The Beast, lurking in ocean deep — 3rd excerpt from the Diaries of Herling-Grudzinski

Dragoneia is the name of a village near Naples where Herling had his summertime villa.


Dragoneia, July 14, 1977

Perhaps only in the country, where contact with nature is continuing, and where it is still the essence of life, has the Evil preserved a bit of its former character of something identifiable and autonomous; and with symbolism deriving from local traditions. The area surrounding Dragoneia is The Domain of The Snake. Last year, in the deep valley behind the village I saw a group of peasants renovating the tiny abandoned church which had been built there two centuries ago above an entrance to a dark cave to commemorate the long years of struggle which took place there between The Snake and the village’s saintly eremite.

Many years ago my neighbor did meet The Snake at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle in Cava: The Snake had a feathered head and fiery eyes. My neighbor became faint, his legs gave out uder him, he was barely able to summon the strength to fire at it from his shotgun. It was at high noon, the hour of the wild fire of the sun, so he could not be sure what chased off The Snake: the gunshot, or the pealing of bells at nearby churches. He barely managed to drag himself home, half-dead, he collapsed on his bed and during the next few days was unable to speak. His speech had turned into some sort of a devilish rattle. And now – I have witnessed this ever since I have begun to live here – he keeps disappearing for a few days at a time every now and then. People say he wanders without purpose; others — that he lies in wait at the entrance to the cave beneath the castle. He is, on a small scale, the local Ahab stalking the Dragoneian White Whale.

To the faithful sons of the soil and the sea, Melville, if only they knew him, would be easy to understand and believe. There is in them, beneath the thin veneer of Christianity — in any case mainly ritualistic — a kind of pagan-cum-Old-Testament cross of the vision of Evil: not the notion of a struggle between Good and Evil taking place in the soul of each of the faithful, but of the Beast, lurking in the deep of the ocean or the soil:  lying in wait for man.

Melville was a myth-maker writer, he did not care about psychology, he was attracted to Biblical parables. Moby Dick was his masterpiece, as powerful as the roar of the sea, and Billy Budd was his a short, deeply affecting swan song. Billy Budd – the incarnation of Good; Claggart – obsessed by Evil; De Vere who sacrifices an innocent boy at the Altar of the Law, like Abraham –  Isaac. In this beautiful Misterium For Three Voices, the Beautiful Sailor speaks with the voice of a barbarian.

Not that Billy Budd was unable, like children, to understand death; he simply did not feel any irrational fear of death, because this fear is far more common in civilized societies than in the so-called barbarian ones, which remain far closer to Nature; and, as we have said, Billy Budd was an authentic barbarian.

Melville loved the Good Barbarian for the unadorned simplicity of his soul. The Christian soul is confused and helpless, since in her fear of death she lacks the acceptance of death. The natural soul is defined by one single inborn response: of horror before the mystery of Evil.

What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? — 2nd excerpt from Herling-Grudzinski’s Diary Written At Night-time

Alba lunare (“moon-dawn”) is a phenomenon of nature visible in several places on the planet where the air is especially clear and dry allowing the stars to be seen in the sky for several minutes after the rise of the sun.

Panarea, 24 June – 2 July 1977

The Aeolian Islands, near the shores of Sicily, or, in the language of mass tourism, the Seven Pearls: Stromboli, Panarea, Salina, Lipari, Vulcano, Filicudi, Alicudi. Twice a week a ship sails from Naples, early in the evening. Soon after you pass Capri, night falls. A short while yet the red tail of sunset drags itself along the furrow of the sea, and then it is swallowed up by blackness, pure and absolute.

The first pearl one fishes out from the sea,just before dawn, is Stromboli. As the ship drops anchor the end of night looks like the unwrapping of bandages. Layer after layer, scale after scale, the thick darkness reluctantly thins, out of the crater, briefly, a tongue of fire slips out and quickly slips back in, the transport barges grow large, the lighthouse on shelf near the island is extinguished. Now you can see Stromboli clearly. From the black sand of the beach, though the white of the houses, and the green of vegetation of unusual variety of color shades — in places nearly purple, elsewhere near yellow — up to the black cone of the volcano. The first pearl makes one think rather of a rock dug up from the bottom of the sea, a record of drilling, grinding, chipping, pulling, and finishing with colors.

The second pearl is Panarea, my goal. Much smaller – only three kilometers long and two wide, two hundred fifty residents, classical Sicilian landscape: reddish brown scree, greyish-green plates of rock, and piante grasse: the fat cactus vegetation, here and there embroidered with a flush of flower. The only proof of its antiquity is a prehistorical village on Calaiunco, the anchor-shaped peninsula. Circular “huts” made from a few rocks piled one upon the other at the edge of a high cliff, below the sapphire sea, glittering like a sheet of tinfoil, behind naked pink rock, and thistle with blood-red flowers. Guidebooks recommend another oddity, also prehistorically flavored. The moon-break, alba lunare, is known in other places, too; but perhaps only here the pale day emerges from the dull globe in such a magical way.

Outside the tourist season, life is focused on thee points: port-church-graveyard. In the graveyard I found a stone with an inscription which encompasses the whole cycle. A Panarean fisherman, “he always held the oar and the net in his hands, he worshiped God, loved life and the sea, died one hundred and ten years of age”. In the harbor people wait for ships; in front of the church – for it to open. On the day of the patron saint of the island, Saint Peter, the village procession is a procession of a handful of castaways.

There is no electricity on the island and in the evening one lights a kerosene lamp. What tale does the kerosene lamp tell? To me, it tells the tale of childhood and early youth. Things seen, discovered, perhaps only suspected, “at the threshold”, belong to our most secret mythology. Poetry’s whole point, I suppose, that in one’s adult age one tries to restore to things and feelings that uniqueness, which they otherwise are only granted at first touch. What we call evocation — going back in time — is an attempt to see anew, for the second time, the world in its unordered form. In my house on the pond there was no electricity and there the world was assembled: The World Built of Elementary Parts. A word was more than a symbol. Pond, Meadow, Forest, Mill, Hate, Fear – pure categories, in and of themselves – the noumena – gates to regions untouched by foreign foot. Later Reality opens up, and, as she does, visions, naïve symbols, and magical enchantments are all pushed aside. Then, one’s whole adult life one misses that unity, that purity, that mystery of gaze, which functions without words – until it disappears irretrievably. Irretrievably? Restoration of the gaze does happen to great writers, the creators of myths.

For many years now, the infertile soil has not been farmed, not counting a rare vegetable garden. Old vineyards and fields have gone wild, become overgrown with weeds, there is no one to take care of them. The more enterprising residents have fled for the continent, and on the island one only bakes the bread. But even those who have remained leave at the close of the season for Sicily, for temporary work. In the fall and winter the island empties out. In the area where I am staying, between the graveyard and the prehistorical village, only two families are patiently awaiting the spring. La vita se firma, tira solo vento. The life dies down and only the wind is blowing.

The Aeolian Wind.

A kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void — a fragment of the Diary Written At Night-Time

Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski (1919-2000) was a Polish novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, soldier, prisoner of the Soviet Gulag.  Arrested in 1940 after the Soviet invasion of Poland, he left with the Polish army formed within the Soviet Union in 1942, fought against Nazis in North Africa and Italy (Tobruk, Monte Cassino). After the war, he settled in Naples where he married one of the daughters of Croce. He was of the principal contributors to the leading Polish emigre monthly Kultura (publishing books otherwise banned in Poland under Soviet rule) where his Diary Written In Night-time was published in monthly installments over a thirty year period. A kind of journal intime of a thinking man, it is composed of essays, short stories, book reviews, letters, imaginary dialogues, political commentary, and a few, very sparing, carefully disguised — and yet for all that very affecting — autobiographical entries — and nothing in the way of the usual “had breakfast, walked the dog” trivia which fill the diaries of the great.

Here are several of the more personal, more poetic pieces that struck me while reading Volume I. Perhaps, had the journal consisted of nothing but pieces like this, it would soon become tiresome; but scattered as they are among other, more argumentative and purposeful prose, these pieces stand out like diamonds set in a cast iron ring. The first excerpt, dated 1972, records an incident in 1945 when the soldiers of the Polish army in Italy have learned that they have been betrayed by their allies: that the US and UK had ceded their country to the Soviet Union and that there would be no free fatherland to return to after all. (Elsewhere in the diary, remembering the 1945-6 period in Rome, Herling writes: “one drank a lot in those days, drank to unconsciousness, drank to forget”).

July 16, 1972

The well known English critic Alvarez tried to take his own life. He was saved and the consequence was his book, The savage god, a study of suicide. Besides his own experiences Alvarez used as the immediate impulse for writing the story of the suicide of his friend and (excellent) poetess Sylvia Plath. The book is a huge hit in the UK and in America.

The subtitle is misleading: this supposed “study of suicide” was compiled by a literatus interested chiefly in the topic of “suicide and literature”. I see nothing wrong with this sort of narrowing of the subject, but in this case I am repulsed by the insistent, and irritating, insinuation that only “artists” are capable of “true suicide”; ordinary eaters of bread take their own life for trivial reasons; but for artists, a suicide is the conclusion of an uncontrollable “creative act”. Above the book ponderously hangs a reflection from Kierkegaard:

The whole world may be divided into those who write, and those who do not write. Those who write represent despair, those who do not disapprove of it and believe in their own wisdom, but if they were capable of writing, they would write exactly the same things. At bottom, they are as desperate, but, when one does not have the chance to become someone important thanks to his own despair, then there is not much point celebrating it or showing it. Could this be the way to overcome despair?

I had no idea that Kierkegaard could be so stupid. He is perhaps explained – though not justified – by this: to him “despair” became the equivalent of “grace” in the Puritan faith, the special grace of the elect. He surrounded this “mortal disease”, this “hemophilia of the soul”, with the defensive air of blue blood.

Many years ago I happened to spend ferragosto, the culminating day of summer (August 15) celebrated by Italians, in a down-at-heel tiny hotel in Rome. The city was deserted, the heat was unbelievable. I lay naked on my wet bed, dragging myself every now and then to the sink, to stick my head under the faucet, and to look down the dark well of the courtyard. The only sound was the ugly noise of the elevator when some soldier brought up a girl from Termini for a short time. Even love-making next door took place quietly, sleepily, without moaning or squeaking of the bed. I can’t remember the lazy, unglued course of my thoughts, though I remember that they slithered here and there through the landscape of years past and that there was in them a gradually crystallizing fury (according to Kierkegaard: the chief face of despair). Around six o’clock in the evening I felt something difficult to describe, a kind of hole in time, a sucking pump of void. I stood at the window. What brought me to was the pain in my hands tightly grasping the lock of the shutters. Soon thereafter the streets rippled with voices, the city came to life, in the house next door someone sang, at full throat, a popular song. In the midnight news bulletin it was reported that alle sei della sera circa four persons took their own lives in various parts of Rome.

In the vain effort to understand the Savage God a day like that weighs more than any literary “study of suicide”.

Next:  an expedition to Panrea (Lipari Islands) and the tale told by the kerosene lamp.

That it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all

I remember Antoni Słonimski. During my formative days he was an icon in my country. No longer to be read anywhere in the official media – having displeased the communists he had been banned from publishing – he was widely and eagerly read in samizdat. Read and admired.

As I read his works now I realize my admiration for him is entirely Voltairean: the man deserved to be loved for his infallible political and moral compass – an unshakeable belief in human rights and absolute need for liberal principles in government (liberal in the European sense, meaning that the state must be lenient); and his courageous public stand on these issues, damn the cost to his professional career and personal danger. But I admire him as a writer as I admire Voltaire: not at all.


The similarity between both writers goes deeper than political stand. They were both brilliant polemicists, aggressive, biting, and witty. They excelled – and thrived – in the heat of the moment, of the tit-for-tat, in public displays of the flashy quickness of their minds. They excelled in it, and they lived for it. The most revealing moment in Słonimski’s life, to my mind, is his trip to Brazil, during which he was bored, was not at all interested to learn anything about the country, and missed badly Warsaw cafe life – exactly as Voltaire missed Parisian salons when banned to the countryside. They lived to shine in society.

If you think about it in this light, the political principles of the two appear not a little self-serving: confident that they will shine in public and prevail in debate, of course they preferred free speech in the same way in which a heavy-weight boxer might prefer a no-holds-barred free-for-all.

But as brilliant as their style is – fluid, flashy, entertaining – it is also a bit like the Great Sahel Barbecue: all smoke and fire and very little flesh – only a few charred bits of desert locust. If, like me, you read in search of deep reflection, of new insight into the nature of the universe and the individual’s place in it, of profound introspection, you will find neither. It is almost as if the men lacked internal life. Significantly, neither has ever kept a journal intime: it is as if left alone by themselves, they ceased to exist. They were like those people with walk-on parts in your life, who, at the end of their scene, say “bye-bye” and go out the door and just outside freeze in temporary suspension until called on stage again. As he departed Paris, Voltaire felt himself dying: the further he was, the more dead he was. Cirey was a surprising discovery for Voltaire: that life outside of Paris salons was possible; that one could spend a day all by himself, without showing off or impressing a single person, and be contented. I am not sure that Słonimski ever made that discovery.

In my previous incarnation as a blogger I came upon countless Słonimski-Voltaires: people who ran their blogs for the traffic; and who engaged in comments only on busy blogs, in order to shine. If, attracted by an interesting comment, I ever tried to follow up in personal correspondence, I got next to nothing: the target, it turned out, was not interested in the topic, or in discussing the topic (which is not quite the same thing), but – in public shining. Private correspondence, being private, did not interest them.

And thus my reading of Słonimski, and reflection on him, has led me to formulate a thesis: that it is possible to be very intelligent, and very witty, and have no apparent internal life at all. For such people it comes naturally to believe that all mind or all consciousness are a function of language; and that all reality is somehow linguistic.  (Die Grenze meiner Schprache sind die Grenze meiner Welt).

The Smugglers’ Library

I have been digging up and reading every word ever written by Jerzy Stempowski (1893-1969), Polish exile essayist and literary critic. He is perhaps the world’s only other writer who reads like Bertrand Russell — his prose has such a high meaning/words ratio that he appears to be “thinking too fast” — readers used to the usual plodding fluff-and-ornament have to read him slowly for fear that if they read him at the normal speed, they will somehow fail to get everything he is saying — and everything he is saying is so eminently worth paying attention to.

He, no doubt, would attribute the stunning quality of his prose to his thorough classical education (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, etc.).  He is the only atheist I know who appears to have lost his faith as a result of reading Fathers of the Church at the tender age of fifteen; and perhaps the only man I have ever heard praise as his literary ideal someone whose arguments he thoroughly rejects (Tertulian).  

Perhaps because Stempowski’s prose is so content-rich, his writings are both brief and scarce — his formula seems to have been “write only when you have something to say, and then write only what you have to say”.  Despite the recent rush to print him, there has not been a critical edition:  one finds his work scattered, fragmentary, often the same essays are repeated in a number of different, haphazard, unauthorized collections.  As good as some of those essays are, his best pieces are his private letters:  Stempowski often quoted Bolingbroke as his ideal — and liked to repeat that the History of Europe was written for a single reader – (like Lampedusa’s two-thousand-page History of English Literature).  He wrote his letters slowly, with great care, and after much reflection.

In a letter written to his father in 1945 – the first letter he could risk posting to him – his father, a prominent figure before the war, had remained in occupied Warsaw where he was constantly at risk of being discovered – Jerzy Stempowski described his flight from Poland in 1939 as the German and Soviet troops poured in. (He was to remain in exile until his death). The war found him in Eastern Ruthenia, a country in the Carpathians, the highest and still wildest range of mountains in Eastern Europe, constituting the border between several different states (and therefore a major smuggling route). During the Second World War the region’s borders were redrawn several times with nasty consequences to their various residents.

This is how he tells the story of his exile in his letter:

When I now look back at all these years of our separation, its saddest period seems to me to be that of the summer of 1939, the time of waiting for the inevitable catastrophe [Hitler’s invasion of Poland, September 1, 1939], which I had been able to foresee more or less the way it subsequently unfolded. Mrs Wichuna [Stempowski’s significant other] could not bear the expectation and slipped into a serious nervous disorder of the manic-depressive sort, became ever more frail and ever more slender.

In the days of The Exodus [Polish government fled to Romania on the news that the German invasion from the West was followed by a Soviet invasion from the East, on September 17, 1939], which found us in Słoboda [a town in the then Polish part of Eastern Ruthenia, now in the Ukraine] we kept trying to decide who of us should go into hiding. Reflection proved that Vincenz, his son, and I should go up into the mountains and see what was happening at the border. From there we were either to return and take the rest with us, or else cross over ourselves if the circumstances required it.

Thus we saw the famous Kuty [Polish-Romanian border town] on the day of The Great Exodus. We felt no great enthusiasm to join those present there. [Stempowski and his friends had been in opposition and vocally critical of the last Polish government]. So we double-backed into the mountains, by now empty and forlorn, and the next day we presented ourselves at a different border [Polish-Hungarian].

The situation there was uncertain. It was difficult to foresee what would happen to those who would cross the border. [Hungary was siding with Hitler but not at war with Poland]. Trusting our knowledge of the mountains, which would allow us to turn back in the event of some untoward developments, we entered a foreign country – a very strange foreign country, very exotic – in the hope of finding support for our plans. The further we went, the less we understood the local situation: under German pressure the whole country seemed to have turned to facilitating illegality [neither the Hungarian government nor the Hungarian populace were eager German supporters and both secretly helped Polish refugees]. For some time, threatened with arrest, we hid ourselves in the house of an old nobleman, where life went on more or less in a fashion similar to that of the life of my grand-father in the Ukraine. While there, we got some sense of how this illegal system worked, we took some steps in order to protect ourselves from local authorities [probably bribing sympathetically inclined officials], and we went back up into the mountains in order to collect the rest of our flock. Up there we met the king of local smugglers, a huge man looking like Kruger, the President of Transvaal. His son was a Prague University PhD. The place was full of the remains of the civil war [1938] but our familiarity with the Hutsul language [a Slavic/Ukrainian ethnic group living in Carpathians] allowed us to manoeuvre among the local populace. Vincenz and his son were the first to reach the north slope [enter back into now Soviet-occupied Poland], where they immediately fell into the hands of the first [Soviet] patrol sent up into the hills, and we lost touch for many months.

Later, I crossed also, planning to reach Słoboda by following the top of the ridge of the mountains for about 130 km. I had a slight flu when I set out, but as I went on I developed a full blown pneumonia; I was then at a place about 20 km away from the last hiding-place of the smugglers; that morning I had slept in a bear-lair. It made no sense to head back that way, so I decided to walk down to Tisza Borkut [on the Hungarian side] where there was telephone and railroad. To do this, I had to continue along the mountain tops for another 73 km, and at this time of the year the mountains are empty, black, and cold. Feverish and hallucinating as I walked, I went on for two and a half days. I walked slowly. Every few hours I lay down in my sleeping bag for a few hours of rest, but was unable to sleep. During those days Mrs Wichuna died in Słoboda, killed by a similar pneumonia – many people were coming down with it at the time.

I lay several days in a smugglers’ tavern, tenderly surrounded by heated bricks, but seeing that things were only getting worse, I telephoned for a local doctor, and he took me to a hospital, which had been built for the lumberjacks by the Czech government [the area was part of Czechoslovakia 1919-1938] – about 70 km further south. I lay there from the end of October until January 2 [1940].

Countless are the ways in which one’s body defends itself against pain and annihilation. In the hospital, my personality split into two halves: one, blacked out and drowsy, lay in Aknaszlatina [the name of the town], the other, alert and energetic, cruised far and wide eighteen days before returning to the hospital. After five weeks of illness my heart stopped producing a clear beat and began to produce only an uncertain gurgling, called by doctors pulsus paradoxalis. From this and other signs I realized that the end was near and this brought me a great relief, releasing me from all sort of troubles and obligations. I felt like Duhamel’s dépossédé: tout ce qu’il avait a faire est fait, tout qu’on demandait de lui est accompli [all that he had to do, was done, all that was asked of him, was accomplished]. In this state of withdrawal from the world, conscious but rendered weightless by camphor, I lay three more weeks with advancing broncho-pneumonia. During that time I came to realize how very right the stoics had been, stoics who had denied the existence of the Elysium and all other forms of ghostly or ghastly existence: although I no longer suffered, the existence of the immortal spirit separated from the physical world struck me as worth so very little as to be wholly unacceptable.

So many arguments had been invented to prove that such an existence is possible, and possibly eternal, but my own encounter with it shows that everything is better, even oblivion. I had already begun to long for that oblivion when, contrary to my and Dr Bergman’s expectations, my temperature fell and after several more double shots of camphor I was returned to life. And then I began to cry – all my inhibitory brain-centers had been knocked out.

When at last the time came for me to leave the hospital, I had no idea which way to turn, there was no place to which I wanted to rush to in my present state. I chose the smugglers’ tavern. Meanwhile the winter had become very fierce. Snow-storms came and temperatures dropped to 28C below zero. It was sometimes minus 20 in my room. The smugglers had found me a warmer place, in a long-abandoned brick house, haunted by ghosts of such evil reputation that no one ever came close after dark. There, they prepared a room for me, gave me an iron brazier, a cubic meter of beautifully-scented beech wood, a bottle of kerosene and a small, 50-cent lamp. There I spent the rest of the winter. For thiry-five days there was no train, the kerosene ran out, and I sat in total darkness, trying to remember all the poems I had ever read, all symphonies and concertos I had ever heard. Some poems are like life-savers: one carries them around with him to the place of his naufragium [shipwreck].

My smugglers brought me some books – abandoned by refugees fleeing the territory during the civil war or plundered from suitcases stolen by thieves. Whoever carries books in his knapsack when setting out for such remote country, takes with him whatever he has best – I myself had originally set out with Machiavelli’s Discorso – and so there were among these books an edition of Horace, another of Ovid, several Latin poets of the Renaissance, several Spanish books, some English. I was struck the most by a couplet by the Renaissance poet Janus Vitalis, on the subject of the river Tiber flowing among Roman, Byzantine, and Medieval ruins:

Disce hinc quid possit fortuna: immota labescunt

Et quae perpetuo sunt fluitura, manent.

[Learn therefore the power of Fortune: the immovable fall,

but things intended to be ever-flowing – remain.]

And I reflected upon the river Vistula [main river of Poland, flows through Warsaw] flowing, like the Tiber, among ruins, and this couplet of Janus Vitalis, with its pentameter imitating the murmur and gurgling of waters, seemed to me the most beautiful couplet I have ever heard.

