internal life

That it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all

I remember Antoni Słonimski. During my formative days he was an icon in my country. No longer to be read anywhere in the official media – having displeased the communists he had been banned from publishing – he was widely and eagerly read in samizdat. Read and admired.

As I read his works now I realize my admiration for him is entirely Voltairean: the man deserved to be loved for his infallible political and moral compass – an unshakeable belief in human rights and absolute need for liberal principles in government (liberal in the European sense, meaning that the state must be lenient); and his courageous public stand on these issues, damn the cost to his professional career and personal danger. But I admire him as a writer as I admire Voltaire: not at all.

Why?

The similarity between both writers goes deeper than political stand. They were both brilliant polemicists, aggressive, biting, and witty. They excelled – and thrived – in the heat of the moment, of the tit-for-tat, in public displays of the flashy quickness of their minds. They excelled in it, and they lived for it. The most revealing moment in Słonimski’s life, to my mind, is his trip to Brazil, during which he was bored, was not at all interested to learn anything about the country, and missed badly Warsaw cafe life – exactly as Voltaire missed Parisian salons when banned to the countryside. They lived to shine in society.

If you think about it in this light, the political principles of the two appear not a little self-serving: confident that they will shine in public and prevail in debate, of course they preferred free speech in the same way in which a heavy-weight boxer might prefer a no-holds-barred free-for-all.

But as brilliant as their style is – fluid, flashy, entertaining – it is also a bit like the Great Sahel Barbecue: all smoke and fire and very little flesh – only a few charred bits of desert locust. If, like me, you read in search of deep reflection, of new insight into the nature of the universe and the individual’s place in it, of profound introspection, you will find neither. It is almost as if the men lacked internal life. Significantly, neither has ever kept a journal intime: it is as if left alone by themselves, they ceased to exist. They were like those people with walk-on parts in your life, who, at the end of their scene, say “bye-bye” and go out the door and just outside freeze in temporary suspension until called on stage again. As he departed Paris, Voltaire felt himself dying: the further he was, the more dead he was. Cirey was a surprising discovery for Voltaire: that life outside of Paris salons was possible; that one could spend a day all by himself, without showing off or impressing a single person, and be contented. I am not sure that Słonimski ever made that discovery.

In my previous incarnation as a blogger I came upon countless Słonimski-Voltaires: people who ran their blogs for the traffic; and who engaged in comments only on busy blogs, in order to shine. If, attracted by an interesting comment, I ever tried to follow up in personal correspondence, I got next to nothing: the target, it turned out, was not interested in the topic, or in discussing the topic (which is not quite the same thing), but – in public shining. Private correspondence, being private, did not interest them.

And thus my reading of Słonimski, and reflection on him, has led me to formulate a thesis: that it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all. For such people it comes naturally to believe that all mind or all consciousness are a function of language; and that all reality is somehow linguistic.  (Die Grenze meiner Schprache sind die Grenze meiner Welt).

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