Saturday, October 29, 2016

`Deaf to the Temptation of Fame'

Dr. Andrzej Szczeklik (1938-2012) was a Polish immunologist who gave the lie to C.P. Snow’s silly and annoyingly long-lived notion of “The Two Cultures.” The title of his second book to be translated into English, Kore: On Sickness, the Sick, and the Search for the Soul of Medicine (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Counterpoint, 2012), though fulsome, suggests the range of his interests. He possesses the digressive conversational gifts of a born essayist. One of the essays collected in Kore, “The Arcana of Art and the Rigors of Science,” begins with an anecdote lifted from The Master and Margarita, moves on to Heraclitus, then Brueghel and Auden, and settles, briefly, on the subject of sensitivity among doctors. Szczeklik contrasts a physician’s obligation to “put on a layer of armor every day” with the risk of sacrificing empathy. Doctors, he says, must “have a sensitive heart.”

Szczeklik then recalls an amusing, Solidarity-sanctioned act of defiance in Krakow against Gen. Jaruzelski in 1983. As a result of his participation in the demonstration (“we were just carried away by joy and elation”), Szczeklik was dismissed from his job as deputy vice-chancellor of the Medical Academy, forbidden to teach and put on trial for inciting a riot. He was convicted but avoided prison. The story is very funny and very Polish. I won’t recount the subsequent digressions-in-digressions, false bottoms and  shaggy-dog stories, except to say that Szczeklik eventually gets around to quoting Pascal (Pensées, trans. W.F. Trotter, 1931) on the subject of vanity:

“Vanity is so anchored in the heart of man that a soldier, a soldier’s servant, a cook, a porter brags and wishes to have his admirers. Even philosophers wish for them. Those who write against it want to have the glory of having written well; and those who read it   desire the glory of having read it. I who write this have perhaps this desire, and perhaps those who will read it . . .”

Few passages in all of literature make the honest reader so instantaneously uncomfortable.  We feel found out, with no place to  hide. Szczeklik then quotes the first four lines of “The Old Masters” by Zbigniew Herbert, and says they “sound like an echo of Pascal.” The poem dates from the early nineteen-eighties, the heroic days of Solidarity, and was collected in Report from the Besieged City (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1985). It expresses Herbert’s sense of solidarity with the great artists of the past:

“The Old Masters
went without names

“their signature
was the white fingers of the Madonna

“or pink towers
di città sul mare

“also scenes from the life
della Beata Umiltà

“they dissolved
in sogno

“they found shelter
under the eyelids of angels
behind hills of clouds
in the thick grass of paradise

“they drowned without a trace
in golden firmaments
with no cry of fright
or call to be remembered

“the surfaces of their paintings
are smooth as a mirror
they aren’t mirrors for us
they are mirrors for the chosen

“I call on you Old Masters
in hard moments of doubt

“make the serpent’s scales of pride
fall from me

“let me be deaf
to the temptation of fame

“I call upon you Old Masters

“the Painter of the Rain of Manna
the Painter of Embroidered Trees
the Painter of the Visitation
the Painter of the Sacred Blood”

The final stanzas read like a prayer addressed to the patron saints of the arts, anonymous in the beauty and grace of their work. Herbert was born on this date, Oct. 29, in 1924, and died in 1998.

No comments: