The Dispute about the Highest Values, part II (1986)
(The second part of the manifestation Lecture: The dispute about the Highest Values took place on March 20, 1986 at the BWA gallery in Lublin. The first part took place at the end of December 1984, [printed in:] Jerzy Bereś. New Contents, Exhibition 14 XI- 14 XII, 1986, Krzysztofory Gallery, Kraków 1986)
Continuing to walk naked before the public and from time to time painting the serpentine line on the front of my body, I said: Neither is the tragic hero diffused into generality, nor the lonely knight of faith burdened with his paradox, capable of disputing values. The hero, during his lifetime, has his eyes fixed on a clearly depicted goal, heads straight for it, and any dialogue is out of the question. After the tragedy, his subjectivity ceases to exist, having been taken over by generality. Society, overcome with the ideals of the hero, is incapable of speaking, and can only seek support for its own ideals. When such a generality meets another generality, embracing different ideals, there is a conflict of interests and strife ensues. This is the source of nationalistic, ideological and religious wars which mark the history of mankind. Today, faced by the fear of universal totalitarianism and almost total destruction, such solutions are coming to a close.
The tragic hero attitude, therefore, cannot produce fruitful disputes in the absence of objectivity whereby a hero gives of himself to others and becomes objectified. Society, in turn, becomes objectified in the face of ideals. Contrary to that, the knight of faith is an individuality, but he is also a recluse enveloped in paradox and focussed on the quivering of his own subject. He is incapable of coming into contact with anybody. Purely subjective attitudes, created by Kierkegaard, and interpreted differently by many existential philosophers, have become universal enough for human communities of an almost pure individualistic nature to have come into being. Thus, our present world presents itself as a mixture of nationalistic, ideological and religious communities which, to a greater or lesser extent, are in conflict, and of individualistic communities, atomized subjects, which have no contact with one another. The fact that this mixture is a dangerous deformation is demonstrated by the existence of terrorism. The attacks of terrorism which took place at the airports of Rome and Vienna, may serve as examples. There, ideologically objectified terrorists hurled bombs towards queues of passengers in a purely subjective way, treating them like objects, and killing and wounding many of them. This is the height of nonsense. At this point let us return, for a moment, to Kierkegaard and Abraham who proceeds upwards with Isaac who suddenly asks “We have firewood and utensils, but where is the sacrificial lamb?”. Abraham answers “God will provide a ‘sacrificial lamb”. Kierkegaard concentrates on Abraham’s subjective drama — whether or not he lied or concealed the truth etc. Let us try to interpret this otherwise.
Abraham’s answer was not a lie but the beginning of a dialogue with God about the responsibility for Isaac’s life. This gave rise to the argument between two fathers, a heavenly one and an earthly one, about the value which Isaac’s life constitutes. It was an argument about the point of the sacrifice. The consequences of this argument, whereby authentication of faith through sacrifice was rejected, continue through generations and become a permanent value, an intrinsic element of national character. The difficulty in reaching dialogue is illustrated by the fact that it took Isaac’s, the offering’s, voice to stimulate the argument. Difficulty, however, cannot be equated with impossibility. Not only does withdrawal from existentialist seclusion not deprive the individual of subjectivity, but it goes to show that the personality of an individual is indispensable. Thus, open discussion of values cannot take place within the tragic hero context where objectivication of the individual takes place, but in the knight of faith context. The tradition of responsibility for the existence of these values becomes an integral part of the national character. Such an anti-nationalistic, non-ideological, unreligious national character in my opinion represents, next to language, faith and art, the highest value. All the values I have called the highest contain subjective factors. The presence of the subjective factor determines whether or not a language is alive, as opposed to dead languages which, though perfect, are no more than objects. Hence Esperanto has not been universally accepted for it is on1.y a useful object and tool. Since the presence of subject in faith is obvious, let us consider art. The subjective factor makes it possible for us to make contact with works of art — even those created long ago. Owing to this, we find works live, while others, though technically perfect, are dead. Through such works we can dispute and discuss the highest values with personalities and artists even belonging to ancient times. The subjective factor is most strongly bound to the highest values such as anti-nationalistic, non-ideological, and unreligious national characteristics. In my opinion, our national character has reached a state of indispensability, and has thus become an indestructible value. This creates the possibility for free internal dialogue among Poles, and external, international discussion of the hierarchy of values in the world of today.
I therefore consider it worth waiting for authentic dialogue. The serpentine line painted on the front of my body during the second part of the lecture, took on the shape of a question mark with its dot painted in red and white on the phallic organ of my body.
Translated by B. Rostworowski