Meditations on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: Polish Painter Józef Czapski on Literature, Survival, and the Human Soul
“The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.”
By Maria Popova
“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Marcel Proust wrote as he considered why we read. “There is some Proust in me, and through Proust, bit by bit, I become aware of my own possibilities,” the great Polish painter Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896–January 12, 1993) reflected in his journal a generation later while interned as a prisoner of war in a Soviet labor camp alongside four thousand of his fellow Polish officers. Only seventy-nine of them would survive. The rest, alongside eleven thousand more Polish prisoners from other camps, would vanish without a trace somewhere in Siberia.
Survival was, of course, largely a matter of luck. But those who lived also owed their survival to the courageous, desperate, ennobling choice to nurture the resilience of their inner lives with intellectual and creative work that offered an escape, however temporary, from the anguishing depression and a restoration of their human dignity. While their compatriot Helen Fagin, who would survive the Holocaust and live past 100, was using literature to help young women endure in a Nazi ghetto in Warsaw, Czapski and his comrades, crammed into a dilapidated former convent previously occupied by Finnish prisoners with bunks infested by bedbugs, organized a series of literary and historical lectures to keep their minds and spirits alive.
When the authorities discovered the gatherings and deemed them antirevolutionary, some of the speakers were immediately deported, or worse. But the lectures continued in secret — a testament to the memorable words of Rebecca West, who asserted while traveling through the same region at the same time that “if during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.”
Czapski himself delivered several unscripted, soaring, intricately interwoven meditations on literature and creativity through the lens of Proust — whose novel In Search of Lost Time he had first devoured thirteen years earlier while recovering from typhoid fever and heartbreak — later published as Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (public library). Addressing the forty or so fellow prisoners who came to listen to him at twilight in their soaked shoes after a hard day’s labor in the camp, where temperatures often dropped to negative forty-five, Czapski worked entirely from memory and illustrated his lectures with colorful diagrams densely populated by linkages between concepts as varied as love, solitude, the motives of composition, the forms of joy and suffering, and Bergson’s philosophy of time — a vibrant embodiment of what Oliver Sacks called the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of creative genius at work.
Czapski, who lived to nearly a hundred, reflects on the salvational value of these intellectual excursions away from the brutality of camp life and the suffocating weight of survivor’s guilt:
The joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking that gave us proof that we were still capable of thinking and reacting to matters of the mind — things then bearing no connection to our present reality — cast a rose-colored light on those hours spent in the former convent’s dining hall, that strangest of schoolrooms, where a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived. It was incomprehensible to us why we alone, four hundred officers and soldiers, were saved out of fifteen thousand comrades who disappeared without a trace somewhere beyond the Arctic Circle, within the confines of Siberia. From those gloomy depths, the hours spent with memories of Proust, Delacroix, Degas seemed to me among the happiest of hours.
He wrests from Proust’s example a model of literature’s most humanistic offering:
Proust shone a penetrating light into the most secret recesses of the human soul that the majority of humanity would prefer to ignore.
Revising Anna Karenina, Tolstoy rewrote a long passage in order to hide his own opinion from the reader. But in Resurrection, the grand novel of his old age, we meet didacticism all too clearly, the author voicing certain key ideas so often that it produced the opposite effect, putting readers off, and so even Tolstoy, by lowering the artistic standard of his work, weakens rather than strengthens the radiance of his ideas.
Proust is the complete opposite. In his work we come across an absolute absence of bias, a willingness to know and to understand as many opposing states of the human soul as possible, a capacity for discovering in the lowest sort of man such nobility as to appear sublime, and in the seemingly purest of beings, the basest instincts. His work acts on us like life, filtered and illuminated by a consciousness whose soundness is infinitely greater than our own.
Reflecting on his entry into Proust’s work through the gateway of his own heartbreak and the resonance he found in the novel’s central theme of the heart’s incompleteness, Czapski writes:
Every great book is profoundly tied in one way or another to the very matter of the life of its author. But this link is even more pronounced and perhaps more integral to the work of Proust. The very theme of [In Search of Lost Time] is Proust’s life, transposed; the principal character writes in the first person, and page after page reads like a barely concealed confession.
The ensuing heartbreak produces the same result — a feeling of unreality, and the awareness that the pleasures of life and a final understanding of it exist in the act of creation, the sole true life and true reality.
From the particularity of Proust’s novel, Czapski draws out the universal human journey — the savage, fraught, transcendent process of self-refinement:
The slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.
With an eye to “the extreme sense of responsibility Proust brought to each of his sentences” — immense, interminable sentences stretching past and beyond the page, saturated with a richness of language that revolutionized the era’s conventions of concision, fractalized into myriad references, allusions, and parenthetical revelations — Czapski considers the importance of this diffuse structure, both of form and of thought, to creativity itself:
Only by pushing a form to its furthest limits can one possibly manage to begin to convey the essence of a writer.
A scientist, on the verge of a discovery, can succeed only by giving his search the full attention of all his faculties, he is in no condition to think of anything else. In the same way, for the writer, it is not this or that idea he expounds by which we ought to measure the contribution that he has given to his country, but rather by the limits he pushes against in the realization of his form. Even among the greatest writers, single-mindedness weakens the effect of a work and can be a disservice, not only from an artistic point of view, but also in consideration of the very ideas that the writer had wanted to serve.
Complement Czapski’s short and splendid Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp with his compatriot Aleksander Wat on how books helped him survive in a Soviet prison, then revisit Iris Murdoch on literature as a force of resistance to tyranny and Toni Morrison on the writer’s singular service to humanity.