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Witkacy. Logos and the Elements

by Teresa Pękala (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 358 Pages

Table Of Content


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Teresa Pękala

Introduction

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witkacy (1885–1939), is a prophetic author, who has fascinated successive generations with his suggestive visions of the future. We live in the time which is Witkacy’s future. In 2015 we celebrated his one-hundred-thirtieth birthday anniversary, and there has since been a debate inspired by the philosophy and art of this unique author and artist. Among the Polish authors active on the eve of modernity Witkacy is indisputably the most recognizable figure. Continuous interest is aroused by the question about the future of metaphysics, about the problems of inability to fathom human life, its elemental spontaneity and philosophical reflection on corporeality. Witkacy is an avant-gardist, critical of naturalism but distanced from the abstract. An esthetician, advocate of Pure Form and the ‘logic of beauty’, and at the same time a fervent lover of the ‘life element’, which is the root of art.

The oddness of Individual Being adds a special aura to the mysterious characters of his dramas and novels, which alternately speak the language of debate and a sensual language with performative power. His philosophical texts abound in literary metaphors blurring the sharp boundaries between art and philosophy. Witkacy is an original philosopher who uses a language that has become a permanent component of the discourse of philosophy, art theory and esthetics. He introduced a whole vocabulary of terms, definitions and metaphors referring to modern art, with the concept of Pure Form as the leading one. The mocking tone, self-irony, metadiscourse and intertextuality make Witkacy occupy in the contemporary opinions the position of a thoroughly modern author walking a fine line between grand cultural paradigms in their dramatic co-existence.

S. I. Witkiewicz’s biography is no less curious than his works if those areas can be treated separately at all. He created his works in an air of scandal and tangled love affairs and experiments with substances; he was famous among the artistic bohemians for his unconventional public appearances. He was indisputably a master of gesture and poses, who anticipated the postmodernist theatralization of life. The son of a well known painter and founder of the Zakopane style, he noticed the exhaustion of artistic forms and perversions of Western culture. Behind the mask of a mocker there is a postmodern, we might say, awareness of the weakened foundations of Western culture. His suicide in 1939 appears only to be a consequence of his tragic disillusionment with the declining Western culture. ← 9 | 10 →

There are many problems that contemporary and future esthetics and philosophy can deal with and this is what is happening. The number of publications devoted to Witkacy long exceeded two hundred items edited by Lech Sokół in the 1980s. Postmodern culture is sometimes termed a culture of exhaustion. In the metaphorical sense the term can be applied to the range of subjects around which the discussion on Witkacy revolves. There is a clearly discernible need to go beyond this area to look more boldly at Witkacy’s works from the perspective of his already fulfilled future. Which of his catastrophic visions came true? What attracts the attention of humanists today? Which problems that gave people sleepless nights at the dawn of modernity now appear anachronistic, and which remain unsolved? Witkacy’s philosophy seems to be a still poorly studied point of reference to postmetaphysical conceptions. The present book contains mostly the opinions expressed by scholars to whom encounters with Witkacy are above all an opportunity to take up the vexing problems of present-day philosophy, esthetics and art theory. The genius of Witkiewicz is manifest inter alia in that it allows us to conduct incessant hermeneutic studies and to successfully try the research tools of the latest theories.

Witkacy attached great importance to immediate experience and this was not exclusively one of the theses of his philosophical conception. His picture of the world was just as impacted by philosophical readings as by “essential conversations”, as he used to call debates with eminent intellectuals and artists on the fundamental metaphysical questions. His artistic preferences were equally made up of the knowledge instilled by his father and learned at university, as well as of direct contact with artists, works of art and people from different classes, whose otherness always amazed him. These objective, one could say, determinants should be complemented with his individual predispositions that manifested themselves in the form of unique esthetic sensitivity. It is only by taking into account the vast context in which Witkacy’s ideas were born that we can get closer to his fascinating yet hard-to-understand works. In view of the complexity of problems and the fact that we are dealing with an already historical figure, who acquired the legend of being an eccentric author, I decided to begin the book with the memories of direct witnesses or substitute witnesses, who preserved the image of Witkacy-the man in their memory.

The book begins with the reminiscences by Elżbieta Witkiewicz-Schiele, a granddaughter of Jan Witkiewicz Koszczyc (architect), a cousin of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz “Witkacy”. E. Witkiewicz-Schiele was the first to compile the genealogical tree of the Witkiewicz family, including the dates of birth and death. She drew up four genealogical trees of the families related to the Witkiewicz line, ← 10 | 11 → and showed the relations between them. On the basis of documents and talks she reproduced the image of Witkacy, which was preserved in the immediate family. It might be worthwhile to focus on the part of her memories, in which the author emphasizes, unlike in most publications, that Staś [Stanisław, i.e. Witkacy] remained in the shadow of his father’s fame. The opinion about the father “Angel” (according to Witkacy’s aunt) and the difficult character of his freaky son continued to be repeated in the Witkiewicz family until after World War 2.

Witkacy is a historical figure and although his work continues to inspire successive generations, it is the relevance that is constructed for the changing conventions and even scholarly fashions. Therefore, of invaluable significance are the memories of the few living persons who knew Witkacy personally. A complete mnemic experience is accessible only to those whose recollections refer to impressions and the memory of the senses, which retains the experienced situations as fragments of unique biography. Memory goes beyond the intellectual process of recollecting and drawing conclusions about the past on this basis. We, who live at present, have to do with the knowledge about Witkacy which is stored in successive publications and on webpages. I believe like Edward S. Casey that “computers cannot remember; what they can do is to record, store and retrieve information – which is only part of what human beings can do when they enter into a memorious state” (Casey, 1987; 2). I was very grateful for Julitta Fedorowicz’s consent to publish excerpts from her memoirs about Witkacy. Ms J. Fedorowicz is a daughter of Zakopane meteorologist Józef Fedorowicz, S. I. Witkiewicz’s friend, and Witkacy’s model. Her colorful narrative about the friendship of her family with Witkacy, about the Formist Theater, the trials and tribulations of love and about philosophical disputes, culinary tastes and daily customs is irresistibly associated with the moving, emotionally marked remembering by Marcel Proust, when the broken barriers of memory suddenly collapsed (Proust, 2000; 118). And then Julitta Fedorowicz has in her eyes the lively, vivacious and splendid figure of Witkacy, teeming with emotions, while readers take part in a unique event.

A different kind of event, although equally unique, has been each time for thirty-one years the performances staged by the Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane. Inspired by Witkacy’s works, they are the relived life element, behind which there are problems arising from the fundamental oppositions of European culture. The Theater was established in 1985, exactly sixty years of the date of setting up Witkacy’s Formist Theater in Zakopane. The patron of the theater, Witkacy, managed to maintain the theater barely for two years. The theater of Andrzej Dziuk and his team have stopped the losing streak of the Zakopane theaters and is now one of the most creative phenomena in Poland’s theatrical life. While Jerzy Grotowski and ← 11 | 12 → Tadeusz Kantor are widely recognizable artists/directors of the twentieth-century Polish theater, to theatrologists and Witkacologists Andrzej Dziuk and his theater are still a poorly identified (because difficult to interpret) object of analysis. The key to understanding the phenomenon of the Witkacy Theater in Zakopane cannot be a dialog with the theatrical tradition, for which Grotowski became famous in his attempts to overcome it in the second reform, nor can it be Kantor’s transformed multicultural Polish iconography although the two themes are present there. The Zakopane Theater is a missionary, prophetic and ironic one: it does not so much perform Witkacy’s plays as it jointly thinks with him by presenting metaphysical, cultural and identity problems in the contemporary spirit. It is surrounded by an aura of mystery, almost like its patron. The difference lies in that the freak, as the son of the great painter Stanisław Witkiewicz was generally believed to be, had to wait for the name of a prophetic author many years after his death by suicide. In contrast, the Witkacy Theater became a legend almost after the first productions: Autoparodia, Dr Faustus, and Cabaret Voltaire. The relationship with Witkacy in the Witkacy Theater consists in the immediately noticeable “separateness of Individual (or Particular) Being”, the individuality (particularity) being understood as the charismatic separateness of the unique personality of Andrzej Dziuk, the creator of the Theater, as compared with other contemporary stage directors. The Witkacy Theater is distinguished by the formal expressiveness of performances and the unique style of actors’ teamwork retaining their individual acting styles, by the magic of the place and by the vision drawing on but not merely reproducing Witkacian themes. Productions are created not only in reference to the patron’s texts but also by staging outstanding works of classic art and contemporary plays. The Witkacy Theater provides opportunities for direct experience, which is an experience of modernity, an experience of the world, which is already Witkacy’s future. In this part of the book, the interviews with director Andrzej Dziuk and with the Witkacy Theater actors: Andrzej Bienias, Dorota Ficoń and Krzysztof Najbor, there returns the problem whether today’s art and the contemporary theater are able to cope with the burden of metaphysics and whether they want to? Are they able to overcome Witkacian pessimism and look at the present from the perspective that Witkacy could not have foreseen?

The different perspective offered by this publication consists inter alia in viewing Witkacy as a thinker who tries to break free from the inherited oppositions engendered within Western metaphysics. Inconsistency or even incompatibility between his art theory and philosophy, or between artistic theory and practice, can be positively interpreted as an attempt to go beyond the opposition of logos, which confirms the presence of sense expressed in the concept, and the life element, ← 12 | 13 → whose non-discursive sense can be experienced inter alia in art. The problem of the heritage of modernity already runs through the comments of the actors. Andrzej Dziuk pointed out the dramatic inability to go beyond modern oppositions within the accepted concepts of language. Witkacy’s metaphysics shows how difficult it was for the authors/artists in the early twentieth-century to cope with the classic philosophical concepts and to take a stand on the theories that formulated the problem of the ability to go beyond the legacy of Hegel and Husserl and other classics of modern philosophy. Witkacy’s conception is so difficult to interpret because, among others, it did not break off with the fundamental assumptions of metaphysics although it was critical of many of them. Its whole complexity and originality lies in that it was not a closed conception: it was constantly at the stage of challenging Western logocentrism. With admirable maturity, Witkacy predicts that the mere abolishment of the metaphysical world will not be enough to save the declining Western culture. The part Metaphysics – Inherited Logos presents four texts discussing the problem of metaphysics as formulated by S. I. Witkiewicz.

Kazimierz Piotrowski challenges the modernist opposition of surface and depth, using, inter alia, Gilles Deleuze’s paradoxology. He chose as his research material the ontological meaning of the category of perversion, which he understands in a different way from the accepted pattern of interpreting this phenomenon in the social, medical or ethical contexts. He explains his position by the fact that the metaphysics of the author of 622 Downfalls of Bungo introduces the problem of the absence of the Other, reduced to an object. The fight of the hero of Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf for identity can, in Piotrowski’s interpretation, be a contribution to postmodernist interpretations of Witkacy.

Andrzej Ostrowski’s paper In the Metaphysical Illusions refers to S. I. Witkiewicz’s argument with solipsism, particularly with his pure-spiritual-pointlike solipsism. The object of reflection is another classic opposition of metaphysics, whose sense can be expressed with the question about the relationship obtaining between the cognitive subject and the content of his thoughts.

The main goal of Magdalena Bizior-Dombrowska’s study is to analyze the category of metaphysical boredom defined as the principle of existence and an irremovable characteristic of being. Both Witkacy’s biography and his works, in which boredom is a constitutive element of the presented world, make up the picture of absolute, total, overwhelming and irremovable boredom. It turns out that boredom is not a transition state, a momentary mood; it does not take place at the level of emotions. Boredom permeates everything: it becomes the “air”, an indelible element of existence. It is unquestionably an original interpretation that opens Witkacy’s work to new contexts that confirm its relevance. ← 13 | 14 →

In his article with the provocative title Goodbye to Witkacy? Remarks on the Relevance of S. I. Witkiewicz’s Metaphysical and Esthetic Views, Cezary Mordka assesses the validity of the theses posed by Witkacy in his metaphysics of art. Mordka accuses Witkacy of having committed a category error by having essentialized the category of existence. In contrast, Mordka believes that the attempt to use the concept of “unity in plurality” to explain the phenomenon of a work of art was admirable albeit originally arbitrary.

In the next part Art, Metaphysics, Performativity the dominant reflection focuses on metaphysical and philosophical problems, in particular on the realm of art pursued by Witkacy. Grzegorz Sztabiński examines the problem of the position and significance of metaphysical feelings in painting. A systematic analysis of Witkacy’s opinions on metaphysical feelings can be used as an argument for the validity of the view that seeking a coherent system in this artist’s works leads to an aporia.

G. Sztabiński wonders whether the conviction that the right area of the operation of art is “a mix of a given feeling of unity with other life feelings” can be explained by Witkacy’s dislike of non-representational painting. In the paper, he compares the conception of metaphysical feeling with the subjectless system in Kazimir Malevich’s conception. The characteristics of the esthetic categories of beauty and the sublime can be regarded as an interesting proposal to introduce Witkacy’s work into the postmodern discourse on the sublime.

The concurrence of the great Zakopanian’s (i.e. Witkacy’s) thinking with the conceptions of the most representative minds of the modern period is convincingly discussed by Rafał Czekaj’s tellingly titled article Where Adorno Meets Witkacy. Common Philosophical Themes. The “boredom of mechanical life” prophesied by Witkacy is, according to Czekaj, one of the features of Adorno’s “administered world”, the “degeneration of metaphysical feelings” corresponds to Adorno’s diagnosis of the progressive reification of the world and his conviction about “the compulsion of identity thinking”, whereas what Witkacy perceives as the domination of “artificial beauty” is nothing else than “the culture industry” on the move. In the works of the two thinkers there is the spirit of resistance to the mechanisms of creating a passive, submissive and injured society. In order that this resistance was possible, art must preserve its autonomy. Art as a reservoir of the authentic and unmediated is indisputably an attempt “to save modernity.”

Is it not a “fusty” vision, however? This question is asked by the author of the next text, Ewa Łubieniewska. The question about the chances of metaphysics in contemporary art contains a tacit suggestion that a metaphysical experience allows the addressee to achieve harmony with the world, which makes it (experience) a ← 14 | 15 → special value. It was unquestionably such a value to S. I. Witkiewicz although in the states experienced by the characters of his dramas there is a dominant conviction, compelled by the condition of humanity and by the decline of culture and art, that it is evil that turns into the last source of artistic inspiration. Is today’s art able to bear the burden of this type of “essential contents” or is it only feigning to do so?

Anna Kawalec analyzed the constitutive dramaturgic elements of the Beelzebub Sonata that are to convince the audience that it is a work characterized by performativity. Does this indicate the use, ahead of its time, of performativity categories, also as a characteristic ontology? The article by Anna Kawalec concluding this part of discussions is the boldest attempt to replace debate on metaphysics with the reflection on new ontologies, taking into account the multifaceted character of the world of fiction and reality.

The reader interested in postmodern esthetic conceptions will certainly be eager to study the chapter “Logos and Life Elements”. In the interpretations of Irena Górska and Maciej Dombrowski, Witkacy is presented as the ancestor of the founders of somaesthetics and philosophy of the corporeal. In her article: Between Psychophysics and Somaesthetics. Witkacy’s Epistolary Self-Portrait, Irena Górska, like some other authors in this volume, refers to the themes in Witkacy’s works that allow us to include him among the critics of dualist thinking about human existence. Psychophysics and somaesthetics abolish the division into the physical/corporeal and the mental/spiritual, and emphasize the impossibility to separate mental from somatic experiences. Witkacy’s views so interpreted are nearly as important as some solutions of phenomenological philosophy and even Richard Shusterman’s somaesthetics. I. Górska defends the validity of the far-reaching comparison by referring to Letters to Wife written by Witkacy throughout the period of his marriage to Jadwiga nee Unrug. An even bolder voice is Maciej Dombrowski’s reflections titled in the style of postmodern literature “I am my body in the first place…” S. I. Witkiewicz’s Philosophy of the Body and Touch”. The author undertook a difficult task of documenting Witkacy’s statement cited in the title. The article presents the analysis of body and touch proposed by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz in the 1930s. The analyses were shown in the context of earlier studies contemporaneous with Witkacy and of relatively recent inquiries (De Biran, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty). While other scholars, including I. Górska, argue that mental and somatic experiences in Witkacy’s conception are equal, Dombrowski goes further and tries to show that touch is the dominant sense in Witkacy, whose belief that the world is real is based on it. The two texts, strongly immersed in the “life element” provoke discussion by their bold approach, they may also raise doubts as to how justified it is to utilize to such an extent the methodology and ← 15 | 16 → research tools of contemporary philosophy in interpreting a historical conception. The papers certainly encourage us to look at Witkacy’s works as a reservoir of ideas and problems that absorb the world of late modernity.

Chapter VI The Space of Life – Architecture and Fashion discusses the issues that are negligibly present in Witkacological literature, which is largely due to the marginal position that they occupy in Witkacy’s works. Zbigniew Moździerz reconstructs Witkacy’s views on architecture. Having only the iconographic material at his disposal, the author proposes that the symbols and style of the pastel portraits by Witkacy be interpreted in the context of his vision of the future. Art historians will probably be interested in the role that the compositions by young Witkiewicz and his friend Leon Chwistek played in the development of Polish expressionism in architecture.

Ewa Szkudlarek’s text Witkacy’s Theater of Fashion is a study of the phenomenon of fashion based on Witkacy’s works and biography. The author understands fashion in so broad terms that in her arguments it performs the function of the epistemological metaphor of the epoch, in the meaning given to this category by Umberto Eco. In Witkacy, fashion is a certain lifestyle and the way of viewing reality – theatralized and inspired by the ideas drawn from his contemporary trends in painting, in the history of theater, film, and even from other cultures. The originality of the “theater of fashion” described by E. Szkudlarek consists in seeing a new aspect of Witkacy’s theatralization of life.

In the Contexts of Late Modernity is the last chapter which recapitulates and connects all discussions together. The role of the substantive bond is performed by the recurrent question about the position of Witkacy in contemporary interpretive contexts. Iwona Lorenc leaves no doubt that if we use exclusively the categories employed by authors/artists of the past we run the risk of falling into the trap of anachronism. In her article Experience and Language. Witkacy in Contemporary Interpretive Contexts the author shows where the anachronistic limitations in constructing the image of Witkacy stem from, and then she offers two new ways of interpreting his works, and two corresponding contexts of late-modern processes. These are two models of modern experience between which the vision of subjectivity in Witkacy and the conception of figurativeness of language are suspended. Witkacy as a protagonist of a different modernity expressing transfigurations, the marginal, the unknown and indeterminate, is a cognitively attractive and socially relevant perspective of interpretation.

