One of the books that best exemplifies the project that I call vulnerable reading is Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, by the Polish artist and writer Józef Czapski (1886-1993), published last year by New York Review Books. This slim volume includes introductory material and sixty-two page transcription of lectures that Czapski gave to his fellow army officers while they were prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. I quote from Czapski’s introduction:
“We were four thousand Polish officers crammed into very tight quarters….There we tried to take up a kind of intellectual work that would help us overcome our depression and anguish, and to protect our brains from the rust of inactivity.” There, in the fewest words, is the premise of vulnerable reading. The camp where Czapski was initially sent was soon broken up. Four thousand became four hundred, then seventy-nine. “All our other comrades from Starobielsk disappeared without a trace.”
The prisoners gained permission to gather and hear one of them give a lecture; volunteers spoke on their expertise. “I can still see my companions, worn out after having worked outdoors in temperatures dropping as low as minus forty-five degrees, packed together under portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, listening intently to lectures on themes very far removed from the reality we faced at that time.”
That “very far removed from the reality we faced” is important to me. Most medical humanities takes as its objects of attention representations of the same realities that healthcare workers and ill people face. Czapski invites us to attend elsewhere. His rationale is simple but, spoken from his stance of witness, undeniable: “The joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind–things then bearing no connection to our present reality–cast a rose-colored light on those hours spent in the former convent’s dining hall, that strangest of schoolrooms, where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived.”
One facet of vulnerability is the fear that a world has been lost forever. Vulnerable reading does not revive exactly that world, but it opens worlds still worth living. Czapski, you probably realize, was not literally reading; there were no books. He was remembering, and it adds a fine loop that he was remembering a book about remembering. Proust was his resource in a time of depression and anguish, and his memory of Proust was a gift he could offer to relieve others’ despair.
Czapski ends his lectures on Proust with a meditation on death, specifically the death of the character Bergotte. What is said is important, but for today, my concern is the book itself, as an object of witness and possibility. It’s amazing that two transcriptions of the lectures were made–in part due to demands of censorship–and both survived. That gives me hope.