Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry

Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry

Cures for the Common Cold War: Postwar Polish Poetry

Polish poetry has been captive to our most flattering verdicts about history.


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.

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.

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy