I was out and about on the internet the other day looking for new Polish words which might inspire me to new heights of bilingual bliss and was mildly amused by the graphical interpretation that tag frequency clouds often provide. You often get useless alphabetical combinations of words that mean nothing, but every now and again you are afforded an interesting glimpse at the current state of the language. On Słowa na Czasie I found a wonderfully serendipitous lexical marriage: transeksualny trotyl which is a remarkably good summary of Poland’s recent problems. Transeksualny tops the tag frequency list because of the Polish media’s recent fascination with (and perhaps intolerance of) Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first transgender (post-transitioned) member of Parliament as well as all things liberal and non-Catholic. Tolerance and Catholicism have become two very large sticks that various political groups use to beat each other with; largely unsuccessfully and without any hope of conciliation. It is therefore no surprise that transeksualny can be found in the tag cloud of most commonly used Polish words (also równość – ‘equality’ and szmata – ‘slut’) The second word of this lexical combination is trotyl (TNT) which has been frequently used in the Polish news to refer to suggestions that traces of TNT were allegedly found on the ‘Smolensk’ plane in which Lech Kaczyński and a host of other Polish VIPs died when their plane crashed. Smolensk (the word has come to signify a moment in time and a political state of being) has divided Poles into those that want to believe President Kaczyński was murdered (generally allied to Catholicism) and those that believe it was a tragic accident (generally allied to Liberalism). Transeksualny trotyl is work well in summarising the Poland of here and now.
Back in 1976 Richard Dawkins coined the wonderful term – meme. It can be defined as an element of culture that replicates itself. Some describe it as a virus, a contagion which spreads and infects other people. I prefer the idea of a meme being a cultural gene, something that hops from one mind to the next. Whether for better or worse. A good example might be a piece of music that everyone recognises – Beethoven’s Fifth or Happy Birthday to you. Memes also abound on the internet but it is difficult to say if these are genuine memes or fads that explode and later fade into obscurity. A meme, methinks, has to be long-lasting, sturdy and familiar to many.
When deciding what a meme is (and what might possibly be the world’s greatest meme) we have to take a look at memetics, the study of memes, which lays down the law when it comes to these tiny cultural creatures. Of particular interest to us are two terms used in memetics: memeplex (meme-complex) and memoid. The first is a complex of memes, a grouping together of memes. The second refers to a person who has become engulfed by a meme to such an extent that the meme is their reason for existence. And that is what leads me to believe that there is only one true candidate for the world’s greatest meme/memeplex.
What could possibly be the world’s greatest collection of ideas? Ideas (or groupings of ideas) that readily replicate and hop from one mind to the next? Ideas that have such power that they often completely and utterly engulf the mind of their indiciduals? A group of ideas which has the largest number of hits or followers? The answer, in the aftermath of the arch-memoid’s resignation and on the eve of the gatherings of many über-memoids to elect a new arch-memoid in the Petrine succession, has got to be the Catholic Church (or, in fact, Christianity). Join the dots, fill in the blanks. For better or for worse, the world’s greatest religion has to also be the world’s greatest memeplex.
An aged count once lived in Switzerland, who had an only son, but he was stupid, and could learn nothing. Then said the father: “Hark you, my son, try as I will I can get nothing into your head. You must go from hence, I will give you into the care of a celebrated master, who shall see what he can do with you.” The youth was sent into a strange town, and remained a whole year with the master. At the end of this time, he came home again, and his father asked: “Now, my son, what have you learnt?” “Father, I have learnt what the dogs say when they bark.” “Lord have mercy on us!” cried the father; “is that all you have learnt? I will send you into another town, to another master.” The youth was taken thither, and stayed a year with this master likewise. When he came back the father again asked: “My son, what have you learnt?” He answered: “Father, I have learnt what the birds say.” Then the father fell into a rage and said: “Oh, you lost man, you have spent the precious time and learnt nothing; are you not ashamed to appear before my eyes? I will send you to a third master, but if you learn nothing this time also, I will no longer be your father.” The youth remained a whole year with the third master also, and when he came home again, and his father inquired: “My son, what have you learnt?” he answered: “Dear father, I have this year learnt what the frogs croak.” Then the father fell into the most furious anger, sprang up, called his people thither, and said: “This man is no longer my son, I drive him forth, and command you to take him out into the forest, and kill him.” They took him forth, but when they should have killed him, they could not do it for pity, and let him go, and they cut the eyes and tongue out of a deer that they might carry them to the old man as a token.
