Zagajewski: The Certainty of Doubt, Uncertainty of Knowing

Much of Adam Zagajewski’s essay, “Poetry and Doubt” (“A Defense of Ardor”) centers upon the writings of Emil Cioran (19211- 1995), Romanian essayist and philosopher. Cioran dismissed abstract speculation in favor of personal reflection; characterizing his works are the themes of pessimism, skepticism and nihilism. He regarded life as torment, was obsessed with the problems of death and suffering, and with the notion of suicide, as expressed in On the Heights of Despair and The New Gods. This work focuses on the themes of human alienation – a hallmark of existentialism – as espoused by/popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Alienation, absurdity, boredom, futility, decay, the tyranny of history, the vulgarities of change, awareness as agony, reason as disease – all of these comprised Cioran’s weltanshauung. At the age of 21, he asked, “Is it possible that existence is our exile and nothingness our home?” Cioran refused, or rather, could not accept, consolation through faith (having paradoxically stated, “without Bach, God would be a complete second rate figure” and “Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe cannot be regarded as a complete failure.”) He believed that as long as man keeps in touch with his origins – does not cut himself off from himself – he is capable of resisting decadence. In other words, he calls for authenticity of thought and action, versus what he perceives to be the case: self-destruction via self-objectification, artificial triumph, and more.

Image Emil Cioran

In this essay, Zagajewski compares and contrasts the writings of Cioran with those of Cselaw Milosz (Polish poet-diplomat and prose writer); the writers were contemporaries. He considers Roadside Dog (poetry and prose, Milosz) and Notebooks (a collection of 34 notebooks, Cioran), noting that if one were to perceive both writers as paintings (in particular, “still lifes” [sic]), the contrast would be very apparent. In Milosz, states Zagajewski, one sees “a splendid apple and a gleaming oyster in the foreground, and only by peering deep into the background will you glimpse the indistinct silhouette of a guillotine.” By contrast, in Cioran, emphasis is upon “a bare skull and a thin stream of sand trickling through an elegant hourglass that blocks a bunch of grapes.” Basically, Roadside Dog reveals only reluctantly the dark side of things, such as knowledge of terror, horror, of the Soviet death machine, of mortality (the human condition). And yet, says Zagajewski, Milosz’ ruminations, for all of that, comprise a serene work, by one who masters horror, not by forgetting or turning from it, but by “feeding upon it.” Despair and doubt are, that is, disabled or conquered – or can be, and by one “thing” only, which is poetry; it is poetry that “blends together joy and grief like oxygen and nitrogen.” For Milosz, poetry (any subject, any theme) is fundamentally rapturous – inevitably, beauty triumphs, transmutation, for instance, of sorrow to joy, cannot not occur, like an uncertainty principle’s lens, which changes the object it studies. Note: the positing (by author) of the word “despair” may be in error, however; as we will see, the contrasting is not the contrast of optimism/pessimism.)

Image Cselaw Milosz

Doubt is not absent, in Milosz, says Zagajewski, but it “has its own …niche” – it is “kept on a chain,” not permitted to win the debate, and part of this, he says, is that Milosz has a sense of humor. As is well-known, humor is the sudden appearance of the unexpected, and, in Milosz’s case, this unexpectedness (a series of surprise visits, one might say) “signals forbearance for the universe’s shortcomings,” and which is also charitable towards the imperfection/fallibility of human beings. Interestingly, Milosz has written, “the mind can rationalize anything, but the stomach can take only so much.” Given even that, however, Milosz, according to Zagajewski, rises above doubt, which would seem to imply “above despair,” but actually denotes “above certainty.”

Zagajewski goes on to say that doubt and poetry co-exist like dogs and cats (which is to say, sometimes naturally, if not comfortably) – and that poetry needs doubt far more than doubt needs poetry. Doubt, he ventures, is narcissistic, a critical view – of the world, of ourselves – which perhaps comforts us. On the other hand, poetry trusts. At first, this would seem paradoxical – that doubt comforts, lack of doubt (certainty) does not. (But if will come clear that certainty is not the opposite of doubt). Only here, near the end of the essay, is it made manifest what the “problem: with doubt is – it distrusts (or mistrusts) the possibility of beauty, even in the darkest days, but such, according to Zagakewski, has nothing to do with some facile “quarrel of optimism and pessimism,” which would seem to be the case (especially given all the detailed information on Cioran, a rabid disciple of Schopenhauer). Doubt, he says, is “poetry for the resigned.” whereas actual poetry is a search, an endless wandering. One might go so far as to say that doubt (even though it is doubt, not pronouncement, though this is questionable when reading Cioran), is an answer; poetry is a question. Zagajewski stipulates that doubt prefers to shut, while poetry opens.

As Gary Hawkins has written of Zagajewski, in “Between the Transcendent and the Quotidian,” ….as opposed to plunging into a world “that will assuredly – although not without difficulty – yield comprehension as its fruit,” Zagajewski confronts a world that keeps its fruits of understanding just beyond reach. However, Hawkins emphasizes, in every case, that which remains distant has been tested. The unknowable is unknowable, yes – it has been reached for and missed, and when this poet misses, cannot attain revelation, he (the poet) calls this vacancy “unattainability.” But, he notes, the work/writing goes on, because the “unattainable” includes the prospect or possibility of attainability.

One might wonder at this dogged pursuit. To put it bluntly, intrusively: I wonder. An analogy might be made to the (supposed, posited) proof of God’s existence wherein a seemingly-universal longing for God evinced and continues to do so. Does longing imply the existence of the longed-for? My answer would be no, because I have longed for a unicorn for an extremely long time. However, there ARE those who believe that if something can be imagined (precursor to longing), then the object of desire does and must exist – somewhere, somehow.

Zagajewski searches unflaggingly for illuminating moments, which one might call affirmations; strangely, it may seem, his “failures” – and they occur often – are welcomed; the limit of human understanding is welcomed. How is this possible, and why acceptable, desirable? The answer is, because the failures leave room for, or “create” a place for the sacred (or mystical, metaphysical). One might well ask, but why is the sacred prized, valued? Why is not-knowing seductive? Presumably, it is because, in looking outward, in incorporating (versus disowning) all that we cannot comprehend, possibilities evince, and possibility is ever-prized over impossibility, and, in this context, possibility includes (at the least, does not preclude) joy, or at least acceptance, or at least, not resignation. Again, the issue here, regarding Cioran and Milosz is not simply a matter of pessimism versus optimism, but rather, closedness versus openness.

For Zagajewski, uncertainty (not-knowing) is a hero of sorts, a freeing force, a kind of hope, some kind of strange kin, perhaps a second cousin by way of troubled marriage, to the “comfort” found in Cioran’s doubt. The curious thing is that doubt and uncertainty sound a lot alike. And, curiouser, doubt’s antonym would seem to be certainty. I believe the conundrum resolves this way: what we have is a contrast between the certainty of doubt and the uncertainty of not-knowing. Still, I feel a bit flumoxed. It all still sounds a lot like a “facile,” treatise on pessimism vs. optimism. I leave it to the reader to investigate the works of Cioran, Milosz, and Zagajewski further, and to draw his/her own conclusions about them and their ideas. Surely, the family that is writing/writers is as functional and/or dysfunctional as any other one might know. And conundrums crop up, just as blue-eyed freckled red-heads are born to a tenth generation of fair, brown-eyed brunettes.

As a postscript – if the reader will indulge: here are two older pieces of my own, which, hopefully, as ekphrasis (if previously executed), express my take on doubt and on not-knowing: These are “The Eternal whY” (sic) and “Another Odyssey,” pen/ink and photo/enhanced.

"The Eternal Why"


Chilliwack copy reproportioned


  • Julie K. Shavin

4 thoughts on “Zagajewski: The Certainty of Doubt, Uncertainty of Knowing

  1. “Zagajewski searches unflaggingly for illuminating moments, which one might call affirmations; strangely, it may seem, his “failures” – and they occur often – are welcomed; the limit of human understanding is welcomed. How is this possible, and why acceptable, desirable? The answer is, because the failures leave room for, or “create” a place for the sacred (or mystical, metaphysical).”

    I think this is true, Julie. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought in this essay. It makes me want to go and crack open some Cioran and Schopenhauer.

    “Surely, the family that is writing/writers is as functional and/or dysfunctional as any other one might know. And conundrums crop up, just as blue-eyed freckled red-heads are born to a tenth generation of fair, brown-eyed brunettes.”

    *SMILE* 🙂 Thank you for this.


  2. A masterful write. Deeply thought provoking. I think it a truism that there could be no humanity without doubt. A machine does not doubt and we can see our recent and current history demonstrating how the machine-mind has been taking over the world of man since, basically, the industrial age. Man now plunges ahead without any doubt that no matter how nuts his expectations from his so-called technological progress, it will all come right in the end. Faith criminalizes doubt – and it matters little what a man puts his faith in: it cancels out self-awareness and resultant responsibility. The faith person is a puppet. If one would change, one must not only empower himself to doubt all things, but to use that doubt constructively. Doubt asks “what if?” What if nothing is the way it seems, or the way it’s advertized? Doubt forces one to use personal observation and experiences to formulate meaning for one’s life. Change is painful but when entered into voluntarily “with knowledge aforethought” it is self-empowering.


  3. Hello this is somewhat of off topic but I was wanting to
    know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to
    manually code with HTML. I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding expertise so I wanted
    to get guidance from someone with experience. Any
    help would be greatly appreciated!


    • Hello, it depends upon whether you are using WordPress or not. WordPress has a WYSIWYG text editor, but you can change to HTML if you need to (sometimes you need it for spacing issues). Blogger has the easiest WYSIWYG editor that I know of, but it’s a bit awkward.


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