I did not want to leave the mountains, counting still on a chance to return to Poland. I knew well life abroad and it did not attract me. Nor was I counting on “The West”. I knew perhaps better than most its spiritual weakness and I expected nothing of it, nothing but force of arms. Nor was I able to undertake a longish journey: when I left the hospital, I weighed 68 kilo [130 pounds], my left kidney was dislocated so that I had to hold it in place as I walked, I had no feeling in my hands and feet on account of the toxic parasthesis [burning sensation brought on by medication], my pulsus was still paradoxalis, and the 700 meters which separated my hiding-place from the smuggler’s tavern seemed to me impossibly vast. (Suffice it to say that today, if I think the railway ticket too dear, I cross over to the Southern slope of the Alps on foot, over passes 2500-2800 m high and think nothing of it. But back to my smugglers).

Only at the end of winter did I receive reliable news from Poland and understood that there is nothing to wait for at the border. I descended from the hills to Budapest, where I spent a few more weeks in an excellent hospital, where they put me back on my feet – i.e. gave me back the power to walk.

Until then I moved all by myself and had no contact with other refugees. But in Budapest I found a few friends and learned about the plans and affairs of the emigres. There, I was contacted by friends from Angers [a city in France where new Polish government in exile was now formed], by Gorylla, Antoni Słonimski and others. The two sons of Vicenz also came. I sent one of them West and kept the other one, his mother’s only child, hoping for her arrival with the melting of the snows. Unfortunately, our situation began to deteriorate and, to avoid being cornered, it was necessary to seek an escape to the West. In early spring – first days of April – I traveled to Belgrade, which left upon me an indelible impression. Built on several hills rising from infinite waters, filled with the monuments of Mestrovic, the greatest master of monumental sculpture since antiquity, Belgrade is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. After a few days I was able to read local periodicals which seemed to me very youthful, but infinitely livelier than La Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Old Serbia is very similar to Krzemieniec and Kuty, even to Jałtuszków, so I felt there en pays de connaissance [familiar country]. I was chased out of it by the German attempt to take over the city by tourists who, one morning, dressed in identical brown coats and green hats, seized the post office and the airport. In the afternoon, arrests of their supporters began, but it was a clear sign to me to start moving.

I was able to undertake all those travels thanks to my “gold fund” [prior to the outbreak of the war, Stempowski had converted much of his capital into gold coins], of which somehow no one relieved me along the way, and which I have managed so wisely that I still have one large rixdal [imaginary currency in which polish noblemen in Alfred Jarry’s novel Ubu Roi estimate their net worth]. At any rate, wherever I went I met helpful and pleasant people, and wherever I stayed I quickly made friends whom I would be glad to meet again.

Italy was very unpleasant. On the one hand the fascists, copying German SS-men with their uniforms and gestures, on the other the vengeful people who hated them. After two days, I crossed the Swiss border, thanks to the help of Dr Zbinden, who’d arranged a visa for me, and who took me from the Berne station to the house of his friends in Muri. There I was meant to wait a couple of weeks for the French visa, but before it could come through, the German invasion came. About a week before it began I had met in Muri a very wise officer who had described its course to me in great detail: there had been many visionaries, but all had been in Cassandra’s position, they had been a minority, and no one had wanted to hear them. At last I found myself chased into a corner – there was no place to flee to anymore.”

Stempowski was to remain in Muri until the end of the war and later to settle in nearby Berne.

In an essay entitled “The Smugglers’ Library”, written several years later, Stempowski wrote more about the books the smugglers had brought him to his hide-out in the mountains:

When the room warmed up sufficiently, I opened the sack and began to take out books one after the other. The first was a pretty good edition of Horace, then came Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics, and several Italian poets of the Renaissance. Then there came Spanish books, most of them publications from the time of the Civil War, but there was among them a volume of Gracian’s Agudeza y arte de ingenio. At the bottom, there were some English Romantics: Sothey, Coleridge, a few volumes of Walter Scott, Pride and Prejudice, and, finally, a seriously used Fairy Queen by Spenser.

And thus I had a winter of superb reading.

How did this strange and sober collection of books arise? How did all those books get to the smugglers’ hide-out?

It’s easy enough to guess that not any book will find its way into the depths of the mountains. Hardly anyone takes books along when going for a long journey on foot with a bag on his back. The only one who does this is the stubborn reader, with a well-sifted library of best books. But even he does not take along with him the first book that comes to hand.

I have learned the history of these books in various fragments (as it was not politic to ask too closely).

The Latin books came from a small lumberyard somewhat lower on the river Cisa. During the wars and upheavals of 1938, a philologist hid there pretending to be a simple worker – in his spare time, perhaps while hiding among the trees, he entered numerous comments and observations in the margins of his books. One day he disappeared as mysteriously as he had come, leaving behind him a few things. He was the silent type and had avoided human contact: no one knew who he was and where he had come from.

He must have liked books, since he had brought them all the way here” the smugglers decided. “Perhaps one day he will come back to collect them.”

The Spanish books had found a different way to the remote tavern. At the end of the Spanish Civil War two travelers worked their way East, perhaps towards the Soviet Union. I am not sure whether they had selected the right path: the Soviet border was then still far away. To reach it, they would have had to go by way of Poland, and probably deal with the Polish border police, or else by way of Bucovina and Besarabia, where the Romanian Siguranza awaited them. Nor was an encounter with the Soviet border guard necessarily promising. Who knows what fate caught up with them – and where?

In the mountains, they were attacked by robbers. On the spot a leather bag was left containing their no longer needed toiletry and several Spanish books. The bag lay several days in the forest. It seemed the travelers cared more to reach the border than to recover their luggage.

Who knows whether they will like it in Russia, people tell different tales about that? Perhaps they will return by the same route? Just in case, let us preserve their bag,” the smugglers decided.

The story of the English books was even more complicated. A certain Italian aristocrat from the Trieste area – back in the days when Italians discovered Hungary – decided to shoot lynx and bear in the Carpathians. Youthful and apparently as rich as he was eccentric, he reached the source of Cisa and in the last settlement before the wilderness he immediately bought a small hut, which he then decorated to his taste. Among his luggage were a case of champagne, a case of cigars, and fifty packets of unused cards. The young man apparently had a weakness for books, too, since, for the rainy days, he had brought along a small library. After a few weeks, the Carpathians bored him, he left and never returned, but retained the ownership of the house.

During the troubles, German adventurers stayed there. They drank the champagne, smoked the cigars, and played the cards, but paid no attention to the books. Later, the house underwent other adventures. In recent years an agent of the Gestapo lived there. Part of the furniture disappeared. One of the occasional residents of the house, apparently while leaving it with some of the moving assets, left a few English books at the roadside tavern.

No one buys a house never to return,” reasoned the smugglers. “The Italian prince will surely return, and perhaps will be glad to see that within the empty walls his books have remained.”

The smugglers were mistaken in their expectations. He who leaves his house in wartime, seldom returns. The Italian aristocrat has not only abandoned his Carpathian hut, but also his palazzo in Dalmatia. I later heard that during the war he was spotted in Ticino [Switzerland]. The smugglers themselves have met with similar fate.

Only the Faerie Queen no longer belonged to anyone. It was brought there by a tourist who had spent the night in a nearby forester’s cabin, and had left the next morning for the high range, leaving the book behind him. His body, partly gnawed by wolves, was discovered only the following spring. Times were already uncertain by then and no one from the family turned up to claim his remains.

During wars and upheavals, a reader leaves behind him his whole library. He takes with him only his favorite book, but even this he must abandon in a roadside tavern, or somewhere at the forking of the roads in the forest. The smugglers’ library was a visible proof of this fact and – a kind of warning. A wartime reader must above all count only on his memory. At the end of his road he will be left only with his memory’s contents.

Unfortunately, in times of greatest need, memory proves to be the thinnest and weakest of threads. During great revolutions whole nations suddenly lose their memory and stand dumbfounded, deprived of their past, unable to see their way ahead.


There was a magical element in my meeting with the smugglers’ library, something of that table which covers itself with ready meals at the utterance of a word, something of that carpet by way of which one can at the merest wish travel to the furthest places in the world. I made a note of this aspect of my adventure during my stay up in the mountains and I have had the time to reflect upon it.

The flying carpet is only a literary metaphor describing an otherwise well-known phenomenon. When the traveler possesses a real flying carpet, he is not impeded by the the usual difficulties of travel – borders, fronts, demarcation lines, visas, passes, space or other barriers. When we see him thin, darkened, with his feet deformed by thousands of miles of walking, stubbornly silent, dumbfounded by the great confusion of various landscapes, we understand that the difficulties of travel are only the cost of his true passion.

A flying carpet goes beyond the order of nature only when it falls into unqualified hands, that is to say, in the hands of people not in any way inclined to travel, who are perfectly satisfied with two or three short trips on the carpet, whereupon they marry and live the happy life of the settled.

In the Near East there is a formula, expressed in the Levanine French as follows: Qui mange du caviar noir, Dieu lui donne toujours in peu de caviar noir – he who feeds on black caviar, God always sends him a little of it.

By what complex, convoluted ways tobacco reaches everywhere where there are smokers? In the same way books await readers everywhere. In places where, it seems, it may be hard to find bread or wine, in forest hide-outs, in taverns, among raftsmen and sailors – everywhere there lie hidden books, awaiting their reader. The more discerning his taste, the greater his demands, the rarer and more beautiful reading awaits him. He only needs to remain himself, never compromise, under any circumstances, and always be like that Levantine caviar-eater, demanding stubbornly each day of his God a bit of his favorite fare.

On my last day in the mountains I carried the bag back to the smugglers’ tavern. As far as I know, the tavern was robbed many times afterward, and her dwellers either died a violent death or were scattered to the four corners of the world. Who knows what fate befell their books? The soldiers who came to rob the tavern came mainly in search of booze and tobacco, probably not taking much interest in books. Perhaps they are still there, among the ruins of the tavern, awaiting their next reader. To him who will find them and read them, to the unknown lover of Virgil and the Latin poets of the Renaissance – salutem.”

Literature as a fight against vertical barbarian invasions: Literature in the Polish mind

“Since the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, the Polish society has not had an aristocracy, or any other leading group with a particular moral authority. The kind of discussion in which each generation sorts out its moral and aesthetic values, personal and social manners, could not take place at court (as it did in Spain of Cervantes or in France of Louis XIV), nor in the salons of the title or ultra-rich elites. These discussions have moved in our case into the territory of literature. Hence comes the great significance and luminosity of Mickiewicz and Żeromski. This special quality our literature shares with several others: Russian, Ukrainian, etc. Thanks to it, our literatures possess that kind of duality typical of folk art, whereby the utilitarian is not separated from the artistic. This kind of utilitarian-artistic ambivalence is a profound quality of entire modern Polish literature.”

Stempowski’s words (from a 1937 letter to Dąbrowska) are a good clue to the special unction with which Polish intellectual elites treat the matters of literature: literature appears to them as a debate on things all-important, on ultimate values. Literature and its interpretation are serious business.


There are other aspects to the special place of literature in the Polish mind: during the entire period of partitions (1795-1918) literature was the only way to hang on to the national language (as national language was gradually being pushed out of schools by the occupying powers) — and this gave literature the air of a life-preserving activity, without which the nation would cease to exist. Literature became, literally, a matter of life and death.

In shaping the present-day role of literature in the Polish mind, communist occupation 1945-1989 has played perhaps the most important role. The party launched a vast program of literary patronage in order to buy support among the elites (expecting at least lukewarm public support in return for publication and promotion). The party explained this patronage as an essential part of the socialist project of creating the new man. On this theory, literature was supposed to help transform people’s aspirations and channel them towards the new life. Unsurprisingly, Polish literary figures were only too eager to embrace an ideology which ascribed them special consciousness-forming powers.

The ideology proved to have an unexpected consequence for the communists when the very people they had imagined they had bought began to publish in samizdat form books which the communists had banned (or merely refused to publish). The samizdat publishers published and circulated this literature because they had accepted the communist theory that literature was all important as a mind-shaping vehicle: being so important, it was too important to be subjected to political interference and had to be rescued. Political opposition in Poland was to a very large extent — literary.


Out of this engagement an odd ideology began to arise.

Just as the occupying power’s interference with polish language education during the partitions (1795-1918) was seen as an existential threat, so was the communist interference with literature during 1945-1989. While the former was an existential threat to the language, and therefore the nation as the speakers of it; communist control of literature was seen as a threat to something else, something ill-defined, sometimes described as “free-thinking” (which would have been correct), but more often as “spirit” or “culture”. Communist control began to be identified with Ortega y Gasset’s “verical barbarian invasions”: an attempt to stamp out the past (which to some extent it was) — and therefore national traditions (believed to be a foundational and fundamental to the nation). On this ideology, literature — good literature, correct literature — preserved national traditions and therefore the nation. Thus literature became, once again, a matter of national survival.

Readers of this and my other blogs will be struck by how closely this situation resembles what had happened in China where Chinese literature became identified with Chinese culture and Chinese culture with humanity — uncultured/unlettered humans being barbarians — not fully human. Preserving and cultivating literature became in China coterminous with preserving humanity and therefore, in a certain sense, life — “human life”.

This perception fit nicely with the American postwar ideology beamed into Poland via Radio Free Europe and western-printed samizdats and which promoted “Western values”. By these, Americans meant democracy, personal liberty, and capitalism — all good values of course, but none of them especially Western, certainly none of them very ancient in the West — but which Polish literati readily accepted adding to it — as could be expected of literary thinkers — Polish, Graeco-Roman, and French classics. Today, the American postulates — personal liberty, democracy, capitalism — have largely been attained in Poland but Polish literary figures continue to fight for culture and the classics and are puzzled why the release of political and economic liberty has not led to an explosion of interest in Martial, Horace, Rabelais, Voltaire and such like. Surrounded by aggressive pop-culture they once again feel in the midst of a vertical barbarian invasion and called upon to save the nation.

Why Polish literary criticism was once fun to read and English has not been in ages

Part 1 of 2

Here’s an essay which appeared in Poland 2001. I am not sure how much of its fun I am able to preserve in English — but one reason why I am translating it here is to illustrate the technique: pre-1989, literary criticism in Poland had to be fun because it was taken on faith that literature, and all things related to it, had to be fun or — not be at all. (After all, why else read literature?) The other reason why I am translating it here is to offer the author’s (Gondowicz) view of the history of literary criticism in Poland 1945-present — an interesting view, a symptomatic view, and one which I wish to discuss in my next essay.

J. Gondowicz
Toasting Myself

On the pages of Rzeczpospolita [a major Polish daily] a grand debate on the subject of literary criticism has recently come to a close.  Instead of commenting on it, I will say what I think of literary criticism myself, and this on account of the fact that on the 18 of April 1971 — exactly thirty years ago — I happened to publish on the pages of Kultura […] an essay on Parnicki.  Which makes today an anniversary — and to celebrate it, instead of toasting myself, I am writing this note.

To begin with, I will invoke a certain model situation: an allegory.  Artur Sandauer once wrote that the literati of the last prewar brood [i.e. those who had worked become literati during the period of independence 1918-1939] had taken on service under the People’s Republic [i.e. the communist regime, 1945-1989] on, more or less, the same terms on which late Roman rhetoricians once took it on at the court of the barbarian conqueror of Rome, Alaric:  because the ruler had expressed desire for panegirycs in elegant (if somewhat mumbled) Latin, they crowed their mumbled odes, while winking at each other that even such preservation of the great Mediterranean tradition is better than none.

