Friday, April 15, 2016

`What Interests Me Is Human Fate'

“The language of politics and literature are entirely different and so are the mentalities. Politicians are concerned with `far-reaching’ goals, personal games, gangster-style tricks. What interests me is human fate. What does me good is bad for politicians: what suits them I find indigestible. We use two separate styles. I have tried to use the conditional. I hesitate, I appeal to conscience. I dislike the imperative, exclamation mark, black and white divisions.”

In 2011, during the short-lived vogue for Occupy Wall Street and related tantrums, the late D.G. Myers wrote for Commentary about the manifesto signed by almost a thousand writers in support of the movement. The number, according to the online version of the declaration, has swollen to “3,277-and-counting.” No surprises here. Self-sabotage is at least as common among writers as among the rest of the species. I reminded David that on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party announced creation of the Union of Soviet Writers. Those who did not join were, in effect, blacklisted. They couldn’t get published. Isaac Babel protested by no longer writing. In 1934, Babel told the Congress of Soviet Writers, “I have invented a new genre--the genre of silence.” (David loved that, and wished he had included it in his essay.) An honest writer will always choose silence over lies. In 1940, after his murder in the Lubyanka, Babel’s silence became permanent.

The passage at the top is spoken by another veteran of Soviet-style politics, Zbigniew Herbert. I found it in a 1981 interview excerpted in The Burning Forest (Bloodaxe Books, 1988), an anthology of Polish poetry translated and edited by Adam Czerniawski. The full interview, with journalist Marek Oramus, was translated into English and published in PN Review in 1982 under the title “A Poet of Exact Meaning.” Oramus traces Herbert’s interest in history to his dissatisfaction with reality. Herbert replies:

“But you see – all my life, and I am nearly sixty, I have virtually stayed in one place and yet my citizenship has changed four times. I was a citizen in pre-war Poland, the Second Commonwealth; then Lwów was annexed to West Ukraine, there is still a note in my passport stating that I was born in the USSR; then I became a Kennkarte citizen in the German Government General and eventually I came to live in People’s Poland. I lived through four distinct political systems. This specific condensation is responsible for my sense of history—some kind of empathy, an ability to understand people of distant epochs.”

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