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Vol 2, No 43
11 December 2000
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Zagajewski's Another BeautyDivinity in the Everyday
Another Beauty
Adam Zagajewski
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0374176523

Charlene Caprio

The title of Adam Zagajewski's memoir, W cudzym pięknie (Kraków, 1998), is rendered in the newly published English edition as Another Beauty (2000). A more literal translation, however, would be "In the Beauty of Another," which hints at Zagajewski's message that one should not exist in solitude, but rather seek out the beauty of others in order to break through the dullness of day-to-day existence.

To convey this idea, translator Clare Cavanagh includes as a preface a translation of Zagajewski's earlier poem, "W cudzym pięknie," which appeared in his collection, Tremor (1985):

"We find comfort only in
another beauty, in others'
music, in the poetry of others.
Salvation lies with others,
though solitude may taste like

Throughout Another Beauty, Zagajewski whispers the advice to absorb all that life has to offer and appreciate the beauty which exists in other people, in other objects, because doing so can bring us closer to universal goodness, to that untouchable God which exists in each one of us, to our own centers of beauty.

More than a product of the Communist era

Zagajewski, born in 1945, is one of Poland's most famous contemporary poets, having first emerged as an intellectual dissident who mocked totalitarianism and Poland's Communist regime. But in Another Beauty, we encounter an older Zagajewski, detached from his anti-regime opinions and favoring a positive metaphysical outlook on the world.

Like most contemporary Polish authors, Zagajewski describes his years under Communism. He takes care to mention every writer, politician and notable figure with whom he came into contact, and this name-dropping becomes quite excessive at times. But Zagajewski also makes it a point to declare himself a poet of personal merit, and not just a product of the Communist era. He writes, "I grew more and more convinced that a poem, essay, or story must grow from an emotion, an observation, a joy, a sorrow that is my own, and not my nation's."

Another Beauty is a series of reminiscences by the poet, who looks back upon his years, bringing together the important details of his life and the central thoughts that have occupied his poetry in order to formulate a "collective existence." With the disjointed threads that weave through the book, we seem to get a slice of the life of the poet's mind, which jumps back and forth between different ideas and themes, occasionally breaking into metaphorical prose.

Longing for what is lost

As Zagajewski is a romantic poet, loss, memory and nostalgia play heavily into the way he views the world. He can never forget the loss of his homeland (his family was forced to move from Lvov to Poland after the Second World War, when the country's borders re-shifted). But Zagajewski also lost his system of truth as a child. He writes,

"I lost two homelands as a child. I lost the city where I was born... but the onset of Soviet-style rule meant I also forfeited my easy, natural access to a general, self-evident truth."

Zagajewski's burning desire to recapture both manifests itself in his romantic fascination for, and intimate connection with, Kraków. Known as the old sister-city of Lvov, and having escaped destruction during the war, Kraków provides for Zagajewski that romantic nostalgia for the past, the landscape he can observe while pondering a new awareness of truth.

"Beautiful, bewitching Kraków," he calls it, taking us through its medieval streets or the eerie and abandoned Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. He conjures up many beautiful images of this city, such as Stanisław Wyspiański's stained glass window in the Church of the Franciscans:

"Seen from a distance, it seems to depict a blooming tree, a splendid, frenzied African tree that has just reached the intoxicating peak of its beauty."
The most important figure on the glass, Zagajewski notes, is an exotic bird, symbolizing God the father, that seems to be calling out "go further, examine other gods, other Fathers, compare them to me, prepare for a long journey."

The mind's journey

Zagajewski suggests that this journey should begin in Paris, where one can observe so much beauty and artistic suffering. Another Beauty takes us there, walking us through Parisian streets, from the Louvre to the Seine's bridges to the Orangerie, and pointing out what not to miss.

An air of arrogance slips into these descriptions since he, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has had the privilege of standing and even living in Paris. He argues, however, that one need not actually go to Paris, that it is sufficient to take the "journey in your mind"—to experience a little beauty "since you'll find ugliness, vulgarity, and evil wherever you are."

The most endearing fragments in Another Beauty are Zagajewski's depictions of various people who surrounded him during his university days in Kraków. He depicts two women who lived in the same apartment as he, on Długa (Long) Street.

The first, Mrs C, owned the apartment building. She was a relic of the landless aristocratic class who, at the onset of Communism, refused to admit that all her social power and glory were being extinguished. Mrs C hardly ever left her room; instead, she would sit amidst her aristocratic artifacts day after day, denying the existence of the gray world of Communism. Zagajewski seems to have a special sympathy for the post-war aristocratic society that denied its tragic fate, as Mrs C closely resembles Aunt Wisia in his earlier book, Dwa miasta (Two Cities, 1991).

The second woman, whom Zagajewski contrasts with Mrs C, is Helena—a city maintenance worker who controls the rat population of Kraków. Unlike Mrs C, Helena lives in full contact with the dirty, disgusting world outside. But despite their opposing relationships with reality, Mrs C and Helena both lead dull, commonplace, trivial existences, which agitated Zagajewski. They "lived trapped in a cage, in a second-rate Dutch painting, in a cramped apartment, in spite," he explains. Zagajewski, on the other hand, was bursting with passion, ready to set fire to life, yearning to break through the mundane to reach life's ultimate degree of ecstasy.

Embracing life

Another Beauty comes alive most wonderfully when Zagajewski ponders the greater questions that preoccupy him. He believes in a universal "wholeness," which he as a poet has striven to attain, but inevitably could never reach. He believes in the importance of introspection to keep people from becoming "mere blocks of wood," of the Heroditus style of history in which the historian sees, feels and experiences history, as opposed to modern academics who merely pour over dusty archives.

Zagajewski yearns to embrace the ecstasy of life—as symbolized by the simple, happy song of the blackbird. But unfortunately, he notes, the song of the blackbird, sounding at the break of dawn, most often goes unheard. While blackbirds are singing atop the antennas of apartment buildings, the people down below carry on boring, mundane lives in front of the TV screen. This dull passage of life, which some people seem to accept, grinds away at Zagajewski.

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Zagajewski also tries to capture what it is like to be a poet, to have moments of inspiration followed by despair. More importantly, he vehemently defends poetry in this modern age, in which fewer and fewer people read poetry. To defend poetry, argues Zagajewski, is to "defend a fundamental gift of human nature, that is, our capacity to experience the world's wonder, to uncover divinity in the cosmos and in another human being, in a lizard, in chestnut leaves, to experience astonishment and to stop still in that astonishment for an extended moment or two." To abandon poetry, he asserts, won't extinguish man, but it will weaken him.

Another Beauty expresses the hope that contemporary movements in art will begin to move away from the cynics and skeptics who, rather than praising life and all its beauty, work like vultures to tear it apart. And of the philosophers, Zagajewski writes, "If only the philosophers could learn from the poets how not to have opinions!

Zagajewski has searched for beauty throughout his life in the world around him, finding it in the anachronistic splendor of Kraków, classical music, the poetry of others, the song of the blackbird. In doing so, he refused to accept the gray world of Communism, but fought totalitarianism with his own quest for individualism.

Now, in this soft-spoken book of remembrances and revelations—rendered smoothly and faithfully in Cavanagh's translation—the poet urges others to find the beauty in those people and objects that surround them amidst life's capriciousness.

Charlene Caprio, 11 December 2000

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