This is MY Grist for the Consumerist Mill

One of the ways that Polish people dealt more effectively with the collective trauma of communism during the communist era than they have afterward was the extreme political nature of much popular art and the cat and mouse game that writers played with the censors. The idea was to push up as hard as possible against the line of what could be said before getting pushed back down.

Humor and metaphor were among the most effective weapons used in this long running struggle and comedies were often able to expose the grotesque reality of life under communism in ways that more serious fare was prevented from doing. Similarly popular music could sometimes slip in messages (not being a ‘serious’ art) that serious authors could not say.

One ingenious example is a song form 1984, entitled Mój jest ten kawałek podłogi (This is my piece of the floor) performed by the group Mr. Zoob (rhymes with loop) sometimes written Mr. Z’oob or Mr. Z’OOB. The name of the group is actually a cross linguistic pun, meant to suggest (in its altnernate spellings) z’ub or z’UB (the UB was the secret police).

The song itself is one of the definitive…. examinations of a certain mentality that communism bred in Poland.

Here’s the original text of the song with my (non-singing) translation.

Mój jest ten kawałek podłogi      This is my piece of floor

Znowu ktoś mnie podgląda,      Somone’s peeping in at me again
Lekko skrobie do drzwi       Lightly scraping at the door.
Strasznym okiem cyklopa,      The terrible eye of a cyclops
Radzi, gromi i drwi!     Advises, threatens and mocks (me).

Mój jest ten kawałek podłogi,      This is MY piece of floor.
Nie mówcie mi więc, co mam robić!      Don’t tell me, then what to do.
Mój jest ten kawałek podłogi,      This is MY piece of floor.
Nie mówcie mi więc, co mam robić!      Don’t tell me then what to do.

Meble już połamałem,      I’ve already broken up the furnirture,
Nowy ład zrobić chcę.      I want to create a new order.
Tynk ze ścian już zdrapałem,      Now I’ve scraped the plaster from the walls.
Zamurować czas drzwi!     It’s time to wall up the door!

Wielkie dzieło skończyłem,      I’ve finished (my) great work.
Głód do wyjścia mnie pcha.     Hunger’s pushing me to leave.
Prężę się i napinam,      I stretch and strain,
Lecz mur stoi jak stał.      But the wall (still) stands like it stood.

Mój jest ten kawałek podłogi,      This is MY piece of floor.
Nie mówcie mi więc, co mam robić!      Don’t tell me what to do.
Mój jest ten kawałek podłogi,      This is MY piece of floor.
Nie mówcie mi więc, co mam mówić!      Don’t tell me what to say.

The ‘piece of floor’ is meant to contrast with the more traditional ‘piece of land’ and is probably a reference to an apartment in a communist style giant apartment building (colloquially called ‘deska – plank of wood) that millions of people had to live in after the destruction of WWII.

The song works through a kind of double imagery. The viewpoint is from the person living in the apartment who tries to escape from the madness of public life and have unlimited rule over their tiny mass produced living space. At the same time, the apartment itself is meant to symbolize Poland, broken up inside and walled off from the world. The cyclops is simultaneously a peephole in the door, colloquially referred to as judasz (Judas!) in Polish the state spying system or even TV with its relentless and cruel show of life in other places. The inhabitatants might be pushed by hunger to try to escape but the wall still stands,.

The line “don’t tell me what to do” might seem like a yearning for or expression of freedom, but no one who knows the first thing about communism in Poland is likely to be fooled – it’s an open threat to keep your distance. One coping mechanism in Polish communism was intense territoriality either at home or at work, any space under a person’s control was fiercely guarded and you infringed at your own peril.

There’s more I could say about the song but I won’t except to note the song (or a fragment, slowed down and muzakked within a centimeter of its life) is being used in a commercial for a chain of stores selling various types of flooring.

This seems like the end game of everything in neoliberalism – everything is just grist for the endless consumerist mill. To be sure, I think it’s great that people now have the choice of lots of different types of flooring rather than the very few options in communism – very hard to get wood panelling, flimsy and ugly linoleum and nothing. But on the other hand, it’s just flooring and the weird emotionalism and pseudo-catharsis in the commercial is in its own way almost as grotesque as communist housing. I’d rather have the grotesquerie of consumerism than of communism, but all things considered I’d prefer some dignity even more.


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