Among the plethora of heroes and champions of the Mahabharata, there is also Ekalavya, a gifted student to whom Drona, the archery master of Arjuna, refused his teachings. Descendant of the jungle tribes, he was coming from the wrong caste. The neatness and beauty of the solar arrow achieving its target was too much for his sort of people.
Rejected at the gurukul of Drona, Ekalavya went to the forest to practice archery in front of the guru's figure chiselled out of wood (or modelled out of mud), till he achieved such a perfection that he could prevent a dog from barking by a shower of arrows around its mouth, yet leaving the animal unscathed. When Drona discovered his achievement, he ruthlessly asked for his guru-dakshina (the repayment due to one's teacher), which was to be Ekalavya's right thumb. In such a way, Drona prevented him from casting a shadow upon the greatness of the favoured pupil, Arjuna, the pedigree hero destined to shine.
It is clear that the Mahabharata is not Polish, for the favoured pupils in my country of origin have always been chosen for the reassuring virtue of their invincible mediocrity. Nonetheless, the part concerning the rituals of cutting right hands' thumbs of high achievers remains valid; especially when they come from the wrong caste, making themselves guilty of spiritual autonomy. Perhaps it proves the actuality of Indo-European cultural foundations.
Be that as it may, I tried to avoid chiselling wooden fetishes of teachers of any kind. Even though, I had to refuse to cut my own thumb on more than one occasion. But right now, contemplating my scarred fingers as I write, I am by no means sure if I managed to dodge the connection between mastery and wound.
My story might be told in many ways. It might trace a luminous path that led me from very modest beginnings toward social ascension, academic recognition, fascinating travels, international scholarship. I could accentuate my success; I could love myself in it. Perhaps when I planned writing this autobiographical essay for the first time, that was precisely what I wanted to do. To draw a line that had led me to the place where I was in a more suggestive way than any standard curriculum vitae might do. It might have been a way of celebrating the titular professorship that I saw as a mirage on my horizon, coming to crown my academic achievements in my country of origin. But at the moment I write these words, I am an independent researcher rebooting virtually from zero; at least from the point of view of academic status, since knowledge and experience obviously stay with me. I did not fail but in my own eyes; all my discontentment is but the measure of the standards I decided to adopt; the fault is all mine. Nonetheless, as I went on writing, everything that was born under my fingertips tended to grow in bitterness immediately. The result is a story of a loss, of subsequent losses: of my family, of my universities, of my country, of everything my life once had been. Perhaps the essential factor of any success is the ability to leave things behind; and more than things, also people. But did I ever have people around me, did I ever have a country? Or rather, did I have traumas to cure before I turned twelve, and no illusions whatsoever concerning the society in which I was living?
My earliest memories, which must be situated, I presume, around the age of three, are those of the texture of peach skin and a book about some dark green bears that I had when I was in the hospital. I landed there, because my mother used to leave me alone outdoors to play when I was still too young to be admitted in the nursery school, and an older child pushed me down the slide with such a result that my leg was broken. I was so small that I had no idea what my name was and where my parents were living. But the accident did not teach them caution; my mother just made me recite my name and address over and over again. I was ten and a half when my sister was born, and I was expected to take care of the baby; once again I stayed long hours outdoors, this time with a baby carriage. I suppose that, with my book and my seriousness, I looked older than my real age; some people must have imagined it was a case of an irregular maternity. This is why one day someone spat heartily on my best sweater.
When it happened, I had no idea why. I could only construe the reasons a posteriori, in the light of my subsequent experience and of what happened in my country later on. We were in the beginnings of the Church-promoted anti-abortion / pro-morality campaign. A female, even one of such a tender age, was under attack, ready for the victimisation; anyone could spit on her in total impunity. I think that the person who did it was a young male, like those "crusaders" who participate nowadays in fascist manifestations, hoisting DEUS VULT written in big black letters; I recognised the face from my childhood on a photo from Poland in "The Independent". But what I remember distinctly is that the book I was reading was about Mesopotamia. I tend to connect these two unrelated facts, searching for the roots of an unfulfilled nightmare: that of Polish participation in some hellish matamoros adventure. Perhaps these elements form some sort of secret symbolic constellation, tracing the diagram of inexplicable, nonsensical destiny of my country across the last half of a century. A boy, a girl, a book and a crusade.
All these musings are just delving in unfulfilled darkness. But one thing is real: the ever-present contempt, sort of basso continuo of my early years. In fact, why Mesopotamia? My first dream as a child was to become a scientist, a biologist. I had a notebook where I was writing my "observations" of plants and birds and every month I was reading "Mała Delta" ("The Small Delta"), quite an original publication we had in Poland at that time, I suppose the only such a serious scientific journal addressed to children that had ever existed worldwide. Yet very early in my life I received my "diagnosis"; I could be eight years old or so at the time. A friend of my mother, who possessed some elements of professional training in psychology, decided to make an IQ test in which I obtained an uncommonly high score. I am not sure what this friend actually said to my mother, but I know well enough what she understood: that I was in some way abnormal. After so many years, I distinctly remember the grim, ominous mood in which my mother was when we returned home. Her intuitions proved to be correct. For many years to come, she was to face problems with her daughter; problems for which she was completely unprepared. I was progressively dissuaded from developing my scientific interests by the scorn and contempt with which my parents treated them; but that was far from being the end of trouble. One day I came home with the news that I was accepted to a music school and I was to play violin; I went through the preparatory course and the exams all by myself. At the age when the privileged children start to learn music, the frontiers of my world were already extending far beyond the courtyard; I had learned how to take the bus on my own.
Of course, violin was unthinkable under the conditions in which my family lived, but I did not know it yet. I got the idea from Zosia, a handsome, delicate girl with curled hair who lived in the same block of housing office's flats. The aspect I initially failed to comprehend was why she could play violin and I could not, since we were living in the same block of flats. But her people were not like my people. The communism rendered the social conundrum even more intricate; it would take me years to comprehend it, and more than my lifetime to internalise it. Instead, I nurtured a very solid persuasion that I was different, beyond the normal, irreducible to what other people were. Destined and sentenced to live in a world of my own, where the rules and criteria applicable to other people were not valid.
A bit later, I switched to humanities. At the age of nine, I became a typical Egyptology maniac, having seen a film about ancient Egypt: the 1966 adaptation of Bolesław Prus' Pharaoh by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Obviously I also liked Indiana Jones later on, but I am proud to have started, in those gloomy years that roughly coincided with the period of the martial law in Poland (1981-1983), by such an aesthetically advanced reference. But overall, I cannot say that my childhood was spent in a culturally or intellectually enriching environment. On the contrary, I grew against very limiting circumstances, as a lonely child at odds with everyone and everything. Not only did it shape my youth, but it remains with me till the present day; my omnivorous intellectual diet is still a kind of hysterical reaction against those early limitations.
The story of my self-service childhood sounds incredible, I know. ("Your story sounds incredible", an ex-president of the Foundation for Polish Science told me, years later, when I was to explain the reasons why I decided to resign from my professorial position at the University of Warsaw). But in fact I belonged to an entire generation of children with their homes' keys hanging from their necks on strings, chains or fine leather straps. I have no idea how the feminism looks back to the history of the Polish women's ascension to the payable work market, if it ever does. Those topics have never been seriously discussed; such childhoods as mine belong to the shadowy, unspeakable zone. At the time, we were still to wait more than thirty years for the mass manifestations of women carrying black umbrellas. In the meanwhile, old peasant standards of behaviour (leave the kids in the courtyard while you are doing your chores) remained unchanged and unchallenged; there was no other paradigm, no other standard, at least not in the horizon of my people.
Only the courtyards in front of the urban blocks of flats differed from the courtyards in the countryside. None of them were actually safe and I am lucky to have escaped just with one leg a bit shorter than the other. Relying mainly on the inborn avoidance of eye contact and the capacity of adopting a particularly stern face expression, I also managed to dodge the hordes of paedophiles and exhibitionists. No need to say all that was acting on pure instinct; no one ever cared to warn me against any such dangers. I only received a generic, yet even more persuasive message: WHATEVER HAPPENS, YOU WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE. AND YOU WILL FACE THE CONSEQUENCES ALONE. The efficacy of this summary sexual education was tremendous. Looking back to my life as a woman approaching her menopause, I can definitely say I have never made love unprotected. Not even once. For the rest, as soon as I attained the age of reason, I preferred to keep my sexual life as far from the national shores as possible.
I added this paragraph to my autobiographical essay at the moment when Smarzowski's film Kler (Clergy) electricised Polish audience, provoking a national debate on paedophiliac priests. But that was merely the tip of the iceberg. The society is still not ready to accept the stories of children and young girls abused not only in churches, but even more importantly, in family homes, courtyards in front of blocks of flats, popular allotments (działki). Abused in many ways, not only by actual sexual crimes committed on them, but firstly and more durably, by the atmosphere of insecurity; by the vague sensation of shame, uncleanness, unnamed guilt; by the information denied to them; by things unspeakable imposed upon them.
When I was still a child, my grandmother kept a hen in the balcony, in that block of housing office's flats where we all lived, four generations of us in a low-standard two bedrooms apartment. She worked outside as well, as a nurse. She was the first generation of literacy in my family. My great-grandmother, who also lived with us, was illiterate. I remember the day I discovered the fact, aged six or seven, and how I tried in vain to teach her how to write. She claimed obstinately her sight was weak and she couldn't distinguish the letters. Years later, when I was to obtain my habilitation (post-doctoral degree), my grandfather told me, with resigned tranquillity and seriousness, that he would not talk to me any more, because from then on "I was a professor". Effectively, since that day, he has never talked to me, claiming obstinately that his hearing was too weak to comprehend my speech. I do not believe he has ever had any intention of cutting my thumb; the wound was to be there, yet beyond anyone's personal responsibility. A breach opened between my world and theirs.
For many years I respected that decision, taking it for the result of an autonomous will, even if it might seem strange and incomprehensible, to myself as much as to any reader of my story. Only recently, confronted with the growing wave of madness inundating the Polish society, I have started to wonder if that attitude was not in some way derived from certain inspirations my grandfather might receive from the ultra-Catholic and ultra-conservative Radio Maryja, of which, as many people in his generation, he was a great fan. My grandfather was the only truly religious person in my family; the rest just lived a very primary life, without much spiritual depth. Certainly, he lacked education or insight in the matters of this world and the next; he was a simple mail carrier. But earlier in my life, he had always encouraged me both to study in the institutional framework and to gather the experience of things in a direct, empirical way; he did so much more than any other person in my surroundings. Why did that attitude change? Because I crossed certain boundaries and went beyond the levels he was able to accept, or because new ideological factors appeared in his world?
