Second Congress for the Study of Polish Literature

By Adam Makowski

Zjazd Polonistów
Warsaw 22-25 May 1995

The Second Congress for the Study of Polish Literature took place on 22-25 May 1995, or 37 years after the First Congress. This discontinuity&emdash;one of many in Polish history&emdash;assured that hardly anyone present remembered what happened at the First Congress, which took place in December 1958. It should also be noted that the Second Congress was the first such meeting of specialists in Polish literature that deliberated after the major political change of 1989. One might therefore have expected that during its deliberations, attempts would be made to deal with 50 years of Soviet-dominated teaching of Polish literary history, and that the discussions would abound in reformulations and conceptual recastings of literary problems under communism, as well as offering speculations about the future developments of Polish literature and Polish literary study. Naturally, the Congress fell short of most of these exaggerated expectations. It did however discharge its role in spelling out the state of Polish studies in 1995.

On day one, plenary sessions dealt with the central problems in Polish studies. There was little beating about the bush, and issues were addressed head on. Professor Jan Prokop spoke about the rebuilding of the Polish literary canon after so many years of political interference and mendacity. Professor Michal Glowinski discussed the attempts at scholarly independence in 1950-1989. Professors Wlodzimierz Bolecki and Ryszard Nycz dealt with the situation in literary history and theory. Last but not least, Professor Janusz Slawinski took on the problem of interpretation. At the closing of the Congress, another plenary session surveyed the teaching of literature in high schools and universities. Papers in that area were delivered by Professors Bozena Chrzastowska, Zenon Uryga, and Stefan Sawicki.

The lesser panels took on the education of specialists in Polish literature; literary history in the nineteenth century; literary history in the twentieth century; literary theory and poetics; contexts and contiguities in the study of literature; Old Polish literature; problems of documentation and editing. The linguists were the only group not represented at the Congress, and I am not sure that the decision to exclude them was correct. Needless to say, some of my colleagues in linguistics share that view.

Beyond this factual summary, an attempt to render what happened at the Congress will be necessarily subjective. I assert this subjectivity because, as is the case at most congresses, one had to decide which panels, occurring at the same time, one would attend. In addition, some panels met at the University of Warsaw, and others at the nearby Staszic Palace. The selections were thus motivated not only by personal choice but also by time constraints.

Here is a pared-down version of the Polish literary canon: "Bogurodzica," Mikolaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski, Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski, Piotr Skarga, Mikolaj Sep-Szarzynski, Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, Jan Chryzostom Pasek, Jedrzej Kitowicz, Ignacy Krasicki, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Stanislaw Staszic, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, Zygmunt Krasinski, Seweryn Goszczynski, Aleksander Fredro, Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Boleslaw Prus, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Stanislaw Wyspianski, Stefan Zeromski, Wladylaw Reymont, Stanislaw Brzozowski, Julian Tuwim, Kazimierz Wierzynki, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, Czeslaw Milosz, Krzysztof Kamil Baczynki, Zbigniew Herbert, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, Tadeusz Konwicki.

The most poignant dilemma which faced the participants was formulated by Professor Edward Balcerzan, in his paper titled "Polish poetry in the twentieth century." He asked these questions: are we going to assume that there exists a radical discontinuity between the Soviet-dominated period and the period of free Poland, or are we prepared to engage only in an updating of literary studies in Poland, especially as regards Polish literature? Was the regaining of political sovereignty of fundamental importance for Polish literary scholarship? And in that connection, are postmodernism and deconstructionism equivalent to a revolution, or are they merely names for new configurations of well known and continuously evolving problems?

The problem of the political squaring-of-accounts generated lively discussions. Michal Glowinski's paper, "Polonistyka's road to independence," surveyed the changes which occurred in Polish studies since the First Congress, paying much attention to so-called "thaw" of 1956 and its influence on the situation of humanities in Soviet-dominated Poland:


After Khrushchev's famous speech at the XXth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, the situation in literary studies changed significantly....the totalitarian system showed its first cracks, although no fundamental political changes were introduced....However, it has to be said that those who wanted to do so could conduct their scholarly work in literature as if they were free. In the Stalinist period, only two alternatives existed: you either followed orders or had to keep silent. After 1956, these alternatives were dissolved in a sea of much more ambivalent and complicated choices (2-3).1

Glowinski declined to dot his i's in regard to scholars in the Stalinist era, limiting himself to the following opinion about this period which he knew from personal experience: "I began my career as a literary scholar in the mid-1950s, and therefore my situation was incomparably more comfortable than that of those colleagues who began to write and publish a few years earlier." (ibid.) This last sentence makes it clear that Glowinski has opted for reticence in assessing those who faced the choices which he was happily spared. However, Glowinski was much less forgiving in assessing the responsibility of those who remained lackeys of the regime even when they did not have to, i.e., after 1956. Their conformism was a matter of choice, of cool calculation of losses and gains.

Let us dwell for a while on the word conformism. Glowinski did not speak of those scholars who were tools of the party and openly marched to orders, but rather of those who remained Marxists after 1956. The issue here is whether remaining a Marxist was a sign of servility to the regime, or whether it was an independent choice. Glowinski espoused the second view and argued that as time went on, scholars using Marxist methodology did not necessarily display total political dependency on the regime:

In the 1960s and '70s, divisions among literary scholars were formed in ways that perhaps are not altogether self-evident. The demarcation line ran not between Marxists and non-Marxists, but rather between those who openly served the regime and those who did not. There appeared a group of independent Marxists, related to what was then called Marxist revisionism, whose interests lay in the area of historicism and social specificity of literature....This kind of Marxism resembled one practiced in the West and was to a large extent freely chosen by the practitioners (p. 6)

It is worth noting that this opinion runs counter to the view, common among Polish literary scholars, that any kind of Marxism was, in conditions of Soviet-dominated Poland, a sign of subservience to the regime. It was clear that Glowinski did not share that view. It is also interesting to note that the ensuing discussion avoided that issue.

Where, then, was the demarcation line between those who facilitated the work of the Soviet-run government of Poland, and those who did not? According to Glowinski , the key question was not methodology (there were many methodologies then, from structuralism to the traditional methods, looking back toward nineteenth-century philology) but attitude: "At the beginning of one's work, one had to impose upon oneself what I would call an assumption of authenticity. It consists in saying to oneself that in any situation, however complex, I shall remain myself, that I shall help only in those developments which I consider righteous and honest." (p. 17) On the other side of the barricade there remained those who, in Glowinski 's words, pursued "the effortless way" of dealing with humanities: "talentless mediocrities" who treated Marxist ideology as a shield behind which they hid their banalities and their pitiful contributions to "cultural politics." When political sovereignty was regained in 1989, these people lost their standing in the scholarly community, "not because they were forced out, but because they had nothing to contribute to the life of the mind, no talent, no assiduity, no intelligence." (p. 18)

The trans-national literary canon might consist of Sophocles' Antigone, St. Augustine's Confessions, Tristan and Isolde, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Montaigne, Pascal's Pensées, Voltaire's Candide, Goethe's Faust, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and The Possessed, Conrad's Lord Jim, Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, Eliot's Waste Land and The Four Quartets, Anne Frank's Diary, Orwell's Animal Farm, Camus' The Plague, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.2

Did Polish humanities experience a shock similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall? Glowinski believes that the changes have been colossal, but the comparison with the Berlin Wall is inappropriate. Polish literary studies ""have never been totally enslaved, they have never been forced into a situation where they could not fulfill their tasks to some extent at least....they do not need to 'return to Europe' because they never left it....contacts with world scholarship have never been broken, even though they assumed unorthodox forms. Therefore, one should speak of continuity rather than of radical transformation." (pp. 18-19)

These edifying words sounded hollow however when applied to the problem that generated perhaps the liveliest discussions and polemics during the Congress: the problem of the literary canon and its relation to school textbooks and social life. These discussions were prompted by Jan Prokop's paper "The literary canon and historical memory: postulates and dilemmas."

