Polish Literature Meets HBO’s Westworld

Bridging the divide between Polish literature and a TV show about artificially intelligent robots is, I know, a strange connection to make; then again making unorthodox connections is one of my brain’s specialties.

Time to read: 14 min.

I loved this past Holiday Season for all the wonderful reasons that people do (more time with family and friends, great food, extra sleep, gifts, etc.). But it also was the perfect chance for me to catch up on some reading. And there is nothing like finding time to read. Since I was in elementary school I’ve loved spending whole days inside, huddled up, pouring over a book, investigating new worlds, philosophies, psychologies, and cultures. The simple act of reading has guided so much of my life; proved to be the impetus for all manner of travels and explorations and, if I’m being honest, fueled a curious nature that has gotten me into trouble a time or three.

I just recently delved into some really good books, and I ended up binging on some great television too, the result of which is that I have an odd mix of things in my head. That odd mix includes a book about Polish literature entitled Coming of Age Under Martial Law: The Initiation Novels of Poland’s Last Communist Generation (Rochester University Press, 2015), written by Svetlana Vassileva-Karagyozova, an expert of West Slavic languages and literature, and Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas, and the HBO hit series Westworld.

Coming of Age Under Martial Law
Coming of Age Under Martial Law by Svetlana Vassileva-Karagyozova (Rochester Press, 2015)

Coming of Age Under Martial Law (recently named 2016 Outstanding Academic Title by CHOICE, the American Library Association Review Magazine) is a fascinating, in-depth examination of some 30 Polish novels written by the ‘89ers, a generation of writers whose coming of age coincided with the fall of Communism in Poland, and who had to quickly adapt to capitalism and western-style democracy. The novels under review represent a significant body of evidence (backed by historical, psychoanalytic, anthropological, and sociological data) which together suggest that the period of Martial Law (1981-1983) in Poland – a controversial order which heralded the closing of many TV and radio broadcasts, the sealing of borders and closing of airports, as well as a strict curfew – was a period of liminality and developmental arrest for the Communist generation.

But there is a dark side to storytelling. And while literature may very well have therapeutic benefits, as well as allow us to explore those subconscious elements we are unwilling to engage with in our everyday lives, ultimately it too remarks upon who we are as a species; what makes us tick.

Westworld, on the other hand, is a story about a theme park filled with semi-sentient robots who cater to a rich clientele. This clientele comes to the park to engage with automatons in various pre-scripted story loops. Interestingly, the show addresses many themes encountered in literature and has much to say about the role and importance – or lack of it – of storytelling.

It could be that I overdid it with the gravy, or perhaps had too much of that amazing Texas Trash my uncle and cousin make for us every Christmas, but as I was getting deeper into Karagyozova’s research  I noticed some strikingly common themes present both in the book and the show. Bridging the divide between Polish literature and a TV show about artificially intelligent robots is, I know, a strange connection to make; then again making unorthodox connections is one of my brain’s specialties.

Coming of Age Under Martial Law: The Initiation Novels of Poland’s Last Communist Generation is one of those rare gems: it offers thought-provoking erudition that has applications to various intellectual and artistic spheres not directly related to the book’s subject matter. As I read through the book, I found myself reflecting on all manner of things. And for me, this is when I know I am reading something of quality. When a work inspires me, for days and weeks afterward, to think and to ponder, and somehow it reaches out, tendril-like, probing, and in the end provokes questions and thoughts hitherto not considered.

One of the primary themes discussed in Karagyozova’s book is that of developmental arrest. In “novel after novel, the young protagonists emerge from their quest for self-identity fragmented and incomplete, uncertain about the purpose of their existence, and unable to put their lives together. this state of fragmentation” causes the characters to “desperately strive to attain an autonomous and coherent self-identity” (45). In short, the characters in these Polish stories are not allowed to grow up properly. They are not provided with sufficient guidance during their rite of passage, which would allow them to successfully complete the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Extended Liminality

One of the concepts that struck me while reading is the fact that during Communism Polish people had seemingly been operating within state-mediated cultural processes, which functioned in practical terms to force individuals to identify with certain prototypes; prototypes that, in the end, either proved ineffectual (e.g. Polish male and fatherhood) or unrealistic (e.g. Polish motherhood). For all intents and purposes, the Polish people were stuck within personas and narratives manufactured by the State.

Going Underground In Poland Under Martial Law, sculpture
Going Underground In Poland Under Martial Law, sculpture

These identity loops are eerily similar to the loops the androids in Westworld operate within. In both Polish society under communism and the amusement-park-gone-wrong in Westworld, would-be individuals are forced to give up their autonomy for the sake of a greater good or all-powerful meta ethos, which guides every aspect of sentient or semi-sentient life.

To my mind, it is compelling to juxtapose the types of developmental arrests portrayed in these novels with those we see in the show.

The children of Martial Law, asserts Karagyozova, erred in their deep trust of socialist authorities where education and parental responsibilities were concerned, just as the characters in Westworld err, time and time again, in trusting their overlord masters, who consistently and in many cases actively prevent them from developing a personalized identity. In the end, individuals in each of these seemingly unrelated realms are expected to adhere to a set number of principles, each of which is associated with a role or archetype.


In Polish society and much of Soviet block, Polish mothers were expected to play a plethora of roles.


As Vassileva-Karagyozova notes:

The socialist realist model of femininity placed numerous expectations on Polish women: to be competent workers, exemplary and loyal citizens, good mothers, faithful comrades of and caregivers to their husbands, and resourceful housewives who could manage their households entirely on their own (102).

Soviet style poster depicting motherhood
Soviet style Polish poster depicting motherhood (it reads: We Greet Women Working for the Peace and Development of Motherland!)

The author goes on to note that this idealization of the Polish Mother was pushed at the expense of real women, put in place for the sake of an “ideological project” (103). This ideological project disallowed women from deviating from the socialist ideal of womanhood; in essence, putting restrictions on who they could be, and who they could hope to become.

Likewise, in Westworld, characters are expected to operate within certain ideological loops. Take for instance the principal character Dolores Abernathy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. She is expected to play, time and time again, day in, day out, the role of dutiful daughter and love interest to Teddy, all the while she is shot at, raped, and abused by the guests; a plaything there for their amusement. Throughout the character hovers maddeningly on the brink of sentience (in a word – adulthood).

It is worth mentioning that the characters in Westworld exist primarily to facilitate the “newcomers,” whom they implicitly trust and cannot hurt or kill, even when they themselves are abused physically by them. Just as Polish mothers struggled to live up to the state’s sanctioned norms regarding femininity, so too do the women in Westworld constantly struggle with the restrictions placed upon them by their programming.

To further illustrate my point, the mother/whore dichotomy is a very potent theme in the show, especially in the case of Maeve, another of the show’s main characters. Maeve, played wonderfully by Thandie Newton, is perhaps the most sentient android in Westworld, and by the show’s end, she actively struggles to escape the theme park, something her programming expressly prohibits her from doing. Maeve is torn by her memories. Memories that take her back, time and time again, to when her child was taken from her in a different story loop (or has this memory been programmed?). As a result of this trauma, Maeve struggles emotionally.

Maeve - Westworld
Maeve – Westworld (HBO)

When she finally has the opportunity to break free from her captors, she comes to understand that the escape plan she has conceived is a by-product of her creators, yet another narrative embedded into her programming, which serves to once more rob her of her autonomy.

Each character, then, is expected to play his or her part in the grand narrative provided either by the state or by shadowy business elites.

This one-sided relationship only serves to prolong the developmental arrest of the characters in question.

In the case of both the Polish characters and those in Westworld, they exist in these liminal states indefinitely, because the state/overlords have taken from them any traditional or familial rites of passage, which would allow them to enter into adulthood or achieve sentience (the transition from semi-consciousness to full consciousness).

Instead of a meaningful rite of passage, the characters in each of the two vastly different contexts are served up violence, abuse, and are continuously exploited by the very ones who should be supporting their transition to valuable members of society.

But even after all this buildup of tension in the novels examined by Vassileva-Karagyozova, and the brutal portrayals of violence and hardship in Westworld, one can’t help wondering whether or not the theme and presentation of extended liminality as experienced in these artistic mediums are hyperbolic; confined only to the realm of literature and theory). After all, humanity’s acceptance of artificially intelligent beings into our communities will undoubtedly be smoother and not so fraught with ambiguity and violence, given that we have been preparing for it for decades, both in science-fiction explorations like Westworld and more recently in scientific and technological advances that have allowed businesses and governments to pursue AI (Or am I being overly optimistic here? Are we gearing up for a Terminator-like apocalypse, in which robot and man are pitted against one another?).

The Power of Literature

Svetlana Vassilva-Karagyozova also analyzes the importance of literature and its place in society, along with its power to capture the social conflicts of a particular time and give them universal meaning. Literature, according to her, has the power to form generational narratives; narratives which are then absorbed by a group of people of the same age in order that they may better identify themselves, process social upheaval, and align with others who have a shared set of experiences.

The author writes at length about how in the post-89 world of Poland, democratization allowed writers to explore themes hitherto not touched upon in Polish literature. Romantic ideas began to give way to themes like gender identity, homosexuality, feminism, Holocaust literature, and others. In essence, writers attempted to make sense of their new reality by observing and using their own individual circumstances to evaluate shifts occurring in their intellectual, governmental, cultural, and familial spheres. Literature, then, allows us to cathartically make sense of our variegated realities and personas, as well as those realities and personas distant and foreign from our own.

Vassileva-Karagyozova’s belief in the power of literature to inform us about ourselves is a persistent pop-cultural idea. But is it true? In 2013, a study in Science “Suggested that reading literature increases a person’s ability to understand other peoples’ emotions.”

But there is a dark side to storytelling. And while literature may very well have therapeutic benefits, as well as allow us to explore those subconscious elements we are unwilling to engage within our everyday lives, ultimately it too remarks upon who we are as a species; what makes us tick.

And is there not a tendency for writers to portray, over and over, varying aspects of the same human fallacies? And can any hope come out of re-living the same themes, either in literature or through other mediums? In other words, are we actually doing ourselves any good by exposing ourselves to the majority of art and literature available to us?

Coming of Age Under Martial Law: The Initiation Novels of Poland’s Last Communist Generation (and the many novels surveyed within it) and Westworld both delve into this dark side; a dark side that may or may not inform us about our lives, but certainly informs us on the kinds and flavors of art we choose to engage with. Many of the stories and characters in these two spheres, to put it bluntly, are not uplifting.

And what’s more, we humans seem to revel in this dark side of ourselves.

The characters in the novels investigated by Vessileva-Karagyozova face many challenges and are forced to travel a number of dark paths and obstacles. Some of these obstacles include a societal reliance on the state in matters of parenting, emasculation of the Polish male, and unrealistic expectations of the Polish mother, all of which the author touches upon in interesting and insightful ways. And as the author notes, these coming-of-age narratives are connected to the law of perpetual renewal – the cyclical struggle by which we undergo our rites of passage into maturity.

But to go one step further, these stories tell dreary, heartbreaking tales of abuse, alcohol addiction, and repeated infidelities, as well as sexual exploitation, rape, and murder.

Returning to Westworld, Spencer Kornhaber of the Atlantic, too, wonders whether the show is not commenting on this tendency in our literature. As he notes:

The final episode, “The Bicameral Mind,” was a lurid one, involving severed limbs and sexual humiliation and a bloody ambush by the “hosts” of the show’s immersive cowboy theme park against their human masters. But just before the climactic revolt, Robert Ford, the venerable park architect played by Anthony Hopkins, laid out his original idealistic vision for the place. “I’ve always loved a good story,” he began. “I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”

Even given the show’s disorienting elements, and the fact that the narrative relies heavily upon withholding information to keep the viewer in suspense, by the final episode, as Kornhaber realizes, a more or less typical story emerges. And what we see is similar to what we have encountered so many times before. A linear narrative that ends with a fountain of violence, in large part to right past wrongs.

Ford, the park creator, once believed that stories had the power to ennoble human beings; but this belief, extrapolated, taken to its extreme, and then realized, has only served to imprison him in a cage of violence and human degradation.

Kornhaber asks an important question about Westworld, a question which has implications for literature in general: is Ford’s failure “meant to be a larger, meta-level indictment of certain kinds of storytelling?” “These violent ends have violent delights” is an oft-repeated phrase on the show, and indeed there is ample evidence of violence in Westworld (almost every episode is filled with it). And there is ample evidence of violence in the novels surveyed in Coming of Age Under Martial Law. This prompts me to question whether or not the writers of these novels have not imprisoned themselves in these stories, in these times and in dread universes of their own making, for no other reason than to revel in degradation, in the filth of the human mind. And in the end, is there any evidence that authors or readers are benefitting from shackling themselves with these experiences?

Either way, I admit to being a purist. Having been a reader all my life, regardless of the benefits of literature and storytelling (or lack thereof), I will remain a consumer (and peddler) of stories to my dying day.