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Literatura jako trop rzeczywistosci

Reviewer: Dariusz Skórczewski


by Ryszard Nycz. Kraków: Universitas, 2001. 277 pages. Index of names. English summary. Paper. In Polish.

"This is a book about the objectivist trend in modern Polish literature": this is how Professor Ryszard Nycz opens his most recent work Literature as a Trope of Reality. This assertion, though apparently simple, requires some elucidation. Accordingly, the author provides us with a number of theoretical and historical remarks, all of them first outlined in the Introduction and then developed in three essays which constitute the first part of the book: "'Expressing the Inexpressible' in Modern Literature," "The Person in Modern Literature: Tropes of Presence," and "The Poetics of Epiphany and the Beginning of Modernity." By means of these remarks we are introduced to Nycz's understanding of epiphany which, it turns out, complies with the understanding of this term introduced by James Joyce (as Nycz himself admits) and later developed by Western anthropologists, philosophers, and critics.

The link between Polish and Western literatures in Nycz's study cannot be overlooked. It is rare for Polish poetry or prose to be interpreted by scholars and critics in Poland in a way that puts aside the national and historical background in favor of a broader and more universal (and, for Western audiences, better known) context of modernist and postmodernist approaches to literature. In this regard, Nycz is a reliable source of information and a trustworthy interpreter of literature. He is an accomplished literary theorist and historian, and editor-in-chief of the leading Polish journal of literary studies, Teksty Drugie. He has made himself known to Polish audiences through his works on modernism in literature, such as Textual World: Post-structuralism and Literary Scholarship (Tekstowy swiat. Poststrukturalizm a wiedza o literaturze, 1993), Modern Silvae rerum: The Problem of Text Construction (Sylwy wspólczesne. Problem konstrukcji tekstu, 1994), and The Language of Modernism: Historical and literary Prolegomena (Jezyk modernizmu. Prolegomena historycznoliterackie, 1997). Nycz has also introduced postmodernism and deconstruction to Polish audiences, and did so through the anthologies of essays by Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Paul De Man, J. F. Lyotard, and Richard Rorty, among others. Thus Nycz's most recent publication seems to be a logical consequence of his earlier scholarly interests in modern and postmodern literature and theory.

The title of his work is a key to the understanding of his interpretative approach to Polish literature: literature is a trope of reality, it is an epiphany. What is epiphany according to Nycz? First, this term does not imply that the work must have some theological connotations. On the contrary, Nycz renounces the tradition of studies of the sacred, a fashionable trend in literary studies in Poland that originated from the milieu of the Catholic University of Lublin and became popular nationwide in the late 1980s. Secondly, he also rejects treating epiphany, in his own words, "as a tool for analysis of a particular literary technique for description, a view dominant in Western European, especially Anglo-Saxon, research into Romantic and Modern literature." Nycz's understanding of epiphany is broader and it encompasses various types of subtle manifestations of "the other" (i.e., of the transcendent) reality, one inexpressible and existing "beyond" both language (yet whose expression depends on language) and the objective world accessible to human senses. Hence, literature is considered as a trope, or trace, of "other" reality, testifying to the existence of and revealing (and illuminating) this reality that otherwise would remain unexpressed and incomprehensible. In this sense, one might say, referring to the two centers or types of human cognition, that epiphanic literature is closer to "Jerusalem" (i.e., to the Revelation) than to "Athens" (which represents reason). Due to his strong conviction regarding the objective existence of this "other" world, Nycz places himself in the ranks of the essentialists--those philosophers and scholars who, against the current fashionable trend of cognitive relativism, insist upon the existence of reality independent of the assumptions of the subject. The beginning of this modern kind of "epiphany" in Polish literature can be seen, according to Nycz, as early as the two texts by Cyprian Norwid, Black Flowers (1856) and White Flowers (1857). Nycz argues that in these two works a deeper "spiritual" reality has been revealed in an allegorical way by means of poetic idiom. This was a novelty in Polish literature. Considered from this perspective, Norwid's poetry anticipates the modern understanding of epiphany as later introduced by Joyce in Dubliners, where epiphany is a sudden "spiritual" manifestation of the object to the perceiving subject.

The remaining part of the book consists of Nycz's brilliant interpretations of some selected literary works of twentieth-century Polish literature. At first, the reader may be surprised by the list of authors who draw Nycz's attention. On this list, Boleslaw Lesmian appears next to Julian Przybos and Karol Irzykowski, while Czeslaw Milosz stands next to Tadeusz Rózewicz and Miron Bialoszewski, and between Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski and Zbigniew Herbert. One might ask, what link other than their unquestioned meritorious position in the pantheon of Poland's modern literature can possibly join the aforementioned artists? Nycz's book gives the answer: it is the epiphanic nature of their literary codes.

Using Lesmian's poem "Etherealness" ("Zwiewnosc") as an example, Nycz points out the poet's ability to capture the "moment of being." In his interesting interpretation he shows how Lesmian's poetry joined the European modernist quest, thus intuitively fulfilling Baudelaire's postulate of grasping the "eternal moment in that which is transient" through the union between the perceived object and the perceiving subject.

Examining the poetry of Przybos, Nycz arrives at the conclusion that Przybos's concept of the poem as "fireworks," though unquestionably original, at the same time realizes Theodor Adorno's theoretical assumptions regarding the experiential and cognitive roles of a work of art. According to Przybos, poetry is like fireworks, exploding with meanings that emerge through the clash of words in metaphors.

Przybos's poetics of "fireworks" is contrasted with Herbert's concept of poetry as an expression of the subject's "uncertain luminosity." As shown in Nycz's excellent interpretation of "Mr. Cogito is talking about the temptation of Spinoza," Herbert's unique kind of cognitive attitude is best revealed in this poem which is one of his most mysterious poems. As presented by Nycz, Herbert is a master in expressing the modern awareness of the insurmountable abyss between the content of cognitive experience and the conditions of this experience. In the case of Milosz, Nycz interestingly shows how Milosz's poetic idiom fosters the epitomizing of that which is "unattainable" by suggesting the existence of "the other" (i.e., nonhuman, inexpressible) reality. He concludes with the observation that the oldest poet of Poland is paradoxically the youngest spiritually, as Milosz's poetic findings seem to match, or even precede, those of Lyotard as regards the "transcending" function of the poetic cognition.

Lyotard's name and the problem of the transcendent nature of literature are also mentioned in the chapter on Tadeusz Rózewicz's poetry which, in Nycz's interpretation, is unique in that it manifests the "mystery" of death, annihilation, and disintegration, as well as that of mutilated poetry. Róžewicz's epiphanic poems, Nycz argues, perfectly match Lyotard's postmodern formula on the "inexpressibility of that which is inexpressible."

The remaining two authors discussed by Nycz, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, and Miron Bialoszewski, though clearly fitting his paradigm of literary epiphany, should have been given more attention. Nycz seems to have outlined some very important issues rather than providing the reader with a substantial exposition of their epiphanic strategies. This is particularly true in the case of Bialoszewski whose poetry deserves deeper insight than that presented in this book. Perhaps in Bialoszewski's case Nycz should have taken a less strict approach and included some of his poems where the concept of epiphany and the Christian sacrum are clearly intertwined (e.g., in the series "Garwolin in winter"). One may always question the inclusion of certain authors and the exclusion of others. Nycz might be accused of narrowing the scope of his interpretations to works of a few poets and writers, omitting or barely mentioning others who also match his criteria of "epiphany": Bruno Schulz, Witkacy, Wislawa Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, and Pawel Huelle, to mention a few. One reason for Nycz's choice appears to be his focus on poetry (except for the works of Herling and Irzykowski). If he is restricting his analysis to the greatest poets of the modern age, his omission of Szymborska and Zagajewski begs an explanation. The actual works that Nycz has selected to interpret should be considered as examples of the epiphanic trend rather than an exhaustive interpretation of this current, which his book does not claim to be. Nycz's selection, in most cases, has been well aimed; to illustrate his thesis regarding the strong existence of the "objectivist movement" in Polish poetry, the author did not refrain from choosing works which are difficult to interpret. Consequently, Literature as a Trope of Reality is not an easy book. It required from the author numerous subtle differentiations and constant balancing on the verge of the unspoken. At no point does the reader doubt that Nycz has demonstrated himself to be a brilliant theorist as well as an extremely skilful interpreter. However, one may argue that his style could be less scholarly and hermetic, and thus more approachable to a nonspecialist reader. Also, in the course of his study Nycz introduces some challenging ideas but leaves them unexplained or undefended. For instance, he presents Lesmian as the originator of modern Polish poetry (118), thus failing to recognize the unquestionable role of Norwid in both the shaping of modern poetic idiom and the emergence of a new type of "cognitive sensibility."

Despite these minor insufficiencies, Literature as a Trope of Reality is an extremely important and timely study. It provides us with a gateway into the mystery of literature in its most intriguing dimension, that is, that of "expressing the inexpressible." This gateway is inspiring and illuminating, regardless of the reader's ethnic and cultural background. To Polish audiences, Nycz's study shows their national literature from a perspective that is unconstrained by traditional historical and nationalist paradigms. To non-Polish readers the book provides a unique insight into the "epiphanic" trend of twentieth-century masterpieces of poetry and prose. Due to its broad references to contemporary philosophical and aesthetical concepts, Nycz's book shows Polish literature from a new and universal perspective. In an indirect manner it also brings to light the awareness of Polish writers throughout the last 140 years regarding literature's ability to utter that which was simultaneously "discovered" in the area of modern philosophy: the new type of realization, according to which the content of one's cognitive experience cannot be separated from one's circumstances in which the cognitive act is performed.


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