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An individual perspective - Maria Szyszkowska

"I am in no doubt that one needs some kind of roots, some places, either from birth or by choice, places that we can consider ours" - Maria Szyszkowska

An interview with Maria Szyszkowska, a philosopher and writer, conducted by Anna Kosmahl who teaches English to teenagers and adults in Warsaw.

Anna Kosmahl: What does heritage mean to you?

Maria Szyszkowska: You mean cultural heritage, of course? Cultural heritage is extremely important because you grow up in the cult of ... , respect for certain definite values which bind us ... or let’s say bind me, a representative of the present generation, with the past generations. So ... heritage is, first and foremost, respect for tradition, respect for what the past generations have achieved. It’s the first aspect.... Another aspect is that heritage is material for critical analysis which allows us to adopt from our heritage those values which are dear to us because each person is an individual, and to reject these values which are not, although they may be dear to millions of Poles. Our cultural heritage is so rich that it allows such sincere evaluation, such an honest choice. For example, we grow up in Poland in the belief that we have to love Mickiewicz and Chopin, but not everybody ... Chopin’s music doesn’t appeal to everybody, but this is seldom discussed, because it has a certain sacred, unquestionable sanctity in Poland. But I think that without this ‘rooting’ in tradition, in cultural heritage, we would be helpless and we wouldn’t be able to shape ourselves.

Anna Kosmahl: What does Polish heritage mean to you?

Maria Szyszkowska: Our national heritage allows us not to dissolve namelessly among the whole of humanity. Our national heritage is a cementing factor. It’s thanks to our heritage that we are a whole. It’s extremely important because in every person there are two equally strong feelings, feelings which are needs at the same time. One need is to be a part of a certain community. Another equally strong need or expectation is to be separate, to separate oneself from this community. These needs are both equally powerful. National heritage, in this case Polish culture, gives us the need to be bound up with a certain specific group. It’s crucial to feel part of a larger whole. Otherwise, without this feeling, one experiences profound loneliness.

Anna Kosmahl: That’s true, we feel a part of a community and at the same time each of us either feels attached to a place or has a personal understanding of our heritage. I would like to ask if you have a place you feel you belong to.

Maria Szyszkowska: Such a special place is for me, by choice, Nałęczów.... I’ve been lucky, in a sense, because for a few years I’ve tried actually to live in Nałęczów. It happens rather rarely that dreams come true so quickly. I come from Warsaw. But I’ve come to believe, and this belief is growing, that Warsaw has become ‘an alien place’. It has lost its character. Warsaw is now a city full of newcomers from various Polish cities and towns. At the moment it’s a composite of people who are career or money seekers. I’m very happy to have my special chosen place – Nałęczów. It plays a very important role. I’m in no doubt that one needs some kind of ‘roots’, some places, either from birth or by choice, places that we can consider ‘ours’. It’s a certain point from which we can observe, accept or reject cultural values, both Polish and European values as well as non-European ones. It’s extremely important.

Ewelina Cafe, where Bolesław Prus used to live, now Maria Szyszkowska's favourite place

Anna Kosmahl: In what way do you feel attached to Nałęczów?

Maria Szyszkowska: Nałęczów has always fascinated me. I was largely influenced by my Polish teacher. My first independent journey was to Nałęczów. It was just after my matura when I was allowed to go for a week with my friend and I started looking for traces of Żeromski, whose novels I value highly. ... I became fascinated with Nałęczów, especially its 19th century atmosphere. Here you feel the breath of tradition, there’s some continuity. Here I keep discovering the wisdom of Bolesław Prus. I’ve been enchanted by the charm of old trees, such a flood of greenery and peace. I’m in no doubt that contacts between people are deeper in Nałęczów than in any other place because time moves more slowly here. ...Of course I have some favourite places here; one of them is where we are talking, the Ewelina cafe, where Bolesław Prus used to live......

Anna Kosmahl: Do you think that the European Union will pose a threat to our national identity or heritage?

Maria Szyszkowska: Entering the Union is a threat to our heritage. Słowacki, back in the 19th century, wrote that Poland was ‘a peacock and parrot of other nations’ and nothing has changed since. No other country has been as quickly Americanized as Poland. Besides, we’ve been suffering from ‘national micro-mania’, which means that we believe our nation to be worse than other nations. So the structures of the European Union are a threat for us.... The names of eminent Polish thinkers are better known in Western Europe than in Poland. For example Stanisław Przybyszewski.... Forming a unified Europe would make sense if there was some unity in European consciousness, in our way of thinking .... If we were a unity in our choice of values. What it’s all about is some comfort for big corporations. There are religious wars, national animosities within Europe. ... the European Union is an artificial creation. ... It’s nothing to do with nationalism. I think that some great works of culture, although they have been created by representatives of particular nations, are the creation of humankind. When we listen to Grieg or read Thomas Mann it doesn’t matter what nationality they are. It mattered at the moment of creation. ... And also from the economic point of view there are some serious threats to our national economy. That is why promoting the idea of heritage is so important nowadays, it is the last moment really ... For me Americanization shows that we’re delighted with some demonstrations of a very primitive culture. Our media and specially the television should promote higher national and world culture, but nobody is willing to do so, because commercials are more important....... It is really the very last moment.......

Discussion points

Students can discuss the following questions:

  • What does heritage mean to you personally?
  • What does your national heritage mean to you?
  • Do you have a place you belong to? In what way do you belong to the place?
  • Do you agree that the European Union poses a threat to our heritage?
  • What would non-Poles understand about Poland when reading this interview?
Do you think the English language can express Polish heritage successfully?

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