I am sitting in an apartment in Wroclaw Poland on the day the Polish president is being buried in the “crypt of kings” Wawel, in Krakow. The president, his wife and 90+ other members of state were killed in a botched airplane landing on the way to commemorate the death of thousands of polish intellectuals at the hands of Soviet Russians at Katyn in 1940.
Today the president, who unlike the US president is more of a ceremonial head of state whose visits countries as an ambassador, is being placed in the chambers of the castle in Krakow were the ancient kings of Poland are buried.
As I sit here in contemporary Poland in the 21st century I watch the burial of this politician on television with my friends. The whole country is watching in rapt attention to the catholic mass that is being broadcast on state owned television. The bishops performing this theater for the masses, reality TV as a flash backward in time, to millennia ago.
How is it possible that in the 21st century a country with 40 million people can be so wholly controlled by a single religious belief? Whose government operates under tenants based not of science or contemporary thought but on moral and ethical systems created 2000 years ago?
We tend in the 21st century to think of the governments controlled by religious belief to be Islamic. Because the propaganda induced fear of Islamic law’s influence over mid eastern government policy is fed to us the way communism’s evils were fed to us in the 1980s we tend to forget places like Poland.
The backdrop to this tragedy in Polish history (one more to add to the many) is that in Iceland a volcano is sending so much ash into the air that for the past 4 days all air traffic in northern Europe has been grounded and hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are stranded and incapable of travel.
So instead of the leaders of the world being able to come to Poland to show their respects the shape of history unfolds that very few and only local dignitaries are able to be present at this auspicious state funeral. Obama, who had intended on coming, had to cancel due to safety issues as all flights are closed and all airports shut. (Somehow the Moroccan president was smart enough to take a propeller based Cessna airplane, whose flight is not impeded by the ash in the air, and landed in a closed airport to the surprise of polish air traffic though German chancellor Merkel has to take a bus.)
I have been observing these proceedings like watching Wim Wender’s epic “Until the End World” unfold, the many plots overlapping and influencing each other. History unfolding in a sad statement of the state of modern man’s incapacity to control the future, to dictate the shape of the world, to surpass the weather.
Always sad at the loss of life, sometimes darkly funny as the seemingly impossible continues to occur as the events unfold, this tragedy of historic proportions plays out on state TV. The camera angles chosen with care, much of the archival footage shown over the past few days turned to black and white (even though it is digital footage shot in the past 5 years) to heighten the sense of mourning and loss. The wide sweeping camera angles that take in the height of the cathedrals ceilings, the Crucifix repeatedly faded over the faces of the mourning rich and elite who filled the church. The Bishop taking center stages in the unfolding media spectacle that is the funeral.
The thought of being the dead president’s twin brother (oh yeah, he has an identical twin, David Lynch couldn’t make the stuff up!) sitting at my brother’s funeral as millions of people watch, my stern and mournful face beamed out across the world as the crew of dozens of lighting, sound and camera people work to make the event the most successful media spectacle in contemporary polish culture, makes me shiver.
During the past week of being in Poland I have watched all of this in awe. I am here because originally I was to perform at the CoCarts festival In Torun. But the festival and all other cultural events have been canceled for the week in honor of “National Mourning”. No festivals, music in clubs, theater, dance or any other cultural or sporting event was permitted to occur under penalty of law. Regardless of your opinion as a polish person of this politician and his religion you must mourn. Bars are still open, for drinking is an equal ad mixture to suffering in Poland, and television can still sell you things, but culture must halt in the build up to today’s reality television requiem.
The crowds of mourning Catholics’ fill the square of Krakow, a space normally full of aging German tourists and the smell of kielbasa, perfect rows of sad faces that could be cgi for all their even rowed appearances. The camera cuts and the long slow zoom down from the ceiling toward the crucifix, shifting to focus on the bishop, the cut again and the sweep slowly over the crowds outside under the late spring sunshine. The blue sky full of light, the crowd silent and well dressed.
The Polish know how to suffer. Stuck between Russia and Germany for so long their territory has been the proving ground of most of the wars of European history. Their independence taken and retaken, the polish have been shuffled and moved, boundaries redrawn again in again in the map rooms of world leaders. A give and take over time decided by outside forces.
The current government of Poland is controlled almost entirely by Catholic ideas, if not directly by the Catholic Church. Its laws recognize no other religion but Catholicism (east or west). As the shadow of the Soviet empire receded back across the boarder to Russia the cold grip of the Vatican closed over Poland. The dogma of the Church shaping its laws, its customs, its holidays. When the leader of Poland dies his burial location is not decided by his family or the state but by a representative of the Church.
I wonder as the future unfolds how the coming generation will deal with the dogmatic principles of Catholicism controlling their lives. How will today’s kids in Poland, with the Internet and international media at their fingertips, accept having their entire existence put through the Pope’s fine comb? For that matter, how much longer will the possibly thousands of abuse victims in Poland finally break the silence that lingers over the country, a silence of children now grown who continue to ignore the past, a silence that will eventually shatter in the future – hopefully ending the martyrdom of Poland at the hands of the Church. But who knows how long it will be before that future is now?