Between the Scylla of 'Little Homeland' and Charybdis of Globalisation

Aleksander Fiut 12 maja 2009
It is generally assumed that the inhabitant of the "global village" cannot acquire unlimited freedom of choice and unfettered access to a limitless variety of cultural patterns unless he takes for granted the demolition of the established hierarchies as well as a conversion of unique, indeed priceless, accomplishments of the human mind, imagination, and hand into a series of bland items that can be easily taken off any shelf at the global supermarket.  Threats of this kind, perceived as proof of thorough Americanization of the European culture, are generally demonized in the form of the ubiquitous hamburger that seems to have replaced the sun as the source of energy and light for the future of humanity. Paradoxically, the inhabitant of Central Europe seems to be more receptive than his Western counterpart toward the "generic" pulp spawned by mass culture.  After all, throughout the long years of Communist rule he has been conditioned to accept a coarse version of such culture, in its Soviet-derived variety, that was meant to counterbalance the message of the West whose traces, seriously weakened in the process of transmission, managed to escape the watchful eye of the guardians of Socialist morality.
The promise of "today," lined in the West with trappings of comfort, and even luxury, was countered with the idea of patiently awaiting the promise of "tomorrow" when all needs, material and spiritual, will be satisfied.  Needless to say, there existed-on both sides-taboo subjects, dark and strictly forbidden areas.  In the West they included some of the most painful aspects of the human condition-old age, disease, and death, while within the boundaries of the "Socialist" culture excluded from public discourse were the crimes committed by the Soviet Union and its satellites, the gulag, the omnipotence of secret police, and the lies perpetrated under the aegis of "Socialist humanism."  And yet the horizon of social utopia was brightly illuminated-irrespective of the human cost involved-by the Red Star.  
Obviously, the image drawn above is both schematic and grotesquely distorted.  It is a fact, after all, that in Europe, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, tastes were shaped both by popular and „high," elite culture.  But while for the Westerner the latter culture was one of many, often marginal, options, within the East it often represented the only line of defense against the brutal pressure of totalitarian propaganda and, at the same time, a way of saving from total destruction the inheritance whose validity the Soviet communism denied and tried to erase.
In my opinion, the experience of having had to defend one's identity may be very useful in an era of globalization.  First, such experience encourages one to question the tendency to see the process of globalization as proof of weakness inherent in mass culture.  Secondly, it leads, perhaps indirectly, to the conclusion that globalization does not necessarily lead to a homogenization of cultures or a preponderance of one cultural model over all others.  On the contrary, such experience strengthens the view that to succeed, globalization must be based on the principle of general acceptance-and equal development-of all nations as well as all ethnic and denominational groups.
In addition, globalization may yet turn out to be capable of providing an excellent opportunity for growth to cultures regarded up to now as provincial-and therefore-marginal vis-à-vis the imperial ones.  Thirdly, Central Europe's past is conducive to reflection on various aspects and rules of coexistence between communities that live in close proximity to one another but, in fact, belong to, and derive their spiritual sustenance from, dissimilar cultural sources.
But what exactly does "peaceful coexistence" mean when we speak of inhabitants of Central Europe?  Their consciousness, marked by traumatic historical experiences, particularly in the last century, struggles with three fundamental problems: a sense of provinciality, an acute feeling of temporality of political and cultural frontiers, and difficulties in finding a self-definition.
The difficulty in erasing the sense of provinciality reflects a repressed sense of inferiority, born out of long dependence of that part of Europe on neighboring powers: Tsarist Russia, and the German and Austro-Hungarian empires.  As for artistic standards, in the past Warsaw, Vilnius and, to some extent, even Prague looked up to Paris or Vienna for inspiration and acceptance.  Today East European artists crave success in America.  East European elites have always been-and remain-insecure in their sense of achievement and often see their works as versions of ideas and trends developed in the West.  At their best, local literatures can be creative modifications, and at their worst become impaired, crude incarnations of an unattainable ideal.  A bitter feeling of instability and artificiality of all frontiers-political, social, and cultural-is yet another long-term outcome of colonial patterns of government that controlled that part of Europe for so many decades.
