“Shall we go to Pizza Redentore?”
“Sure” I say, “Redentore, Salvatore – any one of those will do -”
“Ah! By the way, Salvatore is very good… Ma Salvatore é benissimo! We will call them.”
But it turns out Salvatore is too busy saving souls through heavenly pizza. We place all our hope for redemption in Redentore, and toward that end cross piazzi, walk down many cobblestone streets, and finally over a bridge that itself first walked over the Adige around 2100 years ago. Faced with a telltale facade, with Redentore in periwinkle neon, I realize it’s another deconsecrated church. I balk, but then one of us, a Veronesa, reminding me of Il Duomo, Sant’Anastasia, San Zeno et al, is there to reassure, “there are enough churches left in Verona”.
I end up leaving for Milano the next day without paying homage at the balcony of Romeo e Giulietta, which is exactly what I wanted, but not without finding in this city – despite not looking, or perhaps because of it – a sense of beauty so pervasive, effortless, and Romantic that, even if Romeo and Juliet never existed in Verona, which they didn’t, they would have had to be placed here – as they were. As ever: Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
* * *
The thousand-year-old churches in this city, and their bell towers, and the ever-present old marble arches, with their stones worn by moisture to look like sugar cubes; all this age and beauty, this art, long in the tooth – a constant reminder of the calamity of so short life.
But let us end on a positive note. As I’m about to board a plane from Milano to NYC, an airline employee takes my passport and, in response to a polite buongiorno, asks matter-of-factly, Data del rientro? I stare. He switches to English, asking me whether I live “there”, the there being NYC. I admit that I do. But he assumed that I’m Italian, even if for a second. Which might mean that, after all, all this time in this land-of-the-way-things-should-be has not gone to waste.
Until next time. Alla prossima volta, bella!
Leaving gassy, noisy, rumoroso Pompei behind, we arrive – 500km and Campania, Lazio, Umbria, and Toscana later – in Firenze.
Of course, Florence is, naturally, so harmonious, that it has rightly become mauvais ton not just to say how beautiful and great it is, but even to mention how it has become mauvais ton to say how beautiful and great it is. A sophomore Art History major, visiting on a day trip from the American Academy in Rome, was recently disemboweled in an alley off Piazza Palazzo Pitti by a gang of UNO (United Nihilist Ord) blackshirts after having the gall to pontificate aloud on the Floral City’s manifold aesthetic advantages. Playing it safe, I am writing this on a Frecciargento train bound for Verona. It has just left Bologna, where Umberto Eco’s ghost nods approval to the strict punishment meted out to the clueless American student of beauty.
With me I take small marks left as a result of an uneven battle with florentine mosquitos, who, in the best traditions of the Medicis, work with stiletti, not broadswords, leaving behind sharp, tiny mounds of agony instead of the expansive, inelegant welts that are the telltale signs of their North American colleagues at work.
Yet what will stay with me the longest is a kind of aural blessing received while going down the interminable steps of Giotto’s Campanile. I am still in the top fifth of the tower as the bells come alive, sound waves reverberating off of two-foot-thick stone walls, criss-crossing, pressuring and deforming each other, my head moving through this melange, absorbing it. I continue to the bell chamber below, where the ringing is almost unbearable, and then, immediately, lower – to the fourth fifth of the tower, directly below the bells, where the din dries up some. The ringing lasts no more than a minute, but takes place precisely as I pass through three bands of the Campanile: above, at, and below the bells.
* * *
I fix the look of Florence in my mind as she lies straddling the Arno: like a Renaissance maja, supremely confident in her power to seduce, and therefore still – small of gesture, vast of effect.
The sum and essence of her own statuary, all Florence the majestic courtesan has to do is stand there, lie there, knowing full well that the spell has been cast, and that whoever has visited once, will be back again, and again, and again.
Directly across the street from the Porte di Napoli there is a caffetteria / juice bar – I get the “Profumata”: fennel root, pineapple, and apple, chased by a multigrain croissant and an Americano – where a big-breasted mother with eyes that grab you and a vast rayon tank top is at the cash register. Her 40-year-old son, in rolled-up white shirt-sleeves and black apron, dispenses espressi. We get to chatting in some non-existing Italian on our part and a bit of halting English on his.
He has been to Mexico, once, via Ft. Lauderdale – but not to New York, where we say we are from, and for which he has an appreciative pull up of the chin and a Neapolitan hand wave that could change weather patterns. There is a tired intelligence in his eyes, and as he gives his weight to a large lever operating the espresso machine and then presses up on it, he rests a temple against the biceps, wiping the sweat and boredom of a life behind the counter, and I sense that, if not for the patrimony of these 20 square meters of commercial space on the waterfront,
and the responsibility felt to his overbearing mother after his father had left or died too young he could have been somebody. Instead of a barista, which is what he is.
Later, as we pull out of port towards Capri, the waves are capped in sparkling, sharded crystal purple. I discover by accident that it is only visible through polarized sunglasses. Maybe that’s the secret to seeing everything here in the right light.
On the ferry back to Napoli, the flatscreens in all the compartments are showing Torto e Ragione – Il Verdetto Finale, a family-court-type reality show. The sound is piped in extra-loud through the ceiling speakers. The judge is a blonde cougar, an angular red, black, and white 80s dress under her undone robes revealing serious cleavage. She smiles obligingly when the defense attorney smiles suggestively and makes goo goo eyes at her. Surely there’s some serious legal spread-eagling going on between tapings.
It’s a custody case and there’s a lot of animated, convinced talking over each other, but one thing everyone can agree on is the necessity of being well-dressed, which they most emphatically are, including a 77-year-old grandma who looks like a tenured high priestess in flowing, tailored black, creme, and gold silk robes and a full head of glorious white hair the hue of a noble-bred pigeon’s wing. Also: tastefully applied mascara. The other women – including the stereotypically mercenary, ill-figured, ill-tempered prosecutor – wear high heels; even the long-suffering mother in danger of losing her baby girl to a rapacious absentee father. She’s also wearing an endearing floral-patterned grotesco dress with an elegant yet family-oriented cut.
Finally, the jury is given its marching orders, first by one side, then the other; it files out to deliberate. A camera spies on their pros and cons, the 12 deciders a perfect cross section of an ideal Italian society, age-, race-, and gender-wise. True and glorious Commedia dell’Arte this is.
I’m in Italy for ten days, meandering from Lecce to Verona via Firenze, stopping here and there, everywhere. Sure, one shouldn’t confuse tourism with immigration, but if I may be permitted to say this: Italia, paese meraviglioso – ti voglio bene!
From the top of the muscular white swan of the Jadrolinija Split–Vis ferry I watch the wake striating the deep-blue-sea navy of the water, but any thought it could have of creating a lasting tide is naive: its stark white crests dissipate into a sort of piping on the folds of a great skirt before transforming into swirling aquamarine, blending into the two halves of the Adriatic momentarily left behind the ship. This shade of blue I have never encountered before, neither tint nor intensity. It’s a hue that ensorcels, that has ways to make you talk, yet, in the end, leaves you speechless.
Once on Vis, the island, we are whisked by a local couple – Jélena, a former triathlete with the finely defined musculature of a thoroughbred and a tired smile, and her beau Alf, née Hrvoje, a balding, thin, silent, efficient type who chain-smokes hand-rolleds – along a twisting road to a beach featuring large white pebbles and extra-clear turquoise water. А few feet in, the bottom drops out, but since you always see it, you never know the depth. We dive with eyes open, legs flailing, yet at 30 meters from shore we never reach the porous white rock below, though it seems ever within reach.
Next is a short hop to Alf’s clifftop cabana bar overlooking a placid lagoon. There are nine of us, and we take two cars. I am here with my friends, masters of yoga masterclasses and spa retreats, who travel the world and even run a destination travel company, Qi Yo Travel, but even they are in a for a surprise. What we see as we arrive, entirely unexpected – as I, at least, did not prepare for this outing by reading any Lonely Planet literature on the Blue Grotto or environs – is, essentially, a 360-degree postcard. I notice that the benches we’re sitting on are made of long army-green ammunition boxes with writing on them in English, an incongruous echo of the war that raged here over 20 years ago. Later, as we skip down a lava-rock slope, pile onto a little white cutter, make it to the famous grotto and then back to the cabana to flowing cold drinks, huge vegetarian salads in the making, and the promise of fresh-caught grilled fish, the whole enterprise threatens to devolve into a too-good-to-be-true version of a Mediterranean paradise.
Dusk comes first to the sea. The lagoon ripples with the gentlest of shimmers, and a gossamer net covers the water, its top-surface a luminous ginger, inside each rhomboid opening a colorless dapple of sea. I look ahead to a yellow-green fire engulfing the trees massed on the opposite hill. The net is its reflection. And still, the color of water that stays with me is the one I saw spreading as far as the eye could see that morning, on the Jadrolinija.
In the dark, by the light of ancient cast-iron-and-glass lanterns smoking to high heaven, there is ground-walnut strudel and – this cannot possibly be, and yet – homemade sour-cherry liqueur that is nothing less and little more than the quintessence of that most noble of berries, and even fruits. Sated, intoxicated, we crane our heads up to see stars galore and the yogurtous swirls of the galaxy, and if we could just extinguish the fuming lanterns, the sky would be crisp and deep-blue-sea-dark enough to perhaps see the future.
But if someone extinguishes them, it won’t be clear who has pilfered the last of the strudel, drained the remaining liqueur, and so we strain our eyes, seeking our next falling star, and I wonder what all of this means; whether I could recapture that shade of blue, furrowed by lamb-crests of wake, that I had seen from the top of the ferry, and whether one should even try.
In Milano on Ferragosto, the festival celebrating the Assumption of Mary, walking through the felicitously planned, carelessly groomed park around the Castello Sforzesco, you hear dancing. They’ve just finished singing the immortal, shameless Toto Cutugno hit L’Italiano as you spy the big white tent with no walls, and come closer and see a roiling crowd of rhythmic seniors dancing to the music, getting their juice from a middle-aged couple singing onstage.
She’s a long-haired brunette with white skin and a girl’s earnest voice, in wide-legged white pants, and she’s got just the tiniest bit of a camel-toe when she hitches them up across the swath of belly towards the tiny black top while blowing, out of breath, up on her bangs because she’s hot, and you can see the opaque front pockets shining through the white linen pants on her hips, and she’s fanning herself with some cheap disposable fan between verses, making smiling flamenco gestures with her hands, and the impromptu-dancing audience is loving the generation-old tunes she and her too-tanned partner with Roman hair and a hoop in the ear are belting through an amateur-sounding audio system, and it’s a real feria of an atmosphere and everyone is twenty-five years younger and there’s racial and gender and all other kinds of harmony in effect.
The women in this city, by the way – the 45-and-over set – are unabashedly, gloriously sexy: bright-eyed, tanned and wide-hipped, impossibly slim-waisted for their or any age, squeeze-breasted, with fine lace bras peeking out of their, say, aquamarine summer dresses that show plenty of leg, the occasional burst of cellulite or varicose vein on the satin skin notwithstanding. They feel beautiful and they smile and smile, and it all works for them, in the sense that it works for them and their audience. Maybe it’s Ferragosto or maybe – in this city of effortless, airborne feel for style – maybe they’re born with it.
In the evening, after a meal organically balanced between salty and bitter, wine and fish, sprezzatura and conversazione, you walk along an old residential street when, in a quintessentially Italian moment of the horsehair canvassing of cinema that undergirds life becoming just barely visible through the quotidian fabric, one looks up to see a man in a third-floor room in this old quarter of Milano – so the ceilings are high – sitting before a flat-screen TV mounted high, looking up in devotion, his face illuminated, gaze transfixed, high on the bare wall behind him a picture of Mary.
An image right out of Reality.
There either is the ineffable understanding that a creating force or spirit exists – or there isn’t. If there is, no reasoning is needed for persuasion; this force is felt and seen as clearly as we feel our bodies, see a sunrise. If there isn’t, no mountain of numbers or fact-based arguments will succeed, since everything may always be attributed to some mechanical or random explanation.
Ultimately, it’s about whatever leaves one content, without either camp forcing its ideas on the other. And yet I cannot help but think how bereft of wonder must be a world and a worldview in which every thing can be explained and there is no room for what we humans consider miraculous or ‘out of this world’ – that is to say: beyond our ability to fathom it with the faculty of reason alone.
Love, after all, is beyond reason – and even anti-reason – and yet we place it on a pedestal and worship it. Is it, then, that much of a stretch to conceive of a larger, universal love that is the will and energy which continually create and sustain the world?
The point being made – and it may be too esoteric or occult or right-brained or, if you will, wholehearted for some to apprehend – is that there is a knowledge beyond what we call feeling, and certainly beyond what we call empirical knowledge. The latter may arrive at information provided long ago by – let’s, at the risk of blowing someone’s mind, call it – the knowledge of the heart, but it cannot equal or surpass this information. Those who know, know, i.e. perceive and apprehend the awe-some oneness of the universe, not merely the kaleidoscopic beauty of its individual fragments interacting. Those who don’t believe in this type of knowledge should, at the very least, listen to a few hours of my man Alan Watts, to whom I now pass the baton.
“The mind is a terrible thing to worship. Blow your minds on a regular basis, my friends. Breathe. Meditate. For an hour each day, don’t think. Blow your minds.”
Среди миров, в мерцании светил
Одной звезды я повторяю имя.
Не потому, чтоб я ее любил,
А потому, что мне темно с другими.
И если мне на сердце тяжело,
Я у нее одной ищу ответа,
Не потому, что от нее светло,
А потому, что с ней не надо света.
Somewhere in space, among the distant lights,
There is a star, whose name I whisper nightly,
It’s not on her that I have set my sights,
It’s just that other stars don’t shine as brightly.
And if my heart is heavy with a plight,
It’s she alone who always seems inviting,
It’s not that she gives off a lot of light,
It’s that with her I don’t need any lighting.
Before stopping for the night in Las Cruces, NM, traveling west on I-70, at 80-some miles per hour I passed a sign reading ‘White Sands National Monument’. I slowed down and kept going for half a mile, but something made me turn around. A good thing, too. It was the sunset hour. Driving a mile into the national park, past the place where you pay $3 to the two rangers in the guard booth, you see the asphalt turn white. Another three miles on this path brings you to a land of dunes – great white dunes set against mountains blue from the angle of the light and a pastel sky burning in the west with the sunset, filtered through laminae of heat and dust and clouds. And the clouds over these dunes of gypsum sands are creatures of pure light, shorn of heft, filled with nothing but air and a sort of purity of existence. They simply are. These clouds don’t seem at all painted, yet if there could be a picture of heaven, of a clarity and beauty at the level of Revelation, of G-d communicating with the world via light and its cousin, color, it would probably look like this:
Over the keyboard of a concert grand in an overlit recording studio, barely noticing the Bremen Philharmonic Orchestra behind him, which he directs sporadically, sits a hunchback with large hands, using them to play Bach and to dramatically brush back thick strands of his James-Dean-worthy hair. The next second reveals that it is a man with a palsy, his face contorted into a grimace corresponding to a pain of 11 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the next shows the face of a man of, say, 27, in a simple black v-neck sweater, still playing Bach, and playing him with a facility and assuredness that are uncanny, otherworldly. Frightening.
He has large brown eyes, sensuous red lips, the aforementioned good hair, a balanced face. He is lanky, not too tall, not too short, and has the pouncing gait and reflexive body language of a young rocker. He is an amalgam of the young Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and, appropriately, since he is playing Bach – Glenn Gould.
On his face passing intimations of epiphany, tragedy, clairvoyance, the pain of intolerable pleasure, the ravishment of seeing G-d’s own face, an imbecile’s Napoleonic grandstanding, the disarming directness of a child, and dozens others and half-others register before crumbling into the next grimace. To say that he is too much would be to say nothing at all. It would make much more sense to ask who gave this character the weekend pass from the insane asylum.
His eyes pop, his neck veins bulge, his fingernails are bitten and frayed. One moment his head is back in receipt of divine grace, the next, mouth open over the keyboard, he is gasping for air, biting at unseen magic dragonflies.
He’s brisk to the point of brusqueness. He hectors the orchestra, however Frenchly. “Obsession!” he growls, looking into the players’ eyes for a response (a waste of time, as they are German, tenured, and simply not used to this kind of crazed passion). “You have to be like a psychopath on this, no?”
To add to all of this, he periodically comments into a microphone to Etienne, his audio engineer, in French, of course, on the sound of the orchestra and on his general impression of the whole thing (seldom favorable). Not surprisingly, the camera registers many an arched eyebrow and eye roll from the players.
And then the director treats us to splices of him at the piano in some stylized basement, a light scarf waiting to slip off his shoulder, explaining his understanding of the same passages in an impenetrable grounds-of-Versailles-stroll-avec-parasol-et-petit-poodle French, condescendingly transmogrified into tiny English subtitles for the benefit of non-Francophone viewers.
He is maudlin, mawkish, hyperbolic, histrionic. He prefers abstractions, philosophy and top-heavy metaphors for the simplest descriptions; in short, he’s French. He makes faces that would get a third-rate actor booted from last-minute auditions to be an early-morning weekend children’s party clown for a provincial town’s Orphans & Widows Society. He is off-putting, grotesque, quite possibly disingenuous. He is the very picture of an overbearing, pompous, self-absorbed, overintellectualizing snob. Did we mention that he speaks English with a clownish French accent? We did mention, didn’t we, that he’s French?
His criticism is on-target, his suggestions relevant, ideas original. “Bach’s point is not virtuosity. His point is to bring matter more intensely to the boiling point!” His insights are not trite, his generalizations highly inspired. As he finally teases the sound he’s always had in his head from the players, we start seeing smiles of genuine wonder on their faces. His musical instinct is impeccable. He is one exasperatingly annoying bastard, but he’s pretty close to genius.
“How can you play Bach after Glenn Gould?” ask the liner notes for this 2008 film by Bruno Monsaingeon. This is how.
Drop everything and listen for yourself.
The life of a freelancer affords no community. This much has been well documented and is plainly plain. And membership in The Freelancers’ Union – much advertised – only takes you so far.
Imagine my delight, then, when, on only my third day in Tel Aviv I got to meet the upstairs neighbors during two consecutive air-raid sirens, which we spent on my landing. I learned that one of them understands Russian (no snide remarks behind his back in the Czar’s English for me) and that his family is from St. Petersburg, although he’s never been. “Go,” I said; “Putin had the city renovated 10 years ago for its 300th anniversary, and the paint’s still not spalling too badly. It’s beautiful; go.”
As I went back inside my apartment for the second time, back I went to a project I had to do for a client in besieged Ukraine who needed translations of some speeches made at the mid-May Moscow Conference on International Security. Between taking shelter in Tel Aviv and working into American English on the subject of security in Moscow – all for a client in Kiev – geopolitics was certainly playing a role in my evening. Some of the delegates at the conference: Iran, Syria, Belarus – in short, Psychos Descend On Red Square For Sleazefest as The New York Post doubtless would have put it. With a pro forma dedication, the speech of the Iranian Minister of Defense was off to a high-flying start: “In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate!”
Somewhere towards the beginning, there was this sentence: “In my capacity as the Minister of Defense of a country that itself is the victim of blind, mercenary terrorism, which, unfortunately, enjoys support and protection from those who present themselves as “fighters against terrorism” and “defenders of human rights”, I hereby declare that the government and people of Iran are, as they have always been, against any form of terrorism, especially state terrorism.”
Funny, I thought, how life works. Here I am, sitting under a bit of a hail of rockets that peace-loving Hamas militants received as a token of appreciation from Iran – although the gift must’ve been laced with a smidgen or two of disgusted condescension, since in private these descendants of the once-great Persian empire will tell you of their misgivings about dealing with Arabs, since they are, and I quote, “Semites” – yes, so here I am, stayin’ alive, and translating some not-too-on-the-level words by an Iranian leader. Although all for a good cause, since the Ukrainian client is a think tank.
I thought warmly about my two newly-met neighbors and about the possibility of, say, grabbing an Americano and, say, labneh laced with silan at the café across the street with one of them, and perhaps discussing the crucial differences in cool-kid clichédom between the Tel Aviv and New York hipster scenes in some halting Hebrew for me and a little kindergarten Russian for him. In short, I thought of making friends – building that vaunted community everybody’s so up in arms about, as if it were manna from heaven. Then I thought that if Hamas really wanted to fool people, as if they haven’t already, they could completely re-brand themselves, with a nice picture of families huddling in a concrete staircase, away from windows and facades, doubled over in communal laughter and visceral camaraderie, with the slogan: HAMAS. Connecting People.
My daydream over, I surveyed the speech. The Minister of Defense was out on a minute digit tracing back to a joint extending from a limb, but no less blithely confident for it:
“As my presentation comes to a close, please allow me to declare that the Islamic Republic of Iran, which in the past three decades has made greater efforts than any other country to bring into existence regional and international stability and security, and in connection with this took important steps in order to defuse crises and problems having to do with security in Central Asia, in the Caucuses, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and Palestine, will continue these efforts uninterruptedly.”
