Sunday, April 29, 2018

`One Must Exercise Good Will'

Halik Kochanski in The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War (Harvard University Press, 2012)

“The Second World War left Poland devastated. Around 6,000,000 Poles had died during the conflict, 20 per-cent of the pre-war population; only about a tenth as a result of military action. The deaths of the remainder bore testament to the brutality of the German occupation from 1939 to 1945 and to the Soviet occupations from 1939 to 1941 and from 1944 to 1945. Of the dead, half were Polish Jews, representing approximately 90 per-cent of the pre-war Jewish population of Poland.”

Any reader hoping to understand the abattoir that was the twentieth century will profit from Kochanski’s work. The epicenter of evil is forever shifting, but Poland has been a frequent host. The American poet Larry Levis served as Zbigniew Herbert’s chauffeur when the Polish poet taught at UCLA in 1970-71 and describes his experience in “Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles.” Levis’ Herbert is modest, thoughtful, indelibly European, cultured, a bemused alien in the Southern California of Charles Manson and the Eagles. It’s touching to know Herbert (who never learned to drive) and his wife Katrina bought a 1960 Ford Fairlane in Los Angeles, and chilling when the poet remembers the only time he drove an automobile:

“`It was after a meeting of the Underground. The boy who drove for me was waiting in the car. But dead. The Nazis shot him. Just one shot, a style they had. I came out later . . . I saw him. I had to learn fast. I pushed the boy over to other side of car seat. I drove. Just one time. With the dead boy beside me. I drove.’”

Like Kochanski (and Solzhenitsyn, and Wat, and Tadeusz Borowski, and the Mandelstams, and others), Herbert is essential reading. Human nature does not change and we need all the documentation available. The notion of moral progress, and the complacency it breeds, is a dangerous myth. Months before he died in July 1998, Herbert responded to a questionnaire from the editors of the Catholic journal Znak (Sign). [“Evil,” trans. Alissa Valles, is included in The Collected Prose: 1948-1998, 2010] As a boy, Herbert writes, “I went on living without any metaphysical conflict over the fact that both evil and good exist in the world, battling each other; to me it wasn’t a scandal or a paradox, or a painful absurdity, or something that attacks the very essence of God, His omnipotence.”

Herbert emphasizes the importance of “choosing.” A person who complains about difficult choices is feigning “an intellectual malaise,” he writes, “while in fact he lacks character, the ability to make a moral choice according to one’s moral being.” Herbert has no patience for sophistry: “there is no need to go on about it or write fat tomes; one must exercise good will, for that way we spare ourselves and our neighbors much suffering.”

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