August CommQuote

The Mr. Cogito (Pan Cogito) poems of Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert are among his most intriguing. Lucky for CommPilings, Mr.Cogito reads the newspaper. But first a little insight into his character:

… Both from the stylistic and from the grammatical point of view, Mr. Cogito is a combination of the self and others. This ambiguity reflects the major philosophical theme of the volume [Pan Cogito]: man’s identity and the problem of his relationship to others. In reply to a letter inquiring about Mr. Cogito, Herbert wrote the following: “As for Mr. Cogito – well, if I knew exactly myself? In any case it is neither a persona nor a mask, but rather … a method … An attempt to isolate, to ‘objectify’ what is shameful, individual, and subjective” …Mr. Cogito is clearly a little man and some have called him petty. His concerns are frequently ordinary and practical; he enjoys reading sensational newspaper articles, he tries transcendental meditation and fails, his stream of consciousness brings up detritus like a tin can, he needs advice and so on. …Mr. Cogito is a device allowing Herbert to admit this ordinariness we all share, to establish it and, once this is done, to build upon it. Herbert wants to underline ordinariness and imperfection because he wants to deal with practical, not transcendent, morality.

–Carpenter, Bogdana, and John Carpenter. “Recent Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.” World Literature Today 51.2 (Spring,1977): 213.

Mr. Cogito Reads the Newspaper

by Zbigniew Herbert

On the first page
a report of the killing of 120 soldiers
the war lasted a long time
you could get used to it

close alongside
the news of a sensational crime
with a portrait of the murderer

the eye of Mr Cogito
slips indifferently
over the soldiers’ hecatomb
to plunge with delight
into the description of everyday horror

a thirty-year-old farm labourer
under the stress of nervous depression
killed his wife
and two small children

it is described with precision
the course of the murder
the position of the bodies
and other details

for 120 dead
you search on a map in vain

too great a distance
covers them like a jungle

they don’t speak to the imagination
there are too many of them
the numeral zero at the end
changes them into an abstraction

a subject for meditation:
the arithmetic of compassion

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