Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays

by Stanisław Barańczak
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1938

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.

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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.

Barariczak lovingly celebrates the genius of Bruno Schulz, a short story writer and artist who has often been called the Polish Kafka. A reclusive and sickly man, Schulz earned his living as a high school instructor in drawing, wrote stories in his spare time, and had only two books published before the Nazis killed him in 1942. Discussing the posthumously published Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz. With Selected Prose (1988), Baran’czak focuses on Schulz’s self-portraits of masochistic and fetishistic humiliation, both in his etchings and his life, with the letters revealing Schulz’s obsession with his inadequacy and failure to realize fully his potential for literature. Baranezak concludes that Schulz would, of course, have been a happier man without his Jewishness, poverty, and sense of inferiority, but probably would not have become the great writer who is currently revered among many sophisticated readers. “As a man, he was more vulnerable than most. As an artist, he was as tough as anyone.”

Even less familiar to most readers than Schulz is the Polish poet Aleksander Wat, a brilliant Futurist and literary editor. Wat’s friend, Czeslaw Milosz, interviewed him frequently in Berkeley and Paris in 1964. The result is M6j wiek (1977; My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, 1988), an oral memoir reviewed by Baraijczak, who considers Wat a twentieth century incarnation of Job, because he not only suffered grievous physical afflictions but persisted in searching the reasons for his pains. Wat was born into an assimilated Jewish family (the name had been originally spelled Chwat), studied philosophy, rebelled against traditional Polish poetry, embraced Communism in the 1920’s, but was imprisoned and brutally abused by Soviet authorities during and after World War II. In the early 1950’s a burst blood vessel in his brain caused an incurable, debilitating neurological disorder, which often left Wat too exhausted to work. When he could write, however, he composed stirringly eloquent poetry. And his oral reminiscences are regarded by Baraficzak as comparable to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s greatVospominaniya (1970; Hope Against Hope, 1970) in their profound and precise analyses of both totalitarianism and the complexities of human nature.

Poland’s best-known contemporary man of letters, Czeslaw Milosz, receives two reviews as essayist and poet. His Ziemia Ulro (1977; The Land of Ulro, 1984) primarily addresses a Polish public that has shared at least some of the author’s experiences, moving in sudden leaps and turns among people, epochs, and nations. Ulro is William Blake’s “land of the disinherited,” with Milosz regarding the Enlightenment as the originator of such a disinheritance process by worshiping science and reason. Milosz sides with those seeking to demolish the walls of Ulro by committing themselves to the concept of “Godmanhood”—God humanized rather than man deified, with God sharing man’s suffering. Baraficzak questions Milosz’s criticisms of secular humanism but admires the brilliance of his defense of imagination’s humanizing influence.

Baraticzak considers two collections of Milosz’s poems: Nieobjeta ziemia (1984; Unattainable Earth, 1986) and The Collected Poems, 1931-1987 (1988). The first volume stresses Milosz’s theme that Earth’s marvels are too huge and rich to be understood by man, that its nature is therefore, unattainable by man’s imperfect senses and fallible memory. The Collected Poems is the first of Milosz’s books enabling an English-reading audience to obtain a fairly accurate grasp of his poetry, covering more than half a century of its evolution and presenting Milosz’s work in chronological order. Baraficzak classifies him as a metaphysical rather than moralistic or political poet. Milosz’s paramount concern is with the complexities of human conflicts in the realm of “time and space, nature and divinity, good and evil, experience and communication, existence and cognition.” Despite Milosz’s occasional excursions into didactic subjects, Baranezak traces a consistent philosophic vision through the poet’s career: that external reality exists, that distinctions between good and evil are discernible, that evil is a permanent trait, and that poetry’s mission should be to dramatize life’s irresolvable paradoxes and problems.

Zbigniew Herbert, like Milosz, is a poet of international stature; unlike his older contemporary, Herbert has chosen to remain in Poland. In 1987 Baranczak published a study of Herbert’s work,A Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert. Here he reviews two of Herbert’s books: a collection of poems, Raport z oblezonego miasta (1983; Report from the Besieged City, 1985) and a volume of essays, Barbarrynca w ogrodzie (1962; Barbarian in the Garden, 1985). In both books Herbert establishes the lyrical persona of an alter ego committed to traditional values who has been forcibly compelled to abandon them, has been infected by the very barbarian values he has fought, and now feels himself disinherited from the Western cultural past by his Eastern European experiences. Herbert’s perspective is more pessimistic than Milosz’s: No philosophy, no religion, no ideology will save us, however:

…if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will he the City.

Baraficzak has high praise for a Polish poet relatively little-known in the West, Wislawa Szymborska, whose career has spanned the decades since World War II. He reviews her 1986 poetry collection, Ludzie na moscie (1986; the people on the bridge), and ranks it alongside Milosz’s and Herbert’s best work. Her characteristic method of building a poem to become a highly intensified, complex conceit, based on an apparently simple observation, shines in this crowning achievement. Her command of dramatic irony, with the poem’s speaker discrediting himself and his beliefs, is superbly illustrated in “An Opinion on the Question of Pornography,” where a concrete-oriented protagonist inveighs against thinking as debauchery and analysis as wanton, with minds fertilizing one another by taking positions unknown even in the Kamasutra.

The most honored poet in recent years has been Russian-born Joseph Brodsky, recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature and now a naturalized American citizen. Baran’czak notes that Brodsky has achieved linguistic self-sufficiency in his adopted as well as native tongue, having learned to compose artistically complex poems in English without losing his unique voice. In Less Than One (1986), a collection of literary, political and autobiographical essays, Brodsky is continually concerned with the nature of poetry and its place in global civilization. He places considerable weight on the determinants of poetic speech—rhyme, meter, stanzaic patterns, and the like—and he celebrates as exemplary the careers of such poets as Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, C. P. Cavafy, and Derek Walcott for having dared to practice their art in a dangerous condition of conflict with the guardians of their societies. Baraficzak lauds Brodsky’s notion of an “ethics of language,” as a poet’s defense against despotism and other evils, and applauds Brodsky’s conviction that the poet is civilization’s archetypal hero, with poetry man’s supreme achievement.

Barariczak concludes this collection by quoting from Szymborska’s poem, “The Joy of Writing”:

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
The revenge of a mortal hand.

This “revenge,” he asserts, is the only power—that of creativity—which poets command against life’s intransigent laws of decay, suffering, isolation, and death. Only the poet’s separate world of imagination cast in words can frighten away the dread of Nothingness.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, September 1, 1990, p.22.

Library Journal. CXV, June 15, 1990, p.124.

The New York Times. August 30, 1990, p. C18.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 2, 1990, p. 1173.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, July 29, 1990, p.8.

Washington Times. September 24, 1990, p. F3.

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