Saturday, January 11, 2020

'The Cicerone in the Age of Moral Chaos'

I should have known cicerone. I’ve seen it before and lazily figured it was rooted in the Roman orator’s name, but never pursued it. The OED confirms my hunch and defines it like this: “A guide who shows and explains the antiquities or curiosities of a place to strangers.” What a wonderful job description. Nigel Andrew is a cicerone when it comes to English church monuments and English poetry. I’ve long thought of Guy Davenport as my cicerone, and others, including Zbigniew Herbert and Simon Leys, have periodically filled the same position. The Dictionary tells us the word is “supposed to refer to [Cicero’s] learning or eloquence. Compare the use of mentor.” Now there’s a word debased into meaninglessness.  

I came upon cicerone in an essay by Jerzy Jarniewicz about Herbert in the journal Areté: “The highly selective ‘official’ narratives of his life correspond with the role he assumed and enjoyed playing – that of the cicerone in the age of moral chaos, the moral conscience, the nation’s spokesman, the witness to history.”

Jarniewicz writes, in part, about Andrzej Franaszek’s Herbert: Biografia, a two-volume work published in Polish in 2018 and not yet translated into English. In Poland, Herbert is a national hero. When I visited Kraków in 2012, the image I saw most often in murals and on posters after Pope John II’s was Herbert’s. In his poems and essays, Herbert finds a home in the historical past denied him by Hitler and Stalin. One could glean the start of a fine education pursuing Herbert’s allusions to Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza and other luminaries of Western Civilization. His Collected Prose 1948-1998 (2010) is edited and partially translated by Alissa Valles, who in 2007 did the same for Herbert’s The Collected Poems 1956-1998. In “Animula,” an essay originally published in the posthumous A Labyrinth by the Sea (2002), Herbert writes:

“I always wished I would never lose the belief that great works of the spirit are more objective than we are. And that they will judge us. Someone very rightly said that not only do we read Homer, look at frescoes of Giotto, listen to Mozart, but Homer, Giotto, and Mozart spy and eavesdrop on us and ascertain our vanity and stupidity. Poor utopians, history’s debutants, museum arsonists, liquidators of the past are like those madmen who destroy works of art because they cannot forgive them their serenity, dignity, and cool radiance.”

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