Wednesday, February 04, 2009

`This Knot Intrinsicate'

A rabbi among my readers writes:

“Perhaps everyone knows it who cares for [Isaac] Babel, but I recall being stunned by its sad beauty: the line of self-description that opens Lionel Trilling's essay on Babel: `I was a boy with spectacles on my nose and autumn in my heart.’”

The well-known line is often misquoted, yanked from context and put in Babel’s mouth. In fact, the words are spoken by a rabbi in “How Things Were Done in Odessa,” a story in the Benya Krik cycle. Reb Arye-Leib addresses the narrator, Babel’s stand-in. The boy has been praising Benya Krik the gangster for his ruthless rise to eminence in the city. The two are seated, appropriately, on a cemetery wall. The rabbi says (in Peter Constantine’s translation):

“Why him? Why not the others, you want to know? Well then, forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart. Forget that you pick fights from behind your desk and stutter when you are out in the world! Imagine for a moment that you pick fights in town squares and stutter only among papers. You are a tiger, you are a lion, you are a cat. You can spend the night with a Russian woman, and the Russian woman will be satisfied by you. You are twenty-five years old. If the sky and the earth had rings attached to them, you would grab these rings and pulls the sky down to the earth. And your papa is the carter Mendel Krik. What does a papa like him think about? All he thinks about is downing a nice shot of vodka, slugging someone in their ugly mug, and about his horses – nothing else. You want to live, but he makes you die twenty times a day. What would you have done if you were in Benya Krik’s shoes? You wouldn’t have done a thing! But he did. Because he is the King, while you only thumb your nose at people when their back is turned.”

What Babel gives us is a rabbi admiring the thuggery of a Jewish gangster, rationalizing his charismatic violence. As usual with Babel, the language, especially dialogue, is extravagant and so is the psychology. He creates small dense knots of significance and defies us to untie them. He deals not in obscurity but lifelike, irresolvable complexity. I’m reminded of the queen’s final speech in Antony and Cleopatra, as she clutches the asp to her breast:

“With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch.”

In the scene from “How Things Were Done in Odessa,” we see refracted images of Babel in both the rabbi and the boy. The glasses-and-autumn business is the rabbi’s putdown of the boy, Babel’s putdown of Babel. When I shared this reading with my reader the rabbi, he wrote back:

“My memories of Babel are from high school (still have the green covered [Walter] Morison translation with Trilling’s intro) though I haven’t read him in years. I remembered the ambivalence that touched me as an ambivalent Jewish teenager. I’d never be a football player, or a Cossack and part of me therefore devalued the physicality, but I knew as he did, there was something splendid about it.”

That’s the allure of Babel, his “knot intrinsicate.” That’s why he rode with the Cossacks and was thrilled and sickened by what he experienced. In his introduction, Trilling cites Hazlitt’s lecture on Coriolanus: “The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power.” This is inarguably true in Coriolanus and other plays among the histories and tragedies, and is partially true in Babel’s stories, though its general applicability is dubious. Trilling doesn’t quote Hazlitt’s subsequent sentences:

“The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. The understanding is a dividing and measuring faculty: it judges of things, not according to their immediate impression on the mind, but according to their relations to one another.”

Clearly, Babel was an adept of the imagination, but understanding, in Hazlitt’s sense, is never entirely absent from his makeup. The moral centers in his stories are seldom slavishly admiring of violence, though his Cossacks and gangsters are. His narrators feel an ambivalent pull when it comes to raw power. Consider a scene from “Dolgushov’s Death” in Red Cavalry. One of the Cossacks, Dolgushov the telephonist, has been wounded and is propped against a tree (in Constantine’s translation):

“Without lowering his eyes from me, he carefully lifted his shirt. His stomach was torn open, his intestines spilling to his knees, and we could see his heart beating.”

Dolgushov wants his comrades to kill him, to “waste a bullet” on him, before the Poles arrive and “have fun kicking him around.” He tells the narrator, the war correspondent Kiril Lyutov, to write a letter to his mother explaining the “where, what, why” of his death. Lyutov refuses and Dolgushov says, “Then run, you bastard!”

Afonka Bida, the Cossack whom Lyutov considers a friend, takes papers from the wounded man and shoots him in the mouth. Lyutov, with a “pitiful smile,” tells Afonka he could never shoot a man. Afonka replies:

“`Get lost, or I’ll shoot you!’ he said to me, his face turning white. `You spectacled idiots have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse!’”

The glasses again, an emblem to the Cossack of cowardice, weakness, culture, education, perhaps Jewishness. Lyutov rides away, expecting to be shot in the back by Afonka. Babel, once a devoted reader of Maupassant, later lost his respect for his putative master. Maupassant, he said, “lacked heart.”

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