Poland and Iran

Yesterday, after Polish class, I took the 503 bus south and attended a party with a bunch of Polish diplomats, economic policy and arts/culture policy folks, at the invitation of my Extraordinarily Cool Roommate.

One of them asked me to say something about the increased presence of “vulgarity” in contemporary Polish theater, by which he meant all the sex. I was entirely unable to answer this question–“vulgarity” for me means theater that’s polluted with commercialism, not anything having to do with sex or violence. Polish theater’s absence of overt commercialism makes it, for me, the opposite of “vulgar.” In fact, with the staircase spirit of tomorrow’s response to yesterday’s question, I would characterize it as leaning toward the sacred, and suggest that the profanity is often presented in service of the sacred.

Yes, some Polish theater I’ve seen does throw in too much sex, violence, and violent sex–it can become somewhat humorous at times–but I have never felt that this gesture was out of box-office concerns as much as that Polish-theater tendency towards extremes at all costs. It doesn’t strike me as vulgar as much as (occasionally) misguided in enthusiasm. And it doesn’t happen in every production. I tried to explain how I feel about all this, but I don’t think I satisfied him.

Basically, it’s hard for me to be cognizant of small changes in the Polish theater landscape, such as–for example–more sex onstage in the last few years than in the previous few years–because the overall contrast between what I see here and what I saw at home is so great that these minute distinctions don’t seem as important. Perhaps, if I were a regular observer of the scene, I’d be able to respond to his comment. But I’m not. I’m an outsider, and the grass looks greener here, and that’s as far as I can go. At the moment.

I asked another group of people how often they saw theater. “Not often. Five times a year.” Five times a year! Five times a year is very often, I said, where I come from. “Not for Warsaw.”

A number of them had just gotten back from a trip to Iran (more of the activities relating to the Polish EU presidency) and they shared pictures of Tehran, Persepolis, and more.

It was the first time I had seen so many pictures of Iran, in such short succession–all enlarged and projected on a wall–and I was fascinated. I’d really like to visit the country someday. Some of the mountains, the plants, and even the color of the sky were downright desert-Californian. And the Persepolis site has stone ruins in it that look too large to be real.

There were also pictures of the anti-Israel propaganda posters that the government has on the subway in Tehran. There is something shocking about great graphic design being used for anti-ethnic statements. The images were so polished, so clean, so professional-looking. They were like Apple design posters. A Star of David in dust on the floor, being swept up by a broom. A swastika inscribed in the star (talk about a disturbing image for a room full of Polish diplomats in Warsaw…) And one, so over-the-top as to be ridiculous–out of a SNL sketch about Nazis or something–Stars of David on a roll of toilet paper.

I don’t want to overemphasize this point. There were hundreds of slides of beautiful landscapes in Iran, of families and children, of people praying, of people selling herbs and beans and plants in a market, of mosques and mosaics and bas-relief stone carvings and ancient stone columns and some of the most gorgeous mountains and canyons I’d ever seen. Polish diplomats having dinner with friends in Iran, posing in front of blue-tiled fountains and jagged hills.

All in all, the posters seemed altogether out of context with all the other images of this beautiful, hospitable, picturesque country. Except for one sequence. There were also pictures from a protest in what the Polish diplomats said was a more conservative neighborhood–angry protesters holding “Down with USA” signs (in English as well as Farsi–all these signs and posters had English translations on them). One of the diplomats said that the translation was inaccurate–that the Farsi said “Death to the USA,” not “Down with.”

My favorite picture from this series was of a little boy with his head leaning on a “Death to the USA” sign, half-asleep. It was very ambiguous. It looked as if he didn’t really care about the protests.

Iran must be a complicated place to be in now. I would really like to see it for myself, some day.

Took a taxi home. (First time doing that in Warsaw, too.)

To change the subject (let’s)–this morning, I uploaded a whole bunch of new Parallel Octave sound files onto the site. You can listen here. Gertrude Stein, Swinburne, Blake, Whitman, and (of course) another version of Emperor of Ice-Cream. I’m so proud of what the group is doing. I miss them. I must try to have some kind of similar thing happen here in Poland, at some point.

Next Baltimore ParOct session this Sunday from 1-2:30 pm. More Gertrude Stein and some Amy Lowell.

And right now, I’m writing, at home, on a laptop, and having one of those Calvin and Hobbes moments where you try to convince one fly to fly out the window and another three come in. Scheduling interviews. Planning for a potluck with friends on Friday. In the hallway, my roommate’s father affixes new glass panels to a door. A tranquil existence. A very calm Wednesday. An ordinary day in Warsaw.

Let’s let Julian Barnes have the last word. In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m going through the book (much easier to do this in a Kindle-for-Mac version) and posting my favorite passages. But this one is oddly appropriate to this post’s discussion, and it has a variation on that Greek messenger speech “And only I have escaped to tell you” line.

A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out, and it’s good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.

And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.

I survived. “He survived to tell the tale”—that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)