Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The sad decline of the enlightened ones

As the UK Prospect magazine launches another survey to find who is the greatest living intellectual, it is a good time to look back at two of Poland's finest who both died in 2004 - Solidarity activist Jacek Kuron (pictured) and Nobel Prize winning poet, Czeslaw Milosz.

When I first came to Poland some years ago, sent by the university I was working for in London, my first days work at Warsaw Uni. involved filling out lots of frightening looking forms and other bits of paper. The kind person who helped me through the maze of red tape was a small lady with big hair. One of the buff coloured forms – which dated back to times of communism – asked me what my social class was. I was a bit stumped as to how to answer this question – nobody had ever asked me before. Seeing that I was at a loss, the nice lady with hair that seemed to grow upwards and outwards in great chestnut coloured bunches as I spoke to her, had a suggestion: “You’re intelligent,” she said. “Why, thank you,” I said, “but you hardly know me!”

“No, no,” she said. “You are intelligent. That’s your social class.”

What she meant, of course, was that she thought I was a member of the intelligentsia. I went back to my little hotel room and pondered this new development. The British, you see, have an instinctual dislike of anyone who goes around thinking that they are a member of the intelligentsia. To the Brits, the intellectual is someone who is ‘too clever by half’, and is ‘too clever for their own good’, and needs ‘taking down a peg or two.’ The Brits like practical thinkers, not someone who thinks simply for the sake of thinking itself. I mean, when did philosophy ever get the washing up done, or find a way to stop the growth of nasal hair?

To me personally, members of the intelligentsia (the word comes from the Latin and means ‘the enlightened ones’) are those who sit in cafes on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, sip absinth and discuss the unbearable lightness of being…or something.

But in Poland things are different. They used to say that the three great social groups in this country were the Church, the Military and the Intelligentsia. But the Polish intelligentsia were different from their Gauloises smoking, western-European counterparts. The intelligentsia here have their origins in the Polish noble class, the Szlachta. Up until the end of the 18th century this group regarded themselves as the embodiment of Polish culture.

Unfortunately, Poland in those days found itself between three competing empires – the Prussian, the Russian and the Austrian-Hungarian. And then empires did what empires do and carved up Poland into three pieces and the country disappeared from the map of Europe. The noble szlachta, as caretakers of Polish culture, found themselves out of a job.

So this group slowly fashioned themselves into the new intelligentsia, whose mission it was to keep the language and culture alive at a time of occupation.

Between the world wars, when Poland regained her independence, there was a brief flourish of intellectual and artistic creativity. And then the Second World War came and went, and so did the Nazis, only to be replaced by the communists.

The Polish intelligentsia once again found themselves a role in keeping the true Polish culture alive.

A thorn in the side

One of these intellectuals, Solidarity activist Jacek Kuron, died in 2004 at the age of 70. Originally a member of the Polish United Workers Party (the communists) he resigned in 1964. After that Kuron remained a thorn in the side of the authorities for two and a half decades. He spent time in jail and was seen as the spiritual and intellectual guide to the resistance to communism. The key to understanding Solidarity is that it was a solidarity between the workers – led by Lech Walesa - and the intelligentsia, led by the Workers Defence Committee (KOR), of which Kuron was a leading thinker. After the fall of communism Jacek Kuron spent sometime as Labour Minister, but generally kept his political independence, and consequently, the respect of the Polish public.

But another is always born

Another Great Polish Intellectual to die last year was Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. Though he spent much of his life writing in exile in France and America, Milosz was seen as the most important poet in post-war Poland. Again, like Kuron, he was initially part of the communist set up here, but defected to Paris in 1951. His most famous work outside Poland, 1953’s The Captive Mind, (banned as all his works were during communism) revealed the problems that intellectuals experience under Stalinist regimes.

He returned from California to Poland to pick up the Nobel Prize in 1980. This was the year of the Solidarity strikes, which eventually brought about martial law. It’s easy then to understand why the committee of Norwegian academics that give out these prizes decided to give it to Milosz that year…Nobel prizes are as much political as they are artistic.

Milosz died on the 14 August, aged 91.

So that’s two members of the Polish intelligentsia less than we started the year with. But the problem for this social group is that it is seen in this country as being redundant. Poland has its independence now, and doesn’t need these guardians of Poland’s culture. And who gives a toss about thinking anymore these days, when we are all too busy going shopping? Where as once people wanted to be university professors, now they would rather be a PR consultant.

So the intelligentsia class is on the way out here, its job done. The decline of the Polish enlightened ones is nearly complete.

I should leave you with a line or two from the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, I suppose. Here are just two lines from a poem that you can see on the monument to Solidarity, unveiled in 1980 at the Lenin Shipyard, Gdansk. It says:

Do not feel safe
The poet remembers
You can slay one,
But another is always born


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