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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

Moral varieties

Henryk Rzewuski
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: Mieszaniny obyczajowe przez Jarosza Bejłę (Moral varieties by Jarosz Bejła), vol. 1.

2Originally published: Wilno, Teofil Glücksberg, 1841

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from the original, pp. 17–22.

About the author

5Henryk Rzewuski [1791, Sławuta (Ukr. Slavuta, present-day Ukraine) – 1866, Cudnów (Ukr. Chudniv, present-day Ukraine)]: writer and politician. Rzewuski was born into an aristocratic family known for its extreme traditionalism (his father belonged to the most radical critics of the Great Diet). Educated by a French royalist refugee, he was under the direct intellectual influence of European conservativism (above all, from Joseph de Maistre, whom Rzewuski knew personally). In one of his travels to the Mediterranean, Rzewuski met Adam Mickiewicz, who is said to have inspired his most popular book, Pamiątki Soplicy (The memories of Soplica). Rzewuski’s sequence of stories in the old-fashioned ‘Sarmatian’ style was a nostalgic novel on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, its internal political system and— above all—on the unique lifestyle of the gentry (see also Adam Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz). The publication of Mieszaniny obyczajowe shocked Polish readers. In this essay Rzewuski negated the national existence of Poles. Immediately after publishing it, Rzewuski joined a conservative pro-Russian society and began to publish in the society’s gazette Tygodnik Petersburski (St. Petersburg weekly). From 1850 he worked as the personal secretary of Ivan Paskievitch, the Russian governor of the ‘Congress Kingdom,’ and started publishing an official newspaper Dziennik Warszawski (Warsaw daily). After 1856, he returned to his family estate and spent the rest of his life in Cudnów. Despite his controversial political life, Rzewuski became one of the most popular authors of historical novels (the successful Pamiątki Soplicy was only the beginning in that genre). After his retirement to Cudnów, Rzewuski also turned to the composition of very professional historical falsifications of eighteenth century diaries (Pamiętniki Bartłomieja Michałowskiego).

6Main works: Pamiątki Soplicy [The memories of Soplica] (1839–1841); Wędrówki umysłowe [Intellectual travels] 2 vols., (1851); Mieszaniny obyczajowe [Moral varieties] 2 vols., (1841–1843); Listopad [November] 2 vols., (1845–1846); Próbki historyczne [Historical Sketches] (1868); Teofrast polski [The Polish Theophrastus] 2 vols., (1851): Zamek Krakówski [Cracow Castle] 3 vols., (1847–8); Adam Śmigielski 2 vols., (1851); Rycerz Lizdejko [The Knight Lizdejko] 3 vols., (1851– 52); Pamiętniki Bartłomieja Michałowskiego [The memories of Bartłomiej Michałowski] 5 vols., (1857).


7The following text represents a pro-Russian political program in radical contrast to the plans and proclamations of the Polish democratic émigrés. In the 1840s Henryk Rzewuski belonged to the so-called Koteria Petersburska (‘St. Petersburg coterie,’ a conservative circle around the gazette Tygodnik Petersburski), which declared its full support for the tsar’s policies. Using an organicist language to describe ‘national existence,’ he made the shocking pronouncement that Poland was dead because she no longer had a raison d’être. He argued that the attempts to reform the Rzeczpospolita during the Enlightenment failed, thus ending Poland’s political existence and depriving her of a historical role. His text brought together two streams of conservatism: Polish aristocratic ‘republicanism,’ as represented by Rzewuski’s father, and contemporary conservative utopianism, a radical response to the trauma of the French Revolution and the romantic ideologies of radical social transformation. With these ideological tools, Rzewuski criticized all attempts to restore independence by national revolution and considered the death of Poland a fact, something which could be even a potential source of spiritual values. He saw the future in the assimilation of the Poles into the Russian nation and in their subordination to the Russian tsar. According to Rzewuski, monarchic power in general had spiritual roots, and this was especially true of the tsar.

8He addressed two groups simultaneously: the Russian ruling elite and the Polish public. Nevertheless, his petitions and other attempts to garner favor with the Russians did not excite serious interest in Russia. Furthermore, Polish intellectual circles felt deeply offended by Rzewuski’s central idea, and he became a persona non grata among the Polish émigrés. His intellectual sources, for example, de Maistre’s conservatism, were little known among the Polish elite; as a result, the reviewers of his book usually restricted their reaction to outpourings of patriotic fury, often dealing with Rzewuski’s theories without reference to their theoretical foundations and assuming that Mieszaniny... was to be dismissed as mere nonsense.

9Not surprisingly, Rzewuski does not belong to the canonized heroes of national memory, and his works (with the exception of Pamiątki Soplicy) did not run to second editions. Even though organicist nationalism had a powerful impact on Polish political thought from the turn of the twentieth century onwards, this part of the Polish intellectual heritage was rediscovered relatively late. In the 1970s Wojciech Karpiński and Marcin Król started to research Polish conservative ideology. From the point of view of Polish identity discourse, Rzewuski came to be compared to Rosa Luxemburg, as both negated the very idea of the independence of Poland on the basis of universalist theories. In Luxemburg’s case, it was the Marxist utopia that led her to criticize Polish socialism for its ‘nationalist tendency.’ In her opinion, the Polish working class had to seek the solution to its problems within the Russian Empire. For Rzewuski, national ideology was overwritten by a conservative utopia, and it was Russia that was meant to secure traditional social order and save the world from revolution. Consequently, although the two were on different sides of the ideological spectrum, Polish reactions to both Rzewuski’s and Luxemburg’s theories were surprisingly similar.


