Monday, June 08, 2009
An Essay on an Essay on the Polish Soul
First, a note about me.
I am an outsider in the country of my birth.
I am too happy, too trusting, too Canadian. I walk into a shop and expect the shopkeeper to smile. I expect bureaucrats to help me when I seek official documents, and when presented with an idea, I think “why not?” instead of “why?”
For a long time, I chalked this up to personality. I tend to be excessively optimistic at times, and although I always laugh that “I am educated enough to be cynical,” I am cynical when confronting the realm of ideas, but naïve to a fault when confronting the realm of man.
My Polish family and acquaintances have always told me that my behaviour and worldview were deeply rooted in Canada, that although I could speak the language and read the books, I was too foreign in my temperament to fit in in my native Warsaw. After a while, I came to believe this. After all, in some matters, Canada and Poland sit on the opposite ends of the same axis, with Canada’s broad open spaces, easy smiles and obsessive deference to the law contrasting starkly with Poland’s confining apartments, sulking functionaries and a citizenry that dislikes and distrusts the state.
Yet, sometime over the past five years, I came to discover that things are not always so black and white. I began to notice a dark and cynical current that runs through Canada’s continuing struggles with collective identity, and I began to rethink my view of Poland as a place where cynicism triumphs en masse.
The 1980s, the decade of Solidarność, was my first in this world.
I was born in 1981, a few months before martial law was declared, so for as long as I can remember, everything around me was always on an upward trajectory.
While my parents and grandparents struggled with curfews, communist-era lineups and food-ration cards, I started attending kindergarten with the distinct idea that elementary school would prove to be a lot more fun (after all, it couldn’t be worse than kindergarten).
Beginning in 1986, my grandmother was able to buy sugar without using our ration cards. I remember thinking that this was great, but even better was the fact that the year I started attending elementary school, the Communist regime began selling chocolate (actually, the official designation was “wyroby czekoladopodobne,” which literally translates to “chocolate-like goods”) in the same manner.
Before 1988, I needed a ration card to get my fix.
After 1988, I could gorge on chocolate-like goods to my heart’s delight.
I mention the ration cards because they were a big deal to me as a child. There were greater events and greater concerns in the political world of the adults around me, but for me, everything existed on the same plane. Chocolate, the Pope, a new football, Gorbachev… everything was moving forward, and when we listened to Radio Free Europe, we began to feel more and more optimism as the Cold War began to lurch to a close.
It wasn’t all beautiful, especially for the adults who had real responsibilities at that time. I vaguely recall a violent demonstration in downtown Warsaw with my mother and aunt (students at the time), and vividly recall another occasion when my panicked father shielded my eyes with a handkerchief from the teargas, as we ducked on to a bus to get away from a demonstration.
When we were clear of the tear gas, the policemen and the snarling dogs, my father glanced down at me, looking absolutely terrified.
“Do not tell your grandmother that we were here,” he begged.
To this day, I have not.
In 1989, exactly 20 years and four days ago, there were free(ish) elections in Poland. We all celebrated trouncing the Communists, and everyone said that this was the beginning of the end.
A few months later, my grandpa called out as my friends and I kicked a football at an improvised net.
“Come inside, all of you,” he bellowed from the second floor window overlooking the courtyard in front of our apartment building. “Look at what the Germans are doing!”
Not long after, my history text gained an “amendment” courtesy of an enthusiastic teacher, and western products began appearing in the stores.
I recall all these vague memories and impressions to make a broader point: For those young enough not to dwell on the risks and the sacrifices, the world was a wonderful teacher for a while. Although we were young, poor, and had to get our chocolate-like goods with the help of a state-distributed ration cards, we grew up believing that everything was possible.
When looked upon a certain way, Poland in the 1980s was an incubator of incredible optimism, and by 1991, my optimism was well entrenched. And it was not just me—I recall the schoolyard conversations with my friends, as we all looked hopefully at the new world around us. The ninja turtles were on TV, we could buy bananas at the store, and our allowances kept growing during a time of massive inflation. Since we were too young to understand that the bills in our hands were depreciating with each passing day, it seemed as if nothing could possibly go wrong.
I was 11 when I moved to Canada, and this is where my Polish narrative ends.
I used to think that this is why I would always be an outsider in the country of my birth, that I became too Canadian to be Polish anymore, that the two were mutually exclusive.
Yet, the older I get, the less I believe this to be true.
Although Canada certainly had an immense influence on my values, my system of beliefs and my opportunities in life, my Polish optimism never waned. I mention this because earlier this year I picked up Ryszard Legutko’s Esej o duszy polskiej (Essay on the Polish Soul).
Legutko is a professor of philosophy and a leading Polish intellectual. He is close to Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński, having served as education minister in his twin-brother’s conservative government. He has published a number of essays and books, he is very active in Polish newspapers and magazines, and barring a major surprise, he is celebrating his new post as one of 50 Polish members of the European Parliament this very morning.
And although our political (and cultural) views could not be further apart, I greatly respect professor Legutko scholarship and I was riveted by his Essay on the Polish Soul.
