Friday, February 10, 2017

`Ignorance About Those Who Have Disappeared'

Four times in The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press, 2015), Thomas W. Laqueur quotes at length Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision,” one of twelve poems in Report From the Besieged City and Other Poems (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1983) that reanimate Herbert’s poetic stand-in. In 1973, Mr. Cogito made his first appearance in “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito,” and the following year Herbert titled an entire collection Mr Cogito. I’m citing the Carpenter translation. Laqueur quotes the Alissa Valles version in The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (2007).

Laqueur uses the line “particles of matter have been measured” and the subsequent twenty-one lines as the epigraph to Part III of The Work of the Dead. Mr. Cogito is appalled that stars are plotted and named, and yet most of the dead in human history remain anonymous and forgotten: “inexcusable carelessness reigns supreme / the lack of precise information.” Before Chap. 7, Laqueur places the thirty lines beginning “in an aeroplane disaster.” Here, Mr. Cogito treats the matching of bodies with their names as though it were a form of double-entry bookkeeping. Survivors and insurance companies keep the accountants honest:

“we count those who are saved
but the unknown remainder
neither alive
nor definitely dead
is described by a strange term
the missing”

At the start of Chap. 8 we find the twenty-eight lines that begin with “now Mr Cogito / climbs / to the highest tottering / step of indefiniteness.” Herbert wrote the poem during the imposition of martial law in Poland that started in December 1981 and ended in June 1983. On orders from Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, at least one-hundred people were killed and thousands jailed. The final line quoted by Laqueur is translated as “We are our brothers’ keepers” by Valles and as “we are despite everything / the guardians of our brothers” by the Carpenters. Laqueur quotes the line and writes:

“The poet Zbigniew Herbert speaks this time about the moral imperative to know the exact numbers and names of the dead of the great disasters of the past century: `the names of all those who were lost battling inhuman power’—the dead of the Shoah, Stalin’s Great Terror, the Argentinian dirty war, of so many wars and evils. We could know the numbers of the dead that official sources seek to diminish without knowing names: this dead body, and this dead body and this dead body. Sometimes we search for precision when we have neither names nor bodies.”

At the start of Chap. 9, Laqueur quotes the final sixteen lines of Herbert’s poem, beginning “ignorance about those who have disappeared / undermines the reality of the world.” Mr Cogito’s objection to forgetting the dead is not a sentimental indulgence. He is not condemning a lapse in manners. It more closely resembles a metaphysical blunder, a crime against creation. About the undermining of reality that results from “losing” the dead, Laqueur writes: “And knowing who is lost, name by name if possible, remakes it. So does creating an apotheosis of namelessness.” I’m reminded of Geoffrey Hill’s great “September Song,” with its dedicatory epigraph: “born 19.6.32 – deported 24.9.42.” As I wrote in a review of his Selected Poems:

“Hill was born one day earlier than his nameless subject, June 18, 1932. Unimaginable horror is made bureaucratically familiar, like an absent sibling. The victim can’t even be assigned a proper death date, merely a day when the Nazis took her away. Hill has said elsewhere the victim was a girl who died in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. The poem memorializes an anonymous child while acknowledging the moral awkwardness of transmuting a murder into a work of art.”

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