Zagajewski as Refuge

In the attempt of salvaging something of this crappy, election-results day, I decided to spend most of the evening finishing Adam Zagajewski’s ‘A Defense of Ardor: Essays.’ He’s damn good company. Sharp, witty, passionate, learned. There’s a long essay called “Toil and Flame,” about his friendship with the painter Jozef Czapski, that brings to mind Joseph Epstein’s wonderful essay “My Friend Edward” (Shils). A quote of the former:

“As a thinking person, Czapski belonged to that rare breed of artists who – though they battle, and believe, and doubt, and care passionately – at life’s end still don’t know anything for certain. Unlike the representatives of the far larger species of those who know, or think they know, and ardently preach their one, two, three, or four Ideas, this breed lives with the feeling, bitter at times, but also not free of a certain pleasant melancholy, that the mystery enveloping the most important things – time, love, evil, beauty, transcendence – is still, now that they are old and tired, just as impenetrable as it was in the days of their tempestuous, enthusiastic youth. Knowing nothing is not a passive state of sated ignorance; it’s not a state at all, but an atmosphere, a climate of thought. … He required the constant presence of thinkers who thought they’d found the truth, since he himself didn’t know. But his 'I don’t know’ was passionate, incandescent.”

Though I came to this book to escape thoughts of the person I recently tried to remove from office, his shadow falls on these pages (which deserve better). So let’s move on to a few more passages.

Here’s Zagajewski on the poet Zbigniew Herbert:

“Herbert’s empathy, on which, as on a foundation, he built his dissent against the twentieth century’s monstrous history, calls to mind yet another kind of doubleness in his poetry. Herbert’s poems are like a suitcase upholstered in soft satin; but the suitcase holds instruments of torture.”

And, less seriously, here’s a gem from the essay “Young Poets, Please Read Everything”:

“Sometimes in the library you catch sight of an old man wearing a bow tie, bent beneath the weight of years, and you think: That person knows everything.”

That’s where I want to be – in that library, being led by Zagajewski, observing the old reader, not where I am, frustrated, sad, bewildered.

Lastly: Today’s been packed with articles and listserv posts about the election and the pit inside many of us. This brief post-election post by music writer and cultural enthusiast Alex Ross moved me more than all the day’s comments combined, especially my own.