A Small Center of the World


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April 26, 2022

A Small Center of the World

  • art
  • coexistence
  • Memory
  • small center
Photo: from Borderland – Pogranicze, Sejny Facebook page.

There would be no world, this alleyway in the galaxy where love is possible, without small centers of the world. 

There was once, before time, a great center. Memory of it lays sleeping in the exile of man, in the death of animals and in the silence of plants, in the shells of a broken vessel, in the sparks of light hidden in dark matter, in the suffering of existence. Our cosmos became the dust of microcosmoses, and only thanks to this did its breakdown not result in its final annihilation. The world survived in the smallest of things. The world direly craves small centers of the world.

There is no great center. If one is coming into existence, it is merely as a temptation of History, a skeleton of illusion in the eyes of those who thirst for domination. Then it claims authority, it needs ideology and power; then it wants to be the only one. It lays waste to the small ones It devours them, before itself falling into ruin. It always ends this way: it grows while inflicting death, until itself becoming death’s victim.

When the center grows into a Great Number, only that which is the smallest and loving can stand against it. Worldly temptation, and dread when faced with the strength of the greatest one, leads us to desire to control many things, but not ourselves, we flee from ourselves. In this way battles against those who usurp greatness are lost. Goliath will never be vanquished by another Goliath, only by David.

A small center of the world does not want to be the only one, it perceives itself as a small part co-existing with others. Their power is its power; it does not nourish itself on the weakness of others; it does not need to dominate its surroundings in order to develop. It makes no claims to exclusivity, exceptionalism, or preeminence in any sphere, it asks only for dialogue, empathy and shared responsibility.

An art especially nurtured in a small center of the world is the acceptance of gifts. This art speaks to the fact that we are not self-sufficient; life is a communing, a being-together created by the obligation to reciprocate gifts. The world turns to us through gifts. We can choose to not accept them, to not reciprocate. We can choose to exploit them against the intentions with which they were offered. This gives us a feeling of independence and mastery. But a small center of the world is not “the hub of the universe”; it is codependent, free precisely through its responsibility for coexistence. A small center of the world exists insofar as others can contribute gifts.

A small center of the world opens itself to the world. To the whole world. This does not come easily; all the more so it does not take place over the heads of those who are closest. Cosmopolitans and internet users, in possession of passports granting world citizenship, can unexpectedly find themselves in new ghettos, closed off by ideologies of openness and globally disseminated communications technologies. These things facilitate trans-border citizenship and contacts among people of similar tastes and abilities living on different continents. Yet, they separate us from our neighbors from a different cultural milieu, especially from those who do not want, or for various other reasons—among them material—are unable to join our civic forum or communication network. A small center of the world opens itself to that neighbor who is hardest to bear, because he is the most real Other, in the face of whom one wants to flee into the world, far away. In the meantime “the whole world” becomes accessible for the neighbor to whom one can become close. Only then comes the rest.

A small center of the world is welcoming. It accepts everyone who enters it and everything within its orbit—each tiny piece of life, each sliver of time. It does not bestow citizenship upon one person, while blacklisting another. Even those subject to the Great Number and infected with lordship over others reside here. Even the great center, created by people after the Exile, is but only a part of a small center of the world, where everything begins to coexist, where every border is internal and none is external. Those who shatter and stomp upon things that are small are also part of a small center of the world. So, too, are those rootless, those who flee from home with a feeling of superiority over what they desire to leave behind, because they are ashamed of where they come from and whom they live among—and so all those whom we could describe as provincial—they, too, will live here.

A small center of the world is a provincial space capable of emancipation from provincialism. It nestles wherever a new space for development materializes. It requires pioneers, long-term organic building, the freedom to do something new. It is created by people hungry for journeys beyond the horizon of familiarity, people who willfully rebel against rigid rules and absolutist claims. It respects what is singular and individual, yet leads individualists and “free spirits” beyond the frontier of “I” and “mine,” towards a free act of creation rooted in the life of a collective and evolving in continuous dialogue with that collective. Seekers of truth and discoverers of the world’s secrets, in great centers adored for their genius, here come upon the border of knowledge and wisdom, a border that cannot be overcome in solitude, but only in being-with-others. Monastery chambers, artists’ studios, philosophers’ libraries, workshops of the most varied kinds, breeding grounds and family dwellings—each of these spaces is only an entryway into the circle of the collective, a nameless fire burning in its midst.

A small center of the world loves the past for the future (Inscription engraved on the grave of Zygmunt Gloger in Stare Powązki in Warsaw, burial plot no. 52, says: “He loved the past for the future.”)

Its foundation lays deep in the layers of remembering; here work on the archaeology of memory has no end. The opening of this provincial space to the world is neither an estranging nor a building ex nihilo. There exist on the surface of life so many divisions, wounds, unsolvable conflicts and opposing claims—on this shallow ground these made it easy to build worlds separated from and closed to one another. One can try to detach, to efface the traces of the past, to hide behind a screen of ignorance and apathy. But a small center of the world is not a haven for blunderers, who build for the short-term, haphazardly, heedless of the future. Here, in pursuit of openness and the art of living together, one descends into the depths of memory, into the very guts of a place, a palimpsest of different cultures and different fates. What on the surface was a deep divide, in these deep recesses is entwined; here one uncovers a common root. Here becoming rooted is a form of recovering the future.

A small center of the world is founded on the continuity of tradition. Let us not forget that this is a live, flowing river, not a guarded reservoir of still water. Faithfulness to tradition means not memorializing, but continuing. If we become aware of who those were, to whom we want to remain loyal, we will come to understand that the continuity of tradition is determined by the world’s ceaseless changing, the crossing of borders, the revolt against stagnant forms of life. The secret of a small center of the world is that instead of tying the hands of pioneers and innovators with the imperative to preserve a legacy or care for heirlooms, a small center of the world gives them the possibility for a searching, for a creating that embraces the past, uncovers its future potential, finds for itself new forms of expression, and at once liberates it from ossified forms of “cultivating tradition.”

A small center of the world shapes the world through romanticizing it. Organic work and Polish positivist traditions are an authentic form of romantic engagement in the world. This is the same tradition of Bildung, to which Novalis gives expression:  “The world must be romanticized. That is how it finds its primaeval sense. Romanticizing is quality heightening (…) By giving common things superior sense, ordinary things – a mysterious look, familiar things – the status of unfamiliar things, complete things – an appearance of endlessness – it romanticizes them.” (Novalis, Uczniowie z Sais (eng. “The Novices of Sais”), translated by Jerzy Prokopiuk. Warsaw 1984, p. 96.) A small center of the world acquires a higher meaning through qualitative strengthening of what is closest to us.

The cornerstone of a small center of the world is an invisible bridge. In a world after the collapse, a world stigmatized by exile, the only true material that can bind broken ties originates in anti-matter. Great centers need bridges to enable their expansion and domination over others. They have at their disposal only material edifices dependent upon a technology that is ever more detached from the layer of myth concealing the truth about the building of a passage between different shores. Because in a small center of the world all borders are internal, these borders, excluding no one, envelop very different people, and the fabric of life is woven from the ceaseless effort to cross to the shore of the Other. This is a question not only of spiritual life, but also of daily practice. Material fasteners and highway arches facilitate physical transportation, but in no way do they determine a crossing to the shore of the Other. The only real bridges come from antimatter—invisible, they build a connective fabric among all slivers of life, penetrating all the crevices of existence, into the places where memory and emotions, suffering and loss, difference and lack of understanding all live.

A small center of the world exists not thanks to those are in the right, those waiting on their own shore for others to join them, but thanks to those who reach out towards the Other.

A small center of the world is created on the line of Return. It finds its salvation in what is smallest.

Krzystof Czyżewski is a practitioner of ideas, writer, philosopher, culture animator, theatre director, editor. He is co-founder and president of the Borderland Foundation (1990) and director of the Centre “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations” in Sejny. Together with his team, in Krasnogruda on the Polish-Lithuanian border he revitalized a manor house once belonged to Czesław Miłosz family, and initiated there an International Center for Dialog (2011).

 Among his books are: The Path of the Borderland (2001), Line of Return (2008), Trust & Identity: A Handbook of Dialog (2011), Miłosz – Dialog – Borderland (2013), Miłosz. A Connective Tissue (2014), The Krasnogruda Bridge. A Bridge-Builder’s Toolkit (2016), A Small Center of the World. Notes of the Practitioner of Ides (2017, Tischner Award for the best essayist book of the year), Żegaryszki (2018, haiku poems), and Toward Xenopolis (2019).

Initiator of intercultural dialogue programs in Europe, Caucasus, Israel, Central Asia, Indonesia, Bhutan and USA. Teacher and lecturer, a visiting professor of Rutgers University and University of Bologna. 

He received the title of the Ambassador of European Year of Intercultural Dialog (Brussels). He is a laureate of Dan David Prize 2014 and Irena Sendlerowa Prize 2015. Together with the Borderland team he is the 2018 Princess Margriet European Award for Culture (Amsterdam) laureate. 

 Text delivered during a Zygmunt Gloger Prize award ceremony.  Łomża, 14th of October, 2016. Translated by Justyna Kuschnik  and Marsi Shore.


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