18 June 2020 The Visible and the Invisible

“Methinks I see ... Where? In my mind’s eye.” Every high school student in Poland knows this quote from Hamlet, which Mickiewicz used as the opening line of the ballad “Romanticism”. It is a memorable scene: in a provincial town square, a mad girl tries to communicate with her dead lover. The learned scholar argues that the invisible does not exist, the villagers say that, on the contrary, it is the only thing that visibly exists. The poet finally takes the side of popular belief and says: I believe the girl is right, you have to know the world with your heart, not with your eyes.

This is how modern Polish literature begins: from a dispute between the visible and the invisible, between science and faith, between empiricism and imagination. Not only Polish literature: artists of Classicism around the world did not believe their own eyes and were more likely to reference old texts than to everyday experience. But the Romantics also did not believe too much in sensual experience and eagerly leapt over its roughness into the world of imagination, where it was easier to cope with the inconveniences of life.

It took many years for modern literature to start believing its eyes, for the visible to take shape, and for the things of this world to be restored to their opacity. But even then, the question continued to be asked: what is hidden beyond the visible? After all, you cannot trust the appearances of this world that constantly confuse us. After all, what you can see is probably just a façade, behind which some other, perhaps more real reality is hiding. So what is it like, they finally started asking, what is more important, the visible or the invisible?

If only it were easy to answer that question! Ever since humans began to put together sentences, the invisible has always accompanied them, for speech is made possible by the absence of things in words, not their presence. “No one has ever seen God,” writes St Paul, giving the invisible a mark of divinity. Can we be surprised that at the crossroads of these two dimensions there appeared at some point – some two hundred years ago – literature, for many the only acceptable absolute, effectively breaking with the insignificance of our finiteness? Words refer to what is not in them. When we read, we first see the material shapes of the letters, sometimes nothing peeks out from beyond them and our gaze cannot pierce the wall of symbols.

But that is not everything. For who decides what is visible and what is not visible? Who has the power to show the invisible and hide the visible? After all, the fact that you cannot see someone does not mean that they do not exist. It is easy to see things and people, processes and meanings escape the gaze. Invisible people are not invisible because they are not there. They are invisible because nobody wants to see them, because the sight of them is too poignant, or uncomfortable because they are push us, the ones looking, out of the obviousness of our prosperity. And what about the excess of the visible? Does it not tire you out or make you turn your eyes away? Whom and why do we allow to exist in the visible space, and whom and why do we deny it? Whom do we sanctify on the altar of visibility and whom do we ignore?

It is clear as day that the visible and the invisible is not a topic, but a series of disturbing questions. We have to keep asking them in order to reject too easy answers. “A horse is a horse is a horse”: this is also one of the opening lines of Polish literature. One of the most troublesome.


Michał Paweł Markowski

Artistic Director of the Conrad Festival.