I'm finishing a small book made with various writings and pieces of conference papers that cover these last five years and that may serve as a conclusion of my Varsovian period. The title, "coming humanities", stupidly post-Agambenian, is auto-ironic. I cannot stop being ironic about myself, especially about me in Warsaw: the most useless member of the Faculty "Artes Liberales". They should give me any distinction or award for the courage of eliminating myself.
But well, the book. The book is divided in four parts: "Emergence", "Desert", "Circulation" and "Topologies", and collects various pieces of writing around some key concepts. That of transculture, of course, taken as an emergence of complexity, as well as several other topics crucial for those years: the desert, the void, the legacy of postmodernism.
Together with the history of the Portuguese literature that I really want to finish and submit to the editor before the end of the year, the Coming Humanities book will be the last one I publish in Polish. Thence the melancholy of departure. And the melancholy of those mere 100 pages, that will be printed cheaply, and of course, entirely ignored.
These things I leave behind...
One learns more than just Dutch by studying the Dutch wikipedia. For example, I've learned that de Vliegende Hollander got damned while refusing to get into de Tafelbaai, a bay called like this because situated near Tafelberg, or Table Mountain, also called Hoerikwaggo in the languages of the Hottentots (it is no longer politically correct to call them like this, they are Nama now, and their language is Khoikhoi).
Hoerikwaggo is an extremely useful Nama term to name a particular state of the mind or a particular existential circumstance in my academic adventures.
Climbing Hoerikwaggo is again a metaphor of something I've left behind, thus also a term to name a stage of mourning.
Hoerikwaggo is a mountain of skulls without the crystal pinnacle. A mountain that is flat on the top!
I spent my Sunday concluding on my Tribal Wife experience. Who is who in scholarship, and what makes the real difference. I looked once more into various pages of Polish universities, things I've read thousands of times before. But now I have this moment codified in the classical Indian philosophy. Among pramāṇa, or the "knowledge sources", they also used to define the concept of non-perception, the illuminating moment of awareness that something is not there. This is what I realised, unfortunately only at the moment of looking back at the stages of my academic journey that are already behind... Human knowledge is very much like this, retroactive.
अभाव, the non-existence... and my freshly acquired perception of it...
What I saw behind me, in a lightning, was a mountain, and people climbing it in their more or less clumsy ways. But the mountain was flat on the top. There was no pinnacle. Only a flat surface of individuals among which none was standing higher than any other by stronger argument than just honours or founding. There was no pinnacle of achievement.
This is why there was no way to go for me, no track to climb.
Now, when I look at the idea I've just pinned down, it seems to me I must have observed it before, I knew it. It even seems so obvious. I even vaguely remember have read about it in issue of "Niezbędnik inteligenta" dedicated to elites. Perhaps I only did not know it is called Hoerikwaggo in Khoikhoi.
But how the other stage is called? Is it simply the question of getting to a different type of geological formation? One gets down from the wrong mountain, makes a bit of the way across the lowlands, and then starts climbing again, this time the right mountain? Or there is a secret shortcut to the pinnacle? Perhaps there is a topological secret here I still believe to ignore.
And perhaps it is only a sign of my childishness to believe that the phenomenon of table mountains is typical for Poland and the Cape region, but not for countries like Netherlands and Germany. Perhaps the flat mountains of many skulls are completely different realities, not to be confused with the crystal pinnacles of living intelligence? Perhaps the vertical is the only common denominator? Or perhaps you don't even climb the crystal mountains? Perhaps they are not even mountains? Perhaps they are inverted abysses in which one falls? Attractors emerging out of chaos? Certainly they are something else somewhere else, beyond the horizon of the people inhabiting flat mountains.
Looking back to Warsaw, I remember two moments of supreme silliness. One was the encounter with Nina Witoszek, who was supposed to tell us what topic would be just great for us to study, a kind of brilliant, miraculous idea or key(word) opening the ways in the West. The other one was my encounter in the Polish contact point of the Horizon 2020 programme. When I arrived there and tried to get some illumination about the ways of climbing pinnacles. And the guy looked to me and sighed, and asked me to explain him why the leading scholars were not interested in those grants, never coming to him to take them. It was an encounter of two people just imagining non-existent crystal pinnacles in two different ways... sparkler of crystalline absurdity shining bright...
Même si ça m'arrive chaque année en novembre, j'ai toujours la tendence à confondre les symptômes physiques avec ceux de quelque mal mental. Et je pense sérieusement qu'il s'agit bien d'une dépression clinique jusqu'au moment oü une fièvre légère me retourne à la réalité. Il n'y a pas de maladie mentale qui donne de la fièvre...
Je suis en train de lire Manuel d'exil. Comment réussir son exil en trente-cinq lessons, de Velibor Čolić. Tout d'abord, je l'ai vu dans une livrerie et j'ai pensé que c'est juste un livre qu'il me faut absolument, mais ensuite j'ai décidé de l'emprunter à la bibliothèque. Pas pour faire l'économie de ces huit euros cinquante, mais pour ne pas traîner le poids de ce livre tout le chemin d'ici à Amsterdam; en fait, ça s'est révélé très correct comme intuition.
Enfin, exile, je n'ai peut-être pas le droit d'utiliser ce mot. Pas comme Čolić, en tout cas. Pas "trop d'accent, trop de guerre pour me voir en vrai Européen". Ai-je de l'accent? Je ne me suis jamais vue comme ça. Par contre... oui... comme si une espèce d'hypercompétence. Je connais la plupart des langues de l'Europe. Quelquefois ça me fait même plaisir de lire quelques paragraphes d'Andersen en danois...
J'ai commencé à lire et à écrire en français, parce que je me suis sentie mal en vivant dans une boule néerlandaise en tant que je suis ici. Et peut-être c'est vraiment ma dernière chance de parler français sans accent, même en doutant si je reviens à l'écrire comme avant, quand nous nous faisions des illusions à Cracovie... Civilisation, ma mère! -- et ce n'était pas le titre du roman de Driss Chraïbi, pour la plupart du temps...
Mon néerlandais passe de B2 à C1, tranquillement. Cette longue soirée de novembre, je l'ai passée en apprenant des noms des animaux sur Vikipédia; ceux des Pays-Bas, et ceux d'Indonésie, comme het schubdier en de waterbuffel, et même het spookdiertje... Et après, il ne me restait que la botanique: mossen, korstmossen, wolfsklauw, paardenstaart... Je n'ai quand même pas d'idée trop précise comment ça serait en français... Probablement parce que je n'ai jamais imaginé France comme patrie. Je me refais une enfance néerlandaise.
There was frost in the morning, some days ago. A colleague looked to me with compassion, en me demandant minus combien de degrées faisait en Pologne à ce moment-là. I didn't know what to answer, I never know, this is the reason why they think I don't speak French, and they switch to their clumsy English. Et si l'on peut vraiment avoir trop d'accent pour se voir en vrai Européen... Bon, en tout cas c'est pas moi.
Autant d'enfances refaites en langues d'Europe... Revamped childhoods: Andersen's fairy tales in Danish, German lullabies played on music boxes hidden in the stuffed toys from Rossmann, onderdelen of the kingdom of plants in Dutch... Even the ghost stories I bought in Prague -- and avidly read on my way -- in bilingual, English-Czech edition... The yellow giraffe I bought in Hema last weekend, making me think about that Georgian naif painter, Pirosmani. This is but my native shore of departure for even greater travels...
It is a privilege to sit in the circle of light under this civilised French lamp in genuine alabaster. I also read Zeidan's Azazel, finally. In the French translation, it tastes so Flaubertian, telle une nouvelle Tentation de Saint Antoine... I promise myself one day I will read it in its original Arabic.
Perhaps I should mention this: yesterday I started to write a new book, destined to make some order in my former articles published in Polish and all those serendipitous readings in world literature. Its title, unsurprisingly, is The Book of the World.
I've been out this morning to attend a conference on Blasius of Parma, a medieval mathematician who brought down to Italy some of the ideas of the so called Oxford calculators. But when I arrived at the faculty building, I found the amphitheatre empty. Perhaps the session had been moved somewhere else, but there was no notice. So I went shopping in the main street.
Over the last quarter of a century, we used to think, in the East, that we could buy everything, a great plenty of everything imaginable, as long as we had money. But there is still a difference. I've been mentally choosing some curtains for my Amsterdam home; I've opted for a fine linen, pearl-grey textile with a cobalt blue pattern resembling the porcelain from Delft. And an expensive armchair covered with genuine leather. I've contemplated the price. The equivalent of what? Something like 5 days of my exile, if I'm not mistaken in my calculus. And I saw in the internet that a full professor in Germany, rather unsurprisingly, gains more than this. He or she would only have to work a day, and then again, perhaps staying a little longer the next afternoon, to buy this armchair.
I still have my reading of the Oxford calculators in front of me. In the meanwhile, I cannot get through reading "The Guardian".
I saw the pictures. An army of crusaders, sixty thousand men in their prime, just passing, as the photographer's lens caught them, in front of the very train station where I used to get down every week, over the last decade, to give my classes at the University of Warsaw. They hoist "Deus vult" in big letters. And that's only true, since what God wants, is.
This is the reason why I no longer have a home. I only have an apartment to sell. I cannot complain. There are people who only have ruins.
Moreover, I might be glad and thankful to God who had bestowed His crusaders upon me. Otherwise I might have spent the rest of my life catching the train at 5 am to come up from Kraków to give classes in Warsaw. Never to own an armchair covered with genuine leather.
