Friday, June 01, 2018

'Repeat Great Words Repeat Them Stubbornly'

My friend Melissa Kean, our university historian, came to my office and said she had something to share with me that no one else on campus would appreciate. On her phone she showed me this photograph:

Melissa had been shopping for a table and visited an antiques store in Houston, not far from campus. Hanging on the wall was a framed poster of the Solidarity logo designed in 1980 by Jerzy Janiszewski. It was an original – red paint on brown butcher paper, priced at $2,500. The shop owner said she’d had it for about fifteen years and Melissa was the first person to ask about it. They chatted, Melissa weighed the purchase, and the woman gave it to her gratis. She was floored, as I was to hear the story. The poster hangs on the wall in Melissa's home office. The woman’s generosity seems in the spirit of Solidarność.

The first political event in my lifetime to stir me, that moved me to follow it excitedly in the newspapers, was the rise of Solidarity, starting in 1980 in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. Like a lot of people around that time I was thoroughly disenchanted with politics and the general drift of public events. My state of mind hasn’t fundamentally changed but Solidarity was different. For the first time, we could imagine an end to Soviet tyranny and, naively, Communism. In his postscript to the third edition (1999) of The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (1983), Timothy Garton Ash offers a balanced evaluation of this characteristically Polish movement:

“The Polish revolution of 1980-81 was, in its methods though not in its outcome, the first velvet revolution. Solidarity was a pioneering Polish form of massive social self-organisation, with the general objective of achieving, by means of peaceful pressure and negotiation, the end of communism. In this, it ultimately succeeded. Some of the larger claims made for Solidarity, with a touch of old Polish messianism, must be discounted. It did not offer a model of new politics tout court. It was not the primary cause of Gorbachev’s reforms. None the less, the impact of the Polish events on Soviet policymakers and intellectuals was considerable. . . . Poland was the icebreaker for the end of the Cold War.”

Elsewhere in the book, Garton Ash quotes the concluding lines of Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter):

“repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

“and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

“go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes”

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