Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Totalitarian Urge vs. Literature: The Origins and Achievements of the Polish Independent Publishing Movement

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

The Totalitarian Urge vs. Literature: The Origins and Achievements of the Polish Independent Publishing Movement

Article excerpt


The fall of communism in Central Europe was brought about-we can see today-not only by the economic and technological advantages of the West, but also by forms of media uncontrolled by the state censorship, for example, Radio Free Europe, the BBC and Voice of America and other kinds of independent writings played a role too.

Before I turn to the origins and achievements of the Polish independent publishing movement and its contribution to the victory over communism, I would like to put forward some general remarks on the subject, "Literature as Political Force."I

Literature as a political force is, in many ways, connected to the role of the word in culture and history. We can analyze the differences which arise here as historical and cultural ones, or as typological differences. One cannot understand the history of the Jewish people without analyzing the role of the Torah. The social history of the other great religions, such as Christianity or Islam, is to a greater extent the history of the interpretations of their Holy Books: the New Testament and the Koran. In general, we can affirm that words and texts have a great impact upon social and political phenomena, and this impact is even bigger than we may surmise.

In the history of European culture the idea of "literature" originates from two different words. On the one hand, it comes from the Latin word littera (a letter); on the other hand, in every national culture its synonym is the word book. There are some characteristic proverbs devoted to the word litera, two of which may serve as interesting introductions to the general subject. Littera docet, littera nocet: literature (any text or any word) can teach us, or can cause damage. The second proverb says littera scripta manet: written words will last for ever. As we can see, these words, letter and book, have both a general and not only a particular meaning. One could even say that there is something immaterial in the concept of a "letter" and of a "book." The latter has many symbolic meanings in the European tradition. "Book" (as a symbol of literature) is the symbol of the Universe, of Truth, Wisdom, Law, Morality, Destiny, Memory, Tuition, Knowledge and Eternity (Horace, Odes III, wrote thus about his poetry: Exegi monumentum are perenius-a monument of words is more solid and more firm than a monument of bronze). Without mentioning any more examples, let me say that the idea of imaginative literature has never implied a meaning of force in terms of violence. There is a paradox here, because it seems obvious that such notions as Truth, Wisdom, Law, Morality, and so on, possess at the same time a meaning of force. What kind of force? It is this point which must be considered. Besides its symbolic meanings, there is another meaning of "book" which is strictly connected with literature; more precisely, there is a literary motif which can be called "literature as a force." What is meant here is not yet another symbol, but the impact upon literary characters which are presented as subject-matter within a single literary work. Generally speaking, in the history of literature there are many works which present how the reading of books influenced fictional characters. Of the most famous examples of that motif, the first is Don Quixote by Cervantes and the second, Madame Bovary by Flaubert. These novels show us how the life of a character, how his or her feeling and his or her vision of the world are shaped by books that the character had previously read and how literature read by the character became a controlling force.

Two Polish books are interesting examples of this type. The first is Syzyfowe prace (Sisyphean Labours) by Stefan Zeromski, published in 1898. Its action takes place in a school, in a small Polish town under Russian occupation, at the very end of the nineteenth century. The Polish pupils are under the strictest control of their Russian teachers; they know nothing about Polish history or literature, and seem completely resigned to their fate. …

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