In the concluding article S. I. Witkiewicz’s Untimely Deliberations, the editor of the volume seeks to answer the question about the accuracy of Witkacy’s diagnoses about the modern period. She uses the conception of plurality and diversity of ← 16 | 17 → modernisms as the interpretation basis. Consideration of the local “dawn of the epoch” enables further specification of the cultural and historical determinants, from which stems the individual mark of Witkacy’s art and philosophy as compared with other great modernists. Witkacy’s uniqueness in the contemporary contexts can be sought by making use of the postmodern figure of the “mature modernist”, who not so much offers surprising ideas of how to upset the inherited oppositions or reconcile them as he makes us ponder over the cognitive opportunity arising from thinking “between” them.

What we, the postmodern, owe to Witkacy is a possibly obsessive – but revealing our fears – desire to retain the positive sense of existence in the world which can do without metaphysics. Like Nietzsche earlier, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, philosopher and artist, opposed the principle of modern thinking, which replaces the metaphysics of the “true world” with the metaphysics of earthliness. To the vision of a gregarious order and authoritarian certainty, which, Witkacy feared, would come true, we, the people of Witkacy’s future, add other anxieties. The proposal advanced by the advocates of indeterminate capabilities of the world, open to every action even with unknown results, is only one of the formulas of modernity that mold the present. Witkacy’s formula does not deny fear, anxiety and disputes, it seems closer to Kierkegaard’s conviction that the more profound the anxiety, the more profound the culture. Witkacy’s philosophy, like his art, exposes the paradoxes of modernity. It remains to hope that the articles collected in the present volume will be a further step towards understanding them, perhaps getting over them, but not towards exactly clarifying and overcoming them: this would be a backward step in comparison with Witkacy’s vision of man suspended between logos and the elements.

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I. Towards Direct Experience – Memories from the Past and the Element of Theater

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Elżbieta Witkiewicz-Schiele

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – “Witkacy” – in the Memories of His Family

It was Stanisław Witkiewicz the father (1851–1915) whom the Witkiewicz family put on a pedestal. Stanisław Witkiewicz, a painter, art critic, writer, and the creator of Zakopane Style in architecture and applied arts, who insisted on this style being considered national, was a great, wise, noble and good man while his son, Staś, Stasiek [= Stanisław] was of difficult and weird character. This is how the man who later became Witkacy was perceived in the close family circle; this opinion about him persisted throughout the whole interwar period and also for many years after World War II. He remained in the shadow of his father’s fame.

The critical view on Witkacy’s artistic achievements was disseminated by his aunt, Maria Witkiewicz, known as Mary (1850–1940), and the reason why was her boundless love and adoration for Stanisław Witkiewicz’s brother, whom she called Angel.

During Witkacy’s lifetime, his literary and dramatic works were considered excessively innovative and too morally lax, as well as difficult to interpret.

Witkacy’s philosophical dissertations were also incomprehensible to those who were closest to him.

It was only Witkacy’s paintings that gained his family’s recognition, especially his pastel portraits and his fanciful compositions.

Today, Stanisław Witkiewicz the father is mainly revered in Zakopane, the place where his creativity flourished. Witkacy, however, despite the fact that he died 75 years ago, continues to surprise, astonish and evoke curiosity; new themes are still being discovered in his oeuvre. His dramatic works have proved prophetic and his famous pastels are attracting more and more interest, just like the photographs he took.

Witkacy’s genius not only evokes delight in the connoisseurs and admirers of his work but also helps increase the number of those interested in his works all over the world.

The way Witkacy’s creative work was perceived by the Witkiewicz family was heavily influenced by his father’s immaculate conduct while Stanisław Ignacy’s personal life came under criticism from the family members, which often translated into their unfriendly or even dismissive attitude to him. ← 21 | 22 →

Witkacy’s inconstancy in love and in relationships with women as well as his problems with remaining faithful, especially to his wife, cast a shadow on his artistic and intellectual genius. In those days, it was unbecoming to discuss such matters aloud among the close family or friends so the subject of Witkacy’s dissolute, widely unacceptable lifestyle was avoided, but, inadvertently, direct contact with him was restricted.

The family also criticized him for not feeling obliged to financially support his mother and father in the hardest period of their lives. Maria Witkiewicz worked very hard running a guesthouse and providing for a son, who was already an adult, as well as for her husband, suffering from tuberculosis and rheumatism and undergoing climate therapy in Lovran, where he died in 1915.

Apart from some unfriendliness towards Witkacy, which resulted from the incomprehension of his intellectual achievements and the critical approach to his personal life, his closest family perceived him as an unusual cousin and a nice uncle whereas his friends saw him as a great companion and a kind man. He was remembered as responsible and protective towards the younger participants of mountain hikes.

Zofia Rabowska, an older sister of my mother, Helena Witkiewicz nee Rabowska, wrote in her memoirs about the friendship between their father, geologist Ferdynand Rabowski (1884–1940), and Staś Witkiewicz. The Rabowski were a family of industrialist background from Włocławek; the four children and their mother often came to Zakopane for treatment. The young Staś played with the Rabowski children, especially with Ferdynand, who was only a year older. The boys got into mischief and pulled various pranks, like hanging a dummy on a tree, as if it were a hanged man, in the evening so as to scare the morning passers-by. They went hiking in the mountains together. One such trek, which went down in the history of hiking in the Tatras, took place in 1900. The people who participated in it were Stanisław Witkiewicz the father, his son Staś, Ferdynand Rabowski and Mieczysław Limanowski, a geologist. In a cave in Kopa Magury (a peak in the Tatras) they found the bones of a cave bear, which were subsequently sent to the Lvov University to be examined by archeologists. Witkacy maintained the friendship and close relations with the Rabowski family for many years. He even made plans to marry Ferdynand’s niece, Elżbieta Eichenwald (1903–1939), known in the family as Bietka or Biesia. Witkacy had long had a crush on her mother, Anna, who was five years older than him. In December 1922, he visited the Eichenwalds in Włocławek. The families of Eichenwald and Rabowski lived there near their factory; they were the descendants of Ferdynand Bohm, who established a chicory factory, Ferd. Bohm & Co., in 1816. The family only owns the photographs of the ← 22 | 23 → portraits of the two Rabowski sisters painted by Witkacy; the pastels themselves were destroyed by fire in World War II in Warsaw, like many other excellent pastel portraits of the family members. The only surviving pastel portrait is that of Ferdynand’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Helena, painted in 1935, which only escaped destruction because it remained in Zakopane.

Between 1920 and 1939, Witkacy often met Ferdynand Rabowski and his daughters, Zofia and Helena, in Zakopane. Zofia Rabowska remembers that he was an eccentric, but in their presence he always behaved properly and with friendliness, and her father, Ferdynand, liked him very much. Both of the men died before 1945, when the two families were united by the marriage between Ferdynand Rabowski’s daughter, Helena, and Rafał Witkiewicz, the son of Witkacy’s cousin, Jan Witkiewicz-Koszczyc.

In the booklet The Life of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, [Życiorys Stanisława Ignacego Witkiewicza] published in 1950, Jan Witkiewicz (1881–1958) remembers his cousin Staś Witkiewicz with genuine affection. Jan Witkiewicz, known among his professional colleagues by the nickname “Koszczyc”, a renowned architect and conservator, was my grandfather. I remember him as a warm and very kind man. Therefore, his memories of his unusual cousin Staś could only be filled with admiration for his interests, knowledge and talent. They did not meet very often, but they knew everything about each other because of family gossip. Whenever they did meet in the several dozen years, the relationship between them was full of kindness and genuine friendliness. Before the summer holiday of 1895, which they spent together in Zakopane, the ten-year-old Staś wrote a letter to his cousin, four years his elder, in which he invited him to take part in a game he had invented and planned in detail.

Jan also reminisces on Staś’s 1904 visit to Munich, where Jan was then studying architecture, and the highly enjoyable time they had together exploring an art gallery. The same year in Zakopane, Jan tried to persuade Staś, who painted landscapes from nature, to master drawing skills. He volunteered to be his model and that was the first time that the man who was to become Witkacy painted a face with oil paint – and it was a likeness of his cousin.

The daughter of Jan Witkiewicz-Koszczyc also had warm memories of her visit at uncle Staś and aunt Nina’s (Jadwiga nee Unrug) in 1929. Witkacy painted a portrait of the young, then five-year-old, Henryka Witkiewicz in Warsaw at 23 Bracka Street in his portrait company, which he ran in Warsaw in winter and in Zakopane in summer. My aunt Henia (= Henryka), who is still alive, remembers that Witkacy was very kind to her and was forever telling jokes. She was worried that he would use a wrong color and kept reminding him to paint her face pink ← 23 | 24 → while he joked that he would draw it with a blue pastel. My aunt remembers that he was cheerful and funny the whole time; he stopped drawing several times, took the portrait with him and disappeared into the room next door. That was where aunt Nina was serving coffee and cake to the little Henia’s parents.

Henia also has memories of the holidays she most often spent with her parents in Zakopane on Antałówka hill, in a guesthouse villa “Witkiewiczówka”, owned by Maria, Jan’s sister. Maria, known as Dziudzia in the family, lived there permanently together with her aunt Maria Witkiewicz (Mary), who was also the aunt of Witkacy and Jan Witkiewicz-Koszczyc. Witkacy lived in the villa from 1933 onwards, but he spent the winters in Warsaw. The young Henia Witkiewicz remembered him as someone who was always cheerful and kept telling jokes and mimicking various famous people. He also liked provoking laughter from the guests sharing a common table. He teased playfully, making everybody laugh. He never made any snide comments about the family. Henia remembers that he was always very kind to her father and honest with him. He also showed kindness to Henia’s brothers, Janek and Robert, who were both much older than her.

As if responding to the false assessment of Stanisław Ignacy, Jan Witkiewicz-Koszczyc spoke about him in an endearing way filled with brotherly love, (…) To many people who didn’t know Stanisław Ignacy well, he seemed to be a selfish man. He wasn’t one. As a matter of fact, he was shy and I know many facts from his life which show how kind, lovable and grateful for the kindness shown to him by others he could be, and how much he needed this kindness and warmth. (…)

Jan Witkiewicz ended his memoir about Witkacy with the words: Before leaving Warsaw, during the siege, he phoned us at our home in Mokotów [a Warsaw district]. My wife answered the call. Staś asked, “Are you staying in Warsaw? Because if you are, I’ll stay too.” My wife said, “Yes.”, but the call was disconnected due to a bombing raid. It wasn’t until the winter that we learnt about Staś’s death from his wife. Had he heard the answer that we were staying, he could have stayed and survived.

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Julitta Fedorowicz

Memories

I am a daughter of Witkacy’s friend, Józef Fedorowicz, a well-known Zakopane meteorologist, whose artistic soul delighted those who knew him. He died on February 9, 1963. He lies in the cemetery in Pęksowy Brzyzek [Pęksa’s Cliff], where many distinguished people are buried, but he lives on in the legend of Zakopane as “Pimek”, “Wiatr Halny” and “the nicest Man on Earth”. I was also Witkacy’s model. Witkacy made portraits of hundreds of people; it is hard to believe, but he drew more than five thousand portraits. Witkacy met Józef Fedorowicz in 1922, when Fedorowicz arrived in Zakopane as a specialist in mountain meteorology sent by the State Meteorological Institute in Warsaw.

In the 1920s Zakopane was a vibrant centre of immensely interesting intellectual life. Józef Fedorowicz, open-mannered and outgoing by nature, soon made friends among the Zakopane bohemians. He was immediately noticed by Witkacy, who was staying in the city.

Witkacy was then trying strenuously to establish the Zakopane Drama Society [Zakopiańskie Towarzystwo Teatralne] and The Formist Theater [Teatr Formistyczny]. He had already written the majority of his unusual dramas and managed to show some of them to audiences in Krakow, Torun and Warsaw, so it is hardly surprising that he also wanted to stage them in Zakopane. His initiative for establishing a theater in Zakopane was supported by a circle of friends and enthusiastic theatergoers. What he did not have was – as we would say today – a good manager and a sponsor. This is why Józef Fedorowicz reportedly went to no end of trouble: he took care of administrative matters and solicited for money for the new theater from every source he could find.

The event Witkacy longed for – the first opening of the curtain of the Zakopane Formist Theater – occurred on March 28, 1925, in the theater room of the Morskie Oko Hotel, a stately hotel at the time, located in ul. [Street] Krupówki. Witkacy put on two of his dramas: The Madman and the Nurse (currently known as The Madman and the Nun [Wariat i zakonnica]) and The New Deliverance [Nowe Wyzwolenie]. Their innovative form astonished the audience, while the provocative content appealed to some and shocked others. Both plays were performed by amateur actors, Witkacy’s friends and theater-lovers, who also directed the performances together with the author. My Father was very happy, he was cast in two important roles: that ← 25 | 26 → of Professor Ernest Walldorff, the head of a lunatic asylum in The Madman and the Nun, and that of King Richard III in The New Deliverance.

The Zakopane Formist Theater did not last long, and the reasons why its activity was not adequately documented are now difficult to discover. What is known is that Witkacy treated it very seriously and that My Father was his best, most favorite, actor. Soon after the Zakopane premiere, in May 1925, Witkacy did a magnificent portrait of Józio [i.e. My Father Józef] as Richard III in order to commemorate his performance. This was the first portrait of Fedorowicz that Witkacy drew and gave to him. It is the most cherished one in our family collection of Witkacy’s works.

Although it was dozens of years ago, I can still see the impressive, vibrant and energetic figure of Witkacy, always brimming with emotions. He dressed casually: he wore knickerbockers, which were fashionable at that time, and hats, of which he had a few to choose from. He liked sweaters and woolen knee-length socks, which his loving mother meticulously knitted for him. He was very tall, and had a beautiful face which attracted attention. He was different. Distinctive. In interactions with others he was domineering and pugnacious; he behaved unceremoniously and tended to show off. He loved astonishing people, even fooling around. He spoke in a way that brooked no argument. I remember the animated conversations he had with my Mother and Father and many other people, the heated ideological arguments, which meant the world to him. He obsessively tried to identify the most essential values that gave meaning to life.

Witkacy forged a close friendship with Józef Fedorowicz. He needed him desperately when he was battling against glątwa (depressive hangover) – this was the name he gave to a gloomy, depressive mood which haunted him. It often came over him, brought about by his general apathy, the source of which was the suicidal death of his fiancée, Jadwiga Janczewska, in 1914, by his never-ending financial problems and by his deteriorating health. Fedorowicz, who was always cheerful and had a positive and friendly attitude towards the world, could have a beneficial influence on him.

Witkacy, however, had other problems as well. He was a workaholic: he tended to spend nights and days investing tremendous effort in his creative work, and thus nearly drove himself to utter exhaustion. Then, he sought relaxation in the company of his close friends from Zakopane. Józef Fedorowicz, My Father, also usually spent time with them. When Witkacy and My Father were together among a crowd of people, they became a kind of team improvising a variety of absurd, hilarious situations. Witkacy put his whole being into them, which helped him release the unbearable tension. A glass of his favorite Zakopane litworówka liqueur added to the playful atmosphere. ← 26 | 27 →

Witkacy liked coming around to see my parents. He had frequent contacts with My Father, but he saw My Mother more rarely and their relations were different.

He first met Zofia Fedorowicz in December 1927, only a month after she had married Józef Fedorowicz. When Witkacy learnt that Józio [Fedorowicz] had brought his charming twenty-five-year-old wife from Warsaw, he reportedly rushed straight to his friend. Having looked at “the bride” carefully, he announced, “I like your Zosieńka [i.e. Zofia], I’ll do a portrait of her straight away”. Witkacy kept his easel and everything he needed for making portraits at Józio’s place, in the office of the Meteorological Station, which was then located on the third floor of the Tatra Museum. His “Portrait Company” was established only later, so he had “improvised studios” at some of his friends’ places in Zakopane.

On that occasion, Witkacy very quickly made a beautiful portrait of Zofia Fedorowicz. In the next years, he portrayed Józio’s wife many times, but that first portrait was unequalled. Zofia Fedorowicz had the makings of a philosopher. She started studying philosophy at Warsaw University in 1921. Her spirit and mind had an unusual charm and she had such extensive knowledge that her daughters used to say, “Our Mum is an encyclopedia”. Underneath, she was a sensitive soul. It was therefore not surprising that there were things about Witkacy that she did not approve of.

She only occasionally had discussions with him. They had different outlooks and dissimilar preferences. In her enquiries into the Mystery of Being she favored idealism and intuitive cognition, from which Witkacy shied away. Regrettably, those conversations between Witkacy and My Mother cannot be reconstructed and we have to content ourselves with very general speculations.

My Mother told me that in the summer of 1938 she went to Witkacy’s lecture on philosophy, which promised to be interesting. He gave it a witty, almost promotional title: Try for once, pet, … Witkacy meant the three dots at the end to be interpreted as an encouragement: to philosophize, but few people were able to guess it. As a result, the huge conference room of the Morskie Oko Hotel was filled to capacity with representatives of the fairer sex, who were enticed by the title.

For almost an hour, Witkacy read his extremely elaborate lecture quickly, but monotonously, paying no attention to accurate diction and with no rapport with the audience. Mother said that although she tried very hard, she had difficulty following the main idea of the speech. Additionally, its key theme was lost in the lengthy sentences. The women sat there without a clue – the lecture was all Greek to them, and everyone in Zakopane learnt that it was not so easy to philosophize with Witkacy.

Witkacy trusted Zofia Fedorowicz. In the spring of 1938 he came to her, miserable, almost heartbroken: his beloved Czesława Oknińska, with whom he had ← 27 | 28 → been in intimate friendship for nine years, left him. She left because she discovered he had been unfaithful to her. She sent him back all his portraits he had done of her and all the souvenirs he had given her.

