In this excerpt, Marek writes about his father, the science-fiction author Jerzy Zulawski, after watching one of the most famous televised moments of the 20th century: the first man on the moon (it was Neil Armstrong, fact fans). I’ve done a partial translation of On The Silver Globe but Jerzy’s books have never been published in English.
What English readers can see though is the anarchic film adaptation that Andrzej Zulawski directed based on the first two parts. It’s one of the most ‘out there’ films you might see and has a fascinating story behind it too. – AZ.
Today, the 21st of July 1969, man has put his foot on the Moon for the first time. Black and white forms loomed on the television while a foot inside the large casing of a boot hesitated a long time before finally lowering itself from the rungs of a ladder onto a surface of unknown consistency.
The movements of the astronauts were amusing, behaving as if they were snorkelling on the bottom of the sea – an absurd form of walking-jumping. And then came the horribly long unfurling of an American flag.
Against a black sky which hung above them past the near horizon, appeared the anti-aerodynamic form of the machine in which they arrived and which would take them back to the awaiting mother-rocket. There then followed a new miracle of calculation which without computers would’ve taken decades – the miracle of firing themselves out of the Moon’s orbit at the right second to enter the orbit of Earth, and land upon her at a precisely specified time and place.
“The unheard of, incredible inventions and discoveries of the passing century present us with a problem, which with pride, but simultaneously fear, man must overcome. We are sprinting forward at such a swift pace that we have already lost any measure of the speed of this progress: nothing seems incredible to us anymore, nothing impossible. […] It is unclear where we are headed, but it is certainly very high – well past the limit of human possibilities, if such a thing even exists at all. But after several centuries, who will be capable of mentally comprehending the entirety of knowledge acquired by the human mind? Will this growing spiritual force eventually reach a critical point in some catastrophic manner? […]”
This is what my father Jerzy Zulawski wrote in “The Old Earth” at the beginning of the 20th century, accurately capturing the situation in which we now live. While we’re evaluating technological developments, it’s worth remembering that the books of The Lunar Trilogy (‘On the Silver Globe’, ‘The Conqueror’ and ‘The Old Earth’) were written during a period of universal optimism, in an epoch of maximum faith in progress with a capital P.
Meanwhile the entire trilogy is shrouded in existential pessimism. My father was not only a writer with an unusually precise imagination, but also a philosopher with an exceptional mind. Thanks to the power of his intellect, he could accurately deduce from the knowledge at the time the future developments that are now conditions of today’s reality.
But Jerzy Zulawski’s trilogy is not science fiction. It’s something much more – it’s an attempt to historiosophically look at the fate of civilisation. A new humankind arises on the Moon, only to repeat all the mistakes and madness committed by man on his native planet.
My father was very well acquainted with the state of astronomy at the time, but for his literary goals he accepted the hypothesis that on the other, then unknown, side of the Moon there was air capable of sustaining life – that only the “Great Desert”, namely the side constantly facing the Earth, had been left deprived of atmosphere due to the planet’s gravity. In this way, my father could elaborate his views on the history of civilisation, which on the Moon begins, as it were, from the beginning.
Unable to return to Earth, the only surviving member of an expedition team, the descendents of which populate the Moon, is treated by these stunted lunar inhabitants as an immortal being – a god who arrived from the holy star that shines above the Great Desert and to which he will return some day. But when a certain amount of injustices and wrongs are committed, this Old Man will gloriously return as a young saviour to free the people from their yoke, splendidly characterised by the native lunar firstborn: the Szerns. And thus, the religion of the Anticipation of the Conqueror is established on the Moon. Several years after the pioneering expedition of martyrs, there appears another expedition and the newly-arrived Earthling is accepted as a god who has returned to fulfil the prophecy in the holy books of the lunar people.
Together, the story of his victory over the Szerns, his tragic struggle with human anger and stupidity, his downfall and martyr-like death, all make up the fascinating subject matter of ‘The Conqueror’, the second part of the trilogy. The book ends with three different versions of these events written down – one by his students, another by his opponents, and finally one by an allegedly objective lunar historian. All of these versions, each in their own way, are false, throwing a painful light on the worth of humanity’s historical documents and the rise of eschatological myths.
But the trilogy doesn’t end there. Two learned lunar people, aligned with an uncompromising enemy of the Conqueror, don’t believe in his Earthly origins and take control of his space rocket. Despite their terror, they land on the Earth, which in their view – as irrefutably proven on the Moon – is an uninhabited planet, unsuitable for sustaining intelligent organic life.
This part of the trilogy, ‘The Old Earth’, is full of amazingly accurate predictions for the future. It’s hard to really believe that it was written a long time before decisive discoveries in the field of physics – many years before the invention of the atomic bomb. My father speaks in this book of the enjoyment of scholarly inventions which, I quote, “smash that cluster of power which we call matter”. With the help of this invention, the protagonist of ‘The Old Earth’ can “split the atom into its component pieces causing an explosion capable of destroying whole cities and continents.”
A vision of ultimate catastrophe is fully and clearly expressed in the ideas of this unusual trilogy’s author. It’s more or less nothing but the suicide of humankind. Listen to this excerpt:
“Lightning, thunder – the kind of which hasn’t shaken the will of a conscious being since the beginning of the world. The whole of Europe – cities, land, mountains, even the water and air…. Everything, in a single moment, will transform into a monstrous explosive mass. Every atom loosened into elemental particles acts like a charge of dynamite… Don’t you understand? Such a fearsome explosion would wrench the Earth from its orbit, if it didn’t simply tear it into pieces.”
That was written in 1911, while the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima 34 years later in 1945.
Nobody before Jerzy Zulawski foresaw such a possibility, a possibility which today casts heavy clouds over the horizons of our thoughts, our art, our literature and our politics. ‘The Old Earth’ ends with a revolution against science that leads to catastrophic consequences. The nanny state (a phrase so popular today that first appeared in the trilogy – “rząd opiekuńczy”) of the United States of Europe closes all the universities, disbands all scientific associations and liquidates every experimental laboratory. Death to the knowledge which had started to threaten the existence of humankind…
Before my father, nobody in Polish literature had formed such clear and pessimistic views on history. His critical mind could draw conclusions from so-called utopias. Through the lips of one of the protagonists in ‘The Old Earth’, my father said:
“Nothing can be done for the current system. Society isn’t a product of rationality and that’s why it absolutely never will be. Every utopia – from the oldest Platonic beginnings, throughout the stretch of centuries until today [I must remind again that these words were written in 1911], all utopias are houses of cards which do not care about the laws of gravity. From the moment one puts a hand to such an undertaking, a new evil becomes visible, appearing in place of the old one that was removed. The perfect coexistence of people in an ideal system – inherent human nature makes it impossible to achieve such a thing.”
There’s a distinct pessimism in all this when it comes to human nature. But my father was a mystic in the depths of his soul. He obtained a doctorate in rigorous philosophy in Bern summa cum laude for his work on Spinoza: ‘The Problem of Causality in Spinoza’. Metaphysical philosophy was the basis of his worldview. That’s why one of the scholars in ‘The Old Earth’, unable to understand the puzzle of existence, returns to the Christian cosmology contained in the first words of St John the Evangelist: “In the beginning, there was the word.”
The range of issues raised by my father in this trilogy is indeed huge. He shows us the tragic effects of colonising other heavenly bodies, rashly undertaken before solving the social problems that afflict people on Earth. He interprets the structure of religion, he speaks of the impossibility of mastering the entirety of human knowledge – exactly what’s actually happening today – and in the end he shows us a vision of our extinction from the deadly menace of technological progress.
My father intellectually outgrew his environment. His thoughts exceeded beyond his epoch. He was the only writer of the Young Poland era, other than Stanislaw Brzozowski, who was more concerned with universal issues than the provincial purely Polish problems of the time. No other famous Polish author from this period was able to escape beyond the so-called enchanted cycle of Polish issues – not to mention escaping beyond the circle of our planet.
Only Jerzy Zulawski did this.