Friday, March 07, 2008

Brodsky's Flight from Byzantium

Brodsky's essay Flight from Byzantium is the record of a double flight, the flight of Western Christianity towards Rome and his own from Istanbul towards Greece, towards the west. However, he wrote this essay in Greece, after he his flight and I am attempting here to read quite critically this essay, quoting when needed from him, an essay that is an example of lurid polemics but well written, very slick, as his prose usually is but flawed, given in to the same cliched generalisations, that polemical orientalism, a fascinating myopia, a self- love bordering on narcissism.

Brodsky suggests that his essay be read with "a measure of skepticism, if not with total disbelief". With his method, he has tried to achieve "a semblance of objectivity" towards his subject, a description of his planned journey to Istanbul. However, the "desire" to get there was "never genuine". He gives a few flimsy reasons to go there, one quite ludicrous, one funny and the chief reason being to witness that city, that place which Constantine had captured and established, with a cross that bore the legend, "In this sign conquer". Brodsky writes in his hotel room in Greece, feeling "feverish from what I have seen". He blames his subsequent incoherence on what he has seen, not on himself. He has a nightmare, which naturally follows his visit to Istanbul. Then the usual lament about "crooked, filthy streets, piled with refuse, reminding him of "Astrakhan and Samarkand". Istanbul has "polluted one's subconscious" ( I daresay one that he has acquired from Freud)

Then follows a vivid but somehow uncertain thesis about Constantine's real reasons in annexing Constantinople, whether he was really a "good christian or a zealous believer" or conquered only for the sake of doing so. He reminds us of Constantine's genetic code and the fact that his nephew, Julian was an apostate. However, Constantine was a man of action but his drive Eastwards was guided by the East's political climate.....by its despotism without any experience of democracy". Constantine "wasn't a westerner, except in his adminstrative designation". With new emperors, they got further away from Rome, and called themselves Roman, "like the varied dominions of the British empire might call themselves".

Brodsky the typical traveller eastwards, witnessing "the delirium and horror of the east". In the next few sentences, he goes in for total demolition, calling the whole of Asia "a dusty catastrophe, green only on the banner of the prophet. Nothing grows here except mustaches, bonfire embers doused with urine. No, this is not racism", he says. He points out only the facts. "The local population is in a state of total stupor. Dust in Istanbul is no ordinary dust". Brodsky finds it "agitated dirt, incapable of finding its own place". So too with rain. Then he goes on to compare the "boxes of shoe-shiners with mosques without minarets", and says that "everywhere in the east, there are a vast number of shoe shiners of all ages. Istanbul is a place where traffic lights have gone haywire, not red-amber-green but white-amber-brown. Everything is dated here, the drivers rarely speak English. He adds later that in the east, "the nearer you get to your goal, the more obscure becomes the means of its attainment". In Topkapi, on seeing the impress of the prophet's footprint, he "shudders: yeti!"

Christianity succeeded in Byzantium because it "provided an end that justified the means, absolving man of individual responsibilty, with its metastasis in the psychology of man the settler". Brodsky concedes that Christianity came from the east. But he is "alarmed and amused" as he realizes that the east is the metaphysical centre of the world, with Christianity only one of the numerous faiths. "The west offered nothing but was a consumer and thus it must be approached with tenderness as it has offered excessive rationality". Then follows an incomprehensible assessment about polytheism ending in the assertion that "the modern democratic state is the historical triumph of idolatry over Christianity". By divorcing Byzantium, "Western Christianity consigned the east to nonexistence".

Brodsky assesses Byzantium, declaring it to be "remote from the western ideals of neoplatonism, lack of platonic dialogues". Socrates would have been "impaled on the spot in Isfahan or Baghdad". "The east was only capable of the monologue of the Koran". Byzantine Christianity was Orientalized, and all is Christian practices and theology came out of an "inferiority complex". Then comes Islam, with its" anti-individualism", that is welcome to Byzantine soil. Byzantine soil was "favourable to Islam"not because of any inherent merit in Islam but because of Byzantine "ethnic texture", without any coherent tradition of individualism. "East means obedience, trade, profit and adaptability, alien to moral absolutes, driven on by the idea of kinship, of family. the east is incapable of a semblance of democracy". And he speaks of the Byzantium before the Turkish domination, of Constantine, Justinian, Theodora, of Christian Byzantium "anyway".

