Boris Khersonsky - writer, winner of the H.C. Artmann and "Literaris" award, psychiatrist, rector of the Kyiv Institute of Modern Psychology and Psychotherapy. Member of the Ukrainian PEN.
I came to you after the exhibition of Mikhail Reva, where in particular there was a sculpture "Virus". The author caught covid-19 in Latin America and created a work on the theme of the pandemic. I know that Oleksandr Roitburd has a series of paintings "Chronicles of the Plague Year", and he presented them in Lviv in the summer. Has covid-19 influenced your work in any way?
It seems to me that if a person is sensitive, he or she cannot help but react to injuries, to the war, and to the pandemic. And, of course, I saw paintings by Alexander Roitburd, although I did not see sculptures by Mikhail Reva. I have a few poems about the coronavirus. There is even a website, coronaverse, created by American poet and TV presenter Gennady Katsov, who published poetry by about a hundred authors on the subject of the pandemic. I think I have 20-25 poems on this topic.
When artists turn to both – universal traumas, and to their own experience – is this some kind of therapy?
It seems to me that this is, above all, a reaction. Yes, I'm a psychoanalyst, but a bit of a behaviorist, too. The formula "stimulus – reaction" works. If you see something traumatic and you do not respond, then you may have too thick skin. An artist cannot, and a more so psychologist cannot have thick skin. We must be sensitive to human pain, reflect on the situation, and make some predictions. All this is reflected in creativity anyway.
And if a person is too sensitive?
Then phobias arise, and then another hypostasis is needed.
How to find this balance?
There is no way. Everyone has their own balance. Everyone must find their own balance.
By the way, about the “other” and “myself” in literature and culture: What is the ratio of "ego" in the modern world – one's own and another's?
I would say that an artist, even if he or she is an extroverted person, is still a bit lonely. The distance between artists must be sanitary. That is, when we are too close, it can lead to a breakup. But we read each other, look at pictures, sometimes talk, and sometimes meet. I have been a participant in many festivals, where I noticed that when artists gather at Ukrainian festivals, they never read poems to each other, but rather sing songs, drink wine and have fun. It seems natural to me. But there is another aspect: perhaps we do not believe that there is any significant need for our art. That's why we sing; that's why we drink.
Do you feel like you are a part of the modern Ukrainian literary canon?
I do not know what the modern Ukrainian literary canon is. It seems to me that there is no single canon. I see certain tendencies and certain currents in modern Ukrainian poetry and in literature in general. I think young Ukrainian poetry is more feminine, it is young, and it makes some sense. I cannot be part of this canon on the basis of gender and age. There are already traditional, younger than me famous poets, prose writers and translators: Yuriy Andrukhovych, Serhiy Zhadan (who is still closer to me), there is Marianna Kianovska – and these figures do not belong to the canon, each of them is separate. That is, I am not part of a party and not part of some canon, but I am attracted to this trend and other trends. I am a reader.
Is the literary process rather an individual phenomenon?
We say that poetry and literature are unique goods.
How important is it for an individual to identify with the place where he or she lives? I'm talking about genius loci. Does a place create a person? Does a person form a place around himself/herself? Isn't it right to consider yourself only from Odessa or only from Kharkiv?
Yes, this is not very correct. There are cities that are more or less indifferent to their features and to their reputation, and then there are Odessa and Lviv. They are opposite poles in Ukraine, but they are very similar. They have enough of what is in Odessa and what is in Lviv. Lviv is more hospitable, invites people from all countries and cities. I have been to the Lviv Forum probably 15 times, and for several years I have been giving a lecture on freedom at a media forum. That is, Lviv is one of my favorite cities.
Odessa is more closed in itself. Local authors form a certain community, and if you go outside the city, you are no longer local. An Odessa citizen must live in Odessa, write about Odessa, and write as he or she should. Well, that's how it goes, and I do not see any Odessa writer who would regret that he is not known outside of Odessa.
And does Odessa have the opportunity and need to fully integrate into Ukraine?
Who can tell? Odessa is buildings; it is walls. There is such a need in people, in some people I would say. I don't know the statistics. If a danger was here , probably 15-20 thousand people would take to the streets, but I don't know how many would go outside on the pro-Russian side. Integration is possible, but it must take into account the specifics of the city. In this case politicians are wrong here. This is a mistake of language policy as well. We speak Ukrainian, but I live in a Russian-speaking environment and I was raised as a Russian-speaking person.
When I was probably 4 or 5 years old, I already knew the letters and could read. While walking with my grandmother, I saw the sign "Bulochna" [Bakery in Ukrainian] and said, "This is a mistake. Where is the letters ‘IA’"? And my grandmother said "No, this is not a mistake. This is another language; this is the Ukrainian language." And then I saw "Perukarnia" [Hairdresser in Ukrainian]. What is this? And my grandmother told me. She was also Russian-speaking, knew German and knew a little Ukrainian because she was from Kremenets. Also she knew Yiddish a little.
