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Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas, Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s second collection of essays, bears a close relation to his first, published thirty years before. Barbarzyca w ogrodzie (1962; Barbarian in the Garden, 1985) offers an outsider’s look at Mediterranean art and architecture, but this is an outsider who, as émigré poet Stanislaw Baranczak pointed out in 1985, is also the legitimate heir of the cultural tradition from which he has been unfairly disinherited by an accident of history. A similarly ambiguous sense of alienation characterizes Herbert’s poetry; “Mona Lisa,” for example, ends: “between the blackness of her back/ and the first tree of my life/ lies a sword/ a melted precipice.” In Still Life with a Bridle, the sense of alienation seems less severe, but the focus more intense. The barbarian in the garden and the lone pilgrim of “Mona Lisa” (“Through seven mountain frontiers/ barbed wire of rivers/ and executed forests,/ and hanged bridges/ I kept coming…to you/ Jerusalem in a frame”) appears now as a traveler free to cross borders and to “suddenly and without reason or reflection” change his “original plan,” to forgo the “classical” road north from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, from museum to museum, painting to painting, Hieronymus Bosch’s Prodigal Son to Rembrandt’s Night Watch.” Leaving habit behind, he sets off in quixotic and paradoxical search of the perfectly ordinary. “I wanted to get to know Zeeland, even if superficially,” he writes in “Delta”; “I’d never been there. All I knew was that I would not experience great artistic revelations.” Like his more abstract but equally revelatory poems, Still Life with a Bridle evidences Herbert’s attachment to “the kingdom of things, great principality of objects” that figures so importantly in the seventeenth century Dutch paintings made as if in the image of the Dutch landscape—flat, comprehensible, unresisting—in terms of a mysterious, reflecting depthlessness. Transformed into “an unattainable surface,” Holland, with its system of dikes, becomes in the museum of Herbert’s imagination itself a painting, a carefully framed representation that is nevertheless pure artifice: a man-made object reclaimed from the sea by human ingenuity, human imagination—a nation whose precarious topographical existence parallels Poland’s own political history, the one swept by floods, the others by conquering armies.

The six essays which make up the first and far longer of the book’s two parts are rich in detail yet stylistically austere, filled with facts yet at the same time highly speculative, intellectually playful. In one Herbert ponders “The Price of Art” during the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting, the seventeenth century, when paintings proliferated despite an almost complete absence of patrons. The available evidence—“fragmentary, incomplete…barely translatable into contemporary language”—is inconclusive and therefore all the more suggestive and open to imaginative speculation. Among the conclusions Herbert tentatively draws, two are especially worth mentioning here. One is that looking at art “from the banal and not very striking point of view of the balance sheet…is better and more honest than the pathos and sentimental sighs favored by the authors of vies romancees written for tender heats,” and the other that, despite our ignorance of the painters of this period, this much can be said with confidence: “their role in society and place on earth were not questioned.… The question why art exists did not occur to anyone because a world without paintings was simply inconceivable.” It is not they, who worked to please the public and pay their bills, who were poor, Herbert notes, but “we,” who are reduced to gesturing in the void.

Still Life with a Bridle is, however, hardly nostalgic in its attitude toward the Golden Age. It proceeds from essay to essay, juxtaposing as it goes. Thus “The Price of Art” gives way to “The Bitter Smell of Tulips,” Herbert’s wry version of the “tulipomania” which reached its greatest intensity in the mid-1630’s. When one new variety, Semper Augustus, fetched 5,000 florins, “the equivalent of a house with a large garden,” then clearly, “the dikes of common sense had broken.” This “story of human folly” proves less a historical note than a fantastic parable, a comical cautionary tale about totalitarianism in all its forms—political, theological, and aesthetic. Against the totalitarian attachment to a single idea, a single symbol, a single formula for happiness, Still Life with a Bridle offers the workings of Herbert’s profuse, proliferating imagination.

Herbert is attracted to how odd, how richly suggestive, how extraordinarily enigmatic the merely ordinary can in fact be. Starting with a father’s letter of advice to his son, “Gerard Terborch: The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie” examines the life of the title figure in light of sketchy biographical materials and more especially Terborch’s paintings. Although they seem to Herbert the work less of one man than of two, one a painter, the other a miniaturist who happen to inhabit the same body, the paintings are, Herbert contends, otherwise conventional enough, or nearly so, for one work seems the work of Goya, another that of the nineteenth century naturalists. Are they aberrations or anticipations? Was Terborch a burgher or a precursor? At once clarifying matters and complicating them still more, a self-portrait speaks what Herbert sees:

a large head somewhat out of proportion with the rest of the body, a rather common face, thick nose, gluttonous lips, and sharp eyes looking at us with unconcealed irony, as if he were saying, Yes I knew well the world of poverty and ugliness, but I painted the skin, the glittering surface, the appearance of things: the silky ladies, the gentlemen in irreproachable black. I admired how fiercely they fought for a life slightly longer than the one for which they were destined. They protected themselves with fashion, tailor’s accessories, a fancy ruffle, in genious cuffs, a fold, a pleat, any detail that would allow them to last a little longer before they—and we as well—are engulfed by the black background.

Brilliant in its own right, “Gerard Terborch,” turns out to be merely a sketch for the masterwork which follows. The title of this essay, which is also the title of Herbert’s book and of the only extant painting by an obscure Dutch artist, Jan Simon van der Beech—nom de plume, Torrentius—evokes a crisis of representation. Herbert came upon the painting quite by chance, was arrested by it and, too, by the mystery of so arresting a work having been painted by someone Herbert, an inveterate museum-goer, had never even heard of. Finding little in the standard reference guides, Herbert turns to original documents in order to fathom the secret of an artist whose two names suggest a divided nature (doubly divided in that the pen name, as an adjective, means “hot, incandescent,” and as a noun “a wild rushing stream”; doubleness such as this would seem to have a special appeal for an author whose own name combines Polish and English elements). Born in 1589, van der Beech became a successful, indeed wealthy painter—Torrentius—only to be arrested in 1627, charged with immorality and impiety, and, following an unusually prejudicial trial, sentenced to be burned at the stake (subsequently changed to twenty years in prison, a mercy which substituted slow for speedy death). At this point there occurred an even stranger turn of the screw. Charles I of England intervened and the sentence was again altered, this time to exile. Charles’s motive is unclear; Herbert wonders whether, instead of mercy, it had something to do with the king’s wanting to secure at little expense the services of a renowned painter. Twelve years later, in 1642, Torrentius recklessly and inexplicably returned to Holland. He was tried a second time, was tortured, and died. “The fate of Torrentius brings to mind a novel. But what kind? An adventure novel, or an allegory?” Torrentius’ life exists in merest outline; his works—with one exception—in even sketchier form: in the writing of a contemporary named Kramm, in an inventory of the possessions of Charles I, in an auction catalogue from 1865, and in an anonymous review published in 1922. The painter whom Herbert dubs “the Orpheus of the Still Life” and the Marquis de Sade’s precursor exists less in any historically real Holland of the seventeenth century than as if in a ficcione by Jorge Luis Borges, another “master of illusory realism.” This judgment includes the one tangible proof of Torrentius’ greatness; the painting Still Life with a Bridle, discovered by accident in 1913 (and again by Herbert more than half a century later), is, as Herbert reads it, as ambiguously double as its creator: perfectly homogeneous on the one hand, a palimpsest on the other, inviting the viewer “to the contemplation of individual, despised objects,” removing “their banal accidentality,” transforming the single object into its own essence.

