My favorite things Poland

No, I am not there now, but Adam D. emails me and requests this, so here goes:

1. Novel: Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, all about identity and erotic guilt.  Next in line would be any number of Isaac Singer novels, I don’t have a favorite offhand.  Soon I will try The Family Moskat.  Gombrowicz is probably wonderful, but I don’t find that it works for me in translation.  Quo Vadis left me cold.

2. Chopin works: The Preludes, there are many fine versions, and then the Ballades.  The Etudes excite me the most, the Mazurkas and piano sonatas #2 and #3 are most likely to surprise me at current margins of listening.  I find it remarkable how I never tire of Chopin, in spite of his relatively slight output.

3. Painter: This one isn’t as easy as it ought to be.

4. Architect: Daniel Libeskind was born in Poland.  But more generally one can cite Krakow, and I suspect the older versions of Gdansk.

The wooden churches and folk art of southern Poland also deserve mention.

5. Political thinker: Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, about the capitulations of artists to communism, though subtler than just an anti-state polemic.  He once stated: ” I have never been a political writer and I worked hard to destroy this image of myself.”  I do not feel I can judge his poetry, though last year’s biography of him was a good book.

6. Astronomer and originator of the quantity theory of money: Copernicus.

7. Television show: The Decalogue, perhaps #4 is my favorite.  Here is good NPR coverage.

8. Movie: Any of the Andrzej Wajda classics would do, maybe start with Kanal or Ashes and Diamonds.  More recently I would opt for Ida.  I like Kieślowski’s TV more than his films, and prefer Hollywood Polanski to Polish Polanski.

9. Classical pianist: There are many, but I will cite Kristian Zimerman over Artur Rubinstein.  The former plays the piano better.  Josef Hofmann deserves mention, but there are dozens of picks here.

10. Jazz musician: Trumpeter Tomasz Stańko.

11. Economists: There is Kalecki, Hurwicz, the now-underrated Oskar Lange (doesn’t Singaporean health care work fine?), and Victor Zarnowitz. I had thought Mises was born in Poland, but upon checking it turned out to be Ukraine.

Overall the big puzzle is why there isn’t more prominence in painting, given Poland’s centrality in European history.


Pssst: good review of recent Czeslaw Milosz bio:

Why does Cowan resist the "skate later" moniker? Is not because he basic weeps from his voice? Is Jolene not Polish? What constant is there on this blog if there is not room for hand towels, now and again. Bring back MFA speak.

1 - Novel in verse is a big deal in Russia and in Poland, nowhere else. Pan Tadeusz ... Solaris is nice but absolutely second rate, perhaps the Platonic ideal of a second rate but nice novel.

2. Chopin wrote more memorable melodies than Bellini, Verdi, and Rossini put together, that is not a slight output. Tyler, you write a lot and I am not criticizing, but Chopin's compositions are magnificent and extravagantly beautiful and the word slight should not ever be used anywhere near a description of the musical legacy of that genius.

3. Take a time machine to Poland in 1850. Remember those stories about how the Native Americans refused to teach people not in their tribe their language? Remember?

4. The churches dedicated to Mary the Virgin Mother of God. Other buildings in Poland are what they are.

5. Murdered at Katyn.

6. Try again.

7. Who cares.

8. Who cares.

9. Rubinstein understood one or two great geniuses of music better than poor little Kristian Zimmerman. Poor little Kristian Zimmerman did not understand musical genius better than Rubinstein, ever, not once.

10. Murdered at Katyn.

11. One of the four you mentioned is probably correct.

3. What the hell are you talking about?

10. Almost certainly not. Poland was not a great jazz country in the 1930s, and the chances any of the dead officers in Katyn would have been a great jazz musician are vanishingly small.

Katyn was a horrible crime but it was still "only" 22 thousand people, a drop in the bucket of Poles who were murdered by the Soviets or Germans between 1933 and 1948 (between the deportations to Siberia, the famine in Ukraine, the ethnic cleansings, the War itself and the subsequent violent installation of the PRL). Soviet occupation and Communism did a lot more damage to Polish culture than Katyn. For that matter, more than 400,000 Poles died in the first World War, many of whom no doubt might have accomplished great things if they hadn't died in the mud and cold somewhere in Galicia.

Although Katyn is the sort of Ur-crime of World War Two. The Soviets had shown no sign that they would respect the laws of war or civilized norms. Not before and not after. But Katyn showed that they had no problems murdering innocent soldiers simply because they were politically inconvenient.

