John and Bogdana Carpenter
from Conversation on Writing Poetry: An Interview
with Zbigniew Herbert
Mr. Herbert had consented to be interviewed in early July, 1984,
when he was staying outside Warsaw and devoting his time to writing.
He returned to his apartment in Warsaw on July 12th for the interview
with Bogdana and John Carpenter. Mr. Herbert's wife, Kasia, was
also present, and took part in the conversation.
Q: After five years abroad you returned
to Poland in January, 1981. That was a dramatic decision; you returned
at the height of the Solidarity era. Ten and a half months later
the "State of War" was declared by General Jaruzelski.
When you made your decision, did you have any premonition of the
events to come? Would you have returned, knowing what would happen?
A: When the Gdansk Agreements were
signed I said, We have to go back. I knew that it would end badly,
because I know this system. A system that is incapable of being
reformed. At most one can introduce certain "permissive"
structures, like strip tease. Or a changethat there will be sausage
in the markets. The system is to be overthrown, but not to be reformed.
Q: When did you lose your faith in
the reformability of the system? In 1949 with the beginning of Stalinism
in Poland, or before 1956? After 1956? After 1968, 1970? When?
A: I have known this since September
20, 1939. When I came into contact with the Soviets in Lwów,
as a boy. I cannot stop wondering at certain intellectuals. I had
my revelations ab oculos. And not through Marx or Lenin.
The city was changed within a few days into a concentration camp.
This system attacks a European through smells and tastes; while
I am a partisan of goodness and beauty, I don't have a model for
the happiness of humanity. My advice is: compare the smell, the
state of the street, people's eyes, as I did in 1939.
Q: You are a pessimist?
A: I don't agree. I am not an optimist
either. Rather, I am a Greek. I believe that the Golden Age was
Q: What is the main reason why you
A: Writingand in this I disagree
with everybodymust teach men soberness: to be awake.
[Spoken in English.] To make people sober. It does not mean, not
to try. But with a small internal correction. I reject optimism
despite all the theologians. Despair is a fruitful feeling. It is
a cleanser, from desire, from hope. "Hope is the mother of
the stupid." [This is a Polish proverb.] I don't like hope.
Q: Do you believe this system will
A: This system will fall apart. It
might last twenty to thirty years longer. I am there, not
to bear it! A despairing soldier fights better. . . .