Nobleman’s Household in Polish Literature of the Classical Period)
Kraków: Collegium Columbinum (www.columbinum.serwery.pl), 2005.
496 + xv additional pages listing Collegium Columbinum publications. Vol.
32 of Biblioteka Tradycji. Bibliography, index of names, English summary.
ISSN 1428-6998, ISBN 83-87553-87-5. Paper. In Polish.
The man who loves to plough the field
Has no desire to plough the ocean;
His farm delights, he will not
Yield to sailor joys.” (Horace, Ode 1.1)
The concept of the nobleman’s manor is deeply rooted in the European tradition, and this investigation of the manor that Koehler has undertaken implies deep connections between Polish culture and other European cultures. The author attempts to illuminate the changing representations of the manor in Polish literature of the eighteenth century, and he draws on the preceding and subsequent periods as well. He examines a variety of texts, including poetry, fiction, architectonic treatises, inventories, and contemporary commentaries. The manor is defined as a theme, a cultural sign, a myth, but also as a phenomenological “profile” reduced from experience (88). Koehler begins with the existential aspect of the nobleman’s house and uses it as a concept that helps him define the classical period in literature (471). According to the author, the existential manor is transformed into the Polish national myth of the manor. The writings of Słowacki, Mickiewicz, Îeromski, Gombrowicz, and others make the manor an essential element of Polish culture.
While he treats the manor mainly as a literary phenomenon (303), Koehler also brings to bear the ideas of Bachelard, Eliade, Foucault, Ecco, and others. He creates a dialogue between himself, his favorite writers and thinkers, and the texts he analyzes. Michel Foucault pointed out that discourse is never finally defined, and it is not anyone’s property. The same discourse might “change sides” and become “endlessly modified.” Similarly, one feels that for Koehler literature is an endless open space of discourse and interpretation. That does not mean that Koehler’s discourse is reckless: he shows much respect for words, and appears to believe that words have meanings that cannot be detached from them (476).
The book’s analysis of the nobleman’s manor is conducted on three levels. The manor is shown through the images of “building the house” (85-259), “destroying the house,” (267-391), and “rebuilding the house” (403-60). According to Koehler, each of these thematic levels is deeply imbedded in Polish literature. In addition, each of these themes can be better understood through the keywords present in the texture of a particular literary period (88).
“Building the house” appears in the poetry of Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), Wacław Potocki (1621-1696), and Wespazjan Kochowski (1633-1700). There are three semantic dimensions to building: transcendent, social/public, and anthropological. Jan Kochanowski dealt with all three. In his writings the manor signifies the sacred idea of heaven, and is closely related to the concept of temple or church (89). It also represents a harmonious order present in a state or society. Koehler points out that the Aristotelian equivalences between family and state were well known to educated Poles of Kochanowski‘s time. Finally, the manor creates a positive and homelike space (99). It offers shelter and becomes a symbol of the good life. Hence stems the virtue of “manor life, ” whereby man enjoys independence and individual freedom (100). Kochanowski also articulates an inward and outward space of the house. The “inward” leads to a safe, warm, and domesticated atmosphere contrasted with the cold, dangerous, and negative environment of the “outward” (97-98). The individual‘s choice between the two realms of the house is a metaphor for a final moral decision concerning values. Finally, Kochanowski‘s manor expresses human pain. After the death of his beloved daughter, the poet cries inside his home. The manor (mój dom) symbolizes the suffering of the human person. Kochanowski’s Threnoids  reveal a great amount of pain, but pain is always hidden inside the house and thus, in a way, humanized. In the Threnoids the manor is anthropomorphized; it participates in human suffering. In this way the manor not only becomes a place of sorrow and agony, but also stands for the depths of human consciousness (93). Similarly, “The Seasons” (“Peryjody”) by Potocki accentuates the idea of a personal tragedy. Death walks into the nobleman’s manor, linking existential and metaphysical experiences, and it forces a person to reconsider values and the philosophy of life (191). For Potocki, the manor supplies the rite of passage. The homey life in the abode is transformed into an acute experience of existence (197-198).
The process of “destroying the house” develops rapidly in the late eighteenth century. The baroque replaces earthly topics with metaphysical realms, and the Enlightenment brings further depreciation of the manor in poetry. The manor is deemed inadequate to define social structure in the era of reason (397). The inhabitants of a new urban culture depart from the idea of the manor because it is identified with the old social order. The manor indicates a “central” and “self-sufficient” space (309), and these categories are deemed insufficient to describe the complexity of life in modern times.
The poetry of the Enlightenment is defined by its syncretism, or the mixing of different literary influences and trends such as rococo, classicism, sentimentalism, and others. Syncretism implies a departure from the traditional forms of representation (304). Koehler points out that the poetry of the Enlightenment slowly destroys the positive and unchangeable realm of the manor and makes it into a derelict place where an ignorant person protests modern changes and takes shelter; or a place of the defeated, those unsuccessful in the city who seek shelter in an old and secure society; or a place of insignificance that can be described in jokes and belittled through irony (309, 325). The manor becomes a literary metaphor without a deeper meaning, thus pointing to the inadequacy of the “old” lifestyle. The poetry of classicism invents a “little hut” or “a little manor,” or a “chatka” (cottage) that describes a utopian or falsely bucolic experience (490). The Enlightenment thus degraded the manor and neglected its fundamental value to society.
The idea of “rebuilding the house” is especially pronounced in Polish literature after the Partititions (1773-1795). The nobleman’s house constructed after the Partititions becomes part of the myth of the manor. It is a myth and a dream about the house that might become a sign for others (475). Interestingly, it is not the house but also the garden that becomes a domesticated space or shelter at that time (77, 475). After the Partitions, says Koehler, “Poles confined themselves to their houses” (490). The post-Partitions manor thus begins to function as a therapeutic myth. It defines the house of the Cincinatuses, or true Polish knights; it can be viewed as a place of refuge and the individual Arcadia of the lost youth; and it embodies the material culture of the past and the cult of the ancestors (475). The myth of the nobleman’s house is thus born as a device of self-defense: it defies the harsh conditions of displacement and exile present in Poland after the national tragedy of the Partitions.
Koehler points out that Polish literature excels at presenting the intricate character of exile. The exile represents a physical and final “uprooting from the place” (461). Nostalgia and dreams are immediate consequences of that situation, but they cannot bring the lost space back. They do, however, stimulate a search for identity, as in Hugo Kołłątaj‘s poem “Do ziemi ojczystej” or Julian Niemcewicz’s “Wygnaniec” (Bibl. Czartoryskich, syg. 2457V, k. 118). In the poetry of Antoni Górecki, the image of a departure into exile is symmetrically linked to the image of future return from exile (466). However, one can never fully return. Koehler emphasizes the unique epistemological status of exile and its ability to generate self-knowledge and epiphany (468). This is particularly visible in the poetry of the Romantic movement, but Koehler insists that the classical period produced similar discoveries. At the same time, Koehler points out that a return to the past can only be symbolic, and that the myth of the manor is one of the major devices that facilitates such a return.
Koehler’s book is rich in ideas and very relevant to our own times. It discovers little-known aspects of the poetic imagination in the period of literary classicism. His work bridges literature, history, cultural anthropology, and philosophy. His language sometimes becomes excessively poetic, losing its transparency (193-95): Koehler himself is a poet (see K. Koehler, Sarmatian Review, vol. XVIII/3, 1998). Koehler wants us to redefine and rediscover the cultural and literary ideas of the past. Of course, hoc opus, hic labor est (this is the tough part).
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