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Framing the Polish Home

Postwar Cultural Construction of Hearth, Nation, and Self

Reviewer: Justyna Beinek

Edited by Bożena Shallcross. Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 2002. Xi +360 pages. Notes, index, illustrations. Paper.

This volume of sixteen essays on the discourse of home in postwar Polish culture inaugurates the Ohio University Press Polish and Polish-American Studies Series. It is fitting that the first book of the series encompasses multiple aspects of the idea of “home,” a foundational notion to cultural studies generally and to Polish studies in particular. Božena Shallcross has had the brilliant idea of probing a topic that seems almost invisible because of its seminal character: we all have an experience of home and many, if not most, literary works contain some images of home. This volume clearly reveals that the Polish “home” is a polysemic entity whose various meanings are ably explored by the contributors. The Polish home is a “concept of paradox and contradiction,” in the words of the series general editor, John J. Bukowczyk, as it is embedded in the historical conception of Poland and Polish identity-building during the times of partitions, wars, political independence, waves of migration, and exile (ix). Thus the volume places as much emphasis on “homelessness” as it does on “home.” Likewise it treats the idea of homeland as a version of “home” with no less seriousness than the more immediate association of “house” and “home” with one’s living quarters.

In her illuminating introduction, Shallcross presents the many ways in which the idea of “home” has been developed in cultural studies and Polish culture, as well as in this particular volume. She notes that the conceptualization of home as an existential (Martin Heidegger), symbolic (Mircea Eliade), and oneiric (Gaston Bachelard) entity has become increasingly linked to questions of identity in recent studies (2). She summarizes her efforts and those of her colleagues in Framing the Polish Home as readings of “home as cultural text” and “text as home” (2). The editor also provides a useful overview of the variants of the Polish home that function in Polish history: the Renaissance locus amoenus, a Romantic manor house, a ”steady dwelling, yet all too frequently open to invasion,” a “space of Otherness conquered from the neighbors and subsequently domesticated (polonized) as well as a place of cultural resistance,” a “restored space of displacement amid all that is Other in exilic writing” (2-3). Thus the Polish home, as the editor concludes and as the sixteen essays show, is a “strangely malleable and changeable idea” (3).

The essays are grouped in five thematic fields that help the reader navigate through disparate issues: identity, history/politics, the city, the writer’s home, and exile. As is often the case with collections of essays, the material is riveting but at times incongruent: close readings and in-depth analyses of individual writers’ works coexist with survey-type articles and autobiographical musings. Literature dominates, but a few essays focus on architecture, urban studies, and/or visual arts. The volume presents many writing styles and theoretical (or programmatically nontheoretical) approaches. All these features create a strong sense of Polish home studies being carried out in different directions by scholars of many generations and backgrounds; the variety represented in the volume means that this relatively young discipline is alive and well.

The chapters that focus solely on well-known individual authors-Tamara Trojanowska’s reading of Witold Gombrowicz’s and Tadeusz Róžewicz’s plays as polarized instances of the discourse on subjectivity, Božena Shallcross’s interpretation of Stefan Chwin’s writings on Gdańsk, or Kim Jastremski’s analysis of “home” as a point of both departure and arrival in one’s life story in Czesław Miłosz’s works-are tour de force syntheses of the respective writers’ works and will most likely soon become canonical readings of canonical writers. Other excellent essays of this kind include Ryszard Nycz’s oppositional reading of the modernist “stranger” figure in Miłosz’s and Gombrowicz’s philosophies of alienation and home-making; David Goldfarb’s article on the meaning of real and fictional homes in Gombrowicz’s oeuvre; Katarzyna Zechenter’s tracing of the trope of Poland’s eastern borderlands in the novels of Tadeusz Konwicki; and Włodzimierz Bolecki’s commentary on how Gustaw Herling-Grudziński “paints Italian landscapes as a means of helping the “memory of an immigrant” (330) reconstruct a sense of homeland.

The most original and unexpected chapters tackle issues that have thus far been completely marginalized or ignored in Polish studies. Among these we find Jerzy Jarzębski’s comparison of Warsaw and Kraków as two semiotic systems that have powerfully shaped Polish society and culture; Madeline Levine’s typology of the representations of Polish and Jewish wartime homes, based on the concept of domicide and topocide; Beth Holmgren’s essay on the history of how Henryk Sienkiewicz’s house-museum was donated to the writer in a nation-restoring gesture of Polish fans at a time when Poland did not exist on the map of Europe; and Marek Zaleski’s examination of the communist institution for writers, named “Home for Creative Work,” which functioned as an “idyllic paradise turned into a velvet prison and a vanity fair” (264). Halina Filipowicz and Henryk Dasko fill in the blank spaces of Polish home studies by bringing to light writers of the socialist realist period and émigré dramatists, respectively. Magdalena Zaborowska offers a fascinating reading of the Warsaw “Palace of Culture and Science” as a cultural text, supplemented by her interviews with its long-time curator, as well as a close reading of Maria Kuncewiczowa’s short story, and a discussion of the multimedia work of Polish women artists, Beata Wehr and Zofia Kulik. Zaborowska’s essay is one of few in the volume that show women as “powerful makers of profound, gendered home sites”(198), which is very surprising given cultural association of home with the feminine. This essay makes it obvious that the volume would benefit from an inclusion of more women writers/producers of culture or at least from displaying a more pronounced category of gender in its study of “hearth, nation, identity” (the volume’s subtitle); after all, women (real and fictional) have had their share in the symbolic construction of the Polish home. Zaborowska’s essay in particular makes it clear that “Notes on Authors” at the end of the volume, which deals with the authors discussed and contains only six names (a number rather low for a volume of sixteen essays), should be expanded to include women writers and visual artists. The same holds true for lesser known and émigré writers, such as the ones mentioned in essays by Levine, Dasko, and Filipowicz, as their biographies are not generally known.

Overall, Framing the Polish Home is a volume that opens up a new vista in Polish literary and cultural critique: home, house, homeland, and homelessness studies. Not only does it discuss specific issues and writers from the Polish context, but it also points toward a significant body of theoretical approaches to home and space issues through the rigorous and creative use of relevant theories on the part of many contributors. As a collective endeavor of Polish and American scholars, the book achieves the goal of bringing together academic work that otherwise might develop-regrettably-in a parallel, wheel-reinventing manner. For all of these reasons Framing the Polish Home is definitely something to write home about.

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