So I'm giving up on yesterdays, according to an American book I've found here. The number of things I would like to bring along with me is lesser and lesser every day. Nonetheless I still have my attachments. Perhaps mostly to things that should have been in my childhood, but there was no place for them.
A pair of curtains from IKEA stamped with diverse organisms like a biology manual; they are still hanging in my old balcony window.
A collection of several hundred ball and jelly pens.
A considerable number of notebooks and exercise books.
Several hundred books.
About 30 pairs of used socks.
A ceramic sheep bought in Zakopane.
An extensive collection of maps.
A sizeable globe.
A desk lamp, just like the ones in the SOAS library.
A bed cover with an exquisite pattern in various shades of gold.
A nearly complete set of "Fryderyka" porcelain tableware (imitation of Rosenthal); a lonely coffee cup of the same type was the only piece of porcelain that ever existed in my childhood; it had been inherited.
One day these things will appear as worthless to me, I have no doubt. I will have better porcelain, better books, a better globe. Actualised maps, brought home from even more fabulous travels. And I will not miss my apartment. As I certainly don't miss the half square meter of the communal flat where I passed my childhood. Nor my family's apartment later on, in Lublin. Nor the shared room in the so called assistant professors' "hotel" where I lived in my first years in Kraków.
An aged colleague has written to me, commenting that I'm missing in Warsaw. It is certainly nice to say, but I cannot seriously believe this. Not after having been ignored for a decade. And I hardly find any serious reason to look back, beyond the melancholy of departure. Anyway, if Deus vult?
Perhaps I could make my own manual, better than Čolić (of course, his is in fact an anti-manual, because his exile proves to be disastrous). Coming back to Adorno's Minima moralia, and the duty of feeling not at home in one's own home. But there is more to exiles than just the morality. There is the mastery of time, as crucial as the mastery of language. The time of exile tends to be particularly unsubstantial, it flows between one's fingers easier than any other time, and harder to control, to pinpoint, to capitalise. The time of nomads, eternally lost, meandering between not yet and no more like in the old qasidah Banat Su'ad, is certainly not like the time of sedentary people.
I think about Proust, and growing up to write. There is still something blocked in me, a decision to take. To dedicate myself to the proper writing. The missing commitment that the nomads know not.
It is an obvious shortcoming of my imagination to comprehend the Dutch as sedentary people, just because I saw them so well established in their brick houses. But they rely on solidified exile, just like these walls are build on timber thrust into the mud. On nomadic time that had coagulated. On what de Vliegende Hollander managed, through the squall, to bring home.
I remember so vividly Marinus Boezem's installation last winter in de Oude Kerk. The sound of the wind in the gelid temple of an obsolete religion, and this vision of what this very church might have been, hallucinated through the squall. As well as the smell of the Chinese witch-hazel, in its full late-January blossom, behind the Rijksmuseum. If I had nothing earthly to grasp any more, that witch-hazel blossom would remain with me.
But it is so silent and sunny here in the Loire Valley, and a collared dove coos smoothly on the tree in front of my window. Just as it used to coo when I was a child squeezed on half a square meter of a communal flat somewhere in eastern Poland. And I wonder why anyone would sculpt an avalanche of pocket watches on the wall of his house, and what does it actually mean in Dutch: alle tijd. Altijd? All of them are time? Ter é tardar? There is time for everything, I believe they want to say. They are so rich they even have time.
There was also a Dutch painting in the museum in Prague. A stilleven accumulating many objects of aesthetic and intellectual appreciation, and a rose petal captured just as it was falling from the bloom. Not a vanitas. I believe this painting speaks of savouring the time, as it flows between our fingers. Not the time of Su'ad lover, gone astray, but the mature time of a sedentary man, finally found, capitalised, and conscientiously possessed at the end of many exiles.
Yesterday I listened to a couple of papers in a small conference here in Tours. In the way how I understand those things, it was boring, too boring to assist any more. It was the philological kind, just checking up words. Without any loftier intellectual ambitions.
But it made me think about what does it mean small and unassuming in the West. Certainly, here we are completely out of the ranking; this university doesn't even appear among the 700 best ones. But is it the equivalent of being in a small conference in, let's say, Akademia Pomorska, or any other "humanities-and-sciences-and-technology" Akademia in Bielsko-Biała, Częstochowa or wherever?
