Conversation: Joseph Brodsky

November 10, 1988 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROBERT MACNEIL: Nobel Prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky was born in Leningrad in 1940. At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and took a variety of odd jobs while he began writing poetry. In 1964, the Soviet Government labeled him a militant parasite and sent him to an arctic labor camp for 18 months.

Seven years later he was deported from the Soviet Union and came to the United States, where he now lives in New York City. Last year, he won the Nobel Prize for literature for poetry and essays. His most recent collection of poetry titled To Urania was published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Mr. Brodsky, you are an American citizen now. What do you think of the democratic or the exercise in democracy that we have just been through?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: You want the truth?


JOSEPH BRODSKY: Well, a travesty.


JOSEPH BRODSKY: Well, it was simply because neither man in my view was adequate simply as individual… well, that is… how should I put it? I guess I should think about what I’m saying. I lost my heart… that is not lost my heart… I lost interest in the Governor of Massachusetts when he dropped Jackson. That wasn’t a Democrat for me. And I never developed a sentiment for Mr. Bush because I haven’t heard from him any sort of coherent or anything interesting, anything… or any sort of attractive, even grammatical sentence.

ROBERT MACNEIL: How would you rate the new President of your old country, Mikhail Gorbachev, in these terms.

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Terribly talkative, terribly talkative, terribly eloquent. Well, he has another weakness of course. He doesn’t know where to stop. Well, in fact, there is … there is a term now existing in the Soviet Union about the man, himself, that he prattles the Perestroika down.

ROBERT MACNEIL: “Prattles the Perestroika down?”

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Yeah. To prattle it down, that is… well, there are too many words… that is he’s a bad rhetorician, he’s a bad orator.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You’ve appeared far more indifferent, even disdainful of the so-called reforms in the Soviet Union have there and here. How do you explain that?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Well I don’t think the reforms… well, I’m not exactly disdainful. I’m pleased that changes do occur, so that I don’t harbor that much of a hope for these changes, that is, they are improvements in comparison to what I’m used to. Well, I can speak only about my feelings with any degree of expertise, the things that I know, so I never thought we’ll see the dark print, though they do see the light of day now and this is obviously an improvement. But the point is. the point is that the… all these attempts are in my view attempts to regalvanize a doomed concept.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Not redeemable?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: In my view, it isn’t.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Are you as an exile from your former country, are you in any way imprisoned by the need to dislike what you were, what you escaped from, what you were exiled from? Are you locked into a need to disparage what happens there because of it?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Good question. I am not.

JOSEPH BRODSKY: No I think I’m not. I’m simply disdainful though that… how should I put it… how should I put it best… I suppose the whole thing left a very bad taste in my mouth not on my own behalf, because I don’t really care for myself so much… and I’m saying that without any country… it’s simply because, well, one I will always get even and I’ll always find some mental comfort or indeed a physical comfort as it were. But there are lots and lots of people whose lives, entire existences, have been subjected to that inescapable idiom. They can’t alter their lives. The system… the system has compromised itself enormously, though it’s subjected lots and lots… well, lots… millions, generations of people to the course of events, to the course… to the types of existences, to the types of lives, which they couldn’t have altered, they couldn’t have changed the plight. And I simply, well, I’m not even talking about the crimes, I’m not talking about the terror, I’m not talking about the victims, I’m not talking about the camps. I am simply talking about the subverted lives; well, subverted lives and generations of Russians. And I simply can’t… well, I’m answering your question not exactly in a direct way, I realize that… but that informs my… that informs my disdain for the entire system.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You don’t agree then with Andrei Sakharov who said the other day it is very important for these reforms to succeed, that the West should help Gorbachev make them more concerned?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Well, I’m speaking from the outside. Sakharov speaks from the inside. If you’re inside you want reform, of course, but I am not a reformer. I want a drastic change, 180 degrees, whatever it is. Even that is not, may not work, because I think the 70 years have done something. I don’t believe in the reforms. I’ll tell you very simply why. Because I think what the 70 years of this system have done, I’m afraid. They have a debilitating effect upon the population’s will in general. It’s almost what you have… you can speak of a genetic backslide in a sense, that is, people don’t, they have no will to work. In fact, when they talk about the period of stagnation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, well, in general, the majority of the population was quite happy with that, because it was placing on them no demands.

ROBERT MACNEIL: You say Sakharov’s on the inside and you’re on the outside. Somebody living in winter all the time he get s a little bit of a thaw and it’s wonderful.

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Yeah, he’s grateful for that.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But somebody living in Florida, where there’s total sunshine, anything less than total sunshine is intolerable.


ROBERT MACNEIL: How has living in this total sunshine here, spiritually speaking, if that’s the word, this spiritual Florida that you’ve been living in now since 1970, how has that affected you, do you think?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: What I’m going to say may sound somewhat peculiar to you, but I don’t think my notions of what’s right and what’s wrong and what should be done and shouldn’t be done have altered that much. In that respect, I think all my life I lived in some sort of mental state of sunshine… that is, well, I don’t know… maybe it’s my… maybe it’s simply my temperament or whatever it is… I was always to a certain extent charged by others, by their friends, by their acquaintances with some absolutist notions. Well, I don’t think, I somehow believe in either or, rather than in gradual, in gradual improvements. While that system can be improved, the longer it’s intact, no matter what’s happening, no matter what kinds of reforms or changes, no matter what kind of personalities are going to occupy the top or even middle strata, it’s going to have an effect, it’s going to ruin people’s lives, it’s going to influence people’s lives in the wrong way.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Unless there’s a total change you mean.

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Unless it’s total change and even the total change… well, here’s the rub, you see, I’m not so sure the total change is going to be such a blessing. Well, Russia is in a peculiar, it’s sort of a hungry elephant, if you will, an elephant who experiences anger and who thinks what is it to do, where to go. Well, there are three options such an animal would have had… first going to the past, return to the past, well, because there is some sort of security of the past, et cetera, et cetera, but the past is not a physical reality. It is only a notion of your mind… or stay in the present, stay where you are, the status quo, but the longer you stay… well, first of all, it’s the present that makes you feel hungry where everything is eaten around. Well, the longer you hesitate, the longer you stay in the same place, well, the deeper your feet sink into the bog, yeah, so therefore take a step further, but take a step forward… but the point is that there is no guarantee that there are green pastures ahead. That’s the reason it hesitates. The more it hesitates, the hungrier it gets and the more it’s mired.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Soltenitsen, another person, Soviet Citizen, ex-Soviet citizen living in this country, is, despises this spiritual Florida, the United States, at least to the extent saying it is decadent and unserious. Do you share those feelings?




ROBERT MACNEIL: Do you… do you… what do you think that it has done to you… to come back to my question… what has it done to you living in that?

JOSEPH BRODSKY: I was left alone. That’s the, that’s the greatest thing a society can do to an individual, to leave him alone, and in fact, I knew something about the states prior to my arrival here and in order to live in a different country, you have to love something there, you have to love either the spirit of the laws or the economic opportunities, or the history of the country, the language perhaps, literature. I happen to love the latter two. Well, but you ought to have some sentiment. You also have to in my case, there is something else. I simply loved all my life, loved is too strong a word, but I had a tremendous sentiment partly conditioned, of course by the reality of where I grew up, for the spirit of individualism, for the idea of your being on your own in a big way. So in a sense, in a sense, when I came here, this is what happened, this is what I found in a sense. Well, in that respect, in fact, to say what I have found is again to put my case a bit too strong or dramatically. In a sense, I or I would say people of my generation, people like me, I’m not alone, well, we were in a sense more Americans, more American than Americans themselves. We’re individualists from the very threshold. That’s why this country meant so much for us, yeah. It sounded to us as a place on the earth where the idea of the of individualism has been physically incarnated in a sense. So in that sense, the country where I arrived to in 1972 was the biggest, wasn’t exactly a surprise or a shock or that much of a comfort. It was the normal place to be at.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Joseph Brodsky, thank-you for joining us.

JOSEPH BRODSKY: Your welcome.