The Wound of History: Gender Studies and Polish Particulars

Article excerpt

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there."

L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between

I

If the past is another country where they do things differently, are we doubly abroad if we visit, say, Poland of the late eighteenth century? In 1788, Stanislaw Kublicki, a member of the Polish Parliament, (1) announced in the preface to his drama, The Defense of Trembowla, or the Manly Courage of Mrs. Chrzanowska (Obrona Trembowli, czyli Mestwo Chrzanowskiej, 1788), that the play's purpose was to teach both sexes due equality. A regard for great figures of history is the foundation of patriotic morality, he argued, and there is a story to be told about men and women who distinguished themselves in the course of Polish history. But why, he asked, does the history of Poland remain a story of male heroic endeavor? Is I am a Polish man the same kind of declaration as I am a Polish woman?

These questions do not sound alien to us today. However, reading historical accounts of Kublicki s eponymous protagonist, the seventeenth-century patriotic heroine Zofia Chrzanowska, (2) against the play shows just how radical his ideas about gender (be it masculine or feminine) were for his time and place. His Chrzanowska emerges as the heroine of the hour, yet her patriotism has a transgressive facet. Sashaying through the play like a breath of fresh air, she demonstrates that gender is an oddly fungible category--less a stable and fixed essence than a complex process. Kublicki's Chrzanowska is a woman who invents herself--not freely or fantastically, but in a concrete historical situation. Kublicki's woman, then, is realistically ambiguous, a sex-gender amphibian, subject both to natural laws and to the human production of meaning. As a result, his play not only advocates gender equality, but also urges Polish culture's receptivity to the fluidity of gender. For the play to have proved effective, audiences would have had to conceive of gender as something provisional, as a kind of performance in its own right.'(3) Yes, the past is another country.

When I first discovered Kublicki s play in a theater archive, I was so far lost in that other country, the past, without a reliable map that I could not proceed with my research project until I knew what Kublicki's contemporaries were writing about gender. The Defense of Trembowla was an invitation to search for missing pieces of the puzzle, long hidden in libraries and theater archives. I found myself dealing with a fractal narrative, with buried anxieties, censored traumas, forbidden passions, haunting "shadow" themes, thickening layers of significance, endlessly multiplying connotations, and no clear sense of closure. (4) Madness may lie in that direction, but so too might a richer sense of the history of how gender has been constructed and read in Polish culture. (5)

A historicized approach to gender in the Polish cultural tradition has much to recommend it. It is tempting to insist that one should seek to understand the historical complexities of gender in Polish culture, to bring these complexities into conversation with other aspects of Polish culture, and to examine unanticipated lessons that Polish gender studies could contribute to gender studies in general. Granted, gender studies have entered an age of internationalism during the past two decades, as is evident in the wider range of cultural and national traditions now included in historical and literary scholarship on gender. Yet Eastern Europe, particularly East Central Europe, is one of the regions that remain on the margins of gender studies in the American academia. For example, women from Belarus, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine do not appear either as authors or subjects in anthologies of feminist thinking and criticism published in English, unless the topic is specifically Eastern Europe. The work of critics and scholars such as Grazyna Borkowska, Maria Janion, Ewa Kraskowska, and Joanna Partyka (6) (to cite only Polish authors) has yet to be fully acknowledged or documented in feminist publications in this country. …