Posts Tagged ‘Leszek Kołakowski’

“He liked America’s gas stations, roadside bars, endless baseball games.” Adam Zagajewski and others remember Joseph Brodsky on his 80th birthday

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020
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Farrar, Straus, & Giroux remembers his anniversary with four books. (Photo: Ann Kjellberg)

Today, May 24, would have been poet Joseph Brodsky‘s 80th birthday. The commemorations are worldwide. The biggest in the Anglophone world may be the republication of three of his landmark books by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: his two volumes of essays, Less than One and On Grief and Reason, and a fourth, a new Selected Poems, 1968-1996.

Ann Kjellberg‘s “Beyond Meaning: Joseph Brodsky’s Poetry of Exile” is in the New York Review of  Books here. An excerpt:

Literary executor Ann Kjellberg

“We now live in a time of which Brodsky was an advance scout—a time in which many writers operate beyond their original borders and outside their mother tongues, often, like Brodsky, bearing witness to violence and disruption, often answering, through art, to those experiences, in language refracted, by necessity, through other language. In Brodsky’s time there was a cluster of poets, some from the margins of empire, some, like Brodsky, severed from their roots—Walcott, Heaney, Paz, Milosz, to name a few—who brought with them commanding traditions as well as the imprint of history’s dislocations. We would do well now to attend to their song, standing as they did in our doorway between a broken past and the language’s future.”

If you’re up early in this morning, you might check out the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund Facebook page, where poet Glyn Maxwell will be discussing his translations of the Russian Nobel laureate at 10.30 a.m. PST.

But for the most part, I have chosen to remember in a very different way. When I saw that Adam Zagajewski had published his own massive tribute in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza here, I spent an unconscionable number of hours on an otherwise busy day picking through the Polish to learn what he said. It became my own homage for the occasion.

Perhaps someday this long essay will appear in English, and I will be humiliated by my humble offering for you below. Perhaps Polish speakers around the world will send in correction and rebuke for my clumsy effort, assisted by Google. But until then, I’m the best you got, so please enjoy my wholly inadequate translation – and this is only a small portion of the whole, which runs to thousands of words. Excerpts below.

***

He loved bars, baseball, and Chinatown restaurants.

I knew him at his best as a good friend, but also as a follower of high culture, a defender metaphysical impulse in poetry. He was a ruthless enemy of totalitarianism, Soviet and any other, and an opponent of what Nabokov used to describe the words “poshlost,” banality, a lack of taste, smallness. He was able to reconcile his cultural elitism with an enormous fellow-feeling for the American way of life – which is the opposite of elitism. He liked America, including ordinary American gas stations; bars where giant TV screens dominated always, at any time of the day or night, and endless baseball matches. He knew and liked less-than-chic New York neighborhoods in Chinatown, which had his beloved restaurants. …

He loved English, including spoken American. He liked to use American idioms, though it happened that –  as it happens to foreigners – he couldn’t distinguish dead idiomatic expressions from live ones. Idioms live for several years or more then they go to the museum, i.e. to the dictionary, and there foreigners find them. With his arrogance (usually charming) he ignored the difference between “native speakers’ and those who learned the language late – as it happened, he even corrected “native speakers” (I was a witness – of course he was wrong, “native speakers” are always right), and they meekly accepted his correction.

***

I called him from Houston shortly after arrival from Europe. Usually the first days in Texas were difficult, melancholic for me – that’s why I was calling Joseph.  I was hoping for an intimate, friendly conversation (in other words – just gossip). But Joseph didn’t want to hear about my melancholy. He immediately asked me: what do you think about Horace‘s poetry?

He was just writing his essay about Horace. I mobilized myself to quickly remember what I thought of the poems of Horace, and my mood improved.

***

John Willett … told me once story related to Joseph. I remembered her exactly because it seemed fantastic and funny to me.

