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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Krzysztof Koehler

Carrying the burden of freedom

Some Thoughts on Polish Literature After Ten Years of Political Freedom.

Although this essay is about literature during the first ten years of Polish independence, we need to review some basic facts about literature created during the Communist Era. Paradoxically, the worst situation created the best literature. Polish writers responded to the challenges of that difficult political period by creating important and stimulating art, which in some mysterious way transformed unfavorable conditions of life – with curtailed political and intellectual freedom – into a very interesting and sound discourse on human dignity. They were able to use different artistic languages, from the ironic to the pathetic, from the grotesque to the realistic and documentary. And in all of these artistic languages they asked some fundamental and essential questions about humanity. As we see it now, they took advantage of the historical situation or, to paraphrase Vaclav Havel, they transformed powerlessness into philosophical, artistic, and moral power.

The impact of the artistic answer to Soviet colonization and Communist oppression was so overwhelming that in the mid 1980s some Central European artists – like Vaclav Havel, Georgy Gomory, Milan Kundera, Adam Zagajewski and others – proclaimed that the heart of European culture moved from the West (Paris, London, Frankfurt) to the center of the Old Continent (Warsaw, Prague and Budapest). Western culture – according to their assumption – became a “Waste Land”, a culture that lost its identity, or according to its most ardent supporters, a culture that betrayed its own heritage. According to the founders of the Myth of The Central Europe, genuine European culture, defined in post-Enlightenment rationalistic terms as rational, skeptical, progressive and open, could be found in the hearts, minds and works of art of Central Europeans.

Notwithstanding the rhetorical, contextual, and illusory character of this idea (or myth) it was very popular not only among refugees in Paris (Zeszyty Literackie,Cahiers Litteraires) but also among intellectuals in Poland who imagined it in the 1980s as a Mitteleuropa – the unconscious reincarnation of colonialist German ideology (Andrzej Kusniewicz), or as the idea of “Kresy” – the eastern borderland of Respublica Polona with the fashionable mixture of denominations, languages, races and nationalities. Central to it was the division between the American culture of consumption and wasted Western culture and the real European and still vivid culture of Central Europe. This state of consciousness formed Polish and Central European thoughts and ideas, and shaped the psychological mixture of pride, superiority and inferiority complexes toward the West. It could be assumed, with some malice that we sublimed our economical and civilization backwardness into a cultural superiority. Ultimately, this way of thinking could find verification in facts: Central European culture offered much more serious and solemn discourse about humanity than post-modern entertaining culture of the West.

Such was the cultural, Central European context of our political freedom in 1989.


The next important fact about Polish culture is that for almost two centuries it was created in a unique historical situation. The loss of Poland's independence influenced not only political and historical facts of life, but also Polish arts, including the audience's expectations and the artist's self-understanding. From the 19th century, socially committed art was regarded as one more weapon against political oppression. Polish art – from the Romantic poets, through Henryk Sienkiewicz to the poetry and prose of the Martial Law in the 1980s – was written “to raise the nation's spirit.” For almost two centuries, this was the most important category used to evaluate Polish art. The limitations of such approach are two-fold. Some artists considered their patriotic obligations so important that they offered their writings to the social and national service (Adam Mickiewicz), while others spent their artistic careers in the futile struggle against such deeply imbedded public expectations.

It can be said metaphorically, that while raising its artists to unparalleled heights by giving them a title of a prophet or vates (wieszcz, bard), the Polish audience also imprisoned them in a cage of predictable expectations and patriotic obligations. Art was treated as a duty, as a kind of social service, a patriotic manifestation. This fact explains the obscurity of the best Polish works of art. Someone who has been obliged to explain the meaning of the symbols in The Wedding by Wyspianski or in The Forefathers Eve by Mickiewicz to, let's say, an American reader, will understand what I mean.

Eventually, this type of oppressive discourse provoked an opposite one: the discourse of repulsion or rebellion against the above mentioned pattern, but ultimately, we are really talking about two sides of the same coin. Only a few artists – like Witold Gombrowicz and who else? – were able to transform this complicated issue into an important and rather fundamental philosophical discourse. Of course, we can name some contemporary artists, like Zbigniew Herbert, who were able to escape from this paradigm. But in the case of Herbert he still played a role of the most important poet of the nation's struggle for independence. How Herbert managed to balance his artistic independence and his social and political role is a secret of his great talent.

However we view this problem, such was the internal situation on the threshold of Polish political freedom in 1989.


The year 1990 brought new expectations induced by the new historical situation and many debuts of the artists of the young generation, mostly those connected with the quarterly magazine bruLion (founded in 1986). The situation of this generation deserves some attention. At the end of the 1980s we witnessed a serious intellectual discussion whose subject was closely connected with a new political context. In one of her essays, the influential scholar Maria Janion proclaimed “the end of the romantic paradigm”in Polish culture. Her point was that at the turn of the century we experienced the end of a Romantic era, which she contrasted to the challenges of a post-modern world and therefore located her view in a much broader perspective then a Polish historico-political one. Shifting her remarks from cultural observation to the status of literature she proclaimed “the end of romantic obligations” of Polish literature (and arts). Our art, no longer constrained by Romanticism, would have to face the challenges of postmodernism and as soon as the artists acknowledged their new situation, their art would serve the new expectations of a post-modern audience.

In spite of this determinist vision of art (one has to remember that Maria Janion is a former Marxist thinker who never renounced historical determinism), her thesis provoked an important discussion about the future of Polish literature and the arts in the new historical context. The most significant expression of the new state of mind we can find in the articles as well as in the tables of contents of the above mentioned bruLion, the magazine that became the intellectual cradle of the new generation.

bruLion was conceived as an open publication, and its self-proclaimed aim and role was creative penetration of all the areas of reality. bruLion presented various viewpoints on the subject of literature, culture, counterculture, ecology, feminism, politics, etc. Its interests included a rather full spectrum of opinions about the world. From its very beginning bruLion was “a pluralistic publication, unconventional and shocking for traditionalists” – as we can read in the bruLion's manifesto. Another self-description explains how the editors understood this unconventional and shocking character of the magazine. They proclaimed, “we have given up on promoting any particular way of life and thinking. Of our own free will (and in our own interest) we are trying to present those positions which are most difficult to define, for it is precisely in the confrontation with the extremes of behavior that the complexity of the relationship between man and the world is revealed most clearly.”1

bruLion's authors and editors focused their attacks on the traditional, Romantic paradigm of the artist's obligation towards society. But they also disposed of the prevalent moralistic attitudes of the independent/dissident intellectual circles in Poland and accused them of hypocrisy and self-limitation in a series of literary scandals and intellectual provocations. For instance, one of the issues of bruLion featured pornography; another one launched fierce attacks on the system of awarding Solidarity writers; in the next the reader could read some anti-Semitic pieces of Ferdinand Celine and Ezra Pound's radio speeches from WWII, and in the following issue Heinrich Himmler's speeches, which revealed “The esoteric source of Nazism.”

So when the first volumes of bruLion's poets appeared on the market, they were greeted with great interest from the critics as well as the public. The well-known and greatly respected critic Jan Blonski compared the events of 1989 to those of 1918, and in 1991 bruLion triumphantly announced, as Pawel Dunin Wasowicz stated in his essay, the arrival of the “nowi skamandryci” (the new Skamandrites)2. What Prof. Blonski and bruLion's editors had in mind were the historical parallelisms and the famous phrase from Lechon's poem, “Herostrates”: “wiosna niechaj wiosne nie Polske zobacze” (“Let me see Spring as Spring and not as Poland”). We know what kind of spring the Skamandrities saw. What kind of spring did the young poets from a new Poland see3?

The new Polish poetry started from accusations. In a famous and in fact programmatic poem (“To Jan Polkowski”), Marcin Swietlicki labeled the poetry of the 1980s “the poetry of slaves”, and demanded:

It's time to shut the little cardboard doors and open a window,
to open a window and get some air in this room.4

The poetry of the previous generation was accused of idealism, lack of realism, and so called – “culturalism.” In one of the stanzas, Swietlicki presented an ironic description of the romantic discourse (with some allusions to the poets of the Martial Law and the poetic fashion of those years):

Instead of saying: I have a toothache, I'm
hungry, I'm lonely, both of us, four of
us, our whole street – they say quietly: Wanda
Wasilewska, Cyprian Kamil Norwid,
Jozef Pilsudski, the Ukraine, Lithuania,
Thomas Mann, the Bible, and at the end a little something
In Yiddish.

Already in the second half of 1980s, young Polish poets were desperately looking for a new poetic language that could express their anti-romantic sentiments. They received strong support from the 1986 issue of the monthly “Literatura na swiecie,” which published some essays and translations of American poets, to mention John Ashberry, Frank O'Hara and others. Theirs was the language that Polish poets needed: personal, focused on individual experience, consciously rejecting anything other than issues of self-interest. The opposition to any particular obligation of literature and the focus on privacy – this was the timbre of the new voice of Polish poetry, but characteristically it was not an original voice. As I have already mentioned, it was an American poetic idiom (or New York diction) transplanted to the Polish ground. This situation only confirms the well-known thesis about the imported character of Polish cultural revolutions, but such development was compatible with the pro-American orientation of the Poles in the first half of the 1990s.

We can trace this process of “Americanization” of the Polish mind on different levels of everyday life: from language (business vocabulary, including the anecdotal “maly small business”), through the business-oriented ideology (competition, market, commercial strategies), to social behavior (obligatory pop-corn in movie theaters, celebration of Halloween and Valentine's Day). But this was the new voice of a new Poland. Now, after ten years, we can ask questions about the value and importance of this incursion.

When in his first collection of poetry (1990) Marcin Swietlicki proclaimed proudly, “Nothing about me is written in the Constitution,” the critics praised him for his individualism and novelty. But several years later it becomes evident that the value of this new poetry was rather contextual. It consisted mostly of rhetorical gestures provoked by the historical situation. As some critics in the late 1990s observed, it became evident that the new poetry could not create a “great work of art.” There are at least two reasons for this impossibility: ex definitione, it is a very difficult task, or even, I dare to say, unfeasible task, to create great art from a “toothache”; ex exspectatione, in the post-romantic era poetry (arts) lost its position that was still natural for the Romantics.

In free Poland, the arts share their characteristics with the arts in other democratic countries, where the market theory and practice are an important factor of cultural life. The young poets, at least some of them, understood that in the new situation self-promotion is the key to the success and tried to focus the attention of the audience on themselves. They decided to promote themselves in the pop-culture star category (casus Marcin Swietlicki, Jacek Podsiadlo, poets from Slask); the rest locked themselves up in poetic ghettos all over Poland. As a result, we have different “scenes” in new poetry: for example the Silesian poets, poets from Forum Legnica, poets associated with Warsaw Writers Meeting, etc., but no poets who compare with the artistic format of Milosz, Rozewicz, Herbert or Szymborska.


The situation in prose is much more complicated. The above-mentioned rhetorical strategies of the new poets were not so evident in prose. As far as I understand this situation, the context of the new Polish prose was more political than social, so we need to discuss Polish prose in the context of most important political and ideological discussion in Poland of the 1990s.

In a sweeping generalization, which I hope is justified by the length of this essay, we can assert that the discussion about the end of the romantic paradigm in Polish culture strengthened the ironic discourse in our cultural life. What I understand by the “ironic discourse” differs from such understanding of irony as was applied (by Stanislaw Baranczak for instance) to Zbigniew Herbert's poetry and prose. Herbert directed his irony – briefly speaking – against the hero of his art in order to protect him from “unnecessary pride”5. The artists of the 1990s directed the ironic discourse against themselves. The usual subjects of their ironic discourse were traditions, heritage, codes of values, etc. Witold Gombrowicz's project for the Polish intelligentsia, understood as “a critical machine,” but also including in this critical thinking self-criticism, was simplified into black and white categories: white was of course the critical mind, black – everything, which was criticized by it.

The beginning of the 1990s witnessed the great wave of such thinking. The ironic attitude of the most fashionable writers of this era, including Jerzy Pilch, Manuela Gretkowska, and others, created a very special category of reading. The proposed object of the reader's delight (according to the writers of ironic discourse) was not their craft or skill in describing and interpreting the world, but their courage and boldness in attacking commonly acknowledged values. It is not difficult to see how this pattern of thought afflicted different genres of art at the time.

This discourse treated every kind of faithfulness to traditional values as a public menace. The best example of this attitude were the ideological accusations against Zbigniew Herbert and his support for the idea of lustration, which was launched under a significant title in a daily newspaper, “Mr. Cogito Has Problems with Democracy.” The best literary example of this process is the career of Andrzej Stasiuk, one of the most prominent writers of the young generation. His first collection of short stories, The Walls of Hebron, published in 1992, was a masterpiece of prison literature with its brutal, and even scandalizing, but sincere and honest description of prison reality. Objectivity and literary skills established Stasiuk's position as one of the most talented and interesting writers of the 1990s. But his next novel, the highly recommended and warmly expected The White Raven, published in 1995, became a good example of how the writer uses his talent to satisfy the projected expectations of his readers and the critics. The main characters in this novel are portrayed in a new fashion, in a gesture of rejection (and Polish culture in the first half of the 1990s consisted mostly of such gestures of rejection), exemplified in this crucial dialogue:

“What were you doing in 1980?”
“I was drinking.”
“And in 1981?”
“I was drinking too.”6

This model of discourse was not limited to literature, but was also present in other art forms. In his provocative movie Psy (“The Pigs”), Wladyslaw Pasikowski makes the former Communist police officers carrying a drunken friend sing one of the most dramatic songs from the times of anti-communist riots in Gdansk. We can observe similar trends in the fine arts (Katarzyna Kozyra) and in the theater (the so called “mlodzi-dzicy” – “young and wild” directors) where the gestures of provocation and the manifestation of an ironic attitude replaced intellectually sound considerations and dialogue.

It looks as if in the first half of the 1990s in Poland we experienced a kind of “freedom-shock” and were stupefied by the unlimited possibilities that opened up before us after 50 years of Communist rule. As one of my students said, when we were discussing this issue during a class at the University of Illinois at Chicago, maybe we could understand this situation using a metaphor of a dog, which after having been kept on a leash for a long time, runs in different directions when released, and enjoys the real essence of freedom.


Are there any reasons for despair, as many traditionalists and conservatives believe? I do not see any reasons for despair. Quite the contrary, during the first ten years of freedom we witnessed the failure of the romantic myth proclaiming special obligations of Polish culture, and of the myth promoting the special status of Central European art. As a consequence, it became evident that in a normal historical situation our art lost its special status, which – as we mistakenly thought – was our natural endowment, but we also faced the failure of the culture of gestures. For some writers – like Jerzy Pilch, Andrzej Stasiuk, and some others – ironic discourse was already an inescapable childhood illness. But there are other interesting currents in Polish literature: in prose one of these is described by the critics as a current of a “mythic homeland”7 (Olga Tokarczuk, Stefan Chwin, Magdalena Tulli); in poetry, there are poets in their forties who try to restore “the prestige of greatness (and not just that of skillfulness) so that the writer and the reader can demand and expect something from each other and from themselves”(Piotr Sliwinski)8.

But most of all we are witnessing a fascinating and intriguing process of the formation of public discourse in Poland. It is still not perfect, but I hope that we have already passed from the culture of feuilleton (to use Ryszard Legutko's term) to the culture of dialogue. We tested this process on our own biographies and intellectual involvement, and we can prove its importance with facts. Ironic discourse caused a serious revival in the conservative circles of Polish intellectuals. Their answer to this challenge was both institutional and formative. In the middle of the 1990s, the quarterly Fronda, the bimonthly Arcana, the weekly Nowe Panstwo took shape. The cultural revival of conservative circles promoted some interesting names among the new generation of philosophers and thinkers, such as Pawel Lisicki, Cezary Michalski, Grzegorz Gorny, Andrzej Nowak, and others.

The new conservatism was able to create a new language and release it from 19th century forms and terms. This language is less nationalistic and more philosophical and religious, but most of all, more flexible in response to the new situation and challenges of the post-modern era. The foundation of public discourse was indebted to the effects of this conservative revival. Its formation happened amidst rather fierce discussions and quarrels, which proved particularly disappointing to those who imagined public discourse as a more peaceful and subdued process. But after the first decade of our independence we can say that, although not perfect or ideal, we enjoy the most important achievement of the democratic system: the free market of ideas.

These ten years strengthened us. We are more realistic, less dreamy. We recognize our place among other European cultures. And, as one of the leading critics of the new generation put it, when he was asked to diagnose the situation in Polish literature in “bad-good” categories: “So what is to be: worse or better? Of course, it's simply normal <...> there's a number of younger authors who can no longer be expelled from the history of Polish literature, there's a diversity of poetics and points of view; and readers, while not numerous, do exist...” (Sliwinski)9.

I think it is not the worst situation. And it also presents a real challenge to writers in Poland. We are obliged to create good art because there are no historical or political excuses to justify our work. We can compete and we are not fighting a losing battle; we can still transform our experience into sound art.

But have we sufficient strength in us?


  1. This manifesto is quoted here from Pawel Dunin Wasowicz, bruLion, transl.by Elzbieta Kotkowska-Atkinson, Chicago Review, vol. 46, no. 3-4, 2000, p. 368
  2. ibid., p. 370
  3. This in the paraphrase the title of Donald Pirie's Anthology of Polish poetry, Young Poets from a New Poland, London Forest Book 1993
  4. This poem is quoted here in William Martin's translation from Chicago Review, op. cit., p. 278
  5. See Herbert's poem “Envoy of Mr. Cogito.
  6. I quote this dialogue in my translation but one can compare it with an English translation of this Stasiuk's novel.
  7. See Przemyslaw Czaplinski, “The “Mythic Homeland” in Contemporary Polish Prose,“ transl. By Karen Underhill and Tomasz Tabako, Chicago Review, op. cit., p. 357-365
  8. Piotr Sliwinski, Are Things Worse Or is this Normal? Polish Poetry in the 1990s., transl. by W. Martin and Tomasz Tabako, Chicago Review, op. cit., p. 336
  9. ibid., p. 343
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