Thursday, September 24, 2015

`All Communications Cut'

In the heady days of Solidarność, I experienced an unexpected sense of solidarity with Poland, especially with its writers, and read dozens of books – history, nineteenth-century novels, Stanisław Lem – I might otherwise never have touched. I am genetically apolitical but was stirred in a way I had never been stirred by events in my own country. I felt something akin to patriotism, and for a nation that wasn’t mine. My paternal grandparents were born in Poland, but I never knew them. There was nothing Polish about my upbringing beyond kielbasa and polkas.

Among the books I read was A Warsaw Diary 1978-1981 (trans. Richard Lourie, 1983) by Kazimierz Brandys (1916-2000) and, later, his Paris, New York: 1982-1984 (trans. Barbara Krzywicki-Herburt, 1988). Most of the first volume predates Solidarity. I remember little of either book but Brandys’ mordant humor and bookishness, and the grinding grayness of life in the Soviet Bloc. The books confirmed my sense that Communists distrust happiness and wish to eradicate it, along with those who are happy. In the first entry in the first volume, dated October 1978, Brandys is reading the memoirs of Johanna Schopenhauer, the philosopher’s mother, who was born in Gdańsk, birthplace of Solidarity in 1980. Then he reads a book about the great pessimist by a Polish scholar, and writes:

“Even the reading of a book has a fate of its own. I read the mother’s memoirs to calm myself, to tear free of myself and the spirits molesting me. To prolong the healing effect of her narrative’s pleasant flow, which had already enticed me and drawn me in, I hit upon the son. And then, all of a sudden, the son pierced me straight through by pointing a finger at the source of my shameful defeats, escape from which I had sought in his mother’s memoirs.”

Then Brandys paraphrases Schopenhauer’s message to him: Your distress is not caused by “biological anxiety” but by “a lack of belief in Providence.” And this: “There is nothing in you to protect you against despair and the thought of death.” This exchange with a dead German philosopher is funny and somehow very Polish (and probably Jewish). He tells Schopenhauer: “What you foresaw a hundred years ago is the stuff of journalism today. The sense of meaninglessness and despair, the loss of inward identity, doubt, and the ignorance of the Essence of Things have become part of our normal consciousness.” This reminds me of nothing so much as Moses Herzog writing his mad letters to Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Adlai Stevenson. After four pages of dialogue with Schopenhauer, Brandys concludes: “He failed to take the changing nature of life into account.”

Brandys is a middling writer. Early in his career he was a sort of literary apparatchik, cranking out socialist realist widgets, though he quit the Communist Party in protest in 1966. He is no Zbigniew Herbert but his sensibility sometimes rises to the occasion. Of Aleksander Wat’s essential memoir My Century he says: “This is an oral text, a voice turned into writing, and for that reason it unintentionally acquired the naturalness of a macabre tale told under a linden tree, an intellectual nobleman’s stories about his adventures in Turkish captivity [the reference is to a story by Henryk Sienkiewicz].” He is overly fond of Dostoevsky. Here is his final entry in A Warsaw Diary, datelined “New York, December 13, 1982”:

“News that martial law has been declared in Poland. All communications cut.”

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