“Most of all, sir, I miss the porcelain.”
Methods of understanding the other: Krzysztof Czyzewski's "Towards Xenopolis"
Dear Friends, today’s post is my foreword to Krzysztof Czyzewski’s new book, Towards Xenopolis, which has just been released.
“Most of all, sir, I miss the porcelain.”
Czesław Miłosz strikes a soft and unexpected note here in his 1947 poem “A Little Song about Porcelain.” Inscribed now on the wall of a café that bears the poem's name, the rhyming verse, jocular in tone until it is not, juxtaposes timeless happiness of youth with the shocks that break time in two—into childhood and adulthood, peace and war, before and after. Pink swimsuits and flowered teacups are left by the riverbank, the one now crossed by the treads of a tank.
The café is in the cellar of a restored manor in Krasnogruda, as it happens the very place where Miłosz, as a young man, spent his summers, swimming in the lake and drinking tea from porcelain cups decorated with flowers. At the time, in the 1920s and 1930s, the manor house was a pension run by two of Miłosz's aunts, just on the Polish side of the border with Lithuania. In September 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland: the area around Krasnogruda was first overrun by Soviet tanks, then ceded to Nazi Germany.
The Sejny region, which includes Krasnogruda, was and is a borderland in every sense. In medieval Europe it was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which after 1385 was associated with the Kingdom of Poland. The area was a refuge for Russian Old Believers, who fled Russia after the religious reforms of the seventeenth century. The languages of the countryside were Lithuanian, Belarusian, Polish, and Yiddish. A white synagogue occupied the central square of the town of Sejny. The Germans drove the Jews of Sejny eastward across the border and then murdered them when they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
The Red Army returned in 1944, defeating the Germans—and then also defeating the Poles who had been fighting the Germans. In the Sejny region in July 1945, the Red Army rounded up thousands of men who had resisted the Germans and murdered hundreds of them. The region was again part of Poland, this time one that became communist. Lithuania, now a Soviet republic rather than an independent state, was once again just across the border. The pension in Krasnogruda ceased to exist, its porcelain buried for safekeeping. The manor where Miłosz spent his summers fell into disrepair and then decay. The poet himself emigrated, writing his “Little Song about Porcelain” in 1947. The synagogue in Sejny, as was typical under communism, was given over to economic use.
The author of these essays, Krzysztof Czyżewski, arrived in Sejny with his friends in 1989 as communism came to an end. His background was in avant-garde theater, in particular in a traveling ethnographic troupe that worked to elicit the diverse folk traditions of a country that was officially homogeneous. He and his friends were granted the use of the synagogue (first by the town, then by the Jewish community after the restitution of Jewish property) and transformed it into a site for theatrical and musical performances. They began to publish books about borderlands, among others Neighbors by Jan Gross. Later they were able to acquire the ruins of the pension in Krasnogruda, which they rebuilt as a center for dialogue. The Borderland initiative they established in Krasnogruda and Sejny was a distinct approach to the past.
In the years after the end of communism in eastern Europe in 1989, two understandings of the past have dominated in Poland and perhaps throughout the region. The loudest voices early on proclaimed that history was over, and that the future would be one of predictable liberal democracy. We were all rational individuals, guided toward democracy through capitalism, with no need of distinct memories or traditions. Soon, however, came the reaction known as “memory”: our nation has suffered, no doubt more than others, and in a way that others can never understand. The past should therefore be recovered and restructured in a way that demonstrates our innocence (and others’ guilt).
In these essays, and in the work done at Borderland, another approach has prevailed. The past can neither be dispelled in the name of universalism nor remembered in the name of the nation. If you do not see the beginnings, Czyżewski says, you love illusions: of your own rationality or of your own innocence. Recalling the past has to be a joint effort, which consists in finding ways, through performance, of eliciting surprising recollections and fruitful juxtapositions. You cannot get beyond things without getting through them. You cannot go home again, so you have to rebuild home, again and again.
The two dominant ideas of the past after 1989 had a certain political coloration: the forgetters were neoliberals, the memorialists tended toward the nationalist far right. Despite the obvious difference between the two attitudes, they were linked. A declaration from Western powers that history did not matter elicited a response from people who believed that their history was not known. A capitalism that began and ended with the individual naturally generated a vague sense of a missing collective. And a multiculturalism that preemptively tolerated difference could be a way of stepping aside to avoid conflict rather than stepping forwards to make contact.
