By Pramod K Nayar
Heroes adorn poetry, whether in Greek epics or Hindu ones. Their valour, their appearance, their chivalry and their inspirational actions have served poetry well. So what would poetry about dictators, villains, tyrants and evil-doers – real and mythic – be like?
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said in his ‘Statement to the Argentine Society of Letters’:
“Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.”
Much of the poetry about tyrants instantiates Borges’ formulation.
Physiognomy of Terror
In his celebrated poem, ‘Ozymandias’, about the powerful and much-disliked Rameses II, Percy Shelley describes the Emperor’s arrogant visage as captured by a sculptor: it possesses a ‘sneer of cold command’. The sculptor also carved a ‘frown’ and a ‘wrinkled lip’ and thus, says Shelley, the sculptor had ‘well those passions read’.
Osip Mandelstam in his ‘The Stalin Epigram’ transforms terror into a corporeal entity: the shape, behaviour and character of Stalin himself:
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip
Mandelstam of course has rendered Stalin, with his famous moustaches, into a gothic horror, with assorted, and despised, animal-creatures that are Stalin’s body. Mandelstam depicts the tyrant’s acolytes as despicable creatures: ‘One whistles, another meows, a third snivels’. He calls them ‘half-men’ because they do not stand up to the tyrant. The dictator is a humanimal, and the human subjects are dehumanised too.
In ‘The Dictators’, Pablo Neruda portrays ‘the delicate dictator’ who is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars
These physiognomies of terror endure in many cases. Shelley depicts the emperor’s visage that still haunts:
Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
‘Ozymandias’ is, critics tell us, a poem about the passing of time. But Shelley also does something odd: showing us that, centuries later, the stone face continues to centre the desert, for the desert is gathered around the wreck, almost as though the desert exists in so far as the emperor’s wreck exists.
When Stalin wishes to eradicate his enemies he does so with consummate ease, says Mandelstam:
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries
The dictator, like the dictatorship itself, swallows its subjects, consumes its citizenry (selectively, of course). Issuing orders for harassment, destruction and extermination is as routine as rolling a berry in the mouth.
The tyrant is familiar with the people’s aspirations, fears and dreams, and works to manipulate them to his advantage. The tyrant amplifies their anxieties about the so-called ‘internal enemies’ — who are called out as ‘enemies of the state’, when and as the tyrant wills. He is an expert at social engineering, and Auden would go so far as to say in ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’: “He knew human folly like the back of his hand”.
The large-scale manipulation of folly reinforces the tyrant’s iron rule. The ‘back of his hand’ with which he is familiar is also a metaphor for the familiarity of the tyrant with the veins and arteries of a nation, so that he knows exactly how and where to bleed it. Pablo Neruda will write of such a bleeding nation:
Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence
The crocodile imagery apart, Neruda paints a nation now defined in terms of who it constructs as its hateable — and therefore dispensable — subjects.
Poetry in such a dangerous clime becomes a means of at least speaking of terror. We turn to Anna Akhmatova’s prefatory lines to ‘Requiem’:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months queuing outside the prisons of Leningrad. On one occasion someone “recognized” me … a woman who was standing near me in the queue… waking from that state of numbness …she quietly asked me (for everyone spoke in a whisper in those days):
“And can you write about this?”
And I replied: “I can.”
And then something like a smile flickered across what was once her face.
A nation under protracted tyranny is a landscape of terror. Neruda would speak of such lands:
Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles
It is full of the dead voices and the blue mouths freshly buried.
Now it is not for agriculture or industry that the land is renowned, or even used. For the only sounds are of screams and boots, as Anna Akhmatova puts it in ‘Requiem’:
The hateful grating of keys on locks each morning
And the tramp of boots is all we can hear.
Far below an innocent land
Was trampled by blood-stained jackboots
And crushed beneath black prison vans.
Mandelstam writes of the ‘glitter of his [Stalin’s] boot-rims’.
The city itself, writes Akhmatova, is ‘reduced to an adjunct/Of its prisons’. If a nation defines itself in terms of those it terrorises and imprisons, then the country is an adjunct of its prisons, and all citizens are neighbours to the condemned.
In such a context, the country’s pleasurable sights, smells and sounds have vanished. Along with the all-pervasive smell of fear, a stink of ruination assails the senses in Neruda:
An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.
When it becomes risky to even witness terrors perpetrated on others, the people under tyranny are afraid of speech, of even looking up, writes Akhmatova:
I learned how to read the meaning of downcast faces,
To notice the way in which terror furtively peeks
From beneath half-lowered lids, how suffering traces
Its stern cuneiform script on ravaged cheeks
This is percepticide, as Akhmatova writes it: people afraid to see, rendering oneself inured and immune to obvious tyranny. A nation hurtles to its implosion under the weight of tyranny, its many stupidities and the frenzied plaudits of the mindless acolytes. Things reach such a stage that every time the tyrant undertakes the most perfunctory of actions, or gives even a banal speech, people lose their lives. And no one captures this better than Auden, to whom of necessity, the last word belongs:
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.