'Through Germany by Train'
From Kosmopolen. Auf der Suche nach einem europäischen Zuhause [Cosmopoles. The Search for a European Home], weissbooks.w, Frankfurt am Main 2016, pages 21-27.
Von Artur Becker
Deracination is said to be one of the worst dangers confronting our psyche. C.G. Jung even claimed that we humans would become ill without religion – we need something to believe in. Of course there are gods we would be better off not trusting. We must always examine thoroughly who and what we believe in. It goes without saying that everyone is free to do what they like. Freedom and love are the strongest weapons we have against existential desperation in any form, and it is not for nothing that the Russian philosopher Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) found that Dostoevsky's anthropocentric literature dealt primarily with the concept of freedom on every level imaginable. For Dostoevsky, he said, freedom is the wellspring of both good and evil, and each individual decides which way to go.
Dostoevsky's anthropocentrism turned out to be just what 20th Century psychology and philosophy had been waiting for. Sartre was even able to claim that we are condemned to freedom, thus making us the forgers of our own destinies. From there it was but a short step to being able to say, "Hell is other people".
And in the same way atheists believe in the teachings of Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins and in the incorruptible logos of humanity, which, they claim, needs no bearded father in heaven, since we homo sapiens know inherently what is right and what is wrong, which makes it clear that we should no longer be held captive by some mover and creator of worlds. The history of the human spirit and consciousness, say the atheists, started at Point Zero and has since undergone constant expansion and development so that we know more and more about being in the universe. This is a progressive view of history, such as we find in the heretical theologies of writers such as Origenes and Teilhard de Chardin, who prophesied that the human spirit and creation would continue to unfold and develop until they reach perfection and thus redemption.
But even atheists need to believe in something (which reassures me a little).
And what do I believe in? And what keeps me going? Sometimes I believe in a God, and there are times when I cannot find him anywhere. Then I am lost, an atheist. At such moments I go back to reading works of theology. Or I dig deep into the mysterious treasure chest that is our cultural history and pull out Swedenborg, Jakob Böhme or Gnostic texts. Then again, from time to time I am one hundred percent certain that salvation exists and that logos in our world is of divine origin. That brings me straight to the idea that we should not give ourselves a headache thinking about
what the future may bring. The pain induced by our hardly being able to imagine infinity or eternity suddenly disappears.
I was at least always convinced that there must be some place somewhere in the universe – or perhaps just in us – where we no longer have to wrangle with creation. It goes without saying that sickness and death would have no place there and the dialectics of good and evil (the problem of theodicy) would finally be cancelled out. There are moments in my life when I have the feeling that I know the place of spiritual harmony very well. Yes, I even go there to visit, and, actually, it is my home – I live there.
I call this place, this strange land, "Cosmopoles". I owe the idea for this to the writer Andrzej Bobkowski (1913-1961) another great Polish exile, who coined the neologism Kosmopolacy (the Cosmopoles) for people like himself. It is about how a Pole and intellectual from the Vistula living abroad can become a dauntless world citizen. It is of course difficult to establish a new identity in exile without rejecting your homeland and denying the place you come from, and it may fail. Or you can change your skin and your tongue completely and be reborn as it were. According to Bobkowski, Joseph Conrad is an outstanding example of a model Cosmopole. The English language gave the writer a new literary identity; and if you search his books for Polish traces you can be sure to find them in certain traits of his Romantic characters such as Lord Jim, or Willems in An Outcast of the Islands.
There are various forms of Cosmopolism. Some people do not even know that they are Cosmopoles, even though that is de facto precisely what they are. Some have nothing to do with Poland or have never emigrated – they are nevertheless Cosmpoles. And there are others who live in that mythical country without being aware of it at all. And still others who put on t-shirts demonstratively bearing witness to it.
And when did I find out that I am a Cosmopole?
On the 16th March 1985 I set off from Poznan on a train to Hanover. My Posen girl was standing on the platform, and it was a cruel farewell for the two teenagers in love that we were in the early Eighties. But I knew that nothing could separate us, us and our love, not the Cold War, and not our parents. I was an experienced rogue. After all, I had been living on my own in Poland for a year waiting for my passport. My parents were already living in the 'Reich' as we liked to mockingly call it when we talked about capitalist West Germany.
My parents had settled in Verden on the Aller, and I came to them as an adult to Germany with poetic and political experience, even though I was still a sixteen-year-old child and hungry, very hungry. The gapingly empty shelves in the Socialist food shops had made me hungry and greedy.
