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A Defense of Ardor
By Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2002 Adam Zagajewski
All rights reserved.
A Defense of Ardor
From Lvov to Gliwice, from Gliwice to Krakow, from Krakow to Berlin (for two years); then to Paris, for a long while, and from there to Houston every year for four months; then back to Krakow. My first trip was involuntary, forced by the international treaties that ended World War II. The second was simply the result of an ordinary thirst for education (back then young Poles thought that a good education could be found — if you looked for it — only in ancient Krakow). The impulse behind the third was curiosity about a different, Western world. The fourth was motivated by what we'll discreetly call "reasons of a personal nature." And finally, the fifth (Houston) was spurred both by curiosity (America) and by what might cautiously be termed economic necessity.
For over a hundred years Lvov had been the capital of Galicia, a province of the Hapsburg empire. It combined Western European cultural influences with an openness to Eastern emanations (though the East was certainly less obvious here than in Wilno or even Warsaw). Gliwice was once a provincial Prussian garrison town, with a history reaching back to medieval times. After the Second World War, the three elderly gentlemen ceded it to Poland. In school I learned Russian and Latin; I took private lessons in English and German. My family's — forcible — move from Lvov to Gliwice was symptomatic of a great change. Though it was in fact annexed to the Eastern empire in 1945, my country had paradoxically been shifted westward at the same time: the consequences of this shift would surface only later.
My grandfather was bilingual; Polish was his second language, since he had been raised by his dead mother's German family. But it never even occurred to him to claim volksdeutsche status during the Nazi occupation. As a young man he'd done a doctoral dissertation on Albrecht von Haller, which was written in German and published in Strasburg at the turn of the century.
In Krakow, I sensed the luminescence of all that was best in the Polish tradition: distant recollections of the Renaissance recorded in the architecture and museum exhibits, the liberalism of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, the energy of the interwar period, the influence of the democratic opposition just then coming into being.
The West Berlin of the early eighties struck me as a peculiar synthesis of the old Prussian capital and a frivolous city fascinated by Manhattan and the avant-garde (sometimes I suspected that the local intellectuals and artists treated the wall as yet another invention of Marcel Duchamp). In Paris, I didn't encounter the great minds, the great French arbiters of civilization — I'd come too late for that. But I discovered nonetheless the beauty of one of the few European metropolises to possess the secret of eternal youth (even Baron Haussmann's barbarism hadn't ruined the continuity of the city's life). Finally, at this brief list's conclusion, I came to know Houston, sprawled on a plain, a city without history, a city of evergreen oaks, computers, highways, and crude oil (but also wonderful libraries and a splendid symphony).
After a time I understood that I could draw certain benefits both from the wartime disaster, the loss of my native city, and from my later wanderings — as long as I wasn't too lazy and learned the languages and literatures of my changing addresses. And so here I am, like a passenger on a small submarine that has not one periscope but four. One, the main one, is turned toward my native tradition. The other opens out onto German literature, its poetry, its (bygone) yearning for eternity. The third reveals the landscape of French culture, with its penetrating intelligence and Jansenist moralism. The fourth is aimed at Shakespeare, Keats, and Robert Lowell, the literature of specifics, passion, and conversation.
* * *
One August, the month when Europe relaxes intensively, we spent two weeks in one of its most beautiful landscapes, in Chianti, a part of Tuscany. A concert of chamber music was staged in the courtyard of a certain lordly manor, an eleventh-century monastery that hadn't held monks for centuries and had been transformed into a palace with a lovely garden. The audience for this concert was very distinctive, and consisted, with a few exceptions (one of them being the author of these words), of wealthy people possessing their own palaces, villas, and houses. This international company included a fair number of Englishmen (and also several Englishwomen who had decided for unknown reasons to behave like British clichés), a few Americans, and, of course, some Italians. In other words, the neighbors of the owner of this beautiful estate. Some of them only summered in Tuscany, others were full-time residents. The concert began with one of Mozart's early quartets; the four young women played wonderfully, but the applause was relatively sparse. I was a little annoyed and decided on the spot that it was time for a defense of ardor. Why couldn't the affluent audience appreciate this wonderful performance? Does wealth perhaps diminish our enthusiasm? Why didn't this ardent performance of Mozart meet with an equally ardent reception?
One of my vacation books at the time happened to be Thomas Mann's essays, including, among others, a piece called "Freud and the Future," a text written (and given as a lecture) in the thirties. What connection could there possibly be between the summer response of a rich crowd at a concert and Mann's essay? Perhaps only that I also found a rather summery, ironic attitude at work in Mann, who was searching for a new intellectual orientation while writing Joseph and His Brothers. It goes without saying that Mann's motivation had nothing in common with the blasé audience at an afternoon concert. In the essay, Mann interprets Freud's chief purpose as being something like the work of a sapper in a minefield: we're dealing with explosive materials of great force. Ancient myths conceal immense dangers; they're bombs that must be defused. Of course we need to read Mann's essays in historical perspective, recalling their context. The author of Buddenbrooks saw Nazism and fascism as a return to the energies of the mythic world, to the destructive violence of archaic myths, and hoped to resist this great wave of terror with the soothing substance of humanist irony. But this irony wasn't entirely defenseless, it wasn't simply abstract, "chamber" irony. It too was rooted in myth, but differently; it fostered life without recourse to violence.
Did Thomas Mann finally win? Since today, after all, we hear rather similar tones within the most au courant, postmodern circles. Irony, it's true, has changed its meaning; it's no longer a weapon directed against the barbarism of a primitive system triumphing in the very heart of Europe. It expresses rather a disillusionment with the collapse of utopian expectations, an ideological crisis provoked by the erosion and discrediting of those visions that hoped to replace the traditional metaphysics of religious faith with eschatological political theories. More than one Eastern European poet employed irony as a desperate defense against barbarism — in this case, barbaric communism with its soulless bureaucracy (this time has passed — isn't neocapitalism an adroit ironist?).
But no, Thomas Mann didn't win, it was a different irony. In any case, we find ourselves in a very ironic and skeptical landscape; all my four periscopes reveal a similar image. The last bastions of a more assertive attitude stand guard perhaps only in my homeland.
Some authors flog consumerist society with the aid of irony; others continue to wage war against religion; still others do battle with the bourgeoisie. At times irony expresses something different — our flounderings in a pluralist society. And sometimes it simply conceals intellectual poverty. Since of course irony always comes in handy when we don't know what to do. We'll figure it out later.
Leszek Kolakowski also praised irony in his once-famous essay, "The Priest and the Fool" (1959). It really was famous, and not just in academic circles. It was avidly studied in Warsaw and Prague, in Sophia and Moscow, and probably in East Berlin. Brilliant and profound, it promised a new point of view. It called attention to the ubiquity, albeit in very contemporary disguise, of long-standing theological traditions. The dogmas of the hieratic priest — and every intelligent reader realized he was dealing with a passionate critique of Stalinism — were opposed by the behavior of the fool, quick-witted, shifty as Proteus, mocking a petrified civilization built on doctrine. Even today this essay still retains its freshness and the exceptional force of its reasoning. It marked a vital contribution to the critique of communist civilization; at the same time it arose from the moods of those times. In it we catch echoes of those countless, inspired, hilarious student cabarets that produced, in Gdansk, in Warsaw, in Krakow (and no doubt in other European cities seized by Moscow), a champagne of anti-Soviet humor. We also catch tones close to the "fool's" ontology in poetry (in Szymborska, for example, whose poems of that period should be read in concert with Kolakowski's programmatic essay).
Kolakowski distanced himself from his manifesto — his evolution reveals a growing fascination with theological issues (which had always intrigued him). Philosophy's splendid "technician," the author of Main Currents of Marxism, never ceases to approach faith asymptomatically, as if to say (not being a poet, he'll never just come out and say it) that you can't remain permanently in the fool's position, since its meaning is exhausted by its polemical attitude, its ceaseless needling of powerful opponents.
In a much later essay, "The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture," Kolakowski writes, "A culture that loses its sense of 'sacrum,' loses its sense entirely."
The priest can get by without the fool; but no one's ever spotted a fool in the desert or a forest hermitage. Our epoch, though, that puer aeternus of history — worships perversity. It's no accident that Bakhtin's idea of the "carnival," the revolt against hierarchy, appeals so strongly to professors of literature.
In a section of The Dehumanization of Art eloquently entitled "Doomed to Irony," Ortega y Gasset points to the ironic character of twentieth-century avant-garde culture, its violent aversion to pathos and sublimity: "[T]his inevitable dash of irony ... imparts to modern art a monotony which must exasperate patience itself."
Too long a stay in the world of irony and doubt awakens in us a yearning for different, more nutritious fare. We may get the urge to reread Diotima's classic speech in Plato's Symposium, the speech on the vertical wanderings of love. But it may also happen that an American student hearing this speech for the first time will say, "But Plato's such a sexist." Another student will note, on reading the first stanza of Hölderlin's "Bread and Wine," that in our great cities today we can't experience true darkness, true dusk, since our lamps, computers, and energies never shut down — as if he didn't want to see what really matters here, the transition from the day's frenzy to the meditation offered us by night, that "foreigner."
We're left with the impression that the present day favors only one stage of a certain ageless, endless journey. This journey is best described by a concept borrowed from Plato, metaxu, being "in between," in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery. Metaxu defines the situation of the human, a being who is incurably "en route." Simone Weil and Eric Voegelin (thinkers who loathed totalitarianism and from whom I first learned about Plato's metaxu) both drew upon this concept, albeit somewhat differently. Voegelin even made it one of the key points of his anthropology.
We'll never manage, after all, to settle permanently in transcendence once and for all. We'll never even fully learn its meaning. Diotima rightly urges us toward the beautiful, toward higher things, but no one will ever take up residence for good in alpine peaks, no one can pitch his tents there for long, no one will build a home on the eternal snows. We'll head back down daily (if only to sleep ... since night has two faces. It is a "foreigner" summoning us to meditation, but it's also a time of absolute indifference, of sleep, and sleep demands that ecstasy be utterly extinguished). We'll always return to the quotidian: after experiencing an epiphany, writing a poem, we'll go to the kitchen and decide what to have for dinner; then we'll open the envelope holding the telephone bill. We'll move continuously from inspired Plato to sensible Aristotle ... And this is as it should be, since otherwise lunacy lies in wait above and boredom down below.
We're always "in between" and our constant motion always betrays the other side in some way. Immersed in the quotidian, in the commonplace routines of practical life, we forget about transcendence. While edging toward divinity, we neglect the ordinary, the concrete, the specific, we turn our backs on the pebble that is the subject of Herbert's splendid poem, his hymn to stony, serene, sovereign presence.
But the connections between high and low are complex. Let's take a look at one of Chardin's still lifes, perhaps his beautiful Still Life with Plums, which hangs in the Frick Collection in New York: what we'll see is apparently only a tumbler made of thick glass, some gleaming enamelware, a plate, and a bulging bottle. Through them, though, we'll come to love singular, specific things. Why? Because they exist, they're indifferent, that is to say, incorruptible. We'll learn to value objectivity, faithful depictions, accurate accounts — in an age so adept at exploiting falsehoods, particularly in Central Europe.
Metaxu is something more than the state of being suspended between earth and heaven. For those who try to think and write, this category also holds a vital, double-edged warning. Since we can come to rest neither on the heights nor on the ground, we must keep close watch on our own selves and — if we seek a higher reality — guard against the rhetoric to which some pious persons fall prey. Religiosity may sometimes lead to insufferable self-assurance and thus produces, in a purely psychological (and linguistic) sense, the pompous cant to be heard in certain houses of worship. Although perhaps we shouldn't exaggerate. This is how the poet and philosopher Kathleen Raine deals with such accusations in her autobiographical book The Land Unknown: "Current morés have led to an increasingly radical overturning of the norms that dictate what should be said and what is best left unspoken. We think that admitting to base thoughts and deeds is more 'sincere,' hence more honest, than staying true to those perceptions that surface only when we step outside our ordinary 'I.' Bringing up visions of lofty, beautiful things is considered hypocritical self-glorification."
Wasn't Benedetto Croce also right in the talk he gave at Oxford in 1933, "The Defense of Poetry," when he commented that critics "are gifted with a strange immunity that permits them to spend a lifetime dealing with volumes of poetry, publishing them, appending footnotes, discussing various interpretations, studying sources, tracking down biographical information without the slightest risk of becoming personally infected with poetic fire"? He says something similar about priests: "[B]oth great minds and extremely simple people feel the call of religion, but not those who handle sacred vessels, not the priests and sacristans, who perform their rituals indifferently and at times without a trace of respect" (but not all priests surely!).
On the other hand, it's easy to "freeze" into irony and into a daily existence lived reflexively. This, I think, is the real danger of our historical moment, and not priestly pride (though we shouldn't overlook the dangers of religious fundamentalism). Moreover — though I may not be a neutral bystander here — ardor and irony are not symmetrically comparable. Only ardor is a primary building block in our literary constructions. Irony is, of course, indispensable, but it comes later, it is the "eternal fine-tuner," as Norwid called it; it is more like the windows and doors without which our buildings would be solid monuments, not habitable spaces. Irony knocks very useful holes into our walls, but without walls, it could perforate only nothingness.
We've learned to value things because they exist. In an age of lunatic ideologies, utopian nonsense, things endured in their small but stubborn dignity. This isn't all: we've also learned to value things because everything linked to them is distinct, sharp, definite. There's no haziness, no rhetoric, no excess. Since even Diotima from the Symposium may in her rapture veer off at any moment in the direction of pathos and — who knows — she may embarrass us. Our theologians — don't they eagerly abandon our sober shores, the territory where we can still follow them? Our Romantic poets, didn't they go a bit too far?
Excerpted from A Defense of Ardor by Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh. Copyright © 2002 Adam Zagajewski. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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