I see the difference, this slight, tiny difference that may pass unnoticed and nonetheless pads the whole big difference. This conference here in Tours was very modest, very modest indeed, as to my standards, but precise. They were talking about their tiny topics with precision, and this is why they were heading, even if it was by baby steps, towards something that was essentially true, based on something, linked to a reality. This is what my colleagues in the old country miss, even in much greater and more ambitious endeavours. Connection to a reality. They have ideas, and persuasions, and world-views ("poglądy"), and they stick to them. While they know the basic bibliography only by the word of mouth, seeing no real need to know it precisely -- otherwise they would possibly read the books, which are translated into Polish and available. (Here I think about some material that has fallen into my lap recently; someone heard about the community of no-matter-which individuals, yet this idea, although still recognisable, was by no means related to the name of Giorgio Agamben nor linked to a book title in the bibliography; by the way, in this case, the notion has been presented as false, and rejected, because in contradiction with a world-view. In other cases, I saw such barely recognisable notions migrate from one name to another, from Hegel to Freud, creating quiproquos endowed with considerable hilarious potential. Expressions out of their original context, transformed into mere figures of speech, like the Nietzschean "marching army of metaphors" that became a marching army of I no longer remember what -- cultures, I guess -- it was the marching army of cultures...). They have no precise concepts of a given provenience, only vague notions open to any permutation; with them, they build castles in the air. Missing entirely not only the absurdity, but also the random hilariousness of their constructs. Bitter laughter it is, still, for me.
Certainly, coming to castles in the air, I'm not free from this flaw myself. This is why I stick to these western ways, to these small paths of truthful examination. This attitude is the missing link of my chain. This is how I build the ground below my castles, hopefully.
Shall I build my castles on the ground, and of solid stone? Perhaps one day the awareness will dawn in me that it is precisely what I've always done. Otherwise I would have never come to this.
In Amsterdam, they say they are not yet klaar with all the evaluation, and they will answer me in six weeks from now.
Yes, I should be writing properly right now, but it's a Sunday morning and I linger over my blog. It's a common thing to do. But I'm captivated by some deep psychological process as well. Perhaps mentally, I'm still mourning over my old life and my old faculty, and gaining courage and strength to face my new life "in the West". I should probably rewrite my CV to fit the new circumstances and, first of all, the newly acknowledged circumstance that it's all about proper writing. In that monstrous, 40-pages-long CV many things are maintained "just in case", if one day I had to apply for some lesser job. Some time ago, I was mentally preparing to face the risk of my adventure by imagining I might take up some of the lesser schools in Poland later on, and in any case I wouldn't go hungry. But of course this is impracticable even as an emergency solution.
When you face the pinnacle of the crystal mountain, you have to forget the world beneath. Perhaps this is precisely what makes alpinism so exciting. No one will ever care that once I was a member of Komisja Rektorska do spraw programów kształcenia at the University of Warsaw. Even if one day I might become a member of whatever at the University of Amsterdam, it would be preferable to forget my previous experience, or at least keep it safely at bay. Even if apparently it was all about the same, European system. But it has been repeatedly proven that East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...
There is nothing but lots and lots of proper writing in front of me. I would better resign to this without any further delay. Perhaps it's time for the Tribal Wife to get down to that obsession of collecting ball-pens I've already mentioned two or three posts ago... Probably it is just an instinct, like squirrels collecting glands, half knowing that the winter is coming.
I do wonder why it is like this, and it's childish to wonder like this. In fact, climbing the crystal mountain of academic excellence, what one constantly finds on the way are the bodies of those who didn't manage to climb any higher. Naturally, the whole Pareto chart (if we treat it as a diagram of quality, competence, efficiency or success) chiefly reflects the distribution of the bodies. And the crystal mountain of academic excellence is, like in the Buddhist monk's dream, a mountain of sculls.
Somehow, across these last two months, the wisdom that is coming to me concerns mainly sculls and dead bodies. Even if, seen under slightly more optimistic light, it speaks about the ways people took in order to achieve that precise spot on the curve they did manage to occupy. There is the way they climbed and the way they didn't climb, the glass half full and the glass half empty. And now, if I stopped to jot down some of my own musings, concerning what I do believe now the right strategies are, it is only to read this post later on, and see the difference of perspective. And that's only natural, if I'm still climbing.
Perhaps there are more strategies to fail than those to succeed. Perhaps there is only one simple strategy to succeed, but unfortunately, the simplest things are often the most inaccessible ones.
Well, que sais-je... Perhaps I can only look down to see things I know are wrong, blinded by more enlightening truths. I can see what's wrong with a colleague who, surprised by the information that it takes less than 2 hours to fly from France to Poland, confessed to me that she had never crossed the frontier of her own country. Another one sets himself as a target to start publishing in French, hoping that this will put his CV on a new level.
People constantly hope and design aims, persuaded that reaching those thresholds will bring about a change. Many drop out by the way; but those who reach their thresholds face the fact that the change is usually much tinier than expected. And they keep asking themselves: what the hell can make a real change?!
My colleagues in the old faculty try to join circles. They believe that having some kind of collaboration with Oxford and Cambridge will make them great like Oxford and Cambridge. That sounds very much like an old story of Balzac, and Stendhal, and Flaubert, -- and Andersen.
Once or twice I'd taken a trip from my old faculty; we had been in the SOAS for a week. At a given moment, a PhD student asked me, deeply puzzled: "So this is the famous SOAS?!". And I said "well", cryptically like always, "this is the building".
