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a mass for arras

28 february 2018

A Mass for Arras is a historical novel with significant contemporary application – both to the time of its composition c1970, and still today almost a half-century later. Historical novels usually say as much about their contemporary audience as about their setting, if they're interesting at all; even a fiction that simply purports to tell it like it was raises questions of historical knowledge and imagination. And A Mass for Arras is far from simple.

Andrzej Szczypiorski's novel is narrated by Jan. Jan is a 15th-century Burgundian nobleman, a favorite of David, bishop of Utrecht. He tells his story, for reasons that only become clear at the end of the novel, to an audience at first unnamed. It is the story of bizarre events in the town of Arras, events to which Jan was witness and, in part, principal player.

Struck first by plague and then (because of isolation and quarantine) famine, Arras had undergone the torments of Hell three years earlier. Then, out of nowhere, an even worse trial beset the town. Its Gentiles began to persecute first its Jews, and then Gentiles who defended those Jews. Then the persecutors began randomly to persecute themselves, in ever-tightening circles, accusing one another of heresy, witchcraft, treachery, and other fraudulent or fictional crimes. (This episode, called the Vauderie of Arras, is based on historical events.)

Jan has been on the side of the persecutors. Protected by his connection with the distant bishop David, he is also safe because of his special relationship with Albert, the local strongman. A cleric of genuinely heretical views, a sort of proto-Savonarola, Albert has tried to purify Arras spiritually, but in the process has touched off a murderous religious mania. Jan is Albert's student and confidant. Both are on the town council, which till the plague years had been dominated by conservative gentlemen, heavily invested in medieval hierarchies. Albert replaces several of the genteel leaders with tradesmen, who become the most bloodthirsty persecutors of all.

It is tempting to see Szczypiorski's Arras as a microcosm of Poland, and perhaps of Warsaw in particular. For plague and hunger, read occupation and wartime destruction; for the persecuting local council, read the Communist Party; for the Jews, read … the Jews. Jews are a constant in these historical cycles.

But I don't know enough about the specifics of either history to draw more precise parallels. And much of the point of any parallel dynamics of language may be lost in translation and in my own ignorance. Fortunately A Mass for Arras offers plenty of food for thought, just at face value. Jan blows this way and that under the influence of his mentors. His bishop, Prince David, is no less a heretic than Albert – perhaps anybody with two brain cells to rub together is inherently a heretic. But this realization leaves Jan struggling with the competing claims of conscience and authority.

Albert's sinuous sophistications have thrown Jan into a moral thicket. "Where do you find confirmation that your halting mind, shackled by a thousand conditions, influences, tastes, lustful fantasies, fears, and caprices could be clearer and more able in its knowledge of God's intentions than the teachings of the Church?" asks Albert (9-10). It's a powerful argument, but discerning what the teachings of the Church might be, exactly, is most of the problem. For "the Church," Albert tends to substitute himself.

Later in the novel, as things are spinning out of control in Arras and Jan himself is endangered by the fanaticism of the council, Albert asserts a nominalism that is almost Nietzschean:

"How can you know and change [the world] without the language that was given to you to name the things of the world? What has no name does not exist. … I forced [the townspeople] to obey my orders, and in obeying them, they discovered their own free will and joy. If that isn't freedom, nothing is." (147-48)
But when he turns to Bishop David for protection and solace, Jan is even more disillusioned. David tells him:
"As for my God, he no longer exists. If I must go off into the darkness, let Him precede me and wait for me there. Why should I poison myself with anticipation? … If you don't greet the day, you need not bid it farewell. If you're not gladdened by the sunrise, you need not be saddened by the sunset. If you do not love, you are free from despair." (181-82)
Nietzscheans to the left of him, Epicureans to the right – no wonder Jan is confused. But we ought not to blame his moral quandaries on his advisors. Jan is a trimmer, a vacillator, and not the most reliable of narrators. In the end, I suppose, that only makes him like most readers. Szczypiorski seems to agree with Yeats: the best lack all conviction, and the worst are capable of any depravity in the name of their passionately intense cause: themselves.

Szczypiorski, Andrzej. A Mass for Arras. [Msza za miasto Arras, 1971.] Translated by Richard Lourie. New York: Grove, 1993. PG 7178 .Z3M7913