When we are being deluged with diatribes on a fourth-grade level, perhaps it is appropriate to become really, really stupid in response. But I hope not (hope against hope, or to borrow the title of Terry Eagleton’s book, hope without optimism). We are going to need all the intelligence we can get, and I am sorry that I seem to have lost track of the few shared articles that put the present moment in a sensibly analyzed global context.
I’ve been dipping into an advance reading copy of Adam Zagajewski’s Slight Exaggeration: An Essay (April 4, 2017; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and realizing with a sense of depression that the Polish poets and intellectuals are becoming relevant again in the same way they were in the 1980s. As has happened several times before over recent centuries, we seem to be living in a moment in which the fine, multicultural, globalized and borderless planet of mutual prosperity that occasionally seems to be just around history’s corner is about to be bulldozed into rubble by the retrograde causes espoused by people who could find no place in that supposedly radiant future, or who were threatened by it.
Zagajewski tells different stories from the years of immense displacement and terror followed by the decades of relatively humane but repressive boredom, and I’m reminded again of the huge waste not just of actual lives, but of human creative potential in general, that comes with having to go into the streets not once but again and again. We have been seeing this cycle of repeated resistance increasingly often over the past half-dozen years, and now are likely to see even more of it; all of this made me remember Anna Swir’s poem about the Warsaw Uprising, “Building the Barricade,” and although I failed to find it online, I found instead some other marvelous poems of Swir’s that remind me of the level of bluntly spoken insight and subtle humane discourse that can come out of times of the worst disruption and mass death. But that isn’t our situation (yet).
Zagajewski recounts an incident recorded in his father’s flatfootedly written memoir in which a relative, trapped in German-occupied Poland, practiced piano faithfully in hopes of entering the Chopin Competition when Chopin Competitions were again a thinkable possibility. It’s an inspiring story that Zagajewski finds out isn’t true, and it illustrates our primal need for stories that affirm our deepest values (whether through positive or negative examples). We need them so badly that we consume them greedily in the form of fake news; failing that, we’ll make them up ourselves and convince ourselves that they really happened. Poetry, on the other hand (if I may burlesque a familiar saying of Ezra Pound’s) is fake news that we know is fake, and that thus stays news in spite of its fakery.
Understanding how to keep the creative imagination going (albeit sometimes in self-deluding fashion) in times of extremity is something that has been embodied in literature all over the world, in multiple languages, but in the ‘80s I picked it up best from Czeslaw Milosz and thus tend to fall back on the Polish examples. (I also grew up among people who shared similar delusions, thus making Polish culture more comprehensible. Regrettably, my surroundings rarely gave birth to similar self-critique.)
I’m already past the 500-word limit that is the outer expanse of most folks’ attention span these days (140 characters is more our thing, I gather). More thoughts later, I hope.