My allegory is different:

In 1934, the academic Karol Irzykowski, writing about some book or other, suddenly reached back into memory:  “In the first years of Independent Poland [1918+] the terrace restaurant Rydz (or was it Under Rydz?), as well as the extensive buffets of the Houses of Parliament, as well as several other well-noted Warsaw eateries, suddenly dazzled with a new, stellar sort of staff.  There, guests, both the notable and the ordinary, were now served by Polish noblewomen from the East, who’d been forced by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia to flee their palaces and seek remunerative employment in the Polish capital.  Since, for the most part, these ladies had only received so-called “home education”, they were only qualified to work as serving maids.  They did this with the air of great dignity and self-sacrifice, in every gesture expressing their fallen greatness.  The guests whispered:  “Look, that’s Princess X!”, “That’s Countess Y!”  The prettier ones married — often their guests.  Others, with their foreheads raised proudly high, delivered to all hungry sorts plates and bowls for many years to come…”

And this is my allegory.  As you will have guessed, the noble waitresses stand in my mind for the first generation of post-war [communist era] literary critics. They were the sort who had learned at home how to hold the knife and the fork, under what circumstances to use le subjonctif présent, and to change their collars daily.  In normal circumstances [i.e. capitalist democracy of the old kind], these people would have found their place in diplomacy – or the PEN Club.  Customers treated them with empathy because — had the dice rolled differently it may well have been them serving the tables.  The goodwill went hand in hand with irritation that under such an exalted/downfallen gaze one could not pick his teeth, or his nose, and one absolutely had to tip: the waiters of that generation forcefully pulled up their clientele to their own level — and regardless of what was served on the plate.  After all, they have seen the great days when cooked dishes had been flown in from Paris.

The strangest thing was that some of their customers became fascinated with the mission of the middleman mediating between the back-kitchen and the starched table cloth.  They were impressed by all that ballet with the tray and the proudly upraised chins.  Thus the second generation of literary critics was born — whose nature consisted in imitating the first.

During this shift, French was no longer heard in the kitchen, and spitting into the soups of disliked customers became the rule.  Truth be told, many deserved it — which is why some suddenly got smacked in the kisser, too.  Staff distanced itself from the served meals, and any customer who stupidly tried to eat deserved what he got.  Under normal circumstances [i.e. in a capitalist democracy], this waiting shift would have fulfilled itself in politics, political pamphleteering, or in running the great dailies.  But — that was not to be [i.e. the party decided what got published and the critic’s role was to praise it]: they were expected to be happy with the chance to wear their little uniform.  This generation of waiters found itself doubly frustrated:  feeling the lie of their mastery over the table d’hôte on the one hand [things would get published or not without reference to their opinion], and on the other — belonging spiritually to the plebs eating the horrible swill they served. [i.e. they themselves had been raised consuming the communist lit].

It was not for the next generation to reach the exalted name of “waiter”:  it was to remain a generation of eternal busboys.  Haughtily ignored by the waiter aristocracy, pulled by the ears by the younger waiters, splattered with soup (in which their thumbs were ever dipped), enviously watching tips, they grovelled under their customers’ scornful gazes.  Under normal circumstances [i.e. in a capitalist democracy] these men and women could not have become anything else — because they knew nothing else [i.e. having grown up under communism, they had no notion of how free literature might work].  What kept them in the business was their childish belief in the significance of gastronomy as such, and daily intercourse with the miracle that a joint of this sort had any customers at all.  Their satisfaction lay in being allowed into the room, ability to comment what each guest was eating, and savoring the mysterious scents emanating from the back, where the cultural menu was being stewed.  As you have guessed, I belong to this generation.

The fourth generation, which has come to prominence under new gastronomic circumstances [independence + capitalism, 1989], preserved out of the entire notion of waitering no more than the bow-tie [i.e. are critics in name only].  It has not circled the floor in ages because it holds the strategic post at the cash register.  This is in part because their restaurant has become a fast-food joint, where all customers are served the same swill, devour it in violent sprays of ketchup, and, muffling a hiccup, render their table to the next lot.  And the dishes — the cheaper the better:  any explanation as to ingredients is no longer in fashion because it only discourages the clientele.  All details have been replaced with the advertising line that the whole world eats like this.  Through its own efforts, this generation has achieved the bourgeois awareness that in gastronomy the most important item is lard [Polish: “smalec”, whence the American term “schmaltzy“]; the customer must be served in a flash, or he will go to competition; and no one talks at the table.

This is how it looks form the perspective of my thirty years in the business.  The first generation of waiters, having swept the ground with the tails of their coats, is gradually moving to the Eternal PEN-Club above.  The second, having stuffed its unclean gloves into back-pockets, is trying to woo the owners of the few still frequented restaurants. The third is left with spattered face, sucking its burnt thumb.  The fourth has developed a nation-wide network of fast-food joints, overseen out of the windows of their Mercs.

How might a member of the third generation summarize the present situation?  Perhaps by saying that, though he has none of the prewar manners, and none of the success drive of the Warsaw slyboots, and though the very sight of a hamburger makes him retch, yet in moments of doubt he can cheer himself up by reading old cookbooks?

Ha, ha, ha! I have spilled the soup again!


Seven not very nice reflections on an art show in Warsaw


As if to illustrate my point about discourse in modern art, last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:

Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”

Now: note that – as per my 7th essay on Thai Matmee – among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.



Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points which my 7th essay on Matmee has suggested about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).


A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.


Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.


Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease.  But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.

This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma:  is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable.  The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.

But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains.  Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most.  Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.


Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.

Joseph Conrad: A case of love foretold

My Polish friends, by and large, don’t like Conrad.

Partly, the reason is translation.  Although Almayer and Lord Jim contain some of the most beautiful passages of English prose ever written (I am thinking of the cruise of Patna, or the view of Georgetown harbor from Strawberry Hill in Lord Jim, or the river covered with red fallen flowers in the elopement scene in Almayer) 1; and I have not checked whether these specific passages read well in Polish translation; I am pretty sure they do not.  I am pretty sure because I remember clearly having had great difficulty working my way through Conrad in Polish, and switching, in frustration, to read him in my then very poor English, because that went better, however slowly. Why, some passages in the Polish translation of The Personal Record for instance — such as the bit about letting the cat out of the bag — were actually incomprehensible — yet, once I switched to the English, they proved clarity itself.

(Thus, it could be said, perhaps, that I owe my English fluency to the poverty of the existing Polish translations of Conrad).

I do not mean that Conrad is somehow untranslatable, but merely that the current translations are quite bad; as there seems to be afoot a kind of universal movement to re-translate, sooner or later these will be re-translated; perhaps then Conrad will sail more smoothly up the Vistula.

A more serious problem is Conrad’s… Englishness. Most of Conrad’s sea books are about man’s men who talk the way English man’s men do: sarcasm, understatement, elision, brevity, black and acerbic humor, and standoffish refusal to engage in touchy-feelies are all (Laconically) elevated to the status of virtues. Conrad’s heroes do not explain anything, ever: in court, Jim testifies about the moment of horror on a sinking ship — the horror which made him lose his mind and act foolishly — in two word: he says “I jumped”. He refuses to explain precisely when he absolutely must.

This is emphatically not the Polish way.  Indeed, I have lost Polish friends because I have become too English, too Conradian. My sense of humor is too biting, my interpretation of human character too uncharitable; I tend to wish people to “break a leg” instead of “good luck”.  And, perhaps constitutionally not unlike Jim (was he not “one of us”?) I, too, refuse to explain.

But mainly, perhaps, it is because of Conrad’s topics. Lord Jim is a novel about shame, for Chrissake; who ever feels ashamed of anything? In The Island of Day Before the (aristocratic, i.e. exceptional, i.e. old-fashioned) old de la Grieve makes a speech to his (ordinary, with-it yob) peons, whom he is ordering to go out and fight (I paraphrase): “We have always been loyal to our lord and we will be loyal now because to be loyal in good times and disloyal in hard times is to be a pig. Now, if any of you scum don’t like it, better tell me now while I have this convenient tree to hand on which to hang you”. In other words, the connoisseur of men’s hearts that he is, he does not expect his peons to be moved by fancy feelings like loyalty. Perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect people to be moved by a novel about shame.

