Maria Janion (born 1926) – historian and theorist of literature, long-term professor of the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, lecturer at the University of Gdańsk, where she held the legendary seminar Transgresje (“Transgressions”). The most outstanding Polish expert in the field of romantic literature, co-founder of the Society for Educational Courses. Author of hundreds of scientific works and books, among the most important of which are Zygmunt Krasiński, debiut i dojrzałość (Zygmunt Krasiński, Debut and Maturity, 1962), Romantyzm, rewolucja, marksizm. Colloquia gdańskie (Romantism, Revolution, Marxism: Gdańsk Colloquia, 1971), Gorączka romantyczna (Romantic Fever, 1975), Życie pośmiertne Konrada Wallenroda (The Postmortem Life of Konrad Wallenrod, 1990), Kobiety i duch inności (Women and the Spirit of Otherness, 1995), Płacz generała. Eseje o wojnie (The General’s Cry: Essays about War, 1998), Wampir: biografia symboliczna (Vampire: A Symbolic Biography, 2002), Niesamowita Słowiańszczyzna: fantazmaty literatury (Incredible Slavdom: The Phantasms of Literature, 2006), Bohater, spisek, śmierć: wykłady żydowskie (Hero, Conspiracy, Death: Jewish Lectures, 2009).

Universe of Nature

Maria Janion

At the beginning of the 1970s, the momentum and reach of the rebellion of the young generation – demanding the establishment of new, deep ties of the human being with nature, among other things – awoke surprise. Fatigue with culture in its authoritarian, technocratic and military dimension bore fruit in the ideology of cosmic love, known, as I pointed out then, from the scripts of pre-romantic German Sturm und Drang poets. Not hard to guess – I was very happy about this clearly revealed continuity between romanticism and presence. Deep opaqueness of inter-human relations, lifelessness of a bourgeoisie morality concealing the violence and darkest interests of power, all led to social and generational explosion. In parallel, internal life was gaining a sovereign status. Desires, dreams and even psychedelic visions revealed abilities of the spiritual self, unrestrained by censorship of awareness or external rigour. Obviously, the dark side of these phenomena, related to drug addiction, violence or a differently realized striving towards self-annihilation, could – and did – awake concerns. On the other hand, from the point of view of purely political movements of that time, the ideology of “cosmic love” deserved only condescending sympathy. Nevertheless, a deep cultural change occurred before our eyes. It was rooted in the beginnings of modern times and, to be more precise, in the attempts to stop or at least to correct its message.

In his 1795–1796 paper On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, Friedrich Schiller formulated – for the first time in modern times with such power – aesthetic ideas rendering the bitter awareness of the destructive dimension of civilization. It was fully revealed after the turmoil of the French Revolution. According to Schiller, from that moment on, deep disharmony in human existence in the world was getting deeper. The drama that Schiller penetrated has gained global and fundamental dimensions in today’s era. “Disappearance of nature from human life”, the disappearance of nature’s subjectivity was, according to Schiller’s tragedy, an irreversible process. Unlike in the optimistic, dynamic and dramatic – yet not tragic – vision of Christianity, Schiller depicted a tragic end of the human’s coexistence with the world that was not made by him. Let us reiterate, then, that the final loss, being the legacy of revolution, could only find its way out in poetry, in the intimate relationship between nature and poetry. According to Schiller, poets can either be “guardians of nature” or act as its “witnesses” or “avengers”. The mission, understood in such a way, was to remain a kind of passive resistance of renovating rules of poetics: “each true poet will either belong to the naive ones or to the sentimental ones”. For today’s sometimes (very justifiably!) rebellious wildlife-defense movements, poetry is definitely too little. One should not, however, neglect the multi-century continuity of ideas, which against the background of, on one hand, the triumphalist projects of the Enlightenment and, on the other, of Christianity, showed the alienating now almost-criminal process of appropriation and devouring of the natural environment. Spirituality, understood in aesthetic and not religious terms, was seen by Schiller as a domain of close relationship between human internal life and the life of the subjectively treated organic and inorganic world.

