Cutting-edge Polish intellectual Sławomir Sierakowski breezed through town last week. I’d been alerted to the visit by Shana Penn of the Taube Foundation. In a busy schedule, I made the time, and I’m glad I did. The 34-year-old wunderkind is founding director of a publishing house and magazine, Krytyka Polityczna, the focus of a left-wing movement, and of a think tank, Warsaw’s Institute for Advanced Study. The author is also a Harvard fellow this year. His project at hand (and the reason for Shana’s note): he is writing a book about the political, social, religious outlook of Czesław Miłosz.
Because of an earlier appointment, I arrived after his noon talk, “Time for Neo-Dissidents,” was well under way. Against my better judgment (knowing they’d be piecemeal and wouldn’t nearly capture his quick, wide-ranging intelligence), I began scribbling notes.
He urged us to reconsider whether democracy equals party politics. Political parties? “It’s a social construct,” he said, an outgrowth of the late 19th century, and somewhat irrelevant in his native land, since “there’s no social consensus about anything in Poland.” I, for one, would celebrate a dissolution of political party power in the U.S., which has increasingly turned to brainless slogans and character assassination to pull down the worthy and the worthless on all points of the political spectrum. I’d like to see an outbreak of goodness instead.
Sławomir said that to get anything done in Poland, one must bypass political parties and “negotiate between a coalition of NGOs and certain ministries and departments. You cannot do too much with parties; it’s not the decisive access. … if you want to change something in politics, don’t go to Parliament.” The task facing the nation of 40 million is “how to create trust, how to create social glue.” We discussed that and Miłosz at a small lunch afterwards.
His most passionate comments were reserved that evening for “Beyond the Dialogue: Jews, Poles, and What is Left?” and a screening of Yael Bartana‘s film, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), in which he is the sole actor.
The 11-minute film is done in Leni Riefenstahl mode, the style of the propaganda movies that are a familiar staple to Eastern Europeans over the age of thirty, but it has a different message. “Propaganda movies are always about community, togetherness,” he said, and so is this one. But he’s speaking instead about the millions of missing Jews in Poland, the “other” that gave depth, meaning, and (that buzzword of the age) diversity to the social tapestry in Poland.
“It’s easy to be ironic,” he said. “But you cannot change anything with irony…All of us are liberal ironists.” He opted for pathos instead, and “saying something bluntly.”
“Any dissent today is easily corrupted by mass culture – it becomes another commodity on offer.” Hence the easy option of irony. “To say something serious today is to be for something,” he insisted.