Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Good Bye, Wojciech Jaruzelski!

The BBC and other news agencies reported that a Polish man, Jan Grzebski, woke up from a 19-year coma and was shocked to discover that communism had fallen in his native country -- only to be replaced by a rampant market economy.

A former railworker, Grzebski was hit by a train in 1988, just one year before elections in Poland made it the first post-communist eastern European country. For 19 years Grzebski's wife Gertruda tended to his health in the hope that he would someday awake from his comatose state.

When Grzebski did emerge from his coma, he found himself in a Poland utterly transformed by the "collapse" of communism. He told Polish TV, "When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere...Now I see people on the streets with mobile phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin."

What I like about the BBC's coverage of this amazing story is that there's a hint of irony in the way it highlights Grzebski's reflections on post-communist Poland. As far as I can tell, it's the only "western" news agency to quote Grzebski saying, "What amazes me today is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning...I've got nothing to complain about." Communist habits die hard? Or is it that Grzebski, by virtue of historical accident, has been afforded keen insight into our contemporary market-mediated condition? What's the point, he seems to ask, of so many consumer "choices" if we're becoming increasingly unhappy human beings -- people who don't appreciate the fact of life, the gift of consciousness, itself?

Grzebski's story is an interesting counterpoint to German director Wolfgang Becker's 2003 movie Good Bye Lenin! There a GDR, party-leading mother falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. When she awakes several months later, her son concocts a plan to protect her fragile heart: pretend that the GDR still exists and that communism hasn't been supplanted by market capitalism.

The scheme is admittedly hilarious in theory, but I found the jokes wore thin after a while. Hiding the Coca-Cola billboard directly across the street from his mother's window takes a bit of slapstick skill, yet the son's hijinks, for me, tend to underscore the mother's seeming anachronicity -- her being anti-modern, "not with the times," a remnant of the GDR/communist past. I would thus describe Good Bye Lenin!, produced in the now unified Germany, as a decidedly West German take on the former East German situation.

Jan Grzebski's story encourages us to do something different: rather than ridicule his communist leanings, his seeming anachronicity, we'd do well to take heed of his modest observations on contemporary life. His clarity of vision is not a joke -- it's a gift.


The Mechanical Eye said...

Really? I thought it was a straightforward comment -- the man is happy simply to be alive, and the complaints of others to be petty, even pointless. A lot of military families and veterans feel the same way about a number of everyday complaints that we bother ourselves with.

Your point about our dizzying array of "choices" is taken, however.


Kinohi Nishikawa said...

Great point you make here. It helps me recognize that my interpretation of Grzebski's comments was framed, in part, as a response to the movie and not necessarily on its own terms.

I don't think our readings are incompatible, though: Grzebski is surely thankful just to be alive, but he might also see how the world of commodities around him prevents most people from appreciating this very gift of consciousness. I'd perhaps qualify my entry to say Grzebski's isn't necessarily a "communist" critique -- it is, rather, the humble embrace of life at its most elemental (your point), which here happens to stand in contrast to the rat race of "making a living" in consumer society.

Incidentally, a search for stories about Grzebski today found a Der Spiegel (GER) article titled "Goodbye Jaruzelski." I swear I came up with my blog entry's title without any knowledge of this! At any rate, you can see how tempting the comparision to Good Bye Lenin! is.