In the darkest days of winter, in a moment of deep darkness for my adopted country, Italy, and its garishly painted tyrant, the writings of a Polish poet have kept me company. Zbigniew Herbert died in 1998 at the age of seventy-three; like another compatriot, Karol Wojtyła, he lived through some of the most difficult times of the twentieth century, in the very heart of that darkness, the “bloodlands” of Eastern Europe. His native city, Lwów, was overrun by both the Red Army and the Nazis during World War II; afterward, Herbert lived under Polish Communist rule and witnessed the rise of the labor union Solidarność, the military takeover of 1981, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Through all of these cataclysms, he wrote poetry as if life depended on poetry, and he wrote beautiful prose, much of it devoted to works of art. In a world that had shown him spectacular ugliness, he responded with a steady stream of paeans to beauty.
Despite restrictions and the inevitable bureaucratic hangups, Herbert’s success in his own country allowed him to travel widely in Europe, always on a tiny budget. His reflections on those travels, not surprisingly, are all about freedom and the real meanings of life—animal, vegetable, and especially human—but they are so subtly expressed that there is no way to challenge their politics.
Herbert is, above all, a comforter of souls. He puts a credo of sorts into a letter from the great Dutch painter Vermeer to the microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek; the letter is fictitious, but its historical setting is plausible: Leeuwenhoek was, in fact, the executor of Vermeer’s will, and this is the kind of information that Herbert reliably ferrets out about every place he visits, every person he meets, whether living or long deceased.
Herbert’s Vermeer cautions his optically minded friend against the headlong pursuit of science, the same science that has just revealed to the two of them that what has always looked like a clear, sunlit drop of water is instead a murky bead of sludge, teeming with tiny creatures. Look through your microscope if you must, the painter concedes:
But allow us as well to continue our archaic procedure, to tell the world words of reconciliation and to speak of joy from recovered harmony, of the eternal desire for reciprocated love.
In his eventful youth, Herbert studied both philosophy and art history in admirable depth; he thought about becoming a professor in one of these fields or the other. Hence his descriptions of paintings, whether on the walls of Lascaux or of the Rijksmuseum, are informed as well as sensitive, and for this author of tiny prose poems, as for Plato once upon a time, the margin between poetry and prose does not really exist. Even in translation, he writes about art, history, myth, and travel in ecstatic, inspired language. Of the Sienese painter Sassetta’s Betrothal of St. Francis to Poverty, he writes:
Two monks (St. Francis can be recognized by his aureole) face three slender girls: in gray, green, and purple. There is a subtle movement like the spinning of a delicate thread between the hands of the saint and the middle figure. Above left, the three mystical maidens calmly fly away with only the backward bend of their feet, like bird’s legs, conveying their flight. A white stone castle to the right is so light that a butterfly could capture it. The Tuscan landscape—gray and green, as evening approaches. Tree-tops are placed separately in the landscape, like notes. The sky falls in streaks, as in oriental paintings—cool blue at the top with a weightless, limitless luminescence hovering above the gently modulated hills.
Herbert’s tastes lean toward what is stern and simple: he revels in the stark immediacy of the cave painters and the otherworldly composure of Piero della Francesca, whose mysterious Madonna del Parto he was lucky enough to see in its original setting—a rustic church in the wild forests between Umbria and Tuscany.
There, Piero’s ancient Madonna drew prospective mothers from the countryside, nearly all of them descended straight from ancient Etruscans or their Umbrian vassals, all eager to perpetuate an endless chain of being that also preserved a heritage of folk memories. (This is how the painting appeared in Andrei Tarkowsky’s film Nostalghia of 1983.) Now, however, the Madonna del Parto, robbed of its sacrality and sealed behind glass, hangs in a citified museum in the Tuscan town of Monterchi, drawing sophisticated art lovers in search of the life of the lotus-eaters “Under the Tuscan Sun” rather than humble pilgrims. One wonders whether, under such sterile conditions, even Piero’s immortal art can still impart the gift of life, and whether the love of art lovers is really a fair exchange for the loving eyes of faith.
