On the difficult choice between the chain of ancient wisdom and a club of dead, male VIPs – and how to resolve it.
The search for wisdom is a trait that I like in Homo sapiens. We want to know how to be a human being and live life well. Isn’t that beautiful? We seek this wisdom from people wiser than ourselves, often from the distant past. Ancient narratives seem to be sweetened like a fig and therefore more reliable than life hacks from Mr Brown down the road. So it is perfect when old wisdom is passed down unofficially, from hand to hand, down the chain. This is how “Desiderata” (“Dezyderata” in Polish), a collection of recommendations for how to live a good life, started to do the rounds in Poland. For a long time, it was thought to be anonymous and from the 17th century. The Latin title means ‘things desirable, desired, postulated’. It is believed that Zbigniew Herbert wrote his poem “Przesłanie Pana Cogito” (“The Envoy of Mr. Cogito”) in opposition to “Desiderata”.
The hidden desires of the flower children
The career of “Desiderata” on the Vistula river began in 1972 with the publication of Kazimierz Jankowski’s book, Hipisi. W poszukiwaniu ziemi obiecanej [Hippies: In Search of the Promised Land]. The author, a doctor and supporter of humanistic psychiatry, viewed the hippie movement as “a form of group escape from an unacceptable reality towards, a desired, dreamt-of world, without hypocrisy, where people love each other”, and he had great understanding for the movement. He considered hippies to be the victims of capitalism and their “dropping out of society” as a reaction to the loss of the sense of family ties in American middle-class families. “At the hippie bazaar in Topanga Canyon you can buy ‘Desiderata’. These are the thoughts of an unknown author, found in an old church in Baltimore and very popular with the bazaar’s clientele. The poem reflects very well the desires of many of these young people, maybe still hidden, but slowly emerging,” he wrote of his protagonists. The full text of “Desiderata” – in its beautiful and still unrivalled translation by Andrzej Jakubowicz – rounded off Jankowski’s book, fulfilling precisely the hidden desires of these flower children. It’s no surprise that the book became known as the hippie bible.
A hymn from Kraków
As the legend goes, in 1979 in Kraków, Piotr Skrzynecki and Zygmunt Konieczny found a sheet of paper with Jakubowicz’s translation on the door of the psychiatric hospital where they were due to meet some patients. They were immediately entranced by the text, and shortly afterwards Piotr Walewski composed the simple and beautiful music to it. That is how one of the most important hymns from the Piwnica pod Baranami (the ‘Cellar under the Rams’ literary cabaret in Kraków) came into being. It is always performed as the last number, closing every show, still today. “Piwnica’s faithful audiences wait for this hymn and one couldn’t imagine the Saturday mystery show without ‘Desiderata’. Even first-time audiences are charmed and moved”, Patrycja Krauze from the cabaret told me.
During the height of the Solidarity movement, Jakubowicz and Walewski’s song travelled all over Poland. It went on to advertise Kraków as European Capital of Culture, and was sung during Jerzy Turowicz’s (editor of the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny) funeral in Tyniec Abbey. A group sang it for Pope John Paul II during an audience in the Vatican, and it was also doing the rounds among Catholic pilgrims, participants of the Oasis Movement, and prayer groups. However, the price for hippie desires to co-exist alongside the Church led to the adaption of the text to doctrine. On a postcard published by the Catholic publishing house Edycja św. Pawla, the original “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be”, became simply “Therefore be at peace with God”. Generally, “Desiderata” can be found anywhere people find themselves in existential trouble; in psychiatric hospitals, prisons, therapy groups and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Barbara Pietkiewicz, in Polityka weekly, called it the “most beautiful prayer for happiness in the Polish People’s Republic.” It was printed by Tygodnik Powszechny and “Przekrój”. In the end it emerged that “Desiderata” was younger than first thought, and had an author, Max Ehrmann.
Child of the Universe
Marian Sworzeń, with his 2004 book Dezyderata. Dzieje utworu, który stał się legendą, [Desiderata: The History of a Poem that Became a Legend], has done the most to promote the memory of Ehrmann in Poland. Born in 1872 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Max Ehrmann trained as a lawyer, but at the age of 40, devoted himself to thinking and writing. Brought up in a wealthy and emotionally stable family of German Methodists, he was religious, but in his own way. He didn’t believe in the immortality of the soul and he rejected the theology of all faiths, among which he regarded Roman Catholicism as particularly incomprehensible. He expected America to become Buddhist in the future and politically he was a socialist (referring to capitalists as “business bandits”), although he didn’t favour revolution as a method. His wife, Bertha Pratt King, was a suffragette (only marrying him just before Max’s death). Ehrmann corresponded with the British sex therapist, Havelock Ellis, and considered sex to be the most divine of the passions of mankind – he also did a lot for sexual education. He spoke up for birth control, believing that, apart from nationalism, professional armies and capitalism, uncontrolled breeding is the main cause of war. He had no children himself. He liked to read Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Montaigne, but also the Old Testament, Schopenhauer and Maupassant (the latter for sensuality). He had busts of Dante and Shakespeare in his study, a Buddha paperweight on his desk and a view of trees from his windows. Feeling himself to be “a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars”, he set up an observatory in his attic from where he watched the celestial bodies.
Composed at the start of the 1920s, “Desiderata” is the distillation of all Ehrmann’s experiences and thoughts, as well as his most famous work. Bertha Ehrmann published it in 1948, three years after her husband’s death, in an anthology of his poetry. It found its way from the book to the presbytery of Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore, where the Reverend Frederick Kates included it, without the author’s name, in a collection of religious texts that he compiled for his parishioners. The prayer book included information about the church and the date it was founded: “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692”. It is from this prayer book, via the magazine of American Methodists Together and Reader’s Digest, that it wandered into the world as the “anonymous” “Desiderata”, “found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692.”
Towards happiness or the dark boundary?
“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” Once heard, these words can never be forgotten. Ehrmann speaks with a quiet voice and doesn’t impose himself with ‘I’s, although he had reason to be proud: he had solved the mystery of harmony. But no. He leaves what’s best and removes himself. He hides behind his words. The first sentence of the poem is like the door to meditation; calmness and silence enable everything that will be said later. I want to go through these doors after him, in spite of (or because of) the mowers, drills and engines growling since dawn and the cacophony of the media, politics and history.
This longing for silence grows the more silence disappears. Freedom from the noise of civilization is today as much of a luxury as freedom from its lights. Very few of us have heard the true sound of silence (it’s more or less like the John Cage song, 4’33’’, full of natural sounds). Ehrmann has a medicine for this: in “Desiderata”, he teaches us how to find silence within ourselves. He knows that whoever finds it – or rather learns to find it every time it is lost – need not fear commotion and turmoil. Because silence is within us. And, although the final “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy” suggests a long road, full of stumbles and falls rather than an express route to nirvana, it is here, however, that a person from Central and Eastern Europe starts to feel a little ashamed.
Were we not taught – as Herbert repeats in “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” – that duty to the fallen and the murdered comes before the happiness of the individual? That we are not allowed to think of love eternal like grass, since so many generations before us gave their lives for collective values? “You were saved not in order to live / you have little time you must give testimony,” Herbert gloomily reminds us. Happiness is betrayal. “Go where those others went to the dark boundary,” says Mr. Cogito, and there a great defeat awaits you and a “company of cold skulls”; the club of dead, male VIPs. In truth, Herbert does notice the beauty of nature, but he thinks that nature doesn’t need us, so therefore we have no obligations towards it.
So, how do we resolve these two approaches? Ehrmann or Herbert? Cherchez la femme. Women can reconcile contradictions, because that is what life demands of them. Rebecca Solnit, the American essayist and activist, also knows how to do it. In her book Hope in the Dark, she shows how to connect memory and duty with self-care; without pathos and simply, like a mother, organizing her own affairs as well as her family and home. Solnit fights by day for the climate and global justice (remembering her predecessors) and, by night, meditates under the stars, bringing benefits for both of these forms of existence which, together, build harmony. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy and then the world will have more of you. This is how a female desideratum beyond divisions might sound.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska