Text from the collective work: Wolność i jej granice. Polskie dylematy, OMP, Kraków 2007.
A suggested topic is both fascinating and perplexing, most of all due to a definition of “political freedom”, which for a Polish scholar is neither obvious nor a handy tool for analyzing literature, even if he reads classic works by Acton, Berlin and Legutko. The problem begins when we are to specify what exactly this political freedom is, not to mention a problematic issue of selection of literary works that focused on the topic in question. For the purpose of these initial and interpretative comments I would like to use, as my starting point, a lapidary clarification offered by Berlin, who wrote, commenting on political freedom, that it is “[…] simply a sphere in which man is able to act with no constraints from the side of other people”. From the start I would narrow this definition down and focus on the way the literature of the second Republic of Poland elaborated on the issue of dependency of freedom of an individual on collective freedom/independence, mainly the freedom of the sate, for this in my opinion is the key issue in the context of the period we are interested in. Therefore I set aside a much broader and much more complicated question of, let us say, existential freedom, that is not necessarily related to a political experience, an extremely important example of which would be the works of Witold Gombrowicz, in which freedom and enslavement of an individual respectively are consequences of non-political mechanisms, mainly psychological and cultural ones.
Without any great risk it can be said that experience of political freedom, specifically independence of Poland, to a great extent defined Polish literature after 1918. It reflected characteristic dependency that got created in this respect and was mentioned by Stefan Żeromski already in 1916 in his famous Zakopane lecture entitled Literatura a życie polskie (Literature and Polish life). Żeromski claimed that after Poles regain their freedom in the sphere of politics, our literature will be liberated as well, getting rid of binding obligations and national duties. Political freedom of Poland is a condition of artistic freedom, while freedom itself is treated by writers as value that does not rise any doubts or suspicions. Hence a gesture characteristic for the the first years of independence of liberating (emancipating) Polish literature from various conventions and obligations. What I have in mind are futuristic mottos of words at large and Avantgarde concepts of liberated imagination, and a famous quotation from Słonimski’s Czarna wiosna (Black spring): “My homeland is free, free, So I cast away from my shoulders the cloak of Konrad”.
However, apart from the text by Żeromski mentioned above the literature of the second Polish Republic inherited a will of Wyzwolenie (Liberation) by Stanisław Wyspiański, a play which, as we remember, confronted Polish writers, and speaking in broader sense, our intellectuals with a task of verifying romantic and pseudo-romantic mythologies against “normal” statehood. Real Poland, Wyspiański warned his readers demandingly, will be Poland that gives consent to limitation of freedom of individuals, for example freedom of speech. Konrad wants Poland to be normal, “he wishes for things that are everywhere” and reminds us that “the nation has only a right to be like a STATE” which translates, for example, into a need to break free from dreams of Poland-Christ of the nations and to accept censorship.
On the threshold of the second republic of Poland there were symptomatic voices of writers and publicists who claimed that new and free Poland can not be “normal” in a sense desired by Konrad and therefore has to be based on the idea of freedom. Antoni Chłoniewski in his book The Spirit of Polish History published in 1918 wrote that the essence of this spirit is disregard for violence and the fight for freedom. He claimed that:
It is in Poland’s vital interest […] to develop quicker and rise higher to the ideal of freedom and brotherhood of the nations […]. Poland squeezed between autocratic countries and enslaved nations fell. It may rise again and exist safely only among free and legitimate nations […]. Our task is therefore obvious. It is to combine our liberation-oriented endeavours most intensely and jointly with general liberation-oriented endeavors, wherever they may occur.
Artur Górski’s comments were similar. In his book Na nowym progu (On the new threshold) published in 1918 he saw the essence and meaning of the history of Poland in freedom, too. He said:
If somebody wanted to write only one book and raise future generations on it […] he would find most of all the fact, that located between south and east we stood up and fought for freedom of free development of man; that we have always fought either with Byzantine tradition of annihilation of man by the state or a closer Western way of annihilation of human conscious by this very state, that we have built faith in man , his dignity, his vocation to govern himself and to freedom, that we have been the only ones among Slavs after the fall of Czech to really create a type of a free person.
One wanted to base the entire structure of the state on moral discernment of this free citizen of the Republic of Poland and on his conscience. Instead of a physical order one wanted to build an internal order inside every individual. What was demanded was unanimity in legislation so that no conscience was assaulted and no other compulsion was in place but the compulsion of conviction.
Further on, explaining that the fall of Poland was due to our “inability to reconcile the collective instinct with the instinct of respect of man”, Górski expressed his opinion that “gold of freedom purified in the wonderful alchemy of the spirit remained under ashes”.
This is our national treasure. May it be enclosed in a soul of every Pole, may he sow this gold of freedom wherever he may operate, from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. We pay with this gold for our future. The fight for human freedom, for insemination of freedom is one of the tasks of Polish work bestowed on us by our tradition, a work ever creative, the results of which return to its source, although there is no equal moment.
Poles’ historical role and a spiritual foundation of free Poland were understood by Górski as shaping the attitude of “soldiers of freedom” and creation of “a free race in the free land”. This author, however, did not absolutise freedom. He warned his readers that freedom is not „the content in itself” but that “the content is shaped by certain ideal to which one should try to achieve and which may be shaped only in freedom. The feeling of freedom without an ideal, a specifically defined ideal, leads only to a spectacle of free spiritual powers, interesting and informative in itself, but leading the entire life to formlessness”.
This last warning was both obvious and characteristic experience of the first Republic of Poland. It returned and even got stronger among thinkers of interwar Poland in which enthusiasm for freedom was often to collide with anxiety concerning a proper use of freedom by Poles.
The voices quoted above explained ambiguous expectations of Polish writers concerning free Republic of Poland. For some it was to be “normal” Poland - a strong and efficient country using, a need occurring, apparatus of coercion. For others it was to be a country of proverbial houses of glass, a homeland of free people that shares freedom with other nations.
The reality was to revise dreams of the both sides almost instantly. Let me remind you two great novels of the beginning of independence, namely Przedwiośnie by Żeromski (The Coming Spring) and Generał Barcz by Kaden-Bandrowski (General Barcz).
In Żeromski’s novel, in the famous conversation between Cezary Baryka and Gajowiec, the latter speaks with the sentiment about Abramowski, who “hated the state with its army at war, court and police, with all the functions of the state and ordered people to get organised in free associations”, but adds immediately that “life itself contradicted the dreams of this social mystic thousand times”. Gajowiec defends the idea of a strong and efficient country symbolized in Żeromski’s novel by a policeman. Baryka, on the contrary, tells Gajowiec that in free Poland “little is done to cancel slavery of the poor, an internal slavery” and asks:
[…] what are you waiting for? The fate gave you a free homeland, a free country, the kingdom of the Jagiellonian dynasty! You were given foreign, poor and simple peoples to warm them up and hold them close to the heart of this Mighty Patroness, this Lady, this Mother, You were given the capital city of freedom in this city! You are waining and waiting and waining! You are waining for a yoke to be put on you again?
Baryka, a bit like Artur Górski, expects a free Polish country to secure freedom for its citizens. He identifies freedom with liberation from economic slavery, while radicalism and maximalism pushes his toward anti-state revolution which, in hiss opinion, would fulfill these ideals. Gajowiec believes as well that “within the boarders of this Poland given to our generation by the fate, united, free and equal states will be created”, however he is absolutely convinced that this aim can be achieved by means of evolution, through straightening the institution of the state. This, as we remember, does not convince Baryka. He goes to the head of a parade of “the enslaved” by poverty and ideology of communism, the jobless, and goes to Belvedere, as if supporting a thesis according to which freedom of Poland cannot be reconciled with freedom of its citizens and that the latter form of freedom can be achieved only for the price of destruction of the former one.
A similar dilemma was probably perceived by Kaden-Bandrowski when he described in his characteristic, expressionistic way a process for gaining power by general Barcz. The writer glaringly and even brutally made Poles aware that construction of “iron framework” of independent state calls for sacrifice of freedom of individuals. The most characteristic stint of the novel is related to a writer named Rasiński, a faithful aide-de-camp of Barcz, sacrificed by the latter for the sake of “the iron framework”. There are situations, Kaden seems to claim, in which freedom of Rasińskis may, and even should, be sacrificed for higher causes. It applies to Barcz himself, who sacrifices his personal freedom for the sake of freedom of the state. He is well aware of this when he tells his mother: “where I stand, a man is nothing… Nothing, - nothing… The State, mom, - the State…”.
The problem of Generał Barcz was noticed by other writers of interwar Poland, which of course was influenced by political events of the period, especially the May Coup D’état and its consequences, which were the events the sanation would call consolidation of the state, and its opponents construction of dictatorship. All this in turn was affected by growing threat for freedom of Poland from the side of totalitarian states on our eastern and western boarders. Evolution of views of Kazimierz Wierzyński in this respect seems to be exceptionally characteristic and symbolic. He entered our literature presenting his anarchistic creed that are poems included in a book of poetry entitled Wiosna i wino (1918) (Spring and wine) and Wróble na dachu (1919) (Sparrows on the roof). In 1936 he published, probably the most important for our analysis, a collection entitled Wolność tragiczna (Tragic freedom). While in the first books the mentioned anarchism with its gesture of liberation from all restraints is definitely optimistic, in the second book of poetry freedom is perceived as value both precious and problematic in a sense that its experience condemns an individual to loneliness, rejection and lack of understanding. What is more, experience of freedom, as described by Wierzyński, is “the spirit of history of Poland” and therefore the purpose its entire history aimed and is still aiming for. Moreover, this drive to freedom is characteristic for rare and outstanding individuals, since a mob does not want freedom. A mob is easily bored with freedom and prefers material goods.
A main protagonist of Wolność tragiczna is Józef Piłsudski. Wierzyński in a series of poems-pictures shows his fight for independence of Poland, which is often fought despite Poles. Freedom is tragic, because it is constantly endangered; from outside, for example by “A slit eyed Scythian” but also, and perhaps most of all, from within, by ourselves. In Wierzyński’s poetry Piłsudski “at night/is smuggling freedom underground” (Manewry strzeleckie - Shooting maneuvers) and is aware of the fact that:
You have to choose quickly, once one - and forever,
If freedom, then hard, without tears and courtship.
A city is singing and eyelids are crying but it doesn’t matter
Who keeps them wide open - is redy for everything.
He will gave upon a baren land like a vulture,
Upon ruins, upon misery around:
He has to gather and put this freedom together from trash
Freedom is a difficult task, which has nothing to do with sentimentalism of the quoted motive of tears and courtship, that is in turned confronted by Kadenian in its spirit metaphor of “freedom from trash”, that is built of things that are real, tangible, and even esthetically and ethically repulsive. Sucha hard and in a sense fragile freedom is unacceptable for a mob, which, in a poem entitled Rozmowa z Baryką (A conversation with Baryka) attacks Belvedere and for whom political freedom has a single consequence: “finally we felt the desire/to eat and sleep to our heart “delight”. While obsessing this mob, Piłsudski uses the phrase “tragic freedom”:
Whoever is with me
Let him enforce his freedom, without it - there is no reason,
And over the pass of ages: two millstones,
The fate is pushing through, I shall not overturn it,
My breast over the extent of the defeat, rises high or falls down,
Creating tragic freedom.
“Whoever really loved Polish freedom, explained Herling-Grudziński commenting upon the title of the book of poetry by Wierzyński, has to know its price, must know, that it is tragic, since it calls for rising above slightness that “lures inside each of us”. In other words, politics freedom is related to the fight with internal enslavement. It requires dedication, fortitude, spiritual greatness of an individual brought up by the famous phrase uttered by Piłsudski: “I sentence you to greatness”.
Another characteristic example of dilemmas in interwar Poland is an evolution of thoughts of Ferdynand Goetel, who after his Russian experience was aware of dangers of totalitarian utopias for individual freedom. In his stories written in the period not only did he defend freedom of an individual, but also claimed, that desire for freedom is on of the most vital feature of an individual. In his novel Z dnia na dzień (From day to day) a protagonist says:
You should have told him , that I have seen enough of blood, violence and hatred and I do not wish to see any more of it. That is spite of all the social and state reasons, somebody has to say: you can’t. You can’t do things from which conscience and human soul shudders, even if it is against the national interest, against interest of the classes.
We do not want to hear bullets wheezing!
We had enough of the clink of handcuffs.
At the end of the twenties Goetel publishes his play Samuel Zborowski in which, using historic matter, he juxtaposes individualism and egoism of the title character with actions of Zamoyski and Batory who cared for the greatness of Poland. Here Poland appears to be “a pupil of freedom”: Zamoyski believes that „Polish sword hanged over the world and cut a gorge by which our most distinguished freedom will flow to other nations”. The condition, however, is repression of internal anarchy. This is why a king tells the gentry defying his authority and ruling on Zborowski:
[…] to you, hawkers, ready to play dice gambling with a cloak of fame taken off from tour own back, to you, hungry wolves, robbers of battlefields, to you, leaders of cowards, wisemen over fools, I say, there will never come a day for this land to decay in iniquity. For its fate is to give birth to heroes, abuse ignorance, glorify human honour and bring the flame of freedom to all the nations… and this is glory, our glory and glory of mankind.
These words and the entire play conveyed an appeal for a strong state and authority but also objection against abuse of freedom by an individual, which at the time was interpreted as a sign of Goetel’s support for the then policy of Piłsudski. A consequence of this attitude was a famous collection of essays Pod znakiem faszyzmu (Under the banner of fascism) from 1938 which included his meditations on freedom and coercion. Goetel defended use of coercion by fascist states justifying it by, inter alia, the conviction that “there is no revolution without coercion” and that violence “becomes useless at the end of the day”. At the same time the writer rebuked Polish critics of fascism for their attacking limitation of personal freedom in Italy and Germany without noticing brutality of the soviet regime. He wrote sarcastically:
In Poland there are more defenders of freedom than opponents of fascism. There are more independent individualists than there are supporters of democracy. A certain characteristic for us cult of greatness and worship of power makes us sympathize with the rules of strong power based on authority. At the same time, however, we do not want to agree with anything that might diminish our rights and liberties. And most o all we are sensitive to coercion. Nothing by violence! Everything by means of internal conviction! Well, it should be said that a sense of personal and civic freedom would be a wonderful feature of Poles, if it was coupled with equally wrong sense of civic duty. However the ring of dutifulness over exemplary for us societies of France and England is weak in Poland and breaks under every gentle pressure of insatiable self-interest.
Fear of degeneration of freedom into self-interest expressed as well by the quoted above author can be found in a historic novel Złota wolność (Golden freedom) by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka published in 1928. The writer describes events of the first years of the seventeenth century, analyses symptoms of what a protagonist of the novel Skarga calls “the autumn of the Republic of Poland” caused by excesses of golden freedom finding its peak in a Rebellin against king Sigmund Vasa. “Skarga worries in the novel: “The nation is doing too well […] some catch typhoid due to excess of liberties, others are to be slaves from the cradle to the grave? Isn’t God going to punish it?” On the other hand, commander Żółkiewski, seeing rebels compares them to an enormous and idle river:
Their power, uncontrolled, instead of falling down as a destructive but invigorating steam, smashing old forms and regenerate, spilled around forming a harmless, muddy pond. Its is going to stand, loud, until it stinks and becomes stale. It is not going to hit an enemy with a battering ram of anger, it is not going to coach with him in a life-giving and creative confrontation, nothing great and useful is going to occur…
The novel present a conviction that freedom preserves its value and power only when it is based on law observed both by the authorities and citizens. Unlawful abuse of freedom and its unlawful limitation are equally dangerous and lead inevitably to a fall of a country.
While Goetel and Kossak-Szczucka described threats for the state originating from excess of civic liberties, the literature of the second Republic of Poland had much more works warning against growth in the power of the country that might quell liberties of individuals. I am thinking , of course, about the entire “anti-totalitarian” trend that warned, often by means of parables and grotesque, against threats to freedom of individuals from the side of the expanding state. An example of this may be a play by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska written at the end of the second Republic of Poland entitled Baba-dziwo (A woman of Wonder) (1938). The play is remarkable because it depicts dictatorship resembling hitlerism in Prawia executed by “the mother of the people” Valida Vrana. Her reigns are merely anti-female, for they limit women’s personal freedom, interfere with their personal lives by ordering them to give birth to children, women are spied on, etc. The issue is much more interesting in plays and essays of Witkacy. He also depicts a mechanised, “nivelistic” system that strangle and even physically destroy individualists like Atanazy Bazakbal, a main character of Pożegnanie jesieni (Farewell to Autumn) from 1927. What is interesting and original here, is Witkacy’s comment on how difficult freedom is and how easily a man is getting rid of it. In Nienasycenie (Insatiability) (1930) a symbol of this “escape from freedom” are Murti-Bing pills manufactured in enormous amounts in China and sold in the West to submerged in spiritual and moral anarchy protagonists of the novel. Also in Farewell to Autumn and plays, e.g. in Szewcy (Shoemakers) we can see how easy elites are getting rid of freedom for the same of a nivelistic state. For them freedom is in fact a burden which they abandon.
In his essays, e.g. in Nimyte dusze (Unwashed souls) (1936) Witkacy claimed that there was a tragic conflict between aspirations of an outstanding individual and and aspirations of the masses. The former is fighting for maximum freedom for oneself using violence against the masses, the result of which is paradoxically a growing power of the latter and eventually enslavement of individuals:
[…] a society creates individuals that oppress it in order to go up in the spiritual hierarchy of being, grows though the power that is created by them, and after numerous fluctuations that give illusion of reversibility, kills an individual to rest in absolute immobility, equal for all perfections
The writer call this a right “of dissolving great men in the mass of humanity”. In Unwashed souls he shown that social violence is a necessary evil in building culture. As the consequence he defended the French absolutism and criticised democracy of the Polish gentry that created “a swamp of chaos and decay of an individual without internal discipline”.
Perhaps not tragic, but undoubtedly unexpected effects of the escape from freedom were described brilliantly in Bunt (Mutiny) by Władysław Reymont. The novel was published for the first time in 1924 and republished lately. This parabolic novel about a mutiny of domestic animals against men focused on the issue of freedom and a price one pays for it. The said mutiny is carried out in the name of liberation from an order created by men-masters. A leader of the mutiny, a dog named Rex years for freedom and passes this yearning to his subordinates:
You live and multiply only for the benefit of men! Your skin does not belong to you, neither your bones, nor your fur! Shame on those who loved slavery! You can not even revolt! All you can do is to lament, be whipped and reman calm and lick feet of your conquerors […] Can you hear these songs that fill the forest? This is a song of freedom, this is our joyful, courageous and light-hearted life that is singing!
Hence animals’ march to the East, to freedom and happiness. As it turns out fairly quickly freedom promised by Rex does not arrive at first, and later on it entails suffering, victims and progressing physical and moral degradation, if one can speak of such a thing among animals. We read that monotony of the march to freedom “turned everyone to a picture of a perfect grey, silence and a dead tranquility. Disputes became silent, fights and objections went dead […] Even the innate differences faded away”. Marching to freedom the animals become a mob lured by Rex who would make such promises like: “the road is long, but in the end there is freedom waiting for us”. They start longing for the old order, especially when it turns out that they are not able to find food. You can not live on freedom and, what is even worse, this fact leads the animals to unexpected and paradoxical conclusions:
At the end of the novel the animals revel against Rex and murder him as a tyrant in the name of freedom and go searching for a man. They find a gorilla and beg him to rule over them.
Reymont’s Orwellian avant la lettre story presented freedom as a burden and made readers aware that if absolutized it may bear fruits contrary to the expected ones. Absolute freedom is something that is difficult to bear and what eventually leads to absolute slavery and barbarism, Reymont seemed to warn his readers, undoubtedly under the influence of the Bolshevik revolution.
The author of Bunt was in accord in this respect with many of his fellow writers of the interwar Poland who, as it can be seen from this short review, hold sceptical views on the idea of political freedom. We should also remember that on the eve of the outbreak of World War II young Karol Wojtyła, a pupil of free Poland, wrote sonnets in which he glorified freedom as one of the most precious and important “desires” of Poles, the basis of their culture.
It can not be forgotten that these literary debates concerning freedom took place in the shadow of specific and dramatic political and historic events. Hence the term of “tragic freedom” which in my opinion describes most adequately the then dilemmas of our writers.
See: I. Berlin, Dwie koncepcje wolności, [in:] by the same author, Dwie koncepcje wolności i inne eseje, selected and edited by J. Jedlicki, Warszawa 1991; R. Legutko, Traktat o wolności, Gdańsk 2007.
G. Herling-Grudziński, Z perspektywy dziesięciolecia [foreward to Wolność tragiczna published in Rome in 1945], [in:] by the same author, Wyjście z milczenia, edited by Z. Kudelski, Warszawa, 1993, p. 15. Let us add, that the title of the book of poetry by Wierzyński was alluded also by Jerzy Pietrkiewicz in his famous poem-manifesto Tragiczna, choć wolna młodość (Tragic, although free youth) (in a book of poetry entitled Wiersze i poematy, 1938).
Ibidem, pp 128-129. A similar message was conveyed by a comedy by Ludwik Hieronim Morstin entitled Rzeczpospolita poetów from 1933. A dictator Turlew has to be stopped by “a dreamer of realism”, Gaudy, who promises law and order to people maddened by freedom-related experiments.
Compare “W spowiedzi słuchaj tęsknoty ludu!/Pragnienie święte: Wolność i Miłość!/ – i, by nie zwodzić na pastwę złudom,/w czasach trza dla nich uczynić wyłom,/trza się z popielisk dogrzebać chudob/i krew przeczystą/nasączyć żyłom –/odżegnać żertwą – przekleństw wyrzeczeń/przemoc człowieka ponad człowiekiem” (K. Wojtyła, Poezje. Dramaty. Szkice – Jan Paweł II, Tryptyk rzymski, Kraków 2004, p. 61) “In confession listen to the yearning of the people!/Holy desire: Freedom and Love!/ - and, not to lead into illusions,/a breakthrough has to be made in time,/ belongings have to be dug out from ashes/and most pure blood/impregnate into veins -/ renounce by sacrifice - oath of renunciation/violence of a man over a man”.