Switching Off: Joseph Brodsky and the moral responsibility to be useless

Rachel Wiseman in The Point:

In 1964, when Joseph Brodsky was 24, he was brought to trial for “social parasitism.” In the view of the state, the young poet was a freeloader. His employment history was spotty at best: he was out of work for six months after losing his first factory job, and then for another four months after returning from a geological expedition. (Being a writer didn’t count as a job, and certainly not if you’d hardly published anything.) In response to the charge, Brodsky leveled a straightforward defense: he’d been thinking about stuff, and writing. But there was a new order to build, and if you weren’t actively contributing to society you were screwing it up.

Over the course of the trial he stated his case repeatedly, insistently, with a guilelessness that annoyed the officials:

BRODSKY: I did work during the intervals. I did just what I am doing now. I wrote poems.
JUDGE: That is, you wrote your so-called poems? What was the purpose of your changing your place of work so often?
BRODSKY: I began working when I was fifteen. I found it all interesting. I changed work because I wanted to learn as much as possible about life and about people.
JUDGE: How were you useful to the motherland?
BRODSKY: I wrote poems. That’s my work. I’m convinced … I believe that what I’ve written will be of use to people not only now, but also to future generations.
A VOICE FROM THE PUBLIC: Listen to that! What an imagination!
ANOTHER VOICE: He’s a poet. He has to think like that.
JUDGE: That is, you think that your so-called poems are of use to people?
BRODSKY: Why do you say my poems are “so-called” poems?
JUDGE: We refer to your poems as “so-called” because we have no other impression of them.

Brodsky and the judge were (to put it mildly) talking past one another: Brodsky felt his calling had a value beyond political expediency, while the judge was tasked with reminding him that the state needn’t subsidize his hobby if he wasn’t going to say anything useful. But the incommensurability of these points of view runs much deeper than this one case.

More here.