Co-humanism as a way of seeing the world

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz talks about posthumanism, the role of women in culture, academic passion and the history of Gdańsk's Polish studies with Professor Małgorzata Książek-Czermińska from the Faculty of Philology at the UG.

- The family home shapes our professional passions, approach to work, life and people. Was this also the case for you as a professor?

- My childhood was quite characteristic of the just post-war generation. My father died in Katyń, and my mother stayed behind with her two daughters. She had three younger sisters, who were very close and used to help each other. Mum went to live permanently with one of them, a war widow, and she stayed with her two sons. In this way, they created a sort of normal family - two adults and four children. It was poor. I walked around in the same dress from October to April, but none of us regarded these difficult conditions as a misfortune. It was simply the way the times were. I think that taught my sister and me that you don't have to have some big fancies; you have to deal with what you have. Although once, when it turned out that I was to go to the school carnival party in the same dress I wear every day from autumn to spring, I started to cry tears. Finally, my aunt dressed me in some of her blouses, saving the situation.

Mum was a reserved person, she loved us very much, and although she didn't talk about it, she wasn't effusive. I don't know how she did it; it was an unusual personality feature. I knew I was growing up without a father I had never seen, but my mother simultaneously fulfilled the role of mother and father. Being a half-orphan, I didn't feel like one emotionally. I knew without words that I was loved. I think that's what gave me strength for life, and that strength still continues, even though Mum has been dead for almost thirty years. Mum took great care that we developed our interests. For example, she bought four volumes of Adam Mickiewicz's works; the National Edition was just being published then. My sister would read by the lamp in the evening; Mum would sew something; it looked like a picture from a positivist novel... When my sister was reading Pan Tadeusz aloud, I remember that I, just like Tadeusz, kept mistaking Zosia for Telimena (laughs). Mum suggested various books to us. She had a degree in natural sciences, so she made sure we were interested in nature and did some sports. I, not yet an adult, was eager to explore the world; at the age of seventeen, I went to study in Warsaw. Although my mother made clear demands on the rules, she left a lot of freedom for my sister and me. We chose our studies ourselves and decided what we wanted to do in life. That was the foundation that formed me.

- Was the person who shaped your professional path Professor Maria Janion? Do you remember your first meeting with her?

- But of course. But it happened much later. While studying Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw, I had no contact with her, but I knew who she was. The first time I saw her was at a Polish Studies convention, which had not been able to be revived since before the war; it only became possible thanks to the 1956 changes. This historical context of my studies and meeting Professor Janion is important. October 1956 was like an explosion of freedom. I was then at the beginning of my secondary school year. I went to study in a situation where we still felt a brief breath of freedom before Władysław Gomułka started to 'turn the screw' again. Initially, like everyone else, I felt that the changes were going in the right direction; we read books from the West, we knew Sartre, and in the theatre, I saw Waiting for Godot and other just-translated dramas of the French theatrical avant-garde. In painting, abstraction appeared; in literature, social realism was no longer absolute; it was time for formal experiments. In music, the avant-garde appeared, giving rise to the Warsaw Autumn Festival, unprecedented in this part of Europe.

In this context, a congress of Polish scholars was held, which was also a revolution of sorts, although still within a general Marxist framework. At this congress, Professor Janion gave an extremely important paper proposing fundamental changes in literary research methods, and it was then that I saw her for the first time. Not knowing what my future would hold and what social-scientific role Maria Janion would play, I saw a charismatic person. She read her paper for almost an hour, and the room silently listened. I did not always understand her argument, which would only become one of the most important signposts for me. At the time, it was a completely new issue for me, but also immediately a great fascination with what she was doing. When it turned out that I had the opportunity to return to the University of Gdańsk and work at the Pedagogical University, I needed to know that Maria Janion was coming here every month and working here, that I would have a piece of a real university here, one that I had graduated from in Warsaw. And, of course, I came to her immediately. But at the same time, I came to her as a person formed after five years of study in a structuralist, explicitly anti-Marxist and anti-psychological school of thought. So I took the path indicated by Janion, who saw literature from the perspective of the history of ideas. Still, at the same time, I didn't lose touch with the structuralist foundations acquired during my studies, and in fact, this shaped my professional path. But of course, without Maria Janion, I would have been someone else as a lecturer or a person who teaches and educates students.

