Posts Tagged ‘Krzysztof Michalski’

Prospero’s island: not monarchy, but despotism

Monday, June 16th, 2014
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piotrbookPhilosopher Piotr Nowak was already installed at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen by the time I arrived for my stay as a fellow in 2008 – alas, an all-too-brief a sojourn! I had just returned from six weeks of research in Poland, and he was the only Polish fellow at IWM below the rank of rector.  He was hunkered on the floor below mine in the lavish white suites that we called offices, overlooking the canal. So Piotr and I visited and chatted between floors, or at the communal lunches provided for the fellows.

At the time, he was working on something about Hannah Arendt‘s notion of radical evil, and recommended some reading on that subject. He also introduced me to the works of Leszek Kołakowski.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of Piotr: “His writings usually contain a challenge: so many mysterious voids of ignorance still lurk in the familiar sphere of our acquired knowledge; and also extend an invitation: so many virgin lands, omitted on our overcrowded map of knowledge, are still waiting to be explored …”

So naturally, I was interested to read that he had just written a book in English on an unexpected subject, The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time, published by the intriguing Value Inquiry Book Series. He ponders a range of questions. What kind of place is Prospero’s island? I remember one Stanford professor – was it David Riggs? – who suggested Shakespeare’s inspiration was another verdant island – Ireland, with its strong tradition of household bards and music. Or perhaps the New World, a place that had a near-mythical status in Jacobean England.

Piotr’s Central European perspective is evident in the darker version of the island he offers on Prospero’s domain (he translated from the Polish himself):

It’s climate is warm and humid, which favours decay and decomposition. However, this is not of primary importance. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is that it is a place where anything can be done to a fellow human being, including killing, inducing insanity, sentencing to forced labour, as well as arranging relationships and dissolving them. This can hardly be called monarchy – it is rather a sphere of arbitrary absolutism.

nowak

He, too, contains islands.

On Prospero’s island, even the laws of physics work back to front. A supposed God, Prospero plays with nature – he creates and destroys as he pleases, as well as strikes with lightning and uproots pines or cedar trees. He affects other people’s perception of the reality which he himself shapes according to his will. “Poor souls, they perished,” Miranda worries, bewailing the shipwrecked. “Not a hair perished,” we soon learn from Ariel. It is only Prospero who knows the truth. What is more important and terrifying, however, is that the magician wields power over the dead, whom he can resurrect at will, though we never learn what he does with them later on – perhaps he even kills them again. Finally, he gathers both his old and new adversaries. If Prospero encourages revolt among the latter, it is only for one purpose: so that they could witness in the nearest future the consequences of political freedom that was granted to the working classes. Two drunkards and one monster, liberated from all authority, fall victim to their own unbridled passions and bad habits. … However, he does not kill them, bcause he has already grasped that all power and knowledge, if it wants to be what it is, must have its limits. This is the moment we learn about the remarkable wisdom of Prospero. …

At the same time, he becomes aware that his wisdom cannot be inherited. … The young do not wish to remember other people’s stories, because they want to create their own – there is nothing strange or surprising about it. Meanwhile, old age – which mercilessly threatens everyone, accompanied by an invariable softening in the head – takes Prospero’s imperiousness by storm. He gradually moves into the shadow and is inclined to write down the story of his youth. Thus, he prepares a book-long interview, asking for applause, which he finally receives. But then he freezes into a monument. For some time, the young light candles for him and bring him flowers. Later, however, they simply forget.

In his memory…

Sounds like he is remembering a particular production of The Tempest – I don’t remember anything like the final scene he describes in any production I have seen. I also didn’t remember this lovely excerpt he includes from W.H. Auden‘s “The Sea and the Mirror”:

If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the man he encouraged me to meet at IWM, one reason among several to be grateful to Piotr: the institute’s rector and one of Poland’s leading scholars,  Krzysztof Michalski.

Join us for the 11th annual “Company of Authors” on Saturday!

Thursday, April 17th, 2014
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carnochanWe’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Casper on Arendt, with Robert Harrison. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also  the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.

michalski2At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave.  We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt  here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.

Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?

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Krzysztof Michalski: “without death – there is no me.”

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013
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Fan of the Andrews Sisters

We miss him.

Stringent book budget notwithstanding, I finally broke down and bought a copy of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought.  I carefully re-marked, lightly in pencil, the passages I had noted in my borrowed library book.  Michalski was a leading European thinker and founder of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was a fellow (I wrote about him here).  He died in February, at 64.  His reflections on death provide some stunning passages in the book:

Death touches me differently, more radically and imperceptibly, than any other relation or relationship: it touches me not as a specimen of my species, nor as a member of my society, nor as a representative of some profession, but me as me alone, the me who this time cannot be replaced by anyone else, for no one else can die in my place.  Death is closer to me than any character trait or any momentary characterization, it is more mine than the person I love most or my most important task.  Without it – without death – there is no me.  Death defines me: me, an unrepeatable individual, and not merely a particular case of something.  It is only this prospect of death that makes the life I am living my own. …

michalski2If the confrontation with death characterizes my life every day and not just on occasion, then every moment of that life – and not just the very last one – contains some trace of it.  Death is not merely one of many – the most important – moments in my life, merely one of many events.  No moment, no instant of my life, is comprehensible without the relation to death concealed within it, without the relation to the nothingness of the world, without the negation of everything that is familiar, of everything comprehensible.  The possibility of the end of the world, the Apocalypse, is inscribed in every moment, in each individual instant of my life.  This possibility severs the continuity of my time; time is no longer the diligent accumulation of meaning, the gradual construction of identity, morning to night, Sunday to Saturday.  Between morning and night, today and tomorrow, between ‘now’ and ‘in a minute,’ the bottomless abyss of nothingness opens wide, the end of everything I know, of everything I can know, of everything I can rely on. …

simone-weil

Miss her, too

Reading every moment of my life with the possibility of nothingness, thereby introducing a radical, irreparable discontinuity, the prospect of death, by the same token, opens my life to something entirely new, to the possibility of an entirely new form of life…. On the other side of the fissure my identity up to now is just ashes, and the ‘I’ that I know becomes a dead letter.

Thus the prayer of Simone Weil: ‘Father, tear this body and this soul away from me, to make of them your things, and let nothing remain of me eternally but that tearing-away itself.’

New York City in 62 hours: revisiting old memories, making new ones

Monday, May 6th, 2013
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I spent a whirlwind 62 hours in New York City, but they were “cherce.”  Fortunately, photographer (and friend) Zygmunt Malinowski was on hand to document some of the highlights, and has kindly allowed the Book Haven to feature them.

First, I spoke at a commemorative event for Krzysztof Michalski, the founder of Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, where I was Milena Jesenská Fellow a few years ago.  “Democracy is Controversy Plus Solidarity: In the Absence of Krzysztof Michalski” was sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Polish Cultural Institute, in conjunction with the P.E.N. Festival in New York City.

The panel left to right:  Alfred Gusenbauer, former prime minister of Austria;  literary historian and author Irena Grudzinska Gross of Princeton;  Andreas Stadler, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum; Marci Shore of Yale author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and Humble Moi…

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Whoops!  There’s someone missing from this line-up.  Same cast of characters, but below you can also see Yale’s Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands (and Marci Shore’s husband) at far right.

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Next, some of us who met for the Czesław Miłosz centenary in New York City two years ago decided to celebrate a reunion.  What better place than the famous Russian Samovar, a longstanding mecca for the Russian literati (and other Slavs … and non-Slavs)? The place was a familiar haunt for Joseph Brodsky, a friend of Miłosz’s.

The Russian Samovar’s legendary proprietor Roman Kaplan appeared toward the evening – he’d founded the hang-out with Mikhail Baryshnikov and he’d also been an especially close friend of Brodsky’s.  No sooner did he find out about my association with the Nobel poet than he pulled me into the corner seat, where Joseph Brodsky had usually held court, and a photo with the (by then) glassy-eyed Moi was snapped.  Glassy-eyed, but nevertheless … stepping into a page of New York cultural history.

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Finally, here’s the whole reunion crew.  This is the only photograph in the group that is not by Zygmunt, because that’s him at far left, looking gravely into the camera (in the mirror you can see the mystery guest photographer’s arms).  The poet Anna Frajlich is next to Zygmunt, then Alla Roylance, Moi, Izabella Barry, and Władek Zając.  Couldn’t find a better group of people.  And you’d hard-pressed to find a better dinner, beginning with vodka infused with horseradish, cranberries, and lemon (you can read about them at the Paris Review here) continuing with Georgian and traditional Russian dishes, and finishing with samovar tea with jam.  Dostoevsky would have approved entirely.

web version zygmunt malinowski archives-1

After the panel discussion, we ended at the residence of U.N. Ambassador Martin Sajdik.  Risotto with white spargel, a perfectly chilled white wine from the Kamp River region, quince schnapps, and plenty of Mozartkugeln.  Can’t top that … but ohhhhh, I wish I could find that brilliant Austrian wine here, but the ambassador, rightly known as a connoisseur, told me the American market likes its wines a little more fruity, a little less delightfully sharp – you have to go to Vienna to get these.  As good an incitement as any, should you need one.

Here’s Roman Kaplan reading Joseph Brodsky’s poems in the commemorative corner:

 

“How times have changed!” – philosopher Michael Sandel on “Solidarity”

Saturday, April 13th, 2013
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Fan of the Andrews Sisters

Fan of the Andrews Sisters

Well, naturally I couldn’t make it.  But I did appreciate the invitation to return to Vienna for the memorial for the institute’s founder, the Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski (we wrote about his death here).

Some weeks ago, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen sent me an elegant invitation to its April 5 commemoration ceremony for Krzysztof Michalski at Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts. Harvard’s Michael Sandel spoke at the event on “Solidarity.”

