The Dispute about the Highest Values, part I (1984)

(The lecture delivered during the manifestation Lecture: The dispute about the highest values  at the BWA Gallery in Lublin. Part one took place during the “Lectures and Speeches” session, December 5-7, 1984. It was part of the “Polish Performance” event, BWA Lublin, December 5, 1984 – January 13, 1985; [printed in:] Jerzy Bereś. New Contents, Exhibition 14 XI- 14 XII 1986, Krzysztofory Gallery, Kraków 1986)



I came out naked before the public with two books in my hand: SOREN KIERKEGAARD’S “FEAR AND TREMBLING”, and LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN’S “TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS.” The first part of the lecture included painting two lines on the back of my body: a white, perpendicular one along my spine, and a red, horizontal one across my shoulders.

Walking before the public and, from time to time, painting parts of the white line, and then the red, I said: I would like, with the help of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, to share my thoughts with you which I have entitled “A Dispute about the Highest Values”.

Quite conscious of the pomposity of this title, I shall explain its individual words:

I chose the word dispute from among two others: quarrel and dialogue. The word quarrel implies various attitudes, but does not leave room for such a situation to develop. On the other hand the word dialogue is too vague and does not always imply various attitudes. I therefore chose “dispute”. The word “highest” introduces gradation, and requires the introduction of at least two other categories of values. Therefore, the first category of values in basic values such as bread, home, and others.

Man, with the development of civilization, multiplies and improves them to such a degree that ‘a giant froth comes into being, a growth in the shape of sophisticated and perfidious luxury.

Justice helps to cut off the growth of luxury from the basic values, but justice is another value and leads us to the second category, the category of higher values. Besides justice, this category includes: love, truth, dignity etc. A characteristic of the higher values is the fact that they don’t appear individually, but are conditioned by one another. For what is justice worth if it passes by truth. There can be more complicated relationships as, for example, between love and truth.

In Samaritan-like situations, truth can remove the desire to fight for one’s life. In other situations, between two people, truth can kill love. Then there is a need for another value such as forgive-ness. Higher values give rise to religions and ideologies — the more values they contain, the better they are. None the less, in situations which would seem to be the best by containing almost all the higher values, a rigid armour of ethics comes into being, impeding all creative activity and carrying the threat of total stagnation.

Luckily there is freedom, which also belongs to this category yet leads us out of the constraining armour of ethics on to the highest values such as language, faith and art.

Besides creating the possibility for advancing upwards, freedom opens up choices on a wider plane. For there are attitudes which reject all hierarchies of values, nihilistic ones, and those of programmatic unbelief, and finally there is the always open question about whether it is worth living. For example, there is the radical road of drug addiction. Alcoholism, a slower force, is also suicidal in nature. There was even a popular Polish cabaret song called It’s Only Worth Getting Drunk. Leaving the question whether or not it is worth living open, we follow those who think it is. This is a necessary condition because the highest values are not essential, as opposed to the basic values which are essential to life. It is possible to live biologically without language, faith, art or parts of science. The highest values, therefore, are not essential, but, on the other hand, they can become indispensable, they can attain a state of indispensability for people. For example: usage of a certain language may become illegal. Then the people using the language will discard it and the language will become dead. But it can be otherwise when such a language continues to be used because of being of indispensable value to a given people. Then, of course, unless that people becomes physically destroyed, the language will survive.

Notably, in the underground it will survive all prohibitions, even through many generations, and will become a permanent indestructible value. Similar examples and their dramatic continuation can be found in the fields of faith and art when their values reach a state of indispensability. Now, as I have mentioned the hierarchy of values in my own subjective and controversial way, I would like to show how an individual can dispute with higher values. To do this, I will quote two attitudes held by Kierkegaard: the attitude of the tragic hero, and the attitude of the knight of faith. The tragic hero aims at a clearly defined goal, gives himself to others, and dedicates himself to the general public. The general public identifies itself with the hero and accepts him as its own. The hero becomes a generality. On the other hand, the knight of faith, like Abraham who decided to kill his beloved son Isaac (but, as we know, didn’t), is confronted by a paradox and does not know whether he is a man of the greatest faith, or a murderer? Isaac lives, Abraham rejoices in his son, but he will never be able to free himself of the paradox. The tragic hero is on everybody’s lips (the knight of faith is alone) and cannot share his paradox with anyone. Although the tragic hero is great and famous, the knight of faith has the upper hand for he remains himself, while the tragic hero becomes diffused into generality.

The knight of faith becomes a personality and that is also why he is great. But he is not great because he is free of fear, despair and destitution, but conversely: because he lives in fear, despair and destitution, and because he cannot free himself of his paradox. To give my statement more substance, I shall refer to our own Polish, historical and present-day reality. We Poles have been tragic heroes in our distant and more recent history. Our history is too full of tragic heroes who have lived their lives for others. World War 11 provided many examples of Polish heroism — tragic heroism, the devoting of oneself to others, which was eagerly accepted by humanity. We were and are famous. After World War 11 there came a time when we Poles — like Abraham — decided to kill the memory of our heroes, to kill the memory of our history for the sake of peace and a just world. But, as in Abraham’s case, it was to be otherwise: the memory of our heroes lives on, as does the memory of our history, but we Poles are burdened with a paradox we cannot be rid of. Yet we are our normal selves, and the world has to understand that we will no longer be the heroes of socialism or capitalism. We have become personalities not because we have freed ourselves of fear, despair and destitution, but because we live in fear, despair and destitution. The cross of the white, perpendicular line and the red, horizontal one, was ready on my back. (End of part I of the lecture). The second part of the lecture was accompanied by the painting of a white, serpentine line on the front of my body, which was then enlarged by a red line.


Translated by B. Rostworowski


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