The beginnings of the Polish essay can be traced back to Renaissance secular moral treatises. Mikoiaj Rej (1505–69) with Wizerunek wtasny żywota czhwieka poczciwego (1558; A faithful image of an honest man) and Lukasz Górnicki (1527–1603) with Dworzanin Polski (1566; The polish courtier) initiated a productive trend in Polish nonfiction prose that is concerned with the moral and intellectual perfection of man. The
17th century contributed to laying the foundations of the essay genre with a few original works, all of which were published for the first time only in the 19th century: Jan Chryzostom Pasek’s (c. 1636–c. 1701) Pamiętniki (wr. 1690–95, pub. 1839; Memoirs), Stanisiaw Zoikiewski’s (1547–1620) diary, entitled Początek i progres wojny moskiewskiej (wr. 1612, pub. 1833; Beginning and progress of the Muscovite war), and King Jan Sobieski’s (1629–96) letters to his French-born wife Mariette, Listy do Marysienki (wr. 1664–83, pub. 1823; Letters to Marysienka). In a distinctively critical and often satirical tone, the Renaissance theme of human perfection was pursued in Enlightenment essays published in the popular social-political and cultural magazine Monitor (1765–85).
With early Romanticism, the first refined Polish essayist and literary critic appeared: Maurycy Mochnacki (1804–34), known for his study O literaturze polskiej w wieku dziewiętnastym (1830; On Polish literature in the 19th century). Although in mature Romanticism prose was supplanted by poetry and drama, this period was also important for the genre of the essay. It was a time of the accumulation of problems and issues bound up with national identity which were to inspire essay writers in the 20th century.
This period was dominated spiritually by the so-called “Wielka Emigracja” (Great emigrants) in Paris (after the November Uprising of 1831, 6000 of its leaders were forced into exile), responsible for creating the model of the emigre writer: one who is sensitive to the present and obligated to the future of his homeland. Polish messianism and nationalism as a uniting force in the period from the Third Partition of Poland (1795) until its liberation (1918) and the image of the poet as a prophet and spiritual leader of the
nation are Romantic themes still vital in the public discourse.
At the beginning of the 20th century the Romantic ideals were reconsidered and revised by essayists like Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878–1911), Tadeusz Żelenski (Boy) (1874–1941), and Karol Irzykowski (1873–1944). In his Legenda Mtodej Polski (1910; Legend of young Poland), Brzozowski criticized Polish neo-Romanticism for its “lazy” aestheticism and decadence of the will, which he viewed as a revival of the weaknesses of Romanticism. According to Brzozowski (influenced by Marx and Nietzsche), it was the will to persuade and to change society—that is, the “strong side” of Polish Romanticism—which was to be cherished. The entertaining French-style essays of BoyŻeleński (the translator of Montaigne’s Essais into Polish) challenged Polish Romantic myths from the “common sense” point of view. Irzykowski in his Walka otreść (1929;
The struggle for contents) opposed both Żeleński’s cult of “real life” as a point of reference for literature and the theory of pure form advocated by Stanisiaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939). Against these, Irzykowski urges writers to go beyond unquestioned meanings and to remove the “masks” that hide reality. These three authors represent different styles in essay writing. The witty and elegant essays of Boy-Żeleński, popular among liberals and anticlericals, are considered to be an influential promotion of French rationalist thought and of the French incarnation of the essay genre. Brzozowski in his turn was, above all, an intricate thinker concerned with ultimate questions of human existence; consequently, his was a serious, laconic style with broad allusions and no jesting whatsoever. To Irzykowski, the essay was mainly a vehicle for detailed critical analysis, incompatible with any generalizations or wittiness. Subsequently, the Polish essay developed within the wide and fruitful space between BoyŻeleński and Brzozowski.
