Furthest Right

Józef Mackiewicz: patriot of landscape (Olaf Swolkien)

Ecology is a word that would probably irritate Józef Mackiewicz.* He would sense in it the fashionable naming of old things with new names – the newspeak. Józef Mackiewicz preferred good old ideas and good old words, though sometimes harsh or pithy. Ecology of language? Among the flood of ecologists’ jargon (eco-jargon?) I understand his point of view increasingly deeper.

Not much is known about Józef Mackiewicz in Poland. Since 1984 when I encountered his books for the first time, I have never parted with them and whenever I read some of the media rubbish I return to his writing, which is like a glass of crystal-clear spring water. While reading polemics regarding Mackiewicz one can have the impression that he was a mad man, as some “Europeans” claim, or that he was an eager anti-Communist, as our rightists want to perceive him. By the way, during his life Mackiewicz was attacked mainly by the right for he “did not think Polish” (which means that he dared to write truth about Poles) or for desecrating Polish national values – Mackiewicz believed there were no untouchable subjects. Later, when Adam Michnik, with the elegance so typical of him, defined the late author as a “zoological anti-Communist”, the right, who loves anything Michnik criticises, found Mackiewicz not guilty of any political sins. They forgave him his two marriages and an illegitimate child, which normally discredits any writer or thinker in the eyes of philistines who have so much influence on the literary critics. To make the story more funny, Nina Karsow, the owner of the copyright, believes that the Polish People’s Republic still exists and she does not allow Mackiewicz to be legally published in his motherland. Finally, due to many pressures, the London issue of his book is available in Poland, equipped with a note about an author that would discourage any unaware reader reluctant to political obsessions.

In the end, however, Mackiewicz won. Thanks to having all his enemies quarreled he managed to overcome the censorship and the conspiracy of silence. Now it is time for readers to see through the labels given to him.

Mackiewicz studied natural sciences; before the Second World War he worked as a journalist in the Wilno Slowo. He wrote about himself that he had a nature-oriented point of view. What did that mean? The answer can be found in two excerpts from his fabulous war story Lewa wolna (Free Left):

“People unite not through common opinions but through spiritual similarities1 ” and “When we face the Lord I think He will not judge us according to our views but to our humanity here2” A little later we can read: “There are three sorts of patriotism: the National Patriotism, the doctrine patriotism and the landscape patriotism. The National one is interested only in people who inhabit a landscape, not the landscape itself. The doctrine one does not care for people or landscapes. Only the landscape patriotism embraces everything: the air, forests, fields, moors, and man, as an integral part of the landscape.3 “

There are no doubts that the latter sort of patriotism was represented by Mackiewicz himself. The multinational Grand Duchy of Lithuania taught him to look at districts of his city, inhabited by different nations, like at a garden with a variety of beautiful flowers. The richer variety, the more beautiful a town, a country, an empire is. Besides, Mackiewicz, the irrestful spirit, would have been bored in a mono-culture.

When I was at school I was instructed that a Belarussian peasant was ignorant and unaware of his nationality because when asked about his nationality during pre-war census he would answer that he was a local. In these terms Mackiewicz, a citizen of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was not mature, too. Being a gentleman he remained much closer to so-called simple men than to city intelligentsia who perceived the world as a factory: from one line to another – Poles, next – Germans, Russians, etc. The Mackiewiczian world and the civilisation from before great bourgeois and proletarian revolutions, was like an ecological garden and Polish fields protecting themselves against “restructuring”: colourful, clean and homely. The changes the world was undergoing were actually unnoticeable, subjected to life itself, not to any theory of life. About authority Mackiewicz wrote: “It is not important who is in charge; it is important whether he will let live or not.4 ” So we can say that the worst gardener is the one who wants to rearrange everything according to some abstract scheme – a man of ideas, in the Nietzsche’s understanding of “modern ideas”. The philosophy would mean death for some plant species, as it meant death for Jews of Wilno or the Polish intellectual elite in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, depending on which maniac wanted to reorder the world. Mackiewicz liked variety, therefore he liked Russians and Germans, which is quite unusual for a Pole. And his feeling were dictated not only by doctrines he followed, but most of all by his sensitivity and curiosity of anything that is different. In one of his short stories Mackiewicz described an event, probably from his own life: “Trees are the greatest beauty of the world. Rocks, water, etc.? Well, yes, but trees first of all. Once, in October 1910, during a boring lesson of arithmetic Henryk watched branches of a tree, the only tree you could see through the windows of the college class. There were the last of theautumn leaves on the boughs and a small yellow-bellied bird with a long, black stripe jumped among them. He hung his head down, then jumped up, left, right, from one bough to another. ‘Hm…’, said Ipolit Aleksandrowicz, suddenly putting his hand up on Henryk’s shoulder. The latter, surprised, blushed, feeling the eyes of the whole class on himself. ‘What? The bird caught your eye? Hm…’. And the teacher, having taken off his glasses hanged them on the lapel of his golden-buttoned jacket, as he had always used to. He stood in front of the window and looked at the bird, thoughtful, till it flew away. ‘Well…,’ and he turned back towards the desk. ‘Tell me, how many units is there in seven hundred?5 ” The bird watching by people belonging to two nations hostile to each other because of doctrines showed that there are things much more important than any divisions: more true, more natural.

