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Proust in Lubyanka

The following excerpt from My Century is made up of taped sections and a separate sketch found in Wat’s papers.

We had no communist literature the entire time when I was in Lubyanka, no Marxist literature at all. I was in many cells where prisoners were given books, at least a few, and everyone confirmed that they were never given that sort of book. My fellow prisoners had a very intelligent explanation for that: it was simply to keep the investigators, who were not terribly intelligent, from being nailed to the wall by Marxist arguments. There was no shortage, however, of religious literature. I read Solovyov there and a great many others. I read the church fathers, St. Augustine on the Kingdom of God.

The books I read in Lubyanka made for one of the greatest experiences of my life. Not because they allowed me an escape but because, to a certain extent, they transformed me, influenced and shaped me greatly. It was the way I read those books; I came at them from a completely new angle. And from then on I had a completely new understanding, not only of literature, but of everything.

Literature is insight and synthesis, which means that poetry, ultimately, is heroic. Naked, weak, hungry, trembling, endangered by all the elements, all the beasts and demons, the cave men performed that act of heroism for consolation, in the deepest sense of the word. And at that time there in Lubyanka this seemed to me the essence of literature and the source of its legitimacy in the world. Consolation for a weak, naked cave man.

A Sketch Found in Wat’s Papers

Swann’s Way was in the first batch of books. My first book in a year. To my surprise and, later, almost to my horror, I realized that my entire value system had not been destroyed but had simply been left outside the prison walls. All my knowledge of people and society, all the circuitous paths of psychological inquiry, my industrious study of the passions, my oversophistication—everything in which I had taken so much delight—in Lubyanka seemed atrophied, pretentious, and irritating at times. After the misery of Zamarstynów prison what did I care about a satire on the Verdurins’ salon? What did I care about a world enclosed in a salon like a ship in a bottle; what did I care about lifeless thoughts turned into elegant conversation? It was absorbing, of course, and helped to kill time. But everything in that book that was not poetry, that did not have poetry’s energy and movement, was just costume drama.

Swann’s Way did not emerge diminished from that reading. Quite the contrary, I was more charmed than ever by the power of its energy, its beauty of movement. The poetry in Swann’s Way made everything intimate, an “inward vibration,” and was all the more unusual in that it played off the outermost layers, the epidermis of the sensibility. And what was of more importance to me was that in its experience of time past, the book was, first and foremost, a state of constant agony in which nothing had yet died but everything was dying. An unbroken moment suspended between life and death, a final breath hellishly protracted beyond all measure—that alone gives the book its depth and stirs the reader to his depths; without this, Proust’s entire work would be no more than an enormous fresco of vanity, in both senses of the word.

While reading Swann’s Way, I began to discover a model for the agony I was suffering in prison, and Proust’s long sentences and time periods recaptured their original power for me. An exchange of form and power—the archetypal relationship between author and reader. As if in mockery, it was everything flimsy about Proust—his quasi-Balzacian side, his descriptions of human life in “decadent capitalism”—that Anatoly Lunacharsky praised in his introduction and that was seen as the sole justification for publishing the book. Like all Marxist critics, Lunacharsky, the last of the Bolshevik esthetes, did not write about the work itself but treated it as a sociological “trot.” When reading his introduction, I realized that I was repelled as much by communism’s reduction of everything to the flat and the linear as by its atrocities.

By the way, the clichés used in introductions by Marxists—“subjectively reactionary but objectively progressive”; “a genius conditioned by the limitations of his time” or “his class,” and so on—are sordid and arrogant, but, after all, they have saved and continue to save literature in those countries where, as Gobineau put it, “the inquisitor functions as a critic.”

Machiavelli, in the Academy edition, was also in that first batch of books. Not long after these books arrived I happened on a large selection of his letters, a pre-revolutionary edition containing his correspondence and a detailed biography. At one point I had read Machiavelli like tout le monde, through the prism of the epithet “Machiavellian”—“the genius of political corruption,” “the severe masculine world of the condottieri…virtu…” Machiavelli the poet came as a real revelation to me in Lubyanka. Not because of his verse itself, which was rather weak, but because he was a poet. “Dichterisch wohnt der Mensch auf dieser Erde” (Hölderlin). A poet of action, Machiavelli tried to make his earth dichterisch.

