A Phantom of the Centre of the World/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

Dublin Core

Tytuł

A Phantom of the Centre of the World/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

Temat

antropologia współczesności
antropologia miasta

Opis

Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s. 82-111

Twórca

Benedyktowicz, Zbigniew

Wydawca

Instytut Sztuki PAN

Data

2014

Prawa

Licencja PIA

Relacja

oai:cyfrowaetnografia.pl:publication:6509

Format

application/pdf

Język

ang

Typ

czas.

Identyfikator

oai:cyfrowaetnografia.pl:6081

PDF Text

Text

fully?) hidden collective imagination of the past dec­
ades, and that it is a prominent part of the latter. On
the other hand, the Palace has not been discussed by
ethnographers. The reasons for embarking upon this
topic and the motives, which inspired me, are much
more numerous and I shall thus mention only several
most essential ones.
Start from the least important. This article was
to appear in a monographic issue of “Polska Sztuka
Ludowa” about the symbolism of the centre. In refer­
ence to this category, described by Eliade, the issue
in question was to embrace reflections concerning the
symbolic of the home conceived as mythical space, the
mythology of the place in a sequence characteristic
for the symbolic of the centre: home - village - town;
these deliberations pertain to the small (local) home­
land, the mythology of the town. A sketch on the Pal­
ace of Culture was to be published next to an article
evoking images of the homeland in reminiscences by
Wieniawa-Długoszowski, the poems of émigré poets,
and images of the “small homeland” recorded in folk
poetry; alongside images-plans by Surowiak; next to
reflections on the world of allotments, and, finally,
combined with an essay by Ludwik Stomma on the
significance of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel
Tower - the mythical sites of Paris. According to the
principle of the counterpoint these assorted reflections
on the symbolic and mythical structures of the home
were to be accompanied by yet another contemporary
symptom, another variant and sui-generis extension of
the symbolic of the centre. This concept was comple­
mented by discernibly lively interest in the category of
the home upon the basis of reflections about culture,
expressed by parallel research into the conception of
the home conducted by sociologists and sociologists
of culture,4 or the extraordinary success of Witold
Rybczynski’s Home. A Short History of an Idea, 5 a best­
seller on the American, Canadian and English-speak­
ing market. This Canadian architect of Polish descent
devoted special attention in his study about the Home
and a brief history of the idea of the Home to such
concepts as: “intimacy”, “privacy” and “domesticity”
by following their historical moulding up to this very
day. With images of homes in contemporary film as
well as those launched by fashion, advertisements,
photography, and magazines on interior design as his
point of departure Rybczyński recorded the phenom­
enon present in particular phases of fashion in recent
years, i.e. a special nostalgia and longing for the past,
and the complementary phenomenon of discovered
(devised) “tradition” created for the sake of contem­
poraneity; in doing so, he descended more and more
into the past. For all practical purposes, the book is a
publication not so much from the range of the history
of architecture, as the title and the name of the author
could suggest, but from the domain of the history of

ZBIGNIEW
BENEDYKTOWICZ

A Phantom of the
Centre of the World.
A Contribution to the
Anthropology of
Contemporaneity
From the corner of Racławicka and Miłobędzka
streets
(I live nearby)
Every day, if I’m up to it,
I look at the Palace of Culture...
Its architecture is unimportant
It is the architecture of my imagination that is significant
The architecture of my of blood and heart
Life and death
Sun and mist. (...)
(Eugeniusz Zytomirski, Pałac Kultury,
in: Liryczne okienko Stolicy, “Stolica”,
15 May 1963)
In the perspective of a moment the past day is seen dif­
ferently than the past millennia.
(Stanisław Cichowicz, Skąd ten kanon?,
Polska Sztuka Ludowa”, no. 1, 1990)

M

uch has been written about the Joseph Stalin
Palace of Culture and Science.1 Hundreds of
reportages and articles. It has been the topic
of poems and songs, poetry and prose. Its image beca­
me a permanent part of contemporary literature and
has intrigued and inspired the cinema.2 It appeared in
youth subculture, in fanzines, special-occasion texts of
rock bands, and Rastafarian texts, and is discernible
as a motif of graffiti on the walls of Warsaw houses.3
It has been discussed by journalists, publicists, men of
science, architects, and historians, historians of archi­
tecture and art, and men of letters.
The Palace of Culture has been the theme of writ­
ings by Hanna Krall, Stefan Kisielewski, Leopold Tyr­
mand, Jerzy Kosiński, and its foremost bard - Tadeusz
Konwicki.
A thorough survey must (perhaps without undue
astonishment) lead us to the declaration that the Pal­
ace of Culture belongs to the quite possibly non-co­
hesive, scattered, and at times concealed or (shame­

84

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

culture, written with extensive anthropological impe­
tus. The transformations and moulding of the conceits
of “domesticity”, “intimacy” and “privacy” are dis­
cussed in reference to the language, culture, mentality
and changes occurring therein during particular eras,
times and places. The book is dominated by the prin­
ciple to which the author referred in the introduction
and which is contained in a maxim by Milan Kundera,
namely, that the task of the writer and writing does not
consist of proclaiming the truth but its discovery. The
force of the publication in question is also determined
by the fact that the reflections amassed therein were
inspired by the author’s personal experiences and were
closely intertwined with the extraordinary adventure
of building and shaping his home.6 Despite this ex­
tensive anthropological perception and frequent refer­
ence to examples borrowed from assorted distant and
frequently exotic cultural situations, the characteristic
feature of Rybczynski’s book, concentrated mainly on
American, Anglo-Saxon culture, is a distinctively Occidentalistic attitude. This holds true predominantly
for experiences recorded either in the history of West
European culture or those belonging to contempora­
neity. We are dealing with a brief history of the idea of
the home written from the Western point of view.
In other words, the planned monographic “home”
issue of “Polska Sztuka Ludowa” could, together with
a text about the Palace of Culture, become a contribu­
tion from this part of the world together with its rather
different complications, from this part of the ‘’other
Europe”, a contribution to the theme of the home ap­
pearing and discussed in present-day humanities and
stirring the interest of the most varied milieus. This
original conception, however, was partly thwarted and
the issue was split into several fascicles. Nonetheless,
the problem remained.
For many years, ethnography and anthropology of
culture wrote about the “disappearance of the tradi­
tional object” of those domains. This trend was recent­
ly mentioned most conspicuously by Clifford Geertz in
his essay: Be There, Write Here: The world, examined
chiefly by anthropologists and once known as primeval,
tribal, traditional or folk, and today emergent, under­
going modernisation, peripheral or still concealed, has
changed immensely as has the world of the scientific
institutions from which these researchers originate.7A
similar course was followed by James Clifford, whose re­
flections concentrate on the problematic nature of the
description of culture shown against the backdrop of
relations between twentieth-century ethnography, art,
and, literature (The Predicament of Culture. TwentiethCentury Ethnography, Literature and A rt) .8 Observing
the changes to which ethnography was, and contin­
ues to be subjected, Clifford placed greatest emphasis
on the one that occurred in experiencing the journey
and residing, the change and shift of the meaning and

sense of such concepts as: “centre” (“Metropolis”) and
“Peripheries”. If the task of ethnography is to search
for a way of understanding and approaching a differ­
ent world, which since the sixteenth century has been
unified in cartography, and one of the fundamental
functions of ethnography is “orientation” (a term dat­
ing back to the time when Europe travelled and was
engaged in self-discovery in relation to the fantasti­
cally unified ”East”) then it could be said about twen­
tieth-century ethnography involved in reflecting “new
spatial praxis”, new forms of residence and circulation,
that it is accompanied by a sui generis experience of
“disorientation”. When we take a look at our century
through the prism of a drastic expansion of mobility including tourism, economic migration, immigration,
throngs of polyglotic refugees, emigrants, and asylum
seekers, when we take into account urban scattering
and the blending of foreign populations in towns on
six continents, and, finally, the very fact that “habi­
tation” takes place with the assistance of mass-scale
transport, automobiles, and airplanes - then all this is
the reason why in the contemporary world the two ex­
periences of “habitation” and “travelling” are becom­
ing increasingly difficult to distinguish. Apparently,
there is no such a distant place on the planet where
the presence of modern products, the mass media and
their power would not be palpable. Old topography
is exhausted, Clifford concluded.9 No one any more
(and the ethnographer in particular) leaves home in
the hope that he will discover something radically dif­
ferent, new, or strange. The feeling of nativeness can
be discovered at the ends of the world. A t the same
time, differences, cultural distinctness, alienness, and
foreigness are becoming part of the closest environ­
ment. The anticipation of authenticity in culture and
art is doubted. The old topography is exhausted, wrote
James Clifford. Why go to the Trobriands?10 - Polish
sociologists seem to be echoing him - when one can
come across the closed world of consciousness isola­
tion in a contemporary village some 200 kms from
Warsaw. Within this context the Palace of Culture
and Science could appear to be an extremely attrac­
tive and intriguing object for an ethnographer. In its
capacity as an example of sui generis (domesticated (?)
exotica within the range of our outstretched hand it
poses assorted questions, tempts, and outright chal­
lenges to embark upon an attempted description and
to take the risk of interpretation. It seems odd that
ethnographers, sensitive to the strangeness of the sur­
rounding world and cultural phenomena, and accen­
tuating the importance of astonishment in cognitive
experience inscribed into anthropology have so far
paid insufficient attention to it, and that simply noth­
ing has been written about it. Meanwhile, the Palace
of Culture makes it possible to transgress this tradi­
tional situation and condition of the ethnographer,

85

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

not very clearly outlined in the contemporary world
terpretation and its archaic religious-ritual foundation
Olędzki proposed his own common sense presentation
(be there and write here) and makes it possible ’’to be
here and write here” and thus to realise the essence
of hopscotch. Employing peripatetic detailed analysis
he tried (despite serious gaps in the documentation
of the task of present-day anthropology as understood
by Geertz. While attempting to locate this text within
- once again, ethnographers had failed) to insert hop­
scotch into history, connecting it with the idea of uni­
its current, and speaking about the anthropology of
contemporaneity I accept its comprehension by fol­ versal education developing across the world from the
second half of the nineteenth century, the production
lowing the example of the American anthropologist:
The risks are worth running because running them leads to of flagstones, the urban environment, and closely with
a thoroughgoing revision of our understanding of what it is
a certain old fashioned model of elementary school­
to open (a bit) the consciousness of one group of people to ing. Hopscotch is to contain the idea of labour and the
(something of) the life-form of another [...]. What it is (a
outright onerous passage from grade to grade, from the
task at which no one ever does more than not utterly fail)
most difficult or worst remembered first grade - HELL,
is to inscribe a present —to convey in words “what it is like"
to the last - HEAVEN. Without delving further into
to be somewhere specific in the lifeline of the world: Here,
the details of this unilinear, historical interpretation,
as Pascal famously said, rather than There; Now rather
and without becoming involved in a dispute about it,
than Then. Whatever else ethnography might be —Mabecause this is not the occasion, let us return to the
linowskian experience seeking, Levis-Straussian rage for
Palace of Culture and Science. I cannot tell whether
order, Benedictine cultural irony, or Evans-Pritchardish
the proposed sketch will be capable of helping Jacek
cultural reassurance —it is above all a rendering of the
Olędzki and other researchers in solving doubts (if
actual, a vitality phrased.11
they were to experience them), getting rid of uncer­
I
would be not quite honest if I were to insist thattainties and discovering a response to the question:
ethnographers had never written about the Palace of Should the Palace of Culture be included amongst cosmic
trees? (In my opinion, it will prove to be of little use
Culture and Science, appearing in a polemical form in:
Przyczynek do powinności przemyśleń perypatetycznych12 since these are not the intentions of this study, nor is
it possible, seeing that uncertainty and doubts, as the
by Jacek Olędzki. Recall the essence of the dispute:
the heart of the matter was hopscotch, or, more pre­ gathered material will show, are part of the allure of
cisely, an interpretation of this game, full of question
the Palace and one of its constitutive features). None­
marks and referring to its archaic ritual-belief motif theless, as regards the Palace I would be inclined, in
contrast to Olędzki’s proposal, to choose the part of
of “wandering to the netherworld” discussed by Jerzy
Sławomir Wasilewski in: Podróże do piekieł. Rzecz o sza­ interpretation he rejected. In order to do so, I seek the
support of the earlier-cited Geertz: Ex ante prescriptive
mańskich misteriach (Warszawa 1979).
Not to be groundless, let us cite a hazardous, but criticism - this is what you must do, this is what you must
tempting owing to the symbolic of a journey to the neth­ not - is as absurd in anthropology as it is in any other
intellectual enterprise not dogmatically based.14 I shall,
erworld, example of hopscotch. Is jumping between “hell"
therefore, select the first of the two manners of inter­
and “heaven" not the echo of some sort of ritual journey
pretation: the “farsighted” one, whose horizon con­
to those regions? Note, that jumping on one leg (similarly
to limping) is associated universally with the demonic, with sists of the archaic-religious-ritual (Wasilewski), and
the spheres of the subterranean. Does the schematic figure
the “short-sighted” historical-genetic one, peripatetically interested in the details of daily life, our closest
of the “person" drawn in chalk not resemble a shaman’s
drum, shaped like a human figure with a monstrous head,
contemporaneity (Olędzki) ... I was prepared to write:
I choose the former, which I find closest. But is any
or an anthropomorphic cosmic tree painted on its surface?
Rejecting this interpretation Olędzki declared: In
sort of a choice actually necessary? In the case of the
Palace of Culture we are in the opportune situation of
this manner we might explain everything, including the first
skyscrapers together with the most recent ones, more than not being forced to investigate or present its histori­
400 meters tall. After all, these are simply non-anthro­ cal origin (i.e. Joseph Vissarinowicz Stalin), and have
pomorphic cosmic trees, "axes linking the bottom and the
at our disposal extensive and varied documentation
top" (or trees of life, a term obsessively applied by many re­ spanning from the emergence of the idea of building
searchers). I cannot tell whether the Palace of Culture and
the Palace in Warsaw, the erection of the first foun­
Science may be regarded as a cosmic tree but it was cer­ dations, and the particular phases of its growth and
expansion all the way to the present day. In the case
tainly the first highest building in Poland (today this rank
of the Palace of Culture both approaches could exist
is held by the Warszawa Hotel). Not without reason was
its called “Prudential".13 By resorting to irony and deri­ as parallel without one excluding the other (i.e. in our
conventional division: the second excluding the first).
sion Olędzki urged us to resort to Prudence (after all,
The Palace of Culture offers us the wonderful oppor­
the first Warsaw skyscraper belonging to an Insurance
Society was known as “Prudential”). Rejecting this in­ tunity of being longsighted and myopic at the same

86

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

time. That this is a division far from perfect is demon­ viewpoint of a moment one sees rather yesterday than past
millennia.16
strated by the earlier cited example of hopscotch. A t
the end of his article Olędzki reconstructed meticu­
I
am well aware of the fact that there are numer­
lously a scenario of the “ritual-theatre” accompanying
ous possible interpretations of the Palace of Culture
hopscotch and returned to the “rashly” criticised the­ - architectural, historical (historiosophic), ideolog­
ical-political, reference to the world of the language
sis proposed by Wasilewski about the existence of an
and phenomena of propaganda, and many others. I,
archaic hinterland of this children’s game. More, both
however, am most interested in the Palace of Culture
interpretations, the one closing Olędzki’s article and
envisaged as an unusual “strong” reality, by no means
the one suggested by him at the beginning of his text,
part of daily life, a reality “existing par excellence”, or,
do not undermine the course followed by Wasilewski.
The “laborious and onerous transition from class to
to cite M. Eliade - sacral reality, an element of the
contemporary secular sacrum. We face a question
class” and “the mood of intensifying the awareness of
similar to the one Claude-Henri Rocquet asked Eliade
the difficulty and demonization of the task” present in
the game remain within the aura of the initiation rite;
about the Lenin mausoleum - is it a sacral object? 17
it was to its background and archaic foundation that
To what extent can the profanum turn into the sacrum? We are concerned also with recognition of the
Wasilewski made references. To make things clear:
expression and structures of the sacrum in a world,
the difference between those two approaches consists
of the fact that the interpretation proposed by W a­ which presents itself decidedly as profanum. I am in­
silewski is “understanding” and, in my opinion, did
terested in the Palace of Culture as an element of sym­
not harbour the ambition of “explaining” in the way in bolic imagination, a structure of long-term duration.
which Olędzki comprehended it, while its historicalThis is the reason why I wish to examine the Palace
genetic interpretation could be described precisely as
in reference to the complex and symbolic cycles of the
“explanatory” .15
“centre”, the symbolic of the centre of the Earth 18,
such images belonging to it as: “holy mountain”,
I
must admit that in ethnology and ethnography with
I
“cosmic mountain”, axis mundi and parallel visions of
had been always attracted and enchanted not only by
a predilection for the concrete (presented in a mas­ columna universalis, “a pillar of the world upholding al­
terly manner in texts by Jacek Olędzki), but also by most everything that is”, a column of the heavens, a
pillar, a ladder, a “stairway to heaven”, a tree, “the tree
the fact that sometimes distant cultural phenomena
of the world” and “the tree of life”. I intend to search
are considered not in isolation, and that for the sake
of their more complete comprehension (without ob­ for those images characteristic for archaic conceptions
and systems of religious imagery in contemporary tes­
literating differences and specific contours) they are
timonies about the Palace of Culture, making it pos­
contrasted on a more universal scale, where (as in the
case of Wasilewski) archaic shamanic ritual scenarios
sible to perceive a community (and difference) in the
of “wandering to the netherworld”, the initiation ritu­ experiencing of space and place by contemporary man
al, and the contemporary game of hopscotch involving
and a member of primeval societies. This is the experi­
hell and heaven can exist side by side, encompassed
ence described by Eliade: (...) The religious man sought
to live as near as possible to the Center of the World. He
within a single glance.
Just like the Lascaux cave paintings can be exam­ knew that his country constituted the navel of the universe,
and, above all, that the temple or the palace were veritably
ined within their palaeolithic temporal and cultural
horizon, and the work executed by a contemporary art­ Centers of the World.19
ist on Big Salt Lake in Utah can be viewed separately,
I
shall be the interested in the Palace of Culture
so it is possible to perceive them jointly. In our periodi­ as reality brimming with meanings and amassing as­
cal this was the theme of reflections by Stanisław Ci­ sorted, frequently contrary emotions. In a word: a
chowicz, which can be referred also to other cultural
contemporary myth of the Palace of Culture and the
phenomena, both the children’s game of hopscotch
Palace as a myth. A symbol that concentrates both
drawn in chalk on a sidewalk and the example of the
contents referring to the archaic symbolic of the world
Palace of Culture, of interest to us: Art has its expanse,
and stressing - here I slightly precede the analysis - its
which establishes the artist’s gesture from and for him, it phantom-like, unreal character. Speaking about the
has its temporality ruled by the mystery of the existence
Palace of Culture as a symbol and about the symbol, its
of mankind. In him and in it one must contrast artistic
polyphonic and polysemantic nature, 20 I refer directly
documents left on the walls of European caves by the Pal- to the comprehension of the symbol mentioned by
aeolithic culture and on the dry bed of an American lake
Yuri Lotman,21 accentuating its ’’unclear”, ’’allusive”
by contemporary culture; this double scale, especially the
character: The content only flickers through the expres­
temporal one, contains a proximity incomprehensible for
sion and the latter only indicates the content by means of
man; true, eyewitness familiarity with history is alive but allusion. The example of the Palace of Culture makes
historical retrospection erects a memory carrier: from the
it possible to follow all the essential features of the

87

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

symbol as a condensator of cultural memory, also de­
scribed by Lotman:
1. The symbol always features something archaic.
Each culture requires strata of texts realising the function
of the archaic.
2. Symbols preserved the ability to store exceptionally
copious and important texts in a rolled-up form.
3. The symbol never belongs to a single synchronic
cross section of culture —it always cuts across this cross
section vertically, coming from the past and departing into
the future. The memory of the symbol is always older than
the memory of its non-symbolical textual surrounding.
4. As an important mechanism of the memory of cul­
ture symbols transfer texts, schemes and other semiotic
products from one stratum of culture to another.
5. The symbol occurs as irregular in relation to the
surrounding textual space as a messenger of other cultural
epochs ( = other cultures), as a reminder about the ancient
( = “eternal") foundations of culture. On the other hand,
the symbol actively correlates with the cultural context,
transforms itself under its impact and itself transforms it.
6. An element most essential in the case of our
“text-expression”, i.e. the Palace of Culture, is indefi­
niteness in the relation between text-expression and text­
content. The latter always belongs to a more multi-dimen­
sional space of significance. This is why the expression does
not fully coincide with the content, but only as if alludes
to it. In a given case it is irrelevant whether the expression
is merely a brief mnemonic sign of the diluted text-content
or whether the former belongs to a secular, open and dem­
onstrated sphere of culture, while the latter —to sacral,
esoteric and mysterious culture (...).
The sources on which I am basing my analysis
call for a brief commentary and are of various qual­
ity and origin. In this case, I made use of press notes
from “Trybuna Luda”, “Express Wieczorny”, “Zycie
Warszawy” , and “Stolica”, and to a lesser extent of
weeklies and dailies issued outside Warsaw. I also
benefited from the Palace Chronicle and supple­
mentary material,22 special-occasion poetry, literary
works, diaries, and recollections. In press accounts
one is immediately struck by ceremonial, “uplifting”,
festivity stylistics as well as the fact that information
is offered in certain language or propaganda schemes
and clichés, copied and repeated outside the cen­
tral press; this is the reason why first texts about the
Palace of Culture create a specific set of canons. A l­
ready upon the level of the language used for writing
about the Palace and the creation of its tradition we
may observe sui generis sacralisation. Also upon the
level of sources, the central problem of ethnographic
description, which today, in the opinion of Geertz,
faces anthropology and demands to be solved by the
latter (It is not quite clear just what “faction”, imagina­
tive writing about real people in real places at real times,
exactly comes to beyond a clever coinage23), has found

itself outside our range and resolved without our
greater participation.24 Upon this occasion, we may
note and warn the reader that in some of the cited
texts the uplifting mood is accompanied by specific
infantilisation, often the outcome of the pedagogi­
cal functions of a text intended for youngest readers
(children, adolescents); this mixture of the lofty with
the infantile is, however, also to be encountered in
official texts addressed to adults. This is one of the
most characteristic traits of the canon and ambiance
of the period. In my analysis I try to maintain as much
as possible a chronological sequence enabling bet­
ter observation of the stratification of meanings and
symbolic motifs. On the other hard, I cannot assure
the reader that I shall be able to maintain suitable re­
search distance and relegate my emotions. The Pal­
ace of Culture makes it feasible not only to descend
to the archaic basis of symbolic and cultural memory.
For a resident connected with this town since birth and I am such a resident - and looking at the Palace
since childhood this is also a journey to that part of
one’s personal past, which I do not encompass within
living memory or awareness. Listen to the statements
made by the witnesses of this world, already part of
the past.

Flower of stone
We are introduced to the afore-mentioned unu­
sual ambiance of the Palace, stressed in all texts, by a
reporter’s account. Here, we encounter other deline­
ated motifs developed also in remaining evidence - el­
ements of light (steel), splendour, brilliance, loftiness,
and the Palace as a constant orientation point.
The author of this book is a reporter, i.e. the sort of per­
son who jots down everything he notices and then passes
on to others all that he takes down. In other words, to You.
And you are members of a strange excursion who with­
out leaving their homes in Stalinogród, Gdańsk, Szczecin
or Łódź, assorted small towns and villagers shall tour the
Joseph Stalin Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.
This reporter has been observing the Palace for the past
three years, from the day of its birth when the first streams
of concrete flowed into its foundations (...).
It was 21 July, the eve of our national holiday, when
members of the government of People’s Poland stood on
a ramp. The ceremonious moment began: Prime Minister
Premier Józef Cyrankiewicz leaned across a barrier and
threw a zloty piece while workers tore caps off their heads
and throwing them high into the air cried out: “N a shchastie! For good luck!” (...). The steel colossus grew. Yes,
steel, because today, when we admire the glowing floors,
magnificent marbles, and fine upholstery we have to keep
in mind that the Palace of Culture is predominantly made
of steel. Each of the 32 storeys is steel, the dome of the
Congress hall is steel, and the shaft of the colossal spire is
steel. (...)

88

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

On that day people stopped in the streets and lifted
their heads high: will they make it or not? The globe of the
spire glistened brightly in the sunlight, covered with 1 4000
colourful pieces of glass.
From that day, regardless in which district of Warsaw
we find ourselves - Wola, Bielany or Mokotów - we shall
see the glowing spire of the Palace.
(Jerzy Janicki, O Pałacu Kultury i Nauki im. Józefa
Stalina, TWP, Warszawa 1955).
Attention to the extraordinary nature of the Pal­
ace, and to the gift which it was intended to be for
Warsaw, is drawn in another text. The Palace’s un­
usual qualities could be summed up in the formula:
“it existed before it came into being” and: ’’it was still
not there and yet it already was”. There also appears
an oneiric motif: We glance at newspapers from Febru­
ary, March, April —there it is! All the first pages feature
enormous headlines: “A great gift from the Soviet Union
to Warsaw”, “The most magnificent building in Warsaw
- the Palace of Culture and Science". Yes, it was 5 April
1952. A year ago no one even dreamed of a Friend­
ship Palace. On the contrary, quite a few who read the
papers on 6 April could have been thinking that he was
dreaming. After all, History had not accustomed us to
such gifts. This is particularly true of Warsaw. Our town
had been plundered by all of Europe —the Swedes, the
Saxons, Rakoczy of Transylvania and Catherine of St.
Petersburg, the Austrian “invader” and the Napoleonic
“ally". It was looted by generations of Prussian soldiers,
from Friedrich to Hitler. History certainly did not acquaint
us with such gifts as a Friendship Palace. And today? At
present it is probably the only edifice in W arsaw that
is still uncompleted but with which were are familiar
and which we love and admire25. Konstytucji Square
achieved the feat of blending with Warsaw immediately
after construction, but in this respect the Palace of Culture
and Science outdid the MDM [Marszalkowska Residen­
tial District] by becoming an inseparable part of Warsaw
already before it was erected. Are we not already famil­
iar with a panorama of Warsaw, with the lower tower of
the largest Palace by this time so much a part of Warsaw,
soaring above the outline of Nowy Świat and Krakowskie
Przedmieście streets, the Zygmunt Column and the dome
of Staszica Palace, the solid of the Party House and the
angular box of Prudential? (Karol Małcużyński, Nasza
Stolica, “Trybuna Ludu”, 17 January 1953).
The extraordinary character of the enterprise, i.e.
raising the Palace, was described by Alexander Za­
kharovich Antonov, constructor of Friendship Pal­
ace:
When I read the agreement signed by our governments
about the git for People’s Poland I was overcome with pride
for my country, government, and Stalin. Nowhere and
never has anyone built something of the sort, with walls
made of friendship. It is a great honour to participate in this
magnificent deed (ibidem.)

A poem about the growth of the Palace of Culture
also features a discernible epiphany of technology and
includes a classical image of kratophany (Mighty like a
rock). The Palace combines opposites and constitutes
a specific coincidentia oppositorum captured in an oxy­
moron formula (“flower of stone”):
On their way to Poland,
boards and bars,
lime and cement,
glass and machines.
Cars and cranes,
bronze and marble
to build a magnificent
Palace of Culture.
A long train
is already travelling to Poland
with powerful excavators
in the front.
On their way - resourceful
Soviet diggers,
drivers,
welders.
A hundred engineers,
masters, masons,
carpenters and fitters
have already arrived.
Work has
started in Warsaw.
They have boldly
embarked upon the deed.
Wheelbarrows are not needed
to transport soil:
the work of excavators
will make things easier.
These machines
are veritable dragons;
they instantly encompass
a wide range. (...)
Such work
renders all problems insignificant:
the earthworks
are already completed!
The foundations
are ready,
the great construction
has began!
Mighty walls
ascend higher:
the Palace of Culture
emerges from its foundations!
It boldly grows
and rapidly rises
like a flower of stone
on the flowerbed of the city!
Higher and higher
it expands.

89

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz

A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

A pleasure for the eyes!
A joy for the heart!
Look, soon
it will catch up with the clouds
this multi-storey
Palace of Culture!
Beautiful like a smile!
Mighty like a rock!
Tall like a tower!
Eternal like glory!
A magnificent monument
of Soviet glory:
a symbol of friendship
in the heart of Warsaw!
(R. Piwarski, Rośnie w Warszawie Pałac Kultury)
N ext to images stressing might, permanence, du­
ration, images and symbols known in the history of
religious ideas from the time of megalithic civilisa­
tions, which developed a complex lithic and reli­
gious valorisation of stones and rocks (The rock,
the stone slab, the granite block prove to be eter­
nally durable and resilient to damage and ultimately
e x i s t independently of becoming in time, cf.
M. Eliade, Historia wierzeń i idei religijnych, Warszawa
1988, vol. 1, chapter V, p. 82 sq.), next to images of a
tower (tall like a tower), among images of rising, growth,
and entering the sky - here we once again perceive coincidentia oppositorum, the unification of the opposites:
static and durability together with dynamic becoming,
motion (it will catch up with the clouds), overcoming
weight, the motif of flight (it will reach the clouds/
Where birds and clouds abound), in other words,
amidst imagery from the symbolic axis mundi26, there
appears in descriptions of the Palace the image of the
M o u n t a i n, also typical for the symbolism of the
centre. Naturally, this is not a pure image of the “cos­
mic mountain” linking Earth and Heaven (although
it is located in the centre: Seen from afar in the very
heart of Poland). The emergent image of a mountain is
tainted with another archaic motif belonging to folk­
lore and folk imagination, intertwined with fairy-tale
convention and stylistic, in which the afore-mentioned
oneiric ambiance returns:

Just like in a fairy tale, our Palace of Culture.
That what our people could only dream of
They received as a gift from a nation-friend.
The girl is imprisoned no more
And does not recollect the bad years.
Glistening with red ribbons,
This girl is simply a book
From which wisdom and knowledge flow,
Preceding the march of culture.
Seen from afar in the very heart of Poland
It will last like faith in man,
It will last like love for a child,
It will last like Soviet friendship.
(Jan Brzechwa, Pałac Kultury)
This fairy-tale motif, together with reaching the
sky, growth, and height (barely discernible to the human
eye), was developed also in other texts:
The first foundations have already risen above the
ground,
The spans of steel scaffolding climb upwards,
The canvas of a Palace more magnificent than that of
An enchanted princess is growing higher and higher.
There, high up, next to that cloud, the pinnacle of the spire
will glitter barely discernible to the human eye.
And a thousand windows will light up
And a torch shall burn endlessly
A symbol of profound and sincere friendship,
The most splendid ornament of a magnificent Capital.
(Adam Nowak, Pałac Kultury i Nauki)
Here, the most often recurring motif is that of pow­
er, radiance, an epiphany of light and lustre, as well as
upward growth:
(...) Trains carrying rocks travel from the Union.
The engine glows like a heart.
A palace is rising from the history of friendship
From a joint battle for freedom!

The mountain peak soared into the clouds
A tall castle stood on top
With a girl imprisoned therein...
Everyone certainly recalls this tale.

Look how it adorns heights with a lace ornament,
How it climbs upward, ever slimmer!
So that the victory of labour below
Could merge the mason and the inspired writer!

That what the peasant storyteller wrote
What the people imagined
We shall all soon see while awake!
A fairy-tale palace is being built in Warsaw.

