Tuesday, January 02, 2018

`The Poetry of Life if There's No Prose Left'

In a letter to Dana Gioia written on this date, Jan. 2, in 1996, Anthony Hecht quotes a passage from “Enemies,” an 1887 story by Chekhov:

“The egoism of the unhappy was conspicuous in both. The unhappy are egoistic, spiteful, unjust, cruel, and less capable of understanding each other than fools. Unhappiness does not bring people together but draws them apart, and even where one would fancy people should be united by the similarity of their sorrow, far more injustice and cruelty is generated than in comparatively placid surroundings.”

I cite the Constance Garnett translation. Hecht uses another. Gioia had sent him a copy of a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Hecht doesn’t mention it in the letter, but as a member of the U.S. 97th Infantry Division, he was among the troops in April 1945 who liberated the extermination and slave-labor camp at Flossenburg, an annex of Buchenwald, where 500 prisoners a day were dying of typhus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, unknown to Hecht at the time, had been hanged there for “antiwar activity” a few days earlier. (His final words, as the executioners took him away: “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”) Hecht answers Gioia’s Bonhoeffer passage with the Chekhov, and mentions that two elderly friends of his are “unable, like most of the rest of us, to put aside their own troubles, largely because they can foresee no end to them.”

Bonhoeffer had complained about how his fellow prisoners obsessively talked about themselves, and how such “gossip” demeans them. Seldom, when complaining mindlessly and inflicting our supposed troubles on others, do we possess much dignity or self-respect. We become petty, childish and contemptible. Hecht is honest enough to acknowledge he is not immune to such behavior:

“I fear that I, too, would become fretful and self-centered under such circumstances. For most of my life I flattered myself that the kind of life I had chosen (or that had somehow been allotted to me, i.e., the life of the mind) would allow me to enjoy even a solitary existence; and that the writing as well as the reading of books could serve for a sufficient, if not the richest and most varied, existence.”

At age seventy-two, witnessing the suffering of his two friends, both “devoted to literature,” he has come to realize his earlier naivete. On this date, Jan. 2, in 1889, Chekhov had written a letter to his oldest brother, Alexander, recriminating him for the way he treated his children, servants and common-law wife. Alexander also worked as a fiction writer, journalist and editor, but was forever bitter and aggrieved, a choice of behavior aggravated by alcoholism. Chekhov doesn’t use the word but tells his brother he ought to behave like a gentleman. He writes, in part (Letters of Anton Chekhov, trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973):

“You think of decency and good breeding as prejudices, but you have to draw the line somewhere—at feminine frailty perhaps, or the children, or the poetry of life if there’s no prose left.”

No comments: