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The Lingering of the Past

A conversation with Marci Shore, professor of intellectual history and author of Taste of Ashes. Interviewer: Piotr Czarniecki

December 10, 2013 - Piotr Czarniecki - Interviews



PIOTR CZARNIECKI: Your newest book, The Taste of Ashes, describes Eastern Europe one generation after the collapse of Communism. It has been called a study of the presence of Communist and Nazi pasts in the region today. As a historian looking at the region not only as an academic, but also from personal experience, how do you see this presence?

MARCI SHORE: The book is about the presence of the past. It is not a book about post-Communist nostalgia; it is not even a book about memory, per se. The Taste of Ashes is about how the past lingers and about what the afterlife of totalitarianism has been. I wanted to find a way to describe that afterlife, that lingering of the past. I came here twenty years ago for the first time as an aspiring historian. I wanted to write about historical periods prior to1989. But I was, of course, personally experiencing the post-Communist period: as I was sitting in the archives reading about the 1930s, I was also living in the 1990s. So I had this dual experience of discovering the past along with the present.

One of the first, most naïve questions I wanted to understand was: Why was there no “happily ever after”? From the point of view of an American teenager, nineteen eighty-nine was a fairy tale: for all of my life and my parents’ lives, there was an Evil Empire where people were thrown into prison, sometimes beaten and tortured, at the very least condemned to live in greyness and sadness, forbidden from leaving—and then suddenly one day it was over. I thought that coming to Eastern Europe would be like arriving at a non-stop party, that everybody would be celebrating his or her liberation. Of course, it was nothing like that. The 1990s were in some ways not very happy times at all. There was a sense that now people were suffering and being exploited in entirely different ways from the ways in which they had suffered and been exploited under communism. And there was a sense of the past as tormenting.  

People had made difficult choices in a world in which those choices had perhaps seemed the best possible ones. And suddenly they had to account for those choices in a new world in which all the rules had changed. What might have felt like the best possible decision in difficult circumstances suddenly no longer seemed liked the best possible decision when judged by the gaze of a new world. In some ways this book is my attempt to explain why the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was not a fairy tale’s happy ending.

Can you still feel this presence of the past? In what ways does it touch the lives of contemporary Eastern Europeans?

If I look back over the past twenty years that I have been coming to post-Communist Europe, I see huge changes. Among the most significant is that there is now a new generation not formed by Communism. There are now people who are adults and who participate in public discourse, who remember nothing of Communism. I would not claim they are free in some kind of absolute, perfect sense; I do not entirely share Václav Havel’s idea that we have to wait for a kind of salvation from a pure, untainted generation. But I do see young people now who are not burdened in the same way their parents and grandparents were, and who do not see “the West” as a kind of mythical place. They do not experience that simultaneous envy and disparagement, what my former graduate student (and now professor) Ania Muller once called “that absurd mixture of superiority and inferiority complexes,” which were entirely understandable and, in some ways, justified.

Czesław Miłosz was right when he wrote that “the habit of civilisation is fragile”—and that “[t]he man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” That sense of the impossibility of understanding, of being understood, and the drama, the resentment, the jealousy and bitterness that often accompanied that feeling—perhaps that has not entirely disappeared, but it has faded.

Moreover, space has changed. The West is no longer far away, it’s no longer even so clear where the border lies, or whether there is a border. “The West” was once that place that was not accessible. Now the fall of communism, the expansion of the European Union, and the Schengen zone have created a situation in which it’s “normal” to wander around Europe without a passport.

What kinds of problems does the new generation face? What challenges did they face growing up in a post-Communist country? Is the problem of uprooting specific to former citizens of post-Communist countries, or is it simply a natural consequence of moving around the world and deciding to settle in a place one cannot call a homeland?  

I think, in a certain sense, that nationalist populism is a response to a feeling of rootlessness, or groundlessness. It’s an attempt at psychic consolation via the exporting of guilt, the displacement of what haunts us onto “others” who are not ourselves. Nationalism is arguably always about that: a failure to take responsibility, an attempt to export that which makes us uncomfortable. It is completely understandable in human terms. I can empathise with the desire to do that. That said, I think this kind of attempt to find a safe place for ourselves in the world will always fail. There is something rootless about the human condition. We are, alas, thrown into the world and then have to go about finding—that is, creating—a place for ourselves in it.

I would add that “emigration” does not have the same meaning now as it once had. The people I knew who left Eastern Europe for Western Europe and the United States – be it in the Stalinist era or the 1960s or after 1968–did so in circumstances in which leaving was an irreversible act. They knew they might never be able to come back. Maybe they would never see their mother or father again, maybe their mother would die and they would be unable to attend her funeral. It was often unclear at which moments a given regime would allow those who defected to return to visit, and under what conditions. We don’t even talk about “defection” anymore. That drama is gone. Now you can decide to move to a new city or a new country.  If you don’t like it, you can change your mind and go back to where you grew up or move elsewhere.

The consequences of the decision to move here or there are no longer of necessity so drastic; the decision to leave the country of one’s birth has lost much of its weightiness. If you decide to leave Kraków and move to, say, Milan, and you get there and feel rootless and alienated and homesick for Poland, you can get on a train and come back. I don’t doubt that people who move around like this today have their own dramas—we all have our own dramas of trying to find a place for ourselves in the world. But these are not—and will never be—the same kind of dramas that East Europeans who left their own countries before 1989 had.

Does then speaking of Eastern Europe still make any sense? Does such a categorisation still exist? Is there a void to be filled? And if there is, as a consequence of leaving the past behind, would it be filled with something of one’s own, or maybe something completely different, borrowed, or extrapolated?

Anne Applebaum wrote a long essay for Prospect magazine this past spring on the topic of whether Eastern Europe still exists. She argues that in some sense it does not. When I was a child, Eastern Europe had a particular meaning: A part of Europe under Communism, behind lock and key, the other side of a tangible border. Eastern Europe no longer is that. If it does exist, it does so in a weaker sense. Does Western Europe exist? Does Central Europe exist? You can talk about Slavonic-speaking countries, Habsburg successor states, and so on. Does American culture really exist? Well, yes and no. Living in Mississippi and living in New York are two completely different experiences.

With respect to the alleged influence of “the West” on Eastern Europe: I am always a little bit sceptical about overly rigid notions of what is borrowed and what is indigenous. The idea that Eastern Europe after communism was an empty space to be filled with things borrowed from the West is not convincing. The French revolutionaries wanted to start the calendar over, from year one. The Bolsheviks wanted to bring about a similar moment of radical discontinuity. But there is no such thing as beginning from absolute zero. That would suggest that there is a generation born of nobody. I described in my book the flooding into Prague of pornography in the 1990s. Plastic bags at grocery stores, phone cards, matchboxes—everything seemed to come with a pornographic picture on it. It was as if suddenly everything was possible and everything was permitted. But this “flooding in” is never flooding into a vacuum; there is always interaction. The idea that Eastern Europe was, or is, a passive recipient of influences coming from the West is not the way life works; there is always an encounter, often an uncomfortable one. In one of Father Józef Tischner’s essays there’s a beautiful passage in which he says that the encounter is a moment that initiates a particular drama, the course of which cannot be foreseen. I think that what happened in 1989 was not the filling of an empty space but rather that kind of encounter.

Encounter encompasses also a sort of exchange. What did Eastern Europe exchange with the Western partner in this vivid dialogue?

