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‘I am a failed Catholic, but still a Catholic’: An interview with poet Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski is without doubt one of the greatest living poets, not only because he has received many of world’s top literary prizes but also because his words truly open a door onto infinity.

Born in Lvov (then a Polish city, now in western Ukraine) in 1945, he became one of the leadings poets of the “Generation of ’68”, or Polish New Wave. He emigrated to France in 1982, but returned to Poland in 2002.

PAOLO GAMBI In your poems eternity appears in the trees and in nature, where one can hear echoes of mythology, the mystics and art. Moreover, you talk about a “right to infinity”. But is your eternity, your infinity, a post-religious element? I mean, did poetry substitute for religion in your life? 

Adam Zagajewski No. I think I am a religious person. I don’t go to the church; none the less I think of myself as a Catholic. I am not a Buddhist. I am not a Zoroastrian. I am a failed Catholic, a bad Catholic, but still a Catholic. This means a lot but it is also hard to explain to people who are not. I have friends who are totally deaf to the religious experience and they don’t understand me and ask me: how can you be religious if we know that nothing exists? So being religious is a religious thing, not a post-religious one.

In 2008 you said to an Israeli newspaper that you rarely go to church, “because I have a problem with the Catholic Church. Since the end of the communist era a spirit of arrogance and victory has been emanating from within it, which is far from the spirit of Christianity.” Do you still have the same opinion?

AZ Even stronger. We certainly live in a moment of crisis of the institutional Church in many places. In Poland it is a disaster. Suddenly you see how much corruption there is in the Church. I have a friend, older than I am, a Catholic philosopher, a deeply religious person who goes to church every Sunday. He was one of the young people who went swimming or canoeing with [Karol] Wojtyła in the summer. Now he said in a public interview that the majority of the Polish bishops are not Christian. They abandoned Christianity, because of their arrogance, abandoning compassion, abandoning the attitude to listening. Many of them prefer the nation to Jesus. They preach nationalism, they don’t listen. If you go to a church in Poland on Sunday and you listen to the sermon you hear political messages. They speak in a tone that does not allow any contradiction, they are very non-participating.

At the same time Poland is a very strange country because this process of abandoning the Church goes on but it is very slow. It seems that the last thing people – even simple people – want to give away is their religion. I think it’s beautiful in many respects, although it shows that religion has been replaced by customs, by tradition. It can also have disastrous political consequences because then the majority of priests identify with right-wing parties. Then the Church speaks a different language, a tough political language. And yet in the sense of human comportment there is something beautiful in this fidelity to religion.

Nevertheless, how much Catholicism is there in your mystical attention and in your questioning about the true sense of things? 

AZ I was raised in the Catholic tradition and as a young student of philosophy I read some Thomas Aquinas and Catholic philosophers like Gabriel Marcel, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor and others. The questioning that comes from the Catholic tradition is familiar to me. It is not a totally conscious process of tackling these questions, it is more being influenced in a deep, partly unconscious way.

But if you ask me what use can my readers make out of the religious accent of my poems, well, it is not my business to comment on this. If you are a serious poet you embark on a search and you never know what you find at the end. The idea of the search is for me the capital element in my work. It is very hard to define oneself if the substance of what you do is the quest, because it goes towards something that you can’t define, something that does not have a strong shape. Search is in searching, not in strong definitions.

The Polish New Wave fought against the falsification of reality by communist propaganda. Who is falsifying reality nowadays?

AZ We have a big wave of the fake news philosophy. It is a very important new phenomenon. It’s actually utterly dangerous. I have the feeling that the very notion of truth is attacked from the right wing, because they falsify things like historical examples for political profit. But it is also attacked from the left wing, by the post-structuralists for instance. They put question marks around the notion of truth. Truth is in the middle of this and very few people defend it. And this has practical implications: these days politicians lie and they are not ashamed of it. Even if you tell them “You lied”, they don’t react, they just smile. The lie is accepted as a part of our lifestyle. I find it terrible and it has terrible consequences. We desperately need the truth.

You write about “the sights and fires of a single world”. The world for you is single and we can find the inner sense of things only in this single world. What is for you the inner sense of where we are now, or of Britain, or of Europe? Is there the same inner sense everywhere? 

AZ When you look at literature of the last 100 years you find writers like DH Lawrence. He was looking for the truth and he would go from Italy to Australia, and from the United States to Mexico. This is an example of a writer who thinks that the truth is somewhere, that there is a place in the world where there is truth. Then you have [Giorgio] Morandi – a great painter, not a poet but he is like a poet – who thought that the sense of the world was in his room. He looked at a little glass and for him that was the being. I am closer to Morandi than to DH Lawrence: I consider the sense of being is not exotic, it’s here. Pascal said that the greatest disaster for humans is to leave their rooms.

You use the word “tribes” in the sense of part of the same nation. Do you think there is already only one global tribe? 

AZ In some respect yes, but on the other hand there are new tribes. As many observers say, in different nations you have the liberal tribe and the Netanyahu or Trump or Kaczyński tribe. Now it is more a political than an ethnic thing.

There is a tradition I like in philosophy connected to Isaiah Berlin and Leszek Kołakowski, whose essence is the recognition that the social reality is pluralistic: there is not one thing, there are many things, and we live in a world that is built not on unity but on contradiction. Unity can be underneath and can be reached mystically, in poetry, in mystics, in music, but not in social life, where you have to be prepared to accept plurality. The Oxford philosopher John Gray has a list of philosophers he admires for recognising the plurality. If you recognise the plurality of the world you would never try to build a totalitarian system. Recognising that the world is not one is the essence of liberal thinking. For mystics it can be one, but then they should not sit in government.

You define the poet as “a wanderer” and a “migrant”. Your poems always have a mystical approach, but since these words are very present in political speeches, would you let your poems enter into the debate about migrants? 

AZ The real political debate does not have much to do with a poetic vision: it has to take into consideration economic and practical factors. It is obvious that when we talk about migrants we basically think about two categories. The first refers to geniuses like Chopin in Paris or Bertolt Brecht in California. The other category is that of people who drown in the Mediterranean. They are not geniuses but they are our brothers, sisters, and they just need basic help. When you talk about art you can consider only geniuses but in the world of societies you cannot limit yourself to considering geniuses, you have to have compassion for these poor people.

On the other hand, you cannot allow 100 million people from Africa to come to Europe because it is just impossible. I am happy I am not a politician, I don’t need to find an answer to this terrible question.

I recently asked [Chilean writer] Luis Sepúlveda, quoting Dostoevsky, if beauty can still save the world and he said no, only social commitment can. You write that only beauty created by others can give consolation. The question remains: can beauty still save the world? 

AZ I don’t know the answer, but in one of my recent essays I wrote that when I look at my library, which is pretty big, I can divide it into two main categories: evil books – like those about Soviet Russia or about Hitler – and beautiful books. I have no fascination for Hitler or for evil but they are so interesting besides being filled with horror. And the other part of my library is about beauty: poetry, music. And I ask myself: what is the relation between them? I think there is a tension between evil and beauty. It is not a practical answer and no politician would profit from it but it helps me to understand myself and where I am: between evil and beauty. And I don’t believe beauty can fix evil.

Of course there is no salvation in beauty, not even for Dostoevsky, who as a practical man believed more in the Russian fleet going to Constantinople and in Russian army conquering half of central Europe than in beauty. Beauty is a necessary dimension, which somehow helps us to survive, to be sane. What can we do – at least not to forget beauty, not to tolerate evil. The world can be saved only by the Churchills of our time. But where are they?

Paolo Gambi is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald