A postscript on Utopia

Coincidentally – a word that tricks chance into being fate – I was reading this week Maria Popova’s account of Wisława Szymborska’s celebration of not knowing.

Szymborska said, in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, that it is from the humility of not knowing that inspiration comes – in any profession, not merely writing:

“Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

I might describe that continuous “I don’t know’ as one of the ordinary virtues of my workaday profession (bureaucrat, governing) and of wider life. It is certainly an antidote to the utopianism of which I wrote in last week’s post, on bureaucratic utopianism.

So, the coincidence comes in Popova’s citing of Szymborska’s gentle pillory of the certainty of utopianism – in its deadly and more comical forms.


Island where all becomes clear.

Solid ground beneath your feet.

The only roads are those that offer access.

Bushes bend beneath the weight of proofs.

The Tree of Valid Supposition grows here
with branches disentangled since time immemorial.

The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.

The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.

If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly.

Echoes stir unsummoned
and eagerly explain all the secrets of the worlds.

On the right a cave where Meaning lies.

On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.

Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things.

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,
and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches
turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave
and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

Wisława Szymborska

More appreciation of Wisława Szymborska in The Burning Archive can be found here – where my reflections on the death of the great historian, Inga Clendinnen, led me to Szymborska’s poem, “Could Have” – and here – where I reflect on Szymborska’s poems, “The letters of the dead” and “The joy of writing.”

Image credit: Maria Popova, Brainpickings


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