And what to make of a novel like The Shadow Line? It has no romantic interest. They haven’t killed him and he hasn’t run away. There are no screeching tires or ticking time-bombs. On its surface, it is a novel about a man’s first… independent job.

In the author’s note Conrad explains that he meant it to be, more broadly, a novel about one’s passage into manhood.  Why?  Perhaps even he felt his readers were liable not to get it (by and large they did not:  invariably, Conrad sold poorly); so he went out and did something no man’s man ever should: he explained.  Predictably, it didn’t work:  critics still insist it is a novel about ghosts.

It didn’t work because, being one of us, he explained badly: The Shadow Line is not a novel about passage into adulthood; it is a novel about a man’s love for the sea:

A sudden passion of anxious impatience rushed
through my veins, gave me such a sense of the in-
tensity of existence as I have never felt before or
since. I discovered how much of a seaman I was,
in heart, in mind, and, as it were, physically–a
man exclusively of sea and ships; the sea the only
world that counted, and the ships, the test of man-
liness, of temperament, of courage and fidelity–
and of love.

Sell that in a (historically) land-locked country.


To me Conrad is –destiny:  he went to sea inspired by books; I went to Asia inspired by Conrad.  He lived a life of action before he ever entertained the idea of writing; I dropped the idea of letters and took up life of adventure instead.  He wrote with profound respect and sympathy for Asians — particularly Malays — whom he saw as noble and proud;  a lot of who I am has come about precisely because I too have adopted his attitude.  On the other side of the ledger:  Conrad evolved a peculiar ethos, one which combined chimeric romanticism and proud stoicism; unhappily, perhaps, it is an ethos I understand — and find easy to embrace.

But above all, Conrad is for me a case of a love foretold:  long before I ever laid my eyes upon them, I knew, from reading him, that I would love intensely and madly the stifling heat of the jungle, the massive muddy fast flowing rivers, the screeching birds and howling monkeys, the intensely colored flowers and the madly scented fruit, the deliciously powerful trade-wind blowing onshore, the flavor of the foods, the patterns of the skirts, the curvature of the weapons, the otherworldly clang of the gamelan.

Conrad the writer interests me less:  the sedentary life of struggling with writer’s block, agents, and publishers seems so much less than his life as a sailor.  How can experimentation in new forms of narrative match the excitement of a good storm at sea?  It is hard to believe that it was for this that he’d left the Otago.


1 The beauty of Conrad’s prose seems surprising in a man who, reportedly, spoke English with a heavy accent until his dying day. It isn’t English, wrote a critic, meaning that no Englishman could have ever written anything like it and that, to his mind, the greatness of the prose lay precisely in this fact: perhaps, he meant to suggest, it took a foreigner to realize the full potential of English prose, lying hidden, as it were in the native’s blind spots. Unlike Nabokov’s prose, which to my ears sounds like Englished Russian, Conrad’s prose is not Englished Polish — indeed, it translates badly into Polish. It is entirely — Conradian; entirely his own.

Soyoung Soon played Prokofiev in Poznań

It’s October, so there must be another high-profile classical soloist competition going on in Poland, right?

The winner of this year’s Wieniawski’s competition, the Korean violinist So-Young (Soyoung) Yoon did not occasion controversy:  it was clear from the start that she had to win.  She plays with extraordinarily rich sonority, and, if you are, like me, raised on the screechy/ deranged Kremer/ Argerich rendition (absolutely breathtaking in its own way), her Prokofiev’s sonata will knock your socks off with its… tenderness, intelligence, warmth, wisdom, measure and — yes! — beauty.  (You can hear it about half-way down the page here).

I can’t resist a spot of physiognomancy: Soon plays the way she looks (in this photo at least):  roundly, softly, agreeably, beautifully (none of which implies lack of depth in any way whatsoever).  While Kremer…  Kremer, of course, plays the way he looks.  Which is also beautiful and incredibly moving — yet, it might as well come from another planet from Soon’s.

Like some plants, which, depending on the environment, can grow as either trees or creepers, or some flowers, which, depending on the soil, bloom either blue or pink, beauty is multifarious:  it can manifest itself in a number of completely different, distinct forms; which is, of course, not to say that they can be any forms, or all forms.  In the field of endless possibilities, there exist islands of beauty, like galaxies in an otherwise empty space.

Polish knight spotted in Lisbon (again)

Ladies’ writing table, made by Martin Carlin, cabinet-maker, ca. 1772, in Paris; with Sevres porcelain plaque signed “Dodin 1771” which reproduces an engraving by Rene Gaillard La Diseuse de Bonne Aventure Russienne, which itself reproduced a painting by Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (1734-1781), now lost.  At the Gulbenkian, Lisbon.

The fashion for the genre of “fortune teller” — perhaps initiated by Caravaggio — has produced — over its 200 years or so — a great number of works with the theme; this is a late-bloom which, for originality, sought to revive the stale theme with exotic elements, in this case not Russian but Polish (Lithuanian?) setting. The ladies are all dressed in European fashion, but, to sit (or, rather, stand) for the painting, the gentleman of the house decided to pose a la polonaise: complete with makowka hair-style, saber, kontusz and szarawary, and, most striking of all, that other Sarmatian cultural weapon, the mace. It’s hard to imagine a more useless weapon than a footman’s mace in late 18th century Poland, but what sacrifices must one not bear in order to honor his ancestry? The mace it is, then.

National Museum in New Delhi, continued: Sohrab dies at the hands of Rustam

This story, from the Shahnama, figures in Pamuk’s Snow.  There, Blue, an Islamist terrorist/fugitive, argues:  “This story was once read by every boy from Belgrade to New Delhi, but today not one bookstore in Istanbul stocks it. Question: is it beautiful enough to die for? Beautiful enough to kill for?” His (or, rather, Pamuk’s) argument is, in other words, that modernization/westernization has deprived Turks of their past, estranged them from it, deprived them of one source of just pride (i.e. culture), impoverished them, made them rootless.

The argument is intuitively appealing (certainly at individual level, memory loss feels like a kind of emasculation); and does underscore an important fact: modern Turks are completely unaware of some very basic aspects of Ottoman history and identity.

But the theory also reveals the inherent weakness of the very concept of national identity:  modern Turks are no more deprived of their identity than, say, Poles — (which Pamuk simply wouldn’t know — when it comes to theory-making, there is no substitute for breadth of knowledge).  Modern Poles don’t know their history, either; and what they do do know of their literature is not much worth knowing:  it is just what and how schools elect to teach it. Like Turks, we are a new nation, too: living within new borders, missing much of our genetic stock (Christian or otherwise), the economic class which had once exclusively born the right to be called Poles — “the nation” — i.e. the armed gentry — has been physically eradicated and what of it hasn’t been eradicated, has been scattered across seven continents:  with the result that today’s Poles by and large aren’t genetically related to the old Poles. The name survives, but when a name means something it has never meant before, can one truly say that it has survived?

Or consider Portugal, so very proud of her great discoveries. Yet, modern Portuguese aren’t the descendants of the discoverers — they live today in places like Goa, Macau and Brazil; but of those who did not venture on the high seas:  the left-behinds.

This miniature is also from Shah Alam’s studio.

Lazienki Park, Warsaw

Two years ago I lived within walking distance of this huge downtown park with its beautiful, small palace on water, classical garden statuary, and — obligatory among princes — peacocks.  In the summer it opens at dawn — which, in the northern latitude in the summer is before 4.  Most of these photos were taken between 5 and 6 in the morning.  Except for the peacocks, never saw another soul there.

In which he reveals that he is a Manichean

There is no justification for the creation of a bad poem: it is always better for such a poem not to exist than for it to exist. Bad literature isn’t merely, as a Thomist might say, an absence of good literature; rather, it is, as a Manichean might say, an active presence of aesthetic Evil.

Stanislaw Baranczak, Ocalone w Tlumaczeniu (Rescued in Translation).

On Mrozek’s Orson

Lots could be said about this brilliant — and cruel — wit.  (Certainly, his best piece was on the fellow deciding to sleep standing up in his wardrobe in order to change his life dramatically enough:  “Didn’t sleep a wink, my knees are killing me, but finally I feel that I am making progress”.  Etc.)

But only one thing will be said here:  his play on Orson — the national hero immortalized in a poem by Mickiewicz as performing a suicide mission (“take lots of them with me”) at the defense of Warsaw in 1831– while in fact the hero merely blew up his guns to make sure they could not be used by the enemy — and blew them up without hurting himself, survived, and lived to happy old age — the play, as I say, strikes me as — dull.  The pretense is good — the hero’s life becomes a nightmare, his compatriots accusing him of treachery for not having blown himself up, etc.  It pokes good fun at Polish nationalist-chapel-building tendencies (see the overblown obsequies on the death of the last president).  Still, the material isn’t all that strong.  A three minute cabaret number would have been fun.  But half an hour?  Did not Mrozek himself grow bored by writing it?

And if not, why not?

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.

Unidentified Polish Objects (U.P.O.)

This painting by Willem Kalf (1619-1693), now located in Musée de Tessé, Le Mans, may have been painted in Paris, ca. 1643-45, for René II de Froulay (1597-1671), father of the more famous Renee III.

René Père was a military man of sorts himself, having held the office of lieutenant general du roi, which, we are told, “gave him military powers to represent the king in the province of Main” (The Presence of Things, 2010).

This may explain the painting’s martial pretensions: the breastplate, the helmet and the saber.

It does not explain why they should be Polish weapons — which is what they are.


If the dating of the painting is correct, we are still some years before the famed battle of Beresteczko (1651) which will cover Poland with military gloria and make her manhood the universal object of worship and emulation of Western knighthood (ever so briefly — until the 1683 Charge at the Battle of Vienna, anyway).

Nor do René Père’s dates allow for him to have been engaged somehow in Henri III’s failed Polish adventure.

A mystery, then:  why was René II, of Le Mans, flaunting the classic armor of Polish heavy hussars in 1643?

Could it be because the heavy hussars were the last military formation in Europe to use the traditional manly tactic of mounted frontal assault?  Wearing heavy breastplate and armed with special long lances (4.5-5 meters), they fought in small units — a banner usually numbered about 150 men; they charged on horseback, at first in a wide arc (to evade gunfire) but then closed ranks as they built up speed until, right before ramming the enemy, they closed in and rode stirrup-to-stirrup.  This battering-ram technique worked wonders against much larger forces — as in the battle of Kirholm (1605) in which 1,750 hussars defeated 12,000 Swedish infantry and at Chocim (1621), when a force of mere 56o broke up 10,000 strong Turkish formation.  Most importantly — from the PR man’s point of view — it was not just effective but also — hot.  No projectile weapons for the heavy hussars, no woos stuff like shooting from an entrenched position at an exposed enemy.  Certainly no everlasting sieges of the western wars of the time.


Manly chest-to-chest instead.

The old school.

Surely, René, lieutenant general du roi, not heroically gifted enough to deserve an entry in the French wikipedia, would have liked the association.

What is interesting is that Polish heavy hussar weapons were included in this painting without further reference or commentary to the particular military formation.  Did René expect every viewer to identify them as what they were?  And if so, were Polish heavy hussars that well known in France?  Or was it a private reference?  Had René served in Poland in his youth — as many unemployed French aristocrats had done?


Of some relevance here may be the figure of Stefano Della Bella, a Florentine engraver who worked in Paris 1642-1649 at the invitation of Richelieu and who produced several prints with Polish subjects, including this Polish horseman, and a representation of the Ossolinski’s Embassy’s entrance into Rome in 1633.  If, as seems likely, he was in Rome during that phenomenal pageant — Ossolinski’s companions had hoofed their horses in gold — but loosely so that some hooves may be wantonly dropped in the street in order to impress the unwashed — he may have gone on nursing a strong impression of Polish knighthood for the rest of his life; and may have infected poor Kalf with it.


1.  Check out this gallery of Kalf’s work.  Small size, but relatively good quality.

2.  There has been some interest in husaria (the heavy hussars) lately, both sides of the Atlantic — mainly with the historical reenactment crowd.  Much of husaria’s appeal is centered around the idea of winged horsemen (cf. here):  the fact that the hussars may have had wings. But while it is true that several surviving sets of husaria armor do sport wings, we do not have any record as to how these wings may have been used.  Their purpose has long been subject of discussion: were they intended to make a racket and thus frighten the enemy (or their horses)?  Were they intended to protect the rider against Tartar lassos?

It seems, neither:  the wings are an aerodynamic disaster:  in gallop, they often unseat the horseman, or else — flip his horse altogether.  The wings may have been items of display on ceremonial occasions only, just as the feather crowns of the Lakota.  (Which is a thing about combat:  it ain’t pretty).  Yet, this image remains firmly locked in the Polish mind.  Which is an interesting thing:  the image was created by a foreign occupying power (Austria-Hungary) to lure Polish youth into Austrian army during WWI.  It presented a husarz the way he never looked in combat, and the way he never fought.  In fact, no artistic representation of the husaria — neither subversive — such as one might consider an Austrian propaganda use — nor orthodox — i.e. nationalist in origin — shows them in the one feat that made them great:  the feat of galloping (headlong into the enemy) stirrup-to-stirrup.

Which is another illustration of the fact that most of what laymen think they know about history is… not worth knowing.

Buxtehude in Poland

In the year 1700, the God-Incarnate on Earth — Hare Krshna! Hare! Hare! — Johann S. Himself — then a mere boy of 15 — traveled on foot, hitched cart, and boat all the way from Eisenach, Upper Saxony, to Hamburg on the Sea, a journey of several weeks in those days, in order to hear him play the organ. History, says Braudel (1), is circular; the story of Divine Revelation ever repeats itself: the event is perhaps best described as a sort of cross of Young-Jesus-among-the-doctors and Jesus-meets-John.  (Lord I am not worthy, etc.) Today, by going here a journey of a split second you can hear Buxtie’s Membra Jesu NostriLimbs of Our Jesus –in a wonderful performance by the Monteverdi Choir under John Eliot Gardiner.

For years it has been a cool thing among my friends to refer to the conductor as John Idiot Gardiner.  I suppose I needed to reach my present advanced age to begin appreciating his work.  I do not know by name any of the soloists in this wonderful recording:  to my great surprise they turn out not to be Emma Kirkby or Paul Eswood.  But you wouldn’t know it by just hearing it.

I first heard The Membra only last week while listening to a live broadcast of the Misteria Paschalia on Polish radio.  I can no longer say whether La Venexiana‘s rendition was better than JEG’s: it well may have been, La Venexiana is a superb ensemble which knows how to benefit from all the work that has gone before.  The big surprise of course was the program of the Misteria Paschalia:  La Venexiana, Jordi Savall, Jaroussky, McCreesh, Pluhar, Accademia Byzantina, Il Giardino Armonico — all of them in Krakow, of all places! — one pressing hard on each other’s feet:  it reads as the Who-Is-Who of modern early-music performance.  (Christ, am I glad they were not all flying on the same plane!)

Boy, has Poland come up in the world while I have been away.  You know now, I suppose, where I will be — come next Easter, don’t you?


(1) Nonsense, of course.  Braudel says no such idiotic thing.