Adam Z. remembers

John, as already said, had known Joseph for a very long time; in some ways, he was a bit of an exotic character among Joseph’s American friends, where poets, poets, writers, and critics predominated. John was a professional diplomat who began his career in African countries, then worked for the State Department in many other countries, including in Italy or Turkey, and twice in Paris (I use the past tense, because unfortunately this educated, witty, and friendly man is dead). Well, John once told me he would tell me a story, which he didn’t tell anyone. It was like this: Joseph  had a mind that was passionate about a range of different topics, not only literature – e.g., military aviation (he knew everything on combat aircraft of the Second World War; when asked on what route he was flying to Europe he said: Luftwaffe) or the story of famous British spies – the Cambridge Four (who later became the Cambridge Five); anyway he wrote an essay about them.

One of those passions Joseph was the nuclear disarmament issue, the “Missile Gap,” as it was then called – a central issue in the 1980s.

He read all the articles on the subject, knew all about rockets, Pershings, and Minutemen, and on the loading facilities of both sides. He knew what are these rocket varieties were called, as well as their range and power of destruction. And of course he had his own theories.

He told John, who had was between missions lived in Washington – that he would gladly give a lecture at the State Department, in which he would present his concepts about disarmament. For a long time John tried to dissuade Joseph. He told him that, in the State Department, the world’s best experts devote every moment to studying these issues. They knew everything on this subject, and that he, a dilettante – extremely brilliant, but still a dilettante – couldn’t hold any weight in conversation with them, let alone convince them of his theories.

Joseph, however, insisted. And eventually John gave in and it led to a lecture at the State Department, and the great Washington missile specialists came, fresh from determining and calculating the balance of two arsenals.

“Well, how did it go?” I asked John. “You know it didn’t go well,” he replied.

(more…)

Zygmunt Bauman goes “to liquid eternity.”

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017
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“There is beauty, and there are the humiliated.” In Wrocław, 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist and a major public intellectual, is dead at 91 – or, as his widow put it, he has changed his place of residence “to liquid eternity.”

According to The New York Times“The Polish-born left-wing thinker’s works explored the fluidity of identity in the modern world, the Holocaust, consumerism and globalization.” The article continued:

Renowned for an approach that incorporated philosophy and other disciplines, Bauman was a strong moral voice for the poor and dispossessed in a world upended by globalization. Whether he was writing about the Holocaust or globalization, his focus remained on how humans can create a dignified life through ethical decisions.

He wrote more than 50 books, notably “Modernity and the Holocaust,” a 1989 release in which he differed with many other thinkers who saw the barbarism of the Holocaust as a breakdown in modernity. Bauman viewed the mass exterminations of Jews as the very outcome of such pillars of modernity as industrialization and rationalized bureaucracy.

“It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable,” Bauman wrote.

In the 1990s, Bauman coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a contemporary world in such flux that individuals are left rootless and bereft of any predictable frames of reference.

In books including “Liquid Times” and “Liquid Modernity” he explored the frailty of human connection in such times and the insecurity that a constantly changing world creates.

Read the NYT obituary here. Or, from a more insightful Polish perspective, you might try this piece by Polish scholar Artur Sebastian Rosman over at his blog, Cosmos the in Lost:

His Liquid Modernity might be the single best description of the world we inhabit where all that is solid melts into thin air. The center does not hold, but Bauman is a sure guide to understanding what all that means. What Liquid Modernity describes, and it is something I’ve briefly discussed before, is not an academic exercise, but something that affects not only the present, but also the collective future. I cannot recommend this work highly enough if you feel confused about the world we inhabit and where it is heading. If you can’t relate to this feeling of vertigo then you probably have some bigger problems.

But I don’t want to dwell on psychoanalyzing you, nor on the details of liquid modernity (which you can explore here); nor on Bauman’s period of zealous Stalinism (I believe in Kołakowski’s dictum from Metaphysical Horror, “A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.”); instead, a couple days after Bauman’s death (I’m not a fan of the euphemism “passing,” because it lacks substance), I’d like to share the following passage from Of God and Man, since it hopes for a more humane future: “You are right (and deserve credit) when observing that, one way or the other, we somehow possess this world, and, from time to time, here and there, are even able to change at least a small part of it for the better. Given that this world of ours is still in the making, the act of its creation yet incomplete, and the work of continuing the creation and its completion has (to recall our earlier conversations) fallen to us, then it is right for us – as for any responsible host – to care for its well-being and attend to its goodness and beauty. I will repeat again Camus’ credo: there is beauty, and there are the humiliated. God grant that I never be unfaithful to the one or the other.”