God bless him, I thought. At least someone’s trying. Allah, I mean. Allah bless him.
And then I remembered how, the day before, when I was in Jerusalem, which was inexplicably also being attacked – “Not *my* Eternal Capital!” says a kerchiefed fighter of freedom as he loads up a hissing projectile into a heinous ejectile – I had seen the darndest thing. A Breslaw Chassid, a middle-aged man in an old car, with his white prophet’s beard waving like a flag out of the open window, was chugging up a hill, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding a plastic gun dispensing soap bubbles. He had a beatific smile on his face, and in the hush of the sunset hour he bellowed: “Don’t you worry, my children. These rockets, they are empty. Empty like these soap bubbles. Don’t you worry. We will overcome.” A heavily tattooed woman stopped and blew him a big wet one from the sidewalk.
This post was first published on the Times of Israel blog: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tin-over-tel-aviv/
Love Song: I and Thou
Nothing is plumb, level, or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage’s nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it. I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
Песнь любви: я и ты
Покажите мне здесь
Хоть одну прямую, ладную вещь:
косяк – косой, балки – шатки,
а на стыках – то режь, то брешь.
И повсюду гвозди, согнувшись,
Знает Бог, я не плотник. Я возвел
себе крышу, себе же стены,
для себя положил полы
и сам себе подписал приговор.
С посиневшим пальцем я выл,
пританцовывая, на новоселье,
опьянев от ярости – собственного
С какой яростью я пронзал гвоздями
этот скелет. Но он выстоял.
На какой-то неповторимый миг
он стал прямо, прочно,
ладно и правильно. А потом,
произведя тот же крен,
но в другую сторону.
Все здесь проклято Богом. Это ад,
но ад моих рук; я пилил
и гвозди я забивал,
и жить тут мне
пока он меня не погубит.
Я могу пригвоздить к перекладине
левую руку, но сам
я не справлюсь со всем.
Кто-то правую должен
прибить за меня, –
кто-то, любимая, ты, жена.
Стихотворный отрывок из рассказа Пушкина Египетские ночи. Читает неповторимый Сергей Юрский.
Чертог сиял. Гремели хором
Певцы при звуке флейт и лир.
Царица голосом и взором
Свой пышный оживляла пир;
Сердца неслись к ее престолу,
Но вдруг над чашей золотой
Она задумалась и долу
Поникла дивною главой…
И пышный пир как будто дремлет,
Безмолвны гости. Хор молчит.
Но вновь она чело подъемлет
И с видом ясным говорит:
В моей любви для вас блаженство?
Блаженство можно вам купить…
Внемлите ж мне: могу равенство
Меж нами я восстановить.
Кто к торгу страстному приступит?
Свою любовь я продаю;
Скажите: кто меж вами купит
Ценою жизни ночь мою? —
— Клянусь… — о матерь наслаждений,
Тебе неслыханно служу,
На ложе страстных искушений
Простой наемницей всхожу.
Внемли же, мощная Киприда,
И вы, подземные цари,
О боги грозного Аида,
Клянусь — до утренней зари
Моих властителей желанья
Я сладострастно утолю
И всеми тайнами лобзанья
И дивной негой утомлю.
Но только утренней порфирой
Аврора вечная блеснет,
Клянусь — под смертною секирой
Глава счастливцев отпадет.
Жизненно, не правда ли? Ведь происходит это чаще, чем кажется.
Marina Abramović and Ulay started an intense love story in the 70s. When they felt the relationship was ending, they walked the Great Wall of China, each from one end, meeting for one last big hug in the middle and never seeing each other again. At her 2010 MoMa show Marina shared a minute of silence with each stranger who sat in front of her. Ulay arrived without her knowing, and this is what happened.
Here is another way things can work out.
The Sun of Russian Poetry – 1/8th African – rendered in Ebonics for the first time.
* * *
Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может,
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.
* * *
I used to be mad into you; and maybe
The sh*t I felt for you ain’t gone nowhere.
But that ain’t none of your damn business, foxy lady!
Your job is to be happy, not to care.
I loved you… though I got ‘returned to sender’.
Though sh*t was on the DL, I could kill!
And ’cause my feelings was so true, so tender,
The money take my place – best keep sh*t real!
Я прочел Гимн здоровью Маяковского – нарочито грубый, анти-интеллектуальный, предвосхищавший советское кондовство и даже нацистское, визиготское торжество животной агрессии – но последние две строчки напомнили мне совсем другой стих Генриха Сапгира Бабья деревня. Хотя и там и там все заканчивается удовлетворением изнемогающих самок волосатыми самцами.
Среди тонконогих, жидких кровью,
трудом поворачивая шею бычью,
на сытый праздник тучному здоровью
людей из мяса я зычно кличу!
Чтоб бешеной пляской землю овить,
скучную, как банка консервов,
давайте весенних бабочек ловить
сетью ненужных нервов!
И по камням острым, как глаза ораторов,
красавцы-отцы здоровых томов,
потащим мордами умных психиатров
и бросим за решетки сумасшедших домов!
А сами сквозь город, иссохший как Онания,
с толпой фонарей желтолицых, как скопцы,
голодным самкам накормим желания,
поросшие шерстью красавцы-самцы!
Свиней в овраге он пасет.
кричит овцой, мычит коровой.
Один мужик в деревне. Вот —
Веревкой черной подпоясан,
на голом теле — пиджачок.
Зимой и летом кое в чем,
веревкой черной подпоясан.
Он много ест. Он любит мясо.
По избам ходит дурачок,
веревкой черной подпоясан,
на голом теле — пиджачок.
Вдова — хозяйка пожилая —
Собой черна, ряба, суха
вдова — хозяйка пожилая.
Но сладок грех. Греха желая,
зазвала в избу дурака.
Пылая, баба пожилая
борщем кормила пастуха.
Урчал. Бессмысленно моргая,
таращил мутные глаза.
Так чавкал, что хрустело за
ушами — и глядел моргая.
Как сахар, кости разгрызал.
Пил молоко, как пес, лакая.
Насытился. Сидит, рыгая.
Как щели, мутные глаза.
Как быть, что делать бабе вдовой?
Он — как младенец. Спит пастух.
Тряпье. Капусты кислый дух…
Как быть, что делать бабе вдовой?
Она глядит: мужик здоровый,
литая грудь, на скулах пух.
Как быть? Что делать бабе вдовой?
В ней кровь разбередил пастух.
Вдруг ощутила: душит что-то,
Все учащенней сердца стук.
Босая — к двери. Дверь — на крюк!
К нему! Упало, брякнув, что-то
и разбудило идиота.
В его мычании — испуг.
— Не бойся! — жарко шепчет кто-то.
Все учащенней сердца стук…
Ночь. Ночь осенняя, глухая,
все холоднее, все темней.
На лампу дует из сеней.
Ночь, ночь осенняя, глухая.
В садах шуршит листва сухая.
Черна деревня. Нет огней.
Ночь! Ночь осенняя, глухая.
Все холоднее, все темней.
Спят на полу и на полатях.
Ворочаются на печи.
Как печи, бабы горячи.
И девкам душно на полатях.
Там сестры обнимают братьев
среди подушек и овчин.
Возня и вздохи на полатях.
Томленье, стоны на печи.
Парней забрали. Служат где-то.
Мужья — на стройках в городах.
В тайге иные — в лагерях.
Иных война пожрала где-то.
Зовут их бабы! Нет ответа.
Деваться девкам не-ку-да!
В солдатах парни, служат где-то,
в столицах, в дальних городах.
Тоскуют бедра, груди, спины.
Тоскуют вдовы тут и там.
Тоскуют жены по мужьям.
Тоскуют бедра, груди, спины.
Тоскуют девки, что невинны.
Тоскуют самки по самцам.
Тоскуют бедра, груди, спины –
тоскуют, воя, тут и там!
И лишь рябая — с идиотом.
Лежат, обнявшись. Дышит мгла.
Сопят. В любви рябая зла!
Блудит рябая с идиотом.
Лампадка светит из угла.
Христос с иконы смотрит: кто там?
А там — рябая с идиотом.
Сопит и трудно дышит мгла.
Вот лопоухий, редкобровый,
Уснул, открыв слюнявый рот.
Вот лопоухий, редкобровый
урод. Но сильный и здоровый.
Один мужик в деревне. Вот,
вот — лопоухий, редкобровый
и вислогубый идиот!
Однажды я не любил одну женщину.
Я не любил ее активно. Моя активность, правда, внушила женщине, что я ее люблю. Так физическое отличается от душевного.
Мы встретились в кружке тай-чи. У нее кошачья фигура и большие серые глаза. Она хлопала ресницами в моем направлении и водила бедрами уходя в ином. Я наблюдал, ибо не замечать все это было бы еще пошлей.
Делала она все это с чувством меры. Все в ней было со вкусом и еще чуточку пере. Одевалась она феерически; но в том то и дело – что слегка вызывающе. Глаза были очень светлые и слишком большие, бедра выдающиеся, аромат тончайший, вкус головокружительный. Всего чуточку пере. В самый раз она была, кроме характера.
Было в нем что-то стальное, с примесью молибдена и старых традиций качества. Из нее получился бы знатный японский клинок, но на поле боя я оказался с белорусской ведьмой.
Волосы пшеничные, ржаные, с вереском. Кожа смуглая, изгиб поясницы маловероятный, губы пухлые, губы многогранные. Руки костлявые. Это видимо выдавало ведьменную ее натуру. Ухаживала она за собой, как служанка за Клеопатрой, к встречам нашим готовилась тщательно, профессионально, бесконечно. На ее прикроватном столике я как-то увидел книгу Искусство романа; читать, а тем более писать, романы времени у нее не было.
По этому всему, любя ее я не позволял себе влюбиться в нее.
* * *
Я сидел у нее на кожаном диване, недалеко от самой южной точки Манхэттена. Мы уже погуляли по микрорайону; был теплый майский вечер. Поели; она сказала, заходя со мной в кафе: Мужчину нужно сначала накормить, а то от голодных – никакого толку. Поговорили о пустяках и о разном; она все отсыпала мне комплименты. Я вроде знал, что где-то у нее есть муж, который давно не появлялся в Нью-Йорке. Сам я за день до этого прилетел откуда-то, где у меня была девушка. Прыгать из одной кровати в другую, да еще в чужую, я не собирался. Потом, в образовавшейся тишине, она сказала: Интересно, что будет если я сделаю вот так. Встала со своего кожаного дивана, поцеловала меня в губы и опять села. Такие выпады хорошо получались у нее в кружке тай-чи…
Бежать. Бежать не глядя. Надо было бы. Но мужская гордыня и лакомый кусок… Вот так все и началось. Чуть позже, я несколько минут извинялся перед ней за то, что часто бывает у мужчин когда они впервые оказываются в постели с определенной очень красивой женщиной. Потом извиняться было не за что. На следующее утро мы ехали в одном вагоне метро, рядом но далеко друг от друга.
Через пару недель, когда она уже говорила о том, что все это было суждено и предрешено (оказывается, ей один знакомый астролог посоветовал завести со мной роман) я написал ей:
Еще недели через две, когда я вошел в химическую зависимость от нее, а она от меня, я написал лишь полушутя:
* * *
И все-таки я убежал. Я уехал к той девушке, хотя уже думал только об этой. Она случайно узнала незадолго до моего отъезда и прореагировала очень ровно. Утром в августовский день отъезда я проснулся в ее благоухающей постели. Мои д’артаньяновские усы были пропитаны ее ароматом. Перед аэропортом я их сбрил.
Я вернулся через 7 недель по семейным делам и она неожиданно встречала меня в аэропорту. Самолюбию угодила, нечего сказать. Я повел ее в дорогой французский ресторан, где, обнаглев, позволил себе рапсодическую тираду по поводу того, как я скоро буду наслаждаться роскошной женщиной. Позже, не стерпев разницы во времени, я заснул в постели.
* * *
Еще через 7 месяцев я вернулся. К тому времени мы регулярно не общались. Потом я узнал, что она беременна от одного из медведей из кружка тай-чи. Это было облегчением, потому что теперь я знал, что стальной клинок в медовых ножнах придется носить иному. На ее дне рожденья я произнес тост, в котором желал ей в жизни стержня, вокруг которого она, как женщина, могла бы обвиться.
Я даже принес ей цветы в роддом. Потом я видел ее дочь, приносил какие-то подарочки. Потом, слишком теплым мартовским днем, она пригласила меня к себе. Я, как водилось раньше, купил изысканные французские сладости и, хорошо понимая, что должен был отказаться, поехал к ней. Только чай, говорил я себе.
Выглядела она как-то неестественно хорошо. Ребенка уложила быстро. А потом и меня.
Следов родов не было. Она восстановилась по-ведьменски. Сладость осталась та-же.
В середине мая в одночасье по всему Нью Йорку появилась сирень. Я знал, что она особенно ее любит. У прагматичного грека-цветочника я заказал душистый, тяжелый, дорогущий букет и послал его ей через весь город, приписав
Через некоторое время она предложила мне жениться на ней. В постели. Сказала, что ей нужно остаться в стране и что статус ей нужен сразу. Я должен был согласиться на то, что она обвинит меня в оскорблениях и угрозах и, пытаясь спасти ее от опасного мужа, иммиграционные органы дадут ей срочный статус. Я согласился на это. Так физическое отличается от умственного.
Мы даже ездили к юристу, которая все это мне объяснила, таким образом совершив преступление, достойное потери адвокатской лицензии. Мы решили устроить красивую микро-свадьбу в мэрии. Черный костюм и галстук, белая рубашка, новые туфли, кремовый платок из изысканнейшего французского шелка. Она купила дорогое кремовое платье, которое потом сдала. Когда мы выходили из загса, велокурьер, съезжавший с бруклинского моста засмотрелся на нее и полетел через руль, приземлившись у наших ног и бормоча извинения. Мы распили бутылку шампанского из бокалов в сквере мэрии, на виду у полицейских. Когда мы шли по Бродвею нас остановил аристократического вида путешественник с огромным рюкзаком за спиной и от души пожелал нам счастья в семейной жизни. Мне стало перед ним неудобно; по большей части это представление было блефом. Хотя и не полностью. Придя домой после ресторана, я взял ее на руки, а потом и в объятья, теперь – как жену, – и это было хорошо.
За несколько дней до свадьбы я, человек традиционных взглядов, написал ей письмо на красивой старой бумаге и запечатал его в плотном конверте сургучом со своим именным клеймом. Посредством этого письма я официально просил ее руки.
Дорогая и вожделенная мною Л.Л.!
Ввиду международной обстановки и не сложившихся обстоятельств, извольте ходить за меня замуж. Вы перевернули моё мироощущение аккурат вверх тормашками и, с некоторых пор, белый свет мне стал не мил без Вашей Светлости в качестве моей законной супруги. Так что, сделайте любезность и пойдите со мной под венец.
Ваша лепота и роскошные формы сразили бы любого. Так чем же хуже я всех остальных? Вроде ничем; а коль так, будьте добры да будьте моей благоверной.
Подумайте только: Ваша мудрость и прекрасный вкус схлестнутся с моим неизлечимым прекраснодушием и беспрестанным Вами восхищением. Не это ли идиллия? А кто-то еще что-то там говорил насчет шалаша в Финском заливе. Хотя я не против. Можно и в шалаше. Главное – чтоб не в грехе.
Словом, сделайте меня самым счастливым человеком на планете и станьте моей суженой. За мужней любовью дело не постоит, даю слово. Ну а о супружеском долге я и не заикаюсь… Надеюсь, Вам и так все ясно. Тут, знаете ли, страсть, какая страсть…
Ну что еще могу Вам такого ввернуть, чтобы Вы потеряли сомнения и голову?
Мужчина я скромный, но в одежде знаю толк. Если что, могу за наряд похвалить. За волосы ничего мне не стоит комплимент отпустить. Пью вино, но учитывая цены, алкоголизм мне не грозит. Курить не курю. О всем остальном вечном здесь даже как-то и неудобно.
Будет Вам от меня честь и хвала. Буду любить и жаловать. На руках также носить буду. Вкратце, вроде бы всё. Подробнее: дальше – больше.
Ходите, ходите замуж за меня, Ваша Светлость, не пожалеете.
Преданный Вам до гроба,
* * *
По утрам она часто переносила крошечную девочку свою к нам постель. Ребенок лежал между нами и смотрел на меня. Видимо она хотела, чтобы дочь привыкла ко мне.
Beauty is what I saw in the angle of her extended arm when she rested on it, half-asleep, as the baby cried in the morning, before fluttering out of bed to tend to it.
The beauty of form, as the angle of the arm reflected the line of her hip, where the elbow met the waist, the way it fit as she stood, walked, was.
Beauty of texture beguiled my even sleepy eyes with the undulating, complex waves and woven color of her wheat-and-rye hair. More than two feet long, this waterfall of blonde fabric was right there before me, too beautiful not to touch and kiss and dig my fingers into, even though I knew that it was distracting her from having to get up because the baby was still crying, awake, awet and asking for attention.
* * *
Позже, когда ленты бывшего банта распались на волокна, я попытался мысленно сфотографировать то, что не поддается ни языку, ни уму, и неизменно искажается – особенно воспоминаниями.
I need to commit the last time we made love to paper because it was so… sweet, yes, sweet, in every sense, as nothing I’d tasted before. I felt easy and sure, familiar with her desire. She was relaxed, holding nothing back, and flowered with such a sure, exquisite fragrance that, even though I was spoiled by her – knowing her – it was – yes – ecstasy just to inhale the pure parfume. This is the stuff that tries men’s souls and makes great fragrance houses in Grasse fear bankrupcy.
I need to write of our last time together before time makes it seem mythic, more majestic, more unearthly, more earthly or sweeter than it was.
* * *
Мы поехали за город, к ее знакомым. Предварительно она попросила меня прибить два волнистых зеркала в дочерней спальне. Формой они напоминали малайский кинжал. Чуть позже я почувствовал их под лопаткой.
Я задержался, возясь с дрелью и хлипкими стенами, и мы выехали на 15 минут позже, чем собирались. Она кричала на меня у машины держа дочь на руках, обвиняя меня в том, что из за меня у ребенка срывается график сна, из за чего она будет плакать. Прохожие оборачивались. Дочь уже плакала. Так на меня никто никогда не кричал. Она говорила со мной даже не как с подчиненным.
Почему-то я не ушел оттуда, а сел в машину с ними и два с половиной часа ехал молча пока она первые полчаса оскорбляла меня, а потом пока еще два часа мы искали дом друзей. Дочь плакала. Я делал все это ради нее, на автомате, – чтобы ребенок подышал свежим воздухом.
Когда мы наконец приехали, продолжать быть с ней рядом было невозможно. Но почему-то я считал, что в присутствии хозяев должен играть роль счастливого мужа/любовника. У меня заболело сердце. Я конечно знал, что у нее такой характер, но сделать мне так больно… Хотя, наверное, я сделал все это намного больнее для себя, чем оно могло быть.
Спали мы в одной кровати, но я спал максимально далеко от нее. Дотронуться до женщины, которой я повелевал своим касанием теперь было бы для меня немыслимым.
Утром было еще тяжелее. В какой-то момент стало невыносимо. Мне было нечем дышать. Мы оба оказались на кухне. Она подошла ко мне сзади, по-мужски, обняла меня и сказала: Давай оставим это позади. Есть же столько прекрасного, общего у нас. Я согласился, но не сразу. Я не мог так быстро перестроиться и сделать вид, что ничего не было. Видимо, она ожидала мгновенной реакции, как с подчиненными. Ничего не изменилось.
Обратно мы ехали под постоянный плач дочери, свинцовые обвинения и исполняемую детским хором Old McDonald Had a Farm. Я довез их до дома с волнистыми зеркалами и ушел из него навсегда.
* * *
К счастью, наши изначальные планы официально обвинить меня в угрозах и насилии ни к чему не привели. Она не отвечала на мои письма, сообщения, подарки. Я переживал насчет ее статуса, но для нее важнее было меня забыть. Тогда я, с трудом, но забыл ее сам.
Несколько месяцев спустя, теплым майским днем, она заявилась ко мне на работу, вычурно одетая, с летучей гривой и в растрепанных чувствах, вдруг требуя тем-же стальным тоном, чтобы я пошел с ней на собеседование в иммиграционную службу. Но для меня все это было позади. Не полностью, но позади. У нее дергался глаз, она ненавидяще смотрела на меня, потом обругала матом, вспорхнула и билась, как пшенично-ржаная моль, о стеклянные двери кафе. Я выступил вперед, провернул ручку и выпустил ее на волю. Статус она со временем получила.
Позже я нашел начало стишка, который я написал к рождению ее дочери:
Humanity has trafficked in the concept of money since the days when establishing the relative value of five sheep’s bladders of undiluted wine and thirteen slightly stale loaves of spelt-flour bread became too much of a crapshoot. At some point, metal, salt, cattle or pretty shells became the universal indicator of worth. In those very times of yore, the value a family derived from its daughters was in their virginity, which meant marriageability and a dowry. The actual formula was Marriageability = Brains + (Beauty x Age)Virginity. Virginity was an assumed asset, brains – a potential liability. Beauty and age mattered, but a scary old maid (by definition, and in fact, a virgin) was worth more to our forefathers than a hot-to-trot young widow.
These days, it is harder and harder to find virgins. The age at which virginity is lost is more or less a constant through the ages, but holy matrimony now happens later and later in life. Society squints and scowls at virginity; beauty is the ultimate prize. Virginity is worth just about as much as brains once were – not much – and what is not in demand, quickly withers. At the same time, today’s societies are suffering through a global economic decline, which, some say, is due to the fact that money is virtual, no longer backed by anything tangible, instead created at will in electronic form, as zeroes on a flickering screen, by private corporations unconcerned with the public good.
And so, an idea is born.
Speaking in market terms, the value of virginity has fallen to historic lows, and is due for a rebound. Investing in virginity would not only right today’s lax moral standards, but could also shore up the economy. After all, virginity is a tangible, verifiable good, and a virtue to boot. And so, in conjunction with her debutante’s ball, quinceañera or sweet sixteen, a virgin girl files for an Initial Public Offering, with shares in her undeflowered state then traded on the secondary market, perhaps the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Research analysts at major brokerages cover her the way they currently cover companies in the manufacturing, high-tech or healthcare sectors, reporting on fundamentals, such as personal hygiene, preference for strenuous exercise, and dating activity. Grave hazards to share value, such as sleepovers at the boyfriend’s house or visits to hymen-replacing surgeons, are monitored, duly reported and included in 10K reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her family holds a controlling block of shares in their daughter’s virtue, deriving clear value as well as intangibles, such as reputational benefits and lower health & life insurance premiums. A pre-planned exit strategy covers the entrance into her life of a man meant to introduce her to the joys of womanhood.
In time, the dollar could become backed by the combined virtue of the daughters of America, with the euro, pound, and other currencies following suit. (Thanks to the virtualization and globalization of today’s markets, some godless society entirely lacking in morals could tether the value of its currency to, say, the weighted-average virginity indicator of a simple and pious community living in the woods – perhaps the Amish – radically increasing the purchasing power of the money its sin-mired citizens surely use to perpetrate acts of unspeakable perversion at every turn.) In short, truth and virtue would be popular and profitable, and purity and innocence would once again rule all of Creation.
Let the virgins of the world unite for a stronger currency and a better tomorrow!
Dear Dear One!
I write to you from the heat of battle – one I will not likely survive.
The Turks’ incursion on our garrison began in the dead of night. Our scouts silent, our sentries silenced by marksmen, we were taken by surprise, gravely unprepared for the ensuing bloodbath.
It has been ten straight hours of fighting. Nothing at this point is what it seems. Man and beast have turned into a single heaving mass; the hills have disintegrated into muddy slides, with not a single blade of grass left, just the bloodthirsty sword blades of unhinged, desperate men. Horses are victims and villains both: pierced readily with spears in order to unseat their riders, then trampling their own downed masters in incriminating panic.
Trapped in the overrun trenches breathing fire and death, just yesterday’s brave warriors are today’s bleating, shrieking sheep, begging for mercy and relief from this infernal bloodletting.
The dust of these tan hills, now auburn with our blood, hangs as a cloud above the battlefield, occluding light and blotting out the sun. Whatever we turn our eyes to is a nebulous sight, as unclear and indistinct as are our chances of surviving.
Five times in as many months we have pushed back these fiends from Asia Minor, and fifty times they have come back, swarming our positions in wave after impetuous wave of rat-like ferocity, their bugle boys eking frightening, strident battle calls from what appear to be brass-plated human hearts. These recalcitrant savages refuse to take a hint, attacking again and again, willing to give their lives – their only possessions in this world, and even those they hardly own – for the Sultan’s slightest whim.
How many times our side has plotted to depose the Sultan! How many spies posing as diplomats and merchants have we sent to the Ottoman court, meant to stir up rebellion and overthrow the despot, instead ending up as an ingredient in the Sultan’s soup.
Of course, we know what he’s after. In his towering cupidity, the Sultan is seeing nothing but gold ducats in his swine-slit eyes – why else would he invade a stretch of Lower Prussia known chiefly for its barren fields and dying villages?! Where’s the chance for profit, you would ask. Ah, but there is one resource Liebefrauland is known for above all in the Teutonic lands – and that is its fair maidens. Of course, I hardly need tell you this, my little Liebefraulandmädchen.
Fearing for the safety of your native province’s most precious resource, The High Command sent Your Humble Servant, along with a detachment of specially trained soldiers to secure the deliverance of all the fair maidens in this province from the pilaf-stained clutches of the Sultan.
Of course, some generals demurred at my being chosen. I was a man of strange tastes and leanings, they said, too eclectic in my choice of personal staff. True, my valet is a one-eyed, hunchbacked dwarf and my arms bearer is a yearling bear, but I am an egalitarian at heart, and I say every specimen of every species deserves an equal opportunity to serve in the army and uphold the spirit of bold adventure, while rescuing maidens from defilement no less. Besides, each of my little helpers has the strength of a dozen men. As for me, although somewhat maniacally fastidious on the twin points of boots always shining and firearms always working, I’m a congenial employer, pleasant and friendly, an occasional satirical remark notwithstanding.
In the end, the military bigwigs’ influence and grumbling militated against my being given full freedom to execute my plan. They made me check in with headquarters daily – an egregious outrage! Of course, now that all lines of communication are destroyed, I have complete theoretical freedom to do everything that in practice I cannot do. Oh, facetious fate – ever laughing, seldom spreading joy! The company of men I was originally given was down to a platoon this morning and, my manservant informs me, is now a mere squad – and not a firing one at that, since we are fresh out of ammunition. The aggregate impression from the many sources of bad news is that we’ll be cut down in hand-to-hand combat quite soon.
The generals – oh, they take their vicarious pleasure in our fighting for their cause! They lie in the tents while we die in the trenches. They scrutinize maps and pore over dispatches while we agonize in pain and pour our hearts out in last letters to loved ones. Death is endemic to the battlefield – it comes with the territory; this much I know. That is precisely why I write this to you.
Mulier est malleus per quem Deus et mollit et malleat universum mundum, the ancients used to say. Woman is the hammer with which God softens and shapes the world. As I am about to face death, I know for sure that it is you who shaped my world, who softened my rough edges – you who made me a better man. I am a man of strict codes and firm convictions, but if you are doing the shaping, then consider me malleable. You engendered my highest motives, inspired my best actions, gave rise to my greatest successes. Everything of importance in my life, darling, I did for you. You, my love, are my reason for living and, the way this battle is going, for dying as well.
In the scope of Creation, man’s time on Earth is but a flit of a firefly’s bottom – a momentary flash in the Universe’s pan, a sudden bit of light in a vast, enveloping darkness; an evanescent scent of roses cutting through the stench of nothingness and death.
Half-naked fakirs in India might drone on on the importance of leaving worldly pleasures behind. Saffron-and-burgundy-robed monks in Tibet will talk of casting off the bonds of attachment. Black-frocked ‘men of God’ may carry on about the need to shield the immortal soul from all temptation. Wooly-haired philosophers will suggest coolly contemplating the world via the mind, leaving no room for the intelligence of the heart. Let them. True as their creeds might be, my love for you alone is the lodestar of my life’s journey, my singularly awesome inspiration, the why and wherefore of the grand adventure that has been my time on this lovely blue sphere that is our home.
Farewell, my lovely. You set my heart asmile. I shall love you always.
Yours for ever,
Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Baron Münchausen
P.S. I beg of you, I order you, I enjoin you: Be happy!
Письма римскому другу (из Марциала)
Нынче ветрено и волны с перехлестом.
Скоро осень, все изменится в округе.
Смена красок этих трогательней, Постум,
чем наряда перемена у подруги.
Дева тешит до известного предела –
дальше локтя не пойдешь или колена.
Сколь же радостней прекрасное вне тела:
ни объятья невозможны, ни измена!
Посылаю тебе, Постум, эти книги.
Что в столице? Мягко стелют? Спать не жестко?
Как там Цезарь? Чем он занят? Все интриги?
Все интриги, вероятно, да обжорство.
Я сижу в своем саду, горит светильник.
Ни подруги, ни прислуги, ни знакомых.
Вместо слабых мира этого и сильных –
лишь согласное гуденье насекомых.
Здесь лежит купец из Азии. Толковым
был купцом он — деловит, но незаметен.
Умер быстро — лихорадка. По торговым
он делам сюда приплыл, а не за этим.
Рядом с ним — легионер, под грубым кварцем.
Он в сражениях империю прославил.
Сколько раз могли убить! а умер старцем.
Даже здесь не существует, Постум, правил.
Пусть и вправду, Постум, курица не птица,
но с куриными мозгами хватишь горя.
Если выпало в Империи родиться,
лучше жить в глухой провинции у моря.
И от Цезаря далёко, и от вьюги.
Лебезить не нужно, трусить, торопиться.
Говоришь, что все наместники — ворюги?
Но ворюга мне милей, чем кровопийца.
Этот ливень переждать с тобой, гетера,
я согласен, но давай-ка без торговли:
брать сестерций с покрывающего тела –
все равно что дранку требовать от кровли.
Протекаю, говоришь? Но где же лужа?
Чтобы лужу оставлял я — не бывало.
Вот найдешь себе какого-нибудь мужа,
он и будет протекать на покрывало.
Вот и прожили мы больше половины.
Как сказал мне старый раб перед таверной:
“Мы, оглядываясь, видим лишь руины”.
Взгляд, конечно, очень варварский, но верный.
Был в горах. Сейчас вожусь с большим букетом.
Разыщу большой кувшин, воды налью им…
Как там в Ливии, мой Постум, — или где там?
Неужели до сих пор еще воюем?
Помнишь, Постум, у наместника сестрица?
Худощавая, но с полными ногами.
Ты с ней спал еще… Недавно стала жрица.
Жрица, Постум, и общается с богами.
Приезжай, попьем вина, закусим хлебом.
Или сливами. Расскажешь мне известья.
Постелю тебе в саду под чистым небом
и скажу, как называются созвездья.
Скоро, Постум, друг твой, любящий сложенье,
долг свой давний вычитанию заплатит.
Забери из-под подушки сбереженья,
там немного, но на похороны хватит.
Поезжай на вороной своей кобыле
в дом гетер под городскую нашу стену.
Дай им цену, за которую любили,
чтоб за ту же и оплакивали цену.
Зелень лавра, доходящая до дрожи.
Дверь распахнутая, пыльное оконце,
стул покинутый, оставленное ложе.
Ткань, впитавшая полуденное солнце.
Понт шумит за черной изгородью пиний.
Чье-то судно с ветром борется у мыса.
На рассохшейся скамейке — Старший Плиний.
Дрозд щебечет в шевелюре кипариса.
Letters To A Friend In Rome (reading Martial)
What a gale we have today – the sea is livid.
Autumn’s coming, with its hues and leafy tresses.
Its kaleidoscope, dear Postum, is more vivid
Than the colors of a lady’s changing dresses.
One may only get so frisky with a beauty –
Knees and elbows signify forbidden places.
How delightful, then, is disembodied Beauty:
Disappointments are as likely as embraces.
I enclose for you some books on plants and potting.
What is Rome like? Sunny speeches? Stormy weather?
How is Caesar? What’s he up to? Ever plotting?
Ever plotting more debauchery, I gather.
I am sitting in my garden; lamps are burning.
Not a soul around, not even an acquaintance.
While the mighty and the meek the Earth are churning
All I hear is insects droning in a cadence.
There’s a merchant buried here – a savvy merchant –
Inconspicuous, yet shrewd, from Asia Minor.
Died of flu, he did. I’m sure he sailed searching
For more business, not exactly just to lie here.
There’s a legionnaire, beneath a rough-hewn stone pile.
Countless victories he won for Roman glory;
Courting death a thousand times! – and dying senile.
There’s no justice, Postum; it’s the same old story.
Let them say that only fools are truly blissful,
But misfortune has for fools its own allowance.
If your homeland is an empire, none too peaceful,
Life is safer in a far-flung, seaside province.
Far from many an unfortunate encounter,
Caesar’s pleasers and, you know, the need to bother;
All the governors take bribes, you’ll counter?
Better bribes than lives, is how I see it, brother.
Through this downpour I will stay with you, hetaera.
Let’s not haggle, though; besides, the beds are singles.
Being a human blanket costs how much?! By Hera!
Tell a roof it owes you shelter, plus some shingles.
What was that you say – I leak? But where’s the puddle?
I have never left a puddle as a lover.
Find a hubby for yourself, so you could huddle;
Then your bed will have more leaks than you could cover.
More than half our lives is gone – a case for ruing?
As this time-worn slave once told me, frail and pallid,
“Looking back,” he said, “we make out only ruins.”
A barbaric thing to say, of course, – but valid.
In the mountains there was fog and heaps of daisies;
Now I need a great big pitcher and some water –
How’s that war with… oh, that province with those crazies?
Wasn’t it last year that we just fought her?
Say, remember that old girl, your former mistress?
With an appetite for men – a real mantis –
Good in bed, you said… Well, she is now a priestess.
Priestess, Postum! and the mighty gods’ apprentice.
Do come visit – we’ll drink wine, you’ll try my cornbread.
Then you’ll tell me all the latest perturbations.
In the garden I’ll put out an ancient daybed,
And at night, I’ll point out the constellations.
Soon, your friend, who likes multiplication,
Will depart to pay a debt he owes division.
Every sesterce I saved up for that vacation
Will now go towards a burial provision.
To the House where the hetaerae ply their calling
Ride that jet-black mare of yours – a splendid mount;
Offer them the price they charged for moaning;
Have them weep for me now, for the same amount.
Laurel leaves so green they shiver on the branches.
Door ajar, a dusty window, distant shoreline.
An abandoned chair, a bed, two lonely benches.
Simple fabric that’s absorbed the midday sunshine.
Pontus heaving just beyond the stone-pine hedgerow.
At the cape, a ship and winds engaged in battle.
On a weathered stump, the Elder Pliny’s shadow.
In a cypress tree, a blackbird’s chirpy prattle.
– Москва! – Какой огромный
Всяк на Руси – бездомный.
Мы все к тебе придем.
Клеймо позорит плечи,
За голенищем нож.
Издалека – далече
Ты все же позовешь.
На каторжные клейма,
На всякую болесть –
У нас, целитель, есть.
А вон за тою дверцей,
Куда народ валит, –
Там Иверское сердце
И льется аллилуйя
На смуглые поля.
Я в грудь тебя целую,
8 июля 1916. Казанская
Moscow! Sheltering fortress.
Moscow! Sweltering inn.
We’re, each of us Russians, homeless;
We’ll all find our own way in.
Our boots hold knives to reckon
The crimes of brand and whip.
From far away you beckon,
We long to make the trip.
Of all that marks and chains us –
Of all the ills and ails –
The Holy Infant Jesus
To heal us never fails.
And in a tiny chamber,
Where people crowd and rush,
The Sacred Heart glows amber,
And reddens to a flush.
A hallelujah hovers
Above your morning mist.
I seal you with a lover’s –
A holy palmer’s! – kiss.
8 July 1916. Kazanskaya
The Sun of Russian Poetry – 1/8th African – rendered in Ebonics for the first time.
К *** Керн
Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.
В томленьях грусти безнадежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный,
И снились милые черты.
Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.
В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.
Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.
И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.
не позднее 19 июля 1825
To Ms. Kern
I saw a blinding flash of lightning
And, like an angel, you appeared –
Just like an alien-spaceship sighting,
All cool and phat and fly and weird.
Whateva sad and bad shit follow –
And life can drive a n*ggu blind! –
I heard the rhymes you used to holla
I saw you running through my mind.
Time flies. The nights is dark and stormy,
The days ain’t better; dreams is shot…
The face I used to see before me,
The voice I heard – I done forgot.
Time crawls when you is wearing fetters
And freedom’s all you thinking of;
Without a Bible or your letters
I didn’t wanna live or love.
But now, I’m out – free and fighting!
And, like an angel, you appeared –
Just like an alien-spaceship sighting,
All cool and phat and fly and weird.
My heart is heard in all the ghettoes,
And you is all I’m thinking of.
I got The Bible and what matters –
And now, I wanna live and love.
no later than 19 July 1825
The Sun of Russian Poetry – 1/8th African – rendered in Ebonics for the first time.
* * *
Что в имени тебе моем?
Оно умрет, как шум печальный
Волны, плеснувшей в берег дальный,
Как звук ночной в лесу глухом.
Оно на памятном листке
Оставит мертвый след, подобный
Узору надписи надгробной
На непонятном языке.
Что в нем? Забытое давно
В волненьях новых и мятежных,
Твоей душе не даст оно
Воспоминаний чистых, нежных.
Но в день печали, в тишине,
Произнеси его тоскуя;
Скажи: есть память обо мне,
Есть в мире сердце, где живу я…
* * *
What is my name to you, my bitch?!
I know… to you – it kicked the bucket,
Just like a playa on a rocket,
Who end up roadkill in a ditch.
And if you write it on a card,
(To keep it close,) you’ll use a pencil;
The letters will rub off and cancel
Against your ass, shaped like a heart.
What’s in my name? You off and gone…
You having all of your affairs;
But, deep inside – you having fun?
You found someone who truly cares?
Yeah… I didn’t think so! Cause I is
A once-upon-a-lifetime n*ggu!
But,… say my name,… and, like a wiz,
I’ll be there – better, bolder, bigger!
The Fall of Rome
by W. H. Auden
(for Cyril Connolly)
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
Таранят волны валуны.
Ливень в поле каравану
Не даёт дойти до стана,
Пещеры беглецов полны.
Всё ярче платьев хоровод.
В регионах ревизоры
Насильственно проводят сборы
Налогов за прошедший год.
Тайные обряды в храме
Усыпляют всех гетер,
Львы литературных сфер
Светскими не ходят львами.
Горазд Катон – муж головастый –
Хвалить величие аскезы,
Зарплату требовать горазды.
На императорской гулянке
Чиновник мелкий пишет смело
КАК ЖЕ МНЕ ВСЁ ОСТОЧЕРТЕЛО!
На бледном ведомственном бланке.
Мор вселенский созерцая,
Греют пёстрые яички,
Всё моргая да моргая.
Где то далеко лишь, туча
Северных оленей мчится
По просторам золотистым,
Очень быстро и беззвучно.
1. And when Death itself approaches our bed on cat’s paws and, uttering “ahem”, starts to strip from us our priceless and, up to this point, dear life, there will be one emotion we will likely most regret losing in the process.
2. Of all the marvelous things and feelings that nature, in its infinite generosity, has showered upon us, our most piteous parting will, I think, probably be with love.
And to use the language of poetic analogy, as it departs from this world, our extracted soul will start to flail and groan, begging to go back, embarrassing itself, and saying that it hadn’t yet seen everything there is to see and that it would still like to see something else.
But that’s nonsense. It’s seen everything. And these are nothing but empty excuses, pointing rather to the highfalutedness of our feelings and aspirations than to anything else.
3. Of course, besides all of that there are all kinds of exceptional and worthy happenings and sensations that we will sigh after plaintively.
We will, no doubt, be sorry never to hear the music of marching bands and symphony orchestras, never to, say, go on a cruise aboard a ship or gather sweet-smelling lilies-of-the-valley in the forest. We will be most sad to leave our wonderful job, and sad not to lie on the seashore with the object of relaxing.
Yes, these are all wonderful things, and we will also be sorry to part with all of them, of course. And maybe we’ll even shed a tear. But it is love that will beget a special and most bitter bout of tears from us. And when we part with this emotion, the majesty of the entire world before us will probably be extinguished, and it will seem to us empty, cold and of little interest.
As one poet said:
Love gives color to life,
Love is the charm of nature,
There exists an inner conviction
That all that replaces love is worthless.
So you see, the French poet De Miusse pronounced everything worthless compared with this emotion. But, of course, he was somewhat mistaken. Went a bit too far out on that limb, he did.
4. Besides, we would do well to remember that these lines were uttered by a Frenchman. That is, someone by nature very sensitive and, excuse the thought, probably a womanizer, who, under the effect of extraordinary emotion could really let some such nonsense fly.