The interwar period favored the genre of the essay in two ways. On the one hand, after centuries of struggle for national independence, Poland was liberated in 1918 and the pressure of the national problem was diminished. The attention of Polish essayists then switched to a variety of cultural and philosophical problems peculiar to European civilization. On the other hand, the classical orientation of the high school educational system of the first decade of the 20th century, preserved after World War I, created a fertile environment for the emergence of both writers and a readership with humanistic erudition. Jerzy Stempowski’s (1893–1969) work is the best example of this new stage in the development of the Polish essay. In the interwar period Stempowski was published in all the popular literary and cultural journals, with writings on the relation between literature (especially the avant-garde) and the ongoing economic and social changes (Chimera jako zwierzę pociągowe [1933; Chimera as a beast of burden]; Literatura
wokresie wielkiej przebudowy [1935; Literature in the period of great rebuilding]). His main concern, however—the decline of European civilization—was spelled out later, in the volume Eseje dla Kasandry (1961; Essays for Cassandra). Two interwar essayists— Bolesiaw Miciński (1911–43) and Stanisiaw Vincenz (1888–1971)—were the most truthful to the spirit of Stempowski’s essays. Miciński, an antagonist of academic philosophy, took his own metaphysical experiences as subject matter for his essays. His Podróże do piekiet (1938; Journeys to hell) and Portret Kanta (1947; Portrait of Kant) are built around great historical figures of European thought, mythology, and literature and are influenced by Freudian psychology. Vincenz, who wrote essays on Homer and Dante as well, is known mainly for his three-volume book Na wysokiej potoninie (vol. 1, 1936; On the High Uplands; vols. 2 and 3 were published in the 19705), a collection of stories and myths of the Carpathian Huculs written in the spirit of Homeric epic. Vincenz’s narrative is a characteristic example of the so-called “talk” or gawenda style of storytelling, similar to the Russian skaz, viewed by Czeslaw Milosz and Marta Wyka as a typically Polish feature of the essay. Jan Parandowski (1895–1978) popularized the ancient heritage of European civilization through adaptations of Greek mythology, the
Iliad, and the Odyssey, and through his travel essays Rzym czarodziejski (1924; The enchanting Rome) and Dwie wiosny (1927; Two springs). He also penned one of the best examples of the biographical essay, Krót życia (1930; The king of life), about Oscar Wilde.
In the interwar period, with its abundance of cultural events, literary periodicals, and visions for the future of independent Poland, the essay ceased to be an auxiliary form of expression for poets and novelists and began to enjoy its “full rights” as a genre with well-developed varieties: the literary, historical, biographical, or philosophical essay, the memoir, and the manifesto. Polish essayists saw themselves as members of the international community of humanists, called upon to preserve and popularize the European cultural heritage and to apply its standards to their contemporary culture. Most of them felt as much citizens of Europe as Poles. They lived in different countries, but wrote mainly in Polish, and for the Polish public. Poets and novelists, philosophers and painters—all reached for the genre of the essay to present their innovative theories of literature and art. Stanisiaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, a painter, playwright, novelist, and philosopher, promoted his avant-garde doctrine on the pure form in art in Nowe formy w malarstwie i wynikające stąd nieporozumienia (1919; On the new forms in painting and on the resulting misunderstanding) and Szkice estetyczne (1912.; Essays on aesthetics), and especially in his prophetic anticipation of the theater of the absurd, Teatr: Wstęp do czystej formy w teatrze (1923; Theater: introduction to pure form in the theater). Bruno Schulz (1892–1942,), whose cycles of poetic stories are the most original phenomenon in interwar prose, also published an essay about poetry as a regeneration of the elemental myths hidden within the words themselves (“Mityzacja rzeczywistości” [1936; Mythologizing reality]) and essays on contemporary Polish and foreign authors, among which are his particularly persuasive interpretations of Gombrowicz and Kafka. The logician and painter Leon Chwistek (1884–1944), in his essay Wielość rzeczywistości (1921; The plurality of reality), elaborated on the idea that there are four kinds of noninterfering realities expressed by different artistic approaches (primitivist, naturalist, impressionist, and futurist).
In 1939, after only two decades of independence, the western border of Poland was invaded by the German army and its eastern border by the Russians. World War II (which took six million Polish lives) again thrust Polish culture into an abnormal situation. The rethinking of the experience of war and occupation, of the German and Russian concentration camps, and of the Holocaust naturally came to dominate postwar prose.
However, the critical consequence that the war and the subsequent establishment of communist rule had for literary culture was the division of Polish writers once more, as in the 19th century, into an émigré wing and a domestic wing. They faced different social environments, wrote for different readerships, saw their calling differently, and chose different genres to fulfill their intellectual responsibilities and their artistic cravings.
Paradoxically, this situation, unfavorable for the national literature as a whole, in exile brought about the golden age of the Polish essay. Stempowski (now under the pseudonym Pawel Hostowiec), Miciński, and Vincenz reflected on the decadence of European civilization, seeking the cure for it in antiquity. The decline of humanistic values is one of the leading themes of the essays of Czesław Milosz (1911–), who emphasizes the moral dimensions of this crisis. Along with the originality of Miiosz’s essays, the peculiar development of the contemporary Polish essay is manifest in Witold Gombowicz’s (1904–69) Dziennik (1953–69; Diary) and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski’s (1919–) Dziennik pisany nocą (1969–; Journal written at night, translated as Volcano and Miracle), both published by the Paris-based émigré monthly Kultura (1947–; Culture).
Although the overwhelmingly playful element in Gombrowicz’s “diary” and the erudite reflections in Grudziński’s “journal” represent two opposite approaches to the writing of nonfiction, both authors exemplify one of the main genre characteristics of the essay— subjectivity. The journal form they employ is to some extent a matter of convenience (they write for a monthly magazine), but it also allows them to exploit fully another peculiarity of the essay—its link with the spirit of the present time. Both journals can be read as a process of self-construction of the narrator’s image (including some mystification) and as a response to the most urgent problems of contemporary European culture, of Poland under communist rule, and of Eastern European intellectuals in exile.
The potential of this “hybrid” between the essay and the diary was revealed by Miłosz in Rok Myśliwego (1990; A Year of the Hunter), Aleksander Wat (1900–67) in Mój wiek (wr. 1963–65, pub. 1977; My Century), Andrzej Bobkowski (1913–61) in Szkice piórkiem (1957; Sketches with a quill), Kazimierz Wierzyński (1894–1969) in Moja prywatna Ameryka (1966; My private America), and Marek Htasko (1934–69) in Piękni dwudziestoletni (The beautiful 20 year old), published in the second half of the 19605 in
The circumstances of exile—a familiar Romantic theme—were discussed by most Polish émigré writers. Some of them, like Gombrowicz and Herling-Grudzinski, were inclined to see their situation in a positive light. Gombrowicz considered the exile of the artist to be a universal problem; Herling believed that a writer in exile, being free to express himself, is much better off than a writer under totalitarian rule. Czesfaw Miiosz in his Nobel Lecture (1980) and other essays is concerned with the dramatic choices and
compromises forced onto a writer in exile. The most critical of these compromises is, of course, the language—an issue discussed by Stanisław Barańczak (1946–) in a few of his essays collected in Breathing Under Water (1990). Józef Wittlin (1896–1976) in “Blaski i nędze wygnania” (1957; “Sorrow and Grandeur of Exile”) discusses both the positive and the negative sides of the problem. Exile does not seem to be so unbearable to the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (1927–), who responded by becoming a citizen of the world, convincingly demonstrated by his essays in Modernity on Endless Trial (1990). This also holds true for the theater critic Jan Kott (1914–), who published the representative English selection of Polish essays Four Decades of Polish Essays (1990). Until 1978, when samizdat (underground publishing) rendered émigré literature accessible to the domestic audience, the reception of emigre publications was relatively limited. In the 19805, however, the presence of emigre essayists on the home literary market became one of the important motors of the movement toward the abolition of the communist system. In their native country, authors in exile were read as moral authorities. The process of uniting two wings of Polish literature, however, took more than a decade, for the whole system of literary and moral values had to be revised.
Several essayists who remained in Poland during the communist era (although some were eventually forced to emigrate in the 19805) survived the test of the new epoch: the poet and master of the travel essay Zbigniew Herbert (1924–), Kazimierz Wyka (1910–75), Mieczysiaw Jastrun (1903–83), who wrote on literature, the science-fiction writer and philosopher Stanisiaw Lem (1921–), and the historian and politician Adam Michnik (1946–).
At the end of the 2oth century the essay genre is a vital trend in Polish literature—now finally united—and enjoys the constant attention of a wide readership. Along with poetry, the essay represents Polish culture abroad and is the preferred form for discussion of the cultural and moral problems of the period of transition to a free market economy.
Four Decades of Polish Essays, edited by Jan Kott, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990
Danielewicz Zielińska, Maria, Szkice o literaturze emigracyjnej, Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich-Wydawnictwo, 1990
Kott, Jan, Introduction to Four Decades of Polish Essays, edited by Kott, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990
Miłosz, Czeslaw, The History of Polish Literature, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
Olejniczak, Józef, “Esej i dziennik na emigracji,” in Literatura emigracyjna, 1939–1989, vol. 1, edited by Józef Garliński and others, Katowice: Ślask, 1994:226–60
Wyka, Maria, editor, Polski essej: Studia, Cracow: Universitas, 1991
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