Of birds and wires

Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016. He was very popular in Poland in the 1970s and 80s, long before Hallelujah, before the world tours and the late commercial success. We loved our obscure-not-obscure artists, even as we misunderstood or misinterpreted them. We mispronounced his name (“Lee-oh-nard”). We didn’t understand English well enough to get the wry sense of humour or the sexual innuendos. And still.

We had no commercial radio at the time, and no record industry to speak of. Western music was brought to us by enthusiasts who travelled abroad – not many of us could – and spent their own money to buy records, then played them in clubs or on the radio. The rest of us made mix tapes off radio broadcasts, borrowed records and tapes from those who had access to them, stayed up late or rearranged our schedules to listen to music we cared about. There was no Western style commercial promotion through exposure. There was institutionalized political pressure to play Soviet bloc artists, but few, if any, commercial incentives to promote Western rock music. The DJs and broadcasters played it because they loved it, and the audience listened because we loved it back.

Cohen’s fandom first percolated to Poland through word of mouth: a borrowed record here, a tape there. Then a dude, Maciej Zembaty, translated some of Cohen’s songs into Polish and started singing and recording them. It took off like wildfire.

It was not all Cohen all the time, of course. We listened to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and Hendrix and Tangerine Dream and Dead Can Dance. They were beloved, but also intimidating. You could blast Zep II or Tubular Bells or The Dark Side Of The Moon on your home stereo equipment and get blown away by the sound effects. You could delve into the complexities of The Wall. But when we needed something to sing around the campfire, or on a train, or in a dorm room when a conversation was too much and silence was not enough, few of us would attempt Floyd or Zep. Maybe some of the ballads, and even that was hard.

Cohen was more forgiving. It was OK if you only had a cheap guitar. It was OK to sing Cohen badly; after all, he was doing that himself. Your back could be bent into a permanent question mark, your lungs shrivelled and throat inflamed from the coal dust or chemical pollution or cigarette smoke. You could be missing a few teeth, as people often do when the food does not nourish, hygiene is impossible to maintain, and dentistry is the stuff of nightmares. You could still sing Cohen. And that might have been because he, as the songwriter, had done most of the heavy lifting for you in advance. Bob Dylan, interviewed for a New Yorker article, praises Cohen’s musical gift:

When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius… Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. … [Cohen’s] gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres.

For all of Cohen’s self-deprecating comments about his “golden voice,” he wrote melodies that were eternal and indestructible. They could withstand all the abuse that we inflicted on them, the drunken performances, the missing chords and forgotten lyrics. It would still be alright.

He was forgiving in other ways as well. I learned later that, in the land of the constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness, Cohen was considered dark and depressing. That was not how we saw it. Sure, he sang of broken people, failed promises, lost wars. These were statements of facts that were just true, even when we did not have the permission or ability to say so. Having them spoken out loud felt like understanding and forgiveness. It might have even felt uplifting, in telling us that such things mattered, that they were worth a song.

On November 9, 2016, some Americans woke up feeling that they were in a country they did not know. Disoriented, they looked to historians and philosophers of faraway places for advice and consolation. They resolved to remember what normal life looked like and take note of everything that was not normal. They made lists of things they would not do and compromises they would not make.

Oh, you sweet summer children. I do hope that you will act, that your institutions can be mobilized to prevent the worst. I really do, for your sake and my own and that of everyone else on the planet. But since you ask me so often where I’m from, let me tell you what it’s like to live under oppression and see no end of it.

No one is left untainted. No one is left unbroken. You may well do everything on that list you made, and if you don’t, you won’t be the only one to pay the price. You’ll do other things that you had not had the imagination to think of. Your children will do them before they are old enough to understand the word “compromised”. You will not avoid compliance even as you attempt to push back. You’ll force yourself to walk in small steps and keep your voice low, even as you wish you could take a crowbar to all of it. Every path is grey; every choice you make renders you culpable in some way or other. Almost 30 years after the fall of communism, more than 70 after the end of WW2, the morality and ethics of decisions taken during those times are still being debated. We will likely never agree on the answers.

If you look around, if you put down that Arendt book for long enough to talk to the black woman next door, you might find Americans who would not be entirely unfamiliar with that experience. The people of colour who build their careers on the staircases of bastions of white supremacy. Women in certain professions who learn to talk less and choose their battles carefully. Those who try to speak out against their abusers, only to see them elected to power and upheld in it all the same. The indigenous people who had their languages and cultures taken from them and who must work through colonial institutions to have them restored. Canada is no sanctuary. Our political system might not give us a similar national election, but there is much to question elsewhere.

You’ll find that you need art. You’ll need stories and images of life old and new. You’ll need beauty, laughter and song when they become scarce around you. You will need art to restore truth to language when words lose their meaning and value. You will need it to expand the scope of your thought and expression when the daily routine of futility wears you down. You will need artists who can remember freedom, who can imagine alternatives and see forks in the road. You’ll need art that takes issue with your concept of “normal” and holds a light to the cracks in it. You will need art that meets you in your daily grind of defeat and tells you that you still matter.

Art is where you turn when you can’t confide in your family, friends, teachers. It’s where you go when you try very hard to fit in but never really manage. I don’t just mean this in political terms, although there was also that and schools were explicitly politically oppressive. We were a nation with PTSD; of course dysfunctional families were common. Where we needed therapy, we got hard life, backbreaking work, alcohol and drugs. None of these make anyone more patient with children. Corporal punishment, physical and emotional abuse were all rampant. The pressure to conform was similar in intensity and execution to any conservative society, but confused in its goals by the recent social upheaval and geographical relocations. Politics was superimposed over all of this. The communists had us march in parades and proclaimed unity where there clearly was none. The opposition had a populist, socially right-wing current that lives on in today’s Polish authoritarianism.

There is a myth making rounds that oppression and adversity is “good for art.” This is lacking in both morality and historical knowledge. Better questions to ask might be: how does oppression redirect art? How does it change the culture? What happens to the relationship between art and the society? How does art compete for influence under adverse circumstances? What if the hardship lasts not just years or decades, but centuries?

Here’s a short primer on the relevant part of Polish history. Between 1648 and 1720, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was devastated by a long sequence of wars and rebellions. Both the political system and the national economy were damaged heavily, the latter increasingly relying on extreme, almost grotesque forms of serfdom. Art and culture went into decline. A small cultural renaissance began late in the 18th century, but by then, Poland’s neighbours were nipping at its borders. Poland lost independence in 1795, partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria, and did not regain it until 1918. During that time, Polish art and literature turned inward. In its emotional responses to the loss of independence, in the coded discourse on how to regain it or how to strengthen Polish institutions within the partitions, in reminiscing of the past greatness that might or might not have existed, Polish art often became hermetic and impenetrable to the rest of the world. There arose a notion of Poland as the “Christ of nations,” innocent and crucified for her virtue. Never mind the growing anti-Semitism. Never mind the serfs, finally liberated by the Russian tsar in 1864, against the will of the Polish nobility and indeed as a punitive measure against them. Never mind that the poet who coined the “Christ of nations” phrase had much else to say that was more complex and challenging. Some ideas stick easily. Others don’t.

The Young Poland movement at the turn of the century caught up with the rest of Europe. Art got its groove back. Poland enjoyed two decades of independence from 1918 to 1939. Then World War II devastated it again. The Nazi plan for Jews is known well enough; their plan for the remaining Poles was to make them into a nation of slaves serving the German empire. Slaves don’t need art, literature or education. The Polish elites were deported or executed, first in the Intelligenzaktion in 1939-40, then in similar operations in 1941 on the territories initially occupied by the Soviets. 20% of Poland’s population were killed in the war; among those with higher education, the fatality rate is estimated at 30-40%. The Jagiellonian University professors were sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. A large group of Lwów professors was executed shortly after the Germans took the city. Stefan Banach, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, survived as a lice feeder but died soon after the end of the war.

