Monday, June 9, 2014

Chapter 2 - Young Alfred: Part 1 - Introduction

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

School was done. Vacation time had come. Fourteen year old Alfred Korzybski took the train from Warsaw. He was traveling from his family’s home there to spend the summer at Rudnik, their country estate located in the gubernia (government district) of Piotrkow about 100 miles to the southwest. The rail line ran south from Warsaw—the main city of the Russian Empire’s Vistula land, formerly known as Poland—through Mazovia toward the homeland of the ancient Polish Kings. After a while, one line split off west to the city of Lodz which at the end of the 19th Century had become a major textile manufacturing center. Alfred’s train would continue further to his stop at the village of Bedkow. A horse and cart would come to take him to Rudnik.

Looking out at the landscape from the train window, Alfred would have seen plains and rolling hills abundant with “wide expanses of heath and scrubland.”(1) Alfred felt deeply connected to this poor land and to his beloved Poland, even if no one could find "Poland" on any current map. In 1894 (the year of this journey), the Republic of Poland had not existed for nearly 100 years. Alfred had studied the history thoroughly—though not at school.

In 1795, the autocratic empires surrounding Poland—Austria, Prussian Germany and Tsarist Russia—completed the partition process by which they had begun gobbling up the country twenty-two years before. These imperial powers “solemnly swore to banish the very name of ‘Poland’ from the record.”(2) The rest of the ‘civilized’ world looked on but provided no rescue. For them Poland had seemed, as Edmund Burke ruefully noted, as if it was “situated on the Moon.”(3) The Poles, with nearly 1000 years of national life behind them, were squeezed in a vise of political and cultural oppression. The armies of Napoleon, various shifts in jurisdiction, and a few periods of reform by the imperial powers occasionally raised the hopes of those who sought to keep their culture alive and to raise a new Polish state. To no avail. Over the years the vise had tightened. There had been uprisings—one in 1832 and one in 1863—centered in the Russian section. These had resulted in further repression. While Austria allowed a measure of freedom for its Poles to express themselves as Poles, the situation had definitely worsened in the German and Russian parts. In 1874, five years before Alfred's birth, the Tsarist Empire had fully incorporated its share of Poland—where Warsaw, Lodz, and Rudnik were located—into the Russian fatherland. As far as it was concerned, young Alfred, a descendent of the old szlachta (Polish nobility) (4), was simply a Russian citizen, a subject of the Tsar.

As part of this incorporation, "russification"—the plan to suppress Polish culture—had taken off with a vengeance. Tsarist authorities designated Polish a ‘foreign language’ with the use of Russian obligatory in the courts and schools. Polish literature and history were banned from publication in Poland. Only some leeway was given in labeling street signs, where Polish (written in Latin script) was allowed to accompany the Russian Cyrillic names.(5) At schools such as the realschule in Warsaw that Alfred attended for something like eight years, Polish students received their lessons—even Polish language instruction—in Russian. But at home, alone with his family, or when speaking with the servants or with the peasant workers at the farm, Alfred could use his native language.

With servants and peasants working for them, the Korzybskis, if not enormously wealthy, surely qualified as well-to-do. Despite the oppressive atmosphere of the Russian regime, the family had managed to retain both the emblems of status and the means for comfortable living. Unlike many of the pre-partition Polish szlachta, the noble status of Alfred’s family continued to be recognized. His ancestors were among the ancient Polish Counts (or landlords of counties) allowed to use a title in pre-partition Poland.(6) As to means, besides the perquisites of his father’s position in the Russian Ministry of Communication, the family owned property in Warsaw. And with their farm estate, they retained the tradition of the Polish landed nobility.

The run-down property at Rudnik had come from Alfred’s mother’s family, the Rzewuskis, who had used it (one of many estates they owned) to raise hunting dogs. (Alfred’s father had inherited another estate, as well as other properties in Warsaw, but had given them away to his brothers.) Without records—destroyed as the result of two World Wars—Korzybski later estimated Rudnik's size as somewhere between five to eight hundred acres, an average size estate for nobility with means. Its poorly-draining clay soil did not naturally suit Rudnik for agriculture. But lately, thanks to his father’s efforts to improve  the soil—a major avocation of considerable expense—Rudnik had become a model farm. 

Although this was school vacation, Alfred didn’t expect to idle. He would have time, no doubt, for recreation but he also had plenty of work to look forward to and also, no  doubt, what he ruefully referred to as “troubles”. As he later described himself, “I was a troubleshooter since [the age of] five. At home, servants, peasants, whenever we had troubles: [I heard] ‘Alfred, do it.’ And Alfred had to do the dirty work.”(7) It started as soon as he arrived home that day:
I came to the station and a man was with horses and cart…to take me home. The moment I arrived home here burst [in] a peasant, ‘Master, master, save my wife’. What happened?  She just had a child. And she had a hemorrhage. She’s bleeding white. I just came, a boy of fourteen—‘save her’. I knew nothing about that part of it, so I asked my mother, ‘What in hell can I do?’ To mama I didn’t say hell. I meant it probably, but I didn’t say it. What shall I do? And my mother gave me orders, put pillows under her fanny, and put cotton in her...And I remember my doing that, putting up her fanny up, and filling her with cotton. Of course, not knowing what I am doing. I did the best I could successfully. It stopped the hemorrhage somehow. Helping nature, but all the time, remember, what happens, they ran to the boss and my mother didn’t want to be with them that way, so I had to do it. (8)

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
1. Davies 1982, p. 28. 

2. Davies 2005, p. vi. 

3. Qtd. in Davies 1982, p. 524. 

4. Note on the Polish Nobility: Although the szlachta were disappearing as a class by the time of Korzybski’s birth, their culture had become inextricably linked with Polish national culture. The culture of the szlachta also left an enduring mark on Korzybski. Nobility-related norms had gradually filtered into all levels of Polish society to become the basis of what Szczepanski called “the traditional Polish personality ideal”. Among other things, this ideal consisted of “readiness for the defense of the Catholic faith, readiness for the defense of the fatherland, a highly developed sense of personal dignity and honor, and full-blown individualism, an imposing mien, chivalry, intellectual brilliance,  and dash.” [Szczepanski, p. 167] Brought up in the late 19th Century among what was left of the Polish aristocracy (and from one of its most ancient families), it is not surprising that Korzybski’s personal behavior as an adult reflected this ideal in action (although he had fairly early abandoned the Roman Catholic faith as a value worth defending). By the time he began his work in America, Korzybski had generalized the szlachta ethic: He had come to accept the potential ‘nobility’ of every human. And in tending to consider everyone as  his ‘noble’ equal and himself as theirs, he also tended to treat everyone (whatever his or her credentials, rank, or fame) with equal respect—and equal directness. This appears to have bothered some individuals who may have considered themselves deserving of special deference. 

5. This difference between the written forms of the two Slavic languages, Polish and Russian, points to a deep cultural divide between Poles and Russians that had begun almost 1000 years before. In the year 965, Mieszko I, recognized as the first Polish king, had converted from paganism to Roman Catholicism. This made Poland the easternmost bastion of the Catholic faith. A few decades later, Prince Vladimir of the Kievan Rus (forerunners of the Russians) converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Facing East, the Russians remained somewhat disconnected from the rest of Europe for much of their history. By contrast, Miezko’s conversion helped point Polish society toward the West. The Catholic Church brought its institutions (including its educational framework) to Poland. Polish scholars wrote in Latin and then chose Latin script for Polish writing rather than the Eastern Cyrillic alphabet. Facing West religiously  and linguistically left the Poles more open to the humanistic intellectual, and social movements that were taking shape there, i.e., the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, etc. It also allowed for Polish influence in the rest of Europe. 

6. Korzybski’s father’s family, the Korzybskis, belonged to the extensive Habdank Skarbek clan of nobles. Originally, they had been the Habdanks of Korzybie (located near Plock, about 60 miles west of Warsaw). [Korzybski 1947, p. 116] Korzybski related the legend of his first Habdank Skarbek ancestor who “…was elected as a special envoy to a German prince…to consider the question of war and peace.” 
…After all the possible arguments always with the stiff-necked Polish nobleman…that little prince took my ancestor to a cellar full of barrels of gold [treasure]...showed him the gold in the cellar and said, ‘We will beat you with gold’. And the ancestor took his golden ring of some sort from his finger, threw it in the barrel of gold...and said, 'We will beat you with iron, not gold'. The [polite] German prince said ‘Thank you’ in German…Habe Dank from which the name Habdank…And when he came back to Poland…and a war between Germany and Poland started…the Germans were beaten with iron. His generic name and crest became Habdank or Abdank. Because it had to deal with that famous gesture…it was connected with treasure. Skarbek in Polish means treasure… So Skarbek and Habdank became synonymous. Later on it [Habdank] became a crest for endless connected families… [Korzybski 1947, p. 9-10]
According to Korzybski, the W-shaped emblem, constituting the “core” of his heraldic crest, supposedly represented a "broken up, flattened" barrel [of treasure?]. [Korzybski 1947, p. 9]

7. Korzybski 1947, p. 385.

8. Korzybski 1947, pp. 386–7.

Part 2 >   

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