We travelled to London and we saw the building, also from inside (not really a great interior). But we were very far from seeing the SOAS. It was perhaps a bit like seeing the zoo with the animals gone to Africa for their summer vacation. Or visiting a mosque with a Rainbow Tours excursion. These are shortcuts to the world, that give access to its ersatz.
Perhaps these things are not so very difficult to understand. And yet I see so many people closed in their crystal bubbles, stretching their hands to reach things. And later on they say: I have been there. I do know things. And put them in their CVs. Yet on the other hand, I wouldn't like to be that colleague who never crossed the border... Of course.
I've recently discovered a ranking in which my old university is noted as one of the best. It is a relatively new thing, I suppose, or it was not widely known before. The ranking is called EEECA, which stands for Emergent Eastern Europe and Central Asia... Somehow I fancy I would be in no ranking whatsoever, rather than ranked together with Kazakhstan. But this is the world we live in, and it's better to see it than to ignore it.
Nonetheless, I suppose that the relational approach to things (together with whom you are in the group, in what cluster you are put) is the source of many problems. The ranking is only a reflection of the reality. One cannot change one's position in it trying to operate on the ranking (the Saudis, as I've heard, tried to pay up their position, but they did it only once; next year they started to buy up scientifically minded Pakistanis). When one operates on the reality, the ranking rearranges by itself.
That's evident, but trying to boost up by sticking to the right people is deeply human; people make this mistake over and over again. Perhaps in fact it would be a great strategy, if you could make it work. But normally it does not work. Birds of a feather do flock together, but it's very hard to join them by cheating. You may blissfully go on feeding among them for a while, but sooner or later, the flock flies away, leaving the odd birds behind. I would excuse some ambitious PhD students, who love to ask questions to Judith Butler in a conference, for the bliss of the instantaneous illusion of "being it", but the adult ones should know that there is always someone in the shadow who puts you back in the right ranking where you belong.
In reality, I believe, there is only one kind of "powder" that does work. Said called it "the mastery of language". It's a kind of discursive skill that serves, essentially, to write. Printed things. Books. The books you write take you wherever you aspire to go -- if only you know the way of proper writing. I know there is one last secret hidden in this. It is in the word "proper". Of course I know people who wrote books, even twenty and more of them, without ever reaching anywhere close to the top. Because it was not the proper writing. But of one thing I am certain: all those whom I see on the top of the crystal mountain are there because they had written properly. Certainly not because they were at the right time in the right place. Not because they had more influential friends or joined more prestigious circles. Not because they received greater number of most prestigious grants and fellowships. Not because their research projects absorbed greater sums of money. Not because they were deans, or directors, or project leaders, or coordinators, or presidents of more things. Not because they spoke more often at the conferences. Not because they spoke more languages. Not because they published more papers. Not because they joined more learned societies. Not because they had more brilliant ideas, or intuitions. Not because they were more competent. Not because they worked harder, or stayed longer at their desks. Not even because they read more books -- reading books does count only as far as they teach one how to write properly. It is the properly written page that utterly puts you on the safe side. Because the properly written page is what remains.
All the other things I've mentioned count only among those who are outside the enchanted sphere of the proper writing. Those trivia are the refuge of the prevailing number of people, this is why they appear to have such a great face value. No wonder it took me twenty years in the academia to understand this. Or to fully acknowledge that I'd always known it.
Christian virtues may seem something very far from a desert lioness like me, and yet I do possess one, and to a considerable degree. I'm very humble and meek, and modest, even more here than I used to be in Warsaw. At least in Warsaw, I'd never use the kind of sport shoes as I do here (they costed me 10 euro in the supermarket, and I wear them by devotio moderna, or just feeling they fit the kind of countryside I'm in anywhere outside Amsterdam...). I've even dropped down the "professor" title that people used to give me -- not quite legally -- well over the last decade. I'm just fine with my neutral, unassuming "doctor". Which is indeed a treat of distinction in relation to many an Eastern colleague who calls himself (usually men accentuate it stronger) "professor". While actual Western professors don't run after this kind of fellowships, of course. By the way, it's funny -- or precisely not as funny as that -- to verify that what is seen as "prestigious" in the worm's eye view of Poland, becomes woefully un-prestigious as seen from inside. In fact, I suppose the experience would make many people, not as greatly enriched in Christian virtues as I happen to be, delve in frustration. While I face it stoically.
But taking things under the angle of efficiency, not spirituality, I do wonder if my meekness is truly a winning strategy. Being so meek, I just saw myself denied the hall to organise my conference, scheduled in the framework of my Marie-Curie activities. Because the secretaries universally step over the meek, as I know very well out of my long and varied experience. This one has even been rude, as far as you manage to be rude while writing an e-mail in French. And meekly, I made a rather polite mess around it. Once again, perhaps overacting the distinction in relation to the kind of post-Soviet PhD students I knew from Poland.
