Apocalypse in Poland: Julian Tuwim's Poetry (1894-1953) (1)

By Di Francesco, Simone | East European Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Apocalypse in Poland: Julian Tuwim's Poetry (1894-1953) (1)


Di Francesco, Simone, East European Quarterly


The kind of literature that can be defined "apocalyptic" has a strong tradition in Poland: one only has to think of works by Antoni Slonimski, (2) Kazimierz Wierzyfiski (3) and Jan Lechon. (4) In spite of such vastness, in this paper I will restrain my focus to Tuwim's poetics, because this author can be considered the initiator in Poland as well as the most active pioneer of this specific topic. Tuwim's poetic beginnings are not "apocalyptic": this demonstrates that his interest for the topic arose out of a set of specific socio-historical conditions.

But what are we exactly referring to when we speak about "apocalypse" in Polish literature--and, specifically, in Tuwim's poetry? We are referring to the self-conscious attempt by the Polish avant-garde to display the unfathomable, embellish the grotesque, and make the oneiric dimension of a disquieting, distressing vision humanly accessible to everyone. "Apocalypse" is a neo-Baroque triumph of horrors and monstrosities, an almost postmodern will to reconnect the pieces of a logical structure already crumbled under the blows of a universal, aberrant conflagration. Man becomes aware of the nightmares and anguishes behind his own lacerated self, and opens up (to himself) the turpitudes of his deranged, lost soul. And thus we have the poetics of excessive triumphs crystallized in a paradoxical, disarming vision of antithetic worlds bleeding into one. Far from being limited to the level of a sheer poetic, linguistic game, such vision communicates to the reader the sense of a crazed modernity on its way to dissolution. The Polish language apparently lends itself very well to this deconstructionist game applied to human knowledge: the luxurious, refined anaphoras in Tuwim's lyrics are perfectly integrated with intertextual games that graciously host foreign-borrowed phraseological structures.

An age of profound transformations and sudden crisis, suspended between impending apocalyptic omens and diffused messianic expectations, the opening of 20th century in Europe prefigured catastrophic conflicts and irreversible derangements. The peculiar sense of anxiety, inadequacy, and instability characterizing a certain socio-cultural atmosphere, pervading the whole European geopolitical context, also spread in Poland--a nation that prewar had been generally neglected in European geopolitical studies, but was shortly to become "central" to the consciousness of most thinking people shortly before, during, and after the crises of WWI and WWII. In the 20th century, is situated at the margins of the continent from a mere geographical perspective, while acquiring, on the other hand, an absolute centrality as ominous victim-protagonist of tragic historical events. To tell the truth, in the years subsequent to the end of WWI, Poland was experiencing a diffused optimism, greatly due to the recovery of national independence. As for cultural life, a group of young poets revolving around the famous literary review Skamander proclaimed in those years the emergence of the first poetic generation of free, independent Poland. (5) Their triumphant manifesto aptly mirrors the widespread atmosphere that characterized the socio-cultural context of Poland at that time:

   We deeply believe in the present and feel like we all are its
   children. We understand that nothing is more likely than harboring
   feelings of hate for our today, a today nobody acknowledges as his
   own. We do not wish to pretend that evil does not exist, but our
   love, on the other hand, is more powerful than any kind of evil: we
   love the present as the passionate first love of our life. We are
   and want to be its children. Today is not only the day of the seven
   plagues; it is also the day when a new world is being born. This
   new world has not risen from the earth yet; its form is still a
   phantom, but the tremor beneath our feet is proof that it is
   already in the process of being delivered. … 

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