Wisława Szymborska’s “Conversation With A Stone”
Mary Ann Furno
“Throughout the Middle Ages . . . the stone remained the main symbol of folly-hard, impenetrable, stolid . . . . It was above all a metaphor which demonstrated well-nigh mythologically the intrinsically foolish nature of human beings.”(1) References are found to the surgical removal of stones as a method of curing someone of his folly.
In “Conversation With A Stone,” Wisława Szymborska gives “her” stone a voice; further, she allows a dialogue with an unidentified speaker who remains quite insistent throughout that this stone should allow entrance to its “insides” so as to “have a look around.” Quite a bit of folly takes place here as the ensuing exchange develops. But then, Szymborska is a poet, and she considers it her business to rekindle Memory with its original Understanding that reality is not what it appears to be. Let us also remember that until the sixteenth century, Folly was often the voice of Wisdom.
We come in on this “conversation” not knowing what led up to it. It does seem that a familiarity between speaker and the stone has already been established, immediately placing us in this novel situation and relationship:
I knock at the stone’s front door
Szymborska lets us know that the speaker has somehow come to “know” about-imagines-this “other side” of the stone, its “insides.” This poem will function as metaphor insofar as metaphor is understood as a radical-at its roots-mode of conceiving and experiencing reality. The ongoing conversation between stone and speaker captures this fundamental alteration of consciousness with irony as its driving force. Szymborska’s “Conversation With A Stone” becomes a “pleasurable corrective to the ordinary single-visioned world.”(2)
A radical transformation of the stone’s reality is forcefully presented to the speaker, as we can infer from the speaker’s wish to “breathe my fill of you.” The stone is “more” than what is ordinarily seen or presented in reality, as the speaker has already sensed, albeit “out of pure curiosity”: “I mean to stroll through your palace.”
Momentum builds with the speaker’s growing insistence to be allowed inside the stone, which offers only resistance:
"Even if you break me to pieces,
It is not about “great empty halls” or a beautiful palace-at least, not as far as the stone is concerned. A stone that speaks. The dialogue has begun, and Szymborska immediately thrusts us into a “world that loses its footing,”(3) and where irony takes hold. And herein, the significance of this “conversation” is brought to bear on our senses. The speaker urges that “only life can quench” this curiosity, further appealing that
"I don’t have much time
Life is only possible in a voice which, in this “conversation,” is the voice of folly; a stone that in response, reaffirms that it is
"made of stone . . .
The irony of this reply reflects the speaker’s impenetrability. The speaker’s concern with mortality-a search for certainty about reality-is entirely misplaced. The speaker will, in any event,
"then go calling on a leaf, a drop of water."
missing the stone’s point, as reflected in the speaker’s inexorable refrain of
I knock at the stone’s front door,
Only senses predominate for the speaker, whose deluded thinking the stone confronts:
"great and empty halls. . .
The conversation takes a turn with potential for the speaker’s self-understanding through conversation with a stone-another ironic twist wrought by Szymborska. The stone observes:
“You may get to know me, but you’ll never know me through
The speaker maintains a division in its relationship to the stone-as though the stone, as stone, did not exist:
“You’ll never know me
Thoughtless insistence rooted in misunderstanding continues as the speaker retreats into self-doubt, perhaps despair, in the search for self understanding, reassuring the stone instead that
"I'm not unhappy.
The stone responds with its most poignant volley:
“You shall not enter. . .
“It’s only me, let me come in” still stands as what has become the speaker’s contrived reply. The reality of “I haven’t got two thousand centuries” reveals the speaker’s growing angst about “mortality” uttered at the outset of this conversation; while hyperbole, that intends its opposite, hints that a denouement with understanding is possibly drawing near. The stone now mentions believing:
“If you don’t believe me. . .
These words hit close to home. Laughter is even closer:
“I am bursting with laughter, yes laughter, vast laughter,
This stone is in a state of ecstasy that only irony can produce, an ecstasy that is recaptured in its original meaning: “to put out of place,” “to drive a person out of his wits” (Oxford English Dictionary). The stone’s “insides” are truly not about “great empty halls” or a “palace,” but about its “inner life”-the place where folly inheres, along with laughter-in each and every bit and piece, and grain of sand. The speaker’s response:
“I knock at the stone’s front door.