Anyway, it doesn't actually matter, as long as we are outside Amsterdam. But in the long run, how far can I go being meek? Perhaps I should think about developing winning strategies beyond my meekness.
In the past, my main strategy beyond meekness was something that might be resumed under the metaphor of pulling the tablecloth off, possibly together with the best porcelain tableware. The strategy of pulling the tablecloth off could be observed at my very quiet "saída" out of the Jagiellonian University (the Portuguese term is taken from a printed comment on this situation, published in one of our scholarly journals). I'm pulling the tablecloth off also here in Tours, as I've suggested them very quietly I could just find some other place to make this conference. Finally, I do wonder if those guys in Poland ever noticed that the tablecloth had been pulled off, right beneath their dinner. So very quietly did I do it.
They are feasting, anyway, in my old faculty, because they finally got their A+ category. Mashallah. I did want it, some years ago, but of course, now, it doesn't matter. Some years ago, I would consider it might add some shine to my CV. Now, as for my curricular credentials, the very name of the faculty is rather discretely omitted; I just mention, in a more general way, the University of Warsaw as my affiliation, hoping that people will simply interpret it as the main institution of my remote country of origin, the best available place I had to be in, given the relatively unpropitious circumstances I'd struggled to turn to my advantage. Yet I do feel a bit uncanny about it. While they celebrate their success, I regard the institution as academically non-viable. It is not even the problem of my aspiring for better; I see some essential flaw in it; this is indeed very hard to explain and I'm not in mood for trying it right now. Evidently no one has ever asked my opinion about it. Yet sometimes it makes me think about that old Spanish joke, in which a husband, wishing to kill his wife, was advised to do it "a polvos". After a month, as he was dragging himself up the stairs of his house, totally exhausted, he overheard her singing. So he muttered under his breath: "Canta, puta, canta, que te queda poca vida"... Perhaps it is like this with me and my faculty, and the other way around, my faculty and me. They expect me to come back one day, meeker than ever, having failed in my Western adventures. And they will still be there, with their A+ and their consortia and their great project leaders shining bright... Heading into nowhere, against the falling darkness do they shine so bright. While it's simply not that kind of "powders"...
But most probably I'm only a frustrated marginal, envious about the success and greatness of my colleagues. Look to my shoes...
I forgot to tell something important about Tours: I'm happy here. I take great pleasure in simple things, like going to IKEA and the supermarket, and buying all kind of items that please me. Every simple acquisition gives me joy, that profoundly human joy of possession. I feel so very much attached to my things. Clothes, books, little stationary items. I wouldn't give any of my books to the library now.
The Tribal Wife spent a month among the natives, and another problem is removed from her mind. She saw things, got shocked and shaken, reflected. Curiously, I miss Lisbon now; I look back into my Tribal Wife's adventure there, and I cherish a kind of ethnic shawl in red, blue and violet I'd bought in the Mouraria, the shawl that covered me in the Portuguese national library across the last winter. Now I have a new item, an ivory coloured sweater in very soft polyester knitwear. It's quite a common material, it must have a specialised name, but I have no idea how it might be called. Chenille yarn, as far as I could find it on Google.
My life is so full of everything, since I left Warsaw, it starts to be more than a year ago now. So many travels, so many experiences, so much work started and done. So many new items to put in my CV. I thought I was a CV-maniac, till I saw one guy from the Jagiellonian University who is also a fellow here in France. That one opens his mouth for nothing but to give you some more items from his CV, just to keep people fully aware of what kind of excellent scientist he is. Only the gist of his research has somehow escaped me...
But this post is supposed to be about things, not people. About chenille yarn and the happiness it brings about. One of the best things your CV can buy is a sweater in chenille yarn.
But I've also bought a hole puncher and yet another pack of coloured ball pens. Stationary items are my perdition. I possess hundreds of coloured ball pens, both in my old home and here. They were one of the first items I packed, and still one of the greatest temptations when I stroll across the Auchan supermarket. I suppose such an obsession is not unknown to the psychiatric medicine; it must be rather a common kind of madness. But does it have a deeper meaning? What do those pens actually represent to me? Are they a lasting shadow of a lack I suffered in my childhood? A symbol of my dearest longings and aspirations? What I remember from my childhood, is the dear possession of many colour pencils, perhaps a set of 36 colours, which was a great luxury at that time. And the desire of felt-tip pens, which were even greater luxury; but I actually stopped collecting them many years ago. Contrary to what happens with books, I'm not a real collector of pens; I don't really care to have different marks or rare colours. I often collect exactly the same, Chinese type of jelly pens, and just several types of common ball-pens. Even if, indeed, rare colours tend to attract me more than common ones. Perhaps one day the Tribal Wife will get down to this.
