Yes, I should be writing properly right now, but it's a Sunday morning and I linger over my blog. It's a common thing to do. But I'm captivated by some deep psychological process as well. Perhaps mentally, I'm still mourning over my old life and my old faculty, and gaining courage and strength to face my new life "in the West". I should probably rewrite my CV to fit the new circumstances and, first of all, the newly acknowledged circumstance that it's all about proper writing. In that monstrous, 40-pages-long CV many things are maintained "just in case", if one day I had to apply for some lesser job. Some time ago, I was mentally preparing to face the risk of my adventure by imagining I might take up some of the lesser schools in Poland later on, and in any case I wouldn't go hungry. But of course this is impracticable even as an emergency solution.
When you face the pinnacle of the crystal mountain, you have to forget the world beneath. Perhaps this is precisely what makes alpinism so exciting. No one will ever care that once I was a member of Komisja Rektorska do spraw programów kształcenia at the University of Warsaw. Even if one day I might become a member of whatever at the University of Amsterdam, it would be preferable to forget my previous experience, or at least keep it safely at bay. Even if apparently it was all about the same, European system. But it has been repeatedly proven that East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...
There is nothing but lots and lots of proper writing in front of me. I would better resign to this without any further delay. Perhaps it's time for the Tribal Wife to get down to that obsession of collecting ball-pens I've already mentioned two or three posts ago... Probably it is just an instinct, like squirrels collecting glands, half knowing that the winter is coming.
I do wonder why it is like this, and it's childish to wonder like this. In fact, climbing the crystal mountain of academic excellence, what one constantly finds on the way are the bodies of those who didn't manage to climb any higher. Naturally, the whole Pareto chart (if we treat it as a diagram of quality, competence, efficiency or success) chiefly reflects the distribution of the bodies. And the crystal mountain of academic excellence is, like in the Buddhist monk's dream, a mountain of sculls.
Somehow, across these last two months, the wisdom that is coming to me concerns mainly sculls and dead bodies. Even if, seen under slightly more optimistic light, it speaks about the ways people took in order to achieve that precise spot on the curve they did manage to occupy. There is the way they climbed and the way they didn't climb, the glass half full and the glass half empty. And now, if I stopped to jot down some of my own musings, concerning what I do believe now the right strategies are, it is only to read this post later on, and see the difference of perspective. And that's only natural, if I'm still climbing.
Perhaps there are more strategies to fail than those to succeed. Perhaps there is only one simple strategy to succeed, but unfortunately, the simplest things are often the most inaccessible ones.
Well, que sais-je... Perhaps I can only look down to see things I know are wrong, blinded by more enlightening truths. I can see what's wrong with a colleague who, surprised by the information that it takes less than 2 hours to fly from France to Poland, confessed to me that she had never crossed the frontier of her own country. Another one sets himself as a target to start publishing in French, hoping that this will put his CV on a new level.
People constantly hope and design aims, persuaded that reaching those thresholds will bring about a change. Many drop out by the way; but those who reach their thresholds face the fact that the change is usually much tinier than expected. And they keep asking themselves: what the hell can make a real change?!
My colleagues in the old faculty try to join circles. They believe that having some kind of collaboration with Oxford and Cambridge will make them great like Oxford and Cambridge. That sounds very much like an old story of Balzac, and Stendhal, and Flaubert, -- and Andersen.
Once or twice I'd taken a trip from my old faculty; we had been in the SOAS for a week. At a given moment, a PhD student asked me, deeply puzzled: "So this is the famous SOAS?!". And I said "well", cryptically like always, "this is the building".
We travelled to London and we saw the building, also from inside (not really a great interior). But we were very far from seeing the SOAS. It was perhaps a bit like seeing the zoo with the animals gone to Africa for their summer vacation. Or visiting a mosque with a Rainbow Tours excursion. These are shortcuts to the world, that give access to its ersatz.
Perhaps these things are not so very difficult to understand. And yet I see so many people closed in their crystal bubbles, stretching their hands to reach things. And later on they say: I have been there. I do know things. And put them in their CVs. Yet on the other hand, I wouldn't like to be that colleague who never crossed the border... Of course.
I've recently discovered a ranking in which my old university is noted as one of the best. It is a relatively new thing, I suppose, or it was not widely known before. The ranking is called EEECA, which stands for Emergent Eastern Europe and Central Asia... Somehow I fancy I would be in no ranking whatsoever, rather than ranked together with Kazakhstan. But this is the world we live in, and it's better to see it than to ignore it.
Nonetheless, I suppose that the relational approach to things (together with whom you are in the group, in what cluster you are put) is the source of many problems. The ranking is only a reflection of the reality. One cannot change one's position in it trying to operate on the ranking (the Saudis, as I've heard, tried to pay up their position, but they did it only once; next year they started to buy up scientifically minded Pakistanis). When one operates on the reality, the ranking rearranges by itself.
