My dream as a child was to become a scientist; yet my first interest in humanities also appeared quite early. At the age of 11, 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'm proud to have started, in those years that roughly coincided with the period of martial law in Poland (1981-83), by such an aesthetically advanced reference. As the literature about Egypt was not abundant at the minuscule public library that existed at my doorstep, I went on reading about antiquities, art and ancient mythologies more broadly. I dare say that I'd been already quite well versed in this domain before I turned 16, and distinctly inclined towards a universalist type of erudition. It also explains why I started teaching myself Arabic before I'd got any chance to study Latin, and why I became incurably nostalgic of the era of Oriental scholars and explorers.
This early youth in the shadow of historical turmoil, in spite of very modest material, social and educational conditions, gave me a quick start; I'm still building upon this advantage. I studied painting and sculpture, as well as art history, at the high school of fine arts in Lublin. 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 Aldus Huxley and the rest of the Perennialist school. As I turned 17 or 18, right after the democratic transition in Poland, I belonged for some time to the sangha that gathered for zazen sessions in Falenica, a suburban district of Warsaw.
Compared to this enriching period, my studies in Romance philology at the local University Marie Curie-Skłodowska 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 as an advanced topic; five years later, in 1997, I was to leave this university, master degree in my pocket, without having ever heard such names as Foucault or Derrida. The least I could do was to study languages: not only French, but also Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. The latter turned out to be my salvation.
THE PORTUGUESE YEARS
I went to Portugal for the first time in 1993 to participate in a summer school. Soon it became my priority to return, would I have the University of Lisbon in such a high esteem or simply because it was the only way out of the oppressive atmosphere of mediocrity in Lublin. My further undergraduate studies were financed first by the TEMPUS program and then by the Instituto Camões. In 1998-1999, after I'd already been employed as a lecturer of Portuguese at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, I participated in a postgraduate Comparative Literature programme with the fellowship offered by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. At the same time, I completed my PhD dissertation on contemporary Portuguese literature, defended in June 1999.
In those Lisbon 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 gaps. 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. Comparative Literature was an aspiration, a glorious dream of erudition and insight, something bigger and greater, contrasting with simplicity and narrowness of the Portuguese Studies. The latter discipline was nonetheless the serious part of my life, permitting me to settle down smoothly with a stable academic employment. Intellectually, it left me deeply unsatisfied. I engaged into the Oriental studies, yet 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. I'd also started thinking about my Habilitation immediately after the doctorate, and I wanted to advance with this work as well. Yet I believe the passage by Oriental Studies was a crucial step in my formation, perhaps more important and defining than all the Portuguese adventure. Later on, I would reach the conclusion that it was even better that I'd left the university courses. I was to make my own way in this domain.
In the meanwhile, the circumstances were such that I had to go on with my Portuguese adventure in the first place. From 1997 to 2006, I was teaching both Portuguese language and literature in response to the necessities of the newly created curriculum in Portuguese philology at the Jagiellonian University. I also contributed with several basic publications that were lacking on the Polish book market: a practical introduction to the Portuguese grammar, a presentation of the contemporary Portuguese literature, as well as a translation of a history of Portugal. The general appreciation of the Portuguese culture has been given in yet another book: my post-doctoral dissertation – or habilitation, as we call it – on spatial conceptualizations in the Portuguese literature and cultural imagination since the end of the middle ages, throughout the expansion and the imperial era, till the contemporaneity. Focusing on the Portuguese literary history and merging with the Polish academic milieu, that was still unable to accompany the ever-changing flow of humanities and puzzled by the kaleidoscope of theories constantly emerging abroad, I fell out of joint with it for some time. I had completely missed everything that happened in humanities during the first years of the new millennium and I was to catch up later on.
In Poland, the accelerated pace of my career made me both loved and hated. The appreciation came with a prestigious starting grant of the Foundation for Polish Science that used to distinguishes yearly a hundred of researchers in different fields of knowledge that managed to make themselves noticed before they turned 30. I also designed and successfully coordinated a collective research project on islands and insularity, gathering a dozen of colleagues specialized in French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan studies. The project and the collective volume published as its outcome were financed by the Committee of Scientific Research (KBN). On the other hand, the hate came from the Portuguese studies establishment, composed by some rather mediocre specialists that quite understandably saw me as their natural enemy. Another volume, a presentation of the 19th c. Portuguese literature that I also elaborated during that early period, remained unpublished for many years, till I decided to include this material in a volume prepared for Ossolineum that should appear in 2017. At least the presentation of the Brazilian literature was offered to the readers after a shorter delay, in 2010, included in a volume on the history of Iberoamerican 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.
