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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

The current state and development of Slovak culture

Ladislav Novomeský
Traduction de Pavol Lukáč

Texte intégral

1Title: Dnešný stav a vývoj slovenskej kultúry (The current state and development of Slovak culture)

2Originally published: In Slovenské smery umelecké a kritické vol. III, 1936, No. 8–9, pp. 289–305.

3Language: Slovak

4The excerpts used are from Rudolf Chmel, ed., Kongres slovenských spisovateľov 1936, (Bratislava: Tatran, 1986), pp. 38–50.

About the author

5Ladislav Novomeský [1904, Budapest – 1976, Bratislava]: poet, writer and politician. Born to a tailor’s family, he attended grammar school in Budapest and then, between 1919 and 1922, the Institute of Pedagogy in Nitra. During his stay in Prague in the 1920s, he became a member of the Communist Party and was recognized as one of the main representatives of the young left-wing Slovak intelligentsia which grouped around the review DAV. He was active as a reporter in the Spanish Civil War. During the emergence of the Slovak state in 1939, he joined the resistance movement and was one of the leaders of the anti-fascist Slovak National Uprising of 1944. Between 1945 and 1950, he acted as the vice-chairman of the Slovak National Council as well as its commissioner for education, the chairman of the Matica slovenská foundation and chairman of the Association of Slovak Writers. In 1951, he was arrested and, together with Gustáv Husák and others, sentenced in a political trial in 1954 as a Slovak ‘bourgeois nationalist’ to several years in prison. He was released in 1955, and following his rehabilitation in 1963, worked at the Institute for Literature of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, becoming one of the main adherents of the Czechoslovak communist reform movement and of the federalization cause. In August 1968, he again became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and served again as a Chairman of the Matica slovenská. In terms of political thought, Novomeský is the most eloquent exponent of the search for a synthesis of Slovak national culture with socialist and communist ideals. He was a brilliant modernist poet with great influence and became one of the most important Slovak authors of the twentieth century. At the end of his life, Novomeský had established a great authority in both Slovak and Czech society, even among his political opponents. He is considered to be a prominent figure in Slovak and Czechoslovak history.

6Main works: Nedeľa [Sunday] (1927); Romboid (1932); Marx a slovenský národ [Marx and the Slovak nation] (1933); Otvorené okná [Open windows] (1935); Svätý za dedinou [The saint beyond the village] (1939); Dva roky slobodnej školy [Two years of free school] (1947); T. G. Masaryk (1950); Vila Tereza (1963).


7The establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 as one of the successor states of the Habsburg Monarchy involved the enormous administrative and organizational task of establishing a common governmental and administrative framework out of the different inherited systems of bureaucracy and law. Simultaneously, the officially endorsed idea of Czechoslovakism, informed by a decisively modernist imagination, implied that the cultural convergence and gradual unification of the Czechs and Slovaks into one Czechoslovak nation depended largely on the modernization and overall advancement of the less developed Slovak part of the country. An important part of the concentrated modernization effort was the development of an autonomous educational system and cultural life in Slovakia aimed at rectifying its dissatisfactory state prior to the First World War. In 1919, the Matica slovenská was reopened and Comenius University, staffed mostly by Czech professors, was established in the Slovak capital city of Bratislava. In the subsequent year, the Slovak National Theater and many other cultural institutions were opened, gradually creating the foundations of a full-blown Slovak national cultural life.

8In fact, during the twenty years of the first Czechoslovak Republic, Slovak intelligentsia grew greatly in number as well as in ambition, self-confidence and inner differentiation, both artistically and politically. On the left end of the political spectrum appeared the revue DAV, established in Prague in 1924 by students of socialist leaning who were cast out of Detvan, the traditional Slovak student association in Bohemia. Gradually, two factions evolved in the DAV group. The first was a radical one drawing its ideas from the Soviet Union and advocating the replacement of the previous literary tradition with proletarian art. The second faction was less radical in its cultural project. Although it was similarly critical of the existing national literary life promoting avant-garde artistic conceptions, it still attributed value to previous literary traditions. Vladimír Clementis and Ladislav Novomeský were the eminent representatives of this second faction that constituted an important and influential attempt towards a merger of modernist aesthetics, communist political ideals and national cultural traditions. While the intellectuals connected with DAV grew in significance artistically, with some of the major works of the group members being published in the second half of the 1920s, the group also gained political prominence with the rise of the leftist anti-fascist movement in Europe.

