Sienkiewicz’s Bodies

Studies of Gender and Violence

by Ryszard Koziolek (Author)
©2015 Monographs 364 Pages
Open Access


Sienkiewicz’s Bodies focuses on the work of the most popular Polish writer from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. It discusses the surprising success of Sienkiewicz’s writing in relation to the dissection of optimistic illusion that takes place during a reading of its cruel prose. Sienkiewicz is seen as something more than a juggler of genius in narrative prose. This conservative writer, like the modernists, knew that there was no longer any way to construct a representation of reality in a morally non-contradictory fictional discourse. The energy of his narratives and his linguistic drive disturb the order of narrative and expose the heteronomy of a superficially unified style, thus generating fissures, but never ruining the architecture of the text.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Jasienkiewicz
  • 1. The project
  • 2. Dichotomy
  • 3. Just an artist
  • 4. Supplementation as interpretation
  • In Place of the Father
  • 1. Empty meaning
  • 2. In the power of performatives
  • 3. The son that hesitates
  • 4. “and”?
  • The Gender of an Idea
  • 1. Allegory and losses
  • 2. Do sarmatian women have bodies?
  • 3. “The world must be peopled!”
  • 4. In a fog
  • 5. The gender of an idea
  • Eros in Mourning
  • Zagłoba’s Laughter
  • 1. “An unfamiliar man with the brazen face of a brawler and a drunk”
  • 2. Old Don Juan
  • 3. “– No one is laughing! No one is laughing!”
  • 4. “And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two”
  • 5. The counter-narrator
  • The Shows of Violence
  • 1. Text in affect
  • 2. The document of violence
  • 3. Reading the wound
  • 4. The work of killing
  • 5. Folga (self-indulgence)
  • 6. “The maker of the mirror”
  • Vigor
  • 1. The enemies of life
  • 2. Sick of France
  • 3. The muscles of thought
  • 4. Why modern life needs the Trylogia
  • 5. The weakening hand



Henryk Sienkiewicz, Dzieła, collected edition, edited by J. Krzyżanowski, vols 1–60, Warszawa 1948–1955.


Bez dogmatu, edited by T. Bujnicki, BN I 301, Wrocław 2002.


Chwila obecna I–II, in: Dzieła XLIX, Warszawa 1950.


Krzyżacy I–II, Warszawa 1990.


Korespondencja I–II, in: Dzieła LV–LVI, Warszawa 1951.


Legiony, in: Dzieła XXVIII, Warszawa 1950.


Henryk Sienkiewicz Listy vol. I. 1–2. Introduction and biographical details of correspondents by J. Krzyżanowski; letters edited and footnotes prepared by M. Bokszczanin, Warszawa 1977.

Henryk Sienkiewicz Listy vol. II. 1–3. Edited and introduced by M. Bokszczanin; footnotes by M. Bokszczanin, Warszawa 1996.

Henryk Sienkiewicz Listy vol. III. 1–3. Edited and introduced by M. Bokszczanin; footnotes by M. Bokszczanin, Warszawa 2007.


Listy z podróży do Ameryki, in: Pisma wybrane I–XVII, Warszawa 1989.


Mieszaniny literacko-artystyczne, Dzieła L, Warszawa 1950.


Na polu chwały, in: Pisma wybrane I–XVII, Warszawa 1989.


Ogniem i mieczem, Warszawa 1964.


Potop, Warszawa 1964.


Pan Wołodyjowski, Warszawa 1964.


Quo vadis. Powieść z czasów Nerona, edited by T. Żabski, BN I 298, Wrocław 2002.


Rodzina Połanieckich, Warszawa 1963.


Wiry, Warszawa 1993.


Wiadomości bieżące I–II, in: Dzieła LI, Warszawa 1950.

← 6 | 7 → ← 7 | 8 →


I was still writing, or with certain interruptions, Bez tytułu (Untitled) – now I am conducting Chwila obecna (The Present Moment), now already in its second year, thus I am called Litwos.

– after all, a writer in one who writes books.
(Zołzikiewicz in Szkicach węglem [Charcoal Sketches])

I was told, honorable Sir, that my original surname could have been Jasienkiewicz.2

1. The project

The Jasienkiewicz project began earlier. The rough idea of it buzzed in the head of the initially nameless feuilleton writer, who first appeared under the Appollonian name Musagetes. Subsequently he took the less beautiful-sounding pseudonym Litwos. Despite appearances, this was not a game of faces and masks, but one of better and worse names. A thoughtfully selected pseudonym functioned as the secret emblem of the unknown author, but, it also served, and perhaps more importantly, to protect the author’s real name, which was reserved for creative endeavors and was not to be tarnished by the journalistic craft. The literary figures of this generation discovered that they could live by the pen, and that writing for the newspapers provided them with relative independence. Sienkiewicz’s correspondence from the International Literary Conference in Paris, which was published in Nowiny (The News) on 11 June 1878, quotes extensively from the report made by Alfons Gonzales, the dominant theme of which was the economic question—the growing advantage of the press over books and copyright laws. “Everywhere we see,” Gonzales says, “that journalism is the only permanent and sure vocation for men of letters, and he who seeks craft in the pen has before him only the press and nothing more” [Kongres Międzynarodowy Literacki w Paryżu, D XLIV 113].3 The flip side of the pauperization of the writer is the growing ← 9 | 10 → social significance of the journalistic and belles-lettres press, which provided writers with a new, formerly unknown, social position: “there are no more false troubadours, or paid poets, or beggars, or slaves” [Kongres… D XLIV 113]. The authors’ compensation for this loss of exceptionality was supposed to be profit, fame, and ideological influence over society. Sienkiewicz viewed with skepticism the proclaimed “fourth power” of literary figures. He saw in the Congress debates mainly a defense of the interests of publishers searching for legal means to combat illegal translations and theatrical adaptations. He himself knew well of the none too exalted fate of the lean writer who experiences the impact of the newspaper’s triumph over the book.4 Seven years previously, he suffered the consequences of the failure of the Kraszewski publishing house, which prevented, for a time, the publication of his debut novel Na marne (Wasted) (first printed in Wieniec in 1872; first book edition in 1876). He wrote of this with sarcastic humor to Konrad Dobrski: “Immortality is greater with the book than the newspaper, but immortality is easier than publishing when there are no printing houses. In any case, I have time for immortality … [Li I/1 334].

The sober evaluation of the writer’s new position in a market dominated by the press led to his postponing creative endeavors until that time when the journalist ensured the writer’s independence and a relatively good position with readers. The opportunity for and temptation of independence brought to the modern literary figure by the significant split into journalist and writer, with the latter having to wait until the former had fulfilled his duties. Thus, for Sienkiewicz the pseudonym is a name-mask that he dons during his daily work as a writer so as to not tarnish his own name, which he saves for literature. Jettisoning Musagetes and Litwos, the now famous journalist is separated from Sienkiewicz the author, who retains his ties to the press, but who already writes for himself under his “better” name. The creative entity hidden behind the mask returns to “himself,” to his proper role, exploiting the capital he has accumulated through his journalistic writing. The pseudonym, thus exploited, turns out to be cleverly a delayed subjectivity that is not implemented prematurely, and giving in return (on trial) the phantom of the false name.

A similar mechanism of splitting the writer’s role is seen in many literary careers, with Prus in the lead, but with the difference that he never returned to Aleksander Głowacki.5 “Sienkiewicz” decided to challenge “Litwos” and won; ← 10 | 11 → “Głowacki” conceded that maybe Prus, the journalist, would better support Prus, the artist, and so it happened that in the reception of Lalka (The Doll) an alleged flaw was noted in, among other matters, employing the mannerisms of the feuilleton in the narration of the novel.6 Prus, the writer, consumed by the name of his column writing Doppelgänger, is a more apt representation of the shifts in modern literary life since he embodies the experience and consciousness of this generation of writer in this new position in the cultural system. While the rapid development in the press did not permit the ambitious man of letters to live by the pen (without a patron or additional employ) well, it did allow relative independence.7 In Poland, this phenomenon did not begin to take shape until the late 1860s and early 1870s, when the generation that recognized the newspapers as a means to implement their ideological artistic and economic goals found their voice. This conjunction is deceptive, as it does not signal the peaceful coexistence of these spheres. One of the significant costs borne by the author-journalist-producer is participation in the economic game in which creativity becomes a commodity. Positivists discover and exploit this new reality , which brings the realization that words and ideas are equally part of the market as goods and services are.

Sienkiewicz quickly appreciated the value of specializing in the literary craft, but, still, his goal, almost from the beginning, becomes that of freeing the ← 11 | 12 → artist from the journalist, freeing his own name from the pseudonym. Weaker as a writer of the feuilleton, he builds his position on his correspondence from his American travels (1876–1878). The forms of reportage are closer to his writer’s temperament, but they also demand less of his energy, because, as he writes to Julian Horain, they are not as taxing because the material is palpable, while that of the feuilleton is not and “– you have to do the impossible and keep it going as long as you can” [Li I/1, 376].

In truth, it must be clarified that the shift from journalism to literature was not only done in a quest for immortality, but also of a more effective form of engaged discourse, which permitted smuggling ideas outside of the sphere of impermanent journalistic products. Bringing literature into the public sphere, which was made possible by the new medium, also forced undertaking a new theme—that of responding to the experiences and expectations of the newspaper reader. Marshall Berman, who writes convincingly about the creative advantages of the fall of the author, sees in the partial degradation of the artist the primal scene of modern literature, which is a recording of the sudden transformation of the role of art, including of the existing social role of the writer and transformations in literary language. Both of these spheres are increasingly shaped by the expectations of subscribers. Thanks to the rapid pace of press communication, one can test public sensitivity to topics and language, thus strengthening the relationship between the author and the reader.8 Paradoxically, it is the newspaper that emboldens literature by creating and confirming interest in topics that are trivial, “unpoetic,” random, or morally or ideologically controversial. Well aware of the certain privilege available to the feuilleton writer, in contrast to the author of novels, Sienkiewicz confesses with jocular megalomania:

I have, or at least usurp, the privilege of the enfant terrible, in allowing myself to express a variety of truths, which one admittedly feels, but which, for various reasons, one does not allow oneself to utter. [Cho II 206].

The fact that the positivist novel in Poland emerged out of journalism carries with it one more consequence; namely, that it permitted subsequent writers to establish their names with the public, which was significant later when a feuilleton writer began publishing novellas or novels in serial form. This was supported by the insatiable hunger of editors, for whom a widely-read novel, printed in the press, could retain current subscribers and procure new ones, while for writers it was a ← 12 | 13 → chance of earning double the fee for one novel. Janina Kulczycka-Saloni draws attention to a social resistance against transforming the artist into a manufacturer, as manifested in the widespread disregard of the material needs of men of letters and the cynical exploitation of them by editors and publishers, while readers were of the curious opinion that artistic endeavors were selfless service, for which artists should accept no payment. The fiery outburst of Świrski in Rodzina Połanieckich (The Połaniecki Family), can be seen as an expression of a writer’s view in this matter.

In the service of art! How fine that sounds. Oh, but what a dog’s service, when one never has rest, never has peace. Nothing but toil and terror! Is this now the fate of human kind, or is it just we that are such tortured figures? [RP 586].9

This specific type of reader reluctance toward the author as manufacturer expecting payment for his product had additional support in the poetics of realism with its authors’ varied stylistics and world views, its privileged reference of words masking the production process of the text, its individual style of narration, and above all, the personality of its author, who should disappear behind the illusionary presentation of an objective reality.10 Sienkiewicz was fully aware that achieving this state was, above all else, a question of working on narrative technique, specifically in the composition of the story material. Merging the text, cloaking its heteronomy, sequencing the story and the poetics of the newspaper “installment” all required effort and concentration. As he confessed to Edward Lubowski, “the transition from scene to scene, and pasting larger things into smaller scenes, are always the most difficult and irritating for me” [L III/1, 551]. The technology of his writing, like that of all of his contemporary novelists, required speed and self-discipline in the face of the accelerated and regular tempo of the printing rhythm of newspapers. In response to a questionnaire from the weekly Świat (The World) (1913, No. 23) “O swojej własnej twórczości” (On Your Own Creativity), Sienkiewicz admitted it was a constant element of his work as a writer.

I wrote most of my novels (almost all of them except the novellas) day by day, sending off the newly-written pages to the printer. But, in general, this method, which requires great vigilance, is inconvenient and dangerous. [D XL 144]

A text that concentrates on the effects of mimicry is verified, in practice, by the experience of reading it. Namely, one of the apparent values of a realistic text is ← 13 | 14 → found in the reader’s forgetting about the author, which is a measure of an absorbed reader, or the intoxication of a perfect mimesis. The incomparable suggestiveness of Sienkiewicz’s narration became proverbial, and legends have grown up around the faithful allegedly requesting masses for the soul of Podbipięty. A reminder to the absorbed reader about the reality of the author in this situation prompts unwilling confusion, which is captured well by the last lines of a poem by Bronisława Ostrowska, written on the news of the author’s death:

Umarł… umarł… Kto? – Henryk Sienkiewicz.
– Więc to człowiek był? Więc żył na świecie?
(So he’s dead . . . he’s dead . . . Who? – Henryk Śienkiewicz.
– So he was a man? So he lived in the world?)

When Sienkiewicz quit journalism, he not only changed the discourse serving the dissemination of ideology, but he also extricated his writing from the function it served for the positivist program, and for any other. This was not just a shift in poetics or the choice of the type of novel he felt affinity for, he simply severed artistic links between prose and journalism and science to create an autonomous literature, which, even when implementing specified ideological aims, was not constructed on the conditions of an agreement with the reader; in other words, the author’s views became secondary or even insignificant in confrontation with the allure of his works. In effect, he achieved unprecedented success, and his readers came from all spheres of society, which is an indication that he succeeded in creating an alternative literary language that was largely universal, but also one with varied types of novelistic discourse. Thanks to this, he became the first Polish writer who belonged solely to the public, and not to a school or doctrine or current.11 He was and is nobody’s, because his literary works are thoroughly modern and are a game between the writer and society in the form of the literary ← 14 | 15 → public. As he wrote, “Art has no obligation to take into account, and never really has done, questions of utility” [“O powieści historycznej,” D XLV 121].

Despite his dreams of breaking from the press, Sienkiewicz never did. After the success of the Trylogia (The Trilogy), he was able to free himself forever from journalism, to which he had no intention of returning. “He did not just crawl out of the business of the press and journalism, to crawl right back into them,” he writes here as an author to Edward Lubowski in a letter dated 18 June 1887, rebuffing editors who were pestering him for new works [Li III/1, 532]. Despite his stunning success, Sienkiewicz did not stop writing in installments, which was another nuisance to the writer in the era of newspapers—“the daily sustenance of the modern man.” In addition to economics, there was another reason why Sienkiewicz did not abandon initial printings in newspapers. When the novel implements a realist paradigm, and thus presents itself as reality, the press is the only place where the author can appear, but not now as a feuilleton writer, but as a famous author whose life piques interest because of the popularity of his work. Thanks to the press, the author can fight for his place in a text that is blocked by a poetics that he denies and that reject the absorbed reader.

The modern press, interested in the artist’s life as well as his work, committed fortuitously the mocking reversal postulated by radical modernism, which was to abolish the boundary between art and life. Countless rumors and sensational stories from and information about Sienkiewicz’s life filled the Polish, and even sometimes the foreign, press, thus confirming the arrival of an era in which the life of the artist begins to compete with his work.12 The author of Wiry (Vortices) also experienced the aggressiveness of the modern press, which was capable of effectively exploiting the public’s interest in the real author. A good example is the author’s furious response to a reprint in Kurier Warszawski (Warsaw Courier) (1902, no. 271) of an article from the French Le Journal about a duel between two students who differed in opinion about the author’s work. Sienkiewicz attacked by using the invectives allegedly used by one of the duelists, and he canceled his subscription to the newspaper and severed all contact with its editor, Władysław Korotyński. This is an excerpt of the letter from Sienkiewicz to Korotyński: ← 15 | 16 →

The editorial board of the Courier is in no was justified by the fact this article comes from the meretricious gossip rag that is Le Journal. No Polish newspaper should have reprinted this, and in doing so, your newspaper has displayed the greatest lack of tact and delicacy. [3 X 1902, Li III/1, 152].13

Despite the writer’s declared ambivalence to the voices of the press regarding his life and work, Sienkiewicz did read them or at least find out about them, and his reactions as recorded in his correspondence leave no room for doubt that they touched him deeply.14 Long before the modernist anti-Sienkiewicz campaign began in earnest, his views on the value of literary critics is decidedly negative, which is an indication of deep trauma.

I didn’t read the critics, because, as a rule, one does not read them about one’s self or one’s friends. I believe that Warsaw critics are the lousiest, most wretched, shallowest of all, and the great literary critics, if they impress with anything, it is with their stupidity, ill will, pettiness, and, once again, their stupidity. [to Edward Lubowski, April 2, 1892, 1892, L III/1, 544]

Sienkiewicz is again inconsistent in his position regarding a series of articles by Stanisław Brzozowski and Wacław Nałkowski. These critics not only found themselves up against the incarnation of Sienkiewicz’s hostile esthetic and political views, but they also exploited, to great effect, the resonance from the clash of the voices of the widely unknown critics with the greatest figure of Polish literature.15 Sienkiewicz’s silence did not indicate indifference. After several years, he recalled the campaign against him to reassure his collaborator Antoni ← 16 | 17 → Osuchowski, who was under attack by representatives of Narodowa Demokracja (National Democracy) for being too conciliatory towards Russia.

And various spiteful journalists conducted against me a real smear campaign. This was led by two ingrates I saved from poverty and starvation—one indirectly and the other directly. […] You are well aware of what a brouhaha it was, and I am sure you know better than I do, as I did not read it, and since I do not use printed paper for other needs, so even in this manner I had nothing to do with it. I only know about the whole incident from friends [6 XI 1907, Li III/2, 373].

Despite the strains of being public property, Sienkiewicz benefited far more from the modern press than he suffered from it. Thanks to his talent and knowledge of how it functioned as a medium for literature, he was able to integrate, without substantial contradiction, the economic and ideological aspects of creating with a degree of success that anyone of his generation even came close to paralleling. He was even able to modify the consciousness of his readership, which, in his case, were not exposed to the contradiction between the “service of art” and the superior business he made of this service. It is not easy to explain the course of this transformation. The link between economics and ideas is constant and surprising in the phenomenon of Sienkiewicz, and this refers not only to the financial success that his novels brought to him and his publishers, but also to another type of profit more from the sphere of divine economy, because this is linked to gaining a certain type of “additional value,” which his works produced years later. Behind this, stands a certain mythology of “profit” other than economic, which talent produces, because Sienkiewicz’s talent is a scandal that is reflected in the polemics and controversies provoked by his utterly noncontroversial works. Nobody refused. From Orzeszkowa and Prus to Gombrowicz and Błoński16—they are all joined in the lament, widespread throughout the profession, that such a talent was largely wasted. The mechanism of this disappointment is unclear, just as the measure of profit and loss that could be used to measure the error of this investment is unclear. What is clear, however, is the conviction that talent is not wholly the property of the individual, but, as a symptom of the unimaginable “divine economy,” it is a metaphysical manifestation that promises and expects long-term (eternal) profits from the genius’s work. Thus, despite the outward manifestations of talent, Sienkiewicz’s writing does not compensate for the excessive investment, which is to say that metaphors of economy express this creativity as squandered and wasted since someone else could have exploited it to incomparably better effect.17 ← 17 | 18 →

Sienkiewicz’s enormous popularity, alongside his ostentatious indifference to the ideological conflicts that occupied his contemporaries, angered or concerned many, which shows how much the phenomenon of this writer complicated his opponents’ thinking about the social function of literature. Perhaps Adam Asnyk said it most succinctly in a letter to Orzeszkowa, taking the position that Sienkiewicz is “just an artist without any convictions.”18 The concise formulation “just an artist” from the lips of the engaged artist is invective, or is contemptuous at least. Read in the context of the reflections discussed here, this could be evidence of Sienkiewicz’s shrewd intuition that the value of modern literature does not depend on the degree to which it is engaged in ideological or philosophical debate, but that it must find its place among the discourses of politics, press, and entertainment, all increasingly aggressive, absorbing readers, and also because they have seized the social mission and responsibilities of engaged literature, easily making contact with consumers and voters.

The awareness of literature as a commercial commodity, as part of the market of goods and services, on the one hand, shifts the author pragmatically into the economic game, while, on the other, it sharpens the conviction that some part of the social function of art, and perhaps its most important part, is created when it moves ← 18 | 19 → outside economics, or even when art questions its own economic object status. Paradoxically, art as market commodity depends on its second dimension being in fundamental conflict with its first, because it contests economic primacy, and fully provokes resistance against market dictates, fueling reflection, imagination, dreams, and affects; in other words, it activates impractical, even asocial, aspects of the human condition and satisfies non-economic human needs.19 Reading is, after all, a dual expenditure of time (or) money, with unclear promises of benefits. All great literature is a challenge to the exclusive concern of existence; it ostentatiously depreciates this way of existence. The ambiguity of the situation of modern literature as part of the market prompted views of its role in life to polarize, as is shown most clearly in the statements of the young modernists. Elite estheticism does not fully explain the transformation that occurred in literary life at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, because attempting to invalidate one of the social dimensions of literature places the modern writer in a false position, the result of which is either a highbrow attitude or a mercantile pragmatism.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (December)
Henryk Sieniewicz erzählende Prosa Modernisten Heteronomie
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 364 pp.

Biographical notes

Ryszard Koziolek (Author)

Ryszard Koziołek is a professor of literature at the University of Silesia in Katowice (Poland). His interests include the history and theory of the novel, and the genealogy of modern Polish prose fiction. His books include: Zdobyć historię. Mimesis w Twarzy księżyca Teodora Parnickiego (1997); Ciała Sienkiewicza (2009); and Znakowanie trawy albo praktyki filologii (2011).


Title: Sienkiewicz’s Bodies