On the subject of Paulina Wilk’s book “Special characters”
They can remember Poland under communism, yet they have been raised and educated in a new reality. Not yet old, but no longer young. Who are today’s thirty-somethings, those who grew up in the shadows of Poland’s most recent political transformation?
When, at the start of the new millennium, one of my university professors stated that Poland needs young people who are not weighed down with the miserable baggage of communism and the syndrome of being the poorer relation to Western Europe and beyond, I thought he was talking about me and my fellow students. “No, Piotr, it’s not you I’m referring to. I mean those younger than yourselves,” he said with grave seriousness. I felt a tinge of disappointment. I can remember the fall of communism as if through a mist, more of a series of images preserved in memory than any sort of real sense of having been there. My head was full of snapshots – yellowed ration cards to be exchanged for scraps of meat, “Relax” moon boots, milk bottles with silver tin caps and a black & white television sets, showing Communist era news reports. This was, indeed, my earliest childhood, but my formative years came in the 1990s. Along with my friends, I could by then travel around Europe (the Western parts were obligatory), study foreign languages and aspire to be independent in a “normal country” – as the generation of our parents would say, with hope in their voices.
And yet, memories of communism – or rather that which in the years that followed was left of it – really did impact on me and others like me. The Number 1 political subject of debate was “de-communisation”. It stirred up passions not just among the adults. During breaks in high school, we debated current political ongoings, transferring family disputes onto awkward, teenage territories. Finishing high school, we were very much already in a new Poland, but our trendy footwear still bore the stains of a less than happy road – the mud of the dark and impoverished ’80s, as well as the dust of the classier, yet still cheap and cheerful, early ’90s. We still didn’t have the sense that we were living in a truly modern state (“modern” being the key word in all disputes about Poland at the time), and yet we were no longer the citizens of a Soviet-style horror show.
How to describe the hybrid identity developed by those born around 1980? And, most of all, how can those who are members of this generation define their overall experience?
Until now, few thirty-somethings have taken it upon themselves to answer these questions in any sort of depth. Unlike the previous generation, for whom the defining event of that era had been the State of Martial Law (1981-82), the “Children of the Transformation” have not yet recorded their histories. This doesn’t however mean that they remain silent, occasionally making attempts at describing their fates in various formats. The trouble is that thirty-somethings who have suffered at the hands of the 2008 global economic crash, not so much financially, as in losing a sense of a certain tomorrow, all too often fall into the trap of anachronistic forms of thinking, transferring onto the past problems of the present. What we end up with is a Manichean picture of the Polish Transformation. What is it about it which is so bleak? The answers are obvious – free market economics, liberalism and individualism. What is hopeful? Here, the conclusions are less clear. More and more often, they are tinged with a note of nostalgia for the days of communism, which can be perceived as a haven of social egalitarianism, washed away in the wake of changes which took place in 1989. Are we not too keen, however, to reverse the polarity of our value systems, forgetting just how completely hopeless and grey the 1980’s were in Poland, and just how great a wave of social energy the transformations of the early 1990s unleashed? The question is all the more pertinent in that the picture which emerges of generations born around 1980 appears to be formed in a crooked mirror, hence some of its features are over-emphasised. The generation raised during the times of the Transformation tends to take on the dangerous characteristics commentators from both the Left and the Right wish to assign them – including their imagined desire to achieve success at any cost, as well as egocentric and consumerist tendencies. And, what’s even worse, that it was betrayed in some way, as it had aspirations which were nurtured, yet which could never be realised. But are these characteristics really defining of our generation?
A good starting point for our musings on this topic is Paulina Wilk’s book “Special characters” (“Znaki szczególne”). The back cover blurb describes it as a “personal record of growing up” – a story told by a child of the Transformation about her peers who “were raised alongside a new reality” and who “today, have plenty to say about a Poland currently celebrating 25 years of freedom”. The pronoun “they” is here ill-chosen, however. The story told by Wilk is an excellent example of issues regarding generational contexts being narrowed down to a single, over-inflated and demonised denominator – the reputed disease that is individualism.
THE PLAYGROUND AXIS MUNDI
Overall analysis of “Special characters” should best start with its evident qualities, or rather one specific quality which seems most obvious. Wilk, who has written what is essentially a memoir, is a fabulous collector of objects. Objects and descriptions of actions relating to those objects. “Special characters” is overall a catalogue of things which surrounded the writer during the 1980s and around the time of the Transformation. How many of us, born during the carnival days of Solidarity, don’t recall swinging on playground carpet beating frames, the axis mundi of our childhoods, or collecting empty Western beer and soft drinks cans, or the first BMX bikes, colourful stickers and transfers, toy film projectors, Commodore computers with their early versions of Pac-Man, orangeade drank out of plastic sachets purchased from school tuck shops, or Kasprzak tape players and the first Walkmen? The list of these childhood mementos gathered by Wilk is truly impressive, and described with some gusto. Today’s thirty-somethings do with some surprise admit that almost all of these constituted the imaginary landscape of their formative years. They could add a few missing items or introduce some corrections (Wilk had a Soviet-made handheld computer game featuring a wolf which stole eggs out of a henhouse, while my brother and I had one with a little chef who juggled pancakes and chicken legs with his pan), yet overall they will find things of interest in the narration provided by Wilk. Older readers will not be disappointed either, as they will be able to discover what sorts of things had thrilled their children when these were little. And perhaps it is only the youngest readers, those born after 1989, who will be forced to “google” the odd tidbit, in order to confirm what this “transformative” reality looked like, in actual fact.
All of this begins to resemble the trend of “ostalgie” (the longing for aspects of life in East Germany). Objects produced under Polish communism are also coming back into fashion, though most often this is down to those who value their “old school” charm without being old enough to actually remember using them in the first place. In the case of Wilk’s book, the word “ostalgie” is very fitting, however, seeing as her mania for collecting memorabilia has nothing to do with design or visual language, but with the memory of things those products were a silent witness to… the supposed equality and brotherhood of socialist states.
EQUALITY AS A NYLON SCHOOL SHIRT
And here is where we begin encountering problems. As much as Wilk has managed to produce her list of objects with some style, her summary of the aspirations, successes and disappointments experienced by the generation born in 1980, and of course contrasting it against other generations and overall changes of the 1990s, comes across as unoriginal and unconvincing.
Overall, the whole book is defined by an idealised description of growing up at the tail end of the 1980’s. On the one hand, this is unsurprising. If the family which raised us wasn’t all that pathological, it is easy to develop a “golden age” scenario with which to gild this formative period.
This is all the more true of those who at the time of this golden period of development were no more than nine-years-old and hence can only recall – and even then in faint scraps – little more than home-school-playground life.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that, from a factual perspective, Wilk’s book doesn’t contain accurately realised snapshots of generational experience, as in the case of her recollections of school days. “In our first class photo, we all look very much alike… backs proudly erect, donning our brand new school shirts and trainers.” I remember those nylon fabric uniforms, which we roundly hated. Even the more affluent of our friends had to wear the very same design, with its button down white collar.
This is a good example of the relative material and financial equality experienced by citizens trying to get by under a dying communist regime. The book begins to flounder when trying to draw universal truths out of such details. This imposed equality of poverty had nothing to do with some egalitarian idyll, in which empathy stopped us from competing against our environment, as proposed by the author. This was an equality of means imposed on everyone by impoverished realities of the times, which did not stop kids in kindergarten or school from competing who had the best toys (Matchbox and Lego versus homegrown products which failed to work properly), along with food (Haribo sweets versus inedible “chocolate flavoured chocolate”) or even simple toothpaste brought along by parents to collective dental hygiene sessions (imported fruit-flavoured brands versus Polish-made paste which failed to foam). And once again we weren’t all that together and we didn’t “play fairly”. Hierarchies formed among us, as did divisions, sub-groups. Some of us were weaker, some stronger. Some leaders and some excluded. We had the same instincts as children in other times and places, dating back to forgotten days of creche and playschool, and nothing to do with 1989 – “we always peeked into each other’s pencil cases, wondering what was in there worthy of envy”. The only thing which was different was the scale of choice and – this must be admitted – the scale of our gadget play-offs.
THE COMING OF THE INDIVIDUALISED ABYSS
The differentia specifica of the generation of the Transformation was of course the experience of the Transformation itself. It is worth asking, however, whether the fearsome symptoms of our getting carried away with freedom, as mentioned by Wilk in her book, the very freedom which created the basis for a free market and democratic changes, are a sound description of what happened to us and only us. According to the tale she weaves, the equality, brotherhood, stability and resilience of the child’s world were eroded by consumerism, technological advances and rampant individualism. And, once again, we can sort of partly agree. “We didn’t know that the time of things which lasted was passing, to be replaced by the idea of disposability, the easy exchange of one thing or model for another, and that a short shelf life of all new products would soon become the new norm.”
And indeed, soon enough we were flooded with disposable carrier bags, containing all sorts of equipment and gadgets designed to last three, maybe fiver years, tops. Before we become used to a single kind of mobile phone, the market presents us with a new design – ever smaller, ever more modern, packing more and more functionality. It’s true, we did want to be more independent, educated, enterprising and entrepreneurial, even if few of us had the inbuilt “free market gene”. I would also agree with the author that it was the parents who drove us into these new modes of thinking. We were their hope. They believed that their children would make the best of these new opportunities, even if they happened to fail. It is also true that old friendships have waned and in some way we are now living apart from each other, and when it comes to our parents, in a sense – as Wilk says – “we have left each other”.
In this puzzle nothing is as clear, however, as the author of “Special characters” would like us to believe. Technology and the mechanisms of increased consumption of goods surprised everyone in equal measure. Both those born in 1980 and those who were born a decade, two or even three earlier, because few realised that “in these modern circumstances it is not the destruction, but the securing, the conservation of things, which brings ruin”, as proposed by Hannah Arendt in her “The Human Condition”. Digital and consumerist revolutions were not a generational experience, but a national one. Nor can one agree with the statement that the desire to achieve success and rampant individualism caused those born towards the end of the 90s to live ever more separate lives. “Adulthood” is a key word here. We simply grew up, the way all young people grow up – be it in 1995, or in the times described in Turgenev’s “Fathers and sons”. The idea that we underplayed the experience of our elders and “consumed by the past, we failed to see the value of knowledge about things which had passed and worn out” could be assigned to many, even Bazarov. And then we grew up, creating our own families, had our own children, migrating to study and work in other cities. In this lies the whole mystery of our alleged inbreeding.
Ours and not ours. Perhaps we are more mobile than our parents and travel abroad more often. And yet, does the whole educational journeying of the people during the times of the Transformation differ that much from the student exodus experienced by our mothers and fathers? They too had left their family environs en-masse, thereby loosening the inter-generational bonds, meanwhile gaining the first ever university and engineering diplomas of anyone in their bloodlines. They did well enough out of it and were not socially bankrupt either. In the end, we too managed to avoid grim fates. Like them, we have friends with whom we meet and go on holiday, we attend to their weddings, our children play together. Perhaps we should admit something that is different – more of our generation are addicted to the internet, stuck in front of a computer or a smartphone screen.
IS THIS THE FINISHING LINE?
We matured, but did not grow old, which – as might be divined from the pages of “Special characters” – is what seems to have happened to Paulina Wilk. The scale of the assault presented to the reader baffles, considering the author is merely 33 years of age. This appears to be one of the main weaknesses of her book. It seems a little early for all those memories, which force us to look at the adult lives of those born in 1980 as a closed chapter. “We raced ahead”, writes Wilk about the process of growing up at the tail end of communism, in order to then conclude: “Right before we hit thirty, many of us slowed down. Our muscles tightened by constant movement, our fitness levels peaking thanks to all the marathons we’d run up until then. We had become used to the breaking of new records, almost addicted to them. And suddenly this – the brakes slammed on. This was when our heads – finally free from the obligation to analyse and learn new skills – began to remember”.
This is a little bit too personal to be considered a generational experience, dressed with the pronoun “we”. First of all, many of us are still running in the relay race of generations, even if – so as to stick with the sporting metaphor – each of us started out in various disciplines and paced themselves differently, setting their own tempo. Not everyone followed Wilk into European studies, in order to become an administrator, and then work in a corporation, or in a national newspaper, which was then shut down by its owner in less than a year – much like a toy car might be discarded by a disgruntled kid. (It is worth nothing here that the news publishing crisis struck all journalists regardless of age, even those lucky ones who had started their careers just at the cusp of the golden 1990s).