That's evident, but trying to boost up by sticking to the right people is deeply human; people make this mistake over and over again. Perhaps in fact it would be a great strategy, if you could make it work. But normally it does not work. Birds of a feather do flock together, but it's very hard to join them by cheating. You may blissfully go on feeding among them for a while, but sooner or later, the flock flies away, leaving the odd birds behind. I would excuse some ambitious PhD students, who love to ask questions to Judith Butler in a conference, for the bliss of the instantaneous illusion of "being it", but the adult ones should know that there is always someone in the shadow who puts you back in the right ranking where you belong.
In reality, I believe, there is only one kind of "powder" that does work. Said called it "the mastery of language". It's a kind of discursive skill that serves, essentially, to write. Printed things. Books. The books you write take you wherever you aspire to go -- if only you know the way of proper writing. I know there is one last secret hidden in this. It is in the word "proper". Of course I know people who wrote books, even twenty and more of them, without ever reaching anywhere close to the top. Because it was not the proper writing. But of one thing I am certain: all those whom I see on the top of the crystal mountain are there because they had written properly. Certainly not because they were at the right time in the right place. Not because they had more influential friends or joined more prestigious circles. Not because they received greater number of most prestigious grants and fellowships. Not because their research projects absorbed greater sums of money. Not because they were deans, or directors, or project leaders, or coordinators, or presidents of more things. Not because they spoke more often at the conferences. Not because they spoke more languages. Not because they published more papers. Not because they joined more learned societies. Not because they had more brilliant ideas, or intuitions. Not because they were more competent. Not because they worked harder, or stayed longer at their desks. Not even because they read more books -- reading books does count only as far as they teach one how to write properly. It is the properly written page that utterly puts you on the safe side. Because the properly written page is what remains.
All the other things I've mentioned count only among those who are outside the enchanted sphere of the proper writing. Those trivia are the refuge of the prevailing number of people, this is why they appear to have such a great face value. No wonder it took me twenty years in the academia to understand this. Or to fully acknowledge that I'd always known it.
Christian virtues may seem something very far from a desert lioness like me, and yet I do possess one, and to a considerable degree. I'm very humble and meek, and modest, even more here than I used to be in Warsaw. At least in Warsaw, I'd never use the kind of sport shoes as I do here (they costed me 10 euro in the supermarket, and I wear them by devotio moderna, or just feeling they fit the kind of countryside I'm in anywhere outside Amsterdam...). I've even dropped down the "professor" title that people used to give me -- not quite legally -- well over the last decade. I'm just fine with my neutral, unassuming "doctor". Which is indeed a treat of distinction in relation to many an Eastern colleague who calls himself (usually men accentuate it stronger) "professor". While actual Western professors don't run after this kind of fellowships, of course. By the way, it's funny -- or precisely not as funny as that -- to verify that what is seen as "prestigious" in the worm's eye view of Poland, becomes woefully un-prestigious as seen from inside. In fact, I suppose the experience would make many people, not as greatly enriched in Christian virtues as I happen to be, delve in frustration. While I face it stoically.
But taking things under the angle of efficiency, not spirituality, I do wonder if my meekness is truly a winning strategy. Being so meek, I just saw myself denied the hall to organise my conference, scheduled in the framework of my Marie-Curie activities. Because the secretaries universally step over the meek, as I know very well out of my long and varied experience. This one has even been rude, as far as you manage to be rude while writing an e-mail in French. And meekly, I made a rather polite mess around it. Once again, perhaps overacting the distinction in relation to the kind of post-Soviet PhD students I knew from Poland.
Anyway, it doesn't actually matter, as long as we are outside Amsterdam. But in the long run, how far can I go being meek? Perhaps I should think about developing winning strategies beyond my meekness.
In the past, my main strategy beyond meekness was something that might be resumed under the metaphor of pulling the tablecloth off, possibly together with the best porcelain tableware. The strategy of pulling the tablecloth off could be observed at my very quiet "saída" out of the Jagiellonian University (the Portuguese term is taken from a printed comment on this situation, published in one of our scholarly journals). I'm pulling the tablecloth off also here in Tours, as I've suggested them very quietly I could just find some other place to make this conference. Finally, I do wonder if those guys in Poland ever noticed that the tablecloth had been pulled off, right beneath their dinner. So very quietly did I do it.
They are feasting, anyway, in my old faculty, because they finally got their A+ category. Mashallah. I did want it, some years ago, but of course, now, it doesn't matter. Some years ago, I would consider it might add some shine to my CV. Now, as for my curricular credentials, the very name of the faculty is rather discretely omitted; I just mention, in a more general way, the University of Warsaw as my affiliation, hoping that people will simply interpret it as the main institution of my remote country of origin, the best available place I had to be in, given the relatively unpropitious circumstances I'd struggled to turn to my advantage. Yet I do feel a bit uncanny about it. While they celebrate their success, I regard the institution as academically non-viable. It is not even the problem of my aspiring for better; I see some essential flaw in it; this is indeed very hard to explain and I'm not in mood for trying it right now. Evidently no one has ever asked my opinion about it. Yet sometimes it makes me think about that old Spanish joke, in which a husband, wishing to kill his wife, was advised to do it "a polvos". After a month, as he was dragging himself up the stairs of his house, totally exhausted, he overheard her singing. So he muttered under his breath: "Canta, puta, canta, que te queda poca vida"... Perhaps it is like this with me and my faculty, and the other way around, my faculty and me. They expect me to come back one day, meeker than ever, having failed in my Western adventures. And they will still be there, with their A+ and their consortia and their great project leaders shining bright... Heading into nowhere, against the falling darkness do they shine so bright. While it's simply not that kind of "powders"...
But most probably I'm only a frustrated marginal, envious about the success and greatness of my colleagues. Look to my shoes...
I forgot to tell something important about Tours: I'm happy here. I take great pleasure in simple things, like going to IKEA and the supermarket, and buying all kind of items that please me. Every simple acquisition gives me joy, that profoundly human joy of possession. I feel so very much attached to my things. Clothes, books, little stationary items. I wouldn't give any of my books to the library now.
The Tribal Wife spent a month among the natives, and another problem is removed from her mind. She saw things, got shocked and shaken, reflected. Curiously, I miss Lisbon now; I look back into my Tribal Wife's adventure there, and I cherish a kind of ethnic shawl in red, blue and violet I'd bought in the Mouraria, the shawl that covered me in the Portuguese national library across the last winter. Now I have a new item, an ivory coloured sweater in very soft polyester knitwear. It's quite a common material, it must have a specialised name, but I have no idea how it might be called. Chenille yarn, as far as I could find it on Google.
My life is so full of everything, since I left Warsaw, it starts to be more than a year ago now. So many travels, so many experiences, so much work started and done. So many new items to put in my CV. I thought I was a CV-maniac, till I saw one guy from the Jagiellonian University who is also a fellow here in France. That one opens his mouth for nothing but to give you some more items from his CV, just to keep people fully aware of what kind of excellent scientist he is. Only the gist of his research has somehow escaped me...
But this post is supposed to be about things, not people. About chenille yarn and the happiness it brings about. One of the best things your CV can buy is a sweater in chenille yarn.
But I've also bought a hole puncher and yet another pack of coloured ball pens. Stationary items are my perdition. I possess hundreds of coloured ball pens, both in my old home and here. They were one of the first items I packed, and still one of the greatest temptations when I stroll across the Auchan supermarket. I suppose such an obsession is not unknown to the psychiatric medicine; it must be rather a common kind of madness. But does it have a deeper meaning? What do those pens actually represent to me? Are they a lasting shadow of a lack I suffered in my childhood? A symbol of my dearest longings and aspirations? What I remember from my childhood, is the dear possession of many colour pencils, perhaps a set of 36 colours, which was a great luxury at that time. And the desire of felt-tip pens, which were even greater luxury; but I actually stopped collecting them many years ago. Contrary to what happens with books, I'm not a real collector of pens; I don't really care to have different marks or rare colours. I often collect exactly the same, Chinese type of jelly pens, and just several types of common ball-pens. Even if, indeed, rare colours tend to attract me more than common ones. Perhaps one day the Tribal Wife will get down to this.
I start to think that Schiffbruch mit Zuschauer, that strange silsila of metaphorical stages, might be read not as a history or theory of modernity, but quite differently, as a theory of individual intellectual adventure. There is something very strange in this figure of spectator contemplating shipwrecks, while standing on the firm ground; there is something perverse in the pleasure he takes in the spectacle. Yet indeed there is something mesmerising in the spectacle of ignorance and intellectual failure. On the occasion of a jubilee, there in Warsaw, I've spent long hours as a Zuschauer. I mean, now, these days, here in Tours. Unable to break the charm, still.
But I try to be serious. I managed to catch up the deadlines that passed by, while I was in my Schiffbrüche. I'm just finishing the paper on Ondjaki and Honwana, and then I have plenty of opportunities to publish that I don't want to drop down. Still not less than three books in Polish. Yet I'm patient.
Who would say this would be my problem to deal with this year, as a Tribal Wife?! That this would be the kind of work I would have to share with the other wives of the tribe?! Certainly, there was plenty of failure and stagnation in Lisbon, but somehow I never felt it was touching me personally, that I was involved in it in any way. I never put my hand to it.
