Thursday, July 24, 2014

70th Birthday: Ashes and Diamonds

Today I turn 70. It is a milestone -- a point of no return. Clearly I have fewer miles ahead than I have behind. Which, of course, sets me to thinking about what I have done with my life.

The Polish movie Ashes and Diamonds makes the point that we never know whether our contributions will turn to ashes or be recovered by others as shining diamonds. 

For most of my life I have tried to add to the human dialogue. I believe I have a number of things to say with a unique perspective. I would like to think that I have made some important points in this blog of 42 in-depth postings and also in my other publications and eBooks.

But I will never know if my work is seen as a diamond or is lost in the dust and ashes of time. Nevertheless, if there is a chance that this could add to the human pool of knowledge, the human discussion, it is well worth the trouble. 

I do know this: If I do not put my ideas out, my thoughts will never have a chance of being heard. It's sort of a lottery of ideas. As a lottery player says, "I probably won't win, but I have absolutely no chance if I don't buy a ticket."

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So often you are as a blazing torch,
With flames of burning rags 
Falling about you -- 
Consuming all that you cherish.

You do not know if these flames
Will bring freedom or death.

Yet as your ashes fall into the abyss,
Could there be buried under the dirt 
The glory of a starlit diamond? 
-- A morning star --
The dawning of an everlasting triumph?
Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)
NOTE: I did not like the translations of this poem in English, so with apologies to Cyprian Norwid -- since I write poetry myself and have translated poems in French and Spanish -- I freely improvised taking the best lines/words from four different English translations, then added my own ideas and made my own English version. Here are the links to the various English translations that I found plus the original poem in Polish.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5 -- the original Polish]
Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), Daguerreotype

In a positive irony, Cyprian Norwid and his work suffered the same fate as he described in his now famous poem. Ignored during his lifetime, almost forgotten for seventy years after his death, his work and this poem were rediscovered in the 20th century. This particular poem resurfaced to be the inspiration for a Polish novel and then a Polish movie made in 1958 -- when Poland was under Soviet domination. The movie, Ashes and Diamonds, spoke to the soul of the Polish nation and is now considered, by some, to be one of the best films ever made.


My interpretation: 
In the end the only freedom is to act and in this action to find meaning -- and by acting I include writing and ideas. No one will ever know the ripple effect of their actions far into the future. But acting with the best of intentions is the most today, in the present, that we can offer and expect.

I am a great believer in the power of art as a positive force. As we know many artists have spoken to future generations without being acknowledged during their own time. For example, JS Bach's compositions were not well admired during his lifetime and after his death his music was considered old fashioned -- so much of it was lost. Yet today he is considered one of the greatest composers of all time. I think an artist does not always create for the present, often he/she creates for a future audience the artist will never know.
The gravestone of the beloved actor Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean, who played the lead in Ashes and Diamonds and who died tragically in 1967 at the age of 39. (


Allegory of the First Partition of Poland in 1772.

Perhaps better than any nation in Europe, the Poles understand uncertainty and oppression. Starting in 1772 they were partitioned by the more powerful adjacent countries of Germany and Russia (and also Austria). In WW II Poland was conquered by Nazi Germany and then Stalinist Russia who held Poland under its control until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989. Except for a brief period after WW I when Poland was free, the Poles have been fighting for their independence for almost 200 years. Nevertheless they have kept their identity and their sense of who they are intact -- which includes one of the first societies to tolerate different religious beliefs and also different ethnic groups. Now today they are free and independent -- after numerous uprisings against their oppressors that in the past had only led to defeat. However, throughout this history their faith in art and creation seemed to sustain them with artists like Chopin -- along with an 800 year-old literary tradition. The movie Ashes and Diamonds was filmed while under Soviet domination. Will the Poles continue to remain free or be oppressed again? Ashes or diamonds?
"Wajda [ED: director of Ashes and Diamonds] has frequently remarked upon the special role of the artist in Polish culture: the political conscience of a nation during long periods when politics could not be openly and honestly discussed. He has also noted that Polish artists have fulfilled themselves not only in their art but in their participation in history. [ED: such as Paderewski, a famous pianist, who also became prime minister]."
Civilian killed by the Nazi Luftwaffe during the invasion of Poland in 1939.  (

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  1. Great blog! I enjoyed reading a few of your topics. I will be downloading your e-books.

  2. Thanks for you comment Roy -- nice to know you appreciate what I'm doing.