The title of this newly translated collection of essays indicates a deficiency Polish poet and intellectual Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) finds in contemporary capitalist societies; expressly, that “ardor, metaphysical seriousness, [and] the risky voicing of strong opinions are all suspicious nowadays.” In lieu of such qualities, Zagajewski finds a ready-made irony with no time for sublimity, nobility, or holiness. While Zagajewski differentiates between the irony used by, say, Mann in the struggle to vitiate fascism, and the low irony of advertisements or the glib irony of the university student, he spots a common threat skulking behind each of these forms: paralysis. If you’re scanning for symptoms of this malady, look for the following: an aversion to high style, an avant-garde perpetually in revolt, a recoil from generosity and sincerity. For Americans who followed the cultural wars in academia and the art world throughout the eighties and nineties such an appraisal will seem shopworn, and it is. But Zagajewski, no antiquarian, is a promoter of liberal values and a deft ironist himself. Consider this sally: “Only those provincial physics teachers who down a few beers every night could conceive of poetry as the realm of absolute license.”
After airing his views on our present-day torpor, Zagajewski shifts gears. The polemical energy of the first two essays segues into something more meditative in the travelogues, portraits of artists, and reflections upon modernity. In “Intellectual Krakow” he bristles when Edward Hirsch describes a street as “proletarian and nondescript.” Zagajewski chides him for not looking hard enough and noting the street’s history, its possibilities, and its unfulfilled promises. Conversely, in “Gray Paris” he delights in the work of Bogdan Konopka, whose photographs of Paris “[evoke] the secret fraternity of all cities…” In “Toil and Flame,” a eulogy for the painter/writer Jozef Czapski, he elevates Czapski’s sofa to a talisman, reveling in its power as a repository of youth, a conduit for social activity, a workstation, and a symbol of independence. Dilating on the overlooked, conjoining disparate elements, and restoring a sense of wonder to the objects around us, it is here where Zagajewski’s essayistic and poetic modes nudge together that this collection draws its greatest strength.
Because this book does not bear the brunt of a sustained “defense,” and since we are notified of our age’s shortcomings, we are groomed to appreciate how Zagajewski’s style rectifies what he finds wanting. Although themes such as exile, poetry, and the horrors of the twentieth century run throughout, it is the style—with its openness to the mundane and the transcendent—that unifies the book, making it not so much a “defense” as a primer on how to see expansively.
Given then the warning about the use of a facile irony, what are we to make of statements such as these: “we’re not supposed to talk about the life in our post-structuralist age,” “empathy [is] an unpopular aesthetic category nowadays,” and “the liberal schools you attended… cared very little for the classics, and were even less interested in the giants of modernity.” (As to the last, sorry, but at Vassar it wasn’t so.) Ad hominem needling aside, such examples bespeak the restless nature of these essays, which do not forgo the pleasure of the parting shot. Fortifying our resolve to do better, to appreciate more, Zagajewski welcomes his readers with the excitement of a philosophically inclined gourmand who puts his diet on the shelf when the occasion suits.