In a world without good conversations, a brilliant conversation is king
August 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
Słonimski was still alive when I entered my teenage years in Poland; alive and kicking; no longer to be read in the media (he’d been permanently banned) he was all over the samizdat press. His stature was phenomenal. He was an object of religious adulation.
Now I find the adulation was entirely due to his political stance: a stubborn conviction in personal liberty and human rights and the need for government to be liberal — in the European sense — i.e. lenient; and loud, clear and courageous defense of these principles in the face of professional disadvantage and perhaps personal danger.
Because it could not have possibly been based on admiration for his learning, or wisdom, or — well, actually having something new and original and insightful to say. Reading him today — reading his poetry, reviews, travelogues, and novels — I find his writing… disappointing: the man’s pen was fluent, and his tongue very sharp, but… kind of silly. Yes, I suppose it is funny to begin the review of a theater piece entitled A Piece of Paper with the words: “it wasn’t a piece of paper, it was a roll”. Especially on a Friday evening, after the first aperitif. But were people really waiting for his weekly theater reviews with baited breath? They are a kind of Great Sahel Barbecue: all fire and smoke and — no actual flesh to eat beyond some charred locusts.
In his old age, Iwaszkiewicz observed somewhere in his memoirs that falling under Słonimski’s spell at a young age prevented him from developing his intellect. In his own words, it made him… dumb. Reading Słonimski now I can see these words confirmed. Słonimski’s travelogue from Brazil is really among the dumbest things I have ever read beyond page 1. He was not curious to learn a thing; and all the time he was miserable because he was missing the cafe life of Warsaw. He was missing the verbal fireworks of a fast and furious give and take, the sparring over this and that, the conversation. Conversation not as a way of learning something, of arriving at some facts, or knowledge, or understanding, but as a kind of… boxing match.
Come to think about it, I cannot remember when was the last time I have had a conversation like this — a conversation in which I have actually learned something. Small wonder perhaps that Słonimski was admired — in a world without good conversations, a brilliant conversation is king.
(Or that Voltaire was admired. Indeed, there is a strong similarity to Voltaire: the same wit — brilliant, aggressive, biting: ideal for coffe-shop-cum-salon life. And the same solid, reliable, admirable moral compass. And, in old age at least, the courage to stand for the values it pointed to).
I have had to put aside all books for several days. Reading of Słonimski overfilled the cup of disappointment with the world of humans. I spent two days in dark despondency. Things did not get better until three days later when in the Botanical Garden I came upon a bunya-bunya. When you get to be my age, when you have met as many people as I have, and read as many books as I have, you find that trees are more interesting, and, in a way… more solid. In the world of trees you can’t befuddle others — or yourself — with brilliant but empty talk.