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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

Young Poland

Artur Górski
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: Młoda Polska (Young Poland)

2Originally published: Cracow, Życie 1898, No. 15, 16, 18, 19, 24 and 25

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from Maria Podraza-Kwiatkowska ed., Programy i dyskusje literackie okresu Młodej Polski (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1973), pp. 96–125.

About the author

5Artur Górski [1870, Cracow – 1959, Warsaw]: literary critic, writer and translator. As a graduate of law from Cracow University, Górski joined the Polish Socialist Party in 1892, but soon reverted to Catholicism. He put aside his political sympathies and concentrated on literary criticism, the theory of literature and translation (Goethe, Ibsen, and Kierkegaard). He represented the generation which called into question the political and cultural principles of positivism (see Aleksander Świętochowski, Political directives). As the canonizer of the literary program of the young and rebellious intelligentsia, he perfectly echoed the contemporary intellectual and political climate, characterized by the rapid political radicalization of the younger generation. An entire period of Polish literary history was named after his critical essay, ‘Young Poland.’ This period was characterized by the local appropriation of Western modernism, as well as an appeal to Polish Romanticism as a source of authentic ‘great art.’ The ‘ideal enemies’ of the new literary movement were the positivists, perceived as those who implemented social pedagogy instead of ‘true art’ that was to be postulated by the youth. None of Górski’s other writings attracted comparable interest, and it should be stressed that his impact on modernist literature was less important than that of the poet Stanisław Przybyszewski or the literary theoretician Stanisław Brzozowski.

6Main works: Monsalwat. Rzecz o Adamie Mickiewiczu [Monsalvat. Story of Adam Mickiewicz] (1908); Ku czemu Polska szła [Where was Poland heading] (1918); Przede dniem [Before the day] (1918); Na nowym progu [On the new threshold] (1918); O wieszczeniu w sztuce [On prophesizing in arts] (1920); Chłop [The peasant] (1922); Glosy o ludziach i ideach [Gloss on people and ideas] (1931); Niepokój naszego czasu [The anxiety of our times] (1938); Rzecz o nadziei [On hope] (1963).


7After the suppression of the January uprising in 1864, a significant group of Polish political and social thinkers, representing a wide ideological spectrum from conservatism to liberalism, formulated a new ideology of organic work, based on a vision of economical and social progress, and dismissing any attempt at “striving towards independence” (see Józef Szujski, Several truths from our history, and Aleksander Świętochowski, Political directives). Some representatives of the new generation who became more vocal during the 1890s strongly opposed this program. This was the generation of Artur Górski, which created the first socialist (1892), social-democratic, and nationalist (1893) parties. In politics, these new trends were represented by figures such as Roman Dmowski, Józef Piłsudski, Ignacy Daszyński, and Rosa Luxemburg. As far as literature was concerned, the major figure that determined the attack on positivist writers in the name of l’art pour l’art was Stanisław Przybyszewski, who was especially popular in Germany. In the Polish context, this slogan questioned not only the educational aims of positivist literature but also the national agendas of the time. At the turn of the century, Przybyszewski came to Cracow as a renowned ‘decadent.’ In the history of Polish literature, the moment of his arrival is usually seen as the beginning of a new epoch: namely that of ‘Young Poland.’ The representatives of the movement criticized positivism and searched for Polish predecessors in the Romantic literary canon, therefore they are often described as the Neo-Romantics.

8Artur Górski actively participated in the emerging debates on the new role of literature. His text, although radical in its attacks on ‘old’ literature, was rather limited in its positive formulations. It constituted the beginning stage of a full-fledged literary program, and was interpreted as such both by its critics and followers. It is significant not only for Górski, but also for ‘Young Poland’ that the new formulation of the role of literature was to some extent self-contradictory. On the one hand, it appealed to an art (and especially to a literature) that was free of patriotic and political tasks, social or economic concerns, and was dismissive of the philosophical theories of positivism. On the other hand, it strongly stressed the national cult within Polish Romanticism, whose patriotic overtones cannot be overlooked. The ‘modernist’ agenda of Westernization and the modernization of national culture were issues that had been widely used by the previous ‘positivist’ generation, and they were thus unlikely to serve the purpose of a programmatic differentiation. In his text Górski referred mostly to the native literary tradition as a reference point for the new generation. Probably the most obvious difference between Górski and other thinkers of ‘Young Poland,’ such as Zenon ‘Miriam’ Przesmycki, Stanisław Brzozowski or Wacław Nałkowski, was his admiration of Mickiewicz, who was not all that popular among his peers. It should also be noted that Górski did not address the question of decadence and pessimism, features that became more and more characteristic for the new literary generation.

