Sunday, July 30, 2017

Romantic Conservatism in Krasiński's Undivine Comedy

"...what would happen if God went insane... Christ will no longer save us - He has taken his cross with both hands and thrown it into the abyss. Do you hear that Cross - the hope of millions - shattering against the stars, splitting, breaking into pieces until a great cloud arises from its fragments, only the Holy Mother of God alone still prays...."
- The Wife
The Undivine Comedy, Act I

It is sometimes claimed that the century between the Congress of Vienna and the outbreak of the First World War was an age of peace and economic progress. Those Western writers who dissent from this view usually do so from the vantage point of revolutionary doctrines, whether Jacobinism, Socialism or - eventually Communism. The conservative proponents of the 19th century as an age of peace and progress usually follow Metternich and style themselves "realists". The Europe which emerged following the Congress of Vienna was, to them, a practical order, a fine tuned clock ticking away in measured and predictable tomes, moving ever forward. For Romantic Conservatives such as Zygmunt Krasiński, this practical order was more akin to a ticking time bomb. One might admire its material genius, but in the end it was bound to explode.

Few literary works exist which give voice to this Romantic Conservatism as poignantly as The Undivine Comedy. In the person of Sir Henry we spy the embodiment of a theme very dear to Krasiński's worldview: the corruption of the elites and the subsequent destruction of social, political and moral order. In the relation between Henry and his wife, we likewise spy a glimpse of Krasiński's view of the war of the sexes of which he prophesied in his Letters to Delfina Potocka. Krasiński's tragedy (for an "undivine comedy" is a tragedy) is considered to be the first exposition of a theory of class warfare, predating Marx, but for Krasiński it seems that the war of the sexes is the foundation upon which all social disharmony arises.

Krasiński's exposition is rooted (as was Marx's earlier thought*) in Christian romanticism. Unlike Marx, Krasiński's theory is not based upon economic materialism, but rather upon the movement of the spirit through time and matter. The human spirit is male and female, thus Krasiński locates the core of European disorder in the disorders of the romantic life. The poet's study of political corruption begins within the marriage unit, with the Husband who rebels against his marriage vows in favor of an demon presenting itself as the ideal woman. Full of pride, Henry turns morality on its head and not only indulges his infidelity, but blames his wife:

"Woman of clay and mud, be not jealous, insult not, curse not - behold, it is You as God originally conceived you, only to have you follow the advise of the serpent and become what you are..."

Henry's rebellion is, like the Jacobinism to which Krasiński explicitly ties it, undertaken in good faith and with the romantic confidence in the justice of all revolutionary causes. Henry does not see that the Virgin who tempts him is in fact a demon, dressed up in the body parts and garbs of long dead beautiful and noble women collected in a cemetery (one of the most evocative scenes in the play). Henry is convinced that the demon is in fact an apparition of Ideal Woman as she was meant to be, and that his virtues are now rewarded. Only later, on the edge of the abyss, does Henry's Guardian Angel rescue him from the inferno.

Meanwhile, the Wife's comportment remains truly Christian. Despite the fact that her abandonment was clearly due to her Husband's vices, she does penance and seeks reconciliation with God through confession of her sins. Condemned to a mental hospital and finally reconciled with her Husband who has seen the folly of his ways, she ends her life happy that she could die faithful in his arms, having first prophesied a world wherein Christ Himself has gone insane and refused the Cross, leaving only the Virgin Mary to pray for salvation.

This vision of the betrayal of virtue by (noble) men and its ultimate resurrection through women, a future vision played out in the present of the first act of the tragedy, is a systematic theme in Krasiński's poetry. It is also the cause of his heavy heart when considering the vices of his beloved muse, Delfina Potocka (who is more akin to the Demon in The Undivine Comedy and seems to lead the poet astray). Krasiński idealizes women, from Mary the Mother of God to Delfina Potocka. He is, like Henry, an aristocrat prone to error. His errors, like the errors of all political elites, do not remain private, but rather have deep public repercussions.

Krasiński's clear disenchantment with men flows from two origins: first, he observes that Western Man pursues material progress at the cost of spiritual progress. In his Letters he is disgusted by English industrial society, advises against reading Bacon, Descartes and Leibniz** and considers the Italian homo economicus who surround him equally unsympathetic as their English counterparts. In common romantic fashion, he is convinced that his times are characterized by the triumph of heartless matter over spirit. He sees hope in only one thing: Women - specifically Polish women.

Women, especially Polish women*** - are material beings who, in Krasiński's view, retain the strength of the Divine spark of the spirit and who will one day reconcile the dialectic of Matter and Spirit into a Divine Absolute. This view of Women is evident in the first act of his tragedy wherein Henry's wife dies a saint while her Husband fumbles as a sinner.

Henry represents the corruption of the aristocratic classes of the time, particularly the Polish nobles whose vices allowed their own country to slip through their fingers. Yet Krasiński is no revolutionary. He does not believe that it would be enough to consign Henry into the abyss to save the world. Henry is held back from the abyss in order to suffer the consequences of his sins in this world. He must now learn to act as a man once again and rebuild that which his vices destroyed. Krasiński hopes that, like Henry, the aristocracy itself will recognize its evils and accept its penance:

"To the errors compiled by their ancestors, they added things unknown to their ancestors: fear and hesitation. Thus did they disappear from the face of the Earth with only silence remaining after their departure."

Krasiński's low view of men and of the aristocracy of his times likewise has its source in the poet's relations to his father. While Krasiński resents his father's position in the court of the Russian Tsar, he nevertheless obeys and does not throw himself into revolutionary fervor with his Polish colleagues, exiling himself abroad, Krasiński pursues the life of the mind. He recognizes that the old world passes irretrievably due to the collapse of morality amongst the aristocracy, he will neither act to save them nor fancy himself the prophet of some revolutionary utopia to replace them. Yet Krasiński is not a fatalist. Krasiński believes that out of the hopelessness of his times, only Divine Intervention can rescue humanity - and his work is both a prayer and a prophetic call to God that a miracle might be worked.

*See Karl Marx as Frankenstein: Toward a genealogy of Communism, V Krasnov 1978
** Letter 21, January 1840
*** Letter 18, January 1840

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