the imaginative conservative logo


Zygmunt Krasiński

In June of 1974, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (soon to be Pope John Paul II) organized a seminar in Krakow. Amongst those invited to speak was Major Henryk Krzeczkowski, the father of post-war Polish conservatism, who delivered the following address. The Major was a Polish nationalist and a realist. This is unusual, for Polish realists usually endeavor to liberate the captive minds of Poles from nationalist romanticism, from religious superstition and provincialism. As a realist, the Major believed in God and His enemy: Satan. This belief was the foundation of the Major’s teaching to his nation. Like Abraham Lincoln in his Lyceum address, the Major attempted to resuscitate the founding principles of his nation, to make them relevant to his times, that they might bring a new birth of freedom to his native Poland. American conservatives can remind themselves, through the Major’s address, of the moral weight of the words “God and Country”; who knows, maybe they will even awaken to a principled view of the Nation. Note: All quotations from the Poet-bard Zygmunt Krasiński are my own translations, which I do not consider definitive. –Peter Strzelecki Rieth

Ever since mid-century, the prophetic nature of great Polish romantic poetry has been the cause of bitterness amongst a significant group of our intellectuals and writers. In their eyes, the dominant themes of this poetry: Poland and Poles, seem to condemn not only writers, for whom they are a barrier to moving beyond the mystical realm outlined by our national Poet-bards, but also all active participants in our intellectual life, to particularism and to self-awareness. The easements which arise from the romantic interpretation of Polish history would always be a burden which supposedly made it impossible for our Polish writers, historians, critics, and philosophers—not to mention many other representatives of humanist thought—to ever arrive on the path to universal values, and, what follows, to recognition on the world stage. If only we could be absolved of this absurd compulsion to speak and think in Polish, the gates of the intellectual markets which dictate the courses of the valor of Mediterranean culture to at least two continents would be opened wide to the Polish thinker.

This is, according to Poles of a radical inclination, all the fault of the trinity of our national Poet-bards and their posthumous followers. They burdened the nation with their particular conditions and inferiority complexes. They burdened the nation with their limited or backward view of history as a place for Poland in the world. From all of this, it seems a fairly simple conclusion is reached: it is the duty of enlightened minds of a higher order to break free of these chains. What is not simple are the consequences that await us if we accept this conclusion as valid. For if we really look into the matter thoroughly, we see that the obsessions of the romantics are the curse of all Polish literature. If we really wanted to overcome this romantic obsession, we would have to literally cast off the entire heritage of Polish thought. We would have to cast off the entire ballast of our national sensitivities. We would have to begin history anew. We would have to create a totally new Poland, which, in unison with “the radicalists”—as Krasiński called them—“we could all essentially say, has yet to be born.” And only then, the Pole—of whom a very different poet, in a not altogether disimilar situation, wrote that he is “free for the first time in a thousand years”—will stand, as punishment, in the ranks of the free, so that he may, in full equality with all others who are likewise liberated from their national past, take advantage of all of the rights and privileges of Man that are his due—for the price of equal sacrifices and equal duties.

It is all so clear, and so simple—as clear and simple as all radical utopias. Utopias which find it so easy to speak of the future because they are rather carefree when they speak of the past. I, however, believe—and here I would return to the letter I have quoted from Krasiński to Koźmian—that “this is all about the birth of Poland which has been taking place over the course of the ages…about a certain transformation in its very being, which ought to bring us closer to justice.” With this in mind, let us all be aware that what are considered the “obsession” and “curse” of Polish literature are actually an eternal question about the meaning of freedom and justice; and thus—of the meaning of rights and duties, privileges and sacrifice. The great Polish writers never questioned the destiny of their literature: it was to be a servant. History itself did not allow for their literature to be anything else but a servant. What is called their “limits” actually demonstrates this quite well; they never attempted to overcome history by overcoming their particular confines in history–confines forced upon them by history. They never attempted to overcome history by seeking out pseudo-universal meaning to human life which would actually suck the destiny of the individual life dry of its uniqueness and conform that unique individual life to some apodictic notions of “historical necessity” which somehow stood above history itself; which supposedly crafted history.

From its very beginnings, Polish literature has always gone forth to seek out the meaning of history—but not history understood speculatively, but history understood as Revelation. Will you tell me that Polish literature was on the wrong path because it was seeking this meaning in its own history? The answer to this question depends on the a priori intellectual foundations we bring forward in our quest to judge Polish literature. If we happen to believe in a hierarchy of values which is best expressed in the common cannon of our Fatherland’s literature, then the criteria which we utilize in our analysis will not be autonomous aesthetic criteria—because such criteria are always subject to changing tastes and temporal judgments. In point of fact, the criteria we utilize will be criteria that our Great Writers use to test the importance of the problems that are analyzed, and the extent to which the formulation of these problems is capable of echoing yonder; such permanent criteria are what we find in our Great Writers, as their formulation of these problems actually echoes in our national consciousness.

If we utilize such criteria, we cannot but concede to Zygmunt Krasiński the premiere place in the pantheon of those who have taken the correct path; those to whom we turn for our own education, for inspiration and for moral support.

This is because it is beyond a doubt true that the problems which he took up in his literary work are amongst the most important, which stood and still stand before us, and the way in which Krasiński puts these problems into words, made it possible in the past—and makes it possible now, in the present—to consider them in ways both critical and creative. What’s more; in Krasiński’s oeuvre, we see that the premises which are always most stubbornly put forward, most precisely put forward, are those premises which compel us to consider the problems Krasiński raises to be of paramount importance to the life of the ontological existence of the individual Pole—and to the ontological existence of Poland as a nation: yet Krasiński does this by unmasking for us the universal aspects of Polish individual and national existence.