That train to Germany was already telling me in Poznan who I was – a child of Europe; and at the same time I felt what Zbigniew Herbert must once have thought as he set out with just a hundred dollars in his wallet on his first fellowship trip to the West – I was a barbarian in this garden which was foreign to me, in which the West
Germans and the French spoke a common language. Their clothes, their perfume and their money told me where the border ran between them and me. They lived in the Open Society. They were allowed, for example, to interpret Marxism and even put it into practice according to their own notions. They could determine Marxist doctrine, at least as theologians of the New Faith. Strangely, when we talked about their liaison with Marxism, the old West German 'Sixty-Eighters' told me that in the end they always foundered on the authoritarian leadership style of their speakers, chieftains and committees. The authoritarian "number" is a disease of both the left and the right, and from an elevated perspective a psychological study of the two ancient enemies seems to be helpful and fruitful; they resemble each other in their outward manner of conduct, even if they are themselves primarily responsible for this separation into black and white, into left and right, as the Polish philosopher and critic of Marxism Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) wrote in one of his essays.
Then there was the waiting around in East Berlin, where carriages or a new locomotive were added to the train, and I will never forget how high-handed the East German border police were. I felt like a criminal as I handed over my passport and suitcase to them – the Servants of Fear and their Alsatian dogs. Apparently, Honecker was the only one of the geriatric Warsaw Pact Party Secretaries who in 1981, the year when martial law was introduced, wanted to march into Poland with his soldiers to put an end to the endless strikes and demonstrations by Solidarnosc. That crazy idea proved that he lacked any finesse of historical feeling, any historical elegance: German jackboots back in Poland? That could have ended really badly. And in any case, the fatal thing about leftists and Marxists is that they over-estimate their intuitive feeling for historical events and conflicts. Kolakowski would say that in their negation of reality and their belief in the power of Utopia they run the risk of moralising.
The actions of people on the left are primarily emotional, because they believe they have history on their side, which is, they say, ultimately a servant of their lay eschatology, since one day, in the not-too-distant future, the world will be free of the evil exploiters in the industrial societies. By the way, I cannot to this day understand how Berdjaev wanted to couple Marxism with Russian Orthodox Christianity. I have a high regard for his philosophy of religion, especially his interpretations of characters in Dostoevsky's novels. Excellent works. But the idea that two contradictory eschatologies like that of Marxism and that of Christianity could have a common goal is, to put it mildly, absurd. In any case I would always choose religion if I had the choice between it and a political ideology.
I could not stop holding my breath until we reached Helmstedt. Suddenly, when all the passport checks were done with, my fear of Alsatians, border guards and Soviets vanished. I've arrived in the West, made it to much-loved freedom, I thought to myself; and that was not at all naive, but in the spirit of Realpolitik. For me, Helmstedt is a poetic place of deep historical symbolism, and today, whenever I travel to Poland and am passing the memorial in Helmstedt, I always think of my journey out of the East and of Giordano Bruno, not just of Solidarnosc and the Leipzig demonstrations.
Only a few people know that there was once a university in Helmstedt and that one of its most famous visiting professors was Giordano Bruno. He was burned at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600 for his heretical ideas. An espresso on that stunningly beautiful market place, where you can still buy oranges like the ones described by Milosz in his poem of the same name, costs a fortune. I have been there several times and love that immortal piazza; perhaps the reason why I love it is because, for me, it is in the mythical land of Cosmopoles, and not in Rome at all. It is a land I have lived in since my childhood, even though I did not know it. That region where there is no past and no future, only the present, lies between heaven and earth. And you can meet them all there – Giordano Bruno and Czeslaw Milosz, Stanislaw Vincent and of course children, too, who swim in the eternal river of the 'Here and Now', who, thank God, have no idea of the transience of the world and of us humans, who do not know that death really exists.
In Cosmopoles you meet the poets and philosophers who have no home, but you also meet the naive, clueless people who think that their ethical sincerity will protect them from every danger imaginable. And unfortunately you meet also meet those creatures who are lost and can find no place for themselves in the world, although they intuitively sense that there must be a healing home somewhere for their despairing souls.
I think that even Stanislaw Vincent, who cured Milosz of the disease of alienation and loss of identity and gave Planet Earth back to that difficult patient for his feet and for his writing, could only have discovered much later, during his exile in France to be precise, that he had never lived in any other country than Cosmopoles. Nations with their borders and their mother tongues rape the earth and carve it up like a water melon. They eat of this sweet fruit and have no idea that they are committing sin. They are possessive and by nature materialistic, they buy and sell the land and fight tribal wars in its name. But in truth the earth belongs only to itself, and we humans are but guests on it.
But it is not just peaceful in Cosmopoles, like in a Paradise in which humans have not yet taken a bite out of the apple and shortly afterwards, after that healing, not temptation, become aware of our own voices and able to speak the lines "Cogito ergo sum" and "Carpe diem".
Cosmopoles is also a dangerous country because we can hide away from the world in it, from reality and the matrix of our states and societies. In my childhood I lived for a long time in that land of freedom and dreams without having the foggiest idea of what it actually meant, and even the Polish trains that took me from Bartoszyce via Korze in Masuria to Magdalena in Poznan came from Cosmopoles.
Translated from German by Catherine Hales