We are dark

Interview with Agata Pyzik about uncanny Slavdom, Polish nationalism and paganism

We asked the journalist and cultural critic Agata Pyzik how she was influenced by Marie Janion's work on the Polish romantic myth, how Eastern Europe had lost its appeal and whether she still thought that the former Eastern bloc needed to be emancipated. We also talked about why Olga Tokarczuk is usurped by the liberal camp and why the radicalization of the LGBT people in Poland is important.

Agata Pyzik. Foto z osobního archivu

Our interview was instigated by the recent death of prominent Polish literary and cultural historian Maria Janion. How did you encounter her work?

I think it actually resulted from her relationship with the nascent Polish feminism. I was an avid reader as a teenager, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, extremely shy and hiding my shyness behind books, so it was only a question of time before I encountered her work. Janion was embraced by young feminist scholars in the 1990s because she combined a unique experience: she used to be a Marxist, she had always been extremely widely read in (not only) western thought and theory, as she worked as a literary scholar under People's Poland, she was very independent. She embraced gender studies early on, but what was most extraordinary and revolutionary in her approach was that she weaved a unique narrative about Polish history and identity, which neither conformed to the conservative Catholic Church-influenced dogma nor submitted to the then-compulsory working-class-only communist view.

It's not like Janion has ever been very central to my way of thinking, but I guess every Polish intellectual of the last, roughly speaking, 50 years needs to reckon with her legacy. She was amazing because she was a woman who had this amazing stature in the male-dominated academic world, which always tends towards the patriarchal – although not necessarily under communism. Basically, Janion knew that Poland has never been a very classlessness-friendly country; it has always been an extremely unequal country, where the serfdom of peasants lasted until the mid-19th  century. So as a nation we were poisoned by a contempt for pragmatic, logical, and pro-working-class values, which made founding socialism in Poland such an impossible task.


Your 2014 book Poor but Sexy deals mainly with late 20th century culture, but the chapter which refers to Maria Janion is dedicated to Polish Romanticism and its phantasms…

Maria Janion understood what is most powerful about Polish history, and most original – it's the uncanny Romantic period, which occurred mostly under the partition in the 19th century (i.e. when Poland was not officially a country, and when for over 120 years it was partitioned between the Russian Empire, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire). But she also saw that hardship seemed to have uncovered something entirely uncanny about the Polish soul. She examined the Romantic mythos – i.e. that Poland was supposed to be the Christ of nations and suffer – but scrutinised it for all its inconsequence and cruelty and masochism. During the partition Polish Romantic literature unveiled a lot of Slavic paganism and discovered it as something at the core of the Polish soul. I guess that this was what fascinated me and what I dwelled upon in Poor but Sexy.


Was her legacy also relevant for the chapters concerning the culture of the Cold War era?

As I examined our incapability to embrace socialism and our failures at adjusting to the western late capitalist paradigm in the early 1990s, I realised that this fucked-up (and I say it consciously!) combo of repressed inferiority complex (against the West) and some unresolved imaginations of oneself as a mighty nation that was once great and ruled the region led to constant tensions within Polishness, the concept of Polishness as such, of whether it is capable of embracing modernity in a western mode or whether it should stay within its ancient, unsavory anarchy and chaos; that clash I find fascinating. And I find it to be roughly at the core of every ideological conflict in modern Poland too. So Janion basically uncovered that which is most fascinating, inspiring, and persistent about Polishness – it's our predilections to anarchy, unruliness, chaos, and hubris, but also that we used to have this extraordinary pre-Christian world of our own mythology, which was not chauvinistic or strictly Polish, and that this mono-nationalism was imposed later, already after the Christianisation, when Polish rulers were consciously trying to make it a part of the western world. She wrote about many other things too; there are multiple worlds to discover with her, and I wonder if she's been translated into Czech and whether Czechs could find something revelatory about their history and their Slavicness, or lack thereof, in her writings.


There’s no Czech translation of Janion – that’s one of the reasons why we are dedicating an issue to her. You know, “Polish literary history” still doesn’t sound too sexy…

But her writings are very much unlike the average work of the history of literary scholarly work! She's excited about her discoveries, she makes you feel her excitement while you read, it's never boring, plus she always finds new connections. One of her subjects is the human existence and conditions per se (as if her subject wasn't sweeping enough), like in her later work “By Living, We Lose our Life”, this existential Leben Zum Tode, living towards your death. She was drawn to dark subjects, such as the nature of evil (for real!). I think she herself sought these kinds of exciting, dramatic moments in history, and that's why she was prone to controversial subjects. This way, she could sweep up new readers with her writing, readers who had no idea they had just read a Marxist historian.