The problems Prokop raised are difficult to summarize for an audience lacking an existential experience of Soviet communism. While every scholarly milieu suffers ideological pressures upon the canon it promotes, the situation in Soviet-occupied Poland was hardly comparable to such pressures as experienced and imagined in the West. It is in this context that one should perceive Prokop's thesis that the literary canon, as taught in Polish schools, should express and promote those features of Polish national identity which have been under attack by the communists and which have been challenged by "the modern tower of Babel, its mutually incomprehensible cultural languages, and its incipient cultural anarchy." (p. 2) The author emphasized, however, that he was not advocating a sacralization of the national canon, nor was he proposing the stifling of the discussion about it. His goal was not to close the door to foreign influence either: "Seeing the difference between one's identity and that of another does not mean that the Other becomes automatically an enemy. The Other may also be a guest, newcomer, messenger, friend, partner in a dialog, someone we meet." (p. 3) In the discussion about "re-entering Europe" (the discussion which sometimes assumed grotesque forms, as if the issue had to do with the ways in which one should dress for a party, as if many centuries of Polish tradition could be simply adjusted to current fashions in Paris or London), Prokop echoed Herder's notion about the human symphony which consists of the voices of nations;2 thus "the defense of one's identity is really a defense of the diversity and variety of the culturally distinct members of the human family." (p. 5) In my opinion, it would be hard to find counter-arguments to that, and one might have expected that the discussants would follow up on Prokop's notion of the literary canon and would vigorously argue about the details of it.3

But this did not happen. Instead, the discussants began to position themselves in one of the two camps: "Europeans" and "patriots" or, to use the language of the "patriots," "cosmopolites" and "provincials." The first group protested loudly against the charges of de-nationalizing Polish culture by promoting only those elements of it that were generalist, or "European," while suppressing those elements which were specifically Polish and, therefore, were not instantly comprehensible to outside interpreters. "Europeans" accused the "provincials" of suppressing modern trends and promoting things that are specifically Polish. Characteristically, the "Europeans" also suggested that the "provincials" wished to control the society's access to various cultural choices, thus displaying their anti-democratic tendencies. While some arguments on both sides sounded plausible, neither side was willing to compromise. The dispute remained unresolved.

It appears that at least among the older generation of humanistic scholars in Poland, the awareness of a political chasm between those who accommodated themselves to the communist regime, and those who did not, remains as prominent as ever. My own view is that among the younger generation of scholars, these divisions are not viewed with such strong emotions even though we represent a variety of political standpoints. We seem to be able to find a common language in discussing literary matters while remaining aware that they are not unrelated to politics. However, the younger generation has not yet fully found its own voice. On balance, one has to agree with Prokop's final remark: "We are trying to walk a narrow path. On one side of this path lies the loss of historical memory and identity, the temptation of anarchy and of postmodernist nihilism. The cultural heritage is not a gigantic supermarket where we may or may not choose to shop, where we may enjoy ourselves according to our whims, disregarding the tradition to which we owe our cultural being. On the other side lies the totalitarian jihad and the threat of other holy wars in the name of national, religious or racial hatreds." (p. 13) This strong statement mirrors the equally strong and unyielding rhetoric which prevailed during the discussions. Both camps felt besieged by one another, and neither sought rhetorical compromise.

Again, to us younger scholars it appears that the tensions which arose during these discussions had to arise, and the positions had to be clearly stated. It is from these formulations that the compromise will develop in the future. Such a compromise is crucial because Polish schools badly need new guidelines concerning the teaching of literature, the guidelines that have finally been freed of the burden of ideologies of the past. It should be remembered that unless those competent to sketch out such guidelines agree to compromise, bureaucrats in the ministry of education will replace them. In such a case, both sides would be losers.

I will abstain from going into details of these educational problems because theorizing about education is invariably sterile. The last day of the Congress was the least interesting precisely because it mostly consisted of theoretical discussions on how to run literature programs in schools. It was like the people without cannons discussing ballistics. Schools in Poland require fundamental reforms, their physical plants and teacher compensation have to come first, and only after these are taken care of can one speak of the specific subjects and how to enhance their presence in schools. No satisfactory program of teaching literature can be implemented before certain organizational problems have been solved. That the participants knew this was reflected in poor attendance and unsubstantial discussions concerning these final subjects of deliberation.

The third topic of major concern was the methodologies of literary study. Some papers concentrated on detailed descriptions of various fashionable methodologies, e.g., Stanislaw Balbus' "Intertextuality in the text and in the literary process." The meta-language used in this paper made it opaque to those listeners who did not share the author's focus. No wonder Henryk Markiewicz, a veteran of literary studies in Poland, jokingly commented that advances in the theory of literary communication are inversely proportional to the communicability of that theory. Call it a "Markiewicz theorem," he quipped. One could also put it this way: it is in this area that the lack of originality of Polish literary scholars becomes most apparent. While the discussion between "provincials" and "Europeans" had specifically Polish overtones, and while problems of education were discussed with Polish identity in mind, in methodological studies Polish voices trailed behind those voices which had formulated these methodological problems a while ago, and in other countries and languages. Yet, in this area truly excellent minds competed for attention. "Contemporary literary theory: areas of interest" by Professor Ryszard Nycz and "Author-literary work-reader in contemporary literary theories," by Professor Erazm Kuema stand out as two most sophisticated and articulate papers. Kuema has actually attempted to formulate a Polish version of the most recent literary theories. In the course of discussions, a consensus emerged that the epoch of major and overwhelming methodological trends is over, and that it has been replaced by an epoch of pluralism, diversification and impermanence of methodological positions. To make that point, Nycz cited Hugo von Hofmannsthal: "Multiplicity of meanings and indefiniteness are characteristic of our epoch. It tends to rest on moving sands, and it knows the sands are moving. Earlier generations believed in firm foundations. Our epoch experiences dizziness incessantly if not overwhelmingly." (p. 14)

It is characteristic of this Congress for the Study of Polish Literature that the situation of theoretical impermanency did not receive a firm assessment in any of the papers presented. Instead, in papers such as that of Kuema one saw statements to the effect that "for those who seek unambiguous rules of behavior," our epoch does not seem acceptable, whereas those who "seek the freedom to make mistakes" welcome it. (29) One felt a mood of serene resignation in this, rather than enthusiastic acceptance. Scholars distanced themselves from the driving forces of present day literary trends, and this I believe was not only an offshoot of scholarly propriety but also of the practical situation in Polish literary studies, where the number of poststructuralist theoretical works is far greater than the number of applications of postmodernist trends to the reading of specific literary works. So far, "the flood of deconstruction" has not touched the Polish literary canon (possibly, this is still ahead of us). Scholars are still jostling with the theoretical postulates of postmodernism rather than trying to apply them to specific literary works.

Professors Henryk Markiewicz's and Janusz Slawinski's papers conveyed very little of that spirit of resignation, however. These two scholars addressed themselves to the problems of interpretation. Markiewicz's "On falsification of literary interpretations" adopted Karl Popper's strategy: if it is impossible to demonstrate "truthfulness" or "objectivity" of an interpretation, one has to concentrate on formulating the conditions of its falsity, thus counterbalancing hermeneutical anarchy which operates under the slogan of "If there is no author, everything is permitted" or "Never mind the literary work, as long as the interpretation remains interesting." (p. 1) Markiewicz formulated 13 such conditions allowing the interpreter to demonstrate that another interpretation is "false." None of Markiewicz's examples of "false" interpretations concerned deconstructionist works, although all of them were works by Polish scholars. This again demonstrates the low hermeneutical activity of Polish poststructuralist scholars.

In Slawinski's "The role of interpretation," the author pondered the following paradox: "In spite of the frequency of depressing and exciting comments about a crisis in literary studies, those of us who teach perform these daily duties without assuming Hamletic poses. We write articles about the inevitability of Roman Ingarden's "fifth layer" in the literary work, we explain to students who the real subject of Slowacki's poem "Parting" is, we opine on the quality of a dissertation about the narrative methods in Zeromski's novels"" (3) Slawinski suggested that in spite of their theoretical agonizing, literary scholars routinely interpret in a rather traditional way, and that they cannot stop so interpreting no matter what their theoretical views on the impossibility of interpretation have been. Those literary scholars who believe that interpretation is an appropriation of someone else's thought, still routinely engage in such interpretation in their professional lives. Therefore, "fables about the noble interpreters who completely renounce the imperialist attitude and proclaim their subservience to the power of the text" are mere hypocrisy. This is obvious in deconstructionist hermeneutics in particular, "based as it is on the thesis about the illusory quality of the text's objectivity and of ontological independence of meaning, while at the same time full of hypocritical declarations about respect for the text's “otherness” (frequent especially in Jacques Derrida's writings), about 'humility vis-à-vis the text' (Paul de Man) and about the moral codes necessary to reading (J. Hillis Miller's 'the ethics of reading')." (p. 13)

Slawinski suggested that instead of making such specious declarations, the interpreters should consciously adopt the initial attitude of "confusion vis-à-vis the text, an assumed inability to understand it, readiness for the cognitive dissonance." (19) Such an attitude is fundamentally opposed to the dogmatic and self-righteous interpretations which uncover in the works of literature only the interpreter's ideological assumptions. Since poststructuralist scholars promote the idea that earlier interpretations were useless fictions, one can consider Slawinski's proposal to be a polemic with these postmodernist generalizations.

