A Commencement Address


On what would have been his 73rd birthday, my old teacher Joseph Alexandrovich Brodsky's commencement address to the 1984 graduating class of Williams College, in the NYRB:

Given its volume and intensity, given, especially, the fatigue of those who oppose it, Evil today may be regarded not as an ethical category but as a physical phenomenon no longer measured in particles but mapped geographically. Therefore the reason I am talking to you about all this has nothing to do with your being young, fresh, and facing a clean slate. No, the slate is dark with dirt and it’s hard to believe in either your ability or your will to clean it. The purpose of my talk is simply to suggest to you a mode of resistance which may come in handy to you one day; a mode that may help you to emerge from the encounter with Evil perhaps less soiled if not necessarily more triumphant than your precursors. What I have in mind, of course, is the famous business of turning the other cheek.

I assume that one way or another you have heard about the interpretations of this verse from the Sermon on the Mount by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many others. In other words, I assume that you are familiar with the concept of nonviolent, or passive, resistance, whose main principle is returning good for evil, that is, not responding in kind. The fact that the world today is what it is suggests, to say the least, that this concept is far from being cherished universally. The reasons for its unpopularity are twofold. First, what is required for this concept to be put into effect is a margin of democracy. This is precisely what 86 percent of the globe lacks. Second, the common sense that tells a victim that his only gain in turning the other cheek and not responding in kind yields, at best, a moral victory, i.e., quite immaterial. The natural reluctance to expose yet another part of your body to a blow is justified by a suspicion that this sort of conduct only agitates and enhances Evil; that moral victory can be mistaken by the adversary for his impunity.

There are other, graver reasons to be suspicious. If the first blow hasn’t knocked all the wits out of the victim’s head, he may realize that turning the other cheek amounts to manipulation of the offender’s sense of guilt, not to speak of his karma. The moral victory itself may not be so moral after all, not only because suffering often has a narcissistic aspect to it, but also because it renders the victim superior, that is, better than his enemy. Yet no matter how evil your enemy is, the crucial thing is that he is human; and although incapable of loving another like ourselves, we nonetheless know that evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another. (This is why you’ve been hit on your right cheek in the first place.) At best, therefore, what one can get from turning the other cheek to one’s enemy is the satisfaction of alerting the latter to the futility of his action. “Look,” the other cheek says, “what you are hitting is just flesh. It’s not me. You can’t crush my soul.” The trouble, of course, with this kind of attitude is that the enemy may just accept the challenge.

Twenty years ago the following scene took place in one of the numerous prison yards of northern Russia.