Letter from Poland: The Crisis of Modernity: 1989-2005. Polish Prose in the Face of the Great Narratives

Context N°20

by Przemyslaw Czaplinski

The fate of Polish prose after 1989 might be written in three concise sentences. First, in this new period prose became the Other in Polish public discourse. Second, this state of otherness arose from the profound crisis in which social communication found itself. Third, in the most recent prose one can find responses to this situation, or better to say the strategies for better understanding the origins of this crisis.

Literature undergoes a constant “test of belonging” in public discourse. Only when it passes the test does it enter mainstream public attention, and is thus endowed with social recognition and included in discourse. But the center, i.e. the mass media that mediate a society’s discursive life, is a place with its own peculiarities. Literature that finds its way to this center—i.e. which becomes the object of general notice, even for a moment—succumbs to a special kind of media processing, which strips the literary work of its interpretative strength, its ability to disrupt the consensus. It serves to strengthen the identity of a media sphere of communication, in other words the confirmation of an “imagined identity” (as Benedict Anderson would have it) happens through a given medium—whether it be a newspaper or television network.

Examples of this unfortunate syndrome are fairly numerous. In 1996, Wisława Szymborska received the Nobel Prize. In response, the conservative/right-wing press set up a McCarthyesque public trial for the poet at which her volumes of poetry written during the Stalinist era forty years earlier (!) were questioned, whereas the liberal press tried to link Szymborska’s ironic and subtle verses to the tradition of Cartesian doubt, tolerance and democratic dialogue. In 1997, Henryk Grynberg’s volume of short stories Drohobycz, drew anti-Semitic portraits of ordinary people living just before World War II, and in its wake the friends of Drohobycz society sent a letter to the most important newspapers in the country, accusing the writer of having slandered the good name of Drohobycz and its pre-war residents. In 2000, Jan Tomasz Gross published a book called Neighbors—a historical-sociological study of the mass murder of 1,300 Jedwabne Jews committed by Poles (after the eruption of the German-Soviet war and after the Germans had crossed into the eastern territories of Poland); in response, a significant part of the press—Catholic, nationalist, conservative and right-wing—accused the author of lies, slander, conscious falsification of history and besmirching Poland’s good name; the liberal-democratic press turned this same book into proof of the demon of anti-Semitism lingering on in Poles, and an argument for the spreading of tolerance, the spirit of ecumenism and dialogue. In 2004, immediately after the death of Czesław Miłosz, one of the most outstanding Polish poets of the 20th century, and certainly one of Europe’s finest, some of his admirers suggested that he be laid to rest at Skałka, the Polish Pantheon; in response the nationalist/conservative/right-wing community stated that Miłosz had very frequently criticized Poland (or even that he was anti-Polish), that he had not been a true Catholic, and that his verses did not belong to the Polish canon as they were not widely known (I will come back to this last point). In 2005, the Wierszalin theater performed a play called The Victim of Wilgefortis (an adaptation of the story of Kummernis from Olga Tokarczuk’s book House of Day, House of Night); amongst the props was a sculpture of a woman on a cross; the members of a certain political party (those sitting in the city council, who had financed the rental of the theater building) came across a photograph of the sculpture. These councillors admitted that they had neither read the book nor watched the performance, yet nonetheless accused the Wierszalin of “blasphemy and offense to religious feelings,” warning that “in forthcoming tenures this theater will be driven out of Podlasie with sticks.”

In mentioning these adventures in the literature of the new era, I am not trying to suggest that Poland has become an intolerant country where books are publicly burned and authors thrown into prison. In fact, I intend the opposite, namely that all of these protests are symptoms of the important role that literature has been designated, and at the same time a testimony to the conviction that literature has no right to fulfill this role in any way it pleases. To put it another way: nobody would accuse a literary text of offending religious feelings if everyone thought that literature was no more than rows of letters arranged on paper that it was of no greater consequence than simple entertainment, even entertainment of a specialized or particularly subtle kind.

