The Autobiographical Triangle

Witness, Confession, Challenge

by Małgorzata Czermińska (Author) Jean Ward (Revision)
©2018 Monographs 350 Pages
Open Access
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 14


Critical revised edition and translation by Jean Ward
This book presents a universal theory of autobiography, defined as a "triangular" form of utterance involving three different stances. It is a personal testimony to experiences lived through, a confession of intimate inner experience and a challenge addressed to the reader to engage in dialogue, enter into an argument or join in a game. The stances of witness, confession and challenge are always present, though usually one of them overshadows the other two. Polish memoirs, diaries and letters, as well as novels of a clearly personal character, are interpreted here in the context of the most important autobiographical texts of European literature. In the background, also, the historical events which have powerfully stamped Polish culture in the last two centuries are discreetly shown.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Translator’s Foreword
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Theory of the Autobiographical Triangle as Work in Progress
  • Part One Three Autobiographical Stances
  • 1. The Field of Non-Fiction Prose
  • Literature of Fact
  • Literature of Personal Document
  • The Essay
  • 2. The Autobiographical Triangle: Witness, Confession, Challenge
  • The Rhetorical Sources of the Three Stances
  • Interchangeability of Autobiographical Stances
  • Gombrowicz Throws Down the Gauntlet
  • Then Who Is the Addressee of the Diary’s Challenge?
  • Diaries after Gombrowicz
  • Part Two Confessions, Confidences, Dreams
  • 1. The Spiritual Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Polish Literature1
  • The Mystical Autobiography
  • The Spiritual Autobiography
  • Protestant and Catholic Traditions Meet: John Henry Newman
  • The Memoir
  • The Library
  • Conclusion
  • 2. Intertextual Connections in the Spiritual Autobiography
  • Four Types of Intertextual Allusion
  • A Case of a Dense Network of Allusions
  • Part Three Witness Inscribed in Place
  • 1. Autobiographical Places and the Topographic Imagination:
  • Individual Places of Memory
  • The Topographic Imagination
  • Types of Autobiographical Place
  • 2. Home in the Autobiography and the Novel about Childhood
  • Inside the House
  • The Garden of Childhood
  • The Land of Childhood
  • Arriving – Homecoming
  • The Death Knell for the Home of Childhood
  • 3. Larders of Memory:
  • Idyll and Tragedy: the Memory of the Borderlands
  • A Hint of the Grotesque and the Invasion of History
  • An Attempt At Epic Distance: Towards a Deconstruction of the Myth
  • 4. The Centre and the Borderland Periphery in the Prose of Writers Born after World War II
  • Polish Writers Whose Home Is the City of Günter Grass
  • Describing Childhood after Yalta
  • The Disturbance of the Borderlands Reaches the Centre
  • 5. Space Disturbed:
  • The End and the Beginning
  • Written Now, Written Then
  • Time and Space after Yalta
  • From East to West and to Other Corners of the Earth
  • Encounters with Foreignness
  • Jews Who Survived
  • Disturbances in the Centre
  • Part Four Testimonies Inscribed in Historical Time: Challenges
  • 1. “Speaking a Memoir”: Janusz Korczak’s Autobiographical Stance
  • The Role of the Personal in Korczak’s Writing
  • The Veiling/Unveiling of Personal Experience in the Stories
  • A Network of Four Oppositions
  • Autobiography Read Through Obituary
  • 2. How to Write about the Sins of One’s Youth or a Year with Konwicki, a Year with Miłosz
  • The Long Shadow of Stalinism
  • A Public Confession in a Private Diary?
  • A Diary of One Year as a Closed Form
  • Flaw, Shame, Reckoning
  • 3. The Provocative Testimony of Leopold Tyrmand
  • Tyrmand’s Triumphal Return In Diary 1954
  • The Great Debate on the Authenticity of Diary 1954
  • Part Five On the Fringes of the Autobiographical Triangle: An Epilogue in Three Parts
  • 1. The Letter and the Novel
  • The Letter and the Epistolary Novel
  • The Reader of a Collection of Correspondence
  • The Collection of Letters as an Autobiographical Novel
  • 2. The Role of the Reader in the Intimate Diary
  • The Reader of the Letter and the Diary
  • Paradoxes of Intimate Expression
  • The “Theoretical Consciousness” in the Intimate Diary
  • 3. Metaphors of Autobiographical Writing in the Perspective of Co-Humanism
  • Autobiography as Translation
  • Autobiography as Ekphrasis
  • Autobiography as Cognition and Therapy
  • Autobiography as Encounter
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


The Theory of the Autobiographical Triangle as Work in Progress

The theory of the three autobiographical stances, witness, confession and challenge, took shape gradually as the outcome of interpretative studies of literary phenomena situated on the border between the novel and various forms of non-fiction prose. Although it is Polish literature that has supplied the vast majority of the material considered, my study is not limited to this alone. I also make reference in many places to European literature as an essential context for the particular literary pieces and genre forms analysed in this book, which are connected with a variety of aesthetic trends. If European tradition is understood more broadly than it was by Ernst Robert Curtius in his monumental study European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, in other words if it is not confined to the culture of Western Europe, then Polish literature undoubtedly belongs to this tradition. In this matter I stand firmly with Czesław Miłosz as the author of Native Realm,1 that is to say I understand the West as including the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia, because the culture of this whole area arises from Mediterranean roots (though we should remember that Russia’s origins are connected above all with the tradition of Greece and Byzantium). I see the particular differences between the literatures of individual nations and languages in the context of history, while literary theoretical conclusions (including the theory of the autobiographical triangle) are tested with reference to a variety of different literary phenomena which are all to be found within one cultural sphere, understood as European in the widest sense.

The literature of the twentieth century saw a series of experiments which went beyond the genre forms still practised (more or less distinctly) by prose writers of the nineteenth century. The rebellious experiments of the avant-garde in various fields of art during the first decades of the twentieth century led to a search in literature for new thematic areas and new forms of expression. Writers found material for their work in the sphere earlier defined as the border between art and life. This gradually turned out to be fertile soil for the development of autobiographical writing, which in any case had a tradition in European culture almost as long ←13 | 14→as that of literature itself. My studies, at first devoted to individual phenomena such as the relations between the letter and the novel, the intimate diary and the novel, or the novel and autobiography in its various versions, set me travelling along a road that led to the formulation of a literary theoretical hypothesis: that there is a phenomenon common to all written expressions whose origin is in the area between fiction and direct accounts of oneself and one’s own life experience. Many years of thought led me to the conviction that this phenomenon is universal in European culture; it is not dependent on the literary historical period or the language in which a work is written. Of course works that arise on the border between fiction and literature of personal document are subject to countless individual modifications along with changes in artistic trends and styles. But the thing that they all share, that is their functioning in that intermediate space between the freedom of fiction and the document that claims to be a faithful presentation of reality – this I named the autobiographical stance. To begin with I was persuaded that it appeared in two opposed versions: witness and confession. Further study, however, directed my attention to the existence of a third stance, which played a smaller role in the literature of past ages, but which was discerned even by theoreticians of ancient times, as can be seen in ancient rhetoric. I called this third stance “challenge”: challenge addressed to the reader. Since the modernist era, this stance has continued to evolve, and it now plays an increasingly important role.

Three stances, witness, confession and challenge, are always present, in varying proportions, in autobiographical texts. The universal character of these stances results from their grounding in the three functions of speech described by Karl Bühler, which also stand behind the distinctions made in ancient handbooks of rhetoric between presentation of reality, expression by the sender and appeal to the receiver. I discuss this in the first part of the book, where I present the theory which I metaphorically named the autobiographical triangle, at the same time revealing the stages of the journey by which I gradually arrived at this hypothesis. The texts which make up the book, originally written over the course of many years and then revised under the influence of new observations emerging in theoretical and interpretational studies, record that journey. I do not, of course, draw from the fact that all autobiographical texts can be written into the triangle of the three stances the exaggerated conclusion that every possible way of interpreting literature of personal document must also fit into these categories. Outside them, on their fringes and beyond, extensive fields remain to be investigated.

Before I arrived at the theory of the triangle, I concentrated particularly on the paradoxes connected with the presence (obvious or concealed) of the reader in various forms of autobiographical texts. As an epilogue to this book, I decided to ←14 | 15→include two studies devoted to these questions, because distinguishing the problem of the reader was a very important factor in the process by which I was able to discern and describe the stance of challenge, which is less obvious than those of witness and confession. These two studies, of epistolary writing and of diary writing, were a kind of laboratory in which I observed the way that the stance of challenge took shape. The third part of the epilogue, in turn, is the most recent of all the texts in the book. It was written after the theory of the autobiographical triangle had been completely formulated and made public. I nevertheless include it in this version of the book out of a sense that it grew out of my earlier work, although it opens on to new territory. The triangle holds firm (or so I hope), but work on the problem of autobiography continues; it is still “work in progress”.

This book was written in Polish; the first edition, entitled Autobiograficzny trójkąt. Świadectwo, wyznanie i wyzwanie, was published in Kraków by Universitas in 2000, in the series Horyzonty Nowoczesności [Horizons of Modernity]. The English-language version retains the basic five-part structure of the whole, but has undergone very significant changes in relation to the original. I have not only revised the footnotes to take account of recent scholarship, but have also considerably modified the contents of the book. One chapter has been removed; two others have been re-arranged and combined into one; yet another has changed its position; and two new chapters have been added which were written after the book’s original publication. All of these texts have been thoroughly re-worked and extended (sometimes with very considerable insertions) with a view to the English-speaking reader for whom the new version of the book is intended. These editorial transformations owe a great deal to the inspiration and suggestions of the translator, Jean Ward, a graduate of Oxford University who has worked for many years in Poland, is a scholar of two literatures and the author of academic texts in Polish as well as English. Her bilingual, comparatist and bicultural competences have been an inestimable aid to me, and for this I wish to express my unfailing gratitude.

Full bibliographical information about all the publications cited in this study can be found in the footnotes. A selected bibliography is included at the end of the book, listing only those primary and secondary texts which were of most importance to me in formulating and justifying the theory of autobiography as a “triangle” of three stances: witness, confession and challenge.

The earlier versions of individual chapters were published in the following books and journals:

* “The field of non-fiction prose”, as “Obszar prozy niefikcjonalnej”, Part I of “Badania nad prozą niefikcjonalną – sukcesy, pułapki, osobliwości”, in: Wiedza ←15 | 16→o literaturze i edukacja. Księga referatów Zjazdu Polonistów, Warszawa 1995, ed. T. Michałowska, Z. Goliński, Z. Jarosiński (Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, 1996).

* Fragments of “The Autobiographical Triangle: Witness, Confession, Challenge” as “Autobiografia jako wyzwanie (O „Dzienniku” Gombrowicza)”, Teksty Drugie 1994, no. 1 (25).

* “The Spiritual Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Polish Literature”, as “Autobiografia duchowa w dwudziestowiecznej literaturze polskiej”, in: Proza polska w kręgu religijnych inspiracji, ed. M. Jasińska-Wojtkowska and K. Dybciak (Lublin: Tow. Nauk. Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, 1993).

* “Intertextual Connections in the Spiritual Autobiography”, as “Nawiązania międzytekstowe w autobiografii duchowej”, in: Między tekstami. Intertekstualność jako problem poetyki historycznej, ed. J. Ziomek, J. Sławiński, W. Bolecki (Warszawa: Polskie Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1992).

* “Autobiographical Places and the Topographic Imagination: on the Relations Between Place and Identity”, as “Miejsca autobiograficzne. Propozycja w ramach geopoetyki”, Teksty Drugie 2011, no. 5.

* “Home in the Autobiography and the Novel About Childhood”, as “Dom w autobiografii i powieści o dzieciństwie”, in: Przestrzeń i literatura, ed. M. Głowiński and A. Okopień-Sławińska (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1978).

* “Larders of Memory: Transformations of the Borderland Theme in the Autobiographical Novel”, as “Przemiany tematu kresowego. Idylla, tragizm, groteska w twórczości Zbigniewa Żakiewicza”, Tytuł 1999, no. 1 (33).

* “The Centre and the Borderland Periphery in the Prose of Writers Born after World War II”, as “Centrum i kresy w prozie pisarzy urodzonych po wojnie”, in: Pogranicza, granice, ograniczenia, ed. E. Rzewuska (Lublin: Wydawnictwo UMCS, 1996).

* “Space Disturbed. Testimonies to the Post-Yalta ‘Migration of Peoples’ ”, as “Poruszona przestrzeń. Autobiograficzne świadectwa okresu przełomu”, in: Konteksty polonistycznej edukacji, ed. M. Kwiatkowska-Ratajczak and S. Wysłouch (Poznań: Poznańskie Studia Polonistyczne, 1998).

* ““Speaking a Memoir”: Janusz Korczak’s Autobiographical Stance”, as “ ‘Mówić pamiętnik’ (o postawie autobiograficznej Janusza Korczaka)”, in: Janusz Korczak. Pisarz – wychowawca – myśliciel, ed. H. Kirchner (Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich, 1997).

* “How to Write About the Sins of One’s Youth, or A Year with Konwicki, A Year with Miłosz”, as “Rok z Konwickim, rok z Miłoszem”, Teksty Drugie 1995, no. 5 (35).

←16 | 17→

* “The Provocative Testimony of Leopold Tyrmand”, as “Leopold Tyrmand – głos świadka”, Rocznik Towarzystwa Literackiego im. A. Mickiewicza, XXVIII/1993.

* “The Letter and the Novel”, as “Pomiędzy listem a powieścią”, Teksty 1975, no. 4 (22).

* “The Role of the Reader in the Intimate Diary”, as “Rola odbiorcy w dzienniku intymnym”, in: Problemy odbioru i odbiorcy, ed. T. Bujnicki and J. Sławiński (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1977).

* “Metaphors of Autobiographical Writing in the Perspective of Co-Humanism”, as “Autobiografia i metafory”, in: Projekt na daleką metę. Prace ofiarowane Ryszardowi Nyczowi, ed. Z. Łapiński, A. Nasiłowska (Warszawa: Instytut Badań Literackich PAN, 2016).

←17 |
 18→←18 | 19→

1 Cz. Miłosz, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, trans. Catherine S. Leach (London: Penguin Books, 2014).

1. The Field of Non-Fiction Prose

What became of literature in the twentieth century? What became of the stories for which listeners and readers have always longed, the tales that, by the mouths of their bards, their novelists and storytellers, people from time immemorial have always told?

In his Social History of Art, written in the mid-twentieth century, Arnold Hauser described his times as the age of film. From today’s perspective, we can surely see that he was right: the twentieth century was indeed the age of film and television. Electronic audiovisual media have come to eclipse literature, yet they nevertheless still need it; they continue to draw on its heroes and on shreds of its storylines. For the literary scholar, the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth is the era of the novel. After that, rivals enter the stage and as time passes they become increasingly dominant. The documentary appears in large circulation press and subsequently enters the book market, where it competes successfully for readers’ attention, along with other genres of non-fiction prose such as biographies and memoirs. In the system of connecting vessels that is culture, it is impossible not to notice the pressure exerted by these so-called border or paraliterary forms on the traditional centre where the genres of high literature are concentrated.1 The novel, undoubtedly the leader among prose genres, is undergoing deep inner transformations which are partly linked with what is happening on the fringes of literature.