- Professor Janion's ties with the University of Gdańsk are significant, and we often emphasise them; she has many alumni here. To what extent are these connections alive today?

- There is a legend of transgression, a series of meetings that were later 'choked' by martial law but left a significant effect in the form of five volumes of books. A few years ago, a generation of people who had never seen Janion with their own eyes held a 25th-anniversary celebration for her. Janion's works were the reading they had learned during their studies. Moreover, they were alumni of her students. Maria Janion influenced four generations. The first was her - for 33 years, she came every month from Warsaw to Gdańsk, bringing a big bag of books and lecturing all Friday and half a Saturday. It was simply life from morning to evening in her classes. The second generation are those who finished their PhDs with her; I belong to that generation. Then there are my PhD students, twenty-nine of whom I was proud to present at the exhibition in the Main Library of the University of Gdańsk. It can still be viewed until April 27. They have already become independent enough to have promoted further PhDs; this is the fourth generation and proof that the 'legacy' of Maria Janion is still present. Our exhibition: 'Professor Czermińska and her Environment', begins with a book Janion prepared for her by her Gdańsk and Warsaw students on her 80th birthday. This book (in reality a tome, not a book!) was published by the słowo/obraz terytoria publishing house. A poster at this exhibition also depicts the 'Janion Tree', a kind of intellectual family tree. She is the trunk, and we, the doctors she promoted, are the branches. From these branches, in turn, grow smaller branches; these are our PhDs. In the Janion Book, five people from 'my' exhibition have published their articles; they are 'my' doctoral students, some of whom were completing their master's degrees with Professor Janion. Many of them have contributed with their research and issues to this book, but they also polemicise with the ideas of Professor. This is further proof that her tradition is still alive. Of course, my environment and I are only a part of Maria Janion's legacy, which includes her numerous eminent alumni, such professors as Józef Bachórz, Stefan Chwin, Stanisław Rosiek, Zbigniew Majchrowski, Ewa Graczyk and the PhDs promoted by them.

- I asked because my students did not know who Professor Maria Janion was, so I took them to the exhibition.

- When you were a student, did Professor Janion come to Gdańsk?

- Yes, and I remember her lectures, my whole year of Polish Studies went to them entirely voluntarily, in the afternoons, because we wanted to participate in interesting thought and discussion.

- And in new issues concerning the passionate relationships between literature, art, philosophy, and history. These were methodological conservatories intended for both students and doctoral students, and from them, a series of publications under the common title Transgressions was produced over the years. She was fortunate to have outstanding students, such as the Majchrowski mentioned above, Chwin, and Rosiek, who contributed an enormous amount from themselves to the transgression talks and books. Janion was significant, mainly for Polish or literary scholars. Still, people from different faculties and also from the city came to her seminars, such as an architect with broad interests in the humanities or a psychologist after the University of Gdańsk who returned to Gdańsk. Even the greatest names among the professors of yesteryear, such as Stanisław Pigoń, a legend of Romanticism studies, are now a thing of the past. So I don't think that students who didn't know who Janion was are undereducated; it's just that new authorities are taking on new problems, professors of their time. I hope that the memory of Maria Janion will become a little more vivid thanks to the lectures named after her, which Professor Piotr Stepnowski, our current rector, initiated.

- Your academic passion is the novel and literature of the 20th century. What is so captivating about fiction?

