Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision

by Zbigniew Herbert

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

“Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” is one of twelve “Cogito” poems published in Zbigniew Herbert’s Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems. These twelve poems supplement the forty that Herbert collected earlier in Pan Cogito (1974; Mr. Cogito, 1995). The present poem, one of Herbert’s longest, contains 131 lines divided into three parts, which are subdivided into stanzas of from one to eight lines each. Most stanzas contain two to four lines; the shortest, with one line, and the two longest stanzas, of seven and eight lines, appear in the final stanza.

The poem is written in the third person, with Mr. Cogito as a character rather than the narrator of the poem. Herbert uses a stiff, slightly pedantic language to create an aura of pseudo-scientific objectivity. This he deploys ironically to underscore the distance between detached treatment and human subject. The poem begins: “Mr. Cogito/ is alarmed by a problem/ in the domain of applied mathematics/ the difficulties we encounter/ with operations of simple arithmetic.”

At one extreme, there is the child’s sense of addition and subtraction, “pulsat[ing] with a safe warmth”; at the other, there are physicists who have succeeded in weighing atoms and heavenly bodies with extraordinary accuracy. “[O]nly in human affairs/ inexcusable carelessness reigns supreme.” Only here does one find a “lack of precise information.”

For the German socialist theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the specter haunting Europe in the mid-nineteenth century was communism. For Cogito it is “the specter of indefiniteness,” which haunts not merely these horrifically Chaplinesque modern times but “the immensity of history.” There follows a brief, illustrative allusion to battles from ancient Troy through Agincourt and Kutno, and of terrors identified only by “colors innocent colors”: white, red, and brown. Cogito is alarmed by his own and general ignorance of how many died in each battle and during each reign of terror. He is also alarmed by people’s willingness to remain ignorant by accepting “sensible explanations.” What “evades numbers,” he rightly, and achingly, contends, “loses human dimension.” To restore this human dimension necessitates both correcting “a fatal defect in our tools” and atoning for “a sin of memory.”

The second part of the poem offers “a few simple examples/ from the accounting of victims.” In contrast to history’s war, airline passenger lists make accounting for the victims of plane crashes relatively easy. Train accidents are more difficult because they often require reassembly of mangled bodies. Worse still are “elemental catastrophes,” such as earthquakes and hurricanes, in which the simple arithmetic of the living and the dead is complicated by a third category, those ambiguously “missing.”

In the third part of the poem, “Mr. Cogito/ climbs/ to the highest tottering/ step of indefiniteness.” The poem then alludes to the immense difficulty of accounting for, of actually naming, “of all those who perished/ in the struggle with inhuman power.” Neither official statistics, nor eyewitness, nor “accidental observers” can be trusted, each for different reasons. Despite the difficulty, Cogito argues, no one must be allowed to disappear “in abysmal cellars/ of huge police buildings” or in “doubtful figures/ accompanied by the shameful/ word about.’” “[A]ccuracy is essential/ we must not be wrong/ even by a single one,” he admonishes, because “we are despite everything/ the guardians of our brothers/ ignorance about those who have disappeared/ undermines the realty of the world.” Thus is the need to count, to account for, to name, and therefore to know, if one is to be truly human.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Herbert was a member of a generation of Polish writers who came of age during and immediately after World War II. Their wartime experiences made them feel it necessary to devise new poetic forms and syntaxes appropriate to life as they had just experienced it. For Herbert this meant stripping away virtually all punctuation. He also avoids what he calls, in another poem, “tricks of the imagination”: all merely ornamental language including rhythm and rhyme, even metaphors. Herbert prefers the device of synecdoche—the naming of the part to stand for the whole.

Herbert’s vocabulary is generally simple; his tone matter-of-fact, almost prosaic; his lines and stanzas brief, starkly seen against the otherwise blank page. Nevertheless, his poetry is carefully connected to the larger historical, philosophical, and cultural contexts. This he achieves through allusions, either directly presented (Troy, Agincourt, Leipzig, Kutno), or indirectly (the red, white, and brown terrors). His Cogito poems are generally less allusive than his other poems.

For all its cool detachment and prosaic accessibility, Herbert’s poetry is surprisingly, and subtly, varied. The formality of the opening stanzas of “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” gives way to colloquialism, which becomes especially evident at the end of the second part. The register changes again in part three, which opens with a cartoonish image, then changes into lines of great moral passion and power, before ending with language more resonant than any before it. The final lines are no less realistic than what precedes, but they are realistic in a different way. Instead of the earlier positivism, Herbert offers up the verbal equivalent of one of the seventeenth century Dutch still-life paintings he so greatly admires: “in a bowl of clay/ millet poppy seeds/ a bone comb/ arrowheads/ and a ring of faithfulness/ amulets.”

The poem’s subject matter lends itself to the sentimentalism of the film version of Schindler’s List (1994), but its kitchiness, however well intentioned, is precisely what Herbert’s seemingly straightforward but in fact understated, deeply ironic, and blackly humorous poem deftly avoids. The lucidity (or what Herbert elsewhere calls “uncertain clarity”) of the writing underscores, by means of contrast, the grimness and horror of Herbert’s vision. His, and Cogito’s, pose or stance of cool detachment serves as a disguise beneath which the reader can detect the author’s barely but brilliantly controlled pain and outrage. It is the immense and purposeful gap separating simple observations, such as “we don’t know” or “somewhere there must be an error,” and the passion that drove Herbert to write this poem and others like it that gives the poem the extraordinary moral force that enables Herbert to use the imagination as an “instrument of compassion.”

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