It’s not easy to concentrate these days. Everywhere there are »goggle-eyed headlines« as Sylvia Plath once put it. Today’s headlines tell of the war in Ukraine and they demand that we immerse ourselves in all the various forms of reportage: the analyses, the attempts to explain. We do it, we dive in, immerse ourselves and discuss the issues with others, ask questions – to which there are hardly any answers. This happens every day and the tangible fear of everything that may yet happen is mixed with unease that reading these horrific stories might gradually become routine. Is there such a thing as an insidious distancing, a kind of heartlessness born from self-defence, because it no longer seems possible to feel empathy with all the people who have been directly and most cruelly affected by the war? Sometimes, the immense quantity of information piling up in front of us seems like a senseless jumble of words, repetitions and empty phrases. However, we also demand »competence« from ourselves and others; we ought to be able to have a say in world events, we ought to be able to process everything intelligently and judiciously in order to be able to make our own contribution.
The first results of research into the emotional and mental consequences of isolation during the Covid pandemic report »cognitive disturbances.« Difficulties remembering and finding the right words are common, as are recurrent fears of loneliness and becoming detached from the world.
And now, because a war is raging in Europe that contravenes international law, we might be feeling guilt and shame too: could, should something have been done to prevent this war? To what extent is each one of us involved, and therefore bearing some responsibility?
Sometimes we need to admit that all these questions of ours don’t do any good. At least for a few moments, we need silence. There needs to be a time to recover, to get some fresh air, to pause.
Two years ago, Miron Hakenbeck, a very perceptive and cultivated friend from the world of opera, gave me a wonderful book by Zbigniew Herbert: Barbarian in the Garden from the 1960s. We had been talking about painting and Miron thought I ought to know this work. I had read a few of Herbert’s poems, but the Barbarian was new to me.
Now I am glad whenever I return to read it. Herbert was an essayist, but his forays through European culture are pure literature.
Hardly anyone has written so profoundly about Piero della Francesca, the Italian early Renaissance painter, whose work is characterised by a monumental stillness. On many journeys to Italy, I had admired his paintings, their inscrutability and powerful composition. For me, Herbert’s description of Piero’s artistry was like an odd, consoling homecoming.
Herbert leads the reader so effortlessly through the small, southern French Roman city of Arles, he gives you the impression you suddenly really are eating fish soup in the Place da la République. »A warm wind from the Alpilles carries the smell of lavender, almonds and drought into the streets. There are no great events any more. Caesar will not be arriving in the city. However, the calendar is full of holidays and feast days and bull fights. Then Arles comes to life.« I visit Arles almost every year – and it is still just as Herbert describes it today.
Time has literally stood still.
In the cathedral of the Umbrian city of Orvieto, Herbert looks at Luca Signorelli’s representation of the last judgement as if it is freshly painted and – almost en passant he notes that: »…the frescoes in Orvieto leave behind a more lasting impression than Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel…«
He travels on through the lost land of the Etruscans, to the caves of Lascaux; then makes an »attempt to describe the Greek landscape« and is amazed that Montaigne’s travel journal about Italy hardly says anything about all the art and architecture there: »the author frequently appears to forget the cathedrals but bends down over the plates with unrelenting curiosity.«
Wherever Zbigniew Herbert is, he is always entirely present. He is not in any hurry. He familiarises himself. He searches, finds, changes his perspective and finds something new.
And he lets you share in this, invites you in. Without any sentimentality, without romanticizing travel – wide awake and admiring, melancholy and cheerful.
Though this book might be sixty years old – it is a contemporary work. The work of someone who seeks contact with all those who were there a long time ago and wanted to be remembered.
At the present time, we ought to be allowed to absent ourselves sometimes from the daily news, the war reports and gloomy prospects for the future. There is no guilt attached to this reading journey to the origins of our culture; we should not have to have a guilty conscience if we say we are temporarily exhausted and give ourselves a break.
Barbarian in the Garden is the most creative, most humane, most inspiring break it’s possible to imagine. I would like to thank Miron Hakenbeck for this beautiful gift and all the conversations I have had with him. And Zbigniew Herbert for his wealth of ideas, his sense of humour and for looking at things with such clarity and freedom.
Barbara Frey, March 2022