Friday, 4 March 2016

The Wieszcz

Young Adam
A wieszcz is a Polish poet who is sort of a cross between a druid and a bard. The wieszcz of wieszczes is Adam Mickiewicz (1798/9-1855), who wrote the great Polish epic "Pan Tadeusz."  Adam's son Władysław apparently did his late-Victorian best to alter the record so that his father appeared to be a giant of respectable family-man Catholicism; the 2008 biography "Adam Mickiewicz: Life of a Romantic" by Roman Koropeckyj does its considerable best to turn him into the Polish Lord Byron.

Polish Mickiewicz experts would be better judges of Koropeckyj's slant.  However, even a complete amateur can see that for most of the poet's life Mickiewicz was a symbol of Polish nationalist aspiration, and therefore every Polish party wanted a piece of him. This is to say, all the many quarreling factions of Poles wanted Mickiewicz to represent them and their values. ("He was a good Catholic!" "He was a firm Towianist!" "He supported Emperor Louis-Napoleon!" "He was a committed socialist!" "He was a Jew!") And so it may be with this biography, which seems to want to make Mickiewicz over into a bad Catholic and a really sexy dude. When it is unclear if Mickiewicz bedded this or that beloved female friend--or impregnanted one--Koropeckyj assumes he did.  And whereas the philosemitic Mickiewicz's minor gentry father went out of his way to prove his family did not have Jewish roots, Koropeckyj prefers to think that they did. One might well ask if this is UCLA's way of getting Mickiewicz to represent them and their values.*

That said, the biography is a cracking good read, and Mickiewicz's life (according to Koropeckyj) is quite eye-opening, surprises at every turn. Anyone brought up to believe that Mickiewicz was this or that is bound to be disappointed; the Catholic "Pan Tadeusz" fan should just be grateful Adam was a good orthodox, Mass-going, confession-frequenting Catholic when he wrote his magnum opus. After his political expulsion from Polish Lithuania as a charismatic student leader until a sojourn in Rome, Mickiewicz was apparently an indifferentist. After he settled in Paris, he met a Polish cult leader and became a Towianist. (Towianists argued that they were badly misunderstood orthodox Roman Catholics, but, man, do they sound crazy--and incredibly mean to each other between bouts of love-bombing.)

Whatever Polish Catholics may think of Koropeckyj's take on Mickiewicz as womanizing heterodox cult leader, he certainly structured his book well. Thanks to his deft arrangement of chapters, a very convoluted life is made quite clear. There's the impoverished "Childhood (1798-1815) " in Nowogródek; the golden "Youth (1815-1824)" in which he writes his first--quickly famous--poems and songs; the Russian "Exile (1824-1829)" in which he hobnobs with aristos, billionaires and Pushkin while his buddies rot in Siberia; "The Grand Tour (1829-1831)" in which he befriend Goethe and ends up in Rome; the "Crisis and Rebirth (1831-1832)" in which he reverts to orthodox Polish Catholicism;  "Emigration (1832-1834) in which he, like so many Poles of his time, takes refuge in France; and so on to his final "Rebirth and Death (1855)".

Compared to the average Pole in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mickiewicz was very, very lucky. But on the other hand, he was also a hard worker at university and incredibly talented at languages. For much of his adult life, he could stand before a group of friends and just improvise beautiful Polish poetry for hours. (In this he was a lot like his near-contemporary Beethoven, who spent hours improvising splendid music for patrons.) His early songs and poems, plus his expulsion from Polish lands, coming as they did at the beginning of the Romantic era made him the Romantic Polish poet par excellence, and therefore incredibly attractive and fashionable for the early 19th century Russian chatterati. (It is too bad Koropeckyj did not add an appendix of Mickiewicz's army of patrons because without the constant financial support of rich friends and admirers, Mickiewicz and then his wife and children would have starved to death.) It helped, too, that he was the 19th century equivalent of a rock star to the Poles. And not just any rock star. He was THE rock star, only with the moral authority largely absent from rockstardom. When he wrote a historical epic called "Wallenrod," a disguised call-to-arms against the Russian oppressor, lo and behold, young Poles rose up and rebelled against the Russian oppressor. They were cruelly suppressed, of course.

 (Poles are always being cruelly suppressed by foreigners, which is why you should never get into a fight with a Pole. They expect foreigners to cruelly suppress them and, having learned from history what do to, they fight like hell until they are dead or knocked unconscious. If you are a woman, and you find yourself in an argument with a Pole, burst into tears. It's the only way to win. If you are a man, you are out of luck unless you want to do life in the joint for murder. However, you could try making a funny joke or playing the Polish national anthem on the nearest piano or suddenly sagging into a chair and informing your opponent that your mother died that morning.)

God made Mickiewicz the most important Polish nationalist poet of his age, which Mickiewicz and everyone around him figured that out pretty soon. Therefore, from both an artistic and a trad Catholic point of view, it's a shame he fell into the clutches of Andrzej Towiański, one of the charismatic religious nutters who flourished in the 19th century. For one thing, the Wieszcz of Wieszczes stopped writing poetry after that. For another, he used his position in Paris as a professor of Slavic Studies not to promote Slavic Studies so much as to promote Towianism. This was a real betrayal of the field, as real scholars of Slavic Studies pointed out at the time. Various factions of Polish emigrés tore their hair out, but there was nothing anyone could do about this except the bemused French authorities who finally put him on permanent academic leave.

However, Mickiewicz had written the most influential Polish poetry of the early nineteenth century (Koropeckyj neglected to create an Appendix for Mickiewicz's works--or for anything else, his bad), and thus was firmly enthroned in the hearts of all Poles who didn't know him and in those of most of the Poles who did. To put this into 20th/21st century perspective, the name "Princess Diana" comes to mind although Mickiewicz did a lot more than the Prince of Wales' ex to win such otherwise irrational adulation. Maybe the 20the/21st century Polish esteem for Saint John Paul II would be a better comparison although in this case, JP 2 was a saint, and as the poet himself told a starstruck Polish lady in Turkey, Mickiewicz was not.
Old Adam

Thus--at least according to Koropeckyj's point of view--everyone was prepared to overlook the poet's irregular sex life (which may have been perfectly regular after he reverted to practising Catholicism despite Koropeckyj's assumptions), his dodgy academic work, his strange inability to join his fellow Poles on the battlefields he sent them to and his wacky cult and to nail them behind the wall carpet once he was dead.

Meanwhile the educated reader who wishes to understand contemporary Poland would do well to read this biography of Adam Mickiewicz, for his influence continues. At an afternoon Gin-and-Tonic in Edinburgh, a twenty year old Pole who voted in the last election not for the center-right PiS, but for the radical-right Janusz Korwin-Mikke was overheard asking a studious older lady what Polish poetry she preferred. She mentioned Szymborska, Miłosz and Herbert, and the young man looked decidedly disappointed. Clearly, given the boy's nationalist politics, the woman should have mentioned Słowacki, Kraśinski and--above all--Mickiewicz.

*Koropeckyj conveniently never references the poet's rather anti-Semitic (or anti-rabbinical, anyway) "The Rabbi and the Flea." The Towianists had a mystical interest in racial Judaism (e.g. in "Jewish blood" not in rabbinical Jewish beliefs), so whereas Mickiewicz was arguably warmhearted towards Polish-Lithuanian Jews (see, e.g. Pan Tadeusz) and he certainly didn't (as many did) sneer at the Jewish roots of some Polish Catholics, he was still a nineteenth century Catholic Pole, not a 21st century Slavic Studies prof in California.

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