The Pen or… the Pen? A Brief History of Polish Literary Beefs
#language & literature
default, Adolphe Jean Baptiste Bayot, illustration from ‘Memoirs’ by Jan Chryzostom Pasek, 1852 & 1857, photo: National Digital Library Polona, center, pojedynek_mnw.jpg
Even though writers are usually highly cultured individuals, even they cannot avoid conflict. And when it happens that one writer gets into a dispute with another, you get a situation that can best be described as a ‘literary beef’. Since the media thrives on conflict, Culture.pl has decided to describe some of the most famous quarrels that have occurred in the Polish literary world.
The conflict bandwagon
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Actors Tadeusz Łomnicki and Daniel Olbrychski in a duel scene in the 1974 film ‘Potop’, directed by Jerzy Hoffman, photo: Franciszek Kadziołka / Filmoteka
It’s an often-repeated observation that media thrives on conflict. If you doubt that there’s any truth to this, try turning on the evening news. You’ll find that reports about war, heated political disputes and violent crimes are much more prevalent than stories about neighbours shaking hands and saying ‘how do you do?’ Of course, one may feel appalled by this state of things, but then again, it only goes to show what audiences want. The media wouldn’t be presenting conflict if people weren’t interested in it.
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Taking into consideration the public’s needs, Culture.pl has decided to respond to them in a caring way – we’re hopping on the conflict bandwagon. This we do (as with everything) with a cultural twist. Thus, in this text, we present information about some of the best-known, most tumultuous conflicts in the Polish literary world, or literary beefs, if you will. Discover how one writer took on another, what made them disagree, what kind of words they threw at each other in the heat of the argument. Without further ado, let’s see which is mightier, the pen or… the pen.
Mickiewicz vs Słowacki
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Adam Mickiewicz in a photo from 1842, photo: Museum of Literature in Warsaw / East News. Juliusz Słowacki, a drawing by Józef Kurowski, 1838, photo: Museum of Literature in Warsaw / East News
Possibly the most famous Polish literary beef is the one between Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, who are considered the two most important Polish poets of the Romantic era. Thanks to such works as the verse drama Forefathers’ Eve or the narrative poem Pan Tadeusz, Mickiewicz established himself as a ‘national seer’, a poet who expressed the spirit of the Polish nation to its fullest. Słowacki, who was eleven years younger, authored plays such as Balladyna or the digressive poem Beniowski and looked up to Mickiewicz – he wanted to become equally important as him.
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The two were acquainted, and their relationship was marked by literary rivalry. Mickiewicz, as the reigning champion, so to say, for most of the time appeared not to notice Słowacki’s writings – but when he did, he dismissed them as hollow. Here’s how Słowacki complained about this in a letter he wrote to his mother in August 1832:
[He] said that my poetry is delightful, that it’s an edifice of beautiful architecture, like a high church – but that there’s no God in this church…
Słowacki, on the other hand, argued that Mickiewicz’s works were limited by their focus on the issues of the Polish nation and as such, weren’t universal. The tension between the two is said to have reached its climax at a dinner party held in Paris on 25th December 1840.
The party was organised by the publisher Eustachy Januszkiewicz to celebrate Mickiewicz’s accomplishments. Both Słowacki and Mickiewicz were among the 40 or so (mostly Polish) guests, and the two exchanged improvised, versed toasts at the dinner table. The attendees listened carefully enough that today, we know what happened thanks to their accounts.
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Słowacki went first, and although he praised Mickiewicz’s poetry, he also pointed out Mickiewicz’s excessive pride and condescending attitude towards other poets. He is said to have ended on a bitter note, saying that Mickiewicz ‘showed where to strike him’ – referencing the national seer’s criticism of his work. Mickiewicz replied by saying that he always speaks from the heart and that Słowacki lacks in faith and love, although he also acknowledged his rival’s talent. He is said to have finished by saying that ‘For the poet there’s only one path! Through love to God!’, addressing yet again the ‘hollowness’ of Słowacki’s writing.
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Fortunately, this – rather gentlemanly – beef ended on a positive note. In the later phase of the party, the two poets fell in each other’s arms and exchanged courtesies. Eventually they started strolling together, talking about their homeland and plans for the future. If only all beefs could end in a similar fashion…
Herbert vs Miłosz
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Zbigniew Herbert, photo from the book ‘Herbert: Biografia Andrzej Franaszek’, photo: publicity materials of the Znak publishing house. Czesław Miłosz, 1998, Kraków, photo: Danuta Węgiel / FOTONOVA / East News
Another famous Polish literary beef that occurred at a dinner party is the falling out between Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert, both giants of 20th-century Polish poetry. The two were close friends up until this argument that took place in 1968 at the California home of the translators John and Bogdana Carpenter.
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Czesław Miłosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature, authored numerous poems and essays, such as Rescue, a 1945 volume of pre-World War II and wartime poetry. In 1960, he moved to the USA to become a professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of California-Berkeley. In the United States, among other activities, he translated and promoted the works of Zbigniew Herbert, a younger colleague whom he had befriended in the 1950s. Herbert is typically remembered for the reflective character of Mr. Cogito, who appears in many of his poems – for example, in the 1974 volume Mr. Cogito.
At the infamous dinner party, both poets had quite a bit to drink. At a certain point, they started talking about the Warsaw Uprising, the 1944 armed insurgency against the Nazi German occupation of Warsaw – which ended with mass civilian casualties on the Polish side and the destruction of almost the entire city. Herbert is said to have become furious with Miłosz’s criticism of the decision to go through with the uprising. The younger poet went on a rant that lasted for hours, arguing that his friend had no right to doubt the uprising’s justness, since Miłosz had not been in the resistance himself. Eventually, fed up with Herbert’s aggressive behaviour, Miłosz left.
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Although the two kept in touch afterwards, their friendship is said to have ended that evening. What’s interesting is that Herbert himself hadn’t been in the resistance either. More so, he is believed to have confabulated about being in its ranks, which makes his dinner-party outrage seem quite hypocritical.
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The tension between the two lingered on in the years to come, as evidenced by Herbert’s 1992 poem Chodasiewicz, in which he unfavourably alluded to Miłosz:
He didn’t know himself who he was – Chodasiewicz
And through the world from birth until his death day
He floated on a surging wave like an algae
Lechoń vs Tuwim
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Julian Tuwim, White Plains, 1942-44, photo: Museum of Literature in Warsaw / East News. Jan Lechoń, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Some say that the aforementioned argument between Miłosz and Herbert actually started not with a discussion on the Warsaw Uprising, but with a provocative joke Miłosz made about there being sense in the idea of Poland becoming part of the Soviet Union. This version of events was, however, denied by the hosts, the Carpenters. Nevertheless, there is a well-known Polish literary beef that started over the Soviet Union: the one between acclaimed poets Jan Lechoń and Julian Tuwim.
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Lechoń gained recognition thanks to his 1920 volume Karmazynowy Poemat (Crimson Poem), which referenced the poetics of Mickiewicz and Słowacki. He was among the most influential poets of the Interwar period. Tuwim, the author of poems such as the catastrophic Bal w Operze (Ball at the Opera) and cherished children’s verse, was also a very important writer of that era. They were dear friends, and in 1919, they co-created the famed poetic group Skamander – whose members were connected by an admiration for the works of the renowned poet Leopold Staff.
Sadly, Lechoń and Tuwim’s friendship was torn apart by the bitter realities of World War II. Lechoń was a harsh critic of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the resulting sufferings experienced by Polish troops and civilians. On the other hand, Tuwim was known to publically endorse the Soviets, seeing in them a force capable of stopping the Nazis.
This divide in political views prompted Lechoń to write Tuwim a letter in May 1942, in which he informed Tuwim that he no longer wished to be his friend:
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Dear Julian! Our last conversation over the phone, which completed the endless streak of your statements filled with blind love for the Bolsheviks, the butchers and murderers of the Polish nation, convinced me that I can no longer separate your political views from your person. […] Please accept these assurances of my grief caused by our long friendship ending in this way, contrary to my will.
Also, in his journal, Lechoń noted that ‘Everything between me and Tuwim has ended, save for the poetry.’ And indeed, the acquaintance was terminated… but a certain poetic bond remained. When Tuwim passed away in 1953, Lechoń was deeply moved. He penned a poem about his former friend, which includes the following verse:
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In the darkness you extend your hand, innocent criminal
To the brotherly hand reaching from afar
From ‘Tuwim’ by Jan Lechoń, 1956, trans. MK
Iwaszkiewicz vs Peiper
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Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz in his study in Stawisko, 5 Aug 1966, photo: Andrzej Szypowski / East News. Tadeusz Peiper, 1967-1968, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Another member of the Skamander group who had a famous literary beef was Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, a celebrated poet and author of short stories, like the 1933 Maids of Wilko, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 1979 by the eminent Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Iwaszkiewicz’s literary antagonist was the avant-garde poet and literary critic Tadeusz Peiper, the author of, among other things, the 1924 volume of poetry A.
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In 1922, Peiper founded the artistic-literary magazine Zwrotnica (Points) which quickly became one of the most important publications of its kind in Poland. It had an avant-garde profile and printed the writings of some of the most influential poets of the time: Bruno Jasieński, Stanisław Młodożeniec and Anatol Stern. The graphic layout of the magazine was designed by artists such as the valued painter Władysław Strzemiński.
