The Memoir of a 21st Century Anti-Hero

I’ve originally planned to publish an article on The Memoir of an Anti-Hero, a novel by Kornel Filipowicz, in December 2021, but kept postponing it for various reasons. It was supposed to be a theoretical reflection, sympathetic to the novel’s protagonist. But since February 24, 2022, I’ve been living amidst the full-scale war here in Ukraine, even though my region has been relatively unscathed so far (if you ignore nightly air raid sirens, daily funerals, and disrupted logistics). The wartime reality has proved to be able to change one’s perception and thoughts. Thus, instead of theoretical ruminations, I’ll try here to polemize with Filipowicz and with myself based on the field experience that still keeps unfolding with no end in sight. And you should not expect the final answer to the anti-hero dilemma.

The Memoir of an Anti-Hero, cover picture

Ironically, writing novels like The Memoir of an Anti-Hero (Pamiętnik antybohatera) (1961) and The Garden of Mr. Nietschke (Ogród pana Nietschke) (1965) in the post-WWII Eastern Bloc, where the spirit of victory reigned supreme and where the motifs of heroism and valor of the Red Army and the common people seemed to be the only acceptable ones when it came to the literature about the war and its aftermath, was quite a bold act.

In both cases the protagonist is a plainly anti-heroic character. Mr. Nietschke is a nice old man leading an idyllic existence in his garden whom the reader can relate to… until we learn he’s a war criminal and former concentration camp supervisor. The nameless protagonist of the former novel is someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, doesn’t want to fight or in any other way engage in the war, but instead tries to adapt, procures for himself Volksdeutsche papers, and works with Germans in an attempt to survive.

It is The Memoir of an Anti-Hero that we will focus upon here, or rather use as our starting point, but before we proceed, it should be noted that the author, Kornel Filipowicz (1913–1990), did fight in the war and spend some time in concentration camps, which is probably one of the reasons he was allowed to publish these not so patriotic books. His wartime experience reverberates through his numerous short stories, and these two novels are definitely not pure fantasy, too — it’s just that Filipowicz tries to show the war’s reverse, much less talked about side.

“My life and my health is the highest measure, and there can be no other. No one has the right to question it. I want to live, I want to live well and to be someone. I want to be sure that I won’t be persecuted, violated, and perceived as a creature of a lower race.”

This is how Filipowicz’s anti-hero sums up his position. Of course, that is quite relatable. Who doesn’t want to live well and be safe? Arguably, that was what most people who weren’t involved in fighting were doing during the Second World War: trying to adapt and to survive.

Kornel Filipowicz

Interestingly enough, Gallup International’s 2015 global survey showed that only 25% of respondents from Western Europe were willing to fight for their country. In Japan it’s only 11%; in the Netherlands, 15%; in Germany, 18%. Are the people in those countries the most cowardly or the most complacent, feeling the least danger and the least need to defend their land, or are they just the most honest? In Ukraine, the number was 62%. Today it is probably higher. However, answering polls is not the same as being confronted with the harsh reality.

Both proponents and detractors of anti-heroism and passive pacifism would refer to the survival instinct inherent in all living beings. The former would call it natural and justifiable; the latter, “all too human”. But we can unwind the “biological” argument in the Dawkinsian “selfish gene” direction and claim that, from nature’s perspective, the survival of a gene pool, an ethnic group or a nation is preferable to that of an individual. Taking it ad absurdum, the highest measure is the survival of a species or even life in general, so, as long as at least someone or something survives, a war isn’t a big deal, it may seem.

Then the existentialist argument chimes in (arguably the one that most resonates with our anti-hero). Isn’t a human being more than just an animal? Aren’t we able to realize our uniqueness, to claim our life and our freedom so that no one could decide for us whether we need to fight and possibly die for some “higher cause”?

An obvious controversy between individualism and collectivism arises here. Individualist position seems much more humanist and much less reductionist and mechanistic. But aren’t the Putins and Hitlers of our world, too, extreme individualists who don’t care about others? Then a caveat begs to be added: only liberal individualism is acceptable, the one where everyone respects rights and liberties of everyone else. On the political plane, this is expressed as anarcho-liberalism, anarcho-individualism or some sort of libertarianism. However, reality test shows that, as long as there are Putins, Hitlers, Kim Jong-uns and their sycophants, as long as there exist totalitarian, imperialist and nationalist ideologies, as long as there are those who have no respect for others’ rights and lives, these individualist models remain utopias, and the liberal world needs defense budgets and needs to support and protect those who are threatened by their “big brothers”.

Another anti-collectivist (and anti-war) argument is that a state or a nation is but an idea, and so it shouldn’t be put above one’s life. That is true, but does everyone go to war for ideas alone? In case of aggressors it’s mostly so, in addition to fear of punishment for refusal to fulfil orders. But not all wars are the same. Imagine you live in a totalitarian state which is being attacked by another totalitarian regime. Now imagine your totalitarian state is being attacked by a democratic state trying to overthrow your dictator. Or let’s say your state has been torn apart by its totalitarian neighbors and ceased to exist while those neighbors are now waging war against each other, like was the case with Poland during WWII. Finally, imagine your country has just started being more democratic and liberal, you’ve just felt a faint breath of freedom, and now a barbarous fascist neighbor tries to destroy it all, to take it away, like is the case now in Ukraine.

Would your reasoning in all of the above hypothetical cases be the same? I bet not. Would you so easily accept losing your freedom in the latter scenario? Would you say freedom is just an idea, too? Would you cite Viktor Frankl and say that your internal freedom is what really matters and that it can be preserved even in a concentration camp? Or would you try to do at least something, even if you’re an anti-hero, even if you’re not prepared to fight? After all, you can help with money, information, some routine work, by providing shelter, and so on.

Moreover, a lot has changed between WWII and now. A modern missile may hit you even if you’re far away from the frontline, not to mention it may carry a nuclear warhead. The breath of death today is more vibrant than ever.

Philosophizing is one thing; experiencing, completely another. War is modifying one’s perception and thinking every day, every moment. One missile or an artillery salvo may be enough to make a decision no one would have expected of you. You may be afraid, but this may be exactly the reason you make that decision. Like a character in Tomorrow There Will Be Another Day (Jutro także będzie dzień), a short story by Filipowicz, said, “I had been going there in order to be afraid.”

There’s no need to imitate pretentious pundits like Hegel or Marx and to try to look for an arbitrary synthesis for our theses and antitheses regarding anti-heroism. Dialectical logic is a bluff in itself, and even if it weren’t, as I said in a previous article, “normal logic doesn’t work in the face of death”.

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