The Language of Polish Modernism

by Ryszard Nycz (Author)
Monographs 204 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 49


This book debunks the myth of Polish Modernist literature as rooted in rash, immediate expression. The author compares programmatic statements on language by turn-of-the-century writers such as Wacław Berent, Bolesław Leśmian, Stanisław Brzozowski or Karol Irzykowski with notions deduced from their literary works. He demonstrates that these writers’ linguistic self-consciousness informs their implicitly self-reflexive texts and sheds light on their values and characteristic qualities. The author treats Modernist literature itself as a sort of «language» – a distinct entity that emerged through systematic differentiation within the general literary discourse. The book enhances the understanding of the transformations behind this important philosophical and artistic movement.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1: A Few Remarks on the Literary Modernist Formation
  • Introductory note
  • Antoni Potocki’s genealogy of the Modernist formation
  • Points of departure: resolving contradictions, searching for distinctness
  • Points of arrival: Modernism as an integral part (or inkluz) of Postmodernism
  • Chapter 2: The Language of Modernism: Experiencing Alienation and Its Effects
  • The Myth of ‘Young Poland Lingo’
  • The discovery of language
  • Circles of alienation
  • Consequences: Modernist ideas of artistic disalienation
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 3: Tropes of the ‘I’: Concepts of Subjectivity in Twentieth-Century Polish Literature
  • Introduction
  • Symbol
  • Allegory
  • Irony
  • Syllepsis
  • Recapitulation
  • Chapter 4: Creating (In)tangible Worlds: Stanisław Brzozowski on the Tasks of Criticism and Art
  • Stanisław Brzozowski on ‘fundamental seeing’
  • The rhetoric and poietic of culture
  • Creating the real
  • The essay, or philosophy as ‘a type of literary creativity’
  • Additional words: Criticism as ‘a form of life’
  • Chapter 5: Inventing the Order: Karol Irzykowski’s Concepts of Criticism and Literature
  • The concept of literary criticism
  • Two contexts: Wilde and Bergson
  • The theory of unclearomania, or: Irzykowski versus Shklovsky
  • The theory of comprehensibility, or: literature’s communicative destiny
  • Conclusion: ‘I am a prewar person’
  • Chapter 6: Literaturology: Looking Back at the History of Modern Literary Theory in Poland
  • A note on methodology
  • The origins, development and twilight of modern literary theory in Poland
  • The tradition as it is today
  • The directions and tendencies of literary theoretical research today
  • Episodic theories
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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This book deals with the language of Modernism in more than one way: building on the idea that language shapes our reality, I bring together three basic but complementary perspectives. I begin by exploring the language of Modernism in the primary sense of language, that is to say by examining Modernist writers’ concepts of language as well as the widespread assumptions that influenced how culture was generally understood around the turn of the century. Here I look at the notions of language that the Modernists proclaimed openly as well as the notions that can be deduced from their literary output – especially from their most innovative works. In Chapter Two, each of these notions is discussed in turn, but they also play an important part in the remaining chapters, thus forming the book’s leitmotif.

When it comes to identifying the last century’s artistic and intellectual transformations, one idea has long been accepted as canonical, namely that language has played a significant role – a decisive role according to some scholars – both for the Modernists’ literary or generally artistic production, and for the modern humanities as a whole. This idea is well established in Western European academic circles, but it has not yet been verified with respect to Polish literature. This book offers a preliminary inquiry into how valid this idea may be, within literary studies and especially with regards to the early phase of Polish Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Second, this book centres on the linguistic and literary consciousness of Polish Modernism. Although my main concern is with the sort of consciousness that is formulated in a straightforward discursive mode, I am also interested in self-reflexivity that is occasionally expressed in strictly literary works, and that we must reconstruct indirectly, by way of interpretation. These priorities respond to the current state of research on Modernism. There is no doubt that first-, second-, and even third-rate literary works are much better researched than the history of literary self-consciousness, even if that self-consciousness accompanied the creation of those works. It formed their vernacular context and at the same time became one of their essential components.

