Sunday Pages: "The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"

A poem by Zbigniew Herbert

Dear Reader,

We are a nation in mourning. The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always going to hurt, but coming when it did, just six weeks before the most pivotal U.S. election since 1860, made it extra painful. That grief was palpable on Friday night—on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; here in New York, the news came right at sundown (and while I was on a live broadcast).

But her loss activated something else. We seemed to borrow her resolve, her determination, her courage. It was easy to quantify:

In 28 hours following Ginsburg’s death, ActBlue received $91.4 million in donations. Is $91.4 million a lot? It sounds like a lot.

There was also a spontaneous gathering of a thousand or so mourners in front of the Supreme Court. (Some of these people then marched to Mitch McConnell’s house, which seems to me like a great place to gather for round-the-clock vuvuzela practice until Election Day, but the Turtle had retracted into his Darth Vader’s helmet-like shell).

With the loss of RBG in mind, I wanted to share some lines of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert (1924-98) called “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito.” Born in Lwów—then in Poland, after the war transferred to Soviet Ukraine—Herbert had the misfortune of living under first the Nazi, and then the Soviet, occupations. That harrowing experience informs his work. The poet Robert Hass wrote that Herbert was “an ironist and a minimalist who writes as if it were the task of the poet, in a world full of loud lies, to say what is irreducibly true in a level voice.” In Trump’s America, in the halls of power and in the Fourth Estate, that quality is in short supply!

I can’t pretend to know what the poem, in its entirety, means. But I have always read it as a meditation on grief, and on the need to continue to serve the greater good, even in the face of death.

Here are the first few lines, in Bogdana Carpenter’s translation. (I don’t have the rights to print all of it, so you have to go here to read the entire poem).

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

[more]


“You were saved not in order to live,” to me, means that we all have an obligation, collectively, to do what we can to make the world a better place. Or, as Ginsburg herself said, when asked how she’d like to be remembered: “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”

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