Because I could not stop for them, they kindly stopped for me:  the institute sent me a link to the video of the event, below.  After Cornelia Klinger‘s introduction to the talk, Sandel praised Michalski’s “unsparing eye for quality and for cant” – and, incidentally, also spoke of his delight in “hokey 40s’ harmony” of the Andrews Sisters, discovered inadvertently when he borrowed Michalski’s BMW in Tuscany and couldn’t turn the CD player off.

Sandel discusses the modern reservations about Solidarity, and considers the obligations (and limits of the obligations) we owe each other.  He recalled  Solidarity’s heyday in the 1980s, with an encyclical from John Paul II that treated the subject, as well as the works of philosopher priest Józef Stanisław Tischner. “How times have changed,” Sandel said.  “In recent years, solidarity has been in retreat, in theory and in practice. In fact, today Solidarity has a quaint, almost archaic ring.”

“The suspicion of Solidarity that flows from an argument of moral philosophy rests on the idea that all obligations that count morally and civically must spring form an act of will, of one kind or another,” he said – yet “certain obligations may claim us, unrelated to a choice or act of will.”  The moral force of the Solidarity vision may define who we are as well as allowing us embrace each other as fellow citizens, and accept the responsibility for actions of the distant past as well as the present.  He suggests the “spiritual resonance” of Solidarity for these important Polish religious and moral leaders may rest on the understanding that everything that matters is not traceable to individual will or freedom.

Au revoir, Krzysztof Michalski (June 8,1948 – Feb. 11, 2013)

Monday, February 11th, 2013
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“…the shadow of death falls on my knowledge…”

“Somewhere out beyond all my concepts lies the unfamiliar, dark side of life. It is from there that the shadow of death falls on my knowledge … this is where despair and the longing that time entails originate,” wrote Krzysztof Michalski in last year’s The Flame of Eternity (Princeton University Press).

The death would not have shocked me quite so much had I not, curiously enough, written him yesterday afternoon – about midnight, Vienna time.  He was dying when I pressed the “send” button, and I had no idea.

I did not communicate with him often, but I have exchanged a few letters since my stint as a Milena Jesenská Fellow at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, which he founded in 1982, and where he served as rector.

I was studying Cold War Poland, contemporary Polish writers, particularly Czesław Miłosz, and he, of course, has been called Poland’s foremost living philosopher.  So I stopped into his office for a long chat over coffee, and learned he had also been a friend of another Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky.  There were a number of points of connection, then, but he was a bigshot and I am a very, very littleshot, so I can’t say I was entirely at ease, despite his courtesy.

Among his other numerous awards and honors, was decorated with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, with the Officer’s Cross of L’Ordre National du Mérite of the Republic of France as well as with the European Cultural Prize (1998).  When he was awarded the Theodor Heuss Prize in 2004, the jury statement read:

“Since the 1980s, the Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski has played an important role in the deepening of the political and cultural dialogue between East and West. Before 1989 he contributed to the liberation from Communism, and in the 1990s he supported the development of a democratic civil society in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Michalski and his Vienna Institute combine the highest intellectual standards with policy-oriented approaches and the promotion of young researchers.”

His newest book was a reexamination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s philosophy and the central role that the concepts of eternity and time.  Time had been an ongoing preoccupation for him: his earlier books include Logic and Time: An Essay on Husserl’s Theory of Meaning.  In 2010, he published Zrozumiec przemijanie (To Understand Time) in Poland.

Today I’ve been trying to glean the news from the foreign newspapers, mostly Polish and German.  It appears he died of cancer.  There’s nothing in English yet.

Nothing, except the last note I got from him was in May 2011, “Good to hear from you. A pity we missed each other in Cracow. Hopefully we will not do it again, next time.”

Au revoir, then, Krzysztof.

Postscript on 2/14:  Finally. Something appeared in the U.S. yesterday.  This from Boston University’s Daily Free Press, where K.M. taught:  Provost Jean Morrison said “Dr. Michalski’s contribution to cultural exchange and to the teaching and study of philosophy — both here and throughout central and eastern Europe — was substantial.”  David Roochnik, philosophy department chair and professor of philosophy, said Michalski’s legacy extends beyond Boston, as The Institute for Human Sciences was an extremely important institution and played a small role in the fall of communism in Europe.  More here.

Postscript on 3/6:   The memorial service and funeral took place on February 22,  in Warsaw at the Church of the Holy Cross (Bazylika Świętego Krzyża w Warszawie), with the burial following at the Cemetery Cmentarz Bródnowski.  I remember that church well during my walks through Warsaw, with it’s looming, impressive “Sursum Corda” by Pius Weloński.  Alas, I could not attend, except in spirit, nor will I be able to attend the commemoration for Krzysztof Michalski on April 5 in Vienna.  American Philosopher Michael Sandel, member of the Instiutut’s Academic Advisory Board and dear friend of Krzysztof Michalski, will give a lecture in his memory. I’ll post what I can.