In the Footsteps of Kierkegaard

Modern Ethical Literature by Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist

by Katarzyna Szewczyk-Haake (Author)
©2022 Monographs 262 Pages


The book is a comparative study of the works of Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist, in their youth recognized as prominent expressionist writers, and in their later years making the ethical topic the core of their works. In search for ways of expressing ethical dilemmas, the works of Søren Kierkegaard and his concept of indirect communication turned out to be an extraordinarily powerful tool for both writers, enabling them to explore the matters of ethics and morals in a way substantially different from traditional didactic literature. In the reading of Wittlin‘s and Lagerkvist’s works undertaken in this book, the perspectives of comparative studies and the history of literature complement and make it possible to describe an important, but rarely recognized phenomenon of modern European literature: its ethical variant.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • About the author
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Contemporary comparative studies and the comparative studies of Swedish and Polish literature
  • 2. Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist, or the question of the ethical horizon of modernist literature
  • 3. Ethical criticism: Notes on the method
  • Chapter One Modern ethical literature: Genealogy and definition
  • 1. Moral obligations of literature and changes in ethics in modernity
  • 2. The shadow of modernisation
  • 3. Søren Kierkegaard’s ethics of communication and the model of ethical literature by Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist
  • Kierkegaard’s reception in Swedish and Polish literature until the Second World War
  • Kierkegaard’s ethics of communication / literary communication
  • Interpretative context: Kierkegaard and/or Nietzsche
  • Chapter Two Ethical tasks of literature according to Lagerkvist and Wittlin
  • 1. “I’m essentially a moralist,” or choosing the “non-cultural:” On Pär Lagerkvist
  • The ambivalent meaning of bad art
  • On the trail of a “third kind” of art
  • Literature and art, and the question of “ethical art”
  • Expressionism, modernity and ethical literature (a digression of a historical-literary nature)
  • Falsification or enchantment?
  • 2. “I am primarily concerned with the moral side of human existence,” or “let’s archaise consciously:” On Józef Wittlin
  • The truth and truths: The problem of language
  • Literature facing evil – and facing good: “It is no skill to criticise the earth from the height of heaven”
  • Facing the Holocaust
  • The ethical and the aesthetic: Existential understanding of a work of art
  • 3. Summary
  • Chapter Three The capabilities of poetry: On Ångest [Anxiety] and Hymny [Hymns]
  • 1. On Lagerkvist
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Doubt in words
  • 2. On Wittlin
  • In the face of nothingness: Nihilism and fear
  • Towards the reader’s ethical independence
  • 3. Summary
  • Chapter Four The capabilities of prose: On Sól ziemi [The Salt of the Earth] and Dvärgen [The Dwarf]
  • 1. Sól ziemi [The Salt of the Earth] by Józef Wittlin
  • Pacifism as ethical literature?
  • Modern and timeless evil
  • Types and functions of irony
  • The irony of a simpleton: Modifications
  • The irony of the sender: Analogies and paradoxes
  • Irony as an attitude
  • Summary
  • 2. Dvärgen [The Dwarf] by Pär Lagerkvist
  • Three evils: Eternal, renaissance and modern
  • Facing nihilism
  • The chances of the first-person narrative
  • Perspectivism
  • Summary
  • Chapter Five Exiles, visitors and pilgrims: Around apocryphal works
  • 1. On Wittlin: Saint Francis of Assisi, or on imitation
  • “Avoid the word God”
  • 2. On Lagerkvist: God’s witnesses
  • Barabbas
  • “Why do I sit here on the shore?”
  • 3. Summary
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series index

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The comparative studies of modern Swedish and Polish literature is not a completely neglected field, but at the same time it would be difficult to maintain that findings in this area allow for outlining a comparative synthesis presenting modernism in the literature and culture of both countries.1 My initial intention was to write a book that would allow for taking a step forward in the further “synchronisation of European modernisms.” Hence the choice of authors whose work constitutes the material of the analyses: two writers considered to be the most outstanding representatives of expressionism in their national literatures, peers with similar generational experiences (although, obviously, with quite different perspectives, as they were characterised by differences of cultural nature, as well as different biographies, strongly affected by geopolitics).

