At War with the Word: Literary Theory and Liberal Education, by R. V. Young. Wilmington, DE. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. 1999. xii + 199 pages. Index, bibliography. Hardcover. $24.95.
A major work discussing the process of "dehumanizing" the humanities at Western universities during the last several decades. The author points out that "traditional humanist scholars . . . saw themselves as being engaged in a dialogue with a work of human intellect and imagination," while postmodernist scholars attempt to be "clinically indifferent" toward "the human sciences." The literary works are treated as "anthills and beehives" rather than products of a "rational free will." The sources of such attitudes are sought in a rejection of the Enlightenment which in turn was a rejection of an earlier and fundamentally Western world view based on belief in the Logos. The rejection of logocentrism proceeded through several stages, and Young details them with admirable clarity and competence. His discussions of Derrida and Nietzsche could be used in the classroom. He points out that the différance of which the deconstructionists speak was familiar to Christian saints and philosophers, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, and that the "lack" around which the philosophers have built their arguments lately is a déja vu from the Christian perspective. His concise discussion of historicism (Foucault, Lentricchia) is likewise suitable for classroom use. He ends the book with a discussion of literary works which he himself teaches in his English courses.
While the book is recommended, it is not without shortcomings. A major one is its inability to see some good in historicism and deconstruction. The historicist notion of the dominant discourse was skillfully used in Edward Said's Orientalism, among others, and for good reason: it provides an explanation of what it means to write "before" or "after" one's time. The defenders of the Western tradition (Young among them) are often unable to construct their argument in such a way as to encompass critiques of that tradition written from the anti-colonialist, feminist, or other perspectives. Yet historicist readings can enrich and broaden the traditional readings of literature. Shakespeare's Tempest can be construed as partaking of the easy stereotypes of "primitives" and "barbarians" which first world gentlemen like to invoke from their leather armchairs and pulpits (the leather comes from countries where they treat animals in a barbarous way, of course).
A People Apart: The Jews in Europe 1789-1939, by David Vital. Oxford-New York. Oxford University Press. 1999. 976 pages. Hardcover. $45.00.
Like Iwo Pogonowski's Jews in Poland (1993), Vital's book speaks of Jews in Europe, rather than Jews of Europe, thus emphasizing the troubled relationship between this minority and the European states. Some of these states granted Jews full civil rights but virtually never followed up with a recognition of the special place that Jews occupy in history and therefore in the present. Vital points out that both among Jews and Gentiles there arose a distinction between unassimilated and assimilated Jews; often acceptance was granted to the latter only. Vital also points out that the rise of European nationalisms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries marginalized Jews in states which gained or regained independence after World War I and which excluded from their newly (re)gained identity Jewish presence and Jewish history.
One might add here that, ironically, a similar process of exclusion is now going on with regard to other minorities. E.g., the ebullient Lithuanian identity excludes Poles from political life and from presence in Lithuanian history. In Poland, the Jewish component of Polish history is only marginally noted in standard textbooks, and much remains to be done to integrate Jewish presence in Poland with mainstream Polish history without alienating either group. Vital praises those Jews who, early in the twentieth century, recognized that Jewish presence in Europe was nearing its end, and that it was essential for Jews to have their own state. The author is a historian and a sympathizer of Zionism which he credits with saving the remnants of Jewry after the Holocaust.
Na krancu dlugiego pola i inne wiersze z lat 1988-1998 (at the end of a large field and other poems, 1988-1998), by Krzysztof Koehler. Warszawa. Biblioteka Frondy (ul. Reymonta 30/16, 01-842 Warszawa). 1998. 191 pages. Paper. In Polish.
The volume demonstrates a growing maturity of this intensely moral and religious poet. Koehler is one of the major poets writing in Polish today. There is something of Wallace Stevens in him: his Romanticism is restrained and his love of nature subdued in a sophisticated fashion. He is certainly not a poet for the masses, the way Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska or even Zbigniew Herbert have been. Koehler teaches at Rice University in 1999-2000: an opportunity to invite him to visit still beckons.
European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment, and Propaganda, 1914-1918, edited by Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press (The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge, CB2 2RU). 1999. xii + 430 pages. Illustrations, notes, index. Hardcover.
The book deserves praise for many reasons, not the least of which is that it returns to the conception of "Europe" as it existed before the rise of the Ottoman and Russian Empires (both of twhich seized chunks of what had earlier been regarded as "Europe" in the cultural sense). It deepens these earlier notions in that it adds the Jewish contribution to Europe. All too often Jews were subsumed in other categories, while the East Central European nations were made invisible by the empires which had swallowed them.
The book concentrates on mass culture rather than on "high" culture, and it includes art, music, and propaganda, in addition to belles lettres. Its fourteen chapters (each written by an author specializing in a particular topic) are summarized by the Editors in Conclusion. The French tended to be racist aduring World War I, while the Germans indulged in a lust for destruction and conquest. The Russians borrowed from the Germans and then added some of their own mythology about the "Slavic soul," while the Jews idealized their Eastern European shtetl.
The editors favor the conception of modernism as "a backlash against the alienating materialism and stultifying rationalism of industrial modernity." (Introduction) The cult of the irrational which began in art at that time was part of that backlash. The process was particularly far advanced in Germany. The editors note the politicization of art during the war, a phenomenon that has remained with us ever since. Thus the Czechs favored modernistic styles as a form of opposition to the traditionalist Habsburg empire, while the French used traditionalist art to express their nationalistic feelings. Perceptively, the editors note that during the Great War, autocratic regimes lost control of popular culture, while the British regime, being more democratic in nature, retained it. The war also marked an end to the dreams of cosmopolitanism and the hope of transcending nationalism which some artists had cherished. It made it starkly clear that "between the individual and humanity stands the nation," to quote the German economist Friedrich List. The book seems to be based on a form of essentialism that is fundamental to European culture.
Of particular interest is the chapter on Polish culture in World War I written, by Harold B. Segel, and one on Jewish culture during the same period, by Aviel Roshwald. Both chapters synthesize a large body of documentation and interpretation. The book broadens the discursive space considerably, and it is a fascinating read. One complaint-which we recently lodged in regard to another Cambridge University Press book, Faith Wigzell's Reading Russian Fortunes-is a sizeable number of typographical mistakes.
Lily of the Valley, by Suzanne Strempek Shea. New York, Pocket Books. 1999. 273 pages. Hardcover. $22.00.
As was the case with Strempek Shea's previous novels, this too is a novel about Polish Americans and their ordinary life. But unlike the first two , this one is intensely Polish-patriotic and American-patriotic. When supermarket queen and local millionnairess, Mary Ziemba, asks the heroine (and the narrator) to paint a picture of herself amidst the relatives whose photographs Ziemba had preserved, we get a whiff of Polish history, its tragedies and glories, sweat and strain. The mysteries of nationhood, of belonging, of having a past, of having a dignity which comes from having a past are all before us. Ms. Ziemba's life suggests to us that people without a past are like straw, while those who possess it carry it as a burden, but also as a treasure that gives them joy and pride.
Defiantly, Strempek Shea foregrounds every conceivable expression and situation signalling the lower middle class lifestyle, like "Buoys/Gulls" printed on lavatories at a fish-and-chips place in New England owned by Leo and Alice Baldyga (nee Szczpiorski), or the narrator's dream of a n exhibit of her artworks during which "wine in two colors" would be served by tuxedoed waiters.
The innocence of Strempek Shea's first two novels has been lost, as it inevitably must happen when heroines and/or writers mature. The heroine is divorced, and she falls in love with a divorced guy. While in Hoopi Shoopi Donna the heroine's dream had been to become the leader of a polka band, here she and her beloved visit museums of impressionist art, circulate within the UMass crowd (her brother graduates from the University of Massachussets), and ponder the secrets of great art. Her sister makes it big in the theater world, and subsequently stops attending "the real church" in favor of an "Eastern" religion. Her parents gamble-successfully, as it turns out. Her brother once stole money from Catholic Charities.
To appreciate this novel, one has to possess a certain amount of sympathy for lower middle class America, for its struggles and aspirations, and its ability to practice moderation in all things. This novel celebrates the white East European ethnics who made it in America without any handouts. They have not been commemorated in the great masterpieces that grace the interiors of America's museums and libraries. Poles are the largest group among these ethnics, comprising almost nine million citizens, according to the latest census. Quite apart from being a good novelist, Strempek Shea deserves the gratitude of ethnic America for taking up their problems and their "lifestyle," and converting them into narrative art.