Anti-individualism, he argues lamely," is only eastern". A man who kills others in a frenzied fit in the west will be treated in a mental institution but his behaviour is no different from that of Byzantine murderers or of the "Iranian Imam butchering tens of thousands of his subjects in order to confirm his version of the will of the prophet". This is a result of the "common denominator" being an anti-individualism that is Eastern. Which Imam does Brodsky refer to? But Brodsky calmly ignores every other massacre in his own land that wasn't specifically aimed at the Russians but at the hapless inheritors of Byzantine ethnicity.

Brodsky praises the mosques of Samarkand and Khiva, declaring them as "masterpieces of scale and color, witness to the lyricism of Islam" but Byzantine or Istanbul mosques are "Islam triumphant", comparing them to "toads in frozen stone, unable to stir". The thin minarets are like "hands reaching for a camera, a spy spotting a military installation. they are menacing, galactic, hermetic, shell-like, eerie". He blames this architecture on the Hagia Sophia, as that cathedral turned mosque set the tone for further architectural wonders. Thus, the menace of the mosques owes not only to the victorious Turks but to byzantine architecture itself. Brodsky laments the conversion of "our hagia sophia" into a mosque though he had earlier felt no compunction in consigning Byzantium to Islam. By converting it into a mosque, the Turks have "reaffirmed that everything in this life intertwines......and everything is a pattern in a carpet".

In a passage of blindness, Brodsky says that "the unit of eastern ornamentation is the sentence, the word, the letter". He goes on to prove the superiority of the Grecian urn, "superior than a pattern in a carpet". He quickly retracts what he had said earlier, "now the carpet and one's own foot included are left behind".But wait, he has foreseen objections, he is aware of Indian and Chinese vases as natty as the Greek, but even if these predated Islamic figurative culture, the Grecian urn is the product of solitary activity, of individualism, of rationality and it is this that, "Constantine walked away from. To the carpet."

This essay is an adjectival insistence on arrogant un-understanding, lumping together civilizations of the East, all in one mix, a mix of ignorance and unending masses. Brodsky's East is just one lump and Islam sadly seems to represent all things eastern in his mind. Everything unimaginative is eastern, from thought to thinking, from dust to great rain, from dark skin and long locks to fatalism and melancholy. One does not need to be a great literary critic to see the inherent prejudice veiled behind a few melancholic observations, a few unassuming lines on time and climate and weather. The arrogant dismissal of any subjectivity is made quite clear in the beginning of this essay, an essay that essays all the dust and rain of the east to the ethnic texture of the soil. There is politics here which I admire but no philosophy because the facts are jumbled, based on some civilizational supremacist argument, one that lacks coherence.

Brodsky's Iranian Imam is mentioned but no mention is made of the pillage and plunder of central Asian lands, their demographic destruction. Even though the russian state is not spared, but it is only because of the sickle and hammer, not because there are some byzantine coils in the russian genetic code, though Katorga ( forced labour) is a turkish word too, not just Russian and perhaps this too has crept in from the East. Brodsky does not denounce or mention the holocaust or attribute it to any remaining Byzantine influence in the West ( Brodsky was Jewish) but surely any real individualism should have prevented 60 million people from being displaced or killed or wounded during the second war.

Against anti-individualism, Brodsky opines rightly, neither wall nor sea offer protection. Russia witnessed what is known to all, state terror and totalitarianism but which was born out of a specific Western debate, atmosphere and environment and not because of the dust in Brodsky's nostrils. Dirty filthy streets everywhere in the east.....I haven't been but Astrakhan and Stalinabad are not the same, the former subdued, the latter subduing, Samarkand mosques are melancholic because of their stranglehold and Istanbul mosques are triumphant! Brodsky ends his essay on a note of defiance, initially having said that he too had a whiff of the Eastern in his attitude towards people, as he had lumbered them all. But, "if you cannot show your detestation of the past or present, you can at least smile in contempt".

This essay is so readable like all Brodsky. I chose this to illustrate a point, which is that no civilizational or ethnic predisposition can be made responsible for the ills we face, either historically or at present. Our history is made up of tides but our should mean the whole of humanity and not just certain areas or people. Brodsky seems to be the forerunner of those modern embedded intellectuals who are building a paranoia against Byzantine ethnicity or Eastern carpets, clamouring for wars on the basis of religion and colour and languages. He is clearly not wanting war but there are gleams of lesser writers like Hitchens and Amiss here, those polemical mouthpieces of neo conservative desperation, those that bind native soil to ignorance. Such writing usually stems from ignorance ( consider Brodsky's ignorance of philosophical concepts, exaggerated realism and neoplatonism in Islam once) but this is a reminder of our own prejudices too. My dismay is at his total dismissal of the East, as if his arrogant disregard for Byzantium and Islam was not enough. His reactions are knee jerk at times but the east is far superior than Byzantium on the whole and anti-individualism is not born of any exclusive Eastern malady.

