Adam Zagajewski: A defence of ardour

First posted December 05, 2016

In honour of Adam Zagajewski being awarded the 2016 Jean Améry Prize for European essay writing, Eurozine publishes Zagajewski’s defence of ardour. That is, true ardour, which doesn’t divide but unifies; and leads neither to fanaticism nor to fundamentalism.

We’re left with the impression that the present day favours only one stage of a certain ageless, endless journey. This journey is best described by a concept borrowed from Plato, metaxu, being “in between”, in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery. Metaxu defines the situation of the human, a being who is incurably “en route”…. 

This is the misfortune of our times: that those who never make mistakes are mistaken, while those who make mistakes are right. Ernst Jünger in some of his observations concerning “substance”, T.S. Eliot in parts of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, and so many other conservative authors may not be wrong “ontologically” in their analyses of man in modernity. But they’re completely immersed in the element of twentieth-century history and are blind to the phenomenal (and fragile) benefits we derive from liberal democracy…. 

On the other hand, those who analyse our political troubles with exceptional acumen and respond to injustice are often completely at sea spiritually. Perhaps this is linked to Charles Taylor’s brilliant observation in Sources of the Self: “In our age, Enlightenment values have triumphed in public institutions, at least in the West, whereas in our private lives we abandon ourselves to Romantic insatiability. We go along with rationalism whenever public, social issues are at stake, but at home, in private, we search ceaselessly for the absolute and aren’t content with the decisions we accept in the public sphere…The anti-metaphysical but politically dependable liberal left (or perhaps rather “centre”) and the potentially menacing but spiritually engaged right: one might summarize our peculiar bifurcation like this…

I keep my eyes closed. Do not rush me,
You, fire, power, might, for it is too early.
I have lived through many years and, as in this half-dream,
I felt I was attaining the moving frontier
Beyond which colour and sound come true
And the things of this earth are united.
Do not yet force me to open my lips.
Let me trust and believe I will attain.
Let me linger here in Mittelbergheim.

I know I should. They are with me,
Autumn and wooden wheels and tobacco hung
Under the eaves. Here and everywhere Is my homeland, wherever I turn
And in whatever language I would hear
The song of a child, the conversation of lovers.
Happier than anyone, I am to receive
A glance, a smile, a star, silk creased
At the knee. Serene, beholding,
I am to walk on hills in the soft glow of day
Over waters, cities, roads, human customs.

Fire, power, might, you who hold me
In the palm of your hand whose furrows
Are like immense gorges combed
By southern wind. You who grant certainty
In the hour of fear, in the week of doubt,
It is too early, let the wine mature,
Let the travellers sleep in Mittelbergheim…

(Excerpt from Mittelbergheim, which Milosz wrote in 1951, at a time when he was tormented by the ideological and political problems of the mid-twentieth century)

One August, the month when Europe relaxes intensively, we spent two weeks in one of its most beautiful landscapes, in Chianti, a part of Tuscany. A concert of chamber music was staged in the courtyard of a certain lordly manor, an eleventh-century monastery that hadn’t held monks for centuries and had been transformed into a palace with a lovely garden. The audience for this concert was very distinctive, and consisted, with a few exceptions (one of them being the author of these words), of wealthy people possessing their own palaces, villas, and houses. This international company included a fair number of Englishmen (and also several Englishwomen who had decided for unknown reasons to behave like British clichés), a few Americans, and, of course, some Italians. In other words, the neighbours of the owner of this beautiful estate. Some of them only summered in Tuscany, others were full-time residents. The concert began with one of Mozart’s early quartets; the four young women played wonderfully, but the applause was relatively sparse. I was a little annoyed and decided on the spot that it was time for a defence of ardour. Why couldn’t the affluent audience appreciate this wonderful performance? Does wealth perhaps diminish our enthusiasm? Why didn’t this ardent performance of Mozart meet with an equally ardent reception?

One of my vacation books at the time happened to be Thomas Mann’s essays, including, among others, a piece called Freud and the future, a text written (and given as a lecture) in the thirties. What connection could there possibly be between the summer response of a rich crowd at a concert and Mann’s essay? Perhaps only that I also found a rather summery, ironic attitude at work in Mann, who was searching for a new intellectual orientation while writing Joseph and His Brothers. It goes without saying that Mann’s motivation had nothing in common with the blasé audience at an afternoon concert.

In the essay, Mann interprets Freud’s chief purpose as being something like the work of a sapper in a minefield: we’re dealing with explosive materials of great force. Ancient myths conceal immense dangers; they’re bombs that must be defused. Of course we need to read Mann’s essays in historical perspective, recalling their context. The author of Buddenbrooks saw Nazism and fascism as a return to the energies of the mythic world, to the destructive violence of archaic myths, and hoped to resist this great wave of terror with the soothing substance of humanist irony. But this irony wasn’t entirely defenceless, it wasn’t simply abstract, “chamber” irony. It too was rooted in myth, but differently; it fostered life without recourse to violence.

Did Thomas Mann finally win? Since today, after all, we hear rather similar tones within the most au courant, postmodern circles. Irony, it’s true, has changed its meaning; it’s no longer a weapon directed against the barbarism of a primitive system triumphing in the very heart of Europe. It expresses rather a disillusionment with the collapse of utopian expectations, an ideological crisis provoked by the erosion and discrediting of those visions that hoped to replace the traditional metaphysics of religious faith with eschatological political theories. More than one eastern European poet employed irony as a desperate defence against barbarism – in this case, barbaric communism with its soulless bureaucracy (this time has passed – isn’t neocapitalism an adroit ironist?).

