Between East and West: Writings from ‘Kultura’
The Soccer War
“What would happen if one day—one beautiful day—Poland regained the freedom of a political life? Would this splendid spiritual tautness—which surely characterizes the entire nation or at least its altogether numerous and quite democratic élite—survive? Would the churches be deserted? Would poetry become—as it does in untroubled countries—food for a bored handful of experts, and film one branch of commercialized entertainment? Would what could be saved in the Polish context protect us from the flood, from destruction, and even rise above the danger, like a high and beautiful wall, or would what arose in response to the dangerous challenge of totalitarianism cease to exist on the same day as the challenge?”
We begin to know some of the answers to those questions. They were posed, originally, back in 1984 by the poet Adam Zagajewski—posed with a thick pinch of self-mockery, as the sort of questions that would occur to friends of Poland from the West who worried that the moral splendor of the Polish intellectuals might evaporate when their oppression was lifted. All the same, they were shrewd questions to raise seven years ago.
The churches certainly remain full. The Church, however, is entering a difficult period. The first rush of gratitude to the Church from the new political class, sheltered and encouraged for so many years by episcopate and priesthood, is dying down. One token is the new reluctance of former Solidarity politicians to pass the bill criminalizing abortion, once seen as a thank-you gift to the Catholic church. More generally, Poland is witnessing the slow revival of a “lay left,” a liberal political movement composed mostly of practicing Catholics who feel skeptical about dogma and hierarchy, and who believe that the state and constitution should be confessionally neutral.
The “splendid spiritual tautness” has not been destroyed but has been shared out among many competing groups. They are taut enough, though no doubt less splendid. Inevitably, the unity of intellectuals which was so impressive for the last thirty years has broken up; nothing else could have happened, as Poland resumed older patterns of pluralism, and while many Poles feel sad about the breakup of Solidarity, few indeed think it could or should have been avoided.
Zagajewski mentions two kinds of crisis that now face that “elite.” The first is a slow movement to the margins of political life. In the later decades of the “Peoples’ Republic,” the intellectuals came to be perceived as natural leaders and voices of the nation in a nineteenth-century, romantic tradition. When communism collapsed in 1989, opposition intellectuals became ministers, deputies, ambassadors. Then slowly “normality” began to set in. One way of looking at the fall of the Mazowiecki government and the triumph of Lech Walesa is to see those events as the return, still in its earliest stages, of a professional political class to power. The magnificent amateurs, in turn, are displaced, and the intellectuals are reverting to a position familiar in most Western countries: that of …