Sunday, December 30, 2018

'To Remind People What It Means to Be Human'

The most exclusive class of writers are those against whom we measure not only other writers but reality itself. Their work is a gauge of truth, and we think first of Dante, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. I’ll let the reader extend his own list, except to add an additional name: Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam. More than the widow of a poet murdered by Stalin, she was, in Guy Davenport’s plain and precise formulation, “a very great writer.” She was a witness and had nothing to lose. Perhaps the most famous words she wrote are found in Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970): “If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.” In Chap. 41, “The Years of Silence,” in Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974) she writes:

“. . . [My] conviction that killers are impervious to any kind of argument or persuasion: debate with them is pointless and nothing whatsoever has any effect on them. Words and ideas do not penetrate to their minds, but fill them with repulsion and fear—this indeed is our only weapon. Yet the killers are only strong when they are supported and admired for their exploits by ordinary people, as we have seen in the first half of our century. Ordinary people, whether the inert and conservative masses, or the rampaging mobs of a popular revolution—brought to a white heat of fury by the brutishness of former rulers intent on preserving the status quo—are won over only initially by new modes of explaining the world.”

Later in the same paragraph she writes:

“It was not a ‘cult of personality’ we had here, as the newspapers tell us, but a cult of force—even though, in the end, force itself is nothing but an absurdity, a farce, a ludicrous manifestation of impotence. Eventually we are left with only naked terror before the powers of evil. All that matters now is to overcome this terror, to fight for every human soul, to remind people what it means to be human, to show them that nobody has ever yet been saved by thirty pieces of silver.”

When Mandelstam died on Dec. 29, 1980 – forty-two years and two days after her husband died in a Siberian transit camp -- the KGB confiscated her body to prevent the Orthodox funeral she had requested. Only after protests by Russian artists was she permitted a decent burial.


rgfrim said...

I write only to thank you for your passionate endorsement of “ Hope Against Hope”. Reading it was for me one of the elevated moments of 2018. There should be a physical Pantheon devoted to the memories of honest witnesses who suffered like Nadezhda Mandelstam, Gustav Herling , et. al., and in didactic but beautiful prose, testified.

Thomas Parker said...

A "cult of force" indeed. As Simone Weil said, "We need first of all to have a clear conscience. Let us not think that because we are less brutal, less violent, less inhuman than our opponents we will carry the day. Brutality, violence, and inhumanity have an immense prestige that schoolbooks hide from children, that grown men do not admit, but that everyone bows before. For the opposite virtues to have as much prestige, they must be actively and constantly put into practice. Anyone who is merely incapable of being as brutal, as violent, and as inhuman as someone else, but does not practice the opposite virtues, is inferior to that person in both inner strength and prestige, and he will not hold out in such a confrontation."