“I shake like a spleen ripped out of an eel”

An older friend once explicated the llyrics of this 1981 anti-Communist song for me, connecting each verse with a historic circumstance. I wish I remembered more of his commentary. The only one I recall is that the “jug-ears of naïve confidants” refers to secret police.

The subject of “Witkacy’s Self-Portrait” (Autoportret Witkacego) is Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885 – 1939), commonly known as Witkacy, a prolific artist and writer best known for his expressionistic paintings and eccentric persona. A biographical note about Witkacy, referring to his period of service as an officer in Russian imperial army:

Witkiewicz witnessed the Russian Revolution while stationing in St Petersburg. He claimed that he worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage, and that when the Revolution broke out he was elected political commissar of his regiment. His later works would show his fear of social revolution and foreign invasion, often couched in absurdist language. — Infogalactic

Living in Poland in the 1930s, he fled toward the country’s eastern frontier when Germany invaded in 1939 and committed suicide seventeen days later when Soviet Union attacked from the east.

Translating songs or poems involves a tradeoff between three things: original intended meaning (word choice), meter, and rhyme. I always focus on the first. With meter, I aim to make it as close as possible to the original in terms of the syllable-count and scansion but I keep a soft touch there. A matching rhyme scheme between unrelated languages is too unlikely, and not worth doing at the cost of compromising the other two priorities.

The song taps into Witkacy’s style of absurdism. With a leap of faith, it is relevant now. The regular stanzas in the original have an AABA rhyme scheme. Roger Waters should perform my English translation:


Witkacy’s Self-Portrait

By habit I watch the world
So it’s not from narcotics
That my eyes are red
Like laboratory rabbits’

I just got up from the table
So it’s not from deprivation
That I have the clenched lips
Of hungry Mongols

I listen to sounds not words
So it’s not for fecund thought
That I have the jug-ears
Of naïve confidants

I sniff out the cutthroats
So it’s not for the sake of folklore
That my nose casts the shadow
Of aggrieved Semites

I see the shape of things in their essential form
And that makes me great and unrepeatable

Unlike you – ladies and gentlemen if you’ll forgive me –
Who are an idiot’s rhyme copied on a duplicator [line x 2]

My neck’s rather stiff
But I’m still alive
Because politics to me
Is dishwater in a crystal glass

My mind is hard like an elbow
So don’t kick me
Because the revolution to me
Is red fingernails

I’m as sensitive as a membrane
So by evening and morning
I shake like a spleen
Ripped out of an eel

I’m terrified of the apocalypse
So to calm my mood
I scream like a child
That’s locked in a dark room

I more than any of you choke and gag!
I more than any of you wish to stop living but can’t!

[The first person-singular pronoun above allows a primal scream in both languages: “aaaaaaaaiiii” in English and “yaaaaaaaah” in Polish. — PA]

But I won’t let anyone touch me and therefore
When necessary I’ll be the one
Who deprives the world of Witkacy


Lyrics: Jacek Kaczmarski. Music: Przemysław Gintrowski

15 thoughts on ““I shake like a spleen ripped out of an eel”

  1. We must be related PA. Your experiences are far more dramatic than mine, but our reminiscence is similar. Whom else listens to Requiem whilst driving all night in some personal, professional, or other all night mission?

    Is this an Eastern Euro thing, this obstinacy and fighter mentality? I am closest to my maternal side, the Polish side. The men are hard drinking hunters and fighters, loyal but don’t screw with them or you’re cut off. The women hold their own but put up with stuff.

    Grit seems to be a theme. And while suicide is wrong, it does take a certain amount of grit to do it, rather than succumb to humiliation and torture. I wonder if the prohibition is a way of excising the gesture of its nobility.

    Not everyone can handle true freedom. Just Masters are wanted. But the history of man is that we move on to take greener pastures once our own have been exhausted. Our disgust for locusts is a product of projection and guilt.

  2. Pingback: “I shake like a spleen ripped out of an eel” | Reaction Times

  3. Thoughts in no particular order:

    1. That first stanza is an eye-opener. Such is why I drink.
    2. After you mentioned Roger Waters, I tried reading the lyrics to the tune of “On The Turning Away”. It was nice and wistful, but it didn’t exactly fit. Then I listened to the version to which you linked. No wonder it didn’t fit.
    3. I envision (enhearing?) Tom Waits singing the English version; that is, if you’re going for a similar sound to the original. He may still not be able to pull off the gruffness. If you don’t mind a little leprechaun with your gruffness, the singer from The Pogues could be your man.
    4. Sanpaku eyes.
    5. LOL at the final photo. The bowl cut and smile is a good combination.

  4. Slavic languages always sound so weird to my ears. German I can take easy (grew up with it), but Slavic languages might as well be Klingon. I don’t think I could guess at a single word. Good performance though!

    Speaking of good performances, this seems like a good a time as any to bring in the Trololo guy! I love this song.

  5. As to dramatic experiences, Czeslaw Milosz, who spent the latter fifty or so years of his life as a professor at Berkeley, once said that his academic colleagues were envious of his “street cred” as a poet. After all, he lived through the Russian Revolution and WWII, in the latter experience he survived the Warsaw Uprising by pure chance — he was in a suburb visiting a friend when the fighting broke out.

    He also tells a story about crawling through a field with his fiancee, under sniper fire. The story takes another dimension with the fact that he was clutching his copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”

    Arthur Koestler is another one of roughly that generation, with stories. Hemingway going back as well. As to Witkacy, that’s not a bad feather in the cap of an eccentric writer:

    He claimed that he worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage.

    — 2. After you mentioned Roger Waters, I tried reading the lyrics to the tune of “On The Turning Away”. It was nice and wistful, but it didn’t exactly fit. Then I listened to the version to which you linked. No wonder it didn’t fit.

    You’re thinking of Gilmour on that song. He and Waters had a falling out during the time when Momentary Lapse of Reason came out. Waters is that sneering madman:

    When we grew up and went to school
    There were certain [hissing thru his teeth] teachers
    Who would hurt the children anyway they could

    — Slavic languages might as well be Klingon. I don’t think I could guess at a single word

    Polish has a lot more shared vocabulary with Romance languages (via Latin and old courtly French) and with German (by proximity), not so much with English. Out of curiosity, I looked at the words you’d recognize in the Witkacy song, and it’s one per stanza: narcotics, Mongols, naive confidants, Semites, idiot’s, crystal, revolution, membrane [and none in the apocalypse stanza].

  6. One of the languages I don’t recognize any printed words in — on account of no apparent common ancestor-language with any language I speak — is Finnish. I also find it very pleasant to the ear.

    Not in the exquisite way that French is, or the melodious-crisp quality of Lithuanian and Latvian. Finnish is more like the sound of water, a lot of vowels. Very euphonic. Here is Beatles’ “Yesterday” in Finnish:

  7. Finnish is one of only 4 European languages not part of the Proto-Indo-European family of languages. The other three are Magyar (Hungarian), Basque, and [one of the Baltic states]. So fascinating to think of how these enclaves not even really close to each other managed to stay separate from the majority of their neighbors.

  8. Had eel for dinner recently. Wrinkled skin. Tender. Beer went fine with it, but liqueurs afterwards led me here, again. God is good..

  9. Eels are nasty, slimy and ugly. After having caught a lot of them by accident while fishing I’d never eat one in real life.

    You can’t even touch them to remove them from your hook until you throw dirt on them for a few minutes to get rid of the mucous.

  10. A challenge to consume; indeed. Desserts make it a tolerable… transgression… in the right… light; or, like, it can — y’know? Gotta buy’em at the right markets; they’re only delicious periodically!

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