Marek Bieńczyk - These lovely pages, in which the essay brushes up against fiction, offer us more than an historical and philosophical study, but a truly existential, and thus novelistic, investigation of transparency

Marek Bieńczyk,  Transparency, Trans. by Benjamin Paloff, Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.

Milan Kundera on Marek Bienczyk's Transparency: "The subject of transparency has always interested me; in The Art of the Novel I discussed it as one of the key words in my personal lexicon. Marek Bienczyk is right to give it an entire book of its own: transparency remains one of the foundational concepts of today's social imaginary, and its role never ceases to grow. These lovely pages, in which the essay brushes up against fiction, offer us more than an historical and philosophical study, but a truly existential, and thus novelistic, investigation of transparency. It's a delight." Drawing on all his resources as a novelist, cultural critic, and scholar, Marek Bienczyk peels away the layers of our contemporary obsession with "transparency," skipping across centuries and continents to piece together the genesis of our fears of deception and overexposure. Highly poignant, and transcending the genres of criticism, personal essay, and the metaphysical novel, Transparency is a gorgeous revelation -- about our never-ending need for revelation.

For the casual reader of fiction, this blend of novel and essay from Bienczyk (Tworki) will seem anything but. Narrated by a "we" variously encompassing the reader, the narrator's partner, Olga, and Bienczyk himself, it initially examines transparency in political terms, only to branch off into such different avenues as philosophy, history, linguistics, and literature. A brief fictive storyline toward the beginning, "Gabriel and Snow," situates the book as a series of short stories, an impression quickly shattered as the author instead chooses to trawl through such varied cultural touchstones as the Crystal Palace, Edward Hopper, Abbey Road, and McDonald's. In the midst of all this, Jean-Jacques Rousseau becomes a familiar character. Only towards the end does a clear narrative off-handedly resume, as Olga receives her own named section, a place at center stage soon disrupted by that irritating "we". By that point, even Bienczyk feels frustrated by his inconclusive style, while fiction readers will be hungry for more story and philosophically inclined ones yearning to debate him on the many thorny points raised. Bienczyk's obvious linguistic and intellectual prowess intrigues, raises difficult questions, and gifts a brand-new reading list to anyone willing to tackle it. - Publishers Weekly

