One personal consequence of ageing is the extensive numbers of people that I have known, the long histories that most of those people have experienced, and, sadly, the growing numbers of people who are no more. Not only are there many people that I will now never meet, there is so much about people that I have known that remains unexplored.
One person that I never knew was the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017), who died on April 1st. Somewhat rebellious in his youth, he seems to have been a liberal of sorts in the later Soviet Union, supporting Gorbachev and then (partly) Yeltsin. I know little about his poetry, but his 1961 poem No People are… contains some impressive insights. I had long been familiar with a shorter version, simply entitled People, but this translation adds new sentiments:
“No people are…” Yevgeny Yevtushenko – Translated by Albert C. Todd
No people are uninteresting.
Their destinies are like histories of planets.
Nothing in them is not particular,
and no planet is like another.
And if someone lives in obscurity,
befriending that obscurity,
he is interesting to people
by his very obscurity.
Everyone has his own secret, private world.
In that world is a finest moment.
In that world is a tragic hour,
but it is all unknown to us.
And if someone dies
there dies with him his first snow,
and first kiss, and first fight.
He takes it all with him.
Yes, books and bridges remain,
and painted canvas and machinery,
yes, much is sentenced to remain,
but something really departs all the same!
Such is the law of the pitiless game.
It’s not people who die, but worlds.
We remember people, sinful and earthly.
But what did we know, in essence, about them?
What do we know of brothers, of friends?
What do we know of our one and only?
And about our own fathers,
knowing everything, we know nothing.
They perish. They cannot be brought back.
Their secret worlds are not regenerated.
And every time I want again
to cry out against the unretrievableness.
Much can be drawn from this, which expresses perspectives that I have not come across elsewhere.
At one instance, this is deeply pessimistic. So much of every life is about loss, and almost everything is, finally lost, and irretrievable. All that is left is indeed inanimate: books and bridges, and painted canvas. And all that I will leave, beyond the odd memory, will be books and articles on which I have worked, and even then most of those express little about me rather than about matters which interest me. If we all embody whole worlds of experience, in one giant constellation, none of us catches more than a glimpse of those worlds, and all is negated by death, or diminished by memory loss and its more extreme variants.
I thought I knew my grandparents, my late first wife (and a previous partner, also gone), and my father, all now long departed, but in truth their worlds were largely hidden from me, and what was shared is no longer coherent. Attempts to regenerate their experience have to rely upon the exercise of flawed imagination, involving the same dangers as biographical accounts of much more public figures. Even the worlds that they knew have faded, with much that they would not recognise. We have lost their worlds, and the world that they knew. As my late wife said once about her father, who died nearly 40 years ago, he is now only like a faded photograph. One can lament and lament, but it seems inescapable.
Whether or not Yevtushenko explicitly meant this, it seems that all known societies operate on the basis of anonymity, and an accompanying dismissal of people who are “uninteresting”; a dismissal that includes almost all of us. Experience suggests that is objectively true that most people are uninteresting, their fates predictable, their thinking banal, even base and threatening, and memories of them irrelevant to all but a few close people, people who can be similarly devalued. But there is hope in Yevtushenko’s affirmation, that our private worlds may be obscure, but obscurity may still be interesting.
I hope to write about this further, but I’ll leave it there for now. RIP Yevtushenko.