Heritage: Articles Library, Stories
Eliot Would Understand.
A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLES S. KRASZEWSKI
Professor of Comparative Literature,
Translator, Eliot Scholar and Slavist.
from The Roots Are Polish
by Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm
1. Your English translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem "Shame” ("Wstyd”) was published in the excellent American monthly, The New Yorker, in January of 1994. Not long ago, your book Essays on the Dramatic Works of Zbigniew Herbert came out. That book consists of a collection of six essays dealing with Herbert’s theatrical output. Now, you’ve written about Herbert, translated him, and also had some contact with the poet. How do you remember him? Looking from the perspective of American universities, what position does Herbert occupy in the history of literature?
Maybe we should start at the end. Herbert is unquestionably one of the best-known Polish writers in the United States—one who doesn’t need an introduction. He’s in a select company, which also includes Miłosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski. The first two, of course, are Nobel Prize winners, and that’s quite a thing to have on your visiting card What is more, Miłosz and Zagajewski lived long in the States, and entered into the American cultural milieu. Hebert, on the other hand, was in America only rarely. Nor is he as visible as Miłosz and Szymborska thanks to this or that prestigious international award, so he’s had to make his way into the consciousness of Anglophones through translations, not all of which have been first-rate. And yet, Americans sense in him a „Great European,” to use Eliot’s phrase, and it’s really something that neither advertising, nor physical presence on this side of the Atlantic, paved his way. His fame is entirely due to his poetical talent. That means a lot. Generally speaking, in the States one hears a lot about a lack of interest in Poland. Sure, Polonistica isn’t the immensely popular program of studies it was at times during the cold war, when Poland and the States stood on two opposite sides of the "curtain,” or when Solidarity shook everybody up. But several months ago, in 2002, an evening of Polish poetry was organized in Manhattan, and whole masses of people came to listen. And what’s more important, this event wasn’t organized by Poles, or Polonia, but by Americans (among whom was the former poetry editor of The New Yorker), Anglophones whose only contact with Herbert comes through English translation. So, in short, both Herbert and Polish Literature are present in the cultural consciousness of Americans, and that’s no small success.
I myself have been a great fan of Herbert’s poetry „from the first glance,” so to speak; from the time when I first read „The Lament of Fortinbras” ("Tren Fortynbrasa”) in the English version of Czesław Miłosz. My adventure in translating Herbert started unexpectedly. I was living in Kraków, in 1992. One day, out of the blue, an acquaintance we had in common knocked at my door and handed me Herbert’s address. He encouraged me to contact the poet—he knew I liked Herbert’s poetry and that I’d jump at the chance to translate him. So I didn’t waste the opportunity. I wrote a letter, xeroxed the chapter of my first book in which I deal with Pan Cogito, and added to the package my translation of „Pan Cogito’s Monster” („Potwór Pana Cogito.”) Some two weeks later, I received a letter from Herbert. It was very pleasant: he expressed his satisfaction with the translation and the criticism, and added to his letter the typescript of three or four new poems, which later were included in his volume Rovigo, at which he was then at work. He encouraged me to translate them, and gave me the address of his editor in New York. My translation of "Rovigo” was accepted by The Antaeus. Herbert himself placed "Shame” with The New Yorker.
Unfortunately, I never met the poet. We exchanged several letters. I am most proud of the one in which he writes that he read and liked my poem-cycle Doctor Faust in Purgatory. I’m keeping that one to show my grandchildren!
2. You have translated many different works, from Polish, Greek, Latin, and from English into Polish. You know several languages, among which Polish, Czech and French; you read classical Greek, Latin, Russian, Italian, Slovak and German. In this respect alone you are an atypical American, an atypical American scholar. How is it that at the relatively young age of 41 you have come to be acquainted with so many tongues?
I might agree with you that, in this, I am an "atypical American,” because it’s true that Americans aren’t fond of foreign language study. They don’t find it necessary. One can travel the length and breadth of the North American continent, from Florida to Alaska, without the need of a second language. Québec, of course, is the exception to the rule. Anyway, the entire world speaks English (they think), so why bother with another language? Please don’t take that for arrogance. As a nation, Americans are a very practical people, and this conclusion of theirs is an expression of American practicality.
But can one say that I am an "atypical American scholar?” No, that’s too broad a statement. On the one hand, a knowledge of languages is necessary in my profession. A humanist, especially a comparatist, must have a reading knowledge of several languages, and there are many people much more talented linguistically than I. But the majority of well-educated people the world over, including America, hold a familiarity with foreign languages as a necessary element of individual culture, even if it’s not required by their line of work, even if fate so dictated that the „new Latin” of English should be their mother tongue.
In my case, language learning, even if I only want to obtain a reading knowledge, isn’t hard labour. I love languages. I love their sounds, I’m fascinated by etymology and cognates, to say nothing of the problems of translation, especially literary translation, the transfer of subtle thought from one system to another. Even though it’s more than just a hobby, I’m somewhat similar to a stamp-collector, who might impress someone with his knowledge of the philatelic rarities of Burkina-Faso. That sort of knowledge comes easy to him, because he loves stamps.
3. You have also written critical texts concerning Gombrowicz, Barańczak, Witkacy, Wyspiański, Kochanowski, Mickiewicz, Krasiński. . . I won’t list them all. You’re the author of Polish Culture and Civilisation, a study-guide that received an award from the National University Continuing Education Association meeting in Chicago in 1994.. You’re the author of an English version of Dziady, Part III. How did it come about, your interest in Polish literature?
Nobody should be surprised that a person with a last name such as mine should become interested in in anything Polish. I was born in the United States, and grew up immersed in Anglo-Saxon culture, which is my home culture. And yet American mass culture—and mass culture is the first, strongest cultural influence on each of us—was not always as open to diversity, as it is today. I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Politics, sport, television, all aspects of American mass culture were saturated—naturally—with the protestant, post-British past of the country, which constituted the present of the American élites as well. The legends we learned at our school desks—about brave John Smith of Virginia, about Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a Kentucky log cabin and wound up in the White House, about the Puritans, who founded the Massachusetts Bay colony—are all legends of the British-American world. Even at home, when we watched television, it never occurred to us that the hero of this serial or that film could be anyone other than a WASP. So, very early on, perhaps even as a seven-year-old boy, I realised the fact that, with a last name like mine, I’m from "somewhere else.” The churches I saw in television were protestant churches, iconoclastically devoid of crucifixes and plaster saints. The church that I went to, where I served as an altar boy, was Catholic—and that means „not quite American.” When I was a little boy, our parish priest, Fr Janeka, still delivered two homilies on Sunday: in English, and right after that in Slovak. Now, that’s quite „un-American!” At least in the mind of a seven year old kid. My difference didn’t frighten me; it was simply a fact. I really enjoyed it when my grandmother’s friends would come into the kitchen and they would speak Slovak. The fact that, unlike many of my friends, I could spit out a word or two in a „strange” tongue, was almost magical. I remember to this day one summer morning when, looking through a colourful children’s encyclopaedia, I came across a drawing of the river Danube. I remember thinking, Hey, that’s my river!” So it’s quite natural that such a boy, who always loved to read, should sooner or later become interested in „his” country, or countries. . . Today of course I look at the matter differently. The nationality of a given author doesn’t excite me as much as his talent, his eloquence, the effect that reading his work has on me. Like all of us, I have my own pantheon, which isn’t made up completely of Poles or Czechs or Slovaks. Norwid stands there next to Eliot and Zahradníček next to Romanos, Trakl, Böll, Eliade, Garneau, Vyasa. . . But Polish and Czech literature remain virgin territory for many English readers, so I’m most interested in bringing those authors into print, introducing them to the Anglophone readership.
4. At King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, you lecture on the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, Slavic literature and film (among other things, you’ve translated some screenplays of Krzysztof Zanussi), the poets of Renaissance England, as well as the poetry of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and E.E. Cummings. Those are broad interests. I suppose your magisterial and doctoral studies at Penn State helped to form your knowledge basis. Tell me, to what extent do comparative studies aid one’s understanding of a given artist and his work?
In Comparative Literature, be it the French or American school, it’s all about the broadening of horizons. One’s approach to literature comes directly out of the conviction that we don’t live in a bell jar, that we can better understand a given poet or work if we place it against a broader background. I’ve always said that, if you really want to deepen your understanding of some pan-European literary movement, such as Romanticism or Modernism, it’s best to leave untouched the English, French and German textbooks, and reach instead for a work written by a Hungarian or Romanian. There are exceptions, of course, like Paul Van Tieghem, but generally speaking, the Brit, Frenchman or German only rarely looks beyond the almost incestuous circle of those three literary traditions. Sometimes, he makes a little bow in the direction of Spain, Italy or Russia. The representative of a „smaller” tradition, on the other hand, the Hungarian, Romanian, or Slovenian, will by force of nature tell you about Shelley, Goethe and Lamartine. But thanks to his perspective, he’ll also take account of Słowacki, Mácha, Vörösmarty, Alexandrescu, and Prešeren.
You kindly mention my favourite class, the Anglo-American Modernists. that course is a practical confirmation of the values of the comparative approach. The main theme of the class is the works of Pound, Cummings, and my particular idol, T.S. Eliot. However, I always strive to present them to the students against a broad canvas of the literatures and literary currents of contemporary Europe. For example, I give them to read Georg Trakl’s “Die junge Mägd,” Hector de St-Denys Garneau’s "Cage d’oiseau“ or "Un mort demande à boire,” Tadeusz Różewicz’s "Spadanie“ ("Falling”) or Ferenc Juhász’s A szarvassá változott fiú kiáltozása a titkok kapujából (The Boy Turned into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets) in the splendid English version of Ilona Duczyńska and Kenneth McRobbie. On the day that the students show up for the discussion of these authors, right after their fresh, first lecture of these unknown works, their faces open like flowers. They’re excited, eager to speak, and share their discoveries. They surprise themselves. They’ve never read these works before, and in most cases have never even heard the poets’ names. And now, suddenly, they see that English literature is not some sort of fenced-in outpost in the Wild West, around which stretch deserts in each direction. They begin to understand the importance of German Expressionism or Jules Laforgue to Eliot’s poetic formation, and the fact that Pound has poetical heirs in a country such as Poland. The world becomes smaller for them, more comfortable, more comprehensible. They begin to see that the cliffs of Dover don’t have to constitute an insurmountable barrier. They can jump over the Canal and find themselves on a continent, which is no longer "dark” for them, but familiar. Few American students come to college prepared "internationally.” Thus, when one of my students leaves us for postgraduate studies knowing who Adam Mickiewicz and Rio Preisner are, that gives me a great sense of satisfaction. And when they choose to study Comp Lit, or leave for a jaunt in Europe because of me, well, then I’ve won the lottery.
5. Rio Preisner is quite an important person for you.
Hugely important. He was the director of my doctoral dissertation. I like the German term Doktor-Vater. It’s right on the mark in the case of Professor Preisner and me, all the more so in that we became quite close during my studies at Penn State, and he always treated me more as a son than a mere student.
