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Relics

in Ark Review/Essays/Musings by

One night of lofty discussions of common interests that those who barely know each other will sometimes engage in at the beginning of their acquaintance; unsure of what tone to strike and unaccustomed to each-others cadences, my interlocutor inquired about my reading habits and I expressed my preference for reading Russian works in Polish translation.

It was one of those wine soaked late Friday evenings, our common interest was literature. Red wine too, ostensibly, which we however simply drank instead of discussing. That night in particular I felt the need to console myself with a glass: there was a text (this text) I was trying to write and there was just no way it was happening.

Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Gogol and Bulgakov are known to me through the medium of my mother-tongue, because this choice makes sense, given the perceived affinities between languages, regardless of how close they may actually be. Otherwise, I tend to read in English translation, unless it’s a Polish text. But this is not exactly what this story is about. It is, rather, a short story of this text itself: of one devoted to the theme of relics.

To arrive at the crux, however, I need to first return to my idiosyncrasy. The evidence that this subjective rule of thumb is—on a purely personal plane—correct, is twofold. Positively: I enjoy the smooth easiness of reading Russian works in Polish; the way they naturally and unobtrusively seem to speak in the kindred registers. Negatively: till this day I recall my once attempted exception to the rule reading of Anna Karenin in English as one of the most misguided projects I ever embarked upon: the lack of “a” at the end of the protagonist’s surname, rendering Anna positively masculine, tormented my Slavic language sensitivities too much to be able to enjoy any of the book.

As the evening slowly continued to become a night, the conversation drifted into one of the Russian authors: Bulgakov; one of his books in particular: Master and Margarita. Both of us, as we found out, enjoyed it immensely. Neither of us, we established, spoke Russian. My interlocutor, being Danish and fluent in English, knew it through that language. Talking about the book, I mentioned the quote I liked, though I did not know it by heart. Soon enough an English copy of the book appeared in my hands, but I could not find the appropriate lines that night. I realised I know where they lie in my Polish copy of the book, back in my room; at the opening of one of the chapters, well into the story, appearing on the right-hand side page of my edition. I recalled that I particularly like the quote’s closing image, the one about the smell of iron. I could visualise all this, but not the quote itself. It would be interesting to find out, we established, if I liked it equally well in English: for the fun of it, but also as a kind of litmus test of my theory. Yet this had to wait. Red wine was good and the night was just starting  to become, still young.

Then an interlude: biking, birthday flat party with people you more or less do not really know, congregation of puffy autumn jackets in the corridor, passing around some beers from a freezer. Someone plays some music in the kitchen, but I don’t not really enjoy it and the window is open—a measure to counter the cigarette smoke—and I feel chilly. It was not a summer night.

So now there was this quote of which I was increasingly thinking and for that moment knew that it was somewhere there in Bułhakow’s Mistrz i Małgorzata (mark the “a” at the end of a feminine name) and since for a while now—then—I have been unsuccessful in a struggle to write something about relics (i.e. to write this), I became very aware, in that kitchen, of this angle to possibly approach it. The quote as a relic: the idea tried, pretty successfully in those circumstances, to imposed itself upon me.

Earlier that day, I had already explained to myself my inability to say anything of value—or, at least, of slight interest—about “relics”. I managed with a recourse to a distinction of Heidegger’s that I like: between the thauma and curiosity. A distinction I frequently mention to people on different occasions; one that, I would say, lives on in me all those years after reading Heidegger, even if for all other purposes I managed to forget a good chunk of whatever else he had to say in Being and Time:

“When curiosity has become free, however, it concerns itself with seeing, not in order to understand what is seen (that is, to come into a Being towards it) but just in order to see. It seeks novelty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty. […] Curiosity has nothing to do with observing entities and marveling at them—thaumazein. To be amazed to the point of not understanding is something in which it has no interest. Rather it concerns itself with a kind of knowing, but just in order to have known.” (BT: 217/172)

Lofty that it may sound, this distinction nevertheless captures something I find vitally—again, on a purely personal plane—important. It delineates between the kind of motivation behind what we engage with and elegantly spells out two forms that such an engagement can take. One arbitrary, scholastic, and systematic. Another deep-rooted, illogical, but incessant.

In other words, what Heidegger could be read as implying is a very basic and simple distinction between the spontaneous and forced types of interest. As pointing out that this distinction is not without consequences.

I find a strange appeal in the idea that a decision is made always already at the outset of an inquiry, dictated by our own, very personal relation to the issue at hand. All of  what follows, or that can follow, is somehow already decided at this initial moment. And “relics”—a theme utterly absent from my idiolect, a theme that I find unrelatable—are accessible to me only in the capacity of curiosity, as I would explain to myself, but not the capacity of amazement. And, it appears, this is not something I can do anything to amend.

As I biked back I wondered if the same awaited for me tomorrow: revisiting a place once singled out as significant, yet with no guarantees as to the permanence of the choice. But also pondering if there is anything to eat left in my fridge.

Just in order to see. Just in order to say something. Just in order to write: not with these precise words, which I consulted only later, but along those exact sentiments I have spent the pre-red-wine day struggling with relics. Yet, I recall a slight glimpse of excitement that I experienced in the middle of that once-but-no-longer-young night, in that kitchen, thinking about how would it be to re-read Bułhakow’s quote anew tomorrow. Then I cracked another beer and semi-forgot about the quote.

Then, an interlude, I biked some more.

A night a bit like from Oslo, August 31st. 

In fact: Copenhagen, October 6th.

Well into the darkest of a rainy night, sipping another beer, one that elegantly fitted into the breast pocket of my jacket: kilometers out through the gloomy suburbs of tenement projects, to my next stop: to dance to some techno like in the good old days. Something I, given years of  experience, expected to enjoy. There I am:

Park the bike, wardrobe, stamp, bar, floor. Reenacting the moves automatically. A well known routine: all is as it’s always used to be. And yet, after a good hour of biking through a neighbourhood as strange as it was dormant, all I could make once I finally arrived was some ten minutes, tops. Some element was missing: things seemed as they used to be, yet not the same at all. Was there a chance that that night any other word would spring to my mind? No. I could not have freed myself anymore from the grip it by then has already held me in: ‘relic’.

A relic of my life past. I would not even mention this episode side episode here, if not for the fact that it illustrates something worthy of notice; how prone we are to superimpose different trains of thought onto another, to appropriate ongoing themes and constructs and reshuffle them more or less arbitrarily to decode reality. (Especially while intoxicated). This dancing here, an empty rite, that’s meaning has—unbeknown to me—evaporated. No big deal, but the themes were already well blended. As I biked back I wondered if the same awaited for me tomorrow: revisiting a place once singled out as significant, yet with no guarantees as to the permanence of the choice. But also pondering if there is anything to eat left in my fridge. I went to sleep after one of those lovely little mid-night feasts.

The next day begins late and gray. I sip black coffee. And here I am, there I go:

‘Na przykrytym kocem łóżku leżały koszulki, pończochy i świeża bielizna, zmięta zaś bielizna poniewierała się wprost na podłodze obok rozdeptanego w pośpiechu pudełka papierosów. Pantofle stały na nocnym stoliku obok nie dopitej filiżanki kawy i popielniczki, w której dymił niedopałek. Na oparciu krzesła wisiała czarna wieczorowa suknia. W pokoju pachniały perfumy. Przywędrował tu także skądś zapach rozgrzanego żelazka.’

And here I am: In three rooms at once. In my apartment in Copenhagen on a rainy grey hungover Saturday, in Małgorzata’s room in Moscow and in my home back in Poznań where, simultaneously, I am younger and standing in front of the rows of my parent’s books, deciding to pick up this one, this very book. But otherwise than that: not much. Some element was missing. A strangely uninspiring moment.

It is in fact only then, in that slightly disappointed mood, that it first appeared to me how easy it would be to call things relics:

The text itself. The physical copy I quote from, published in Warsaw in 1987. The bookshelf at home I stole it from. The memory of the younger me in front this shelf. All the writers I found there, back in the day. My conviction about in which translations to read Russian books. The distinction from Heidegger. The quote.

The superimposition would be easy. I could choose to turn all of them into relics and in some sense this would probably make sense. But I don’t. I hear the premonition, again: just in order to have written. Just in order to have turned. Doing so would be an attempt to read into the reality something that is not really there, a magical act—of hope or resolution—to amplify the mundane and bestow it with a mysterious valour that does not reside in the mundane itself. So I do not attempt it. In the meanwhile all I can try to say is why I cannot really say anything about relics.

So here I am. I take a shower and the observe how the stamp disappears from my forearm. Some more coffee. I message the coordinates of the quote to my interlocutor: ‘chapter 20, paragraph 2’ and soon I got the reply and I am still perplexed as to why it is this quote and not some other is the one I once singled out. But I see already how this, what you are reading now, is the only possible thing that I can hope to write, that I will write soon, about relics, but in the meanwhile I read:

‘On the bedspread lay blouses, stockings and underwear, more crumpled underwear was piled on the floor beside a packet of cigarettes that had been squashed in excitement. A pair of slippers was on the bedside table alongside a cold, unfinished cup of coffee and an ashtray with a smouldering cigarette end. A black silk dress hung across the chairback. The room smelled of perfume and from somewhere there came the reek of a hot iron.’

***

Illustrations: Ola Korbańska

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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