Finally out of Poland. The days were singularly beautiful, and I spent nearly a month at home, reflecting on my future, with a pervading feeling of never-more, of a charming loss, and of falling silence. At least I leave with good feelings behind.
It was a great month indeed, perhaps one of the most memorable ones I had in many years. Something changed in me, as if I returned to a home I had left behind long ago, very deep inside. Some vices, some obsessive behaviours simply departed, without any notice or effort from my side. As if the void they were hiding suddenly collapsed.
And now I'm in the City of Men. Does medicine say anything about hormonal tempests caused by approaching menopause? Perhaps I should check it. Amsterdam is full of men, all of them interesting, attractive, eligible. It makes fifteen years and more that I went out hunting on an afternoon like today. I catch their glances as I pass through Leidseplein. What does make me suddenly so attractive with these worn off clothes and a viral interpretation of an old Andalusian poem on my mind? Perhaps I have in my body the power of this singular moment when a life beyond life begins, starting right here where I stand, in this City of Men.
There has been an official military march yesterday in Warsaw. And a fascist manifestation protected by hundreds of policemen. I saw it on a little clip pasted in Gazeta Wyborcza's website. It was tragic, the most tragic moment was not to see the bare feet protesters being literally carried away by the police as if they were dead bodies already. The most tragic moment was the irruption of an old woman in lilac dress trying to explain to the young protesters that those people carrying national flags are not, cannot possibly be... fascists.
How do you recognise a fascist when you see one? That may be not that easy, as it seems. By their closed faces, by their readiness to treat all women by the name of whores, including those that could be their mothers and more, their grandmothers. Europe does not seem to have recognised them yet, and any sanctions against the deconstruction of democracy in Poland are very slow to come. Everything that happens, does happen, as Joseph Conrad might say, right under the western eyes.
There are nonetheless too many tragedies to deal with, not enough mind capacity to pay attention to the one that we, Poles, are deliberately bringing upon our own heads. I would never imagine, not even in my worse nightmares, that this would be the outcome of our first decade in the European Union. No wonder many people still cannot believe this is true.
I had tears to cry yesterday. There were running down my cheeks right in the street, and I tried to pretend that I just have a problem in my eyes. Just a tiny ophthalmic issue. It is an atavism to seek refuge in churches, so this is what I did. The cathedral of Saint Gatien here in Tours is the only one I can hope to find open. I wasn't alone inside, the French were coming by entire families, for their cultural walk. By atavism, they still throw 2 euro coins into the box and switch little candles in front of the altar in the lateral chapel. But they don't really pray. The people I saw there in prayer were Syrian Christians, in the primordial "adorant" or "orant" pose (I'm not sure which is the correct term in English), right from the first centuries of Christianity. Those people were not accepted in Poland. Polish Christianity is not of that kind. It is a ruthless Christianity of exorcisms performed over the juvenile victims of pedophiliac priests. Or is it just another Gazeta Wyborcza's lie?
All I could do was cry, cry, cry, bitter tears running down my cheeks just like this, in public, even if I doubt if anybody might believe in my pretended ophthalmic problem. But now I have to go. I'm travelling to Amsterdam today, just to put my clothes and my books in the storage place. As my contract in France ends, I will seek for a little flat to rent in Leiden. To see how far I can go with my project. Mon barrage contre le Pacifique. Everything I can oppose to the tragedy, one all-encompassing tragedy of our times, when free people come marching in formation, four by four, and resolutely bend their knees to be enslaved.
I'm checking Berlin, thinking about a larger project here. What attracted me, initially, was the relative accessibility, low housing prices, short distance from Kraków for my moving expense... But it's not worth it. I don't see a real alternative to Amsterdam.
Even if I needed to land there with nothing but a few packages containing books and a bag of clothes... That's the end of joking, either I make myself visible with important books, and very soon, or I lose everything.
Everything is a way of speaking. I may lose my status, even if I used to be so sarcastic about it. All what I actually leave behind is a professorial salary of about 1100 euro net, with a perspective of an old age at 60 (fourteen years from now) with the equivalent of 300 or 400 euro a month. With books, museum entrances, Wiener Schnitzels and a couple of new pieces of clothing, I've just spent about 600 euro on this clumsy trip to Berlin (Flixbus and the cheapest hostel all exclusive). Does it mean that, if I stayed in Poland, one day I might see myself out of the financial possibility of visiting Berlin, even for a weekend a year?
Gosh, I think Berlin was my first trip abroad, with a summer colony, in the DDR times. I was about 13 at the time, and I distinctly remember how I spent my pocket money on my first 100% cotton pants (the pants we had in Poland were made of some ugly and terribly unhealthy synthetic stuff). I got them in the big shopping centre on the Alexander Platz. Was it the same one where I've bought a summer dress and a couple of leggings this time? Is it really possible in fourteen years from now I might not afford to come to Berlin? Or is it just a bogey, just an urban legend, just a Gazeta Wyborcza's lie? Just another chapter in history? Just the poverty that had once been so very familiar to me? Would I meet her again at the end?
