"Warum so hart! - sprach zum Diamanten einst die Küchen-Kohle; sind wir denn nicht Nah-Verwandte?"
- Warum so weich? Oh meine Brüder, also frage ich euch: seid ihr denn nicht - meine Brüder?
Warum so weich, so weichend und nachgebend? Warum ist so viel Leugnung, Verleugnung in eurem Herzen So wenig Schicksal in eurem Blicke?
Und wollt ihr nicht Schicksale sein und Unerbittliche: wie könntet ihr mit mir - siegen?
Und wenn eure Härte nicht blitzen und scheiden und zerschneiden will: wie könntet ihr einst mit mir - schaffen?
Die Schaffenden nämlich sind hart. Und Seligkeit muss es euch dünken, eure Hand auf Jahrtausende zu drücken wie auf Wachs, - Seligkeit, auf dem Willen von Jahrtausenden zu schreiben wie auf Erz, - härter als Erz, edler als Erz. Ganz hart ist allein das Edelste.
Diese neue Tafel, oh meine Brüder, stelle ich über euch: werdet hart! -
Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra
Was I seven at the time? If we travelled so far north, it must have been before the Martial Law; History was giving us respite. I had warm clothes and solid shoes for the last time in many years that winter. It was February, the frost was strong; I walked across a frozen lake. I knew that such a thing should never be done; the ice might crack under my feet at any moment, some parts of the lake might have swells of warmer water from the bottom. I believe to have walked an enormous distance like that, but it might be only a distortion of the memory; in reality, the experience might have been short and insignificant; it grew larger than life through the thrill of danger, of unreasonable risk, of beauty. There was dark green depth under the ice, and immaculate snow, and the dusk coming early.
Nothing happened. There was no price to pay, no splash of icy water. Only darkness closing slowly, velvety, friendly, uncoiling my fear. What else can I say about that fleeting moment in which everything that matters might have truly begun? It is easier to linger on traumas and recount ambivalent stories than to give a complete account of the sublime and beauty of one's own existence. Resentment makes us verbose, the sublime imposes reticence. For many years, I have searched for a manner of pinning down that silence and dusk, and the shade of dark green under the ice. Laboriously, making order in my past with sufficient assiduity, I shall bring to light the sublime underside of my life. For I had a beautiful life, I can say this as I come to the middle of it now, full of books and travels, and works of art, and love.
I return to my narration in 2020, in Lisbon, during the pandemic. I regained the city of my youth on the last flight out of Poland before the closure of its borders, haunted by the phantoms of the country's history. Installed in a tiny room over the Avenida Almirante Reis, I bitterly regretted the comfort of my home in Kraków. Yet day by day the news went on persuading me that my caution might not be as exaggerated as I thought in some moments; the contagion wasn't the only thing to worry about. Middle Europe had accelerated its persistent crawling toward authoritarian regimes. Not all the borders that had been closed for the pandemic might reopen, and any day of those, my last flight out of Poland might prove to be as crucial as Cassirer's last opportunity to get a ship passage out of Sweden. The future was too uncertain to take on any further risks.
As I started to write, the terror of History was farther behind with every line. The Nepali owners of the place where I stayed offered me their native beverage, sort of tea with milk, spiced with cardamom. I heard them speaking their distant tongue and laughing loudly behind the wooden door of my room, as if a sudden gush of wind brought a handful of Himalayan snow to my doorstep. In Lisbon, in the middle of pandemic, the global inscription of our individual destinies was explicit and patent, making me linger on the recollection of my travels. Yet the intensity of the cardamom flavour, its strict localisation and its present tense reduced everything else to the status of a mere shadow. Of all reality, only the cardamom was truly real. It brought me down to the embodied experience of breathing, that had been stripped of all its obviousness by the virus. The cardamom's present tense also brought me to an acute awareness of immediate consequences of every choice I made in this suspended, apocalyptic time, in the kairós. Just like that decision of meeting my destiny in the West rather than in the East.
