At first glance, a homosexual Soviet intelligence officer and communist soldier who fought in Stalin’s army may not be the most obvious candidate to grace the pantheon of imaginative conservatism alongside eminent figures like Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. Nevertheless, a particular sense of duty to the dearly departed moves me to introduce readers to the obscure person of my postmortem patron, Mr. Henryk Krzeczkowski (1921-1985). Though I have no recollections of meeting the man, who died while I was a young boy, chance would have it that I am likely the sole living owner of his literary estate. Interestingly enough, as if a sign of Divine Providence, Mr. Krzeczkowski happens to have been one of the two founding fathers of post-war Polish conservatism, and the Polish conservative movement that came to maturity in the 1980s was in many ways a function of his work. Called “the most intelligent man in Warsaw” by the late Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, many a Polish conservative who went on to serve in public office, including the former Minister of Culture in Poland’s short lived conservative government circa 2006 as well as the leader of what was the III Republic’s first conservative party, sat at Mr. Krzeczkowski’s feet to learn from the man’s great erudition and refined wisdom. To this day, books and theatre spectacles translated by Mr. Krzeczkowski are enjoyed by a public that likely does not know him.
For Polish conservatives, Mr. Krzeczkowski was, like Leo Strauss in America, a gateway to the Great Books and Great Ideas of Western Civilization. Like Strauss, Krzeczkowski was a careful translator and excellent essayist. Learned in multiple languages, Mr. Krzeczkowski translated much that was worthwhile in English and American prose, as well as sharing his considerable love of classical texts with his friends. He re-introduced many a young Polish conservative to the humane letters and awakened their appreciation for the moral imagination. Amongst the writers Mr. Krzeczkowski translated into Polish were Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph Conrad, Byron, John Updike, Goethe, Karl Marx, Pierre la Mure and Isaiah Berlin. His writing is reminiscent of Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, if for no other reason than the fact that Mr. Krzeczkowski wrote under conditions of systemic persecution. His preference for translating Great Books and writing essays about Great Writers rather than crafting any original oeuvre also betrays a disposition reminiscent of Leo Strauss.
I should like to begin this general introduction of his person with a brief discussion of Mr. Krzeczkowski’s homosexuality, because I find accounts of it to be so delightfully at odds with the laughable narrative of the modern “homosexual rights” movement that plagues the West, and that particularly scorns conservative sensibilities and imputes to conservative ideas an “anti-homosexual” mentality. Mr. Krzeczkowski seems to stand athwart the progressive liberal narrative of “gay” liberation not so much on account of his ideas, as on account of his very life. While there have been homosexuals like Allan Bloom whose work has inspired conservative thought, Bloom was careful to disassociate himself from conservatism. Mr. Krzeczkowski, on the other hand, was a conservative par excellence, not afraid to call himself one amidst the Communist system. By the accounts I have read, his homosexuality was Socratic insofar as he remarked (no doubt purposefully echoing a similar sentiment to Socrates from the first book of The Republic) that “I am happy to find old age dulling the tyranny of the passions within me,” a remark seldom made by heterosexual men, for whom the loss of this passion is no cause for celebration because it distances them not from eros as such, but from their wives.
Mr. Krzeczkowski, furthermore, was noted for sometimes attempting heterosexuality. Like the ancient Athenians, his homosexuality was rather limited to an erotic love of young men coupled with a Platonic love of intelligent men. His attempt at loving women apparently failed. His personal lot, like the lot of many condemned by genetic accident to homosexuality, was not”gay”, but frighteningly lonely. In this loneliness, judging from his work and some accounts of his person, it appears there is some hope that he found the company of Christ.
Furthermore, unlike Allan Bloom who was ambiguous with regard to Christianity, apparently treating it with scholarly respect and personal distance, Mr. Krzeczkowski grew to hold Christianity in high regard and, we might even say, came to be a Christian, finding in the meditation over Christ the answer to much of the woes that besmirched his life. As the jacket to one of the few volumes of his penmanship, a series of literary essays, After-Thoughts, proclaims: “Krzeczkowski attempts to demonstrate that the necessary condition for fruitful communion with culture is the application of moral criteria. The Christian view of Man’s place in the world illuminates for the author the various choices made by the writers he reviews.” Mr. Krzeczkowski took great pains to explore this Christian worldview and apply moral criteria to culture. His work appeared in a Catholic weekly tied to Pope John Paul II and his books carry imaginative content with decidedly conservative titles like “On the place of Prudence” and “Simple Truths”. From the sparce public accounts of those who knew him, his attachment to conservative imagination, Christianity and national patriotism only grew with age.
From what I have learned of Mr. Krzeczkowski, he would likely consider the modern “LGBTQ” movement not merely immoral and incorrect, but above all an ugly literary abomination, a neologism making of a not particularly happy sexual predisposition a caricature impersonating happiness. The very term “LGBT” would likely offend his aesthetic sense because it is reminiscent of vulgar jargon and not beautiful linguistic sensibilities. Equally offensive, I think, would be the laughable contemporary bastardization of language according to which the perfectly nice English word “gay” has been applied to a condition that, as Harry Jaffa pointed out, is usually anything but.
The tendency in the West to consider “gay marriage” legitimate would no doubt make Mr. Krzeczkowski laugh. I highly doubt he would consider his sexual friendships with young men the equivalent of a social institution made for men and women to become one flesh and for the rearing of children. Perhaps in his longing for some semblance of sexual and personal normalcy, Mr. Krzeczkowski was nice enough to make what in effect was a fatherly gesture towards me when he left me his estate? Who knows. Like Strauss, accounts of whom are sparce, Mr. Krzeczkowski was a mystery in many ways, though there is little doubt he was a philosopher, a conservative and a gentleman who happened to be afflicted with homosexuality. Unlike modern liberals who aspire to make a virtue of their vices at the expense of real virtues, Mr. Krzeczkowski appeared to appreciate the value of hypocrisy and discretion to moral health.
In the words of professor Bartyzel, who compares Henryk Krzeczkowski to Michael Oakeshott:
“According to Krzeczkowski, the primacy of ethics binds us even in those spheres of human activity which modern culture tries vigorously (and largely successfully) to emancipate from said ethics: in the areas of law, politics, intellectual and artistic creativity. Where ever the clear distinctions between good and evil are blurred, or ignored as being too ‘over-simplified’, there in essence, under the venire of deep analysis, an attempt is made to castrate the conscience.”
It is the awakening of conscience in his intelligent pupils, through an introduction to and dialogue with Great Writers that was the guiding passion of Mr. Krzeczkowski’s postwar life. Conservatism being above all a predisposition that is acquired, Mr. Krzeczkowski aquired his conservative predispositions in ways that made him a particularly astute man. He was apparently born with some Jewish lineage, and apparently—for reasons I have not yet discovered—changed his name in 1948 from its original: Herman Gerner to the Polish name with which he remained until the end of his life. He was deported by the Soviets deep into Siberia, but re-emerged fighting against NAZI Germany alongside the Polish communist General Bering. Bering, a complex man in his own right, had fought against the Bolsheviks when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1920, but was recruited into the NKVD and even composed the loyalty oath that soldiers would later swear to Stalin. Bering managed to avoid the fate of the 20,000 Polish officers slaughtered by Stalin in Katyn and helped cover the matter up, propagating the official version according to which the NAZIs were responsible for the killings. Together with Bering, Herman Gerner—later Henryk Krzeczkowski—fought on the Eastern Front, eventually reaching Berlin. Following the war, Krzeczkowski was posted to a Polish embassy within one of the component parts of the Soviet Union and worked as an intelligence officer. After leaving the army, he devoted himself to the Great Books, and in this devotion was born his conservatism and his Christian sensibility. A cursory examination of Mr. Krzeczkowski’s essays reveals an esoteric style, a classical imagination and an attempt at seeking transcendence.
An excellent example of Mr. Krzeczkowski’s imaginative conservatism can be found, amongst other places, in his fine essay “Guilt, Punishment, Repentance,” published in Krakow in 1977. There, Mr. Krzeczkowski takes esoteric aim at Communist totalitarianism and the ethical political challenges faced by the intellectual by way of an exoteric consideration of German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg and German philosopher Martin Heidegger; the former a scientist working on the atom bomb for Adolf Hitler, the latter the prominent philosopher of Fascism. Krzeczkowski implies the moral dilemma embodied by these two men by way of a quote from the poet, Zbigniew Herbet:
“What should be done with the silver coins tossed at the feet of Judas?”
The problem is clear: Heisenberg and Heidegger were great men of high value; just like the silver paid to Judas, they retained their value even after the they were paid for the blood of the innocent. What should be done with them? Can they be used again for anything good? Can they be redeemed? What, Krzeczkowski asks via the poet, should be done with the value of Intellectuals who pursued their craft at the expense of the blood of the innocent? Though he never once mentions the Soviet Union in his essay, nor his own part in Soviet history, Krzeczkowski’s entire analysis of Fascism is clearly applicable to not only the Soviet system, but to his own soul. Krzeczkowski makes the following choice observations, taken from the introduction and conclusion of his essay:
“History has never wanted for good and enlightened intentions, yet they have blossomed with particular fruitfulness in the two centuries following the Enlightenment, when Reason, freed from the restrictions of conscience, found itself enthroned as the arbitrator of all thought and the lawgiver for all behavior. Over the course of these two hundred years, Reason has succeeded in a variety of ways. Embodied in Philosophes and Men of Letters, it undertook the French Revolution. Thanks to it, scientists tamed steam, electricity and finally nuclear power; painters overthrew the age old order of the visual world, built over time with great hardship, musicians effected the same coup in the audible world. But there were failures as well. The greatest having been the totalitarianism of the XXth century which, contrary to popular belief, certainly did not appeal to irrationality, but to the constants of effective reason, free of ethical and moral prejudices, ruled by its own practicality. The intellectuals became the Guardians of the new Gods of Reason; they became the new Ecclesiastical class, possessed of the gift of understanding and interpreting the laws passed down by the Idol…the earlier differentiation between Good and Evil, between Right and licentiousness, virtue and vice were based on a priori imperatives. Emancipated Reason rejected them in their totality, and in their place called into being historical processes subject to the needs of physiology. Even the equality of death was overturned by the laws of Eugenics. Reason, free of prejudice, liberated the conscience. History rejected irritating moralizers, physiology rejected the chains of unfounded prohibitions. The guilty conscience was silenced with scientific arguments.”
Following this splendid consolidation of the genesis of modern totalitarianism, and a lengthy analysis of Heisenberg and Heidegger, Mr. Krzeczkowski once again gives voice to the great depth of his conservative imagination as he concludes his ruminations on guilt, punishment and repentance thus:
“[The intellectuals] betrayed their highest calling: the necessity to act as guardians of human memory. Memory, both individual and collective, is selective, as is necessitated by the instinct of self-preservation. But it is also defective, because Human Nature is defective. We forget not only that which can be categorized as the garbage of the mind, but we also try to forget that which burdens our memory. For ages, starting long before this knowledge was codified in the language of psychoanalysis, humanity knew that every attempt to push bitter experiences out of our memories and outside of our knowledge was a dangerous procedure, which risks the sterilization of our conscience and ends with the sickening explosions of a raped memory. Artists, historians, philosophers and intellectuals thus were charged with the protection of humanity against the recklessness of forgetting the past. They never strived for things unattainable, like the complete overcoming of the defects of human nature, they merely tried to show us ways of tempering it. By helping us remember the past, they attempted to halt the rush to evil. They could do so, because they differentiated between good and evil, because they harkened to criteria of judgment that were not the result of speculation, but were gifted, uncontested, revealed. Only this can help explain to us the existence of barriers that could not be crossed, which Man always—in the end—rediscovered, which protected Man from total lawlessness, total cruelty, total catastrophe.”
The above ruminations are only a minor sample of the amazing work of the forgotten father of post-war Polish conservatism. Mr. Krzeczkowski, unfortunate in many ways, was fortunate in one way: he did not live in a world where anyone would ever take seriously the proposal that his homosexuality could or should be sanctified by Civil and Religious laws as a correct basis for the political functions inherent in marriage. I highly doubt he would want to. He also did not live in a world where material comforts blinded him to the reality of man’s Fallen Nature. Men like Henryk Krzeczkowski are little remembered by the young firebrands who now constitute what passes for the Right in Poland, many of whom would doubtless label him a communist agent and Soviet tool, given his complex past.
Though Polish prejudice is still Catholic and conservative in character, it is struggling—for lack of a more thorough understanding of itself—under the duress of Western liberal ideologies alien to Polish and traditionally European and Russian culture. Materialism, pop culture, economic atomization—all of this is slowly eroding the memory that Krzeczkowski worked so hard to rekindle in his countrymen. The intellectuals who Krzeczkowski considered duty bound guardians of the Wisdom of the Ages have been systematically eroded and purged by Western liberalism far more effectively than by Stalin and Hitler. Their present effect on society and status in society is negligible. They are not as important as film stars and pop singers; and those who wish to remain moderately important must accept the orthodoxy of anti-intellectualism and the ridiculous rules of democratic life which demand partisanship and rhetoric at the expense of all other virtues. Still, it is exciting to read Mr. Krzeczkowski and comforting to know that men like him existed. It is also important that men of intelligence take seriously Mr. Krzeczkowski’s notion of the intellectual as duty bound to serve as the reservoir of humanity’s memory about those things which it longs, in its’ hubris, to forget.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.