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This article is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.Herbert's Microscope
'A poet's sphere of activity is not the time in which he lives but reality, which is a much broader notion.'
Zbigniew Herbert was a poet who felt most comfortable among tautologies, equations where nothing is lost or gained on either side, barring all possibilities of injustice: 'a bird is a bird / slavery means slavery / a knife is a knife / death remains death'. Only at the risk of superfluousness - perhaps the excess Herbert found most distasteful - can one attempt to describe a poet who so exquisitely dissected his own psyche in the many poems about Mr Cogito, his lyric persona. Herbert, who died this past July, was unwavering in his life-long protest against all forms of tyranny, indignation and oppression of the human spirit which he countered not with explosive or revolutionary tactics but with simple, irrefutable reason: the laws of a wooden die, the logic of a pebble. 'The romantic Mr Fromentin,' he writes of the eighteenth-century French art critic, 'spins out meditations about lofty things, history, beauty, fame. I, however, with all the force of my spirit cling to the brick.' In a poem in the collection Mr Cogito he adds, 'If he had a sense of identity it was probably with stone,' as if, finding it so lacking in humility to identify with the heroic David, Herbert can only bring himself to relate to the common rock that killed Goliath. To write about Herbert, then, is to try to describe, with simple clarity, the complexities of a stone; something perhaps only Herbert could do with startling elegance:
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
its ardor and coldness
are just and full of dignity
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
For forty-two years Zbigniew Herbert observed his surroundings with an unclouded eye, sending out reports in the form of poems written in his native Polish. The acute precision normally reserved for the realm of biology, geometry, or some other unflinching science became, in Herbert's hands, a tool for investigating the imagination, the soul, suffering; in short, everything inexact. Like Mr Cogito, he wanted to 'remain faithful to uncertain clarity', where both the emphatic and the inaccurate are equally suspect. To Herbert, neither the lofty heights of artistic insight nor the weight of scientific measure is wholly acceptable without the temperance of the other. In 'Mr Cogito and the Imagination', he writes:
he would rarely soar
on the wings of a metaphor
and then he fell like Icarus
into the embrace of the Great Mother
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the flat horizon
a straight line
the gravity of the earth
Mr Cogito wanted his imagination to be 'an instrument of compassion', allowing him to understand both 'the nature of a diamond' and 'the joy of the painter of Lascaux':
Mr Cogito's imagination
has the motion of a pendulum
it crosses with precision
from suffering to suffering
there is no place in it
for the artificial fires of poetry
he would like to remain faithful
to uncertain clarity
It is understandable that Herbert was fascinated by and dedicated a book of essays to seventeenth-century Holland: at that time Spinoza rubbed shoulders with Rembrandt, while those who had begun to classify the natural world proceeded by producing exquisite drawings of each specimen just as artists occasionally snatched bodies in order to perform instructive anatomies. What is now called science was then only beginning to merge as a separate entity of knowledge, mid-wifed in part by Descartes who used the term scientia to denote the kind of knowledge he was after, that is, 'certain and evident cognition'; it is not by chance that Herbert fashioned the name of his alter-ego from the dictum Cogito ergo sum. The invention of Mr Cogito allowed Herbert to scrutinize himself with the same combination of detachment and tender irony he applied to all other subjects.
It is Herbert's affinity for seventeenth-century Holland, its art, science, and eccentricities, that I would like to discuss here, running the risk of superfluousness, of unnecessary elaboration. When a poet - one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century - dies there is little left for the living to do except to read his collected works over again: at least once, twice or three times if possible. Not to sum him up or chisel out a good epitaph but, on the contrary, to witness how his words have begun to accrue more mass and weight, as if bolstered by the wisdom of the dead. It was while reading Herbert's poems and essays during these past weeks that I revisited Still Life with a Bridle, his collection of essays about seventeenth-century Holland, and found there, among other things, a kind of footnote to the poet's imagination.
