Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision, Zbigniew Herbert, 1983

This post is dedicated to the memory of the refugees and migrants who died en route

Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) first included Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision (Pan Cogito o potrzebie ścisłości) in the 1983 collection Report From The Besieged City and Other Poems (Raport z obłężonego miasta i inne wiersze). A commentary on the situation in Poland following the imposition of the martial law on 13 December 1981, the book was published in Paris and did not become officially available in Poland until 1992.

Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision is often quoted in works on the role of memory in the aftermath of widespread serious human rights violations (see, for example, this blog post by Patrick Krup). More practically, I like to think about it as a manifesto for accuracy and documentation in human rights work.


 

1

Mr Cogito
is alarmed by a problem
in the domain of applied mathematics

the difficulties we encounter
with operations of simple arithmetic

children are lucky
they add apple to apple
subtract grain from grain
the sum is correct
the kindergarten of the world
pulsates with a safe warmth

particles of matter have been measured
heavenly bodies weighed
and only in human affairs
inexcusable carelessness reigns supreme
the lack of precise information

over the immensity of history
wheels a spectre
the spectre of indefiniteness

How many Greeks were killed at Troy
– we don’t know

to give the exact casualties
on both sides
in the Battle of Gaugamela
at Agincourt
Leipzig
Kutno

And also the number of victims
of terror
of the white
the red
the brown
– O colours innocent colours –

– we don’t know
truly we don’t know

Mr Cogito
rejects the sensible explanation
that it was long ago
the wind has thoroughly mixed the ashes
the blood flowed to the sea

sensible explanations
intensify the alarm
of Mr Cogito

because even what
is happening under our eyes
evades numbers
loses the human dimension

somewhere there must be an error
a fatal defect in our tools
or a sin of memory

2

a few simple examples
from the accounting of victims

in an aeroplane disaster
it is easy to establish
the exact number of the dead

important for heirs
and those plunged in grief
the insurance companies

We take the list of passengers
and the crew
next to each name
we place a little cross

it is slightly harder
in the case
of train accidents

bodies torn to pieces
have to be put back together
so no head
remains ownerless

during elemental
catastrophes
the arithmetic
becomes complicated

we count those who are saved
but the unknown remainder
neither alive
nor definitely dead
is described by a strange term
the missing

they still have the chance
to return to us
from fire
from water
the interior of the earth

if they return – that’s fine
if they don’t – too bad

 

3

now Mr Cogito
climbs
to the highest tottering
step of indefiniteness

how difficult it is to establish the names
of all those who perished
in the struggle with inhuman power

the official statistics
reduce their number
once again pitilessly
they decimate those who have died a violent death
and their bodies disappear
in the abysmal cellars
of huge police buildings

eyewitnesses
blinded by gas
deafened by salvos
by fear and despair
are inclined toward exaggeration

accidental observers
give doubtful figures
accompanied by the shameful
word ‘about’

and yet in these matters
accuracy is essential
we must not be wrong
even by a single one

we are despite everything
the guardians of our brothers

ignorance about those who have disappeared
undermines the reality of the world

it thrusts into the hell of appearances
the devilish net of dialectics
proclaiming there is no difference
between the substance and the spectre

therefore we have to know
to count exactly
call by the first name
provide for a journey

in a bowl of clay
millet poppy seeds
a bone comb
arrowheads
and a ring of faithfulness

amulets

Zbigniew Herbert, ‘Mr Cogito on the Need for Precision’, in Report from the Besieged City and Other Poems, Translated with and Introduction and Notes by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter, Oxford University Press 1987


 

For additional information on the human rights violations during the Polish martial law, see Amnesty International’s Annual Report 1982 (p280-285) and Annual Report 1983 (p265-270).

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