Sunday, August 21, 2016

`I Did Not Emerge from an Alien World'

“An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature. Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand.”

Some will find offense in Thomas Hardy’s sentiment. Too anthropocentric. Not sufficiently respectful of Mother Earth. Of course, some find offense in everything and make a career of nurturing hurt feelings, but there are worse things than being offended (ask the Syrians). Hardy was no cheerleader for humanity, so the passage from his journal dated Sept. 28, 1877 deserves attention. A novelist’s medium is manners and morals. He is concerned in the broadest sense with “an object or mark raised or made by man.” We have evolved to recognize and prize evidence of our fellows. Many years ago while hiking in the Adirondacks, I came upon a beech tree with initials at shoulder height carved into its trunk. I had seen no human evidence, not even a faded trail, for several hours. The old letters, now black with healing, came like a hearty “Hello.”

The first chapter in Zbigniew Herbert’s Barbarian in the Garden (trans. Michael March and Jarosław Anders, 1985), “Lascaux,” is devoted to the poet’s visit to the caves in southwestern France where Paleolithic paintings were discovered in 1940, three months after the fall of France. I was reminded of Herbert’s account by Hardy’s mention of “the print of a hand.” I was mistaken, though, because few handprints were found at Lascaux, and Herbert never mentions them. They are present in caves in Spain and elsewhere. Herbert, on vacation from post-Stalinist Poland, is exhilarated by the cave paintings and their revelation of millennia-old humanity:

“Though I had stared into the `abyss’ of history, I did not emerge from an alien world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity.”

The other day I happened on a book titled The Broken Mirror: A Collection of Writings from Contemporary Poland, edited by Pawel Mayewski and published in 1958 by Random House. Lionel Trilling wrote the introduction. Included is a three-act play, “The Philosopher’s Den,” by Herbert. The date is significant. Stalin had been dead five years. Khrushchev had delivered his “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, the year Herbert published his first book of poems, A Chord of Light, at the age of thirty-two. Perhaps this is the first appearance of his work in English translation. His biography at the back of the book is prescient:

“He is predominantly a philosophical poet, but this applies only to his choice of subject matter; technically, he is a lyricist with a strong feeling for the physical world. He does not hesitate to deal with the grand themes of truth and chaos, or reality and illusion, but he always uses concrete personalized word and images.”

1 comment:

JJ Stickney said...

Thank you for sharing the play info. Some digging to do...