April 29, 2007

Fanaticism 2


The Washington Post book section brought the happy news that Zbigniew Herbert's Collected Poems 1956-1998 is available. The review does a nice job of providing an introduction to Herbert's metier--

In a 1984 interview, Herbert discussed what distinguishes him from contemporaries like Milosz: "Writing -- and in this I disagree with everybody -- must teach men soberness," he said, adding emphatically: "to be awake." For Herbert, who knew along with Goya that the sleep of reason produces monsters and tyranny, "to be awake" means to refuse the witchcraft of reduction and rhetoric and to seek instead the beguiling magic of the mundane and close to hand...

...and then quotes the Pebble, which has always been among my favorite poems of Herberts. (An aside-- I think the photographer Joseph Sudek has the same sort of concern for soberness.)

The Post review suggests--inaccurately, I think--that Herbert was not interested in attacking ideologies or regimes in his work. He was, but within certain circumscribed limits (he noted that writing for the drawer was tiresome; his approach was well suited for getting by the official censors).

That he detested the deformities inflicted on mankind by the people's republics is unquestionable. Here is Herbert:

Social realism had sounded. I had no chance to publish what I was writing then, and by my withdrawal I think I anticipated a dismissal from the Union. It was like this: I was taken to observe an action to destroy kulaks. Armed bands of 'workers,' who were not workers at all, would come and loot the property of the foes of the proletariat. They took away everything. Grain was loaded on horse carts; and the carts would stand outside in the rain and the snow, the grain going to waste. It was the economic price of a historical experiment. I was a writer and could join a band to see for myself, in practice, not in the papers. I wanted to find out who was right, the spirit of the day or common sense. And conscience.

They took grain away from a woman, Malcowa, who worked for a kulak. She went wild with despair. What could one do? Give the woman a hundredweight of grain lest she and her son should die of starvation in the coming winter. I went to see the organizer of the action so that I could write a report and get them to give her a sack of grain. They explained that I did not understand the dialectic of history. Some time later I learned that Malcowa had hanged herself.

I unstuck my photo. I sent my membership card back to the Union. I went down to the bottom.

I went down to the bottom. I do not think it was an undifferentiated disenchantment with the vulgarity of the human heart that animated him, but rather with a very specific kind of human heart -- the kind that, in the name of history, would deprive a poor woman and her only child of enough food to eat.

Posted by Ideofact at April 29, 2007 11:30 PM