“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.