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An Interview with Krzysztof Czyżewski

in Ark Review/Interviews by

Pogranicze is a Polish word that means borderland: an area along the border. Borderlands are mosaics of diverse forces—of numerous possibilities and exciting encounters, but also areas of dangerous frictions and painful tensions. Places of some peculiar energy, which can take many forms.

Fundacja Pogranicze [The Borderland Foundation] and its sister organisation Ośrodek Pogranicze—sztuk, kultur, narodów [The Borderland Center of Arts, Cultures, and Nations] are located at the uppermost fringe of Northern-East Poland, a stone’s throw from Lithuania, Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus: A historical melting pot of nationalities, religions and cultures. Today, Pogranicze is housed, among others, in the White Synagogue in Sejny and in Czesław Miłosz’s family estate in Krasnogruda. Since its inception in 1989 through its cultural and artistic practices, Pogranicze has been working towards creating and cultivating a space that fosters dialogue, respect and understanding. In its mission to bring people together, Pogranicze does not limit itself to the Sejny region alone but, through a variety of initiatives, works on an international level.

Earlier this year, Ark talked to Krzysztof Czyżewski, one of the co-founders and longtime director of the Foundation and the Center. We talked about how Pogranicze came to be and about the events that helped it realise and define its mission. We talked also about literature, which plays a key role in the activities of the Foundation, and about the books that resonate with the genius loci of borderlands. We talked about his encounter with a poet and The Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, Czesław Miłosz, and how the latter became a supporter and a friend of the Foundation. Last but not least, we discussed history and how it always influences the present, as well as what this present itself is, with its challenges and possibilities.

Krzysztof Czyżewski was born in 1958 in Warsaw and graduated with a degree in Polish language and literature from the University of Poznań. Among other works, he is an author of Linia powrotu. Zapiski z pogranicza [The Line of Return. Notes from the Borderland] (2008), Miłosz. Tkanka łączna [Miłosz. A Connective Tissue] (2014) and Małe centrum Świata. Zapiski praktyka idei [A little center of the world. Notes of a practitioner of ideas] (2017).


Ark: Could you please briefly tell us about the Borderland Foundation? Who are you, what are you doing and how did it come to be?

Krzysztof Czyżewski: The year 1989 blasted us from the underground—in the 80’s I had created a samizdat magazine Czas Kultury; and elevated us from the alternative movement—the background of many of the members of our group is the alternative theater. The year 1989 called for an engagement in the creation of a new Poland; rather than of rebellious artists, it was in need of cultural animators prepared to work organically with local communities. We became the Wanderers of the East, people seeking transformation: of ourselves and of the public life. As we were leaving Czarna Dąbrówka in the Kashubia region—together with the theater company of 20 people I was running at the time—we had no idea where we would arrive. A solid wagon pulled by a Jeep was for the kids, equipped with bunk beds. As for the adults, we had another one, a gypsy caravan, pulled by a horse. On the road we drafted the Foundation’s charter and dealt with the formalities concerning its inception. We stopped in Sejny.

photo: The Centre for Documentation of Borderland Cultures and The Borderland Foundation in Sejny and Krasnogruda

It was the edge of the world: a heavily guarded Soviet border, the separate lives of Poles, Lithuanians and the Old Believers, and the painful histories with their burden, which even the young people were carrying. Between 1919-1920, the Poles and the Lithuanians had fought a bloody, neighbourhood war there—afterwards, no one moved away, and so the old enemies continued to live side by side, able to remember who had shot at whom. The memory of the Jews—who prior to the war had constituted one third of Sejny’s population—was mute and deeply buried. We were not aware of any of this.

Initially, we saw the White Synagogue as nothing more than a cool place to stage a theatre play. How much it all changed later, how much work, courage and love had to be invested in order for us to be able to call it our synagogue. A dramaturgical aura, which truly resonated with the circumstances we encountered in Sejny, materialised not as a result of the theatre play we had arrived with, but by way of a gathering entitled The Songs of the Old Age: we invited Poles, Lithuanians, the Old Believers, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Gypsies to the synagogue to sing their traditional songs. They all sat in a circle and all of the different languages resounded next to one another, while the children carried candlelight from tale to tale, from song to song. At some point, we suddenly realised that people had begun to cry. They were profoundly moved by the fact that, for the first time in so many years, they were together once again, listening to each other. We understood that something momentous was taking place and that it called for further work. We forgot all about the theatre and began to build the Center.

photo: The photo archives of The Borderland Centre and Foundation

A: What role does literature play in your activity?

K. C.: As we travelled East, our backpacks were filled with “books of rogue”. Read in the youth, they continued to allure us with the mystery of the fantastic world of cultural mosaic and the wealth of spiritual life. Books by Czesław Miłosz, Jerzy Stempowski, Stanisław Vincenz, Brunon Schulz, Izaak Bashevis Singer, Jerzy Ficowski or Tadeusz Konwicki created a very special myth in Polish culture, one in which the provinces and the fringes of Rzeczpospolita became more significant. Compared to the country’s central region, life there was more interesting and it was from there that the most fascinating figures in our history originated. Just how firm this conviction was, can be illustrated with an anecdote about Gombrowicz, who was almost mortally offended by Miłosz, when the latter pointed out how he came from central Poland—Gombrowicz was at great pains to prove that his family roots traced back to the historical region of Lithuania.

There existed, then, a literary myth of the borderland, which in the times of communist and homogenic Poland might have appeared to be a thing of the past, yet in fact continued to live through the great works of culture. By creating ‘Borderland’, we wanted to find out whether that was indeed the case—whether the myth was nothing but a tale from the past, or whether this story was still alive and demanded continuation. Back then, we intuitively felt what today is obvious for us, and not only in the context of Poland alone: that through this myth we are able to touch a vulnerable spot of the contemporary world—the art of coexisting with the Other. To a high degree, our work is an exercise in creating a present-day version of this myth and in writing its next chapters.

A: We know that you met Czesław Miłosz, and that one of the buildings the Foundation uses is currently located on his family estate. Could you tell us about this relationship, this meeting and its influence over your activity?

K. C.: We met by accident, if there is such a thing like an accident in this world, during his return home to the Polish-Lithuanian borderland after fifty years he had been away for. The year was 1989. For him, this was not just a nostalgic journey back to the place of his youth. He had dedicated his whole life to this task—he was creating his work along the line of the return. Miłosz, like few others in the 20th century, was prepared to take a long, risky and—till its very end—tragically torn journey in search of the Lost, both in an existential and metaphysical sense.

photo: The Centre for Documentation of Borderland Cultures and The Borderland Foundation in Sejny and Krasnogruda

What made him a great traveller was his refusal to accept the world as given. “And what of those—he asked in The Land of Ulro—for whom heaven and earth are not enough, who cannot live except in anticipation of another heaven and earth? For those whose lives, such as they are, remain a dream, a curtain, blank mirror, and who cannot accept that they will never understand what it really was all about?” I am fascinated by his rebellion, which was neither destructive nor escapist, did not take the shortcut of nihilism or easy negation. Miłosz was a rebel out of love, which had the consequence that his life and work realised themselves along the line of the return.

He rebelled against the torpor of the hinterland from which he originated, he mocked the provincialism of the interwar Vilnius; choosing instead to follow the voice of the daimonion, he betrayed those closest to him and his family loyalties; he emigrated, he was a citizen of the world’s metropoleis—all this, only in order to then cherish the memory of the native county in the heart of Lithuania, to return to Polish Kraków and to aid the resurrection of his native Krasnogruda; to pay a poetic tribute to Vilnius of the very highest standing. Already as a young boy, at school, he rebelled against the Christian dogmas, and soon enough there followed a rebellion against the Polish Catholicism marked by theological decay, nationalism and xenophobia. All of this brought him towards the diverse fringes of heresy, manichean and arian, to the teachings of Orygenes and the mysticism of Swedenborg, to a fascination with zen buddhism and Tao. And yet, he never became an apostate—as years went by, his Christianity only deepened and made him increasingly at home in the parochial community of the faithful. In his old age, he wrote Treatise on Theology, a truly astonishing testimony of an enlightened mind, one who was able to say “I feel warmth among people at prayer”. He rebelled against himself, fought many battles with his own ego and mercilessly exposed the weaknesses of his own nature.

But all of this only expanded his individual freedom and his courage to be himself, stripped naked to an extent not many other writers and philosophers could afford. He rebelled against Nature and the laws of necessity it is subjected to, including the law to inflict death and to remain within the power of blind instincts. Simultaneously, however, he caught the moment of eternal lasting with a word, experienced epiphanies spurred by birds or the meadow of his youth, in order to, eventually—having lost everything, even his beloved Euridice—fall ‘asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth’. He fought a war against History, in which individual existence meant nothing, and yet, he never turned his back on it, engaging in the democratic opposition movement in East-Central Europe, speaking up for the future of Baltic Countries or Sarajevo, writing The Captive Mind—a book that dealt a serious blow to the axiom of historical inevitability and, like nothing else, drove the ideologists and the rulers of totalitarian regimes mad, from communist Eastern Europe to the apologists of the free market inevitability to contemporary China.

This ongoing rebellion of Miłosz is truly fascinating—one that has a cleansing and constructive power and one which, instead of burning bridges and alleviating the burden of issues weighty and inherited from the past, is rather an never-ending journey to the center of the tradition and reality, given to us through both the time and place of our birth, but also through the nature of our body and soul.

A: How do you see the current situation in Europe and the world? Here I mean, among other things, the presidency of Trump, Brexit, Poland and Hungary as well as the growing nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies, which have gained strength in many countries. Are all of these currents somehow connected, and do you see them as an expression of the same tendency, or are they rather only local phenomena, which do not necessarily portend a diagnosis of a worldwide crisis?

K. C.: I see links between what we are currently experiencing in many parts of the world: the growing xenophobia and the crisis of the communality are the situation’s correlated symptoms. To me, this points towards the exhaustion of a paradigm that for centuries has been the cornerstone of modernity. The philosophers of dialogue would say that this exhaustion is connected to the epoch of the domination of the first person singular ‘I’. We have built modernity on the philosophy of the Cartesian ‘I’; we valued individual freedom above all, we fought for independence, sovereignty and freedom, for the national and sexual identity, for the right to be different and for minority rights.

There still remains a lot to be done on these fronts, but the most dangerous illness of our world is not problems related to the health of this or that cell, but to the atrophy of our connective tissue. This is what causes the organism to die, together with all its cells, which—with our patriotic determination and the feeling of a fulfilled freedom—we tried to keep alive. We can rejoice in the multicultural richness of our archipelago, but it is the network of invisible bridges that we manage to build between them that, at the end of the day, will decide our safety, development and happiness.

photo: The photo archives of The Borderland Centre and Foundation

Yet, we have lost the art of building these invisible bridges. What good is our freedom culture, if it has become ‘event-oriented’ and obsessively focused on the ‘I’ of the artist-demiurge, while, at the same time, distancing itself from both day-to-day and long term cultivare. As a consequence, culture has estranged itself from the people, as did politics or academia. We have locked ourselves up in our own cubbyholes—which are highly specialised and exclusive—paradoxically, in the name of freedom. The historical experience of countries like Poland or Hungary, for centuries, has been tightly bound to the struggle for freedom. We needed solidarity to manage to break through to independence—hence John Paul’s II slogan from his pilgrimage to Poland that was then still under the communist regime: ‘There is no freedom without solidarity’. The problem is that the freedom we gained betrayed the solidarity we had. Our societies never got a chance to learn the art of building invisible bridges under the circumstances of independent self-determination and full responsibility for themselves.

To work in such a way, one needs a workshop different than the one that was assembled in the times of the People’s Spring or the Autumn of Nations. And this task does not only lie ahead of countries in Central-Eastern Europe only—today, it resonates globally. I am not sure if Andre Malraux was right to claim that the 21th century will be religious or it will not be at all. I feel a greater affinity with the perspective of the philosophers of dialogue, opening an epoch of the second person singular ‘Thou’ ahead of us. However one names it, and this holds for all the spheres hoping to be development-focused, we must assemble a kind of workshop that can be used in the face of such challenges and values as codependency, empathy, coexistence, solidarity and cooperation. This cannot be achieved without limiting one’s own freedom, but, after all, is not such a freedom the only kind of freedom we can ever realistically hope for?

A: Returning to literature: does it have any privileged role to play today in view of all of the changes we observe? If so, what is this role?

K. C.: The shift to a civilisation paradigm that I am talking about here requires a new narrative—the role of literature cannot be overstated here. What is very important is not so much what this story’s narrative will be about, but how will it be constructed and what kind of communication network it can bring about. To put it differently, the novel presence of the second person ‘Thou’ in literature is not just a matter of the thematics of the story, or at least not primarily so, but rather of the form it will adopt: its openness for the subjective presence of the other, for co-creation, for a ‘Thou-nomial’ collective work. I am aware that my swing into the future of literature may seem to be following a circular path and, in some sense, returns to a ‘collective Homer’ and a story understood as koinos logos—as connective tissue for a world scattered into the plurality of little poleis.

A: Which books would you recommend to those who would like to have a better understanding of the current times?

K.C. I would, first and foremost, recommend the books which overcome the Cartesian horison of modernity, the artistic gut-terry of the ‘I’ and the form of narration which excludes co-creation. I am thinking here, for example, about books by Mikhail Bakhtin which focus on dialogicality, rather than about Dostoevsky, with whom they are largely concerned. I am thinking about books created in the workshops of the masters of the craft of creating connective tissue, such as Miłosz’s essayistic works, Native Realm or The Land of Ulro, or Hermann Hesse’s novel, The Glass Bead Game. In this respect, I find the experiments of the Oulipo group very interesting, as a workshop of potential literature, which produced works such as Life a User’s Manual by George Perec or Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, a book which, in fact, has inspired my thinking about invisible bridges.

photo: Cezary Nowak

For a few years now, at Pogranicze, we have run a program that aims to build an invisible bridge that culminates each year on the 22nd of August in a collective work entitled The Mystery of the Bridge—a unique kind of performance that has been created together with the inhabitants of our region as well as with guests from other borderlands around the world; last time, they came from Syria and Ukraine. Additionally, with this undertaking, we have initiated the creation of the ‘Communities of the Bridge’, in Galilee in Israel, in Colombia or Norway. What I am trying to say is that it is important how we read literature—in my case, literature remains but a dead lecture as long as I do not try to practice it in my life.

Find out more via The Foundation’s Facebook or website.

Title photo: Michał Moniuszko

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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