Mariusz Szczygieł is one of my favourite Polish writers. We both love our Southern neigbours. We both are believers. With one difference: I believe in an overarching Truth and Mr Szczygieł pretends that it does not exist and is in constant search for its subsitutes. This is what this post is about :)
The book “Project: Truth” by Mariusz Szczygieł consists of three parts: an excerpt from a novel by Stanisław Stanuch from 1959, a collection of stories called by the author to be “truths of others”, and his autobiographical miniatures.
“It came across my mind that every rational man should long for truth and strive to discover at least the smallest truth in his life. Otherwise his life might seem to be wasted” - these words of one of the Stanuch’s characters were the inspiration for Szczygieł to look for the truth of other people.
The author argues from the standpoint, which is common for our days, namely: there is
- no universal truth and there can be no universal truth. Every man has his own truth, and in his book these “truths” are described and accompanied with a surprising dialogue or a story. One common thing for Szczygieł’s characters is that they all reflect upon themselves. The way the author writes clearly reflects such postmodern arguments as:
- there is no overarching truth
- there are no transcendental beings
- the human mind is incapable of leading us to objective tuth. We have to be satisfied with our subjective truth
- the subjectivity of truth: we will always approach everything with prejudice rooted in us because of our culture, society, upbringing and because of it, we will never be able to reach the absolute truth
- “I” am the highest authority
- one can only trust oneself
- “I” becomes the expert in the field of spiritual or religious experiences (what makes me feel good or spiritual is the only thing that counts)
- deconstruction of everything that might be considered as sacred
- moral relativism (since there is no authority, no overarching truth, no transcendental commandments, there can’t be any moral standards
- humanity has no foundation for optimism when it comes to the future of men
When Szczygieł speaks about his book, he says that “Project: Truth” is not a philosophical work and yet at the same time he maintains that he doesn’t see any sense in life, and because he doesn’t see it, he is looking for these small “senses”.
It is only natural that a Polish postmodernist is seeking pluralism: something we don’t really have in Poland. The pluralism of beliefs has never been broad and these days the postmodernist’s pluralism of thought, philosophy and beliefs is necessary, especially if one wants to debate with someone who holds the monopoly for Truth and authority (ie. the Roman Catholic Church). Therefore Szczygieł, in multiple interviews about his book, says that he is looking for alternative values that would be outside the Roman Catholic Church.
“I think my book can be helpful for non-believers also. At times when so many people are leaving the Catholic Church, we need books that will talk about values outside the Church. Even though a lot of values atheists hold are Christian, we do not need to talk about them only in light of the cross”, states Szczygieł. It still remains unclear how we can determine “universal values” if there is no universal truth.
What is the real motivation of an author to “discover the truth”? Usually when people write books on a similar subject, they genuinely take an interest in the topic and want to discern the truth. In the case of Szczygieł it is not so as he says, “The truth itself is not enough for me”. As a journalist he needs to have a ‘story’, because “a thought, especially if it concerns a value, must be accompanied with a story of how one arrived at that thought”.
“Declarations are good for banners. In reported stories even as short as these in the book “Project: Truth”, something needs to be happening. I picked the most interesting stories and not the most interesting declarations.”, adds Szczygieł.
A man deprived
A good bit of Szczygieł’s book affirms Christian definition of world and man. However the answers that Szczygieł offers coming from his postmodern approach are far from being Christian.
In the middle of his book Szczygieł includes an excerpt from Stanisław Stanuch’s book where the following story is recorded. The passage speaks of a group of men during the World War who who surrounded a 16 year old who was dressed in a German uniform and was maintaining that he was a Pole from Silesia. The boy was made to prove his Polishness. The boy “sang the national anthem, said all the prayers that anyone around him could have remembered and he kept singing something else and the more obvious his Polishness was becoming the tighter the circle of men surrounding him was getting. Then he was told to lay down on the ground which he did as he was begging and pleading them for mercy. In the meantime a massive windmill stone was being rolled” (Portrait III). Obviously the boy was intentionally smashed by the stone.
Now, what if this act of these men was their “truth”?
This world was created as a perfect world in which there was no room for cruelties like this one. The likes of this malice are possibly because of human depravity. Szczygieł himself understands it very well as he is writing a story about the “Truth of a superwoman”:
“The superwoman was happy that she could finally tell about the two of them. Who read ‘Beksinskis. A dual portrait of Magda G.’ definitely remembers this detail: Zdzisław brings a box with old photographs from the storage. “This was the first time when the father and son stopped being so distant. They were sitting and looking at pictures. I took a photo of Tomek and said:
What a beautiful boy!
