There exists, in Mahabharata, an episode of Ekalavya, a gifted student whom Drona, the archery master of Arjuna himself, rejected for coming from the wrong caste. So Ekalavya went to the forest to practice archery in front of the guru's figure chiselled out of wood, till he achieved such a perfection that he could prevent a dog from barking by putting a couple of arrows around its mouth, without hurting the animal. When Drona discovered his achievement, he ruthlessly asked for his guru-dakshina (the repayment due to a teacher), which was to be Ekalavya right hand's thumb. In such a way, Drona prevented him from casting a shadow on the greatness of the favoured pupil, Arjuna, the pedigree hero destined to shine. It is clear 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 rituals of cutting the right hands' thumbs of high achievers remains valid. Perhaps it is a living proof of the Indo-European continuity of basic cultural foundations. Be as it may, I have carefully avoided, since an early age, 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 as I think about it, I am by no means sure if I managed to dodge the connection between mastery and wound.
My first dream as a child was to become a scientist, a biologist; yet my 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 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. 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. I believe it shaped my youth and remains with me till the present day; omnivorous intellectual diet is still a kind of hysterical reaction against those early limitations.
I had traumas to cure before I turned 12, and no illusions whatsoever concerning the society in which I was living. My earliest memory is that of 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 my parents caution; my mother just made me recite my name and address over and over again. I was 10 when my younger 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 early maternity. This is why one day someone spat generously on my best sweater. We were in the beginnings of the Church-promoted anti-abortion / pro-morality campaign. A woman, even one aged 11, was under attack, ready for the victimisation; anyone could spit on her in total impunity.
My story 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 resigned from my professorial position at the University of Warsaw). But I did belong 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 Second World feminism looks back to those times of women's ascension to the payable work market, if it ever does. Those realities have never been seriously discussed. 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 work) remained unchanged; there was no other paradigm, no other standard, at least not in the horizon of my people.
About the same time, my grandmother kept a hen in the balcony, in a block of housing office's flats where we all lived. 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 in the housing office's flat, was illiterate. I remember the day I discovered the fact, aged 6 or 7, 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.
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. 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 the cultural transmission. These key words 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. So 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 towards 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. Till then, I lived, and lived intensely, in the dazzling noon of colonial scholarship.
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'm building upon this advantage till the present day. I studied drawing, painting and wood carving, as well as art history and French, at a 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 Aldous Huxley; a translation of his Perennial Philosophy was among the first books I owned. By the way, I started accumulating them as soon as I could get any money to buy them; they were always books of the world, taking me to distant places, in space and in time. It was the beginning of a dream that I call now my Multilingual Library, a collection of books, maps, guides, dictionaries and language manuals, photographs, personal notes, drawings and manuscripts brought from my travels and disposed in bookcases 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, Malraux's musée imaginaire with a new background, whatever one might call it: transcultural, non-hegemonic, cosmopolitan, pluriversalist.
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 15, 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 16 or 17, 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. 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 this university, master degree in my pocket, without having ever heard in the classroom such names as Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida. The least I could do was to study languages: not only French, but also Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. These are the roots of my polyglottism, that later on increased far beyond the Romance range. Learning new tongues used to be my solace in those early times and in many years to come, as an additional isolation against people and matters around me. On the other hand, the adjective "Romance" does mean something important to me, perhaps through art even more than through linguistic unity. In a way, it is where I belong, on this vast map of overlapping, pluriversal territories.
Speaking Portuguese soon 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 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 saw 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 back nostalgically to the nineties as it was a good time for Poland. Academically, it was the beginning of a luminous way 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. Quite characteristically, the fact that even in this imaginary narration 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 is 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 human 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 all 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 had 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, this 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 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.
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. To make things worse, also the fact that they adopted zakłamanie as their strategy of survival contributed to the intellectual failure of the entire caste. In the scholarship one constantly deals with some form of critical truth or another; inveterate habits of mendacity combined with strong beliefs necessarily contradict the requirements of the scholarly profession.
