Ewa Thompson: Any Polish scholar who can wield a foreign language like Wołodyjowski wields his sabre is invaluable

Ewa Thompson, a winner of the 2020 Transatlantyk Award, talks about the weakening position of Slavic studies in the United States, the West’s interest in Gombrowicz and suggests what can be done to promote Polish culture abroad.

In 2015, you received the Award of the Union of Polish Writers Abroad for promoting Polish culture and literature around the world. What does the Transatlantyk Award mean to you?

This award is a signal to me that, for some time now, institutions promoting Polish culture

have been focused on something more permanent than occasional speeches and exhibitions. I have been following the fortunes of the Transatlantyk Award for the past few years, and I believe that it has been awarded to people who are really trying to introduce foreign cultural circles to the wide array of Polish literature, not just the latest productions of celebrities. 

How has the situation of Slavic studies at American universities changed since the 1970s? Does Polish literature and culture arouse great interest today?

I have to start here with the word ‘unfortunately’. The situation of American Polish philology as a subcategory of Slavic studies is disastrous; the small number of departments that existed in the days of Milosz at Berkeley, for example, is now even smaller. There is not a single person in the United States who would have a full professorship at some outstanding university and would be able to pass down to students something more than just a small fraction of the 20th or 21st century. American Polish scholars usually do not have full professorial titles providing them with a tenure, and they are characterised by such a narrow range of academic interests that it is difficult to talk about promoting many centuries of Polish culture in their context. Polish culture in its historical context is unknown outside Poland. I don’t think there is any university lecturer on the American continent who would be able to continue the traditions of Wacław Lednicki and Czeslaw Milosz, i.e. to present students with the entirety of Polish literature, from the Middle Ages to the colonisation by the Soviets after World War II. Imagine, for example, a lecturer who specialises in Jerzy Pilch's books and conducts a course about him. Such a fraction of Polish literature would not teach students much about Polish literature. Mutatis mutandis, this is the situation in Polish philology.

On the other hand, the prestige of Slavic studies (i.e. mainly Russian studies) also decreased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a very visible collapse of contemporary Russian literature today. So Slavic studies are also withering away, although there is a push from below, i.e. from the numerous PHDs of Russian Studies that American universities have produced over the last few decades. These people are looking for jobs and are lobbying the university authorities not to liquidate the departments of Russian Studies.

You edited the scientific journal Sarmatian Review dedicated to Central and Eastern Europe.  What has been brought closer to readers and scientists across the ocean thanks to this journal?

Again, ‘unfortunately’, since I stopped editing it two years ago, because my private duties forced me to do so. But the magazine exists online, you can reach the 37 years of its existence in many ways, starting from ‘Polona’ (Polish digital library – translator’s note), through two archives at Rice University, to the Central and Eastern European Library run in Germany at German expense.

Sarmatian Review is a library of reviews, scientific papers, as well as Polish literary and political science texts in English translation. There are many texts that have never been available in translation. I encourage you to have a look at one of these addresses - I often look there myself when I need bibliographic or other data concerning little known and valuable texts about Poland. I tried to edit this magazine so that there is something left of it, so that new names and problems appear in it. I also insisted on the fact that all issues can be read free of charge on the Internet. In the twenty-first century, magazines that do not exist in digital form have such a microscopic reach that it is actually a waste of money to publish them. One of the archives at Rice University keeps statistics on the number of page views of the Sarmatian Review; I am pleased to say that the number is large, and this applies only to one category, and the least available one.

It is probably worth reflecting on Gombrowicz for a moment, you devoted your work from 1979 to him. From the Polish perspective, Gombrowicz is regarded as a writer read all over the world. And how does it look from an American perspective?

The interest in Gombrowicz peaked in the 1960s, because he was then the point of interest of anarchists and rebels of all kinds in France, Germany, and the United States, which, in turn, translated into the interest of left-wing university circles. One could think that he was writing under their dictation. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Gombrowicz is a Polish writer, i.e. Polish history weighs on his prose, and it is Polish history that he tries to convey to his readers. On the other hand, though, Gombrowicz transcends his own historical moment and that is why his Diaries are still up to date and are still being read, especially in the United States. These are the diaries of a person who is searching for himself - if we can put it so pompously - and describes his alienation in the post-modern world. It is with pleasure that I respond to letters from strangers I receive from time to time containing questions about Gombrowicz and information about the world he left.

While talking about Gombrowicz, it is worth returning to Polish Sarmatism. What do we owe to this tradition and what did the author of Trans-Atlantyk himself owe to it?

The most obvious borrowing is the Trans-Atlantyk’s language: just like Sienkiewicz (although for a different purpose), Gombrowicz uses the Baroque style of Pasek’s Pamiętniki (“Memoirs”), already modified by Trylogia (“The Trilogy”), but still authentic. I would also say that a certain nonchalance of style, what in English is called ‘devil may care’, is also a borrowing from the Sarmatian era. The Poles went through so many tempests that without this attitude, they would have died out long ago. So not only the language, but also a certain lifestyle, a kind of presenting oneself to the world. For Sarmatian details, I refer you to a column I’ve recently written called Postscript on Sarmatism.

And finally, what can be done to promote Polish literature in the United States? Or else: how to promote this literature today, as it seems more difficult than in the times when Poland was one of the important media themes on the other side of the Atlantic?

Given the scarcity of resources and the huge competition (plus disinformation) from Moscow, not much. But one has to do what is already being done, don't stop, and don't be discouraged. My specific proposals are to start an active communication between the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and activists of all Polish organisations and circles that are somehow interested in Polish books, film, and architecture. The Ministry of Culture should maintain a continuous dialogue with such people.

The second suggestion is to try to directly reach the departments of Slavic Studies, English Studies, History, and Political Science at American universities by offering them a speaker - a specialist in some field of Polish culture or history. At the Ministry's expense, of course. The Janusz Kurtyka Foundation tried to do something like that, but it has not been successful so far. Of course, what is necessary for this is the knowledge of English not at the level of the master's exams in Poland, but at the level of cultural and political debates in American public life. Today, nothing can be done for Polish culture abroad without knowledge of English or German. So, it is crucial to start by overcoming this obstacle. Any Polish scholar who can wield a foreign language like Wołodyjowski wields his sabre is invaluable. Conversely, it is a waste of time and money to send representatives of Polish culture abroad (even if they are excellent scientists) if they are not able to talk and lecture on Polish topics freely and fluently. Hence, the best gift a Polish scholar can give to Polish culture is to learn English properly.