Dragoneia is the name of a village near Naples where Herling had his summertime villa.
Dragoneia, July 14, 1977
Perhaps only in the country, where contact with nature is continuing, and where it is still the essence of life, has the Evil preserved a bit of its former character of something identifiable and autonomous; and with symbolism deriving from local traditions. The area surrounding Dragoneia is The Domain of The Snake. Last year, in the deep valley behind the village I saw a group of peasants renovating the tiny abandoned church which had been built there two centuries ago above an entrance to a dark cave to commemorate the long years of struggle which took place there between The Snake and the village’s saintly eremite.
Many years ago my neighbor did meet The Snake at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle in Cava: The Snake had a feathered head and fiery eyes. My neighbor became faint, his legs gave out uder him, he was barely able to summon the strength to fire at it from his shotgun. It was at high noon, the hour of the wild fire of the sun, so he could not be sure what chased off The Snake: the gunshot, or the pealing of bells at nearby churches. He barely managed to drag himself home, half-dead, he collapsed on his bed and during the next few days was unable to speak. His speech had turned into some sort of a devilish rattle. And now – I have witnessed this ever since I have begun to live here – he keeps disappearing for a few days at a time every now and then. People say he wanders without purpose; others — that he lies in wait at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle. He is, on a small scale, the local Ahab stalking the Dragoneian White Whale.
To the faithful sons of the soil and the sea, Melville, if only they knew him, would be easy to understand and believe. There is in them, beneath the thin veneer of Christianity — in any case mainly ritualistic — a kind of pagan-cum-Old-Testament cross of the vision of Evil: not the notion of a struggle between Good and Evil taking place in the soul of each of the faithful, but of the Beast, lurking in the deep of the ocean or the soil: lying in wait for man.
Melville was a myth-maker writer, he did not care about psychology, he was attracted to Biblical parables. Moby Dick was his masterpiece, as powerful as the roar of the sea, and Billy Budd was his a short, deeply affecting swan song. Billy Budd – the incarnation of Good; Claggart – obsessed by Evil; De Vere who sacrifices an innocent boy at the Altar of the Law, like Abraham – Isaac. In this beautiful Misterium For Three Voices, the Beautiful Sailor speaks with the voice of a barbarian.
Not that Billy Budd was unable, like children, to understand death; he simply did not feel any irrational fear of death, because this fear is far more common in civilized societies than in the so-called barbarian ones, which remain far closer to Nature; and, as we have said, Billy Budd was an authentic barbarian.
Melville loved the Good Barbarian for the unadorned simplicity of his soul. The Christian soul is confused and helpless, since in her fear of death she lacks the acceptance of death. The natural soul is defined by one single inborn response: of horror before the mystery of Evil.
What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? — 2nd excerpt from Herling-Grudzinski’s Diary Written At Night-time
Alba lunare (“moon-dawn”) is a phenomenon of nature visible in several places on the planet where the air is especially clear and dry allowing the stars to be seen in the sky for several minutes after the rise of the sun.
Panarea, 24 June – 2 July 1977
The Aeolian Islands, near the shores of Sicily, or, in the language of mass tourism, the Seven Pearls: Stromboli, Panarea, Salina, Lipari, Vulcano, Filicudi, Alicudi. Twice a week a ship sails from Naples, early in the evening. Soon after you pass Capri, night falls. A short while yet the red tail of sunset drags itself along the furrow of the sea, and then it is swallowed up by blackness, pure and absolute.
The first pearl one fishes out from the sea,just before dawn, is Stromboli. As the ship drops anchor the end of night looks like the unwrapping of bandages. Layer after layer, scale after scale, the thick darkness reluctantly thins, out of the crater, briefly, a tongue of fire slips out and quickly slips back in, the transport barges grow large, the lighthouse on shelf near the island is extinguished. Now you can see Stromboli clearly. From the black sand of the beach, though the white of the houses, and the green of vegetation of unusual variety of color shades — in places nearly purple, elsewhere near yellow — up to the black cone of the volcano. The first pearl makes one think rather of a rock dug up from the bottom of the sea, a record of drilling, grinding, chipping, pulling, and finishing with colors.
The second pearl is Panarea, my goal. Much smaller – only three kilometers long and two wide, two hundred fifty residents, classical Sicilian landscape: reddish brown scree, greyish-green plates of rock, and piante grasse: the fat cactus vegetation, here and there embroidered with a flush of flower. The only proof of its antiquity is a prehistorical village on Calaiunco, the anchor-shaped peninsula. Circular “huts” made from a few rocks piled one upon the other at the edge of a high cliff, below the sapphire sea, glittering like a sheet of tinfoil, behind naked pink rock, and thistle with blood-red flowers. Guidebooks recommend another oddity, also prehistorically flavored. The moon-break, alba lunare, is known in other places, too; but perhaps only here the pale day emerges from the dull globe in such a magical way.
Outside the tourist season, life is focused on thee points: port-church-graveyard. In the graveyard I found a stone with an inscription which encompasses the whole cycle. A Panarean fisherman, “he always held the oar and the net in his hands, he worshiped God, loved life and the sea, died one hundred and ten years of age”. In the harbor people wait for ships; in front of the church – for it to open. On the day of the patron saint of the island, Saint Peter, the village procession is a procession of a handful of castaways.
There is no electricity on the island and in the evening one lights a kerosene lamp. What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? To me, it tells the tale of childhood and early youth. Things seen, discovered, perhaps only suspected, “at the threshold”, belong to our most secret mythology. Poetry’s whole point, I suppose, that in one’s adult age one tries to restore to things and feelings that uniqueness, which they otherwise are only granted at first touch. What we call evocation — going back in time — is an attempt to see anew, for the second time, the world in its unordered form. In my house on the pond there was no electricity and there the world was assembled: The World Built of Elementary Parts. A word was more than a symbol. Pond, Meadow, Forest, Mill, Hate, Fear – pure categories, in and of themselves – the noumena – gates to regions untouched by foreign foot. Later Reality opens up, and, as she does, visions, naïve symbols, and magical enchantments are all pushed aside. Then, one’s whole adult life one misses that unity, that purity, that mystery of gaze, which functions without words – until it disappears irretrievably. Irretrievably? Restoration of the gaze does happen to great writers, the creators of myths.
For many years now, the infertile soil has not been farmed, not counting a rare vegetable garden. Old vineyards and fields have gone wild, become overgrown with weeds, there is no one to take care of them. The more enterprising residents have fled for the continent, and on the island one only bakes the bread. But even those who have remained leave at the close of the season for Sicily, for temporary work. In the fall and winter the island empties out. In the area where I am staying, between the graveyard and the prehistorical village, only two families are patiently awaiting the spring. La vita se firma, tira solo vento. The life dies down and only the wind is blowing.
The Aeolian Wind.
Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (1919-2000) was a Polish novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, soldier, prisoner of the Soviet Gulag. Arrested in 1940 after the Soviet invasion of Poland, he left with the Polish army formed within the Soviet Union in 1942, fought against Nazis in North Africa and Italy (Tobruk, Monte Cassino). After the war, he settled in Naples where he married one of the daughters of Croce. He was of the principal contributors to the leading Polish emigre monthly Kultura (publishing books otherwise banned in Poland under Soviet rule) where his Diary Written In Night-time was published in monthly installments over a thirty year period. A kind of journal intime of a thinking man, it is composed of essays, short stories, book reviews, letters, imaginary dialogues, political commentary, and a few, very sparing, carefully disguised — and yet for all that very affecting — autobiographical entries — and nothing in the way of the usual “had breakfast, walked the dog” trivia which fill the diaries of the great.
Here are several of the more personal, more poetic pieces that struck me while reading Volume I. Perhaps, had the journal consisted of nothing but pieces like this, it would soon become tiresome; but scattered as they are among other, more argumentative and purposeful prose, these pieces stand out like diamonds set in a cast iron ring. The first excerpt, dated 1972, records an incident in 1945 when the soldiers of the Polish army in Italy have learned that they have been betrayed by their allies: that the US and UK had ceded their country to the Soviet Union and that there would be no free fatherland to return to after all. (Elsewhere in the diary, remembering the 1945-6 period in Rome, Herling writes: “one drank a lot in those days, drank to unconsciousness, drank to forget”).
July 16, 1972
The well known English critic Alvarez tried to take his own life. He was saved and the consequence was his book, The savage god, a study of suicide. Besides his own experiences Alvarez used as the immediate impulse for writing the story of the suicide of his friend and (excellent) poetess Sylvia Plath. The book is a huge hit in the UK and in America.
The subtitle is misleading: this supposed “study of suicide” was compiled by a literatus interested chiefly in the topic of “suicide and literature”. I see nothing wrong with this sort of narrowing of the subject, but in this case I am repulsed by the insistent, and irritating, insinuation that only “artists” are capable of “true suicide”; ordinary eaters of bread take their own life for trivial reasons; but for artists, a suicide is the conclusion of an uncontrollable “creative act”. Above the book ponderously hangs a reflection from Kierkegaard:
The whole world may be divided into those who write, and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, those who do not disapprove of it and believe in their own wisdom, but if they were capable of writing, they would write exactly the same things. At bottom, they are as desperate, but, when one does not have the chance to become someone important thanks to his own despair, then there is not much point celebrating it or showing it. Could this be the way to overcome despair?
I had no idea that Kierkegaard could be so stupid. He is perhaps explained – though not justified – by this: to him “despair” became the equivalent of “grace” in the Puritan faith, the special grace of the elect. He surrounded this “mortal disease”, this “hemophilia of the soul”, with the defensive air of blue blood.
Many years ago I happened to spend ferragosto, the culminating day of summer (August 15) celebrated by Italians, in a down-at-heel tiny hotel in Rome. The city was deserted, the heat was unbelievable. I lay naked on my wet bed, dragging myself every now and then to the sink, to stick my head under the faucet, and to look down the dark well of the courtyard. The only sound was the ugly noise of the elevator when some soldier brought up a girl from Termini for a short time. Even love-making next door took place quietly, sleepily, without moaning or squeaking of the bed. I can’t remember the lazy, unglued course of my thoughts, though I remember that they slithered here and there through the landscape of years past and that there was in them a gradually crystallizing fury (according to Kierkegaard: the chief face of despair). Around six o’clock in the evening I felt something difficult to describe, a kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void. I stood at the window. What brought me to was the pain in my hands tightly grasping the lock of the shutters. Soon thereafter the streets rippled with voices, the city came to life, in the house next door someone sang, at full throat, a popular song. In the midnight news bulletin it was reported that alle sei della sera circa four persons took their own lives in various parts of Rome.
In the vain effort to understand the Savage God a day like that weighs more than any literary “study of suicide”.
Next: an expedition to Panrea (Lipari Islands) and the tale told by the kerosene lamp.
I have been digging up and reading every word ever written by Jerzy Stempowski (1893-1969), Polish exile essayist and literary critic. He is perhaps the world’s only other writer who reads like Bertrand Russell — his prose has such a high meaning/words ratio that he appears to be “thinking too fast” — readers used to the usual plodding fluff-and-ornament have to read him slowly for fear that if they read him at the normal speed, they will somehow fail to get everything he is saying — and everything he is saying is so eminently worth paying attention to.
He, no doubt, would attribute the stunning quality of his prose to his thorough classical education (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, etc.). He is the only atheist I know who appears to have lost his faith as a result of reading Fathers of the Church at the tender age of fifteen; and perhaps the only man I have ever heard praise as his literary ideal someone whose arguments he thoroughly rejects (Tertulian).
Perhaps because Stempowski’s prose is so content-rich, his writings are both brief and scarce — his formula seems to have been “write only when you have something to say, and then write only what you have to say”. Despite the recent rush to print him, there has not been a critical edition: one finds his work scattered, fragmentary, often the same essays are repeated in a number of different, haphazard, unauthorized collections. As good as some of those essays are, his best pieces are his private letters: Stempowski often quoted Bolingbroke as his ideal — and liked to repeat that the History of Europe was written for a single reader – (like Lampedusa’s two-thousand-page History of English Literature). He wrote his letters slowly, with great care, and after much reflection.
In a letter written to his father in 1945 – the first letter he could risk posting to him – his father, a prominent figure before the war, had remained in occupied Warsaw where he was constantly at risk of being discovered – Jerzy Stempowski described his flight from Poland in 1939 as the German and Soviet troops poured in. (He was to remain in exile until his death). The war found him in Eastern Ruthenia, a country in the Carpathians, the highest and still wildest range of mountains in Eastern Europe, constituting the border between several different states (and therefore a major smuggling route). During the Second World War the region’s borders were redrawn several times with nasty consequences to their various residents.
This is how he tells the story of his exile in his letter:
“When I now look back at all these years of our separation, its saddest period seems to me to be that of the summer of 1939, the time of waiting for the inevitable catastrophe [Hitler’s invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939], which I had been able to foresee more or less the way it subsequently unfolded. Mrs Wichuna [Stempowski’s significant other] could not bear the expectation and slipped into a serious nervous disorder of the manic-depressive sort, became ever more frail and ever more slender.
In the days of The Exodus [Polish government fled to Romania on the news that the German invasion from the West was followed by a Soviet invasion from the East, on September 17, 1939], which found us in Słoboda [a town in the then Polish part of Eastern Ruthenia, now in the Ukraine] we kept trying to decide who of us should go into hiding. Reflection proved that Vincenz, his son, and I should go up into the mountains and see what was happening at the border. From there we were either to return and take the rest with us, or else cross over ourselves if the circumstances required it.
Thus we saw the famous Kuty [Polish-Romanian border town] on the day of The Great Exodus. We felt no great enthusiasm to join those present there. [Stempowski and his friends had been in opposition and vocally critical of the last Polish government]. So we double-backed into the mountains, by now empty and forlorn, and the next day we presented ourselves at a different border [Polish-Hungarian].
The situation there was uncertain. It was difficult to foresee what would happen to those who would cross the border. [Hungary was siding with Hitler but not at war with Poland]. Trusting our knowledge of the mountains, which would allow us to turn back in the event of some untoward developments, we entered a foreign country – a very strange foreign country, very exotic – in the hope of finding support for our plans. The further we went, the less we understood the local situation: under German pressure the whole country seemed to have turned to facilitating illegality [neither the Hungarian government nor the Hungarian populace were eager German supporters and both secretly helped Polish refugees]. For some time, threatened with arrest, we hid ourselves in the house of an old nobleman, where life went on more or less in a fashion similar to that of the life of my grand-father in the Ukraine. While there, we got some sense of how this illegal system worked, we took some steps in order to protect ourselves from local authorities [probably bribing sympathetically inclined officials], and we went back up into the mountains in order to collect the rest of our flock. Up there we met the king of local smugglers, a huge man looking like Kruger, the President of Transvaal. His son was a Prague University PhD. The place was full of the remains of the civil war  but our familiarity with the Hutsul language [a Slavic/Ukrainian ethnic group living in Carpathians] allowed us to manoeuvre among the local populace. Vincenz and his son were the first to reach the north slope [enter back into now Soviet-occupied Poland], where they immediately fell into the hands of the first [Soviet] patrol sent up into the hills, and we lost touch for many months.
Later, I crossed also, planning to reach Słoboda by following the top of the ridge of the mountains for about 130 km. I had a slight flu when I set out, but as I went on I developed a full blown pneumonia; I was then at a place about 20 km away from the last hiding-place of the smugglers; that morning I had slept in a bear-lair. It made no sense to head back that way, so I decided to walk down to Tisza Borkut [on the Hungarian side] where there was telephone and railroad. To do this, I had to continue along the mountain tops for another 73 km, and at this time of the year the mountains are empty, black, and cold. Feverish and hallucinating as I walked, I went on for two and a half days. I walked slowly. Every few hours I lay down in my sleeping bag for a few hours of rest, but was unable to sleep. During those days Mrs Wichuna died in Słoboda, killed by a similar pneumonia – many people were coming down with it at the time.
I lay several days in a smugglers’ tavern, tenderly surrounded by heated bricks, but seeing that things were only getting worse, I telephoned for a local doctor, and he took me to a hospital, which had been built for the lumberjacks by the Czech government [the area was part of Czechoslovakia 1919-1938] – about 70 km further south. I lay there from the end of October until January 2 .
Countless are the ways in which one’s body defends itself against pain and annihilation. In the hospital, my personality split into two halves: one, blacked out and drowsy, lay in Aknaszlatina [the name of the town], the other, alert and energetic, cruised far and wide eighteen days before returning to the hospital. After five weeks of illness my heart stopped producing a clear beat and began to produce only an uncertain gurgling, called by doctors pulsus paradoxalis. From this and other signs I realized that the end was near and this brought me a great relief, releasing me from all sort of troubles and obligations. I felt like Duhamel’s dépossédé: tout ce qu’il avait a faire est fait, tout qu’on demandait de lui est accompli [all that he had to do, was done, all that was asked of him, was accomplished]. In this state of withdrawal from the world, conscious but rendered weightless by camphor, I lay three more weeks with advancing broncho-pneumonia. During that time I came to realize how very right the stoics had been, stoics who had denied the existence of the Elysium and all other forms of ghostly or ghastly existence: although I no longer suffered, the existence of the immortal spirit separated from the physical world struck me as worth so very little as to be wholly unacceptable.
So many arguments had been invented to prove that such an existence is possible, and possibly eternal, but my own encounter with it shows that everything is better, even oblivion. I had already begun to long for that oblivion when, contrary to my and Dr Bergman’s expectations, my temperature fell and after several more double shots of camphor I was returned to life. And then I began to cry – all my inhibitory brain-centers had been knocked out.
When at last the time came for me to leave the hospital, I had no idea which way to turn, there was no place to which I wanted to rush to in my present state. I chose the smugglers’ tavern. Meanwhile the winter had become very fierce. Snow-storms came and temperatures dropped to 28C below zero. It was sometimes minus 20 in my room. The smugglers had found me a warmer place, in a long-abandoned brick house, haunted by ghosts of such evil reputation that no one ever came close after dark. There, they prepared a room for me, gave me an iron brazier, a cubic meter of beautifully-scented beech wood, a bottle of kerosene and a small, 50-cent lamp. There I spent the rest of the winter. For thiry-five days there was no train, the kerosene ran out, and I sat in total darkness, trying to remember all the poems I had ever read, all symphonies and concertos I had ever heard. Some poems are like life-savers: one carries them around with him to the place of his naufragium [shipwreck].
My smugglers brought me some books – abandoned by refugees fleeing the territory during the civil war or plundered from suitcases stolen by thieves. Whoever carries books in his knapsack when setting out for such remote country, takes with him whatever he has best – I myself had originally set out with Machiavelli’s Discorso – and so there were among these books an edition of Horace, another of Ovid, several Latin poets of the Renaissance, several Spanish books, some English. I was struck the most by a couplet by the Renaissance poet Janus Vitalis, on the subject of the river Tiber flowing among Roman, Byzantine, and Medieval ruins:
Disce hinc quid possit fortuna: immota labescunt
Et quae perpetuo sunt fluitura, manent.
[Learn therefore the power of Fortune: the immovable fall,
but things intended to be ever-flowing – remain.]
And I reflected upon the river Vistula [main river of Poland, flows through Warsaw] flowing, like the Tiber, among ruins, and this couplet of Janus Vitalis, with its pentameter imitating the murmur and gurgling of waters, seemed to me the most beautiful couplet I have ever heard.
I did not want to leave the mountains, counting still on a chance to return to Poland. I knew well life abroad and it did not attract me. Nor was I counting on “The West”. I knew perhaps better than most its spiritual weakness and I expected nothing of it, nothing but force of arms. Nor was I able to undertake a longish journey: when I left the hospital, I weighed 68 kilo [130 pounds], my left kidney was dislocated so that I had to hold it in place as I walked, I had no feeling in my hands and feet on account of the toxic parasthesis [burning sensation brought on by medication], my pulsus was still paradoxalis, and the 700 meters which separated my hiding-place from the smuggler’s tavern seemed to me impossibly vast. (Suffice it to say that today, if I think the railway ticket too dear, I cross over to the Southern slope of the Alps on foot, over passes 2500-2800 m high and think nothing of it. But back to my smugglers).
Only at the end of winter did I receive reliable news from Poland and understood that there is nothing to wait for at the border. I descended from the hills to Budapest, where I spent a few more weeks in an excellent hospital, where they put me back on my feet – i.e. gave me back the power to walk.
Until then I moved all by myself and had no contact with other refugees. But in Budapest I found a few friends and learned about the plans and affairs of the emigres. There, I was contacted by friends from Angers [a city in France where new Polish government in exile was now formed], by Gorylla, Antoni Słonimski and others. The two sons of Vicenz also came. I sent one of them West and kept the other one, his mother’s only child, hoping for her arrival with the melting of the snows. Unfortunately, our situation began to deteriorate and, to avoid being cornered, it was necessary to seek an escape to the West. In early spring – first days of April – I traveled to Belgrade, which left upon me an indelible impression. Built on several hills rising from infinite waters, filled with the monuments of Mestrovic, the greatest master of monumental sculpture since antiquity, Belgrade is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. After a few days I was able to read local periodicals which seemed to me very youthful, but infinitely livelier than La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Old Serbia is very similar to Krzemieniec and Kuty, even to Jałtuszków, so I felt there en pays de connaissance [familiar country]. I was chased out of it by the German attempt to take over the city by tourists who, one morning, dressed in identical brown coats and green hats, seized the post office and the airport. In the afternoon, arrests of their supporters began, but it was a clear sign to me to start moving.
