#language & literature
The ironic title of Reymont’s novel reveals the author’s attitude and agenda. From the late 19th century, the industrial city of Łódź was a Promised Land of capitalism, the new religion of the world. People came here to worship productivity and profit, and millionaires were revered like saints.
The novel’s main plot concerns a business project and its costs across various levels. Three university friends, a Pole, Jew and German, join forces. They are tired of working for others and try to start their own factory. The main character, Borowiecki, is a Pole. He has a reputation as a womaniser, ‘Łódź’s only true Don Juan’. He is sharp-minded and pragmatic, aspiring to become an industrial tycoon, one of the so-called cotton kings. Like in a good movie script, Borowiecki is strongly motivated and conflicted. We witness his insignificant choices, important decisions and his final transformation. It’s no accident that it was The Promised Land, not Peasants that served as the basis of one of Andrzej Wajda’s best movies.
Borowiecki is a winner, an alpha male and a so-called lodzermensch, Łódź’s new kind of human: ruthless, unsentimental and morally flexible. He looks down at the value of his social group, the Polish intelligentsia, bygones of a diminished noble class. They are naive, lacking thick skin and cunning. Yet, he struggles. His upbringing, education and values belong to the world of old. His social class preaches idealism, moral scruples and values, compassion for the weak and keeping your promises. Old-fashioned nonsense. It’s often used to mask the exploitation of ‘lower’ social groups, but that’s another thing.
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All these values are a burden in Łódź. Like a meteor descending through the atmosphere, Borowiecki has to let them burn. One moral quandary slowing down his success is his love for his fiancée, Anka. She is a good girl, charitable and compassionate, somehow complementary to him. But there are other marriage candidates on the market, with better dowries and fatter bank accounts. The stakes are clear, well set. The reader delves deeper into the world of corruption, money and greed, asking himself: what will Borowiecki do?
The sociological aspects of Reymont’s novel remain quite interesting even in the present day. Certain patterns of behaviour haven’t changed much from his era. Neither have some clichés. Poles are emotional, sentimental and hysterical, forever arguing about politics and considering themselves better than other nations for some unknown reason. Germans work hard but lack spontaneity. Jews are smart and cunning but somehow immoral. They have no problem with setting their own factories on fire to receive insurance money and participating in other shady business.
This aspect of the novel provoked accusations of Reymont’s anti-Semitism. I don’t know about that, but some of the book’s characters are certainly full of prejudices. It’s almost funny, as Jews are shown as incapable of pursuing any higher goals, in contrary to some highly cultural, well-born Poles. Thinking about all the Nobel prizes for Jewish scientists that came later, one can only laugh when reading some of those diatribes and rants. Nevertheless, this controversial plot point referred to existing tensions at the time: Łódź was famous for its fierce economic war between Poles and Jews, in which Poles were often defeated.
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The book offers some interesting philosophical perspectives on industry, progress and its cost. Łódź is like a vampire. It uses its people, sucks them dry. Reymont’s conclusion fits with the theories of much later thinkers, such as Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul or Aldous Huxley. Reymont had studied Łódź and saw in it power, alienation and the enslavement of the human body and spirit.
Mankind sought to control the powers of nature and as a result, became a slave to its own creation. Human souls and emotions became redundant; to catch up with the machine, man has to become one. It may seem naive from our modern perspective, when consumption is much more refined and machines are more sophisticated, assumedly smarter and more complicated than us. But the very dogma of capitalism didn’t change. The machine is always right. What can be done, will be done. Progress is inevitable and cannot be questioned, no matter the price. Profit purifies every sin.
It’s clear that Reymont was fascinated by Łódź, but despised it fiercely. His wonderful descriptions of the waking city, with factory sirens and smoke, remind me of the Fritz Lang film Metropolis. Łódź is a living creature, a behemoth of money and greed. It corrupts those who live there. Yet it’s the world’s only future, a future in which most sentimental Poles don’t fit. Despite this, the author opposed the idea that humans should work themselves to death, sacrificing all the pleasures and treasures of life such as art, nature and love. One radical character shouts that he won’t admire Łódź’s self-made millionaires. They are not the brightest of men, but the dumbest. Just brainless cattle, dying on bedding made of money.
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One could read this novel as a critique of capitalism in its most vigorous and ruthless form. The funny thing is that this ‘untamed’ early capitalism seems much more appealing and seductive. If we compare Łódź from the late-19th century to modern Europe or America, one thing is striking. The social system described by Reymont is harsh, but much more fluid and rewarding than nowadays. Impoverished nobles starve, ambitious peasants become millionaires. Social mobility is really there; some folks are climbing the ladder of wealth. The idea of climbing from a shoe boy to a Rockefeller was not just bait back then, a mere myth or American Dream.
Many of Łódź’s millionaires crawled all the way up from poverty. One of them, when eating in a luxurious restaurant, always jumps up when someone shouts ‘waiter!’. He spent half his life working as one. Another rich man likes to receive guests with a book in his lap. He keeps a special servant whose task is to make sure that the book is not upside down: his master can’t read or write. The 19th-century was not the time of the one per cent, whose fortunes in the West are inherited, and where social mobility is a myth. And there is no such thing as ecology. Colourful waste and foam swims down the gutters and trees in the city are dying, but no one cares. The monster is young, unstoppable.
Władysław Strzemiński’s Łódź
Władysław Stanislaw Reymont
nobel prize laureate
the promised land
If we compare the world of The Promised Land to the world of Reymont’s most famous novel, Peasants, we’ll see where his sympathies lie. With all his sharp social insights and sense of the tragic, difficult aspects of life, Reymont loved the village of Lipce – where he set the action of his novel Peasants – cloaked in its archaic magic, religion and faith, old rituals and customs. An eternal cycle of seasons. It gave value to human life. When the old peasant, the village patriarch, dies, his death is like a final fulfilment. It’s beautiful and deep. It’s like a saint’s death. He truly belongs to the world, to both worlds.
There are no seasons in Łódź, no rituals. Or they just don’t matter. And no rules either, perhaps with the exception of social Darwinism, survival of the fittest and those least encumbered by honesty and other ethical fossils. When the richest tycoon in Łódź, Bucholc, is dying, his agony lacks any dignity and meaning. With all his richness suddenly negligible, he has no prestige left, no hope. His death is barren and meaningless; the modern, industrial world was born, at the cost of values and meaning.
Written by Wojciech Zembaty, August 2020
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