They mutilate they torment each other / with silences with words / as if they had another / life to live // they do so / as if they hadn’t forgotten / that their bodies / are inclined to death / that the insides of men / easily break down // ruthless with each other / they are weaker / than plants and animals / they can be killed by a word / by a smile by a look
translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz; quoted from “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Milosz
“To imagine a language is to imagine an activity such as commanding and obeying. Language is the conversation that is interwoven with the characteristic activities of human life. According to Norman Malcolm, a good example of a form of life would be the complex of gestures, facial expressions, words and activities, that we call pitying and comforting an injured man.”
From Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein, 1997, p. 30
In his headnote Milosz introduces his compatriot Rozewicz (1921-2014) as a compassionate nihilist. Nihilism defines the world in terms of evil, characterized not by order, enjoyment, charity, and unity but by chance, affliction, self-insistence, and plurality. Evil is not something people like to contemplate so it seems remote. To a nihilist it is intimate.
Wittgenstein focused his analysis on language. Language as behavior that is central to human self-understanding. Language for Wittgenstein opposes nihilism by connecting people in meaningful action. It has escaped most commentators that for Wittgenstein language is how we connect with others. That is, it is by nature “altruistic.” As his friend Malcolm says, the act of language can be compared to the act of compassion. It involves the understanding of others for their own sakes.
Rozewicz, Milosz says, was a “compassionate interpreter of the human condition.” If that phrase suffers from implications of scientific objectivity, it’s because even the great poet has no other way to put it outside poetry. In “A Voice,” Rozewicz leaves no doubt about how nihilism works.
It works by not using language to reach others but to tear them down. People are impersonal they’s. Silence is their chosen medium. Life goes on elsewhere.
The opening stanza touches in passing on the theme Wittgenstein devoted his philosophy to. By misusing language people accomplish what most concerns them, their autonomy, a fantasy of individual autonomy, their “freedom.” They act not with respect to the life they share, through language, with others, but with respect to an “as if,” which is also widely understood as the basis for poetry.
But the world of “as if” is doubled, and as we’ve come to expect,nthe lyric narrative now explores the dialectical world. The fantasy world of nihilism shields individuals from their own finite, fleshed identities. Nihilistic clarity focuses not only on the war of all against all but on the internal fragility of each person. Words are used to keep the truth of ultimate nothingness from those who use words.
By this analysis, nihilism illuminates the truth: “compassion” is not a special virtue but an aspect of the right use of language. Not the instrumental use by which individuals destroy each other. The poem reaches its turning point by simply acknowledging the logic assumed by the poem: we use language to keep others from invading our private space. But as Rozewicz insists, the insides of people are fragile and in constant disrepair.
How many poems seem intent on imposing the poet’s self/voice on the world of the reader? Is this why the poem is titled “A Voice”? Is this why poetic shoptalk is obsessed with the problem of voice? Is the popularity of poetry based on nihilism?
As required by the lyric narrative, the poem, poised on the abyss of the truth of nihilism, leaps: there’s a world out there, a world of plants and animals! Only look! Beware however of the danger of turning your gaze outward, of leaving your post of egoistic vigilance. As you prove every day in your nihilism, compassionate words and looks can kill you.
This essay is dedicated to Richard Hoffman.