Aleksander Wat (1900-1967), a poet who wrote middling avant-garde poems in Polish, also “spoke” one of the last century’s essential books (along with Solzhenitsyn’s, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s and Vasily Grossman’s): My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, edited and translated in 1988 by Richard Lourie from transcripts of conversations Wat had late in life with Czesław Miłosz. As a young man Wat became a Communist. After fleeing the Nazis he was arrested by the Soviets and spent more than two years in various jails and prisons in Poland and the Soviet Union, and eventually was exiled to Kazakhstan. Wat, who was Jewish, converted to Catholicism. While recounting his confinement in the Lubyanka prison, he describes how prisoners were able to buy extra rations with money sent by friends and family. Instead of complaining about hunger, Wat says:
“I limited myself to onions, garlic, bread, and especially lump sugar. It’s a wonderful thing, lump sugar. I still have a weakness for it. Even in cafes I’ll catch myself, completely unconsciously, slipping some lump sugar into my pocket. I’m not a cheap person; it’s just that since Lubyanka I’ve loved lump sugar. Those lumps of sugar are beautiful. You have to admit they have a certain beauty. And you can see by their very form that they contain sweetness. They’re well constructed; there’s nothing superfluous about them. Those lumps of sugar were a delicacy for me, and here of course the beautiful and the useful were united – not as they are in constructivism, which I detest, but as they are in human life. A primeval unity. The naïve unity of the beautiful and the useful, the enormously useful. I was sparing with those lumps of sugar; I built up a reserve in case things became worse.”
How does one retain an aesthetic and spiritual capacity in the presence of organized terror? In one of the worst times and places in the world (1940-41, Stalin’s Moscow), Wat mingles gratitude, wonder and intellectual vitality, and belongs to that endangered species, complete human beings. In “Wat in the World”at The American Interest, Robert D. Kaplan reminds us of the great man’s witness. In one paragraph, Kaplan distills the twentieth-century life of a representative man:
“As a title, My Century is neither exaggerated nor self-referential. For Wat and his family did indeed live the life of the 20th century in all its horror. Wat’s family was Central European, and its history lay `at the borderline of Judaism, Catholicism, and atheism.’ Anti-Semitism is, in his telling, part of the permanent tapestry of Soviet prison life. Wat’s older brother perished at Treblinka, his younger brother at Auschwitz. Wat himself spent seven years during and after World War II in Soviet prisons, including the Lubyanka, and in exile in the deserts of Central Asia. He returned to public life in the Eastern Bloc in 1957, in the wake of de-Stalinization, and committed suicide in France a decade later.”
Stalin and Hitler hover among these lines like conjoined twins, not opposites but mirrored partners in atrocity. Kaplan’s larger point is that their descendants remain alive and well, if semi-dormant: “What if in describing the psychological attraction of Stalinist ideology, Wat is also providing a warning for our time? What if the response to sustained chaos will lead back, inversely, to the ideological intensities of the 20th century? I am not talking about new Hitlers and Stalins so much as about disease-variants of them.” He warns that we “may be ripe for the next batch of utopian ideologies.” As humans, we tend not to learn our lessons, a proclivity heightened by amnesia. Evil perseveres. The next psychopath with sufficient charm and a sufficiently compliant audience could be the one. No place is so deadly as utopia. For Wat, great art promises not immunity to evil but, in the words of Tomas Venclova in Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast (1996), “the most concentrated form of human solidarity, transcending the boundaries of space and time.” On Easter morning, while he is still in the Lubyanka, Wat overhears St. Matthew’s Passion on the radio, prompting a joyous digression:
“In Bach’s music I also hear an earthly joy, dignified, like Bach’s family life, where people eat and drink – and like to eat and drink – a sense of life, life lived with decorum. Bach is religious music, but in Bach’s work, even in the Passion, religion and faith are hemmed in by all sorts of doubts. Anyway, all our problems and troubles certainly are better expressed in music than in words.
“It seems to me that music, generally speaking, is the proper language for philosophy. I’m not talking about today’s scientific philosophy, logic, but what lies beyond logic, metaphysical philosophy . . . Schopenhauer’s definition of music as architecture in time. Metaphysical philosophical thought is speculation in the good sense of the word, not speculation occurring in space but in time. Logic is rather spatial, but traditional philosophy is temporal; music is a better language for human thought; it expresses what words cannot.”
Kaplan says of Wat, “however doubt-ridden and self-questioning, [he] refused to submit to pulverizing forces.” Geoffrey Hill has twice memorialized this imperfect, defiant writer and man. In section XV of The Triumph of Love (1998), he writes:
“Flamen I draw darkly out of flame.
Lumen is a measure of light.
Lumens are not luminaries. A great
Polish luminary of our time is the obscure
And in A Treatise of Civil Power (2007) he includes “In Memoriam: Aleksander Wat”:
“O my brother, you have been well taken,
and by the writing hand most probably:
on photographs it looks to be the left,
the unlucky one. Do nothing to revive me.
“Surrealism prescient of the real;
the unendurable to be assigned
no further, voice or no voice; funérailles,
songs of reft joy upon another planet.”
Hill adapts the sentence “Do nothing to revive me” from the suicide note left by Wat. Venclova describes the final scene:
“On the evening of 29 July 1967, Wat said good night to Ola [his wife] as usual. After she left to go to her room, he put his last notebook on his bed and took forty sleeping pills. Before switching off the light he wrote: `For God’s sake. Do not save my life by any means. I should have already done what I do now.’”
[See the review of My Century by John Gross.]