While I was reading my books, the members of the intelligentsia just were, existed, endured (certain resonances of the Polish verb trwać are beyond any possible translation into English), persuaded 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. Two decades later, they found their true selves again, when a new opportunity of resistance appeared, or rather was created by a kind of schizophrenic splitting of the minds, lacerated by their instinct of dissent and their alma naturaliter endeciana (expression coined by Czesław Miłosz). 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. But let's return to the proper chronology of my youth.
THE PORTUGUESE YEARS
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 further undergraduate studies were financed first by the TEMPUS program 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.
The Lisbon I knew was complex. I wouldn't say postcolonial; it was still a 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 rather vintage style colonial hats against the Portuguese sun. Refugees from Timor, with the air of Barbarian long-haired warriors in everything but their stature (they were short guys), were relative newcomers. 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 was stopped in all the city centre for a quarter of an hour of solidarity. 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 this 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.
In 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.
The discipline was nonetheless to become the serious part of my life, permitting me to settle down smoothly with a stable academic employment at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. 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. I 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 an important step in my formation, perhaps 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.
In the meanwhile, the circumstances were such that I had to go on with my Portuguese studies in the first place. From 1999 to 2006, I taught both Portuguese 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 of researchers in different fields of knowledge that managed to make themselves visible before they turned 30. 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 these 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, 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 considerable 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). The real 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 its slow, uncanny digestion of the decade 1980; anachronistic exploration of feminism and 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 louder than 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.
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 2013/14, 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 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 of my faculty. 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 to speak. I just shut my mouth wide.
These things have never been discussed. Or else? Krzysztof Zanussi's classical film, Camouflage (Barwy ochronne), 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 where 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 sounded 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, where and in what context they were announced. The old difficulty consisted in discerning an idea as an idea, beyond its eventual role played in local academic wars. On the other hand, the difficulty that has arisen recently is how to distinguish between a novel idea and a newfangled 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 building a bridge for the antelopes in the Maasai Mara or the Muslims cultivating the art of throat-cutting was not simply derived from ignorance understood as a simple, primary state of the human mind; it was the result of an excess of misleading and chaotic 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 anachronistic and distorted knowledge that one receives, till a final collapse. Confronted with a newfangled nonsense, one becomes able to integrate it immediately in one's misshapen 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; nonetheless, refusing it remains a question of survival. Not only intellectual, but also moral. To escape is more than just an option.
With the allusion to Murti-Bing and The Captive Mind, all 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 mixed; even if there is a distinct danger in pitying one's tyrant. Be as it may, this anthropozoological dean had quite a few humane traits. One of them, that I find 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 illustrated volumes). Another humane treat was my dean's love of Africa; he used to spend his vacations in a hotel in Kenya, claiming that he had been accepted into a herd of colobus monkeys. Somehow, I might be able to resonate with the echos of those remote colonial childhoods, once lived in dreams against dismal history and thus revisited in the old age. But how could I render the surreal atmosphere in which that faculty seemed to be immersed? This task is beyond my English.
Anyway, there is 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 in this case the favoured pupil of Drona, 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. 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. Check and Maltese seemed absolutely fabulous in my eyes. In particular, I became addicted to reading Victorian ghost stories in Check translation in the bathroom. Many speakers of Polish may see Check as a source of linguistic humour, but on the other hand, I became more sensitive to 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 contemplating its exquisite beauty.
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 the vision of my intellectual future. 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, this fact apparently justified further founding of this topic by the National Science Centre (NCN), even if Saramago as a writer fell definitely out of favour soon after his death and the subsequent celebration. Anyway, this 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 to the academic context delving in the spectral, uncanny eighties (at least I chose the last book published by 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 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.
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 joined the collective research project focusing on the study of his rediscovered travelogue from his journey to Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Together with some texts on Portugal and Guinea-Bissau that I published 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.
OUT OF POLAND
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 was constantly planning to go abroad; I had never treated Poland as sufficient and permanent, 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 I did not see it as definitive; the institution did not really work hard to persuade me in the contrary. In 2016, I finally obtained a tenure and was to get a perpetual professorial nomination as well (at the present time, in spite of the favourable reviews, this nomination is still suspended somewhere in the bureaucratic limbo and I've lost my hope of actually receiving it). In any case, this distinction (or a promise of distinction) came too late. 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. Such a nomination might thus be seen as coming early (as referred to the Polish standards; the statistical age is 57). Early, yet too late.
What can I say about it? There was 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 be established. But what they tried to do was to make some young people engage directly into the Ph.D. without completing their master dissertations. Apparently, it 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. 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.
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. Who would care about the academic excellence achieved by a woman? And certainly the nation would not be at loss getting rid of people like me. Coming close to the top of my academic career in Poland, my mood was 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 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. In 2017, as I have heard, a sort of national science congress was called to debate on the roads that might lead Poland to it. Many fantastic proposals were announced, such as bringing scientists from abroad, paying them 100 000 euro a year. But hardly anyone seemed to notice the crucial hindrance: the isolation of the high achievers in Polish academic context. I do not believe the imbroglios narrated above were my exceptional destiny; they illustrate the dominant mechanisms. Those hypothetical people endowed with salaries seven or eight times higher than their local colleagues would certainly share my lot. But of course, I suppose, by bringing scientists from abroad they did not really mean women scientists. Poland, after all, is not Saudi Arabia.
In any case, in spite of those fallacious claims to internationalisation, I do believe this lemma had been revoked; headwords of national humanities occupied its place. 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 were abroad, in the world. In one of the last Polish collective volumes where I contributed with a paper, I could also find a text where one of my colleagues admitted that "it would be insolent to propose a new interpretation", while another one 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). Thus 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 that I recklessly promised to various people, that I definitively stopped writing in Polish and progressively dissociated from the Polish academic reality.
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 that is 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". The collective flaws are very much mine; perhaps the only difference is in the fact that I am able to name them. I do feel anachronistic in many of my publications, and angry for having been drawn into the vortex of the local debates. I do feel dilettantish, confronted with international specialised scholarship. If I am better suited than most to cope with such a challenge, it is for my awareness, in the first place. Unfortunately, this is mainly the awareness of finding myself in the middle of an abyss; yet the situation appeals to my instinct of self-preservation.
I still experience a great difficulty in retrieving my true, unaltered voice. Certainly, the passage costed me many failures and drawbacks. "Many failures" is a manner of speaking; I cannot consider myself 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 Amsterdam this summer. As I calculate, I have been succeeding with one fellowship against 3,5 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. But this is just wishful thinking, while my real career has been made of disruptions. So now I try to consolidate this rather unusual profile I have worked out. I suppose it often plays against me, mining my credibility. But having attempted it once or twice, I stopped pretending that I might be something else than what I am, with my CV overcrowded and full of disruptions. At a given moment, I tried to thin out this chaos, stick to a narrow specialisation, be it Portuguese or Lusophone African studies. But it seems that my profile is not very persuasive when I come to this. Most probably I am doomed to remain what I am and to take up the overload of it. What has been done, in intellectual terms, cannot be undone.
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 subject aspire, as myself, to an intellectual life in conditions of limitlessness. This is by the way what I always wanted 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 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 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.
AMSTERDAM AND THE WORLD
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. I doubt if I might ever find an institution powerful enough to refrain my discontentment. 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 also have private dreams. I would like to have a home, bigger than the one I had in Kraków. To stop squeezing. Bigger not only in habitable surface; 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. As I have been since the very beginning.
As much as I dream about a home, I dream of travels. I have been travelling a great deal since 2009, without counting those former stays in Portugal. But during the last decade my travels progressively became something else, 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. I wish I could still learn more languages, and achieve something in visual terms, if I dare not call it art.
I cannot put up with a sedentary life yet, even if I chose a privileged place for my home, Amsterdam, the city of so many refugee scholars like myself; I have even taken care of learning Dutch. This home is to be a receptacle of books and artefacts brought from all the travels; the maritime history of the location is there for something. If not Amsterdam, then Berlin, cheaper, apparently more accessible as an option, inviting for intellectual solidity I have never achieved. I have so much to learn, such a damned lot of learning to do. And so many books to write.