The crisis derives from the fact that Polish society applies to literature either a standard of importance or a standard of liberty. Thus the reception of prose occurs in one of two ways: we grant art a high status on the condition that it is seen as important, or we grant art total freedom, though in this case we are not liable to see it as essentially valuable for social life.

Art endowed with liberty is absorbed into incapacitating rituals of interpretation, into liberal displays of the artistry of non-obligatory comprehension. Meanwhile, literature weighed down with obligations shoulders a societal burden but sacrifices freedom of speech. This choice is what I understand as the particular crisis of modernity.

New Forms

The eruption of newness in prose—stylistic, formal and conceptual—in this first period of the crisis was dazzling. Just about every prose-writer’s debut offered a different language, a different use of narrative, and a different manner of presenting the world. The apogee of innovation came in 1995—a year which saw the publication of books as diverse as Magdalena Tulli’s Dreams and Stones, Andrzej Stasiuk’s White Crow, Stefan Chwin’s Hanemann, Natasza Goerke’s Fractals, Olga Tokarczuk’s E.E., Jacek Baczak’s Notes from the Night Shift, Izabela Filipiak’s Total Amnesia, Jerzy Pilch’s Other Delights, Anna Nasiłowska’s Domino

From this multiplicity emerged at least two essentially different propositions. They represented an interesting counter-balance to the “desire for storyline” that had already been signaled and can not be overestimated, which was decisive in the extraordinary successes of popular fiction. It should suffice to mention that the novels of Ludlum—a writer of standard thrillers—had print-runs in excess of one hundred thousand copies, and that the translation of one of these was proposed to one of the most outstanding Shakespeare translators of the time—Maciej Słomczyński. This was an unusual time of relative balance between innovation and traditionalism. And though the print-runs in either sphere were quite varied, it is nonetheless important that the mass media—the major papers, television and radio stations—were interested in this difference in character. The transmissions which the high-exposure media ensured to idiomatically expressed subject matter gave the floor to heteroglossia. We finally began to gain awareness of the fact that we were a diverse society.

This sprawling, unregulated and unstable expression could not fit into traditional narrative structures. Thus at least two interesting writing strategies emerged in the prose of the 90’s—interesting also when set against a European backdrop. The first might be called a “non-epic model of prose,” and the second—the post-modern silva.

In the non-epic model, which had rich pre-war (Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, Stanisław I. Witkiewicz) and post-war (Miron Białoszewski, Leopold Buczkowski, Janusz Anderman, Donat Kirsch) traditions, and which has long been part of the European tradition (from the digressive narratives of Cervantes and Sterne to the long prose poems of Lautreamont or Gide), the author claims the right to use all the components of narrative as purveyors of meaning. From single words, through rhyme and poetic means, to the combination of novel and poetic forms—everything is possible, nothing is forbidden. This is a novel in which every element can be extracted from its state of epic transparency to serve as a foundation for the novel. If the author chooses action, therefore, its development takes place through the connections between words, not the succession of events—a connection based on treating verbal phrases of every kind as narrative occurrences. If the narrator is constructing, then he/she has the right, above all, to interrupt the narrative, to stray off the main path, and to subordinate intrigues and events to commentary and digressions, or to indulge in associations. These attributes can be found in the works of Marek Bieńczyk (Terminal, 1994; Tworki, 1999), Natasza Goerke (Fractals, 1994; The Book of Nuisances, 1996), Aleksander Jurewicz (Lida, 1990; God Doesn’t Hear the Deaf, 1995), Zbigniew Kruszyński (Schwedenkrauter, 1995; Historical Sketches, 1996), Jerzy Pilch (Other Delights, 1995; One Thousand Peaceful Cities, 1997), Zyta Rudzka (White Film, 1993; Feasts and Famines, 1995), Grzegorz Strumyk (The Annihilation of the Bean, 1992; Kino-lino, 1995), Tadeusz Komendant (The Mirror and the Stone, 1994), Jakub Szaper (pen name of Jakub Bulanda; The Innards and the Entrails, 1994), Magdalena Tulli (Dreams and Stones, 1995; In Red, 1998). Of course, each of these books has its “plot,” but the energy normally devoted to spinning a tale is directed towards slowing things down, the masters of which—each of them finer than Kundera—became Pilch (retardation), Bieńczyk (digression) and Chwin (description); towards leading the novel as a whole away from single metaphors (Tulli), towards revealing literary and linguistic borrowings in the re-creation of the past (Jurewicz), or finally, towards representing the world as the sum of languages that we use in the act of naming things (Kruszyński).

The formal tactic of the 90’s that is the most interesting and most difficult to grasp, and which has enriched the state of European prose, would appear to be the silva, i.e. the narrative “medley.” The silva, described to perfection by the critic Ryszard Nycz in his well-known study The Contemporary Silva (1984), is part of the tradition of unobliged writing, which means that a work rooted in this school of poetics does not compose an entirety, be it thematic, generic or aesthetic. The narrative evolves from situation to situation, driven by associations, recollections, and above all opportunities, which means that it evolves like an anthology of possibilities provided by the narrative, arising during the course of writing and fulfilled in sounding the depths of a form that is not ready-made, which can accommodate portraits, anecdotes, sketches, essays, stories, micro-dramas, commentaries, tableaus or notations of ideas for works. The most well-known works from the 60’s and 70’s adopted this form (Miron Białoszewski, Kazimierz Brandys, Leopold Buczkowski, Witold Gombrowicz). The latest works of this type, which might be defined as “post-modern silvas,” introduce distinct attributes, despite their traditionalism. In Tadeusz Konwicki’s A Pamphlet on Myself (1995), Manuela Gretkowska’s Parisian Tarot (1993) and Metaphysical Cabaret (1994), Anna Nasińowska’s Domino. A Treatise on Births (1995), Zbigniew Żakiewicz’s Beheld, in a Stopped Time (1996), Czesław Milosz’s Alphabet (1997), Another Alphabet (1998) and Roadside Dog (1997), Andrzej Stasiuk’s Dukla (1997), Olga Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night (1998), Krzysztof Rutkowski’s Parisian Landscapes, A Register for the End of the Century, Death in the Water and Paweł Huelle’s Other Stories (1999), the innovation finds a free response within the framework of a clear structure. The structure is ostentatious, and at the same time artificial in relation to the narrative; it takes the form of alphabetical order (Miłosz), a treatise (Stasiuk, Tokarczuk), a chain (Gretkowska, Metaphysical Cabaret), or a non-literary order (the composition of Parisian Tarot reflects the order of the tarot cards; Huelle numbers the succeeding fragments of his book, combining some of them in cross-referential configurations). Thus the post-modern silva plays an interesting role in literature, showing the arbitrariness behind any structure through its composition, and reminding the reader that at the close of the 20th century any kind of totality is impossible—both in the sense of presenting the world as a whole, and in the sense of a response that would fulfill the rules of a convention without departing from it in any way. Its compositional framework turns out to be the result of abiding by a few structures—often entirely arbitrary and alien to literature (the Tarot, alphabet, numerical order), but also alien in a whimsical way. The rule for the older silvas was to present literature’s many genre options, while it seems more characteristic of the post-modern silva to show a multiplicity of structures, to test the compositional combinations available to writing. In this way the silva comments on and contests structure of any sort—in the world and in literature. It also shows that there is no understanding outside of convention, while reminding us that every convention brings with it some kind of overbearing structure, albeit humorous or arbitrary, though it may hamper expression or limit communication.

Today’s literature, in light of the silva, does not choose between avant-garde freedom and popular convention, but between convention and incomprehensibility. And so even in this free movement of innovation there lies an unsettling overload of structure. As if even the most sovereign writers were concerned that the contemporary reader would be less than thrilled by games played at the limits of language.

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