Aleksander Wat

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

“Lucifer Unemployed”


Aleksander Wat, My Century: the Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.


Tomas Venclova, Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.


Aleksander Wat had a very eventful life. He was at first a futuristic individualist, then a Communist, and finally a reclusive expatriate. His life-decisions were influenced by his unique background: he grew up in a family of wealthy and educated Jews in the early twentieth-century Poland, but refused to accept inertly this privileged position. His father, especially, compelled him to think for himself. He soon became one of Poland’s most well-known writers and critics, subtly conveying his political and social commentary by means of a cheeky poetry and cryptic stories.
Born in 1900 Poland, Wat grew up in a house full of books. His father was an expert on philosophy and a little-practicing Jew. In terms of religion, Wat actually found inspiration in the Catholicism of his servant Anna Mikulak: he later described her stories as his first exposure to metaphysics and poetry. His brothers were all involved in the socialist movement, but as he grew up, Wat decided to go a different route. He co-founded what would become the Polish futurist movement, an abstract form of rebelliousness that advocated anything that was not traditional. Perhaps the most iconic manifestation of futurism was the writing associated with it. As Nina Kolesnikoff eloquently put it, futurists attempted to “free the word from its subservience to meaning” (66), focusing on rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia and scrapping any sort of substance. It was a Dadaistic stab at convention, and Wat embraced it completely. His “Namopanik Barwistanu”, for example, is a poem playing on the sound “barw.” What seems to be a mocking humor in Wat’s poetry is in fact indicative of much deeper underpinnings. Futurists rejected the present precisely because they saw its decline—the silencing of creativity by government prescriptions, the thievery of innate political and human rights by autocratic rule, and the loss of lasting binds of community due to wide mistrust—and rushed to embrace anything that would gesture towards something new. They advocated technology and unconventional forms, but at the same time hid in themselves an ever-increasing despair at the inevitability of societal decay.
As the wave of Communism began to hit Eastern Europe, Wat found reason in the new ideology, becoming the editor of a newspaper called the Literary Monthly. Little did he know, though, that the real Communism was only a distorted shadow of the ideal. He was arrested for his liberal views in 1932. Between the wars, he and his family (his wife, Paulina, and their son Andrzej) traveled to escape Soviet authorities, until he was arrested once again in 1940. After two years in captivity, the turmoil of WWII, and long persecution under Stalin, Wat finally rejected communism and moved to Berkeley, California; later he returned to Paris, where he died in 1967.
Despite his mercurial philosophic identifications, Wat maintained a constant connection to his home country of Poland. For the hundred years following the 1815 Congress of Vienna little Poland was overshadowed by the czarist rule of its huge neighbor Russia, which sought to eradicate Polish culture, banning the language and closing down most schools. Things worsened during the Great War, as armies tore through the countryside, and Poles were forced to fight in a war they did not bring about. Even after gaining independence in 1918, Poland would never be completely free of Soviet influence (perhaps more appropriately, rule). It was in this repressed society that Wat grew up, and by the time he developed his futuristic tendencies at age 19, Poland was only in its first attempts to instate democratic rule. Thus, the suffering Wat conveys in his works mirrors that of Poland. For the largest part of his life, Wat fought to escape Soviet persecution, always standing beside his native country.
Wat had a unique style of writing which he derived from his myriad life experiences. Stemming from his futuristic past, some of his writings use the most extreme form of parody to convey their satirical point. Highly conceptual and logic-defying, his short story Lucifer Unemployed is a convoluted work drawing its meaning from its ridiculousness. Though mystifying at first, Wat’s writing should be seen as a reflection on society through the lens of a man who was an exquisite observer, and who had experienced firsthand the terror and arbitrary cruelty of history.

Works Cited
Kolesnikoff, Nina S. “Polish Futurism: The Quest to Renovate Poetic Language.” The Slavic and East European Journal 21.1 (1977): 68-77. Print.
“Revolution and Rebirth .” A Brief History of Poland. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2011.
Venclova, Tomas. Aleksander Wat: life and art of an iconoclast. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.
Wat, Aleksander, and Richard Lourie. My Century: the odyssey of a Polish intellectual. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.


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