Village Intellectual (Ewa Mazierska)

Whenever I would think about village intellectuals, I used to be reminded of my father. He had a relatively modest amount of formal education, consisting of attending secondary school in Włocławek and one semester at the university in Toruń. He compensated for this lack of taught wisdom with an immense knowledge of so many things that anyone would wonder how so much could be squeezed into just one brain. This knowledge was mostly unpractical in nature, such as ancient history, literature and foreign languages, including Greek and Latin. He particularly liked to talk about The Odyssey and knew part of it by heart. It wasn’t difficult to guess that this book was, for him, a substitute for foreign travel, as he never went abroad. In due course, when I was visiting the Greek islands, the aura of these stories came back to me and I felt that I knew them intimately despite never having been there. This knowledge in itself, however, didn’t make my father a village intellectual. It was his sense of superiority over those surrounding him that did that. He looked down on most people on the grounds of their being simple peasants, with their ignorance and prejudices handed-down from one generation to the next. Yet, he didn’t really despise them. For some, he even had a grudging respect. Most of his contempt was directed towards two other categories of people. First, those who were educated but narrow-minded, and invested all their brain-power into managing a bank or teaching chemistry in a secondary school — he called them ‘half-intellectuals’. The second, and most despised category, were ‘quarter-intellectuals’ — those who knew something, but not in any depth or, indeed, were erroneous in their beliefs but, despite that, liked to boast about their pseudo-knowledge.

My father also demonstrated to me that there is only a thin line between a village intellectual and a village idiot. The older he became, the more eccentric his views grew, and the less he was willing to put his intellect into practical pursuits or even look after his appearance, which became increasingly scruffy. This led to vicious conflicts between him and my mother, who mocked his intellectualism which brought in no money, but only made our family a laughing-stock of the neighbourhood. Still, I believe that my father never crossed this line, as testified by the fact that people remember him as an intellectual rather than a nutter, or at least that is what they tell me. However, this is probably to do with the fact that he died reasonably early, in his early sixties, just before communism collapsed in Poland. Had he lived much longer and observed the onslaught of the new system, with its pointed contempt for intellectualism and worship of money, most likely he would have lost his mind.

Intellectuals of the kind my father represented don’t necessarily need to live in a village — they just need to play such a role in a small community. I’m thinking, for example, about Settembrini in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, who always seeks company of Hans Castorp and his cousin Joachim, in order to illuminate them about the importance of some futile struggle for humanity’s improvement. Such people are always rather poor and, deep down, they know that what they offer to the world is of little value, so they inflate its significance by bragging about it continuously and even arguing, à la Kant, about the value of that which has no practical value. As most people are practical by nature and occupied with the realities of life, intellectuals eventually tire of such company which, in turn, only makes them more bitter and entrenched in their views. However, the situation of the literal village intellectuals is particularly precarious because, by their nature, peasants are averse to abstraction. This most likely reflects the fact that in peasant life — more than in an engineer or even worker’s life — much depends on nature. Thus, there is no point in boasting of one’s ingenuity or hard work, or seeking-out patterns in history, when one’s crop gets destroyed by a hailstorm or lack of rain.

Although I wasn’t able to pigeonhole my father until I was an adult, from my childhood I felt that I could not, and did not want, to be like him. I had no talent for foreign languages and learning anything by heart caused me great suffering. Moreover, the difficulty in developing a clear ideological position put me off nagging people with my views and engaging in public discussions. Furthermore, I wanted to make my intelligence pay, so I pursued useful knowledge and purged my mind from redundant erudition. And yet, fondness of my father made me seek village intellectuals, wherever I had a realistic chance to spot them: at cafés, railway stations, or on beaches. I was also looking for them in rural Poland, but after my father died and I moved to Britain, I wasn’t able to locate any such intellectuals in my home village. Indeed, according to my father’s criteria, all the people whom I met there where either simple peasants or ‘half’ and ‘quarter-intellectuals’.

Several years ago I realised that the label of village intellectual was deserved by my old class-mate from primary school, Justyna Z. When we were school children we weren’t close friends, and I didn’t remember her as being particularly smart. Most likely this had to do with the fact that, at this stage of my life, I enjoyed intellectual superiority over all the other kids in my class (which my father indulged). I also had a sense of uniqueness caused by a form of rheumatism, which caused me to suffer pain in my joints and muscles and meant I avoided PE lessons. Indeed, what I remember most clearly about Justyna was her being best at PE; her long jump was legendary. I looked at her physical prowess with contempt, regarding it as a sign of lack of intellectual refinement, of being all body, rather than all soul, unlike me. She must have had reciprocated my sentiments, as I remember her saying one day when I was handing a PE teacher another note informing them that I wouldn’t be able to take part in the exercise due to illness, that, if I were to remain such a sick weakling, my soul would shrink and die. We were also like two opposites because I was an only child, while she came from the largest family in our village: the Zs., who had eleven children of which she was the youngest. This large number of siblings, in my eyes, diminished Justyna’s claim to individuality. It was further reduced by the siblings’ similarities to each other. This referred particularly to the daughters, who outnumbered the sons. Each of them had dark, slightly curly hair, narrow eyes of dark green colour (Hans Castorp would describe them as Kirgiz), a gap between their front teeth and a masculine way of walking. As if these physical likenesses alone were not enough, the girls in the family (which were of majority) had names finishing with ‘yna’ or ‘ina’: Krystyna, Grażyna, Lucyna, Martyna, Eufrozyna. Karolina and finally, Justyna. They were so alike to each other that I often thought they were not seven different girls, but different stages of development of the same person.

Despite their numbers and the parents being smallholding peasants, the family didn’t come across as poor or pathological. They lived in a large wooden house close to the village’s centre, which took up nearly half the street and looked almost imposing. Their field neighboured ours, which — as was a norm among Polish peasantry — led to friction. I remember that my father was annoyed by the old Z.’s farming practices: it had something to do with them cultivating vegetables. My father accused the old Z. of spoiling his soil by using his patch too intensively and bringing some pest into my father’s wheat-covered field. Mrs. Z., on the other hand, reproached my granny for allowing our hens and turkeys to trespass into their field and eat their carrots and cabbage. My mother didn’t have any beef with the Zs., but didn’t like them simply for being too numerous; she viewed their proliferation as something amounting to a lack of hygiene. It may well have been, as a mirror to this opinion, Mrs. Z. saw the smallness of our family as a sign of godlessness. These pretences and animosities never escalated to serious conflicts, but there was a sense that the Zs. and us weren’t friends, and I was expected to behave according to this perception.

The Zs.’ children left home as soon as they reached adulthood, to go to the army, to study or marry in a different part of Poland, and the Zs. died in their sixties. With the passage of time, the huge wooden house, which used to bustle with physical activity and voices, grew quiet and almost deserted. I assumed Justyna took the same path, namely moved far away, so I was surprised when one summer evening I met her on a bus from Włocławek to our village. She was surprised to see me too. She knew that I emigrated to Britain, but associated this fact with permanent estrangement — as if I were a Polish nineteenth century Romantic poet who, upon leaving his homeland, and to give credibility to nostalgic outpourings, would never return. I explained to Justyna that I used to visit Poland as often as four or five times a year. She told me that for the last two years she had been living in our village in her family’s house and worked in Włocławek, making a living as an administrator of failing secondary schools, which she tried to turn around. It was hard work so, frequently, Justyna toiled in her office until late in the evening. However, in the summer, she endeavoured to be home earlier, as it was a shame to suffocate in the city when the village fields and gardens were in full bloom, wrapped by sweet smells of flowers and grain. I agreed as, for me, time spent not experiencing this smell equalled me squandering my life, which was no longer in abundance. I asked her what she did before this latest role, and she replied that she had studied history at the Catholic University in Lublin and, afterwards, was living ‘here and there’, working mostly in education in the South of Poland. On the whole, she was brief and elusive on this topic, maybe because her past wasn’t happy or because — like true intellectuals — she preferred the general and abstract over the particular and personal. During the reminder of our journey she also updated me on the changes in the local politics, which she assessed through the prism of the welfare of the peasant population.

After this meeting I started to see Justyna often. This was largely thanks to the fact that I spent this summer largely by myself in our family house, as my mother went to a sanatorium for three weeks. Wherever I appeared, Justyna was already there, or emerged shortly after my arrival, as if we were shadowing each other. Most often we would meet at the graveyard which, in our village, was always full of people. They came not only to pay respect to their ancestors, but also because it was a perfect meeting point, especially for the older generation, given that the local park was taken over by noisy teenagers.

