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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

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

The mission of language

Vladimir Levstik
Traduction de Olga Vukovič

Texte intégral

1Title: Poslanstvo besede (The mission of language)

2Originally published: Ljubljanski zvon, 54 (1934)

3Language: Slovene

4The excerpt used is from the original, pp. 65–75.

About the author

5Vladimir (Ciril) Levstik [1886, Šmihel nad Mozirjem (Ger. Sankt Michael oberhalb von Praßberg) − 1957, Celje (Ger. Cilli, present-day Slovenia)]: poet, essayist, critic, translator and journalist. Levstik attended schools in Št. Andraž nad Polzelo, Celje, Maribor (Ger. Marburg an der Drau), and Ljubljana (Ger. Laibach). Poverty forced him to abandon his studies in 1904, when he was a seventh grade student. He then devoted himself to literature, journalism and translation. Between 1906 and 1907 he lived in Paris and became acquainted with contemporary trends in literature. He was a fervent supporter of Yugoslavism. Several years before Ivan Cankar’s landmark lecture entitled Slovenci in Jugoslovani (The Slovenes and the Yugoslavs), Levstik imagined the union of the South Slavs as a political union, not involving, however, cultural and linguistic integration. He wrote for the pro-Yugoslav papers Jutro (Morning) and Ilustrovani tednik (Illustrated weekly). In 1915, the Austrian authorities interned him in Ljubljana, and after being moved from prison to prison, he eventually ended up in Mittergraben near Vienna. The newly established Yugoslavia did not fulfill his expectations. In 1923, he joined the ORJUNA, an organization of Yugoslav nationalists, and following its dissolution three years later he gradually retreated from public activity. During the second half of the 1920s he returned to Jutro where he worked as the editor of the youth supplement. Although he opposed the occupation, for political and personal reasons he did not join the ‘Liberation Front’ during the Second World War. During the post-war years, for a certain period he was rejected by the newly established communist authority. He was soon forced to retire, receiving only minimal pension. In 1949, however, he was rewarded the prestigious Prešeren’s award for translation. Owing to his political stigmatization after the Second World War, Vladimir Levstik’s name was systematically omitted in literary history reviews. Today, however, his work has become a prominent subject of research, and he is considered one of the most eminent writers from the Celje region. When he died, he was given a grand funeral in Celje. The collection of his manuscripts and correspondence is now preserved at the Celje Study Library which also maintains the Levstik memorial room.

6Main works: Obsojenci [The convicts] (1909); Svoboda [Freedom] (1910); Za svobodo in ljubezen [For freedom and love] (1913); Gadje gnezdo [Viper’s nest] (1918); Pravica kladiva [The justice of the hammer] (1926); Dejanje [The act] (1934); Hilarij Pernat (1966).


7In 1906 following the initial success of his literary works at home, Vladimir Levstik went to Paris where he became exposed to contemporary trends in art and philosophy. His diary from this period reveals the daring quests and insights of a young, bohemian artist. His main interests included art, religion, women, and Nietzsche’s philosophy. The first signs of expressionism and futurism, characterized by an awe for technology and an eye fixed on the future, can also be found in the works of his contemporary fellow writers in Slovenia. However, from Levstik’s Parisian perspective the domestic artistic scene appeared as the product of a rather underdeveloped middle-class culture: “just a mini-culture, not culture, a mini-literature, not literature,” he writes in his dairy.

8In 1910, just before the dawn of the futurist avant-garde, Levstik’s poetic development was transformed by a radical turn of mind that moved him in the direction of Yugoslav nationalism. He returned to art only after the outbreak of the Second World War. In his imagination, the Yugoslav nation was a political and not a cultural union. The nationalist turn in Levstik’s intellectual agenda was followed by his adherence to a single literary genre; he more or less restricted himself to narrative pieces making a single, but admirable, foray into the world of essays, which resulted in the Poslanstvo besede (The mission of language).

9Levstik’s nationalist tendency is clearly demonstrated in his work for the liberal and pro-Yugoslav newspaper Jutro, published in Ljubljana under the auspices of the Belgrade paper Narodna odbrana (National defense). Levstik rejected the Illyrian concept of Fran Ilešič, who later became the ideologist of what came to be known as integral Yugoslavism. In 1923, when ORJUNA, the organization of Yugoslav nationalists, established in Split in 1921, extended its activity to Slovenia, Levstik became one of its influential members. Although ORJUNA’s initial mission was to counter Italian irredentism, Yugoslav unitary-centralist political parties (primarily the Yugoslav Democratic Party, or the Independent Democratic Party) soon turned it into an agent of active political campaigning for the unitary-centralist organization of the country, and against the communist movement. Its members were mainly small craftsmen, traders, and members of liberally oriented sports associations. ORJUNA’s program stressed the concept of solidarity and devotedness to the service of the people. Over time it acquired an increasingly militant character and was dissolved following a clash in Ljubljana between some one-hundred uniformed ORJUNA members and the police in June 1926.

10Levstik, who moved to Ljubljana in 1924, declined every invitation for active involvement in Yugoslav politics following the dissolution of ORJUNA. He retreated completely from public life at the onset of the dictatorship of the Yugoslav king Alexander Karađorđević, who on 6 January, 1929, dissolved the Parliament, banned the political parties, and suspended the Constitution. Perhaps Levstik initially saw some positive aspects of the dictatorship, but in 1934, when King Alexander was assassinated in Marseilles, he became convinced that Yugoslav national politics was on the wrong track. His last novel, Dejanje (The act), and the essay Poslanstvo besede, both critical of Yugoslav cultural integralism and its derision of the Slovene language, attest to such a conviction.

11In Dejanje, Levstik addressed the issues of totalitarian dictatorship and human freedom, two subjects that inevitably haunted the European humanists who were confronted with growing Nazism, Fascism and Communism. The essay Poslanstvo besede, on the other hand, was written during the time of intense self-questioning among Slovenian intellectuals regarding the role of the mother tongue in public life. In 1929, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was renamed The Kingdom of Yugoslavia. All (Slovenian) national institutions were endangered; the Chancellor of Ljubljana University, Milan Vidmar, managed to salvage his institution by submitting it to the protectorship of the king, so the university was renamed Universitas Alexandrina, a name that it retained until the Second World War. In 1931, the king declared the new Constitution, which defined a single, tripartite Yugoslav nation.

12The ideology of ‘national unity,’ already present in the Vidovdan Constitution (1921) stipulated that it was necessary to dissolve all the historical, dynastic and other boundaries that until then divided the presumably single Yugoslav nation. In fact, as early as the foundation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, it became obvious that despite the enduring idea about the association of the Yugoslav nations, not all Yugoslav citizens shared a common sense of belonging. This was an idea close only to the hearts of certain intellectuals. In Slovenia, the resistance to the unitary approach was articulated during the early 1920s, when the Slovenian People’s Party, the most influential political party in Slovenia, began to derive its political strength from a network of affiliated collectives. What tied them together was the common demand for the legislative autonomy of Slovenia within the Yugoslav state.

13King Alexander attempted to legalize his dictatorship through the 1931 Constitution, which he presented as a basis for the renewed democratization of the state. The reality, however, was different. The laws passed by the Parliament in Belgrade were not valid unless confirmed by the king. The king could also dissolve the Parliament and appoint a government loyal to him. In July 1932, the king appointed Milan Srškić, notorious for his centralist views, as the head of government. It was becoming increasingly clear that Alexander’s promises about the democratization of the state were nothing more than political platitudes., Although he was a devout Yugoslavist before the First World War, Vladimir Levstik was highly critical of such developments. He became one of the leading advocates of the full-fledged and uninhibited development of the Slovene language. His essay Poslanstvo besede, written in 1934, was one of the most passionate rejections in Slovenia of the idea of the cultural fusion of Yugoslav nations. It places Vladimir Levstik among the protagonists of national history who strove to preserve the Slovene language as one of the constitutive attributes of national identity.


The mission of language


15The first thing that comes to mind when we utter the word “nation” is language. No matter how many attributes describe the concept of nation, no one is more characteristic, more indispensable or more indisputably valuable in itself than this one. Racially, a nation may be amalgamated from various elements; its historical paths can be the result of the will of others, of chances or of other influences which are not necessarily connected with its inner essence. Socially, it can be broken into various forms and classes fighting savagely among themselves; economically and politically it may have coalesced with other nations into a common structure; what is it that nevertheless distinguishes it from others? [...] What is it that makes us the same, that makes us “us,” Slovenes, the Slovenian nation? Many things, some would say. However, no matter how many of these many things there are, all can change, pass away and disappear, until we are left only with our language. We are because we have had it. We will be as long as we have it. We drew on its strength and we will continue to do so, and not only in the sense of political programs that are written and erased by time, but in another, much higher sense of intellectual and natural existence; in the most realistic sense of an eternal duty to carry on, along with the rest of humankind, our share of experience and recognition, of work and fight, creation, suffering and triumph, and to conquer together with the rest of humankind and donate in a brotherly manner our share of light.

16I can see that with these words I have indicated the direction of my rumination. It is not my intention to repeat the facts that can be found listed and explained in widely available books; all these things are well known and all are just dry erudition if we consider them without some principled, deeper understanding, without a live awareness of what this is all about. This is the issue about which I would like to share my thoughts with the reader. At this time when notions are clouded and people are at variance so that one can no longer see into the other’s mind and heart, I’d like to seek along with the readers the answer to the following questions: if the national language is such a decisive, fateful property, where does the secret of its influence lie? Where inside us is it anchored? What is the task and the mission of language in the life of every human being, and the life and history of every nation? And finally: where are the vestiges of the mission of the Slovene language and in which direction do they point? [...]

17Just like no one can choose a father to his own taste, no one can freely choose the language either; everyone has had one and the same language from the very beginning, because the language of your nation remains your own even if concealed. The legacy of our ancestors pulses through us; we are the products of the past generations in all of our physical and intellectual components. The rhythm of their destinies, of their reasoning and the manner of their feeling, their inclinations and passions were undoubtedly passed down on us transpiring as idiosyncrasies in our self-expression. [...]

18Let us now have a look at the path traveled by the Slovenian nation, and the enriching, conserving and liberating mission of the Slovene language! [...] For one who lives in the most intimate atmosphere of the national language and is constantly enchanted by its breathing, this mission is the voice that never falls silent; that person knows that the mother tongue is the property of the whole nation and that to turn away from that language is to fail the nation and disavow its Spirit. For this reason, the Slovenian literary and art audience was as unanimous in rejecting the forcing out of the Slovene language as it was in supporting and greeting the union with the Serbs and Croats within the Yugoslav state [...]. The issue of Slovene is not an issue that can be resolved by politics in a worthwhile manner, nor is it an ordinary cultural issue, but exclusively the issue of the strength of life of that language, of its development over many centuries, and the issue that will be decided by time over the long-forgotten graves of those who now raise it. A language lives until it becomes exhausted. In harmony with natural and iron inevitability, it is fulfilling its mission until that mission is completed. The mission of our language is far from being completed. [...]

19This is the spirit by which the ship carrying the Slovenian language sails on. There can be no price ever, and there can be nothing and no one for whose sake we would be ready to talk about taking down its sails.


Olga Vukovič (Traducteur)

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.


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