Stanisław Barańczak died at 68 near Boston on the morning Friday, December 26. The day after Christmas Day – Boxing Day in England, St. Stephen’s Day in much of Europe. I never knew the gifted poet, translator, essayist, and longtime denizen of Harvard. However, in my 2000 interview, Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel poet had called him one of the poets who is “shamanlike”: “He was a virtuoso of translation – he translated practically all of Shakespeare, the metaphysical English poets, Emily Dickinson and so on. But his own poetry, also, is … equilibristics. He writes rhymed poetry, because his inventiveness in this respect is fantastic.” I had approached Barańczak about contributing to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and never received an answer. I was told by colleagues that he had Parkinson’s disease, and had quit the Harvard faculty in 1997 (a full decade before I wrote him) because of it.
He was also a leading dissident while Poland was under Communist rule. Poland’s Culture Minister Malgorzata Omilanowska said that Baranczak’s death is a “great loss to Poland’s culture.” Then: “He paid a great price for his views, for his unwavering attitude,” Omilanowska said. “He dedicated his whole life to literature, to poetry. His work will always be an important part of Poland’s culture.”
Well, you can read the New York Times obituary here, or in the Polish, here. I looked for a selection that might represent his work, but the only book I could find in my library was his lauded volume of essays, Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990). Rather that quote him talking about other writers, let me quote a few paragraphs that take us back to a bleak Christmas Eve, 1977 in Poland. He goes out for a walk to mull Tadeusz Konwicki’s novel The Polish Complex, and instead winds up in a queue. It’s apropos: “The line in Konwicki’s novel is more than a symbol of the Great Nonsense: it is both a model and a cross section of a society approaching the condition of ‘Madogism’ (from ‘mad dog’), a term coined by Alexander Zinoviev (a Soviet logician who was forced by illogical reality to become a writer of satire).”
Though a Western reader is unlikely to know Konwicki or Zinoviev, he may recognize something of the phenomenology of the queue in the post-Christmas sales. But most of all, I found these paragraphs grabbed me with a life of their vividness and insight, apart from Konwicki. Here goes:
“I’m standing in line in front of a state-owned delikatesy shop. I’m he one hundred forty-seventh person in line. The huge queue, extending toward Freedom Square, suddenly turns down a side street to avoid the road and crosses Red Army Street in the distance. Rumor has it that a delivery will arrive in a quarter of an hour. Carp or coffee – no one knows for certain. In any case, the lady who is one hundred forty-sixth in line convinces me it’s worth joining…
“I look at the queue in which I am standing, and, as always on such occasions, I feel anxiety mixed with anger. I was one hundred forty-seventh, but what number am I now? The line has swollen; we are no longer standing in a single file. The queuers are joined by their friends and the friends of their friends. Always the same. Nothing ever changes in the phenomenology of a line. Take the elderly gentleman less than twenty places in front of me who exclaims with pre-war righteousness and post-war helplessness, ‘But please, ladies and gentlemen, we can’t let this get out of hand. We must organize ourselves!’ Even he is a constant in a queue. It seems as though I’ve heard his words many times before And this old busybody right behind me who says loudly and bitterly, ‘Yeah, get yourself organized, Grandpa. There won’t be enough goods anyway.’ She, too, never fails to appear on such occasions. And, as always, the line responds in unison with muted laughter – a laughter of people who at once realize the absurdity of their lives. Briefly this sad laughter unites them, hostile and embroiled, in one big brotherhood. … Here we go! The door to the delikatesy has just opened, and a human tide, pushing and trampling, surges over the threshold. The last residual forms of social self-discipline disappear… After the first assault on the door, the commotion subsides. Rumors spread down the line that the shipment hasn’t arrived, but is expected soon, maybe in a half hour. Most probably carp…
“They’ve started selling the carp. The line creeps forward, and this limited movement brings consolation. At least something is happening; the line is not so senseless as it was before; we are approaching some goal. But at the same time anxiety grows. The basic feature of attractive merchandise is its scarcity. Since the carp is being sold, sooner or later the supply will run out, and therefore we may not be able to get any. Symptoms of panic appear, the line becomes even more shapeless. Not only do the queuers push forward, but some try to bypass the line, and others lean out so as to have at least a glimpse of the objects they desire. My well-trained eyes register a common phenomena: an elderly man, with great dignity and little confidence, produces his handicapped citizen’s card. He meets an unyielding wall of arms and elbows and angry comments: ‘Cripples, stay home!’ From the front of the line, where taller heads can already see the counter, furious cries are heard: ‘One fish per customer! Look at that! She’s stuffing her shopping bag!’ The lucky ones who’ve already made their purchases push laboriously toward the exit, fighting the stream of people. They are especially disdainful of the crowd. They complain loudly about the lack of common courtesy and, reaching the street, show each other their torn-off buttons. We regard them with genuine hatred.”
Stay away from crowds. And requiescat in pace, Stanisław Barańczak (1946-2014), in pace, after long illness.