Portrait of Jan Lechoń by Roman Kramsztyk. 1919
In the 1940s, Camus was added to the list of "obligatory readings" of the Polish Generation of 1910, in which Malraux or Mauriac appeared in the 1930s, but Polish writers born in the last decade of the 19th century were equally interested in the new literary generation. Poetry, created outside the country, lost its position in favor of journalism, political and diary literature. Poets stubbornly came back to familiar emotions, obsolete patterns and overused sentiments. But the poem of one of them, Kazimierz Wierzyński, experienced a great change in the 1950s, which Camus's writing played a significant part in.
In the works from that period, Wierzyński abandoned landscape and spatial scenes, creating reflective, philosophical poetry with universalist expression. In the poem By day, he compared Notre-Dame Cathedral to the appearance of fingers waiting for their solemn oath, referring to the medieval knight's code. We also find this primacy of the category of honor in another of his pieces: Thinking of Albert Camus.
Thinking of Albert Camus
Do not regret the lost. They belong to the world.
Let me put on their torn mantle,
If in it someone brave left their weapon,
Leave it there. I will find it, hopelessly faithful.
(Wierzyński, 1969, p. 109).
The post-war period was a difficult experience for Wierzyński, resulting not only from the inability to return from emigration but also from the deepening gap that divided the post-war world from the values close to the poet. The sense of defeat dominated his reflections. And yet he asked to be allowed to take over the legacy of his brave ancestors. He did not want to be silent, noticing with great pain how the absurdity of history was embodied in the Polish People's Republic. Camus's considerations about the rebellion brought him uneasy consolation, prompting him to clearly define his own strength and limitations.
Wierzyński deeply adopted the system of affirmative morality developed by the much younger writer. The fact that life does not make sense but that it obliges man.
Jan Lechoń's peers drifted between love and reluctance towards France's cultural heritage of the 20th century. Lechoń was known for his constant attacks on the living and the dead, sometimes very embarrassing ones, but his hatred, or rather "reverse" love for the French, is not unambiguous.
Lechoń tended to judge contemporary literature without mercy, especially while exchanging letters. In one of them, in the middle of the 40s, he even wrote: "Camus, what a wonderful latrine!" (Grydzewski, Lechoń, 2006, p. 152). Lechoń's bad opinion about French literature is confirmed by his sometimes insulting remarks about Sartre and Camus. But the claim that Lechoń was reluctant towards novelty and modernity, or that he was always negatively oriented to the work of Sartre and Camus, is not true. Lechoń, who had already read The Stranger by Camus in the 1940s, admitting that this piece, very close to Dostoevsky's writing, had been very well written, noted in his journal in February 1952:
"I flip through the pages of Camus' L'Homme révolté every now and then - but it is necessary to read it thoroughly, cover to cover - and later return to everything that I did not know while reading (...) It is necessary to read it as a prescribed book"
(Lechoń, 1992, p. 361).
A prescribed book! From then on, Lechoń would invoke Camus with the highest regard as one of the few brave and original thinkers of the twentieth century. The poet, outraged at Poles that "they have no one in the world", with the exception of Copernicus and Chopin, would gladly steal Camus away from the French. Why? Because he considered Camus to be the only valuable representative of the "young generation" of the French writers.
He even named The Metamorphosis of the Gods by Malraux and The Rebel by Camus the smartest books of that time, seeing in these works insightful, erudite and intelligent syntheses of problems - syntheses that he found very creative (Lechoń, 1992, p. 361). The fact that Lechoń would have liked Camus to know the achievements of Polish writers, artists and politicians, such as Mickiewicz, Krasiński, Słowacki, Wyspiański, Żeromski, and even Piłsudski, is a separate issue. According to the poet, the Polish Romantics, as well as Wyspiański and Żeromski, wrote not about psychology but about the human condition, and those who did not read Polish literature lost valuable arguments in the discussion about "the rebel" (Lechoń, 1992, p. 372-373). Because Lechoń was looking for a Polish undertone in Camus's literature, he believed that The Rebel should also have included references to Poland and such heroes as Mickiewicz's Konrad and Słowacki's Samuel Zborowski, or even the people described in Żeromski's novels. There is a lot of the praising of Polishness in those claims, but they are not always as preposterous as they may sound. Lechoń stated that Camus had not mentioned Mickiewicz but instead quoted Lautrèmont who had been fascinated by the Pole, so "without any exaggerration one can speak not only of Camus's amazing convergences with our Romanticism but also of the influence of Polish Romanticism on his work" (Lechoń, 1992, p. 395-396). It is, of course, the entire "myth-generating" charm of Lechoń. However, firstly - there really exist connections between romanticism and existentialism, and secondly - if the writer had not been fascinated by Camus, he would not have tried to prove the similarity between him and Mickiewicz, a national icon and Slavic bard.
The most interesting references to Camus appear in those of Lechoń's notes where the poet wrote about the significance of Polish romantics, connected not only with their literary and artistic merits but also with the political role played by them and their work. The Promethean myth, so crucial to Lechoń's way of perceiving the world's history, had lain at the foundation of the Polish national mythical imagination since the time of Romanticism. And it is Prometheus whom Camus made a guide to his book The Rebel. At the end of his essay Aut Caesar aut nihil, Lechoń referred to Camus and Mickiewicz - the former who claimed that the aim of art should be to constrain collective madness and historical fights and the latter who due to his compassion went beyond psychology, finding a lyrical catharsis for the bitter struggles and passions shaking the world (Lechoń, 2007, p. 162).
Lechoń even concluded that since Kalajew, the protagonist of Camus's The Just (1949), had a Polish mother and was brought up in Poland, the style of his rebellion must have been undeniably Polish. And because Kalajew is Camus's favorite hero, the "Polish spirit" of rebellion permeated all the considerations contained in The Rebel.
(Lechoń, 1993, p.557).
Interestingly, Józef Wittlin (encouraged to read Camus by Giedroyc) also wanted to see Poles among Camus's "rebellious people". He regretfully pointed out the omission of another important figure: Leopold Staff and his "rebellious" poetry. Unfortunately, the most penetrating French researcher of any intellectual and artistic rebellion - as Wittlin called Camus - did not know Polish... (Wittlin, 1995, p. 76).
Next week we will write about:
Polish émigré writers: Thinking of Albert Camus, part 4:
Gustaw Herling-Grudziński i Czesław Miłosz
Wierzyński, 1969: K. Wierzyński, Z myślą o Albercie Camusie, [in:] K. Wierzyńki, Sen Mara, Biblioteka "Kultury", Instytut Literacki, Paris 1969.
Grydzewski, Lechoń, 2006: M. Grydzewski, J. Lechoń, Listy. 1923-1956. T. I, edited by B. Dorosz, Biblioteka "Więzi", Warszawa 2006.
Lechoń, 1992: J. Lechoń, Dziennik. T. 2. 1 stycznia 1951-31 grudnia 1952, edited by R. Loth, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1992.
Lechoń, 2007: J. Lechoń, Aut Casear aut nihili, Biblioteka "Więzi", Warszawa 2007.
Lechoń, 1993: J. Lechoń, Dziennik. T. 3. 1 stycznia 1953-30 maja 1956, edited by R. Loth, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1993.
Wittlin, 1995: J. Wittlin, Fra Leopoldo, [in:] J. Wittlin, Eseje rozproszone, edited by P. Kądziela, "Twój Styl", Warszawa 1995.
The text is based on the doctoral thesis of the author entitled Albert Camus in Polish literary and theatrical culture in the years 1945-2000, Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018.