This paper took Second Place in the 1995 Center For Lesbian and Gay Studies/CUNY Student Paper Awards

Copyright (c) David A. Goldfarb, 1994

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Argonauts of the Western Pacific:

S. I. Witkiewicz and Bronislaw Malinowski

David A. Goldfarb

1994 AAASS Convention

Bronislaw Malinowski and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (fig. 1), who signed his paintings "Witkacy," were close friends by 1900, judging from an early letter from Witkacy's father to his son. Malinowski (fig. 2), the future emigré, must have been identified by his friends as an anglophile from a rather young age, as is suggested by his English nickname "Lord Douglas," used as early as sixteen.1 Witkacy is never called "Oscar" as far as I have read, but the absent reference suggests a likely identification with the well known British playwright. Among the first surviving texts produced from the Witkacy's friendship with Malinowski is a photograph of the pair taken in 1902 or 1903 in Zakopane. They lived together as students in Cracow during 1905 and 1906.2 In 1910 Malinowski had left for studies in England, but returned to Zakopane for part of 1912.3 Witkacy's fiancée, Jadwiga Janczewska committed suicide in February of 1914, leaving the artist devastated. His family encouraged him to visit his friend Bronio and to accompany him on his voyage to Australia (fig. 3) to prevent Witkacy's own suicide. On this trip occurred their famous break, after which their communication was sporadic at best. This tale of childhood friendship, a quarrel ostensibly over a shared woman, and a dramatic break is a master narrative which will appear in the works of both characters in our tale.

Judging from Witkacy's early portrayals of Malinowski, it seems that he regarded Malinowski himself through the eyes of the primitivist, namely Wladyslaw Slewinski (fig. 4), a Polish painter of Gauguin's Pont-Aven school (fig. 5) and Witkiewicz's teacher. In 1911 Slewinski painted Witkiewicz's portrait (fig. 6).4 This image likely served as a model for Witkacy's repeated attempts at Malinowski over the next few years. In Slewinski's naturalistic portrait, the younger painter is a picture of innocence illuminated in a soft feathered sidelight, in his three piece suit and bow tie, hands together, head angled downward and eyes looking up as if he were a bit intimidated by his interlocutor. Two charcoal sketches of Malinowski (fig. 7), one entitled "Malinowski Facing the Fear of Life" (fig. 8) attempt the expression and approximate the garb, using a somewhat harsher sidelighting effect.5 They seem to be working toward an oil (fig. 9) entitled, "Xerxes Jakszma," the name of a character in Tadeusz Micinski's mystical novel, Nietota.

The most successful attempt is a photograph (fig. 10) in which he dispenses with hand gestures and clothing, save Malinowski's characteristic glasses, shooting from the shoulders up, and exploits the contrasty, reticulated, grainy quality of the gum print technique to produce the image of a glowing body and questioning face fading into a black background in what may be Witkacy's only male nude.6 The grain and contrast obscure physical details and simplify the image, contradicting a technology that seeks to produce ever more "realistic" images, conveying an impression of naïveté, as Slewinski manages in his oil portrait of Witkacy.7 Only the glasses, which in this context iconize Malinowski, challenge the naïve image, by emphasizing the gaze returned to the camera. It is interesting that Witkacy used this style in his self-portraits on and off throughout his life (fig. 11), though almost all of his portraits of other adult subjects after about 1918 are grotesque and distorted (fig. 12), or are realistic portraits in fantastic backgrounds (fig. 13). Malinowski is one exception in which the object of portraiture appears in the guise of the artist himself. (fig. 14) (fig. 15)

This vision of the other in the form of the self seems to recur frequently in the interplay between Stas and Bronio. In the abovementioned photograph of the two at ages 17 and 19, respectively, reproduced along with Witkacy's letters to Malinowski, the inseparable pair are dressed and groomed almost identically, and almost seem to have taken on each other's features. This photograph was of doubtless importance to Witkacy, as he kept it for thirty-five years before he sent it to his friend well after their most severe disjuncture, perhaps as a gesture to rekindle old sentiments, asking whether their relationship had survived or had been long finished.8

From Malinowski's side, a rather curious dream occurs in his diary shortly after he and Witkacy had separated in Australia, and when Witkacy would have been very much in his thoughts:

I had a strange dream; homosex., with my own double as partner. Strangely autoerotic feelings; the impression that I'd like to have a mouth just like mine to kiss, a neck that curves just like mine, a forehead just like mine (seen from the side).9
Though Witkacy is not mentioned specifically, a connection seems likely. It may have even been explicit, as a passage a few lines later has been expurgated. Judging from the apparent strength of the relationship, Malinowski's diary, Witkacy's letters, and the letters of Witkiewicz Senior to his son, it is difficult to believe that there was not a strong homoerotic component.

While one cannot read too much into Valetta Malinowska's editorial omissions of "a few extremely intimate observations,"10 we might note that they occur most frequently in Malinowski's diary in 1914 and 1918, when references to Witkacy are also most frequent. The published diary also begins right after the break in Australia, omitting the years when they would have been much closer. Malinowska claims that the earlier portions were not published, because Malinowski did not begin his anthropological work until 1914. This is clearly not the case. He published a review of Frazer's Totemism and Exogamy as early as 1910, read a paper before the Polska Akademia Umiejetnosci in 1912, and had done sufficient work to gain the support of C. G. Seligman for his journey to Australia and New Guinea in 1914.11 The years prior to 1914 must have been quite formative of his anthropological thought. The decision to publish the diaries after the separation, then, must have some other motive.

The intensity and pattern of the relationship, the inseparability interrupted by violent schism, evinced by Malinowski's Diary and Witkacy's letters seems a clear indication of great intimacy, which surely informed the extensive treatments of sexuality in both of their later works. Witkacy turned to Malinowski in his most suicidal moments, after the suicide of Witkacy's fiancée, Jadwiga Janczewska in February 1914, even exhorting Bronio to provide him with potassium cyanide, writing, "you will do me this great favor so long as you love me a little."12 Before the break, Witkacy's letters end "I kiss you" and even "I kiss you, hard;" whereas, after the break he ends with a distinctive "I shake your hand" or worse, "I shake your crooked talons." The sarcasm of these letters of September and October 1914, hurt Malinowski deeply. In the longest published passage concerning Witkacy in the Diary, following a gaping ellipsis, Malinowski responds to a letter he had just received:

I am terribly dejected and dispirited by the bankruptcy of my most essential friendship. The first reaction of holding myself responsible for everything predominates, and I feel capitis diminutio--a worthless man, of diminished value. A friend is not merely an added quantity, he is a factor, he multiplies one's individual value. Too bad--the responsibility for the break lies primarily in his unrelenting pride, in his lack of consideration, his inability to forgive others for anything, though he can forgive himself a great deal.13
Witkacy later made this latter charge about Malinowski himself, when the English scholar failed to answer his letters. In Witkacy's post-1936 letters, he attempted to reestablish the friendship in a surprisingly conciliatory manner. Gaining no response, the letters grew in playful sarcasm, often in bad English, building to a raucous doggerel entitled "To Shithead Friends,"14 which finally evoked a response that in turn elicited friendly exchange by July 1938.

Read in this light, Malinowski's discussion of homosexuality in The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia, based on the 1914 expedition, suggests an interesting personal subtext. Discussing close friendships between men he writes:

Sometimes such a friendship is just a passing whim, but it may survive and mature into a permanent relationship of mutual affection and assistance, as did that between Bagido'u and Yobukwa'u, and, I was told, between Mitakata and Namwana Guya'u before these two became implacable enemies.15
He continues, in a typical Malinowskian demonstration of how the "natives" are just like us in many ways, explains that though the same word is used among the Trobrianders for "my lover" and "my friend," a semantic distinction is made based on the context, as with the French word "ami," or as he must have thought "przyjaciel." Then in a moment of perhaps confession and denial, the anthropologist interjects:
Difficult as it is exactly to draw the line between pure "friendship" and "homosexual relation" in any society--both because of laxity in definition and because of the difficulty of ascertaining the facts--it becomes almost impossible in a community such as the Trobriands. Personally, I find it misleading to use the term "homosexuality" in the vague and almost intentionally all-embracing sense that is now fashionable under the influence of psycho-analysis and the apostles of "Urning" love.
He further claims that homosexuality, defined by bodily contact, was likely rare in the Trobriands, "[f]or. . . the practice is really felt to be bad and unclean because it is associated with excreta, for which the natives feel a genuine disgust," and for which a fastidious hypochondriac like Malinowski16 probably also felt disgust. He defends homosexuality among the Trobrianders as an abberation resulting from the white man's "stupidly misapplied" morality imposed on the natives. In an earlier study he argued,
The boys and girls on a Mission Station, penned in separate and strictly isolated houses, cooped up together, had to help themselves out as best they could, since that which every Trobriander looks upon as his due and right was denied to them.17
Beyond his usual sympathy for the "savages," he extended his analysis of homosexuality to the British, arguing that social "derision" did more than legal sanctions to curb homosexual behavior.

In Witkiewicz's major novel, Insatiability, the young Malinowski appears quite literally through the glass darkly in the form of Genezyp's cousin Toldzio.18 In the scene I am alluding to, recall, Genezyp is locked in the Princess Ticonderoga's washroom, masochistically watching her betray him with Toldzio. Though that is the scene to come, the first things we learn about Genezyp are his intolerance for captivity, that life with father was captivity, and that Toldzio was his escape from captivity. At the age of seven Genezyp's cousin

introduced him to a new world of autoerotic perversions.... Toldzio was to blame (later on, of course) for everything. But for the moment he was just that closest, truest companion who became the first to possess the bizarre mystery of sinister delight and who then condescended to teach it to Zipcio. But why did Zipcio later develop such a strong dislike for him?19
Toldzio was also "a year older than [Zipcio] and. . .was. . .a count, while he was merely a baron," like the "Lord Douglas" himself.20 Recall our master narrative: early friendship and intimacy, a shared woman, and a violent break (fig. 16).

The pattern fits external accounts of the youthful Witkacy and Malinowski with surprising accuracy. Witkiewicz senior was constantly concerned that his son's relationship with Malinowski was too exclusive. He considered his son's companion arrogant, cynical and antisocial.21 The father's letters are filled with suspicion, warning the son in 1903 not to live with Malinowski. "I was at Bronio's," he wrote, "An orgy of stink and a storm of filth."22 The complaints range from health concerns to charges that young Malinowski was selfish and aloof. The elder Witkiewicz frequently prefaced these admonitions with concern about Stas's "relationships to other people" in general, fearing his son's relationship to Malinowski was too consuming.23 Witkacy nonetheless rebelled and became closer to Malinowski until the break (and various lesser disagreements) when, at least for a time, he "developed. . .a strong dislike for him."

Genezyp, guilt-ridden by his "ungentlemanlike" practices,

resolved upon the following decisive step: with the boldness of a man condemned to death he went to his father and told him the whole story. After being soundly thrashed and terrified out of his wits, less by the beating than by the prospect of idiocy, he summoned up all his willpower and desisted from those shameful practices.24
There is a decisive change in tone in the elder Witkiewicz's letter from suspicion to knowledge from 8 June 1905.25 While he is still concerned that the two "define themselves" in terms only of their relationship, he waxes conciliatory, stating even "I have sympathy toward Bronio, and whenever you write well of him, I am glad."26 Witkacy must have revealed something intimate about his situation, as four weeks later, his father responded in a highly considered and scholarly manner to his son's request that he say "something about the question of Bronio."27 His answer is an exhortation that their
harmony and involvement depend on the compatibility of the higher needs of the spirit, on the commonality of mental endeavors, on a similar tone of sentiments--always the higher rocks, it is better that way and let such harmony continue.

But there is a harmony of which Heine speaks:

Selten habt ihr mich verstanden,
Selten auch Verstand ich euch.
Nur wenn wir im Kot uns fanden,
So verstanden wir uns gleich.
I wish no such harmony for you with anyone.28
The father resorts to the thin abstraction of a German poet for that which his own tongue resists. There was likely no physical beating involved, but the passage from Insatiability may reflect an oedipal fear associated with such a confession. Judging from the father's letter of 29 November of the same year, distance did develop between the two friends, likely due to the competition over a certain Zofia Dembowska,29 as between Genezyp and Toldzio.30

The deep cause of Witkacy's ultimate break with Malinowski in 1914, personal factors notwithstanding, was likely an ideological incompatibility. Where Witkacy's attempt to resolve the problem of his marginality entailed identification with the primitive, Malinowski, by and large, sought to resolve that problem by identifying himself with the primitivizers, and in fact serving as a primary architect of what might be called "scientific colonialism." Where Malinowski took the European as the measure of man, Witkacy took the primitive. Where Malinowski's envisioned progress, Witkacy saw decay.

Robert Harbison, in his study of Primitivism, Deliberate Regression, writes favorably of Malinowski as embodying the ideals of anthropology: "to find the self in the other, and see one's own frailty and betrayals more unconfusedly in the distorting mirror of totemism, taboo, and savage kinship."31 But when Malinowski in his research finds "the self in the other," the tendency is to project his own desires through the ritual of anthropology. We always read, "they are more sophisticated than we thought, because they have and are developing something that we have," and never "we are less sophisticated than we thought, because we have lost something which they retained." "One's own frailty and betrayals" seem identifiable by virtue of their commonality with features of primitive cultures. It never seems to turn out that something which was regarded as a "frailty" is demonstrated to actually be a strength, by virtue of its presence among the savages.

This attitude is wholly contrary to Witkacy's outlook. Malinowski quite literally "sold the farm" to join the West European vision of progress, used to justify untold atrocities against the colonized world, while Witkacy's view from between Europe and the colonies was thoroughly catastrophic and decadentist. At the end of Insatiability Genezyp, a double of the author himself, has been completely corrupted by forces from East and West--"already a living corpse in uniform," or "deindividualized in the better sense of the word."32 Witkacy certainly had Malinowski in mind when the character of the Master in his play Janulka, Daughter of Fizdejko states "I am conquering new lands of mysteries and colonizing them with my thoughts."33

The relationship between Malinowski and Witkiewicz becomes an autobiographical trope in both writers' works. We expect such transformations of autobiography into fiction in Witkacy, but in Malinowski, this sort of revelation allows us to begin to understand how much of Malinowski's "scientific observation" is heavily laden with judgements based almost entirely on self-reflection. In one sense, the story of the break in Australia is the story of two thirty-year-old men, with fragile self-conceptions. In a broader sense, perhaps that relationship is symptomatic of the embattled cultural status of Poland between the wars: a chaos of avant-garde movements more modern than modern; Pilsudski's resurgent nationalism bordering on fascism; a flurry of activity in analytic philsophy and mathematics contributing to a mood of internationalism among intellectuals in scientific circles. Malinowski's field technique of assimilation among the "savages" afforded the possibility of assimilation in Anglo-American shelter of academia. Witkacy's ardent refusal to assimilate in any environment, when in 1939 there seemed to be no other options, proved suicidal.


  1. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 31 July 1900, Listy do syna, ed. Bozena Danek-Wojnowska and Anna Micinska (Warsaw: PIW, 1969), p. 39.[RETURN]
  2. Witkacy offers a profuse apology regarding the incedent in a letter from Zakopane in 1906 in Listy do Bronislawa Malinowskiego (Warsaw: PIW, 1981), letter no. 1.[RETURN]
  3. A description of this and other events appear in a chronology compiled by Gerould in A Witkacy Reader.[RETURN]
  4. Jaworska, cat. no. 277.[RETURN]
  5. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, "Portret B. Malinowskiego," pre-1914 in Wojciech Sztaba, Gra ze sztuka o twórczosci Stanislawa Ignacego Witkiewicza (Cracow: WL, 1982), plate 7. "Malinowski Facing the Fear of Life" in Daniel Gerould, Witkacy: Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz as an Imaginitive Writer (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Pr., 1981), after p. 44.[RETURN]
  6. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, "Bronislaw Malinowski" (1911-13) in Ewa Franczak and Stefan Okolowicz, Przeciw Nicosci: Fotografie Stanislawa Ignacego Witkiewicza, Tr. Jadwiga Piatkowska (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986), plate 99.[RETURN]
  7. A curious extension of the form here might be found in Witkacy's portrait of Jadwiga Witkiewiczowa (1925). The innocence is lost, but Witkacy's women are never naïve. The sidelight, position of head and eyes, and directness of expression are maintained before the background of an Australian landscape, with a suggestion of Gauguinesque still life at her left hand. Given the state of Witkacy's relationship to Malinowski, we might read a this as a submerged portrait of his "former friend," no longer the innocent explorer. Irena Jakimowicz, Witkacy: Malarz (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa artystyczne i filmowe, 1987), plate 105.[RETURN]
  8. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, letter of 11 March 1937, Listy do Bronislawa Malinowskiego, p. 111.[RETURN]
  9. Bronislaw Malinowski, entry for 20 September 1914, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, Tr. Norbert Guterman (Stanford: Stanford U. Pr., 1989), pp. 12-13. [RETURN]
  10. Valetta Malinowska, preface to Bronislaw Malinowski, A Diary. . ., vii. Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz, in his review article, "Bronislaw Malinowski in the Light of his Diary," The Polish Review, no. 3 (1967), p. 68, expresses his belief, which seems quite common among Malinowski's closer associates, that Valetta Malinowska did not expurgate enough of the more intimate passages in the diary. To believe, however, that the diary should inform readers about Malinowski's "life. . . in the field, and about his personality" (p. 67) while failing to include his discussions of sexuality, which were certainly significant to him, particularly when sexuality was an important topic of his research, is to buy into the scientistic view which is at the heart of the weaknesses of Malinowski's theory, i.e., that the scientist is somehow objective recorder of data who reduces information into simple, generalizable principles. Malinowski often employed a psychoanalytic approach in his studies, particularly relating to sexuality, and even Freud who was caught up in the project of systematic science believed that analyst and client were in a state of dynamic tension, best manifested through the process of transference.[RETURN]
  11. Andrzej K. Paluch, "Wstep" to Bronislaw Malinowski, Dziela, v. I (Warsaw: PWN, 1984), pp. 17-18.[RETURN]
  12. Laske mi wielka zrobisz, jesli mnie choć troche kochasz.[RETURN]
  13. 13 Malinowski, entry of 29 October 1914, A Diary. . ., p. 29-30.[RETURN]
  14. Witkiewicz, "Do przyjaciól gówniarzy," appended to letter of 16 May 1937, Listy do Bronislawa Malinowskiego, pp. 117-20.[RETURN]
  15. Bronislaw Malinowski, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (New York: Eugenics Pub. Co., 1929), pp. 471-73. The following quotes are all from this section.[RETURN]
  16. He is constantly pictured as frail or ill in Witkiewicz senior's letters, and repeated injected himself with various drugs and recorded them in his diaries.[RETURN]
  17. Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 90.[RETURN]
  18. Malinowski also shows up in 622 upadki Bunga czyli Demoniczna kobieta (The 622 Downfalls of Bungo or The Demonic Woman) as Lord Edgar of Nevermore.[RETURN]
  19. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability, 1930, trans. by Louis Iribarne (London: Quartet, 1985), p. 10. Nienasycenie in Dziela wybrane, v. III (Warsaw: PIW, 1985), pp. 16-17.[RETURN]
  20. Witkiewicz, Insatiability, p. 11. Nienasycenie, p. 17.[RETURN]
  21. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 10 December 1912, pp. 571-72.[RETURN]
  22. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 29 April 1903, p. 87.[RETURN]
  23. Daniel Gerould comes to the same conclusion in the Introduction to Witkiewicz, A Witkacy Reader.[RETURN]
  24. Witkiewicz, Insatiability, p. 11. Nienasycenie, p. 17[RETURN]
  25. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, p. 272.[RETURN]
  26. Ja mam do Bronia sympatie i ile razy o nim piszesz dobrze--ciesze sie. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 8 June 1905, p. 272.[RETURN]
  27. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 17 July 1905, pp. 280-82.[RETURN]
  28. Jezeli Wasza harmonia i pliskosc polega na zgodnosci wyzszych potrzeb duszy, na wspólnosci dazen umyslowych, na podobnym tonie uczuc--zawsze wyzszej skali, tym lepiej i niech ta harmonia trwa.

    Ale jest harmonia, o której mówi Heine:

    Selten habt ihr mich verstanden,
    Selten auch Verstand ich euch.
    Nur wenn wir im Kot uns fanden,
    So verstanden wir uns gleich.
    Tej harmonii nie zycze Tobie z nikim.
    Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 17 July 1905, pp. 280-82.[RETURN]
  29. See Edward C. Martinek, Introduction to Witkiewicz, Listy do Bronislawa Malinowskiego (Warsaw: PIW, 1981), pp. 5-43.[RETURN]
  30. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, 29 November 1905, p. 321.[RETURN]
  31. Robert Harbison, Deliberate Regression (New York: Knopf, 1980), pp. 183-84.[RETURN]
  32. Witkiewicz, Insatiability, pp. 390, 405. Nienasycenie, pp. 461, 479.[RETURN]
  33. The Master speaks of visiting the Trobriand Islands and New Guinea in Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, 338. The line above is translated by Daniel Gerould in his A Witkacy Reader. The original text is "[Mistrz:] Zawojowuje nowe tereny tajemnic i kolonizuje je moimi myslami." Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, "Janulka, córka Fizdejki," in Dziela wybrane, v. 5, p. 367.[RETURN]


Last updated February 12, 1996. If you have any suggestions or comments on this page or anything in this archive, please e-mail me.

David A. Goldfarb