It is not a coincidence that we are gathered here today, in this place, to talk about Krasiński. The restoration of Krasiński is not a symptom of an attempt to re-examine a forgotten poet. Nor are we restoring a poet who has for too long been kept in the shadows because he was not in line with the times. Our meeting today is a precursor of and proof of deep changes in our national consciousness, which is now seeking a new synthesis which takes account of and makes sense of our nation’s recent historical experiences. Makes sense of the next chapter of our national history and brings this sense down to the level of the individual within the society, and makes sense of it from the point of view of the march of all Mankind towards its ultimate destiny.

The bedrock of the restoration of Krasiński to prominence are three events in the world of publishing: the publication of the Poet’s letters, which Stanisław Pigon has undertaken and which Zbigniew Sudolski continues. The publication of a selection of his poetry by Marian Bizan and the publication of his Literary Oeuvres by Paweł Hertz. These publications constitute the renewal of the debate over Krasiński–a debate that began when the Poet was still alive. Editors, as we can see from their comments, are all united in their desire to finally bring to an end the attempts—which have been unceasing for many decades now—to erase the Poet from our national literature or to liberally manipulate the content of his work. No one, as yet, has ever dared to deny to Krasiński the title of national Poet-bard. Instead, attempts have been made, through a variety of surgical means, to make sure that the Krasiński who stands on his national pedestal is not the real Krasiński, but a transformed version.

These attempts were made due to many causes: an essential distaste for Krasiński’s works as well as the inability to understand his thought, honest hatred of his works—tempered only by the necessity to take into account the fact that they have had a permanent effect; not to mention attempts—made from a distance—to usurp his works into the service of radical nationalism. While the partisans of the first of these tendencies treated Krasiński’s religious faith as an anachronism, a relict rather than a worldview, conditioned by his times, blinding or at the very least distorting the vision dictated by his poetic genius, the partisans of the second tendency saw in the Poet’s religious faith only a utilitarian value. The effect of the activities of both of these partisan groups has been to cast a shadow which has hung over Krasiński for several decades now.

It is my sincere hope that ever since these two partisan methods have been shaken by the very fact that neither of them ever took the religious faith of Krasiński seriously, the occasion has come to open a path to the proper interpretation of his work; a path that is necessary for humanistic thought. The condition for our success is–in my opinion–a simple one: we must acknowledge the primary role played by the dogmas of religious faith in the thought of Krasiński. These religious truths, in his poetry, are not some sort of vague background, nor are they some sort of imprecise frame of reference for more or less wily-nilly ideological constructs which take no account of the basic dogmatic foundations of Catholic doctrine—no—his religious truths are very precise road signs which exist to save the reader from ever going off course into subjectivism in the reader’s quest for interpretation. For Krasiński, the universalism of the Roman Catholic Church was not a paradoxical concept, it was not the cause of dilemmas, which the individual could only solve by using some sort of acrobatic attempts to reconcile individual and social life, let alone national life. The universalism of the Catholic Church was a strong foundation; a consolidated, logical construction which explained the laws of the history of Creation which had ended and become a part of the mystery of Sacral history.

Thus, the subject of my talk are the recommendations contained in Krasiński’s literary oeuvre. These recommendations will make it possible, in my judgment, to find what I called the consolidated, logical construction of a certain mode of thinking. I will limit myself to ex definitione literary works and skip over what Stanisław Tarnowski has called “intimations and definitions” of a theological nature, because it is in the poetry and drama of Krasiński that I find a syndrom of sentiments and reflections which express Krasiński’s personal comportment to the Catholic faith, free of concepts, definitions and a vocabulary thrust upon the Poet by the theology and philosophy of his contemporaries.

Those readers for whom Krasiński’s main body of work are living incentives to intellectual and sentimental reflection completely ignore the dependencies and impact of formulations arising from a momentary fascination with concepts which seem to be “in the clouds” and which absorb professional academics. For the lay reader, the heterodox ideas which seem to be so obviously “literary”, are merely minor stains on the Poet-bard’s otherwise deep truisms. For you see, Krasiński never gave in to the temptation to question the essential truth of an orthodox interpretation of the Revelation, a temptation particularly strong in times when history seemed to be testing their validity by putting Mankind through the cruelest of tribulations, which tested the faith of the modern Church. I am thus not interested in a biographic reconstruction of the religious comportment of the Poet bard as it came to us in accidental statements of his, I am interested in the question of what role he imagined for Man on Earth in his most important literary work. His ideas on this matter seem to echo in our own present day cares.

In order to understand how timely Krasiński’s ouevre is, we must realize the basic fact that the questions he poses are the result of a confrontation of the essence of orthodox Catholic faith with the requirements of life. One can even risk the assumption that in Krasiński we find an attempt to understand his personal fate in religious categories in a manner far more intense, or even in contradistinction to the other two national Poet bards, who rather seek out religious categories to situate themselves in history. For Krasiński, the task of the first order is the discovery of the iunctim (and thus the distinction) between the being of the individual and the being of a society. The commandment to love they neighbor is an absolute commandment. It is a commandment that obligates me, personally, an order to me, “nailed to the Cross together with Christ”, it is an order to me, whom the Son of Man “loved and gave Himself up for”, an order to me, “for whom God’s mercy and gifts are inalienable.” Yet to consistently live in accordance with this commandment to love, I may be led into a situation where I am in obvious conflict with the community of which I am a member—the nation—when this community demands that I undertake actions contrary to this commandment. What then is this national community? Could it be a temporal or even final realm of victory for Satan himself, who will have locked me into a trap called hatred, or is the national community an act of Providence which I must come to understand that I may overcome these illusory limits to love?

Krasiński finds the answer to this question in an idea of history which incorporates Sacral history, history that is beyond time, history known and understood only by God into the “Creation history” that is dilineated in the Divine Revelation which has been given to us: “The world already recognizes, today, the end towards which History moves; History is ruled by the Love of God, and her purpose is Humanity, by which we understand the common whole which accords to God’s Will, which knows and lives the laws which God has bestowed upon it.”

Moving towards the final end, namely the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit on Earth, humanity makes its way along created time, which is divided in two by the fissure called the coming of Christ; into what Stanisław Tarnowski calls two epochs—antiquity, which was “unitary in its flow, balanced, indivisible, as balanced and unitary as a consciousness unaware of Creation can be”, and into the epoch of Christianity, which “brought forth an ideal which was difficult to make real, possible to make real only after many centuries, many hardships.”

“The means to this end, the tools, the living organs are nations, which themselves are reflections of the highest stadium of evolution away from the differences inherent in human tribalism. ‘As notes in a chord, so nations are to humanity; they are diveristy and unity at the same time.—Without nations, it would be impossible to concieve of humanity, because such a concept would be nothing but unity without diversity, and so no unity at all, only a dead unit!”

To paraphrase the Poet-bard: unto these nations, born of God’s grace, God hath rained down upon them a handful of callings from on high. But whether or not to accept the Divine calling, whether or not to heed the Divine calling; this was an act totally dependent on the free will of the individual and of the nation. In forming States, which are everywhere “human artifice”, nations satiate the content of their history through politics. The politics, in turn, depend on the character of the State. Since nations are “created by God”, then “it is not a nation without a state, but only a nation-state which is capable of being Christian, and by a Christian nation-state we understand a state at once national and universally human.” “States which do not arise according to the laws of God, nations based only on selfish interests, on diplomacy, in a word—States which are merely political always dismember the organic, living nation, which constitutes one of many visible organs of universal humanity. In this act, politics oversteps its limits. Child; who ever said that to do so was a political crime ? It is called a crime only because it is a religious crime…A State which is mere human artifice, a State arising from a mere game – to dismember such a State: that would constitute a political crime. However, to desire to dismember and murder the sacred nation, when it is impossible to realize humanity on Earth without the sacred nation; this is a crime against the will of God—this is a truly eternal crime: this is sacrilege. In contrast—resisting this rape, resisting this Godlessness—this is Religion.”


Zygmunt Krasiński

One could accuse me of apodictically tearing the words of the Poet out of their historical context; but I am not being liberal in my use of these quotes. I am reconstructing, with all of the respect I can muster for the original intention of the Poet’s words, the thought process which led Krasiński to acknowledge the charismatic character of the nation as a community which makes it possible for the individual to accomplish his supernatural purpose during his Earthly wanderings, at the same time protecting the individual from viewing the nation in absolute categories as an end in and of itself in the history of both the human individual and society as a whole.

Our point of reference is universalism—and universalism is our ultimate destiny. Man, created in the image of God, created with an immortal soul, is a value in and of himself, measurable only when laid against the tapestry of Creation itself. All men are created equal only insofar as they are possessed of an equal opportunity to claim the gift of Salvation, and insofar as God has seen fit to give them equally free wills in order that Man may choose to walk the path of Salvation during his short Earthly sojourn. All men are created equal insofar as they are possessed of a duty to love their neighbor, and possessed of a right to that love. All men are, however, unequal ex hypothesis, because all men have been assigned different stations in the plan of Creation. Men are different, also, because their free will allows for a variety of different paths towards the realization of their chosen ends; it even allows men to turn away from those paths. “What is Humanity but a school—a tutorial of the angels?” Humanity is a school in which we are called to discover the deepest sense of Revelation: “we do not die to be damned—nor do we die to rise from our graves—we die so that we can rise from the graves of our own selves, reborn, continual, without the fog of death—this is spiritual evolution…The nations of the Earth ought to experience it before each individual experiences it in the afterlife,” so as to discover that the alters of God are not merely “formed under Cathedrals” but “everywhere: in the Parliament, in the Tribunals, amongst the electorate, amongst those who are elected, in the seats of Earthly power and where commoners lurk, in craftsmanship, in the marketplace, in all art forms; within all talents the Lord should grow, should be known, should be understood, and His will should be done… Every difficulty must become a calling, every government officer must see his service as a Priest sees his calling here on Earth…” Only when we have achieved this level of understanding, only then will humanity be capable of overcoming all of the direct causes of our separation and all of the inequalities of this world, only when we reach this goal – a goal made for us at the moment Man was Created—only then will Mankind become one flock, with one Shepherd.

It is against this universalism, understood as the fruit of the struggles undertaken by Man’s free will, that Satan confronts us with the Demon’s Universalism; the universalism of Necessity as understood by Human Reason. “I am Reason—I am Necessity!” shouts Satan and, when confronted with the idea of Eternal Resurrection, Satan replies:

Death must be died!—Death is a sacrifice
punishable only when incomprehensible
yet when you comprehend, with Reason as your sacrifice
through destruction of particles the whole is Saved
the flood runs so as to make the waves pass
the common stand still, so that the uncommon can move
Humanity lives when nations die
the Universe lives when worlds die!

Reason is calling you one last time
bow your head to Necessity once and for all
cast off resistance in your soul and you will sleep in peace!

bow before accord, visible in the chaos,
which clutches together: an eternal circle
of coffins buried and the life of the crown!

and in this recognition you will grasp all of eternity
you will make your thought one with the glory of our thought!

By putting these words into the mouth of Satan—a fallen angel, who rebelled against God, and thus who is conscious of the existence of God and of God’s Truth, Krasiński underlines just what it means to tempt men with the notion of the total power of human reason, which can only lay claim to total understanding by denying God. Necessity, understood as a principle towards which a man comes through his reason, thereby discarding all Mystery, holding firm to the idea that Mystery must succumb in the end to the temporal mind—since there is no other Mind—this kind of Necessity actually serves only to give Satan power over humankind because it deprives human beings of their Freedom. The Poet answers Satan thus:

Necessity, oh Spirit, is the servant to freedom
he who lays no claim to the Law cannot live
to incarnate Eternal Mind into our bodies:
possible only for Saints!

unchain us from your Reason shorn of action and will
it is useless to us, useful only for you
so that you would twist the necks of men as if they were the necks of beasts
twist them down and forge shackles of shame from them

go and tempt someone else! You are a foreign Spirit
when a murderer commits his crime somewhere
you can be there to justify it with a heartless theory
you ideal Muscovite: I think you must be German!

The essence of Christian universalism is love. “You must have faith in the past, hope in the future, and love at every moment of the present time, which means—in life itself! Love is the highest thing because it is an act!” So Krasiński writes to Sołtan. Love, then is not only the source of being, not only the meaning and purpose of being, but it is also a normative ideal for behavior, it is the content of actions through which Mankind will fulfill its destiny. This love is, however, a choice we must make. We are gifted with free will, and thus we can always chose the only alternative to love: hate. Hate—the life force of Satan! Satan wages war against love, because Love is in opposition to Satan, because Love is the most effective defense against the possibility of Mankind erring from the path made for it by God. Krasiński formulates the dilemma and its consequences in a memorable reply to Słowacki:

stand firm, Prophet, in this faith
do not tell me you still do not know
what the spirit will chose?

not the whips of the Mongols
not red republics
He will not count them amongst his treasures
only free human will
when evil and dishonest
choses such paths
which dirty the fields of this Earth
because it is a will so free, as to be talented
talented enough to sow murder
in the name of brotherhood
in the name of hope
it is ready to derail our Earth

This alternative opens the soul to the possibility of human pride, which itself is the fruit of a despairing Reason, self-identified on the basis of a Necessity that it has discovered for itself. Krasiński is not an advocate of irrationalism; Krasiński believes that the power of Reason rests in its capacity to distinguish between Good and Evil, in its capacity to read the Will of God in the history of Humankind, in its ability to come to the right conclusions from a study of history. Krasiński’s historiosophia, thanks to the Poet’s orthodox faith, turns out—after a proper analysis of the hidden meaning of the terminology and notions of the philosophical currents of his contemporaries—to be the foundation for a rational Christian political and social doctrine. What is decisive for the proper understanding of history is recognizing the basic opposition formulated in the dialogue between Pankracy and Henryk. When Pankracy says “The God of Humanity has revealed himself to them,” Count Henryk responds: “He has revealed Himself to us ages ago—Humanity has already been saved by Him.” For “the world already understands today what destiny History is marching towards; the world knows that History is ruled by the Wisdom of God and that the purpose of history is humanity itself, by which we understand the commonwealth in accord with the will of God, knowing and fulfilling the Law, a Law gifted to the world by God! The means to this end, the tools, the living organs are nations, which themselves are reflections of the highest stadium of evolution away from the differences inherent in human tribalism. ‘As notes in an chord, so nations are to humanity; they are diveristy and unity at the same time… States are human artifice, they are a collection of particles to be cast over being.—Some nations are created by God and this is why it is not States without nations, but nation-states only that can be called Christian, that can be a part of common humanity.”

What we have here is a fundamental, high minded differentiation and, at the same time, a hierarchy of concepts, discovered by humanity and formulated by humanity in history itself. The nation is a category within “God’s Creation.” The State is a form within which the nation can realize its purpose. This order of values becomes the point of reference for the correct understanding of history.

It is very characteristic of Krasiński that he makes the consequences of false choices concrete, but he does not give us any precise definition of what we might call positive solutions. We know the former quite well already, or at the very least we have the capacity to discover them. The latter remain ends concealed by mystery. The Kingdom of God on this Earth is an ideal, towards the realization of which Mankind will proceed, developing in accordance with the instinct of God, and that instinct is Revealed to us only in the most general framework, one which we shall fill out with content that is the fruit of our evolution towards the Good.

It is because history allows us to see the consequences of evil choices that Satan so desires to erase history; to take away our historical consciousness:

On all the fields; mercenary grave diggers
dig deep into the Earth
smashing Holy Icons and Ancient Alters
into dust with weapons sharpened
tossing them into one womb

so that none will ever stand before the eyes of Man
a memorial of ancient days—so that all of the Earth
naked—without any Crosses–can become a cemetery
From which my people will never awaken from their eternal slumber

Satan wants to set the ideal of history as a self-fulfilling force of blind pride against the Divine ideal of history-as-a-calling. Satan wants history to conquer humanity and lock all people into a temporal jail. “Necessity” replaces freedom and enslaves mankind, because necessity must always be built upon hatred.

This is why Krasiński warns us:

“…you, who constantly only repeat “we the people”, “we the people”, “we the people”—but never say “we the Nation”—you who wish to await greatness born of your own self, rather than from God! You, who lay down the future foundation of your house with charcoal stones called the murder of manliness! You, powered by envy, who tries to transform progress into an Eternal Law and who calls the petty desires of your own heart Necessity! You who are capable of wounding and then filling the wounds with venom…You are as yet incapable of talking to God through prayer, let alone to Man through Wisdom, nor even to yourself through Faith and Conviction! You—lusting for power, you, rich in passions and sensuality, rich in a mysterious power known only to yourself! Answer me: do you really believe what you have proclaimed to us?”

Reason, blinded by pride, is “practical reason.” The historical embodiment of this was Rome. “No one could ever equal Rome in Reason, but no one ever lied to the world as much as Rome lied. No one ever broke as many oaths made to the world as Rome. No one ever spent such a surplus of bad faith on such an Empire! “ In the modern age, the apogee of “practical reason” was the world of the Poet’s contemporaries:

…the tower of the old world,
close to ruin—full of guilt—emptied of faith!
and within: only two states of a merchant soul
sparks flew as they battled for primacy over the transformation
once the greed for profit arises—so the fear of war follows
and the whole world was a stock market—without God!
And then a Satanic archangel of power
Beyond the market, from the ice of the North
Up came the shadow of this giant
Who stills holds me in shackles!
And they, all of them—the City briskly together
Strike the enemy with fire and steel
From steel they laid the railroads
Placing all their hope in steam engines!
For they did not fear God nor the vulva
Only the deadly thunder of the battlefield
The bourgeois preferred to stay home!

This is the world which was gained; which had to be gained by the partition of Poland, because it is a world in which “all States are created without regard to nations, all states are carved out of one or many nations for the benefit of the dead ideals of boardrooms…”

Here, I would like to direct your attention once more to the hierarchy of understanding we see in Krasiński; because this hierarchy is projected in his political thought, in his understanding of the struggle for freedom, the struggle to restore Poland—and this hierarchy is the condition for a political comportment which Słowacki could never understand, let alone accept. Let us keep in mind the “chorus of friends” from This Day, when the friends all accuse the Dying, who had wanted to “reconcile the inspiration with the action at no cost”, of “never being aristocratic enough” or “never being democratic enough” or never being a Pan-Slavist, or a Communist. And the dying man prays – he prays only for “silence to overcome the quarrels of my friends so that together, they could fight for Victory!”

For if patriotism is not to become merely some egoistic tribal idea, dressed in beautiful words and in the emotions of the herd, if the sacrifices which patriotism demands are not to be proffered unto the Alter of a tribal-god, but rather unto the Alter of the Living God, then the love of a citizen for his nation must always flow from the proper understanding of the historical function of that nation. A function which is the nation’s calling from God; and the functions of the state which are the forms of national self-government.

“Only the free create—and only free nations, like lutes capable of diverse sounds, will ever be able to emit the song of humanity….” But “let them never forget about love, without which it is impossible to build anything, impossible to lay the foundations for anything—without which God, though dressed in omnipotence, could never have created anything! Truly I say—let them remember that it is not that which is unmoved and chiseled like a rock which is the Wisdom of the Earth, nor is it that which is furious and capable of blowing those rocks into the sky to be called the inspiration nor the action – rather, it is that which is essentially sacred and distinctly beautiful which flows onward, which trods ever upward, widening its horizon with every moment, and yet one and the same as the eternal Eastern light” Thus, Krasiński calls out in his letter to Trentowski: “Do not make haste to war, do not lift your hand against the one factor which today preserves your Fatherland from the abyss, the pantheistic sea, so to speak…of Pan-Slavism. Do not be mistaken—above the abyss stands Poland. Her Catholicism is her only defense against the depths of the deadly waves…Can you not see that from their division, there remain only two of the lowest, simplest and strongest of currents…the rich and the poor. This is the desired end of the history of our world in our day! It is a sign of the most gigantic sort or materialism, for these two camps, though they hate one another, both worship the same idol with equal passion, the idol of venom, lust, utility, comfort—in a word: material aims! All other ideals have fled from the heart of Man, to be replaced by only material goals and, I repeat, this is the proof that the chemical decomposition of society itself, understood as the death of an epoch, is always rooted in the interior of that society…Believe me, when the hour of the bestial battle strikes, no room will remain on the battlefield for higher types of organisms, nor for any nations, nor for any fatherlands, nor for any language, nor for any art, nor for any knowledge, nor for any science! …What, if not Catholicism, can, in this moment of history, push our peasant people away from open arms of a government which are at once the widening arms of a schism set upon them? The wisdom of the nation’s sentiments and instincts understood this, the nation knows that there lies its salvation!”

This was written on 9, February 1858. In these reflections on the subject of Krasiński’s religiosity, it has been my desire to only cast light on this important aspect of the Poet’s work which, while not wholly ignored by the academics who studied him over the past decades, was never approached with the gravity due to it. This aspect of his work deserves to be underscored all the more in our times, when we bear witness to a restoration of interest amongst our academics, our writers and our artists, in Krasiński’s work and in the romantic age of Polish literature as such.

This restored interest is not a passing fashion; it is an authentic sign of social need. We are, of course, particularly sensitive to the problem of historical continuity, but it is our desire that this problem should never be reduced to mere pragmatic necessity and practical justifications for our survival. In our historical continuity we see a far deeper sense, a transcendental sense—and Polish romantic writers played a decisive role in formulating this transcendental sense.

In romanticism, we find historiosophical foundations which are still relevant to our day and age. The extent to which society accepts them takes on various forms. It is the common course of things that initially, it is the romantic staffage, color and drama, so reflective of the national temperament, possessed of so many exciting possibilities, which commands our immediate attention. The romantic language, so grandly attractive, is by nature poetic and particularly apt to be rendered banal. This language, so disconnected from modern understanding—which interprets every high minded epithet, every rhetorical turn, every invocation, every high-spirited word as merely the result of the realities which led to its formation—this language has nevertheless once again become attractive to us. Perhaps this has come to pass precisely on account of it having lost its historical literalism and having become susceptible to liberal interpretation. This makes it all the more necessary to uncover the content hidden beneath the staffage and the romantic vocabulary; the content which makes up the essential life force of the romantic mind.

