Stanisław Barańczak belongs to the so-called “Generation of ‘68” (after the student protests in 1968) in Polish literature, whose main discoveries were, as he himself put it (in an interview for Na Głos [Aloud], 1991), that in the age of collective values imposed by communism, “the attempt to save or to defend one’s individuality and one’s right to be an individual is a most subversive act of public significance”; that Marxism cannot be “revised” or improved; and that censorship renders cultural authenticity impossible.
When martial law was introduced in Poland in 1981, Barańczak was a visiting professor of literature at Harvard University and he remained there as a full professor, joining the group of prominent Polish writers in exile. Although living in the United States, Barańczak is very much a presence on the Polish literary market with his poetry, essays, and translations.
Barańczak is a “translator” in both the metaphoric and the literal meanings of this term—a mediator between different spheres of life and literature, between English and Polish literature, and between East European experience and the West. He has published 12 volumes of poetry in which the political and the metaphysical coexist, 12 books of essays and literary criticism, translations of 12 Shakespeare plays, and numerous collections of English, American, and Russian poetry in translation.
Barańczak’s most representative collections of essays—Etyka i poetyka (1979; Ethics and poetics), and Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays (1990)— show his mediative talent in its full lucidity. The author’s reflections on the likenesses, analogies, and contrasts between ethics and poetics involve the works of Thomas Mann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Osip Mandel’shtam, Joseph Brodsky, Czesław Miłosz, and Zbigniew Herbert, but also minor works of contemporary Polish authors. In the essay “Zmieniony głos Settembriniego” (1975; The changed voice of Settembrini) Barańczak discusses the possible foundations of a new ethics that is not supported by an irrational authority: in the world without God, any authoritative ethics would be pernicious; the only possible ethical measure is “the other man,” hence everyone is individually responsible for his deeds and has to make his own choice. Poetry has a special mission in this new situation: not only must it adopt some of the traditional functions of the humanistic sciences—that is, as the vehicle of socially important ideas—it must also control the consequences of vague slogans and remote goals introduced into society by ideological dogma. Barańczak believes that poetry, with its inclination toward the concrete, demonstrates how those slogans are fulfilled and by what means the goals of the ideologies are pursued. The dogma, which sets to work on the media, uses methods designed for subliminal persuasion and manipulation of the masses; poetry, on the contrary, rescues man from the automatism of his thinking and speaking—“it teaches him to think, to speak, and to act on his own and therefore responsibly.” This new social mission of poetry, however, is not supposed to humble it to the level of the so-called mass audience. To be socially useful, poetry should rather try to uplift the reader (“Uwagi krótkowidza” [1972; Remarks of a shortsighted person]). Barańczak is to a great extent optimistic about the future of the new ethics without authorities. Thus, in “Notatki na marginesach Bonhoeffera” (1974; Notes on the margins of Bonhoeffer), he writes that it is not necessary for the Ten Commandments to disappear with the decline of Christianity.
Pure atheism, he notes, reflecting Miłosz, is an unbearable burden; most people who simply want to “be good” feel obliged by Christian ethics even if they have no access to Revelation (“Summa Czesławn Miłosza” [1978; The summa of Czesławn Miłosza]).
In order to pursue its ethical tasks, literature must be born of doubt and creative disagreement, and awaken these in the reader. This seems to be Barańczak’s main criterion as a literary critic in Nieufni i zadufani (1971; The diffident and the proud), Ironia i harmonia (1973; Irony and harmony), Etyka i poetyka, Książki najgorsze (1981, enlarged edition, 1990; The worst books), and Przed i po (1988; Before and after). Other indispensable qualities of good literature and especially of poetry, according to Barańczak, are the uniqueness of the individual poetic language (a theme explored in his study Język poetycki Mirona Białoszewskiego [1974; The poetic language of Miron Białoszewski] and summarized in the essay “Proszę pokazać język” [1974; Show your tongue, please]), and the taste for paradox and irony. Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry, to which Barańczak devoted his book Uciekinier z utopii (1984; A Fugitive from Utopia), can be seen both as a source of these criteria and as their incarnation.
After years of mediating between life and literature, in the U.S.Barańczak also became a mediator between the political and cultural idioms of the East and the West. His collection of essays Breathing Under Water was praised by critics as “an impressive contribution to bridge-building between separate cultures” (George Gömöri, 1992).
According to the author’s own confession (in an interview for Dziennik Poznański, 1991), it follows the stylistic formula of George Orwell’s essays: an “impossible” alloy of richness and simplicity, complexity and transparency The relation between ethics and poetics continues to be the main object of Barańczak’s reflections, but now he concentrates, on the one hand, on great creative or public figures such as the 20th century’s most important Polish writers, Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, Alexander Wat, Czesław Miłosz, Miron Białoszewski, and Wisława Szymborska, as well as figures like Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, and Miklós Haraszti; and, on the other hand, on the untranslatable phenomena of the communist era in East Europe, such as censorship, samizdat (underground publishing), and the “state artist.” Once he has delineated America “under Eastern eyes,” Barańczak distances himself from the Eastern European mindset and thus manages, if not to “translate” the Eastern reality into the language of the West, at least to explain it convincingly and to abolish the myth that communism is not necessarily antagonistic to creativity. It is clear from Breathing Under Water that anything of value that has been created under communism was born despite it or against it.
Born 13 November 1946 in Poznań. Studied at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, 1964–69, M.A. in Polish literature, 1969, Ph.D., 1973. Married Anna Barańczak, 1968: one son and one daughter. Assistant professor, Adam Mickiewicz University, 1970–77: expelled for political reasons, but allowed to teach again, 1980–81; invited by Harvard University as a guest lecturer, 1977, but had to wait four years for an exit visa; associate professor, 1981–84, and professor in Polish literature, from 1984, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Active in the Polish human rights movement in the 19808: one of the cofounders of KOR (Committee for the defense of workers, later renamed Committee for society’s self-defense); editor of the underground literary quarterly Zapis (Record); blacklisted from 1975 for signing letters of protest; in 1983 the Polish consulate in New York refused to renew his passport and in effect exiled him.
Kościelski Foundation Prize, 1973; Jurzykowski Prize, 1981; Terrence Des Pres Prize for Poetry, for The Weight of the Body: Selected Poems, 1989; Polish PEN Club Award, 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
Nieufni i zadufani: Romantyzm i klasycizm w mfodej poezji lat sześćdziesiątych, 1971
Ironia i harmonia: Szkice o najnowszej literaturze polskiej, 1973
Język poetycki Mirona Bialoszewskiego, 1974
Etyka i poetyka: Szkice 1970–1978, 1979
Ksitążki najgorsze (1975–1980), 1981; enlarged edition, 1990
Czytelnik ubezwłasnowolniony: Perswazja w masowej kulturze literackiej PRL, 1983
Uciekinier z utopii: O poezji Zbigniewa Herberta, 1984; as A Fugitive from Utopia: The Poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, 1987
Przed i po: Szkice o poezji krajowej przeło mu lat siedemdziesiątych i osiemdziesiątych, 1988
Tablica z Macondo: Osiem naście prób wytiumaczenia, po co i dlaczego się pisze, 1990
Breathing Under Water and Other East European Essays, 1990
Ocalone w tłumaczeniu: Szkice o warsztacie tłumacza poezji z dołączeniem maiej antologii przekładów, 1992
Zaufać nieufności: Osiem rozmów o sensie poezji, 1990–1992, 1993
Other writings: 12 volumes of poetry (including Selected Poems: The Weight of the Body, 1989). Also edited anthologies of English metaphysical poetry, English and American religious lyric, English and American love poetry, and English and American poetry; translated into English (with Clare Cavanagh) the poetry of Wisława Szymborska (View with a Grain of Sand, 1995); translated into Polish plays by Shakespeare, as well as poems by Dylan Thomas, Osip Mandel’shtam, Joseph Brodsky, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Hardy, and W.H.Auden.
Czerwinski, E.J., Review of Breathing Under Water, World Literature Today 65, no. 3 (1991): 512–13
Gildner, Gary, Review of Breathing Under Water, Georgia Review 45, no. 1 (1991): 191–93
Gömöri, George, Review of Breathing Under Water, Journal of European Studies 2.2., no. 89 (1992): 288–89
Gross, Irena G., Review of Czytelnik ubezwtasnowolniony, Slavic Review 46, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 172–73
Stamirowska, Krystyna, Review of Breathing Under Water, English Studies 74, no. 4 (1993): 404–05
Taylor, Nina, Review of A Fugitive from Utopia, Modern Languages Review 84 (1989): 815–16
Zaczek, Barbara, Review of A Fugitive from Utopia, Comparative Literature 44, no.I (1992): 108–10
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