Adam Zagajewski’s new set of short essays is on the nature of writing, on what links literature with philosophy and history, about himself and others, about Miłosz and Herbert, Gombrowicz and Cioran, Marai and Kertesz. The title, The Poet Talks to the Philosopher, is taken from a text about the correspondence of Zbigniew Herbert and Henryk Elzenberg. “It is a very good title for the whole book,” writes one delighted reviewer, “because an atmosphere of conversation pervades all the articles in it. They are reports on what Zagajewski has read and considered, a record of what has surprised him or set him thinking. The theme of this conversation is thoughts about writing, mainly about poetry.” Zagajewski is curious about poetry which, “in spite of catastrophes, has recorded, and by doing so has also sustained, co-created and co-produced the continuity of our spiritual life – that unremitting contemplation we have inherited from past generations, culminating in the experience of beauty and evil, time and good, transcendence or, for others, nothingness, meditation being something like an everlasting emergency department without which mankind as we know it would be bound to suffer serious injury.”
“I don’t know what the place that Adam Zagajewski will finally occupy in Polish culture will be called,” writes Irena Grudzińska-Gross. “He doesn’t fit any formula, though he is a poet and writer from the very centre of Polish and European literary tradition. Multilingual, erudite, in his poems he writes about music and philosophy, about other poets, architecture and art. Yet it is not classical poetry, removed from the modern day; on the contrary, it is relevant to everyday life, and people turn to it at moments of crisis. It brings comfort, as Susan Sontag said of this poetry, though it is not consolatory verse. Zagajewski the poet has no anger or obsession in him, yet he is determined and resolute. Reading him is not a fight, but a sort of conversation that becomes addictive.”
Writing on a computer – does it change anything? Writing with a feather pen, a fountain pen, a pencil… The first typewriters: huge black dinosaurs decorated in gold lettering, nowadays they decorate restaurants or banks. My discovery of the typewriter: my father, an engineer and Polytechnic professor, often used one. Sometimes, when he was working on a book (on technical subjects) or a manual, he asked Mama to help, and she would laboriously write out a text that she couldn’t understand at all. I liked to watch her at work – in spectacles, concentrating, she was a different person from usual. But my father pencilled in the mathematical formulae himself, as complex as DNA sequences.
I think writers divide into those who like their own handwriting and those who can’t stand it (and also those who have nice writing and those whose writing is ugly – yet these two divisions do not entirely coincide). In any case, I have never liked my own handwriting. As a result, or vice versa, I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect, I have never been fond of the physical activity of writing, covering a page in a black or blue wavy line of script. I have never revelled in blackening the page, as the French put it, and as the eminent essayist Jerzy Stempowski also liked to say. For me, the discovery of my father’s typewriter was an epoch-making event. My father agreed to let me practise typing on it from time to time. At first I got on very badly, only using one finger, then two. The metal keys often got hooked together and jammed, so I had to untangle them from these minor disasters. Nevertheless the typewriter seemed to me an extraordinary technical achievement: a system of levers and gears, and perhaps above all the roller covered in a smooth black substance, the essence of which was soft passivity, receiving the blows of the keys, the roller obediently revolving and forcing the sheet of paper to do the same – all this aroused my extreme admiration. This was what mankind had managed to devise in the march of mechanical inventions that had been slowly accumulating over the centuries. And finally towards the end of the nineteenth century this wonderful machine had come into being. The crisp crash of the keys striking the roller was a noble, rhythmical sound. To this day I am convinced, though nothing would seem to confirm this conviction, that the typewriter is a more complex piece of apparatus than the computer. Its impeccable behaviour… The sound of the little bell when it reached the margin – as if you were riding in a sleigh in winter. The chrome-plated, shining levers… The subtle smell of machine oil… Just one thing bothered me: the need to keep cleaning the keys, which gathered dust that stuck to the black ink.
