Eager Collectors of Myths
photo: Niall Kennedy, flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Eager Collectors of Myths

Talk with Tadeusz Sławek

When I look at what has recently happened in Poland, I know that besides the common belief that we form a certain ‘us’, a critical reflection should also be present on what this being together is actually supposed to mean – prof. Tadeusz Sławek

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JAROSŁAW MAKOWSKI: When the presidential plane crashed near Smoleńsk on 10 April 2010, I was reading your book Ujmować (Capturing), in which you analyse the work of the American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, which helped me to understand what happened in Poland after the tragedy. One of the book’s key arguments is a sense that the crisis of modernity is a crisis of the community. Yet national mourning has caused us in Poland – at least that’s the common belief – to experience a revitalisation of the community. Can we really say that we know now how to live well together?

TADEUSZ SŁAWEK: The community is best served from its margins. This is the case of Thoreau, who was considered a hermit and a loner. Every instance of participation in the community that identifies with its central set of forms of behavior manifested in the given situation is harmful to the community. The more we seem to belong to the community, the more we have a sense of being together, and the more we emphasise that we all share something special, the more often it eventually turns out that the sense was nothing more than an illusion. So when I look at what has recently happened in Poland, I know that besides the common belief that we form a certain “us”, a critical reflection should also be present on what this being together is actually supposed to mean. We have moved on too quickly to smooth formulas and smug declarations about a “test we have passed as a community.”

Being together in Poland occurs at moments of tragedy. The death of John Paul II also released pent-up potential for spontaneous bonds and reconciliation. Why do we want to be a community only when we suffer?

Prof. Tadeusz Sławek

Literary theoretician, philosopher and poet. At present leading the Comparative Literature Faculty at the University of Silesia. He recently published Capturing. Henry David Thoreau and the world’s community [Ujmować. Henry David Thoreau i wspólnota świata] (Katowice 2009)

Folk wisdom says that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. Moments of crisis cause strangers to grow closer together. This creates a temporary false sense that it is possible to be united, to form a political community without conflicts. That’s not possible.

We either live in a state of open and often no-holds-barred war, or fall into blissful pietism. Both forms of behaviour are false and that’s why they have nasty consequences. The consequences of the former exaggeration, which holds that politics is a brutal war, are all too familiar to us from our everyday lives. The consequences of the latter, which is that you can practice what Donald Tusk has called, quite nicely in fact, the “politics of love”, lull us to sleep. It is not by accident that we take on the appearance of unity and stability when participating in funerals, especially national ones. They refer us directly to “eternal” peace.

The whole art of being together is about living in a community, which is inherently polemical, dominated by tense disputes. You know, Christ himself said that he came not to bring peace but to bring a sword. Our task is therefore to search for a fair and decent platform where these battles can be fought. And the community should find such a platform. But that is something we find very challenging.

What principles should we adopt to be able to conduct and settle disputes in a fair way?

The key thing, I guess, is how we are prepared and educated for being together. I think that education – and I understand the term literally here, as schooling – should cultivate in the students an ability to be surprised, amazed, astonished. Especially that there are no community experts, like there are experts on, say, the financial markets. Community is so deeply rooted in our nature that we believe we don’t need to learn it, to work it out. That’s a mistake. Being together is an art because everyone is active in many fields of life at the same time and all these fields are influenced by the community.

Today, in education and public life, we resort to what I’d call “ideological cribs”. A classic example of that is the official language of the Catholic Church, which often doesn’t serve the individual’s creative reflection, nor does it open up a space for reflecting on the world, in the sense that something here affects me personally, that my experience is a reason for self-reflection. Instead, this official language locks everything up in ready formulas and ready answers.

Instead of perceiving the world as constantly renewing questions, we look at it as at a form of ready answers. That’s an attitude manifested by political parties, for instance, who always know everything best, of course. It’s also the attitude of the Churches, or of some journalists who declare their judgements in a tone that brooks no argument.

And one more thing: being together decently is possible inasmuch as individuals are able to creatively live their lives as individuals, as discrete entities. Thoreau seemed so important to me precisely because he decided to live at least a part of his life on his own terms. But he did it not to show how great a narcissist he was and how little he cared about everyone else. He did it because he was convinced – let’s not be afraid of certain pathos here – that his “spiritual exercise” was an important step on the path towards building a genuine community. Building a community, you mustn’t disregard the quality of the individual’s life. And that’s also something we have a problem with.

Thoreau says that consensus between people depends on how we understand the world. Watching us Poles mourn, I realised how true that was. If we recognise the world as suspicious, then other people will seem suspicious to us too. Immediately after the catastrophe, conspiracy theories sprang up that the Russians – even if they are helping in the investigation – have a guilty conscience. That those who criticised President Kaczyński as a politician yesterday and today are mourning for him are just hypocrites…

Even if we are offered such contrasting visions of the world, they show at the same time that this world is common. The suspicious others – the “bad patriots”, the “false mourners” – don’t live in some other world, after all. This, paradoxically, shows, and that’s consoling, that there’s one world. That there’s one – common – Poland. The unhealthy suspiciousness of the world also translates into a kind of political bond that causes everything your opponent says to be immediately labelled as wrong. It no longer matters what is said but only who says it.

And yet good community living is based on the notion that the basic bond between you and the world, and between you and the fellow human, is something that’s much older than the relationships that are presented to us when we open the daily newspaper. These political ties with the world are secondary, much older than the bonds of the “elders”. The primal bond with the world is like that between child and parent. That’s why at the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle calls it a friendship. And adds that “friendship is older even than law.” The lawmaker should be aware of that. And subconsciously we are aware of that, but our relationships with the world are often superficial, “partisan”. We haven’t found the solemnity of what ties us with others and the world. It’s often said that politics is a “cabaret”. Today we are witnessing a “cabaretisation” of man’s bond with the world, a bond that in fact is very old and very solemn.

Polish politics and Polish Catholicism are supposed to regain their solemnity today by means of a myth built on the basis of the person of the late President Kaczyński as a patriot, guardian of memory, and almost a martyr. I read the following sentence in your book: “Myth is an expression of the unexpressed – in a word, the only true being.” I must admit that if this new myth is supposed to reveal the whole truth about our community, then I’m starting to be a bit afraid.

We need to discern two kinds of myth. The first one is myth as a grand narrative about the drama of fate, where man issues a challenge to forces more powerful than him, crushing his rationally constructed world. But we often use the term “myth” in another sense, thanks to which the calculating mind claims tragic territories that until now were beyond its jurisdiction. It’s the political, ideological, and partisan myth. The myth the Law and Justice party is building on the foundation of the Smolensk tragedy is a classic takeover by a calculating mind of territories that don’t belong to it. We thus have to do with an appropriation of the concept and its governing mechanisms by politics, which the former type of myth always eludes because it never surrenders to political mechanisms.

On the other hand, creating myths is a dangerous thing because there are too many myths in our public life to begin with. And you’re right to be worried about that. I was really surprised to hear MP Jarosław Gowin say in the context of the Wawel funeral ceremonial that the ritual was needed because people need myths. I don’t agree with such thinking. What we said earlier proves that instead of bringing us closer to the solemnity of mourning, myths quickly degenerate into empty ritual and shallow celebration. Especially that the mourning is being cynically exploited (I’m by no means referring to Mr Gowin here) for the benefit of certain political interests. And finally: as a community, we have already amassed a big collection of myths. That’s enough.

Was the Catholic Church helping us during the national mourning to build an open community?

That’s a fundamental question that has two dimensions. The first one is historical – in Poland’s history, at least since the partitions, the Church was an important actor on the political scene and played a positive role because when others were laying the foundations for their modern nation states, we were deprived of the possibility. By cultivating Polishness, nationality, language, and religion, the Church helped the community. And for that it deserves our respect.


The full record of Jarosław Makowski’s conversation with prof. Tadeusz Sławek is published in the 100th issue of Political Review [Przegląd polityczny], June 2010. We would herein like to express our gratitude for the possibility of publishing the part of the interview in Biweekly.

But, on the other hand, one can also feel a resentment towards the Church because in the name of successfully building that strong, confident community, it neglected the value of religion, a value that is manifested in, among other things, the individual’s tragic experience. I think the crisis of the Church’s language stems precisely from that gap – the religious experience, extremely important in the life of every religious person, has been reduced today to not even community but to crowd participation. That’s why the things Church people say today and how they say them are often like a painkiller. We move on too quickly to the order of stability and meaning, forgetting about suffering, emptiness, doubt. As if the drama of human life didn’t deserve our profound reflection. My grudge against the Church is that it doesn’t trust the individual, who sometimes has to remain in the darkness of questioning and doubt. And that it is the individual’s question, his darkness and gloom, and that the individual is ready to live with the burden of his own existence in a responsible way. I see neither a betrayal of Christianity nor of the Church in such an attitude. The power of faith stems not from answers but from questions and doubts.