The attitude of Borderland after 1989, as explicated in these essays, was that both the legacy of communism and the challenge of capitalism generated problems of culture. Much work had to be done to allow people to express what had hitherto been inexpressible. But a simple acceptance of the voices that markets summoned forth or carried the furthest was no solution. Adam Smith understood that capitalism depended upon virtues that it did not create. How should such virtues arise?
Czyżewski is preoccupied in these essays with the Romanian fascists, intellectuals who, the last time around, after East European states were created in 1918, sought to overcome personal anomie with national passion. What he is pursuing is another solution to the problem of alienated cities, of Xenopolis: one that is, of course, not fascist, but (sans le mot) antifascist. Like Mircea Eliade, about whom he writes, Czyżewski has made his journeys to the East in search of wisdom, and then returned to Eastern Europe. Unlike Eliade, he is longing not for a collective but for contact.
What Czyżewski (and his friends of Borderland) offer is not an ideological answer to neoliberalism or fascism but rather an idea of practice. He is not polite in these essays the way that neoliberals are polite, out of indifference to particular experience. Yet he is also not rude the way that nationalists are rude, out of certainty that their own sense of the past has priority. He is instead gracious, appreciative of everything, gently, and challenging everything, gently.
The idea of cultural practice advanced in these pages is not one of grand gestures. There are no revolutions that change everything, that dismiss complexity, that undo individuality. Art in the work of Borderland is not about the beautiful gesture or the decisive renunciation. It is not about building myths, nor is it about destroying them. The artist is not there on behalf of others, but among others, creating what Czesław Miłosz called “connective tissue.”
Art for the Borderlanders is about returns. In these pages Miłosz returns to Krasnogruda. On the red gable of a restored manor house, now filled with his words, is emblazed a motto from his relative, the poet Oskar Miłosz: “Woe to he who leaves and does not return.” Czyżewski goes to Romania and then goes to Romania again. He goes to Yugoslavia and then goes to Yugoslavia again. The bridge destroyed at Mostar becomes the central image of his thought: it can be rebuilt physically, but what does it mean to reunite people after the shocks that break time in two, into childhood and adulthood, peace and war, before and after?
Even less glamorously, yet even more importantly, art is about iteration. It is hospitality to guests from the city, and from the wider world, within the chosen province of Sejny and Krasnogruda. It is the same play (for example about Medea and Jason) performed over and over again in the synagogue. It is the teaching of art, theater, and music to local children, week after week, year after year, until they grow up to become different people from whom they would have otherwise been.
Perhaps most powerfully, it is the recovery of prewar Jewish music, klezmer music, and its transmission through the hard work of local young people and their brilliant conductor, Wojtek Szroeder. Beautiful blonde children as young as five or six, towheaded with bad haircuts, Poles and Lithuanians, learn to play woodwinds and brass and percussion to accompany the songs of a culture that is near and distant. As they grow up, they decide for themselves what to think of the music they play, of what it says about their Poland, or their Lithuania, or their town, or their families, or themselves.
Sometimes the musicians perform in the café in the cellar of the manor house in Krasnogruda. This is where Krzysztof Czyżewski usually holds court, bringing guests from far and near to speak about the ideas of civility and regeneration that he presents here, including the guests whose work and memory he recalls here. Yet on the nights devoted to music it is Małgorzata Czyżewska who is at center stage, fronting in Yiddish for the young orchestra. The tables, always full of neighbors and visitors from throughout Poland (and Europe and North America), are set with tea and coffee in flowered cups.
The Borderlanders found the porcelain.
Krzysztof Czyzewski’s book, Towards Xenopolis, has just been released: here from the publisher, also here.
The Borderland Foundation, described here, has undertaken important work to shelter and provide cultural and educational resources for Ukrainian refugees. Please consider supporting those efforts with a Paypal donation here.
Thank you for these beautiful thoughts. It helps me put the passage of time and the events that for each of us mark our own before and after in perspective. It encourages me to reflect on whether it is better to move only ever forward without regard for the before, or to return to the before to reflect on how we arrived to the after and if there are lessons there yet to be learned.
Loss of lives and place by brutal force is genocide. Thinking about what the millions of Ukrainians face ahead with losing loved ones and loosing their communities, going back to rubble in many cases, it's overwhelmingly heartbreaking. Reading your essay, i buoyed by hope of a return for Ukrainians to their land to make art and to live with love. For now, their terror needs to end.