LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 25, No.4 - Winter 1979
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1979 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
A LITERARY SYMBOL OF DEMOCRATIC INDIVIDUALISM IN JERZY KOSINSKI'S COCKPIT
MARGARET KUPČINSKAS KESHAWARZ
Largely because of his perceptive vision of the contemporary American mass mentality, Jerzy Kosinski has in recent decades risen to literary prominence. Ironically, the man who accurately documents American social ills is not a native of this country, but an escapee from communist Poland. Therein lies the key to Kosinski's astuteness in matters of social criticism; for he possesses both the objectivity of the outside observer and the subjectivity that results from his having been immersed in the two cultures he compares. In the majority of Kosinski's novels, a clear pattern emerges, in which the so-called democratic state exhibits some of the negative characteristics of the totalitarian state. Make no mistake—Kosinski still considers true democracy the only safeguard of human dignity. However, in his novels the American democratic state often fails to live up to its original ideal of protecting the individual at all costs. With the proliferation of institutions and organizations (both political and otherwise) in modern America, the individual is often sacrificed for the good of the group or becomes subservient to it. A case in point occurs in Kosinski's Cockpit, where the hero is involved in liberating a naturalized American who has been illegally detained in his native country. In the course of "pulling strings," the main character, Tarden, approaches the United Nations ambassador of the unnamed totalitarian state. The ambassador, in turn, accuses the United States government of a callous attitude toward individual liberties, citing a case that is strikingly reminiscent of the Simas Kudirka episode. Far from being a condemnation of democracy, this brief allusion to Kudirka is Kosinski's reaffirmation of faith in the democratic emphasis on the individual's worth. Just as Tarden, through individual action, succeeds in securing the release of the detainee, so a few concerned individuals asserted themselves over government agencies to bring Kudirka out of captivity. It is no coincidence that Kudirka entered the United States as a citizen in November 1974 (1) and that Kosinski published Cockpit less than a year later.
Kosinski's reference to Kudirka is indirect, for the latter's name never actually appears anywhere in Cockpit. In the novel Tarden confronts the ambassador of the totalitarian state with the accusation that the naturalized American was kidnapped on neutral soil (i. e., a transit lounge in an international airport). The ambassador protests: "Rubbish. Your own government not only refused to grant political asylum to a foreign sailor, but returned him to his own country for trial. And you talk about 'free' transit lounges." (2) The reference to Kudirka, the Lithuanian sailor who jumped ship in 1970, is unmistakable. In addition, the circumstances surrounding the sailor's extradition match the events in Kudirka's ordeal. He too was initially denied entry to the United States and was summarily handed back to the communists. Kosinski's purpose is aptly served by the oblique reference; for by preserving Kudirka's anonymity, the author elevates him to the status of literary symbol. In other words, the illegally detained sailor becomes the symbol of all individuals oppressed by powerful social, political, or economic institutions. Furthermore, to the reader who draws a parallel between the unnamed sailor and Simas Kudirka, the character automatically becomes symbolic of the individual's triumph over totalitarian institutions. Thus, an allusion that on the surface appears to be an indictment of democracy is actually, upon closer examination, a symbol of victorious human dignity and the efficacy of individual action.
In an interview with Gail Sheehy, Kosinski said: ". . . my protagonists do not isolate themselves. They are adventurers but also self-appointed reformers of an unjust world: they interfere on behalf of the weak and the fallen and the disfigured." (3) Tarden in Cockpit launches a crusade to free the falsely imprisoned American citizen. The prisoner, who like the sailor remains anonymous, is another of the fallen. At some point in the narrative the two characters fuse into a composite picture of the oppressed individual; this fusion becomes evident only when the reader is aware of the common denominator uniting the prisoner and the sailor. That common denominator is Simas Kudirka. The steps that are taken to secure the American citizen's release parallel those attempted on behalf of the Lithuanian sailor, Kudirka.
In Cockpit the prisoner's wife appeals to branches of government and private philanthropic organizations. These group efforts are wasted. Only through the intervention of one man, Tarden, does the prisoner regain his freedom. The release of the American is the result of Tarden's aggressive modus operandi and his deft manipulation of the system. The hero is the ultimate democratic man because he has no allegiance to institutions and organizations of any kind; he is the epitome of the totally free, self-reliant individual. (4) In fact, Kosinski deliberately separates his hero from any group affiliations. For example, Tarden has no easily identifiable ethnic or racial characteristics; no religious preference; no steady employment; and no family ties. He even operates under a false name. "I am alone," (5) Tarden insists, in spite of the foreign ambassador's skepticism. The hero's triumphs over bureaucracy and totalitarianism result from his convictions that the interests of the individual transcend those of society. Group action fails miserably in the quest to gain the detainee's freedom. For instance, the American State Department, in a letter to his wife, declines to cooperate. His employer denies responsibility, even though the imprisoned man was on a business trip at the time of his arrest. The Red Cross, The International League for the Rights of Man, Amnesty International, American P.E.N. (a writers' association), and various United States senators and congressmen fail to motivate the foreign government to discharge its prisoner. (6) Only courageous individual action by Tarden (i. e., blackmailing the country's UN ambassador) brings swift results.
As in the case of the imprisoned American in Cockpit, Kudirka's appeals to social and political institutions were futile. The United States Coast Guard, fearful of precipitating an international incident during sensitive U. S.—Soviet talks over fishing rights, refused to shelter the Lithuanian. (7) As in the case of Kosinski's unnamed prisoner, Kudirka registered protests with the International Red Cross; the secret petition only served to worsen his plight, however, for the Russians soon transferred him to a maximum security prison. (8) On behalf of Kudirka, concerned U.S. congressmen and senators were approached for aid, notably Ford, Buckley, and Javits. (9) Kosinski's novel mirrors these appeals to members of political bodies on behalf of the prisoner. In the end it is the self-reliant, decisive action of individuals which preserves the freedom and dignity of Kosinski's prisoner and of Simas Kudirka. Whereas institutions falter, individuals prevail in the realm of Kosinski's works and in the Kudirka episode. In Kudirka's case, a few concerned women opened the door for his release when they discovered that he could claim U. S. citizenship on the basis of his mother's American birth. In prison he maintained his individuality in the face of threats from the system, even when the Russians "tried to break Kudirka with solitary confinement, and tried to bribe his poor, proud mother with a cow." (10) Tarden's experience with the political prisoner in Cockpit and Kudirka's true-life experience with communism exemplify the democratic ideal: the belief in the preservation of individual human dignity.
While Kosinski never mentions Simas Kudirka explicitly, his allusion to the foreign sailor is an unmistakable reference to the brave Lithuanian. To the reader who draws the parallel between the sailor and Kudirka, the passage in question conjures up a wealth of implications that are consistent with Kosinski's theme of the autonomy of the individual. On a superficial level, the extradited sailor exemplifies hopelessness, human degradation, and the triumph of totalitarian institutions. On a symbolic level, however, and only after the reader recognizes Simas Kudirka in Kosinski's allusion, the sailor clearly becomes representative of hope, the indomitability of the human spirit, and the democratic preservation of the individual.
1 K. Y. Tomlinson, "Man Called Simas," Reader's Digest, 107 (Aug. 1975), 144.
2 Jerzy Kosinski, Cockpit (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), p. 175.
3 Kosinski, interviewed by Gail Sheehy, in "Psychological Novelist as Portable Man," Psychology Today, 11 (Dec. 1977), 55.
4 Self-reliance, according to America's early democratic theoreticians, was one of the most powerful attributes of the individual. Henry David Thoreau demonstrated in Walden the value of physical self-sufficiency. In Civil Disobedience he advocated the use of individual action against any system or institution that threatened to denigrate free men. Ralph Waldo Emerson espoused democratic individualism in his essay, "Self-Reliance."
5 Kosinski, Cockpit, p. 175.
6 Kosinski, Cockpit, pp. 172-173.
7 Tomlinson, pp. 138-139.
8 Tomlinson, p. 141.
9 M. J. Sobran, "Kudirka Lands in America," National Review, 26 (6 Dec. 1974), 1412.
10 Sobran, p. 1412.
Kosinski, Jerzy. Cockpit. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.
Sheehy, Gail. "Psychological Novelist as Portable Man." Interview with Jerzy Kosinski. Psychology Today, 11 (Dec. 1977), 52-56, 126-130.
Sobran, M. J. "Kudirka Lands in America." National Review, 26 (6 Dec.1974), 1412.
Tomlinson, K. Y. "Man Called Simas." Reader's Digest, 107 (Aug. 1975), 138-144.