In 2011, I reviewed what was then Adam Zagajewski’s recent collection, Unseen Hand. In it, the poet, then in his mid-sixties, turned toward themes of life and death, loss and preservation. My review was laudatory. After its publication, a friend passed it along to Zagajewski, who on his next visit to Boston met me for lunch in the café of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. As we sat down at our small table, Zagajewski spread his arms, open-palmed, and softly announced, “I am inviting you!” After several seconds of mutual embarrassment, we puzzled out that the Polish term for treating someone to lunch does not translate literally into English. For the rest of the meal we spoke quietly about philosophy (my discipline) and poetry. We agreed upon a deep admiration for Charles Taylor.
An email correspondence ensued. A few messages in, I thought that I should stake my claim to knowing something, to being more than a grateful fanboy. I thought that Zagajewski wouldn’t respect me if I remained in admiring agreement. At the time, I was a staunch and fairly recent convert to Catholicism, to which I’d fled when my childhood evangelicalism started to shudder. I loved, among many other things, the rules, the certainty, the clarity of the Catholic Church.
My idea was to instruct Adam Zagajewski, by email—Adam Zagajewski, the perennial Nobel Prize candidate—that the only thing that separated his work from true greatness was a position, a planted flag. He needed to know what he stood for, and to let us know, too, so that we could follow him. To his sensitive, passionate engagement with reality, he needed to add commitment. Zagajewski replied with a brief note to the effect that careful readers could perfectly well understand where he stood. After that our correspondence, unsurprisingly, petered out. I was sad, and as time passed, increasingly embarrassed whenever I recalled the exchange.
Zagajewski has continued along his chosen path, the advisements of an arrogant young writer notwithstanding. In the meantime, a great deal has changed, at least from a certain angle. The great good thing called the European Union has become a more tenuous, less automatic feature of the future. And not it alone—all that it represents along with it. Populations from Milan to Kraków are growing discontented with the postwar settlement defined (as Zagajewski puts it) by “obvious accord.” Many of the certainties proclaimed in the wake of World War II, and with still greater confidence after the fall of the Berlin Wall (when we declared History over), are creeping into the territory of the contestable. Zagajewski’s native Poland is a central example. His countrymen have begun electing leaders who think the great liberal project, a public sphere washed clean of binding morals and metaphysics, is corrupt.
Zagajewski has not been caught unawares by this development. For decades, he has warned that mere peace and prosperity are thin gruel for the human spiritual appetite. In A Defense of Ardor (2004), he wrote that our postwar settlement is an uneasy truce between “the antimetaphysical but politically dependable liberal left (or perhaps rather ‘center’) and the potentially menacing but spiritually engaged right.” When the liberal speaks, we “listen to him with interest” and tick his name in the voting booth. Boring and superficial as he may be, we know that he “won’t guide us toward the abyss, toward some wretched, extreme political denouement.” But once that denouement is avoided, we want to talk again with the menacing spiritual conservative about our “metaphysical anxieties” and feel that “strange, sharp metaphysical shiver we require from time to time.”
Zagajewski wants to maintain contact with sharp metaphysics, but he believes they must be chastened by careful irony. He insists that we cannot know all that true believers claim to know. This is where Zagajewski and I parted ways. I wanted him to turn that metaphysical shiver into a proper metaphysic, and then draw from it, as believers do, a corresponding ethic. He felt otherwise.
The French have a saying, which Zagajewski, a Parisian for several years, surely knows: Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop—“Banish the natural, and it comes galloping back.” Zagajewski seems to believe that though the demand for a shared metaphysical vision—a culture, properly speaking—can be dangerous, it is perfectly natural and can never be entirely expunged.
In a 1997 poem titled “Houston, 6 p.m.,” he writes: “Europe is already sleeping. Night’s animals, / Mournful and rapacious, / Move in for the kill. / Soon America will be sleeping, too.” Night’s animals. They’re at the door, and all around us. They bay louder each year. The idea that History had ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that now our simple task—which we happily share with a nebulous force called Progress—was to spread and consolidate secular democratic capitalism, never tempted Zagajewski. He stood for decades as a lonely, fretful dissenter in the world of high European letters.
In January 2019, a group of European literary grandees signed an open letter in The Guardian titled “Fight for Europe – or the wreckers will destroy it,” in which they call on something called Europe to defend itself against the resurgence of various European nationalisms. The letter was authored by Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Elfriede Jelinek, Orhan Pamuk, and Bernard-Henri Lévy. It was signed by a much longer list of equally eminent personages, including Ágnes Heller, Ismaïl Kadaré, Ian McEwan, Adam Michnik, Colm Tóibín, Mario Vargas Llosa, and last on the list, Adam Zagajewski.
Desperate times call for desperate signatures, maybe, but my heart sunk to see so many literary heroes among the signatories, most especially Zagajewski. The whole piece is teeteringly ominous in tone and shockingly empty in content. It begins in high dudgeon:
The idea of Europe is in peril.
From all sides there are criticisms, insults and desertions from the cause.
“Enough of ‘building Europe’!” is the cry. Let’s reconnect instead with our “national soul”! Let’s rediscover our “lost identity”! This is the agenda shared by the populist forces washing over the continent. Never mind that abstractions such as “soul” and “identity” often exist only in the imagination of demagogues.
Fine, yes, that can be dangerous stuff, to a degree that an American perhaps can’t fully grasp. Many of these writers lived under historically evil regimes or were born just after they fell. For them, the turn to a common European life has been the gasp of sunlit air that dispels the stench of blood-and-soil or utopian ideology. A great relief.
Some people feel this way when they are liberated from a toxic family, marriage, or job—able to move with the freedom they formerly longed for. But there’s no need to read too much into this experience. It doesn’t mean that families, marriages, and jobs stifle by nature and must be escaped on principle. Zagajewski has for decades pulled off the trick of being unmistakably Polish, and more than that, a son of Lvov, while refraining from declaring war on those from other places. He has been a rooted cosmopolitan.
But why roots? Why does he need to be Polish at all? Couldn’t Europeanness be a sufficiently soul-marking identity? Perhaps the great European writers who signed the open letter are correct: Greeks and Italians and Poles, not to mention Moroccans and Syrians and Algerians, can all become “Europeans,” and Europe will never adopt its own chauvinism, will never need to make war on Asia or Africa. If so, these writers probably know a good deal about what this Europeanness consists in, this nourishing sense of legacy and place. The philosophical basis of their call to arms is here:
Our faith is in the great idea that we inherited, which we believe to have been the one force powerful enough to lift Europe’s peoples above themselves and their warring past. We believe it remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.
They do not say what this “great idea” is. They loudly profess their faith—in something unspecified. The closest they come to a definition is a rhetorical nod to “the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius.” They’re clear enough on what they’re against, but who can say what they’re for? A mysterium tremendum of an idea, shrouded in gauzy generalities.
A purely negative ethos, an idea with no content, cannot nourish the soul of a people, however well-meaning it might be. The letter-writers have unwittingly made the case for a return to older, thicker forms of culture and belonging. There is no future for a people who cannot say what they love. The “great idea” seems to have been drained of sap. Perhaps there are two options left—a new form of nationalism, or that careful Zagajewskian balance. But is the latter a live possibility?
Zagajewski’s latest collection, Asymmetry, the English translation of which was released a few months before the open letter, contains a poem titled “Mourning for a Lost Friend,” which addresses the recent identity wars in Europe. It begins:
My friend hasn’t died, my friend lives
But I can’t meet him, I can’t see him
We can’t have a chat
My friend is hiding from me
He’s been seized by a deep political tide
My friend now knows the answer to every question
And can trace the source of every answer
This is as directly political as Zagajewski has ever been in his poetry. It’s not journalism by any means, but it’s urgent and focused on the present. The “knowledge” that Zagajewski’s friend possesses is of course suspect. Zagajewski doesn’t believe that such certainty is to be found in life, least of all by means of some political ideology. The poet, of course, lives in mystery, and the unnamed friend finds this mystery-living tedious and flaccid:
My friend thinks that I’m
frivolous, lost, reckless,
hopelessly adrift in floods
of irresponsible epithets
in ominous thickets of ellipses
One can read the poem as saying that Zagajewski is actually the pious one, rightly attending with humble heart to the rich complexity of reality. His friend is an idolater, prostrating himself before the dark, hollow altar of national identity. There’s something to that, to be sure, but Zagajewski is too good a poet to let that be all. He ends the piece on an ambivalent note:
My friend fell in love with the nation
but the nation is serious and never strolls even
in May it keeps watch, my friend
has no time for metaphors or pars pro toto
My friend is hiding from me
My friend lives
The disapproval is obvious enough. And yet, that last line: He lives. He acts, moves, lives. The poet, by contrast, trades in insubstantial metaphors. There’s a clear disjunction, but it’s not obvious who’s right. Elsewhere, in a piece titled “Northern Sea,” Zagajewski writes:
But maybe we just pretended to know nothing.
Maybe that was easiest, considering the vastness
and suffering (others’ suffering usually).
Maybe there was even a touch of laziness,
a hint of indifference. Maybe we thought:
we’re better off being Socrates’ distant epigones
than admitting that we know a thing or two.