Herbert began writing essays during the Fifties, and his first collection, Barbarian in the Garden , published in 1962, wanders gracefully through France (Lascaux, Valois, Arles, Paris) and Italy (Siena, Orvieto, Naples, Perugia) stopping to meditate on Notre Dame, temples of the Doric Order, the paintings of Piero della Francesca, and anything else that lodges in the corner of his eye refusing to budge until he has given it his full attention. If the book is united as a whole it is by the particular texture of Herbert's descriptions and erudition, and by a kind of awe of European civilization and its classical foundations. But in essays written in later years Herbert's searching gaze came to rest some distance north of Hadrian's wall, once the last outpost of Roman civilization before barbarian country. It paused on a stretch of land so uneventfully flat that it appears as if 'the smallest hill would be enough to take in the entire country'. At first glance (especially if one's introduction to Holland, as it is in Still Life with a Bridle, is not via the coast dotted with cities but rather the floating flats of Zeeland) this endless green rulered by an unobscured horizon may appear uninspired. But if one were to know that a portion of this country's land was reclaimed from the sea, and that the many tame dycks and canals that calmly course through it are a result of Holland's hard-fought victory over water, the landscape takes on a less wishy-washy, more robust character. Staring out at a polder - land harnessed from the cold depths of the sea, drained, defended against floods and swells - one finds the first clue to Herbert's affinity with the Dutch: their tireless and ingenious struggle against forces greater than themselves - the tyranny of water, of dirt and dust, of ruling Spain, to begin with.
Throughout the seventeenth century the Dutch were rarely at peace; after winning their independence from Philip II of Spain, they carried on battling at sea against England, France, Portugal. Yet, there is hardly a sign of strife in the countless paintings of tranquil households, merry taverns, overripe fruit and generous wheels of cheese, or placid, pink-hued skating scenes produced at that time. Even civic guards are portrayed wielding forkfuls rather than guns. It is as if Holland - whose capital was the richest in Europe, a Mecca for merchants of silk, 'Turkey' carpets, Chinese porcelain, luxuries of every sort - declared through its painters its insistence on well-being. It is easy to understand why Herbert might have been attracted to this stalwart refusal to allow the ugliness of war into the kitchen full of cats and children, or the local pub where tankards are clinked over brawls, kisses, practical jokes. But despite the posture of naiveté Mr Cogito sometimes assumes, Herbert was far too sober to buy wholesale into such rosiness. In 'From the Top of the Stairs', written in 1956, he briefly imagines that those in a position of power come down the stairs to explain that 'what the posters shout out isn't true', that in fact they are bearing the burden of cruel truth so that those below can be protected from it. Quickly, however, he comes to the conclusion that
these are dreams of course
they can come true
or not come true
so we will
continue to cultivate
our square of dirt
square of stone
with a light head
a cigarette behind the ear
and not a drop of hope in the heart
Herbert was charmed by the resilience, ingenuity, and intense morality of the seventeenth-century Dutch, but in the essays in Still Life what he most often investigates is the fissures he finds there. Applying Leeuwenhoek and Drebbel's microscope to Dutch history, where others see only a drop of water Herbert finds a wealth of detail.
