Wednesday, July 27, 2016

`A Faint-Hearted Formula for Happiness'

In the library I found a copy of Parnassus, Vol. 24, No. 1, from 1999. As with any randomly chosen literary journal, it contains much rubbish, trendy and unreadable, but also good work – a review and poems by Eric Ormsby, an essay on epigrams by David Barber and one on William McGonagall by Thomas Disch. Also, a prose piece by Zbigniew Herbert, “Securitas,” translated from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter, who call it a “fable.” It was collected in The King of the Ants: Mythological Essays (Ecco Press, 1990). Herbert dances along a narrow line. Readers who fear the horrors of the “prose poem” can relax. His prose, in translation, is free of fog and filigree. “Poetic” effects are banished. “Securitas” is no cheap allegory awaiting decryption. Herbert keeps things light and drily comic, more Mozart than Mahler. The nearest cognates are the parables in Kafka’s notebooks. The Carpenters call Herbert’s form “a twentieth-century philosophical parable.”  

In “Securitas,” the Romans “at the beginning of the Empire” conceive a new deity, and soon all the predictable human squabbling, theological and otherwise, takes over. One thinks of Poland and the years of Nazi and Communist rule, the competing demands of security and personal liberty, and the way totalitarian regimes assert the primacy of one over the other. Meanings ripple outward from the central image. Here, Herbert looks at Schadenfreude, that universal human quality:

“The victims of Securitas--more precisely, the half-eaten victims--avoided speaking about her. Why should they? The few who had the courage to make their revelations public met with disbelief and a sense of distaste. The conviction is very strong that the misfortune of another reduces, in a way empties, the reservoir of bad fate--that another's bad luck protects us and increases our chances of survival. This salutary illusion always wins over the simple logic of facts. It will be this way forever.”

Securitas, Herbert tells us, “avoided pomp, ostentation, even publicity. She was severe, and content to have faceless executors.” History concurs. Herbert weighs what to call them, and settles on “attendants,” a word in English that hints at servility without announcing it:

“The Attendants wait in vain for their Proust. Great art is slow in paying them due justice or crowning their labors. These were countless. Rapt attention, speeding up or slowing down of the pace, sudden turns and pirouettes in a metropolitan ballet, floors, corridors, straining of memory, patient standing at street corners, empty hours in a cafe with a newspaper read many times over, fitting proofs of guilt together from overheard whispers, bits and snatches of conversation, papers, even from the flies on the ceiling. But these were not reflected, with a hundredfold echo, in any long roman fleuve, figurative painting, or opera.”

The smooth deployment of irony is bracing, like smelling salts. Herbert gives it to us straight: “Securitas puts us face to face with the cruel alternative: either security or freedom. TERTIUM NON DATUR.” The Latin, literally, means “third is not given”; figuratively, “there is no third option” or “there is no alternative.” For the powers that be, as Herbert knew them, it’s a binary choice. One is reminded of those aging former Soviet citizens who, in the early years of glasnost, yearned for the golden days of Stalin.

This Thursday marks eighteen years since Herbert’s death in Warsaw at the age of seventy-three. Like Montale and Cavafy, he remains one the twentieth-century’s partisans for civilization who celebrate our ever-threatened inheritance. He closes his fable bluntly: “Security, what is security? A faint-hearted formula for happiness. Life without struggle.”

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