"I’m happy with my life"
BY ALAIN ELKANN
Skinheads, Nazis and prejudices. Anti-Semitism is the child of Fear.
Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) does not give way to pessimism: the past is a spent force, history does not repeat itself.
December 1st, 1992. The 1987 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the greatest living poets, author of A Stop in the Desert and Roman Elegies, has just arrived in Rome. I meet the Jewish Russian writer in the bar of his hotel. He drinks tea and smokes, chewing on the filter of his Kent cigarette. I ask him:
Joseph, how do you see the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe?
This is what happens when society feels less politically and economically secure. In Germany it coincided with the period following the Weimar Republic. And Russia has never been secure economically. Anti-Semitism is a phenomenon.
What do you think of skinheads?
It’s National Socialism. There has never been Nazism anywhere else: only in Germany. Personally, I do not think that it will ever really come back again. I don’t know how to judge the degree of seriousness of these recent instances of anti-Semitism in Germany and Italy. But the fact that some groups are overwhelmingly made up of young people tells you that anti-Semitism has not yet been completely destroyed.
What were the particular characteristics of the anti-Semitism that you experienced when you lived in Russia?
It was of the time, and also within political campaigns. The State authorised it. As long as the State itself is not anti-Semitic, the situation is not so very serious. I think the State in Italy already has laws against racism and these laws must be applied. Maybe these laws should be rewritten and made even stronger.
Does anti-Semitism exist in America?
No, Americans have too many other things on their mind. America is multicultural. There isn’t any one minority or majority that is dominant. The only racial prejudice in the U.S. that as you know is still present is the one against black people, but there are harsh laws to counter it, notwithstanding the inertia of the populace.
What characteristics does anti-Semitism have in Russia these days?
They have these attitudes, first and foremost.
Does this frighten you?
I am happy to live in America now. I’m happy with my life. Frankly, I do not think that all this talk about anti-Semitism in Europe is of any great importance for Europeans. I am more concerned about their economic conditions and the blood which flows in Yugoslavia. Even Jews, I believe, need to identify their own priorities. My own priority, the one that burns inside me and troubles my conscience, is the people who are dying every day in Yugoslavia.
How can anti-Semitism be eradicated?
It’s another racial prejudice; above all else it is a prejudice. People have such prejudices, and they are nurtured by dissatisfaction with the reality of their situations. The real problems come to the surface when someone turns prejudice into a system. You cannot completely eradicate anti-Semitism. Maybe you can replace it with another prejudice; but do not ask me what, because I would not know how to answer. Maybe if people could express their dissatisfaction with their situation through institutional channels, and I am not just talking about elections, they would become more free of these racial prejudices.
Why do you still live in exile?
I don’t think of it as exile. That’s too melodramatic, I am not a victim and I do not like to be thought of as one. It has become fashionable, a status symbol, to be a victim. There are many people who don’t have anything else to say except that they are victims.
Would you include Jews in this category?
Jews are not the only victims. They do not have the prerogative on suffering. During the last war six million Jews died in concentration camps, but twenty million Russians also died.
Why don’t you go back to Russia?
It’s very simple. If I went back to Russia I would find myself in a privileged position. Politics is not at the heart of this: I would have money in my pocket, while many people do not have any. I used to be like everyone else, now I would be exceptional. Today I have this halo round my head and I would be loved and adored. I do not think I deserve that love and even if I did deserve it I always find such positive feelings very hard to endure. It is much easier to be detested than beloved.
In America do they love you or hate you?
They ignore me and they leave me alone. And that is worth more than anything else.
But are you not curious about returning to live in your own country, now that it has begun its reconstruction?
There is reconstruction, but I have other things to do. I know that Russia, in one way or way or another, will make it. Russia is a country with a wonderful cultural and linguistic heritage and will produce great literature, if only for statistical reasons. The only aspect of Russia that interests me is its literature. Its culture, its literature in particular, does not depend on its political situation as many would have you believe. It depends on intellectual genius arising from its cultural heritage. And in Russia there is a lot of both one and the other.
And in the West? Are the differences decreasing between the Western countries and, the countries of the East, countries all around the world?
Out of literature and language, it is language that does not combine. The East and West are merging, they come together in the “counterculture” or in “anti-culture” and I consider politics part of this counterculture.
Do you believe in a United Europe?
It is a pernicious idea and Italians should be the first to recognise that. To make a Deutsche Mark or an ECU you need to belittle the value of a “siesta”, you need to work like crazy while giving up your own identity. What I do not like about the concept of a United Europe is the supremacy of the Protestant North over the Catholic South.
So what happens now? Can this be turned around?
It is possible not to go forward in that direction.
Are you a nationalist?
Every nation has its cultural heritage. But European unity would be a disaster for the literary heritage of the European countries. Today, the best literature is produced in the former colonies, more so than in the motherlands. “The centre cannot hold,” as the poet Yeats says.
The same happens in Russia?
It originates from the provinces of the Empire. At one time poetry originated in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, now it originates from every distant province.
What are you going to do during your time in Italy?
I want to understand why Europeans are being so stupid as to propose unity for Europe.
Would you like to come back to live in Europe?
I would like to spend more time in Rome and in Italy because I love your country.
But Italy is shot through with political, economic and psychological crisis…?
It’s all to do with “original sin”. If one does not believe in it, it is a crisis; if one believes in it, it is not.
Because without the concept of “original sin” one can fantasise about the goodness of the human being and design utopias. You can be, in other words, a Jean Jacques Rousseau. If you believe in “original sin” you know that man has the capacity for both things: goodness and badness. This means that man is evil and not only good. If you believe in “original sin” you can set about constructing a society built on different premises: you are looking for a way to make a good society for bad people. I highly recommend to all those Italians who think that their country is in a crisis to go to a library and find an edition of the “The Federalist Papers”. This treatise is a major commentary on the principles that gave birth to the American Constitution. These documents should be translated and handed out in every civilised country in the world.
What ideas do you have about the future of America?
I have lived outside the democratic system long enough not to be really annoyed when my candidate doesn’t win the election. The American system cannot be completely blown away into thin air by a single individual.
What is your relationship with Solzhenitsyn?
I have run into him. I respect him as a writer, but not as a “political brain”. He is the Russian version of a “Rousseau”. He does not believe in original sin despite his Orthodox faith.