Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

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Interview with Edward Balcerzan

Ewa RajewskaEdward Balcerzan

Translated by Ewa Rajewska, Zofia Ziemann

1EWA RAJEWSKA [ER]: “Aristotle was a structuralist”, you concluded during a lively discussion at a meeting of our Department of 20th‑century Literature, Literary Theory and the Art of Translation in the Institute of Polish Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Would you then agree that structuralism is not only a specific methodology of literary research, but actually a certain disposition of mind? And that under this approach the question of “what is left of structuralism” (Janusz Sławiński) ceases to be valid?

2EDWARD BALCERZAN [EB]: Aristotle can safely be counted among thinkers characterised by a structuralist sensibility. In the same circle we can place Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as the author of Laokoon or Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel with his Aesthetics, or the Philosophy of Fine Art. They are certainly not the only ones. Calling them structuralists is a mental shortcut, acceptable in an emotional, collective inquiry into humanist truths. The category of pre-structuralism or structuralism sensu largo would be more appropriate here, since the name “structuralism” was invented and appropriated by twentieth-century methodologies.

3You ask whether it is possible to infer the dispositions of the human mind in the broad structuralist activity that recurs in different epochs. Such attempts have already been made. It is no coincidence that I have just used the term “structuralist activity”, a phrase still alive in my generation, which was the title of a once very popular essay by Roland Barthes, who was ready to speak not only of structuralist imagination or research activity, but even of a “structuralist or structural man”.

4In my view, the “structural man” is not an invention of twentieth-century modernity, but one of the universal attitudes towards the world; one of the cognitive attitudes.

5Among the most important recurrent aims of structuralist activity, I would single out interpersonal communication, a typology of communicative mechanisms, including the mechanisms of transgression and translocation, which dynamize culture in most radical ways. The “structural man”, like the “irrational man” or the “metaphysical man”, appears in every epoch, although by no means always has a say.

6The domination of a structuralist sensibility in some section of history, like the domination of successive poetics, whether baroque or classical, naturalistic or avant-garde, inevitably leads to the exhaustion of inventiveness and manifests itself in the dimming of methodological “attractions”, to use Sergei Eisenstein’s term. This is what happened in the last few decades of the 20th century, when doctrines that questioned the ideas of structuralism began to gain prominence — above all Derridean deconstruction, on1 which, incidentally, almost nothing remains today. In any case, there is no doubt that the tension between structuralist reconstruction and nihilist deconstruction, between the exploration of the secrets of human communication and the denial of the possibility of communication, will be repeatedly renewed in the future.

7ER: Your first significant academic text, presented at a major conference on literary theory — “Zagadnienie ‘ważności’ elementów świata przedstawionego” [The Question of “Importance” of the Elements of the World Represented in a Literary Work] (1965) — was already explicitly structuralist. Just as your doctoral dissertation, Styl i poetyka twórczości dwujęzycznej Brunona Jasieńskiego. Z zagadnień teorii przekładu [Style and Poetics of the Bilingual Works of Bruno Jasieński. Some Problems of Translation Theory] (1968), in which even Paris from Jasieński’s novel I Burn Paris was perceived in a structural way: “Its structure — in the literary system of signs used by Jasieński — can be reduced to a system of two towers. On the one side — the Tower of Babel — a system of information. On the other — the water tower, this “gigantic heart flap” of Paris — an energy system”, you wrote. At which point did you recognise a structuralist sensibility in yourself, and began to think and write about literature as a “structural man”, homo structuralis?

8EB: Like most personality traits in everyone, my structuralist inclinations have their origins in childhood. From the moment I learned to write and read, first in Russian and Ukrainian, then soon in Polish, I wanted to be — no, not a scholar, I didn’t know such a term! — I wanted to be a writer. At school, I liked Polish classes devoted to literature, but they lacked something. While physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and also grammar were able to get to the bottom of the phenomena of inanimate and animate matter, literature classes failed to explain the mysteries of writing. Literature in the school perspective did not have its own Pythagoras, Archimedes, Faraday, Darwin. It went without its own phonetics, without its own accusativus cum infinitivo. I knew from my mother, a history and literature teacher, that it didn’t have to be like that. When I started to write rhymed stories (about a wandering ant, the ubiquitous Dr Totu Totam [Dr He Rethere], the moon spirit Tip Rip Mip), my mother suggested that I succumbed to monotony because I kept writing in the same trochaic tetrameter. She taught me other accentual-syllabic forms, and on the example of Alexander Pushkin’s Onegin stanza she showed me the possibility of various rhyme combinations. In short, she opened before me the door to versology, to poetics, as precise as Archimedes’ principle.

9ER: In your book Przygody człowieka książkowego [The Adventures of the Book Man] (1990), you point out that the moment in time when one explores culture — in the personal intellectual biography of the writer — is extremely important and irreversible.

10EB: Poetics was later part of the curriculum of my university studies in Polish language and literature, but it had the status of an “inferior” auxiliary science. I was led to structuralism by the statements of writers, artists, philosophers, by texts read without a plan, at random — Sergei Eisenstein, Władysław Strzemiński, Julian Przyboś, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Roman Ingarden, Borys Tomaszewski, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (the theory of the Pure Form). One thing mattered: searching for the keys to the secrets of art.

11I’m glad to hear that you consider the paper with which I made my debut at the theoretical literary conference in Ustroń “explicitly structuralist” in character. Lubomír Doležel and other colleagues from Prague, the motherland of structuralism, must have had the same impression, because they offered to print my “Question of ‘Importance’” in their scientific journal Česká literatura.

12My starting point was the antinomy between functionality and hierarchy of the components of a literary work. All its components are functional, but not all are equally important, as evidenced by the well-known juxtapositions of the protagonist and supporting characters or coherent (important) and loose (less important) motifs. Having narrowed down the field of observation to the represented world, I asked what means can by used by the author to draw the reader’s attention to the particular significance of these and not other components of this world in a given work. I called these means “signals of importance”. Frankly speaking, today I would rewrite that paper, because in the early 1960s, I “guessed”, as it were, a field that had not yet existed in Poland, namely the poetics of reception, describing the interplay between the internal sender and the internal receiver of a single work.

13ER: Was it a political decision to opt for structuralism in the Poland of the 1960s and 1970s? For structuralism — and against Marxism, which dominated literary studies at the time? And were there any political consequences?

14EB: Our postwar structuralism was reborn late, after the turbulent changes of 1956, and even then, not immediately; it definitely benefited from the political changes, above all the departure from Stalinist socialist realism, but it was not a political movement. Its aims were par excellence scientific. It was a revival of the multinational tradition of the interwar years, a reference to the latest foreign research innovations, but mainly it grew out of the particular disciplines of phonology, poetics, rhetoric and interpretation, i.e. it reached back to the history of artistic forms in Polish literature. Please note: the successive conferences and publications by authors of different generations, whose selected works could be included in the bibliography of postwar structuralism — Maria Renata Mayenowa, Kazimierz Bartoszyński, Jerzy Ziomek, Michał Głowiński, Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska, Janusz Sławiński, Teresa Dobrzyńska, Stanisław Barańczak, Włodzimierz Bolecki — focused on specific literary phenomena, such as verse and poetry, poetic language, textual coherence, text delimitation, metaphor, literary interpretation, biography, and literary geography.

15Of course, the precision of reasoning taught by structuralism could also prove useful in criticising the culture of the time. An example from outside Poland is Yuri Lotman’s brilliant, concise essay on the opposition of “shame” and “fear”, a text that reveals, not directly, at a high level of abstraction, the mechanisms of the individual’s psychological life in repressive regimes. In Poland, in turn, Stanisław Barańczak’s columns on the militia novel and on the incapacitated viewer were virulent “structuralist” dissections of mass culture in communist Poland. These were occasional “uses” of the scientific technique to critically evaluate the social reality.