Maybe on long walks, when the earth
and trees loomed, when we began to understand,
our daring frightened us.
Maybe our knowledge is bitter, too bitter,
like the gray cold waves of the northern sea
that has swallowed up so many ships,
but stays hungry.
Here, the poet’s hesitation to pronounce, to know, to lead, is an evasion. The clear-eyed observer loses his nerve. He declines to act upon reality as it is—dark, hopeless, cycling. The men of action—like Zagajewski’s lost friend—think they know, and perhaps they do. Perhaps the nation’s imperatives are strong and true. Zagajewski has some doubts, and he has good reasons for them, but here we’ve got to live. It’s hard to know how.
The first poem in the collection is titled “Nowhere,” and deals with the plight of a Pole who spends much of his life in Chicago (as Zagajewski has) and has just returned there after the burial of his father. The narrator walks in Hyde Park, catching “shreds of American voices” and lamenting his free-wheeling homelessness: “I belonged nowhere, I was free, / but if this is freedom, I thought, I’d rather be / a good king’s, a kindly emperor’s, captive.” The poem moves on to a discussion of Chopin’s frustrated inability to explain his Nocturnes, closing with, “I knew one thing: night too needed no / explanation, likewise pain, nowhere.” The title and last word of the first poem lands like a soft, heavy thud. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection.
So the wandering poet, acclaimed man of letters, great hymner of mystery and hope, seems aimless as he begins his eighth decade. He longs for home, even if it means he’ll be unfree, because mere freedom has led nowhere. The tension-abiding Zagajewski has come into old age with Brussels on one side, soulless but free and full of social grace, and Poland on the other, raking the ground with rough fingers, searching for ancient roots. He has always been clear that when it comes down to it, he’ll hold his nose and side with the liberals, at least in the voting booth. They have the good sense to steer us clear of catastrophe (or so we hope). That’s how I understand his signing of that vapid letter about fighting for Europe. And why shouldn’t he? Why are the Poles so unimpressed with the liberty and prosperity on offer in the European community? What, finally, is so bad about rational administration and cultural neutrality?
Well, the same thing that’s bad about finding your identity and place in shared bloodlines, history, culture, long-inhabited earth. It’s hard to do these things right, and impossible to do them perfectly. Ethnic nationalism, whether Japanese, Indian, Kenyan, or Polish, can cross from celebration into exclusion, and sometimes worse. We can analyze how far, how violently, how permissibly the crossing happens in each particular case, but it will happen if you’ve got humans administering the nation. The same difficulty applies to the liberals: A supranational state like the E.U. could, in theory, treat its constituent nations with respect and fairness, keeping the books and crafting the treaties with sensitive care, letting be the thick local cultures that give a soul shape and comfort. It could foster a healthy cosmopolitanism like that espoused by Zagajewski.
But that’s not how it’s unspooled over the past several decades. The E.U.—along with multinational commerce, its engine—has instead trafficked in strident demands for a clean, cosmopolitan, interchangeable humanness, which we all share by dint of our commitment to peace and prosperity. Days of obvious accord, nothing deeper, nothing thicker, depth and thickness being the precincts of bigots and zealots. Zagajewski has always known that this was untenable. He is joined in this awareness by the liberal Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who writes in his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism that “loyalties and local allegiances determine more than what we want; they determine who we are.” Appiah goes on to predict: “A creed that disdains the partialities of kinfolk and community may have a past, but it has no future.” The future looks more Polish, or Turkish, or Ghanaian than European.
Zagajewski insists that we live in tensions, that we hope and despair in the same day, that we kill to protect our mother, then hold back our fist to abide by the golden rule. But it’s a fearsome balancing act, and like nationalism and cosmopolitanism it is never done quite right. If cosmopolitanism has captured the imagination of elites, and nationalism that of the masses, to what imagination can Zagajewski’s balancing act appeal? In my pessimistic moments, I wonder whether its beauty is like that of the hothouse flower—surpassingly beautiful, and too fragile ever to overspread the world.
Let’s hope I’m wrong. Let’s hope the fatigue evident in Zagajewski’s most recent collection is not a sign that his beautiful balance is too delicate to withstand fist-pounding simplicity. In Zagajewski, we have a Polish boy from Lvov who has read his Miłosz and Herbert and found his soul reflected there, but also learned from Heaney, Rilke, Eliot, Seferis, and a thousand others. He’s cultivated the soil of Lvov, and coasted in thin, cold air over the Atlantic. Zagajewski’s work has been particular and wide. Rooted and free. This is an idea of Europe worth defending.
Ian Marcus Corbin is a writer in Boston.