I don't care to check. I go to Amsterdam. Hopefully beyond the nightmare's range.
Perhaps these are retroactive nightmares, haunting me when I actually am beyond the harm's range. Am I? For this year at least, I contributed to the French retirement system in excellent conditions. And in the Netherlands even the lowest allocation, for those who had worked only for a few years and never had any serious investment plan whatsoever, is 1000 euro. With this, I might at least manage to spend a weekend in Berlin to see the Ishtar Gate before I die. As for cotton pants, I took sufficient stock last time there were sales in Hema. I bought three or four packs and a couple of cotton leggings, and I was asked to pay 4 euro. Keeping my buttock warm, I hope there will always be Hema and the Netherlands, and I only fear the flood.
I've been following it on "Gazeta Wyborcza", listening to many people talking about the whole mess. What strikes me is that now they claim Polish universities should be in the third hundred of the ranking.
I still remember when the talking was about being in the first hundred.
But neither first nor third, of course...
Yes, that's a cynical comment. So many things changed since March and April, when I went to Warsaw with my resignation. I look back, even if looking back has been forbidden to Orpheus. And what remains is silence, exile and cunning.
At least they might have been brutally woken up from their triumphant dream; I'm not sure about this. Perhaps the students are the first to realise. But I do not really believe or expect that my colleagues might ever be woken. To stand up and see. So there is neither Orpheus nor Oedipus. We are not in a Greek theatre. No anagnorisis is going to happen. They will die and be buried blind, while life continues, as it always did, somewhere else.
And the law, the new "Constitution for Science"? I think the odds that, in the middle of chaos and mayhem, it will be introduced as planned are about 90%. I might be wrong. I wish I were wrong. But I'm glad for having resigned.
My conference is in a couple of days, and I'm blocked. Not about this, perhaps thinking too much about the future, now that I manged to leave my past behind. Probably I will have to go to Berlin in June (if it doesn't wait till September); they are potentially interested in me as a specialist in Lusophone Africa. This is what I asked, but now I'm reading Ngugi wa Thiong'o and seeing movies about Cecil Rhodes, trying to imagine how soon I might come to hate being an Africanist, to find it limiting. Will I?
And if not an Africanist, then? Yes, Amsterdam, my first choice, and persevering in my theoretical work. I should apply for the ERC grant; it would give me my first choice.
I can say very easily this is our tradition, having Netherlands in mind, and not the same way about saying this is our tradition, having Germany in mind. Even if it's true about more than just the Christmas tree. I've been seeing a Dutch program on Amazigh origins and history. Those people came to the Netherlands during the persecutions of Hassan II, most of them in the eighties, I presume. But the Dutch journalist was making this program with such a quiet persuasion he was working out our history. Somehow I share this concept of history, Willem van Oranje, nootmuskaat and the VOC included in the package. I miss it, even now, as my true homeland. An apartment in Amsterdam would cost me twice as much as an apartment in Berlin. There is enormous speculation going on; with all the Saudis moving in, the market is literally bursting with ready money. But if I could get my Finland, or the ERC, or whatever, I would pay the price only too gladly.
I spent nearly four days (sic!) on taking distance to Poland, on rewriting my Autobiographical Essay, on removing pages from my private diary. I put all the e-mails from Poland in a separate file and removed them from my view. The distance grows. But it is a big work, taking an amount of time I didn't really foreseen. To close these twenty years. It was a quarter of a century, in a way. A quarter of a century.
This means making space for something else, something new. I'm in the process of change that after all so few people ever manage to achieve. The illusive change that psychologists and coaches sell for a lot of money to people who would like to become more than they are.
Yes indeed, it is a thrilling experience. For the void it creates. Now I walk through the three rooms of my French apartment like a wolf in a cage. Contemplating emptiness. I threw some of the old clothes I brought for Poland to finish them up. In general, after last year in Portugal and this year in France, I have very few clothes left. It is symbolic of cause, but it is how I make my change, by those everyday symbols, using all kinds of simple psychological tools. To show to myself everything is different now. Because I'm crossing a desert. Speaking about a quarter of a century. It is amazing indeed how much some clothes can endure. I've been contemplating a certain jacket in good wool that I'd bought in Lisbon probably when I was making my PhD, if not earlier. It must be with me for a quarter of a century. I remember it was with me the first day when I went to Kraków, the first day when I got my job at the Jagiellonian University. It is a good wool indeed, it is still a good jacket to wear. But I'm haunted by the smell of old clothes, as if I was an old lady, belonging to the past. Or a kind of chrysalis.
I'm ready to change the key words of my research, too. Transcultural humanities is something that had been, needing replacement. Eremos needs replacement, modification; it needs to be made better. I think it will take me these two months at least, a great revision, and making projects. Anyway I need to submit several proposals before the summer, so this mood comes in the right moment.
New habits are with me, like a kind of obsession of order. Diminishing the number of things that are with me, also intellectually. Making books rather than a mass of spare articles. Consolidating.
