The October 2007 issue of Poetry carries an observant, insightful bit of prose by the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski entitled a “Dangerous Considerations: A Notebook.” He touches on Christmas in Krakow, Gottfried Benn, political disputes occasioned by Zbigniew Herbert’s death, Robert Musil and Thomas Mann (whose Magic Mountain Musil described as a “shark’s stomach”), Ted Hughes’s translations of Yehuda Amichai, a festschrift honoring the poetry of Stanislaw Baranczak, the essays of Gershom Scholem, Saint-John Perse (nom de plume of Aléxis Léger, who in the 1930s served as director of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), E. M. Cioran’s critique of Proust, Rika Lesser’s wonderful translations of the Swedish poet Goran Sonnevi, the Last Poems of Czeslaw Milosz, and more. Zagajewski’s notes offer us a window into a brilliant mind at work—spinning out connections like Whitman’s spider, but contentedly, it seems to me: no sense here of Whitman’s cultural and emotional isolation.
What drew me to post about Zagajewski’s piece—beautifully translated, by the way, by Clare Cavanagh—is his mention of Robert Musil’s assertion that “the spirit synthesizes intellect and emotion.” The phrase brought to mind Pound’s definition of the poetic image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” which I’ve always read as an almost scientistic nod to the power of imagination; Blake, of course, gives the imagination a more passionate and generous treatment.
But Zagajewski has this to say: “The word ‘imagination’ is beautiful and vast, but it doesn’t hold everything.” He prefers to think in terms of “the spiritual life”—and yet he accepts Musil’s definition of spirit as “a good working definition.”
Maybe because I’m in the midst of reading Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, I find myself thinking that imagination is spirit, and that the imaginative life is the life of the spirit, and that imagination—like emotion and intellect—is the result of evolutionary forces. Of course, if that can be true, then why would it not be possible for evolution to produce “spirit” or “soul”? After all, according to Dennett, life itself results from the mindless algorithm of natural selection working on the primal organic matter. If we stop thinking of the spirit as “supernatural,” but instead as a next-level development of natural selection working on the imagination, then Zagajewski’s position begins to make sense. This might also explain the historical phenomenon Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (see Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation).
In any event, I recommend Zagajewski’s “Dangerous Considerations: A Notebook” because it generates musings like this one!