te a number. They fill the universe and, if they could nourish us, all our problems would be solved.
But, as we know, most do not nourish us. Words are used to persuade us to be quiet and to dull us into passivity. Their sheer multitude can crush and confuse us. We feel the need to sift the words, to winnow them and throw away the chaff. Unfortunately the sheer volume of TV, radio and print can overwhelm and leave us exhausted in our search for what is solid.
Yet words can be deeply nourishing and it is known that prisoners in the former Soviet camps in the far north of Russia used to sew Anna Akhmatova’s poems into ‘handmade birch bark bounded books, which they carried around in their rags.’ (This is a quotation from Mikail Ignatieff’s life of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who acknowledged that the most defining moment of his life was his meeting with Akhmatova in her dismal lodgings in Leningrad shortly after the Second World War).
Words can give a person hope and a reason for keeping up the fight to endure. In the midst of the most terrible suffering those who know the meaning of life have a better chance of surviving than those for whom their existence is meaningless. There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of public people – publishers, priests, poets and politicians – to clarify the meaning of our experience so that people can emerge from their confusion and frustration. That is what Gandhi did in India. That is what Mandela did in South Africa. And it is what Akhmatova did in Russia. Here are a few lines from her poem Requiem, written in the depths of Russia’s suffering in the years of Stalin’s terror:
In this time, just a dead could half-manage
A weak smile – with the peaceful state glad.
And, like some heavy, needless appendage,
Mid its prisons swung gray Leningrad.
And, when mad from the tortures’ succession,
Marched the army of those, who’d been doomed,
Sang the engines the last separation
With their whistles through smoking gloom,
And the deathly stars hanged our heads over
And our Russia writhed under the boots –
With the blood of the guiltless full-covered –
And the wheels of Black Marias’ black routes.
These lines evoke the pain of a people in their dark days and yet their ability to describe that pain is the beginning of liberation from it.Post published in: Opinions