Zbigniew Herbert: Beauty and Digression

On the opening page of Barbarian in the Garden, his remarkable collection of essays that constitute a ruminative tour of the architectural landmarks of European civilization, Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert pauses to consider a smaller item -- the truffle. On his way to view Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, he stops in the nearby village of Montignac to eat a truffle omelette. At his meal, the poet waxes philosophical: "Truffles belong to the world history of human folly, hence to the history of art. So a word about truffles." Herbert then elaborates the growing conditions of the fungi: " are an underground mushroom preying on the roots of other plants. To uncover them you need dogs or pigs, conspicuous, as everyone knows, for their perfect sense of smell?. Truffles fetched a high price on the market so the local peasants were overcome by a real truffle fever. The soil was burrowed, the woods ravaged, the trees now stand plaintively dead?"

The digression proves to be about more than mushrooms. Over breakfast, Herbert is also casually unearthing one of his central preoccupations: the relationship of the force that strips things bare -- barbarism -- to the one that endows them with beauty. The question of the interpenetration of these forces might well haunt a Polish citizen who lived through Nazi and Stalinist occupations and Poland's Communist regime; it follows Herbert as he takes a version of "the grand tour," one that might have been made by a member of the fin-de-si?cle intelligentsia or, say, by John Ruskin. In nine essays that follow, Herbert visits canonized locations of European art, stopping to consider the Beautiful's exemplars. To be fair, Herbert's tour is perhaps a little sidelong. He spends a whole chapter on the Albigensians, burned as heretics in the 12th century, and another on Orvieto, "a town whose cathedral only has two stars." He treats Rome by visiting imperial ruins at Arles. These further diversions are also deliberate ways to reveal vertebrae in the backbone of European civilization. While Herbert's grand tour may set off on exploratory tangents, his essays move chronologically -- from cave paintings past the Dorians to the age of the Troubadours and into a prolonged meditation on the artist Piero Della Francesca.

As he travels through medieval towns, sampling pizzas and wine, Herbert pauses to describe country plaques, the faces of villagers who offered him directions, cathedral domes, Gothic fortifications, and the politics of fresco painting. He stands in awe of beauty. Herbert also has a materialist's desire to see behind objects to the conditions that inform their making. He experiences the arc of a cathedral with a skeptic's haunted question: "What are the roots of history upon which this beauty preys?" With perhaps more delicacy than a truffling pig, Herbert wants to root out answers to another version of his question: "under what conditions can the beautiful be made?"

His answers, much like his poetry, flash with gallows humor. He writes: "The desecrator Odysseus was not a colonizer but a representative of the mythical epoch?he was only interested in shipworthy spoils -- female slaves and treasure." Of the Roman conquest of Greece, Herbert writes: "Cicero described the coastline as an ornamental band sown on the rough cloth of barbarian lands, a golden band which was frequently stained with blood." He notes of the Greeks themselves: "Art, especially architecture, played an important role in the colonies by emphasizing Greek ideals. A Greek temple on a hill appeared as a banner hoisted over a conquered land." Imagining the slaughter of Neolithic bulls or the later sacrifice of bulls on an altar, Herbert identifies a fascinating ritualized beauty in the act of killing. The Barbarian isn't outside civilization's Garden, but rather its architect.

This might seem bleak, but Herbert doesn't mean it as a ponderous revelation. His tone is truly ambivalent, intimating horror even as he revels in beauty. He allows each place and time its tragicomedy, its identity, its humanity, its conditions. He writes with compassion for human folly, and his descriptions of particulars ring with charm and personal zaniness. Eating is always central to his exploration of a place: In Naples he says, from a modest trattoria, "Face to face with the Doric domain, one must dine with moderation." The sidelong particularly pleases Herbert. He goes to great lengths to describe the way Greek temples, those icons of symmetry, are actually asymmetric, in order to create the illusion of symmetry in places from which they will be viewed. He notes that followers of Poseidon once lived in a town that would eventually erect a church to a Madonna of the Pomegranate. "Madonna has the face of a Hera," he writes. This isn't the only time that Herbert recognizes an older history returning newly robed. He observes the way the frescoes of Italy use much the same technology as the cave paintings at Lascaux. He notes how Roman Hercules and the Nemean lion return as symbols for Christ in a medieval church. The same also seems to be true of our human tendencies towards acts of violence. The systematic ritual slaughter of bulls and game in the chapter about the Paleolithic peoples gathers eerie resonance by the time Herbert arrives at the systematic slaughter of the Albigensians.

But Herbert also stands transfixed by beauty. After ruminating on truffling pigs, Herbert returns to his omelette and proceeds from the caf? at Montignac down into the caves to visit turmeric- and mallow-colored paintings of Paleolithic bulls. He catches millennia-old paintings in his own vivid strokes: "A short mane, like that of a circus horse, impetuous, with thundering hooves. Ochre does not fill the body; the belly and legs are white." He wonders at the humanity of their makers and at his own, writing: "I realize that all descriptions, all inventories are useless in the presence of this masterpiece, which displays such a blinding, obvious unity. Only poetry and fairy-tales possess the power of instant creation. One should say, 'Once upon a time, there was a beautiful horse from Lascaux.' "

Art impassions Herbert because it does have this power of instant creation -- an ability to transcend and live beyond the world that created it. Or is this the very myth of art we should destroy? Herbert exhibits simultaneous urges do both, to revel in beauty and to note how art, like the truffle, is rooted in the troubled world. Herbert does not resolve his own troubles, nor does he need to. He is writing in the mid-1960s during a faint thaw in the Cold War, using his own father's 1909 guidebook, itself a fin-de-si?cle creation. Against this backdrop, Herbert never once mentions our painful and obvious 20th-century barbarisms. His tour of the long-ago-and-faraway beauties and cruelties of Western civilization hovers as a prolonged, never wholly resolved allegory for the complexity of a present --any present -- in which both things, art and cruelty, are still taking place. In this way, four decades later, the book remains as fresh as when it was written.

Ten years after his death, Herbert's poetry continues to gather new audiences. This spring, Ecco has done him the service of gathering his poems into one English volume. The poems belong in the collection of anyone who cares about 20th-century poetry and about poetry as an art that itself lives underground, feeding on the roots of various shrubs. Those who do not read poetry but care about art, those who travel through Europe in need of a guide, and those who simply like fascinating prose or admire writers skilled at the art of the essay might also do well to keep Herbert's Barbarian in the Garden handy. Then again, Herbert himself might hope only that other travelers like him would go and see for themselves and think and revel as they tease the complex web of history out. "If the gods protect one from organized tours (through insufficient funds or strong character), one should spend the first hours in a new city following a simple rule: straight ahead, third left, straight ahead, third right?. One can follow the curve of a sickle. There are many systems and all of them good." Herbert, as the author of a series of essays, does not wish to be an authoritative guide. He values the essay -- the attempt, the voyage, the digression. "One must also," he memorably warns, "blaspheme against the authors of handbooks."

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