The Labor of Identity: Form and Ideology in Stanislaw Brzozowski's Legend of Young Poland

By Manouelian, Edward | CLIO, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Labor of Identity: Form and Ideology in Stanislaw Brzozowski's Legend of Young Poland


Manouelian, Edward, CLIO


Fortunately for us, the modern essay does not always have to speak of books or poets; but this freedom makes the essay even more problematic. It stands too high, it sees and connects too many things to be the simple exposition or explanation of a work ... The essayist must now become conscious of his own self, must find himself and build something of his own out of himself.

--Georg Lukacs (1)

The detachment of this individual from a social grounding, the subsequent ripening into solitude, the attempt to break out of this solitude, to create around oneself a new reality ... these are the fundamental moments of the psychological experience whose expression was and remains the legacy of Young Poland.... The actual events of 1904-1906 have altered our intellectual atmosphere to such an extent, have thrown the relations between various classes into such stark relief, that the moment of Young Poland, such as it was before the great convulsion, has passed.

--Stanislaw Brzozowski (2)

**********

Among the many suggestive insights of Lukacs in his early pre-Marxist phase, we find the passage above concerning the potentially vast scope of critical discourse, in particular the essay's capacity for moving beyond the margins of the work or artifact that supposedly occasioned it. The biomorphic metaphor inherent in these remarks, taken from a 1910 volume entitled Soul and Forms, recalls the sinuous, unruly vegetative motifs of Art Nouveau. The notion of the essay as having overgrown its function as interpretive commentary provides an apt means of approaching a contemporary example of the "problematic" freedom of the genre: The Legend of Young Poland." Studies on the Structure of the Soul of Culture, a wide-ranging collection of essays by the Polish literary critic and social thinker Stanislaw Brzozowski, published in Lwow in 1909-1910. The "Young Poland" of the title refers to the Polish symbolist movement, and more broadly the literary and artistic avant-garde of the period stretching from the 1890s to the end of the First World War; the resonance of the term is such that it serves as a shorthand for these years in Polish historiography. The work's idiosyncratic subtitle suggests not merely the diffuse nature of its subject matter, but also the essentially essayistic conception of the individual pieces that make up Legend, in the sense that Adorno had in mind when he wrote of "the form's groping intention. The essay," he observed, "corrects the isolated and accidental aspects of its insights by allowing them to multiply, confirm, and restrict themselves." (3) The digressive form that Brzozowski develops in Legend reflects the breadth of the task he undertakes here, what Andrzej Mencwel has termed "a radical critique of the intelligentsia as a class engaged in the production of culture," (4) one that regards the working class alone as capable of creating an authentically national identity for a nation partitioned off the map for more than a century by no less than three empires. The Legend of Young Poland attempts to reframe the discourse of national revival by elaborating a vision of proletarian culture common to all three of Poland's partitions. In what follows, we will examine how Brzozowski's project emerges from the particular essayistic form that unfolds on the pages of Legend. Lukacs's notion of the essay as a peripheral genre capable of transgressing its usual boundaries provides a useful key to understanding Brzozowski's work, which stands as an exemplary instance of the "geometry of center and margins ... at the heart of the most innovative and potentially explosive play within the so-called aestheticist texts around 1900" that Scott Spector describes in a recent study on politics and culture in the Central European fin de siecle. (5) In order to grasp the essential connection between Brzozowski's insights and the shape of the essay, we will examine specific sections of The Legend of Young Poland where the problem of constructing identity comes most sharply into focus, so as to shed light on the relationship between ideologies of class and nation and the particular essayistic form that Brzozowski develops in this work. …

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