Tuesday, March 03, 2009

`Foreign to No Literate Person'

One of the most interesting things I’ve read online in a long time is “In Zbigniew Herbert’s Garden” by Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, in the spring issue of The Threepenny Review. A native of Poland and now a Californian, she looks at Barbarian in the Garden, the first of Herbert’s three volumes of prose, published in Polish in 1962 and in English translation in 1985. Like most good essay collections, its contents defy simple categorization. We find history, art history, travel, memoir and a great poet’s ruminations (seldom explicitly on poetry). Hryniewicz-Yarbrough discovered the book as an art history student in Poland in the nineteen-seventies:

“After dry academic textbooks with little passion or flair, Barbarian in the Garden was a dazzling revelation. A traveler's account, imaginative and erudite, it looked at art and life and took the reader to art's salons and kitchens.”

I’m surprised by how little known Herbert’s essays are in the English-speaking world, even among intrepid readers. His closet cognates among essayists in our language might be Guy Davenport, Cynthia Ozick and Hubert Butler. Those familiar with his poetry seem to assume the prose is a busman’s holiday by a dilettante. Hryniewicz-Yarbrough corrects this impression:

“…Herbert's journeys into the world of painting and architecture were never a retreat from the quotidian world. Herbert prided himself on his no-nonsense attitude and his devotion to the concrete….For him art and life are part of the same fabric of human experience.”

Hryniewicz-Yarbrough’s discussion of the title Herbert gave his collection -- Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie in Polish – is illuminating:

“To Herbert we're simply all barbarians when we enter art's garden. We're also barbarians in the Greek sense of the word because each traveler is always `the other,’ an intruder of sorts who observes the newly encountered world with a certain detachment. Anyone who has ever traveled knows that we don't experience the reality of the places we travel to the way their residents experience it.”

Herbert was a formidably erudite man who carried his learning humbly. When he visits Lascaux, Siena or Chartres cathedral, he has already read voluminously, and probably out-read the scholars like a true autodidact, but visiting the places he has known only through books becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, acts of living humility. Herbert is, as Hryniewicz-Yarbrough says, “the other,” but he has already inhabited the sacred places of Western civilization before he arrives in his amply furnished imagination. He is comfortably at home in places he has never seen. I’ve just reread A.J. Liebling’s masterpiece, Normandy Revisited, another category-bending “travel” book. Liebling shares Herbert’s at-homeness away from home:

“Paris is foreign to no literate person, and the sensation of being abroad is the only pleasure I have never known there.”

1 comment:

Adam said...

Interesting, perhaps, that nowadays the one city repeatedly described as causing an overwhelming feeling of familiarity in first-time visitors is New York.