Maria Janion, professor emeritus in literature.

Essays maria janion. a tree spreading seeds

Maria Janion is Poland’s undisputed intellectual authority – but she is relatively unknown abroad. Maria Janion is a professor emeritus of literature. Her studies of Romanticism led Janion to see the specificity in Poland’s cultural development. As a public intellectual, Janion has always intervened in the political discourse. In recent years, she has put her authority to use to support the feminist movement and the reawakened new Left.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Pages 4-12, BW 4 2011.
Published on on January 16, 2012

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Note: an essay of Maria Janion is published on:

Maria Janion is Poland’s undisputed intellectual authority – but she is relatively unknown abroad. She is frequently cited in international publications, sometimes with a brief annotation along the lines of “if this invaluable work were translated into . . .” or “what a pity it has not been translated yet” (words we read, for example, almost verbatim in The Guardian, 2011-04-21). Why have her works not been published in other languages? When that question is posed to colleagues outside Poland, the answer is often, “But what she writes pertains only to Poland”. How is that any different from Miłosz, Gombrowicz, or Michnik?

It’s the same old story. Women represent the concrete, local experience; men are ascribed universal wisdom. Her biography may contribute to the explanation. She is courageous, but not a hero. She was neither imprisoned nor exiled. She endured communism in Poland and acquitted herself meritoriously. She was a member of PZPR, the Polish United Workers’ Party, from which she was expelled in 1979. She was involved in underground education. Janion also stayed mainly in Poland after the fall of the Wall. What could have been a path to international renown, a stay abroad at the “world’s” leading universities, did not appeal to her. Janion loves her work, but is devoid of vanity. She is an intellectual cosmopolitan, but in this way, she resembles Immanuel Kant, the man who never left Königsberg.

Maria Janion is a professor emeritus of literature. She was born in 1926 in a small town in northeastern Poland and spent her youth during the war in Vilnius. Now the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius was a part of Poland during the interwar period and an important center of arts and culture, with a truly multinational and polyglossic character. As a scholar and university teacher, she worked primarily in Warsaw at the Polish Academy of Sciences, but also at the University of Gdansk. She is the author and co-author of some thirty books and hundreds of articles, as well as the editor of numerous volumes.

Her studies of Polish and European Romanticism are what made her reputation as a scholar. What placed her among the major intellectual authorities of the country is that she functions as an archeologist of Polish culture and national identity. Her excavations focus on what people would rather remained forgotten. Her reinterpretations touch upon national shrines and monuments.

Take the Warsaw Uprising. In the national mythology, it functions as the ultimate proof of the heroism and willingness to sacrifice that Poles showed in the Polish nation’s struggle for freedom. As a young woman, Janion came to a Warsaw in ruins. The city had been virtually obliterated, since the Germans had exacted revenge by burning it to the ground.

Decades later, she asked a simple question: Was it right to sacrifice so many lives and trigger this devastation for the sake of symbolism?

Janion’s dissecting perspective on the painful history of Poland is reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s questioning of Jewish history during the Holocaust. Is it the estrangement of women from “their own culture” that makes this possible? Her studies of Romanticism led Janion to see the specificity in Poland’s cultural development. European Romanticism took on a special twist there. The individual uprising and the pain became linked to the national question. Something similar occurred in Germany, but the difference is that Poland was not only divided, but butchered and annihilated as a state. The romantic uprising was interwoven with the national struggle for liberation. The worship of heroism and martyrdom has been carved deeply into the national identity ever since. The salient characteristic of Poland’s Romantic paradigm, as Janion calls it, is also that it does not end in the 19th century, but continues today. The “posthumous life” of the paradigm recurred in several waves, most recently during the days of Solidarity. The romantic “phantasms” are still alive, she argues, even among those who have consciously rejected them. “Phantasms” that slip and slide between conceptions, fictions, and even ghosts, are a central concept in her work.

After the fall of communism, Janion wrote several books specifically about these historical continuities in the Polish collective conceptual world, in which she lays out how certain figures are represented as “the Other”: women, lunatics, Jews, and – in particular –
Slavicness, and how this affects contemporary public life and politics in Poland.

Her intellectual cosmopolitanism was manifest in various ways: as early as the 1980s, she introduced thinkers like Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, Susan Sontag, R. D. Laing, and others to Poland. In collaboration with her students, she edited the now legendary anthology Transgresje [Transgressions], a work of seven volumes that grew out of readings of Polish and foreign scholarly and literary texts.

