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«L ucifer u nem plo yed Aleksander W at Translated by Lillian Vallee With a Foreword by Czeslaw ...»

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With a Foreword by Czestaw Mitosz

L ucifer u n em p lo y ed

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L ucifer u nem plo yed

Aleksander W at

Translated by Lillian Vallee

With a Foreword

by Czeslaw Milosz

Northwestern University Press Evanston, Illinois

Northwestern University Press

Evanston, Illinois 60201

Translated from the original Polish, Bezrobotny Lucyfer, first published

1927 by F. Hoesick, Warsaw. Published 1988 by Polonia Book Fund Limited, London. Copyright © 1927 by Aleksander Wat, renewed by Paulina Wat and Andrzej Wat. Northwestern University Press edition published by arrangement with Paulina Wat and Andrzej Wat. Trans­ lation © 1990 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

“Lucifer Unemployed” appeared in slightly different form in Artful Dodge, Spring 1981, Fall 1981, and Spring 1982. “Long Live Europe!” appeared in slightly different form in Artful Dodge, Spring 1981.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Wat. Aleksander.

|Bezrobotny Lucyfer. English| Lucifer unemployed / Aleksander Wat; translated by Lillian Vallee.

p. cm Translation of: Bezrobotny Lucyfer.

ISBN 0-8101-0839-9.— ISBN 0-8101-0840-2 (pbk.) 1 Title.


PG7158.W28B4I.3 1990 891,8'537— dc20 89-29945 CIP To my Wife Contents Foreword by Czestaw Mifosz The Eternally W andering Jew Kings in Exile The History of the Last Revolution in England Has Anyone Seen Pigeon Street?

April Fool Hermaphrodite Long Live Europe!

Tom Bill, Heavyweight Champion Lucifer Unemployed ' F o re w o rd b y czesiaw Mitosz In Europe the 1920s ran their course with great avant-garde experimentation in poetry and prose. The First World War had struck at the very foundations of European tradition; but for many, including the young Polish poet Aleksander Wat, these were “happy ruins,” and they grew drunk on the freedom of destroying traditional forms.

Born in Warsaw in 1900, Wat studied philosophy at the uni­ versity and was a cofounder of Polish futurism. Vladimir Mayakovski, who stopped in Warsaw' a few times during his travels west, called him a “born futurist," even though Wat himself rather preferred to speak of his "dadaist" beginnings. In 1920, he published a volume of poems entitled Ja z jeclnej strony i Ja z drugiej strony mego mopsozelaznego piec\’ka (Me from One Side and Me from the Other Side of My Pug Iron Stove).

Wat’s next book, Lucifer Unemployed (1927), consisted of stories or, rather, paradoxical parables which, w'hen read today, bear all the stylistic features of the period, but impress the reader nevertheless with their concentrated energy. This book was very significant to Wat’s intellectual development as an act of radical distrust and scorn of civilization, which brought about his con­ version to the new faith of communism.

In the years 1929-31, Wat was the very competent editor of the influential communist publication Miesiecznik Literacki (The Literary Monthly), which appeared in Poland in spite of censor­ ship. After the monthly was shut down, Wat spent a few months in prison.

ixL u c if er U n e m p l o y e d

The outbreak of World War II in the fall of 1939 caught Wat in Warsaw, from where he escaped to the occupied Soviet zone created by the pact between Hitler and Stalin. There he was arrested and served time in various Soviet prisons, first on charges of being a Zionist, then for being a Trotskyite, and once even on suspicion of being an agent of the Vatican. Wat’s direct contact with Soviet life led him to a complete revision of his views. He returned to Poland from Soviet Asia in 1946 after a protracted search to find his wife and son, who had been deported there. At the end of his tumultuous life, Wat calculated that he had known fourteen prisons.

Wat's renewed literary activity in postwar Poland soon brought charges of unorthodoxy, and he was denied the right to publish his work. The shock of returning to the familiar pattern provoked an attack of illness from which Wat never completely recovered. Nevertheless, his situation was considerably altered by the post-1956 liberalization. In 1957 he published a volume of poetry, Wiersze (Poems), which received a literary' prize and was warmly received by the younger generation.