These Frenchmen over there in Paris (much as we’ve been told) they come out in the evening onto the boulevards, and except for all kinds of cuties that they call chickies, from the get-go they see positively nothing else. That’s how much they appreciate female grace and beauty!…
So we have reason to dampen the uncommon fire of these poetic lines a bit.
5. But have a look at a Russian poet. The Russian poet stays on par with the fiery Gallic brain. And more still. We find not just love, but even infatuation in these surprising verses:
O, infatuation! How much stricter than fate is your mettle,
Greater even than ancient commandments…
Sweeter still than the call of the bugle to battle.
Which allows us to conclude that this great poet of ours thought this emotion something extraordinarily lofty, as something or other of a magnitude not to be equaled even by the text of the criminal code, nor by the teachings of father or, you know, mother. In short, nothing, says he, had the same impact on him as this emotion did. The poet is even hinting at something or other here about being drafted into the army – says that he couldn’t care less for that. Looks like the poet’s probably got something he’s not saying.
Mentioned the bugle’s call to battle and all of a sudden got all mysterious on us. I bet he dodged the draft himself in his day. That’s probably why he’s getting all allegorical.
Prose, in this respect, is much easier to deal with. You can’t have nebulousness like that in prose. Everything’s clear. But, as you can see, even poetry can be explained.
6. No less impressive are another Russian poet’s verses.
Actually, this poet once had his house burn down, the house where he was born and spent his best childhood days. And it’s a curious thing what this poet obtained for himself as comfort after the fire.
He tells it like this. He describes it in a poem. This is what he writes:
It seemed that all of childhood’s joys
Had vanished in the burning house,
And death to me was welcome then,
And I bent down to the water,
But then, a woman in a boat
The moon’s reflection mirrored, gliding,
And if she should have the desire
And if the moon allows it too,
I’ll build myself a new abode
In that unknown heart of hers.
Et cetera, something to that effect.
7. That is, in other words, liberally translating lofty verse into egalitarian prose, we can partly understand how this guy, mad with grief, wanted to throw himself into the water, but at this critical moment he saw a pretty woman taking a boat ride. And so he all of a sudden fell in love with her at first sight, and this love eclipsed, so to speak, his horrible suffering and even distracted him from the toils of locating a new place to live. Especially since, judging by the poem, the poet seems to just want to move in with this lady. Or maybe he wants to build an addition onto her house if she, as he nebulously puts it, should have the desire, and if the moon and management allow it.
Well, in terms of the moon, the poet threw her in for a sort of a greater poetic impact. I mean, the moon, really, has little to do with all of this. As far as building management goes, it might very well turn him down, even if the lady in the boat has the desire, since these two lovebirds aren’t officially married, and, who knows, maybe there’s something impermissibly fishy going on here.
8. I mean, I don’t know, maybe this coarse mind of a soldier, worked over with heavy artillery in two wars, doesn’t apprehend the intricate and delicate poetic pattern of verse and feeling. But we do venture to think approximately in that vein, based on a certain knowledge of life and an understanding of the real needs of people whose lives don’t always follow the canons of florid poetry.
So basically, even here the poet speaks of love as the greatest of emotions, which, assuming a certain carefree streak, may substitute for even the most basic things, even including living arrangements. But we’ll let the poet sort out these kinds of opinions with his conscience.
But this, of course, is not the view of only three fiery poets.
For all the others have sung words of love even more ridiculous and shameless than these, while strumming carelessly, so to speak, the strings of even the most dilapidated lyres.
9. Something or other out of Apukhtin comes to me now:
My heart leapt up, in love again,
Shoop, shoobe-doop, doop-doop…
All that the soul holds holy and dear…
And this was no boy of eighteen writing. A serious man of about forty-eight wrote this; very extremely fat and unhappy in his personal life. Nevertheless, as you can see, he too thinks that all is dead and lifeless until love comes into one’s heart.
I’m remembering more crazy verses:
What is love? What is love? Love! Oh, what is your name?
Love is fire in the blood; it is blood in the flame…
Something, something; pretty damn… I don’t know…
It is paradise lost, yet regained again.
Death trumps life, yet love rules over mortal domain.
10. I’d say even French poetry falls a bit flat here – they don’t have that, you know, crazy energy, like we see in these lines. And this was a Russian poetess. She lived in the beginning of this century and was, by all accounts, pretty good-looking. With a developed poetic temperament, to be sure. That lady was probably shaking all over when she was composing this poem. Which is really more of a biographical detail than a sample of poetry… The poor husband had it rough enough, I bet… She must have been real fickle. Hardly did anything. Probably spent the whole day laying around in bed without even washing that mug of hers. And reading her little poems aloud all the time. And her idiot-husband sitting there; “Oh,” he exclaims, “this is amazing, honeybunny, it’s genius!” And she says, “Really?”…
The idiots! And then they both up and died. She got tuberculosis, I think, and he must have gotten infected with something too.
11. Here’s where all these skeptics, academics and pedants, whose hearts have iced over in their lonely wanderings through the polar regions of science, reading these lines of verse, will probably shrug and say that what we have here is the unwarranted view of certain excessively fiery hearts, promiscuous souls and a perverted worldview.
And they will be surprised that this emotion has been described in such views and such poems and such words, which they had not even known about, and could not even have thought that something like this had ever been said about it.
And maybe it really is surprising that this is so, and that we have this kind of poetry, but not long ago we happened upon this work of prose by a singer – Fyodor Ivanovich Shalyapin. So, in this book he admits with complete candor that everything he did in his life he did mainly for love and for a woman. These are the kinds of opinions of love that we hear from poetically minded people.
12. And as far as sober-minded and levelheaded people, as far as philosophers and all kinds of, you know, thinkers, whose minds have shed much light on life’s most mysterious and complicated aspects, as far as these people go, for the most part they didn’t say much about this emotion, but there were times, of course, when they looked its way, chuckled, and were even known to utter certain pithy quotes showcasing their life experience.
We can, if you so desire, give you one of the more melancholy quotes, which is by Schopenhauer, one of the gloomiest philosophers the world has known.
This gloomy philosopher, whose wife undoubtedly cheated on him at every turn, said this about love:
“Love is a blind will to live. It lures man with the illusion of individual happiness, making him the means to its ends.”
Of the more inane sayings of old, there’s:
“Love is a sort of harmony of celestial sounds.”
Of the more poetic:
“Never hit a woman, not even with a flower.”
Of the more sober ones, but tending towards idealism:
“Love springs from those advantages, which the loving one values all the more the less he himself commands them.”
Plato, a known philosopher, even proposed this theorem:
“The essence of love is the polar difference between possibly even greater contradictions.”
As an example of a truer aphorism, we offer the words of our glorious poet and philosopher, Pushkin:
She fell in love, in time and season;
A seed that falls into the ground
By springtime’s fire is thus unbound.
The myriad pangs of gentle passion
Had long assailed her virgin breast –
Her heart would welcome any guest.
14. But that is the philosophy and mechanics of love, in a manner of speaking.
As far as more rigorous research in this field, we really don’t know much about these things. And maybe there’s no need to know, even. Because consciousness spoils and clouds over almost everything it touches.
Dostoevsky really had it right: “Too much consciousness and even any kind of consciousness at all is an illness.” Another poet said: “Woe from wit.” And we do believe these words were far from having been said by chance. Whether it springs from idiosyncrasy – or most probably there is a certain exact formula; something from the uninvestigated realm of electricity – the truth is we know nothing and positively do not want to know anything about the origins of love.
And so, realizing that we know little about love, but at the same time, recognizing that this tender emotion encompasses something significant and even grand, it is with a feeling of special awe and with our heart aflutter that we take into our hands the weighty tomes of history.
We cannot wait to see the worthy role that this emotion played in the lives of nations. We desire to witness larger-than-life things or the, you know, magnificent deeds of certain persons that happened on account of love. And therefore, to indulge the soul, we make ourselves more comfortable in our armchair and, lighting an aromatic cigar, we begin to turn the yellowed pages of history with a sure hand.
And this is what we see.
15. First, all we ever get are all sorts of goddam petty love stories and small, stupid, everyday-life stuff – all kinds of marriages, proposals and weddings, arranged by businesslike and sober minds.
Here we see some kind of duke… Something or other… He is marrying the king’s daughter with hopes for the throne.
Here, another VIP, desiring to snag a number of cities to append to his lands, also proposes to some fit-prone princess…
The Russian Grand Dukes… Something, something… From the era of the Tartar yoke… “They endeavour to outwit one another (according to one historian) in order to marry the Hun’s daughters, with the aim of obtaining his favour…”
Here’s another one, some – so help me – Khylperykh I… King of the Francs… Marries the daughter of the King of Spain… literally, we read, “with the aim of scoring a win over his enemy, Prince Ziegbert.”
16. And the thing is, historians write about all these dealings, cloaked with love but lined with commerce, without any kind of – how to put it – exhilaration, but in a languid, bureaucratic tone, as if these things were completely unimportant and all-too-familiar. The historians don’t even add any personal comments, nothing like: “Tut-tut!” or “That’s a heck of duke for ya!” or “Now, that’s not nice!” or even “Look, another shameless bastard!”
Nope, we hear no exclamations of this sort from the impartial historians. Although, if you think about it, once you start exclaiming, there wouldn’t be enough exclamations to go around, because in the course of world history we seem to see a sea of similar affairs.
But we probably won’t be making a list of these commercial dealings. We would like to touch on more interesting matters. Although, to be honest, many, many amazing happenings and stories worthy of the modern reader’s attention are known in this department.
17. For instance, here is a very fun fact. Its, shall we say, characteristic plot is what appealed to us. It’s very typical, this fact is. It’s taken from old times in Russia. We’re talking the time of Ivan the Terrible.
This German duke, called Golschtinski, arrives in Russia.
We have no idea what he was doing in that Germany of his, but historians have discovered that he came to Russia with the purpose of furthering his political ends by means of marrying Ivan IV’s cousin’s daughter.
And so he arrives. All gussied up, probably. Wearing some sort of silk pantaloons. Bows. Ribbons. A rapier on the hip. Gotta be a real lanky guy, with a ruddy mug and a huge red moustache. Probably a drinker, a screamer, and a pawer.
So he comes to Russia, and since everything has already been arranged by letter, the wedding day is set.
18. Everybody’s running around, it’s this huge hassle. Mother of the bride’s everywhere at once. Chickens being slaughtered. The bride being led to the banya. The groom’s sitting with Dad. Putting the vodka away. Probably lying up a storm. You know, like, “let me tell ye, in Germany, where I come from, …” You know, like, “we’re Dukes!” and all that.
And suddenly something really sad happens. The bride, alas, dies unexpectedly. She returns from the banya, is taken with a terrible cold, the poor lass, and dies within the space of three days.
The groom, stricken with unutterable woe, of course, wants to go back to Germany. And here he is, all falling apart, saying his good-byes to the parents, when all of a sudden he hears:
“O, Mister Duke! Don’t go yet. As your luck would have it, we’ve got another young lady for you. True, she is a bit older than the first, and she’s not as nice to look at, but maybe she’ll do after all. You came all this way from Germany – it would be a shame to return empty-handed.
So the duke says:
“Of course she’ll do. Why didn’t you tell me before? No question about it. I mean – come on! Where is she? Lemme have a gander.”
All in all, the mourning aside, they were soon wed.
19. But, who the hell knows, maybe such facts and acts occurred only among kings and happened only to dukes and such?
Maybe nowhere but the palaces of kings did this cold pragmatism and marriage without any kind of love thrive, on account of, you know, things like diplomatic necessities, chronic shortages of funds or all kinds of unwholesome conditions of kingly life.
Maybe when it comes to mere mortals, it’s just the other way around – maybe the course of love ran naturally, bringing joy and happiness to the hearts of everyone.
It strikes us that certain categories of mere mortals were kind of not even interested in love. I mean it’s common knowledge that the landed and the affluent married off their loyal serfs in any way it struck them to do it.
Not long ago, we had occasion to read that Russian landowners married their serfs in this manner: they lined them up according to height and married them to whoever matched – tall men with tall women, short little ones with little short ones. And then this list of pairs was sent to the priest to be enacted. As you can see, love wasn’t really the prime consideration here.
And as far as different sorts of, excuse my French, government officials, profiteers, carpetbaggers and so forth, it doesn’t seem like the dear sirs understood much about love either. To them, getting married was akin to striking a deal. And the way they had it set up was that without a dowry no one would even let you in the door.
20. And even if we aim for a higher plane and take, for example, a smattering of counts, barons and men of commerce, it turns out that even with all the leisure in their lives, they still didn’t have much of an idea of the true color of love.
Here’s a wonderful little short story of a historical nature, which paints in vivid detail how it worked back then.
In the France of Louis XV (1720 we’re talking about), this one profiteer accumulated a huge fortune through all kinds of shady dealings. He achieved everything. And had it all. But on top of that, he got the overwhelming urge to associate himself with the oldest aristocratic dynasty in all of France. He had a bout of fantasizing, this guy, and knowing no bounds on account of his wealth, decided to have his daughter marry an impoverished marquis by the famous name of d’Ouau.
The daughter was actually just three years old at the time. The marquis was actually about thirty. And even though the dowry was outrageously huge, the impoverished marquis had no intention whatsoever of waiting for twelve years.
Shrugging in the most elegant Gallic fashion and sending sparks around the room with his gleaming lorgnette, he probably said to the profiteering dad in a hoarse voice:
“Monsieur, although nothing would please me more than to become your son-in-law, the bride you offer me is much too young. Let her grow up a bit, and then we’ll see. There’s a chance I will marry her.”
21. But the status-conscious dad desired to become the marquis’s relation immediately. This would allow him to touch the highest rungs of aristocracy, so to speak. And so he struck this agreement with the marquis. The latter is paid a huge monthly salary until the daughter is of legal age. After twelve years, the marquis has to marry her. And the engagement takes place now.
For nine full years, the marquis received the exact amount of his salary and denied himself none of life’s pleasures. And then, the little twelve-year-old bride fell ill with diphtheria and died.
We can just imagine how the profiteering daddy howled and cried. First of all, what a pity! – such a young girl, and then, just think of all that money gone down the drain! And, of course, it would be foolish to expect the esteemed marquis to return even a measly part of it. That marquis guy was probably telling the woestruck dad, while rubbing his hands together, “Well, you understand, I’m sure, how it is about the money. The girl croaked – I’m in luck.”
22. But that’s nothing. Even more curious things have been known to happen in the love department. It is, for example, very strange to read about all these men – all kinds of pretty boys, barons, brave knights, cavalry officers, men of commerce, landlords, and czars – getting married without laying their eyes on their brides. And this was a pretty common occurrence. And we, the modern reader, do find it somewhat baffling. The only thing they’d ask was what the family does, and the finances and such, and how the bride is doing property-wise, what post daddy holds or what lands he rules, and that’s it. Well, maybe some of the grooms who weren’t big on taking risks asked what, approximately, their second half looks like – you know, whether she’s got a hump or not, things like that – and that’s it.
Then they said ‘yes’ and were married in the dark, so to speak, eyes closed, sight unseen. The bride they would see at the very last moment.
No, today, we can’t even imagine how this would have gone off in these parts. We’d probably have a whole lotta wailing, neurotic yelling, second thoughts, commotion, black eyes and broken noses and the devil knows what else. But over there, they somehow managed without that.
23. But not without the occasional trouble or outrage.
For example, we know of two world-class scandals.
The first is famous to the point that even in theatres it is played out as a grotesque tragedy and royal conflict.
Philip II of Spain, a geezer of about sixty, had a mind to marry off his son and heir, the famous Don Carlos. For his wife he chose the French princess Isabelle, which was advantageous and necessary, as dictated by high politics. But he had never seen the princess. All he knew was that she’s real young and antsin’ to get married, but he had no idea what she looked like.
But when he saw her after the engagement, he fell in love and married her himself, to the great chagrin of his son, who was also partial to the charms of his beautiful bride. This, as we know, caused the conflict between father and son.
24. The second scandal took place in Persia. The Persian king Ambyses (son of the famous Cyrus) proposed to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis II (529 BC). Ambyses did this without having seen the bride. Travel and transportation in those times was a pretty hefty proposition, and the trip to Egypt would have taken months.
Rumor had it, though, that the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter is alone among women in her beauty and attractiveness.
And so, the mighty Persian king, whose father had conquered practically the entire world, decided to propose to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh by mail.
The pharaoh, who harbored a rare affection for his only daughter, had no desire to send her off to undiscovered countries. At the same time, he feared to offend the Master of the Universe with his refusal. And so, he chose the most beautiful of his female slaves and sent her to Persia in place of his daughter. What’s more, her sent her as his daughter, supplying her with the appropriate information for that purpose.
History relates to us that Ambyses, having married the woman, truly loved her, but when the artifice was accidentally discovered, he mercilessly put her to death and, offended to his very heart, set out to make war on Egypt.
This was probably one of the grandest love dramas ever, which shows how love can spring, and also how it can end.
25. Oh, how vividly we can see in our mind’s eye the dramatic scene and the tragic moment when the lie was revealed in its entirety.
They’re sitting there in an embrace on a Persian ottoman.
On this really low-slung bench; and you can just imagine all these eastern sweetmeats and things to drink they have there – all kinds of Turkish delight and honey-cakes and so on. This really fat Persian dude with a huge fan in his hands is chasing the flies away from these sweets.
And Ambyses, the King of Persia, having taken a glass of, you know, sherry or brandy or whatever, looks upon his beautiful wife with an enthralled gaze, whispering all kinds of sweet little nothings in her ear, like, “My pretty little Egyptian mummy, you! How was your life in Egypt? Your daddy, the Pharaoh, must have spoiled you rotten. And how could he not, when you’re so sweet? My dear princess, I fell in love with you at the very first sight for your regal bearing, and so on.”
26. Now, it’s not clear whether at this point she put too much faith in her womanly charms, or God knows what was happening in her little woman’s heart, but she laughs a sparkling laugh and says that the funny thing is that the pharaoh’s daughter has got her own life in Egypt, while Ambyses, the King of Persia, he’s just gaga over her, the one next to him, who’s got nothing to do with the pharaoh’s daughter. He’s fallen in love with a simple girl of slave stock. This is what love can do with a man’s heart.
It is hard not to shudder when imagining what happened next.
He probably started screaming in an unnatural voice. Jumped up from the sofa in just his underpants. One of his slippers slipped off. Lips went white. Hands are shaking. Knees are buckling.
“What?!” he screamed in Persian. “What did you just say?! Ministers! Arrest the impostress!”
The ministers come running.
“Oh! Oh! What’s happened? Your majesty, please calm yourself! … See, you have lost a slipper, and it is most unbecoming of a king to be in just one slipper.”
But, of course, it isn’t so easy to calm oneself, because an enormous blow has been dealt to the ego.
27. And so, in the evening, after the poor Egyptian girl had her head roundly cut off, Ambyses is probably having an extended council with his ministers.
Nervous, waving his hands, he walks the room in fits and starts.
“I can’t believe what a bastard that Egyptian pharaoh is!” he exclaims indignantly.
The ministers sigh respectfully, shake their heads and shrug, exchanging glances full of malevolence.
“And what am supposed to do now, huh? After being slapped in the face like that? Go to war with this punk?”
“That’s an idea, your majesty.”
“But he’s awfully far, the sonofabitch, … I mean, Egypt… That’s in Africa, right? That’s almost a year’s journey … Probably need camels to get there…”
“That’s all right, your majesty … The armies will make it.”
“I showed her love,” says Ambyses, working himself up again. “I received her like an Egyptian princess, fell madly in love with her, and it turns out she was something else … How can this be, I ask you? What am I, a dog, that I cannot have his daughter? Where does he get off sending me crap on the sly, huh? … Huh!?!”
28. The foreign minister, working hard not to burst laughing out loud, says:
“The real problem, your majesty, is the international PR, … the scandal….”
“That’s exactly right! …. That’s what I mean – the scandal. What to do, what to do?!”
“The real problem, your majesty, is that this will go down in the annals of history, that’s the worst part of it … I mean, Persia, … King Ambyses, … Got slipped a slave girl…”
“Enough, you sonofabitch! Enough already! Call up the armies! Set out at once! Egypt must be conquered and erased off the face of the frigging Earth!”
To make a long story short, Ambyses led the armies himself and in short order conquered Egypt. But, by that time, the sad and senile pharaoh Amasis had died. His nephew Psammetichus, seeing he was in for no good, took his own life. As far as the daughter, who started the whole mess – unfortunately, history gives us no clues about her fate.
One history professor I know, who teaches at university, told me that Ambyses sent the Egyptian girl to one of his minister’s harems. But we can’t vouch for the truth of that. Although it is possible, of course. Anyway, the love they had vanished like smoke. Which shows plenty well what a pound of the stuff is worth.
29. So what do we have here? Seems like things ain’t so great for love, are they? Where is the notorious love glorified by poets and singers? Where is this emotion, sung of in wondrous poems?
Could it be that these know-nothing poets, rhyme slappers, and lovers of all kinds of grace and beauty have allowed such a shocking exaggeration to take place? Because we don’t really see any of these impressive sufferings while reading our history.
I mean, sure, we do see a thing here and there between the pages. But there’s too little, really. We want an unforgettable jewel of a story shining from every page. But all we get is some pathetic little love story once every hundred years.
We barely scraped up a few of these romantic narratives here. And to do that we had to diligently read history in its entirety, starting with all kinds of, pardon me, Chaldaeans and Ethiopians, and the creation of the world, and all the way up to our times.
And all we’ve got is what you’re gonna see next. Here, for instance, is a pretty powerful love, as a result of which this one daughter ran her dad over with a chariot.
Here’s how it happened.
30. Servius Tulius, the Roman caesar, had a daughter. And the daughter had a husband, this pretty disreputable guy. But the daughter loved him exceptionally nevertheless.
And so this sneak contrived a scheme to depose this daughter’s noble father – Servius Tulius, that is. Now, to be honest, Servius Tulius was kinda old, and he engaged in all kinds of losing wars with – wouldn’t you know it – some kind of Etruscans. Still, it wasn’t right to depose him. And there certainly was no need to kill him. That was just downright messed up.
Yet this dynamic son-in-law consulted the old man’s daughter and decided to kill her daddy after all. And she agreed, out of love for this bloodsucker.
And so the wheeling-and-dealing son-in-law hires a murderer and has the noble old man mercilessly stabbed to death in the middle of the forum.
He falls without even uttering a sound. And the people say: “Who will be the emperor now, we ask?”
And instead of weeping inconsolably and flinging herself upon the body of her dead dad, this daughter of a murdered father springs into a chariot, and wishing to greet her husband, the new emperor, with a joyous cry she runs the body of her freshly killed father the hell over.
A powerful sight, although utterly disgusting to some extent. And a substantial love this caesar’s daughter exhibits. I mean, you gotta really love someone to run the old man over at a moment like this.
There she is, standing up in the chariot. Whooping. Hair waving about. A grimace contorts her face.
“Hail!” she screams to the new emperor, and rides toward him over whatever’s in the way.
People in the crowd are yelling:
“Hey, looks like this shameless wench had the gall to ride over her own father.”
But this was love, no matter what you say. Mixed in with a little bit of a desire to rule herself. I mean – it’s really hard to say.
31. But here’s a love that was even stronger, which happened to this one pretty famous historical lady in her sunset years.
Catherine II, the Russian Empress, as she was growing old, (being, oh, fifty-eight years of age or so,) lost her wits over this one young, valiant pretty boy – Plato Zuboff. He was twenty-one, and he really was quite good-looking. Although his brother Valerian was even more handsome. The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg has both of their portraits, and it’s true: the brother was amazingly handsome.
But the old hag saw the brother later on, which is why in the meantime, not knowing what’s up, she immediately fell in love with Plato. When she saw Valerian, she caught her breath and said: “Hmmm. Coulda had me that young man. But since I’ve already fallen in love with Plato, I’ll just stick to what I’ve got.”
But Plato, seeing the huge effect Valerian had on the hag, sent that little brother of his off to war, where the pretty boy had his leg ripped off by a cannonball.
And so the hag was all about Plato, showering him with all kinds of wonderful privileges.
It’d be fun to imagine how their little affair sprang up. The pretty boy was probably awful coy at first, and would just freeze up when the elderly dame would get pushy. I mean, anyone would freeze up. I mean, you got your Holy Empress, so to speak, The Monarch of All of Russia and so on, and here, all of a sudden – what the hell?! – these crude advances!
32. So let us imagine this affair.
“Embrace me, you fool!” the empress would entreat.
“Gee, I mean, I can’t, Your Majesty,” the minion would mutter. “Out of, you know, timidity and awe for your imperial title.”
“Oh, just forget about that. Come, call me Catherine Vasilievna (or whatever her full name was.)
And so, with a strained laugh, the kid would respectfully touch the empress’ shoulders, already touched by signs of age. But in time he grew accustomed to it and received much more in return for his love than was just.
At twenty-four the pretty boy was already commander-in-chief, the governor-general of the Novorossiysk region, and the head of the entire artillery. This not-exactly-young woman fell deeper and deeper in love with him with each passing year, and was running out of favors to lavish upon him.
She allowed him to see all secret dispatches and intelligence from abroad. All the ministers and generals had to go through him to get to Catherine.
The young man would receive ministers and courtiers while reclining on a couch, wrapped in a silk Bukhara robe. Wizened generals would tremble reverentially as they stood at full attention in front of the pretty boy.
Head over heels in love, the old empress entrusted him with all the state secrets. Her love literally blinded her.
33. At the same time, this boy’s understanding of life and politics was quite vague. We know, for example, of his plan for a new Russia.
This mind-boggling work proudly lists the following cities as capitals of the first order: St. Petersburg, Berlin, Astrakhan, Moscow and Constantinople. Among the second-tier cities we, for some reason, have Krakow, Taganrog and Danzig. This plan has the following words:
“The woman who rules such a vast empire must become like the sun, whose benevolent glance warms everything within reach of its rays.” All in all, this plan alone tells us to what extent the old dame didn’t care about affairs of state, and how world politics was absolutely nothing compared with her last love.
But this is rather the portrait of someone aging in all her sad beauty than of the happy properties of love.
Yet here is a story for you of a big love that happened in someone’s full bloom.
34. This is also a fairly famous tale, which has been enacted on many a stage. So we won’t dwell on it for too long. It’s, shall we say, about how a Roman consul, Marc Antony, fell in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Well, actually, let’s refresh this story in our minds, especially since the touching story is extremely unusual. An ambitious man, who had reached a position of – believe it or not – great power, falls in love with a woman and forsakes absolutely everything. He forsook even the conquering armies he was leading. And became permanently stuck in Egypt.
As gifts, he gave Cleopatra Roman lands – albeit lands he conquered – Armenia, Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. And bestowed upon her the title of Queen of Kings. Having gotten wind of the military leader’s scandalous behavior, the Roman Senate hastily deprived Antony of the title of First Consul. But being lovestruck, Antony refused even to return to his homeland. And then, Rome declared war on Cleopatra. And everyone was in for a great fight.
Antony, together with Cleopatra, set out against the Roman army. As the Roman armies were nearing Alexandria, the Roman consul Octavian wrote Cleopatra a letter about how she may still save her life and throne if she sacrifices Antony.
35. Seeing that things weren’t going that great for her, Mrs. Queen decided to indeed sacrifice her fiery lover. And while Antony was battling Octavian, Cleopatra sent her lover a message via servants, saying that she had taken her life. She knew that Antony, besotted by her, would not be able to live with this sorrow. And wouldn’t you know it – upon learning of Cleopatra’s death, Antony ran himself through with a sword. Yet the wound wasn’t fatal. And learning that Cleopatra was alive, Antony ordered himself to be brought to her on a stretcher. And died in her arms, forgiving her for lying.
This amazing story really is about a pretty great love, which overshadowed absolutely everything else.
By the way, later on, Cleopatra also committed suicide.
The thing is that Octavian was going to send her to Rome as a trophy. She did try to also win this leader over with her flirting, but nothing came of it, and then, unwilling to live through the shame, she poisoned herself. And thirty of her servants poisoned themselves along with her.
And for some reason, we feel sorry for this beauty, to whom Octavian said: “You can quit your trickery, queen. I’m not gonna fall for that.” In the meantime, she was already forty, and she realized that the jig was up.
36. But here’s another great love that made one man forget even his revolutionary duty.
We’re talking about the famous Mme. Tallien.
During the French Revolution, Tallien, the Secretary General of the Revolutionary Council, was sent by Robespierre to Bordeaux in order to arrest the aristocrats who fled there.
And in a jail he met Teresa de Fontenay, a young woman who had been arrested. He fell in love with her and let her out of jail.
When Robespierre found out that Tallien let her out, he ordered that she be arrested again.
And then, joining forces with Danton’s supporters, Tallien waged a battle against Robespierre so fierce, that in a short time he managed to topple him. There’s no doubt that his love for Theresa Fontenay was one of the motives for this battle. Tallien later married her, but soon she left him to marry some grand duke.
But this isn’t all history tells us.
Apart from this, there were these small and at first sight unnotable events, but still, these events literally like the sun shone through the impenetrable forest. This indeed was great love.
37. For example, the Decembrists’s wives, these glorious society women, left it all and voluntarily, although no one had exiled them, went to Siberia with their husbands.
The ill Radischev was to be exiled. His wife had died not long before that. And his wife’s sister went along with him to live in a Siberian settlement.
The son of a wealthy landowner, the illustrious horse-guardsman Ivashov fell in love with Camilla, the governess who worked in his household. His parents, of course, refused to allow him to marry her. But a year later, when, as a Decembrist, Ivashov was sentenced to twenty years of exile in Siberia, the young governess voluntarily followed him.
The poet Robert Browning loved his wife dearly. When she died, the inconsolably grieving Browning put the most valuable thing he had into the coffin; it was a notebook with his newly written sonnets.
Although later on, when the poet fell in love again, he retrieved that notebook, but that’s not that important.
In 1796, in the midst of battle, Napoleon wrote to Josephine: “When I am far from you, the world is a desert where I am abandoned and alone. You are the only thought in my entire life.”
Lassale wrote to Helen Denniges: ”I have huge powers and I will multiply them a thousandfold in order to have you. There is no one in the world who is able to tear me away from you. I suffer more than Prometheus on the cliff.”
38. In love with his wife, Chernyshevsky wrote to Nekrasov: “Not for problems on a global scale do people drown or shoot themselves or turn into alcoholics – I experienced this and I know that the poetry of the heart carries as much weight as the poetry of ideas”.
The city of Weinsberg was besieged by the enemy. The victors let women leave the city before pillaging it. They also allowed each woman to take with her the one thing she considered most precious. And a few women carried their valiant husbands out of the city.
Of course, this last one sounds like a legend. Once every while, history is fond of inventing something touchy-feely; for the sake of moral balance, so to speak.
39. Here’s an interesting touchy-feely story.
Some knight was setting out on a campaign and entrusted his wife to his friend. The friend fell in love with the wife. The wife fell in love with him. But the oath of chastity is, of course, inviolable. And so, to preserve and test this chastity, they sleep in one bed, with a double-edged sword between them.
I mean, maybe they did put the sword between them, and maybe they really did sleep in the same bed – we’re not contesting the actual historical fact. But as far as everything else, we beg to doubt it.
And so, on this petty sentimental note, we end our historical short stories.
This is what history tells us about love.
Basically, it tells us very little about this emotion. You know, like, yeah, seems that there is this emotion. Seems that history did run into it at some point. Seems that there even were certain kinds of historical events and things that happened on account of it. And certain kinds of business done and crimes committed.
But it’s not as if it was something terribly huge, not really like what the poets sang about in their tenor voices – history barely knows anything like that. On the contrary, this emotion has pretty much been saddled by commercial souls. And it poses no threat to the quiet march of history.
40. No, this emotion hasn’t stood in the way of people traveling down the road which they are honestly and patiently trodding.
And history can monotonously intone to us about what was and about how many “golde coins” a certain groom received for such and such a feeling.
Now, it’s true that we were talking about centuries past here. And maybe something’s changed?
Unfortunately, we have not been abroad, and on that account cannot fully satisfy your completely legitimate curiosity.
But we are of the opinion that it is unlikely that any kind of big changes have happened there.
There’s probably (so we think) some marquise with his big-sounding name, who is fiancé to a tiny three-year-old girl. And the daddy makes monthly salary payments.
And some aging dame, having lost sight of everything else, probably keeps some dancer Zuboff at her side, showering him with her largesse. Everything (we assume) is going the way it did before.
And as for how it is in our parts, we’ve had considerable changes happen.
41. And certain lamentable things having to do with love have actually started to disappear here bit by bit. For example, the financial calculations have practically stopped. And the monetary arrangements have gotten easier and much fewer in number. And really, all in all, all of it has somehow cleared up, and become less troublesome, and not as burdensome.
So, let us look at what kinds of negative things we might have in the love department. And, in a manner of speaking, let’s sweep up what we can with the steel broom of satire.
And so, on to the love stories from our lives.
So once this one time I’m walking down the street and suddenly I notice that women aren’t looking at me.
Used to be – I’d come out looking like, you know, some kind of stallion, and I’m getting these looks, air kisses, benevolent smiles, giggles and facial contortions.
And suddenly, there’s nothing. Nothing of the sort!
That is a pity, I think to myself. I mean, after all, a woman plays a certain role in one’s personal life.
This one bourgeois economist, or I think he was a chemist, had this original idea that not only in terms of personal life, but whatever we do, we do for women. That means, then, that all the battles, the glory, wealth, honors, trading up apartment-wise, and buying big-ticket clothing items like overcoats, and so on and the like – all of this is done for women.
Well, of course he did go overboard there, the bastard – lied an entire sackful he did, to please bourgeois society – but as far as personal life, I agree with all of that completely.
It’s true that a woman plays a bit of a role in our personal lives.
Say you go to see a movie together. Then it’s not such a shame if it turns out to be bad. You can, you know, squeeze her little hand, say a couple of nonsensical things, and it all makes up for modern art and the scant personal life.
So, imagine how I feel when once this one time I see that women aren’t looking at me!
What the hell is that? I think. Why aren’t these dames looking my way? What’s the reason? What do they need that I don’t have?
So, I get home and throw myself at the mirror. I see that there’s this disheveled mug in it. And a kind of a deathly look. And there’s no color flashing about in the cheeks.
“Right, now I understand!” I say to myself. “I have to bring the food intake up a notch. Gotta fill my colorless form up with blood.”
And so I rush to buy all kinds of food.
I buy butter and sausage. I buy cocoa and so on.
All of this is eaten, drunk and devoured basically non-stop. And in a short time I again look indecently fresh and vitalized.
And looking like this, I glide the streets. Yet I notice that women still aren’t looking at me.
“Oh,” I say to myself, “have I, perhaps, acquired a rotten gait? Maybe I’m lacking in acrobatics and exercise, the hanging on rings and the jumping about? Maybe I have a shortage of large muscles that women have a habit of admiring?”
So then I buy a hanging trapeze. I buy rings and weights and some kind of special contraption.
I’m spinning like a sonofabitch on all these rings and apparatuses. Mornings I use the contraption. I chop the neighbors’ firewood for free.
Finally, I sign up at a sports club. I row boats and boaties. I swim outside into the month of November. And I actually almost drown once while I’m at it. I get the bright idea to dive in a deep spot and, not reaching the bottom, start swallowing water ‘cause I can’t really swim.
I waste half-a-year on all this business. I put my life in danger. Twice I crack my head when I fall off the trapeze.
I bravely bear all of this, and one fine day, tanned and strong, like a spring I come out into the street to meet with the long-forgotten, approving smile of a woman.
But again I fail to find it.
Then I begin to sleep with the window open. The fresh air infiltrates my lungs. My cheeks are flush with color. My mug turns rose-colored and red. And, for some reason, takes on a shade of purple.
Once, I take my purple mug to the theatre. And in the theatre, like an idiot, I stalk the female population, inciting sharp criticism and crude hints from the men, and even pushing and shoving in the chest.
And in the end, I see two or three pathetic smiles, with which I am hardly satisfied.
Right there in the theatre I approach a large mirror and lovingly look at my powerful figure and chest, which, with a flexing, now yields seventy-five centimeters in circumference.
I bend my arms, straighten my noble back, and position my legs this way and that.
And am, frankly, amazed by the fickleness and the nose-turning on the part of the women, who are either spoiled silly, or the devil knows what it is they need.
I’m adoring myself in this large mirror and suddenly notice that my clothes are not that great. I’ll be honest – my clothes are poor, and even horrible. The ultra-short trousers with bubbling at the knees send me into a state of dismay and even shuddering.
But I am rendered practically dumbfounded when I look at my lower extremities, the description of which has no place in a work of literature.
“Oh, now I get it!” I say to myself. “This is what’s ruining my personal life – I dress badly.”
And depressed, on half-bent legs, I return home, promising myself to change the way I dress.
And so, I hurriedly construct a new wardrobe for myself. I have a blazer made according to the latest fashion, from a swath of purple drapery. And I buy myself a pair of trousers in the ‘Oxford’ style, made from two joined riding breeches. I walk around in this costume, as if in a hot air balloon, much aggrieved by such fashion.
I buy an overcoat at a flea market, and this overcoat has shoulders so wide that shoulders this wide simply don’t exist on our planet.
And one weekend, I come out onto Tverskoi Boulevard looking like this. I come out onto Tverskoi Boulevard and perform like a trained camel. I walk here and there, turn my shoulders and make dancing motions with my feet.
Women look at me askance, with a mixture of amazement and fear.
The men, they look less askance. Their comments are voiced; the crude and uncultured comments of people unable to comprehend the whole situation.
Here and there I hear them:
“Woah, get a load of the scarecrow! Man, look at the get-up on that bastard. That’s just a shame!” they say. “Guy’s got three miles of fabric on him.”
They pepper me with mockery and laugh at me.
I walk down the boulevard, as if through a formation, with very vague hopes of anything.
And suddenly, near the Pushkin monument, I notice a well-dressed lady looking at me ever so tenderly, and even slyly.
I smile in return and thrice round the Pushkin monument, making figures with my feet. After which I take a seat on the bench opposite hers.
This well-dressed lady with remnants of a faded beauty is looking at me. Her eyes lovingly glide along my nice figure and face, which expresses all the best there is in the world.
I cock my head, shrug, and mentally admire the bourgeois economist’s elegant philosophical theory of the value of women.
I wink at Pushkin, as if to say: “Here we go, Aleksandr Sergeyevich, the ice is broken.”
Again I look toward the lady, who, now, I see, practically follows my every motion with an unflinching stare.
And then, for some reason, I begin to fear these unblinking eyes. I’m already sorry that this creature finds me attractive. And already I want to leave. And already I want to round the monument in order to get on the trolley and just go wherever it will take me, somewhere to the outskirts, where the general public isn’t quite so unblinking.
But all of a sudden, this nice lady approaches me and says:
“Pardon me, sir… I’m so uncomfortable,” she says, “saying this. But my husband had an overcoat stolen that was just like yours. Could you be so kind and show me the lining?”
“Sure, of course,” I think, “she’s not gonna start talking to me just like that; she needs a reason.”
I open my overcoat, while flexing and fanning out my chest as much as I can. Having examined the lining, the lady raises a heart-rending squeal and starts to scream. Of course it’s her overcoat! The stolen overcoat, in which this scoundrel – I, that is – is currently draped.
Her moans are killing me. I wish I could die right then and there in the new pants and overcoat.
We go to the police station, where a report is filed. They ask me questions, to which I give honest answers. And when I am asked, in passing, how old I am, I tell them my age, and this practically three-digit number makes me shudder.
“Oh, so that’s why no one is looking at me!” I say to myself. “I’ve simply grown old. And I wanted to blame my wardrobe for the shortcomings of my personal life.”
I hand over the flea-market-bought stolen overcoat and, with no overcoat and my heart in disarray, I come out into the street.
“That’s all right, I’ll get by without that!” I say to myself. “My personal life will consist of toil. I’ll work. I will make myself useful to people. Women aren’t the only hope there is in this world.”
I scornfully deride the words of the bourgeois academic.
“Baloney!” I say. “Idle philosophizing. Typical western nonsense!”
I laugh. I spit left and right. And turn the other way when I see a woman passing.
But here’s the curious thing: this little incident happened two years ago. And although in these two years I’ve probably gotten even older, still, this past summer I met this one personage, and believe it or not, she really likes me. And the most important, and the funniest thing is – this summer I dressed as badly as possible. I wore God-knows-what-kind-of-pants and walked around in training shoes with holes in them.
And nevertheless, this had no effect on love. And I am happy and content over it, and we’re even marrying soon on account of the mutual feeling.
And I hope that what you’re going to read in the next story won’t happen to us.
Sure, Volod’ka Zavitushkin was a bit hasty. There was that.
You could say Volod’ka actually didn’t even get a decent look at his bride. The honest-to-God-truth be told, he hadn’t even ever seen her without a hat and overcoat. That’s why all the main events unfolded on the street.
And as for going with his bride to get acquainted with her dear mother right before the wedding, well, he got acquainted without taking his coat off, he did. In the hall. On the go, so to speak.
And as for his bride, Volodya Zavitushkin met her in a streetcar. Five days before the marriage ceremony.
There he is, sitting in a streetcar, and suddenly he sees that this young lady materializes before him. This not-bad-looking young woman. Neat-looking. In a winter overcoat.
And she’s standing, this very young lady in that winter overcoat of hers, in front of Volod’ka, and she’s hanging by a strap so as not to get knocked over by the passengers. And with the other hand, she’s clutching a package to her chest. Streetcar’s packed, of course. There’s shoving. The standing, frankly speaking, isn’t so hot.
