Through the Poet's Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky

Overview

Though best known as poets, Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), and Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) wrote some of the most original prose of this century. These East European poets capture tales of their travels in prose writing that demonstrates the link between works of art, the epiphanic responses these works produce, and the reality of travel. Shallcross's exploration of their journeys creates a testimony connecting them ...

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Overview

Though best known as poets, Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), and Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) wrote some of the most original prose of this century. These East European poets capture tales of their travels in prose writing that demonstrates the link between works of art, the epiphanic responses these works produce, and the reality of travel. Shallcross's exploration of their journeys creates a testimony connecting them each in his own way to the stream of European culture as a whole.

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, has lived in Kraków since 1931. In the late sixties, she began to write about books that had caught her eye, books like "The Enigmatic Lemming," "Accidents in the Home," and "The Historical Development of Clothing." These short pieces, collected in Nonrequired Reading translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, skitter over Szymborskan topics like bodybuilding, archeology, and the lottery of existence while referring, usually obliquely, to oppression and deprivation. Writing about a book called "Wallpapering Your Home," she observes, "Hobbies in their Polish variant are pastimes taken up not voluntarily, but by necessity," and then chronicles the setbacks and delays that thwart do-it-yourself projects under totalitarian regimes. Szymborska's deadpan sketches are whimsical and menacing; like her poems, they remind us that we spend our lives "a hairsbreadth from / an unfortunate coincidence."

If political conditions in Eastern Europe during the late sixties were bad for home improvement, they were good for literature. A scholarly study by Bozena Shallcross, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, examines the effect of Communist restrictions on travel on three other poets: Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert, and Joseph Brodsky. Through the Poet's Eye looks at the prose produced by the poets' epiphanic encounters with Western art. In front of Vermeer's "Girl Interrupted at Her Music," which hangs at the Frick, Zagajewski pulls up short. "All of a sudden," he writes, "I felt how reality stopped for an instant and froze in harmonious motionlessness. (Dana Goodyear)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810125926
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 2/20/2009
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 212
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.10 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi
Introduction xiii
Part 1 Adam Zagajewski
1 Site Reading 5
2 Epiphany in Blue 19
Part 2 Zbigniew Herbert
3 View with a Wayfarer 43
4 Passage to Rapture 63
5 Images of Darkness 85
Part 3 Joseph Brodsky
6 Strategies of Disappearance 103
7 Empty Mirror 123
Afterword 141
Notes 145
Works Cited 169
Index 181
Acknowledgments 191
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First Chapter

Travel Schemes of a Flâneur



During the turbulent 80s, when the initially triumphant Solidarity labor union was crushed, and with it the hope of a nation struggling under the yoke of communism, it would seem natural for Polish writers to respond directly to the plight of their country. Many did, and did so forthrightly, while others, the poet Adam Zagajewski among them, were torn between two contradictory impulses: unanimity with a society in which he had roots and an unfettered solitude elsewhere. Zagajewski made his choice: his solitary position was a condition necessary for creation, and in 1981 he went to Paris.

Yet the desire not to participate must have been difficult for the poet, particularly in light of a Polish poetry burdened with the Romantic myth of artist as noble flag-bearer. The dilemma of political activism (the Deed) versus creativity (the Word) was shared by most Polish Romantics, and was acutely felt by Adam Mickiewicz whose choices frequently indicated a total incompatibility of these two options.i Similarly, Zagajewski- once a member of the New Wave movement,ii became reticent in the early 80's, although he wrote essays, most notably Solidarity, Solitude. He also recognized his own desire to escape responsibilities imposed by a society's misfortune in order to enter what he found to be much more personally rewarding: the epiphanic world of art. The critic Adam Kirsch characterizes this domain as his "zone of solitude" and points to Solidarity, Solitude as the turning point in his development.iii In this respect, it is hard not to agree with Kirsch's evaluation of this volume, which almost in its entirety, pays tribute to history as it pertains to a certain collective thinking, with one notable exception of "Flamenco," an essay which takes as its premise a solitary union with art.

This is not to suggest that Zagajewski in "Flamenco" advocates any misanthropic estrangement from the demands of society and history, but simply that he searches for a different path for individual expression. Precisely because of this essay's crucial role in Zagajewski's growth as a thinker, Kirsch's further argument that a separation of "things not conditioned by history" according to what genre the poet writes in ultimately falls short.iv To be sure, Zagajewski neither consigns his defiance of history solely to verse, nor does he limit his essays thematically to deliberations on politics and society. Instead, what can be stated about his stratagem, which deliberately mixes genres and topics, is far more complex.v In his essays, the opposition between history and the self on the one hand, and revelation and the quotidian on the other, are not treated from the point of view of aesthetic escapism. His method-particularly evident in his most recent book-length essay, entitled Other Beauty-is represented through a deft interweaving of such disparate elements as memoir, art criticism, autobiographical sketch, and aphorisms with patches of poetic diary stitched in. A new sense of mission and solitude that it evokes I shall discuss later in this chapter.

Other Beauty insistently attests the author's complete withdrawal from partaking in any political activity, which for him clearly belongs to the concerns of the past. Zagajewski does not repudiate whatever efforts he brought to bear in using his art to engage in political causes, but he redirects its tenets towards a different challenge. In fact, his expression of a new sense of belonging to the community of man is one of the new directions and responsibilities he uses in his search for a totality (calosc). Although the volume extensively explores the private and the familiar territory of the narrator's past, it also speaks of his inner struggle to reach out to the world of beauty created by others. This act, balancing the writer's spiritual pursuit, evokes transcendence on a small intimate scale and comes nearer to the ineffable transcendence of God.vi As a milestone in his development, Zagajewski's most recent volume of essays harks back to "Flamenco," the first recording of an illumination in Zagajewski's prose writing, an illumination achieved in large part as a result of his observing Vermeer's "other" pictorial beauty. Even the title of the volume-W cudzym pieknievii-speaks of its author's dialogic project and his absorption of the world's cultural heritage. Czeslaw Milosz was the first to notice Zagajewski's natural capacity to resist cultural deprivation,viii which was an almost inevitable fate for generations of Poles who grew up under the communist regime and were shaped by its uniform system of education and propaganda. Years later, in his brief note on Other Beauty, Milosz observes that the poet's development directed him to embrace a new type of involvement:

As a poet and as an essayist, Zagajewski has the feeling of partaking in something huge, that is, in the constantly growing region of the executed works, in which the emotions, thoughts, and experience of mankind are preserved. His self-conscious passivity, that is, an action of absorption (emphasis mine, BS) gradually broadens from Gliwice and Cracow to the landscapes, architecture, and painting of Italy and France.ix

In the act of contemplation, the poet accepts as a primary value the enriching presence of works of art which he encountered in various parts of the world. Zagajewski's receptiveness in embracing other cultures-inasmuch as that culture through the hands and eyes of an artist is represented by works of art-has rather distinct ramifications for his earlier work, his poem "W cudzym pieknie" ("Other Beauty") providing a clear example.x

What separates Zagajewski from many other writers who follow the same path of solitary reflection is his attachment to the visual aspects of his passages. In order to emphasize the pensive nature of his strolls, I would claim-by redefining Montaigne's distinction between the passage and the essence-that Zagajewski treats his passages as the means of reaching the essence of reality. This insight, as we shall see in the chapter to come, is sometimes associated with his epiphanic rapture.

Like Brodsky and Herbert before him, Zagajewski is an avid walker. As a boy in the small town of Gliwice, to his days as a student in Cracow-a particularly picturesque city which welcomes solitary strollers-Zagajewski has never outgrown the habit, more precisely, the need to explore the world, for the better part on foot, forsaking almost all other means of conveyance. Yet, as his essays give ample proof, the writer does not solely subordinate himself to impressions inspired by the environment alone, but is selective, striking a balance between the experience of his physical sensations and the inner ruminations they induce. In this manner, Zagajewski, in his role as wayfarer, never seems to lose himself in Dante's dark wood.

By comparison, Herbert cultivates a more casual approach to his site-readings: at the outset, he is more prone to simply "loaf around"xi without engaging in any pre-arranged plan. Only later, moved by either time or his mood, does he actively visit same place of interest in a highly methodical and purposeful way.xii Brodsky, the third poet in our constellation, represents yet another approach, immersing himself totally in his environs, as if he were its organic and mobile part, a curiously benign eye that absorbs all that it sees. For all their differences, however, these three peregrinators share one element: their solitary wanderings are a deliberately chosen form of meditation, which belongs to the literary and philosophical tradition spanning from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Walter Benjamin.

