fugiebam dolorem, abiectionem, ignorantiam
Augustine, Confessions, I, 20.
This autobiographical essay speaks of the four apocalyptic riders of Poland, Contempt, Mendacity, Ignorance and Delusion, as they haunted me along the greater part of my life. This is only one of the multiple ways in which my personal story might be told; it took this form across the years of political, social and cultural downfall of the nation, as I slowly wrote it down in 2015-2018. Thus, it is not a futile exercise in speaking poorly of my homeland and people who tried to educate me the best they could; it is an attempt at giving a testimony concerning the complex ways of arriving at the stage where we actually arrived, individually and collectively. As I went on writing, whatever was born under my fingertips tended to grow in bitterness immediately; I tried to introduce some glimpses of optimism, or at least of humour, in order to lighten my text, to make it more readable; all the effort in vain. The result is a story of loss, of intertwined losses: of my family, of my universities, of my country. But in fact, did I ever have people around me, did I ever have a country? Or rather, did I have traumas to cure before I turned twelve, and no illusions whatsoever concerning the society in which I was living?
I got familiar with the first apocalyptic rider of Poland, Contempt, at the very beginning of everything. My basic strategy of survival consisted in avoiding looking into people's faces, on which I could read only one emotion: that of loathing and disgust; I learned how to live with prosopagnosia, face blindness, a neurological condition that prodigiously grew milder or more acute according to circumstances. No wonder, thus, that books took the place of people in my life before I even learned how to read. Nonetheless, my precocious discovery of image and writing did not serve to exorcise the rider; quite reversely, it made him accompany me even closer and more assiduously. Apparently, literacy and education led me all the way up from my underclass beginnings to the top, a full professorship at the country's leading university. Nonetheless, I felt the rider's pestilent breath till my very last day in Warsaw and Kraków.
My earliest memories, which must be situated, I presume, around the age of three, are precisely those of a little illustrated book. As far as I can gather my recollections, it counted the story of a family of bears, very sad bears depicted in dark green; they were nonetheless my first company and solace. I had that book when I was in the hospital. I landed there, because my mother used to leave me alone outdoors to play when I was still too young to be admitted at the nursery school; an older child pushed me down the slide with such a result that my leg was broken. I was so small that I had no idea what my name was and where exactly my parents were living. But the accident did not teach them caution; my mother just made me recite my name and address over and over again. My father often mentioned the accident, always adding a demeaning yyyyh. I was weak, limp, sissy. How could I LET myself be pushed by a stronger, more aggressive child?
At the time, I had as much gender awareness as Winnie-the-Pooh, but I was already confronted with one of the cornerstones of Polish culture: sama sobie winna, the arch-rule stating that the female is always responsible, and the sole to be blamed, for whatever happens to her. I was ten and a half when my sister was born, and I was expected to take care of the baby; once again I stayed long hours outdoors, in the courtyard of our block of flats, that time with quite an adult-looking book and a baby carriage; people must have imagined it was a case of irregular maternity. One day someone expectorated abundantly on my best sweater.
When it happened, I had no clear idea why, just the vague sensation that I was to be blamed. I could only construe the reasons a posteriori, years later, in the light of the subsequent experience of my country. We were at the height of the campaign through which the Catholic Church regained its dominion over Polish life. Religious fervour grew to the boiling stage at the time of the movement "Solidarity" that ended with the introduction of the martial state in December 1981. The scene to which I'm referring must have taken place later on, during the summer 1983. Already at that moment, the faith was turning sour, ready to reveal the loads of repressed hate, anger and frustration that fostered it; those feelings would utterly resurface later on, many years later. But already in 1983, a female, no matter her age or condition, was a despicable being, ready for the victimisation; anyone could spit on her just like that, in total impunity. The person who did it was a young male, like those "crusaders" who participate nowadays in fascist manifestations, hoisting DEUS VULT written in big black letters; I recognised the face from my childhood on a photo from Poland published in "The Guardian" some time in 2017: the same closed features, the same expression of condensed hatred and contempt.
A boy, a girl, a book and a crusade: these elements form some sort of secret symbolic constellation of tensions, tracing the quadrangular diagram of inexplicable, nonsensical destiny of my country across the decades corresponding to the last quarter of the 20th century and the beginning of the new millennium. Male against female, knowledge and awareness against fundamental persuasions.
There is nothing specific or particularly mine in that beginning of a life. I belonged to an entire generation of children with their homes' keys hanging from their necks on strings, chains or fine leather straps. In communist Poland, children simply fended for themselves. No one took any special precautions about them; certainly not their mothers. I have no idea how feminism might look back to the history of Polish women's ascension to the payable work market. As I write these words, 48% of women in Poland do not work outside their homes. In the times of my remote childhood, their work was simply appropriated by the communist system, without creating sufficient compensations or minimal conditions; this is why it had such a human cost as I mention here. There was no means to hire babysitters, other necessities were pressing. In the meanwhile, old peasant procedures (leave the kids in the courtyard while you are doing your chores) remained unchanged and unchallenged; there was no other paradigm, no other standard, at least not in the horizon of my people. Certainly, we were not peasants any longer. But the new professions that women from my family and social class used to perform from then on, such as nurse or elementary teacher, went on underpaid for years, precisely because they relied on female workforce, and women COULD be underpaid. This is why the female ascension to the payable work market might have been experienced not exactly as an ascension, but yet another kind of servitude. And that had nothing to do with insufficiency of their qualifications. Several decades later, near the end of this essay, I shall complain of having worked as a university professor, performing at the European level, for merely a quarter of the European salary.
To be sure, such childhoods as mine belong to the shadowy, unspeakable zone. At the time, we were still to wait more than thirty years for the mass manifestations of women carrying black umbrellas, that appeared in Polish streets in 2016-2017. Only the courtyards in front of urban blocks of flats differed from the courtyards in the countryside. None of them were actually safe and I am lucky to have escaped just with one leg a bit shorter than the other. Also, relying mainly on the inborn avoidance of eye contact and the capacity of adopting a particularly stern face expression, I managed to dodge the hordes of paedophiles that, among clergy and laymen, were after the easy prey that such despised, unattended children constituted. No need to say I was acting on pure instinct; no one ever cared to warn me against any such dangers. I only received a generic, yet even more persuasive message: WHATEVER HAPPENS, YOU WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE. AND YOU WILL FACE THE CONSEQUENCES ALONE. The efficacy of this summary sexual education was tremendous. Looking back to my life as a woman approaching her menopause, I can definitely say I have never made love unprotected. Not even once. For the rest, as soon as I attained the age of reason, I preferred to keep my sexual life as far from the national shores as possible. And to the present day I keep this sole certitude: if anything happens to me, no one will help me.
I write this paragraph in 2018, at the moment when Smarzowski's film Kler (The Clergy) galvanises Polish audience, provoking a national debate on paedophiliac priests. But that was merely the tip of the iceberg. The society is still not ready to accept the stories of children and young girls abused not only in churches, but far more importantly, in family homes, courtyards in front of blocks of flats, popular allotments (działki). Abused in many ways, not only by actual sexual crimes committed on them, but firstly and more durably, by the atmosphere of insecurity; by the vague sensation of shame, uncleanness, unnamed guilt; by the information denied to them; by things unspeakable imposed upon them.
To put a long story short, I missed too many lessons to get a harmonious, fully formed gender identity in my culture of origin. I never got drilled into typically female duties such as that of keeping their homes spotless. Certainly, my mother tried to teach me that order and cleanness in a girl's room should be "like inside a little box" (w pokoiku dziewczynki jest jak w pudełeczku), apparently oblivious of the fact that I didn't even have a room of my own; I lived together with my parents, with no separate space to arrange my clothes, my toys or my school materials. The recollection serves me just to illustrate how decontextualised, artificial and falsified all these lessons in being female actually were.
With so much presence of the Catholic Church, no one in my generation had been brought up to genuine purity, as far as our sexual life was concerned. We were taught that our bodies were essentially worthless, lacking any particular appeal; our sexuality was presented as common, essentially mediocre, lacking individuality or particular features (wszystkie to mają). Any of us could be easily replaced by any other; this is how girls were pushed into bitter jealousies and fierce competition, also about material possessions that we desired as something that might cover the essential insignificance, the void of our featureless bodies. We had no notion, no positive concept of purity; we might eventually be squeezed into sexual repression, guilty denials of ourselves that only brought the constant resurgence of the repressed contents, affects, urges. This is how I grew up, since very early childhood, with the pervading awareness of my sexual uncleanness, even when I had no precise understanding of what sex was. I accepted and acknowledged it. I might instinctively resort to my sexual appeal on some occasions, but at the conscious level I did not know that I was attractive, that my body might have a value, even a monetary one. It was only much later that I progressively grew independent from that message of essential, inalienable worthlessness and uncleanness, of the scornful and demeaning, constantly repeated question: A czegoś ty się kurwo spodziewała?!, that I might euphemistically translate as "Who do you believe you are?".
It was apparently the time of the "sexual revolution" in Poland, initiated, in 1978, by the famous ars amandi (Sztuka kochania) by Michalina Wisłocka. I put the term between inverted commas, because I do believe there has been no true sexual revolution in Poland up to the present day; the society has never achieved the state of maturity or equilibrium in the intimate sphere. I even regard this fact as one of the sources of the present-day social crisis; those "crusaders" of today are men literally encapsulated in their bubbles of compulsively watched hard porn, intoxicating their imagination and rendering them unable to build up a normal relationship with any woman whatsoever. Their dream of strength, fulfilled in massive extreme right manifestations (the latest, as I write, gathered a crowd of 250 000, predominantly male, participants), starts in their private capsules of hard porn. I came to these ideas just by personal musing, but I believe they are not entirely original. As early as 1933, there was a German publication by a certain Wilhelm Reich, analysing the relationship between sexuality and fascism. I never found time and patience to actually read it, but perhaps I should. We all should read it. But of course, those of whom the book speaks, won't.
Be that as it may, I am by no means inclined to criticise Wisłocka's best-seller or belittle its importance in the early eighties. It was indeed a revolutionary one; it is most unfortunate that it failed to make the revolution stay with us. Certainly, the knowledge about the contraceptive methods the author tried to provide was only relatively reliable; these were still the years before the pill, as far as Poland was concerned. Just to compare: later on, for my 18th birthday (1990), I received yet another book, published and distributed under the auspices of the Catholic Church, where I could find the instruction how to follow the so called calendar method, today also known as "Vatican roulette"; there was also a hint that the woman achieves some sort of ecstasy at the moment of childbirth, when the child's head is pushed through her vagina, if - and only if - she is not under the effect of strong painkillers (sic!). This is just to suggest the abysmal difference between Wisłocka's book and other, often highly fantasist writings available at the time.
Against such a background, Sztuka kochania truly appeared as brilliant; at least, it had something authentic in it, something that made its impact both in Poland and in a series of East European countries where it was translated. Many years later, I was deeply shocked by Wisłocka's biography, Sztuka kochania gorszycielki, published in 2014 by Violetta Ozminkowski. The life revealed by her biographer was illustrative of the harshness of any Polish female destiny: her sexual experience started with a regular rape and continued with a regular polygamy imposed by her husband; decade by decade, her existence was marked by pain: a painful childbirth, a painful divorce, a painful loneliness, without mentioning such collateral aspects as the sexist context of her academic life. Yet the culminating bitterness of that biography had quite a different taste: the revelation of the secret behind the only erotically positive male figure, a sailor Wisłocka encountered during her vacation. The presumable client of many brothels of the world was to give her first orgasm and inspire the making of Sztuka kochania. Nonetheless, a testimony strategically put by Ozminkowski at the end of Wisłocka's biography shows that in reality the man was not even a sailor; he was merely an animator from the local tourist centre, living seasonal romance throughout each summer. He created his sailor brothel-going persona merely to fascinate lonely, frustrated women such as the future author of Sztuka kochania. It was an imposture all over, the entire sexual revolution of Poland, initiated by a woman who was so tragically unhappy throughout her own sexual life. We were taught about love and eroticism by someone who had never truly experienced any of them!...
Now I have sketched what the first experience of gender in a society of contempt might have been. Let me engage into apparently far-flung literary allusion to give a hint of yet another dimension that shaped my early life: the inscription in a specific caste system of the supposedly class-free society of the communist Poland, that nonetheless remained indelibly marked by a fundamental opposition between those who belonged to the intelligentsia and those who did not. One aspect is to be made clear before I begin: the intelligentsia is often described as an open social group defined by education; that had never been true. People were born into it. Or they were not.
Among the plethora of heroes and champions of the Mahabharata, there is Ekalavya, a gifted student to whom Drona, the archery master of Arjuna, refused his teachings. Descendant of the jungle tribes, he was coming from the wrong caste. The neatness and beauty of the solar arrow achieving its target was too much for his sort of people. Rejected at the gurukul of Drona, Ekalavya went to the forest to practice archery in front of the guru's figure chiselled out of wood (or modelled out of mud), till he achieved such a perfection that he could prevent a dog from barking by a shower of arrows around its mouth, yet leaving the animal unscathed. When Drona discovered his achievement, he ruthlessly asked for his guru-dakshina (the repayment due to one's teacher), which was to be Ekalavya's right thumb. In such a way, Drona prevented him from casting a shadow upon the greatness of the favoured pupil, Arjuna, the pedigree hero destined to shine.
It is clear that the Mahabharata is not Polish, for the favoured pupils in my country of origin have always been chosen for the reassuring virtue of their invincible mediocrity. But the rest of the story seems quite a pertinent description of my situation as a gifted child coming from the wrong caste, making myself unpardonably guilty of intellectual autonomy. That no one would teach me was yet another of those early messages I received. But also the part concerning the rituals of cutting right hands' thumbs of high achievers remained painfully valid. Since my childhood till my mature days at Polish university, I would be cyclically punished for whatever I achieved and represented in intellectual terms. I had no dedicated teachers to help me or take care of me; the only exception appeared many years later, at the time of democratic transition, when Rotary clubs and all sorts of enlightened beneficence became fashionable; I was a high school student. That was when my French teacher, the wife of a locally prominent journalist, spent a lot of her private time on me; I would gladly put her name here, but I'm not sure what her reaction might be, as I suppose we are on the opposite sides of Polish political barricade right now. Such a trace of a person would soften the bitter taste of my narration, woven of multiple threads of solitude and social isolation. It looks suspicious as an exercise of self-commiseration. Yet I think this is the bitter truth to be told; I had no mentors, sponsors, academic protectors; I have always avoided chiselling wooden fetishes of them; and still I was invited to sacrifice my own thumb on more than one occasion. Contemplating my scarred fingers as I write, I am by no means sure if I managed to dodge the connection between mastery and wound.
I distinctly remember the book I was reading when someone spat on me; it was a thick volume on Mesopotamia. In fact, why Mesopotamia? My first dream as a child was to become a scientist, a biologist. I had a notebook where I was writing my "observations" of plants and birds and every month I was reading "Mała Delta" ("The Small Delta"), quite an original publication we had in Poland at that time, I suppose the only such a serious scientific journal addressed to children that had ever existed worldwide. Yet very early in my life I received my "diagnosis"; I could be eight years old or so at the time, and apparently something was wrong with me; I was not behaving like other kids. A friend of my mother, who possessed some elements of professional training in psychology, decided to make an IQ test in which I obtained an uncommonly high score. I am not sure what that friend actually said to my mother, but I know well enough what she understood: that I was in some way abnormal. After so many years, I remember the grim, ominous mood in which my mother was when we returned home.
Her intuitions proved to be correct. For many years to come, she was to face problems with her daughter; problems for which she was completely unprepared. I was progressively dissuaded from developing my scientific interests by the scorn with which my parents treated them; but that was far from being the end of trouble. One day I came home with the news that I was accepted to a music school and I was to play violin; I went through the preparatory course and the exams all by myself.
Of course, violin was unthinkable under the conditions in which my family lived, but I did not know it yet. I got the idea from Zosia, a handsome, delicate girl with curled hair who lived in the same block of housing office's flats. The aspect I initially failed to comprehend was why she could play violin and I could not, since we were living in the same block of flats. But her people were not like my people. It was probably my first encounter with the Polish intelligentsia and my first experience of the consequences of not belonging to it; but of course it was too early to call things with these precise terms. The communism rendered the social conundrum even more intricate; it would take me years to comprehend it. For sure, it was a very efficient system multiplying the emotions of humiliation and contempt. The intelligentsia families were diminished in their caste pride, since they had to live among such a scum as my family. On the other hand, I grew resentful since a tender age onward, having seen that I did not have the same treatment and opportunities as intelligentsia children; at best, I could count with sympathy and commiseration, as I was coming for books and music in my dishevelled clothes. As a response, I started to nurture a very solid persuasion that I was different, beyond the normal, irreducible to what other people were. Destined and sentenced to live in a world of my own, where the rules and criteria applicable to other people were not valid. I was abnormal, just as my mother was told. Both of us believed it.
