It is essential to recognize that Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz devoted much effort to the development of a formal philosophical system. These endeavors in the sphere of philosophy culminated in the composition of an ambitious ontological treatise entitled Pojcia i twierdzenia implikowane przez pojcie istnienia (1935; the concepts and principles implied by the concept of existence). Written between 1917 and 1932, this 180-page treatise was completely revised five times before publication. Despite its merits, only 20 of the 650 copies constituting the original printing were actually sold at the time. In this work, as his point of departure, Witkiewicz attempts to account for the particularity of existence. He then goes on to address the ultimate ontological question: Why does anything at all exist, when absolute nothing might just as well have prevailed? So as to elucidate the mystery of existence, Witkiewicz propounds a philosophical system that bears a distinct affinity with the doctrines set forth in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s Monadologie (1714; Monadology and Other Philosophical Essays, 1898). Witkiewicz’s treatise is, at the same time, a condemnation of such contemporary philosophies as Marxism, pragmatism, and logical positivism. As he sees it, these systems of thought are really dedicated to the task of refuting the validity of metaphysical problems rather than exploring them.
For Witkiewicz, retention of a “metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence” is of paramount importance. In a work entitled Nowe formy w malarstwie i wynikajce std nieporozumienia (1919; new forms in painting and misunderstanding resulting therefrom), he discourses at length on the diminution of people’s capacity to experience metaphysical mystery as a result of the evolution of society. Not only has scientific progress made life more comfortable for all strata of society, but it has also replaced religion as the ultimate explanation of reality. Witkiewicz concedes that religion still exists among the masses but only in a debased form that consists largely of perfunctory rituals. As religion declined, moreover, so did art. Whereas metaphysical wonder informed the work produced by the artists of ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, each of these epochs was succeeded by one in which verisimilitude to the external forms of nature took precedence over spirituality. Witkiewicz acknowledges that the French Impressionists performed a service by liberating color from the restraints imposed by the classicists, but he also asserts that they failed to restore the metaphysical dimension to art in any meaningful way. The works of an artist such as Picasso, it may be assumed, do much more to evoke a metaphysical feeling of strangeness, in Witkiewicz’s view. He insists, furthermore, that it is essential for art to perform this metaphysical function because religion and philosophy can no longer do so. Works of art such as those of Picasso, accordingly, serve as one of the last remaining buffers against the monstrous boredom of an increasingly mechanical and soulless society.
Witkiewicz applies these propositions specifically to the dramatic genre in his work called Teatr: Wstp do teorii czystej formy w teatrze (1923; introduction to the theory of pure form in the theater). Here, the arts are classified on the basis of whether the aesthetic medium employed is “homogeneous” or “composite” in character. Music, which consists of sound, and painting, which consists of line and color, are homogeneous. Poetry and the theater, on the other hand, are both composite. Of all the arts, music is the freest because it is the least representational. Except when attempting to create program music, the composer works within the dimensions of what Witkiewicz termed Pure Form. The special status of music with respect to its independence from content had previously been underscored by the British writer Walter Pater. In an essay entitled “The School of Giorgione,” which first appeared in the Fortnightly Review in 1877 and was later included in the third edition of his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1888), Pater maintains that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” Although Witkiewicz foresaw the possibility of painting achieving the same freedom of form that characterizes music, it was not until the advent of abstract expressionism in the 1940’s that this aesthetic ideal was realized in the nonobjective art produced by painters such as Jackson Pollock. While such freedom from representational content can never be attained in the world of the theater, Witkiewicz still urges playwrights to focus on Pure Form. In essence, he is proposing that plays be constructed on the basis of aesthetic principles analogous to those that inform the paintings of the Surrealists. What this amounts to in practice is the radical proposal that events in a play be exempt from the laws of natural science, that characters be free to act inconsistently, and that story lines be independent of psychological plausibility. Witkiewicz likens such devices to the axioms of non-Euclidean geometry, where parallel lines intersect and the shortest distance between two points is a curve.
The Water Hen
One of the best examples of Witkiewicz’s concept of Pure Form may be found in the plot of his “spherical” tragedy in three acts entitled...
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