Слово – не воробей, выпустишь – не поймаешь.
If you were born in Russia, or if you perversely spent your youth in a delirium of russophilia, then you know what I mean. For the rest of you, here is my clumsy translation:
A word is not a sparrow: once you let it go, you can’t recapture it.
In other words, be careful what you say (or write) because once a word is uttered, it cannot be withdrawn.
But I think you can still get out your shotgun and shoot the sparrow down.
Or you might take a page out of Lev Tolstoy’s book (he has a few to spare).
Tolstoy lovingly (and at great length!) writes the story of the adulterous romance between Anna Karenina and Vronsky; and then, as if disgusted by what he has wrought, he does the 19th century equivalent of throwing it all under the bus:
He throws Anna under the train.
Elif Batuman, in her book The Possessed, characterizes this as a kind of literary debit and credit, originating in the confession narrative. St. Augustine fills the first half of his Confessions with descriptions of his youthful worldly adventures (racking up a debit), and then denounces those adventures in the second half, earning a credit. In the end, the books are balanced.
Tolstoy does away with Anna as a kind of showy hitting of the delete button. (It’s the figurative delete button for the guy who doesn’t really want to lose a few hundred pages of prose.) With Anna dead, the score is now even.
I’m certainly no Tolstoy (and boy am I no St. Augustine!), but I’m feeling in the red about a piece I wrote for the Chicago Tribune last month. (Ok, so I didn’t exactly write it for the Tribune, I wrote it for myself, and to my astonishment, the Trib published it.) You can also find it here.
It was a kind of mood piece, really. I was driving through our Illinois wind farms a few days after news broke about the oil spill and I was feeling (briefly) optimistic. The windmills represented hope and daring to me. As I drove through the idyllic Illinois countryside, I felt that everything might turn out OK. And so I wrote an essay that made many of my friends feel that things might be OK.
I did not imagine that several weeks later oil would still be gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. I did not know that I would begin to feel about the Gulf the way I feel about a large swath of Ukraine that surrounds Chernobyl: CAN’T EVER GO THERE AGAIN.
And now I feel angry with myself for (as one of my friends generously described it) “spinning a chrysalis of hope” in a time of despair.
A do-nothing, feel-good chrysalis of hope. A debit. Throw it under the train.
Go ahead and despair a little, rant a little. It’s not just going to be OK. We all need to get to work.