The stone’s conclusive reply:
“I don’t have a door.”
Szymborska leaves us to ponder “[a]bsurdity brought to a halt.”(4) One can almost hear the “door” slam, leaving the speaker shaken, hopefully.
That the speaker continues relating “over and against” the stone is unsustainable. That the stone is otherwise bursting with laughter, at this point, suggests an unendurableness which will confound the speaker. Having “only the seed of imagination” inhibits understanding the stone’s true nature, Szymborska seems to suggest. It is the “sense of taking part” that is critical to any understanding and through which the stone’s “interior” is recognized. The stone’s “I don’t have a door” undermines the speaker’s presumption throughout the conversation that the stone has a door-and with that, the speaker “is thrown back upon [him/her]self and the problem of [his/her] own reality and truth.”  Szymborska quite aptly chooses laughter as the “stuff” through which the stone shakes itself “out of place,” which we will believe has similarly shaken the speaker “out of place.” Szymborska’s laughter “bursts”-“breaks forth into a sudden manifestation of inner force. . . Chiefly said of things possessing considerable capacity for resistance” (Oxford English Dictionary)-from conceptions founded in the “seed of imagination,” leading us instead to ponder a “sense of taking part.” We could leave it at that, but Szymborska’s choice of “burst” truly leads us to ponder further. In its more “obscure origin burst is associated to umbilicus,” (Oxford English Dictionary) as in “to burst the navel” (Shipley’s Dictionary of Word Origins).
Life becomes the predominating association with respect to this stone’s image, once the “front door” disappears. But Szymborska’s choosing a stone in and of itself suggests the natural force of irony which she humanizes with a voice-a sign of life. The images of the stone as having inner/outer (demarcated by the “front door”) now “burst” one into the other: what is inner, is now outer; what is outer, is now inner. The speaker’s perception of reality is shaken.
What was overlooked (the stone in its very appearance) and what was marginally imagined (palaces and great halls) collapse into each other, giving us an experience of stone as stone. “The great joke, Hegel wrote in a personal note, is that things are what they are.”  The world we call reality becomes “inverted” once “I’m made of stone and must therefore keep a straight face” voices “I am bursting with laughter, yes laughter, vast laughter, although I don’t know how to laugh.” Szymborska’s “voice” acts as a metaphor that captures the irony of inverted reality: understanding “interior difference” , its necessity of stone remaining a stone. Hence, “conversation”: two voices participating in life force whenever the speaker “must needs” enter into a “sense of taking part” with the stone’s “insides,” “know[ing]” them “through” as his/her very self and “exit[ing]” “quenched” in a mutual self-recognition that reaps self-understanding. Szymborska gives us a “double vision that is only learned by the art of inversion . . . . [and] folly is the example of this art.” In her poem, we discover inner life through a conversation. Folly is not a stranger to poets who keep close company with the Muses. In “Conversation With A Stone” Szymborska, a contemporary poet, acts as interlocutor for the Muses. Her perhaps unwitting “choice” of a stone, an object sometimes identified with the beginning of time and which, in its mythological heyday, was “associated with eternal, immutable, divine powers. . . often understood as an expression of concentrated force . . . and generally . . . as life giving”  seems to make it so. The “conversation” one almost hears, along with the “burst” of laughter and the closing of the “door,” “dispelling self-delusion”-all “point ironically to a different order of meaning”  that Szymborska simply but dramatically speaks from.
Poets, along with philosophers, who were once in their close company, understand the significance of memory that only the language of poets now points to. Szymborska reminds us of the folly of language in its capacity for irony. With that, she is right in line with the Muses, whose eloquence is voiced through poets’ “double vision” of reality. Irony foils ignorance. If there is a need or wish to draw some “conclusion,” one might be inclined to say that in “Conversation With A Stone” Szymborska reminds us that stones of folly lie deep within us, “the link to our primordial heritage,” and they are at risk in a world growing increasingly “single-visioned.” The Muses also impart Wisdom. Wisława Szymborska will need to continue to give us many more “conversations” of folly and illusion, lest we forget. ∆
Wisława Szymborska, “Conversation with a Stone/ Rozmowa z kamieniem,” Nothing Twice: Selected Poems/Nic dwa razy: Wybór wierszy, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh, (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1997), 54.
Back to the January 2006 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 1/23/06