Nonetheless, in an atmosphere of hostility, I decided to dissociate completely from the coterie of the Polish specialists in Portuguese studies. As a consequence of this decision, I resigned from my post at the Institute of Romance Philology of the Jagiellonian University. 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. The fact that I was distinguished with a 2nd class award of the Rector of the Jagiellonian University in the autumn 2006, i.e. right after my resignation, proves that a certain will to redress the wrongs had been present.
Since 2006, both my research activities and the professional duties have taken a completely different turn. Having left the Jagiellonian University, but still living in Kraków, I became associate professor at 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, waking up at 4 am and travelling 400 km back and forth. Yet it was a significant step toward further diversification of my experience in humanities. My teaching activities switched to the area of Mediterranean studies and, at the same time, to a transdisciplinary vision. One of the subjects I've been teaching throughout this period was the "Philosophy of Culture" (denomination taken from the official guidelines for Cultural Studies curricula in Poland). This course's aim was to introduce the students into a panorama of recent tendencies in humanities; its contents have been changing gradually over the years to accompany new books and emerging ideas. This is how I caught up with the ever-changing flow of the humanities, while the general academic milieu in Poland continued its all too slow, uncanny digestion of the decade 1980 that is still going on as I write these words. For the rest, I decided to keep a low profile for some time.
In 2006, as a participant of a collective research project, "Silent Intelligentsia" directed by prof. Jan Kieniewicz, I exploited once more my Portuguese competence in a study concerning the post-colonial emergence of African elites. Fitting in the dynamics of the Varsovian center, traditionally involved in manifold activities concerning the post-Soviet space, I participated in projects dedicated to the autochthonous peoples of Siberia, collaborating with numerous Buryatian colleagues and students. Since 2010, I'd also participated, as a member of the faculty, in 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 TEMPUS AURORA scholarship holders that flocked at the Faculty "Artes Liberales". Thus both programs involved PhD students from Poland and abroad, with special relevance given to those from ex-USSR cultural space (members of minor ethnic groups of Siberia, Ukrainians, Belorussians, etc.). Still, there hadn't been much space for proposing a ground-breaking research in this context, as it was extremely hard to break through the mental habits of the PhD candidates coming from the ex-Soviet space. On the other hand, my original contribution to the program “Traditions of the Mediterranean Humanism”, that might have been a good grounding for my further research in Andalusian precedents of the transcultural condition, was cancelled due to the absence of suitable candidates wishing to work on those topics. A stalemate.
Overall, those first years at the University of Warsaw were predominantly a period of dispersion and serendipity. I worked a bit as a "filler" in diverse collective initiatives, while other colleagues were seen as "the natural leaders". Yet taking advantage of the alleged spirit of innovation, advertised by the Faculty “Artes Liberales”, I managed to deliver some off-track seminars, such as the one on the metaphor of the desert, that forms the earliest trace of my concept of Eremos, as well as a seminar on the intellectuals as the crucial figures of the global cultural space. As an experiment in human/animal studies, I also organized a course on falconry during the spring semester of the academic year 2013/14, and somehow obstinately, I continued with this topic in the framework of the doctoral program "On the crossroad of nature and culture". Occasionally, I also collaborated with the research group directed by dr Justyna Olko, working on endangered languages and their revitalization. Since my research travel to Morocco in 2013, I've been following the Amazigh linguistic and cultural revival, obtaining some research outcomes that fitted this framework.
Even if a significant breakthrough in my intellectual activity happened in 2012, the academic context in which I was immersed was slow to discern the potential of what I was pretending to achieve. Nonetheless, this was the period when my personal stance in humanities started to take shape. The first glimpse of my topological approach towards the cultural theory appeared in February 2012. The first idea of transcultural humanities was built up over the summer that followed, entering soon in a sort of period of incubation for one or two years. For a while I focused on the intellectual development of the Islamic world and the emergence of the figure of Muslim intellectual. I could observe it not only in the Maghreb during my research trip in 2013, but also in more distant regions of the Islamic world, such as Malaysia, as I got interested in the writings by a Malay scholar Farish Noor in consequence of a short visit in this country in the autumn 2011. I joined the Polish Orientalist Society and timidly started to participate in the conferences organized by the association and publish some papers about those topics.
My research has been financed predominantly from private means. Transcultural studies are naturally very distant from the priorities of the Polish institutions, concentrated on a vision of "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 realizing a research project on the "late style" in José Saramago, writer to whom I had already dedicated an extensive monograph in 2005. This fact seems to have justified further founding of this topic by the National Science Centre (NCN) in Poland. This is why the advanced approaches on which I tried to concentrate my attention had been developed in parallel with much more traditional research – the only one I could get financed. During that time I felt constantly forced to bend my intellectual performance in order to fit in the academic context, not having yet sufficient strength to oppose it. This is why the character of my published works and the general proportions of my activities throughout this period may be partially misleading or non-representative for the core of my intellectual endeavour.
