The Tainted Bird
A new collection of Jerzy Kosinski’s interviews and speeches reveals an Everyman who worked on his own terms
Jerzy Nikodem Kosinski was born on June 14, 1933, in Lodz, Poland, five months after Adolf Hitler ascended to the chancellorship of Germany. He died on May 3, 1991, in New York at the age of 57 after overdosing on alcohol and barbiturates and asphyxiating himself in his bathtub. To this day, everything in between is the subject of controversy.
Few legacies remain as mythic in scope and precarious in esteem as Kosinski’s. A Holocaust survivor living under various fake identities, he immigrated to the United States in 1957 and held odd jobs, like chauffeuring a Harlem drug king, until he married a wealthy steel heiress whom he later divorced. He was an actor, socialite, playboy, academic, and most notably an award-winning writer of books such as The Painted Bird (1965), Steps (1968), and Being There (1971), the last of which was adapted into an Academy Award- and BAFTA-winning film starring Peter Sellers and written by Kosinski himself.
He was also one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century. Upon arriving in the United States, he explicitly denied being Jewish and used a nom de plume for his early, more overtly political writing. His fiction was frequently criticized as self-indulgent and vulgar. Accusations arose, most potently in a 1982 Village Voice exposé by Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith, that Kosinski plagiarized his novels, fabricated the verity of their autobiographical nature (specifically The Painted Bird), and used freelance ghostwriters (often uncompensated) to translate his books from Polish to English. And if that wasn’t enough, he shocked puritan American sensibilities, particularly American Jewish ones, with bold yet unsettling postulations during frequent media appearances. At one notable lecture, in which Kosinski addressed postwar Jewish self-victimization and what he called the “Second Holocaust,” he asked, “Must Dr. Goebbels succeed by injecting spiritual Zyklon B into the galaxy of the human mind where Jewish presence has been anything but marginal and nebulous?”
And while he certainly flaunted a charming personality, his life story is rife with unseemly anecdotes. According to biographer James Park Sloan, he was an angry child who often took out his frustrations on others, such as when he and a peer pushed a toddler down a steep hill in a baby carriage. He once received a letter from a reader that stated, “You’ve got to be one of the meanest little creeps on earth. My God, with all the suffering that you have said you have been through, you treat people like trash.”
Even after his death, Kosinski has failed to evade the ineluctable stream of detractors who believe him to be nothing more than a bloated, odious fraud. But Sloan, while at times an insufferably redundant and partial biographer, says it best when he concludes that Kosinski “lived in an aged of incongruities.” Kosinski himself is a living embodiment of said contradictions, and Oral Pleasure: Kosinski as Storyteller—a collection of mostly unpublished interviews and speeches compiled in part by Kosinski’s late second wife, Kiki—is a testament to his convoluted self. It both reinforces the myths of his life (since these are, after all, his words alone) and quiets them amid the clamor of his critics. While at times repetitive and confusing, occasionally cutting speeches into chunks running parts of the same speech in different sections to fit neatly within the book’s 16 thematic categories, it is nevertheless a most welcome body of texts that elucidates a rather mysterious persona.
Admirers and skeptics alike can agree that Kosinski experienced a lifelong struggle with reconciling the sacred and the profane, and that’s precisely what the title “Oral Pleasure” suggests. He once quipped, “Now I distinctly remember when I arrived in the United States, to me, oral pleasure meant Haggadah. … I mean the rest is pleasure, no doubt about it. But true oral pleasure comes from storytelling.” In order to even attempt to understand what drove Kosinski as both an artist and a Polish Jew who immigrated to postwar America, one must be willing to engage in this process of reconciliation as well.
Regarding Kosinski as artist, what he ultimately yearned for was authenticity. In his mind, the single most authentic force was “sexual instinct”—not sex, but sexuality, a wholly internal and spiritual force. As he explained to talk-radio legend Barry Gray in 1982, “To us, to my generation, to those good Jews brought up on the best of what’s in Judaic religion, sex was a rewarding and life-giving force.” The interplay between sexuality and spirituality permeates the National Book Award-winning novel Steps, where in one poignant episode, the narrator, a soldier, recalls a high-school girlfriend dumping him after he talked to a friend on the phone while they made love. “I told her it didn’t matter,” he comments, “but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erection, it would reduce the act of making love to something very mechanical and ordinary.”
This particular moment captures a genuine, rampant fear amongst sexual beings: the difficulty of understanding oneself as a lover, thus becoming unable to grasp the needs of one’s companion. But what continues to trouble Kosinski’s audience is the interwoven-ness of sexuality (a spiritual, procreative, God-given gift) with profane, graphic violence. In The Painted Bird, for instance, a promiscuous woman has a glass bottle filled with feces shoved inside her vagina, eventually killing her. Another scene from Steps depicts a peasant girl copulating with an animal, while men pay to watch the spectacle. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon to find in Kosinski’s novels scenes of rape, incest, and bestiality.
Sometimes cheekily, other times in earnest, Kosinski dismissed accusations that such moments were the sum of his novels. He responded, rightly so, that deeply embedded in his work exists “a great deal of compassion—of being drawn to life, of protecting it, of defending oneself against bureaucracy, oppression, arbitrary imposition of someone else’s will.” His art, like life itself, is dramatic and unpredictable. But what it strives for, as epitomized by the protagonists of his earlier novels, is spiritual innocence. It’s about the protection of one’s inner being. As Sloan puts it, “Few writers had given more thought to the problems of the self—its boundaries, its divisions, its enemies, its very essence.”
Kosinski would likely agree with this estimation for many reasons, not least because in his later life he viewed Abraham Joshua Heschel as his “spiritual guru.” As peculiar as this may seem, Kosinski did evince a particular strand of Heschelian thought, that on the nature of the self. In God in Search of Man, Heschel maintains that the destiny of the self is “the concern for the non-self”:
There is no joy for the self within the self. Joy is found in giving rather than in acquiring; in serving rather than in taking. We are all endowed with talents, aptitudes facilities; yet talent without dedication, aptitude without vocation, facility without spiritual dignity end in frustration. What is spiritual dignity? The attachment of the soul to a goal that lies beyond the self, a goal not within but beyond the self.
Like James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the burgeoning artist who “had been born to serve,” Kosinski approached writing as a vocation that transcends any single historical locus. His work extended beyond merely himself by spreading awareness of life’s complexities. He said in an undated interview, “I feel I have a responsibility to others, a responsibility to be engaged in the events around me.” Elsewhere he proclaimed, “My writing fiction is a very democratic process.” At once, Kosinski managed to place himself on a pedestal above all others while simultaneously pulling himself down. It’s an egalitarian disposition that channels the doppelganger narrator of Bruno Schulz—another Polish writer greatly admired by Kosinski—who opines, wistfully, “For, under the imaginary table that separates me from my readers, don’t we secretly clasp each other’s hands?”
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