The youth wandered on, and after some time came to a fortress where he begged for a night’s lodging. “Yes,” said the lord of the castle, “if you will pass the night down there in the old tower, go thither; but I warn you, it is at the peril of your life, for it is full of wild dogs, which bark and howl without stopping, and at certain hours a man has to be given to them, whom they at once devour.” The whole district was in sorrow and dismay because of them, and yet no one could do anything to stop this. The youth, however, was without fear, and said: “Just let me go down to the barking dogs, and give me something that I can throw to them; they will do nothing to harm me.” As he himself would have it so, they gave him some food for the wild animals, and led him down to the tower. When he went inside, the dogs did not bark at him, but wagged their tails quite amicably around him, ate what he set before them, and did not hurt one hair of his head. Next morning, to the astonishment of everyone, he came out again safe and unharmed, and said to the lord of the castle: “The dogs have revealed to me, in their own language, why they dwell there, and bring evil on the land. They are bewitched, and are obliged to watch over a great treasure which is below in the tower, and they can have no rest until it is taken away, and I have likewise learnt, from their discourse, how that is to be done.” Then all who heard this rejoiced, and the lord of the castle said he would adopt him as a son if he accomplished it successfully. He went down again, and as he knew what he had to do, he did it thoroughly, and brought a chest full of gold out with him. The howling of the wild dogs was henceforth heard no more; they had disappeared, and the country was freed from the trouble.
After some time he took it in his head that he would travel to Rome. On the way he passed by a marsh, in which a number of frogs were sitting croaking. He listened to them, and when he became aware of what they were saying, he grew very thoughtful and sad. At last he arrived in Rome, where the Pope had just died, and there was great doubt among the cardinals as to whom they should appoint as his successor. They at length agreed that the person should be chosen as pope who should be distinguished by some divine and miraculous token. And just as that was decided on, the young count entered into the church, and suddenly two snow-white doves flew on his shoulders and remained sitting there. The ecclesiastics recognized therein the token from above, and asked him on the spot if he would be pope. He was undecided, and knew not if he were worthy of this, but the doves counselled him to do it, and at length he said yes. Then was he anointed and consecrated, and thus was fulfilled what he had heard from the frogs on his way, which had so affected him, that he was to be his Holiness the Pope. Then he had to sing a mass, and did not know one word of it, but the two doves sat continually on his shoulders, and said it all in his ear.
The Three Languages by the Brothers Grimm (reblogged courtesy of transubstantiation)
Things have really reached boiling point and one could colloquially add that the shit really has hit the fan in Poland. A ‘faecal’ assailant soiled the plaque commemorating the death of President Lech Kaczyński and 95 other passengers in the Smolensk air tragedy. A 71-year-old threw a strategically aimed pot of poo at the memorial tablet in central Warsaw. He was arrested by police and taken away. This follows several months of squabbling over what should happen to the cross that was temporarily erected outside the Presidential Palace by scouts in memory of the victims of the Smolensk tragedy.
It all started when President Bronisław Komorowski announced that the temporary wooden cross should be transferred to a more appropriate place, specifically Saint Anne’s Church, not far from the Presidential Palace. The cross is of course a religious symbol and not a symbol of state and it is inappropriate to leave it outside the Presidential Palace. His comments kicked off a storm with Jarosław Kaczyński claiming Komorowski was anti-catholic and a proponent of the evil of what he termed ‘Zapaterism’.
The odd thing is that no one, apart from Jarosław Kaczyński, seems to know what evil deed it is that Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has done. With a lack of decent policies, sound ideas and competent opinions, Kaczyński has been using the cross as a political makeweight. In fact, he has said that the policies of Law & Justice (PiS) will now revolve around the Smolensk tragedy. Kaczyński is literally crucifying his own party and followers in pursuit of his own personal mission. His personal loss seems to have clouded his judgement and the cross has begun to symbolise his hurt rather than the mission of Christ and his followers. Those so-called ‘defenders’ of the cross are to Catholics what hooligans are to regular football fans.
A fine example of the utter blindness of these so-called Christians was their behaviour when the day came to move the cross. Priests from Saint Anne’s came to lead the cross in procession from the Presidential Palace to Saint Anne’s Church. The reaction of these ‘Catholics’ was to scream and shout at the Catholic priests calling them traitors and, of all things, “Jews”. Odd, to say the least. We have reached an impasse and the only real way to resolve it is for the two main protagonists, President Komorowski and Jarosław Kaczyński, to sit down and reach an adequate compromise. Then again pigs might fly…
Jan Wróbel in a recent article in Wirtualna Polska talks about the ‘rydzykisation’ (pol. rydzykizacja) of not only Poland but surprisingly also of Civic Platform (PO). He is, of course, referring to Tadeusz Rydzyk the de facto head of catholic Radio Maryja and catholic TV station TV Trwam. He claims that although ‘rydze’ (pol. red pine mushrooms – a pun on the word Rydzyk) have been growing in the fields of Law and Justice (PiS) for quite some time, PO has now become infested. Wróbel believes the tide is turning. Many people were overjoyed when PiS was defeated in the parliamentary elections and the three-headed PiS-Samoobrona-LPR monster was resoundingly vanquished. However, the Smoleńsk tragedy changed all that and Law and Justice, like a phoenix from the flames, has returned and is ready to do battle.
Civic Platform could have never expected the support with which millions of people endowed Lech Kaczyński following his death in Smolensk. In many ways, he is a martyr… a political martyr. His death has in many ways helped turn around the fortunes of both PiS and his brother Jarosław Kaczyński. Before his death, all polls were showing a landslide victory for Bronisław Komorowski against Lech Kaczyński. Following the tragedy, Jarosław Kaczyński was only several percentage points away from defeating Komorowski in the presidential campaign. Radio Maryja and TV Trwam helped in this campaign but the truth of the matter is that many people were simply fed up with PO’s promises, PR and politicking. They wanted more substance and Jarosław Kaczyński was the man to give it to them.