However, more detailed studies have revealed in the oeuvre of the two writers the existence of the common core other than that based on the experiences of participating in modern literary currents – in this case: expressionism – and on the trauma of the First World War. Its recognition not only makes it possible to significantly supplement the image of their creative output with elements which, in my view, have eluded research on their legacy so far, but also makes it necessary to indicate some less described places on the map of modernist litera- ture. I owe such historical and literary findings to the capabilities of contemporary comparative studies, based on the principle of not just confronting separate qualities (in this case: national literatures) but, rather, finding a proper context for them, in which their mutual relationships will become visible.2 In the first ←11 | 12→part of the Introduction, I specify how I view the place of the comparative research of Swedish and Polish literature in the context of significant tendencies visible in modern comparative studies. Next, I briefly outline the chief research problem considered in this book, i.e. the phenomenon which I call modern ethical literature, and I explain how I understand the modernity and ethicality of the oeuvre of Pär Lagerkvist and Józef Wittlin, which make themselves powerfully evident in the parallel reading of their works, undertaken by me. At the end of the Introduction, I present the methodological assumptions which I adopt making use of the achievements of ethical criticism, and I indicate why I regard it as operative in relation to the literature that I am going to analyse in this book.

1. Contemporary comparative studies and the comparative studies of Swedish and Polish literature

In recent decades, the growing convergence of comparative studies and cultural research has resulted in many significant consequences for comparative literature,3 for an exhaustive description of which there is no room here. At the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the transformations that occurred in comparative literary studies led to an understanding of its own interdisciplinarity in a way that was increasingly broader and more and more often shifting the focus of attention from issues related to the study of a text to problems related to cultural studies, including issues of multiculturalism and postcolonialism.4←12 | 13→This does not mean, however, that the field of comparative research, which operates strictly within the study of literature, should now appear excessively traditional and therefore marginal. On the contrary, the voices maintaining that it is literature above all that should remain the subject of comparative research5 reverberate clearly. One of the reasons for that is the fact that literary historians are increasingly aware of the usefulness of the findings of comparative literary studies for their analyses. I emphasize this fact because the book which the reader is holding in their hands, and which has been designed as a comparative study, is also meant to present some conclusions drawn in this way within the scope of historical and literary studies.

It is worth noting, however, that also within the strictly literary foundation of comparative studies, what is clearly visible is the significant nature of changes in global comparative research at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As noted by Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, in the field of comparative literary studies the turn of the millennium resulted in a significant intensification of research on the relationship between Europe’s literatures.6 It has become a particularly visible phenomenon to conduct research in the hitherto “peripheral” areas of study and to include in their scope not only the five “great” European literatures but also the traditions of smaller national literatures, so far often marginalised. The latter had previously been compared almost exclusively with the “great” literatures of Europe, which led to a special perspective of their viewing and to conclusions clearly marked by that perspective. The “decentralisation” of European literature that happens in this way shows certain similarities to the “decolonisation” undertaken and postulated in the field of global comparative studies, although its critical and social potential (of the highest rank in that context) is obviously different. The works of the above-mentioned comparative literary scholars juxtaposing Polish and Swedish literatures contribute highly to such “decentralisation.” At the same time, they confirm the belief that it is neither advisable nor even possible to study any European literature in isolation, i.e. in isolation from the historical and literary context, and to break with the tradition of Western ←13 | 14→literature, which has shaped the identity of European scholars.7 Adopting such a strategy – after the lesson that comparative studies have been informed by cultural studies and by the situation of the globalising knowledge of literature in the reality of the early twenty-first century – does not mean a thoughtless adoption of the long-established framework of operation but results from a conscious decision, from recognition of the limitations and specificity of both one’s own point of view and that of the object of research.

The fact that more recent comparative studies have to a great extent abandoned the search for and cataloguing of the genetic relationships between texts in favour of typological findings sometimes makes today’s comparative literature studies close to the history of ideas. Both of these fields use a set of concepts that lie at the boundary of literary studies and philosophy, both are interested in describing the impact of philosophical ideas on literature (and this issue will also be discussed in the present book). The fact that comparative literary studies enhance not only the ideological but also the aesthetic layer of a literary work and ask about the contexts of literary and artistic meanings revealed in those works makes its way of seeing and evaluating works obviously go beyond the competences and interests of the history of ideas. At the same time, the latter prompts an observation that is extremely inspiring for a comparator interested, like myself, in comparative research between two “peripheral” literatures. Relatively distant cultures and literatures may be bound by a whole range of extremely diverse relations: from real contacts between their representatives to textual relations, such as similarities, filiations and homologies: only when taken together do they constitute “an image, a text of culture and a research problem.”8 History of ideas helps comparative literary research by pointing to a path different from both the infamous and long-abandoned “influenceology” and the path of sociological and cultural studies, distant from the philological tradition, which is, after all, the basis of knowledge about literature.9

