The major part of Jerzy Stempowski’s output consists of thousands of pages of articles, letters, and feuilletons, yet its kernel is the essay. The selection of texts Eseje dla Kassandry (1961; Essays for Cassandra), prepared by the author himself, and the posthumously published volume Od Berdyczowa do Rzymu (1971; From Berdyczow to Rome) constitute merely a fourth of Stempowski’s output.
From among the prewar essays, particular attention should be given to the pamphlet Pan Jowialski i jego spadkobiercy (1931; Mr. Jowialski and his heirs), which at first appears to be a critical study of the comedies of the Polish comic playwright Aleksandr Fredro. In fact it is a critique of the policies of Marshal Józef Piłsudzki, the consequences of which Stempowski, who had access to ministerial cabinets, could observe from close up. Stempowski revealed his intentions in his preface to the essay, in which he cautions that “to read a little bit more than the author actually wrote is the normal task of the reader, who maintains the perennial illusion of the ever-new richness of old literature.”
An excellent essay about the Western European avant-garde in art, “Chimera jako zwierzę pociągowe” (1933; Chimera as a beast of burden), written around the same time, was particularly important in gaining Stempowski recognition as an essayist. In it he uncovers the hidden relationships between the economic processes of the first quarter of the 20th century and the “literary currents vital for European Bohemia”: “Lautréamont, Rimbaud, Dostoevskii, Nietzsche created in loneliness, yet they opposed the whole world. Surrealists write as a school; they are encouraged and applauded by a certain elite in the audience, and, besides, by a crowd of snobs and nouveaux-riches.”
A major subject of Stempowski’s essays is the crisis and decline of European civilization, as, for example, in “Esej dla Kassandry” (1950; “Essay for Cassandra”), “Rubis d’Orient” (1954), and “Czytając Tukidydesa” (1957; Reading Thucydides). In invoking the mythological persona of Cassandra, Stempowski presents portraits of people who turned out to be perceptive in their “prophecies” regarding the future of Europe. In common with the daughter of Priam, they had been pushed aside and misunderstood by their own contemporaries. The end of the essay leaves no room for doubt: “If Europe, ruined by so many insanities, is to avoid annihilation, her population must learn to foresee more accurately the results of its actions, and it can no longer afford to ignore those who possess this gift.” In the text alluding to Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Stempowski uses a similar artistic device, accepting that the present can be investigated in an interesting way if we assume the perspective of past generations. Moreover, human fate likes to repeat itself; the nature of man does not change. The words of Erast Jünger quoted at the beginning of the essay are telling: “The great world theater has a small cast.
In historical costumes, with the languages from different epochs on their lips, they always play the same characters. They star in a couple of perennial conflicts.”
Apart from the crises of European culture, two other important themes appear in Stempowski’s essays. The first is ancient culture and the world of its values. An excellent testimony to the fertility of ancient culture is the essay about Stempowski’s sojourn during World War II in the mountains, in “the hidingplace of smugglers” who, quite unexpectedly, offered him a box full of old books. Having found Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics, Stempowski once again discovered the charm of the unforgettable verse: “In the smugglers’ hideout,” he writes, “…I was struck for the first time by the realistic and psychological content of the Bucolics. An exile departing from his native land instinctively clings to the soil, absorbs it with his eyes as if to preserve it forever in memory… This perspective is the secret of Virgil and the source of the timeless appeal of the Bucolics” (“Księgozbiór przemytników” [1948; “The Smugglers’ Library”]).
The second theme of Stempowski’s essays is man’s attitude toward nature.
Stempowski was fascinated with the world of nature and, like the 17th–and 18th-century writers and thinkers, with the various attempts to humanize it. These essays are full of brilliant descriptions of landscapes, roads, gardens, and parks. The deep melancholy which permeates Stempowski’s observations has as its source the conviction that humanized nature—as a result of wars, cultural changes, and changes in customs—has strayed far from its original state. His La Terre Bernoise (1954), written in French, is an attempt to transpose Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics into the form of an essay. “In Europe,” Stempowski writes in the book’s introduction, “nature in its pure state exists only in high mountains, among the rocks and snow. Below, the surface of earth was reshaped many times by man’s hand in accordance with his tastes and needs. In this way landscape becomes part of civilization. The economic structure, ideas, as well as the history of society find their reflection in it.”
Along with Bolesiaw Miciński, Stempowski was one of the first writers to introduce the essay into Poland; scarcely an essayist in Poland has not been influenced by him.
Among those who influenced Stempowski himself were Marcel Proust and Simone Weil, as well as writers like Tacitus, who tried to combine a succinctness of form with a precision of thought without, however, breaking the connection with the experiences of past generations. Stempowski was primarily interested in demonstrating that the experiences of the past were not in vain, and that cultural continuity should be preserved—even at the expense of originality.
translated by Zbigniew Janowski
Born 10 December 1893 in Cracow. Studied philosophy at Jagiellonian University, Cracow, 1911; medicine in Munich, 1912, and Zurich, 1915; philosophy, 1915, and history and literature, 1916, University of Berne. Contributor to various periodicals, particularly the Paris-based Polish émigré magazine Kultura, from 1918, and the London émigré weekly Wiadomości Literackie (Literary news), from 1929; correspondent for the Polish press in Paris, Geneva, and Berlin following World War I. Diplomatic courier, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1919; volunteer in the PolishBolshevik war, 1920; worked for the Polish Chamber of Council, 1926. Taught at the National Institute of Theater Art, Warsaw, 1935–39. Left Poland for Switzerland, 1939; lived in Berne, 1940–69.
Published Notatnik niespiesznego przechodnia (Notes of a leisurely passerby), a series of essays in Kultura, from 1954. Used the pseudonym Pawet Hostowiec.
Died in Berne, 4 October 1969.
Essays and Related Prose
Pan Jowialski i jego spadkobiercy, 1931
Dziennik podróży do Austrii i Niemiec, 1946
La Terre Bernoise, 1954
Eseje dla Kassandry, 1961; “Essay for Cassandra” and “The Smugglers’ Library” translated by Jaroslaw Anders, in Four Decades of Polish Essays, edited by Jan Kott, 1990
Od Berdyczowa do Rzymu, 1971
Listy z ziemi bernenńskiej, 1974
Eseje, edited by Wojciech Karpiński, 1984
Szkice Literackie, vol. 1: Chimera jako zwierzę pociągowe; vol. 2: Klimat życia i klimat literatury, edited by Jerzy Timoszewicz, 1988
Listy do Jerzego Giedroycia, edited by Andrzej Stanistaw Kowalczyk, 1991
W doline Dniestru i inne eseje ukrainskie; Listy o Ukrainie, edited by Andrzej Stanislaw Kowalczyk, 1993
Other writings: memoirs.
Czapski, J., “Przy Sybillach-królowych,” Kultura 11 (1961)
Czapski, J., “Jerzy Stempowski,” Kultura 12 (1969)
Herling-Grudziński, Gustaw, “Wyjście z milczenia,” Kultura 11 (1961)
Jeleński, K.A., “Paweł Hostowiec czyli o wysiłku wyobraźni,” Kultura 11 (1961)
Kowalczyk, A.S., “Podróż do Europy: Dzienniki Jerzego Stempowskiego,” Znak 11–12 (1986)
Kowalczyk, A.S., “Wobec kryzysu Europy: Powojenna eseistyka Jerzego
Stempowskiego,” Pamiętnik Literacki 2 (1987)
Miciński, Boleslaw, Pisma: Eseje, artykuly, listy, edited by Anna Micińska, Cracow: Znak, 1970
Milosz, Czeslaw, “Proza,” Kultura 11 (1961)
Stempowski, Stanisław, Pamiętniki, 1870–1914, Wroclaw: Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, 1953
Terlecki, Tymon, “Pan Jerzy,” Kultura 12 (1969)
Terlecki, Tymon, Rzeczy teatralne, Warsaw: Pánstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1984
Timoszewicz, Jerzy, “Wstęp do ‘teatru masowej konsumpcji’ Stempowskiego,” Dialog 9 (1981)
Timoszewicz, Jerzy, “‘Pamiętnik Teatralny’…jest w czasach Piasta i Rzepichy”: Teatr w listach Jerzego Stempowskiego, Wrodaw, 1989
Tomkowski, Jan, Jerzy Stempowski, Warsaw: Interim, 1991
Weintraub, W., “Klasyk polskiej eseistyki,” Tygodnik Powszecbny 33 (1984)
Wyka, M., “Esej jako autobiografia: O Jerzym Stempowskim,” Pismo 4 (1983)
Zieliński, J., “Tragik w czapeczce,” Odra 7–8 (1985)
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