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From Dan's Desk

When the Knives Are Sharper

From September 1962 to June 1963, Daniel Aaron lectured at the University of Warsaw, one of the first U.S. scholars to visit Poland on a Fulnbright grant. The mood of the country was marked by disappointment and apathy, as any hopes of liberalization stirred by the elections of 1957 had now evaporated. A Polish intellectual Dan met at a party told him the following parable meant to describe the situation of the country's elite: "Some chickens [were] complaining to each other about their hard lot—how hard they work, how many eggs they produce—yet they are maltreated and killed. An old cock tells them not to look at the dark side. After all, he says, at least today the knives are finer and sharper." The weather didn’t help. In January 1963 one of the severest cold waves to hit Poland in several years paralyzed Warsaw: temperatures sank to minus 27 degrees Celsius, and there was no hot water and heat, a challenge for Aaron's wife Janet, who had arrived by now. 


At least during the first few months of this stay, Dan's mood matched that of his environment. In the journal he kept during the year, he noted, without offering details, how guilty he felt about his own selfishness, his "monstrosity," likely a cryptic reference to his marital situation. His isolation exacerbated by his halting command of Polish, he jotted down a mordant epigram: "To Ezra Pound said Robert Frost: 'He who immigrates is lost.'"


With time, Dan grew more comfortable in his new surroundings, embarked on some cautious friendships with Polish colleagues, and continued to teach his "parcel of unremarkable students." As his understanding of Polish culture grew—the Poles made, he decided, lousy Marxists, and their country was not a nation at all but "a sprawling collectivity of idiosyncratic individuals held together by some sort of political mystique"—he also felt more ready to confront the "raging hell" within himself. Characteristically, his thoughts about such matters found their outlet in lines of witty verse:


Said Peeping Tom to Doubting Thomas

"Can a liar keep his promise?

Are women whom I spy through glass

As soft as cotton, hard as brass?

Is the cop who hauls me in

Himself completely pure of sin? 

Tell me, friend of Christ, about it."

Said Thomas with a groan, "I doubt it."


"I doubt it" was one of Dan's favorite turns of phrase, a deflating comment often uttered as a response to particularly elaborate academic theories presented to him, a death knell to many an enthusiastic scheme that he had deemed too complex to be helpful. But in this poem Dan is not only the eternal doubter (a reference to the Apostle who needed to see Christ's actual wounds before believing in the resurrection of Jesus) but also his unsavory double, the voyeur who inserts himself, from a distance, into other people's lives and derives pleasure from seeing what he's not supposed to see.


No one is free of sin—that was perhaps not a particularly original message for an Americanist reared on a steady diet of Hawthorne and Melville. But in another short poem written during the year in Warsaw and not included in his journal, Dan adds a further twist. Just because I and you understand each other (and each other's flaws) doesn't at all mean that the circumstances that divide us, that separate East and West, Poland and the United States, or, for that matter, husband and wife, have been eliminated. Wherever two people get together in awkward if earnest companionship, there's always a third present, an unsettling experience T. S. Eliot wrote about in the last section of The Waste Land: "Who is the third who always walks beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you... (ll. 360-64).  Dan's untitled short poem, composed (according to his own note) while "asleep, June 8, 1962," captures that same experience less portentously, more succinctly, and more memorably: 


If I were you

and you were me

Who would the other fellow be?


Quotations taken from Daniel Aaron's Polish Journal, 1962 (Daniel Aaron Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University) and from an unpublished typescript in private possession. 


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