Skip to content

Zbigniew Jaroslaw Kotowicz.

Citizen of Nowhere.

By Anthony Rudolf.

Z. Kotowicz Reading Bachelard on a Train1

in the empty carriage
he almost sets
his jacket alight
with a cigarette;
half-asleep, he sees,
in the window, someone
swift, nervous,
striking him:
ah, it is he himself
on the other side,
in the twilight;
the tiny flame
pinpoints a space
for reverie

— 1975/20162

ZBIGNIEW KOTOWICZ DIED on 21 September 2017. A rare, proud, often impoverished, sometimes solitary man, Kotowicz wrote four impressive books: on the important Portuguese figures Fernando Pessoa and Egas Moniz (who was the Nobel Prize-winning founder of cerebral angiography and psycho-surgery), on R.D. Laing and Gaston Bachelard. He also published some thirty papers on philosophical, psychological and literary topics, including figures such as Lyotard and Freud. As well as being the first publisher of his Pessoa book, which was eventually translated into Portuguese — a sure proof of its quality — I was honoured to have read and commented on his books in manuscript.

Kotowicz was born in the UK on March 15, 1950. At some point in his childhood, his parents — among the tiny minority of Polish nationals living here who retained or acquired radical progressive ideals — went back to Poland, where he lived until his late twenties and, as he said, received an excellent education. He returned to the UK in 1978, having trained in clinical psychology in Warsaw and taken an MA at Warsaw University. According to his CV, Kotowicz worked ‘from 1975 till 1990 in various clinical settings as psychologist and psychotherapist’.

In the UK, he became closely involved with R.D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association, where he trained as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. During this period, he worked for about four years on the wards in mental hospitals and set himself up as a psychotherapist in private practice in 1982. For several years in the 1980s he was involved with Studio Upstairs in the London Diorama near Regents Park, where he had a consulting room. Here he met Laurence Spurling, Paul Zeal and other practitioners. In 1987, still working as a psychotherapist but ready for a change, he entered the worlds of philosophy and the history of science and, in 1993, completed a PhD on Gaston Bachelard at the University of Warwick. At Warwick, he formed a close friendship with David Webb, a future professor of philosophy, which continued until Zbigniew died: a friendship of two philosophers. Sadly I was never a barfly (on the wall) while they discussed Bachelard, Levinas, Feyerabend, Heidegger and cricket. As al-Rumi almost put it, the man of thought is drunk without red wine.

During this period Kotowicz spent two years as visiting tutor at Thames Polytechnic (later, the University of Greenwich) and the American University in Paris, where he lectured on eastern European literature and what he called the ‘alternative modernism’ — Pessoa, Artaud, Witkewicz, Khlebnikov and seven others. I recall that we joked about a cricket team, which was an unlikely sport for him to love, but love it he did.

THESE STINTS WERE followed by a move to Portugal where he worked as a writer and independent scholar, and helped raise three step-sons with Ana Salema, a researcher in Ayurveda, at Figueiro dos Vinhos, in the countryside not far from Coimbra, some 120 miles north-east of Lisbon. The relationship with Ana ended in 2003 but he remained in contact with the boys for many years. It was from Portugal, in 1994, that he wrote to me, a complete stranger (although later it turned out we had friends in common), to comment on my short book about Primo Levi: he made all the right (and disarming) noises about liking it and giving chapter and verse, before making a critique concerning his disagreements, again providing chapter and verse, and that set the tone for our mutual support and respect for each other as writers. In 1995-6 he received a research fellowship from the Gulbenkian Foundation (where Jose Blanco was head of literature), which led to his book on Pessoa, the first in English3. At this time, Zbigniew kept me calm during a complicated negotiation with his friend and philosophy colleague Howard Caygill over a book that, in the end, thanks to Zbigniew’s skills, I published at my Menard Press: Gillian Rose’s Paradiso.

In 1997, his book R.D. Laing and the Paths of Anti-Psychiatry was published. The same year, he became director of the Forum for European Philosophy at the LSE, but this did not last long, probably as a result of a personality clash with the top management. He was also an active member of the political philosopher John Gray’s international seminar — the only time Zbigniew ever wore a tie.

