The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Once there was a writer named Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz; he was a painter, a playwright, a critic, a novelist, a philosopher, a photographer, a womaniser, a drug fiend and a Pole. He called himself Witkacy, Vitcatius, Witkatze, Vitecasse and much else, but mostly Witkacy.

His father, Stanislaw Witkiewicz, was a painter of landscapes, well-off and with some unconventional ideas about education. At this time Poland was part of Tsarist Russia, and Witkiewicz senior was a Polish nationalist; when the First World War broke out Witkacy enlisted as an officer in the Russian army, wounding his father grievously in the heart. When the Revolution came Witkacy was elected political commissar of his regiment, an occurrence he later ascribed to his own "schizoid inhibitions" about asserting himself over his men. He also claimed to have worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage. None of his works sold particularly well, but his philosophical magnum opus probably did worst of all.

He drew and painted monsters and grotesque tableaux; he photographed himself dressed up in every imaginable role; he painted self-portraits which he called Auto-Witkacys; he painted under the influence of alcohol, morphine, peyote, marking the paintings carefully in a code which showed what substances he had used while working on them. He churned out portraits for money, calling himself the S I Witkiewicz Portrait-Painting Firm and drawing up a standard contract. "The customer must be satisfied" was probably its most sensible clause.

He wrote three huge novels called, in order of composition, The 622 Downfalls of Bungo and Farewell to Autumn and Insatiability. He was one of the first to recognize the merits of his less flamboyant but equally original compatriot, Bruno Schulz. Most of his respectable contemporaries and, no doubt, many of his friends, thought Witkacy was a lunatic.

He published lists of his friends, ranking them according to how he felt about them at the time, promoting and demoting. He was a friend of the composer Karol Szymanowski. He was, intermittently, a friend of the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and accompanied him on a trip to the tropics. They squabbled yet again and split up, agreeing to meet at a certain point further along the way. When Malinowski got there he saw Witkacy being hung up and kippered over a bonfire by a group of natives, but before he could shoot at them Witkacy yelled that the people were helping him; along the route he had chosen he had become infested with parasites, which the flames and smoke would repel.

He wrote plays, many of which are lost. One, The Crazy Locomotive, is about two criminals who hijack a train and drive it faster and faster towards doom. The action takes place almost entirely in the cabin of the locomotive, and the stage directions demand a cinematic projection of the landscape rushing by, faster and faster. The Polish manuscript for The Crazy Locomotive has been lost, and had to be reconstructed from a foreign translation.

His plays have subtitles like "Four Acts of a Rather Nasty Nightmare" and "There is Nothing Bad Which Cannot Turn into Something Worse" and "The Hyrcanian World View" and "A Non-Euclidean Drama" and "A Comedy with Corpses". Witkacy's dramatic theory was based on what he called Pure Form, by which he meant that the merit of a dramatic work must reside in its formal qualities and not in any resemblance to "real life". Real life, in Witkacy's view, was increasingly the province of grey pulpy masses and mad dictators. Grey pulpy masses and mad dictators do appear in his works, but he despised realism. He also despised the cinema, thinking it a symptom of everything that was wrong with the world.

In The New Deliverance, a jagged line splits the stage in two; on one side a family of bourgeois mediocrities take tea and pontificate, while on the other Richard III is chained to a pillar and menaced by hissing thugs. In The Madman and the Nun, an artist confined to the padded cell is driven to suicide in the time-honoured fashion, but appears a moment later freshly groomed, ready for a night on the town with his lover and a doctor whom he murdered earlier. In Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes there is a chorus made up of forty characters, all of them called Mandelbaum. Only a couple of Witkacy's plays were produced during his life, and they were dismissed as the ravings of a syphilitic.

When Hitler invaded Poland, Witkacy fled east, only to find that Stalin was invading too. He committed suicide. Later he was "rehabilitated" and some cultural bureaucrat gave a speech over his grave, which contains a body that apparently is not Witkacy's. He was born on 24 February 1885, so today is not his anniversary.


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