Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century (according to Luis Aragon, the greatest). Brilliant as his arcane, mythological works (The fourth dimension about the house of Atreus) are, critics consider his shorter poems that transform simple experiences into surrealist insights, his best work. Dicit George Economou: Ritsos “records, at times celebrates, the enigmatic, the irrational, the mysterious and invisible qualities of experience.” So I read a little piece called ‘Injustice’ for our anthology, and I read it intentionally in the naive, half informed fashion my readers are used to, hoping to expel the stuffy dead air of scholarly reviews.
Night. Only a single glance. A noiseless bullet.
The metal shield of loneliness is riddled with holes.
That fragmented rotundity.
And pride on her knees.
Beloved night, beloved wound.
The road. the sky, the stars, – exist
that they might sink once more. Only a single glance.
Outside of the loneliness the great peril
of loneliness is lying in wait – beloved peril
to measure yourself with another and the right to be yours
and the whole injustice of it that the other is also right.
Of course we know great injustice has been done to Ritsos: His books were burned and he had been imprisoned for his political activities (he was a member of the Greek communist party). His mother and older brother had died of tuberculosis, and he had been in a sanatorium in Athens for several years. His books were burnt under the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936 and banned until 1954 and then again after the military coup of 1967. But this poem digs much deeper into the human condition.
It’s the kind of dense poetry that I like. What is happening in the opening scene? Loneliness as a metal shield riddled with holes, so it can be pierced by a single glance at night. Pure loneliness is unbearable, we need the ‘beloved wound’, our pride (which depends of course on others) is on her knees. But outside of loneliness there is no salvation: There is another loneliness “lying in wait”. Everything exists so that they “might sink once more”. Loneliness is one of the central themes in Ritsos’ poetry, according to John Simon: He is the”bard of loneliness, but of loneliness ennobled and overcome. Poem after poem, image upon image, suffuses aloneness with a gallows humor that begins to mitigate its ravages and makes the person in the poem a Pyrrhic winner.”
What about the final two lines, in which you measure/compare yours (your peril? your loneliness?) with another? And there we have the root of all injustice: The other is also right. If we read this in a political way, what it says is that the deepest human emotions, fighting in vain against our loneliness, are our ultimate drive and must thus also be the deepest motivation of our political adversaries. It is a leftist message, deeply humanizing. I think this is the kind of insight that ultimately makes our culture defensible.