16During the communist era, we used the term “structuralism” very sparingly as the name of a separate methodology. We were bolder when using the safe semiotic-structural lexicon, terms like “text”, “sign”, “meaning”, “order”, “structure, “poetic language”, “literary communication”, etc. We did not want to irritate the authorities, who allowed us to exist and write as we wished. True, my text “I ty zostaniesz strukturalistą” [You Too Will Become a Structuralist], which did not appear until 1973, did break with the “Aesopian” tactics, but in fact it was not a classic manifesto, it did not contain any boastful promises; it was an attempt to summarise over 10 years of activity of the postwar semiotic-structural school. Stylistically, it was close to a newspaper column: its title was a humorous paraphrase of I ty zostaniesz Indianinem [You Too Will Become an Indian], a children’s book by Wiktor Woroszylski, very popular at the time.

17Our discourse was distinguished by a facetious, self-ironic attitude to our own project. When in 1972 Stanisław Lem submitted to the bimonthly magazine Teksty a pamphlet entitled “Wyznania antysemioty” [Confessions of an Anti-Semiote], we welcomed it with delight. We did not accept his theses; we accepted his wit. Self-irony knocked the weapons out of our adversaries’ hands. Pathos is easy to attack, laughter — difficult to fight. I tried to keep up the atmosphere of humour that stuck to the name “structuralism”, but this did not go well with the Krakow publishers, and probably also the censors, because my book, which — referring to a certain anecdote — I wanted to call The Structuralists’ Dinner, was eventually published as Kręgi wtajemniczenia [The Circles of Initiation] (1982).

18The clashes with structuralism were initiated by Marxists. They did not treat us as political opponents (if they had, they would have driven us underground), but as errant, naïve proponents of scientism. “Enjoy the fun”, I remember Stefan Żółkiewski saying indulgently, as we enthused about Roman Ingarden’s quasi-judgments. However, it was not only structuralism that worried Marxists. One should remember that after 1956 Polish humanities were characterised by a kaleidoscopic diversity. We had schools of “archaists” and “innovators”: a biographical-genetic orientation that was in principle positivist, a phenomenological fraction (Roman Ingarden and his followers), a hermeneutic, personalistic, religious (the search for the sacred in art), semiotic-structural, and finally, an anti-communist (sovietological) orientation — the only illegal one in this configuration. It is sometimes claimed that the raison d’être of structuralism was its polemic against Marxism, and once Marxism lost its administrative power over the humanities, structuralism supposedly ceased to be necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth!

19All anti- and non-Marxist methodologies have survived to the present day — and so did Marxism, today strongly marginalised, but still active, e.g. in feminist theories. This confirms Yuri Lotman’s idea that no methodology is one hundred per cent wrong — each contains a certain charge of cognitive energy.

20At the heart of Marxism’s dispute with Polish “multi-headed” non-Marxism was the age-old contradiction between ideological bias and scientific impartiality in the humanities. Marxism demanded bias. “Philosophers have only variously interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it”,2 Karl Marx claimed. But how to change the world with by 3means of literary studies? The answer to this question also differentiated Marxism from within. The functionaries responsible for the cultural policy of the Polish People’s Republic identified the way of “changing the world” with the current directives of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This primitivism was opposed by other Marxists, who sought a profound renewal of this philosophy — as philosophy, not propaganda. In different episodes of their professional lives, Leszek Kołakowski, Stefan Żółkiewski, Henryk Markiewicz, Jerzy Kmita, Leszek Nowak were renewers of Marxism. Roman Zimand, Maria Janion. They reached for the inconvenient, forgotten ideas of Marx or Engels, and at the same time referred to Western “innovations”, exposing themselves to the charge of revisionism.

21I recall a scientific meeting of the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw Staszic Palace, devoted to a paper by Maria Janion, who defined Marxism as a sociology of cognition. It was about the Marxist criterion of social practice as a criterion of truth. But the party supervisors did not care about truth, but about changing the world (from capitalist to socialist). The ministerial official sharply criticised Janion’s argument — referring to Marx’s motto that I quoted above.

22Something similar also happened to me. I once analysed the tension between the two roles of a scholar of contemporary literature, who is often both a participant and an observer of the reality he describes. My analysis was included in a Soviet anthology of Polish literary criticism, Poiski i perspektivy (1978), in which the Marxist V. A. Khoriev, author of the introduction, showed some ideological vigilance and, quoting Vladimir Lenin profusely, scolded me for distinguishing the role of the observer. In this anthology, I was the only one “honoured” with an admonition from the “ever-living” Lenin. How proud I was!

23ER: Did Polish structuralists form a close-knit group of scholars or was it rather a group of like-minded friends, individualists from various research centres? What were the dynamics within this group?

24EB: It was a scientific movement, spontaneous, open, gripping our minds, a movement focused on solving specific research problems, shaping a new language of literary criticism, and expanding the field of observation to include other areas of culture that fell within the sphere of interest of semiotics. We considered these goals to be incomparably more important than structuralist correctness, especially since there was no such thing anywhere in the world. Structuralism has grown very diverse; in our view, certainly in mine, which I expressed in my article “You Too Will Become a Structuralist”, it has simply become synonymous with scientific humanities.

25We used to meet in local teams, at national conferences, in academic journals or publishing series. The intellectual hub of this movement was the Department of Historical Poetics at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, with outstanding students of Kazimierz Budzyk: Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska, Janusz Sławiński, and Michał Głowiński; Maria Renata Mayenowa also played an important role in this movement. After 1956, Poznań was dominated by traditional genetic philology, but it did not have many followers among the young; we were fascinated by the orientation towards the philosophy of literature (Kazimierz Bartoszyński), towards cybernetics, where Jerzy Ziomek was especially active, for some time heading, together with Jerzy Kmita and Wiktor Jassem, the informal group LLL (Literature, Logic, Linguistics).

26Similar research groups formed elsewhere, especially in Kraków: academic Poland was — just as it is today — decentralised, multi-centred. Very early on, at the beginning of the 1960s, we established cooperation (academic exchange) with Czech and Slovak structuralists, while Polish specialists in Russian studies (Jerzy Faryno, Bogusław Żyłko), and soon also Polish philologists, opened a dialogue with the Moscow-Tartu School (Yuri Lotman). Finally, one must remember the living, direct links with the Polish humanities — in the person of Roman Jakobson, a classic of 20th century structuralism.

27ER: In your book about Jasieński, you have analysed, among other things, the relation between poetry and non-poetry, poeticism and non-poeticism of the text message. In Literackość. Modele, gradacje, eksperymenty (2013) [Literariness: models, gradations, experiments, transl. Soren A. Gauger, 2016], you address the problem of literariness, a universal feature of all literary phenomena, which, however, can also manifest itself outside literature. As you say in the book, “universal distinguishing characteristic of literariness cannot be any specific, substantive quality of a text. It cannot be any fragment of the text; any component from the level of sounds, images, and ideas; or any «place» opened by any other key. Therefore, we must seek the distinctive feature of literariness elsewhere — namely, in the relations between the different components of the text.” You see it as a contradictory relationship which — let me again use a quote from your book — “is based on the clarification and simultaneous suspension of the formal and logical norm of non-contradiction (lex contraditionis) prevailing outside verbal art. According to this norm, we cannot regard two contradictory assessments of the same object made at the same time and in an identical direction to be simultaneously true. In practical communication, it is not permissible for something to be both x and not-x at the same time. In literary communication — on the contrary — this circumstance is not only widespread, but also indispensable.” Hence the conclusion that every literary work is a great oxymoron. If so, how do you explain literariness in tendentious writing, in dramas and novels with a thesis, in revolutionary, Tyrtean, civic poetry that satisfies the “hunger for unambiguity”, as the Polish poet Anatol Stern once put it?

28EB: One must begin with the fact that the intensity of literariness is not the same in all individual works. Let us imagine five different literary texts of approximately the same length. In each of them, syntactic order applies, the same as in everyday communication. Superimposed on it are the verse orders, antinomic to the colloquial norms. The first piece is written in rhyming, accentual-syllabic verse, with occasional enjambements. Here, the contradiction between the natural and artificial flow of speech is the clearest. In the second piece, the tension is reduced, because there are no rhymes. In the third, there are neither rhymes nor enjambements. In the fourth, there are no rhymes, emjambements or accentual-syllabic metres. The fifth is rhymeless free verse. The tensions become weaker and weaker. This is what the gradation of literariness, displayed in the book you quoted, is all about.

29Each literary work constitutes its meaning through a network of relations, not only intra- but also extra-textual, a network of tensions between the genre phenotype and genotype, between a particular work and the programme of a particular author or the principles of the trend with which the author identified himself, etc. Regardless of where these meaning-making relations are activated, whether we observe them at higher and lower levels of the text structure, or distinguish equivalent non-hierarchical orders, which we will call series, sequences, subsystems, etc., one thing is clear: there are many of them. The vast majority contain antinomic values, and only antinomies trigger the curiosity of the reader. The point is, however, that literature can’t stand monotony, constantly maintaning and renewing its own diversity. This is why in individual works some relationships are, so to speak, aggressively contradictory, others moderately so, and still others contain no discernible tensions, or such tensions are very quickly neutralised.

30This is precisely what happens in agitational, Tyrtean, state-forming or catechetical literature. The unambiguity here never concerns the entire structure of the work. It concerns the main idea, the general message, the moral, while the other orders — stylistic, compositional, narrative — are still subject to the norm of literariness, that is, they maintain the game of contradictory values, none of which wins. Nevertheless, intrusive tendentiousness is sometimes judged negatively in literary criticism. None other than Friedrich Engels advised revolutionary writers of the nineteenth century to conceal the main thrust of their work, something that 20th century authors of socialist realism did not want to remember. Janusz Sławiński claimed that socialist realist writing, because of its one-dimensionality, does not belong to the field of art, but is a form of social engineering. In my opinion, he was wrong, but his view is valuable to me as it indirectly supports the contradictory concept of literariness.

31ER: The translator — the protagonist of the recently dynamically developing Translator Studies — was an important object of your interest already in your 1968 article “Poetyka przekładu artystycznego” [The Poetics of Artistic Translation”, transl. Soren Gauger]

32EB: The most detailed presentation of a translator’s oeuvre, his poetics and fate, can be found in my book on the bilingual work of Bruno Jasieński that you have already mentioned. At that time, subject-oriented translatology, related to object-oriented translatology (let us allow ourselves this distinction), had already made quite some achievements in Polish humanities, both before and after the war. Let us just mention the intriguing work by Maria Szurek-Wisti Miriam-tłumacz [Miriam-translator], the excellent essay by Wacław Borowy “Boy jako tłumacz” [Boy as a translator], or the thorough study by Zofia Szmydtowa Mickiewicz jako tłumacz z literatur zachodnioeuropejskich [Mickiewicz as a translator from Western-European literatures]. At the same time, many translators turned to the genre of literary self-portrait, for example Maria Kurecka, who in Diabelne tarapaty [Devilish troubles] told the story of Witold Wirpsza and herself as they struggled to translate Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus into Polish. Similar publications (Karl Dedecius’s Translator’s Notebook) can be found in other European languages, which must have escaped the attention of those who today see a breakthrough in the claims of Translator Studies.

33ER: I would like to ask you about your view of the role of a translator. You assign to the translator the role of reproducer — executor of a project written by the author in another language. On the other hand, however, you describe approvingly — this is how I interpret it –cases of the translator’s actions such as polemical and concealed translation, and these are clearly not proper translations, but leaning towards creative activity, perhaps quasi-authorial?

34EB: “Authors — are judged by their works, Not — authors by other authors!” This thought of Cyprian Kamil Norwid can also be applied to translators. Their roles become clear in the kaleidoscope of forms that allow us to cross the borders between literatures. A foreign-language work can make itself present in numerous forms in non-native literary communication.

35These include translation proper [Doctor Faustus in Polish], which involves a combination of decisions made within a system of linguistic norms, or as a result of interpreting a fragment of a foreign-language original (this is how I understand the dual model of Isaac Revzin and Victor Rozencwejg). In the work of the translator, transformation of successive fragments of the original work often takes place: amplification, reduction, inversion, and substitution, and sometimes these transformations concern such important components of the work that one is temptated to distinguish amplified translation and reduced translation as separate variants. In an amplified translation, the translator occasionally “replaces” the author when he adds “from himself” (Russian “oтсебятина”) words that do not exist in the original; Stanisław Barańczak did not shy from it. In a reduced translation, on the other hand, the translator omits essential sequences; for example, Artur Sandauer, translating Mayakovsky’s The Bathhouse, resigned from translating the “transrational” text, which imitated English in an amusing way. An interesting variation of this form of translation is a prose translation of a poem (Homer’s Odyssey translated by Jan Parandowski), or, as Jarosław Mikołajewski recently did when translating Dante’s Divine Comedy, the substitution of rhymeless free verse for rhymed syllabic verse.