The relationship of movement, i.e. the physical act of walking and how it stimulates the imagination, prompts me to examine what conditions Zagajewski's insight gained on the road, as it were, and how it is articulated. Let us then take a look at the origin of the image of a flâneur, which-as he states in Other Beauty-goes back to the 60s. During this period, Zagajewski, a philosophy student at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, began to indulge in long solitary strolls within the city and its environs. The essay abounds in the information on what strikes him as pertinent to his own growth as an artist and encompasses both the banal and the sublime, the dreamy and the beautiful-the extremes which he finds best exemplified in one passage through Cracow.

As though exasperated by the city's ambivalence, he writes: "This city is beautiful. This city is not beautiful."xiii Other Beauty, which follows the mental meanderings of its writer as he peruses Cracow's familiar cobblestone streets, is in this respect as revealing and elevated a portrait of a city, of its genius loci, as were Leopold Bloom's ruminations of his native Dublin. In his essay, Zagajewski takes us through a concentration of largely neglected architectural masterworks confined within medieval walls. A sense of order prevails in the city's Magdeburg type of urban planning. Since its rigid symmetry was altered only partially at the end of the 19th century, Cracow has maintained a coherent structure, which gives Zagajewski, the flâneur, a sensation of totality:

The narrow medieval streets leading to the Renaissance market, the shifting perspectives, the nervous rhythm of the rooftops: all joined to form the blood vessels of a living, organic system. (OB 68)

Given its cramped space, picturesque plazas, and winding lanes, the city is indeed particularly conducive to pedestrian traffic. And as Zagajewski attests, there is much to see and delight in; from the narrow-shouldered 17th-century buildings decorated with polychrome motifs, to the scenic outskirts and furthest point, Kosciuszko Mound, Zagajewski is there to guide us every step of the way:

From Kazimierz I set off for the Church of Saint Catherine; I turned up on narrow Skaleczna Street towards the Church on the Rock, before which one caught sight of an ancient wall surrounding one of Kraków many monastic gardens ... ; then I walked along the dark, captive Vistula towards Salwator. I crossed the uglier, Austrian part of Wawel Castle beneath Franz Joseph's dark brown barracks and passed the student boathouse; the Norbertine convent rose in front of me, with its gentle Toscan silhouette. Once I got as far up as the convent, I turned right and headed down a path along the Rudawa, steering left of the august hill of Gontyna. ... Right after that came my favorite path and I set out toward the Kosciuszko Mound. (OB 75)

This was the poet's route for years, taking him through the most visually pleasing parts of Cracow to the green summit of the hill that offered an unobstructed panoramic view of the city. The two perspectives, from within and without,xiv provide him with an opposing range of thought, and when combined, result in the complete optic knowledge of the city and add to his sense of wholeness. The alternating changes in vantage point from the city seen up-close to the city observed from afar has an undeniable effect on his aesthetic pleasure and the limits of his cognition.

An instructive example in just how Zagajewski plays off these two points of view and, subsequently, evaluates their resulting images is given in the passage of the book regarding his visit to the Franciscan Church; its Gothic walls are decorated with Art Nouveau stained-glass windows by Stanislaw Wyspianski. Commenting on the main piece in the series, the multi-colored window entitled "God Father-Come Forth!" (OB 144). Zagajewski examines that impact his vantage point has on his perception of this work of art. As he approaches the masterpiece created at the end of the 19th century, his perception of the stained glass-window changes accordingly. From the nearly abstract configuration of bright colors reminiscent of a tree, the shape seems to shift as he draws closer, turning into a bird, then shifts again, settling at last into a fantastic figure who appears to be delivering a speech (OB 194-196).

As in a Rorschach test, the writer reads various images into one obscure configuration of forms. The conclusion is irrefutable: Zagajewski's understanding of the image depends on the distance between himself and the work as he observes it. In order to achieve a clear vision of this complex configuration with its confusion of flame-like lines, the beholder cannot be too close or too far away from it. The work's fluid form, not at all immediately discernible, offers a clear image of itself only when one stands in the right spot, just a few feet away. There, the image exerts its powerful pull and cannot be mistaken for any other image. Thus the viewing of Wyspianski's stained glass-window permits the narrator to apprehend the phenomenon of a parallax view, which can show an object in various guises, and, depending on the location of its beholder fools the eye.

Is this study a lesson in relativism or agnosticism? Certainly, Zagajewski is indifferent to the ramifications of either category. Instead, he uses the peculiarities of his vision to broaden his optic knowledge, which, in turn, allows him to grasp the multidimensional aspect, or the whole of an object. This faculty is necessary to his absorption of a work of art, and in addition, he initiates a certain active-passive stance, whose near mystical characteristics serves to underpin his contemplation. Thus this parallax vision coalesces with his idea of totality, which is also central to his thinking. Reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke's Weltinnenraum, Zagajewski's sensation of unity as the overcoming of dramatic dichotomies present in life and the world, may unexpectedly occur to him during a university lecture, a solitary walk, or, most obviously, in those moments that he quietly reflects on the nature of art itself.

A Classifier versus an Accidentalist

Topography displays no favorites; North's as near West.

More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.

- Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop's belief that "topography displays no favorites"xv would hardly find a proponent in Zagajewski. For him, topography and one's perspective go hand in glove as if locale or one's point of departure and return exist only in one's subjective consciousness. His essayistic topography is a map of his past fascinations, an ever-expanding territory which he gladly visits again and again, less for nostalgic reasons than to find its new aspects and explore its deeper meanings.

Nothing better illustrates this interrelationship than his choice of perspective; a bird's-eye view which embraces the whole and marginalizes the particular. This preference for the overall view we have already witnessed in his observation of Cracow and its environs from the heights of the Kosciuszko Mound. It is a choice that gains more significance (and grandeur) when it is supported by his poetry. "Before me, Cracow in a grayish dale," he writes at the start of his early poem "A View of Cracow" (T 78). Another earlier poem "A View of Delft"-an ekphrasis of Vermeer van Delft's well-known canvasxvi-also testifies to the appeal that the representation of unobstructed urban panoramas has on him.

A bird's eye-view reveals the city's petty secrets, secrets that would be difficult to detect from street level. The view from above resembles a confession, the town admits its venial sins—but not its true, cardinal misdeeds, you have to look elsewhere, in memory and forgetting. (OB 15)

This type of access to reality's more obscure aspects ascertained from the vintage point from the above implies a position of authority, if not supremacy in face of the object of observation. As the narrator considers his cognitive privileges from on high, as it were, he is simultaneously challenging the assumptions granted to a wayfarer. Furthermore, as Elzbieta Kislak observes, the view from above serves as a means of obliterating history whose visible traces are more apparent at close range.xvii

In his obsessive search for the total meaning offered by the encompassing view, the narrator may occasionally leave the realm of art and culture for nature. In his essays included in Two Cities, Zagajewski uses two diametrically opposed figures and their respective philosophies to address the phenomenon of nature. One of these figures is an accidentalist who observes reality from above and afar. This figure, a somewhat disoriented political immigrant from East Europe, narrating title essay "Two Cities," struggles to understand better this new, unfamiliar civilization west of the Vistula. Certain experiences he endures have their counterpart in Zagajewski's own life as he had lived it in the 80s. Unlike the traveler who is central to the essay Other Beauty, the accidentalist, as I name him, is not his alter ego. The other figure, whom for my purposes I regard as a classifier, observes reality through a microscopic lens. In "Essentialist in Paris," Zagajewski gives this role to the prominent man of letters Ernst Jünger. The methodical mind of this German writer strictly classifies the complex whole of the world according to a scientific system. Both characters represent completely different approaches and, by implication, their opposing ontologies: the accidentalist, gravitates towards the absurd, while the second, the classifier, is drawn toward a more ambitious and inclusive encounter with the whole universe that is reminiscent of Theillard de Chardin's tenets, inasmuch as it is structured and collated systematically.

Zagajewski's manipulation of these two contrary figures and their antipodal approaches-approaches that nevertheless co-exist within the same collection of essays-goes beyond simple summation of their obvious differences. Rather, the author scrutinizes in depth both the deficiencies and the strengths of these two cognitive methods and does it for a reason. For him, what is important is the question of whether their synthesis is at all plausible. Synthesis, totality, wholeness, entirety-Zagajewski employs all those terms repeatedly to connote the sense of unity that is fundamental to his thinking. Their roles reflect the same dilemma, albeit on the higher level; that is suggested in my analysis of two contradictory points of view.

Zagajewski's preference for the overall view, such as that from an airplane where vast vistas virtually swallow what can hardly be discerned by the naked eye, is evidenced in this passage:

I have been living in the West for a few years now. I am constantly invited to congresses, conferences, and lectures. When flying, I always try to get a place by the window and I look greedily—I cannot tear my eyes away from the surface of the earth. Forests like green lace, cities like beads, the pastel colors of spring fields.xviii

Since the meaning of the world is either unattainable or made obscure for this East European émigr(, the vantage point given from the bubble of the airplane window, allows him to see more clearly the surface and, in so doing, gives him hope that he would recognize, however fleetingly, its ultimate meaning:

What is the world? Is it orderly or chaotic? Streams wind haphazardly through lazy meadows, mountains give way to plains, the ocean is light blue and mute. (TC 125)

The traveler is in search of accurate direction, untrammeled by obscure, confusing and misleading signs. Surveying the surface of the world, he reads as if it were a map, that is, as though whatever imprints and traces to be found on it should be perceived as a systematic group of markers and guideposts mirroring the world:

I looked at the slabs of sidewalks, as if expecting to find a map on them, a blueprint, guide lines (emphasis mine, BS). But the sidewalk, polished by the soles of thousands of diligent pedestrians, had nothing to tell me. (TC 129)

A sidewalk, which for Zagajewski is an unerring if common part of the Parisian cityscape, ceases here to be a bearer of verisimilitude. Behind this struggle to find the meaning lies a strong conviction that the purpose of existence is never readily apparent, but is interwoven into the surface of things like in a tapestry. The type of vision on which the observing narrator relies is for him a matter of utmost importance, for it conditions what he views as a cartographic pattern created by various natural forms. Yet, mapping the visible even from an advantageous viewpoint does not remove obstacles presented by sheer inexpressibility:

In the airplane I did not know how to think, and it was not fear that was paralyzing me but passionate interest: it seemed to me constantly that one of these times I would understand the meaning of this map (emphasis mine, BS), that the barely visible church steeples, wooded strips, riverbeds, and country roads would finally speak to me, because they clearly had something to say. (TC 136)

Through his eyes, the landscape undergoes a change and becomes an open-ended, three-dimensional semiotic system reflecting a dynamic and confusing view of reality. A map-ordinarily, a static representation of reality schematically reduced to two dimensions-is transformed into an actual part of the world. In Zagajewski's description, it is as though a huge transfer sheet were laid over the countryside, endowing the natural flora with the shape of letters which promise the imposition of order on the whole land, about which, however, he has not a clue. As José Rabasa notes, "The map functions as a mirror of the world, not because the representation of the earth has the status of a natural sign, but because it aims to invoke a simulacrum of an always inaccessible totality by means of an arrangement of symbols."xix Hence, the total image is not available and Zagajewski is only recording the attempt at grasping this wholeness:

And between these cities the airplane and I, by the window, staring at the cuneiform writing of forests, fields, and villages, deciphering the secret meaning of this real, meaty map of Europe. (TC 136)

Imposed on these images of the world is an artful cartographic design, which organizes the very fabric of reality's visual concreteness. By blurring the separation between the actual landscape and the map-a method which allows him to grasp both surfaces' core-Zagajewski has to negotiate his basic ambivalence in understanding reality: either it is too diverse in its gravitation towards total meaninglessness, or stability and order can be distilled from the chaos of its actuality. How the writer resolves this dilemma I discuss in the following chapter, but at this pre-epiphanic stage the itinerant essayist finds himself caught between the poles of chaos and order.

If one follows Zagajewski closely, there is a category of travelers who journey not for pleasure, but to discover for themselves the meaning hidden in the rich alphabet of natural objects. Moreover, he believes such travelers succeed in their clearly stated objective, for they know how to decode the rich alphabet of things. And one such outstanding example is the German writer Ernst Jünger whose capacity to discern the order of the world never ceases to fascinate Zagajewski, even though his skepticism finds much to fault with the limitations of such an approach. While in Paris as a Nazi officer, Jünger "took long walks and looked ... noting, like a traveler in a strange country, his favorite trees—the Judas tree, for example—and also rare minerals and insects" (TC 178).

Paris-the city where God is revealed to Rilke in images of poverty and sickness, and where a tree communicates total meaninglessness to Sartre-speaks to Jünger in a language which serves to systematize species. Part of Jünger's appeal is explained by Zagajewski in his description of the German writer as "someone who has touched the sense of the world, someone who has seen the order of the cosmos" (TC 181). He is the initiate to whom the higher sense of the universe was revealed but who does not know what to do with this insight, or at least fails to address it in his writing. Much to our loss, Zagajewski insists, for we are less apt to be aware that

human life and objects and trees vibrate with mysterious meanings which can be deciphered like cuneiform writing. There exists a meaning, hidden from day to day but accessible in moments of greatest attentiveness, in those moments when consciousness loves the world. (TC 61)

As we come to recognize the confidence of the narrating voice, the self-assuredness in his realization of reality's coded essence, the path leading to an illuminating transformation is open. Is our chaotic condition then an inescapable predicament?

The Envoy of Mr. Zagajewski the Traveler

You must change your life.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

Standing before Wyspianski's elusive masterpiece in the dark interior of the Franciscan Church, the writer contemplates God's gesture, signified by a raised hand in the archetypal act of creation, so frequently depicted in Christian iconography. It is this image that prompts God's message that Zagajewski intuits. Reinvent yourself, change your life, He seems to command the viewer. Although God is a living presence, and not a force merely intimated by the beholder who conjures His words, the source of the message remains debatable. We do not know for sure whether He is God who speaks or God who raises His hand in silence. How does the meaning of His message come through? It is my belief that the source of the message remains deliberately unspecified, so we do not know whether for Zagajewski God in Wyspianski's stained glass-window represents the Logos or the iconic God. I would not stress this ambiguity if it did not directly relate to the type of Zagajewski's creative imagination, whose roots-in my estimation-are both verbal and visual.

At this juncture, Zagajewski interjects a message to change oneself which points to more than a vague spiritual orientation leading to an inner renewal. Rather, what appears to be a suggestion for change, Zagajewski takes as an ethical command, compelling the reader to go on a pilgrimage to distant lands and visit old churches such as those found in France. Zagajewski invites the reader to journey west, out of Poland, to Paris, then on to the south of France. Because the sites he recommends are largely limited to masterpieces of the Romanesque and Gothic styles, he broadens the scope, taking in whatever caught his eye. But it is the churches that hold the greatest fascination for him, and it is the churches that he suggests the reader visit.

And what does such a pilgrimage to France's old houses of worship promise the reader besides an enriching intercultural encounter? In what way does this choice differ from other acts of cultural obeisance? In his belief that only the visual arts can offer us a unique experience, the narrator prepares his reader:

Take a look at the squat little Romanesque churches that conquered the stony hamlets of Ile de France. They're usually closed, but that's all right, it's enough to view them from the outside and be moved by their stocky silhouettes. (OB 197)

The promise of what awaits us inside, both in its architectural wonders and ornamental decor is denied; but Zagajewski takes stock and settles for what he sees outside, commenting on the churches' unidealized organic and earthy beauty.

Travel is the interaction of sight and motion; hence, the preponderance of verbs in his message connoting the acts of seeing or moving. The dominance of the eye over the other senses conjoins with the physical effort of walking, and we are indeed participants in the journey the narrator wants us to take. For the traveler implied in this message is a rather strange creature, seemingly devoid of all physical attributes but eyes to see and feet to walk.

Yet it is the narrator's distinct voice that goads and cajoles us, presses us on with utterances punctuated with frequent imperatives: "do a lot of walking," "you'll note," "stop by," "observe," "take a trip," "drop by," "make your way," "you must get to know." For all its prodding, however, the voice is never strident. We are instead shepherded by a connoisseur confidant in his own powers-confidant that what moves him will move us. Ringing with amiable certainty, these imperatives do not pound on the reader with the monotony of a march. Vibrating with a nuanced allure ("you will like it"), caring advice ("bring good shoes"), gentle persuasion ("you will note with surprise"), and seductive suggestion ("shiver from faith and yearning and even desire," OB 147), his voice, slow but never tired, reaches the crescendo when he evokes the spires of the Chartres Cathedral. By then, of course, the reader is caught up in his enthusiasm and the long sentences, which slow down the dynamics of the message, speak to his receptivity.

