The hope of none

The hope of none

In reading Austerlitz last night, I stumbled on the passage in which the relayed memories of Austerlitz tell of his ambling into the strangely desolate town in which lie the ruins from which he has averted his attention for four decades. Here he finds the reason for his long avoidance of his personal and national history. Here he recovers the fate from which he fled as a Jewish child on a train. Here he knows again the loss, the unbearable trauma, that none of his family survived.

There he sees the gate of Theresienstadt, with its slogan in wrought iron decorating its upper border.

Arbeit Mach Frei.

None who entered believed this slogan of the powerful, this siren song of productivity.

Only the eerie freedom of death, if it can be known, was delivered here.

But we have forgotten. Again, we are led to believe that work will set us free.

We need to remember, like Austerlitz, and to turn and face the great destructiveness at the heart of our modern society – this turning of the necessity of work first into a compulsion, and then into a vocation.

Creative destruction? Innovative disruption? None truly believe that surely?

It is not work, but simpler perceptions that can give us all hope, that may set us free.

So says Zbigniew Herbert in “The Envoy of Mr Cogito”:

Beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring the bird with an unknown name the winter oak 

light on a wall the splendour of the sky 

they don’t need your warm breath 

they are there to say: none will console you


Image: The gate of Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, former German concentration camp


Repeat great words repeat them stubbornly

The poem that I have been memorising, learning, getting by heart tonight is Zbigniew Herbert’s “The envoy of Mr. Cogito.”

Herbert is one of several East European writers who I have long admired, and whose example in speaking in dissidence from the comforts of power still provides me sustenance. I believe, as Havel wrote in “The power of the powerless” that Western societies or parliamentary democracies suffer a kind of cultural impoverishment, through the “automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society.” So these dissident poets are beacons of a kind of existential revolution – again Havel’s term – that is still before us with all our freedoms and all our wealth. It is an existential revolution because, as Havel wrote, it takes place in the heart and the voices of the powerless, in speaking your mind in an office meeting, in refusing to adopt the brands and the slogans of endless consumption.

So this poem by Herbert is for me a kind of anthem of moral courage, but also of the limits of defiance. For a year or more after I had a breakdown or breakthrough it was pasted up at my desk at work, in a kind of display of dissidence in itself. Noone ever asked me about it. This anthem is also the poet within the poet laying out the code that rules his voice, and towards the end returns to “humanity’s old incantations” as the resource of courage, the apotropaic words, but also the noble and likely futile task of the poet who must repeat words “like those who crossed the desert and perished in the sand.”

All men must die, true, but in the little time we have left we must give testimony with no expectation of reward beyond the company of cold skulls. 

This magnificent poem can be viewed set to music and with evocative images here on this youtube video.

Here it is, written from the heart:

The Envoy of Mr Cogito

Go where the others went before to the dark boundary

for the golden fleece of nothingness your last reward
go upright among those who are down on their knees

those with their backs turned those toppled in the dust
you have survived not so that you might live

you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when reason fails you be courageous

in the final reckoning it is the only thing that counts
and your helpless Anger – may it be like the sea

whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten
may you never be abandoned by your sister Scorn

for informers executioners cowards – they will win

go to your funeral with relief throw a lump of earth

a wormwood will write you a smooth-shaven life
and do not forvgive in truth it is not in your power

to forgive in the name of thsoe betrayed at dawn
beware however of overweening pride

exaime your fool’s face in the mirror

repeat: I was called – was there no one better than I
beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring

the bird with an unknown name the winter oak

the light on a wall the splendour of the sky

they do not need your warm breath

they are there to say: no one will console you
Keep watch – when a light on a hill gives a sign – rise and go

so long as the blood is still turning the dark star in your breast
repeat humanity’s old incantations fairy tales and legends

for that is how you will attain the good you will not attain

repeat great word repeat them stubbornly

like those who crossed a desert and perished in the sand
for this they will reward you with what they have at hand

with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go for only thus will you be admitted into the company of cold skulls

to the company of your forefathers: Gilgamesh Hector Roland

the defenders of the kingdom without bounds and the city of ashes
Be faithful Go