Tadeusz Różewicz, famous as a poet and playwright, is rather less well known as an author of prose, though some of his stories belong to the classics of the genre in twentieth-century Polish literature. This selection of his stories published by Biuro Literackie presents Różewicz as a writer who is deeply involved in historical events and in his own life story. His main protagonist is first of all a child undergoing his earliest experiences, then a young boy who idolises his older brother who is killed by the Nazis, then a partisan in the forest, and after the war a philosophy student trying to cope with feelings about the meaning of the life that have been damaged by the cruelties of war. Next he visits Paris with some Polish friends, but is unable to feel at home there or experience its beauty, while eternally attached to his Polish fate and memory. At the same time, in the title story he shows how little this memory means to some people on a modern trip to Auschwitz, to whom it is actually impossible to convey the full horror of what the prisoners endured.
In the stories that follow there is a growing sense of alienation as the fundamental experience of modern man, as represented by: an old peasant woman who doesn’t know how to adapt to the “high society” in which her diplomat son lives; a Pole in New York; and Dostoevsky in Paris. Różewicz’s heroes feel cut off from the Western world; they have trouble with it and feel uncomfortable in it, though they realise they need this world in order to authenticate their need for order and a hierarchy of values. In Death in the Old Scenery the simple Polish hero makes a pilgrimage to the origins of tradition and culture when he sets off on the journey of a lifetime to Rome. But he is neither spiritually nor physically able to cope with his encounter with the (disturbed) origins of Mediterranean civilisation, and inside him the “heritage of centuries” turns into an obsessive internal monologue consisting of nothing but platitudes.
Różewicz’s stories are like a review of the traumas and mental injuries that the twentieth century brought to the inhabitant of the European provinces, as well as an expression of his personal “dissenting opinion” with regard to Western civilisation.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
The New Philosophical School
It was the end of October or perhaps November, 1945. I knocked on the white door. A muffled sound, something like the grunt of a big beast, could be heard in response. I entered the philosopher’s study. He was the most distinguished living Polish philosopher, a one-time student of Husserl, I was told.
I had enrolled at the university that autumn. The professor was giving lectures to my year group on the subject: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. I was burning with the strange ambition to join his seminar, even if it meant skipping the compulsory preparatory course.
I bowed to the philosopher, explained briefly who I was, how I came to be in his study and I asked whether he would be willing to accept me at his seminar. The professor smiled. With a warm, throaty voice, he explained that first I would have to enrol for the preparatory course. I winced. The professor looked at me closely and asked: “Well, young man, which philosophers have you read? How much philosophy do you know? Would you mind telling me?”.
I began, feverishly, to recall what I knew.
I liked the scholar’s fine head. It was like a high-precision machine, constructed some fifty years earlier, probably at one of the famous German universities. Despite the devastation of the war, it worked wonderfully well. It was something extraordinary. Only occasionally, in a middle of a lecture, the professor would turn his gaze towards the window and turn silent for a while. Beyond the window, all you could see was a piece of wall, and the November sky. I stood in front of him, in the military-style boots we had worn as partisans in the forest, and tried hard to recall the names of some philosophers.
“Well, I’ve read Socrates” – I said firmly, and then paused. The professor smiled and cocked his head to one side.
“In fact, not Socrates himself, but Plato’s writing about Socrates” – I corrected myself. –“I’ve read Plato, Nietzsche...”
The professor gave me an encouraging smile.
“I’ve also read Bergson’s Creative Evolution,” I added with pride.
I couldn’t recall any more names or books, and the professor seemed to be waiting for something further... Gradually, some names I had encountered during my school years came floating back into my memory - the names of “philosophers” and of friends with whom I had discussed subjects such as the meaning of life, the purpose of our actions, and God.
“I’ve also read Spencer and Draper” – both these names I uttered hesitantly, as I couldn’t really remember what they had written about. One of these, Zbyszek and I had read in the park a year before the war broke out. It was a book, or rather a booklet in a tattered green cover. The author was called Spencer, or perhaps Draper, but at this moment I couldn’t remember either the title or the contents of the book. I had forgotten about it during the Nazi occupation. It may even have been by somebody else. Now I recalled just one passage from it. It concerned the dogmas of the Catholic faith and the author was posing a provocative question: ‘Has anybody ever seen the finger of the Holy Ghost?’ I remembered this “finger” but didn’t really know what the philosopher was on about, so I let it pass and didn’t mention any of this to the professor. After a moment’s silence, I brought up another name: Freud. The professor seemed interested. Here, I had a strangely clear recollection of making fun of a certain dream, in which a dreamer opened the lower drawer of a chest and peed into it: this was supposed to signify a suppressed sexual desire for his childhood nanny. But all this was merely a joke. Though, if we took a foot, for example, I was sure that I had read in a book by Freud about the role of the foot in one’s sexual life. The psychoanalyst’s argument seemed to us so funny that the two of us, Zbyszek and I, had learned it by heart. Even at that moment I could have recited to the professor the bits about the foot. “From time immemorial, the foot has been commonly treated as a sexual symbol in myths, according to which, a shoe or a slipper serves as a symbol of the female sex organ; therefore, in a perversion such as fetishism, only a dirty or smelly foot is a sexual object... A foot is construed as a woman’s penis, the absence of which is strongly felt by female children...” Needless to say, we ignored the logical elements of these learned deductions and this resulted in such nonsense that we split our sides with laughter.
The professor, leaning towards me, seemed to expect some new names. Unfortunately, I had almost exhausted my store of philosophical knowledge. I finally mentioned Schopenhauer ‘the pessimist’. One more name floated up from the darkness, from the deep well, from the mists of childhood, but I did not say this name to the professor. It had a foreign ring to it and I had never heard it again since childhood: “Mulford”. That was the name of the mysterious philosopher. I had never read Mulford, as I didn’t yet know the letters of the alphabet at that time; his book was being read by an old man, married to a woman with burning black eyes, as he lay in an oak bed. Unfortunately, I knew very little about Mulford. I could no longer remember whether he wrote about hypnotism or hygiene, maybe he wrote about hippopotami or could it be hashish? In any case, he would most probably have been English.
This was the last name I mentioned or rather recalled. Anyway, I seemed to have been confusing it with the word “mouflon”. However, I was not sure what a “mouflon” looks like. Where did this animal live and what did it feed on? One thing I was sure of, though, was that it had curved horns and a long, woolly coat. Perhaps it might also produce milk but these were pure assumptions on my part. About Mulford, however, I knew nothing.
Of course, I had also heard of Kant, but only in jokes. Apparently it was he who said: “The starry sky above me and the moral law within me”. This was practically all I knew. Now, I awaited the professor’s response.
The professor’s grey eyes lit up for a moment and then the fire in them died down. He was weary, but maybe inwardly highly amused; or perhaps he was only tired and surprised.
“You fought with gun in hand, while we were saving human thought; you in the forest, we, wherever it was possible... I will give you a place on my preparatory course. Right now, we are reading Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature.” – He gave me his hand. I bowed and left the room.
Translated by T. Halikowska-Smith