The strict moral imperatives of Calvinism pervaded every aspect of daily life in seventeenth-century Netherlands. Never was there a society so saturated with moralistic aphorisms, reproduced and illustrated by the thousands in the emblem books of Jacob Cats and Roemer Visscher as well as a multitude of genre paintings. The Dutch were mild and tolerant in many respects but, as with all institutionalized systems of ethics, there were those who were persecuted, and often executed, for their refusal to conform. Herbert, who resisted Fascism, Communism, nationalism, and the Church, who was uncompromising in his insistence on moral independence, was well aware of the price of individuality. In 'Damastes (Also Known as Procrustes) Speaks' he parodies the cruel highwayman of Greek mythology who forced passerby to fit the dimensions of his bed by stretching and cutting limbs: 'it is slander / to say I was a bandit as the falsifiers of history claim / in reality I was a scholar and social reformer / my real passion was anthropometry'
I longed to abolish the difference between the high and low
I wanted to give a single form to disgustingly varied humanity
I never stopped in my efforts to make people equal
Killed by Theseus, 'an impostor full of tricks without principles or a vision of the future', the poem ends with the statement of Damastes 'well-grounded hope others will continue my labor / and bring the task so boldly begun to its end'. Herbert's interest in history is not so much in events or trends as it is in the lives of free-thinkers destroyed or made obscure by these things. He loves the triumph of outcasts and eccentrics: the executioner (in seventeenth-century Holland, forbidden to touch others so as not to contaminate them with infamy) who, the moment before performing his task on a once respected and great politician offers, 'Here, Your Honour, you will have sun on your face', thus momentarily betraying the indifference of his profession to throw out 'a crumb of helpless goodness'; or the frail and sickly Jan Swammerdam who, despite his parents' reproof, took up the study of insects and - apologetically, cursing himself for being interested in such base and lowly creatures - proceeded to establish the foundations of entomology; or Cornelis Drebbel, the inventor and scholar reproached for lack of seriousness, who built a weather machine, flying machine, a machine for perpetual motion ('After centuries when my bones have crumbled - Drebbel thought - and even my name has dissolved into mist, someone will find my clock eternally striking. I don't count on human memory but on the memory of the universe'.) But these victories of individuality are rarer than the alternative. More common is a fate similar to Long Gerrit, ostracized because of his height of eight feet and five inches, finally stabbed in an alley not for his money, which was still in his purse, but for his inability to fit into Procrustes' bed.
The title essay of Still Life with a Bridle recounts Herbert's discovery, during his first visit to the Rijksmuseum, of a painting - clay jug, glass roemer, pewter pitcher, two porcelain pipes, a sheet of music, and an iron bridle - and its little-known painter Jan Simon van de Beeck who called himself Torrentius. Herbert's description of the painting is characteristically lucid: the dark background like a 'transparent cover over the abyss', the 'energetically protruding beak' of the pewter pitcher, the bridle hanging on the wall that, 'stripped of its stable commonness, emerges from the dark background threatening, hieratic, somber like the specter of the Great Commander'. Appealing to the dictionaries and encyclopaedia of art, Herbert finds them silent on the mystery of Torrentius. Only after conducting his own investigations does Herbert learn that Torrentius was a painter, born in 1589, who became the defendant in one of the more cruel and heinous trials of his time. Both talented and exuberant, Torrentius was known for riding from town to town on his horse, like some 'Dionysus leading a crowd of satyrs', igniting raucous, and 'not-quite-decent feasts' at every tavern he entered. He loved a good argument, to make a fool of stupidity, and his disputes often strayed toward the theological. In Herbert's view, 'he probably treated his own life like a material substance to which he gave unusually sophisticated form, therefore he destroyed conventions, bewildered, and scandalized'. On 30 June, 1627, Torrentius was swiftly and unexpectedly arrested. In the fierce trial that ensued, calling upon all of his enemies for lengthy testimony, discounting as 'nihil' any testimony offered in his favor, Torrentius was accused of all manner of blasphemous and offensive acts. The original charge (unproven) of affiliation with the secret order of the Roscrucians, was forgotten and replaced with the vaguer but more serious crime of heresy: 'the privilege of lack of clarity has only too often been abused in history, usually with fatal consequences for the accused,' Herbert writes. Torture was applied to force Torrentius to confess, but throughout he defended his innocence with 'consistency, logic, and persuasion'. An initial sentence of burning at the stake followed by hanging of the corpse was repealed by the court - 'as if frightened by its own cruelty - and replaced with twenty years in prison. Despite the angry protests of many Dutch citizens and the advice of the fair but powerless stadtholder Frederick Henry, the rulers of Haarlem retained Torrentius in prison. Only when Charles I of England (having heard of Torrentius' case and perhaps sensing the opportunity to get a talented painter and a cheap rate) offered to take on the prisoner as a court painter did they consent, but only after Torrentius paid the hefty sums incurred for his trial and promised never again to set foot in Holland. In 1642, in an act 'that clearly borders on madness', he suddenly returned, was tried and tortured again, finally dying in 1644. All of his works were lost or destroyed except for the painting that evoked in Herbert an almost physical sensation of attraction, followed by gratitude and rapture. Whether the encounter was really so dramatic or was only lent such weight in retrospect, the essay nevertheless displays Herbert's compassion for and ability to detect, among so many shapes and colors, the vision of one who 'violated accepted norms', and who did so 'systematically, from conviction, and ostentatiously as a confession of faith'.
Still Life with a Bridle is full of unconventional characters, as many scientist/inventors as artists, and some who in the tradition of Da Vinci were both, such as Jan Leeghwater, a popular painter and sculptor who also engineered machines to drain water-logged soil. A number also had some connection with optical advancements, and it is possible that to Herbert the Dutch obsession with optical devices was reflective of their rigorous battle against the blindness of ignorance. Perhaps that is why he had so much affection for Baruch Spinoza, the rationalist philosopher who was a lens grinder by trade and whose independent mind led to his excommunication from Amsterdam's Jewish community. In the essay 'Spinoza's Bed', Herbert celebrates a certain lesson Spinoza taught his adversaries about the courage of renunciation. But in a poem about the philosopher Herbert alludes to the dangers of Spinoza's ideology, where the universe can be reduced to mathematics and truth can be reached using principles of geometry. The title, 'Mr Cogito Tells About the Temptation of Spinoza', could be read either as Spinoza's temptation or Mr Cogito's temptation, i.e. the philosophy of Spinoza. Herbert describes an encounter between the lens-grinding philosopher and God, where the former poses questions about 'the nature of man' as well as the first and final causes:
when Spinoza became silent
- you talk nicely Baruch
I like your geometric Latin
and the clear syntax
the symmetry of your arguments
let's speak however
about Things Truly
- look at your hands
cut and trembling
- you destroy your eyes
in the darkness
- you are badly nourished
you dress shabbily
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the rational fury
thrones will fall because of it
stars will turn black
- think about the woman
who will give you a child
- you see Baruch
we are speaking about Great Things
Much as he admires the work of scientists, of mathematical philosophers, defenders of logic, for himself Herbert chooses poetry to combat blind ignorance. If there is any question as to where his faith truly lies, the issue is settled in the penultimate essay in Still Life, where Herbert invents a letter written by Vermeer (none of whose writings, if they existed at all, have survived) to Anton van Leeuwenhoek. In it Vermeer writes of having seen, for the first time, a drop of water under his friend's microscope only to find that it was not like pure glass but rather filled with strange creatures. 'Such is water, my dear, such and not otherwise,' Vermeer recalls Leeuwenhoek saying. The letter continues:
I understood what you wanted to say: that we artists record appearances, the life of shadows and the deceptive surface of the world; we do not have the courage or ability to reach the essence of things... I am afraid that you and others like you are setting out on a dangerous journey that might bring humanity not only advantages but also great, irreparable harm... With each new discovery a new abyss opens. We are more lonely in the mysterious void of the universe... Most likely you will reproach me that our art does not solve any of the enigmas of nature. Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them, to bow our heads before them and also to prepare the eyes for never ending delight and wonder... If I understand my task, it is to reconcile man with surrounding reality.
In the end Herbert would have gladly surrendered the microscope for the pen, which he used to his best ability to reconcile man with his surrounding reality, and to fight the monster of ignorance and injustice -
he calls to the monster
on the empty streets
he offends the monster
provokes the monster
like a bold skirmisher
of an army that doesn't exist
he calls -
come out contemptible coward
through the fog
one sees only
the huge snout of nothingness
Mr Cogito wants to enter
the uneven battle
it ought to happen
before there will be
a fall from inertia
an ordinary death without glory
suffocation from formlessness
(from 'The Monster of Mr Cogito')
Let us hope that Herbert, whose recent death seems to have already begun to recede into the annals of history, does not slip into the obscurity from which he rescued so many others.
This article is taken from PN Review 125, Volume 25 Number 3, January - February 1999.