Certainly, it was not a time to play violin. One Sunday morning in December 1981, when I opened the TV to see my favourite program "Teleranek", I was advised from the screen that a "state of war" (stan wojenny, or martial law) had been introduced in my country. The curfew was at 10 pm, and in any case, we had nowhere to go after that hour. We were lacking toilet paper, and at the moment of picking up the phone, one could hear a little voice warning that the conversation was under surveillance. Nothing special happened to my family at that time, but I was afraid. Till the present day, that early experience stays with me, causing my deep, generalised distrust of History. Cold water was entering my winter shoes; we were receiving humanitarian aid; used clothes were distributed in churches; but of course, it wasn't a solution for anything. And for many years to come, I kept the belief that Poland would make me poor in the end, that this essential, inalienable poverty, sooner or later, would return. An illness, or the old age, would bring me back to the same helplessness I had experienced at the very beginning of everything, when I was three and my leg was broken. Many years later, I had those things very present in my mind all the way, eighteen hours by bus, from Kraków to Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, at the age of nine, I switched to humanities, where my interests and ambitions could be satisfied in a relatively inconspicuous way, and that explains why the book I had when someone spat on me was about Mesopotamia. I became a typical Egyptology maniac, having seen a film about ancient Egypt: the 1966 adaptation of Bolesław Prus' Pharaoh by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Obviously I also liked Indiana Jones later on, but I am proud to have started, in those gloomy years, by such an aesthetically advanced reference. Certainly, those books were to lead me a very long way indeed. But overall, I cannot say that my childhood was spent in a culturally or intellectually enriching environment. On the contrary, I grew against very limiting circumstances, as a lonely child at odds with everyone and everything.
My grandmother kept a hen in the balcony, in that block of housing office's flats where we all lived, four generations of us in a low-standard, two-bedroom apartment. She worked outside as well, as a nurse. She was the first generation of literacy in my family. My great-grandmother, who also lived with us, was illiterate. I remember the day I discovered the fact, aged six or seven, and how I tried in vain to teach her how to write. She claimed obstinately her sight was weak and she couldn't distinguish the letters. Perhaps that was true, she might well have ophthalmological problems no one cared about; but for sure also her unyielding refusal of literacy was not an isolated attitude. Years later, in 2004, after I obtained my habilitation, my grandfather told me, with resigned tranquillity and seriousness, that he would not speak to me any more, because from then on "I was a professor". Effectively, since that day, he never spoke to me any more, claiming obstinately that his hearing was too weak to comprehend whatever I was telling. I do not believe he ever had any intention of harming me; the wound was to be there, yet beyond anyone's personal responsibility. A breach opened between my world and theirs.
For many years I respected that decision, taking it for the result of an autonomous will, even if it might seem strange and incomprehensible, to myself as much as to any reader of my story. Only recently, confronted with the growing wave of madness inundating Polish society, I have started to wonder if that attitude was not in some way derived from certain inspirations my grandfather might receive from the ultra-Catholic and ultra-conservative Radio Maryja, of which, as many people in his generation, he was a great fan. I even wonder if he might have been induced to stop talking to me by a priest, under the seal of the confessional; I may never know the truth. My grandfather was the only truly religious person in my family; the rest just lived a very primary life, without much spiritual depth. Certainly, he lacked education or insight in the matters of this world and the next; he was a simple mail carrier. But earlier in my life, he had always encouraged me both to study in the institutional framework and to gather the experience of things in a direct, empirical way. Why did that attitude change? Because I crossed certain boundaries and went beyond the levels he was able to accept, or because new ideological factors appeared in his world?
As I remember him from my childhood, he was a humble, mild and unassuming person; his Germanic background (he was born in the western part of Poland, not far from Poznań) was patent in the fact that he used to polish his shoes and wash his socks every evening at the same time he was washing his feet. In the chaotic and rather smelly world of my childhood, such a discipline appeared as something nearly maniacal. After his work in the distribution of the mail, he was usually occupied scything some grass for the rabbits he was keeping on a small allotment; he was also cultivating some flowers and vegetables. There was a barren apple tree on that allotment; he felled it, and with its wood, as a sign of devotion, he started to produce rosaries. He built up a strange, over-complicated contraption that served him to make holes in the beads; it would certainly find its place in an ethnographic museum as a masterpiece of a naive artist. I still have the rosary he gave me, made out of that apple tree of my childhood; I have only transformed it from the Catholic version into a misbaha. But it seems that we have searched for the East of our souls in quite opposite directions.
When I saw him for the last time, my grandfather was trying to play the role of a patriarch, aggressive and harsh, commanding the women with menaces of slapping them in the face. The change in his personality and behaviour was such that for a moment I thought there might be a malignant tumour developing in his brain. Perhaps, at least metaphorically speaking, there was indeed a tumour; or rather a dreadful parasite he had let into his head. At more than seventy years of age, Radio Maryja literally reshaped his personality with completely new behaviours, ideas, fears and obsessions. I dare not ask how he might talk to me now; not only am I a professor, but also a convert to another religion, an inhabitant of another country, or rather, of another world. At a given moment, Radio Maryja started to broadcast virulent anti-European propaganda, in programs containing such pieces of information as the one stating that in countries like Holland, where euthanasia is legal, there is no place for old people; they are simply killed by doctors in the hospitals. Presumably, as a post office employee, he must have been literate; but I never saw him reading, not even a newspaper. What cognitive resources might he possess to counter the propaganda poured on him by the Catholic church? He was trained to believe whatever he was told; I suppose that Polish clergy might have actively prepared the ground for the spread of such an unconditional belief. Persuading thousands of defenceless people like my grandfather to cut their relationships with more educated and aware members of their own families.
"Perhaps they had been manipulated", a wife of an American colleague said to me during a party, assuming that what happened in Poland must be in a way analogous to the presidential victory of Donald Trump. In spite of what I have said on my grandfather's limited cognitive resources and the extent of the propaganda to which he had been exposed, I still do not explain everything about him in this way. I refuse to admit that even an innocent, defenceless man may be quite simply manipulated into menacing his kin with slapping them in the face. Those questions were situated at such a very basic level; there was no complex ideology implied it it, only the most elementary choices. Nonetheless, I suppose it might be possible to explain the process that had led him to the point where he arrived. In the society of contempt, he was at the very bottom. Together with his polished shoes, his habit of wearing very bad clothes was no less Germanic. Also, he was always forcing me to wear filthy rags when I was with him, assuming that I would get dirty anyway while feeding the rabbits. Later on, as my grandmother suffered a stroke early in her fifties due to abuse of alcohol and an impossible diet, he used to drag her in a wheel chair through muddy paths to his allotment, offering daily a truly Beckettian spectacle. Taking all those circumstances into the account, it is hard to imagine the tremendous dose of humiliation he might have absorbed along his life. No wonder that, when his little radio whispered to his ear that he might "get up from his knees", the message became the last temptation of that naturally meek and pious man. Certainly, he remained at the very bottom of the society of contempt. But now he could take his revenge, that the radio presented as legitimate, menacing the womenfolk with his raised fist. As desperate, tragic and nonsensical as that revenge might be, he chose to take it and to go on inebriated with it.
Later on, both in Kraków and in Warsaw, I often had the opportunity of hearing other people's narrations of their roots and origins. These complex stories usually involved Jews, Polish noblemen, governesses speaking French, and even dragomans, or interpreters, of Farsi in the service of the tsar. I have never heard anybody talk about a hen in the balcony. Nor about apple trees made into rosaries. This is why, as I said, my story lacks credibility. On the other hand, I have always had a distinct sense of fiction, without accusing anyone of deliberate mendacity, while hearing other people's autobiographical narrations. I have always suspected that their will of continuity was in fact covering a poignant sense of disruption, of a void, of a break in cultural transmission. These keywords of my personal contribution to the humanities are taken from my vital experience of Polish destinies.
Let's better return to the parallel world of high scholarship in which I was seeking my refuge. As the literature about Egypt was not abundant in the minuscule public library that existed at my doorstep, I went on reading about antiquities, art and mythologies more broadly, including India, Mesopotamia, the Cyclades (I remember there was a fascinating book on this topic in the library), and a plurality of other ancient cultures in the Mediterranean and beyond. I used to walk a long way to another public library to fetch more reading; that one was bigger and looked fabulous in my eyes; at least we had public libraries in those dark times. I had no idea of poverty. I was happy and experienced a great abundance when I could huddle together with the borrowed books on the fold-out chair bed where I was sleeping. As the result, I dare say I was already quite well versed in the domain of ancient civilisations when I was still very young, and what is more, distinctly inclined toward a universalist type of erudition. It also explains why I started teaching myself Arabic before I got any chance to study Latin, and why I became incurably nostalgic of the era of Oriental scholars and explorers. I have read Said's Orientalism as soon as it appeared in its first Polish translation, but that was only in 1991, when I was already a high-school student. Till then, I lived, and lived intensely, in the dazzling noon of colonial scholarship.
An important fact to mention is that I was lucky enough to get two significant travels abroad, in a way of children's camps offered as a bonus in my father's job. The first one was a trip to Eastern Germany, where I could visit, as a thirteen-years-old, the Museumsinsel in Berlin. I still keep as a priceless sentimental possession a couple of postcards I bought, reproducing a lion from the Ishtar Gate and a dove carrying a piece of cloth, a detail in the apse from Ravenna that is now in the Bode Museum. The second camp was in Szeged; on the way to Hungary, I also visited Prague. What is more, travelling by bus through the then state of Czechoslovakia, I was amazed to discover, in a small village shop where we stopped for a break, that any amount of chocolate might be bought freely, providing that one had enough money. At the time, chocolate was available in Poland only with food stamps.
This early youth in the margin of historical turmoil, in spite of very modest material, social and educational conditions, gave me a quick start; I am building upon this advantage till the present day. Later on, everything slowly became more normal; in relative terms at least. My family could finally move to a new apartment and I even got a room on my own. I learned drawing, painting and wood carving, as well as art history and French, at a high school dedicated to fine arts. Mircea Eliade, translated into Polish and quite popular at that time, introduced me into the domain of comparative religious studies. I was also a keen reader of Aldous Huxley; a translation of his Perennial Philosophy was among the first books I owned. I started accumulating them as soon as I could get any money to buy them. I was interested in books of the world, taking me to distant places, in space and in time, making me feel I was living in an open horizon; it was among my books that I was free. That was the beginning of my Multilingual Library, a collection of books, maps, guides, dictionaries, personal notes, photographs and drawings brought from my travels and disposed on the shelves as a private metaphor of the world: Europe, the Mediterranean, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, China, Arabia, the northern regions, the New World, Australasia, Oceania, Australia. A kind of polyglot Mnemosyne, or Malraux's musée imaginaire with a new background, whatever one might call it: transcultural, non-hegemonic, cosmopolitan, pluriversal.
I say that things normalised only in relative terms, because as much as our material situation slowly improved, the mentality remained the same. I could learn French, painting and art history, but my mother despised me for having chosen, against her will, that school. Because it was not normal, it was breaking through her mental framework. She believed we were taking drugs to make us "artists"; I was also a regular whore in her eyes; with a prodigious readiness of spite and contempt, she was expecting such news as an unwanted pregnancy. To her utter desolation, those tidings were not coming, giving her no opportunity of humiliating me any further. I was struggling for my progress and education. But my mental health started to deteriorate, leading me deeper and deeper into neurosis and depression. With a motherly dedication, she supported all the eventual projects of suicide I might cherish; some nights she was coming to my bedroom, positively trying to provoke me into taking the decisive step.
Apparently, my weakness worked as some sort of unstoppable trigger to her cruelty. Whenever she saw me very ill, she was greeting me with the same, endlessly repeated, contemptuous phrase that seemed to her awesomely witty: Masz taką minę, jakby ci ktoś dupę skopał i kwiatków nasadził (the literal translation would be: "You look as if someone kicked/dug your ass and planted some flowers"). Later on, when I started my university curriculum, kicking ceased to be a mere word play. She liked to hide behind the door to kick my ass at the moment I was leaving to attend my classes; it was her favourite sport; if she actually managed to kick my ass, it was the crowning moment of her day. The recurrence of such rituals, their tireless repetition, should certainly put my mother's mental health under a serious interrogation mark. But it was not the kind of madness that would cause her suffering; to the contrary, it was her joy, her utter fulfilment. It was me who was ill, very ill indeed. I managed to recover, through specialised pharmacological treatment that I followed for some eighteen months, only much later, around 2008. That was when all contacts with my family utterly ceased. She wasn't keen to leave me alone, for sure. I was her favourite toy; she was playing with me like a cat with a mouse. I had to change my phone number. She tried to call the university, telling all sorts of denigrating stories about me. Finally, I called from a public phone and threatened to intent a judicial procedure against her, if she continued to interfere with my psychiatric treatment. Seeing that she might not go unpunished, as she always believed she would, she immediately stopped persecuting me. It proves, I suppose, that she was perfectly aware of her behaviour and had a sufficient extent of rational control over it. She just needed to break the tension every once in a while.
It was on my younger sister that my mother took her revenge; it was her that she managed to break, transforming her into an empty being with no will of her own. Initially, to her desperation, my sister borrowed my dreams and projects. But there was something essentially false in all that. Her aspirations were shallow, as if they were empty carcasses with no entrails to make them live. What she wanted to become might be approximately resumed under the stereotype of an elegant English upper-class young lady; she was trying to see the world through the lens of Pride and Prejudice; obviously the reality, especially the Polish one, did not let itself to such a treatment; the constant clash only made her more and more entrenched in her fictional world. One might object that my sister was not English, and much less from an upper class; nonetheless, that fiction was strangely compatible with the alleged origins in the countryside gentry that my mother tried to invent for herself. At the same time, it was something even more general; the phenomenon appeared striking to me many years later, when I was on my way back home from somewhere abroad. As if in a sudden illumination, I found a glimpse of my sister in a couple of Polish young women I saw in a tramway. They behaved stiffly, with pretension, as if sticking to some kind of inadequate, artificial scenario. I suppose it was their defensive strategy, a firewall they were desperately trying to oppose to the society of contempt in which they had to live. A fiction of dignity.
Be that as it may, my sister, downtrodden and regularly humiliated as she was, considered horse riding as her major interest; having a horse of her own was a target orientating her life. Contrary to what happened with me, my mother managed to put her in "the best" school, where she was seriously mistreated by her teachers. Later on, she tried to mimic my ways to such a degree that she imposed her choice of art history as her major; but the genre on which she intended to focus her research was English sporting art, i.e. paintings representing gentlemen in red jackets, usually against green backgrounds. Finally, she wrote a master dissertation on Pythagorean numbers and proportions in architecture, but it was all supposed to lead, in a way, to an English Palladianism that would never come true in her real life. My mother had failed to make her study IT, as she believed my sister should; but later on, she managed to inculcate her with the sense of complete failure and to persuade her about the absolute uselessness of her qualification. My sister did not seriously try to make herself a future as an art historian; she got an obscure job related to computers. Finally, she went abroad, not exactly as a knowledge migrant; from time to time, I check her posts on Facebook, since many years referring invariably to Star Wars.
The postcolonial school exerted an enormous intellectual effort in order to explain the complex relationships between the colonisers and the colonised. I believe that a comparable intellectual effort would be necessary to analyse all the intricacies of the relation between Polish intelligentsia and her inferiors, as well as the specific neurosis derived from such an inferiority among the lower classes. Becoming a member of the intelligentsia, like Christian salvation, was supposed to be a sort of universal destiny; but at the same time, we were supposed to remain mere catechumens, to die trying. We were supposed to respect education, but never to achieve it, to treat books as sacred relics, but never dare read them. We were Blacks with white souls, trained not to sit on white people's banks. We were supposed to go to school, of course; the intelligentsia's mission had always been to foster the organic development of the nation, i.e. to educate us. We could even study at the university, just for our own development as persons (dla osobistego rozwoju); on festive occasions, we might even be encouraged to do so. But we were not supposed to become serious scholars, professional art historians. That would be a scandal, an enormity!
I grew in a profound and sorely confusing shadow projected by Polish intelligentsia. I will explain in some idiosyncratic detail taken from personal recollection what kind of maze of contradictory requirements, what kind of booby traps were prepared for us, the lower classes. Meanwhile, as a preliminary remark, it is important to say that Polish intelligentsia was by no means a vanquished caste under the communist rule; rather to the contrary, it created a symbiotic relation with the regime, especially since the 1970s, the time of Gierek and Jaroszewicz. Later on, I will add some more comments concerning intelligentsia's pervert games involving tyrants. Yet it is perhaps high time to introduce the second apocalyptic rider of Poland, Mendacity.
There exists an untranslatable Polish word, zakłamanie, signifying a sort of generalised saturation of reality with lies, to such a degree that one becomes uncertain of the actual existence of the ground beneath one's feet. Silencing certain facts, living as if certain things did not exist, creating parallel realities instead, zakłamanie was a magical response to situations beyond anyone's effective control; it was a strategy of survival. I tend to associate it with the intelligentsia in the first place, but perhaps this is not entirely just; the intelligentsia only brought this art to its utter accomplishment. The word is usually used in the political context to designate, in the first place, all kinds of ideologically motivated manipulation, but I believe there is also an intimate dimension of the phenomenon; it explains my doubts concerning the veracity of those roots narrations involving governesses and imperial dragomans that different people used to tell me, and more, the veracity of the very narration of her life that my own mother left to me. It sinks in the void and disruption.
My mother, a modest schoolmistress of peasant extraction, aspired to intelligentsia without ever integrating it fully; nevertheless, she went as far as trying to invent her own roots narration, made of incongruities such as a tomb of a noble grandfather in a forgotten cemetery somewhere in Eastern Poland, and the claim of having been a domestic worker employed by a locally reputed scientist, Laura Kaufman. As I cared to check, years later, she actually existed, lived in Lublin, taught at the Academy of Agriculture, produced new races of poultry (here comes the hen again), and died the very year when I was born; nonetheless, even as a child, I could not persuade myself into believing that my mother had ever met her. I think that creating such an imaginary narration was her response to my own early interest in science; she found no other way of dealing with it. Quite characteristically, the fact that even in her imaginary story my mother proved utterly unable to invent herself in any other role than just being the scientist's chamber maid tells a lot about class distinctions in a supposedly class-free society of the communist Poland.
I do believe that my mother must have just heard about Laura Kaufman as her figure became a part of the local lore in Lublin. We lived under the empire of Mendacity, where the frontier between truth and lies was entirely blurred. Fiction, sometimes phantasmagorical, sometimes grim and dark, stood for the most authentic inner reality of people. Be that as it may, my incredulity about Laura Kaufman was fully reciprocated later on, since my mother could not believe that I actually received all those scholarships in Portugal. She spoke no foreign language; she never travelled. It was absolutely beyond her capacity of understanding that I had sent some letters somewhere abroad, and some letters came from a country beyond her horizon, and I just received enough money to live and study for many months and to return with a bag full of new clothes, still having something in my pocket. I dare not enquire what kind of hypothesis she might have built up in relation to the origin of these funds. The word tirówka (the cheapest East European prostitute serving the T.I.R. drivers along the roads crossing forested areas) flashed in the background. I suppose it was one of the neighbours or my mother's intelligentsia friends who introduced it; in her very narrow social horizon, she would not even know the meaning of such terms. My mother tried hard to be proud of me, to get some sort of acknowledgement of her daughter's success from her intelligentsia context; she was starving for that sort of recognition. Yet as she tried harder, the rejection of her claims was more severe. This is why her friends started to invent that sort of stories: that for sure her daughter was a prostitute. And in the end my mother got down to believing it. Yet on the other hand, she also had ways of conceptualising the issue that clearly did not come from her intelligentsia context. For some reason beyond my comprehension, she chose the sexually connoted verb gzić się to refer my travels to Portugal. She never said her daughter went to or departed for Portugal, she used to repeat obsessively the dialectal expression pogziła się. I suppose most people in her urban milieu were unable even to decipher that archaic, rural term, perhaps coming from some deep, grimy regions of her subconsciousness. As far as I can construe it, pogziła się means "escaped, as if overwhelmed by a sudden, inexplicable urge of mating"; in its dialectal assertion, the verb is typically used to describe the behaviour of cows.
This philological explanation permits to get a glimpse of the inner reality that must have motivated the heartbreaking scene my mother once made at Lublin train station, shouting "My dear daughter, come back home with us!" (Córeczko, wracaj z nami do domu!). I was departing for a long journey to Lisbon in order to start the research for my doctoral dissertation. The same dire hope that I would "come back home" accompanied my mother on the day of my doctoral graduation. She seriously expected that, having obtained my PhD, I would resign from my job at the Jagiellonian University. She looked forward to it! Her intelligentsia friends kept telling her that in Kraków no one respected me. I was socially unfitting, I did not even go skiing in winter, as it was a social must in the academic milieu - that is just to give the taste of new arguments exposed to my poor mother. Of course, those intelligentsia friends were humble primary teachers from the same school where my mother was employed; the details of Jagiellonian University professors' lifestyle were merely yet another fantasy of theirs; nonetheless, my mother used to take whatever they might say with the desperate naivety of a marginalised teenager. Later on, her desperate, heart-twisting hope of reestablishing the normalcy through my "return" from Kraków progressively vanished. She understood that things would never get back to normal again; her daughter was irretrievably lost in a dark world where she was committing unspeakable immoralities (my subsequent academic progress could only be explained in that way). Finally, she simply withdrew her emotional engagement from me.
What I've just said is probably enough to delineate the reasons why my academic success became for my family not a reason to feel proud, but on the contrary, a shameful secret. I suppose that even today, if someone asked my mother quite bluntly what the profession of her daughter is, a university professor or a prostitute, she wouldn't be able to answer without hesitation. Tragically, zakłamanie leads people to complete and lasting disorientation in the reality they can by no means disentangle, no matter how blatant the absurdity of their beliefs and persuasions may seem. At the same time, I suppose this familiar, mother-and-daughter case illustrates, at an elementary level, a larger problem: that of the entanglement of the Poles in a network of lies that overwhelms and isolates them completely.
Sadly, it was also my younger sister who paid the price. One domestic recollection, strangely painful, comes to me when I think about it. After my early stays in Portugal, in 1993 or 1994, I brought home many simple recipes involving products that were not traditionally consumed in Poland. One of them was tuna salad, composed of a piece of canned tuna and boiled vegetables. It was cheap, quick and tasty, and we started to eat it quite often at home. But one day, my younger sister, still at the primary school at the time, came home badly shaken and crying, because the other kids humiliated her and accused of being a impostor, since she proposed in the classroom a menu including that familiar, yet so exotic tuna salad. "Don't try to cheat us that is what you eat at home!", was the truth one of the kids threw in her face. Inadvertently, my sister sat on the white people's bank. Certain things were simply not for people like us; even if we could eventually acquire such products, their consumption constituted a sort of symbolic infraction, an infraction against the unwritten code that was not even entirely clear to us. And canned tuna was of course only the beginning of trouble.
The intelligentsia was not necessarily better-to-do - eventually it was only slightly less poor - than the social groups considered as her inferiors. It was in fact an impoverished caste sticking to symbolic distinction even more desperately as the material reality was increasingly frustrating. But her inborn sloth, habits of mendacity and other aspects that I've mentioned - and that I'll mention again - contributed to the fact that the intelligentsia was overall a badly educated class; a fact that made her symbolic distinction very fragile. To put it shortly, the intelligentsia might be defined as an educated class, understanding her exceptional social role in terms of intellectual potential, but at the same time very uncertain about - or lacking altogether - the skills that were supposed to make her outstanding. This explains, I suppose, why there were so many secret clauses to the pact, and why my mother's intelligentsia friends were so keen to dismiss me as an evil, despicable person, although no one could actually name the nature of my sin. I was succeeding where my social superiors failed, acquiring skills that the intelligentsia did not possess.
Being so, I was an object of rightful hate and spite among my mother's intelligentsia friends. I could hear the echo of their voices in my mother's speech. But at the time none of us understood clearly the manipulative scheme of which we were victims. After all, it was simple enough: already as a teenager, I committed a major infraction against the unwritten laws of the society in which I was living, since I was studying at an art school and learned French. And I persevered on the way of misdemeanour. My linguistic talents became an object of particular envy in an essentially monolingual context, especially at the time of transition to market economy.
For a long time, my mother had striven to be a good catechumen, encouraging everyone, including my countryside cousins, to get an education of some sort of another. But at a given stage, she got lost in the maze of secret clauses in appendix to the intelligentsia's pact with the nation. Without a hint to understand our own situation, we continued under the spell of those secret clauses for years. Yet all that time my mother must have sorely felt her failure in complying with the intelligentsia's standards. Later on, my sister was to become - so to speak - the redeemer of my mother's honour. As a paradigmatic Mother Pole, my mother dreamed about being able to say that she had given education to her children (ona wykształciła dzieci); it was deemed to be the supreme fulfilment of her existence as a woman. Meanwhile, something went terribly wrong with my education. Be that as it may, my sister was a kind of second chance; she was to become the good daughter, the proper, the correct, the elegant one. She was also supposed to achieve ten times greater success, and very easily, since hard work and strenuous effort were dismissed as unclean, below the intelligentsia's standards. At the same time, the secret close stating that the success of the inferiors is inadmissible remained valid; she was thus to achieve it without actually achieving it. My mother simply forced her to lie that she also spoke five languages like me. Even if she never took a single lesson of most of them.
My gift of apparently spontaneous language acquisition led my family to believe that barely a few hours of work were sufficient to learn a tongue. Similarly, mere few hours were supposedly enough to learn how to play piano. My mother bought an electronic piano for my sister, paid her just a couple of private lessons with a music teacher and stood over the poor girl like a vulture, expecting some sort of miraculous performance in exchange of her sacrifice. It was through such a deeply paranoid situation that my sister was induced into living in a sort of fictional world in which, as I had mentioned before, she was a young English lady from a gentle family, with so many accomplishments becoming her status. The reality flew like a distant river, far away from her.
Also, in confrontation with those fishy scholarships of mine, my mother took the heroic decision that her younger child would not ask for any of them. She started to collect money with the intent of paying my sister's doctoral studies. I got my PhD when my sister was barely seventeen; and if the "bad sister" had it, how could the "good one" be in any trouble of achieving the same, and more? She was supposed to go not to marginal countries like Portugal, but to really good ones, those charted on the mental map of the Poles, such as the United Kingdom. As the years went by, my mother still hoped that she would finally obtain some sort of recognition or respectful status in her social context. Something so obvious, so blatant, something so undeniable would happen; it would finally persuade the people forming my mother's context that they were wrong, deeply wrong about her. A ona dzieci wykształciła! Needless to say, no recognition ever came. Meanwhile, after her Master degree in art history achieved in Lublin, my sister effectively went to London with the intent of completing her PhD at the Warburg Institute. Of course, my mother's savings were completely out of proportion with the cost of such a project. It was thus a lucky coincidence that my sister was not admitted. During the admission talk, she claimed to speak Dutch, or in any case, to be able to learn it in just a few hours... How could those people know that lasting, assiduous effort or elaborate competence of any sort would be key factors of such an endeavour as a doctoral degree at the Warburg Institute? In any case, the actual aim was not to achieve it, not to make it real. The aim was to maintain a sort of buoyancy in the fictional world.
What should be said in defence of my mother is that she was not entirely sane. The roots of her mental condition probably stretched far into her peasant childhood and the relationship with her own mother, my other grandmother that I saw only once or twice; she died when I was in my early teens. When I met her, she was sitting on a bed, in a corner of the kitchen in a countryside house without running water, in a sort of mute prostration or catatonia that I would associate today with severe mental illness; yet at that time, people around me claimed that she had asthma; the word seemed to have sufficient power to explain everything. On the other hand, the little I know about my maternal grandmother proves enough to break the strongest of women. In that wooden house without running water, she gave birth to some twelve or even thirteen children; I was never sure about the exact number of my mother's siblings. And there was very scarce information concerning their father, who, as it seems to me, died during the war, which is of course impossible for chronological reasons. There are many obscure, undoubtedly very painful chapters in this story. It is also highly symptomatic that my mother shared with me only one reminiscence of her own mother: the sensation of a wet dishrag (was it actually a dish rag, or anything dirtier?) with which she used to slap her across the face.
As long as I know - and there is indeed a lot of lacunae in this story - my mother left her family at the age of fifteen; she took on odd jobs, lived in other people's houses (that created a space for the fantasy I've mentioned, that of being the scientist's maid; I suppose that the reality was simply grey). Undoubtedly, it was at the cost of great sacrifices that she managed to obtain a deficient education (she never got a real university degree); nonetheless, at that time, it permitted her to become a maths teacher at an elementary school in the countryside. It was the achievement of her life.
Later on, my mother came to the city, got married and moved in to the housing office's flat already inhabited by her husband's father and mother, her mother, and their younger son, only to assume a life of humiliation for which she was duly prepared by her own mother's rag. She was overwhelmed by hardships, just as many Polish women, victims of the cruellest, the most inhuman of all lies: the myth sacralising their maternal sacrifice. In reality, the Mother Pole, female of the Agambenian genus Homo sacer, has never been either protected or respected; since decades, generations, even centuries of Polish history, she has only been invariably downtrodden, humiliated and victimised. I must say that my mother was a great fighter, in her own way, and in the way of my country at the time. In spite of such adverse circumstances, she desperately tried to complete an extramural program of studies in mathematics that were simply too complex, too difficult, too abstract to enter her mind. At the same time, the material shortages of the dying communist Poland overwhelmed her. And privately, my paternal grandmother added an ancestral burden of inhumanity to the lot, epitomising a truly Indo-European, tyrannical and spiteful mother-in-law. In a way, it has always been deeply revolting to me that after so much suffering she had caused to my mother, after so many soulless, vicious humiliations, that awful, dirty hag died on my mother's lap, as she was trying to force some restoring broth into her.
But of course, that was to happen many years later, including the years after her stroke when, severely handicapped, my grandmother was nursed by none other than my mother, once again working beyond her strength as she had been herself hospitalised for cancer. Till the present day, I have never understood why my mother did this; I could not see any shade of pity, forgiveness or reconciliation between them across that period. My grandmother continued in her feelings of loathing, contempt and spite toward my mother even as she was dependent on her; I could never see the slightest gesture of kindness or gratitude. And I am still under quite a horrifying impression that my mother did whatever she did not for any lofty moral value, but because she had been internally so enslaved that it never crossed her head that she might refuse, have a choice, behave in any other way. Finally, some time after my grandmother's death, she progressively became a persona non grata in my grandfather's home. She was simply dismissed, because her services were no longer required.
How far should I go back in time to trace the roots of our problems? I wrote about my grandfather, who stopped talking to me in 2004, presumably under the influence of a priest, simply because "I became a professor". Years later, as I was making order in the books that remained in my apartment in Kraków, I spotted a tiny edition of De imitatione Christi, with a dedication written by the unskilled hand of my grandmother: "on Ewa's 17th aniver., 26.07.1989". She makes a dark figure in this essay, unjustly. She was a victim of her circumstances, as we all were. When I was a teenager, she had some episodic gestures of kindness toward me, some fleeting moments of interest and tenderness. Once she looked to me as if she saw me for the first time and asked what was that skin problem that I had on my face; she was a nurse; my face was reddish and strangely swollen for a reason, I suppose psychosomatic, that had never been diagnosed; it was of course a lasting condition that my grandmother managed to notice only for a fleeting moment, as if suddenly awaken from her slumber of hostile indifference.
De imitatione Christi was the only book my grandmother ever gave me; I was surprised that it occurred to her to give me any book at all. And what is more, a book of Thomas a Kempis! She wasn't a truly religious person; her religiosity had the same episodic nature, triggered by specific rituals such as the "visiting image", a reproduction of a certain miraculous depiction of Virgin Mary that was ceremoniously transported from one flat to another for 24-hour periods of fervent prayer; when the icon was to be taken from our flat to the neighbours', my grandmother would burst into tears and shout: "Mother, stay with us!" (Matko, zostań z nami!). That was her kind of piety, a mixture of sudden, short-lived fervour, spiritual indifference and unconditional submission to the priesthood.
On the other hand, I was a Church objectionist already at the time, although I knew well enough who Thomas a Kempis was, and what devotio moderna was; I was quite well-versed in Christianity and Church history. Yet as I return to this little book now, I start to believe I missed something important, a message that was slipped between those innocent, late medieval pages: "Pokorne poznanie siebie jest pewniejszą drogą do Boga, niż głebokie poszukiwania naukowe", as it sounded in modernised Polish translation ("De nederige kennis van u zelven is een zekerder weg tot God, dan het diepe onderzoek der wetenschap", as I check it now in the Dutch text). Ah, this is what it was all about! Once again, there must have been a priest who suggested to my grandparents the choice of that gift. To prevent me from delving too deep in that "onderzoek der wetenschap" that already at my 17th birthday caused scandal and alarm in my social context. I should have remained humble and ignorant.
Do I exaggerate now, or is it a fact that in 1989, at that stage of Polish history, our minds were under such a sensitive, sophisticated, highly reactive surveillance? That a priest would go to such lengths as to manipulate De imitatione Christi to prevent a granddaughter of some semi-illiterate people from acquiring knowledge that one day might question the supremacy of the Catholic Church? Was such a sensitive, reactive control a reality? Or was it simply a coincidence that my grandmother happened to give me that book? Perhaps De imitatione Christi was just a generic toxin administrated indistinctly to all intellectually-minded teenagers at that time. I will remain forever with those questions, those doubts about my country and my people. Certainly, I tend to over-interpret the recollection of the past in the light of the present, under the shock of current messages divulged in my country, with no more medieval authorities or spiritual subterfuges: that women should not work at all, let alone follow such careers as mine, that contraceptives should be forbidden, abortion illegal and giving birth painful, that knowledge is a danger and a sin.
