The Theory and Practice of the Borderlands

September 2010
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Krzysztof Czyżewski, Linia powrotu. Zapiski z pogranicza [Line of Return. Notes from the Borderlands]. Sejny: Pogranicze, 2008.

I can imagine with what delight I would have read Krzysztof Czyżewski's book somewhere at the beginning of 2005. Everything the author writes about would have then seemed so topical, so pertinent to the Ukrainian situation – the idea of the borderlands and overcoming borders; cultural heteroglossia and the dialogue with the Other; the concept of the periphery free from colonial inferiorities, and a search for national roots free from nationalist zeal. Above all, the book's idea of Central Europe as, above all, Europe (or even Europe, above all, as Central Europe), and Ukraine as part of Central Europe, in spite of everything. Even the title itself, Line of Return, - with its allusion to Paul Celan's concept of the meridian – would have inspired in me, a native of Chernivtsi, a sense of euphoria, and a dream about another Chernivtsi, another Ukraine, and another  Europe...

Alas, in 2005 Czyżewski's book did not yet exist, and in 2010 the problems of the  intra-European dialogue do not really concern us any more. What are we to Europe, or Europe to us? Speaking about otherness, it would be more appropriate at present for us to read, let's say, A World Apart by [Polish writer and] former Soviet GULAG prisoner Gustaw Herling Grudziński. It seems very pertinent now, when we have suddenly realised that behind all our jabber about Ukrainian reunification and unique Ukrainian diversity, our “line of return” leads precisely to that other, Soviet-Asian world, a world where “it is possible to lose faith in man and the meaning of his fighting for a better life on Earth.”

Krzysztof Czyżewski, however, is one writer who cannot be held responsible for anything: on the contrary, he is one of those most consistent romantics of the “Jerzy Giedroyc school” who have put in the maximum effort in order to pull the Ukrainian behemoth out of the sovok swamp. They are not to blame that both the behemoth and the swamp proved to be far too large. And it is clear that Czyżewski's book itself is not made worse by our own defeat. That is why I am not arguing that there is no sense in reading it; there is just no sense in reading it, I would suggest, with a thought about Ukraine. But if one manages to abstract himself from the so called Ukraine (a mature reader must sooner or later learn how to abstract from phantom objects), then Line of Return offers a whole package of ethics and aesthetics, valuable information, interesting observations and opportunities for discussion. As for me personally, while reading Czyżewski I am more tempted to engage in endless discussions with my own self, rather than with the author.   

Since I have already mentioned the word “romantic,” it may be useful to make a stop here for a short explanation. It would be the height of misunderstanding to present the author of Line of Return as an uncritical enthusiast or a naïve dreamer with his head in the clouds. First and foremost, Czyżewski's romanticism draws from sources of romantic philosophic (openly – in his essay “A Time for the Province”). It is concerned with the process of “romanticising”  reality, which for Czyżewski – following Novalis – means endowing ordinary things with a mysterious aura, well-known things with a quality of the unknown, finite things with a semblance of infinity. In sum, this means restoring to the world its primary, higher meaning. Clearly, it is this tendency to “romanticising” that gives Czyżewski such a good perception of the Central European  tangle of mutual grievances, crimes and punishments. It also allows him, while remaining a steadfast supporter of democracy and human rights, to remember that the common living of many nations in small...

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