I already wrote somewhere that, unfortunately, not every Odessa resident had such a grandmother who would explain that this is not a mistake, but a different language and a different culture.
When I went to school, we had the opportunity to give up learning the national language - that was the law then. As a lazy child, I did not want to learn anything then, but my father insisted that you need to know the language of the people of the country where you live. I went and learned the Ukrainian language.
I even started writing in Ukrainian and Russian at the same time at school. It was unsuccessful in Russian and unsuccessful in Ukrainian. After all, what can a young man write? While studying in the first year of the Medical Institute in Frankivsk, I wrote four lines that caused me trouble:
Here is a swamp of reeds
Fedor pulls a machine gun
And who knows who to expect:
Either a party member, or a Cheka?
I was later accused of writing in Ukrainian for political reasons. At first I denied it, and then I remembered that verse and said, "Yes, you are right."
Now you write separately in both Ukrainian and Russian?
Yes. Sometimes I translate Russian poems into Ukrainian, but I haven’t translated Ukrainian poems into Russian lately. For me, this is more difficult than translating into Ukrainian. I do not know why. But I translate other poets into Russian – used to translate, to be more precise. I translated a lot of Serhiy Zhadan, and my translations were printed. I translated Marianna Kianovska and Vasyl Makhno.
But 3 years ago I had a fracture. Then Oleksandr Krasovytsky suggested that Serhiy Zhadan and I publish a joint book with my translations of Zhadan in Russian and his translations of my poems into Ukrainian (he also translated me), and Sergey Zhadan refused. He said, “I do not want my poems to be published in Russian in Ukraine. Let translations be published in Russia, but not in Ukraine." And I respected those words.
When I translated my favorite Ukrainian poems into Russian in the past, I may have unconsciously felt that their readership was narrow, that they would not be read by those of my friends who live in Russia and do not know Ukrainian. And then I decided that if a good poem is written in Ukrainian, it should live in Ukrainian. Because Russia does not care much about our culture.
Regarding politics and art: probably it is impossible to ignore this question. Is art possible without politics in Ukraine?
I have such a half-joke that it is impossible to ignore a fight because both sides have weapons. If you want to be such a reptile and fly over the fight, you will be shot down from both sides. Now there is a war: every life they have laid down for Ukraine is doubly valuable, and because they are young people, they are perhaps the best people we lose almost every day, unfortunately. And again, this is about sensitivity. It's like a pandemic: if you do not see it, then you are not sensitive. Then you do not sympathize with the families of those who died on the battlefield, and then you are indifferent to the country in which you live. That is, all this, it is reflected in creativity.
But. If it's straightforward, if it's journalism, then it's probably not art. I hope these problems do not last forever.
Was it difficult for you to let go of the Soviet reality when Perestroika took place and Ukraine gained independence? How difficult was it for you as a person who lived in the Soviet system for a long time, especially since there were still a lot of arrests in the 1980s, including Stus and other dissidents? How did this transition happen for you? When did you feel that there was freedom? And did you really feel it?
I felt it even in the late 70's: that I am a free person, even in this environment. Frankly, I did not speak, because we had a certain conspiracy. It was not very effective, but it still was. We were careful. From time to time someone was summoned for questioning. After 1982, I no longer took part in the dissident movement because I was under watch. I knew that my every step was known. But there is such a secret will, about which Alexander Blok wrote in a poem in honor of Pushkin: "Pushkin! We sang secret freedom after you!” And I never lost this secret will. When I understood – and I understood very early – what the Soviet Union was, and when perestroika began, it was such an interesting moment. Once a friend and I were sitting in front of the TV and listening to Gorbachev's first speech. And so Gorbachev says that we will fight against lies, against pomp, and noted that he is probably attacking the very foundations on which the Soviet Union is based. Then we discussed with a friend: will the Soviet Union survive? Interestingly, now the same friend (he lives in Spain, we correspond) wrote that no one then could have imagined that the Soviet Union would fall apart. I answered: why no one, if we talked about it in ‘86? And even earlier.
Can we talk about the multiculturalism of Boris Khersonsky?
Of course. Each of my peers who attended school in Ukraine was more or less bilingual They understood Ukrainian, even if they spoke and wrote mostly in Russian. I read mostly Russian books. It seems to me that I have read 10 times more books in Russian than in Ukrainian. Perhaps this is due to the fact that translated literature was published more in Russian translations. Today we have a different picture. I read Dante in Ukrainian, "Divine Comedy" and also "Roman Elegies" in Ukrainian. I read quite a few books that I had read in Russian before. I'm interested in it. I read Celan's translations in Ukrainian.
