Wiesław KOT: 'Be faithful. Go.' 25 years ago Zbigniew Herbert died

'Be faithful. Go.' 25 years ago Zbigniew Herbert died

’What is the story we are stuck in? It is an orgy of rampant injustice. And yet there will always be a handful of righteous people who will preserve fundamental values in the midst of this turmoil. The point is to be one of them,’ Zbigniew Herbert, one of the greatest Polish and European poets, used to say. 28 July 2023 will be the 25th anniversary of his death.

.Growing up in the family of a wealthy Lviv banker allowed the young man to read and fall in love with the classical cultures of Greece and Rome. On the other hand, he heard about the communist terror across the nearby border with Soviet Russia. Watching the Soviet occupation of Lviv from his own window cured him once and for all of his illusions about the communist system. He survived the next occupation, the German one, thanks to his work at the Behring Institute in Lviv. He was a 'lice feeder’ used in the production of typhus vaccines. This protected him from roundups and street executions. He reiterated that it was his wartime experiences that forced him to formulate his thoughts clearly and concisely. 'In those days, poetry was like a secret prison message or a letter thrown out of a transport of people being sent to their deaths,’ he explained.

Stalinism aroused Herbert’s reflexive and radical opposition. So much so that he refused to participate in the official literary life of post-war Poland. He preferred to earn his living as a 'designer of sanitary appliances’, a clerk at the Bank of Poland, or a 'calculator and timekeeper’. In an interview with Jacek Trznadel for his book 'Hańba domowa’, a collection of confessions by writers and party propagandists of the time, he was bitterly critical of his colleagues who were embarking on literary careers at the time. As often as one talks about these things, the old horses get puffed up – those who wrote those brutal, stupid, and shameful rags – and demand that I approach them with the delicacy of Proust or that I pry into the secrets of their souls like Dostoevsky,’ he said ironically. And he declared: 'The writer is, or at least should be, on the side of the humiliated and the disadvantaged. No secular or ecclesiastical authority can exempt him from this. In a poem about his resistance, he wrote without pathos:

We had a scrap of necessary courage

but in essence it was a matter of taste

Yes taste

which tells you to walk out wince spit out your scorn

even if for that your body’s precious capital the head

would roll

(The power of taste translation from: https://lyricstranslate.com/pl/potega-smaku-power-taste.html)

Instead of publishing in the communist press, he studied and graduated in economics and law. He reiterated that a variety of interests was good for creating poetry. 'To write poetry, you need not only a knowledge of literature,’ he insisted, 'but also of the natural sciences, poring over complicated texts in a foreign language, solving equations.’ Such conscientiousness resulted in a sensational debut: on the wave of the 'October’ thaw, the volume 'Struna światła’ (1956, 1205 copies) was published. Critics and readers received the poems, which linked the Polish experience with Greek mythology, as a revelation.

Good night Marcus put out the light

and shut the book For overhead

is raised a gold alarm of stars

heaven is talking some foreign tongue

this the barbarian cry of fear

your Latin cannot understand

(To Marcus Aurelius translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Subsequent volumes, immediately translated into foreign languages, made Herbert one of Europe’s best-known poets. Invitations to lecture at American universities, numerous scholarships, and literary prizes poured in. During his endless travels in Italy and France, Herbert persistently studied the roots of Mediterranean culture. From this, he compiled his own private guide to European culture. He considered his links with the philosophy and art of antiquity to be elementary. He declared:

if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

what will remain after us
will be like lovers’ weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns

(Why the classics; translation from: https://war-poetry.livejournal.com/1019765.html)

Herbert has always felt himself to be both a Pole and a citizen of Europe, with its rich culture but also its brutal history. He captured this painful entanglement in Mister Cogito (1974), published after several months of wrangling with the censors. The book was quickly hailed as one of the most important Polish literary events of the 20th century. The poet turned the title Mr. Cogito, 'a man of our time trying to fight despair’, into an expression of his own assessment of the contemporary world, full of distance and irony. The name of the protagonist comes from a Latin maxim of Descartes, the father of modern philosophy: Cogito ergo sum (’I think, therefore I am’).

go upright among those who are on their knees

among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live

you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous

in the final account only this is important

(The Envoy of Mr. Cognito translated by Bogdana and John Carpenter]

This invocation can be found on many obelisks. They were placed on memorial stones in Gdansk, the meeting place of the opposition during the communist era, and in Sopot.

And these were not just words addressed to others. In the spirit of his own verse, Herbert also made his political decisions. For example, he signed Memorandum 59 (1976), in which Polish intellectuals protested against the inclusion in the Polish constitution of provisions on Poland’s dependence on the USSR. A kind of 'poetic intervention’ into the grim political reality of the early 1980s was Report from a Besieged City, published in Paris – a reckoning with the demoralisation that afflicts both the oppressors of the nation and the defenders of its independence. As a sensitive artist, however, he observed the effects of totalitarian ideology on both its functionaries and its victims.

Too old to carry arms and to fight like others—

they generously assigned to me the inferior role of a chronicler
I record—not knowing for whom—the history of the siege


now as I write these words proponents of compromise
have won a slight advantage over the party of the dauntless
usual shifts of mood our fate is still in the balance

cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders shrinks
but the defense continues and will last to the end
and even if the City falls and one of us survives
he will carry the City inside him on the roads of exile
he will be the City

(Report from a Besieged City translated by Czesław Miłosz)

Nor did he remain free from the pernicious influence of the totalitarian bite. In the 1990s, the poet’s sharp, sometimes extreme, always controversial vision of Polish affairs was presented in his accountability journalism. Jerzy Narbutt recalled: 'Even when the literary establishment was tiptoeing around him, he had outbursts of honesty. I remember how he reacted when someone tried to cheapen the beauty of the Akoka ethos. He just pounded his fist on the table and walked me out onto the terrace. And on the terrace, he roared in a mighty bass: 'Down with the Bolsheviks’. Criticism did not depress him; he stuck to his own principle: 'You always swim to the source, against the current; with the current goes rubbish’.

.He particularly targeted post-communist formations. Many observers of literary life were convinced that such lampoons were not in keeping with the literary stature of Herbert, whose name appeared repeatedly in the exchange accompanying the award of the Nobel Prize. He commented on this in the spirit of his own philosophy: 'Fashions pass; only the great dead live, and they will judge us in the end.’

Wiesław Kot

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