When I saw him for the last time, my grandfather was trying to play the role of a patriarch, aggressive and harsh, commanding the women with menaces of slapping them in the face. The change in his personality and behaviour was such that for a moment I thought there might be a malignant tumour developing in his brain. Perhaps, at least metaphorically speaking, there was indeed a tumour; or rather a dreadful parasite he had let into his head. As I remember him from my childhood, he was humble, mild and unassuming person; his Germanic background (he was born in the western part of Poland, not far from Poznań) was patent in the fact that he used to polish his shoes and wash his socks every evening at the same time he was washing his feet. In the world of my childhood, such a discipline seemed nearly maniacal. After his work in the distribution of the mail, he was usually occupied scything some grass for the rabbits he was keeping on a small allotment; he was also cultivating some flowers and vegetables. There was a barren apple tree on that allotment; he felled it, and with its wood, as a sign of devotion, he started to produce rosaries. He built up a strange, over-complicated contraption that served him to make holes in the beads; it would certainly find its place in an ethnographic museum as a masterpiece of a naive artist. I still have the rosary he gave me, made out of that apple tree of my childhood; I have only transformed it from the Catholic version into a misbaha. But it seems that we have searched for the East of our souls in quite opposite directions.
"Perhaps they had been manipulated", a wife of an American colleague said to me during a party, assuming that what happened in Poland must be in a way analogous to the presidential victory of Donald Trump. I do not see it this way. I cannot admit that even an innocent, defenceless man may be just instantaneously manipulated into menacing his kin with slapping them in the face. Humans are not simple automatons; they chose and decide. What is more, my grandfather's problem was situated at a very basic level; there was no complex ideology implied it it, only the most elementary choices. Nonetheless, I suppose it might be possible to explain the process that had led him to the point where he arrived. In a society of contempt, he was at the very bottom. Together with his polished shoes, his habit of wearing very bad clothes was no less Germanic. Also, he was always forcing me to wear filthy rags when I was with him, assuming that I would get dirty anyway while feeding the rabbits. Later on, as my grandmother suffered a stroke early in her fifties due to abuse of alcohol and an impossible diet, he used to drag her in a wheel chair through muddy paths to his allotment, offering daily a truly Beckettian spectacle. Taking all those circumstances into the account, it is hard to imagine the tremendous dose of humiliation he might have absorbed along his life. No wonder that, when his little radio whispered to his ear that he might "get up from his knees", the message became the last temptation of that naturally meek and pious man. Certainly, he remained at the very bottom of the society of contempt. But now he could take his revenge, that the radio rendered legitimate, menacing his females with his raised fist. As desperate, tragic and nonsensical as that revenge might be, he chose to take it and to go on inebriated with it.
Later on, both in Kraków and in Warsaw, I often had the opportunity of hearing other people's narrations of their roots and origins. These complex stories usually involved Jews, Polish noblemen, governesses speaking French, and even dragomans, or interpreters, of Farsi in the service of the tsar. I have never heard anybody talk about a hen in the balcony. Nor about apple trees made into rosaries. This is why, as I said, my story lacks credibility. On the other hand, I have always had a distinct sense of fiction, without accusing anyone of deliberate mendacity, while hearing other people's autobiographical narrations. I have always suspected that their will of continuity was in fact covering a poignant sense of disruption, of a void, of a break in cultural transmission. These keywords of my personal contribution to the humanities are taken from my vital experience of Polish destinies.
Let's return to the early eighties and the parallel world of high scholarship in which I was seeking my refuge. As the literature about Egypt was not abundant in the minuscule public library that existed at my doorstep, I went on reading about antiquities, art and mythologies more broadly, including India, Mesopotamia, the Cyclades (I remember there was a book on this topic in the library), and a plurality of other ancient cultures in the Mediterranean and beyond. I used to walk a long way to another public library to fetch more reading; that one was bigger and looked fabulous in my eyes; at least we had public libraries in those dark times. I had no idea of poverty. I was happy and experienced a great abundance when I could huddle together with the borrowed books on the fold-out chair bed where I was sleeping. As the result, I dare say I was already quite well versed in the domain of ancient civilisations when I was still very young, and what is more, distinctly inclined toward a universalist type of erudition. It also explains why I started teaching myself Arabic before I got any chance to study Latin, and why I became incurably nostalgic of the era of Oriental scholars and explorers. I have read Said's Orientalism as soon as it appeared in its first Polish translation, but that was only in 1991, when I was already a high-school student. Till then, I lived, and lived intensely, in the dazzling noon of colonial scholarship.
An important fact to mention is that I was lucky enough to get two significant travels abroad, in a way of children's camps offered as a bonus in my father's job. The first one was a trip to Eastern Germany, where I could visit, as a thirteen-years-old, the Museumsinsel in Berlin. I still keep as a priceless sentimental possession a couple of postcards I bought, reproducing a lion from the Ishtar Gate and a dove carrying a piece of cloth, a detail in the apse from Ravenna that is now in the Bode Museum. The second camp was in Szeged; on the way to Hungary, I also visited Prague. What is more, travelling by bus through the then state of Czechoslovakia, I was amazed to discover, in a small village shop where we stopped for a break, that any amount of chocolate might be bought freely, providing that one had enough money. At the time, chocolate was available in Poland only with food stamps.
This early youth in the margin of historical turmoil, in spite of very modest material, social and educational conditions, gave me a quick start; I am building upon this advantage till the present day. Later on, everything slowly became more normal; in relative terms at least. My family could finally move to a new apartment and I even got a room on my own. I learned drawing, painting and wood carving, as well as art history and French, at a high school dedicated to fine arts. Mircea Eliade, translated into Polish and quite popular at that time, introduced me into the domain of comparative religious studies. I was also a keen reader of Aldous Huxley; a translation of his Perennial Philosophy was among the first books I owned. I started accumulating them as soon as I could get any money to buy them. I was interested in books of the world, taking me to distant places, in space and in time, making me feel I was living in an open horizon; it was among my books that I was free. That was the beginning of my Multilingual Library, a collection of books, maps, guides, dictionaries, personal notes, photographs and drawings brought from my travels and disposed on the shelves as a private metaphor of the world: Europe, the Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Arabia, the northern regions, the New World, Australasia, Oceania, Australia. A kind of polyglot Mnemosyne, or Malraux's musée imaginaire with a new background, whatever one might call it: transcultural, non-hegemonic, cosmopolitan, pluriversalist.
I say that things normalised only in relative terms, because as much as our material situation slowly improved, the mentality remained the same. I could learn French, painting and art history, but my mother despised me for having chosen, against her will, that school. Because it was not normal, it was breaking through her mental framework. She believed we were taking drugs to make us "artists"; I was also a regular whore in her eyes; with a prodigious readiness of spite and contempt, she was expecting such news as an unwanted pregnancy. To her utter desolation, those tidings were not coming, giving her no opportunity of humiliating me any further. I was struggling for my progress and education. But my mental health started to deteriorate, leading me deeper and deeper into neurosis and depression. With a motherly dedication, she supported all the eventual projects of suicide I might cherish; some nights she was coming to my bedroom, positively trying to provoke me into taking the decisive step. I managed to recover, through specialised pharmacological treatment that I followed for some eighteen months, only much later, around 2008. That was when all contacts with my family utterly ceased.
It was on my younger sister that my mother utterly took her revenge; it was her that she managed to break, transforming her into an empty being with no will of her own. Initially, to her desperation, my sister borrowed my dreams and projects. But there was something essentially false in all that. Her aspirations were shallow, as if they were empty carcasses with no entrails to make them live. What she wanted to become might be approximately resumed under the stereotype of an elegant English upper-class young lady; she was trying to see the world through the lens of Pride and Prejudice; obviously the reality, especially the Polish one, did not let itself to such a treatment; the constant clash only made her more and more entrenched in her fictional world. One might object that my sister was not English, and much less from an upper class; nonetheless, that fiction was strangely compatible with the alleged origins in the countryside gentry that my mother tried to invent for herself. At the same time, it was something even more general; the phenomenon appeared striking to me many years later, when I was on my way back home from somewhere abroad. As if in a sudden illumination, I found a glimpse of my sister in a couple of Polish young women I saw in the tramway. They behaved stiffly, with pretension, as if sticking to some kind of inadequate, artificial scenario. I suppose it was their defensive strategy, a firewall they were desperately trying to oppose to the society of contempt in which they had to live. A fiction of dignity.
Be that as it may, my sister, downtrodden and regularly humiliated as she was, considered horse riding as her major interest; having a horse of her own was one of the main targets orientating her life. Contrary to what happened with me, my mother managed to put her in "the best" school, where she was seriously mistreated by her teachers. Later on, she tried to mimic my ways to such a degree that she imposed her choice of art history as her major; but the genre on which she intended to focus her research was English sporting art, i.e. paintings representing gentlemen in red jackets, usually against green backgrounds. My mother failed to make her study IT, as she believed my sister should, but later on she managed to inculcate her with the sense of complete failure and to persuade her about the absolute uselessness of her qualification. My sister did not seriously try to make herself a future as an art historian; she got an obscure job related to computers. Finally, she went abroad, not exactly as a knowledge migrant; from time to time I check her posts on Facebook, since many years referring invariably to Star Wars.
What should be said in defence of my mother is that she was not entirely sane, either. The difficulties of life overwhelmed her, as they did with many Polish women, victims of the cruellest, the most inhuman of all lies: the myth sacralising the maternal figure. In reality, the Mother Pole, female of the Agambenian genus Homo sacer, has never been either protected or respected; since decades, generations, even centuries of Polish history, she has only been invariably downtrodden, humiliated and victimised. Material shortages of the communist Poland added a new chapter to that never-ending story. On the other hand, privately, my grandmother added an ancestral burden of inhumanity to the lot, epitomising a truly Indo-European, tyrannical and spiteful mother-in-law. In her early twenties, with a baby in her arms, my mother found herself surrounded with people in a minuscule, overcrowded flat, servant of everyone, lacking any assistance or attention to her needs. My father was not much of a comfort for her; he was barely nineteen when I was born and for the rest of his life he remained alienated from problems, just accepting passively, aspiring to nothing, searching for nothing. He was also suffering from mental problems such as anxiety and hoarding disorder.
The epigeneticists claim that the fear lived through by the past generations gets accumulated and transmitted. I wonder how far that is true. I have had problems with anxiety since my childhood, but I was a fearful child mostly when I was in his presence; he was giving me fear just as other fathers give the sense of security to their children. Nonetheless, I suppose that such episodes as that of having gone on my own to search a music school might characterise me as a very brave kid. And so did many other acts and decisions I have taken along my life. Although familiar with pharmacology, I never needed more than a couple of blisters of Tranxene in the lowest doses available to soothe my anxiety. At the same time, I often think that I am the only person provided with an instinct of self-preservation in my immediate surroundings. I fear fearful things. Meanwhile my father, with all his anxiety problem, was horribly reckless in front of clear, definite dangers. Just to give an example, he could manipulate the electrical wires in our home and leave them naked, without any isolation; once we actually had a fire caused by this. I hardly dare to mention the episode when he stood on the balcony handrail (8th floor!) for some stupid reason. I suppose that he had learned to live with a red alarm constantly switched on in his head. Being so, he had no other signalling resource to indicate the moments he was really crossing a limit. Or perhaps it was just sheer stupidity, without any excuse. I asked him once if it was OK to keep a damaged power plug without its plastic casing behind my bed. He told me he was sure I knew there was no reason to put my hands between the bed and the wall. I did not even dare to say that my ball pen fell into the gap.