It's time to drop a note on my last travel to Poland, from which I returned just a couple of days ago. It was an important travel, after all I went to submit my resignation from a tenure at the University of Warsaw. Certainly, a heroic move in these days. No wonder that I gathered a series of anecdotes and had to present a couple of explanations, varying in tone and circumstance.
But let's start by the beginning.
I cough an economic flight from Paris to Warsaw, and as soon as I landed, my step turned to caution, like in West Africa, when you never know when a cobra cuspideira spits her venom right into your eyes. At the airport, I entered a kiosk to buy two bus tickets to get to the city centre. Cautiously, because when you approach a kiosk in Poland, you never know what kind of news will be spitted right into your eyes from the Gazeta Wyborcza's front page. And indeed the blow came, disguised in a specific kind of black humour. What the news on the front page were? Oh, excellent ones, very optimistic ones. The neo-Nazis from Poland and Germany made a pick-nick at the frontier to celebrate together the birthday of Adolf Hitler.
But I was prepared for the expedition as I always am. In my handbag I had several blisters of Tranxene, the best remedy against anxiety and fear that exists. I'd taken the precaution of obtaining a generous lot, contre une ordonnance médicale, from the French health care system. Because I knew I would be afraid.
Nonetheless, I found the atmosphere much less tense than expected. As the prices of basic alimentary products raised, the loyalties began to shift. Unbelievable how much of the European history still depends on such factors as the availability of food to eat. Women's protestation intensified.
It was a glorious morning when I went to the Faculty "Artes Liberales" with my resignation, that I had already printed and signed in France to avoid any kind of surprise. And I simply left it on the secretary's desk. As simple as that.
But I was still half going, half staying. The very same day of my resignation I also received the copies of my Humanistyka, która nadchodzi, and I started distributing them among some key scholars of the country. I also wrote to many people with some personal words of farewell. I was slightly surprised to see that nearly all of them congratulated me on my resignation, as if they understood I was moving into something incomparably bigger and greater. I wonder how they did not realise the actual difficulties I'm facing. The sheer risk most of them would be in no conditions to accept. Well, they have families, husbands, kids, habits of status I have not. This is why I can step so lightly into the craziest of adventures.
And yes, I also have competence and work habits, and a track of publications, and, crucially, no pretension.
By the way, who knows where the real risk lies. Perhaps I'm on the safe side, moved by infallible instinct of intellectual self-preservation. In half a year from now, I may be cosily huddled in a reindeer skin somewhere in Finland, or even more realistically, solidly put to work in a German university, while my colleagues remain on a sinking ship, cultivating their self-satisfaction against the darkness falling upon them.
I had to explain myself to the ex-President of the Foundation for Polish Science. He asked me a bit harshly what was the precise reason for my leaving the University of Warsaw. I tried to explain I had no real choice. There was nothing in Warsaw for me to return to. In ten years of my employment there, the Faculty never managed to find a place for me, to let me do things for which I had been trained at considerable expense (endorsed, among other, by the Foundation for Polish Science in question). At the University of Warsaw, I was doing all kinds of odd jobs. The last one that had been proposed to me before I left (escaped) to Portugal was that of a manager of Human/Animal Studies. Mainly administrative manager, with very little influence on the hyper-ideological, intellectually castrating turn the whole affair was taking. I'm not sure, perhaps I'm a little sensitive about this, but I think a deliberate policy had been developed to create the general persuasion that I was a kind of non-specialised, mediocre person whose job was precisely to assist other, more prominent scholars and to sit listening in the hope I might eventually learn any deeper wisdom from them. And truly, there was very little to learn from these interminable, sterile, dilettantish debates (at some point they came quite seriously to consider building a bridge in the Maasai Mara to let the gnu antelopes cross the river avoiding those awful crocodiles; and that is without mentioning the brainpower lost in the theological debate on the resurrection and salvation of non-human primates).
Both the current and the ex-dean of the Faculty "Artes Liberales" tried to persuade me to stay. For what does it mean, a low-ranking female just leaving like this? The historical founder of this excellent academic institution honestly tried to make me see what a nonsense it was, all those ideas of mine to make research projects having for the sole objective to publish some sort of books.
After five thousand years of civilisation, it is to this that we came. No more book burning; we are just to stop writing them. Honestly, in a country where neo-Nazis make pick-nicks and celebrate birthdays on the flowery banks of the Oder, the true harbinger of the doom is my ex-dean.
All the bitterness of crying my lost homeland. It would be inhuman, on the other hand, not to mourn, be it for a week, the loss of a homeland.
But what the lion said? The end of mourning is when your stuffed animals open wide their glass eyes and start telling you things.
But what the lion said? That soon we will be there, in Amsterdam, and we will rent a small student's room, hopefully near the Vondel Park. And with 50 euro there will be unlimited annual access to the Rijks Museum, so we will go there often, and stare to painted flowers, and to that peculiar antique chair, with the cushion padding the seat, that has always epitomised the Dutch freedom for me. The freedom situated at the rear.
So I will sit down on my freedom and think what to do next. I have my money carefully counted, all prices checked and calculated, and very clear upon my decision that I want to spend my economies on buying myself freedom.
I've always lived very modestly, and now, that I have my 3 000 euro very easily gained every month, it had never crossed my mind to spend it recklessly. Reckless, for me, it means just to buy a couple of notebooks and pens that I don't actually need... For people like me, there is always a big question, on what we would finally spend that money, and it often leads to great absurdities. I do have my project. I want to buy myself freedom, and I want to buy myself more time. To make order in my thinking, my writing, to grow up to the western academic standards. I calculate it could even take two years. But I have reserves that, in case of extreme necessity, might even last for a decade. Nonetheless I suppose the new fellowship will come after three or four months and all this drama will prove to be a mere thought experiment.
And I've decided I would stick to Amsterdam, to my first choice. Even if I got a fellowship in Germany (they offer two or even five years to combat the often criticised precarious academic contracts), I will still buy an apartment in Amsterdam, and I will put my books there. Even if I had to come only on weekends or for the feasts. But I will make my new headquarters there for a life that surely will remain itinerant for many years to come. The advantage of the city is also an excellent airport very close at hand.
I only regret there is no affordable annual access to Artis, at least I didn't find this information. But hopefully later on I will manage to scrooge those 21 euro for the entry, as easily as I could afford the 18 zloty for the zoo in Kraków. Truly it is a beautiful garden, of course much bigger and richer, and so lavish as to its vegetation, with so many places to get attached to. I love the aquariums, and I can easily imagine many new ideas of mine to be born there. And the Buddha statue surrounded with cherry blossom...
Certainly, there would be many people both in Poland and Europe to consider my decision of abandoning a permanent university employment as suicidal. Yet I have it carefully calculated, and I'm persuaded it's an important step out of mediocrity and stagnation into a true academic career of great seriousness and value. The very sensation how far I am now in relation to my old reality -- not only the reality of my old institution, but of me in it -- proves how long is the way I've managed to cover in these last few months. And I have only one real worry: to live up to my own standards and expectations. To truly become the scholar I imagine and believe myself to be.
Things slowly fall out, like old clothes I've worn out and gone on throwing, and there is something new slowly getting out of the humid earth. But I've bought myself more time.
Oh, yes, it brought a lasting effect, my 1% therapy last Sunday. The first consequence of the new stance is that you see your old self deeper down, that's logic. I've been throwing some of my old papers and notes, shamefully, and I still have to remove some older, weaker papers from this page. They make my image very improper indeed; nothing to boost about in the fact that I've written them. And the note on the cover of my new book -- mentioning that I've published 200 items or so -- is certainly a part of the ironic device of the whole. I've contributed -- oh, how generously -- to the 99% of shit.
I've been trying to recuperate and consolidate some valuable part of my past production, translating some things into English. But the operation only reveals my nakedness, and the distance that was separating me from authentic international scholarship when I was writing those things. Sure enough, a gecko growing up to become a dragon cannot find the matter to foster this growth in the fat reserve of her own tail.
And I've been facing problems with finishing the paper for Dublin I promised two months ago. Perhaps it should be the proper essay, well, after my therapy, the proper essays are the only things that really count. Today I'm busy, got to go to Orleans, but I do hope Friday and Saturday the things will arrange themselves somehow. On a crystal pinnacle, the only way left is up; the descent would be even more vertiginous and disastrous than climbing.
Oh yes, the 1% is not a funny thing. It brings me nightmares. This night I dreamed that I was in Poland, wearing a kind of dress of coarse linen, half an Arabic djellaba, half a clothe of poverty, clear brown colour and dirty. And I went to inquire how far my last degree was. The secretary of some dusty place showed me a big handwritten book, where my name stood, awaiting a couple of signatures. She said it will take a long time, a year or two, hard to say. And my mother had no such patience.
Clearly enough, I've got many decisions to take, and many things to leave behind. Step by step, I withdraw my attachments and my engagement. And I enter the wilderness, in this coarse dress of Arabs, or perhaps of early Christian eremites, which essentially means the same.
And perhaps the difference between my 1 proper % and those 99 shitty ones is precisely this. The fact that my 200 publications are literally pulverised in my hands. I imagine many other people would be proud and consider themselves big professors, enormously distinguished. Wow, I've just had my 7th book, and 2nd this year, and it is five hundred fourteen standard pages, as my peer-reviewer stressed. And yet I'm naked, facing the desert thorns tearing my very flesh apart. Naked to my rattling bones.
The intensive therapy I've offered to myself this Sunday seems to have some lasting effect; not just that of admitting easier that what I see in Professor's Apter Verso volume are effectively Dutch words misspelled and Arabic words without ligature, just letters printed separately. I know why, of course. They tend to disarrange while processing the text flow, and need to be re-collocated manually, one by one, after the page layout is ready. I wonder if my own Verso volumes, one day, would be perfect and flawless from this point of view. I know how hard it is to keep the right spelling across a variety of languages. I was about to have comunità spelled with double m in my own Coming Humanities. Perhaps the peevishness of my peripheral mental formation preserves me from many such mistakes. Or perhaps I do know more about languages of the world than my highly reputed American colleague, and it is silly to be surprised and amazed at this, as I am now. Well, I still keep the desire of seeing yet another colleague of mine reading Greek, but this is by sheer malignancy (over the last decade, he deserved it well, because of his habit of humiliating people by pointing out to their lack of Greek, or any other language; this is why I wish one day I have him read Anabasis in front of a sufficiently numerous public).
But these are my peevish mind's last resorts, and I stopped comparing to enjoy what Apter actually says on Auerbach in Istanbul. Must have been an interesting adventure indeed, the 11 years of Auerbach in Istanbul. I wish I could know more about it, by immediate personal interest. Curiosity of other people's exiles, just like a young girl might have a curiosity of other people's weddings. Expectant. They are great, the exiles. And certainly contribute immensely for a multilingual library. But did I understand correctly that Auerbach wrote some papers in Turkish?! I'm the one truly to admire such things.
Anyway, yes, it's not just about polyglotism of course, even if I should find time to return to my Arabic and my Hindi. I wish I met the Pakistani colleague this Thursday at the Institute. I wonder if I could have him recite any verses in Urdu during the cocktail party (even if he is a scientist working with medicinal plants or something of the kind, but even though; would be nice to hear it).
These are digressions. What I want to say is that I've accepted it. Now I'm on the crystal mountain, climbing the pinnacle. Human being is such an adaptable animal, ready to live on anything, including a glass surface; between a gecko and a dragon. A gecko that takes the taste of climbing crystal mountains slowly grows up to become a dragon.
I've stayed all day on this blog, all the writing and proof-reading waiting to be done. Perhaps I needed to talk myself into becoming, somehow, into inhabiting this damned 1%, to feel at home with it.
There is a work waiting me, more than any paper or proof-reading. I should revise and clarify all the book projects and reschedule them so I might submit the applications in a way that fits my real plans and progress. And yes, design my books in such a way that they stand a chance to fit at least my understanding of the 1%. The Dutch 1%, the one in front, not the one behind.
There is a great deal of rescheduling indeed, and a big step to be done. Only now, when the Portuguese literature is done, I've really closed this period in my life. The two decades. I wanted to write my "mid-career report", yet perhaps I leave it for another occasion. We will see.
Twenty years of academic work are not truly that many. Only two or three years ago, I had the feeling of underachievement, comparing myself to such people as Agata or Michał Paweł Markowski. But these things are far behind, and I feel that my frustration, that have been keeping strong only just yesterday, starts to release its grip. Yes, I would like to see myself mentally freed from Warsaw. I haven't been. Make myself a home somewhere else, I mean mentally. How? Where?
Perhaps at the crossroad of many places, well, in a bubble, in a new dimension, perpendicular to the European map. Haven't I written about it?
Yes, I should clarify my projects and approach Verso again. Having no home, I could at least have an editor. To start an adult life. To see an open space in front of me.
Yes, I've climbed into this great vertical space, where every further step may represent a lifetime achievement of a scholar. And now I have to live up to this.
Perhaps many of those plans and ideas I had are obsolete already. Yes, that's crazy, yet it is like this. New things are about to be born, more mature, more convincing, more able to stand up in this vertical space.
So how on earth those damned books are done? They must be done somehow, if my only dream is to spend the rest of my life in an armchair covered with genuine leather, under a library ladder sliding eastwards and westwards on little wheels, a flute of 1664 in my hand. There must be a professional approach to this.
There are very few beautiful books in the humanities, and each of them has puzzled me in its own way. Often by the extreme simplicity of their making. This was the impression when I read Ranciere's Aesthesis. As if you just cannot tell why it is good, but you fancy you keep this book. Such obvious things he says, apparently, but there is some kind of ordinatio and dispositio in them that just make the book a delightful property. A kind of rhythm. By the way, I've never finished reading it, but I stayed with this impression of clarity, lucidity.
Most books are insufficient in their way. Steiner's Lessons of masters, for example. At the given moment, they grow shallow. So you keep them, but as if conditionally, out of the 1% that is not that of the ERC, but that of what? Some kind of philosophia perennis, I would say. By the way, in Amsterdam I would like to have a copy of Huxley's Perennial philosophy, even if I have a Polish translation that was one of my most prised possessions since early nineties, and there is a free PDF online. And Corbin's Imagination creatrice.
Perhaps this multilingual library of mine is the starting point and the source of all the answers concerning Proper Writing. Perhaps the first reason why you write these kind of books is their connection to something living, something that does exist beyond the words. Something that makes you the chosen one, the guardian, the preserver. And it's often 2 am, and 3 am, and 4 am, and you stay with your things, and your only worry is the fog and humidity lifting from the channels.
And it is not at all about any ERC grants or millions of euros. If they give you nothing, next year you will go to Africa and live a very simple life, with your only worry to write all the things that need to be written, and to find the way to be in the 1% of the perennial. Not to make yourself immortal, on the contrary, to make those things live.
And the proficiency? Had they been proficient, when they wrote these things? Certainly, in a way. You seek and find the mastery you need, against your insufficiency just as the swimmer swims and leans against the water.
And yes, returning to the 1% that the ERC legitimately requires in exchange of money and privilege, I have an idea of how I pretend to justify the excellence of my books to come; certainly, not by any impact factors or visibility that might convince the people I leave behind. But the proficient books I have in mind do have something in common that distinguish them clearly enough from the remaining 99. They are fluid and elegantly written, and highly readable, that's sure. They present a synthesis implying a larger perspective of phenomena, times or rhythms, not just an analysis of a part without a whole. They bring about the material that is non-obvious in the time and space of their publication. They are well informed and based on genuine competence, yet engage a darkness. And the genuine in them truly communicates with a living force that makes their author the chosen one, the guardian, the preserver of things living beyond the mortality; there is passion in them.
In fact, I've been seeing various clusters of publications right now; I've spend all day in those musings. And as I see it's rather easy to find a 100 leaving the printing press without the one that might fulfil the criteria stated above.
There are further criteria as well, such as those of a foundational text, opening a new field, a new current of thought, that apply perhaps to one in a thousand. Yet I do believe it is possible to distinguish, to tell where the thing is and why it is truly good, better than tens and hundreds of apparently similar items.
In the meeting with my ERC adviser, I've asked if there is an official definition of what the excellence is, if they have it written somewhere in their documents (of course they have assessment criteria where they break such things down over 13 pages full of sub-clauses and charts; mostly out of scope in the humanities). It took me enormous time to construe it, perhaps years, comparing CVs, and books, and rankings, and distinctions of various kind. Yet possibly now I can claim I'm able to fathom what actually happens among people, publications and ideas in the top 5%. These 5% make an enormous vertical space, going from what is simply good to what is perennial. It starts just beyond the usual frontier of a decent achievement, like 5 reasonable and well informed books plus 150 or 160 papers in a lifetime of a scholar. It reaches the exceptional and the epoch-shaping, like the 40 books of Giorgio Agamben. I don't really mean the numbers for their own sake, but these things tend to grow exponentially. The more you have properly written, the easier it becomes to you to write even more properly. This is why the difference between the upper 2% and the upper 1% may signify a progress more significant than many a scholar's entire lifetime achievement.
Nonetheless you never find the books pre-ranked, even if people would prefer to rely on an indicator, such at least as the recognised editor or any specialised opinion accompanying them. Essentially you receive such things one by one, and they are quite normal-looking, small, often strange, or on the contrary, quite simply written and readable. Certainly, I failed to recognise them many times in the past, I'm sure, when I wasn't told in advance what they were. But mostly I kept them instinctively, without being told. For my multilingual library.
But after all, comparing myself with Emily Apter is yet another diversion. I indulge in this, certainly, because she has many things I might fancy, in the manner of distinction, and I would like to see myself in her world, rather than remaining in the enchanted sphere of the University of Warsaw. I'm seeing her CV right now (it has 41 pages like my own, see, it's not true that CVs are not supposed to have this size). Strangely enough, I've taken her too much for an equal, in various aspects, while she is not. Just to give an example, I was persuaded she is about my own age. She makes a slender and youthful impression, at least at a distance and with poor eyesight like mine. While clearly, she is not, she's got her first teaching position in 1982 (assistant professor in Romance Languages, yes, this does sound familiar). Between 1982 and 1997, when I started, there is a distance of fifteen years (even seventeen, if we compare the dates of our masters), without mentioning the distance between Princeton, where she studied, and... well, let's skip this. On the other hand, the linguistic competences -- as listed in her CV -- are not as broad as I've imagined. There is no Arabic mentioned, only the fluency in French, which is spotless, as I could verify myself (I've heard her speaking). The remaining are quite current, and described as "reading knowledge": German, Spanish, Italian, Latin. Who does ignore any of those?! The only outstanding thing is Tzotzil (I've never known there is a language like this), described as a Mayan language studied for anthropological field work, I imagine in her remote youth.
Certainly, there are no intellectual twins in the real world, and any term of comparison is an ad hoc and deficient tool. But I was heading toward further musings on the Proper Writing. As I said, I see things above the polyjuice potion of her book I've been reading throughout my nights (taking it for a work in progress of a becoming, not quite experienced scholar, while the volume is in fact the accumulation of writings produced along a way!). Books that are on just one topic, but elaborated in such a way that most people who read them, read them for other reason than just the interest in the topic. For how many people actually read Agamben's Altissima povertà to learn things about the Franciscans? The book is clearly beyond its topic, becomes more important than its topic. Perhaps if I truly succeeded in writing my book on the Portuguese literature, it might be something of the kind. A reading for those who care the least about Portuguese poems or novels of any kind. But might learn something from the Portuguese adventure of immobility and dejection. This would be the real Proper Writing. Who knows, perhaps I wasn't so very desperately far from this.
Perhaps I will never know. While I was discussing the expected results of my ERC project, the adviser told me they simply expect it to be in the top 1% of the things published. Apparently, it's very simple and easy to understand. They want my book to be better than 99 in every 100 books that leave the printing press. But what does it mean to me? There is up to 900 books published yearly by the people employed at the University of Warsaw; it means that mine would be expected among 8 or 9 best ones in my home university (of course provisionally speaking, because in Amsterdam the numbers are greater and certainly harder to beat them). Just to begin with something, is a book like The Coming Humanities better than 99 other books published by DiG? I might believe this, but in fact nobody knows, and the adviser also told me, perhaps in a guise of consolation, that the ERC has no means of verifying this. There is a small icon of a cup on Academia.edu, where you can see in how many top % your paper is, but of course it's a long time ago that I'd noticed that the top achievements of Polish humanities, according to those standards, are the things Emanuel Kulczycki writes about measuring the [in]efficiency of the academic system in Poland. Especially when it comes to calculating the famous "points".
In the first place, it would be very hard to make this estimation by counting anything. Perhaps if I searched for arguments, trying to tell for what reason my book might be better than the remaining ones. As for example telling that it opens a new field of experimentation. But who can decide or prove it does? That the opening, I mean, is effective, not just another stupid thing a little Weibchen like me has imagined? One of the main hindrances in all the "Transylvanian" systems is the absolute lack of clues to distinguish between something that is really important and something that is not, something that really counts as an innovation and something that is just another ad hoc configuration suspended in the vacuum. Since the reality beyond the words has vanished? In absence of those criteria, I have no doubt that, if they had to chose the best book even in the micro-scale of my faculty, they would never pay attention to my books. They would either follow the weight and chose one of the massive experiments of my colleague, or simply stick to what they can understand the easiest, and chose the Greek mythology for autistic children of that another colleague of mine. By any standards, I lose.
Another problem is that you will probably never see some 80% of the books published, at least in Poland. Including 80% of those made at the University of Warsaw. Those 900 books never lay on any shelf or table together. My Coming Humanities will never enter any bookshop. It may be found online and bought, if somehow you know about its existence, and search specifically for it. Which of course most people will never do. What worries me is that Agata told me similar thing about her book in English, published by any of those editors who are perhaps the equivalent of DiG in the West, and offered at any exorbitant price. Perhaps several tens of copies might reach the main libraries, and that's all. And of course, there is one final thing in this. Were these books perfectly available to everybody, what use would people make of them?
But there is a reverse of all this story. This top 1% of all the books published probably corresponds, in the limits of statistical error, to the pile that lies on my table right now as I write, or at least to the part of this pile that I actually appreciate and never truly care to remove. This top 1% is the most familiar reality, and I'm only asked to stick to it. Not the gelid pinnacle of unseen achievement, but the very air I breathe and strive for. And I'm only asked to write as properly as I see things written. Just like in a civilised toilet. Leave the things as proper as you've found them. 99% of people who write, don't. But this is their problem. The 1% always sticks out, bright and unspoiled, and the ERC, contrary to Emanuel Kulczycki, doesn't seem so very much preoccupied with measuring it. Yes, it does stick out of -- technically speaking -- the shit.
Concluding, all these things concerning writing books are not as simple as most people imagine, and by any set of criteria, I'm done. The only thing I can possibly do in the matter of Proper Writing is just leave those 900 publications of the University of Warsaw alone, no matter where they are to be found. And Professor Apter as well. I only wonder why they never invite Giorgio to speak at those conferences. Perhaps he is done, too.
I've been trying hard to penetrate the secrets of the proper writing.
I recapitulate the problem: as I said in one of my previous posts, the Proper Writing (PW) is what takes you wherever you want to go. Not any other thing. (I've been scolding my PhD student for his typically Polish belief that in Germany they offer a lifelong professorship for having "brought a grant in" to the faculty; yes, one of those believes of ours that money cries louder than achievement -- or that money is the achievement --; essentially, rather a primitive way of thinking, and yet I'm astonished how difficult it is to combat this kind of absurdities).
Yes, my story necessarily begins in Poland, and perhaps this is what I should be scolded for, because evidently this is not what matters right now. Yet perhaps the belief -- or hope -- of being able to compensate the lack of the Proper Writing by anything else is universal.
Anyway, I'm still delving in some paradoxes connected to publishing books. One of them is the case of an older colleague of mine who had publish between twenty and thirty books, only to verify, at the end of life, he had never been read as he wished to be. Certainly, younger people finished by overshadowing him with the instantaneous fame of their grants. But the problem here is even more paradoxical than this. What puzzles me is that this man authored this amount of books without actually knowing how to write. Yes, by my standards, I mean, and I think not only by mine. The question was not that of writing in English, although he also came to this; it was the question of writing at all. Of the discursive consistency.
Once I mentioned this case in a conversation with an American colleague, and he told me I should be more tolerant, intellectually. He just couldn't construe such as situation -- someone getting published, twenty books and more, without knowing how to write. But I see this as a larger problem of this generation. I think something had happened with language in their time. Something essential. And I think it might be an aspect of the historical becoming of the nation, of what we Poles were in the 70ties. Muddy writing was just an epiphenomenon of some deeper problem of manipulation, untruthfulness and some kind of derealisation in the general cultural landscape of the time. Somehow, this is reflected in that characteristic absence of lucidity I can observe in their writings. As if the reality beyond the words had vanished. They'd got used to build intricate structures of ideas in a vacuum, corresponding to no thing whatsoever. Just like my ex-dean, illustrating the same generational spirit, used to build intricate, yet completely virtual "structures" of his institute, with no attention paid to the real competences of men (this was how I failed to become the manager responsible for human-animal studies, as it is easy to observe, the last thing that might be regarded as my field of expertise). As if the reality was an infinitely elastic matter to shape. He failed to notice either its weight and resistance, or the fact that things were constantly collapsing in his very hands. And evidently, failed to procure a truly engineering solution to whatever he attempted, because long ago, they had created their comfort zone of glory and self-satisfaction in the derealisation.
Of course, not only proper writing, but also proper competence is absolutely invisible and unessential, as it is out of the dominant logic, in this context. Younger generation, taking those people for masters, is equally ready to understand the academic life as the domain in which the rule of the game is to create a persuasive illusion. Tragically, the European grants apparently come in to legitimise their fiction. Who will ever doubt that the thing bolstered by 2,5 million euro is real? They win.
But this is only a large detour, and I was to comment on the Proper Writing. Yes, there is no communication between the universe I described above and that of the Proper Writing. If by a miracle anyone published, there in Warsaw, a Properly Written book, it would be completely transparent and thus invisible. They wouldn't even notice if the book was slapped in their faces. No wonder that one of my colleagues experimented with particularly massive books, which seems to have more sense given the circumstances, but to no lasting avail; the shock was extremely short-lived.
The Proper Writing is essentially something else somewhere else, in relation to my old university and, as I suppose, a great deal of other "Transylvanian" systems. I've been studying Emily Apter throughout my nights, and I've got my personal reasons. We seem to have many things in common, Emily and me. We share similar extent of multilingual erudition, incorporating French and Arabic worlds. We both happen to like Morocco and appreciate Abdelfattah Kilito (she does more than myself); she's even got a chapter on saudade in her book, and I've got in mine. The only difference is that she is published by Verso and invited as a keynote speaker in international conferences, while I'm not. Why is this so?
Clearly, she's got a couple of things I'm still aspiring to. In the first place, her books have actually been written, while mine are only ideas of books, things to say, and there is an obvious difficulty for any editor, including Verso, in publishing things to say. Editors work with existing manuscripts, not concepts. That seems obvious, yet it is an essential point. The Proper Writing is what actually takes place. Not a mirage on the horizon.
As I read Emily Apter, I can see many shortcomings, the superficiality of various things. But if she's been so vastly recognised in the international comparativism, it is, in the first place, for the complexity of her discourse. What she concocts is clearly a polyjuice potion, a dish of thousand ingredients, that, as for my standards, could be harmonised in much more perfect and accomplished way. She is still far from the top, but she is good enough for those things I would like to have, and on a way of progress. I look to this and I see room for improvement, and I also see I can offer a better product, be it called my Book of the World.
What is actually the difference between, say, her Against World Literature and my Coming Humanities? Is that her book is written in English and published in Verso, while mine is written in Polish and published in DiG? Certainly, this is an essential difference, because it means that people can actually read her book, and they cannot read mine. Suppose the very same book is written in English and presented to Verso. Would they be happy to publish it? The hypothesis leads nowhere unless it is verified. I should actually write something like this and submit it to the editors, otherwise we will never move beyond this point.
Besides, her book is about thrice as thick as mine. Is this equally important? Can I write The Coming Humanities thrice as thick? Of course, the book as it is, is a kind of bitter-sweet good bye joke, dedicated to an institution that does not happen to be either Harvard or Princeton or Columbia. This humorous aspect should probably be obliterated; and then yes, I see no reason why this book couldn't be thrice as thick. I did write thrice as thick on Portuguese literature. Of course, this doesn't count, because it is clearly not the same level of complexity. Yet it was far too simple for my present stage, this is the reason why I couldn't finish it for so long; it was too boring to write.
As I said, her book is shallow in many places, and mine is as well. There are many things to be studied in depth, read more carefully, with more attention to details, more complete information. Mine is still a sketch of a book. In both, there is a leading idea, a conceptual progress across a collection of heterogeneous essays. I would say mine is slightly more consistent than hers, perhaps simply because I know my own text much better, keep it in mind more fully. I should take this bias into the account. Perhaps if I developed the very same ideas to their full extent, and wrote it in English and submitted it to Verso, it might eventually count as the Proper Writing. There are three "if" that require to be solved. And if I triplicated the volume, not by word count, but by complexity. Well, a duplication would do; this is not supposed to be an Amazonian forest in a glasshouse. So it would make a total of four "if".
Plus obliterating the University of Warsaw -- five.