A nomadic writer
What interested Herbert the most were diversity and human beings. To understand them he was constantly deepening his knowledge, travelled to many places, all to experience different cultures and meet new people.
Zbigniew Herbert wrote many collections of poems and essays. Yet, there is one book that he never wrote, even though he should have. Or maybe he wrote such a book, but not literally. Not as a titled volume, but as many single pages. As a matter of fact, he was fully aware that many of his anthropological and sociological texts remained in drafts and excerpts. In his 1965 essay titled “Mr Montaigne’s journey to Italy” which was published in Tygodnik Powszechny a year later he admitted: “When a moment comes that my body will have only enough strength to fix the pillow under the head, I will have no choice but write a large piece of work, that is a book and not a collection of drafts, which will be titled: Introduction to the theory of journey.”
Such a book would have fit the so-called cultural tourism literature and focus on the poet’s pilgrimages to the many places he visited throughout his life. Herbert actually wrote such a book, even though he did not manage to compile it as a whole. In a similar way he played games with his own biography, by sneaking in parts of his alter ego, the famous Mr Cogito, into the written letters, postcards or quasi-reports from journeys. In this way Herbert was indeed sharing with his readers his reflections of the world, history or culture.
A moral authority
In communist Poland Herbert played a very important role as a moral authority. He was an essayist who wanted to have an impact. He knew that although literature cannot change the course of history or fully shape people’s minds, but it can teach them sensitivity and generate good. In Herbert’s view, writing required great effort on behalf of the writers who held responsibility for the words they formulated while reflecting on themselves and their surrounding reality. Possibly for this reason, he became an example of a non-conformist approach to the world.
In one piece titled “A poet in face of reality” published by Odra in 1972 Herbert wrote that the poet’s role was to constantly engage in dialogue with reality and in this way cultivate the disappearing skill of contemplation. Such a reflection of everyday life, which is shaped by the past and a result of historical, ideological and political activities, is the key to getting to know one’s culture. For Herbert the most important was European culture. Even though he saw himself as an Eastern European writer, in the West he was perceived as a European poet, one who was known for making references to ancient mythology and European philosophy. Yet, the latter he often deconstructed and interpreted in a very unconventional way. Thus, it can also be said that Herbert, in addition to being a writer and a poet, was a storyteller, a sociologist and a cultural anthropologist. More than anything else, he was a fantastic observer of the world.
Born in 1924 Herbert belonged to the generation of Europeans who witnessed the collapse of nation-states and the great crisis of European culture. He survived the Second World War, participating in anti-Nazi German resistance, to later observe socialism and communism being introduced in Poland. As a result of these experiences he understood the nature of totalitarianism and nationalism and the consequences that these ideologies can bring. He saw how they can influence people, poison their hearts, lower their culture and teach vulgarity and lack of tolerance.
In 1944 he left his hometown of Lviv which, after the Second World War, stayed on the Soviet side. His memories of Lviv remained only in his poems. However, in a 1994 conversation with a Polish translator and playwright, Monika Muskała, he admitted: “Lviv influenced me a great deal … First of all, as a multi-ethnic city. From the day I was born I was immune to xenophobia. Antisemitism was also something completely incomprehensive to me … I would not like to idealise it too much as of course there were different conflicts and tensions in the city … A city is not a collection of buildings, monuments, squares and bridges – what is decisive about a city are the inter-human relations. And it seems to me that in this city of mine there were good inter-human relations, as there was a spirit of tolerance felt in the air and you could feel it much stronger there than in Central Poland.”
Clearly, what interested Herbert the most were diversity and human beings. To understand them he was constantly deepening his knowledge, travelled to many places, all to experience different cultures and meet people. As he said once in a conversation with a journalist Halina Murza Stankiewicz (1972): “I started to be interested in people’s behaviours, in something I would call the meeting with another human being.”
Indeed, he had many such meetings. They were with people of different cultures, languages and denominations. There were direct meetings, but also indirect ones with the readers. Convinced of their value, Herbert would often write that art and literature require that authors observe other people. In his view, it is through art that we get to know others, but also ourselves.
Herbert always remembered his early years in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Lviv. That is why he openly opposed nationalism and chauvinism. He was against any forms of declared belonging to one nation. His own family had multinational roots – as his ancestors probably came from England, but arrived in Galicia from Vienna. As he explained in his autobiography: “My family history says that our male predecessors came from England and were religious immigrants who in their different ‘homelands of choice’ got married to German, Australian, Czech and Armenian girls.” One of his grandmothers was Armenian.
Following the steps of his grandparents and great-grandparents he travelled around the world. He was seeking to find the homeland of his choice. It turned out to be Poland. It was here where he would come the most often and most willingly, even though he felt that he was a citizen of the world. On many occasions, Herbert would point how important Poland was for his life. He claimed: “My biography linked me so much with this country that I have to stay here.”
For Herbert, culture was always important in deciding how to act or what to do. Herbert was not yet an adherer to cultural purism, but believed in convergence of cultures, which were made by people who permanently interacted. Herbert would stress that human beings are not stones who are not affected by external factors and who ignore things that are unknown or incomprehensive. Human beings are nomads who freely move between cultures. They are open to the world, and curious. Being such a nomad himself, Herbert was absorbing everything that was of interests to him. He was inspired by everything that was foreign and wanted to get to know the unknown, all to better understand the reality and consciously accept it or refute it. For these reasons, Herbert toured Greece, Italy, France, England, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the former Yugoslavia. Treating history as a map, he wanted to sail around Europe and become a conscious European.