Feminism was the next project. The motive was simple. It was the abortion issue that led her to understand the effect of the repressive forces of gender relations in the free Poland and that the new authorities were not “us”, as she put it. In her book Kobiety i duch inności [Women and the spirit of otherness] from 1996, she identifies the key role of allegories of womanhood and the symbolism of women’s bodies in notions of Poland’s national identity. This also constitutes a key theme in the essay “Farewell to Poland”, which first appeared in 2004 in Gazeta Wyborcza.

Her analyses formed a foundation that enabled the younger generation of gender scholars to link feminist theories with Polish history and everyday life. Janion became the nestor of gender studies in Poland – Janion’s gender girls, as the growing band was called.

She was later inspired by the postcolonial thought of Edward Said. In the books Wampir: Biografia symboliczna [Vampires: A symbolic biography] from 2002 and Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna [Uncanny Slavdom] from 2006, she studies the Slavic mythology and cultural tradition that constitutes the Other for Europe, but also for the Poles themselves. She uses the postcolonial perspective to decode the self-othering upon which Polish culture – as a kind of repressed polar opposite to heroism – rests.

It was actually the Polish poet laureate Adam Mickiewicz who coined the phrase “strangers to ourselves” (sami sobie cudzy), which later became associated with feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva. He differentiates between two incompatible worlds within Slavicness – the Russian “Asian” despotism and the Polish ideal of freedom.

The roots of Poles’ warped relationship to their Slavic cultural heritage are found here, Janion argues: “We” want to be part of the West; it is Russia that represents Slavicness and “we” have nothing in common with Russia. The drawing of a boundary separating Poland from Russia is still today an expected subtext in political rhetoric, as her essay illustrates. It is, Janion posits, precisely the alienation from their own origins that makes Poles so receptive to the xenophobia and anti-Semitism she is so anxious to counteract. Memory work and heresy are her methods: reconstructing and reinterpreting. Do Europy tak ale razem z naszymi umarłymi [Towards Europe yes, but together with our dead] is the somewhat disturbing title of a book from 2000, in which she begins to explore the place of Jews in Polish history. And again she asks a question that is actually forbidden. She wonders whether the language of Polish anti-Semitism during the interwar period encompassed the possibility of eliminating Jews. But she also aims to restore to Jews their place in the historical narrative. In her 2009 book Bohater, spisek och smierc [Heroes, conspiracy, and death] she examines the classic triad of Polish patriotism from every angle. She dives into the past and comes up with a Jewish hero. Is that a contradiction in terms? Can one celebrate a Jew as a Polish national hero? She studies what happened along the way when conspiracy, a natural practice in the independent struggle, became “Jewish”. And then Death. What meaning does it acquire when what is a sacrifice for Poland’s freedom on the “field of honor” in the patriotic canon is preceded by the adjective “Jewish”?

What she wants to achieve is a shift in the accepted parameters of Poland’s symbolic order by digging, dislocating, reinterpreting. In so doing, Janion is utterly unsentimental and ruthless. She does this in a constant, ongoing dialog between the past and the present – between the historical legacy and how the younger generation is struggling with the free Poland and the posthumous life of Romanticism. The essay “Farewell to Poland” is a clear expression of this.

On her 80th birthday, Janion’s large band of “apostles” dedicated a volume to her called Ksiega Janion [Janion’s book]. It included an inventory, called “Janion’s tree” of the numerous academic works written under her supervision. Zbigniew Maichrowski, who initiated the book project, characterizes her with the following words: “Janion is a spirit who must always stand at the head of the line. She is curious about and ravenous for everything new, yet she always keeps up to date. On every occasion, she demonstrates her knowledge of the youngest authors. She is like a whale within the Polish humanities.”

As a public intellectual, Janion has always intervened in the political discourse. In recent years, she has put her authority to use to support the feminist movement and the reawakened new Left.

She spoke at the first Congress of Women (Kongres Kobiet) in 2009. What has always been ridiculed in the spirit of fraternity – women’s solidarity – has now emerged in earnest and is now our collective responsibility, she exhorted. But a learning process is needed so that it does not remain merely wishful thinking. Janion postulates that the political transformation must be complemented by a reordering in the cultural-symbolic sphere.

Janion’s tree has spread a myriad of seeds for such a cultural metamorphosis in Poland. ≈

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