It costed me a lot to get used to the idea of a narrow Europe. I regretted the vastness of the project that apparently was never to came true. Alas! I would gladly see the European Union from Lisbon to Kiev, in one constant flight of endless earth. It was a beautiful dream. But it was perhaps the time to come back to the Mediterranean, to think about the South again, the links to rebuild, the wars to end.
I bent my mind to remain roughly in the lozenge between Paris, Amsterdam, Oxford and Heidelberg, to make myself at home in this narrow stretch of earth. Oh, how narrow, if compared to the expanse I used to live in, exploring Belgrade and Bucharest, and Sofia, and L'viv! Intellectually, it was a passage from a vast world of easiness, where any intellectual work was good enough, it immediately mattered, loomed large in the open, void horizons. It was a world of endless opportunities and easy flights of creative imagination. I had to conform myself to a world that was intense, exigent, saturated, requiring quality in sustained, strenuous effort that was much less inebriating than those flights of imagination. Intensity and saturation forced their laws upon me. I needed to condense as well, learn how to swim instead of flying. It took me some two years to adapt, to internalise those new laws of intellectual physics. For a period of many months I lost the perception of purpose in my intellectual work. It seemed meaningless to go on publishing any further studies and papers in a reality already saturated with knowledge. In the end, I woke up in that condensed world.
It was a period in which I asked myself what is the sense of intellectual work, if it could not bring me any further distinction. Was it all about the comfortable life it could give me? For a long time, I dreamed about comfort, about passing my old age in a beautiful library, among Arabian and Persian books, in an exclusive world. But that dream proved not strong enough to keep me going against the increased pressure, move in the dense and heavy waters of Western academia. In the end, I discovered the true purpose, the motivation strong enough. I would call it the sense of mastery. What I really wanted, wanted strong enough to stand and fight was the sense of control, just like an artist is in full control of the matter in shaping.
Life is made of invisible turning points, so easy to miss, apparently so insignificant. At each of them our destiny changes its course by a fraction of a degree, that in the long run is decisive about the general course we have taken. This discovery, the fleeting moment in which I realised what it was all about, was such a turning point. Overall, I have rarely missed my destination; I have always been a winner against many adverse circumstances, and I am glad of myself. I reached the rewards I have aimed, my books, my travels, my academic work. I have got a life worth living; I was ready to run away from Middle Europe, at the slightest warning, because I was determined to preserve it and to make it flourish as it was, as I wanted it to be, almost perfect. Like the swan on a Dutch painting I saw in Amsterdam, that of Jan Asselijn, I stood fast when it came to defend it, big, splendid, white, and very aggressive. I learned to respect and appreciate my anger.
Risk calculation, stepping on thin ice. A splash of icy water, or a velvety darkness uncoiling my fear. I have made the choice of solidity, of things that remain, outliving the ephemeral of people and events, things darkened with age. Mahogany bookcases to surround and protect my solitude stranded on the shores of eternity, designed to last and to outlive History. I needed a place to settle down, a true home; I wanted to buy a house in Leiden, near the university, for that Western sedentary condition that is calculated to exceed a human lifetime. I dreamed of a greater home, with a greater library.
I prefer dark colours, vibrant and intense: velvety black and deep blue, and more than them, deep red and brown, enlivened with the heights of orange. Just a couple of days before I left Kraków, I put new things in my apartment, framed the prints I had brought from Cairo, reproductions of 19th-century Orientalist lithographs. I put fresh roses on the table. The moment of my depart, the tiny flat reached its fulfilment; it looked just as I always wanted it to be, an apartment of a scholar, full of books and framed prints from Cairo on the walls. But clearly, the wallpaper was old and needing repair, making it patent that the place belonged to a past. The shelves were full of books in an obsolete language in which I ceased to think, to dream and to write. I intended to donate them to a foundation supporting public libraries in the countryside; they would travel somewhere close to the Ukrainian or Byelorussian border, to wait for Barbarian armies that would scatter and burn them in the end. Meanwhile, I piled them, in a fragile equilibrium, on the little console by the entrance. The very image of my understanding of the History to which I decided to turn my back.