So many things have changed in Italy, and the world, since Herbert sat at the Bar La Favorita in Siena, nursing the single glass of Campari soda his minuscule budget permitted him, attracted, as he wrote, “by a singing voice.” La Favorita has long since changed into another outpost of the Nannini pastry empire, and no one sings under an outdoor canopy on a summer night to dispel the ugliness of Piazza Matteotti (the one ugly place in Siena, Herbert wrote, though there are now many others):
I drink Campari-soda, a red poison tasting of absinthe that makes the tongue stiffen and the throat burn. If it were not so expensive, I would have another and ask the singer for “The Red Poppies of Monte Cassino.” She would surely know it.
Still, many things about Siena have hardly changed at all. The Polish visitor returns to his hotel, the same “Tre Donzelle” that has been in service since the sixteenth century and still thrives (an old, old sign from the establishment is one of the Renaissance paintings on display in the Pinacoteca Nazionale). As he walks back down the Via di Città, he thinks back on what he has seen in two days: Piazza del Campo, the fourteenth-century Town Hall, the thirteenth-century Cathedral, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s thirteenth-century Majesty of the Virgin, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, an ideal image of a thriving Siena painted just before Ambrogio and his city succumbed to the Black Death of 1348:
I return to my “Tre Donzelle,” but just as I reach the gate, I turn toward the Campo. Everything is as it should be. The walls of the Town Hall stand, etched sharply in the night, its tower as beautiful as yesterday. I can go to bed. Explosions mushroom all over the earth, but maybe we shall manage to make a couple of rotations around the sun—with this salvaged cathedral, this palace, this painting.
Herbert’s journeys begin with the cave paintings of Lascaux, at the dawn of the human artistic impulse. In the 1960s, visitors could still climb down into the cave itself—it has been closed now for decades in order to protect its delicate paintings from what happens when carbon dioxide from human lungs meets the limestone of the cave wall: the painted surfaces dissolve in powdery bubbles of calcium carbonate. Herbert saw the paintings by a jarring electric light rather than the flickering lamps that must have accompanied the prehistoric painters, and must have lent their startlingly accurate images of animals the semblance of motion and life. Still, he is poet enough to be able to plunge back into their world, drawn by the strange bond the paintings clearly make between the animals and their hunters:
A powerful supplication for the eternal preservation of the natural order can be read from the walls of Lascaux. That is probably why the cave painters are the greatest animal artists in history. For them, unlike for the Dutch masters, an animal was not an element in a tame landscape in pastoral Arcadia; they saw it in a flash, in dramatic flight, alive but marked for death. Their eye does not contemplate the object but fetters it in its black contour line with the precision of the perfect murderer.
He is drawn also by the contrast between the wealth of detail lavished on the animals painted on the walls and the sparely schematic form of the single human image. From the very outset, we seem to have portrayed ourselves as poor forked creatures, ready to exchange our naked bodies and flattened faces for the gorgeous fur, muscle, and muzzle of the animals. Yet here, too, Herbert’s basic reaction is one of profound joy, a sense not only of connection, but of some prevailing goodness to the world:
I returned from Lascaux by the same road I arrived. Though I had stared into what some call the abyss of history, I did not feel I was returning from another world. Never before had I felt a stronger or more reassuring conviction: I am a citizen of the earth, an inheritor not only of the Greeks and Romans but of almost the whole of infinity…. The road opened to the Greek temples and Gothic stained glass. I walked towards them feeling the warm touch of the Lascaux painter on my palm.
As an inheritor of the Greeks and Romans, Herbert spent a good deal of his energy as a prose writer retelling—or revising, as is every storyteller’s right—the ancient myths: Atlas, Arachne, Endymion, Prometheus. He tells the story of Phyê, the strapping peasant girl who was dressed up as the goddess Athena in a helmet and armor by the ambitious Athenian Peisistratos. Set in a chariot by his side, she was instructed to tell the crowds that she had descended among them to present her favorite, with whom she was well pleased. Herodotus says it was by far the stupidest ploy ever to fool the clever Athenians, which suggests that the ruse was successful. Peisistratos certainly did go on to rule Athens, autocratically but well. But Herbert, who was forced to break off his high school career when the Nazis came to Lwów, has a more cynical view of the matter. His little fable “Phya,” barely longer than his prose poems, ends thus:
The team drove out into the streets of Athens. It proceeded silently amid thickening crowds, from which cries of enthusiasm and hostility could be heard. The name of Pisistratus was shouted.
Escorted by pages, the team moved slowly. It turned into the street where pan-Athenian processions were moving along.
And here the first stone hit it.
Herbert also pondered one particular Roman personification. Dying before the turn of the millennium, he guessed that Security, an invented deity, would become the tutelary spirit of our age—or perhaps his fable about Security, composed with the Iron Curtain firmly in mind, simply accounts just as well for September 11, and indeed for the fears and desires of any state grappling with a real threat to its safety, or simply exploiting a perceived threat in order to tighten its grip.
Like Plato, Herbert had the courage to grasp both the supreme greatness of Homer and the fact that Homer’s view of humanity, however profound, is not enough to live by. He fixes, refreshingly, on “This Horrible Thersites,” the sharp-tongued plebeian in the Iliad who dares to question the lords who have dragged the Trojan War into its tenth year. For an answer Thersites gets a scepter blow to the head from Odysseus. The other Achaean warriors find this incredibly funny. Herbert does not:
So much for the myths.
Today we can look differently at Thersites, without Homer’s consent. Who was he? A representative of the vanquished, perhaps a Minoan prince stripped of power by the Achaeans.
His only weapon was abuse, the rebellion of the helpless—without hope but precisely because of that, deserving admiration and respect.
The wandering Polish poet wonders not only about Homer, but also about the primal poem, the inarticulate grunt of a hominid that contained the seeds of all poetry. He worries about the animal faith of the hellhound Cerberus and the deformed child who became the Minotaur, shut away in the labyrinth. His story of Atlas begins: “It is difficult, truly, to be reconciled to sky-high injustice.”
He travels to the Low Countries, to become caught up, vicariously, in tulip-mania, and climbs the Acropolis (one does wish that his translators had an accurate command of ancient and modern Greek; the mistakes abound). Whatever his restrictions of place, time, and budget, his imagination knew no bounds, and he described his wanderings, mental, physical, and spiritual, in gorgeous language—which this reader can appreciate only in translation. (Overall, the translations work as literature, aside from the erratic Greek and an occasional oddity. The copy-editing is slipshod throughout.)
In 1998, Herbert looked back on the problem of evil, a force that had obviously shaped his life, at times with terrible power. His first intimation, he writes, was, as a child, seeing a dead mole lying in the street and knowing it was dead. One of the mysteries of Herbert, again a quality that links him with Karol Wojtyła, is his irrepressible, constant joy at being alive, despite the fact that his life bore witness to tremendous evil and must have been marked by enveloping solitude. Yet his brief pondering on evil ends by emphasizing his deep feeling of connectedness, a connectedness that beams through all the beautiful writing compiled in this book:
Whoever grumbles about the difficulty of choosing, simulates and plays up an intellectual malaise while in fact he lacks character, the ability to make a choice according to one’s moral being. That being is, as it were, given by nature, it connects us to the structure of the universe and in particular the world of human beings and animals.
This much in brief, but by God and the truth, there is no need to go on about it or write fat tomes; one must exercise good will, for that way we spare ourselves and our neighbors much suffering.
The writings of Zbigniew Herbert do more than spare his neighbors much suffering. They are a positive delight.