May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”
Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.
There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.
In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.
The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.
Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.
Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.
Readers of my other blog will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life.
This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.
January 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
Last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:
“Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”
Now: note that among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.
Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).
A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.
Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.
Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease. But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.
This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma: is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable. The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.
But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains. Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most. Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.
Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.
May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment
I have recently tried to find in Syracuse a certain old tavern where I had once had so much fun with a bunch of Italian and German sailors, drinking this very moscato, and another wine, dry, light, after which one dances so well. Perhaps this was the wine used in celebrations in honor of Dionysus, when even the fauns danced. But I was unable to find that winery, nor even that small square, and now it seems to me that perhaps this whole story with moscato di Siracusa, with wine siphoned directly from the barrel, with music played in the street and sailors dancing in the greying dusk – perhaps I have dreamt it, or imagined it, or perhaps it had never happened.
And this is terrible in traveling, that everything is so very brief that it is sometimes hard to figure out what was dream and what was reality, what is imagination and what is an actual memory of facts.
[The notion of Iwaszkiewicz dancing drunkenly in the street with a bunch of Italian and German soldiers, in the greying dusk of Syracusa seems so preposterous, so out of keeping with every surviving photo of this properly but uncomfortably dressed, insecure, awkward, ugly man (hence the reference to dancing fauns – himself – who otherwise never dances) that it is hard not to assume that he had imagined the whole thing, perhaps dreamt it. One man’s longing to be something else than what he is; to be otherwise; how very touching.]