And Zdzisław replied:
- Hitler also used to be a small boy.
This is a perfect example of how the world and men were created good, but because of the Fall, because of sin which entered the world and deprived mankind, today we can read stories like this one.
The author indeed understands very well the original cause of all our troubles. The next quote also reflects it well:
“Some say: this world doesn’t fit me. Others: I am not fit for this world. This grading is important because we either put ourselves in the centre or on the outskirts. It reflects our ego well. And as we are being hinted in a controversial but inspiring book “Book of Ego. Freedom from Illusions” written by Osho the thinker - a well-built ego is a kind of a disease. I understood then, that the world is falling because of puffed up egos.” (“Separating humanity”).
Certainly the heart of man and his own “ego” are the source of evil and not any outer factor. The positive thing is that Szczygieł sets the right diagnosis for humanity, and as we know the right diagnosis is a key to getting cured. We will not read about many relevant cure options in “Project: Truth” though. We may only read about attempts to find the answer. And people do try to find answers by themselves and there is a story mentioned in the book about a man from Haruki Murakami’s work who “out of unknown reasons stops being active. Descends to the bottom of a well, because he wants to learn something about himself” (“Grading of light”). It’s a pity that in order to explore oneself, one has to go all the way down to the bottom of a well. It’s a pity you can’t do it in a flat in a city that doesn’t have a well near it, or in a church. Unfortunately sometimes people will think that they have to travel to Nepal to discover something about their real self and it is a pity indeed that you can’t do it, say in Krakow.
A man searching
A natural longing of men towards its Creator can also be seen in the book “Project: Truth”. This is what we learn from another inserted passage of Stanach’s book: “At some point Anna was telling me she would rather God existed so she could believe. And I asked her what good it would make if life remained to be little with plans that are only a foot-long and ambitions that are only two feet long. I believe, therefore I am passive towards the the course of events...” (Portrait III).
From this passage we can see how people perceive Christianity or religion - to believe means to lose control over everything. To believe means to take the flow of things as it is, accept things as they come and avoid resistance.
It is interesting that today’s culture gives us only two options: we either have a “free will” or everything has been pre-programmed for us. So you either will be active in your “free will” or you will be passive because a “higher force” has already designed everything. We either have a free will and a responsibility of making decisions and choices which leaves us with an open future or something has already decided what that future is going to be and as a result, our choices do not matter. There are two options only. The Bible though doesn’t limit this issue to the afore-mentioned options. In Scriptures, we do see that men have a will and are responsible for their own actions and decision-making. No one might even be forcing one to making a decision in the Biblical accounts but every thing that is happening is the result of one’s own choices and decisions, and the events unfold according to God’s plan. Not only God foresees what a man will choose but that choice will always fit God’s greater plan and the flow of things that God wants the history to take.
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (Prov. 16:1, 9). So indeed this plan belongs to you, but what you choose will always be a part of God’s plan.
The definition of the need of religion in “Project: Truth” is mere cowardliness or simply the need of moral support:
“Just as many need to have God because they are not capable of standing on their own feet, life needs literature?” (“Truth of the moment”). This statement is only a half-truth because it rightly implies that men are not able of standing on their own feet when left to themselves. This is also what religion without the gospel teaches as opposed to Christianity which teaches: yes, you are not only incapable of solving your problems by yourself, you are incapable of standing on your own feet, but you also need help from the One that was able. It is thanks to Him and through Him that you now will become able. Bare religion unfortunately will only be creating little “ladders” that you will be climbing higher and higher thanks to your own deeds and in return you will be receiving “points” which will be bringing you closer to eternal life. A man who wants to see progress in life and wants to be motivated to further run indeed “needs to have God” and naturally will start looking for religion’s help to stay standing. The message of the gospel is assurance that you will be able to stand, whereas the message of religion is a system of bonuses which functions a bit like a customer loyalty scheme but it can’t guarantee anything. Because we live in a Catholic system which, unlike Protestantism or the gospel, is deeply rooted in the system of works and rewards, it is not easy for our people to understand that Christianity can be something much bigger than just a punishment system which is clearly seen in the quote we are currently looking at.