“Tortures” by Wisława Szymborska

This has to be one of the most moving poems I have read in a long time. Like any poetry, it can be interpreted in a thousand different ways. I’d like to give my own interpretation to the poem. Wislawa Szymborska, often described as the ‘mozart of poetry’. Polish, born in 2 July 1923 in Prowent, Poland, in 1996 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality.” She became better known internationally as a result of this. Her work has been translated into English and many  European Languages, as well as into Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese and Chinese. Wisława Szymborska died 1 February 2012 at home in Kraków, aged 88. Her personal assistant, Michał Rusinek, confirmed the information and said that she “died peacefully, in her sleep”.She was surrounded by friends and relatives at the time. Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski described her death on Twitter as an “irreparable loss to Poland’s culture”. She was working on new poetry right until her death, though she was unable to arrange her final efforts for a book in the way she would have wanted. Her last poetry was published later in 2012.

“Tortures” by Wisława Szymborska

Nothing has changed.
The body is susceptible to pain,
it must eat and breathe air and sleep,
it has thin skin and blood right underneath,
an adequate stock of teeth and nails,
its bones are breakable, its joints are stretchable.
In tortures all this is taken into account.

The fact that Wislawa begins with ‘Nothing has changed’ distinctly sets the tone for the entire poem. It clearly indicates that even in the so called ‘modern’ world, things are absolutely the same. This is further reinforced by her description of the body from Line 2-6. At the end of the day, prehistoric or modern, the human body has remained absolutely same and thus, nothing really has changed.

The descriptions in line 2-6 are rather interesting. ‘It must eat and breathe air and sleep’ in Line 3 for example, if deprived of these aspects, the human body slowly begins to decay and that is a form of torture. The fact that she describes the human body as having ‘thin skin and blood right underneath’ indicates how fragile we truly are. To remain strong, people often tell you to “grow thicker skin”. However, Wislawa indicates that no matter what you wish, the human body will always have thin skin and thus, there are certain aspects of life which we simply can not shrug off.

The fragility of the human body is further reinforced by the alteration ‘bones are breakable’. The repetition of the ‘b’ sound can be interpreted as the explosion of bombs on a battle field. For the sort of torture described by Wislawa, it often occurs during battle, when the other side captures prisoners of war. Hence, she could be alluding to that.

The fact that the human body seems to have an ‘adequate stock of teeth and nails’ almost sounds like a green light for torture. We have more than enough and hence, if a few are ripped off our skin, it would hardly matter as they would grow back. Thus, it sounds almost encouraging.

The last line of the stanza: ‘In tortures all this is taken into account’ draws an eeire picture of the idea of torture. Once again, it indicates that from the start of time, the methods of torture have never changed because the human body has never evolved into something different. Thus, no matter how ‘modern’ we may become, the existence of such torturous practices indicate that we are and always will be fundamentally the same.

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are as they were, it’s just the earth that’s grown smaller,
and whatever happens seems right on the other side of the wall.

Wislawa begins the second stanza with ‘Nothing has changed’. That one statement reinforces the thoughts of the first stanza  bluntly stating that as long as the human body does not evolve, nothing will change. This is because the human body has the same flaws as it had ‘in the twentieth century and after Christ’. Both Lines 10 and 11 provide a wide spectrum of time indicating the rough timeline of human history by listing out some of the most important periods of human history.

In line 8, ‘shudders as it shuddered’ indicates, once again how the human body really hasn’t changed. Moreover, repeating the ‘s’ sound, it alludes to a snake, indicating how treacherous people can be at times, especially during times of war. It also may allude to the snake-like nature of most people. Every person has their positives and their negatives and thus, the snake here may allude to this fact.

When Wislawa states that “Tortures are as they were, it’s just the earth that’s grown smaller,” clearly indicates that the only difference between then and now is that the human population has exploded to such an extent that the earth seems smaller. Due to this, whatever torture practices are implemented are amplified.

In the last line of the stanza, ‘whatever happens seems right on the other side of the wall’, Wislawa may be alluding to the Berlin Wall. At the time, the entire world considered communism to be the spawn of evil. Hence, it was automatically assumed that life in East Germany was horrid. For that reason, ‘whatever seems right’ would be practiced on the other side of the wall- in West Berlin. This was particularly common for those who grew up in the restricting, repressive nature of communism. To them, the capitalist philosophy was absolutely liberating. Wislawa may have carried over the same sentiments, having lived in Communist Poland herself.

Nothing has changed. It’s just that there are more people,
besides the old offenses new ones have appeared,
real, imaginary, temporary, and none,
but the howl with which the body responds to them,
was, is and ever will be a howl of innocence
according to the time-honored scale and tonality.

