Disconnecting Acts


Efrain Kristal and Arne De Boever interview Zygmunt Bauman in The LA Review of Books (in two parts):

ARNE DE BOEVER / EFRAIN KRISTAL: Did your military experiences as a young man — particularly those involving the liberation of your native Poland in World War II — have a bearing on your earliest ideas when you became a professor of sociology at the University of Warsaw?

ZYGMUNT BAUMAN: They must have, mustn’t they? How could it be otherwise? Be they military or civilian, life experiences cannot but imprint themselves — the more heavily the more acute they are — on life’s trajectory, on the way we perceive the world, respond to it and pick the paths to walk through it. They combine into a matrix of which one’s life’s itinerary is one of the possible permutations. The point, though, is that they do their work silently, stealthily so to speak, and surreptitiously — by prodding rather than spurring, and through sets of options they circumscribe rather than through conscious, deliberate choices. Stanisław Lem, the great Polish storyteller as well as scientist, tried once, not entirely tongue in cheek, to compose an inventory of accidents leading to the birth of the person called “Stanisław Lem,” and then calculate that birth’s probability. He found that scientifically speaking his existence was well nigh impossible (though probability of other people’s births — scoring no better than his — was also infinitely close to zero). And so a word of warning is in order: retrospectively reconstructing causes and motives of choices carries a danger of imputing structure to a flow, and logic — even predetermination — to what was in fact a series of faits accomplis poorly if at all reflected upon at the time of their happening. Contrary to the popular phrase, “hindsight” and “benefit” do not always come in pairs — particularly in autobiographic undertakings.

I recall here these mundane and rather trivial truths to warn you that what I am going to say in reply to your question needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

From early childhood I was enthused with physics and cosmology and intended to devote my life to their study. Perhaps I would’ve tried to follow that intention if not for the vivid exposition of the human potential of inhumanity: the ugly monstrosity of war, of evil let loose, of the horror of continuously bombarded roads crowded with refugees, of the desperate yet vain attempts to escape the advancing Nazi troops leading ultimately to the calamity of exile which was, as I remember being then aware, also the lifesaving marvel — all coming in quick succession. Then the point-blank exposure to the vagabond’s experience of many and different ways of being human — of a variegated patchwork of many and diverse modes of life, none of which appeared to be blameless and attractive enough to be uncritically, wholeheartedly embraced.

More here. Part two here.