Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza

by Zbigniew Herbert
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

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At sixty-five lines, “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” is one of the longest of the forty poems of Pan Cogito (Mr. Cogito). The sense of fullness and completion that such length implies is, however, offset by Zbigniew Herbert’s division of the sixty-five lines into twenty-seven stanzas, some just a single line long (and none more than six). All the lines are short, and several are just one word long (“think,” “calm,” “Great”). At once whole and fragmentary, “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza,” with its disconcertingly long and decidedly unpoetic title, seems less a poem in any conventional sense than a vignette with dialogue, a kind of philosophical comedy only loosely tied (and then only by title) to the dramatic monologue form.

The poem’s ostensible subject is the seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Known as “the God-intoxicated man,” Spinoza was a fiercely independent person who supported himself by grinding lenses and who frequently moved from one lodging to another in Amsterdam. His dedication to freedom of thought and speech led him to turn down a faculty position at the University of Heidelberg and to refuse a pension from French king Louis XIV because it required him to dedicate a work to the king.

The formal, stilted, and at times clichéd quality of the first three stanzas (nearly one-fifth of the poem) does not so much set the overall tone of the poem (unless the astute reader, familiar with other Herbert poems, detects the carefully controlled irony) as it sets up the reader and Spinoza for what follows. “Seized by a desire to reach God,” Spinoza, in his attic, “pierce[s] a curtain” and stands “face to face” with Him. Speaking at length and finding his mind enlarged, Spinoza asks questions “about the nature of man.” What follows this rather dramatic opening is a series of one-and two-line stanzas in which readers see Spinoza earnestly inquiring into first and last causes while God acts bored and looks off “into infinity,” merely biding his time as he waits his turn to speak.

When God finally does speak, he does not sound like a distant, divine voice coming from a burning bush. Instead, He sounds avuncular, albeit something of a Dutch uncle. He starts by praising Spinoza for his “geometric Latin,” “clear syntax,” and symmetrical arguments before going on to speak not of first and last causes but of “Things Truly Great.” God reproves Spinoza for not taking better care of himself and advises him to settle down, buy a house, be more forgiving and more compromising, and look after his income even if it means dedicating a work to the king (“he won’t read it anyway”). Spinoza should, God says, “calm/ the rational fury” and “think/ about the woman/ who will give [him] a child.” God’s final words prove to be his most self-revealing (another curtain “pierced”), but it is a revelation that, in effect, repudiates Spinoza’s intellectual pursuit of God and truth: “I want to be loved,” God tells him, “by the uneducated and the violent” because “they are the only ones/ who really hunger for me.” The vignette ends much the same way it begins, with a more or less conventional scene. The curtain that was pierced only moments before falls, leaving Spinoza alone in the darkness hearing “the creaking of the stairs/ footsteps going down.” He has been tempted, but in what sense, to what end, and by whom?

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

Like virtually all the Cogito poems and many of Herbert’s other poems, the simple language and form of “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” is both inviting and deceptive, a deliberate attempt on the part of Herbert and other Polish poets of his generation to devise a poetry appropriate to their experiences during and immediately after World War II. In Herbert’s case, this effort involves stripping away punctuation (the only punctuation in “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza” is a single set of parentheses and a number of dashes to introduce most of the stanzas in which God speaks directly to Spinoza). The dearth of punctuation marks, the absence of uppercase letters at the beginning of lines, and the extreme brevity of lines and stanzas make the words look especially bare, almost vulnerable on the page. Herbert also strips away much of the ornamental language that makes poetry poetic for many readers: not only the rhythm and rhyme jettisoned by earlier practitioners of free verse but also metaphors other than those deployed ironically in order to deflate pretensions (for example, “seized by a desire to reach God,” “pierced a curtain,” and “his mind enlarged”). Instead of the metaphors so closely associated with the Romantic poets, Herbert prefers synecdoches (parts for wholes, wholes for parts) drawn chiefly from everyday experience.

Herbert also avoids the lyrical impulse and, with it, the intensely and at times self-indulgently personal nature of so much Romantic and contemporary poetry: thus the appeal and the usefulness of a persona such as Cogito who, though usually the focus of Herbert’s attention, whether in first or third person, serves here solely as narrator whose presence the reader hardly feels. Refusing both lyrical intensity and epic sweep, Herbert adopts a narrative mode better suited to his simple, austere, almost ascetic style. His “modest expression” and “level voice” provide an anecdotal glimpse, a truncated scene rather than a five-act drama not unlike the pictorial style of Spinoza’s contemporaries, the seventeenth century Dutch painters whose portraits and still lifes Herbert so greatly admires for both their style and their choice of nonheroic subjects. The title “Mr. Cogito Tells of the Temptation of Spinoza”—indeed the titles of most of the Cogito poems—strongly suggests Herbert’s affinity with these same Dutch painters whose realistic representations of commonplace subjects often possessed a carefully but unobtrusively coded allegorical intent. In Herbert’s case, however, both title and Cogito also clearly suggest a truly contemporary perspective rather similar to the skeptical retelling of Christian myths and legends in Ted Hughes’s poetry collection Crow (1970).