Joseph Conrad, a Polish writer who wrote in English and lived in England, summarized beautifully what I also feel to be the role of an artist:
“The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”
I left Poland, my native country, three years ago, and to all intents and purposes it looks like I will never live there again. For now, my adopted country is Switzerland. But when you leave your country, it always stays with you: there is a layer if your psyche which is forever connected to your homeland. I have never been the kind of expat who tries to uphold the external ways or traditions of their native land. Speaking frankly, the outer vestiges of Polishness have never been that appealing to me. You have these in every country: the chocolate and cheese of Switzerland, the pierogi of Poland, the American hamburger, etc. I have never attended the Polish Mass in Zurich, as so many other immigrants do. But when I am back in Poland, I immediately notice all the unique things that make my heart flutter. I would ride in a car and look at curbs and lawns and think that they look so unmistakably Polish. I would gaze at railway embankments and thing the same thing. I would walk along Kanonicza street in Krakow and catch a glimpse of the Wawel Castle with a lump in my throat. Yes, where you come from forever stays in your blood.
The Wawel castle as seen from Kanonicza street (via Wikipedia)
I have been thinking a lot recently what being Polish means to me. I have come up with two qualities that I associate with the deeper layer of being Polish:
- Martyrology, heroism and fight for freedom
You may have heard of the partitioning of Poland and the fact that it was wiped off of the map of Europe between the years 1795 and 1918. The first lines of the Polish national anthem go: “Poland has not perished as long as we are still alive. What the alien power has seized from us, we shall recapture with a sabre.” The alien armies of Germany and Russia invaded us again in 1939. In 1945 communism was forced upon us. But the spirits were never crushed and a string of equally hopeless and heroic uprisings were proof of that. We were the first country in Eastern Europe where communism collapsed, which was achieved by a gentle revolution without the unnecessary bloodshed.
On the negative side, victimhood and the feeling of being wronged is still strong, especially among the nationalist right wingers. Forgetting and letting go is something they find extremely difficult.
2. Cultural wars
We are and always have been a deeply divided society. We are always on the barricades fighting each other. To be honest, one of the reasons why I found Switzerland so appealing is that it is a civilized culture of consensus. Disagreements are welcome because they fuel dialogue and compromise. But we, the Poles, are always extremely passionate when we defend our cause. Right now in my home country, there is a cultural war between the progressive, tolerant, open-minded, feminist, pro-gay group and their opposite conservative Catholic, often misogynistic, homophobic or anti-Semitic opposing side. Yes, I realize I am making a crude distinction for the sake of simplicity and that I am clearly showing who I side with. The language of civilized dialogue is completely lost between the two sides of the barricade.
March of Equality, Krakow
I realize that similar cultural wars are going on in many places in the world. Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish reporter, journalist and traveler, saw the encounter with the Other as the most important challenge for the 21st century. The idea of Otherness comes from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Through a loving encounter with the Other, we realize we all have a fragment of otherness in ourselves. Kapuscinski wrote about the need to overcome the warlike chaos and tumult and opening ourselves to the meeting of the Other’s distinct uniqueness. Seeking dialogue and understanding in relation to the Other was also a theme of Martin Buber’s beautiful book I and Thou, in which he wrote:
“Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other….
Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.”
All of these thoughts have been coming to me ever since the planet Mars began its retrograde movement in Libra. There are many themes associated with the planet of war going backwards in the sign of peace, diplomacy and partnership. I have been thinking how the warlike mentality still feeds the minds of those living in the eastern part of Europe. Peace comes more easily in a country which has never known war (I am speaking of Switzerland). In my final words I feel I need to mention Ukraine with the central symbolism of the Maidan, i.e. the central square in Kiev:
“What does it mean to come to the Maidan? The square is located close to some of the major buildings of government, and is now a traditional site of protest. Interestingly, the word ‘maidan’ exists in Ukrainian but not in Russian, but even people speaking Russian use it because of its special implications. In origin it is just the Arabic word for ‘square,’ a public place. But a ‘maidan’ now means in Ukrainian what the Greek word ‘agora’ means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society.”
Timothy Snyder, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014
Perhaps with Mars going retrograde in Libra, we should go back to the ancient idea of Agora as a place where Otherness was welcome and embraced in fruitful debate.
The Agora in Athens