Six Lectures on Juliusz Slowacki (excerpts)

Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883)

These lectures were delivered to a Polish audience in Paris in 1860. The text was compiled from the listeners' notes and then presented to the author for final approval. The approval was granted, but the text still suffers from fragmentariness. Its wisdom outweighs its fragmentariness, however. The lectures are dense and difficult to translate; like William Blake, Norwid is a visionary poet.

The lectures deal with Norwid's contemporary, Polish poet Juliusz Slowacki. Particularly powerful is Norwid's analysis of Slowacki's Anhelli which we recommend but which we cannot publish here because of space limitations. So far as we know, the fragments presented below are the first English renditions of Norwid's poetic lectures.

(Lecture One)

Public and private pronouncements are different in nature though not in form. In our present position of a people deprived of political existence and dependent only on the gravity of words, we Poles must pay heed to this truth.

A few blocks from here, under the neoclassical facade of La Madeleine, stands a good-looking man in a Roman helmet, dressed in quasi-Roman attire and speaking in a sonorous voice. The stately background and form suggest that the man makes a public pronouncement; but he does not, for he is merely selling pencils.

In contrast, if Nicholas Copernicus were to talk about the harmony of the universe to a few close friends, his words would have been public words in spite of private circumstances. Make sure then that you understand the difference between public and private speech.

(Lecture Two)

When I traveled in Poland, I visited Holy Cross Mountain where a Benedictine monk showed me the library. I picked up a dusty folio volume at random. It was titled A Manual on XVIIth Century Etiquette (Manuel du bon ton du XVII siecle). One chapter counseled young men who courted ladies of distinguished birth. The good Jesuit author advised that upon entering a drawing room filled with portraits of ancestors, the youth should pay heed not to turn his back on any of them. They say that Jesuits are clever and cunning; I wonder whether this is true of this author, for the nobler the family, the more numerous the portraits, and it might be impossible for a normal human being to enter a room without turning his back on some of them.

This episode is like the situation of writers who raise their voices in society. Unfortunately it is impossible not to offend someone, and occasionally a most respected person. Every writer is like that youth in an ancestral portrait gallery, he cannot help but be disliked by someone. . . .

A French historian said: The Almighty keeps writing history and no people will suffer a shortage of it, as long as the white pages on which history may be written can be found....

In spite of the victory on Golgotha, hope often fades, for that Victory has not freed us from daily work and duties. On ordinary days, much struggle is in order against paganism and barbarism that have accumulated over the last nineteen centuries. It is still not infrequent that Christians fell other Christians by the thousand in battle. We seem to be fighting like gladiators, for the amusement of the dark Spectator watching us from beyond, and in foolish ignorance of where we are going, or whether we are following the via crucis.

There is much work to be done to humanize our philosophy, to christianize politics and economics, and to get rid of mawkishness in our religious practices; to make good manners simpler and to get rid of vulgarity. Our progress is often delayed or made impossible through our own faults: like cannibals, we elbow our way through the ranks of the old while pushing away the very young; we cover our eyes with piles of printed pages, while forgetting to contemplate nature and to read the Word of God. [In 1848, during the anti-papal uprising in Rome] I saw lead type being loaded into guns used in fratricidal fighting, while the maps of nations were slit with knives in state offices, as if they were uncut pages of books. We are still wandering and roaming between that anti-traditionalist civilization whose instant utility is often quite evil, and the traditional and beloved one whose goodness often seems impractical. We are still, I repeat, only men of the nineteenth century....

(Lecture Three)

Originality is nothing else than being honest and conscientious in regard to sources.

. . . .

What? Isn't originality itself a source? you might ask. No, this kind of originality does not exist. Look at Socrates: he did not try to make his disciples rotate around himself as if he were the sun, and thus forsake their own personality. He respected his disciples as free people, and therefore, when he was eulogized for dispensing wisdom, he begged them to give thanks to the One who allowed them to profit from his, Socrates', words. In so doing, Socrates behaved conscientiously toward the sources.

. . . .

I just told you how in Rome they used lead type to shoot at each other and how they shredded printed documents during the uprising. As if to make up for modern contempt toward the written word, men of letters were catapulted into leading positions in Europe: in Ireland, Hungary and France in particular. . . . [Men such as] M. de Lamartine are representative of an important shift in nineteenth-century history: from men of action to men of letters leading societies toward their destiny.

. . . .

History consists more of what happens outside men's designs than of what they consciously strive to accomplish.

The poet possesses mainly things which cannot be taken away from him, and he says to the world, like Faustus to Mephistopheles, "Was kannst du mir, der arme Teufel, geben?" The poet desires nothing except the victory of Truth. I do not bow to anyone except to the Source of sources, and this is why I respect people like Adam Mickiewicz, Lajos Kossuth, and most of all, Daniel O'Connell.

One can drink from a carafe by grabbing it and lifting it to one's lips; but to drink from a spring, one must kneel and bow one's head.

Some people maintain that being scrupulous toward sources does not provide strength, and that one has to find a spring of originality in oneself; but, I repeat, such individual originality has never existed and will never exist.