9The impact of ‘Young Poland’ on literature and on the sense of cultural identity among the Poles was not extremely strong. Firstly, its area of impact was primarily Galicia, not the Russian or German parts of partitioned Poland. Autonomist Galicia was associated with Polish soulless bureaucracy, the conservative national and state elites, and a relatively strong middle class, which allowed space for aesthetic novelties. It, therefore, provided better conditions for Polish cultural life than the Russian and German parts of Poland. Polish literary life in Poznań (Ger. Posen) was—in comparison to Galician Cracow or Lwów (Ukr. Lviv, Ger. Lemberg)—very conservative and traditionally attached to the principles of social solidarism and ‘organic’ development. In the Congress Kingdom and in the western gubernyas (provinces) of Russia, censorship drastically limited the possibility of intellectual debates focusing on the Polish national and literary tradition.

10In terms of its popular impact, ‘Young Poland’ could not compete with movements such as Romanticism or even positivism. As an epoch in the history of Polish literature, it lasted only until 1918. The independent Polish state had its own literary life, animated by other trends of literary Modernism. Moreover, the ‘impassioned’ language of modernist poems and novels gradually became the laughing stock of the new generations. Consequently, the main authors of ‘Young Poland’ were neglected and forgotten, becoming only occasional objects of ‘rediscovery’ in literary history.


Young Poland

12Programs should be created by people who are ready to act. We do not plan to do that by any means. In fact, when we undertake writing, it is precisely in order not to go into action. Literature is our Patroness, our Mediatrix, and our Joy, to whom we, the sinful ones, call from the depths of our desires and sorrow. We bring out our thoughts and forms just as a tide brings out the fish, shells and the drowned...—you, on the other hand, should do like the fishermen: take all that you can eat and leave the inedible. And if you come across a drowned man, do not mock his nudity as fools would, but take off your hats and pay respect to his misery. He drowned himself because he swam too far—a fate that you will never share, as you never leave the shore.

13The peaceful ones! They never look behind the veil of current gossip, never direct their steps to where the lonely shadows of humanity’s leaders wander. Their journalistic souls have never heard the wailing of the ominous winds that blow over Isaiah’s head in the Sistine Chapel. Drunken bliss on their faces, pig-headedness and pride of their foolishness in their hearts. Let the morally impeccable pillars of society stand in peace, but do not let them tread with their dirty shoes on our thoughts as if they were their own, so that we do not have to shake their foundations... [...]

14“Where are your heroic deeds?” That is the question we hear from the respectful and sympathetic people. [...] First and foremost, we need to be able to defend ourselves. But first, my reader, let me ask you a question: Have you ever howled with pain? As dogs do? Do you know what real suffering is? [...]

15Do you know, by any chance, the feeling of revenge, that craves the blood of entire nations, and drags entire centuries before its tribunal, yet, in all its intensity, cannot even make a leaf fall off a tree? Do you know the feeling of doubt, swaying like a child over the church roof? Or the terror that arrests your heart, like a cutthroat’s knife? And have you ever, when reading a book, covered your eyes in horror or slammed the book onto the floor? Was it not ‘The History of Poland’ that you were reading? ...

  • 1 Górski refers to the January uprising (1863–1864).

16Unless you are like an ocean stirred by roaring storms, you shall not understand the young souls’ unrest, you shall not comprehend why they rebel […]. Unless you have never reached the other side of time, further than the third part of Mickiewicz’s Dziady, further than the year 18631, unless you have, by the age of 25, suffered from all diseases of your time and of your nation, and unless your soul has been injured in the brutal daily trading of slogans like “the reason of the state” and “the logic of life,” and all other tortures imposed today on the soul of a young Pole—then you and I are not likely to reach an agreement.

  • 2 Teka Stańczyka: a political pamphlet ironically criticizing Polish Romantic irredentism. A group o (...)

17You ask where our “heroic deed” is, but what right do you have to pose such a question? And who are you to inquire about that? Are you not a representative of the society who delivered ‘The Stańczyk Case’2 and the theory of three-way loyalty? Are you not one of those who watched with an indifferent eye when our schools did not teach us patriotism?! Not even a sense of national identity? We learned history from the (translated) German textbooks, which exuded German spirit and a German worldview—the Polish history was treated per non est, and people were strictly prohibited from organizing demonstrations. Moreover, as soon as the repressed patriotic feeling found its outlet in secret organizations—which attracted even the young university students and which, despite losing their rigorously conspiratorial character, remained a useful school of character—our Polish prosecutors and our Polish courts dealt with the young patriots with a great eagerness, ordering searching and arrests, criminal sentences and exiles, and often destroying once and for all the careers of young Poles. As a consequence—and a terrible consequence it was—the sense of wrongdoing, which had been forcefully attached to these innocent acts, infected the minds of the young and the very feeling of patriotism, and proved fatal for the development of young characters.

18When, having reached maturity in the course of national disasters, this youth followed enthusiastically the ideas of patriotism and independence, and turned to the Polish worker and peasant as the source of society’s greatest force—how did you welcome these “hotheads,” how did you answer their “heroic deed,” their sacrifice, spirit and enthusiasm? How?

19Was it at least with sharp but sympathetic criticism? Or perhaps with a constructive use of their efforts? Not at all! Your only response was the criminal courts, insults and persecution. [...]

20As a result, the natural and vigorous patriotism gave way to a new kind of public attitude—a so-called patriotism built on such sensibility, culture and loyalty that can be paid by installments spread over an indefinite period of time. [...]

21The country’s government became the property of the “historically” privileged class of society, regardless of the fact that this appropriation was a “certain” violation of the constitution. To us, it makes no difference who stands at the helm of the nation, as long as they are good helmsmen; no longer do we believe in the gentry, and our confidence in the bourgeois is still too little. What matters to us are the effects of this rule on the cultural development of our citizens both individually and collectively, as a nation.

22For now, however, it seems that our cultural activity, science and art, have been transformed into a kind of archaeological enterprise aimed at sustaining their strictly national character; all our intellectual output, as long as it was not too specialistic, was put in conflict with the Western thought and line of development, and pushed towards long-gone ideas and beliefs. Although in the past these ideas were an inspiration for the soul, the source of energy and progress, today, with the decay of mediaeval ideologies, they no longer impact on our minds, and have mostly been verified. [...]

  • 3 The major confrontation of the November uprising (1830–1831).

23This tendency prevails nowadays because it relies on the support of public opinion, the press and the church; it is authorized by scholarship, and guarded by administrative posts—in fact, by all political “assets.” Yet, has it produced anything or anyone great, has is provided any Pole with powers enabling him to shine on the contemporary cultural scene? Sienkiewicz? Open your eyes and stop deluding yourself! We love and respect him, that is a fact, but the world’s literature will value more such authors as Przybyszewski. This way of understanding “tradition” and “national spirit” begins to impoverish our souls from the very young age. […] Just as the Greeks could not endlessly defeat the Persians, so we cannot live constantly in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, or fight the Battle of Grochów.3 Therefore, if in the contemporary literature you find unfamiliar motifs, or see an escapist approach towards reality […] then […] try to understand both us and yourselves. Once you do that, you should lower your heads and confess: “Our hearts are not innocent, they are plagued by lies, fierce disputes, hypocrisy and childish feudal Lvivian-Viennese politics. We lack grand ideas and great sacrifice— we are not worthy of the sublime heroic poetry! We are not worthy! ...” [...]

24- How come? So many words and still no program? This question echoes on both sides; among those who challenge us, and among us who are supposed to respond, because a program is the main thing that counts in today’s society. [...]

25This should be changed once and for all! In our view, it is talent not programs that deserves sheer and honest respect. It is talent that is our trump card in the struggle for existence, our raison d’être. For if some extraterrestrial force came down onto earth, proclaimed a judgment day for all nations and asked—like the Lord asks his servants—“What have you done with the talents I gave you?,” what would be the nations’ reply? The French would point to those among them who ennobled the human soul, and so would the Italians, the English, the Germans and other cultured nations. We would hear the names of Dante, Pascal, Shakespeare, Molière, Mozart, Beethoven and many, many others. But what about us? Hearing the clamor in Galicia, we might think that instead of names of Copernicus, Chopin and Mickiewicz, our nation would rather mention political programs: the Stańczyk, the republican, the democratic and the socialist programs... And if, in such clamor, there managed to grow any talent, it would probably not be worth mentioning.

26This is the result of the atmosphere in Polish spiritual life. The talented are demoralized, their authenticity is spoiled, their sincerity is enslaved; they are forced, if not to tell lies, then to remain silent about that which their hearts cry about, and compromise it in the name of the prose of life. [...] Do any of our best and widely respected artists guide today the march of contemporary thought, or at least find means of expressing the soul of a contemporary Pole? Not at all! They fraternize with public opinion, with the masses, and— as it seems—they fail to notice how behind they are in this procession, how slow is their march! As a result, our current literature is a literature of salons, a reading for women, which does not penetrate the core of existence or focus upon higher ideas—its axis is the trimmings of a woman’s dress. [...]

27If we are to propose any program, it shall include a demand for the young talents’ sincerity, moral courage and even sacrifice in taking risks in the face of minor everyday worries. Our fathers possessed different kinds of courage; their sacrifices were different as well, but let their spirit of devotion prevail. After all it is one queen that we serve—Poland ...

28If we use the word “young” in the title, it does not mean we give life to something new while abandoning all that has been achieved in the past. On the contrary, our greatest aim is to preserve the continuity of civilizational progress. We have been raised on our finest writers and poets—Słowacki, Krasiński, Sienkiewicz and, above all, Mickiewicz—and as their lucky heirs we take from the spiritual and literary treasure they left in their will; we hold to this foundation of our culture like trees hold to the ground in which they grow. And if we ever turn our attention to the West, we do it similarly to other nations, taking from their literature what is useful for us, and discarding like a broken toy all that is unassimilable and harmful. Therefore, what we demand from Polish literature is for it to be Polish, Polish to the bone— because if it loses its local character, it will also lose its strength and value, its raison d’être. Moreover, we urge it to be young, winged like an eagle, spirited by the divine force and Mickiewiczian passion. [...]

  • 4 Jan Matejko (1838–1893): An important representative of Polish historical painting, author of Batt (...)

29When our culture began to neglect its Slavic elements in favor of the Roman ones, Mickiewicz raised above everyday matters and put in writing the endless love for the Slavic soul that filled his heart. This most noble of all Poles was also a man, a flesh-and-blood humanitarian—this is where originates the national character of his art. He elevated our poetry to such heights that it could compete with the Western lyrics, and filled it with such expressiveness, such emotional intensity as no other poet before. This passion and ardor are a uniquely Polish feature—we shall unmistakably find it also in Kościuszko and Matejko.4

30The spirit of Mickiewicz is our guiding spirit, a thing divine and fresh but at the same time nostalgic. If we preserve it, nothing will go wrong, and we shall not lose our senses or suffer humiliation. This spirit is our key to national renaissance.


1 Górski refers to the January uprising (1863–1864).

2 Teka Stańczyka: a political pamphlet ironically criticizing Polish Romantic irredentism. A group of Cracow conservatives (the Stańczycy) were named after this document. Stańczyk, a historical figure, was described as a ‘wise clown’ at the court of the king Sigismund I in the sixteenth century. Teka Stańczyka was first published in 1869 in Przegląd Polski.

3 The major confrontation of the November uprising (1830–1831).

4 Jan Matejko (1838–1893): An important representative of Polish historical painting, author of Battle of Grunwald.


Zuzanna Ładyga (Traducteur)

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


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