Saturday, July 22, 2017

Delfina Potocka: The Greatest Foil in Polish Literature?

"I want to crawl underground and sit there, with the moles. My soul is Siberia, white snow and grey skies; the sunset, silence - the desert!" - Rome, 23 December 1839

"You err Dialy, when you prophesy the death of poetry in me. A silent pang of your guilty heart lies hidden beneath this form, to feel or not to feel, to think or not to think as a poet does not depend on my will. I must because I must, and I desire it because I know that is where the highest truth is."
- Rome, 25 December 1839



Krasiński's melancholy is easily disregarded at first glance as being little more than romantic pathos. This is especially tempting given that the Letters from 1839 chronicle the whirlwind of the young poet's passions as they are torn asunder by one love vanquished by his father's command, the other unrequited by circumstance and fraught with tragic danger.

Yet I wonder to what extent the real culprit here is not Delfina herself, specifically her vanity. Here and there throughout the Letters, Krasiński's melodramatism gives way to glimmers of wisdom which could form the basis not only of the poet's recovery from painful depression, but likewise of a healthy love and productive literary work.

For I resent the claim made on the back of my edition of the Letters (The Z. Sudolski edition, undated, published by PIW) that they are "the most outstanding  novel of Polish romanticism." While it is certainly tempting to think of them as such, since their entirety is indistinguishable from a novel, they are not written as a novel, and intentionality cannot be ignored in literary analysis. More importantly, whether or not we agree to call the Letters a novel, they are certainly outstanding, but does this mean that it is necessary for the poet to suffer as Krasiński suffers so that culture can come into possession of outstanding works?

In a sense, Krasiński himself gives us an answer when ruminating upon the Hegelian dialectic. Hegel's phenomenology was published in 1807, Krasiński was clearly well read (by the time his Letters commence, he is enamored of Schiller, bored with Shakespeare and dismissive of the "childish" Victor Hugo). In his letter of 17, December 1839, following a mystical account of a Christian miracle witnessed by a colleague, the poet elaborates on what clearly appears to be a Hegelian understanding of the role of adversity in human affairs.

Citing both Socrates and Christ, Krasiński traces the dialectical process by which virtue is born:

"This same procedure, always and everywhere on Earth, is followed when a new idea arises, is called evil, whereupon having arisen fulfills itself like the Sun over the horizon, shows itself as good by its own lights. Now the roles are reversed. Now the past, the old idea which had long struggled against the new, has been called evil. And then a third view of the thing takes place - it is perceived that the old idea, the past, were not evil, were not contradictory, incompatible with the new idea, that in fact the old idea was indeed the necessary predecessor to the new idea, ergo the old idea was the condition for the emergence of the new idea and thus it is necessary to merge the two into an accordance. In this third position, evil vanishes as nothing but an illusion and only the good remains on all sides. Here again you have a trinity, the last act of which is the highest, is the unity of the previous two."

There are far too many of these sorts of detours from Krasiński's otherwise melancholic love to ignore. Yet a reading of the first year's correspondence to Delfina reveals a disturbing pattern: serious philosophical themes like the one above are never really carried over into subsequent letters and systematically fleshed out or explored. Meanwhile, Krasiński's romantic suffering is thoroughly consistent and omnipresent. What's more, the poet's suffering does not abate with time, it grows and reaches a level so unbearable as to elicit pity as an instinctive reaction guarding us against alarm.

If the Letters are the most outstanding work of Polish romanticism, then this novel is missing several chapters. For we cannot attribute the consistent and elevated melancholic suffering of the poet to either the author's intention or the required logic of the plot. In point of fact, the melancholic thrust of the Letters should safely be attributed to Delfina herself; to the unseen responses she sends to Krasiński. While we do not see Delfina's letters, we bear witness to their effects.

The effect of Delfina's correspondence to Krasiński is devastating. She is clearly uninterested in the poet's intelligence, style, in the form and content of his emerging work, in his talents - except as they might be put to the service of her endlessly shallow vanity. Krasiński writes to her of Socrates and Christ, she responds with a lock of her hair which sends him into ecstatic bliss followed again by morbid depression. "You have come!" he writes on Christmas Eve, "Behold! A ring of hair, two green leaves, one golden ricordarsi and your thoughts transcribed in words..." We hasten to add that according to a footnote from the editor, Zbigniew Sudolski, Krasiński's use of the term ricordarsi is likely based on the fifth Canto of Dante's Inferno (v. 121-123):

"Nessun maggior dolor/che ricordarsi del tempo felice/nella miseria"
"No greater suffering exists/than the memories of happier times/In misery"

It is absolutely clear then that Delfina is no muse; at least she is not a muse which rouses Krasiński to greatness in the service of the "highest truth" for which he "must" be a poet. She is, if anything, akin to the Sirens who lured Odysseus away from the path of truth. She turns Krasiński's talents away from what is true and good and puts them into the service of her empty ego. To call this suffering state an outstanding romantic novel is perhaps incorrect unless we therefore agree that the arch villain of this outstanding novel is none other than the object of the poet's romantic love and the cause of his romantic suffering: the greatest foil of Polish Literature -Delfina Potocka.

(Picture: the lovers from Canto V of Dante's Inferno, alluded to by Krasiński in his Christmas Eve letter)

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