Mateusz Ciołkowski: Professor, how do you perceive the current reception of Polish literature in the world?
Professor Artur Grabowski: The problem of the existence of Polish literature in the international circulation is that nobody asks serious questions, nobody expects subjectivity from it; people only allow some kind of exoticism in it. Paradoxically, our peripherality is interesting; the peripherality is assumed in advance and an initial qualification is made, in which ‘Polishness’ is interesting, but only in a secondary role. In fact, Polish culture is interesting when it presents curiosity and aberration. However, it is not a partner for serious discussion; we are not allowed to influence Western culture. Another question is whether we actually have such enough ambitions and courage, or, finally, whether we really have something to offer. But even if not, the mere fact that we ask ourselves this question, is a symptom that we treat ourselves as eternal students; it is, therefore, not surprising that we are constantly tested whether we behave properly.
So is it that we do not treat ourselves as an equal partner?
The point is that the original proposition is born of self-confidence, and in order to be self-confident, one needs a certain bravado. Gombrowicz was right here, advising us to ostentatiously manifest ‘immaturity’, because this insolence may result in valuable content. Whether the content is valuable or not depends also on the context in which the content is interpreted. Yes, we can sometimes speak our mind, but don’t have the power to establish criteria for others. There is a lot of banality in Western culture, which is considered to be deep, but it is presented in an environment which grants the banality, the status of guiding ideas. My experience of longer stays in the United States or Western Europe teaches me that it is independence, or even a certain ambition of leadership, that is respected. Meanwhile, if Polish literature is translated, that’s a red flag: “Oh, it may be interesting for people dealing with the peculiarities of culture”. So it’s not only that we, the real West, should not follow it, but we also learn what we should avoid. That is why there are no Polish best-sellers, no Polish authorities, no Polish terms or Polish iconography. And yet, it is estimated that over 70 million people in the world speak Polish! Today, the Polish language is most popular among Asians, for whom Poland is a model country in many areas, we have mass inbound tourism. And we do not use this opportunity. Another thing is that the national cultures of modern Europe are much more closed than they were, for example, before the war. Forced unification kills universalism, and a reflex of domination or isolation is born in its place.
How does our literature function among specialists from European and American universities?
In the world, researchers unrelated to Poland read our literature the most often, while Polish specialists present us much less frequently. Today, we have a new generation of researchers who have gained a certain position in the world, i.e. Polish Polonists educated at Western universities. I was surprised how dependent, secondary they were, because they were trained in the use of binding conventions, obligatory in the academic world. This is an interesting example of a specific colonisation of immigrants; an example of how surprisingly negative effects can be seen in ‘liberated’ education, allegedly ‘freed’ from Polish parochialism. The position of Polonists, especially of Polish origin, is inferior and often humiliating in academic structures in the West. Their response to this situation is usually progressive conformism. They undertake a significant attempt to apply the proposals of modern Polish writers to fashionable theories, mostly newer ones, because they do not cope with the older ones. Previously, Polish literature was presented as a complete curiosity, and now, it is being justified, translated into other people's idioms, other people's problems. And, in addition, for the last quarter of a century, there was a promotional mechanism in Poland which affected not only the perception of Polish literature in the world, but re-exerted the pressure on our writers themselves, who began to write in accordance with the expectations of Western media. The mechanism of secondary self-censorship arose; with this mechanism, we ourselves limit our ambitions. The result is that the Polish culture of the last quarter of the century lost the value of originality, without gaining the position of an equal partner in exchange.
And how do the writers which we will talk about today, namely: Stanisław Wyspiański, Stanisław Witkiewicz and Witold Gombrowicz, function in international circulation? For example, in the United States, where you had the opportunity to have lectures.
Let us not delude ourselves that these writers, by being accepted in certain Western circles, have entered into something that we could describe with the obsolete word ‘canon’. It is not so. The writers mentioned by you are known to narrow circles of specialists. Of course, I do not mean only literary scholars. For example, Witkiewicz is popular in the avant-garde theatre environment. His plays have been staged, though not all of them, only three or four, and the repertoire of his works is rather not expanded. However, all the rest of his writings are completely unknown, no one is quite interested in them, although they were translated. Secondly, once we speak about Witkiewicz, he was not ‘promoted’ as a personality. It's a pity, because such a figure could be a kind of carrier of knowledge about Polish ideas or problems. Today, our progressive propagators of Polish literature are doing everything in their power to prevent people from associating the modern ‘great three’, that is, ‘Witkacy, Gombrowicz, Schulz’ with Polishness, because it is embarrassing. Witkacy was, contrary to appearances, a very Polish type, and, at the same time, a man completely devoid of inferiority complex. He complained about Polishness, but he never felt enslaved or humiliated by it. Looking at him from my experience, I must say that I have bad memories from the time of discussing his works in America, similarly to Gombrowicz, because, in fact, their peculiar perversion, a complicated attitude towards the world, is actually something artificial for American students, which aren’t yet specialists or literature experts. Paradoxically, it was much easier for me to talk about the works of our Romantics, because unless we reduce them only to the political dimension, to historical realities, it will turn out that they had, in fact, a very universal message to convey. Konrad is a young idealist, a rebel struggling with the demoralised world of pragmatists. What can be more universal than that?
Is not it a bit different with Gombrowicz and Wyspiański?
Gombrowicz functions in academic circles – yes, sometimes he is the subject of adoration on the part of more sophisticated artists. And he is also known as a personality, although in a certain mask, of course. Though there are also many fantasies about his life led as an anti-communist fighter, or oppressed homosexual. This is happening also because, in translation, Gombrowicz is a completely different writer, an enlightened rationalist, a cold ironist, without the proper Sarmatian madness. In turn, Stanisław Wyspiański is hardly known at all. Why?
First of all, there are no good translations of his texts. There is a translation of ‘Wesele’ [The Wedding], the most significant drama of this writer, which, in practice, is untranslatable. The English translation of ‘Powrót Odysa’ [The Return of Odysseus] is quite good, but it is basically a paraphrase. Wyspiański's theatre originality could not be appropriately presented because it would have to be anchored in his vision of Poland as essential Europeanism. And this does not match the picture. Nevertheless, I think that Wyspiański's works could be popularised primarily through his artistic achievements. The great exhibition ‘Wyspiański - Picture - Stage – Word’, could be a certain idea in European capitals. The world has no idea that Wyspiański combined Polish folk culture with ancient Greece, that he built his modern project on the continuation of the idea of Polish Romantics, that he was a forerunner of the theatrical practices of Kantor or Grotowski. In other words: Polish modern culture is presented as opposed to Polish tradition. In this way, we discredit ourselves.
There is a certain conviction in Poland that our history and culture cannot be universalised due to its locality and inwardness.
Yes, you are right. I think it is a curse: this thought that what presents individual interests, cannot be interesting to others. That's not true. First of all, people in other cultures are interested in dissimilarity, in what is different from their experience. Secondly, if we looked at the career of outstanding literary works, we would notice that they acquire a universal dimension precisely because they refer to something very individual. What is specific is true because it is saturated with authenticity, which can be felt immediately. For example, there is no writer which would be more Irish than Joyce, is there? After all, he never went beyond the small, neighbourly disputes that took place inside Irish culture. And yet, everyone is interested in it! By the way, Joyce writes the Irish Ulysses, a story of a typical Dubliner, as did Wyspiański, when he introduced ancient heroes to the Łazienki Park or the Wawel Castle.
It brings to my mind, Thomas Bernhard with his constant struggle with Austria and Austrianness.
Exactly! Bernhard, constantly asking: who are we, the Austrians? And the whole world is interested in it. That is why, a similar question: ‘Who are the Poles?’ is a great universal question and you should not be ashamed of it, or avoid it. On the contrary, it should be proposed as a topic that deals with the issue of human identity in general, not only cultural but also ontological. Polish Romantics have incredibly raised the Polish historical situation to the level of metaphysical conditions of the individual in civilisation. Only the Jews could do the same... By the way, our bards were aware of this parallelism, hence their messianic ideas, which we later plagued so thoughtlessly. As a result, the Poles are considered to be people who invent something that they are immediately ashamed of. It is difficult to take such people seriously.
How to do it without losing all the time?
There is no good answer to such a question. Polish writers of the twentieth century often thought how to deal with the pressure of Polishness, but there was rarely any proposal given as to how to take advantage of Polishness. Interestingly, if they had to refer to anything, more or less consciously, they referred to Polish Sarmatism. It transpires to be an original proposal, if we give it a modern meaning. The problem of how to make a Polish form from Polish experience, was posed by the war generation. Unfortunately, these boys did not get a chance to put their ideas into practice. However, they were not only ambitious, but also reasonable, because, is there anything wiser than turning misfortune into success? Poland under the German occupation, Poland enslaved by Russian communism – isn’t it a great opportunity to ask about identity? Or a chance to work on yourself, to shape your spiritual formation. And this is inscribed in the Polish form, because this form, at least in literature, is ... a diary, journal, personal essay. Even if we don’t have good realism – so what? Maybe we do not need it.
What to do in order to create such criteria in the world of culture?
Above all, one must have the ambition to face the most serious, fundamental problems in the context of Polish imagination and sensitivity. If we look at how others do it, it is the very particularism (or referring to what is happening within the scope of the examined topic) that becomes a method of transferring these solutions and values to the outside. The French still believe that to think in French style means to think in European style (although today, Frenchness means xenophobic arrogance); The Germans think that to philosophise in German style means to speak about the contemporary Greek language. Please note what the Russians do: they always refer to their cultural heritage, which allows them, rightly or not, to feel that they are a civilisation. They do it with ease, sometimes even in a grotesque way, but without the feeling that they must import a philosophical dictionary. Meanwhile, Polish intellectuals, mainly conformist academics of the nineteenth century, nipped the philosophical Polish language in the bud, ridiculing it with incomprehensible masochism. If we had taken the metaphors of Słowacki or Norwid seriously, if we had worked on the proposals of terminology given by Romantic philosophers, then perhaps we would have been able to think in Polish, and not only particularly about Polish matters. At the beginning of the 21st century, I was passionately watching Russian cultural programmes; it was a period when an access to them was facilitated. It made an amazing impression on me. People gathered in them and discussed the ultimate problems of God, being and so on. First of all, their voice was not trembling. And secondly, in responding to such issues, they constantly referred to their native philosophy, literature, not having a constant need to confront their position with external criteria or values. And although, at first glance, it seems parochial and stupid, viewers do not feel any escape or ignorance in it. There is a deep fear about this kind of attitude in Poland. In fact, there is an informal ban on pure philosophising. This happened at the time of the appearance of communism, because its most serious spiritual effect was the consolidation of universal acceptance of conformism. And we use this distorted perspective when we look at the pre-war past. Let's take writers, such as Witkiewicz or Gombrowicz; they have a constant feeling that their individuality and subjectivity are violated in Poland. But it didn’t stem from the feeling that Polishness was ‘embarrassing’, but rather from the anger that we forbid ourselves to deal with fundamental issues, that we must not speak out about them fully freely. If Polishness closes us, then it is a very mean Polishness, i.e. Polishness which should not be this way, because it has the potential of greatness. If we discredit the potential of greatness in ourselves, then we have a feeling of being enslaved by our own identity. This is the best way to self-destruction. The problem with Polish culture is not parochialism, but self-limitation. Every time someone tried to oppose this, he was immediately marginalised. Independence isn’t treated as ambition and courage to take responsibility, but it is perceived in terms of pride. Perhaps it is a kind of never-ending tension in the Polish culture? There is a great story by Gombrowicz, Szczur [‘The Rat’], which speaks about it; in the story, formalised narrowness of reason fights with the formlessness of spiritual profligacy.
Nevertheless, Witkiewicz’s works contain catastrophism, the conviction about the twilight of civilisation, and therefore, the problem is most fundamental.
Witkiewicz, indeed, sensed the atmosphere of the moment, which was, after all, quite common, let's not forget about it. There is ambiguity in his works, because sometimes he writes that catastrophe is fate, destiny, consisting in the fact that the era of greatness has naturally passed away, and the time of civilised degradation is inevitably coming; other times, however, he says that this is a situation where we can benefit, that it is the crisis of a mature Western civilisation. We do not know, however, if this is a cyclical situation, therefore, civilisation could be reborn on the next level or its end is inevitable; hence, it is uncertain whether the humanity itself is coming to an end. It seems that the philosopher Witkacy adhered to a traditional concept of civilisation as a work of a human being, but his paintings or some dramas give a premonition of the post-humanist world.
What does the collapse result from?
It may result from the fact that pragmatic convenience begins to dominate over non-pragmatic goals. Paradoxically, however, life practice decided on it. In the past, it was impossible to live comfortably, even wealthy people suffered the basic discomfort of being a corporeal and spiritual being at the same time. Life was spiritual because it was uncomfortable. But it was only due to the fact that technically, there were no good solutions. At the moment when we can afford more, people use it. Perhaps - one can draw this conclusion from this - the ideal values were not needed at all; they were a substitute. And if it is destiny, then why do we regret the direction in which our history is heading? Witkacy writes directly: I have the conviction that I am old-fashioned. But he wants to stay like that. Why? Because a man is fundamentally a metaphysical being, but he doesn’t necessarily want to realise it. However, for some reason, it is morally right to encourage people to have this self-knowledge. This is what art is all about - it is supposed to arouse the feeling of a metaphysical way of being oneself. It must be remembered that art, according to Witkacy, is a kind of violence, there is no place for any negotiation here. Therefore, by the way, democracy is not conducive to art, it trivialises art. In Witkacy's works, we see a contradiction between the need to exercise our humanity within the framework of civilisation, a need that everyone feels but no one knows where it comes from, and the necessity, or rather desire, to meet biological needs, which requires cutting away from the constant reflection on the mystery of existence. That is why people are afraid of metaphysical feelings, because they come to them in an atmosphere of destruction, simply speaking, as a feeling of death. And so, the crisis comes not because something new has appeared, but because we have reversed the priorities. Here are pragmatic values which we have set as a goal of our striving, and not as a necessity of life, thus creating an economic civilisation instead of a spiritual civilisation. That is why Witkacy criticised democracy, Darwinism and Marxism so strongly, because he believed that they create valuesfrom something that is evidently true in a human being, but it should not be absolutised. Witkacy was a deeply moral being. He believed that, as people, we are authentic in what we want, not in what governs us.
Does this result in any political proposal?
This is an undecidable question in the categories of Witkacy, because he escaped from concurrent politics. It was obvious to him that equality and prosperity was something that a man would not renounce and what he deserves, but, most probably, he personally supported the authoritarian power. He dreamed of some kind of an enlightened tyrant. Interestingly, he did not see the threat of fascism and communism as the governance of authoritarian individuals, but rather as a kind of unifying globalisation. He was most afraid of a world in which intellectuals will serve pragmatic upbeaters, a world in which there will no longer be ambitious politicians, but only social managers on corporate services.
Perhaps that is why Witkacy was never considered a reactionary writer.
Although he was obviously a conservative! He believed that norms ordering social life should exist even for this very reason so that everyone would be able to violate them at their own risk. He believed that human dignity results from the fact that our existence is burdened with constant risk, thanks to which we have a chance to become an Individual, a metaphysically conditioned subject, a creative being. He was not considered a ‘backward-looking’ person because he thought that the Poles never created an attractive political form, so there is nothing to go back to. Therefore, why should he be reactionary? What’s interesting, he hated noble democracy; he believed that the Poles made a mistake. Namely, they degenerated the idea of nobility by making it popular. We are proud that our gentry class was numerous compared to other countries, while Witkacy thought the opposite: that numerous nobility is bad nobility. The idea of Nobles, which, by its nature, should only apply to a small number of people, (because only a few are able to implement the ideals of humanity), has been tailored to small, wicked people. Finally, the Poles began to pretend virtues instead of practicing them. In addition, Witkacy regretted that, in our history, we did not have tyrants, authoritarian power that would enforce a kind of spiritual effort on society. And that’s why we have learned to discredit despotic people, thus, involuntarily creating patterns of conformism and hypocrisy.
What role did art play in Witkacy’s thinking?
Let's start with a wider observation: art, along with religion and philosophy, is a way of communing with metaphysics. Witkacy called it ‘a feeling’, which does not sound good today, because we associate it with sentimentality. Still, he did not mean emotions, but deep internal experience, so he meant a certain intuition, or feeling, touching the metaphysical sphere. This is to be a kind of purification, a ritual through which we renew our humanity. It’s because humanity is given to us as a task, which is why we are permanently insatiable, we have to create it for ourselves. A man is not a man naturally, but it is a meta-physical experience, we have to go out of ourselves, i.e. rise above our own ‘guts’. We can say that it is also somewhat medieval, but also, it is close to the early existentialism of Heidegger which which Witkacy was not familiar with. Secondly, art, religion and philosophy are treated as three aspects of the same phenomenon, parallel paths, while our contemporary culture does not require using these paths. Which does not mean that our needs for a metaphysical sensing ourselves have disappeared; these desires simply have no outlet today; and so, in order not to feel pain, we amputate them. Therefore, if someone creates ambitious art or philosophy, then, in this world, it appears in the wrong context for itself, and so, it’s naturally degenerated, which makes it bizarre. And thus, in turn, it becomes exclusive and unreliable. There is no way out, we have to create art which is more and more bizzare, but we can learn to commune with it. The famous Pure Form was a way of using art rather than creating it. In a sense, the remedy for this incomprehension and nihilism would be to perceive positive sides in contrast to negative sides, i.e. some idea of reversal in reflection, seeing life in death, love in vileness, as Kantor (Witkiewicz’s student) would say. And so, an artist would be someone who proposes scenarios of the manner of being that would allow us to find metaphysical experience. It can be done at the level of an individual or a group - a theatrical performance is a good example of that - and finally, also on the social and cultural level. The artist, in a sense, fulfills the romantic role of the organiser of the spiritual life of the community; this is his task and this justifies his activity, which is inevitably egotistic at the source.
Now, let's talk about Stanisław Wyspiański. Speaking about his drama ‘The Wedding’ [Wesele], you pointed out that it is actually untranslatable into other languages. I wonder, however, if you see in him the particularity that transforms into a universal text of culture.
Looking at ‘The Wedding’ from the formal perspective, it is very universal. For example, the adaptation of this drama by Andrzej Wajda was very well received and understood. Anyway, the construction of this film is extremely clear, and, at the same time, literally copying Wyspiański's intention. However, the writer's language is, in fact, untranslatable, because it is a mixture of the Polish language of poetry with the colloquial language of the Polish mentality, and, as such, it is strongly conditioned historically. One could, of course, try to resort to a paraphrase, whereas this problem is also connected with the contemporary structure of Polish society. Wyspiański mixes the language of intelligentsia with the peasants’ language, as if to say: all intelligentsia are peasants, and all peasants are intelligentsia, we are all grey nobility. Therefore, to Polish people, ‘The Wedding’ is humorous, funny practically in its every second. Even the most pathetic phrases from the later acts of this drama, resonate with a specific ambiguity. It is a language maintained consistently at the level of irony, specifically Galician, which means that, throughout the drama, there is uncertainty about how to treat it all. And going back to the formal intention, Wyspiański had an excellent idea which he consistently implemented. The plan consisted in creating a metaphor from reality, perceived as symbolic in its entirety. In other words, if he enters a room, everything in this room appears to him as a sign-forming material. What's more, recognising these signs is a certain process. From the observation of the environment, a scenic movement follows, the transition from sign to sign forces interaction with another person, and this, in turn, creates a dialogue. A very organic form is born. Almost all of Wyspiański's dramas were created in this way. So, we have a feeling that what is happening must have happened not due to some fate, but due to... a pure form. Because form, in its metaphysical essence, is an experimental symptom of existence. From this spatial thinking derives a very important issue: national performance. Wyspiański was an artist who had a very bold cultural offer for his countrymen.
What did it consist in?
Wyspiański believed that if he taught the Poles to be attentive when communing with their own heritage, then they would see the directive of conduct in that; they would adapt their collective actions to the signs flowing from the historically shaped space. People can make mistakes, bad decisions, but the nations are led by some secret instinct of fulfilling their mission; this mission is recorded in their material and ideological heritage, in their language and in their iconography. Collective things, a certain archetype, is, therefore, a teacher of individuals. Man, in Wyspiański's opinion, creates culture instinctively, it forms it as its surroundings, as a form of settling down here on earth. The idea was to treat Poland, its historically shaped spiritual formation, as a synthesis of Western culture developed throughout history. Please note that we keep telling ourselves that we are located between East and West, the Slavic and Latin traditions and it is, reportedly, our misfortune. Still, Wyspiański responds to it in the following way: let's make a good of it! Let's assume that this does not translate into any internal conflict or a need to do everything half-way, but let’s assume that we are the centre towards which all extremes are heading. Similarly to the way he made Krakow the centre of the world, as he was forced to live in this city for various reasons, and though he hated it, he took advantage of it.
Krakow, which was a small town at that time...
It’s an understatement. It was a nasty hole! At the end of the 18th century, Krakow had about five thousand inhabitants. It was only due to the fact that the Austrians wanted to make a military garrison here, something larger, some large barracks could be born here [laughs]. At the climax, about sixty thousand soldiers were stationed here. It was for them that trade and education developed, the army invested in infrastructure. Now, going back to the main subject. Wyspiański proposes that we treat our ‘confusion’ as a kind of synthesis of European culture. But it is not about being some ‘parrot of other nations’. Let us try to take the best from it and make it Polish. In other words, let us pass it through Polish sensitivity, myths, mentality, not being ashamed of our identity, without escaping from it. And so, it should not be European Poland, but rather Europe in Polish style. By the way, Wyspiański's antithesis would be Gombrowicz who believed that we should create a viable alternative, and that Poland will only be attractive and strong in the eyes of the West if it creates a separate proposition. For Wyspiański, there was no such alternative.
Wyspiański acquired an excellent education.
Of course, but he also knew Polish culture well which Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz did not know. Their knowledge of Polishness was at secondary school level. Wyspiański had a vast knowledge of Polish history and old Polish literature. He was one of very few writers in our history who have explored these aspects so deeply. He spent all days in libraries, also private ones, reading antique books. And thanks to that, he noticed the nucleus of his proposal - universal Polishness as Europeanness. He read it in the Polish language as our entelechy. When he designed the Acropolis at the Wawel, it was not mirroring the Greek pattern, but rather its culmination. Wyspiański was a modern conservative, he thought that it was necessary to study carefully the signs of tradition in order to draw from it, projects for the future. And the projects will only be possible, if they are properly read. And we have a tendency to be lazy, comfortable, and degraded. It's easy to be led astray when you just copy your own identity stereotypes. Here, they meet with Witkacy who hated pretending, because he considered it as a form of escaping from oneself, and, as he thought, one can only be ‘onself’ thanks to self-creation, because then, the man is truly ‘responsible’ for himself.
Still, in the context of The Wedding, the observation is rather pessimistic. The golden horn, a symbol of the greatness of the Poles, is lost...
Yes, you are right. This is characteristic not only for Wyspiański, but also for Witkacy or Gombrowicz. They felt resentment towards Polish culture for not using its potential. But what would it be? No one knows. For Wyspiański, the value was the feeling of ‘anxiety’, for Witkacy - painful, but essentially human ‘insatiability’, for Gombrowicz - on the contrary, the Polish value was the ability to develop a ‘golden mean’, a kind of self-acceptance in this earthly state. All of them, however, certainly did not intend to condemn or cut off Polishness a priori. The model of the total negation of native culture was perpetuated after the Second World War. Previously, it hadn’t come to anyone's mind, while the criticism of Polishness had been heading towards its destruction. Well, maybe not always, as Wyspiański was the witness of the appearance of this tendency. This is a perspective very typical of Krakow, because this kind of petty bourgeois conformism, political and social comfort, limiting ambitions, was, after all, the dominant belief in the circles of the then intelligentsia of this town. And it probably still is today, although the language has changed.
Do you want to say that it wasn’t a coincidence that the Stańczyk community had their capital in Krakow? [laughs]
Of course it wasn’t. Anyway, let us remember about the plan of the Habsburg Empire to give the Poles enough freedom to feel comfortable and to have a conformist attitude. Still, Wyspiański says: they’ve cheated you. The Austrians allowed you to be Polish, but it is staged Polishness. You play with it, but nothing more. You think that you do not have to have cultural formations in order to have an identity, but such an identity is merely self-parody. You have replaced real cultural institutions with prostheses because you do not have the tools to create it, because these tools are political. Culture is not autonomous at all; on the contrary, there is no culture without civilisation, without its own environment. Among other things, that's why Wyspiański was so concerned about Polish aesthetics, because thanks to it, we can exercise our sensitivity in an unhampered way. But the key is to have political institutions, because thanks to them, we create real social performances through which we form ourselves. Coming back to The Wedding, directed by Wajda, I would like to remind you that there is one scene in the film that doesn’t exist in Wyspiański's drama. It is the very beginning, as the newlyweds and their guests are riding from the St. Mary's Basilica to the Bronowice chalet. At some point, the cabs are riding past the garrisons of Austrian troops, and the wedding guests do not notice them. Characteristically, the Austrians are silent and completely alien. Wajda is showing here that the Poles get drunk with their Polishness, but they ignore the reality. And the reality is that foreign troops are stationed in this territory and that is their state. At that time, for Wajda, it was probably a metaphor of the then communism, which has already become very comfortable for many at that time. Moreover, the writer was extremely sensitive to the form, understood as the embodiment of unformed premonitions. This form is, simply speaking, the reality. Wyspiański says at some point: let's build the Acropolis at the Wawel! In this place, we will build a temple, and next to it - the parliament, somewhere else - an academy. Only then will we be able to see the signs of our identity. If we come to terms with staying with a substitute or false institutions, then we will create such personalities: phoney, hypocritical conformists. In other words, in the long run, it will affect the mental life of individuals. In this sense, Polishness does not enslave the individual, but allows him to find himself in the world. To some extent, Polishness, any super-egotistic self-knowledge is an anticipation of the mystery of existence.
This phoniness, which you’re referring to, manifests itself in the very first act of The Wedding. Intelligentsia meet peasants and pretend to know what farming is, and vice versa.
You are right. At the same time, it manifests itself not only in mutual misunderstanding, but also in the fact that the topics of conversations are artificial problems.
Today, we would call them ‘substitute topics’ [laughs].
Yes, exactly. It is no coincidence that this scene begins with a journalist. By the way, in this drama, the journalistic milieu is outlined in a very modern way [laughs]. They have information chaos and create fake news. After all, we have these famous sentences, “What's going on in politics, sir?” or “Are the Chinese holding on?”, which means: we aren’t present in the politics. The Poles read about world events in newspapers, they do not participate in history themselves. Let us note that all the dialogues in The Wedding have their reverse, they are written in quotes, ironically, they can always be understood the opposite way. By the way, the form of the theater reflects this dissonance very well. The plot is developed in such a way that what the heroes say becomes more and more untrustworthy. And the fact that there is no golden horn, which we spoke about earlier, is less important than the very gesture of losing it. This was due to excessive theatralisation of life, because of the belief that the costume of Polishness is important in itself. But, in a sense, it happened inevitably as a result of a consistently analysed form of a ‘fixed behaviour’, i.e. a performance typical of Poles. Let's look closer: here is an intelligent, dressed in a kontusz [a kind of outer garment worn by the Polish male nobility], completely drunk, passing it to a representative of the peasantry, who is completely unprepared for such a responsible role. Why? Because it is ill-mannered, completely unprepared by these very intelligentsia, and so, we must conclude that the intelligentsia are not suitable for the role of social guides, etc. Here we can see how all the symbols used by Wyspiański interact harmoniously, how convincing the syllogism, carried out with the use of the spectacle, is. It is a pure form! On the other hand, Wyspiański was very anti-intellectual; it was a real ‘critical art’, a criticism of the elites of that time, known to him from his environment, because he grew up in such a ‘Krakow’ home. He did not look for solidarity with artists and professors in opposition to uneducated people, he only showed that those who consider themselves a spiritual elite are representatives of ordinary petty bourgeoisie.
Ghosts also play an important role in the drama. What do you think is their symbolism?
All ghosts that appear in Wyspiański's drama arouse negative connotations. They are demonic figures. It's not a coincidence that each of them brings something terrifying. The exception here is the vision of Marysia before who an idealised lover appears, but also we must bear in mind that she is the only woman in this male group. Women are, by the way, morally privileged in the Wyspiański's world; they are treated with some special respect. Even Wernyhora is demonic, although he brings a seemingly sublime message, but it is, in fact, a message of perdition. He uses a comically enigmatic language, as if he wanted to confuse people rather than explain anything to them. It is an interesting figure – half-mythical, pagan, alien, as if it was someone from the verge of reality. The ghosts come from the psyche, but as if from underground, and, at the same time, from the paintings hanging on the walls, that is, from the collective imagination recorded in the creations of civilisation. Therefore, the kind of an iconographic environment that we create is not spiritually neutral.
Wernyhora is a figure from outside the world of Polish culture.
And so, you could actually ask: where did he come from? Probably, from a territory that we should not have ventured into... Going back to the issue of demons. In my opinion, they show that the Poles have no place to draw strength from, Branicki's ghost is an example of a noble who is a traitor, while Szeli - a peasant who is a murderer. Wyspiański wants to show us that we do not have good sources of strength in our history. Not in the ‘past’ but in the ‘history’ which we write for ourselves. If it is so, that in our history, there is no good solution, then what is it? How to find it? The Wedding ends on a quite pessimistic note; however, it seems that Wyspiański says that people should come up with a new project without looking back. He tells Polish people to see themselves in the creation of their collective will, not in the monster of their helplessness. He tells them to have the courage to create something on their own and make it a suggestion for themselves, so that this can release energy to act. In a nutshell: let's set a task. We have the beginning of the century, the Stańczyk group cultivates Polish history, and this is good, but they have no new formation to offer. Who has now a new Poland to offer? Piłsudski, who blasts some Russian district every day... Let's dwell on him for a moment. What was Piłsudski doing at that time? He was heading a militia or a ‘terrorist organisation’ and in this way, he was fighting for a position in the political competition. He was well aware of the fact that in order to create a new Poland, it was necessary to establish institutions, because they animated collective actions. So, one must start with a small group, then create a network, take command over them, at the same time, give them symbolism, some aesthetic form. This is how institutions are built - slowly, step by step. By the way, Piłsudski acted like an artist; he decided that the activity of the State should be preceded by activity in a micro scale; a parallel scenario can be used for building the State... After all, the army is a ‘pure form’ of the community under the authority, it is a ‘formation’ which models the State.
