Hospital of the Transfiguration

by Stanislaw Lem
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Hospital of the Transfiguration

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1892

Hospital of the Transfiguration is Stanisaw Lem’s first novel. He completed it in Kraków, Poland, in 1948; however, the book was not published until 1955, in a rewritten, state-approved version. The original title was Szpital przemienienia; it constitutes the first volume of the trilogy Czas nieutracony (time not lost, or time saved). Eventually, the original version appeared in Polish and in German. This is the first English translation.

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In 1939, after German forces have overrun Poland, Stefan Trzyniecki, having just completed medical school, searches for his place in life. Amid the chaos of an occupied country and the encroaching terror of Nazi ideology, he tries to discover what he values and what he should do. At first he drifts; a series of coincidences brings him to a job he did not actively seek at Christo Transfigurato, a rural mental asylum near the town of his father’s birth.

At the asylum, he gradually learns, through his relationships with major and minor characters, what his fundamental commitments are. These are expressed most succinctly in his dazed question, while he and a fellow doctor wander away from the asylum after Nazis have exterminated the patients and taken over the facility for an unspecified purpose: “How can they do such things and live?” In the asylum, Stefan has confirmed for himself in multiple ways the affirmation that life matters. Those who think otherwise are the truly mad. In one of the many philosophical conversations between Stefan and the hiding poet Sekuowski, the latter tells of a mad writer who “for one good metaphor” was willing to “annihilate a book and its author.” Sekuowski says that this writer really believed in nothing. Believing in nothing, he was mad, missing the counterweight of ethical common sense that is necessary to mental balance.

Sekuowski’s story helps define the madness of the Nazis who take and purge the asylum. Thiessdorff, the Nazi psychiatrist, explains: “Every nation is like an organism. Sometimes the body’s sick cells have to be excised. This was such an excision.” This insane metaphor stands in opposition to several metaphors Sekuowski presents in his conversations with Stefan. In one of these, the body is a flower garden in which tuberculosis bacteria are multiplying flowers. They succeed in overwhelming the garden’s protective plants, the leukocytes, only to find that the garden then sinks away beneath them, so they too must die. Different metaphors produce opposing views of how human life may be valued. A metaphor that demands the destruction of human beings must ultimately be self-destructive. If, as in Thiessdorff’s metaphor, the purpose is to separate the mentally healthy from the diseased, or the superior from the inferior, this purpose must eventually shatter on the rock of the realization that such definitions are arbitrary. Even the atheistic and cowardly Sekuowski values human life above all mere ideas; therefore, he appears more sane than his executioners, who shoot him out of simple disgust and blood lust, justified by a racist ideology.

The central portion of the novel presents Stefan’s education in the value of human life. His main teachers are his experiences in the asylum and his conversations with Sekuowski. The asylum teaches him the relativity of mental illness and health.

Stefan needs only a short time in the hospital to see that there is very little difference between the staff and the patients. Untrained, often clumsy and cruel, the nursing staff tends to see the patients as problems rather than clients. One doctor speculates that asylums attract staff who are fascinated by abnormality. Stefan is sure of his own neurosis, and each doctor seems at least mildly abnormal to him. Stanisaw “Staszek” Krzeczotek, the medical school friend who brings Stefan to the hospital, naïvely believes that they will be safe there from the Nazis and the effects of occupation. He is almost continuously partially debilitated by being hopelessly in love with someone. Nosilewska, the beautiful doctor whom Staszek yearns for, seems indifferent to anyone’s love, though she proves most calmly effective in the crisis of the Nazi takeover. Orybald Kauters, the staff neurosurgeon, delays operating on a classic brain-tumor case so he can observe the complete course of the disease. He proves to be German-born and so moves comfortably from the Polish to the German administration of the hospital. Marglewski, another doctor, fills his spare time with research to show that genius and madness are virtually the same. He stages a demonstration to prove that recovering schizophrenics become nostalgic for the ecstatic states of their disease. Even though the presentation fails, he persists in believing that insanity may be more valuable than sanity.

Stefan encounters much evidence that what is conventionally defined as insanity looks remarkably like genius, the quality that most delights the mind. A young schizophrenic who never speaks sculpts a beautiful statue, Strangling Angel, that represents the mystery of death as eloquently as Sekuowski’s poems. Several of the inmates have religious visions that beautify their lives. One drooling madman can perform instantaneous calculations of seven-digit numbers, because he has drawers in his head. Furthermore, the “cured” genius Sekuowski does not appear perfectly sane to Stefan. A poet and political writer, Sekuowski has come to the asylum for treatment of addiction, but he remains after his cure to hide from the Germans. His commentary on the asylum and the meaning of life provides a worldview that comes to seem reasonable to Stefan. Yet Sekuowski lacks the courage to live the ideas he believes and, in terror of the Nazis, betrays the hiding places of the patients the doctors have tried to protect from execution.

Only slight changes in circumstances could lead to exchanges of roles between staff and patients. Indeed, when the Nazis come, both Sekuowski and an alcoholic priest are made members of the staff to preserve them from execution. The fine and sometimes arbitrary line between doctor and patient illustrates another major aspect of Stefan’s education in the asylum, the appreciation of mystery, a major theme in Lem’s other fiction. Sekuowski articulates the mystery at the center of humanity and of the universe in a variety of ways, and Stefan’s learning is reinforced by repeated experiences with patients, colleagues, acquaintances, and family.

For Stefan, Sekuowski becomes a spiritual father, taking the role Stefan’s father and his uncles played in his youth. Sekuowski’s ideas provide an outline of the worldview that pervades Lem’s later work. To him, the universe is an utter mystery of fertility, generating energy and life so richly as to suggest some purpose behind it. Yet consciousness comes into being only to be annihilated. A human being is a miraculous accident so impressive as to suggest the violation of the laws of matter and energy. Yet the human body goes awry and destroys itself by the same laws. Writing poems is like stripping patches of paper off a wall to reveal intimations of a gorgeous and possibly meaningful pattern. Yet language sets painful and arbitrary limits on what one can say. A poet’s function in the face of the Nazi madness is to suffer beautifully, yet Sekuowski betrays the helpless in his final terror.

The universe is a mystery. Though humanity is of the same substance with all matter, people understand virtually nothing about it. No meaningful pattern can be found in the cosmos, in part because human senses and mental faculties were not designed for that purpose. The meanings people claim to find are expressions of their wishes, such as Marglewski’s desire to prove that insanity equals genius. Stefan’s experiences with staff, patients, casual acquaintances, and his family all tend to confirm Sekuowski’s view of the essential mystery of human existence.

Stefan also finds his fellow beings incomprehensible. His uncle and Sekuowski like to visit while they bathe. A few hours after his father has given deathbed advice, he eats vigorously and wishes Stefan a good trip back to the asylum. Staszek is an exciting conversationalist one moment and a morose, unsuccessful lover the next; he idolizes Sekuowski, yet quickly betrays him after the poet betrays the hiding patients. Woch, the operator of a nearby electrical substation whom Stefan meets on his frequent walks, is confiding and secretive by turns. The Nazis eventually link Woch with the Polish Resistance and execute him. Father Niezgloba has had alcoholism forced upon him by his ignorant parish and has suffered hallucinations. He witnesses the betrayals and executions at the hospital. He sees Dr. Kauters given permission to laugh at murder because he is a German, and he hears the devilish rationalizations of Thiessdorff, yet he continues to believe in a God who loves and cares for humanity.

Stefan experiences in his fellows the mystery Sekuowski describes as universal, a mystery that Nazi ideology vigorously denies in its claim to be able to distinguish perfectly between the superior and the inferior human being. For Stefan, as for all the wiser people he knows, the most significant aspect of this mystery is that humanity suffers without understanding why. When the Nazis execute the residents of Christo Transfigurato, they deny their brotherhood in suffering with the least of Christ’s children; they deny the Christian metaphor that all people are of one body, with Christ as head. That metaphor, like Sekuowski’s metaphor of the flower garden, points toward a saner ethical response. Stefan’s father, a somewhat ridiculous failed inventor who often speaks in maxims, provides an ethical statement that seems to follow from this view of humanity’s place in the universe: “Without tenderness it’s worth nothing. And tenderness is so easy.”

As Lem has said in an interview, the world is filled with misery and agony, some caused by the way things are and some caused by human cruelty. This novel illustrates this view that Lem shares with many modern novelists, and it offers the answer many of them offer. In the face of such suffering, the proper and practical response is to comfort one another, rather than to exterminate the sufferers in the vain hope of creating utopia. The novel ends with Stefan and Nosilewska, lost in the woods in the rain, bedding down in a farmer’s shed. He finds that the papers she saved from Sekuowski are blank; he feels bankrupt, deprived of job, homeland, family, and fathers, both literal and spiritual. Nosilewska, who has suffered the same losses, comforts him: “The woman gave him pleasure, but not in the usual way. At every instant she controlled herself and she controlled him.” When all else seems lost, when even tenderness is a bit hard, she succeeds, illustrating in this act the sum of Stefan’s education.

Hospital of the Transfiguration is a strong first novel, humorous, whimsical, terrifying, and moving. It introduces many of the ideas that have persisted in Lem’s work. Chief among these ideas is the opposition between a fascinating, beautiful, cruel universe and a human mind that is designed for species survival rather than for understanding the cosmos. Stefan’s education at the asylum shows him this opposition even as the Nazis attempt to resolve it. They try to impose by murder a simple order upon the stubbornly complex universe, while Stefan learns the importance of believing in the value of human life, however this belief is achieved.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 47

Booklist. LXXXV, November 1, 1988, p. 448.

Chicago Tribune. October 23, 1988, XIV, p. 7.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, September 1, 1988, p. 1266.

Library Journal. CXIII, October 1, 1988, p. 101.

The New Republic. CXCIX, November 7, 1988, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 30, 1988, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, August 26, 1988, p. 76.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, October 30, 1988, p. 11.

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