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A Poet Against the Destroyers
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
December 19, 1966
Russia's foremost literary figure is an athlete of some renown. In this essay written for Sports Illustrated he tells about two football matches of consequence, explains how he nearly drowned at the Fellinis', accounts for the damage to a dahlia bed that was shaped in Stalin's image and discusses other matters of more moment
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December 19, 1966

A Poet Against The Destroyers

Russia's foremost literary figure is an athlete of some renown. In this essay written for Sports Illustrated he tells about two football matches of consequence, explains how he nearly drowned at the Fellinis', accounts for the damage to a dahlia bed that was shaped in Stalin's image and discusses other matters of more moment

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The well-known formula, "in a healthy body a healthy mind," is a highly dubious one if applied universally. In the normal view, a healthy mind is, above all, a kind one. But Hitler, for example, spared no expense on the physical education of young people, with aims quite other than the development of kindness in them. For all his genius, puny, sickly Nietzsche could not have imagined that his abstract idea of a superman would bear sinister fruit in the splendidly trained muscles of the SS and Hitler Jugend. A healthy body was not much use for philosophizing, but it was extremely useful for torturing and killing. Cruelty was reckoned as the sign of a healthy mind, and kindness as a sign of spiritual weakness. "Healthy cruelty in a healthy body" was the way the formula was written for those young wolves.

I do not want to make any offensive comparisons, but it seems to me that while the actor Sean Connery (certainly a nice enough fellow), worn out by his hysterical fans, dreams romantically of playing the lofty part of Hamlet, his own James Bond, rippling his steely biceps, demonstrates and propagates on the screen the seductive cruelty of the modern superman—an anti-Hamlet. Hamlet's question is: "To be or not to be?" Bond's question is: "To beat or not to beat?" And pimpled youths fidgeting on sweaty seats in packed theaters burn with the desire: yes, yes, we ought to be like Bond, just as strong—stronger than anyone else in the world. And they lift weights, and learn judo and boxing, infected with the disease of a "supermanism" that stimulates their vanity.

Fine, if this stage passes away with adolescence. But what if it fails to pass? What if throughout your life your chief instinct is self-preservation, leading to the doubtful goal of superiority over others, sometimes by walking over other people's bodies? The instinct for self-preservation is often a deceptive one, the more so if it is specially cultivated. When you are perpetually ready to hit out, this readiness sometimes makes you expect a blow from someone who has no intention of attacking you. From a broader point of view, many nations have begun wars only because of a delusive instinct for self-preservation.

So one of the dangers of the cult of the healthy body as superior to the mind is its transformation of man into beast—sometimes a beautiful one, a delightful one, but a beast nevertheless. Another danger is a kind of athletic narcissism, which leads to the most extraordinary stupid-ness. Physical-training fiends with chicken-sized brains and idiotically huge piles of muscles impress me as pitiful and unfulfilled human beings. How pathetic is the basketball player who, at his first sight of the Eiffel Tower, can see in it only a basketball net turned upside down. How pathetic is the tennis player for whom, as for a prisoner, the world is divided into little squares, because he sees it only as if through a tennis racket.

Of course, I do not mean that it is obligatory for every boxer to read Hemingway. Even studying Hemingway and learning the whole of him by heart is not going to help a boxer who has no talent. But if a talented boxer does read Hemingway, he will, in my opinion, be an even better boxer. The former coach of the Soviet football team, Boris Arkadyev, used to tell this story about a certain young football player: "Once at a training session, we were standing looking out over a river and watching the sun set. It was an incredible sunset. 'Well, how about it?' I asked the player. 'Does it do anything to you?' 'What do you mean, do anything?' 'The sunset, of course—does it do anything to you?' 'Why should it do anything? What do you think I am, a girl or something?' I had to ax him from the team. There was not much hope of making a real footballer out of him if he was such a fool that a sunset did not have any effect on him."

The composer Shostakovich told me a story about a certain musician: "Yes, that man has got something, I think—but he is a peculiar fellow, you know. He once asked me if it was true that I was fond of football, and I said yes, I enjoyed it. 'Well,' he said, 'I never would have thought it!' Now what kind of composer is he if he is so scornful of football?" I agree with Arkadyev and Shostakovich. Physical and spiritual shortcomings are equally pathetic and ugly. If there is anything that we should be striving toward, it is the harmony of our whole being.

For me, our great poet Pushkin was the supreme embodiment of such harmony. He was a brilliant and cultivated man. But, at the same time, he was always able to wash the dry dust of books off his lips with bubbling champagne. He was the philosophical focus of his epoch, and yet he was capable of looking at the world with the eyes of a child who has escaped from the supervision of his strict nurse: History.

Even while Pushkin was still alive he stood on a granite pedestal of fame created by his own efforts, but he was always able to get off that pedestal, jump on his waiting horse and ride right up to the porch of his waiting mistress. And he adored sport. He was a boxer, a fencer, a marksman, a swimmer, a horseman and a hunter. In the biting cold of Russia (as low as 50� centigrade below zero), he would emerge lobster-red from his bath, leap out into the snow and roll around in it, shouting with delight at the joy of life that filled him to overflowing. He always carried a heavy iron rod with him, so that his arm should not grow weak and so that his pistol should not falter if he had to use it. It is true that on one occasion the pistol did falter, but that is another story.

Pushkin was short, poorly proportioned, ugly. But he overcame his own ugliness, both through his awareness of the strength of a trained mind and through his awareness of the strength of his body, a physical strength cultivated by his mind.

If we are to believe our sources, Pushkin's contemporary, the English poet Byron, who was lame, heroically swam the Hellespont in spite of his physical disability. Old age is also a kind of disability, and Leo Tolstoy overcame old age by going out riding every morning till the end of his long life, gray beard fluttering in the wind.

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