I have thought a great deal about the phenomenon of the city, but not at all about the silly slogan “Miasto, masa, maszyna” (“Metropolis, masses, machine”—a slogan of the Polish avantgarde). I have had occasion to live in very large metropolises, in Paris and New York, but my first city was a provincial capital, barely different, yet different, from a village, and it was that city that supplied the data for my imagination. I can imagine Wilno in its various stages, as I can hardly do elsewhere.
Take, for example, Wilno of the Enlightenment or Romanticism. Those stinking piles of garbage, the sewage streaming down the center of the roadways, the dust or mud that one had to wade through. But the upper-class men and women (am I the last living person who heard the words “Your Honor” used in ordinary daily speech?) didn’t move to town to live out their old age, but settled in the manor houses in Antokol (Antakalnis), because they felt at home there, and didn’t have far to go to attend daily mass.
The bells of forty churches pealed while the women who lived in the numerous brothels received officers and students—in other words, everything took place all together, the high and the low, not as in memoirs which beautify the past. Certainly, after the French soldiers encamped on Cathedral Square, that crowd of men dressed in the strangest clothing—in anything, just to get some protection from the frost, in copes and chasubles. After the epidemics, the field hospitals, the thousands of buried corpses, some sort of harmony returned, and the professors would go to the Romers’ house on Bakszta Street, the seat of the Masonic lodge, where they started publishing a satirical magazine, “Gutter News.”
In the immediate vicinity of the tower of St. John’s the narrow lanes of the Jewish quarter had their own affairs: the great Gaon’s struggle against disrespect for the letter of the law evinced by the Hasidim, who had moved up from the south; preserving the memory of Walentyn Potocki, a righteous man, who had converted to Judaism in Amsterdam and was burned at the stake in Wilno; and also, sha sha, talk about Officer Gradé, who had been hidden in a pious Jewish household, and about how he had already recovered from his wounds and decided to become a Jew, had himself circumcised, and intended to marry the daughter of the house. This was the man whose descendant would be a poet in the Yiddish language, Chaim Grade, a member of the Yung Vilne poets’ group, which was parallel to our Polish language group “Zåáagary.”
The city is alive for me, then—there’s nothing to be done about it—simultaneously today, yesterday, and the day before yesterday. Also in the year 1655, and that is because of the discovery in the subbasements of the Church of the Dominicans of a large number of skeletons dressed in kontusze—the traditional clothes of the Polish gentry—and silk robes, evidence of a massacre…
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Copyright (c) 2000 by Czeslaw Milosz