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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Cultural modernization: Institutionalization of “national sciences”

History of new Bulgarian literature

Boyan Penev
Traduction de Zornitsa Dimova-Hristova

Texte intégral

1Title: История на новата българска литература (History of new Bulgarian literature)

2Originally published: Sofia, Държавна печатница, 4 vols. (1930–1936), ed. by Boris Iotsov

3Language: Bulgarian

4The excerpts used are from the second edition: История на новата българска литература (Sofia: Български писател, 1976), vol. I, pp. 468–470, 477, 500–501.

About the author

5Boyan Penev [1882, Shumen (east Bulgaria) – 1927, Sofia]: literary critic and historian. He completed his secondary education in Rousse and graduated from the ‘Department of Slavic Philology’ at Sofia University in 1907. He became a professor in the ‘Department of Bulgarian and Slavic Literature’ at Sofia University in 1917, and then department chair in 1925. Between 1923 and 1924, he gave lectures on the history of Bulgarian literature in Poland (in Cracow, Warsaw and Lwów (Ukr. Lviv). Close to the circle around the modernist periodical Мисъл (Thought), Penev was, together with its leading figure Krastiu Krastev, one of the main proponents of the modernist approach to literature and culture in general. His modernism and positivism were aligned with liberal political views. Descending from a family of modest social status, Penev was an exemplary figure for the new Bulgarian intellectual elite, which, in contrast to that of the first post-liberation generation (coming mainly from the urban elite), comprised people from all social strata. This generation shared common cultural standards imbued by the national educational institutions. Penev married Dora Gabe, the most important Bulgarian poetess at the beginning of the century. She came from a renowned Jewish Levite family, which had moved to Bulgaria from Russia. Gabe converted to orthodoxy to get married to Penev in 1908. Penev dedicated a series of influential works to the history of Bulgarian literature and to contemporary literary development. He also contributed to the debate on national culture and especially to discussions regarding the relationship between the people and the intelligentsia. His important essay ‘Our intelligentsia’ became one of the formative texts of the Bulgarian cultural project as a whole. Penev championed the idea that the Bulgarian people and its elite latently possess the best qualities of all European nations. However, he argued that their fulfillment could be achieved only through conscious efforts and well-formulated common aims. Penev’s ‘History of new Bulgarian literature’ is considered to be the most important modernist interpretation of the national literary canon.

6Main works: Начало на Българското Възраждане [Beginnings of the Bulgarian national revival] (1918); Паисий Хилендарски [Paissy Hilendarski] (1918); Българска литература. Кратък исторически преглед [Bulgarian literature. A short historical review] (1930); История на новата българска литература 6 vols. [History of new Bulgarian literature] (1930–1936).


7In the first histories of modern Bulgarian literature, where the national canon was first constructed (Marin Drinov, Ivan Shishmanov, Alexandar Balan), the monk Paissy Hilendarski (1722–1773) is considered to be the first author of modern Bulgarian literature. More generally, Paissy’s figure was established by Romanticism as a founding figure of the Bulgarian national revival. A significant example of the use of the figure of Paissy in Romanticism is Ivan Vazov’s ode ‘Paissy,’ placed at the beginning of his national canon-building work ‘Epic of the Forgotten.’ Paissy Hilendarski wrote the famous История славеноболгарская (Slavo-Bulgarian history) (1762) during his stay in the Khilandar (Hilandar) Monastery on Mount Athos. Thanks to this seminal text, the first Bulgarian history in the contemporary, vernacular language, Paissy was ascribed the role of the ‘creator of new Bulgarian literature’ in the national canon. Also in literary history, Paissy is considered to be the creator of the modern Bulgarian literary language. In fact, on a discursive and generic level, his text shows features relevant much more to the rudimentary and petrified medieval rhetoric, typical of the monastic schools. He also used the tradition of the popular Bulgarian дамаскинари (damaskin) authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Iosif Bradati, for instance), ecclesiastical literature, and also humanist authors writing in Latin or Italian. The ‘damaskin’ literature (after the name of the Greek author Damaskenos Studites, who wrote the book ‘Treasure’ – prototype of all its subsequent variations), produced between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, represented the most important trend in the secularization of literature before the revival period (the ‘damaskins’ being written in vernacular language), although it remained strongly influenced by the thematic scope and the generic structure of monastic hagiographical writing.

