Someone who was not mad enough

Ewa Polak-Palkiewicz

The Year of Zbigniew Herbert will be solemnly opened in the National Theatre, at 18 Teatralny Square at 7 p.m. on 18 February 2008. On behalf of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage the National Library is the official co-ordinator of the Year of Zbigniew Herbert. ‘Niedziela’ is one of the media patrons of the Year of Zbigniew Herbert.
It is good when readers fraternize with the great poets. Their unselfish love will never yield the fruit of envy and meanness. But it is bad when those who fraternize with poets are not interested in poetry but want to promote through art the ideas and opinions that are comfortable or needed. Great poets who fall in the clutches of small people aiming at moulding over ‘public opinion’ occur in all systems, which have tried to use art as political tools. But Zbigniew Herbert never let people drive him to this herd. He fell into great disfavour because of his independent attitude as an artist and a Pole who did not hesitate to judge the deeds of the traitors, who did not deny the history of his nation and his own cultural identity. He did not fall in disfavour with jealous men, although there were many of them in the literary circle. But to have talents and to have character – it portends badly for the future. If his language had faltered a little, if he had not been so thoroughly educated. But we had had nothing, only the perfect high tone. If he had not surfed smoothly through the works of the classics that had been condemned long ago and their books had been tightly locked. If he had not felt so well among the old painters, architects and sculptors about whom he wrote essays. If he had not discerned, having the peace of the Greek stoics and the courage of the Roman warriors, how the ears of the nation were poisoned with thin, tickling, continuous stream of falsehood, the nation that because of its culture and its hopeless tendency to fight for freedom, even at the risk of life, was condemned to be the one that ‘only cleans’ in the overweeningly arrogant Europe. If his poetry had not been translated into so many languages; if he had not found so many friends thanks to his adventurous bent for winning new territories, which he entered thanks to only one permission: admiration; thanks to his youthful, fresh, selfless bewilderment, caused by seaside landscapes, tranquil old towns, unsurpassable history hidden in the walls and sun-burnt stones. If he had not kept following his dream concerning freedom of creation, gained thanks to the truth, courage and beauty. If he had not been so mad to stake everything on one card – or if he had been even madder and wanted to sell himself bit by bit for big tips thrown by dignitaries that cared for their images in the eyes of the superannuated poets, whom people always drew up mirrors, smacking with admiration and saying how handsome they looked in their gracious poses – writing poems that praised steel and steelworkers or writing about love. And if someone had the courage to look at the beast’s eyes he was suddenly bad, was one of those who should be hated, ‘a zoological anti-Communist’ or simply an insane…The diagnosis appeared as the last element as if someone pushed with a precise movement a series of buttons in some automatic machine. But it’s damn true that many a time people attempted to make him a mascot. Talent? Well, why not. Does he want to speak about what is important? Yes, he can do that but his books will be published in very few copies. And let him make friends with appropriate people. Our people have good influence on others. And alcohol will finish the matter. And here we have a precise mechanism, which was oiled, but got stuck and does not move. At first, there was the irresponsible interview in Jacek Trznadel’ ‘Hanba domowa’, claiming that the contribution of later ‘moral authorities’ in Stalinism could not be swallowed with delight like you could not eat a rotten pickled cucumber since it deteriorated for years and still smelt badly. Then there was an argument with Milosz about the Soviet Union and the Home Army. And finally his incomprehensible denial to reconcile with Adam Michnik, who had been his friend earlier (‘I cannot meet the man on the one lap of whose sits Jaruzelski and Kiszczak on the other’). The very list of mortal sins can frighten you. And other smaller failures like signing the appeal of the Krakow’s Arka (the present name ‘Arcana’) concerning the decommunization of the ruling elite in the Second Republic of Poland in 1992, and the defence of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski. Great poet, although sick and absent on the covers of magazines, frequently residing abroad, turned out to be dangerous like a well hidden explosive, with its fuse lighted and dangerous hissing smoke trailed. All people instead of running away chose to stop and get fascinated. It was 1998. The literary elite burst with indignation. ‘He was to be a subtle, refined, Mediterranean poet, prize-winner, classic author as far as the Acropolis, the Minotaur and Crete as well as the ancient gods were concerned. He was to glide high and not to lower to the land of Mazowsze’, said Marek Nowakowski in Joanna Siedlecka’s book entitled ‘Pan od poezji’, which was published in the year 2000. ‘Who gave him the right to enter strange parishes? He did not play the role he was assigned to… so, although in a different form, the old known motto – writers, take your pens – returned’, sounded the voices of indignation. ‘Great Herbert, reduced to essay writing, was decreasing in an embarrassing way’, regretted Jacek Bochenski, who was an elegant and balanced gentleman, the former chairman of the Polish PEN Club, and who expressed his grudges against ‘Hanba domowa’ [Domestic Disgrace] (‘The obsessive and absolute, but completely flat onesidedness of his analysis was conspicuous’, Bochenski commented on Herbert’s statement in the volume written by Jacek Trznadel). In order to solve that grim, and even tragic riddle of his fellow writer who could not hold his tongue, he added, ‘Well, I think that Herbert, born believer in yes – yes, and no – no, wanted to become a bard of this morally depressed people who hurled abuses.’ ‘It makes no sense at all, everything makes you terrified but the whole whirl of contradictory venoms is really raging in the soul of the suppressed – I do not hesitate to say so – people, there now, maybe in the soul of some part of the folk’, this arbiter elegantiarum explained about ‘the odd journalistic figure’ of the poet to the little ones (‘Z Herbertem w labiryntach’ [With Herbert in the Labyrinths], Gazeta Wyborcza, 3-4 March 2001). Zbigniew Herbert died three years earlier. Bochenski’s statement about the delicate little hands of the renown author, the hands that the destructive element of the Polish people stained, is exquisitely delicate as compared with the words of other people who dared to say about Herbert when he was still alive. But almost everywhere one could hear gossips – apparently hypocritically shocked and apparently compassionate, but actually sneeringly grinned towards the public in the hope that the public would turn away from the Poet – about alcoholism and disease as the cause of the insane attack against the sanctified hierarchy of the great figures elevated by the Polish People’s Republic and the politically correct West. The year of the incorrect Poet, the year of the Poet who did not want to remain silent, who rejected false criteria from his youth – since Lvov, Catholic home and his fellow soldiers from the Home Army’s conspiracy brought him up, and then he was educated by the art to create harmony, the art that rejected any control of thoughts – is an interesting experience in today’s Poland. How far will the specialists in diseases causing disturbances of the brain go to explain our own mistakes? Well, poking out insanity, e.g. by politicians, has become comme il faut. So this case will certainly be recognized as trivial in the politically correct history of literature. The undoubtedly first significant signal concerning this issue came from Katarzyna Herbert, who was the closest person to the poet. Her extensive interview about her husband and their marriage evoked many discussions. Then, in the year 2000, you read it with a lump in your throat that one could sell so much. Today, many people regard it as a document containing a moving portrait of the heroine, someone who speaks without any constraints since at last people want to listen to her story, listen the story of the one that did not exist, the one that came from the shadow, the one who, probably to her best knowledge, assaulted by the environment, tried to defend her husband that he had not wanted to be so unambiguous, that he had felt differently in the depth of his soul… He had wanted but he could not. He had not been himself any longer. This observation is alarming. Nevertheless, the remarks of the poet’s companion concerning the possibility of the reception of the literary output and attitude of Zbigniew Herbert, which she herself spoke incidentally, sound disarming, ‘Maybe this is not to the measure of such a little soul like mine…’, ‘But I was still rather an emotionally immature person, maybe I did not intellectually reach the level, which other fascinations had…’ ‘And now I, this is the widow’s fate, am trying to add something…’ ‘I had only one role in my life, to understand him.’ And how to understand someone that cannot be understood? He was never reconciled with the people who he accused of lying although ‘they did not do much for him.’ Almost completely physically paralysed he was hungry of knowing, seeing and feeling all things well and he impatiently demanded a new cup of life, a new gulp of Poland. When death is knocking – bedridden, unable to speak – he wanted to go to Venice, planned a new book, appeared in a documentary that could not be broadcast on public TV station because we had ‘transformation’, i.e. liberalism. Under a pseudonym he published in the press, which his friends regarded as condemned because it was Catholic, and under his own name he wrote articles for ‘Tygodnik Solidarnosc’, which actually did not count in the media and where he took the liberty of writing such extravagancies as praising ‘Powsciagliwosc i Praca’, which all healthy and sane journalists had left in due time. He sent petitions concerning Tchetchenia… Not only his wife but also many known and distinguished people began wondering why the mind of the Great Poet was suddenly getting weak. Jakub Karpinski gave a point to that fierce attack of grief over the psychological paralysis of Herbert in the most brief way, ‘God, if I were such a madman like Herbert. I would give anything. How much we need such people’ (‘Pan od poezji’). The story of Zbigniew Herbert who did not surrender since he had Lvov in his heart to the very end of his life, and whom Bishop Jozef Zawitkowski called ‘the greatest of the defenders of Lvov’, was completed by the epilogue to ‘Przeslanie Pana Cogito’ [The Envoy of Mr Cogito], his poem written in the late 1979s, which Poles caught like a spear in its flight and which is hidden in the pocket on your heart ‘just in case’ since it is good to have such a weapon on you. ‘Defend the Polish spirit and defend the truth. ‘…go up straight/ among those on their knees/ among those turned back and knocked down to ash…’ – you know these words by heart and repeat when you are hurt by the choices of people without faces, choices made on our behalf when zealous newspapers and television replace politicians because the media enthusiastically make verdicts, force which international decisions should be supported, which treaties should be signed, which currency should be accepted and which pronounce the end of dreams. The year of Zbigniew Herbert is a year of test for us all. The message from the other party is clear: ‘be courageous’ ‘beware of cold heart’, ‘be on alert’, ‘repeat old spells of mankind’, ‘repeat: I have been called – were there no better ones’, ‘Be faithful. Go’. In 2001 Wojciech Wencel, a poet of the younger generation, wrote in ‘Glos’ [The Voice], the important periodical that has seized to appear, an article entitled ‘List to Zbigniew Herbert’ [A letter to Zbigniew Herbert].

"Niedziela" 7/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
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