In those years, when I was convincing my long-haired students that they were neo-romantics, I was looking for philosophers and writers who would formulate similar views. Jean-Louis Curtis, the French writer, wrote outright about the phenomenon of neo-romanticism. Rejection of rigid frameworks of technocracy and social constraints, rejection of the cult of material goods, apologia of natural states, a return to the innocence of the “good savage” – in his opinion, such were the defining characteristics of the romantic revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Curtis is a special case, deserving an intriguing note. Michel Houellebecq, delighting in sharp attacks on the 1968 generation, devoted a short passage in his novel The Map and the Territory to him: “Jean-Louis Curtis fell into total oblivion now. [...] It is unfair. [...] You can be surprised with his passionate defence of the youth, hippie groups, backpacking through Europe and rejecting consumer society, as one used to say back then; his dislike of consumer society is equally strong as that of the hippies, but based on a much more solid foundation, as the future was to show”. According to Houellebecq, another French writer, Georges Perec – irrespective of the higher rank of his literary style – was much more accurate in assessing consumer society. He thought that there was no alternative to it, and perceived consumption as the sole possible model of happiness in the era of modernity. And yet Houellebecq does not agree to call Curtis a “reactionist”. He calls him, quite correctly, a writer of sadness and nostalgia.

Let another memory be the voice of an art historian. René Huyghe wrote that a man of modernity needs protection from being crushed by grand industrial technologies and the pressure of the global human community. Models of such coexistence of an individual “I” with the community and with nature were found by him precisely in romanticism. Most tellingly, he did it summing up a scientific congress entitled “Man and City in the Year 2000”, which we may now call a post-futurological one and which took place in Rotterdam in 1970. What the urban life of our species will be like – this he did not want to decide about then (besides, he died in 1997), but he was right in identifying the chronic, ever exacerbating crisis of the culture of growth and rivalry, as well as anthropocentrically understood nature.

Let us recapitulate the images of the romantic universe from the title. It was an endless, open whole – such was the romantics’ perception of nature. The image of the world from the Middle Ages: a closed, ordered space is at the opposite pole from the vision whereby mysterious links connect minerals buried deep in the ground with stars hanging in the vault of heaven. Following the neo-Platonists of the Italian renaissance and alchemists – Paracelsus and Böhm, Hamann and Herder – the romantic philosophy of nature was based on understanding nature as an organism. The romantics juxtaposed the image of nature – as a mechanism – from the Enlightenment with a pulsating organism, organic power, the very dynamic Life. Herder wrote that the endless process of nature’s activity is driven by divine energy. Nature and history were for him two manifestations of the same organic process.

Romantic poets displayed deep and understandable ambivalence towards powers of nature. The spiritual, individual status of nature remained unchanged, yet its sovereign intelligence could be perceived as hostile, terrifying. Goethe permits Werther to see – before the eyes of his aching soul, obviously – the transformation of a wonderful life of nature into “the abyss of the eternally open grave”. A telling transformation! “I see nothing but an eternally devouring, eternally cud-chewing monster”, wrote Werther. The symbolism of grave, volcano, seed, underground fire – all these images tied to motives of conspiracies, dungeons and finally of revolution were sourced from the organic world by the romantics. History would gain organic imaging, and the organic world would gain the rank of a text; it was bestowed with language, for instance the language of flowers; it contained codes, secret references and parallels.

Pompous elations of the romantics over the phenomenon of organic matter, the “fiery, holy life”, can for us nowadays be a bit funny or tiring. We must remember, however, that the mechanistic Enlightenment image of beings other than human took revenge above all on animals, as was trenchantly shown by the ethicist Peter Singer, on animals. As the author of Animal Liberation writes, vivisections were conducted for centuries on dogs, based on the belief that their yelp is just a coincidental sound, like the rattle of stones. The poet Adam Mickiewicz, in his lecture “The Master, presented the opposite belief, slowly gaining advocates in his times. He stated that animals felt pain just like humans did, quoting scholars who admitted that they had on many occasions seen an animal in great suffering making the final effort to focus in its look an expression of almost human grief, some undefined internal groan that had made the anatomist shiver.

From today’s perspective, when we are observing depletion of natural resources and are covering distances between the Earth and other planets of the solar system, the romantic poetic imagination turns out to be a unique luxury. The global picture of a heated, scorching and overpopulated planet is getting closer to the medieval closure mentioned above, whereas order is substituted by chaos, and the conviction is increasingly popular is that the demon of human greed and egoism has become a god, controlling the world and the beyond.

As the contemporary feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti notes in her book The Posthuman, nature-centrism of the early 19th century is now in the utopian past of the history of ideas. However, Anna Kronenberg, author of a revealing work, Geopoetyka. Związki literatury i środowiska [Geopoetics: Relations between Nature and Environment], leans towards a different attitude. Holistic, post-humanities projects presented by her seem to restitute Schiller’s vision of striving towards Elysium, the space of regained harmony with nature. The inescapability of our situation may still find some respite in true – that is, in “naive or sentimental” – poetry.

Rosi Braidotti does not directly refer to the romantic philosophy of nature. She focuses on Spinoza’s so-called Modernist Turn, a key for some contemporary philosophical approaches to restoring nature. The work of Baruch Spinoza was subjected to re-reading by French philosophers of the 1968 generation. A breakthrough was made by Gilles Deleuze, who found in Spinoza’s work a unique “vitalist materialism”: a reply to the contradictions of Descartes’ dualism of spirit and body, as well as the dialectic materialism of Marx. It seems that, for this path of thought, apart from seeking possibilities of new, more emphatic “association” of the human species with animals, the most important aspect is finding new, capacious formulas of subjectivity. It even becomes necessary in today’s era of biotechnological boom and common commoditization of matter, human and extra-human. From that point of view, the romantics, who contributed to revealing the tragic dimension of the nature-culture opposition, remain anthropocentric idealists. Nature, moved by the divine principle of the spirit, was for them above all a mediumistic way to human self-cognition. They described imaginary nature, nature dreamt of, leading also to “the night side of the soul”. Sigmund Freud, sourcing so much from the German romantics, derived from that night side of the soul the contemporary notion of the unconsciousness. Mary Shelley, guided, as feminist literary critics state, by traumatic experiences of childbirth and mourning, presented in 1818 a disturbing description of extra-human humanity, constructed by science. In her Frankenstein, the writer left to modernity a memorable vision of the horror of alienated matter, created then tossed into the cruel world like a cosmic orphan. Today’s dilemmas of bioethics were preceded by romantic, feminine phantasms.

Philosophic and real ways of our commune with nature remain diverse nowadays. Some of these find romantic roots to strive for the ideal of a harmony of human existence in the world and to restitute the rank of poetry. This is the modus operandi of Kenneth White, a philosopher of ecology and a poet and wanderer of the counterculture generation of the 1970s. The project of geopoetics, which I call Schillerean (though for its creator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his like are important), has endured at the opposite poles of the technological boom and the culture of consumption. A young Polish scholar, Anna Kroneneberg, presenting the thought and poetic output of Kenneth White, reconstructs the basic presumptions of expanding or even revolutionizing traditional humanities. “Towards a more delicate, more beautiful inhabitation of the Earth” is the motto, sourced from White, that she gave to her book. What is most telling is the fact that whereas Braidotti proposes to associate humanities above all with knowledge understood in an interdisciplinary way from the fields of “biogenetics, neuroscience and robotics, new media and digital culture”, geopoetics, researching the “links between literature and environment”, “situates itself at the junction of the history of philosophy, history of ideas, ethics, poetics, theory of literature, history of literature, geography, geology, ecology, botany and zoology”. It’s not just an aesthete’s project. In the introduction, using romantic rhetoric beautifully, the author writes that the teaching of ecological humanities may transform the faculties of literature studies: “thanks to it, they may not only leave the crisis behind [...] but also transform themselves from ʻfactories of the unemployed’ [...] into forges of avant-garde – places preparing future change leaders”.

Both neo-romantic geopoetics, as well as post-anthropocentrism analysed by Braidotti, are characterised by great sensitivity towards equality. The key is the necessity to change the rules of coexistence of humans with other species, going away from the Eurocentric hegemony and, finally, striving towards the full empowerment of women. Among all the complications of the post-colonial era and global economy, we still, after the 20th century, cannot consider women’s struggle for equality, the “longest revolution”, to be done. Whereas pioneering postulates of the Enlightenment were based on the idea of women’s citizenship, it was romanticism that placed woman in the centre of its sensitivity, as a “mediumistic” creature thanks to her strong ties with the nature that was destined to play the role of a guide, teacher and spiritual guardian of the world. These two ideas, signalling elite, liberal feminism on one hand and eco-feminism on the other, seem to be inseparable paths to turning the “spirit of otherness” into reality, and not only nominal rights or lofty slogans.

Is this type of existence at all possible? Or let us rephrase the question: can the world adopt a different, other system of values and direction of development? Obviously, it cannot. Or, to put it more delicately, it can do it just to a small extent. For the time being, the world is lasting, suspended between greediness and melancholy, between utopia and disaster.

tel. +48 22 745 10 30 |
tel. +48 22 745 10 30 |
tel. +48 22 745 10 30

tel. +48 22 745 10 30