A summit beyond the next summit

WHEN President Reagan, who once called the Soviets the ``focus of evil,'' visits Mikhail Gorbachev, the man he now calls his ``friend,'' the soft murmur of diplomacy, disarmament talk, and sheer personal charm will replace the language of the ``cold war,'' and who can regret that? The intention on both sides is to stage a tableau that allows the leader of the free world and the leader of the communist world (if these vague entities still exist) to shake hands for peace amid the deafening coos of megapower doves, while everybody forgets Afghanistan and General Noriega and economic shortfalls and all the other vexations besetting either leader or both.

Summitry can get pretty abstract - history as orchestrated in the Age of International PR - and even without the help of Larry Speakes, the rhetoric may come to sound like a Madison Avenue press release, or even a TV ``special'' hosted by Phil Donahue and Vladimir Posner.

To combat the gassiness that results when two mighty bureaucracies meet, maybe President Reagan should bring along a couple of extra bits of luggage besides all the briefing papers by White House and State Department advisers: (1)a videotape of Vladimir Horowitz's concert in Moscow, showing tears streaming down the cheeks of listeners - here is powerful circumstantial evidence that the Russians of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy still endure; and (2)a volume of poems by Anna Akhmatova, who in 1961 testified to the persistence of this heritage despite all of Stalin's deletions in blood: ``I stand as witness to the common lot,/ survivor of that time, that place.''

If there is to be a pact, a pax that is more than a piece of paper signaling a temporary truce between two slightly exhausted Great Powers, it must rest upon the presumption that ordinary Russians and ordinary Americans are touched by the chords of Horowitz and the poems of Akhmatova - both speaking (in the words of the poet Osip Mandelstam) for history, not as politics but as ``the sacred succession of events.'' That is to say, the holy round of everyday experience.

Akhmatova despaired of the revolution from the start on the most passionately personal grounds, writing in 1917, ``Now nobody will want to listen to songs.'' She asked, ``Why is this age worse than earlier ages?'' and answered with harsh words that may be read to apply to the 20th century generally: ``Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.'' During the purge of the '30s when she and friends like Boris Pasternak were silenced or sent to concentration camps to die (like Mandelstam), she composed a ``Last Toast'' to ``dead-cold pitiless eyes/ and to the hard realities:/ that the world is brutal and coarse.''

For almost half a century history was her nightmare. Still, she hung on for dear life to that other history - history as ``the sacred succession of events.'' While the past was being barbarously obliterated by Stalin, Akhmatova was invoking literary exemplars of that past - Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare - while reminding herself to ``keep you alive,/ great Russian word,/ fit for the songs of our children's children.''

Akhmatova was permitted to give a reading of her poetry in Moscow in 1944 as World War II was ending. A crowd of 3,000 gathered to hear her - starved for the ``great Russian word,'' starved for one who bore witness by the word. The audience cheered the poet as if she were a heroine - a Russian saint. Bewildered by a power he could not understand - having nothing to do with propaganda or tyranny - Stalin demanded: ``Who organized this standing ovation?'' One might answer in the Russian manner: Russian soul.

Does enough of what used to be called Russian soul still exist, cheering for poetry, weeping for music? And what is the condition of the American soul? - hardly intimate with its own prophets, Emerson or Thoreau or Whitman or Melville.

Well, such questions aren't likely to be raised at a summit - an occasion curiously divided between pragmatism and hoopla. But the poets, even if invisible, will have to be present, since both Russians and Americans have shared in the past a common disposition to think in the broadest terms of salvation and damnation, and what else is a poet's theme? And what else is a summit really about? As Akhmatova wrote prophetically of poets and all kinds of summits, ``They must dance before the Ark of the Covenant or die!''

A Wednesday and Friday column

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A summit beyond the next summit
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today