Jerzy Żuławski was a Polish poet, writer, and playwright. He was born on 14th July 1874 in Lipowiec, close to Rzeszów, and died during the typhus epidemic in Dębica on 9th August 1915.
Żuławski went to middle school in Bochnia, and finished his primary education in Kraków. In 1892 he enrolled in a technical studies programme in Zurich, and later studied philosophy in Bern under the supervision of Richard Avenarius. After earning his Ph.D. in 1898 for Das Problem der Kausalität bei Spinoza, published in Bern in 1899 and summarised in Studia Filozoficzne in 1901 (a Polish philosophy periodical), he returned to Poland to teach, but later decided to focus only on literature. He published his texts in magazines such as Życie (Life), Chimera, and was co-editor of Krytyka (Critique) for a short while. In 1901 Żuławski moved to Zakopane in the Polish Tatra mountains. There, he was a co-founder of the Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue, and co-editor of Zakopane. During World War I he fought in the Polish Legions and was co-editor of a Legion-run magazine Do Broni (editor’s translation: To Arms).
Apart from researching the philosophy of Spinoza (about whom he wrote the popular-philosophy book Benedict Spinoza: Man and Achievement
, 1902), he also studied Eastern and contemporary philosophy (Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard Hartmann), as well as the Bible and Talmud. All of these works had a big impact on his own philosophical ideas, which he referred to as synthetic monism – a way to put an end to the dilemmas of the early 20th
century Polish intellectuals known as Young Poland (Młoda Polska). As an advocate of metaphysics in art, he strived to create a solid intellectual shape to the slogan of the ‘naked soul’ and the theory of symbols as an expression of the Absolute. Along with other contemporary intellectuals, he worked on the development and future of culture, the role of individuals in society, the status of a genius and the circumstances of creating. His synthetic monism was based on the hypothesis that being has both a material and transcendental quality, that it is simultaneously the Absolute and an ongoing process. From the moment that evolution created the individual consciousness, culture is in a state of eternal evolution, propelled by prominent figures who create their own synthetic projections of the world. While the outside surroundings prompt to create academic synthesis, the artistic and philosophical ones are incited by individual and internal reasons. Żuławski considered them as the ones of the greatest value, creating new areas for being, bringing us to the Absolute. As opposed to Stanisław Przybyszewski
, he didn’t seek danger in the destructive force of the mind, but rather in a real social synthesis: a society with sufficient material goods, but lacking a lively spirit and individuality.
Żuławski’s essays appeared in Prolegomena (1902), Szkice Literackie (editor’s translation: Literary Sketches; 1913), Przed Zwierciadłem Prawd: Szkice Filozoficzne (editor’s translation: Before the Mirror of Truth: Philosophical Sketches; 1914).
Apart from philosophical and literary essays, very important in the Young Poland movement, Żuławski also wrote philosophical parables: Opowiadania Prozą (editor’s translation: Stories in Prose; 1902), Kuszenie Szatana (editor’s translation: Temptation of Satan; 1910), Bajka o Człowieku Szczęśliwym (editor’s translation: Story about a Happy Man; 1910). He also wrote short stories and a contemporary series of novels, Laus Leminae (1914-1916).
Żuławski wrote many plays on historical and contemporary matters, which were often staged in Kraków, Warsaw and Lviv. His most popular work was Eros and Psyche (1904) – a seven-act play showing the eternal fight between good and evil, spirit and matter, in different periods of history. The play served Ludomir Różycki as the libretto for his opera, Pan Twardowski.
The list of his historical plays also includes: The Dictator (1903, commemorating the anniversary of the 1863 uprising), Iolanthe (1905), The End of the Messiah (1906), The Castle City of the Sun (1911). His contemporary plays were: A Myrtle Wreath (1903), The Game (1906) and For the Price of Tears (1909).
In line with the prevailing custom, the protagonists of Żuławski’s works were genius individuals entangled in mechanisms of history and society. The female characters were so called femmes fatales, demonic women illustrating the destructive power of their sex.
Żuławski also published a few volumes of poetry, which were then published as a four-volume work Poezje (1908; editor’s translation: Poetry). His verses were filled with philosophical reflection on discovering oneself and the world. Many of his poems were patriotic.
The literary oeuvre of Żuławski is the object of interest for connaisseurs and historians of literature, but contemporary readers might know him for The Lunar Trilogy (Trylogia księżycowa): On the Silver Globe (1903), The Conqueror (1910) and The Old Earth (1911). Today read as science fiction, they were initially a reflection on the progress of civilisation.
Based on the best examples of fiction (Jules Verne, Herbert Wells), Żuławski wrote about the first unsuccessful trip to the moon. The survivors are the start to a new race of Selenites, cut off from civilisation, with the remains of a few objects and an oral record of their Earthly origin, which incites a religious myth. The first two parts show the mechanisms of the conception and development of religion and social order. The third part takes the action back to Earth, where the civilisation ages: despite welfare and technology development, citizens are forced to unify and lose their individuality. All of that wrapped in a novel with dramatic action and vivid characters.
The picturesque imagery of the moon was used (to almost too big an extent) in On the Silver Globe (1989), shot by the writer’s grandnephew, Andrzej Żuławski.
Important works: Essays, Warsaw 1960; Chosen Poems, Warsaw 1965.
Article originally written by Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz, Jan 2004, translated by WF, Nov 2017