This is how I have exercised my instinct of self-preservation since a tender age, learning how to assess risks; otherwise I would die electrocuted. I try to fear fearful things, and nothing but fearful things, although not everything can get easily into the calculus. I am very cautious with venomous arthropods and snakes, always covering my glass of juice for fear I might drink a wasp with it; relatively cautious with parasites; rather reckless with germs and the risk of alimentary poisoning; nonetheless, I always keep my vaccinations up to date. I am afraid one day my mother might somehow come back into my life. I am afraid of fascists, while not afraid of terrorists; be that as it may, I have never travelled to Egypt (I have only crossed the Sinai once, on my way to Akaba), even when it was a very common, easily available destination for Polish people. What I fear most are all forms of institutionalised violence. The first signs of the deterioration of the political climate in Poland made me positively alarmed; such was my urge to flee that I left everything and sought for a fellowship in western Europe; literally, as if the ground under my feet were smouldering. As far as I know, I was the only person doing so in my immediate circle of colleagues and academic friends. For most of them, as well as for the society in general, the well-known secret of cooking frogs might be illustrative: if one throws a frog into a pan filled with boiling water, it jumps out immediately; but if one puts the frog in a pan of cold water, heating it slowly, the frog gets cooked.
In many years to come, it seemed to me that Poles, with all the epigenetic heritage of fear they might have received, actually had nerves of steel. Or an unlimited supply of ingenuousness to ignore the risks. Many years later, in December 2016, I could observe it while crossing the Casamance on the way to Guinea-Bissau. For the reason of convenience, I was travelling with a group of Polish tourists. At one of the military check-points, there was a big, ugly-looking guy with a machine gun ready to shoot, strategically placed in such a way that he might hit our knees. He was just sitting there in the shadow, caressing lovingly the ammunition belt, and we had to walk right in front of him. I was the only one to have sensed any danger, even if I knew the probability he would actually shoot were scarce. Of course, the tourists were not afraid, because they simply had no knowledge of the fact we were stepping on a ground soaked with blood. I suppose none of them, including the Polish guide, was aware of the number of victims in various confrontations in the Casamance, or knew that we were actually only in a period of ceasefire, the Jola fighters having been temporarily requested by the neighbouring dictator. The ECOWAS intervention in the Gambia started barely a few days after we left the region; incidentally, the dictator in question, Yahya Jammeh, was known to have in high esteem the cheerfulness and group conviviality of Polish tourists; he would certainly miss them during his exile in the dismal Equatorial Guinea; unless one day the Poles choose to follow him there, unaware of the sheer existence of Mycobacterium leprae (since they believe infections are chiefly transmitted by Syrian refugees).
Sarcasm apart, and to put it shortly, our tourists, smiling broadly, were on holidays. Of course, I also met some French, Dutch and other nations in the Casamance; but they were goal-oriented, off-road travellers, seeking high levels of adrenaline or quenching their highly specific desires in the world-renowned brothels of Cap Skirring. While Pani Jadzia, the Polish lady with whom I happened to share a hotel room, was an unpretentious elderly person employed at a national martyrdom memorial. Yes, I shared a room in Cap Skirring with a widow working as a museum warden!... Who would believe a word of my story, when I come to my travels? But that's a digression belonging to a much later period in my life. Let's return once again to the small world of my youth.
THE PORTUGUESE YEARS
I was born in a society of contempt that did not educate me to dignity. But I was reasonably well prepared for silence, exile and cunning. Aged fifteen, I was a punk, participating in a movement that gave those early times of freedom their particular taste; I crossed the country to participate in the famous festival in Jarocin. As I turned sixteen or seventeen, about the time of democratic transition in Poland, I belonged for some time to the Buddhist sangha that gathered for zen sessions in Falenica, a suburban district of Warsaw. At eighteen, as soon as I received my adult ID documents, I also made my first steps as entrepreneur; I registered my own tiny business, producing signboards and advertisements with decorative foils while I was still at school. This is how I could gain the sufficient for my needs and make small economies to help launch me in the future I desired.
Compared to this glory of my teenage years, the studies in Romance philology at the local Maria Curie-Skłodowska University could only appear as dull and frustrating. It was a mediocre institution, adding very little to my previous fascinations. In terms of literary theory, structuralism was considered an advanced topic; five years later, in 1997, I was to leave that university, master degree in my pocket, without having ever heard in the classroom such names as Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida. But that was not the main problem of my deficient university education. The major issue was something that later on I called "world blindness" (ślepota świata). Not a mere ignorance of even basic facts concerning the world, but something more serious, a blindness generating delusions. One of them, that brought later on political consequences dragging Poland out of the European Union, concerned the Mediterranean world. Recalling the way how I was taught such a simple topic as French literature may be illustrative. At the university, we discussed in class such works as L'Immoraliste by Andre Gide, a book commonly read as a story of a paedophile in the context of colonial Algeria. As he delves in his vice of loving beautiful children too much, his life falls into pieces, including his prospects of a brilliant academic career. Of course, the text that Gide published in 1902 evokes paedophilia and homosexuality only by allusions; the reader is expected to read between the lines, till the final collapse of the hero who, having absurdly decided to become braconnier, ends up as a victim of the handsome companion he desired. But the analysis we received in class had no hint whatsoever in that direction. Who was the "immoralist" mentioned in the title? Well, one of the Arab children whom Michel used to invite chez lui steal and surreptitiously destroyed a little pair of scissors. That was the immoralist in our reading, epitomising absolute evil and gratuitous destruction!...
The only thing I could do at my university was to study languages: not only French, but also Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. These are the roots of my polyglottism, that, as the years went by, increased far beyond the Romance range. Already as a teenager I used to get small bits of English and German on my own, just because I was such a responsible, future-oriented person; and small bits of Arabic, because I enjoyed crossing the limits; Russian was still compulsory at school. On the other hand, the adjective "Romance" meant something important to me, perhaps through art even more than through linguistic unity. This was where I belonged on the vast map of overlapping, pluriversal territories.
So quite early in my life I knew something about eight or nine tongues. I smile when I meet people seriously persuaded that speaking several languages is a privilege of the rich, able to pay private schools and special courses. In fact, it is the most democratic of all skills; and I completely agree with the partisans of the USSR (uninterrupted sustained silent reading) as the key factor of educational success in any circumstances and under any conditions. If I could go to better schools or simply get more friendly attention, it might have helped me in social terms; I might have become more assertive about my skills; till the present day I often tend to speak clumsy English or stagger in languages in which I am quite fluent, just fearing social punishment for my mastery or to avoid putting myself above the level of other people. But initially, learning new tongues was not a social skill at all for me; foreign languages was precisely what other people could not access. It used to be a private affair of mine, an intimate solace, an additional insulation against troubles and matters going on around me. Foreign speech was protecting my inner world from intrusion. For a long time, I was fluent in none; except Polish of course. But even this is remarkable, because I managed to speak and write it in a rich, correct way, which was by no means so very obvious, given my social origin; it helped me a lot early in my adult life, when I started working in the editorial business.
Even more importantly, speaking Portuguese turned out to be my salvation, enabling me to get out of my limiting, local sphere, and study abroad. Portugal offered two or three scholarships in the framework of the newly established collaboration with Eastern Europe, and I managed to get one of these; TEMPUS was also a great novelty of the time. Even if Lisbon, where I found myself for the first time in 1993, was not exactly the intellectual capital of Europe, it was incomparably better than anything I could find at my home university. So I went to the University of Lisbon three or four times during my undergraduate studies, at the price of an acute conflict with my professors in Lublin. During all those years of communism, they could never go abroad themselves, and they treated the new knowledge I brought from the West as a threat to their authority. Today, I do understand their fragility; but I managed to comprehend it fully only at the time when I tried myself to meddle in the ERASMUS MUNDUS agreements with Morocco; it was exactly the same problem of new knowledge biting at old, patriarchal structures. At the time, it was a wound, cutting very deep into my flesh.
But overall, I look nostalgically back to the nineties as it was a good time for Poland. Academically, it was the beginning of a luminous path leading upwards, at least for us who were young at the time to glean all those scholarships and new opportunities. I could appreciate it fully only when the trend turned downwards again, and the Polish academic circles started to close and collapse upon themselves, frustrated by the unfulfilled promise of unhindered participation in the scholarly high life of western Europe.
It was also only later on that I could appreciate something else: the fact that socially I had very little to do with the intelligentsia, a caste self-appointed as the spiritual guide of the Polish nation. My father was a simple worker; my mother, a modest schoolmistress of peasant extraction, aspired to it without ever integrating it fully, even if she went as far as trying to invent her own roots narration, made of incongruities such as a tomb of a noble grandfather in a forgotten cemetery somewhere in Eastern Poland, and the claim of having been a domestic worker employed by a locally reputed scientist, Laura Kaufman, who - as I cared to check, years later - actually existed, lived in Lublin, taught at the Academy of Agriculture, produced new races of poultry (here comes the hen again), and died the very year when I was born; nonetheless, even as a child, I could not persuade myself into believing that my mother had ever met her. I think that creating this imaginary narration was her response to my own early interest in science; she found no other way of dealing with it. Quite characteristically, the fact that even in her imaginary story my mother proved utterly unable to invent herself in any other role than just being the scientist's chamber maid tells a lot about the class distinctions in a supposedly class-free society of the communist Poland.
There exists an untranslatable Polish word, zakłamanie, signifying a sort of generalised mendacity, the saturation of reality with lies, to such a degree that one becomes uncertain of the actual existence of the ground beneath one's feet. Silencing certain facts, living as if certain things did not exist, creating parallel realities instead, zakłamanie was a magical response to situations beyond anyone's effective control; it was a strategy of survival. I tend to associate it with the intelligentsia in the first place, but perhaps this is not entirely just; the intelligentsia only brought this art to its utter accomplishment. The word is usually used in the political context to designate, in the first place, all kinds of ideologically motivated manipulation, but I believe there is also an intimate dimension of the phenomenon; it explains my doubts concerning the veracity of those roots narrations involving governesses and imperial dragomans that different people used to tell me, and more, the veracity of the very narration of her life that my own mother left to me. It sinks in the void and disruption. I do believe she must have read about Laura Kaufman in a newspaper.
By the way, this incredulity was fully reciprocated later on, since my mother could not believe that I actually received all those scholarships in Portugal. It was absolutely beyond her capacity of understanding that I had sent some letters somewhere abroad, and some letters came from a country beyond her horizon, and I just received enough money to live many months and to return with a bag full of new clothes, still having something in my pocket. I dare not enquire what kind of hypothesis she might have built up in relation to the origin of these funds. Nonetheless, what I have just said permits to delineate the logic explaining why my academic success became for my family not a reason to feel proud, but on the contrary, an unspeakable, shameful secret. Tragically, zakłamanie leads people to complete and lasting disorientation in the reality they can by no means disentangle.
At a much earlier stage of this trajectory, my mother also taught me some of the basic principles of the intelligentsia, such as: BOOKS SHOULD NEVER BE THROWN AWAY. It was a sacrilege to destroy a book. Years later, when she retired, she abandoned all the prejudices of the class in which she never achieved more than the status of a catechumen. She burned in a stove most of the books that remained in my family home. I managed to save one, the best book, as I remember from my childhood, that had ever belonged to her. It was a handsome edition of Conrad's Lord Jim. Any of her friends or colleagues must have presented it for her birthday. She knew not what to do with it. I suppose it had never actually occurred to her that she might read it. No wonder the fact that I was reading my books caused her anxiety. Once she asked me to give her one of those. I brought her Eliade's Maitreyi (the novel translated into English as Bengal Nights), that I considered at the time as my favourite reading. It was the only instance I knew positively that my mother had read a book. She was deeply shocked by its contents. She had never imagined the sheer possibility of living in a different culture, such as was that of the young Maitreyi. The book appeared to her as full of strange errors; everything was monstrously wrong in it, it was an abomination. I suppose this was exactly the state of the mind of many people keen to burn entire libraries across history. Also my mother fulfilled her own incendiary ambition in the tiny scale of a cast-iron stove.
As I have never belonged to the intelligentsia, I could avoid the greatest flaw of this class issued from pauperised nobility: the sloth, their inborn incapacity of hard work (although many of its representatives share a firm, yet rather grotesque belief that they work their fingers to the bone). It was this essential flaw that made the Polish academic system stagnate, especially in the eighties, when the resistance to communism occupied the place of any scholarly endeavour whatsoever. The sense of mission the intelligentsia cultivated apparently excluded the necessity of any effort in search of knowledge; they knew well enough what was "right" and "true"; they had strong beliefs and values beyond the necessity of critical examination. The concomitant fact that they had adopted zakłamanie as their strategy of survival contributed to the intellectual failure of the entire caste. For in the scholarship, one constantly deals with a form of critical examination or another; inveterate habits of mendacity combined with strong beliefs necessarily contradict the requirements of the scholarly profession.
While I was reading my books, preferably in any of those languages I had learnt, the members of the intelligentsia just were, existed, endured (certain resonances of the Polish verb trwać are beyond any possible translation into English), entrenched and self-sufficient in their persuasion that gratia gratis data had been bestowed upon them for the salvation of the nation. The books they did not read endured with them as a part of the "substance" (another untranslatable concept) that should be protected and preserved at any cost; I should be grateful to them, for it meant precisely those public libraries where I found my refuge. Two decades later, they could return to their true selves again when a new opportunity of resistance appeared. Or rather, was created by a kind of schizophrenic splitting of the minds when the intelligentsia was lacerated by the instinct of dissent and the alma naturaliter endeciana (expression coined by Czesław Miłosz that I refuse to render explicit). Finally, they could forget the books they had been preserving. They could dedicate themselves to the Protest. It was in this exercise that I left them when I resigned from the University of Warsaw to face a career of international scholarship.
Confronted with the slow-motion, surreptitious deconstruction of the Polish democracy, I decided to emigrate. The wife of an American colleague asked me during a party if I would not fight for my country. I told her my country had not been invaded. What was going on was a free and completely autonomous fulfilment of the deepest and most desperate desire in people's hearts. To give a free rein to their contempt, spite and hatred, no matter what practical consequences or material costs it would imply. They were still the same people who spat on me when I was barely eleven, just because I was alone with a baby. Having cultivated zakłamanie, which is leading, as I said, to a complete and lasting disorientation in the reality, they were crazy about "values" that might serve as reference points and desperately looking for the guidance of someone or something they might follow without questioning. The absolute submission, the female pleasure of unconditional surrender was appealing to their instincts; no wonder the gender question had such an importance in the melee. While obviously, freedom is not appealing to people who are in doubt about the sheer existence of the ground beneath their feet. Also the protesters, whom I saw dragged on the passageways by the police, where playing their part in a ritual that I neither shared nor admired. That of denouncing, on the heights of contempt, the inhumanity and barbarism of their adversaries. Spitting right into the faces of their oppressors certainly implied greater bravado than humiliating a child; but the similarity of attitudes left me deeply troubled. They were not fighting for establishing a polity as their aim; they were also giving a free rein to something intestinal.
I do not believe it might be easy for anyone to leave everything behind; such decisions are not taken lightheartedly. But I did not see much space for hesitation. I could not go on with that monotonous ritornello of spite, lies, folly and fear for the rest of my life. Also the intellectual and spiritual figures that I could take for my guidance were certainly many centuries older than the modern concepts of patriotism or national identity. Confronted with growing waves of madness, they were always ready to pack their stuff on a donkey and simply walk as far as it would be necessary in order to protect their freedom: to Ishbiliyya, to Marrakesh, to Damascus, to Amsterdam.
I have just anticipated the climax, my exodus, but the four apocalyptic riders of Poland, Contempt, Mendacity, Ignorance and Delusion, will reappear over and over again in the following sections of this autobiographical essay. Patience permitting, let's return to the proper chronology of my youth.
As already mentioned, I went to Portugal for the first time in 1993 to participate in a summer school at the University of Lisbon. Soon it became my priority to return, simply because it was the only way out of the limiting and oppressive atmosphere of Lublin. My undergraduate studies were financed first by the TEMPUS programme and then by the Instituto Camões. In 1998-1999, having already been employed as a lecturer of Portuguese at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, I participated in a postgraduate Comparative Literature programme with a fellowship offered by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. At the same time, I completed my Ph.D. dissertation on contemporary Portuguese literature, defended in June 1999. I studied domestic universes created by such writers as Vergílio Ferreira, Carlos de Oliveira, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Lídia Jorge and Teolinda Gersão. But my Gulbenkian Scholarship helped me for more than just this. I could participate in the postgraduate programme in Comparative Literature (Mestrado em Literatura Comparada) at the University of Lisbon, which completely changed my perspective on the relationship between literature and other modalities, such as visual representation of the world in art. I was also working on the paradoxical topic of Orientalism in Portuguese literature, that appeared to me as quite an original phenomenon, at the same time participating in and falling apart from the general, European paradigms.
The Lisbon I knew was complex. I would not say postcolonial; it was still a picturesque colonial metropolis against the grain of the history, full of people coming from the four corners of the empire: African soldiers of the Portuguese army brought from Bissau after the end of the colonial war, women wearing bright, multicoloured capulanas, the colonisers themselves, some of them, elderly, still using vintage style colonial hats against the Portuguese sun. The refugees from Timor, with the air of Barbarian long-haired warriors in everything but their stature (they were very short guys), were relative newcomers and their presence proved to be ephemeral. Nonetheless, when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation, the manifestations of solidarity with Timor-Lorosae were the fashion of the day; music was played on the lawn in front of the Salazarian buildings of the University of Lisbon; white clothes were worn; even the traffic used to be stopped at noon for a quarter of an hour of solidarity. It was also the moment when Macao officially ceased to be a Portuguese outpost, but the Chinese who some years later would take practically all the city centre for themselves, their souvenir shops and their small businesses were still yet-to-come. I found myself in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebration only much later, when I was writing one of my subsequent books, Imperium i nostalgia. Be as it may, much of what I am now should be seen as a product of that city at that particular moment in its history. The colonial Lisbon that brought her empire home is in my blood, indelibly inscribed in my sense of the planet as a familiar place, that might seem so very surprising were I to be taken for a Pole.
During those Portuguese years, I started to see myself as a traditional comparativist, following the footsteps of George Steiner. I tried hard to equal him in erudition and even to fill some of his confessed lacunae. Errata, published in 1997, was a fresh book at the time, and it was still early for the Grammars of Creation, that appeared in 2001; I had absolutely no hint of the death of the discipline that was to be announced by Gayatri Spivak. Perhaps because my own comparative literature had never been truly Europocentric. It was the aspiration, a glorious dream of erudition and insight, something bigger and greater, contrasting with simplicity and narrowness of the Portuguese studies. Even if I had some very good professors in Lisbon; I shall never forget the Baroque classes of Margarida Vieira Mendes or the seminar on Fernando Pessoa given by Fernando Martinho. What is even more curious, I had classes in African Lusophone literature with Inocencia Mata, an essayist from the archipelago of Sao Tome and Principe that later on became one of the leading, or at least the most conspicuous, African Portuguese-speaking intellectuals.
The time I spent in Lisbon was happy, productive, smooth, pervaded with the smell of eucalyptus trees. I was finally out of the madhouse of my family home, although a considerable amount of inherited folly obviously accompanied me all the way across Europe. No one steps dry out of a river. But I managed to make a life for myself. I got a stable academic employment and could move out of the oppressive world of Lublin, to live up to my liking in Kraków. In 2004, I managed to buy a tiny flat; a few months later, I decided to dislodge the boyfriend I had at the time, and since that moment I have been proudly protecting my Woolfian right to "a room of my own". Any men that might appear in my life were asked to stay outside.
Lusophone studies as a discipline were to become the serious part of my life, permitting me to settle down smoothly with a stable academic employment at the Jagiellonian University. Intellectually, it left me unsatisfied. I engaged into the Oriental studies, but I could follow the curriculum only for several months; it was simply too hard to continue, teaching full time in my own Romance philology department. Also my academic superiors regarded this situation as very irregular, hurting the strict hierarchical rules according to which students and teachers were separate categories; and even more, because they were unable to see any meaningful connection between the Iberian and the Arab worlds (sic!). The head of my department, a Hispanicist specialised in the Spanish Golden Age, asked me with scorn: "Will you compare Arab and Portuguese novels?". For her, in her closed Catholic horizon, such an endeavour was a patent nonsense. Such an ignorance was not uncommon, still is, even in the leading Polish universities. She passed away already, but I wish she knew what mind-boggling parallels have I drawn ever since!
On the other hand, I also started thinking about my habilitation immediately after the doctorate, and I wanted to advance with this work as well. Nonetheless, I believe the passage by Oriental studies was an important step in my formation, as important and defining as all my Portuguese adventures. Later on, perhaps as an untimely consolation, I reached the conclusion that it was even better for me to abandon those standard university courses; I was to make my own way in the discipline. Be as it may, right now as I write these words, I still consider that Oriental studies are, have always been, my intellectual destiny.
In the meanwhile, the circumstances were such that I had to develop my Portuguese specialisation in the first place. From 1999 to 2006, I taught both the language and literature in response to the necessities of the newly created Jagiellonian University's curriculum in Portuguese philology. I also contributed with several basic publications that were lacking on the Polish book market: a practical introduction to the Portuguese grammar (1997), a presentation of the contemporary Portuguese literature (2000), as well as a translation of a history of Portugal (2000). The general appreciation of the Portuguese culture has been given in yet another book: my post-doctoral dissertation on spatial conceptualisations in the Portuguese literature and cultural imagination, since the end of the Middle Ages, throughout the expansion and the imperial era, till the contemporaneity (2003).