I do not know Hebrew, probably 100 words, the same as Yiddish, but I read a lot of literature about the Jewish tradition. I read Jewish writers in a Ukrainian translation: Agnon, for example, more than Singer. And it seems to me that this culture also had some influence. The reader is always multicultural, and the poet is multicultural. By the way, I have a book There and Then. This is a book-stylization of Chinese medieval poetry. This is one of my best books, and it is accompanied by a translation by Lao Tzu. I was assisted in the translation by a Chinese friend, Shumo Liu, a Chinese biochemist who was fascinated by Lao Tzu. I met him in New York many years ago. That is, that was also such an influence. The influence of different cultures is harmoniously combined and does not contradict each other. As for me, when you study the culture of another nation, you enrich yourself. You find a lot in common with your culture.
Do you listen to Wagner's music?
Wagner was never my favorite composer. I say that I divide composers into Johann Sebastian Bach and everyone else. Bach is my favorite. But I listened to the whole Ring of the Nibelung, I listened to Siegfried, I even remember some arias – I won't sing because I don't have a voice, but I can – I listened to all this before I learned about some of his works – for example, about "Judaism in music". After that, I sometimes, but very infrequently, listen to Wagner.
The same with Dostoevsky. I read almost all of Dostoevsky's novels. As a writer, I had great respect for him before I read The Writer's Diary. There was a chapter on Jews, on the "Jewish kingdom," and on the "Russian kingdom," where all the events in the world are a struggle between Jews and Russians, but there are no other nations. I even remember a quote from that Diary: “I recently read that Jews took the liberated Negroes of the United States into their hands and entangled them in the network of their age-old business. And I used to say, it still occurred to me that Negroes have been released, but Jews, of whom there are so many in the world, will attack this openspot”. I remembered this, and after that I did not read Dostoevsky.
But it's all individual: a person can love Dostoevsky more than Tolstoy, for example. We know that Shevchenko also wrote something like that. I understand that these were cruel times. And I understand that Gogol, sympathizing with Taras Bulba, also writes about the Jewish pogrom of the Khmelnytsky region, and we know what happened then. Poles also have something to remember. And there was this massacre… But, again, this is the past.
I have an acquaintance. She is now in the United States. She never enters Germany. She travels all over Europe, but she has never been to Germany. This is her personal perspective. And I have been in Germany many times, and most of my works were translated into German; two books were published. And I do not feel that the people I communicate with are responsible for Hitler - that if the new Hitler comes, they will all say "Zig Heil!".
But my translator and friend Erich Klein, when I was in Austria, I read poems and talked to people, he told me, "Never forget that you are talking to the children and grandchildren of the Austrian Nazis."
But you also have in your poems that "it is necessary to call the ancestors to the seventh or eighth generation." Does genus memory still exist?
This is a metaphor – the Jewish book of life, which is said to wish us good notes, always reminds me of a class journal at school, where you are given a report card every lesson and your parents are called if you behave badly.
It's ironic, isn't it?
Yes, I am against collective responsibility. I believe that responsibility is individual. But there are regimes in which there are no witnesses, but only accomplices, unfortunately.
You recently wrote on Facebook about a man who could not stay anywhere for more than two weeks except in the hospital. His drawings are very memorable. And this is such tender cruelty in his works, which you write about. They seemed to me philanthropic, humane. But he had mental health problems.
He had a personality disorder. One that is called antisocial personality disorder. That is, he could not adapt to reality. He never had a family, he never had a permanent job. He didn't even have a passport. He was released, he instantly lost his documents, started drinking, and was arrested again for violating the passport regime. I even said that you can judge someone who has a passport for violating the passport regime, but he never had one. He was an alcoholic. In a state of intoxication he was horrible. He studied in the first year of art school for about 7 or 8 years because he did not study, and he was not transferred to the second year, but because he was a very talented man, no one raised their hand to exclude him.
And then something like that happened in this dormitory. It is said – almost a legend – that one of his friends hanged himself, Then he was expelled from school, evicted from the dormitory, and he began a career as a homeless man.
Is talent somehow related to a person's mental health?
Connected, of course. But some people say that for an artist to be productive and talented, they have to be at least a little crazy. If he or she is not crazy, then everything they write is not real art. But this is not the case. Unfortunately, the disease does not add anything. It just subtracts. In Kola Novikov’s case, of whom we speak, the disease did not take away his talent, but it took away a significant part of his life. He spent about 20 years behind bars. He was arrested and sentenced to 6 months in prison each time. That is, it is almost impossible to calculate how many times he has been in court. Obviously, his life was very unhappy. If he had the ability to adapt, it would not have taken away his talent. But then, perhaps, he would start painting with oil "Harvest Festival", "Lenin at the factory" – some such themes that were in all clubs. Once a sculptor boasted to me that in a year she had made five Leninis and four unknown soldiers, and now she could live in peace for several years.
