Reading Majewski's novel "Metafizyka" (Metaphysics)

Tomasz Gil © December 2002

"Ich bin nicht wild ... komme nicht zu strafen"(*) says Death to the Maiden in Schubert's motif, but the heroes of "Metafizyka"(**) are haunted by echoes of medieval fear of guilt and condemnation, converted into modern crisis of faith and brought into full contrast with the earthly delights of Bosch's masterwork to the backdrop of the Serenissima.

Like Wojaczek's poetry the novel is preoccupied with approaching death. For this goal it serves us with an account of the romance of an English naval engineer with a fatally ill Italian art docent. The romance becomes the last voyage for the young woman while they both savour the mournful attraction of Venice. The man is drawn there by an interest in the design of the gondola, while she finds the place most suitable to enact Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" - work from the late Middle Ages that she admires and is trying to decipher. There are parallels in their interests - the man pursues ancient prescientific technology as a way to understand and harness nature to human purpose, whereas the woman is looking for seeds of divine presence in human nature so much under control of the vice of lust.

He builds boats, which are homes floating on water, the primal birth element, while she dreams of the Tree of Life floating planted on a boat. Her desire to spend the remaining year of her life in the arms of Venice - a city floating on water - seems like an unconscious effort to connect to the source of life, an idea heeded by many deathbound travelers. With the assistance of her engineer lover she manages to enact her Bosch inspired Tree of Life dream on a motor boat using a plant borrowed from the dead of San Michele cemetary. They visit an accomplished gondola builder who uses ancient techniques and presents them with seeds of the beech tree, saying the these are all the plans for the gondola.

The romance in Venice is for the author a pretext for writing a philosopical book, just as the lovers are motivated toward each other by their intellectual inclinations. Their desire is mainly a desire to confront two different types of mental activity, the artistic and the technological, and test their complementarity. Bosch's images signal the possibility of achieving balance and perfection, as in the figures balancing egg-shaped objects, while partaking of the fruits of lust. But for this to happen reason has to pierce the veil hiding nature's mysteries - the engineer will build a boat to stabilize human frailty over the dissolute primal birth element. The desire for stability brings in the cursed problem of time: how do we make delight last, how to make pain stop, how to approach the mystery of death. This is dealt with using various techniques - the lovers' embrace, recollection of memories using video cameras, destruction of items of symbolic and memorial qualities, prayer and meditation. Finally, after the woman's death time is provoked directly by making something new happen, when the man jumps from Venetian bridges into cold December waters.

The author's choice of topos for the novel, where modern life only slightly interferes with and modern science only insignificantly informs the intellectual and artistic life of the late 15-th century, is very telling. The metaphysical truth is for him to be found at the critical juncture of our world, at the time of Leonardo, Duerer, Tizian, Copernicus, at a time when the New World was still new and unknown, at a time when a crack started opening in the Age of Faith, better known as the Middle Ages, to be filled by liberated Reason. Is there a significance of that historical moment to the crisis of the present age, where it is Reason that is often accused of stifling the Spirit? Is there nothing of consequence intervening since the times of the Renaissance that shaped the state of our collective mind and consciousness?

But something indeed happened after the 15-th century: sovereign Reason established its dominance over Faith. This suddenly found autonomy gave rise to fits of enthusiasm and disappointment, romanticism and positivism, science and religion accusing each other of obscurantism, rise of democratic nations and ideological tyrannies. The edifice of science, which is a universal knowledge gathering endeavor, has been erected. However, we do not notice the boundaries that truly critical Reason graciously draws around itself leaving a vast territory outside of its competence. The search for the "Absolute" through Reason lies at the sources of the modern malaise, where spiritual life is often at odds with rational life. The old struggle of Reason against Faith has in our days been converted into a struggle of the yet unnamed realm against the rule of Reason. The age a Renaissance is a mirror image of our time and that is why it holds an attraction for the author of "Metafizyka" who goes into decadent Venice to explore love and death.

(*) "I am not wild ... and come not to punish".
(**) Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2002.