Aesopian: The Secret Code to Unlocking Polish Literature
#language & literature
small, Aesopian: The Secret Code to Unlocking Polish Literature, Does the Veil of Veronica hold the key to understanding Polish literature? Squint your eyes to see more... Image: painting by Gabriel von Max; Source:, Does the Veil of Veronica hold the key to understanding Polish literature? Squint your eyes to see more... Image: painting by Gabriel von Max; Source: Wikimedia
Could it be that most Polish modern literature was written in the secret language of the Aesopian? And does the Veil of Veronica hold the key to understanding Polish literature?
During the era of Flaubert, Dostoevsky and Dickens, writers in Poland faced an oppressive system of censorship, one which changed the rules of communication and forced writers to come up with new ways of expression. The new secret language they engaged in enabled writers to push hidden subversive messages between the lines and even ‘behind’ them. Does Aesopian language offer a key to understanding Polish literature?
What follows is a short history of Aesopian language, its invention and rise to the status of unofficial national language of Polish literature, as well as its long-lasting impact on Polish writers today.
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One of the earliest instances of the employment of this secret language and its enormous impact on the community comes up in the work of Adam Mickiewicz. After being accused of engaging in political conspiracy at Vilnius University, he was spending his mid-twenties banished to Russia. In 1828, he wrote a work that would eventually change the path of both Polish literature and history.
Published in Petersburg and approved by the censors, Konrad Wallenrod was a Byronesque epic poem set in the Medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania during the forced christianisation of the country by the hands of the Teutonic Knights. The plot followed the story of a Lithuanian boy raised by the Teutonic Order, who rises to become the Grand Master of the order but eventually turns against the knights, and thus decides to revenge his people.
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The work, which was published with the Machiavellian motto calling for the need to fight as both a lion and a fox, managed to escape censorship due to a personal conflict among the censors. Very soon it became a hit with Polish readers who knew well enough how to read between the lines. For most readers it was obvious that in picturing the Medieval conflict of pagan Lithuanians and Teutonic Christian Missionaries, Mickiewicz was in fact portraying the plight of Poles living under Russian domination. And he was offering some real radical ways-out. The ultimate subversive political message of the poem was actually a scandal: in pursuing patriotic goals every means, including treason, is justified.
The book’s massive success and popularity among young people was often seen as a catalyst which led to the Polish November uprising of 1830. The figure of Konrad Wallenrod on his part, for many decades, became a role model for Polish national resistance. But perhaps more importantly, Mickiewicz was establishing a new writing and reading strategy with Wallenrod, one that would mark Polish literature for the whole century and beyond. From now on when writing in Polish, one would have to be both a lion and a fox.
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The eruptive reception of Wallenrod became an important lesson for the whole system of Russian censorship. Mickiewicz’s next great piece, Forefathers’ Eve: Part III, this time an overtly anti-Tsarist piece of political drama, was never published in the Russian partition. Mickiewicz’s works were banned in Russian Poland for the majority of the 19th century. Even when some poems were occasionally published, they were subjected to heavy censorial interventions. They appeared mutilated or bowdlerised with some passages corrected by the censor.
Poles however would know their Mickiewicz better. A common practice was to write in the book using pencil the correct version of the poem. thus emending the printed text. This was the time when Polish readers often found themselves being philologists. Soon enough, they would find themselves in the position of critics and hermeneuts.
Meanwhile in (Russian) Poland…
Dziady - Adam Mickiewicz
Mickiewicz, like so many other Polish authors of the time, lived and wrote in exile, outside of Poland. This meant that he was not affected by the censorship and the model of communication it created in the country. Meanwhile in Poland, writers faced a system of censorship whose oppressive character could hardly be compared to that of any other place in Europe at the time.
Although different forms of censorship were practiced by all three partitioning administrations its arguably harshest variant was developed in the Russian partition. For the majority of the 19th century, Russian censorial control included not only repressive censorship, but also the preventive kind. This meant that every book, piece of drama or article in a newspaper about to be published in the Russian partition had to be submitted to censorship and subjected to detailed examination.
Under the system of censorship, the censor was on the look-out for any passages in the text that could be considered illegal. These included particular words, like ‘Poland’ or ‘Polish’ – the latter was supplanted by ‘home’ (krajowy) or ‘ours’ (nasz) – but also terms like ‘uprising’, ‘national struggle’, ‘patriotism’ or ‘russification’, or actually any reference to them.
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The system banned traditional historical and geographical names like Great Duchy of Lithuania, and would regularly change the word ‘king’ into ‘duke’. It forbid the use of names for elements of national music, traditions, and even traditional dress.
These principles pertained to scholarly and specialist works, such as history books, but also works on economy and even agriculture if they were found to be imbued in patriotic ideas. In religious ,works censors would erase prayers in which the Mother of God was traditionally referred to as ‘Queen of Poland’. According to one anecdote, the censors in their overzealousness went as far as to try to erase the term ‘Polish’ in scientific botanic terms like ‘Polish wheat’ (Triticum polonicum).
This was all in keeping with the Tsarist policy of the second half of the 19th century. The Russian administration attempted to erase any sign of Polishness from the language as well as any other official contexts. Even the official name of the province disposed of ‘Poland’: Vistula Land (Privislinskiy Krai).
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The situation grew particularly grim after the fall of the January Uprising (1863). With increasing Russification, banning Polish language from schools and universities, and the establishment of the Warsaw Censorship Committee in 1869, Polish literature had to develop new ways to creatively oppose the oppressive system of censorship. In a way, this led to developing a whole new mode of communication, a kind of secret language, which became the unofficial national language of Polish literature. It is actually in this language that much Polish literature was written across the 19th century and into the 20th...
So-called Aesopian speech is usually defined as a way of encrypting predominantly political message in a text while at the same time circumventing the obstacles amassed by the censors. In 19th-century Poland under Russian administration, this became an elaborate system of allusions, symbols, allegories. In fact, in describing Aesopian language, scholars resort to a whole array of rhetorical tropes and devices like periphrasis, metonymies, synecdoches and ellipses.
Invisible to outsiders, these elements operated in a way that was perfectly clear to the Polish patriotic readers who knew well how to read between the lines and even behind them. The strategy of the Aesopian created a kind of contract between the reader and the writer of Polish literature, a contract, that as we will see, operated even in our days.
What The Doll will not tell you
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Surely, one of the most famous books to employ the devices of Aesopian language is The Doll (Lalka) by Bolesław Prus. Considered a realist classic, and often lauded as the best Polish novel ever, The Doll was first published in 1888, at the height of censorship activity. This explains why this seemingly deeply realist novel set in Warsaw in the late 1870s makes virtually no mention of the Russians and Russian administration in the city at the time. The universe of The Doll famously dispenses of any traces of elements such as the Russian language spoken in the street, the officers of the Russian administration, or the Russian architecture and monuments of Warsaw.
This concealment of the otherwise obvious aspects of contemporary social reality and a large part of everyday existence in a city under foreign rule, would normally have to be considered an obvious concession to realism. Here however it constituted a vital element of a specific contract between writer and reader under which the former was willing to forego entire aspects of everyday reality in order to have his book published, part of the game played by the writer with the censor. The reader on the other hand, knew well enough what portion of reality was subdued.
The red hands of Wokulski (and his beer)
Bolesław Prus (Aleksander Głowacki)
Omitting whole aspects of contemporary political and historical reality was but only one of the many devices of Aesopian language. In fact, the censor’s pen also erased whole aspects of historical reality, like references to the January Uprising, deportations to Siberia and emigration – elements which obviously formed the formative background for most of Prus’s heroes.
One of the most famous sentences in The Doll describes the main hero Stanisław Wokulski as follows:
He and the rest of ‘em sowed the harvest we are still reaping today, and in the end Wokulski finished somewhere in the neighbourhood of Irkutsk.
The cryptic unequivocal style of the fragment, enhanced by the use of a metaphorical phrasal expression (the Polish original uses the image of having to drink the beer one has brewed) was used to obscure the sense of the excerpt. For the Aesopian-minded reader, it was obvious that the sowing and reaping (or drinking that beer) referred to the January Uprising and its terrible consequences in the form of Tsarist repressions. The reference to Irkutsk – a location in Siberia and a destination for many participants of the Uprising – made the whole idea all too obvious.
In another famous case of the Aesopian, Wokulski’s hands are described as having a red complexion, which the Polish reader could only understand as the result of time spent in the harsh climate of Siberia.
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The rhetorical strategies of periphrase and allegory were taken to yet another level in the novels of Eliza Orzeszkowa, another champion of the Aesopian. In the poetic style of her novels, all phrases which could be considered ‘problematic’ by the censor were supplanted by metaphors and symbols. Thus, ‘Poland’ becomes ‘a native country’, ‘patriotism’ is supplanted by the term ‘stars’, and ‘the fight for freedom’ is usually referred to as a ‘storm’. The insurgents are called ‘the children of the night’, and the January uprising itself is regularly referred to as ‘a fire’ or ‘that time’. This marked the otherwise realistic writing of Orzeszkowa with a tinge of Romantic flavour.
Deportation too, which as we have seen was a particularly delicate topic, could only be referred to via the means of poetic periphrasis. In one of Orzeszkowa’s novels the hero is said to have ‘for a long time inhabited a peculiar, remote land of whiteness’. Decoding these elements was perfectly clear for the readers of Orzeszkowa, though all the while their allegorical nature made them difficult for the censor to see through.
Humming the ancient folk songs, reading between the dots
Aesopian strategies also covered the use of music. It has been noticed that the heroes of another of Orzeszkowa’s novels On the Niemen (Nad Niemnem) are curiously often found singing or humming, what the writer describes as, ‘ancient traditional songs’. These songs, usually quoted only with their first lines, sometimes in a purposefully distorted way, surprisingly often turn out to be not so old – they actually constitute pieces written by patriotic poets, repeatedly carrying national undertones, like references to the uprisings. The subversive message in these ‘ancient songs’ usually passed unnoticed, or in this case unheard, by the censor, while the Polish reader was able to sing the rest of the lyrics.
Polish writers regularly relied on the powers of deduction and imagination on the part of their readers. In fact, the latter were often supposed to correct the incongruencies of text and fill the gaps in the plot and narrative. At times, the creative circumvention of censorship even included exploiting its own tools. For example, Prus, after receiving a censored copy of one of his short stories, suggested to his publisher they might leave a sequence of dots in place of the censored excerpts. Thus, intercepting the censor’s intervention, Prus used this method to ask readers to try fill the gaps again, and perhaps find what was missing. A deeply engaging model of reading indeed.
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The concept of Aesopian language – a term not in use at the time – was addressed in various ways by different writers throughout the period. In trying to pinpoint this experience – albeit naturally, only in their private correspondence – writers compared it to a pantomime or even sign language. However, one of the more interesting attempts at defining Aesopian speech comes up in the writings of Eliza Orzeszkowa. As she expounds in a private letter to her German translator:
No date or anything, pertaining to national struggle and torments, is called by its name. This is, one could say, a prison language: this many knocks for this word, that many knocks for that word, this sign for this concept, that sign for that. And yet we understand each other – the author and the reader – perfectly.
On the one hand, comparing the language of Polish literature to that of secret prison jargon implies that the former was a kind of social argot restricted to one group of people (that group being patriotic Polish readers). But it can also be construed as implying that the general situation in the country did not differ much from life in prison. And in fact, prison was where many writers could eventually end up if their risky game with the censor was identified.
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Polish writers were often deeply aware of the restrictive and deformative impact of censorship (and self-censorship) on their work. How Polish literature could have looked had the partitions and censorship not occurred can be gleaned from another excerpt from Orzeszkowa's letter:
One needs to narrow down, contain oneself, grow smaller – and then they will blame our generation for being narrow and small... What exquisite things I would have to write about had it been possible to write about them.
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One of the most popular ways of evading censorship was through the means of historical fiction. Any attempt at writing realistic fiction set in contemporary reality ran the risk of either giving an unrealistic representation or being mutilated by censors, so many writers decided to place their stories in the distant past instead. Sometimes this was so obvious that even the censor could see it, as was the case with one Przyborowski novel which transported the plot of a January Uprising novel to Spain. At other times though, it could be much more subtle...
This was the case with Henryk Sienkiewicz’s The Trilogy – three historical fiction books set in the 17th century at the apogee of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s political power, and written by Sienkiewicz to ‘cheer the hearts’. Sienkiewicz could refer to the contemporary political situation only in an allusive way. One of the scenes mentions the strange tribe of Septentrions, who had ravaged the protagonists’ estate. For the Polish reader, it was obvious enough that these ancient inhabitants of the Far North were Russians.
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In Quo Vadis, the book which gave Sienkiewicz worldwide recognition and which portrayed the decadent court of Nero’s Rome and the emerging Christianity as the new power, Sienkiewicz once again created a universe open to Aesopian reading. Polish readers understood the plot as an allusion to Polish contemporary history, with Russia being presented as Nero’s Rome and the fate of the first martyrs symbolising the situation of Poles.
At the same time, the climactic scene in the novel where one of the heroes is fighting a bull, or actually a ‘German Aurochs’ as Sienkiewicz writes, was seen as a political allusion to the situation of Poland. In this allegorical reading, the German aurochs was Prussia, and the character Lycia, tied to his horn, was, naturally enough, Poland. While it is now difficult to see the true intentions of Sienkiewicz in building this scene, perhaps this example tells us more about the Aesopian mechanisms inherent in the process of how Polish readers read their writers.
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A similar phenomenon may be at the core of the Polish reading experience in regard to Joseph Conrad’s work. Conrad, who was born in the former territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, emigrated from the partitioned country in the 1870s and went on to become a renowned figure in English modernist literature. In Poland, many of his works were always seen through the prism of that Polish chapter.
This was especially the case when it came to the Polish reception of Lord Jim. The book came out in Poland in the wake of a debate that had just swept across Polish newspapers and which concentrated on Conrad’s alleged escape from the country some 50 years earlier. This debate (known as the so-called Emigration of Talents debate) likely influenced the Polish readings of Conrad’s book, and created a context in which the book was read.
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Polish readers interpreted the book as an autobiographical account of Conrad’s emigrant experience. In the eyes of Polish readers, the ship Patna, which the protagonist untimely abandons in the novel’s central scene, becomes a symbol of their homeland – an interpretation facilitated by the similarity of the words ‘Patna’ and ‘Patria’, namely Latin for ‘homeland’. In this interpretation, Lord Jim’s subsequent moral thoughts and sense of remorse are only sublimated emotions resulting from his moral dilemma after deciding to leave the country and abandon the Polish national cause.
While Lord Jim may be the most radical case of Aesopian reading methods, it also shows that Aesopian interpretation was not restricted to only Polish literature. The following case will also show that mastering Aesopian was not limited to only Polish writers.
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While Aesopian and repressive censorship may have been the everyday reality of writers and journalists writing under the Russian administration, it was far less common in Western Europe. One of the few Western writers to have first-hand experience of the doubtful pleasures of preventive censorship in Russia-partitioned Poland was Danish writer Georg Brandes. Brandes came to Poland on a series of visits in the 1880s and eventually wrote a book about Poland. He not only experienced censorship but also learned to employ Aesopian language, much the same as Polish writers had.
In his book, Brandes relates in minute detail the painful process of trying to give a series of lectures about Polish Romantic literature in Warsaw, at a time when speaking about anything overtly Polish was strictly forbidden. Brandes quite reasonably observes that the large part of the literature of the period is in fact ‘patriotic in the extreme, thoroughly hostile to the Russian rule, and forbidden on that account’. As he observes:
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How should I manage to discuss Mickiewicz’s Dziady [Forefathers’ Eve], in which political prison life in Vilnius is described, or Słowacki’s Kordian, which treats of an attempt to assassinate the Tzar Nicholas, or Krasiński’s whole works, not to speak of the lyrics of war and rebellion; how on the other hand could I omit to speak of all these?
Brandes’s first-hand experience of censorship, if altogether absurd, turns out an informative one. As he relates:
At this time I received my first lecture back from the censor. They had been very thorough. The conclusion, several pages, was struck out, and in various places the erasures were numerous. Even a well-known quotation from Schiller, ‘the living is right’, was struck out. Words like ‘résignation’ or ‘tristesse’, used to as characteristic of Polish literature, were blotted out. In one place where I had spoken of the Catholic piety of Polish poets, these words were erased. In another place where I had spoken of the life which is described in the most celebrated work of Mickiewicz, the red pencil had gone over these words: ‘The Lithuanian forest, the natural setting of this life’; and in ‘For the first time, since the partition of the kingdom’, the last phrase was obliterated.
That piece of corrected text from the censor proved a key writing lesson for Brandes who then started rewriting his lecture using the Aesopian:
I strove in vain to find expressions with double meaning, images, in themselves indistinct, which could be understood by the audience, circumlocutions, which could be seen through and yet would be unassailable. [...] Gradually I acquired practice in the rebus style, and wrote, so that by an accent or a pause I could give a sentence a new and more living character; I became an expert in hints and implications.
Brandes’s Warsaw adventure made him perhaps a unique case: a foreign writer giving a lecture on Polish literature in French while making use of the Polish Aesopian idiom.
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Brandes’s experience of Polish reality under partitions gave him not only a unique perspective on the political plight of Poland at the end of the 19th century, but it also led him to some deeply interesting remarks on the nature of the period’s Polish literature. Describing Polish Romantic literature, Brandes finds in it ‘something reserved, not easily penetrable’:
Or rather it is, at once, closed and open, according to the point of view at which one places oneself.
He then, much in the fashion of the Polish Aesopian style’s use of allegory, compares Polish literature to The Veil of Veronica, a quasi-illusionistic painting by Gabriel von Max, ‘a painting I do not value highly artistically, for it is a piece of artifice, not a work of art, but which well illustrates what I mean’. What Brandes means is explained in the following lines:
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At the first glance the the countenance seems to be that of a corpse; the eyes are tightly shut, the expression lifeless. But when you reach the right point of view the face suddenly assumes life, the eyes open and turn a sorrowful and solemn gaze on the spectator.
The parallel juxtaposing Polish literature with this seemingly rather average painting by a rather obscure Austrian painter, can actually be seen as Brandes’s hint at the Aesopian nature of Polish literature.
The necessity of taking a particular angle (‘reaching the right point of view’) in order to understand a work of Polish literature is actually a perfect definition of Aesopian. Without that correct angle, namely the understanding of the code, much of Polish literature does in fact remain cold and dead, just like the face of Christ in that 19th-century painting. Only knowledge of the secret code allows for better understanding of a piece of art, and allows the viewer to see Christ’s eyes as open.
It may only be slightly ironic that in formulating this observation on Polish literature, Brandes is simultaneously resorting to the allegorical trope of the Aesopian. But it’s also the only way he could have phrased it.
The return of Aesopian speech
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Other than a short intermission for the revolutionary years of 1905-1906, a brief moment when censorship was temporarily lifted, Aesopian speech continued to be the language of Polish literature until WWI and the regaining of independence in 1918. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t to go away. In fact, the strategies of Aesopian returned only some thirty years later when the Soviet-installed communist government once again imposed censorship in Poland.
Polish writers returned to resorting to Aesopian speech, locating the plots of their books in historical costume and using historical parables and allegories. For many writers, like Zbigniew Herbert, Teodor Parnicki or Andrzej Szczypiorski, ancient or distant historical settings once again became a comfortable, and sometimes the only possible, way to build meaning. Many readers have gone on to read the sci-fi master Stanisław Lem’s works as encrypted critiques of contemporary political reality.
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Interestingly, Aesopian strategies can even be seen in the domain of reportage, specifically the non-fiction written during the communist regime. Ryszard Kapuściński’s Shah of Shahs and The Emperor, both reportages about distant strict regimes (that of Reza Pahlavi in Iran and Haile Selassie in Ethiopia), were read against a Polish political backdrop (with The Emperor widely considered to be a disguised satire on the authoritative rule of Edward Gierek, the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party in the 1970s).
Perhaps the most extreme case of non-fiction writing written and read through the lens of Aesopian glasses was Barbara Łopieńska’s 1977 reportage about taming tigers in the USSR. The piece was almost universally read as a commentary on the Polish-Soviet political relations of the time, especially since one year earlier a so-called 'eternal' Polish-Russian friendship had been introduced into the Polish Constitution. In a way, this is an example of the Aesopian going back to its literary source, that of the fables of Aesop and their animal protagonists.
The end of Aesopian?
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The collapse of communism in 1989 and the dismantling of the institution of censorship on 6th June 1990 would seem like a proper end to the long period of Aesopian in Polish literature. However, as Polish scholar Ryszard Nycz notes, for some writers, like Sławomir Mrożek or Zbigniew Herbert, Aesopian became a constant presence in their individual poetics, both in texts written outside of Poland (that is to say beyond the reach of censorship) and those produced even long after censorship was lifted.
Nycz argues that the long-standing activity and institution of censorship has left a distinct mark on Polish literature. In fact, the scholar claims, the consequences of censorship and Aesopian language have determined the entire character of the literature, including the features and competences of readers.
According to this Polish scholar, the dominant role of Aesopian interpretation had a deformative impact on the semantics of text, resulting in a specific over-interpretation of the literary text. Most importantly, it rendered Polish literature hermetic and ‘occasional’ at the same time. This mark of hermeticism and ‘occasionality’ has made it difficult to assess the actual meaning and stature of a work of Polish literature. For readers that lack that Aesopian reading competence, cognitive contact with the text is not really possible.
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These qualities, along with the specific Polono-centrism of Polish literature, were recognised by other Polish authors. One of the most accomplished of them all, and well-acquainted with Aesopian language for that too, Stefan Żeromski wrote as early as 1915 in reference to Polish literature written under partitions:
We don’t bring to the world any new artistic message about the intricacies of the human soul. We keep talking about the intricacies of the Polish soul.
A sentence that even today, over 100 years after it was written, still rings true in regard to many contemporary Polish authors.
So, does the legacy of partitions, censorship, and Aesopian language still loom large over huge swathes of Polish literature? If so, it could explain why for so many readers of Polish literature the eyes of Christ from Gabriel von Max’s painting must remain closed.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 6 June 2017
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