Michalski’s legacy of ideas

Mehru Jaffer

When I first arrived in Vienna, way back in 1982, I made a beeline for the city office of Solidarity. At that time the popularity of Lech Walesa, founder of Solidarity two years earlier in Poland, was at its peak. Not much was known about eastern European countries in those days. It was extremely difficult for people of those countries to travel abroad and foreigners found it almost impossible to visit. But there was so much to know about what was going on in that closed country. The question was how?

Besides, the gigantic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was tottering before its final collapse in 1991. And Poland, a Soviet satellite state for over three decades, was in the forefront of the resistance to the USSR.

Backed by the Vatican and Catholic-majority countries like Austria, the crowd around Walesa, a shipyard electrician, had swelled in an effort to rid Poland of Kremlin-style communist rule. After about three decades of relative silence, Poland grabbed headlines around the world as a workers’ protest in Lenin shipyard of the port city of Gdansk against poor living conditions fired the imagination of a population fed up of deprivation. The workers’ agitation in 1980 gave birth to Solidarity, a trade union independent of the government, that became a political force to reckon with.

Due to repression, many fled Poland after Solidarity was officially dissolved in 1981 and martial law imposed to more open societies in the West, including Austria, an asylum-friendly country.

 

Vienna became a centre of much underground work by Solidarity supporters and political dissidents who were against their government’s satellite state relationship with the USSR. It may be recalled that, after suspect elections in early 1947, Poland was officially declared a non-democratic, communist state by 1949 and those battling communism were arrested in hundreds and thousands. Some were imprisoned, others executed and many were forced to scatter around the world in self-exile.

Amongst the horde of revolutionary Poles that made Vienna their home was the very intense-looking and handsome Polish philosopher, Krzysztof Michalski, who stayed on in Vienna to found the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in one crowded room.

The idea was to sit together and talk about where Europe had erred and to keep an eye on where the continent was headed. That group of thinkers gradually grew in number and the premises expanded into an independent institute, encouraging intellectual exchange between East and West. After decades of isolation, eastern European academics and thinkers were delighted to find an opportunity to exchange ideas with the rest of the world.

One of the topics discussed at length at the institute was the role of religion in society. Was it a good idea to forbid religion in the former socialist republics under communist regimes? After all, if religion divides, it has also united and brought people together to transform societies.

This institute became my second home in Vienna where I got to listen to extremely thought-provoking ideas focused on the cultural and spiritual aspects of Europe. I met some interesting thinkers of modern times here such as Charles Taylor, professor of philosophy, McGill University, who only recently engaged in a discussion on eternity, God and Nietzsche with Michalski. The occasion was the release of The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought. Michalski’s book is a re-examination and new interpretation of Nietzsche’s thoughts on nihilism. The philosopher gives new meaning to many of Nietzsche’s ideas of superman, love, morality and the death of God in this book.

Somewhere out beyond all my concepts lies the unfamiliar, dark side of life. It is from there that the shadow of death falls on my knowledge … this is where despair and the longing that time entails originate.
And yet this is not all: this dark zone, mine and not-mine, this ever-present excess of meaning among my concepts, which can never be translated into propositions, into an additional bit of knowledge, into a description of what is (beyond what we already know) — all this places my life beyond myself, beyond what I know about myself, and my world, and thus also beyond (my) sadness in departing this world, beyond the cares, beyond my worry about everything I am to leave behind.

The 65-year-old Michalski wrote this before he died in early February, leaving us much food for thought at a time when Europe is faced not only with economic woes but also spiritual and cultural crises.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2013