The Savage and the Scholar: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska on the Role of the Artist in Humanizing Our History

Maria Popova

“The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity.”

Henry David Thoreau considered the poet — a term he used broadly, not unlike we use the term artist today — humanity’s mystic laureate; the supreme teller of truth, champion of beauty, and sensemaker of reality. “The poet,” he wrote in contemplating the difference between an artist, an artisan, and a genius, “will remember only that he saw truth and beauty from his position.” But what position, exactly, does the poet — does the artist — hold today in the collective remembering we call culture?

That’s what the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) explores in one of the many marvelous pieces in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — the prose collection of Szymborska’s responses to and riffs on books she devoured during one voracious period of reading in the 1970s, which also gave us her meditations on what books do for the human spirit and how the prospect of cosmic solitude can enlarge our humanity.

In a magnificently centrifugal riff on a book about the history of the Near East in antiquity, Szymborska considers the singular inner life of the poet — and perhaps she, like Thoreau, intends for this to extrapolate to the artist in the largest sense — as the necessary bridge between our most refined artistic achievements and our most primitive nature:

The poet, regardless of education, age, sex, and tastes, remains in his heart of hearts the spiritual heir of primitive humanity. Scientific explanations of the world don’t make much of an impression on him. He is an animist and a fetishist, who believes in the secret powers sleeping in all things, and who is convinced that he may stir these forces with the help of a few well-chosen words. The poet may even have seven cum laude degrees — but at the moment when he sits down to write a poem, his rationalist school uniform begins to pinch beneath the arms. He wriggles and wheezes, undoes first one button, then another, and finally leaps out of his clothing completely, to stand exposed before all as a savage with a ring through his nose. Yes, yes, a savage, since what else can you call a person who talks in verse to the dead and the unborn, to trees, to birds, and even to lamps and table legs, except perhaps an idiot?

She contrasts the role of the poet with that of the scholar in the craftsmanship of common experience we call history:

Let us return to the subject of history after this protracted introduction. The poet is compromised by his backwardness in this area as well. The past for him remains a history of wars and concrete individuals. Whereas for today’s historians, especially those preoccupied with constructing grand syntheses, wars and individuals are a secondary concern at best. For these historians, the prime historical movers are the means of production, the conditions of property-ownership, and the climate. Sporadic events don’t play a major role in the historical process. You may either bypass them completely or present them in such a way that they don’t distract the reader from more important matters. Phrases specially furbished for such purposes assist him here: “the achievement of supremacy,” “the loss of domination,” “the suppression of separatist tendencies,” “the sudden hampering of development,” and so on. Blood doesn’t drip from such words, the sparks of fires don’t scatter from them. It’s no longer a treacherous assault, ambush, slaughter, rape, and repression. It’s simply that country X “found itself within the range of foreign invaders” or, better, “of newcomers” or, better yet, “within range of the culture of Y.” The language of historians strives for abstraction and has largely achieved it.

Unlike the scholar, who is occupied with extracting from history the maximum amount of information, the poet is concerned not with the historical but with the eternal; not with information but with wisdom. (Lest we forget, the pursuit of wisdom in our age of information is all the more urgent today.) Szymborska captures this perfectly:

The historian calmly leafs through Gilgamesh, that most ancient epic of humankind, and immediately latches on to what he needs, i.e., “one of the earliest testaments to the formation of the state leadership’s social base.” The poet isn’t equipped to relish the epic for such reasons. Gilgamesh might just as well not exist for him if it holds only such information. But it does exist, because its titular hero mourns the death of his friend. One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being. For the poet this fact is of such momentous weight that it can’t be overlooked in even the most succinct historical synthesis. As I say, the poet can’t keep up, he lags behind. In his defense I can only say that someone’s got to straggle in the rear. If only to pick up what’s been trampled and lost in the triumphal procession of objective laws.

Complement the wholly terrific Nonrequired Reading with Amanda Palmer’s beautiful readings of Szymborska’s poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait,” then revisit James Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.