Ethical Action in Extremis: Dostoevskij - Borowski - Herling-Grudzinski

Dariusz Tolczyk, University of Virginia

Many literary testimonies to the horrors of twentieth-century concentration camps observe that traditional literary conventions defining the human agent as acharacter motivated first and foremost by moral choices are inadequate to the most extreme forms of human experience revealed in the camps. The Polish critic Andrzej Wirth, in his 1962 essay on Tadeusz Borowski's Auschwitz stories, introduced the notion of the "new tragedy" in regard to the most extreme experiences of the concentration and death camps. The "new tragedy," Wirth wrote, "has nothing in common with the classical notion [of the tragic] as a choice between two systems of values. ... The essence of the new tragedy is not the choice but the situation which makes one incapable of choosing." Tadeusz Borowski's radical dissociation of the Auschwitz theme from traditional martyrological, heroic, and tragic conventions led many of his readers to view his Auschwitz stories as a moral provocation similar to that of C»line in The Journey to the End of the Night (Borowski's recently published correspondence reveals that he followed C»line's model). One of those readers was Gustaw Herling-Grudzin•ski. In his literary memoir of the Gulag, A World Apart, Herling-Grudzin•ski engaged in a philosophical polemic with Borowski. While agreeing with Borowski that the horrors of the camps, both Nazi and Soviet, revealed that "there is nothing...man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain," Herling- Grudzinski focuses on the complex, often paradoxical, relationship between prisoners' discovery of their moral vulnerability in the camp and their will to behave as if this vulnerability did not exist, against evidence to the contrary. Exploring gaps between the empirical evidence of choicelessness and the will to act as if there were a moral choice, Herling- Grudzin•ski links prisoners' moral survival with their playing the roles of free individuals (martyrs and heroes) to the point of willfully contradicting their survival instinct.

In this, he draws on Dostoevskij's arguments against moral determinism and the rationalistic concept of truth in The House of the Dead and Notes from Underground (the famous description of man buried alive and struggling against all reasonable odds; discussions of prisoners' irrational self-destructiveness; etc.). In his polemic against what he identifies as nihilistic tendencies in Borowski's Auschwitz stories (a term usually dismissed by most influential Polish critics of Borowski which should, however, be rethought in the context of Nietzsche's 1887 notes on nihilism), Herling-Grudzinski finds a moral alternative to nihilism in his application of Dostoevskij's moral philosophy to the twentieth-century experience of humanity in extremis.