Some Comments, Alas, Mostly Critical on The Polish Review in its Fiftieth Year of Publication
Anyone who has Polish interests at heart is likely to wish that non-Poles, and especially the influential individuals in countries that have significant clout on the world scene, have at least some knowledge and understanding of things Polish. If a Pole, one need not be rabidly nationalistic or passionately patriotic to have at heart the interest of forty million human beings who identify themselves as Poles. The United States is such a country par excellence, and its attitudes and policies have played a crucial role in recent Polish history, ever since President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points proclaimed the right to independence for all nations.
The image of a country and its people is shaped in world opinion in a variety of ways. Among them, an important role is played by the quality and outreach of a country’s culture, especially with regard to its creative, scientific, and scholarly achievements. Moreover, if there are academic programs abroad devoted to the study of the country, as well as journals that disseminate knowledge and understanding of its history, contemporary affairs, and culture, these provide special opportunities to perform the ambassadorial function effectively.
The Polish Review advertises itself as “the preeminent English-language quarterly devoted to Poland and Polish culture.” Published by the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America, the journal is celebrating fifty years of publication, and the Institute has just brought out a “generous sampling of important articles” titled Fifty Years of The Polish Review, 1956-2006. A review of that volume will, no doubt, appear in the pages of Sarmatian Review in due course. My purpose is more modest but perhaps of more immediate significance: I want to take a quick look at the two last years of the journal, with the view to initiating a discussion about the extent to which the journal performs the tasks it advertises for itself, and the direction it should take in the future.
If one looks at the table of contents of issue no. 1(2004) as an example, one is truly taken aback. The journal seldom publishes issues devoted to a single topic or author, and it has hardly ever devoted an issue to an important personality in Polish history, politics, or literature. The entire issue no.1(2004) is devoted to Jerzy Kosinski. He was undoubtedly an interesting character and a writer of some stylistic and narrative virtuosity, but he is not a writer of intellectual substance or high artistic merit, and his work hardly belongs to Polish literature. Devoting an entire issue to Kosinski when there is so much that needs to be said, written, publicized, and repeated to move the best of Polish literature into the consciousness of Western readers in even a marginal way is certainly difficult to understand.
Does the explanation lie in the fact that the editor-in-chief of the journal is a specialist in some aspects of the history of Polish-American relations, while the associate editor teaches in an English department at an American university? This may be too simple an explanation. A more likely reason is the fact that, reflecting its institutional affiliation and its immediate context and background, the journal is somewhat biased toward the marginal subject matter that skirts around issues crucial to Polish literature and culture. It seems as if the editors are afraid to touch on issues that might mobilize the interest of their potential readers. Such a bias makes for a gross narrowing of focus; a certain, if one may put it this way, diasporic provincialism. The appeal to the readership of the American academic, intellectual, and creative communities of the vast majority of topics discussed on the pages of Polish Review is clearly limited. Who among the Slavists, comparatists, or literary critics on and off campus, is interested in how the FBI investigated the unfortunate Jan Lechoń, and on what grounds did it decide to consider this principal poetic voice a security risk? Or whether Harold Bloom will add the name of W. S. Kuniczak to the canon of outstanding twentieth-century world writers on the basis of articles published in Polish Review? And who cares what Canadian art critics thought about the paintings of Rafał Malczewski? What kind of reader would be interested in perusing past addresses of various presidents of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences of America?
Articles published in Polish Review tend to lie at the margins of Polish discourse. . . . The journal skirts around issues crucial to Polish literature and culture.
Perhaps the editors should be reminded that although in 1974 the then-president of the Institute, Dr. John A. Gronouski, advocated “a shift in emphasis ‘inward to America’ by paying more attention to Polonia,” after 1989 such a limitation no longer needs to be a priority. This is not to say that no attention should be paid to the history of Polish Americans or to Polish American writers, but that as a scholarly journal published in English, Polish Review should try to appeal to a broader community of scholars in the United States irrespective of their origins, and that it should try to do so at a level that will interest and engage the best minds in the country. This also requires that the contributions that the journal publishes should reflect the issues, debates, and approaches of contemporary scholarly and intellectual discourse. While such discourses are often overtheorized, articles that seem to be completely innocent of modern theory only reinforce the impression that the Polish Review is doubly outside the mainstream of contemporary scholarship.
Let me mention two examples. The editors should be commended for publishing two articles on Witold Gombrowicz in a recent issue (PR, no. 1/2005), as Gombrowicz is certainly a writer whose intrinsic appeal goes well beyond his Polishness and the interest in him by scholars across the world has been considerable. Yet at least one of the two articles, the one by the associate editor of the journal, is seriously flawed-not because it attempts to be critical of one of Gombrowicz’s novels (arguably his finest, from an artistic point of view), but because the rationale of the critique is blatantly simplistic and reveals a poor understanding of Gombrowicz’s artistic strategies. The author takes Gombrowicz to task for choosing Nazi-occupied Poland as the setting of his “perhaps the most fatal” work, on the grounds that Gombrowicz did not experience the Nazi occupation firsthand-without asking why this extremely careful and self-conscious writer did so. Because of that unjustified simplification, the critic tries but fails to make up his mind about whether Pornografia is, as he puts it a “failed novel or cynical masterpiece.” Pornografia is neither a failure nor is it cynical; rather, it brilliantly achieves what its author set out to achieve, and that is partly thanks to the setting and the action in the background of the plotting by its two main characters. To be fair, I should add that the second part of the article shows how perceptive a reader its author can be when he allows himself to interpret rather than offer generalizing comments.
My second example is an article by a scholar from Poland titled “Aleksander Wat’s ‘Leap from Poetry into Politics’” (PR, no. 4/2004). The article is certainly valuable, primarily for those who are interested in Wat as a poet and an East European intellectual confronted first with the ideological appeal of communism, and then undergoing the direct experience of communism. But it has two weaknesses-one stylistic, which could have been eliminated by a copyeditor; and the other conceptual. On the level of style, it is disruptive and irritating to the reader who does not know Polish, because it intersperses the English text with Polish phrases before giving their translations in brackets. Here is an example: “Wat’s story of communism is basically a reflection on niesłychanej pospolitości i okrucienstwie pospolitaków [the unheard-of commonness and cruelty of boors].” The copyeditor surely could have corrected this manner of presenting things, as well as some blatant mistakes of the author’s, or translator’s, English. The conceptual weakness consists in the fact that the author uncritically presents Wat’s idiosyncratic views on the origin and character of communism without any attempt to provide an adequate conceptual framework within which Wat’s views could become more comprehensible. Both features of the article show a failure to take into consideration the fact that the article’s reader is not a Polish national, and not necessarily a Catholic or even a Christian believer, but is instead an American or British academic or student. One can excuse the author for not being aware of this in view of the fact that he is writing from within a Polish context, but it is difficult to excuse the editors for not having a clear conception of the journal’s readership, if it is to fulfill its function.
This article is one of only three or four texts written by scholars from Poland and published in the period under discussion. One can understand that the editors may feel it their special responsibility to make use of work by scholars of all things Polish who live and teach in the United States. However, as indicated by the content of Polish Review over the years, the contributions of English-language scholars (both Polish Americans and others) regarding things Polish are sparse: as stated above, articles published in Polish Review tend to lie at the margins of Polish discourse. This surely impoverishes the content and quality of the journal. The richness, variety, and sophistication of Polish academic and intellectual life remains well hidden from the readers of Polish Review.
Although the purport of these brief remarks is largely critical, they are not offered in a dismissive or unfriendly spirit. They are a plea and a recommendation to the Institute, the editors, and the editorial board to rethink the issue of what kind of scholarly journal Polish Review should be; to make an effort to attract contributions from the pool of the best Polish and non-Polish academics working on Polish subjects at English-language institutions, both in the United States and in other countries such as Great Britain and Canada; and to solicit superior work from Poland itself. Above all, my remarks are a plea to develop a clearer conception of what can be of true interest to academics and intellectuals of English-speaking countries in the fields of Polish culture, contemporary Poland, and the Polish past.
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