Saturday, July 07, 2018

'One of the Greatest Experiences of My Life'

When we delivered our son to the United States Naval Academy last week, he was in the middle of reading St. Augustine’s City of God in Henry Bettenson’s translation, the one I read when it was first published in 1972. He made me promise to mark the page where he left off and keep the chunky Penguin on his nightstand at home. Plebes are permitted to bring only one book with them to the Academy, the Bible or other sacred text. Michael chose a pocket-sized edition of the King James and joked about wanting to bring a copy of the Mishnah because it was longer (c. 1,200 pages). Like any American kid (he turned eighteen on July 1, at the Academy), he’s accustomed to finding and reading any book he wishes, and we're fortunate to be so spoiled. While Michael faces bigger challenges this summer, limited quantities of reading material is not a negligible loss.

Michael hasn’t yet read Proust but he has read Machiavelli, The Prince and Discourses on Livy. Aleksander Wat’s My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual was translated in 1988 by Richard Lourie from transcripts of conversations Wat had late in life with Czesław Miłosz. As a young man Wat became a Communist. After fleeing the Nazis he was arrested by the Soviets and spent more than two years in various jails and prisons in Poland and the Soviet Union, and eventually was exiled to Kazakhstan. Wat was a Jew who converted to Catholicism. During his confinement in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, Wat read the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, St. Augustine and other church fathers, and said:

“. . . the books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.”

It was Augustine, after all, who obeyed the voice instructing him to tolle lege, “take and read.” Wat reads the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and an anthology of Machiavelli’s works. He writes of that experience:
“It would be an exaggeration to say that reading Machiavelli in Lubyanka cured me of the hatred and disgust for politics I had acquired in Zamarstynów. That still comes back in me to this day and sometimes literally chokes me and makes me stammer; to write on political subjects is torture for me, but I was always doomed to have to speak my piece. The power and the glory of reading come from those moments of illumination, when it clarifies the obscure, when it breaks things into their parts, but it is powerless against strong feelings. Once strong feelings have taken root in us, reading can only influence the direction they grow in, inhibiting or enhancing them, raising them to a higher level. Reading Machiavelli restored my equilibrium; I regained my sense of proportion and distinction, albeit sporadically—and what more could I have asked for? I learned to distinguish between politics as collective fate and as political instrument. Machiavelli showed me politics against a different sky, against stars that could not be seen from prison.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

Stuck as I am in the hospital these past two weeks, and as i await my own son's arrival tomorrow, this picture of father and son touched a nerve. The very bedrock of society is good parenting.