On Exile, by Joseph Brodsky

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Gaza, 2023.


Commentary on the newly published book of the 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature

“When the homeland we have we don't have\ Lost through silence and renunciation\ Even the voice of the sea becomes exile\ And the light that surrounds us is like bars” (Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, “Exile”).

Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky, known as Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and died in the United States. In 1972 he was expelled from his country for defying the Russian authorities and, with the help of the poet and writer WH Auden and other intellectuals, lived in America and received US citizenship. He taught at Yale, Cambridge and Michigan. Coming from a Jewish family, he experienced a series of hardships before migrating. Nobel Prize for Literature (1987), he has a vast production: poetry, collections of essays and interviews, as well as plays.

However, here I do not intend to explore his fruitful work, but to comment on this About exile.

The succinct writing on the back cover helps to begin the endeavor: “Fate wanted Joseph Brodsky to deliver, just a few days apart, in the autumn of 1987, the two speeches brought together here, which take on a symbolic place in his work. Both are discourses about exile and exile. But here exile is a metaphysical category, before being political. This allows Joseph Brodsky to avoid, from the beginning, the exile's most attractive risk, that of placing himself on the 'banal side of virtue'. For Joseph Brodsky, literature does not serve to save the world, but is an 'extraordinary accelerator of consciousness'”. The small volume is completed with a third text, a passionate defense of poets and poetry.

“The condition called exile” (p. 9-36) was written for a conference held by Wheatland Foundation in Vienna (December, 1988). He comments that he will debate the problem of the writer in exile but, first, he mentions the case of the Spenders Turkish (“guest workers”) wandering the streets of West Germany, “not understanding or envying the reality around them” (p. 9).

He adds: “Or imagine the Vietnamese refugees in boats facing the high seas or already settled somewhere in the Australian interior. Let's imagine Mexican immigrants crawling through the ravines of Southern California, past border police, and into US territory. Or imagine the loads of Pakistanis disembarking somewhere in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, eager to work in menial jobs that the locals, with their oil wealth, don't accept doing. Let us imagine the multitudes of Ethiopians walking through the desert to Somalia (…) to escape hunger” (p. 9-10). These people, according to Joseph Brodsky, “escape from counting”, including from UN aid organizations: no one will count them. They will be called, loosely, “migration” (p. 10).

This group of people, in his opinion, makes it “much more difficult to speak honestly about the difficulties of the writer in exile” (p. 11). At the same time, he recognizes that literature “is the only form of moral security for a society, that it (…) offers the best argument against any type of collective solution that operates like a tractor – least of all because human diversity is what composes literature and is its purpose” (pp. 11-12).

Os Spenders and refugees of any lineage end up taking away the laurels of the exiled writer, as in this case they are people “fleeing from the worst to the best” (p. 13).

In the case of literate people it is different: “the truth is that it is only possible to exile oneself from tyranny in a democracy” (p. 13). As a rule, there is a transfer from a backward place to an industrially advanced society, “with the last word on individual freedom”. For an exiled writer, this is, in many ways, equivalent to returning home: “because it means getting closer to the ideals that have always served as inspiration” (p. 13).

However, in general the writer finds himself completely incapable of playing any significant role in his new society: “the democracy he arrived in offers him physical security, but makes him socially insignificant” (p. 14), and not just because of the barrier linguistics. And the lack of significance is what no writer, exiled or not, can accept.

In this sense, the situation of the exiled writer is worse than that of a Spenders or the usual refugee. “His desire for recognition leaves him dissatisfied and indifferent to his income as a teacher, speaker, editor of a small magazine or simple collaborator” (p. 14). He likes to “call the shots in the pernicious environment of his colleagues exiled” (p. 18), publishing open letters, giving statements to the press, going to conferences…

The exiled writer ends up being restricted to a small audience in the country in which he finds himself and, in order to survive symbolically, “he will continue to write about the familiar material of his past, producing, so to speak, continuations of his previous works” (p. 20). Exile sometimes ends up becoming a kind of success, it has a certain exotic tone (p. 23-24). Exile makes the writer more conservative – not so much the man, but his style (p. 27).

 “An unusual face” (p. 39-69) is the speech given in Stockholm before members of the Swedish Academy, on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1987. Joseph Brodsky begins his speech by mentioning that he finds himself “ far from their motherland”, believing that it is “better to fail in democracy than to be a martyr or the cherry on the cake in a tyranny” (p. 39). But this still causes him some discomfort, as he wishes that before him some poets he appreciates had also occupied the same space. such poets, five in number, are those “whose deeds and content matter a lot to me, because, were it not for them, I, both as a man and a writer, would have achieved much less; To put it mildly, the truth is that I wouldn’t be here today” (p. 41). These people who wrote verses were Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Robert Frost (1974-1963), Anna Akhmátova (1889-1966) and WH Auden (1907-1979).

For Joseph Brodsky, “if the State allows itself to interfere in the problems of literature, literature has the right to intervene in the problems of the State” (p. 46). This stance ended up causing him to be expelled from Russia... Forewarned, scalded cat, he warns that “the man whose profession is language is the last man who can afford to forget that” (p. 46). And more: the danger constantly surrounds those who live by manipulating words, as it is not the possibility of persecution by the State that is most fearful: “it is the possibility of finding oneself bewitched by the qualities of that same State, which, whether monstrous or progressive, are always temporary” (p. 47).

For the Russian writer, in his capacity as an interlocutor, “a book is more reliable than a friend or a lover”, because “a novel, or a poem, is not a monologue, it is a conversation between the writer and the reader”, a private conversation, “from which the rest of the world is excluded…” (p. 53-54) – novel or poem: “it is the product of a mutual solitude – of the author or the reader” (p. 54).

Controversially, he does not accept that some political leaders of the last century have their names associated with culture without paying heavy tribute to their actions as rulers: “Lenin was cultured, Stalin was cultured, as was Hitler; Mao Zedong even wrote verses. What all these men had in common, however, was that their list of victims was infinitely longer than their reading list” (p. 59).

Writing verses is “an extraordinary accelerator of consciousness, thought, understanding of the universe. Those who experience this acceleration once can no longer give up the chance to repeat this experience, falling into dependence on the process, as others do with drugs and alcohol” (p. 68).

The “Acceptance speech” (p. 71-75) was given during lunch at the Stockholm municipal headquarters – traditionally it is delivered by the Nobel Prize winner, with the presence of the King of Sweden.

Through the laureate we learn that the public that reads poetry rarely reached more than 1% of the entire population, which is why in Antiquity or the Renaissance poets orbited the courts, residences of power. “That's why nowadays they flock to universities, residences of knowledge. Your gym seems to be a cross between the two; and, if in the future (…) this 1% is maintained, it will be, without exaggeration, due to your efforts” (p. 73-74).

Joseph Brodsky concludes his speech with relative optimism, saying that he will soon cease to exist, as will anyone who is/is reading or listening to him. “But the language in which [the poems] are written and in which you read them will follow, not only because language is more durable than man, but also because more than he is capable of mutation” (p. 67) .

To write this text, I did research on the internet to check dates, titles, spellings, and I came across a phrase attributed to Brodsky that, in some way, reinforces what was said in the previous paragraph: “In the business of writing, what we accumulate is not experience, but uncertainty.”

* Afranio Catani He is a retired senior professor at the Faculty of Education at USP. He is currently a visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus.


Joseph Brodsky. About exile. Translation: André Bezamat and Denise Bottmann. Belo Horizonte, Âyiné, 2023, 80 pages. [https://amzn.to/49EhABL]

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