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Another Beauty

I am trying to reconstruct the pieces from my old blog and here’s one that I particularly liked, an appreciation for a fine book I found in a booksale shop at SM Manila:

In Praise of a Poet of Tortured Beauty

The magazine Books and Culture tells us that the New Yorker’s special issue on 9/11 carried on the back page his poem, Try to Praise Our Mutilated World, and many people clipped the poem and posted it on refrigerator doors, sent it to grieving friends, read it in public gatherings, even quoted it in sermons. In the interview with B &C (August/September 2002 issue), the Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, explains that he wrote the poem long before the ghastly events at the World Trade Center took place; yet for many, it spoke of a way to cope with tragedy, of a world, which, though hideously imperfect, still offers us visions of hope:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(Translated by Renata Gorczynski)

The poet, who grew up in the ruins of postwar Poland, says the poem embodies “the experience of someone who tries to live and write,” one that “is very rich and encompasses the register of ecstasy, of joy,” indeed, of one, who, because he has accepted that the world we live in is wounded, finds reasons in the mundane details of the everyday to rejoice amidst its pains and sorrows. I find more of the musicality of this optimism in his book Another Beauty, which is a memoir that details his growth in his persona as a poet as well as a citizen. The title is taken from a poem from his first ever collection of poetry published in English, Tremor, and in this work, I readily see the dedicated predilection to acknowledge that beauty, yes, salvation, even if temporal, is found in recognition that relationships, and yes, community, matter:

We find comfort only in
another beauty, in others’
music, in the poetry of others.
Salvation lies with others,
though solitude may taste like
opium. Other people aren’t hell
if you glimpse them at dawn, when
their brows are clean, rinsed by dreams.
This is why I pause: which word
to use, you or he. Each he
betrays some you, but
calm conversations bides its time
in others’ poems.

(translated by Clare Cavanagh)


To me, this is, really, a hyperbole for community – where one comes face to face with the realization that the self, by itself, does not really amount to much outside his or her recognition of the beauty that the Other radiates. It is as well a call to the discipline of humility, for when we acknowledge that we are, by ourselves, inherently incomplete, we see the intrinsic worth of the lives of the Other; this insight, to me, is a theological wonder.

This appreciation for the Other is glimpsed in his recollection of a fellow dissident who fought against the communist dictatorship with him in Poland, Adam Michnik (an interesting study of character, as you can read here, and the founding editor of Poland’s largest daily newspaper, the Gazeta Wyborcza):

I first met (him) in Warsaw in 1973. I had already gotten to know many intellectuals in the opposition. Almost all of them spoke sotto voce, not exactly in a whisper, but in carefully modulated tones. Their caution was rational and justified; we all lived beneath the enormous roof of the secret police, our conscience had been rationalized, microphones might be hidden in the lamps, in the flowerpots that held seemingly innocent plants, in the walls themselves. We’d all head of stories about bugs concealed in chandeliers, in the tables and sofas. I knew people who kept their hands over their lips even at home, and who transmitted important information only on scraps of paper, which were then destroyed. Intellectuals fell into two camps, the conformists and the resisters, but even these resisted cautiously. Adam didn’t belong to this category. He couldn’t be placed in any standard, psychological or sociological bracket. He didn’t keep his voice down, he was loud and witty, he radiated courage and joie de vivre. He wasn’t a poet, he didn’t write poems. But he recited them: he knew scores of poems by heart, Milosz, Herbert, Slonimski. This wasn’t the main thing, though; all it takes is a good memory to quote poems. Something else was important. Adam was then, I think, one of the few happy people in Poland (and perhaps, in all of Eastern Europe).

I don’t mean the kind of private happiness that consists of finding a nice, pretty wife and an interesting, well-paid job, the happiness that comes from the consciousness that you are a healthy, decent, and useful individual. I have in mind the much rarer form of happiness that arises when you locate your true vocation with pinpoint precision, when you find the perfect outlet for your talents, not in the private, domestic sphere, but in the larger human polis.

The mystery of Adam’s calling lay in its paradoxical nature. Adam drew upon his own anarchic needs and dreams whenever he confronted – so boldly, with panache and glee – the secret police, the Party, corrupt and well-fed prosecutors, dim-witted ministers. He was a joyous anarchist, tossing down his challenge to the vast apparatus of power. He wasn’t your typical anarchist, though; he stood for good and honorable things, he sided with right and justice (as they ought to be, not as they were).

A person like Adam who’d happened to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in an orderly bourgeois society, would no doubt have turned to dark and evil gods. He would have read and recognized De Sade and the other spiteful, downcast, bitter masters who’ve turned against the world. He would have praised doubtful powers, made his pact with Satan. In this world, though, Adam realized that he’d been given an extraordinary opportunity. He could be both good and furious at once, both negative and decent, critical and honest, maniacal and just. He could be a subversive, an anarchist, a revolutionary, and at the same time, a conservative defending basic human decency and order; the order in which we lived had squelched the ordinary, imperfect human world.

I came to know other dissidents later, but only a few shared Adam’s peculiarity, the mad joy he experienced being an upright anarchist, a reasonable revolutionary who had reconciled fire and water, the passion for destruction and the desire to build. What luck, to find in this world a calling both contradictory and genuine, impossible and actual, that fits one’s life like a suit cut by the finest tailor!


(Incidentally, there’s an interview with Michnik in the Spring 2004 issue of Dissent Magazine, where we read that the man has now become an ardent supporter of the US-led war in Iraq).

I like Zagajewksi’s definition of happiness, which you find “when you locate your true vocation with pinpoint precision, when you find the perfect outlet for your talents, not in the private, domestic sphere, but in the larger human polis.” Much of the paralysis affecting many of us today precisely arises from this failure to locate with “pinpoint precision” what we are in this world for, though it can well be said that the deepest discontentment happens when we know what we are here for, but are unable to do anything about it.

Zagajewski, like his compatriot and literary model Czeslaw Milosz, belongs to a generation of Eastern European writers who clung on perilously to faith in the Transcendent in the face of a Marxist Police State. Perhaps, it’s the fact that Zagajewski comes from a country devoutly Catholic, where, as in East Germany, the church offered space for voices of dissent that drew strength from the deep mysteries of faith. In his book Another Beauty, I read of the city of his obsession, where he studied philosophy as a young man, Krakow, a city he knows by heart despite all these years, “a city cluttered with the massive clod of churches and convents, broad and heavy like aging peasant women gathering on a rainy autumn day.”

Here he writes of his agnostic uncle, who many years ago, regularly entertained in his home a young priest by the name of Karol Wojtyla to debate with him on the intricacies of belief, or the lack of it, in God. Here, he writes of his dislike for the nihilists, for Nietzsche, most of all, whom he calls “that splendid saboteur”:

As I read the bitter, ironic, modern writers, I ask myself: Why do we keep turning back to Nietzsche? There’s not doubt that they are Nietzsche’s offspring; they’re entranced by that great stylist, that splendid saboteur. And I ask myself: Apart from anxiety, apart from ironic, inspired sorrow, what have they got on their side? Since only a child would argue that on the one hand we have profound, witty, mocking geniuses, and on the other, relentless routine, mediocrity, the quotidian with its gray suits and dull poets, the dreariness of the orthodoxy and parliaments, the monotony of academic painters, clergymen with professionally pitched voices, churches, offices, banks, the international corporations that fund obedient professors who sing the praises of virtue, the family, and the balanced check-book. No, the situation is far more complex. On this side, too, you find despair in search of fire, clarity, affirmation, despair seeking expression and finding it, if at all, only at great cost. But after all, this isn’t a speech-and-debate competition!

Zagajewski’s uncle in old age, would return to the folds of faith. He wryly remarks of this as a victory for the young priest, who would later become Pope John Paul II, the first Pole, and the first non-Italian in a long, long time, to ascend to the throne of the Roman Pontiff – a fact that his countrymen relished no end, and celebrated with much fanfare.

Here, the poet writes of his love for music, which, he says, shares this common ground with poetry: poetry itself. Music, for him, is a poetic language that excites the emotion as well as the imagination: “Music out forth form and rhythm, it builds its airy structures on a substance as delicate as breath, as time.” Which is why as a student in Krakow, he was an ardent habitué of the concerts conducted by the city’s many music schools. (As a collector of vinyl records myself , I can identify with his pleasure at finding phonograph records being sold for a song in bargain music shops!).

Here, in Another Beauty, Zagajewski too, writes of his countless ruminations into the world of learning, yes of books, as a wide-eyed student enamored with a city with a long history, his favorite refuge being Krakow’s Jagiellonian Library where he spent countless hours reading two sets of books: the first, of those meant to please his professors, the second, of those meant for him. The first type consisted of textbooks, the second, of poems, stories, essays.

Inside that library, he says, he would meet the modern masters, people who not only did not believe in God, but had forsaken everything “noble and lofty;” yet he also discovered in the books of the old library people “who managed to combine in some astonishing fashion deep, unostentatious faith with a powerful sense of humor and an unacknowledged love of good that was active and practical.” He found in them the powerful truth that he himself “wasn’t alone in those old churches; and not all the other visitors belonged to the ranks of careless tourists using their cameras instead of their heads.” It was certainly a consolation for him to have found intellectual giants with whom he can discuss the “mysteries, the things that can’t be talked about.”

Yet being young, and consumed with the passion of youth, he somehow set these things aside for an urgent activism. But in the end, the confession comes that as an adult, he would rediscover what he said was his “earlier responsiveness to religion.” In that same library he found the works of Milosz, most of which had been banned by the State.

Milosz, too, would write of his slow but sure recovery of faith; though he might not be classed by the devout among the Poles as a practicing Roman Catholic, he had come, after an intense personal struggle with the collapse of the ideologies of his youth, to the inescapable conclusion that the only thing that really gave meaning to the human phenomenon is the idea of the Transcendent; in short, God. (When he died last September, Pope John Paul II, who had become close to him in his later years, would write a short note to fellow Poles who had questioned Milosz’s catholicity to assure them that yes, he died in the embrace of the church of his birth). I especially like Milosz’s ruminations on the French philosopher Simone Weil, an enigmatic figure in the annals of 20th century thinkers for her conversion from atheism to unorthodox Roman Catholic mysticism.

It seems to me that in the days of the Cold War, intellectuals in the West, because of the freedom from pain and want they enjoy in their capitalist milieu, and perhaps, because of a profound ennui arising from a pointless material comfort, can afford to live in the theater of the absurd they have constructed for themselves and their followers; their poor cousins in the East, however – in the dark realities of the Marxist Police States that have engulfed their countries – can only find hope and strength to go on with life and struggle in the faith of their forebears. I remember reading an account of how Harvey Cox (yes, the liberal theologian, now with Harvard Divinity School), was serving as a youth minister in Germany at the time when the country was being partitioned between the liberal democratic West and the communist East.

Cox spoke of having repeatedly smuggled volumes of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics into contacts in the East, at a time when the reigning theological rock stars in the so-called “Free World” were the Death of God theologians.

When asked why he chose the hefty but by then anachronistic works of the neo-orthodox theologian over those of the existentialists who proclaimed, after Nietzsche, that God is dead, he replied to the effect that it really was a choice between hope and hopelessness. He wanted to give the Christians in East Germany something solid to stand on; it was simply cruel and pointless to give them something that would only sink them deeper into despair. (The more fundamentalist of the lot, of course, would still fault Cox: why not smuggle the Bible instead?)

Of course, for today’s postmoderns, Cox’s logic makes a lot of sense, even in the absence of belief in the metaphysical worth of the claims of faith (whether or not God exists or that He offers real hope does not matter, as long as people find their lives cloaked with a new sense of purpose and meaning in these very assertions of faith). That, perhaps, is what someone like Rudolf Bultmann would call a Myth that must be De-Mythologized.

But back to Zagajewski, for whom the quest for the Transcendent is much like the sublime pursuit of poetry, which, he says, a poet rarely attains, if at all; “One can even imagine a poet who experiences the sublime and demand a high style to express it,” he writes, “but precisely because this is a rare event that requires patient waiting, in daily life he becomes one of poetry’s ironic prosecutors.

The poet believes it is the possibility of impossibility – the experience of the bliss of the sublime – that brings him back to the experience of the reality of the “painful world;” and where does it leave him, then, once the force of gravity pulls him back?

Here, to an essentially existentialist confession of the continuing yet seemingly unattainable struggle of life: “To wake and fall asleep, drowse off and waken, to pass through seasons of doubt, melancholy dark as lead, indifference, boredom, and then the spells of vitality, clarity, hard and happy work, contentment, gaiety, to remember and forget and recollect again, that an eternal fire burns beside us, a God with an unknown name, whom we will never reach.” Still, he struggles with hope, with the poetry of hope anchored on the tortured beauty around us – his “God of an unknown name” perhaps – though to the orthodox and evangelical, it may sound like an empty one (or to C.S. Lewis, yet another evocation of that “weight of glory” only a better world beyond the present reality could offer).



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Written by Romel

June 14, 2008 at 3:55 am

One Response

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  1. Another great piece! The message of this book reminds me of that line from the musical Les Mis: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”

    Anicca

    June 16, 2008 at 8:43 am


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