Even though Komorowski won, Civic Platform wants revenge. It wants revenge for all those weeks of post-Smolensk emotional turmoil, Kaczyński adulation and Kaczyński hero worship. It too needs its Rydzyk, a hate-filled character that can move mountains. Civic Platform has unleashed its biggest monster. PO has unleashed Janusz Palikot. Compared to him, Tadeusz Rydzyk is a cherub. When we talk about a rydzykisation of Polish politics, we are actually talking about a politics of negation, of antipathy and of hate. Rydzyk has perfected this to an art (to the benefit of PiS). Now PO, with all their talk of a politics of love, of positivity and cooperation, are doing the same with Palikot. Is he, as so many supporters of PiS believe, a harbinger of moral decay, or is he a sobering force in Poland’s emotional-driven political battleground?
If anyone had previously believed Poland was a secular state there is no doubt now that the opposite is true following the tragic Smolensk air crash. In some ways it was comforting to see the very public outpouring of grief after the disaster but what was striking were the religious overtones that accompanied the grief. Mourners spoke of the “need” to join in grief and the “duty” of every “real Polish, Catholic patriot” to say goodbye to the President. What was even more striking were the mourners who queued for up to eighteen hours to kneel and make the sign of the cross before the coffins of President Lech Kaczyński and Maria Kaczyński. To outsiders looking in, it would appear that tens of thousands of Polish people were saying farewell to a holy man, a saint perhaps.
Now it seems that a piece of the Tupolev Tu-154 has taken on Holy Relic status. Inhabitants of Smolensk found a small piece of the plane and gifted it to Poland. Father Roman Majewski of the Jasna Góra Monastery, Poland’s most famous holy sanctuary, has said that this relic will become “a testament to the tragedy and a symbol of our love for our nation”. The tiny piece of the Tupolev Tu-154 will adorn the new ‘robes and crown’ of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland’s holiest relic. As well as the piece of the Tupolev, the Virgin Mary’s new robes, designed by Mariusz Drapikowski, will also contain fragments of meteorites found on the Moon, Mars and Mercury.
It occurred to me that it has been twenty years since Poland regained its freedom way back in 1989. Twenty years of ‘transformation’ (as Polish people like to call it) have fashioned the country that we now call Poland. I wonder whether everything that has happened over these twenty years is a consequence of the baggage of communism. Could some things have been avoided? Could Poland have taken a different route? Below is a list of (what I think to be) the most important events in Poland of the last twenty years (in chronological order):
Round Table Talks (5th April 1989)
A constant bone of contention between Law and Justice (PiS) and Poland’s other political parties. This is the moment when the communists decide to sit down and discuss with Solidarity the future of Poland.
Rydzyk Radio (9th December 1991)
Radio Maryja is founded in Toruń. After a mere three years this local Catholic radio station, the patron of which is controversial cleric Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, obtains a licence to broadcast nationally helping it later become the voice of right-wing Polish Catholicism.
War Upstairs (4th June 1992)
Jan Olszewski’s weak minority government is toppled by President Lech Wałęsa who, fearing a backlash and possible coup d’etat following Antoni Macierewicz’s much-maligned Vetting Act, decides to put an end to the Olszewski-Kaczyński-Macierewicz madness.
Orchestrating Help (3rd January 1993)
Jerzy Owsiak sets in motion what will later become the largest and most celebrated charitable event in Polish history. The very first Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity raised $1.5 million, an unprecedented sum in a country new to such events.
Russians Leave (17th September 1993)
In what turns out to be a major coup for Lech Wałęsa and a welcome surprise for Poles, Russian President Boris Yeltsin agrees to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. In mid September, President Wałęsa bids farewell to the last of the Russian soldiers.
Poland Joins NATO (12th March 1999)
Finally, after years of oppression, Polish people around the world breathe a sigh of relief when Minister of Foreign Affairs Bronisław Geremek signs Poland’s NATO membership agreement.
Poland Joins EU (1st May 2004)
Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) leader and Prime Minister, Leszek Miller signs the paperwork in April 2003, the referendum takes place in June 2003 and within less than a year, Poland becomes a fully-fledged member of Europe’s finest club.
Death of Hope (2nd April 2005)
The death of John Paul II marked the end of an era for many. During his papacy he travelled to more countries than any previous Vicar of Rome. For Poles, his death also marked the passing of their chief flag-bearer, spiritual leader and beacon of hope.
Poland Going Euro (18th April 2007)
Much to the amazement of all concerned, Michel Platini, head of UEFA, announces that the joint bid by Poland and Ukraine to host the European Football Championships in 2012 is victorious. Poland’s future is looking brighter…
Buzek Tops (14th July 2009)
Former Polish Prime Minister takes the helm of the European Parliament becoming Poland’s first ever President of the European Parliament. Although not a particularly powerful post, it demonstrates Poland’s increasing influence in the EU.