You are here

Polish Garbage and Dreck Heroes

A dreck-hero is the one who emerges clean from political and historical slime; who transcends human garbage status while wading through filth, cleaning up trash, or living in rubble; who keeps conscience alive amid degradation and grim realities.
Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard

Issue #55, May 2001

Eastern Europeans know their garbage too well. Political allegories of garbage, rubbish and dung abound throughout the region. It can be argued that garbage production and political waste disposal are major organizing forces that define whatever is common in eastern Europe's regional culture. What is garbage and who will direct its hauling off are not only constitutional issues, but also major aesthetic questions.

Whether in eastern Europe or elsewhere, framing a category of 'garbage' implies the existence of a system that creates this devalued category. Designations as rubbish, garbage, trash — used interchangeably but not accurately — together with their associated near-synonyms constitute arguments of rejection. But such arguments can be and are constantly reversed. What is in truth garbage or rubbish? It is a category that invites contravention. Time and natural forces — or their foreshortening by human destruction and violence — reduce all objects, but it requires human genius to produce 'garbage'. This is a social rubric, not a natural one, and it builds its distinctions around valuations of uselessness and filth. Considered as an ideological system behind this rubric, garbage is prone to subverting itself. The useless may become useful; the filthy may become clean and noble. A potential for definitional reversal is as much a part of garbage as any other of its characteristics.

There is a difference between the terms 'rubbish', 'trash' and 'garbage'. Jonathan Culler begins a distinction in his essay "Garbage Theory", arguing that rubbish "has no use-value, nor any value in an economic system of exchange; it has only the signifying function of a marker and its very inferiority to what it marks makes it rubbish." This is helpful, but not nearly sufficient. Theories of rubbish, particularly as elaborated by Michael Thompson's Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (1975), have been particularly concerned with the economic relationship between durability and transience. Thompson and Culler are less interested in representational dynamics, subaltern perspectives, or the difficult sexual colorations of garbage. Their rubbish is too clean. Garbage is filthy rubbish; it is trash with a rotting biology. This broader and less choate discussion of political allegory, not only use-value and its signifiers, is the territory of our discussion here.

A region filled so long with so much garbage, tragic and comic, has birthed the dreck-hero. Dreck, in its primal German-Yiddish glory, means complete crap. A dreck-hero is the one who emerges clean from political and historical slime; who transcends human garbage status while wading through filth, cleaning up trash, or living in rubble; who keeps conscience alive amid degradation and grim realities. Where shit prevails, the dreck-hero prevails even more. A dreck-hero, whether fictional character or author — the difference between them being a matter of slight allegation — rises above dreck even while immersed in it. When Ivan Klima wrote "Rubbish is immortal", he referred not to mere detritus but to immortal generations of dreck-heroes that have persevered despite the insufferable stink that pervaded their existences. A dreck-hero is, above all, a creature that lives for the moment of political allegorization, for that annunciatory instant when the impositions of life amid filth are undeniable.

Throughout eastern Europe garbage has proved its eminent suitability as the subject of philosophical novels and, as Ivan Klima illustrated so well, as a means of Czech national self-investigation. Klima's quasi-autobiographical Love and Garbage (1986) was first published in Sweden because censorship had consigned Klima to the dustbin in Czechoslovakia. The novel's unnamed writer-hero dons the orange vest of a Prague streetsweeper during the 'normalization' (the post-'68 period of repression that cost hundreds of thousands their jobs or education) and cleans rubbish in the midst of unending political decay.

Swinging paragraph by paragraph from memory to present, the sweeper-writer preoccupies himself with negotiating between an insistent past and a present that requires his attention. Writing is no longer sufficient as a means of negotiation for Klima the protagonist, although it must necessarily suffice for Klima the writer. Garbage speaks louder than words. "Of all the garbage that swamps us and threatens us by its breath of decay, the most dangerous are the masses of discarded ideas," he writes. "They tumble about us, they slide down the slopes of our lives. The souls they touch begin to wither and soon no one sees them alive again." The sacrifice of humanity on ideological altars manifests an absence of meaning, one that originates a mass demand for meaning but cannot fill the void behind sacrificial spectacles. In Klima's paradox, dangerous old ideas that will not die generate new histories even as they get overthrown. History erects itself atop garbage.

Klima's protagonist is a prototypical dreck-hero, a champion of perseverance willing to extract meaning from garbage. To perform this task, a dreck-hero has an inherent philosophical capacity that comes from making sense of life lived in the midst of debris. Hanta, the idiot philosophe and dreck-hero of Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude (1976), has spent most of his life operating a trash compactor. "I've been compacting wastepaper for thirty-five years, a job that ought to require not only a good classical education, preferably on the university level, but also a divinity degree, because in my profession spiral and circle come together and progressus ad futurum meets regressus ad originem, and I experience it all firsthand." To discern value within the garbage heap, trash pile or shithole is a philosophical operation that the dreck-hero performs daily. When Jiri Menzel filmed Larks on a String (1969), based on censored Hrabal short stories, visual tropes of rubbish came easily in the story of "the waste of history", the bourgeois, being recycled and re-educated through manual labor in a steel scrapping plant. Like other eastern European trash stories, this film too was censored and could not be seen for years.

Garbage is the zone of danger, of trouble, of censorship, of risk. Its risk and beauty both lie in the confusion of subjects within the garbage pile. Sorting through garbage or wading through shit is an act of discovery, one where acceptance of social humiliation is the prerequisite of knowledge. These are the basic terms of the dreck-hero's profession.

Wajda's Shit

In Poland, the beginning was garbage. Then came French academic classicism, an elite vision of garbage as artifice. Eastern European literature and art strove to become more classical than French Classicism, which has a conspicuous absence of low-life garbage. Pied ancient sculptures were whitened and the lushness of literature turned into Classicist sterility. In their nostalgia for Paris, the fringes of Europe — Russia, Poland, and even until contemporary Argentina's Ernesto Sabato — raced slavishly to embrace the rules of Classicist exclusions. The Odyssey was read and re-read in Slavic cultures as a work without offal, even in the cave of Polyphemus, the cannibal cyclops. All the beautiful pre-Classicist garbage disappeared: nothing remained.

Yet an inevitable problem remained: since rubble, trash, rag heaps, garbage, offal and shit existed in undeniable abundance, how were they to be used and represented in art? They were not, after all, good for much else but art. As with politics, the arguments of eastern European art can be understood as an interminable dispute over who and what is shit. Classicism holds sway even in this debate: it has been an ideological service worker vigilantly cleaning up, heroicizing and aestheticizing violences and hatreds.

Poster for Kanal, Zygmunt Anczykowski, 1957

As a first example, turn to Andrzej Wajda's prize-winning 1957 film Kanal, which established his international reputation by capturing and expanding these metaphors. In post-war Poland, rubble and garbage were metaphors sufficient of themselves to describe the national landscape of ruin. Wajda did not need any special set for the film: flattened Warsaw and its leftover mounds of rubble sufficed. In this Wajda was hardly alone: it's hard to think of another major European film director in the post-war decade that did not frame ruins in film. Post-war Russian films, like Grigori Chukrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1957), were obsessed with the detritus of war as a form of cultural characterization in its own right. The object of these Sovfilm productions was to celebrate an unvanquished popular spirit emerging from ruined buildings and lives.

A far more sober spirit characterizes Kanal. Its opening shots show the city's war devastation stretching into a vista of collapsed buildings, a desert devoid of the spirit that raised the city. Litter and papers strew the streets. Successive introductory shots show building shells on fire and brick facades exploding, collapsing forward. The city is nearly seventy days into the violence of the1944 uprising by the Polish underground, one of the bloodiest scenes of the war.

Kanal details an underground struggle in the most literal sense as a platoon of resistance fighters, surrounded and cut off by the Germans, retreats through the city's sewer system. Sewer travel is an accommodation to reality, to the certainty of death above ground. Hope remains only underground, and it is nearly non-existent even there. Resistance, such as exists in the midst of panic and collapse, manifests itself in the form of sewer rats striving to remain human. Retreating fighters make their way through maddened people rushing away from the poison gas that has been dropped into the sewer tunnels to exterminate them.

Kanal's subplots sketch different human reactions in the midst of this Dante-esque catastrophe. Most try to soldier through and do not make it out alive. Their commanding officer perseveres forward, but finds himself betrayed by a non-com concerned with self-salvation alone. A musician recites Dante, either going mad and or reaching a higher level of sanity. Two fighters, Jacek and Daisy, a woman with a life story "longer than the sewer", wander waist-deep in sludge bound by love, but in the end discover themselves trapped despite their optimism.

The scene that Wajda created was bleak in the extreme, sufficiently so to draw loud criticism. Wajda writes that many of the initial viewers were Uprising participants or families who had lost loved ones in Warsaw: "This film could not satisfy them. They had licked their wounds, mourned their dead, and now they wanted to see their moral and spiritual victory, and not death in the sewers." The concluding shot of an officer, a dreck-hero, descending — or ascending metaphorically — back into the sewers to search out his soldiers was insufficient to appease such criticism.

Yet it is precisely the remorseless invocation of the sewer and its human rats as a site of resistance that made the film so powerful, emphasized by psychological dimensions of dim sewage tunnel interiors and black-and-white photography. It is a telling difference that Srdjan Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (1996), a film of Yugoslavia's ethnic disintegration into civil war, achieves an utterly opposite effect of bitter humor with a story of Serbian soldiers trapped inside a tunnel. A palpable fear emanates from Kanal, more convincing than any romantic heroicization. When delivered by a character standing in the midst of fluid shit, lines like "We'll be hailed by posterity!" acquire a bitter irony that will not be denied. Bars of Chopin played amid rubble are a different Chopin than romantic nationalism admits. The tug-of-war between the material and the transcendental descends to the street and below. It is this descent that garbage and sewage enables, a desperate metaphoric plunge into reality. Righteous invocations of transcendental values simply do not smell the same with a turd beneath your nose.

There is a louder resonance here than one country or ethnicity can contain. When dark imaginations seek images that speak to fear of contagion and plague, rats scurrying out of garbage piles and sewer holes supply a metaphor for humans. When the rats are thick, they immigrate from out of the sewers and become an alien local, national and then international presence (or as American neo-Nazi William Pierce wrote in The Turner Diaries, "this pestilence from the sewers of the East"). Poland's towns and villages, in the geography of hatred, were an originating domain of social predators and sub-human carnivores of nobility in the human spirit. Poland was the western edge of the Asiatic plague, a territory where Europe remained European but was immensely threatened from within by human rats. In Kanal, resistance to dehumanization comes from the sewers. These were worthy sewer rats resisting human vermin and the site of fear — a shit-filled tunnel — becomes a site of glory. Elem Klimov's harrowing Come and See (1985), a brutal Russian film about the destruction of Byelorussian villages during World War II, captures this meaning when a German officer justifies the extermination campaign saying "The inferior races must be extinguished because they carry the microbe of communism." Western Europe has had an historic fear of the 'primitive' forces emerging from the eastern forests, and eastern European cities were regarded as staging points for the spread of this racial contagion.

Kanal is not only Dante-esque, but also Classicist to its core. It is a tragedy of three unities, approaching an ideal of eastern Europeans who want to be more epic than the Greeks. Jacek's white shirt is the equivalent of cleansed, heroic sculptures. He epitomizes honor and beauty just before tank annihilation. His girlfriend, Daisy, survives and blooms in the dung. Bulldozed by tanks in a landscape of apocalypse, beautiful people become part of a disappearing reality. Like his protagonists, Wajda is the last Classicist, sophisticated and versed in culture. They descend, director and characters together, into the anal entrails and Sadean viscera of war. This is an epic collapse: the film tells the fall of the inheritors of Polish nobility, of the Polish intelligentsia. As aesthetics, Kanal argues that shit rose to nostrils-level when base materialism invaded Classicism. As politics, Kanal speaks to the debasement of the Polish nation in the face of fascism.

Wajda re-creates this collapsed chivalry in Ashes and Diamonds (1958). This final film of Wajda's inadvertent Warsaw Trilogy (its accidental nature explaining a skip of the first in this series, A Generation [1954]) manages to achieve simultaneous heavy-handedness and nuance. It relates the final hours and acts of a doomed right-wing nationalist hit-man connected to the Wilks anti-communist underground. Wajda repeats the wounded knight Jacek in this new character of Maciek. Maciek is a survivor of the Warsaw sewers that wears Jacek's same white shirt topside and also has an independent-minded blonde lover. Another message of ideological compliance thumps heavily when Maciek and his cowardly underground commander drink in a tavern while a chanteuse sings "Can you see the ruins at the top of the hill? / The enemy rats wait there ready to fight..." (the Polish version sounds far better than the English translation). After carrying through his assassination mission despite increasing doubts, Maciek dies aboveground alone and digging himself into a rubbish heap. Maciek's tragedy is different, for he becomes pitiable as a young adherent to an old ideology of capitalism that is bound to die; he is James Dean meeting an existential inevitability as a doomed dreck-hero.

Poster for Lotna, Witold Janiszewski, 1959

In case anyone is missing the message of Classicism wrecked, Wajda sends a riderless white horse wandering through the Ashes and Diamonds set. Wajda's next film, Lotna (1959), a story of Polish cavalry that came to grief in the blitzkrieg, centers on this white horse imagery. The armless neo-classical statuary, horses and country estates that populate the film speak to the antiquated aristocratic values of an elite that dies for its inability to accommodate modernity. Wajda's father died as a Polish cavalry lancer in battle with German tanks, and his son's anger at this futility is manifest. Lotna, the prize white charger, breaks a leg at the end of the film and must be shot while lying in the midst of battlefield ruins and destroyed cartage. The final scene where one character places Lotna's saddle atop his shoulders and walks up a dim road with a now-useless saddle suggests how difficult it will be to discard the weight of this anti-modernism.