- Fiction is a given treasure, a second world we create for ourselves, but if we lock ourselves in it exclusively, it can threaten to become sterile. So I started to part with fiction quite early on. In the structuralist phase, I didn't really see literature connoting various non-literary genres, e.g. reportage and autobiography. I was focused on the 'literariness' of literature. However, I quickly saw that certain things were running out of steam. I could write about time in a novel by Theodor Parnicki I wrote, but I was drawn to him because he was passionate about history, not just literature per se. Then I found that his novels contained an element of personal experience. His extraordinarily colourful life and autobiographical elements gradually began to shine through in his historical novels of distant times and places. Finally, they seemed to me more interesting than the literary experiments of the avant-garde in his prose. I turned my attention to the autobiographical works of writers produced alongside their strictly literary work. Writing directly about oneself, about one's own life, had some weight and seriousness. Of course, creating fictional worlds and playing with the imagination in novels, drama, and poetry is imperative. And on the other hand, autobiographical writing is also fictionalised. However, I clearly began to be attracted to the extent to which we can talk, write and think about lived experiences. Concepts such as experience or existence did not exist for me in the structuralist phase of my work. But having started to deal with autobiographical writing, I turned towards them. Of course, Janion played her part here, although she was very familiar with and, within certain limits, appreciated structuralism. However, she set me on a new path towards understanding literature as a world of ideas, not just structures, and I continued on that path. I wrote my most important work on autobiographical writing.

- You are known for your meticulous research and systematic nature. Is there room for imagination in academic research?

- I never saw myself as a meticulous and systematic person. Instead, I felt that many of my important research ideas, and even whole theories, came from various intuitive discoveries. I believed that autobiographical literature would tell me on its own what was important and that I didn't need to sit down with a notebook in my hand and jot down word by word from some studies. However, I also had the training that one should first find out what others had written on the subject. This is what I learnt at university, and I was very ashamed if I made a stupid mistake, but I believed you could not build a grand theory without a solid foundation. This is also an 'inheritance' from Janion and her distinctive research method. On the one hand, she had a wild imagination, a charismatic personality, the ability to talk most excitingly, even about quite average literary works in which she saw some brilliance, and on the other hand, a very reliable workshop. You can only make up something with a solid basis; it's compromising. Sometimes I wrote for longer because I kept checking something, correcting it, and adding to it so I could later say: 'Yes, I discovered it; I formulated it'.

- You are involved in women's empowerment, and women writers feature prominently in your research. Does gender matter in literature?

- The conditioning by gender should not be exaggerated. There are different women and different men. Of course, there are social role models with which we grow up and which shape us, but the most important thing is personality, which is what you must see in a person. Personality, however, is largely conditioned by gender, body experience and social frameworks because, as research has shown, biology plays a much smaller role than we thought. Why do women need to be addressed separately? Well, for centuries, no one took care of them at all. They had specific roles to fulfil as mothers and wives and had to fit into this framework. Some broke out, such as Elisabeth Koopman, Gdańsk astronomer and second wife of Johannes Hevelius. She counts by herself in modern astronomy. In her honour, one of the craters on Venus was named Corpman, after the English version of her surname, and she also has an asteroid named after her. Her interests blossomed thanks to her husband, as she made observations with him and helped him with his astronomical research, as he said and confirmed. Still, she had her own flair for scientific research and continued their work together after Hevelius' death. Hevelius' first wife, on the other hand, was able to make money by running his brewery so that he could look up at the stars, as she was the one who took care of their property and brewed the beer.

- But these were exceptions.

- Of course. In some countries, as late as the 20th century, women were not allowed to enter universities at all, they could not study, and they did not have the right to vote; in Switzerland, they only gained it in 1971! There are also examples of the wives and mothers of kings who played an important historical and social role and changed the course of history, such as Elizabeth I, but these are women from the highest ranks. To be able to learn to read and write, one had to be a nun for centuries, such as the famous Hildegard of Bingen, composer and religious reformer, who made a lasting mark on the culture already in her time. These examples, however, are further exceptions. For centuries, women have been deprived of the right to choose their roles in life. Of course, if they want to keep the traditional one, which was still in force until the mid-20th century, they have a sacred right to do so. But they must also have the right to give up family life for scientific or artistic passions and not be ostracised. It is also possible to combine one with the other but to do so requires a change in men's roles and their greater involvement in domestic matters. This is the extraordinary task of the 21st century: giving women the right to choose and pursue their own life and career path. Contrary to what many men think, these are not privileges of any kind but equal opportunities. In sports, there is such a thing as a handicap or levelling the playing field for participants. It is also used in sailing. Women have had tiny sails for centuries, and now, to compete in elections or business, they have to have this handicap added to them. Men have made it so over the centuries that they can always arrive first by virtue of having big sails.

- Let's go back to women writers. You co-authored a popular book 'Polish women writers from the Middle Ages to the present day: a guide'.

- The book was published in 2000, also by the above-mentioned słowo/obraz terytoria publishing house. I went to America, thanks to my husband, who worked there for two years as a chemist at the university. I saw that the subject of women's presence in culture is widely taken up there, and women's rights are my business, and it's about me. Working with female literary scholars in the UK, I ended up in a community of academics at the University of London who decided to publish a book on women's writing from Central Europe because women's literature from Western countries was already well known. As a researcher in 20th-century literature, Grażyna Borkowska, a specialist in the 19th century, and Englishwoman Ursula Philips, an expert in early Polish literature, were invited to write the section on Polish women writers. The book, Pisarki polskie od średniowiecza do współczesności..., was published with the permission of the originators of the whole thing and is a published version in Polish of an English-language publication.

- You are also recognised as a pioneer. You were the first woman to receive the Jan Hevelius Science Prize of the City of Gdańsk. Is it nice to be blazing a trail?

- Of course, but I didn't work to 'blaze trails'. I simply love my job and do research out of curiosity and for my own enjoyment. This has always been the driving force behind my successes, which may not be staggering, but they satisfy me, and I am pleased that others have recognised my work. Over time, after my award, the scientific work of women began to be more recognised, and gradually they began to appear among the award winners. It came to the point where women claimed the 'entire pot' of the 2021 John Hevelius Awards. Two outstanding female scientists: Professor Ewa Łojkowska, winner in the natural and exact sciences category, and Professor Małgorzata Omilanowska-Kiljańczyk - in the humanities and social sciences category. These are absolutely well-deserved awards; surprisingly, they did not receive them earlier.

- The achievements of your work as a professor and the people you work with are presented in the exhibition we have already mentioned: 'Professor Małgorzata Czerminska and her environment'. To what extent is it important to you, and is it a kind of summary of your professional path?

- To some extent, yes, but I still have a few ideas and still work. It is an important exhibition because it shows the achievements of thirty people, mine and those of my twenty-nine PhD students. It presents a piece of the history of Polish Studies in Gdańsk. The core of this Polish Studies is, of course, professors such as Józef Bachórz, one of Janion's most eminent students, a world-famous researcher of Romanticism and Positivism, Anna Martuszewska, who is a very important figure in Polish literary theory and Positivism studies, Edmund and Jadwiga Kotarski, outstanding scholars of early literature. I started working at the Higher School of Pedagogy in Gdańsk in 1962, so before the University of Gdańsk was established when the Gdańsk Polish Studies Department was slowly forming. I grew with it, and at the same time, in a sense, I was always with one foot here and the other in Warsaw. In my opinion, this exhibition presents one of the strands of Gdańsk's Polish studies and an important part of its history. Not only that, but you can also see a trace of English scholars or historians who have worked with us, such as Professor Wiesław Długokęcki, who is one of the co-authors of the book Miłosz na Żuławach—an episode from the poet's biography. Besides, before the Faculty of Social Sciences, in which you work, was separated, we were together within the Faculty of Humanities. Professor Maria Janion's admirers were representatives of various scientific disciplines. Among them was Professor Romana Miller, the founder of pedagogy in Gdańsk, who was to pedagogy what Janion was to Polish Studies. The two ladies knew and supported each other. So it is a vibrant and diverse environment, and our strand, which we show in the exhibition, is a part of it.