6. You came to Penn State because he was there?
No. I didn’t know that he was at PSU. I arrived in Poland in 1984 as a student of the University of Toronto. I was accepted into the English programme at Toronto, but was granted a year’s deferral when I won my first Fulbright. Anyway, after a year in Kraków I decided that I didn’t want to tread the same English mill anymore, but would rather continue in Comparative Literature. Unfortunately, the Department of Comp Lit at Toronto rejected my application to switch programmes: I had wished to include French Literature in my studies, next to English and Polish, but they felt that I hadn’t prepared myself well enough in French during my baccalaureate studies. So my career at UT ended before it began and I remained in Kraków. After another year I received an offer from Penn State. I was awarded a teaching assistantship by the Department of Slavic Languages: Professor Zygmunt Birkenmayer had just passed away, and they needed a lecturer in Polish. So my wife and I came to PSU. I don’t know if you’re aware of the fact, but the Pattee Library has a fantastic collection of Slavic books. For many years, a wonderful Ukrainian librarian took care of them—I wish I could remember his name—he also has some familial connections with Canada; I believe his daughter was a newscaster in Ontario. It was he who told me that Preisner was employed by the German Department. Still in the library, I leafed through Preisner’s works in the card catalogue, and found something that almost made me faint away from surprise and delight: I found there his translation of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, which he rendered into Czech along with his friend Ivan Slavík. I myself was in the process of writing my master’s thesis on the Polish and French translations of that very poet! Serendipity!
7. What a wonderful coincidence!
Perhaps, but I think it’s more than just coincidence. It was something of a confirmation of Dante’s conviction about the Divine Plan: that God often draws us together. After all, that’s the heart of the Divine Comedy: the communion of the saints, in which Dante is wonderfully complicated, even if unconsciously. Virgil and Beatrice watch over him, care for him, even before they appear to him—to his great surprise. And so we came across one another unexpectedly, in an interesting manner, and soon came to see that we had much in common. In a short period of time we became friends, despite the difference in our ages.
8. Besides this spiritual affinity, these common topics, what is it you value most about Preisner?
His works are so multi-faceted that it’s difficult to answer your question in simple terms. I love his poetry, especially the short, Hölderlinesque poems in which he recalls his childhood in Zvíře dětství (The Animal of Childhood) and the somewhat Poundish Královská cesta (Royal Road). But I also highly regard his aesthetic works, such as Kultura bez konce (Culture without end), in which he wages a polemical battle with Václav Černý concerning the content and traditions of both the Czech lands and Europe—for Černý comes straight out of Masaryk and Positivism, whereas Preisner from Catholicism, and Preisner reminds us that Christianity cannot be separated out of the cultural heritage of Europe, whereas the rationalist Černý kind of pats it on the back and sends it out of his way to be ignored. A burning question which has only gained in actuality these days, given the storm around the preamble of the European Constitution However, when I read Preisner’s works in political philosophy, such as O životě a smrti konzervatismu (On the Life and Death of Conservatism), it makes me realise that it’s not only in French Literature that my education is lacking. Philosophy is truly una selva oscura for me. . . Now, his two-volumes of historical and philosophical musings on the United States, Americana, which was written mainly for Czechs, ought to be translated into Polish too, for those Poles who gaze upon the U.S. with too uncritical an eye. Preisner fell in love with America too, and is conscious of the debt he owes the country which adopted him after his exile from Czechoslovakia in 1968, but he is able to look at the country he admires with an objective, critical eye as well. To cite just one anecdote from this book, in his diaries, written during a vacation at the shore in Brewster, Massachusetts, he notes that „America is the only country in which a citizen who possesses his own house, two cars, and who throws half of his dinner into the garbage, can complain that he’s ‘poor.’”
To sum up, I’d say that Rio Preisner is quite similar to T.S. Eliot, both in his Weltanschauung and literary output. With this one difference, that Preisner endured two years of hell on earth in a Stalinist concentration camp—right after he got married!—and Eliot was not "educated” by so direct an experience of Evil. But if one can speak of an "apostolic succession” in literature, then Rio Preisner is one of the few who have continued the T.S. Eliot tradition forty years after the death of the great poet. He ought to be more widely known both in America and in Poland.
9. Let’s return to Poland for the nonce. How do you see Polish Literature in the context of other world literatures?
That’s a question for a more robust intellect, for a Barańczak or a Harold Segel. Are you asking about the entirety of Polish Literature, from Daj at ja pobrusa, a ty pociwaj up until Jacek Podsiadło, or is it only contemporary Polish Literature that you have in mind? Either way it’s a tough question for me. As I’ve already said, I prefer to concentrate on individual authors, regardless of their nationality, than to throw them all into one bag and talk about "Polish Literature.” After all, from the advent of Gombrowicz at the very least, it’s been difficult to speak generally about such things. But I can give you this sort of response. There are many very good and worthwhile Polish authors, both in the past, and right now, who deserve to be known on a worldwide stage. When I published my translation of the Odprawa posłów greckich (The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys) a certain professor from Alberta wrote to me, declaring that "Kochanowski’s waited quite a while for this.” That made me feel good, because I had a sense that what I do has meaning to it, and in this way I can make Polish authors accessible to those who might well be interested in them, but who haven’t yet had the possibility to meet with them. In short, like every country, every language and tradition, Poland has its great writers. I would like it very much if they were more accessible and well-known abroad, and thus more widely appreciated. For example, in my opinion, there’s no better prose writer anywhere in the world today than Jerzy Pilch. How great it would be if his name became a household word amongst educated people all over the world, and if people who read only for pleasure consciously sought out his books in Borders and Waterstone’s.