I start to think that Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer, that strange silsila of metaphorical stages, might be read not as a history or theory of modernity, but quite differently, as a theory of individual intellectual adventure. There is something very strange in this figure of spectator contemplating shipwrecks, while standing on the firm ground; there is something perverse in the pleasure he takes in the spectacle. Yet indeed there is something mesmerising in the spectacle of ignorance and intellectual failure. On the occasion of a jubilee, there in Warsaw, I've spent long hours as a Zuschauer. I mean, now, these days, here in Tours. Unable to break the charm, still.
But I try to be serious. I managed to catch up the deadlines that passed by, while I was in my Schiffbrüche. I'm just finishing the paper on Ondjaki and Honwana, and then I have plenty of opportunities to publish that I don't want to drop down. Still not less than three books in Polish. Yet I'm patient.
Who would say this would be my problem to deal with this year, as a Tribal Wife?! That this would be the kind of work I would have to share with the other wives of the tribe?! Certainly, there was plenty of failure and stagnation in Lisbon, but somehow I never felt it was touching me personally, that I was involved in it in any way. I never put my hand to it.
Now I see - again, or sharper than any time before - all the difference, the gap, the abyss, I'm not sure how I should call it. And the twofold necessity: firstly, to see this difference, gap and abyss, and to understand that the failure is not my destiny; to see its tragic spectacle cathartically (how was it in Blumenberg? The Zuschauer who sees the Schiffbruch while standing on the firm ground?). Secondly, to be able to isolate myself from it, radically, seeking other people and other destinies.
All the foul stench of failure that my skin might have caught, all the foul stench of failure that might have ever been in me must be transpired now. The moment is to sweat by all my pores.
I stick to my own CV like a draft in the high seas. This is what my life has been, what my path has been, all my choices are somehow inscribed in it, encrypted, but in permanent ink. Some details may be omitted, some aspects accentuated or shown in a stronger light, but overall that's me. It might not be the most complete CV of an international scholar ever seen, but it's a solid base to go on, a room for improvement. And for one thing, I never costed in vain, I never spoiled thousands and thousands of euro for nothing. I see a treat of Dutch respectability in myself, and I stick to it.
A month after coming here, it is a great time to scribble at least a line. Yet I am so completely overwhelmed that I find it very difficult to formulate any consistent comments. How little did I know about Europe! Or perhaps there is more Europe than I've ever known.
Tours is very nice of course, an old town, representative for what France must have been before Paris was invented. That other, Romanesque and Gothic France. The river is very nice, and there is also a botanical garden, with the advantage of a free admission. The rest is puzzling me deeply.
They gave me a desk and a limitless access to a laser printer. It is a long time that I didn't have the luxury of proofreading my texts on a printed copy... And there are two girls at the desks nearby, and that other Europe I've never known. In such glorious circumstances, we transpire frustrations, all of us. One couldn't get a stable job, and it's what she wants. This is a Europe I know. Europe of those who jump from one fellowship to another only to discover, at the age of 40, that their academic career leads them nowhere. The other one, Finnish, is a bit different case, and perhaps makes me sweat more than she sweats.
I've read her CV, as I always do when I meet new people. After talking with her once and twice, I started to wonder what this charming person, whose talents seemed to me as moderate as her aspirations, actually does there. Certainly, struggling to express herself in French, she appeared not at her best, but overall it was not the Scandinavia I knew about (or imagined I knew), the one of wild competitiveness and even wilder competence. Well, the most striking in her CV are the pecuniary items: how many grants she received and how much it was at each time. No great wonder till now, I saw this before with other people, even in Warsaw. Perhaps in Warsaw in the first place. But - gosh! - those thousands and thousands of euro, year after year after year after year, to finance someone with the tiniest track of publications I've ever seen in my entire academic career...
Yes, I might feel jealous, and more than jealous - an idiot, for all those years in Warsaw, treated as a total non-entity, perhaps being a total non-entity. And I imagined myself well paid!
But emotions put aside, higher mathematics come to my mind. If this girl gets this money, how much the real scholars...? Gosh, that's beyond me.
Yeah, there are many more interesting things I should comment on, my going to Ljubljana, and then to Jena... Yet everything appears enormously mind-boggling to me; this must be the shock of Europe, all its aspects assaulting me in simultaneous. In the past, it had crossed my mind more than once that having such an insight in the multiplicity of academic paths and patterns across Europe, I might one day think about a kind of career in Brussels... How many delusive ideas one nurtures, about oneself and about the world!
Well, after all, I think my present situation has only one problematic aspect: it comes too late in my life. I should have been here in 2007, not in 2017. This is the only reason for frustration, and my ugly mood.
So am I positive in considering all those years in Warsaw as a mistake? Yes, I think this conclusion dawned in me more than once. I regret these years, and I keep a foul memory of people and place, in proportion to my regret.
