The bazaar of Leiden is a constant marvel for me, every Saturday. For an Arab fruttivendolo who, being asked by a Dutch woman how much for a little branch of ginger root, answers: It is a gift from me, with such a caliphal smile as if he was just offering her the Queen of Sheba's very best necklace. For the happiness of an elderly Guinean buying fish for nearly 30 euro. He picks his sardines one by one from the container, till his bag is full to burst. And other fishes as well. I imagine what a Guinean soup of apocalyptic proportions he will cook. Cut off the heads?, the fisherman asks. No, of course not. If one thing I remember from West African usages, eating the meat of fish heads is considered the privilege dos mais velhos.
I buy my two kilos of rode poon, and, with the proud gesture of a white woman who of hanger in Africa knows from books, I ask for the heads to be removed, as well as the skins. I also buy grapes, and Lebanese pita bread, the authentic. As always, the florist's bank is a big puzzle. Lilies stand as tall and proud as Christian martyrs. But perhaps I don't have a suitable jar to keep them. Finally, I buy those big, thick roses. This is one of the last varieties that still conserve the subtle aroma proper to their kind. The French sometimes make them come by air from Mt Kenya. But I hope these ones I bough are local, splendid as they are with the pearls of a sudden shower that caught me on my way.
With a tall flute of white wine, as if taken from an old Dutch painting, I choke with beauty and happiness and blessing of this place. God, I thank Thy for the provisions of my life, and that I am not the head of any Portuguese & Lusophone Studies department at the hour of demise, but Thy refugee in this swamp, as Thou brought Thy righteous out of Sodom.
*Kanfurbat, also spelled kanfúrbat (Kriol) or kanfúrbate (Portuguese), is a Guinean soup, seasoned with lemon and piri-piri, cooked either with fish or, alternatively, with any other source of proteins available, such as lungs or even sheep's or goat's head and eyes. In an article that is currently submitted to "Teksty Drugie", I discuss to what degree this expression, originating from an unidentified West African vernacular, can be treated as a cultural key word brought into the shared thesaurus of global literary expression. In my reading, it is supposed to be connotative of humble food obtained at the time of scarcity, the very frontier of hunger, just as it is frequently experienced by the peoples of Guinea-Bissau. Here, I re-employ the word to connote the complex, bitter-sweet taste of a modest, yet so prodigious abundance in the mouth of a refugee. That is something to choke with happiness, just as I choke with my European wine right now.
I recon it is not the wrong mountain that I climbed; I climbed the mountain that was there to be climbed, given my biographical circumstances. I climbed it to the top, and I came all the way down to climb this other mountain that is here.
Yesterday I talked to an old Dutch guy who taught Arabic at Oxford for the best part of his life. I asked him what choices he made when he was young. There was no wrong mountain. I studied Palestinian poets in the 1970s, he said, and then I felt attracted by the old stories of Baghdad. This is something that would happen to anybody, I think. I would probably go very similar way. Overall, his story was, to my mind, striking with simplicity. He used to translate, including my favourite untranslatable, Ibn al-Farid. He was competent, very competent, I presume, and made an acknowledgeable part of the academic corporation.
As I think about it, my own life appears to me as desperately filled with overcompensation. I try to find similar academic biographies, people who went the same way as mine. Certainly, there are: Mircea Eliade, Umberto Eco, Giorgio Agamben. People who started studying medieval poetry and ended up writing theories of the Holocaust and teaching seminars on Paul's apostolic letters. That seems truly my style, in a way. The only difference, perhaps, is that he taught it in Greek, I mean, based on a close reading of the Greek source text. But after all, it is this way that I'm coming. This is why I'm in Leiden, and I asked to participate in Arabic close reading sessions. Never pretended to buy it cheap.
Overall, when I observe those biographies and lifestyles of the top of the planet, I notice one crucial difference: they respire simplicity, clarity and order where my life seems to be chaotic and overloaded. It is like the difference between my own space and the interiors of the houses that I penetrate with the glance during my evening wanderings through Leiden. As rich as they are, they seem to have little stuff. The richer they are, the emptier the rooms where they live, less stuff they appear to possess. I feel it myself. That I have more than enough, even if I hardly brought to the Netherlands a half, or a third of all my possessions. Also intellectually, I start to feel less omnivorous. Hard to explain. I don't mean I've lost my love for all the tribes of the world. I start to feel that I can do with less. But probably, in reality, it doesn't mean less items, it only means neater order. It is like having a library instead of a profusion of books. This is what I missed since my underclass childhood; this is the Gewimmel, perhaps, that I really must see.
