Reading for Life: Polish Poet Aleksander Wat on How Books Helped Him Survive in a Soviet Prison
By Maria Popova
“There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive,” 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin wrote as she recounted in her lovely letter to children how books saved lives in the Warsaw Ghetto of her Nazi-occupied homeland.
Around the same time, a prominent compatriot of hers attested with his own life to this elemental, salvatory power of literature.
In 1939, to escape the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the Polish poet, memoirist, and futurism pioneer Aleksander Wat (May 1, 1900–July 19, 1967) fled to the city of Lviv, then under Soviet occupation. Because poets and artists are always the first to be targeted by totalitarian regimes — “Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch observed in her superb meditation on literature as resistance to tyranny — Wat was soon arrested and thrown into a series of increasingly menacing detention facilities, eventually ending up at the infamous Lubyanka prison near Moscow. What kept him alive there, amid the unbearable privations, the bleak prospects of release, and the harsh physical and psychic abuse of the Soviet “investigators,” was literature — an experience he recounted in his posthumously published memoir, My Century (public library).
With a poet’s precision of sentiment and vividness of image, Wat writes:
The pendulum of prison time swings between agony and nothingness, but in Lubyanka time has other laws and moves in a different way. But books brought us back to life, immersed us in the life of free people in the great and free world. We took fictional reality naïvely, like children listening to fairy tales. Could that have been the reason they gave us books in that laboratory of prison existence, where every detail had been thought out, quite possibly even by Stalin himself? Perhaps the experience of two such antithetical realities is supposed to induce a schizophrenic dissociation in a prisoner, rendering him defenseless against the investigation.
He recounts the paradoxical nature of reading in the alternate reality of prison — an experience of literature that stood as a mirror image of that experience in the real world, the world of freedom and possibility:
I had a great desire to live because I found Nietzsche’s amor fati in every trifle in every book, even the pessimistic ones. The more pessimistic the book, the more pulsating energy, life energy, I felt beneath its surface — as if all of literature were only the praise of life’s beauty, of all of life, as if nature’s many charms were insufficient to dissuade us from suicide, from Ecclesiastes, and from Seneca’s “better not to have been born at all but, if born, better to die at once.” I came across books that I had read before prison and that had sapped me of my will. For example, Notes from the Underground. But there in my cell even those books sang hosannas.
And yet something even more paradoxical was taking place in the mindscape of the imprisoned — reading, for them, had a strange double-edged quality. Wat reflects on this strangeness, which he observed not only in himself but also in his cellmates:
Books stimulated a keen desire for life, life of any sort, at any cost, to live and move with the Rastignacs, Rostovs, and even the heroes of Notes from the Underground, an insatiable desire to live in freedom, even if that were the miserable freedom of the camps. I encountered many prisoners who had been pulled out of the camps for a review of their trials; despite their having no faith in being released and despite the great wretchedness of camp life, they would still grow nostalgic about being able to move freely about the camp, about the chance to work and be in contact with large numbers of people. A second and opposite effect of reading was that it disordered a prisoner’s mental structure by causing him to experience two entirely different realities simultaneously: the world of books — free, full of movement, light, change, colorful, Heraclitean — and the world where time stood still, lost all sensation in captivity, and faded into a dirty gray. The sum total of both opposed effects worked to the investigator’s advantage because it disturbed the victim’s entire soul.
But reading had the opposite effect on me. It marshaled my intellectual and spiritual resources and made me stronger. It truly was like touching the earth for Antaeus. No doubt that was because what I primarily filtered out from books, any sort of book, was the poetry they contained, and it was only in prison that I became aware of a certain banal truth, one that I had often doubted, namely, that I am a poet.
My Century is a stirring read in its totality — part invaluable document of a dark hour in human history that must not be forgotten and erased, part lyrical map to the inner world of an artist of uncommon intellectual and creative vitality. Complement this particular fragment with poet Mary Oliver on how books saved her life from a very different form of violence, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit, and a lovely animated oral history of how libraries save lives.
Published May 14, 2019