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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

Our sorrows

Dimo Kyorchev
Traduction de Zornitsa Dimova-Hristova

Texte intégral

  • 1 The plural form of the word тъга (sorrow) is unusual in Bulgarian.

1Title: Тъгите ни (Our sorrows1)

2Originally published: Almanac Южни цветове, 1907, pp. 62–111.

3Language: Bulgarian

4The excerpts used are from the anthology: Stoyan Iliev ed., Блуждаеща естетика. Българските символисти за символизма, (Sofia: Издателство на БАН, 1992), pp. 158–161.

About the author

5Dimo Kyorchev [1884, Veliko Tarnovo – 1928, Paris]: philosopher, essayist and politician. His father Petar Kyorchev was a teacher and former collaborator of Vasil Levski, the leader of the movement for national liberation. He graduated from high school in his hometown and, in 1905, left for Leipzig, where he started his studies in law. In 1908, he graduated from the faculty of law at the University of Sofia. Subsequently, he worked as a public prosecutor in Svishtov and as a lawyer in Sofia. Later, Kyorchev embarked upon a political career. He was among the active members of the National-Liberal Party, reaching the rank of political secretary in 1920. He acted as a deputy of the party between 1914–1919 and 1923–1928. His political model was Stefan Stambolov, the founding figure of modern Bulgarian politics. Kyorchev’s views were formed under the decisive influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy. He considered himself an ideologue of Bulgarian ‘individualism.’ In 1907, he edited, together with Trifon Kunev, the Almanac Южни цветове (Southern flowers), one of the early agents for the spread of Bulgarian modernism, in which his important essay ‘Our Sorrows’ was published. In 1909, together with Elin Pelin, he started publishing another influential journal, Слънчоглед (Sunflower). He also contributed to the journals Наш живот (Our life), Ново време (New time) and Ден (Day), and wrote political essays for the newspaper Независимост (Independence). Kyorchev could be qualified as one of the most enigmatic, misunderstood and underestimated figures of Bulgarian modernism. His work never occupied a central place in the literary canon. At the same time, on a thematic and discursive level, he could be seen as a crucial predecessor to the anti-modernist mystical turn of the late 1920s and 1930s. Kyorchev’s selected works were published by Janko Janev, who was also the author of the only book dedicated to Kyorchev’s work and personality, in 1932.

6Main works: Индивидуализъм в нашата литература [Individualism in Our Literature] (1904), Тъгите ни [Our Sorrows] (1907), Избрани произведения [Selected works] (1933).


7The first generation of Bulgarian modernists were gathered in the circle named Мисъл [Thought], dominated by the literary critic and theoretician Krastyu Krastev (1866–1919). The circle also included Pencho Slaveykov (1866–1912), Peyo Javorov (1878–1914) and Petko Todorov (1879–1916). Krastev and the group Мисъл were the leading critics of the mainstream ‘National Romantic’ tradition, which was institutionalized in the late 1890s by Ivan Vazov, and characterized by its national and, according to its critics, anti-universal standpoint. According to Slaveykov’s critique, Vazov’s national literary project lacked any metaphysical grounds. Without a proper epic tradition, in which the metaphysical foundation of the nation would be generated, this nation could not fulfill its historical destiny. Thus, with his poem Кървава песен (Bloody song), Slaveykov took upon himself the task of creating the modern epic of the Bulgarians. Like Vazov before him, Slaveykov focused on the April uprising of 1876, already considered by Vazov as the formative moment of the Bulgarian nation. Slaveykov’s literary attempt did not have a significant effect. As a result of his disenchantment with the Bulgarian cultural context, Slaveykov left Bulgaria for Italy, and died there in 1912. His last book was the mystified anthology ‘On the island of the blessed.’ On the one hand, the ‘Island’ promoted an allegorical image of Bulgarian literature, but, on the other hand, it championed Slaveykov’s vision of literature being generated by individuals contributing to the building of an organic culture. In the end, the mystified anthology created the vision of a transcendental, a-historical homeland.

8In a way, Kyorchev could be considered a mediator between, on the one hand, the group Мисъл and Pencho Slaveykov’s personal version of Nietzscheanism, and, on the other, the most important group of secondgeneration Bulgarian modernists, the symbolist Hyperion. This group was led by the poet Teodor Trayanov (1882–1945), the main rival of the mythologized member of Мисъл, Peyo Javorov, and the literary critic Ivan Radoslavov, who deified Trajanov, and even Kyorchev after the latter’s premature death.