Read the whole thing here. Or watch the video, “No one is in control. That is the major source of contemporary fear,” below:

More than eulogies: new book considers the dead – famous and infamous

Saturday, August 20th, 2016
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deadpeople“Why should we celebrate these dead men more than the dying?” T.S. Eliot asks in “Little Gidding.” And we’re all dying, hour by hour. One new book shares Eliot’s fascination with the dead.

We’ve been following the successes of the New Yorker‘s Morgan Meis (here and here, for example) – now here’s another one. He’s teamed up with Stefany Anne Goldberg to write a book Dead People (Zero Books), that’s getting critical acclaim. It is about what the title says it is, including studies of Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens and Eric Hobsbawn; musicians like Sun Ra, MCA (Beastie Boys) and Kurt Cobain; writers like David Foster Wallace, John Updike and Tom Clancy; artists like Thomas Kinkade and Robert Rauschenberg; and controversial political figures like Osama bin Laden and Mikhail Kalashnikov.

The two conduct a self-interview over at The Nervous BreakdownAn excerpt:

Morgan Meis: Well, when I started writing about Christopher Hitchens he had literally just died. I became very emotional as I wrote. The whole thing was written while crying, to be honest. I realized two things. One, that I had a lot of anger and resentment toward the man and two, that I actually loved him, in the non-romantic sense of the term. I realized that this love was generated by something other than the usual regard for his writing and argumentative skill. In fact, upon reflection, I realized that his writing and argumentative skill were, to my mind, overrated. That made my deep feeling of connection to the man all the more mysterious, a fact that pleased the hell out of me the more I thought about it. I tried to capture some of that in the essay, which, if it has any virtue at all, has the virtue of mostly refraining from restating the well-worn Hitchens clichés. The more I wrote about Hitch, the more I realized that I have no idea why he was such a powerful person.

morganandstefany

Teamwork: authors Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Goldberg

Stefany Anne Goldberg: I had an overall negative feeling about Mikhail Kalashnikov when I first heard that he died. I considered it one of those mild, everyday ironies that the man who invented one of the killing machines of the 20th century, the AK-47, was now, himself, dead. But when I started to read more about the man, and read the letter he had written to a priest near the end of his life, something changed. I started to see him as a tragic figure. That would be an interesting enough change in perception and might make for a good eulogistic essay. But then a third thing happened. I started thinking about Mary Shelley, which is something I do more often than not. I started to see Kalashnikov as involved in the struggle that faces all inventors, which is the struggle, as I see it, between nature and culture. I started to see Kalashnikov as a Dr. Frankenstein figure. This made Kalashnikov scary again, but in a better way. Now, he was no longer, for me, simply the guy who mechanized killing or the tragic figure caught up in historical events that were over his head. Instead, I started to see Kalashnikov as a monster and in being a monster of sorts, to see his specific humanity. Because the gun he invented was, after all, supposed to solve problems. It is in trying to solve problems that the trouble starts, for all of us. And yet, who would ever suggest that we should stop trying to solve problems? The are infinite knots you can get tied up in trying to resolve all the conflicting thoughts and emotions around a figure like Kalashnikov. My little essay was an attempt to get the ball rolling on that.

Read the whole thing here. And go here for Image Journal’s excerpt from the book on Leszek Kołakowski.

But what did Leszek Kołakowski really mean?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
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They didn’t get it. (Photo: Piotr Wojcik)

“The seductively suggestive title of Kołakowski’s talk was ‘The Devil in History.’ For a while there was silence as students, faculty, and visitors listened intently. Kołakowski’s writings were well known to many of those present and his penchant for irony and close reasoning was familiar. But even so, the audience was clearly having trouble following his argument. Try as they would, they could not decode the metaphor. An air of bewildered mystification started to fall across the auditorium. And then, about a third of the way through, my neighbor—Timothy Garton Ash—leaned across. ‘I’ve got it,’ he whispered. ‘He really is talking about the Devil.’ And so he was.”

– From Tony Judt‘s “Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)” in the NYRB (hat tip to Artur Sebastian Rosman)

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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.