Tuesday, February 05, 2019

'Hope Is the Mother of the Stupid'

As I read Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski (New York Review Books, 2018) by Eric Karpeles, I think again about Zbigniew Herbert, the Polish poet who for some of us serves as a spirit guide. The Poles knew each other. Herbert dedicated one of his essays in Barbarian in the Garden, “Memories of Valois,” to Czapski. Karpeles quotes from it in his introduction to illustrate his own reaction to standing in front of a painting by Czapski:

“I understood immediately, though it is hard to explain rationally, something very important had happened: something far more important than an accidental encounter . . . How to describe this inner state? A suddenly awakened intense curiosity, sharp concentration with the senses alarmed, hope for an adventure and consent to be dazzled. I experienced an almost physical sensation as if someone called me, summoned me.”

That’s my reaction to Herbert’s poetry and prose. With Dante, Montale and Cavafy, he is the foreign-language poet I most often read. I respect his gravitas and sense of humor. His work is infused with history. In Poland he is respected as a poet, yes, but also as a moral exemplar, as is Czapski. He refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Communists. Herbert writes in “The Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito” (trans. Alissa Valles):

       I thank You for creating the world beautiful and various

       “and for allowing me in Your fathomless goodness to visit places which
were not the sites of my daily torments”

He is referring to his travels in the West. To a man living behind the Iron Curtain, visiting the museums of Europe was a sort of pilgrimage, which he described in Barbarian in the Garden. Here is a portion of a 1984 interview Herbert gave to two of his American translators, John and Bogdana Carpenter, in the wake of Jarugelski’s neo-Stalinist crackdown and the rise of Solidarity:

Q: “You are a pessimist?”

A: “I don’t agree. I am not an optimist either. Rather, I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was long ago.”

Q: “What is the main reason why you write?”

A: “Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must teach men soberness: to be awake. [Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is a cleanser, from desire, from hope. `Hope is the mother of the stupid.’ [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.”

Q: “Do you believe this system will last forever?”

A: “This system will fall apart. It might last twenty to thirty years longer. I am there, not! A despairing soldier fights better. . . .”

[Anecdotal Evidence started on this date, Feb. 5, in 2006, and has been updated daily ever since. Thanks to all my readers.]

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