Travel Previous - Next


Delivering Itself Up To False Gods

Lee Hoinacki, of Polish extraction, visited POland in 1991 and again in 1995. He notices the changes taking place. The country is moving towards embracing the "American way of life". Hoinacki uses the writings of Wendell Berry, Ivan Illich and Flannery O'Connor to illustrate how the Polish people could have chosen differently, and still can.
By Lee Hoinacki  

The train shot along swiftly, smoothly. I was surprised. In America, many of the trains are slow and too jerky to permit comfortable reading. Here, in Poland, I expected to find only a dark and dreary socialist backwater. Suddenly, looking out the window, I was startled to see a large Marlboro ad the first sign that the country was being opened up. It was 1991. Later, walking down the street, I had difficulty getting around all the venders, hawking tape cassettes and assorted electronic junk on the sidewalks. New entrepreneurs of consumption were not yet capitalised enough to occupy regular 'western' shops.

Four years later, I returned to Poland. The trains still ran promptly and agreeably. In my compartment, I looked over and across from me, in a window seat, a rather overweight, elderly woman sat reading her book. As she raised it to turn a page, I saw a prominent word on the cover, Harlequin. I then noticed that her hair was coloured blue-gray.

One can begin to discern the recent history of Poland in these two scenes. People have progressed in their freedom: from access to a handful of technological gadgets to mass trash romances and hair dye for "mature women".

After arriving at my destination, Torun, I walked through the centre of the old city, where one comes upon magnificent examples of older buildings, standing proudly, gloriously, quiet in the grace of their design and construction. But then a jarring, familiar feeling where have I seen something like this before? Why, yes, in every German city I have visited: the old city closed off to through traffic, so that people can walk, stroll past the shops in the European version of a U.S. shopping mall. But the obscene display of extravagant seductions to consumption was not yet fully evident a modest United Colours of Benetton on one corner, a small McDonalds' tucked in between two buildings, and many frumpy or Coca-Cola/cigarette stores in between. A beggarly burlesque of an opulent, bloated society.

When I reached the city's New Market, I was shocked to see great quantities of things like kiwi fruit, bananas and oranges. I remember, during my last visit to Poland, a man appeared on the street in Cracow with a sack of oranges. He was immediately surrounded and the oranges sold in a moment, for such fruit was rarely offered for sale. Now, no one stopped to notice the great variety of exotic fruit piled high in the stalls.

When I turned into a side street, I stopped before a theatre advertisement the very latest offering from the U.S. What an amazing worldwide distribution system for movies. When I looked around to cross the street, my head jerked back. There, almost in front of me, was something I had never before looked at a new, silver Mercedes sports car; I had not yet seen one it must be the latest model on the streets of Bremen where I live. Was this something like the Cadillac of the drug lord that one sees in a U.S. ghetto?

More insights into the country's recent history and many questions. Do these examples reflect the common aspiration in fashionable clothes, food, transportation and popular reading? They are all foreign, represent a certain mode of life, and must be paid for in hard currency. Peoples' labour must be exploited and exported to pay for these luxuries, wasteful indulgences that no society today can afford.

When I went to the university, I found the offices equipment with the latest computers, duplicating and FAX machines, but the library only exuded poverty. I was reminded of Wendell Berry's essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer". Because Berry is a fine craftsman, and really good writer, he has the authority to say: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante's, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computers with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.


I wondered: Are the latest information age novelties to the intellectuals what the Mercedes is to the merchant: playthings for the ex-child, for the grown-up adolescent who is unable to insert himself into a real economy? Indulgent pampering for those unwilling to distinguish between a toy and a tool?

Twenty-seven years ago, Ivan Illich wrote, "Underdevelopment is at the point of becoming chronic in many countries" ("Outwitting the Developed Countries", in Toward A History of Needs ). I fear that Poland has now reached this stage, that of an underdeveloped country. As Illich explains, underdevelopment is "a state of mind" and, as such, " occurs when mass needs are converted to the demand for new brands of packaged solutions which are forever beyond the reach of the majority". Some Polish people appear to have arrived at the place where they believe that food comes from McDonald's or New Zealand, clothing from Benetton, transportation from Daimler-Benz, communication from IBM, entertainment from the fantasies of Hollywood. But no country is rich enough to buy all these distracting and dissatisfying amusements and trinkets. Further, one soon tires of them and longs to replace them with a newer model, for it is easy to become addicted to them. To the extent that people are truly hooked on this kind of addiction, the country is doomed.

The alienation of the nation's goods and labour, the perversion of peoples' talents and hopes, are not the only prices the country must pay for high-tech imports and fashionable levels of consumption. Much worse is the necessary corruption of people, of their moral character. Bernard Mandeville long ago established that the evolution of a rich modern world can only occur if the citizens practice what, according to western tradition, is named vice, especially pride or vanity and the kind of shame associated with vain people (The Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, 1724). Writing at the beginning of industrialism in England, Mandeville believed he understood how a rich and prosperous market society could come to exist. It required the skillful political management of people's inherent passions. Avarice, prodigality and envy, for example, will create a great deal of manufacturing, trade and employment. The encouragement of these vices results in public wealth, what is today called GNP. A nation must choose: Wither moral virtue or economic greatness. The English of Mandeville's time did not welcome such clear speaking; he had punctured their self-righteous hypocrisy. But in the more than two centuries since he wrote, his thesis has yet to be refuted.

Is there another possibility? Yes, people like Illich (in the essay cited above) and Wendell Berry (for example, in "Community In 17 Sensible Steps", Utne Reader, March-April 1995), have outlined the ways for a people or nation "to cohere, to flourish, and to last " (Berry).

I have difficulties with the proposal of Illich and Berry, not because it is utopian, but because it is so real, so earthy. If men and women were to take up their analysis suggestions, they would establish a pleasant commonwealth on this earth, reach toward a secular, temporal salvation.

I thought of these matters when I arrived in Czestochowa and walked up the long street from the train station to Jasna Gora, the Mountain of Light. I approached the place with a good deal of trepidation. How could I dare visit this sacred place of pilgrimage? After all, how could I deny being a kind of tourist? But as I mingled with the crowds of people, contemplated the ancient image in the packed chapel, drank a cup of tea in the cafeteria opposite an old lady who quietly and unobtrusively blessed herself before and after eating the sandwich she had brought with her, I came to think: God does not despise peoples' religiosity.

I sensed something there beyond both superstition and popular religiosity a faith reaching through the dark icon to the truth beyond, a humble solidity of spirit resting in the person of their powerful patroness. The place is both personal and communal; it speaks to each individual and to the nation. It reaches back centuries into the people's history, and deeply into everyone who comes in simple devotion. But what does it say? Is it possible to penetrate somehow, to some extent, the mystery of this place?


I came to believe that I was somewhat prepared for Czestochowa by reading Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood on the train. I had carried the book with me from Germany, because I had been trying to see how one speaks about the reality of evil in our time which would be to enter the world of grace, too. I saw in Wise Blood and in her other stories that the human condition, separated from grace, outside the grace of redemption, is grotesque, blatantly repulsive. But Wise Blood, perhaps more directly and clearly than the other stories, shows that what is conventionally thought of as grotesque may be even heightened, exaggerated, within redemption. This becomes more and more evident as Hazel Motes comes close to the end of his life. From being a bizarre buffoon to the modernly-educated person who reads Southern Gothic fiction he grows to a heroic degree of absurdity, he becomes the historical clown-idiot; he reveals a new kind of grotesquerie; he is unintelligibly and frighteningly absurd to those who, after his death, discover that he had wrapped barbed wire around his chest. O'Connor repeats the truth that those who are caught up in the embrace of God shatter the usual preconceptions of what is reasonable and sensible behaviour.

There is no mistaking where Motes stands. He blinded his eyes with lye in order to see. He, too, along with the people I meet crowding Jasna Gora this weekend, sought to climb the holy mountain. If I were able to get inside these peoples' hearts, or to view the hodgepodge of architecture and art piled up here with the eyes of either an art critic or one of the unlettered boobs who gawked at Motes with vulgar curiosity, I would find them and their holy place eccentric or outlandish. For this is where the world of grace, of redemptive grace, meets fallen human nature.

Trying, then, to think about the nation in which this epiphany has occurred, and reflecting on what I had seen in Torun, I had to conclude that it was too late. The people of Poland have gone too far in delivering themselves up to the false gods of a vicious, empty existence. They are too much blinded to see the beauty of another kind of life on this earth, a life where old age is not celebrated by painting one's hair blue-silver, and childhood is not measured by now much one clutters the house with plastic from Toys-R-Us.

But for the people of the U.S. South, the people Flannery O'Connor knew and portrayed, the good news of the Kingdom was also too late; it was much too late for the Incarnation to arrive there; it was always too late if one believes that time is measured according to human control and pretentiousness.

The truth of Berry's guidelines, for example, that the community "Understand the ultimate unsoundness of the industrial doctrine of "labour-saving" if that implies poor work, unemployment, or any kind of pollution or contamination", the truth of Illich's call for "fundamental alternatives to current prepackaged solutions" so that "human ingenuity can peacefully outwit machined might" is, in a sense, independent of time. Given the fallen character of creation and all creatures, there is no good or better time to speak of a flourishing human community where people are "aware of the economic value of neighbourliness" (Berry); there is no time especially appropriate to strive for the convivial society outlined by Illich in Tools for Conviviality. The world, ultimately, is in God's hands; its fate does not depend on me, on any other person, on any social or political movement. No one of us has either the wisdom or the power to do a specific work in a determinate place. And, as the writings of Illich and Berry show, there is no lack of ideas on where to start.

As Jesus repeatedly makes clear in the Gospel, the Kingdom is now; it is not going to occur in some future extravagance of glory. It is also present here at Jasna Gora, in all the ambiguity of religious sentiment marshalled to promote national pride, and overripe baroque art to inspire devotion. As Flannery O'Connor recognised, there is only one vision of the Kingdom, but this vision is inclusive; it contains even the most outlandish examples of fallen human nature. But Czestochowa reminds one that the vision also includes very ordinary people, the thousands who make their way up the mountain to pray. These people live today, in this nation. Since they believe in the Kingdom, why cannot they also believe in a good community, one not overrun by the vanities and trivialities of "the American Way of Life"? If they believe in Jasna Gora, they can assuredly believe in a graceful temporal community; they understand the priorities, what is true and what is false; they need not be confused; they know that there is no kingdom on earth.


Lee Hoinacki lives in Bremen, Germany for part of the year, where he teaches and writes. He has been closely involved with the writings of Ivan Illich. At present he is publishing a book on his pilgrimage walk to Compostella, Spain.
Previous - Next