Wislawa begins the stanza once again, by the line ‘Nothing has changed. It’s just that there are more people’. She reestablishes that because the human population has absolutely exploded after the industrial revolution, every single offense is absolutely amplified as it is committed over far more people now. 

In line 15-16, ‘besides the old offenses new ones have appeared, real, imaginary, temporary, and none,’ Wislawa indicates how the art of warfare has changed overtime. At first, it was spheres and arrows. Now, its bullets and bombs.  Present warfare also includes chemical weapons- biological warfare. Especially during the Vietnam War, the US were accused primarily for crimes against humanity for using weapons such as Agent Orange that left permanent effects on the population of Vietnam, seen even today. These included strange mutations such as having multiple limbs.

In Line 18, the phrase ‘is and ever will be a howl of innocence’ indicates that although soldiers are not always innocent, they are still tortured as prisoners of war. However, a twisted reality could condemn them to such a thing for killing the soldiers of the enemy. But, what about the innocent civilians who simply could not get away fast enough? They would still be tortured as if they were prisoners of war. Moreover, it isn’t about the civilians or the soldiers. All of them are simply pawns in the hands of the rich politicians who control the fate of the war. If anything, they should be the first ones who are tortured. Yet, they are not.  They are not.

Nothing has changed. Maybe just the manners, ceremonies, dances.
Yet the movement of the hands in protecting the head is the same.
The body writhes, jerks and tries to pull away,
its legs give out, it falls, the knees fly up,
it turns blue, swells, salivates and bleeds.

The only thing that has changed is the time.  From the Victorian era to the Roman era to the modern era we live in, the only thing that actually has changed is the values, ideals and norms of the society we live in. The people and the basic composition of humans has not changed. This is made clear by the phrase ‘the movement of the hands in protecting the head is the same’, which clearly indicates the raw human soul has still remained the same.

Line 23-25 create a rather violent picture, reinforcing the fact of torture. ‘swells,salivates’ repeat the ‘s’ sound, adding to the eerie atmosphere reinforced by the poem.

Nothing has changed. Except for the course of boundaries,
the line of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.
Amid these landscapes traipses the soul,
disappears, comes back, draws nearer, moves away,
alien to itself, elusive, at times certain, at others uncertain of its own existence,
while the body is and is and is
and has no place of its own.

When Wislawa finally repeats ‘Nothing has changed’ in the last stanza, it successfully creates a chanting effect through out the poem. It very heavily reinforces that absolutely nothing has changed. We live in the convenient illusion that everything has changed. By listing out the natural features such as ‘the line of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers’ she expresses that no real natural feature has changed ever since the inception of the earth. Hence, if that has not changed, how on earth do we believe that everything has changed? It really hasn’t. That is what Wislawa conveys by starting each stanza with the phrase, ‘Nothing has changed’. The only thing that has changed are the ‘boundaries’, referring to wars. Countries fight wars to gain more territory and thus, boundaries keep changing. Its a never ending cycle of diplomacy.

In Line 28, ‘Amid these landscapes traipses the soul’, Wislawa creates the image of  the soul moving reluctantly and walking wearily. That image is further reinforced by the descriptions in Lines 29-30, ‘disappears, comes back, draws nearer, moves away, alien to itself, elusive, at times certain, at others uncertain of its own existence’. The hesitation of the soul is captured through these lines, as well as the fact that the soul is an absolutely abstract and elusive concept which still baffles yet intrigues us today. The fact that the soul is described to be ‘alien to itself’ translates to the fact that the soul does not understand itself at times. Its a concept that even the soul itself fails to understand and the fact that it is ‘uncertain of its own existence’ portrays how confused it really is. These two lines perfectly capture the human existence. Every single individual, at one point of their lives at least, is utterly confused about something. Off course, this is most commonly seen with teenagers as they transition from childhood to adulthood, questioning every thing life, causing them to be utterly confused about their existence.

The last two lines of the poem, ‘while the body is and is and is and has no place of its own’, create the picture of a dazed wanderer, who has no place they can successfully call home. They fail to fit in anywhere and spend their lives in desperate search of a place to simply fit in. The body is the way it always was, yet that does not aid the soul from simply being able to settle down, come to terms with itself and simply move on. Seen most commonly with soldiers returning back from the battlefield, they have trouble in settling down and adjusting back to life at peace times, having become absolutely used to life at the fronts. They are unable to come to terms with it often and spend their lives drowning in internal chaos and turmoil because of that. That too, is a form of torture in itself that everyone simply seems to ignore. For them, the war is not over as soon as the whistle of truce is blown. It is a constant  process which doesn’t really end until they come to terms with it. Tat is the most difficult process of all.

Hence, this poem, according to me, is an interpretation of a soldier’s experience at the battlefield.