The old divisions remain, and in some ways never ceased to be in a state of flux, sometimes forcing entire nations to abandon their ancient places and neighborhoods, and to accept conditions of life in new lands among new neighbors.  If we were to look at the fate of refugees as one of the most powerful metaphors for the 20th century, we would see that nations of East-Central Europe are first and foremost communities consisting of refugees.  A single glance at the maps of that area reflecting the last four centuries would reveal an almost unbroken chain of dramatic, even drastic changes.  One of the effects of all this has been the emergence of a phenomenon I would call "questionable identity".  The term stands for an identity that has not been a given, has not come to the affected person, or persons, naturally, and thus becomes hypothetical, to be constantly searched for in an effort to deal with changing circumstances at hand.
What was once perceived as a handicap can be, and already is, a blessing in the era of globalization.  For people of the Third World, now free from centuries-long domination by the cultures created in Europe and proud of their almost forgotten traditions, previously rejected "peripheriness" seems to be a generally accepted way of viewing their heritage.  Rites and customs abandoned and despised at the time of colonialism, or practiced with a sense of shame, flourish again.  The awareness of the flexibility of borders accentuates the importance of borderline areas for harmonious, or at least peaceful, coexistence of people representing various beliefs, observing different customs, and expressing themselves in different languages.
It is important to remember that the common historical memory of Central Europeans has cultivated a somewhat idealized image of multinational states that, for a time at least, were able to provide political and economic conditions for such peaceful existence.  Hungarians, Austrians, Slovenians, and Czechs have such an idyllic view of the Habsburg Empire at the outbreak of World War I, Lithuanians long for the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Poles tend to recall with fondness the republic of the Polish gentry.  In this context the question of identity becomes more vital than ever before: are we not obliged to rethink our strategies of self-definition, to revise and retool the ideals and patterns of behavior that, having emanated from the Mediterranean, remained dominant for several centuries?
The year 1989 was in Central Europe a time of dramatic revisions and transformations.  A totally new political and economic reality cried, as it were, for a new literature and for protagonists of another kind.  It is with considerable regret that I must say that in my view the Polish literature of the last decade failed to artistically interpret and analyze its time.  The imagination of the writers of the day, mostly representatives of a younger generation, wanders aimlessly between Scylla of a "little homeland" and Charybdis of globalization.
Let us remember that even before 1989 one could find in Polish prose a number of works devoted to nostalgic reminiscences of prewar Poland.  These novels, for obvious reasons published by emigré institutions, presented Eastern regions of the country where for many centuries various nations and ethnic groups coexisted preacefully at the croassroads of Catholicism and the Orthodox Church, of cultural influences of the East and the West, and both Latin and Byzantine traditions.  Those "little homelands" were both rural and provincial, thus preserving one of the archetypes of the Polish literature: a vision of a local community, patronized by the gentry, united by ancient customs, religion, and intimate links with nature.
It is obvious that the tendency to praise distant past also signified a fear of changes likely to demolish the paradise built of memory freed from all problems and ambiguities that lurked under the surface.  The nostalgia present in the works of Józef Mackiewicz, Czesław Miłosz, Tadeusz Konwicki, Włodzimierz Odojewski or Julian Stryjkowski served to some extent as a screen behind which ineluctable national and political conflicts had been brewing, about to come to the fore-and to be sealed-by the catalysmic horrors of both World Wars that almost completely annihilated this idyllic Central European Atlantis.
Younger writers often draw from this rich thematic resource, although for them the old "borderlands" are located exclusively in the sphere of literature.  Crammed inside a tight corset of Communist conformity and uniformity, these writers tried to escape the monotonous homophonic boredom of the post-Yalta Catholic Poland and thus ventured into the multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multicultural space of the pre-1772 gentry Republic.  Unavoidably, their attempts at internalizing the themes offered by the „little homeland" have been flawed from the start.  These writers are children of people who had been ordered suddenly to leave their homes and to move into places emptied equally suddenly by exiles from other lands.  The encounter between Polish culture and a non-Polish one took place in a region that for centuries belonged to Germany rather than on the territory of the old Res Publica.
For this reason Artur Daniel Liskowacki's Szczecin, Stefan Chwin's and Paweł Huelle's Gdańsk, and Olga Tokarczuk Western Territories are both familiar since childhood and alien because of the innumerable permanent traces of different predilections and cultural patterns.  This conflict is exacerbated by the fact that on the strength of geopolitical decisions arbitrarily taken as a result of the Second World War, representatives of two borderland cultures, long separated from each other by huge distances, must begin to live together.
The writers of the older generation recreated the lost world as they remembered it, giving us outlines of the places they had loved and snatches of formative memories of childhood.  The representatives of the younger group seem to have turned, as if in helpless despair, to archeology and mythmaking.  In an attempt to heal their wounded, disinherited memories, some of them pick up splinters of local cultures or build quasi-imaginary worlds.  Spasmodically recorded time, leading to one catastrophe after another and destroying individuals as well as nations in Huelle's or Chwin's works, contrasts with a vision of concentrated time in Odojewski's and Mackiewicz's, conveying a sense of permanence based on a well-established multilayered tradition, creating its own rhythm of existence.  The literary space made up by the young writers is filled with abandoned, useless, or unfamiliar objects that point to other people, other cultures, and other people's history.  The objects offer a testimony to a different past and a different pace of life.  Thus the aim of the author is to familiarize readers with a new, strange territory, create its artistic vision.  Perceived in this way, a "little homeland" appears to be more a place of temporary sojourn, marked by sufferings of its past and present inhabitants, than a permanent residence legitimized by centuries-long occupancy.
But in the new Polish prose the presentations of an illusory paradise of the "little homeland" appear next to vivid visions of the inferno of globalization.  After initial forays into distant past, realms of myth or postmodernist games, writers representing several generations have ventured into a Poland experiencing political and economic transformations.  There is an eruption-reminiscent of the 19th-century novel-of works portraying the world that surrounds us.  Some of these works have significant, perhaps even symbolic, titles: Transformejszen (‟Transformation") by Edward Redliński, Finimondo by Piotr Siemion, Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną ("The Polish-Russian War Under the White-Red Banner") and Paw królowej ("The Queen's Peacock") by Dorota Masłowska, Zwał ("The Heap") by Sławomir Shuty, or Nic ("Nothing") by Dawid Bieńkowski.
The "little homelands" in these novels are replaced with small, confined spaces: a former state-owned farm, a supermarket, branches of a bank, drug addicts' shelters, tabloid editor's offices, stages at a vanguard theater.  The protagonists represent all social strata, every generation, various educational levels and political views.  But this almost epic diversity of the social portrait is in some ways misleading, if only because the panorama of the Polish society sketched out in these novels ignores the ruling class and relies too much on simplified journalistic approaches that place more emphasis on negative than beneficial results of the transformation process.  The modern Polish literature thus conveys little hope and much fear.
The assessments offered in these novels are without doubt simplistic, based on shallow, biased observations, too concentrated on anomalies of all kinds.  Their authors fail to see the process of dynamic changes taking place in Poland, particularly since its accession to the European Union.  They choose not to notice sudden awakenings in many local communities and the spread of grassroots initiatives.  Their view of the transformation process is filled with objections, if it is not openly hostile.
The prose is driven by nostalgia, anxiety, and rebellion.  Nostalgia, perhaps, not for the reality of the Communist regime, but for its idealized version, based on wishful thinking, of general welfare and a low-level, but supposedly reliable, security.  There is a willingness, with the passage of time, to forget endless restrictions and harassing inconveniences imposed by the system defeated in 1989.  Anxiety results both from the brutality of a free-for-all economic game and from difficulties in assessing a multiple, constantly changing and unclear situation.  A sense of rebellion comes from greedy consumerism, media-promoted lifestyle, and a need for material and professional success that forces participation in a humiliating ‟rat race."
Interestingly, this perspective suggests that it is big multinational corporations, with their chains of supermarkets and fast-food restaurants, that corrupt innocent Polish souls.  Supposedly anonymous forces push Poland into the margins of the world of opulence and, at the same time, as a result of Poland's membership in the European Union, get unlimited access to the Polish market and its consumers' money.  Under this scenario, an inherently solid Polish identity dissipates into a shapeless pulp of enslaved customers.
There is, obviously, a grain of truth in these accusations.  Many extreme leftists in the West and all antiglobalists would be only too happy to expand the list of negative aspects of the post-industrial global economic system.  Unfortunately, the Polish novelists of today are incapable of analyzing the situation correctly, let alone propose socially acceptable options.
Negative attitudes result from a profound sense of intellectual impotence.  Rebellion without an address leads to a simulation of rebellion.  An escape from the boring daily routine into a narcotic stupor, proposed by Shuty, does not solve anything.  Quite the contrary, by accepting unreflective and uncritical illusions one falls victim to hedonistic, materialistic, and boorish content openly promoted by mass culture.  Lament over the world often becomes this or that author's lament over himself, and not entirely sincere at that.  A confrontation with globalization-much in the same way as unsuccessful return to the "little homeland"-yields a bitter sense of homelessness.
The weaknesses mentioned above can be easily discerned in Bieńkowski's novel "Nothing" which describes the process of establishing in Poland of a chain of fictitious French fast-food restaurants called, not without irony, "Positive Food Corporation" and modelled after Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald's.           
The novel consists of inner monologues of characters who-by representing different social groups-illustrate the variety of attitudes toward spontaneous changes.  One of the protagonists is a former history teacher, a real Polish patriot, full of positivistic ideals, who considers setting up a restaurant chain that would improve the standard of living in small villages an important social mission.
There is also a portrait of a middle-class businessman who climbs from the ownership of a small fish-and-chips shop to a partnership in the "Positive," indefatigably expands his business operations, planning to settle down in a previously Germanic region of Pomerania.  Another character comes from the lower social strata.  Quite cynical, primitive, ruthless, not without business talents, completely free of any moral scruples, he is a perfect candidate for a winner in the rat race.  The French manager in the novel sees Poles as less civilized and less cultured than his own compatriots, but admires their enthusiasm, willingness to make sacrifices, and organizational talents.
Finally, we meet a vanguard artist.  His anarchist rebellion aimed at globalization and consumerism slides into unintentional self-parody, thus transforming itself into one more product of the commercial world of mass media.  On the whole, all characters in Bieńkowski's novel are losers.  Values such as loyalty, noble feelings, pure art, selfless activity for the well-being of the nation are banned from the world ruled by money and unscrupulous competition.  That, at least, is the author's view.
But is it truly so?  It must be said that the pessimistic credo of the novel is based on extremely feeble premises.  The changes in the company's structure-the transition from a small shareholders' ownership to a corporate ownership-happen very often and there is nothing unusual about them.  Although they violate previous agreements and adversely affect interpersonal relationships, are they really as catastrophic as the author suggests?  In a free-market economy even an artistic revolt can undoubtedly be an object of commercial transaction.  But why has Bieńkowski chosen a talentless scribble and a total loser, someone who deludes himself with memories of allegedly creative youth, to make his point?   And why is vanguard art displayed in the novel as mere kitsch?
It is very symptomatic that in the analysis presented above one can easily trace the conclusions and simplifications already well known and quite common in the moralizing and ideology-loaded prose of the time of Socialist Poland.  Now, as then, all misfortunes and failures are caused by outside sources, by the mythical "them."  The only novelty this time is the decent Polish nation being corrupted not by the Russians or Communist apparatchiks, but by Westerners with their constant "pursuit of the buck" and of carnal pleasures.
In the new Polish novels lack of depth and perspicacity in social analysis and the absence of originality in the narrative is partially recompensed by the introduction of a totally new literary language, exceptionally sensitive to all abrupt transformations of the Polish reality.  All of these writers have not only perfectly mastered all registers of Polish, but have also introduced into it, enriched with English neologisms, technical vocabularies, commercial expressions, mass-media slang, postmodern functional styles and milieu-generated dialects.
One can say that the analytical awareness displayed by these authors can be located both above and below the events presented by them.  The still vivid memory of the Communist totalitarian experiences is revealed in distrust of language.  An allergy to "newspeak" makes it possible to uncover falsehood, banality, hidden manipulation of language, its abuse in the style of advertisements, corporate instructions or speeches made by top executives, and even in the rhetoric of the latest intellectual currents.
Dorota Masłowska is a true virtuoso in this linguistic game.  Her first novel is a brilliant parody of all feminist, antiglobalist, environmentalist, and even vegetarian-oriented themes and styles.  Her second is structured around rap.  It is possible that the most important campaign in Polish prose today is being waged via language whose malleability proves that the Polish culture is open to changes taking place everywhere in the world and is, therefore, not provincial, but universal.
Literary language crosses all borders-national, regional, and social-and in the process absorbs different styles and themes.  As a result of various games in which language is the only tool, a Pole's identity is determined both by geographic location and by the phenomena of the global village; generally accepted functional languages are the same.  An ironic unmasking of "false" language in all its forms proves the yearning for freedom-a value still essential for Poles-as well as a strong desire for protecting the identity of an individual.

[From: "Third Text. Critical Perspectives on Contemporary art and Culture", September 2007, 88, Volume 21 Issue 5, ss. 555-562.]