So that the Palace could become evidence in a battle
For the happiness of the people, for labour and peace,
So that the sons of factories and peasants
Could handle books.
(Grzegorz Timofiejew, N a budowę Pałacu Kultury i
Nauki w Warszawie)

It will reach the clouds
Where birds and clouds abound

90

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

A dialogue of two clouds resounds with a cosmic
symbolic of the Palace, an image of a column of the
heavens (a tower leaning on stars):

I see how it glows above, sparkles among the
stars
and below reflects the constellations of the town.
I feel the breath of Warsaw deep in slumber
and hear how early in the morning it hurries to
work.
Beauty will reside here and joy will make itself at
home and while aging it will grow younger!
On the Palace spire, where only wind the wind ca­
rouses,
a crystal ball predicts happiness for Warsaw.
May all the radiance of the capital sparkle within
it!
We believe our seers: our days and nights.
(Witold Degler, Kryształowa kula Pałacu Kultury)

(...) The mother cloud answers:
I’m not laughing
I heard, after all,
Boria, “zhmi bistrieye”.
And it’s a good thing when
Boria “zhmi bistrieye”.
I know them, each smiling
But determined.
They will build towers, pedestals
And lean them against the stars.
This is what the mother-cloud
Said tearfully:

The poetic images and experiences of the Palace
of Culture concentrate motifs so characteristic for the
symbolic of the centre (a permanent, strong and con­
stant orientation point enabling transition between
assorted levels of the reality of the cosmos: heaven
- earth - underworld; we shall observe elements of
this level also in a further part of this analysis) as well
as the symbolic of the home, together with its value
of the centre enabling a transition between different
temporal dimensions (withdrawal and descent into
the past; exit and entry into the future). The home
provides an image of the past. More, ideally, the home
is situated in the centre of human life and the centre
(as we have seen) delineates the point of departure
and the beginning (cf. Yi-Fu Tuan, Przestrzeń i mie­
jsce, Warszawa 1987, p. 164). In images of the Palace
of Culture we also come across symbols of the “inte­
rior of the land”, “the source”,” the centre”, and “the
heart”, connected with the mythical evaluation of
space and place, all of which indicate the idea of the
time of the past (cf. Yi-Fu Tuan, ibid., p. 161). In the
case of the Palace of Culture if we are not to speak
about a sui generis inversion of meanings (apart from
the ideological premise of an architectural project),
then we are certainly dealing with a much stronger
accentuation of the past, and the recalled images
and symbols (the home, the centre, the heart) are
linked with the idea of the future tense, the new and
the different, and focus predominantly on the future.
Even the poem by Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski,
setting into motion a Romantic, Mickiewicz-like to­
pos of the “home river” and in this manner inscrib­
ing the Palace into tradition and turning towards the
future, appears to be new, together with its cosmic
“natural-religious” symbolic (A house as enormous as
Mt. Kościelec).
Vistula, native river, have you ever seen
Such houses?
A tower soaring over the city to reach the Moon,

- Flee, daughter-cloud,
I don’t want to be scraped.
They floated away listlessly, far beyond the Vistula,
Over Warsaw
The sky is clear.
(Józef Prutkowski, Mówi chmura córce chmurce...)
We come across cosmic symbolic also in a poem
about a “crystal ball” shining from afar and topping
the Palace spire, with the Sun and the Moon bending
over it, an opportunity for communication and con­
tact established between Heaven and Earth. This im­
age becomes expanded in a magical (magic ball, seer,
fortune-teller), romantic and fairy-tale mood.
On the Palace spire, where only the wind carous­
es,
a crystal ball high up shines in the Sun.
And the day - like a seer - cradles it in its hands
casts spells and seeks the future.
Tell me, ray of Sun, kindly,
what do you see in that magic Warsaw ball?
I see the completed Palace, MDM growing
with each building looking at its reflection in the
ball with joy!
I see people, vehicles, gardens, streets,
the Vistula, bridges, boulevards - the whole capi­
tal!
I see how it is going to look tomorrow:
larger, more populous and even lovelier!
On the Palace spire, where only the wind carous­
es,
a crystal ball shines brightly in the moonlight.
And the night - the best fortune-teller - raises its
hand above it,
casts starry spells and peers into it.
Tell me, lovely, romantic moonlight,
what do you see in that Warsaw magic ball?

91

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

A house as enormous as Mt. Kościelec.

In a poem by the Hungarian Ferenc Pakozdy the
Palace of Culture is not merely a fount of life but
alongside the already mentioned symbols and motifs
it appears to be an almost holy, miraculous site (Here
is the new miracle of life). The epiphany of light, glow,
and luminescence reaches its culmination. The poem
acts as testimony of mystical experiences within the
range of the Palace, the site of an ecstatic transforma­
tion of the author (the lyrical subject) into sheer light
(Today, I bathe my soul in the glow (...) And change into
sparkling radiance).

(Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski, “Express Wie­
czorny”, 22 July 1954)
This focus on the future, together with the Palace
as an orientation point - once again with an epiphany
of light - is to be discovered in a poem by Second Lieu­
tenant Mieczysław Michalak:
O f all the Warsaw roads the best known
leads to the site where the Palace is growing,
where the white wall shines like a bright torch
and the town’s pride glimmers with light bulb eyes.

Palace of Culture and Science,
Already on my way I watched it.
Its steel climbing upwards above Warsaw.
A foretaste! A symbol! It storms the sky...

The hands of cranes send kind greetings
and speak to human hearts
the crane, iron but alive, speaks powerfully,
and just like man stretches its arms to the future.

Rubble and ruins still all around.
Your foot still touches the past,
But friendship already glows above all
And proudly grows mightier.

Gazing at the people and the walls —a fraternal gift,
on the marble slab I distinctly feel
the warm hand of a worker — this is the touch of
Friendship —
and thus I send to you, Moscow, my soldierly salute.
(Z wycieczką na budowie Pałacu Kultury i Nauki)

I observe the history of the expanding construction,
A daily pilgrim to this site.
Here, thunders constantly
The pounding heart of the city.
On a platform - a multitude of spectators.
In their eyes I notice zeal and reflection.
Words spoken in deep thought:
This is Stalin’s priceless gift!

The Palace of Culture also appears to be a source
of truth (the Palace of Truth), together with its ex­
hilarating and rejuvenating force.
Steel giraffes had been brought over,
steel arms have been stretched out,
steel constructions are growing upwards ,
Storeys are rising in steel hands.
Two hundred metres!
Two hundred metres!
The palace is growing,
And climbing upwards!
Two hundred meters above the town!
This is friendship stretching out its arms,
it is friendship crowning the city centre!
Higher, higher! Like joy! Like a bird!
The storeys are growing just like frriendship did!
The palace is growing just like friendship —
Workers’, soldiers’, the simplest possible!
Here, the worker and the peasant will meet,
Here truth is as straightforward as rye growing tall.
Here Moscow presents Warsaw
with its ever fresh youth and beauty.

This lovely palace brings such joy
As if it was being built for me.
Peace springs forth here, hearts are set alight:
Proletarian internationalism.
Here in each motion you feel
The Soviet touch, thought and tempo;
Here streches a vision of the world:
A communist epoch of beauty.
Famous communist constructions ...
I owe their image to books;
Today, they bathe my soul in radiance
And insert the glow of the future into the present.
When in the evening the sky above the construction
Glimmers with sparks,
A song and thrill grow in me,
And I too change into sparkling brightness.
Palace of Culture and Science...
I greet it shedding tears of happiness.

(Stanisław Czachorowski, Pałac prawdy)

92

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

I am full of joy. Here is a new miracle of life:
The key to the future. I feel I am growing.
(Ferenc Pakozdy, Pałac Kultury i Nauki, transl.
from the Hungarian Tadeusz Fangrat)

and its purpose... (...). Happy news stir the imagination
of all residents of the Capital - declared the writer Leon
Kruczkowski. This noble gift of one nation to another will
be not only a durable monument of our eternal friendship.
Already the very process of erecting it will affect us day
after day more strongly than any word can do (...) (“Ex­
press Wieczorny”, 7 April 1952).
Such was also the situation after the completion of
work, when starting in January 1955 “Zycie Warszawy”
published voices in a discussion on the edifice growing
in Stalina Square:
It is necessary to erect buildings, which in the man­
ner of a beautiful setting will comprise a uniform whole
together with the sky-high palace. The white and slender
edifice stands in all its magnificence. Its soaring outline, so
inseparably and for ever connected with the image of War­
saw, visible from a distance of tens of kilometres, towers
above the town and daily attracts the gazes of thousands
and thousands of residents of Warsaw (“Express Wiec­
zorny”, 21 January 1954). From a 132 metres-high ter­
race the Saxon Garden resembles a lettuce leaf - reports
“Express” (Jerzy Ciszewski, 28/29 July 1954, no. 205).
How often while walking along the streets of Warsaw you
turn your gaze towards the colossal outline of the Palace of
Culture and Science. High up, the spire glistens in the sun­
light ... the enormous white stone columns of the entrance
portals beckon from afar. Our Palace is beautiful, proudly
declare the inhabitants of the capital and interrupt their
daily strolls for a moment to enjoy its view. Resembling a
priceless pearl in its setting the white palace glows amidst
sprawling green lawns.
The special significance of this vertical dimension
of the Palace, directing all sight upwards, was stressed
by architect Rozhnev already at the stage of discussing
the project:
The grand solid should be seen from the viewpoint
of the height of a person and his raised head. People on
their way to work tend to stoop; otherwise, they walk with
their heads held high. Such a building is part of life —the
base should be connected with man (Jak powstał projekt
Pałacu Kultury, prep. M. Kledź, “Stolica”, no. 23, 9
June 1985).
Fascination with height was also shared by Polish
architects in the course of attempts at determining the
proportions of the Palace in relation to the outline of
the capital: Architects were assisted by airmen. In order
to establish the highest parts of the future palace a pilot was
asked to perform a number of flights 160 and 220 metres
above Warsaw. Polish and Soviet architects in assorted
parts of the city and along the banks of the Vistula in the
district of Praga observed the plane and in this fashion de­
fined the height of the building while taking into considera­
tion the general outline of the capital’s architecture. Next,
standing on roofs of houses adjoining the future construc­
tion site they made necessary measurements and finally ar­
rived at a joint conclusion, namely, that the most suitable

The poem by Pakozdy is the most vivid expres­
sion of an aggressive image of the Palace envisaged
as a challenge addressed to the heavens and an image
containing the recognisable motif of the T o w e r o f
B a b e l (It storms the sky).
This image is a reference to the Biblical story of the
Tower of Babel as interpreted by Marxist-communist
ideology. The motif in question, conceived as an ex­
ample of the symbol’s transformation, was broached
by Lotman, who with its assistance showed its essence
as a copious text that in a rolled up form transfers the
memory of culture. Already the formula conceived by
Marx, which was (...) immensely popular - “the people
storm the sky” - contained a reference to the myth of the
Tower of Babel subjected to dual inversion: first, the as­
sessments of heaven and the Earth attacking it changed
places, and, second, the myth about the split of the na­
tions was replaced by an image of their merger, i.e. the
International (cf. Y. Lotman, Symbol w systemie kultury,
op. cit., p. 154). A t this point it is worth recalling yet
another interpretation of the story of the Tower of Ba­
bel, which perceives in the “punishment” consisting
of mingling languages a blessing that offers protection
against the temptations of totalitarianism (a single
tongue, we shall resemble the gods): hampering the con­
struction of the Tower and the mixture of languages
are seen as a preservation of the diversity, differences,
and pluralism of identity and thus freedom offered to
mankind.
Features invariably stressed in all texts and evi­
dence of experiences connected with the Palace in­
clude its height, soaring shape, and skywardness. The
Palace’s extraordinariness and power are summed up
in its stature and dimension. The lofty Palace fasci­
nates, attracts, and exudes magnetic allure. This was
the situation from the very onset, the moment of an­
nouncing news about the gift:
The largest square of the capital, located in
Marszałkowska Street, will become the site of a gigantic
construction some 28-30 storeys tall (...). Polish creative
thought will radiate from here across the whole country.
Response to this piece of news could bring to mind as­
sociations with mass-scale reactions to a miracle: The
whole of Warsaw immediately found out about the mag­
nificent gift of friendship, which the capital of People’s Po­
land received from the Soviet Union —the tallest building
in Poland, the Palace of Culture and Science. The inhabit­
ants of the Capital made their way towards the construc­
tion site between Marszałkowska Street and Jerozolimskie
Avenue, and Sosnowa and Świętokrzyska streets, discuss­
ing on the spot the assumed appearance of the colossus

93

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

would be a building about 220 meters tall (J. Dąbrowski,
Podniebny pomnik przyjaźni, Warszawa 1953, pp. 7-8).
Architect J. Sigalin recalled:
Soviet architects, especially Rudnev, said: That’s
enough: this should be just fine for the outline of Warsaw:
100-200 metres. We, the Varsovians, however (...) be­
came victims of a height frenzy and after each turnabout of
the plane issued the order: “Higher!” (the side towers were
to be 60 metres tall, just like the Warszawa Hotel, and
quite possibly we were more or less consciously concerned
with creating a new Warsaw on a scale larger than the one
delineated before the war by the Prudential or Cedergren
buildings (J. Sigalin, Warszawa 1944-1980. Z archiwum
architekta, Warszawa 1986, vol. 2, p. 429).
The sacral (quasi-sacral) reality of the Palace could
be testified not only by the irrational and often mysti­
cal nature of experiences associated with it, but also
the language of architecture in which it speaks to us.
Wojciech Włodarczyk, author of an interesting study
about socialist realism (in which, unfortunately, the
Palace of Culture is treated in a rather fragmentary
and marginal fashion, with the author discussing only
the portal of the main entrance and focusing his at­
tention on the candelabras in Konstytucji Square),
devoted much attention to the mystical dimension of
this architecture (cf. W. Włodarczyk, Socrealizm. Sz­
tuka Polska w latach 1950-54, Libella, Paris 1986, in
particular chapter 3 - Mysticism architektury, pp. 39­
53). Noting that alongside military terminology ar­
chitectural vocabulary comprises the prime material
of the speeches, Włodarczyk drew attention that the
ideological obligations imposed upon architecture as
well as socialist realistic architecture as such created
a mystical communication of sorts between, and with
the public. Such architecture was supposed to be a
pretext for members of the public who were thus to
become capable of experiencing the greatness of the
epoch. The theses proposed by Włodarczyk about the
mystical experience provided by the architecture of
socialist realism, speaking a language characteristic for
such experiences - expressed in coincidentia oppositorum, a union and combination of opposites - find their
particular confirmation in the example of the Palace
of Culture. One could say that the latter was one great
coincidentia oppositorum, whose different dimensions on
assorted levels merged contradictions and opposites.
The Palace is a blend of high art and tradition with
their folk counterparts, force and lightness, sound and
silence, the old and the new, the local and the glo­
bal, the foreign and the native. What features had not
been ascribed to the Palace? They include the voice of
Ewa Bandrowska-Turska and Nike from the Louvre;
naturally, it had been described as the “Warsaw Eiffel
Tower”. The Palace, as we shall see, often combines
the contradictory ambiance of fascination and horror,
and for some it remains an example of order and har-

mony while for others - of chaos; it is a foretaste of
freedom:
In a town closest to my heart
I shall see slender towers,
A fort, of which only
a free man is worthy.
A lantern that glows
with beauty and science.
(T. Kubiak, N a budowę Pałacu Kultury i Nauki),
or of rude enslavement.
All those a m b i g u o u s moods and meanings
amassed by the Palace best demonstrate its a m b i
g u i t y as a symbol. They also display the different
dimensions and levels (either in the positive or the
negative part of the Palace myth) in which it realises
the fundamental function of the myth, i.e. an attempt
at “expressing the inexpressible”.
Testimonies of this mystical experience offered by
the Palace, that unification of contradictions, are to
be found in the following selected statements:
Academician Rudnev: (...) The purpose of this project
is to create a uniform image of beauty that would blend
with architecture into a single architectural entity with Old
Warsaw (...) The uppermost part of the building seems to
dissolve in the air; just like the voice of Ewa Bandrows­
ka-Turska spans from silence to uppermost crystal clear
sounds so we too, in the construction of this building, must
strive towards creating a lightness of form, a magnificence
of the forms of the erected edifice in a transition from the
monumental lower parts... (J. Sigalin, Warszawa..., op.
cit., vol. 2, p. 435).27
The Palace of Culture and Science is a work of the
Soviet architectural school, exceptionally apt in its loca­
tion, dimension, and fragmentation of the solid. (...) The
impression made by the building is lightness, joyfulness,
nativeness, and the feeling that it almost has been a part
of Warsaw (J. Minorski, O projekcie szkicowym Pałacu
Kultury i Nauki, “Architektura” 1952, no. 7-8).
Helena Syrkusowa spoke during a discussion held
at a meeting of architects:
The Palace of Culture and Science has become a part
of Warsaw. It was feared that it might be a stranger but
it turned into a tuning fork of New Warsaw (J. Sigalin,
Warszawa..., op. cit., vol. 3, p. 83).
The synthesis of high and low (folk) tradition was
also considered: The Palace of Culture and Science is not
supposed to be merely great - it is to be beautiful. As the
central building in Warsaw, the socialist capital of Poland,
it should possess the characteristic features of Polish ar­
chitecture, elements borrowed from the treasury of Polish
architectural culture. Soviet designers thus went on a
trip across Poland. They examined the historical monu­
ments of Cracow and the buildings of Zamość, raised in
the magnificent Renaissance style. Their sketchbooks re­
corded successive fragments of the pearls of architecture
in Kazimierz, Chełmno, Kielce and Toruń. They noticed

94

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

and noted all the distinctive traits of our architecture, all
the most splendid fragments of buildings-remnants of the
epoch of the zenith of this art in our country. Finally, they
departed and once again the studios of Moscow became the
site of busy work. A project was made. This work, whose
outcome was the emergence of a project of the Palace, is
described by Lev Rudnev, member of the Academy of A r­
chitecture of the USSR.
“We spent much time examining the special features
of Polish national architecture before we chose a variant
of the project and definitely established the architecture
of the building. We reached for Polish folk art, travelled
across Polish towns, observed Warsaw rising from the ru­
ins, sought the advise of Polish architects. We discovered
a common language with Polish architecture —and this
proved decisive for the success of our project. The style
of the Palace is synchronised with the most beautiful ex­
amples of Polish architecture and, at the same time, it is
quite new. It must be stressed that the foundation of Polish
architecture is —if one eliminates foreign borrowings - as­
sociated with the people, with life. It is light and airy, does
not encumber man but elevates him" (...).
Premises similar to those that inspired the construction
of Moscow skyscrapers lie at the basis of the conceptions
of the Warsaw Palace of Culture. We saw how it is pos­
sible to adapt it to the words of a resolution pertaining to
Moscow skyscrapers, which are to be “original in their
architectural-artistic composition and connected with the
historical architecture of the town”. Just as in their case,
the Palace of Culture should not be, and will not be “a rep­
etition of models of multi-storey buildings known abroad“.
(J. Dąbrowski, Pałac Kultury i Nauki, Mała Biblioteka
TWP, Warszawa 1953, pp. 7-8 and 25-26).
This whole enormous edifice will be raised in
the spirit of Polish masterpieces of architecture. (...)
In the Palace of Culture and Science we see dynamics
characteristic for Polish architectural models: the massive
main building is topped by a boldly soaring, much nar­
rower spire. The architectural solution of the lower
fragments of the Palace brings to mind somewhat the
Cracow Cloth Halls, while the congress hall, a semi­
rotunda, contains elements of the Barbican, so typical
for Polish architecture.
The outstanding artistic assets of the building were
jointly accentuated by Polish architects requested to assess
the project. They declared that the building is a harmo­
nious part of the development of Warsaw and excellently
composed into its panorama (J. Dąbrowski, Podniebny ...
, op. cit., pp. 9-10).
It was also said that the Palace of Culture is a com­
bination of the Cracow Renaissance and Warsaw Clas­
sicism.
Engineer architect Skibniewski asserted that the in the
stylisation of the building Soviet architects resorted to the
examples of the most outstanding works of the Cracow
Renaissance. The building also reflects the tranquil Clas­

sicism of Warsaw architecture. Prof. Biegański drew at­
tention to certain features of the architectural similarity of
the Palace to Polish historical architecture. (...) Engineer
architect Stępiński, discussing the harmonious blend of
the architectural elements of Cracow Renaissance and
W arsaw Classicism, declared that it is precisely this fea­
ture that grants the Palace the qualities of equanimity (...).
Academician Rudnev discussed the guidelines of the work
performed by the architects and accentuated that “they
strove towards creating an atmosphere of warmth, love
and respect for man, so that everyone, both a child and an
adult, would want to come and relax here“. (J. Dąbrow­
ski, Podniebny..., op. cit., pp. 10-12).

