- Modernity, Madness, Disenchantment: Don Quixote’s Hunger
In one of the more paradoxical passages of modern poetry, the Polish poet Alexander Wat (1900–1967), dwelt on his post-Holocaust desire to become a stone:
Disgusted by everything alive I withdrew into the stone world: here I thought, liberated, I would observe from above, but without pride, those things tangled in chaos. With the eyes of a stone, myself a stone among stones, and like them sensitive, pulsating to the turning of the sun. Retreating into the depth of myself, a stone, motionless, silent; growing cold; present through a waning of presence-in the cold attractions of the moon. Like sand diminishing in an hourglass, evenly, ceaselessly, uniformly, grain by grain.(47)
The desire for petrification is Wat’s only response to the circumstances of what we now call the Holocaust, the event which canceled out the very existence of the Polish community into which Wat was born at the turn of the twentieth century. The impulse to merge body and spirit with the material, stony, world seemed to the poet the only humane response to a tragedy of unhuman proportions. Wat reacted to the dehumanization of life by subjecting his selfhood to a material imperative, by becoming a stone among stones, “sensitive, / pulsating to the turning of the sun,” and yet unpolluted by the human that once conferred sanctity on creation. Wat reflects further in his poem that stones contain one great advantage over humans: “They do not become, they are. Nothing else. Nothing / else, I thought, loathing all that becomes” (47). Immune to the dialectic of being and non-being, stones inhabit a position of ontic superiority to the poet who identifies with them. Their capacity for deflecting hunger guarantees their purity: [End Page 35]
To be in the heart of a stone— how much I desired this! In the heart of a stone, without the flaw which through our tainted veins slushes deep into our hearts and grows, making them totally putrid matter, subjected to all decay.(48)
Only a few years before the onset of the war that changed the meaning of the twentieth century and which precipitated Wat’s stony and inhuman hunger, the Hegelian exegete and philosopher Alexandre Kojève argued on the basis of his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Sprit (1807) that the difference between human and non-human desire is that humans desire recognition during the act of consummation, whereas animals are indifferent to recognition by their others. Whereas recognition is not a condition for the attainment of animal satiation, human desire relates to recognition as to a condition of possibility for its experience of need. “The human being is formed only in terms of a Desire directed toward another Desire,” writes Kojève: “Desire is human only if…one desires, not the body, but the Desire of the other” (1980, 6). The desire for desire is arguably the most rudimentary yet still human form of hunger.
The human development (Ausbildung) eulogized by Kojève and his followers is grounded in hunger. It is consolidated through the progressive satiation of the desire for recognition. There is no way of wanting something in a human way without simultaneously wanting it to be wanted by another; indeed, our hungers are premised less on what we want than on what we perceive to be wanted by others. As René Girard has clarified in a slightly different idiom, the mimesis that structures artistic representation equally determines the artifices of human relations. According to the human animal/ distinction promoted by Hegel and Kojève, the Polish poet’s desire to be “a stone among / stones” is situated at the extreme end of the animal-human spectrum: this desire posits a human condition utterly devoid of the need for recognition. In the post-Holocaust world, the poet’s most profound desire is not for recognition, but rather for its negation, for the permanent annulment of human relations. The poet’s hunger for petrification parallels the debasement of human desire performed by the preceding decades.
By contrast with Wat’s late-modernist rejection of the human hunger, the text this essay is primarily concerned to...