It is rather difficult to write intelligently about Stefan Kisielewski’s first novel without prefacing the effort with a very long apologia. Perhaps it would be enough to simply say that his book is akin to Thoreau’s Walden, albeit set in Dante’s Inferno, except that neither of those works require a defense of the caliber demanded of Stefan Kisielewski’s The Conspiracy. The novel’s chief problem rests in the fact that it is authentically difficult to perceive why this book has anything to teach conservatives and Christians rather than being a target of their ire.
Yet Kisielewski may be the Socrates to our Athenian choir of discontent. This does not suggest that Kisielewski is a brilliant philosopher. The analogy to Socrates is correct insofar as Kisielewski is dangerous, that his book can legitimately be accused of corrupting the young. This is why it requires a defense, and this is also why no defense will ever put to rest the doubts of good men that the novel is at base a work of demonic proportions.
That it is a work of literary fiction, and thus merely dressed in demonic garbs is little solace. As Kisielewski himself writes, a group of twelve men once decided to play a joke on their friend and dressed up as demons to scare him. Upon arriving at this friend’s home, they found it empty and soon noticed that there were thirteen, not twelve of them. Terrified, they feared that their morbid joke had stirred the devil himself who was now amongst them. Little did they imagine their friend had gotten word of their ruse and himself dressed up as a demon to scare them. While indeed their costumes are facades, their fear is real. It is the same with Kisielewski’s book. It is “only” a book, but the risk it poses to the health of the soul is real. The risk may also be worth it.
Mr. Kisielewski, who lived from 1911 to 1991, was Poland’s most prolific conservative writer, and founder, alongside his good friend Mr. Henryk Krzeczkowski, of Poland’s conservative movement which blossomed after the second World War. Ostensibly, it is Henryk Krzeczkowski who should present the greatest difficulty to a reviewer, given his homosexuality and wartime service as a Soviet intelligence officer. Mr. Kisielewski, a Polish war veteran, op-ed writer in Poland’s premier Catholic opinion journal, lone conservative in the communist parliament and ardent defender of free market capitalism, should be theoretically a far easier sell. Paradoxically, it is Henryk Krzeczkowski whose entire oeuvre represents a deeply Catholic and sober conservatism rooted in immediately recognizable European and Russian traditions, while Mr. Kisielewski’s work is unique enough to warrant that we call it foreign to traditional conservative sensibilities.
This is not altogether odd given that Mr. Kisielewski is often referred to as a liberal in the classical sense. Yet even this designation might lead Western readers astray because it tends to bring to mind men like FA Hayek, whose refusal to call himself a conservative did little to alienate him from conservatives who recognized their kinship with Hayek. Perhaps it may be more proper to seek an analogy between Mr. Kisielewski and Ayn Rand, Yet this is not entirely fair, let alone accurate, because Rand was a romantic and a moralist. Kisielewski is not only a realist, but a cynic and a moral relativist. In the end, we can only say one thing with any certainty: Stefan Kisielewski was his own man. He left his own mark. His mark was distinctly Polish, and if we can penetrate the essence of his novel without casting it into the flames in utter disgust, we just might realize why it deserves a place in the pantheon of excellent and timeless classics and not on the shelves of a pornography shop as many of its fiercest critics have alleged.
The title of the novel, “Sprzymierzenie” presents our first obstacle. Literally, it can be translated as The Conspiracy, but also connotes meanings such as The Alliance, The Oath or The Vow. All of these variations work quite well. The book exists thanks largely to future Nobel Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz, who provided the financial support to the young Stefan Kisielewski that made it possible for him to write it. Miłosz was also the book’s first reader and apparently provided much of the initial input and feedback that led to the novel’s final form. The original manuscript of the book was destroyed in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, but thanks to Miłosz, a copy survived the war. The book itself was written in Warsaw during the period 1942-1944, under Nazi occupation .
It is all but certain that the novel, ostensibly fiction, is in fact autobiographical. Upon publication, the author was summarily suspended from his writing duties at the Catholic journal which had become his intellectual home, and praised by his political opponents who came to his defense against the furious criticism that the book earned from numerous Catholic reviewers. One of the more charitable clergymen noted that if Mr. Kisielewski had decided to make a name for himself as a pornographer, fine, but at the very least he might have considered writing pornography that was not boring.
The book, although harshly critical of Freud and Marx, is alive with Marxist and Freudian thought. One might be inclined to call it Nietzschean, except anyone who knows anything about Nietzsche will immediately recognize that despite certain pretenses aiming to illustrate the life of supermen who are above the herd, Mr. Kisielewski’s book is ultimately the story of one man’s utterly pathetic struggle against impotence and the struggle of his nation against its political impotence. Nietzsche would hate Mr. Kisielewski’s hero. Schopenhauer may have found him marginally more attractive. If this is the case, then why should we care to pay attention to this book? Is it only because the peculiarity of a novel that insults the Catholic and the Nietzchean sense is tantalizing?
To my mind, the book is worthwhile on account of its brutal realism. Those who call it pornography or profanity seem to prefer a more sentimental and heroic view of World War II. When one considers the realities of that horrific war, one immediately understands what it is about Kisielewski’s book that repulses readers. The true nature of the war, it’s insane stupidity, is something we do not want to remember. Kisielewski’s novel could be blamed for being a sick bit of eroticism which demeans the memory of the war’s heroes if not for the fact that Mr. Kisielewski is one of the war’s heroes and the account given in his novel is more than likely true.
The basic plot of the novel revolves around the main character, Zygmunt, a student of literature from Warsaw with a promising career in publishing, whose youth is cut short on September 1st, 1939 when Nazi Germany invades Poland. In his youth, Zygmunt and his two friends, Henryk and Stefan, took a vow of celibacy motivated by the philosophy of Henryk, who taught that the conquest of nature has hitherto failed to conquer the banal passions which lead mankind astray and has only found new means of satisfying said passions which act as chains upon the human spirit. The life of the mind and the spirit, that special province of the few who are gifted, remains untapped to its full potential because even the higher types of humans succumb to the erotic passions and end up leading mundane lives and forgoing full artistic commitment. The three friends initiate the “Genius Club,” referred to by their classmates as the “Faggots Club” since its principle external characteristic is sexual timidity towards women. The Genius/Faggots Club is in ostensible agreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which are preferred over the sexual passions of the herd, although the three young boys consider themselves to have a far higher understanding of the spiritual and intellectual realm than their priest.
Time passes. Stefan embarks upon the study of music, Zygmunt studies literature and Henryk majors in economics and philosophy, finally joining the army. Though separated from his boyhood friends, Zygmunt remains faithful to his oath of celibacy—until he meets a beautiful Russian woman. Tamara, the daughter of an impoverished Russian emigre, a former high ranking official in the Tsar’s government prior to the Bolshevik revolution, arouses all of Zygmunt’s repressed eroticism, but despite the intensity of their affair, which Kisielewski explores in vivid detail, he does not break his boyhood vow—he remains, in the most technical of senses, a virgin. The stormy love affair is at once burdened by the ballast of historical enmity between Poles and Russians. Kisielewski summarizes the matter brilliantly:
“After only a few dates, Zygmunt realized how alien Tamara was. She was a Russian; she came from a country which, despite being right next to his own, was mysterious and unknown to him. Russia was a country that Zygmunt’s historical tradition compelled him to hate. Tamara had experienced those tragic, well known things that everyone had heard of but few could imagine: Russia, famine, revolution, the death of her mother, great hardships and demeaning moments, escape to Poland, the nervous breakdown of her father. Already as a child, Tamara had become well acquainted with death, with crime, with rape, with fear and insanity—all of which Zygmunt had heard about, but never known. Tamara believed her experiences to legitimize her existence. She treated them as something of a diploma, a badge which signified that she was a mature human being possessed of dignity. She was proud of her experiences and enjoyed sharing them. She had not suffered a nervous breakdown like her father. She was too young and too full of vigor to suffer such a fate. She possessed the vigor of an animal that was forever on the prowl. She despised life lead in accordance with rules, concentrated on purely intellectual matters. Zygmunt felt like a domesticated dog when he was around her, he felt that he had been trained in an ideal, warm little home. Tamara did not like his writing, she did not like the intellectual matters that took up his thoughts, she did not like the people he surrounded himself with. With all her heart, Tamara loathed Poland, which she considered to be a nation characterized by aristocratic buffoonery and megalomania. She saw Poland as a nation of misleading intellects, of gross poverty and of incompetence that was beyond the scales of what most people were able to imagine. Tamara was not intelligent, but she had a capacity for perceptiveness, cynicism and the ability to immediately spy all manner of shortcomings and to laugh at them without mercy…Mentally, she was absolutely primitive. She knew foreign languages, but she never read anything except popular literature. She looked upon the world of the intellectuals with the hatred of a barbarian who had been formed by the nihilistic winds of Russia at the turn of the century” (p. 110-111).
Following the definitive end of his love affair , which culminated in Zygmunt’s failure to engage in sexual intercourse, our hero develops a morbid fear that he may be impotent and that his boyhood friends Henryk and Stefan may have actually been homosexuals who used an elaborate intellectual foil to turn young boys away from normal sexual passions in order to handicap them. Seeking advice from a medical doctor, Zygmunt is assured that physically, he is capable of erection and ejaculation. The doctor ventures that Zygmunt’s problems are quite common for the intellectual classes and are psycho-erotic. Zygmunt decides his only recourse is to consort with prostitutes in order to become a real man. Thereupon Stefan Kisielewski leads readers through a banal yet necessary tantalizing tour of bordellos and street prostitution in pre-war Warsaw. The adventure is made all the more perverse and pathetic on account of Zygmunt’s erectile disfunction which, despite the best efforts of Warsaw’s ladies of the night, continues to hinder his efforts at consummating at least one erotic encounter.
Zygmunt’s problems appear to recede when he meets Joanna, a history teacher who is both a keen intellect and a beautiful woman. While all of this is happening, the country is alive with the expectation of war against Nazi Germany. The general mood is that if Hitler wants war, then Poland will oblige him. Poles are confident because they are allied with world powers England and France, and are sure that the three nations, bound by oaths to mutual defense, will make short work of Hitler if he should dare attack. Their confidence is embodied in their foreign minister and most respected statesman, Józef Beck, who gives a rousing speech and throws down the gauntlet effectively daring Hitler to attack Poland over the Baltic port in Danzig.
Politically, Zygmunt finds himself just as alienated from his nation in questions of statesmanship and war as he is from his people in sexual matters. Zygmunt hates the Left, the humanitarians and pacifists whose ideologies grew up in the West amidst the horrors of World War I. He recognizes that the Great War was the source of Polish liberty, and thus cannot identify with those Western voices for whom it was all one big mistake. He likewise finds himself disgusted by the Right which is nationalist and anti-Semitic. Acknowledging that the Jew haters and nationalists are at least authentic in their passion, he ultimately finds the content of their postulates idiotic. He also notes that despite their passion, the anti-Semites in Poland are clumsy and ineffective, unlike the Machiavellian genius displayed by Hitler who used the issue effectively to gain and keep power in Germany. Zygmunt eventually finds himself employed in one of Poland’s most important and widely read political journals, whose Editor in Chief is a respected and important voice in the annals of the Polish government and the mainstream of Polish political thought. When the Nazis finally invade Poland, Zygmunt joins the army to defend his nation, though already he finds himself doubting that his government has any idea what it is doing. Chaos begins to reign.
At this stage, we should recall that the entire novel, though a work of fiction, is actually more than likely autobiographical with the one caveat that the names of the book’s heroes are variations of their real life counterparts. Stefan Kisielewski’s account of the Polish-German war of 1939 is therefore likely an account of his own direct experiences which mirror those of his main character. Zygmunt quickly finds himself the victim of the incompetence of the Polish army. Having joined with the express intention of seeing combat to defend his country, he instead finds himself marching day in and day out in various directions with no apparent goal. When a column of German soldiers appears on their path, Zygmunt and his men are ordered to hide rather than engage them. The one time he is under fire is when his own comrades start shooting at his company in a friendly fire incident. The occasional Ukrainian also shoots at Zygmunt and his companions, as Hitler had promised the Ukrainians their own state and many of them treated the Nazi invasion as the hour of their liberation. News eventually comes that the Russian army has entered Poland from the East and Zygmunt’s company is ordered to stand down and disperse. A moment after one man blows out his brains, fearing imprisonment by the Nazis, a Polish officer arrives to tell the enraged troops that in point of fact there was no Russian invasion, that British bombers are pummeling Berlin and French garrisons rushing into Germany and Hitler himself is dead, fallen by a revolution which has broken out in Berlin. The soldiers momentarily rejoice and continue their march—this time hoping to see combat.
Yet as the marching drones on, day in and day out, with nary a sign of a German soldier, desertion increases. Realizing that the Polish government has fled the country and abandoned the troops, more and more soldiers conclude that their oaths were sworn to a phantom government of a phantom state. They themselves become phantoms, disappearing into the forests of the countryside, trying to make their way home. Zygmunt and his comrade eventually also conclude that desertion, under the circumstances, is neither a moral blemish nor a criminal offence. Tearing off their uniforms and throwing their weapons into a river, they make their way back to Warsaw on foot. Kisielewski summarizes the general atmosphere thus:
“Europe does not know just how much strength is wasted here. Europe finds our situation odd; how is it that Poles who are so intelligent and capable continue to give Europe so little? In the end, Europe explains the matter with an old saying loaned to the Continent by a German, whose belittling words seem to explain everything: ‘slavische Faulheit, polnische Witschaft’ (Slavic laziness, Polish workmanship). What a tragic situation—and no one will come to help us, because no one cares about what is going on here, because there is nobody here to care about. All that is left to us are the old ways: we can emigrate, we can continue to fight as underground partisans, or we can simply take the easiest path—accept our lot as slaves and degenerate accordingly. And here we thought that we had finally freed ourselves from our historical tragedy, from our endless cycle of calamity. We had built a new nation-state, unburdened by cheap sentimentalism, we had liberated ourselves from our mystical past, we had armed ourselves with the simple, healthy vigor of American idealism. Yet apparently, in a world crafted by the impotent Versailles treaty, there is no help for us. There was no way for us to stand in the light of day and take up the burden of work uncomplicated. Now, we again faced old complications, and again night has fallen” (p. 445).
On his way back to Warsaw from the phantom front, Zygmunt spends the night in a village. There, a silent and timid young woman, widowed during the German invasion, crawls into his bed and to Zygmunt’s surprise, he is able to have sex with her. The greatest obstacle to his attempts to cure himself of his self-inflicted impotence had been overcome: he knows that he is capable of ejaculation. Returning to Warsaw, Zygmunt learns the fate of his friends. Henryk is dead. Killed in action by German bullets in Krakow. Stefan, who survived the siege of Warsaw, reveals the truth behind the mystery of Henryk. Far from being a brilliant philosopher of the future, Henryk was a mental patient in a hospital for the insane. Despite this fact, Henryk managed to form an alliance with key Polish government officials including Zygmunt’s Editor in Chief, and convince them that he was part of a group of German conspirators working to assassinate Adolf Hitler by way of a suicide attack in an airplane.
Henryk and his partner, another Pole by the name of Mr. Lewandowski, thus managed to gain vast sums of money from the Polish government as financial support for this assassination plot. Of course, in point of fact there never was any assassination plot. Mr. Lewandowski was actually a two-bit hustler who took advantage of the naive stupidity of the Polish government and was safely outside of the country with the money embezzled from said government when the Nazis attacked. Henryk was simply used by Mr. Lewandowski as a front for his embezzlement scheme. Henryk’s great intelligence as a philosopher gained him the ear of serious men in the government and made possible the cash transfers. Henryk did not dare to inform against Mr. Lewandowski because Mr. Lewandowski threatened to disclose Henryk’s homosexuality and his dalliance with Stefan.
Zygmunt realizes at this moment that his boyhood had been at the mercy of insane and conniving homosexuals whose own repulsion with the female body served as their motivation for creating a philosophy of the super man as a celibate artist, a philosophy meant to deprive young men of natural sexual fulfillment. The oath he had taken, his membership in the “Genius Club” was all an elaborate scheme. His classmates were right: it was a “faggots” club.
Zygmunt realizes that hid naiveté was not unique. High representatives of the Polish government allowed themselves to be convinced to hand over money to an extortionist on the say so of a mentally insane homosexual. What’s more, the Polish government dared Adolf Hitler to a war on the basis of their confidence in British and French homosexuals who assured them that the Western powers would immediately join the war effort if Poland were attacked. The Polish government’s alliance with Britain and France, the vows of honor exchanged between the three nations, were of equal worth to Zygmunt’s vows exchanged with two conniving homosexuals. The Western Allies were a political “Faggots Club” worthy of contempt which had destroyed the life of Zygmunt’s young nation just as Henryk and Stefan had almost destroyed Zygmunt’s life as a man.
In the end, as he rushes home before the new Nazi imposed 7pm curfew, passing German patrols marching through the streets of Warsaw, Zygmunt concludes that he will not flee for France or America or Australia. There is no such thing as a nation, a country or a collective. There are only the stupid herd and the men of genius. Freedom is not a place, but a state of mind achieved by the individual. He realizes that the Nazi invasion is good because it is cathartic. The homosexuals and idiots who made his life miserable and who wasted the lives of his generation on a catastrophic war were gone. The whole damned world was up in flames, and with it all of the old impediments to Zygmunt’s life. He was now free. No more country, no more vows. Let the Russians and the Germans drown in the cult of the masses, Zygmunt would forever more lead the life of an egoist. His ideal will be the freedom of the individual and eternal disgust with the cult of the collective.
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