Moral varieties by Jarosz Bejła

11[...] The nations’ vital powers sleep in their wombs, and as soon as they are recognized these nations will metamorphose themselves into independent powerful bodies. In the spirit of this truth a peasant unites with a genius, while the poets, artists and philosophers influence the masses that have nothing in common with poetry, art, or philosophy. Unenlightened as they are, the common people do sense the presence of the sublime, for if it were only the property of the wise and privileged, all poetry, art and philosophy would be unvaried. And, as it is national in character, it necessarily reflects a distinctly local atmosphere and the unique emotions and dreams of the masses. The wide influence of the Encyclopaedic movement in France during the last century, the magnetism of Schiller, Goethe and Hegel in Germany, and the impact of Byron and Walter Scott on people in England, was not merely the effect of popularizing education in these fortunate countries—the influence of Saadi, Hafiz and Averroes on their ignorant countrymen was no less. Their magnetism resulted rather from a general tendency of every vital nation to strive instinctively towards achieving a historical presence; a nation cannot but admire the unique individuals through whom its presence is made possible, and the masses seem to have an infallible and indestructible sixth sense for identifying them.

12In our country, which has never seen as many great poets and outstanding thinkers and writers as it does now, the exceptional individuals have not only gained no recognition among their fellow countrymen, with whom they share both language and everyday reality, but, what is more, they have isolated themselves from society, often adopting an eccentric lifestyle, and seek only each other’s appreciation while distancing themselves from the masses who do not understand them and whom they gradually cease to understand as well. One may say that a literature that is so rich, and yet does not exert any impact on society, must be indeed an anomaly in the course of human history. Yet, anomaly it is not—rather, it is a phenomenon which is natural and easy to explain.

13An individual being is born, matures, grows weak and eventually dies. As a collective being, a nation undergoes the same process. Similarly to an individual being, a collective one possesses a soul, and this soul is the spirit of the nation. A nation endures, despite all appearances, until the spirit leaves its flesh. And this body is the entirety of individuals who create the nation. When an individual being dies, his soul enters eternity to face the judgement of the Lord and Savior, while his deserted body, devoid of inner integrating force, begins to rot; abhorrent vermin devour the corpse until it vanishes from sight, only to become part of new organisms. With the destruction of the last atom of the carcass the mystery of death is complete—the curtain is brought down and all that remains is a handful of ashes.

14Now, as long as a collective being (a social body) has a soul (its spirit), it will manifest all features of a living organism. Being part of a collective being, every man, whether he is a hero, a thinker, a scientist, a craftsman or a peasant, participates in it in a manner permitted by his social status, and his participation is in harmony with that of his fellow countrymen, even if they are divided by intellectual differences. This harmony becomes their common denominator and endows the nation with a distinct historical physiognomy. For the most part, there seems to be in society, despite its detours, a general tendency towards that which is outstanding, noble, and useful for the people, and this tendency compensates for all personal animosities. In a harmonious society, the individuals educated as poets, artists, writers and philosophers will not only find popularity and appreciation with their compatriots, but also love and respect for their unique ability to express the common spirit that animates the entire society.

15When death comes upon the collective being of a nation, its soul does not enter eternity similarly to the soul of an individual, because there is no afterlife for nations. However, on departing the body of society, the national spirit commemorates its death with a final act that no longer involves society’s participation. Like a patient on his deathbed who becomes incredibly vital in the last moments before death, so does the spirit of a dying nation find a way to inspire the minds of the wise into making a last titanic effort to compose a eulogy. The great minds of such a nation, living out of touch with their society, which does not admire them, and from which they distance themselves, weave the intellectual threads out of their own minds, because the fabric is not to be found in society. As a result, as if by a miracle there appears a rich and varied literature, a literature where one finds, instead of affection for the present, hopeless visions of the future, a literature of nostalgia in which the old legends and past artifacts become resurrected by some unnatural force. Strangely enough, this literature, this collection of the most bizarre literary acts unnoticed by the public eye, is characterized by a certain emotional uniformity, by a single poetics of sorrow, despair and fearful prophecies. This is because this literature is the last cry of the nation’s spirit from the underworld, the nation’s last effort after which silence will befall it. And the silence will prevail until the deceased nation mingles with the previously foreign elemental forces and speaks again, though this time in another language. Its own language will take its final form and join the Sanskrit, Hellenic, Celtic and Roman languages to be one which used to express the thoughts of living societies but which today are no more than monuments erected in their memory.

  • 1 Rzewuski enumerates secret societies, starting with student organizations and ending with socially (...)

16As to physical disintegration, the death of a nation’s collective body bears even greater resemblance to that of an individual. Devoid of the divine spirit which breathed life, harmony and energy into it, the nation’s carcass is also ravaged by merciless vermin, that is, by secret organizations which desperately try to find the last surviving scraps of the decaying corpse. Initially, the vermin are numerous, because the body they penetrate is still fresh, but as time passes they reach and destroy its deepest insides—first, there are the Filareci and the Promieniści, then the patriotic groups such as the Kosoniery and the Templars. Finally, there come the Skórkowy and the Baragoły, whose functions better than anything else speak for their aims and actions; the former deals with cattle, the latter is a Jewish servant. Nothing can be worse than that.1 [...]


1 Rzewuski enumerates secret societies, starting with student organizations and ending with socially radical groups of ‘rabble.’


Zuzanna Ładyga (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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