I’ve discovered a digital scrapbook created by an anonymous English-language admirer of Zbigniew Herbert, which collects photographs, drawings from the poet’s sketch book, translations of Herbert’s best-known poems, and testimonials from his peers Milosz, Brodsky and Heaney. Herbert the man (1924-1998) remains a phantom to readers in the West. He inhabits the ghostly category Poet from Eastern Europe (dubbed “Western Asia” by Josef Brodsky), so any evidence of his earthly existence is welcome.
Included in this touchingly awkward assemblage is an excerpt from “The Little Soul,” an essay in The Labyrinth on the Sea, the posthumous prose collection published in Warsaw in 2000. An English translation is yet to appear though a volume of his collected prose is rumored to be in the works. This passage is welcome news to Herbert’s non-Polish-speaking readers:
“One of the deadly sins of contemporary culture is that it pettily avoids a frontal confrontation with the highest values. Also the arrogant conviction that we can do without models (both aesthetic and moral), because our place in the world is supposedly so exceptional and can’t be compared with anything. That’s why we reject the aid of tradition and stumble around in our solitude, digging around in the dark corners of the abandoned little soul.
“There exists a false view to the effect that tradition is like a fortune, a legacy, which you inherit mechanically, without effort, and that’s why those who object to inheritance and unearned privileges are against tradition. But in fact every contact with the past requires an effort, a labor, and a difficult and thankless labor to boot, for our little `I’ whines and balks at it.
“I have always wished that I would never lose the belief that great works of the spirit are more objective than we are. And they will judge us. Someone very rightly said that not only do we read Homer, look at frescoes of Giotto, listen to Mozart, but Homer, Giotto and Mozart steal looks at us, eavesdrop on us and ascertain our vanity and stupidity. Poor utopians, debutants of history, museum arsonists, liquidators of the past, are like those madmen who destroy works of art because they cannot forgive them their serenity, dignity and cool radiance.”
The most civilized of poets, the author of “Why the Classics,” Herbert captures the fashionable arrogance of those who encourage illiteracy and cultural vandalism, the “liquidators of the past.” Earlier in the day I started reading Monrovia Mon Amour (1992) by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple), a chronicle of the doctor’s 1991 visit to Liberia during its civil war. In Monrovia he visits the sacked remains of the University of Liberia, the country’s only university, and because he’s a bookish man Daniels seeks the school library:
“The library had been the largest in the country (no larger, in fact, than an average municipal library at home), but was now in disarray. The chief librarian’s office looked as though a jealous spouse had gone on the rampage through it, exacting retribution for a recently discovered love-affair. On a desk was a small paperback, its front cover burnt. I opened it to see what it was: Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. What would Ivan Sergeyevich, a man who valued civilization above all else, have made of this savagery? Would he have recognized the book-burners of the world the lineal descendants of Bazarov himself? I do not think so; there was something more elemental, less cerebral, than his character Bazarov’s nihilism at work here – a visceral hatred of the library and all it stood for, the revenge of the unschooled for all the slights and humiliations they had received at the hands, and tongues, of the schooled. And the impulse to destroy what you cannot understand is always a powerful one, waiting to be acted upon once the normal restraints of law and order are removed.”
In Herbert’s words, the savages who plundered the Liberian library “are like those madmen who destroy works of art because they cannot forgive them their serenity, dignity and cool radiance.” Daniels concludes his chapter like this:
“I left the university, repeatedly glancing over my shoulder at the devastation and the desertion, and I – who was not a Liberian – suddenly felt that unnameable but deep emotion that great music and great art evokes.”