Once I had more or less mastered the art of typing, I soon made another discovery: I had before me not the anaemic wavy line of my own awkward handwriting, but neat, rounded or pointed letters, set out in perfect formation, not treading on each other’s heels, but keeping an even distance from each other, like the guard of honour in some small country. These letters, each of which I loved, were a masterpiece of graphic art: it was already virtually a book, in print. In this way the typewriter cast a bridge between the soul and the outside world, between what is most profoundly personal and what is public, and it did so at lightning speed, instantaneously, without the intervention of editors, publishers or literary agents.
Does the computer build a similar bridge too? Yes, of course it does. But at first, paradoxically, the computer’s lack of sound irritated me. It was a blessing for those who work at night; one of my friends had to switch to working on a computer many years ago because his neighbours in a Paris apartment house complained about the noise at night. They couldn’t sleep.
The clatter of the typewriter informed the entire surroundings that something important was going on here: that here the energy of our inner life was being released and was materialising on white paper. The cannonade of keys striking the paper was a triumphal salvo, the birth of a new sentence (because I often wrote on the typewriter straightaway, even poems – I only wrote their draft versions with a pen, pencil or ball-point) was accompanied by shots, virtual fireworks. Now, when I use a computer, I still proceed the same way: the draft versions of the poem come into being in a notebook or on a piece of paper, and only then do I transfer them to the screen. And with its typical discretion the computer remains silent, or almost silent. We can hear the gentle tap of the keyboard, but usually only when someone else is writing. In a library or a quiet café (if there are any quiet cafés left) we’ll be annoyed by the Morse code of someone else’s keyboard, not our own – that one never bothers us. If formerly we had nothing against the march music of a Remington or an Olivetti… To return to the methodology of my writing, usually only in the case of prose – essays – I work on my computer from the start, although as well as that I almost always use the notes I have made in one of those small exercise books that I never leave home without. But the words I write at that moment appear on the bluish-white screen of my iBook.
Does that change anything? Does something change in the very nature of writing by the fact that instead of a quill pen we are using a computer? For someone who had a love of the typewriter in his youth, it certainly changes much less than for those who started with a pen alone, with writing by hand. The general view is that for literature the invention of the computer means a not entirely fortunate increase in production, verbosity, making it too easy to create. Is that true? Perhaps I have observed it wrongly, but it seems to me that – in my case – nothing of the kind happens. The mute days or weeks when I do not succeed in writing anything are just as mute now, while my laptop waits for me, as they were before, when the typewriter stood on my desk, and next to it the pen, ball-point, pencil and notebook. The good or excellent days have not become even more wonderful. The middling days are just as average as they were years ago. Not much has changed. Homer’s epics were entrusted to human memory. For centuries quill pens were carefully sharpened. The invention of the fountain pen enraged conservatives. The typewriter seemed to be one of those horrific innovations typical of America. From the superb biography of Robert Musil written by Karol Corino I learned that Musil “was convinced that one wrote better in German using a quill pen than a steel nib, and better with a steel nib than a fountain pen”. What luck that one does not have to agree even with great writers.
The computer, which as we know is used by writers as if it were a typewriter, and so they do not take advantage of the gigantic potential of this extraordinary piece of equipment, has made their lives easier, especially those who were always losing bits of paper, manuscripts and thoughts. It has eased the journey. After all, it contains a large personal archive. It will complicate the life of archivists, but let the archivists and the policemen worry about that. Does it spoil language, or reduce it to excessive simplification of syntax and intellect? I don’t think so. The process of simplifying syntax and intellect began much earlier, before the success of Hemingway’s laconic prose; according to Paul Claudel it was in the reign of Louis Philippe in France. And definitely as early as the Renaissance era.
The human spirit, invisible, fragile and invincible all at once, has to work with various materials and technologies, and it copes superbly with their constant evolution. If it can cope with our unreliable bodies, our fingers, old age and illness, rheumatism and neurosis, if it can fall asleep in the evening and wake up in the morning, while roaming God knows where in its dreams – why should it be frightened of a computer?
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones