This week’s New York Review of Books features a translation of one of Leszek Kolakowski’s essays (to be part of a collection forthcoming in 2013). Kolakowski, who passed away in 2009, was an iconic Polish anticommunist intellectual, and over the course of his life “the author of more than thirty books on topics as varied as Marxism, seventeenth-century thought, philosophy of religion, Bergson, and Pascal.”

As a man who spent much of his life in Communist Poland, he brings a refreshing seriousness to the problem of suffering, treating it in an acute and intense way many in the West simply don’t. In this newly translated essay, he inveighs against shortcut solutions to sin and pain, the kind of “cheap grace” we can settle into as materially comfortable moderns. It culminates in a rejection of an eschatology that papers over evil, of love without justice:

There are, of course, people who consider themselves happy because they are successful: healthy and rich, lacking nothing, respected (or feared) by their neighbors. Such people might believe that their life is what happiness is. But this is merely self-deception; and even they, from time to time at least, realize the truth. And the truth is that they are failures like the rest of us. [ . . . ]

Happiness is something we can imagine but not experience. If we imagine that hell and purgatory are no longer in operation and that all human beings, every single one without exception, have been saved by God and are now enjoying celestial bliss, lacking nothing, perfectly satisfied, without pain or death, then we can imagine that their happiness is real and that the sorrows and suffering of the past have been forgotten.

Portions of the essay are debatable, if not problematic. His assertion, for example, that “the true God of the Christians, Jesus Christ, was not happy in any recognizable sense” would seem to be challenged by Chesterton’s memorable description of his hiding his mirth. And it’s not accurate to equate the Buddhist notion of eternal bliss with the Christian view of salvation; it overlooks the dynamism of a Christian heaven—eternal life is not, for us, the inert existence of a stone; rather it implies ecstatic union with God.

But to read this work as an exercise in academic theology is to miss the point. It’s a lament, a reflection, a meditation; as Advent begins, this is not a bad way to bring the theme of penance to the fore. Kolakowski indeed poses a question of perpetual importance for spiritual discipline, one we can perhaps never answer with a full ‘yes’: “Is a person in this state aware of the world around him?”

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