Taboo Topics in Polish and Polish/Jewish Cultural StudiesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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"There are taboos that must be broken or they will continue to choke us," wrote George Tabori in the 1960s. Tabori is an uncompromising writer whose career has been fraught with controversy. Considered one of Austria's most flagrant and relentless disturbers of the national peace, he has been said to abuse Austrian audiences with his confrontational, scandalous plays.
To invoke Tabori as I have done is to open the old question: how to be as accurate as possible about the world? In other words, I propose to move beyond a simple recognition that there is a softer truth that comforts and a hard truth that challenges. Moreover, I am well aware that what is provocative (in a bad sense) and what is challenging (in a good sense) are in the eye of the beholder. Attempts to broach taboo topics are seen as a threat to the very values on which a culture has been built and therefore to social cohesiveness. As a result, the divisive, destabilizing, even destructive effects of such inquiries appear stronger than the emancipatory ones. Polish studies shares the widespread view that it is best not to trespass on tabooed areas. Anyone who has thought differently knows the familiar feeling of venturing onto thin ice.
A case in point is Jadwiga Maurer's research on the ties of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's national poet, to Jews and Judaism. Her article on misrepresentations of Mickiewicz's Jewish Legion was accepted for publication in the scholarly journal Teksty Drugie and scheduled to appear in 1995. Before it was sent to the printers, however, the essay set off a protest by several Mickiewicz scholars. They succeeded in having the publication of the article cancelled, even though it had been announced in an earlier issue.
This suggests that the field of Mickiewicz studies can be a high-risk venture. Mickiewicz's ties to Jewish culture are an especially sensitive area, and there are particular reasons for this. One source of resistance is an assumption that a study of his interest in and access to Jewish traditions and learning might be seen by some as an attempt to take Mickiewicz away from Poles. A related source of resistance is the idea, inherited from the nineteenth century, that there is the obvious and necessary link between a national language and a national literature and that national values are embedded in languages and literatures. Thus, a writer writing in Polish is automatically subsumed under the rubric of Polish culture. This approach fails to take fluid, ambiguous, often contradictory concepts of community and of belonging (such as Polish/Jewish identity) seriously.
My second example comes from students' responses to my course on Polish culture. Central to my course is a rather modest idea that all national traditions are plural rather than singular, that they are heterogenous, even polyvocal, and hence to understand them requires the use of methods from across a wide range of fields. I did not realize that I had stumbled onto a tabooed area until students began to register their confusion and unease in their class journals. On the one hand, many Polish American students asked: "Why is so much effort being expended in a Polish culture course on discussing people who were decidedly not Polish? Jews in Poland should be treated independently of Poles." On the other hand, many Jewish American students were concerned about what they perceived as "I find it baffling that one could suggest that a Jew living in Poland (or some strip of land that at one time was Poland, but then Russia) could be considered partly Polish."
In my course, I propose to question a well-entrenched monolithic view of Polish culture. I address, among other things, the multifarious, often contradictory implications of what Adam Michnik has called the "specific schizophrenia" of being both a Pole and a Jew. It is obvious, though, that each group of students in my class would have been more comfortable if the course dealt with what monoculturalists are pleased to consider "our" culture. But what is "our" culture? Not only that. Is culture a "thing" we have or, rather, a complex repertoire we experience, learn, perform, and revise in our daily lives —-a repertoire of beliefs, assumptions, practices, and projects, all of which are continuously (though not necessarily equally rapidly) changing?
I offer these two examples-the anxiety of some scholars about Mickiewicz's interest in Jewish culture and the anxiety of a number of students about my course on the fluid and dynamic interchanges of positions and relations in Polish culture-to suggest some circumstances and assumptions behind the formation and persistence of taboos in Polish culture. To begin with, these examples illustrate how pervasive nativist and separatist assumptions about culture and nation are. According to these assumptions, to say someone is Polish is minimally to say that his or her forebears were Polish. It seems to follow that Polish identity is secure in its genealogical and historical derivation. Yet there is a tangled, often tabooed relation between Polish identity and Poland, a relation fraught with contradictions at the complex intersection of nation, culture, religion, gender, and sexuality. I will speak of these contradictions in a moment, but first, a few more general observations.
Many Western observers find it difficult to reconcile the political transformation of post-communist Poland with Polish society's fierce and enduring attachment to traditional nationalist scripts. Indeed, what could be more natural than for Western observers, having contested communist autocracy in the name of democratic freedom, to presume that the undoing of communism would sweep away all obstacles to democracy? However, the "transition narrative" crudely falsifies post-communist developments. What emerged from the Quiet Revolution of 1989 in Poland was a highly traditional culture, rooted in religious fundamentalism, nationalist ideology and patriarchal practices. Seen in this context, the reluctance of many Poles to challenge the "hidden" taboo of particular forms of inequality (such as gender discrimination) as well as "unspoken" (yet still active) nationalist narratives becomes less puzzling.
Freedom is a terrible dilemma in post-communist Poland, like being denied some soul-searching sacrament. When communism collapsed, a need for clear-cut identities of "us" and "them" became especially urgent, and a demand for scapegoats was (and still is) at its highest to feed the totalizing desire for order, stability, control. Poles still nourish the traumatic memory of having suffered unjustly, of having been betrayed by the West, of having been victimized by history. Without the myth of victimization-who are we? I am not saying that victimization is a myth, but that it has served as a myth for Poles who claim it as part of their national identity.
In a paradoxical move, the self-representation of Poles as history's victims converges with a self-definition that claims agency for Poles, vigorously denying any suspicion of Polish passivity. This self-definition narcissistically overflows with reputedly stock Polish attributes: honor, love of freedom, courage in adversity. With expert use of the traditional discourse of military heroism, Poles have constructed for themselves a position that relies on the terms of the male heroics of action: they attribute their ethical authority to the courage of willing self-sacrifice for God, nation and "your freedom and ours" (to use a Polish rallying cry). Thus, Polish cultural mythology wants us to believe that Poles have passionate military heroism stitched into their genetic code. In short, the Polish nation is that extraordinary community which joins the roles of hero and victim into one. Anything that challenges the self-image of Polish exceptionalism is viewed as an affront to Polish pride and therefore meets with indignation and denial.
But the issue is more complex, more paradoxical. Underlying my argument is a disquieting recognition that the relationship between cultures is uneven. Poland has not been an interlocutor of the West but, for much of modern history, its silent Other. As a result, Polish culture is seen in the West as one of the weaker cultures, and Western perceptions of Poles tend to fall into orientalizing stereotypes. This fosters cultural insecurities in Polish society, making an open-minded debate of taboo topics all the more difficult. Poles are indeed victims of unflattering stereotypes. I would argue, however, that they are also players in their own right as they forge and manipulate their identities and others' beliefs about these identities. We need to know more how Poles invent self-invention: how they construct their own sense of who they are and how their perceptions of others inform these identity formations.
While the methodological and theoretical developments of the last three decades have radically changed our understanding of research and criticism in the humanities and social sciences, there has been no formal fieldwide consideration of the implications of these developments for Polish studies. With regard to the theme of this symposium, I propose that the conceptual frameworks and methodological tools of cultural studies in particular enable a broader exploration of the problematics of taboo in Polish culture. Cultural studies is suspicious of the "natural" links between national languages and national literatures. Contrary to a widespread misconception, however, cultural studies is not "simply about" culture, nor does it seek to remake students and scholars into connoisseurs of popular culture. Rather, cultural studies is about the rules of inclusion and exclusion that guide cultural production, reception and evaluation. Who/what gets passed on, passed down, passed across? Who/what gets passed over? Who has the right to represent whom? Who decides? Who has the power to decide? Seen in this broader framework, the question of taboos becomes a question of power and of the dynamics of center and margins. I do not have time to develop this argument here, but I mention it as an example of the new possibilities for interpretation that I hope this symposium will bring about.
Three tabooed areas: gender, sexuality and identity politics
Given the realities of Polish Catholic constructions of gender and sexuality, the fact that the discourse of Polish national identity (or, Polishness) acknowledges and perpetuates the traditional female roles of mother, nurturer, and caretaker is unsurprising; indeed it makes sense. Yet this is half the story. The discourse of Polish national identity disarmingly celebrates these roles and even, by analogy, asserts the feminization of Poland (I am here referring to the allegory of Poland as a loving and yet virginal mother); then it erases all of this by pretending that Polishness is unisex. Although there have been various constructions of motherhood available in Polish culture and although some of the Polish patriotic agendas have agreed more or less ambivalently that maternity is compatible with the public domain, Polishness is said to have no gender. But this is precisely the point. Masculinist discourse presents itself as genderless, that is, universal, in order to maintain its strong dominant position. Feminism, motivated by a pressing sense of injustice, has taken the risk of challenging the abstract universality of genderless identity. This abstract universality in any case is fiction. However, the discourse of Polishness still omits much that concerns many women and assumes men's experiences and values to be normative. Through this rhetorical magic, gendered inequality disappears.
I turn now to the sexual taboo, which, of course, is not just a Polish idiosyncracy. For example, the effort to protect Shakespeare from imputations of homosexuality in textbooks has been considerable-as considerable as the effort to protect Witold Gombrowicz from such imputations. When I speak of the sexual taboo, then, I do not mean prudish restrictions on representations of nudity and sex in literature and the arts. Rather, I am referring to those aspects of identity that are classified as transgression against social order and therefore prohibited. Specifically, I mean the exclusion of non-normative sexuality from the discourse of Polish national identity. In this context, George L. Mosse's Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-Class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe (1985) is illuminating. This study is widely recognized as "one of the first sustained attempts to break with prevailing academic paradigms that treat nation and sexuality as discrete and autonomous concepts." In the Polish context, it is tempting to ask: How did the formation of modern Polish nationalism influence the codes of morality, including the construction of cultural norms of the body and sexual behavior? How did the concepts of nation, gender, and sexuality interact with, constitute, or otherwise illuminate each other? We don't know. In Polish studies, the emergence of the modern Polish nation and nationalism has rarely been discussed with reference to gender and never with reference to sexuality. This is not surprising. National ideologies often depend on essentializing equivalences between elements of identity, such as "correct" gender and "decent" sexuality on the one hand, and "authentic" nationality on the other.
The sexual taboo in Polish culture operates very much like the Jewish taboo. That is to say, if scholars refuse to be bound by one of these two taboos, they are immediately reminded that it is vulgar to be nosy. This is how Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in a pioneering work in what has come to be called queer theory, encapsulates the views of her opponents: "Don't ask. Or less laconically: You shouldn't know." One's sexuality, just like one's Jewishness, so the argument goes, is his or her private matter. But is it really so vulgar, undignified, or inane to be curious about a great writer's private secrets? A case might be made that the most significant methodological development in Western biography since James Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791) has in fact been precisely the attempt to correlate the intimate, even psychosexual aspects of an individual's character with his or her public achievements. Jadwiga Maurer's premise in "Zmatki obcej...": Szkice o powiazaniach Mickiewicza ze swiatem Zydów ("Of a Foreign Mother Born...": Essays on Mickiewicz's Ties to the World of the Jews, 1990) is that Mickiewicz's peculiar, mysteriously configured Jewish other-self has not yet had the sort of intelligent analysis it demands, but that is no reason to exempt him from inquiry of this kind. Indeed, with Mickiewicz's Jewish other-self ruled out of bounds as a topic, whole swatches of his work become unnecessarily opaque.
Although Maurer's book has received positive, if bewildered, attention from some critics, the response has been, for the most part, ferocious. Her study has unleashed controversy within and without scholarly circles, and her subsequent work on Mickiewicz gives rise to flurries of consternation, resentment, and rage. Mickiewicz was shocking then; he still manages to shock today.
A further point can be added here. In their own work, Mickiewicz scholars vigorously reject recent methodological claims that writers' lives are no more than optional extras in the consideration of their writings. In their polemics with Maurer's consideration of Mickiewicz's life, however, the scholars' dominant response can be summarized with the familiar phrase: "Don't ask. You shouldn't know."
Could the same situation have arisen with any other Polish writer? The answer is yes, if a writer in question is regarded as particularly valuable to the processes of Polish self-presentation and self-legitimization. For example, the official constructions of Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski and Tadeusz Rózewicz have been at least rhetorically cleansed of all Jewish traces. These constructions in turn reinforce the dominant notion of Polish identity, free from the "contaminating" or "diluting" influence of the Other. It is a mirror effect, from professional critics to a wide range of readers, a denial of difference in every compulsory embrace of public education.
No identity is automatic, natural, or permanent. In Polish society, suspicious of its manifold Others, this idea is particularly difficult to acknowledge. This is an appropriate moment to take up the spelling of the phrase Polish Jewish. A space between the two terms allows proximity, while separating and thus denying any possibility for productive interaction. In contrast, a hyphen can be seen as a site of intercultural connection, but the intrusiveness of the hyphen drives a wedge between the two terms and keeps the second term at arm's length. The slash in Polish/Jewish functions both as part of the name and a confession of failure to name, the sign of a perception of the area as resistant to naming, transitional, suspended, perhaps permanently indeterminate. Moreover, the slash functions as a paradoxical metaphor of both wound and suture. It tropes the trauma of the troubled history of the relations between Jews and Poles on the one hand and the cultural interaction between them on the other. Thus the slash, even more eloquently than the hyphen, resists the danger of repairing historical injuries by amalgamative thinking. Stitching some kind of seam into the encounters between Jews and Poles, the slash is also a scar "like the halves of a fruit seamed by its own bitter juice," to quote Derek Walcott's Caribbean epic.
Maurer's taboo-breaking project provides fascinating opportunities for further consideration, particularly in the context of the current debate over Jan Tomasz Gross's Sasiedzi: Historia zaglady zydowskiego miasteczka (Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, 2000; English trans. 2001), a book that confronts the taboos distorting and falsifying the memory of Poles' behavior during World War II. This slim volume is said to have changed profoundly our understanding of Polish history and historiography. A similar claim could be made about Maurer's book. That is, "Of a Foreign Mother Born..." causes our understanding of Polish literary studies to be revised, and revised significantly.
Gross's and Maurer's books constitute a breakthrough in their respective fields precisely because their inquiries into the tabooed areas of Polish culture have potentially explosive consequences for the predominant, pure notion of Polish identity. Both books make clear that there is an urgent need for extensive public discussions not only of a distorted memory of the collective past, but also of what is often called the construction of identity. Yet Maurer's study has been denied, for the most part, an open and fair debate, and the disputes fought out in the public spotlight about Gross's book are still a long way from elucidating the often traumatic complexities of identity-constituting discourses in Poland.
A discussion of the problematics of taboo in Polish culture forces us to think hard about how we do Polish studies. Perhaps the most pervasive taboo of Polish culture is the suppressive mechanism of the institution of Polish studies. For instance, at a meeting in Warsaw in November 2000 to discuss Gross's findings, the eminent historian Jerzy Jedlicki conceded that only now, after the Jedwabne massacre was made public, "did he fully realize the deleterious consequences of the silence he and many of his colleagues had maintained for years." This example illustrates how even the most prodigious research and the most daring academic thinking can translate into shame and silence that bolster taboos. At the same time, it seems a short step from the embarrassed silence to a patronizing urge: there are some aspects of scholarly inquiry that cannot and should not be made accessible to the non-academic public.
It is evident that Polish studies in Poland is not conceived as the space for conversations and interactions where no one, person or discipline, has the last word and the power of ordering from above. It would be reasonable to expect at least Polish studies outside Poland to foster critical reflection on the obstacles that hamper knowledge and understanding. This, however, is rare. I would argue that this situation has to do with the failure of Polish studies abroad to develop and sustain a coherent sense of itself as a distinct field, independent of Polish studies in Poland.
When the main focus is a little known language, a little known literature, and a little known culture, the borderline between being a scholar and being a sophisticated tourist often seems to be blurred. To maintain its intellectual integrity, then, Polish studies abroad tends to be an extension of Polish studies in Poland. The postcolonial methodology can illuminate many of the problems caused by this symbiotic relationship. In seeking legitimacy and security in its connection to Polish studies in Poland, Polish studies abroad necessarily fetishizes its "parent" Polish culture. Anxious to be claimed by the "parent" culture, Polish studies outside Poland often adopts the "parent's" judgment as the norm and strives to achieve it. Thus, while admirably linking "in here" to "out there," Polish studies abroad insistently bypasses various sorts of cultural Otherness. Orthodoxy here is necessary to assure the "parent" culture there that American scholars working in the field of Polish studies are still Poles or at least honorary Poles. Identity hardens into essence.
This essay would not have been written without the invitation offered by Marysia Ostafin and Brian Porter. The generous and inspiring exchange with Bogdana Carpenter, Elwira Grossman, Erica Lehrer, Margarita Nafpaktitis and Magdalena Zaborowska helped me conclude my work. The International Institute was a gracious and effective host.
Halina Filipowicz is professor of Slavic literatures and director of graduate studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of numerous books and articles on drama, theatre, gender, diaspora and Jewish studies. Her most recent book isThe Great Tradition and Its Legacy: The Evolution of Dramatic and Musical Theater in Austria and Central Europe (co-edited, 2002). This essay was presented at the symposium "Taboo Topics in Polish and Polish/Jewish Cultural Studies," held at the International Institute on April 5, 2001.