Not only is the heroine older, wiser, and less innocent, but she has also emerged from the amusing poverty in which the author had placed her in earlier novels. Now she wears sandals that cost $150-she buys them on sale, of course.
The novel is not just Polish American; it is also Catholic. It conveys a universal message: all people around us are our brothers and sisters, or rather, they could become our brothers as sisters if we so wished and if we made an effort instead of complaining of loneliness. But this broader message is sometimes awkwardly delivered. Improbable situations abound. A rich self-made spinster rescues a homeless teenager. He becomes a model citizen, she leaves her estate to him, and he in turn rewards the narrator/artist generously (she had been commissioned to do the portrait of the spinster, but she had never been paid). A nearly total lack of greed and resentment, and an almost monkish moral perfection enveloping the characters at the end, detract from the realism of this novel.
How We Found America: Reading Gender through East European Immigrant Narratives, by Magdalena J. Zaborowska. Chapel Hill & London. University of North Carolina Press (P. O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-2288). 1995. xii + 359 pages. Index. Paper. No price given.
Written from a historicist postmodern perspective and supported by the author's ability to extract details from books and memoirs authored by the educated segment of East European immigration to America, this eloquent book nevertheless comes close to not seeing the forest for the trees. The author uses memoirs and novels written by immigrants not to "reconstruct" immigrant experience but rather to provide a close reading of the text itself, interpreting texts rather than experience, in a post-Derridean fashion. She is interested in the creation of tradition which she claims began when Mary Antin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, published her autobiography in 1912. The tradition was continued by Eva Hoffman, an immigrant from Poland, who published Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989). Hoffman mentions Antin as her spiritual predecessor, and Zaborowska opines that "Hoffman's text is a clear continuation of Antin's narrative of acculturation; it acknowledges this similarity and claims the heritage of the earlier story." Tucked in-between these two writers are Elisabeth Stern, Anzia Yezierska, and Maria Kuncewicz. Zaborowska is consistent in her lack of interest in reconstruction, the traditional topic of books such as hers; instead, she concentrates on what the Russians call stolknovenie, or confrontation, between the female tradition of the old world, and the somewhat different expectations which the new world has of females. The center of attention is a realization that the immigrant female has to follow "the narrative prescribed for her" in the new culture. The struggle (the Bakhtinian "dialogue") between this prescription and the authors' wish not to be pigeonholed is the focus of the author's attention. To put it plainly, the immigrant women discover that they are expected to behave in the traditionally feminine ways in the new land, notwithstanding the fact that almost everything else was changing in America during the period of their acculturation.
The reason for mentioning trees and forest at the beginning of this review lies here. All cultures are prescribed narratives, and because of that they are sitting ducks for attacks against them by outsiders. The emerging feminist culture appears to be no less static, confining, and intolerant. In today's academic scholarship in humanities, Zaborowska's postmodern methodology is the prescribed one, a point which somehow fails to register with those who complain about discriminatory elements in traditionalist culture.
Complaints about being pigeonholed by Old World and New World cultures are really complaints about the human condition. It is too bad that talented writers like Zaborowska are so entirely swayed into believing that one can bypass that condition as it were, and that what really matters in scholarship is to show cracks in cultures rather than their sustaining value.
Polish Literature: From the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology. Edited and translated by Michael J. Mikos. Warsaw. Constans Publishers. ISBN 83-901012-3-2. 683 pages. Hardcover. No price given.
This comprehensive anthology covers Polish literature from the Middle Ages (starting with the Polish Chronicle by Gallus Anonymous) to the eighteenth century. The editor's unfortunate use of the word "Enlightenment" for Polish eighteenth-century writings follows the traditional-and outdated-periodization of Polish literature, and it mislabels authors who for most part labored in total separation from the Scottish Enlightenment and its methodologies which are generally identifed with the Enlightenment in the English-speaking world. The book covers religious literature of the Middle Ages, the Golden Age of Polish literature during the Renaissance (Klemens Janicki, Marcin Bielski, Biernat z Lublina, Marcin Kromer, Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski, Lukasz Górnicki, Wawrzyniec Goslicki, Piotr Skarga, Mikolaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski, Mikolaj Sep-Szarzynski, and many others), the Baroque or "Sarmatian" period in the seventeenth century (the Morsztyns, Daniel Naborowski, Waclaw Potocki, Wespazjan Kochowski, Maciej Sarbiewski, Samuel Twardowski, Jan Chryzostom Pasek, and others), and the "Enlightenment" period (Stanislaw Konarski, Waclaw Rzewuski, Adam Naruszewicz, Ignacy Krasicki, Stanislaw Trembecki, Konstancja Benislawska, Alojzy Felinski, Kazimierz Brodzinski, and others). Each excerpt is accompanied by notes; there are also introductions to each section. It would have been useful to enclose bibliographical information about the earlier English editions of the works excerpted. E. g., Wawrzyniec Goslicki's opus was previously (and opulently) published by the Institute of Polish Culture in Florida, while Jan Chryzostom Pasek's Memoirs had previously been published in two separate English translations. These reservations notwithstanding, thanks are due to Professor Mikos for his extensive work in creating a basic library of works for courses in Polish literature in translation.
The Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, by Jakob Walter. Edited and with an Introduction by Marc Raeff. New York. Doubleday. 1991. xxx + 161 pages. Chronology, place names, illustrations. Hardcover. $20.00.
Eastern Europe's popular mythology sees Napoleon's march on Moscow as a triumphant progression, while his retreat is seen as a tragedy. This memoir of a Westphalian German drafted into Napoleon's army gives us the view from the pew as it were. The territories which Bonaparte's army crossed were so impoverished by previous looting and suppression that even in friendly territories (Poland-Lithuania-Belarus) provisions were scarce, and the stealing and slaughtering of animals for food was done in appalling conditions. War indeed is hell. A useful przyczynek to the history of the period.
Talking About God Is Dangerous: The Diary of a Russian Dissident, by Tatiana Goricheva. Translated by John Bowden from the German. Chicago-New York. Crossroad Publishing Co. (370 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10017). 1987. 103 pages. Hardcover. $11.95.
The book deals with the 1970s and 1980s in the ethnically Russian part of the Soviet Union. However, the USSR is presented as if it were a nation state and not a colonial empire. This is a common failing of Russian authors, both left-wing and right-wing, and it has contributed to misreadings of Russian history in the West.
The author's unshakeable religious faith which she had acquired in improbable conditions evokes admiration. The book describes the usual fate of religious dissidents under the Soviets: interrogation by the KGB, harassment, secret meetings with the like-minded people, more harassment, emigration under duress (the author was given the choice of emigration or the gulag), minor notoriety in the 1980s, speeches given in various countries and, finally, quiet obscurity.
At the time of publication of this book, Ms. Goricheva lived in Paris, and she was fulsome in praising the Russian clergy, Russian spirituality, Russian this and Russian that... while at the same time complaining that the West lacked real priests and real spirituality, and that it was naive and backward, somewhat like Russia in the nineteenth century. How well we know that destructive shallowness of Russian complaints about the West on which the tyrannical Russian political system has feasted for centuries. The wonderful Russian dissidents behave nobly in their homeland, and then relocate abroad where they become propagandists for Russia, instead of fighting against Russia so that Russians could begin to live better. As long as people like Ms. Goricheva do not abandon their idea of tsarist Russia being "holy Russia," there is little hope that the Russian Federation would ever become a democratic entity.
Her Diary was written during the years of Solidarity and of the Russian-induced martial law in Poland, yet our author does not devote even one line to those developments. Her chauvinistic self-centeredness is all too evident. For all her religious exaltation, we have to describe her as a Russia-obsessed person whose faith in God did not broaden her horizons enough to make her realize that Russians are not central to the world, and that freedom will not come to Russia until the Russians themselves grant freedom to the non-Russian subjects of the "Russian" Federation. Thus, while the book contains some unquestionably Christian moments, it also demonstrates a lack of historical knowledge among Russians and their inability to abandon their parochial perspective.
Poland's Navy: 1918-1945, by Michael Alfred Peszke. New York. Hippocrene Books (171 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016). 1999. xii + 222 pages. Index, bibliography. Hardcover. $29.95.
A comprehensive history of the Navy in the Second Polish Republic, with an introductory chapter outlining Polish contacts with the Baltic since the eleventh century. Alas, unlike the British, the Poles never developed a seafaring spirit in those centuries when navies ruled the world. Still, the history is competently written and it stands ready to become a reference work.
Ukrainski modernizm: Próba periodyzacji procesu historycznoliterackiego, by Agnieszka Korniejenko. Kraków. Universitas (al. 3 Maja 7, IV pietro, 30-063 Kraków). 1998. 322 pages. Paper. Summary in English. Price not given. In Polish.