9In May 1936, communist writers and journalist from the DAV group played a prominent role in the summoning in Trenčianske Teplice of the first broader meeting of Slovak writers, bringing together figures of different ideological and political orientations. The meeting was inspired by similar events across Europe and the Soviet Union, such as the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow, or the meeting for the Defense of Culture and Peace in Paris. The pro-communist party turned the Congress of Trenčianske Teplice into a political protest against the national and social policies of the Czechoslovak government as much as into an anti-fascist and anti-imperialist manifestation. Novomeský’s speech, reproduced below, was one of the most important events of the meeting and stirred up many reactions during the Congress and later in the cultural media. He argued that Slovak culture carried the potential of constituting a synthesis of cultural impulses coming from both the West, standing for artistic sophistication, and the East, standing for new socialist humanity, provided that Slovak artists were able to free themselves from their outdated traditionalism and provincial isolationism. Herewith, at the time of the newly accepted communist tactics of the anti-fascist popular front, Novomeský’s main political message was to dismiss the geographical divide between East and West, and to consider another divide between “culture and barbarism,” between “cultivation and destruction.” According to him, this was a divide that intersected every individual national culture as much as the world as a whole, and was to be the most decisive cultural dichotomy of the near future.

10In the mid 1930s Novomeský, similar to many others in the DAV group, was still mired between a literary and a political career. In the later years, through his engagement in the Spanish Civil War, the resistance movement against the war-time Slovak state, and his participation to the building of state socialism after the war, politics clearly started shaping Novomeský’s agenda and, consequently, the DAV group’s legacy. In the immediate postwar period this tradition became central for the Slovak communist cultural policy, only to be dismissed as most of its representatives were jailed or killed by their own Party as ‘bourgeois nationalists’ at the beginning of the 1950s. With their rehabilitation in the following reformist decade the DAV history again appeared high in the cultural agenda of the communist regime.


The current state and development of Slovak culture

Themes without definitions

12Placed on the crossroads of Western and Eastern influences we have the duty to review, even if only in brief outlines pared to the essentials, the present forms and functions of those cultural efforts whose traditional names are based on geographical locations. The effects of both productive influences and barren sediments of different cultural streams underline this necessity. We are both participants in and witnesses to upcoming ideological clashes which, along with their preludes, have already left an indelible mark on our cultural scene. Yet even in the most immediate context we feel that not only the knowledge of, but also a most vigorous participation in international cultural activities is essential for Slovak artistic creativity. This is required by our quantitative smallness. For it will act as a limit on knowledge, experience, contacts and praxis, and as a precondition of qualitative smallness, of cultural decline and quagmire. All these factors—our position in the middle of very diverse cultural efforts; a future demanding that we take an unambiguous position in the historically determined clash of ideas; and the most contemporary conditions of Slovak cultural development—urge us to explore, consider and absorb the values and productive techniques of international cultural developments as well as to contemplate and look for our own place in the streams of international cultural movements.

East and West

13From the beginning it was objectively wrong to apply to Soviet socialist efforts in Russia and, on the other hand, to the state of affairs outside Russia, notions conveying, in a certain geographical sense, the differences between the cultural concepts of the past. The Russian revolution was, after all, an expression of international global efforts, even if it was, in its course and slogans, a sharp reaction to so-called European civilization (reaching its apex in the First World War) and remained limited to the East. Still we have to take into account the international character of the ideas which inspired it, for this is the only way to understand the convergence and blending of Western and Eastern ideas and culture, that splendid process which is the greatest event of contemporary European history.

14New (postwar) understanding of the East and its cultural substance is based on the revolutionary efforts of the socialist Soviets. The East was, in the common imagination, the antithesis of Western culture. Such a reality, the necessity of which was determined also by the specific situation in the Eastern territory, on which the Soviets had to concentrate all their efforts, became, in the vulgar imagination, the historic purpose of the “new oriental culture.” So it happened that the new notion of “Eastern culture” merged with the notion of materialism, not in its philosophical sense, as described by Marx or Lenin, but as the embodiment of anti-idealism, primitivism and greed, characteristic of the common, illiterate interpretation of the term. This gave rise, to explore our theme further, to the image of the new East, representing the denial of personality, the destruction of the individual, the liquidation of the private (inner) life of man and his submission to technology, and all other means securing the alleged single aim and meaning of the Eastern culture: the material wealth of the collective. The West, on the other hand, with all its confessed and denied deficiencies, represented, in this common understanding, idealism—again not in the pejorative sense based on Marxist philosophical terminology, even though the West, as the antipode of the Soviet East, was home to this idealist misery as well, but in the sense of ideological potential—or, to make a long story short, the West represented idealism perceived as the starting point and meaning of culture’s specific mission. The concept of the development of the human spirit and any progress in the spiritual sphere has, in this vulgar classification of cultures, merged with the notion of Western culture.

