Spatial Melancholy in Old English Poetry and 1970s Polish Cinema: Transculturality in “The Ruin” (circa 8th-11th century) and “Elementarz” (1976)

The apparent opaqueness of medieval literature, particularly for the postmodern reader, is a necessary point of departure. It is then important to maintain an awareness of the different historical and cultural contexts that inform our reading, however removed we are from any given text. This implies an inherent alterity, as Hans Robert Jauss would assert in his seminal essay “The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature.” The act of contemporaneously perceiving a book and/or art object created in a distant past supposes that the sense of “pleasure is provided by the perception of difference” (189). Regarding a poem like the “The Ruin” (circa 8th-11th century), the challenge of its interpretation could be reconsidered a vibrant roadmap of possibilities. We may not be able to access things like original intent or reception. What we can do, though, is read it through what Jauss’ book Towards an Aesthetic of Reception would call our horizon of expectations:

The historicity of literature comes to light at the intersections of diachrony and synchrony. Thus it must be possible to make the literary horizon of a specific historical moment comprehensible as that synchronic system in relation to which literature that appears contemporaneously could be received diachronically in relations to noncontemporaneity [sic], and the work could be received as current or not, as modish, outdated, or perennial, or belated. (37)

In my case, the poem made me aware of the melancholic ramifications of “The Ruin” in relation to the Polish film Elementarz (1976). There’s a strange yet wholly appropriate kinship between the medieval poem and the 20th century film. This joint diachronic reading demands a multicultural approach that is unusual, but not fortuitous.

One the product of an anonymous poet, the other part of the brief oeuvre of auteur Wojiciech Wisniewski, the alterity of both “The Ruin” and Elementarz is actually very similar for a Puerto Rican interpreter such as myself. Writing in 2019 about Old English and contemporary Polish presupposes a necessary distance. I will never truly gauge the poem nor the film in their intended contexts. In fact, both are quite obscure (difficult even) in their aesthetic. The manuscript containing “The Ruin” was found severely damaged, even illegible in parts, which is why it’s presented as an incomplete poem and most recent transcriptions have elliptical lines after some of the verses. Emulating the implications of its message, those broken lines give us a visual representation of the poetic form as an ephemeral object. Elementarz, for its part, is hermetically oneiric in its commentary of the Communist Polish State. Curiously, although I’m further removed in time from the Middle Ages than the 1970s, my academic background has given me much more access to English antiquity than to the history of Poland. Yet the Anglo-Saxon period is still somewhat elusive, and I am certainly not an expert on either context. Nonetheless, these works speak for themselves; even in their opaqueness, and possibly because of it. The shared theme that I can surmise transcends the historicity of both the poem and the film, because the effects of melancholia are an ever-present effect of human experience.

Beyond the limits of the individual, a truly melancholic subjectivity can be understood as a paradox. It envelops the personal while it simultaneously defines a multiplicity. Medieval philosopher and doctor Hildegard von Bingen, as cited in the book The Nature of Melancholy from Aristotle to Kristeva, understands this aspect of melancholia when she says that it is a malady that maintains a person in a state of stasis. Hildegard thusly states the melancholic subject lives in eternal bondage “just as happens to a prisoner who is neither killed nor set free” (82), conclusion that points to an existentialist framework. Hildegard’s phrase reminds the contemporary reader of the metaphor used by Albert Camus in his seminal essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,”: that of the titular god’s unending struggle with a rolling stone. Always bringing up that stone to see it rapidly fall down, neither Sisyphus nor his moving object is permitted rest. Being an immortal, physical strain is not really a problem. Sisyphus’ true pain is his self-consciousness, his awareness of the futility of the task while also being unable to be freed from it; not unlike Hildegard’s prisoner. This realization makes him, I propose, not just an existential subject but a melancholic one. Noting the paradoxical nature of awareness is key in this regard. Existentialist melancholia infuses us with a knowledge that is vast enough to show the need for change while, at the same time, is unable to reveal the steps which will achieve it.

Giorgio Agamben, with his study Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture, also points to this ambiguity when he recognizes that “melancholia offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object” (20). Following Freud’s theory, Agamben suggests that the preconceived notion of a lost object is the driving force of melancholy, the idea that one is at the same time close enough and too far from a necessary lifeforce. We can see and/or sense it, though we could never really grasp it. In “The Ruin” and Elementarz this sentiment is seen as a singularized plurality that finds identification through spatiality. Transcending the physical binding of the human body per se, we can elaborate an interpretation of shared space (i.e. community) as shared consciousness. Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, expresses it very concisely by denominating it as an intimate immensity: “It would seem, then, that it is through their ‘immensity’ that these two kinds of spaces –the space of intimacy and world immensities– blend. When human solitude deepens, then the two immensities touch and become identical” (219). Melancholia stems from the individual’s conception of itself and its environment; one invariably affects the other.

Going directly to my chosen texts, we can establish that the melancholic projection evoked by “The Ruin” is bound to a spatial cognition of the past. The omniscient narrator tells of a perished city whose ruins suggest a forgotten grandeur: “Bright were the city buildings, the bathing halls many, / the abundance of high gables, the noise great–as of an army, / many a mead hall full with the revelry of men / until the mighty fate changed that” (21-24)

N. Kershaw, who edited and commented “The Ruin” in Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems, astutely observes that the poet is not providing some sterile historical recollection because the ultimate aim is “to leave on the mind of the reader a contrast between the present condition of the place and its former splendour [sic] as seen through Saxon eyes” (51). The present of the poet, whoever he or she was, is what precisely colors the poem. We may not know the name of either the author or the narrator. Yet, our reading is emboldened by the subtle suggestion of an individual who projects itself in the palpable absence emanating from the object. The ruins in themselves are not as important as the gaze which contemplates them.

Focusing on the past to implicitly comment on the present, the medieval poetic voice longs for the absent object which serves as a metaphor for the classical period. In the essay “The Tower of Babel: The Wanderer and the Ruins of History”, Roy Luizza argues that “The Ruin”’s parallel timelines evoke a “nostalgia for a past that is unbroken, inhabitable, articulate, and contiguous as well as a reminder of the speaker’s own present state of brokenness, isolation, fallenness, and silence” (16). The anonymous aspect of the poem leads us to surmise that this nostalgia is metonymic of the Anglo-Saxon identity as a whole. Renée R. Trilling elaborates on this point in “Ruins in the Realm of Thoughts: Reading as Constellation in Anglo-Saxon Poetry” by stating that “in a context where relics of the past were literally a part of the landscape, it is hardly surprising to discover a profound interest in the past in the Anglo-Saxons’ textual legacy” (159).

The poem, it should be said, was found half burned. A textual legacy that serves as a ruin of itself, which is why lost lines are transcribed in modern translations with ellipsis. The space and positioning of the verses, as it is presented to the contemporary reader, accentuates the content of the poem. The last three lines of “The Ruin” presents this poetic function as a spatial projection of the elliptical self and its multiplicity: “Where the baths were / ………………a noble thing. / This house………..this city” (45-47).

The ellipsis are themselves a ruin, though its function in the final line is paradoxically not tied to a sense of loss but to a bonding. “This house” is here understood as an equivalent to “this city,” bridging the individual and the communal. In Blanchard’s The Poetics of Space, the term house is always simultaneously referring to a physical place and an eidetic conception. It is an object that defies easy description, especially when thought of in the context of a poem or a daydream: “For the real houses of memory, the houses to which we return in dreams, the houses that are rich in unalterable oneirism [sic], do not readily lend themselves to description. . . We can perhaps tell everything about the present, but about the past!” (34). “The Ruin” can thusly be construed as an incomplete home, an unrealizable shelter. The Anglo-Saxon’s overreliance on the past, their idealization of it, reveals their uneasiness with the present.

More explicitly, yet possibly just as woefully melancholic, the multiplicity of the self is given a decidedly ludic tone in the Polish film. Authorial intent is, thusly, contingent to any serious analysis of Wojciech Wiszniewski’s work. From an interview done in 1978, according to the DVD booklet of his collected works, the auteur defines his approach:

The reality which surrounds us is anchored in the past. I, for example, being a part of the process, am continuously growing out of the past. In my films, I try to make the viewer aware of this continuity. . . I try to construct each piece so that the viewer can choose the tonality to suit his temperament, mood and experience. Because it is only time that can tell the truly tragic from the comical. (NP)

Wisznewski’s ironic manner of relating the past and the present results in a reconfiguration of sorrow. In the medieval poem we saw how the Anglo-Saxon’s sense of loss, as projected through his ruminations of the classical ruins, forms a state of unbalancing with the present. There the poet is estranged from his actual living context. That is also the case in the Polish movie, though this time the filmic gaze is not concerned with contemplation for contemplation’s sake. Elementarz elaborates the old into a new perspective of the world. The postmodern lens of an artist such as Wisznewski transforms the process of alienation into the comical. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, as the popular saying goes, but melancholia remains either way. Elementarz’s comedy, which should be noted is more of a philosophical humor than a laugh out loud endeavor, never tries to invoke a forgetting or even a healing. More to the point, the sparse anti-narrative is mostly a collective recitation of the alphabet (its title is translated as “The Primer” or “ABC Book”), which is why assessing its tone supersedes any attempt to do a cold analysis of its content. That decision of metaphorically using the alphabet is certainly ridiculous, comically absurd even, yet it nonetheless harbors an foreboding uneasiness with the official ordering of the world. As Miroslaw Przylipiak writes in the aforementioned DVD booklet, this deceptively simple aesthetic choice is actually an act of rebellion:

It took a considerable bravery and imagination, or perhaps the bliss of ignorance as to the implications of one’s actions (common to great artists), to make a film in which for the most part people recite the alphabet. . . Tradition is dead, communication between people has become ossified in its banal formats; we all know the letters of the alphabet but cannot put them into the sentences which would express our true selves. (NP).

The recited alphabet is but a ruin of communication, phonetically extracting them from fully formed words. Little by little, though, phrases do appear in the movie. In fact, before the recitation begins we hear a chorus of children state: “The author of The Primer is [sic] passed away, yet his idea is still alive”. As these words are heard a solitary man, dressed in a suit adorned with letters, walks by an abandoned warehouse. Soon we are in a dark and drab office where men stamp some papers. One of them opens a book titled “Elementarz”, with a drawing of children in the cover, and the image rapidly takes us to the main conceit of the film. We arrive at a strange town, where the camera fluidly moves to show us brief snippets of daily life. It is during this sequence when we hear the alphabet. The “A”, to give the first example, is recited by an old woman who polishes a floor. The alphabet keeps building as we move around the city. In a well-choreographed single take, we see that the “B” is said by another woman joylessly having sex, the “C” is a man who contemplates a painting on a wall and the “D” comes from a woman giving food to the doves. The way the sound of the alphabet visually corresponds with the fluidity of the camera creates a phantasmagoric effect. Every voice is given an echo, projecting an ethereal feel to the proceedings. The faded colors of the cinematography, which correlate justly to the aural atmosphere, is also reminiscent of the phantasm. There are very striking images of people standing still while the camera explores the space; in between the recitations of the letters. The equivalency of the living human body with the statue is obvious, an ironic diffusion of meaning that functions as the filmic equivalent of a poetic verse. This was to me the most evident affinity between Elementarz and “The Ruin”. The consciously false stoicism of the bodies codifies the filmic image as a metaphor for the ruin and the ruined.

As he does in his other films, Wiszniewski is commenting on the then outdated and soul-crushing rigidity of the Communist Polish State. This is made clearer after the alphabet ends and a perverse call and response happens in the movie. We hear a chorus again, only it’s no longer voiced by children. Distorted voices ask simple yet charged questions that a single child answers. From here to the ending, the intergenerational melancholy of Elementarz takes shape. The first question is asked twice, “Who are you? Who are you?” and a child looking at the camera answers simply: “A little pole”. The oppressive nature of the State, which demands national identification from its citizens, is inculcated during childhood. The rest of the questions and answers continue the nationalistic bent. As the movie overall is only nine minutes long, we can cite the rest of the call and response in its totality:  Chorus: “What is your emblem?” / Child: “The White Eagle.” / Chorus: “Where do you live?” / Child: “Among my people.” / Chorus: “In what land? / Child: “The Polish land.” / Chorus: “Do you love it?” / Child: “I love it dearly.” Then the final question arrives, but this time there is no answer: “What do you believe in?”. What we do see are two children who look straight at the camera with a stoic gaze, reminding us of the living statues of the alphabet sequence. But after a few seconds they move, turning their faces away from the viewer. The camera stays put as both children walk into the distance.

Filming during his adulthood to comment on the perspective of children, Wiszniewski is suggesting a polemic that goes beyond historical political contexts. Yes, a contemporary viewer of the movie, especially those such as myself who have never even met a Polish person, must know that the movie was made during Communist rule in order to make some sense of its intention. But the implications of the message transcend national specificity. In one of the few analyses of Elementarz that can be read in English, a blog post titled “Good Formalism: Wojciech Wisniewski’s Documentaries”, Konstanty Kuzma eloquently explains the transculturality of the movie: “Though Wiszniewski tests the Poles’ national self-perception, the bigger message seems to be that ideologies can become (if they aren’t already) empty shells devoid of meaning” (NP). Polish individuality is, consequently, more than a national project. It is not for nothing the last question is the most ambiguous.

“What do you believe in?” could never be genuinely answered, just as the exact historical meaning of the forgotten city could never be reconstructed. Ambiguity reigns in Elementarz and in “The Ruin”. Melancholia and existentialism arise from all these transculturally diachronic ruins. The unanswered quality of the past and/or of tradition, sustains the eternal longing for the absent object of existence.

Press image to see the film- Elementarz (1976)


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