When God Died: “Symptoms” of the East European Avant-Garde (and of Slavoj Žižek)

It was the first winter after the end of the First World War. By now Aleksander Wat, the eighteen year-old polyglot futurist from Warsaw, had already reached the conclusion that the “cursed principium individuationis” was paralyzing him. Ill and feverish, in a manic, “trancelike” state, Wat composed the long prose poem JA z jednej strony a JA z drugiej strony mego mopsożelaznego piecyka (ME from One Side and ME from the Other Side of My Cast Iron Stove), in which he wrote of eternal nights that never pass; of the horror of encountering one’s own sallow image at midnight; of the nightingales that sing him to death; of faces he changes with each zenith of the sun. Sleepy castrates moan in the corners of a grotesque arcade; children emerge from graves to suck his fingers; and drży z zimna i samotności jeden Bóg o spuchniętym wodnistym ciele (one God with a swollen hydrous body trembles from cold and loneliness). O północy, the young Wat wrote, należy zawsze składać głowę pod oślepiający, tak! oślepiający (nóż giljotyny). (At midnight, it is always necessary to place your head under the dazzling, yes! dazzling knife of the guillotine.) There is nothing redemptive, there is no salvation, and the blasphemy throughout the poem suggests less heresy than it does nihilism. Sexuality has become licentious and grotesque. – wyjdę na twoje spotkanie, gdzie drżąca w łzach i bez czucia się oddasz, ty się oddasz, on (ona) się odda, my się oddamy, wy się oddacie, oni (one) się oddadzą (– I leave for your meeting, where trembling in tears and without sensation you will surrender, you will surrender, he (she) will surrender, we will surrender, you all will surrender, they-the men (they-the women) will surrender.”) In the last stanza Wat returned to himself, and wrote of how it is he himself who is burning in the “inquisitorial interior” of his cast iron stove._1

Aleksander Wat was born precisely at the fin-de-siècle. It was a moment that saw the death of liberalism in East-Central Europe – precisely because, Carl Schorske argues, liberalism failed to understand the individual as a psychological being. It failed because of its inability to appreciate the power of the instinctual realm, because it willfully ignored the dark side of human nature in favor of an adamant insistence on progress. In short, nineteenth-century rationalism proved emotionally inadequate.

Czesław Miłosz, reading Cast Iron Stove nearly some half-century later, said to Wat: “but that’s Sezession.”_2 Wat was wounded. Yet the young author of Cast Iron Stove did share certain existential affinities with the modernist artists of fin-de-siècle Vienna, whose leader, Gustav Klimt, was “obsessed with the pain occasioned by the return of the repressed.”_3 Such angst attracted the beautiful and capricious Alma Schindler, who fell in love with Klimt in fin-de-siècle Vienna. In May 1899, while on vacation in Genoa, it was Klimt, seventeen years her senior, with whom the nineteen year-old Alma shared her first kiss._4


Aleksander Wat’s youth occurred in a certain space: Nietzsche had declared that God was dead, and Freud had announced that civilization was built on the repression of instinct. World War I had not only torn apart empires, but also shattered existing boundaries. The avant-garde poet Adam Ważyk describes Wat’s 1921 absurdist vignette Powieść (The Novel): “After the demolition of the dilapidated house in which the author lived with his own soul, a precisely-given, astronomical number of corpses was found. No one could have written that before 1914. That was postwar black humor.”_5

Cast Iron Stove was a meditation on the tormented self in this violent and Godless world. In this poem, Wat pushed syntax to its limits, to the threshold beyond which no meaning would be possible. Soon thereafter he learned of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s slogan parole in libertà: words liberated-from syntax. That same year the Russian futurists Aleksei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov went a step further: they announced that the future belonged to slovo kak takovoe, “the word as such.”_6 Words were to be liberated not only from syntax, but also from their referents, signifiers liberated from their signified. Wat and his friend Anatol Stern took up this slogan in their manifesto GGA: “WORDS have their own weight, sound, color, their own design. THEY TAKE UP ROOM IN SPACE. There are the deciding values of a word. The shortest words (sound) and the longest words (a book). the meaning of a word is a subordinate matter and is not dependent upon the concept ascribed to it is necessary to treat words like phonetic material USED NOT ONOMATOPOETICALLY.”_7 Now words were things, you could do what you pleased with them. This was, in the Russian linguist and futurist Roman Jakobson’s words, the critical moment of the “laying bare” (obnazhennye) of the device._8

Now “laying bare” – nakedness – became a motif. Suddenly all could be exposed, and anything was possible. At one poetry reading Wat’s fellow poet and collaborator Anatol Stern appeared naked, wearing only a fig leaf – to be burned upon the reading’s conclusion._9 Moreover, God was dead, and the Bible had lost its sanctity. Stern’s “Pierwszy Grzech” (Original Sin) invoked a libidinous Eve and repeated as a refrain Ewa stała naga (Eve stood naked). Now the story about the forbidden apple became a story of erotic desire:

Ewa zjadła owoc,
Ewa zjadła owoc słowa,
którego jej zmysł rozkoszy zapragnął.
Ten zmysł,
ten zmysł –
to była żądza rozkoszy,
chęć pogłębienia rozkoszy –
nienasycony zmysł,
nienasycona chęć
dręczący nas zmysł,
który jak wąż własne dzieci
pożera pozostałych zmysłów pięć –
on to niemą mowę z nas zmył

Eve ate the fruit,
Eve ate the fruit of the word,
which her sense of delight desired.
That sense,
that sense –
it was a lust for delight,
a desire for the deepeningly of delight,
sense unsatiated
desire unsatiated
sense tormenting us
which like a snake its own children
devours our remaining five senses
it cleanses from us mute speech.