15The development of the last nineteen years has corrected these notions in Slovakia too, if only to the extent that remarkably positive aspects have been discovered in Eastern culture, attracting the supporters of the previously discussed idea of the West to the real substance of “Eastern” culture. Even the call ex oriente lux has been resurrected. Our times witness progressive destruction of the cultural division between East and West. The fault lines are no longer based on geography, but ideology; they divide culture and primitivism, culture and barbarianism. Those elements of Western culture capable of creativity, pursuance and evolution, elements that were “from and for mankind,” reached across all European borders to join the so-called “Eastern” culture. Eastern culture and the authentic humanist culture of the West will, today or tomorrow, become one single concept, even in the common perception. Not because, as many think, one or the other alleged antipode would desert its original essence and change its previous character, but because the evolution of the Eastern culture has reached a stage at which it is capable of accepting, employing and perfecting supreme works of art created in those famous “ivory towers” and also of making them accessible; and because in the West and the sphere of Western culture, the creators of truly magnificent values are being evicted from their towers and turrets.

16Those who really believed that the single and ultimate goal of all efforts of the Soviet East is a full stomach can expect, in the words of our wise journalistic vernacular, further and frequent “changes of local conditions towards Europeanization,” or in fact a purposeful cultivation of the backward East. The East, in fact, does consider “the full stomach,” i.e. economic balance and social order, to be preconditions for mankind’s cultural development, but the fact that all forces and efforts were harnessed in this or that way in order to create material security does not mean that this was seen as the single and ultimate meaning of existence. On the contrary, after the necessary foundations of social security were successfully created, new and unimagined horizons of cultural development opened up. Possibilities for omni-directional development of human existence were created. The East offers to mankind a perspective described by Marx in ‘German Ideology,’ in which “no man is tied to an exclusive sphere of activities, but may study any branch he pleases: the society organizes general production and enables him to do this today and that tomorrow, to fish in the morning, to hunt at noon, to tend sheep in the evening, to criticize, if he pleases, after his meals, and all of this does not make him a fisherman, hunter, shepherd or critic.” We pay attention to these, as of today, unequal existential functions, guaranteed to man in the so-called Eastern society (only there, so far), for at the same time they demonstrate the unilaterally limited possibilities of man in the West, which boasts about— what an irony—its respect for personality and freedom of the individual. […]

Between the West and the East

17In a certain secondary sense, within strict temporal limits, we can speak of Western and Eastern culture, because the effacement of borders is still in progress and the type of culture which would represent the synthesis of the Western sophistication and Eastern universal human desires and their fulfillment has not yet materialized.

18Reflecting this state of affairs, and especially the need for comprehensible terms, based on traditional concepts, which may be needed to define the future of Slovak cultural development, we still can speak of Western and Eastern cultural streams even if they are merging.

19As man, the creator and user of cultural values, is turning into the common denominator of both these zones, our perception of the West will focus on its reservoir of cultural wealth accumulated by human creativity, and constricted and liberated by the social transformations of the past centuries. The West will be perceived as a sum of experience created by the inventiveness and genius of renowned artists who strove to (as they were destined to) “become the end and purpose in themselves.” As they were not molded by the “true realm of freedom,” nor have they experienced “free development of human creativity,” to keep at least an appearance of the essential freedom, they had been hiding in the already mentioned “ivory towers.” The West to us, in a nutshell, is a synonym of sophistication, created and accumulated, now and before, through the great self-sacrifice of its creators. The East, changed as it was by the Russian revolution, offers a guideline, a vision of a world, a safe method to explore phenomena, their origins and transformations. It offers freedom of perception of things and processes, dispels limitations, strips away the residues of prejudices and falsehoods accumulated over the course of centuries. The art of writing is, in the first place, the art of seeing. Adequate perception of the world and its phenomena would be unthinkable and impossible without the ideas stimulating Eastern Europe at present. […]

  • 1 Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967): prominent Soviet writer and journalist.

