Sunday, April 23, 2017

Cat Revisited

One of my predictable weaknesses is an allergic reaction to hagriography on the subject of Churchill. Thus an otherwise banal Saturday became the occasion to return to Cat Mackiewicz's aphorisms.


Cat himself called his writing aphoristic (at one point), and indeed it perfectly mirrors Nietzsche right down to "Polish, all too Polish". Cat is that rarity in Polish political life: a man of practical intelligence who can write like a man practiced in intelligence. His elevation to high politics was a misunderstanding of history akin to Paderewski's. Pianists and literati do not exist to do a statesman's work except where statesmen are so incompetent as to leave them little choice.

In Poland, the intelligentsia have always had to carry the cross of stateless citizenship. For Cat this was true before, during and after the war. But it is not of his statesmanship I wish to write, it is about his penmanship.

"There are, in life, intangible impressions which leave their mark on us and become the basis of our desires, the things that bind us. The scent of a forest...the scent of a child's sweaty hair. The scent of smoke while baking bread, in the winter evening as you lay down to sleep. There are other impressions, even more delicate and subtle than scent. Have you noticed the workings of light beyond a window? When you enter a wide ranging Belorussian village at night, the first windows of houses where a stove burns  and then their constant shimmer dulls as you pass through, as the morning greys, finally paling - at first slowly and then with greater speed. And then you're through the village. In the final window there is only a small light as you part ways with something that has already passed you by...Lithuania, my fatherland, you are like health...But what for is this lyric? There is something sad in it. As though we were reaching out our hands towards something no longer there to be touched..."

Cat's portraits of individuals are as full of his gift for observation as his portraits of places. Perhaps my favorite is the hostel housing the government in exile in Paris:

"Today, close to Rue de Jacob, one finds the headquarters of the existentialist movement which of course did not exist back in 1939...it is a pity that the French journalists, most of whom were probably Russian Whites or Spanish Reds by lineage, were so poorly educated as to the history of Paris. Otherwise they would have known that it was in this hotel on Rue de Jacob that Alfons Daudet set his world famous tale Sapho, in which the protagonist carries his woman up the winding, steep, disgusting stairs. He begins the climb with youthful vigor and lust. With the next flight of stairs he starts to feel the woman's weight. Coming around the bend for the third time, he is short of breath, tired and convinced that "this is the Devil's work." I never carried a woman up the stairs of the Danube hotel, nor even a Polish minister (it comes to the same thing in politics), but I thought of Alfons Daudet whenever I was called to present myself before my government."

These quotes are just from the opening chapter. They are Cat's prefered way of telling his story. And what a story it is - abstracting for a moment from the political science, Cat is simply a great writer. He is so very truly English in his unbreakable humor and culture. He has clearly raised himself a better Englishman than the English themselves. His mannerisms are typical of the Pole who once idealized the Englishman only to find out that high English conventions came so naturally because they were common Polish traits. Cat's writing reflects this.

"I work in the Polish language as a writer and I love Polish words and phrases as a sculptor loves his clay..."

It is, of course, impossible to abstract Cat's political science from his literary talent - but the temptation is there. His approach to writing history is poetic, he sees politics as a form of literature insofar as it is really a drama wherein character archetypes interact over a background of fateful events. That he had seen these events coming, ended up both so close to them and so helpless before them, as if fated to utilize his talents to write the tragedy of our times rather than prevent it, is truly a mystery of Divine providence.

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