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Małgorzata Dziewulska

Between Russia and Germany: Aleksander Wat’s My Century as a Theme for Modris Ekstei

Aleksander Wat, photograper unknown. Photo from: Stanisław Jaworski, Awangarda, Warsaw 1992, p. 89. Source: Wikipedia.

Aleksander Wat, photograper unknown. Photo from: Stanisław Jaworski, Awangarda, Warsaw 1992, p. 89. Source: Wikipedia.

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Małgorzata Dziewulska analyses the ‘funeral of the avant-garde’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s, presenting the history of local avant-garde milieus in Central and Eastern Europe. The author finds the historical interplay of two totalitarianisms – fascism and communism – to be an intriguing point in the Central and Eastern European avant-garde’s common fate. In her description of the decline of the avant-garde, she reaches for Aleksander Wat – poet and co-creator of Polish futurism – through his Mój wiek. Pamiętnik mówiony [My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual]. Dziewulska examines Wat’s turn towards political journalism and his activity in the literary-political magazine Miesięcznik Literacki[Literary Monthly], a platform for the voices of Marxist writers and poets including Władysław Broniewski, Andrzej Stawar, Władysław Daszewski, Witold Wandurski, Bruno Jasieński and Leon Schiller. Another publication crucial for the author’s analysis of the ‘funeral of the avant-garde’ is historian Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age, in which he describes the critical year 1929 in Germany: devastating due primarily to the sudden deterioration of the economic situation, the issue of reparations and responsibility for the First World War. 

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Between Russia and Germany: Aleksander Wat’s <em>My Century</em> as a Historical Theme for Modris Eksteins

The most spectacular demise of the avant-garde took place at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, when the movement seemed to be losing all its life force. As much as it has been comprehensively described, the Great Crisis and the beginning of the historical strife between the two totalitarianisms remains an intriguing point in the common past of Central and Eastern European avant-gardes. It is tied up with the question about the meaning of the geopolitical “between Russia and Germany” concept. The history, autonomy and diversity of local avant-garde milieusin those territories can be best observed in periods of relative and – typically for this part of Europe – momentary stability which, nonetheless, were long enough for a unique tone and style to develop. The moment of the Great Crisis was one of those when a supreme process dominates local determinants with which it overlaps. It was a time of transition and political reshuffling with long-lasting consequences.

In the critical year of 1929, Aleksander Wat, the “neo-futurist” poet born in Warsaw, became involved in editing Miesięcznik Literacki – a journal with communist tendencies – and stopped publishing poetry in lieuof political journalism. Although the publication of his oral memoir Mój wiek [1977; 1988 as My Century] supplied all final documentation, the entire process there described continues to be ambiguous.


1.

In the first issue of Miesięcznik Literacki, Wat published a review of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On the Western Front.1 He was interested in the success of the book and the popularity of war literature, seeing it as a vivid example of the relations between literature and socio-economic and political issues. Wat presents Remarque not as an author testifying to the lost generation, but a herald of a new war. He remarks that the writer started off an epidemic of “evasive pacifistic clichés” used by the German bourgeois who preferred to see the lost war as a pretext serving the interests of neo-imperialism. The fatalist “psycho-ideology of a petit bourgeois” copies anti-militarist attitudes of the proletariat and transforms them into “counter-revolutionary toxins”. Wat makes a reference here to the Berlin-based Weltubühne magazine in which romantic descriptions of frontline camaraderie with all its resentments was seen as war propaganda. Thanks to the literary trick – a fake diary – the self-pitying main character of Remarque’s novel is presented as a martyr, and uncompromising descriptions of the atrocities of war have been “varnished with a pastoral tone”. The melodramatic grand finale kills off the hero in October 1918 so the subject of the November revolution, which resulted in the proclamation of the republic, could be avoided. Wat’s review was reprinted in a Polish language magazine, Kultura mas, published in the Soviet Union, in the company of a discussion of two issues of Miesięcznik in a column titled “From Fascist Poland”. The editor, at the time, was still Bruno Jasieński.

We speak intelligently at meetings but we begin writing with hatchets, says Wat in My Century. “No differences, unification, class enemy…”. This made the group sect-like, and “my malice then, a truly horrid, bitter malice […] was that everything was seemingly the same but ‘inside, everything was corroded, swept out’”.2 When recording Wat’s self-analyses in the 1960s, Czesław Miłosz had “an absolute sense of the importance of these things in two hundred years”. He was convinced that similar situations were bound to recur. Wat explained the circumstances of the initially painless transformation of an avant-garde group turned editorial team who attended functions at the Soviet embassy. The pre-Stalinist communist clique that he had first encountered in Warsaw, and then in Soviet prisons, was different from later apparatchiks. Ideological motivations dominated. The poet, painfully reacting to nihilist moods, felt good in their company. The pre-Stalinist communist movement followed ideals of brotherhood which, later, acquired the instrumental character of a “combatant-hood”. It turned out, in time, that “brotherhood” could be revoked in particular cases, and an aura of suspicion was born.

”So? I lost it. I could no longer bear nihilism, or perhaps atheism”, says Wat.3 Neither could he bear loneliness, because the festival of the rebirth of statehood, the fervour of gluing back together the country after partitions, the construction of a new literary life, had already ended some years before. “It’s getting unpleasant” when the period of inner-party conflict begins.

This is how Wat described the meetings of groups of intellectuals – communists who were the foundations of Miesięcznik (including Broniewski, Stawar, Daszewski, Wandurski, Jasieński, Leon Schiller): “Someone from the party always came […] There was a lecture, followed by a fierce debate. Then Schiller would sit at the piano and play. Sometimes he would play 'My girlfriend is so ugly her teeth fall out' […] and in the widows right across from ours there were always […] police spies observing us”.4 Somebody from the Party would call a member out from the meeting (Stawar, Hempel) to have a quick consultation in the adjacent room.

The party was not at all happy that they were making an openly communist periodical. They would prefer it was a magazine of progressive writers, not necessarily declared communists. The editor, however, Wat, was “militant, ostentatious, with a knife in his teeth”. Hence contacts with the party were based on mutual misunderstandings, though the party kept its cover, and no questions should be asked. He was growing ever more unhappy with the situation, but “I was a mental fanatic, a sectarian”.

The deep conviction about the futility of bourgeois liberalism and the mood of activism was what set the tone in the group, while solidarity helped maintain collective discipline in crumbling relations with the surrounding world. The inner content may have been changing but the forms of bohemian lifestyles continued. Should accents be shifted, it was done smoothly, with the awareness of the consequences lagging far behind. In Zamarstyniv, in Kiev, in Lubyanka [Prison], though not yet in Warsaw, where the editorial team of Miesięcznik (1931) was arrested and Colonel Wieniawa would send the inmates Christmas parcels.

This is how the poet Antoni Słonimski assessed the debut of Miesięczniki Literacki: Polish Marxist criticism in the first issue sounds meagre for reason of its narrow-mindedness and the naivety of “proletarian gibberish” that sets a record for dullness and crassness, literary and pseudo-scholarly dilettantism.5 The editorial team has surprisingly little to say, but instead has a “strong party-oriented squint”. What will become of the magazine considering that “non-bourgeois, proletariat literature has not yet produced anything except for proletarian  babble”? The attack on Remarque’s book sounds ludicrous when it juxtaposes bourgeois pacifism with proletarian anti-militarism. Militarist education is at its best in the USSR, as manifested in the build-up of the great Red Army, fighting for revenue from the Mandurian railway in a war with China. The actual reasons for the war lie elsewhere – with the ambitions of greedy speculators, false prophets and career opportunists, who feed on the evil instincts and complacency of the dark masses. Among all this, the book by Remarque carried an educational factor that the efforts of the propagandists could not match. Miesięcznik Literacki responded with invectives in a collectively prepared blaze of the Weltubühne type by Kurt Tucholsky.

The party strategy fed on energy borrowed from the avant-garde, just as other belligerents did. The poets would leap at each other’s throats with no apparent benefits for the state, which was in the process of organising preventive measures against Bolshevik infiltration. Like Wat, Słonimski could not have predicted the future. Although Słonimski already knew the new Russia, in his “Kronika tygodniowa” (“Weeky Column”), he still expressed his trust in Soviet literature, that “it has better literary critics who are ever more frequently breaking out from underneath the police regime”, and that the fashion for primitive propaganda was coming to an end.

Apart from all that is only too obvious today, Słonimski noticed (in “Wat is tearing off Remarque’s fictitious mask”) the presence of the system of deception. He would tell Miłosz that one could hear the 19th century creaking in people: a dance on the volcano has begun, everybody is finding false faces for themselves. This is all role-playing, trying out faces, changing them, ostentation, elocution.

Wat saw himself more a Dadaist than a futurist, though the latter term, increasingly less convenient due to associations with Marinetti, remains forever stuck to him. Interestingly, a similar fate had already met Russian Futurism. “The newspapers, against our will, began imposing a futurist bromide”, wrote Benedikt Livshits who founded the Cubist-futurist Hilaea with the Burluk brothers. Years later, already an Acmeist and a friend of Mandelstam, he would confess inThe One and a Half-Eyed Archer how Hilaea surrendered.  David Burluk, known as the father of Russian Futurism, said that “nobody knows how it happened that we named ourselves futurists” and that “the rags labelled us that”. Still, he accepted the branding for fear of “a terminological chaos in the minds of the public…”.6 The public was expecting a fight, it was better if the opponents fought not with arguments but epithets. The press reported, intercepted initiatives and fads, added fake genealogies, accelerated the course of history. Nobody controlled the process. According to Adam Pomorski, Livshits’s Polish translator, his memories were a revision of the ideological genesis of the avant-garde movement, targeted against its affinities with totalitarian ideologies.

A member of the younger generation, Zbigniew Uniłowski, presented a somewhat exaggerated picture of the time, describing in his Wspólny pokój [Common Room] from 1930 the situation of young artists teetering on the social margins. In the Ziemiańska Café, art was not spoken of any longer; instead there were hallucinations and clinical states. Barely twelve years had passed since all the poets flocked to the capital of the newly independent state. Wat complained then that the regaining of independence disarmed artistic radicalism. The decadent and anarchist dynamics of the “Neo-futurists”, not anchored in Polish poetry traditions and being instead under foreign influences, were already losing track because of that. The opalescent identity of the group trivialised content and tore up form, irritated with scandals but isolated from the national here-and-now, seeing society limited to artsy crowds gathering at soirees. It was a laboratory of form, a revolt against syntax, but also a razzmatazz of notions with no sense of proportion, as Wat would say in My Century.

When mentioning the later period of Miesięcznik, he would already say that “in literary terms – it was a flop”. He no longer wanted to print poetry, his whole poetics was anti-Marxist, “listening intently to irrationalism”. It was already a time when the communist movement was drawing on avant-gardist ideas and methods of self-organisation. “It’s already 1930, Hitler is already in the field of vision, getting closed, ONR [the National Radical Camp] is in Poland already. And Miesięcznik Literacki is playing in debunking radical intelligentsia […]  Against whom? Obviously always against the PPS [the Polish Socialist Party], for its religiosity […]. No, not the National Democrats [the Endecja], the National democrats, that was clear … ”.7

The language of today would call it an identity crisis. The poetic pessimism (metaphysical dualism, even a spirit of Spanish mystical lyricism, and instinctive attraction to the cabalistic family tradition – as commenters on his poetry would later say 8) did not suit the challenge of a social optimism since “humanity has to be built rationally”.

The great museums of contemporary art would never have been erected in the 1920s had it not been for the avant-garde, which formulated a propaganda system for new art, with all the advertising, methods of fad-creation and means of persuading the public. This elaborate, applied psycho-sociology forged by the avant-garde was adopted by political parties sprouting up just then. The anarchy-tilting poets, with no ideology but with the extremism and solidarity of a radical sect, were ideal messengers. Although the Dada atmosphere had not yet evaporated, enthusiasm for the machine as the hypostasis of the brotherhood of men and the singing tomorrow, as Wat would say, was already adopting a propagandistic hue.

Wat often spoke about Berlin, with which he was acquainted: “similar things were happening in Weimar Germany, where people began with nihilism, sarcasm, and later would move to join the Communist Party”. 9

Considering the multitude of irrational things that happened between the two world wars, this similarity can lead to Modris Eksteins’ Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty. The historian also views 1929 as a critical year, but mainly due to the sudden deterioration of the economic situation then, secondly, for the reason of reparations, that is, of responsibility for the previous war.

At the time of Solar Dance’s publication, Eksteins explained that his interest in the history of Germany was caused by the significance of the country at the beginning of his life. He wrote that:

My family was caught between the German and Russian front lines in August of 1944 […] we lived in Germany in displaced-persons camps for four years.10

Already his The Rites of Spring (1989), the historian pointed to the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet as a turning point in history and, at the same time, a milestone in the development of “modernism understood as a cult of a sensational event in which art and life become forces and amalgamate”. There was no coincidence in the scandal of the Russian ballet, as theatre is the search of fullness and a tool of liberation. In The Rites of Spring, Eksteins said that it would be ideal if life imitated art. Life should be both a vision and a spectacle, instead of diligent in following the rules of behaviour and morality.11

In Solar Dance, the interest in theatricality manifests itself in attention paid to the categories of movement, as well as the mask and play factors. The main character in the book, an art forger, began as dancer and has something of [ballet impresarko Serge] Diaghilev in him, a “charlatan con brio”. But literature also gains in power when everything starts happening not so much in reality as in the imagination. As does art, as a fake painting becomes the genuine thing provided it hangs on the wall for long enough. The whole elucidation of Solar Dance revolves around a criminal plot, a sometimes farcical story about the successful practice of forging van Goghs, ending, however, in court trials and a grand finale in Nazi-era Berlin. The tale of Otto Wacker is symbolic: it blazes a trail towards showing Weimar as a culture of poses and pretences, a kingdom of mystification. The story told by Eksteins is, simultaneously, a meta-history of how fiction piles up in reality. Consequently, due to the comedy of dodging and cheating during Wacker’s second trial, it is even difficult to conclude whether authentic paintings actually exist at all.12

Inspirations for this world were born at the crossroads of art and neurosis. Its picture contains identity crises so popular among Weimar-era intellectuals, artists and political activists, not to mention art forgers. WriterErich Kästner has shown the world upside-down, in which reality is false, and falsehood is real, and the theme of Emil and the Detectives is fraud and theft. In his novel Fabian (published a year after Uniłowski’s Common Room), Kästner described the hopelessness, nihilism and escape from reality. The kingdom of the mask is in Berlin’s night cabarets, though not exclusively. Kurt Tucholski, expressionist- communist, signs his name in the form of fanciful heteronyms. Grosz complains that he is surrounded by his own doppelgängers.

It is difficult to tell passion for art apart from passion for artistic self-fulfilment. In the novel Michael (1923) by Joseph Goebbels, the protagonist is initially enthralled with van Gogh, while at the end, in 1945, the author found it consoling to think that the Third Reich would survive as a form of contemporary art. In Eksteins’ introduction to The Rites of Spring, he writes: “Introspection, primitivism, abstraction, and myth making in politics, may be related manifestations. Nazi Kitsch may bear a blood relationship to the highbrow religion of art proclaimed by many moderns”.13

As the historian observes, Hitler was a representative of the culture of the rebellious, establishment-hating bohemia of Vienna and Munich. Who always felt himself an artist, and said that he changed life and politics into art. In Solar Dance, he is shown trying on the mask of van Gogh. Soon after his first trial in 1932, Otto Wacker joined the NSDAP. He was condemned in the name of the morality which the party was liquidating, as was the entire system of beliefs of the middle class.

Eksteins sees modernism more as a “cultural temper” rather than style, as it manages both the artistic world and the reception of art. In his language, the word “mood” is elevated to an almost scientific term. In Solar Dance, it has become a category which is not metaphysical but tangible, its importance almost that of historic fact. It is constantly monitored in the records of the daily press which reported on the mood in the street, and is further confronted with a whole mass of detailed archival materials. This all leads to the unravelling of the not-so-obvious impact that the individual imagination expressed in art may have on the collective one – and vice versa. That also includes the relations of the artistic imagination and politics which act via phantasms.

Eksteins believes that Nazism was not reactionary but rather “futuristic”, as its intention was to create humanity anew. The sensitivity of people of kitsch, who had constructed the Third Reich and who had mistaken the life-art and reality-myth relations, was set on superficiality, falsehood and plagiarism. The term “reactionary modernism” for Nazism is not the most fortunate one, as it would suggest that modernism was first. In Eksteins’ view, there were two interchanging modernist impulses instead, a brighter and a darker one: the impulse to create and the impulse to destroy, which eventually changed places.

Ullstein Verlag published All Quiet on the Western Front in January 1929, and the success was unprecedented. Remarque, who was also an enthusiast of van Gogh, had a suicidal obsession himself. The novel satisfied readers’ sentimental needs, and gave a certain illusion which helped in not seeing the actual problem – as the author wrote. This is where Eksteins meets Wat, despite the fact that one sees the novel as a symptom of another sickness, namely the emotional imbalance of its author and his generation. It stemmed from literature and ended in the imagination.

Ekstein’s theme is the myth of war. He does note, however, that apart from serving an image of a German nation as an aggrieved victim, Nazis drew ideas – though not the form – from avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries. They adapted those ideas to their own aims, using it as a mirror reflection14:

Nazism was a very popular variant of many of the impulses of the avant-garde. It expressed on a more popular level many of the same tendencies and positioned many of the same solutions that the avant-garde did on the level of high art. Above all, like the modern it claimed to despise, it tried to marry subjectivism and technicism”.15

From the history of the German reception of All Quiet on the Western Front described in The Rites of Spring, we see that Wat’s review followed the mockery of Berlin’s Weltubühne. Remarque’s novel was absolutely unacceptable for fascists, as it was war which gave fascism a legitimising sense. The purposelessness of war was an “exceptionally repulsive” slander of the German military.

Remarque used the war as a key to his own sickness of nerves – as did his critics and readers. Everybody was convinced that they were involved in an objective dispute about the essence of the war experience. Indeed, the novel upset the opinion about Germany’s culpability for the war, but Remarque’s finding the source of the problem was just an illusion evoked in readers. The real war, as claimed by the author, always sensitive to the difference between reality and fiction, came to an end in 1918, and only later was absorbed by the imagination. The “war boom” in literature was an escape to the inside. Remarque created a soldier who was a victim of the war. With narcissism in full bloom, existence becomes a question of aesthetics, and life’s transformations a subject of beauty. Fascism was not just the aesthetisation of politics – as Eksteins corrects Walter Benjamin – it was the aesthetisation of existence as a whole.

The efforts to link culture and politics had been rare. In terms of the social implications of cultural symbols, the deciding categories are of collective and individual psyche. The behaviour of the public, of the recipients of art, are to a historian a more important source of information about cultural identity than literary or artistic records, not to mention the actual protagonists. Therefore, the context of art, including its artistic revolts, may well be expanded to include its social and political places of origin and domination. The history of contemporary culture has to be a history of challenge and response, of actor and the public. Left with literature (not the “great” one, deeply reflected upon and digested) limited solely to the directness of experience, we end up among phantasms. As our difficulty in interpreting and appreciating the context grows, history becomes biography, says the historian in the above-cited interview. For it has given away much of its past authority to fiction.


Translated by Ewa Kanigowska-Gedroyć

Publication financed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education program under the name ‘National Program for the Development of the Humanities’ in 2018-2023, project number 11H 17 0144 85.


WORKS CITED

Eksteins, Modris, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989)

——Taniec w słońcu.Geniusz, celebra i kryzys prawdy w epoce nowoczesnej, trans. by Jerzy Łoziński (Poznań:Zysk i S-ka, 2015)

Kleiner, Kurt, interview with Modris Eksteins, www.utsc.utoronto.ca

Livshits, Benedikt, Półtoraoki strzelec, trans. by Adam Pomorski (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1995)

Słonimski, Antoni, “Kronika Tygodniowa”, Wiadomości Literackie 1929, no. 49

Wat, Aleksander,Mój wiek (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1990)

——Mój wiek. Pamiętnik mówiony (London: Polonia Book Foundation, 1977)

——“Pacyfistyczna literatura w Niemczech”, Miesięcznik Literacki no. 1, December 1929, from the critical paper by P. Pietrych in Wat, Publicystyka (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 2008)

Zeszyty literackie on Aleksander Wat , no. 99, Warsaw – Paris 2007

1. Aleksander Wat, “Pacyfistyczna literatura w Niemczech”, Miesięcznik Literacki, no. 1, December 1929, from the critical paper by P. Pietrych in Aleksander Wat, Publicystyka (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 2008), pp 117–128.

2. Aleksander Wat, Mój wiek. Pamiętnik mówiony (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1990), p. 77.

3. Aleksander Wat, op. cit, p. 76.

4. Aleksander Wat, My Century, trans. and ed. by Richard Lurie (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), p. 18.

5. Antoni Słonimski, “Kronika Tygodniowa”, Wiadomości Literackie 1929, no. 49.

6. Benedikt Livshits, Półtoraoki strzelec, trans. by Adam Pomorski (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1995), pp. 91, 98–99.

7. Aleksander Wat,Mój wiek (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1990), p. 161.

8. See: Zeszyty literackie on Aleksander Wat, no. 99, Warsaw – Paris 2007.

9. Aleksander Wat, op. cit. p. 77.

10. Kurt Kleiner's interview with Modris Eksteins,(www.utsc.utoronto.ca).

11. See: Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

12. Modris Eksteins, Taniec w słońcu.Geniusz, celebra i kryzys prawdy w epoce nowoczesnej, trans. by Jerzy Łoziński (Poznań: Zysk i S-ka, 2015), pp 95–97.

13. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, op. cit., p. 307.

14. See: Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, ibid.

15.  Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring, op. cit., p. 311.

Małgorzata Dziewulska

is a theatre writer and director. She has published widely on the subject of contemporary modes of staging. In the 1970s, she co-founded the Theatre Studio in the town of Puławy, was co-editor of the journal Res Publica, and collaborated with Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre. In the 1990s, she worked as a literary specialist at the National Stary Theatre in Kraków, and in Warsaw’s Dramatyczny and Narodowy Theatres (as chief literary specialist at the latter during director Jerzy Grzegorzewski’s tenure as managing director). She then convened seminars at the Theatre Institute in Warsaw: Profecja i promcja and Pracownia Kantorowska. She teaches at the Theatre Studies Department of the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw. Film (particularly documentary) is also an interest. Her books include Teatr zdradzonego przymierza (1985), Artyści i pielgrzymi (1995) and Inna obecność (2009).