As such they are the forerunner of things like the Nazi treatment of Soviet prisoners - the Soviets did complain about that but of course it is shameless hypocrisy. You cannot murder PoWs in your custody and then demand everyone else respects yours.

3. Polish visual artists specialize more than the visual artists of the neighboring countries (at least the ones with which I am familiar) in art that does not seem to travel well because it was created for a small local aristocratic group. To explain further, it takes more work to appreciate the fine points of Polish visual arts because the local aristocratic groups did not leave behind as accessible a written legacy as one finds in such neighboring countries as Sweden, the Russian Empire, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Similarly, the study of 1850 Native American artworks is difficult as the Native Americans had (for different reasons that their contemporary Poles across the water) neither the time nor the desire to create the type of extensive written legacy that easily puts for the dedicated amateur their works of art in context. Based on the foregoing, I concluded that the choice of a favorite Polish painter is not harder than it ought to be (while implicitly conceding, by asking the blogger if he remembers, that the choice is, in fact, difficult, if one remembers 1850).

Back in the day, by the way (if my memory from the 1980s is correct), the leading non-university affiliated North American journal of Polish studies asked, in a note that I think was carried on the copyright page of each issue, that potential subscribers indicate that they were, in fact, Polish, when they sent in their subscription request.

10. I do not guarantee this, but it is very likely that very good interpreters of the better ragtime composers, such as Scott Joplin, flourished among the more-artistic-than-most-people would guess officer ranks of pre-war Poand. The later "Dixieland" style was probably not very widely copied in Poland back then, I grant you.

Why Poland can't into jazz? It's Russia's fault!

2: I'm pretty sure that by "slight" Tyler meant quantity not quality; Chopin was prolific but died young.

And 6: Copernicus as the originator of the quantity theory of money is a new concept for me, but the wikipedia article about him also mentions it. He may've been a better economist than Isaac Newton, whose record as Master of the Mint is somewhat mixed, and who seems to have focused on policy and enforcement and not on economic theory.

perhaps he meant that Chopin was slightly Polish.

Does anyone know if Newton was made master of the mint because he was an alchemist?

Later Newton spent a ridiculously large proportion of his time with things like numerology. I always think about that. The most brilliant mind in the history of science, wasting time with what he should have noticed was nonsense and leading nowhere.

10. What are you all talking about? Tomasz Stańko is alive and well and still very creative.

Add Leszek Możdżer to that item as well, maybe even to 9. Poland is one of the most fertile grounds for contemporary jazz.

"What are you all talking about" the rules around here are you try to say something interesting whether you know what you are talking about or not.

Rebes - thanks for your interesting comment. To change the subject ...... As for me, I actually do almost remember late evening walks in pre-war Poland cities - well, not cities, one city - if you were never there, you have no way of knowing this, but the sidewalks were closer to the "apartments" than is generally the case in better known European cities, like Paris - picture to yourself those streets in our beloved Georgetown where the sidewalks pass by apartments where the window shades are open, as if the people living therein considered their private lives to be important enough to be lived out in full view, at least for much of the day, of the sidewalk - not like poor Paris where all the sidewalks ever do is pass along "stores" or "bistros" or "hotels prives" or unpeople "ground floors" of apartment buildings - sad! - trust! - I remember (beautiful city nevertheless to tell the truth)well, think about the Polish city I am talking about (and keep in mind that, maybe or maybe not, unlike you, I know that the officer corps of the Polish army of the day was sort of a Platonically better ideal of the American Army of a generation or two before, where there were prose magicians like Edgar Allan Poe and Ulysses Grant who actually did not think it beneath them, either as artists or as future officers (which I, too, once was) to be a successful "cadet" at the leading military institute ... For God's sake, how can you not know what I was talking about? What is so hard to remember about Poland that you forget that, walking those late nights in the subtly confusing streets of Krakow, one often heard the evanescent but fantastically beautiful strains of Polish improvisations on the by-then nostalgic ragtime craze, played on pianos by young officers? To change the subject again - don't tell me I don't know who was murdered at Katyn. Other people remember better than me but I too can say - I remember. Don't tell me that I can't and then expect me not to think - no, you were not there.

Cor ad cor loquitur. I remember.

What is so hard to remember about Poland that you forget that, walking those late nights in the subtly confusing streets of Krakow, one often heard the evanescent but fantastically beautiful strains of Polish improvisations on the by-then nostalgic ragtime craze, quietly pouring out of the windows ahead of you, or the windows near where you had been walking moments before, played on pianos by young officers?

Cor ad cor loquitur. You remember, don't you? Think about it.

(5) and (10) - it is a cold and snowy night. Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

Singer wrote in Yiddish and spent most of his professional life in the US. This almost seems like a deliberate slap at Polish literature, but I assume is ignorance. Harvey Pekar, who could read Yiddish, summed up Singer's career pretty well -
"When I think of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I think of old advertising slogans like, "The wit, the warmth,the wisdom". Singer conned the public for years with his wise old man routine, which is reflected in his books. There are worse Jewish writers but perhaps none so overrated. The fact he won the Nobel Prize shows how little its worth...He was a clever and very succesful popular writer and certainly knew how to play his Jewish card (corny sentimentality). He can't hold a candle to men like Bergelson, Glatstein, or even his own brother, Israel Joshua Singer".

The best Polish-language Jewish writer is probably Bruno Schulz. Boleslaw Prus is worth checking out if you like long realist family novels in the Thomas Mann-Tolstoy mode, especially "the Doll".

+1 Bruno Schulz
+1 to these Jews rolling in their graves being lumped in with the Poles who put them there

Presumably this comment is now illegal in Poland. It is also absurd - which of those writers were put in their graves by the Poles? Israel Joshua Singer died of natural causes after having lived 30 years of his life in New York. Hard for those Poles to get at him. Jacob Glatstein moved to New York in 1914 when he was 18. He died in 1971. I don't think you can reasonably blame any Poles for that. Bruno Schulz was executed by an SS officer called Karl Günther. Doesn't sound very Polish to me. And David Bergelson was executed by Stalin for being a Rootless Cosmopolitan. At a time when Poland's government was very heavily Jewish.

However it does have an interesting point - who is a Pole? Czesław Miłosz is Polish even though he was born in Lithuania, well what is now Lithuania but was then Russian. Likewise Józef Piłsudski was also born in Russian Lithuania. Are they Polish? Undoubtedly. A lot of very famous Poles were not born in what is now Poland. But is Stanisław Lem Polish? Born in the Ukraine to a Jewish family. I would say he is because he wrote in Polish and because that is how he identified. But would he be Polish if he only wrote in Yiddish?

It is the flip side of who is a Jew and presumably the Althouse Rule applies - you can only call a Jewish person born in Poland a non-Pole when it is meant to reflect badly on the Poles. You cannot deny a Polish person of Jewish origin the right to be called Polish unless they prefer otherwise. Confusing but reasonable enough I suppose.

Poland is a Wilsonian invention to weaken, encircle and undermine Russia. There was never a Polish state. What we usully think as Poles are Russians like Piłsudski, Dzerzhinsky and Menachem Begin. Poland is an invented nation.

" I had thought Mises was born in Poland, but upon checking it turned out to be Ukraine."
Lviv had Polish majority back then.
"Hollywood Polanski to Polish Polanski"
I would consider only one of Polanski's feature movies to be Polish - "Knife in the Water", all his later works are either French or American.

Yeah, Lviv had Polish majority, was in Austria-Hungary, Mises was from Austrian family, and Lviv is now in Ukraine. Complicated history

Maybe Leszek Kołakowski should get an honorable mention here?

This! He was a great thinker.

But Stanislaw Lem? Good lord no.

The Poles wrote so much that is significant or important about Communism. They provided the first detailed accounts of the Gulag when the Soviets let Polish prisoners out to fight in the West - and the American Trade Union movement cared enough to write it all down rather than cover it up.

Kołakowski definitely needs a mention. As does Pope John Paul II - it is amazing he is not mentioned, I would also mention Teresa Toranska who produced a very important series of interviews with the historical leadership of the Polish Communist state. Probably one of the best least known works on Communism.

And if we are mentioning journalism, Ryszard Kapuściński.

"I would also mention Teresa Toranska who produced a very important series of interviews with the historical leadership of the Polish Communist state. Probably one of the best least known works on Communism."
I loved that book.

"Overall the big puzzle is why there isn’t more prominence in painting, given Poland’s centrality in European history."

Poland has always been peripheral to European history, at least as that history is taught in the US and UK. Certainly Polish art suffered historically from a slavish devotion to Italian and French ideals, but there have always been a lot of Polish painters, they are simply not well known in the West.

Nowadays, I would consider Beksinski to be the most popular Polish painter, I see his paitnings regularly on Reddit. Lempicka's paintings are the most expensive, but she isn't widely known in Poland, the most popular painters there are Matejko and Kossak brothers, because history textbooks are full of their paintings.
Boznanska, Wyspianski, Siemiradzki are also worth mentioning.

Witkacy is missing here. Writer - thinker - painter.

No one else is gonna mention Malczewski?

Had never heard of Lempicka before, thanks for the tip. The google image search has me intrigued. The rest of the painters on your list appear to be in the 18th century classical European style which always bored me.

Beksinski however (I had not heard of him either) looks like neo-gothic clap-trap.

I hope you'll do favorite things Germany one day.

For what it's worth, a lot of best Polish works of arts are still in Germany to this day.

No place for Zygmunt Bauman anywhere?

Just what I was wondering? Wasn't he the first (or one thereof) to identify lots of stuff going on now with liquid modernity and disposable people?

Everyone's favorite Polish War Criminal? Favorite Stalinist secret policeman and torturer?

Everyone's favorite example of the gross double standard of the Left that loves Bauman even though he hunted down patriotic Poles fighting for their freedom on behalf of Stalin but could not forgive Pope Benedict for being conscripted to the German Army? Although in fairness the Left largely did not care that Paul De Man was a Nazi either.

some favorite horse paintings by Poles -

Frenzy of Exultations by Podowinski:

Four in Hand by Chelmonski:

Siberian Troika by Wiktiewicz:

but there are thousands of such masterpieces to choose from:

Mises was born in Lemberg (currently known as Lviv) during the time of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Between WWI and WWII it was part of Poland.

Yes, but I just don't think he quite counts as "Polish"...

He is certainly not Polish. When Mises was born Polish was solely an ethnic designation. Mises was an Austrian Jew born in Galicia. He moved to Vienna in 1900. He never even lived in the political entity of Poland.


Lviv/Lemberg/Lvov was also part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth for a long time in the 16th to late 18th century, and it was clearly in the Polish cultural sphere even under Austrian rule. Probably a Jew living there any time before WWII, if he had any contact outside his own community, would feel culturally somewhat Polish (even if speaking Yiddish at home), as much as a Jew from Krakow at the same time.

Music - also PRES:

My favorite thing...

Polish defiance. In WWII, they defied both Nazi Germany and Soviet Union and got crushed by both but still kept on resisting. And after WWII, they never lost stopped resisting against the USSR.

Since the end of the Cold War, Poland sought a meaningful place in the EU. But as the EU became a vassal of the US that is controlled by Jewish globalists, Poland was told to follow UK, France, and Germany in being flooded with Muslims and Africans.

Poles defied the world again. Jews are very angry, but who are Jews to tell Poles how to run their affairs? Do Poles tell Israelis how to run their own affairs?

Long live Poland.

Resist we much!

"But as the EU became a vassal of the US that is controlled by Jewish globalists, (...) Poles defied the world again. Jews are very angry, but who are Jews to tell Poles how to run their affairs?"
Ok, then. Proceed.

No poets ?

Dekalog is among my favorite film productions. 2&3 particularly, but I also really like 10.

if Chopin is the best Polish composer, then isn't Joseph Conrad the best Polish novelist?

+1. Have to include Conrad somewhere on this list, right?

"the now-underrated Oskar Lange". WTF?

He was one of Stalin's useful idiots. I'm happy that he deported himself to that communist hell hole.

Ace, abuse is not argument. Instead of just calling Lange an idiot why don't you engage seriously with Tyler on his question "doesn’t Singaporean health care work fine?"

I haven't read Quo Vadis, but Sienkiewicz's Trilogy on 17th century Poland is excellent; enormously powerful (if not exactly subtle) historical fiction.

I always meant to read those and maybe someday actually will. I did once read an essay in which a 1920s Yale literature professor (unfortunately I forget the name) said they were the greatest novels of all time!

1. Conrad? Kosinski?

How about Joseph Conrad?

These lists should include food. Just made pierogies and golabki for dinner last night and I think they should definitely be added to this list! What would Poland be without these two staples?

Tyler never ceases to blow my mind about truly how much this guy can hold in his head...I think he's an AI

For anyone willing and able to play video games, The Witcher 3 is generally considered one of the best of all time and is heavily grounded in Polish mythology. The Witcher book series it's based on (by Andrzej Sapkowski) is also excellent. The novels are frequently referred to as Poland's "Lord of the Rings", but that underrates them, if anything.

Singer: The short story The Lecture, the story of a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and became a naturalized American citizen who travels to Montreal to give a lecture on the bright future of the Yiddish language and finds the world the lecturer (i.e., Singer) thought he had escaped both during the journey and upon arrival in Montreal. It's a haunting story for both the lecturer (Singer), a survivor of the Holocaust, and the reader. Some things can't, and shouldn't, be forgotten.

#11 I've yet to discover anything decent Kalecki has done aside from point out to Pigou that inside money does not generate a real balance effect.
Trying to claim you discovered Keynes before Keynes with some marxist equations ain't gonna cut it. The prize goes to Oskar Lange.

2. Hard to tire of Chopin, but Preludes wouldn't be the top of my list. Mazurkas probably. And if his output was "relatively" slight, I'd ask, "relative to what?"

8. He made some great films in Hollywood, but Knife in the Water is a masterpiece.

9. Ignaz Friedman should be at, or very near, the top of any list, and any list of great Polish pianists will be very long. But Zimerman OVER Rubinstein? Get real.

11. I identify as Ukrainian, and both of my parents, and their ancestors, were all born in towns in Lviv's environs (Galicia), but Mises was an Austrian, like all four of my grandparents. My parents are Ukrainians who were born in Poland.

Mathematicians: Banach for his work in functional analysis. Tarski for his work in logic. (Not both together for an anecdotical paradox).

Is Tarski the guy who invented "Polish notation" for expressions in symbolic logic?

When electronic calculators came out I preferred the Hewlett-Packard calculators because they used reverse Polish notation and thus required fewer keystrokes to do a calculation.

I wonder if the think-outside-the-box mentality behind Polish notation was also behind Copernicus' idea to move the center of the solar system from the earth to the sun.

Polish mathematicians had also made important strides in breaking the German codes prior to World War II. I wonder if Turing and his team at Bletchley Park would've been able to break the codes without having the Polish work to build on. I thought I'd read that Polish intelligence had aided the codebreaking efforts by stealing a German Enigma machine before the war, but apparently their mathematicians were able to deduce how to build a physical simulation of an Enigma machine, that they called a bomba or bombe.

Very true.

Another one to add: Favorite female physicist?

Was in Poland this summer, in a trip to 5 central/Eastern European countries. Poland was clearly my favorite. Loved the food way more than I expected. The people were warm and genuine while not being off-puttingly direct. Krakow was hands-down the surprise of the trip and my favorite city. And the Tatra Mountains in the south are superb, although they are hardly a secret to the locals, and they're quickly being discovered by the Anglosphere.

You forgot zurek and bigos, which when eaten one after the other--in any order--combine to create world peace.

And I have many fond memories of the Konin train station cafe eating hot dogs, drinking tea, and watching M Jak Milosc.

That picture shows a carving by Veit Stoss the great German sculptor of the early 16th c who was simply too much of a bad boy for the good people of Durer's Nuremberg and found himself exiled. He landed in Krakow where he did some of his greatest work (at least among the pieces that survive) and then returned, a wiser old man to Nuremberg for the end of his life.

He does not have the range and intellectual power of Donatello, but is certainly his equal in expressiveness and narrative power. The technique of wood carving was brought to an extraordinarily high state in 16th c Germany as the irreplaceable Michael Baxandall shows in his Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany.

So the only problem is that the art shown is neither Polish (though located in Poland) nor folk-art in any way.

Mathematicians - Antoni Zygmund

Most art was probably destroyed in the war(s).

I wonder it Tyler has got favorite things from like every country in the world with a minimum level of international relevance? Like his top art, novels and music from Uruguay or Siri Lanka.

Someone may have mentioned it: Poland was famous for its logicians. There was a thing called "Polish notation" devised by I believe it was Lucasiewic (spelling probably wrong) . If memory serves, he also came up with the notion of many-valued logics (now the basis for fuzzy logics, via Lofti Zadeh's fuzzy set-theory). If not Lucasiewic, then some other Polish logician, if memory serves.
Bonus trivium: Polish notation is thought by some to be hard for English speakers, but in fact it's not.
Animated film Street of Crocodiles was made in Poland. Deserves a shout-out of some kind.

In an earlier comment I was trying to remember who invented "Polish notation" and your comment jogged my memory, I think you're right it was ... that guy, I think he's got at least one z in his name, i.e. Lucasziewicz or something like that, too lazy right now to look him up.

Polish notation is a little strange, but highly familiar for people who used Hewlett-Packard calculators their first decade or two.

when I was a child polish comedy How I Unleashed World War II impressed me a lot, still remember it as my favorite film ( not sure how it would impress me as an adult, but still )

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