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One of those hallmark asides

One of the hallmarks of Aleksander Krawczuk's style are his asides--short chapters inserted into the main narrative by the way of the topic of his book. They often find a connection between the ancient historical events of two or three thousand years ago and modernity, ancient Greeks and Romans and Jews, and the little us. This is one such chapter, taken from our newest offering, Titus and Berenice. It also happens to be extraordinarily beautifully written.

And it addresses what seems to be more than a passing similarity between modern Poland and ancient Israel: a psychological mechanism whereby a minor nation, conquered and trampled by a far more powerful empire seeks to find in its defeat proof of its value as a Chosen People, of its special, messianic role in the world, and of the inevitability of a future return to glory.

Zygmunt Krasiński


"I’ve always been of this opinion, and I didn’t hesitate to say so to Krasiński’s face. I remember one conversation I had with him about it. It was in Paris in 1858. I lived at Quai d’Orléans, not where the Polish Library was, but a bit closer to Notre Dame. Krasiński used to visit me. Well, once we talked about messianism in general and his messianism in particular. Not wanting to beat about the bush, I simply told him, when he questioned me on the matter, that while I adored him as a poet, I was opposed to his messianic theories.

Why should we tell a people who are unhappy, broken, troubled, demoralized, losing ground, surrounded on all sides by enemies, deprived of political existence, that they are a chosen people, that they are the Christ of nations, that in them and their suffering lies the salvation humanity? We will only mislead them because instead of working, instead of thinking about improving their fate, instead of learning and striving to be useful citizens, trying to make themselves better than their fathers who have lost their homeland and political independence, they will stand with folded arms proud of their Christhood, their role as God’s Chosen People, their moral superiority over other nations, their “super-European” virtue. That is why I believe that this theory of messianism is a demoralizing theory because it is telling people something that should not be told to any nation, and to us, Poles, in particular. People should be told the naked, honest truth, may it hurt ever so much, for it is always the most effective remedy for all vices and imperfections. People should always have their faults pointed out to them so that they try to get rid of them because only by knowing their faults can they improve morally and hope to raise themselves from their defeat.

"These words, spoken with all sincerity and force of conviction, made a greater impression on Krasińki than I could have supposed. He heard them out sitting, but when I had finished, he got up, and you could see how deeply he was agitated because he began to pace the room nervously as if struggling with himself, until finally he came to me, took my hand and said in a voice that betrayed strong emotion:

"'You’re wrong! It is not so! If to a fallen, vicious, perverted, corrupt, and reckless woman, but one not completely corrupted, not utterly corrupted, sometimes grieved by her frivolity, often repenting of her sins which she would like to amend, you begin to preach her fall, you begin to enumerate her sins and vices by dwelling on her wicked and immoral life, what effect will you have? What effect will you have on her by telling her the naked and brutal truth in this way? Why, you will demoralize her completely, corrupt her completely, and instead of saving her from the abyss, you will push her to the very bottom of decline and disgrace. For when you reveal to her all the horror of her position, all the abomination of dirt and mud into which she has fallen, all the disgrace she has covered herself with, then she will doubt herself, she will believe that having fallen so low, she can only sink even deeper, that having found herself on this slippery slope she has no chance of turning back, and she will be lost forever. And she will not improve because she will doubt the possibility of improvement. She will become incapable of repentance.

"'But if to such a fallen woman, but one not completely devoid of noble instincts, you say that there is great holiness in her, which she has only soiled with her reckless and vicious conduct, that she is an angel, though with muddy wings, that if she has fallen, it was only because she has been driven to her fall by those worse than she, more vicious, people not possessed of the holiness and virtue, which have not yet entirely died out in her heart, which are still smoldering under the ashes of corruption, but blown up by repentance and atonement, are capable of bursting with the purest flame of holiness... When you talk to her like that, then you will lead her on the path of improvement, then you will not arouse self-doubts in her, then you will appeal to her nobler instincts: she will believe in her virtue, believe that she can yet become an honest woman, that she can still whiten her angel wings, and that she can be saved.'[1]

This is how Julian Kłaczko described his Paris conversation with Zygmunt Krasiński. He related it in the afternoon of February 27, 1897: the day was sunny, cloudless, the sky was blue, the breath of spring was already felt in his Krakow home. That palace still stands today on the corner of Smoleńsk and Straszewskiego Streets, a bit set back, surrounded by a tiny garden, and serving after recent renovations as a wedding hall. Kłaczko’s guest was Ferdynand Hoesick. What he heard from the old man, he faithfully wrote down years later in his biography."

[1] F. Hoesick, Julian Kłaczko, Warsaw 1934, pp. 345–346. The two men in the conversation are Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859), a Polish poet traditionally ranked among Poland’s Three Bards—the Romantic poets who influenced national consciousness in the period of Partitions of Poland (1795-1918); and Julian Kłaczko (1825-1906), a Polish-Jewish writer, activist, and politician. And the topic of their discussion is Polish Messianism, a doctrine which referred to Poland as the Christ of Europe or as the Christ of Nations “crucified” in the course of the foreign partitions of Poland (1772–1795). During the period of partitions, the territory of former Poland was home to most of Europe’s Jews, it was only natural that Jewish ideas filtered into Polish intellectual life, and especially that of the coming of the Messiah would restore the nation’s former glory.

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