That book came to me at just the right moment. On the dunghill of Zamarstynów I had trained myself in hatred and disgust for politics, all and any. We had seen its ugly pockmarked face; it had come to the old refined city of Lwów from the Bolshevik steppes, the plains of Muscovy, and that was the source of our suffering. We heaped abuse on the politics of Poland, on the politics of the West, embroiled in a thousand petty intrigues like those that tore Machiavelli’s Italy apart, that weakness that had helped give rise to two monstrous waves of barbarism.

It would be an exaggeration to say that reading Machiavelli in Lubyanka cured me of the hatred and disgust for politics I had acquired in Zamarstynów. That still comes back in me to this day and sometimes literally chokes me and makes me stammer; to write on political subjects is torture for me, but I was always doomed to have to speak my piece. The power and the glory of reading come from those moments of illumination, when it clarifies the obscure, when it breaks things into their parts, but it is powerless against strong feelings. Once strong feelings have taken root in us, reading can only influence the direction they grow in, inhibiting or enhancing them, raising them to a higher level. Reading Machiavelli restored my equilibrium; I regained my sense of proportion and distinction, albeit sporadically—and what more could I have asked for? I learned to distinguish between politics as collective fate and as political instrument. Machiavelli showed me politics against a different sky, against stars that could not be seen from prison.

Politics is fate.” When, in 1808, at a gathering of kings in Erfurt, Goethe praised Voltaire’s Mahomet as a Schicksalstragödie, the emperor Napoleon interrupted him to say, “A tragedy of fate? That’s part of the past now. Politik is das Schicksal.”

Machiavelli and his city-state were faced with the same hopeless task as the Athenians of the fifth century: how to safeguard the polis, the beauty and harmony of its logic when, by the nature of things, large groups, large numbers, were fated to enter history, and vast dark forces came into play threatening the polis with subjugation and degradation to the conqueror’s own low level. Machiavelli then became the poet of politics as Plato had once been its teacher. But, as opposed to Plato, Machiavelli was no longer able to believe in educating the rabble: “A corrupt people is unable to maintain the freedom it had once secured for itself.” He no longer believed that the Ideal could be realized, and he believed neither in the wisdom or the philosophers nor in the virtue of the knights. The prince had to be educated.

Dramatic circumstances attended the writing of The Prince: Machiavelli was thrown into a dungeon, subject to torture that he bore with courage and with such sarcasm at his own expense that he could say when writing from a prison in supplication to powerful people, “I acted so well that I felt a certain tenderness toward myself.”

Released, finally released to a miserable little village, he described his life in a letter to Francesco Vettori: “In the afternoon I go to the inn, play dice and backgammon with the innkeeper, the miller, the butcher; we argue over pennies, exchange the most obscene of insults, and cheat each other. And thus do I defend myself against Fortune’s spite…content that it has cast me low, as it peers at me to see if I blush with shame.”

He would return home in the late afternoon, cast off his stinking clothes, don courtly attire, and then settle his accounts with Livy and Seneca, whom he treated as equals. In those evening disquisitions after his days at the inn, he wrote The Prince, a crystal of poetry and logic, in one burst of genius.

Machiavelli, our contemporary, with our passion for self-degradation—“Content that Fortune has cast me so low….” He put the entire esperienze delle cose moderne to the test and in that he resembles the people of today. When in one letter he describes with scrupulous naturalism an adventure in the dark with a lame, festering old prostitute, one suspects that this could have been Baudelaire’s model for The Jewess. “For a long time now I have not been saying what I think and not thinking what I say, and, if a true word escapes me, I wrap it in so many lies that it cannot be found,” writes Machiavelli to Francesco Guicciardini, a ready-made epigraph—and perhaps an epitaph as well, for Russian or Polish writers under communism.

Nowadays one speaks of “Stalin’s Machiavellianism,” a single phrase that joins the height of Renaissance thought and virtue (virtu) with Tartar customs. Although at that time I was still avoiding making any allusion to Stalin, since the principal accusation and perhaps even the cause of my arrest was my prewar statements about him (as numerous witnesses, my colleagues, had testified), in the cell I did read aloud the passage in which Machiavelli advises the Prince to commit all the atrocities he will have to commit right at the beginning, in one fell swoop, or else end up in a vicious circle of constantly renewed atrocities.

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