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Without Dogma - Publisher's Preface Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Henryk Sienkiewicz Date :May 2012 Read :659

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Without Dogma - Publisher's Preface

"A man who leaves memoirs, whether well or badly written, provided they be sincere, renders a service to future psychologists and writers, giving them not only a faithful picture of the times, but likewise human documents that can be relied upon."





In "WITHOUT DOGMA" we have a remarkable work, by a writer known only in this country through his historical novels; and a few words concerning this novel and its author may not be without interest.

Readers of Henryk Sienkiewicz in America, who have known him only through Mr. Curtin's fine, strong translations, will be surprised to meet with a production so unlike "Fire and Sword," and "The Deluge," that on first reading one can scarcely believe it to be from the pen of the great novelist.

"Fire and Sword," "The Deluge," and "Pan Michael" (now in press) form, so to speak, a Polish trilogy. They are, first and last, Polish in sentiment, nationality, and patriotism. What Wagner did for Germany in music, what Dumas did for France, and Scott for all English-speaking people, the great Pole has achieved for his own country in literature. Even to those most unfamiliar with her history, it grows life-like and real as it speaks to us from the pages of these historical romances. Only a very great genius can unearth the dusty chronicles of past centuries, and make its men and women live and breathe, and speak to us. These historical characters are not mere shadows, puppets, or nullities, but very real men and women, our own flesh and blood.

His warriors fight, love, hate; they embrace each other; they laugh; they weep in each other's arms; give each other sage counsels, with a truly Homeric simplicity. They are deep-versed in stratagems of love and war, these Poles of the seventeenth century! They have their Nestor, their Agamemnon, their great Achilles sulking in his tent. Oddly enough, at times they grow very familiar to us, and in spite of their Polish titles and faces, and a certain tenderness of nature that is almost feminine, they seem to have good, stout, Saxon stuff in them. Especially where the illustrious knights recount their heroic deeds there is a Falstaffian strut in their performance, and there runs riot a Falstaffian imagination truly sublime.

Yet, be it observed, however much in all this is suggestive of the literature of other races and ages, these characters never cease for a moment to be Poles. Here is a vast, moving panorama spread before us; across it pass mighty armies; hetman and banneret go by; the scene is full of stir, life, action. It is constantly changing, so that at times we are almost bewildered, attempting to follow the quick succession of events. We are transported in a moment from the din and uproar of a beleaguered town to the awful solitude of the vast steppes,--yet it is always the Polish Commonwealth that the novelist paints for us, and beneath every other music rises the wild Slavic music, rude, rhythmical, and sad.

There is, too, a background against which these pictures paint themselves, and it reminds us not a little of Verestchagin,--the same deep feeling for nature, and a certain sadness that seems inseparable from the Russian and Lithuanian temperaments, tears following closely upon mirth. At times, after incident upon incident of war, the reader is tempted to exclaim, "Something too much of this!" Yet nowhere, perhaps, except from the great canvases of Verestchagin, has there ever come a more awful, powerful plea for peace than from the pages of "Fire and Sword."

In "Without Dogma" is presented quite another theme, treated in a fashion strikingly different. In the historical novels the stage is crowded with personages. In "Without Dogma," the chief interest centres in a single character. This is not a battle between contending armies, but the greater conflict that goes on in silence,--the battle of a man for his own soul.

He can scarcely be considered an heroic character; he is to some extent the creature of circumstances, the fine product of a highly complex culture and civilization. He regards himself as a nineteenth-century Hamlet, and for him not merely the times, but his race and all mankind, are out of joint. He is not especially Polish save by birth; he is as little at home in Paris or at Rome as in Warsaw. Set him down in any quarter of the globe and he would be equally out of place. He folds the mantle of his pessimism about him. Life has interested him purely as a spectacle, in which he plays no part save a purely passive one. His relation to life is that of the Greek chorus, passing across the stage, crying "Woe, woe!"

Life has interested, entertained, and sometimes wearied him. He muses, philosophizes, utters the most profound observations upon life, art, and the mystery of things. He puts mankind and himself upon the dissecting-table.

Here is a nature so sensitive that it photographs every impression, an artistic temperament, a highly endowed organism; yet it produces nothing. The secret of this unproductiveness lies perhaps in a certain tendency to analyze and philosophize away every strong emotion that should lead to action. Here is a man in possession of two distinct selves,--the one emotional, active; the other eternally occupied in self-contemplation, judgment, and criticism. The one paralyzes the other. He defines himself as "a genius without a portfolio," just as there are certain ministers-of-state without portfolios.

In such a character many of us will find just enough of ourselves to make its weaknesses distasteful to us. We resent, just because we recognize the truth of the picture. Leon Ploszowski belongs unmistakably to our own times. His doubts and his dilettanteism are our own. His fine aesthetic sense, his pessimism, his self-probings, his weariness, his overstrung nerves, his whole philosophy of negation,--these are qualities belonging to this century, the outcome of our own age and culture.

If this were all the book offers us one might well wonder why it was written. But its real interest centres in the moment when the cultivated pessimist "without dogma" discovers that the strongest and most genuine emotion of his life is its love for another man's wife. It is an old theme; certainly two thirds of our modern French novels deal with it; we know exactly how the conventional, respectable British novel would handle it. But here is a treatment, bold, original, and unconventional. The character of the woman stands out in splendid contrast to the man's. Its simplicity, strength, truth, and faith are the antidote for his doubt and weakness. Her very weakness becomes her strength. Her dogmatism saves him.

The background of the book, its lesser incidents, are thoroughly artistic, its ending masterly in its brevity and pathos; here again is the distinguishing mark of genius, the power of condensation. The man who has philosophized and speculated now writes the tragedy of his life in four words: "Aniela died this morning." This is the culmination towards which his whole life has been moving; the rest is foregone conclusion, and matters but little.

One sees throughout the book the strong influence that other minds, Shakespeare notably, have produced upon this mind; here its attitude is never merely pessimistic. It does not criticise them, it has absorbed them.

One last word concerning this novel. It does not seek to formulate, or to preach directly. Its chief value and the keynote to its motive lie in the words that Sienkiewicz at the beginning puts into the mouth of his hero:--

"A man who leaves memoirs, whether well or badly written, provided they be sincere, renders a service to future psychologists and writers, giving them not only a faithful picture, but likewise _human documents that may be relied upon."

A _human document_--the modern novel is this, when it is anything at all. If Mr. Crawford's canons of literary art are true, and we believe they are, they give us a standard by which to judge; he tells us that the heart in each man and woman means the whole body of innate and inherited instincts, impulses, and beliefs, which, when quiescent, we call Self, when roused to emotional activity, we call Heart. It is to this self, or heart, he observes, that whatever is permanent in the novel must appeal; and whatever does so must live and find a hearing with humanity "so long as humanity is human." If this be a test, we cannot doubt as to what will be the reception of "Without Dogma."

A few words concerning the novelist himself. The facts obtainable are of the most meagre kind. He was born in 1845, in Lithuania. The country itself, its natural and strongly religious and political influences, its melancholy, seem to have left their strong, lasting impression upon him. He has a passionate fondness for the Lithuanian, and paints him and his surroundings most lovingly.

His student days were spent at Warsaw. He devoted himself afterward to literature, writing at first under a pseudonym. He does not seem to have won immediate recognition. He spent some years in California; a series of articles published in this connection in a Polish paper brought him into notice.

In 1880, various novelettes and sketches of his production were published in three volumes.

In 1884 were given to the Polish public the three historical novels which immediately gave their author the foremost place in Polish literature. It is a matter of pride that the first translation of these great works into English is the work of an American, and offered to the American public.

He is a prolific writer, and it would be impossible to attempt to give even the names of all his minor sketches and romances. Some of them have been translated into German, but much has been lost in the translation.

Sienkiewicz is still a contributor to journalistic literature. He has travelled much, and is a citizen of the world. He is equally at home in the Orient or the West, by the banks of the Dnieper, or beside the Nile. Probably there is scarcely a corner of Poland that he has not explored. He depicts no type of life that has not actually come under his own observation. The various social strata of his own country, the condition of its peasantry, the marked contrast between the simplicity of that life and the culture of the ecclesiastic and aristocratic bodies, the religious, poetic, artistic temperament of the people,--all these he paints in a life-like fashion, but always as an artist.

So much of the writer. Of the man Sienkiewicz there is little to be obtained. Like all great creative geniuses, he is so completely identified with his work that even while his personality lives in his creations it eludes them. He offers us no confidences concerning himself, no opinions or prejudices. He does not divert the reader with personalities. He sets before us certain groups of men and women, whom certainly he knows and loves, and has lived among. He sets them in motion; they become living, breathing creations; they assume relations in time and space; they speak and act for themselves. If there be a prompter he remains always behind the scenes. Admire or criticise or love the actors as you will, you cannot for a moment doubt that they are alive.

This is the supreme miracle of genius,--the fine union of dramatic instinct, the aesthetic sense, and an intense, vital realism; not the realism of the cesspool or the morgue, but the realism of the earth and sky, and of healthy human nature. We are inclined to believe that Henryk Sienkiewicz has answered an often discussed question that has much exercised the keenly critical intellect of this age. One school of thought cries out, "Let us have life as it is. Paint anything, but draw it as it is. Let the final test of all literary works be, 'Is it real and true?'"

To the romantic school quite another class of ideas appeals; to it much of the so-called realistic literature seems very bad, or merely "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable." The profoundest utterances of realism do not impress it much in themselves. It insists that art has something to say to literature, that in this field as elsewhere holds good the law of natural selection of types and survival of the fittest.

While each school has its down-sittings and up-risings, its supporters and its critics, neither school has yet exhausted the possibilities of literature. The novel's aim is to depict Life, and life is neither all romance nor all realism, but a curious mixture of both. Man is neither a beast nor a celestial being, but a compound. Though he can crawl, and may have clinging to him certain brute instincts that may be the relics of his anthropoidal days, he has also, thank God, divine desires and discontents, and certain rudimentary wings. And neither school alone is competent to paint him as he is. The author of "La Bete Humaine" fails as completely as the visionary A Kempis. Neither realism nor romance alone will ever with its small plummet sound to its depths the human heart or its mystery; yet from the union of the two much perhaps might come.

We believe that just here lies the value of the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz. He has worked out the problem of the modern novel so as to satisfy the most ardent realist, but he has worked it out upon great and broadly human lines. For him facts are facts indeed; but facts have souls as well as bodies. His genius is analytic, but also imaginative and constructive; it is not forever going upon botanizing excursions. He paints things and thoughts human.

The greatest genius assimilates unconsciously the best with which it comes in contact, and by a subtle chemistry of its own makes new combinations. Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and the realists, as well as all the forces of nature, have helped to make Henryk Sienkiewicz; yet he is not any one of them. He is never merely imitative. Originality and imaginative fire, a style vivid and strong, large humor, a profound pathos, a strong feeling for nature, and a deep reverence for the forms and the spirit of religion, the breath of the true cosmopolitan united with the intense patriotism of the Pole, a great creative genius,--these are the most striking qualities of the work of this modern novelist, who has married Romance to Realism.

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