Brodsky on the Sermon on the Mount

posted by Kaihsu Tai on August 7th, 2007

Twenty years ago the following scene took place in one of the numerous prison yards of northern Russia. At seven o’clock in the morning the door of a cell was flung open and on its threshold stood a prison guard, who addressed its inmates: “Citizens! The collective of this prison’s guard challenges you, the inmates, to socialist competition in chopping the lumber in the yard.” In those parts there is no central heating, and the local police, in a manner of speaking, tax all the nearby lumber companies for one-tenth of its produce. By the time I am describing, the prison yard looked like a veritable lumberyard: the piles were two to three stories high, dwarfing the one-storied quadrangle of the prison itself. The need for chopping was evident, although socialist competitions of this sort had happened before. “And what if I refuse to take part in this?” inquired one of the inmates. “Well, in that case no meals for you,” replied the guard.

Then axes were issued to inmates, and the cutting started. Both prisoners and guards worked in earnest, and by noon all of them, especially the always underfed prisoners, were exhausted. A break was announced and people sat down to eat: except the fellow who asked the question. He kept swinging his ax. Both prisoners and guards exchanged jokes about him, something about Jews being normally regarded as smart people whereas this man … and so forth. After the break they resumed the work, although in a somewhat more flagging manner. By four o’clock the guards quit, since for them it was the end of their shift; a bit later the inmates stopped too. The man’s ax still kept swinging. Several times he was urged to stop, by both parties, but he paid no attention. It seemed as though he had acquired a certain rhythm he was unwilling to break; or was it a rhythm that possessed him?

To the others, he looked like an automaton. By five o’clock, by six o’clock, the ax was still going up and down. Both guards and inmates were now watching him keenly, and the sardonic expression on their faces gradually gave way first to one of terror. By seven-thirty the man stopped, staggered into his cell, and fell asleep. For the rest of his stay in that prison, no call for socialist competition between the guards and inmates was issued again, although the wood kept piling up.

I suppose the fellow could do this – twelve hours of straight chopping – because at the time he was quite young. In fact, he was then twenty-four. […] However, I think there could have been another reason for his behavior that day. It’s quite possible that the young man – precisely because he was young – remembered the text of the Sermon on the Mount better than Tolstoy and Gandhi did. Because the Son of Man was in the habit of speaking in triads, the young man could have recalled that the relevent verse did not stop at

but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also

but continues without either period or comma:

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Quoted in full, these verses have in fact very little to do with nonviolent or passive resistance, with the principles of not responding in kind and returning good for evil. The meaning of these lines is anything but passive, for it suggests rendering evil absurd through dwarfing its demands with the volume of your compliance, which devalues the harm. This sort of thing puts a victim into a very active position, into the position of a mental aggressor. The victory that is possible here is not a moral but an existential one. The other cheek here sets in motion not the enemy’s sense of guilt (which he is perfectly capable of quelling) but exposes his senses and faculties to the meaninglessness of the whole enterprise: the way every form of mass production does.

Let me remind you that we are not talking here about a situation involving a fair fight. We are talking about situations where one finds oneself in a hopelessly inferior position from the very outset, where there is no chance of fighting back, where the odds are overwhelmingly against one. In other words, we are talking about the very dark hours of one’s life, when one’s sense of moral superiority over the enemy offers no solace, when this enemy is too far gone to be shamed or made nostalgic for abandoned scruples, when one has at one’s disposal only one’s face, cloak, and a pair of feet that are still capable of walking a mile or two.

In this situation there is very little room for tactical maneuver. So turning the other cheek should be your conscious, cold, deliberate decision. Your chances of winning, however dismal they are, all depend on whether or not you know what you are doing. Thrusting forward your face with the cheek toward the enemy, you should know that this is just the beginning of your ordeal as well as that of the verse – and you should be able to see yourself through the entire sequence, through all three verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Otherwise, a line taken out of context will leave you crippled.

Иосиф Бродский, “A Commencement Address” (Williams College, 1984) in Less Than One

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  1. On August 7, 2007 at 14:33 Laura said:

    Deeply insightful. However, the line “these verses have in fact very little to do with nonviolent or passive resistance” is troubling to me. I think it should be pointed out, although I am sure that the authors and readers of this blog are well aware of this fact, that nonviolent resistance is not limited to passivity. The young man in the story chose to turn the axe on the wood instead of on the guards or himself, thus taking part in active nonviolence.

  2. On August 7, 2007 at 14:54 Mike said:

    Yeah, this woodcutter is not as far from nonviolent resistance as Brodsky implies. The whole nonviolent resistance/nonviolent nonresistance thing is still an open and very interesting question for me.

  3. On December 23, 2010 at 06:45 Kaihsu Tai said:

    “The standard liberal motto – that it is sometimes necessary to resort to violence, but it is never legitimate – is not sufficient. From the radical-emancipatory perspective, one should turn it around: for the oppressed, violence is always legitimate – since their very status is the result of violence – but never necessary: it is always a matter of strategic consideration whether to use force against the enemy or not.” Slavoj Žižek, A Permanent Economic Emergency, New Left Review 64 (July/August 2010); reprinted in Public Theology.