Four Decades of Polish Essays Summary

Jan Kott

Four Decades of Polish Essays

FOUR DECADES OF POLISH ESSAYS contains twenty-six essays by some of Poland’s leading minds. Some of the contributors’ names will be familiar to American readers. The volume includes work by the poets Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert, the fiction-writers Bruno Schulz and Stanislaw Lem, the dramaturge Jerzy Grotowski, and the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. From a strictly chronological point of view, however, this work belies its title. Rather than span the last forty years of intellectual work in Poland, crucially significant as those years have been, particularly in the light of perspectives emerging with the end of the Cold War, the essays provide an overview of both Polish history and the history of Polish culture in the entire twentieth century.

The anthology is divided into four parts, each containing representative works by important figures. Part 4, for example, features among its contributors Adam Michnik, Adam Zagajewski, and Stanislaw Baranczak, identified by the editor as key members of the generation of 1968. The inclusion of work by writers such as these, all of whose experiences have been of postwar Poland, quite apart from the merit of their excellent individual works, reminds the reader of the persistence of the tradition of personal meditation and public conscience-keeping which the essay in Poland sustains. In addition, the emergence of Baranczak and Zagajewski from their American domiciles as significant voices draws timely attention to the ongoing Polish intellectual diaspora. This cultural phenomenon makes exile in its many forms the strongest of the thematic threads which binds FOUR DECADES OF POLISH ESSAYS together.

Among the essays by writers less well known to American readers, those by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz on Dostoevsky, K.A. Jekenski on “Avant-Garde and Revolution,” and Stanislaw Jerzy Lec’s “Aphorisms” are particularly rewarding. This stimulating and comprehensive volume as a whole may be regarded as a tribute to the exemplary status of the Polish intelligentsia and to the power of the individual intellect which the essay form enshrines.