Thus, it is a matter of supreme gravity that we remind everyone and explain to everyone that our romantic poets did not treat their religion laconically. They lived in a time when the differentiation between a “Catholic writer” and a “Catholic who writes” would be casuistry. This is why I believe that a key measure that must be taken when seeking to understand the romantic writers is the attempt to identify the romantic poet’s comportment to the dogmas of the Faith, understanding the essence of that comportment—often hidden behind mental speculations born of a concrete moment in time or a condition. I am far from suggesting an attempt to create some vision of the Poet who, despite erring in his beliefs, wrote soundly, because his writing was dictated to him by a far wiser historical necessity. Rather, I am interested in discovering the de facto relation of the Poet to the language of his time; a relationship that his thinking captured in words; an attempt to delineate between the worldview or faith of the Poet and his words—which often did not accord with this faith or worldview.

The case of Krasiński, relative to such intentions, has much to teach us. Speaking of the orthodoxy of the Poet, it has been my aim to focus attention primarily on the most important—in my opinion—characteristic of his philosophy, which was consistently evident throughout his entire oeuvre: the postulate to underscore the function of the nation relative to religion, not—as has been the case with so many other thinkers and writers, the function of religion relative to the national idea. Universalism is a concept that today is on everyone’s lips. But we also have painful experiences in our past illustrating how supposedly universalist ideas were unlawfully used for ends which were anything but universal. In these important and unique times—and let us not forget that each time is important and unique for every individual human who is trying to pass his one and only Earthly test—the greatest task that we have before us is the task of discovering true universal values and means of making them a reality.

In bestowing upon Krasiński the rank of a national Poet-bard, we acknowledge his genius, with which he was gifted; a genius which allowed him to see and name temporal reality in its relation to Eternal reality. This is the essence of his prophecy: he was capable of showing us the alternatives that confronted us as both individuals and nations. A Poet-bard is not a Soothsayer. A Poet-bard interprets facts accessible to all of us. The difference is that the Poet-bard sees with a clearer eye and speaks—thanks to his gift—in a more dignified language. The Poet-bard is one of many translators of our faith who, in contradistinction to the Pharisees and the Scholars of the Law does not ignore “that which is of highest importance in the Law, which is Justice, Love and Faith.” This faith, born of love and contained in love, this faith which is capable of moving our sun and all of the other stars, was the life force of Krasiński’s creative work. His faith was not some lukewarm compromise, nor was it some desire to get along, nor a compromise made on account of a carefree attitude to principles. It was rather that rage of which St. Paul said “Feel rage, but do not sin. Let the sun never set on your rage.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.  

Translator’s Note:

I have rendered a literal translation of Krasiński’s poetry, in the Straussian tradition which believes that a literal rendition is the best way to confront readers with the puzzles of a foreign text. Readers should know that Krasiński’s rhyms have been sacrificed to this literal translation, thus sacrificing beauty for essence—I am not sure whether this is possible 

As for Major Krzeczkowski’s words; where possible, I have rendered a literal translation, although to do so was utterly frustrating due to the nature of the noble pre-war Polish sentence structure the Major uses. Given that this is a speech, bordering on a sermon, the translation had to account for the purpose of each word, and that purpose was rhetoric. As such, I am open to the possibility that this translation can be, or even should be improved. I can only ask readers to fault me for anything that seemed lacking in this speech. To truly capture the wisdom, rhetoric and romantic thrust of this address in English is a calling that may well be above my meager means.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Reith puts us in his debt. We in the English-speaking world know very little of these Polish writers, so many of whose works have never been translated into our language.

    Let me see if I can explore Major Krzeczkowski’s speech a bit, and consider how it, and the poet Zygmunt Krasinski whom we meet in it, continue to speak to us today. It should be needless to say that I approach these two writers with considerable hesitation and humility, given my ignorance. I’ll depend upon Mr. Reith to correct my thoughts.

    It seems to me that both men address a matter of considerable importance to conservatives, namely, the question of “history.” Conservatives esteem the serious study of history (defined in the modern way, as the course of events) and of histories (in the old-fashioned meaning of the term–narration of the course of events). They esteem such study because it gets us away from the terrible simplifiers, whether in academia, in politics, or in coffee houses and taverns, who aspire to create the world anew–first of all by wiping it ‘clean’ by the straightforward method of killing lots of people.

    Paradoxically, some of the worst of these simplifiers also have esteemed what they called “history”–the course of events that marched towards a shining “end” or telos in accordance with supposed laws of historical development. But of course that’s not the sort of thing conservatives usually have in mind. Our idea of history teaches practical judgment or prudence, a respect for the thoughts of outstanding practitioners of politics who also understood that they thought and acted “under the aspect of eternity”–the laws of nature and of nature’s God, to borrow a well-known phrase, but laws themselves set down by the Creator-God.

    Krasinski’s dates are 1812-1859; Krzeczkowski’s are 1921-1985. The former confronted the dangerous, “iron laws of history” type of history in the thought of G. W. F. Hegel and his epigoni. One of these was Karl Marx, who would surely be very much on the mind of Krzeczkowski (to say nothing of Cardinal Wojtyla) in 1974, the year of this speech. Sure enough, Krzeczkowski, living in a Marx-inspired regime, decries those who attempt to “begin history anew,” sweeping aside all previous Polish thought or, more precisely, attempting to justify their outrages by “some apodictic notions of ‘historical necessity’ which somehow stood above history itself.” But “Polish literature”–rooted in the real lives of Poles–understands history not “speculatively” but as “Revelation.” Speculative history is the domain of Hegelianism, founded on the assertion that “history” or the course of events unfolds like a special kind of logical syllogism (Hegel needed to invent a new logic in order to express this). “History” in this scheme is the dialectical unfolding of the “Absolute Spirit,” a rather unspiritual and impersonal spirit which behaves suspiciously like energy. As it plays itself out in our own lives, this dialectical unfolding is anything but a bloodless abstraction. On the contrary, it’s quite bloody; Hegel turns a phrase on the subject, referring to “the slaughterbench” of History. Karl Marx and a brood of twentieth-century tyrants would alter a lot of Hegel, but not that part.

    “History” (mis)understood as the Absolute Spirit is very far from history understood as influenced in certain decisive ways by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, well, holy–that is, separate from creation. The Holy Spirit is of course a person, not a mere force; even as He may dwell within us, He is not us. Hence Krzeczkowski on Krasinski: “The universalism of the Catholic Church was a strong foundation” for the particular, national, tradition of Poland; the Church was “a consolidated logical construction which explained the laws of the history of Creation which had ended and become a part of the mystery of Sacral history.” Here we have the opposition of Catholic, Christian history to Hegelian History, the Holy Spirit as distinguished from, and indeed opposed to, the Absolute Spirit. The agapic love of the Christian God can be “dialectical” or “tough” indeed–there is that formidable place called Hell, for starters–but it remains personal, not machine-like–the infamous “Yezhov’s machine” of Stalinist times being but one example of a historical “logic” that is in fact mad, inhuman. Such persons forget their own personhood or, as Krasinski himself says, “powered by envy,” they try “to transform progress into an Eternal Law.”

    This suggests that the truth of Polish Romanticism and Polish nationalism inheres neither in emotionalism nor in arrogant self-assertion, but rather in the carefully measured and humane logic limited by divine Logos. This seems to be what enables Krzeczkowski’s Krasinski to be described as adhering to the formula, “a rational Christian political an social doctrine.” Rational, not murderous and impersonal, because a focused expression of the overall Reason that in the beginning was God and also the word of God. Reasonable. Catholic or universal even as it works through the language and settled practices of the Polish people.

    This also means that Krasinski rejects “the pantheistic sea” (what is Hegelianism if not a logician’s version of pantheism?) of pan-Slavism I suspect that Krasinski rejects such racial groupings because although Poles and Russians are both Slavs, Poles are Catholic and Russians are Orthodox. This in no way denies the grandeur of Russian Orthodox Christianity (Krasinki’s contemporary, Dostoyevsky, and Krzeczkowski’s contemporary, Solzhenitsyn, resisted the Absolute Spirit boys of their times as resolutely and pofoundly as anyone), but simply to say, this is not the characteristically Polish way of Christianity. And of course, each of these four men is well aware of the misuse of Christian universalism for nationalist ends, the transformation of Christianity into a merely civic religion. As Krzeczinski puts it (surely glancing at Russia) we Poles “have painful experiences in our past illustrating how supposedly universalist ideas”–not only Christianity but Marxism, no?– “were unlawfully used for ends which were anything but universal.” As in the imposition of Russian authority on Polish soil, during and after the Second World War, perhaps?

    Well, as I say, I defer to Mr. Rieth’s superior knowledge of Polish culture and politics–the latter understood as a civil enterprise, not merely an exercise of “power.” I am grateful to him for bringing this speech–this speech about speech, about logos–to us here. I hope that he might find the time to continue to do so–perhaps for eventual publication in the form of a good, old fashioned book.

  2. Dr. Morissey,

    Very difficult questions, particularly since I have never enjoyed Polish romantic poetry. My very general answers (which are very sketchy to say the least):

    1) Krasiński:

    While I do not like considering a writer on the basis of his biography, I find it somewhat necessary insofar as Count Napoleon Stanislav Adam Felix Zygmunt Krasiński is concerned. Henryk Krzeczkowski rightly remarked that Poland does not have the luxury of producing aloof thinkers who glance at history from afar. All of us are moulded by rather extraordinary events.

    If we look at the letter Count Napoleon Zygmunt Krasiński wrote to Napoleon III in 1854, we learn from it that Russia is the most evil, degenerate creation in all history, while Krasiński’s birthplace, France, is the most noble of nations destined to rule Europe and the world if only France stands for a free and independent Poland.

    Krasiński writes:

    “Poland was truly a creature of Divine Wisdom and Divine Foresight. Poland was put, by Providence, between people of different origins, driven by different motives. Between the Turks, the Muscovites and the Germans. Poland was created to defend Christendom from the first, civilization from the second, Slavic peoples from the third. We see Poland, throughout the ages, fulfilling this mission at the cost of her purest blood.”

    Krasiński argues that the bane of Western conservatives is that they do not distinguish between revolutionaries and patriots. He defends Poland against the claim that Poles are a subversive and revolutionary people, arguing that in fact Poles are patriots fighting for the restorations of a centuries old conservative political order against Tsar Nicolas I Romanov, who – Krasiński tells us – is the Eastern immitator of Robespierre. Russia, Krasiński argues, is an Absolute Monarchy which is a perfect practical example of Western Socialist thought put into action and which will, one day, drown Europe in pools of blood, destroying all of the great buildings of her cities in a cataclysmic war between European peoples – all of it the result of the partition of Poland, which was the liquidation of the only truly conservative European state to be able to keep the Slavic lands together in peace and liberty.

    Krasiński does not limit his ire to the East: he is repulsed by “the Stock market” and the Speculators and the Socialists of the West as well. He argues that in the future, Western conservatives, seeing their nations in dissaray, will become advocates of Russia because Russia will be orderly. Krasiński also claims Western Socialists will become advocates of Russia because she is revolutionary and socialist. He presages the Twilight of the West. He believes the West will find itself the originator of bad ideas which Russia will then put into effect and with which Russia will enslave the West and terminate Europe. He is thus pesimistic about both the West and Russia and sees hope only in Poland.

    It is a kind of vicious cycle: The West, generally healthy, thinks up various poisons which it is thus far immune to – and those poisons are then adopted by Russia where they mutate into vicious plagues which will come back to haunt the West which thought them up in the first place.

    His appeal to France may partially have to do with his having been born there, his having been influenced by the political ideals of France, or his hopes for alliance between Poland and France. We know, in any case, that France was defeated by Bismark. The II Republic (a constitutional order crafted by people like Tocqueville) ultimately falls.