Justyna was always bringing equipment with her to wash graves: buckets, wire brushes, rags made of old garments. There was something ostentatiously old-fashioned in this gear, which complemented her appearance, which was frozen in the eighties, complete with a jeans jacket and a discoloured sweatshirt of the kind people used to bring from their trips to Istanbul. I took her look as an invitation to take a virtual trip to the past. Our portal was a gravestone opposite my father’s. We sat there as soon as we saw each other and talked about our village’s history.

It began when I asked her whether she knew when the last time the tomb of the Ks., the local aristocrats, was used. This was a question which perplexed me since my childhood, as this tomb had the shape, size and appearance of a regular house, except for the lack of windows. I imagined people still living there, trapped, yet functioning and proliferating, each new generation half the size the one which preceded them, so that they were able to squeeze into this house. Justyna replied that the last burial there was in the 1930s; during the war the Ks. escaped to England, in common with most of the Polish nobility, unlike the Polish peasants, who had no resources to escape, therefore had to stay and fight against the Germans. The heroism of peasants and the injustice of class privilege became the recurring motif of our conversations, although Justyna, true to her status as a village intellectual, preferred to talk about them in abstract, rather than zoom in on a specific injustice or class privilege.   

‘I don’t really like this tomb’, she said. ‘It undermines the design of the graveyard. Have you noticed how orderly the rest of it is, with wide alleys running at right angles to each other? Have you seen any other cemetery like that?’

‘I don’t know. I never paid attention, but, on reflection, it is indeed one of the most geometrical cemeteries I’ve visited’, I replied. ‘And that means something, as I’m a cemetery junkie.’

She smiled with an air of triumph. ‘The village people don’t appreciate it and are not bothered to find out why it is the way it is.’

‘Why is it like that?’ I asked.

‘Because people planned it this way. It was a local committee, made of priests and senior members of the community, who decided to have a large and well organised cemetery, when the one near the church became too small to include new graves. The same refers to the design of our village. When it was burnt at the end of the eighteenth century, it was rebuilt on a grid. Consequently, it is not chaotic, unlike all other villages in the Russian part of Poland, but geometrical, as you said. Anyway, this was the case until the 1990s, because the communists, stupid as they were, had respect for history. By contrast, the capitalists don’t care; they will wreck villages and towns, if it brings money.’

‘How did you learn all these things?’ I asked.

‘I studied them. I did my masters about our village’s history, and PhD specifically about its planning in the context of development of villages and little towns in the Russian part of the partitioned Poland. I even got a distinction for it. If you come to my house, I will show you,’ she said.

‘Congratulations,’ I replied. ‘Have you published something about it?’

‘A couple of articles. I wanted to do a book, but I couldn’t find a good publisher interested in my project.’

‘Maybe you can publish it locally. My mother has a coffee table book about our village, published by the council. They should be delighted to publish something more serious and original,’ I said.

‘The local council is practically a mafia,’ replied Justyna. ‘They want nothing to do with me and I don’t want to have anything to do with them,’ she replied.

‘It’s a shame,’ I said, and soon we parted ways.

Next time at the cemetery she fed me with more facts testifying to the uniqueness of our village, such as its electrification before the Second World War, when practically all of the Polish countryside read in the light of oil lamps. There was a drive to improve and modernise among the people which, however, dissipated over the years.   

Between these stories I asked her about her family. It turned out that all her sisters managed to climb the social ladder, becoming doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants. All were married, one was divorced and most of them had grandchildren. Justyna was the only unmarried child in this large family, which was for her a source of some wounded pride. Technically, she was not estranged from her siblings, as they would meet at family gatherings, but they weren’t close, as they were locked in their little worlds of everyday pursuits, while all of her life was about transcending the everyday. That said, she was on good terms with one of her nieces, Alicja, who was nothing like the rest of Zs.  

‘She does not repeat banalities like her mother and is an original thinker. Maybe you will meet her one day,’ she said.

‘If she is such an original thinker, she will scare me off,’ I said.

From the times when our fields neighboured each other, Justyna didn’t remember much more than me, but had a different perspective on past events.  

‘With his ten hectares against our two and a half, which weren’t even ours, but rented from the council, your father was like a feudal lord to us, so obviously my parents didn’t like him. But I respected your father as he was a true intellectual,’ she said. ‘I remember him talking about far-away places as if he was there. It was a remarkable thing, given that there was no internet then and little on television.’

‘He talked so vividly about them because he had never been; he knew about ancient Egypt and Greece only from books. If he had gone there, most likely, he would be cured of his love.’