Desperate, Witkacy asked my Mother, “What am I to do with myself? I can’t live without Czesława”.

Moved by this dramatic statement, My Mother advised him to promise Czesława that he would never be unfaithful to her again, but Witkacy said he could not make a vow like that as he would despise himself if he did not keep his word.

“Well, could you apologize to her, then? This might be what she is expecting,” My Mother asked, concerned.

She never learnt what persuaded Czesława to let Witkacy mollify her and to come back to him. My Mother claimed it might have been better if Czesława had not done so. She asked herself, as did others, why she (Czesława) had been unable to prevent him from committing suicide on September 18, 1939.

Witkacy made many portraits of My Father and my wonderful Mother. He portrayed other members of our big family: grandmothers, aunts, uncles and also Józio’s both daughters, i.e. my older sister and me. There was a time when Józef Fedorowicz’s Family Collection contained more than thirty portraits made by Witkacy. It was an example of Witkacy’s generosity, since all the portraits in it were gifts: he drew them as if out of personal need, to the joy of those portrayed and for his own satisfaction. My Father was immensely grateful to Witkacy. He felt as if he was someone special. He loved the portraits so much that on his deathbed he called my sister and me and, looking at the walls of his room covered with Witkacy’s portraits, he said, “My dearest daughters, I beg you to make sure that this unusual treasure is never dispersed”.

Unfortunately, even then – in 1963 – the collection was already incomplete. Józef Fedorowicz’s family had earlier left Zakopane, taking their likenesses with them. To remedy our financial problems, my Father was forced to sell three or four of Witkacy’s portraits of him when my sister and I were studying in Krakow. Two of the portraits were bought by the Lublin Castle Museum.

My sister and I took over the Family Portrait Collection after the death of our Mother in 2002. At that time it consisted of fifteen portraits. In recent years there was a threat that it might be divided among Fedorowicz’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren but we did not allow this to happen. Father’s request resulted in the Collection being transferred to the Tatra Museum in Zakopane. Both my sister and I are satisfied that the large surviving part of the Collection of Witkacy’s Portraits, of which Our Father was so proud, evokes and will forever continue to evoke the interest of the visitors to the Tatra Museum, and that our Dad is happy in Heaven. ← 28 | 29 →

Witkacy described his portraits as psychological. He had an uncanny ability to capture the characteristic traits of the model and the mood they were in. Also, like a visionary, he noticed the supernatural qualities of the person he was portraying, for example the aura radiating from them. He once drew my sister, who was then a young girl, against the background of a Gothic arch filled with vibrating light. As an adult, she discovered she had special parapsychological powers, which she used for years to help the sick combat their severe diseases. Nowadays, whenever she looks at that portrait, she is overwhelmed with astonishment and says, “Witkacy was a psychic, he was able to grasp the very core of me”.

It can be said that, in a sense, my sister and I grew up in the background of Witkacy’s figure and his creative work since our entire childhood was directly connected with him. This had a significant influence on our choice of university course related to the theater: my sister graduated from Ludwik Solski Academy for the Dramatic Arts, while I majored in Stage Design at Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow.

My sister and I have often been asked whether Witkacy liked Fedorowicz’s daughters. We both feel he did. After all, he portrayed us several times. Whenever he came to our house, we found him fascinating. We remember very well the various amusing antics he performed to either scare or entertain us. For example, one moment he impersonated a terrifying devil, the next he pretended to be St. Anthony. To appear “devilish”, he would ruffle his hair, goggle his eyes at us in a sinister way, bare his teeth, which then seemed broken and rotten because he had smeared them with coal, and poke his tongue out. He would also put his hands to his temples with the index fingers slightly bent so that they looked like horns, and use a booming voice to make the monster come alive in front of us. To look “saintly”, Witkacy combed his hair forward to form a fringe, put his palms together as if preparing to pray, raised his eyes heavenwards, assumed a very pious expression and pretended to mouth the words of prayers.

We were no less surprised by his drawings, with which he filled entire sheets of paper in no time. They were incredible compositions – now famous – depicting various horribly misshapen creatures in situations that were so strange that it was often impossible to interpret them. Although Witkacy intended the drawings for curious adults, we watched him create some of them. My sister was eight then and I was seven. Witkacy made a large number of such drawings at our house. Interestingly, he usually drew them on the blank pages of synoptic maps and reports for skiers, which My Father always kept handy. Unfortunately, only five of these surprising, almost nightmarish, images created by Witkacy have survived until the present day. All the others disappeared without a trace in the 1950s. My sister and I have handed the surviving five over to the Tatra Museum in Zakopane. ← 29 | 30 →

I must mention the fact that we also remember the Witkacy who was no different from us all: he ate his favorite “oładki”, as he called ordinary potato pancakes, with as much gusto as we did. Mother served them with the indispensable tomato salad. We often had simple meals in his company. He also truly enjoyed jacket potatoes served with herring and sour cream.

I must confess that while sitting at a table with Witkacy, close to him, I observed him carefully, because, before he started eating, he would lift the plated cutlery pieces and examine them deliberately to check whether they had been cleaned carefully enough. He was especially interested in the sides of fork prongs, because he had once discovered something on them. On that occasion, he made a spectacle of calling over the maid, Rózia, and reprimanding her. Can a seven- or eight-year-old girl be blamed for fearing that an incident like that might happen again?

Witkacy always sat on the same seat at the table in the dining room. As years passed, the seat gained a kind of fame. Many a person, on learning that they were sitting on the seat “reserved” by Witkacy, felt some special satisfaction and was grateful to have been informed about it.

Witkacy did portraits of children willingly. He always followed the established rule: he depicted them as well-groomed, polite, and unmoving; the portraits were also “delicious” in a sense because he always drew a platter of fruit in them.

He did the first such portrait of me when I was five. In the background he drew my favorite white woolen teddy bear and a few red apples on a platter. At around the same time he also portrayed my sister – in her portrait there were grapes as she asked him to draw some. I envied her because in the platter in my portrait there were no bananas, which I really liked. Therefore, whenever Witkacy visited us, I pestered him to do a new portrait of me – “it must be with bananas”.

I remember the moment of sheer joy when My Father came home from work one afternoon – it was in September 1936 – and told me that Witkacy was waiting for us because he felt like drawing a portrait of me. Mother dressed me quickly in a beautiful blue velvet dress, she adorned it with an embroidered cambric pinafore with frills at the shoulders and she tied a huge white bow in my hair. My Father and I got into a cab and the cabman took us to Antałówka street. We entered Witkacy’s studio, located on the first floor of the Witkiewiczówka villa. It was quite a big room with huge windows offering an extensive view of a range of the Tatra Mountains. Furnished with heavy fin de siècle pieces, the room was full of pictures: they hung on the walls, lay in piles on the top of the wardrobe, leaning against the stylish étagère and the high back ottoman, as well as against every empty space on the walls. The massive table standing along the windows was scattered with a variety of items: piles of books and albums, colorful rolls of paper for pastel drawings, ← 30 | 31 → cardboard boxes and wooden boxes with charcoal and colorful pastels in them. On the edge of the table there were a glass of tea and two bottles of beer. Pieces of broken pastels could be seen everywhere. The studio was a wonderful artistic mess; it was also so cluttered that it was difficult to move around in it.

The part of the room opposite the door, to the left of a huge tiled stove, was dominated by a massive easel with a wooden board, to which Witkacy pinned a sheet of light-grey paper. Before he started drawing, he took a round loaf of fresh whole-wheat bread from the table, cut it in half with a huge knife, scooped out the pulp and kneaded it for a long time in his hand. He explained to me that in this way he made a special eraser for removing the excess of pastels and for gentle rubbing.

“Sit down,” he said, drawing up a stool for me, “Look straight at me and don’t move!”

He sat himself comfortably on a chair in front of the easel and started looking at me intently: he frowned, squinted, raised his eyebrows, curved his lips, and made mysterious measurements with his hand. Finally, he vigorously got down to drawing.

It was difficult for me to be patient and sit motionless on that hard stool. Time was dragging on and I was burning with curiosity. I asked Witkacy time and time again, “Are there bananas yet?” I even tried to steal a glance at the likeness of me as it was being created and this made him so angry that he snapped at me to finally stop fidgeting or the portrait would not be finished. No wonder that tears brimmed in my eyes and I started whimpering.

Witkacy continued to have trouble with me; I remember the impatient, unpleasant gestures and facial expressions he used in his attempts to control me so that he could draw.

The session ended when it was already dark outside and the light was on in the studio. Witkacy rose from his chair, stretched, stepped back to scrutinize his work, and then said, “I won’t show it to you, because you’ve been very bad”. He removed the board with the portrait from the easel in such a way that I could not see a thing and quickly carried it to the small hall.

That was horrible for me. I turned to Dad for help but, unfortunately, he was on Witkacy’s side. Still, I persisted and finally saw the portrait. I was horrified! There were no bananas, and no beautifully dressed Lila! The sheet of paper was barely big enough to contain my head, enlarged out of proportion, which looked as if it as roughly sketched. Oh, no! That was not what I expected. I burst out crying and neither Father nor Witkacy knew what to do with me – I did not want to go home for the world. ← 31 | 32 →

Witkacy had his own way of dealing with the model unhappy with his work: he did another portrait. He managed to appease me with a promise to draw the portrait I dreamed about – one with bananas. I did not have to wait long: he fulfilled his promise within a month.

Please, look at the second portrait first – there are bananas in it! And do notice what I was like while I was posing for it: sulky and distrustful. On one side of the work Witkacy wrote, “tough and for free” [in Polish: trudno i darmo, which means there is nothing to be done; darmo, however, has two meanings: ‘in vain’ and ‘for free’]. “Tough” because there was no other way, the little model needed to be mollified, and “for free” because he made a portrait of his friend’s daughter.

And below there is the portrait I found horrifying and unacceptable. When I look at this work now, I cannot understand what was happening to me then. After all, this is the most amazing portrait of a young child Witkacy had ever done. It is amazing as it is unusual, contrary to the rule he adhered to: that portraits of children should depict them as well-groomed and should always have a platter of fruit in them. And look at my eyes: they glisten with tears …

Without any breaks, any frictions or inhibitions, the friendship between Witkacy and Józef Fedorowicz, My Father, lasted seventeen years, until Witkacy’s hasty departure from Zakopane in the last days of August 1939. He was extremely anxious, terrified because war was approaching. Just before leaving Zakopane, Witkacy came to my parents. I remember him talking to them in such a great hurry that he stood in the doorway; he did not even want to come into the room. As a farewell gesture he handed my Father a roll of paper with his self-portrait – “fresh from the easel” – done on August 11, 1939. The portrait is now in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.

I would like to mention one more important event that is etched on my memory. In the summer of 1938, Witkacy, together with My Father and a few enthusiasts of Zakopane Theater, whose names I do not remember, decided to revive the “unfortunate” Formist Theater with a performance of Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf. The rehearsals for this play, written by Witkacy in 1921, took place in our house, the Jagienka villa, in the big dining room with a glass veranda, at a massive table surrounded by multiple chairs, which stood in the middle of the room. Each rehearsal began and ended with My Father striking a huge golden brass gong three times, solemnly and with great acting skill. The deep protracted sound informed each and every one of us that we were supposed to be silent because the rehearsal began, or that we were permitted to talk as the rehearsal ended. How many such rehearsals there were – no-one can tell us now, but definitely more than one, two or three … ← 32 | 33 →

An authentic postcard that Witkacy wrote to Fedorowicz on June 30, 1939 has survived till today. Let me quote its contents, “My (still) dear Józio, isn’t it unkind of you not to have sent me back the Calf for so long? I beg you, do this immediately, by registered post. I have no other copy, this is the last one. Why did you run away back then, why didn’t you wait – another cruel act. I’m waiting – for now, hugs with my RA (right arm). Yours, W.”

The postcard shows that Metaphysics of a Two-Headed Calf was what Witkacy and his friends were interested in just two months before World War II broke out. It is so horrible that in a split second all that plunged into the burning abyss of war.

And what happened to the gong? I have no idea when and where it went missing. During the war, and for a few years after the war, it had the pride of place in our dining room. Struck on various occasions, it made a characteristic banging sound, followed by a prolonged echo. I seem to have heard it just now, as if it was struck with my memories – and this immediately and inevitably brings me – and my readers – closer to Witkacy. And let it stay this way forever.

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Interview with Andrzej Dziuk, Director of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane

Teresa Pękala: Witkacy writes about losing the ability to experience metaphysical feelings. If we are deprived of this ability, metaphysical feelings will disappear. Sometimes contradictory conclusions are drawn in response to this assumption; what is more, the thesis itself is treated as a proof of contradictions in Witkacy’s theory. The Witkacy Theater inspires us to talk about metaphysics. The direction of the interview is set by the questions: Who? when?, in what conditions is someone able to experience this kind of feelings? Are we able to also experience such feelings, considering the experiences of the past centuries, which we carry like a suitcase full of philosophical books? This is our culture, our understanding of the world – it is ours, it doesn’t belong to anyone else. Did the Western culture really lead to the decline of metaphysics? While writing about the decline of a certain way of understanding modernity, Gianni Vattimo said the famous words: “We cannot throw metaphysics off like a worn-out garment”.

Andrzej Dziuk: I have read Gianni Vattimo’s “End of Modernity”, in my opinion it is a brilliant book. I recommend it as a prophetic text. As for Witkacy, the statement about “disappearance of metaphysical feelings” is repeatedly quoted. I can notice at least two aspects of the problem. The first seems relatively simple and it concerns the loss or exhaustion of the ability to experience metaphysical feelings, which has resulted from certain social processes or mechanisms. This certainly must not be neglected. The original feature of Witkacy’s views is that he doesn’t treat man in a void or isolation. He clearly positions man in historical and economic space and time, in the epoch where certain revolutionary changes took place. And I don’t mean the Bolshevik or February Revolution; what is important is to point out that a society is dynamic, it undergoes changes. Witkacy’s courage means that, among other things, he places the processes in a very broad context which goes far into the future. One might say that it is a particular kind of eschatology. Witkacy suspects, anticipates, guesses, or maybe in his prophetic vision he sees that what happens to man in a social process, in the development of the so-called civilization, leads to the state in which man becomes less keen, that some kind of a general laziness occurs fostered by gradually increasing living standards. The whole so-called social adhesion, or social ← 35 | 36 → mechanism, works towards turning man into a robot, an automaton. Towards depriving him of individuality.

T. P.: Athanasius (Atanazy) in “Farewell to Autumn” (“Pożegnanie jesieni”) emphatically articulates an underlying threatening message that social adhesion is infinite and the power of an individual is limited. Those deprived of individuality will not even know about their fall, Witkacy’s character deliberates about his idea which may save the people in the future and – he happens to lose his life. There is no place for an individual in this state of social entropy.

A. D.: To deprive man of individuality really means to deprive him of freedom. To deprive man of freedom means to subject man to the process of enslavement. The process of enslavement is not as obvious as it may seem. It means that man is deprived of certain prerogatives, but also of courage, of a possibility to choose; on the other hand, it offers him something else: “I’ll do it for you. Don’t do it yourself. I’ll do it for you. I know better what is healthier, more comfortable, safer for you”, etc. In this way human freedom is limited with easy, little, and tricky steps. It’s a big word. But that kind of “adhesion” occurs. That social adhesion does not mean that man and his social surroundings are like communicating vessels, that balance is maintained. Social development is based, among others, on the principle that there is something “higher” and “lower”. However, social adhesion leads to the disappearance of distinctions. It is the way which generally means the end of the world to us. There are no class divisions. There are no stupid or wise men, there is mediocrity. There are seekers. There is simply slapdashness, half-doneness. There is mediocrity. The word “slapdashness” is so disgusting that it should be enough. One can say that the so-called civilization is trying hard so that I, God forbid, do not experience metaphysical feelings. Why is civilization entitled to do it to me? Or, why I, let’s start with “I”, should have a right to think: good, it’s convenient, I like it, in simple terms, it suits me. Because metaphysical feeling is inconvenient by its very nature. It is defined as vague in terms of logic, while in medical terms it is compared to a toothache or migraine. But we don’t like suffering and pain, which is why we drive away that which is uncomfortable and painful. The whole civilization takes great pains to ease my pain. “Why should it hurt, it would be better if it didn’t hurt. We will help you, it won’t hurt”. Consequently, the need to experience metaphysical feelings is removed from my consciousness, also for my own good. “Don’t experience metaphysical feelings, you’ll be happy”. And of course I accept it because of fear: why should it hurt, I’d better not be in pain – to use trivial words. But on the other hand, it is not only a problem of an individual, it refers to the whole context, not only to the civilizational one this time, but intellectual, mental, that is, the whole philosophical context. ← 36 | 37 →

T. P.: Would you say “and spiritual context”?

A. D.: That’s exactly what I mean. However, when we say “spiritual”, it has positive connotations for me. We are talking about something deeper. The intellectual level, I’ll stick to this level of reflection, means that we use a certain system of categories, notions, and relations. Briefly speaking, we adopt certain segmentation of reality, we try to define, grasp, and describe the world by using the intellect. And the instruments which the intellect provides. The whole methodology is based on this, and it’s a science. And here the problem of suppressing metaphysical needs arises. When we use the word “science”, metaphysics has no right to fit in the categories of science. There follows a great process of suppression, it’s the second suppression of metaphysical categories, and in consequence, of metaphysical feelings, but this time it happens as if it were seen from another angle – from the point of view of science, i.e. the intellect. In terms of reason, I’m afraid to use this word, but it must be used – in terms of reason.

T. P.: Instrumental reason?

A. D.: Practical reason. I wouldn’t like to go into Kant, but I also don’t want to use the category of “common sense”, because it’s contemptuous.

T. P.: Why does the concept “common sense” have a pejorative sense?

A. D.: Witkacy finds “common sense” offensive. “To be commonsense” means to be commonplace, or “not to make use of reason”. Reason is too high, reason is too important, not only because it defines human nature. In the context of reflection on reason I always quote Pascal’s thought I love: “The greatness of man consists in thought” Period. It is fantastic. And then I think: “Lord, how stupid it is”. But for the stupidity to be revealed you must say “Lord” … But the first statement is essential, undisputed. The dignity of man is in his mind, the greatness of man is in his mind, in his curiosity, in his doubt and it shouldn’t be questioned. But what happens? Namely, reason is no longer defined in terms – how to put it? – of infinity. Reason begins to be treated in pragmatic, even utilitarian, terms. Rational is everything that I can use. And then common sense appears. Reason is degraded to common sense. Common sense demands that … etc. Not necessarily reason. We have defined reason as something that is predictable, easy to define. We have degraded reason.

T. P.: Have we deprived it of infinity?

A. D.: Yes, we have. And above all, we have deprived it of incomprehensibility. The curiosity of human mind is unlimited, ungraspable. And this is its greatness and, in this sense, the greatness of man. Does reason never go astray? If ← 37 | 38 → only reason never erred, if it didn’t ask difficult questions… Only common sense doesn’t take risks. This is the degradation of reason. Anyway, coming back to the history of that category, to the fact that science limited the notion of reason just to the pragmatic dimensions of this kind. It is said, for example, that something is inconsistent with reason. What does it mean “inconsistent with reason”? With our understanding of reason degraded to common sense. Yet this assumption immediately eliminates, degrades reason, which is reduced to making judgments in terms of common sense. It looked different in the times of deep spirituality, deep reflection upon oneself, upon the world, when the category of soul was applied. Then, the category of God was replaced with the category of transcendence. But it was not until science appropriated the concept of reason that those categories were virtually eliminated by common sense. Earlier, when reason was the essence of the universe, when reason was harmony, order, and mystery, all those categories remained within its scope. From the moment when reason was to be scientific, or tailored to the needs of man, tailored to his possibilities, to scientific discoveries, what man can comprehend is considered rational.

T. P.: And why do we need that intellect – to deliberately become a beast in an ideally arranged society? Witkacy put this question into Athanasius’s mouth.

A. D.: And this is a disaster. A disaster and degradation of reason. But it is also a disaster of man. Because at that moment we set boundaries to ourselves, we set boundaries to reason. Don’t reach further because it doesn’t belong to the category of reason. And it is amazing that although throughout the eighteenth century, when metaphysics was still applied, and throughout the following centuries, science, scientists step by step caused the concept of reason to become reduced. The definition of truth began to function according to which a true thing reflects reality. But what is reality? How is reality defined? We are making a classic logical mistake, circulus vitiosus, to feel good. We must realize that the world in which we live is rational, which is nonsense.

T. P.: It is rational only within the previously adopted meaning of rationality.

A. D.: Yes. And the error arises from thinking that we live in the world which we can tame, which is explainable, and even if some “holes” occur, also in the physical sense (the so-called black holes), we will, sooner or later, understand them, we will explain their existence. The category of metaphysics does not fall within the thus understood categories of sciences, and in compliance with the existing model of thinking. ← 38 | 39 →

T. P.: Witkacy worked within a certain scientific paradigm which he constantly put to the test of time because he realized that scientific categories are subject to continuous change. Just like philosophical categories. Therefore, aren’t philosophers themselves to blame for that so-called crisis of metaphysics we discussed after watching “The Metaphysics of a Two Headed Calf” (Metafizyka dwugłowego cielęcia)?

A. D.: What happened in the area of philosophy itself repeats the errors in thinking of the same intellectual formation which is responsible for the degradation of reason. Consequently, the third point of my diagnosis of the changes occurring in thinking about the world is ontology, and to be precise, confusing ontology with metaphysics. It’s not the same. I should firmly say that it’s not the same. When we speak about ontology, we speak about a general science of beings. About beings. Beings are tough. Beings are conceptualized. A being is “given”, a being is – how to put it? – something that is. On the other hand, metaphysics doesn’t apply to beings. Metaphysics applies to being. Metaphysics is something that by its very nature cannot be defined because it most fundamentally deals with the process of existence. Not beings, but Being, living, existence. Existence is associated with a process.

T. P.: Event, flow?

A. D.: Not only, the category of time understood as “from – to”, or other pre-linear perspective, it is also the “up – down” relation, it is the category of eternity, the category of the past. It is a very complex problem, dealt with by numerous philosophers. Generally, one could say that metaphysics concerns a process which by nature has no beginning or end. I am an element, I am its part – and to put it this way is wrong. Let me use a metaphorical description. I am a drop in a swift moving stream. And being is a stone in this stream. I can describe this stone – then, it is ontology. However, ontology, using the metaphor of flowing water, refers to that stream which comes from a source which remains undefined and about which we don’t know where it is flowing. Let’s assume that water flows to the ocean. But I am that drop, the drop in that stream, in that existence. And this cannot be defined. Thus, it was concluded, not without a reason, that poetry, poetic words can better render the term metaphysics than the words of science. And everything would be fine if it only stopped here. But science went further.

T. P.: Since the turn of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century several philosophical conceptions have emerged which admit that art is closer to the sources of sense than a conceptual discourse, that a philosopher should listen to the voice of an artist. ← 39 | 40 →

A. D.: Science simply ridiculed this. It was considered gibberish. In the category of science understood in this way it’s certainly gibberish. Because what the poetic word refers to cannot be categorized.

T. P.: You said that poetic word is closer to the meaning of the concept of metaphysics. We may say after Bakhtin or Heidegger that a decisive thing here is the relation between the expressed and the hidden or inexpressible, indefinable, as you called it. Does it mean the imperfection of language which is always “external” to dynamic existence, to the stream in which we are immersed?

A. D.: If we cross the stream, build a dam and study that fragment of the rushing stream, is this metaphysics? No. We can speak of ontology – we are studying a fragment of something and this can be considered a scientific approach. But science goes further saying: we know what a stream is, we have defined it. We know what water is made of. Thus, it is scientific. So we think: this is the truth. That is not the truth. The fact that science so strongly affects our consciousness and that we were made to believe that water does not flow, that we are not standing in the stream flowing “from – to”, “from – towards” is something incredible. We were made to believe that we are immersed and we ourselves are a kind of a tank of still water, so no wonder that all this starts to stink. We have no choice: we can’t see a way out. It is a description of the situation and of the world, it’s also the description of an individual. With time this swampy pond stinks more and more intensely. At the moment we are thinking of how to distill it with the help of science, how to clean it with water, instead of tearing down the walls of science built in that way. Instead of tearing down the walls of common sense. To admit that when using science we are unable to answer fundamental questions concerning our existence and to be closer to mysticism. To admit and be immersed in that stream. In order to live on metaphysics, you must be immersed. One can’t stand quietly by. The classic scientific approach using a division into subject and object does not allow being both of them, there is no subject of examination. Can’t one be both the subject and object? Why not? We are reaching the phase in human thought that the only truth is the truth which I can say about myself. It is the only truth I am somehow absolutely sure of but not at all certain. Everything else has been relativized. We are returning to peculiar solipsism. We are living in the times in which everything indefinable or difficult to identify has been discredited. That state of affairs described with the metaphor of a closed tank allows us to say that the swampy pond stinks and this is hardly surprising. Fermentation certainly takes place there, the level of intoxication (is changing), the level of dyspnea, the level of the decomposing processes which occur in the stinking pond into which philosophy has turned. To make it clear – I mean speculative thought. It doesn’t ← 40 | 41 → mean that I depreciate the whole science, for example medicine. That would be an idiotic suspicion.

T. P.: Now I can understand why you read Vattimo… His views are also close to my heart, mainly due to the category of “contemplation, brooding over” taken from Heidegger. The question emerges: perhaps we should stop? Andenken – re-think, get over what we have so deeply gone into because it wasn’t painful, as you said. Having admitted that it happened, let’s try to re-think and get over it. Andenken in Vattimo and Heidegger also has an optimistic meaning – “recovery” or even “convalescence”. It is a trail which gives rise to a hope for a change and drawing conclusions from the mistakes made by modernity. If the process of re-thinking, getting over and recovery is successful, there is a chance that we will get out of the vapors poisoning our thinking and, perhaps, the question about metaphysics will return. What kind of metaphysics? The attempt to set the framework and direction of this process is marked with uncertainty, entangled in a network of metaphors, as your story shows. Using Vattimo’s thought, we could say that it is a form of the so-called weak thinking. Strong metaphysical thinking suffered a defeat. It divided the world, limited, and discredited the concept of reason. Let’s try to think without ambitions to resolve, to think “weaker”. Let’s think about metaphysics in a non-metaphysical way. With the concern suggested by the category of pietas. Is there any chance of “recovery” at all? Witkacy wasn’t optimistic in predicting the future of metaphysics, some claim that this area also embodies his catastrophism. Your theater and you, its creator, are engaged in an incessant dialogue with Witkacy. What do you think of his predications for the future of Western culture and metaphysics which is founded on it? Would you agree with Vattimo who does not announce the end of modernity but the end of a certain way of understanding it? He supports the seeking, doubting modernity that admits its mistakes. Modern man is “modern in a different way”. Not like the man about whom you so vividly told me that he rests in the marshy vapors which he produced himself contradicting his own views, his own freedom. Will giving up the model of modernity based on a narrowed concept of reason allow us to return to metaphysics? Will it be different, “weak” metaphysics?

A. D.: First we should say that there is a difference between what Witkacy wrote plus what is expressed not only in his theoretical texts but first of all in his dramas, and between what Vattimo said. Witkacy’s catastrophism is generally more specific. It refers to a certain intellectual formation, clearly refers to a certain form of cultural catastrophism.

T. P.: So you believe that there is no direct connection between the concept of metaphysics, which was developed as such, within a certain tradition which reached its critical limit, and Witkacy’s cultural catastrophism? ← 41 | 42 →

A. D.: As I feel it, Witkacy, while speaking about death, the failure of philosophy or religion, speaks of a certain intellectual formation. He still believes in what the metaphysicians say. And I feel that it doesn’t pertain to such a subtle dimension we are talking about. Vattimo writes about still other experiences than Witkacy did. That is why I would defend a certain historical aspect of both predictions. I won’t say which of them is better or worse, that would be unjust toward Witkacy. Anyway, the vision of a “happy machine”, the vision of the man whose sense of existence amounts to eating, drinking, dressing well…

T. P.: The question is rather if Vattimo, while settling accounts with modernity, goes a step further than Witkacy, who only notices a steep decline of the development of Western civilization and predicts the collapse of some of its values.

A. D.: Is it a diagnosis or a rescuing, saving forecast? In this sense both conceptions are similar because Witkacy’s catastrophism is prophetic, preventive, and pedagogical. I’m warning you, I’m crying, I’m howling with pain. And, most of all, I’m pointing out what will happen if we don’t come to our senses. If we voluntarily subject ourselves to servitude, to social processes, and become fools ourselves, lazy idiots, then we are threatened with moral decay. In this sense it is preventive catastrophism. There is still a chance to escape, there is still some hope for awakening. Faint (none in our later life) as it may be, but we still have it. The naïve faith that something “from on high” should come is deeply discredited. On the other hand, Vattimo is already the next epoch. Vattimo’s problem lies somewhere else. It seems to me that the eternal problem of dichotomous division of the world into the Pascalian order, the order of reason and the order of the heart returns in his conception. It still seems to us that thought is rational, that thought is not emotional, and that thought is not related to spirituality of any kind. The expression that we have to get over thought is a very good, or rather peculiar, oxymoron. Thought must hurt. If thought hurts, it means that it has been lived (=experienced). Already in the formulation “a lived thought” there is “life” through the root word “life/live”. If this appears in thought, it means that there is a chance to return to the source of life. To return to the stream we talked about. Generally speaking, it’s a bit Nietzschean, but the possibility of returning is implied in this way of thinking.

T. P.: When we say that thought returns to life it can remind us of Heidegger’s attempts to make the word return to what exists.

A. D.: I believe that Heidegger’s contribution to contemporary philosophy is overrated. Dealing with time, with being in time – we fractionate the issues, which leads to the death of metaphysics. Too much jabbering. Heidegger has little to ← 42 | 43 → say on this topic, he doesn’t take a stand towards metaphysics. I’m sorry, maybe I know and understand too little. Or maybe because I can’t stop being fascinated with The Thinker, The Socrates of Copenhagen – Søren Kierkegaard.

T. P.: Among post-Nietzschean philosophers there are really numerous critics of Heidegger who, like, for example, American philosopher John Caputo, accuse his conception of being selective, incomplete in asking about our relations with life as a whole. Nevertheless, while speaking about the process in which language – or thought - departs from life, everybody refers to it, both Caputo and Vattimo. The attitude to Vattimo softens as soon as the category of “habitation” is mentioned. Heidegger quotes Hölderlin’s words … “poetically, dwells man upon this earth” and confesses that we lack “unrestricted” readiness to follow them. Isn’t there certain impotence, helplessness in this feeling, a longing for reducing that “feeling” to “living (=experiencing) the thought” about which we are talking? We certainly don’t have to agree with Heidegger on the direction which he gave to the search for a proper relation between language and man. Another, even more debatable, issue is whether what Heidegger eventually finds refers to real, concrete, individual experience.

A. D.: There are so many outstanding thinkers, not only Heidegger, who were unappreciated in the history of philosophy, for example Jakob Böhme. Returning to the issue that we are discussing here – what is the lived (=experienced) thought? How shall I put it? – unobjectivized. Which also seems absurd as the thought in itself is a result of exteriorization. Thought hurts (can hurt).

T. P.: As we are talking about the lived thought, the thought which hurts, perhaps the starting point should be a lonely individual in the sense given to the concept by Witkacy: an individual who painfully experiences the pain of existence?

A. D.: Exactly. I can’t see any possibilities for easy salvation or purgation. It is important that he can try to be bold and break the routine old habits, and get rid of, sorry to use psychological categories, to get rid of the elementary fear of pain. To get rid of the fear of the very fact of Existence. To face it. To be bold enough to be with Existence itself. Because this anxiety is primal. However, that fear has been covered, tamed, soldered with different straightjackets. Intellectual, cultural, civilizational. We are simply deprived of loneliness. And to talk rubbish that we are lonely (in the ordinary meaning of the word) is utter nonsense. We are living in such a noisy world that nobody is lonely (loneliness in a crowd). It is nicely, poetically said that we are lonely, but in fact we mean a profound experience of loneliness, how to say… “eschatological loneliness”. ← 43 | 44 →

T. P.: Are we getting spiritually poorer?

A. D.: We are simply deteriorating. It happens because if everything is costless, painless, or easy, everything is to be pleasant, we remain only in the “mindless state of passing away”. I don’t like this term, because the point is not that we contemplate transience, which is a kind of pleasure. I think that it is a kind of unpleasant complacency, which is not the point here. All being is dramatic itself.

T. P.: Man is a dramatic being…

A. D.: And it is his essence. Drama is the essence of our being. It includes all the essential categories, such as transience.

T. P.: So we have returned to the problem of the lived thought when transience hurts us, when it affects us, when we feel it.

A. D.: The experience of transience and drama is no longer trivial when it stops being descriptive and becomes the experience really lived by me. This is me. Me in this drama. I am the main character of this drama. There isn’t another one. Nobody will live my life for me. The problem is that man is constantly offered substitutes, palliatives. If the act of being is purgatory, through the courage of being “in” the drama of life, then there is hope for the rescue. It’s difficult to define what kind of cleansing it would be in our times. I primarily associate it with catharsis. With cleansing through anguish, pain, suffering. Yet is it still possible nowadays? I don’t know. How possible is a metaphysical experience these days? Is it possible at all? Disintegration – man does not exist as Oneness, as Existential Whole, there are autonomous parts. The sum of the results obtained by the sciences does not make man as man. It doesn’t evoke the feeling of Unity in Plurality. This (individual!) experience is possible only due to Strangeness of Existence, the (direct) feeling of the difference between “Self” and “Non-Self”, between the Self and World – a metaphysical experience.

T. P.: You suggest a radical and exceptionally difficult therapy of waking up modern man from the dream in which the world is identified with the land of plenty, banal satiety, as Witkacy would say. People don’t want to be bothered with metaphysical questions. Is it at all possible to re-evoke metaphysical anxiety?

A. D.: It would be possible by reconsidering and returning to what was unacknowledged, discarded, to what was downtrodden, sealed, buried. Thus, returning to oneself, to existence in truth, even though I don’t like this term because we’d have to define what kind of truth we mean. You can pretend that your leg hurts, that you have a headache or a toothache, but if something hurts, it just hurts and you ← 44 | 45 → can’t deceive it, it’s a kind of elementary truth. So it’s the experience of truth, but in a biological sense, that is experiencing it (living it) with your whole being. We mention this state when we want to say what it means to face emptiness. Facing the nothing (=nothingness). And then the main subject of metaphysics emerges, i.e. the subject of the Nothing (with the capital letter). If I say the Nothing and use the capital letter, I ask about what it means to face the Nothing and not be afraid. Fear, anxiety are something natural. It’s the first reaction. It’s not only being afraid of the dark. The moment in which we define the Nothing as darkness, we assign some attributes to it. However, the Nothing is indefinable in its essence, deprived of all possible attributes. We usually describe the world only in terms of: I can see, I can hear, I can feel, that is in terms of our senses. Incidentally, we have lost some of them on the way. If we face the Nothing (with the capital letter), there is a chance of being saved, in the most profound essential sense. That doesn’t mean easy life. But there’s a chance of being saved. I think that this kind of experience is possible only as personal, individual, and in some sense requiring tremendous courage from us. Face the Nothing. It’s a real challenge. Then the thought is one that experiences. But it is something that is non-rational. This is a direct experience, this is an experience which borders on mystical experience, it eludes language, it eludes being categorized, and it eludes all descriptions. There are attempts to communicate it at the level of certain emotional states, emotional responses, or clearly vague concepts. On the other hand, a lived (experienced) feeling cannot be translated and communicated to others because of a completely different language than the one we are used to. This experience is accompanied above all by not so much certainty as clarity. Clarity (with the capital letter). And not at the light/darkness level but at the level of a different dimension of clarity. In this sense one may say that it is a kind of certainty. A certainty which is indefinable, which cannot be described or translated. It is only and solely an internal mystery. There is something amazing in this experience and I think that a certain protection of the individual is hidden behind the fact that this is impossible to voice. And perhaps there lies the greatness of such feelings that they should not be expressed? That there should be silence? That silence is the best description of this Clarity, this encounter. Language is treacherous, inadequate to express it. Perhaps that is why the experience of silence which mystics lived caused them to cease speaking totally. And the question is – was it of their own will, or were they deprived of speech? They had experienced it and were to bear witness…

T. P.: A witness is someone who has experienced something. And what about art?

A. D.: Is art strictly necessary for one to be saved? I don’t want to sound pompous or use the language of jokes. I believe that it can be one of the ways, routes, steps, I don’t know how to define it, leading to… ← 45 | 46 →

T. P.: But you mean Art, with the capital “A”?

A. D.: I would say the art which still believed in itself, in its power, the art which was led by the daimonion. Because the art which has lost faith in the daimonion bites its own tail and is meta-art or a kind of psychodrama. I’d prefer to avoid erotic categories, so popular in contemporary discourse on art, but we might say that art has become both a form of “lamenting” and peculiar sadomasochism. Since art is a public act, its impact is treated in terms of an almost priestly act, which is a serious abuse and sometimes it even becomes disgusting. In the play “Sonata b” (based on Witkacy’s “The Beelzebub Sonata”) Istvan asks a question:

Istvan: So I have to choose between life and art? (…).

Baleastadar (or Beelzebub): All great artists have always done it. In the past it happened in the sphere of Good. Now, at the twilight of art, it must happen in the realm of evil and darkness. (…) I immortalize the original sin in you through the creativity I arouse in you.

Only through art mankind remembers that everything contradicts itself in Existence. As long as art lasts, I exist and savor being on this planet, creating metaphysical evil.

Istvan: Lord! Help me!

Baleastadar: Don’t you dare mention this Name. For me it’s only a symbol of nothingness, my nothingness – but I want to live and I will. (…) Artists are the only material for me today. Create through destruction! Think but don’t feel anything. [Translator’s own version]

T. P.: When art undermines its status and it does this in public through self-parody, self-irony, meta-language, it anyway deprives itself of, perhaps not priestly, but its distinguished function. Or is it so that when art says: stop and think about yourself, when it parodies the proven means of expression, well-established by tradition, when it even becomes art about art, it thereby expresses consideration, coming to terms with the former status? Isn’t it the symptom of similar processes occurring in philosophy? Perhaps drastic means of expression are sometimes necessary for thought to be experienced? To many theoreticians those, more or less successful, attempts to deal with the existing artistic language are a signal of fatigue. Or, perhaps, also of “recovery” through reflecting on what art used to be and on its current status. Witkacy willingly used language and devised artistic means aimed at parodying and ridiculing outmoded artistic conventions. Similarly, nowadays plays are created and performed that provoke a question: Are all those proven artistic means sure to allow art to serve its purpose here and now? ← 46 | 47 →

A. D.: In my opinion, we should go deeper to find the reason why art has abandoned its basic function performed for man. Two words are of particular importance here, namely, daimonion, as understood in ancient Greece, and the category of freedom which is assigned not only to an artist but also to every man. It is inalienable. It is a kind of disposition, a virtue, it is a value. A virtue treated as a precious thing, as a gift. Freedom is something fundamental to man. Hardly anyone realizes it on a daily basis, as freedom has been degraded by history, was abused in social and political history. The fundamental category of freedom is associated with our existence. The category of art is associated with what the concept of daimonion includes, and with freedom. Freedom is the category which makes it legitimate, entitles us to think about man as a creator. Freedom makes man a creator. In his essence. If we can talk about any vocation of man, nobody is exempt from creativity – sometimes solemn, outdated words must be used. No one is exempt from being a creator. For heaven’s sake, no one. Therefore, a simple question arises: what defines a creator? What makes one man different from another and why we call one of them a creator, in terms of the specificity of the profession he pursues, how is he different from the other who makes shoes or is a good husband, lover, leads a fulfilled life in strictly existential terms? He is someone, I don’t want to sound theological again, who continues the Work of Creation, act of creation. And this is an essential vocation of man. What is the difference between them? The answer is simple. The Daimonion. Because it affects a selected, smaller group of people whom we call “creators” in terms of art. All of us are creators, in a broader sense. In this sense the metaphor saying that all of us are poets is rubbish. It can be said that we are creators but not that we are poets. This is an overstatement. It is as if we said that we all are cobblers. In a narrower sense, defined in terms of art, I’d say that creators are marked with a special gift. It is not exactly what will later be called inspiration though the sense of the word hasn’t radically changed. The word “inspiration” contains “breath” (‘spiro’ – I breathe) The first breath as we can read in the Bible. Unfortunately, what we are talking about now, referring to the categories of “daimonion” and “inspiration” (the first breath), has been severely degraded. Man, firstly, doesn’t want any inspiration, secondly, he doesn’t believe in it, thirdly, he avoids thinking in these terms.

T. P.: As we have mentioned the category of inspiration, we can return to what is indefinable, inexpressible, and what was inherently related to the category of artistic creation.

A. D.: Man avoids thinking about something external, unfathomed and says: I myself. It results in the art which is, how to put it?, a gesture of despair. Such is the final result of the “esthetic stage” in human development. A gesture of impotence. And instead of admitting the loss of the daimonion or lack of belief in the daimonion, ← 47 | 48 → an artist begins to tell us how much he suffers, about his helplessness. He begins to tell us about his creative agony. He astounds me with it. What is more, he tries to convince me that it has to do not only with him, but also with me, as his fate is a metaphor of human fate. Moreover, he argues that his description of the trivially understood void (that is silly emptiness, void resulting from wastefulness, sloppiness, laziness, etc.) is the description of the world. He claims that this is what the world is like. And I question it: “No, it isn’t true, it’s your description of the world. Do something about it because you have a problem. Don’t convince me that it is my problem”. Yes. “There are no facts, there is only interpretation”.

T. P.: Attempts to provoke with creative agony in the face of emptiness, the gestures of creative impotence also occurred in the past, today, however, we speak about it more often, we know more about it because an artist functions in the world managed by art institutions which publicize certain problems and indirectly create certain attitudes.

A. D.: This is encouraged by lazy criticism or intellectual idleness which causes critics to find the situation convenient. They can say: It is fantastic because we cannot describe a work of art, either. An artist doesn’t know what he creates, doesn’t know why he creates it, which is what a creativity crisis is about. And he is making a spectacle of it. A painter cannot paint a picture, an actor cannot play a role, and a critic cannot write a review. That’s just how the world is. I’m sorry, but who said that the world is like that? It’s only an interpretation.

Another category related to the concept of art is freedom. We talk about creative agony, about despair. This time, in the context of freedom, we must forcefully repeat: Who said that the work of creation is a sad act? The category of choice is related to the category of freedom, which in turn is related to the category of joy. A choice always brings consequences, it can be painful. That’s why we don’t like choosing. We dislike it. Because we prefer someone (the authorities, the president, some chairman or manager) to take the decision for us. We won’t escape freedom and its consequences. It hurts, but it is also a grace, it is a joy. It’s difficult to talk about it, you must experience it, and experiencing it brings joy resulting from liberation.

T. P.: You said that freedom is the category which entitles one to say that man is a creator.

A. D.: But you cannot consider those categories equivalent, cannot reduce freedom to creation or creation to freedom. Creation does not mean producing one more element. It’s a process. An element of risk is involved in the process of creation. Risk involves mistakes. I can make a mistake. The creative process entails perfecting tools, looking for language. And here the misunderstandings connected ← 48 | 49 → with the so-called meta-art begin. If I mention, for example, that I don’t know how to call it, how to do it, it is not an end in itself. It means that I’m looking for something to find a better name for something else. However, it is as if something stopped, got entangled in this reasoning, the process became a value. A value in itself. It is as if nothing needed to result from that search. As if I was looking for a word, my own creative word and that word was the ideal I tried to attain, even in the Platonic sense, and at some point I would forget what I was seeking. We get so entangled, “sew on buttons” and say that the act of sewing a button itself is such a fantastic process. We have forgotten what sewing on a button is about, we have forgotten the button and the thread. And it is about sewing on that button, not about speculating how to sew it on. The situation is similar in art, in the so-called meta-art – the entanglement itself, searching without a purpose, became a value. An autonomous value.

T. P.: So – is meta-art a kind of contemporary, degenerate as Witkacy would say, form of “art for art’s sake”?

A. D.: Well, diabolic ideas have an effect on the senses, while the soul is hidden somewhere, with nobody asking about it, as Witkacy wrote. Art for the sake of art. Art in itself. (There are different historical contexts of the slogan). Generally speaking, it should be remembered that the daimonion, creativity, and freedom should not be treated separately. They are the trinity which is always complementary. The separation of these categories results in total disorder. What is more, if an artist’s activities lack spirit, something that is the “life-giving breath”, the mystery, what are we left with? As Witkacy writes in “Demonism of Zakopane (Demonizm Zakopanego): If life is created like art, what happens to Great Lady Art in this atmosphere of revaluation of everything? Art bites its own tail, it’s the height of perversion and the opposite of everything that used to be considered art; it’s the last contradiction to itself.

T. P.: The artistic language, as it is sometimes said, is deprived of the final corpus, the figures and forms which are no longer “anchored” in the world but are used in other languages, forms, and other works. It somehow resembles the state after the collapse of The Tower of Babel. A catastrophe or “preventive intervention”- let me repeat George Steiner’s term used in the excellent book on a modern interpretation of that parable.

A. D.: The problem in language, in the search for a word, is to give something a name. A kind of direction is hidden in the word inspiration: it says where it comes from. It is outside – it is in the hands of “someone there”, a mighty “There”. It is a mystery and it is beyond me. In this sense it doesn’t depend on me. But it ← 49 | 50 → is connected with my freedom and the attitude of “being ready”. Currently, the problem is that when we discuss the daimonion and inspiration, the question about art for art’s sake, autonomous art, emerges immediately – and this is a misunderstanding. It is similar to considering how to reconcile priesthood with clownishness. Thinking about the exclusiveness or superiority of a certain way to express sense is a mistake. There are many ways, many methods. And who said that something essential cannot be revealed through laughter?

T. P.: The laughter evoked by the characters and situations in Witkacy’s works is not cheerful, it expresses the strangeness and absurdity of the world.

A. D.: There are different forms of expressing the drama of life. The fact that for some time the category of the grotesque has been really dominant and prevalent in some sense means that the artist is struggling to establish a bond with the recipient. It’s a process which hasn’t finished. Sometimes a half-bizarre language is used. Pastiches, numerous references, quotations, make up a cultural code. No holds are barred. There’s nothing joyful in this search. It’s a gesture of despair of a contemporary artist. Everyone in their own way longs for an opportunity to stage a play which will make the audience experience catharsis. We must understand that the process of cultural changes has reached the level where the old catharsis is not possible. There are no myths, we no longer believe in myths, yet catharsis takes place in the world of myth. Desperation is possible when death has a tragic dimension, when death of God is possible, when death is not a mere gesture of departure. Stopping at the level of a gesture, externality prevents experiencing catharsis, deprives death of a cosmic dimension. As those categories were seriously degraded, ridiculed over the centuries, all an artist is left with is to rummage through the waste heap of civilization. And this is a gesture of despair. The fact that a contemporary artist utilizes the waste heap and uses garbage to create, uses what was produced by civilization as raw material – this is a gesture of despair. It refers to both language and materials, not to mention the most extreme forms of sculpture made of sh*t. The world of high values, the world of myths, God – this world is gone. Just like there are no longer alabasters and marbles in sculpture. The world is not harmonious, at least in that superficial experience. We are not courageous enough to go deeper, and this is, among others, the manifestation of the crisis of metaphysics. We have accepted the fact that after all the cataclysms, wars, and degenerations, man deserves only this kind of art, the works which come “from” a waste heap and are “in” a waste heap. The question arises, however, whether they are works suitable for man because art remains art when it doesn’t betray man, when it doesn’t turn against man. Let me remind you – man and creation are inseparable elements. If art is against man, if it favors death and destruction, ← 50 | 51 → the symptom of which is a trend for de-construction, de-composition, all those “de-‘s”, it’s simply a praise of “nonlife”. Everything that is against life and against man shouldn’t be defined in terms of art. As I feel it, art was created in order not to destroy man but to raise him, to elevate man higher, to guide man to the other side, whatever we may think about that other side, guide man to that Other Side (with the capital letters). So that it would transform man, through – pardon my pathos – purification, strengthening. This is the essence, in my opinion, of real art, but to make that act of transformation possible, deep faith is necessary – not only in creative power but also in man. Forgive my big words – I can’t see it in another way. And one more thing. We are living in the times of the terror of (not only political) correctness. Correctness? It means acting (thinking?) according to an established paradigm. A creator cannot create (or be) in any paradigm. In his (cosmic – ha!) loneliness he should be free, rather than meet the requirements, expectations, rather than follow trends … because then he becomes compliant, subordinate, dependent, in other words – not free.

T. P.: Do you feel isolated?

A. D.: Yes, certainly. But I’m not particularly concerned about it although I work in the country, in a provincial place and I do what I do mainly for my friends.

T. P.: You do it for your friends. You and your group have created a specific, not only artistic community. You attract the people who are eager to experience profound feelings, who are fed up with superficiality, constant breaking of various ties, they have had enough of digging the waste heap. Is this the Mission of the theater, with the capital M, as we have already adopted this convention? I asked you whether you feel isolated. If so, what gives you and your group that drive that makes the execution of the Mission possible? And it is certainly carried out, I know that as a viewer. I’m not asking about inspiration, it’s an intimate sphere, perhaps we’d better not speak about it.

A. D.: No, we’d better not mention it. I sometimes get an impression that it is happening beyond me. And that I don’t have a choice. It’s also a kind of mystery. It’s a mystery of the place. It’s a mystery of the meeting. It is a mystery of my team. An interesting thing (indeed! Fascinating but unobvious) is that how that “I have to” evolves into “I want to”. With my friends I want to produce a performance about, for example, halny (the foehn).

T. P.: Each of them played a different etude, played him/herself – in “Halny”. Is it a team of individualists?

A. D.: Yes. Wonderful, courageous, creative people. This is the “Witkacy” ensemble. ← 51 | 52 →

T. P.: We were given an acute dose of drama. Each of them played him/herself, but on the other hand, together you played something I am unable to name.

A. D.: Me neither. I like it – sorry to describe it in this way. Depriving something of mystery is equal to depriving yourself of a certain kind of beauty. Why do we have to add precise meaning to everything, explain everything?

T. P.: And trivialize it in this way?

A. D.: Right. Mystery causes us to feel anxiety. Anxiety is creative. Peace of mind – if you want it, it’s up to you. Anxiety entails openness of one man to the other, you never know who the other one is, also in the metaphysical sense. Feeling anxiety, being anxiety, means being both a question and an answer to another person, but it can also mean being an open wound. Some kind of ardor is related to anxiety.

T. P.: We are in the mountains, so let me refer to the metaphors of wandering. I think you have chosen and passed a steep, little-frequented path inaccessible to most walkers, leading to some sources, to some returns… I don’t know what returns. Some returns. I won’t try to name them, let it remain understated, let it remain your mystery. Anxiety will remain. You say that you are really afraid of pathos, so am I, let’s talk about a more specific aspect of that path, your artistic path. In the plays inspired by Witkacy’s works and in others we can feel the atmosphere accompanying mystery. How is it created? Watching the moving performance, which is “Halny” we can interpret it – I’m not sure whether we do it in the right way – in terms of art returning to its sources, to a kind of chorea. Music seems to be the way which reminded us where the word should return, where its place is …

A. D.: “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music” by Friedrich Nietzsche … And music? It is (live) music by Józef Skrzek and his Friends (Steve Kindler, Steve Schroyder, and Mirosław Muzykant), after all. And… perhaps a kind of attempt made by the performers, the artists such as M. Abramowić. An attempt to escape a trap which is the compact, closed structure of a play (form). To be in a dialogue – in a rebellion… To take risks.

T. P.: Is it still possible to play a tragedy? Even though it’s so difficult in our times, as Dorota Ficoń stated last year, the presence in this place, in this theater, raises a kind of anxiety, expectation. We are taking part in the event which suggests that tragedy, playing a tragedy is still necessary today.

A. D.: I believe it’s certainly a kind of a challenge and creative anxiety for me. But I’m asking myself a question – is it still possible now, in the esthetic sense? The problem is that our existence, humanity, has been stripped, deprived of the tragic ← 52 | 53 → element. A kind of double rejection has occurred, a double gesture of negation: the negation of spirit, God, and the negation of humanity. Consequently, a certain kind of sanctity, some kind of sacralization is impossible, it’s also impossible to express it through rite. And man needs this.

T. P.: Various forms of longing for sacrality and rituality are still present in contemporary culture. Contrary to all the civilization processes we are discussing today, this kind of longing is inalienable.

A. D.: I truly believe in it. Even if we are made to believe that it doesn’t exist, like so many other values which have been degraded, it’s worth addressing human longing, and it’s worth trying.

T. P.: It is said: “man howls with longing”, howls, it means that he is unable to say something. That is why we can think that music is superior in expressing the deepest feelings, that it’s the most proper form of expression in borderline situations. And here we return to “Halny”. In this special performance, otherness was felt. I don’t mean comparisons in terms of esthetic evaluation. I mean the “otherness” felt like a return to something about which we had forgotten. Discontinued, chaotic words of the actors, silence, and a howling wind were complementary to music – we should not go further in our speculations here. I’m not ready to do it.

A. D.: Neither am I. But I find it extremely fascinating. Whenever I have a chance to do something, in some sense, for myself, from my profound need and if I still manage to persuade my friends to take part, it becomes a kind of journey. It’s risky. Its consequences mean taking up a new job, (which also runs the risk of a failure). I’d rather not discuss the method, I’d rather say it’s a different kind of a meeting, opening to yourself and the so-called subject.

T. P.: The otherness of “Halny”…

A. D.: was qualitative. The subtitle “Dangerous Dreams” (Niebezpieczne sny) is important – it is the dimension of strangeness… The main character is the wind, an element – and this was most fascinating for me. The wind is related to spirit.

T. P.: To the breath…

A. D.: And here we approach a mystery, how something that seems to be so intangible and really tangible at the same time can affect us? How can something, in such a concrete, painful way, affect our wellness, our fate, our behavior? My intention was to let the play make us experience it.

T. P.: To let you play an element? ← 53 | 54 →

A. D.: It was a big challenge. You can really learn a lot from the wind, from the stars, from the rustle of grasses. You just must look, listen… Halny is horrifying. It wreaks havoc, nevertheless it results in purification.

T. P.: We started our interview with reflections on metaphysics and reason – with logos, at the end we’re talking about the elements… Thank you very much.

The questions were prepared and the interview was conducted by Teresa Pękala on 12 December 2015.

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Interview with Andrzej Bienias, An Actor of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane

Teresa Pękala: The title of the book commemorating the 130th anniversary of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s birth distinguishes two basic concepts: logos and the elements. The word and everything beyond the word. Logos and the elements are also two poles in theater work. The Witkacy Theater which is celebrating the 30th anniversary of founding draws from both sources of its patron’s work.

Andrzej Bienias: The fact that instead of understanding Witkacy, people would rather explain him is their biggest error. It is a basic mistake. Imposing your own world on someone, your way of thinking. However, to understand means to know, i.e. to experience something, to lay your hands on it. Something that is beyond – and here metaphysics begins. We are living in such a stupid world that everything must be understood, we are scared of being amazed. It’s that simple – something fascinates me, gets to my guts, to my heart. Man is so afraid of such a feeling that he tries to explain it. He looks for an answer to the question why it works in this way. Impulses affect my cortex through nerve connections, I shiver, etc., everything can be explained and it doesn’t make sense.

T. P.: Let’s talk about what is beyond the word.

A. B.: Logos and the elements. They can be combined, it’s not a tragic situation that we must choose between one thing and the other. Logos and elemental spontaneity can co-exist. Touch, sensuality, corporeity, spontaneity (like the elements) does not exclude reason. Logos and spontaneity can co-exist.

T. P.: There is a gap in the connection you have mentioned, the elements are very close to one another, yet they are not connected.

A. B.: They are far away from one another. We are really multi-talented. Our being is immense. We are bi-polar. Depending on the weather, on who we meet, on how well we feel in that person’s presence. Suddenly we can reverse the poles, adjust to the circumstances. The ideal situation is when we meet a friend, then we can react in both ways, we can react emotionally, spontaneously (elementally), and in a few minutes we can talk about serious things, we don’t need to adjust. The poles are opposites but taken together they constitute an entity. ← 55 | 56 →

T. P.: Speaking about the poles, the elements, logos, Witkacy wrote “First of all, I am my body. My unity of personality is, above all, of corporeal character”- Witkacy calls it corporeal monadism – “The first content, or experience, of a primitive personality is its body with which it is combined, plus direct memories of that body, recollections of the body”. The body, memories of the body, the body immersed in the world. You played the narrator in “The Magic Mountain”. Is it true that you were sitting in a wheelchair in a particular place on stage?

A. B.: It wasn’t a coincidence. It was, actually, my idea. The reason is simple. Mann’s texts, all his narratives, the world he describes, all his philosophical texts about God, man, and love are so wise, so deep that if they were put into the mouth of a healthy man who is able to walk, they would be unbearable, in my opinion. It might create an impression that a bloke appears on stage and mouths off. However, a position of someone who is ill, who did experience things in his life or he didn’t because of his limitations or lack of opportunities, causes the man to be listened to more attentively. This is then “digested” by my body, my body did not let me experience something though I really wanted to. That’s why talking about, for example, losing love, health, about search for God, about understanding why, for example, I am as I am, if You exist why do you send me such trails, why will I be happy and marvelous at the end of the tunnel, etc.? When such a character is speaking, there’s no moralizing. When such a character is speaking, a different kind of concentration is evoked in the spectator. That’s why I decided on a thing like that. It was my simple life experience because my father suffered from MS for as long as I could remember. In my head I can see a picture, as if through mist, when I was three, I and my dad walking with a stick went to a playground to play ball. That’s all, I spent my all childhood sitting on the sofa, we played cards, dice, categories, we read an encyclopedia. Everything happened on the sofa. Later on, it was the same with my sister’s children and my elder son because my younger boy didn’t have an opportunity to meet his grandfather. Everything happened on the sofa, in a kind of a small world, nobody minded it. All the children were attracted to that place because it emitted warmth, good energy. Whatever my dad said, everybody listened to him. I suspect that if he had been in good health, people would have treated him in a different way. Probably out of respect for the fact that a man is somehow physically blocked, he should be listened to, should be given a chance to say something. We listen to ill persons in a different way. A different way means that what they say goes deeper into my head.

T. P.: I understand that we listen to ill persons in a different way and we behave differently in their company. Doesn’t that “different way” mean giving them something ← 56 | 57 → instead? We offer compensation to a man in a wheelchair, so we listen to him attentively, we are more understanding, etc.

A. B.: So it means that we act?

T. P.: Yes, we act. Isn’t it so?

A. B.: No, because we are talking about two different things. An ill person can be very annoying, through their possessiveness, through the fact that they’re unable to do something, they demand we do it for them, through the fact that they deserve it, through the fact that they should be brought something, etc. And here we are talking about something completely different. I didn’t ask anyone for anything while playing that role. And here I want to refer to the original character, i.e. my father. He was never dissatisfied with life. Never. He suffered at night, the day came and he smiled. Maybe he pretended, but I think that it was about something else. He was happy with what he had; he didn’t suffer from the fact that he didn’t have something. The syndrome of the glass half empty or half full. His glass was always half full. Contradicting semantics we can even say that he always had the “bigger half”. To say nothing about my father’s illness: if an ill person doesn’t demand anything from another person, doesn’t burden them with his problems, the others are not afraid. Every moment of demanding things causes the other person to withdraw. It’s like the syndrome of a bartender, I mean pouring out all your troubles. You come to a bar and know that you can get everything off your chest, he won’t judge you, won’t explain how you should live, he will just listen to you.

T. P.: This will paradoxically mean that we unbosom ourselves to someone strange, not someone close. Why does closeness block us, but otherness, strangeness opens us?

A. B.: Because, to many people, closeness is related to possessiveness, unfortunately we take possession of another person: my wife, my son, my mother, my father, my girlfriend. Everything is mine. Even if we consciously try not to think about it in that way, possessiveness does exist in our subconscious. We are unable to stay at the phase when we are just getting to know someone, at which it is us who want to give something to another person. Talking about love, we most often go back to the days when we were in love for the first time. Why? People recollect that time not because they had just met then but because they didn’t demand anything from each other. They were even not sure whether they would ever be together. Then they reached the heights.

A man and his wife come and she says “I’m going away for two days”. The husband is surprised: “How come, what for, where, who with?”. At the time when they were getting to know each other there were no conversations like that because ← 57 | 58 → they felt free. We strive for freedom, for being free. Sometimes we don’t admit it, we say “it’s wonderful, great”, but deep inside we think, for example, “I’d go to Antarctica for six months”. But in that situation you’d have to leave everything behind. It’s possible only if the other person shows great understanding.

T. P.: Is it possible?

A. B.: Yes, it is. Everybody asks if it’s possible, it really is. It’s a matter of working out such possibilities together, becoming aware of them. It’s not even work, it’s enough to realize the fact. I am 15 and I want to become an astronaut; however, later on, before I turned 30 I had not done anything about it. After 30 years, the reflection came that it was a failure. Why? Someone says, for example, “I don’t want to be like my mother, I don’t want to be like my father”, but they don’t wake up every morning saying “I don’t want to be like this, I want to be like that”.

Hello day, just like in “Pomroczność jasna” (Temporary loss of sanity), one of the plays. Hello day, hello sadness, etc. Some things should be named every day. It’s the same as with poetry. Even if something appeared to me, but I didn’t write the thought down so it doesn’t exist. Also a daily conversation with myself. Every day I know, I am aware of what I want to be like. I know what I can and can’t demand from myself and from the others. Those are simple talks with myself, I achieve self-awareness in that way. It can be worked out. I’m not saying that I have done it but I’m doing my best.

T. P.: Witkacy’s famous essential conversations, can you have them with another person, not just with yourself?

A. B.: Yes. We’re talking right now, aren’t we? We’re doing it at the moment.

T. P.: Witkacy a priori excluded some possibilities of having such conversations.

A. B.: Of course he did. It’s a matter of connecting souls. But it’s not the fault of the others, Witkacy is to blame. If we reject someone a priori, we deprive them of a chance. Witkacy was like that.

T. P.: According to Witkacy only a stupid and limited man is not able to become a metaphysician.

A. B.: First, it’s necessary to define what it means to be stupid and limited. Everybody knows that there are specializations. It can’t be said that, for example, a great engineer is stupid. But he can be limited if he’s not open, if he’s narrow-minded. The mind of the type “from here to there” is offered to us, first of all, by the Western world. A Polish engineer, until not long ago, was a well-read man, he could have been a great humanist, open to new things which were beyond his ← 58 | 59 → field. The situation resulted from the previous system of education. It is nearly over, now there are tests to write. In the near future, I expect, if we ask someone whether they liked the book they read, the person will first of all ask us for three answers to choose from, there’s no other option. As I see it, stupidity would be an aversion to learning the world, to looking around. It is stupid when someone looks down instead of looking around. The ability to look around is wisdom itself resulting from cognition and life experience. How many people there are in our villages [in the Sub-Tatra region], who didn’t go to any schools, yet they know a lot. They know how long this tree has been growing, when leaves begin to fall, what weather we’re going to have in winter, etc. Stupidity is caused by aversion and laziness, or from fear because someone was brought up in that way. Upbringing is crucial, one should be told to look around, to “look and love people”. So we come back to the theme of love. The desire to learn is not only the desire to be accepted but also accepting the others.

A wise person is someone I can talk to. We can discuss anything, for example, bricks or what he does. If they want to talk, it means that they want to open, they cannot be stupid. Every time they open to the world causes them to have an open soul and be able to become a metaphysician.

A man with an IQ of 160–180, and with several degrees, can be a complete idiot. A wise man has to be intelligent. However, not every intelligent person is wise. Wisdom is intelligence plus, it may sound too general, plus goodness. A good man is wise. A bad man can’t be wise, he can be intelligent; however, he will use intelligence to destroy, which has nothing to do with wisdom. A wise person builds and creates. Let me add that when two people talking know each other well, they know what kind of goodness I have in mind. Otherwise, prior to the conversation, they would have to define how they understand the term because goodness means different things to different people. Not doing wrong is already a kind of substitute for goodness. Yet, it is connected with certain inactivity. You have to do something, create something to make this goodness happen.

T. P.: In your theater you argue with Witkacy, you’re not subservient to what he wrote.

A. B.: We don’t alter his texts.

T. P.: I don’t mean words. You said that cognition is related to goodness. In Witkacy’s works there are numerous monstrosities, monstrosities of human existence, collapse, and infinite scale of mockery of those who, for example, are incapable of metaphysical experience. There is no denying, Witkacy is a great artist. What do you argue about with Witkacy? You don’t alter his words, so what do you change? ← 59 | 60 →

A. B.: I wonder if we really alter anything. Every sentence uttered by another person is certainly a kind of interpretation. We once staged The Madman and the Nun (Wariat i zakonnica). In our opinion it was performed exactly as Witkacy wrote it. There was nothing “contrary” [to his idea]. So far I’ve seen two other productions of that play and both of them were “contrary”. One face was made after another, one gag followed another. Pure Form which is not yet completely understood by the world; Pure Form or formism? It’s not really important. Witkacy was a formist, but he kept searching all the time. Just like in cubism, surrealism, his fantasies, that search is always present. However, The Madman and the Nun is a story about love, about fulfillment through love, through pure love against all odds. Some laughed at him, saying that his play turned into a love story. Yet, for us it was really a tale of love, pure love which is fulfilled in spite of obstacles. It may seem that the barriers prevent fulfillment of love, but love against all odds is fulfilled. The world around them is mad, because if man suffers, being bound by shackles, in stocks, hanging on ropes, it’s said that he’s incapable of love – but it’s not true. Even the most suffering man can love, and that love can heal him. In the discussion on the kind of treatment to be used – psychoanalysis, or rather pills and electric shocks – only two ways were considered, but it turns out that there’s a third one – meeting another person and love. It can be subsumed under psychoanalysis, but it’s not the point because nobody analyses anything here, it is experienced. I experience love, so I feel good, I feel fulfilled. My body instantly feels better; next, my soul feels better, too. Everything starts to harmonize, like Yin-Yang.

It wasn’t “contrary”. There’s one more thing to remember – whether somebody deliberately does things “contrary” to Witkacy or not, it is always the production for the generations to follow. It is already the production by the people who discussed it, argued with it, and interpreted the texts in their own way. We are already condemned to what the others said about Witkacy. Witkacy wrote the theory of Pure Form, monadism, etc., it’s simple for some but not for the others. But it may be the case that those, who are the ones and only who feel reading what he wrote, are closer to Witkacy than those who scrap his texts into small pieces. After all, Witkacy was a man of the theater. He himself said that the most important thing is to wake from a dream, to experience things directly after leaving the theater. It’s not important whether a line in a picture was drawn in one or another way, it’s important that you express your feelings through painting. The most important thing is that the person looking at your pictures receives emotions and does not think about the line, standing and staring like a stunned ox. It makes them shiver, they have chills, their hearts start to beat faster, who knows why? ← 60 | 61 →

We do argue, when staging other plays, but we follow Witkacy’s spirit, no matter whether it is Camus’ Caligula or Lope de Vega’s Na niby – Naprawdę (Lo Fingido Verdadero [The Great Pretenders]), but to a lesser extent. In Caligula the patricians are a mere formality. There are no emotions in the sense of psychological approach, or spilling the guts. It’s a certain emotional state. Under its influence a spectator starts to create their own emotional zone, starts to experience things directly.

T. P.: How far can one go in interpretation to say that it is still a play by S. I. Witkiewicz? Is there a boundary which cannot be crossed in order not to violate the features deciding the identity of Witkacy’s works? The boundary which, when crossed, can lead to interpretative anarchy. For example, the production Ha!SIO(R) czyli nie drażnić kota (Ha!SIO(R) or don’t tease the cat) inspired by Witkacy’s drama Oni (They); in the audience, after the show was over, apart from many words of admiration and delight, a statement was heard that Witkacy should turn in his grave.

A. B.: Impossible. The text can be “slaughtered” in many ways, but Witkacy is so strong, so characteristic, that his spirit cannot be destroyed. This is his strength.

T. P.: So identity depends on Witkacy’s spirit?

A. B.: Yes. But it applies to every play. It’s good if we concentrate on the thought, on the problem of every text, not on individual words, the result is boring when we interpret sentences, not thoughts. Something must lead to a certain solution, something must lead in a certain direction; then it’s fine. And if the people are dedicated, it’s very good. In the theater it’s most important to believe in what you are doing, then there’s no chance of killing it.

Certainly, the spectator can argue with it, but it always evokes some kind of internal feeling.

Speaking of Ha!SIO(R), it makes use of multimedia. I feel it would make Witkacy happy; he was keen on all kinds of innovations. To us, Witkacy’s photos are just pictures, we all take photos these days. However, at that time photography was still developing, it was something incredible; “I’ll make another face”, “And another one”, “Is it going to work out?”. Of course, we don’t see all the faces we make in front of the mirror. Witkacologists read too much into it. Let’s say – it was fun, he was having great fun, fascinated with the new technology. Today, I suspect, Witkacy would create shows using lasers, smoke, loud music which was the purest art to him, affecting the human soul. We have courage and this unites us and will always unite us with Witkacy. Reluctance to follow the mainstream, although it’s not the case that we avoid fashionable things by any means. Obviously if these roads cross, it’s fine. What really matters is the courage to deal with the ← 61 | 62 → things which interest us, concern us, which are important even though they’re not popular. In the world in which Europe is becoming secular, we’re interested, for example, in the issue of returning to the roots of Christianity, i.e. to Barabbas, the man who thought and asked why in order to believe it’s necessary to wait in the queue for grace. You can’t use your mind to become a believer. Again, Witkacy can be quoted – art cannot be understood, one is to experience it and touch its core.

T. P.: There are opinions about The Witkacy Theater that playing is your mission and that you go back to religious roots. You reach for the questions asked by the men of faith. Is it true?

A. B.: Yes. The issues of the men of faith. When we talk about a believer it means that he believes in something, he believes in sense. It’s not important whether he believes in God, love, or fulfillment. It’s essential that he believes in something. As for the religious theater – yes, many productions are related to religion, like Barabbas or Doctor Faustus. Any questions about God are the essence of the theater. The theater was created to answer those questions. The theater in its primary nature is purely religious, purely ceremonial. The ritual caused the theater to be something extraordinary, something unusual, a real event. It was not like today that you run around naked to draw people into the theater. No, there must be a reason for nakedness, like dedication, fulfillment, or liberation. However, it cannot be used lightly, shock for the sake of shocking. Today it’s common in every kind of art. Today there is no mastery of performance, no artistry; there is only an idea (of doing something). It can’t even be called conceptualism because conceptualism at least did not offend us with performance, it only said “let’s imagine that this is something”. I understand it, it was pure art. I once prepared a birthday surprise. There were three severed heads, belonging to an actor, a female painter, and a female writer. The three heads are talking in fluorescent light, they are painted white, it’s a kind of a storage room of rejected people, suddenly the words are uttered: “Art is purest only when it’s born in the head”. Every attempt at implementing those words, processing them into the real world ends in failure, major or minor, but it can’t be the same thought which was born in the head, it’s impossible. The heads are talking with one another and come to a conclusion that we should only think: “Oh wow! I’ve just invented something”.

T. P.: The mask in your theater, at least in selected productions, plays a double role. Your face is painted or you paint it in front of the audience, then dying happens as a natural process. What is the role of a mask in contemporary theater? – not as artistic means of expression derived from history of the theater, but today, here and now ← 62 | 63 → when both the spectators and the actor put on and then take off masks, in this way they become a part of the performance but the mask reminds them that it’s just a play.

A. B.: I had an idea of celebrating the moment of dying, of becoming death by using a mask. As a narrator I have many opportunities to do so. I can suddenly start to walk, not because of a sudden recovery on stage, but because as a narrator I throw out the props and walk. It was the same with the mask. It was my own idea, that’s why I get on very well with my boss Andrzej Dziuk. He gives me freedom, triggers my imagination, and I bring him ideas. Then we discuss things: “This is wrong, that is right, let’s go in this direction, there we’ll have to look for something different”. And this is real creative work. An actor is not merely a material, he is also a creator and this makes sense, because what you create is yours. Everything that is congruous with my body, in harmony, is true. An actor was born to do things to which he may not be convinced. But obedience and rigor cause – at a later time – you to discover that this makes sense.

Sometimes an actor may be more stupid and it is beneficial to him or her. Not stupid but more stupid, in the sense that he focuses only on how to experience it. As for acting, speaking of logos and spontaneity, I am really spontaneous like the elements, logos takes second place. I think it results from the fact that I am in this particular theater. It is the body that is most important here, at first it appears and suffers, later on it utters a loud scream which can be expressed through words. But the body definitely comes first here.

As for the mask, the idea was that I’d become death, but I didn’t want t this death to be too serious. It was to happen quietly, just like that – an actor is preparing for another role. The moment I should become death, that is I turn around and I am death, then it would be ridiculous and unacceptable because of the seriousness of the situation. Death comes at the least expected moment, nobody invites him, he just is here. He is waiting, it depends only on which side of the bed he will stand, then he has access to us or not. I found out that making it really theatrical would cause that death to be ordinary. Death can be in each of us. Death can come as a fellow who drank too much, got into his car and sent seven people to the afterworld. Death does not need to carry a scythe and wear a hood on his head; that is why I wanted that death to be really theatrical, even fake, so I slowly paint the eyes black, I paint the mouth black, and so on.

Another role of the mask is unification, like in Bezimienne dzieło (The Anonymous Work: Four Acts of a Rather Nasty Nightmare). Unification – we’re all afraid of it. The worst thing is that unification doesn’t have a thinking face. It’s difficult to call that mug a face, because it’s an eternally happy man. He doesn’t know why he’s happy. He has been deprived of the brain, all his cells have been sealed, so ← 63 | 64 → he doesn’t know why he is happy. He was told to be happy: “You are happy. You deserve it”, just like the commercial says: “You deserve it”.

Once after the performance of Bezimienne dzieło, after the show, we strayed into Krupówki [the main street of Zakopane] and we saw a group of 20 people wearing masks from the play. It was wonderful because they treated it as fun. They knew what the play was about. It’s not difficult to guess it looking at one another, sitting opposite one another, when you hear from the loudspeaker: “Long live a uniform mass. Down with individualism”, etc. You must be a complete idiot, or to put it more gently, a man who is not open enough to notice it, it comes to mind immediately. Later, even though they know it, people put on the masks. They want to play the game of mass, the game of being nothing as individuals.

Still another role is played by the mask, for example, in Oedipus. That was a typical ancient mask, at least it was made to resemble one. The mask is an expression of a certain state. I, as a spectator, don’t have to guess what you feel. Once, a long time ago, at the entrance to theaters there were drawings showing different poses to assume in order to express certain things. The actor did not play anything because it would ruin the rhythm. The spectator didn’t come to the theater to understand but to learn a story. It was the assumption of the theater. To learn something. And if the spectator was to wonder whether the actor on stage suffered or not, one gesture was enough – the audience knew that he was happy, or in love, or suffering. It was the same with masks, they certainly strengthened the voice, they resonated, even though amphitheaters had their own acoustics, at least those built properly – I suppose not all of them were. They strengthened, the masks strengthened the actor, boosted the expressiveness of acting. In addition, there were wedge heels. At that time the actor was nearly like a god.

T. P.: Yes, he was. The spectator was given a story and became a part of it. Today it happens “in between”, the theater is special because of that “in between”. You play the show of welcoming. You are among the spectators wearing costumes but you are still private persons at that moment.

A. B.: Somewhere between the dressing room and the stage.

T. P. Today we are going further, further, and further, that is why the spectator may feel entitled to play more than it results from that “in between”. What happens then?

A. B.: Then an actor appears as a kind of official staying within his role. If a spectator goes too far, he should be given a small hint: “Your role is now over, God forbid, don’t try to be funnier than a clown”. Otherwise the final is pathetic. On the other hand, spectators generally understand it; it’s enough to make a short remark, say “thank you”, touch them, or seat them gently on their place. The ← 64 | 65 → people who have already visited our theater know that they have this freedom and we absolutely can’t deprive them of it. The sense of this theater is that being with the spectator has its consequences. If I’m with you, why can’t you be with me? I’m not someone more important because of being an actor. No, there’s no border of this kind here. A couple of years ago “the fourth wall” was demolished, but it seems to me that it was knocked down only in theory. Another theory of art emerged saying that the fourth wall doesn’t exist, but actors keep playing anyway. The spectators are still sitting, the actors are still playing, and there’s a gap between them, it’s a gap between logos and spontaneity (like the elements). The spectators are spontaneous, they want to experience something, but the actors on stage are just talking and talking. Whether the spectator would leave or not does not make any difference at all. The spotlights are on, you can’t see anything. The point is that the gap should be filled, the passage between them should be filled. Then the two worlds can co-exist, they interchange – sometimes a spectator becomes an actor and he feels well not being responsible for anything he does. It’s a bit like the weather forecast. It’s the most brilliant job in the world. You talk nonsense, you’re paid for it and nobody will hold you responsible just because the wind started to blow from a different direction and all your predictions are no longer relevant. Then the only thing you can hear may be: “Typical Polish weather”. It’s the same with the spectator. He can play but he knows that he doesn’t have to be a great actor. He doesn’t have to do his best, it’s enough to mutter a word, make a gesture, but he does take part in the performance. It’s something wonderful, then the crack is filled.

T. P.: And what’s your prediction? We recall different roles, stages of how the relations between the actor and the spectator were shaped. You stay in this “in between” with no responsibility on the part of the spectator. Theaters go in really different directions. While thinking about a new performance the boss and every member of the ensemble try to predict: what’s next, where are we going? What direction are you heading, as you definitely aren’t standing still?

A. B.: This question once emerged, it was at the time when the Web and home cinema were gaining enormous popularity. A question was asked: “Aren’t you afraid that the theater will lose the right to exist?” I immediately answered “No!”. Such possibility doesn’t exist because man doesn’t need history, doesn’t need stories, what man needs is experiencing something, he needs an encounter and he knows that it is going to happen in this place. Somewhere else, he will have to break down barriers, not everybody is able to do it, either because of shame, habits, the so called good manners, or certain limitations. Yet he knows that here, in the theater, if he comes, he is drawn into the world of closeness. The world in ← 65 | 66 → which the spectator sitting next to another spectator feels closeness to them, he also feels closeness to the actor. This world won’t disappear. As for the question about direction, I always answer that we’re going deep inside. It means “don’t look around in search for something, but go deep inside, go deep inside yourself, consider what I’m thinking about, because it’s an endless way”. There’s no direction. You can babble about the weather in this way. This year, winter will be like that, but it turns out it’s not. If we can attempt making forecasts, the only possibility is that we’ll try to be alert. To be alert and open to what surrounds us.

T. P.: A feeling, just like a word, is somehow conventionalized though the latter is conventionalized to a much lesser extent. I mean in Halny there were intimate experiences, instincts, emotions. The essence of the experience was common, the form wasn’t. Halny [titled after a warm windstorm, foehn] is a different performance, it’s referred to as a concert or show. If you’re going deep inside, what direction are you taking, what are you heading towards? Does it mean fewer words, more music; does “deep inside” mean going towards instinct, towards something unimaginable, instinctive, and direct?

A. B.: It means deep inside. It’s not literally going deep, like to the depths of the earth, stowing away, hiding. It’s not like that. You can go deep inside and be outside. Deep inside means perfecting yourself and your acting techniques. Through this we become more expressive, more courageous. And courage (self-confidence) result in that I can approach another person more easily because I feel confident. After all, I’ve done everything I possibly could, I did my best, I can’t do anything else at the moment. More can be done through an encounter. On the other hand, the certainty that I’ve done everything in this area, that is – another workshop, more exercises, trying different theatrical forms, resulted in Halny. My boss, Andrzej Dziuk, is an eternally young man, he’s doomed to be young, he’ll never get old. I know it now, I just suspected it twenty years ago, I’m convinced about it now.

He won’t stop searching. Sometimes he’ll err, sometimes he’ll break his leg, he’ll be scratched, but he’ll go on searching all the time. That’s why “deep inside” means looking for new reserves and being ready for a new challenge – deep inside.

I’m vexed at searching for new things. The word “new, novel” really irritates me. People say that they’ve discovered something. Are they stupid, don’t they know everything has already been discovered, it existed hundreds and thousands years ago. Everything has occurred, been done, you only have to be fair enough with yourself and the world to admit it. Or you shouldn’t pretend that it suddenly dawned on me and I created something. Of course in the field of technology certain things didn’t exist, but in art and theater everything has already been done and discovered. It really has happened. ← 66 | 67 →

T. P.: In Halny, I believe, there’s anxiety whether we should review, think over our language, our relationship with language. A limited use of words in the play shows that we lose confidence in language. For the sake of music, movement, or gesture? The scenes are connected, each of you is performing an etude but you hardly say anything, the words perish in the wind. Is there an underlying message that there’s something wrong with the language, that we should switch to a different way of acting where there will be fewer words?

A. B.: I wouldn’t make it a rule. Let me explain it. The production was created on the basis of our experiences. Before going on holiday, we were given a task to think about. It’s not trumped up. We got certain words, such as: irritation, excitement, purification and we had to prepare etudes in which the words would be used. That’s why the etudes are very personal, a person babbles when halny is blowing. And when Marek appears on stage, he talks too much. I think it’s one of the underlying messages – people are too focused on what they have, on possessions. When halny is blowing, people come to us and tell us such things. “The ax is already laid to the roots of the trees”, “It will definitely end”, “Suck the juice from mother earth, suck”. On the one hand, Halny is a metaphor of transition, on the other hand, it’s a wind which blows from the South and causes such changes in air pressure that we cannot bear it.

All those etudes were born inside us. A man doesn’t speak while he’s experiencing something. I don’t tell myself that I have a headache, I just know it. Will I sit and tell myself that I feel bad? No, I know it perfectly well. It’s the same with drivers who don’t switch on indicators, which really vexes me: they know in which direction they will turn, so they see no reason for doing it. I don’t tell myself that I feel bad, that I’m down in the dumps unless I meet another person, then I do it. Everybody is alone in this world. It’s only later that purification occurs, that is the rain which suddenly falls and causes great joy, singing, crying, etc. However, it appears as a crack, certain self-destruction because people behave in this way. Let me repeat, Halny is a metaphor of crossing, of the crack, but also of purification. That’s why, on the one hand, there are no words, on the other hand words are used in the play. Ada speaks, Dorota speaks, Marek speaks. I also speak; some of the actors speak, babble, but you don’t hear it because sometimes words have little importance. The fact that I’ll swear more or less viciously in a given situation, because I feel upset, doesn’t really matter, the emotions are the same. Then words occur at random, it doesn’t matter what words I will use.

T. P.: Art is characterized by transgressions and crossings. The transgressions in Halny show that we are alone in suffering, we are plagued by the thought: “What’s the matter with me?”. However, when catharsis comes, we are together. ← 67 | 68 →

A. B.: We want to announce it to the world. But it is also acting. We don’t want to show ourselves. Due to the eternal need of man to be accepted, we don’t want to display our sorrow. I don’t know if it’s right. We do it because of fear, because we’re afraid of rejection, but we don’t want to show it, yet sometimes when we recover, get washed, then we emerge into the world, then it’s better. It’s not overly good, but unfortunately we are made in this way. It would be far more beneficial if, when we were doing bad at the moment, we called a mate and said: “Please, come here”. If you can do it, it’s brilliant, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes love is so insufficiently understood that in the place where you should expect this help and understanding, you can’t find it because bad mood is associated with an argument. It’s a kind of icon of being with yourself, no matter where you are: among friends, your family, or at work. People abuse others instead of showing mutual understanding; you should let that person cry out what they feel and stand above, you should be able to stand a bit higher. But it doesn’t happen, that’s why that scene is fulfillment – I purify myself, I’m relaxed, I can embrace and cuddle you. It’s good then, because I give pure feeling, don’t burden others with my problems. Personally, I behave like that. I get anger and pain off my chest, I don’t keep it to myself, I speak about it. To love someone, you must first love yourself. If you don’t love yourself, you won’t be able to love another person. You will burden this person with your worries and cause them problems. This person may stay with you, but they’ll never be happy. They will smile, but they won’t be relieved hearing “God, what a lousy day I’m having!”, “God, how awful I look!” all the time. It immediately transfers onto another person, it’s highly contagious.

T. P.: Do the mountains have a special meaning for you? Do you go climbing?

A. B.: I went hiking in the Sudetes, the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, the Bieszczady Mountains, the Beskids range, but not in the Tatras.

T. P.: Was it deliberate or because they are close at hand, because you are here?

A. B.: Perhaps. One of the highlander philosophies explains it in this way: “Why don’t highlanders go climbing?” – “Because you can see everything better from the bottom”. Their very presence is a source of peace. Sometimes I walk through the valleys, up Sarnia Skała [one of the peaks]. Once I climbed Giewont [a peak in the Tatra Mountains], yes, I did (laughter). Maybe I’ll do it sometime in the future. When our son Krzysiu (Chris) was born, we waited until he was a little older to go climbing with me. Eventually he started to do it by himself. That’s the way it happens. But I don’t need climbing the mountains, their very presence is enough for me. ← 68 | 69 →

T. P.: This place, the location of the theater in this particular place, its history, the fact that it was built here from scratch, in the mental, spiritual, and physical (material) sense, are these important?

A. B.: It’s of huge importance, because this place forged my friendships, I met my friends when I came here. Their openness, directness, the awareness that it’s just a moment …. This probably makes it tremendously important because your acting is completely different then. Then it’s not performance – I just come to work and act; the awareness that it can be your last show makes you do your best. Here we can refer to the metaphor of the mountains that it’s the way upwards, a continuous strive for something, trying to be better all the time, as an actor, but also in the general sense of the word. It’s about not hurting the others, trying to be helpful, etc.

The lack of specialization in the theater is wonderful. Doing everything makes you feel responsible for everything. You’re not restricted to doing just one thing, to your desk, your dressing room where you sit and think about your role or daydream, you think how Dorota sings, that’s the only thing that means creating from scratch. Here, I really learned what the theater is about. School is a kind of workshop, a kind of kindergarten. Later, in the theater, you learn life and being on stage. On the one hand, it’s the moment of being here and now, on the other hand I learned that the theater is not only a show, it’s everything. The theater is the spectator who comes and the one who leaves. Like in a house, the guests don’t take French leave, you say goodbye to them as a hostess or host. Saying goodbye to them you ask if they had a good time, if they liked it, of course you don’t ask literally, it’s not done, but you give them an opportunity to speak their mind. The very possibility of expressing their opinion makes you feel like a host. You really feel like a host, you receive them, do your best to please them, serve them: “Would you like some tea? A cup of coffee? Let’s have something to eat. Let’s talk for a while. Let’s listen to music”. We feel fulfilled then because we provided someone with fulfillment, because we gave something to someone. The eternal truth is that a fulfilled person is happy only when they give something, not when they’re given something. That giving comes back to us after some time.

The important fact is that we all created this theater from scratch in this place which also taught us a kind of fight, the fight for ourselves. Here, nobody believed that the theater would survive, well, it would stay for a while and be gone, like all things here, like, for example, a shop in Krupówki. Some probably even hoped that it wouldn’t survive. I’m trying not to think about it like that, but I suspect it really happened. We created everything for many years in great patience, without rushing, in the patience of doing what we had to do. Not looking around at what ← 69 | 70 → others were doing, “so we have to do the same”, no. We do what we have to do in the best possible way. It lodged very deep in my consciousness. It may result from my ignorance, but I can’t imagine a different place.

T. P.: Is it different to perform a play, not only the one inspired by Witkacy but a show in general, when you go to another place, for example you must act in an impersonal building like a laundry?

A. B.: It’s absolutely different, but I always wait for that “different” because of which the situation is unpredictable. In that world I must be much more alert than here. However, we may struggle, we can’t avoid certain habits, not only mental but purely technical ones, we can’t escape from them. Our actions are to some extent like those of Pavlov’s dog, a light turns on and we enter. Of course, it’s new every time, it’s different, but certain external circumstances make us know which way to follow. We know that nothing will surprise us though we are astonished at many things every day. However, in the brand new world you must get accustomed to everything, you must be fully alert, be alert for yourself, for the others, for the spectators. After all, the spectators are seated in a different way than in our theater, we greet them differently because it’s a new space, a new foyer. I mean a certain preparation for the play to be made by the spectator and the actor; it’s like washing your hands before dinner. Without it you won’t be able to live. Many things from these performances, those resulting from pure coincidence and those we wouldn’t have made up in a normal situation, just happen, very often we turn them into elements of the theater world here, in the theater. We bring them from those trips and they become an element of the show because they are wonderful, fantastic.

T. P.: You do what you have to do, you don’t look around, don’t complain, but to a certain extent each of you can notice, unwillingly or by coincidence or in another way, that the world of theater and art is different. Speaking of current events, there’s so much ballyhoo about potential pornography, breaking the rules, undermining the values.

A. B.: Yes, but they are the values of a certain group of people.

T. P.: Yet there is anxiety and a lot of confusion. We can’t pretend that the situation didn’t occur – it did happen. And even if we do what we’re supposed to do, the incident was related to the world of art, to artists. We don’t address the problem in the categories of art appraisal – whether it’s good or bad, good or bad performance, etc. A gesture has been made, I’m not afraid to use the words “attempt to limit artistic freedom”. The statement may be too strong but… ← 70 | 71 →

A. B.: I agree, but what do we call freedom in this case? We live in democracy and the most primitive thinking about freedom is that one is allowed to do everything they want. It’s egoism, not freedom. This way of thinking has nothing to do with freedom because freedom, as I see it, is inseparable from responsibility. That’s real freedom. The awareness of the fact that not only I am free but also someone else around me is free and they’re not subject to my rampant desires, ambitions, etc.

Freedom also means looking around and the whole situation, in my opinion, results from the fact that it’s difficult to talk about something if we don’t see it.

T. P.: It’s not about making judgments. We’re talking about a certain event which occurred in public life, in which a problem arose, what do you think about a possibility of interference in a performance?

A. B.: It absolutely shouldn’t take place. No decree is necessary for this purpose, the problem will be solved by life itself. If something is good, interesting, worth the spectator’s attention, people will come to see it. If it’s only pornography or something that shocks the spectators or it doesn’t interest them, in this case something is shown as a kind of flypaper/a lure and the spectator himself will make a decision not to see it. The spectator is really wise. But here there’s an underlying message, it’s human curiosity, you must see the first time. As a result we are later informed that a certain number of people went to see it, that many people listened to it on YouTube, for example; it’s pathetic but many people did it out of curiosity, and suddenly there are 3 billion pageviews. Once there was a Korean singing an annoying song and he had several billion pageviews. A woman came to a conclusion that the song should be proclaimed the hymn of the planet if so many people watched it. That, however, is the wrong way to go. Just like disco-polo music, I have my own opinion about it, but let me avoid being judgmental, Golden Records were awarded because the CDs were attached to newspapers and people unintentionally bought them. It’s really difficult to state clearly whether popularity is related to value. However, we are living in the times of popular culture, human curiosity is endless, most people use this principle while making their choices.

T. P.: Witkacy was afraid that a time would come when man, financially satisfied and living in a consumer society, would stop thinking. He blamed popular culture for it.

A. B.: Besides, we witness the times when everybody, in their own mind, believes that anyone can be an artist. In the past the fact of being an artist was accompanied by artistry. Now, many things are done for us by computer programs, I mean music or graphics or scenography, everything is done by machines. A disc jockey is not a creator, he plays music, he’s a performer. They claim to be artists because they ← 71 | 72 → play a vinyl record backwards several times, obviously you must have a sense of rhythm, I don’t underestimate it. But in this case the term “creation” is a serious misuse, a gross misuse.

T. P.: Let me ask you about the categories of misuse. Let’s come back to the theme of the underlying principle of the theater, you mentioned religion then. However, now when you openly refer to religious inspirations, you can be accused of appropriating the area not belonging to the theater, isn’t it abuse?

A. B.: But we don’t celebrate liturgy, we want to return to what theater has always been. The theater was the sacrum, maybe not sacred, it was the place where the ultimate destiny of man, God, death, and sense of life were discussed. Those topics have always been raised. And we can treat it like it happened when we last met – the subject of performative reading emerged. You can read something. But is this what the theater is about? Everybody can reach out for a book and read. They take a text and read, but can it be called the theater? In my opinion, not yet. To create the theater you must be sensitive and, I believe it may be idolatry and pride, but not everyone is competent enough to do it. Here you must dedicate yourself and, in a sense, get rid of shame. To want, or even have to, sometimes it’s an obligation, to tell the others about yourself. That is, to touch the part of your being that is deeply hidden. Of course, it’s a kind of exhibitionism but what a theatrical form is for? Let’s say, it’s serious artisanship which must be mastered to know at once without doing any preparations for the particular performance, when to speed up, slow down, stop, look into the spectators’ eyes, listen to them. All this is a process in which, it may seem, everything happens just like that, with no effort at all. But actually it takes many years of work, practice, meeting people to learn it. What’s more, there is also a director who creates the whole world, curbs all its rhythms. The theater has its own rhythms, like music, there are certain tensions, culminations. The spectator watches it, feelings are evoked, and he shouldn’t deliberate on how everything was created. Yet it must be done from A to Z. The best improvisation is one that, as some people say, has been rehearsed several times. Then we can speak about the theater. (laughter)

T. P.: This definition of improvisation is excellent.

A. B.: We don’t appropriate anything. Don’t people talk about God at home? They do, they also do it in the street, just like we’re sitting here now and talking about important things – God is of the utmost importance, a source of everything. At the moment if we pretended that the theater is about playing burlesques, farce, etc. it would offend the place where people come out of really great need. ← 72 | 73 →

T. P.: Let me ask perversely. The theater doesn’t appropriate religion, but don’t the current institutional forms, I mean the religious circle of our culture, appropriate the theater. How about religious performances which are played on different occasions, where something is manifested under a label of sacrum, religiousness? Isn’t dramatic art, with the scenography, acting, props, appropriated there? Don’t you feel it? In the theater you talk seriously about God, you utter verses from the Bible. You prepare for this talk, the talk itself is a holy act regardless of the religion, the confession it refers to. However, street spectacles use the religious symbols whose purpose is completely different. What’s your opinion? Don’t you feel uncomfortable as a person who, I think, is a believer and at the same time is a great artist. Don’t you perceive it as a kind of discrepancy?

A. B.: No, I don’t. Any kind of attempt to reach out to man is right, in my opinion. I accept the performances which are related to religion; however, it’s a different situation when only religious symbols are used and amateurs play in them. For example, the Way of the Cross is a beautiful tradition. It’s been performed for many generations, in this way we experience the passion of our Lord.

It’s something beautiful, but it has nothing to do with the theater we create. In the former situation I don’t really act anything; I just put on my costume and walk as myself. I don’t play Christ or suffer, I don’t even try to suffer because it would be pathetic.

However, other forms of street performances have always existed, but they are not theatrical. If they were, it wouldn’t be bad, the worst thing is that their supporters believe in what they are doing. And it’s that grey mob described by Witkacy. What scared him after the breakout of the revolution was that suddenly one man could assume the rule over a mass of people. As we know, it had a huge impact on his work, on his perception of the world.

Many times we talked about the end of the world, whether it’s likely to happen. Somebody is constantly announcing the end of the world. Once our boss, Andrzej Dziuk said that every day the world ends for someone, for a species, for a group of people, for a civilization. It ends in a sense, which does not mean that it will completely disappear or burst out. I felt most horrified when I was visiting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where walking through successive rooms we can see how a culture keeps flourishing, suddenly the next civilization appears and we return to the Stone Age. Because we should forget about all the things created earlier by the others, they should be severed, thrown away from our memory. This also happens now. The temples which lasted for thousands of years are blown up at present and those who do it are not aware that, in fact, it is themselves that they ← 73 | 74 → blow up. It’s as if we burnt Biskupin down. Such actions are complete stupidity, an ancient temple doesn’t threaten us in any way.

I wouldn’t be afraid of contemporary theatralization. People have always acted and won’t stop doing it. But as Edward Stachura sang – “life is not theater”. Life and the theater will always be intertwined, people hardly ever are honest.

T. P.: What about the scale of the theatralization of public life, isn’t it different?

A. B.: I believe it used to be even bigger. We are attacked and dominated by the media, by the Internet. Thanks to it, everything that happens becomes closer, physical, we can touch it. Once people experienced stronger emotions, all protests, demonstrations had to be powerful, very powerful, because they happened only once. Nobody was able to record them, show them again, perhaps someone wrote about it, but it was an indirect report.

Earlier, people had to experience things deeply and then it was the theater. However, these days it’s a mob, they put on masks and join the crowd. Someone shouts “Down with ….” and a hundred of people shout “Down with..:”. But: down with what? “I don’t know, I couldn’t hear well”; but “Down with…”.

T. P.: It’s a sad, or perhaps dramatic, conclusion of our talk, so it gives hope for transformation. I hope we’ll have a chance to continue it. Thank you very much, Andrzej.

The questions were prepared and the interview was conducted by Teresa Pękala on 12 December 2015.

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Interview with Dorota Ficoń, An Actress of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater in Zakopane

Dorota Ficoń: I really appreciate a direct contact with people. It is valued in our theater. Apart from staging plays we also started running drama workshops long time ago. They teach not only basic acting techniques but also how to work on your body and memory. I am not a lecturer at a drama school, I do not run a regular art school, either. Everything I can say to the others is derived from my own experience and Andrzej Dziuk’s theater. Many things have been written about self-presentation and imagination, however, you must find yourself in a certain situation to handle your body or stir your imagination. In the art of theater a comprehensive direct experience is the first fundamental principle. What I am talking about is connected with the Confucian rule: “I hear, I forget; I see, I remember; I do, I understand”. If I demonstrate something during a workshop, a participant will remember it. But they will understand it only when they experience it. Some things can be presented as theory, but they can be learned only through direct experience. The theater is this kind of a direct meeting, direct experience. Without it we do not know what we are talking about.

Teresa Pękala: It is just like with happiness. There are several treaties on happiness. But can we learn happiness from a treaty? It is good to differentiate between basic notions, like pleasure, from happiness, and we do this while working with students. More or less rich worlds can be built from mental pictures, yet they are different from real life. Jorge Luis Borges said: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library, not a garden”. In general, theater or art offer greater opportunities. Philosophers write about suffering or love, sometimes there are deep wise thoughts, but their authors admit that it is impossible to describe states. We take into account the metaphysical dimension but we forget about man as a sensual being. You come on stage, you suffer, you are in despair. And we do the same. This does not require words.

D. F.: No, it doesn’t require words. You’ve just said something important. Just through experience we learned here, in this place, in this ensemble, the kind of theater which is based on the conviction that everything contributing to my being is significant. This is real me. This is not only the word because very often a feeling is bigger than a word. Sometimes a word cannot express what is going inside us. What is going on inside my soul, right? Sometimes silence, silence in the face of ← 75 | 76 → the audience, silence of a suspended question that we cannot answer, is stronger than looking for an instant answer. And this is that moment that it is not only a word… In Witkacy, or generally in dramas, starting from Greek tragedy, we frequently face the situation in which a character uses words but does not directly speak about their inner feelings. Sometimes a character wants to hide something using words, sometimes lies using words, but the viewer feels the discrepancy between the word and the real state of the character’s soul. Due to art, and also thanks to Witkacy’s dramas, we know it may happen that the word does not emphasize the situation, the word is sometimes in opposition to the accompanying actions. And this is something incredible. In Witkacy, when I say “I love you” it results in various theater activities, sometimes I do the things which are contrary to the meaning of a word. Yet it is the activities as a whole that are meaningful. I faint, fall, etc. These actions contain the richness of the silence. Silence can be an ecstasy, it can be indifferent or dangerous. It can be an expression of some kind of sorrow, numbness, depression. It can be the silence of ecstasy which is a source of such admiration that makes me incapable of saying a word. It can be the silence of deep sadness. Those are the moments which the viewer can only realize and share the experience.

T. P.: Doesn’t it seem to you that the development of the theater is like the rhythm of a sinusoid? There are phases in the development of the theater, in the life of the theater, during which the word seems to be everything. Then there follows disappointment with the word and this usually coincides with the crisis of the word in other areas of life. The verbalized reality and what really happens to us drift apart or even are torn away from each other.

D. F.: For example the theater of the absurd.

T. P.: Exactly. And in this context it is difficult not to ask about the otherness of “Halny”. There are words you shout, the wind carries them away and they escape.

D. F.: They are merely scraps.

T. P.: Exactly – they are scraps. A question can be asked “scraps of what?”. The first thing that comes to mind is memory. The scraps of words which are drawn from “memory imprisoned in the mind”, using Husserl’s categories. A strong stimulus causes scraps of words to revoke something from oblivion. Someone calls their father, someone utters sounds, half-words of long forgotten ecstasy. There can also be scraps of something torn to such an extent that it does not constitute a unity with anything. Neither with you, nor with what is happening in the theater or in life. It is the actors who speak. Not necessarily using words. There are lots of non-verbalities in “Halny”. ← 76 | 77 → In comparison with other plays, which make use of a wide range of means of expression, “Halny” seems to be really different. There seems to be a different ratio between words and non-words. Does it mean doubting the word?

D. F.: Taking it from the point of view of biology, when the wind blows, you cannot speak. The wind takes your breath away. That is, it is an element which, just like other elements, is linked to our senses. It is the same on stage. The word chokes us, it causes us to have breathing problems, we suffocate. The situation in “Halny” is that we seem to be fighting for our life. That we are on the brink, on the edge, that we hold on, holding on in order to survive. And a moment comes that something comes back inside us, something that is beyond a certain boundary. It is in a scream, in howling, in whining, and also in something that happens when we no longer have the strength to scream. It is a special state. I personally experienced something like that when I was caught in a snow whirl. I was choking. I could not catch my breath. There was a moment of exhaustion. And fight for my life. I faced another situation of this kind when I was drowning in the sea, Then I experienced a kind of déjà vu. I remembered an exercise from the drama school where you had to hold on the exhale uttering a vowel in your thoughts. “You must hold on, hold on”, there are such moments.

T. P.: You remembered it, and so did your body. The experiences of this kind show that “memory in the mind” and “memory beyond the mind” are complementary to each other. A chain of unusual external circumstances and individual sensory memory lead to identification. Repeating this identification, re-enacting the situation which is a reminder for both me and the audience, is a very difficult attempt to establish communication. You do not know who the viewer is, you stand in front of the people who are not connected to one another by any common experience except increasingly loose cultural ties. What happens to that “point” which impacts the audience?

D. F.: Our imagination plays a significant role in the art of drama. We have not experienced certain things, we have to imagine certain things. The viewer’s and the actor’s ability to co-experience proves that there are endless possibilities of human imagination. Something that has no end. You can never say “enough”. It is this infiniteness. The word “infiniteness” seems to be something incomprehensible considering our limited nature. The finiteness of our life. In a play the infiniteness of our imagination and the limitations belonging to the sphere of human being are connected in a special way. This also links us in a particular basic way with those sitting in the audience. “Halny” refers, among other things, to such ties. But still there is something else. Something that is our treasure, something that is exclusively ours … It is our experiences. A return to emotional memory, to what ← 77 | 78 → we have experienced, it is an equally important source of creativity. Sometimes we are unable to play certain things. I am to act a feeling or a very intimate scene. But it helps when I recollect something I have gone through, something that has happened to me, something I have been given. Or that there has been a special aura, a broken dawn… Or anything. I have been given something. The memory that I do have the thing I have been given. And this memory can awake that subconscious in me, liberate me in a certain way. Then I overcome my reluctance which is a barrier to how I act something that is the essence of a scene to be played. Something that is also the key to the director’s vision.

T. P.: And what happens when your emotional memory, the memory of the body, does not remember anything? Something never happened: you are left with your acting techniques and imagination. There are situations that are easier to imagine and the situations that are completely unimaginable. How do you cope when your imagination lets you down and your body cannot remember anything? Or in the situation when it is something painful that has been erased from your mind, but the role you are to play stimulates your memory? Are acting skills sufficient?

D. F.: It seems to me that two things are really important in art. On the one hand it is obvious that we are limited. Maybe not limited but shaped in a particular way. The starting point is the fact that I was brought up in a certain culture. It is European culture, the culture of theater. They are my roots – I will not be doing the theater which is typical of the East, of Asia. I will not be able to dance in that way. I will not be able to move in that way. They are different spaces. The root from which we grow is the history of our theater, sensu largo the Western theater and sensu stricto The Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Theater. But the most essential thing in art is the fingerprints of my own fingers. What generally counts in art, and what was so aptly put by Witkacy, is that art should come out from man’s guts, and then it should be separated from those guts. This concept of theater is very close to my heart. Here, in my opinion, is the source of creativity and the theater. That is, my sensitivity, my impact, my path – I find them the most important thing in art. I believe that first experiences and feelings are fundamental. Everything that happens for the first time, generally speaking, in life or in art is like birth and death. Irreversible. Just like Witkacy wrote in “The Water Hen” (Kurka wodna) where he compared it to losing virginity. It is the first thing, it is something unavoidable, we cannot reverse it. We have already been born, or we have died, and this is the end, like the Norwidian “too late” – I am repeating after Andrzej Dziuk. In the theater the imprint of our sensitivity and our individuality is of the essence. It seems crucial in Witkacy and in our theater. Individuality is the starting point. And there are technique, artistry, and skills, on the other hand. ← 78 | 79 → What is acting technique for? Its essence is that I must prepare my body, to use grand phrases, for transformation. In Witkacy’s “The Pragmatists” (Pragmatyści) a very meaningful sentence is uttered: “Either to be one that flows, or be a screen on which the one that flows through creates a negligible image. Which is more important?” My body must serve this purpose. In this context Andrzej Dziuk spoke about a flexible actor. Building a role means that when I appear on stage I no longer think about my voice. On stage I must focus on what I am supposed to play. What is my role about? Why did I come on stage? What is the reason for my being here? What important things do I have to say that I deprive the others of their right to speak? And I want to say something and remain silent about something else. In this concept of dispositional flexibility, the essential thing is the number of exercises to do. An actor must overcome the internal resistance. It sometimes happens that we actually create obstacles. In acting we are very often told: come back to the child inside you. Because the child who spent half a day screaming that he wants a toy, that he wants to get a toy, will not eventually say: Mum, my vocal cords are strained. Because a child screaming that he wants to get something does not have any voice problems. And that truthfulness of a child is what this is all about. Only an actor who does not know who he is and screams while playing a role can have voice problems. An exercise means that we make use of certain forms. Once we master them, they disappear. Later on, everything I have mastered and trained becomes my unique individual achievement. You do not show it. It is like a rehearsal. During a rehearsal we do an enormous amount of work. A rehearsal gives you confidence, certainty, that is the things which are generally the most important in the theater. It is similar in every team, regardless of your profession. At work, in a good team, the most precious thing is the fact that I can take a risk or make a mistake. A rehearsal is the time when you have a right to an error, it is the time when you can ask yourself a question, you can ask the director a question, and he in turn asks questions to stimulate your imagination. The most wonderful thing in our theater is joint search for solutions. By talking to us and asking questions, our boss, Andrzej Dziuk, makes us ask questions, look inside ourselves to find the key to a character we are going to create and in this way our imagination is stimulated. And at a certain moment, sometimes the most remarkable, final one, I have a feeling that it was I who created it, but actually it was Andrzej who directed it. The possibility of joint creation is, among other things, the unique aspect of our theater. My imagination, my experience, my emotional memory, and, which is more important, skillful guidance throughout the whole time of preparing a performance, are necessary for me to trust the director and discover with him what we are looking for in a certain character or situation. ← 79 | 80 →

Biographical notes

Teresa Pękala (Volume editor)

Teresa Pękala is Full Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology and Head of Department of Esthetics at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin. She is Vice President of the Polish Association of Aesthetics. Her research interests include Polish esthetics, philosophy of modern art, and the esthetic contexts of the experience of the past.

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Title: Witkacy. Logos and the Elements