Posts tagged “literary criticism

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.

On the blackening of paper

by Jerzy Stempowski

Writing is not new to me, but I have never had much conviction for it as a way of spending one’s time. I have always had the feeling – and today I have it more than ever before – that this kind of occupation requires of me some kind of purpose, justification even. I suspect that I am not alone in these feelings, and that it is this lack of justification – more than any opportunistic consideration – which has motivated writers to evaluate their work in terms of social utility.

I have spent much of my childhood and youth among people who wrote, edited and generally devoted themselves to other literary occupations. These rarely led to any notable results. In our times, such activities are probably an unintended consequence of the existence of the printing press and paper factories, which, like all machines in general, must never be allowed to idle.

From my early acquaintance with the mechanism of writing and printing, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need at all to increase the already vast production of printed word. Even the most assiduous reader can never exhaust the reading program he has set for himself. I thus considered my refraining from the blackening of paper very meritorious.

I began writing late, in the thirty-sixth year of my life, for unexpected reasons, in a period of my life especially poor in other diversions. Looking at the matter today, I am not at all sure that I would have begun writing, had I only had the opportunity to occupy myself in a more systematic manner with music or to undertake a distant journey. Such diversions would probably have come to bore me, but perhaps could have lasted long enough to occupy the time I had in their absence used to try my pen instead.

Though it is perhaps somewhat tactless to say this in a book which may well be read by the literati, writing has always been the occupation of the minorum gentium. Although those ruling Dei Gratia have from time to time taken up the occupation in moments of remorse at the disappointing results of their ruling; as have ministers fallen out of favor; ambassadors compelled to live on meager pensions; and deputies denied further mandate by their people, upstaged by a better demagogue, and awaiting the beginning of a new electoral campaign; yet, the main body of the writing profession have always been people seeking in the written word a kind of compensation for everything which had been denied to them by life, or which could never have been allowed by life to anyone.

The ability to put marks on paper has always carried within it the latent possibility of something bordering on black magic: the ability to produce fiction with which to bedazzle the experimenter. In my youth I saw dadaists gluing onto the wall with great unction words cut out form newspaper and mixed up randomly in a hat. Out of these words there emerged something like poetry, full of unexpected associations. Surrealists took these possibilities seriously, experimenting with so-called écriture automatique .

Since even totally randomly placed marks can cause striking surprises, how much more so can words polished by the virtuosi of writing! Words assembled by them detach themselves from their relationship with the author and begin their own, autonomous life, like precious stones, talismans or fetishes, promising imaginary fortunes and jealously tucked into memory.

L’étoile a pleuré rose au cœur de tes oreilles,
L’infini roulé blanc de ta nuque à tes reins
La mer a perlé rousse à tes mammes vermeilles
Et l’Homme saigné noir à ton flanc souverain.

(The star has wept rose-colour in the heart of your ears,
The infinite rolled white from your nape to the small of your back,
The sea has broken russet at your vermilion nipples,
And Man bled black at your royal side.

As translated by Oliver Bernard: Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems (1962) ]

The power to create such verbal formulas which even decades, even centuries later occupy our attention and leave indelible traces on all hours that follow, is perhaps equal to the power to command. And this is how it has been honored, because those who had acquired this power have in all times received honors equal to leaders and rulers. And therefore Martial is probably mistaken, when he makes an aside in a story about a shoe-maker suddenly made rich, blaming his parents for having given him literary education alone: at me litterulis stulti docuere parentes (“but the foolish parents taught me letters”). At any rate, Martial, and Horace, and all those who came in their wake down to our own Tuwim, were all bursting with pride at their magical command of words, so modestly sometimes called the poetic craft.

However, all this holds only for poetry. Prose does not draw its strength from this magical power, but from the clarity of thought ordering the chaos of phenomena. The magic of words is here a secondary matter. Even rhetoricians all agree that the most eloquent is he who has the most important thing to say, were he to speak with the most barbarian of dialects. The need to order and master surrounding phenomena with our thoughts appears to be autonomous: it does not compel any direct impulse to write. The need to propagate one’s thoughts and to impose them on others is something altogether different, the best proof of which is the fact that it appears to foster neither clarity nor honesty of expression. The central contradiction of all prose-writing lies in, on the one hand, the desire to show off one’s clarity of thought and, on the other, every other possible motivation for writing.

Emerging out of silence, the silence which seems to be the correct attitude of thought, constitutes, in a sense, a denial of thought’s central ambition. It also requires the use of words, which are an uncertain medium, at times too resistant, at other times too fluid, subject to rules different from the laws of thought and often producing during manipulation unexpected jarring noises and hot sparks.

To work with words, especially the written word, which can neither truly convey hallucination nor express rational reasoning, requires one to give up many ambitions, but mainly to simplify oneself to the level of a cook who, knowing nothing of either chemistry or physiology, in the noble simplicity of heart, mixes in his pot ingredients brought in from the market.

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!


Scissors not included

An actual walk in the park

Though it has been some years since, I still vividly recall the terror Ecco’s In search of a perfect language had struck in me: similar in some ways to Guns of August in documenting human mental malfunction, unlike Guns of August, it was not funny: not a record of bumbling fools but a cool, clinical description of madmen.

For days afterwards I felt not just depressed, but terrified: this was the world I lived in, these were the people who surrounded me; the notion that on numerous occasions my life would depend on the decisions and value judgments of such men and that there was no way I could insulate myself perfectly against that danger scared the living daylights out of me. Groping for safety, I changed my mobile number again, suspended another blog, broke off a few more iffy acquaintances.

Last night, Six walks in the fictional wood, picked up in a moment of desperation after several other books of literary criticism have disappointed (do they ever not), suddenly put Search in a new, alarming light: the madmen of Search were actually Ecco’s heroes; the Search failed to make fun of them not, as I had imagined, so as to profile their madness more starkly — as a dispassionate, clinical text might — but because Ecco was taking the book’s heroes at face value.

Yes, he was, I realized abruptly as I read Six walks‘ first chapter and my heart skipped a beat: the chapter features elaborate diagrams showing the relationship between E. A. Poe and the various roles which Ecco ascribes to his Pym — “fictional character as narrator”, “narrator as real person”, etc. Ecco does not cut them out, pin, and rotate them as Raymond Lull may have done — at least not as far as we can tell — but it is easy to imagine his readers — a few of those people who sat through these lectures, or some of those who rank the book 5 stars on Amazon, doing just that.

And to think that to most mortal men a stroll in the wood seems a perfectly harmless thing!

Understanding Nagai Kafu

I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself:  every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.

Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does.  How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests.  But it’s hard to blame Snyder:  the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long:  mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages.  Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they?  So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside.  He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life.  In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living:  to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable. 

Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into.  That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life.  Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.

Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive.  Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution.  When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects:  “probably not for long”.  When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.

I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons:  first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before:  the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her.  I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.

I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his:  I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.

This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for.  Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago:  “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”).  Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own.  She would not admit to having any part in it.

As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in.  They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.