The relative scarcity of scholarship on this topic accounts for the popular but misguided notion according to which a self-conscious approach to language and literature was uncommon among turn-of-the-century writers in Poland. Although this belief has often been challenged, it is still generally assumed that to examine the self-conscious approach and its intellectual scope would do little to ← 7 | 8 → identify, describe and understand the values and specifics of Modernist literature. I hope to debunk this assumption. The following chapters explore linguistic and literary aspects of the Modernists’ artistic mentality. By examining artists’ aesthetics and worldviews, I hope to assemble enough evidence to call into question the enduring stereotype that their artistic expression was immediate and unselfconscious. The prevailing notion that a cult of direct, rash and ‘unthinking’ artistic expression dominated early twentieth-century art, I argue, is a cliché that must be put to rest.

Third, this study draws on the secondary meaning of ‘language’. Treating Modernist literature as a distinct artistic entity with a distinct worldview, I foreground the ways in which its changes are ‘system-like’. The unique traits – trends, variants, elements – of Modernist literature developed within a network of reciprocal connections and emerged through systematic opposition and differentiation, rather than through logical consequence, cause-and-effect evolution, or an ‘organic’ development actualizing some built-in potential. In my investigation into the progressive differentiation of Modernist literature I propose six key categories: Modernism, language, the subject, literature, literary criticism, and literary theory.

Examining these six sets of problems, it is necessary to respect the subject’s historical singularity. Thus I treat Modernism as an extensive literary formation that is associated with a distinct artistic philosophy and that extends from the late nineteenth century until its stage of exhaustion in the 1960s; I also see Modernism as inextricably linked to the social, cultural and civilizational processes of modernization. In my discussion of linguistic consciousness I draw primarily on the Modernist experience of alienation and on various attempts at overcoming that alienation through the art of literature. I relate Modernist concepts of subjectivity to the tension between the rebirth of individualism on the one hand, and the crisis of the subject on the other. Finally, I give examples for the two most unique, influential and original models of literature and literary criticism, namely Stanisław Brzozowski’s genetic structuralism (avant la lettre) and Karol Irzykowski’s immanent poetics and literary criticism. Literary theoretical ideas, finally, are presented in the context described above, i.e. in relation to linguistic consciousness, critical concepts, and the broadly defined transformations that occurred in modern theory as an autonomous scientific discipline. In this sense, this book serves to historicize the concepts that operated in literary studies during the period under investigation.

In this book I reconstruct a basic corpus of concepts and their meanings. Naturally, this provides no more than the initial conditions necessary to tackle the ← 8 | 9 → main task, namely to produce a comprehensive literary historical account of the development of Polish Modernist literature. But first we must understand what characterized Polish Modernist literature in the liminal phases of its development. This is why in the following analyses I shift the emphasis to those extreme points, focusing above all on the formative phase around 1910. This is one of the reasons why the four most important writers of that period – Wacław Berent, Bolesław Leśmian, Stanisław Brzozowski and Karol Irzykowski – have come to occupy such a central position in this work. The decline and transitional period of the 1960s and ‘70s are treated much more concisely. To a certain extent at least, the processes and artistic convictions associated with this period already belong to what this book defines as a Postmodern literary sensibility and aesthetic consciousness.

The middle phase of Polish Modernist literature is only described in enough detail to allow for an overall image of its development. In this sense this book is in fact one of literary historical prolegomena.

My attempt to describe the general traits of Polish Modernism as a closed entity has only been feasible because we can now observe the phenomenon from outside. Our perspective – which can be called a Postmodern one – allows us to see that Modernism has already reached its phase of decline and ossification – the phase that eventually stabilizes and brings into focus the characteristics that have developed throughout the literary historical process. I am convinced that this vantage point allows us to characterize Modernism in its own Modernist terms, even though those terms differ significantly from the categories used until now – categories borrowed from analyses performed ‘from within’ and therefore always fragmentary, hypothetical, and generally short-lived. It is only from this external point of view (which is, of course, also has spatial, temporal and cultural limitations) that the fundamental and deeply system-like traits of the Modernist spirit become tangible: in its superficial manifestations, the Modernist spirit appears as preoccupied with the ceaseless cultivation of what is individual, unique, distinctive, new and radically different.

