The Price of Becoming
Among varied destinies of the scholars populating the European academia of today, my own way must appear, I suppose, as impossibly intricate, illogical and queer. Competing, for most of the time, with people formed at good universities, I often feel as the last remnant of the self-taught generations of early modernity. Having no leading institution to offer a warrant on my competences, my only escape is to prove my originality. This is where I got this idea that my only chance of survival lays with the boldest innovation in the humanities. In terms of academic prestige, I have very little to lose and everything to gain. This is why I became a very attentive reader of bold humanities, from Derrida to Agamben, just to see how their revolutions have been done. This is also the reason why I have maintained, for years now, a very broad approach to research, building a network of topic, rather than a clearly delimited specialisation. I am not sure if it makes my life easier, but I suppose it is a major investment, if I seriously pretend to arrive at the very top of visibility in humanities. These are long term strategies, giving no immediate institutional stance, even in a local sphere; nothing but the promise of a very considerable outcome at the end of the road. It is an intimate option and a personal risk. This is why I have no loyalties, no true affiliations. I am a typical outsider, a minor destined to change everything or die in the attempt. There is of course an enormous load of hubris in this minor condition.
Since the beginning of my Varsovian period, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My solitude is easy to grasp if I say what categories of men I see as absolutely non eligible. Firstly, I have never admitted building a family with any man from my country of origin, not even as a remote possibility. The traumas of my childhood and early youth explain it partially, but not entirely. As I grew up, I developed extremely smooth, accommodating disposition towards my partners; any verbal exchange of such a nature, content and emotional amplitude as I hear them every summer through the open windows of my Polish apartment would simply blow the veins of my heart and brain. Although from the religious point of view I am an extremely reckless person, it is curious enough that at a given point I developed a powerful, even if, as I myself recognise, quite misplaced prejudice against making love to an unbeliever; moreover, I have also developed a strong persuasion that any act of love-making should always be preceded by some sort of marriage. Certainly, it introduces further difficulties into my private life, but very little of it is actually related to God, morality or even ethics. First of all, I see it as a duty to my concept of eroticism; eroticism that requires at least the faintest guarantee of commitment and continuity.
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. I came to clear and well-defined 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. On the opposite pole, my opinion about the Moroccan men largely coincides with the analysis of Fatema Mernissi; I mention them here, since they might be possibly considered as the direct successors of my Andalusian homeland. Unfortunately, they are not, and I agree with the Moroccan sociologist that the colonial fact might have been a major factor of destruction in this domain. Such a hypothesis brings the discussion back home, to Poland; an elderly scholar, Ewa Thompson, had once shared with me an interesting comment about this; she pointed to the exhaustion of masculinity caused by recruitment to colonial and imperial armies. Poles and Moroccans had been in fact recruited by the Russians and the French. Is this the reason why my own hunting grounds had to reach beyond imperial zones of influence, toward the fragile purity of uncolonised deserts? Who knows.
Certainly, I do not pretend to know it all. And against this logic, 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 of course, for this I would have to divorce and marry, and overcome a series of prejudices, against Shia and several other things. Overall, 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. Well, 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 I repeated already once or twice in connection to diverse other topics, one of the things I deeply regret was to have spent most of my life rather unkempt and badly dressed. Certainly, much of it may be forgiven as a lasting consequence of my childhood; but for me it remains unforgiven as a constant betrayal of my Andalusian worldview. In this aspect, I have never managed to grow out of my youth; even my habit of wearing black has nothing to do - as one might eventually admit - with Arabia; it is simply the remnant of the fact that I had been punk as a teenager.
But 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.