It’s true that the early days of “I can speak a bit of English, so I’ll become a company director” were merely a memory, and yet many of us continue to carve out careers without the sense that the time invested in studying and developing experience was wasted on a “rat race”, which then finished in a collective disappointment. “We had huge dreams,” writes Wilk “and not too ridiculous either. Our problem was in that we arrived late. […] When we rushed the departures lounge with our diplomas and certificates, our fluent English and world class knowledge, it turned out that all rocket launches had been called off until further notice”.
Perhaps rockets are indeed gone, not that there were that many of them to start with, but many of my friends made it onboard a good number of regular flights. And they keep on flying, working in smaller or bigger firms, institutions and third sector organisations. In Poland, the routes up to career highs were not and are not as steep and narrow as in other European states, where it is still a case of grandes écoles and membership of haute bourgeois deciding who ends up having grand political and business careers. And yet Wilk keeps on writing about unattained aspirations and disappointments: be it in politics, business or personal lives. As if the generation of those born in 1980 first had to collapse in their 30’s under the weight of their own broken dreams, then spend a good while in depressed isolation, so as to now – in the face of a global economic crisis – reach the conclusion that it is not money which should determine who we are, but that it is now time to return to communal and ego-less values.
Everyone evaluates reality according to their own measures. The question is who is more representative. Among my own acquaintances, the cult of money affects the insignificant few. In addition, nothing has brought us together more than joint student initiatives we engaged in: academic circles, seminars, discussions or the projects we created later on. And all that happened in the age of great economic sadness described by Wilk. No further decline and fall in values can be considered. Only now are we becoming more confident and certain of our own voices, which is in some way the natural order of things. We are opening new chapters in our lives, closing those which came earlier, meanwhile taking advantage of the experience gained in the process.
INDIVIDUALS AND COLLECTIVES, OR FALSE ALTERNATIVES
So what is the conclusion to all this? For the book “Special characters” this amounts to an unfavourable review, because even though its author should be commended for tackling an important subject, the overall effect is more than disappointing. Perhaps the book as a whole would have been far more engaging, and her observations a lot more relevant, had Wilk not tried to blend her recollections with a not-quite-essay, not-quite-sociological diagnosis form. In terms of the latter, “Special characters” is severely lacking. Wilk’s book is rather heavy on catchphrases and slogans, much of it sounding like spells or even more aptly – headlines: “Contemporary Poland is our collective disappointment”, “We are cursed by a missed moment”, “We are both old and new”.
There are many such examples. On the other hand, it is a little early for memories – as I mentioned before – especially as the whole, in spite of the author announcing in the final chapter that “matters would be taken in hand”, sounds a little like Chateaubriand’s “Memoirs from beyond the tomb”.
Wilk’s personal experiences would have made for wonderful fictional prose, had she allowed the rather one-dimensional description of her parents to come alive, while the narrative form of a novel would have let us discover that which was universal in the generational experience of the times of the Transformation.
“Special characters” gives something more however than the impression that someone has overdone things and extrapolated their own experience to that of a whole generation. For it forces us to ask the question: what do words such as “freedom”, “individualism” and “individual” actually mean? Today, they are more and more often lined up against a metaphorical wall, where they are contrasted with a different trinity: equality, solidarity and community. Are we not here however dealing with a false antinomy? Are those who present us with it in such clear-cut terms not making things too easy for themselves, stating that the only language we can apply to describe our experience of the Transformation is black and white?
And here I am reminded of a story told by Zbigniew Pełczyński, about his student years at Oxford University. One of the oldest European universities uses a teaching model based above all on an individual relationship between a student and their professor. In this way, the emphasis is very much placed on the individual, not the collective. Oxford, however, is not made up of a network of the academic equivalent of “free electrons”. We often forget about another pillar of learning, no less important, according to Pełczyński: countless student associations. Studying at Oxford, something which we can refer to as the quintessence of liberal education, turns out to be a grand school of collective action and individual responsibility for the collective.
Is this model, in a sense, not closer to that which happened to the Polish generation growing up in the shadow of the changes which followed 1989? It is difficult to come up with a singular answer to this question. One thing, however, is certain: even if we, today’s thirty-somethings, dreamed about a rapid attainment of individual freedom and success, we never wanted to work alone.
This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.