Thomas a Kempis, apple trees made into rosaries, revolted teenagers that would one day become Islamic scholars, and with less isawi coloration that might ever be expected... Where is the truth and balance in this story? Be that as it may, De Navolging van Christus could be read inversely, as a premonition of a destiny that would bring me one day to the Low Countries. And more, I could make it a part of this destiny. One day, I might tell my story the other way around, as an epic journey from darkness to enlightenment.
At an early stage of her trajectory, in the late 1980s, also my mother tried to achieve her modest enlightenment, stick to the intelligentsia, build a consistent identity she might oppose to all the mistreatment she had to suffer. Acquire a dignity. She internalised the basic rules of the intelligentsia, such as: BOOKS SHOULD NEVER BE THROWN AWAY. She tried to structure her life around such abstract principles. She did not actually posses more than perhaps twenty odd volumes, but she believed firmly that it was a sacrilege to destroy a book. Years later, after all those painful experiences, she abandoned all the prejudices of the class in which she never achieved more than the status of a catechumen. She burned in a stove most of the books that remained in my family home. I managed to save one, the best book, as I remember from my childhood, that had ever belonged to her. It was a handsome edition of Conrad's Lord Jim. Any of her friends or colleagues must have presented it for her birthday. She knew not what to do with it. I suppose it had never actually occurred to her that she might read it. No wonder the fact that I was reading my books caused her anxiety. Once she asked me to give her one of those. I brought her Eliade's Maitreyi (the novel translated into English as Bengal Nights), that I considered at the time as my favourite reading. It was the only instance I knew positively that my mother had read a book. She was deeply shocked by its contents. She had never imagined the sheer possibility of living in a different culture, such as was that of the young Maitreyi. The book appeared to her as full of strange errors; everything was monstrously wrong in it, it was an abomination. I suppose this was exactly the state of the mind of many people keen to burn entire libraries across history. Also my mother fulfilled her own incendiary ambition in the tiny scale of a cast-iron stove. I suppose it must have been some sort of ersatz liberation.
To put long stories short, both my parents had a difficult youth, such a youth that in the strict terms of psychiatric medicine might be seen as a source of their mental handicap. For they were both mentally handicapped, I have no doubt of that, even if no doctor had ever examined, let alone treated, any of them. In her early twenties, with a baby in her arms, my mother found herself surrounded with people in a minuscule, overcrowded flat, servant of everyone, lacking any assistance or attention to her needs. The sense of helplessness she must have experienced is very hard to gauge; she tried to develop her peculiar methods of coping, that it many cases should be qualified as magical. My parents were the sort of people, in fact a majority of the Polish society of the time, that would put large quantities of chestnuts under their beds to protect themselves from the "radiation" coming, as they believed, from underground water currents. Those chestnuts actually were some sort of last line of defence offering them an illusion of safety as they experienced a profound loss of control over their lives.
My father was not much of a comfort for anybody; much less a head of a family in any traditional patriarchal terms. He was barely nineteen when I was born and for the rest of his life he remained alienated from problems, just accepting passively whatever was coming his way, aspiring to nothing, searching for nothing. He might have had a talent; he was an amateur woodcarver. My mother even made him sell his works in an ersatz art gallery as it existed in the communist Poland; primitive art was fashionable at the time. But later on, there was nothing of it. It was like a river drained by a desert. He was suffering from such mental problems as anxiety and hoarding compulsion. Were those problems strictly individual, or should they be seen in a larger perspective? This is perhaps the moment to open a digression on anxiety and fear.
Epigeneticists claim that the fear lived through by the past generations gets accumulated and transmitted; that would certainly apply to the Poles, having the WW2 and then the communism on their backs. I wonder how far such a transmission from one generation to another is true. I had problems with anxiety since my childhood, but I was a fearful child mostly when I was in my father's presence; he was giving me fear just as other dads give the sense of security to their children. Nonetheless, I suppose that such episodes as that of having gone on my own to search for a music school might characterise me as a very brave kid. And so did many other acts and decisions I have taken along my life. Although familiar with pharmacology, I never needed more than a couple of blisters of Tranxene to soothe my anxiety. At the same time, I often think that I am the only person provided with an instinct of self-preservation in my immediate surroundings. Meanwhile my father, with all his anxiety problem, was horribly reckless in front of clear, definite dangers. Just to give an example, he could manipulate the electrical wires in our home and leave them naked, without any isolation; once we actually had a fire caused by this. I hardly dare to mention the episode when he stood on the balcony handrail (8th floor!) for some stupid reason. I suppose that he had learned to live with a red alarm constantly switched on in his head. Being so, he had no other signalling resource to indicate the moments he was really crossing a limit. Or perhaps it was just sheer stupidity, without any excuse. Once I asked him if it was OK to keep a damaged power plug without its plastic casing behind my bed. He told me he was sure I was wise enough not to put my hands in the gap between the bed and the wall.
This is how, thanks to my father's unlimited trust in my wisdom, I have exercised my instinct of self-preservation since a tender age; otherwise I would die electrocuted. Early have I learnt how to assess risks. I try to fear dangerous things, and nothing but dangerous things, although not everything can get so easily into the calculus. I am afraid one day my mother might somehow come back into my life. I am very cautious with venomous arthropods and snakes, always covering my glass of juice for fear I might drink a wasp with it; relatively cautious with parasites; rather reckless with germs and the risk of alimentary poisoning. Nonetheless, I always try to keep my vaccinations up to date.
In many years to come, it seemed to me that Poles, with all the epigenetic heritage of fear they might have received, actually had nerves of steel. Or an unlimited supply of ingenuousness to ignore the risks. Many years later, in December 2016, I could observe it while crossing the Casamance on the way to Guinea-Bissau. For the reason of convenience, I was travelling with a group of Polish tourists. At one of the military check-points, there was a big, ugly-looking guy with a machine gun ready to shoot, strategically placed in such a way that he might hit our knees. He was just sitting there in the shadow, caressing lovingly the ammunition belt, and we had to walk right in front of him. I was the only one to have sensed any danger, even if I knew the probability he would actually shoot were scarce. Of course, the tourists were not afraid, because they simply had no knowledge of the fact we were stepping on a ground soaked with blood. I suppose none of them, including the Polish guide, was aware of the number of victims in various confrontations in the Casamance, or knew that we were actually only in a period of ceasefire, the Jola fighters having been temporarily requested by the neighbouring dictator. The ECOWAS intervention in the Gambia started barely a few days after we left the region. Incidentally, the dictator in question, Yahya Jammeh, was known to be a great friend of Polish tourists; he used to participate in the parties organised by the same travel agency. I suppose he would miss the Poles during his dismal exile in Equatorial Guinea; unless one day the Poles choose to follow him there, unaware of the sheer existence of Mycobacterium leprae, since they firmly believe that infections are transmitted by Syrian refugees.
Sarcasm apart, I do shiver at the thought that the Poles, who in the meanwhile stopped vaccinating their children, might continue travelling to such African destinations as Guinea-Bissau, where measles, that used to kill one child out of five only a couple of decades ago, is still a common disease. Of course, I also met some French, Dutch and other nations; but they were goal-oriented, off-road travellers, seeking high levels of adrenaline or quenching their highly specific desires in the world-renowned brothels of Cap Skirring. While Pani Jadzia, the Polish lady with whom I happened to share a hotel room, would never dream that her vacation might be seen as an extreme adventure; such an idea would never cross her mind. She was an unpretentious elderly person employed at a national martyrdom memorial. Yes, I shared a room in Cap Skirring with a widow working as a museum warden!... Such fearless people are the Poles.
Continuing this digression on fear (and fearlessness), I should say I am afraid of fascists, while not quite so afraid of terrorists. Nonetheless, in spite of my early passion for Egyptology, I have never travelled to Egypt (I have only crossed the Sinai once, on my way to Aqaba), even when it was a very common, easily available destination for Polish people. What I fear most are all forms of institutionalised violence. The first signs of the deterioration of the political climate in Poland made me positively alarmed; such was my urge to flee that I left everything and sought for a fellowship in western Europe; literally, as if the ground under my feet were smouldering. As far as I know, I was the only person doing so in my immediate circle of colleagues and academic friends. For most of them, as well as for the society in general, the well-known secret of cooking frogs might be illustrative: if one throws a frog into a pan filled with boiling water, it jumps out immediately; but if one puts the frog in a pan of cold water, heating it slowly, the frog gets cooked all right.
In other words, confronted with the slow-motion, surreptitious deconstruction of Polish democracy, I decided to emigrate. A wife of an American colleague asked me during a party if I would not fight for my country. I told her my country had not been invaded. What was going on was a free and completely autonomous fulfilment of the deepest and most desperate desire in people's hearts. To give a free rein to their contempt, spite and hatred, no matter what practical consequences or material costs it would imply. They were still the same people who spat on me when I was barely eleven, just because they saw me alone with a baby. They were crazy about "values" that might serve as reference points and desperately looking for the guidance of someone or something they might follow without questioning. Absolute submission, masochistic pleasure of unconditional surrender were appealing to their instincts; no wonder why the gender question had such an importance in the melee; depenalisation of domestic violence was seriously debated; priests were glossing on the submission of women in their sermons. On the other hand, also the bare-footed protesters, whom I saw dragged on the passageways by the police, where playing their part in an ancestral ritual that I neither shared, admired nor wished to perpetuate. That of denouncing, on the heights of contempt, the inhumanity and barbarism of their adversaries. Spitting right into the faces of their oppressors would certainly imply greater bravado than humiliating a child; but the fearful symmetry of attitudes left me deeply troubled. The Poles were giving a free rein to something intestinal. I refused to participate in the festival.
I suppose that my feelings toward the extreme right, often displaying fascist symbols openly, are perfectly understandable. On the other hand, the reasons of my distrust of the protesters may seem not so evident. What drew me away from them was a persistent impression of déjà vu. Another, much subtler form of oppression was implied in the very rituals of resistance, in the very gesture of taking off their shoes, in the very ostentation of their fragility and readiness for martyrdom, in the very expectation of being taken on award-winning photographs. Voluntary acceptance of authoritarianism and masochistic or histrionic resistance to it formed two faces of the same coin. Also for them, roses included in the deal, the tyrant formed a sort of gravitational centre, the zero point of a system of coordinates. Their resistance only reinforced the power he had over our minds. What is more, the rare opportunity of collective spitting on older women they provided was warmly welcomed among the young males organising those fascist marches; it was precisely what the boys always wanted to do. The protesters were an attraction on the midway.
Certainly, there are two factors behind what I say. The first one is the inadequacy of their strategy. The second one, my unwillingness to share their fight. Concerning the former point, I should say these strategies of passive resistance made Gandhi win, because he fought against an empire that, in spite of everything, had a degree of integrity and a determination to preserve it; which is not the case here. The lady protesters assumed that those fascist boys wouldn't like to kick women resembling their own mothers; and that was precisely what they would. As to the latter, looking to those unmistakably intelligentsia faces, the badly clad girl just couldn't forget. I just couldn't overcome the feeling that their fight was not my fight. It would never be. I knew well enough they were fighting for a country; I could see with great clarity how critical, how decisive that fight might be. I just had no faith whatsoever that the country in question could ever be truly mine.
I had already seen it all before I turned fifteen, as a crude reality and through artistic lens. In 1987, the whole symbiotic mechanism of oppression-and-resistance was depicted in the comedy Kingsajz by Juliusz Machulski. The gnomes living in Szuflandia (Drawerland), a country located in an abandoned library catalogue hidden deep in the undergrounds of a Quaternary Research Institute, indulged in fighting against a tiny dictator. Fellow conspirators, Adaś and Olo, strive to discover the Formula, enabling them to access the Kingsajz, the world of the fully grown. That meant to break, at the same time, the official monopoly reserving to a narrow elite the privilege of drinking “Polo-Cockta” (a rather mysterious brew, sold in the communist Poland as a local ersatz of the western Coca-Cola), that in the movie had the property of transforming the dwarfs into "king-sized" people.
Adaś and Olo presented an unmistakably Polish, Romantic mentality, conspiring against the tyrant and nurturing lofty dreams of freedom. There was certainly some greatness in a dwarf, especially at the moment when Olo, being asked: “What is this all about?” (Ale o co tu chodzi?), answered shortly: “It’s about freedom” (O wolność). In the genial interpretation of Jacek Chmielnik as Olo, the inflection given to the word was to assume, for a fraction of a second, all the past and present aspirations of the nation. The way Olo pronounced the word “freedom” contained the gist of the sublime concept in Polish culture. Yet there was also another unmistakably Polish trait in him, as he proudly expectorated on the executioner who was there to chop him with an egg cutter. Certainly, the spitting dwarfs in later times were rather on the side of popular classes supporting the new tiny tyranny, but I was under quite uncanny impression that they learned many of their gestures from a higher source. And what troubled me even more persistently was the feeling that there existed a symbiotic relationship between the dwarfs indulging in resistance and their tiny tyrants. As if they were partners in a game.
Definitely, there was more to worry me than just the ancestral ritual of spitting. The allegory of two scales, that of the gnomes and that of the fully grown people, translated the sensation of eternal minority nurtured by the Poles in relation to the higher, greater, more serious reality of “the West” (Zachód). It is westwards that the heroes tried to flee, but in the end they remained caught in their minor dimension. In the final scene of the film, the train that should take them to freedom became a toy speeding on a closed circuit of miniature rails across the lawn in front of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Twenty years before the first electoral victory of "Law and Justice", Machulski predicted that we would be caught in the circle drawn by our own dwarfish mentality. There would be no Formula, no remedy to save us, no matter how genial our chemists were. This is why the tale of spitting dwarfs haunts me so persistently.
Also the figure of an apocalyptic rider of Poland is something that I saw on a movie; the only novelty in this essay is that I went perhaps deeper to the essentials, naming the four curses of our Apocalypse, Contempt, Mendacity, Ignorance and Delusion. But the apocalyptic rider clothed in black plastic waste-bin bags, still half a Roman soldier taken from an evangelical narration, appeared in 2006 in Wszyscy jesteśmy Chrystusami (We're all Christs) by Marek Koterski. As did the grim prediction of our guardian angel: "seven years shall not pass by..." (siedem lat nie minie). Before the completion of that symbolic septennial period of prosperity, Koterski's hero was doomed to return to his former misery, no matter how hard he tried to change his life, and no matter how many fellowships in the United States he was awarded. A troubling memento.
Apparently, we were not seven, but twice as many years in the European Union, but the numbers, just as the hero's alcoholism, were merely symbolic. The Polish train seemed to be cursed to speed on its circular rail. As my self-preservation instinct had been so alert and well trained since my childhood, I was simply too scared to stay on board.
I was born in a society of contempt that did not educate me to dignity. But I was reasonably well prepared for silence, exile and cunning. Aged fifteen, I was a punk, participating in a movement that gave those early times of freedom their particular taste; I crossed the country to participate in the famous festival in Jarocin. As I turned sixteen or seventeen, I belonged for some time to the Buddhist sanggha that gathered for zen sessions in Falenica, a suburban district of Warsaw. At eighteen, as soon as I received my adult ID documents, I also made my first steps as entrepreneur; I registered my own tiny business, producing signboards and advertisements with decorative foils while I was still at school. This is how I could gain the sufficient for my needs and make small economies to help launch me in the future I desired.
It was the year 1990. In the first free elections in Poland, a certain political adventurer hardly speaking any Polish at all, passing by the name of Stan Tyminski, appeared out of nowhere to create the most indefinite of all imaginable political options, the Party X. And he was about to become the first freely chosen president of the country, against the recognised leaders of the opposition, Wałęsa and Mazowiecki. In extremis, just days before the second round of the presidential elections, we were saved from a highly uncertain future by a handful of intelligentsia representatives who spread the rumour (later on broadcast on the television) that Tyminski used to beat his wife. I read today that he was also accused of being a Libyan terrorist, a Colombian drug dealer, and a mental patient; yet it was the accusation of beating his wife that somehow found its way to the popular Polish awareness, and Wałęsa ended up winning the elections. This is how Mendacity, the apocalyptic rider of Poland or our chief strategic resource, helped us to overcome the turbulence and perils of a democratic transition.
There is perhaps no need to introduce the third rider, Ignorance. Her face lurked in the background on several occasions already. But it was after my matriculation that she truly passed to occupy the front of the stage. Compared with the intellectual vivacity of my teenage years, my studies in Romance philology at the local Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, that I began in 1992, could only appear as dull and frustrating. It was a mediocre institution, adding very little to my previous fascinations. In terms of literary theory, structuralism was considered an advanced topic; five years later, in 1997, I was to leave that university, master degree in my pocket, without having ever heard in the classroom such names as Foucault, Deleuze or Derrida. But that was not the main problem in my deficient higher education. The major issue was something that later on I called world blindness. Not only a mere ignorance of basic facts concerning the world, but something more serious, a blindness generating delusions. One of them, that brought later on political consequences dragging Poland out of the European Union at the moment of the Syrian refugee crisis, concerned the Mediterranean. Recalling the way how I was taught, in 1994 or so, such an apparently simple and uncontroversial topic as contemporary French literature may be illustrative. At the university, we discussed in class such works as L'Immoraliste by André Gide, a book commonly read as a story of a paedophile in the context of colonial Algeria. As the hero, Michel, delves in his vice of loving beautiful children too much, his life falls into pieces, including his prospects of a brilliant academic career. Of course, the text that Gide published in 1902 evokes paedophilia and homosexuality only by allusions; the reader is expected to read between the lines, till the final collapse of the hero who, having absurdly decided to become braconnier, ends up as a victim of a handsome companion he desired. But the analysis we received in class gave no hint whatsoever in that direction. Who was the "immoralist" mentioned in the title? Well, one of the Algerian children whom Michel used to invite chez lui steal and surreptitiously destroyed a little pair of scissors. That was the immoralist in our reading, the nasty little Arab epitomising absolute evil and gratuitous destruction!...
As open and plural as the legitimate readings may be in contemporary humanities, that book simply meant something contrary to what we understood. Our interpretation was conditioned, on the one hand, by our firm belief in Christian supremacy; the idea that a European might sodomise an Arab child simply did not cross our mind; on the other hand, we were totally unaware of the historical circumstances of the colonial rule. We simply did not know what the French hero was supposed to do in Algeria, why he was there; we could easily take it for a mere exotic staffage. Be that as it may, the idea we made from such objects of study as André Gide's Immoraliste was clearly delusional, and it actually caused a great deal of embarrassment when some Polish scholars tried to present similar readings in international contexts. This is why the case comes to my mind as I search for a graphic example to show how they come close one after another, those remaining apocalyptic riders of Poland. Delusion is only half a step behind Ignorance.
The only thing I could do at my university was to study languages: not only French, but also Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. These are the roots of my polyglottism, that, as the years went by, increased far beyond the Romance range. Already as a teenager I used to get small bits of English and German on my own, just because I was such a responsible, future-oriented person; and small bits of Arabic, because I enjoyed crossing the limits; Russian was still compulsory at school. On the other hand, the adjective "Romance" meant something important to me, perhaps through art even more than through linguistic unity. This was where I belonged on the vast map of overlapping, pluriversal territories.
Quite early in my life I knew something about eight or nine tongues. I smile when I meet people seriously persuaded that speaking several languages is a privilege of the rich, able to pay private schools and special courses. In fact, it is the most democratic of all skills; and I completely agree with the partisans of the USSR (uninterrupted sustained silent reading) as the key factor of educational success in any circumstances and under any conditions. If I could go to better schools or simply get more friendly attention, it might have helped me in social terms; I might have become more assertive about my skills; till the present day I often tend to speak clumsy English or stagger in languages in which I am quite fluent, just fearing social punishment for my mastery or to avoid putting myself above the level of other people. But initially, learning new tongues was not a social skill at all for me; foreign languages were precisely what other people could not access. Foreign speech was protecting my inner world from intrusion. It used to be a private sphere of mine, an intimate solace, an additional insulation against troubles and matters going on around me. For a long time, I was fluent in none of these languages; except Polish of course; I managed to speak and write it in a rich, correct way. But even this was by no means so very obvious, given my social background; it helped me a lot early in my adult life, when I started working in the editorial business.
Even more importantly, speaking Portuguese turned out to be my salvation, enabling me to get out of my limiting, local sphere, and study abroad. Portugal offered two or three scholarships in the framework of the newly established collaboration with Eastern Europe, and I managed to get one of these; TEMPUS was also a great novelty of the time. Even if Lisbon, where I found myself for the first time in 1993, was not exactly the intellectual capital of Europe, it was incomparably better than anything I could find at my home university. So I went to the University of Lisbon three or four times during my undergraduate studies, at the price of an acute conflict with my professors in Lublin. During all those years of communism, they could never go abroad themselves, and they treated the new knowledge I brought from the West as a threat to their authority. Today, I do understand their fragility; but I managed to comprehend it fully only at the time when I tried myself to meddle in the ERASMUS MUNDUS agreements with Morocco; it was exactly the same problem of new knowledge biting at old, patriarchal structures. At the time, it was a wound, cutting very deep into my flesh. But to be honest, they actually tried to dissuade me from going abroad by gentle means. The supervisor of my Master dissertation tried to explain to me the egoism inherent to the fact that I was claiming all those scholarships. I was already quite a good student; thus I should leave those opportunities of going abroad to my weaker fellow students, those who had serious problems with passing their exams (sic!). The opportunity of going abroad to pick up the language that they were otherwise unable to learn would be a real chance for such people. As I took it from them, it was - so to speak - my fault that they wouldn't receive their qualification. Failing to make me see such an obvious logic, the professor asked quite a differently styled question: who my father was. I told my father was a worker, employed on a building site. That piece of information apparently reduced him to silence.
Be that as it may, I look nostalgically back to the nineties as it was a good time for Poland. Academically, it was the beginning of a luminous path leading upwards, at least for us who were young at the time to glean all those research grants and new opportunities. I could appreciate it fully only when the trend turned downwards again, and the Polish academic circles started to close and collapse upon themselves, frustrated by the unfulfilled promise of unhindered participation in the scholarly high-life of Western Europe. Evidently, the septennial term that our cursing angel had given to us was too short a period to build up consistent scholarship. It was only a brief and relative respite in the realm of ignorant authoritarians.
Later on, I could also appreciate something else: the positive side of the fact that socially I had so very little to do with the intelligentsia, the self-appointed spiritual guide of the Polish nation. As I have never belonged to it, I could avoid the greatest flaw of this caste issued from pauperised nobility: the sloth, their inborn incapacity of hard work (although most of its representatives share a firm, yet rather grotesque belief that they work their fingers to the bone). Eventually, the aversion to hard work - or rather, a profound scepticism concerning work as a means of achieving targets in one's life - might be seen as a characteristic of the lower social strata as well; in any case, it was the essential flaw that made the Polish academic system stagnate, especially in the eighties, when the resistance to communism occupied the place of any scholarly endeavour whatsoever. The sense of mission the intelligentsia cultivated apparently excluded the necessity of any effort in pursuit of knowledge; they knew well enough what was "right" and "true"; they had strong beliefs and values beyond the necessity of critical examination. Needless to explain, the concomitant fact that they had adopted zakłamanie as their strategy of survival contributed to the intellectual failure of the entire caste. Obviously, in scholarship, one constantly deals with a form of critical examination or another; inveterate habits of mendacity combined with strong belief necessarily contradict the requirements of the scholarly profession.
While I was reading my books, preferably in any of those languages I had learnt, the members of the intelligentsia just were, existed, endured (certain resonances of the Polish verb trwać are beyond any possible translation into English), entrenched and self-sufficient in their persuasion that gratia gratis data had been bestowed upon them for the salvation of the nation. The books they did not read endured with them as a part of the "national substance" (another untranslatable concept) that should be protected and preserved at any cost; I should be grateful to them, for it meant precisely those public libraries where I found my refuge. Two decades later, they could return to their true selves again when a new opportunity of resistance appeared. Or rather, was created by a kind of schizophrenic splitting of the minds when the intelligentsia was lacerated between her instinct of dissent and her alma naturaliter endeciana (expression coined by Czesław Miłosz that, by decency, I refuse to render explicit). Finally, they could forget the books they had been preserving. They could dedicate themselves to the political contestation (protest), activity they always conceived as higher and greater than reading books. It was in this exercise that I left them in 2018, when I resigned from the University of Warsaw to face a career of international scholarship.
As already mentioned, I went to Portugal for the first time in 1993 to participate in a summer school at the University of Lisbon. Soon it became my priority to return, simply because it was the only way out of the limiting and oppressive atmosphere of Lublin. My undergraduate studies were financed first by the TEMPUS programme and then by the Instituto Camões. In 1998-1999, having already been employed as a lecturer of Portuguese at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, I participated in a postgraduate Comparative Literature programme (Mestrado em Literatura Comparada) with a fellowship offered by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. At the same time, I completed my PhD dissertation on contemporary Portuguese literature, defended in June 1999. I studied domestic universes created by such writers as Vergílio Ferreira, Carlos de Oliveira, Sophia de Mello Breyner, Lídia Jorge and Teolinda Gersão. But my Gulbenkian Scholarship helped me for more than just this. My comparativist experience gained in Lisbon completely changed my perspective on the relationship between literature and other modalities, such as visual representation of the world in art. I was also working on the paradoxical topic of Orientalism in Portuguese literature, that appeared to me as quite an original phenomenon, at the same time participating in and falling apart from the general, European paradigms.
The Lisbon I knew was complex. I would not say postcolonial; it was still a picturesque colonial metropolis against the grain of History, full of people coming from the four corners of the empire: African soldiers of the Portuguese army brought from Bissau after the end of the colonial war, women wearing bright, multicoloured capulanas, the colonisers themselves, some of them, elderly, still using vintage style pith helmets against the Portuguese sun. The refugees from Timor, with the air of Barbarian long-haired warriors in everything but their stature (they were very short guys), were relative newcomers and their presence proved to be ephemeral. Nonetheless, when I was writing my PhD dissertation, the manifestations of solidarity with Timor-Lorosae were the fashion of the day; music was played on the lawn in front of the Salazarian buildings of the University of Lisbon; white clothes were worn; even the traffic used to be stopped at noon for a quarter of an hour of solidarity. It was also the moment when Macao officially ceased to be a Portuguese outpost, but the Chinese who some years later would take practically all the city centre for themselves, their souvenir shops and their small businesses were yet to come. I found myself in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebration only much later, when I was writing one of my subsequent books, Imperium i nostalgia. Be as it may, much of what I am now should be seen as a product of that city at that particular moment in its history. The colonial Lisbon that brought her empire home is in my blood, indelibly inscribed in my sense of the planet as a familiar place.
During those Portuguese years, I started to see myself as a traditional comparativist, following the footsteps of George Steiner. I tried hard to equal him in erudition and even to fill some of his confessed lacunae. Errata, published in 1997, was a fresh book at the time, and it was still early for the Grammars of Creation, that appeared in 2001; I had absolutely no hint of the death of the discipline that was to be announced by Gayatri Spivak. Perhaps because my own comparative literature had never been truly Europocentric. It was the aspiration, a glorious dream of erudition and insight, something bigger and greater, contrasting with simplicity and narrowness of the Portuguese studies. Even if I had some very good professors in Lisbon; I shall never forget the Baroque classes of Margarida Vieira Mendes or the seminar on Fernando Pessoa given by Fernando Martinho. What is even more curious, I had classes in African Lusophone literature with Inocencia Mata, an essayist from the archipelago of São Tome and Principe that later on became one of the leading, or at least the most conspicuous, African Portuguese-speaking intellectuals.
The time I spent in Lisbon was happy, productive, smooth, pervaded with the smell of eucalyptus trees. I was finally out of the madhouse of my family home, although a considerable amount of inherited folly obviously accompanied me all the way across Europe. No one steps dry out of a river. But I managed to make a life for myself. I could move out of the oppressive world of Lublin, to live up to my liking in Kraków. In 2004, I managed to buy a tiny flat. Lusophone studies as a discipline were to become the serious part of my life, permitting me to settle down smoothly with a stable academic employment at the Jagiellonian University. Intellectually, it left me unsatisfied. I engaged into the Oriental studies, but I could follow the curriculum only for several months; it was simply too hard to continue, teaching full time in my own Romance philology department. Also my academic superiors regarded this situation as very irregular, hurting the strict hierarchical rules according to which students and teachers were separate categories; and even more, because they were unable to see any meaningful connection between Iberian and Arab worlds (sic!). The head of my department, a Hispanicist specialised in the Spanish Golden Age, asked me with scorn: "Will you compare Arab and Portuguese novels?". For her, in her closed Catholic horizon, such an endeavour was a patent nonsense. Such an ignorance was not uncommon, still is, even in the leading Polish universities.
On the other hand, I also started thinking about my habilitation immediately after the doctorate, and I wanted to advance with this work as well. Nonetheless, I believe the passage by Oriental studies was an important step in my formation, as important and defining as all my Portuguese adventures. Later on, perhaps as an untimely consolation, I reached the conclusion that it was even better for me to abandon those standard university courses; I was to make my own way in the discipline. Be as it may, right now as I write these words, I still consider that Oriental studies are, have always been, my intellectual destiny.
In the meanwhile, the circumstances were such that I had to develop my Portuguese specialisation in the first place. From 1999 to 2006, I taught both the language and literature in response to the necessities of the newly created Jagiellonian University's curriculum in Portuguese philology. I also contributed with several basic publications that were lacking on the Polish book market: a practical introduction to the Portuguese grammar (1997), a presentation of the contemporary Portuguese literature (2000), as well as a translation of a history of Portugal (2000). The general appreciation of the Portuguese culture has been given in yet another book: my post-doctoral dissertation on spatial conceptualisations in the Portuguese literature and cultural imagination, since the end of the Middle Ages, throughout the expansion and the imperial era, till the contemporaneity (2003).
As it always happens in Poland, the accelerated pace of my career made me both loved and hated. The appreciation came in 2002 with a prestigious starting grant of the Foundation for Polish Science. It used to distinguishes yearly a hundred researchers in different fields of knowledge that managed to make themselves visible before they turned thirty. I also designed and successfully coordinated a comparative research project on islands and insularity financed by the Committee of Scientific Research (KBN), gathering a dozen of colleagues specialised in French, Italian, Spanish and Catalan studies. Another volume, a presentation of the 19th c. Portuguese literature, remained unpublished for many years. Much later, I included this material in a volume prepared for Ossolineum that I finally managed to complete with my second Gulbenkian fellowship, in 2016-2017. But the presentation of the Brazilian literature that I also elaborated during those laborious years was offered to the readers after a shorter delay, in 2010, included in a volume on the history of Ibero-American literature that I prepared with Nina Pluta. In the meanwhile, my personal interests going beyond extensive presentations of literary history were reflected in a monograph on José Saramago, Pokusa pustyni (Temptation of the Desert). This book, published in 2005, remained for many years the clue of my bibliography. It was a step beyond the traditional literary history into the domain of High Humanities, as I could see them from my perspective at the time. The book was full of Buber, Benjamin and Lévinas, and, as I see it even today, the result was quite remarkable, at least in the bibliography of a writer who was usually studied in a rather superficial way. Pity it was written in Polish.
What is more, I still had to deal with mediocrity, flourishing also in the bosom of the most prestigious among Polish universities. As the Portuguese studies hardly ever existed before, it was an area open to all sorts of opportunists, especially when the Portuguese official instances came in with all sorts of rewards and distinctions. I have never received any. Rather to the contrary. My immediate superior in the academic hierarchy, a Hispanist legitimising her position by advanced age and a tiny booklet on Baltasar Gracián (the same who found no common denominator between Arab and Portuguese novels), saw the flow of my publications as a challenge to her authority. In an atmosphere of open hostility, I resigned from my post at the Institute of Romance Philology.
Later on, I often asked myself why should a fellow scholar hate me so much. In an intimate conversation, a colleague tried to justify her explaining to me that her tempers were frayed due to the double life of her husband, going on for years and years. I saw him once, when I first came to Kraków, and the Hispanist invited me for a meal at home, a man with the typical beard of Polish freedom fighters; apparently, he had been imprisoned during the Martial Law. Their home was a typical intelligentsia apartment, full of books and paraphernalia. Nonetheless, I could hardly admire it, since they made me sit on a stool in the kitchen and fed me with the remainders of a party they had the day before. The conversation concerned the meaning of the term "Hagar", that they both considered masculine. I ventured to say that Hagar was a she, not a he, provoking an indescribable grimace on the Hispanist's face. At the time, I was persuaded my academic superior simply tried to test my erudition and aptitude for intellectual work... Some years later, she finally divorced that unfaithful husband and married a professor from the AGH University of Science and Technology, quite a nice, unpretentious man, illustrative of yet another face of Cracovian intelligentsia. She invited all the Institute colleagues to visit her new apartment, an ample, two-level flat decorated with several figures representing roe deer. Not a single book was anywhere to be seen. It was precisely the time when Cracovian intelligentsia were selling off their dusty and obsolete status symbols, facing a radical modernisation. Definitely, they started to aim higher. My colleague's greatest dream was to cause the Jagiellonian University to offer a doctorate honoris causa to the Spanish king... That would be her final apotheosis, basking in the splendour of a monarch! Unfortunately, the dream remained unfulfilled. At the level of the university, she had little influence, always assuming a subservient attitude in relation to deans, etc., in fact in relation to any male professor. As I think about it now, it is perhaps perfectly understandable that a person like her should instinctively hate a person like me. I had something she did not have, strength, courage, independent mind. Even if I was only a pitiful young woman coming from the lower class, still lost and confused in the intelligentsia world; what is more, I was in a very pitiful state of mental health. Yet perhaps even at that time it was clear that I wouldn't bend double in front of a male professor, just as she used to do. At sixty years of age. I hadn't been educated to dignity, as I say in this essay. Yet it still defies definition to what she had been educated...
Yet the private history of my academic superior, although striking as a topic of existential reflection, is not the main issue here. What requires rethinking is the institutional culture that made such things possible, in fact, still makes such things very common as I write these words. It requires indeed a lot of musing to understand what it meant to be a woman at the Jagiellonian University at the beginning of the 21st century. The time of such refection, nonetheless, does not seem to be nigh.
On the other hand, it would be unjust and ungrateful to forget that many people noticed the inappropriateness of what was going on in my case (mobbing is the contemporary term for it; we did not use such words at that time). The fact that I was distinguished with a 2nd class award by the Rector of the Jagiellonian University in autumn 2006, i.e. right after my resignation, proves that a certain will to redress the wrongs had been present. Nonetheless, this story of a scholar forced to resign for having published too many books may still seem incredible in the eyes of a Western reader. Yet it is a typical Polish story, repeated - although with significant variations - a decade later, when I was to leave the University of Warsaw.
Till the present day, I have published something like six books and eighty academic papers in Portuguese and Lusophone studies, without counting such things as translations or language manuals. As for the Eastern European standards (and to be honest, also for the West European ones), this is a major body of writing; but since my resignation at the Jagiellonian University, I have never taught either Portuguese or any other Lusophone literature again. And if of anything may I be certain in this life, I am certain that I won't ever be employed in any department of Lusophone studies in Poland. My title of full professor – the only Polish full professor properly specialised in this area – does not change anything. It may seem paradoxical, even unbelievable, but at a closer look everything becomes perfectly understandable. Among those people who have been active, during the last twenty years, in the Lusophone area at five or so Polish universities, nobody can claim to have authored such publications as to comfortably stand a comparison with mine; perhaps except Wojciech Charchalis who may feel proud for his extensive portfolio of translations in contemporary Portuguese literature. Those people as a collectivity are profoundly interested in conserving the status quo; the recognition of my sheer existence as a Lusitanist would introduce a completely new set of parameters in this domain.
Just to give an example, the person who drew immediate benefit of my removal from the area was a colleague who hardly spoke any Portuguese at all at the time, and who nonetheless became the “big boss” of the Câtedra Vergílio Ferreira created, under the auspices of the Portuguese ministry, at the Jagiellonian University just months after they got rid of me. A position that he occupies till the present day, even if he has never published any book, not even a serious research paper, on anything connected to Portuguese culture. These facts are easy to verify, but no one has ever cared to do so, either in Poland or in Portugal.
Such paradoxes bolster the specific academic culture of Poland, in which it is by no means clear that prestige or institutional importance are connected to competence or research achievements in any palpable way. This is something that existed long before the government of “Law and Justice” and its so-called reform of Polish universities. Patently, the books and research papers I published did not make me a head of any department of Portuguese studies or anything of the kind. For BOOKS are not what matters. What matters is WHO YOU ARE. My successful colleague chose to build up a persona of a diplomat, without much verifiable grounding in his real curriculum vitae; lacking facts were more than sufficiently compensated by largely invented, yet picturesque details. On the other hand, who was I? Little more than a petty whore. There was a time when Lusophone milieus indulged in all kinds of scabrous anecdotes referring presumably to my private life. They also tried to establish an editorial blockade of my writings, producing a series of quite memorable peer-reviews. They never succeeded completely, but the fact explains why some of my texts were published ten, fifteen, even twenty years after they had been originally conceived.
As I evoke the mental image of my Cracovian colleague, a distinctive hat on his head, I just cannot imagine him doing any research, going to any library, carrying around any books; he is totally not that kind of person, not even trying to impersonate a scholarly or intellectual figure. He is far beyond such trivialities, and he is right – how far did my own scholarly figure take me? In the Polish academic system, he is irremovable, his position is of an iron stability. For more than a decade now, he is the boss, people look to him with admiration and awe. In 2016, he was invited to evaluate my candidature for the official academic title of full professor. How grateful should I be to him that he has reviewed me positively?
Having left the Jagiellonian University, but still living in Kraków, I became associate professor in an interdisciplinary institute, transformed later on into the Faculty "Artes Liberales" of the University of Warsaw. For an entire decade, I continued working on a temporary contract with this institution, getting up at 4 am and travelling 400 km back and forth. I suppose all my academic career would look very different by now if I managed to go abroad directly from Kraków. In 2005, I applied to the Humboldt Foundation, yet unsuccessfully. In the meanwhile, Warsaw appeared as an alternative, a new beginning, and made me refrain from trying harder to get a foreign fellowship. Later on, it proved to be a crucial mistake, perhaps the biggest mistake of my entire academic career. But initially I was hopeful about Warsaw. These were still the last years of the upward trend in Poland.
Undoubtedly, it was a significant step towards the diversification of my experience. My teaching activities switched to the area of Mediterranean studies that I had always fancied and, at the same time, to a transdisciplinary vision. One of the subjects I was teaching throughout most of this period was the "Philosophy of Culture". The name was not of my making; it was taken from the official guidelines for Cultural Studies curricula in Poland; I suppose the persons who coined it were entirely unaware of its neo-Kantian resonance; what they meant to say was just "Cultural Theory". So the aim of this course was to introduce the students into a panorama of recent tendencies in the humanities; its contents were changing gradually over the years to accompany new books and emerging ideas. As teaching is the best way of learning, this is how I caught up the ever-changing flow of the humanities, while the Polish academic milieu continued a slow, anachronistic digestion of all what happened abroad approximately during the decade 1980. Around 2013 or 2014, I tried to dissuade a couple of PhD students from adopting Freudian psychoanalysis (sic!) as the key of their research. In vain. There were other, more prominent voices speaking louder in their intellectual environment; how could they hearken to my advice? I solemnly averred that, to the best of my knowledge, AD 2014 psychoanalysis was a complete anachronism. They simply did not believe me.
By the way, in Warsaw, I was initially keeping a low profile. In 2006, as a participant of a collective research project, "Silent Intelligentsia", I exploited once more my Portuguese competence in a study concerning the postcolonial emergence of African elites, distractedly called "African intelligentsia", for in Poland it was still impossible to capture things in any more appropriate or adequate terms. Following the dynamics of the Varsovian centre, involved - under not quite clear patronage - in manifold activities directed towards the post-Soviet space, I participated in some projects dedicated to the autochthonous peoples of Siberia; this is where I got my two Buryat PhD students. Overall, in 2010-2016, I was a member of the faculty for two doctoral programs: "Traditions of the Mediterranean Humanism and the Challenges of our Times", financed by the Foundation for Polish Science, and "Searching for Identity", designed mostly, but not exclusively, for the Russian-speaking PhD students and TEMPUS AURORA scholarship holders that flocked at the University of Warsaw.
Still, there was little space for promoting any groundbreaking research in this context. It was extremely hard to break through the mental habits of the PhD candidates coming from the post-Soviet space, and perhaps even harder to speak as loud as other colleagues who accepted their own anachronism and transmitted it to their successors, unchallenged. On the other hand, my original contribution to the program "Traditions of the Mediterranean Humanism", that might have been a good grounding for my further research in Andalusian precedents of the transcultural condition, was deleted from the agenda due to the absence of suitable candidates prepared to work on those topics. Millions spent by the Foundation for Polish Science on this program led to a stalemate, producing, in the spirit of innovation indefatigably advertised, a streak of more or less anachronistic dissertations speaking extensively of Sigmund Freud and similar matters. One of them under my own supervision.
Incidentally, also the concept of the Mediterranean implied in the programs where I was formally teaching deserves a commentary. The curriculum called "Cultural Studies - Mediterranean Civilisation" had been created through a simple operation of label change, based on a decadent Classical Philology fallen short of students. The new name sounded more attractive, relaxing and sunny, but nobody intended to make serious area studies out of it. Shortly speaking, it was a marble-smooth, civilised Mediterranean without hairy Arabs, Berbers, Turks and similar complications; the levels of Islamophobia both among the faculty and in the general society were staggering. In the meanwhile, also philology somehow drained out of it; what remained was an empty carcass. No wonder the "Mediterranean Civilisation" came down to empty classroom once more.
Overall, those years at the University of Warsaw form my "lost decade"; they were predominantly a period of dispersion and serendipity. I worked as a supernumerary in diverse collective initiatives, while other colleagues - those sufficiently mediocre as not to challenge the power relations in the institution - were officially anointed as "the natural leaders". My former achievements were completely overlooked, and I was usually treated as a kind of non-qualified helping force, an academic handmaid employed indiscriminately wherever my presence was regarded as ornamental. This treatment based on simple ignoring, making a round zero out of everything I had done or published, became the reason of my subsequent resignation, but I must confess that for some time I just enjoyed frolicking around instead of serious academic work. During the spring semester of the academic year 2013/2014, I organised a course on falconry as an experiment in human/animal studies (in private, falconry used to serve me, occasionally, as a secret key to Arabia). Somehow obstinately, I continued with this topic in the framework of the doctoral program "On the crossroad of nature and culture", even if falconry, which is after all about hunting, killing and meat eating, was seen as a scandal in the light of the lofty ethics of Anthropozoology, progressively merging in dilettantish, sterile debates indefatigably promoted by the authoritarian dean of the Faculty "Artes Liberales".
I distinctly remember one of the last moments of my participation in those newfangled rituals of interdisciplinarity, excellence and innovation. It was during a summer workshop in the national park of Biebrza swamps, that by the way happened to be exceptionally dry that year. Comfortably installed in a research centre among marshes and forests, my colleagues started discussing the resurrection of the non-human primates and their place in the City of God, passing later on to the idea of building a bridge in the Maasai Mara in such a way that gnu antelopes might safely cross the river full of crocodiles. They were deeply persuaded that what they were doing was promoting an excellent, interdisciplinary, advanced scholarship. At a given moment, an elderly, distinguished art historian who was also spending the excess of her time in the workshop, noticed my website, that I had used for some presentation. "Ah, ewa-lukaszyk.com", she exclaimed with scorn, accentuating the ".com". Who was I to have a website like this? Pathetic. I was only a handmaid, a supernumerary. There was such a calmness and brightness outside, a flock of cranes crossed the sky. What was I doing there? In a sudden illumination, I saw all my inadequacy, all the grotesque of my presence among those all-too-excellent persons. It was as an outcome of that workshop that I went first to Portugal, then to France, and then decided never to return.
Certainly, there was more than just an insult in that crucial workshop. Done with the bridge in the Maasai Mara, an eminent colleague, former paleontologist reincarnating in the domain of animal ethics, went on arguing that during their celebrations, Muslims cut the throats of sheep and goats as a way of preparing themselves for cutting the throats of their human fellows. "Discuss with them!", ordered the dean. As there was also a bishop of the Catholic Church present on this occasion, we might eventually improvise a quite lengthy debate on the significance of the Mount Moriah and the Binding of Isaac. But there was something else as well. Perhaps we ought to discuss Gayatri Spivak's essay Can the Subaltern Speak? and its pertinence in the Polish academia. Since it was very clear that the subalterns could, first of all, be made to speak. I just shut my mouth wide.
Krzysztof Zanussi's classical movie, Barwy ochronne (Camouflage), spoke of very similar problems as early as 1977. The patriarchal structure of the academic milieu was persuasively depicted. Yet another, much more complex aspect was shown as well. In the movie, there was a crucial scene depicting quite a similar seminar in which young Polish linguists tried to grapple, in a supposedly subversive way, with the question of arbitrary vs non-arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign. Designating oblong and angular shapes with words of an invented language, they reached the conclusion that was quite opposite to the one generally admitted: that angular things just had to sound angular in any language, while the oblong things were to be designated by names sounding smooth and inoffensive. But of course, what they took for an epistemological revolution was but a great nonsense.
In 2015, many new elements were to be added to Zanussi's diagnosis. The basic structure of power, at the core of his cinematographic narration, was apparently shaken, but by no means destroyed, by the irruption of the Western academic standards. On the other hand, the central problematic node in Zanussi's movie dealt with the intrinsic value of ideas, their essential truthfulness or untruthfulness, that remains unchanged no matter by whom or in what context they were announced. That meant to see beyond local academic wars; for a long time, the Poles were unable of this. But a new problem arose in the meanwhile: that of distinguishing between a valid, useful concept and a nonsense, an important piece of knowledge and a meaningless, distorted repetition of an idea imported from an external intellectual centre. My adventures with human/animal studies, as they were (mis)construed in Warsaw, illustrate this new range of problems. Absence of critical judgement applied to such ideas as that of building a bridge for the antelopes in the Maasai Mara or that of Muslims allegedly cultivating the art of throat-cutting was not derived from sheer ignorance as a simple, primary state of the human mind. Such problems were, to an increasing degree, the result of chaotic and misleading information, as well as frontal clash of the Polish mind against the complexity of international humanities.
This is how a kind of inverted dynamics of knowledge acquisition arose: more time one spent at the university, in such workshops, seminars and conference sessions as I have mentioned above, greater was the load of distorted ideas one received. Confronted with a new nonsense, one was able to integrate it instantaneously in one's mental structures. One was trained to swallow it, antelopes and Muslims alike. The academic progress we achieved consisted in a novel version of the magical Murti-Bing's pill from The Captive Mind. The bliss it provided, through the delusional sense of expertise, greatness and intellectual excellence, was even more compelling, more inebriating than it used to be. Refusing the pill remained a question of survival. Not only scholarly, but also moral.
With the allusion to Murti-Bing and The Captive Mind, what I have said above sounds like a piece of extremely severe criticism. But once again, I would like to stress the difference between patriarchal structures and personal responsibilities of people involved in their reproduction. At the personal level, my feelings towards them have always been ambivalent; even if there is a distinct danger in pitying one's tyrant. Be as it may, my anthropozoological dean had quite a few humane traits. One of them, that I found particularly endearing, was the importance he used to attribute to the story of Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle and his ability of speaking to the animals. I also had this book in my childhood (thanks God the intelligentsia did not use to throw their books; someone presented me with two second-hand, illustrated volumes). Another humane treat was my dean's love of Africa; he used to spend his vacations in a hotel in Kenya, claiming of having been accepted into a herd of colobus monkeys. Somehow, I might be able to resonate with those echos of remote colonial childhoods, once lived in dreams against the background of the dismal history of a communist country and then revisited in the old age. But how could I render the surreal atmosphere in which the faculty was immersed?
It is an archaic instinct to pity old men, and there are many archaisms in the story I try to express in modern English. In fact, they were two at the core of my faculty, both coming from illustrious families, sons of fathers who made themselves significant in the national culture. And yet the rupture of cultural continuity was clearly, tragically to be seen. It is a paradox that their manners were extremely unpleasant, and that was in the eyes of someone as casual, paying as little attention to forms as myself. I suppose that for many people lucky enough to have been brought up in homes without a hen in the balcony their ways would be quite simply inadmissible. Yes, the manners of those two aristocrats were defective; for manners are essentially founded on respect toward the fellow human being. As a consequence, what may the savoir-vivre become in a society of contempt? They understood their role at the university in terms of disciplining other people; and when they tried to discipline someone much more committed to the intellectual work than themselves, the result naturally tended toward the grotesque. But there was more than just this. They created a sort of self-congratulatory discourse, in which their faculty was invariably presented as unique, experimental, interdisciplinary (an abstract quality that for them was roughly synonymous with "excellent"). Of course, this excellence was yet another instance of the specific confabulation that I have already mentioned, serving the Poles to create the worlds they lived in. Sheer shamelessness with which they boasted their imaginary greatness made it real. To see things as they were would require a certain amount of insight, attention, experience, knowledge, critical thinking. Very few people in Poland could spare such a mental potential. Most of them simply subscribed for the delusion. As I have said, where Ignorance opens the way, the fourth apocalyptic rider is never far behind.
In the meantime, what used to make my dean so unpleasant was his habit of manipulating people; he treated them like the sand on a human beach where he was constantly building his ephemeral castles (or, as he liked to call it, "structures"); of course, as individuals, they represented very little, contrasted with his grandiose vision. As a last resource, he was always ready to belittle anyone for his or her incompetence in ancient Greek. But in general, his strategies of marginalisation were so unsophisticated that they would be dismissed for infantile in a group of teenagers. Just to give an example: it happened once that a colleague of mine handed him a special issue of a journal, telling: "Look, this is the volume Ewa has prepared"; my name was on the cover. He took it, threw a contemptuous glance and said: "I don't see Łukaszyk here, I see..." (here he put the name of a different colleague, one who enjoyed his favour). Did he really believe that the letters printed on a book cover would suddenly shimmer and take the shape of quite a different name, just because he refused to acknowledge my achievement? Did it actually happen in the minds of people present at the scene?
Certainly, there was something desperate in such attempts at bewitching the reality. I do not believe he had especially bad intentions toward me; on the contrary, he would be very glad to see me in his little retinue; but had no sufficient means to buy me. What else he was supposed to do? He could not simply put up with my books; where would it lead? Would he be forced to recognise me one day as his equal? Such a thing was inadmissible, unthinkable, incompatible with his mentality of a petty warlord.
The other aristocrat, former ambassador, seemed to squeeze respect out of people with no intention of reciprocating it; at least not till the moment he saw me recognised abroad, for I must recon that his attitude toward me changed quite a lot in the later years. He was quite a laborious scholar, publishing as much as myself; in any other situation it might have created a certain sense of comradeship; but for many years it was prodigious to observe the amount of energy he used to dispense on maintaining the female in her subaltern position. Scholar son of a scholar, he was among the happy few who could go to Paris in the sixties and seventies; during his stay in France, he had allegedly been a disciple of Fernand Braudel; at least the term "civilisation" was recurrent in his vocabulary from then on; he also spent long periods in Spain and in the United States. Yet in many moments, his manners used to bring to my mind an old sheikh, one of those belonging to the first generation of the oil, somewhere in central Arabia. Deep down in his heart, he was a non-European, not to say a child of Asia stack to the window pane of Europe, a shop full of trinkets he direly desired having no means to acquire them truly as his own; his deep convictions of what was "right" and "true", convictions beyond the range of critical examination, made him dramatically incompatible and alien in relation to Western scholarship. I suppose that, to a certain degree, he was tragically conscious of his position, yet unable to give up his fundamental persuasions; in any case, he often seemed to me keen to compensate this inferiority, to invert it. In spite of his hidden admiration and envy of my reckless familiarity with Western Europe (a familiarity he failed to build up, although he had as many opportunities as myself), for a long time he treated me as swołocz, savagery trying to occupy the space that was essentially not destined to socially inferior people like me. No matter how many languages I spoke and how many books I authored, swołocz had to be maintained under control; it costed him an effort of constant vigilance. But perhaps I should withdraw these comments, or at least forgive him, because I have said, his attitude toward me changed at a given moment. At least he noticed there was something about me that required and justified such a change. Many other people did not.
Shortly speaking, I regret that, although apparent collaborators, we were Barbarians for each other. Yet for all these reasons and more, he has always been in my eyes a profoundly tragic figure, an inteligent (he cultivated an acute sense of his caste identity) fallen out of the Shakespearean gallery. Certainly, there was a human sympathy in all this. As explained above, I wasn't on speaking terms with my own grandfather; in any case, he might not be able to tell me much, in intellectual terms. The old aristocrat assumed, in a way, the role of a shadow grandfather of mine, epitomising precisely that Polish-ness that remained unreconciled with my own European-ness, as well as that intelligentsia at odds with the swołocz. As I have suggested, in intellectual terms, he might possibly admire me more than I admired him; I was always very critical of his views and his writings, but a certain sense of the tragic accompanied me in all that. In fact, it always puzzled me how he could write so badly; he authored some six hundred publications, including thirty books, enough, in any case, to learn how to write by sheer exercise. Yet his discourse was often vague, opaque, to the point of keeping the reader in complete darkness, not only as to his intentions, but even as to the very matter he pretended to discuss. On many occasions, I literally had no clue whatsoever to guess what he was talking about (for instance, there was a period he went on claiming that "strangers are good to be eaten"; till the present day, I ignore what he actually meant by this, where this cannibalistic credo was taken from, what kind of provocation it was supposed to constitute). Of course, such an elliptical discourse disqualified him as an academic author, according to Western criteria. But I wondered whether that vagueness, that obscure allusiveness wasn't simply a lingering reminder of a long gone strategy of dogging the censorship. As an academic author, he might be the equivalent of those combatants from Vietnam in American movies (or was it just in One flew over the cuckoo's nest?), still walking as if they dragged their boots in the mud, when the war was over and the mud was no more. But sometimes I also wondered whether there might have been an even more sinister meaning in all this: intelligentsia in the full exercise of her absolute power over discourse. Exerting symbolical oppression by sheer quantity of things being said, her discourse generating machine put at full speed, washing out everything and everyone on her way. The slightest necessity of restraining her verbosity or reflecting critically on whatever had been said was absent. Still more horrifying was to think that, with my own two hundred messy publications, I might be heading toward just the same intellectual destiny. That I was implied, much against my will, in the same Polish race toward final collapse.
This is why I found it personally important to contribute to a volume in my colleague's honour, and I wrote for him a bitter, similarly allusive text, in the way of a postcard from Amsterdam and Bissau. On freedom, on reading books, on Polish intelligentsia... I might like to have called him a friend... Were it possible to befriend an inteligent through a window pane...
But there are still a great deal of other things to mention before I close the Varsovian chapter. It is true that my Portuguese competence had been completely forgotten, to such a degree that one day a student asked me if by chance I was a daughter of Ewa Łukaszyk the author of all those books about Portugal. My paradoxical status at the University of Warsaw could only be compared to that of the academic sweeper of the fallen cherry blossom in one of Terry Pratchett's novels. On the other hand, it gave me unexpected freedom to reinvent myself as something else than a simple continuation of my academic profile.
Occasionally, I collaborated with the research group created by a colleague working on endangered languages and their revitalisation. I would truly respect her but for her thumb; she was a promissory ethnohistorian of Mexico who enjoyed a momentary fame as she got an ERC Starting Grant (one of the few we ever had in Poland); having offered her guru-dakshina to someone who had never been her teacher, she progressively forgot the Aztecs and became a revitaliser of the Vilamovian language, dedicating the greater part of her time to folklore and colour. I nurtured mixed feelings also in relation to her, as she was clearly one of the persons who were reducing me to my supernumerary status at the faculty, but I should at least acknowledge her working capacity and dedication, clearly setting her apart from her Brahmin varna of intelligentsia.
Meanwhile, as I say this, the reader might be curious to discover who was the favoured pupil of Drona. The divine archer, Arjuna of Warsaw, was affectionately called the dean's "little daughter" (córunia). It was truly a heartbreaking figure, an ERC Consolidator grantee, winner of several awards in the category of children's literature. What can I say about it? At the Faculty "Artes Liberales", we were all expected to produce children's literature of a kind or another; it was the genre of writing suiting our womanhood and pleasing the academic despot, great reader of Hugh Lofting, who ruled over us. Honestly speaking, neither of these ERC stars of Varsovian humanities had bad intentions towards me, they might eventually be seen as absurdly clumsy. The ethnohistorian even invited me to spend some summer days in the countryside, together with her team of young people. But at the end of all that, she proposed me... to become a regular member of her work team. As if I had no research agenda of my own. That proposal, of course, constituted for me yet another not-quite-funny anecdote in the annals of Polish academia, although I did not even enquire exactly what kind of work she expected me to do in her team. Certainly, no one could say she was lacking intelligence; but the secret clauses of the intelligentsia's pact with the nation were still valid in our generation; she had no way of overcoming them. She never treated me as a colleague, an equal partner in a discussion on any topic whatsoever, let alone someone who might contribute with ideas to any decision-making process. The only way she could construe her relationship with me was that of seeing me as an acceptable subaltern. To imagine it any other way would imply to transgress the frontiers of the academic culture in which she was immersed. She picked up the old way of presuming that she would honour people by offering them the opportunity of working "under her". In fact, so many academic fortunes in Poland were done by playing that kind of games over and over again.
What could I have done with all that? Certainly, those team people were very much OK, very successful in their own measure, very European in their own Eastern way. And what was I? Hard to say. Socially inadequate. I could be seen as a minor figure among them, a marginal; at the same time, it was obviously not my style to spend summer days in the countryside like they did. Somehow, my personal choices had led me very far away from the traditional little lifestyles of Polish intelligentsia. I would travel in the Maghreb, fly falcons, enjoy deserts. In 2006, I married "outside the Kingdom", just to use Saudi euphemistic terminology that becomes the case (my husband is an engineer in ARAMCO). I was simply a different kind of person, living in quite a different geography. A highly improbable, fantasist geography from any Polish perspective; I remember having once mentioned my travel to Malaysia in a conversation; I think the person I talked to simply did not take it serious; she thought it must be yet another of those typically Polish fictions. Deep down, me and my university colleagues had even less in common than it might seem at the first glance. No wonder the ERC Consolidator grantee always preferred to keep a safe distance from me; she dared talk to me only once or twice, only to blunder even more absurdly. Like the day when she saw me working on my laptop in some dark corner of the faculty, and tried to invite me to use the computer in her own vice-dean office, just as one offers, out of sheer kindness, a bowl of hot soup to a homeless on a winter day. At the moment, I had no intention, or perhaps no presence of mind, for a sharp repartee. But I suppose my polite answer must have sounded somehow like a polite answer of a tribal Arab given to a Haratin. After all, I was a scholar; she was the dean's little daughter...
Meanwhile, women with black umbrellas flocked to manifestations. The system remained impermeable. I failed to write any children's literature. Since my research travel to Morocco in 2013 I used to follow the Amazigh revival, so I might eventually fit in the context of linguistic revitalisation; nonetheless it was mostly exploiting my "non-qualified" position that I spent a carefree week in London and, next year, another week in Leiden as a participant of workshops on dying languages organised in the framework of a TWINNING grant. My illustrious colleague let me travel for free as a would-be participant of her project, and I exploited the opportunity with no sense of shame; but she never invited me to speak on any of these occasions. I sneaked into the library of the SOAS to make a quick search for some materials on Sufism, and in Leiden I got ready for my project on Adamic language that I was to continue in France. After all, the fascinating story of the search for the original tongue spoken in Paradise might be seen as a hidden paradigm of any linguistic revitalisation, moved by the belief that some essential truths can only be expressed in a tongue we had left behind.
Speaking of languages, it may be curious to mention that a new lease of my polyglottism appeared, quite unexpectedly to myself, when I was already in my forties; perhaps it has something to do with the processes of maturation going on, as contemporary neuroscience advises, across all the expanse of human life. I did not plan to learn any more languages. Yet suddenly, during my travels, I noticed the appearance of an acute sense of linguistic humour that I did not possess before. Languages I did not know appeared to me as a constant parade of highly enjoyable puns, of course some of them more than other. Czech and Maltese became absolutely fabulous in my eyes, and I offered myself manuals and books in those languages for none other utility than sheer recreation. Many speakers of Polish may occasionally see Czech as a source of linguistic humour, but I became literally addicted to reading Victorian ghost stories in Czech translation in the bathroom; Maltese is roughly the equivalent for someone speaking both Arabic and Italian: irresistible. At the same time, I became more sensitive to eurhythmic and euphonic qualities of human speech, especially in Hindi, but curiously, also German, language with which I had been vaguely familiar for two or three decades without ever noticing its exquisite beauty. Or is it the effect of its new triangulation through Dutch?
Also the crucial breakthrough in my intellectual activity belongs to the Varsovian chapter, even if the academic context in which I was immersed had absolutely no hint of the potential of what I was pretending to achieve. Of course, I suppose it would be very hard for anyone anywhere in the academic world to discern a particular value in the mottle of ideas I started to produce. Be as it may, it was the crucial period when my personal stance in humanities slowly started to take shape, emerging throughout the frosty days in February 2012. For a while, I had focused on the intellectual development of the Islamic world and the emergence of the figure of Muslim intellectual. My trip to Turkey in the summer 2009 opened not only a series of excursions around the Mediterranean, but also led me to form a concept of travel that would become so important in my intellectual identity. In 2011 I went to Malaysia where I got interested in the writings of a Malay scholar Farish Noor; I have already mentioned a longer research stay in Morocco in 2013; I visited other crucial and less crucial places as well, including Guinea-Bissau in 2016. I joined the Polish Oriental Society to participate in the conferences organised by the association and publish some papers about those topics.
Meanwhile, transcultural studies, in any sense of the term, were naturally very distant from the priorities of the Polish institutions, focused on the celebration of our "national humanities". On the other hand, at the official level, I was still considered as a specialist in Portuguese matters. This is why, once again, I saw myself realising a research project on the "late style" in José Saramago, writer to whom I had already dedicated an extensive monograph in 2005. After several unsuccessful proposals of mine, the fact that I had previously studied that writer apparently justified further founding of the topic by the National Science Centre (NCN), even if Saramago fell definitely out of fashion soon after his death and the subsequent celebration. Anyway, somehow unwanted research project on Saramago, conceived out of sheer desperation, proved to be another apex in my undulating Lusitanist career. The approach I initially planned in the scope of this project was supposed to deal with the novels that Saramago wrote during the last years of his literary activity, presumably illustrating a particular aesthetic quality what Edward Said defined as “late style”: a sort of unreconciled wisdom achieved as a bitter fruit of an old age. Coming back to Said was yet another servitude due to the academic context delving in the spectral, uncanny eighties (the least I could do was to chose the posthumous book of the Palestinian intellectual). Anyway, the "late style" admitting neither synthesis nor harmony is to be found in Saramago, till his last Cain, even more violent and intransigent than his previous Gospel according to Jesus Christ.
This is how Imperium i nostalgia (Empire and Nostalgia) was born in 2015, a book in which the concept of "late style" is used to resume a certain stage in the evolution of the Portuguese cultural consciousness. The equivalent of an old age comes after the end of the colonial empire, as well as after the breakdown of the newfangled cultural projects such as Lusophony or a naively enthusiastic vision of the multicultural society. On the morrow of the last shipwreck in the Portuguese imperial history, a kind of bitter wisdom becomes available to writers and thinkers. Taking Saramago for a pretext, I also tried to make a first step toward the expression of my transcultural stance, defining the basic concepts in the introduction to this book.
In the meanwhile, invoking the spirit of alleged innovation advertised by the Faculty "Artes Liberales", I also managed to deliver some off-track seminars, such as the one on the metaphor of the desert and the one on the intellectuals as the pivotal figures of the global symbolic space. During the last year of my effective teaching at the University of Warsaw (2015/2016) I also realized a PhD seminar "Towards transcultural humanities". My writings from this final period are collected in a small volume of essays, Humanistyka, która nadchodzi (The coming humanities) that I published in 2018 as a discreetly ironic farewell to the University of Warsaw. This is also how the transcultural approach to Juliusz Słowacki took shape, as I had joined the collective research project focusing on the study of his rediscovered travelogue from his journey to Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Together with some texts on Portugal and Guinea-Bissau that I wrote as the outcome of my stay in Lisbon in 2016-2017, and of course the big history of Portuguese literature published by Ossolineum, these are probably my last contributions ever to be written in Polish.
The first twenty years of my academic career were connected to the two leading Polish universities. I deeply regret the dynamics of mutual disdain that have always existed between me and these institutions. It should have been otherwise. I have no feeling of having chosen this; on the contrary, I was longing for institutional integration, carrying on a tradition, continuity instead of disruption. I had those feelings especially for the Jagiellonian University. Yet the institutions refused to take me seriously. Certainly there must have been a part of my personal responsibility in this. I never really tried to become a part of the narrow group of top Polish scholars, publishing in "Teksty Drugie" and sticking close together. I was generally on non-problematic or even cordial terms with such people as Ryszard Nycz or Tadeusz Sławek, but I was strangely keeping my distance from them, declining invitations, as if a force were pushing me away. I claimed no place of my own in the country's elite. Arguably, I acknowledged the secret clauses of the intelligentsia's pact with the nation stating that the success of the inferiors is inadmissible; in any case, I did nothing to revoke them. I became a passive, if not a benevolent victim, frolicking in my margin instead of serious academic work. It could have been otherwise. I could have worn more formal clothes, created a more persuasive image, at least so as not to be taken for Ewa Łukaszyk's own daughter. I could have asserted my competence in any way. I conformed myself to reciprocities of contempt, refusing to treat certain people as my equals; since there could be no equality between a scholar and a petty academic warlord. I could have used the same enchantments, the same Polish spells to involve my own figure in a delusion of grandeur of some sort. There are so many traits in me coming quite close to Polish grandeur delusions: all those claims of reading books in twenty languages, all those aspirations of global literary studies, all those endeavours at theory-making. I could have been the greatest of charmers. Were I a male scion of Polish intelligentsia, I would make a remarkable career. But both my class and gender were wrong. The existence of the so called glass ceiling became more and more clear to me the higher I climbed on the academic ladder. Also my constant hesitation, the habit of inquiring about myself, my perpetual self-doubt contributed to obliterate the effect of my magic. I left the stage for other charmers, and that is probably my greatest crime against Patria; I fully deserved the curse of Ahasverus that is upon me, and all those wives of American colleagues to ask me during parties why I did not fight for my country.
During all those years at the University of Warsaw, I was incapable of surrendering my intellectual future, as vague as it might have been for most of that time. I could not resign myself to the thought that a position at a Polish university would be all what I would get, even during the best years of the upward trend. I still lived in my tiny Cracovian apartment. My employment was not a permanent one and, contrary to my colleagues, I did not see the institution in terms of excellence; it was just a place to stay before finding my proper destiny somewhere abroad. On the other hand, the attitudes were fully reciprocated: the institution did not really work hard to persuade me to stay; politics of maintaining and stabilising excellent members of the faculty was virtually non-existent; and of course, my track record deliberately overlooked, I have never been recognised as an excellent member of any body whatsoever.
Finally, in 2016, thirteen years after my habilitation and having made a CV of over thirty single-spaced pages, I obtained a tenure and was to get a perpetual professorial title as well; I actually got it two years later. Nonetheless, the year 2016 marked my long announced and long delayed passage from the national to international humanities. How is it that, in spite of a delay stretching over a decade, the institutional answer to my activities came so late that it did not even stand a chance of finding me at home? Well, all what I have written above serves as an explanation; on the other hand, in 2016 I was still only 44 years old. This is the age when people usually achieve their habilitation, not the full professorship. Such a promotion might thus be seen as remarkable if referred to the local standards; the statistical age of achieving the professorial title in Poland, for a female scholar, is 57. Mine was to come exceptionally early.
Early, yet too late. What can I say about it? In Poland, there exists an obvious inadequacy, a kind of time lag between the rhythms of development of an outstanding scholar and the institutional recognition. It had been noticed; I remember that, at a certain point, the target of accelerating the academic careers had been established. But what they tried to do was to make some young people engage directly into the PhD without completing their master dissertations (sic!). Apparently, it had never crossed anybody's mind that outstanding female scholars might feel annoyed about being bogged in patriarchal or gerontocratic subalternities, and especially, that they might go as far as taking serious measures in order to channel their brains out of the country for this reason. Perhaps such a risk has been neglected simply because the international scholarship is an alien territory for a great majority of people that are usually seen as outstanding in Poland. As I look to the colleagues who went abroad, I see few success stories and a pronounced tendency to fall back into the old contexts. We are still to see how long Ewa Łukaszyk will last out there.
Anyway, the discussion on career rhythms of female scholars was cut brutally by a ministerial proposal of sending them all home at 60, five years earlier than their male colleagues, and with less than a half of their salaries; in my case, that would mean getting less than 400€ a month to live on (sic!); my net monthly salary at the University of Warsaw never exceeded the equivalent of 1,100€. Honestly speaking, at a given moment, these monthly 1,100€ - less than the minimum wage in many Western European countries - simply stopped appealing to me. I grew tired of sleeping in stinking hostel dormitories every time I went abroad for a conference. A strange thing happened to me once in the cheapest hostel of Amsterdam, a dirty and indecent place on Leidseplein where young Orientals sometimes used to masturbate in front of me in the common dormitory. I filled the aanmelding card putting "hoogleraar" (university professor) as my profession. The immigrant employees started to joke innocently behind my back, persuaded that I wrote it just for fun. I turned to them furious and drawled through my clenched teeth some Arabic formulae proving that a scholar travelling in search of knowledge is on the path of God. Embarrassed, they turned red, and after a moment of uncomfortable silence pointed to an elderly Syrian telling me that he used to be a professor in chemistry as well. He was just putting Nutella jars on the breakfast tables, and suddenly seemed even more embarrassed than anyone else. Perhaps I shouldn't have taken the situation like that, but it was the moment when something broke in me. I never cared much about money before, and I considered myself a tough traveller, used to any bed, as well as to no bed at all. But on that day I started to think about getting my fair share. I mean, earning as much as any decent European scholar working as seriously as I had always done. It became a matter of dignity. And certainly the nation would not be at loss getting rid of someone like me. Who would ever care about the academic excellence achieved by a woman? Baba z wozu, koniom lżej, advises a Polish saying. I decided to facilitate the things bringing my early resignation in.
Coming close to the top of my academic career, my mood was thus far from triumphant, and the general context inspired no bright feelings. Certainly, some people did continue even more triumphant than ever (freezing in a pose of triumph became in fact a new strategy of survival). The rest of energy that remained in the academic milieus was consumed in an absurd struggle against serendipitous reforms, undoing the very progress so laboriously achieved across the previous two decades. But it was hard to overlook the falling darkness, as if we were to be cloaked in our own shadow raised from the ground. The worse qualities of the local scholarship - conventionality, anachronism, dilettantism - were to compose the new, national definition of academic excellence. It became a commonplace to repeat that the internationalisation failed. For most people it was a relief; at least they were not expected to publish in English any longer; a great majority of them never learned the language. On the other hand, we never managed to get out of an enchanted glass sphere separating us from whatever humanities are abroad. In one of the last Polish collective volumes to which I contributed, I could also find a text where one of my colleagues admitted that "it would be insolent to propose a new interpretation", while another one was still aghast that in France "gender studies are taught in the classroom" (i.e. academically recognised).
Integration in the international context is far from natural for anybody coming from Polish academia. The level of seriousness expected contradicts the dilettantish and serendipitous manners that were accepted, even actively promoted in my native milieu. Certainly, the collective flaws were very much mine; that was precisely why it pained me. I felt anachronistic in many of my publications, angry and sorry for having been drawn into the vortex of local debates. Confronted with international specialised scholarship, I felt intensely dilettantish. I experienced a great difficulty in retrieving my true, unaltered voice.
No wonder the passage costed me many failures and drawbacks. Well, "many failures" is a manner of speaking; I cannot consider myself very badly treated by the sponsoring institutions. Several opportunities have been denied to me; some of them I see as denied for my own good; for instance, such was the case of the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, kind of special place created for us, Eastern people. I would not fit there. More regrettably, I could not get a residency at NIAS, the institute of advanced studies in Amsterdam. But anyway, as I see it now, the serious failure was not to be denied the Humboldt in 2005, but to have renounced trying harder to get it. These ten years in Warsaw formed a parenthesis in my academic career; it might have been smoother, more efficient, continuous, linear. I woke up in mid-forties with a gargantuan CV made chiefly of serendipity and disruptions.
Meanwhile, great universities, fabulous libraries and collections were tempting me. And even more than that, the eventuality of meeting a different kind of people. In autumn 2016, I returned to my old Lisbon with the intention of finishing an unpublished volume; this work still kept me mentally in Poland. But the next year I went to France as a Marie-Curie fellow and spent a year in Tours, at a centre for Renaissance studies, working on my project concerning the Adamic language, or more precisely, the idea of pre-cultural beginnings of the humanity. It was only in February 2018, after finishing some texts recklessly promised to various people, that I definitively stopped writing in Polish and took steps to dissociate from Polish academic reality completely.
It was from France that I deliberately came to submit my resignation. Having caught an economic flight from Paris to Warsaw, I entered a kiosk at the airport to buy two bus tickets to the city centre. The blow came from the Gazeta Wyborcza's front page, disguised in a specific kind of black humour: the neo-Nazis from Poland and Germany made a pick-nick at the frontier to celebrate together the birthday of Adolf Hitler.
It was a glorious spring 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. The very same day of my resignation I also received the copies of my Humanistyka, która nadchodzi, and I decided to distribute them, with a few words of farewell, among the key scholars of the country. 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. Yet, on the phone, 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 behind my leaving the University of Warsaw. I tried to explain I had no real choice. In Warsaw, there was nothing to return to. In ten years of my employment there, the Faculty never found a place for me. They never let me do things for which I had been trained at a not inconsiderable expense (endorsed, among other institutions, by the Foundation for Polish Science in question). At the University of Warsaw, I was vaguely performing all kinds of odd jobs. The last one that had been proposed to me was that of a manager of human/animal studies. An administrative manager, to be sure, with very little influence on the intellectually castrating turn the whole affair had taken. It was my humble yet persistent persuasion that a deliberate policy had been developed to create the general impression that I was a kind of non-specialised, mediocre person. One of the most charming moments of my anthropozoological dean was at an official reception; he approached me gallantly with a glass of wine and set the ball rolling: "And what about the mediocre people like us?" (A co z takimi przeciętnymi ludźmi jak my?). Certainly, I would be best employed assisting more prominent scholars, in the hope that, with time, I might eventually learn a deeper wisdom from them. My official title of full professor changed very little; for that sort of people, a woman was an eternal minor; and they would be sincerely surprised if one day they learned that such an attitude helped to maintain the country in its backward condition.
Apparently, the rules of the academic game were clear to everyone. There existed tables indicating the "points" that researchers were supposed to win with publications, and with other things as well: participation in the Horizon 2020 and winning prestigious fellowships such as my Marie-Curie was supposed to be highly appreciated and recognised. Meanwhile, as I went to France to do my research, I was reprimanded for my "absence" or my "not being there" (ciebie nie ma), as if I were someone who simply failed to appear at the workplace. The logic behind it was very obvious. The rules are good as long as the serve to harass the female; if the female wins, it's time to change the rules. In the end, I was given an award, just as it had happened before, when I left the Jagiellonian University.
Both the current and the former dean of the Faculty "Artes Liberales" tried to persuade me to stay. For what was it supposed to mean, a low-rank female just leaving the herd like that? They 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 the publication of some sort of BOOKS, the very word pronounced with a singular twist of their lips. After five thousand years of civilisation they proposed themselves to defend, we came to that. No more book burning, even; we were just to stop writing them. In a country where neo-Nazis used to organise pick-nicks and celebrate birthdays on the flowery banks of the Oder, the true harbinger of the doom was a dean of an "A+" faculty of the University of Warsaw.
The academic system I decided to abandon was to be ravaged only a couple of months later by the "reforms" of the government of "Law and Justice"; they practically put an end to academic autonomy. Soon, it became too late even to open the debate on such topics in the dilapidated, delirious country heading dangerously toward an authoritarian regime. Be that as it may, the essential problems I have commented on were accumulating uninterruptedly since the early 1990s. We have never managed to see ourselves free from totalitarianism, as far as university was concerned. The same professors who made their careers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were still present, still influential. They dictated not only the anachronistic content of our academic activities; they also preserved the old habits, the ways of treatment, the basic, patriarchal and gerontocratic structure of oppression, to be faithfully reproduced by their successors.
What I left behind were smouldering ruins. Ruins, to a certain degree, also of my own academic career, and more, of things I believed in and tried to work for. It was very late to ask myself who I truly wanted to become. I suppose my colleagues in the old country would be appalled to hear that what kept me alive was a little piece of poetry coming to me from a luminous age: مُنَايَ مِنَ الدُّنْيا عُلومٌ أَبُثُّهَا ... My fidelity to the ancient greatness of Islamic world, so unpopular in my country, proved to shine very bright, even more so at the moment of vital and intellectual crisis. Packing for Leiden, I retrieved and resigned myself to my Orientalist destiny.
I often wondered what happened with Ekalavya later on, after he offered his thumb as guru-dakshina to Drona. I suppose that even at that remote stage of Indian civilisation, there must have been more conceivable knowledge and skill to be learned than just archery, and the shooting instructor was not the only, the last or the supreme guru. Did Ekalavya choose to abandon all of them, dedicating the rest of his life to a solitary quest? To a wisdom that could not be punished with any more wounds?
Certainly, there is an abundant tradition of interpreting that episode, going from exemplification of virtue to that of caste violence (in Mukherjee's Perishable Empire for instance), but the sequel of Ekalavya's story in the Mahabharata is frustrating. Without his thumb, he continued as an archer, although not as perfect as he might have been. Till he was vanquished. There was no way out of the caste system, no space behind it; the epos served precisely to justify and legitimise it.
Ekalavya could not grow beyond his condition. But I chose to live in an open world. Born in a society of contempt, I decided to transcend the Joycean triad of silence, exile and cunning, to put dignity as my अर्थ, aim or vital purpose. I decided to settle, to belong, to express myself in a clear, unaltered voice. Auf freiem Grund mit freiem Volke stehen. Perhaps not without the Faustian suggestion, I chose a privileged place for my home, the Netherlands, a country of bourgeois respectability and so many refugee scholars like myself. The official date of my immigration was a Monday, November 5th, 2018.
And this is where the story of the four apocalyptic riders ends.
SIEDEM LAT NIE MINIE
I lived a beautiful, quiet and fruitful life in the Netherlands, laboriously improving the quality of my scholarship. Meanwhile, the worse for Poland was yet to come. The reality was soon to supersede whatever I had mentioned in my autobiography, acquired sharper, more strident tones. The country entered a positive frenzy in the autumn 2019, in the wake of parliamentary elections. Fasting and prayer was advised to people in order to ask God for yet another victory of the governing party. The promise of undoing everything that happened in Poland from 1990 till 2015 became explicitly the clue of the political program. All those years in the European Union, my people never ceased to be poor, never travelled, never started reading. The return to 1990 that was promised to them would simply reduce that ghostly fragility of their world, a gossamer construction of crisscrossing mendacities. They expected the final collapse as a relief. Fasted and prayed to make it come.
It became a commonplace to say that the partisans of the new order sold their liberty for 500 zlotys (a monthly allowance accorded to families with children, the equivalent of little more than 100€). But in the depth of my heart I always knew it was not about any stupid 500 zlotys. They sold their liberty for something priceless, something that would have no pecuniary equivalent whatsoever, and that justified all the predictable losses to endorse: the promise of taking revenge. After all those years. Revenge on whom? Whoever. A foreigner, anyone passing in the street, a Ukrainian. And even more than that, revenge on the members of their own families, a woman, a child. Just as our great Romantic poet exhorted: "Tak! Zemsta, zemsta, zemsta na wroga / Z Bogiem i choćby mimo Boga" ("Yes! Revenge, revenge, revenge on the enemy / Either with God or in spite of God"). But the enemy was no more; aimless, our hatred turned against ourselves, became reflexive.
Certainly, what happened in Poland defies the understanding of any economist or political analyst. But think about my poor mother who never truly knew what happened with her daughter, whether she became a university professor or a prostitute. Obviously, the Polish problem lies deeper than the rule of a party; it overgrows private lives before flourishing in the public sphere. My mother lived all those years in a sort of parallel world, suspended between something one might call the objective reality (Poland in the European Union, the new generation obtaining education and opportunities) and something that still existed inside her (the inner persuasion that everything that had happened was illegitimate, acquired by sinful way, and utterly fragile, since one day all those privileges offered as if by mistake would be withdrawn). What she kept telling me all those years coincided strangely with the message of the new ruling party: that the family is the most important thing in life, that nothing truly valuable can be achieved without God. Such a self-relying, independent way as mine, obtaining things through individual effort, without waiting for them to be conceded by others - that was the sinful way, the godless way. At the same time, it was the godless way of Europe in the eyes of the Poles, a prosperous life without the background of suffering, misery, contempt; they would never put up with it. Also my mother never managed to overcome a single mental difficulty: that of accepting that life could be as easy, as happy, as satisfying as mine. Tak po prostu (quite simply); że tak można żyć (that it is possible to live like that). Without childbirths, chores, humiliations. The very simplicity of my vital choices was a constant challenge to her reason. There ought to be a punishment awaiting me, not a reward. Whenever she saw me happy, her reaction was the deepest anxiety; since the very foundations of her world were trembling; I was a disquieting factor, a disturbance, an unsolved issue in her life. Perhaps in her loving, motherly heart, she still hopes to see me return home; home standing in our case for the familiar normalcy of contempt, the white noise of pain. And more, she still regrets having failed to slap me across the face with a wet, dirty rag, strong enough to keep me in the right place. Just as her own mother did to her.
More than once, tormented by nostalgia, I thought about returning. But return to what? Home? To my family? All those years, I was keeping my mother at bay with that particularly stern face expression I was able to adopt since my childhood. But if the restitution of Poland went on, oh! Maybe my ill-acquired academic degrees might somehow be revoked, undone, made void? It was my mother's sweetest dream to see me broken, dependent on her, poor like her. The world might become such a familiar place to live, once again. We might return to the kitchen, close the door, and...
Return, thus, to my universities? Meanwhile, my track record grew to over a quarter of a thousand texts. Were I a male, people would consider me a great professor. But a lowly female like me, writing all those things? What should they think about it? A professor friend of mine, in a coffee shop, asked me - without particular malice, as I presume, rather reflecting the general opinion about my case - how I could be sure that my texts hadn't been accepted by the peer-reviewers simply because what I wrote about were things outside other people's specialised focus; it was probably the only reason why they weren't adamant about rejecting them. It was clearly on purpose, to avoid criticism, that I always tackled little known topics, Portuguese literature, African novels... The consensual opinion of my colleagues was that my works shouldn't have ever been published; it was a pyramidal mystification all over. My academic existence was a scandal, an overlooked error requiring correction. Just like my mother, they simply had no clue to answer if I was a great scholar or some despicable impostor, an academic whore. They preferred to stick safely to the latter option. My average yearly outcome, compared bibliographical item to item, was more than double and triple of that of the next best colleague in my old institute. This is why my sheer existence was a challenge to all those people who used to believe that they were doing well, the best that could be done under the circumstances. I dared break the limits, overflow the rim, and it was provoking discomfort, uneasiness. I was a living proof that, just like in the comedy of Juliusz Machulski, Kingsajz had been close at hand, all the time; an existence on quite a different scale was possible. I was seen as an excrescence, the result of a sickly, abnormal growth. Most regrettably, the Jagiellonian University did not possess, either, a suitable dirty rag to slap me across the face, at the right moment, strong enough to keep me in the right place. Or rather, they did, they really tried to hit hard with the dirtiest of their rags. And they wrote Polish intellectual history as they could, in a way becoming their stature.
Meanwhile, far, far away, quite a different intellectual history went on.