Finally, let’s go back to Witold Gombrowicz. How would you describe his idea for the modernisation of Polishness?
In my opinion, treating Gombrowicz as an author who modernises Polishness is inadequate. He is completely unsuitable for the patron of the progressive thought, he is extremely conservative, and in a surprisingly stereotypical manner. He initiates alternative thinking - either Poland, or the West. Perhaps that is why today's progressive environments refer to him, although he was betting on Poland, rather than on the West. When he was mocking Polishness, it was because Poland ridiculed itself, and he felt as if someone were pulling the rug out from under him. The problem is that in Poland, he did not see any formation that could be put in opposition to the world outside (we should remember that he understood the Sarmatian tradition in a quite abstract way). However, if we were to compare him with the writers we had talked about earlier, then their common feature was the striving for the Polishness that gives the strength to an individual, so that admitting that you are Polish – this deepest internal confession - would not be debilitating, excluding. Gombrowicz says: we envy the French, the English, even the Russians, that they do not have to constantly question their identity, they do not have to constantly ask about it. And, because of that, they do not waste their time and energy, although it may seem unreflective from the outside. We are constantly questioning our identity, therefore, we are permanently at the starting point. Gombrowicz, therefore, suggests that the Poles go for spontaneity. A man does not develop according to the planned path, but by overcoming the problems which he encounters. He says: I would love to be Polish, but I am only offered to pretend Polishness or pretend to be someone else; let us be Poles freely, without self-limitation in the face of defining ourselves which goes before the contingent nature of life.
Gombrowicz puts forward a very strong accusation, based on the fact that, in Polishness, there is a strong imperative of an individual who must sacrifice himself for the community.
Yes, it is a very subtle matter. Feigned Polishness causes the real to be oppressed and unable to find the right expression. Gombrowicz's opposition to the pressure of the community results from the fact that the ‘community’ is treated as a kind of conformist agreement; we get along in faking Polishness. That is why the writer positions himself as an advocate of the other, allegedly true identity. But that one is enigmatic. It is not a coincidence that this issue is connected with the question about subjectivity. The very identity of the human being remains undiscovered. That is why we constantly wear masks, change forms and only their variability is something that can be grasped. Nevertheless, the very desire for identity gives us life force. What's more, it is a kind of ethical energy. Man cannot be himself, in the sense of the concept of what he is, but he has a moral obligation to make attempts at self-fulfillment. So if the Poles define themselves through continuous self-deception, agree to certain lies about themselves to stay in a good mood, they betray the ethical calling of man to seek the truth. If people do not try to be themselves, which means that they do not challenge themselves, they take away the meaning of freedom, and only in it lies the source of being fully human. In a sense, for Gombrowicz, Polishness, properly defined, would be the guarantor of subjectivity. But, is it possible?
Witkiewicz thought in a similar way, didn’t he?
Definitely. His ethics were funded on an unbelievable self-discipline. Nowadays, we look at him in a distorting mirror - as a drunkard, drug addict or ladies’ man. But when we read his practical advice, he seems to be extremely ascetic. He writes a treatise on drugs, alcohol and nicotine to communicate: No! Don’t do it! And the worst thing is smoking! [laughs] He read a lot on a daily basis, brought books from all over the world, constantly wrote all sorts of polemics, letters, worked from morning to evening. He was a very reliable interlocutor, he hated pseudo-intellectuals and poseurs. He never agreed to any mean deals, he was a moral absolutist, he could not be bribed, even with a flattery, he had no social complexes. It was a knightly character. Witkacy took nothing from Polishness for himself. Rather, he gave it everything he had. Because, instinctively, he had a very Sarmatian character, he was a noble troublemaker in the territory of philosophy. He did everything as a person who, from Równia Krupowa, could freely impose on the world, the conditions for understanding the Mystery of Existence. He was an artist and thinker who was as Polish as the French can be French or Russians can be Russian... Without stammering, as if Polishness was fulfilled in him in its strongest form - transparently pure.