After I was denied my Humboldt in 2005, I should have gone on trying. I didn't, because the perspective of seeing myself free of Jagiellonian University by coming to Warsaw proved enough to soothe me. And it was a mistake. I should have reapplied to Humboldt Stiftung, I should have asked for Marie Curie... Then. But I was telling myself that a solid university employment matters more than garish fellowships and projects pending loose. I still see my point in this.
Yet I cannot get rid of the sensation I should have been at least a parsec away by now. I should have been in the international system since the very beginning. I've lost too much time. 10 years.
But perhaps these years are lost only in the perspective I acquired after loosing them. It was in those 10 years, due to what happened in those 10 years that I became who I am, and Warsaw became so much inadmissible and unfitting for me.
Concluding, I had no choice but to lose.
And now? And now we will be patient, said Qui-Gon Jinn, who had been a student of the living Force. Feel, don't think, use your instincts.
I feel sadness and silence, and being on the slow track again.
Don't commit your mistake twice, reapply. A solution will present itself.
Only 10 days left. I'm totally out of the schedule; hopefully I can take my work with me. I have a whole year to catch up, isn't it?
I've been using these last days to grow, intensively, striving to touch the bottom. Perhaps I've managed, I will have all the crying done by next Thursday, when I fly to Paris.
I've been closing all my old life. It's hard to believe, it's a quarter of a century that I'm closing. The years of Portugal, the years of studying, the years of squeezing in a context. It's a pity I don't feel euphoric about going to France. It is a cute perspective indeed, but what I feel inside is a great burden, a work to do, all the growing.
I miss speaking Dutch, and I miss feeling like a scholar, kind of big person. I miss feeling my intellectual strength. My brain has been thoroughly emptied these last two or three weeks, till the very slime on the bottom. I know all the importance of it, of this quasi-religious poverty. Different than last year when I landed in Lisbon.
Nonetheless, I'm thinking about travels again; that's a sign of my improving psychological state. I didn't even upload the photos after I came back from Sicily and Malta. And now, I'm back to planning. I will have Ljubljana and Jena very soon. And then from France, quite a different set of destinations must be available, I imagine. Perhaps some places in sub-Saharan Africa, like Benin or whatever. But also France in itself is worth having. I've been thinking about Christmas, will I come back to my apartment or what? Africa's tempting me.
The days passing by, and me still throwing papers. It's late, I know, I should be working, solving practical tasks, at least improving my French, but instead, I'm still among my books. I pack them into a bag, and when the bag is full, I take them to the public library. At the same time, I'm still slowly rambling across my Arberry, and I hear the classical Persian poet Rudyār commenting wisely upon my packing: Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...
It takes so long, because I'm crying over my books in order not to cry later on every time I remember them, as Zielinski allegedly did. I cry now to get all the crying done before I go. Or rather, I understand now to get all the understanding done, of what happened to me. Largely beyond expression; the metaphors block our way, Nietzsche said, and all wisdom is in him (not Shakespeare).
As I throw all these books and papers now, the real question, the real matter that requires understanding is to know why I had never read all those things in their due time.
There had been some obscure psychological mechanism that prevented me. My apartment is full of accumulated things that I didn't dare to open, to look; books I copied because I didn't dare to read them. I translated intellectual appropriation into material possession. I postponed insight, because I didn't dare. Even now, clearly there is something I don't dare. Perhaps I don't dare to face my international career (a short name for something bigger and much more complicated).
Does it matter now to understand? Or do I rather get rid of the answers, of books carrying those answers. I remove the problem together with its answers. One of the books I pack in my bag was written by my colleague, another professor here at the old university. It is a short story about a student, one of those students in cultural studies, getting that woeful, 3rd class education we impart to them. The story is about old letters the student gets from her grandmother: an insight into the human condition she has in her hand as she reads them in a train. And her blindness. She reads, but she doesn't understand; she misses the meaning, because it's not the kind of thing she is after. She seeks something else, ignoring what is the essential to be sought. In cultural studies, in life. And in the meanwhile, the darkness is falling. At the end of the tale, she comes to her room, and tries to read again. There is no electricity, the battery in her phone is low, she switches a candle. And she tries to read something under the title "Memory, space and identity in the light of cultural anthropology". But the words are too long, the letters too small, the flame blinking...*
There has always been the light of cultural anthropology, and philosophy, and literatures of East and West burning bright on my table. And what have I done all those years?
I didn't dare to read and to see. I accumulated. I strive to read it all now as a punishment, as a compensation. But what's the tragedy, if I saw at the end?
I remove all those books and papers from my possession, in a frenzy, as I excrete the toxin of resignation, of blindness, of being minor. Of memory, space and identity in the light of cultural anthropology.
*Agata Sobczyk, Opowiadania o pogodzie, Nowa Ruda: Mamiko, 2012. The short story's title: "Metafizyczne śmieci", pp. 129-150.