A feeling of conviction and of gratitude for what only the realm of art can offer permeates the message. As such, it marks a shift within the sphere of texts that glory in the wonders of the world. For fear that I make too broad a claim, let me invoke but two examples of such texts, relevant to my discussion-both are milestones in the Polish tradition of the affirmation of existence and as such are related to Zagajewski's message. These poems are Jan Kochanowski's Renaissance hymnal "What Do You Wish, O Lord, In Return For Your Bounteous Gifts?," which expresses an admiration for the universe as naturae naturans, and Zbigniew Herbert's "The Prayer of Mr.Cogito the Traveller," which fuses the praise of both the naturae naturans and naturae naturata. In this context, it is quite clear how Zagajewski works towards the third option-that of solely glorifying naturae naturata conceived as both the visible world and art.

The reader's journey goes quite beyond what one can expect from organized tourism. The progression of images and movements in Zagajewski's message brings a total -and "total" is the operative word here-and nearly miraculous transfiguration of reality:

Go for a walk in the rain, in the drizzle of a warm September day-rain's not hard to come by in Paris! Take the side streets and the broad boulevards. In a while, if you're patient and watchful, you'll note with surprise that in this gifted city even damp sidewalks trampled by pedestrians become long strips of canvas, reflecting, as in the atelier of Pisarro or Monet, the sky, the clouds, the rooftops and the fickle chimneys of old apartment houses. Their shapes will be slightly off-kilter, fanciful, wavy and wet-but you'll like it, you, who could draw only with triangles and straight lines! (OB 197)

Inanimate objects pulsate with life and energy and are subjected to a startling metamorphosis: works of art take on human characteristics, (the chapel of Sainte Chapelle, for instance, transforming into a peasant woman that speaks with a dialect), while other, more commonplace fixtures such as the Parisian sidewalks mutate into refined artifacts. The remoteness of a place or an object signified on the map becomes palpable and concrete in Zagajewski's rendering.

Again, I must reiterate that the writer does not describe in his text the canonical and static beauty of these objects but the qualities he invents in them. What do these processes promise? Perhaps only that one who witnesses reality in the constant process of transformation can more easily face the challenge of his own renewal. For the writer's "paved solitude" within the city, as Nathaniel Hawthorne memorably described this state, also undergoes transformation. Both observing and isolated by his own volition from the crowd, the writer partakes in the moments of "unique intoxication from the universal communion."xx Like Baudelaire's lonely flâneur in The Parisian Prowler, although luckily deprived of his splenetic mode, he reaches through his imagination and art the union with the mankind.

Is there anything else that Zagajewski's exhortation purports? The answer is determined by the way he conceives his "envoy's" ultimate goal:

You'll see works of art so finished, so full that they offer more than just momentary pleasure. They give you something you can keep, something that shapes your very spirit-forms, enchantments that remake reality itself. (OB 199-200)

Does this envoy have the strength to revert the tragic conflict between history and the sense of communal responsibility invoked, for example, in Herbert's well-known "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"?xxi Promising the reader's renewal, Zagajewski's envoy espouses the set of neo-Platonic ideas merging beauty with ethical values and, far from any adherence to the religion of beauty, also injects in them a new creative energy. The invented and transfigured beauty of artworks, in turn re-invents reality. The text offers a positive direction: the contemplation of art promises to uplift the individual from an otherwise indifferent, callous world:

you make the journey in mind and experience a little beauty (since you'll find ugliness, vulgarity and evil wherever you are, even without my suggestions. (OB 199)

Zagajewski presents a fascinating verbal-visual possibility here: his word, mediating between the reader and the arts, transfigures the image of art as well as that of the entire visible world. Chaos thus is an escapable condition, for one can find sureness and ethical order only in art, since the world certainly does not have it. Yet Zagajewski in his approach to art goes beyond understanding its function as merely therapeutic. His empathic descriptions of the works of art inevitably lead to the next step, to his spiritual union with the pictorial world in what I call here the "epiphany in blue."


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