Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Patron Saint of Evolutionary Biology and the corps glorieux in Krasiński's Letters to Delfina Potocka

Perusing Zygmunt Krasiński's Letters to Delfina Potocka written towards the end of 1839, a striking juxtaposition comes into sight: between the pathos of romantic suffering and the gravity of Christian melancholy.




As Krasiński suffers through his Italian sojourn it seems nothing in his surroundings pleases him; each waking moment is merely a bitter reminder of the distance separating him from his beloved. Things seem to get no better the nearer Krasiński comes to actually seeing his beloved. "I am dying!" he writes, in keeping with the worst stereotype of the romantic poet.

Yet just when we are on the brink of frowning and condemning Krasiński's Letters to the dustbin of nineteenth century hyperbole, a strange sensation overwhelms those of us who are careful readers: Krasiński's Letters to Delfina Potocka contain the testimony of two of the poet's romantic loves: one mortal, the other Divine.

This becomes most obvious when we contemplate how detached Krasiński is when narrating his Italian travels to Delfina. True, his prose brisk with details and poetic finess, but they fail to interest us in the nuances of Sicilian landscapes precisely because there is a sense in which they are lifeless. Krasiński's descriptive narrative is nominally excellent, but falls flat and becomes mere loquaciousness without heart - because his heart is elsewhere: suffering privation, longing for Delfina. Suddenly all of this changes as Krasiński finds himself on the brink of a rendezvous with Saint Rosalia of Palermo.

The poet jettisons detached narration in favor of a personal invitation to Delfina, an imagined pilgrimage undertaken by the both of them to Saint Rosalia, where Krasiński is moved to pray not to the Saint, but to Delfina herself! 

Sacrilege? Idolatry?  Romanticism at its worst? Perhaps if Krasiński were an English bard we might rest content with such a supposition, but being Polish, Krasiński must certainly have a second layer of depth to his lyrical love letters.

For in praying to Delfina, the poet is not deifying her fallen soul, he is not committing that gravest of offences of which romantic love is guilty (the rebellion against reality and a naive idealism). Not at all. Krasiński's Letters reveal a profoundly Catholic understanding of the universe and an ability to see the purified spiritual bodies that dwell within us as that potential for which a loving God has destined us. 

While his supplications uttered towards Delfina may at first flatter her vanity (just as they may scandalize the faithful), they may likewise awaken her senses to the noble nature that potentially resides within her. A vain woman would of course feel a sense of satisfaction that her charms are greater than those of a Saint, but a conscientious woman would be struck with the simple question: "am I worthy of such reverent love?"

Here we come to the very stunning aspect of Krasiński's romanticism: it is in fact the highest form of realism rooted in an orthodox Catholicism. Krasiński sees Delfina as God meant her to be, not as her fallen nature has warped her. Krasiński sees all of us this way:

"The Lithuanian Sadurski told a strange tale: he saw a girl on the border of Venice and Tirol, about a mile from Trident. Pilgrimages from everywhere are made to this girl. She usually lies there as though she were lifeless, as though she were sculpted from wax. She never eats, never drinks. One finds no pulse upon taking her arm. No heartbeat. Yet whenever the Eucharist is raised in any of the nearby churches, she is aware of it. She feels it, sees it and rises without a word and kneels with her arms thrown into the air. She remains in a magnetic trance, witnessing visions of Heaven or transported back to the Passion of the Christ. When she rises, it is like a statue being erected. When she kneels her knees do not touch the ground but remain suspended a small ways above as if levitating in midair. Stigmata appear on her hands. Here you have proof of the power of spirit over matter and of the transformation and transubstantiation of matter by the spirit - by a faith so enormous, a faith so direct...her body lives without food because her spirit is already in Heaven. Her body is already now a kind of lower form, an imperfect form of corps glorieux. It does not want for beauty because her spirit, drowned as it is in the Christian direction, does not dream, think or demand external physical beauty. Her body has been transformed in the image of Christ. It is now as light as a thought. It requires no food. It looks dead, murdered - and yet it lives...One day there will be such bodies...Now it appears that such magnetism is a state of disease, but I believe that one day it will be a state of health. Consider: all things spiritual and material begin as something evil. Socrates was poisoned, the Son of God was nailed to the cross. The Greeks considered Socrates evil. The Jews considered the Word of our Lord evil. And in material fact every force appears at first as a disease or a catastrophe prior to becoming a good."

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