20The cultural history of our country is in fact a history of the crosspollination of Eastern and Western influences taking place in times when such geographic classification of cultural concepts had its justification. In spite of the magnificent process of wiping out the frontiers between West and East, and with the view of the still existing demarcation lines of cultural zones, we suggest that Slovak cultural life preserves this geographical tradition for the sake of its quality, and its future. It can find a place of honor in this blending of “East” and “West”; it can represent an emerging synthesis of new ideas from the so-called East, expressing the fundamental desires of mankind, and the cultivated manners of the so-called West. This is an ideal predetermination of Slovak culture, as well as a perspective for its further development. Like Ilya Ehrenburg1 said in his beautiful simile on the Slovak cultural situation, in times when we could not yet observe the blending of the post-war East and West: “a tree does not break in rival winds but rises high instead.”

Reasons and stimuli

21The need to link our cultural life with the world’s cultural development is an axiom, a precondition, of all activities claiming to bear a relationship to culture. This is why we completely ignore certain efforts for cultural autarky, clad by its supporters in the meaningless clichés of “sovereignty,” “distinctiveness,” declaring that the source of culture lies in the nebulous concepts of “solid character” or “common sense” of the nation or of the people. These efforts are not worthy of serious reflection, if for no other reason than because their promoters themselves (to be found in political newspapers or on political platforms) do not deem it necessary to preserve the “distinctiveness,” or to refer to the common sense of the people in the non-cultural sphere, and even the fresher of their arguments are copied from foreign textbooks teaching cultural narrowness and anti-cultural barbarism.

22Having said that, we do not intend to build a dam preventing access by new movements in Slovak culture to sources created by the traditions and riches of folk culture and art in particular. On the contrary. For example, modern Slovak poetry is still defined, theoretically and practically, by its relation to folk poetry. The same goes for other art forms as well as for all creative efforts. Their contact with folk culture is made more natural and urgent by the fact that it is governed, instinctively, of course, by the same principles of existential ideas and human desires, whose victorious authenticity unites yesterday’s West and East. Those who would deny the need for our new cultural activities to turn towards the new ideas of our times—that were “Eastern” only yesterday—cannot speak of the fertility of Slovak folk culture. On the other hand, it is only in the light of these ideas and the scientific principles they’ve revealed that we can not only decipher but also create an existential compass out of symbols and metaphors hidden in legends, songs, tales and stories of Slovak folk art. Ideals expressed in Slovak folk culture (let us take a closer look at what is hidden in our legends of robbers, for example) are identical with ideas, which are, East and West, being transformed into principles liberating mankind. […]

23It really is impossible to claim that our cultural life could be hermetically isolated from outside influence. Some impulses, especially literary ones, which have ushered in a new era in the place of their origin, have touched, sporadically, our literary life too. Modern post-war Slovak literature—still dominant in our cultural environment—will soon be in the twentieth year of its development, a period long enough to raise the question of why it has still not escaped its parochialism. Ten, fifteen years ago, we diagnosed the cause as conservative traditionalism, meaning the process of chewing on what has already been masticated and even digested. Yet even the transplantation of foreign—and new—impulses has not raised our literature to a more formidable level. […]

24Our literary life of the last decade was not isolated completely. It had some contact with the outside world which we’d like to greet most enthusiastically. Still it offers a bleak picture. The “worldliness,” the topicality of our work, the fact that we’re dealing with the same themes and using the same techniques as “the world”—whether Eastern or Western—is not a self-redemptive panacea, and won’t, a priori, create great works. The end of the world, or “worldliness” (in the sense of an artistic level comparable with world literature) is not caused by the miserable quality of the models which our literati have adopted, but above all, by their half-heartedness, idleness, and their narrow-mindedness. The crisis of ideological and so-called formal impulses, which have, as we have already mentioned, ushered in a new era in the place of their origins, is, in our environment, a crisis of our conditions and our personalities. […]

25Personality and idea are not separate figures. They condition and create one another. The critique of the absence of national personalities does not close the chapter on our national situation. Just like the Czech modernism of the 90s proclaimed, we too need to “open the windows wide to Europe.” We need the winds of great, truly human ideological directions from all the around the world and of the respective artistic movements to blow across Slovakia. To guarantee the future of Slovakia’s culture we have to subscribe to universal humanist cultural efforts. […]

26Borderlines of cultures do not copy meridians anymore, but in the ideological sense, cut across society itself. Culture and barbarism, these are the future poles of different visions of the cultivation (or destruction) of scholarship. We would like Slovak cultural efforts to be cultural indeed, to play honorable and significant roles in the development of a new culture of mankind, full of authentic human desires, and to defend it against barbaric aggression, whether in the name of “passionate nationalism,” “racial superiority,” “ecclesiastically-religious panaceas” or directly—“fascism”!


1 Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967): prominent Soviet writer and journalist.


Pavol Lukáč (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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