That was when communism came, with its own plans to rewrite our culture, history and identity.

MMG ! Zygmunt Bauman (10325121585)
Zygmunt Bauman. By Meet the media Guru from Milan, Italy (MMG) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Zygmunt Bauman died on January 9, 2017, just weeks ago. A devout communist in his youth, he later parted ways with the regime, leaving Poland in 1968 and eventually settling at the University of Leeds. In his writing on sociology, Bauman developed the concept of “liquid modernity” where, in the absence of fixed anchors or points of reference, identities are fluid and malleable, where human bonds and attachments are formed ad hoc and dissolved as needed, with no expectation of permanence, stability or continuity. He coined this notion in the 1990s, in reference to globalization and the perceived crisis of social values. When asked whether his own experiences influenced his theories, he cautions against making direct inferences that confuse correlation with causation, but he also quotes the Polish writer Wiesław Myśliwski:

I lived willy-nilly. Without any sense of being part of the order of things. I lived by fragments, pieces, scraps, in the moment, at random, from incident to incident, as if buffeted by ebb and flow. Oftentimes I had the impression that someone had torn the majority of pages out of the book of my life, because they were empty, or because they belonged not to me but to someone else’s life.

I recognize myself both in that quote and in Bauman’s writing. Arendt is the better known thinker, but her notion of a “totalitarian person” with no attachments to anything other than the state does not describe anyone I’ve actually met. Bauman, however, strikes a chord. We lived in a post-truth, fake news world all around, back in the analog days of the manual typewriter and the cassette tape, with no internet or cable news needed.

I grew up in a town that was transferred from Germany to Poland at the end of the war. The German residents were expelled; many of the Poles who took their place came from the east, their home towns having just been transferred to the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Belorussia and Ukraine. There was no such thing as local customs or traditions. The romantic literature that taught us patriotism spoke of Vilnius, Lviv, sometimes even Zaporizhia, but never Legnica, Wroclaw, or any other place I knew in real life. My parents did not come from anywhere that they could speak of fondly, and none of the narratives I had to learn spoke of them. We lived among the communist moonscapes of concrete, mud and emptiness, built around a town centre that represented history that wasn’t ours. The road signs could lie or point to roads and buildings that did not exist. The passersby didn’t know any more than we did.

You want to know about the great art. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, a relatively liberal cultural period except for the martial law. We had Szymborska, Herbert, Lem, Kieślowski, Wajda, Holland. In 1980, we learned that we also had Miłosz; he had been banned and largely unknown in Poland prior to his Nobel Prize. Communism, even in its more liberal forms, still needed to lie. The opposition had not made Miłosz a household name, either.

Every cause needs a story, and while the more complicated stories can get closer to the truth, the simpler ones are easier to shout while you’re marching. In the communist retelling of the national myth, Poland was a nation of heroic freedom fighters and communism was the culmination of that tradition. The opposition narratives filled in the holes around Katyń, Gulag and the Warsaw Uprising, but also, often, drowned history in nationalism and religious zealotry. The cause is not served well enough when the heroes are not sufficiently triumphant and the martyrs are shown to have sinned. Szpilman’s The Pianist, written right after the war and brutally honest about heroism, collaboration and everything in between, was published in 1946 in an abridged, heavily censored version and then not reissued again in Poland until 2000. Kieślowski received criticism from all directions for No End.

There is no equivalence here between the communists and the opposition. One side, and not the other, legislated and enforced the censorship of all media and publications, banned inconvenient authors, mandated school textbooks that made mockery of facts and logic, and filled the media with falsehoods too obvious to fool anyone but nonetheless repeated incessantly. And it was also only one side, and not the other, that was denied access to the normal instruments of artistic and intellectual public discourse. Nationality, ethnicity, and history are emotionally charged subjects in that part of Europe. It’s hard enough to talk about them openly and honestly even in the best of circumstances. It’s outright impossible to do so when your newsletter is limited to 2-4 pages, because that’s all you can manage on that illegal printing press in a private home, and most of that space is spent on local news and debunking the latest government lies. Opposition intellectuals could talk to each other in private; publishing outfits outside of Poland could print books and magazines where complex thought and argumentation were possible. Most of us had little or no access to any of that. Just because art is needed does not mean that it is easily made or distributed.

Decades after the fall of communism, Polish nationalists still fall back on the romantic mythology where suffering is proof of virtue and having patriotic feelings replaces intellectual work. Olga Tokarczuk, a writer who has taken up sensitive subjects such as Polish anti-Semitism and colonial history, has faced abuse and death threats from self-proclaimed “true Poles.” Yet, there is no question that her work is in demand, as proved by her commercial success, major literary prizes, and translations into 30 languages. Pawlikowski’s “Ida”, the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and many other awards, was less popular and more controversial in Poland than elsewhere around the world; still, it got made and had an appreciative Polish audience. It’s not just that political work is less likely to be censored. It’s easier to make any art, political or otherwise, when the censor is not combing through your work for hidden or unintended political subtexts and when your rebel alliance does not insist that everything you do must Serve The Cause. On my post-2000 trips to Poland, I was surrounded by so much more art than we ever had under communism, from film festivals to well-stocked bookstores to local crafts. Non-political art is thriving. I’ll just mention Sapkowski, and if you only know him from English translations and video games, they do not do justice to the quality of his writing.

Bauman was reluctant to make predictions as to where we are headed. Nationalism, fundamentalism, racism and misogyny are on the rise. It can be hard to dig ourselves out from the avalanche of horrifying news, lies and ugliness. Still, there are other ways that are open to us. We may yet build new societies based on community and cooperation. On a smaller scale, many of us are doing that already, and have been for some time. We must continue to do so because that is our best hope. We’re stronger in solidarity and collaboration. We’re stronger when we can call on the experience of those who did not find support in traditional social and political structures, who threaded their own networks across geography and ethnicity, who developed their own rules of social engagement through trial and error, and who have been right about so many things all along. If you want the best in today’s organizing, you will need to say hello to intersectionality.

Art is not extraneous to this process. If we ever build those better societies of the future, the foundation for it will be laid through having our stories told, listened to, and heard. We’ve done so much already. Enriched with a multitude of new voices, hosted in spaces that make room for nuance and complexity, art is flourishing and abundant. And if these utopian societies never come to pass, we will still have that art to carry with us and to help us remember who we are.

Back then, we had so much less. Our stories were always interrupted. The threads, torn and tattered, would rarely connect. But sometimes, nonetheless, art would speak to you directly, with no need for interpreters or mediators, just you and the words and images and music. It might have been Cohen who spoke for you when he tried in his way to be free. Ursula Le Guin told you the name of your shadow. Bolesław Leśmian asked you why you were mocking the emptiness when that emptiness was not mocking you. Bowie showed you that there could be beauty in standing alone and being different, that changes could be embraced and made into art, that anchors made great temporary tattoos, that you didn’t have to be from anywhere in particular when you could be a space alien or a fallen rock star. Once you had a starting point that would stick, you could try to go further. Bowie could direct you to Kubrick and Orwell, or electronic music, or experimental dance. That was all on the other side of the iron curtain, hard for us to get hold of. Still, sometimes there’d be a club screening of a Kubrick film, or a serialization of 1984 on the radio. At least you knew what to look for. Slowly and messily, you could begin to set your reference points, draw a provisional map, plot your own coordinates.

Bowie died on January 10, 2016. Others followed. The axioms of our choice, the fixed points of our transfigurations, the names from our provisional maps of the universe. It’s not that we assumed them immortal. It’s not that we can’t let go of Ziggy, or the little red Corvette, or Susanne with her tea and oranges. Do not mock our icons when they are not mocking you. Allow us to note their passing and acknowledge that they no longer stand between us and the rest of the world.

Now it’s just us.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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