What about Socrates? That the soul is immortal was known to the Egyptian priests long before Socrates. What about Alexander? Alexander wrote the following to Aristotle: "It is not good that you publish things which you taught me in secret; it would have been better if I were the only person who knew them!" . . . What about Napoleon? Perhaps, but he had never parted with Caesar's De bello Gallico which he copiously annotated on the margins. What about Dante? Dante did not take a single step in Hell without Virgil, and in Purgatory and Paradise without many others, addressing them incessantly, "Maestro mio! Dottore mio! Duca mio!" But Copernicus? Already the ancients knew that earth was a sphere. Someone might say, "So you want the kind of originality that only the Savior possessed?" Here I would answer that not a word was said by Him that had not appeared earlier in the Prophets and in people's tales. Not only that: even the Greek thinkers knew many of these moral laws. The Savior says that His teaching is not His, that He did not come to teach but to fulfill the Law. Thus I say, there exists no absolute originality on earth.

This is why each straightforward and good man has an original mind. Every virtuous man has some originality in him. A peasant can possess originality. Originality is nothing else but conscientiousness in regard to sources. Those who understand the nature of originality also understand the truth about derivativeness and epigonism. To be derivative is to falsify, and the French code of law rightly condemns that. . . .

This is why after periods of fakery an ounce of conscientious and original work outweighs entire mountains of derivativeness. Copernicus' little book revolutionized science while thousands of volumes lay lifeless in libraries. . . .

Only originality and creativity properly understood can score high and play an active role in God's plans - because only the Lord, our Master and Teacher, is eternally creative. . . .

(Lecture Four)

There exists a school of patriotism which seeks the kind of originality a nation can have only at the peril of withering and disappearing. Not only were the forms and rituals of knighthood the same all over the civilized world, but also the guilds and trade associations brought German names to our crafts. These words were polonized, and every plumber will think them purely Polish some day, even though today they still can be traced to their German beginnings, just as the coattails which we all wear belong to Romance civilization. They do not diminish patriotism at all, as long as we remain sober and do not depend excessively on coattail fashions. . . .

The only thing that seems inbred in humanity is the belief in God. Even on the remotest islands it seems to have taken root. In contrast, the feeling of nobility is born out of contacts between individuals and nations. . . .

To become a well-adjusted member of society, it is enough to surrender one's self to the civilization in the midst of which one lives. To reach some level of knowledge and understanding, meek passivility is not enough and some exertion is needed. In order to become a source of enlightenment to others, it is necessary to go back to the sources.

The most convenient way is to become well-adjusted. One's horizon is then firm and secure, and one is like liquid poured into a pre-existing form and then solidified. The Italians call such a state tondo, the Russians, krugom. Both words suggest roundness, a typical result of having been formed due to external pressures. Such were the Roman slaves before Spartacus who, in anticipation of Christ, spilt his blood for freedom.

Whoever studied these matters. . . and remembers that Spartacus was - and Jesus Christ was and is - such a person is on his way to knowledge and understanding. He is acquiring a shape of his own. To him Montaigne's words, ondoyant et divers, apply. Such a person is no longer a lifeless crystal being formed according to the laws of mathematics. He is not a slave.

In order truly to participate in a civilization, one cannot be its mere function, for in that case one would remain impenetrable to the Spirit. Being merely a product of a civilization is like being a homunculus produced by Doctor Faustus in a glass jar.

No civilization should ever be regarded as a finished product, none is the final and triumphant fruit of men's capabilities. Every civilization is like a scaffolding shaped into a building: it may be magnificent and resplendent, and it seems incredibly tall. It has floors and roofs, but altogether it is nothing else than a collection of boards used by people for work. Whoever sees such a scaffolding for the first time and had never seen beautiful architecture before may be impressed . . . One cannot live on the scaffodling, but neither should one despise it.

I value Spartacus not for his lost battles and violence which he had committed, but because among the several thousand corpses in his army there was not one wounded in the back. . . . Spartacus lost his battles, but his courage was second to none, and thus he rose above his station.

The difference between a Christian civilization and that of the ancients is that the first teaches you not only how to win but also how to lose. The ancient Roman cared not for the end of his life's drama or its moral outcome; if fortune or pleasure failed him, he ordered his slaves to give him poison, thus freeing himself of the consequences of his life. . . . The ancient peoples knew two finalities only: extermination or slavery. . . .This has changed now. A Christian civilization cannot exterminate any people because if it tries to do so, at the very center of those it tried to kill it will find itself. . . and then it will be overcome by horror and it will withdraw. . . .

There is no country in the world that has not yet seen Polish exiles; but one that received most of them is Siberia . . . For the Poles, Siberia symbolizes the end of Christian civilization. . . .it is its negative pole. The positive pole of Polish civilization is Rome.

(Lecture Six)

There are two ways of seeing. In 1839, we used to be awakened at night to at least say good-bye to those sentenced for hard labor and departing for Siberia. It was then that Slowacki sent them his poem Anhelli. This is the first way.

During the same winter, a certain lady in a good Polish drawing room told me: "Well, they are talking about prisons and sentencing our youth to hard labor in Siberia, but in our salon not a person is missing, and our Thursdays are always well attended." Slowacki chose the first way of seeing, and he did well; without it, a poet is merely a caligrapher or a notary public.

. . . .

These two ways of seeing will accompany us always.

Return to September 1993 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 04/22/97