The phantom centre of the world
The above-cited texts showing the Palace of Cul­
ture as a unity of contradictions outline the successive
motif of our reflections and inevitably lead towards
the symbolism of the centre. This involves questions
about the extent to which it is a constant point ena­
bling orientation in the world, the degree to which it
amasses echoes and is the reverse of traditional, archaic
conceptions of the “centre of the world” described by
Eliade (cf. M. Eliade, Sacrum, mit, historia, Warszawa
1978, chapter II: Element rzeczywistości mitycznej). The
extent to which it is not only that constant “absolute”
point of support enabling orientation but also a centre
that established “our world’, the “Cosmos”, whose or­
der opposes “chaos”, the same “centre of the world” as
each temple and palace that summarise the world and
act as its image. These issues are directly connected
with the way in which the Palace of Culture preserves
and contains the structure and character of a sacred
site.
While responding to those questions, which can
be reduced to a single query concerning the manner
in which the symbolism of the centre is recorded in
the Palace of Culture, we are compelled to preserve
additional caution.
First, we must remember about the “frame” of the
Palace, the specific site in which it had been situated.
Marta Zielińska wrote in Studium o Placu Defilad:
At the northern and southern edge of the square, more
or less at the level of Poznańska Street, the pavement fea­
tures two commemorative plaques. There used to be a third
one, but I did not find it - it had vanished behind the fenc­
ing around the construction site. Probably no other city
has similar tablets, which do not commemorate people or
events but mark ordinary street crossings. The inscription
on one of them says: “Here was the crossing of Chmielna
and Wielka streets". “Was" —now these are the ghosts
of crossings, symbolic gravestones —so popular here. (...)
Nor do I know who came across this idea but I do know
that it enabled the spirit of Warsaw to speak, the spirit
of a town deprived of a sufficiently solid and unchanged
material foundation that now seeks refuge in ideal be­
95

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

ings, namely, in words and letters.28 This is expressed by
the protagonist of Tadeusz Konwicki’s film How Far
Away, How Near, setting out on his way home into
the past or the future (he obviously finds it difficult to
define the direction) from the main entrance of the
Palace of Culture, against a current of a group of visi­
tors, late and dashing into the Palace interior.29 He is
the protagonist of a film in which the Palace plays a
considerable role, is shown from time to time, and is
used as a setting for events transpiring in the course of
the journey: The towering outline of the Palace of Cul­
ture conceals the setting Sun. Above it, in the memora­
ble scene opening the film, the figure of a Hassidic Jew
(the Eternal Wanderer?) flies amidst clouds - an im­
age of a condemned soul cast into the void of Hell or
lifted into the heavens, high above the Palace and the
crossing of Jerozolimskie Avenue and Marszałkowska
Street.30 The protagonist of the film turns to the ghost
of a friend who had committed suicide: You see, Maks,
this is our whole town. So often occupied by foreigners,
tortured, and razed to the ground. Our town. Sometimes
in the centre of Europe, upon other occasions East Euro­
pean.31 Keep in mind the city’s specific and unclear,
phantom-like character and status, this exclusive am­
biguity of the “centre” and “heart” of Poland.
Secondly, remember the principle accompanying
assorted symbols, namely, that just as in the case of
heretofore considered themes and symbolic motifs as­
sociated with the Palace so in this case, when we are
talking about the Palace and the symbolism of the cen­
tre, the content only flickers through the expression and the
latter only indicates the content by means of allusion.
This phenomenal and illusory nature of the Palace
and its phantom-like quality are stressed in numerous
texts:
It was spring, probably May, at sunrise, wrote Gus­
taw Morcinek. I leaned out of the train arriving in War­
saw and suddenly I saw the soaring, white outline of the
Palace of Culture in the rising Sun. The sky was deep blue,
and in it - the immersed white silhouette of the Palace of
Culture. It resembled a phantom and mainly brought to
my mind Nike from the Parisian Louvre. It cast a spell on
me with its extraordinarily slim, towering, skyward shape,
and just like the other Nike it spoke of victory and faith in
man (“Trybuna Robotnicza”, 12 April 1972).
Attention to this phenomenal quality and demate­
rialisation of socialist realistic architecture was drawn
by Włodarczyk - the inclination to encumber archi­
tecture with ideological obligations and duties occurred
parallel with a tendency towards a “dematerialisation" of
the building, erecting it in a painterly fashion, concealing
its geometry and tectonics underneath expanded ornaments
(cf. W. Włodarczyk, Socrealizm, op. cit., p. 41).
Whenever the idea of the centre of the world is being
considered it is simply impossible to omit citing a poem
by Tadeusz Kubiak, which alongside home motifs (a nest,

a swallow nesting next to a beam) contains an outright
inversion of this idea. In traditional versions, the “centre”
is an orientation point and marks four parts of the world,
but in the case of the Palace the diversity of parts of the
world vanishes in its beauty. The pinnacle of the Palace
directs our sight (in accordance with the original meaning
of the word in Polish) only to the East whence one can
see the Don, the Volga. and an outline of the Ural Mts.
Only love for daily objects as simple
as a chisel, a masonry hammer, or
a trowel, and belief in works produced by the human
hand
can attach us in an hour of the greatest heat wave
or even in the downpour rustling among leafs,
will not allow us to abandon the scaffolding that con­
ceals walls.
This poem passed the test, my friend,
when we recently traversed
the storeys of the Palace of Culture.
I have often watched labour and great toil,
the busy swallow carrying in its beak
a lump of soil to a nest next to a beam,
or human hands like swallow wings,
hovering over work and love
that fills your heart.
Friend, recall This is what I spoke to you about when the Palace of Culture stood
in front of us, like a nest. Like a monument.
I know how much heart is needed to build as if for
oneself
in a city whose name differs so much from
that of your hometown. When the night puts out the
star
and day lights the Sun
—to submerge oneself like a deep sea diver
with a diving suit and a blowtorch
into the artificial stars of fire
into the vertical steel construction, or to climb up­
wards
along a wall as steep as a precipice.
My friend. The
diversity of parts of the world will vanish
in the beauty of the Palace of Culture.
I am familiar with longing for that wondrous moment
when hands rest on a completed work.
Those on the highest storey, with hands
raised to their forehead, may see scrubs along the Don,
green birches along the Volga and the outline of the
Ural Mts.
while I shall be entering interiors of marble in War­
saw.
96

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

Friend, thus each day links us with the distant
and each brick of the Palace of Culture - with each
other.
(Tadeusz Kubiak, Rozmowa na budowie Pałacu Kul­
tury w Warszawie wiosną 1953 roku, from the cycle:
Miłość prawdziwa).
The Palace of Culture is also an untypical centre be­
cause it lies... to the side. This eccentricity was stressed
upon numerous occasions: in Warsaw all large streets lead
towards the sky. None ends with some sort of an architec­
tural accent - apart from the unfortunate candelabras in
Konstytucji Square. Situating the Palace of Culture and
Science eccentrically vis a vis the largest municipal arteries
is yet more proof that architects do not fear draughts and
are fond of endless street vistas. (...) The Palace does not
close any large artery of the capital. Its outline is distinctly
seen from Służewiec or Stara Miłosna, but at the crossing
of Nowy Świat Street with the Avenue, or Marszałkowska
Street with Wspólna Sreet it disappears, concealed by non­
descript town houses (Jerzy Putrament, O ‘elewactwie’ i
innych sprawach warszawskich, “Zycie Warszawy”, 15
January 1955).
This strange centre, better noticeable in the town
peripheries and along its edges - expressed by the poet­
ic intuition of Adam Nowak as “the most magnificent
ornament of a splendid capital” - concentrated atten­
tion and disturbed serious architects who while dis­
cussing the solution of Stalina (Defilad) Square, the
centre and the East Wall, stressed the inconsistency
of the Palace, which already has a place of its own in
the panorama of Warsaw (...) but the accessibility of this
central location of the Palace of Culture is simultaneously
rather limited (cf. J. Sigalin, Warszawa, op. cit, vol. 3,
p. 77). A t the same time, references were made to ex­
emplary models of such superb solutions as Place de la
Concorde in Paris, where arteries connected the cen­
tral square with the whole town, rue Rapalle, Place de
la Madeleine, and all the other reasons why: When in
Paris, it is impossible not to cross Place de la Concorde and
to ignore the obelisk brought by Napoleon I from Luxor,
whilst when we observe the Palace of Culture we rarely
see it, and its location in the centre of Warsaw appears
to be some sort of a paradox (J. Sigalin, ibid.). In order
to prevent this, other Parisian models were evoked,
and the Palace of Culture was compared to the Eiffel
Tower: Together with my colleagues at the studio we tried
to insert the outline of the Palace of Culture into that of the
Eiffel Tower because there is a certain affiliation between
those two monuments (ibid.). It was also suggested to
turn to the legacy left behind by Le Notre, the esplanade
of the magnificent solution of the Versailles Park next to
the palace (ibid., p. 85).
Apparently, the Palace of Culture links opposites
and assorted motifs constituting its ”absence of clarity”
and ambivalence. It connected motifs of the South and
the North (Cracow Renaissance and Warsaw Classi­

cism), the East and the West (scrubland along the Don
and an outline of the Ural Mts.; the Eiffel Tower and
the Versailles gardens), reflecting the following prin­
ciples of a town: Sometimes in the centre of Europe, upon
other occasions East European. It appears to be either a
non-integrated particle or a synthesis of national ar­
chitecture, according to all the rules of the Barthesian
principle of the myth as its “natural centre”. (Studying
the national features of Polish architecture... finally made
it possible to create a project that will be completely new for
the town and merge with it organically, creating a natural
centre of the Capital - cf. J. Dąbrowski, Pałac..., op. cit.,
p. 9). Paradoxically, the Palace of Culture also blends
within itself the order of the “Cosmos” and “Chaos”.
We come across two competing experiences: Chaos
and Order, the native “Cosmos”, in the already cited
study by Marta Zielińska. First, when she wrote:
Today, the square is fading more and more. The
chaos of this site is astounding considering that this is
the centre of, after all, a European capital and vividly
negates the name it was once granted. Scarce passersby vanish in the distance, following some sort of invis­
ible trails playing the part of streets; cars circulate just
as helplessly, while large trucks and buses park nearby.
From the side of the Avenue one sees fences and digs,
and from Świętokrzyska Street —the remnants of stalls
with few haphazard traders; all this is encircled along the
edges with quite young but already sickly trees. Recently,
there appeared a pickled whale, probably to supplement
the chaos. This text was written several years ago and
today the described mayhem is increased even fur­
ther by an international, free-market “bazaar” and
one of the first “ sex-shops” situated in a stall main­
tained in a camping-Mazovian-Podhale style, all am­
plified with the lowing of suffering cattle left for the
night with no water in trucks parked in the square as the press and radio informed recently. Describing
Defilad Square, Zielińska noticed: Strangely and even
symbolically it reflects the plight of Warsaw, the entire
convoluted history of the last 150 years. History (...) has
made a circle: the square was once a meadow with cha­
otically scattered wooden houses and planted trees, and
now, contrary to all architects’ plans, it once again comes
close to this appearance.
True, the Palace stands but one has to look up in or­
der to see it, because normally from the vantage point of
a pedestrian only its particular wings detached from each
other and not comprising a sensible whole can seen in the
distance. It is much too large to be embraced, and thus
has disintegrated into pieces: the bottom and the top are
separate, and in addition the bottom has collapsed into
several fragments. He who finds himself at the foot of the
Palace gazes mainly at empty space on all three sides of
the world.
Alongside this Cubist experience of the Palace,
enhancing the associated feeling of chaos, we find an
97

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

entirely different confession. The author, a contempo­
rary of the Palace, added:
I appreciated the Palace’s height and was uninterested
in the contents. Whenever I returned to Warsaw from my
vacations I always waited for the moment when a tiny Pal­
ace of Culture would appear from afar. “Oh, the Palace”
- we would call out and enjoy the pleasant awareness that
home was near. In other words, a semblance of a light­
house effect. I cannot say that I did not experience sym­
pathy of sorts, especially towards the Palace swiderviewed
from a distance, for example, from the banks of the Vistula
in Świder. As long as I remained within its range I knew
that I would not get lost and if anyhting should happen I
would always find my way —I even tried to traverse this
route in my childish imagination (p. 124).
Having recorded all these paradoxes and sui generis
splits in the perception of the Palace now let us go back
to the original ideological premise at its basis and pay
some attention to the symbolism of the centre record­
ed within. A t the same time, it is worth mentioning
that the Palace constituted an essential novelty on the
city plan. Situated along a former edge, on the site of
former chaos, the Palace, together with the sequence
of Marszałkowska Street starting from the MDM, the
planned centre (today: the East Wall), and Stalina
(Defilad) Square, created a parallel and simultaneous­
ly competing sequence to the Old Warsaw Route, the
Royal Route running from the Old Town, the Royal
Castle, Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, Nowy Świat
Street, Ujazdowskie Avenue, “across” Łazienki Park
and Belweder Palace all the way to Wilanów - a se­
quence marked by history and the extensive symbolics
connected with the history of the town and country.
Warsaw is a specific city, whose “centre”, brimming
with historical symbols, stretches parallel to the Vis­
tula along the Royal Route and the North-South axis.
The location of the Palace not only created a competi­
tive, new centre progressing parallel along the same
axis but accentuated the East-West direction, insig­
nificant apart from the Saxon, Stanisławowska, and
Ujazdowska axes.
Architects and observes often complained
that the town ” runs away from the Vistula”, that it
does not descend towards the river and remains un­
connected with its right-bank part as if unware of cer­
tain logic in such an accentuation of the North-South
axis reflecting the course of the Vistula connecting
Cracow, Warsaw, and Gdańsk (since, as Piotr Skrzy­
necki repeated after Wiesław Dymny: We have friends
on three sides, but the sea only on one). It is precisely
along the Vistula and upon the basis of anthropologi­
cal research and measurements that Talko-Hryncewicz determined the ethnographic boundary between
Asia and Europe, the East and the West.
Placing the Palace of Culture in the western part
of the town not only emphasised the direction towards

which the city turned its back, but also realised the
rule of a temple, sacral orientation. The less impor­
tant side walls of the Palace sprawled between the
South and the North, while its “altar”, ritual part, if
this is how we may describe the platform from which
all parades and marches were to be watched, the stat­
ues in front of the façade, and the portal of the main
entrance faced the East. (It is here, to the East Wall,
that it was planned to transfer the “town hall” and
administration offices while discussing solutions con­
cerning the new centre and the best way to display the
Palace - whether to introduce arches and colonnades
or leave wider open space).
In order to illustrate this new valorisation in the
mythical geography of the town here is a plan making
it possible to better follow its symbolic-centric con­
tents:

1. Main entrance
2. Stand
3. Site of planned statue of J. Stalin
4. Odra and Vistula fountains
5. Pillar-road sign
5A. Obelisks
Marszałkowska Street

In 1953 the Palace of Culture and Science was
granted the name of Joseph Stalin (When in distant
Moscow the great heart of Comrade Stalin, friend of the
Polish people, leader of the working masses all over the
world, ceased to beat, the Government of People’s Poland
passed a resolution... - J. Dąbrowski, Podniebny..., op.
98

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

Vistula and the Odra (cf. Grażyna Stankiewicz, Jak
powstał Pałac Kultury, typescript, p. 71).
3. A granite obelisk (at the corner of Jerozolimskie
Avenue and Marszałkowska Street, at present disas­
sembled for the duration of redesigning an under­
ground passage and the construction of the metro)
indicating directions and distances to all European
capitals and more important Polish cities - of slight
usefulness for drivers but what symbolics! The heart of
the matter lies in distances to Warsaw, its centre, and the
central square. And from here - a window onto the world!
(cf. Sigalin, op. cit., vol. 3, p. 147), that celebrated pil­
lar of laughter mentioned by L. Stomma in a fragment
concerning the mythical dimension of geography (in:
Z zapisków etnologa, a letter send by L. Stomma to the
editors: Słoń a sprawa etnologii, “Polska Sztuka Lu­
dowa” 1982, no. 1-4). The construction of this road sign
historically refers to Polish road signs - a granite road sign
in Konin dating from 1511 and still extant, measuring the
precise distance between Konin and Kruszwica (“Zycie
Warszawy” , 18 July 1955).
4. Two colour water walls separate Defilad Square
from Jerozolimskie Avenue and Świętokrzyska Street.
Nine metre-high streams will be produced by fountains
symbolising the Vistula and the Odra (“Express Wiec­
zorny”, 20/21 July 1955).
(In other words, the Vistula and the Odra were
situated along the East-West axis - sic! Z. B.).
5. A sundial without dials, in which a ray of the Sun is
to measure man’s time on Earth (Jerzy Janicki, op. cit.).
Actually, there were to be two such dials, one, lemniscate-type, near the Pavilions of the Śródmieście (City
Centre) Train Station, and the other, analematic, in a
park in Świętokrzyska Street. Or rather ... a complete
explanation is offered by the Master, Docent Przyp­
kowski, in connection with the damage incurred by
vandals: In 1954 I measured, and a year later outlined
eight sundials next to the Palace of Culture. A large, analematic dial, in whose case man himself is the dial (so that
no one may steal it again), and seven lemniscate-type ones,
which were to show time from dawn to twilight. This is one
of the few sundials in the world to indicate user time. Un­
fortunately, the face was executed on a frail pivot. Con­
sequently, it was supplemented already several times and
alltold in the past 15 years the dial worked for perhaps half
a year. I can present the documentation on a subbotnik
basis (“Express Wieczorny”, 30/31 May 1970).
6. Garden, 3,6 hectares.
Trees and shrubs came from all over Poland. Mag­
nificent oaks were offered by Szczecin, maples - by Śrem,
spruce and rhododendrons came from Wrocław, linden
trees - from the voivodeship of Lublin, with the whole of
Poland contributing to arranging the Palace Park (Jerzy
Janicki, op. cit.). 20 000 trees according to specially
selected species: linden, hornbeam, beeches, plane
trees, rowan trees, poplars, apple trees, birch, spruce,

cit.). It was also decided to place in front of the main
entrance a monument (on the competition for the
design cf. the reminiscences of Henryk Urbanowicz:
The most eccentric was a statue of Stalin by Xawery Dun­
ikowski —the Master proposed a granite sculpture made
of great blocks comprising the whole figure, including the
head. The direct intervention of the artist was to be lim­
ited to a minimum. Enormous legs-shoes, built of slabs,
trampled the ground, and the figure, usually depicted while
breathing out, this time inhaled deeply, slightly swelling the
cheeks and, indifferent and menacing, appeared to be spit­
ting on the whole world - “Stolica”, 14 November 1988;
cf. Grażyna Stankiewicz, Jak powstał PKiN, “Res Pub­
lica”, 1990, no. 3).
The project was never implemented but the im­
portance of the undertaking is testified by a discussion
held by sculptors and architects deliberating whether
the remaining statues from the Palace facade should
be sitting or standing. I can imagine Mickiewicz sitting.
But for Kościuszko to sit?; the figures were to include
men of science, artists, freedom fighters, and heroes.
The pantheon was to be composed of Chopin, CurieSkłodowska, Copernicus, Mickiewicz, Lelewel, M ate­
jko, and “couples”: Bogusławski - Staszic, Kołłątaj Śniadecki, Kościuszko - Świerczewski or Marchlewski
- Waryński, as well as Frycz-Modrzewski, Wit Stwosz,
and Jan of Kolno, albeit the last three gave rise to
doubts: There are no photographs (cf. Większego wyboru
pozycji nie ma - minutes from a discussion, prep. Jacek
Królak, “Res Publica” 1990, no. 3, pp. 34-40). The only
remnants of those projects are two executed sculp­
tures (both of sitting figures) at the sides of the main
entrance: Adam Mickiewicz (by Ludwika Nitschowa)
and Copernicus (by Stanisław Horno-Popławski). Next
to a synthesis and a quintessence of the masterpieces
of Polish architecture (We showed then all the historical
monuments of Warsaw, Cracow, Toruń, Kazimierz on the
Vistula, Puławy, Płock, Czerwińsk, Nieborów, and Kielce
- and they kept taking photographs... . They became ac­
quainted with the Tatra Mts., Żelazowa Wola, Nieszawa
(...). We presented them with albums showing Krasiczyn,
Baranów, Sandomierz, and Gdańsk. They admired paint­
ings by Canaletto - cf. J. Sigalin, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 430),
elements of the symbolism of the centre and the image
of the world contained in the ideological premises of
the Palace and the square include:
1. The above mentioned sitting figures of Coper­
nicus and Mickiewicz, and 29 sculptures standing in
semi-circular niches in the Palace walls and portraying
figures from all over the world (cf. Jerzy Janicki, op. cit.,
p. 28).
2. The government stand with an eagle (the em­
blem of the People’s Republic of Poland); originally, it
was planned to display the eagle above the platform,
next to, i.a. semi-reclining figures personifying the

99

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

firs and oaks, Japanese cherry, yews, and about 10
000 shrubs and perennials representing sixty species,
including rhododendrons and azaleas, were brought
from all over the country (cf. J. Sigalin, op. cit., vol.
2, p. 146).
7. The Congress Hall —here future peace congresses
will be held, words about peace will be spoken in all lan­
guages of the world [and addressed to the West - Z. B.].
The Palace is to become a centre of science and culture, a
site radiating the wisdom and beauty of our nation (Jerzy
Janicki, op. cit.).
8. One of the largest squares in Europe, the site of
demonstrations held by 700 000 people (“Express Wiec­
zorny”, 18 January 1954); two vertical obelisks (see:
explanation further on).
9. Tables with brass letters: “Here stood the clock
tower of the Warsaw-Vienna Rail Station”, “Pańska
Street”, "Złota Street”, “Wielka Street”, “Śliska
Street”, “Chmielna Street”.
Owing to the symbolic of the centre (next to al­
lusive traditional elements: mountains, cliffs, towers,
water, trees-garden, columns - all characteristic for a
holy site) just as important are calculations made by
statisticians creating a sui generis tradition of the cen­
tral character of the Palace, whose reference points
are Vladivostok and Madrid:
Placed one next to another the bricks used for building
the Palace of Culture and Science would take up space
from Warsaw to Vladivostok (“Express Wieczorny”, 5
April 1955).
Stretched out, the electric, water main, and air-condi­
tioning ducts would achieve a length of 2 500 000 m =
2 500 km, i.e. more or less the distance from Warsaw to
Madrid (“Express Wieczorny”, 27 April 1955).
If we were to remove the floor in each interior and
place it on the ground we would create a square with sides
400 m = 160 000 m2 large; such a square, which does
not exist in Warsaw, could accommodate four Ujazdowski
Parks and serve enormous demonstrations attended by
hundreds of thousands (“Express Wieczorny”, 27 April
1955).
If a child were born in the Palace and without leaving it
slept there every night in a different room it would exit the
building at the age of 22 (ibidem).
Six days are needed to tour the whole Palace, stopping
only for a single minute in each interior (“Express Wiec­
zorny”, 5 April 1955).
A May Day demonstration was first held in front of
the Palace on 1 May 1955. Next to drawings and pho­
tographs of the Palace there also appeared a special
occasion poem reflecting the ambiance of the Central
Square:
North, South,
West and East
The Pole and the equator
The village and the town
100

A tiny cottage and a skyscraper
A French port and the Chinese Wall
The worker, the peasant, our friend and brother
And the whole globe
And the whole world
Celebrate May Day
In Spain provocateurs and spies
Will go out to roam
The prison will be filled
With political prisoners
But a piece of red fabric hangs
Even from the thickest grates
On the fresh grave of Belojanis
Someone placed a red flower
Fathers, mothers,
Sons, daughters,
Soldiers, six year-olds
Arranged into fours
Or better still into tens!
Wider, wider, wider
The spinners of Łódz
The dockers of Gdańsk
Or better still in hundreds
More, more, more!
Peasants and workers
a hundred thousands each!
More, more. More!
Peasants and workers
A hundred thousand each!
On this day with red flags,
that socialist nerve system
The world makes a fraternal sign:
Peace —Victory —Redness
A ship, an airplane, an automobile
Together with us! With us!
Soldiers of peace —join the march
O f millions!
We shall put an end to all scoundrels.
Tear off the heads of hydras.
Across Asia, Europe, America
We carry the colour Red Black Negroes
Yellow Chinese
Brown Hindus - all red
The banner is raised by the Russians
Red in every land
Red enhancing the streets
Red must win
Overcome the reactionary black!
(J. Prutkowski, 1 Maja, “Express Wieczorny”, 1
May 1955)
Newspapers announced in connection with the
emergence of the Palace of Culture and the progress
of the construction work, nearing its end: In ten years

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

Warsaw will be the most beautiful city in the world (“Ex­
press Wieczorny”, 21/22 July 1954).
Already in 1955 in a letter from Silesia Gustaw
Morcinek, having toured the “Warsaw” cinema, the
MDM, Marszałkowska Street and the Old Town,
wrote: ... When I saw the Palace of Culture I thought Farona Kandego [a Silesian expletive]! Today Warsaw
is already the loveliest town in the world (“Zycie Warsza­
wy”, 15 January 1955).
The ceremonial opening of the Palace took place
on 22 July 1955 in connection with celebrations of the
state holiday of the People’s Republic of Poland.
Three years ago we stood in this square with our Sovi­
et friends, builders (...) and together with the Soviet com­
rades we threw kopeks and groszy pieces into the still soft
concrete for luck, according to an old builders’ custom
(from a speech given by Prime Minister J. Cyrankie­
wicz, Palace Chronicle, 1955). The Fifth World Fes­
tival of Youth and Students took place in Warsaw in
August 1955, thus making a specific contribution to
experiencing the symbolism of the centre associated
with the Palace, next to which assorted events, fes­
tivities, and the closing march-demonstration were
held. Alongside information about the festival being
attended by representatives of almost every nation in
the world mention was also made of such symbolic
accents as placing next to a clock, in the middle of
a large circle with a diameter of 5,4 metres, a compass
rose situated according to parts of the world (“Express
Wieczorny”, 11 July 1955), while the banners of all
nations were affixed on a mast at the corner of Jero­
zolimskie Avenue and Marszałkowska Street, near
a granite signpost, (“Express Wieczorny”, 31 July/1
August 1955). The Palace of Culture became an es­
sential emblem of the festival - vide a special-occasion
poster showing the globe and on it a map of Europe
featuring in the centre the rising Palace; above, a
white dove of peace soars, below - inscriptions: “Pax,
Pokój, Frieden”, and underneath - three heads: pale
with “European” features, yellow with slanting eyes,
and black (cf. “Express Wieczorny”, 31 July/1 August
1955).
The Palace of Culture seems to have been an ex­
traordinary place, the source of admiration and fas­
cination. Its descriptions and testimonies contain a
conspicuous element of mirum (the marvellous). The
ceremonial mood was embedded already in the ideo­
logical premises of the building, turning it into a sui
generis holy site:
The approach of a noisy group of citizens intending
to enter the Palace of Culture and Science requires a
democratic openness of forms to be fulfilled by the en­
trance porticos and portals, whose artistic message intro­
duced those entering to an elevated mood of anticipating
the important experiences awaiting them (Jan Minorski,
op. cit.).

The visitors remained under a great impression of
the Palace and faced it with admiration and fascina­
tion:
During our tour it was impossible to examine every­
thing. Our heads are already spinning from an excess of
impressions. We saw the enormous halls of the Museum
of Technology (...). We walked on oaken stairs, touched
profiled doorknobs cast in bronze, noiselessly shut behind
us scores of splendid doors. We passed whole brigades of
stucco masters, carpenters, and fitters. It seemed that all
those people are caressing each fragment (Jerzy Ciszewski,
Z tarasu..., “Express Wieczorny”, 28/29 July 1954).
The microclimate is watched over by an invisible keeper
protecting the interior against an influx of cold air. Special
filters provide the whole building with fresh mountain air
devoid of dust (“Express Wieczorny”, 1 January 1954).
Fascination does not become obliterated with the
passage of time; on the contrary, such experiences
grew more vivid. The vulnerable adoration produced
by the Palace was described by Kazimierz Koźniewski,
who called the Palace the symbol of our times:
When one and a half years ago I toured the interior
the impression of space was not all that great. Today, its
enormity simply overwhelms: I face this quantity of rooms
full of helpless admiration. I have the impression that one
can explore the entire Palace not more than once in a life­
time (Symbol naszego czasu, “Zycie Warszawy” , 2 May
1955).
A t the same time, the Palace is a symbol of new rela­
tions between free nations (ibid.).
This symbolic and sacral character intended by the
authors of the Palace and its decorations was often ex­
pressed directly:
(Director Motyka): I told engineer Sigalin that my res­
ervations pertain to the form of the allegories and that sym­
bols would be more appropriate. It is irrelevant whether
they are to be portrayed with the help of angels or the mus­
es. For me they are all sculptures. We can depict PolishSoviet friendship as an angel bestowing a blessing, etc.
(...) It is necessary to reflect whether certain abstract
phenomena cannot be really expressed in any other way
than only according to the conventions of the Baroque
or the Renaissance. Everyone was struck by the fact that
these sculptures are so old-fashioned while the Palace is
thoroughly modern.
(Colleague Wiśniewski): The sculptures must be dei­
fied and depict extraordinary figures. The Palace of Cul­
ture is not an ordinary residential house, but there is talk
of featuring ordinary people. These must be metaphorically
sanctified figures.
(Director Motyka): You executed the statue Peace­
time Frontier —a girl wearing an ordinary dress, and still
no one claims that she is a mere worker. This is a symbol,
a synthesis of the convictions of certain people. This must
be a synthesis of our times, and, simultaneously, sanctified.
Otherwise, we would be forced to draw the conclusion that

101

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

we are incapable of creating new forms for sanctifying new
times (Większego wyboru pozycji nie ma, “Res Publica”
1990, no. 3.)
Experiences connected with the Palace interiors
and symbolics also reflect its sacral dimension. The
Palace tradition knows of numerous visitors behaving
as if they were worshipping in church, as in the case
described by Hanna Krall:
(Mr. Klein, head of order-keeping services): A medical
doctor is summoned, in my opinion quite incorrectly, to
people kneeling, just like in church, in front of a bas-relief
symbolising peace and prosperity. This enormous statue,
dripping with gilt, shows a female symbolising the moth­
erland, a dove (peace), an ear of grain (good harvest),
a child (motherhood), and many other symbols, and to
all intents and purposes, as the Palace architect engineer
Adamkiewicz says, no one really knows what it depicts be­
cause the builders did not leave any pertinent instructions.
When behind the figure, further on, a door opens and a
brightly lit hall is seen the mood becomes so splendid and
uplifting that everyone feels the urge to kneel; why call the
doctor immediately? (“Polityka”, 19 July 1975).
Not only did the Palace spire draw the gazes of the
local residents, fascinate, and attract but it possessed
a specific magnetic force. This magnetism and sacral
dimension of the Palace are evidenced by ... a portfo­
lio of “untypical correspondence” in the possession of
Hanna Szczubełek, who keeps the Palace Chronicle.
All sorts of letters personify the Palace, addressed as:
"Dear Palace”, and make miscellaneous requests. Faith
in power capable of resolving mundane needs is inter­
mixed with a sui generis symbolism of the centre - the
Palace was envisaged as the seat of the government
and the residence of Party first secretaries (probably
due to associations produced by the Congress Hall).
Here, all local and world issues converge and the cor­
respondence constitutes a unique votive body. Natu­
rally, the letters are full of symptoms of sheer pathol­
ogy (also in the more profound meaning of the word,
i.e. suffering) and madness, which so often adjoins the
sacrum. Apparently, the Palace, in the manner of eve­
ry sacrum, attracted also insanity. The correspondence
comes from different periods; note that the last letter
was written in 1989. Whenever possible, I add dates
in parentheses.
The best example of the sacral can be the convic­
tion that the Palace is the residence of Santa Claus;
Ania from Sokółka wrote: Dear Santa, I know that you
live in Warsaw on the uppermost storey of the Palace of
Culture. Pay me a visit this Christmas and bring me an
inflatable mattress.
2. Authors of the letters turned to the Palace for
assistance in resolving property disputes: Dear Palace,
help me: a neighbour has seized my balk.32
3. The omnipotence of the Palace of Culture was
also connected with a conviction that it contained

some sort of a special archive, a thesaurus of infor­
mation, as indicated by the address on one of the
letters: Fortified Archive at the Palace of Culture,
whose author, an owner of an old model of a Sona­
tina radio set, sought bulb wire unavailable on the
market.
4. Belief in the demonic power of the Palace is re­
flected in a letter addressed to: The State Palace of
Culture. Department of employment and destruction:
Please destroy (...) and her three children, named (...).
These superfluous people are condemned to be annihilated.
Starve them as soon as possible.
5. The letters also include offers, with one of the
authors proposing (1980): To the Director of the Palace
of Culture. I, the above mentioned, inform that I am in the
possession of items worth about half a million zlotys, all for
sale, including a palace, a church and museum exhibits.
(The letter also requests transport facilities since the
objects do not fit into a passenger car).
6. The Palace of Culture was the addressee of an
artist wishing to open a Museum of Matchstick Art,
the only of its sort in Poland; the author, a winner of
numerous prizes and with many accomplishments, includ­
ing, naturally, international ones, would like to win a world
record in vertical construction and proposed to make a
model of the Palace.
7. Here is Wanda TL, ready to work as:
1. A personal office boy of the Secretary General. 2. a
flat-rate fee employee. 3. Chief of the Security Service of
Poland. 4. a Polish TV collaborator (independent office
boy) offering the following services: electronic protection
of diplomatic outposts accredited in Poland and their resi­
dences..., electronic protection of foreign guests —heads od
state, protection of international congresses and meetings
in the so-called antipodes.
8. The author of a letter from Ząbkowice Śląskie
asked for help concerning a lack of response to a pre­
vious letter on the same topic, which must have been
seized by a mentally ill civil servant. I am not surprised that
You keep such workers. Socialist youth as a whole suffers
from mental disorders.
9. One of the letters is addressed to: First Secretary
Comrade Edward Gierek —Congress Hall (and contains
an invitation to the 1978 Poznań Fair).
10. The healing powers of the Palace or its special
climatic properties were indicated in 1982 in a request
for temporary accommodation. The author, on his
way to Szczyrk to a Fund of Workers Vacation cen­
tre, asked whether for health reasons he could obtain
accommodation for several years: I was at the Stalin
Palace some ten years ago, but could not find out any­
thing since everyone was queuing up for food, “Trojka”
was closed, all were hungry and drank scalding tea —quite
unacceptable. I was, therefore, forced to send a letter to my
son from the Palace post office telling him “what is happen­
ing at the Palace“.

102

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

11. The Palace was also perceived as a centre of
power, as in a letter addressed to: The Ideological
President of the All-Russia Communist Party Bolshe­
viks of the Republic of Poland (1989), and containing
sheer gibberish, starting with: On the eve of the third
five-year plan ...
12. The letters also reflect an eschatological di­
mension and ambiance:
To the Kind Government of the Palace of Culture
I, Leo, Son of the First Creator,
Write to You, the genuine Government,
The great troublemaker will overturn the globe
Since it is high time
To send me part of my dues through a postman (...).
13. We also come across a complaint full of con­
cern and addressed to the Central Council of Trade
Unions Congress Hall (1974), informing: Young people
go coatless, and postulating to create a 5% unemployment
Fund for citizens aged from 16 to 70. A negative response
will cause war or an atom bomb raid against Warsaw,
against which the ‘’Residents of Warsaw”, signed below,
protest.
14. The file contains requests and selfless letters
about scientific research, written by a retired profes­
sor from Gdańsk involved in conducting studies on
the verge of physics and electrodynamics, particularly
about lightning and the electrodynamics of the electron:
since I would like to initiate a register of lightning strik­
ing the Palace of Culture and Science I ask for permission
to install on the Palace an insulated spire, from which a
concentric cable would be connected with a measurement
apparatus on the highest storey of the Palace. A flat next
to the observatory would be required due to night shifts and
two full time employees.
A female author of a letter addressed to: The P al­
ace of the Culture the Indian Sepulchre at the corners
of Zielna, Wielka, Złota, Chmielna, and Śliska streets
and Jerozolimskie Avenue (1976) sent a poem to an
African tune, a song dedicated to the Warsaw Month:
From Warsaw to Szprotawa
One heart beats about our Warsaw
Lovely Warsaw with its panorama!
Here the picturesque Vistula flows by
And the thirty-storey Palace of Culture stands.
Our symbol and source of joy.
A letter written in 1971 includes a poem about
Lenin, with an obstinately recurring refrain:
Although I am a Pole
And precisely for this reason
I worship and love the Great Lenin.
The cited texts and evidence comprise predomi­
nantly a positive myth of the Palace of Culture and
Science. Up to now, we omitted antithetical moods
and experiences linked with the Palace, which create
its sui generis anti-myth. On the other hand, the el­
103

ements and contents of the positive myth extracted
from the quoted texts do not correspond to antith­
eses according to the principle of a simple game of
binary oppositions. If we were to make a list of val­
ues associated with the Palace and belonging to the
positive myth, such as power, might, force, duration,
luminescence, glow, light, truth, nativeness, harmony,
life-giving force, friendship, love, youth, freedom, life,
etc., it would be impossible to deduce from it, and
arrange according to the principle of contrariness, a
suitable anti-list composed exclusively of anti-theses.
The same holds true for the anti-myth of the Palace,
in which the dominating experience is horror accom­
panied by specific fascination. Only after taking into
consideration both parts of the tradition can we see
just how deeply the Palace combined both those in­
separable feelings of horror and fascination, charac­
teristic for the primeval experience of the sacrum. The
Palace may be perceived as a profound unity of contra­
dictions: coincidentia tremendum et fascinosum.
The above mentioned “bright” values of the Pal­
ace are closely connected with its ideological-propa­
ganda official message and only upon this level is it
possible to observe the game played by those simple
reverses and antitheses. The beauty of the Palace and
its height were contrasted with the ugliness of “old
tenement houses” or the ghastliness of capitalist sky­
scrapers. Owing to insufficient space I shall not delve
deeper into this motif, but concentrate only on several
synthetic examples. According to the propaganda-ide­
ological interpretation, the construction of the Palace
delineated and established a new time, a new epoch,
contrasted with the old. Just as Leszek Mech wrote
in his poem: Once, history shared a national/ Gamut
of dates stretched across fires/ Or love was stirred in the
hearts of those longing for peace by an anaemic saint. /
Today, it is not history or winged saints (...) Today, the
people proudly / erect for the people (...) a construction of
attained friendship.
The same motif of new times and values offered by
the Palace is to be encountered in a poem by Adam
Ważyk:
The walls of our architecture
did not belong to us,
palaces bonded by blood,
the work of the poor,
the Gothic of our toil
the Renaissance accomplishment of the people,
the Baroque erected for the lords,
deformed tenement houses
of a merchants’ democracy
calculated to last a year,
the house-phantom of the speculator,
an inhuman style
straight from a failed venture,
without heart and beauty.

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

Now, from the ruins there grows
to become part of socialism,
for day centres and libraries our Old Town Gothic,
our Renaissance and Baroque,
our unadorned monument,
a fronton out of lace,
as if just completed by embroiderers,
above them, roof tiles dear to our heart
shine differently...
The construction and growth of the new, socialist
Palace were contrasted not only with wartime devas­
tation but also with the downfall produced by capi­
talism. It has to be kept in mind, Edmund Goldzamt
stressed, that:
The creation of the Palace of Culture and Science
started at a time when the nations of Western Europe ex­
perienced all the “blessings" of so-called American aid, and
when after five years of the Marshal Plan they have already
become acquainted with the outcome of such help: the liq­
uidation of entire branches of industry, a further rapid rise
of unemployment, a pauperisation of the masses, stagnation
and torpor affecting construction, the elimination of the po­
litical and economic independence of their countries (cf. E.
Goldzamt, Wieżowce Radzieckie, Warszawa 1953).
The socialist Palace connected with “pacific con­
struction”, peace, freedom, and life was juxtaposed
against capitalism, imperialism, fascism, war, destruc­
tion, and death. Summing up these reflections let us
turn to another poem by Tadeusz Kubiak, which not
only contains this motif but also the probably most
apt characteristic of the Palace enhanced with scarce
plant hierophanies and allusive references to the sym­
bolic motif of the tree of life in the tradition linked
with the Palace:
It is socialism that builds
despite death and crime.
It is the nation that gives to a nation
and man to man,
what they had won
during that October night.
Like the hardworking gardener
offering his son
fruit grown in the Michurin manner.
O n the side o f the anti-m yth. A growth..., and I
would agree to forget all about Suvorov

Embarking upon testimonies and documents com­
prising the negative myth of the Palace it is simply im­
possible to omit accounts in the diary of Leopold Tyr­
mand. On 1 February 1954 this first antagonist and
determined oppositionist, an outsider highly sensitive
to the rhythm of the social life of Warsaw, recorded:

Merciless cold weather and people wandering across
Warsaw absurdly wrapped against the cold, so that even
the shapeliest female resembles a parcel. The sheer martyr­
dom of waiting for city transport: I suspect that an armed
revolt against the regime, if it ever takes place, will start
on tram stops in weather such as this. (...) The press drips
with lackey tones writing about the "magnificent gift of the
Soviet Union for Warsaw”. A skyscraper totally useless to
anyone. If they had really wanted to send a gift they would
have supplied several hundred tramcars. But then their
intention is to make an impression and not to offer gifts,
and for that particular purpose a skyscraper is just perfect.
(Dziennik 1954, Warszawa 1989, p. 167).
The unemotional and architectural interpretation
proposed by Tyrmand once again accentuated the fas­
cination and horror merged in the Palace: Some see
in it a Russian fist, others stammer with delight; the
author also registered an attempt at taming (ridicul­
ing) this appalling gift: 13 February. Another exhibition
of projects for the town planning and architectural solu­
tions of Stalina Square, the centre of future Warsaw. In
the middle: the Palace of Culture and Science - this is its
name —a gift from Russia for Warsaw. Some see in it
a Russian fist, others stammer with delight. The people
have named it “Peking” - which apart from an anagram
contains a subtext: this was the name of a large tenement
house thus described with scathing contempt in pre-war
Warsaw, at the corner of Złota and Żelazna streets, the
seat of backstreet brothels. It is easy to guess that from
the moment when the construction was announced I was
one of its most fervent opponents. As a would-be expert I
skilfully criticised its size, anti-Warsaw scale, and bom­
bastic style. But. (...) The Soviet skyscraper with its lofty
steel construction would have been passable as a power­
ful solid which, if it had been left alone and covered with
glass, would have been of use and I would agree to forget
all about Suvorov. When it received a ready-made facing
the colour of beige sand I was not pleased, but the facade,
colour, and texture looked good and acceptable. Then
they started to add: a pseudo-Renaissance helmet tower
topped with a spire, confectionary attics and crowning,
motifs straight from Kazimierz on the Vistula, and pedes­
tals. This socialist realistic horror emerged in the very
centre of the town in the manner of a growth on the nose
of a drunkard. And now plans are made for a Polish show
of socialist realistic imagination surrounding this Russian
architectural dissolution (ibid., p. 210).
Hence, even such an unruffled and decisive critic
as the author of Dziennik and Zły experienced am­
bivalent and competing feelings and doubts produced
by the Palace. Despite his categorical opinion: Where
is the nationality of this architecture, why is it supposed
to be Polish considering that its elements are at home
both in Cadix and Helsinki? (ibid., p. 215), and despite
the deep conviction about the madness of the whole
idea:

104

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

The leitmotif of socialist realism in architecture —that,
which is being built today is supposed to look, for the sake
of the wellbeing of man, like something built yesterday, the
day before yesterday, and four centuries ago - contains
some sort of unconcealed madness (ibid., p. 211) Tyr­
mand shared qualms whether the Palace might actu­
ally become part of the city’s tradition:
A town is a culmination. That which ages in it properly
ages nicely. After centuries of serving ugly buildings be­
come inevitably beautiful and surrounded with something
that we are accustomed to call an ambiance, a climate,
a mood, a style; they gather strata of events and experi­
ences, individual and collective, which in time blend the
decorations and details of the façade with contents of exist­
ence to yield inimitable monuments and symbols. (...) The
creation of something new, which is supposed to look old,
is domed to parody and kitsch. (...) Quite possibly, in a
hundred years, communist gigantomachy, pathos "close to
each man”, as they put it, the tawdriness of artificial orna­
ments, the medley of decorations, and thus nouveau riche
and trivial wastefulness will become patinated with time,
just like neo-Gothic skyscrapers in fin de siècle Manhat­
tan. We shall have to wait long for this to happen, and,
furthermore, the outcome is by no means certain (ibid.,
p. 212).
The notes in Dziennik are accompanied by an im­
age of the Place in Zły, in which Tyrmand, contrary
to the “new” centre - Why are a pedestal and gravity to
become the emblems and ambiance of Warsaw? (Dzien­
nik, p. 215) - attempted to conduct a remythicisation
of urban space in which the largest square in Europe
emerges from the chaos of conflagration and the bat­
tlefield of the construction site of a new skyscraper.
The resultant Palace enlivens and stirs the memory of
a city of the past. Since remythicisation is the topic of
the above-cited study by Marta Zielińska we shall only
note this function of the new and undomesticated
Palace evoking the past, as well as yet another ironic
name to be placed in its onomastic alongside the al­
ready mentioned “tuning fork”, i.e. “little finger”. It is
simply impossible to walk around this town. The capital is
being turned into a quarry. (...) Not to mention that little
finger (...) - who needs such large houses?” (L. Tyrmand,
Zły, Warszawa 1965, p. 165; cf. M. Zielińska, op. cit.)

Playground of Satan
The Palace of Culture appears occasionally in
novels by Stefan Kisielewski (Przygoda w Warszawie,
Podróż w czasie —the cover of the 1989 edition pub­
lished by Iskry features the Palace together with a red
flag affixed to it as if to a mast), but the most complete
interpretation is to be found in this author’s Cienie
w pieczarze. Here, the Palace and the surrounding
enormous and strange Defilad Square are the meeting
place of lovers - the chief protagonist, Roman, who
remembers the town and the world prior to their anni­

hilation, and Bluzeczka, a representative of an already
new epoch - a place where (at the foot of the enormous
thirty-storeys tall building) love turned into hatred, and
which is compared to a tree: Each side of this square
is different, since it originates from a different epoch of
Warsaw; Roman deciphered in this variety history, just
like the past of a tree is read from the cross-section of its
rings, but for Bluzeczka this interpretation was totally un­
attainable (p. 123). Next to this micro-cosmic scale of
the Palace inscribed into the love story, alongside the
local history of the town, the Palace and the square
reflect each other and the micro-history of this stretch
of no man’s land, where borders, assuming that some sort
actually existed, shifted in one way or another, stretched
and shrunk as if they were made of rubber. Neither the
West nor the East (p. 134). Kisielewski, as no one be­
fore, embarked upon a historiosophic interpretation of
the Palace, seeking a specific logic of Chaos for the
indefinite and chaotic moods creating and moulding
the character of the site: It is here that this palace, a
mixture of styles, a monster of naïve monumentality and
tasteless ornamentality devoid of the instinct of exaggera­
tion, managed to defend itself quite successfully and even
attained the significance and rank of a symbol. After all, if
all sorts of things took place in this city since 1939, if all the
madness and ordinary kinks of the East and the West ar­
ranged to meet here, if life became excessively strange and
intends to preserve that state and in all respects grew even
more embedded in it, then why should a G O D KNOWS
WHAT, a symbol of eccentricity so curiously attached to
assorted psychic and chronological worlds that it is impos­
sible to express it in brief or long worlds, not dominate in
the centre of a sprawling square emptied in all directions
(p. 181).
For Roman the Square surrounding the Palace
evokes, to an extent greater than for the protagonists
of Zly, the memory of a town once crushed, and stirs
and produces increasingly profound introspections:
This place, which he, after all, had known for the past
fifty years, now spoke to him suddenly because it became
the site of his secretive walks with Bluzeczka. (...) It is
impossible to deduce when the past or the present spoke to
him, or which particular past since there were so many, ar­
ranged in strata and gathered vertically and horizontally,
because Defilad Square was simultaneously a junk room
and a synthesis, the old and the new, a mixture of vari­
ous sorts of the past and curious proposals formulated by
the present. A tangle of traces and ciphers as well as the
emptiness of whole districts razed to the ground. A peculiar
place, the largest square in Europe and, at the same time,
quite underrated! (p. 177).
Each side of the square was different, and this dissimi­
larity grew across the decades and contained the curious
and unique history of the town (p. 208).
In Kisielewski’s historiosophic perspective W ar­
saw appears to be a special city, an under-appreciated

105

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

centre of the world, a genuine centre. It is in this un­
known (provincial) Warsaw that the cruel and the in­
sane dilemmas of the world were always understood more
rapidly than the whole world was capable of doing, here
Stalin, Hitler, and other great and merciless magi of the
world were deciphered ahead of time (...). The Western
world never understood that it is here, in Warsaw, that
everything is known ahead of time, and thus it never ben­
efitted from this knowledge. Now, this was the scene of
a historical comedy of totalitarianism, which the world
treated quite seriously thinking that it is some sort of a peo­
ple’s revolution (...). Due to mistakes, one’s own or those
committed by others, by the world, this was the scene of
things that had never transpired elsewhere. After all, con­
trary to logic, Warsaw resisted all alone, and upon quite a
few occasions, the surging tides of the East and the West
(a turnstile antemurale!) (...) with a demonstration of si­
lent absence it greeted the parade of the victorious armies
of Hitler; here, the largest number of Jews was murdered
in history, here, the Germans set up a horribly crowded
ghetto for 600 000 residents, here, in the autumn of 1944
a solitary battle was waged along two fronts: political with
Russia and face to face with the foolish Germans fighting
for their greater defeat, here, after the fall of the Uprising
the whole population was driven out, the first such case
in world history, and the town was left alone to itself and
conflagrations (p. 209).
The whole square, the streets, and the pavements wrote Józef Sigalin - all are built on a “tombstone” placed
on the foundations of old basements, former houses inhab­
ited by thousands. This is a truth that we, the older gen­
eration, cannot forget (J. Sigalin, op. cit., p. 146). The
awareness of this truth, however, was shared also by
the younger generations. An English-language fanzine
issued by a rock group in 1981 and displaying a graphic
motif of the Palace declares: they all live in Warsaw, a
city of lunatic Surrealism, a dead city, a city-cemetery,
a city built anew but never revived.
For the protagonist of Cienie w pieczarze the Pal­
ace and this strange square, that “sorcerer’s retort”, in
which a frenzied history of art is mixed up with the past
and the present, stirred memory and became the reason
why in this strange square the old regained its youth and
the new disclosed is hopeless barren old age. This is the
Palace that chased the world of dreams to the other
side of Marszałkowska Street, and this is the Square,
which once and for all banished the world of old movie
theatres: the “Apollo” and the “Stylowy” , those genu­
ine illusion cinemas together with their asylum of in­
ternational dreams, living side by side in the memory
and interior of the protagonist together with images
of Mae West, Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone or Gary
Cooper, who existed and performed for all, accessible for
a paltry fifty or eighty groszy, proof that in their dreams are
not controlled or rationed. The Palace adjoins, and merg­
es with, images of unassuming Jewish shops, unkempt

but full of commodities, an likeness of the Russian Or­
thodox church in Saski Square, and a scene, recalled
from childhood, of the latter’s demolition, when several
score men pulled a cable tied around one of the domes (...)
the poor onion-shaped dome - so inadequately installed in
its base, which cannot be said about the present-day Marx­
ist temple in Warsaw: sacrosanct and undeconstructable;
it will stand and tower over the city for centuries to come.
The Palace and the Square are located next to the
church of All Souls in Grzybów, which during the Nazi
occupation found itself within the closed ghetto, with
images of empty gates and basements, where in the
courtyards and on wooden stairs there lurks and sleeps the
echo of old voices, the breath of murdered and forgotten
Jews. The protagonist now sees this strange Square as
a “Land of Wandering Love” (just like Spain, which in
the imagination of Don Quixote appeared to be a land of
knights errant, or rather erring) , and with time assumed
a new name borrowed from the title of an old film: A
Roundabout of Torment.
No other book, with the possible exception of Mała
Apokalipsa, had amassed so many epithets, invectives
and derisive words addressed to the Palace. In Cienie
w pieczarze the Palace of Culture is portrayed as con­
fectionary white, with jagged stalactites of ornaments (...)
an artificial growth originating from nowhere, outside
life, evolution, development and normalcy, similarly to
two meaningless, nonsensical, and pretentious obelisks
thrusting in front of the Palace in honour of an unknown
victory; an enormously expensive whole, of little use; sup­
posed modernity, or a superfluous miracle; each column of
outright elephantine thickness; simply "Russian Greece”;
the nightmare of a pastry chef, as it was universally teased
in Warsaw; a shiny spire straight out of Leningrad or, in
other words, St. Petersburg; pure madness, and in addi­
tion free of charge to all, with fountains recalling a feudal
folly imitated by the tsars of the North; socialist opium
for the masses; a Marxist church of Warsaw; a gigantic
piece of ugliness; a soulless Moloch devouring the town
and covering half of the sky; a 300 meters-tall town hall,
conspicuously devoid of all style; a symbol of a gigantic
fracas; intentionally indifferent, whose primitive mixture
and enormous lack of contents will continue to cry out for
centuries in this largest square in Europe; surrounded with
niches featuring sculptures depicting heroic workers (as a
certain reactionary said: one really has to be a hero
to work here); a Rhodes colossus of our times; a magic
edifice raised by magi from the East, between whose glass
and thus ostensibly invisible walls the old and the new will
continue to hang around for centuries to come. Do those
exclamations and strong words not reflect, as in curs­
es, the domain of the sacrum and, at the same time,
an attempt at profanisation and desacralisation com­
mitted so as to tame the terrifying and inexplicable
element of tremendum, an attempt opposing (and in
this way revealing) its demonic might. On the other

106

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

extreme, this process of taming encountered derision,
a spontaneously flourishing tradition of more or less
scornful jokes about the Palace of Culture: "Small but
in good taste", “The old Warsaw-Vienna railway sta­
tion in a state of erection" (cf. Z. Raszewski, Wstęp
do teorii kawału, “Polska Sztuka Ludowa", no. 2/1990),
“Little Polish architecture", “What is the most beau­
tiful place in Warsaw? - The thirtieth storey of the
Palace of Culture. - Why? - Because the Palace of
Culture cannot be seen from there". To the strains of
the national anthem local jokers sang: What the alien
power has given us, we shałł pułł down at night.
A t the same time, it is characteristic that in the
case of a such a critically inclined author we come
across also contrary testimony of positive experiences
and even specific beauty veiling the ambivalence of
the Palace and the ambiance amassed therein; this is
testimony of taming the Palace and its growing enrootment in the city: It no łonger annoys anyone, visitors
like it, the panorama from the top storey is magnificent, the
ground-floor stateły interiors are spatial and comfortable
(....) On the upper storeys everything seemed to be mis­
conceived but the ground-floor halls featured representa­
tive grandeur and excellent acoustics. It became apparent
that the enormous naivete of the very notion deprives it
of all demonic features and renders it possible to make its
close acquaintance on a daily basis. Finally, it is here that
the protagonists find their asylum: The Palace was sur­
rounded by idyllic green lanes (...) why should Roman not
drink beer at a stand in his favourite windswept and sunwarmed West Side - that, which is part of the landscape
cannot be ugly and must discover its concealed beauty.
By means of such a mental operation connecting com­
mon sense with imagination Roman removed from Defilad
Square that unfortunate palace, whose stairs, balustrades,
projections, and colonnade pavilions he pleasantly albeit
unselfishly used. In Kisielewski’s book we find a con­
firmation of an already familiar phenomenon, a prac­
tice characteristic for numerous Varsovians screwing
up their eyes and ignoring the Palace: How different it
looked close-up —the square without the palace remained
curiously beautiful (...) a real square and yet altered by
efforts of the imagination. The same phenomenon of
ignoring the Palace was scrupulously recorded by the
oft-mentioned Marta Zielińska, who noticed that the
Palace appears only six times in the works of an au­
thor strongly connected with Warsaw, namely, Miron
Białoszewski:
(...) In all of Bialoszewski’s prose the Palace together
with the square are present upon six occasions, including
three in passing: during a Sun eclipse, while getting into a
bus at the square, and in a description of the sky, which as­
sumed an interesting hue exactly on the side of the Palace.
The other three times are mere mentions albeit significant.
Actually, they contain the whole quintessence of the Palace.
We first come across it in a description of a certain Satur­

day in Marszałkowska Street: "(...) The Lord God rests in
heaven, the Mother of God dries diapers on the Palace of
Culture...". —At first glance, nothing of importance and
yet such copious contents - Zielińska commented. - Or­
dinary white clouds near the spire bring to mind a home,
perhaps somewhat largeish but suitable for Our Lady (M.
Zielińska op. cit., p. 126). The other two important
images are those of the Palace seen in a dream: Tadzio
flying around the spire with Ania and someone else, and
mention of fires breaking out in Warsaw: The Cedet
shop, a bridge. What next? The Palace of Culture?
Once again, the Palace considered against a back­
drop of the symbolism of the centre appears in a spe­
cial way as strong, permanent, and conspicuous - it
is difficult to ignore it - but also as an unnoticed and
strange centre around which there emerge not Order
and Cosmos but Chaos or, more precisely, Order and
Cosmos that is Chaos:
Because it constituted, after all, an organic component
of the town, that transit Warsaw for red armies on the
move between Moscow and Berlin. Here one lives as if
on a volcano, in a passage, on the eve; it is simply impos­
sible to exist outside history. Defilad Square was proof —a
complex, style-less, periphery opened to four parts of the
world, unprotected against the roar of trains and lorries,
against menacingly chaotic motion, ostensibly urban but
possessing something affiliated with Nature and spontane­
ous (...). Perhaps the alienness of the square, so vividly
accentuated, is the outcome of a chaotic and haphazard
process of someone putting things together (or rather no
one or a coincidence of “fate", as working-class Warsaw
was in the habit of saying), assorted elements of the past
and the present, thus becoming a strangely monumental
reference point for collective premonitions, hypotheses, and
fears about the future? (S. Kisielewski, Cienie w piecza­
rze, p. 221, 223).

107

Axis M undi , the Valley of Josaphat,

Golgotha

Just as there is no Wyspiański without Wawel Castle so
there is no Konwicki without the Palace of Culture, wrote
Marta Fik (cf. J. Lerska /M. Fik/, Bardzo mala apoka­
lipsa, “Kultura niezależna", April 1990, no. 60, p. 53).
A writer whom the palace hypnotises as if it were a basilisk
- claims another opinion about Tadeusz Konwicki (cf.
M. Zielińska, op. cit., p. 126). The Palace of Culture
appears in Konwicki’s last film: Lava, a screen version
of Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, seen from Konrad’s
prison cell and behind the Angel (played by Grażyna
Szapołowska) walking among a crowd of pedestrians
along the main passageway next to the Centrum shop­
ping centre, on the “’other" side of Marszałkowska
Street.
I
am well aware of the fact that in view of the exist­
ence of assorted interpretation perspectives proposed
by numerous scholars examining the writings of Kon-

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

wicki, such as Maria Janion, Jan Walc, Tadeusz Lubel­
ski, Marta Zielińska, and Anna Sobolewska, speaking
about the Palace of Culture, or about any other motif
without an opportunity for a more thorough consid­
eration of its inner-textual references and place within
the entire oeuvre must result in an incomplete image.
Even in the latter, however, and in a restricted ap­
proach to the symbolism of the centre, a problem of
interest to us, the Palace still displays a multitude of
meanings. Among their variability and evolution, ob­
served starting with Wniebowstąpienie, Jak daleko stąd,
jak blisko and Mała Apokalipsa to Rzeka podziemna,
podziemne ptaki, the classical structures of the symbol­
ics of the centre come to the fore in the most distinc­
tive and evident fashion. Upon numerous occasions
emphasis had been placed on the oneiric or outright
magical dimensions and ambiance of Konwicki’s writ­
ings and simultaneous immersion in concrete daily re­
ality, the author’s sensitivity to the concrete and the
pulse and rhythm of daily life. Works by the author of
Sennik współczesny are a combination of several cur­
rents and dimensions: absolute realism, oneirism, and
magical qualities, and this is the reason why we may
perceive in them an outright reflection and example
of Lotman’s principle governing the tension between
expression and the contents of the symbol, a situation
in which the former belongs to a secular, open and dem­
onstrated sphere of culture, while the latter —to sacral,
esoteric and mysterious culture (cf. Y. Lotman, Symbol...,
op. cit., p. 152). The secular, profane, mundane exist­
ence of realistically depicted contemporaneity, in the
case of Konwicki with an extraordinary underpinning
of the sacrum, does not lose any of its cosmic and sac­
ral dimensions. The same holds true for the Palace of
Culture. The mentioned duality, so frequently record­
ed by the interpreters and exegetes of Konwicki, is still
decisive for difficulties with the “classification” of his
works. The author frequently complained about their
reduction to a purely political dimension: One cannot
look at literature exclusively through a prism of the poeti­
cal here and now. I am of the opinion that in my books it
is possible to come across more permanent and universal
strata (cf. M. Fik, op. cit., p. 53; cf. also Stanisław N o­
wicki, Pół wieku czyśćca. Rozmowy z Tadeuszem Kon­
wickim, London 1986). On the other hand, Konwicki
kept a distance towards attempts at enclosing his writ­
ings within the “’magical realism” formula. [This brings
to my mind Marquez and South America, which I do not
understand, cannot bear, and find totally foreign. I am a
“Catholic Protestant’ for whom all is true and palpable
(cf. S. Nowicki, op. cit., p. 101)].
This is why while observing the presence of the
structures of the symbolics of the centre we should al­
ways keep in mind the character of this literature with
its Janus-like face, evading all classification. A t the
same time, we have to remember the original testimo­

ny of its time, evidence of the contemporaneity con­
tained in Konwicki‘s works (I have in mind the already
mentioned titles, spanning from Wniebowstąpienie to
Rzeka podziemna) that could be described analogously
to rejected “magical realism” as some sort of specific
realism - HyperPRLrealism (PRL = People’s Po­
land), or more precisely, and not merely for the sake of
easier pronunciation but also to capture the meaning
of the described reality of People’s Poland - HyperPRLSurrealism .
In all those works the Palace appears surrounded
with an aura of festivity, an unusual time, a time of
special tension, a time with eschatological dimension
and ambiance, which for all the protagonists is simul­
taneously a time-rite of passage. In Wniebowstąpienie it
is a desacralized holiday (the official harvest festivity)
and a time of unrest caused by a new world crisis: The
shops were emptied of all commodities already by noon, the
army is in a state of battle readiness - something is in the
air, perhaps they had already dropped the atom sausage,
the town is full of pageants of "faux peasants” dressed
in folk costumes: A huge group of Cracovians and Kaszubians poured down the main avenue to the accompani­
ment of the hoarse glissandos of an accordion. Many had
the pale, bloated faces of city dwellers-civil servants. I was
somewhat surprised that they were not ashamed of this
masquerade (T. Konwicki, Wniebowstąpienie, Warszawa
1967, p. 13, further on: pages from this edition). The
main protagonist awakens under a bridge with a bleed­
ing puncture in his head and suffering from amnesia;
he cannot recall even his name and later his acciden­
tally newly met friends call him Charon. The first
thing he sees is two inhabitants of Kurpie or Fishermen
spitting across a rusty balustrade into the river. The
Palace of Culture is an orientation point, a place where
the protagonist has a date with an unfamiliar girl
dressed up as a native of Łowicz-Opoczno; the whole
plot takes place around the Palace, which is almost
the lead protagonist of the novel. In Wniebowstąpienie
(whose title is literally evoked by its German transla­
tion: Auf der Spitze des Kulturpalastes) the Palace of
Culture is a central point, the axis and centre of the
world, making possible a passage and a transition be­
tween three levels of reality: the underworld, the
Earth, and Heaven. Above them hung a constellation of
blood-red lights from the palace tower. Higher, there were
only stars, a void of sparklers, the glimmer of an unknown,
eternal campsite (p. 54). The “pyramid” towering over
the city or the “red Christmas tree of the Palace of
Culture” seen from afar in the manner of a cosmic tree
is an axis encircled by ghosts and the dead. The author
complained that apart from the political tissue no one
seemed to notice that the plot takes place amidst the dead
(cf. S. Nowicki, op. cit., p. 101). Here, next to the
axis, in this centre of the world, there is a passageway
and an entrance to the innermost recesses of a subter­

108

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

ranean inferno. Here begins a voyage to Hell under­
taken by protagonists with an unclear ontological sta­
tus (ghouls, ghosts, and vampires, like the lead pro­
tagonist with his numerous life histories, a potential
writer feeding on the blood of someone else’s life and
sucking out of reality as much as he possibly can): Be­
hind us the terrible trembling of the walls increased and
resembled an earthquake. Mr Lilek tugged at something
that resounded like a cast iron cover of a tomb. We set off
into stifling darkness... (p. 40). The entrance to those
subterranean labyrinths of the Palace resembles a se­
pulchral niche in monastic crypts. The journey to the
netherworld, the land of death, the descent into the
underworld, and the ascent to heaven along the verti­
cal axis of the Palace of Culture are accompanied by
wanderings undertaken by the protagonists along the
horizontal level of the town and the afore-mentioned
East-West axis, a plunge into the inferno of the shady
joints of Warsaw, a trip to the other bank of the Vis­
tula along the following route: the Poniatowski Bridge
- the St. Vincent cemetery in the Bródno district - the
two-level bridge - back via Krakowskie Przedmieście
Street to the Palace of Culture, accompanied by a
vigil next to the coffin of a deceased man, a stay in a
speakeasy, and a night spent at a militia station. The
motif of the labyrinth expanded by Konwicki in
Wniebowstąpienie is closely intertwined with the All
Souls’ Day and sepulchral motif. Descending into the
Palace basement and making his way in the darkness,
the protagonist seeks support and stretches out his
hand to touch the wall: It’s a waste of time —he said. —
We’re walking inside a long pipe. - What sort of a pipe? —
God knows, even those who built it had no idea. You know,
Misiu, how it is. Some guys dug a ditch, others brought the
building material, still others poured the concrete and cov­
ered it with soil, while the designer vanished somewhere,
like a stone cast into water, in other words, like a true in­
dividual among the collective masses. Only the deceased
probably knew something. —What deceased? In the enor­
mous silence something resounded in the distance, resem­
bling bells stifled by a strong wind. —You know, Joseph
Vissarionovich. This is a passageway from his times. Eve­
ryone already forgot about it because this detail is absent
on city maps (p. 40). Konwicki introduced into
Wniebowstąpienie a motif (subsequently expanded in
Mala Apokalipsa and Rzeka podziemna) kept alive in
the folklore and tradition of post-war Warsaw and re­
lating to underground corridors and passages between
the Party Central Committee and the Palace of Cul­
ture, a system of nuclear bomb shelters. Just how deep­
ly was this motif embedded in reality and not merely a
theme of the folklore tradition of legends and stories
belonging to the backdrop of the symbolism of the
centre of the world was evidenced by the dramatic
events of the Romanian ’89 revolution, disclosing a
whole subterranean town in the centre of Bucharest.
109

In Poland too, the presence of underground interiors
under the Government Stand in Defilad Square was
not mentioned until after 1989, when it was proposed
to open there an underground café; up to that time it
was a strict secret kept by censorship. I’ll interrupt you
because I want to say —confessed the writer —that my
tragedy consists of the fact that I am simply a realist. After
the publication of Mała Apokalipsa for eight months the
route from café “Melodia” (before: “Paradis”) to the
Central Committee was out of bounds. Everything was
dug up. When Wniebowstąpienie appeared I received a
phone call from someone who I suspect worked for the se­
curity service, pretending to be a Polish philologist wanting
to know whether I possessed a plan of the underground
part of the Palace of Culture. In other words, my emotion­
alism contains some sort of a rational core. (...) There is
something real and genuine in what I write. I describe
Warsaw the way it really looks like. This is a town of dead­
end streets, a town-cripple full of dumps, passageways, and
dens teeming with drunks and drug addicts. Below my
house there is a fifteen-storey bomb shelter. And you tell
me that this is an abstract vision of a labyrinth (cf. S. N o­
wicki, op. cit., p. 142). The protagonists making their
way in the dark subterranean interiors of the Palace
finally reach a sanctuary cum junk room from an ep­
och described in Tyrmand’s diaries and rapidly becom­
ing part of a past doomed to oblivion: We found our­
selves in an interior as high as a church and windowless.
Old ladders, buckets, broken banners, some sort of fabric
stretched on frames facing the wall. Lilek opened a white
door and I saw an enormous, magnificent toilet. (...) Full
of sophisticated columns and almost Baroque stucco, it
was neglected and on the washbasin I noticed a thick layer
of black dust (p. 41). In the closing sequence of
Wniebowstąpienie the protagonist, in the wake of all his
adventures and mishaps, after working in a cold stor­
age room resembling a morgue where he carried enor­
mous slabs of meat; after a visit to a church while
holding a parcel full of animal hearts received as pay­
ment for his work; after an almost ritual purifying bath
in the fountain in front of the Palace, takes the eleva­
tor just before the break of dawn and rides to the top
storey where all the ghosts, phantoms, and the dead
encountered that night had already gathered. Once
again, the Palace discloses its concealed, indistinct,
and sacral nature and ambiance: Misiu, you’re depart­
ing through purgatory. Tomorrow you’ll see God... I don’t
know why I went to the hall where enormous figures made
of stone stood (...) Three brightly lit lifts invited me in the
manner of cathedral confession stalls (p. 233, 235). The
space stretching around this cosmic axis of the Palace,
that murky centre of the world, that aged obelisk dam­
aged by the passage of time - featuring blackened brass
names of distant capitals, with many letters missing; only
the numbers of kilometres separating us from those towns
were untouched; the collectors honoured the brass num-

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

bers - is the site of final accounts and Judgement Day.
The Palace resembled the Valley of Josaphat. A curious
light, extremely dense and amber-coloured, illuminated the
Palace pedestal.
The structure of the Palace outlined in
Wniebowstąpienie and envisaged as the centre of the
world, was developed in successive Konwicki stories
and close-ups. The Palace changes, its portrayal is
dynamic, but the basic core of the structure remains
invariable. An amazing construction, a source of mul­
tiple associations, Charon, ghosts seeking a passage to
the other side: We have to go back. —Go back where?
—What do you mean: where? To return there or there?
Marta Zielińska interpreted the edifice according to
the Romantic tradition: Around it soars a spirit before
departure to the unknown, here is the station between this
world and the other, a caricature of a chapel of sorts, where
the Seer celebrated his rituals. Here, the Palace plays a
part totally unforeseen by its builders: a cross between a
man-eating monster and a haunted Gothic castle.
The Palace deciphered by Anna Sobolewska in
the light of the initiation rite, that grotesque axis of the
world, appears to be a place of incomplete initiation
into death and suffering, where transcendence is cheap
and full of holes, just like the whole reality of People’s Po­
land. This reality cannot be redeemed in any way (W.
Sobolewska, Współczesna powieść inicjacyjna: Tadeusz
Konwicki, Hugh Walpole, Tarjei Vesas, “Twórczość”
1991). Even in such an interpretation and reality, im­
ages from this range of the profanum mysteriously touch
the sacrum and demonstrate their concealed purification
force. In Mała Apokalipsa the crumbling Palace is not
only desacralized but cursed by almost all sides, a statue
of pride, a statue of servitude, a stone cake of warning, for­
merly a source of fear, hatred, and magic horror, a cosmic
shed erected vertically, an old outhouse devoured by fungi
and mould, forgotten in the middle of a Central European
crossroad, a terrifying tumulus, a wilderness, and turns
into an artificial altar, a site for self-immolation: I was
preceded along this path by Buddhist monks, a certain
Czech, some Lithuanians, all on their way to the pyre. I was
preceded by people of assorted races and religions walking
along this fiery route. The Palace turns into Golgotha:
I have a terrible urge to tempt fate. So much that I can
feel the flesh on my back crawl. And then we shall meet,
right? I‘ll be waiting for you some fifty kilometres directly
above the spire of the Palace of Culture, there where our
atmosphere, our pleasant earthly existence, comes to an
end. But you will not do this, because 2 000 years ago
a certain Aramean said to his cruel contemporaries: “In­
stead of slaughtering a lamb, a neighbour or your brother,
make a sacrifice of yourself”. I contain seven atoms of the
Antichrist but you —at least 77. - He took a brick from
my hand and weighed it in his hand. —I shall take this as a
souvenir. (...) Perhaps you’re hungry, I have two lumps of
sugar. —What are you talking about? —I should wipe your

face with a piece of cloth, but I don’t have one. —Was this
the last station of our passion? —Yes, we’re facing the sac­
rificial altar. - He pointed to the iconostasis of the palace
reaching the sky and white in the snow flurry.
In Rzeka podziemna the image of the Palace-Golgotha appears briefly before the suicide committed by
Siódmy with the assistance of natural death:
The great Square opened up before him. In the centre
stood that famous Palace, a souvenir of Joseph Vissari­
onovich. It stood immersed almost halfway in clouds or ac­
tually in a single huge cloud... Siódmy suddenly experienced
absurd relief. This enormous amount of air, free space, the
grey sky, which before evening will split above the horizon
showing a red glow, and those black jagged clouds halted in
their wild rush, the same as those that appeared above the
horizon when Christ was crucified.

110

Endnotes
1 Owing to insufficient space I have not included a com­
plete bibliography, which I managed to establish in the
course of surveys, and present bibliographic information
about used sources in the text. I would like to express my
thanks to Ms Hanna Szczubełek, who rendered availa­
ble material in the Administrative Head Office of the
Palace of Culture and Science and made it possible to
for me to work for several days in her office. Using the
Chronicle I was able to reach in the course of further
surveys less known sources (cf. n. 22).
2 Mention is due predominantly to the film by Tadeusz
Konwicki: How Far Away, How Near. The Palace also
appears in this director's Lava and plays a considerable
part in Grand Picnic, directed by Krzysztof Rogulski (cf.
Bożena Sycówna, Raj odnaleziony, (in:) Film i kontekst,
Warszawa 1988, pp. 55-83); cf also: Labirynth, a film
directed by Andrzej S. Kałuszko (“Filmowy Serwis
Prasowy” 1-31 December 1988); the film by Piotr
Łazarkiewicz: Soc, shot on the margin of an exhibition of
socialist realistic art, contains a special effects scene
showing the Palace of Culture being blown up. Great joy
for the eyes, wrote Tadeusz Szyma (cf. “Tygodnik
Powszechny” no. 22, 28 May 1989).
3 Cf. sprayed-on graffito showing a foot wearing a large
“punk-style” shoe and kicking the Palace of Culture,
which I saw on the wall of the “Iluzjon” cinema in
October 1990, and which was used as an emblem and
graphic motif in the fanzine of the ”Brygada Kryzys”
band, no. 0, Warsaw, August 1981 - I owe the latter
information to Ryszard Ciarka.
4 Cf. Dom we współczesnej Polsce. Szkice, ed. Andrzej
Siciński and Piotr Lukasiewicz (in print) - the outcome
of a years-long research programme and a conversatorium conducted by the authors in the Institute of
Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of
Sciences (IFIS PAN); the publication contains, i.a.
Andrzej Siciński, O idei domu i jego roli w Polsce; Anna
Zadrożyńska, Ludzie / przestrzeń domowa. Przyczynek do
antropologii schronienia; Jan Prokop, Dom polski; Piotr
Łukasiewicz, Dom jako społeczne minimum. Spojrzenie na
okres okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce; Michał Boni, Funkcje
życia domowo-rodzinnego w doktrynie komunistów polskich
(1945-1950); Danuta Markowska, Dom - twierdza tożsa­

Zbigniew Benedyktowicz • A PHANTOM OF THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD

5
6

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8

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10

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12

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15

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17
18

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mości; cf. material from the I international conference:
“Home: Its Contemporary Material, Social and Value
Aspects”, Zaborów, Poland, 11-13 October 1990, orga­
nised by A. Siciński and P Lukasiewicz, in the Department
of Lifestyle Studies IFiS PAN.
Witold Rybczyński, Home. A Short History of an Idea,
Viking Penguin Inc., New York 1986.
Initially, Rybczyński intended to build only a shed for a
boat, but then in order to be able to spend the night
there it was necessary to make some sort of sleeping
arrangement, add a kitchen, a work room, etc. and in
this way instead of a hangar he erected a home; this
process of a gradual construction of a home became the
source of meditation, reflection, and subsequently stu­
dies on the idea of the home.
Clifford Geertz, Być tam, pisać tu, “Ameryka”, winter
1989, p. 60.
James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture. TwentiethCentury Ethnography. Literature and Art, Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1988.
Ibid., p. 9, 13-14.
Jadwiga Siemaszko, Barbara Fatyga, Po co jechać na
Trobriandy, “Polska Sztuka Ludowa” 1989, no. 3, pp.
177-181.
Clifford Geertz, op. cit., p. 62.
Jacek Olędzki, „Skuś baba na dziada". Przyczynek do
powinności przemyśleń perypatetycznych, “Polska Sztuka
Ludowa” 1987, no. 1-4, pp. 142-149.
Ibid., p. 142.
Clifford Geertz, op. cit., p. 63.
On this differentiation, derived from Dilthey, between
comprehension and explanation cf. James Clifford, op.
cit., p. 22, 36 sqq., where the author, accepting the gene­
ral stand claiming that ethnography is an art of interpre­
tation, an interpretation process and not an explanation,
presented the pertinent discussion conducted in con­
temporary anthropology; cf. also on this differentiation:
Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty. The
Holy in Art, London 1963, pp. 5-6; idem, Fenomenologia
religii, Warszawa 1978, pp. 717-719; cf. comments by Y.
Lotman about the symbolising and desymbolising reading
of texts: the former makes it possible to read texts or
their particles as symbols, which in their natural context
were not intended for this sort of reception. The latter
transforms symbols into commonplace communiqués; Y.
Lotman, Symbol w systemie kultury, “Polska Sztuka
Ludowa” 1988, no. 3, p. 152.
Stanisław Cichowicz, Skąd ten kanon?, “Polska Sztuka
Ludowa” 1990, no. 1, p. 50.
Cf. M. Eliade, Doświadczenie Labiryntu, “Polska Sztuka
Ludowa” 1988, no. 3.
Cf. M. Eliade, Sacrum, mit, historia. Warszawa 1970;
idem,Traktat o historii religii, Warszawa 1966, pp. 361­
379.
M. Eliade, Sacrum... , op. cit., p. 78.
On the polysemantic and multi-dimensional nature of
the symbol cf. “Polska Sztuka Ludowa” 1988, no. 3; here,
an extensive bibliography.
Y. Lotman, Symbol w systemie kultury, “Polska Sztuka
Ludowa” 1988, no. 3, pp. 151-154.
Apart from a source survey I made use of the Palace
Chronicle arranged by Ms Hanna Szczubełek and a col­
lection of untypical correspondence and poems, compri­
sing an appendix to the Chronicle; not in all cases was
it possible to establish the place of the publication of
111

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25
26

27

28
29

30

31
32

particular texts. The absence of more exact bibliographi­
cal data denotes that the given text originates from the
above collections.
Clifford Geertz, op. cit., p. 62.
The situation is rendered even more complicated by a
philosophical statement made by the former Prime
Minister of People's Poland at a reception held at the
“Holiday Inn” upon the occasion of a promotion of a
book written by the former First Secretary of the Polish
United Worker's Party Edward Gierek. The quotation
comes from Polish TV: “Sometimes reality becomes fic­
tion, and fiction - reality”.
This and subseqent emphasis - Z. B.
On the symbolic of axis mundi cf. M. Eliade, Brancusi i
mitologia, “Polska Sztuka Ludowa” 1988, no. 3, pp. 181­
182.
This comparison reflects Rudnev's European stance and
greater sensitivity in contrast to the remaining members
of the Soviet team: ...These people were in the West for the
first time! Only old Rudnev had been in his youth in Warsaw
in 1913. He recalled this fact (cf. J. Sigalin, Warszawa...,
op. cit., vol. 2, p. 428).
Marta Zielińska, Największy Plac w Europie, “Kronika
Warszawy”, no. 4/1989.
On the significance of this film in the cinematic oeuvre
of T. Konwicki and a more detailed analysis against the
background of the motif of the home in the Polish cine­
ma cf. Z. Benedyktowicz, Przestrzenie Pamięci, in: Film i
kontekst, Warszawa 1988, pp. 151-203.
Cf. scenario of How Far Away, How Near, in: T
Konwicki, Ostatni dzień lata. Scenariusze filmowe.
Warszawa 1973: I do not know why I remembered this for
the first time in my life, the memory of a person carried to
Hell. Now I think that he could have been slowly ascending
to Heaven.
T Konwicki, Ostatni..., op. cit., p. 250.
During my survey I did not come acrosss this note and
thus cite it after: Mariusz Szczygieł, Kochany Pałacu, “Na
Przełaj”, 10 September 1989.

Cytat

Benedyktowicz, Zbigniew, “A Phantom of the Centre of the World/ Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 1 lipca 2022, https://cyfrowaetnografia.pl/items/show/11444.

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