For a long time, it was worrying me that I didn't organise the transport of my remaining books to the West; I was preoccupied they might remain on the opposite side of some sort of abruptly fallen iron curtain. Only a part of my belongings, mostly my souvenirs and things to which I used to attach a special significance, were preserved in a self-storage in Leiden. But in fact, I had nothing particularly precious at home. It was just the pointless nostalgia of a scholar attached, beyond any worldly possessions, to books. Maniacally, unreasonably, since the miracle of print is precisely that we can always recover the books we had lost, get new copies.
As I went on with the task of reshaping my life, there were less and less things I desired to take with me. I had suffered from a persistent nostalgia of that apartment over the first years of my exile, when I was in Portugal and then in France. That little place was a bubble of ideal world, just like my dream of Leiden is now. I loved my books, and the good CD player, fifteen years old now, that I once bought with the sadaka offered by my Saudi husband. It must be obsolete in relation to the current state of the art, and later on, with my first German salary, I will probably buy some sort a quadrophonic set that will place me right in the middle of a symphonic orchestra, right in the middle of the ring of Nibelungen.
After all the donations to libraries and the repeated visits at the recycling container, there were still many books I wished to keep. Heavy albums on painting, Romanesque abbeys, Islamic art. Odd volumes I brought from my travels. I wanted my library to acquire a solid quality, without those cheap editions of my youth that were once so dear to me. Now I wanted to have most of my books in universal, imperial English, along with the polyglot collection marking the extension of my world. In Leiden, I would be in the precise geometric centre of it, a quarter of an hour from Schiphol. I never loved the world more than now. I desired its languages and its flowers, and its birds. Heavy albums with all the birds of the world. Medusae. Corals. Octopuses.
I used to nurture great affects for very common books, like the Life on Earth, by David Attenborough. Every time I returned to my Cracovian flat from abroad, I used to sit on the balcony at night, in the circle of warm light, to read Life on Earth that I knew almost by heart. It evoked the fascinations of my childhood, the first happiness, the first interest, the appetite of knowledge experienced at the very beginning of everything.
I wished I could have them all with me, when the order was to be restored. Having found my definite place to settle, a home with mahogany bookcases to receive them. What would be the feeling? Soon I discovered that, in the end, I would reject most of them, because by that time, I would get used to better books. I missed my old Philosophia perennis, but by the time the things would get better, I would certainly have the English original; I found a pdf in the Internet almost as soon as I thought about it. What would I do with my Polish translation published in 1987 by Pusty Obłok, a tiny editorial house producing the kind of metaphysical books that appeared so attractive, so enlivening at the time. I decided to sever my attachments, memories and affects associated with those old copies.
Right before the onset of the pandemic, I was busy precisely with the work of deconstruction of memories and affects, removing those Polish books from my library that I used to miss so dearly. I was donating them or throwing pitilessly to the blue recycling container. Just like that tiny copy of Thomas a Kampis' De imitatione Christi that I received on my 17th birthday, in 1989. When I read the book at the time, I only retained the truth that Thomas a Kempis had taken from Seneca: Quoties inter homines fui, minor homo redii. In the retrospective of my life, I was still so glad of having taken from De imitatione Christi just that. I managed to screen myself from the influence of other people, alien, imposed affects and attachments, the desperation of quest for other people. I only wished to be alone. To close the door and remain inside; to open another door and get out onto my inner landscapes. To speak to myself in interwoven languages that I was the only one to disentangle. Alone with things, in a purely material world, alone with matter open to my shaping. Alone with my own emotions, autonomous and undisturbed by irruption of faces. Whenever an individual existence is possible, communities dissolve, or are never established; this is a new, postmodern truth, at odds with the accepted anthropological doxa.
The best of my life were books and travels; the double axis of my solitary existence. It was rather early in my life that I started travelling, at least as far as Eastern Europe was concerned; I could be 13 or 14 years old. I went to Berlin, later on to Prague, to Szeged, to Budapest. Later on, to L'viv. Still in my twenties, as a student, I went to northern France, Portugal, Spain, Italy. When I was in my mid-thirties, after I married, dashing and daring, my Saudi Arabian husband, I started to travel with a real assiduity. Around the Mediterranean, in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, but also as far as Malaysia, and as far as Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. It is my greatest joy and the fulfilment of my existence to be like this, on the move. I love those countries, a great majority of them. Except a couple of places, like Serbia, for instance. Places that bring a chill to my bones.
