Monday, August 10, 2009

`A Sin of Memory'

In A Miracle, a Universe (1990), his account of bringing torturers to justice in Brazil and Uruguay, Lawrence Weschler refers to “Mr. Cogito and the Need for Precision” by Zbigniew Herbert (collected in Report from the Besieged City, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1984). That Weschler knows Herbert’s work is no surprise. He devoted two of his earlier books -- Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion (1982), The Passion of Poland: From Solidarity Through the State of War (1984) – to the poet’s native country. Nor is it surprising that Herbert’s specifically Polish rendering of totalitarianism finds cognates in South America. The template of terror, though localized, is universal, whether in Iran or Stalinist Poland. Weschler writes:

“`Ignorance about those who have disappeared undermines the reality of the world.’ The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert appears to have had the myriad European victims of the Second World War – or, perhaps, their survivors – foremost in his mind when he included that line in his poem `Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision.’ But it was in Montevideo, Uruguay, just recently that the phrase kept returning to me.”

The Uruguayan generals who had dominated the country for two decades, Weschler writes, “were convinced, as a matter of doctrinal certainty, that theirs was but one battlefront in a Thirds World War that had already broken out – an absolute war, against Communism. Absolute wars leave absolute imperatives in their wake: Herbert’s imperative of remembrance, but also, and sometimes in diametrical opposition, the imperative of renewal.”

Weschler meets with Enrique Tarigo, the first civilian vice president of Uruguay (1985-1990) since military junta in 1973. He quotes the line from Herbert’s poem and asks if democracy can stand on a foundation of “undermined reality?” Tarigo answers that Spain in the post-Franco period had done so successfully. To have reviewed the events of the Spanish Civil War of 40 years earlier would have provoked “a whole new civil war.” Weschler quotes Tarigo as saying:

“Life continues, life is made up of things that are not pretty, that are not the subject of a beautiful poem. And the function of a government is not to write poetry but to build a real future. In response to your poet, I would cite the political theorist Max Weber who distinguished between individual ethics and the ethics of those in positions of responsibility. I understand the point of view of the victim’s family, but in the ethic of governance one has to weigh, for example, the question of justice for twenty or thirty individuals versus the possibility of losing democracy again in this country.”

We might call this applied literary criticism. In no conventional sense is Herbert’s poem “beautiful.” The word in Tarigo’s mouth drips contempt -- a man of power dismissing a man of words. Much of Herbert’s work, including “Mr. Cogito and the Need for Precision,” is devoted to “things that are not pretty.” In an interview he gave the Carpenters, his American translators, Herbert says:

“Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.”

Next, Weschler meets with Julio María Sanguinetti, the president of Uruguay (1985-1990, 1995-2000), and quotes to him a lengthier passage from Herbert’s poem:

“And yet in these matters
accuracy is essential
we must not be wrong
even by a single one

“we are despite everything
the guardians of our brothers

“ignorance about those who have disappeared
undermines the reality of the world.”

Weschler asks Sanguinetti if it’s possible to found “a secure democracy on the basis of a sort of willed mass ignorance.” The president’s answer is more sophisticated and learned than Tarigo’s, but equally dismissive of Herbert:

“The basis of democracy is the people's conviction that it’s the best system and that everyone can expect to exercise his rights…everyone has a place under the sun. As for your poet – Ernest Renan, the great nineteenth-century French historian, who was very influential here in the Southern Cone, once said…`Nations are a plebiscite every day, and they are constructed on the basis of great remembering and great forgetting.’ If the French were still thinking about the Night of St. Bartholomew, they’d be slaughtering each other to this day.”

Weschler cites Herbert’s poem one last time in his afterword. He notes the Polish dissidents who conceived of Solidarity as an expression of the subjectivity of the Polish nation: “…they meant its rediscovered capacity for acting as the subject rather than the object of history. As with the lines from Zbigniew Herbert, this was a formulation that kept recurring to me during my recent visits to Latin America.” Here are lines from Herbert’s five-page poem, not cited by Weschler, emphasizing the poem’s universality:

“because even what
is happening under our eyes
evades numbers
loses the human dimension

“somewhere there must be an error
a fatal defect in our tools
or a sin of memory”

1 comment:

Garry DesMetis said...

Why we must read Hannah Arendt......I guess.