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‘The Nonsense of Witnessing Such Beauty’: Malinowski’s Tryst with Sri Lanka

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‘The Nonsense of Witnessing Such Beauty’: Malinowski’s Tryst with Sri Lanka

The great ethnographer’s little-known adventures on the way to the Pacific.

‘The Nonsense of Witnessing Such Beauty’: Malinowski’s Tryst with Sri Lanka
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Bernard Gagnon

A suicide just before the journey, a near-suicide on the way, a quarrel about politics, a friendship broken and an arrest on the way back – all of this happened to Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Bronislaw Malinowski’s fellow traveler to Australia and Oceania.

As one of the founding fathers of modern ethnography, Bronislaw Malinowski, a Polish academic, hardly needs an introduction. Neither does his first major work, the Argonauts of the Western Pacific, published in 1922 as a result of his field research in Mailu Island and Triobriand Islands in 1914-1920. Nonetheless, Malinowski’s journey from Europe to Australia and Oceania is as little-known as it is amusing.

A large part of the adventure was provided not by the countries visited on the way but by Malinowski’s co-traveler. Originally Malinowski had chosen one of his Polish friends as his photographer for field work purposes but the person never made it to the Pacific islands. His name was Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (pron. Vitkyevich), better known to Polish audiences as “Witkacy.”

A maverick and an eccentric, Witkacy was a man of difficult character and many talents; he was accomplished in the areas of playwriting and painting but he had also dabbled in photography and philosophy. Witkacy’s companionship to Malinowski during the field research would have provided the ethnographer with more wonderful photographs and stimulating intellectual exchanges, but the reason for which Malinowski had asked Witkacy to travel with him was different – and much more personal. In February 1914, not long before Malinowski’s journey, Witkacy’s fiance, Jadwiga Janczewska, committed suicide just before their planned wedding. The devastated artist had been blaming himself for the tragedy and Malinowski reportedly asked Witkacy to accompany him primarily to keep Witkacy’s mind away from that personal tragedy. That scheme, however, backfired.

The two friends met in London and from there embarked on a ship headed for Australia, with a team of other researchers. After a brief visit in Egypt, they proceeded to South Asia. The only longer break in the journey was in Sri Lanka (then called “Ceylon” by the British). The travelers stopped for two weeks to acclimate to the tropical climate and for some sightseeing. The two visited Colombo and Candy and a few smaller places such as Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Maradankadawala and Kerikawa. The old Buddhist ruins at Anuradhapura emerged as one of the highlights of their sightseeing and deeply impressed the two Polish tourists.

Malinowski delved into Sri Lankan culture with his academic zeal and Witkacy inhaled its landscape with his artist’s sensitivity. The colorful images of Sri Lanka left an imprint on Witkacy’s imagination as a painter, a fact which is visible in his later paintings. But this mind-boggling diversity was also greatly troubling him. “That surplus of life, that wildness of forms and colors leaves a depressing feeling. There is a wild nonsense about this, an excess, a superfluity, a profligacy, a troubling strength and passion bordering on insanity,” he wrote about his impressions of Sri Lanka when describing the journey in one of the Polish journals.

The artist’s opinion would have been probably more benign if not for Witkacy’s personal tragedy. Malinowski’s plan did not work: instead of thinking less about his lost beloved, Witkacy was wishing she had been with him (though we do not know how he would have felt if he had not joined the journey at all). In one of the letters from this journey to his father, dated June 29, 1914, Witkacy wrote bitterly that: “All of this causes the worst suffering, a pain beyond enduring, because she is not here. All is left is the deepest grief and the nonsense of witnessing such beauty. She is not seeing this and I am not an artist.”

On July 2, 1914 Witkacy’s troubled soul had reached its breaking point. Away from the world in a hotel in remote Anuradhapura, the artist decided to commit suicide. Before putting a Browning pistol to his head, however, he wrote a letter to the Ceylon authorities, so that Malinowski would not face any trouble after his suicide. “After having lost my bride who has suicided herself, I would befor[e] 4 months kill myself,” he wrote in the opening sentence. “[Malinowski] was so kind that he has lent me £50 to the sum, I have had, and has taken me in a very bad psychical state with him and on account of it has had many troubles. He was so good as a best brother. And I am very sorry that I must do him than unjustice and leave him” explained Witkacy in the later section of the letter.

The document ended with a request to the local authorities: “I am writing it in scope that my dearest Friend Dr Malinowski has no troubles on account of my death to make him avoid any formalities and inquiry, that can make him too late for his ship. That is my last will that he does not be disturbed on account of me in his journey because he must be in Australia for the Congress of British Association.” The final words of the main text of the letter were “Excuse me my horrible English.”

As he reported to his mother, Witkacy spent the entire night with a pistol against his temple but eventually decided not to abandon the world. The two Polish friends continued their journey and left Sri Lanka for Australia. It would seem that the worst was behind them. Yet, they were reached by news of the outbreak of the First World War and that caused a political divide between them.

Malinowski and Witkacy were both Polish, but citizens of two different countries. As Poland was not an independent state at that time, Malinowski happened to be a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy while Witkacy was a citizen of Russia. The two Poles, just like the rest of the nation of that time, had to decide where their loyalties laid and what was the best way to fight for independence. Witkacy was of the opinion that the Polish people should support Russia against Germany and Austro-Hungary. Malinowski did not agree and, at any rate, did not want to abandon his research just before its commencement.

The two friends had had disagreements before, but this quarrel about politics and patriotism proved to be the final straw. Furious Witkacy parted ways with Malinowski in Australia and embarked on a return journey, planning to join the Russian army. Although they did exchange some letters afterwards, that event proved to be the end of their friendship. “Nietzsche breaks up with Wagner. I accept his art unconditionally, I admire his intelligence and adore his individuality but I hate his character,” wrote Malinowski about their parting. In this comparison, Nietzsche would be Witkacy and Wagner would stand for Malinowski.

Malinowski proceeded to the Pacific islands for his research, while Witkacy never got to see Oceania. On his lonely way back, the artist spent a few hours in Bombay (now Mumbai). He later called it “a wonderful city” in a letter to Malinowski.

The Sri Lankan impressions echoed not only his later plays and paintings but also one novel: Pożegnanie jesieni (A Farewell to Autumn). A part of the book is clearly modeled on travel experiences shared with Malinowski, as a section of the novel describes the journey of a Polish couple to India and Sri Lanka. In the book, however, Witkacy’s literary avatar is not accompanied in India by a Malinowski-like character, but by his lover. The journey, however, ends in an equally sorrowful and dramatic parting as the one that took place in real life. Moreover, the Indian landscapes, as portrayed in the novel, are clearly modeled on Sri Lanka. “I do not know India, save for a few hours spent in Bombay,” admitted Witkacy in the introduction to the novel. “I do not know why I have shifted certain events [of the novel] to India, basing on the things I have seen on Ceylon.” It is also interesting to note that many decades later a couple of Polish travelbloggers, Anna Górnicka and Jakub Górnicki, decided to retrace Witkacy’s and Malinowski’s journey, meticulously documenting the places visited in Sri Lanka. (If you happen to know Polish, you can read that part of the blog here.)

Two world wars tragically influenced the lives of both Witkacy and Malinowski, as they did influence the lives of most of the Poles. The breakout of the First World War not only caused their friendship to brake but also nearly hindered Malinowski’s research since, as Malinowski was an Austro-Hungarian citizen, the Australian government could have stopped him from proceeding to the isles (fortunately, it didn’t). Witkacy, in turn, eventually reached Russia to join its army, as he had planned. On the way, however, he was briefly detained by the British in Egypt, who took him for a German professor. Moreover, his time in the Russian army shocked him not only because of the war itself but because he witnessed the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution. After the war the artist stayed in independent Poland and feared the looming Russian Communist menace.

Malinowski spent most of the time between the wars in Italy and the United Kingdom, and later moved on to an academic life in the United States. When the Second World War began, Witkacy was in Poland and Malinowski in the United States. Upon hearing that the Soviet army attacked Poland soon after the invasion of the German Nazi forces, Witkacy did what he hesitated to do in Sri Lanka – he committed suicide. Malinowski, his old friend, outlived him only by 3 years, dying of a heart attack in New Haven, Connecticut in 1942.