Adam Michnik says of these words: “this sentence will reverberate in the Polish language forever.” They close Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter), first published in 1973. For Poles, Herbert was more than a mere poet. He represented defiance and uncompromising rectitude, a refusal to acknowledge Soviet domination of his country:
“be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important”
On July 28 we will observe the twentieth anniversary of Herbert’s death. Michnik is a Polish essayist and longtime dissident, during and after Communism, and is probably best known as a writer for his Letters from Prison and Other Essays (trans. by Maya Latynski, 1986). Between 1965 and 1986, he spent six years in Polish prisons. Michnik used to claim the only place he could concentrate and write was in a prison cell. He wrote his tribute to Herbert shortly after the poet’s death. In his 1985 interview with Anna Poppek and Andrzej Gelberg, Herbert said:
“Michnik and I were friends once. Today this is a closed chapter of my life. Why are we friends no more? I ceased to understand the meanderings of his mind. I used to believe in his intellect and honesty. I was wrong on both counts.”
Herbert was a great poet and a famously difficult man, especially as he got older. His crankiness was likely exacerbated by alcohol and an untreated bipolar condition. Graciously, Michnik forgives his old friend:
“There were times when I had the privilege of being close to Zbigniew Herbert. His poems helped me survive the difficult years of prison. This I have never forgotten. Then our ways violently parted. In recent years I was often unable to understand his political statements. But his poems always brought me to enchantment and meditation.”
“Enchantment and meditation” is a good reminder. Herbert’s fame as a dissident, his moral and political stance, should not eclipse his poetic gifts. If he were a lousy poet we wouldn't pay much attention. His peers are Eliot and Auden, Montale and Cavafy. See the conclusion of his essay “The Price of Art” in Still Life with a Bridle (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1991). It always stirs me and makes me think of Keats:
“It is we who are poor, very poor. A major part of contemporary art declares itself on the side of chaos, gesticulates in a void, or tells the story of its own barren soul.
“The old masters – all of them without exception –could repeat after Racine, ‘We work to please the public.’ Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.
“Let such naïveté be praised.”