There was a time, in my early youth, when I did not like to travel, or did not know how to travel, for what. It was art, of course, that provided me with the first justification. Museums and ruins. But in the depth of it, there are landscapes, mountains, mysterious lakes, moments of freedom, of time filled up to the brim, intensified. The level of anxiety I experienced in some of my travels was such that I was actually putting up with death. Not because I did anything so dangerous, but because I am such an anxious person, so unwilling to leave my comfort zone, the little corner in my armchair where I would otherwise love to stay, under the dark red cover of my dreams, in a circle of warm light that a special bulb provides me. Yet the rapids of time that the travel provides make the taste of that expanse of quiet water when I sit hours and hours on end, reading my books, and contemplating landscape photography, and catalogues of birds of the world, so I might get ready for unexpected encounters.
My old world of Middle Europe crumbling in front of my very eyes might release my energy, launch me onto a new path. The utter consummation of the Apocalypse would certainly set me free from the realm of the Four Eastern Riders. I was determined to work hard to transform my anxiety into a project, to collect the bonus of the crisis. I lingered and loitered for a while, yet I knew the Apocalypse would not last; I barely had months of that suspended time to create all the details of the new configuration, mahogany bookcases hosting a library to be, books that were still to be written. Just months to reinvent, to consolidate myself as a Western scholar in the glory of my blossom. Western time tick-tacks fast, even in the kairós, especially in the kairós. It constantly remains in the shadow of an end that is eternally nigh. The Eastern Apocalypse is an apocatastasis, a return of something that tastes familiar, that appeals to forgotten instincts; the Western Apocalypse is a revelation, the breaking of the seals and a jump into the unknown. A velvety darkness, yet certainly not for the fainthearted.
مُنَايَ مِنَ الدُّنْيا... Tongues and faiths of the humanity speak to me, their vowels darkened with millennia. They speak of things greater than home and origin, mere blotch of ink on the palimpsest of the earth. And homeless, but not enslaved, I constantly return to my papers, my studies, my writings, my garden in the middle of the desert of my nomadic existence. And this is where serious scholarship begins, enabled by the uwaysi power of those tongues and faiths of the humanity that speak to me. With time and experience of subsequent places, of all those universities where my individual existence became possible, I start to understand more clearly whatever they say to me. This is why I'm looking forward to discover how it might feel like, in Oxford, to meet Khidr.
During all that questioning of my intellectual destiny, I obviously also asked myself about my professional becoming. What job, what position I aspired for, who did I want to be. In the old life, I saw great careers, people sitting like popes in the middle of their institutes, surrounded by other people respecting them, admiring them. There is a subtle transposition of such a dream in Coppola's version of Youth without Youth. Dominic Matei in his Café Select, surrounded with friends, appreciated, liked, celebrated as "our beloved professor". But the back room was empty that evening, testifies the waiter at the end of the movie. The old man went there, but he did not stay long, soon he went out holding his hand to his mouth. And of course, the actual life of Mircea Eliade was very different, solitary, and conditioned, just like mine, by his ability of severing attachments.
Finally, I started to see it clear, and to face it bravely. I am heading toward and aspire for an existence of individual greatness, the career of an individual author, not a member of a corporation. I would have no institute of my own, no obsequious assistants so dear to the old East European taste, no colleagues, and only a very abstract sense of a community, of al-K̲h̲āṣṣa. I would be alone at my mahogany desk, alone in my library, alone with my matter, claiming my individual mastery. The contribution of such lonely authors to European excellence was of such an importance that specific mechanisms were put into practice in order to systematically increase their weight, and their comfort, in the margin of academic corporations. I might eventually manage to buy a house in Leiden, but there would, there could be no Café Select, and of course no return to Piatra Neamț.
Epilogue to be written one day