Monday, July 31, 2017

The Meaning of the Second Coming in Krasiński's Undivine Comedy

"There is no value in being human. Nor in being an angel. After only a few years of life, even the Archangel was struck by boredom in his heart and yearned for powers ever greater. One must be God or nothing at all."
- Sir Henry

"The great man who sent me promises you your lives if you will join him and acknowledge the spirit of the times!"
"We do! We do!"
- Citizen Godfather and the Nobility

"Galilaee vicisti!" - The dying words of Caesar Julian (361-363 AD)



How should we interpret the final act of Zygmunt Krasiński's Undivine Comedy? Certainly we ought to consider Henry's comportment as the poet bard' s reply to Hamlet's famous monologue. Shakespeare's question "To be or not to be?" contains endless intellectual depth, but in Krasiński's case the question is limited to the aristocracy - the elite of his times. Clearly Krasiński expects them to pass from the Earth. Henry's noble passage stands in contrast to the cowardice of the Noble remnant who retain nothing but their formal titles - the preservation of which they are willing to ensure even if it means joining the revolution.

This sort of nobility is useless. It is a nobility that turns on itself, as even under siege the Nobles turn on Henry when they sense that their preservation may be ensured by the "new aristocracy" of the guillotiners. Krasiński - himself a Noble - is convinced that his class is destined to fall and that their passing is just. Unlike his liberal contemporaries who celebrate this passing as the dawn of a new world of justice and equality, Krasiński understands that it is actually the democracy of Hell that is upon the world.

The revolutionary taste for blood is boundless, freedom and death become one. In a particularly distressing scene in Act III, an exploited factory worker laments the hardships of industrial life, and upon falling dead is noted only as an "ugly corpse" by the Neophyte revolutionary. The extermination of the Nobility is followed not by freedom, but by a new caste of masters who themselves turn on one another: a perpetual class war, accelerated by the efficiency of scientific techniques of mass murder (symbolized by the guillotine).

The debate over the conclusion of the Undivine Comedy centers around the question of whether or not the end of the world is a prelude to its rebirth or is indeed final? Optimists contend that the second coming of Christ with which the play ends is akin to the end of history - a final resolution of the class struggle of the few with the many in favor of liberalism. Nothing in Krasiński's play leads us to this conclusion. Pessimists hold that the Second Coming with which the play ends is indeed the end of human life on Earth. Yet the ambiguity of the ending leaves a sense of emotional anxiety that is perhaps the poet bard's greatest achievement.

To my mind, the resolution of the struggle between democracy and aristocracy as Krasiński presents it is in fact the emergence of systematic revolution and class warfare. When the Nobility beg for mercy, they are told that a new kind of mercy exists, unknown to their fathers; the guillotine. The guillotine represents the introduction of modern technology into the cycle of nature governing political affairs. Death and rebirth will from now on be characterized by ever larger pools of blood, ever higher fatalities. The "new man" promised by the revolutionaries is here: he has killed God in his heart and destroyed the world. All that remains to him is the perpetual sabotage of future human life for, as Krasiński teaches, "that which is disorganized cannot organize itself." In Krasiński's play, Christ returns to condemn everyone and finds no one worthy of salvation.


Photograph from the Encylcopedia of Polish Theatre

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