Prof Sally Alexander remembers ‘…an attractive, cadaverous figure, full of curious stories and matters of mutual interest….’

From 2002, he spent seven fruitful years in the Department of History at Goldsmiths, three of them as a Wellcome Trust Fellow in the history of medicine (guided by Tony Woods then head of Medical Humanities grants at the Trust, who was well aware of Zbigniew’s often difficult personal and professional circumstances, and who remembers him always with a cigarette and a strong espresso or large glass of red wine), followed by posts as tutor and lecturer in the same department. Professor Sally Alexander remembers: “a warm, intellectually engaged and indispensable presence in the department — excited about his work. He would amble down the corridor, or into the canteen, an attractive, cadaverous figure, full of curious stories and matters of mutual interest.  Zbigniew paid close attention to students’ thoughts and ideas, and always responded keenly to the material in discussion”. Her professorial colleague Victor Seidler rightly calls him ‘a force of nature’.

Kotowicz spent his final years in Portugal, as a research fellow of the prestigious Centre for Philosophy of Science at the University of Lisbon, where he arrived in 2011 and where his colleagues included Isabel Serra, an expert on Egas Moniz, the subject of Zbigniew’s third book Psychosurgery — The Birth of a New Scientific Paradigm: Egas Moniz and the Present Day, mainly written before he arrived in Lisbon and a direct outcome of the Wellcome connection; this was published by the Centre in 2012. Antonio Damasio, the famous Portuguese neuro-scientist will not have liked the book, assuming he followed my suggestion that he should read it. Zbigniew Kotowicz takes great issue with Damasio over mental illness and neurosurgery, and presents a radical reappraisal of the famous and controversial case of Phineas Gage. Kotowicz rejects the claim that mental illness can be explained or will ever be explained entirely in neurological terms.

At the Centre he renewed his studies on the work of Bachelard, philosophical, scientific and poetic, which led to his final and probably best book, Gaston Bachelard — The Philosophy of the Surreal, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2016. I told him that, immediately after the war, the French poet Yves Bonnefoy attended Bachelard’s Sorbonne lectures on the history and philosophy of science (animus lectures in Bachelardian terms), while another poet Claude Vigée attended his lectures on poetics (anima lectures ditto). Zbigniew said he himself would have attended both. This was completely feasible since not even Bachelard could lecture on both topics simultaneously.

Kotowicz travelled light literally — owning few possessions and living in many places — and, metaphorically, writing his books and essays out of the designer suitcase which was his powerful, subtle and retentive brain, making connections and often constructing arguments from scratch, underpinned by his memory of books read much earlier. He was an excellent guitarist and a great lover of modern jazz and world music: I recall going with him to concerts of Hugh Masakela and Ornette Coleman, which I would not have otherwise contemplated. He was also a film buff who introduced me to Asian, North African and Middle Eastern cinema. Zbigniew was a political radical, an old-school Polish socialist. In London, when he lived here, or when he visited from Paris or Lisbon, we would visit the studio of his painter buddy Aldous Eveleigh — who did covers for two of Zbigniew’s books — or walk around an exhibition and then have dinner at Caprini by Waterloo Bridge.  He cooked a mean vegetarian curry, whose lengthy preparation required jazz music, roll-up cigarettes, red wine and gossip.

IN 2001, DURING a Paula Rego exhibition of prints held at the Viera de Silva/Arpad Szenes Foundation in Lisbon, I introduced Kotowicz to a fine gentleman, José Sommer Ribeiro, who had been a great support for Paula when he was director of modern art at the Gulbenkian Foundation. Sommer Ribeiro asked Zbigniew if he had been invited to the post-show dinner and when told no, issued an impromptu invitation. On the same occasion I introduced my friend to John Erle-Drax of the Marlborough Gallery. I said to John that Kotowicz was a writer and said to Kotowicz that John was… and hesitated, unsure about the best word. John said ‘I’m the dealer, Paula’s dealer’. To which Zbigniew replied without hesitation that he did not know Paula smoked marijuana and that he himself had a good dealer in Clapham.

