EXPRESSIONISM AND THE VISUAL IN JÓZEF WITTLIN'S "HYMN OF HATRED"
David A. GOLDFARB (USA)
Kasimir Edschmid, forced to label the metaphysical consciousness of the reaction to impressionism in Berlin, stated in 1918:
By nature any such attempt to explain Expressionism betrays the spirit of the enterprise, but it is cast as part of a manifesto--the only genre which could impart the emergent, revolutionary character of the movement to what was an otherwise reflective, intellectual activity. "Facts" for Edschmid stood in the way of reality. In the face of the demonstrations of Wittgenstein and the Logical Positivists who would argue more and more that we could never know "things" but through "acts," the Expressionists sought to produce art which achieved its effect without any intellectual mediation or logical calculus. The Expressionists attempted to create pure "VISION"--sense perception in itself--and not the knowledge produced by vision.
Consider the most recognized emblem of Expressionism, Edward Munch's Der Schrei (1893)--a melting, almost amorphous humanlike figure, staring at the viewer through blank eyes, screaming into the night on a lonely country road, painted in stark colors and broad strokes. We might imagine that what we see in the image is what the figure sees through Munch's characteristically empty eye sockets. Without any realistic detail, we could not identify the figure or the place. The concentric bands of color in the image seem to emanate from the figure's mouth to the edge of the frame, and perhaps beyond. Der Schrei is not meant to represent a screaming person or even a person's scream, but actually to be a wrenching cry that evokes a human response.
I would like to look at Józef Wittlin's most visually and aurally striking work, his "Hymn nienawści" (Hymn of Hatred) from his most radical and adventurous period, the early 1920s when he was a featured poet and Lwów correspondent for the Poznań Expressionist magazine Zdrój (The Source). Zdrój was published by graphic artist, Jerzy Hulewicz, in Poznań and later Warsaw, sporadically from 1918 to 1922, and featured arresting and original two-color, halftone and in a few cases colored graphics, reproductions of works by Picasso, Matisse, Rodin and Van Gogh, poetry by Miriam, Tuwim, and Oskar Miłosz, fiction, translations from Rabindranath Tagore, Appolinaire, Keats and Swinburne, essays, reviews and artistic manifestos by Stanisław Przybyszewski, Jan Stur and others.
The "Hymn of Hatred" first appeared in Zdrój in 1919, and as far as I know this poem has not been reprinted since 1929 in the third edition of Wittlin's Hymny, nor has it been previously translated into English. Wittlin's poems in Zdrój are often quite different from later versions of the same works, particularly in their punctuation, but also in their diction, and there are cases where entire stanzas have been excised. The versions in Zdrój have a raw and immediate quality. In Zdrój he might have used three dashes--the hallmark of immature poet (and I use "immature" in the highest Gombrowiczean sense)--to indicate a pause that would later be moderated into a simple period. Or he might have used a common word like "górny" that would later become the more elevated "szczytny," 2 perhaps indicating a subtle leaning from the Expressionists' mystic mountain to neo-classical acme of the Skamander group.
Since Wittlin's early poems are so hard to come by in Polish and are virtually unknown English, with the exception of the translations included in Zoya Yurieff's monograph in the Twayne's World Author Series, I had considered offering a set of new translations rather than a theoretical analysis of Wittlin's work. As a compromise, I have decided to limit myself to this one work, the "Hymn of Hatred," and present a translation along with the earliest version of the original, and then weigh it in relation to the overall goals of Expressionism in poetry.
Hymn of Hatred
Hey, oh hey!
Hej, o hej!
A hymn is traditionally a song of praise. Thus the title contains the poem's first shocking irony, in that Hatred could hardly be an object of praise. The genre of hymn, however, is quite suited as a speech act to the objectives of Expressionism. To recite a hymn is to bestow a feeling onto an object, rather than to represent the object. A hymn might contain description, but it addresses its object, typically a deity, directly. The description does not serve to inform an audience of the qualities of the deity, which are already well known, but rather to magnify those qualities in the mind of the speaker as preparation for an exuberant injunction of praise. In this hymn, however, the images are horrifying and the exuberant injunctions express terror.
As in a cycle of woodcuts, a favorite medium of the Expressionists, each image is cast in a few broad lines. In this form, Wittlin does not have time to dwell on detail. In each case we see a peaceful scene, we are informed, sometimes parenthetically, that Hatred has been there, we are then presented with the destruction that Hatred has caused. Hatred particularly likes to upset processes of creation: motherhood, pregnancy, the planting of fields, the building of a house. Each scene closes with an exclamation: "Ah hy! Jak gorą jej ślepia!" or "O straszna hostji sromoto!" or "O hy! Jak ohydnie robactwo łono matki żre!..." As in the traditional hymn, the speaker recounts the deity's action and bursts into spontaneous emotion.
The eyes are Hatred's instruments of action. Eyes are particularly challenging to render in a woodcut, but even in many Expressionist drawings and paintings, in which detail could be rendered more precisely, the eyes appear as empty holes. Munch's eyes are often white and oversized, like Hatred's, depicted as the blazing eyes of an animal. They do not passively absorb light, but they beam light back at the spectator or reader. Like the artist's eyes, the eyes of the characteristic Expressionist subject do not perceive fine details, but are themselves expressive organs that transform the object at which they are directed.
The Expressionist image is iconic rather than realistic. When Hatred first appears at the church, Wittlin presents us with a confrontation of icons. Hatred stands outside, framed by the "wide open doors." The distinctive feature of an icon is its uniform and immobile quality, signifying that wherever we the viewers stand, beyond the frame lies a spiritual plane where the saints stand in their own perspective. In Wittlin's hymn, Hatred "casts an abusive word" through the frame, causing the characteristically static icons inside to "pale" and "turn their heads in their halos."
At the same time, however, the poem attempts to address a cluster of distinct social crises. The facts that Kasimir Edschmid lists in his manifesto "houses, factories, sickness, whores, screams and hunger," are all phenomena associated with distinct political and economic forces in 1918, like war, rapid industrialization and urbanization. Wittlin iconizes all these forces in the image of Hatred. What clearer representation is there, after all, of the conflict between the country and the city, so often exploited by the architects of modern war, than the scene of the murder of the urban merchant by the peasant soldier? The city is where Hatred "has her Kingdom," but Wittlin does not portray the peasants in a state of idyllic purity. Wittlin seems perfectly aware of the economic contradictions that put these two social icons, town merchant and rural soldier, at odds, and attempts to resolve it by humanizing them, following the soliloquy of Shakespeare's famous merchant, showing that a "merchant" family still weeps at human loss, and proposing that the soldier is not inherently evil, but is somehow corrupted by Hatred's gaze.
What, then, exactly is "Hatred"? While the Expressionists in general were confronting the theme of alienation in the face of industrialization, urbanization and mass culture, Wittlin's poem suggests that these social phenomena are not the evil in themselves so much as they are the ground from which evil sprouts. Hatred is like a kind of pollution that pours out of the city sewers, poisoning everything that comes into contact with it. The implicit assumption is then that individuals may be inherently good, but they are universally susceptible to corruption, and that corruption is inescapable, because the city cannot prevent the leakage of its own decadence. Those who are socially "against" the city are just as much formed by it. The socioeconomic context becomes a structure in which acts of Hatred can play themselves out.
The poem ends in linguistic collapse. Much like Julian Tuwim's greatest but most uncharacteristic work, "Bal w operze" (The Ball at the Opera), the poem is a rhythmic funnel, starting from its diffuse opening apostrophe:
Oh no! I will not sing of love today, of what is sacred, angelic,
through run-on lines with an internal four-beat structure, suggesting the rhythm to come:
As a young man walks in springtime through a whispering grove,
and finally to the regular dance rhythm of the four-beat line punctuated by the three-beat cadence:
Dunda--dunda--hey get happy, swing your partner round the circle,
This increasing regularity of rhythm results in ever greater emphasis on arrhythmic lines, such as the untranslatable line, "a tak!" nine lines from the end, which not only means "Oh, yes!" as I have rendered it, but is also a homophone of "attack!" signaling the final catastrophe. Diction slips further and further into vulgarity and peasant dialect with forms like "pohulają se, zatańcują se!" We move from motherhood to pastoral to battle to a drunken orgy of soldiers and peasants. Static scenes formerly viewed from a distance turn active, as the language suggests an unsignaled change of voice from the initial narrator to the soldiers and peasants, and finally to Hatred herself. Meaningful words are replaced by nonsense syllables. Action moves from description of Hatred's past deeds to the present, when we may recognize that even the poem's speaker has been drawn into the orgiastic dance, and having been gazed upon by Hatred, the poet's classical mission to create beauty is subverted.
What begins as a cycle of images, rough-hewn representations like woodcuts, dissolves in an attempt to body forth the thing represented. If the dominant style of Polish postwar poetry is said to be reflective and intellectual, Wittlin's early work immediately following the First World War is exactly the opposite. Wittlin's object here is not to bring about reflection on evil from a distance, but to conjure its physical presence in the body of the reader drawn into the dance. Rhythm replaces description, moving the area of the poem's effect from the mind to the body, leaving the reader with a sense of aftershock following the final line, at the recognition of having been "led by the hand" with the fiddler and the bassist, laying out our common weakness to the influence of Hatred who slips in imperceptibly, like a noxious gas.
David A. Goldfarb poddaje analizie pierwszy okres twórczości Wittlina, okres w którym Wittlin wsółpracował z poznańskim czasopismem literackim Zdrój. Wittlinowskie związki z poznańskim ekspresjonizmem, oraz ogólny, jak twierdzi Goldfarb, radykalny i eksperymentalny charakter twórczości Wittlina w początkowej fazie są podstawą analizy wczesnej poezji Wittlina. Goldfarb koncentruje swoją uwagę na utworze najściślej jego zdaniem związanym z estetyką ekspresjonizmu pt. Hymn Nienawiści, opublikowanym w Zdroju w 1919 r. Opierając się na fragmencie poetyckiego manifestu ekspresjonistycznego Kasimira Edschmida, Goldfarb traktuje przedstawione w nim założenia ekspresjonistycznej estetyki jako bezpośredni kontekst i punkt odniesienia dla analizy Hymnu Nienawiści. Koncepcja "czystej wizji" czyli próba uchwycenia istoty samego procesu odbioru, nie zakłóconego pośrednictwem zmysłów fizycznej percepcji, jest podstawą analizy Hymnu Nienawiści (przytoczonego tak w oryginale jak i w przekładzie samego autora artykułu) jako utworu ilustrującego te koncepcje. Wittlin, zdaniem autora, koncentruje się na zmyśle wizji i manipuluje wizualnymi elementami utworu w celu zgłębienia natury samej percepcji sięgającej poza limity faktologicznej wiedzy dostarczanej nam poprzez fizyczne zmysły. Zjawisko wizji było eksploatowane przez ekspresjonistów. Goldfarb porównuje wizualne elementy Hymnu Nienawiści ze sztuką plastyczną tego okresu (przytacza m.in. przykład Krzyku Edwarda Muncha), w szczególności zaś z charakterystycznymi cechami drzeworytu -- gatunkiem sztuk pięknych szczególnie reprezentacyjnym dla estetyki ekspresjonizmu. Autor sugeruje także, iż sama forma poetycka utworu -- hymn -- jest przez Wittlina wykorzystana w celach pogłębienia wrażenia bezpośredniej, pozaintelektualnej percepcji. Do formalnych elementów pełniących w utworze tą samą funkcję, Goldfarb zalicza rytm i leksykę Hymnu Nienawiści. W toku analizy autor sugeruje, iż zarówno rytm jak i leksyka służą stopniowemu przekształceniu wittlinowskiej metody prezentacji: opis staje się bezpośrednim przeżyciem, co pociąga za sobą zmianę pozycji czytelnika z postronnego obserwatora w bezpośredniego uczestnika narracji i jednocześnie materializuje zjawisko percepcji. Oprócz opisu realizacji koncepcji "czystej wizji" w Hymnie Nienawiści, artykuł poświęca dużo uwagi analizie socjalnego zaangażowania utworu i interpretuje je jako jeszcze jeden, tym razem czysto tematyczny, związek z ideologią ekspresjonizmu.