Journeys to the source
Herbert described European culture and the method of getting to know it as a process of diffusion – a nomadic adventure between regions, countries and continents. In other words, it was travelling between cultures. Herbert himself was not a tourist as such. His touring the world resembled the one of a reporter, or as he was often called – a cultural tourist. As such, he would say that culture is the superstructure of new constructions, an embodiment of the past in the present. “That is why,” he wrote in the essay titled “Arles”, “touring such cities as Arles, where different epochs and stones are mixed together, is a better learning experience than the dry education of systematic collections. There is no better testimony to the durability of human works and dialogue of civilisations that a suddenly encountered, yet not described in tour guides, old Renaissance house which is built on an ancient foundation with a Roman sculpture over the portal.”
This was not the only time when Herbert wrote that while travelling it is better not to use tour guides. He relied on the intuition and praised the courage of looking at the world as well as the willingness to get to know it. These processes should yet be accompanied by the humanist’s reflection and a memory of the biggest artists: poets and painters. It is thus needed to compare what they described with words or colours with what is there today. This is travel not only in space, but also in time.
Herbert believed that he had started his voyages too late and did not manage to see everything he wanted to see. “I was always interested in the world of the ancient Greeks and Rome,” he said in one conversation, “the world of the Mediterranean culture. I think that every generation … has to opt for a dialogue with the past, to find connections and similarities with what took place before … We need to dig out from our rich and diverse heritage, the so much needed patterns of courage, manhood, tolerance, defence of those who are weaker, sense of justice.”
His journeys were aimed at finding this multi-cultural heritage, a material and non-material one, which has shaped contemporary philosophy. While describing culture as a space of the individual’s self-realisation Herbert was referring to those elements which disappear or which, almost like the roots of today’s Europe, have shaped human thinking. Herbert treated his travels as a journey to the sources. In 1980 in his conversation with the anti-communist activist at that time, Adam Michnik, he said: “I have never lost my spirit as a wonderer … You always sail towards the sources, against the current, as it is only trash that floats with the current. And whether you reach your destination or not, it does not matter, as it is only making you stronger, and developing your muscles.”
Poland belongs to Europe
In a record of a discussion which took place with Herbert in Gdańsk and which was published by Dziennik Bałtycki in 1981 we can read that the poet said: “I think that regardless of what had happened, Poland belongs to European culture. I am attached to this culture and that is why from my travels I would like to bring not only stories about different paintings, sculptures and cathedrals but also document my Polish ties with the sources of our civilisation. … The Judeo-Greek-Roman tradition really interests me. I cannot study Persian or Indian cultures, which for sure are great too. I was born and raised in this culture and would like to maintain – as much as my small abilities, strength and talent allow – these ties that once were connecting Poland with Ferrara, Prague, Bologna, Heidelberg or Oxford.”
These statements illustrate Herbert’s deep conviction that Polish culture belongs to the European heritage, sharing common ties and dependencies on one another. In the text titled “Mr Cogito’s remarks at a table covered with a table cloth” which was published in 1997 by Tygodnik Powszechny he wrote: “We do not want, like some nationalistic lunatics, to detach Poland from the rest of Europe, a place to which it has belonged for thousands of years, but try to answer the question as what we want to and what we can give to Europe.” To answer this question correctly it was necessary – in Herbert’s view – to learn European culture: its sources, origins, inclinations and convergence. Thus, in many of his works, Herbert contrasted and compared his contemporary times with Homer’s world.
He described Greece as a place where the European material and non-material culture was born, claiming that it is still to be found in Greek caves. In this ancient heritage he saw a universal code. When looking closely at the remains of the old temples he was discovering the power and symbols of the stones. His journey yet proved to be a fiasco and he thought of himself as the last European as he was aware that the ancient concept of Europe, which was later developed by the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romanticism, which he deeply believed in, was to get destroyed by mass culture and globalisation.
That is why he went to America. However, despite his fascination with American culture Herbert remained a European from the East. Forever. Another Polish poet and translator, Stanisław Barańczak, who spent a large part of his life in the United States, while describing Herbert, wrote that in Herbert’s journeys he saw “attempts to confront the traditions of the West with the experience of a person who comes from Eastern Europe, the past with today, the cultural myth with the material aspect of life”. It was this courage of confronting different cultures and civilisations, which at times brings on problems but can also be enriching, that made Herbert love the diversity of art and nature. It is the diversity and the need for experience that makes a man, and a nomad, a real humanist.
In the end, it is worth asking what would have happened to Herbert’s book, this unwritten Introduction to the theory of journey should it have been published. Would it be an inspiration for today’s younger generation? Would it teach them how not to waste their ties with Europe and promote tolerance? All to take advantage of the richness of diversity, and at the same time enjoy local and regional cultures. Or would it go unnoticed in today’s information noise? Herbert was worried, as we read in his texts, that interest in culture was on a decrease, fearing that there were compatibility problems between high culture and the modern one. He would say that contemporary times were characterised by the collapse of basic values and that is why he was postulating the need to bring them back.
Faithful to values
In Herbert’s view, a return to the world of virtues could take place only when people remain faithful to the centuries’ long traditions that were rooted in Christianity and ancient culture. Just like many humanists he feared the consequences of the fall of humanism and human sciences. He believed that they would lead to the lack of interest in another human being, an inability to compromise and find a common language. And finally multiplying the myth of the Babel tower, which symbolically shows what pride, also the national one, can lead to. Namely; arrogance, disagreements, lack of tolerance and respect for other human beings.
It would be worthy if Herbert’s definition of a journey could continue to accompany us today. With such guidance, we would probably better understand that journeys are undertaken to make friends, re-learn philosophy and taste other cultures. These are sensual experiences, above all. What is more, if our journey is permanent, it will be continued by the next generations. In this way our today’s experiences become a legacy for years to come. Our culture thus gets rooted and establishes its sources, which are – as Herbert believed – its greatest values.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Kinga Anna Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She holds a PhD in literature.