“Polska, jaką znam i w jakiej żyłem od urodzenia, to Polska zerwanej ciągłości,” he begins.
“The Poland that I know and in which I have lived since the day of my birth, is a Poland without continuity.”
Legutko's essay is a devastating cultural and social indictment of present-day Poland, aggressively setting out a thesis that World War II and the 40+ year period of communist social engineering harmed the Polish soul irreparably.
Modern Poles have problems with the degradation of language, with identity, and with finding a proper place in the world for their country and their narrative. Legutko argues that this is coupled with a chronic inability to make proper moral judgments because of a complete detachment from history and traditions, and he lays out the case that everything from architecture, to workplace habits, to education was willfully tainted and corrupted between 1939 and 1989. Lacking its traditional spine, modern (post-1989) Poland is unable to recover properly, without mindlessly accepting and distorting foreign models, and drifting aimlessly in larger European and global currents which Poles, as a collective, are neither willing nor able to comprehend.
This may sound familiar to those who follow certain trends in conservative cultural criticism, but what makes Legutko unique is that he outlines the cultural, social and historical degradation of the past 70 years without offering a remedy. Unlike other conservative thinkers who often advocate a return to deeply-rooted values usually constructed in an idealized past, Legutko argues that for Poland, no such past exists, at least not one that is applicable.
He demolishes the present state of Polish discourse and culture, but consciously offers no remedies or solutions to ease the suffering of the Polish soul. Another conservative Polish academic, Rafal Matyja, describes it like this: “Jest katastrofa. Kataklizm, na który nie ma odpowiedzi.”
“There is a catastrophe, a cataclysm, for which there are no answers.”
Legutko’s essay was widely read in academic and political circles, and it is my hope that his arguments were heard and dissected by Polish elites. The case he makes is not the only compelling diagnosis, but it is quite damning, and even if he offers no remedy to the current state of affairs, he correctly identifies a number of problem areas where some creative reforms (especially to Poland’s education system) could provide at least a partial remedy.
Of course, Legutko’s essay is as much a monumental piece of thought as it is a deeply personal lament over something as subjective as a nation’s historical and cultural trajectory.
And here, I offer a brief counterpoint. (With a caveat—it may be a Canadian counterpoint.)
One thing that is culturally obvious to North Americans is that individuals and their narratives matter. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the realm of entrepreneurship and commerce, where individual names and stories can tower over entire industries through a combination of luck, will, and genuine ingenuity.
Presently, this tendency is especially pronounced in the online world, where products and services are invented almost daily, and where a number of individuals (Gates, Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Dell, Hurley, Chen and Karim) have shaped our collective path in a way that remains incomprehensible to previous generations.
Of course, it is impossible for the Internet to save Legutko’s wasteland. After all, the Internet is a tool, and although Google, YouTube, iPhones and Facebook constitute a new mode of communication, Legutko’s primary point is that the nature of the conversation itself is irreparably damaged, and that solutions imported from the outside world can at best offer momentary distraction or temporary relief, without ever touching on the essence of the problem.
This is where I depart sharply from the good professor, for one main reason. Page, Zuckerberg, et al. are not only important because of what they brought, but because of what they are. The Essay on the Polish Soul leaves absolutely no room for the potential of individuals to construct (or, far less likely, reconstruct) something homegrown and something positive in Poland’s cultural and political space. There is no room for something new to grow out of the circumstances of the day, no way to escape the heavy historical burden.
This lack of acknowledgment for the potential of individuals is a major omission, although it is completely understandable. Legutko was born in 1949, and I cannot help but see his unwillingness to consider the role of individual actors as a symptom of the very disease that he attempts to diagnose.
Legutko grew up in the ashes of World War II, and survived a world of mass movements, mass mobilizations, and the conscious and unconscious erasing of individuality. Although I only know him through the words that he has put down on paper, Legutko’s lament is the lament of a certain generation: powerful, intelligent and insightful, but also deeply cynical about the present state of affairs.
While some of those who he writes to may indeed be tainted by the degradation of the country’s traditional culture, the existence of a vacuum suggests an opportunity, one that awaits members of another generation born in a different time.
They will not rebuild what was lost, nor will they keep what is there. But if they take on the challenge, and if they somehow move past the historical burdens, I doubt that whatever they build will take on a form that professor Legutko could appreciate, or even easily recognize. This is not to denigrate his open-mindedness or his considerable powers of perception—it is simply that if his diagnosis is correct, and if Poland truly is detached from its cultural and moral traditions and its past, then it will be difficult for him and those raised with his political and cultural sensibilities to recognize what is taking their place.
Of course, if one buys into the pessimism and despair at the core of the Essay on the Polish Soul, Poland’s potential cultural innovators carry too much historical baggage, and Poland’s future looks rather grim. I suspect that this may be Legutko’s take, and his life story more than entitles him to take such a position.
Yet to this I offer a counterpoint—something that I see quite clearly 20 years and four days after the first 1989 dominoes began to fall.
Here, sitting in the global cybernetic ether, is proof that something very positive can be derived from the Polish cultural experience. The Polish optimist. Me.
Posted by Kris Kotarski at 12:30 AM | Permalink