Ryszard Kapuscinski
Ryszard Kapuscinski; drawing by David Levine

“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 critical spectators.

The second crisis is economic. The world of subsidized culture has gone with the Communists, and the stage on which Polish culture stood and strutted to amaze the world has given way. The old literary magazines went broke, the publishing houses had to become more businesslike or go under, the theaters (and theatrical production was the supreme achievement of Polish art in the postwar years) can no longer mount productions with huge casts, while film, as Zagajewski guessed, is indeed threatened with demotion to “a branch of commercialized entertainment.” A new cultural world of slender means is appearing to replace the old one. It is not necessarily an entirely debased world, but the artist and the impresario now have to think about the market, about production costs, about public taste when the cost of tickets for the movies, the theater, or the opera is no longer within the reach of every interested citizen.

In this transformed Poland, the problems Zagajewski sets himself in this book of lively, intricate essays have even more force than when he faced them in 1984, in that depressing period after the lifting of martial law when Polish society refused to abandon the free spirit of the Solidarity time but the regime, heavily and apparently invincibly armed, refused to abandon power. Two sets of choices recur throughout the book. The first, contained in the title, is the choice between art and the world, or in Polish conditions of that time, between the life of withdrawn contemplation and creation and the commitment to political struggle. The second is a choice between world views. Here, Zagajewski identifies two families of ideas, “European” rather than confined to the Polish opposition movement. One is antitotalitarian, rather anarchic, often (in its Western forms) highly skeptical and deconstructive. The other is a vision of alternative order, of hierarchy and traditional values.


Like most of his friends, Zagajewski (who was thirty-five when Solidarity arose) has in practice been an artist and an activist by turns—and sometimes simultaneously. He left Poland in 1982, escaping from martial law, and settled in Paris. Yet his feelings have sometimes been discordant with the Solidarity ethic. In the 1970s he was calling for a literature (in the free Poland of the future) that would be “realistic,” that would avoid the habit of allegory enforced by censorship, and that would serve “the collectivity.” But by 1980-1981, when in that semi-free interval many Solidarity intellectuals began to argue for just such a culture, he had already begun to change his mind. In the first of the essays in Solidarity, Solitude, he recalls going to a meeting in Krakow in 1981 at which he found avant-garde artists confessing their sins: Solidarity, they lamented, had shown them how wicked it was to divorce themselves from society’s sufferings and struggles. This scene put Zagajewski in mind of Stalinist self-criticism sessions. More seriously, it reminded him that this implied choice between inner and outer lives was an impossible one, denying an impossibly complex relationship. Certainly, there could be no banning of one or the other. “The inner life knocks on the door of the external world like Jehovah’s witnesses, who always interrupt our supper, an interesting TV movie, or a sweet repose.”

Later in his book, Zagajewski replies to a reader’s letter, from Mr. Hamlet in Denmark (Zbigniew Herbert’s poem Elegy of Fortinbras helps here: Hamlet is a crowded junction of Polish literary reference). Mr. Hamlet’s friends badger him to do something, to act politically: Should he listen to them or follow his preference for art and reflection? He asks his inevitable question; Editor Zagajewski replies that there is no choice between “being” and “not being,” if “to be” is to act and “not to be” is to think—or even if thinking is really “being” and vice versa. Mr. Hamlet’s friends should recognize his dual nature. “Be a little; don’t be a little.” This is plainly Zagajewski’s own conclusion about his life. In the last section of the book, he at one point wanders through the chaos of New York to stand entranced before the stillness and eternity of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music, in the Frick. He is tempted to stop and live in that painting. And yet he cannot. Picture and city are images of inwardness and outwardness, and he must oscillate between them.

With New York and its Vermeer, his two concerns come together. Zagajewski (and here things have changed considerably) was writing at a time when the love affair between the Polish opposition and their Church was at its height. He quotes a poem by Julia Hartwig: “…inheritors of the rhetoric of the homeland/into which we fit like a glove / although just yesterday / it seemed too tight.” For a moment, in the reign of a Polish pope, the intellectuals had laid aside their skeptical traditions and gone instead for faith and history. Zagajewski is very much a member of this new conservatism. He complains of the “sneering, negative tone” of (Western) twentieth-century voices, a tone he finds in Nietzsche, Musil, Mann, Gide, Sartre…. This “negative spirituality” looks at the “royal robe” but sees only its cheap lining. It rejects all norms as boring and constricting, and instead searches

for a life bubbling over with excess…for Life, Vitality, Authenticity…a search accompanied by a strong dislike not only of reason and rationalism but of every codified, distinct ethic.

