Jakub Wiśniewski on the novel “Robak”

A still from the movie American Psycho (Picture: East News)

Jakub Wiśniewski, author of the novel “Robak”, talks about masculinity in the #MeToo era, monetization with pleasure, as well as what he learned about himself while working on the book.

What is masculinity to you?

If I could define masculinity, I wouldn’t write Robak. Paradoxically, I shouldn’t have a big problem with that, because my life was full of male role models. If you dig deeper, nothing is perfect anywhere, but I can say for sure that I was raised with my mother by a loving father who is present in my life. And yet I have this, that when I begin to think about a subject, the simplest questions become the most difficult for me, and the attempt to answer grows to the size of a novel.

So where does the interest in toxic masculinity come from? For his lack in your immediate environment?

For three reasons, I believe. First of all – this is a post factum observation – of a worldwide search of conscience surrounding the #MeToo campaign. I feel like every man should rethink his definition of masculinity in this context. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the hardcore patriarchs who responded to this move with absolute denial. In the beginning, I also picked up #MeToo from the position of a privileged unit trying to knock someone off the pedestal. Only then did I begin to wonder where my excitement actually came from. It was such dilemmas among others that influenced the final form of the novel.

What irritated you?

It was a reflex. Similar to the one I believe occurs when dealing with controversial political and historical issues; such as the participation of compatriots in the Holocaust in Poland. Anyway, if someone was brought up on a specific story on a particular topic, when they come across a counter-narrative, they automatically react in denial and start rationalizing. It’s not easy to open up to the possibility that what we’ve thought so far may not be.

How was it for the course “The Worm”?

In my head there were reactions similar to those of other men, for example: “Women certainly exaggerate!”, “These are individual cases!”, “Not here, in Poland!”, “Not in my life” and so on. In addition, once the first wave of #MeToo was over, I was under the impression that many people distanced themselves from the movement due to the rapacity with which it was promoted by the mainstream media. The movement slowly lost its basic character and sometimes became a political, PR or business tool. Consequently, many men needed quite a bit of cognitive discipline to draw conclusions from #MeToo. Many of them did not have that discipline.

Jakub Wisniewski (Photo: Urszula Szpyrka, Hubert Szpyrka)

What else prompted you to tackle the topic of toxic masculinity?

anxiety. I am concerned that on the one hand we are trying to build a culture that sets itself high moral goals, such as sexual justice. On the other hand, we support with our own attention a huge company that functions only thanks to the most primitive human instincts, thus playing with the fire of a fundamental contradiction: that from the perspective of culture, nature is a ruthless and ruthless world, and from the perspective of nature, culture is an artificial world. At the same time, in “Robak” I don’t want to point the finger at anyone. I try to ask questions I haven’t heard anywhere else.

What?

For example, on pornography, one of the leading topics in “Worm”. Most of us have accepted porn as positive. I have no problem with that. However, my approach is different from the situation where people in no way stop questioning their own choices in the worldview. I didn’t stop. That’s why I’m concerned about situations like this: some time ago, the well-known portal Pornhub removed the majority of its content (more than 10 million DIY clips). Not because it was illegal content (sexual assault, child pornography, revenge porn). Not because the decision was influenced by the efforts of people who have long tried to force MindGeek (the owner of Pornhub) to introduce at least basic verification of accounts from which movies can be uploaded. No.

On the one hand, we treat porn as a quasi-religious totem, a tool to prove to ourselves that we are already liberated, that centuries of oppression and artificial suppression of basic human instincts are behind us. On the other hand, we ignore inconvenient issues like child pornography addiction or the technology that provides us with porn content — technology that sometimes seems to control us more than we control it. But raising such questions is often accused of conservatism.

Do you think the charges against Pornhub weren’t about fighting rape and child pornography, it was all about control?

I think in the situation I just quoted, there is no place for the culture of sexual justice and freedom, for which we combat such exaltation with Facebook comments and profile picture overlays. There’s only room for one thing: monetizing fun.

You also mentioned a third reason to tackle the topic of toxic masculinity. What is he?

This main reason is self-analysis. For me, writing is learning new things about myself, talking to myself. I know we’re talking more about the subject than my novel, but I have to say this: to me, as a reader and as a writer, the subject of the book is less important than the text itself. I think I sympathize with Harold Bloom’s approach: literature is there to get in touch with beauty and discover yourself, not to change the world. Therefore, somewhat contrary to what I’ve said so far, the main reason I wrote “Robak” is not to make social diagnoses, but the desire to learn something about myself, to explore the dark corners of my own head. explore, even – and maybe especially? – when there are such inconvenient things as semi-conscious, multi-generational misogyny.

(Photo: Press materials)

What came out of talking to yourself?

From the “meta” thing: It was a bit of a surprise to me that I was censoring myself. I cannot write uncompromisingly, wage war on the whole world and throw my underheated thoughts into the air. I will never cover some topics because I’m just afraid of them. Or I’m just afraid of other people’s opinions. And it makes me a little cowardly. On the other hand, I think that trying to communicate meaningfully (and writing in particular) is not throwing everything away while waiting for a response, but trying to construct a meaningful story.

Have you wondered when yew straight masculinity becomes toxic? Should every man face her?

From the point of view of the “culture of sexual justice” (to name it on the spot) that we are trying to build – yes, everyone. I fear that the concept of ‘poisonous’ is essentially an attempt to name, tame or control the inherent animal part of male nature. Note again the “nature-culture” contradiction: in nature, man is a biological robot programmed to spread the Dawkinsian “selfish gene” as much as possible. Meanwhile, in the culture we’re trying to build, we’ve come up with an almost opposite role for it. If a man wants to be part of this culture, he has no choice: he has to face himself.

Let’s dwell on the heroes of your novel. What did you make the title Robak out of?

I could say that of “Lolita”, of Cioran, of TC Boyle, Stawrogin of “Biesy” and Raskolnikov. But the truth is, mostly from your own imagination. It scares me a little. Besides, like many of my generation, as a child I read King, Masterton, “The Exorcist” and other such funny stories. And I was wondering what kind of person do you have to be to invent such gross things? Later, when I looked at their biographies, I was surprised to find that they were relatively normal people, that they had families, homes, and children. It is funny.

The worm treats women like game, meat. He is also addicted to pornography. Does one have to do with the other?

The worm says yes. Onan, also my other hero. But I’m not a researcher or a journalist. I’m not interested in non-fiction – I’m interested in fiction. That’s why I’m not making a statement like ‘pornography leads to rape’. All I can say is that in the characters and situations I’ve created, this connection is undeniable. And Worm is aware of that.

Is watching porn as addictive as any other?

There is every indication that many elements of the addiction mechanism work in the same way independently of the object (for example, the reward system). However, it seems to me that there is one thing that puts porn in a different league these days: technology. Imagine that you are addicted to alcohol, and you always have a bottle in your pocket, which automatically refills all contents within milliseconds. Free. Whenever and wherever you want.

Your second hero is the named Onan. His name is associated with the figure from the Bible who gave the word onanism. Is it a conscious procedure?

Yes, but that name probably isn’t an important story element. I chose them kind of on the creative wave – I wrote “Robak” shortly after finishing my previous book, Myi, which contains many biblical references.

For part of the book, I felt like, like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club, Robak and Onan are the same person. Are they far from each other?

Yes and no. Part of your impression may be due to shortcomings in my writing skills or simply laziness, as I was able to contrast them more linguistically. However, on some level (and even in the context of the plot) their similarity makes perfect sense. I don’t want to spoil it, but Onan is a supposedly unreliable narrator who didn’t accidentally build a relationship with Robak.

They are both afraid of women.

Yes, although each in a different way. The worm appears to be suffering from some sort of social anxiety disorder. He is afraid of interpersonal contacts in general, and with women in particular. Onan, on the other hand, can, does not want, is afraid to interfere in the relationship. He avoids sacrifice like fire.

In the first chapter you describe a dream. The worm moves through the city, dragging its large, swollen and heavy testicles behind it. Are your heroes tired of the expectations of a culture where boys have to play straight roles?

It seems to me that yes, they are tired, but at the same time they are so self-conscious that their fatigue does not concern the culture, but themselves. My heroes are tired of the distance between a man-man and a socially responsible man – they are so tired that by fighting and working on themselves, they prefer contempt for themselves and for each other. They want society, the state, the cluster to take care of everything for them: as in Lem’s “Return from the Stars”, where aggression is eliminated by the obligatory, ordinary chemical treatment. Meanwhile, the work to be done will not be taken in by orders or prohibitions. It takes more: coming face to face with the inconvenient, naked truth about male testicles. Only then can you do something about it.


Jakub Wiśniewski – born in 1990, musician, songwriter and prose writer. English philologist and translation expert by training and technical writer by trade. Singer, guitarist and songwriter of the post-folk duo Kirszenbaum. Two-time laureate of the studio “The first book in prose” of the Literary Bureau, through which his first novel “Myja” was published in January 2022 (Biuro Literackie, 2022).

“Robak”, Jakub Wisniewski, Filtry

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