Seeing Things: Music of Our Time

Europe is the heartland of Western culture, and it bodes ill that so little of enduring cultural value has come out of that heart in recent decades. Europeans look down on the United States as a powerful giant with an inferior culture, but at least America still has the vitality—and the will—to do something in the world. Europe’s main intellectual currents such as deconstruction and post-structuralism have vandalized the narrow old Enlightenment rationalism. But the work of Derrida, Foucault, and all the academic superstars of yester-year has been largely negative; they are critics, not creators. The few European artists and thinkers who are likely to last—Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and a few others—tellingly come from the margins of Europe and from countries that heroically lived out liberation from the last vestiges of rationalist utopias. This may explain why they do not share the soft totalitarian dreams of the European Union and United Nations but are rooted in, and appeal to, something older and deeper.

Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who began to attract serious attention in this country with his Mysticism for Beginners (1997), belongs among this exalted company. A sometime dissident, he went into exile in Paris during the 1980s and currently divides his time between France and Houston, where he teaches. His volume of new and selected poems, Without End (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), testifies to a powerful cultural and spiritual vision. With humor and wisdom, Zagajewski opens up realms of human experience that have been buried under contemporary European literature. In a new poem titled “The Soul,” he observes:

We know we’re not allowed to use your name.
We know you’re inexpressible, anemic, frail and suspect
for mysterious offenses as a child.

But however unfashionable the term “soul” may now be in cultivated European circles, the poet remains faithful to his experience:

We know that you are not allowed to live now
in music or in trees at sunset.
We know—or at least we’ve been told—
that you do not exist at all, anywhere. And yet we still keep hearing your weary voice
—in an echo, a complaint, in the letters we receive
from Antigone in the Greek desert.

Zagajewski’s vision is not that of a straightforward Christian believer. He has some doubts about Church leaders (“well-protected shepherds”); he finds the Spirit at work only by long, indirect ways. But as an outsider to western Europe, he has an almost magical appreciation of where the heart of Europe still beats. Churches in particular move him: “The churches of France, more welcoming than its inns and its poems, / Standing in vines like great clusters of grapes, or meekly, on hilltops…. The churches of France, dark vessels, where the shy flame of a mighty light wanders.” And in a poem about “Europe in Winter,” which seems to reflect his own perception of the coldness of current European culture and life, he concludes:

I’ll try to retrieve the noble song
that takes flight like swift balloons
from children’s hands, I’ll try to find your love,
a fragment of your faith.

The other side of this effort is a recognition of the many forces that threaten this retrieval. One is Europe’s current tendency to doze off while internal and external threats are rising. Zagajewski, perhaps reflecting his experience of our country, puts this in a moving image: “When Europe is sound asleep at last, / America will keep watch / over the poor mute world / mistrustfully, like a younger sister.” In some of his essays, Zagajewski has worried that with the collapse of communism, the same Nietzschean nihilism that has ravaged western Europe will invade the East. The poem, “A Talk with Friedrich Nietzsche,” catalogs some of the horrors of the 20th century and concludes by putting a series of questions to the dead philosopher:

But if there’s not God and no force
welds elements in repulsion,
then what are the worlds really, and from whence
does their inner light come?

And from where does joy come, and where
does nothingness go? Where is forgiveness?
why do the incidental dreams vanish at dawn
and the great ones keep growing?

In “Immortality,” Zagajewski remarks with irony on the misappropriation of poetry by pedants and politicians. Dreamy 19th-century poets, “our great brothers ablaze with / inspiration,” have been turned into “stars today of school anthologies / and authors of quotes that justify / every injustice.” And in a new poem, “Sunrise over Cassis,” Zagajewski offers a prayer for European renewal, hopeful that the striving for spiritual awakening will not turn into the temptation of a life of false repose:

We ask that the vineyards,
gray as if coated with volcanic ash, be given life,
and that their great, distant cities awaken from their apathy,
and I ask not to confuse freedom with chaos
and to regain the faith that unites
things seen and unseen, but doesn’t lull the heart.

Poems translated from a language as distant from ours as Polish can only convey the sensibility, not the artistry, of a poet. These translations are in a generally plain idiom, and one assumes that the distinguished group of translators (including the poets C.K. Williams and Benjamin Ivry and Slavic scholars Clare Cavanagh and Renata Gorczynski) has drawn this quality from the original.

But if the verses are made for the most part from everyday, household words, what they have to say is often so luminous that it is hard, at first, to understand how Zagajewski could build so bright a fire out of such humble materials. Still, he does it again and again. No summary of this work can begin to do it justice. It has to be read and reread—slowly—to appreciate what new growths may be about to spring up in what had seemed to be exhausted soil.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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