So Volod’ka takes pity on her.
“Why don’t you sit down,” he says, “in my lap? It’ll be easier all the same.”
“Thanks,” she says, “but no thanks.”
“All right,” he says, “then why don’t you give me the package? Put it in my lap, don’t be shy. It’ll be easier all the same.” Nope, she’s not even surrendering the package. Maybe she’s scared he’s gonna filch it, or whatever it is. So Volod’ka Zavitushkin gives here another once-over, and is just stunned.
“My God,” he thinks, “you see the prettiest young women in streetcars.”
And they’re riding like this for two stops. Three. Four. Finally, Zavitushkin sees the young woman fighting her way exitward. No fool, Volod’ka gets up too. And by the exit, then, was where they made their acquaintance.
They exchanged names, began walking together. And everything kind of happened so quickly and without expense there, that in two days Volod’ka Zavitushkin even proposed to her too.
Maybe she said yes right away or whatever, but on the third day, there they were at the registry office to get officially married. This happened at city hall, and after that is when the main events actually started happening.
After the official ceremony, the newlyweds went to the bride’s dear mother’s place. Of course, Lord-knows-what is going on there. Table’s being set. There’s this heap of guests. It’s a family big deal – everyone’s awaiting the newlyweds.
And there are all these different kinds of ladies and gentlemen running all over the room, setting down the plates and silverware, and popping corks.
But Volod’ka Zavitushkin had lost his young bride while they were still in the hall. Those damn mommies and aunties, they surround him as soon as he walks in and start showering him with congratulations and start dragging him into the living room. They get him into the room. They’re saying something, shaking his hands, they’re curious to know what union he’s a member of.
But the only thing Volod’ka can see is that he can’t even make out where his young wife is. There are all these chics in the room. Each one’s twisting, each one’s turning; I mean, a guy just come off the street – someone coming in from where’s there’s natural light – he won’t be able to tell for his life.
“Man, oh, man,” thinks Volod’ka, “nothing like this has ever happened to me. Which one of them is my young bride?”
So around the room he begins to walk, stalking these dames. Comes up to one, then another one. But they’re not too eager to see him, you know, not much joy being expressed there.
Here’s where Volod’ka even got a little scared.
“Jeez,” he thinks to himself, “this is ridiculous. I can’t even find my own wife!”
And the relatives start looking at him strange, too, like, why’s the groom staggering around the room like an idiot and throwing himself at every dame he sees? So Volod’ka parks himself by a door, and just stands there all crestfallen.
“Oh, I hope they’re gonna start seating the guests real soon,” he thinks. “Maybe then things will clear up some. Whichever one sits down next to me must be the one. It would sure be nice if this blondie there sat next to me. ‘Cause if they slip me some dog, I’ll be stuck with her.”
And then the guests start sitting down at the table.
The dear mother is begging everyone to please-for-the-love-of-dear-God have a little more patience and wait some more. But you can’t hold these guests back; they’re going for the grub and the drink like wild people.
Then they take Volodya Zavitushkin and install him in the place of honor. And next to him, to one of his sides, they seat some dame.
So Volod’ka gave her a good look, and felt relieved.
“Whoa, she’s something,” he says to himself. “She’s not so bad,” he thinks. Looks much better without all that hattery too. The nose don’t stick out into the street so much,” he thinks.
Volodya Zavitushkin is overcome with feeling. He pours a little wine into his glass and her glass and makes for her to, you know, congratulate and kiss his bride.
And here’s where the main events started unfolding.
Here’s when the yelling and hollering started.
“This is one crazy sonofabitch,” people scream. “He’s going for all the dames. The young bride hasn’t even arrived at the table yet – still putting on the gloss – and he’s already starting to get fresh with another one!”
Here’s where this complete chaos and rubbish occurred.
Of course, Volod’ka should’ve turned everything into a joke. But he got awful offended. He got banged on the back of the head in all the commotion. Some relative whacked him with a bottle.
Volod’ka cries out: “To hell with all of you! You place all these broads around me, and then I’m supposed to figure out who is who!?”
The bride appears in a white virgin’s gown, clutching flowers in her little hands. “Oh, so it’s like that,” she says. “Well, there’ll be hell to pay for you.”
And, of course, again, there’s yelling, screaming and hysterical chaos. And, of course, the relatives want to throw Volod’ka outta there.
Volod’ka says: “At least let me eat something. Haven’t had a bite to eat since morning,” he says, “on account of all the hullabaloo.”
But the relations insisted and sent him flying down the stairs.
Next day, after work, Volodya Zavitushkin stopped by the registry office and got himself divorced.
There he heard some sour-sounding words, “Sometimes you’ll get these thoughtless marriages,” they told him. “But don’t do it again. Or you’ll end up in court.” And then they divorced him.
So now he’s single and can again get married to whoever’s willing.
But what good there is in marrying and why people should want to do it – that’s downright dumbfounding.
As a rule, wives cheat and – here’s the darndest thing – always love someone else instead of their husband. So, I don’t know about you, but my view is against a marriage like that. Although, as long as we’re talking about marriage, I’m for a strong and sturdy marriage. I’m just not blind to it, and know what’s involved.
Anyway, here’s what happened once in the love department.
Prostrated on the parquet floor of the work studio, Boris Gendelman busily observes his students. With an invitation to follow his lead, he stretches out his arms in front of him, like a swimmer who has just pushed off the pool wall. His legs are half-bent at the knees, the arms at a slightly upward angle. He lowers his feet to the floor, does a ‘thumbs-up’ gesture, turns it 180 degrees and plants the thumbs down on the orange-brown parquet. Without any warning and with explosive energy, he catapults his midsection into the air, so that the body – parallel to the floor – is supported entirely and exclusively by the large toes and thumbs.
In real life, this exercise is virtually impossible to do. It requires tremendous strength in the wrists and abdomen, not to mention the lower back, the upper back and legs. The two extreme points of one’s body must hold up the entire structure, including its center of gravity. And Gendelman is no wisp of a man – although a modest 5’5”, he weighs close to 200 pounds, and it’s safe to say that the bulk of that weight consists of the very muscles that allow him to perform the exercise with such reverberating effortlessness.
After doing this lift (called ‘the flat board’, or Gendelman’s jesting favorite – ‘a bridge over troubled waters’) nine more times, he stands up, smiling benignly at our pathetic attempts to repeat the feat even once. None of us lack regular exercise or an athletic figure. Still, even in modified form – with arms slightly bent and palms flat on the floor – we can eke out about three-quarters of one. As we, too, stand up; panting, red from strain, and suddenly aware of previously dormant skeletal muscles, he looks at us and pronounces the magic words: “The degree of your freedom.” He smiles fleetingly, but suddenly looks serious. “It’s the degree of your freedom that determines how easy it is for you to do something. If you’re prepared, you are free to do anything.”
John Gilbey, an heir to a textile fortune who devoted his life to the systematic study of martial arts, wrote in Secret Fighting Arts of The World: “The mark of a true master lies not in his ability to perform a spectacular feat; it may be that with practice others could do the same. A true master is one who can repeat anything anyone shows him.” Years ago, a yogi Gendelman met showed him ‘the bridge’ and asked him if he had ever seen it done. Gendelman said no. Then he lay on the ground and did it.
And yet there is hope for us in the epigraph of Gilbey’s book: “The overconfidence of amateurs” it says, “is the envy of professionals.”
* * *
I first met Gendelman on a bitterly cold winter evening in Seagate, the windswept forehead of the goby-shaped Coney Island. I was invited to a gathering of Russian-speaking émigrés, billed collectively as ‘interesting people’. There was a soft-spoken, appropriately-blond Lithuanian who hosted an arts program on New York’s Russian-language radio, a concert pianist in her late thirties, and a sixtyish professional photographer who claimed to have been on familiar terms with the great Russian poet-singer Vladimir Vysotsky as well as a close friend of Joseph Brodsky; “Volodya came up [to Leningrad] from Moscow all the time”… and “We loved Iosif dearly.” The white hair on his head was still thick; the polar bear’s beard imperceptibly pointed to a previous life as freckle-red. He was a garrulous, yentaish man, marbling his earnest yammering with cussing so rich and sincere that I couldn’t help but smile along, knowing that there was just no other way to put what he wanted to say.
The host was roughly fifty, with unsettling eyes and a sardonic manner. He was, it turned out, a healer in the Russian folk tradition, dabbling in relaxation techniques and palm reading to stay alive. His ‘soothing voice’, intoning queer passages about walking through Hansel-und-Gretel-type landscapes onto CDs imprinted with his image (improbably paired with background music that owed a large debt to Yanni) had a Mephistophelean feel that was equally unnerving and coma-inducing. The evening’s attraction was a presentation by a plump man who had the large, happy moustache and robust cheeks of a Hamburg baker. Such a heartbreakingly pathetic person, immersed in a fog of unhappiness and imbuing every surrounding thing with pity, I had never seen. With many a stammer and furtive glance he told us, as we gathered in the cavernous second-floor living room by the dim glow of candles, of his experience living with Lakota Indians in South Dakota.
This was preceded by an account of the first forty years of his life, spent in singular frustration with the government, society, prevailing attitudes, his body and his life. Here was a creature so beaten down by the restrictions of the Soviet system, so repressed and downtrodden, denied personal choice and moral freedom for so long in his native land, and – once he was finally allowed to immigrate – made so much more shy and closed-off by the language barrier, that ‘the feeling of unimaginable freedom and belonging’ that he found during his three months among the Indians was almost as much of a relief to us as it must have been to him.
Midway through the narrative, a starving artist (of sorts) dropped in from the cellar studio he occupied. He didn’t really look the part, as the tank top he wore was a tight fit, but he did refuse food.
Before Vladimir began the tale of his adventures in Indian Territory, the host asked us to say a few words about ourselves since many of those present had never met one another. Just as we were starting, a short, bearded man entered the room. He had closely cropped receding hair, an aquiline nose and dark eyes, and looked vaguely Middle Eastern, perhaps Jewish. He wore loose pants, a wrinkled shirt, very open at the top and slightly bulging at the belly, and a smirking grin. On his bare feet were beaten-up, open-backed sandals. He quietly said hello, bowing and nodding at everyone. The host introduced him as ‘Boris, who had just walked over from his house, a few blocks away.’ The concert pianist asked if that was all he wore and he said yes. No coat? No coat. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside; with a wind chill factor of God knows what.
Everyone described briefly what he or she did for a living, and when his turn came, he said, with some hesitation, “I live professionally.” There was a silence and some glances shot around. The concert pianist, curious and brave, asked what he meant by that, to which Gendelman replied “I simply try to live my life professionally… in a professional manner.” Requests for clarification followed, but if he did say anything more specific, I didn’t remember, because back then I didn’t really care to listen. Surely, in this motley collection of human esoterica, this specimen was the weirdest.
* * *
The next time I saw Gendelman, it was a mild summer day in 2001, a year and a half later. He had been recommended to me, again, as ‘an interesting person’, but this time there was no backdrop of fully clothed people – besides, it was July. I was told that he teaches tai chi. Reluctant to go, I still did. There are always reasons to improve oneself, I thought, and somehow there were none against going to Seagate that afternoon.
Gendelman invited me to sit and talk awhile. We settled into some tattered armchairs on the dilapidated porch of a Victorian house that just may have been around in the Queen’s time; its cornices overwrought and festooned, Rococo-style, with the muck of roosting pigeons. Waiting for green tea to brew, we traded tidbits of historical knowledge, current affairs and personal philosophies. After forty minutes or so, he invited me into a very large living room, which also serves as a work studio. Paintings – all his, I guessed – lined the walls. Most were esoteric in one way or another, some erotic. There was no sophistication immediately visible in the brushstrokes, no echo of a famous artist’s or school’s style; they appeared to be largely amateur, although well-executed, works. Curved swords in decorated sheaths hung on the left and far sides of the room. Straight swords lay on small wooden blocks near a fireplace. A gathering of wooden practice swords and long bamboo poles crowded into a nook formed by the joint of a wall and wood paneling. This looked like the studio of a swordsman who painted in his spare time.
My only prior experience with martial arts dated back to the age of six, when, after being on the receiving end of some road-rage-fueled pugilism, my father took karate lessons for about nine months – lessons I did not attend. What I did know about the popular teaching of martial arts did not inspire me, and I never had any interest in the purely physical ones, such as, say, karate.
Lacking experience, I was naturally wary in the beginning. This would serve me well later on, since I only trusted what I experienced personally, physically, subjectively, and not what might have been represented as something ‘objective’. Thus, I never had the feeling that a certain way of looking at the world was being thrust upon me. Still, in the beginning, there were many things I was blind to.
Later, (much later) I would all of a sudden notice the tiny statue of Buddha sitting in lotus pose in Gendelman’s studio, under an easel holding a long-finished painting, with an incense-holder in front and a shivalinga behind it. (I would also learn what a shivalinga – a representation of the Hindu god Shiva, or ‘the sign of Shiva’ – looks like). By that time, I realized that I had a chance to do something much, much greater than self-defense or health-defense. What attracted me to Gendelman’s system, which he calls Life Defense or Tantra Tai Chi, was the unity of mind (analysis as well as concentration of will) and body that I always wished for with an awe habitually reserved for unattainable ideals, and which I, in my infinite ignorance, associated almost exclusively with the ancient Hellenic tradition.
I can now say from personal experience that this mind-body concert obviously produces phenomenal results. ‘Obviously’, because it enlists a large number of faculties normally left untapped. When put to use, they allow for extraordinary progress.
Gendelman’s Life Defense is self-defense in the broadest possible sense of that word. Its approach to physical defense is that of any serious school of martial arts: one practices so as never to use the skills in a real conflict. In other words, while the properly performed tai chi form is like a fluid, unstoppable dance, practicing the martial aspects of tai chi should not be seen as a fighting dance (in the way a rain dance is performed in order to obtain rain). Quite the opposite.
It is a paradox that does not lend itself readily to logic. Gendelman puts it another way: “The best way to win a fight is to avoid one.” Life Defense, he says, helps you avoid conflicts, whether physical, moral or emotional, and live a life of better quality, a more fortuitous life, in which events and time correspond more harmoniously to each other than they might otherwise.
Gendelman has drawn his philosophy from many sources. In Moscow, as a young man, he first practiced karate, then gradually arrived at bhakti-yoga, or the yoga of worship, following ‘the path of Krishna’. Then he met a master whose impact on him was so profound that Gendelman still refuses to discuss it in detail. Among his influences he also counts the Indian sage Osho, who wrote not a single word and whose students, as Plato did with Socrates, wrote down his monologues.
Friendship and cooperation between communist nations inadvertently shaped his education in the martial arts. He studied the hsing-i and tai chi forms with a visiting professor from Hebei University, who had learned the Chen form of tai chi from Chen Xiao-Wang, inscribed in the official lineage of the Chen style. (The teacher’s name is translated into English as ‘Truly a Tiger’.) Married at one point to a woman with ties to Moscow’s expatriate Japanese community, Gendelman was able to study Japanese martial arts from first-hand sources. This advanced the early training in karate he had received from his first teacher. Another sensei, a very slight man from Vietnam, “had arms and legs like rails” remembers Gendelman. “He almost destroyed my legs with his blocks – they were all black and blue – but it taught me to attack at such an angle as to not get hurt myself.” He was also instructed in an underground North Korean system, hsangyeh, which means ‘life’ or ‘the life entire’. The lessons were kept a secret. Gendelman says that had his teacher’s handlers back in Pyongyang found out that he was propagating a dangerous atavism of feudal society among trusting Soviet comrades (in the very capital of that ‘lodestar of all of progressive humanity’ to boot) he would have been given short shrift – a bullet in the head.
The Channel of Life
Eventually, Gendelman unified his knowledge and approach to ancient disciplines – predominantly internal (stressing transmission of energy rather than of physical force) Taoist arts, such as tai chi, qi gong, hsing-i, wing chun, feng shui, yoga, and others under the banner of Life Defense. The approach, like other internal martial arts, offers a way of changing your body from the inside. “While bodybuilding or standard karate emphasizes outer appearance, muscle strength or speed, the inner arts cultivate your inner core, your channel of life. Once you feel it, it will give you much greater speed and explosive power than anything you could do with just your muscles. The goal always is to protect this inner channel – the balance, both physical and mental – from illness, mishaps, attacks and accidents. We practice a kind of dynamic feng shui, learning to alter the location and orientation of our channel so as to be in the most convenient and sensible state and place at any given time.”
While positioning is very important in Life Defense, the system relies on flexibility of form. It demands rootedness and solidity of stance, yet emphasizes softness of touch and lightness in movement. Gendelman says: “You should strive to have the feet of a chicken, (which grasp the ground with claws and never back up) the waist of a dragon (which weaves and slithers) and the back of a bear (that moves forward as one solid mass).”
Theory is something he comes back to at every session. Actually, it is something he never leaves, putting many seemingly simple and unassuming exercises into the context of the larger philosophy. The inner balance, or centerline, may be envisioned as a channel that runs length-wise through our bodies, from head to toe, roughly along the spine and into the arms and legs. This channel is suspended between the Yin (Earth, negative) and Yang (Sky, positive) – the two polar forces of nature – and is in constant flux. Gendelman often waxes poetic when driving home the point: “By cultivating the vital force flowing through it, you make the lightning spark between the plus and minus of the forces that much brighter. The brighter the spark, the more energy, substance and purpose inform your lives.” Actually, Gendelman waxes poetic quite often.
As we walked out one evening and stood under the stars – the roof of his house, with its decorative scrolls and satellite dishes, sending out a dense jumble of geometrical signals into the sky – Gendelman looked up and pointed to the largest and brightest star in the dense, shimmering darkness. In a storyteller’s voice, Gendelman addressed the small group of students, “When you practice martial arts, you automatically place yourself under the patronage of Mars, the god of warfare. Anything we do during practice is done under the aegis of Mars.” “Do you see how large the star is in the sky? Mars is as close to our planet as ever. This only happens once in many years. Use this time wisely.”
Whatever he is talking about, time is never far from Gendelman’s mind. Time and space. These pillars of quantum physics are given a new spin in his instructions for doing something as simple as using your arm for a punch. It turns out that you shouldn’t use your arm or shoulder or fist, and not even your body. Every motion, especially one that is invested with meaning, such as blocking an opponent’s attack or making one of your own, should be performed using the channel inside of us instead of our muscles. If the channel is clear and open and does not obstruct the flow of energy (chi), the motion will have the desired effect, whether it is a block that makes the attacking party wish they were not so bold, or an innocent-looking shove that sends someone flying.
In a spiraling learning curve, an understanding of the dimensions of space leads to a feeling for the passage of time, which, in turn, results in an understanding of angles. Angles are both spatial and temporal; born of movement in space, they constantly change in time. Gendelman uses the principles of feng shui, the science of proper and auspicious placement of dwellings in space as well as people and objects within those dwellings, as an illustration of right and wrong angles. If, during ‘soft-hands’, a close-range, forearms-to-forearms exercise, a student exposes his channel, leaving it open, however slightly or indirectly, to an attack, Gendelman makes the vulnerability apparent and says: “In this instance, you have bad feng shui. Now, how could it be improved?” The student starts to step and weave, attempting to assume the most protected position, but often the slightest adjustment is all that is needed to achieve the optimal, most efficient and logical angle. That feeling – beyond description – for what is optimal, takes years of practice to develop fully.
Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once wrote in a New Yorker article:
“The dazzling speed of martial-arts masters, the movement too fast for the untrained eye to follow, may be executed, in the performer’s mind, with an almost balletic deliberation and grace, what trainers and coaches like to call ‘relaxed concentration’.… The expertise… is only to be acquired by years of dedicated practice and training. At first, an intense conscious effort and attention are necessary to learn every nuance of technique and timing. But at some point the basic skills and their neural representation become so ingrained in the nervous system as to be almost second nature, no longer in need of conscious effort or decision. One level of brain activity may be working automatically, while another, the conscious level, is fashioning a perception of time, a perception which is elastic, and can be compressed or expanded.” [The italics are mine – GP.]
“Seek the core,” Gendelman says, using an example of a fist and the channel to illustrate the implications of what he says. “If your eyes follow a good boxer’s fist, you won’t even notice it giving you a black eye. But if you look at his center, his channel of life, [which, like, say, the center of a merry-go-round, moves much slower than the horses whooshing along the outer edges] you can see the punch as it happens, moving your core – yourself – from its path, and putting your own attacking arm into the path of his core long before he finishes his motion.” Then Gendelman digs deeper into his satchel of metaphors and comes up with an even more striking one.
