Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Absurdists are Back: Poland Today

Photo by Dawid Drabik

By George Gasyna, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures, ggasyna@illinois.edu


“The action was taking place in Poland, that is to say, nowhere.”

                                                                        -- Alfred Jarry, Ubu the King (1896)


Good old Alfred Jarry, eh? Always on the lookout for outrageous material that would leave the bourgeoisie properly stunned and épatée.[1] The French master symbolist’s best-known play, explicitly meant to offend and disgust its fin-de-siecle audiences, seems to have had it all: madness, exiled royals and regicide, ethnic strife (predictably involving Russia and Poland), discordant slang, swear words, parodies of several of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, pataphysics, puppets! And of course the central notion that Poland, where the play is set, is an unknown, incongruous place. 


Yet from another perspective Jarry’s revolutionary theatre relied on a commonplace (if you’ll pardon the pun) that was so utterly 19th century as to be almost comically sentimental: Poland as nulle place, Poland as a nothing nowhere. How the worm has turned: unlike during Jarry’s era, these days not only is Poland not a nowhere, since it can again be located in the middle of Europe on even the cheapest of maps, but there is much action going on, involving many players, state actors and privateers alike; and it is often in the news for reasons that are not mere recitations of absurdity. Or aren’t they? If you have consistently been missing news from and about Poland, your most humble and obedient servant is here to help you make up your mind. 


No longer an abstract nowhere as it had been during the long century of Partitions from the 1770s until 1918, when it indeed disappeared from the map, having been carved up by autocratic neighbors, and then, having shed the legacies of communist rule of the second half of the 20th century, Poland of today is a rapidly modernizing place. A full member of NATO and the European Union, it boasts a robust economy and an infrastructure that, after decades of neglect, now looks and feels very much at par with the European west. It is also a self-described friend and ally of both Europe and America, and a lover of freedom. 


Odd, then, that it should also be a place in which ancient resentments and calls for national purification on a scorched earth level are finding fertile ground, and where old monsters of anti-Semitism, rabid ethnonationalism and populist autocracy are becoming reawakened and reactivated, as the regime in power — PiS, an acronym for Law and Justice — giddily goes around pointing fingers at (but first manufacturing and distributing wholesale) new enemies of the state. That all of this should be occurring in a country that has long liked to think of itself as historically exceptional in its admiration of heterogeneity and toleration, again now (just as in the time of Jarry) self-anointed as a spiritual leader of European nations, and a nation that singlehandedly — so the myth goes — handed defeat to the combined dark forces of Soviet Communism just three decades ago, requires a closer look at the forces involved and motivations of those who are attempting to inscribe themselves directly as movers of history. 


In a sort of short-hand, one might declare that the most potent symbol of modern Poland’s (self-described) exceptional position and thus historical task – from a totally disinterested perspective, neither that of an uber-patriot or that of a critic — is the 1989 Round Table power sharing agreement. The set of meetings, conducted over a period of some three months around a large round table (hence the name) that had been expressly built out of Polish oak for the occasion, negotiated a path for power sharing between the ruling Socialist regime and the intellectuals and activists from the Solidarity trade union and effectively prevented civil war. Its lasting consequence was power being peacefully transferred from the former to the latter, in a process that also saw the first freely democratic election of the eastern bloc in the post WWII era;[2] at the time and until recently, the Round Table was a symbol of consensual politics that enacted the will of the people in a rationalist manner and taught the world that radical political transition need not be accompanied by radical political instability. Indeed, no lives were lost to political violence in Poland during the 1989 transition period, even if there was some instability (an inevitability given the enormity of the task). 


That round table, as image, paradigm, and symbol, is now dead and buried. At the risk of appearing punctilious, let us say it more directly: what had long been described as the greatest achievement of the Polish dissident, pro-democratic, pro-Western movement of the second half of the 20th century, has in the last couple of years been figuratively chopped up for lumber to stoke various fires of the ruling regime’s new pragmatics of divide-et-impera. Perhaps this effort will limit itself to burning anti-patriotic and thus “incorrect” tracts merely in a figurative way; yet there are signs that the moment of symbolically torching the sundry witches that the regime has set up as the current enemies of its hoped-for civitas may in fact be turning into something significantly darker and more ominous. The consecrated heroes of the movement, from past Solidarity leader (and Time Magazine’s 1981 Person of the Year as well as 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner) Lech Wałęsa to former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, have of late been vilified with predictable invectives (respectively: double agent; Jew in the service of foreign powers). Beyond these and similar nonsensical ad hominems, which could in some sense be viewed as a protracted settling of scores, consider these English-language headlines of relatively recent vintage: 


Children beat effigy of Judas in Poland, amid persistence of ‘medieval anti-Semitism’ (April 23, 2019; Washington Post)[3]


Polish cities and provinces declare ‘LGBT-free zones’ as government ramps up ‘hate speech.’ (22 July 2019; Independent)[4]


Poland's [ruling party leader] Kaczynski condemns gay pride marches as election nears. (August 18, 2019; Reuters)[5]


Poland enforces controversial near-total abortion ban. (28 January, 2021; BBC)[6]


Abortion law protests in Poland put civil liberties in the spotlight.

"This is essentially a fight for our rights and our lives," lawyer Eliza Rutynowska told NBC News.(Jan. 30, 2021; NBC News)[7]


The Polish Government’s Holocaust ‘Truth Campaign’ Is a Weird Mix of Authoritarianism, Ignorance, and Injured Pride. (Feb. 25, 2021; The Tablet)[8]


These messages — all of them reported by reputable and fairly middle-of-the-road media — should well give one pause. What is happening in Poland? What has happened to Poland? All the more reason, then, why this month’s symposium on populism in today’s Poland is particularly timely. The panelists, including Warsaw-based activist and journalist Konstanty Gebert, have been invited to provide a sober counterpoint of accountability-taking to the self-serving and divisive discourses now on offer from Warsaw. The focalizing points of the news from Warsaw, now as throughout the last three centuries — the period that corresponds to Poland’s rise to modernity — are Polish-Jewish relations and the notion of who and what is a Pole, and who should or should not be counted as a “good” or a “patriotic” Pole. The Polish government’s current list of personae non gratae includes, evidently, women, liberal-minded people, Jews, and LGBTQ+ people. A rough back of the napkin calculation shows this to comprise at least half of Poland’s population — thus revealing a country that has decided that it is at war with itself, and possibly well on its way of becoming lost to itself. It seems that Jarry’s deconstructive talent for picking up on the absurd in people and their politics was spot on after all.


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