Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry | The Nation


Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry

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Jaroslaw Anders's Between Fire and Sleep, a collection of essays that first appeared in American periodicals, especially The New Republic, when Eastern Europe was digging out from under the wreckage of Communism, is the best book of its kind available in English and, quite likely, any other language. Granted, the field of nonscholarly books that synopsize modern Polish literature is admittedly narrow, so such praise may sound slight, a little like Spinal Tap exclaiming that they're huge in Japan.

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Benjamin Paloff
Benjamin Paloff’s forthcoming collection of poems, And His Orchestra, will be published in early 2015. He teaches...

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Yet Anders is not without serious competition from fellow Polish writers. The most imposing is the latter portion of The History of Polish Literature (1969) by Czeslaw Milosz, with its contentious opinions, occasional errors and imperious language. Milosz describes Wislawa Szymborska--who would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1996, sixteen years after Milosz was awarded it--as a poet who "often leans toward preciosity" and who "is probably at her best where her woman's sensibility outweighs her existential brand of rationalism." Though the Polish language has no definite or indefinite articles, summary judgments like these leave no doubt that Milosz understood what it meant to crown his History with The instead of A. Stanislaw Baranczak's Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990), written during the poet's first years of exile in the United States, is suffused with the bewilderment of an Eastern European intellectual trying to make sense of the West, a struggle that is as much Baranczak's subject as is twentieth-century Polish culture. Last, there are the essays of theater critic Jan Kott, collected in such volumes as The Theater of Essence (1984) and The Memory of the Body (1992), whose interest in what literature says about our lives, whoever we may be, allows him to dispense with the usual arguments for Poland's relevance.

For generations a staple of Polish addresses to the West (and Western reviews of the same), such arguments have become hopelessly irrelevant, vestiges of what the novelist Witold Gombrowicz described as Poland's inferiority complex. What lends the aforementioned titles their continued vitality, despite their having been shaped by political circumstances that younger readers cannot remember, is their abiding interest in questions that transcend the headlines and gesture toward aesthetic, metaphysical and ethical quandaries. The nine authors discussed in Between Fire and Sleep thrive on these questions, and most of them received comparable attention from Anders's predecessors. (Milosz's third-person passages about himself make for a bizarre instance of critical auto-commentary.) In addition to Milosz, Szymborska and Gombrowicz, Anders discusses Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, author of demonic plays and novels; Bruno Schulz, a lyrical nostalgic; Tadeusz Konwicki, a wicked postwar satirist; Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, whose prose blurs the boundary between fiction and reportage; Zbigniew Herbert, a poet who unfavorably compared the contemporary world with its classical roots; and Adam Zagajewski, whose meditative lyrics are at least as influential in the United States as they are in Poland. At one time, most of these names would have been familiar to high-minded readers looking for "Writers From the Other Europe"--the portentous title of a series edited by Philip Roth for Penguin Books, which first gave an English home to Schulz, Gombrowicz and Konwicki. Today it is doubtful that any reader, Polish or not, would agree that these nine authors encapsulate the whole story of Polish literature in the twentieth century.

But that is beside the point. If Anders's essays do not aspire to a complete play-by-play of Polish literature's last century, they at least offer the most focused and entertaining highlights reel I've seen. And because the essays were prompted by the appearance of new English translations, they trace the arc of American tastes for Polish literature during and immediately after the cold war and make a strong case for re-evaluating these authors on less ephemeral merits--on the basis of their stylistic and philosophical sophistication. One of the more refreshing qualities of Between Fire and Sleep, in fact, is Anders's astute diagnosis of the narrow-mindedness of the American (and, for that matter, Polish) vision of Polish literature as an affirmation of our most convenient, flattering verdicts on history. "Poetry as a 'witness of history,'" Anders writes, "was a constant motif of Milosz's essays as well as of many of his poems. In many cases, this view of literature as mentor and consoler was certainly true. But in time it inevitably led to a one-sided, reductive reading of some of Poland's most complex writers."

Anders has no illusions about his occasional indulgence in such reductions. He notes that the essays, when read together, "may look like a sort of farewell--a long Polish good-bye to a certain way of reading, of living with literature, that was predominant in the Eastern Europe of my youth and that is no more largely owing to the bloodless revolution of 1989." The Romantic lusting after a life in literature--or, more accurately, a life as literature--is a longstanding trait of Polish behavior, one that has been the target of more than a few satirical barbs, with those of Gombrowicz and Konwicki (who literally defined The Polish Complex in his 1977 novel) among the most caustic. As Anders points out, however, in an intellectual climate that thrives on mining the written word for unambiguous cries of protest, even someone as aggressively anti-Romantic as Gombrowicz can be deemed a prophet: "A writer who sneered at the role of a 'committed' intellectual as 'too pretentious and too frivolous' became, paradoxically, one of the mentors of the dissenting intellectuals of the sixties and seventies."

Back then, young Polish intellectuals and their English-language readers could accept at face value the notion that the former were fundamentally different from the latter, that anyone who struggled to live a free life behind the Iron Curtain naturally read, wrote and breathed more deeply than could be imagined here, in our paradise of Chevrolet, Coca-Cola and James Bond. As Anders puts it, referring to the Polish side of the equation, he and other writers "canvassed the printed page for philosophy, theology, history, moral inspiration, preferably presented in the classical rhetorical mode in which form serves content, in which structure follows meaning, and in which beauty is an aspect of knowledge. Perhaps literature for us was the Great Substitute for myriads of intellectual adventures available to people in free societies?" Of course it was, though the same could be said by precocious teenagers and underappreciated small-town twentysomethings the world over. As for the American side of the equation, when the nightly news constantly confirms our sense that we have it so good we can't possibly know how good we have it, as it did during the cold war, it becomes difficult, if not altogether impossible, for readers not to extol these authors as beacons of Freedom and Truth, Poland's answer to the Voice of America--for which Anders, as it happens, has worked during the past twenty-five years.

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