Wednesday, June 22, 2016

`The Little Moment of Good Humor was Over'

For a few, suffering and loss bring wisdom, often cold wisdom, which offers only cold comfort to those who suffer. The twentieth century was a vast machine for destroying human beings, and the twenty-first doesn't look like much of an improvement. Here is an anecdote told by Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980) in the first volume of her memoirs, Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970):

“Not long ago, as I was traveling in an overcrowded bus, an old woman pushed up against me and I found my arm was bearing the whole weight of her body. `That must be killing you,’ she said suddenly. `No,’ I replied, `we’re as tough as the devil.’ `As tough as the devil?’ she said, and laughed. Somebody nearby also laughingly repeated the phrase, and soon the whole bus was saying it after us. But then the bus stopped and everybody started to push toward the exit, jostling each other in the usual way. The little moment of good humor was over.”

Some would be offended by the old woman’s clumsiness and make a scene. Mandelstam had endured too much – her husband’s murder, decades of internal exile in the Soviet Union -- to indulge such sensitivities. And who is the referent to the “we” in “we’re as tough as the devil”? Human beings? Russians? Survivors of communism? Such moments of unprompted camaraderie are rare and fleeting.

Mandelstam was no paragon of forgiveness and saintly humility. Joseph Brodsky writes in his memoir, collected in Less Than One: Selected Essays (1986): “She was terribly opinionated, categorical, cranky, disagreeable, idiosyncratic; many of her ideas were half-baked or developed on the basis of hearsay.” My impression of Mandelstam, based largely on Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (1973), was of a fearless woman who stood up to an evil empire. That was not always the case, says Carl R. Proffer in his essay devoted to her in The Widows of Russia and Other Writings (Ardis, 1987):

“Among N.M.’s specific fears was one that we found paradoxical, although she was not the only intellectual who expressed it. She was afraid of the people, the narod. The first time she said this, I asked her what she meant. She just pushed the curtain open, pointed outside and said, `There, them.’ She meant the ordinary people of Russia. All she had suffered through made her think that given the right signal, the bloodlust of the people could be turned loose again, and any passerby might be capable of destroying her  and those like her—Jewish and intellectual.”

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