PRINT May 1994


IN THE LATE AUTUMN of 1972 I traveled from England to Cracow by boat and train.

There had been only one other traveler from the Dover ferry on the Ostend quay that bitterly cold November. I had seen him get into the Polish carriage, but it wasn’t until we reached Silesia, on the afternoon of the next day, that he emerged from his compartment to stand in the corridor. The closer we came to our destination the more animated his movements, the more exaggerated his courtesy as he stepped aside to let other passengers pass. At one small station he pulled packages and cases through the high narrow windows as their owners heaved them upward from the platform; he hopped from one group to another, balancing a suitcase here, tumbling another to the corridor floor in his eagerness to help. Then, exhausted by his exertions, the train swaying as it pulled away from the station, he collapsed into the seat by my compartment’s door, mopping his brow and gasping for air.

When he had recovered his breath he spoke: What was my destination? Why was I in Poland, and did I know Cracow? He was of middle height, thin, and nearing retirement age. He wore a check jacket, a vivid mustard waistcoat, and over his perspiring brow a narrow-brimmed tweed hat. He introduced himself: he was a Pole, he worked as a postman in Nottingham. He had left Poland as a young soldier in 1939, taken with the army into Russia. He was returning for the first time. With each station, each clattering bell that passed, he became more intense. The journey beyond Katowice was slow, interrupted by long delays as freight trains passed carrying oil and coal. But slowly we were approaching Cracow. And now his animation lessened—he seemed hesitant as he checked and rechecked his wallet, his passport, his ticket, his address book. We had arranged to meet in the city for a coffee, he had carefully written out the address of a café he remembered, but now he was silent, his face gray. Long before we arrived he had thanked me and left to stand in the corridor with his bags.

The café was in the center of town. It had been a notorious bohemian cabaret in the early years of the century, and its walls were covered with verses and mementos, the provocations of another age. It was now a favorite of family parties after church on Sunday mornings, and of tourists in the season. I was late and didn’t see my traveling companion until he stood up and waved. He had been sitting with an extravagantly beautiful young woman, he introduced us, she was his niece. There was an extraordinary transformation in his manner, it was as though, to his own astonishment, he were playing an unexpected role—he had become the rich uncle. He bobbed up and down, summoning a waiter, inspecting the pastries, ordering a newspaper, distributing largesse with elaborate benevolence.

His niece appeared unaffected by his display, she was waiting for her boyfriend. Vivid in careless certainty, she spoke of dreams, weightless and insubstantial—her ambitions in the theater. At one point she paused, expectant. Her uncle seemed taken aback by her distraction, but before he could say anything her boyfriend arrived, pushing his way among the crowded tables. We stood and shook hands, a tall young man with black hair and moustache, Antoni Mroczek, a student at the academy of fine arts, he bowed slightly and turned to kiss his girlfriend’s hand. I have not seen her since that day, I don’t remember her name, but I recall even now the exorbitant languor of her glance as she inclined her head toward him. He delicately took her hand and held it, showing me that they each wore a white-metal ring—a man mounted between a woman’s legs. The girl seemed almost indifferent, perhaps a little amused at her boyfriend’s pleasure, his air of daring, his bravado.

I saw Antoni some months later at the academy. I introduced him to a friend, a foreign student; she was escaping a failed romance and her ghostly lover seemed to sit on her shoulders, she was aggressive and scared, frightened by a city she did not understand. Antoni lived on Rzeznicza Street with his parents. At the other end of the street there was a slaughterhouse and, close by, a chocolate factory; beyond that, the Vistula River. In the still of a hot summer’s day a nauseating sweetness hung in the air. Antoni’s father taught guitar at the music school and for a while Antoni and I had a band and practiced in the school rehearsal rooms on Sundays. Antoni was an only child, and his parents doted on him. They were slight and frail beside their son. With strangers they were reserved, retreating into the dark rooms away from the street when visitors called.

That first winter I lived on Mazowiecka Street. My wife joined me in January and we shared a small studio above a factory that stood almost alone, beyond new apartment blocks; of the area’s older buildings, only this and the police house opposite remained. Beyond them were small allotments and the tall rank grass of deserted lots. The apartment had a ramshackle balcony, glassed in and overrun with the knotted branches of an ancient wisteria. Several panes were broken and the snow would blow in flurries into the balcony and sweep under the door to the rooms within. For weeks we both lay in a fever, huddling together, watching the snow scattering like sand across the floorboards, too weak to bring coals for the corner stoves up the narrow stair from the courtyard below. Almost alone of our friends, Antoni would come to the house, climbing the stair with tin buckets of coal. He brought with him jars of honey, their contents solid in the cold, and warmed them in saucepans once the stoves were lit.

A year later my wife and I were separated. I did not see Antoni that winter; I lived in another part of town and we lost touch. Sometimes I thought I saw him at one of the dance clubs I worked in, and would pretend that I had not noticed: I felt embarrassed by the old life or perhaps by the new. Now, though, I don’t suppose he was there. I was rarely near Rzeznicza Street. Antoni had disappeared, or maybe I had.

Fifteen years later, in London, my brother was looking for a desk space and answered an ad from a group of graphic artists who had an empty place in their office. My brother is eight years younger than I, and looks, I suppose, more like myself when young than I do now. The office was run by Antoni; he asked if we were related.

Coincidence demands explanation, some protest against the irrational world. Yet in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago the characters are set adrift across a continent in the chaos of civil war, but meet and part again, with a terrible illogic. They seem wholly the creatures of history, the subjects of an indifferent universe. Carried back and forth, thrown together, separated, they are together only for moments over years, and yet there is the sense that their meetings, however melancholy, however cruel the subsequent partings, describe at once the limit and the possibility of the human condition. In the fractured and traumatic space between these people, in the way they stand one to another, is traced their being and a community. Their relation accounts the innumerable intimacies of the mass. Through them flows, for all that they are unknowing of it, the unceasing pulse of the individual and history.

Though Antoni never telephoned, he asked my brother several times if we could meet. A year passed before I visited their office. Antoni had married the woman I had introduced him to and had come to England with her years before. Now estranged, they had a six-year-old son—he showed me a photograph, I remember only the light, so much light, but the figure is gone. Antoni had a small apartment and saw his son at weekends. His former wife had become ill, her body slowly wasting. I saw him occasionally after that, when passing their office, and he would ask if I would print the photographs we had made of our band.

How can I say that he was lost? I didn’t know him, it was only the feeling I had. His longing as a young man had been for a dream of elsewhere, yet he had been at home in Cracow—the way he lived there was of a piece with the place. He detested it but it flowed through him. Maybe there is no homeland, only this accelerating separation.

Another year had passed before I visited my brother again, and everything had changed. Antoni’s business partner had died suddenly, but not before, caught in a web of fraudulent deals and bad debt, he had sold everything. Antoni was bankrupted. He was now moving from office to office; his work was good and he worked fast, and he was making the same drawings he had made when I first met him. I recognized them as caricatures of what he had thought the West was like as a young man. Here their very misunderstandings had become part of their novelty. Antoni seemed quite innocent, as innocent as with the girl in the cafe so many years before. Some human beings remain so through a lifetime, while the rest of us look on, appalled.) He had almost disappeared from view again. The last time I saw him his requests for the pictures were more wary, I joked as usual and promised as usual. He didn’t believe me, he didn’t reproach me, he joked about something else. I asked him what had happened to the girl in the cafe, and he told me that he had seen her the year before when he visited his parents in Cracow. With sudden bitterness, he told me she was working as a whore at the Holiday Inn.

This past winter he died, at 39. It was 21 years after we first had met. There was no more breath left in him, nothing more, only confusion.

NO MATTER THE APPEARANCE of fast and escalating change that surrounds us, the frenzied static of media and commerce, the mechanisms of social life—change is slow in the way we stand one to another, the common place between us. Even so, these shifts finally engulf the world in vast and subterranean turmoil. There have been so many shifts, small adjustments and large, that the world is set sliding on its axis into a new orbit, a dizzying skittering movement, sliding and slipping, a kermesse at the millennium. By chance or by determination we live in a time when everything is to be reshaped, when the myths of progress and of a utopian end do not sustain life, and when the present shows evidence of their failure. Certainty is fragmented, the orthodoxies of ideology and faith are destroyed or in turmoil.

In relation to this present, art appears to be in an enfeebled state of bad faith, separated from a shared life. It is lost in formalism without meaning, another separation in the vast catalogue of the 20th century. Yet though history is said to be at an end, it is not history that is ended, but an idea of history; history as an expression of the present, as an account that we embody, is without end or beginning. And though the land we inhabit lies in confusion, doubt, and darkness, yet we have the astonishing possibility of affecting the world—of shaping within the world a means of thinking and acting that will account for this place.

Art, whatever else it may be, can mark an attention to a real rather than a phantasied space, to a real rather than the mythologized time of commerce and fantasy that denies death and slides over the present. To overcome alienation demands conceiving identity in relation not to some myth of past community but to the specificity of place and time, so that the weight, the substance, the grain of the physical world is recognized in its present. Art can be a marker at once of the physical world and of the world of the spirit—for there is no (true) separation. A photograph may tell this world in such a way that the physical place it shows is accounted for in the physical fact of its being. It may exist in this present as it tells another present, so that all time may be conceived of as simultaneous. The photograph decays in light as the world decays, as in our thinking the world decays and is born.

Perhaps we might travel to see such an image in the only place in which it exists, rather than seeing it reproduced ten thousand times as if in the pretense that we might escape the limit of life. In such a photograph we may recognize another, be together with another, in the recognition of our shared plight. Such an art might recount the fragile space of a community through compassionate attention. This movement away from self, where together we may resist death—in this lies the trace of a moral universe. A universe in which art may be not wounding but healing, not offering the false consolations and panaceas of generalities but speaking of a specific and discrete place, of this moment, this present at the turning of the world.

I still travel by ferry from England to Ostend. Even when it’s cold and the rain sweeps across the decks, I am not alone watching the land slide away and the sea swell running up the Channel, the gray waves of millennia, the land and the people.

Craigie Horsfield, London, April 1994