To Understand Bauman

“Writing a biography is not a job for a person who wants to be a saint,” Artur Domosławski writes in his book, quoting a friend. One might add that a saintly hero is poor material for a biographer. 

Zygmunt Bauman was certainly no saint. Moreover, he lived, as the famous Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. If we combine this with the perspicacity, erudition, uncompromising stance and independent thinking of his biographer, we have a starting point for a perfect book. And it is hard to find another description for “An Exile: 21 Scenes from the Life of Zygmunt Bauman,” a monumental work of almost a thousand pages that is already becoming the most discussed book in Poland. Domosławski has succeeded in writing a biography that not only describes the fate of a complex and colorful figure, but also explains the complexities of Polish history over the course of a century and fits into the current disputes surrounding the revision of the Polish past.

Grasping Bauman’s fate is no mean feat. His life was one big historical storm. It is best summed up by the biographer himself: “In the first half (of his life—editor’s note) it consisted of the great events and phenomena of universal and Polish history: nationalism in pre-war Poland, World War II, the triumph over Fascism, the Civil War, the construction of a new order after the war, the liberalization and then upheaval of 1956, the youth revolt and anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, the armed conflict in the Middle East and its aftermath.”

In the second half, we have his departure from Poland, his Israeli episode, and his years in England, in Leeds, his rise as an intellectual and the return of the problems Poland forever had with him. And then, of course, there is Bauman’s personal life, but it was so orderly that it poses no great problem for a biographer, albeit with one very surprising episode at the end of his life, when he experienced his second great love. 

Poland Prefers Impeccable People

Bauman’s biography is governed by the figure of the exile, used in the title for good reason. Being an alien is the category around which his life was organized. First, he was a boy from the ghetto, persecuted by teachers and classmates, who escaped to the Soviet Union at the age of fourteen; then a twenty-year-old second lieutenant, defending the post-war regime against the armed underground; a staunch communist, and a socialist who never converted to anti-communism; an easy target during the anti-Semitic campaign of March 1968, a symbol of the enemies of Poland and the party, expelled from Poland at that time; and finally, a postmodernist, a sociologist who was doomed to solitude because of his perspicacity and passion for critical, independent thinking. 

There are many problems with him, in fact only problems; Poland does not like such figures—it prefers to have impeccable people in the pantheon of the distinguished.

Domosławski—as he already demonstrated in his previous and acclaimed biography “Kapuściński non-fiction”, devoted to the reporter Ryszard Kapuściński—is not interested in erecting monuments. He tries to understand the life of his protagonist, the decisions he made and their consequences. The author asks questions, complicates matters, and rejects the black-and-white narrative used in Poland today, imposed by government propaganda, to evaluate reality and describe things. Was Bauman, for example, simply a nasty ‘commie’, a member of the Internal Security Corps that hunted down members of the anti-communist underground? Domosławski attempts to glean the reasons behind Bauman’s decision to join this force—one of the most important ones here was that the future sociologist wanted a Poland in which he would not be judged on the basis of ethnic categories. He did not want a pre-war Poland, which did not want him. Domosławski does not, however, find any blood on Bauman’s hands. 

Bauman Did Not Convert from Communism

The Communism of the author of Liquid Modernity—a staunch believer until the mid-1950s—is presented by the author as a consequence not only of his pre-war experiences, i.e. living in a society of sharp divisions which defined him as alien and inferior, but also, and perhaps predominantly, of the times in which he found himself living.

After all, many outstanding minds of that generation succumbed to the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, including the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski (who, as Bauman’s rival of sorts in the struggle for academic splendour or the intellectual rule of souls, is also the hero of this book). The author reminds us, however, that Bauman broke from dogmatism even as a party member—he did not shut himself off to its criticism, and at the university he spread politically incorrect, meaning Western, sociological ideas.

Or perhaps his great sin was that, like many representatives of his generation, he did not want to revise his past in the spirit of understanding his mistakes and converting from Communism? After all, even in the 1980s, he continued to view the working class solidarity movement as an opportunity to change not the system, but the idea of socialism itself, to deepen it. And he never expressed contrition, he believed in socialism to the very end. 

In recent times, his star began to shine brightly, which again drew attacks directed at him for being a pop intellectual or a cheap nihilist.

The thinker blossomed in the 1990s when, as some prophesied, there would be nothing left to debate because History had ended. In the meantime, History, in a tragic way, is in the process of relaunching itself,

with the grim symbol of 11 September 2001 and the attacks in New York and Washington. There is no end to the problems of the new era: globalization, the refugee crisis, the breakdown of human relationships, the collapse of intellectual authorities… Zygmunt Bauman analyzes one after another, and does it in such an accessible, attractive way, using language far from academic, that he quickly wins the rule of souls and dethrones his natural rival for this role, Leszek Kołakowski. The latter becomes the idol of the Solidarity generation and Bauman the idol of youth. 

The most serious problem Domosławski faced this time, however, was with his protagonist’s personal life. The irony is, of course, that while in the case of Kapuscinski the controversy was based on revelations about his personal life, this aspect of Bauman’s life seems to be completely unattractive to the sensation-seeking biographer—one wife for sixty years. If we are to believe Domosławski, there were no follies, no love affairs. And yet, the surprise finally happens, and what a surprise it is! At the end of his life, at the age of 86, after the death of his wife, Bauman still experiences great love and enters into a relationship with 79-year-old Aleksandra Jasińska-Kania. 

The Polish thinker could not have found a better biographer, that is for certain. This book opens the way to a renewed debate about the author of “Postmodernity as a Source of Suffering”, devoid of simplifications and ideological dogmas. “The Exile: 21 Scenes from the Life of Zygmunt Bauman” is also, however, valuable reading for those interested not only in the sociologist himself, or even in history or Poland, but above all in thinking; a kind of thinking that is open, non-dogmatic and individual. It is one that leads to a peculiar solitude. That is, for all those who succumb to Baumanosis.

Artur Domosławski, Wygnaniec. 21 scen z życia Zygmunta Baumana [An Exile: 21 Scenes from the Life of Zygmunt Bauman], Wielka Litera 2021

Patrycja Pustkowiak

is a writer and journalist, author of the novel Nocne zwierzęta (Night Animals), shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize and nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize. 

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