10. You are also a great fan of the theatre of Tadeusz Kantor. One of your own plays, The Archives at Kanonicza 5, which was published along with Peter the Rock and Iphigenia in Zagreb, was written as if under his inspiration. How did it come about, your interest in Kantor?
I love Tadeusz Kantor. I’ll never forget the impression he made on me in Kraków, in 1985, with his spectaculum Niech sczezną artyści (Let the Artists Croak). Thanks to a friend, my wife and I got tickets to a performance, sitting way up in the balcony of the Słowacki Theatre. I was under his spell from the very beginning of the evening, when he was just sitting off stage left in his chair, with a bored expression on his face, waiting for the audience to file in. But the finale was the real eye-opener. A beautiful girl, dressed up like the most common whore, sits astride a horse’s skeleton, holding aloft a black flag of mourning. She’s a ringleader of sorts. She begins to travel around the stage on her horse, in a great circle, and behind her, to the tones of Kantor’s patent tango, the rest of the „dead” follow in a somnambulistic dance that recalls the conclusion of Wyspiański’s Wesele (The Wedding Feast). Suddenly, the audience realises that this is the end of the „show.” They rise to their feet, applaud, and slowly, their applause transforms itself: they begin to clap metrically, in time to the tango. I looked about myself: the delighted faces of the people who are practically dancing in the aisles, beating, beating out the tempo of the tango. . . I experienced—excuse the kitschy-sounding phrase, but it’s true—a theatrical enlightenment. I thought to myself: „Damn it, they’re applauding their own death, and they don’t even realise it!” What a wonderful theatrical coup! What a splendid, brilliant accomplishment! From that moment on, I began to not only interest myself in Kantor’s work but to adore it. I consider each of his spectacula a masterpiece, but my favourites are Niech sczezną artyści and the earlier Wielopole, Wielopole. It’s fantastic how, in that spectaculum, he makes use of what I call in another place the „village lexicon of suffering,” transposed in flagranti from life itself, from his deep familiarity of Catholic and Jewish ritual and folklore.
In 1995, I worked for a year as a researcher at Cricoteka, where among other things I translated into English all of his theatrical "scores,” happenings, and theatrical writings. (Last summer, a friend of mine who works in Cricoteka told me that foreign scholars, who do research at Cricoteka, continually use my translations, which is a source of great joy to me.) Sitting in that quiet, dark, mediaeval room, often working at the same crazy-legged tables where Apasz played at cards, which the Chaplinesque waiter or „ragslingers” polished clean, I had the opportunity to drink in that uncanny atmosphere and observe the labours of my friends the archivists and the guests who came in to look around. Sometimes there arrived more colourful, so to speak, figures. Several times there arrived this somewhat ragged, visibly demented man, who would look over the paintings on display (at the time I think there was an exposition of the canvasses of Maria Krasicka). He slowly circled the room, mumbling out a running commentary, to no one, or to everybody. It was then that the idea of writing Kanonicza 5, which you are kind enough to mention, was born. That fellow was the „template” for the character „Artifex in ovo.” As you know, the play isn’t realistic at all, and it won’t do to identify this or that character with the actual people who either work at Cricoteka, or visit there. Kanonicza 5 is rather a natural outgrowth of the atmosphere which I breathed into my lungs, several hours each day, than a record of this or that happening or any concrete person.
Kanonicza 5 was originally written in Polish. Back then, the Teatr Ludowy organised various cameral, small-cast productions in the cellars of a building only two doors down from Cricoteka, at Kanonicza 3. I didn’t succeed in convincing the director of the theatre to accept the text and stage the play there. It’s too bad, because thanks to the address, we could have even further ratcheted up confusion among the spectators, a la Kantor!
11. You have also authored a book entitled The Romantic Hero and Contemporary Anti-Hero in Polish and Czech Literature: Great Souls and Grey Men. What similarities do you find between Polish and Czech Literature?
The book you kindly mention deals with the Romantic Era (and its late Biedermeyer period) and the contemporary era, that is, the period following World War II. Again I’d like to make the cautionary statement, that these days I rather look at individual authors than national groups—which can sometimes be rather arbitrarily constructed. That sounds like a contradiction. After all, as you mention, I’ve written a book in which I compare two, or rather, six such groupings! But a person is always changing, and I might cite here the words of the French Modernist playwright Arnaud who, when handing over a text that he had written much earlier to be printed, asked for the readers’ indulgence for „the man who wrote this play is no longer alive.” On the other hand, to speak with unforgivable brevity, I would state that there exist more differences than similarities between these two traditions, of which I am so fond. In Romanticism, the current of "individualism” exists in both Poland and Bohemia. But in Mickiewicz’s Dziady for instance, the separation of the individual from the community is shown as something unnatural. The general community, be that the Polish nation or (as I would emphasise) the Christian communion, is the essence of being. Of course, this arises from the political situation in the freshly dismembered Polish nation, and also from that nation’s religious traditions. In Bohemia, on the other hand, the great Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha isn’t so grievously affected by the fate of his nation, which possessed a much longer history of subjection to Austria. In the long narrative poem Máj (May), the hero is not so much a Czech as a human being. His problems are purely human problems. Mácha understands individualism as the essence of being. I’m not a philosopher, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to state that Mácha is a precursor of the existentialists. In short, Mickiewicz is Dante, and Mácha is Byron.