Cracow, November 1995

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Chapter 1: A Few Remarks on the Literary Modernist Formation

Introductory note

There is a problem with scholarship on the literature of Young Poland – a stubborn, basic methodological problem that mainly concerns periodization. Perhaps because it is so troublesome, the question of periodization has never been treated properly, even though the difficulty had been pointed out from the outset. To tackle it rigorously would have meant to re-evaluate traditional approaches to the literary history of the Young Poland period. As historical distance made this problem more noticeable, scholars began to engaged with it more frequently. What follows is a simplified and somewhat exaggerated account of the problem.1

First, the general consensus is that Young Poland’s most interesting developments occurred within the first decade of the twentieth century, from about 1902 or 1903 to 1912 or 1913. It is also broadly accepted that the period’s foremost artistic and intellectual achievements are the works of Wacław Berent, Stanisław Brzozowski, Karol Irzykowski and Bolesław Leśmian – to mention only the top four. We must remember, however, that the period’s literary historical construction was based, by and large, on assumptions that mirrored the characteristics of its lead-in phase, the 1890s. This decade was marked by two competing models: Decadent or Symbolist art on the one hand, and neo-Romanticism on the other. The writers of the 1900s reacted critically to those two models and expressed their diverging aesthetic and philosophical positions.

The periodization problem explains why the literature of Young Poland is rarely evaluated on the basis of its most outstanding achievements. The key works of the period, with their tendency to unmask and criticize, are commonly situated within the so-called transitional phase. Alternatively, they are passed on to literary historians of the following epoch (as happens with the works of Irzykowski and Leśmian), which does not solve the problem but merely puts ← 11 | 12 → it off. The literary output that grew out of the Young Poland movement has not yet been assigned a place, or a constructive role, within the coordinate system of the interwar period’s historical, literary and social circumstances. These works continue to be discussed as special cases, as regressive or complementary factors in relation to the period’s dominant tendencies.

Second, literary historians are gradually beginning to see the continuities in twentieth-century Polish literature as rooted in the Young Poland period and its lasting legacy. Of course, not all aspects of this tradition are equally significant. In poetry, for instance, Leśmian is considered influential but not Kazimierz Tetmajer; in psychological fiction it is Berent but not Stefan Żeromski, in the sociology of culture it is Brzozowski but not Ludwik Krzywicki, and in literary criticism it is Irzykowski but not Ignacy Matuszewski. Thus the works that are accorded a certain status do not represent a distinct literary historical unit within the framework of Young Poland, and even less within the interwar period. Many well-founded and innovative literary historical and literary critical studies on the interwar period’s artistic and intellectual movements – I would mention in particular Michał Głowiński’s and Maria Podraza-Kwiatkowska’s now canonical monographs2 – foreground works that actually seem elusive as a group. As soon as scholars try to capture them in the net of standard periodic classification – which is often a net of their own making – these works disperse and get lost in the margins.

This paradoxical situation is already manifest in the works of Kazimierz Wyka, the undisputed founder of modern research on turn-of-the-century Polish literature. Wyka, familiar with Polish scholarship on the literature and art of the first quarter of the twentieth century, was certainly aware that the term ‘Modernism’ tended to be understood rather broadly. And yet, he consciously restricted the term to signify only ‘the preliminary phase of the Young Poland ← 12 | 13 → generation’ (from 1887 to 1903).3 In the remaining – and longer – part of that quarter-century he identified no analogous dominant traits, which is why all subsequent phenomena came to be treated, in Wyka’s work, as deviations from the ‘norm’ he defined.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (June)
Modernism Modernist literature Philosophy of language Modern subjectivity Polish language
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 204 pp.

Biographical notes

Ryszard Nycz (Author)

Ryszard Nycz is a literary theorist and historian. He is a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Professor at the Jagiellonian University.


Title: The Language of Polish Modernism