Exploring Herbert: An Interview with Andrzej Franaszek
#language & literature
small, Exploring Herbert:
An Interview with Andrzej Franaszek, Zbigniew Herbert during a meeting with Soviet writers, Warsaw, 20 May 1972; photo: Danuta B. Łomaczewska / East News, herbert zbigniew_6096180.jpg
Andrzej Franaszek’s take on the biography of Zbigniew Herbert: the poet’s discretion, his conflict with Czesław Miłosz and a struggle for mental health.
Agata Szwedowicz: Looking back, how would you comment on the decision to keep Zbigniew Herbert’s archives in Poland?
Andrzej Franaszek: This was quite a controversial issue at one point. Originally, the archives were to be placed in Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, which specialises in writers’ inventories. For example, those of Czesław Miłosz and Witold Gombrowicz are already stored there. In the end, Zbigniew Herbert's legacy was handed over to the National Library in Warsaw – and I personally think this was a good choice.
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Throughout those years, many of the texts stored in that library were published. In my opinion, the archives are now in good hands – they are well-organised, put in catalogues and available to readers. It seems to me that they aren’t hiding any more secrets. While doing my research on Herbert's biography, I was very eager to explore these resources.
AS: Have you come across any unknown facts during this exploration?
AF: There are many books about Herbert’s works and his life, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject has been exhausted. Herbert’s biography isn’t a simple topic. Two years ago, I released the biography of Czesław Miłosz. This poet left behind many traces, for he had documented his own life and written many letters, which are a great source of information for readers today.
By contrast, Herbert protected his privacy – for many different reasons. One of them was certainly his experience with postal censorship, which was practiced regularly in the Polish People’s Republic. But his character was also a factor, because Herbert was very reluctant to talk about himself.
Herbert would slip between relationships, escaping the eyes of other people. Recently, I've been imagining him as a man who stands on ‘cat's paws’. In fact, he could be the life and soul of the party, but when asked about his own life, he would turn against storytelling. Supposedly, the ideal form of biography from his point of view would be a work which speaks for itself, but at the same time, is completely detached from the author's life.
AS: Herbert’s mental health was a taboo topic for a very long time. Will you tackle this issue?
AF: Yes, of course. It’s difficult to understand the motives behind Herbert’s actions and opinions, which were sometimes very radical, without being aware of the fact that he was struggling with the bipolar disorder. For example, I’ve come across a letter he wrote to one of the translators, in which he completely bashes the recipient. Two years later the poet apologised to the same translator and explained that he wasn’t himself back them – it was the illness that blurred his perception of reality. Bipolar disorder causes alternating periods of depression and euphoria. There are traces of it in Herbert’s work.
At one point, I realised that the poem Mr. Cogito – Notes from a Dead House isn’t set in an abstract or symbolic reality. Instead, it’s a distant echo of Herbert's stay in a psychiatric hospital. Of course, this experience acquires a universal dimension. I’d like to strongly emphasize that I am not claiming that mental illness explains each and every one of the poet’s decisions, his political inclination or even his behaviour. The case is far more complex, but his health problems undoubtedly constituted an important aspect of his decision-making.
AS: Do you think that the conflict with Miłosz can be explained by one of his relapses?
AF: I think that the background for the conflict, which started in 1968 between Herbert and Miłosz, cannot be limited only to mental health. It involved many factors – and certainly a feeling of frustration with Miłosz. Herbert considered him a master, but at the same time, he wanted to rebel against the older poet. The difference in their political stances about the meaning of patriotism, about what can be criticised and what must never receive any criticism, played a crucial role as well.
Miłosz had a more critical outlook on pre-war Poland. He perceived at it as an adult, whereas Herbert was merely a young man at that time. While Miłosz mocked the pre-war uhlan uniforms, Herbert reminded us that the people wearing those clothes were also dying in them. These were two different sides of sensitivity – Miłosz was more ironic, impartial, prone to undermine dogmas. Herbert, in turn, had his borderline of imponderables, which he would never cross. He was attached to the traditions of Interwar Poland; he loved soldiers’ songs. It's extremely difficult to picture Miłosz posessing such tastes.
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AS: Would you agree that the most popular and frequently quoted poem by Herbert is ‘The Message of Mr. Cogito’?
AF: I hope that isn’t true. This poem was extremely important in the period between the 1970s and 1980s. It depicted a certain essence of an attitude, an example for Poles living under martial law. Herbert himself considered this poem dangerous. He wasn't sure whether it should be published. All in all, he was worried that it could inspire or even push its readers to hopelessness. The Message of Mr. Cogito contains a certain paradox – it stresses that perseverance won't be rewarded, as it stretches a vision of emptiness that awaits all of us after death.
AS: This poem is very often quoted out of context, often as a comment on the political situation. Despite frequent quotations, it’s still very little known. Mr. Cogito should be loyal – but to what?
AF: In Herbert’s code of conduct, there were some very important virtues – such as faithfulness to those who passed away, to soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to defend the motherland, a certain chivalry, an attachment to human dignity, truth, and a repulsion towards lies. It’s neither extraordinary nor surprising that politicians quote this particular poem by extracting some verses from the context or changing its content.
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20th century polish poets
20th century polish poetry
AS: Do you think that any of Herbert's phrases have entered everyday speech for good?
AF: Undoubtedly, talking about ‘the power of taste’ or calling one to ‘be faithful Go’ were very common in the 1980s. Using such phrases in conversation was something that could define the speaker. Do we still talk with the words of poets? I don’t think so.
Source: PAP; interview by Agata Szwedowicz; edited by PZ, Oct 2014; translated by AS, June 2018