Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays Summary

Stanisław Barańczak


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stanislaw Baraliczak, poet and critic, left his native Poland in 1981 for the United States, where he is in the midst of a distinguished career as a professor of Polish language and literature at Harvard University. All but one of these thirty essays were written within the past nine years for English- speaking audiences, and were previously published in such periodicals as The New Republic, Partisan Review, and Salmagundi. They deal with cultural comparisons and reflections, discuss such public personages as Lech Walesa and Va’clav Havel, and analyze texts by major Eastern European writers. Essentially, two concerns pervade this collection: trying to breathe under the water of Eastern European totalitarianism and coming up for air in America’s pluralistic society.

The cultural change can be shocking, Barariczak tells the reader. He calls his average Eastern European an “E.E.” trying to become an “A.A.” (Authentic American), stumbling over such novel phenomena as Barbara Walters and stand-up, wine-and-cheese parties, and wriggling uneasily out of the cocoon of old mental habits and semantic categories. Baraliczak has managed his own adaptation magnificently, writing a flawlessly idiomatic and often eloquent English. For Americans trying to understand Eastern European mores, he recommends the cognitive vision of distinguished artists: the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, the fiction of Milan Kundera and Tadeusz Konwicki, the films of Andrzej Wajda, and so on.

Baran’czak strikes a somber note when he discusses Miklos Haraszti’s book, The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism (1987). A Hungarian dissident, Haraszti muses on the complex relationship between art and freedom, challenging the stock democratic concept that freedom is an essential precondition of art. The modern socialist state richly rewards artists for their commitment to an art derived from ideological indoctrination, and most of them become enthusiastically compliant servants of their government, internalizing the state’s demands and engaging in acts of self-restraint and “self-correction.” In short, most artists—like most others—prefer the comforts of protection to the anguish of individual liberty. Sadly, censors and artists usually embrace each other.

Baraliczak prefers to celebrate heroic rebels, whether they be artists or not. Reviewing Lech Walesa’s autobiography, A Way of Hope (1987), he calls Walesa “the greatest common man in modern history,” in instinctive touch with the feelings of ordinary Polish citizens. A long essay on Vacla,” Havel is prompted by the American publication of Letters to Olga: June, 1979-September, 1982 (1988), a collection of letters which Havel addressed to his wife while he was in prison. Baranczak points out that severe restrictions governing the content of prison correspondence caused the Czech playwright to minimize references to his personal life and needs. Instead, Havel composed searching philosophical treatises pondering universal problems of identity and responsibility. The result is an eloquent argument on behalf of human freedom.

The Eastern European whom Baran’czak most admires is the Polish journalist and politician Adam Michnik: “There is probably no other man living to whom I owe so much.” Brilliant and charismatic, Michnik is a graduate of six years in prison as a result of his courageous battles against despotism; he is also renowned for generosity, compassion, wit, and vision. Baraticzak celebrates Michnik’s “conviction that living in truth is actually simpler… than wriggling among lies.”

Most of Breathing Under Water consists of perceptive review-essays examining the works of Eastern European writers. Baraficzak calls Witold Gombrowicz’s three-volume Dziennik (1957-1967; Diary, 1988- ) one of twentieth century European literature’s most significant works. He finds Gombrowicz’s obscurity in American literary circles impossible to understand, since this author has achieved cult status in both Poland and France. Baranezak stresses Gombrowicz’s awareness of individual solitude and helplessness when caught by the powerful pressure of society’s schemes and traditions. Like Fyodor Dostoevski, Gombrowicz believes that people secretly prefer inferiority, immaturity, and chaos, even though they affirm allegiance to superiority, maturity, and form. Only art can partly transcend this otherwise insoluble stalemate, since the artist can both confess his immaturity and strive for perfect form. Baranczak lauds Gombrowicz for his consistent intellectual honesty, his insistence on unmasking and demystifying even such modish movements as Marxism and existentialism.


(The entire section is 1938 words.)