A review of

A Defense of Ardor

by Adam Zagajewski

Central question: How is it possible to broaden a cynical, glibly ironic worldview?
Format: 280 pp., hardcover; Size: 5-1/2” x 8-1/4”; Price: $20.00; Editors: Jonathan Galassi and Lorin Stein; Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Interior designer: Jonathan Lippincott; Jacket designer: Rodrigo Corral; Text typeface: Fairfield LH Light; Literary review coedited by author: Zeszytów Literackich; Translator: Clare Cavanagh; Approximate number of exclamation marks in book: 51; Representative sentence: “This can’t be forgotten: the shadow of Auschwitz likewise falls upon Europe’s libraries.”

The title of this newly translated collection of essays indicates a deficiency Polish poet and intellectual Adam Zagajewski (b. 1945) finds in contemporary capitalist societies; expressly, that “ardor, metaphysical seriousness, [and] the risky voicing of strong opinions are all suspicious nowadays.” In lieu of such qualities, Zagajewski finds a ready-made irony with no time for sublimity, nobility, or holiness. While Zagajewski differentiates between the irony used by, say, Mann in the struggle to vitiate fascism, and the low irony of advertisements or the glib irony of the university student, he spots a common threat skulking behind each of these forms: paralysis. If you’re scanning for symptoms of this malady, look for the following: an aversion to high style, an avant-garde perpetually in revolt, a recoil from generosity and sincerity. For Americans who followed the cultural wars in academia and the art world throughout the eighties and nineties such an appraisal will seem shopworn, and it is. But Zagajewski, no antiquarian, is a promoter of liberal values and a deft ironist himself. Consider this sally: “Only those provincial physics teachers who down a few beers every night could conceive of poetry as the realm of absolute license.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Christopher Byrd

Christopher Byrd is a freelance cultural writer. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wilson Quarterly, and Bookforum.

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