Polish Queer Modernism

by Piotr Sobolczyk (Author)
©2015 Monographs 252 Pages


This book is a study of twentieth century Polish literature in the contexts of queer theory, psychoanalysis and modernism studies. It presents readings of well-known authors such as Witold Gombrowicz or of authors gaining international fame such as Miron Białoszewski, as well as essays on other important, but less known Polish writers. The book also offers theoretical ideas relevant outside the Polish context: the idea of «homoinfluence», the «enigmatic signifier» and its role in «paranoid cultures», the overlapping of Jewishness and queer, the discussion of queer fables for children, or the new approach to the idea of «camp» and its relation to commodity fetishism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Modernism. Queer. Polish
  • Chapter One: Sexual Fingerprint Queer Diaries and Autobiography
  • Iwaszkiewicz: sublimation and shit
  • Andrzejewski: wife, son, lover – and shoes
  • Białoszewski: loving and/as writing against proper definitions
  • Gombrowicz: intellect is not sex(y)
  • Chapter Two: Julian Stryjkowski: Jewish Vis-A-Vis Queer
  • Gazing/looking queer/Jewish
  • Interlude: looking Jewish / looking queer as a Polish stereotype
  • Unproblematic sexuality and problematic religion
  • Queer closet / Jewish closet?
  • Chapter Three: Two Psychoanalytic Scenarios In Witold Gombrowicz
  • Pupa is being beaten in papa
  • Giving oneself a homo-birth
  • Chapter Four: Queering The Warsaw Uprising (With A Little Help From Miron Białoszewski)
  • Make (queer) love not war
  • Queer reader, or the cognoscenti
  • A web of queer acquaintances?
  • “Romantic friendship” and its slippages
  • Embodied map and the picaresque
  • Subversiveness or misfire?
  • Chapter Five: Straight Yet Queer
  • 5.1 Homoinfluence
  • 5.2 Straight Gay Story
  • 5.3 Queer Fable
  • 5.4 Between Materiality and Symbolicalness of Skin: Sławomir Mrożek’s The Tailor
  • Chapter Six: Central European Communist Camp
  • Historizing, localizing camp
  • High-low, deliberate-naïve
  • Camp and fetishism
  • Miron Białoszewski’s reparative objects
  • Grzegorz Musiał: Western rags and local rags
  • The power of lack: Michał Witkowski’s phantasmatic queens
  • Coda: capitalism, postmodernism, transformation, camp
  • Bibliographical Note

Introduction: Modernism. Queer. Polish

Has there been a queer modernism? Or: has modernism been queer? Are these two questions even-steven? Was there a ghetto-like space inside “modernism” where queer themes could be spoken aloud for the very first time in cultural history in such intensity? Or perhaps the whole body of modernist discourses and practices was queer, especially by comparison with the previous periods? It is common practice now to speak of “modernisms”, not “modernism”, and this tendency encompasses national modernisms, but also “reactionary modernisms”, “Marxist modernisms”, etc., “queer” one included; on the other hand, the majority of English-language research that uses “modernism(s)” as general formula(s), cover mostly Anglo-Saxon modernism(s), at times with the reference to French one. At first glance it might appear that since “queer” deals with sexuality, a global “queer modernism” might be easy to define: people’s genitals are not that different (questionable!), the uses of these genitals, which is what “sexuality” is (questionable!), are quite similar regardless of localisation (questionable!), and on top of this, the discourses on sexuality which are the base for the medical and judicial understanding of human sexuality come from the same root. Queer theory, however, went far beyond understanding sexuality as genital activities or bodily pleasures. The view that I share sees “sexuality” as quite a unique individual complex of preferable bodily activities, mental fantasies, but also social attitudes, political views, and structural (socio-political) conditions which affect the possibilities – and impossibilities at times – of performing “sexualities”, not to forget the economical, racial, and linguistic aspects (if we agree that language forms worldview, then “Polish” sexuality via language can never be the same as Spanish etc.). Furthermore, in this project queer theory reads sexuality in literature, i.e. in the discourse where the use of language is intensified and embroiled in local literary conventions. I develop this idea in the first chapter on the “sexual fingerprint” in autobiographical writings. There is no general “queer modernism” and general “Polish modernism” whose overlapping would produce “Polish queer modernism”, although the latter might be perceived as part of them both. It is true that much of the theoretical language on different aspects of sexuality has been developed outside Polish context. My aim is not to copy and apply them unidirectionally. Many aspects of Anglo-Saxon theories with some references to French poststructuralism and psychoanalysis, simply “don’t work” here. I believe, however, that there is a possibility of exchange, i.e. the studies in Polish queer modernism as a unique and distinctive phenomenon might enrich also the ways ← 7 | 8 → that (queer) sexualities are described elsewhere. In chapter one on “secret diaries” I aim at describing the conditions of a “sexually paranoid” culture. Polish culture definitely has been one. But it would be exaggerated a claim that the most paranoid one. The mechanisms I analyse and the theory I introduce (“sexual fingerprint” combined with “enigmatic signifiers”) might be used in reading less paranoid cultures. The last sixth chapter is an attempt to describe the unfathomable phenomenon of camp aesthetics and performativities which seem to have existed long before the word “camp” was coined, and also in the societies (such as the Polish one) which had no clue that the word existed and some discussion of it took place; nonetheless, “Polish”, or “central-European” perhaps, camp performances especially under communism require new definitions and many distinctions to be made. Precisely, as I show, camp’s entanglement in capitalist economy is an overlooked phenomenon in “Western” (capitalist) theoretical discourses on camp. My new specifications of communist economy and camp might bring out the aspects in “Western” camp practices that have not been touched upon yet. In the chapter two on Julian Stryjkowski, Jewish and queer, I point out to the differences between the American queer theory and Polish (and to some extent, European) experience. If the American gay rights movements partially formed their agenda following Black Power movements, i.e. an ethnical model, a gesture that was justly criticized later in queer theory, then the Polish overlapping of Jewishness and queerness might seem a similar gesture. However the American context of Jewishness is very different from the history of Polish Jewishness and in the American context the metaphor of “queer as a Jew” means something very different. In the Polish context this metaphor has been more productive – and differently. In chapter three on Gombrowicz I offer a reading of a psychoanalytic scenario and phantasms of “second birth”. Although my interpretation should, I guess, generally work for any expatriate literature, Gombrowicz plays on the “universal” and very specifically Polish notions of “fatherland” which cannot be simply “translated” into different literatures. This is, by the way, Gombrowicz’s programme: to oscillate between “universal” notions and show Polish specificity’s potential to reshape or enrich “general” notions formed elsewhere. This is the queer agenda for my book as well. German Ritz, a Swiss Slavist, stated in his pioneer studies on gender studies in the Polish context: The chances and tasks of Polish gender studies consist in the recognition and employment of the specific cultural situation of Poland. Poland situates between Western and Eastern Europe. Its traditional culture has been fuelled by the co-existence of different nationalities and ← 8 | 9 → cultures, among other factors.1 In the text on homosexuality and Polish literature Ritz specified the Polish “distinctiveness” as an apparent “delay” by comparison with the West; “apparent”, because Polish modernisation and history of class stratification were quite different before and during the communism.2 As for the Polish modernism(s), Włodzimierz Bolecki’s book Modalności modernizmu opts for the plurality of modernisms and seeks to mark the differentia specifica of the Polish modernism, certainly without neglecting the traditions from different contexts. Modernism is an international (European and American) phenomenon, but it is the national cultural traditions, language, artistic, transnational, regional and policultural contexts that decide on its local determinants, problems and interpretations.3 Certainly the consequence of my avoidance of “ghetto” vision of queerness implies that a book on Polish queer modernism contributes and reshapes also the vision of a “general” – if “general” in this case equates with “sexless” – Polish modernism.

Benjamin Kahan offered an analysis of “queer modernism” – i.e. “queer Anglo- Saxon modernism with a reference to French decadentism” – and specified several features and discourses of it. In his view, “queer modernism” was shaped by three main discourses (he uses the word “grammars” interchangeably): the emergence of sexology, the French artistic decadence, and the Oscar Wilde trials.4 If these “grammars” were to be taken to describe the foundations of Polish queer modernism, then they should be read quite apophatically. Let me offer just a brief commentary on each of these “grammars”. Homosexuality was made legal in Poland in 1932, during the period of independency. In the XIXth century it was persecuted according to the laws of the three countries that had effectuated the partition of Poland: Prussia, Austria and Russia. The legal and medical attitudes in these three countries were different and that affects also the construction of sexualities in “Poland” and Polish early modernism, yet this is a wide and fascinating phenomenon that has not been studied yet by literary researchers. The act of regaining freedom and “unifying” back Poland ← 9 | 10 → (which nonetheless between 1918 and 1939 was not very homogenic) combined with the abolition of anti-homosexual laws could have functioned as a symbolic milestone of regaining something “specifically Polish” (tolerance) as opposed to something imposed, but it did not. It rather seems plausible that, on the other hand, the early legalisation of homosexuality might have paradoxically contributed to making it almost invisible. Compare the “return of the repressed”, i.e. increased visibility, in cultures that depenalised homosexuality relatively late: Great Britain (1982) and its (pop)cultural clash with the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher resulting in the predominance of queer artists in pop music; or Norway, now a leader in equality rights, which depenalised homosexuality in 1972, or Germany (1969!).5 As for Polish sexology, its history in relation to the homosexuality has not been studied. Only recently have we learned that despite the fact that homosexuality was legal, psychiatrists and sexologists employed the so-called “reparative therapies”, e.g. electroshocks, and this is a taboo even nowadays, perhaps because it still concerns several professionally active sexologists.6 Polish decadent literature does not offer explicit examples of “deviant” sexualities in general. The closest to the “Western” ideal, i.e. the one described by Kahan after French decadentism, is Tadeusz Miciński’s unfinished novel Mené-Mené-Thekel-Upharisim!… Quasi una phantasia. However the problem is ← 10 | 11 → that this novel was published posthumously in 1931, long after decadentism was dead; it is generally assumed that Miciński wrote it and worked on it during the last months of his life, however I suggested that for several reasons it seems that it was written around 1898. Miciński was not gay, but his works are probably the first open representations of male homosexuality, Mené-Mené… included. Another example, also emblematic in a way, is the famous work by the Polish Nobel Prize winner, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis (1896). Sienkiewicz was influenced by Edward Gibbon’s historiographical treatise which highlighted the role of Christianity as saving the declining decadent Roman civilisation. Gibbon mentioned homosexual practices as one of the sources of this decay. Sienkiewicz was interested in exalting Christianity and its values after Gibbon, however he silenced homosexuality which is very poignant given that one of his main characters in the novel is Petronius, depicted as an elegant aesthete, i.e. with some qualities shaping the “homosexual stereotype”; this Petronius is not known to be the author of a queer picaresque, Satyricon. This silencing is double-edged in the outcome: it does not blame homosexuality for leading a civilisation to an end, yet at the same time it establishes the unspeakability of homosexuality “even” among the decadents (“even” those fallen decadents didn’t do t h a t!); and by that gesture it also strengthens the role of “wrong” and “correct” religions in civilisation-making. Now, Oscar Wilde’s trials certainly affected the whole European, and perhaps also American, position of homosexuality. Polish culture could offer an example of a similar possible performative which was nevertheless a misfire. If one of the outcomes of his trials for Wilde was the establishment of the connection of a certain seriousness with camp practice, and also the establishment of queer performativity, or sexuality as performative, something similar happened in Poland with one of the first transgender writers (his peer’s, Ralph Werther’s autobiography was published in 1918), Maria Komornicka – Piotr Odmieniec Włast (1876–1949). After several years of a successful career in literature, Komornicka decided to change her gender for which her/his family closed her/him in mental asylums for years. Komornicka/Włast developed a striking gender theory in her/his horrifying letters from the hospitals to her/his mother, a performative theory of gender in fact7, where (s)he also distinguished ← 11 | 12 → homosexuality from transgenderism and provided an intellectual and emotional criticism of sexology and psychiatry; (s)he was understood to be a “lesbian”, and this is the crossing point also with the grammar of sexology. Yet these letters were not published until 2011, as also most of his literary production written as a male. As we see, in all the three “grammars”, the most dominant syllable is a void one, a mute one, the “syllable zero”.

Kahan then offers “general characteristics” of “queer modernism”: the pervasiveness of queerness; its entanglement both in the discourses of gender and those of sexuality; its existence as being passed from hand to hand; and its being in perpetual motion. I find several of these ideas also in Polish modernism. I use the above mentioned concept of the “enigmatic signifier” as a “floating” sexual message which suggests it permeates all the spaces (“in a perpetual motion”) in recognisable or non-readable ways. Also the “traditionally” heterosexual spaces. One can be heterosexual and queer at the same time (e.g. they might practice straight genital sex and S/M). Therefore I dedicate a complex chapter (five) to literary phenomena “straight yet queer”. The chapter on “homoinfluence” falls under the characteristic of “being passed from hand to hand” and it tries to show the hidden current of influence in modernism(s). The reader will also find there an assuredly incomplete – albeit long – list of Polish queer modernists. Only a few of them are studied in greater detail in this book. But the idea of “being passed from hand to hand” is also valuable to the study of “secret diaries” (chapter one) and contributes to the epistemological status of gossip in queer studies – this issue is crucial to the re-reading of Miron Białoszewski’s Memoir From the Warsaw Uprising in the light of “secondary” sources, such as his friends’ memories and finally his Secret Diary. Chapter 4 is dedicated to the queer historiography (of WWII in this case) and “filling blank spaces”. Białoszewski’s case – and also Gombrowicz’s with his “secret diary” Kronos – prove that queer knowledge is “in perpetual motion”, as new sources are constantly “unblocked” and published. Having said all that, I need to emphasise: these Kahan’s general rules have a quite different meaning in the Polish context(s) than in the Anglo-Saxon one(s). ← 12 | 13 →

Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel Idzie skacząc po górach [Walks jumping through the mountains] (1963), not translated to English, offers an interesting and ironic positioning of Polish queer modernism in European (queer) modernism. The novel is set in Paris in the early 60s, that is at the moment when Andrzejewski was in Paris on a scholarship and rose to European fame as a writer, and frequented elegant and snob parties with writers, critics, movie makers, painters and ambassadors. The key event in the novel is the exhibition of new paintings by the greatest world painter, Antonio Ortiz (character based on Picasso). This is where le monde meets. There are several queer characters and topics in the novel, all of them represent different aspects of queer modernism(s). Paul Allard is a famous classic of French literature, depicted rather ironically as an “academic” writer, belonging to the world of “high art”, who nonetheless likes to have sex with nippers between his visits in aristocratic saloons (like the scene of a tea party at Princess d’Uzerche, a pastiche of Proustian long descriptions of saloon parties). One of the archetypes Andrzejewski ironises, then, seems to be Marcel Proust. But then we learn that the writer’s apartment is situated on rue Vaneau. Rue Vaneau was the place where André Gide lived for years, therefore we might assume that Paul Allard represents the Proustian-Gidean archetype of a queer writer from a previous phase of modernism than the actual. However the very Andrzejewski during his stay in 1959–1960 also lived on rue Vaneau, and another details, such as paying the nippers, makes plausible the idea that in Allard there is a bit of Andrzejewski, too (the Polish writer wrote openly in the letters to his wife, later published as Paris Diary, about renting and sponsoring young boys). More precisely, Andrzejewski fantasises ironically about his own position as a writer, how different it would have been were he born in a country with more dominant literature than Poland (i.e. France, the centre of European modernism at that time) and perhaps a bit earlier. Allard’s literature represents the “high” gay art of “sublimation”, an ideal that Andrzejewski never really cherished; he tries to establish a connection between “sublimated” art and “low libidinal desires”, when after having sex Allard repeats several times a phrase from his own novel: Always the same! To put on a splendid coat only to go to a port boozer…8 This portrait could represent as well Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (which also suggests how apparently easily could “queer modernisms” exchange). But the perverse punch comes from the fact that this Allard’s repeated phrase is actually a quotation from Witold Gombrowicz’s (official) Diary, where Gombrowicz nonetheless does not ← 13 | 14 → “come out” – Andrzejewski at once “outs” him with a smirk for cognoscenti, and unmasks his desires to become a (queer, but in half-disclosure) prophet like Gide or Proust. (Gombrowicz was offended to death for this gesture). On the whole, this scene suggests that for many Polish writers modernism means a colonial wish to become famous and appreciated in the world by copying the Western “models”. This is neither true in Gombrowicz, nor in Andrzejewski, however. Andrzejewski goes even further in ironising the situation of Polish artists by depicting them from the Western (French) perspective as an “orientalising” gaze. The French saloon seems to know little about Poland, but it fantasises about some “eternal Slavonic soul” which is allegedly true, spontaneous, emotional and direct. A Polish painter, Henryk Milstein, and a young scandalising Polish writer, Marek Kostka, come to Ortiz’s exhibition. Kostka is a clear portrait of Marek Hłasko, and Milstein, for being in love with Kostka, bears some traits of Andrzejewski9, although the profession of painter and Jewish name (and also queerness) suggest also Jan Lebenstein who was gaining fame as a painter in Paris from around 1959. Kostka is bored to death by the academicism and artificiality of the so-called French mondanité, especially Allard’s accolades of Ortiz, and approaches a famous art critic to offer him a spectacle of Slavdom only to prove him how stupid he is. Kostka also plays on the homoerotic interest, and in the final act bites the critic in the ear, repeating a scene from Dostoyevski (as the incarnation of Slavic passion). Compare the French critic’s impressions: His French is horrible, the old gentleman thinks emolliently, but such a nice boy! and how very Slavic with this bright face and beaming eyes of an angel, scrutinizing at me with such undisguised admiration and respect.10 When Kostka mentions his alleged fascination with Goethe, the critic says: How stupendous! thinks the distinguished critic, touched, how much fresh directness in this boy, how many surprises the mysterious East ← 14 | 15 → holds! 11 Andrzejewski’s laughter is indicative also of the decay of “high” modernism and the decline of Paris as centre of world arts (William White, modeled after Tennessee Williams, shows that the “fresh” opening in modernism comes from America – “obviously” not from the East). Finally there is a hidden plot, very much like “classical” modernist tropes, of a concealed homosexual episode in Ortiz’s life. In his young days he had an affair with Giuseppe Barba, the owner of a famous gallery. There are some pictures remaining and Ortiz wants them to be destroyed. This shows that Polish “paranoia” and closet were still not that distant from a more “modern” country. This story could happen in communist Poland, but consequences are different: in capitalist Paris Giulio Barba, Giuseppe’s grandson, tries to sell these sensational photographs to junk press because the public world loves scandals of this kind; Andrzejewski could not say it aloud in a novel published in communist Poland, but the most interested in such pictures circles in Poland would be the secret service, and Andrzejewski experienced this on his own skin.

This book was completed during my postdoc grant subsidised by the Polish National Center for Sciences.12 Several chapters were discussed on international conferences. I express my gratitude to the Polish National Center for Science and all those people who participated in discussions around my research. ← 15 | 16 →

← 16 | 17 →


1    G. Ritz, Granice i perspektywy gender studies, transl. M. Łukasiewicz in: Nić w labiryncie pożądania. Gender i płeć w literaturze polskiej od romantyzmu do postmodernizmu, Warszawa 2002, p. 19.

2    Idem, Literatura w labiryncie pożądania. Homoseksualność a literatura polska, transl. A. Kopacki in: Nić w labiryncie pożądania, op. cit., p. 53–54.

3    W. Bolecki, Modalności modernizmu. Studia, analizy, interpretacje, Warszawa 2012, p. 10.

4    B. Kahan, Queer Modernism in: A Handbook of Modernism Studies, ed. J.-M. Rabaté, Hoboken 2013, p. 347–361.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (August)
Psychoanalysis Male Homosexuality Fetishism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 252 p.

Biographical notes

Piotr Sobolczyk (Author)

Piotr Sobolczyk is an assistant professor at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. His research interests are modernist and postmodern literature, queer theory, gender studies, Spanish literature, psychoanalysis and constructivism.


Title: Polish Queer Modernism