Mackiewicz looked at people like at the bird: with curiosity, want for learning about their life problems and fascinating mysteries of every creature. This natural look defended him against illusion and suave sentimentality which are common among present animal lovers. The latter live far from the wild nature and they imagine it as a constant idyll. But to love means to see and understand. For instance it is ridiculous trying to prove that no bad man was ever a vegetarian. Doctrines and fanaticism are always accompanied by a total lack of sense of humour, exaltation and ignoring of facts.

Józef Mackiewicz was never an ecologist. Before the Second World War he worked as a reporter and traveled across his country in a peasant’s cart or by boat. His articles were gathered in a collection Bunt rojstów (The Rebel of the Moors), probably the most clearly ecological of his works. His “ecology” consisted in defending local people against centralised authority who wanted to administer a given region not having even seen it, to reorder people’s lives and make them adjust to some abstract regulations and an imaginary notion of the so-called “welfare”. The task was not as easy as today though, since there was no tv and the “locals” did not dream about life from tv commercials. The people then were more interested in the reality behind their own windows. The title rojsty (moors) were only a symbol of a dying world and of people who were an inherent part of nature for Mackiewicz. Ludwik Chominski, author of the introduction, found a perfect way to express it: “Rojst – moor covered with dense thicket, is an area of primeval landscape of many eastern regions, with their swamps, footbridges, peatbogs, wood grouse, elk, and all the other details of hunting there, so exotic to a man from the West.

This is the picture of lands untouched by the ingenious man of a material culture victoriously struggling with nature – man with a shovel, a level and a plan of draining in order to increase the national product by cultivating new grounds.

This is the picture of a dying world, backward in terms of material progress. Still, it is perfect in its primeval beauty, in the morning mist or evening shadow. Man – a stranger in the mysterious surroundings – feels like he is one small element, its echo, and he humbly stands in front of the majesty of nature, thanking his destiny that he was allowed to watch the nature’s everlasting beauty before it will be destroyed by the civilised annihilation. (…) Cities, the West, the civilisation and the post-war culture (the war 1914-1918) attack your forests and moors, attack your souls and hearts, your self-evaluation and your behaviour. There are already some cracks in the walls of your resistance, clearcuts in forests, ditches in swamps. Your fields are taken over, your brains are taken over with haste and mobility of modern man whose motto is ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ and who described, defined and classified you as ‘morituri” – extinct! (…)

The moors are silent and patient through their inner power to exist. A barefooted man may wander across them safe, humble at his heart and full of respect for God – nature.

A man armoured with civilisation may loose here his fearless pace, he will see the hell of the quiet and unstable depth tempting with soft green moss, deadly for the one who dared to disturb its eternal order.

The moors rebel only against such men.6 “

Distance and reluctance towards business-industry civilisation was typical of the whole generation of Mackiewicz’s contemporaries, who remembered the “good old times” from before 1914. It is visible in the books by Sergiusz Piasecki and memoirs of Bronislaw Pawlikowski. The “old-fashioned” conservatives were eager hunters but it was a different hunting than the present one. The people did not shoot at animals from their cars not for any ecological reasons but because it was not fair and against the natural understanding of what is decent.

Being a “local” rooted in the landscape, self-governing, scepticism towards novelties and toys of the so-called development, solid fundamental work for one’s own piece of land, these all are antitheses to “life tourism” represented by people who think that one can litter and tread rojsty without any consequences. In case of troubles they think they can just move to another place, where everything is clean – the West for the best. But then man actually tries to escape himself. The West was not built all at once and it was not built by outsiders. The herds of idlers, despising their own country, do not care for anything and they will take their habits with them wherever they go. Attitudes toward nature and the motherland’s landscape and its people does not result from a political system. It is related to spiritual and aesthetical sensitivity and an overall philosophy of life. You can either work in favour of your environment or go away.

Conservatism and good local patriotism go together well with respect for the environment. Mobility, so popularised today, destroys not only relations between people but also between man and landscape. There is no time and motivation for planting trees that would bring joy to our offspring, learning about customs and the subtle knowledge about them as about well-known old tools used by our ancestors to tame the world. Instead, it is easier to unify everything and arrange it like in a chest of drawers – it is easier to destroy and built again from scratch. The rule applies not only to houses and fields, but also to religion, customs and philosophy. Like in a natural forest, the change of generations goes on, but in the past the change was slow and natural. The world of dynamic businessmen in fashionable suits is sterile and totally artificial together with their “relax on the lap of nature”. Everything in their world is subjugated to money, which means that one respects only those things that can bring profit. But first of all the world is unpleasant as man needs something more than his daily bread. Józef Mackiewicz was right when he wrote: “In the past people did what they wanted. Or they did not if what they wanted was not allowed. And now they do what they actually do not want.7

No one can deny the beauty of Mackiewiczian descriptions of nature. Their charm does not depend on details, fine comparisons and scientific knowledge. Nature plays a role similar to one of a dionisian choir in the antique tragedy: it reminds of the deepest truths of life and man. And that is why the descriptions are perceived as integral parts of the plot. As an example, and at the same time summing-up of my reflections, let me quote the following excerpt from Droga do nikaad (The Road to Nowhere): “Summer, summer! Sometimes an idea comes to me: if only a man could fill his eyes with the green of grass and leaves, add colours of flowers, pour some sun beams reflected on a river and then squash it all under his eyelids to preserve it for eternity that awaits him in his grave! But he cannot. Landscape like rain washes the surface, clouds come and go, and eyes covered with the deadly veil will never… listen to this world: never! see them again.8


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