Now I see - again, or sharper than any time before - all the difference, the gap, the abyss, I'm not sure how I should call it. And the twofold necessity: firstly, to see this difference, gap and abyss, and to understand that the failure is not my destiny; to see its tragic spectacle cathartically (how was it in Blumenberg? The Zuschauer who sees the Schiffbruch while standing on the firm ground?). Secondly, to be able to isolate myself from it, radically, seeking other people and other destinies.
All the foul stench of failure that my skin might have caught, all the foul stench of failure that might have ever been in me must be transpired now. The moment is to sweat by all my pores.
I stick to my own CV like a draft in the high seas. This is what my life has been, what my path has been, all my choices are somehow inscribed in it, encrypted, but in permanent ink. Some details may be omitted, some aspects accentuated or shown in a stronger light, but overall that's me. It might not be the most complete CV of an international scholar ever seen, but it's a solid base to go on, a room for improvement. And for one thing, I never costed in vain, I never spoiled thousands and thousands of euro for nothing. I see a treat of Dutch respectability in myself, and I stick to it.
A month after coming here, it is a great time to scribble at least a line. Yet I am so completely overwhelmed that I find it very difficult to formulate any consistent comments. How little did I know about Europe! Or perhaps there is more Europe than I've ever known.
Tours is very nice of course, an old town, representative for what France must have been before Paris was invented. That other, Romanesque and Gothic France. The river is very nice, and there is also a botanical garden, with the advantage of a free admission. The rest is puzzling me deeply.
They gave me a desk and a limitless access to a laser printer. It is a long time that I didn't have the luxury of proofreading my texts on a printed copy... And there are two girls at the desks nearby, and that other Europe I've never known. In such glorious circumstances, we transpire frustrations, all of us. One couldn't get a stable job, and it's what she wants. This is a Europe I know. Europe of those who jump from one fellowship to another only to discover, at the age of 40, that their academic career leads them nowhere. The other one, Finnish, is a bit different case, and perhaps makes me sweat more than she sweats.
I've read her CV, as I always do when I meet new people. After talking with her once and twice, I started to wonder what this charming person, whose talents seemed to me as moderate as her aspirations, actually does there. Certainly, struggling to express herself in French, she appeared not at her best, but overall it was not the Scandinavia I knew about (or imagined I knew), the one of wild competitiveness and even wilder competence. Well, the most striking in her CV are the pecuniary items: how many grants she received and how much it was at each time. No great wonder till now, I saw this before with other people, even in Warsaw. Perhaps in Warsaw in the first place. But - gosh! - those thousands and thousands of euro, year after year after year after year, to finance someone with the tiniest track of publications I've ever seen in my entire academic career...
Yes, I might feel jealous, and more than jealous - an idiot, for all those years in Warsaw, treated as a total non-entity, perhaps being a total non-entity. And I imagined myself well paid!
But emotions put aside, higher mathematics come to my mind. If this girl gets this money, how much the real scholars...? Gosh, that's beyond me.
Yeah, there are many more interesting things I should comment on, my going to Ljubljana, and then to Jena... Yet everything appears enormously mind-boggling to me; this must be the shock of Europe, all its aspects assaulting me in simultaneous. In the past, it had crossed my mind more than once that having such an insight in the multiplicity of academic paths and patterns across Europe, I might one day think about a kind of career in Brussels... How many delusive ideas one nurtures, about oneself and about the world!
Well, after all, I think my present situation has only one problematic aspect: it comes too late in my life. I should have been here in 2007, not in 2017. This is the only reason for frustration, and my ugly mood.
So am I positive in considering all those years in Warsaw as a mistake? Yes, I think this conclusion dawned in me more than once. I regret these years, and I keep a foul memory of people and place, in proportion to my regret.
After I was denied my Humboldt in 2005, I should have gone on trying. I didn't, because the perspective of seeing myself free of Jagiellonian University by coming to Warsaw proved enough to soothe me. And it was a mistake. I should have reapplied to Humboldt Stiftung, I should have asked for Marie Curie... Then. But I was telling myself that a solid university employment matters more than garish fellowships and projects pending loose. I still see my point in this.
Yet I cannot get rid of the sensation I should have been at least a parsec away by now. I should have been in the international system since the very beginning. I've lost too much time. 10 years.
But perhaps these years are lost only in the perspective I acquired after loosing them. It was in those 10 years, due to what happened in those 10 years that I became who I am, and Warsaw became so much inadmissible and unfitting for me.
Concluding, I had no choice but to lose.
And now? And now we will be patient, said Qui-Gon Jinn, who had been a student of the living Force. Feel, don't think, use your instincts.
I feel sadness and silence, and being on the slow track again.
Don't commit your mistake twice, reapply. A solution will present itself.