I was able to undertake all those travels thanks to my “gold fund” [prior to the outbreak of the war, Stempowski had converted much of his capital into gold coins], of which somehow no one relieved me along the way, and which I have managed so wisely that I still have one large rixdal [imaginary currency in which polish noblemen in Alfred Jarry’s novel Ubu Roi estimate their net worth]. At any rate, wherever I went I met helpful and pleasant people, and wherever I stayed I quickly made friends whom I would be glad to meet again.
Italy was very unpleasant. On the one hand the fascists, copying German SS-men with their uniforms and gestures, on the other the vengeful people who hated them. After two days, I crossed the Swiss border, thanks to the help of Dr Zbinden, who’d arranged a visa for me, and who took me from the Berne station to the house of his friends in Muri. There I was meant to wait a couple of weeks for the French visa, but before it could come through, the German invasion came. About a week before it began I had met in Muri a very wise officer who had described its course to me in great detail: there had been many visionaries, but all had been in Cassandra’s position, they had been a minority, and no one had wanted to hear them. At last I found myself chased into a corner – there was no place to flee to anymore.”
Stempowski was to remain in Muri until the end of the war and later to settle in nearby Berne.
In an essay entitled “The Smugglers’ Library”, written several years later, Stempowski wrote more about the books the smugglers had brought him to his hide-out in the mountains:
“When the room warmed up sufficiently, I opened the sack and began to take out books one after the other. The first was a pretty good edition of Horace, then came Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics, and several Italian poets of the Renaissance. Then there came Spanish books, most of them publications from the time of the Civil War, but there was among them a volume of Gracian’s Agudeza y arte de ingenio. At the bottom, there were some English Romantics: Sothey, Coleridge, a few volumes of Walter Scott, Pride and Prejudice, and, finally, a seriously used Fairy Queen by Spenser.
And thus I had a winter of superb reading.
How did this strange and sober collection of books arise? How did all those books get to the smugglers’ hide-out?
It’s easy enough to guess that not any book will find its way into the depths of the mountains. Hardly anyone takes books along when going for a long journey on foot with a bag on his back. The only one who does this is the stubborn reader, with a well-sifted library of best books. But even he does not take along with him the first book that comes to hand.
I have learned the history of these books in various fragments (as it was not politic to ask too closely).
The Latin books came from a small lumberyard somewhat lower on the river Cisa. During the wars and upheavals of 1938, a philologist hid there pretending to be a simple worker – in his spare time, perhaps while hiding among the trees, he entered numerous comments and observations in the margins of his books. One day he disappeared as mysteriously as he had come, leaving behind him a few things. He was the silent type and had avoided human contact: no one knew who he was and where he had come from.
“He must have liked books, since he had brought them all the way here” the smugglers decided. “Perhaps one day he will come back to collect them.”
The Spanish books had found a different way to the remote tavern. At the end of the Spanish Civil War two travelers worked their way East, perhaps towards the Soviet Union. I am not sure whether they had selected the right path: the Soviet border was then still far away. To reach it, they would have had to go by way of Poland, and probably deal with the Polish border police, or else by way of Bucovina and Besarabia, where the Romanian Siguranza awaited them. Nor was an encounter with the Soviet border guard necessarily promising. Who knows what fate caught up with them – and where?
In the mountains, they were attacked by robbers. On the spot a leather bag was left containing their no longer needed toiletry and several Spanish books. The bag lay several days in the forest. It seemed the travelers cared more to reach the border than to recover their luggage.
“Who knows whether they will like it in Russia, people tell different tales about that? Perhaps they will return by the same route? Just in case, let us preserve their bag,” the smugglers decided.
The story of the English books was even more complicated. A certain Italian aristocrat from the Trieste area – back in the days when Italians discovered Hungary – decided to shoot lynx and bear in the Carpathians. Youthful and apparently as rich as he was eccentric, he reached the source of Cisa and in the last settlement before the wilderness he immediately bought a small hut, which he then decorated to his taste. Among his luggage were a case of champagne, a case of cigars, and fifty packets of unused cards. The young man apparently had a weakness for books, too, since, for the rainy days, he had brought along a small library. After a few weeks, the Carpathians bored him, he left and never returned, but retained the ownership of the house.
During the troubles, German adventurers stayed there. They drank the champagne, smoked the cigars, and played the cards, but paid no attention to the books. Later, the house underwent other adventures. In recent years an agent of the Gestapo lived there. Part of the furniture disappeared. One of the occasional residents of the house, apparently while leaving it with some of the moving assets, left a few English books at the roadside tavern.
“No one buys a house never to return,” reasoned the smugglers. “The Italian prince will surely return, and perhaps will be glad to see that within the empty walls his books have remained.”
The smugglers were mistaken in their expectations. He who leaves his house in wartime, seldom returns. The Italian aristocrat has not only abandoned his Carpathian hut, but also his palazzo in Dalmatia. I later heard that during the war he was spotted in Ticino [Switzerland]. The smugglers themselves have met with similar fate.
Only the Faerie Queen no longer belonged to anyone. It was brought there by a tourist who had spent the night in a nearby forester’s cabin, and had left the next morning for the high range, leaving the book behind him. His body, partly gnawed by wolves, was discovered only the following spring. Times were already uncertain by then and no one from the family turned up to claim his remains.
During wars and upheavals, a reader leaves behind him his whole library. He takes with him only his favorite book, but even this he must abandon in a roadside tavern, or somewhere at the forking of the roads in the forest. The smugglers’ library was a visible proof of this fact and – a kind of warning. A wartime reader must above all count only on his memory. At the end of his road he will be left only with his memory’s contents.
Unfortunately, in times of greatest need, memory proves to be the thinnest and weakest of threads. During great revolutions whole nations suddenly lose their memory and stand dumbfounded, deprived of their past, unable to see their way ahead.
There was a magical element in my meeting with the smugglers’ library, something of that table which covers itself with ready meals at the utterance of a word, something of that carpet by way of which one can at the merest wish travel to the furthest places in the world. I made a note of this aspect of my adventure during my stay up in the mountains and I have had the time to reflect upon it.
The flying carpet is only a literary metaphor describing an otherwise well-known phenomenon. When the traveler possesses a real flying carpet, he is not impeded by the the usual difficulties of travel – borders, fronts, demarcation lines, visas, passes, space or other barriers. When we see him thin, darkened, with his feet deformed by thousands of miles of walking, stubbornly silent, dumbfounded by the great confusion of various landscapes, we understand that the difficulties of travel are only the cost of his true passion.
A flying carpet goes beyond the order of nature only when it falls into unqualified hands, that is to say, in the hands of people not in any way inclined to travel, who are perfectly satisfied with two or three short trips on the carpet, whereupon they marry and live the happy life of the settled.
In the Near East there is a formula, expressed in the Levanine French as follows: Qui mange du caviar noir, Dieu lui donne toujours in peu de caviar noir – he who feeds on black caviar, God always sends him a little of it.
By what complex, convoluted ways tobacco reaches everywhere where there are smokers? In the same way books await readers everywhere. In places where, it seems, it may be hard to find bread or wine, in forest hide-outs, in taverns, among raftsmen and sailors – everywhere there lie hidden books, awaiting their reader. The more discerning his taste, the greater his demands, the rarer and more beautiful reading awaits him. He only needs to remain himself, never compromise, under any circumstances, and always be like that Levantine caviar-eater, demanding stubbornly each day of his God a bit of his favorite fare.
On my last day in the mountains I carried the bag back to the smugglers’ tavern. As far as I know, the tavern was robbed many times afterward, and her dwellers either died a violent death or were scattered to the four corners of the world. Who knows what fate befell their books? The soldiers who came to rob the tavern came mainly in search of booze and tobacco, probably not taking much interest in books. Perhaps they are still there, among the ruins of the tavern, awaiting their next reader. To him who will find them and read them, to the unknown lover of Virgil and the Latin poets of the Renaissance – salutem.”
“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”
Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.
There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.
In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.
The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.
Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.
Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.
Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.
This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.