The 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence is behind us, but the odd and complex ways in which the Polish identity has manifested itself over the years continue to fascinate the editorial staff of “Przekrój”. Here, we look at the never-finished work of Tadeusz Peiper, who thought that streetlamps lit during the day were turned on to acknowledge his greatness.
Warsaw, 1957. A small neglected flat on Wołoska Street in the district of Mokotów. Inside, one can hardly squeeze through the endless piles of paper, heaped up into whole labyrinths and gorges. There are cobwebs in the corners and hanging from the ceiling.
Bathed in a dim light, a man is sitting at a desk, hidden behind a stack of papers, writing on scraps of paper:
“I keep my thick volumes of the Dictionary of the Polish Language atop my closet. I stack them vertically. None of them have been targeted by the spiders – except one. The exception was the volume for the letters T-Y!”
The volume simply covers all the headwords starting from T to Y, but the man sees the combination ‘T-Y’ as standing instead for the Polish word ty, ‘you’, writing:
“Apparently the spiders are trying to communicate with me: ‘You are the target of our attacks!! You, you!!’”
This man is Tadeusz Peiper, once an avant-garde poet, the author of probably the most original Polish poems of the 20th century, a poetry theorist who in the early 1920s almost single-handedly blazed the innovative pathways of Polish art. Now, 30-odd years later, he has ended up on the sidelines of life, plunged into deepening, untreated mental illness. And at the same time, he is the author of a legendary, never-ending, colossal work about “my times, my country, myself”; a work in which “the whole truth will be told for the first time in literature”; a work that to this day is one of the most intriguing mysteries of Polish modern literature.
The Book of the Diarist
Few have actually read Księga pamiętnikarza [The Book of the Diarist], as the author himself described his work. The manuscript, comprising thousands of handwritten pages, is held in the special collections of Poland’s National Library in Warsaw, and the Ossolineum in Wrocław. It is slated to be made available to the public in 2020, 50 years after the author died in his flat in 1969 – neglected, forgotten and, as we can guess from the published passages of The Book, steeped in profound suffering. From what we know today, it is certainly not, as the first researchers of the only released fragments had hoped, an all-encompassing tome. Not ‘THE Book’, in the style of Stéphane Mallarmé or Bruno Schulz’s work, nor a work of science fiction. Rather, it is a glimpse into Peiper’s ever-progressing illness, or, as one researcher writes: “An intrinsic look into the struggles of a modern-age man grappling with increasingly psychotic experiences.”
The latter were partially due to his obsessive feelings of grandiosity (he thought that even streetlamps, when lit during the day, had been turned on to acknowledge his greatness), a wide range of delusions (which included signs communicated not only by spiders, but also by inanimate objects), as well as an all-consuming persecution mania. The latter made him believe that he was constantly the target of mysterious intruders, whom he called dwójkowcy, meaning ‘two-timers’ or ‘double-crossers’, and whose mission was to pursue the large-scale plans of the “Jewish-German conspiracy”.
The spread of lurking insanity
But how did it all start? Jarosław Fazan, a scholar of Peiper’s work and the author of a book devoted to the psychotic aspect of his work (Od metafory do urojenia, “From Metaphor to Delusion”, 2010), writes that “madness, a specific aspect of Peiper’s personality, can be seen in his works from the very beginning”, typifying his writing from the very first texts published in the magazine Zwrotnica. It is this psychotic aspect that Fazan notices in Peiper’s unique ability to craft metaphors, creating a quality “that has no equivalent in the real world”, but also, in a broader sense, in his entire way of transforming the world of nature into the mechanical world of man.
However, this extraordinary poetic talent of Peiper, which emerged in the early 1920s and allowed him to link together quite remote concepts, soon began to fade. Before definitively ending his career as a poet in the 1930s, he wrote a series of poematic fact-based literary montages, which, as researchers discovered later, contained lengthy extracts copied from newspapers. At the same time, Peiper began writing quasi-autobiographical, realistic novels (such as Ma lat 22, “He Was 22”), which are quite the opposite of his former avant-garde style. Shortly thereafter, he penned a novel about the explorer Christopher Columbus, on which he began working before the outbreak of World War II. This is the first in the series of, as Jarosław Fazan calls them, “transitive biographies”, in which the poet, writing about historical figures, finds various ways to identify himself with the main character. Suffice it to say that, apart from Columbus, the list included Lope de Vega, Gabriela Zapolska, Adam Mickiewicz, and even Marilyn Monroe.
The madness of wartime
But the true catalyst for Peiper’s mental illness came with the turbulent events of the wartime years. These years, it seems, were to blame for the emergence of his delusions about a “German-Jewish conspiracy” whose aim was to “destroy him as the greatest Pole that ever lived, leading to the destruction of all Poles”.
The first traces of this can be found in a diary Peiper kept from the very beginning of the war, entitled Pierwsze Trzy Miesiące [The First Three Months]. It is there, amid what seem like basic accounts of the German occupation in Kraków, that we can see aspects of a paranoid worldview creeping in. Peiper’s accounts are peculiar. He sees the Germans before they even arrive in the city, he tracks the movements of odd characters and tries to understand their actions, he comes up with twisted theories. What he’s most likely doing is simply misinterpreting the significance of the ordinary events and everyday situations he witnesses, giving expression to the madness within him.
The war (or more precisely, the Nazis’ racial policies) made Peiper brutally aware of his own Jewish origins, something he had denied in the past. A man for whom Jewishness had never played any role suddenly became a hunted prey because of it. It thus makes it seem even more paradoxical that on the first pages of Pierwsze Trzy Miesiące, Peiper formulates his theory about Jewish traitors conspiring with German soldiers.
Trying to escape from the Nazis, he made his way to the then Polish town Lwów (modern-day Lviv in Ukraine), where he was soon arrested by the NKVD, along with the poets Broniewski and Wat. At that point, his mental health was already further deteriorating. The best proof of this may be that when he was finally released from the Lubyanka in Moscow, one of the most horrific prisons in the USSR, he refused to leave until they gave him back his manuscripts. After his release, he joined the circle of Polish communists represented by Wanda Wasilewska’s Union of Polish Patriots. This is another paradoxical situation. Peiper, who had always had more of an aesthetic attitude towards socialism, now had to endorse a communist policy aimed at subordinating Poland. At the same time, his former comrades treated him as a persona non grata. Soon, probably in an effort to get rid of him, he was sent off to Siberia, where he was allegedly meant to probe into the fate of Polish exiles sent there by the Tsar after the January Uprising of 1863–64. When he finally reached Yakutsk, however, the archival records he was supposed to have been given access to turned out to have been moved to Moscow 10 years earlier.
Return to Poland
After returning to Poland once the war was over, Peiper tried to regain his bearings in the real world. He wrote about theatre, film and highlander dancing, but no one was interested in publishing his writings.
Like a ghost or, as Przyboś put it more bluntly, like “a beggar”, Peiper wandered Warsaw, oscillating between his flat on Wołoska Street and the National Library, where he went nearly every day. The cafés and restaurants scattered along the way on Puławska Street and Marszałkowska Street (where Peiper wrote his The Book of the Diarist) were where he spent the last few years of his life in growing isolation, and in his ever-deepening mental illness. At the same time, as Jarosław Fazan points out, it was this isolation and living on the margins of society that probably prevented him from ever having his illness diagnosed (which, at the time, probably would have been diagnosed as schizophrenia), and therefore treated with medication. As a result, Peiper’s delusional complexes were left to develop on an enormous scale, making the book he worked on so obsessively not just a testimony to the disease, but also an attempt to protect himself and make sense of his life, for which the alternative could only be a catatonic collapse into nothingness.
A large share of The Book, for which he collected notes from 1953 onwards, is filled – as we can guess from the passages published thus far – with descriptions of Peiper’s physical ailments (he would call himself “a diarist of sorrows and pains, of torments and martyrdom”). The book at times becomes a chronicle of Peiper’s physical suffering, his achy bones, eyesight problems, cold spells and heaviness in his limbs, waves of fatigue and drowsiness (undoubtedly some of these may have been symptoms of depression) – but all of them interpreted by Peiper as having been brought on purposefully by the sinister ‘two-timers’.
Evading the treacherous ‘two-timers’
The name Peiper used for the double-crossers, dwójkowcy, is associated with the colloquial term for the military intelligence service that had operated during the interwar years of the Second Polish Republic (known as Dwójka, or ‘number two’). Although invisible and elusive, Peiper was convinced that they were the ones responsible for his ailments, that this was their way to try and destroy him, or at least prevent him from writing. By “remotely” emitting gases and “electromagnetic interference” from “in-ceiling devices”, they were able to attack him even in his own flat. These remote attacks targeted his eyes, brain, feet and toes, hands and fingers, as well as his urethra, heart and intestines. They caused drowsiness and fatigue, making sleep impossible. They spoiled and poisoned his food, which is why Peiper would often go hungry in the last years of his life. When he was not home, they would go through his notes. As Fazan concludes: “Peiper’s memoirs paint a paranoid picture of being completely under surveillance, constantly closely watched by invisible forces. It is obvious that the ‘two-timers’ know his every step, every thought and every intention, and if he manages to escape from them for a moment, he pays a terrible price, as they torture him for writing about their ‘villainy’.”
Peiper regularly refers to the ‘two-timers’ as “Jews” or “German-Jews”. It seems that in imagining this alleged German-Jewish conspiracy, Peiper managed to internalize the age-old Polish obsessions. Such antisemitism was, of course, accompanied by Polish nationalism and the repression of his own identity. The disease transformed this former interwar socialist – who had written about Poland as “once it stretched from sea to sea / now it must go from hand to hand” – into a fanatical nationalist. In his writings, Poland itself becomes the most important thing, something to worship, as evidenced by a section of this prayer-like passage from his The Book:
“Poland, my home, my beloved land and beloved sky, my beloved nation and beloved life, be our happiness and let your name be the sound of goodness to good people, and your will be praised by them.”
It is therefore not surprising that in one of the later passages of The Book, we find a scene in which the writer’s physical sufferings are likened to Christ’s passion, and in which he sees himself as the would-be saviour of the nation:
“Tired, I lay down. Soon the cruel ones began to torment me once again, even here. But this time they remotely nailed in the nails a bit differently. Unlike ever before. Nailing both feet at the same time. Right through them. And in other places. That’s how they nailed the feet of the crucified Christ. While this torment was taking place, I could hear a girl of about five years shouting a taunt in the courtyard: ‘Liar, liar pants on fire!’ She shouted this for several minutes. In the last phase, the combination of the remote torture and nearby shouting could only mean one thing: ‘You will not be the saviour of your people. You will not save the Poles. You will not die a martyr. You will not be the great hero. You will die hanged in the most degrading way: on any old piece of string’.”
Translated by Daniel J. Sax