In the Biedermeyer, or late Romantic period, the national question continues to chafe at even such a poet as Norwid, in even such a poem as Quidam, the hero of which is a nameless, grey, quite ordinary boy. In Bohemia, at the same period, Božena Němcová writes the great Czech novel Babička (Grandma). Babička is an idyll, nearly a paean to faithful loyalty to the Austrian throne, a tale in which the good, simple Czech people live in complete harmony with their good-natured Austrian princess. The kind princess protects and takes care of „her” Czechs, but when she’s got a problem, she turns for help to the titular heroine, a simple, village grandmother. And folk wisdom, Czech wisdom, human common sense is always victorious (to paraphrase Hus!). Can you imagine such a novel being written in nineteenth century Poland? Now, the Czechs themselves realise full well the exaggeratedly idyllic nature of that book. It’s a noteworthy fact that Kafka, who read Babička in the original, used it for a kind of inspiration a rebours for his novel The Castle.
And what of today? The Czechs also suffered—maybe not to the same degree as the Poles, but who can quantify that?—under Communism. Havel was imprisoned just as Barańczak was interrogated (and later forced into exile). But just compare Havel’s Vyrozumění (The Memorandum) with Barańczak’s Sztuczne oddychanie (Artificial Respiration) The Czechs also have their angry prophets—Jan Zahradníček, Rio Preisner—but sarcasm and humour are their weapons of choice.
I remember a conversation I once had in Warsaw, most likely in the Orwellian year of 1984. A friend of mine asked me, „Do you know the difference between a Pole and a Czech?” He pointed his finger at the Palace of Culture. „If Communism suddenly went away some day, the Czechs would find some use for a building like that, whereas the Poles would blast it off the face of the earth.” Of course, we know that Communism "went away,” and that my friend’s prophecy didn’t come about. And yet there is a bit of truth in it. Or better: I’m sure that you remember that, right after Communism "went away,” the old discussion of whether Poland and Czechoslovakia should unite was resurrected for a while. I remember the words of a certain Czech, quoted by Polityka. He said „The Czechs, together with the Poles? How can beer drinkers like us get along with vodka-people?” Is it true, that such closely related nations have such divergent characters? As a person who comes from both sides of the Tatras, I don’t know if I should take voice in this matter. But the truth remains that the Czechs have their Švejk with his goldbricking and sarcasm, and the Poles have their Pan Cogito, with his cervantesan "long sharp object” and despairingly heroic "envoy.”
12. You were twice recipient of Fulbright grants, first to study at the Jagiellonian University (1984-1986), whence you returned to teach in 1991-1992. What kind of influence did these longish stays in Poland have on you?
They changed me completely. I used to say that I was born in Kraków in 1984. My years in Poland were of epochal significance for me, and thus it would be most difficult for me to explain so personal an experience to others. I would say that I wouldn’t be the person I am without Kraków, and I don’t know if I would like the person I would have been, without Kraków.
If we’re talking about my semesters in the Comparative Literature department of the Institute of Polish Philology, it would be easier for me to say something meaningful. Although I had studied in Poland earlier, I never really comprehended the difference that exists between the daily workings of a university in the States, and its counterpart in Poland, until I had the chance to look at it through the eyes of an instructor, an employee. But one must remember that I lectured at UJ right after the Great Changes, and so the atmosphere was still very much that of the PRL. I don’t know what it would be like to teach there today. The secretaries are probably much more helpful and pleasant!
I fell in love with the students. They were so intelligent, so well-prepared—no, I’m not exaggerating! The quality of the Polish student made a huge impression on me. You’ve got to remember how much effort these kids had to put into it, in order to win a place at the university of their choice, in the field of studies of their choice, when there are perhaps one hundred persons chasing after only thirty Indexes. I know that different things occur, that the race doesn’t always go to the swift of foot, but please don’t think me quite naive when I say that I am convinced that the students, with whom I had the honour of meeting at UJ, were really and truly the best of the best. At least I know this much, that they were the best I’ve ever come across to date, and I think that this is the simple result of the competition-based nature of the acceptance-system in Polish academia.
I taught three conversatoria at UJ: European Preromanticism, an Introduction to Comparative Literature, and Translation Theory. Especially that last course remains strongly in my memory. I had some thirty students, and since this was a course in Comparative Literature, it was open to students from all philological institutes. I had Romanists, Germanists, Anglicists, Slavists, Classicists, and of course Polonists. Our meetings were a real intellectual feast. Before each session, I had the wonderful terror of not being sure whether my students didn’t know the material better than I! The discussions we had during "Translation Theory” bore fruit a year or so later in my book Translation Theory Backwards, which would in all probability not have been written if it were not for my discussions with those splendidly talented young philologists. As a matter of fact, I thank each one of them, by name, in the dedication to that book.
While we’re on the subject of book dedications, I’d like to point out that I dedicated my Gospel of Matthew, with Patristic Commentaries to almae novercae cracoviensis, or my "sweet Cracovian stepmother,” since it was written almost entirely in the Main Reading Room of the Jagiellonian University Library. This is in no way a sarcastic dedication, but a really heartfelt, humble one, from a person who, although taking no degree from UJ, is proud of at least being able to call himself one of her adopted sons.
13. You are a great admirer of the works of T.S. Eliot. I know that you are currently working on a book that deals with his first dramatic work, The Rock, which will include your new Polish translations of his Choruses from The Rock. What is „your” Eliot like? What is it in his writing that attracts you so?
Well, first of all, "my” Eliot is a poetic genius, one of my "great Europeans.” He is a poet of remarkable sensitivity, both if we’re speaking of the sonority of his verse, as well as the metre. We’re very fortunate in the fact that he lived in the modern era, and was able to eternise his reading voice in recordings. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard him read? His deep, patient voice, with his gift of feeling out the metre of the verse, gives back the sense of his four "Preludes” marvellously.
