The best book of 1994 is the first English translation of Zbigniew Herbert's Mr. Cogito, a book of poems that came out in Poland in the mid-1970s, well before Herbert's justly famous Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems. Mr. Cogito's character who appears in most of Herbert's best poems—he's kind of a poetic Pnin, both intellectual and not too bright, both hopelessly confused and bravely earnest as he grapples with the Big Questions of human existence.
Zbigniew Herbert is one of the two or three best living poets in the wold, and by far the best of what you'd call the "postmoderns." Since any great poem communicates an emotional urgency that postmodernism's integument of irony renders facile or banal, postmodern poets have a tough tow to hoe. Herbert's Cogito-persona permits ironic absurdism and earnest emotion not only to coexist but to nourish one another. Compared to Mr. Cogito, the whole spectrum of American poetry — from the retrograde quaintness of the Neoformalists and New-Yorker-backyard-garden-meditative lyrics to the sterile abstraction of the Language Poets — looks sick. It seems significant that only writers from Eastern Europe and Latin America have succeeded in marrying the stuff of spirit and human feeling to the parodic detachment the postmodern experience seems to require. Maybe as political conditions get more oppressive here, we Americans'll get good at it, too.
Q: Are some things worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Who's ready for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as heroes and martyrs, "sacrifices on the altar of freedom"?** That is, what if we described that a certain minimum baseline vulnerability to terrorist attack is part of the price of the American idea? That ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our way of life — not just of our soldiers and money on foreign soil, but the sacrifice of our personal safety and comfort? Maybe even of more civilians' lives?
What if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite everyone's best efforts, some hundreds of thousands of us may die in the sort of terrible suicidal attack that a democratic republic cannot 100 percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are worth the price? Is monstrousness who no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned of more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin's time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice — either of (a) some safety or (b) some portion of the rights and liberties that make the American idea so precious?
Q: In the absence of such a conversation, do we trust our current leaders to revere and safeguard the American idea as they seek to "secure the homeland"? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for the moment that some of these really have helped make our persons and property safer — are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they're worth it? Was there no such debate because we're not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we become so selfish and frightened that we don't even want to think about whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?
*Given the Gramm-Rudmanesque space limit here, let's all just agree that we generally know what this term connotes — open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency . . . the whole messy democratic roil.
** (The phrase is Lincoln's, more or less.)