Friday, November 21, 2008

`The Inferior Role of Chronicler'

Adam Zagajewski mourns the passing of history as a literary art. Modern historians, he says, “write in an inhuman, ugly, wooden, bureaucratic language from which all poetry’s been driven, a language flat as a wood louse and petty as the daily paper.” He names no names but historical writing has seen few heirs to Gibbon and Adams, though let’s give thanks for Shelby Foote.

The Greeks, Zagajewski says in Another Beauty, offer us the examples of Thucydides and Herodotus, “the ideal of the historian-poet, a person who either has seen and experienced what he describes for himself, or has drawn upon a living oral tradition, his family’s or his tribe’s, who doesn’t fear engagement and emotion, but who cares nonetheless about his story’s truthfulness.”
Zagajewski goes on to cite a few hopeful signs:

“We are in fact witnessing a revival of literature that serves this very purpose, but almost no one’s paid attention: writers’ journals, memoirs, poets’ autobiographies harken back to an archaic literary tradition, the writing of history from the viewpoint of a sovereign individual and not an assistant professor, a slave to modish methodologies, a state employee who must flatter simultaneously both the powers that be and the reigning Parisian epistemology. Examples? Here’s a sampling: the autobiographies of Edwin Muir, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, among other poets, the essays of Hubert Butler, Nicola Chiaromonte, the notebooks of Jozef Czapski, Albert Camus…The sketches of Zbigniew Herbert, Jerzy Stempowski, of Boleslaw Micinski, ill with tuberculosis. Here are people who refused to cheat, who eagerly sought out the truth and shrank from neither poetry nor terror, the two poles of our globe – since poetry does exist in the world, in certain events, at rare moments. And there’s also no shortage of terror.”

Do Zagajewski’s words remind you of anything? Do they recall a phenomenon born since the poet published Another Beauty in Poland 10 years ago? I refer, of course, to the blog, the domain of “a sovereign individual” if there ever was one. If blogging is to amount to more than a self-indulgent hobby, perhaps we ought to pay attention to some of Zagajewski’s suggestions. “Engagement and emotion” plus “truthfulness?” Well, there’s no scarcity of emotion, particularly self-righteous anger, in the blogosphere. And truthfulness, beginning with self-honesty, is always a problem in the human realm. The language of most bloggers is certainly “inhuman, ugly, wooden,” etc., but then most language today is.

No, clearly the most promising quality for bloggers among Zagajewski’s terms is sovereignty, the gift of writing independently, beholden to no one. Of course, such freedom means oceans of narcissistic drivel, but some of the best written, intelligent, principled prose I’ve read of late has appeared on blogs. This would seem to substantiate Zagajewski’s hope that “poetry does exist in the world, in certain events, at rare moments.” But recall what one of his poetic/moral teachers, the great Zbigniew Herbert, said in an interview with The Manhattan Review:

“Writing -- and in this I disagree with everybody -- must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.”

But getting back to the role of bloggers as a mutant strain of historians, Herbert writes in “Report from the Besieged City” (translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter):

“Too old to carry arms and fight like the others –

“they graciously gave me the inferior role of chronicler
I record – I don’t know for whom – the history of the siege”


Anonymous said...

I would add to Zagajewski's list the essays of Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa, witnesses and participants in the slow, painful, and still incomplete birth of freedom in Latin America. The prose of both is beautiful, especially in Spanish.

Anonymous said...

Each writes beautiful prose, best appreciated in the original Spanish, but available in good English translations.