Aleksander Wat: Truth on a Toilet Wall

 

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Aleksander Wat (1900-1967), the nom de plume of Aleksander Chwat, was born in Warsaw, the descendant of an old and distinguished Jewish family which counted among its members the great sixteenth-century cabalist Isaac Luria. He attended Warsaw University, where he studied philosophy, psychology, and logic, and formed strong ties with the literary avant-garde, publishing a first book of poems, Me from One Side and Me from the Other Side of My Pug Iron Stove, in 1920 and, some years later, a collection of stories entitled Lucifer Unemployed. Wat edited a variety of influential journals and helped to disseminate the work of Mayakovsky and the futurists in Poland, before forming an allegiance with the Communist Party and confining his writing to journalism. In 1939 he fled east before the advancing German army and was separated from his wife and young son. The family reunited in Lwów, then under Soviet control, where Wat found work on a newspaper, only to be placed under arrest. Imprisoned in the Soviet Union for the better part of two years, during which time he converted from Judaism to Christianity, Wat again rejoined his family, who had been exiled to Kazakhstan, in 1942. They returned after the war to Poland, where Wat began to write poetry again while serving as editor of the state publishing house. In 1963, he left his native country for France. Wat was invited in 1964 to the University of California, Berkeley, where he taped a series of conversations about his life and times with his countryman the poet Czeslaw Milosz. Edited by Milosz, these were published posthumously as My Century. Wat committed suicide in 1967.

Source: New York Review of Books: http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/aleksander-wat/

 

Truth on a Toilet Wall

Aleksander Wat was imprisoned by Stalin following the outbreak of the Second World War. His remarkable memoirs have been compared with Solzhenitsyn's work. Here, he recalls his time in Kiev Prison in the Soviet Union, where writing on the latrine walls provided the only truth in a world perverted by Soviet lies. Wat considers one of these pieces of graffiti which read: ‘A curse on whoever invented the name Corrective Labour Camps.’

‘A curse on whoever invented the name... ’ – anger about a name, the meaning of words, semantics. The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people. Mass exterminations are not an exception in history; cruelty is part of human nature, part of society. But a new, third, dimension had been added that was more deeply and subtly oppressive: a vast enterprise to deform language. Had it been only lies and hypocrisy – lying is part of human nature and all governments are hypocritical. The rulers' hypocrisy can cause rebellion, but here any possible rebellion had been nipped in the bud once and for all. A lie is an infirmity, a disease of language. The natural function of language is to ascertain the truth, or truths. Lies, by their very nature partial and ephemeral, are revealed as lies when confronted with language's striving for truth. But here all the means of disclosure had been permanently confiscated by the police. The customary or even the logical, natural connections between words and things, facts, had been taken from the individual, expropriated everywhere, and nationalized for good, so that now any word could mean whatever suited the whims of the usurper of all words, meanings, things, and souls. The viler the deed, the more grandiloquent the name. But if only this procedure were used to mask criminal means and ignoble ends – that too had happened often enough in history, the history of wars, tyrannies, and annexations; Tacitus knew about all that. But in this case a coherent set of grandiloquent terms and the opposing monstrous reality were kept side by side, ostentatiously and with diabolical thoroughness and perseverance, and under threat of extermination a person was coerced into fully believing that the terms and the facts were identical. Such things had been anticipated and attempted in history's darker hours, but this was the first time he ‘reforging of souls’ was carried out by the police on such a colossal scale, with such speed and such logic. Collective farmers dying of starvation were herded into films in which the tables buckled under the weight of food; under threat of death they had to believe that these banquets, and not their wretched poverty, their collective farms, were true and typical. Young enthusiasts sang rapturously:

I know no other land
Where a man can breathe so free’

 

while their fathers perished in the camps. But for souls that had not been reforged yet, nothing was as hateful as that total corruption of language. It drove them to their wits' end. It suffocated them like a nightmare, like a noose around their necks.

When I was at liberty in Russia, which by then had been pacified until it was like a cemetery, I saw some old people who risked their lives to shout out, if only once, that slavery is slavery and not freedom. That was to be a common thing later on in post-war Poland, even during the blackest years. I was one of that large number, and I paid dearly for it.

So in the prison latrines you could read the plain human truth about Stalin's Russia – there, and only there.

Source: from My Century, University of California Press, 1988. 

Source: http://info-poland.buffalo.edu/web/arts_culture/literature/poetry/wat/link.shtml

 

Before Breughel the Elder

 
Work is a blessing,
I tell you that, I -- professional sluggard!
Who slobbered in so many prisons! Fourteen!
And in so many hospitals! Ten! And innumerable inns!
Work is a blessing.
How else could we deal with the lava of fratricidal love towards fellow men?
With these storms of extermination of all by all?
With brutality, bottomless and measureless?
With the black and white era which does not want to end
endlessly repeating itself da capo like a record
forgotten on a turntable
spinning by itself?
Or perhaps someone invisible watches over the phonograph? Horror!
How, if not for work, could we live in the paradise of social hygienists
who never soak their hands in blood without aseptic gloves?
Horror!
How else could we cope with death?
That Siamese sister of life
who grows together with it -- in us, and is extinguished with it
and surely for that reason is ineffective.
And so we have to live without end,
without end. Horror!
How, if not for work, could we cope with ineffective death
(Do not scoff!)
which is like a sea,
where everyone is an Icarus, one of nearly three billion,
and, besides, so much happens all around us
and everything is equally unimportant, precisely, unimportant
although so difficult, so humanly difficult, so painful!
How then could we cope with all that?
Work is our rescue.
I tell you that -- I, Breughel the Elder (and I, for one,
your modest servant, Wat, Alexander) -- work is our rescue.

 

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan