Sir Francis Bacon and the secret of Poland

PhotoAlmost finished here in Poland.  I present tomorrow and leave June 1st.  So this is a time to muster last thoughts. 

There are some mysteries here that will never be clarified.  Why, for instance, the skies above Polish cities should be a pandimonium of swallows.  My home town has about 8 swallows.  10 tops.  Krakow has many thousands.  The city square is an air show.  No one pays them the slightest attention, but the swallows don’t care.  They keep turning in fly-boy maneuvers you have to see to believe and even then you don’t believe.

The other mystery is what the Poles do to deserve such abundant plant life in the home.  Even homes occupied by homemakers who work 50 hours a week outside the home (and there are a lot of these).  Beautiful plants.  Abundant plants.  Gorgeously flowering plants.  Here too no one much remarks upon them.  Women just shrug, accept my  compliment, and change the topic.  I began by thinking, "the Poles love plants," and ended, swallow like, concluding, "plants love the Poles." 

I think part of the answer is that when you ask them about plants, they don’t talk decoration, or color schemes, they talk about the "pleasure" of plants with a certain gusto that is, apparently, not lost on the plants, one of which, a cascading something or other, was, I am quite certain, listening to the interview with more than ordinary interest and possibly also taking notes.  (I could be wrong on this last point.)

And here’s another thing.  Polish women can turn in 2 hours of detailed discussion of family life, and never mention their husbands.  Not once.  If you didn’t know better, you would assume they were single parents. 

But the final mystery is why this country would suit the Elizabethan Sir Francis Bacon so completely.  Sir Francis is of course famous for his creation of a way of thinking about the world that invites, demands, a swift departure from received wisdom and a willingness to sail off into new ideas.  (Why don’t we read this guy?  He is at least as illuminating as Tom Peters.  He was Peters before Peters.)  This project has taken me to Russia, China, Mexico, France, Germany, and Belgium, but it is chiefly here that people feel as if they nurture a restless disregard for the rule book and a willingness to try…something, think…something. 

I’ll give you a trivial example.  I am writing this in the lounge of my hotel, and for some reason this place is always playing the sound track from Hollywood pictures.  And at first you think, whaaa?  And then you realize this is a pretty effective importation of well formed meanings.  It works in a post modern way, the mundane realities of a man furiously blogging against the companionable EZ grandeur that Hollywood music does so well.  (At the moment, it’s a spaghetti Western theme.  A moment ago, it was something from a Bond picture.  Has blogging ever seemed so, um, unheroic, so  under exerted?  I don’t think so.)

There are some cultures that do this sort of thing, we know this.  All Western cultures do it at least a little.  It’s how we get from the now to the next.  But Polish rest on culture as if on sufferance, as if waiting any opportunity or provocation to take their leave of it.  I am exaggerating, I’m sure.  And, God knows, I am no expert.  I am not so much the accidental tourist, as that accidental anthropologist, engaged in a kind of "drive by" ethnography.  If I don’t hear it from a Polish homemaker, I’m not hearing it.  (And certainly much of what I hear is pearls before swine.)

Well, I have some school boy history to call upon and this tells me that Poland has suffered constant occupation and interference.  And this would be a perfect receipe for cultural skepticism.  Sure, there’s a conventional notion, a received wisdom, but it is in this case usually some one else’s wisdom, Russia, or German, those to neighbors who keep visiting their imperial ambitions on Poland. 

In this world it makes perfect sense to accept the status quo as something from which departure is not just a good idea, but a necessary one.  And if there is anything to this, it would suggest that we should look at the history of occupied cultures for traces of a "transgressive" tendency.  Well, yes, and no.  In Sicily, constant occupation by others, leads not to conceptual departure but to the creation of secret societies, a cosa nostra, an our thing concealed from view.  In Canada, it leads to a rigid, almost frightened, compliance.  Someone knows how the world works, but, clearly, it’s not nous.

Which brings me to Izrael Kalman Poznański.   Here’s a guy that turned Lodz into a center of textile production at the end of the 19th century.  The picture above is his factory, now reconstructed as a shopping plaza, with some reconstruction, as you can see on high, still to go.  You look at the home he created for himself in the city, and you can’t quite believe your eyes.  The sheer scale of his wealth is unmistakable and that tells a visitor from North America, that something astonishing happened here.  You begin by wondering what it was exactly he turned to his advantage.  Was it a technological invention, control of a trade route, control of a raw material, Poznański’s  extraordinary gift of intelligence applied to enterprise, the sudden appearance of new consumer taste and preference?  What? 

