The Baltic Landscape and Mythology in Polish Literature
In the history of the development of a symbolism of space, so important for Polish culture, the most important part has been played by images of the plains or hills that stretch broadly between the Baltic and the Carpathians, an expanse of fields, meadows, woods and steppe. It was only Romanticism that was to make the aesthetic discovery of sea and mountain, while cityscapes would take on greater significance even later, in the era of positivism. Society, composed mainly of gentry and peasantry, directed its imagination mainly towards the land and the vegetation that covered it. The most important literary figure was the country gentleman. In times of peace a landowner living on his country estate, in times of war he became a knight who fought for his homeland. In contrast, sailors as discoverers of foreign lands, as merchants or as fishermen, appeared only infrequently on the pages of Polish literature. It was not the ship but the horse that served my ancestors in overcoming space and symbolised the dream of freedom, the exhilaration of speed. In those works in which they appeared, the literary topoi of sea, ship, sailor and journey often had more in common with Greek and Latin literature than with the personal experiences and observations of the writers.
Even in the nineteenth century the place where the various Baltic neighbours met, both literally and metaphorically, was Rome, thanks to their common love of antiquity. To illustrate this, I have taken an example not from literature, but from the history of art. The Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen made the acquaintance of Polish artists and patrons of art in the Italian capital, and it was as a result of this that he visited Poland. Many of his works found a permanent home here, several of them in the places that are most important to our culture. At Wawel Cathedral in Cracow, where Polish kings were crowned, there is a gravestone of one of the country’s leading aristocrats, made by Thorvaldsen, while Warsaw is graced by two of his famous statues, those of Copernicus and of Prince Józef Poniatowski. The latter of these has a special eloquence. Poniatowski, nephew of the last king of Poland and one of the outstanding military leaders in Napoleon’s service, came to a tragic end in Germany during the battle of Leipzig. Wounded, he mounted his horse in the currents of the Elster while leading his soldiers into attack, and he drowned. In the Polish collective imagination he immediately became an almost mythical figure, a development favoured indeed no less by the emotional aura that surrounded him than by his heroism in battle. The prince was an exceptionally handsome man and was famous for his numerous affairs. He was thus an ideal candidate for a hero, openly adored for his manliness, but subconsciously for his masculinity, which was the admiration as much of men as of women. The patriotic and erotic ideals were combined into a whole of uniquely powerful effect. And it was to this Romantic figure that the Poles set up a monument, on which the classically inclined Danish sculptor, working in Rome, presented the hero in ancient costume. On the Warsaw monument Poniatowski is certainly not jumping into a river; far from it, he is wearing a Roman tunic and armour and sitting proudly on horseback, in a tranquil pose copied from the figure of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitol.
Hence there was a special kind of Mediterranean intermediary at work in the contacts of the Baltic neighbours, resulting from the dominant place occupied in the imagination by the Mediterranean Sea as the cultural cradle of all the nations of Europe. The imagination of Poles was also drawn, though in lesser degree, to the Black Sea because of the historical contacts with the East, which became particularly dramatic in the era of the Tartar khans’ expansion. Politics and economics joined Poland firmly with her neighbours to the east, first with Kievan Rus and Turkey, and later also with the empire of the Russian tsars, but our main cultural inspiration was of course drawn first from Italy and then from France.
Before the severe landscape of the northern sea could find an aesthetic right of citizenship in Polish literature, the cultural attractiveness of the regions outside the traditional European centre, that is the countries of the Mediterranean, had to be discovered. Romanticism brought the beginning of the changes by its discovery, through Madame de Staël, of the value of the culture of the North, as opposed to the culture of the South. As one effect of this discovery, Polish literature was encouraged to remember the existence of the Baltic. A further strengthening of this Romantic impulse came at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When the artists of the Young Poland period found their place among other national movements of Young Europe, together creating “Jugendstil”, contacts with artists who came from the Scandinavian countries played an important role. These contacts then began to appear not on the fringes but in the mainstream of artistic endeavour.
One of the most influential artists of the time was Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927), a dramatist, novelist and essayist whose work had a bilingual character to begin with, as the author lived for many years in Berlin and wrote both in Polish and in German. In Berlin’s Bohemian international artistic circle he was regarded at the turn of the century as the most important prophet of the new art. His passionate but also stormy friendship with August Strindberg and Edward Munch left deep traces on the work of all three artists. The work of Henrik Ibsen also had great significance for Przybyszewski’s own endeavours as a playwright. His travels to Denmark and Norway as well as his contacts with their writers bore fruit in countless articles in the German and Polish press on the subject of Norwegian art, which was at the time very significantly involved in the same artistic quests as those that engaged the minds of artists in the Baltic countries.
Slightly younger than Przybyszewski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885 – 1939) was also known by the pseudonym of Witkacy, which he invented himself. The significance of his work went far beyond that of his predecessor. He was a painter and one of Poland’s first photographers, as well as a philosopher, art theoretician, novelist and essayist, but his greatest achievements were in drama. After his death, in the post-war years he was recognised as a precursor of the French theatre of the absurd; his plays were translated into many languages and performed in theatres on both sides oft he Atlantic. In many of his dramas parodic allusions to Ibsen and Strindberg have considerable significance. There is also a small episode in his life that is connected not only with the culture of the Baltic countries, but also with their seaside landscape. Of course Witkacy’s interest in photography is only on the fringes of his varied creative passions, but the photographs he left behind do have a place in the history of early Polish artistic photography. Among his early work are several interesting seascapes from the Baltic town of Palanga, today part of Lithuania. At the turn of the century it was already a fashionable health resort, enthusiastically visited by Polish painters, including Witkacy’s father, Stanisław Witkiewicz, and Leon Wyczółkowski.
The focus on the North initiated by Romanticism and strengthened in the turn of the century period, acquired an entirely new character after the First World War, when Poland regained independence after more than a century of subservience, and this within borders that guaranteed access to the sea. Cultural interest in the Baltic then received very strong political support, which bore fruit in a lively development of popular and young people’s literature, as also in publicist writings on maritime themes. A particular role in popularising the history of Pomerania and the Slavonic presence on the Baltic was played by the book Wiatr od morza (Wind from the Sea, 1922), whose dimensions were not large, but which was significant because of the name of the author. Stefan Żeromski (1864 – 1925) was acknowledged then to be the greatest Polish prose-writer and at the same time an authority on matters of national culture. The writer presented selected historical episodes from remotest times to his own, concentrating especially on the moments of dramatic conflict between the Slavs who inhabited the Pomeranian coast and the incoming elements, such as the Vikings, the knights of the Teutonic Order, and the Germans. The separate parts are linked by a figure drawn from folk mythology, Smętek, who personifies the evil present in history. His name is an archaic version of the word “smutek”, sadness. At the end of his book the writer, fired with optimism because of Poland’s restored independence, shows Smętek leaving the shores of the Baltic for ever. At the time no one foresaw that Smętek would return to these parts in less than twenty years, on September 1st, 1939.
Another important work of Żeromski’s, from the same period, is entitled Międzymorze (Between the Seas). This piece of prose poetry about the Hel peninsula (to which the title refers) expresses fascination with the beauty of the coastal landscape, so different from the low-lying plains that dominate Poland’s territory, with their woods, meadows and fields. The way of describing the changing colours of the water and of the sky over the sea has a clearly Impressionistic origin. Żeromski knew the Baltic landscape from personal experience, for in the last years of his life he spent several summers living in Orłowo near Gdynia in a little house right next to the beach, at the foot of a high cliff. Today this is a museum named after him.
In the earlier novels of this writer there are many extensive and varied descriptions, written in an emotional language that is dense with metaphor and with countless sophisticated epithets that seem rather exaggerated to the present-day reader. Younger writers had already distanced themselves decidedly in the twenties from Zeromski’s mannered prose, but nevertheless the author continued to enjoy a huge readership for many years, and hence his works on the Baltic and the Coast had considerable significance for the development of the symbolism of the sea in Polish literary imagination.
Among those who entered the writers’ arena in the period between the First and Second World Wars, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894 – 1980) is particularly outstanding. Acquaintance with the culture and natural environment of the Baltic region was part of his own experience. Although it was a very short episode, it left an interesting mark on his work. Born in the Ukraine, Iwaszkiewicz spent his whole life in central Poland. He had an expert knowledge of Italy, which he adored and which he visited almost twenty times. In his private mythology of space a key role is played by the comparison of the Ukraine and Sicily. The Baltic episode was an exception connected with his work in the diplomatic service. Before the war Iwaszkiewicz had already been cultural attaché to the Polish Embassy in Copenhagen for several years. He translated several of Kierkegaard’s works into Polish, and wrote a volume of sketches about the landscape, culture and literature of Denmark, to which he gave a title taken form Andersen’s fairy tales: Gniazdo łabędzi (The Swan’s Nest). More importantly, however, he introduced Denmark and its Baltic landscape to his own creative work. In Iwaszkiewicz’s rich output as a poet, prose writer, dramatist and essayist, his most valued work apart from poetry consists of small prose forms. One of his best short stories is to be found in Słońce w kuchni (Sun in the Kitchen, 1938). This is the moving and dramatic story of a girl from the people, the daughter of Polish emigrants in Denmark. The situation of a young Polish girl working as a servant in a wealthy middle-class Danish family does not serve to expose cultural and social differences in a particular historical time and place. Although the author takes care to make the details probable, he uses these realistic details in order to open up a universal perspective beyond them, presenting a study of existential loneliness and of the helplessness of a human being in the face of the circumstances into which he has been cast. The heroes of the story, however, are not mere ciphers representing certain ideas of existentialist philosophy; the psychological portrait of the characters, though sparingly outlined, is also very important. We learn about the behaviour of the characters through a tale told by a narrator, but the interpretation of their experiences and the deeper meaning of what happens to them is signalled only indirectly, through a series of images with a symbolic subtext. The events are played out against the background of consistently constructed scenery whose character suggests more to the reader than any direct commentary could do. All the events important to the story take place by the sea, and this element accompanies the heroes unceasingly, in happiness and unhappiness, in love and in death. The time of the action is conducted in such a way that the author shows the course of all the seasons of the year on the Baltic. The story also contains descriptions of the sea at different times of day and night, in changing weather, in the port of Copenhagen and on the shores of Jutland, in the depths of the bay on which lies the small town that is the main scene of the action, as also on the western side of the peninsula where the ocean begins. In the experience of the heroine the sea represents above all her feeling of being threatened and lost, her undefined fears, helplessness and nostalgia. Ignasia, the main character of the story, lives in this state of mind throughout the autumn, winter and early spring. The sea is then grey and stormy and the sky above it cloudy. The threatening, dark winter sea is also a sign of separation and longing. Throughout this time it divides Torben, in Greenland, from those closest to him. He is the eldest son of Ignasia’s employers and the only person who has aroused her trust. He is missed not only by Ignasia, but also by his youngest brother Kai, who feels unloved by his parents and dreams of sailing away to Greenland. It is only the goodness of Ignasia, who shows him a mother’s tenderness, that protects him from the emotional coolness of his mother and the severity of his father. But in a moment of despair the boy runs away from home and drowns in the sea. After Torben returns from Greenland, a brief change in Ignasia's life brings her happy love in the setting of a beautiful summer on the beach, when the Baltic turns sky-blue and warm in the light of the sun, like the southern seas. Then even the night is lit up by the moon. Ignasia’s fear turns into a light-minded overconfidence and the girl swims far out to sea while bathing. However, the summer idyll does not have a pleasant ending. Torben’s parents will not hear of their son’s marrying a foreign servant, and besides, both heroes are really involved against their wills in other relationships. The handsome Torben arouses an ambiguous interest in his mother’s younger sister, while Ignasia is sought by a strange person, much older than she, who was once a socialist and a participant in workers’ strikes, and is now the leader of a small religious sect. The finale recalls ancient tragedy – when the complex knot is only a step away from being happily untied, a sudden, inconceivable twist brings disaster. Ignasia does not understand her own self; she would like to be somewhere other than where she is, but it is not this or that country that is her problem, but her feeling of alienation which she can neither name nor express, her neurotic wavering and existential inability to take roots in being. In the end the girl kills Torben as he is canoeing, with a pistol shot, and his body is immersed in the waters of the same bay in which his little brother drowned in the spring.
The motif of death by drowning appears regularly in the novels and short stories of Iwaszkiewicz. The writer always exploits this motif in the same interpretative perspective, for death of this kind is only met by the young and innocent, who are endowed by the writer with positive values. If death occurs by another means in Iwaszkiewicz’s fiction, for example by hanging, it involves only figures that are clearly negative. Iwaszkiewicz remained faithful to this symbolism of death in the one work whose action is entirely located on the Baltic. How firmly the seaside setting is incorporated by the writer into the tissue of the story’s meaning, its building of mood and psychological and philosophical subtexts, can be seen if we compare the descriptions included in the story with those that occur in the previously mentioned book about Denmark. In Gniazdo łabędzi we find information about the same geographical places as provided the setting for the fictional action of the story, but the writer in this earlier book did not endow them with the depth of emotion or depth of significance that characterise the descriptions of the coastal landscape in the story, where they are always linked with the experiences of the characters.
After the Second World War the agreement of Yalta forced millions of Poles to leave their homes and make a mass migration to the west, to the lands abandoned by the Germans by order of the same treaty. Among the Poles who came from the Vilnius area was Zbigniew Żakiewicz (born 1933), a prose wirter who has lived in Gdańsk for several decades. Like many others from the same parts, he found in the hilly, wooded, lakeland Kashubian landscape of Pomerania something that at least a little reminded him of his lost homeland. In the several successive volumes of his literary journal, Żakiewicz found room for many scattered notes, showing how the initial feeling of foreignness connected with life in a new place was gradually though partially replaced by a growing familiarity with the landscape of Kashubia, Gdańsk and the sea. An original characteristic of his work, both autobiographical and fictional, is the combination of seriousness and coarse humour, of the metaphysical and the everyday. Philosophical questions about death and the prospect of immortality appear in his work in the context of down-to-earth scenes in which the biological side of physical life makes its voice heard. His sense of humour and richness of style save his writing from vulgarity, while a great part is played in his narratives by the perspective of the naive narrator, a child or a person who retains a simple outlook despite being adult and educated. He knows how to make use of his learning and to draw philosophical conclusions from his observations, but he has not lost the spontaneity and carefree attitude of someone who likes to eat and drink well. This is the case for example with Żakiewicz's newest book, Gorycz i sól morza (The Bitterness and Salt of the Sea, 2000). The heroes of his works are dualistic: they know how to enjoy the sensual pleasures of life, but on the other hand there is a dangerous tendency in them to madness and melancholy. It is in this context that images of the Baltic landscape shape themselves in his writing. The sea is presented as an element symbolising infinity, in a metaphysical perspective and high poetic style; but at the same time it is the scene of trivial incidents presented in a humorous convention, almost like that of old comedies from the period of the silent movie. The narrator may jokingly compare himself or his heroes to a powerful bison or bear from the Lithuanian wilds, who when he glimpses the sea stretching to the horizon is overtaken by boundless astonishment, thinking that he has found himself at the end of the world. A metaphorical shorthand for Żakiewicz's attitude to the Baltic landscape is to be found in the title of one of his novels from the nineties, drawn from Adam Mickiewicz's poem about the Wilja river, which flows through Lithuania to join the Niemen and be lost with it "in the depths of the sea".
We can find a certain parallel to Żakiewicz's life history in some of the younger prose writers living in Gdańsk, with the difference that not they themselves but their fathers were new arrivals from the eastern borderlands of the former Republic, from Vilnius and Lviv. Pawel Huelle (born 1957) and Stefan Chwin (born 1949), for it is of these that we are speaking, did not come to Gdańsk from anywhere else, but were born here soon after the war. Without eliminating the mythology of the eastern borderlands, which is so strong in Polish literature, neither of them made it part of their writing. Instead, they created between them a new literary mythology of the northern borderlands. Their writing is evidence of their acceptance of their place of birth as their own territory, but they do not lose the memory of the complex, multinational and multicultural past of their home town, which for centuries was also the homeland of the Germans who lived here, and embraced the people of other nations besides. The image of Gdansk in the work of these writers is a separate problem which has already been discussed and analysed repeatedly. Here let us simply examine the consequences for the two writers of the fact that Gdańsk lies on the Baltic.
Huelle's prose in written in two different keys. On the one hand, his works reveal an excellent observer's instinct that a reporter might envy him. This gift of quick observation allows the writer to present the realities of time and place with unusual vividness. On the other hand, his work is characterised by a richness of imagination, by the elemental temperament of the storyteller who loves to invent the tallest of tales to entertain his listeners and himself.
Among the details presented with almost documentary faithfulness, the writer introduces the element of the unearthly, touching close on Romantic fantasy. He balances on the borderline between probability and improbability in a manner that is risky, but so skilful that the reader accepts the world he has invented without hesitation. This double existence, rooted in a specific geographical and historical context and at the same time referring to some other dimension of reality, is also evident in the scenery of sea and beach in the Gdańsk bay that appears in his work. The action of his first and most famous novel, Weiser Dawidek (1987) takes place in the course of one summer holiday, during which an eleven-year-old boy and three of his friends experience events that leave their trace on the whole of the rest of their lives. Huelle drew on the tradition of the novel of initiation, showing the transition from the child's ability to rub shoulders with the mystery of being, to the bitter adult knowledge that this mystery cannot be known.
In the realistic dimension, a particular characteristic of these extraordinary holidays is the fact that from the start, the children cannot go to the beach because the sea around Gdańsk has become ecologically infected; fish and seaweed die, covering the shallow water and sand of the beach with a stinking mass. The situation described did really occur, but more than ten years later than the action of the novel suggests, and above all not on such a scale. To begin with the poisoning of the bay is the subject of ordinary everyday grumbling on the part of the bored children, but gradually in the narrative it begins to be spoken of in an almost apocalyptic tone. The situation is aggravated by a heatwave and long-lasting drought. People begin to pray for rain; a patient runs away from the psychiatric hospital (described, incidentally, in accordance with its real location). He is like some grotesque prophet, making a spine-chilling forecast of the approaching end of the world. The hero is haunted by a nightmarish dream in which the boy sees monstrous fairy-tale animals coming up out of the sea. The huge monsters demolish the seaside homes and devour the fishermen. Both the dream scene and the prophecy of the madman are clear stylistic paraphrases of the Book of Revelation. The novel contains more of such Biblical and poetic allusions, but a colloquial style clashes with the high tone both in the narrative and in the dialogues of the boys, whom the water in the bay reminds of some disgusting fish soup.
The coastal scenery presented in the text that closes the volume Opowiadania na czas przeprowadzki (Moving House, 1991) is characterised by a similar dualism that combines particular historical realities with a universal plane of reflection. One of the characters is a man plunged into the depths of despair because he shot an angel. This is how the event presents itself to his feelings. The reader quickly becomes acquainted with another point of view. The poor unfortunate who is now a patient in a psychiatric hospital, years ago did night duty as a young soldier on guard at a Gdańsk beach. This was during the Stalinist period, when the government was obsessed with guarding national borders. At that time the town’s beaches were dragged each evening so that it would be easy to find the traces of anyone who wanted to cross the border illegally and escape, for example to Sweden. This principle is no literary fiction, invented by Huelle, but a historical fact, though it has the look of a paranoid illusion. Each morning the earnest young guard finds prints of bare feet, running over the harrowed sand from the dunes to the water. One day he finally glimpses a winged figure in the morning mist, running towards the sea, and he shoots and kills a young girl. Both the wings of the girl who has come to the beach that morning and all the older traces in the sand are merely the illusions of a sick mind; only the death of a chance stranger is real. Now grown old in hospital, the patient rakes the sand daily in front of the building and looks into it carefully, as if seeking something.
Stefan Chwin prefers to introduce extensive literary allusions to his work than to make use of dreams, the fantastic and unearthly, which are one of the poles of Huelle’s imagination. The mystical perspective, which constitutes a counterweight to the rollicking physicality of Żakiewicz’s writing, does not interest Chwin either. The intellectual attitude is what is important in his writing: the subtle and incisive reflection of the essayist. He constructs his world out of very precise descriptions that are permeated with metaphor and whose elements he gathers with the fascination of a true scholar and connoisseur. He is not interested in the ancient art of spinning fascinating tales. In his prose it is not events that matter, but what they communicate, the atmosphere that surrounds them and the scenery in which they are played out. Chwin is a painter of figures and objects, from whose appearance he draws out the metaphorical meaning, like a gypsy foretelling with cards a future that is invisible to the uninitiated eye. The Baltic landscape in Chwin’s novel Hanemann (1995; the German title is Tod in Danzig), though it remains faithful to geographical and historical realities, is opalescent with general meanings that are independent of place and time. The location of the action in Gdańsk in the period just before, during and after the Second World War and the creation of an international gallery of portraits might have encouraged the writing of a social novel of manners, soundly immersed in politics and history. These accents are of course present and have aroused the understandable interest of readers. However, it would be an impoverishment of the work to stop at such an interpretation. Chwin bent the political and historical realities to his artistic needs, writing a novel about love and death, about flights from life and returns to it. His novel speaks for the permanence - despite historical changes – of Romantic attitudes in the modern philosophy of the human being. The landscape of the Baltic is stylised in Chwin’s novel according to the spirit of Romantic melancholy not only because he several times recalls the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and not only because a reproduction of Friedrich’s painting Moonrise over the Sea, an ideal painter’s expression of the melancholy attitude to the world, has appeared constantly on the covers of successive editions of the novel. The titular hero, Hanemann, both as a medical student and throughout his years of work as a doctor, has been directed by the desire to find the mysterious borderline between life and death. He is also a professor whose duties include conducting lectures for students during autopsies. One day the bodies of the victims of a pleasure boat disaster that has just taken place on one of Gdańsk’s suburban beaches, are sent for him to examine. As fate would have it, when he begins his lecture he uncovers on the dissecting table the body of the woman he loves, before he has had a chance to learn of her death on the wrecked ship.
The sense of a loss from which he cannot recover crushes him through all the years that follow. Hanemann gives up his position and his medical research for good, and mentally also he remains on the fringes of life. Towards the end of the war all his acquaintances and neighbours attempt to sail away to Germany on a huge passenger ship. This episode in the novel is based on the authentic story of the disaster of the “Wilhelm Gustloff”, a ship sunk with several thousand fugitives by a Soviet submarine. Both the attempt to board the ship and the final staying in Gdańsk are carried out as if outside Hanemann’s will and decision; he behaves completely passively as he regards his fate. It is only after the war, when he receives a letter from his assistant Retz, one of the very few survivors, that Hanemann learns that his neighbours drowned together with their children. This event is described very shortly and simply, but in an exceptionally moving way. Of the author of the letter, we know from the first pages of the novel that his favourite place to walk before the war was the long pier in Sopot that runs far out into the sea. He was accustomed to stand there without regard to the cold weather or the wind that tangled his hair, gazing into the “dark line of the horizon”. Retz is several times called simply “a melancholic”. The narrator says of him that he always carries, like a weird talisman, a plaster cast of the face of the famous Romantic drowned young woman, called The Unknown of the Seine.
In Chwin’s novel the Baltic is a dark sea of death. Only once, and before the drowning of Hanemann’s beloved, does it appear as the backdrop for a lovers’ meeting, but even then it is an evening landscape, its colours already marked with the symbolism of death. The narrator shows us “dark silhouettes – the black profile of a man and the black profile of a woman on the silver background of the shimmering sea”. When, towards the end of the novel, Hanemann slowly begins to awaken to life again, this has absolutely no link with the still close presence of the sea and with the symbolism of the coastal landscape. On the contrary, some new chapter in the fortunes of the titular hero is to begin only after he has left Gdańsk, but this is something we do not find out about.
I have presented only a few examples, striving to choose views that are varied in their character and at the same time of the highest literary value. I have spoken about works whose functioning is not limited to the regional, which includes considerably more literary texts that for understandable reasons are linked with the theme of the Baltic landscape and mythology. The texts that I have dealt with here belong in terms of their subject-matter and poetics to Polish literature as a whole that stands above the various local traditions. They are so because of the potential for intellectual and artistic generalisation with which the writers endow their experiences, rooted as they are in the particular realities of time and place.
Lecture given at the Visby conference on "Landscapes of the Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002