Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz - one of the greatest expressions ever of the tortured intersection of political and personal destinies in Eastern Europe. Futuristic, experimental, and remarkably prophetic
Stanisław Ignacy WitkiewiczNorthwestern University Press, 1992.
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Forgotten during the Stalin years, Stanislaw Witkiewicz (1885-1939) was rediscovered in his native Poland only after the liberalization of 1956, when his works came to play a major role in freeing the arts from socialist realism. This collection, the first anthology in English, presents Witkiewicz in the full range of his creative and intellectual activities. The Witkiewicz Reader includes excerpts from three novels; four complete plays; letters to Malinowski; and selections from aesthetic, social, and philosophical essays detailing Witkiewicz's theory of Pure Form, his metaphysical system, and his apocalyptic view of the fate of civilization.
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Quartet Books, 1985., Northwestern University Press, 2012.
It seems like the punch line to a joke: a 500-page futurist novel written in 1927 by a Polish borderline schizophrenic. And for long stretches, Insatiability reads like some kind of joke. ("Fat was a seedy gent wearing a jockey's cap and a crimson scarf barely covering a bland and sinewy Adam's apple with huge welts along the throat glands.") Sometime in the late 20th century, while neo-Bolshevist Western Europe and "fascist-Fordian" America decay, a "yellow wall" of Communist Chinese threatens to overrun Europe. Only Poland?lone bastion of syndicalism and aristocracy?stands in their way. Baron Genezip Kapen de Vahaz, or "Zip," comes of age in this tremulous, dangerous time. Those around him?a deformed musical genius; a coldhearted logician; a devout recluse; a politicized writer; the enigmatic commander-in-chief of Poland and his jejune mistress; and the sexually rapacious Princess di Ticonderoga?try to impress their own philosophies on him. He joins the Army, and his military indoctrination along with the not-so-subtle ministrations of the women in his life help shatter Zip's self-identity. By the time the Chinese begin preparations to invade Poland, he displays various different personalities, each more terrifying than the previous. Witkiewicz was a photographer, artist and playwright, as well as a novelist; in each field, his work was greeted by unflagging disinterest. In the case of his writing, this was by no means because he lacked talent?Insatiability is filled with clever (often multilingual) wordplay, febrile humor and rollicking sex scenes. (The translation is brilliant, smoothly finding perfect phrases and puns.) But Witkiewicz has a deadly tendency to refine his metaphors within an inch of their lives. Insatiability is an extreme novel, coupling a thorough knowledge of philosophy with a monumental lack of perspective (the principal character stands in for no less than all of Western Civilization). For any but the staunchest of readers, it will prove tough slogging, indeed. (May) FYI: An ardent nationalist, Witkiewicz killed himself in 1939 upon hearing that the Soviet Army had invaded Poland. In a twist sure to have appealed to his bizarre sense of humor, in 1994 it was discovered that a woman's body occupied his coffin. - Publishers Weekly
A complete revision of Iribarne's lively 1977 translation of one of the key works of European literary modernism. Witkiewicz (18851939) was a gifted painter, poet, philosopher, dramatist, novelist, and iconoclastic wit--a kind of latter-day Polish William Blake or Wyndham Lewis. In this, his greatest--and weirdest--novel (first published in 1927), Witkiewicz created a unique and fascinating hybrid: a novel of education grafted onto a stinging sociopolitical satire that mushrooms into nightmarish dystopian prophecy. The inchoate protagonist, Genezip Kapen, moves from youthful innocence and promise through the formative and transformative crucibles of sexual initiation (and confusion), drug addiction, madness, and murder. His own psychic and moral fragmentation evinces what his author perceived as the larger decline of his country (summed up in its surrender to an invading Chinese communist army) and a culture too effete to survive the pressures of the new century. Witkiewicz's surpassingly strange book is an exhilarating amalgam of Swiftian satire, Dostoyevskian intensity, and (an acknowledged influence) Rabelaisian digressiveness. And one of the most exciting novels of its time. - Kirkus ReviewsInsatiability is one funky novel. The time between the wars was an interesting one in Central Europe, and a great deal of truly great literature, largely in the form of large tomes, appeared or was conceived then. Broch and Musil reigned in Austria (well, they did not reign, but they created the greatest works of the period), Döblin experimented in Germany (though it was the dull man Mann that pleased the public), and Poland had both Witkiewicz and Gombrowicz fashioning their fascinating work. Insatiability is, like Gombrowicz' Ferdydurke, Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities), and Broch's towering Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), and, yes, Mann's big books, a philosophical novel of enormous dimensions and proportions.
It is a fantastical novel, darkly utopian, in which Europe is under a fascistic regime while a Russian revolution dominates that country, and everyone is faced with a Chinese invasion. The leaders in a seemingly invincible Poland succumb to an unusual new drug-religion, Murti Bing, and in the end surrender to the Chinese.
The hero of the novel is Genezip Kapen. His adventures are in the main sexual and philosophical. Witkiewicz uses him to expound his own theories -- serious and not so serious -- and he goes far afield in doing so. Peopled with a vast assortment of unusual characters, the novel is always ... interesting, and generally engaging.
Witkiewicz does not seem to take himself or his ideas all too seriously, and so in some senses this book is a tonic compared to the general run of Bildungsroman from the time. He paints ... nay, splatters a broad canvas in this novel that could as easily be termed dystopian science fiction as a Bildungsroman. The philosophy is unusual but certainly interesting (if only for its bizarreness). Witkiewicz, a talented painter who gave up painting, also argues about the impotence of language, the inadequacy of fiction, rejecting his undertaking while creating such a huge work.
It is thoroughly entertaining, but it is an unusual novel, from a different time and context (though the commentary on Communism, for example, is strikingly modern). A true intellectual, Witkiewicz' thoughts on the many hundreds of subjects he raises are interesting and interestingly expressed. It is a bit of a mess, and certainly will not be to everyone's taste, but we do recommend it. It is an important novel, and a fun one. Worth the considerable effort required. - The Complete Review
In early September, 1939, a few days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, like thousands of other refugees, fled from Warsaw towards the east. On September 17, he learned that the Soviet Union had attacked from the east. Feeling that his darkest apprehensions about the triumph of totalitarianism were coming true and that there was no escape, the 54-year-old author committed suicide the next day by slitting his wrists with a razor.
Painter, playwright, novelist, aesthetician, and philosopher, Witkiewicz -- or Witkacy as he called himself -- belongs to the writers and thinkers known in Poland as catastrophists, who sprang up in the period framed by two world wars, the first of which brought the Polish state back into existence after nearly 150 years of dismemberment, and the second of which threatened the nation with total annihilation. Poised between cataclysms, Witkacy forecast an apocalyptic close to Western civilization and wrote with sardonic humor about the approaching end of the world.
The major theme in all of Witkacy's works is the growing mechanization of life, understood not as dehumanizing technology, but rather as social and psychic regimentation. In dozens of plays and two large novels, Witkacy portrays the threatened extinction of a decadent individualism. The degenerate remnants of a once creative mankind will be replaced by a new race of invading levelers who will establish the reign of mass conformity, modeled on the beehive and anthill -- by what Orwell calls "insect-men."
Thoroughly -- although ironically -- Euro-centric, the author of Insatiability most often presents the invading forces as coming from the outside, representing a different culture that will subvert moribund old world values. In his first literary work, the one-act comedy Cockroaches, which at the age of 7 Witkacy printed on his own hand-press, a menacing gray object in the sky drawing closer and closer is revealed to be a cloud of cockroaches from America. Undoubtedly the precocious child, hearing his father discuss the mechanization of work in the United States according to the assembly line principles of F. W. Taylor, associated modern mass production with notions of collectivity, alien and deeply inimical to the individuality so highly prized by the Witkiewicz family. Brought up in the picturesque mountain resort of Zakopane and educated entirely at home according to this father's elite system, young Witkacy was nurtured on contempt for the mob (whatever its class origins) and trained to revere art, although the boy had doubts about his own vocation and longed to be part of a school world forbidden to him.
Four years as a tsarist officer in Russia, where he witnessed the last days of St. Petersburg and lived through the February 1917 Revolution, even being elected political commissar by his regiment, gave Witkacy an entirely new perspective on the collectivist threat and caused him to revise drastically his ideas about the supreme importance of art and artists in the 20th century. In a long series of plays, which the painter-playwright began immediately after his return to Poland in 1918, Witkacy showed, in vivid but disintegrating images, the collapse of an ancien régime composed of obsolete individualists -- decadent artists, demonic women, Nietzschean supermen -- which is overrun by "the uniform, gray, sticky, stinking, monstrous mass."
Although seen largely from the point of view of the doomed social class of "pseudo-Hamlets" who have lost faith in their own reason for existence and been rendered grotesquely impotent, Witkacy's dramas also include in the dramatis personae the amoral adventurers who take over revolution and exploit it for their own advantage. In times of violent social upheaval, those who come out on top are not the ideologically pure but the ruthlessly opportunistic. In They (1920), a prophetic play dealing in thought control, confession to uncommitted crimes, the destruction of modern art, and government by informers and secret organizations, Witkacy explores the real, as opposed to the apparent, sources of power. THEY, ubiquitous and protean, have assumed control of the institutions of public life and, in the guise of the League of Absolute Automationism, enforce the tyranny of society over the individual.
Unlike Capek in R.U.R. and Kaiser in the Gas trilogy, the Polish playwright was little concerned with the enslavement of man to the machine or the dangers inherent in advanced industrialization. For Witkacy, modern science and modern art are allies in the struggle against the anthill; both are subversive of stability and uniformity and must be rigidly controlled by the new tyrants. Well versed in the theories of Einstein, Whitehead, Bohr, Mach, Cantor, and Heisenberg, Witkacy recognized that the conventions of realistic drama are based on mechanistic Newtonian physics. In his own plays he attempted to create a new dramatic model (which he called Pure Form) derived as much from the discoveries of the new mathematics as from Picasso's breakthrough in non-representational painting. In his most farsighted antiutopian play of the 1920's, Gyubal Wahazar, the automated political realm of the future is portrayed as "a sixth-dimensional continuum," in which human nature has become something infinitely malleable and subject to endless transmutation. Subtitled "Along the Cliffs of the Absurd, a Non-Euclidean Drama in Four Acts," Gyubal Wahazar abandons old-fashioned psychology and techniques of story-telling in order to portray future totalitarianism as a world of indeterminacy and relativity; this anticipates by a few years Evgeny Zamyatin's thesis in "On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Things," that modern art forms must abandon fixed plane co-ordinates and project reality onto fast-moving, curved surfaces. Known as "His Onlyness," the insane dictator Wahazar -- a super-individualist who wishes to liberate mankind from metaphysical longings and return the human community to the primal harmony of the beehive -- becomes a martyr to his own cult of the leader, but upon his death, the frightening Dr. Rypmann is able to fabricate new tyrants by "the fission of the psychic atom," and the nightmare continues.*
During his lifetime, Witkacy was better known as a novelist than as a playwright, since his two major works of fiction were brought out by established publishing houses whereas most of his dramas went unpublished and unperformed. Because of their politically sensitive character, Farewell to Autumn (1927) and Insatiability (Nienasycenie, 1930) cannot be reprinted in Poland at the present time, although there was a limited re-issue of the latter work in 1957, after the "thaw." Louis Iribarne has performed an important service for English-speaking readers with a dynamic translation of Insatiability that captures the vigor and grotesque humor of the original. Of all Witkacy's works the most complex linguistically and stylistically, Insatiability is a bizarre potpourri of erotic adventures, philosophical speculations, and predictions of coming disaster; to have rendered this idiosyncratic monster of a novel into vivid, juicy English is an outstanding accomplishment testifying to Iribarne's extraordinary skill as a translator. In addition, Iribarne provides an exemplary 40-page introduction to the life and work of the author as well as an incisive commentary on the novel.
There are those who argue that Insatiability is the author's masterpiece, and it is certainly the most Witkacian in the virtuoso narrative digressions and inexhaustible comic inventions. At the same time this wild, lunatic, and phantasmagoric book has proved to be one of the most prophetic works of 20th-century fiction, not so much in its particular predictions (although some of these are quite uncanny) as in its capturing of the age's sensibility through brief composite portraits of the "psychosocial" environment. The fractured picture that results is that of an incoherent ersatz world which resembles our own. In the Witkacian era of insatiability, everything from genius to revolution, from food to mystical experience, from art to patriotic heroics, is an inauthentic manifestation of pseudo-culture. Change has accelerated so strongly that "the distances between generations had diminished to the point of being ridiculous: people just a few years younger than others were apt to refer to the latter as their 'elders' " (II:288). Throughout all the media there is systematic falsification of the news, while the government is perceived by all as an organized mafia behind a mafia, causing such a loss of belief in politics that the state becomes regarded as a sport. Meanwhile, in the background, the superbly disciplined Chinese communists, after subduing counter-revolutionary Russia, are poised to take over the blandly bolshevized states of Western Europe.
In one way a traditional "education novel," Insatiability presents the initiation into life of the young hero, Genezip Kapen, who, faced with frightening impulses within his psyche and vast impersonal threats in the society around him, sinks slowly into mechanized mindlessness, unable to retain his human individuality; at the same time, Poland is likewise losing her battle to hold back the onrushing Chinese. As schizophrenic as the bewildered young hero is the divided temporal perspective, situating the novel at the point "where the opposing forces of past and future intersect" (II:246). Although the action of Insatiability is situated in the post-revolutionary world of the 21st century, the new age is seen refracted in an obsolete pre-revolutionary mirror, Poland -- a limbo and refuge for decadent aristocrats, deranged artists, posturing titans, and philosophical sensualists.
Set against this crumbling stronghold of individualists and ready to crush it is the "mobile Chinese Wall" (1:36), a collective human automaton, drawing closer and closer. This "flawless, fearless machine," with its countless invisible feet marching in unison like a huge organism, is Witkacy's ironic version of the old "yellow peril" cliché and the ultimate embodiment of social mechanization. It is this sinister drift of Orient to Occident that brings about the Spenglerian decline of the West in Insatiability. In the second half of the novel, a shadowy and enigmatic Malay appears in the West, spreading his mystical religion of universal contentment by means of the "Murti-Bing pill," sold by street vendors, which relieves the anguish of individual personality. Quickly lulled into ecstatic happiness, the pill-takers no longer fear the coming extermination of their egos through social regimentation. Witkacy seems strangely prescient in his identification of drugs and mysticism as the preferred escape mechanisms of our own age, and his Murti-Bing pill anticipates the comparable social use of chemistry in two later antiutopian novels: soma in Huxley's Brave New World and psychem in Lem's Futurological Congress.
Thus, European metaphysical quests -- the essential expression of insatiability -- are replaced by two instant ideologies, both from the East: mystic Murti-Bingism and materialistic Chinese communism. Opposed as these two at first may seem, in Witkacy's view both are designed to eliminate the conscious thinking mind and the inevitable suffering which it brings. The pill softens up the already demented and debilitated Europeans so that they can painlessly adjust to the political control which will definitively liberate them from their own madness and despair and turn them into smoothly functioning members of the state machinery.
[*Other plays by Witkiewicz which might be considered as at least borderline SF are Tumor Mozgowicz (Tumor Brainiowicz), about a mathematical genius who creates a revolutionary new scientific system that threatens the bases of civilization; and Szewcy (The Shoemakers), "A Scientific Play with Songs," which presents a series of revolutions culminating in an era beyond ideology presided over by technocrats.] - Daniel Gerould
Essay on Masochism and Catastrophe in Insatiability, from The Polish Review
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Applause Books, 2000.
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, The Mother and Other Unsavory Plays: Including The Shoemakers and They,
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Routledge, 2001.