Anyway, this somehow unwanted research project on Saramago was an apex in my undulating Lusitanist career. The approach I initially planned in the scope of this project was supposed to deal with the novels 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 coming as a bitter fruit of an old age. Coming back to Said was yet another servitude due to to the academic context delving in the spectral, uncanny 80ties (at least I chose the last book published by the Palestinian thinker). Anyway the "late style" that doesn't admit 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 Empire and Nostalgia is born, 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 and 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 managed to make a first step toward the expression of my transcultural stance, defining the basic concepts in the introduction to this book.
Growing in confidence, I started to employ my emerging concepts in different contexts and make them popular among the PhD students and colleagues. This is how the transcultural approach to Juliusz Słowacki took shape, as I joined the collective research project coordinated by prof. Maria Kalinowska, focusing on the study of his rediscovered travelogue. I started to get more attention. Some invitations to give guest lectures and keynote speeches followed, and the term "transcultural" soon marked its presence in Polish humanities. Yet the word is not of my making, and I understand it in quite an idiomatic way. This is why I saw the necessity of creating a new term, not just to give myself a hallmark, but to avoid confusion and identify clearly my thought that grew in complexity in the meanwhile.
Progressively I started to approach the core of my endeavour. Since the beginning of my "Varsovian period" and my inclusion in the Mediterranean field, I've studied the intellectual and religious particularity of al-Andalus. As I believe, those long forgotten modalities of mystic experience and Andalusian notions of supra-confessional, supra-cultural community of thinkers form a corpus of ideas requiring urgent reactivation in the context of post-secular rethinking of monotheism that must be done in contemporary Europe to open a perspective of a synergistic development. The central field of my intervention is related to the construction of a coherent aesthetic and intellectual space resulting from repeated interactions between thinkers and writers representing the traditions that diverge in the Mediterranean area and the formation of the common field of debate between European and Muslim intellectuals.
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 the 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-. 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 and German. The desert is also redundant in this context. Agata Bielik-Robson went back to Hebrew, bringing about the Biblical term bemidbar. This is why 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 anchoretic 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 globalization provokes an interference of diverse cultural orders interacting with unprecedented intensity. The new level of symbolic complexity emerging from those multiplied and magnified interferences should be theorized; specific analytic tools should be provided for its study, and the vastness and the importance of the task requires a long-term, collective project that I tried to delineate in order to submit it to the European Research Council, hopefully in 2017. I also started to think about a suitable research group, and this is how the Transcultural Humanities seminar started in October 2015.
2016 AND BEYOND
The year 2016 marked my difficult, long delayed passage from the national to the international humanities. I submitted my application for full professorship, making the final step in my academic career in Poland. But my mood was far from triumphant. The integration in the international context is still far from natural for anybody coming from Polish academia. The level of competitiveness and seriousness that is expected contradicts the dilettante and serendipitous manners that were often accepted in my native milieu, especially in such a context as the Faculty "Artes Liberales". Evidently, I'm better suited than most to cope with such a difficulty. Nonetheless, the passage costed me many failures and drawbacks, and I saw myself forced, once again, to step back into my Portuguese field. Yet I feel determined to consolidate and reinforce precisely the profile I've worked out, with its unique set of competences. Sometimes I've had the impression that it plays against me, mining my credibility; yet I'm prepared to build up my international visibility and recognition against all the odds.
It gives me strength and boldness to affirm my point of view, even when I feel it might be too original to be accepted. Delving deeper into the practical aspects of my transcultural project, I started to see it under a different light. First of all I realised that my endeavour might rather be a personal venture than yet another collective program. My faculty, against what was officially averred, never showed any signs of genuine interest in my preparation for the ERC Advanced Grant. On the other hand, it might be misleading to engage in the fight for such a substantial financing while the concepts require first of all a well-thought and well-balanced individual elaboration. In the meanwhile, I realised that my intellectual career wont take a proper shape unless I start to publish serious books, not just books in Polish, but the ones inscribed in the main, English-speaking circulation of ideas. This is why I started to think about my intellectual endeavour as a whole and plan for a whole cycle of books in which I will progressively draw my transcultural horizon. I'm searching for an editor and a fellowship in an institution that would permit me to concentrate on writing.
A comprehensive, yet essentially individual project should thus make a full sense of all my intellectual adventures and lead me smoothly towards the conclusion of several books I've been working on. I've accumulated many ideas, and I let them compete and interact in my projects.