As it always happens in Poland, the accelerated pace of my career made me both loved and hated. The appreciation came in 2002 with a prestigious starting grant of the Foundation for Polish Science. It used to distinguishes yearly a hundred researchers in different fields of knowledge that managed to make themselves visible before they turned thirty. I also designed and successfully coordinated a comparative research project on islands and insularity financed by the Committee of Scientific Research (KBN), gathering a dozen of colleagues specialised in French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan studies. Another volume, a presentation of the 19th c. Portuguese literature, remained unpublished for many years. Much later, I included this material in a volume prepared for Ossolineum that I finally managed to complete with my second Gulbenkian fellowship, in 2016-2017. But the presentation of the Brazilian literature that I also elaborated during those laborious years was offered to the readers after a shorter delay, in 2010, included in a volume on the history of Ibero-American literature that I prepared with Nina Pluta. In the meanwhile, my personal interests going beyond extensive presentations of literary history were reflected in a monograph on José Saramago, Pokusa pustyni (Temptation of the Desert). This book, published in 2005, remained for many years the clue of my bibliography. It was a step beyond the traditional literary history into the domain of High Humanities, as I could see them from my perspective at the time. The book was full of Buber, Benjamin and Lévinas, and, as I see it even today, the result was quite remarkable, at least in the bibliography of a writer who was usually studied in a rather superficial way. Pity it was written in Polish.
What is more, I still had to deal with mediocrity, flourishing also in the bosom of the most prestigious among the Polish universities. As the Portuguese studies hardly ever existed before, it was an area open to all sorts of opportunists, especially when the Portuguese official instances came in with all sorts of rewards and distinctions. I have never received any. Rather in the contrary. My immediate superior in the academic hierarchy, a Hispanicist legitimising her position by advanced age and a tiny booklet on Baltasar Gracián (the same who found no common denominator between Arab and Portuguese novels), saw the flow of my publications as a challenge to her authority. In an atmosphere of open hostility, I resigned from my post at the Institute of Romance Philology. On the other hand, it would be unjust and ungrateful to forget that many people noticed the inappropriateness of what was going on in my case (mobbing is the contemporary term for it; we did not use such words at that time). The fact that I was distinguished with a 2nd class award by the Rector of the Jagiellonian University in autumn 2006, i.e. right after my resignation, proves that a certain will to redress the wrongs had been present. Nonetheless, this story of a scholar forced to resign for having published an important book may seem incredible in the eyes of a Western reader. Yet it is a typical Polish story, repeated - although with significant variations - a decade later when I was to leave the University of Warsaw. But let's see how I did get there in the first place.
THE LOST DECADE
In 2006, both my research activities and the professional duties took a completely different turn. Having left the Jagiellonian University, but still living in Kraków, I became associate professor in an interdisciplinary institute, transformed later on into the Faculty "Artes Liberales" of the University of Warsaw. For an entire decade, I continued working on a temporary contract with this institution, getting up at 4 am and travelling 400 km back and forth. I suppose all my academic career would look very different by now if I managed to go abroad directly from Kraków. In 2005, I applied to the Humboldt Foundation, yet unsuccessfully. In the meanwhile, Warsaw appeared as an alternative, a new beginning, and made me refrain from trying harder to get a foreign fellowship. Later on, it proved to be a crucial mistake, perhaps the biggest mistake of my entire academic career. But initially I was hopeful about Warsaw. These were still the last years of the upward trend in Poland.
Undoubtedly, it was a significant step towards the diversification of my experience. My teaching activities switched to the area of Mediterranean studies that I had always fancied and, at the same time, to a transdisciplinary vision. One of the subjects I was teaching throughout most of this period was the "Philosophy of Culture". The name was not of my making; it was taken from the official guidelines for Cultural Studies curricula in Poland; I suppose the persons who coined it were entirely unaware of its Neo-Kantian resonance; what they meant to say was just "Cultural Theory". So the aim of this course was to introduce the students into a panorama of recent tendencies in the humanities; its contents were changing gradually over the years to accompany new books and emerging ideas. As teaching is the best way of learning, this is how I caught up with the ever-changing flow of the humanities, while the Polish academic milieu continued a slow, uncanny digestion of the decade 1980; anachronistic exploration of feminism and gender - treated as a hot, highly controversial, and not entirely academic topic -, as well as postcolonial studies - expressed in more and more idiosyncratic terms and usually attempted without a serious look beyond the national frontiers (sic!) - is still going on in Poland as I write these words. Around 2013 or 2014, I tried to dissuade a couple of Ph.D. students from adopting Freudian psychoanalysis as the key of their research. In vain. There were other, more prominent voices speaking louder in their intellectual environment; how could they hearken to my advice? I solemnly averred that, to the best of my knowledge, AD 2014 psychoanalysis was a complete anachronism. They simply did not believe me.
By the way, in Warsaw, I was initially keeping a low profile. In 2006, as a participant of a collective research project, "Silent Intelligentsia", I exploited once more my Portuguese competence in a study concerning the postcolonial emergence of African elites, distractedly called "African intelligentsia", for in Poland it was still impossible to capture things in any more appropriate or adequate terms. Following the dynamics of the Varsovian centre, involved - under not quite clear patronage - in manifold activities directed towards the post-Soviet space, I participated in some projects dedicated to the autochthonous peoples of Siberia; this is where I got my two Buryat Ph.D. students, slowly working on their dissertations, officially under my supervision, ever since. Overall, in 2010-2016, I was a member of the faculty for two doctoral programs: "Traditions of the Mediterranean Humanism and the Challenges of our Times", financed by the Foundation for Polish Science, and "Searching for Identity", designed mostly, but not exclusively, for the Russian-speaking Ph.D. students and TEMPUS AURORA scholarship holders that flocked at the University of Warsaw.
Still, there was little space for promoting any groundbreaking research in this context. It was extremely hard to break through the mental habits of the Ph.D. candidates coming from the post-Soviet space, and perhaps even harder to speak as loud as other colleagues who accepted their own anachronism and transmitted it to their successors, unchallenged. On the other hand, my original contribution to the programme "Traditions of the Mediterranean Humanism", that might have been a good grounding for my further research in Andalusian precedents of the transcultural condition, was deleted from the agenda due to the absence of suitable candidates prepared to work on those topics. Millions spent by the Foundation for Polish Science on this programme led to a stalemate, producing, in the spirit of innovation indefatigably advertised, a streak of more or less anachronistic dissertations speaking extensively of Sigmund Freud and similar matters. One of them under my own supervision.
The concept of the Mediterranean implied in the programmes where I was formally teaching deserves a commentary. The curriculum called "Cultural Studies - Mediterranean Civilisation" had been created through a simple operation of label change, based on a decadent Classical Philology fallen short of students. The new name sounded more attractive, relaxing and sunny, but nobody intended to make serious area studies out of it. Shortly speaking, it was a smooth, civilised Mediterranean without Arabs, Berbers, Turks and similar complications; the levels of Islamophobia both among the faculty and in the general society were staggering. In the meanwhile, also philology somehow drained out of it; what remained was an empty carcass. No wonder the "Mediterranean Civilisation" came down to the empty classroom once more. Thus at the moment of my resignation I was but a clever she-rat abandoning the sinking ship.
Overall, those years at the University of Warsaw were predominantly a period of dispersion and serendipity. I worked as a supernumerary in diverse collective initiatives, while other colleagues - those sufficiently mediocre as not to challenge the power relations in the institution - were officially anointed as "the natural leaders". My former achievements were completely overlooked, and I was usually treated as a kind of non-qualified helping force, an academic handmaid employed indiscriminately wherever my presence was regarded as ornamental. This treatment based on simple ignoring, making a round zero out of everything I had done or published, became the reason of my subsequent resignation, but I must confess that for some time I just enjoyed frolicking around instead of serious academic work. During the spring semester of the academic year 2013/2014, I organised a course on falconry as an experiment in human/animal studies (in private, falconry used to serve me, occasionally, as a secret key to Arabia). Somehow obstinately, I continued with this topic in the framework of the doctoral program "On the crossroad of nature and culture", even if falconry, which is after all about hunting, killing and meat eating, was seen as a scandal in the light of the lofty ethics of Anthropozoology, progressively merging in dilettantish, sterile debates indefatigably promoted by the authoritarian dean of the Faculty "Artes Liberales".
I distinctly remember one of the last moments of my participation in those newfangled rituals of interdisciplinarity, excellence and innovation. It was during a summer workshop in the national park of Biebrza swamps, that by the way happened to be exceptionally dry that year. Comfortably installed in a research centre among marshes and forests, my colleagues started discussing the resurrection of the non-human primates and their place in the City of God, passing later on to the idea of building a bridge in the Maasai Mara in such a way that gnu antelopes might safely cross the river full of crocodiles. They were deeply persuaded that what they were doing was promoting an excellent, interdisciplinary, advanced scholarship. At a given moment, an elderly, distinguished art historian who was also spending the excess of her time in the workshop, noticed my website, that I had used for some presentation. "Ah, ewa-lukaszyk.com", she exclaimed with scorn, accentuating the ".com". Who was I to have a website like this? Pathetic. I was only a handmaid, a supernumerary. There was such a calmness and brightness outside, a flock of cranes crossed the sky. What was I doing there? In a sudden illumination, I saw all my inadequacy, all the grotesque of my presence among those all-too-excellent persons. It was as an outcome of that workshop that I went first to Portugal, then to France, and then decided never to return.
Certainly, there was more than just an insult in that crucial workshop. Done with the bridge in the Maasai Mara, an eminent colleague, former palaeontologist reincarnating in the domain of animal ethics, went on arguing that during their celebrations, Muslims cut the throats of sheep and goats as a way of preparing themselves for cutting the throats of their human fellows. "Discuss with them!", ordered the dean. As there was also a bishop of the Catholic Church present on this occasion, we might eventually improvise a quite lengthy debate on the significance of the Mount Moriah and the Binding of Isaac. But there was something else as well. Perhaps we ought to discuss Gayatri Spivak's essay Can the Subaltern Speak? and its pertinence in the Polish academia. Since it was very clear that the subalterns could, first of all, be made speak. I just shut my mouth wide.
These things have never been discussed. Or else? Krzysztof Zanussi's classical film, Barwy ochronne (Camouflage), did speak about very similar problems as early as 1977. The patriarchal structure of the academic milieu had been persuasively depicted. Yet another, much more complex aspect was shown as well, namely in the scene in which the young linguists tried to grapple, in a supposedly subversive way, with the question of arbitrary vs non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. Designating oblong and angular shapes with words of an invented language, they reached the conclusion quite opposite to the one generally admitted: that angular things just had to sound angular in any language, while the oblong things were to be designated by names sounding smooth and inoffensive. But of course, what they took for an epistemological revolution was but a great nonsense.