The basic and most important inspiration driven from Janion for Poor but Sexy was her later book The Uncanny Slavdom, where she draws a particularly otherworldly image, a kind of Polish uncanny Underworld, full of madmen, vampires, nymphs, and other utterly pagan creatures who were our real fathers, she claims. This is our real legacy, no matter how hard we tried to dress up as this proper, westernised good boy of a country. No, we are fuckups who will forever feel torn and never find peace, just like the undead creatures of the pagan forefathers' rituals. I mean, who could resist such an image?! She made Polish literature and history seem like a Joy Division track. I guess that was when it coalesced within me, back in 2008 or 2009, when I wrote the first edition of the third chapter of my later book: that we are Easterners, and perhaps that means we're dark and fucked up, but that's fascinating, and it attracted generations of foreigners, from Byron and Hegel to Ian Curtis. What we have is powerful and worth keeping and not to be repressed for the sake of some shallow westernisation.


You mention Joy Division: in Poor but Sexy you write about a peculiar momentum when the fascination by Anglo-Saxon culture had its counterpart in “Europhilia” – it was around 1980 when David Bowie wrote a song about Warsaw and Ultravox sang about Vienna. What’s happened since then? Has continental or Eastern Europe lost its attractiveness?

After 1989 Eastern Europe was told to look exactly like the West and yes, it therefore lost its lustre and attractiveness as a rich cultural source. New cultures are often born as a result of a clash of misunderstanding, and how is it possible, when everything is homogenised and globalised, as it is today? Poland has also ceased to be politically relevant. In his recent text on revolution in Belarus for the German “Die Welt”, Slavoj Žižek, who of course irritates everyone, but still has moments of lucidity, says that every time a “belated” (in terms of democracy, capitalism, human rights, etc.) country undergoes a revolution, the revolution is real only when it manages to escape the cliché of “catching up”, when the East does not merely “go West”, but is trying to overtake the West, or even better, to escape that logic of the race for progress and freedom. Poland precisely lost the West's interest when they threw the Solidarność ideals under the bus and focused on becoming a “normal European country”. What could have been culturally interesting in there?

Another thing is that Ian Curtis could have never imagined the globalisation and digitalisation we are experiencing today and would have felt lost; and given that he voted Tory, he would have also probably voted for Brexit. Look at John Lydon today. That's why culture is interesting, but when I need to recharge my political batteries, I read, for example, Frantz Fanon and do not listen to Joy Division. Doing the latter, you can only confirm your worst predictions about humanity and come to the conclusion that everything is shit.


In your texts you tried to rehabilitate the (popular) culture of the former Eastern Bloc, but simultaneously you criticised its depoliticising fashionableness, its “sexiness” which tends to be merely aesthetic. Do you think your voice was heard?

I think it was, but given I was active not in the field of politics, but in the field of cultural criticism and journalism and lifestyle journalism as well, it was hard to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, well, the latter has to make money and you can't make money by telling people they are reactionary or wrong! Also, there's the popularity of clubbing and the fact that young people in the former East obviously wanted to have fun too. I felt extremely ambivalent about the fact that when Maidan happened, people started talking about going to raves in Kyiv. On one hand, I can't blame young Ukrainians – they were sick of the situation and wanted to have fun. On the other hand, the bodies on Maidan hadn't even cooled off yet when western hipsters started coming there for some cool exotic rave fun. I mean, it was a bit distasteful.

I guess there's this evasive strategy in various magazines, such as the Calvert Journal, where there's just enough of a dose of “seriousness” (some identity politics, pop-feminism, some pro-LGBT stance, some protest coverage, some writing on art and architecture, etc.) to absolve oneself to be able to talk about what really interests them, which is fashion and creative industries. I like contemporary Eastern European art and photography, there's some really good stuff there. I do not deny the lifestyle magazines covering Eastern European cool culture really care about women's or LGBT rights, but in all fairness, it's mostly about selling clothes. There's also this underlying sense that it's about trying to convince people in the West we're just like them, that we're cool. I’m not interested in that.


Poor but Sexy raises many topics, but in one passage we read that “this book perhaps should be even ashamed of how little of our problems it manages to cover. What was left behind at that time? And to whom does the pronounour” actually refer?

I have no idea why I started writing this book in the royal we. It really is a long time ago for me now, and I think this book is full of many things you feel when you're young: that you have to make your mark, that you have to say everything in your debut. I'm much more relaxed right now, as a 37-year-old, than 10 years ago when I moved to London, where I ended up writing it by 2012. I wanted to add some extra poignancy and gravitas to what I had to say; I believed that I was writing a new Eastern European history, so I guess hence this slightly pathetic tone. I'm sorry!


You wrote a number of texts on underrated or half-forgotten female artists from the former Eastern Bloc, including Czech photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková and filmmaker Ester Krumbachová. Is there any singular “eastern” female artist to whom you would like to dedicate a longer text, or even a book?

I’ve never thought of this; currently I'm still hoping I will someday finish my book on the late Cold War English pop group Japan from the late 1970s and early 1980s, who were extremely into the East – not only Eastern Europe, but rather the Far East – China and Japan. There are of course many artists from the former Soviet Bloc that I'd love to write more about though. Polish artists such as Alina Szapocznikow and Katarzyna Kobro. A Polish conceptual feminist artist who had her heyday in the 1970s, Natalia LL. Torch singer Ewa Demarczyk, who passed away recently, or graphic designer Barbara Baranowska, who created many iconic film posters for her ex-husband Andrzej Żuławski and created in France under the pseudonym Basha. Contemporary Russian photographer Alisa Resnik. There are plenty and I'm sure I mentioned only a small part.


Many things have happened in Europe during the six years since Poor but Sexy was published. How about the asymmetric East-West relationship? Has it changed as well? Is the East today even more tired of the “imitation of the West”, as Boris Buden or Ivan Krastev claim?

Since I wrote the book and published it in the beginning of 2014, the world has changed like not once, but several times. I attended many events and conferences about the East imitating the West and how can we get out of that paradigm – the last one being participating in the Czech symposium and book The New Dictionary of Old Ideas by Prague's MeetFactory gallery, where I wrote on notions such as Eastern Europe as “Middle-east Europe”. But in the meantime, there was Ukrainian Maidan and its long aftermath, and now our eyes are on Belarus. The problems remain the same: liberalism, especially economically speaking, because not in terms of governance, remains the necessary stadium for all the countries which “missed out” on the capitalist transition of the late 1980s and early 1990s. And even we, Eastern European leftists, who obviously know exactly how this is going to end – asset stripping, privatisation of public services, class divisions, impoverishment of huge parts of society, etc. – must remain quiet, as we can so easily be accused of paternalism regarding our eastern neighbours. Plus, given that Poland used to be a coloniser both in Belarus and Ukraine, I feel we should shut up. But the truth is that by now, in 2020, it is not the western neoliberalism that a country like Belarus should pursue, especially as people sacrifice their lives for it as we speak.


What's the alternative then?

I guess we'll learn that via a lot of pain and discovering it by our further mistakes, but also the mistakes of richer, more influential economies, over which we have no power. And this is what we partly have to accept.


So do you still believe that Eastern Europe needs some kind of emancipation?

Possibly, but the way there leads not via the beaten paths of western neoliberalism, but via the real East, so that the East once again becomes the place where the sunrise of ideas begins, great, world-shaping ideas like communism. But you've heard this a million times before. And I'm not willing to be one of those great putative “radicals” who talk only about “full communism”. Well, maybe not that, but have some self-respect at least not to blindly follow everything western capitalists tell you to do. And if that's supposed to be an “alternative” to Kaczyński's populism, then it's really pitiful.


Only three days before Maria Janion another prominent Polish historian of ideas passed away – Andrzej Walicki, whose work on Marxism has recently been translated into Czech. Do you see any interconnection in their intellectual legacy?

They belonged to different worlds but were perhaps similar figures in a way – they were Polish intellectuals who were fabulously well-read in the western ideas, and who were more capable than most of understanding both sides, to be perfect interpreters. I wish they had more clout in the mass media! Walicki was very lucid and already in 1991 was writing critical texts on Lech Wałęsa and the Polish transition to capitalism for the New Left Review. Janion was also ahead of her time, when while writing seemingly about the Polish uprising from the 19th century, she predicted the marginalisation of women and the resurfacing of antisemitism in post-communist Poland.


Last year, Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in literature, and her criticism of Polish colonial history caused a new wave of controversies. Do you see any further impact on public discourse in Poland?

Olga Tokarczuk, who I do not especially like as a writer, is entirely identified with the pro-western anti-PiS cohort; therefore, given all of the national media is now dominated by the halfwits from PiS assignment, who are told to smear everything that comes from the liberal side, then no, there was no serious discussion about it. But given all kinds of condescending admiration of the “Belorussians' bravery”, echoing the same expressions from the liberal camp as from when Maidan was happening, then I am also not sure the supposedly more enlightened side of this conflict did their proper homework on colonialism's legacy.


After the Polish elections five years ago, I asked one of my friends from Warsaw how long Poland will keep choosing between the Right and the Right. “Until the bitter end” was the answer. Do you see it in a similar way?

I'm not a good oracle, not even a bad one, but I can surely tell you I am so tired of the regular ritual Polish-Polish wars. I cannot subscribe to either side, as you can see, and especially since the Corona pandemic, I have withdrawn even further from participating in political life. But one thing I find incredible: it's the radicalisation of the LGBT people in Poland. After all those years of abusing their rights! Seeing them in the recent riots with the police, I am hopeful that the younger generation of Poles having their human rights abused won't politely accept police and other authorities’ violence and will stand against it with leftist slogans of equality on their tongues. It's extraordinary.

Agata Pyzik (born c. 1983) is a Polish journalist and cultural critic who has written on politics, art, music, and culture. In 2014 she wrote a book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West examined the artistic and cultural history of late-20th century Eastern Europe under socialism and its eventual transition to neoliberal capitalism. Her writing has appeared in The Wire, The Guardian, New Statesman, frieze, and New Humanist.