Saturday, January 27, 2018

`O Profit-Seeker, O Greedy Thief'

“The dead cannot return, and nothing is left us here but languishment and grief.”

Long life assures a long mourning. Deaths of family and friends accumulate. One even knows retroactive grief. We admire the eminent dead, form bonds of loyalty and affection with strangers gone long before our time, and their absence pains us. It’s not rational but what about life and death is? The author of the grim observation above is Dr. Johnson, writing on this date, Jan. 27, in 1759, in The Idler #41. By then, Johnson’s wife and parents were dead, as were friends, and his mourning never ceased. Futilely, he sought consolation in faith and friendship. In The Idler essay he taxonimizes death’s causes: “There are evils which happen out of the common course of nature, against which it is no reproach not to be provided.”

That would describe the death of Isaac Babel on this date in 1940. The cause was the NKVD’s trademark method of execution: a bullet to the back of the head, in the basement of the Lubyanka in Moscow. Think of the scene: the deafening explosion, the bare swinging bulb, the stink of blood and cordite, the slickened floor and walls – and a great writer was dead. Andrei Sinyavsky writes of Babel in A Voice from the Chorus (trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward, 1976):

“. . . his biography is that not of a living person, but of one seconded to life (his job of clerk in the Red Cavalry suited him admirably), who could fit into any surroundings or situation and look at it without prejudice. He was a spy in the service of literature who ferreted out wonders in everyday existence, a declasse secret agent who once rented a room in the house of a `finger man’ in order to write his Odessa Stories.”

Babel’s Red Cavalry is a death-haunted book set during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-21. “The Cemetery of Kozin” closes with these words:

“O death, O profit-seeker, O greedy thief, why have you not spared us, even once?”

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