In 2015, many new elements were to be added to Zanussi's diagnosis. The elementary structure of power, at the core in his cinematographic narration, has apparently been shaken by the irruption of the western academic standards. In Zanussi's film, one of the problematic nodes was the question of intrinsic value of the ideas, their essential truthfulness, no matter by whom and in what context they were announced. The old problem consisted in discerning an idea as an idea, beyond its eventual role played in local academic wars. The new problem consists in distinguishing between concept and nonsense, an important piece of knowledge and a meaningless, distorted repetition of an idea imported from an external intellectual centre. My adventures with human/animal studies, as they were (mis)construed in Warsaw, illustrate this new range of problems. The absence of critical judgement applied to such ideas as that of building a bridge for the antelopes in the Maasai Mara or that of Muslims cultivating the art of throat-cutting was not derived directly from ignorance understood as a simple, primary state of the human mind; it was the result of an excess of misleading information, both inherited from the old times and resulting from the frontal clash of the Polish mind against the complexity of international humanities.
This is how a kind of inverted dynamics arise: more time one spends at the university, in such workshops and conference sessions as I have mentioned, greater is the load of distorted knowledge that one receives, till the final collapse. Confronted with a new nonsense, one becomes able to integrate it immediately in one's mental structures. One just swallows it, antelopes and Muslims alike. This is the new version of the magical Murti-Bing's pill from The Captive Mind. It has nothing to do with ideology any longer, yet the bliss it provides may be quite similar; refusing it remains a question of survival. Not only intellectual, but also moral.
With the allusion to Murti-Bing and The Captive Mind, what I have said above sounds like a piece of extremely severe criticism. But once again, I would like to stress the difference between patriarchal structures and personal responsibilities of people involved in their reproduction. At the personal level, my feelings towards them have always been ambivalent; even if there is a distinct danger in pitying one's tyrant. Be as it may, my anthropozoological dean had quite a few humane traits. One of them, that I found particularly endearing, was the importance he used to attribute to the story of Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle and his ability of speaking to the animals. I also had this book in my childhood (thanks God the intelligentsia did not use to throw their books; someone presented me with two second-hand, illustrated volumes). Another humane treat was my dean's love of Africa; he used to spend his vacations in a hotel in Kenya, claiming of having been accepted into a herd of colobus monkeys. Somehow, I might be able to resonate with the echos of that remote colonial childhood, once lived in dreams against dismal history and then revisited in the old age. But how could I render the surreal atmosphere in which that faculty was immersed? This task is beyond my English. Be as it may, my dean was truly an exceptional scholar. A unique case, I suppose; more volumes have been published in honour of him than monographs he authored (I do not count his critical editions, collective volumes co-edited with people who actually edited them, etc.); myself, I contributed to two of them.
It is an archaic instinct to pity old men, and there are many archaisms in the story I try to express in modern English. In fact, they were two at the core of my faculty, both coming from illustrious families, sons of fathers who made themselves significant in the national culture. And yet the rupture of cultural continuity was clearly, tragically to be seen. It is a paradox that their manners were extremely unpleasant, and that was in the eyes of someone as casual, paying as little attention to the forms as myself. I suppose that for many people lucky enough not to have been brought up in a home with a hen in the balcony their ways would be quite simply inadmissible. Yes, the manners of those two aristocrats were defective; for manners are essentially founded on respect toward the fellow human being. As a consequence, what may the savoir-vivre become in a society of contempt? They understood their role at the university in terms of disciplining other people; and of course, when they tried to discipline someone much more committed to the intellectual work than themselves, the result naturally tended toward the grotesque. Moreover, what made my dean so unpleasant was his habit of manipulating people; he treated them like the sand on a human beach where he was constantly building his ephemeral castles (or, as he liked to call it, "structures"). As a last resource, he was always ready to belittle anyone for his or her incompetence in ancient Greek.
The other aristocrat, former ambassador, seemed to squeeze respect out of people, with no intention of reciprocating it. In the Byzantine world of Polish university, he used to address me by semi-formal ways of treatment, usually reserved for maintenance or administrative staff at best; he was the only person doing so, except for the couple of Buryat Ph.D. students from his seminar who mimicked that treatment, probably taking it for a sign of distinction; even writing an e-mail to me in English, they used to start with "Dear Pani Ewa", which made me roll on the floor with laughter quite a great deal before it became seriously annoying. He was quite a laborious scholar, publishing as much as myself; in any other situation this might have created a sense of comradeship; but it was prodigious to observe the amount of energy he used to dispense on maintaining the female in her subaltern position. Scholar son of a scholar, he was among the happy few who could go to Paris in the sixties and seventies; during his stay in France, he appears to have been a disciple of Braudel; at least the term "civilisation" had been recurrent in his vocabulary from then on. Yet in many moments his manners used to bring to my mind the simile of an old sheikh, one of those belonging to the first generation of the oil, somewhere really deep in the heart of Arabia. In his essence, he was a child of Asia stack to the window pane of Europe, a shop full of trinkets he direly desired having no means to acquire them as his own. I am not sure how far he was conscious of this position; in any case, he seemed keen to compensate his inferiority, to invert it. I always had the impression that, for him, I was epitomising swołocz, savagery trying to occupy the space that was essentially not destined to people like me. No matter how many languages I spoke and how many books I authored, swołocz had to be maintained under control; it costed him an effort of constant vigilance. Shortly speaking, although apparent collaborators, we were in fact Barbarians to each other. For all these reasons and more, he has always been in my eyes a profoundly tragic figure of an inteligent (he cultivated an acute sense of this caste identity) fallen out of the Shakespearean gallery. I did care to contribute also to the volume in his honour, and I wrote for him a bitter text that I meant nonetheless as very serious and meaningful, in the way of a postcard from Amsterdam, on freedom. I might like to have called him a friend, were it possible to befriend a Nadjdi inteligent through a window pane...
But there are still a great deal of other things to mention before I close the Varsovian chapter. It is true that my Portuguese competence had been completely forgotten, to such a degree that one day a student asked me if by chance I was a daughter of Ewa Łukaszyk the author of all those books about Portugal. My paradoxical status could only be compared to that of the academic sweeper of the fallen cherry blossom in one of Terry Pratchett's novels. On the other hand, it gave me unexpected freedom to reinvent myself as something else than a simple continuation of my academic profile.
Occasionally, I collaborated with the research group created by a serious scholar of my generation working on endangered languages and their revitalisation. I would truly respect her but for her thumb; she was a promissory ethnohistorian of Mexico, distinguished with an ERC Starting Grant (one of the few we ever had in Poland); having offered her guru-dakshina to someone who had never been her teacher, she progressively forgot the Aztecs and became a revitaliser of the Vilamovian language, dedicating the greater part of her time to folklore and colour. But I do admire her working capacity and dedication, clearly setting her apart from her Braminic caste of intelligentsia. Meanwhile, as I say this, the reader might be curious to discover who was the favoured pupil of Drona, the Arjuna of Warsaw, the divine archer. I regret to say it was truly a heartbreaking figure, an ERC Consolidator grantee, winner of several awards in the category of children's literature. What can I say about it? At the Faculty "Artes Liberales", we were all expected to produce children's literature of a kind or another; it was the genre of writing suiting our womanhood and pleasing the academic despot, great reader of Hugh Lofting, who ruled over us.
In the meanwhile, women with black umbrellas were flocking to manifestations. The system remained impermeable. I failed to write any children's literature. But since my research travel to Morocco in 2013 I used to follow the Amazigh linguistic and cultural revival, so I might eventually fit in the context; nonetheless it was mostly exploiting my "non-qualified" position that I spent a carefree week in London and, next year, another week in Leiden as a participant of workshops on dying languages organised in the framework of a TWINNING project. I sneaked into the library of the SOAS to make a quick search for some materials on Sufism, and in Leiden I got ready for my project on Adamic language that I was to continue in France. After all, the fascinating story of the search for the original tongue spoken in Paradise might be seen as a hidden paradigm of any linguistic revitalisation, moved by the belief that some essential truths can only be expressed in a tongue we had left behind.
Speaking of languages, it may be curious to mention that a new lease of my polyglottism appeared, quite unexpectedly to myself, when I was already in my forties; perhaps it has something to do with the processes of maturation going on, as contemporary neuroscience advises, across all the expanse of human life. I did not plan to learn any more languages. Yet suddenly, during my travels, I noticed the appearance of an acute sense of linguistic humour that I did not possess before. Languages I did not know appeared to me as a constant parade of highly enjoyable puns, of course some of them more than other. Czech and Maltese became absolutely fabulous in my eyes, and I offered myself manuals and books in those languages for none other utility than sheer recreation. Many speakers of Polish may occasionally see Czech as a source of linguistic humour, but I became literally addicted to reading Victorian ghost stories in Czech translation in the bathroom; (Maltese is roughly the equivalent for someone speaking both Arabic and Italian; irresistible). At the same time, I became more sensitive to eurhythmic and euphonic qualities of human speech, especially in Hindi, but curiously, also German, language with which I had been vaguely familiar for two or three decades without ever noticing its exquisite beauty. Or is it the effect of its new triangulation through Dutch?
Also the crucial breakthrough in my intellectual activity belongs to the Varsovian chapter, even if the academic context in which I was immersed had absolutely no hint of the potential of what I was pretending to achieve. Of course, I suppose it would be very hard for anyone anywhere in the academic world to discern a particular value in the mottle of ideas I started to produce. Be as it may, it was the crucial period when my personal stance in humanities slowly started to take shape. I distinctly remember the frosty days in February 2012, when the first glimpse of my topological approach appeared. The first idea of transcultural humanities emerged in the summer that followed. For a while I focused on the intellectual development of the Islamic world and the emergence of the figure of Muslim intellectual. My trip to Turkey in the summer 2009 opened not only a series of excursions around the Mediterranean, but also led me to form a concept of travel that would become so important in my intellectual identity. In 2011 I went to Malaysia where I got interested in the writings of a Malay scholar Farish Noor; I have already mentioned a longer research stay in Morocco in 2013; I visited other crucial and less crucial places as well, including Guinea-Bissau in 2016. I joined the Polish Oriental Society to participate in the conferences organised by the association and publish some papers about those topics. I also started to gravitate timidly around the German Oriental Society, incomparably bigger in size and advanced in competence; my first paper presented at their congress in 2017 was evidently a disaster, but I do not doubt that one day I will become a decent Orientalist, by any standards, even the German ones.
Meanwhile, transcultural studies, in any sense of the term, were naturally very distant from the priorities of the Polish institutions, focused on the celebration of our "national humanities". On the other hand, at the official level, I was still considered as a specialist in Portuguese matters. This is why, once again, I saw myself realising a research project on the "late style" in José Saramago, writer to whom I had already dedicated an extensive monograph in 2005. After several unsuccessful proposals of mine, the fact that I had previously studied that writer apparently justified further founding of the topic by the National Science Centre (NCN), even if Saramago fell definitely out of favour soon after his death and the subsequent celebration. Anyway, somehow unwanted research project on Saramago, conceived out of sheer desperation, proved to be another apex in my undulating Lusitanist career. The approach I initially planned in the scope of this project was supposed to deal with the novels that Saramago wrote during the last years of his literary activity, presumably illustrating a particular aesthetic quality what Edward Said defined as “late style”: a sort of unreconciled wisdom achieved as a bitter fruit of an old age. Coming back to Said was yet another servitude due to the academic context delving in the spectral, uncanny eighties (the least I could do was to chose the posthumous book of the Palestinian intellectual). Anyway, the "late style" admitting neither synthesis nor harmony is to be found in Saramago, till his last Cain, even more violent and intransigent than his previous Gospel according to Jesus Christ.
This is how Imperium i nostalgia (Empire and Nostalgia) was born in 2015, a book in which the concept of "late style" is used to resume a certain stage in the evolution of the Portuguese cultural consciousness. The equivalent of an old age comes after the end of the colonial empire, as well as after the breakdown of the newfangled cultural projects such as Lusophony or a naively enthusiastic vision of the multicultural society. On the morrow of the last shipwreck in the Portuguese imperial history, a kind of bitter wisdom becomes available to writers and thinkers. Taking Saramago for a pretext, I also tried to make a first step toward the expression of my transcultural stance, defining the basic concepts in the introduction to this book.
In the meanwhile, evoking the alleged spirit of innovation advertised by the Faculty "Artes Liberales", I also managed to deliver some off-track seminars, such as the one on the metaphor of the desert and the one on the intellectuals as the pivotal figures of the global symbolic space. During the last year of my effective teaching at the University of Warsaw (2015/2016) I also realised a Ph.D. seminar "Towards transcultural humanities". My writings from this final period are collected in a small volume of essays, Humanistyka, która nadchodzi (The coming humanities) that I published in 2018 as a discreetly ironic farewell to the University of Warsaw. This is also how the transcultural approach to Juliusz Słowacki took shape, as I had joined the collective research project focusing on the study of his rediscovered travelogue from his journey to Egypt, Syria and Palestine; (my essay has been discreetly put at the end of the volume of studies dedicated to this topic, right before the index; I do not aspire for more). Together with some texts on Portugal and Guinea-Bissau that I wrote as the outcome of my stay in Lisbon in 2016-2017, and of course the big history of Portuguese literature since the Romanticism till the present day, to be published by Ossolineum in 2019, these are probably my last contributions ever to be written in Polish.
The first twenty years of my academic career were connected to the two leading Polish universities. I deeply regret the dynamics of mutual disdain that have always existed between me and these institutions. It should have been otherwise. I have no feeling of having chosen this; on the contrary, I was longing for institutional integration, carrying on a tradition, continuity instead of disruption. I had those feelings especially for the Jagiellonian University. Yet the institutions refused to take me seriously. Certainly there must have been a part of my personal responsibility in this. I could have worn more formal clothes, created a more persuasive scholarly image, at least so as not to be taken for Ewa Łukaszyk's own daughter. On the other hand, I could not resign myself to the thought that Poland would be all what I could get, even during the best years of the upward trend. This was partially the reason why I did not really care to move to Warsaw and continued living in my tiny Cracovian apartment. My employment at the University of Warsaw was not a permanent one and, contrary to my colleagues, I did not see it as the top of all the tops; also the institution did not really work hard to persuade me to stay; politics of maintaining and stabilising excellent members of the faculty was virtually non-existent; and of course, my track record deliberately overlooked, I have never been recognised as an excellent member of any body whatsoever.
Finally, in 2016, thirteen years after my habilitation and having made a CV of over thirty single-spaced pages, I obtained a tenure and was to get a perpetual professorial title as well; I actually got it two years later. Nonetheless, the year 2016 marked my long announced and long delayed passage from the national to international humanities. How is it that, in spite of a delay stretching over a decade, the institutional answer to my activities came so late that it did not even stand a chance of finding me at home? Well, all what I have written above serves as an explanation; on the other hand, in 2016 I was still only 44 years old. This is the age when people usually achieve their habilitation, not the full professorship. Such a promotion might thus be seen as remarkable if referred to the local standards; the statistical average age of achieving the professorial title in Poland, for a female scholar, is 57. So mine was to come exceptionally early.
Early, yet too late. What can I say about it? In Poland, there exists an obvious inadequacy, a kind of time lag between the rhythms of development of an outstanding scholar and the institutional recognition. It had been noticed; I remember that, at a certain point, the target of accelerating the academic careers had been established. But what they tried to do was to make some young people engage directly into the Ph.D. without completing their master dissertations (sic!). Apparently, it had never crossed anybody's mind that outstanding female scholars might feel annoyed about being bogged in patriarchal or gerontocratic subalternities, and especially, that they might go as far as taking serious measures in order to channel their brains out of the country for this reason. Perhaps such a risk has been neglected simply because the international scholarship is an alien territory for a great majority of people that are usually seen as outstanding in Poland. As I look to the leading scholars who went abroad, I see very few success stories and a pronounced tendency towards falling back into the old contexts. We are still to see how long Ewa Łukaszyk will last out there.
Anyway, the discussion on career rhythms of female scholars was to be cut brutally by a ministerial proposal of sending them all home at 60, five years earlier than their male colleagues, and with much less than a half of their salaries; in my case, it might mean getting around 400€ a month to live on (sic!); my net monthly salary at the University of Warsaw had never exceeded the equivalent of 1,100€. Who would care about academic excellence achieved by a woman? And certainly the nation would not be at loss getting rid of people like me. So I just decided to facilitate the process bringing my early resignation in.
Coming close to the top of my academic career in Poland, my mood was thus far from triumphant, and the general context inspired no bright feelings. Certainly, some people did continue even more triumphant than ever (freezing in a pose of triumph became in fact a new strategy of survival). The rest of energy that remained in the academic milieus was consumed in an absurd struggle against serendipitous reforms, undoing the very progress so laboriously achieved across the previous two decades. But it was hard to overlook the falling darkness, as if we were to be cloaked in our own shadow raised from the ground. The worse qualities of the local scholarship - conventionality, anachronism, dilettantism - were to compose the new, national definition of academic excellence. It became a commonplace to repeat that the internationalisation failed, and in any case it would lead us nowhere. For most people it was a relief; at least they were not expected to publish in English any longer; a great majority have never learned the language. On the other hand, we have never managed to get out of an enchanted glass sphere separating us from everything what humanities are abroad. In one of the last Polish collective volumes to which I contributed, I could also find a text where one of my colleagues admitted that "it would be insolent to propose a new interpretation", while another was still aghast that in France "gender is taught in the classroom".
Meanwhile abroad, in the world, great universities, fabulous libraries and collections were tempting. And even more than that, the eventuality of meeting a different kind of people. In autumn 2016, I returned to my old Lisbon, still with the intention of finishing an unpublished volume, which was to become Historia literatury portugalskiej od romantyzmu do współczesności (The History of the Portuguese Literature from the Romanticism to the Present Day). This work still kept me mentally in Poland. But the next year I went to France as a Marie-Curie fellow and spent a year in Tours, in a centre for Renaissance studies, working on my project concerning the Adamic language, or more precisely, the idea of pre-cultural beginnings of the humanity. It was only in February 2018, after finishing some texts recklessly promised to various people, that I definitively stopped writing in Polish and took steps to dissociate from the Polish academic reality completely.
On the other hand, the integration in the international context is far from natural for anybody coming from Polish academia. The level of competitiveness and seriousness expected contradicts the dilettantish and serendipitous manners that were accepted, even actively promoted in my native milieu, especially in such a context as the Faculty "Artes Liberales". Certainly, the collective flaws are very much mine; this is precisely why it pains me. I do feel anachronistic in many of my publications, angry and sorry for having been drawn into the vortex of the local debates. I do feel dilettantish, confronted with international specialised scholarship. I still experience a great difficulty in retrieving my true, unaltered voice.
No wonder the passage costed me many failures and drawbacks. Well, "many failures" is a manner of speaking; I cannot consider myself as very badly treated by the sponsoring institutions. Several opportunities have been denied to me; some of them I see as denied for my own good, as in the case of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, kind of special place created for us, Eastern people. I would not fit there. More regrettably, I could not get a residency at NIAS, the institute of advanced studies in Amsterdam. I hope to submit my ERC in the Netherlands. As I calculate, I have been succeeding with one fellowship against 3,5 or 4 applications submitted; this is not a bad result. The serious failure was not to have missed the Humboldt in 2005, but to have renounced trying harder to get it. These ten years in Warsaw were a parenthesis in my academic life; it might have been smoother, more efficient, continuous, linear. I woke up in mid-forties with a CV made chiefly of disruptions. At a given moment, I tried to be reasonable, thin out the chaos, stick to a narrow specialisation, be it Portuguese or Lusophone African studies. But I could not persuade myself into this. Most probably I am doomed to remain what I am and to take up the disruptive overload of it. And among all these crisscrossing fascinations, my fidelity to the ancient greatness of the Islamic civilisation shines very bright, even more so at the moments of intellectual crisis.
Since the beginning of my Varsovian period and my inclusion in the Mediterranean field, I slowly went on studying the intellectual and religious particularity of al-Andalus, although I have published very few things on the topic. What tempted me were those long forgotten modalities of mystic experience and Andalusian notions of supra-confessional, supra-cultural community of thinkers. It is a corpus of ideas requiring reactivation in the context of postsecular rethinking of monotheism. In France, I organised a small conference dedicated to "Transcultural Mediterranean". Hopefully I might build something upon it, a volume, a network of contacts, an idea for yet another conference. On the other hand, I discovered that the Mediterranean perspective was an over-exploited one. People are tired of those repeated attempts at thinking among Christians and Muslims; in Poland, with its hysterical rejection of the refugees and other Mediterranean problems, it might have been useful; here in France, the idea can hardly be seen as a novelty. This is why I felt tempted again by the global perspective, eventually using Portuguese as a central thread or a pretext, just because Portuguese is the least explored of the globalising languages. The global matrix of what I call non-hegemonic universalism is a new symbolic space in which the cultural frontiers have been dissolved and the transcultural subjects aspire, as myself, to an intellectual life in conditions of limitlessness. This is by the way what I have always tried to find in the Mediterranean, in al-Andalus: a coherent aesthetic and intellectual space resulting from repeated interactions between thinkers and writers reconnecting the divergent traditions.
At the same time, I am interested in the void. The transcultural global matrix tends toward a growing density; it tends to cover the unexpressed, to multiply, be it by borrowing and lending, the means of expression. Yet still what interests me most is the uncovered area, the inexpressible, the not-yet-created, the yet-to-come. The term "Eremos" appeared as a make-shift solution to give a name to my topological concept of symbolic space unoccupied by any culture. The Latin word for desert may not be seen as a particularly creative idea (not at the level of the Derridian concept of khora), but at least it permits to avoid the cumbersome prefix trans-, as well as abusing of the concept of transculture that cannot be entirely mine. In a larger perspective, what I would like to do is to introduce other languages into the humanities, beyond the usual philosophical triad of Greek, Latin, German. The desert is also redundant in this context. Agata Bielik-Robson went back to Hebrew, bringing about the Biblical term bemidbar. I'm still searching, either in mathematics or in the forgotten languages of heterodox thinkers. In the meanwhile, Eremos stands for the emergent space of encounter situated in the transcultural dimension, building on the metaphor of a "hyper-cultured" and at the same time "de-cultured" desert inhabited by anachoretic intellectuals who withdraw from their cultural contexts to occupy an apparently impossible location: outside and above any particular culture.
