Dr Cogito, a persona I know who inhabits the ghost of Zbigniew Herbert’s Pan Cogito, writes to me:
“The city in which I dwell, Melbourne, and indeed the state in which I am a citizen, if of a subordinate ghostly status, that is, Victoria, in the south-east corner of Australia, has entered its fifth lockdown. In the middle of last week, news spread that there had been a handful of positive PCR tests in Melbourne, and the usual panic, scapegoating and virtue-signaling began. Among ordinary people, fear and demoralisation set in. But the leaders and journalists fell over themselves cheering for testing records, just like how the old nomenklatura would celebrate the achievement of industrial targets while the people stood in long queues for bread. Everyone knew that the Government here would lock us down, regardless of the actual health consequences of this small number of infections. The maskers and neo-authoritarians and relentless government advertising, paid for and undisclosed, urged it on. The radio hosts on state media engaged in transparent personality cult worship of their man, never disclosing, of course, their behind-the-scenes collaboration with the media staff and commissars of the government. We are a besieged city again, terrorised by the Saint-Justs and Robespierres of the Committee of Public Health. All conscripted to fight a war against a virus that can only end in hunger, humiliation and defeat.”Dr Cogito, private correspondence
How long this fifth lockdown lasts no-one really knows. Dr Cogito writes it has been staged with all sorts of political theatrics, to keep us all waiting every day on our leaders’ grace and virtue and heroism: “Will you release us from prison this week, master?” He suspects we may endure weeks, if not months, more of this imprisonment in the ambition of a handful of public health bureaucrats to eliminate the virus, to be in some fantasy-land of best in the world in their covid-zeal.
I have no way of knowing what Dr Cogito says is true, but as it happened I turned coincidentally this morning in my daily reading of a random poem to the inventor of the persona of Mr Cogito, the great ancestor of Dr Cogito, Zbigniew Herbert. There I read from Herbert’s poem, “Mr Cogito on Upright Attitudes.”
Herbert places Mr Cogito in the city of Utica in the state of Carthage, besieged by the Roman Republic and the general Scipio Africanus, in the year 204 B.C. The siege would end in heavy casualties and mass slaughter for the citizens of Utica. But Herbert goes to the state of mind of these citizens besieged by fear and self-abasement.
don’t want to put up a defence
in the city an epidemic broke out
of an instinct of self-preservation
the temple of freedom
has been turned into a flea market
the senate deliberates on how
not to be a senate
don’t want to put up a defence
they enroll in accelerated courses
in falling to their knees
passively they wait for the enemy
write servile speeches
bury their gold
they sew new flags
innocent and white
teach children to lie
they’ve opened the gates
through which a column
of sand is now passing
apart from that as usualfrom zbigniew herbert, mr cogito on upright attitudes
commerce and copulation
In this poem from 1970s Poland, Herbert captures the psychology of the besieged citizens of Melbourne today (at least as Dr Cogito reports his observations to me): citizens who sew white and blue flags of submission on their faces and teach their children to lie; who do not put a defence of their own freedom and dignity.
It is not as if it is easy not to succumb to this new terror of our age. In the second part of the poem, Herbert goes onto to describe Mr Cogito’s own struggles to act with courage, or at least an inherited concept of courage, from epic poems and Stoic philosophy, and to glare at fate in the face of this humiliation by power and the siege of the Roman Republic. Mr Cogito would like to rise to the occasion, but has not the means or the will to take the Stoics’ path of suicide, and perhaps he rightly suspects this too is a theatrical pose of courage, fear dressed up as self-destruction. So instead of plunging a sword into his heart, Mr Cogito walks to the window, looks out on the sun setting on the Republic , and contemplates his choices to act, perhaps less courageously but with a more ordinary virtue.
not much is left to himfrom zbigniew herbert, mr cogito on upright attitudes
the choice of the attitude
in which he wishes to die
the choice of a gesture
the choice of a last word
And so it seems, the people of Melbourne again must endure this impoverished choice in their lives, as they endure another siege by public health. But such infinite possibility is there in those choices: of attitude, of gesture, of a last word.
Image Credit: Francisco Goya, The Bewitched Man (1819-23) one of the “Black Paintings”