And then you realize, it had to be all these things.  This is one of those multiplicative deals, where everything is right, and everything then concatenates in the production of an astonishing production of wealth.  If we were to diagram this concatenation, it would look like swallows, lots of them.  It’s as if when Pozandski stepped off, the world rose up to supply a step in a continal staircase, every support magically appearing just as he needed it.  Call it self organizing.  Call it emergent.  Call it dynamism.  But even these ideas designed to take account of order we can’t see before the fact, even these ideas that fulfill the Baconian vision of the possible, don’t do justice to what he accomplished.   

And here’s the mystery at the heart of these mysteries.  When you ask the Poles to tell you about Pozanski, what you get are general, almost glib, accounts of the guy as an industrialist and an exploiter.  (Pozanski was one of the people Marx and Engels were talking about in their defamations of capitalism.)  What you don’t get is precisely you, as an American, expect to get: a passionate, "here’s the secret," account of what happened.  And this is when you realize how much the spirit of enterprise and dynamism has penetrating the ground water of American culture.  We are all, as Americans, the enthusiastic students of how economic miracles happen.  Ask anyone about George Eastman or Bill Gates, and you get something less than a lesson in economic history but something more than "well, he was an industrialist."

Poland is waiting to take possession of it’s Baconian heritage.  The horror of the holocaust systemically murdered some of the people prepared to seize it.  (I can’t tell you how empty these streets are.  How much is missing.  How much damage was inflicted on Poland [and the species] by those invaders from the West.  Really, it fills you with rage and something like delirium.)  But it’s here, a Baconian willingness waiting for its restoration.  Germany sought to erase Warsaw.  They destroyed most of the city.  Russia attempted an obliteration of its own.  But I think it’s still here.  You only have to listen to a Polish housewife…and her plants…and those swallows.


I am dedicating this post to Barbara Pomorska for her superb translation on the Polish segment of this research project.  If you are working in Poland, and especially if you are doing ethnographic work, for God’s sake, hire this woman. 

8 thoughts on “Sir Francis Bacon and the secret of Poland

  1. dilys

    “Poland has suffered constant occupation and interference.”

    It all just deepens the mystery, as to why and how Poland has *survived* the occupation and interference, and recently generated such phenomena as Solidarity, and the artist-theologian John Paul Magnus. Among my acquaintances, there are more inarticulate “I visited Poland and fell in love with it” stories than anywhere else, including Paris.

    If those Polish marriages are “happy,” at the same time wives are competent and contented without obsession over their husbands, there’s another mystery: how did they escape the Cinderella infestation?

    All this deserves more study, with the question of Poland’s selected singularities in view. Details of the proprietary data might lead *you* to some hypotheses eventually, even if you can’t disclose them.

    A flourishing indoor Polish drzewo or kwiat taking notes as the humans equivocate — a memorable shop-talk cartoon!

  2. Cherie

    I found the whole piece interesting, but this section especially caught my attention:

    “… we should look at the history of occupied cultures for traces of a “transgressive” tendency … In Canada, it leads to a rigid, almost frightened, compliance. Someone knows how the world works, but, clearly, it’s not nous.”

    You consider Canada an occupied culture? That was something that I never considered. Occupied by whom? Britain? The U.S.A.? Both?

  3. Francis


    You cant win. As an avid reader not responder I would sometimes like it if you were less insightful, not so at one with what surrounds you, even when this involves change in surroundings at breakneck speed. As one can feel a little intimidated and disinclined to respond (maybe just me!). Of course if you did bring it back down to the realms of the mass market, airport book insights then i wouldnt lurk. As i say, you cant win. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks, it is always so enjoyable to explore culture with you.

    BTW, went back and had a look at the Craig Ferguson (brand exemplar blog) and i could not help but think what the McCracken brand would read like. There is definately something of the co-conspiratorial in there!



  4. jens

    dilys: karl marx kept the cinderella out. – you can find the same kind of independence in most ex-communist states (china too). – gender roles is one of the few aspects where communism was far superior to western culture.

  5. Carol Gee

    For an accidental tourist, your post sported a refreshing humility. Anthropology can, if not careful, stand above and observe. I assume that people in countries experience you being “with” them, “present,” at times awed, and never superior. Too bad other American travelers can’t manage a bit more of that. Sometimes we’re just awful!
    Thanks for the ride-along.

  6. Peter

    Jens — Was communism actually superior to capitalism with regard to gender roles? I understand that the USSR had a greater proportion of women doctors than any western country. But, doctors were relatively lowly paid, and without the status they have in the west.

  7. Katherine

    If you want to get into a suffering contest between women in communism and capitalism, which for people in the US really means comparing Russia and the US, then I would ignore our stereotypes of capitalism and communism. Yes, of course, communism brought more women into public life at work.
    Look at what women in Poland have to deal with from their men. Then you will have an answer to the suffering contest question and it might cause you to put aside stereotypes about -isms, like communism and capitalism.
    Many middle and working class married mothers live, as McCracken wrote, as single mothers because they have to carry the weight of the whole world and their families on their backs.

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