JOSEPH BRODSKY: SKETCHES FOR THE RULES OF LIFE
Fragments of a speech by Joseph Brodsky to students at the University of Michigan on December 18, 1988, entitled “Speech at the Stadium”.
Joseph Brodsky: sketches for the rules of life
Life is a game with many rules, but without a referee. We learn how to play it by observing it rather than by consulting a book, including the Holy Scriptures. So it is not surprising that so many play dishonestly, so few win, so many lose.
Consider what you are about to hear as just the tip of a few icebergs, if you can say so, and not mount Sinai. I am not Moses, and you are not old Testament Jews either; these slightly random sketches scribbled in a yellow notebook somewhere in California are not tablets. Ignore them if you like, question them if necessary, forget them if you can’t otherwise: there is nothing binding about them. If you can use some of them now or in the future, I’ll be happy to. If not, my wrath will not reach you.
And now and in the future, I think it makes sense to focus on the accuracy of your language. Try to expand your vocabulary and treat it the way you treat your Bank account. Pay a lot of attention to it and try to increase your dividends. The goal here is not to promote your eloquence in the bedroom or your professional success — although this may be the case later-nor to turn you into a social smartass. The goal is to give you the opportunity to Express yourself as fully and accurately as possible; in short, the goal is your balance. For the accumulation of the unspoken, unspoken properly can lead to neurosis. Every day a lot changes in the soul of a person, but the way of expression often remains the same. The ability to Express oneself lags behind experience. This has a detrimental effect on the psyche. Feelings, shades, thoughts, and perceptions that remain unnamed, unspoken, and are not content with approximate wording, accumulate within the individual and can lead to a psychological explosion or breakdown.
Now and in the future, try to be kind to your parents. If this sounds too much like” honor your father and mother, ” well, I just want to say: try not to rebel against them, because in all likelihood they will die before you, so you can at least rid yourself of this source of guilt, if not grief. If you need to rebel, rebel against those who are not easily vulnerable. Parents are too close a target (just like brothers, sisters, wives, or husbands); the distance is such that you can’t miss. Revolt against parents with all its I-won’t-take-a-penny-from — you-is essentially an extremely bourgeois affair, because it gives the rebel the highest satisfaction, in this case, the satisfaction of the soul given by conviction. The later you take this path, the later you will become a spiritual bourgeois; that is, the longer you remain skeptical, doubtful, intellectually dissatisfied, the better for you.
Try not to rely too much on politicians — not so much because they are stupid or dishonest, as most often happens, but because of the scale of their work, which is too large even for the best among them-on this or that political party, doctrine, system, or their projects. They can at best reduce social evils somewhat, but not eradicate them. No matter how significant the improvement, it will always be negligible from an ethical point of view, because there will always be those — at least one person — who will not benefit from this improvement.
Try not to stand out, try to be modest. Already there are too many of us — and very soon there will be many more. This scrambling for a place in the sun is necessarily at the expense of others who will not climb. Just because you have to step on someone’s feet doesn’t mean you have to stand on their shoulders. The consciousness of your own exclusivity, keep in mind, also undermines your uniqueness, not to mention that it narrows your sense of reality to what you have already achieved. Jostling among those who, given their income and appearance, represent — at least theoretically-unlimited potential is much better than membership in any club. Try to be more like them than those who don’t look like them; try to wear gray. Mimicry is a defense of individuality, not a rejection of it. I would also advise you to keep your voice down, but I’m afraid you’ll think I’ve gone too far.
Avoid attributing victim status to yourself. Of all the parts of the body, watch your index finger most closely, for it is eager to denounce. The pointing finger is a sign of sacrifice — in contrast to the raised middle and index fingers, it is synonymous with surrender. No matter how disgusting your situation may be, try not to blame external forces: history, the state, the authorities, race, parents, the moon phase, childhood, untimely landing on the pot, etc. The menu is vast and boring, and its very vastness and boredom are offensive enough to restore reason against using it. The moment you put the blame on something, you undermine your own determination to change something; it may even be argued that the finger of accusation is flailing so violently because that determination was not firm enough.
The world you are about to enter does not have a good reputation. It is better from a geographical than from a historical point of view; he’s still much more attractive visually than socially. It is not a pretty place, as you will soon discover, and I doubt it will be much nicer by the time you leave it. However, this is the only world available: there is no alternative, and if there were, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one. There, outside, is a jungle, as well as a desert, a slippery slope, a swamp, etc. “literally — but worse, metaphorically. However, as Robert frost said, ” the Best way out is always through.” And he also said, though in another poem, that ” to live in society is to forgive.”
I’d better stop here. I will be happy if you find what I have said useful. If not, it will show that you are prepared for the future much better than you would expect from people your age. Which, I suppose, is also a reason for joy — not for fear. In any case, whether you are well prepared or not, I wish you good luck, because there are no holidays ahead of you anyway — and you will need luck. However, I think you can handle it.