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January 18, 2017



January 18, 2017

Notwithstanding the sunshine and the heat, my little birds have almost stopped singing. They are too busy to think of anything but their eggs, the hens are sitting, and the cocks have their beaks full seeking food for themselves and their mates. Besides, I suppose their nests are in the open country or in the big trees. At any rate all is quiet in my little garden, except that now and again the nightingale sings a note or two, or the greenfinch makes a rat-tat-tat with its feet, or perhaps the chaffinch sounds its pipe late in the evening. Yesterday I had a brief greeting from a blue-tit; the sound came from a long way off, and thrilled me more than you can imagine. For the blue-tit, you know, is not like the coal-tit a bird that stays with us all the winter; it only comes back towards the end of March. At first this blue-tit used to fly about quite close to my window. It came to the sill with the others, and diligently sang its merry “zeezeebey”, a long-drawn-out call, reminding one of a mischievous child in a teasing mood. It always made me laugh, and answer with the same phrase. Then the bird vanished with the others in the beginning of this month, nesting no doubt elsewhere. I had seen and heard nothing of it for weeks. Yesterday its well-known notes came suddenly from the other side of the wall which separates our courtyard from another part of the prison; but it was considerably altered, for the bird shrilled thrice in brief succession “zeezeebey, zeezeebey, zeezeebey”, and then all was still. It went to my heart, for there was so much conveyed by this hasty call from the distance – a whole history of bird life. There was a reminiscence of the splendid days of wooing in the spring, when the birds could sing and make love the livelong day; now the blue-tit had to be on the wing all the time collecting flies for itself and the family. The bird seemed to be saying: “I’ve no time to spare; oh how lovely it was; spring is nearly over; zeezeebey, zeezeebey, zeezeebey!”

Will you believe me, Sonyusha, when I tell you that a little snatch of bird song can be so full of meaning, can move me so profoundly. My mother, who considered that Schiller]       and the Bible were the supreme sources of wisdom, was firmly convinced that King Solomon understood the language of birds. In the pride of my fourteen years and my training in natural science I used to smile at my mother’s simplicity. But now I have myself grown to be like King Solomon; I too can understand the language of birds and beasts. Not, of course, as if they were using articulate speech, but I understand the most varied shades of meaning and of feeling conveyed by their tones. Only to the rude ear of one who is quite indifferent, does the song of a bird seem always the same. Those who love birds and beasts, those who have a sympathetic understanding, can perceive great diversity of expression, and can recognise a complete language. There is a meaning even in the universal silence which has followed the clamour of the early spring. I know that if I am still here in the autumn all my friends will come back to seek food at my window. Already I can rejoice at the return of this blue-tit which is a special friend of mine.

Sonyusha, you are feeling embittered because of my long imprisonment. You ask: “How can human beings dare to decide the fate of their fellows? You ask: What is the meaning of it all?” My dear little bird, the whole history of civilization is grounded upon “human beings deciding the fate of their fellows”; the practice is deeply rooted in the material conditions of existence. Nothing but a further evolution, and a painful one, can change such things. “What is the meaning of it all?” Your query is not a reasonable one to make concerning the totality of life and its forms. Why are there blue-tits in the world? I really don’t know, but I’m glad that there are, and it is sweet to me when a hasty “zeezeebey” sounds suddenly from beyond the wall.

(Excerpted from a letter written in prison to Sophie  Liebknecht dated May 23, 1917. Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist philosopher, economist and revolutionary. She and Karl Liebknecht – another leader of the German working class, were murdered by German army officers on January 15, 1919.)

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