Sunday, October 29, 2017

`A Little Pinch of Salt'

Reading Don Colacho (Nicolás Gómez Dávila) again, I came upon this: “Revolutions bequeath to literature only the laments of their victims and the invectives of their enemies.” Especially the laments. Much of the twentieth century’s lasting contribution to world literature was written by victims and survivors of revolution. Only by reading Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam, Aleksander Wat and Zbigniew Herbert, could a visitor from an unlikely future hope to understand our time.    
Only from them could they learn the lessons taught by meddlesome utopians. Chief among the witness-instructors is perhaps Nadezhda Mandelstam, the murdered poet’s widow. The final pages of her second memoir, Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974), are a contribution to wisdom literature, to be shelved with Isaiah, Marcus Aurelius and Dr. Johnson:

“Everything we have been through here was the result of succumbing to the temptations of our era—to which no one is immune who has still to be struck down by the disease of putting his faith in force and retribution. Vengeance and envy are the prime motives of human behavior.”

Mandelstam’s sense of irony is bitter, unrelenting and earned. She leaves us feeling naïve and credulous: “No one should lightly dismiss our experience, as complacent foreigners do, cherishing the hope that within them—who are so clever and cultured—things will be different.” No one, she naggingly reminds us, is immune to the seductions of evil. The final paragraph of Chap. 41, “The Years of Silence,” ought to be read in full:

“This book, which I have now nearly finished, may never see the light of day. There is nothing easier than to destroy a book, unless it already circulates in samizdat or has found it ways into print (as used to happen to books in the Gutenberg period of Russian history). But even if it is destroyed, it may, perhaps, not have been entirely in vain. Before being consigned to the flames, it will be read by those whose expert task it is to destroy books, to eradicate words, to stamp out thought. They will understand none of it, but perhaps somewhere in the recesses of their strange minds the idea will stick that this crazy old woman fears nothing and despises force. It will be something if they understand that much. The thought of it will be like a little pinch of salt to sprinkle on their privileged rations, or a garnishing to whet their appetite for that other literature designed to edify and instruct people of their kind, functionaries to whom nothing matters, neither life, nor man, nor the earth, nor anything—dimmed by their breath—that lights our way. Heaven help them. But will they really succeed in their task of universal destruction?”

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