I share Eliot’s cultural, Catholic world-view. Like him, I adore Dante and the metaphysical poets of England. I wish I were, like him, a better student of Sanskrit and eastern mythology. There are other differences, too. I am fascinated with Hopkins, while Eliot couldn’t bear that poetic avant-garde which Hopkins began, and Dylan Thomas to some degree continued. Eliot (like yourself!) was a great lover of cats, whereas I prefer dogs, big dogs.
Now, to move away from the banal, I’d like to say that Eliot is a sovereign antidote to political correctness and multiculturalism. As a comparatist, I am, or at least I try to be, open to the world. After all, Comparative Literature is by nature "inclusive.” While respecting the canon of the great Western poets, it strives at the same time to introduce new voices as well. But the situation in American academe has grown perverse. "Multiculturalism,” which ought to be an open strategy of audi et altera pars, has become, at American institutions, a doctrine that asserts, "each and every culture, each and every behaviour, ought to be treated as equally acceptable.” The preachers of multiculturalism and political correctness state that there is no—morally speaking—"better” or "worse” culture. In contemporary America, we have lost the sense of the Absolute, and, consequently, a hierarchy of values, not to speak of the ability of judging things according to certain values. Just as Kafka prophesied the arrival of the culture of dehumanisation and murder for convenience’ sake, Eliot, and others (such as Mircea Eliade and the earlier mentioned Jan Zahradníček), foresaw the arrival of an epoch in which our entire ages-old system of values will be threatened by total "deconstruction.” Not only the Catholic culture of Europe, but the idea of Good and Bad, What One Ought, and What One Mustn’t Do, will become blurred, destroyed. Well, and that’s where we are today! The students who register for my classes already have this encoded in their system. The fashionable "post-modern” idea, that truth does not exist. The conviction, that everything must be accepted, everything must be respected, nothing—God forbid!—criticised, for the era of criticism ended together with the destruction of the ability to criticise, that is, with the destruction of the "old” culture based upon the differentiation between Good and Evil, Beautiful and Ugly, Allowed and Forbidden.
Sometimes, the best discussions we have in the Eliot seminar are sparked not by his poetry, but by his prose, such as his Idea of a Christian Society. Here, sometimes for the first time, students come across a thinker who possesses certain, unshakeable principles, and who isn’t afraid of defending them. Young people as a rule are liberal, untrusting of any sort of authority, be that political, ecclesiastical, or moral, and often emerge from such a confrontation with Eliot still unconvinced by his reasoning. And yet, there remains in them the feeling that one must believe in something, and that it’s not "incorrect” to defend your positions; that disagreement on philosophical grounds, a perspective on the world, does not mean "intolerance” of other views. That’s an important lesson, and a large part of Eliot’s message. I value that.
14. Your literary criticism often appears in The Polish Review, a quarterly which has been published by the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America in New York since 1956. . You have been on the editorial board of that journal since the year 2000. What is the mission of The Polish Review? Who are its readers?
The Polish Review is, as you correctly state, the scholarly organ of the Polish Institute in New York. PIASA was founded in 1942 by members of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences (PAU), who found themselves in American exile during the second World War. Among the founding fathers were Bronisław Malinowski and Oscar Halecki; many famous Polish scholars and artists, living in emigration, such as Jan Lechoń, Kazimierz Wierzyński, Józef Wittlin, Wacław Lednicki, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Czesław Miłosz and Stanisław Barańczak have been members of our organisation. Currently, Prof. Piotr Wandycz is our president, and Montréal-born Prof. Zbigniew Brzeziński our vice-president.
Our journal is read mainly by the members of PIASA, but we also have subscribers who do not belong to the Institute. Also, The Polish Review can be found in the collections of many institutes of higher learning in the United States and Canada, as it is the leading English-language quarterly devoted to things Polish.
We print scholarly articles from many fields of endeavour, which have Poland as their topic. By the very nature of things, literary criticism, history, art history, sociology, and political science dominate. We have an important position in the scholarly world of North America. True, there exist other scholarly journals devoted to Slavic studies in general, but we are the only English-language journal which deals entirely with res Polonica.
15. Not long ago, you initiated, or rather resurrected, the publishing house PIASA Books. You have so far emitted two books: Prof. Leonard Polakiewicz’s Polish Language Learning Framework, and Prof. Harold B. Segel’s Political Thought in Renaissance Poland: an Anthology. There aren’t too many publishing houses in America which have a Polish profile, and thus PIASA Books is an endeavour deserving our support. Can you tell me something about the plans for PIASA Books?
You’re quite correct in stating that we’ve „resurrected” PIASA Books. We didn’t really start anything new.
For in the past, the Institute has published many titles, but this was an activity that was rather rarely pursued. For the first time, we have something that might be called a publishing plan. At the moment, it’s a rather humble endeavour, because it’s exceptionally difficult, and even costly, to start out in the publishing business in America. Thus, at the moment we’re planning a list of some 3-5 books yearly, in rather small editions, with the hope that we’ll soon be able to spread our wings wider when we become an imprint that immediately comes to mind when one thinks „Polish books.” We’d like to publish (in English, of course) high-quality texts by Polonists and scholars dealing with Poland and Polish matters, as well as the more important titles from Polish Literature, translated for the first time into English. We’re terribly proud of the fact that a scholar of world-renowned rank such as our member Prof. Segel chose to publish his splendid new anthology in our programme. With titles such as his, I trust that we will soon turn the attention of American academe towards us, and that this rather risky and bold initiative of the Institute’s Board of Directors will achieve success.
