We could not overemphasize the importance of our lead essay by Professor Andrzej Wasko on Sarmatism and the Enlightenment. In recent years, critiques of the Enlightenment have been advanced from diverse quarters, from the anti-colonialist Edward Said to the Thomist Alasdair MacIntyre. Friedrich Nietzsche, a major critic of the Enlightenment, gave impetus to still another school of thinkers who look at rationalist premises with skepticism. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a major anti-Enlightenment figure, even though he hardly ever used the word. Until Professor WaÊko came forth with his book on the subject, Polish voices were conspicuously absent in this diverse chorus of criticism. The leading contemporary Polish philosophers and historians still side up with the French Enlightenment, even as they show only a faint understanding of the Scottish one. A lesson to be learnt from this is that the desire to appear progressive sometimes leaves one behind.
Wasko's focal point is not Sarmatism sensu stricto but rather its manifestations in Romantic literature. While he discusses the much-maligned Polish Romantic writers, he articulates magnificently the 'conservative' streak in Polish culture which underwent considerable suppression by secularist Enlightenment thinkers.
However, Wasko's portrayal of Sarmatism bypasses the shortcomings of this cultural formation. Wasko dismisses them by saying that the old gentry culture paid scant attention to 'trade and craft.' This is an understatement. Joseph Conrad's uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski, was much less gentle when he described in his Memoirs the life of 'Sarmatian' gentry in Polish-occupied Ukraine. Social life flowered and neighbors were neighborly, but mental laziness, a lack of clear purpose in life and inability to plan for the future were common, and they turned out to be recipes for disaster, contends Bobrowski. We cannot but concur. Sarmatism must be rethought and reformulated. The disregard for trade and craft and intellectual laziness have to be replaced by attitudes that are not only more modern but also more in keeping with that sense of obligation which Sarmatism so beautifully preserves.
Sarmatism developed in premodern times, when national allegiances were based on loyalties different from contemporary ones. In modern times, the admirers of Sarmatism must take note of the fact that Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia possess separate national identities, and Polish domination of their lands is perceived as foreign occupation. The separate identity of the Jewish minority in premodern Poland must be incorporated into Polish history and respected. The awareness of the rights of others has to be actively cultivated, even as Poles recognize Sarmatism as a fountainhead of their national identity. Sarmatism needs to be criticized and modernized. Dare we speak of a 'new Sarmatism?'
Sarmatism has parallels in other cultures. It has a great deal to do with 'Chestertonism:' G.K. Chesterton could be called an honorary Sarmate. As Professor Wasko rightly noted, Sarmatism is also akin to American Agrarianism of the 1930s. A study of European trends of similar provenance would produce a nice PhD dissertation.
We are pleased with the large number of good books received by SR in early 1997. Norman Davies' Europe: A History is a long-awaited tome that should weaken the disregard for the Central European nations in history courses taught on American campuses. John Bukowczyk's volume on the various facets of American Polish history will strengthen the aspirations of Americans of Polish descent to a rightful place at America's multiethnic table.
Finally, we acknowledge the discussion, in Letters, of American Polish identity and image in the mass media. Better to say, Polish American absence in the media. Polish Americans seem to be increasingly aware that they are subjected to media amnesia or to negative stereotyping. We would welcome other voices and opinions on the subject.