By Adam Zagajewski, from Slight Exaggeration, a memoir that will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Zagajewski is a poet and essayist. Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh.
Two days in Berlin in July, a public conversation on how aging affects writing. I was surprised at first that I had been asked to take part in a conversation on this subject — but then I recalled, with some distress, that I’d reached an age that gives you the right to answer such questions. I took the position that aging, for those who perform mental, spiritual labor — or perhaps simply for everyone — is like a duel, immensely difficult and inevitably lost, between the fading body and the spirit, which sometimes remains undiminished or becomes even stronger, or maybe even — at moments — is intoxicated by the thought of its increasing solitude. Abandoned by its faithful companion, the body, the spirit grows ever lonelier, like those courageous soldiers in war films who single-handedly protect their squad’s retreat, even at the price of death. The duel is always lost, yes, but the fight may be thrilling, inspiring, it may yield moments of true exaltation. Sometimes we happen to see, in reality or in some documentary, an old artist or poet who walks with difficulty but whose eyes still shine with spiritual presence, and this seems to be something magnificent, the frail body and in it a little flame of fearless pride, the light of endless questing, a challenge cast to sickness, weakness, age. Doomed to defeat, yes, since one day the light will die. Though we don’t know even that, we can’t know, another light may flare up then. We can’t know, but we live with that hope.
I argued quite eloquently, I thought.
When I got back home to Kraków, I looked in the dictionary and realized that in German, “duel” is das Duell, not der Duell, but I’d kept saying der Duell. Over and over. I’d used all the wrong forms. I’d suspected that I might make mistakes, I’d been anxious. Had my arguments survived my grammatical blunder? My fellow discussants tactfully (too tactfully?) ignored my error. From now on I’ll remember: das Duell, not der. I’m still dwelling on this mistake, I’ve given it a whole paragraph: it just goes to show that I still lack the wisdom I see in the eyes of some old men and women, I’m not even close.