In another of Stern’s poems, sensual allusions to the Virgin Mary earned him a prison sentence._11 The combination of Nietzsche, Freud, Marinetti, Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov and the First World War had brought about the unclothing of both self and words. Now all – like Eve – stood naked.

Stern was not alone. His fellow avant-garde poet Adam Ważyk (called by his friends “Ważyk brzydki twarzyk” – Ważyk with the ugly little face) was thinking about nudity as well: “Ciało, nagie, rozległe, oddala się i przygarnia: / ustami przylgnąć, rękami przytulić. // Suty i miękki pieszczot aksamit, /nagość wprawiona w trzepot i kołys.” (A body, naked, vast, withdraws and grasps: / clings with its mouth, hugs with its hands. // Lavish and tender velvet of caresses / nakedness set in flutter and swing.)_12 The same year, 1924, Tadeusz Peiper, the avant-gardist from Kraków whose slogan was “the metropolis, the masses, the machine,” published a poem titled simply “Naga” (Naked)._13

All of these Polish avant-garde poets belonged to the generation born at the fin-de-siècle, a generation for whom life was – to use Milan Kundera’s distinction – unbearably heavy. They sat in a Warsaw café called Ziemiańska and believed that the world turned on the words they exchanged there. The narcissism was fatal, the responsibility staggering, and the guilt relentless. For the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, himself very much in the tradition of the East-Central European avant-garde, this neurotic guilt is the true implication of the death of God: “The absence of Destiny rather makes me absolutely guilty: I feel guilty without knowing what I am effectively guilty of, and this ignorance makes me even more guilty.”_14

Subjectivity and telos

Slavoj Žižek undoubtedly suffers from that Slavic affliction of graphomania._ 15 Yet beneath all Žižek’s mania, his eclecticism, his juxtaposition of sometimes incoherent references lie ultimately the classical currents of 20th century European intellectual life: psychoanalysis and Marxism. For this tension between the self and History (be it cast as Freud versus Marx, Husserl versus Hegel, Lacan versus Heidegger, or otherwise) was the central one in East-Central European modernity, analogous to the tension between nation and class in the political sphere. There is, moreover, in Žižek something distinctly akin to Hannah Arendt: a manic, irreverent, irresponsible use of historical references – with some strikingly lucid moments of insight._16 Žižek harbors as well an Adorno-and-Horkheimer- esque predilection (even fetish) for dialectics, for exposing the contradictions in things themselves, for explaining how everything is in fact the opposite of what it seems. The phallus, for instance, signifies castration._17

Such a fetish for dialectics is accompanied by a certain virtue: Žižek takes Marxism seriously. And modernity in Eastern Europe is impossible to understand without taking Marxism seriously. Moreover precisely Žižek’s blend of Marxism and psychoanalysis can help us to understand the relationship between ideology and subjectivity that played itself out in Europe’s other half, where modernity arrived just a bit later. Perhaps as well it is precisely this understanding of the vagaries of subjectivity and its uneasy co-existence with determinism that enables Žižek’s particular empathy for Lenin. For Lenin was a Marxist Hegelian who believed in the inexorable momentum of History, but who also, po svoemu, believed in individual agency – and the individual’s ability to nudge History along. There is nothing in the history of European Marxism-in-practice as important as Lenin’s 1902 Chto delať? (What Is To Be Done?): the articulation of the need for a revolutionary vanguard to expedite History – for the masses are too slow to acquire the “consciousness” that should “always already” be theirs as a result of their “objective” subject position in the totality.

For Žižek the Bolshevik Revolution was in essence an acting out of the chutzpah Lenin had demonstrated in 1902. This why Žižek so admires Lenin: for Lenin’s audacity, his madness, his fearless haste. In Žižek’s reading, Lenin was not so much dogmatic as he was daring and imaginative. “[ The] Lenin who is to be retrieved is the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which the old co-ordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to reinvent Marxism,” Žižek writes._18 For Lenin as for Žižek, Revolution authorized itself, constituted its own ontological truth. Therefore, as Žižek explains Lenin, “we should venture the revolutionary act not covered by the big Other – the fear of taking power ‘prematurely’, the search for the guarantee, is the fear of the abyss of the act.”_19

“Abyss” is a recurrent motif for Žižek: the abyss of desire, of subjectivity, of freedom. For both Žižek and the avant-garde who proceeded him, the abyss is omnipresent, both seductive and ubiquitously threatening. Nie chcę klucza od przepaści (I do not want the key to the abyss), Ważyk wrote in a 1926 poem._20 And in the end, the abyss of radical nihilism and radical contingency (what Heidegger would later describe as the human condition of being “thrown” into the world – to face nothingness and death) occasioned by the freedom of words proved unbearable. And at a certain moment the futurist poets made the leap to radical utopianism and radical determinism. In the back-ground the political spectrum had been slowly, insidiously polarizing, yet this fails to capture the need to make a choice, to take some decisive action. This was Heidegger’s Umsturzsituation, “a revolutionary situation in which men must act; whether construction or utter destruction followed matter not at all”._21 For the Polish avant-garde poets, like at a certain moment for Jean-Paul Sartre, revolution became an existential imperative. And when they chose revolution, they chose not Marx, but rather Lenin. It was Lenin who gave them a place.


Žižek is admiring of Lenin’s willingness to stand alone. Yet even while he daringly acted alone, Lenin nonetheless acted in the name of the Big Other, that symbolic order represented by History. Žižek understands well how this particular symbolic order gave the communist experiment its distinctive character. His is moreover among the most perspicacious encapsulations of the difference between the two great horrors of the twentieth century: “after the Fascist Leader finishes his public speech and the crowd applauds, the Leader acknowledges himself as the addressee of the applause... while the Stalinist leader... stands up himself and starts to applaud. This change signals a fundamentally different discursive position: the Stalinist leader is also compelled to applaud, since the true addressee of the people’s applause is not himself, but the big Other of History whose humble servant he is.”_22

The distinction is a significant one. For the Frankfurt school theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who attempted to draw a line between Enlightenment and totalitarianism, inherent in the Enlightenment was the sacrifice of the self to the self, the surrendering of subjectivity as the means of achieving subjectivity. In Marxist terms this fulfillment of subjectivity was oneness with objectivity, with the grand narrative, with the momentum of History. For these Marxist intellectuals, the desire to become one with History was the fulfillment of their narcissism, their guilt, and their self-hatred.

What made possible this desire – and attempt – to surrender subjectivity as a means of self-actualization was not only Hegelian teleology, but also Marxist totality. On this latter question Žižek follows very much the tradition of the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács. Both came to see totality as the defining feature of Marxism. For Lukács the critical distinction between Marxist thought and bourgeois thought was precisely Marxism’s notion of “the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts.”_23 Žižek understands similarly the Marxist revolution as “a situation of metaphorical condensation in which it finally becomes clear to the everyday consciousness that it is not possible to solve any particular question without solving them all.”_24 That is, once one is (or was) “inside” of Marxism, there is no way out, it purports to explain everything._ 25

The self

“Ich finde die ‘K’ häßlich, sie widern mich fast an und ich schriebe sie doch, sie müssen für mich sehr charakteristisch sein” (I find the letter K offensive, it almost disgusts me, and yet I use it; this must be very characteristic of me), wrote Kafka is in his diary in May 1914._26 The following April he wrote, “Vollständiges Versinken in mich, Denken an mich. Stumpf, gedankenlos, ängstlich” (Complete sinking into myself, thinking about myself. Blunt, unreflecting, anxious)._27 Self-absorption – as Franz Kafka knew – can torment.

In psychoanalysis, unlike Marxism, there is no ultimate solution. Unlike the material world, the psychological self is doomed to torment. Freud himself sees no escape: civilization is built on repression, there is no other way. Psychoanalysis might perhaps alleviate some of the symptoms, but success can only ever be partial. The self is doomed to perpetual struggle between conscience and instinct. Its existence at any moment can only ever be a tentative negotiation. The tension in Žižek, like in the Polish avant-garde poets – is between this attraction to the totality of Marxism and the simultaneous experience of the fragmented self. Žižek understands well that the psychological (psychoanalytic) subject is alienated, crossed out, divided: “The basic feature of the Lacanian subject is,” – in Žižek’s words – “of course, is alienation in the signifier: as soon as the subject is caught in the radically external signifying network he is mortified, dismembered, divided.”_28 Lukács was similarly a materialist with a psychological understanding of totality, the subject’s eternal (and eternally unfulfilled) desire for unity: “[The] question of totality,” Lukács writes, “is the constant center of the transcendental dialectic. God, the soul, etc., are nothing but mythological expressions to denote the unified subject.”_29

Mary Gluck described movingly how Lukács and his friends in the Sunday Circle in early twentieth-century Budapest belonged to a generation afflicted with a “hunger for wholeness.” Liberalism was unfulfilling. It was unequal to their malaise, their sense of despair, their Weltschmerz. Narcissistically obsessed with their own alienation, they longed to transcend individuality and find wholeness, seamless integration, identity of subject and object. Lukács, like Wat, Wandurski, and Broniewski, hovered in the liminal space between “radical negation and apocalyptic expectation.”_30

In Wat’s story Żyd wieczny tułacz (The Eternally Wandering Jew), Nathan, an orphaned Talmudic student from the shtetl Zebrzydowo, travels through all of Europe to America in search of his benefactor, the rich Baron Gould. The story is framed by the refrain, “there is always mud in Zebrzydowo”, and set during a moment when Europe stands poised at the edge of an abyss: “Europe – cannibalistic, impoverished, mystical, sadistic, prostituted.” In New York, now as Baron Gould’s secretary, Nathan conceives of the ideal social world as one that reconciles communism and Catholicism. He insists that the Jews must convert to Catholicism en masse; and the yeshiva student himself becomes Pope. The story ends hundreds of years later, when the last antisemites come upon Zebrzydowo. There they convert to Judaism and restore the ancient Hebraic traditions._31 The circular structure of “The Eternally Wandering Jew” reads against all Hegelian narratives of History. Ultimately there is no telos – and no exit.

Nathan was one among many glorified youth of his day. Roman Jakobson writes of the early 1920s in Russia as the time when “the youth of the day suddenly became the law-givers… It seemed quite natural that we, the boys in the Moscow Linguistic Circle, should ask ourselves the question: ‘How should one transform linguistics?’”_32 It was indeed a time of self-love on the part of the avant-garde youth. In 1914 the young Ukrainian futurist Mykhaiľ Semenko wrote, Heť use shcho spiniaie mene / Shcho shkodiť moiemu bihovi / Shcho dushu moiu eliastychnu stariť! / Shcho meni za dilo do Kyieva ta rodychiv / Koli pro Semenka musiať marsiiane znať (Off with everything that slows me down, /that hinders my motion / that ages my supple soul! / What is Kyiv to me or family / When the Martians must be made aware of Semenko)._33 The very same year the breathtakingly handsome Russian futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: U menia v dushe ni odnogo sedogo volosa, / i starcheskoi nezhnosti net v nei! / Mir ogromiv moshch’iu golosa, / idu – krasivyi / dvadtsatidvukhletnii. (There is not a gray hair in my soul, / no senile tenderness in me! / Having thundered the world with the might of my voice, / I-beautiful, twenty-two years old / go.)_34

This lasted for quite some time. Four years later, Semenko had not yet fallen out of love with himself: Ia pochubaiu sebe bez mezh / Ia pochubaiu sebe nad-rasovym / i nad-kuľturnym / Ia zmahaius’ z bezsylliam pohasaiuchykh ataviz, / Ia stanovliusia maibutnim i syľnym… (I feel myself without limits / I feel myself above races / and above cultures / I struggle with the weakness of receding atavisms / I am emerge futurelike and strong…)_35 Two years later, in 1920, he remained at the center of his world: Ia haslo cushasnosty, / Tsentral’na fihura doby. […] // Ia / Naďvnyi i velykyi (I am the slogan of the present, / The central figure of this age […] // I am / Naive and great)._36 The Polish futurist Bruno Jasieński, himself recently returned from Russia, where he had seen the Revolution, expressed similar feelings: Zmarowałem podeszwy w całodziennych spieszeniach. / Teraz jestem słoneczny, siebiepewny i rad. / Idę młody, genialny, trzymam ręce w kieszeniach, / Stawiam kroki milowe, zamszyste, jak świat (I’ve squandered my soles in daily hurrying / Now I am sunny, self-assured, and pleased. / I, young and ingenious, go, my hands in my pockets / I take mile-long steps, vigorous, like the world)._37

Yet something was changing. In January 1921 the young poet Władysław Broniewski had clarified what he needed: “to find an idea that would rejuvenate me, that would force me to treat my own life as a backdrop, that would propel me towards sacrifices, towards battle. To find a creative power for myself, that would allow me to become ‘nieśmiertelnym w skutkach swego czynu’ (immortal in the effects of my own action).”_38

In 1922 Jasieński published “Pieśń o głodzie” (A Song about Hunger), and called to poets “jesteście niepotrzebni!” (you are not needed!). That same year the fiery poet Semenko and the Ukrainian futurists published Katafalk iskusstva and declared “Death to Art!”_39 His “death to art” was for the artist a call for self-death as well. By the following year, Ukrainian futurism was embracing Marxism-Leninism.

In the end, Lukács’s “hunger for wholeness” – for a resolution of the fragmented self, divided between self-love and self-hatred – brought him, too, to Marxism. In 1918, as the First World War drew to a close, he arrived at the conclusion that “salvation was possible only at the price of abdicating the autonomy of the self.”_40 It was a transcendence selfconsciously to be effected through self-annihilation. “Ultimately”, Mary Gluck writes in the conclusion of her book on the young Lukács, “the aesthete was haunted by the religious need for transcendence, by the primitive desire to merge his solitary self in some great communal deed, to lose his constricting individuality in some mystical act of self-abandonment.”_ 41

This “great deed” became for many of Lukács contemporaries an existential imperative in the years to follow. In his book In 1926, Hans Gumbrecht describes this phenomenon with the German Tat: “Taten do not emanate from principles of legitimacy or from generally acceptable reasons… The individual strength of those who act lies not in rationality, but in their determination to do whatever they intuitively encounter and identify as an absolute, fated obligation. Once they make such eminently subjective decisions, the agents’ subjecthood, paradoxically, is absorbed in an overwhelming flow of vitality: ‘Every individual stands secretly governed and directed before the deed (Tat) – drawn into an irresistible, powerful current with all the fever of his life… What Junger describes as a vitalizing flow of physical strength appears to [T. E.] Lawrence as the ‘enslaving state of being possessed’.”_42


In 1923 Witold Wandurski, the manic-depressive poet from Łódź who aspired to be an authentic futurist, accused Wat and his friends of selfindulgence: “A wiecie – jedno przeżycie Higginsa warte dziś więcej, / Niż cała wasza ‘twórczość niepodległa’! // O, niepodległa obłudo! Wolności Onana! / Jak wam nie obmierzł, poeci, samogwałt słowny?” (And you know – one experience of Higgins is worth more today / Than the whole of your ‘autonomous creative work’! / Oh, independent hypocrisy! Freedom of masturbation! / How does it fail to disgust you, poets, this verbal onanism?)_43 It was Revolution or masturbation.

Witold Wandurski, the graphomaniac, chose Revolution. His friends were still then too timid, they failed to grasp, Wandurski wrote to Władysław Broniewski from Łódź, that “revolution is a painful tragedy, a glorious fire, in which you must burn yourself, descend into savagery, into barbarism – in order to discover in yourself the simple joy of life.”_44 Several months later he wrote again, purusing the same point: “There is no joy in you – regardless of your great reserve of masculine strength, which others lack. Of course, joy cannot be dispensed according to a prescription; one arrives there organically… I’m already on the path. Joy gives me the conviction that I’m disposed with my entire being towards life, towards everything that matures, that fights for its right to existence, that is healthy, manly.”_45

Wandurski himself was ecstastic, he had reached an epiphany: their problems with apparatchiks, their whole stance of “intellectual autonomy,” it was all masked intellectual opportunism, appeasement. “Yes, appeasement! I want content, life, joy,” he wrote to his friend, “I want to be an authentic futurist.” He warned Broniewski that “negation alone will not get you far:” “Two roads lead from negation of the actual state of things: the road towards the past and the road towards the future, to Catholicism and to communism. Our entire ‘freedom,’ our ‘independence’ lies in ‘freedom of choice,’ nothing more. I want content. I want life. Knowledge. Joy-joy! direct joy!”_46

By now “joy” had joined the avant-garde poets’ favorite words. They invoked it, moreover, precisely as Slavoj Žižek does jouissance: as a palpable, sensual thing unto itself, as the words were things unto themselves. “Ideology,” Žižek writes, “serves only its own purpose, that it does not serve anything-which is precisely the Lacanian definition of jouissance.”_47

Władysław Broniewski, the twenty-six year old Polish poet, travelled to the town of Kalisz and recited his poem “Pionierom” (To the Pioneers) at a poetry reading there. “Pionierom” ended with the stanza “Jeszcze będzie jaśniej i piękniej, / będzie radość i będzie śpiew” (There will be brighter, more beautiful days, / there will be joy and there will be song)._48 When Broniewski had finished reading there was a long silence. “Any word after that poem could only be a banality,” wrote the young woman who would later become his wife._49

The sacrifice of the self

It was this alienation and fragmentation that the avant-garde attempted to escape in Marxism, by sacrificing the self to the self. This willful selfannihilation emerges in Žižek’s observation that “it is customary to ask the victim if he agrees to his fate, but it is also customary for the victim to say yes.”_50 Aleksander Wat’s Bolshevik friend Bruno Jasieński, the dandy of Polish futurism who wore a wide tie and a top hat and a monocle over one eye, was among those who said yes. Awaiting execution in a Soviet prison cell, after having broken under torture and signed false confessions, Jasieński wrote in January 1938: “It was only the NKVD authorities who opened my eyes, and helped me to understand my guilt, to perceive the entire depth of muck in which I was wading about like a blind man. I am grateful to the NKVD authorities for the fact that, thanks to the methods applied to me, they helped me to regain my sight and are helping to wash away all of the filth that has clung to me since I came into contact with the criminal gang of spies and villains.”_51

These Stalinist confessions were an extension of communist self-criticism. Having chosen Marxism (and in fact Leninism), the avant-gardists proceeded to articulate self-criticisms of their former selves, a communist ritual with Enlightenment origins. In early 1930 Aleksander Wat recanted his futurist years on the pages of Miesięcznik Literacki, the new Marxist literary monthly: “For the social stratum from which the Polish futurists originated, it was a time of panic and fear of revolution, and at once a time of hedonism, debauchery, speculation, self-enrichment not on the basis of production but on the basis of inflationary exploitation. Polish futurism only exaggerated these frames of mind. Its dynamic was not civilizing-just the opposite: it was decadent, anarchistic.”_52 Moreover, the futurists were “especially isolated from their own concrete domestic contemporaneity. We were building ourselves into an imagined contemporaneity, formed from programmatically distorted, predominantly imported components.”_53 He pointed to the futurists’ “extreme individualism and a lack of familiarity with the elementary bases of Marxism.”_54

Marxism itself was a child of the Enlightenment, and heir to the nineteenth-century liberalism – with its faith in science, rationalism, progress – that followed. When Robespierre declared that “we have raised the temple of liberty with hands still withered by the irons of despotism,” he encapsulated a problem that would be fundamental to Marxism as well: how was it possible to move from the old world to the new world when the makers of the new world were “always already” contaminated by having been born into the old?_55 Self-criticism responded to this existential condition of revolutionaries. It was a ritual predicated on the condemnation of the subjective in favor of the objective – and in fact self-criticism tended to be directed at one’s failure to recognize objective truth, that is, a failure to align oneself with the inevitable direction of History. That constant vigilance was necessary in order to safeguard what was ostensibly an inexorable path towards communism can be understood as the Derridean aporia of self-criticism: the moment when language subverts itself and meaning is no longer possible.

Žižek follows Lacan in understanding that “ultimate truth of psychoanalysis is not that of discovering our true Self, but that of the traumatic encounter with the unbearable Real.”_56 The Real is always “out there,” just beyond our grasp, but the subject is still further beyond our grasp, it is irretrievably lost and can never be fully “discovered” and captured. In self-criticism, subjectivity is something to be “overcome” – which is one radical way of coping with the impossibility of a unified subjectivity.


For East-Central European intellectuals, modernity arrived somewhat later and modernism – as in Western Europe – had as its backdrop psychoanalysis and the preoccupation with the psychological self. But the narcissistic preoccupation with subjectivity was ultimately unbearable, and the avant-garde fled. When they did it was in a desperate search for a whole that would consume them, in a search for something “concrete”, “objective”, secure. It was a search for joy – or jouissance – as well.

The poet Aleksander Wat worked to usher in a new utopian era of justice and egalitarianism in which he deeply believed there would be no poetry, and that this was a tragic but necessary loss, but society had to be built scientifically, rationally. In a similar vein, Witold Wandurski longed for immolation, and Lukács for self-abandonment. This is just to say that for all of them Revolution was a passion not devoid of a strong element of masochistic fantasy. The ultimate liberation was liberation from the self. Self-effacement was the only antidote to neurotic guilt. For the poets, the Revolution was self-actualization through self-annihilation.

In the end Wat, Wandurski, and so many of their contemporaries opted for Revolution – and suffered a tragic fate. In April 1930 Mayakovsky put a bullet through his own head in his Moscow room. Wandurski fell victim to the Stalinist purges, and was executed in 1934. Within a few years Semenko’s and Jasieński’s lives had come to a similar end. Wat and Broniewski found themselves first in Polish prison, then in Soviet prison, where they were joined by Peiper. In 1957, Ważyk returned his Party card. By then he was a broken man. A decade later, in emigration in Paris, Wat took his own life.

In this way Žižek’s work reflects well the fundamental tension in East European modernity between subjectivity and telos. Moreover, Žižek, who shares with the Polish futurists-turned-Marxists a certain pathological self-absorption, stands – both in his person and in his writing – as a very good example of the fact that narcissism is not only something in which one indulges, but above all something from which one truly suffers.


_1 Aleksander Wat: JA z jednej strony a JA z drugiej strony mego mopsożelaznego piecyka. In: Poezje, ed. Anna Micińska and Jan Zieliński. Czytelnik, Warsaw 1997, pp. 307–335.

Aleksander Wat: Zeszyt ostatni, 1967, box 14, Aleksander Wat Papers, Uncat MS Vault 526. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.

Carl E. Schorske: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. Vintage Books, New York 1981, p. 85.

Alma Mahler-Werfel: Diaries 1898 –1902, trans. Antony Beaumont. Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1998, p. 125. See also Alma Mahler-Werfel: Mein Leben. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2003.

Adam Ważyk: Dziwna Historia Awangardy. Czytelnik, Warsaw 1976, p. 52. In the original: “Ku wielkiemu przerażeniu spokojnych gapiów, kiedy rozwalono ściany, oczom ciekawych przedstawiło się 500 trupów, w drugim miesiącu gnicia, w których wyroiło się dziwne w łańcuchy powiązane robactwo. Od razu w powietrze zarakło tlenu i wszędzie rozwielmożniło się owo robactwo drapieżne. W związku z tym ciała obecnych pęczniały, czerniały i ze zgrzytem rozrywały się na chyboczące, jak gdyby odpiłowanie kawały… Ofair było 12720.” Aleksander Wat: Powieść. In: Ucieczka Lotha: Proza, Pismo Wybrane vol. III, ed. Krzystof Rutkowski. Polonia, London 1988, p. 13.

See Vladimir Markov (ed.): Manifesty i programmy russkikh futuristov. Wilhelm Fink, Munich 1967, pp. 53–58.

Anatol Stern–Aleksander Wat: GGA, Antologia Polskiego Futuryzmu i Nowej Sztuki, ed. Helena Zaworska. Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo, Wrocław 1978, pp. 5–6.

Roman Jakobson, The Newest Russian Poetry: Velimir Xlebnikov [Excerpts]. In: My Futurist Years, ed. Beng Jangfeldt and trans. Stephen Rudy. Marsilio Publishers, New York 1992.

Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz: Książka Moich Wspomnień. Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1968, pp. 231–232.

See Anatol Stern: Pierwszy grzech. In: Wiersze zebrane, ed. Andrzej K. Waśkiewicz. Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1986.

See Anatol Stern’s: Uśmiech Primavery – Jak umieramy: Kiwnie mi głową uśmiechnięta / Wystrojona Panna Święta / Na jej twarzy drgają dołki / Wonne rzuca mi fijołki / – A na tacy złocistej, sam Bóg, jak lokaj, / aromatyczny, soczysty w kieliszku poda mi tokaj. For this he was arrested in Warsaw in 1919 on charges of profanity. See Marci Shore: Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918 –1968. Yale University Press, New Haven–London 2006, pp. 24 –25.

Adam Ważyk: Niedziela. In: Poezja polska okresu międywojennego, ed. Michał Głowiński, Janusz Sławiński, and Janusz Stradecki: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich. Wrocław, pp. 301–302. The text of the poem is as follows: Naga, w obłoku z pościeli, wrysowana w ciszę, / w kołysce z nocy, z nocy o kształcie ust, / na echach słów mych, dzieł czarnego czaru, / naga, na echach, gdy będziesz błyszczała / złota miednica a w niej z pereł kurz, / ty, kartka papieru którą ja zapiszę / lub może wcześniej rzucę ją, podpał, na ruszt, / naga, w ciszę wklejona, milcz i tylko paruj. / Od słów twych wyżej cenię szept twój, szept twojego ciała, / woń twojego ciała, woń rzeźni i róż.

Tadeusz Peiper: Naga. In: Poezja polska okresu międywojennego, ed. Michał Głowiński, Janusz Sławiński, and Janusz Stradecki: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich. Wrocław, p. 317.

Slavoj Žižek: Interrogating the Real, ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. International Continuum Publishing Group, London and New York City 2005.

On graphomania in Russian culture see Svetlana Boym: Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1994.

Compare, for example, Arendt’s passage about Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper in Weimar Germany: “The theme song in the play, Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral, was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun.” Hannah Arendt: Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace, San Diego 1973, p. 335.

Slavoj Žižek, Between Symbolic Fiction and Fantasmic Spectre. In: Interrogating the Real, p. 259.

Lenin–Slavoj Žižek: Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Verso, London 2002, p. 11.

Lenin and Slavoj Žižek: Revolution at the Gates, p. 8.

Adam Ważyk: Apolog. In: Poezja polska okresu międywojennego, ed. Michał Głowiński, Janusz Sławiński, and Janusz Stradecki. Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, Wrocław, p. 306.

Peter Gay: Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. Norton New York 2001, p. 82.

Emphasis added. Slavoj Žižek: The Plague of Fantasies. Verso, London–New York 1997, p. 58.

Georg Lukács: History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone. MIT Press, Cambridge 2002, p. 27.

Slavoj Žižek: The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, London 1989, p. 3.

In this sense, Marx can be compared to the contemporary French thinker René Girard, who articulates an elaborate model of the sacrificial violence underlying all of human society (and the myth, ritual, and prohibition sustaining the cultural order engendered by that violence). Inside Girardian theory, one finds oneself in a world where meaning is relational and all parts are inextricably intertwined. This is in contrast to, say, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, which only explains why meaning is at best unstable and at worst beyond the realm of possibility. See, among other works, René Girard: Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1972, p. 64.

Franz Kafka: Tagebücher 1910–1923. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1989, p. 274.

Franz Kafka: Tagebücher 1910–1923. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1989, p. 341.

Slavoj Žižek: The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 173.

Georg Lukács: History and Class Consciousness, p. 115.

Mary Gluck: Georg Lukács and His Generation 1900–1918. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1985, p. 142.

Aleksander Wat: Żyd wieczny tułacz. In: Bezrobotny Lucyfer i inne opowieści, ed. Włodzimierz Boleci and Jan Zieliński. Czytelnik, Warsaw 1993, pp. 103–115; Aleksander Wat: The Eternally Wandering Jew. In: Lucifer Unemployed, trans. Lillian Vallee Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1990, p. 8.

Roman Jakobson: My Futurist Years, p. 26.

Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj: Ukrainian Futurism 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study. Ukrainian Research Institute, Cambridge 1997, pp. 25–26.

Vladimir Maiakovskii: Oblako v shtanakh. In: Vladimir Maiakovskii. Diamant, Saint Petersburg 1998, p. 70.

From Semenko’s P’iero mertvopetliuie (Pierrot Does the Death Spiral). Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj: Ukrainian Futurism 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study. Ukrainian Research Institute, Cambridge 1997, p. 231.

From Semenko’s 1920 Poema povstannia (Poem of Rebellion). Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj: Ukrainian Futurism 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study. Ukrainian Research Institute, Cambridge 1997, p. 245.

Bruno Jasieński: But w butonierce. In: Poezja polska okresu międywojennego, ed. Michał Głowiński, Janusz Sławiński, and Janusz Stradecki, Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, Wrocław, p. 283

The citation is from the manifesto Federaliści by Józef Rudolf Kustroń. Feliksa Lichodziejewska, ed., Pamiętnik Władysława Broniewskiego 1918–1922. In: Polityka 7 (13 February 1965), p. 1; Władysław Broniewski: Pamiętnik 1918 –1922, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1984, pp. 93–96, 214.

Oleh S. Ilnytzkyj: Ukrainian Futurism 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study, Ukrainian Research Institute, Cambridge 1997, p. 187.

Mary Gluck: Georg Lukács and His Generation 1900 –1918, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1985, p. 208.

Mary Gluck: Georg Lukács and His Generation 1900 –1918, p. 122.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht: In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1997, p. 255.

Witold Wandurski: Do panów poetów. In: Nowa Kultura 15 (22 December 1923), p. 392.

Wandurski to Broniewski, May 1924. In: Feliksa Lichodziejewska (ed.): Od bliskich i dalekich: Korespondencja do Władysława Broniewskiego, vol. 1, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1981), pp. 118–120.

Witold Wandurski to Władysław Broniewski, Łódź, 17 February 1925, teczka bez numeru, Muzeum Broniewskiego, Warsaw.

Emphases in original. Wandurski to Broniewski, Łódź, 22 January 1926, A/2, Muzeum Broniewskiego, Warsaw. In: Od bliskich i dalekich: Korespondencja do Władysława Broniewskiego, vol. I, pp. 232–238.

Slavoj Žižek: The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 84.

Władysław Broniewski: “Pionierom,” spuścizna “wiersze i pieśni,” sygnatura 245/2, Archiwum Akt Nowych, Warsaw. The poem also appears in Władysław Broniewski–Stanisław Ryszard Stande–Witold Wandurski: Trzy Salwy: Biuletyn poetycki. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1967, p. 22.

Janina Broniewska: Dziesięć serc czerwiennych. Iskry, Warsaw 1964, p. 73.

Slavoj Žižek: The Plague of Fantasies, p. 27.

Quoted in Piotr Mitzner: Śmierc futurysty. In: Karta 11 (1993), p. 76. At the 1952 show trial of Rudolf Slánský “and gang” in Czechoslovakia, the prominent communist journalist André Simon (Otto Katz) gave a concluding speech embracing the verdict of the death penalty – a speech taken almost verbatim from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. See Rubashov’s concluding speech: “Woe unto the defeated, whom history treads into the dust… With that my task is ended. I have paid; my account with history is settled. To ask you for mercy would be derision. I have nothing more to say.” Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon, trans. Daphne Hardy, Bantam Books, New York 1968, p. 203. Koestler himself had most likely modeled his text on Bukharin’s words at his Moscow show trial of fifteen years earlier. Bukharin in turn had ostensibily borrowed from the era of the Jacobin terror. In 1969 the Czechoslovak film director Otakar Vávra released Kladivo na čarodějnice (A Hammer to the Witches), a (perhaps excessively) graphic reenactment of the witch trials in early modern Bohemia. At the conclusion of the film the women, after undergoing vile tortures, approach the stakes where they will be burned. But they have forgotten something. Those overseeing their execution tell them: “Musíte poděkovat.” You must say thank you. And they do.

Aleksander Wat: Wspomnienia o Futuryzmie. In: Miesięcznik Literacki 2 (January 1930), p. 70.

Aleksander Wat: Wspomnienia o Futuryzmie. In: Miesięcznik Literacki 2 (January 1930), p. 72.

Aleksander Wat: Metamorfozy Futuryzmu. In: Miesięcznik Literacki 3 (February 1930), p. 126.

Cited after Lynn Hunt: Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Methuen and Co., London 1986, p. 73.

Slavoj Žižek: Revolution at the Gates, p. 171.


Arendt, Hannah: Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace and Company, San Diego 1973.

Boym, Svetlana: Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1994.

Broniewska, Janina: Dziesięć serc czerwiennych. Iskry, Warsaw 1964.

Broniewski, Władysław: Pamiętnik 1918–1922. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1984.

Broniewski, Władysław: Pamiętnik Władysława Broniewskiego 1918–1922. Ed. Feliksa Lichodziejewska, Polityka 7 (13 February 1965), p. 1.

Broniewski, Władysław–Stande, Stanisław Ryszard–Wandurski, Witold: Trzy Salwy: Biuletyn poetycki. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1967.

Gay, Peter: Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. Norton, New York 2001.

Girard, René: Violence and the Sacred (trans. Patrick Gregory). John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1972.

Głowiński, Michał–Sławiński, Janusz–Stradecki, Janusz (eds.): Poezja polska okresu międywojennego. Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, Wrocław.

Gluck, Mary: Georg Lukács and His Generation 1900 –1918. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1985.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich: In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1997.

Hunt, Lynn: Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Methuen, London 1986.

Ilnytzkyj, Oleh S.: Ukrainian Futurism 1914–1930: A Historical and Critical Study. Ukrainian Research Institute, Cambridge 1997.

Iwaszkiewicz, Jarosław: Książka Moich Wspomnień. Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1968.

Jakobson, Roman: The Newest Russian Poetry: Velimir Chlebnikov [Excerpts], In: My Futurist Years. Ed. Beng Jangfeldt and trans. Stephen Rudy. Marsilio Publishers, New York 1992.

Kafka, Franz: Tagebücher 1910–1923. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1989.

Koestler, Arthur: Darkness at Noon (trans. Daphne Hardy). Bantam Books, New York 1968.

Lenin, V. I.–Žižek, Slavoj: Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. Verso, London 2002.

Lichodziejewska, Feliksa (ed.): Od bliskich i dalekich: Korespondencja do Władysława Broniewskiego, vol. 1. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1981.

Lukács, Georg: History and Class Consciousness (trans. Rodney Livingstone). MIT Press, Cambridge 2002.

Mahler-Werfel, Alma: Mein Leben. Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2003.

Mahler-Werfel, Alma: Diaries 1898–1902 (trans. Antony Beaumont). Cornell University Press, Ithaca 1998.

Mayakovsky, Vladimir: Vladimir Maiakovski. Diamant, Saint Petersburg 1998.

Markov, Vladimir (ed.): Manifesty i programmy russkikh futuristov. Wilhelm Fink, Munich 1967.

Mitzner, Piotr: Śmierc futurysty. Karta 11, 1993.

Schorske, Carl E.: Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. Vintage Books, New York 1981.

Shore, Marci: Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism 1918–1968. Yale University Press, New Haven–London 2006.

Stern, Anatol–Wat, Aleksander: GGA, Antologia Polskiego Futuryzmu i Nowej Sztuki. Ed. Helena Zaworska. Zakład Narodowy Imienia Ossolińskich Wydawnictwo, Wrocław 1978.

Stern, Anatol: Wiersze zebrane. Ed. Andrzej K. Waśkiewicz. Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1986.

Wandurski, Witold: Do panów poetów. Nowa Kultura 15 (22 December 1923), p. 392.

Wat, Aleksander: Wspomnienia o Futuryzmie. Miesięcznik Literacki 2 (January 1930).

Wat, Aleksander: Metamorfozy Futuryzmu. Miesięcznik Literacki 3 (February 1930).

Wat, Aleksander: Zeszyt ostatni. 1967, box 14, Aleksander Wat Papers, Uncat MS Vault 526, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.

Wat, Aleksander: Powieść. In: Ucieczka Lotha: Proza [Pismo Wybrane, vol. III]. Ed. Krzystof Rutkowski. Polonia, London 1988.

Wat, Aleksander: The Eternally Wandering Jew. In: Lucifer Unemployed. Trans. Lillian Vallee. Northwestern University Press, Evanston 1990.

Wat, Aleksander: Żyd wieczny tułacz, In: Bezrobotny Lucyfer i inne opowieści. Eds. Włodzimierz Boleci and Jan Zieliński. Czytelnik, Warsaw 1993, pp. 103–115.

Wat, Aleksander: JA z jednej strony a JA z drugiej strony mego mopsożelaznego piecyka. In: Poezje. Ed. Anna Micińska and Jan Zieliński. Czytelnik, Warsaw 1997, pp. 307–335.

Ważyk, Adam: Dziwna historia awangardy. Czytelnik, Warsaw 1976.

Žižek, Slavoj: The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, London 1989.

Žižek, Slavoj: The Plague of Fantasies. Verso, London–New York 1997.

Žižek, Slavoj: Interrogating the Real. Ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens. Continuum International Publishing Group, London–New York 2005.