The humanities for the sensitive

A heated discussion on how to deal with the humanities today took place during a meeting concerning Professor Michał Paweł Markowski’s new book. But there were many more exciting moments during yet another day of the 5th edition of the Conrad Festival.

Professor Michał Paweł Markowski’s latest book is entitled Polityka wrażliwości. Wprowadzenie do humanistyki [The Politics of Sensitivity. An Introduction to the Humanities]. Its starting point is a question asked by Maria Janion 40 years ago. At the time, it ran: “how to be an expert in the humanities in the 2nd half of the 20th century?”. Today, this question provokes reflection on the condition of universities and the humanities in the post-liberal era.

The three main theses of Markowski’s book are based on the claims that: first, the humanities should not compete with exact sciences; second, their task should be to develop discursive sensitivity; and third, the humanities should aim at highlighting the existential roots of cultural studies. Quoting these claims yesterday during the meeting at Pałac Pod Baranami was like stirring up a hornets’ nest. The discussion provoked by Markowski’s book centred around finding the identity of contemporary Academia. Therefore, comments about higher education appeared. “Academia without the humanities makes no sense. Throwing them beyond Academia and thus separating oneself from science is disadvantageous,” Professor Krzysztof Kłosiński commented. There were also attempts to find the right place for the humanities in the social system. “Overproduction of specialists in the humanities breeds revolution. This is why, for example, Cameron is now closing successive humanities departments at universities, just like Thatcher used to do back in the day,” said Professor Agata Bielik-Robson. And commenting on the issue of the relationship between the humanities and the natural sciences, Professor Michał Paweł Markowski stated: “Dialogue is absurd here. Everyone fights to be in their own world. We have reached a terrible impasse and it is beyond our power to talk to others.”

But in spite of everything, conversations with others succeed in practice. The Conrad Festival, which Professor Markowski – the event’s artistic director – talked about, is a space that makes conversation possible. And provokes it.

During the meeting with Sylwia Chutnik, Kaja Malanowska, and Zośka Papużanka, gender was the controversial category. And it was not because – it so happened – all three authors, whose books Professor Przemysław Czapliński discussed with his distinctive panache, are women. The point was that gender as such constitutes a cultural problem, and the so-called “feminist prose” sometimes becomes a convenient bag into which it is easy to lump everything together.

In this context, a meeting with Jan Polkowski was very interesting. This time, the poet appeared in the role of a prose writer and commentator on language. His book entitled Ślady krwi [Traces of Blood], published several months ago, provoked various questions that Professor Krzysztof Koehler asked the author. “Poetry is the heart of language. It makes language retain internal strength and independence. As Brodsky said: nations that do not read poetry may become an easy prey for a demagogue,” Polkowski stated, adding: “The Polish language is extremely sensuous and close to nature. It harmonises with the music of the world. Please check this by juxtaposing various words in various languages.” Asked about the main character of his book, Polkowski expressed his doubt, streaked with an undertone of irony, that man as such would like to answer questions about his identity. “I am sceptical about the claim that everyone knows who they are. Most people don’t. Some people even relegate this knowledge. And human life is an internal dialogue conducted against the background of a dialogue with the world.”

Almost at the same time as the conversation with Polkowski, in a room next door – as the nature of the festival involves various conversations taking place at various places at the same time – a discussion took place, of which Cavafy was the central figure. It was attended by Ireneusz Kania – an outstanding translator who recently published a volume of Cavafy’s poems – in his own translation, of course.

Today at the Festival: to begin with: at 10 a.m. – A Reading Lesson with… Agnieszka Taborska; at noon – Mariusz Wilk and Andrzej Meller will talk about the essence of a reporter’s vocation; and at 2 p.m., Andrzej Skrendo will talk to Piotr Paziński about how to be the last one in the generation chain, among others. At 3 p.m. – an interesting discussion about the category of “generations” with the participation of Jan Burzyński, Michał Sutowski, Maciej Urbanowski, Seweryn Blumsztajn, and Cezary Michalski. An hour later (at 4 p.m.) – a meeting with Tahar Ben Jelloun, at 6 p.m. at Pałac Pod Baranami – Gombrowicz without Anaesthesia (a discussion with the participation of Jerzy Franczak, Ryszard Koziołek, Professor Michał Paweł Markowski, and special guest – Rita Gombrowicz), and at the Arteteka of the Regional Public Library – a vernissage of the exhibition entitled The Son of His Father and a meeting with Nicolas Presl. At 7:30 p.m., at Bunkier Sztuki – a vernissage of Bohdan Butenko’s exhibition entitled Books Are Knitted Like Sweaters, and at 8 p.m. – a meeting with Claudio Magris, long-awaited by the festival’s audience, at the International Cultural Centre.

Enter the search phrase: