Sunday, June 21, 2015

`To Pay It Clumsy Homages'

Readers set up dichotomies between writers, a useful practice if not taken seriously: Shakespeare or Jonson. Joyce or Proust. Fortunately, literature is a universe in which and supersedes or. We can have it both ways. Reading one side of the equation doesn’t erase the other. Appreciation grows with juxtaposed difference. One such contrasting pair I set up years ago consists of two twentieth-century Polish masters – Witold Gombrowicz and Zbigniew Herbert. By now I’ve read everything available in English by both writers. I have a long-standing loyalty to both. Each deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature (so did Joyce and Proust), if the award had any value. But if faced with the Desert Island Challenge (one book by one writer, please), I would pack Herbert with my toothbrush and clean underwear. Gombrowicz amuses me (never a quality to underestimate) but promises little sustenance. If Gombrowicz is a Hershey Bar, Herbert is pemmican. 

In the title essay of Still Life with Bridle (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1991), Herbert describes a visit to a former monastery near Paris that has been turned into “a retreat for intellectuals” (a phrase in which one detects multiple levels of Herbertian irony): “There were no longer stained-glass windows or columns, vaults or stone floors; only the skin of the architecture remained, as if hanging in the air. Inside the nave, fat pagan grass.” Here it comes: 

“I remember this image better than the face of my interlocutor, Witold Gombrowicz, who was mocking my fondness for art. I did not even defend myself but only mumbled some nonsense, aware that I was only an object, a gymnast's bar upon which the writer was exercising his dialectical muscles. If I were an innocent stamp collector Gombrowicz would have made fun of my albums, classifiers, and sets of stamps; he would have proved that stamps are the lowest rungs of the ladder of existence, morally suspect.”

“`But it has absolutely no sense. How can one describe a cathedral, a sculpture, or some sort of painting,’ he asked me, quietly and pitilessly. `Leave this amusement to the historians of art. They don't understand anything either, but they have persuaded people they are cultivating a science.’”

Herbert concedes the foolhardiness of describing the visual arts with mere words, “the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting in the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written. I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts. I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.” 

Gombrowicz is scathingly contemptuous of almost everything. He is one of nature’s snobs, but not the class-driven sort. One suspects nothing could ever be good enough for him. If it were, Gombrowicz would find it too good. Gombrowicz is a man indelibly of the twentieth century, embodying its brilliance and nihilism. He suffered under what G.K. Chesterton called, in a very different context, “the degrading servitude of being a child of his time.” Herbert, a classical artist, brother to Horace and Marcus Aurelius, transcends mere history.

No comments: