Some reflections on the literary life as glimpsed through the Diaries

1.  Iwo’s life in the 50’s and 60’s is one of constant cultural stimulation.  He’s ceaselessly traveling across Europe to meet all sorts of people, mainly literary — authors, publishers, translators.  To a lesser extent he meets musicians, theater people, dancers.  To a far lesser extent — bureaucrats and politicians.  And — as far as I can tell, no one else. One scientist gets a mention — we don’t know his field and he is, at any rate, “stupid”.  Thus, though there are constant references — by Iwo and others — to writing for “the audience”, “the public” — literati, it is thought, have an important educational role to play: guiding the society at large, shaping public opinion — the truth is far more prosaic:  they write for each other and no one else enters the picture.  Or, we suspect, much cares.

2.  This ghetto-like isolation of the literati explains my youthful frustration with the pomo brigade at the university.  I was interested in literature, but my main subject of study was science, where one is trained to think rigorously, avoid cognitive bias, and write concisely, to the purpose, in a succession of falsifiable statements:  to a scientist, a claim which cannot be tested is a sin.  The style of discourse — perhaps I should say “level” — at the department of literature shocked me with its sheer emptiness.  If literature had any ambition to play a meaningful social role, her practitioners were in a bad need scientific training.  The cure?  Several courses in advanced calculus, symbolic logic, and perhaps something in inorganic chemistry, I thought.

3. It seems that Europe of forty years ago had a much more tightly knit cultural elite, despite the iron curtain which divided it.  People knew each other, visited each other, translated, published, read and commented each other’s works to an extent which today seems… fabulous.  Large role in this was played by emigres from Eastern Europe — very many of them Poles, and most of those — Polish Jews — who became scattered across the continent, but maintained contacts with each other, and thus provided the tendons of continental unity.  How things have changed:  their children have assimilated to their new societies, the old sense of supra-european cultural community seems gone.  Also, no doubt, business has flowed away from the traditional literary venture:  film, rock music, the advent of the commercial best-seller, and perhaps tourism, too, have eaten literature’s lunch and rendered her economically irrelevant.  There is not enough money in the business to finance constant travel and socializing.

4.  One of the concerns the literati of the Diaries have is with their legacy:  the question of what will remain of them.  And the book’s overwhelming impression is that of the hundreds upon hundreds of people mentioned in the Diaries — the footnotes give their abridged biographies, quoting thousands of books they have collectively written — hardly anyone is remembered today, hardly any title rings a bell.  Literature is like all art:  only the best three become immortal, everyone else vanishes without a trace.

Iwo, one last time

Throughout the Diaries, Iwo comments on the stupidity of various people around him, usually, it seems, with good reason.

Then, on 11 December 1961, he writes in the silence of his home office:

A huge ignorance envelopes one in this silence, powerful and gently rocking. The awareness that one is not going to understand anything — not the world, not oneself — which is to say oneself, really.  Never has the Cartesian maxim cogito ergo sum seemed more nonsensical than now, in this room.  Sum ergo cogito?  That’s no better.  What is the meaning of this stream of unceasing associations which is constantly leaking within me, like a damaged old film, old film with “snow”.  Is a disorderly succession of associations — thought?

In short:  a recognition of the fact otherwise well apparent already:  that Iwo’s own intellect has proven insufficient to manage his own life.  But, average as he is, Iwo is a great man:  famous, published, remembered after his death; certainly intelligent enough to see the intellectual shortcomings of others.

So are all the stupid men he sees around himself:  famous, published, “successful”.

The conclusion would seem to be that we are all, as a species, doomed to struggle ineffectually with our life, a life we will never grasp for the simple reason that we do not have the intellect necessary to grasp it.  We are too stupid to be ourselves.

We would do much better as mushrooms.

Iwo disproves Afer

Constantly, on every page of the Diaries, I am puzzled by Iwo’s manner of thinking. It should therefore not be surprising that his aesthetic preferences also boggle the mind.  His favorite Michealangelos are the Rondandini Pieta and the Christ of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — precisely the two works which turned me off the Bigmouth; at the Venetian Accademia, he picks out for special appreciation one of my greatest pet peeves — The Tempest; and… Marco Basaiti’s Cristo Morto; at Prague he waxes lyrical before a Corot; and speaks highly of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. I bet he thought The Scream was great, too.

I have once written an essay explaining how the theory of evolution predicts that a number of different, mutually incompatible brains can be expected to exist within the human population and how individual aesthetic preferences may be indicative of the owner’s brain type.  I have since seen proof of this model everywhere.  The Diaries are just one more instance of it. This is not meant as a condemnation:  I like Iwo in the way in which one likes elephants or zebra or jacaranda trees: wonderful creatures with whom we get to share the planet.  But I feel no sense of identification, no recognition.

Afer was wrong.

(Publius Terrentius Afer. You know: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”).

That happiness is a function of good cerebration

I have always suspected that more was to be learned from memoirs and diaries than from novels.  Mostly, this is not true:  both are fiction.  But sometimes one finds a good one.  Iwo’s Diaries pay off — in a number of small ways.

One of their more interesting entries comes on 14 December 1960.  Here Iwo reports having come across a record of his own lecture, one which he had delivered in Kiev in… 1917, aged 23. How smart I was at 23! he says.  And continues:

Going up to Warsaw subsequently was my undoing: I fell in with Tuwim and Slonimski; their shallow and arbitrary views, their silly jokes, their ignorance overwhelmed me, snaring me into their net.  I was unable to develop my philosophy further.

Tuwim and Slonimski, with Iwaszkiewicz cofounders of the Skamander poetic group, were Poland’s Monty Python as well as her most prominent literary figures. Tuwim, highly regarded today, has always irritated me with his stress on “ethics” and “intuition” — which is, at bottom, to say:  his lack of learning and inability to perform rigorous analysis (intuition and ethics being things those unable to think for themselves resort to). For this, I have got a lot of grief from all sorts of otherwise likeable people who were into Tuwim — probably because of their own lack of learning.

I am pleased to hear that, aged sixty-five, Iwo had come to share my own impression.


The fragment of his 1917 lecture which Iwo quotes isn’t exactly high energy particle physics, yet it is very telling. It contains the following lines:

A thoroughgoing synthesis is not possible.  Any synthesis must contain dissonance, a paradox.  (…)  For this reason, the question what is better, death on a mountain or life in the valley, shall always remain open.

What is interesting about it is this:  these lines are in fact about happiness.  Indirectly, Iwo is linking his unhappiness at sixty-five to his lack of learning as a youth — his lack of thorough grounding in philosophy, and his failure to follow up the little he had.

About this we agree:  I have elsewhere argued that any man still unhappy at sixty-five proves his intellectual inadequacy.  Unhappiness is OK in teens, who have not had control over their lives; and in young people who are assumed to be still building their future happiness, and therefore temporarily delaying satisfaction; but unhappy sixty-five year-olds have no one to blame but themselves.

A special kind of blindness

The Diaries of Iwaszkiewicz are unlike most:  entries are rare — a few a month — but long, and carefully crafted.  They are small essays, really — some running to a dozen pages.  What an improvement over, say, Thomas Mann’s, one thinks.  Here’s a man who treats himself with the respect he deserves:  a man writing to himself in full, carefully cogitated sentences.  I do know why this honor should be usually reserved for strangers.

Then, half-way through, one learns from a footnote that the diaries were from the first intended for publication: the author had them typed; he then revised the typescript.  In an instant, they deflate:  they were written for others, after all.  Worse:  they become suspect:  it is now hard to imagine that they were not intended to color the truth a little, to present their author in a better light. On second glance, some essays do feel like an apology (for the author’s homosexuality, for example); others seem to set out to set the record straight (“what really happened”).

The author disguises this objective by a clever ruse: frequent confession of his fear of oblivion.  He fears, he says, that his works will be forgotten, yes; and worse:  that no one will remember him as he really was.  He means to say:  all I write here is god’s own truth because I am trying to preserve myself for posterity as I really was.

Tricky Jaroslaw.


Some threads in the Diaries do sound convincing, though.  Such as the oft repeated complaint about loneliness and abandonment: friends do not love me, my wife has become a stranger, my lover is cheating me, my children do not remember me. I am only remembered when people need money.  Etc. (Old men are often enamored of this theme).  Alongside these complaints lie oft-repeated declarations that happiness is about other people, having them in your life, loving them and being loved in return.  The same ideas are expressed in contemporaneously composed Slawa i chwala, a semi-autobiographical novel.  It’s hard to escape the feeling that this at least is an authentic, honestly recorded perception:  the author believes what he says.

But then, with surprising frequency we encounter entries like this one, on 12 October 1956, describing a magical moment at Stawisko, his countryside home (photo above):

How I adore such evenings. Windy, and quite cold, but not too cold. Trees stand quiet, the heart of the forest seems lost in thought. And this abandoned forest, this overgrown pond, gigantic ancient willows at the water’s edge, and clouds covering half the moon…  The pond’s water is black and red. And this feeling of fulfillment in the air, completion, in all of nature. Everything’s closed. One only waits for the last leaves to drop. And the rye-fields green with fresh, wonderfulness greenness. My beloved season — Stawisko is so beautiful, so mysterious, so wild, so lonely — quite like me. I am so well on such days — I so much do not want anyone else… the noise of Warsaw seems so foreign to me. Such evenings accustom one to his old age, to his loneliness. Oh, that I could remain here forever! Perhaps, I ought to have myself buried here, there, under that large oak?

Time and again, Iwaszkiewicz tells us, and with conviction that the only happiness one can ever find is in other people; but when he does record moments of his happiness, they are more frequently than not like this: lonely, quiet, retired, away from people.  Often, at such times he expresses the thought how much he does not want people around him; and how much he just wants to remain in his beloved Stawisko, in peace and quiet, taking in its beautiful nature undisturbed.

In short, contrary to the aforementioned belief that happiness is other people, l’enfer, c’est les autres.

A question, then.  If Iwaszkiewicz is happy at home and does not go out of Stawisko, why does he?  He does not have to.  At 65, he has reached a natural retirement age.  He is successful:  he lives in a beautiful, huge house on a large piece of land which he owns outright; 45 years’ of publications still in print throw off considerable residual income; thus there is absolutely no need for him to work an editor’s job; to stand for his parliamentary seat; to be the chairman of this NGO or that; to attend all the functions at home and abroad.  So why does he?

Futher, when he records these moments of happiness and reflects upon them, is he… lying?  Or does he somehow not see the truth of what he is saying?  Does he perhaps — not notice it, so to speak?  Perhaps forget it as soon as he has put it to paper?

This kind of blindness is a common failure in very intelligent, successful men.  For instance, similar mental confusion is recorded in Francis Bacon’s essay Of Great Place whose point — that those who seek their happiness in the opinion of others are bound to be disappointed — seemed to be the precise opposite of what Bacon himself practiced — and went on to practice for years (while assiduously pursuing a political career).

Very intelligent people, it seems, are programmed to miss seeing the truth staring them in the face:  that happiness is at hand.  And that is has nothing to do with men.