An analysis of trends in Ukrainian literature between 1900-1960. In spite of a lack of statehood (Ukraine was partitioned between two states, Poland and the Soviet Union), Ukrainians managed to create a cohesive literature which has traditionally been divided into three currents: nationalistic, Catholic, and communist. However, the author points out that this simplistic division does not reflect the complexities of Ukrainian political and literary situation. The author teaches at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, by David Remnick. New York. Random House. 1997. xiii + 398 pages. Notes on sources, Bibliography. Hardcover. $25.95.
This ideologically-loaded book follows in the wake of dozens of similar books about Russia published in the 1970s and 1980s by journalists and officials who happened to have been stationed in that country. Russia used to "sell" because of the stiff snort of irrationality which it provided to level-headed Americans. Indeed, it used to be enough to spend a few months in Moscow to come up with books like My Russian Journey. Times have changed, and Remnick's book is probably one of the last ones trying to ride the wave of gratuitous notoriety which a posting in Russia used to provide.
Remnick is a great namedropper. Well-positioned in Moscow as an American correspondent, he brushed shoulders with the rich and powerful in the new Russian state. He spoke to and interviewed writers, journalists, think tank commentators, and ordinary Muscovites. Names alone can make a book publishable; imagine someone who talked to Gorbachev on a number of occasions and could quote Gorbachev verbatim. This forgettable 400-page chat opines that Russia "undoubtedly will reassert itself in the twenty first century" and that people like Henry Kissinger are "Russophobes." Remnick bemoans the dramatic drop of interest in things Russian throughout American academia, but he seems not to know that the previously inflated enrollments reflected not only our fascination with Russian culture but also, and primarily, the once-formidable arsenal of weapons which Russia squeezed out of the populations it exploited.
Three years have passed since the book had been published, and the volume reads more like history than a narrative about something that is happening here and now. The tome's rapid aging corresponds to Russia's aging, literally and metaphorically. The legacy of tsarist and Soviet expansionism and inhuman policies of the Soviets hurt Russia profoundly, a fact which Mr. Remnick fails to analyze.
The Art of Political War, by David Horowitz. Los Angeles, CA. The Committee for a Non-Liberal Majority (P. O. Box 67128, Los Angeles, CA 90067). 1999. 48 pages. Paper. $3.95.
In this clearly partisan booklet, David Horowitz pulls no punches in advising political activists how to become effective. He has certainly practiced what he preaches: a one-time leftist radical, he is now a leading neocon. It obviously took considerable political skills to sail from prominence in one movement to prominence in a movement that is directly opposed to the first one. Some Pollyannish ethnic activists might learn quite a bit from Horowitz's sober assessment of what political struggles in society are all about, and how political relationships are nurtured and maintained.
Ludmila Murawska: An Exhibit Sponsored by the Torun Muzeum and the University of Torun, 2 July-20 August 1999. Prepared by Miroslaw Supruniuk. Torun. Archiwum Emigracji Biblioteki Universyteckiej. 1999. Paper.
A remarkable Catalog containing two interviews with Ludmila Murawska, painter and actress, whose "Teatr Osobny Trzech Osób" consisted of herself, Miron Bialoszewski and Ludwik Hering. Striking reproductions of paintings and theater decor.
Other Books and Periodicals Received:
My Name Is Million: An Illustrated History of the Poles in America, by W. S. Kuniczak. 2d ed. New York. Hippocrene Books. 2000. 298 pages. Index, illustrations. Hardcover. $24.95.
Originally published in 1978 by Doubleday, this popular history of Polish Americans is authored by a notable translator of Henryk Sienkiewicz's novels.
Akcent: literatura i sztuka. A quarterly (20-022 Lublin, ul. Okopowa 7, Poland). No. 2(68), 1997. 211 pages.
The issue is devoted to Americans of Polish background. It abounds in wishful thinking. Even Thomas Gladsky (who contributed an article) could not resist the temptation of drawing a rosier picture of Polish America than is warranted by reality. But excerpts from Suzanna Strempek Shea's Selling the Lite of Heaven and Anthony Bukoski's short story "A Chance of Snow" indicate that Akcent treats the issue of Polish Americans more seriously than has been the case with the various "polonijne publikacje" in Poland.
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