- You've probably heard this question a hundred times, but I have to ask: why did you promote twenty-nine PhDs? Couldn't you 'make it' to thirty?

- The thirtieth doctorate was on the verge of being completed, and the completion of the last chapter was missing. The thesis was accepted, but the person who wrote it resigned for various reasons. So initially, I was worried and thought thirty would be such a round number... But on the other hand, it could look like I was trying to forcefully 'make' that thirty. A decent doctorate requires sacrifice: time, often private life, this is not always possible. So there are twenty-nine PhDs on display because... that's how many there are.

- You gave them a lot of freedom while at the same time inspiring them. I am fascinated by the story of the replica of the Bayeux fabric that you brought, especially for your doctoral seminar.

- Janion also brought us her albums and books, such as the album of the Surrealists, which one of her admirers brought her straight from Paris. She carried these volumes for us every month on the train from Warsaw to Gdańsk for 33 years...

Back in the 1980s, when prof. Janion's famous conservatories took place, and crowned by the publication of the Transgressions series; I became interested in the relationship between literature and fine arts. Then I became particularly interested in the relationship between narrative in words and narrative in images. When I learned about the Bayeux Tapestry, a beautiful hand-embroidered canvas containing the story of William I the Conqueror's conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings, I wanted to see it and bring a replica to my PhD students. They had already been introduced to the problem of pictorial narrativity. I had already sent them to the Church of St Nicholas of the Dominicans in Gdańsk to see the series of bas-reliefs on the seat-backs of the stalls, the so-called backrests. In the past, before the conciliar reform of the liturgy, when the altar faced the worshippers, the stalls were open to the public in the chancel, and everyone could sit in the seats formerly reserved for monks only. As a child, I sometimes watched a series of scenes from the life of Jesus up close, although I did not at all consider that they formed some kind of overall story. Later, the altar was moved to where it still stands today because Mass is celebrated facing the faithful and separated the chancel from the central nave. I wrote a request to the Prior to letting us see the series of bas-reliefs, and as a result, doctoral students from my seminary at the time wrote credit papers on how the Gospel narrative was told through the paintings. But it is not simply a biographical story; its meaning is revealed in the contexts, the characters, the scenes, and the paraphernalia that have their meaning grasped through the verbal texts of the Gospels.  

The culmination of these activities was to bring back a replica of the Bayeux fabric, which I was very keen to see. I waited more than ten years for this dream to come true. I finally persuaded our youngest son: 'Jasiu, I want to see Mont Saint Michel and the Abbey of Michel the Archangel, surrounded by the world's greatest tides, and be sure to visit Bayeux on the way'. And so we did. We went to Mont Saint Michel, and on our return, we saw the Bayeux fabric. It is almost seventy metres long! The entire ground floor of a huge building is dedicated to it. It is lightly illuminated, hung on the wall in semi-darkness and is simply magical! You can listen to the history of this fabric in Polish, too, as there are guides with recordings in many languages.

I was so excited to bring the museum-bought replica to my doctoral students, and thanks to me, they will be able to see it for the first time. We went down to the ground floor of the old building of our faculty because no lecture theatre was big enough, and in the corridor, on benches under the windows, we started to unroll the folded copy of the fabric. I could already feel what was going to happen next. The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth sections, an exclamation of disbelief and finally, the whole thing appeared. I waited for those eyes full of admiration. The replica is seven metres long, so it is ten times smaller, but it is nevertheless awe-inspiring. What is magnificent is the physicality of this object, which in its content is a very complex story of history and psychology. There is, after all, a serious moral issue shown there, a tale of deceit, betrayal and the cruelty of war. But also plenty of details of everyday life, as in a novel of manners. It is all told in the embroidery that women knitted—a kind of embroidered medieval comic book from ten centuries ago and very beautiful in colour.

The whole affair with the Bayeux fabric and the reliefs in the Dominican church in Gdańsk is an example of how the lecturer's research interests are an important inspiration in teaching; the researcher's development directly translates into educational action.

- I have always enjoyed listening to your lectures, Professor, because you passionately talk about everything. Is this passion enough to have such great doctoral students?

- First, you need great doctoral students, talented people with passion and curiosity. But you never know that from the beginning. I have offered some people to write their doctorates with me, and I was convinced that great books would come out of it, and it didn't always work out. Sometimes the work overwhelms them intellectually or in their lives because of their busy schedules and lack of time. Some of them tried very hard, and I waited a long time for some results, but everyone who did their PhD with me knew they had to meet certain expectations, relatively high standards or the bar I set. I didn't say to anyone: 'please resign'; I waited until the person who was not coping understood this himself and decided to leave. It was also the other way around. I thought: 'God, after all, this subject is pointless...'. But I let the man do what he wants: 'You roll over, it's your business'. But to my surprise, at one stage, it turned out that the delinquent was right, not me and a great book came out of it. Janion would sometimes impose various topics, but if you were very stubborn, she would let you write about things that did not interest her at all. She let me write about Teodor Parnicki, who she cared nothing about. But when I came to the issues of the philosophy of history relevant to this writer, she helped me a lot.

- I have the impression lately that in times of science grants, humanists have to justify their right to research constantly and explain that they have an important place alongside the sciences and natural sciences...

- I would say that there are two problems with contemporary humanities. The first is the utterly extraordinary development of technology, which has allowed the sciences and natural sciences to develop very rapidly. But it has also turned out that many representatives of these sciences, the scientists, as they are sometimes called in the humanities, burn out at a certain point. Their horizons narrow, and they begin to repeat themselves. The entry of humanists allows them to 'catch their breath', to look further, differently. The sciences have therefore recognised the need for synergy with the humanities. There is a great need for so-called soft skills, a psychological approach in business, structured thinking in programming, and conflict resolution skills. The role of the humanities and social sciences in interpersonal communication is essential; the role of literature as an inspiration is important, because it speaks about the human being, about conflicts, passions, and disasters.

- This is, therefore, a problem that in a sense, can be solved. What is the other?

- The humanities are causing a problem for themselves. The concept of posthumanism has emerged. It is a term that also functions journalistically and is associated with a different understanding of the world and nature than the one that prevailed not so long ago. It is a new, inward-looking transformation of the humanities that has a great future but also carries a lot of dangers. I have started to popularise my own term, although so far, with mediocre success. Let's not talk about posthumanism because the phenomenon we want to define by this term is not 'after' man; let's instead talk about co-humanism. About man being part of nature and the cosmos. Patriarchal thinking placed man at the pinnacle of creation. A different interpretation of the biblical book of Genesis has emerged. Man is not the crown of creation, but a part of it and has no right to plunder; he cannot be an absolute ruler but a responsible caretaker. In contrast, the conviction that man can only destroy and is unnecessary and harmful is also wrong. We should not let ourselves be told that man is 'over'; we just need to re-evaluate our thinking. To understand that we are part of the natural world. This was aptly put by Pope Francis, who took the name for a reason. He reminded us that our body comprises the same elements as our planet; we breathe the same air that allows all creatures to live, and the human body is made up of water, which is essential for life. If we carry out a robbery economy, the way it has been for years, we will perish.

- Do we have a chance to save the world as humanists?

- Yes, because we need these new technologies to prevent them from developing their destructive powers. Who built the first atomic bomb? Who invents the new weapons? Of course, it's not about preaching pacifism because that's a naive attitude, but it's this thing called posthumanism, which should be called co-humanism, that makes us think about the consequences of our actions.

- Thank you for the interview.

Exhibition: 'Professor Małgorzata Czermińska and her environment. Persons-themes-passions' can be viewed until April 27 this year. At the Main Library of the University of Gdańsk, Oliwa campus, ul. Wita Stwosza 53. 


Biography of prof. Małgorzata Czermińska at:

prof. Małgorzata Czermińska

prof. Małgorzata Czermińska

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Research Promotion Specialist, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, UG, Photo: Alan Stocki/Press Office UG