Thursday, April 19, 2018

Without Dogma by Henryk Sienkiewicz

The heartache of skepticism
Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, is best known for his romantic historical novels, like his grandiose trilogy on the Polish military (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael) or his epic of ancient Rome, Quo Vadis. Sienkiewicz’s novel Without Dogma, published in 1891, is a deliberate departure from the trilogy that made him famous. Not only is it free of action and violence, it can also be characterized as a romance novel, or at least a novel of manners. Without Dogma also differs from typical Sienkiewicz fare in that it is set in the modern world and written in a style that, while it probably couldn’t be called realism, is nevertheless more realistic than any other work of his that I’ve read.

The story takes place in the 1880s and is written in the form of a diary. The narrator, Leon Ploszowski, is a young Pole of a wealthy family. Rich enough not to require a career, he has found no calling in life. Despite his education, intelligence, and refinement, he is a “genius without portfolio.” When the novel opens, he and his father are living in Rome, but they own an estate a few miles outside of Warsaw, called Ploszow, which is managed by Leon’s aunt. On a visit back to this ancestral home, Leon reconnects with a cousin he has not seen since childhood. The two fall in love, and their marriage becomes a foregone conclusion to their family, their friends, and even themselves. The relationship falls apart, however, when, through his own indecisiveness, his grief over the death of his father, and his meeting of another woman in Rome, Leon fails to commit to matrimony with Aniela. He soon learns to regret this mistake and spends the rest of the book trying to win back the love of his life.

The title of the book refers to the fact that Leon is an agnostic with no faith or steadfast moral principles to guide him through life. Anyone who is familiar with this author’s work knows that Sienkiewicz was a devout Catholic, so this is certainly no autobiographical novel. Here his protagonist is not a hero or a role model, but rather a cautionary embodiment of societal ills. Leon represents the tendency of indecision and paralyzing self-criticism that Sienkiewicz feels is plaguing modern man after having turned his back on traditional faith and values. Nevertheless, Sienkiewicz portrays Leon sympathetically, doesn’t resort to dogmatic proselytizing, and doesn’t lay the social criticism on too thick.

Though I have more in common philosophically with Leon than with Sienkiewicz, I still found Without Dogma a very compelling and insightful read. I was mostly ambivalent towards the love story, but I really enjoyed Leon’s interior dialogue. Though the “modern world” has changed considerably since the 1880s, much of what Sienkiewicz has to say here about modern man feeling lost amid a rudderless life devoid of philosophy, crippled by self-consciousness, still rings true. Like any novel of the 19th century, the love story feels antiquated and overwrought at times. What were considered acceptable courtship tactics back then often come across as stalking today. Yet, even when the reader feels that Leon is getting kind of creepy, there’s a sense that Sienkiewicz knows he’s creepy too, and is deliberately depicting him as unhinged. It’s a surprisingly naturalistic psychological portrayal from this author who is recognized as a paragon of romanticism.

I enjoy Sienkiewicz’s military epics, but I really liked this book as well. It is much better than another of his novels set in modern Poland, 1899’s In Vain. One caveat: Without Dogma is a very long book. I never found it boring, however, and if you pace yourself, it really grows on you.

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