The immediate example that comes to mind is the creation of Krytyka Polityczna. It has no equivalent in any other country, certainly not in the United States, and as far as I know not in Western Europe. At the centre of that milieu are young people who are reading post-modernist philosophy like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, and Slavoj Žižek, and also reading Hegel and Alexander Herzen, Stanisław Brzozowski, nineteenth-century Marxist theory—and also reading Václav Havel and Jacek Kuroń. This is an oversimplification, but what I think is at the heart of this enterprise is a reaching back into an East European—arguably, a synthesis of a 19th century Russian with a post-1968 dissident—tradition for a notion of a socially engagé intelligentsia who believes that ideas are to be lived. In Herzen’s memoirs, he describes Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as not a book that you read but rather an experience that you have: you live through the Phenomenology of Spirit.

This grappling with Marxism, with social theory in its pre-Leninist form is now almost difficult to imagine.  We have a sense of Leninism, Stalinism, post-Stalinist revisionist Marxism, but Marxism before Lenin’s Chto delat’? Krytyka Polityczna has a strong sense of returning to a pre-Leninist tradition of left-wing social thought, at the same time these are largely post-communist students of post-modernism. What they have enacted is an encounter among these various intellectual traditions. The dynamism I suspect comes in part from a kind of fearlessness about these encounters. I don’t think that Krytyka Polityczna has come up with any magical answers to the great problems of human existence. But they’re asking great questions, and they’re unafraid of exploring and engaging in dialogue.

Polish cinemas are now screening Andrzej Wajda’s newest film. Its protagonist is Lech Wałęsa, Poland’s former president; the main figure behind the Solidarity movement in the 1980s; and a controversial, divisive figure ever since. As a professor of intellectual history, how would you explain the phenomenon that gave rise to Lech Wałęsa in the 1980s and caused his fall in the 1990s?

There are certain people who—be it through some combination of personality, abilities, and circumstances—are able to play extraordinary roles at certain historical moments. I know too little about Wałęsa’s story in particular; and I’m very much looking forward to the film. But I would just say that the phenomenon of moments passing is not specific to Wałęsa. One of the things that made Solidarność so remarkable was that “Solidarity” was not just a slogan or a philosophy: the movement involved an empirical overcoming of long-standing divides between right and left, Catholics and Marxists; workers and intellectuals. Do you remember that scene from Wajda’s Man of Iron? I haven’t seen it in many years, but I’m thinking of the scene set in 1970 when the father asks his son to bring the students out in support of the workers, and the son basically says: you let us down two years ago, now you go to hell. The miracle of Solidarity was the bringing together of those fathers and sons, the coming together of people who would not necessarily ever be on the same side in other circumstances. What was utopian was the thought that these divides, once overcome, would remain overcome forever.

Overall, looking at what the region has become since 1989, would you say you are an optimist or a pessimist and why?

I am not an optimist in a utopian sense; I do not think that our human condition is to live “happily ever after.” It often seems to me (perhaps above all when I’m in the United States, my own country), that people have not drawn some of the obvious conclusions from the 20th century. What the various totalitarian experiments tell us quite clearly is that most people most of the time are formed by the circumstances in which they find themselves. That does not mean that individual personality variables do not exist, or that there will not always be exceptions. There will always be extraordinary people like Władysław Bartoszewski, who seems to have emerged from childhood with an uncanny moral lucidity. But as a general rule: if you put people in bad circumstances, you will not, on a large scale, get good outcomes. I find Jobbik in Hungary and the rise of right-wing nationalism more broadly to be terrifying. Then again, Krytyka Polityczna makes me optimistic, as does the Central European Forum in Bratislava and the new translations of Hannah Arendt into East European languages, the existence of the European Union, and the ability to travel without a passport.

Stefan Zweig described the introduction of the passport requirement in the wake of the First World War as the moment when Europe lost its innocence. I wouldn’t say that the creation of the Schengen zone is a return of lost innocence, but I would like to think that through constant, necessarily imperfect efforts to see clearly, engage critically and act responsibly we have a chance of creating a better world.

Marci Shore is a professor of intellectual history at Yale University and author of Taste of Ashes (2013).


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