Emo Zofia

by Sylwia Chutnik, writerWarsaw, Poland, 2011

Nałkowska said bluntly in the end: we demand the right to Delight. Women started hissing: “How does she do it? She is old, but has young lovers and admirers. There is a new one following her now.” At such moments, she would look in the mirror and write in her diary that she was old and that she would die soon. A moment later she would put down a few words about a waiter who came over and smiled – that he was unnecessarily handsome. What should be done with these pretty, interesting boys? What should be done with the old body that loves the touch of somebody else’s skin? Enclose oneself in the passing of time, resign and wait for death? She did not demand freedom for expressing oneself from her youngest years in order to now be locked in the stiff corset of gossiping envious women. Let them observe, let them comment. And even Maria Dąbrowska (by the way, always pretending to be so proper, but at the same time in a relationship with Kowalska for years, and how much she hated her daughter, God) is hissing enviously in her Diary that Nałkowska is pretty, but old. And maybe it is even devoid of envy; maybe she is just surprised that a woman can put on a necklace and a matching blouse after sixty. Revolutionary tones and deep conviction about the justifiability of social changes in so-called women’s issues were noticeable in her from the very beginning – from the period when she was known as a “young, promising writer.” This is clear even now, for example in the modern performance of Córeczka directed by Małgorzata Głuchowska and performed in Teatr Dramatyczny. The script was written on the basis of the first volume of Diaries of Zofia Nałkowska (when she was a teenager) and fragments of texts from Charles Baudelaire, Colette, Cezary Jellenta, Jan August Kisielewski, Maria Komornicka, Jan Lemski and Tadeusz Micielski. Professional actors and young women – bloggers and writers – play in the performance. They cope with the moment of entering maturity, starting to create “for real.” The girls play themselves, but make use of the experience of an older friend – Nałkowska before her debut, before her fame and respect. They are fresh, sometimes pretentious, but only to show their fears and anxieties with a proper distance. They show their eternal fight for identity and for the right to be themselves. Good choice, good teacher. Nałkowska was always fighting for the right to self-fulfillment and personal pleasure: in journalistic texts, in novels, in her speeches and presentations. In particular, in her early works, including her diaries, she was not afraid of narcissistic discovery of oneself. By accepting her own “self”, she would be dazzled by herself, amazed by the possibilities of women. The initial phase of her diary is, at the same time, an introduction to the future fight for the subjectivity of women as people (which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was not so obvious). Even though she was never directly involved in the feminist movement, she was still the author of a text entitled Remarks on the Ethical Issue of Women. She participated in the Congress of Women, which took place in 1907 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s literary work. At that congress, Nałkowska was remembered as a self-confident woman, even scandalous. She was twenty-two when she entered the rostrum. The atmosphere was lofty – the women got together in order to celebrate. But let us imagine the whole scene. Rygierowa (because Zofia was already married then – for the first time, but not the last) – stood up, looked at the crowd of debating women and started to talk. First, she criticized her older friends who were talking for three days about obvious things and did not have the courage to deal with real problems. For example “change of the qualification of virtue.” The first ring of the chairwoman of the congress interrupting the speaker – what kind of vocabulary was this? But Zofia continued talking. She said that even though she was in favour of granting voting rights and equality of rights in every area of life, yet she required “decent women” to start talking with their own voice. And to stop dividing women. Ring, for the second time and for the third. The women, more and more agitated, were starting to comment loudly. And Zofia said at the end, bluntly: maternity cannot be the only purpose of eroticism; we demand a right to delight. Maria Konopnicka with her companion, Maria Dulębianka, got up and ostentatiously left the room. Zofia shouted: “We want the whole life!” and this slogan became the symbol of a fight for women’s rights and is still valid in the 21st century. A shock, a scandal: how can such a young girl spoil such a ceremonious convention? The atmosphere grew melancholic; the final party changed its form, and the female milieu was divided into supporters of the speech (e.g. Maria Turzyma and Izabella Moszczeńska) and its adversaries. A certain Doctor Miklaszewski, who initiated a campaign combating prostitution, said that Nałkowska was demanding the right to prostitution and encouraging women to sexual promiscuity, which would lead to social collapse. Polemics, commentaries, discussions in cafés and in newspapers followed. Because what does it mean: “the whole life?” And why would women want so much? Aneta Górnicka-Boratyńska in a book regarding emancipation projects entitled Stańmy się sobą, elaborates on this statement, following Maria Turzyma: these are not only civic rights, but a right to one’s own physicality. Not only equality in education of boys and girls, but also in getting rid of dependencies in marriage. Only then can a woman manage herself freely, in the fullness of her mind and body. She will be able to make use of her energy potential, yet it will take place at a moment when is able to speak freely about her needs. And also mature women have a need for love and physical contacts. Nowadays, we may not be surprised by it, but in the 1950’s and in the years before the war, it was surprising. Nałkowska saw one of the forms of expression in writing and creativity. Similarly to French essentialist Hélène Cixous, she claimed that liberation of the body was, at the same time, liberation of the sub-consciousness and was directly related to the freedom of writing. Only in this manner could a woman cease to be constantly guilty for everything that she was doing. And it is known that there is always something that is wrong, there is too much of something and then something is missing. For example, a mother that loves her children too much castrates them and prevents their full development. If she gives them freedom, then she is a bad mother because she does not care for them. An erotically liberated woman is promiscuous, but a woman who is stuck in a corset of modesty is called “cold.” Cixous is nicely hysterical, she is shouting at women: “write, write, be yourselves,” and this is a voice resounding in the head of every artist who sits by the computer or stands in front of the easel. Create, do not look aside, do not listen to anybody, listen to yourself. I am not certain if this will be enough to become truly free, forever and in every area of life, but the proposal is tempting. Why not try to cut oneself off from the boring umbilical cord of bans, criticism and social standards? Why not hop on the bungee of inspiration and break the rules that are so easy to break? Nałkowska postulated psychical liberation of women, which would be testified or which would result in the courage for “deposing the poetic glory”, our fake morality and feminine featurelessness. The slogan: “We want the whole life” should be the first cry uttered by a girl who is born. And how is it with the end of life? What should a woman be shouting then? “We want the whole life - until the last breath”

Bad choice

Apparently, there were so many men in her life; she was sexually liberated, but there was always something wrong. She was unhappy. The first husband was a frequenter of literary salons that betrayed her and quickly cured her of her teenage dreams about a husband “only to have some money for theatres, dresses and parties.” He was just as poor as her, trying to make a career in writing. What is more, he was jealous of her talent, making “scenes” and accusing her. The second husband was a soldier-like macho, probably selected upon the principles of mutually excluding human traits, dominant and taking away her space. And there were many other relationships – sometimes long, sometimes informal. With “promising” writers, with talented and adoring, yet homosexual and problematic, men. There was always something amiss, something to ponder about. The Bad Love from the title of one of her books had to be verified empirically. Nałkowska would make a mistake, but she would forget about it immediately and once again start a hopeless relationship. It is interesting that this constant emotional struggle was not depriving her of energy – in contrast, it seemed to push her to more and more penetrating portraits of people. Especially portraits of women; woman’s condition in marriage was always similar: without a possibility of being a person and a woman at the same time. This tragic choice had to be made in literary works and in private life all the time. However, definitions of both these terms are quite fixed: a person as an individual aiming for self-liberation and independence, but caught in dependencies; a woman as a person with the same rights as men. But what about love? Always unhappy; in a marriage where a husband infects his faithful wife with a venereal disease, where a woman commits suicide, where a relationship of two people is an almost masochistic jostle in the name of strong feelings – but which? Fascination, erotic drive, or maybe an attempt at boosting one’s ego, always higher than the spouse’s ego? Therefore, competition: more next to each other than together. Really, love is a difficult thing.


Nałkowska Zofia, a just repairer of the world, Zofia, the Caring One. Leading women to the barricades of freedom. Torn between social work and writing. This was especially clear in the post-war years, when she was first involved in the work of the Main Commission for Examining German Crimes in Poland (the aftermath of this work was Medallions); later, she was a member of the National Domestic Council and a member of the legislative Sejm (nonparty). She was also an initiator of literary groups, various committees, editor of Kuźnica and a person who helped many individuals. She never refused help; always in motion, always travelling. An official meeting here, a lecture (even in a sanatorium); an intercession for a poor widow. Additionally, there are social contacts with the intellectual milieu, including international. And she is getting older and her health is failing. There are constantly new texts to be written, corrected and approved. The tension between being for people and being for oneself and one’s creativity is constantly present. How to arrange the hierarchy of values when Poland is waking up from the post-war trauma completely destroyed, impoverished and more and more suppressed by the dominant care of the Eastern Brother? What is more necessary: a new novel describing the contemporary reality or maybe a fight for legal acts? Representing the country abroad or every-day work “in the field”? What is better, what is more valuable for her: a person who always put herself in the first place? Social dandyism, egoism of help. A strange combination which rarely gives good effects. Even more important is the fact that Nałkowska fulfilled herself, in an excellent manner, on both fronts. Both as a writer who constantly astonished by her original outlook on the world and impeccable technique, but also as a social activist fulfilling her obligations with great devotion. It is good that she had Genowefa Goszczyńska to help her on every-day basis – she was somebody between a secretary, a house lady and a friend. Her letters to Zofia are literature on their own; many writers could learn from her the uncanny combination of “elegant” phrases with a clumsy attempt at showing her great feelings. There is no doubt that these were the feelings of Gienia towards Zosia. During the occupation and in the post-war years, she would travel for Zosia to get pieces of furniture, she would argue for her overdue pay and make sure that the crowd of lovers or people who simply wanted something from the famous and influential writer and MP and did not dominate the daily schedule. The relations between the two women, especially these traced in the entries to the Diaries or the correspondence, are difficult to define. On the one hand, the mistress/ servant hierarchy is quite clear; on the other, they are taking care of each other, giving each other presents and their mutual fondness allows for transferring the contacts to a more friendly level. If it were not for Genowefa, maintenance of peace necessary for writing and dealing with literary obligations would be impossible. It is possible that Genia played the role of a perfect husband – a partner who brings peace and stabilization in moments when new works are created. Usually, such role is played by wives of famous husbands. Thanks to them all kinds of scientists, writers or thinkers can peacefully drown in their papers and fat books while dinners, laundry and bills are taken care of. They are taken care of by quiet wives, reconciled with their fate. So was Genia an ideal husband? After Nałkowska’s death, she became a secretary in the Union of Writers and helped many other people.


This is a true paradox that Medallions became the required reading – so frugal in expressing emotions, so precisely cutting feelings. From the very beginning of her literary career, Nałkowska was showing psychological portraits of people which were always instilled with great emotions. Obviously, not in the sentimental style of Trędowata; she looked at human activities in a more laboratory-style manner, as if writing was a microscope, a magnifying glass helping to solve complex riddles of relations and motives for actions. Already in the first volume of Diaries, young Zofia is either plodding through exaltation or rebuking herself for being too prone to emotions – and this has never changed. No leniency. We buy our favourite chocolate, but we do it to justify some bad action. At the same time, Nałkowska had a rare gift of self-analysis bordering upon vivisection. She was capable of being astonishingly severe for herself, at the same time not resigning from descriptions of behaviour and attempts at finding an answer regarding the nature of women, men or people who were close to her (mainly close in humiliating each other). But still, it was a passion: to change the world, to pick out the real motives of certain types of behaviour, finally – a fight for oneself: one’s own manner of thinking, one’s own values.

Thanks to this, the distinguished lady in a pearl necklace who was looking at us from a frame in the classroom is not just another boring author. One can find true emotions in her writing. Not always understandable; sometimes contrasting, but live.