Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Brodsky

The Star Within Us

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavoured,
is the cause of a human assault wave
by a crowd heavy laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
                                               a star.

December 24, 1971 by Joseph Brodsky from A Part of Speech


The Difference Between Prison and Institutions

Yes, because in prison at least you know where you stand. You have a sentence – till the whistle blows. Of course, they can always tack on another sentence, but they don’t have to, and in principle you know that sooner or later they’re going to let you out, right? Whereas in a mental institution you’re totally dependent on the will of the doctors…

Joseph Brodsky in conversation with Solomon Volkov

In the UK we remain totally complacent about the basic abuse of people’s human rights by the excessive use of institutions and hospitals. We seem immune to the fact that there is no evidence that these institutions work and only too much evidence that they fail: encouraging abuse, suicide, depression and increasing problems for their inmates.

I recently came across an honest assessment of the true problem from R D Laing:

It is not easy. What do we do when we don’t know what to do? I want that guy out of sight, out sound, out of mind… The situation keeps cropping up in our society, when no matter how liked, esteemed or loved, some people become insufferable to others. No one they know wants to live with them. They are not breaking the law, but they arouse in those around them such urgent feelings of pity, worry, fear, disgust, anger, exasperation, concern, that something has to be done. A social worker or psychiatrist is ‘brought in’.

This is honest, but also frightening. Is this really the best we can do?

My own experience is that there is much we can do to avoid the path to institutionalisation and much we can do to help people escape institutions. But the forces that keep these institutional arrangements in place are immense. A recent study showed that ‘out of area institutional placements’ were costing the NHS £175,000 per head. This is money that is being invested in abuse and wasted lives.

It is not the economics of rational commissioning that keep institutions going – it is the fear and anxiety that Laing describes. Professionals, families, sometimes even the individual themselves, all lose faith in the possibility of any sensible solution. The existing community care support offerings are woefully inadequate and for many people they quickly breakdown:

  • Day centres that lead nowhere and which are often boring and fruitless
  • Care homes that force people to live in groups they don’t choose
  • Domiciliary care that works to its own rules and its own time tables

In other words we force people to fit into systems that work to their own institutional logic, and then we blame the person for failing to fit in. When these ‘community care’ solutions fail we then send the person even further away to an institution that will fail even more dramatically – at greater expense – but at a ‘safer’ distance. The very fact that we spend so much money is perhaps partly a salve to the conscience: look we care – see how money we are prepared to spend!

Brodsky (who was forced to live in both prison and the institution for refusing to accept the justice of the USSR) rightly observes that with the institution there is no time limit to this madness – in the institution imprisonment can be endless.

The question then arises: Why could we not start by actually working with the individual, their family and their community, to provide what really does work? Instead of abandoning them we could work with them to find solutions that strengthen them and those that care about them.

Those of us who have worked in this way know that it works. What will it take to encourage the system to defend human rights and develop personalised support?

Life is a Gift

The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same –
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your loan bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.

What prompts the melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death –
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.

You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
– But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realise:
your life is a sheer gift.

1 January 1965 by Joseph Brodsky

I love this poem. I am sure most of us have felt the way he describes.

The epiphany at the end of the poem is tough. He realises that life is a gift, not just despite the pain, misery, fear and loneliness – but because of it. The gift of ‘sheer life’ is distinct from the many joys of life – and it is a gift we can lose sight of when we are full up with things – when we are happy, busy and in company.

When we reach ’empty’ – we may finally realise that there is something else – something that should be filled – sheer life itself.

God does not give us the right to exist – life is sheer gift.

What will we do with this knowledge?

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