Posts Tagged ‘E.M. Cioran’

Adam Zagajewski and “the battle to imbue life with maximal meaning”

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

A distinctive, insistent, civilized stance.

Adam Zagajewski is an absolutely foundational figure for many of us – not only because of his own poems and essays, but for his quietly insistent, civilized stance towards a world that teeters on the edge of chaos – we’ve written about him here and here and here and here. I once asked him, in an email interview a dozen years ago, what do we do in a world that seems to be averting its face from the non-consumerist values of reading, literature, poetry, philosophy? His reply: “We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.” It’s starting to sound like a good idea. Yet he remains in Kraków, and I stay put in Palo Alto.

So it was a privilege to review Slight Exaggeration, his book-length essay on… oh, just about everything. It’s up today at The Weekly Standard (and on the home page, too, no less). Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, an excerpt:

Gone, but still with us…

Zagajewski’s conversational style is distinctive, and the cadence is recognizable in his poems and essays. (Translator Clare Cavanagh conveys it well.) I was introduced to it a decade ago, an afternoon conversation that stretched into early evening, as we walked along the Planty, the public park that encircles Kraków. His words are tentative, unassertive, provisional, yet self-assured. The slight tonal “uptalk” lift at the end of his sentences as he turns a problem round, exploring its different angles, cannot ruffle his considerable authority. Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Wisława Szymborska are dead: Zagajewski has survived the generation of greats, and matched it with a greatness of his own, a postwar brand of metaphysical heft and gravity that shoulders the singular legacy of Polish literature into the 21st century.

The recurring Romanian…

Slight Exaggeration patiently picks up where the poet left off a dozen years ago with A Defense of Ardor, extending his line of thought on painters, poems, composers, and history. Initially, the observations seem disconnected and a little unpruned, until certain names begin recurring (French-Romanian writer E. M. Cioran, for example, or composer Gustav Mahler, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, novelist Robert Musil)—and each time he repeats, the impression on the reader is richer. Clearly, he is weaving on a very large loom, and the shuttle that disappears out of sight swings back to pull the threads tighter. The disparate reflections weave into a long thought, the result of years, decades, a lifetime. And occasionally his trademark associative musings open into seminal mini-essays.

The battle for clear vision…

Zagajewski wonders why the wartime letters of the lawyer Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, who resisted Hitler’s abuses nonviolently, move him so much with their impeccable moral brilliance; those of a favorite poet, the wily and self-protecting Gottfried Benn, so little. He also admires artist and writer Józef Czapskis integrity, too: “Czapski sometimes speaks of himself—but always in terms of the ceaseless battle he wages for clear vision, for full use of his gifts, the battle to imbue his life with maximal meaning.” And Simone Weil? “Weil tortured Czapski, and she still tortures us.” What does it mean that we celebrate the birthday of Mozart and the “liberation” of Auschwitz on the same day? (He hesitates to use the word “liberation,” which implies a certain energy and esprit, for the Allied soldiers’ entry into hell.)

Time teaches tolerance for what cannot be changed. And in the course of his telling, time overlaps and leaves traces on the present. For example, he observes that the Gestapo occupied his Kraków apartment during the occupation: “A Gestapo officer no doubt occupied the room in which I now write.”

Read the whole thing here.

Who collaborated, who resisted in wartime Paris?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Teamwork: Joseph and Marguerite Frank (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I ran into Marguerite and Joseph Frank a week or so ago in the Coupa Café. He was in a wheelchair, recuperating from a fall, and both were enjoying the sunshine.

They were also reveling the recent publication of Joe’s new collection of essays, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (Fordham). They promised to send me a copy of the book – and so they did.

Here’s what Frederick Brown, author of Zola, had to say about the book: “Joseph Frank, noted for his monumental biography of Dostoevsky, is a critic of great cultural breadth, securely grounded in philosophy and in the literatures of America, Europe, and Russia.  Responses to Modernity shows him at his best. What it does especially well is survey the intellectual life of France and Germany before and after World War II in the brilliant works that emerged from Europe’s dark night, in the patter of ideological barkers inviting young minds to part the curtain and enter their tents, in the story of those who fought shy of radical creeds and of those who couldn’t resist the lure of primitivism.”

I spent about an hour rambling through its pages the other night, enjoying Joe’s amiable, wide-ranging, and intellectually graceful style (he turns 94 sometime this year, by the way). He tackles the Bucharest triumvirate of Eugène Ionesco, E.M. Cioran, and Mircea Eliade in one essay, such figures as Jacques Maritain and Yves Bonnefoy in others.

Coupa in springtime.

I paused on this paragraph on the German occupation of France, in an essay on Herbert Lottman‘s The Left Bank:

“Lottman’s chapters on the German years of the Left Bank are the best of the book because they synthesize so much little-known material and succeed in clarifying a stretch of history that has remained relatively obscure.

“One learns, for example, that the entire French publishing industry collaborated with the Germans in one way or another, and all accepted the restrictions imposed by occupation authorities – such as the banning of all anti-German works, and of course books by Jewish authors.

“Collaboration was made easier by the sympathetic Gerhard Heller, the German officer then placed in charge of French publishing, who admired French culture, deplored Nazi excesses, and often helped his French literary friends out of tight spots. Is it Heller who records in his diary – published in France several years ago, and which enjoyed a succès d’estime – that he wept when the brilliant, gifted, and viciously anti-Semitic Robert Brasillach, the editor of the clamorously collaborationist Je Suis Partout, advocated sending French Jewish children to concentration camps along with their parents.

“Just who collaborated and who was in the resistance is often difficult to determine; Lottman states that a case could be made out, with equal plausibility, for the thesis that everybody collaborated as well as for the one that everybody resisted.  For most of the Left Bank notables, “resistance” consisted of little more than writing occasional articles for the clandestine press that gradually sprang into being or, what was slightly more dangerous, helping in its production and distribution.”


Czeslaw Milosz, of course, defected in France, and during those war years, had translated Maritain’s On the Roads of Defeat, an important attack on collaborationism.  He had been thoroughly immersed in French culture since his youth – I wondered what he thought about what he saw in postwar Paris.

I remember Robert Hass telling me, about the war years, “Oh, no, but the French didn’t experience what Czeslaw experienced. It was a society that essentially collaborated. The Poles thought existentialism was an improbable bad faith doctrine coming out of a collaborationist culture. They just never bought it.”

Then, the defection – I describe his fear and loneliness and total isolation when he took refuge in to the Kultura offices in Maisons-Laffitte here.