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STEFAN THEMERSON

Stefan Themerson (1910-1988) - Polish experimental filmmaker, novelist, philosopher, and poet. He first studied physics at the University of Warsaw and then, after a year, architecture at the École Polytechnique in Paris, but in fact spent most of his time working at photography, collage, and film making. He never formally left his studies but gradually withdrew to follow his other interests. In 1931 he met Franciszka Weinles, an art student, whom he soon married.


From 1931 to 1935 the Themersons lived and worked in Warsaw, where Stefan contributed articles to various periodicals and prose and verse to school textbooks, and wrote at least ten books for children, which Franciszka illustrated. Mr Rouse Builds His House is still in print in Poland. Themerson wrote novels, poetry, philosophical essays, some essays on art, a play, an opera (libretto and music), and a book on photograms and experimental cinema. He wrote in Polish, French and English. The central concerns of Themerson's writing were ethics and language. His novels range from elaborate allegories to satirical thrillers. The humanitarian philosophy that underpins them all was crystallized in The Chair of Decency, a talk given as the Huizinga Lecture in The Leiden University in the Netherlands in 1981. It contrasted the innate sense of good with which man is born, with the impassioned pursuit of belief and causes by which he is subsequently deluded. Means are more important than Aims, Themerson said - aims are cultural but the proper means are biological.


He invented "semantic poetry", which first appeared in his novel Bayamus (1949). It is a sort of poetry that prefers the matter-of-fact meanings of words in dictionary definitions to the romantic euphemism of poetic conventions.


Stefan also experimented with photograms, and together with Franciszka he made five short experimental films: Pharmacy (1930), Europa (1931-1932), Musical Moment (1933), Short Circuit (1935), and The Adventures of a Good Citizen (1937). The couple's experimental photographic and cinematic collaborations helped pioneer the Polish avant-garde, before they moved to Britain in 1942 and began to focus on children's literature and theater design.


From 1948 to 1979, Stefan and Franciszka Themerson published books through their own Gaberbocchus Press, a publishing company, whose aim was to produce "best lookers" rather than "best sellers". The Themersons were guided by the principle that the design of each book should be an expression of its content.


A silly biped shows a group of unconditional, impulsive behaviors, which could be called an Aversion towards killing [A]. It so happens, however, that some of its original gastronomic (and sexual?) Urges [U] cannot be fulfilled without the killing of members of its own kind, or members of other, related species. In other words, committing deeds, which the biped sincerely hates to commit, is its life's need. This is not a dramatic conflict. This is a conflict, which - given the thoughtlessness of fortune - we cannot avoid. Hence, it is a Tragic [T] conflict.

It might be easier to assume that the tragic dichotomy is not a relation between the Aversion to killing and the very necessity to kill, but rather, a relation between Fear and Hunger, or between the production of adrenaline and the production of digestive juices., or even the Biblical contradiction of the ban on having children and a simple urge to submit to a sexual act (in which the essence of the story of Eden is contained). This has a secondary meaning. No matter whether the [A]version concerns the killing or risking life in combat and at work, or having children, and whether the need comes down to eating and getting rid of the sperm, Faktor T., the original tragedy, remains unaltered and has to be taken for granted. - Stefan Themerson, Faktor T. An essay on human nature and another on beliefs, concluding with the Semantic Sonata and an index. 1956.
November 2019
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