Altruistic suicide in 19th-century Polish literature. Interview with prof. Stefan Chwin

Ewa Karolina Cichocka discusses with prof. dr hab. Stefan Chwin from the Faculty of Philology, University of Gdańsk, the book entitled 'Oddać życie za Polskę. Samobójstwo altruistyczne w literaturze polskiej XIX wieku', published as the third in the series on suicide in culture.

- Your book entitled Oddać życie za Polskę is the third book concerning the issue of suicide that you have published. What area of culture does it cover in the context of your previous two books: Samobójstwo jako doświadczenie wyobraźni and Samobójstwo i 'grzech istnienia'?

- This book is the most Polish of the three. The first was of a philosophical and theoretical nature, covering general issues. The second was devoted to the problem of Romantic existential suicide in European art. The most recent one deals with the idea of altruistic suicide in Polish culture. It discusses how Poles thought about altruistic suicide in the 19th and 20th century and how it was reflected in our literature and art as well as how it influenced the spiritual life and behaviour of Poles.

- In one of the announcements of your book we read that it is about the mystery of Polish altruistic suicide. This is a broad topic - one that would take a whole book, but can you define what place it occupied in the 19th-century literature and how important it is for the understanding of the Polish spirit?

- Since childhood, we have all been brought up in Poland in the cult of altruistic suicide, although we usually do not realise it. For what is the Reduta Ordona, for example, that Polish children learn by heart to remember forever the Pole who blew himself up in 1831 in Warsaw's Wola district? What about Sienkiewicz's famous novel about a certain colonel who blew himself up in the famous Kamieniec Fortress? What about the legend of Queen Wanda, who drowned herself in order not to give the Germans an excuse for war with Poland and about whom Polish children have been learning since at least the time of the chronicle of Master Kadłubek? The famous images of patriotic altruistic suicides are packed into the heads of all of us in Polish schools so that we never forget them. After all, every Polish child knows perfectly well what Ordon did in Mickiewicz's poem and why he should be admired for his final, patriotic determination.

- Does this mean that the cult of altruistic suicide is something that distinguishes our Polish spirit from that of other nations?

- That would be a simplification. The cult of altruistic suicide is created and perpetuated by all nations, which were or are in difficult historical situations. This cult serves mainly to strengthen patriotic fanaticism because an altruistic suicide is often someone who rejects the sacred gift of life and sacrifices himself for the sake of his nation. There are cultures in which the cult of such suicide is even stronger than ours. For example, the word kamikaze, unfortunately, is not of Polish origin and in its original version does not refer to Poles. The Czech nation, often disregarded by us, had much more patriotic altruistic suicides than we do. In our country, such suicide was actually committed only by Ryszard Siwiec, Walenty Badylak and Piotr Szczęsny. In Czechoslovakia in 1969, after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies, there was a whole series of public self-immolations of young people led by Jan Palach, who with their patriotic suicide protested against the suppression of the Prague Spring and the occupation of their country. In Vietnam, dozens of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns were burnt alive in the streets against the persecution of Buddhists by the local Catholics. In Ireland, Bobby Sands and his comrades starved to death in prison while fighting for political prisoner status. According to some statistics, in the second half of the 20th century around 3000 people took their own lives in various countries around the world in defence of higher values.

In Poland there are many more imagined altruistic suicides - existing in art, literature, legend - than real ones. A series of real ones took place, for example, in the Kingdom of Poland before the November Uprising, when Poland was ruled by a monster, Grand Duke Konstantin. About fifty officers of the Polish army, subordinate to the Tsar, took their own lives in protest against the humiliation of Poles. Tadeusz Reytan, whom we know from Matejko's painting, also followed this path.

- Suicides who died for higher reasons, for the good of the Homeland, are mainly associated with Romantic heroes, but it turns out that they were not the only ones. You also reach for literary and legendary figures from other epochs, such as Wanda or Wołodyjowski. So it was not only a romantic myth?

- The cult of altruistic suicide goes back to deep antiquity. Leonidas, the king of Sparta, is regarded as such a suicide, who voluntarily went to his death defending the Thermopylae ravine in a hopeless fight. Suicidal behaviour was sometimes attributed to the knight Roland, who preferred to bring death at the hands of the Saracens rather than blow his horn, summoning the army of Charlemagne to his aid, which he considered insulting to his honour.

Undoubtedly, it was Romanticism that tried to perpetuate the cult of patriotic altruistic suicide in Poland, although - as I have mentioned - such suicide was already venerated in Poland during the Renaissance, e.g. by Kochanowski, when, for example, the figure of Queen Wanda was modelled on the figures of famous suicides of the ancient times. As for Wołodyjowski, he is in fact a Sarmatian copy of Ordon from Mickiewicz's poem.

- Was it possible to reconcile altruistic suicide with Christianity in Polish culture?

- The Church has announced many times and still announces firmly that every suicide is a crime regardless of the motives. However, I heard recently a sermon of Archbishop Jędraszewski, who spoke much more softly about suicides committed by Polish Catholics in the prisons of Gestapo and NKWD in order not to betray their comrades in arms under torture.

At the time of the partitions, the Church severely condemned Cato's suicide, which some Poles regarded as the only behaviour worthy of a Pole at a time when Poland was being murdered by the partitioners. The culture of Romanticism not only glorified patriotic fanaticism, expressed, among other things, in suicidal behaviour aimed at defending the Homeland, but also made a religious sacralization of the altruistic suicide. In the Polish literature of the 19th century, Wanda the suicidal was compared to the Blessed Virgin Mary, which did not offend many Poles. It was believed that Karol Levittoux, who set himself on fire on a prison bunk in the Warsaw Citadel in order not to betray his comrades during the torture of the investigation and save them from the hell of Siberia, was similar to Jesus, who through his voluntary passion and death on the cross saved many people from the hell of eternal damnation.

Mickiewicz, in the name of true Christianity, which according to him should combine a religious attitude with a fight for freedom, opposed Ordon, who blew himself up for Poland on the last redoubt of the November Uprising, Pope Pius VI, who blessed the Targowica, and Gregory XVI, who solemnly condemned the Uprising and threatened Poles who signed the patriotic act of dethroning Tsar Nicholas I with hell for doing so.

- Do you think that the attitudes and motives of literary characters of altruistic suicides can be understood by contemporary society?

- Yes, they can! The contemporary mass culture - in Poland and other countries - truly loves altruistic suicide. An example? Zack Snyder's famous film 300 from 2006 about the patriotic fanaticism of Leonidas, who defends the Thermopylae ravine against Xerxes' army in a suicidal battle, which drew crowds. The favourite heroes of the popular imagination are the various legions of the lost. Films about the suicidal defence of the last redoubt are watched by millions of viewers who would never take part in such a defence. In Poland, the cult of altruistic suicide has much in common with the cult of the cursed soldiers. We are persuaded that a patriotic altruistic suicide who chooses death for Poland is a hundred times better than someone who sits down at this or that round table. Praise for suicidal fighting to the last drop of blood has appeared and continues to appear in many countries, for example in the culture of Russia, and Winkelried, who was admired by Słowacki, remains the national hero of Switzerland. However, there is also a strong line of criticism of the idea of altruistic suicide in Polish culture. It is enough to mention Sławomir Mrożek's play Śmierć porucznika [Death of a Lieutenant] or the writings of Zbigniew Załuski. Poland is therefore strongly divided on this issue as on other important issues. There is no unified Polish spirit. Such a spirit is an ideological fiction.

Ewa Cichocka / Zespół Prasowy UG