Thursday, January 27, 2022

'The Arithmetic of Compassion'

In the ninth stanza of “Mr. Cogito Reads the Newspaper,” Zbigniew Herbert writes: 

“they don’t speak to the imagination

there are too many of them

the numeral zero at the end

changes them into an abstraction”


Herbert refers to the death of 120 soldiers in an unnamed war – by twentieth-century standards, journalistically insignificant, hardly worth a mention and only below the fold. The translators from the Polish are John and Bogdana Carpenter (Mr. Cogito, 1993). In her translation in The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 (2007), Alissa Valles changes one word:


“they don’t speak to the imagination

there are too many of them

the numeral zero on the end

turns them into an abstraction”


As usual, Herbert writes with cool irony, never breaking character, refusing the temptation to sentimentalize or preach. His poem shares journalism’s proclaimed objectivity but not its trivializing or sentimentality. The poem’s closing lines sound distinctly – that is, ironically – academic, as though posed as a classroom assignment. Readers naïve about human nature should be cautious: they might be triggered. The Carpenters’ version:


“a subject for meditation:

the arithmetic of compassion”


And Valles’:


“a theme for further reflection:

the arithmetic of compassion”


The poem this time reminds me of the grim quip usually attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” I’ve quoted it as such myself. The words fit our understanding of the man and his thugs. The Quote Investigator is skeptical. Interestingly, the line has also been (mis-)attributed to Adolf Eichmann.


Robert Conquest attributes a corollary sentiment to Stalin: “Death solves all problems; no man, no problem.” Again, provenance uncertain. In The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968; rev. 1990), Conquest writes: “We get a figure of 20 million dead [directly on Stalin's orders, not counting war dead], which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so.” Few deny that Stalin, his precursors and successors killed a lot of innocent people. Our distance from them in time and space makes it easy to reduce their deaths to entries on a spread sheet, while a murder down the block is a “tragedy”: “the arithmetic of compassion.”


Richard Zuelch said...

Because I know virtually nothing about poetry, I've decided to read "A History of English Prosody" by George Saintsbury; 3 volumes; reprint (New York: Russell & Russell, 1961). It's a reprint of the second edition (1923). The first edition was published in 1908. In his Preface, Saintsbury expresses surprise that a second edition would be called for in his lifetime, thus giving him the opportunity to overhaul the text lightly.

Saintsbury (1845-1933) is a favorite of mine, so I'm looking forward to reading and learning. Terry Teachout once remarked that he was "intrigued" by Saintsbury.

Thomas Parker said...

Chaplin said something like it in Monsieur Verdoux: "One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow."