Sunday, June 15, 2014

Chapter 2 - Young Alfred: Part 4 - "We Were Sort of Strangers"

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

As in the case of the peasant woman bleeding to death, young Alfred at times depended on advice from his mother, Helena Rzewuska Korzybska, but he did not become a doting son. (He did remain a dutiful one, corresponding regularly with her until her death in Poland in 1937.) On the whole, family relations in the Korzybski household could not exactly be called “warm”. Within Polish aristocratic families, that was probably not so unusual. Alfred, born on July 3, 1879 in Warsaw, and his sister Adrianna, two years older, were raised by servants. French and German governesses took care of the details of their daily existence.
Alfred and his sister Adrianna
The children’s daily contact with their parents, at meals and other times, was limited and tended towards formality. sister and I were at the mercy of the very fine governesses and servants and had very little to do with papa, mama, very little…In a broader sense, both mother and father were interested in the future of their children...But there was not much of so-called family coordination...we were sort of strangers altogether. Friendly, nice, civilized, but well, there was no interconnection. We didn’t have any particular psycho-logical problems. We were just civilized mild people going along the best we could. But the old-fashioned ties of family were absent. (14)
Helena Korzybska came from a well-known szlachta family, the Rzewuskis who had large landholdings in the Ukraine and whose reputation had become tainted by the questionable loyalty to the Polish cause of some of its members. Born around 1857 and much younger than her husband, she had grown up in the oversheltered manner common at the time for raising aristocratic girls. She ended up, in the later opinion of her son, a rather superficial and infantile woman for whom the raising of children seemed like playing with dolls. As Alfred recounted, Helena occupied herself in a seemingly endless round of attending and organizing parties, balls, and dinners. 
Helena Rzewuska (Alfred Korzybski's Mother) -
Artist Unknown, Poland
As a very young child, Alfred accompanied her to various spas in Germany and other parts of Europe for one or two months a year, as she pursued a rest cure for various real or imagined illnesses. Once on a visit with her to Vienna, five or six year old Alfred threw a bouquet of flowers into the coach of Franz Josef, smacking His Apostolic Majesty, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, in the nose.

Korzybski later referred to his mother as a “back seat driver” possessing a combination of apparent helplessness and underlying manipulativeness which he found irksome and sought to avoid in later relationships with women. (15) (His closest female associates in later life were women notable for their self-sufficiency and directness.) Helena's demandingness undoubtedly helped Alfred develop his troubleshooting skills. As he noted, “She drove servants usually frantic, and I was the peace-maker, alibiing, explaining.”(16)

Alfred's sister definitely did not get along well with mama. To the relief of both mother and daughter, Adrianna was sent away to school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Vienna. When she returned to Warsaw after about five years, Alfred noted, "She was a complete stranger.” She later returned to live in Vienna because of her facility in German. Her brother corresponded with her for a time but eventually lost touch with her, especially after he came to America, except for seeing her during his visit to Poland in 1929. After World War II, as with many other relatives and friends he had in Poland, he never learned what happened to her, whether she was alive or dead.

Alfred felt closer to his father Wladyslaw Korzybski, born in 1839, and one of the three sons of Wincenty Andrzej Korzybski, who had served both as attorney general of Mazovia and as a member of the Warsaw Sejm (Parliament), just prior to the 1863 insurrection. Wladyslaw had trained as an engineer and had an international outlook, having studied all over Europe, including England. Indeed, as Alfred later described it, his father “fell in love with England. Everything was British but the cook (French).”(17) This may account for Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon first name. A “general” in the Russian Ministry of Ways and Communications (bureaucratic positions received military ranks), Wladyslaw Korzybski spent a great deal of time away from home traveling for his work, which encompassed the improvement of bridges and roads, including railroads, throughout Russia. However he devoted as much of his spare time and income as he could to improve the old Rzewuski dog farm. Working for the Russians while seeking to improve life at home, Wladyslaw Korzybski embodied a new spirit of conciliation and practical idealism that had captured many Poles by the 1870s—a belief that they could accomodate (or even work for) the powers-that-be while still preserving Polish culture and improving the lot of the Polish people. This attitude, exemplified by Korzybski's father and his work at Rudnik, had a lasting impact on Alfred.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
14. Korzybski 1947, pp. 415-417.

15. Korzybski 1947, p. 475-476.

16. Korzybski 1947, p. 23.

17. AK "Manhood Notes". n.d. [probably 1948], Transcribed by Charlotte Schuchardt, IGS Archives. Besides Alfred Korzybski's own recollections, factual details about both of his parents and Alfred's early life were gleaned from an article in Polish on Wladyslaw Korzybski in the Polish Biographical Dictionary, Volume 14 (1968-9) published by the Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of History. 

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