December 4, 2018

"Poland is by no means a homogeneous, monolithic cultural block"

A look at the wealth of Central European culture: an interview with the Flemish/Polish writer and philosopher Alicja Gescinska.

Alicja Gescinska (Wikimedia Commons, Yettibloom via CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Meike Huber

‘Out of your comfort zone': that’s the angle of the DutchCulture Europe Day, 11 December next. International cooperation often follows the familiar paths, and often with countries where we already know the way. That’s rather a shame, however, since Europe has so much more to offer. Take the fabulously rich countries – from an art and cultural point of view – of the Visegrád group: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. Writer and philosopher Alicja Gescinska fled the oppressive political situation in Poland as a child with her parents. Now she lives and works in Belgium. She knows this wealth better than most.

As we all know, much beauty comes from misery. What has Polish history, from which you fled as a child, brought in terms of art and art movements?
Polish history is perhaps the perfect illustration of the adage you just cited: the tragic often is a fertile ground for the beautiful. Throughout the centuries, Poland as a country and nation has had its share of tragic fate, and its right to exist has often been undermined. It is precisely because of this that, in Poland, the love of language and beauty and the attempt to give meaning to life through art has developed so strongly over the centuries. It is no coincidence that Poland brought forth so many great composers and musicians: Chopin, Szymanowski, Paderewski, Penderecki, and so on. Or that several Poles have won the Nobel Prize for literature; and that there are some great writers who have not won this prize and yet belong to the cream of world literature: Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz, and also Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Every true literature lover will cherish this writer.

What can we, the Flemings/Dutch, learn from this?
Above all, we should discard our prejudices about Poland. Here, Poland is mainly associated with manual labourers and cleaning women, as if Poles are all working class people. I have heard such comments so often, either as a joke or not, and it’s very annoying. When people think of Poland, I wish they would not first think of their cleaning lady or handyman but of those great artistic souls who helped shape the beating heart of European civilisation. I think it’s also time to do away with the stereotypical image of the Polak katolik; an image held not only by foreigners but also by many Poles themselves. Poland is by no means a homogeneous, monolithic cultural bloc; not every Pole is a conservative Catholic and a nationalist. On the contrary, Poland is a rich patchwork of different backgrounds, and all the great things that Poland has produced are the result of that diversity.

What is typical about Central European art?
That is a very difficult question, because what is 'Central European art'? It’s such a broad notion... I doubt whether you can make any generalising statements about it. But if you insist, then I would say that there is something of a sincere, profound inspiration that haunts 'Central European art': the conviction that by creating the beautiful, you achieve more than just an artistic goal. That art serves a higher social, moral and even spiritual or religious purpose. I think that l’art pour l’art as a creative principle is a fairly typical Western invention. Art is rarely a goal in itself in Central European cultural history. Perhaps because Central Europe has experienced so much oppression, art almost always served a higher, liberating purpose.

It is quite natural for Dutch artists to work with countries such as Belgium, Germany, France and Great Britain. Cooperation with Central Europe is less common and therefore less easy. Why is that, do you think? You might suppose that artists (in the broad sense of the word) would be attracted to the challenge. Isn’t that part of what being an artist is all about? So how can we overcome this discomfort?
Is that the case? I’m not sure. But if it is true that there is less cooperation or that this cooperation is more difficult, then I don’t think we should treat it as a historical fact. On the contrary, if you look at European cultural history, then the crosspollination between Western, Central and Eastern Europe has often been very intense and fruitful. The Reformation and the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and tolerance have their early roots in the first tolerance manifestos of Hungary and Poland. The ‘grand tours’ of the privileged young men stimulated the intellectual exchange that made scientific progress possible; just think of Mikołaj Kopernik, better known as Copernicus. This intellectual and creative interaction was hampered in the previous century by the Iron Curtain, and I think Milan Kundera was right when he said that this is the true tragedy of Europe: not so much the physical boundary that divided the continent into two parts, but the fence erected between the spirits of Europe.

What would we gain from overcoming that?
It would broaden our horizons. Our view of the world is often too Western, and furthermore too coloured by an Anglo-Saxon perspective. In that respect I agree with George Steiner, that the greatest threat to European identity in recent decades may well be the 'Americanisation' of our culture. This affects all aspects of our lives. It is in the shops we visit, the language we speak, the products we buy, the music we listen to, the books we read, and so on and so forth. Europe is suffering a certain intellectual anaemia because of Anglo-Saxon dominance. Walk into any faculty of philosophy and ask students and professors to name ten contemporary English-speaking thinkers, and you will receive your answer within ten seconds. Ask them about any contemporary Russian or Polish philosopher, and you’ll be met by silence. That’s how it is with philosophy, and with literature and music. While there is so much beauty and wisdom in other cultures and languages.

How are current developments in Central European countries influencing art and culture? I am referring to a number of different things: the growing populism, in combination with protectionist nationalism.
Poland is now a very divided country. There is an intense mutual antipathy between supporters of the conservative, nationalist PiS government and its critics. This dislike is rooted in very different visions regarding ethics and culture. This makes the struggle so intense, and is also stimulating political awareness among the population and among artists. I wouldn't necessarily say that this is making art more political, but artists are more aware that their voices carry significant political and societal weight. Artists and thinkers are the ones keeping a finger on the pulse of society.

Who is your favourite Polish artist (in the broadest sense of the word) and why?
That is an impossible question. Polish culture is exceptionally rich. In literature, I am probably most fond of Czesław Miłosz. Both his essays and poems are food for the mind and balm for the soul. He is one of the few remaining intellectual beacons of light. In painting, Zdzisław Beksiński stands out from the crowd. I love many of his works, especially an untitled work from the late 1970s. In this painting you see skeletons sitting in small groups on high boulders around a fire. On some rocks there are no skeletons, and the fire is extinguished. Everyone can see everyone else sitting around, but no one can move toward each other. Everyone is in their own group, on their own island. Lonely, and isolated. And they all know: one day our fire will extinguish too. I think it's a beautiful but very sad metaphor for human existence. Beksiński had a very own style, which was referred to as fantastic surrealism. His paintings and drawings are so lugubrious and macabre and at the same time so profoundly human and endearing. So repulsive and yet so comforting. But if I had to choose one artist, then both Miłosz and Beksiński would have to lose out to Chopin. Not a week goes by without me listening to Chopin for several hours. The comforting tristesse in his nocturnes always helps make life a little more bearable.

Alicja Gescinska