36As a rule, the translation process involves an auxiliary translation, a kind of “mental rought draft” in which the translator selects alternative solutions to translation tasks. Such a “rough draft” was memorised and revealed by Julian Tuwim in his essay “Czterowiersz na warsztacie” [Tetrastich at the Workshop], recounting his work on the translation of four lines from the poem Ruslan i Ludmila by Alexander Pushkin. Another category is that of translation in non-translation (extensive fragments of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, cut from the translations of Józef Paszkowski and Leon Ulrich, were included by Andrzej Bart in his novel Fabryka muchołapek [The Flypaper Factory]. It is also a composite translation, i.e. a combination of fragments of various translations of the same foreign-language work. Another principle distinguishes authorial translation, which is by no means the most faithful one, as it can lead to significant self-corrections, when the author not only translates his own work into another language, but also reworks its fragments or adds new ones; this was the case with Bruno Jasieński’s novel I Burn Paris, self-translated from Polish into Russian. Let’s add to this the polemical translation you mentioned (the translator exaggerates the features of the original which he regards as mannerist — the lyric poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky translated by Julian Przyboś), and the concealed translation, in line with the principle of annexation known in Old Poland, when the translator passes himself off as the author of what is in fact a translation of a foreign-language work, freely reworked, supplemented or reduced (e.g. Dworzanin polski by Łukasz Górnicki — a concealed translation of Il cortegiano by Baldassare Castiglione).

37Another special form of translation is assisted translation, when the translator does not know the original language and uses the help of another person (this is how Miron Białoszewski translated Hungarian poetry, assisted by Grácia Kerényi); close to this variant is “second-hand”, indirect translation (the basis for the first Italian translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo vadis was its translation into Russian). A practice often condemned, which nevertheless has its defenders (Czesław Miłosz).

38Let us add to this list the unnamed translation, in which the translator’s name was omitted (in the years of socialist realism, Bruno Jasieński’s translations were signed as “collective translation”). It is worth bearing in mind the fictitious translation, in accordance with the rule of apocrypha known in Old Polish writing: the author presents his own text as a translation of a work that in fact no one ever wrote — an Italian specialist in Slavic studies, Anton Maria Raffo, excelled at this. Sometimes, foreign-language literatures generate pastiches of works or authorial styles outside their own borders (Anna Bolecka, Kochany Franz [Dear Franz], Jacek Dehnel, Balzakiana [Balzaquiana]), with which humorous travesties compete (e.g. Ivan Kotliarevsky’s Aeneid, written in Ukrainian).

39Finally: without translatorial skills, literary critical presentations of yet-untranslated foreign language works would not be possible: James Joyce’s Ulysses, suggestively described in Egon Naganowski’s Telemach w labiryncie świata [Telemach in the Labyrinth of the World], preceded the Polish translation of this work by Maciej Słomczyński. Have I omitted something? Probably, but I haven’t forgotten about your article, in which you thoroughly analyse a peculiar postmodern form of translation game: the cover.

40The ultimate goal of translation, its ethical norm, is reliable, literary information about a foreign-language work. Ingenious deviations from this reliability enrich the art of writing, sometimes at the expense of misleading the reader. But not the researcher. The Italian writer Dacia Maraini, translator of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s The Mother, informed her readers that she had used an English translation; Professor Andrea Ceccherelli proved that her basis was the French translation. The researcher makes meticulous, painstaking distinctions in order to uncover the hidden rules of the communication game.

July 2021


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Publication details

Published in:

Mrugalski Michał, Jeziorska-Haładyj Joanna (2022) Polish structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 4 (1).

Full citation:

Rajewska Ewa, Balcerzan Edward (2022) „Interview with Edward Balcerzan“. Acta Structuralica 4 (1).