Because of his ill health, Wat lived abroad from 1959 in France, Italy, and the United States. In 1964-65 he lived in Berke­ ley, California, where, fascinated by his gift for storytelling, I taperecorded over forty sessions with him. Wat returned to Paris, where he died in 1967. A volume of his collected poems, Ciemne swiecidfo (Dark Trinket), was published in Polish after his death in Paris, and in 1977, the memoirs 1 recorded, Moj Wiek (My Century), was published in London. (It was later published in English as My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual.) This work is undoubtedly one of the most important European tes­ taments to our epoch.

Wat’s high standing in Poland as a witness and participant in historic events mirrors the growing recognition of his impor­ tance as a poet. Among his admirers, 1have translated a certain number of his poems into English (Mediterranean Poems, 1977).

A broader selection, With the Skin, translated in collaboration with Leonard Nathan, will be published soon.

Fo r ew o rd There can be no better introduction to Lucifer Unemployed

than Wat’s own words in My Century:

A very simple story. I couldn’t bear nihilism, or let’s say, atheism. If you go through those stories system­ atically, one after the other, you’ll see that what I put together in Lucifer was a confrontation of all humanity’s basic ideas— morality, religion, even love. It’s especially paradoxical and interesting that just then I was going through the second year of a great love. But that cerebral questioning and dis­ crediting of love was thorough, taken right to the end. The discrediting of the very idea of personality... everything in general brought into question.

Nothing. Period. Finished. Nihil.* According to him these stories, written in 1924 and 1925, explain how intellectuals became advocates of totalitarian


There’s a short story by Graham Greene, one of his best. A man goes away from home on vacation and some young hoodlums take over his house. They take out eveiything in the house, they dismantle the staircases, they remove everything; only the walls are left. Later, the man comes back, sees his house from a distance. Eveiything looks entirely normal, the way it was before. But he finds the interior con­ sumed, an empty space. And my malice of that time, that terrible obstinate malice, came from a sort of intellectual hoodlumism. From a feeling that though the outward forms had been preserved, inside eveiything had been eroded, removed, cleaned out. It turned out that this was more than I could bear. I closed my eyes to it. I locked up all ‘ Aleksander Wat, M y Century: The Odyssey o f a Polish Intellec­ tual, ed. and trans. Richard Lourie (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), p. 20.

L u c if e r U n e m p l o y e d

–  –  –

Wat did not live to see the collapse of dogmas considered untouchable in his day and will not see the edition of his writings currently being prepared for publication in Warsaw. I do not know how he would have reacted to the idea of presenting Luci­ fer Unemployed to American readers. I think that as a man sorely tried by history he would have been glad to know that his youth­ ful anticipations grasped something of the sinister dynamic peculiar to our own time, when our planet is becoming a global village. Fortunately for him, Wat was not just a despairing mor­ alist. Just as in his zany poems where he clowns around, turns cartwheels, and sticks out his tongue, there is a lot of film com­ edy— perhaps even the Marx Brothers— in Lucifer Unemployed.


H e llo ! Hello! This is New York speaking. A pound 3.20. In the morning 1 leave by dirigible R 5. See you at five in London.” The telephone was disconnected. The hand of Baron Gould rested motionless on the support of the armchair. The hand of a croupier, raking in gold from the gambling table of Europe. A hand with swollen veins— a railway junction, obscured by strands of cigarette smoke— with five wide fingers, wide tracks to five capitals, to five parts of the world. Now the tracks rested on the carved wood of the arm.

The July evening lay on the terrace of the seventeenth story of the Hotel Livingston— an exhausted barbarian in fetters of luxury. Baron Gould daydreamed; he listened to the din of the city and remembered his childhood. The oval of the murky Ga­ lician town, the silver candlesticks spattered with melted wax, Friday evening, the hands, wrinkled and yellowed like Palestine, of the old woman in the green velvet dress embroidered with silver, her blessing, and the apple and orange wrapped in a handkerchief for her grandson fluttered over the sclerotic pound­ ing heart of New York with a speed greater than three hundred thousand kilometers per second.

The baron remembered his childhood and listened to the tumult of the city; he was hard and taut with daydreams. The swish of trams, the scattering echoes of church bells, bustling crowds, groans of jolted concrete and the indistinct musical undercurrent of the city, which rhythmically moves the beauti


lL u c if e r U n e m p l o y e d

fully healthy thighs of women wearing little chapels of sex under the chasubles of their dresses and strains the muscles of the policeman who keeps the streets tethered. Sweet, intoxicating sound! It is possible that farther down, perhaps just a hundred feet away, another orchestra was striking up, a tempest of trans­ missions, clatter of steel, menacing roar of factory halls, satu­ rating the ear of the proletariat with the delicious hymn of revenge— but here the sound was soft and coarse, wild and vir­ ginal, sweet as a kiss in the rain, wavy as permed hair, more rollicking than a jazz band. Baron Gould heard still another sound: a voice rushing down the trumpet of the street, shouting Baltazar’s words: TIME IS MONEY. It was time shouting: let’s get going! Down there they knew this— they hurried. Time is the enemy, thought the baron. He felt he was aging. Time deducted more and more from his store of dreams— the energizing battery for people of action. Time was diminishing his chances; time, that cruel athlete, had knocked flat the obese body of the banker.

Time was his enemy, money his friend. Baron Gould belonged to a race that the enchanted bird of money often rescued from the pyres of martyrdom and the jaws of annihilation. Money is a paradox. And that is why this paradoxical race took such a liking to it. Money is the algebra in the arithmetic of things. That is why this people possessed it— the algebra of peoples. Baron Gould was a convert but a loyal son of his people. He accumu­ lated money—


and material, individualistic and imper­ sonal paradoxes— but he desired something else, for he was the son of a people that gave its life for money and its money for the Bible. Baron Gould desired greatness as people had once desired their soul’s salvation. He desired to rule time as he ruled space, by skewering Paris, London, New York, Yokohama, Syd­ ney, and Vienna onto the awl of his business dealings. He was the son of a people who were witnesses and cocreators of history.

He desired to stop history, turn it back and wrap it around him­ self. He desired to change the impersonal power of a banker into the personal sway of a reformer. In ihe meantime, he subsidized missions, convents, sects, Tibetan monasteries, Bet Ha-Midrashim. He had a son who was a cleric in Rome and he himself attended the synagogue on the Day of Atonement and prayed

T h e Et e r n a l l y W a n d e r i n g J ew

and fasted. He yearned for greatness as people had once longed for martyrdom. Time was his enemy. It made him richer in gold but more deficient in greatness. Enormous columns of figures, skyscraping towers of figures grew— Paris, London, New York,

Berlin. Vienna, Sydney— but the baron desired something else:

he desired greatness. Even if it became the hand of fury, erasing towers of figures from the face of the earth?

One evening a red-haired youth announced himself to the baron and, practically with tears in his eyes, begged the baron to finance a worldwide communist revolution. He presented a plan that guaranteed flawless success. Weighing the plan in his hand, Baron Gould felt how light the security of Europe was. He had also read a few books about communism. The same figures, organized in different columns. He desired something else: he desired greatness. For several evenings in a row he discussed dogma and the revolution, the meaning of life and all the cosmic issues with the red-haired youth, and in the end he set him up in a well-paying position with one of his London offices.

Now, one July evening on the terrace of the seventeenth story of the Hotel Livingston, Baron Gould is dreaming of a great his­ torical deed, he is listening to the hum of the city and remem­ bering his childhood. Into the sweet and brutal sounds, into the sounds soft and undulating as waved hair, time thrusts its sharp dissonances. Baron Gould recalls Holbein’s engravings: a young woman listening to the violin of death. Baron Gould (the Stradivarius of the stockmarket) was all of them, the violin, the young woman and death that July evening when Nathan, a Talmudist from Zebrzydowo, asked him: So now what?

There is always mud in Zebrzydowo. In the spring it runs in wavy streams; in the summer it is thick, deep, and black; in the fall it is sticky and gummy; and in the winter it crunches underfoot.

In Zebrzydowo there is an old yeshiva. Marks left by Chmielnicki's bullets are still visible on its pockmarked walls. Nothing

L u c if e r U n e m p l o y e d

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