The relationship between comparative studies and philology remains binding: the former is a discipline that grows out of the tradition of learning ←14 | 15→national languages and literatures.10 At the same time, and importantly for the research undertaken in the present book, Saussy argues that the goals of comparative studies and national philologies are different. In the comparative perspective adopted by me, certain literary phenomena, described earlier by Polish and Swedish philology, have revealed themselves in a light that is different from the previous one. Therefore, the findings of a historical and literary nature, which I am going to present here, to some extent both complement and go beyond what the literary studies undertaken in the field of Swedish and Polish philology have so far had to say about the works of the two authors on which I have focused although, obviously, my research owes a great deal to those studies.

2. Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist, or the question of the ethical horizon of modernist literature

The association of the two protagonists of this book with the notion of modern literature (even in the broadest and the most vague sense) must be surprising at first. The reasons for this state of affairs should, in my view, be sought both in the established research opinions concerning their oeuvre and in the ways of perception of modernist literature in both countries.

In order to briefly describe, for the purposes of this introduction, the phenomenon whose implementation I find in the works of Wittlin and Lagerkvist, and which I refer to in this book as modern ethical literature, it is necessary to point to two basic aspects that determine its specificity and distinctiveness: on the one hand, the background of all modernist literature, and on the other hand, the context of the rich tradition of literature that takes up ethical and moral tasks. Due to the change in the perception of the capabilities and tasks of literature, which has been taking place since Romanticism, and which has been expressed, among others, in a distinction made between didactic literature and other types of writings (made when the specificity of the aesthetic tasks of literature were acknowledged and began to be defined in opposition to its utilitarian obligations11), the literature that undertook an ethical mission began to appear as a separate trend within the art of the word as a whole. Modern literature (which, in ←15 | 16→this book, I understand broadly as literature created after the breakthrough that took place in the Enlightenment) is characterised by appreciation of the former rather than the latter element in the opposition of “pure art” and art aimed at any non-artistic goal. This appreciation manifests itself in marginalising the significance of both the works which do not meet the postulate of artistic refinement and those that set themselves “practical” goals, such as the task of shaping the ethical sensitivity of the reader. The modern ethical literature described in this book deals with ethical issues; however, it is created in a situation when dealing with such issues in a literary work has ceased to be a commonplace, and has become a testimony to specific literary interests. That is why it applies different techniques and has quite different goals than the moralistic literature created by writers in earlier periods. Before I present my analyses in this book, I want to emphasize in this place that those techniques as well as the goals that the authors of modern ethical literature set for themselves, do owe a lot to the inspiration drawn from the Danish thinker, Søren Kierkegaard.

The writing interests of Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist are commonly described as focussed on great existential questions and related ethical issues. Moreover, in the vast (and best known) part of their works they took up religious issues. Tirelessly and quite openly, they reached for the resources of the greatest Christian stories, they repeatedly asked questions about religious faith and its justification, and constantly confronted their protagonists and readers with fundamental existential, metaphysical and ethical questions, prompting reflection on the essence of good and evil. At the same time, it seems that it was precisely this existential and ethical orientation of their work that, in the opinion of numerous commentators of modernist literature, made Pär Lagerkvist and Józef Wittlin appear as “visitors from another planet.”12 The fact that in their ←16 | 17→works, in a more or less hidden way, both of them expressed their views on the topics of spirituality and ethics must have caused problems to both structuralist and formalistic criticism (which decades ago had a dominant position in Poland and has recently been described bluntly as “ethically blind”)13 as well as to that criticism which willingly took up the proposals formulated by New Criticism, including skepticism towards any moral or socially didactic elements in a literary work (abundantly represented in Sweden).14

←17 | 18→

The classification of the works of both writers as “different” and “specific,” set against the background of their contemporaries, was facilitated by the fact that both of them clearly distanced themselves from many modernist myths (such as the myth of progress, the myth of secularisation, and the myth of emancipation) in the name of the deepest layers of European tradition. As a result, it would be difficult to indicate any study that would consider Wittlin’s work in the context of literary modernity. Although, as the author of important literary manifestos and a promoter of avant-garde movements in visual arts, Lagerkvist is commonly mentioned in the ranks of leading Swedish modernists, this classification imperceptibly disappears in research on his later works, covering approximately three-quarters of his oeuvre, including the novel Barabbas [Barabbas], which earned him the Nobel Prize, as well as such masterpieces as Dvärgen [The Dwarf], Mariamne [Herod and Mariamne] or the volume of poems Aftonland [Evening Land]. The fact that, in literary studies, the two writers are regarded as distinctly separate from their epoch finds its ultimate confirmation in the fact that for the most part of their work they remained at first glance in the circle of traditionally understood ways of practicing literature,15 failing to be included in the trend of modern literature that is most willingly described by researchers (for which the experimental activities of the avant-garde were a significant inspiration),16 and, indeed, they radically dissociated themselves from it.

The interpretations of the works contained in this book indicate, however, that the classification of Józef Wittlin and Pär Lagerkvist within the traditional (“classical,” as they were perceived)17 discourse is a great simplification. Undoubtedly, ←18 | 19→their writing is indicative of striving for clarity of expression and order in composition along with abandoning radical linguistic experiment and ostentatious autotelism. However, at the same time, while tirelessly taking up metaphysical and ethical issues, they did not ignore the aesthetic assumptions constituting the novelty of modern literature, among which what turned out to be the most important for their oeuvre were the techniques enabling the achievement of a polyphonic effect in a work. Moreover, it is in the way they used the fabric of literature that one should look for an important feature of this branch of modern literature that was interested in creating a new way of speaking about ethics. It is not only the thematic layer of the works – often dealing with the question of evil and its modern dimensions as well as the drama of human existence in the face of the disappearance of the metaphysical horizon – that makes one think of Wittlin and Lagerkvist as the creators of modern ethical literature. Similar conclusions are drawn also by examining the formal layer of those works, which, contrary to the centuries-old tradition of moralistic literature, does not strive for “transparency” of style, communicativeness and, as a result, for clearly formulated truths, directives and guidelines. A closer look at the theoretical views of both writers and at their works makes one convinced that it is exactly the opposite: they fully share with other modernist authors “the growing awareness of the importance of the medium, verbal material in which they express themselves,” “the focus on the form (or structure)” and “increased attention to language.18 The simplicity of style very often proves to be apparent while refined games aimed at stylisation and complex compositional structures are designed to lure the virtual recipient to adopt an attitude of ethical thinking, not at all identical with the adoption of a ready-made worldview, which would indeed be difficult to find in the works of Wittlin and Lagerkvist (also in this sense undoubtedly belonging to modernity). What is obvious in this situation is that the “ethicality” of this literature includes not only (or even: not so much) discussions concerning the issue of legitimacy of a given ethical system, but also attempts to create solutions to the problems of ethics of communication (ethical communication). Therefore, an interpretation ←19 | 20→of the ethical threads of their work that disregards this compositional nuance would be burdened with a serious risk of erroneous perception of the literature they create as “nothing more than supplementing traditional moral vocabularies or shoring up contemporary therapeutic recastings of traditional wisdom.”19

3. Ethical criticism: Notes on the method

In the context of Charles Altieri’s statement, sensitising readers to the risk of reductionism in the interpretation of the relations between literature and ethics performed from the perspective of ethical criticism, it should be pointed out that research on these relations can be divided into three basic approaches. The first of these is implicit in the activities of all literary scholars interested in placing a work within the ideological context of its time, so it is not related to the emergence of ethical critique in the 1980s. It consists in reconstructing the ethical convictions contained in specific works and reflecting on their place in the writer’s entire worldview, formation or the period in which the work was created; the work is treated here as a manifestation or embodiment of the ethical sensitivity characteristic of its historical time. The second approach is to interpret literary works as ethical instructions, expressed more or less literally in the stories about the fate and dilemmas of the protagonists;20 such a strategy marks one of the poles of ethical criticism and is sometimes called moralism.21 The third ←20 | 21→one, emphasizing the ethical message that is revealed to the reader of the work, brings with it intensified reflection on the formal side of the analysed works as co-constituting their ethical meanings; such a course of action can be described as the other pole of ethical criticism, called autonomism.22

When writing about modern ethical literature, my perspective will remain the closest (but not slavishly close) to the third of the above-mentioned research approaches in its moderate form: mainly due to the fundamental role played by compositional nuancing in the ethical meanings conveyed by Wittlin and Lagerkvist. The works of these writers are characterised by the non-ostentatious but consistent appreciation of the formal side of a literary work as the sphere in which a significant part of the battle to awaken the reader’s ethical sensitivity takes place. It is these individual, author’s choices and decisions concerning composition that I treat as more important for the modern ethical literature reconstructed here than imposing on language the irreducible burden of ethical ←21 | 22→judgements, as it is sometimes pointed out by proponents of ethical criticism.23 It can be said that this literature does not give its commentator any special freedom in the choice of analytical tools: it makes formal measures aimed to empower the recipient more important than ethical projects (which, in fact, it does not contain), thus forcing the critic to pay attention to the issues of ethics of communication in a literary work. It can be noticed, somewhat subversively, that the works of the writers who are the topic of this book make the researcher’s task easier as they do not allow the researcher to fit into any interpretation pattern based on some programme or ideology. In my view, the fundamental characteristic of modern ethical literature lies in the fact that it implements a certain model of communication24 instead of proclaiming a specific set of beliefs; it praises sensitivity and openness to the world rather than a given worldview.

Moderate autonomism, however, has yet another value in my eyes, co-deciding on its choice: this attitude makes it possible to take a somewhat roundabout path to reach conclusions of a historical-literary nature, and this perspective is very important for my reading of the works of Pär Lagerkvist and Józef Wittlin as creators of modern ethical literature. Modern ethical literature, which is the subject of my research, is an area that encourages multidirectional reflection (at the boundary of literary history, literary theory, history of philosophy, and cultural anthropology). Therefore, there is a need, on the one hand, to profile research in the spirit of literary anthropology (which results from the close relationship between the essence of this literature and the issue of the modern breakthrough), and on the other hand, to take into account the perspective of ethical criticism in its moderate fraction. This need arises in search for an answer to the question: what is the way of shaping the literary form of works which look for such means of expression that, without violating the aesthetic autonomy of those ←22 | 23→works, make them an efficient tool of a modern, and therefore unobtrusive, didactics. These are the paths that I will follow in this book. Wolfgang Iser rightly points out that tracing the literary techniques that are proper to modernity often consists in shifting smoothly between the fields of historical and anthropological research;25 and shifting between these two areas will also be my task. I hope that the results of the research designed in this way will be able to reduce the distance that the slogan “literature and ethics” sometimes raises among critics who equate invoking ethical categories with the powerlessness of commentators and the anachronism of the works26 (the distance has been decreasing in recent years). Hence the choice of the book’s motto: a warning memento, which has accompanied me in my interpretative struggles and reminded me of the dangers that argumentation aspiring to the rank of scholarship may be exposed to by ethical criticism, when it is devoid of theoretical-literary (and historical-literary) security measures.

←23 | 24→

1 See Zwierciadła Północy, Vol. 1 eds. M. Janion, N. Å. Nilsson and A. Sobolewska, Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Instytutu Badań Literackich PAN, 1991; Vol. 2 ed. R. Górski, Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Instytutu Badań Literackich PAN, 1992; M. A. Packalén, Under två kulturers ok: allmogeskildringar i den polska och svenska 1800- och 1900-talslitteraturen, Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2001; Kształty nowoczesności. Szkice porównawcze o literaturze polskiej i szwedzkiej, eds. P. de Bończa Bukowski, K. Szewczyk-Haake, Poznań-Gniezno: Wydawnictwo Poznańskiego Towarzystwa Przyjaciół Nauk, 2013.

2 Cf. M. Wasilewska-Chmura, “W stronę intermedialności. Szwedzka droga do neoawangardy a sprawa polska.” In: Kształty nowoczesności. Szkice porównawcze o literaturze polskiej i szwedzkiej, p. 113. Cf. also T. Bilczewski, Komparatystyka i interpretacja: nowoczesne badania porównawcze wobec translatologii, Kraków: Universitas, 2010; Niewspółmierność. Perspektywy nowoczesnej komparatystyki. Antologia, ed. T. Bilczewski, Kraków: Universitas, 2010; Komparatystyka dzisiaj, Vol. 1 Problemy teoretyczne, eds. E. Kasperski, E. Szczęsna Kraków: Universitas, 2010.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (January)
comparative studies Kierkegaard international reception modernism ethics in literature irony ethical criticism
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 262 pp.

Biographical notes

Katarzyna Szewczyk-Haake (Author)

Katarzyna Szewczyk-Haake – professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Her area of academic interest comprises comparative literature, interarts studies, history of modern European literature and relations between literature and philosophy.


Title: In the Footsteps of Kierkegaard
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