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‘The Eye & The Ear’: Phonic Modernism and Central Eastern Europe

5 August 2022
Juliette Bretan, University of Cambridge

By his own admission, Polish avant-garde artist and filmmaker Stefan Themerson was fascinated by ‘the sight-and-sound problem’.[1] The relationship – and, often, mismatch – between the optic and the sonic is everywhere in the works he created alongside his wife, Franciszka, in the twentieth century: their interest in audio-visual technology to improve communication; the musical metaphors used to describe ‘Semantic poetry’; and especially their cinematic projects, which fused visual, auditory and linguistic media.[2] One of their most famous was the 1944/5 film ‘The Eye & the Ear’, a transposition of four songs by composer Karol Szymanowski, to poetry by Julian Tuwim, into four ‘different methods of cinematographic interpretation.’[3] Natural, abstract and geometric figures, solarised and surreal, flare across the screen, bearing various degrees of resemblance to the songs, which are rendered in shrill warble-sound. Curious, that such a plucky experiment with music, image and language was produced just after the couple had worked on a more directly informative propaganda film, ‘Calling Mr Smith’, for the war effort.

In fact, Central Eastern European artworks from even earlier in the twentieth century feature similar synaesthetic distortions. In 1916, the founder of the Dada movement, Hugo Ball, penned the sound-poem ‘Karawane’ – a grab-bag brawl of words, with some familiarity to real European languages, designed to be read aloud, but also to evade comprehension.[4] Meanwhile, in 1926, Czech modernists Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige, members of the Devětsil group, produced the alphabet book Abeceda – which, instead of aiding language learning, featured short verse pieces free-associating from individual letters, and their interpretations through dance.[5] The overlaps in literary form; pluralities of interpretation; and the possibilities and limits of trans-national communication evoked by these works mirror the fluid notions of identity, nationality and geography in the region throughout the period.[6]

Yet, early twentieth-century Anglophone explorations into the audio-visual – particularly in texts which feature characters from Central Eastern Europe – are more unnerving. Though Sam Halliday notes an extensive modernist preoccupation with sound, and its interactions with sight, as international communication expanded, I want to explore what happens when this correspondence chafes, eludes capture, or is subject to oversimplification – and how this might reflect British uncertainties about Central Eastern Europe at the time.[7] Considering the uneasy relation between the visual, the auditory, the linguistic and informative might thus evoke phonics, through which sounds are related to written letters. This is language without (or with limited) prior knowledge of its operation; the decomposed and decontextualised speech of the amateur, the inexperienced, the unfamiliar.[8] Phonics shapes the information texts reveal – clear or fuzzy, wide-ranging or truncated, authentic or artificial – thus involving different ways of reading modernism, and listening to modernism differently.

When the Polish Lina Szczepanowska crash-lands her aeroplane into a British country house in George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance (1909-10), she shatters far more than the glass of the greenhouse on which she lands – for the unfamiliar spelling of her name also ruptures standard uses of the English language:

THE PASSENGER: My name is Lina Szczepanowska [pronouncing it Sh-Chepanovska].
PERCIVAL: Sh—  I beg your pardon?
LINA:  Szczepanowska.
PERCIVAL: [dubiously] Thank you.
TARLETON: [very politely] Would you mind saying it again?
LINA: Say fish.
LINA: Say church.
LINA: Say fish church.
TARLETON: [remonstrating] But it’s not good sense.[9]

On one hand, this hilarious dialogue on the pitfalls of Polish pronunciation expands possibilities for international communication; yet the perceived strangeness of the Polish language endures. The slow-burn acclimatisation to the pronunciation trick – compounded by the low-level reluctance, or even arrogance, to cooperate with Szczepanowska’s instructions – hampers communication; this is language learning at its most ungainly. More alarmingly, remonstrations from the previously erudite Tarleton indicate he has taken Szczepanowska’s advice literally: the introduction of Polish jumbles even the logic of English-language communication. As a play, this passage is designed to be uttered not only as a conversation between characters, but also as a meta-fictional correspondence between the stage directions and the actor. The phonics thus exposes tensions of communication, comprehension and analytical thinking, which are usually smoothed out in performance.

Joseph Conrad’s oft-quoted comment on his ambitions for his writing – that it is ‘to make you hear, to make you feel […] before all, to make you see’ – has garnered considerable critical enquiry: is he privileging the optic or sonic, or perhaps the somatic, here, and how interrelated are these sensations?[10] Yet, the implicit clunkiness of the verb ‘make’ suggests his works also invite sensory interactions beyond direct or natural means: readers’ auditory, visual and emotional states are opened up and integrated, but also forced into unconventional modes. Many of Conrad’s works similarly feature synaesthetic unease; his handful of stories featuring Central Eastern European characters particularly reveal incongruities between sight and sound, reflecting Conrad’s own difficulties with both written and verbal communication as a non-native English speaker.[11] His 1901 short story ‘Amy Foster’, for example, detailing the arrival of a Central Eastern European immigrant, Yanko Goorall, to a coastal British town, has often been described as depicting a ‘language barrier […] solid and visible’ – and yet, in other ways, communication is more ambiguous, through unexpected juxtapositions between the visual and aural.[12] For instance, the attempt to capture the discordant sound of Yanko’s language:

As the creature approached him, jabbering in a most discomposing manner, Smith (unaware that he was being addressed as ‘gracious lord,’ and adjured in God’s name to afford food and shelter) kept on speaking firmly but gently…[13]

In ways, Yanko’s jabbering prattle implies his resolute otherness; a form of spoken communication which is not channelled into immediate sense and meaningfulness. The brackets offer more complexity, formally allowing his language to coexist alongside – and in translation – with English; an interchange reflecting Yanko’s fluid sense of identity, which is never conclusively specified in the story. But for English characters like Smith, this is no good. In keeping with the turn-of-the-century urge to identify and manage immigration into Britain, Yanko has to be absorbed into existing structures, including through an official inscription of his name:

He was called Yanko. He had explained that this meant little John; but as he would also repeat very often that he was a mountaineer (some word sounding in the dialect of his country like Goorall) he got it for his surname. And this is the only trace of him that the succeeding ages may find in the marriage register of the parish. There it stands—Yanko Goorall—in the rector’s handwriting.[14]

Here, the relation between sound and sight is heavy-handed: this might, again, be an English-Central Eastern European crossover, but it is one congested with speculation and error, rather than trans-national understanding. Yanko’s name is similar to Polish, although the Polish spelling would be with a J, though pronounced as if with a Y; the surname Goorall is similarly close – but distorts – the Polish term Górale. This is a spectacularly off-kilter transliteration; the scriptural scruffiness of Yanko’s name haunted by implicit loss, and lack of authenticity, rather than clarification or community-building.

As Larry Wolff notes, Central Eastern European languages were often seen as incomprehensible to Western European writers, and transmuted into puerile nonsense.[15] But in the case of translations from sound to sight, and vice versa, deeper ambiguities are revealed. Whether fluid or static, lively or inflexible, slapdash or strategic, phonics shines a light on the uneven and overlooked relationship between Britain and Central Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. Thinking about phonics in representations of Central Eastern Europe is thus keeping an ear out for what, so often, is elided in modernist study.

Image credit: Charles A. McMurry, Public School Methods, 1913 [from the Internet Book Archive]. No known copyright restrictions.


[1] Stefan Themerson, ‘Notes on Synaesthetic Sight and Sound Co-ordinator: a Letter to Mr Ernest Lindgren, 1957’, quoted in Daniel Muzyczuk, ‘Discontinuities and Resynchronisations’, in Holly Rogers and Jeremy Barham, eds., The Music and Sound of Experimental Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 129-149 (p. 132)

[2] Ibid., p. 134, p. 132; Kamila Kuc, Visions of Avant-Garde Film (Bloomington & Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2016), p. 22. Kuc also notes the Themersons’ collaboration with British documentary and avant-garde filmmakers, including Len Lye and John Grierson, through their 1930s magazine film artystyczny.

[3] Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, The Eye & the Ear, Polish Film Unit, 1944-5. Available online:

[4] Anna Katharina Schaffner, ‘Dissecting the Order of Signs’, in Elza Adamowicz and Eric Robertson, eds., Dada and Beyond (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), pp. 37-51 (p. 42).

[5] Derek Sayer, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021), p. 238.

[6] Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz, ‘Introduction’, in Bartov and Weitz, Shatterzone of Empires (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), p. 1-23 (p. 2).

[7] Sam Halliday, Sonic Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), pp. 7-9. Halliday also explores phonics in his interpretation of Abraham Cahan’s Yekl (1896), but only as an opaque block to comprehension; Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 106.

[8] Robert Emans, ‘History of Phonics’, in Elementary English, 45:5 (1968), pp. 602-608 (p. 603-4).

[9] George Bernard Shaw, Misalliance (Fairfield, IA: First World Library, 2004), p. 65.

[10] Joseph Conrad, quoted in Halliday, Sonic Modernity, p. 31.

[11] Jeremy Hawthorn, ‘“No need of words”: Joseph Conrad’s Use of the Typographical Ellipsis in “Under Western Eyes” and “The Secret Sharer”’, in Conradiana, 43:2/3 (2011), pp. 5-23 (p. 5); Joseph Conrad to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, 14th January, 1898, in C.T. Watts, ed., Joseph Conrad’s Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), pp. 63-65 (p. 64).

[12] Michael Greaney, Conrad, Language, and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 19.

[13] Joseph Conrad, ‘Amy Foster’, in Selected Short Stories (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1997), pp. 95-120 (p. 105).

[14] Steven A. Hirschler, Hostile Homes (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2021), p. 8; Conrad, ‘Amy Foster’, p. 113.

[15] Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe, p. 106.


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