Tuesday, June 13, 2017

`Is Everybody Happy?'

I reviewed the Polish-born poet Stanislaw Baranczak’s Breathing under Water and Other East European Essays for the newspaper where I worked when it was published by Harvard University Press in 1990 – auspicious timing. If a date is required, let’s pick Aug. 24, 1989, when the Polish Parliament ended more than 40 years of one-party rule by naming Tadeusz Mazowiecki the country’s first non-Communist prime minister since 1948. Or Nov. 17, when the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Polish founder of Lenin’s Cheka, was pulled down in Bank Square, Warsaw. Baranczak’s book was already in press by the time these events were taking place. Reading it was like watching history supply the dénouement he could never be certain would arrive.

Reading it again after twenty-seven years I’m struck by Baranczak’s hopefulness and good humor. One persistent myth about Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe (or “Western Asia,” as Josef Brodsky called it) is its supposed gloom. Writers as various as Gogol and Gombrowicz refute this impression. Only the humorless fail to laugh. Baranczak may be on to a fundamental cultural difference. Take his examination of happy in his opening essay, “E.E. [Eastern European]: The Extraterritorial.” He describes the word as “perhaps one of the most frequently used words in Basic American.” Baranczak had lived in the U.S. since 1981, the year Poland’s masters declared martial law, and wrote his essays in English. His point is that happy has no equivalent in his native tongue:

“The Polish word for `happy’ (and I believe this holds for other Slavic languages) has a much more restricted meaning; it is generally reserved for rare states of profound bliss, or total satisfaction with serious things such as love, family, the meaning of life. And so on. Accordingly, it is not used as often as `happy’ is in American common parlance.”

This confirms my old sense that we speak of happiness too glibly, as though it were an entitlement. If I’m not happy, it’s somebody’s fault and ought to be corrected. Not so, at least among Poles, Baranczak suggests: “The question one hears at (stand-up) parties--`Is everybody happy?’—if translated literally into Polish, would seem to come from a metaphysical treatise or a political utopia rather than from social chitchat.”

Baranczak dispels any suggestion of condescension or anti-American sentiment: “I don’t mean to say that Americans are a nation of superficial, backslapping enjoyers and happy-makers, as opposed to our suffering Slavic souls . . . . `Are you happy?’ E.E. is asked by his cordial host. `Yes, I am.’ `Are you enjoying yourself?’ `Sure I am.’ What else can be said? What would be the point in trying to explain that his Eastern European mind does not necessarily mean what his American vocabulary communicates?”

From Polish readers I would like to hear more about happiness. Which word is Baranczak referring to – szczęśliwy, zadowolony, radosny, or something else? Does the distinction between the Polish and American vocabularies remain so distinct?

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