The need to examine non-fiction prose more closely, with regard to both the mutual relations with traditional literary genres and the instrinsic worth of this kind of writing, has long been acknowledged. The English distinction between fiction and non-fiction is one of the most basic, as much in academic textbooks as in the practice of literary life. A similar dychotomy is assumed in film theory and criticism, which distinguishes between documentaries and feature films (with a tacit identification of the “feature” aspect with fictionality).

How is one to find one’s way in the domain of non-fiction literature? Is it reasonable to consider it as a whole, given that we have no positive term to describe its characteristic features? The expression we use is a negative one, telling us what this kind of prose literature is not: it is not fiction. One might of course recall ←21 | 22→that nothing unites so well as a common enemy, an adage which proves its relevance not only in relation to the name, but also in explaining the history of the thing itself. As far as this is concerned, there is almost universal agreement: non-fiction prose in the twentieth century is defined in a certain sense in opposition to the novel. Its success is connected with “the crisis of the novel”; it is nourished by “the death of the novel”; it is read “instead of the novel”.2 Equally, studies of such prose frequently define themselves in relation to the theory of the novel (including the general generic problem of narrative forms) and theories of fiction and fictionality. Indeed, there is perhaps no real need for one single definition conceived in such a manner as to cover the whole multiplicity and variety of phenomena that go by the name of non-fiction prose. Undoubtedly, rather than attempting to provide an all-embracing definition, a more important thing is to describe the field in question and the varieties and distinctions within it. In the field of non-fiction prose, we can discern three areas that border on one another, but differ in character and in the way they function in literary communication. These are literature of fact, literature of personal document and essays.

Literature of Fact

This term, which first appeared in the interwar period, initially had a kind of manifesto character, being connected with the proletarian literature agenda drawing on ideas proclaimed by “Nowyj LEF” in Russia, by the “New Objectivity” (“Neue Sachlichkeit”) programme in Germany and by the “authenticity” movement in Poland. While this tendency had its consequences for the poetics of the novel, the definition itself (“literature of fact”) came gradually to be associated with documentary. Later, in post-war journalism, literary criticism and subsequently literary theory, the term was applied to documentary writing of various kinds, as well as to other forms of a documentary character, such as chronicles and reports.3

←22 | 23→

Where historical events are concerned, it is not uncommon for documentary writings to become embroiled in some entirely independent drama not invented by the writer but caused by the extraordinariness of the situation in which he or she is involved. In such circumstances, the tension vested in the events can impart a social importance to the text, making it capable of functioning among a wider public audience. Examples of this phenomenon would include Emmanuel Ringelblum’s Kronika [Chronicle] (a collection of records documenting life in the Warsaw ghetto, which were hidden within it and fortunately survived), Władysław Bartoszewski’s 1859 dni Warszawy [Warsaw’s 1859 Days] (reconstructed after the war from documents chronicling daily life in the city during the Nazi occupation) and Kazimierz Moczarski’s Conversations with an Executioner. (As an officer of the Polish underground army, Moczarski was imprisoned by the communists after the war. He found himself in the same cell as SS general Jürgen Stroop, the “executioner” of the Warsaw ghetto, and after his release he wrote a record of his conversations with this war criminal.)4 Accounts collected by sociologists or ethnographers concerning everyday life could also become attractive as literature, if we look at social processes not from the point of view of public history, but in relation to the story of ordinary daily life.5 Above all, however, the extremely dynamic and distinctive development of documentary,6 which shaped a range of new varieties, attaining at its best a remarkable ←23 | 24→literary level, powerfully affected the situation of the novel and assured an increasing role to literature of fact.

Literature of Personal Document


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (May)
Non-fiction prose Personal writing Literature and migration Literature and space Literature and history Centre and periphery
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 347 pp.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Czermińska (Author) Jean Ward (Revision)

Małgorzata Czermińska is a Professor at the University of Gdańsk, Poland, and specialises in non-fiction, theory and history of autobiography, geopoetics and links between literature and visual art. She has lectured in Polish literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (USA) and Cambridge University (UK). Jean Ward is an Associate Professor of the University of Gdańsk, Poland.


Title: The Autobiographical Triangle
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351 pages