    This in and of itself would be interesting if not for one important biographical fact which gives Krasiński the perfect twist:

    Krasiński’s father was a lifetime Senator, a decorated General and a political ally of the Tsar Nicholas I who decorated him with the Order of St. Vladimir 2nd class. He had been a General who served first under Napoleon, helping to establish a new Polish Kingdom in 1807, and following Napoleon’s defeat, slowly embedded himself in the Dutchy of Warsaw’s politics. In terms of his political biography, Vincent Krasiński is very similar in many respects to Michał Rola Żymierski, whom I wrote about in my last article for TIC.

    Contrary to what people like Radek Sikorski go around saying, that Poland was “not on the map of Europe in the XIX century” (he made this claim at a speech at Columbia University Sept/2008) – Poland actually was on the map. The Dutchy of Warsaw was rather large, founded with aid from Napoleon, with a constitution that – unfortunately – the Tsars systematically undermined throughout the mid-nineteenth century until finally subsuming Polish liberty by 1867. It is debatable to what extent the Polish Uprisings of the XIX century contributed to the Tsars increasing rather than decreasing their oppression and violation of the constitutional order. To simply say that Poland was “not on the map” is to take the side of the revolutionaries who staged the anti-Tsarist uprisings which ended up failing. Yet the founder of modern Poland in the XX century – Roman Dmowski – recognized the futility of revolutionary uprisings and employed political virtue to secure Polish liberty where all the romantics failed. (I mention this just so as to avoid once again being labeled “pro-Russian” for not supporting the idea that Polish people ought to march towards their doom in ineffective uprisings)

    Zygmunt Krasiński, under stern orders from his commanding Father, did not participate in the November Uprising against the Tsar and was generally considered by his young peers to not be a “real patriot” because of his Father. Krasiński very likely felt torn by this situation and made Switzerland and France his home.

    In France, he was active amongst the counter revolutionary conservatives.

    His father accepted the Tsar as a preferable and realistic alternative to socialism and revolution, which was spreading in the West. He had allied himself and his army to Napoleon to gain a Polish Kingdom, and he then allied himself to the Tsar to preserve that Kingdom. His father even tried to arrange for the young Zygmunt Krasiński to become a diplomat; and the younger Krasiński was even introduced personally to the Tsar.

    Young Zygmunt Krasiński felt this realpolitik would be the end of Poland and Europe, because only Christendom – under attack in the East and the West – could revive a just and peaceful Europe. Zygmunt Krasinski argued that Christendom was a strong Poland.

    When Zygmunt Krasiński writes “Poland”, he means a country stretching from Warsaw, through Vilnus and encompassing Kiev and Lvov. There is no “Lithuania” nor “Ukraine”.

    This is essentially Polish romanticism because it yearns for a restoration of the lost glory of the old United Kingdom of Poland or the Commonwealth. It fails to account for the rise of Britain as a sea faring power, the rise of colonialism as a source of new wealth to technologically advanced nations. It yearns for bygone times.

    But – and here is Krasiński’s virtue as a political philosopher: it sees a dark, apocalyptic future. It is a tragic romanticism aware of the twilight of Europe and the coming of war and death. His appeal to France rings empty today, but all of his prophecies about the fate of Europe came true. At least that is how it appears from the fragments Krzeczkowski quotes and from his letter to Napoleon III.

    Yet in a sense, Krasiński could write ill of Russia because he and his family generally behaved well towards Russia and were well regarded by Russia.

    2) Krzeczkowski:

    Certainly you are right about Krzeczkowski’s desire to juxtapose a Catholic view of history to a Marxist-Hegelian one. But I think (I am not sure) that Major Krzeczkowski’s intention was also to use Krasiński to restore his compatriot’s national pride.

    For he is absolutely right that Polish intellectuals generally tend to measure th extent of their intellects by how far away they can get from Poland and from Polish affairs. Krzeczkowski was convinced that Poles – if they regained national pride – could teach Europe a lesson, rather than the other way around.

    If we read Krzeczkowski’ speech, I think he does what Lincoln does in the Lyceum address. He treats the Polish poet-bards as the founders of Poland insofar as they expressed the unwritten constitution of the national soul. Of the three, he selects the most conservative and therefore most realistic poet. He then uses this poet to demonstrate that insofar as Europe and the world are concerned – Krasiński was ultimately right in his view of the direction and destination of a world where Poland was dismembered. That is to say: Krzeczkowski explicitly says:

    Look – what was the result of this view of realpolitik that called for a reality without a free Poland? The result was a Europe in ruins – from West to East – everywhere. So perhaps – just perhaps – it is Europe that should study Poland, not Poland that should study Europe. Perhaps it is Europe that should learn about itself by learning about Poland, and not Poland that needs to “learn about Europe”?

    I fully agree and understand why Major Krzeczkowski would desire to make this argument via Krasiński. I have met numerous Polish people who like to ask me “why are you here?” (the assumption being that no sane person would live here unless they had to) or Poles who claim that Poland must become “more European” (as if Poland were not the most “European” country).

    Of course – what embarasses Poles is actually their greatest asset: their Catholic and European culture (truly European). Henryk Krzeczkowski wanted a strong Poland that was proud of itself and did not look either East or West for the foundations of its’ being – a being which was actually more European than the East or West.

    As to how to make Krasiński useful for all of Europe and for mankind in the present age: I need not demonstrate that – since Krzeczkowski does so.

  3. Thank you very much for this more than generous response. The affinities between a Frenchman like de Gaulle and some of these great Polish men shows why de Gaulle had such affection for Poland. All of them agree that their countries should not, as you say, “look either East or West for the foundations.” Warmest congratulations on the work you are doing, and sharing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: