When Romanticism is no Longer the National Avante-Garde

When Romanticism is no Longer the National Avante-Garde

Piotr Parlej

Piotr Parlej surveys contemporary Polish poetry

In their call for papers for this issue of ebr the editors have written about the realities of postmodernism in the culture of the West and of the East: “In America, it is all about turning the Nietzschean ‘prisonhouse of language’ into the Disneyfied playhouse of language, whereas in Eastern Europe everything’s become ‘a playhouse of (hi)stories’: serious issues of repression, dictatorship, and manipulation are being laughed at, played with, and turned into a hilarious travesty, while national histories are being told, retold, lied about, and twisted into postmodernist plots and discourses.”

The juxtaposition discloses a difference within the play of similarities. In the West, the discourses of hyperconsumerism and postindustrial virtual economies swallow the reality of perception, and the comfort of social existence is spirited away into phantasmagorias of advertised reference. In the East, by contrast, before the Wall came down, social reality was pressed in the service of grand national narratives of fall and redemption, and individual perspective was sacrificed at the altar of patriotic soul-searching. Thus, the West has let its lyrical tenor become indistinguishable from slippery simulacra, while the East has allowed its lyricism - although not without a fight - to be appropriated by historical narratives (the diaries of Andrzej Kijowski, Kazimierz Brandys, and Jan Lechon are a testimony of such a tradeoff). However, the entrance of postmodernism - digested and used up by the West - into Eastern Europe, can well compound the East’s losses.

Not that there is anything wrong with the advent of postmodernism in Eastern Europe - postmodernism can bring about the first major qualitative change in Polish poetry since the modernist avant-garde Mloda Polska (Young Poland) from the beginning of this century. This is to say that, its refreshing diversity notwithstanding, modern Polish poetry has existed as a unified voice, under the uniform umbrella of poetic expression, poetic mission, and poetic authority. Recognition of this status quo came in 1980 with the Nobel Prize for Czeslaw Milosz - currently the definer of poetics, the arbiter of Polish poetry’s history, and this medium’s moral authority. All these jurisdictions are amply practiced in “The Poetic Treatise” and “The Moral Treatise,” written at the beginning of the grand era now coming to its close (1947-1956). We see the Lithuanian/Polish poet in French exile steering among the traps of the sophistries of dialectical materialism and Sartrean existentialism, between the revolting vulgarity of socrealism and the scandalous incomprehensibility of each successive (and sometimes undistinguished) avant-garde, and between resigned stoicism and naïve revolutionary fervor. Against this destructive tide, he seeks to anchor himself in the grand French tradition, not, however, that of the hermetic Mallarme but of the compatriotic Apollinaire. As for religion, he believes in private mysticism, a hidden meaning of the world, the primitive ancestral spirits of the Lithuanian forest, and the grand transcendence of Catholicism’s high ritual. He sees through the communist charade, but cannot quite break with the machine of dialectical inversions, enchanted by its potential, as ironic device, to be the forceful and fertile fountain of poetic magic.

The era of this poetic thinking, determined by the parameters of national and ethical prerogatives and guided by the highly individual sense of ethical imponderabilia, is now coming to a close. The magnitude, the sudden advent, and the multiple threats of this upheaval would seem to indicate that the transition to a new, collectively recognizable, lyrical voice in Poland might take longer, and be more painful, than the transition to market economy.

The recently awarded second Nobel Prize for Polish poetry (Wislawa Szymborska, 1996) closes symbolically, but also ironically, this chapter, or, to be more emphatic, this epoch, of Polish poetry as collective experience. Szymborska’s case is paradigmatic of the inner contradictions of postwar Polish poetry. Initially a young lyrical poet, she let herself be swept away by the high tide of Stalinist socrealism, only to come to her senses and spend the rest of her life atoning for this lapse in ever more refined, private, self-mocking studies of ever smaller units of emotion and feeling. Szymborska’s poetry encapsulates the trajectory of Polish poetry: always concerned with universals, it only hesitates about whether it should side with nominalism or realism; in the high style of Polish poetry, the cause is one, only the camp must to be chosen. The progression in this apprenticeship is from error to repentance to redemption. (Formerly, however, redemption, although individual, was always announced in the public square for collective moral uplift. Now, the gained wisdom will probably be reinvested in the individual.)

The Prodigal Son (or Daughter) scenario, played in either direction of the political and aesthetic spectrum (deliberately simplified for the sake of generalization and maximum possible reach), characterizes the major Polish poets of this era. It characterizes the path of Zbigniew Herbert, who lives in the shadow of the survivor complex (the only significant poet left standing after the butchery of the Warsaw Uprising); it characterizes the path of Adam Zagajewski, who first toyed with “language poetry” to ridicule the party line, only to assume the high tone of a mature lyricist; and it characterizes the path of Milosz himself, who abandoned his early avant-garde affiliations to fashion on a national scale the edifice of didactic poetics for a nation of poet-citizens. Now, if it wants to duplicate the unquestionable achievements of the last fifty years, Polish poetry will have to wait for the formation of an entirely new society; the other possibility, a more likely one given the strong Westward trend, is the emergence of a new poetry free of the conceptual constraints of its one-time luminaries.

This encounter of modern Polish poetry with advanced postmodernism - a consequence, let us reiterate, of the collapse of communism - reveals telling regularities and poses daunting challenges. In the time before the Wall, the West was for Eastern Europe a mythological hearsay, a word-of-mouth territory, positively distorted by the tales of a better place needed to feed the hope. Cultural contacts were carried out according to a certain formula (different depending on who you talk to). Now, with the autobahns wide open, East meets West, in an unobstructed encounter with postmodernity as a cultural, perhaps a pop-cultural twilight of the latter. This fast-forward leap accounts for the high stakes of the present transformation.

One consequence is that the massive decline of modernity that took place in the West after 1945 has been missed in the East. Instead, the Easterners managed to behave well, in moral opposition to totalitarian regimes. In this, they remained quite unaware of subversive discourses afoot in the West that are as fluid as the detested dialectical materialism of politburo newspeak. Polish poetry reflected this high moral stance, and, with a few exceptions, resisted the bold innovations.

What has been playing itself out in this incommunicado existence, on a level at the same time less obvious and yet plainly evident, is a certain double history of Europe, always seen as “natural” in the West, and always as “painful” in the East. The East has always claimed, in its bid for European legitimacy, that it derives from the Western traditions, Christian, and, before that, Roman and Greek. It further claimed that the totalitarian episode in the East has served to illustrate, among other things, the East’s loyalty to this tradition despite the totalitarian oppression, as opposed to the betrayal of this loyalty in the West (such as moral decay, the capitulation of democracy in the case of Hitler, the degeneration of the arts, the withering of morally responsible, humanist intellectual life - existentialism, poststructuralism, etc.).

Zbigniew Herbert’s “Barbarzynca w ogrodzie” (“The Barbarian in the Garden”) is such a personal travelogue of a self-deprecating educated Easterner on a pilgrimage through Western Europe’s treasures. As Herbert stops to appreciate a gothic cathedral, to muse upon a historical site, to study a monument or a tomb, he establishes - but also suffers from - a complex tension between his nation’s Mediterranean aspirations and the proper pride of the Mediterranean. Herbert’s barbarian pilgrim shrewdly implies that he, coming from the West’s hinterland, can better see, can indeed notice, the treasures now trampled by the forgetful and ungrateful heirs of the grand tradition.

Other Polish poets of the post-World War II generation - at least those who, like Milosz, enjoy recognition in Poland’s poetic landscape - exemplify this complex, at least double, movement as well. First, they put the West to shame, and, second, they legitimize this high moral ground with personal treatises, cautious endorsements of dialectical truth, hymns to classicist aesthetics, and soul-searching (if short) tracts on national and individual conscience.

This dynamics might help explain the popularity and the hold of the top Polish poets after 1945. Predictably anti-Communist, classicist, Mediterranean, cerebral, painfully lyrical - Herbert and, to an extent, Zagajewski perfected and came to represent the prescribed genre and ethos controlled by a lyrical irony always available for collective application, should the situation arise (for example, the symptomatic title of Zagajewski’s essays “Solidarnosc i samotnosc,” “Solidarity and solitude”).

Curiously, however, the work of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Milosz has always aspired to insert this national agenda within a broad international aesthetic context - including the physical act of emigration, a systematic gesture that testifies to the authors’ admission that Polish culture must confront, and be measured by, Western culture. It is this “filter” that now so visibly stares Poland in the eyes; and it has always been a structural component in Poland’s artistic enterprise, although heavily qualified and restricted. On the one hand, Polish poetry saw itself as informed by the best ingredients of the Western aesthetic world; on the other hand, it usurped the torch for itself after the much-protested collapse of the (aesthetic) Empire. Now the threshold has materialized, and it threatens with a concrete challenge: it gives Polish poetry an opportunity to deliver the goods, but at the same time it puts its claims of succession to a rigorous test.

The exact description of this structural and historical threshold may be debatable, but an acknowledgment of some such critical point facing Polish poetry now must be made. This threshold is generational, political (or rather geo-political), social, and certainly, in terms of the trade itself, technical and formal. The alliance of the poets and the poetics of the oppressed-the proximity of the leading Polish poets to the poetics of Seamus Heaney and Joseph Brodsky - illustrates the historical context in which these factors are aligned. This ethos is characterized by personal sensitivity, high lyricism, vatic pretension, and obsession with empirical history. This obsession, which functions as therapeutic fantasy of revisiting the causes of the trauma, reduces the concept of history to a literality of event that deprives poetry of its poietic power.

Determined and resigned as they are to carry and interpret the burden of history for their compatriots and contemporaries, these poets may well be confronting a crisis of identity, because history is assuming the postmodern garb of Geschichte, not of Historie. In this and in other respects they now face a major historical turn which, ironically, they were at least implicitly trying to herald and to bring about. Having thrown their poetic capital in with a historical process, they may find themselves short on resources when confronted with a new epoch of history: a new epoch in the history of their own nations and a new epoch in the history of their (national) art.

In general terms, Polish poetry must, at this threshold, rethink the tightly national and regimented aesthetic landscape it has resisted but also, by a devilish logic, reinforced and exploited. It may have to allow the possibility that its mainstream will no longer be classicism /romanticism, but the former avante-garde itself. Or, put differently, Polish poetry should see that the new threshold means the passing of the age of national romanticism. In the nation free at last, collective poetry is dethroned: the poet can afford beautiful lyricism. The task now - and it is only the necessary prelude - is to do for Polish poetry what Heinrich Heine did for German poetry.

This hesitation, the guilt over the pleasures of pure lyricism, might be one of the central obstacles facing the transformation. The costs of the transaction may seem exorbitant, considering the efforts invested in resisting the lyrical self and embedding it in a national framework. The transformation may seem an attack on national taboos still powerful and influential, in Poland and in the region, considering, as “ebr” editors put it, the region’s “massive cultural heritage and ongoing political turbulence (its territorial and ideological flame wars).” The temptation may arise to prolong the established language and response mechanisms, with the historically unprecedented paradoxical result that art would lag behind politics.

The situation is made more paradoxical if one recalls that the other option, in Poland at least, has coexisted (precariously marginalized) with the emerging powerhouse of parnassian poetry. Miron Bialoszewski’s “Pamietnik z powstania” (“A Memoir of the Uprising”), an account of the Warsaw Uprising, suggests an alternative perspective on the same national trauma, from the point of view of a truth that does not allow itself to be extrapolated, generalized, sloganized, and reproduced into aesthetic manifestoes. Sadly an exception in Polish poetry, Bialoszewski continued an avant-garde tradition of considerable merit within a national aesthetic climate that spurned such experimentation, which it considered simply inadequate to the task of uplifting and perfecting the national soul.

Another measure of the situation, although an indirect one, is the following regularity: when the avant-garde did make an impact, and earned a place in the tissue of national existence, it was not in verse but in drama. In poetry, the nation was prepared to recognize itself only in a conservative (classicist/romantic) mirror; playwrights were the ones who were tolerated, or accepted, in their avant-garde robes. Tadeusz Kantor’s plays - each a masterpiece of reality replicated to the minutest detail according to the Proustian logic of traumatic, involuntary recollection - absorbed the burden of collective memory into a more powerful mechanism of inarticulate logic of pain and untranslatable meaning, self-identical and significant only by virtue of inexplicable mechanical repetition.

Witold Gombrowicz is another measure of this regularity. A playwright and novelist, he managed to develop a more purely lyrical voice than the poets themselves, in his plays and, most notoriously, in his “Diary” - an exceptional work consistently preoccupied with the lyrical self that discusses empirical reality from the vantage point of this self. Like Austria’s Thomas Bernhard, or Ireland’s Beckett, Gombrowicz addresses in his plays the nationally urgent themes as functions of more perturbing queries into the significance of symbolism (also national symbolism), of patriotism, of autochthony, of family, parricide, and history as dysfunctional family history. The work of Jerzy Grotowski, even less easily inserted into a national motherboard, illustrates the boldest achievements of this avant-garde current.

Naturally, the approaching collision of the two worlds brings dangers along with challenges. The more direct danger is, as the ebr editors write, “the dissolution of the[ir] culture and tradition in the age of McDonald’s and American cars.” The transformations “on the map of Eastern Europe will provoke changes in writing,” and “new national borders [will] restrict the old patterns and inflect the emerging global system.” But one might also inquire about the features of this new dispensation and of the new poetry. In what aspects is it likely to break the old mold?

The transformations in Eastern Europe, although desired and carried out with much enthusiasm and impetus, are accompanied by a darker underside: this part of Europe is doing away with the old patterns of self-identification, of trauma, and collective behavior that served it well (if dysfunctionally) for many, long and painful, centuries. On this material foundation of historical existence were planted, cultivated, and perfected complex mechanisms of aesthetic behavior, recognition, reference, signification, and subversion, all beating to the convulsive rhythm of local and global histories.

It seems that in the art now emerging in Eastern Europe, creative minds will initially attempt the seductive task of defining the particularities and specificities of the component parts in the European tableau. This will be a prelude to the even more seductive task of fashioning a unified Europe. But this is history revisited, a repetition of the romantic age. Holderlin had already imagined a European unity, most exquisitely, most classically, and most historically. While elusive, this task will acquire a postmodern, “commemorative” meaning only if it is taken up again in the Sisyphean spirit, with the awareness of repetition: Holderlin labored under the banner of modernity, this effort will transpire under the aegis of postmodernity. His achievement should challenge postmodernist Eastern Europe to produce a lyrical unity and an effective synthesis of Europe that would go beyond this astounding proposal.

This project calls for new avenues of approach, beyond the Greek/Roman filtering of the ancients, beyond classicist revisiting, and beyond Martin Heidegger’s andenken. What is at stake in postmodern Eastern Europe, and what is also the condition of the integration and survival of Europe as a whole, is a thinking of a new universality, primitivist but not atavistic (Gombrowicz’s play, The Wedding), ineffable but not irrational (Saint-John Perse, Francis Ponge), private but not trivial (Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan), collective but not national. (A measure of such erasure, one that preserves familiar content in a new vessel, can be glimpsed, for example, in the searing and eye-opening rewriting of the history of German-language literature in Thomas Bernhard’s Ausloschung - Extinction.)

In other words, if the new poets are to be “national,” it is only in the sense that the new dispensation will require a thinking of the national, rather than its celebration; a thinking of the historical that will not be another trip down collective memory lane; here the collective will not be a source of creation but an object of transformation. Such a work, clearly of an epic character combining the individual and the collective in a quasi-Homeric mode (not unlike Wladyslaw Reymont’s Peasants, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1924), or Solochov’s Quietly Flows the Don, Nobel Prize in 1965) has been missing from Poland’s literary landscape in the last fifty years. But beyond a national deficiency, this genre (in spirit and color, if not in form) also defines the contours of a work, and of working parameters, of a project, or a body of works, that will be able to understand, appropriate, and accommodate the postmodern dimension now sweeping into the East. The era of didacticism and containment has ended. Whether lyrical or epic, poetry in Poland has a chance to be itself - finding for the first time its true task and its real challenge: the realization of the most extreme and the most promising possibilities of an avant-garde buried in the romantic imagination.