2000 PAAS Conference

Annual Conference of the Polish Association for American Studies Torun, November 19-22, 2000

The Annual Conference of the Polish Association for American Studies called The Local Colors of Stars and Stripes was attended by over 100 participants, including foreign guests, foreign nationals living and working in Poland, as well as students of the English Department of Nicholas University in Torun. The accommodation, meals, as well all the presentations took place in the hotel `Daglezja’ near Torun, which made the course of events run more smoothly and efficiently. This time, the conference was organized by the Department of English and American Literature headed by professor Marta Wiszniowska at Torun University. The organizational team consisted of dr Miroslawa Buchholtz, dr Dariusz Pestka, Krzysztof Strzemeski and Jakub Wójcik.

According to the schedule, the 36 papers were divided into 12 thematic categories. Each time two different sessions were being held simultaneously: Afro-American Literature and Ethnography of Film; Polish Voices and Communities of Charity; Beyond Local Color and Jewish American Issues; Self and Society and Ethnic Issues; In New England and on the Road and The Lure of the South; Jazzing Things up and The South and Other Regions. The conference was honored by the presence of such remarkable participants as professor Andrzej Kopcewicz, professor Agnieszka Salska, professor Barton St. Armand, professor David Pichaske, professor Franciszek Lyra, professor Jerzy Durczak, professor Jerzy Kutnik, and professor Zbigniew Bialas. On Monday morning, after the opening addresses by the President of the PAAS Board professor Jerzy Durczak, Tania Chomiak-Salvi representing the American Embassy, professor Marta Wiszniowska, and the Head of the English Department at Torun University professor Aleksander Szwedek, the inaugural keynote lecture was delivered by professor Barton St. Armand, the theme of which – “The House of Dickinson and the House of Hawthorne” – emphasized the relation between female characters in Hawthorne’s novels and Emily Dickinson’s poetic output as well as personality.

In one of the first two alternative sessions which was called Ethnography of Film dr Dominika Ferens presented the paper entitled “Fit, Fitter, Fittest – Tarzan and the Romance of Eugenics,” demonstrating to what degree the character made up by mass culture is to be based on the archetype of perfection that is here displayed quite literally by Tarzan’s aristocratic descent and manners. Next Agnieszka Borkowska in her “How Do We Deal with the Other? Los Angeles in the American Films of the 1990s” juxtaposed two different attitudes manifested in the American movies of the 1990s to the motif of an alienated individual. Finally, Marek Paryz in “Some remarks on the Black Presence in Clint Eastwood’s Film `Unforgiven'” displayed the difference between the approach to black communities in Eastwood’s film and the treatment of the subject in the westerns of the preceding decades. The plenary lecture ” Cut in Plain Marble – Sites of Memory, Monuments & America” given by professor Zbigniew Bialas was followed by the two simultaneous sessions. In one of them, named Communities of Charity, dr Zofia Kolbuszewska in her presentation “Edward Gorey’s Beastly Babies, Gashlycrumb Tinies, and Hapless Children” introduced to her listeners the intriguing and controversial personality of Edward Gorey whose stories and drawings, ostensibly aimed for children, are, as a matter of fact, a grotesque transformation of the motifs of macabre, cruelty, and death; children being cast as monsters or, more frequently, as victims of adults’ morbidity and perversion. At the same time, within the alternative session Polish Voices professor Marta Wiszniowska in her presentation “Transcoding America – America’s Shakespeare and Poland’s America” showed the distance separating Shakespeare’s work from the American film versions of his plays in recent years. This tendency was presented as a parallel to a fusion of idealism and self-destruction constituting a specific mentality of Polish immigrants in America, which mentality isolates them from their `promised land’. However, the omnipresent in recent Polish films the image of an innocent Pole in the American `corrupt’ reality is being replaced, or at least enriched, by an analysis of our compatriots’ moral decline.

During the session Jewish American Issues, Madgalena Kwinta in her “Jewish Immigrants in America in E. L. Doctorov’s Novels” juxtaposed the subject of Jewish immigrants with that of American history and tradition, with a special emphasis laid upon nationalistic trends partly inherent in the American ideology. In the evening, professor David Pichaske’s entertaining presentation “Dr Seuss and `The Cat in the Hat’,” was devoted to Theodor Seuss Giesel’s children’s stories and illustrations. His surreal sense of humor, doggerel verse, and catchy diction, despite literary critics’ disapproval, has always been appreciated by children.

The next day of the conference was also started by professor David Pichaske, this time, however, his lecture “What’s Mid-west about Midwest Writing?” was in a more serious tone. In his speech, he revealed parallels between the climate and relief of a geographical region and its cultural output. At the same time, professor Pichaske made it clear that this regularity is partly becoming history. Immediately afterwards, in the session Self and Society, dr Zygmunt Mazur in his presentation “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres’ and `Education of Henri Adams'” interestingly juxtaposed the cultural features attributed to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance respectively.

The comparison proves that in the former man achieved an emotional equilibrium due to his confidence in God standing for the pivotal point of his creed, which centrality disintegrated in the Renaissance as a result of man’s unlimited belief in nature’s laws, replaced then by his complacency inducing him to interfere in these laws. The plenary lecture “‘O say can you see…’: The Changing Colors and Contours of Old Glory” delivered by professor Jerzy Kutnik presented the history of the American flag in various social and cultural contexts, not always related to the national symbol of the power and the glory. In view of this, a special attention was drawn to the omnipresent aspect of commercialism that has affected the use of the American flag, especially in recent decades. One of the two final alternative sessions called Jazzing Things Up was started by Marek Jeziñski’s presentation “From the Utopian Dream about Freedom to Paradise and Space – Neo-anarchism and the Performing Arts” concerning the hippie music of the late 60s – the period when psychedelic perception played a decisive role in shaping the aesthetic standards of the then culture. It was pointed out that the innovation of form revealed in contrasting melodic textures as well as in somnambulistic, hypnotic motifs were partly the result of hallucinogenic drugs used by the musicians.

The final presentation “John Zorn and His Concept of the Jewish Downtown Jazz” delivered by dr Dariusz Pestka was focused around the Jewish composer and performer John Zorn enjoying a cult status among jazz-oriented audience interested in breaking stylistic barriers in music the modernity of which is often juxtaposed with the alleged anachronism of the musical idiom of the late sixties and early seventies. Zorn’s output was divided into three major categories: his obsession with the New York urban landscape seen as a symbol of a corrupt metropolis; his absorption with his Jewish origin as an attempt to search for his own cultural identity; and his Japanese inspiration. These three basic themes are musically rendered by cacophony, dissonance, and postmodern concatenations of dissimilar genres; the fusion of klezmer strains steeped in Jewish traditional melodies and experimentation with form and texture; and the application of such Japanese elements as wild, screaming insanity amidst a hardcore-punk milieu.

The conference was crowned by professor Agnieszka Salska’s dazzling plenary lecture entitled “Local Coloring of Modernist Renaissance in Poetry.” Her presentation proved how much is still to be revealed in the output of great poets. Then, during the closing session the PAAS meeting took place when, incidentally, the number of its members increased by 19 new members. Although a banquet arranged in the evening marked the formal end of the conference, it was not until the following morning that the last participants left the hotel `Daglezja’. The conference was accompanied by two book offers, and it was visited by reporters of the `Radio Gra’ station and the local Bydgoszcz TV channel.