When a person is freed from addiction, what can fill the void that somehow remains?
Everyone decides for themselves. But everyone, unfortunately, feels this emptiness. I worked for 10 years with alcohol and drug addicts, and those who escaped it said that they were feeling emptiness and were trying to do something about it.
Does world and Ukrainian literature depend on addictions – alcohol, drugs? How much did these phenomena affect the literature?
It seems to me that they did not have much influence. Yes, all artists can drink, as well as carpenters, workers, surgeons, and resuscitators. But few are really addicted. That is, addiction does not help creativity. If we mention Kolya Novikov, we can say that especially in recent years, his work has been stereotyped. The drawings were similar to each other and no development was seen. There was degradation, a decrease in artistic level.
How can an artist avoid self-repetition?
There is no way. It seems to me that when you write a lot, and when you express yourself, you repeat yourself. And this is your style; these are your findings. If we recall the experience of famous painters, take Vermeer, he did not paint many paintings, but almost all of them have a woman facing the window. The window is almost always to her left. She almost always is reading and the interiors are similar. If you look at the work of Salvador Dali, I can't even count how many clocks there are, for example. It's like an artist's signature. Imagine an artist, a Renaissance painter, who paints like Raphael, almost always Madonna and Child. And this is Madonna and Child, the pictures are a little different from each other, but he repeats this theme. And his style cannot be repeated after him, but he repeats himself. My friend Alexander Roitburd, if you see his many paintings, you will recognize the artist at first sight. I also consciously repeat myself. My colleague once told me (he was angry with me then) that your poems can only be said to be yours. I told him that no one had ever given me such a compliment. If at first glance you can tell who wrote the poem – this is the greatest compliment for the artist. It's about self-improvement and you know, we all repeat ourselves. This is how nature repeats itself around us. As the book of Ecclesiastes says:
The sun rises and the sun sets and again hurries to its place where it rises. The wind blows from the north and comes to the south, and whirls, the wind whirls in its course, and the wind returns to its circles.
There are many Christian motives in your poetry. What is Christianity to you: one of the cultural codes or an existential experience?
There is no opposition here. First, Christianity for me is a religion to which I have belonged since my youth. I was probably 18 when I first got to church. The rest is Christian culture, the culture in which we live. I have already mentioned painting, the themes of paintings in museums are connected with the Holy Scriptures and with the New Testament and the Old Testament. If you don't know it, and you can't go through it and use it, then I don't know how to say that you are a cultured person. As Brodsky once said: we all belong to Christian culture. Now they are talking about Judeo-Christian culture and, perhaps, this is true because the Old Testament has a proper place in the Christian liturgy.
God in creativity: object, resource or paternalistic figure?
Perhaps this is the object of internal dialogue, I would say so. Pasternak once wrote that every act of inspiration is a small outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that this is not the case, because the Holy Spirit does not descend on every poet when he writes a poem, and this is clear. But still, the image of God the Creator is present when a person creates something. Rachmaninoff seems to have said that art exists and that that means that there is a God. And Florensky said more confidently that there is a trinity of Rublev, and this means that God exists. That is, there is creativity. We call God the creator, the creator. And the ability to be creative is also part of God's plan for man.
About the accumulation of experience that you use in the work that you present. Now you live alone, where does your literature come from?
My solitary way of life did not begin today. I was a very communicative person, and now it is the age and the Odessa situation. I am a Ukrainian patriot and I am a supporter of gentle Ukrainization. The word "Ukrainization" causes horror in most cultural figures in Odessa. Well, those who were my friends became my enemies and persecutors. You can even read articles that were written about me in the local press. Today, yes, I live in the countryside, but I communicate a lot. Today I had 7 hours of conversations with clients, and this is human destiny, human problems. My specialty enriches me, not only as a doctor, not only as a psychologist, but also as a creative person. Because I have to not only gather information, but I have to take an emotional part in the lives of those who need my help. That is, I become part of people I work with for a long time, but they also enrich me.
Could you stop writing?
Yes, but it must be an inner voice that will say "stop". You have already said everything you wanted to say. But it seems to me that I would still write something after that. Even if it occurred to me to stop working on Facebook and printing books, I have more than 30 books printed. Always a recall Ecclesiastes as: "More than these, my son, require not. Of making many books there is no end: and much study is an affliction of the flesh".
Translated by Kateryna Kazimirova
Boris Khersonsky - writer, winner of the H.C. Artmann and "Literaris" award, psychiatrist, rector of the Kyiv Institute of Modern Psychology and Psychotherapy. Member of the Ukrainian PEN.