Professor Maria Janion, a distinguished Polish scholar, is eighty this Christmas and, Poland being a country which — though it publishes interviews in Playboy with Boris Szyc (pronounced “shits”) where he gets to say rude words a lot — still takes scholarship seriously, this week’s Polityka has a tribute to her. Of the tribute-payers, only Stefan Chwin and Henryk Markiewicz manage to praise her without praising themselves.
Marek Bie?czyk writes: “During seminars she skilfully hid her stress,” but not skilfully enough, since the eagly-of-eye Bie?czyk noticed. Who is this Bie?czyk? A writer and former student of Dr. Janion. I must confess to a tinge of jealousy as I read that, as a doctoral student in the eighties, he called for her in his car. I was never able to afford a car in the eighties, and not in the nineties either, and certainly not while I was still a student. The car motif recurs (the Polish intelligentsia are obsessed with the car and are frequently incapable of expressing themselves without reference to it — witness Pawel Huelle’s novella Mercedes Benz) later in the article: “She travelled with me in the car and learned how the clutch worked and what the various parts were for in a flash. She understood phenomenologically what a car is.”
Yes, he really complimented her for understanding a car. Phenomenologically.
Phenomenology: Branch of philosophy which emphasises that meaning is generated through the influence of a person’s consciousness upon perceptions.
Bie?czyk is not alone. Kazimiera Szczuka, another former student: “She has an unbelievably powerful influence on people. Everyone can take from her as much as they want, as much as they can carry. Sometimes that disturbs people. They compare themselves to her. But the majority of people who came into contact with her made brilliant careers” — like Kazimiera Szczuka, for example, Gazeta Wyborcza regular, meeja person, talking head and brilliant careerist.
Neither Bie?czyk nor Szczuka can compare, however, with the very wonderful Dorota Siwicka: “I was still a schoolgirl when, at the beginning of the seventies, I found [Janion’s] Romanticism, Revolution and Marxism, which grew from her Gda?sk seminar, in a bookshop… It became a cult book. We went to school with it, we opened it out on the bench, we held it under our arms at the theatre.” Again I confess to a tinge of jealousy. When I was that age (the teens — Siwicka was born in 1956) I was reading Lord of the Rings and I had never been in a theatre. Even today, I am not intellectual enough to bring a book with me to the theatre. During the interval I just stare into space like a moron.
But it’s not all luv: as one might drearily expect, Szczuka, Bie?czyk and Siwicka — errr, I mean Dr. Janion is a tough cookie. Fools are not suffered gladly. Siwicka again: “But in conversations with her there are no easy comforts, no smooth words, no maternal stroking of the head.” Or as Bie?czyk puts it: “on days when I had to hand in my own text [text, mark you: nothing so mundane as an “essay” or – God forbid – “homework”] I felt like a gladiator in the arena. Her opinion was a thumb up or a thumb down.” Tough guys, these academics and writers. It’s a tough, tough, bloody old intelligentsia world. You horny handed workers and peasants wouldn’t last a minute. If called upon to pay tribute to a teacher you’d probably fluff the whole thing by inarticulately mumbling the word “thanks.”