where to start with his literature – the Calvert Journal

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A defense of ardor: Essays

This 2005 collection showcases Zagajewski’s talent as an essayist. (Readers who want more might also look to 2017 Slight exaggeration, titled after his ironic definition of poetry).

In the centerpiece, Zagajewski exposes his creative principles, repelling caustic resignation and casual irony. (“Doubt is poetry for the resigned. While poetry seeks, endless wandering. (…) Doubt prefers to close, while poetry opens. Poetry laughs and cries, doubt ironizes.” ) To replace them, he proposes to reinstate “ardor” as the central driving force of writing; he also urges authors to reclaim other “old-fashioned” terms, such as soul, inspiration and the sublime.

In the West at the turn of the century, this might have seemed like a cheap proposition. Yet the book disarms critics by showing Zagajewski’s ideals in action, embodied by Polish poets writing amid – and against – authoritarian repression. (The finely drawn portraits in the book by Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz are a highlight; in fact, they make a great addition to Miłosz’s more famous work. A captive mind).

However, not much is black and white here. While Zagajewski amusingly recounts Nietzsche’s discovery under communism (the “mustached philosopher” found himself on the blacklist for his contemptuous treatment of the state), he goes on to examine how the German’s impatience for objective truth strangely approached that of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Elsewhere he travels to post-Soviet Lviv for the first time, and all manner of unrest ensues.

All 14 essays are streaked with a warmth and spirit that belies Zagajewski’s lofty image. Here’s a restless, curious mind – to meet again and again.


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Kehoe Young

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