“Think of a ruler, a monarch. He is the executive power: grants privileges to one guy, says “off with his head” about another. He orders people and peoples around – he is will incarnate. He does what he wishes, he rewards and executes. Then, there’s his advisor, an eminence gris. He’s always behind the throne, in the shadows – he’s a shadow himself. He whispers lightly in the king’s ear, saying: “Well, your majesty, of course you could do that, and it’s a wonderful and wise idea you’ve had, but perhaps, …well…. Maybe this part of it … maybe it could be done in, say, that way. Perhaps something for you to consider. Of course, you should do what you think is best, but maybe,… well, it’s up to you, your majesty. It is entirely your decision. You are the king.”
“And what happens is that the shadow, while inapparent and inconspicuous, proves to be more effective and more powerful than the will-wielder.” “This is what you have to be like – your attacker’s shadow. The person who is attacking you is manifesting his will. He executes the idea of attacking you, while you are just following, as light and weightless as a shadow. You’re not disagreeing with him, not blocking him, not forcing him to do anything. You shadow his will, and in the end, instead of becoming vulnerable, you open up a vulnerability in him, and thus prevail.”
Neither does Gendelman shy away from outsize and literally otherworldly analogies to illustrate a point. “Think of planetary alignment. Your channel, your instrument of action (arm, leg, elbow, hip, whatever) and your opponent’s channel must be in a straight line, like the planets, when aligned. Only then will you be effortlessly effective in your actions.” Once that image has sunk in, all he has to say is ‘the planets’ and the student knows what to emphasize during an exercise. ‘A ship’s prow’ is another loaded image. “Attacking an opponent head-on is like pushing against the prow of a ship – the sharpest point where all the energy is concentrated – not smart. Instead, step aside, and attack the ship’s gunwale.” This brings The Titanic to mind. Had it rammed the unavoidable iceberg directly, it might have lost its bow, but would have remained largely intact and afloat. Instead, it swerved, leaving the iceberg to tear through its vulnerable side. In short, ‘Remember The Titanic’.
“Look at it this way,” says Gendelman, offering a cinematic metaphor, “the person attacking you moves in his own world, living in his own film, so to speak. By moving your core out of the way, you are consciously stepping out of the plot line. He’s still living in his film [moving in his movie] but you’re already outside of it, out of harm’s way.” This analogy is no accident. Aside from being a connoisseur of Soviet – and more recently, American – film, and having an education in theatre and painting, Gendelman is naturally artistic, with a comedian’s fluid mimicry, tonal command, and feel for timing. It’s no surprise then that for him Life Defense is not merely a reactive approach, but an inherently creative one.
In order to create a new level of being it is not enough to defend one’s life against attacks. It is necessary to change one’s level of sensitivity, the ability of the body and the mind to perceive. Cultivating this level results in attacks that either never arrive – the plot lines of your movie don’t intersect with those of certain others – or are too insignificant to harm you. Yet there is another way of looking at the movie analogy: the mass movie that the world lives in and the personal film each person lives out. Society at large inhabits a mega-picture, which tries to be all things to all people, caters to the lowest common denominator, employs every single formulaic gesture and tugs at the frayed strings of all the standard emotions. The personal film (at least as it should be) – indie by definition, esoteric, original and shockingly intimate – is filled with ravishing color as well as countless shades of gray, with spontaneous emotions and layers of nuance, with an endless capacity for surprise, and with a greater, all-encompassing love that is the founding and indelible characteristic of all truly great art.
The goal in Life Defense, as in life, is to become multidimensional in body, as a thinker, as a human being. To walk in and out of movies and films, to see their plot lines in advance, to choose the ones you prefer. This takes artistry, and, in one writer’s words, the mark of the artist is to take in more than one can know. In order to take something in one must sense or perceive it, and that can only be done via an organ of perception. The process of developing these organs, or reviving the ones we are equipped with yet hardly use, is a constant refrain during practice.
The development and growth of the organs is metamorphosis. Gendelman calls it alchemy. Alchemy, by definition, combines commonly available ingredients and, through an energy-intensive process, makes them into something of rare and extraordinary value. In The X-Men, the classic comic book series, a handful of humans begin to manifest mutations that give them superpowers. The premise of the series is that the genetic potential to evolve to a higher level of being exists in all humans. With Life Defense, the alchemy lies in using will and work to cause a benign mutation in oneself that results in faculties and health that are beyond normal. Essentially – superpowers.
A Conscious Action
“100 grams must topple 300 kilograms,” Gendelman says regularly, in a take on the traditional tai chi principle of ‘subduing the vigorous by the soft,’ meaning the use of gentle energy to quell brute force. Such a feat can only be performed with the ‘soft, feminine force that does not come from hard external training’. In other words, size, weight and even muscle strength bow to will (conscious action) and chi.
A conscious action – the essence of the Taoist approach – is a product of concentrated willpower, and a catalyst for the latent energy present in our bodies, transforming it into the kinetic kind. The internal energy work acts as a multiplier, so ten push-ups done during or immediately after a session have the perceptible and visible effect on one’s strength and muscle tone of literally a hundred done otherwise.
This effect requires constant effort, and even though Gendelman bills Life Defense as a shortcut or an alternative to the paths other systems take to reach the goal, he is the first to reiterate that to achieve a certain level of sensation and understanding one needs to diligently apply will and body. “A master of, say, karate may, after 20 years of practice, start to feel a sensation of burning or smoke in his belly. Ours is a system for the lazy man [and woman, of course]. We start at the end – by engendering the burning feeling, by concentrating on the sensation of the channel – and cultivate the channel itself through an effort of will.”
Essentially, this is an evolution fast-forwarded, and anyone who is evolving is at war with the world. By the same token, the world is at war with him or her. One consciously tries to destroy weakness, illness, and undesirable traits and limitations within oneself, while – and via – working through externally imposed limitations. This is understanding and progress through stress, and we experience it when preparing for exams or interviews, as the state of nervousness before and during them eventually bounds us to the next level of readiness (e.g. knowledge, confidence, self-image, status, etc.)
Practiced and interpreted more broadly, this is a constant state of engagement, of concentration, active meditation, of residing – in a poet’s words – ‘in the monastery of one’s own spirit’ while living a full life as part of society. It is a process of creation – of a new attitude, a new body – that, like any such process, involves the stripping away of layers of consciousness, prejudices and complacency until one reaches the core that is the touchstone of every person. And it is the given characteristics of this rock (or gem) that determine the extent, scale and depth of practice for each person.
Of course, any acquired force or power has to be maintained, whether it’s knowledge, insight, physical prowess, family or money. Gendelman illustrates this and the creative nature of Life Defense in no less creative terms.
Up until about three years ago, he did not charge for group lessons. Now, he is convinced that ‘contributions’ as he calls them, although very modest for the group sessions, are necessary. “You cannot engender a new life [for yourself] without spilling blood, giving some of yourself” he explains. In other words, by paying your hard-earned money, you are helping yourself create a new you. You are still the one who has to work to metamorphose, but, if anything, the expense makes you more serious, more disciplined, and – even if on some otherworldly level – more committed.
Gendelman tells us of the Thugs, an ancient Indian order of professional bandits, who worshipped Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Originally, roving gangs of Thugs committed murder following exact religious rites honoring her. In Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne wrote: “…It was thereabouts that Feringhea, the Thuggee chief, king of the stranglers, held his sway. …These ruffians, united by a secret bond, strangled victims of every age in honour of the goddess Death, without ever shedding blood…” Gendelman explains: “They killed people with a roomal, a silk strip about an inch wide and 3 feet long, using techniques that were impossible to counter. Blood engenders blood, so by strangling their victims and not spilling any they avoided the creation of another life and another death”. When I interject that murder by strangling, however neat, may bring about still another death by way of revenge, Gendelman laughs and says that that is entirely possible. Still, his point has been made, and certainly in no common terms.
Fire, Metal, Water, Earth, Wood
The approach, if pursued in earnest, becomes a multiplier in life, a liberator of creative, sexual and mental energy, and there are practical exercises that unleash it. Occasionally, towards the end of a session, everyone forms a close circle, with one person in the middle. He or she stands relaxed, but on guard, while those on the edges spontaneously mock-attack from different sides, one at a time. The attacks have to be parried by erecting an instant wall of energy. There is no physical contact, but the spurts of energy are distinctly palpable. There are sprays of simultaneous laughter – probably not so much on account of some perceived kind of private understanding or the bond of membership in a select group, but because of a mutually felt sense of elation, of momentary happiness, of a natural high.
A typical session is two to two-and-a-half hours long, and starts and ends with small bowls of green tea, which is conducive to energy work and, of course, generally good for the body. Tea is then taken into the studio, a wood-paneled adjunct of the living room, two steps down from the ground floor, where it is purposefully sipped between exercises. Sometimes the conversation before or after the lesson (often both) stretches for an hour or more. Gendelman is effortlessly hospitable, genially presiding, pasha-like, in an enveloping, low-sided black leather armchair, hard by a hard-working fireplace. Sweets and chocolates are always on the table, along with pistachios, dried berries and preserves. (For most of his life he has been a vegetarian.)
He listens attentively to others, but there is a hint of retreat in his handshake, a sense of absence palpable in his demeanor. Sometimes, while answering a question, he may wind down a sentence abruptly and smile enigmatically. Some may see it as secretiveness, but I think it is rather his unwillingness as a teacher to lead students astray by allowing the form – the words – of his thoughts to prevail over the substance of the ideas. Some teachers are concerned about giving out too much ‘secret’ information, but Gendelman’s concern is often that a student at a certain stage won’t be able to perceive or internalize what he is teaching.
In any case, he seems to be well-suited to lead a serious student to a serious level, possessing the classic qualities of a good teacher: patience, the ability to repeat ideas and concepts dozens of times over the course of months until they sink in, the readiness to reward with a compliment when someone does something particularly well. A favorite, and uncannily effective, teaching tool he uses is the phrase: “To any number you can add another.” When trying to relax and feel the energy traveling through the channel, it helps to hear that, as relaxed as you are now, you can always be that much more relaxed a moment later; 1, then 2 or 733, then 734, and so on.
Still, in the end, the student must directly experience the substance of the teacher’s words. As Gendelman often says, “faith plays no part in Life Defense”; you don’t hear the words and make yourself believe. You hear the words over and over, in different contexts, while directing your body to change through an effort of will. And then, one day, you feel and you understand.
The facility of association with the great comes intuitively to some, with experience to others. If one truly feels great music, literature and art, it is easy to consider Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Matisse, Shakespeare or Pushkin one’s contemporaries. Not just to say that their art is timeless and ever relevant, but to embrace them as friends and partners, living alongside of you, within you. The same holds true for the world of ideas. So, when one day the conversation turned to the influence of religious philosophy on the masses and someone brought up Jesus Christ, Gendelman said: “Now there was a great master.” It isn’t hard to understand why Gendelman identifies with Jesus-the-historical-figure: he was at the top of his profession (not carpentry, of course), he lived professionally (in the sense of complete devotion to and immersion in a cause) and he was full of parables (a trait Gendelman shares.)
For Jews wishing to pursue the teachings of other religions, there exists a well-trod path beaten by the prodigal sons of the People of the Book to the Books of other peoples. The traditionally closed-off nature of Jewish mysticism has driven many a Jewish intellectual seeking spiritual enlightenment without a prescribed form of serving God to pursue mystical traditions outside of Judaism. Some have been very influential. Ram Dass, (formerly Richard Alpert) probably the most famous Jewish practitioner of Hinduism and Sufism, who also famously explored human consciousness through intensive experimentation with LSD, is said to be responsible for leading more Jews away from Judaism than any other man save Marx.
Gendelman does not style himself as a spiritual leader in any one mold, or, for that matter, as a spiritual leader. He seems to share the Buddhist view of Buddhism as something that simply exists, a gift to the world, there for anyone to study, practice and benefit from, without reference to creed, ethnicity, or affiliation. His Jewish roots define him to the extent that genetics and upbringing define a person and shape a personality, but they neither constrict him ideologically nor restrict his view of other approaches to spirituality and faith. And although the pride Gendelman plainly feels in his heritage is contagious, his spirituality is organic and unrestrictive, combining his self-identification as a Jew with a philosophy, small daily rituals, and devotions that are decidedly Buddhist. His frame of reference is catholic. In one sentence, he might speak earnestly of the respect and feeling of historical fraternity with Jews that is found in certain parts of India (“ ‘the Jews are our Western branch,’ they say”,) and in the next, he will describe bhakti-yoga as having “a sweetness that is not unlike the sweetness of Christianity, for those who have attained it”.
Still, his affinity for Jews and Jewishness, based on ethnicity and philosophy, is quite palpable. One day, while chatting at the end of a particularly good session, Gendelman said that for some time now he had been considering presenting Life Defense as his gift to the State of Israel. As serious as he is about his system and its implications, he was the first to take a humorous view of the idea, jokingly suggesting the moniker Jew Do (pronounced just like ‘judo’) for its export version.
Actually, Life Defense could have any number of names. It may also be understood in different ways, apprehended superficially or profoundly, felt on various levels; there is no party line as to how it is understood as long as the channel of life is felt, protected and used properly. Life Defense is also its most basic components: life and defense. After a session, the energy coursing through the body literally makes one want to eat, to fight, to make love. As with some other kinds of high, the longer you don’t eat, the longer the natural high lasts. The other two inclinations are a matter of personal choice. After-practice sparring happens regularly, although by no means always. There are no reliable statistics on post-session coupling, but something Gendelman has mentioned more than once is that the kind of work we do makes its practitioners ‘very powerful sexually’.
On the surface, it is apparent that Gendelman uses kung fu and wushu forms as yantras (iconic diagrams) or keys to help one unlock certain mysteries. It is also clear that in creating his approach, he has heeded the words of another artist and teacher, Bruce Lee: “Research your own experiences for the truth. Absorb what is useful…Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual…is more important than any style or system.” And ultimately, the practice of Life Defense, seen as an investment of time, effort and self into any discipline meant to raise the level of mind and body, is a profoundly, albeit benignly, egotistical endeavor. You do not practice it out of deference for the teacher or in praise of the system. You do it to improve yourself, to evolve to the point at which you can say – to update Woody Allen’s classic one-liner – “I am the best I ever had”.
Gendelman is not simply an instructor of martial arts or a yoga practitioner, and indeed it is hard to mistake him for one. A true teacher acts as a conduit through which a certain energy flows – a charged fuel; the product of years of concerted effort – that a student can use to power his or her path. That flow of energy is the force that binds together the elements of the system and elevates them into the potential for individual insight. “This system cannot be taught. The student is set ablaze, like a torch [from the teacher’s fire].”
In a remote corner of his studio hangs a plaque announcing Boris Gendelman’s ordination as a minister of the Universal Life Church. I’m not sure what the church and the title are, but as far as denominations go, I see him as more of a sherpa than a shepherd – he opens vistas, and hints at the path to the horizon, but he doesn’t hold students’ hands nor does he explicitly delineate that path.
comes Gendelman’s admonishing bark at the intruding housepet, interrupting my mental digression from the exercises we are doing in the studio. Rex is a gracefully muscle-bound, terra-cotta-and-clay-colored boxer-bulldog who spent his puppyhood under the tutelage of a middle-aged tomcat, since departed for parts unknown. “He had a cat for a sensei,” Gendelman says, explaining Rex’s distinct distaste for other dogs, and why – though a fully-equipped bachelor and a fine six-year-old example of all the best and none of the worst of both breeds – he has yet to make a conquest among the local bitches. Rex is, essentially, a cat in a dog’s body, even trying to weave between your legs, which – at 22 inches at the shoulder and eighty pounds, with a tail that stings like a lash – turns into yet another exercise in maintaining balance.
In his 20s, Gendelman traveled the Soviet Union on a motorcycle, “with Tisha, my Tibetan terrier, standing up in the sidecar, the wind blowing through every bone in his body.” He must have looked a little like the bulldog leaning into the wind and weather from the hoods of Mack trucks; the attitude mellowed, perhaps, by the romantically swept back mane that is a hallmark of the breed. Gendelman remembers a particular trip they took together to Batumi, part of Georgia and the capital of tiny Adzhariya. These days, Adzhariya Province, immersed in a long-simmering conflict with Georgia, from which it wants to secede, is not the safest destination. Yet, even twenty years ago, a motorcycle trip from Moscow to Batumi was inherently unsafe, with pothole-strewn highways lacking dividers and sometimes even dividing lines. In many ways, it was a leap of faith, an Evel Knievel jump extending over a thousand miles.
Gendelman is no daredevil, however; these days, at least. The best-handled conflict to him is still an avoided one. Still, according to one of his mottoes, “A good person always has it good”, and if barreling down primitive highways, Mad-Max-like, on a three-wheeled piece of Soviet mechanical monumentality poses no potential or conceivable conflict or problem to someone, they must have it good indeed. Which, by all accounts, he did.
The ride would take three days. Once there, while Tisha indulged in his favored pastime of bedeviling the anorexic local pigs, Gendelman took part in impromptu martial arts duels and competitions, and relaxed on the Black Sea beaches the city is famous for, in the process forming friendships he maintains to this day. “Sport creates the strongest bonds,” he says. Many of his then opponents and hosts are still continuing their practice, while some have made prominent careers in business and the military.
Back in modern-day Moscow, Alexandr Shengeliya, a large, genial man in his early fifties, runs an all-style martial arts school. He is a sculptor, and his office-studio, which is on the school’s premises, is populated by dozens of his works, including a giant bronze, chain-mail-clad angel bearing a spear and a mien strangely resigned to making war. Shengeliya was Gendelman’s first teacher. “This scrawny 16-year-old kid, Borya Gendelman, came to me smoking like a chimney, with a serious allergy to alcohol.” (This is a delicate way of saying that even at that precocious age, young Borya already knew the effects of chronic overindulgence in the gift of Bacchus. As for cigarettes, Gendelman says his first puff was at age 7.) “I started him on karate forms and strengthening exercises,” says Shengeliya, and through just plain persistence and dogged effort, he reached a pretty high level within a short time.”
While he pays respectful dues to the space where he took the first steps on his path, as well as to the man who had helped him along, Gendelman has outgrown them both, and Shengeliya’s tone with him is now more solicitous than patriarchal. One day, stopping by on his way to India, Gendelman mentions – likely in jest – that he would like to some day build a temple to the Sun-god, and Shengeliya immediately offers – only half in jest – the school’s real estate as a temporary space.
It has been said that religion is the most pervasive element in the cultural landscape of India; religion meant as spirituality. Perhaps this is why to Gendelman the country is a sort of homeland of his heart. He takes regular trips to his native Moscow and from there to Italy, Germany and beyond. His clients include Russian businessmen, a banking mogul in Milan and an executive at a top Italian design house, but wherever he is traveling, he invariably ends up in India. While Gendelman is especially well received by his close friends in Moscow and Germany, he has confessed to feeling most free and at home in India. “The sky there is incredibly open,” he says with a nostalgic conviction. Fortunately, unlike its sky, India’s food can be reproduced in other parts of the world, which is important to Gendelman-the-gourmet.
Great food – like anything worth having, and having in the greatest degree – must be denied to oneself in order to be enjoyed to the utmost. Its presence in one’s life must be controlled in order to be enjoyed. Essentially, only by controlling how much of a good thing you get can you experience a great thing.
Despite what would seem like all this self-denial, Gendelman is emphatic about striving for pleasure and harmony, and doing so within the framework of society, of the modern world and the conveniences it offers. To some extent, he subscribes to each of the major tenets of Taoist philosophy (as summarized by Chuang Tzu, who along with the better-known Lao Tzu was the defining figure of Chinese Taoism): “To regard the fundamental as the essence, to regard things as coarse, to regard accumulation as deficiency, and to dwell quietly alone with the spiritual and the intelligent….” Still, Gendelman strives for a worldly approach.
Food, as the consummate sybaritic voluptuary Stiva Oblonsky (Anna Karenina’s brother) informed us, is one of the great pleasures given to us in life. Eating should therefore be a sacred act, a mystery to be approached with awe and wonder. It is an affirmation of our bond with the earth (the original source of any food) and with the person sharing the meal, something to be enjoyed and relished through and through. From this point of view, the traditions of not wasting food, especially bread, the motherly reminders to chew slowly, and the custom of saying a blessing over food – many of them half-forgotten or cast aside – acquire a new meaning and sense. And diet fads make less and less sense.
The old ‘You are what you eat’ perfectly illustrates a key aspect of Life Defense: what you associate yourself with is what you identify yourself as. “You have to treat yourself as a god,” says Gendelman. “Think about it: would you feed a god crap? Would you feed a god junk food?” “To begin with, your identification must be with total health. Look at the people on the street. Most of them are sick in one way or another, and that’s considered normal. They have aches, bad backs, chronic heartburn. Many are hunched over, obese, have asthma and diabetes.” “If you identify yourself with the right goal, you will have a greater degree of freedom in life.”
“A human life is a form,” he continues. “Some people’s forms are restricted and one-dimensional; some people’s are more multi-faceted, more flexible, more free. By working to change your body and, in the process, your mind, you are expanding your form, pushing its boundaries outward from the inside.” “You have to become n-dimensional.” The object, initially, is not to achieve the Taoist ‘simplicity of formless substance’ but rather to grow and perfect one’s form constantly. The goal also is to become more free and less dependent on food for comfort, cigarettes for stimulation, alcohol for relaxation; to control one’s dependence on the opinions of others, on the weather, on circumstances.
This must be done by challenging the body, raising its thresholds of tolerance and actively expanding its capabilities. To illustrate, Gendelman spins a yarn of a friend’s long-ago mountain expedition to the Caucuses. A half-mile or so in the sky, the party stopped on a ledge to rest and eat. As they gathered around the simmering pot, an old man, a local, emerged, seemingly out of nowhere. Invited to share in their meal, he sat down, eating little and severely observing from under his improbably bushy eyebrows and the traditional karakul hat that seemed to sit on top of them. He paid particular attention to Gendelman’s friend, who chewed his food very slowly, using a circular motion of the jaws, looking like he was moving marbles around in his mouth. Finally, the man asked him in a disdainful tone what exactly he was doing with his face. With a somewhat superior air, the young man, who had been studying the inner arts for some time, replied that he was using a special method of breaking the food down energetically while it was in his mouth so that his stomach would have an easier time with it. “That’s hardly wise,” sniffed the old man. “You have to train your stomach to digest nails now, while you’re young, so that later on, when you might not have any teeth, it will still be able to do its job.”
And so, the degree of one’s freedom is really a synonym for capacity or ability, whether innate or acquired. In humor, in spontaneous conversation, in music, in art, the degree of your freedom is what allows you to live and create at a certain level. Some people are born with great freedom, called talent. Others have to work to achieve some degree of it. Yet, since a precious few come into this world with the degree of freedom they desire in the areas that matter to them, there is always room for improvement. That’s where the multiplier of Life Defense comes in.
Freedom is often lost (as in the case of male impotence) and then has to be won back. During one session, Gendelman repeats a word he learned recently: mojo. He pronounces it as if slicing the air with nunchuks: mo-jo. Up-down. Mo-jo. He chuckles; the word amuses him greatly. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of the two short syllables – one soft and nurturing, the second harsh and abrupt; jo, the Yang to mo’s Ying – and the all-important implication contained within them. “Regain the mo-jo”, he says, as if testing the words out for a slogan, “regain the freedom.”
Gendelman, for all his unremarkable looks, has quite a way with women. “You have to treat a woman as a goddess and a sister at the same time,” he says, “worshipping her female essence, while understanding that she is fully human.” I’ve watched him on many occasions, and as he speaks with women, he seems to surround them in a cloud of gentleness, an intense and concentrated attention that is palpable in each look and word.
Throw a frog into a boiling pot, the old parable says, and it will leap right out, but put it into lukewarm water, slowly heating it to a boil, and it will be cooked, none the wiser. Thus, a delicate, enveloping pressure from all sides at once works where an aggressive and transparently one-sided approach would not. The more important secret is that he seems to genuinely understand – to ‘get’ – women, as well as love them. And women, sometimes unwittingly, love him back. And so, my initial impression of him as a swordsman is confirmed in more ways than one.
One of his functions is that of benign sage, a Papa of sorts. A smiling, slightly bubbly woman in her mid-to-late twenties, with angelic blond curls and something intangibly birdlike about her, peeked in one day as we were talking at the end of an all-male, sparring-heavy practice session. She needed to speak to Gendelman. As they sat in armchairs by the fireplace, a group of us tactfully occupied the couch near the door, so as not to intrude. Still, we heard snippets of the conversation: frustrated desire, uncertainty about her chances with a man she liked, a phone call that shook her up… Gendelman spoke to her for about fifteen minutes, administering gentle, avuncular advice in a soothing tone, and then she was out the door, like a sprite, with a breezy good-bye to all. We resumed our conversation, which immediately turned to women. “Take this young woman, for instance,” Gendelman said. “She just flew in, like some kind of bird, filled the place with her ringing, ephemeral energy, brightened it up, and then flitted away just as suddenly as she arrived. Never mind that she has problems, things on her mind. She showered us with that female spark all the same. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the mystery and the wonder that I value in women.”
“That’s right, we have a cult of women here,” he says unabashedly. Perhaps this is the reason why elements of wing chun – very much a female fighting form, invented by a nun and named after her most accomplished student – make up one of the central components of the physical side of Life Defense.
Once a week, a practice with a pronounced martial character is held at Fight House, a large loft on West 27th Street that rents floor space, primarily to groups practicing the eastern martial arts. The rhythmic yelping of karate students and the thwacks of escrimadores’ sticks pierce the sweat-laced air. Students of Aikido and the Russian Systema school of self-defense lead each other in a languid dance of shadow attacks and slow-motion falling. A ball of a man teaches an assorted cadre of tough-looking fellows techniques for neutralizing an attacker with a knife. Black-clad ninjitsu students spar in stern silence in a sinister-looking corner. There is a strong martial vibe in the air, which is exactly what Gendelman was after when choosing this space.
The energy of others, especially of people who are attuned to the activity in which you engage, is important in energy work. This was obvious and even palpable last spring in Central Park, on International Tai-Chi Day. Schools of tai chi, ba-gua and similar disciplines from the New York area gathered in the field on the east side of the park, just off Ninety-Fifth street, where the grass has been worn away to fine dust by regular pickup soccer games. A small group of us arrived after the opening ceremony, and “The School of Life Defense” was written into the official program at number 43 of 40, time permitting. A few clubs didn’t show up, and finally Gendelman took the stage. By this time, many spectators were ready to leave, and it seemed like the serious demonstrations of styles were over, especially after two members of a Queens-based tai chi school, dressed in flowing yellow and blue silk robes and snow-white sneakers, asked the audience to break their circle and form a crescent, announcing: “We’re gonna shoot chi! Come together if you wanna get chi!” Then they straightened out their right hands; fingers together, pointed at the crowd, and began to move them swiftly across the expanse of people, spraying energy, as it were. This was more amusing than effective, but the audience played along by pretending to feel invigorated.
Gendelman was next. He came out into the middle of the re-formed, but now jagged, circle, in rumpled khakis and the trademark short-sleeved shirt, open at the chest and flowing from the belly. Standing in the middle of the space, he put his palms together and bowed meekly in all four directions. He would be performing the tai chi form learned long ago from his Chinese teacher and passed on to his students. As he stood, heels-together-toes-apart, in the starting position, you could almost see him absorbing the energy from the air. Then, as he swayed gently through the starting motions of the form; the crowd hushed as a tension began to materialize. It radiated through the air like the deep, low clang of a huge gong, the basal ring of a hundred-ton bell, the pervasive vibration of a base-guitar string – a string about the thickness of a steel cable from the Brooklyn Bridge.
One wave flowed into the next, forming a single undulating motion, with the boiling vibration of the energy he was harnessing visible only in the slight quivering of the fingers, and queerly tangible as a constant tension that hung in the air. Like the weight of humidity or the vast onslaught of sound waves, it pervaded the brain, while the yantric motion hypnotized the eye.
In the end, Gendelman gave a performance that was his in form (technique and style) and the audience’s in substance – the energy, the juice – that was necessary to make it electrifying. Afterwards, there was a lightheadedness. Everyone clapped.
In addition to working at regularly scheduled sessions, one must embrace the ever-present opportunity to learn, and to learn through work, Gendelman often stresses. “When you ride the subway, don’t hold on to the handrails, and don’t lean on the doors,” a bit of advice the MTA would only half-subscribe to. “Try to keep your axis in balance. Don’t stiffen up, relax, and just feel it swing with the pitch and roll of the car, like a three-dimensional pendulum. If you do this regularly, you’ll see a qualitative difference in your balance, a lightness in your step and an improved feeling of your channel and the energy flowing through it. You will also achieve inadvertent artistry in your lives.” “If you do this on the bus – even better.”
At the far end of the work studio, a small tin plate covers an indentation in the floor. It is sunken and round, its circumference rising sharply to meet the surrounding parquet. The edges are uneven, even sharp. This 4-inch manhole cover is part of the work space, with everyone’s feet making countless passes over it during any given session, yet almost no one ever steps on it. (I did once, cutting my sole on the tin-can-jagged edge. I’ve since made sure that I would never do it again.) Gendelman could have the edges smoothed, of course, but he keeps the plate as it is on purpose. “It’s something you should just keep in mind,” he says. “As you are working, you have to concentrate on your energy, on your opponent, but you should also be able to keep in mind that there is this sharp plate there. It makes you work harder. It adds a dimension to what you are doing.” (There are two signs that one is working correctly: one, not getting tired, and two, achieving beauty in form. In other words, that which is beautiful – visually harmonious – is correct – substantively harmonious. Truth may not be Beauty in this world, but Beauty should be Truth.)
Gendelman also tells of a close friend from his Moscow days, a painter now living in Germany, who has been practicing hsing-i for more than twenty years. “He has a wonderful teacher – a solid-steel chain with a sliding weight. It teaches him – forces him – to be flexible and light, and it doesn’t forgive rigidity. When you swing that chain around you swiftly, like nunchuks, it is the gentlest teacher there is, but God forbid you stiffen up – there will be no mercy. It will kill you and that will be the end of that.”
Indeed, it takes constant application of will and concentration to be penetrating but gentle, giving yet firm. “There are forces in life that will come no matter what,” says Gendelman soberingly. “The deaths of loved ones, wars, accidents, mishaps. They’re something you cannot stop. It’s a wave rolling forward like a juggernaut, and it doesn’t care about anyone. If you’re at a blunt angle to it, it will destroy you. But if you are flexible and change your angle of approach to it, you will stay alive.”
The Matrix is a film he refers to often. Putting things starkly and sounding more than a bit Hobbesian, Gendelman says: “Look, the bare truth of it is that people are fodder. Fodder for those who are stronger, wilier, wickeder. Unless you can turn towards the world [angles, again] in such a way so as to make its ways harmonious with your needs and desires, you, your time and your energy will be harnessed by others for their goals.”
He goes on, “If you can’t change a situation, change your attitude towards it” – perhaps not a revolutionary bit of advice, but one the value of which is in the illustrations we see all around us. There is a matted photograph on the floor of the studio, leaning against the wall, picturing a homeless man leaning against the wall of a building and reclining on his satchels, looking as regally at ease as if he were the King of Ghana. A gift from Gendelman’s student, a professional photographer, it is a convenient illustration of comfort completely divorced from ergonomics. The latter is a physical concept, while comfort is in the mind, a matter of attitude. Attitude is what transforms a potentially bad (inconvenient, treacherous, dangerous) situation into fuel for work, into something of value in one’s life.
Most people, for instance, consider a full moon a vaguely inauspicious omen and many even avoid doing anything important or different from their usual routine on moonlit nights. But during a recent session, held on the same creaking porch, Gendelman purposefully concentrated our tai chi work entirely on the almost perfect orb that seemed to hang just out of reach against a darkening satin sky. It climbed above, as if pulled gently by a string. Ineffably more luminous by the minute, while the purple-black around it grew dense, this was a classic woman-moon – beautiful, striking, indifferent, in her own world. As we progressed through the exercises, I drank in her milk with my eyes, breathed in her light with my arms, the coolness traveling perceptibly into the organs and throughout the body. A gently coursing, tingling euphoria stayed with me well into the next day. A superstitious restriction was turned into a blessing.
An Apple a Day
When you look at the world with different eyes, you realize that it is possible to work with anything… and everything. Once, a piece of crystal the size of a crab apple – the low-hanging centerpiece of a chandelier – fell to the floor of Gendelman’s living room. Instead of bemoaning the heavy-footedness of the upstairs neighbors or the shortcomings of chandelier makers, or going on about how lucky it was that the crystal didn’t hit anyone on the head, Gendelman looked at this as a fortuity, in a Newtonian sense. The fall of the crystal inspired him to use it as a prism, a telescope and kaleidoscope all in one – turning left and right in his armchair, he pointed the faceted crystal drop at every object in the living room – and to make pronouncements on the beauty of things seen in a new light, and on the wonder of angles and refraction. For me, the beauty of this experience was its inadvertent nature. An accident turned into another illustration of the value of identification – identifying with the beauty of the moment and with the chance it gives you to do something new. Apparently, sometimes life may be lived to the fullest without having to get out of the armchair.
On the one hand, this was an instance out of Faust; when one wanted to say: “Moment, stay! You are so lovely!” Yet, in Gendelman’s reaction to the fallen crystal was evident an intense love of life and participation in it that are equally informed by the insight of Joseph Brodsky’s paraphrase: “Stay, moment. You really aren’t as lovely as you are unique.” In other words, it is the ability to see the divine – the preciously irrepeatable, the fortuitously unsought, the spontaneously beautiful – in anything, and to profit from that talent, that is the thing to seek.
* * *
Early April in New York City this year has felt more like early March. In the elevator going up to Fight House, a Systema instructor, chin in the high collar of his ski jacket, is obviously cold. Gendelman stands squarely in the middle of the small space, stalagmatically solid, head back, with a sternum that seems cast from bronze. No coat, no scarf, no hat. Mr. Systema looks at him, shivers, and says, “It feels like winter out there. Aren’t you cold?” Gendelman’s face bursts into a wide, uncontrollable smile, revealing teeth indifferent to cosmetic dentistry: “Everything depends on the degree of your freedom. It’s summer in here,” he says, bringing an open hand to his chest in a gesture at once eloquent and sincere. “What’s out there doesn’t matter.”
The elevator door opens. In two-and-a-half hours, it will be summer.
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
Я смотрю на звезды и твердо знаю,
Что для них интереса не представляю,
На земле-же невелика потеря –
Равнодушие люда или зверя.
Что если звезд к человеку пыл
Был бы для нас лишь жаром светил?…
Если равной любви не может быть,
Пусть дано будет мне больше любить.
Хотя и склонен обожать
Я звезды, коим наплевать,
Я вижу, глядя на их рой,
Что не скучал ни по одной.
Если звезды погибнут или исчезнут,
Я научусь любоваться бездной,
Внимая вселенной, магической тьме…
Если это удастся мне.
The Shield of Achilles
W. H. Auden
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.
Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.
She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
Она за его плечом ожидала
Увидеть лавр и лозу,
Мраморный, гордый город
И в море ладьи в грозу,
Но на блестящем металле,
Его рука кузнеца
Ландшафт неземной ковала
И небо из свинца.
В степи унылой, выжженной, пустой,
Где ни травинки, ни тропинки нет
И бродит только ветер холостой,
На голом месте, собрано чуть свет,
Несметно войско встретило рассвет.
Тысячи ног в строю, тысячи глаз
Смотрели ровно, слушая приказ.
Безликий голос воздух огласил,
Про дело правое – войне предлог –
Сухим, степенным тоном он гласил;
Клич не раздался, не трубили в рог,
Колонну за колонной, пыль от ног
Их унесла, ведомых верой, в бой,
Что кончился неведомой бедой.
Она за его плечом ожидала
Увидеть строгий обряд;
Белых тельцов в цветах,
Девственниц робкий взгляд,
Но на блестящем металле,
Там, где алтарь бы стал,
В мерцающем свете узрела
Она иной ритуал.
За проволокой – плац, казарма, cклад,
Чины лениво материли зной
И часовой потел, жаре не рад.
Простой народ смотрел немой толпой,
Недвижно, безучастно, как конвой
Подвел и привязал, как скот к колам,
Три бледных силуэта к трём столбам.
Суть и величие мирское, всё
Что праведно и правит бытием
Отсутствовало; их бы не спасло
Ничто, ибо они были никем.
Все то, чего враги желали им
Свершилось, и, унижены дотла,
Их души пали прежде, чем тела.
Она за его плечом ожидала
Увидеть бой чемпионов;
Девушек, юношей в танце,
Грацией тел точеных
Музыке в такт играя.
Но на блестящем щите
Он выковал не танцам место –
Бесцельно оборванец там бродил;
Вдруг птица взвилась, увернув крыло
От камня, что он метко запустил.
Что слабых бъют, что легче сделать зло –
Законы были для него, не знавшего,
Что где-то, слово данное – закон
И плачут, потому что плачет он.
Гефест, угрюмо скалясь,
В груди великолепнейшей Фетиды
Крик ужаса застрял,
Когда увидела она, что бог свершил,
Желая ее сыну угодить –
Бесстрашному и смертоносному Ахиллу,
Которому не долго оставалось жить.
In no particular order; those in bold MUST BE SEEN IMMEDIATELY:
CLASSIC FILM NOIR
Double Indemnity (perfect script, genius acting; a film by the great Billy Wilder)
The Maltese Falcon
Gaslight (with the young Ingrid Bergman)
The House on Telegraph Hill
The Big Sleep
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas)
CLASSIC AMERICAN ‘SCREWBALL’ COMEDIES
Ball of Fire (Barbara Stanwyck)
Bringing Up Baby
His Gal Friday
A Love Affair to Remember (Deborah Kerr, Cary Grant)
Frankie and Johnny (Michelle Pfeiffer, Al Pacino)
Scent of a Woman (the original one – L’Aroma di Donna – with Vittorio Gassman)
ITALIAN (a sea of genius, hard to be comprehensive; some favorites:)
All by Fellini, DeSica
The Bicycle Thief
All by Lina Wertmüller, esp. Swept Away, Seven Beauties, The Seduction of Mimi
Macaroni, with the older Jack Lemmon & M. Mastroianni
I Girasoli (The Sunflowers) (S. Loren & M. Mastroianni)
BRITISH (vast selection; these are some off-the-top-of-the-head favorites)
Julius Caesar (1954) – the young Marlon Brandon and Deborah Kerr
Anything with Alec Guinness, esp. The Card
Michael Caine: Pulp, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Anything with Colin Firth, esp. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_(2001_film), Valmont, My Life So Far,
Harold & Maud
Anything by David Lean, esp. Brief Encounter, Odd Man Out et al
A Bridge Too Far
Being There (Peter Sellers)
FRENCH (this is the beginning of a vy long list)
Hiroshima Mon Amour
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (with the young Catherine Deneuve)
Breathless (Jean-Paul Belmondo)
The Pianist, Venus in Furs, The Ninth Gate (Roman Polansky)
Never on Sunday, plus all the other Jules Dassin films
The Man Who Loved Women
Brotherhood of the Wolf (Vincent Cassel)
JAPANESE (not even scratching the surface)
Age of Consent (UK/Australian; with James Mason and a very young Helen Mirren)
Boy – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1560139/
Everything by Charlie Chaplin
Anything written or directed by Billy Wilder, esp. his films listed in the NOIR section, above, plus One, Two, Three (fantastic, perfectly entertaining, phenomenal dialogue; stars an older James Cagney)
Anything with the young Al Pacino, esp. The Godfather, I and II, Serpico, ‘Author, Author’, Looking for Richard, et al
All About Eve
The Apartment (the young Jack Lemmon and Shirley McLaine)
The Lady Eve
Anything by Stanley Kubrick, esp. The Killing (not about murder), Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket
Chinatown (Polanski, Nicholson, Dunaway, Quinn)
Paper Moon (Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal)
Anything by Robert Altman, esp. M*A*S*H, Gosford Park, A Wedding, et al.
David Lynch (not for everyone)
Cool Hand Luke (the young Paul Newman)
The Bad News Bears (Walter Matthau, Tatum O’Neal)
Films by the Coen Brothers: Hudsucker Proxy; ‘O, Brother, Where Art Thou?’; The Big Lebowski
Films starring Kate Winslet, esp. Iris, Holy Smoke, Revolutionary Road
Anything with William Holden, esp. Union Station, Stalag 17, The Proud and the Profane (also with Deborah Kerr), Sabrina (1954; also with Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn)
Network (Faye Dunaway, William Holden)
Restoration (Robert Downey Jr.)
Anything directed by Nick Cassavetes
Sweet Liberty (Michael Caine, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bob Hoskins, Alan Alda)
Lolita (with Jeremy Irons)
Big Night (Isabella Rossellini)
The Princess Bride
Films by James Cameron, esp. The Abyss, Avatar, et al
Films by Mike Nichols, esp. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, all his films feat. Meryl Streep, etc.
Love in the Afternoon (A. Hepburn, Gary Cooper)
It Happened One Night (Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper)
Five Easy Pieces (Jack Nicholson)
Best in Show (mockumentary)
Training Day, Man on Fire, Flight (Denzel Washington)
I Love You, Phillip Morris
SPANISH (I’m not an expert)
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
Documentaries: Wings of Hope, Little Dieter Wants to Fly, The White Diamond, Happy People, etc
(only the best; excluding arthouse, i.e. Tarkovsky)
The Lady with the Dog (1960): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_with_the_Dog_(film)