As I go on searching for the word, hoping it will suddenly jump out of some obscure, long forgotten text, I also explore the abstract, theoretical aspects of transcultural condition as a construct that requires filling in with contents. These entangled threads of research present thus some leitmotivs, such as the search for a novel dimension of intellectual and aesthetic communication that emerges in our times, as the globalisation provokes an interference of diverse cultural orders interacting with unprecedented intensity. The new level of symbolic complexity emerging from those multiplied and magnified interference should be theorised; specific analytic tools should be provided for its study.
THE FLIGHT OF THE CRIMSON ANGEL
The Crimson Angel (Karminowy anioł) was the title of a blog dedicated to eroticism that I used to have many years ago, when such things were still thinkable in Poland. But my predominantly historical discourse, referring alternately to Abbasid mujun and the noble shades of Andalusian love was, in spite of considerable popularity, without a real audience. There was a time when Polish women discovered Arabian eros, although reduced, most unfortunately, to special services for which certain Egyptian and Tunisian hotels were reputed. But the real adventure remained more than elitist, improbable and incredible. And in the age in which pornography was commonly seen in high resolution, it was the Tawq al-hamama that used to put fire in my veins. Certainly, that would be regarded as a perversion, if it was not held, first of all, for improbable and utterly incredible. I prefer to keep it that way.
My lovers distinguish themselves chiefly by their absence; as I have already said, I defend the rule of "a room of my own". This is why many intrusive people who felt any curiosity about my private life were drawn to the conclusion that they were mere literary creations, fictional characters appearing in my spare internet writings. It was easier to believe this than the contrary, since in my everyday life I often tended to neglect severely both my clothes and the bodily appearance. Since the manifold traumas of my teenage years, I carefully avoided Polish male as a category; they also avoided me, especially when I came out of my very first youth. Unexpectedly, episodic problems returned much later in my life, when some colleagues, usually with professorial titles, apparently took into their heads that it might boost their image, social stance or whatever, if they had me as their lover. The very idea that I possibly might... was traumatic, yet they usually interpreted my refusal as the sign that I was already engaged in a relationship with another professor, probably someone higher up in the academic hierarchy than themselves. Truly a mind-boggling delusion!... But for many years in between, I could live a perfectly tranquil and undisturbed existence, entirely forgotten in a world of my private angels.
Yet my unquenchable appetite of the earthly world also involved men. Men of all epidermic shades, better be circumcised than otherwise, Semitic as well as Aryan, Asian as well as African. Nonetheless, I came to clear, even if apparently improbable, preferences and persuasions. I claim that there is no more constant, dedicated and reliable companion but in Arabia; that, I would say with Paul, who is circumcised in his heart. Nonetheless, I do not pretend to know it all. The dream I cherish is to end my life by a chapter in Farsi; I saw some Iranian refugees in the Netherlands, ageing handsomely, with a touch of spirituality and sublime to render them interesting. But when I say that I fancy to have a Persian in my old age, the reader is kindly requested to infer that I am partial to domestic cats. Privately speaking, I hate them; only if one day I could live somewhere in the Middle East with sufficient means, I would gladly keep a domestic cheetah, as some extravagant people used to do in my time.
I often think one day I might still become quite an elegant, even a charismatic old lady, perhaps to compensate a lifetime of abjection. As incredible as it might appear to those who eventually knew me in Poland, I always had a taste for luxury; not a very refined taste, I am afraid; the hotels of my choice, such as the Alchemist in Prague, were often frequented by unmistakably Russian clients; I also liked Venice. As the years passed by, my taste became more sober; and if my African masks still have for the background a golden flowery wallpaper in my Cracovian apartment, that is simply because in recent years I have travelled too much to refresh the design. Growing sober is a proof of my stylistic and cultural adaptability; I blend in the Netherlands. There is also something that makes me feel glad. I liked and adopted so many local styles; some of them had traditions behind, other were fostered by recent affluence; are the former naturally better than the latter? After all, I am a newcomer to this world; why should I squeeze into the stylistic choices of old aristocracies?
I have been married for twelve years; I suppose that is quite a long time as for the current standards. I lived many great travels with my husband, and for so long that the world had time to change and revolve under our feet. It is hard to rank them, since they were so different in style, purpose and content. I appreciate our trip to Iceland for its taste of adventure in a solitary landscape; but we also had a great time in Greece. Al-Andalus was a long desired travel in search of the roots. But it was also great to take a kayak and explore the Biebrza swamps in Poland. There were countries, like Italy and the Netherlands, that we visited over and over again, till they lost the taste of anything unusual whatsoever. In general, Europe became such an over-exploited place for me; this is why our Malaysian trip becomes such a high point, with a ride across the Cameron Highlands. But in fact it was just a short and simple trip out of Kuala Lumpur, where we walked at night and ate durians in a the street.
Could my life have been better? If I had a second youth, like Faust, to love all over again, would I make it differently? Certainly, there are things I missed. I could have paid more attention to myself; I could have been more attractive, better dressed, better looking, aspiring for more. More what? More money, more luxury, more social stance? More attractive males? Love itself has a beauty that is not in the person of the beloved. Only sometimes, one may feel a great sorrow discovering the disproportion between the inner beauty of love and the inner deformity of the beloved; it happened to me once, in West Africa. Perhaps I only regret one thing; none of those I knew was meeting my own intellectual standards. The Catalan guy with whom I was twenty years ago, in the beginnings of my academic career, was working at my university as well; but the fact did not make him the most remarkable of my lovers. My husband has the advantage of equanimity, stable and constant affections of a genuine desert mind, but certainly not intellectual or spiritual sophistication, nor a refined aesthetic sensitivity. We have listened to operas and philharmonic concerts together, but I suspect that he was just waiting me faithfully below while I was flying with my crimson angels. This is probably why I had the disloyal idea of substituting him with a Persian, without actually planning to put it into practice. For what would be different then? Would we discuss the stages of our tariqa at the breakfast table?
I suppose one might claim that the difference between men, as far as eroticism is taken into the account, is lesser than that of the shades of their skin. Very little of the heritage that means so much to me may be regarded as a living culture. Tawq al-hamama is mostly read by freaks like myself, and in western universities more often than in deserts. Global pornography, in high resolution, prevails universally, both in the West and in the East, while ancient verses fall into oblivion. The true adventure is so elitist that it becomes improbable, incredible, unreal.
I often wondered what happened with Ekalavya later on, after he offered his thumb as guru-dakshina to Drona. Certainly, there is an abundant tradition of interpreting this episode, going from exemplification of virtue to exemplification of caste violence (in Mukherjee's Perishable Empire for instance). But what happened with him after this episode? I suppose that even at that remote stage of the Indian civilisation, there must have been more conceivable knowledge and skill to be learned than just archery, and the shooting instructor was not the only, the last or the supreme guru. Did Ekalavya choose to abandon all of them, dedicating the rest of his life to a solitary quest? To a wisdom that could not be punished with any more wounds?
Certainly, there is a sequel of his story in the Mahabharata, but I find it frustrating. Without his thumb, he continued as an archer, although not as perfect as he might have been. And he was finally vanquished, in a war against Krishna, if I remember it correctly. At least at that stage, there was no way out of the caste system, no space behind it; the epos served precisely to justify and legitimise it.
Ekalavya could not grow beyond his condition. But I chose to live in an open world. Born in a society of contempt, I decided to put dignity as my artha, a vital purpose, to transcend the Joycean triad of silence, exile and cunning. I decided to settle, to belong, to express myself in a clear, unaltered voice. Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehen. Perhaps not without a Faustian suggestion, I chose a privileged place for my home, Amsterdam, the city of bourgeois respectability and of so many refugee scholars like myself. The translatio of my Multilingual Library to this new location officially started on 17th August 2018, when I took all the belongings I had used in France to a storage place in Transformatorweg. A curious name for my first address in the Netherlands. At the same time, University of Leiden appears on the horizon as a promissory place to host my Andalusian research.
For the first time in my life, I felt ready to concentrate on one topic, to abandon my omnivorous intellectual diet. The project I conceived appeared to me, for the first time, as something that might fulfil me entirely, suffice as a thing of mine.
For many years I used to ask myself anxiously if I am truly an international scholar, a European scholar, a global scholar. Now I am immersed in this academic nomadism, a contemporary version of the medieval travel in search of knowledge. A comprehensive project, a conundrum I still see unsolved in front of myself, is perhaps to make a full sense of all my intellectual adventures and lead me smoothly towards the conclusion of the books I have sketched. Even if I doubt I might ever find an institution powerful enough to refrain my discontentment, I still contemplate roughly the first hundred of European universities, just as they stand in the global ranking. Perhaps I should rather think about my books as the only garden of my own, the only reality I am able to shape, bearing my name and my trace. I have so many books to write. Or else?
Eerst zullen we werken, zeven dagen lang
Eerst zullen we werken, voor elkaar
Dan is er werk voor iedereen, dus werken we samen
Samen staan we sterk, ja werken we samen, voor elkaar
My home, when I manage to settle, is to be a receptacle of books and artefacts brought from all the travels; the maritime history of the location is there for something. I have private dreams. I would like to have a home to stop squeezing, as I had squeezed in my remote childhood. A home bigger not only in habitable surface; also more capacious in terms of ideas, books in many languages to keep on my shelves, masks in provenance from various parts of Africa. In a sense, this home is more than a dream; it is a symbol of me, as I would like to become, overcoming the cultural dynamics of mastery and wound. As I have been since the very beginning. Beyond helplessness and acceptance of my wounds.
Dan zullen we vechten, niemand weet hoe lang
Dan zullen we vechten, voor ons belang
Voor het geluk van iedereen, dus vechten we samen
Samen staan we sterk, dus vechten we samen, voor ons belang
As much as I dream of books and a home, I dream of travels. I have been travelling a great deal since 2009, without counting those former stays in Portugal. During this decade my travels have progressively become a way of studying the world. Sometimes I think of them, a bit naively, as a compensation for an imaginary Oxford where I have never studied. A way of getting some sort of solid knowledge, against the spectre of imprecision and second-hand information. In a travel, things take a solidity beyond the word-of-the-mouth. I wish I could continue with a life based on fellowships for another 5 or 6 years, who knows, even an entire decade. I wish I could go to Iceland, to Finland; to Singapore, even to Australia and New Zealand. A fellow here in France advertised it to me as a land of many research opportunities.
Eerst zullen we drinken, dit lied duurt ons te lang
Eerst zullen we drinken, oh wat een dorst!