Monday Musing: Being Polish

I’ve decided to become Polish. This will be slightly easier for me than for some because I happen to be almost completely Polish on my mother’s side. But only slightly easier. The Polishness of my Polishness never got going. The things that happen to national identities in the American experience happened to my Poles. The Polishness got filtered out over the years, a couple of generations. It is only a name now, a word that points to origins that stopped explaining things. Calling myself Polish explains almost nothing about me.

But I’ve decided to make it explain something. There are some names associated with this decision. One of them is Czeslaw Milosz, another is Adam Zagajewski. And what about Gombrowicz and more recently Adam Michnik? There is also Ryszard Kapuscinski. There are others; names I’m still discovering and exhuming from the 20th century. In a way, the 20th century is a Polish century. That is if history should sometimes be written by the losers. And probably it sometimes should. Not that Polish hands aren’t stained with the blood of others and stigmitized by the same horrors that marked so many during that terrible century just passed. But Polish Letters, the Polish essay, is profoundly marked by that tragic sense of history that defines the Central and Eastern European mindset that watched, mostly helplessly as Nazism handed them off to the Soviets.

The Polish essay is about individual acts of resistance against the eradication of the mind. Sometimes these essays are conservative, sometimes they are grasping for something new. Sometimes they feel profoundly European, like faded scraps of parchment, testaments to a world that was destroyed by the very hands that had built it. Milosz feels that way most of the time, like a character from one of Sebald’s novels, like a memory waiting to dissapear. Milosz is a million miles away, talking about his Polishness in ways that don’t even completely make sense. And he is so good that he doesn’t have to care. He writes:

My work for foreigners has been of a practical, even pedagogic nature–I do not believe in the possibility of communing outside a shared language, a shared history–while my work in Polish has been addressed to readers transcending a specific time and place, otherwise known as ‘writing for the Muses’.

But Milosz too was an exile and he had to take his Polish with him. Polish essay writing always has some aspect of exile mentality. The Polish 20th century is about the tenuousness and transmutability of physical space. And it is about the power of mental space in the face of that fragility. Zagajewski writes about Gombrowicz:

And yet, despite all his theories, polemics, and quasi-philosophical and anthropological lectures, it is not in the sphere of ideas that we should seek his greatness, but deeper, in a more elementary realm. Through all of his disputes and debates, Gombrowicz, a restless spirit provoked by time, by modernism and recent history, expresses himself, and speaks—not straightforwardly, which is precisely what is so engaging—about himself, his adventures, his sufferings; about pain and about joy. He is like an Everyman for our time; he is our fellow, tormented not only by sickness, emigration, poverty, and loneliness, but also by ideas.

That is exile writing too. It’s tormented but it has found some strength in that condition. The exile in the Polish essay isn’t a victim. The Polish essay bitches and moans but then laughs about it. The Polish essay can always draw on totalitarian humor, the blackest and often most painfully humorous of humors.

I think that the exiled fragments of experience that have come down to us from the 20th century in the Polish essay are something to identify with as ruins. In these ruins are the best, if broken, parts of the human mental landscape. That is the kind of Polish I’ve decided to try and be.