9In ‘Our Sorrows,’ Kyorchev not only proclaims the principles of symbolism, but also elaborates on a theory of the a-topical, a-national mystical Motherland. With transcendentalist pathos, striving for the realm of the sacred, this modernist manifesto also reveals some anti-modernist inclinations, in particular the religious pathos aimed at manifesting the transcendental essence of the Motherland. In this sense, ‘Our Sorrows’ is symptomatic of the initially ambivalent position of aesthetic modernism. In the leitmotif of Kyorchev’s text, one might identify the Romantic theme of the Homeland, developed by Hegel, as the Homeland of the Spirit. This philosophical idea constitutes the ‘ontological’ ground of nationalism and allows the paradoxical move from individualism to universalism. Thus, Kyorchev’s ‘sorrows’ for the lost transcendent homeland set the discursive ground for the elaboration of a project of national ontology. ‘Our Sorrows’ became, in fact, a manifesto of late Bulgarian modernism, especially after its mystical and nationalist turn following the national catastrophes in the subsequent Balkan and First World Wars. This was the main project of the late modernism of the Hyperion circle, and of authors like Nayden Sheytanov and Janko Janev, whose ‘aesthetization of politics’ (according to Walter Benjamin’s designation of ‘fascist’ rhetoric) relied on that radical ontological turn. Supporting such a thesis are the later visions of the group Hyperion about a transcendental, a-historical and messianic national community, as well as the very fact that the first volume of Kyorchev’s selected works was published by the most radical anti-modernist thinker of the 1930s, Janko Janev.


Our sorrows

11Art as a means of self-improvement has three ingredients: God, silence and homeland. The word “self-improvement” sounds wrong. Any ordinary reader would think we are setting goals for art. Self-improvement is not a goal we may set ourselves, but a road to those intuitive impulses that guide us through the disunion of the world to the union of God. Art doesn’t solve any problems, it doesn’t serve any goals. It is a gift from God and therefore it may live and grow through the doors of cognition. God is everywhere at all times, and art as His pure manifestation is beyond time and place, not serving any needs, not pursuing any goals. Various artistic schools in the past bore different names; many wanted to utilize it by setting it certain tasks. Yet every task and goal originates and grows in a causal manner; they were born by circumstance and they represent new forms of experience. How do we distinguish the living man from his corpse? Both have the same amount of matter, but its goals and tasks are different; the circulation of blood stops and decomposition starts—i.e. forms change according to the circumstances of experience. This mutability of things does not give us an idea of their essence and persistence; on the contrary, by force of habit we see a new thing in every new form. Yet if all those novelties are but appearances, whose variety and mutability conceal eternity and primordial unity, we reach God unwittingly, and our further intuition reveals His wonders and eternal life. Art, as the offspring of that intuition, cannot be divided into schools and systems; it springs from what’s eternal and immutable; it seeks the idea of things through their appearance. The new artist, by using all old schools, created the will to unify the manifestations of the soul in art, in philosophy, in science, in everything that ever was the province of the human soul. He will be the first to teach us to forget about names and signs, about transient beauty and masked grace, shed every burden on our way to eternity. His new call invokes the deeply symbolic words of Christ: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. To hell with all those schools and cliques, death claims them every day.

  • 2 In German in the original.

12The second element of new art is silence or conversation with God. The synthesis of all culture created and remembered by history leads to the unity of the soul, which fills our solitude with the voice of the human heart. Man is always alone. This is one of his tragedies. He is not alone when he is silent. Silence is not the peace of the tired or the muteness of the lost traveler but rather the mature physical life when the soul is awakened and refreshed. Silence is a mark of infinity and an enemy of our transient life; in love, our earliest death, we are silent when we leave the world to enter nirvana. Silence is the enemy of form because it destroys what is transient in us and it is the enemy of schools as well. It takes the soul to the furthest recesses of the universe, making us forget the pains of yesterday. Silence is the best doctor, as death is the bravest savior. Born crying, we build all our life in pain and suffering. We could break free if we could learn silence; the pessimist is most often heiter2 [serene] because he heals himself with silence. The irrationality of the universe lies in silence and the silent way it moves into infinity. Therefore our immortality lies in silence.

13Art, glutted with changes, seeks it constancy in the integrity of the soul— in its peace and silence, in the plots it weaves with death and our passion, states when we are at our most serene. Love, death and God are elusive; the serene steppes of silence are their abode, and the pathways there is the suffering of the soul; its throes taught us to pray, and the prayers brought the silence God lives in.

14Indelible, God and silence bring us the homeland, the first and only chance for life. All three conditions can be called by one name: beauty of the soul.

15We come into the world crying and we go in pain—we are afraid of death, yet we are not afraid of life; as if we unwittingly love it for the misery it brings us. The cry of the newborn child is the first unconscious sigh anticipating his future suffering and the first sorrows for his homeland. Without anyone’s commission it leaves God to live in hardship and misfortune until it joins Him once again; the bright moments in life, when pain fades and silence fills the soul with bliss, are those moments when he feels he’s reached his homeland, yet those moments are few and quick to pass. They shortly give way to more cries. There are only tears and suffering in this world. The more we cry and the deeper our sorrow for our eternal homeland, the greater we are ourselves. We never have enough of pain and tears, because we have to search for our homeland, and there is no other way to reach it. And the future culture will be as great as the spiritual life that it brings will be restless. Then we will think of self-improvement, as today we think of physical self-preservation.

16The homeland is the truth humanity is aspiring to. Everybody reaches it through himself, therefore it sounds different for everyone. But its value lies not in the disparity of form but in the deepness of feeling.

17Truth is an emotion of the irrational kind. Nietzsche called it a condition of life, Jesus called it immortality, and Indian books call it nirvana. We will consider it a condition of life to make clearer the thesis of the homeland as the third ingredient of modern art.

18It is erroneously thought that the high priests of innovation are a few autonomous individuals who transcended their nationality to address everybody. In fact their modernity lies in turning their gaze to the homeland and the truths that anyone anywhere can feel and comprehend. Everybody should feel through his empirical conventions the non-empirical essence of things like homeland and truth. The different nationalities reach this essence in different ways and at different times; no country is denied the chance to find it as long as it feels life in the physical circumstance best assisting its development.

19The homeland is everywhere: bright stars and cloud-obscured firmament; green woods and rocky wilderness, your friend and the eyes of his dog, the rose in the garden and the spider in the corner of your room—everything contains a piece of eternity and death; only the genius sees God everywhere, and the artist discovers His greatness. In our small land, where we are born and we die, life is not mechanized; nobody can say when it started, nobody knows when it will end; before me came another, before people there came other forms of life, before life there were the wishes of God. Eternity here is as great and small as anywhere else. We have to look down its chasms to see the homeland; the artist has no other task. The feeling of alienation must stop, silence must come, and with it love.

20To this day here we have not a single cloister, not a single temple. Nobody seeks his homeland and everybody lives on; everybody buys and sells, nurses desires, keeps accounts, expects favors and drives a quill, all are sinners and liars. Is it not a lie to consider yourself an artist when you have never said a prayer; is it not a great deception to think you believe in yourself, that you feel who you are, without knowing who begot you and to whom you owe your very soul, without feeling that this earth as part of eternity is also a part of God! What sin against infinity and love did you commit, you former Bulgarian writers, when you used the little consciousness you were given to set goals and create literature … Your only consolation is that you had to be sinners, you had to be dung and soil. You produce literature when we need prayers and hymns worded in our native tongue.

21In this land to our day there are wrongs. There is no good, because everything disturbs silence, love is lacking, because nobody consciously feels his homeland and God is slandered and abused. His abusers were not the church and not the street politicians, but you, the Bulgarian scribbling tribe, you who neglected the soul to serve goals, you, all writers, lyricists, playwrights, publicists and critics. Your time has come to creep like moribund beasts into the deepest wilderness of this poor country, and may your poisonous bones stay there forever.

22We are seeking the homeland, the primordial father, to whom Jesus cried from the cross: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit; we grieve for that homeland day and night, when we hear the heavens roar and when the stars are wise and silent—anytime and anywhere. Therefore our sorrows are in chaos and disarray; but understanding with your soul means removing any framework, every ornament and systematization. It is only the plain streamlining soul that seeks order; it is only the simple spirit, blind for the eternity in every genius that seeks system and classification.

23Our sorrows are the road to nirvana and to feeling the lightness of absolute liberation and absolute truth.


1 The plural form of the word тъга (sorrow) is unusual in Bulgarian.

2 In German in the original.


Zornitsa Dimova-Hristova (Traducteur)

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