Poland, long partitioned by its neighbors, regained independence in 1918 after some one hundred and fifty years. Ironically, this independence ushered in a period of great instability, both politically and culturally. Polish literature, long dedicated to patriotic uplift, suddenly lacked a dominant theme. Many young writers mocked old attitudes and literary conventions, few, however, with parody as sour and nihilistic as Witkiewicz’s “catastrophism.”
INSATIABILITY draws on the conventions of the coming-of-age novel, in this case young Genezip “Zip” Kapen, a roughly autobiographical character. Witkiewicz sets his familiar story, however, in a future when Poland and Europe are about to be overrun by the Chinese. Aside from Zip, all the characters are exaggerated types representing various aspects of Western culture and society. Alternating between metaphysical argument, erotic escapades, and mindless butchery, the book portrays a totally bankrupt civilization.
The Chinese administer the death blow, but serve merely as the instrument of the inevitable. Society has simply grown too large to be governed other than by a lockstep army and a drug-based religion. The young Zip struggles with ageless questions of identity in an age that has no place for the individual. Those who do not succumb quickly are destroyed or go insane, like Zip, who becomes first a murderer and then an automaton solider.
In between philosophical discussions, events unfold in a dreamlike landscape at a steady clip as Witkiewicz parodies many styles and genres. Nevertheless, he takes very seriously the underlying existential dilemma undermining Western civilization. Some readers, knowing how the century turns out, might think INSATIABILITY takes the threat too seriously and so falls short of true greatness as a satirical novel.
Almost seventy years later, Witkiewicz’s catastrophic angst does seem overheated, but he wrote in Poland between two world wars, a time which provided little cause for optimism. In fact, Witkiewicz could only feel he had prophesied too truly when, in September, 1939, he found himself trapped between German and Russian invasions. Seeing no happy ending, he committed suicide.