Humanities as a science of memory. With Professor Agata Bielik-Robson on modernity, Polish Romanticism, 'escape from freedom', authoritarianism, and secularisation

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz: - It's been a year since you took over the Chair named after Professor Maria Janion at the Faculty of Philology of the University of Gdańsk. Do you already feel at home at our university?

Prof. Agata Bielik-Robson: - In the first semester after taking up the chair, I visited Gdańsk every month, so I really felt at home here. However, I work at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Nottingham simultaneously, and my responsibilities, especially at the University of Nottingham, pulled me away from Gdańsk for a while. I am returning for my last two seminars to complete my didactic mission related to this chair.


- In your inaugural lecture at the University of Gdańsk, you said that, like many humanists in Poland, you grew up on the books and thoughts of Professor Maria Janion.

- Among Polish humanists, Maria Janion was the most outstanding thinker who encouraged us not only to study modernity and treat it as an object of research but also to live it, to enter existentially into the current of modern life, to participate fully. This was significant because Polish culture behind the Iron Curtain was politically cut off from this current. In this respect, Maria Janion's voice was extremely important for my generation.


- I recently spoke to Professor Małgorzata Czerminska, who said that Professor Maria Janion's thoughts are still alive, especially among young humanists and especially at the University of Gdańsk, because of her close ties to our university. Do these revolutionary ideas still resonate?

- While I would agree with the statement that Professor Maria Janion's ideas are still alive among young humanists, I am not convinced of the spirit of their revolutionary nature. Modernity is a much more complicated phenomenon. Its greatest success lies precisely in a 'sedate' revolution plugged into the institutions of Western life - above all, in the liberal system, which has made this permanent revolution cool and reformist. It is precisely this vision of modernity that I hold dear, while Professor Janion's vision was hotter, let’s just recall her famous 'romantic fever'. The revolutionary spirit is, of course, always very much alive among young people, and I have nothing against that. But I am also keen for young people to understand modernity as a revolution that is able to create new institutions for itself and to interact socially through these institutions. Revolution, by its very nature, keeps subverting something. My approach to modernity is more dialectical.


- We understand modernity differently depending on what area we are in. There are many definitions and interpretations. What can modernity be for us today?

- I have been teaching the philosophy of modernity for many years, and I have the impression that it is not fully understood in Poland. As a country of peripheral modernisation, Poland has not fully entered the primary currents of modern life. There is hardly any liberal culture and tradition in Poland. Thus, something that constitutes the basis of modernity understood as a permanent but also strongly 'cooled' revolution, betting on institutional change. Modernity in Poland is still either a distant object of desire or, on the contrary, an object of rejection, horror, and violent negation. But it is always experienced from the outside. I do not criticise this because Poland, as a peripheral culture, has its own rhythm and its own traditions, which it has to work through. Maria Janion has set her sights on Romanticism. In my opinion, entirely rightly so. And I am not using the term periphery in a derogatory way. It is a different kind of realisation of the demands of modernisation, which takes place outside the centre with its various resources. In the centre, there is an old liberal tradition, as in England or the United States, not coincidentally linked to the Protestant religion. It was the Protestant religion that contributed to secularisation, that is, on the whole, a relatively smooth transition from a theological pattern, or even a theocracy, where religious ideas govern the whole of human life, to a turn towards the world, temporality, the private life of people who devote themselves to family, to work. Poland does not have such traditions, so we must look for other ways that lead us towards modernity. Maria Janion, as I mentioned, chose Romanticism, trying to read it according to a pattern of almost feverish, revolutionary modernisation. When dealing with Polish culture, I also focused on the Romantic paradigm and saw there the junction where we touched the fundamental core of modernity. Stanisław Brzozowski, about whom we both wrote, thought similarly. If Polish culture can develop secularising, liberal patterns focused more on the individual than on the notion of community, it is by transforming its own romantic tradition.


- In a fairly common opinion, it is the Romantic and Christian traditions that have had a negative impact on the Polish road to modernity and secularism.

- World Romanticism, i.e. the Romanticism we encountered in England or Germany, later echoed in the writings of Emerson or Whitman in America, is quite different from Polish Romanticism. It is a romanticism that elevates the individual, who has the right to rebel against an oppressive community. They can say no to their own nation, which forces them to die in uprisings and wars, and take their own path of individual development and the search for happiness, as in Goethe's concept of Bildung. It all depends, therefore, on how one reads this romanticism. If it is the perspective of a 'low', 19th century Polish Romanticism and a prayerful religious community, then the rights of the rebellious individual are lost. Such a romanticism takes us back to a pre-modern default system in which, as Mayakovsky wrote, albeit in a very different context: 'the individual is nothing, the individual is zero'. For if not the nation, there will always be another community: a party, a church, a religion. There will always be the 'million-fingered' community more important than the individual, against which the individual has only one choice: sacrifice. But if one reads Romanticism as Maria Janion did, and as I have tried to do, the matter looks quite different. Even such decisions as to throw oneself on the line or to fall to one's knees are nevertheless individual. The individual remains the lens everything is focused in. The communities that free individuals form may be religious or patriotic, but they have the character of free associations. They are not top-down creations that enslave individuals and coerce them into conformist behaviour.


- As Poles, is it the tendency to conformism that we should work through first?

- It's not just about Poland; this inclination is much more universal. Erich Fromm called it the 'escape from freedom' and diagnosed it as early as the 1930s, seeing what was happening in German society. After 1918, it opened itself up to Anglo-Saxon liberal influences, formed the Weimar Republic, and almost immediately decided to close itself off. In terms of thinkers such as Fromm, Theodor Adorno or Hannah Arendt, the early diagnosticians of fascism, this was a reaction of rejecting liberal, modern language. Poland is in the same situation. After 1989, there was a violent, and some would argue too violent and uncontrolled, opening up to the liberatory paradigm coming from the West, to which we have now, as a community, reacted with an equally violent rejection. So we can call it our Polish 'escape from freedom', the aim of which was to return to an idealised, inviolable community as the basic guarantee of security. One of the main lessons of modernity, already taught by Thomas Hobbes, is the discovery that freedom and security have an inverse relationship: the more freedom, the less security - and vice versa. To appreciate freedom, one must be able to live in a state of risk: to make difficult choices for which one takes full responsibility. Meanwhile, all the anti-modern responses tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater, betting on an easy sense of security and, therefore, inevitably limiting freedom. The authoritarianism we are currently living in, which invokes the traditions of Polish low 19th-century romanticism, is a reaction to the first opening up to modernity after 1989. This caused too much disorientation in parts of society, and they now want to ‘unsubscribe’ from modernity altogether.


- I belong to the generation that took an active part in the changes of 1989, and I am convinced that both in the past and today, the problem lies in the tendency to conformism. It is more comfortable and safer that way. Am I exaggerating?

- Polish society is very divided. This kind of division can already be seen not only on the Polish periphery of modernity but also in the very centre, where, some say, modernisation has accelerated too much. We are dealing with a phenomenon that philosophy calls accelerationism, first diagnosed by Zygmunt Bauman as 'liquid modernity'. The original modernity maintained a reformist balance between continuity and change - but at a particular moment, it accelerated to the point where it began to introduce change after change, without looking at institutions, law, and democracy itself, the vessels that could sustain and disseminate this change. It is not, therefore, that we should beat ourselves up and describe ourselves as cowards, conformists who reject the beautiful promise of a better life offered by modernity. Today, modernity has become very difficult in its 'liquefaction'. There is too much revolutionary fever in it and not enough negotiation with what exists. It used to be able to do this and was very successful because it had the majority behind it. Now, however, with such acceleration and the production of a world of elusive change, in which every five years a generation is replaced that speaks an entirely new language and accuses the 'old' one of shameful 'boomerism', the reality it proposes is becoming difficult for even the bravest people to accept. We should, therefore, restrict ourselves from too quick judgements.


- It’s better to try to understand?

- Yes, but this understanding will be possible if we go beyond our Polish backyard and see similar phenomena worldwide. There are sensible reasons why this is happening, and you can describe it all. This backlash, the violent reaction of rejection I spoke about earlier, and the return to a sense of security are entirely understandable, and we all experience it. I, too, have a need for security and a certain continuity in change. As such, I distrust the overly revolutionary and hasty vision of modernity espoused by 'eternal youth'. This part of Maria Janion's teaching arouses resistance in me.


- It is said that the only constant thing in the world is change.

- If that were the case, there would be no drama. Modernity was based on a certain constancy of change and had various terms for it, one of the most obvious being progress. This is a word we still use today, however devalued it may be. In any case, there was a pattern of controlled change in which all the stable institutions of Western democracy, vying for majority support, had to participate. Today, this majority paradigm is clearly breaking down. Change is no longer something permanent and stably handled by democratic institutions; its dynamics are out of control. It appears as radical demands for which we are mostly unprepared.


- Is this why we have such good times in the world for populism of all kinds?

- Populism is really just another, more commonly used name for the phenomena we have just been discussing.


- You deal with such research topics as the philosophy of subjectivity, post-secularism, modernity, Judaic thought, Romanticism, and psychoanalysis. I chose two areas for our conversation: modernity and post-secularism, because they seem the closest to each other and intermingle. Are we in Poland ready for secularism?

- Rather not for secularism, but unfortunately, yes, for laïcité. This is a distinction made by the sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, one of the founders of post-secular thought, who described the processes in Protestant countries, where secularisation took place, and in Catholic countries, where laicisation occurred. In the Protestant countries, there was a successful reformist transition from the old formula of theocracy to a new form of politics, nurturing the separation of church and state and oriented towards the temporal world. This happened thanks to the various efforts of both Luther and Calvin, who prepared the ground for these processes. One of the fundamental phenomena without which secularisation would not have been possible was the new labour theory. In his classic work Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber showed how the traditional notion of monastic asceticism, practised in monasteries, shifted towards the world thanks to Luther. Work became a new kind of asceticism, where a certain dedication in work, which in Luther's case has the character of a sacred duty, is still sacred but already open to the world and further secularisation processes. In the Protestant religion, as well as in the Jewish faith, one can list a multitude of elements that open the individual to the world and even move his interest away from the divine absolute. The world, the neighbour, work, doing good here and now - become the proper vocation of the believer. Secularisation understood this way does not imply hostility between faith and secular life. On the contrary, one need only look at the paintings of Jan Vermeer and listen to Johann Sebastian Bach to see that this is a world in which the sacred naturally moves into the worldly realm to take up residence there. It is not churches, monasteries and privileged places served by the clergy but simply the whole world. Such secularisation will never happen in Poland. It was an opportunity for the countries that went through the Reformation, and they all benefited from it. Germany, the Netherlands, England, and the United States are secular worlds, yet not opposed to religious life. Laïcité, on the other hand, is, according to Berger, a feverish process that requires going through a revolution, a war, a violent taking of power from the Catholic clergy and handing it over to the laity, i.e. lay people. This violence is necessary because in the Catholic religion, there is no room for negotiation with the world, for a gentle, natural transition from sacred to temporal life. The conflict between sacred and profane is inscribed in the very essence of Catholic theology.


- This didn't sound very optimistic.

- Because I am a pessimist when it comes to Poland. I don't think the process of la is historically fortuitous. It is bloody, as in the French Revolution, and every 'violence is answered with violence' and leads to permanent civil war. It locks us into a circle of action and reaction. Instead of a dialectical, calmer formula of secularisation, a transition from the sacred to the profane, we have a situation of fierce conflict. It is not good either for the religious sphere, which is often pushed into absurd reactivity, or for the secular side, which needs some additional confirmation, a sense that, as Rainer Maria Rilke so beautifully said, 'Our life here and now has meaning'. A sense of meaning can, of course, come from outside religious sources. But traditionally, it is the religion that provides the sense-making language, and I find it difficult to imagine a society that could suddenly, spontaneously produce sense languages entirely without reference to any religious tradition.


- Consequently, people are increasingly appealing to spirituality and seeking the meaning of life in Eastern religions.

- As decidedly anti-cosmic religions, they are not the best address for the search for the meaning of life that we are supposed to chase away on earth. They treat our lives as something unreal, oneiric. I have nothing against this search, but it is not worth abandoning the traditional Abrahamic religions for this reason. Even Catholicism could finally rethink itself and open itself up to the modern world - as the slogan of aggiornamento, or grand opening, was put forward by the last Council.


- Talking about all these problems, we touched again on the complications of the modern world. What is the role of humanists in such a world? I ask because I have the impression that humanists today are denied the right to research that does not produce quantifiable results.

- It is not easy for humanists today. These are the consequences of the great disenchantment when science took over the role of mathesis universalis, universal knowledge, which displaces all other branches of cognition, including philosophy or the so-called sciences of the spirit, as the Germans generally called all humanities. This process has intensified in recent years. Philosophers are less and less frequently asked 'how it is'; these questions are now more likely to be answered by experts supported by empirical research. Philosophy, that bubbling queen of the spiritual sciences, has been dethroned. It is a bit of a pity because I think that philosophers, who through their unconventional, very general reflection, covering many areas, and not only human life but also inorganic life, the entire cosmos, are able to notice something that a research specialist will not notice because he is too immersed in the present. Meanwhile, the humanities preserve memory. They are not so much sciences of the spirit as sciences of memory, holding the knowledge of tradition and the past. They are the ones who should build continuity in a world threatened by too much rapid change. And I do not mean that all humanists should become conservatives. God forbid! The notion of continuity need not be of the conservative paragraph. It is, first and foremost, a memory that shows how a civilisation develops. As such, humanists can adequately diagnose the present and speculate as to the nature of the future. Relying solely on empirical research, we are entirely deprived of this prophetic ability.


- Is this the reflection with which you are returning to the University of Gdańsk to conduct a new series of seminars?

- This time, I would like to propose something outside of the seminar series, which was devoted to the notion of the Enlightenment and modernity in historical reflection. I want to show the Gdansk audience an aspect of my classes that I have not revealed so far. Namely, the study of the Jewish tradition, which I analysed using a term transferred from Iberian studies and called the 'Maran tradition'. Particularly in Polish Jews, thinkers, poets, and writers whose work can be read in the context of Maran codes, i.e. a certain Jewishness that is hidden, encrypted, implicit but, as it turns out, central to everything they did.For several years, I ran a project funded by a grant from the National Science Centre, which was entitled 'The Phenomenon of Maranism'. We intensively researched the phenomenon of Maranism in Polish artists of Jewish origin. This was not about the most prominent artists but about those who did not directly refer to their Jewish origins and who created seemingly neutral works. During our team's work, it turned out that if one rereads Leśmian, Schulz, Brzechwa or Lem, taking into account the aspect of Maranness, one obtains completely new interpretations. As my primary audience in Gdańsk is literary scholars, I thought that such a shortened, intensive course on Maranism as a specific reading technique might meet with some interest. Especially since the University of Gdańsk is the place where the Schulz Forum and the main Schulz studies in Poland are developing.


- Again, you touch on hot and difficult topics.

- In fact, what is a humanist to do today if not to provoke a little? And I don't mean a cheap provocation, but a well-thought-out one, which somewhat complicates the thoughtless, unreflective current of the present.


- I wish you creative ferment during your meetings at the University of Gdańsk and thank you for the conversation.

dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Instytut Mediów, Dziennikarstwa i Komunikacji Społecznej Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego, specjalista PR ds. promocji badań naukowych