I was about to say that village intellectuals most love their mental images of things, not the things themselves. But I didn’t say this as didn’t know enough of them to make such a comment with certainty, and also because I didn’t want to offend Justyna.  

‘Maybe not,’ said Justyna. ‘It depends how you see the world. Most people see only what is in front of their eyes — each thing separately. I think your father was able to see patterns. Like, for example, that of falling empires.’

‘I don’t remember that,’ I said.

Then Justyna asked me if I want to accompany her to a bird-watching expedition. I agreed, as I had nothing specific to do and the next day we cycled to ‘her’ lake. The distance was only about ten miles from our village, but the lake was difficult to reach, as there was no proper road leading to it, only a serpentine of narrow, sandy footpaths, in which our bikes persistently delved. The lake was covered with duckweed and surrounded by trees whose dark branches pointed towards its centre. There were plenty of birds flying above us, but I couldn’t distinguish any specific voice — they all merged into a continuous ‘pee pee pee’ sound. This situation brought to my mind a gathering of witches leaning over the cauldron, muttering spells.

Nobody was bathing in the lake; indeed, nobody was there except for us, and Justyna was clearly pleased with herself for bringing me to such a place.

‘Can you believe it? One hundred and thirty types of birds are living in this area, including black stork and three types of eagle. There are currently more rare birds here than in Mazury and Bieszczady. And you know what is best about it? Nobody knows. You don’t get pilgrimages of tourists or local kids here trying to shoot a bird with a slingshot.’ 

‘Why is it like that?’

Justyna smiled with an air of smug superiority, as she liked nothing more than an invitation to shine with her knowledge of local affairs.

‘There is a combination of factors. One is the large area, covered with woods and lakes. Yet, because the lakes aren’t connected to each other, but scattered, they don’t come across as picturesque like in Mazury, and they are not suitable for sailing or even kayaking. Hence, no snob will come here from Warsaw to indulge in such pastime. Next, this part is not “remote” but is practically in the middle of Poland, and not a long time ago, it was surrounded by factories. Again, every urban social climber would find it off-putting. Finally, because these woods were largely peasants’ woods, they remained intact, as they couldn’t be subjected to central planning.’

‘I know,’ I chipped in. ‘My father was a chairman of this forests’ cooperatives.’

‘So you see. Finally, due to changes in other parts of the country, the birds decided that this is the best place for them to settle,’ she said, passing me binoculars. It was an old, heavy, probably Russian pair. I put it to my eyes, but couldn’t see anything, of which I informed Justyna.

‘There are three black storks there.’ She pointed towards the other shore of the lake. ‘In fact, you don’t need to use binoculars. You can see them with a naked eye. Aren’t they amazing?’

There were indeed three large black birds with red beaks and red legs, floundering in shallow waters. They were majestic, as storks tend to be, although less so than white storks, but I found something exaggerated, even fake, in Justyna’s rapture, as if she needed to add something to our experience. I was thinking about paraphrasing Gertrude Stein and say ‘Bird is a bird is a bird is a bird.’ Certainly this was something that my father would have said because he was peasant enough not to overestimate animals, knowing that ultimately all of them would end up as somebody’s food. 

We left our bikes under a tree and spent couple of hours walking around the lake. Justyna was telling me about many other rare species were seen there, including lynx.

‘Can you imagine being face to face with a lynx?’ she asked rhetorically. ‘It would be like being transported to a different era.’

Although what she talked about was a cause for celebration, I sensed that with every kilometre she was growing sadder. I attributed this to the darkness of the canopy which surrounded us — it felt like moving through the kingdom of shadow, despite the fact that, outside the lake, it was a sunny day.

‘Next time we should go to “my lake,” I said when we mounted our bikes. 

‘I bet it is full of people,’ replied Justyna. ‘I wouldn’t like that.’

‘No, there aren’t many. Besides, as a champion of the rights of ordinary folk, you should be happy to be among the people.’

Justyna laughed nervously and only after a while replied: ‘If you had ten brothers and sisters, you would also appreciate the pleasures of solitude.’

A couple of days later we went to the lake where I used to swim in summer. It was a very different from ‘Justyna’s lake,’ as there were always people there during summer who came to swim, sunbathe, have barbecues and party, rather than observe nature. There would be up to twenty cars parked on the side of the road, some tents on the beach, and on special days there would even be discos with DJs arriving with their sound system at the far end of the lake, where there was a primitive wooden stage. The day we visited was, however, quiet, as the sky was clouded and it was mid-week, while most people came at weekends.   

Justyna reluctantly took off her clothes off, revealing a swimming costume. Her body looked much younger than her age as she was slim and athletic, no doubt a legacy of being excellent at sports during childhood, and having made austerity a personal virtue. Yet, she was reluctant to swim, telling me that she hadn’t swam for more than twenty years and feared she had forgotten how.   

‘It’s impossible to forget swimming,’ I shouted, running into the water. She followed me and it was clear that she was a good swimmer, but didn’t go far, while I aimed to reach the other shore.

When I returned, I asked, ‘Why you didn’t swim any further? Are you afraid of drowning?’

‘Aren’t you?’ she replied.  

‘The chance of me drowning is minimal — I swam here from shore to shore hundreds of times.’ 

‘And you were never pulled down, to the bottom of the lake?’ she asked.

‘You mean by a vortex?’

‘Yes, you can say so.’

‘I don’t think there is a vortex in this lake.’

‘There’s a vortex wherever I go,’ replied Justyna.  

I didn’t know what to say, so I changed the subject. For the first time in summer, I told her about myself. I mentioned my plans to take early retirement and to return to the village and raise some farm animals, not to eat them, but to offer them a happy life. But for that, I would have to wait for my mother’s death, as she wouldn’t indulge such an eccentricity.

‘Looks like you have a whole life ahead of you,’ said Justyna.

‘I hope so,’ I replied. Politeness required me to reciprocate, given that we were the same age, but something stopped me from doing so.

After this excursion, we again met, mostly at the cemetery, and only once did we go further afield on our bikes, to a small wooden church in a nearby village, which was a local tourist attraction. I walked around for a while, and then sat down, as I was intoxicated by the smell of flowers, mostly lilies and roses, whose large quantities surrounded a small altar; they were probably flowers from a harvest festival or wedding.

Justyna sat next to me and said, ‘It’s very quiet here.’

‘It is indeed,’ I said. ‘It’s great, isn’t it?’

‘That’s not what I mean,’ replied Justyna. ‘There is no God here. He stopped talking to me. I must have done something to offend him.’

She started to cry. I hugged her, but again, did nothing, in part because I was so clueless in religious matters and in part because I was too lazy to delve into Justyna’s problems. Besides, she quickly composed herself and we left.

That was our last meeting. The next summer I didn’t see her, but I attributed this to the brevity of my visit in our village. The following summer, however, I came for longer and started to think about Justyna’s disappearance. I didn’t ask my mother about her, knowing about her dislike of the Zs. Eventually I decided to go to Justyna’s house. I knocked on the door and it was opened by a young woman who, as she had the Zs’s narrow eyes, a gap in her front teeth and even Justyna’s hairstyle, looked like a younger version of my friend.

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I’ve come to see Justyna. I’m her old friend from primary school.’

‘Oh, it’s not possible. Aunt Justyna died last year. I’m her niece, Alicja.’  

‘How did it happen?’ I asked.

‘She drowned in a lake.’

‘I’m very sorry,’ I said.

‘We were sorry too, but we expected it to happen. She suffered from depression for many years and was in psychiatric hospitals several times. She tried to take her life previously.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ I said. ‘I thought she liked it here, among all this nature.’

‘She liked the nature, but didn’t like the people. They made fun of her, as they made fun of her mother, especially over her claim that God spoke to her.’

‘If you are a Christian, you should believe that God is talking to you,’ I said. 

‘Well, not for the people here. For them God is locked in a monstrance somewhere in a dark corner of the church, from where he is taken out for special occasions, and needs to be handled by professionals, specially trained to move him from his corner to the altar.’ 

I laughed, as it was clear that the girl was smart. I asked where Justyna was buried and she explained and even offered to take me there another day. Then I asked, ‘Are you still in education?’

‘Yes, I will do my matura exams next year,’ she replied.

‘And what next?’ I asked.

‘I’m not sure. I think about studying philosophy, although everybody tells me to learn something practical, like medicine or engineering.’

‘Yes, obviously. There is not much you can do with a philosophy degree here,’ I said.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘Village people don’t need philosophers. Maybe it’s because they can think for themselves.’    

Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music, who writes short stories and creative nonfiction in her spare time. She published over fifty of them in The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, Toasted Cheese, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Verity La and Mystery Tribune, among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books), which won Grand Prize in Eyelands Book Award competition. Ewa is also a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK. You can find her on Twitter