Cultural Pathology: Roots of Polish Literary Opposition to Communism

By Tighe, Carl | Journal of European Studies, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Cultural Pathology: Roots of Polish Literary Opposition to Communism


Tighe, Carl, Journal of European Studies


Let me start with my family. It is by no means unimportant. I come from a noble family which, for some four hundred years, owned estates in Lithuania, not far from Wilno and Kovno. On account of the property it possessed, the offices it held and the marriages it contracted, my family was slightly above the average run of Polish nobility, though it never formed part of the aristocracy. Although I was not a count, a certain number of my aunts were countesses, but even these countesses were not of the first water - they were just so-so.

Witold Gombrowicz, A Kind of Testament (1973).

This article is in two parts. It is concerned to identify the historical roots, the origins and variety, of a particular kind of behaviour - namely literary opposition to communism. Its intention is to show that throughout the 45 years of communist rule in Poland, literary opposition, drawing upon established historical models, was a far more complex and nuanced phenomenon than is often supposed. The exact point at which the various historical roots intersect in the post-war period is crucial to the nature and formation of literary opposition, and as a result the map has some surprising contours.

In Poland the roots of literary opposition to communism often lie in cataclysmic events (Partition, the Second World War), in ideas (Revisionism, neo-Positivism, New Evolutionism), in institutions (the Catholic Church), and in individuals (writers and intellectuals). But they also lie in smaller independent organizations (the Writers' Union, International PEN, pre-war political parties), in traditions (officer corps, military leadership, resistance), and in intellectual and artistic movements (Romanticism and Positivism). And they may be traced in ambitions (Polish Independence), national mythology (Sarmatianism), lingering gentry social style, and in the experience of the inteligencja.

Inevitably, opposition to communism in Poland also has its roots in a shifting of purpose, a particular combination of circumstances, and a fleeting, even fugitive, sense of identity. Whatever version of Polish identity writers chose - Polish Catholic, Polish Jew, inheritor of noble traditions, exiled Pole, even Polish anti-Stalinist socialist - it was far from easy for post-war intellectuals to situate themselves in any corner of the map of opposition. Given the problems of catching such a difficult subject, it has been essential to adopt a wide-ranging approach, using historical, philosophical, cultural, political and literary materials.

Literature and partition

In Poland literature has often been political life conducted by other means. And there are good reasons for this. Between 1772 and 1795 Poland was swallowed up in partition by the Russian, Prussian and Austrian monarchies. Long before Poland disappeared the Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great had aimed to eliminate the 'lazy Catholic Poles' on his territory and turn them into 'good Prussians'. After partition the Russians and Prussians attempted to stamp out Polish national aspirations. Prussia in particular hoped to absorb Poles into a German-speaking identity by eliminating Polish culture, history and language, and by reducing the area of political, economic and civil life in which Poles could operate as Poles. It is primarily because of the experience of the partitions that language, literature and writers came to occupy an unusually important position in Polish society. They were seen as indispensable to the survival of the nation. As Pawel Hertz wrote:

Things which elsewhere were arranged in parliament, here, because of the lack of Polish national institutions and the great weight of the partitioning authorities, were arranged in journals and pushed their way into literature - particularly into poetry.[1]

During the partition years Poland's poorly developed (and mainly noble) civil society came to reside increasingly in the institution of the family, in the Catholic Church and in the literary life of the nation's language. …

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