Ryszard Kapuściński

Lapidarium VI

(A Selection)

Cleaning up the desk. It means mostly taking down from the desk piles of books and papers and arranging them on the floor. The desk now looks like a lofty wooden fort under siege of the columns of books which wait on the floor for the right moment to scale the top again.  [13-14]

Zofia Gebhard, a poet from Wrocław, in one of her letters: “I’m not asking what’s new with you because your way of life makes my head spin.” And to introduce some peace and quiet into my crazy pace, into my bursting calendar, Zosia writes to me that in her garden birds appeared, or that she has just finished cooking dumplings for which she will make mushroom sauce, or suddenly sends me a dried and pressed petal of the Persian violet.  [15-16]

Few are asking questions. Many appear omniscient. And if somebody asks, it’s worth paying attention because it’s a person searching, wondering, trying to understand, and how rare are now such cases. It is striking that when things are discussed in company today, it is rare that somebody says: I don’t know, I have no idea; on the contrary: all voice their opinions, speak ex cathedra, contend, persist in their position, monolog.

The reason is that living in the deafening noise of information, in the open flow of data, we come into possession of knowledge that is partial, reflected and vague, of fragments and shavings, of a mass digested and loose, a mixture of the worst kind because it creates an illusion of knowledge, a conviction that one has acquired knowledge and is ready to use it. This universal access to common sources of information has turned us into self-satisfied pseudo-experts, amateurs, besserwissers, the more self-assured, the less we really know and understand.  [47]

A conversation with the philosopher Jerzy Łoziński. We agreed that since we cannot change the world, we should at least observe it and attempt to name, to create the language, to verbalize phenomena that had not existed previously and so were not defined. For only in the world that is definable and defined it is possible to move rationally, to understand it, to influence its shape and order.  [54]

With advacing age, between you and the reality that surrounds you there begins to appear a separating, isolating substance. Through it you see less, hear less, and most of all—feel less. At the beginning it is a thin, transparent fog through which much can still be seen, but in time the fog grows thicker, starts to solidify. It changes into a heavy curtain, then into a thickening wall through which nothing is seen any more, and nothing is heard.  [54-55]

Psychological criteria and the measurement of time: formerly I counted it in years, then in months; today, more and more often, in days. I have a growing ill will towards those who steal my time. I recognize that often they have the best of intentions, yet it is hard for me to reconcile with the fact that somebody takes away my time, the time that is irrecoverable after all.  [55]

The airport in Salt Lake City. I’m waiting for the departure of the plane to New York. I have a lot of time; I can take a look at the bookstores of which in this gigantic building there are three. In the last days I visited a few of them in America. It struck me that there are no books of the earlier authors. I’m not even talking about classics—Shakespeare, Sterne, or Blake, but you can’t buy later American writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, London or Twain. Instead, the shelves are full of the books of dozens of contemporary writers whose names are meaningless to me. The names or the titles, for these books appear and quickly disappear, and in their place immediately appear new books, subsequent, as unknown as yesterday’s books, not to be remembered.

Books, like newspapers, are becoming transitory, disposable, topical. Not only is the worse literature replacing the better, but the one created today is replacing that which existed only yesterday.  [61-62]

On the occasion of the discussion over the constitution of the European Union, somebody in the West is surprised that the left-wing government of Poland is fighting with such determination to include in it a statement about the Christian roots of the continent, while many governments of Christian democrats are indifferent to that issue.

The point is that the Polish government is in essence neither left-wing nor right-wing, but hypocritically opportunistic, in truth ready to fight for one goal only—for remaining in power, and because it is counting for the support of the Church in this struggle, it raises the importance of the Christian roots. If instead of the Church it were supported by the devil, the government would fight for including the statement that the whole of Europe comes from hell!  [62]

The great German indologist, Nietzsche’s friend Paul Deussen, writing about Greek philosophy, maintains that in its earliest beginnings “there existed many former stages, currently lost to us.” That is what fascinates me the most—the earliest beginnings of literature, music, painting, architecture. What is the course from the earliest creators, from the first things to perfection, to masterpieces? For in historical museums we only see two divisions: in the first—in the glass cases we have primitively fashioned stone tools, simple knives, pestles, axes, cudgels; in the other—immediately objects of wonder, mature, inspired, of the highest order. But where are the intermediate stages, where the traces of centuries of man’s struggle for perfection, for the fullness of expression?

Maybe, after all, these “former stages” simply never existed and the art of the past available to us came into existence as a result of a violent eruption, a dazzlement, a sudden illumination. This is a question to which there is no satisfactory answer.  [66]

The unity of the historical process in the times past, the fact that it is governed constantly by the same laws, is determined by the invariable features of the human character, and any disruptions of this continuity, changes of epochs, upheavals and breakthroughs are caused by revolutions in the sphere of social relationships or in technology or customs, and so by factors that exist outside of the human beings, although they are created by them.  [68]

Contemporary art is stretched between classicism and scandal. That latter element is based on the same principle as the effect of a narcotic—to load people with the ever-increasing dose of noise, light, colors and motion.  [79]

Poverty is the most primeval condition of humanity. Poverty, defenselessness, fear. Throughout all the past, the human beings have tried to extricate themselves from this condition, but still a guarantee of a decent existence is in possession of only two out of every ten persons. And it does not appear that this proportion will improve soon.  [86]

One of the dangers of postmodernism is that it is a paradise for those who lack any talent. For imitators, copycats, clever manipulators. For there is in postmodernism a certain gray sphere—of situations without rules and principles. All that matters is what is now, today, in this specific hour. Characteristic is also a way of disappearing—something disappears suddenly, quietly, and without a trace—it’s possible to list many names of persons whose fate is now unknown.  [91]

A construct—something that comes into existence as a result of mental synthesis. An object born in thoughts, although formed from real elements. An operational concept.  [119]

I feel the breath of an animal pursuing me. It’s time running, a furious predator. I can feel it coming closer, getting ready to attack, to deal the finishing blow.  [119]

One of the dangers of a crisis situation is that it awakens in people uncertainty and fear, and thus it makes them eager to quickly and readily accept a belief and give support to everyone who promises them something (preferably promises everything that they want).

A crisis is a perfect time for all demagogues, cynics and fanatics who sense the moment and come forward to face the lost and frightened mass. They pronounce themselves leaders and they lead the lost and the disoriented toward their destructive, insane delusions.  [125]

The field on which we meet the Other is often a battlefield, saturated with hatred and blood.  [131]

9 June 2006

The first day in a new place is a day of getting used to the surroundings, of finding a modus viviendi for it, a day of apparent idleness, of lost hours. And yet those moments of adjusting to the new place are a necessary sacrifice to be accepted by the local deities—the guardians of that neighborhood.

Already tomorrow, or at the latest in a few days, you will become a local inhabitant, a denizen, a native. The deities will accept you to the local tribe, the owner of the land. All you need is humility and patience.  [149]