Monday, September 6, 2010

Mad Men



The fact that I always felt uncertain in the face of masterpieces seemed natural to me. It is the good right of masterpieces that they should upset our arrogant certainty and question our importance. They took away a part of my reality, commanded silence, a halt to mouse-like scampering around unimportant and stupid things. They didn't permit me - as Thomas Moore says - "to concern myself too much with that domineering thing called 'I.'" If it is proper to call this a transaction, it was the most profitable of transactions conceivable. In return for humility and quietude, they gave me the "honey and light" that I could never create myself.

One of the deadly sins of contemporary culture is that it meanspiritedly avoids a frontal confrontation with the highest values. Also the arrogant conviction that we can do without models (both aesthetic and moral), because our place in the world is supposedly so exceptional and can't be compared with anything. That's why we reject the aid of tradition and stumble around in our solitude, digging around in the dark corners of the desolate little soul.

There exists a false view to the effect that tradition is like a fortune, a legacy, which you inherit mechanically, without effort, and that's why those who object to inherited wealth and unearned privilege are against tradition. But in fact every contact with the past requires an effort, a labor, and a difficult and thankless labor to boot, for our little "I" whines and balks at it...

Poor utopians, history's debutantes, museum arsonists, liquidators of the past are like those madmen who destroy works of art because they cannot forgive them their serenity, dignity, and cool radiance.

-- Zbignew Herbert, from "Animula," in The Collected Prose, 1948-1998, edited by Alissa Valles

1 comment:

Luke Hankins said...

Herbert is astute and brilliant. We need to hear over and again his insight that our age is one of "the arrogant conviction that we can do without models (both aesthetic and moral), because our place in the world is supposedly so exceptional and can't be compared with anything. That's why we reject the aid of tradition and stumble around in our solitude, digging around in the dark corners of the desolate little soul." He is, I think, describing the most frightening and dangerous (and arrogant, and childish) aspects of postmodernism.