It could be said that Marek Bieńczyk is a writer without category. He’s best known as the author of postmodernist fictions like Terminal and Tworki, but he’s not only a novelist. He is an essayist, a translator (of Cioran and Kundera, among others) an academic literary historian, and even a noted wine critic. True to its author’s eclecticism, Transparency trespasses between genres: it’s neither a novel nor a scholarly study nor a personal reflection. Instead, it puts these forms to work on each other. Fictional passages are framed like the asides of an absentminded academic, and facts are narrated with a novelistic sensibility. Yet Transparency doesn’t make too much noise about its stylistic modulations; it never overtly announces itself as a new species of writing. Instead it stays in suspension, slipping by almost silently. This is appropriate, for, as Bieńczyk puts it, the book treats transparency “as a theme,”
as truth and illusion, as the hobby of existence, the graspable handrail against which we may lean our very being, something we might even try to pour into text.
This treatment entails a multifaceted method, partly drawn from the discipline of philology: on one level, Transparency is a history of a word, and of that word’s relation to a shifting set of concepts. Yet Bieńczyk’s is a speculative, poetic philology, a little like that of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. This isn’t objective analysis; it’s intellectual history in the key of myth. Bieńczyk’s concern is with “the connections between transparency and the expressible.” The time he covers spans from Aristotle (for whom, as he quotes, “there is only transparency,” as an underlying reality) to the present, where science has superseded such notions, yet where they’re nevertheless necessary, “since the heart of man changes more slowly than the world.” An archetypally heartfelt expression comes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in whose Confessions Bieńczyk discerns a desire for transparent speech; for a clear voice which would make the soul perfectly present to itself:
Rousseau believed that the heart of man could speak . . . he saw how language could become a transparent medium for the will of speech, for everything that wishes to be expressed . . . with no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood.
In turn, Rousseau’s romantic ideal informed the Enlightenment—“Lumières in French,” Bieńczyk reflects, “Aufklarung in German, all of which say, ‘Now we’ll see.’” But Bieńczyk goes on to show how such modern ways of seeing have been co-opted by consumer capitalism. From advertising to state surveillance, today’s society “obliges us to have a transparent heart,” turning transparency into a tool of the status quo, a reversal of Rousseau’s soulful radicalism. Nowadays, as with shop windows, seeing through things is what stops us from seeing beyond them.
The problem of transparency’s political value plays out across Bieńczyk’s book, whose overall purpose is obscure. One section recounts the history of literary descriptions of glass, detailing “the houses, palaces, domes and arcades packed into the prose of the nineteenth century.” In giving voice to this period’s spirit of spectacle, does Bieńczyk achieve some sort of authentic articulacy, a la Rousseau, or does his writing dovetail with capitalism’s culture of “catalogization” and “museification,” uncritically aestheticizing the social system? In posing this puzzle, Transparency recalls Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a work which Theodor Adorno famously said stood “at the crossroads between positivism and magic.” What Adorno meant was that Arcades, a poetic catalogue akin to Bieńczyk’s, could on the one hand be read as banally descriptive (positivism), and on the other, as lulling its readers into blinkered enchantment (magic). Transparency, too, must steer between these two poles, to resist being read simply as trifling scholarship, or otherwise as stained glass, as snow globe, as ornament.
Yet Bieńczyk doesn’t resolve this dilemma so much as dissolve it. He makes each of its terms transparent, a lens through which we might discover the other. Like Benjamin’s, his approach is dialectical. A case in point is provided by a passage on melancholy, itself a major theme of Bieńczyk’s oeuvre, and the subject of his earlier essay collection, On Those Who Never Recover What They’ve Lost. “If glassmakers and architects hadn’t invented transparency,” Bieńczyk muses, “melancholics would have.” Yet melancholy, he goes on, is determined by “divergent ways of seeing.” The first is that of forlornly staring through a window, a familiar depressive habit, which arouses a sense of “seeing without having . . . a shimmering collision of sight and frustration.” With this we’re back in the storefront; the depressive gaze reifies real experience, “crystallizing” and “immobilizing” it, as in an advert. This species of melancholy is, in Adorno’s sense, “magical,” ornamental. However, there’s a second kind of melancholic sight, “the upward gaze,” where we cast our eyes away from what pains us, toward heaven. Crucially though, to turn our sight skywards isn’t escapism—after all, we’ll be brought back to earth once our necks start to ache. But in this “broken, aborted transcendence,” we might find a means of renewing ourselves, and of being briefly free of the world, without forgetting it.
Hence, melancholy manifests itself in both passive and active aspects—as a resigned falsification of experience, and as its regeneration. This rubric might be richly applied to a certain melancholic strain in contemporary writing, ranging from W.G. Sebald to Lars Iyer. But Bieńczyk’s literary historytouches on another tradition, which unites an assortment of writers under the sign of
the shared striving for pure light in their texts, their striving for emptiness, for silence . . . their abandoning of the real, the concrete, the perceptible, the living, in favour of the motionless, the fading, the falling silent.
Such striving can be both formal and thematic—as in Beckett, for instance (whom Bieńczyk doesn’t discuss) or Barthes or Blanchot (whom he does). As a theme, it’s best represented by the Polish novelist Andrzej Stasiuk, whose books describe “landscapes with minimal human activity.” Stasiuk focuses on a world where “life has either not gotten going, or has already been extinguished.” Here transparency is, as in Aristotle, “the idea organizing the cosmos”—it sits in the background, the field on which existence occurs. But beyond this, Bieńczyk reminds us, there are writers who treat transparency in terms of textual form. This brings to mind Beckett’s letter to Axel Kaun, which likens language to “a veil one has to tear apart in order to get to . . . the nothingness lying behind it.” Bieńczyk’s lineage links several figures whose language “flirts with silence,” from Chateaubriand to Joubert. In each, he highlights an impulse he calls “negative idealism.” Yet this phrase doesn’t denote mere nihilism. Like the melancholic upward gaze, transparency here reaches beyond a quiet acceptance of the real. After all, as Bieńczyk avers, “if life has its own utopia, perhaps nothingness does too.”
That said, Transparency’s charm is that it doesn’t try too hard to place itself in such a tradition. In the end, Bieńczyk isn’t out to construct a canon, only to follow his thoughts wherever they flow. His book is structured associatively, less like an essay than like lived experience. Its passages follow no purpose, never leading beyond what’s on Bieńczyk’s mind. Thus, the trick of Transparency is that its intellectual content—its roster of knowledge—is in the last instance not intellectual, but psychological. It is what its author happens to know, what matters to him, what he haphazardly remembers. Its narrative isn’t an act of assertion, but of introspection and recollection. Kundera described Bieńczyk’s second novel, Tworki, as “a song that lifts us up and away.” The same could be said of Transparency; indeed, unlike Kundera’s own essays, it has no rhetorical point, and hence no need to marshal the movement of its prose. So much is said in this book, so much pondered and studied, but with a lightness which leaves us unsure whether we only dreamt it. Transparency captivates, but is soon blissfully forgotten. People talk about the pleasure of being “immersed” in a book, as if they weren’t already immersed enough in everything else. But to lose oneself in reading is only to echo how one has lost oneself in life. A book should let us look up, leaving life behind for a time, but not leaving us spellbound; not stopping itself from being seen through. Unlike other books, Bieńczyk’s Transparency both seizes and beautifully frees us, allowing life and literature to become blank pages and silence. - David Winters

The renowned Polish writer, translator, and historian Marek Bieńczyk is a subtle thinker who persistently probes the ineffable and revelatory in human perception and experience. Transparency, his second book to be published in English after Tworki (Northwestern University Press, 2008), is a blend of essay, cultural criticism, and metaphysical fiction. Drawing on a spectrum of sources from Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Joyce, and Nabokov to Aristotle, Descartes, Benjamin, and Barthes, the book is both an investigation into a personal obsession and a treatise on an archetype uniting a world of disparate phenomena as manifested in poetry, modernism, contemporary politics, and architecture:
 I have wanted to write a page or two about transparency and translucency for some time… Transparency, I told myself, is summoning me, digging into me like a probe: it is mine. In foreign cities, I chose to lunch in restaurants with panoramic views; evenings I would stop in front of illuminated shop windows, and my friends started to make fun, to buy me glass balls as gifts…Working on some text, I would unwittingly thin out the concreteness of meanings, the words would flee their sense, metaphors lost track of their ideas, everything inevitably tended toward abstraction: a whiteness shone out from behind the sentences.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s symbiotic connection to the people around him was cruelly broken the day he was accused of a childhood misdemeanor he did not commit. Beginning with Rousseau’s political philosophy, Bieńczyk traces the idea of transparency in human intention and behavior and its place in concepts developed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries for the ideal organization of society. Gradually, a Rousseauian belief in the heart’s intrinsic purity as the essential prerequisite to a good and just world was replaced with its inversion as the individual became subjected to increasing levels of transparency imposed from without.
To this purpose, the English social reformer Jeremy Bentham invented the Panopticon, a type of institutional building—a prison, hospital, or school—designed to facilitate the observation of its inhabitants from a central point as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” Conditioned by the knowledge of being visible at all times, inmates automatically monitored their own actions in what essentially became an internalized form of control. Originally intended as a means of improving behavior, Bentham’s vision of transparency helped lay the groundwork for the totalitarian state. It is interesting that while many post-Soviet societies have chosen democracy over a politically oppressive system in which the individual’s transparency ensures the government’s inscrutability, we inhabit a world in which widespread public surveillance is so commonplace that we hardly take notice of it.
Throughout this book, transparency is engaged in a struggle between utopia and dystopia. Among the many endeavors aimed at making the world more visible, Bieńczyk devotes considerable attention to transparency in modern architecture. Profoundly influenced by the experiences of two world wars and the collapse of the social orders that accompanied them, the construction of large, airy spaces and a predominance of glass embodied a redefinition of values that would help bring about a new society. This visionary reorganization of public and private space was also the result of the advent of new technologies in glass manufacturing begun in the 18th century, which introduced large panes. Glass houses, crystal palaces, domes, and arcades appeared in anticipation of the plate-glass windows of our modern-day consumer society; an era of peeping and voyeurism commenced as interiors were exposed to the outside and the people in them to the public gaze.
This gaze would also turn inward. A long path led from Rousseau’s vision of the transparent human heart—and its natural instinct for moral goodness—to the discovery of the hidden depths of the subconscious and the triumph of psychoanalysis, which identified entire regions of the psyche not immediately accessible to rational understanding. As psychology and philosophy became dominated by the concept of the subject’s essential non-transparency, the systematic study of human motivation and its many contradictions made notions of purity and innocence seem increasingly naïve. Evasion, suppression, and subterfuge emerged as the internal forces embroiled in a drama of injury and trauma, while clarity and opacity were revealed as components of a complex dialectic. Faced with the painstaking task of achieving self-awareness, the subject was now forced to realize that “it’s still a long way to the self, that a vast distance stretches between ‘I’ and ‘I,’ that one is quite the opposite of the person he believed himself to be.”
And so, transparency is also a state of perception; it is both the intangible membrane separating the subject from the self and the lens through which a person communicates intentions and comprehends the intentions of others. It is the awareness that something must happen to allow understanding to take place, to transgress the boundary between the self and the other. It is the window through which light enters the room, a light perceived in terms of its absence and defined in contrast to its shadow—for a dynamic exists between transparency and non-transparency, and it is this dynamic that Bieńczyk detects in an array of sources. For instance, contemporary politics and its repeated assurances that an investigation, election, parliamentary debate, etc. will take place in full public view, while what this much-touted transparency in fact does is render this behavior virtually invisible by creating the illusion that incompetence, corruption, or poor legislation will be automatically expunged or corrected. Here, in a paradoxical inversion, transparency no longer serves the improvement of society, but protects the powers that be and ensures their survival.
Whether or not one agrees with Bieńczyk’s overarching thesis that transparency has become modernity’s ambiguous successor, this inspired book connects a broad range of observations. Yet in the bustling reality of the modern city, an architecture of transparency is also an architecture of reflection, a narcissistic labyrinth of mirrors in which people are turned back upon themselves; it seems odd that Bieńczyk omits this. Equally odd is his omission of the price of social media—which requires consent to personal transparency—particularly considering its long-term political ramifications. While Bieńczyk connects the dots of his fragmentary narrative in surprising and illuminating ways, he is at his most convincing when he explores his obsession on an individual, existential level, at the degree zero of perception, of poetry, and of language.
Whichever side we happen to be standing on, whether staring into the rooms, foyers, and halls held behind the glass or the other way around, staring out from their interiors at the streets, houses, or sky, a vague longing awaits us, either a longing for life, which is still going on at any given moment, so very near to time that it brushes up against it and tears at its seams, for here is a scrap of paper in a book, an open letter, a raised cup, a folder taken out of a drawer—or else a longing for stillness, unaffected by time, pilfered from the interiors of our rooms, calling out to the afternoon light, to neon signs in the evening, and covering the nervous bustle of the day in a transparent silence.
Transparency is Bieńczyk’s earliest conscious memory, a moment of insight, a profound experience of existence manifested in a patch of sunlight on a wall with “quivering bits of dust, so pure and full in that light that it seemed its interior had been revealed.” It is a “self-evident sense of being, in which there were no secrets and no depths to be fathomed or understood”; the crystalline meaning of a sentence that conveys a “complete and lucid whole”; the invisible boundary between life and death. It is the thin veneer of the present through which the past and sometimes the future can be read. Its absence is the agony of existence as a separate being, discontinuous from the people we love most; its opposite is not opacity, not darkness or mystery, but hysteria. -


Marek Bieńczyk, Tworki, Northwestern University Press, 2008.

Sonia is 20 and loves Olek; Jurek is 22 and loves Sonia. Olek is a member of the clandestine resistance movement. Sonia and Jurek work in the administrative offices of a hospital in the outskirts of Warsaw. One day, leaving behind a letter to Jurek, Sonia disappears without warning. Marek Bienczyk's newest novel is set in the German occupation and in the present, and it explores the mystery of Sonia and her letter. (Tworki is the name of a mental institution outside Warsaw.)

In Tworki, a village just southwest of Warsaw, there is a psychiatric hospital and in that hospital, the patients and their caretakers are hidden from the war just outside their iron gates. Our hero, Jurek, answers an ad in the paper for a job there and finds himself keeping the books alongside a knockout strawberry blonde named Sonia. They and their group of friends—vital young people like Marcel, an initial rival for Jurek; Olek, Sonia’s chosen love; and Janka, with whom Jurek becomes involved—do their jobs, picnic on the weekends, and dance in the gardens on the grounds of the hospital.
Jurek speaks often of, and even in, verse, whether he is talking to his friends or in letters to a distant and admiring cousin. He and his friends live lives that defy the discord and destruction of the war in Europe, striving to rediscover or save whatever beauty they can. Much of this beauty is embodied by Sonia, who is beloved of all the friends and patients at the asylum.
But the revitalizing spring they all hope will come for Poland is not to arrive this year. Despite the relative safety of their odd surroundings, the world and the war soon come for the friends. Olek’s absences are longer and unexplained. Marcel is not what he seems, and he and his wife mysteriously disappear, she says, to the gas. And the perfection that Sonia embodies cannot ultimately be kept, by the friends, by the nation, or even by Sonia herself.

(born 1956) – author of fiction and essays, historian of literature, translator from French, PAL Literary Research Institute employee and expert on the literature of Polish romanticism and on contemporary French humanities. His academic debut was a paper entitled The Black Man – Zygmunt Krasiński on Death (1990). He has also published two, to some extent complementary books of essays, Melancholy – On Those Who Never Recover What They’ve Lost (1998) and Dürer’s Eyes – On Romantic Melancholy (2002). For Książka twarzy (Face Book, 2011) he received the NIKE award.
Marek Bieńczyk’s exquisite novels, Terminal (1994) and Tworki, (1999) are not free of “gloomy” subject matter either (the experience of loss, mourning and the pain of parting). Nevertheless, although Bieńczyk is always discussing melancholy, both in his essays and in his novels, he has a very special view of it. This is what Bieńczyk himself says about his major theme: “I am interested in creative melancholy, which is strong and productive, and thus is specifically something that, in causing a deep existential crisis followed by an ideological one too, shatters the simple contrasts of hope and despair, fullness and emptiness, desire and its non-gratification; thus melancholy that is active, so to speak, predatory even, broadening our recognition of life, without locking us in stony despair. This sort of melancholy would be revelatory and dynamic.” The pages of Terminal are steeped in this “dynamic melancholy”; it is a post-modernist romance in which an inevitable, final parting with a lover by no means leads to “stony despair”, but acts as an incentive for creativity. Bieńczyk is attracted to the inexpressible, things that are impossible to put into words. In Terminal he wonders how we can talk about love at all, when everything has already been said about it. When a man who’s in love talks about his feelings, is he just a worthless plagiarist? Is he really declaring love, or is he just uttering the ready-made language and set formulae of his culture? In Tworki Bieńczyk deals with an exceptional loss and an incomprehensible absence, i.e. the horrifying experience of the Holocaust, which we are used to regarding as inexpressible. The novel is set in 1943, and the main characters are a small group of likable twenty-year-olds, girls and boys, Poles and Jews, who work at a psychiatric hospital under German management in Tworki in the Warsaw suburbs (hence the title). It turns out that the only normal place in an abnormal world is this institution for the insane. In their free time the young people have fun, flirt, walk about the picturesque area and recite poetry, as if the hell of Nazi occupation doesn’t affect them. But, quietly and imperceptibly, without any explanation, each of the heroes disappears from the pages of the novel in turn. They leave behind farewell letters that can never be answered, because their senders are no longer alive. The story ends with a challenge to future readers to “acknowledge receipt” and write their own post-scripts. Marek Bieńczyk has also published a collection of erudite, but humorous articles on the art of drinking wine. -,literatura-polska,3060,bienczyk-marek.html


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