For all its generic conventionality and formal simplicity, the painting Still Life with a Bridle proves (in Herbert’s telling) as enigmatic as the aptly pen-named Torrentius. A pewter pitcher, a glass tumbler, a clay jug arranged in a row on a shelf form the painting’s horizontal axis; two clay pipes, stems down, as if astride the tumbler; below a piece of paper on which is written a brief musical score and accompanying text; while above what Herbert at first assumed was a suit of armor but which on closer inspection turns out to be the titular bridle, or more precisely “a chain bridle used to tame exceptionally skittish horses,” forms the vertical axis of a painting which inscribes a cross within its own circular shape—a cross which Herbert will link to Rosicrucianism and a circle which Herbert’s reader may well read as the very symbol of the hermeneutic circle which Herbert’s essay seems to inscribe. Here everything suggests; nothing proves. Allegorical readings are preferred, the Rosicrucians and the contents of a mysterious parcel, anonymously sent, examined. In it Herbert finds a short treatise by a Dutch historian which offers its own explanation of the painting, based upon a correction of a common misreading of the painting’s musical text. Herbert accepts the correction but not the explanation, preferring one of his own but ultimately wondering whether it too may be nothing more than “a defensive mechanism [he put] into motion, as if fearing that from this truly tragic history a figure of an ordinary adventurer would emerge.” Finally, then, there is no finality, only the teasing penultimacy of the speculative traveler in search of new puzzling surfaces. “So many questions. I did not manage to break the code. The enigmatic painter, the incomprehensible man, begins to pass from the plane of investigation based on flimsy sources to an indistinct sphere of fantasy, the domain of tellers of tales. Thus it is time to part with Torrentius,” and time to return, as the title of the next (and last) essay has it, to “The Nonheroic Subject” that was the special province, or domain, of the Dutch painters who painted common objects and their owners “with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”

The nonheroic subject triumphs in the ten apocryphas with which Still Life with a Bridle concludes: an executioner’s enigmatic words; the aftermath of a disaster at sea; a giant who “made a profession of his anomaly,” a colonial agent; an entomologist who believes insects have taken over his body; an inventor’s desire to create a perpetuum mobile; the shelter in which members of an expedition to find a northern route to China passed the winter of 1597-1598; an episode in Spinoza’s life, “passed over in silence by some biographers, while others consider it only an incomprehensible, youthful whim”; a letter of disputed authenticity, discovered in 1924, from the painter Vermeer to the scientist Leeuwenhoek on the difference between science, which strives to explain the world, and art, which seeks to represent the world and reconcile man to it; and last, longest, and best, “Epilogue,” on the life and death of Cornelius Troost, “textile merchant and unknown hero of history,” of whom no portrait was painted but Herbert’s in words. These apocryphas stand somewhere between the essays which precede them and the very brief prose pieces (“Hen,” “Armchair,” and others) in Herbert’s Selected Poems (1968). They exist as well somewhere between the art of the seventeenth century Dutch painters on the one hand and Borges’ teasingly historical ficciones, Italo Calvino’s playful scientific cosmicomics, and Guy Davenport’s “assemblages of fact and necessary fiction”—particularly those in Tatlin(1974) and DaVinci’s Bicycle (1979)—on the other. Written in a prose at once dazzling and unassuming—and translated with equal artistry—Still Life with a Bridle soars above the “inaccessible surface” it both reflects and reflects upon in the ceaseless travel of its author’s restless, speculative imagination. It ends as it begins, with a traveler crossing a border, in this case going from life to death: “Then they would cover all the mirrors in the house, and turn all the pictures to the walls so the image of a girl writing a letter, of ships in open sea, of peasants dancing under a tall oak, would not stop the one who wanders toward unimaginable worlds from going on his way.” For Herbert and for his reader, the imaginable worlds of the still life prove sufficiently arresting. “Better to be the creaking of a floor,” Herbert once wrote, “than shrill transparent perfection.”

Sources for Further Study

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 3, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, January 19, 1992, p. 15.

The New Yorker. LXVII, December 23, 1991, p. 100.