All in all, an essay worth reading from a collection that includes some great essays, including one on Akhmatova.

13 comments:

billoo said...

kubla, why is it "worth reading". sounds awful.

Kubla Khan said...

Hi, billoo

Worth reading because it allows an understanding into various blindspots of so-called important writers and then allows the average reader to readjust his/her focus too.
This collection of essays won an award but so did Brodsky later win the Nobel, a prize that was for years given to Russian writers in exile denouncing the gulags etc in uncaptivating prose.
But, it does not detract from the merit of his poetry or essays, which are well written.
cheers

antonia said...

yes. i find it strange, for though i do not know this essay Brodsky in general is not so prone to the usual cultural prejudices, especially as someone who had seen tyrannical elements through the way he did, as one can see from his various other essays. On the other hand i thought his Akhmatova essay is crap while those on Mandelstam (especially Nadeshda) are great. Interesting. i should do some rereading. Not sure whether it is as one-dimensional as you write.

antonia said...

k i really read again. sort of curious. not that i have a superidealized idea of B. but still.....raises interesting questions.

antonia said...

ok, I read it, and sorry to say this, i don't buy it at all, your reading, i think it is just exactly the other way round. I thought it also a rather amusing essay, written with his usual rat's ass approach to political correctness and broken with lots of irony and cum grano salis things. also you misread him i think, at first your quote about this objectivity approach, a couple of lines he says: he does not think he is able of objectivity. and then later on he is rather dismissive of linearity, no? and his statements about the dust and feverish and all those colourful cliches and the delirium and horror of the east in his paragraph 9 he writes himself: racism, only to further go on about some general misanthropy and note here, he has also not written exactly flattering things about other countries or cultures for that matter. After all, this sentence formost seems to rebuke your reading: "There is something slightly amusing, and even a bit alarming, isn't there, in the idea that the East is actually the metaphysical centre of mankind?" [paragraph 14 - and how dismissive he is here of christianity!] Come now, someone who writes such sentences, about whom you cannot say he has exactly blind spots about the evil Islam and the oh so dusty & colourful sinister Orient, no?

Kubla Khan said...

Antonia, hi

Surely a well read person like you cannot deceive yourself into thinking that the east as such and the so-called eastern man hasn't been used as fodder by good, bad and insignificant writers, even philosophers of eminence to feed on their caricatural misrepresentation, a fetish of eastern sinfulness and exotic anti-individualism?
Brodsky is just a drop in the ocean of such polemics. this is just a continuation of greek v persians, in a more sophisticated way.( mind you, the persians have historically adopted a lofty stance towards the arabs too)

my reading or misreading does not alter a thing.the essay exista there, it is a proof of arrogant slickness. it is also not unheard that victims of oppression oppress more, even in a cultural context( jews victims during the 2nd war, arabs victims of israel etc)

it is quite possible that istanbul might have been dusty, though i haven;t ever witnessed it myself, but, this is beside the point. Brodsky adopts a sweeping generalisation towards the east, negating the most ancient civilizations, like the indian, chinese, persian etc.i did not write this post to refute this essay but to enhance my own understanding, to know how to read an essay and then, learn not to smile with contempt at Brodsky.
i had a choice not to write this post. precisely, i did this so as to learn even while writing it, to let certain misgivings evaporate while doing so.

even more objective philosophers, foucault or Derrida are prone to the same blindness.( nowadays Camus is being openly acknowledged as racist)

my objection to the essay is neither here nor there but it points towards a malaise, one which seems to have clouded Brodsky completely.
Good to see you back. ciao

Kubla Khan said...

Antonia.....it took Edward Said to open this debate in his masterly Orientalism and better still, in his culture and imperialism, to really even teach the average reader to know how to read, to understand this strange and sinister colonialism of culture.these things will not cease, for obscurantism is not the prerogative of any race etc

antonia said...

yes and i think just the opposite that Brodsky very well had a clue on these things and rather stands a bit outside or beyond this dichotomy. i do think you just picked him out to make a case on how racist all the evil western writers are, and then Brodksy, of all people. He's not angel, but who is anyway. No one's innocent and if you look long enough you will find strains of imperialism in everyone. I'm not convinced, really, especially after you misquoted him so eclatantly on various occasions and going the simple route of interpretation (what for instance do you make of this sentence that i quoted of paragraph 14)? and he is not exactly uncritical towards the greek also. or that he mentions the department of philology also as part of the dusty dominions. and re that urn dealio, what do you make of 37 then what he says about the carpet as basis of civilization and just not the urn?
and in 36, the mentioning of the nomad in connection of he urn, i am almost tempted to say that this i pre-deleuzian thought, but this esay has been written in 1985. and isn't the beginning of 37 not an apprehension that exactly aims at the objections that you have? it's not like he's not been aware of those things.

that of course the finer strains of domination are always persistent and one always should be aware of them is one thing, but misappropriation [as in: neatly (possibly even immanently if that is not asked too much) reading and quoting (and yes, how elitist this is of me to say) or the lack thereof which one just as well could call arrogant slickness even if it happens in the name of the good, anticolonializing approach, which just as you rightly remark can become even so oppressive] is another.
oh yes, now that we are at it, the debate is by the way already open since Vico, since Herder, Herder has written one of the most brilliant criticisms of colonializations i have ever read.

i do not think we come to an agreement here and this will be my last word on this, because i don't want to have this end up in a superlong nasty discussion about i said, you said, i said.

Kubla Khan said...

"i do think you just picked him out to make a case on how racist all the evil western writers are".....Antonia, that is unfair.

what is there more to say now?

antonia said...

is it really more unfair than misquoting? it says a lot that you're not responding to (or looking at) the textpassages that i mentioned and which suggest a different reading than yours. but anyway, life is complicated enough and we are both busy people.

"I do not believe in political movements. I believe in personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change — within himself, not on the outside. In place of this we are offered a cheap and extremely dangerous surrogate for the internal human disposition toward change: political movements of one sort or another. Dangerous psychologically more than physically. Because every political movement is a way to avoid personal responsibility for what is happening.... As a rule communality in the sphere of ideas has not led to anything particularly good. [...] The intensity of political passions is directly proportional to their distance from the true source of the problem." mr. b., the old islamophobe

I'm with you re the Said quote, but still not with your b-interpretation. i think we had a similar argument a year ago re Camus or so if i remember correctly. That's your soft spot, this colonialismthing.

Kubla Khan said...

Antonia, not answering to your last comment would be rude.so, that's why.

I will not defend my reading of this essay. That is why I wrote it, it is there, tear it to bits.I think my reading of and writing about this essay are two different things.....i wrote lazily, i read with vigilance. my response was weak. this is an eminently shoddy exercise in narcissism, this east bashing literary-misanthropy-i don't care-inferior man-ignorance attitude. only ignorance leads to such writing.
re not responding to your quotes....i felt lazy, that's all.

"colonial something" is not my weak spot. it is becoming a way of reading....a contrapuntal response to much reading. i want to acquire it faster than anything else.it should be applicable to everything in life, to my own responses, my bias, my prejudice, for i have it in ample amounts. but, i know it. that does not soften it.

i don't want it to spoil my love of literature though( i fancy Bolano prose, but could point out a few fallacies)through this contrapuntal or colonial something as you call it. i am not going to only read thiongo.

Camus....what can i say. once upon a time, his lyrical essays were really lyrical.now, they are still lyrical, but Camus! he opposed or kept silent on Algerian freedom.....now, thats unpardonable in a philosopher who chided others for resting in arm chairs!

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Howard C Runyon said...

In section 43 Brodsky identifies himself as an Easterner:

"Who knows? Perhaps my attitude toward people has in its own right a whiff of the East about it, too. When it comes down to it, where am I from?"

I don't think he's _wondering_ where he's from. He's recognizing that he is a child of the East. I think it's a mistake to read this piece as anything but an extended thought-riff; he's not pretending to give the last word on anything. I love the essay despite the many flaws in its logic. (E.g., "Civilizations... move from south to north"—but what of the European emigrants' east-to-west crushing of the indigenous peoples of N. America? You can gain Brodsky a minute or so of plausibility by pointing out that the Spanish colonized the W. coast of N. America from south to north before the other Euros moved westward from the Atlantic, but the Spanish had to cross the Atlantic to get into position for that northward movement. And of course Brodsky talks as if there were no southern hemisphere. His assertion is beautiful and holds little water. Big deal.)