I start to have worries about future. Perhaps because the term of contract for renting my apartment is closer. Overall, I see less and less possibilities to come back to Poland. And it's no longer about what I fancy, it is about survival. I am afraid of not finding a doctor to take care of me when I really need; in fact, I was afraid of this all my life. Only now it becomes more palpable, more probable that I might have cancer or something. I'm worried because there was a Monumentendag yesterday, and I just cannot stand all the beauty of the place where I am. And this is what makes me worried; I cannot face the perspective of leaving it. But on the other hand, how could this beauty be really mine?
I'm worried about the prices of those little housies in the centre of Leiden. Perhaps I will have to resign myself to living in a featureless apartment, as I did all my life, and stop aspiring for more. Oh, but on the other hand, if I do, the money would accumulate in the predictable future (if actually there is a future to predict of me as a Leiden University professor). I would never be happy and glad with any apartment.
All this is coping with incertitude, facing my uncertain future and worried how I will cope with Leiden real estate market.
And even more worried how I will cope with my own work. What I progressively learn in Leiden is that I should stop the habit I acquired early in my career - that of participating. That of adopting to external research agendas, such as calls for papers or all sorts of collective projects. I should follow my own path and not to move even one step beyond it, no matter what is proposed to me. Because those external proposals constantly draw me back, just as that idea of discussing, in "Konteksty Kultury", the postcolonial theory as a sort of program for 2020. By Jove! We have war in Saudi Arabia!
Yes, we have a dictatorship in Poland and a war in Saudi Arabia. Both statements are somehow exaggerated of course, but both may come uncomfortably true any day of these. For the moment, I have more faith in Arabian cunning than Polish love of freedom. I give some 60% chance of succeeding to the former and only a cautious 2% chance to the latter (I mean, I give 2% by caution, otherwise I would say its 0,2%; but I recognise the power of constantly surprising us, inherent to History). Most probably, I believe, there will be nothing out of it in Saudi Arabia, and nothing in Poland. No event. But this uneventfulness will mean something else in both cases, lead to quite different consequences. Be that as it may, the time is to stop frolicking around. What just ended may have been our last summer of peace.
There is no more space to be silly or inefficient. I see only one practicable way to solve my problems - becoming a visible intellectual, sort of new Agamben just to put it shortly. Start to sell well. Everything else is just frolicking around. I should probably make a full stop in all accidental research, write nothing at all except for the development of my theory. Put it as boldly, as prominently as I find it feasible.
Gosh, I can't believe this. I had such a realistic dream. Or nightmare? That I was back in Kraków, proposing them to make a serious department of Portuguese & Lusophone studies.
The old country is as good as lost now. The party is even more popular in the opinion pulls. I'm striving to understand what is the reason why the History happens. How is it possible that someone comes and says openly he will wipe away whatever happened in Poland since 1990 to 2015, just wipe it clean -- and he is on the shortest way to win the elections. For a long time, I thought it is an invisible Russian invasion, that they obviously strive to reconquer the satellite territories they had lost in 1989. Now I am no longer sure about it. Well, this is also something I believed for a long time, to be honest: that the change that happens is fully autonomous. We just spontaneously return to the orbit of the civilisation where we belong. Nothing but Huntington made real. We had received Christianity from the Czechs, and that makes us use Latin script, but it doesn't mean we have ever been Western Europeans. And certainly, we have never been on the top of the planet. Never had colonial empires, and have no excellent universities now. These facts are connected. Excellent university is produced by colonial knowledge, by the strive to power that colonial knowledge gives. That's the urge of exploration. It creates a relationship with the world. While in Poland, national culture is the only thing that really matters. And no one would understand why I feel what I feel every time I pass in front of that decent professorial house, painted in white, with the words "Snouck Hurgronje" written on the lintel of the door. What kind of binding obligation it creates for me.
