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Sabbath Day – Poland I: Resistance

March 11, 2016

It was a beautiful summer-like day in White Plains today – not bad for March 10th!

My Sabbath day involved coffee, quiet, a nap (I’m working hard not to catch the flu that my wife has), reading, writing, and a visit with my son to the nature center and the goats. My reading was not very concentrated – I mostly poked around in a couple books I am reading. The first is Wendy Farley’s The Thirst for God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics, which I am reading for Women’s History Month. Farley explores the theology and politics of contemplative practice in one of my favorite eras – the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – through the figures of Marguerite Porete, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Julian of Norwich. The second book I’m reading is Ira Katznelson’s gripping history Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (which won the Bancroft Prize). As the nation questioned whether liberal institutions could respond to the many crisis of the day, and many leaders and large parts of the country openly admired the accomplishments of anti-democratic governments, whether fascist or dictator, congress had to work with openly racist senators of the Jim Crow South in order to pass essential programs of the New Deal, programs that made possible the Civil Rights movement in years to come. This is an uncomfortable, unsettling read. I am reading it slowly.


In first read Katznelson (above) in 1996 when he published Liberalism’s Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik. The flyleaf promised a “profoundly moving and analytically incisive attempt to shift the terms of discussion in American politics.” It did for me. The book explored “the intellectual and political weaknesses within the liberal tradition that have put the United States at the mercy of libertarian, authoritarian populist, markedly racist, and traditionalist elitist versions of the right wing” and sought resources to reorient the liberal tradition. For me, the book was a a primer in democratic socialist tradition. I literally hunted down the works cited in almost every footnote and spent an intense year reading political theory and working out my own commitments. I had joined the Democratic Socialists of America a few years earlier, having been led there through the writings, speeches and sermons of public intellectuals Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich; Jewish fellow-travellers of the Catholic Worker Movement Michael Harrington and Marc Ellis; Christian social ethicists Gary Dorrien and Rosemary Radford Ruether; and local Princeton veteran socialists Bernie and Henny Backer. (The later lent me their original recording of Eugene Debs and introduced me to Harry Fleischman who had been Norman Thomas’ campaign manager in his several Presidential runs).



Katznelson explored the problems and possibilities of “liberal socialism” through an imagined epistolary correspondence with Polish dissident and organic intellectual Adam Michnik, pictured above and below, which bring me around to my year of reading multi-national literature, to Poland, and to my current focus on prison literature.  It has now been two decades since I first read Adam Michnik’s Letters from Prison and Other Essays (1985) which detailed the nonviolent politics and hopes of what eventually became Solidarity, the union of intellectuals, the church, and ordinary workers in Poland. Solidarity was founded in 1980 and met fierce repression. When the communist government declared martial law in 1981, Michnik became a political prisoner for refusing to sign a “loyalty oath.” His three years in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on both the liberalism aspired to by the Workers Defense Committee and the need for socialist hopes, that together could form what he called a “self-limiting revolution.”  Michnik’s writings have a place on my shelf near those of Gandhi and Bonhoeffer. It was a great pleasure to take them down and read them again this week. (Riveting as they are, their reading also provided the occasion for several naps – the primary reason I do not currently have the flu).



This literary visit to polish prisons this week was also an occasion to read the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, who Joseph Brodsky has called “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.” While never imprisoned himself, Milosz spent much of his adult life in exile, a fierce critic of communist bureaucracy. Milosz (pictured below) defected to France in 1951, and later to the United States, where he taught Slavic Languages and Literature at Berkeley. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980, a surprise to most people in Poland where his writing was banned. Just a few years later he wrote the forward to Michnik’s writings from the Bialoleka Internment Camp.


With the libertarian, authoritarian populist, markedly racist, and traditionalist elitist challenges of our own day very much in mind, I end with the final lines of Milosz’ poem, “On Angels.”

day draws near

another one

do what you can.




3 Comments leave one →
  1. eksimpson permalink
    March 11, 2016 8:51 am

    Your blogs, your reading and your reflections awaken hungers in me that I haven’t felt in years, to say nothing of having fed them. Please keep doing this, it is my continuing education and inspiration for retirement, when that comes along.


  1. Reading Multi-National Literature | revgeary
  2. Poland II, Poetry of Guilt and Complicity | revgeary

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