12, 1996, p. 32.

The New Republic. CCXIV, March 4, 1996, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, February 1, 1996, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 14, 1996, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, October 2, 1995, p. 64.

The Sewanee Review. CIV, April, 1996, p. 295.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 11, 1996, p. 13.

World Literature Today. LXX, Spring, 1996, p. 479.

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