In “Two Books” (Two Cities: On Exile, History, and the Imagination, 1995), Adam Zagajewski praises a book of essays by one of his mentors, Zbigniew Herbert: Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985).
“Herbert speaks of old paintings with the greatest love. It is a love that extends to the entire world of objects bearing traces of human work, human presence. The stone steps into which passersby have pressed the delicate arches of erosion. The smiles of medieval angels. But also the little café in Siena, benches, homes, squares.”
Herbert’s essays are based on his visits to France and Italy from his native Poland in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Herbert is almost giddy with the history that suffuses everything he sees. “. . . his feelings about history—and historicism—are unusually tender,” Zagajewski writes. “Historical memory, and especially the loveliest component of it, which have been preserved in works of art, is something absolutely vivifying.” Here, from Herbert’s chapter titled “Siena,” is the café mentioned by Zagajewski:
“A low, sombre hallway leads into a café. Instead of doors, strings of wooden beads rattle pleasantly under my touch. The padrone greets me as if we were old school-mates. Wonderful, aromatic cappuccino pours brightness into one’s head and makes one’s limbs recover from tiredness. The padrone recounts a story with an intricate plot sprinkled with numbers. I understand little but listen with pleasure, though the tale may concern his financial ruin. However it is difficult to sense a drama beyond these childish sounds: diciotto, cinque, cinquanta, settanta.”
It’s hard to love plastic, glass and chrome – the surfaces of our world, at once disposable and permanent. Wood and stone feel welcoming. The stone steps in the oldest building on my campus, Lovett Hall, built in 1911, are warn smoothly concave by generations of students and staff, speaking not on the geological but the human scale. A colleague, Argentinian by birth, recently visited Greece for the first time. While climbing the Acropolis, she felt humbled by its age compared to anything in Buenos Aires or Houston. I remember hiking near Chambéry (birthplace of Joseph de Maistre) in the French Alps on a summer day in 1973. I was hot and sweaty and wanted to sit in the shade. On the side of the road was a small structure that resembled a bus stop made of stone. I sat, cooled off and enjoyed the view. Only later did I learn my bus stop was part of a Carolingian crypt, built, as I recall, in the ninth century.