I got the impression in August this year (2017), when I met Zbigniew in Lisbon a few weeks before he died, that he was finally ready to settle. But where? Now that he was retired from the University of Lisbon, Portugal was over for him. And his relationship had ended with the dedicatee of the 2016 Bachelard book, a brilliant and beautiful Czech woman, Kristina Žantovská, at the time the head of drama at the national public radio company. (In 2013, meeting romantically thanks to an internet trail, they had picked up again after a gap of thirty-three years; her initials, KZ, his initials, ZK). So, where would he live? London again? Paris again? Rome again? Sweden again? He used to visit his friend Joli every year in Lund, as godfather to her two children. He loved visiting India but would not have settled there. It was where he chilled out, smoked dope, read books. He left behind in Europe his intensity, his single-mindedness, his occasional bloody-mindedness.

We discussed the issue of relocation during what turned out to be our final dinner — in an Italian restaurant in Lisbon — and mulled over the financial and other aspect of his situation. Now he himself is over, defeated by a terminal cancer, which was not how he presented it to me in our Lisbon conversations, about five weeks before he died. However, it became clear he knew he would not have the strength to move. He could not do it on his own, he said. He was ready for a final love, which had to come first. Nor did he have a writing project in mind, having written the books he had always intended to write. I suggested he compose a memoir. He flinched. I said it didn’t have to be linear or chronological and we discussed modern forms of the genre, thematic and/or fragmentary. When he moved to the flat of his friends Isabel Lechner and Baudouin Jurdant during the two weeks before his final week in hospital, he selected two books to accompany him: the poems of Wislawa Szymborska in Polish and the Tao Te Ching — echoing one of his talismanic writers, Samuel Beckett, who took to the hospice one book, Dante’s Inferno. Zbigniew was absolute in attitude in many respects, except when it came to death, but who is, pace the Duke in Measure for Measure? It is difficult to reread his pages on Bachelard and death without being deeply moved.

Using Z’s initial rather than his name, Zbigniew or Zbiszek, was our private joke. I find it difficult to kick the habit. His untimely death saddens his circle of close friends, artists, writers, scholars and psychotherapists, to whom he remained fiercely loyal across time and space. We cherished his singularity, his depth, his kindness, his sardonic humour and his devotion to the values he held dear. In the words of a former associate of R.D. Laing, Leon Redler: “I didn’t know Zbigniew well but when he comes to mind now it’s with resonances of a critical intelligence, integrity and courage”. One close woman friend of mine, a perceptive poet who I felt should meet him (yes, I was matchmaking) while she was in Lisbon for a conference in January 2017, recalls a wonderful dinner there with much red wine and Z himself on great form: ‘He talked a lot that night about the I Ching and his guitar. My sense of him was that he had given himself up to life and that part of this abandonment was being prepared to be engaged in its difficult conversations. And that he never gave up on an ideal of love’.

Finally, a psychotherapist colleague of Z’s writes: ‘I have been seeing a patient who initially saw Zbyszek for a few months before he wound his psychotherapy practice down and passed her on to me, and it is quite clear, from the way she spoke of him, that seeing him had a profound impact on her. For me, I have never met anyone who had such an ability to come at things (intellectual preoccupations, relationships, life in general) from such unexpected angles, which I found exhilarating, stimulating and sometimes disturbing’.

Anthony Rudolf, whose European Hours: Collected Poems was recently published by Carcanet, is the  founding editor of The Menard Press.

More online:  Gordon Stainsworth and David Webb (in The Guardian) remember  Zbigniew Kotowicz.

Note: This article was altered subsequent to publication to permit the correction of a minor editorial error.


  1. From European Hours: Collected Poems by Anthony Rudolf (Carcanet, 2017).
  2. This poem dates from 1975. In 2016 I rewrote it, replacing the unnamed speaker with Z. Kotowicz. In 1975, smoking was still allowed on trains. The last two lines of the poem allude to two famous books by Bachelard.
  3. Fernando Pessoa. Voices of a Nomadic Soul. London: Menard Press 1996. Second revised edition, Exeter: Shearsman/Menard, July 2008. (Portuguese translation Fernando Pessoa: Vozes de uma alma nomada. Lisbon: Vega 1998).

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *