Kolbe, Love, Milosz, and the A-Bomb

"While writing my poetry of the last few years I've been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I'm not sure how it came out in the end," say the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).

“The last few years, while writing my poetry, I’ve been concerned about not deviating from Catholic orthodoxy, although I’m not sure how it came out in the end,” says the author of The Land of Ulro in a letter to the pope (my own revised translation).

August 9th marked the deaths of both Maximilian Kolbe and Czeslaw Milosz. Cynthia Haven has written about how these two Poles have influenced the wider world in divergent ways that converge upon their Catholicism in the essay “The Doubter and the Saint.

Granted, Milosz was much more of a believer than we tend to give him credit. There is even a fairly badly translated series of letters exchanged between Milosz and JP2 available online here.

One goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are "sad stuff." But so is much of history and, not infrequently,  daily life.

One Goodreads commenter said The Stained Glass Elegies are “sad stuff” and added a frowning smiley. But so is much of history and, not infrequently, so is daily life. But what does God have to do with that?

August 9th was also the 68th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing. All of these convergences somehow reminded me of two short stories penned by the postwar Japanese-Catholic writer Shusaku Endo in the collection Stained Glass Elegies.

The first one features the strange encounter between a child and Kolbe during his mission to Japan. Later on, as an adult, the person shocked at the news of that someone so cowardly looking (like a mouse) found the courage to give up his life for another.

The other story involves a rich Japanese tourist visiting a Polish prostitute a severely economically depressed period in Poland and having an epiphany upon seeing a picture of Kolbe hanging on the wall (if I’m not mistaken) while waiting for her to undress.

All of this, in a roundabout way, brings me to a moving meditation on the blog City and the World about Nagasaki and Kolbe that I’d like to excerpt for you:

“…As I study the [picture of the relic, see below], I wonder what the appearance of this relic might have meant in an immediate postwar context. In 1949, the atom bomb’s effects on Nagasaki were still very visible: another of Mydans’ photos reminds us that the Pontifical Mass celebrated to mark four centuries of Christian faith in Japan took place within the ruins of a destroyed Catholic cathedral. Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin? I can’t know for sure, but I also can’t help but wonder whether they might have done so.

"Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint's hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb's victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier's body and the bodies of their kin?"

“Considering the relic itself, it strikes me that it is difficult to look at the shriveled fingers of the saint’s hand and the exposed bones of his forearm without thinking of the disfigured flesh of the atom bomb’s victims. Would the Catholics of Nagasaki have seen a link between Xavier’s body and the bodies of their kin?”

What are we to make of all of this theologically? Looking at the image of the Xavier relic in Nagasaki, I find myself thinking of the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who served as a missionary in Nagasaki in the 1930s and later lost his life at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had been chosen for execution. As Kolbe once wrote, ‘Hatred is not a creative force. Love alone creates.’ For Maximilian Kolbe, self-sacrificing love represented the only effective response to the horrors of which humankind is capable. This kind of love led Kolbe to give his life for another; the same love led Francis Xavier to leave his home and everything that was familiar to him to preach the Gospel in faraway lands. Underlying these and all other examples of self-sacrificing love is the more fundamental action of divine love, the love that led the Second Person of the Trinity to embrace our humanity and to accept death on the Cross for the sake of our redemption…”

You can read the rest here.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of all these connections, but I’ll add another one: Despite the Youtube description, below you will find an excerpt from the excellent Krzysztof Zanussi film about Kolbe, “Life for a Life.” You can find copies of this film scattered throughout the States. Unfortunately, only a few of Zanussi’s films are available in the States. I’d recommend “A Year of the Quiet Sun,” which features stunning (nearly silent) performances by Scott Wilson and Maja Komorowska. It is set in the devastation of postwar Poland.

===========

UPDATE: The whole film is available in Polish (with much German) on YouTube. The acting is good enough that you could watch it without knowing either one of those languages.

A Fish Rots from the Head Down (On Paul Elie and Secularization in the Arts)

The head of a rotting fish would be too much for even the most devoted readers; so here's a shark eating a shark instead.

The head of a rotting fish would be too much for even the most devoted readers; so instead here’s a shark eating a shark.

The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) is widely read in American poetry circles. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that many Americans almost think of him as one of their own (Cynthia Haven even documents his worldwide influence here).

Now Milosz’s poetry appeals to me because he interprets his experience of late modern America and early 20th century totalitarianism with a finely honed Catholic theological imagination. Don’t take my word for it. There’s plenty of evidence for my judgment here, here, here, here, and here.

Czeslaw Milosz (right) with friend and literary rival Gombrowicz (mentioned later in post).

Czeslaw Milosz (right) with friend and literary rival Gombrowicz (mentioned later in post).

Czesław Miłosz, as we’ll see, appears to be in agreement with Paul Elie who recently pronounced the death of the religious novel along with plans to resurrect the genre single-handedly with a novel-in-progress. Elie proudly announced in a New York Times article, “Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?” The article in question, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?,” expands upon these questions with the following answer:

“The obvious answer is that it has gone where belief itself has gone. In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall. Their detractors see a people threatening rear-guard political action, or a people left behind.”

“We come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours," says Paul Elie.

“We come to life in the middle of stories that are not ours,” says Paul Elie in The Life You Save...

Czesław Miłosz tells the story of literary secularization within a much longer and damning historical arc than Elie, author of the study The Life You Save Maybe Your Own. In that fat tome (eminently readable and well-researched) Elie presents the work of Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy as a literary-religious triumph. Milosz viewed the literary victories of the last few centuries within a much more Pyrrhic frame. The Nobelist saw modern literature, which is not to say all of it, as the culmination of the process of European secularization:

“The fact of Europe’s dechrstianization is indubitable and depressing. It can also be translated into numbers of victims. If a half-Christian Europe could not prevent the First World War and its massacres in the trenches, then two totalitarianisms, which exterminated millions in concentration camps, were the product of leaders who were entirely godless.However, the ties between religion and society are too complicated to draw up a clear boundary between Christian and post-Christian countries. A fish rots from the head down, and what we call the erosion of the religious imagination began with the philosophers of the 18th century, only to progress through the whole of the next century, receiving its lasting expression, above all, in literature and art…”

Now consider this statement in the context of what Nietzsche, Flaubert, Ibsen, Andre Gide, Sartre, and Gombrowicz wrote. Then you’ll get the picture.

Even this may be true it still doesn’t take away from the achievements of poets and novelists of both past and present who are legion. In the piece “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World” Gregory Wolfe argues the myth of rampant secularization in the arts is precisely that: a myth. Here’s how he puts it:

“In The New Republic in 2008, Ruth Franklin noted that ‘the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with shock how complete it is.’ Last month in a New York Times Sunday Book Review essay entitled ‘Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?, Paul Elie suggested that ‘if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.’

Really? From where I stand, things don’t look that way. That is in large part because for the past 24 years I have edited Image, a journal that publishes literature and art concerned with the faith traditions of the West. Our instinct when launching the publication was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues.

Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.”

You can read my own contribution to IMAGE here.

You can read my own contribution to IMAGE here. You can subscribe to IMAGE here.

Perhaps the fish isn’t all that rotten? At least not in the head? Over the next few days I plan on compiling some Top 10 lists of contemporary poets (Now available!) and novelists who write from within a theological imagination.

I don’t think the task will be as tough as Elie makes it out to be. The toughest task will be keeping the lists down to only ten authors each!

The follow up posts are now up. They are “Fresh Caught Fish: Top 10 Living Religious Poets” and “Fresh Caught Fish II: Top 10 Living Religious Novelists.”

Damien Hirst with the most famous piece from his Requiem series which is the subject of this IMAGE issue.

Rotting heads: did you know one of these Damien Hirst sharks (pictured left) rotted in a gallery and had to be replaced?

  


 

 

The Prolegomena to Any Future Newman

Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)

Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Ripatrazone featured today on his blog The Fine Delight:

Artur Rosman’s site, Cosmos The In Lost, has become a daily read for me: sharp, smart, well-written essays ranging from Catholic theology to art to culture to literature, all delivered with a sense of humor missing from most other religious discussions. The panoply of subjects doesn’t result in slim reading: rather, the opposite. Rosman is able to introduce, elucidate, conclude, and educate; to open conversations rather than close them; to make me reconsider my assumptions about contemporary Catholicism in America and Europe. Here are some of his thoughts on the site, Milosz, Warhol, Nowosielski, American Catholicism and its political stains, and more.

1. Cosmos The In Lost is a rarity: a smart, entertaining blog about Catholic theology, literature, art, and culture. When and why did you start the site?
I started the blog out of desperation. I’m presently writing a doctoral dissertation on the poetry (and theology) of Czeslaw Milosz. This has proven to be tortuous when coupled with a several year writing block. I thought having to write posts almost daily might cure me. The blog-writing is fun; we’ll see about the dissertation.
2. What attracts you to the writing and thought of Milosz?
Milosz was right in the middle of everything. He saw the worst (and the best) of the 20th century firsthand. What’s more, as a poet and thinker with a profoundly Catholic imagination he wasn’t afraid to talk about the neuralgic points the faith still needs to address more clearly for our generation: scientism, totalitarianism, consumerism, and the problem of evil. I like to think of him as the prolegomena to any future Newman . . .

A True Opium for the People is a Belief in Nothingness After Death!

Hans Memling, Last Jugdment, stolen by pirates bought by the city of Gdansk, PL: Hell Ain't What it Used to Be

Hell ain’t what it used to be!  (Hans Memling, Last Judgment, stolen by pirates & bought by the city of Gdansk, Poland. YESSS.)

When was the last time any of you (who don’t attend fundamentalist churches) heard a good and theologically sound hellfire sermon? The last, no the only one, I’ve ever heard was in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Here it is in its glorious entirety if you need a memory refresher (BE AFRAID!):

Over the last two centuries Hell has been banished from the Catholic imagination more effectively than Adam and Eve from Eden. I suppose the last blows came sometime during the long 19th century dominated by Napoleon, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach.

The infernal trenches of World War I gave hellfire a slight rebound. The whole messy experience cast hell from oblivion back into our world, but not the underworld. It became a truism to say that people not infrequently make hell on earth. The concentration camps and gulags of World War II firmly entrenched hell upon the face of the earth.

Now, to some extent, we also still half-heartedly believe that sin is its own punishment. But why can’t Hell be both the state after life and a state in this present life? I’m all for a Catholic both/and here.

Now, you might ask yourself, why is the author obsessing about hell? Reading the headlines has left me in a bit of a foul mood. Consider what the AP recently said about poverty in the United States:

“Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.”

Four out of five is not a misprint as far as I know. It has unfortunately checked out on all the searches I’ve done so far. I’m still hoping it’s wrong, after all, this is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world. Then again, our family of five has always been well below the poverty line, so it’s a little comforting to know we’re not alone.

Then this picture showed up on my social media radar as if to drive the point home:

"A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death--the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged." --Czeslaw Milosz

“A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.” –Czeslaw Milosz

I also happened to be reading (because who doesn’t read five things at time?) the book-length dialogue between the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. There the future Pope Francis forcefully reminds us of the close tie between authentic religion and social justice:

“Hence the [classical] liberal conception of religion being allowed only in places of worship, and the elimination of religion outside of it, is not convincing. There are actions that are consistently done in places of worship, like the adoration, praise and worship of God. But there are others that are done outside, like the entire social dimension of religion. It starts in a community encounter with God, who is near and walks with His people, and is developed over the course of one’s life with ethical, religious, and fraternal guidelines, among others. There is something that regulates the conduct of others: justice. I believe that one who worships God has, through that experience, a mandate of justice toward his brothers.”

One should not forget that the mandate toward social justice is solely a Judeo-Christian invention. The pay raises of Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, coupled with the poverty awaiting most of us, signal a return to the much more cruel gods of Graeco-Roman religion. Whether we like it or not, we can look forward to a massive, but unintentional, experiment in comparative religion. It’s unavoidable, since I don’t foresee CEOs suddenly having epiphanies like this one:

Finally, these perfidies of American betrayal and greed bring us to my dissertation topic (what else?), the poet Czeslaw Milosz. After you read a passage from one of his works below you will agree he also happened to have a finely-honed feel for theological reflection.  The following reflection, which comes from the section “The Discreet Charm of Nihilism” (props to Bunuel) in the collection Road-Side Dog, turns Marx upside down, or at least shakes up a well-known phrase of his real good.

“Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death–the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

It's a dog's life.

It’s a dog’s life.

You might object by saying that you can be a nice lad or lass (even point out Sweden as a sociological examplewithout the afterlife and the threat of judgment hanging over your head. But Sweet Viking Jesus would tell you otherwise. Swedish ethics are influenced by revelation through and through, as is the rest of the West, and everyone influenced by globalism, meaning… pretty much everyone.

What’s more, those who aren’t believers (Swedes aren’t the only ones. Jag är ledsen!), but hang on to the Christian ethic of protecting the weak and the victims, are probably the worst fideists of all!

They are embedded in something they can’t justify, something whose origins they’ve willfully obscured, but deep down they know that empty phrases about Gilgamesh, Odin, or Kant won’t get them anywhere.

So, given where the world is heading, our eviscerated public square, and who is at the helm… how about we pray that there’s a Hell?

There is a caveat: nobody gets a free pass.

The musical coda is a song from Bill Mallonee that first got me thinking seriously about these issues way back when.

Miłosz, Penderecki, and Jeremiah: On the Contemporaneity of the Bible

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.

I’m taking a bit of a break from my Catholiclandia series before I tackle the trends in Polish Catholic media and intellectual life. Part I is an attempt to provide a differentiated picture of both homogeneity and diversity in Polish religious life. Part II briefly sketched the mixed legacy of Solidarity. There’s a little bit more on Solidarity here.

===================================================

In an issue of ZNAK Monthly (557) from 2001 Czeslaw Milosz uses the following words from a Polish musician as the epigraph to his response (“Polish Snarls”) to Chantal Delsol’s article “God in Exile” in the same issue:

“Igor Markievich was disturbed by Penderecki’s texts, ‘But there are no more religious people these days. All that is behind us.’ Penderecki responded that it’s different for us [Central Europeans]. There are no texts more contemporary than the biblical texts: Psalms, Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the New Testament, or the Apocalypse. What’s more contemporary? You think Ionesco or Beckett? Igor didn’t respond to it, he just looked at me, searching for support. But he didn’t get it from me, because I also think that we have no more contemporary texts than the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Penderecki was right.” –Zygmunt Mycielski, Journal, Autumn 1966

Penderecki conducting his "Credo" at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz's grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Rosman, 2008

Penderecki conducting his “Credo” at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz’s grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Sebastian Rosman, 2008

As far as I know, neither Milosz’s “Polish Snarls,” nor this text from Mycielski have been previously translated.  More on Milosz from Cosmos the in Lost here and in a post recently mentioned by the Book Haven right here.

Here’s Penderecki’s “Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” which includes passages from the Lamentations as you can see here.

American Idol

Czeslaw-Milosz-Quotes-4

Sarcasm anyone?

That something went wrong with the post-conciliar Church is a truism of both left and right Catholics.  The right thinks it went too far and was too much “in the spirit of” anything goes.  For the left it didn’t go far enough, or wasn’t interpreted enough “in the spirit of” anything goes.  These debates are boring enough to drive away people in droves.  They merely reflect, bow down to, the dominant political trends of this nation.  The fact that former Catholics are the second largest religious group in the United States is both a sign of a post-Protestant America and a sign of American Catholicism’s inability to make much of its opening in the public square.

Doesn’t Catholicism have anything to offer in itself?

Czeslaw Milosz captures some of the reasons behind this abject failure:

And there was a holiday in Megalopolis.
Streets were closed to traffic, people walked in procession.
The statue of a god, slowly moved along:
A phallus four stories high
Surrounded by a crowd of priests and priestesses
Who tossed about in a whirling dance.
A service was also being celebrated in Christian churches
Where liturgy consisted of discussion
Under the guidance of a priest in Easter vestment
On whether we should believe in life after death,
Which the president then put to the vote . . .

The desperate attempt to be accepted also has its right-syncretist equivalent as a recent prayer distributed by the USCCB reminds us:

Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty

“O God our Creator,
from your provident hand we have received
our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You have called us as your people and given us
the right and the duty to worship you, the only true God,
and your Son, Jesus Christ.
Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be ‘one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’

We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

My reaction?

How the Church expects to survive by wrapping itself in the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge to the Flag is beyond me.  Which brings me to the following choke by the Diocese of Brooklyn:

Unfortunately not The Onion

Unfortunately not The Onion

This is not a bad joke, as documented by the Millennial blog.  In fact, such plagiarism is not new.  It dates to way back before Vatican II.  It is part of a long tradition, starting at least with John Courtney Murray, of bending the knee to the flag while breaking the back of Catholic universalism.

For example, do you remember this proud moment when American Catholics finally went mainstream?

Stephen L. Carter, in his God’s Name in Vain, documents what the statement, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials, and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all” really meant.

Kennedy was actually letting the electorate know he wasn’t going to follow the Vatican’s severe pressure on him to do more to fight racial segregation.

The context makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Sure, other countries do it, but here I’m talking exclusively about American idolatry and the American Church’s surrender.  American Catholics really shouldn’t allow themselves to be stuck with this (caution: foul language):

Perhaps one ought to pray for another declaration of independence?

 

Zbigniew Herbert Tempers the Rational Fury

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

The groundbreaking anthology that brought Herbert and the rest of modern Polish poetry to the West.

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of the two greatest Polish poets of the 20th century.  He is part of a poetic duo, or duel, with Czeslaw Milosz.  Milosz was more of a mystic, Herbert a skeptic.  Milosz was almost always critical of Poland, whereas Herbert entrenched himself within the Polish tradition.  I want to avoid the dreaded words “nationalist” or “patriot,” but Hebert was both in the best sense.  It’s possible to be both without undercutting the universal reach of one’s writing.  Michael Hofman, the translator of German literature (oh the irony!), confirms this what he said in Poetry some years back:

“Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998. He was a very great and idiosyncratic poet—something in me wants to say a peerless poet—and, it is reported, a perennial Nobel bridesmaid. It was ironic—and no doubt wounding—that during the period of his expectations, in 1980 and 1996, two other Poles of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, were chosen by the Academy and decorated by Carl Gustav.”

The rivalry with Milosz resurfaces in those comments.  There’s even a quasi-mythological dinner party quarrel between the two poets documented by Cynthia Haven here in the post on “The Worst Dinner-Party Ever.”  

More biographical and bibliographical information is available here.

Spinoza's home, couldn't find the bed.

Spinoza’s home.

“Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” [Mr. Cogito is a persona Herbert frequently used to disabuse his readers of their Cartesian prejudices.  While reading this poem it’s important to remember how much Spinoza fought the biblical notion of a personal God.  Spinoza’s god was an impersonal force.  Think back to Simone Weil’s comments in yesterday’s post here.]

Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam
was seized by a desire to reach God

in the attic
cutting lenses
he suddenly pierced a curtain
and stood face to face

he spoke for a long time
(and as he so spoke
his mind enlarged
and his soul)
he posed questions
about the nature of man

–distracted God stroked his beard

he asked about the first cause

–God looked into infinity

he asked about the final cause

—God cracked his knuckles
cleared his throat

when Spinoza became silent
God spake

—you talk nicely Baruch
I like your geometric Latin
and the clear syntax
the symmetry of your arguments

let’s speak however
about Things Truly
Great

—look at your hands
cut and trembling

—you destroy your eyes
in the darkness

—you are badly nourished
you dress shabbily

buy a new house
forgive the Venetian mirrors
that they repeat surfaces

—forgive flowers in the hair
the drunken song

—look after your income
like your colleague Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

For Sale: Descartes

—be cunning
like Erasmus

—dedicate a treatise
to Louis XIV
he won’t read it anyway

—temper the rational fury
thrones will fall because of it
and stars turn black

—think
about the woman
who will give you a child

—you see Baruch
we are speaking about Great Things

—I want to be loved
by the uneducated and the violent
they are the only ones
who really hunger for me

Foolishness to the wise.

Foolishness to the wise.

now the curtain falls
Spinoza remains alone
he does not see the golden cloud
the light on the heights

he sees darkness

he hears the creaking of the stairs
footsteps going down

Oh look, there's my name!  Herbert combines well with Auden.

Oh look, there’s my name! Herbert reads well alongside with Auden.

What follows is a short-short story, a favorite genre of Herbert’s.  You can find some more of them on the Artful Dodge page here.

“Spinoza’s Bed”
by Zbigniew Herbert

IT IS AN amazing thing that our memory best retains images of great philosophers when their lives were coming to an end. Socrates raising the chalice with hemlock to his mouth, Seneca whose veins were opened by a slave (there is a painting of this by Rubens), Descartes roaming cold palace rooms with a foreboding that his role of teacher of the Swedish Queen would be his last, old Kant smelling a grated horseradish before his daily walk (the cane preceding him, sinking deeper and deeper into the sand), Spinoza consumed by tuberculosis and patiently polishing lenses, so weak he is unable to finish his Treatise on the Rainbow. . .A gallery of noble moribunds, pale masks, plaster casts.

In the eyes of his biographers Spinoza was unmistakably an ideal wise man: exclusively concentrated on the precise architecture of his works, perfectly indifferent to material affairs, and liberated from all passions. But an episode in his life is passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim.

Spinoza’s father died in 1656. In his family Baruch had the reputation of an eccentric young man who had no practical sense and wasted precious time studying incomprehensible books. Due to clever intrigues (his stepsister Rebecca and her husband Casseres played the main role in this) he was deprived of his inheritance. She hoped the absentminded young man would not even notice. But it happened otherwise.

Baruch initiated a lawsuit in court with an energy no one suspected him to have. He hired lawyers, called witnesses, was both matter-of-fact and passionate, extremely well-oriented in the most subtle details of procedure and convincing as a son injured and stripped of his rights.

They settled the division of the estate relatively quickly (clear legal rules existed in this matter). But then a second act of the trial unexpectedly followed, causing a general sense of unpleasantness and embarrassment.

As if the devil of possessiveness had entered him, Baruch began to litigate over almost each object from his father’s house. It started with the bed in which his mother, Deborah, had died (he did not forget about its dark green curtains). Then he requested objects without any value, explaining he had an emotional attachment to them. The judges were monumentally bored, and could not understand where this irresistible desire in the ascetic young man came from. Why did he wish to inherit a poker, a pewter pot with a broken handle, an ordinary kitchen stool, a china figure representing a shepherd without a head, a broken clock which stood in the vestibule and was a home for mice, or a painting that hung over the fireplace and was so completely blackened it looked like a self-portrait of tar?

Baruch won the trial. He could now sit with pride on his pyramid of spoils, casting spiteful glances at those who tried to disinherit him. But he did not do this. He only chose his mother’s bed (with the dark green curtain), giving the rest away to his adversaries defeated at the trial.

No one understood why he acted this way. It seemed an obvious extravagance, but in fact had a deeper meaning. It was as if Baruch wanted to say that virtue is not at all an asylum for the weak. The act of renunciation is an act of courage-it requires the sacrifice of things universally desired (not without regret and hesitation) for matters that are great, and incomprehensible.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Herbert: calming the rational fury.

Finally, you might want to read a great article on the continuing influence of Spinoza upon what’s called the “turn to religion” in French philosophy.  It’s by my professor Douglas Collins and has more citations per hour than anything else on the face of the earth.  It’s called “L’Amour intellectuel de Dieu: Lacan’s Spinozism and Religious Revival in Recent French Thought” and I think it’s invaluable.  Doug is also famous for getting some eccentric student reviews–see what I mean here.