One relies on certain books the way some believers look to the Bible -- not as divinely inspired, intended for literal understanding, but as sources of dependable wisdom. At the kitschy end of the wisdom spectrum we find the self-help genre, books designed as mood-elevating delivery systems, books that assure us we are O.K. despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Publishers and booksellers label this stuff “inspirational,” but serious readers have always assembled their own eccentric libraries of true wisdom, whether sacred or secular.
Chief among such volumes for me – few surprises here for faithful readers -- are The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s essays, Samuel Johnson’s collected works, Thoreau’s Walden and his journals, and scattered passages in Simone Weil, Czeslaw Milosz and Guy Davenport, among others. What the writers in this heterodox gathering share is an inspired seriousness about the world – not humorlessness (though Weil is not exactly lighthearted) but gravity tempered by an elusive humility.
Also in this informal pantheon is a name less familiar, with a vaguely comic sound in English -- Alexander Wat, one of the 20th century’s representative men, whose posthumous memoir, My Century, was assembled from recordings of conversations he had late in life with Milosz, his friend and fellow Polish poet. As a young man, Wat became a Communist, yet after fleeing the Nazi invasion he was arrested by the Soviets and spent more than two years in various jails and prisons in Poland and the Soviet Union. During this period Wat, who was Jewish, converted to Catholicism. While describing his confinement in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow, he relates how prisoners were able to buy extra rations with money sent by friends and family. Instead of complaining about inadequate food, Wat wrote:
“I limited myself to onions, garlic, bread, and especially lump sugar. It’s a wonderful thing, lump sugar. I still have a weakness for it. Even in cafes I’ll catch myself, completely unconsciously, slipping some lump sugar into my pocket. I’m not a cheap person; it’s just that since Lubyanka I’ve loved lump sugar. Those lumps of sugar are beautiful. You have to admit they have a certain beauty. And you can see by their very form that they contain sweetness. They’re well constructed; there’s nothing superfluous about them. Those lumps of sugar were a delicacy for me, and here of course the beautiful and the useful were united – not as they are in constructivism, which I detest, but as they are in human life. A primeval unity. The naïve unity of the beautiful and the useful, the enormously useful. I was sparing with those lumps of sugar; I built up a reserve in case things became worse.”
I find that passage breathtaking and declare it, without embarrassment, inspirational. How many people could respond to terror with such a mingling of gratitude, wonder, practicality and intellectual vibrancy? For me, Wat’s witness is what it means to be a true intellectual and a complete human being.
On Easter, while still in Lubyanka, he overhears Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion on the radio, and this prompts both joy and a marvelously wandering digression, only part of which I’ll quote:
“In Bach’s music I also hear an earthly joy, dignified, like Bach’s family life, where people eat and drink – and like to eat and drink – a sense of life, life lived with decorum. Bach is religious music, but in Bach’s work, even in the Passion, religion and faith are hemmed in by all sorts of doubts. Anyway, all our problems and troubles certainly are better expressed in music than in words.
“It seems to me that music, generally speaking, is the proper language for philosophy. I’m not talking about today’s scientific philosophy, logic, but what lies beyond logic, metaphysical philosophy…. Schopenhauer’s definition of music as architecture in time. Metaphysical philosophical thought is speculation in the good sense of the word, not speculation occurring in space but in time. Logic is rather spatial, but traditional philosophy is temporal; music is a better language for human thought; it expresses what words cannot.”
Remember, these sentences were not composed as prose but transcribed from recordings of Wat’s conversation. His fluency, the articulation of his memories and intellectual linkages, his gift for sheer storytelling, are phenomenal for a man in his sixties in chronically ill health, ravaged by the century he endured. Wat died in 1967.
In section XV of The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill writes:
"Flamen I draw darkly out of flame.
Lumen is a measure of light.
Lumens are not luminaries. A great
Polish luminary of our time is the obscure
Wat illuminates our dark age with luminous words. Let's be grateful to New York Review Books for returning My Century, an obscure and essential volume, to print.