In “Without dogma”
we have a remarkable work, by a writer known only
in this country through his historical novels; and
a few words concerning this novel and its author may
not be without interest.
Readers of Henryk Sienkiewicz in America,
who have known him only through Mr. Curtin’s
fine, strong translations, will be surprised to meet
with a production so unlike “Fire and Sword,”
and “The Deluge,” that on first reading
one can scarcely believe it to be from the pen of
the great novelist.
“Fire and Sword,” “The
Deluge,” and “Pan Michael” (now in
press) form, so to speak, a Polish trilogy. They
are, first and last, Polish in sentiment, nationality,
and patriotism. What Wagner did for Germany in
music, what Dumas did for France, and Scott for all
English-speaking people, the great Pole has achieved
for his own country in literature. Even to those
most unfamiliar with her history, it grows life-like
and real as it speaks to us from the pages of these
historical romances. Only a very great genius
can unearth the dusty chronicles of past centuries,
and make its men and women live and breathe, and speak
to us. These historical characters are not mere
shadows, puppets, or nullities, but very real men
and women, our own flesh and blood.
His warriors fight, love, hate; they
embrace each other; they laugh; they weep in each
other’s arms; give each other sage counsels,
with a truly Homeric simplicity. They are deep-versed
in stratagems of love and war, these Poles of the
seventeenth century! They have their Nestor,
their Agamemnon, their great Achilles sulking in his
tent. Oddly enough, at times they grow very familiar
to us, and in spite of their Polish titles and faces,
and a certain tenderness of nature that is almost
feminine, they seem to have good, stout, Saxon stuff
in them. Especially where the illustrious knights
recount their heroic deeds there is a Falstaffian
strut in their performance, and there runs riot a
Falstaffian imagination truly sublime.
Yet, be it observed, however much
in all this is suggestive of the literature of other
races and ages, these characters never cease for a
moment to be Poles. Here is a vast, moving panorama
spread before us; across it pass mighty armies; hetman
and banneret go by; the scene is full of stir, life,
action. It is constantly changing, so that at
times we are almost bewildered, attempting to follow
the quick succession of events. We are transported
in a moment from the din and uproar of a beleaguered
town to the awful solitude of the vast steppes, yet
it is always the Polish Commonwealth that the novelist
paints for us, and beneath every other music rises
the wild Slavic music, rude, rhythmical, and sad.
There is, too, a background against
which these pictures paint themselves, and it reminds
us not a little of Verestchagin, the same
deep feeling for nature, and a certain sadness that
seems inseparable from the Russian and Lithuanian
temperaments, tears following closely upon mirth.
At times, after incident upon incident of war, the
reader is tempted to exclaim, “Something too
much of this!” Yet nowhere, perhaps, except
from the great canvases of Verestchagin, has there
ever come a more awful, powerful plea for peace than
from the pages of “Fire and Sword.”
In “Without Dogma” is
presented quite another theme, treated in a fashion
strikingly different. In the historical novels
the stage is crowded with personages. In “Without
Dogma,” the chief interest centres in a single
character. This is not a battle between contending
armies, but the greater conflict that goes on in silence, the
battle of a man for his own soul.
He can scarcely be considered an heroic
character; he is to some extent the creature of circumstances,
the fine product of a highly complex culture and civilization.
He regards himself as a nineteenth-century Hamlet,
and for him not merely the times, but his race and
all mankind, are out of joint. He is not especially
Polish save by birth; he is as little at home in Paris
or at Rome as in Warsaw. Set him down in any
quarter of the globe and he would be equally out of
place. He folds the mantle of his pessimism about
him. Life has interested him purely as a spectacle,
in which he plays no part save a purely passive one.
His relation to life is that of the Greek chorus,
passing across the stage, crying “Woe, woe!”
Life has interested, entertained,
and sometimes wearied him. He muses, philosophizes,
utters the most profound observations upon life, art,
and the mystery of things. He puts mankind and
himself upon the dissecting-table.
Here is a nature so sensitive that
it photographs every impression, an artistic temperament,
a highly endowed organism; yet it produces nothing.
The secret of this unproductiveness lies perhaps in
a certain tendency to analyze and philosophize away
every strong emotion that should lead to action.
Here is a man in possession of two distinct selves, the
one emotional, active; the other eternally occupied
in self-contemplation, judgment, and criticism.
The one paralyzes the other. He defines himself
as “a genius without a portfolio,” just
as there are certain ministers-of-state without portfolios.
In such a character many of us will
find just enough of ourselves to make its weaknesses
distasteful to us. We resent, just because we
recognize the truth of the picture. Leon Ploszowski
belongs unmistakably to our own times. His doubts
and his dilettanteism are our own. His fine aesthetic
sense, his pessimism, his self-probings, his weariness,
his overstrung nerves, his whole philosophy of negation, these
are qualities belonging to this century, the outcome
of our own age and culture.
If this were all the book offers us
one might well wonder why it was written. But
its real interest centres in the moment when the cultivated
pessimist “without dogma” discovers that
the strongest and most genuine emotion of his life
is its love for another man’s wife. It
is an old theme; certainly two thirds of our modern
French novels deal with it; we know exactly how the
conventional, respectable British novel would handle
it. But here is a treatment, bold, original,
and unconventional. The character of the woman
stands out in splendid contrast to the man’s.
Its simplicity, strength, truth, and faith are the
antidote for his doubt and weakness. Her very
weakness becomes her strength. Her dogmatism
The background of the book, its lesser
incidents, are thoroughly artistic, its ending masterly
in its brevity and pathos; here again is the distinguishing
mark of genius, the power of condensation. The
man who has philosophized and speculated now writes
the tragedy of his life in four words: “Aniela
died this morning.” This is the culmination
towards which his whole life has been moving; the rest
is foregone conclusion, and matters but little.
One sees throughout the book the strong
influence that other minds, Shakespeare notably, have
produced upon this mind; here its attitude is never
merely pessimistic. It does not criticise them,
it has absorbed them.
One last word concerning this novel.
It does not seek to formulate, or to preach directly.
Its chief value and the keynote to its motive lie
in the words that Sienkiewicz at the beginning puts
into the mouth of his hero:
“A man who leaves memoirs, whether
well or badly written, provided they be sincere, renders
a service to future psychologists and writers, giving
them not only a faithful picture, but likewise human
documents that may be relied upon.”
A human document the
modern novel is this, when it is anything at all.
If Mr. Crawford’s canons of literary art are
true, and we believe they are, they give us a standard
by which to judge; he tells us that the heart in each
man and woman means the whole body of innate and inherited
instincts, impulses, and beliefs, which, when quiescent,
we call Self, when roused to emotional activity, we
call Heart. It is to this self, or heart, he
observes, that whatever is permanent in the novel
must appeal; and whatever does so must live and find
a hearing with humanity “so long as humanity
is human.” If this be a test, we cannot
doubt as to what will be the reception of “Without
A few words concerning the novelist
himself. The facts obtainable are of the most
meagre kind. He was born in 1845, in Lithuania.
The country itself, its natural and strongly religious
and political influences, its melancholy, seem to
have left their strong, lasting impression upon him.
He has a passionate fondness for the Lithuanian, and
paints him and his surroundings most lovingly.
His student days were spent at Warsaw.
He devoted himself afterward to literature, writing
at first under a pseudonym. He does not seem to
have won immediate recognition. He spent some
years in California; a series of articles published
in this connection in a Polish paper brought him into
In 1880, various novelettes and sketches
of his production were published in three volumes.
In 1884 were given to the Polish public
the three historical novels which immediately gave
their author the foremost place in Polish literature.
It is a matter of pride that the first translation
of these great works into English is the work of an
American, and offered to the American public.
He is a prolific writer, and it would
be impossible to attempt to give even the names of
all his minor sketches and romances. Some of them
have been translated into German, but much has been
lost in the translation.
Sienkiewicz is still a contributor
to journalistic literature. He has travelled
much, and is a citizen of the world. He is equally
at home in the Orient or the West, by the banks of
the Dnieper, or beside the Nile. Probably there
is scarcely a corner of Poland that he has not explored.
He depicts no type of life that has not actually come
under his own observation. The various social
strata of his own country, the condition of its peasantry,
the marked contrast between the simplicity of that
life and the culture of the ecclesiastic and aristocratic
bodies, the religious, poetic, artistic temperament
of the people, all these he paints in a
life-like fashion, but always as an artist.
So much of the writer. Of the
man Sienkiewicz there is little to be obtained.
Like all great creative geniuses, he is so completely
identified with his work that even while his personality
lives in his creations it eludes them. He offers
us no confidences concerning himself, no opinions
or prejudices. He does not divert the reader with
personalities. He sets before us certain groups
of men and women, whom certainly he knows and loves,
and has lived among. He sets them in motion;
they become living, breathing creations; they assume
relations in time and space; they speak and act for
themselves. If there be a prompter he remains
always behind the scenes. Admire or criticise
or love the actors as you will, you cannot for a moment
doubt that they are alive.
This is the supreme miracle of genius, the
fine union of dramatic instinct, the aesthetic sense,
and an intense, vital realism; not the realism of
the cesspool or the morgue, but the realism of the
earth and sky, and of healthy human nature. We
are inclined to believe that Henryk Sienkiewicz has
answered an often discussed question that has much
exercised the keenly critical intellect of this age.
One school of thought cries out, “Let us have
life as it is. Paint anything, but draw it as
it is. Let the final test of all literary works
be, ’Is it real and true?’”
To the romantic school quite another
class of ideas appeals; to it much of the so-called
realistic literature seems very bad, or merely “weary,
stale, flat, and unprofitable.” The profoundest
utterances of realism do not impress it much in themselves.
It insists that art has something to say to literature,
that in this field as elsewhere holds good the law
of natural selection of types and survival of the
While each school has its down-sittings
and up-risings, its supporters and its critics, neither
school has yet exhausted the possibilities of literature.
The novel’s aim is to depict Life, and life is
neither all romance nor all realism, but a curious
mixture of both. Man is neither a beast nor a
celestial being, but a compound. Though he can
crawl, and may have clinging to him certain brute
instincts that may be the relics of his anthropoidal
days, he has also, thank God, divine desires and discontents,
and certain rudimentary wings. And neither school
alone is competent to paint him as he is. The
author of “La Bête Humaine”
fails as completely as the visionary A Kempis.
Neither realism nor romance alone will ever with its
small plummet sound to its depths the human heart
or its mystery; yet from the union of the two much
perhaps might come.
We believe that just here lies the
value of the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz. He
has worked out the problem of the modern novel so as
to satisfy the most ardent realist, but he has worked
it out upon great and broadly human lines. For
him facts are facts indeed; but facts have souls as
well as bodies. His genius is analytic, but also
imaginative and constructive; it is not forever going
upon botanizing excursions. He paints things
and thoughts human.
The greatest genius assimilates unconsciously
the best with which it comes in contact, and by a
subtle chemistry of its own makes new combinations.
Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and the realists, as well
as all the forces of nature, have helped to make Henryk
Sienkiewicz; yet he is not any one of them. He
is never merely imitative. Originality and imaginative
fire, a style vivid and strong, large humor, a profound
pathos, a strong feeling for nature, and a deep reverence
for the forms and the spirit of religion, the breath
of the true cosmopolitan united with the intense patriotism
of the Pole, a great creative genius, these
are the most striking qualities of the work of this
modern novelist, who has married Romance to Realism.