Polish Literature at the ACLA

Compared to previous years, the ACLA (American Comparative Literature Association) meeting at Harvard University this past weekend was fairly well endowed with discussions of Polish literature. I always wonder if conference reports are ever read by anyone but the people who were there; regardless, it could be useful to take stock of what people have to say about Polish literature in a context not specifically devoted to it. So here goes:

During the first morning session on Friday, Katarzyna Jerzak, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia, delivered a paper titled “Henryk Grynberg or the Ineluctability of Language” as part of a panel co-organized by former ACLA President and Harvard professor Susan Suleiman. I didn’t make it to this session, but heard from Central Europeanist extraordinaire Prof. Jessie Labov that the paper was excellent.

In the second Friday morning session, Stephen Paul Naumann, a doctoral student at Michigan State University, gave a paper on Andrzej Stasiuk’s travelogue Dojczland (a Polish calque of the German Deutschland), highlighting Stasiuk’s simultaneous critique of Germany and of Poles’ image of Germany. During a panel on the “global sublime,” David Goldfarb gave a paper titled, intriguingly, “The Sublime in the Austro-Hungarian Oilfields: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Bruno Schulz.”

George Gasyna, Professor of Polish and Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, talked about Gombrowicz’s Kosmos in conjunction with Michel Houllebecq’s Elementary Particles during the Friday afternoon session. At the same time, the first discussion of Michał Witkowski’s novel Lubiewo took place during a session on queer theory in post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe, co-organized by Joanna Niżyńska, Professor of Polish in the Slavic Languages Department at Harvard University.

That discussion was continued in the afternoon session the following day, with Prof. Niżyńska presenting on the reception of Lubiewo. She discussed the specific conditions of the Polish reception of this “groundbreaking” novel as involving a “belated” and “simultaneous” reception of queer and feminist theories coming out of the West. Interestingly, she also remarked that after reading the book, she could no longer read Miron Białoszewski the same way (Niżyńska wrote her doctoral thesis on Białoszewski and trauma theory). Błażej Warkocki, a Professor of Polish Literature at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, was also on this panel. He spoke about the “homosexual closet” or “mystery” and its function in Polish modernist literature as a kind of “purloined letter,” drawing on Swiss Polonist German Ritz’s identification of “inexpressible desire” as a trope in writings by Iwaszkiewicz, Breza, Mach, and Gombrowicz. Warkocki concentrated largely on the writer Grzegorz Musiał’s 1997 novel Al Fine, which he identified as simultaneously homosexual and Catholic, “satanizing” the discourse of gay emancipation while at the same time reconstructing the language of high homosexual modernism. Queer theory, like queer literature, is a very new phenomenon in Poland; and Warkocki is probably its most prominent representative. Together with the Italian Polonist Alessio Amenta, he is currently editing an anthology of gay and lesbian Polish writing.

The question of “simultaneity and belatedness” in East or Central European reception of Western intellectual culture came up again on Saturday during a session on modernism. The session included the various authors of articles commissioned by Pericles Lewis for a forthcoming Cambridge UP guide to European Modernism. Marci Shore, Professor of History at Yale University and author of the remarkable Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Communism, talked about modernism in “Eastern Europe.” (It is a shame that the book won’t include separate chapters on modernism in Poland, Romania, the Ukraine, etc., as it does for Germany, France, Ireland, Italy, etc.—though it is a greater shame that the subject of modernism is once again being straightjacketed by the national literature paradigm.) Shore in any case identified several common phenomena around which to structure her description of such a broad and slippery topic (the specific circumstances of reception being just one of them).

Also on Saturday afternoon, Edyta Bojanowska, Assistant Professor in the Department of Germanic, Slavic, and East European Languages at Rutgers, gave a paper on contemporary Polish literature as part of a session on “East-Central Europe and the Western Other.” And on Sunday morning, Magda Romańska, Professor of Theatre Studies at Emerson College, gave a paper titled “The ‘Suspended Theatre’ of Krystian Lupa: The Sleepwalkers and the Polish Stage of the 1990s.”

All in all, discussions about Polish literature were varied and rich, and there were a number of sessions devoted to Central European literature more generally (unlike previous ACLA conferences, which would typically include a single seminar on the topic). I hadn’t been to Cambridge in a very long time, so I also enjoyed exploring the excellent bookshops around Harvard Square. The Grolier Poetry Bookshop, for instance, has an impressive inventory of translations, and organizes it by country, with a heartening three or four shelves devoted to Central and East European poetries alone. Poland has its own shelf; but I was a little disappointed to see it so poorly stocked. Manager Dan Wuenschel, however, explained that due to the recession they’ve suspended ordering for a spell… (bad news), but that in fact Polish poetry is the most popular non-English-language poetry amongst his customers (good news!), just ahead of Arabic, which also trumped languages like French, German, and Spanish in terms of popularity (finally!).

Next year’s ACLA will take place in New Orleans. The deadline for proposing seminars is 15 September 2009, and for paper proposals 1 November 2009. For more information write to: conference@acla.org.

One response to “Polish Literature at the ACLA

  1. A few more–

    Justyna Beinek from Indiana University in Bloomington presented a paper entitled “‘There is no such city as London’: The Idea of the ‘West’ in Polish Film pre- and post-1989”

    William Helmcke from U Mass/Amherst presented a paper entitled “Regional Dance as a Metaphorical Expression of Local Dialect in Moniuszko’s ‘Halka'”

    Dieter DeBruyn from the University of Ghent presented a paper entitled “Patriotism of Tomorrow? The Warsaw Rising Museum and the Popularization of the Myth of Warsaw through Comics”

    Unfortunately, the way the ACLA conference is structured in three streams of seminars that take place over two or three days makes it difficult for participants to attend seminars other than their own, but on the positive side, it was wonderful to see that Polish culture was not ghettoized, but rather was integrated into a wide range of seminars on diverse topics.

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