monday musing: loving michnik


I can’t pinpoint the specific day or time that I fell in love with Adam Michnik. Most likely it is something that crept up on me slowly. I liked him, I read him, I liked him, I read him some more, and then suddenly, I loved him. I finally came to see all of this just recently, thumbing through the essays and interviews collected in “Letters From Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives.”

These are the thoughts of a man who was of his time, acting in his time, and yet simultaneously able to see it all as if from on high, as if a version of himself was hovering above the other him, watching himself and reassuring himself from the late ’60s until the early ’90s as he turned into one of the preeminent dissidents of the Eastern Bloc. Anyway, something must have been guiding him, some impish little daimon sitting on his shoulder and convincing him through imprisonments by the communist government in Poland that history was on his side—or at least basic decency—although that proposition often must have seemed utterly laughable. Perhaps he now takes on a special glow precisely because he won, because he was right that a dogged emphasis simply on telling the truth, on the basic dignity of an individual human being, would rise to the top through tough times.

If he had been wrong, if he had failed, if history had broken differently, then Adam Michnik wouldn’t have the glow. On the cover of my copy of “Letters From Freedom” there’s a picture of Michnik. He has his right hand on his forehead and he’s looking out through the crook of his arm with a faraway gaze. It is the gaze of a cocky son-of-a-bitch who got it right. And he not only got it right, he got it right and refused to gloat about it very much, was constantly aware that you never get vindication until you stop looking for it and even then life goes on. That’s why he always stressed that all he really ever wanted for Poland was normalcy, boredom. “Grey is beautiful,” he said, and “democracy is a continuous articulation of particular interests, a diligent search for compromise among them, a marketplace of passions, emotions, hatreds, and hopes; it is eternal imperfection, a mixture of sinfulness, saintliness, and monkey business.”

He was tired of all the crap, all the weird and shitty historical promises that continuously clowned the 20th century. That’s the truly funny, maddening, and then eventually loveable thing about his cocky son-of-a-bitch gaze. It is the cockiness of modesty. This is a man who wrote a book in prison that concluded with a delicate quote from Julian Tuwim directed to the communists of the world: “Kiss my Ass.” He’s pretty sure he’ll get the last laugh because he’s the only one in the room who isn’t promising much, who’s just fighting for a political arrangement whereby everyone has the opportunity to make an ass of himself. That is his vision of civil society and it is inspiring in its mundanity. Let us have, Michnik says with a Polish twinkle in his eyes, a civil society whereby we can parade down the street like the fools we are and be reasonably sure that none of our neighbors are reporting that fact to the local branch of the secret police. There are loftier visions for humankind no doubt. But I’m not sure that there are any more humane.

It is that goofy beautiful vision of civil society that enabled Michnik to put his cocky son-of-a-bitch gaze on and stare down General Jaruzelski from across the historical divide when martial law was declared on December 13th, 1981. Let us not forget that those were scary times, big times. Michnik had his gaze but Jaruzelski had his huge tinted glasses that he must have smuggled out to Kim Jong-il after The Wall came down. Michnik stuck to his guns, the small and harmless guns of a civil society for normal people. He was convinced that he would eventually emerge into “the bright square of freedom” but he also worried that he and his contemporaries might “return like ghosts who hate the world, cannot understand it, and are unable to live in it.” He prayed that “we do not change from prisoners into prison guards.” After Michnik got his victory he was still happy to sit down with General Jaruzelski and have a friendly chat about those days and their disagreements. You can read the exchange. It is published as “We Can Talk Without Hatred.”

And that is why, I suppose, I have fallen in love with Mr. Michnik. It is a special category of love. Its broader genus could be labeled ‘literary love’; This is when we fall in love with those individuals who have written things that confirm for us our deepest and innermost sense of what we hope the world can be, if only in bits and patches. This kind of communication is intimate and powerful, and literary love—for its lack of physical expression—can be a swoonful and insistent kind of love. One must read ever more works from the hand of the beloved. Even the crappiest short story carries with it portentous weight and is scoured for secret messages from the writer to the one and only person who truly understands that writer, ‘Me’, whoever that ‘me’ may be. Within the species ‘literary love’ is the genus ‘dissident-writer love’. ‘Dissident-writer love’ has all the intensity of ‘literary love’ with the added bonus that the dissident writer not only pens brilliant essays, but is also wrapped in a veritable halo of personal courage and potential martyrdom made all the more enticing if, like that cruel seducer Michnik, the dissident downplays and sidesteps every attempt to crown him as hero. It certainly worked for me. I confess myself a man in love.