These Wajda films remain surprisingly flexible in their political iconography, despite having met Party production diktat. While Ashes and Diamonds overtly complies with the prevailing ideological paradigm, a post-communist reading would notice its not-too-subtle attack on the Communist Party as a corrupt institution that perpetuated bourgeois values through a new-old vocabulary. Some Party members smelled this potential in the film's plot involving assassination of a district secretary. In drawing the film's title from a line by exiled nineteenth-century Romantic poet Cyprian Norwid ("the ashes will hold the beauty of a star-like diamond"), Wajda perhaps unwittingly buried an ideological chrysalis within the film. It was beyond the ken of Party censors satisfied with a clear message about right-wing politics lying dead in a trash heap. However if current days are ashes, then future days will shine like diamonds. So ashes, rubble and shit were all double-edge swords: they made Wajda's career in the 1950s and provided critical salvation in the 1990s.

This is not the end of the question. Where did Wajda find his shit? Like a good Pole, he looked to tradition.

Brief Polish Literary History of Cleanliness and Filth

nowogardBefore the mid-twentieth century catastrophe of World War II the Polish national cause was sanitized and "worth swallowing poison". These words came from an anthem written by a Prince of the Church and a prince among Polish poets, Ignacy Krasicki (1735-1801). Krasicki wrote the novel-treatise Pan Podstoli (1778) in which the eponymous Mr. Pantler, a squire, sermonizes on the order and purity indispensable to enlightened husbandry. As critic Barbara Jadczak comments, this is the Classicist realm of symmetry and rules, a clean and closed system; or as Mr. Pantler puts it, a "well-wound up machine". But even if a well-wound machine, an estate needed constant surveillance. The Polish author overdoes the mechanicism of the French Enlightenment. Mr. Pantler's clean world is not an open one. Serfs and servants have been carefully selected and screened — even those of low condition acquired cunning these days, says Mr. Pantler. Their squire treats them as Seneca taught slaves should be treated, like "unhappy friends". The novel's narrator leaves Mr. Pantler's estate only to visit a village whose owner is absent. It consists of decrepit huts, "chimneyless" to his disgust. Houses, or rather hovels, roofed with straw ... half-naked, emaciated children ... all in muck. The inn, run by a Jew, is a decaying mud hut, full of smoke, full of children, animals, vodka ... ." A basic domestic polarity begins to emerge between cleanliness and filth, one that parallels domination and subordination. Muck and human rodents haunt the background of a sanitized national cause and its literature.

The world of Pan Podstoli became that of Pan Tadeusz (1832-34), the national epic by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) that Wajda filmed two years ago. Wajda returned to the dworek idyll with Mickiewicz, directing the weakest film of his career. Wajda interprets the poem's setting as glamourous dworki, where they were in truth the isolated outposts of petty gentry. In the poem, the gentry of these provincial backwaters scorn peasants and receive in turn the scorn of nobles, their social betters. A geography of class loathing emerges in Pan Tadeusz and filth perception becomes multidirectional. The characters that threaten here are those who penetrate social borders, subvert decorum and reveal their predatory and repulsive qualities. If borderlessness is suspicious, however, Mickiewicz remained a cosmopolitan writer whose cultural doors opened wide. For Mickiewicz, the Polish national home was an open house whose tolerance ensured its cleanliness.

boksyce25 A very different approach to cleanliness characterizes the work of Enlightenment writer and political activist, Julian Niemcewicz (1757-1841), a Kosciuszko deputy who visited the United States, traveled, and found nothing objectionable in American slavery. His dystopian novel The Year 3333, set in the same future year, presents Poland as rendered into a wretched condition by Jews. Warsaw, now Moszkopolis (Moses City), is unpaved with mud everywhere. "Swarms of filthy Jews moon about everywhere." The staircase of the Court is filled with garbage and dirt. Restaurants serve sordid dishes. Even the National Jewish Theater is repulsive. It is a cityscape of abomination, the nightmare of a Classicist. Maria Janion, the scholar who unearthed this text last year, found herself the target of bitter public attacks against her work of discovery.

There were other Polish writers who opposed and condemned such equations of filth with minorities. Eliza Orzeszkowa (1841-1910), a grand dame of Polish literature, inherited Enlightenment ideas of cleanliness but as a philo-semite did not perceive Jews as abject beings. Instead she celebrates "little people", using Milosz's phrase. In her short story "A Few Words About Women" (1874), Orzeszkowa sketches the situation of "women proletarians" who have neither money nor opportunity to work. Like the salon Jew, a woman can be accepted only in the drawing room; outside of it "a robe falls from her — not only a royal, but a human one." Marta, the protagonist of this much-translated story, is a widow with a small child, an impoverished woman who takes her own life. The final image of Marta is that of "a dark figure who, in the shape of an immobile stain, was lying on the white bed linens of snow", an image that honors the humanity of this 'stain'.

In a similar vein of solidarity, Orzeszkowa takes readers to an impoverished Jewish village (shtetl) in her novel Meir Ezofowicz, where she begins "Has anyone ever heard of a place named Szybow and the people who lived there? Were they white or black or, perhaps, brown? Dear reader! I shall try to acquaint you with that abode of human misery." Orzeszkowa reversed the terms of anti-semitic prejudice by comparing this to a "huge stain of soot" on the nation, a reversal of the imagery of blackness. After publication of Meir Ezofowicz, she was accused of accepting a bribe and turning into a "courtier of the Jews". Orzeszkowa remains memorable in her singularity.

Doctor Judym, a late nineteenth-century inteligent who cares for the peasants, finds himself relegated to their class in Stefan Zeromski's great novel, Homeless People (1900). Czeslaw Milosz writes that this is "a cruel novel which spares no image of abjection or misery." Dr. Judym, one of the magnificent dreck-heroes of Polish literature, identifies with the suffering of 'human scum', peasants suffering from malaria in the vicinity of — ironically — a fashionable health resort. Where gentry go for the waters during the season, neighboring agricultural laborers live in despair. Two nations, side by side. When Dr. Judym enters the slums of Warsaw, the city of his birth, he returns to the foul end of the city. "The heat of the sun flooded this gutter in the shape of a street. A cemetery-like stench diffused along the narrow neck between Ciepla Street and the square. As of old, the Jewish anthill swarmed." Zeromski's imagery of the agrarian and urban labor pools operates along similar lines: these were the condemned species of modern life, and Zeromski writes in unflagging protest.

Zeromski's leftist positions were ridiculed in his lifetime. Today one leading Polish sociologist, Jerzy Szacki, pronounces Zeromski's ideals as superfluous. In a nation with over sixteen percent unemployment (fifty-seven percent for women) and a third of the population living at or below the near-poverty line, Dickens and Zeromski remain only too topical. Before the Spring is a political bildungsroman set against the panorama of Poland after World War I. It begins in Baku with the massacre of the Armenians and, via the Bolshevik Revolution and Polish-Soviet War, ends with the workers' charge against Poland's presidential palace. The protagonist, Cezary Baryka, returns to a Poland bearing no resemblance to his father's dream of "glass houses"; rather, it is a country of tarpaper-roofed houses with mold-covered walls and dirty windows. Barefooted boys dance in the mud on a slimy street: it is a "Polish-Jewish little town". Throughout the novel, Zeromski mocks a social categorization of sexuality as 'filth' where the realities of daily life are filthier than any sex act.

Poverty and oppression are palpable here, as is the social anger of the working class at these conditions. For contemporary Polish readers in a country where poverty has become the major growth industry, Before the Spring still resonates that anger. In a recent interview with ex-minister of labor and social affairs Leszek Miller, he pointed to Cezary Baryka as an admirable character but one who had been overtaken by despair in the face of capitalism. Miller followed immediately with an observation that "The aim of a leftist party is to build a country in which garbage dumps are used for collecting garbage, not for searching for food and finding dead newborn babies."

View of 19th-century Lodz textile mills

No less topical as a dreck-writer is Wladyslaw Stanislaw Reymont (1867-1925), the 1924 Nobel Prize winner, and his Promised Land (1899). The novel is set in Lodz, a late nineteenth-century textile boom city, quite multicultural at the time. It opens with thousands of workers "crawling out of side streets which resembled canals full of mud, from the houses which stood on the outskirts of the city not unlike huge refuse heaps". These are peasants turned industrial proletarians who still live in squalid shacks and mud huts. Capitalism in the textile factories literally consumes their lives, sending them back to the human dung heap once it has finished with their vitality and bodies.

Eliza Orzeszkowa Where humans are 'filth', social systems of degradation inevitably emerge to maintain the barrier between purity and contamination. The idea of barriers against 'filth' returns repeatedly to the door of 'dirty sex', from which it arguably emerged in the first place. Throughout eastern European literature, gentry were both sexually attracted and repelled by peasants and Jews. The elemental sexuality of peasants, their blind instinct, is a staple idea of modernist Polish novels, from Cham by Orzeszkowa, with its Tolstyan belief in the robustness of peasantry; through Reymont's The Peasants, where temperaments explode in country dances and incest; to Redlinski's Konopielka, which features a stranger-village teacher initiated into the lushness and brutality of sex by a local farmer. Too, men and women writers alike made Jewish women into femmes fatales. A psychological modernist like Zofia Nalkowska (1884-1954) invested them with hypersexuality, a narrative practice that echoes with the images of Jews from Krafft-Ebbing and Otto Weininger. Equally in the naturalistic social novels of Reymont there is a superabundance and excess surrounding the images of Jewish women (e.g. Zukerowa in The Promised Land). Their sexuality is that of not-one-of-us, ideal for love-hate relationships.

The excluded resented each other. Peasants and Jews vied for recognition and co-opted the tricks of their oppressors, perpetuating a pecking order. Paranoid civic suspicions multiplied. "All citizens in Poland, irrespective of creed and nationality, must enjoy equal rights," the Polish Peasant Party announced in 1935, but added a rider that "the Jews, however, as has been proved, cannot be assimilated and are a conspicuously alien nation within Poland. And this [anti-semitism] was not just an eastern European problem."

Bruno Schulz In this 1930s environment Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), that master-writer whose prose shivers with luminous fever, published his best work as Europe entered its pre-war twilight of hope against violence. In his small body of work, written in a voice sometimes comparable to Borges and sometimes to Kafka, Schulz writes the final years of a world about to die and of characters that stride purposefully through a Dostoevskian underworld about to boil over. For Schulz, a story was about "the bankruptcy of reality" where words, in a reverse of Classicism's reverence for past models, "are fragments of lost but eternal stories ... we are building our houses with broken pieces of sculptures and ruined statues of gods as the barbarians did." Similarly, the material atmosphere of a Schulz story often relies upon an overlay of cheap store goods, an environment filled with shop items that have the merest of claims of existence. Schulz recognizes the trash that creates life in his small native town of Drohobycz, but refuses to recognize trash as an inevitable bar against imagination. Polish classicism's bifurcation of aesthetics into immediately separable high and low values meets its repudiation in Schulz's pulsing prose poems that find transcendence in everyday poverty, even as Schulz infuses descriptions of that deprivation with loving hatred.

The story "August", which introduces Schulz's first short story collection, The Street of the Crocodiles (1933), is a premier garbage tale. A half-idiot woman, Tluja, sits amidst a heap of garbage, divided off by a fence from a wild garden that "offered free of charge the cheapest fruits of wild lilac, the heady acquavint of mint and all kinds of August trash." Nature itself has become trash. Tluja sits in mad orgiastic majesty "On a heap of discarded junk of old saucepans, abandoned single shoes, and chunks of plaster, [where] stood a bed, painted green, propped up by two bricks where one leg was missing." Kupa (crap) reigns here. Tluja herself is offal: she has no language, no access to society. She is aphasic; her only utterances are elemental sounds, shrieks of nature, organic signs. She is chthonic, the earth without make-up. Tluja is a goddess in the universe of exclusion; she is Venus simultaneously reduced and elevated to a shtetl idiot. The excluded — women, peasants and Jews — have merged into one figure.

By introducing his fiction under the aegis of Tluja's metaphoric reign from the trash heap, Schulz identifies himself as a worshipper of detritus and as understanding the tantalization of nausea. He was a Platonic lover of Tluja; he refused to look away from her humanity. She appears again in another story, "The Comet", where "In a faraway square the mad Tluja, driven to despair by the nagging of small boys, would dance her wild saraband, lifting high her skirt to the amusement of the crowd." Jerzy Ficowski, a scholar of Schulz, notes that Tluja was an authentic character, a famed mad beggar of Drohobycz. Bruno Schulz died in the gutter of the Drohobycz ghetto, shot down in the street by a Gestapo officer. Together with the other human trash, he too disappeared. Yet the intensely humane — to the extent that 'humane' properly characterizes humanity — qualities of his fiction prevailed.

Given the extermination of some three million Polish Jews, that story became part of a no-longer-Polish literature that drew on Polish narrative tradition even as it separated itself into a new literature of survivorship. The textile factory imagery of Reymont's Promised Land perhaps supplies an unwittingly prophetic harbinger for Ka'tzetnik's House of the Dolls (1952), a Hebrew novel by an ex-Pole that opens in the 'rag room' of a concentration camp where women salvage clothes from recently-dead transportees. Ka'tzetnik (Hebrew acronym for the author's tattooed number) writes a horrific story about a slave-sex camp bordello where humans have joined the rag pile. Everyday industrial life in textile plants that consume miserable human labor for profit has metastasized into a specialized factory for the consumption of 'undesirable' humans through sex and murder. In this world of death-manufacture, its production, products and labor are all irredeemably filthy. The literature of Polish filth and dreck-heroes has arrived at one logical dead end. The Holocaust did not end the expressive canons of Polish Classicism; it conclusively demonstrated their obscene inadequacy.

Feeling Eastern, Feeling Offal

Garbage keeps coming, and it arrives as ever-redundant allegory whose makers cannot recognize its redundancy. As social ejecta and ejaculata, garbage people are but brief transients in memory. Only their fall and burial in the compost pile of materialism remains for recitation. The indecency of garbage lies in that its imagery and allegories remain so persistently resistant to heed and comprehension, as if Schulz's Tluja lived in vain. Eastern Europe's trash people have immigrated alongside others like them, and now Hollywood scheissmeisters tell ancient allegories like they were fresh and without history.

In the final scene of John Herzfeld's newly-released Fifteen Minutes, a Russian hood who catches flying lead in the final shootout lies dying on the pavement in Battery Park. With his stolen video camera he shoots the last scene in his documentary of a murder and arson spree in Manhattan: using a remaining ounce of strength he films the Statue of Liberty. The famous lines of Emma Lazarus in "The New Colossus" — "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to be free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore" — has become a message that America's shores now flood over with the most contemptible and vile trash of eastern Europe.

Instead of Lazarus' nineteenth-century sentimentalism towards "homeless, tempest-tossed" immigrants, Fifteen Minutes portrays New York City as overwhelmed by Czech, Slovak, and Russian hoodlums, psychopaths and prostitutes. A new pan-eastern Europeanism seemingly supplies America's greatest metropolis with its negative libidinal forces. Even within this eastern European underground of illegal and violent aliens, there is a hierarchy of trashiness: a wily Czech murderer dominates his dimwitted Russian accomplice, and Slovakian tarts establish themselves through their sex talents. Speaking hard-to-distinguish languages, these pan-Easterners become a force that exploits internal American weaknesses and that must be overcome to re-establish a national domestic coherence. Fifteen Minutes works hard to maneuver carefully around accusations of nativism by introducing 'good' ethnicity in the form of 'good cop' Robert DeNiro's Greek-American love interest, but the basic message remains: eastern Europe is spilling its trash onto US shores. If eastern Europe shaped garbage stories as texts of political exigency, in the United States the overlapping texts of immigration and garbage read as xenophobia. Ironically, American critics have treated this film near-exclusively as a comment on hyperbolic television news magazines in the US, entirely ignoring its representation of eastern European-ness.

Fifteen Minutes writes political allegory anew. The allegories of garbage, trash, waste, rubbish, and filthy refuse are dynamic, subject to constant mutation and re-elaboration according to immediate need. As allegories, they are both intensely contingent and historically determined. To speak of 'trash' is to join these streams of immediate contingency and historicity for rhetorical effect in labeling. That act of labeling, as BS editors Annalee Newitz and Matt Wray explored in White Trash (1997), participates in and endorses systems of social supremacy. Social labeling is crucial towards understanding of allegory, since its purpose is to convey clear information about the message that can be derived. Allegory is as relative as label-switching can make it, or as historical comparability can bear.

When Kurt Russell playing Sgt. Todd gets dumped on Arcadia 234 Waste Disposal Planet in the simple-minded science-fiction film Soldier (1998), its allegory of a battle for human values is recognizably similar to the allegorical narratives of postwar eastern European films where soldiers fight amidst rubble for their claim on home and humanity. Trash defines the antithesis of value and the permutations of allegory weave themselves around this central dystopian postulate. Yet because trash is part of humanity's existence and no human culture has lived without its refuse heaps, a redeeming value remains within trash. That irreducible connection to humanity within trash, even as jettisoned refuse, registers a minimal claim for human desires.

As the subject of allegory, trash speaks to a claim on redemption. It voices the resistance of an animate humanity to being rendered inanimate, to forced obsolescence and disposal. To be rendered into trash is to exit from history; it is forcible ejection from any claim on contemporary life or modernity. An illegal alien inhabiting Manhattan is attempting to make precisely that claim of possession on a contemporary existence, its values and its technologies. Wajda's sewer rats swarmed onwards as allegory: they eventually emerged not from a Warsaw manhole, but a manhole on Wall Street.

Capitalism prevails for the moment in eastern Europe, yet revisionist capitalism has no intrinsically greater strength than other preceding revisionisms. The 'dustbin of history', that metaphoric phrase of dismissal from historical importance and validation, is a capacious guest-house. Indeed, there is more history made in the dustbin than outside it. Given sufficient repression, attempted de-listings from history have a habit of emerging to read like bright, bold theater marquees. Peoples, names and spirits re-appear; sexualities emerge and merge; ideas re-circulate. For better or worse, yesterday's garbage is tomorrow's headliner act.

That is a hopeful thought for eastern Europe, which today is in desperate economic straits. If rubble signified new promise in post-war eastern Europe, that same rubble came to speak to the collapsing state of domestic economies. Poverty syndromes and national self-contempt are widespread throughout the region. A decade after the collapse of the neo-Stalinist authoritarianism that rotted out from within, the region has staggered into the new century with only bare hopes.

Most of those hopes center on entry into the European Union, which will take years to accomplish and decades to achieve real effect. The massive scale of eastern Europe's problems have led to significant resistance among current EU members to absorbing new member states from the region. Some would divide Europe into privileged countries and 'trash countries', and nearly all would enforce that division within eastern Europe itself (e.g. the Czech Republic is more EU-acceptable than Romania). Hierarchical entitlements are being drawn between European nations as they were once drawn, overtly and legally, between peoples within a European nation — and such distinctions never disappeared for the Roma. As the formal boundaries of the EU shift eastwards, Europe is discovering the social constitution of its anti-eastern prejudices. Such fears seem near inevitably associated with dirt and disorder, with disturbed norms of cleanliness and good order. Eastern Europe's disorder and despair threatens the supposedly neat organization of governments and markets that have created relative prosperity in the West.

Anti-eastern political expression dwells on the prospect of millions of unemployed and presumptively dirty eastern Europeans pouring westwards, without the restraint of borders. Notions of primitive versus advanced cultures emerge, cloaked in economic rhetoric. The political resistance in western Europe to eastern countries joining the European Union emerges from historic ideas concerning an unsanitary nature, a backward existence and a lesser fate. Easterners have joined Turkish gastarbeiters as the new saujuden of Europe. Old archetypes of repulsion have found fresh expression, and Easterners who greeted the prospective disappearance of European borders as a progressive advance have grown resentful of diplomatically phrased delay and rejection.

In eastern Europe there is an ironic return to pandering after western Europe, as Classicism once affected the formal precepts of French academic style. Whether aesthetics follow economics, or the arguable reverse, there is no questioning the direction of cultural mimicry. Paris need not fear. If eastern Europe is once again engaged in breathless pursuit of its western neighbors, it is only because western Europe is marketing American-style trash and junk food. This, after all, is the age of Golden Arches and American Classicism.

The white shirt of Classicism has returned to eastern Europe. It has re-entered beneath a flood of consumer goods. Its favorite new life styles exclude the dirty niches where private and social life bloomed under Communism, such as night-long disputes over vodka about Doestoevsky, full of dirty talk in dirty apartments, and particularly in dirty kitchens under a hanging light-bulb. Family, friends and antagonists gathered to bemoan the shortages of toilet paper and raise toasts to their own opinions about a shitty system. This dissatisfaction and dissent was intellectual, working class, and sexual heat on Communist Party dung, and its gases bubbled up throughout Eastern bloc shitholes.

Now fade into a new capitalist pseudo-cleanliness. White shirts and daisies in dung again. Old lexicons and iconographies of the gentry have new marketing managers. Commercials celebrate the imagery and products of social elevation and superior cleanliness, such as bug-killers and detergents (including Ariel detergent, whose brand name Jöerg Haider converted into an anti-semitic slur of dreck and corruption). Postmodern dworki are well-supplied with cleanliness, complacency and imported whiskey. The 'free markets' of this New Classicism have not stopped the abjection and exclusion of others; instead, social abominations have intensified. The Czechs want walled ghettoes for the Roma. In Poland, ghettoization increases between the winners of the market economy and the unemployed, between the haves and the have-nots.

This is a Second World, between the milkshake of the First and the polluted well water of the Third, an in-between world of loathing others and being loathed. This is neither East nor West. This is the trash-heaped faultline of neo-capitalism longing for the exuberance of its dreck-heroes.

Tomasz Kitlinski is an academic condemned to wander abroad on the Polish railroad system. Joe Lockard is a confused Bad Subjects editor who wanders about the English department at University of California - Davis. Thanks to Charlie Bertsch, Michael Hoffman, Barbara Jadczak, Ewa Pagacz, Michal Peprnik, and Joel Schalit for their assistance with this essay.

Copyright © 2001 by Tomasz Kitlinski and Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.