Sunday, August 16, 2015

`The Spectacle of the Rats and the Owls'

“During the war I saw libraries on fire. The same fire consumed wise and stupid books, good and evil books. I understood then that nihilism is the greatest threat to culture. The nihilism of fire, stupidity, hatred.” 

After reading such a passage, self-congratulation demands that we point to the Nazis, Maoists or Muslim death-cultists, the obvious nihilists safely remote in time and place. Their assault on culture is unambiguous, expressed with fire, but the human capacity for self-delusion is bottomless, and savagery can be masked as sensitivity. The passage above is from Zbigniew Herbert’s “Conversation on Writing Poetry” (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Prose 1948-1998, 2010), a self-interview written in 1973. Herbert, a virtuoso of irony, wishes not to be misunderstood. One-half of Herbert, “A.”, “Critics say you are a poet of culture.” The other half, “B.”, replies: “I don’t take that as an insult, although from the lips of people who demand absolute innovation of artists it sounds like a reproach.” B. denies this represents “a flight into the past,” with, I suspect, an emphasis on “flight,” as in fearful escape. “B.” says “we are a link in a great chain of generations.” He continues: 

“People often talk about a `cultural legacy.’ But culture is not inherited mechanically, like a house, let’s say, left by someone’s parents. We have to labor for it in the sweat of our brow, acquire it for ourselves, prove it on ourselves.” 

That final phrase is critical. Detractors will claim our cultural inheritance is imposed on us, against our will, even punitively. Herbert suggests we test it, weigh it, assay it against our values and experience. There’s nothing passive about reading Dante or Melville. Readers are partners who sign the contract drawn up by the writers. To say that “we live in an extraordinary time,” Herbert notes, is no excuse because “every age of humanity has been extraordinary.” He concludes: “It’s also wrong to assume that culture lives and is sustained by itself, stored in libraries and museums. History teaches us that people and their achievements can be almost perfectly destroyed.” 

I remembered Herbert’s essay after reading about Richard Blanco’s performance in Havana on Friday, his logorrhea of ignorant clichés: the sea as “the invisible Berlin Wall,” “we all hold seashells up to our ears,” “gaze into the lucid blue,” et al. ad nauseam. 

The Cuban poet and painter Armando Valladares spent twenty-two years in Castro’s prisons and wrote about his experience in Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag (1985). In the vast literature produced by survivors of Communism, Valladares’ memoir is distinguished by the intensity of its detail – no gassy gazing “into the lucid blue” for him. His precision of observation sometimes suggests a muted political allegory, a prose poem that might have been written by Zbigniew Herbert: 

At nightfall we always beheld an incredible spectacle, the spectacle of the rats and the owls. Owls are very common in Cuba, and each bird would swallow down several rats every night . . . Every evening the owls with shrieks of jubilee hurtled down on the rats, grabbed them in their claws, and flew back to the roof to pull them apart and eat them. We would watch the hunt from our windows.”

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