The literary qualities of Zwrotnica, however, weren’t to everybody’s taste. Among those who didn’t appreciate them was Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who expressed his dislike in a press feuilleton:
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The poems in ‘Zwrotnica’ are written according to a fixed recipe: take a handful of a harlot’s powder, a glass of church expressions… and so on. What’s terrifying is the insane amount of sperm used in this ‘poet’s kitchen’.
From the article ‘Peiper Zapomniany i Odnaleziony’ in ‘Rzeczpospolita’, 29 May 2015, trans. MK
Peiper felt offended by this and decided to retaliate with an article titled Iwaszkiewicz Idiota (Iwaszkiewicz the Idiot), which he published in Zwrotnica in April 1923. In that text, you can find the following words:
If you’d like to know who Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz is, just take a look at the feuilleton he wrote about ‘Zwrotnica’. It’s so cheap, so clumsy, so very sluggish. Gibberish, gibberish rather than a feuilleton. […] Iwaszkiewicz – a zero filled with a perfect vacuum […] in every country with an unfalsified measuring system, Iwaszkiewicz would be measured in millimetres. In a few years, the only memory left of Iwaszkiewicz will be these words with which I honoured him here.
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Fortunately, we’re left with much more than just the memory of this extraordinary literary beef. Both authors left behind their writings, some of which today are considered classics of the Polish language.
Iwaszkiewicz vs Tyrmand
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Leopold Tyrmand at a jazz concert in Warsaw, 1958, photo: Andrzej Zborski / East News. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz giving a talk at the French Pen-Club, Paris, 1955, photo: Władysław Sławny / Forum
Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz was involved in another famous literary beef. His other adversary was the celebrated writer and propagator of jazz Leopold Tyrmand, known for works such as the crime novel The Man With the White Eyes, set in the realities of Poland under the communist regime.
The two knew each other, since for a while, Tyrmand was dating Iwaszkiewicz’s daughter, Maria Włodek. This is how the author of The Man With the White Eyes characterised his relationship with Włodek in his Diary 1954 – a literary journal which he kept for three months in the year 1954 (first published in 1980):
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We relaxed from our troubles with a few months beside each other.
In the same book, Tyrmand also characterises, quite maliciously, the father of his one-time flame:
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Personally, I really like Iwaszkiewicz. He’s a tall gentleman, very pleasant, very well-mannered. […] He has an intriguing, original face; in his life, he’s been a globetrotter, a poof, a diplomat, a man of good taste, a good writer, a ridiculous political figure, an individual and a pawn. After 60 years, he’s either a sellout or a fool.
But Iwaszkiewicz also directed some bitter words at Tyrmand, ones concerning his writing. Namely, he called The Man With the White Eyes the ‘new Trędowata [The Leper]’. Trędowata is a 1909 sentimental romance novel by Helena Mniszkówna which became highly popular with readers, but not so much with literary experts. By making the cited comparison, Iwaszkiewicz suggested that Tyrmand’s work wasn’t ‘high literature’ and that its proper place lies in the realm of pulp fiction.
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It ought to be clarified though, that when Iwaszkiewicz was giving his opinion on The Man With the White Eyes – the 1950s – he couldn’t have known what Tyrmand wrote about him in Diary 1954, as the latter book wasn’t published yet. So, his critical opinion of the crime novel wasn’t in any way biased by Tyrmand’s critical opinion of his person.
Witkacy vs Breiter
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Emil Breiter, 1927, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC). Witkacy’s photographic self-portrait, photo: collection of Ewa Franczak & Stefan Okołowicz
Criticizing someone’s writing can prove divisive, especially since artistic souls often tend to be very sensitive. A division caused by literary criticism is what constitutes the next item on our list – the beef between the valued writer and painter Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, a.k.a. Witkacy, known for his novel Farewell to Autumn, and the journalist and theatre critic Emil Breiter.
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Witkacy and Breiter were both bohemian socialites who befriended each other at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, where they studied in the 1900s. In later years, Witkacy began to create literary and dramatic works, whereas Breiter chose to be a critic, writing for literary magazines such as Skamander.
Breiter must have treated his work quite seriously, since eventually it transpired that he wasn’t going to give his buddy’s plays any special treatment. In January 1922, he published an unfavourable review of Witkacy’s play Pragmatyści (Pragmatists) in the Głos Polski (Voice of Poland) newspaper. In the text, Breiter deals, among other things, with Witkacy’s approach to art, known as the Theory of Pure Form. This approach entailed the abandoning of the rules of logic, psychology and chronology in order to obtain a ‘metaphysical’ effect.
Of Pure Form, Breiter wrote in his review:
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Such an approach is, of course, a complete denial and misunderstanding of the essence of theatre. […] The function and correlate of every human deed is its motivation and psychological content; to perceive psychological and ideological links from the perspective of pure form is the same as trying to make a square out of a circle.
Witkacy didn’t like Breiter’s review one little bit, and as a consequence, he broke off the friendship. The two are said never to have reconciled. It probably didn’t help that a few years afterward Breiter reviewed Witkacy’s novel Farewell to Autumn, famously calling it a ‘pseudo-novel’… Notably, the introduction to this work – which prominently features actual duels – is filled with Witkacy’s responses to Breiter and other literary rivals, such as Antoni Słonimski.
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Boy-Żeleński vs Irzykowski
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Portrait of Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, photo: Benedykt Jerzy Dorys / National Digital Library / Polona. Karol Irzykowski, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
Yet another adversary of Witkacy was the literary and film critic Karol Irzykowski, who also attacked the Theory of Pure Form in the book Walka o Treść (Fighting for Content). But as a critic, Irzykowski didn’t oppose only the author of Farewell to Autumn. He was also involved in a beef with the celebrated writer, translator and critic Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, who is remembered for works such as Słówka (Little Words), a volume of satirical poems and songs.
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In 1933, Irzykowski published the book Beniaminek: Rzecz o Boyu Żeleńskim (Newcomer: On Boy-Żeleński), in which he attacked Boy-Żeleński on both a personal and professional level. Irzykowski wrote that Boy had a commercial approach to writing, lacked the knowledge necessary to be a proper critic and was essentially an intellectually meek megalomaniac.
The author of Newcomer strongly disapproved with Boy’s model of literary criticism, which he believed trivialised the deep literary and philosophical aspects of the discussed works in order to be accessible to broad audiences. Irzykowski advocated for a far more intellectual, in-depth approach. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
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What bothered me right from the start in everything that Boy wrote […] was not his coquettish immorality or showy dirtiness, or the discovering of banal truths […], or the false pathos of debunking myths about writers […] what bothered me was that peculiar practicality which causes Boy to be somewhat narrow-minded, dull and down-to-earth even when he’s right.
Boy-Żeleński kept his calm and replied with a collected article in the Wiadomości Literackie (Literary News) paper. He omitted Irzykowski’s attacks at his criticism (Boy was known to have stood aside from literary and critical debates) and focussed instead on countering the personal attacks:
There’s nothing new to all these anti-Boy arguments; on the contrary, they’ve been laying in the gutters for years. Mr. Irzykowski collected them, added a side of erudition, sprinkled them with some quotes and served them to those who already were eating them on a daily basis.
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Fortunately, with this reply, the beef between the two gentlemen ended – meaning they could move on to do things more constructive than arguing.
Żeromski vs Prus
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Stefan Żeromski, photo: FoKa / Forum. ‘Portrait of Bolesław Prus’ by Leokadia Mirosławska, 1918, photo: Wilczyński Krzysztof / National Museum in Warsaw
To wrap things up, we have a classic story about two men fighting over a woman. In this case, even though both of them were writers, they wanted to settle their dispute not with the pen, but with the sword.
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Bolesław Prus is widely considered one of the most important Polish authors. He created a number of classic works, such as the novel of manners The Doll or the historical novel Pharaoh. Stefan Żeromski is also a highly regarded Polish penman. His novel Syzyfowe Prace (Labours of Sisyphus) and the novella Ravens and Crows Will Peck Us to Pieces are among the most influential writings of the late 19th century in Poland.
The two gentlemen knew each other. Here’s how Żeromski described, in his Dzienniki (Journals), the moment that he met Prus for the first time:
I met Prus in the company of some lady. When one thinks about ‘The Doll’, it’s hard to conceive that such a little grey man could’ve written such a masterpiece. What I wouldn’t give just to be able to make his acquaintance.
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It’s worth pointing out that in the beginning of their relationship, in 1890, Prus was already a renowned writer, whereas Żeromski was still trying to make a breakthrough, supporting himself as a teacher. This difference in status is said to have resulted in Prus treating Żeromski somewhat patronizingly. So, when the latter became engaged to Prus’ dear friend – the young widow Oktawia Rodkiewiczowa – Prus’s initial reaction wasn’t at all friendly.
At first, Bolesław Prus didn’t accept Żeromski as Oktawia’s fiancé. He would’ve much more preferred if she had married a rich manufacturer than a poor teacher. The conflict between them almost ended with a duel.
From www.polskanapiechote.waw.pl, trans. MK
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Fortunately, the two writers came to their senses, and in the end there was no duel. Moreover, Prus was eventually one of the best men at Żeromski and Rodkiewiczowa’s wedding, demonstrating that the previous antagonism had vanished. As we do hope all antagonisms of any kind will, on one glorious, peaceful day…
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy)
Written by Marek Kępa, 19 Oct 2019