Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza

by Zbigniew Herbert
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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

It is precisely this deflating of all that is elevated, poetic language as well as philosophical pretension, that is so noticeable in Herbert’s poem. The high-minded diction of the opening lines is put in perspective and in its place by God’s colloquial speech, and Spinoza’s single-minded pursuit of God is offset, even undermined, by God’s unadorned advice on getting ahead and on “Things Truly Great” (though those uppercase letters should give the reader pause). There is something incongruous and therefore comical in someone advising a philosopher of Spinoza’s stature to buy a house even if that someone is God, but there is wisdom, not just humor, in reminding Spinoza that pleasure is not in itself a vice and in admonishing him to “forgive the Venetian mirrors/ that they repeat surfaces,” for what those mirrors accomplish is rather similar to what the seventeenth century Dutch painters did in so faithfully rendering their commonplace subjects. However, the same title that links Herbert’s poem to their paintings also suggests that even if Spinoza is wrong not to heed God’s advice, he is right to resist the temptation to abandon or compromise his principles by colluding with those in power (for example, dedicating a treatise to the king who “won’t read it anyway”).

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The poem, with its ambiguous depiction of the nature of both God, who may be the devil, and a temptation that is a reversal of the Faustian bargain and not without its own saving grace, illustrates perfectly “the tension between the ideal and the real” that is, as poet and critic A. Alvarez has astutely noted, “the backbone on which all [of Herbert’s] work depends.” This “incurable duality,” as Harvard professor Stanisaw Barañîczak calls it, leads to a “threshold situation,” the point where a Spinoza or a Cogito must make a choice, a point Herbert usually takes the reader to but not beyond. Spinoza’s choice can be inferred from his career and writings even if not from the poem per se. Spinoza’s regret, on the other hand, can only be inferred from the “uncertain clarity” of Herbert’s poem, a meditation on the pursuit of the principled life that will take on added ambiguity in Herbert’s “Spinoza’s Bed” in Marta natura z wedzidlem (1993; Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas, 1991) and added urgency in his later, more overtly political collection Raport z obleonego miasta i inne wiersze (1983; Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems, 1985).

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