Even in contemporary Poland, he sees two spiritualities existing side by side: Catholicism, the more “positive,” and antitotalitarianism.

Zagajewski’s criticism of that “antitotalitarian” ethic is religious, but also ingenious. He sees it, crudely, as a moral cop-out. It blames all evil on totalitarianism, excusing the individual so that “we become a little like angels.” This “Great Alibi” deprives people of the opportunity to sin, and the decision to reject an evil regime thereby becomes less of a moral choice than “a matter of taste” (a dig at Zbigniew Herbert’s poem on the subject). He admits, all the same, that antitotalitarianism can sometimes produce “miraculous people” like many of the dissidents of Europe and the Soviet Union. But they showed “a kind of self-sacrifice, courage and wisdom resistant to the allegations of Freud and others. In the West, the subtle and skeptical machinery of analysis works incessantly, keeping a malicious eye on everything: language, love, courage.”

He returns to this theme in “The Little Larousse,” an essay of aphoristic entries. Under “Evil,” we read:

Totalitarianism deeply wounds our sense of justice because we stop judging ourselves severely. It takes away the weight of life, eliminates the possibility of repentance. We like to speak of dignity, but what is dignity if there is no weight of guilt, no justice in it?… We are good because we have not been allowed to taste the choice between good and evil.

When he comes to describe the “positive spirituality” he prefers, Zagajewski is more elusive. He wants a history on which the nation can stand with some confidence; he wants values (like truth) which are absolute and not subject to “the relativism that corrodes the truth like rust in countries where it is not threatened by a single mortal danger.” He wants good people to say No to evil, but No must be said “from the position of the word Yes,” out of an assent to some restored and complete moral universe. He is very uneasy with the mocking tone of Witold Gombrowicz’s cultural criticism and especially with his fanatical dislike of artistic “From”; Zagajewski retorts that “from delineates and liberates.” It is the opposite of chaos and “nothingness”—which is not “nothing,” a vacuum, but “on the contrary,…bursts with an excess of being, substance.” Nothingness, he goes on, “brings a constant pressure to bear on us, just like the barbarians who for many centuries threatened Rome.” Form is Roman, and Zagajewski declares: “I am on the side of Rome, against the barbarians.”


My own feeling is that the tide of this sort of conservatism is now ebbing, a movement hastened by new patterns of politics, and that much of the Polish intellectual world is returning to the ironical mode that produced its most extraordinary achievements in this century: between the wars, and then again in the period between about 1955 and 1968. But Adam Zagajewski, though he calls himself Roman, is no dogmatist. Delight in the gift and puzzle of life inhabits everything that he writes, and he asks rather than answers. An example of Zagajewski at his best, and my own favorite passage in this book, is his note entitled “How to Leave a House of Slavery”:

In a procession, with banners, singing angry songs and hymns of revenge, waving clenched fists at the oppressors.

Or one could also leave a house of slavery English style, bidding farewell to no one, dressed for a brief outing, volume of poems in the pocket of a windbreaker. The morning is fair and the forecast calls for a long, beautiful day.

How, though, do you enter that house? (The house of slavery is not just a place, like the country on the Vistula, but a condition which humiliates and fetters thousands who do not even live in that country.) The tale of Kultura is about one way to enter.

In 1945, after the Yalta conference, a group of friends serving in the Polish Second Corps in Italy discussed their country, which was about to win the war but had already lost its independence. They decided to set up a publishing house, which started in Rome and then, in 1947, moved to Paris. In that year, they began to issue the periodical Kultura, which will soon celebrate its forty-fifth birthday.

The founders had all served for five or six years in the army. Out of the initial six, four had spent time in the Gulag Archipelago after Stalin’s seizure of eastern Poland in 1939. One, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, wrote A World Apart, still among the most terrible and moving accounts of that experience. Another, Jozef Czapski, was one of the very few prisoners at Kozielsk to escape the Katyn massacre. But the central spirit of Kultura was and is Jerzy Giedroyc, born of a princely family in Lithuania, a timid, reclusive man who never learned to speak proper French: utterly incorruptible, he is one of those born editors who do not write but have a genius for spotting talent. In their early years, they lived in the tiny, crammed office at Maisons-Lafitte as if it were a kibbutz: board and lodging were paid from the meager funds they raised; salaries were equal and pegged to the French minimum wage. And from there they issued a review whose sheer quality, moral and intellectual, made it a light of hope and inspiration for Poles all over the world—even in Poland, where copies of Kultura were the most precious and dangerous of smuggled treasures.

Kultura was independent. That ensured it enemies everywhere: not only in Poland, where it was abused daily as an imperialist propaganda tool paid for by the CIA and the Zionists, but also in the emigration. Kultura did not support the London government-in-exile (which finally handed over its tokens of office to President Walesa earlier this year), This refusal, crucial to the review’s character, had several roots. One was a left-of-center bias, represented by the late Juliusz Mieroszewski, for many years the main political commentator, who hoped that a free Poland would be a social-democratic welfare state. Another was a sharply critical attitude to prewar Poland, and indeed to all Polish history, which was felt by many exiles (given to a rosy dream of an immaculate, wronged nation) to be disloyal and destructive. Most important, though, was the review’s resolute insistence on the need for reconciliation with Germany, but above all with Russia and what Giedroyc used to call the “ULB”: Ukraine, Lithuania, and Byelorussia.

Giedroyc had started his journalistic career before the war as a sort of left-Pilsudskian. He accepted Pilsudski’s view that Poland’s most important relationships were eastern, but he opposed “the Jagellonian dream”: the vision of a restored pre-partition Commonwealth in which the ULB would be partners in a Polish-dominated federation.

After the war, Kultura took (and stuck to) the line that the new eastern frontier and the loss of Poland’s old eastern territories must be accepted. Vilnius should remain a Lithuanian city; Lwow a Ukrainian one. Much of the Polish emigration, part of which still toyed with the reconquest of Minsk and Kiev, regarded this as betrayal and—absurdly—accused Giedroyc and his friends of crypto-communism.

Today, as the debatable lands between Poland and Russia (the ULB) strive toward independence, the question of how the new Poland will behave toward them is crucial to the peace of the whole region. Reading this selection of articles, many written nearly twenty years ago, I am dazzled by their intellectual quality and courage on this subject, and ashamed that I so seldom read Kultura when it mattered most. Take a 1974 essay by Mieroszewski here (Imperialism: Theirs and Ours) in which he argued against the “barbarian anachronism” of putting Ukraine, Lithuania, and Byelorussia before the old imperialist choice between Poland or Russia. The only possible peace, he wrote, was one between a nonimperialist Russia and a nonimperialist Poland which recognized the right of those nations to self-determination and renounced all claims to their territory. Mieroszewski’s perceptions are acutely relevant today. During the last few years, for example, the Soviet state has worked with some success to manipulate the large Polish minority in Lithuania against the project of Lithuanian independence. But Mieroszewski saw long ago that there was a concealed Soviet purpose when Polish artistic groups and theater troupes were invited to visit Vilnius. “The targets of this operation are not the Poles who live in Lithuania and yearn for their native word. The target…is Lithuanians, and only Lithuanians,” for the encouragement of Polish culture was intended to impede a resurgence of an authentic Lithuanian nationalism and culture.

On the cold war, after an initial period in which Kultura supported American ideas of “liberation” and “roll-back,” the review went over to a dramatic analysis close to that of American revisionist historians in the 1960s. The cold war embodied a hidden complicity between the Soviet Union and the United States, intended, as the late Konstanty Jelenski puts it in this anthology, as “a feint designed to perpetuate the division of the world decreed at Yalta.” It followed that the true patriotism, Polish or European, must be to seek reconciliation in the teeth of cold war dogma. Mieroszewski wanted to disarm historic Russian fear of Poland by persuading the Russians that, after the disasters of 1944 and the failure of the Warsaw Rising, his country had been transformed: “Our traditional concept of Poland as a bastion of Western civilization collapsed in ruins…. We made the most horrifying discovery that a nation can make; namely that history is a notepad covered with scribbles.” The pseudonymous “Jozef Szrett,” writing from Poland in 1984, denounced both Russian and Polish ideas of national messianism: “our own, which is tearful, over-angelic, and full of martyrdom,” and the Russian “messianism of leadership…an imperialistic one.” He went on: “Let us hope that one day everyone…will wake up and realize that the Poles are not a Christ and the Russians are not the Moses of nations (not even of the Slavic nations.)”

