Saturday, October 04, 2014

Dmitry Likhachev

I once had the distinct privilege of meeting a philologist who had been steeped in the linguistic and cultural heritage of Russia by Dmitry Likhachev.

A plain woman, whose gray hair was pulled back severely from her face, and whose figure disappeared behind a shapeless polyester dress, her appearance provided no clue which might lead one to guess at the liveliness of the mind musing behind her watery glance. But the moment she began speaking, it became clear to me from the musical and careful inflection of her voice that this was a scholar and intellectual of considerable depth. What a voice she had!

She held out a sheaf of paper, and directed me to read. I stumbled through the text, and spent the next half-hour immersed in the delicious pleasure of listening to her correcting not only my pronunciation, but elucidating the entire concept of the written paragraph.

I have heard this story about Likhachev, that, while speaking on television, he asked this rhetorical question, “Can you feign being an erudite?”

He answered himself, "Yes, you can, all you need is to memorize a certain amount of facts."

"Can you pretend to be a clever person?" he continued the line of questioning.

"Yes, you can," was his own reply, "by memorizing a few links between the facts."

"Can you feign being an intellectual?" he pursued this trail of thought, and then answered, "You cannot."

“A people’s greatest asset is their language,” Likhachev once wrote, “the language they speak and write and think in. Emotions, perceptions – these only serve to tint what we think…but our thoughts are formulated by the language. The truest method of unveiling the essence of a person – their intellectual level, moral guise, character – is to listen to how they speak.”

Likhachev's own voice revived pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg. “I still remember the beautiful ground floors we had on the city’s main streets! The main entrances were crystal clean, the handles shining, the glass sparkling bright, the pavements carefully brushed and adorned with green vats and piles painstakingly tended to by sweepers clad in white aprons. My parents would often take me to the Mariinsky Theater where we had two season’s tickets to the third-tier box. Each opera or ballet was a celebration…”

In his memoir, Reflections on the Russian Soul, Likhachev recalled seeing Rasputin in the cafes of St. Petersburg. After he protested certain changes made to the Russian language by revolutionaries, he was imprisoned. He survived the prison camps of Solovki, and remembered the nobility of the intellectuals who refused to coarsen their language:

“In camp I encountered intelligent people who stooped to using foul language there, and this immediately made them ‘an insider’, one of the crowd. More often than not it was those who didn’t swear that were executed – they were frowned upon as ‘aliens’... I recall an incident: Georgy Osorgin, a gentleman by birth, was to be executed by camp authorities, and had already been thrown into the lock-up. His wife came to see him one last time before emigrating to France. The camp superiors, to avoid publicity, gave Osorgin permission to see his wife, under the condition he would vow on his honor not to tell her he was going up for execution. The noble-minded Osorgin, accordingly, didn’t tell his wife anything, and after his meeting with her was shot. You see, there were noble people like that at the camps, too!”

Likhachev outlived the Soviet Union: he worked tirelessly until he passed away in 1999 to save any possible aspect of cultural heritage in his power, from ancient manuscripts, to wooden churches, to the lives of novelists, poets and dissidents.

A minor planet is named after him: 2877 Likhachev, discovered in 1969.

And here I am, pulling at all of these threads in a feeble attempt to describe the effect of the voice of a woman I barely knew, but whose ephemeral presence has guided me like the Polar star during some of my darkest moments: Valentina Nikolaevna, thank you.

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