*Boy-Żeleński (Tadeusz Kamil Marcjan)
Tadeusz Kamil Marcjan Żeleński, called Boy, is one of the most unusual and colorful personalities in the cultural life of 20th-century Poland. He was a practicing doctor, poet, theater critic, columnist, sometime literary director of the Polish Theater, professor of French literature, but above all the most ingenious translator of French literature Poland has had. The role Boy-Żeleński played in the literary world in Poland can be compared to that of Sainte- Beuve in France or of George Saintsbury in England. In old-fashioned cultural terms, one might call him a libertine; in political terms he was a liberal. For all his vast interests, erudition, and tremendous output, he was not, however, an original mind; rather, he was a perceptive, talented, and provocative essayist.
Although Boy-Żeleński is chiefly known as an expert on French literature, his most significant essays are those devoted to his native literature. Most of them are, so to speak, “correctives” to established interpretations. With his characteristic wit and irony and his beautiful style, Boy-Żeleński attacked and ridiculed the recognized scholars—called by him the “gilders” (brązownicy)—for purposefully glossing over the “uncomfortable” details from the lives of great writers and for treating literature as national mythology rather than as a source of human self-knowledge. A model of literary culture for BoyŻeleński was France, where “one walks around the great genius, one describes him, as if he were a lion or a tiger. One assumes a disinterested scientific approach… One buries him in the Pantheon—but one never overlooks any of his weaknesses.
Profanation? I do not think so; rather, the conviction that the mystery of genius lies elsewhere than in ordinary perfection. This ‘mundane, archmundane,’ from which it is born, is the most touching mystery…to catch the moment when genius gels is the most fantastic task of literary criticism” (“Mickiewicz a my” [1928; Mickiewicz and us]).
Unlike in France, in Poland, Boy-Zeleński claims, the poets are treated like “gilded gods.” In his provocative essay “Mickiewicz a my”—devoted to the greatest of the Polish Romantics—he launches an unprecedented attack on Mickiewicz’s messianism and his critics. Messianism, according to Boy-Żeleński, is the reaction of an emigrant poet from a country erased from the political map of Europe to the newborn bourgeoisie indifferent to everything that cannot be translated into the values of a commercial society. “Destroy all the monuments of Mickiewicz,” Boy-Żeleński states in his conclusion, “melt them down and cast from them a cannon, and load it with a number of critics of Mickiewicz’s works.” His essay, in which he concentrates on pointing out what was truly original in Mickiewicz, is a novelty in the traditional approach. The Mickiewicz who emerges from Boy-Żeleński’s pen is not a national hero but a great Romantic, perhaps the greatest of all the European Romantics; but as a man, however ingenious, he is not free from weaknesses and errors. Messianism was an “illness”—the illness which afflicted Mickiewicz and then was thoughtlessly glorified by his critics.
Many of Boy-Żeleński’s objections are fully justified and insightful. He is at his worst, however, when his reading is informed by his anticlericalism and his liberal attitude to social life. For example, in “Tajemnica Pascala” (1931; Pascal’s secret), he draws a comparison between the “canonization” of Mickiewicz by his critics in Poland and the attempt on the part of the members of Port-Royal to hide certain details of Pascal’s life in order to attain for him the status of a saint, without noticing, however, that Pascal’s case weakens his own claim about the objectivity of the French approach to literature. Boy-Żeleński’s work as a translator—quite apart from his intention of filling in the gaps of Polish literary culture—was not merely a matter of rendering in his native tongue the best of French literary achievements. He considered his translations to be a means of counteracting “the didactic tone, temerity, and narrow moral considerations” characteristic of Polish literature. In “O literaturze niemoralnej” (1924; On immoral literature), Boy-Żeleński invokes as examples Octave from Alfred de Musset’s La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836; The Confession of a Child of the Century) and Montaigne’s “sober analysis of drunkenness” in order to illustrate the salutary character of “immorality” for “self-knowledge”: “This exhibitionism of one’s self, to its most hidden throbs of thought, the analysis of the motivation standing behind man’s every deed, the attempts to show the shortcomings of human nature in man’s fraudulence—this is the content of almost the whole of French literature. The Pole does all that, perhaps, only at the confessional.”
This search for self-knowledge went hand-in-hand with the development of the French language. In his essay (1925) on La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (1664), Boy-Żeleński emphasizes the beneficial character of the word games played in 17th-century salons for the precision of the French language. For instance, the maxim questioning whether “one forgives infidelity, but one does not forget it,” or whether “one forgets infidelity, but one does not forgive it,” was originally half a page long; only after the process of “purification” in the course of heated salon discussions did it take on its present form.
Such apparent idle considerations contributed to making French as precise as possible.
The soundness and brilliance of many of his observations notwithstanding, a closer look at Boy-Żeleński’s methodology reveals weaknesses. For one thing, French literature is really the only literature with which he makes comparisons; many of his criticisms of Polish literature could with equal force be applied to English and German literature. It seems that the differences between Polish and French literatures—which BoyŻeleński sometimes claimed had their roots in the Poles’ being “genetically” deprived of the sense of curiosity so characteristic in the French—stem simply from the different historical circumstances which shaped the literary, political, and social lives of the two nations.
Probably Boy-Żeleński’s greatest merit was to stir up the Polish literary world, making later critics analyze Polish literature in a broader context.
Born 21 December 1874 in Warsaw. Studied medicine at Jagiellonian University, Cracow, 1892–99. Medical doctor, Cracow, 1901–18. Script writer for Zielony Balonik (Green balloon), the celebrated cabaret in Cracow, from 1906; theater critic, from 1919; literary director, Polish Theater, Warsaw, 1922–23. Contributor to various journals, including Kurier Poranny (Morning messenger), IKC, and the London émigré weekly Wiadomości Literackie (Literary news). Worked on behalf of the organization of “conscious motherhood,” 1930s; fought for the reform of marital law and against the supremacy of clericalism in culture and social life. Moved to Lvov after the outbreak of World War II. Chair of the Department of the French Literature, University of Lvov, after 1939. Member, Polish Academy of Literature.
Awards: French Academy Award for Translation, 1914; Knight, Legion of Honor, 1922; Polish Society of Publishers Award, 1928; Warsaw Literary Prize, 1933.
Arrested by Nazis after the seizure of Lvov: executed, along with other members of the Polish intelligentsia, 3 July 1941.
Essays and Related Prose
Flirt z Melpomeną (theater reviews), 10 vols., 1920–32
Studia i szkice z literatury francuskiej, 1920
Nowe studia z literatury francuskiej, 1922
Ludzie żywi, 1929
Nieco mitologii, 1935
Szkice o literaturze francuskiej (includes Studia i szkice z literatury francuskiej and Nowe studia z literatury francuskiej), edited by Wanda Balicka, 2 vols., 1956
Romanse cieniów: Wybór recenzji teatralnych (theater reviews), edited by Józef Hen, 1987
O literaturze niemoralnej: Szkice literackie, edited by Henryk Markiewicz, 1990
Other writings: poetry, works on literature, books defending birth control (Piekło kobiet, 1930) and advocating the reform of marriage laws (Dziewice Konsystorskie), a biography of King John III Sobieski’s French wife, and memoirs (Znasz li ten kraj?,
1931). Also translated many authors from the French, including Montaigne, Balzac, Molière, Beaumarchais, Marivaux, Musset, Villon, Brantôme, La Rochefoucauld, Descartes, Pascal, Rabelais, Diderot, Voltaire, Constant, Chateaubriand, Rousseau, Stendhal, Proust, Gide, and Jarry, as well as Tristan et Iseut and La Chanson de Roland.
Collected works edition: Pisma, edited by Henryk Markiewicz, 28 vols. 1956–75.
Bouteron, Marcel, Études balzaciennes, Paris: Jouve, 1954
Makowiecki, Andrzej, Tadeusz Żeleński Boy, Warsaw: Wiedza Powszechna, 1974
Miłosz, Czesław, The History of Polish Literature, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2nd edition, 1983 (original edition, 1969)
Natanson, Wojciech, Boy-Żeleński: Opowieść biograficzna, Warsaw: Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, 1977
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