Even more striking is an essay here by Jan Jozef Lipski, written in 1981 just before the imposition of martial law. “Patriotism,” he observed, “is not only respect and love for tradition; it is also the relentless selection and discarding of elements in this tradition.” Lipski stated that “the boldest and most prescient act in post-war Polish history” was the 1965 letter of the Polish bishops to their German Catholic brethren which not only offered forgiveness but asked for it as well. Poland’s western territories (the lands acquired from Germany in 1945) were not “recovered territories” but, for the most part, had never been Polish in recent history, if at all.

It took courage to say that, even in 1981. But Lipski charges on, pointing out how much of Polish culture has always been an import, and how false it is to make the equation that “Pole equals Catholic” in a land which owes so much to the energy and devotion of its Jews, Protestants, and atheists. He remarks that religious anti-Semitism is based on a gross theological error about original sin, and blames Polish indifference to the extermination of the Jews on “the rampant anti-Semitism which existed before the war.” True to the line of most of these contributors, Lipski is out to batter down “national xenophobia and megalomania.” If they are not overcome, then “any ‘agent’ in an uhlan’s shako who drapes a royal crest across his chest can lead the nation to wheresoever he wishes, beating on the drum of ‘national pride’ and manipulating our phobias.” Nine years later, the wretched presidential campaign of 1990 degenerated into just such a carnival of phobias.

But Kultura published articles not only about politics. Its sovereign quality attracted illustrious writers and philosophers: Witold Gombrowicz, Czeslaw Milosz, and Leszek Kolakowski among them. Here is the late Leopold Tyrmand’s murderous satire, “The Hair Styles of Mieczyslaw Rakowski,” written in 1967 at a time when few could have dreamed that Rakowski would rise from the editorship of a daring Party weekly to become the last leader of Polish communism. Here is Milosz writing on Central European consciousness and Kolakowski foreshadowing current conflicts when he argued, in 1978, that antitotalitarian resistance must recognize “the traditional republican principle of the separation of Church and State.” Slawomir Mrozek’s fierce skit on anti-Semitism, “The Nose,” is included, with Bohdan Korzeniewski’s memoir of Auschwitz life and death (“The Knoll”), Odojewski’s short story about Katyn, and much else to justify Kultura’s unique reputation.

Europe and North America may find Polishness too intricate to interpret easily; to people in southern continents, the condition of a Pole is quite baffling. Stranded in a remote village in the north of Ghana, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski tries to explain to the elders where he comes from, but it is beyond their grasp. A white country which never had colonies but was itself colonized? “We always carry it to foreign countries, all over the world, our pride and powerlessness. We know its configuration, but there is no way to make it accessible to others.”

It would be lazy and Polonocentric to read Kapuscinski’s marvelous book of reporter’s impressions looking for hints of the homeland. His famous books on the doom of rulers who sought development without democracy—The Emperor or Shah of Shahs—could be read as a metaphor for Edward Gierek’s Poland in the 1970s. But here we are far away from Poland, on the road with Kapuscinski in his days as a journalist for a Polish news agency in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, encountering every kind of carnage, power lust, fanaticism, and suffering face to face, without time for ingenious allegories. “The Soccer War,” the title section here, is about the short, very bloody war which broke out between Honduras and Salvador after a football match. It is an example of alert, understated, but unforgettable war reporting which is as good as Martha Gellhorn at her best.