I have felt truly attached to the Jagiellonian University; it explains why I still have that kind of dreams (nightmares), even now, when the cosmic order returns to its eternal configuration and the gravity pulls us back to the old orbit. But I was an alien element there, and it is not realistic to expect they will ever ask me to organise their department of Portuguese & Lusophone studies, no matter what roads the History takes. Now I feel truly attached to the University of Leiden, that little piece of swamp that deserves so well to be defended. My presence here deserves to be defended. As one of Europe's hidden treasures.
I don't know where I've read that anecdote dating back from 1914, about an old lady asking an Oxford student why he is not on the front defending the civilisation. -- Dear Madam, the student answered, I am the civilisation they strive to defend.
I've come down to the empty drawer. Practically all my papers are clean, finished and published (or submitted). From now on, all my work is present, updated, based on my current life, not any sort of experience coming from behind. It is solidly planted in the fertile ground of the western academia.
Is that so?
Yes, of course, many ideas, many unfulfilled aspirations come from behind. But the real question is to get rid of their negative balance, of that what they never managed to be. And if they never managed, how could they start to be now? This is the only mechanism how they kept me in the outskirts of what I call real academic life. This is why they were to be qualified as bad habits.
The best part of all this experience is to see how I am growing, passing through stages. Perhaps I do enjoy the ride, this adventure of meeting and getting to know diverse academic contexts, just as Bulgaria and Roumania now. I feel tempted to go for a conference to Lithuania. I have never been in any of those Baltic countries.
Perhaps because I feel I will still have time to enjoy Oxford, till the point of getting sick of it. I want to have this full scale academic experience. To understand the scale of real competence, of a real achievement. To fathom the difference between what is mediocrity and what is something more.
It is a curious sensation -- to reach this recognition of the fact that I was mediocre myself. I used to see myself as someone exceptional since my childhood, and for sure it gave me strength to find myself where I am now. Otherwise I would never reach this point; I couldn't have been more humble than I was. Only now I can permit myself to see my own insufficiency, all those invisible links between myself, between what I agreed to interiorise, and my mediocre contexts. There is a moving frontier of my mediocrity. Now I feel that more or less everything I wrote before 2016 was in a way participating in that minor reality I have left behind. Only my writings from 2016 on are really decent, not shameful, representative of myself. That's what I feel.
I had to do this enormous amount of more or less worthless work to be here where I am now. Nothing came to me cheaply. I'm ready to start seriously scratching items from my official list of publications, to condemn them to damnatio memoriae. Which, in the Polish context, I suppose, is very easy to obtain. In any case, no one ever reads these research publications we used to produce. The only profit of them is to make the ladder I need for my constant climbing higher and higher.
And what do I say to what happened today, in the very city where I was born?
I only say this, these few verses from a 16th-century song:
In Godes vrees te leven
Heb ick altyt betracht,
Daerom ben ick verdreven
Om Landt, om Luyd ghebracht.
Maer God sal mij regeren
Als een goed Instrument,
Dat ick zal wederkeeren
In mijnen Regiment.
I saw an old, splendidly sculpted cupboard in massive walnut wood; they merely ask 475 euro for it, and probably would be more than happy to get rid of that ancient stuff, so Nederlandish that I suppose the very sight of it makes everyone else vomit. But I hope to buy it for my new house, I'm interested in buying a past. I have been unjustly evicted from my land, from my university. But every single bit of my symbolic domain shall be restored to me.
That's it. There is nothing else to add. No more tears to waste.
Another quiet, beautiful day in Leiden, full of sun and rain and the smell of trees and the earth. Yes, I did a bit of the paper for Bulgaria, and then I started new things, those from my project. I don't know where I will publish them, but I will chose a decent journal in western Europe, perhaps a German one. There is no more time to go circling around. It's time for habits of seriousness, maturity. For being who I really am.
Yesterday night, I ended up preparing that paper for Bulgaria. Why? Perhaps because I reached the conclusion that the only way to cross this stage is simply to fulfil whatever is there. To take it on, in a way. To take also the non-excellence on.
Perhaps it is a mistake, and a mistake I have committed too often in the past. Publishing mediocre papers without any chance of visibility, just to be among people. Just to participate. Nonetheless, I felt there is some sort of inclusive virtue in this participation.
Now at least I understand one thing I have read on a blog dedicated to academic advice a long time ago. Why the blogger said the publications sometimes may be TOO NUMEROUS to serve their author's best interests. Undoubtedly, it is my case. I write too much to be among people. And this virtue of participation... is perhaps contrary to the best research ethics. Because participation in not a sufficient reason to write. Only originality, progress, excellence is.
These are the protestant ethics of the top of the planet. And I live a double life.
So what should I do? The paper I prepared for Bulgaria (Lettres portugaises versus Novas cartas portuguesas) is based on an old topic I presented on last time in 2014, on a little conference we made with Joanna Partyka and some colleagues from Alicante that used to came for an ERASMUS mobility. Now as then, it is all about being among people.
I know my text is not bad. No, it is good, perfectly good. But this is how the scheme of evaluating researchers is built in the ERC: they are good -- very good -- outstanding -- exceptional -- excellent. There is no such category as bad researchers. We are all doing decent, acceptable work. But the good and the very good ones are not financed.
I know very well what I should do, what serves my best academic interests. I should be in the library now, working on my project. On the extra-cultural becoming of man. As Ibn Hazm said, one thousand years ago, we are the intellectual mujahiduna who have sworn on the furthest frontiers to stand, facing darkness... Not to be women among women, spending time on feasting and chatter of the ongoing academic life, repeating anecdotes we already told years ago on similar occasions, and that had been told by other people on similar occasions as well, and that have a great potential of making us accepted in the company of other women...
So what should I do, delete it, once and for all? Send it to Sofia and indulge in the sensation of participating? Because if I didn't write those good, easy things, I would write nothing at all. The machine would stop. And I would plunge in silence, darkness and loneliness.
I added the Bulgarian text to my forthcoming publications. And started to read Himmich in the bathroom. The only way up is to go slowly. After all, I am in such a doubt about returning to my text from 2014, because I have grown and improved so much since that time.
Well, it is really the time to stop being minor, if I think seriously about staying here, on the top of the planet. After all, if I plan to become the new Agamben when the old one is dead, I should think a bit about fame, so to speak. Yeah, recognition, or how to call it.
I'm checking my h-index and the number of citations on Google Scholar and such things. I'm by no means any better in comparison with very normal colleagues in Poland, and as I estimate, less cited than my Western colleagues by the factor of 10. Although it is in fact a bit hard to check, since such people as Petra or Stefan appear not to have cared about even creating this kind of profile.
In the meanwhile, I have, very obviously, persistent habits of being minor. Right now, just to give an example, I feel tempted to contribute for two journals that I found in a Comparative Literature newsletter. One in Iași, Romania, the other in Sofia, Bulgaria. I planned to contribute to it before, because I somehow felt sympathy for its elderly editor. Certainly, even to think about making an international journal in Bulgaria is an act of intellectual bravery. The result is modest, but I appreciate the attempts of those who roam against the current. In any case, that is at least a new territory, better than to go on with the same old habits of publishing in Poland, where, as I suppose, no one has any particular sympathy for me or waits with particular impatience for my texts. But of course, bad, good or outstanding, these publications won't increase greatly my Google Scholar statistics.
I know, Tylor&Francis is the name, if I want just to stand on the same ground with my Western colleagues. On the other hand, I suppose even more crucially, I need to change the very nature of my endeavours. Stop writing little literary criticism. As bright as they might be, my readings of West African poetry won't make me famous.
Yes, once again, I know what I should do. Simply put my own project into practice, without waiting for the European Commission to send shower of gold over my head.
Even if I do care for Bulgaria, I should at least comment on one of those novels that are mentioned in the Focus 3 of my research proposal. What about Bensalem Himmich? Fouad Laroui? An invisible power prevents me from even touching their books. The power of my invincible minority? The overwhelming fear of success? The fear of launching myself into my own adventure?
The fear that one day I might actually become a famous intellectual, not an ignored profesorka from Warsaw, marginalised by her dean who preferred nicer, better behaving girls to shine brighter?
Here, on the top of the planet, am I not out of that sort of schemes?
In any case, it's time to change the narration. I might have been Polish intelligentsia's victim, or not. But it does not count for anything now. I submitted my ERC project through Leiden University NOT because the dean of the Faculty "Artes Liberales" offered me no support. NOT because at the Jagiellonian University they did not even take me seriously. I SUBMITTED MY ERC PROJECT IN LEIDEN, BECAUSE I GREW TIRED OF BEING ETERNALLY UNDERPAID, OF TRAVELLING THROUGH EUROPE ON BUSES, OF SLEEPING IN STINKING HOSTEL DORMITORIES AND HAVING THEIR EMPLOYEES LAUGH AT ME WHEN I PUT "UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR" IN THE REGISTRATION FORM. And this is not to mention the eternal shortage of books, the lack of materials, sources, updated publications to put me in the context of the ongoing debates.
I SUBMITTED MY ERC PROJECT IN LEIDEN, BECAUSE LEIDEN UNIVERSITY IS UP IN THE RANKING, WHILE UNIVERSITY OF WARSAW IS DOWN. And that is only to politely avoid mentioning the political problem ("What political problem?", candidly asked a colleague of mine at Humboldt's in Berlin).
Yes, they did not love me in Warsaw, because they knew I would never be their faithful bitch. I understand their reasons. I acknowledge they were right. And it is a closed chapter. Now, I am here, on the top of the planet. And I need to launch my project, claim my place, not in any local elite of Kraków or Warsaw. I need to claim my European visibility, my participation in those things that really matter. In those things that will still matter in a thousand years from now.
I found a funny table gathering the names and affiliations of those on the top of Google Scholar. Number one is Michel Foucault with a mind-boggling 885 000 citations; Derrida is much lower, with merely 276 000; much less than Freud and Bourdieu. Giorgio Agamben does not appear on the list.
This Google ranking is funny indeed, funny as a toy. I even found there my old Marie Curie University in Lublin, 1 666th in the category "Excellence rank" (wow, nearly as good as University of Zielona Góra), and 1 177th as for its "Presence" (overall, it's an honourable 1 761st position in the world). By curiosity, I also checked what is the last one (last in Eastern Europe). It is a university collage in Kosovo, 19 301st (??!) in the world ranking. I wonder if they have a Comparative Literature journal.
Meanwhile, the worse university I have personally visited (and even published there - sic!) seems to be Akademia Polonijna w Częstochowie, 12 768th in the world ranking. It was called Wyższa Szkoła Języków Obcych i Ekonomii, or something like that, when I used to go there for conferences on translation. Perhaps I should carefully remove such data from my CV. Now that I am on the top of the planet.
Here I come perhaps to the gist of my problem. I simply enjoy this kind of academic adventures. I would gladly visit that university collage in Kosovo, just to see what does it mean to be at the very bottom of everything. Oh, no, this is only the bottom of Europe, there is yet another standard for the bottom of Eurasia, belonging to a certain University of Management Sciences in Bangladesh.
Oh my God, there is even more to delve into the abyss!... The worse university in Poland according to this Google ranking is a Wyższa Szkoła Handlu i Usług w Poznaniu, 28 431st on the planet, right below Nadbużańska Szkoła Wyższa w Siemiatyczach (28 389th in the world, with an Excellence Rank of 6115th: wow, that must be something!). I guess Częstochowa is a great place to be, compared to those; they don't even have any conferences, so I couldn't even possibly be there, even if I tried very, very hard.
But this exploration of the bottom of the world actually makes me sort of surprised and puzzled. After all, this is about the same place in the global ranking where the worse universities of Africa lie. Namely, a certain Darul Hikmah University in Mogadishu, Somalia, ranked 28 690th in the world. Is Nadbużańska Szkoła Wyższa really just as bad as a House of Wisdom in Mogadishu? Hard to compare, but in any case, the analysis of my ranking indicates that the worse universities in Poland are worse than the worse universities either in Bielorus or in Ukraine. And that is curious, because as I believe, many people come precisely from Ukraine to study in such places. Probably because it's closer from home for them than Mogadishu...
Jokes apart, I think that overall some institutions may be very low in this ranking, because they are extremely small (this is why I can see on the bottom several Max Planck research schools). Just as I am undervalued in the citation business, since I have published in Poland on topics no one cares about and that I am often the only one to research. Who will cite those papers? Nonetheless they form, at least partially, some sort of outer horizon of insight.
But those academic Mariana Trenches set apart, better let me write my paper for Iassy (1100...), lower in the ranking than Sofia (800-something). It seemed to me to the contrary, that Bulgaria lies below Romania...