The Sweet Session of Silent Thought

This is such a wonderful anecdote:

“It was 1937, the Soviet Writers Congress. It was the worst year. One of the worst years. People disappeared like flies everyday. They told [Boris] Pasternak, “if you speak they arrest you, and if you don’t speak they arrest you — for ironic insubordination. There are 2,000 people at the event. It is a three day event. Just off stage stands Zjdanov, the Stalinist killer, police killer. It was a three day meeting and every speech was thanks to brother Stalin, thanks to Father Stalin, thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist new model of truth — not a word from Pasternak. On the third day his friends said, “look, they are going to arrest you anyway, maybe you should say something for the rest of us to carry with us.” He was well over six feet, incredibly beautiful, and when Pasternak got up, everyone knew. He got up and I’m told you could hear the silence still Vladivostok. And he gave a number. A number, and two thousand people stood up. Thirty. It was the number of a certain Shakespeare sonnet — of which Pasternak had done a translation which the Russians say, with Pushkin, is one of their greatest texts, so Shakespeare: when I summon up remembrance of things past. A sonnet of Shakespeare on memory. And they recited it by heart, the two thousand people, the Pasternak translation. It said everything. It said: you can’t touch us; You can’t destroy Shakespeare; You can’t destroy the Russian language; You can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us. And they didn’t arrest him. Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you — it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.”

11 thoughts on “The Sweet Session of Silent Thought

    • I’m afraid the only reference is the clip in the post. The text is a mostly accurate transcription. Please also see Death Zen’s for further fascinating context.

  1. That is indeed a wonderful anecdote, Anthony. And it’s lovely to see all your Steiner posts. I’ve been reading and arguing with him for over 50 years (a calculation that just now made my eyes bug out), and no doubt will enjoy doing so until I’m discharged from this extravaganza.

    Today’s rather minor argument with George: There was no Soviet Writers Congress in 1937. The first was held in August, 1934. The second convened in December, 1954.

    Steiner alludes to that story again in an essay entitled “The Archives of Eden,” included in a collection I think you’d enjoy: No Passion Spent. He writes:

    “But perhaps the concept of choice is itself a fallacy. As I have implied throughout, the intellectual, the inebriate of thought is, like the artist or philosopher, though to a lesser degree, born and not made (nascitur non fit, as every school boy used to know). He has no choice except to be himself or to betray himself. If ‘happiness’ in the definitions central to the theory and practice of ‘the American way of life’ seems to him the greater good, if he does not suspect ‘happiness’ in almost any guise of being the despotism of the ordinary, he is in the wrong business. They order these matters better in the world of the Gulag. Artists, thinkers, writers receive the unwavering tribute of political scrutiny and repression. The KGB and the serious writer are in total accord when both know, when both act on the knowledge that a sonnet (Pasternak simply citing the first line of a Shakespeare sonnet in the venomous presence of Zhdanov), a novel, a scene from a play can be the power-house of human affairs, that there is nothing more charged with the detonators of dreams and action than the word, particularly the word known by heart. (It is striking and perfectly consequent that America, the final archive, should also be the land whose schooling has all but eradicated memorization. In the microfiche, the poem lies embalmed; recited inwardly, it is terribly alive.)”

    (I have more serious disagreements with that passage, but I do like his characterization of the intellectual as an “inebriate of thought,” in both its positive and negative sense.)

    So, is the anecdote itself apocryphal? Well, Steiner’s version is, but that’s a big part of his charm, isn’t it. Pasternak’s niece, Ann Pasternak Slater, writes about what is very likely the actual event upon which Steiner embellished, a poetry reading in 1946 during which Pasternak risked arrest by reading (not reciting) poems somewhat more dangerous than Shakespeare’s: his own. A man in the crowd yelled out a request for Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet, which (according to Ann) Pasternak was wise to ignore. You can read about this in her essay, “Indirect Dissidence, Shakespeare, and Pasternak,” a chapter in the book Hugo, Pasternak, Brecht, Césaire: Great Shakespeareans Volume XIV</>, edited by Ruth Morse.

    Happy New Year, and keep on truckin’!

    • Thanks, DZ, for the context and reference. It is still a beautiful story, and makes Steiner’s point about memory so well. I will read No Passion Spent. I argue with Steiner from time to time but as with a dear friend. Happy New Year, and thanks for the annual visit!

  2. Thanks for reminding me of that wonderful interview.[There’s an excellent one with Richard Rorty in the same series, similarly moving about his childhood.] On significance of memory and learning by heart there’s a lovely memoir by Alastair Fowler about his supervisor, C.S.Lewis as one of the last scholars to have such an internalised knowledge of the literature he valued. {On a website called LEWISIANA.NL
    Cheers John

    • Thanks so much, John, for mentioning that memoir about CS Lewis. It is fascinating, the prodigious memories of these literary educators. That memoir unfortunately doesn’t seem to live in book form. Thanks also for the Rorty mention which I shall listen to this weekend.

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