8Boyan Penev, similar to Benyo Tzonev in the nineteenth century, opposes this view. Penev sees the beginning of new Bulgarian literature as a cumulative process. At the same time, he also depicts the individual figure of Paissy as the first incarnation not only of the revival of the national spirit, but also of its first modern articulation. In other words, Penev is one of the first historians trying to interpret Paissy as the first Bulgarian Enlightener. In accordance with the Tainean model, Penev focuses on the extra-literary factors which effected the formation of the literary work, but at the same time puts at the center the individual figure of Paissy, thus reiterating the main modernist archetype. The compromise between external determination and individual predetermination is particularly pronounced in the analysis of Paissy’s work. According to Penev, Paissy stands as a ‘predetermined bearer’ of national consciousness in the given historical moment. What is more, being an incarnation of the national soul, Paissy is at the same time its active principle: “from the depersonalized and apathetic slave, he wanted to create a Bulgarian; he aimed to trace in the consciousness of the generations the ways of the future.”

9With his reinterpretation of the Bulgarian national canon, which, in its turn, became canonized in the following decades, Penev establishes an individualist version of national literature and culture in general. Undoubtedly, the way he approached Paissy’s figure and oeuvre is paradigmatic in this respect. At the same time, this ‘individualist’ modernist vision is related to the idea of the fundamental interrelation of the individual’s mind and the nation’s soul. It is implied in all of Penev’s historical works that the ‘national’ poet gains his individual value mainly through the absorption of the national spirit—the ultimate subject of every creative act.


History of new Bulgarian literature

Volume I, Cçhapter XIV: Paissy Hilendarski

11In the first place, the motives behind Paissy Hilendarski’s writing this history are quite typical of his character. The main fundamental motive must be sought not in chance circumstance and outside ascendancy—at any rate we have no established information about such circumstance—but in Paissy himself, in his individual peculiarities, and mostly in his national sentiment and awareness. Paissy’s legacy is unthinkable without that sentiment and awareness which cannot be instilled from the outside as ready-made psychological forms but ensue from a deeper spiritual life. Outside influences, of course, were not lacking, their meaning cannot be denied, but in this instance they are an occasional factor, nowhere as crucial as Paissy’s individual spirit. If the nascent national awareness found its first concentrated expression in Paissy rather than someone else, this concentration was aided by favorable inner conditions of a personal character. We see no accident here. In the history of our Revival, Paissy is the first major figure with a clear awareness of the nationality he belongs to, of the spiritual neglect of that nationality and the means of its awakening. Paissy vividly felt the sorry plight of his people. In this he resembles those sympathetic poets gifted with a near-painful sense of nationality, poets only born in times of great national disaster. Paissy felt the suffering of his people, he felt it even deeper than the people itself—so strong his love for his compatriots was; he felt the bitter insults inflicted by Greeks and Serbs, he felt this humiliation as his own. One of the few revivers of our national spirit, he considered it his irrevocable duty to endure and redeem the suffering and humiliation of his people. With moving naïveté he hints in the epilogue at the most intimate motive that made him write the history of Bulgarians: “I was gradually consumed by zealousness and pity.” How eloquent this simple phrase “consumed” is, how its spontaneity reveals Paissy’s national feeling! His zealousness and pity were so strong that no obstacle could divert him from the firm decision to restore the former glory of his people, to write its history, as the title says, “for the good of the Bulgarian race.”

12“Thus I disregarded my headache and stomachache from which I had been suffering for a long time—I did so out of the great desire I had.”

13Here we see the same candor, the same spontaneity which speak so well of the nature of Paissy’s feelings, not only in the explicit phrase, but in the tone of that phrase as well: “I did so out of the great desire I had.” Paissy could not possibly express his intimate attitude towards the Bulgarian more naively and sincerely. The same attitude is revealed in the famous appeal to his countrymen in the opening of ‘Slavo-Bulgarian history’: “I took great pains to collect [material] from different books and histories until I managed to put together the history of Bulgarian people for your benefit and praise. I wrote it for you who love your kinfolk and your country and who love to learn about your people and your tongue!” […]

14Paissy’s national awareness is characterized by a deep faith in the future of his people. This faith and the readiness to do something for the awakening of the forgotten Bulgarian tribe reveal the optimism that sustains his will and energy, the optimism discernible in his indignation at the ongoing Bulgarian ignorance and indifference as well as in his relative sorrow. Here the awareness is motivated by a particular outlook on historic reality, by a certain, shall I say, enlightened cheerful and hopeful feeling.

15Paissy’s national sentiment and awareness are directly related to his sagacity and keenness of observation. Here we see yet another motive for the writing of ‘Slavo-Bulgarian history.’ The following consideration reveals some of the directions and dimensions of this watchfulness and sagacity—the Greek oppression keenly infringed on the material and spiritual interests of the Bulgarian population, which it held in ignorance, without a clear notion of the plight it was in. Who rose against the Greek clergy and Greek aspirations? Not those who suffered material damages and were exposed to the baneful Greek influence, but a monk from a distant monastery in Mount Athos, a hermit who closely watched the life of his compatriots, seeing the dangers they were exposed to, foreseeing the fatal consequences of foreign spiritual domination. Another equally characteristic feature explaining some fundamental aspects of ‘Slavo-Bulgarian history’ is Paissy’s practical thought, on one hand, and his social activity, on the other. Paissy was well aware of the roads that would lead the Bulgarian people to new life and of that personal and social energy, of the strenuous efforts needed to awake the long-slumbering national spirit. The very intonation of the History, the form it uses to express its patriotic tendencies—not to mention its content— portray Paissy as a gifted public figure and propagandist. As such, as we shall later see, he had all the necessary qualities—loyalty to his people, insight into the conditions of social life, sagacity and a remarkable oratory gift manifested in his sincerity, in his ardent and persuasive words. […]

16Yet we should not forget that the external conditions, whatever they might have been, only prompted Paissy to implement an idea conceived by favorable factors of an intrinsic rather than extrinsic character. The writing of ‘Slavo-Bulgarian history’ was motivated mostly by Paissy’s national sentiment and awareness, by his love for his kinfolk, by his sagacity and social activity, of which in that particular historical moment he seems to have been the destined bearer. […]

17As we noted Paissy’s attitude to Ottoman oppression, it would be relevant to point out its poorly developed but characteristic political tendency. Paissy stops to draw attention to the plight of Bulgarians under Turkish rule and to emphasize the wrongs it brings upon them. With this in mind, we can say that the ‘Slavo-Bulgarian history’ has stirred not only desires to preserve the Bulgarian language and nationality through education and active resistance to Greek aspirations, but also ideas and feelings of a political kind. In fact the very historical representation of former political independence was already an indirect comparison of past and present, which inspired the Bulgarian readers with thoughts of political freedom. And yet we must note that political tendencies do not come first in Paissy’s history. Its author aimed primarily at disclosing the spiritual rather than the political yoke, at inciting his countrymen against the Greek spiritual oppression. Therefore, as we pointed out, he persuades Bulgarians to value their language and to defend their nationality against foreign aspirations. Through history, through the idealization of the past he tried to wake them up for a new life. He idealizes their past in order to show them that they are not what they used to be; he reveals the gloomy reality of the present in order to incite them to fight for their spiritual freedom, warranted by the former feats and human dignity of the Bulgarian people. He peers into the past and into the present, searching for their historical meaning, setting its people tasks that must be accomplished promptly, revealing its duties, its responsibility to history and the future. Persuading his countrymen that they should restore themselves to their former glory, fight for their differentiation, for the preservation of those spiritual blessings that helped them rise among the other peoples—instead of leading a pointless and torpid existence for centuries on end. From the nondescript languid slave he wanted to create a Bulgarian; he tried to draw the path for the future in the minds of the new generation. Here lies his greatest achievement, an achievement that seems unusual, outstanding and even unbelievable for those dark times of slavery.


Zornitsa Dimova-Hristova (Traducteur)

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