theory of culture

How success kills the goose

How success kills the goose!

Kto słucha nie błądzi was for many months my favorite program on Polish Radio (the last undumbed-down cultural radio on earth). It was also proof that it is possible to talk intelligently about quality in art – in this case, recordings of classical music.

The format was very good: three musicologists with engaging personalities and pleasant voices discussed six different recordings of a single work of music “blind” — i. e. not knowing who the performers were — and choose the best.  The program was run on a very high level — this was professionals talking to one another, talking like professionals (“talking shop”) and not minding that someone listening might not know some terms.  It’s such a wonderful rarity to hear a program which is not aimed at the 10th grade and below (such programs don’t seem to be produced anymore) — I counted the days between the programs and on occasion cancelled a date in order to hear it.

Unsurprisingly, the speakers’ choices usually coincided with mine. The revelation of the performers at the end of the program also rarely surprised: some performers really are predictably head-and-shoulders above the rest (Gould, Richter, Abbado, Bernstein); but it was pleasant to discover surprising facts, such as that Dudamel actually can conduct (when he’s not conducting a youth orchestra), that Shostakovich played his 2nd Piano Concerto wrong – but better than the score, etc.); and above all it was a lesson in listening: I have been listening to classical music almost “professionally” for forty years now, so it’s no surprise I can hear most of what the musicologists can; but not all – and to learn what they heard and I did not was fascinating.

For an aesthetictist, the program was also a goldmine of observations in the matter of taste: it illustrated that the opinions of those in the business (all participants are musicians and musicologists) are far less divergent than those of the clueless general population (whose preferences being random mean nothing), but that they too face the barrier of personal taste. Yet, at that level of sophistication, the barrier is not a barrier: one cannot help but respects an educated divergent taste.

Like me, the public probably liked to hear what kinds of small details, undetectable to their untrained ears, the musicologists heard in the recordings and why they liked them (or not) — and it grew and grew by the week. But the public liking was the program’s undoing: the organizers – classical radio stations are so happy to have a runaway hit – decided to make it a program with live audience in the studio — and thereby… killed it. The participants began to play to the galleries — unnecessarily showing off their erudition, making pointless jokes and, when they had nothing to say, making things up — lying, to call a spade a spade — as if debates of art and music needed any more lies and fabrication.

(The aestheticist’s lesson here is that taste and perception can be discussed on a very high level but probably not in groups larger than three).

This — the perversion of the author/performer (in this case, the musicologists) is one way in which success kills a good program; the uncalled-for broadening of the audience is another.  A Japanese stand-up comedian whose program I once sponsored on Japanese TV told me he stopped enjoying the work the moment his ratings went over 5%. “Suddenly, he said, I discovered that my audience didn’t get my jokes”. His jokes were intelligent and required both wit and lots of erudition to get — the qualified audience size was naturally limited. But as the show became more popular, it began to struggle to reach its new audience, and after some attempts at educating the audience first and then at dumbing-down the content, the host asked us to take him off the air.

Dear Kto słucha nie błądzi : for your own good, today I won’t be tuning in this Sunday.

Literature as a fight against vertical barbarian invasions: Literature in the Polish mind

“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”

Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.


There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.

In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.

The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.


Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.

Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.

Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.

This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.