Slawinski thus proposed using an interpretative key that could be defined as a lack of methodological rigidity, a readiness to admit that theory should not play a hegemonic role but rather an instrumental one: "Assumptions and theories should not play a role; only their heuristic fruitfulness should count. Thus theories of literature should not be treated as intellectual constructs that need to be reinforced by practice. They should become tools which might or might not be used, depending on need." (p. 21)

It is clear however that present day rigid adherence to theory of those who have assumed (usurped?) the role of the leading literary interpreters does not favor Slawinski's solutions. However, Slawinski maintains that such a pragmatic attitude can bear good fruit among the traditionally-minded scholars who are often capable of transcending their apparently dogmatic assumptions and demonstrating their predilection for the freedom of literary enquiry. Outside this initially traditionalist context, this attitude tends to become anarchy. (p. 22)

Slawinski emphasized that interpretation can, indeed it must, play a significant role in literary studies. It can do so however only when it can move freely among the "dogmatic" theories of literature, which should be open to destabilization by individual interpreters. In the 1990s, it is impossible to predict whether a return to such a situation is possible. Slawinski suggests that such a return is necessary and inevitable, if literary works are to be read and enjoyed in society. His answer to the initial dilemma—crisis or continuation — is crisis, but in the sense that the state of literary theory today is in crisis: "[One observes today] a crisis of self-assurance and perseverance in the defense of attitudes toward literature which one considers correct but for which one is not prepared to suffer. This crisis also produced a crisis of productivity in literary scholarship." This is why there have been so few memorable literary interpretations in recent years.

It remains an open question whether literary studies worldwide have entered a qualitatively new period, a period which precludes a return to the haven of the precisely articulated literary theories. At the Congress, one sensed fatigue and impatience with the present indefiniteness of theoretical foundations of literary study. Perhaps this fatigue portends future changes? Edward Balcerzan said in his paper: "The formulations which are most passionately discussed today may appear embarrasingly marginal, not to say ridiculous, tomorrow. Perhaps those who will succeed us will again be well groomed, well balanced emotionally, and somewhat caustic in their traditional attitudes? I have to say that this would not be a bad solution after all." (p. 25) In conjunction with Slawinski's suggestions, these words indicate that so far as polonistyka is concerned, the days of the deconstructionists are perhaps numbered.


1. Page numbers of papers which I consulted are given at the end of each quotation. AM.

2. Thus the trans-national literary canon I propose might consist of Sophocles' Antigone, St. Augustine's Confessions, Tristan and Isolde, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Montaigne, Pascal's Pensées, Voltair'e Candide, Goethe's Faust, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and The Possessed, Conrad's Lord Jim, Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest, Eliot's Waste Land and The Four Quartets, Anne Frank's Diary, Orwell's Animal Farm, Camus' The Plague, Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

3. Here is a rock-bottom list, incomplete to be sure, but one that cannot be pared down any further: "Bogurodzica," Mikolaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski, Andrzej Frycz-Modrzewski, Piotr Skarga, Mikolaj Sep-Szarzyski, Jan Andrzej Morsztyn, Jan Chryzostom Pasek, Jedrzej Kitowicz, Ignacy Krasicki, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Stanislaw Staszic, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, Zygmunt Krasinski, Seweryn Goszczyski, Aleksander Fredro, Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Bolesaw Prus, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Stanislaw Wyspianski, Stefan Zeromski, Wladylaw Reymont, Stanislaw Brzozowski, Julian Tuwim, Kazimierz Wierzynski, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz, Czeslaw Milosz, Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski, Zbigniew Herbert, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, Tadeusz Konwicki.

Adam Makowski, M.A., works as a researcher at the Institute for Literary Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. His PhD dissertation on literary theory, written under Professor Michal Glowinski's direction, is about to be completed.

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