Study Guide

Jerzy Kosinski

Jerzy Kosinski Essay - Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 3)

Kosinski, Jerzy (Vol. 3)

Kosinski, Jerzy 1933–

A Polish-born novelist and sociologist, Kosinski now lives in the United States and has established himself as a leading prose stylist in English. Steps, his second novel, won the National Book Award in 1969. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

Being There is a parable—unashamedly exemplary—built round the oddly distorted second-hand view of reality which the mass media package and sell as the real thing. It is Jerzy Kosinski's purpose to demonstrate the dangers of taking the medium's message not as a substitute for experience but as a version of it: to do so would create a disturbing kind of innocence: the ability to simulate behaviour, emotion, responses, by having observed these things in others, but without being aware of their connotations or power….

There is a good deal of subtle, downbeat humour in Being There, invested principally in the way Chance's [the protagonist's] honest indications of his own massive shortcomings are taken as a brand of sophisticated wryness by those who in turn rely for their information on a system which—snowballing information with no thought to its accuracy—has deceived itself….

The allegorical implications are, if looked for, clear enough: the hero's name and that of his guardian [Old Man], the expulsion from the garden, the wisdom of innocence misinterpreted, and so on; and as an attack on the mass media, Being There must be reckoned as doing the job of a score of cautionary documentaries. But the book's success is, in the end, a victory for Chance himself: for Mr. Kosinski's skill in providing a hero who is simple without ever becoming winsome, whose strength lies in what most would count as weakness, and whose victory is sweeter for being completely undetected.

"Chance Encounters," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), June 11, 1971, p. 667.

All of Jerzy Kosinski's fiction has studied the art of the self, from his Boy of The Painted Bird and his protagonist of Steps who survive the world's oppressions by implementing their own great lyric power, to Chauncey Gardiner of Being There, an absolute blank of a person who is elevated to power by the narcissistically reflected dead souls around him. To those who would posit the self as a simple, ideal creator, Kosinski's fiction (like Barthelme's) argues a more problematic case of the individual and the world, especially in The Devil Tree, which presents an American character's struggle with his country's unique quotidian….

Kosinski's protagonists are either aspirant live souls who manipulate the dead, or dead souls who passively reflect the rigor mortis around them.

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Insatiable Art and the Great American Quotidian," in Chicago Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1973, p. 175.

Kosinski barely contains his contempt for Jonathan and Karen [in The Devil Tree]. He does contain it, in part because his manner is so calculated, so empty of bombast, so stingy. He writes his novels as though they cost a thousand dollars a word, and a misplaced or misused locution would cost him his life. The grand thing about his prose is its shocking coolness. The ghastly thing about his characters is their shocking coolness.

If Kosinski's settings are often unspecified, out of time and place, out of fully realized circumstances, he trusts us to hang flesh on his skeletons. His first novel, The Painted Bird is an allegory of brutality assembled from the wreckage of Kosinski's wartime childhood in Eastern Poland. It passes in the pitch dark of perfect inhumanity, among peasant people beyond the reach of the terrible consolations of civilization…. The reader is meant to manure the novel's barren soil with the experience of Western culture, and then to watch the deadly nightshade grow.

His next fiction, Steps, is his cruelest, and most perfectly wrought. It aims to speculate on the nature of evil itself. At its best it refuses the help of such props as historical or psychological environments. A man is set loose (prefiguring The Devil Tree) to make his way in the world, and to make his own world. And his example shows that if the primitive society of The Painted Bird is merciless,… man unrooted, at large, is a monster without equal.

Being There, Kosinski's third novel, is gentler, more reflective, an almost comic experience of a character named Chance who tends a garden and watches television, whose platitudes finally elevate him to the vice-presidency of our particular country, who cannot read or write. He is like the plants he tends….

Which returns us to Jonathan Whalen [in The Devil Tree]. His wealth, emblem of his freedom, is just such an idle vegetable thing, just such a monster, just such a perverted, upside-down growth. It feeds upon itself, asserts itself, holds its own territory, absurdly flails its roots. These are legends and emblems at the heart of our matter. Americans have confused the accumulation of wealth with Election. Americans have confused liberty with license to manipulate. American society, so this novel seems to show, is indeed a poor little rich boy, upside-down.

Geoffrey Wolff, "Last Brave Wish to Try Everything," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1973, pp. 3, 10.

The dialectic in Jerzy Kosinski's work is not between fiction and reality but between reality and the fantasies that usurp or evade it. In The Painted Bird (1965), his first novel, the images of reality glitter like hallucinations. Their brilliance is as of a light that has no source but the objects it illuminates, just as hallucinations gleam in the obscure light of what they mean to those who have them. The fine-ground prose, like a lens, serves only to focus, not to interpret; it is without the tint or refraction of an authorial attitude toward the shocking images it magnifies to a supranatural clarity. Precisely at that moment when the reader's inner eye gets used to the dazzle, a Gestalt shift occurs, the images of reality blink into fantasies of sinister violence and sexual violation. Reality becomes the image of our secret fantasies of lust and cruelty. It is transformed by the unadmitted and unobtainable desires of which it then becomes an image. It becomes, that is, uncanny. The uncanny is the effect of a repressed wish embodied in a perceptible form, as in hallucinations and horror stories. It is the effect of a coincidence of fantasy and reality. The achievement of The Painted Bird is to provide us images for those uncanny moments when the lust and cruelty we evade by repression return to usurp reality.

The achievement of Kosinski's second novel, Steps (1968), on the other hand, is to provide us with images that bring into focus the reality of our fantasies. The tension in this novel is not between fantasy and reality but between fantasy and inhibition. Step by step, through a series of short vignettes, Kosinski takes us deeper and deeper into fantasies of cruelty and violation….

His third novel, Being There (1971), is a fantasy of the type exemplified by daydreams, rather than by nightmares or hallucinations. The mind goes slack and is released to float after its own pleasure without the drag of either inhibition or reality…. Being There is a kind of shaggy-dog story—the punch line is not worth the effort it takes to get there.

So it is, I am sorry to say, with Kosinski's new novel, The Devil Tree. Its hero is a young man who had been getting an allowance of $25,000 a month, until he comes into his inheritance as a majority stockholder of a conglomerate worth billions. His fortune allows him to transform his fantasies into realities…. But he is not happy, the reason he gives being that he has a modernist sensibility. He suffers from "feelings of separation and estrangement," as he puts it…. One other thing he says about himself we might apply to the Kosinski of his novel: "I learned to retreat to a world of fantasies in which I was always the victor." Winning is easy, and so is writing novels, once you have evaded those drags, inhibition and what goes for reality….

Fantasy is not fiction, although it may be the subject of fiction—as in Kosinski's first two novels. Fantasies are real; people have them. Fictions, however, are not things that people have but things that people make. And that Kosinski can speak about an "objective present" is complementary evidence of his weak grip on the multiple unrealities that constitute the world in which at present we live.

George Stade, in Harper's (copyright © 1973 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), May, 1973, pp. 90-4.

[Discovering] a writer vitally concerned with the nature of the individual consciousness is refreshing and exciting. The nature of the self, not in a narrowly psychological sense but in the broader moral and ethical (perhaps even "religious") sense, has continuously fascinated many American writers…. At present we have reached a stalemate, a conscious standoff between man and nature, marked both by a philosophic indifference and a continuing technocratic lust to report it all in detail. Jerzy Kosinski, an expatriate Polish writer, whose experiences uniquely parallel America's own flight from Europe and who has renounced his native tongue to write in that of his adopted homeland, embodies this ambiguous modern attitude and has engaged himself totally (as every writer must) in defining the self against such a background.

Art does not seek to define so much as it suggests multiple possibilities. Kosinski "defines" the self in his works as that individual consciousness which is opposed to and therefore different from the forms of collective behavior which he has encountered in his native Poland. That self is defined in negative terms, in terms different from the external world of the "non-self." As Kosinski writes of his protagonist in Steps: "to him the most meaningful and fulfilling gesture is negative; it is aimed against the collective and is a movement towards the solitude within which the self can display its reality." The quest to discover that renewed reality motivates the best of Kosinski's art. His complete rejection of collectivist methods is unquestionable, although, as we shall see, these methods contribute a good deal to his theories of art as a superior and separate realm of its own….

The decayed puritan ethic of the 1850's supplied Hawthorne with a dramatic framework on which to erect his allegorical examination of human sin. In much the same way Kosinski's anti-collectivist bias works as a dramatic framework and basic underpinning for his quest of the elusive self, of what being an individual in the modern age can mean. Only when secluded in his photographic darkroom in Poland did Kosinski fully comprehend instinctively the blessings and terrors of the individual consciousness. In that darkroom, complete with photographically realized scenes, much of his work develops….

Kosinski's conception of the self remains incredibly fragile when deprived of the physical realities of the external world, thus acknowledging its essentially negative and solipsistic quality. Always the external world threatens to overwhelm the single consciousness. The Painted Bird (1966) traces a boy's growth toward a belligerent and revengeful manhood transcending his environment only by reducing himself to a machine of retribution against all others who inhabit it. Steps (1969) reveals the breakdown of the self when faced with an external reality so powerful it nearly overwhelms the necessary limits of art itself. In Being There (1970) external reality has won out completely, confining us within the limits and structure of an intellectualized fable in which humanity has been reduced to a demented zombie named Chance, and Kosinski's art to a flattened replica of its former self. The threat of solipsism as opposed to the reality of collectivism intrudes on Kosinski's art so that the self, the narrator of Steps for instance, seems to be nothing more than a disembodied voice howling in some surrealistic wilderness. The tension between the self as isolated voice and as externally controlled entity (that kind of self defined by John Watson's behavioral psychology) provides the kinetic energy of Kosinski's writing, and when that essential energy is missing, as in Being There where it has been reduced to structural considerations instead of broadly thematic ones, artful indirection has been replaced by allegoric statement.

In Kosinski's work that sense of self which so clearly motivates the work of Faulkner, Proust, and Joyce is nearly non-existent. Proust's inability to appreciate and capture external reality as completely as he would have liked contrasts with Kosinski's belief that reality is all too easily captured and threatens to overwhelm him. Joyce, Faulkner, and Eliot strove to reproduce the moment of simultaneity in which all mankind and myth are illuminated. Although their themes were often desperate, documenting the processes of decay and disintegration, their spiritual center of imaginative fecundity (the "self") held. Imagination, providing its own sense of order and fulfillment, substituted for their religion. Such certainty in Kosinski's work, particularly in Steps, collapses, the self remaining unfixed and elusive, becoming both an artistic and a philosophic dilemma for the writer, and hinting of imminent self-destruction.

Kosinski's fiction derives in part from the "new wave" novels of Robbe-Grillet in its insistence on constructing a sense of mood and motion by the minute registration of detailed impressions. Each scene is graphically described as objectively and as fully as possible, as if Kosinski's mind were a camera recording the intimate details of the photographer's art…. This undiluted presentation of savage and elemental experiences in that surreal world where fantasy and reality are interchangeable approximates the ritualistic patterns of ancient myths: the most primitive forms become the most symbolic by their very proximity to the terrible springs of life itself. On this level Kosinski generates emotional and imaginative power….

The idea of a detailed impression, an essentially objective projection, is probably more accurate in a description of Kosinski's work than the word "symbol." While on the one hand he is attempting to extricate the self from the collectivist sensibilities of the modern world, on the other hand he is writing about the nature of that self in an extremely objective and collectivist form. He collects impressions which are concretely reproduced to simulate a form of external reality so well that he cannot extricate his heroes from it. The self is trapped in a world that is not so much symbolic of something else as it is symbolic of itself; although it may have mythic overtones, it is symbolic of nothing else. Its very concreteness (as in the theories of the early Imagist poets) precludes more abstract and "eternal" possibilities, such as the apprehension of human and ethical values or meaning….

Kosinski's dramatic framework remains the struggle toward personal identity complicated by his own acceptance of a new land, a new language, and consequently a "new" self. His dramatic centers continue to be the self, that mysterious and impenetrable entity, and collectivism, that increasingly omnipresent and modern reality. The radical secularism of his art triumphs only when his sense of self is ascendent; otherwise it traps him in a kind of collective impressionism from which he cannot extricate himself. His genius lies in his ability to recreate an elemental sense of primitive and dark reality inherent in his violent and sexual images. From this dark well his art must be drawn. Yet it is a dangerous and frightful well into which to descend, for we who admire him are aware of the stark and terrible contours of his unrelenting imagination.

Samuel Coale, "The Quest for the Elusive Self: The Fiction of Jerzy Kosinski," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1973, pp. 25-37.

Jerzy Kosinski's The Devil Tree is a fable about that "problem" which perhaps exists more in the minds of sociologists and professional agonizers than in the experience of most of us middle-class, middle-income creatures—the problem of excessive and unearned affluence. Young Jonathan Whalen is super-affluent. He has inherited no less than twenty-five billion dollars. As a predictable consequence (predictable, that is, within the conventions of this "problem"), he has become super-alienated. He goes through the routine—drugs, sex, violence—but of course it is all meaningless. His affluence has insulated him from experience, and denied him the capacity for feeling. It is obvious from the deliberate exaggeration of Kosinski's fable that he is mocking it; he himself is aware that the "problem" of having too much money is not a problem to be taken seriously. Fair enough: but in that case what is his book really about? If it were a serious satirical study of our old friend the American Dream gone sour—hard-working parents making their pile by exercising the Puritan virtues, children rejecting those virtues and irretrievably corrupted by that pile—well, that would be a real subject, though one might doubt if anything new could be made out of it nowadays: but can one make effective satire out of something proclaimed by oneself to be unreal?

Patrick Cruttwell and Faith Westburg, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Summer, 1973, p. 419.

In his fourth novel, The Devil Tree, [Kosinski's purpose] seems to be the creation of a cynical inanition from which there is no escape, a listless malaise filled with near Nineties static that is personified by an immensely rich young hero who is a tinny industrial Seventies version of des Esseintes, more predictable in his expectations, less inventive in his time-killing, and with a disposition for creating neurosis everywhere he looks. The region is similar to that of Muriel Spark's recent book, Hothouse By The East River, only without her ability for endowing it with traumatic emotion just held in abeyance….

Kosinski's prose is at its most efficient when employed in narrative. He captures incidents clearly and quickly. When it turns to more introverted purposes the effect is of psychological log-rolling. His entire treatment of sex is thickly ponderous in the very worst tradition of the modern novel. The metaphysical theorising on the subject, and there is loads of it, is not only a substitute for experience in his characters but also somewhat trivial page-filling on his part….

The devil tree, with its choking roots and branches, is not only a metaphor for Jonathan Whalen's life but an affliction sufficiently widespread in current writing to make one yearn for an axe, a shaft of something sudden, sharp and true to expose the self-important shallowness which has bred in America particularly so much plastic psychology and so much unnecessary psychosis.

Duncan Fallowell, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1973, p. 89.