Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry
Poland, its capital once the namesake of the Warsaw Pact, is now a member of both NATO and the European Union, and while its literature is hardly a historical relic, our approach to it often risks being just that. In this regard, Anders's critical approach is an invaluable tonic. His fleet-footed leaps between biographical detail and scholarly commentary are enormously edifying and entertaining in their own right. At the same time, Anders generally refuses to succumb to the romanticizing that has reduced so much journalism about these authors to a pocket lexicon of moral clichés. Take the book's opening essay on Bruno Schulz. Born in Drohobycz in 1892, Schulz is presented here not only as the brilliant author and artist, the dark metaphysician or the Jew murdered by a Nazi in 1942 while fetching a loaf of bread but also as an idiosyncratic, not altogether pleasant character, "a self-centered personality preoccupied almost exclusively with his own spiritual ventures, his writing, and the practical problems of his life." In the Schulz essay, as in the essays on Gombrowicz and Witkiewicz that follow it, hardly any of Anders's interpretations are novel. Yet the portraits are invigorated by Anders's sense, so often lacking in scholarly efforts, that these writers were people--conflicted, real, intriguing human beings--as well as writers, and that their humanity continues to color their work long after the historical circumstances that shaped their lives have passed.
Anders's affinities as a reader are strongest in his essays on Milosz and Herbert, the most insightful of the pieces collected here. Both poets cast so long a shadow over contemporary letters as to make them magnets of hyperbolic praise and derision; in the few years since Milosz and Herbert died, in 2004 and 1998, respectively, critics young and old, Polish or not, have painted them as the angel or the devil, whispering muse-like into living poets' ears. The Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky called Milosz "one of the greatest poets of our time," whereas in the title poem of his most recent book Krzysztof Jaworski, an outstanding voice in contemporary Polish poetry, laments "how far Brodsky's set us back.... And Czeslaw." Anders tempers these tendencies toward devotion or vilification with gentle but firm skepticism, expressing his heartfelt admiration for these writers as he deflates the moral authority so often ascribed to them. In his discussion of Milosz's Road-Side Dog, a late collection of prose fragments, Anders faults the poet for the epic sweep of his vision, which occasionally surfaces in grand claims about history and gross generalizations about cultural crisis. Unlike Milosz, Anders contends that the modern world is not in crisis, insofar as very little has changed in the fundamental underpinnings of moral behavior: "If popular culture is any indication, we still prefer to see virtue rewarded and vice punished. Most members of modern societies, instead of wallowing in aristocratic decadence, work sixty hours a week, worry about their children's future, and live by the same unreflective, cautious, pragmatic moral code that has been typical of the toiling classes in all eras. The invention of the crisis of modernity--the radical division between then and now--appears to be yet another modern fallacy that confuses the history of ideas with history as such."
Free of this confusion, Anders succeeds in drawing attention to the paradoxes and failures of writers who become, in his treatment, more human than heroic, and who test and refine their literary talents on the wheel of paradox. This is especially true of his discussion of Herbert, whose poems were sometimes sung at meetings of Poland's anti-Communist underground and who is still often described as someone whose moral compass pointed rather than spun. In Anders's far more sensitive interpretation, Herbert remains fascinating not because he shows us the path toward righteousness but because he demonstrates that our fall toward evil, whether private or political, is a natural consequence of our striving toward good: "Tension within culture endlessly fleeing and constantly returning to its paradoxical source is probably the most intriguing subject of Herbert's poetry--far more important than his political parables and allusions. It also reveals Herbert as a poet whose vision of humankind in the universe is irredeemably dark, although it does not preclude individual dignity and existential heroism." By co-translating Barbarian in the Garden (1985), Herbert's first collection of brilliant and horrifying essays to appear in English, and now criminally out of print, Anders prepared himself for a more nuanced consideration of contemporary Polish literature. It is refreshing to see him revive it now that the fog of war, or at least of the cold war, has lifted.
In this way, Anders also deflates the exceptionalism that is common to American and Polish national discourses and remains, at least in part, a source of Polish writers' stunning success in this country. Like the heroes of The Blues Brothers, John Landis's unlikely cinematic paean to all things Chicago (and therefore both Polish and American), both nations have long held that they are on a mission from God, a mission whose ill-defined goal--Konwicki refers to it as the "religion of freedom," a concept so terrifyingly fragile it might not survive outside scare quotes--must be attained at all costs. "Like most religions," Anders remarks, "the Polish 'religion of freedom' proved to be a source of astonishing moral power in times of crisis, yet it also created its own orthodoxy." Even for those who have read few or none of the works Anders discusses, his witty reflections should prove enlightening. For the "certain way of reading" to which these essays bid farewell may have had its time and place, but it ultimately proved too orthodox, too programmatic in its vision of good and evil, to survive in a postglobalization, postmodern and--no use avoiding it--post-Communist world.
Between Fire and Sleep does have one flaw, though it is not to be found in Anders's critical acumen or in his wit. Only one essay is devoted to a woman--almost of necessity, since she also received the Nobel Prize. With her often dizzying irony and provocative sense of formal and intellectual play, Wislawa Szymborska could have aided Anders in his dismantling of political and critical orthodoxies, and yet his essay about her is the shortest, most superficial and least inspired in the collection. It is not entirely Anders's fault. Polish literature in English is a men's club, one that reduces such outstanding literary artists as Zofia Nalkowska and Debora Vogel to footnotes in the sexual biography of Bruno Schulz. Unfortunately, and partly because of the image of Polish literature that Anders challenges, women have not been translated into English as readily as their male colleagues. When they have been, they have generally garnered polite smiles more than serious consideration.
But this too is changing. In his preface, Anders points to the recent prose of Magdalena Tulli and Dorota Maslowska, among others, already available in English. In their considerations of these bold new writers, critics have rarely felt the need to point out, as Anders says of Adam Zagajewski, that something in their work "has not been properly resolved." For while a literature of clear resolve may provide reassurance in uncertain times, it is the literature of irresolution, always shuttling between one thing and another, that continues to speak to us through the ages. This may be why Anders's book, too, seems unresolved: because there are so many other writers, troubled and troubling, mysterious and beyond category, who have been trying to speak to us Americans all this time, and who are still waiting to be heard.