But no, Thomas Mann didn’t win, it was a different irony. In any case, we find ourselves in a very ironic and sceptical landscape; all my four periscopes reveal a similar image. The last bastions of a more assertive attitude stand guard perhaps only in my homeland.

Some authors flog consumerist society with the aid of irony; others continue to wage war against religion; still others do battle with the bourgeoisie. At times irony expresses something different – our flounderings in a pluralist society. And sometimes it simply conceals intellectual poverty. Since of course irony always comes in handy when we don’t know what to do. We’ll figure it out later.

Leszek Kolakowski also praised irony in his once-famous essay, “The priest and the fool” (1959). It really was famous, and not just in academic circles. It was avidly studied in Warsaw and Prague, in Sophia and Moscow, and probably in East Berlin. Brilliant and profound, it promised a new point of view. It called attention to the ubiquity, albeit in very contemporary disguise, of long-standing theological traditions. The dogmas of the hieratic priest – and every intelligent reader realized he was dealing with a passionate critique of Stalinism – were opposed by the behaviour of the fool, quick-witted, shifty as Proteus, mocking a petrified civilization built on doctrine. Even today this essay still retains its freshness and the exceptional force of its reasoning. It marked a vital contribution to the critique of communist civilization; at the same time it arose from the moods of those times. In it we catch echoes of those countless, inspired, hilarious student cabarets that produced, in Gdansk, in Warsaw, in Krakow (and no doubt in other European cities seized by Moscow), a champagne of anti-Soviet humour. We also catch tones close to the “fool’s” ontology in poetry (in Szymborska, for example, whose poems of that period should be read in concert with Kolakowski’s programmatic essay).

Kolakowski distanced himself from his manifesto – his evolution reveals a growing fascination with theological issues (which had always intrigued him). Philosophy’s splendid “technician”, the author of Main Currents of Marxism, never ceases to approach faith asymptomatically, as if to say (not being a poet, he’ll never just come out and say it) that you can’t remain permanently in the fool’s position, since its meaning is exhausted by its polemical attitude, its ceaseless needling of powerful opponents.

In a much later essay, “The revenge of the sacred in secular culture”, Kolakowski writes, “A culture that loses its sense of ‘sacrum’, loses its sense entirely”. The priest can get by without the fool; but no one’s ever spotted a fool in the desert or a forest hermitage. Our epoch, though, that puer aeternus of history – worships perversity. It’s no accident that Bakhtin’s idea of the “carnival”, the revolt against hierarchy, appeals so strongly to professors of literature.

In a section of The Dehumanization of Art eloquently entitled “Doomed to irony”, Ortega y Gasset points to the ironic character of twentieth-century avant-garde culture, its violent aversion to pathos and sublimity: “[T]his inevitable dash of irony … imparts to modern art a monotony which must exasperate patience itself.”

Too long a stay in the world of irony and doubt awakens in us a yearning for different, more nutritious fare. We may get the urge to reread Diotima’s classic speech in Plato’s Symposium, the speech on the vertical wanderings of love. But it may also happen that an American student hearing this speech for the first time will say, “But Plato’s such a sexist”. Another student will note, on reading the first stanza of Hölderlin’s “Bread and Wine”, that in our great cities today we can’t experience true darkness, true dusk, since our lamps, computers, and energies never shut down – as if he didn’t want to see what really matters here, the transition from the day’s frenzy to the meditation offered us by night, that “foreigner”.

We’re left with the impression that the present day favours only one stage of a certain ageless, endless journey. This journey is best described by a concept borrowed from Plato, metaxu, being “in between”, in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery. Metaxu defines the situation of the human, a being who is incurably “en route”. Simone Weil and Eric Voegelin (thinkers who loathed totalitarianism and from whom I first learned about Plato’s metaxu) both drew upon this concept, albeit somewhat differently. Voegelin even made it one of the key points of his anthropology.

We’ll never manage, after all, to settle permanently in transcendence once and for all. We’ll never even fully learn its meaning. Diotima rightly urges us toward the beautiful, toward higher things, but no one will ever take up residence for good in alpine peaks, no one can pitch his tent there for long, no one will build a home on the eternal snows. We’ll head back down daily (if only to sleep … since night has two faces. It is a “foreigner” summoning us to meditation, but it’s also a time of absolute indifference, of sleep, and sleep demands that ecstasy be utterly extinguished). We’ll always return to the quotidian: after experiencing an epiphany, writing a poem, we’ll go to the kitchen and decide what to have for dinner; then we’ll open the envelope holding the telephone bill. We’ll move continuously from inspired Plato to sensible Aristotle … And this is as it should be, since otherwise lunacy lies in wait above and boredom down below.

We’re always “in between” and our constant motion always betrays the other side in some way. Immersed in the quotidian, in the commonplace routines of practical life, we forget about transcendence. While edging toward divinity, we neglect the ordinary, the concrete, the specific, we turn our backs on the pebble that is the subject of Herbert’s splendid poem, his hymn to stony, serene, sovereign presence.

But the connections between high and low are complex.. read more:

Sigmund Freud: Thoughts for the Times on War and death (1915)