16. Your grandparents emigrated to the United States from the Płock and Lublin areas of Poland before the First World War. How do you remember them? What sort of Poland did they remember? What sort of Poland appeared in the stories handed down in your house?
My grandparents belonged to that "emigration” that left Poland in search of a better job, a better life, just before World War I. Unfortunately, I didn’t personally know three out of the four. Stefan Kraszewski, my paternal grandfather, travelled to the States along with his brother Antoni, from their home near Płock. He spent some time in Brooklyn, and then made his way to north-eastern Pennsylvania, where like most Slavs of his generation, he worked as a coal-miner. He was killed by a train while on his way to work in the winter of 1936, when my father was just about to turn 14. His wife Ludwika (who came from Tarnów), died in 1948, and thus quite a while before I was born. From my mother’s side, my grandfather Kazimierz Konarski (from Lublin), also a coal-miner, died in 1956. My sister knew him, but I didn’t. Now his wife, Julia Konarska (Kožarová), who was born in the Slovak town of Spišské vlachy, lived with us until her death in 1980, so I knew her very well as I was 18 when she passed away. With her as the exception, I know my grandparents mainly from stories and the few trinkets that have remained behind them. For example, I know that Stefan was a talented carpenter and woodworker. . . He was fond of constructing models of churches and houses from the wooden boxes in which dynamite was delivered to the mines. Some of his models have remained to this day. My grandfather Kazimierz Konarski had a good relationship with his son-in-law, my father. He was quite fond of baseball (that’s been passed down to me and my boys!) and my Dad and he would often drive down to Shibe Park to watch the old Philadelphia A’s in action.
I know rather little about their perspective on Poland. My grandmother Julia often said "What a good man Emperor Franz Joseph was,” and he sure must have been, since my other grandmother Ludwika was very fond of Franklin D. Roosevelt for that very reason, that he reminded her of the “good Emperor Franz Joseph of blessed memory.” I once asked my uncle, my father’s brother Leo, what went through his mother’s mind when the Germans attacked her country in 1939. He said, "She never said anything about it, at least I don’t remember her mentioning anything. You’ve got to remember that we were poor, especially after your grandfather’s death. She had other things to worry about.”
17. Your father, John B. Kraszewski, married a Slovak. What was the atmosphere like in your house as you were growing up? What language was spoken?
To speak like folk "from my neck of the woods,” my Dad married a "half-Slovak,” for, as I mention above, my mother Barbara was a Konarska. In our part of Pennsylvania there were a lot of immigrants, from many European countries, but most of all Poles, Slovaks, Italians, Lithuanians, and Welsh. The first and second generations rarely married outside of their particular ethnic conclave. Never with the Welsh, because they were protestant, but even marriages between a Pole and an Italian, or a Catholic German, were rare. I’m told that the Slovaks stopped recognising my grandmother on the street after she married a Pole. Can you believe it? But that sort of thing stopped after the War.
Poland, and Czechoslovakia, were always present in our home, although my sister and I grew up speaking English. Of course, the holidays were special times, especially in church. Not so long ago, in my mother’s church, the priest still sang at the Resurrection Mass Ježiš Kristus vstál z mrtvých, which always put such a big lump in my throat that I could never could get out the reply Chválme Boha, Boha svého. Good old Father Fabian, one of the real, old-guard Slovak priests, will still distribute Communion with T’elo Kristovo to those he knows understand him. . . But why should I bore you with the same banal details that you know from every Slavic home in North America?
18. How would you describe your own identity?
Again, to speak the language of our "valley,” I’m three-quarters Polish, and one-quarter Slovak. But I consider myself Kraszewski, and basta.
19. Your father and uncle were pilots in the USAAF during the Second World War. Were you brought up in a patriotic home?
You could say that. My father was patriotic. Generally speaking, there’s a pretty long martial tradition in my family, on the Konarski side too. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side, Antoni (who was born in Hungary), was an officer in the Austrian army. He was a colourful figure who spoke German, Hungarian, Slovak of course, and later English. He would say in despair to his unruly children, "You know what? In the army I had a hundred whacking great fellows under my command, who would dirty their pants when I looked at them crooked. And now? Eleven children don’t listen to me!” My mother’s brother, my late uncle Charles P. Konarski, was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in France during the D-Day invasion. Quite a few of the sixteen grandchildren of Kazimierz Konarski served at one time or another in the military—I have one cousin who was appointed to the Naval Academy, and one who was appointed to the Air Force Academy. I am not among my family’s veterans, which is actually quite strange, because as a child I was in love with the army and dreamed of a military career. But later, in high school, I hung around with a different crowd and those thoughts were knocked out of my head. Who knows, maybe it was for the best?
To speak precisely, only my father was a pilot. My Uncle Leo was a flyboy too, but he was a gunner in a bomber. He was wounded in the foot by flak over Austria during a bombing run, but fortunately his ship returned whole to Italy and his foot healed completely. My father didn’t get the chance to fight by his side, although he volunteered for the service a year or two before his brother. He qualified for cadet training in the USAAF and learned to fly. How he loved it! The letters he wrote home are full of his joy at soloing. . . Right before he was to be transferred out of the States for action, during a training mission in Arizona, he suffered a rather macabre mid-air catastrophe—curiously enough, exactly 59 years ago to this day: 29 August 1944. He was almost burned alive. After his accident, he spent months in several hospitals until he was discharged—and that’s how the war ended for him. Fortunately, he was taken very good care of by the medical corps—his letters from that period are also full of his gratitude to them—and he bore few scars of his dramatic experience. He lived a normal, full, happy life. He was a very positive, God-fearing man, and very patriotically disposed toward his country. Like most of his generation, after all. "The greatest generation.”
20. How would you characterise American patriotism in comparison with that in other countries, such as Poland, for example?
Must we return to generalities? To national groups? I’m sure that all types of patriots, cowards and indifferent people can be found in Poland, in America, in each and every country. But if I’m to speak unscientifically, I’d say that—in my opinion—there is no „desperate” patriotism in the States. Those Americans who are patriotic (because for many Americans patriotism is unfashionable, unforgivably „exclusive,” "intolerant,” "arrogant,” etc.) are honestly convinced, even after Vietnam, of the unbeatable nature of the American military force. In this, American patriotism is perhaps similar to British patriotism, and how could it be otherwise? Americans are convinced that their army is not a mechanism of oppression or hegemony, but that it always fights on the side of the weaker party, always for moral reasons, as a carrier of the values of democracy and freedom. In this, it is similar to both British and Roman patriotism. One must also remember that America is an empire, whereas Poland is a country which never possessed "leak-proof” borders. Excluding Pearl Harbor, America has never had to "defend herself” really, at least since the early years of the nineteenth century. Thus we have a different idea of military might and the use of an army than exists, perhaps, in different countries. And yet I always prefer the martial poetry of Baczyński and even Broniewski to that of Harold Shapiro; I always reach more readily for Białoszewski’s memoirs of the Warsaw Uprising than the books of Stephen A. Ambrose.
American patriotism is also noble. The enemy—just as Clausewitz would have it—ceases to be an enemy once he has been defeated. Then the victor has to reach out his hand to him in friendship. As examples of that sort of approach to martial things, I could point out the great, big-hearted generals Marshall and Robert E. Lee. But patriotism isn’t just about war. Patriotism is also the conviction of one’s responsibility to the civic order. And here the best example will be Harry Truman, who fostered the cult of Cincinnatus. Many Americans, I reckon, think along those lines too.
21. You are married to a Polish girl from Częstochowa. You and your wife speak to your sons in Polish, and you visit Poland regularly. You meet with the image of America in Poland. . . does that image please you?
Not always. Of course, I grant everyone the right to airing their thoughts honestly. There’s always room for disagreement among friends, and even among those who aren’t friends. I certainly won’t write off the French or the Germans for their attitude toward the war in Iraq. But I must admit that, when I read in the Polish press about the anti-American protests in Kraków. . . my Kraków. . . well, I was a little disillusioned. But alas. Anyway, that’s how it is with me. Here, in America, I’m always defending Poland from American criticism; in Poland, I feel obliged to defend America, when she’s criticised by Poles.
22. How do you find America? Is there an America that you fear, that you don’t like?
The best answer to your first question was given by John Lennon: "turn left at Greenland.” But seriously, America has, I believe, the best possible political system. It’s worked for 200 years and counting, right? St Thomas Aquinas is probably right in On Kingship, when he talks about the truly self-sacrificing, moral monarch as the best sort of government, but in the absence of that ideal situation, I’d have to say that American democracy is the best we can hope for in this real world. I’m not afraid of any America. I’m not a conspiracy theorist—although there’s bushels-full of them on this side of the Atlantic. I’d prefer television to be less stupid. I’d prefer that people read better books, watched better films and traded in their musical tickets for more ambitious theatre. I’d like to see morality play a bigger role in politics. For example, I’m against abortion and euthanasia, and am constantly reminding my students that just because something’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right. But these are commonly held views, which I share with the majority of so-called conservatives in most countries.
23. What do you think America will be like, in the future?
What will America be like in the future. . . I’m neither a prophet nor a politician. But judging from my students, I have the feeling that their generations are already tired of the culture which was initiated in the crazy ‘60s and ‘70s, and that the new American elite of the next 20 years is going to look at matters with a cooler eye, less passionately (in the negative sense of that word), without any false a priori division of the world in to "us and them.”
24. What, in your opinion, is the place of the scholar/humanist in American society?
I’ll put it this way. In 1990, when I earned my doctorate, I was already worn out by literature, school, conversations about culture, etc. I well remember sitting in the university theatre at Penn State, among so many other freshly-baked doctors, waiting for my turn to receive my diploma and the beautiful, mediaeval tradition of my "hooding,” looking about me and thinking, "Well, what now? What good were all those years of work? Maybe it’s all just absurd?” But then the president of the university, Prof. Bryce Jordan, got up to speak to us. Prof. Jordan was himself a rarity among American university presidents, because he was one of us: a humanist, a musicologist by profession. He spoke to us of the need for tradition, and of the threats that face a nation which cuts itself off from its cultural traditions. He told us that we are but one link in the grand chain of the European tradition, which reaches back to Athens, if not indeed Mesopotamia. . . That we’re about to receive from his hands, not just a hood and a diploma, but a torch that we must pass on in turn to the next generation, which we will be bringing up. That must sound terribly naive! But his simple speech hit me like a bolt out of the blue. I needed to hear something like that. Maybe this is the job of the humanist in every nation, American, Polish. . . Another important facet of it is, not to be afraid to speak out your mind, to advertise your positions, principles. . . to strive—as much as lies in our ability—to form the consciences our students, the future elite. That might also sound terribly naive, but I know that both my father, and my Eliot, would understand.
The interview was authorized by Prof. Charles S. Kraszewski in September 2003. It appeared as a chapter in the book “THE ROOTS ARE POLISH” (second edition 2004) published in Canada under the care and with the support from the Canadian Polish Research Institute in Toronto.
Menu to writings of Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm:
This story is presented here with permission of the author. -
Share your article/story, contact: ATPC - Articles/Stories.