Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Insatiability
The mystery of one’s birth and the inconceivability of the world’s existence without the positing of one’s ego were the only luminous points in a series of otherwise obscure moments. —Witkiewicz
Genezip Kapen, the protagonist of Witkiewicz’s Insatiability, cannot tolerate captivity of any kind. This is foreshadowing about the young boy’s life to come. More importantly, it is a warning of the coming days of communism in Europe.
Polish writer, playwright and painter, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), wrote Insatiability in 1927 and published it in 1930. The work is a dystopian novel, albeit a highly complex novel of ideas and the dissolution of Western values. Insatiability consists of two parts: “The Awakening” and “Insanity.” This division is significant, both stylistically and thematically.
Insatiability is like few twentieth century novels. With the exception of Zamyatin’s We, a novel published in 1924, Insatiability predates all of the better-known dystopian novels. Witkiewicz’s masterful novel is an experimental work of fiction written by a writer whose work addresses the relationship between essence and form.
The novel shines with Witkiewicz’s proficiency in the history of philosophy, especially the last vestige of metaphysics in the twentieth century, phenomenology. This is also indicative of his paintings.
Witkiewicz traces the impact of some of the most nihilistic currents in intellectual history on Western civilization and the human psyche. He points out Marxism as the single most destructive and corrosive form of human engagement with reality, beginning in the 1800s. He refers to Marxism as an anti-philosophy, something that many thinkers and critics have also pointed out, including a vast number of former Marxists. Like a ravenous cancer that cannot be excised, Marxism’s genial ability to corrupt man’s imagination through perpetual, chameleon-like malleability is unprecedented in human history.
Marxism’s perpetual ability to fabricate rabid converts partly springs from the ranks of nihilistic narcissists. Some human beings view life as the enemy. This creates self-loathing, lack of purpose and meaning in their lives; they turn on the world and other people as being the culprits of their perceived inadequacies. The next step is to seek alleged emancipation from the hierarchy of values. The latter is the intoxicating liberation that comes with the destruction of reason, values, culture, the annihilation of innocence and free will.
Marxism’s demoniacal fanaticism fuels violence, and, in turn, violence requires ever-innovative forms of violence in order for its practitioners to attain self-fulfillment. The cycle—perpetual revolution Marx called it—can never be allowed to end.
Insatiability shows how positivism propped up Marxism to become the dominant ideology of the twentieth century, and yielded uncontested power throughout the world that, well into the twentieth first century, it has yet to relinquish.
One reason for this, Witkiewicz shows, is rooted in the spurious offering of modern philosophy about human reality. Imagining that philosophers are out-of-touch idealists, the general reading public dismisses philosophy as sophomoric. Marxism capitalizes on this. Lamentably, this leaves an idea-vacuum for Marxism—which is anti-philosophy par excellence—to gain ground with unschooled people and educated automatons alike.
Witkiewicz counters the spread of positivism with Edmund Husserl’s development of phenomenology, a form of metaphysics that concerns itself with self-reflection in relation to the study of consciousness, which gained traction in the early part of the twentieth century.
Zip, as the protagonist is called in the novel, is a young man who leads a life of existential inquietude. The first part of the novel “The Awakening,” introduces the reader to Zip’s gift for epiphany. The young man is profoundly intuitive, enabling him to understand and become poised to deal with the aberrant world to come.
Witkiewicz, Philosopher of Existence
Witkiewicz is a philosopher of existence who is blessed with the ability to write fiction. The themes of Insatiability are not for the light hearted or people who find best sellers enthralling.
Insatiability was introduced to English speakers in the 1980 Nobel Prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz’s, enlightening 1955 book The Captive Mind; a character study of the communist mind-set, and how the latter consolidates political power.
Something was swelling inside Zip: “The embryo of a conscious use of power in the abstract.” The tyrannical impulse and executioner-complex cannot be subdued for long. The mania for abstract theory turns into sinister social/political abuse of people who are the perceived enemy.
Insatiability is Witkiewicz’s master work. From an early age Zip was moved by a “mist of metaphysical wonder (not yet to be construed as awe).”
The story follows the trajectory of a young Polish man’s disillusionment with the effects of the totalitarian impulse of twentieth century Marxism; Western democracies and civilization dissolve under Chinese communist takeover of Europe. This is an astoundingly prophetic plot, especially given that Insatiability was written in 1927.
Young Zip begins to have pangs of agnosticism, which taint his ability to find firm grounding in metaphysical understanding of the world. Form is what the young man seeks most. Insatiability—the title of the novel—means metaphysical inquietude. This is important, given that Witkiewicz’s suggestion is clear: without a firm rooting in metaphysics, thought quickly finds refuge in vaporous and half-baked notions found in chic cafes. Marxism, he tells us, is one of the most destructive examples of the latter, because it attempts to fill the void of life’s insatiability.
Insatiability is a profound study of human nature and the human person, and an indictment of Marxism. Zip’s nihilistic existence does not prepare him for the moral and social/political defoliation that he will encounter in middle age, as the novel progresses into mid and late twentieth century. Witkiewicz’s epiphany is clear: nihilism does not tighten its stranglehold on human beings overnight. Nihilism has first to be invited and cultivated.
Zip understands that nihilism never retires into solitude. By its very nature, nihilism is narcissistic, demanding that others join in on the exaltation that destruction brings about to psychopaths and narcissists: “ . . . that is to say, the possibility of differentiating the most minute aberrations of the human psyche. The world seemed to be exploding from extreme self-insatiation.”
The vision of the future that Zip prepares for pins free will and self-awareness that longs for transcendence against philosophical materialism: the self-defeating view that only matter exists.
Man’s future will be ruled by automatons: “But ‘astronomical angst,’ once a cousin to loftier states leading to philosophical meditation, was rapidly being brushed aside as a luxury by an age of mundane pursuits.” What more banal and vulgar existence can there be than to level all aspects of human life to social/political categories? Zip calls communism “the first layer of manure for what’s coming next.”
Insatiability is a Dantesque novel. Witkiewicz’s vision for man’s future is a heap of evil that everyone will be steeped in. In 1927, the Polish writer predicted “a worldwide trend toward bolshevism.” This is an oracle. The author’s reflection about form leads him to the realization that form enables man to grasp the mystery of life. A life that respects mystery and the limits of knowledge is a healthy life.
Beware! In an insipid world defined by state-sanctioned positivism, there can be no thought or attention given to mystery. Reflection on transcendence, Zip believes, must be relegated to the catalogue of bourgeois philosophical thought. Awe and wonder, which have defined man’s embrace of transcendence until recent times, will mark people as enemies of the state. Man’s sense of wonder “will just crumble into bits of dead concepts.”
Insatiability is not a novel for the faint of heart. Readers of dystopian novels must separate their actual existence and the aberrant conditions that allege utopia aims to convey. The best way to achieve this is to pay close attention to the moral and social/political beliefs of people in the age that we live in, then, extrapolate the conditions that such beliefs will bring to fruition in the future. Beliefs work as a template that place in motion the algorithm of future human beliefs and behavior. The latter exercise makes reading dystopian novels worthwhile.
For people who are prescient of human nature, the future—at least by the desultory standards of postmodernism—is not difficult to predict.
Mankind is stampeding toward a state of blissful ignorance, silencing the visionaries—today mere midgets by comparison with their forebears—who are trying to halt the stampede without offering anything in return.
Zip believes that the fate of mankind is contingent on the correction of bad ideas, dead-end notions that derail mankind for generations. He calls them “false notes” and “brooding tapeworms of the mind.”
Postmodernity, Witkiewicz tells us—much like the Spanish Catholic priest intellectual, Felix Sarda y Salvany—is anti-life, an “armless and legless torso” that drags itself aimlessly along. This condition is compounded by the Murti-Bing pill, a Chinese communist party narcotic that eliminates desire and ambition.
Postmodern Cultural and Historical Illiteracy
Insatiability moves through Zip’s life in an ingenious, paradoxical manner. While it is a work of ideas, especially the human wasteland that bankrupt ideas create, the novel is also a visual testament to a man’s life through time. Because few people read in postmodernity, human reality, the world, and the events that shape it are presented as cartoonish fodder for graphic novels.
Zip complains that during the time of his youth, Marxism had turned the world into a vat of illiteracy. It is cultural and historical illiteracy that ultimately brings about the re-education camps, the gulag and the firing squads at the end of Insatiability. This is significant because the novel ends when Zip is a broken middle-aged man, circa 2000 A.D.
Because Insatiability is a study in form and essence in relation to human nature, the working out of this marriage is the social/political arena. In postmodern Marxist terms, reality is re-fashioned through social/political categories.
Form is what enlightens man and alerts us to the structure of human reality. Its anti-thesis, de-formation, is what the many variants of nihilism contribute to the human condition.
By placing all of its eggs, as it were, in social/political categories, Marxism admits that man’s life must never be permitted to be thought of as existence, per se, only as mere biological life. The latter is the realm of influence of positivism.
Marxism’s greatest hope for worldly power, including the hierarchy of values, emphasizes mundane categories, e.g. the so-called proletariat, social-justice and perpetual disruption of human life in whatever manner that a given epoch demands. The idea behind the latter is simple. Every day children are born and old ones die, “let us concentrate our ire on the coerced formation of the young, before they have a chance to figure out human reality on their own.”
Poisoning the well pays tremendous dividends in the long run. This is what Zip discovers, albeit too late for him, once he comes face to face with the gulag at the end of the novel.
Marxism is patient. It outstrips wisdom of its heuristic lessons in the court of public opinion. In postmodernity, this means whatever trendy values the elites are espousing. Zip suggests, “A few hundred years from now the human brain will not be capable of integrating life’s’ mounting complexities.” Witkiewicz is visionary for his prophetic portrayal of the moral wasteland to come, but he couldn’t foresee the machinery of moral and cultural dissolution that is social media and the Internet.
Nihilism takes its toll on Zip. His life becomes exhausted, worn-out by his incapacity to cultivate life-affirming convictions. Burnt-out is another word for this. This is mirrored in the sterile conditions of the external world that Zip and the narrator describe. He cannot find solace in literature, science or religion because these have all been gutted of any substance.
Reason, the sole provider of constructive possibilities, also becomes a thing of the past. No more can man place stock on rational argument. Ideas are considered bourgeois. The only thing that sustains the new world that welcomes the Chinese communist invasion of Europe is the Murti-Bing pill, a narcotic that makes man irresponsibly happy. Chinese communists cleverly devise the much sought-out pill in order to control their subject-people:
The word knowledge had long ago been dumped, leaving only ordinary cretinism and its cousin: the certitude that all must be according to the gospel of Murti-Bing.
The Chinese take-over is smooth, almost by contrition. The Chinese general tells his Western prisoners that the West does not know how to rule itself, thus, they will do it for them. He instructs his new, pathetic subjects: “We shall teach you. Politics does not exist for us as such—by politics we understand productivity that is scientifically organized and regulated. We will organize you and you will be happy.”
The Chinese communist takeover of Europe is brought about through the moral and social/political gutting-effect of nihilism that exhausts itself like a spoiled toddler who finally falls to sleep after an exhaustive tantrum.
Pedro Blas González is Professor of Philosophy at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. He earned his doctoral degree in Philosophy at DePaul University in 1995. Dr. González has published extensively on leading Spanish philosophers, such as Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno. His books have included Unamuno: A Lyrical Essay, Ortega's 'Revolt of the Masses' and the Triumph of the New Man, Fragments: Essays in Subjectivity, Individuality and Autonomy and Human Existence as Radical Reality: Ortega's Philosophy of Subjectivity. He also published a translation and introduction of José Ortega y Gasset's last work to appear in English, "Medio siglo de Filosofia" (1951) in Philosophy Today Vol. 42 Issue 2 (Summer 1998).
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I wandered through it like a fog, recognizing a few features here and there which I liked very much.