The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 3 no. 2


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 change—that 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 long ago.

Q: What is the main reason why you write?

A: Writing—and in this I disagree with everybody—must 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 last forever?

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. . .