Saturday, June 19, 2021

'His Head Like a Fist Rooted in His Abdomen'

We all know little garden-variety dictators. Whether toddlers or octogenarians, they must have their way. Their talk is reduced to orders and complaints. They are blustering bullies or passive-aggressive manipulators. Other people are mere extensions of themselves, like tools. All are unburdened with a sense of humor. The worst thing you can do is laugh at them, as Chaplin laughed at Hitler in The GreatDictator. Sometimes little dictators become big dictators. Robert Conquest lampoons one of them in a poem from the nineteen-sixties, “Dictator” (Collected Poems, 2020): 

“His head like a fist rooted in his abdomen;

His lips like a leather loudspeaker, never kissed;

Hatred simmering in his brain-pan; fingers of mist

Touch the sights of that shifting eye. – A pen


“Of mechanical lightning scrabbles a halo around

The muscle-bound solidity of this saint.

All the fluids of his body are irritant.

All its apertures emit prophetic sound.


“Up on the balcony he clangs and glistens,

Freezing the worship at a pole of hate

To serve that blizzard’s huge austerities.


“But a warmer sound starts softly, crackle and fizz:

Fibres of fear that smoulder in his heart.


“It is to this that everybody listens.”


Conquest’s dictator is a cartoon, a pastiche of grotesque and ridiculous qualities. The first line is especially good. “Dictator” recalls Osip Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,” written in late 1933 and privately recited by the poet. One of his listeners reported him to the police. Mandelstam was arrested the following spring and sentenced to internal exile. His Stalin, too, is a dangerous cartoon:     


“But whenever there’s a snatch of talk

it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,


“the ten thick worms his fingers,

his words like measures of weight,


“the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,

the glitter of his boot-rims.”


In his introduction to Stalin: Breaker of Nations (1991), a biography he wrote as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Conquest writes:


“Few men in history have had such long and devastating effects--and not only on their own countries but on the world as a whole. For two generations, Stalin’s heritage has lain heavy on the chests of a dozen nations, and the threat of it has loomed over all the others, in the fearful possibility of nuclear war. Stalin, to whom the aura of death clings so strongly, is himself only now ceasing to live on in the system he created. When he died in 1953 he left a monster whose own death throes are not yet over, more than a generation later.”

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