Like Joseph Conrad, Kapuscinski was a professional who put his life and health at risk to serve remote and indifferent masters—in his case, the heavily supervised and censored Polish Press Agency (PAP). The agency reporter’s first duty is not to write fancily or to interpret but to get his story out, and a motif in this book is Kapuscinski’s frantic search for a telex—he breaks into the locked and abandoned post office in Stanleyville as Lumumbist gendarmes tour the streets looking for whites to kill, or stumbles over dustbins in blacked-out Tugucigalpa to find the only telex machine in Honduras (the president was using it). All reporters will recognize his almost religious joy when the story is sent and, through the intercontinental darkness, there comes the sign that the message is safely across: HOW RECEIVED MSG BIBI? followed by RECEIVED OK OK GREE FOR RYSIEK [Ryszard] TKS TKS!

At those moments, all horrors, dangers, and agonies of discomfort seem amply paid for, though in a coinage which soon loses its value as the reporter staggers out of the post office into the reality of scorpions, dysentery, and lunatics armed with AK-47s. Kapuscinski faced death (or rather, death faced him, for no good reporter is a willing martyr) on many occasions. He lay with his nose in the ants in Honduras as bullets crackled over his head; he escaped execution in Usumbura by a mere stroke of luck and in Stanleyville by the chance that one of his colleagues knew the chief of the killer squad already leveling their guns. He was stung in the forehead by a giant scorpion in the Somali desert war; Yoruba rebels in Nigeria had already beaten him up with rifle butts and were preparing to douse him with kerosene and burn him when they decided to accept a bribe.

All this left him a pessimist, subject to the occupational paranoia of foreign correspondents. Lying sick and drenched in sweat in Lagos, he asked himself what he was doing all this for, and found gloomy comfort in Lévi-Strauss: “My life of adventure, instead of opening up a new world to me, had the effect rather of bringing me back to the old one.” Kapuscinski is not hopeful about the chances of third world leaders. Writing about the fall of Ben Bella, and reflecting on other great men of that time (Nkrumah, Sékou Touré Lumumba, even Nehru) he describes

the terrible material resistance that each one encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that it just isn’t happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink…. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organizes a coup.

And the cycle begins anew.

The chasm between ruler and ruled, between city and countryside, is a recurrent obsession with Kapuscinski:

On the bottom there are the peasant masses on the eternal treadmill of poverty…. At the top, somewhere in the drawing rooms, someone is being locked up; someone has been overthrown. Two worlds—with no visible links between them.

Forty kilometers out of Algiers, “this Paris of Africa,” the stone age begins. “An image characteristic of a colonial country is the modern automated electronics factory, and beyond its walls are caverns inhabited by people who still use wooden hoes.” The Europeanized city lives its own life, almost indifferent to war and disaster until the tanks actually grind down its streets.

In a striking passage about Syria during the 1973 Middle East war, Kapuscinski suggests that Arab societies—unlike his own, or those of Algeria, Vietnam, or of Israel—have not yet learned what total war means. “In Israel, everybody takes part in the war, but in the Arab countries, only the army.” At the moment when Syria was losing the Golan Heights and its young soldiers were dying, in Damascus—twenty kilometers away—“the cafés were full of people, and others were walking around, worrying about whether they would find a free table.” Aware of this, soldiers in adversity feel alone and abandoned, and lose the will to fight.

Few Westerners would dare to make a comment like that, fearing reproach either for callous militarism or for foisting their own experience on a quite different type of society. A Pole, however, is entitled to such judgments. A country repeatedly colonized by stronger powers, which lost a fifth of its population in the last world war through murder, disease, and starvation, has lived through most of the disasters that also affect modern Africa or Latin America. One day in Cyprus, at the time of the Turkish invasion, Kapuscinski found himself pushed onto a platform to address a mass of desperate Greek refugees. He could only say this:

I understand your despair….The roads of my country have been trod upon by millions of refugees, and in every great war my country has lost everything. I myself have been a refugee, and I know what it means to have nothing, to wander into the unknown and wait for history to utter a kind word. I know that what you care about most right now can be reduced to the questions: when will we recover our homes? when will we return to our land? I want to tell you honestly that I do not know. It may be in a month; it may be never.

History has now, at last, spoken one of its rare kind words to Poland. We in the West are impressed by this. But, as these three books show, the Poles see no reason for gratitude. They have taken history apart with pitiless energy, and finding it defective, have built a new one which speaks not only kindly but also wisely—and in Polish.

This Issue

August 15, 1991