Adam Zagajewski, “Moths”

Moths, gathering. Watching us, separated by a glass barrier. Attracted to the light.

There’s not a lot of things political philosophy can do, but it should speak to how a nation loses its ability to grieve. At this moment, 243,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19. 73,000,000 of us seem to think it’s a joke or hoax. A number of the 73 million use religion to dismiss the significance of the dead.

Moths watched us through / the window. I don’t have answers, but I can say how this feels. It feels like spirits gather outside our domain. They’re not violent or harmful. They’re never going to mass such that they choke the air. They are simply a potential reminder of absence. Of loss.

There’s a lot of them.

Seated at the table, we’re inside. Comfortable, dining. Our only focus on the meal, on those we’ve chosen and who have chosen us. We are skewered by… [the] lambent gazes of the moths. Each gives off a small glow, highlighting their individuality and strangeness.

I wonder if each tiny glow adds together. If a whole realm comes into being because of the radiance of moths.

Moths (from A Book of Luminous Things)
Adam Zagajewski (tr. Renata Gorczynski, Benjamin Ivry, C.K. Williams)

Moths watched us through
the window. Seated at the table,
we were skewered by their lambent gazes,
harder than their shattering wings.

You’ll always be outside,
past the pane. And we’ll be here within,
more and more in. Moths watched us
through the window, in August.

We won’t admit loss or accept pain. We skewer ourselves in our triviality. Their shattering wings, their floating and flying, confirms we’ve locked ourselves in place.

But how? There seems to be love in this room. Food, warmth, things to be grateful for and gratefulness.

It’s so strange to think of gratefulness as potentially evil. As denying the reality of others. Exiling the lost and loss itself. You’ll always be outside, past the pane.

When so many are dead and so few care, it is literally suicide to not question our fundamental moral ideas.


Machiavelli writes in a dark, comic vein. His tone may not be altogether appropriate for the horror he describes. It certainly isn’t appropriate for ours now.

Still, there’s a story he tells to which I often return. Following Livy, he speaks of the Samnites, a tribe which wants to fight Roman domination but does not have the capacity. Machiavelli quotes Livy in praising their ardor for liberty: “they could no longer stand either by their own or by external forces; nonetheless they did not abstain from war, so far they were from tiring even of freedom they had unsuccessfully defended; and they would rather be conquered than not attempt victory” (Discourses 1.15).

The Samnites employed a horrific ritual before assembling for one battle. They brought their men up to an altar, one by one, and made them swear they would not flee, kill anyone who did try to flee, and follow every order vigorously to the letter. If this was not done, they and their family would be killed. A number of Samnites decided to die on the altar rather than swear the oath.

The ones that remained were given a fearsome appearance. The Roman general who was to engage them scoffed. He pointed out that the Samnites were now scared of their fellow citizens in addition to the Romans. He also noted that the Romans were far better armed. The Romans completely routed the Samnites.

Machiavelli concludes this regarding the Samnites: “one sees that to them it did not appear they could have any other refuge, nor try any other remedy from which they could take hope of recovering lost virtue. This testifies in full how much confidence can be had through religion well used.”

I return to this story as if it is the defining story of the United States. Ironies abound in that assumption. Machiavellian logic would, of course, pronounce better armaments for a superior army to be “religion well used.” Virtue made effective. The Romans might be considered Americans on this reading.

But then there’s the spectacle of a fanatical people who love liberty so much they deny it to their most loyal. A people who want to go into battle without proper arms, who think belief is fear and that the strength of their belief, the strength of their fear, can reach their enemies. They’re engaged in mass projection. They’ve killed their own citizens and made themselves fearful, thus they will kill that many more Romans while instilling fear. It’s “religion well used” in the sense that religion has broken them. They don’t know what they’re fighting for, they just know they want to fight. This, too, is America: the never ending spectacle of violence against ourselves and others.

There’s no sense of loss. No ability to admit that pain, especially the pain of others, is too real to toy with.


You’ll always be outside, / past the pane. And we’ll be here within, / more and more in. Inside, the quiet but intense violence of neglect and abandonment. The freedom to say someone does not deserve a thought, let alone love. “We’ll be here within, more and more in.” It’s hard to conceive how a society could be formed from this sentiment. Something like society forms—we’re around the table, after all, dismissive of the ungrateful—but all the spirits are outside. Those we most need are missing.

The moths almost seem to know collapse is a matter of time. Moths watched us / through the window, in August. Hedonism endures throughout its summer. Those we’ve abandoned can only look in, a ghostly justice. They can never partake in our ritual. Like the Samnites, we won. We exiled the memory of others, creating a fear no one would dare. We proved ourselves loyal to our liberty. A moth, smartly, only wants to be around the light. It may watch us, but it does not take our feasting seriously.


Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H. C., & Tarcov, N. Discourses on Livy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

1 Comment

  1. Brilliant commentary in/on troubled times.

    “Those we most need are missing.”

    My badass suggestion is that these are the miracles of ordinary thinking. All thoughts are fake now; thoughts, they are the virus, we are so desperate we re-invent what it is to be human in order to break the transmission of thoughts.

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