What’s Past Is Prologue

What’s Past Is Prologue October 23, 2020

In November 1900, a fashionable, urban Polish poet from an upper-class background married a rural peasant. In a region of Europe where people of different class backgrounds were usually kept apart by strict social norms, this was a rare event. But some were seeking to break that pattern. In 1795 Poland had been completely colonized by Prussia, Russia and Austria, and the Polish people had spent the entire nineteenth century fighting a series of failed uprisings. Many believed that marriages across class lines would be a way for the Polish people to unite, organize, and ultimately take their country back.

One of the guests at the wedding, the playwright Stanisław Wyspiański, observed this meeting between the bourgeoisie intelligentsia and working peasants with satiric humor and disappointed admiration. For Wyspiański, the wedding illustrated a desperate attempt to repair a failed national project – an effort that he dramatized in his 1901 play Wesele (The Wedding), in which magical guests from Central European history arrive. One of these, the 17th century Ukrainian poet Vernyhora, gives the host a magical golden horn meant to arouse all of the guests to battle at dawn. It is the clarion meant to ignite the Polish uprising that will at last bring liberation. However, the guests ultimately fall under the spell of a magical straw man called the chochał and fail to wake up in time for the rebellion that they have planned. They fall asleep, the golden horn gets lost, and they remain in bondage.

Though the chronicle of a defeat, Wesele is considered one of Poland’s national dramas, and it was famously made into a cinematic tour de force by Andrzej Wajda in 1973. Giving hope to Polish people up to World War I, during the short period of independence from 1918 to 1939, and then during World War II and the fifty years of communist rule that succeeded it, this play itself became a golden horn, a symbol of national unity. I believe this play – and other literary and artistic works from the same time period – have much to say about the political realities many in the world are experiencing today – especially in the United States.

Ariel and Caliban

A visual artist as well as a playwright, Wyspiański was part of a cross-cultural artistic movement usually described as modernism. The word “modernism” might most immediately recall Joyce and Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing, Picasso’s Cubist art, or Schoenberg’s dissonant music. But amid all of the dissolution lay a deep desire for wholeness. Dealing with the destruction of traditional religious paradigms in the nineteenth century, rapidly advancing technology, and in some cases, colonialism or the threat of it, modernists were eager to seek what might be salvaged from the ruins. “These were people imbued with a scientific, evolutionist Weltabschaung, and their revolt against it did not spell their rejection of its basic tenet,” said the famed Polish poet and cultural critic Czesław Miłosz in his History of Polish Literature. “Yet science could not give them any foundation for Value. Although their religious beliefs were undermined, they could not renounce the search for the meaning of life and death.”

This quest for meaning was just as prevalent across the Atlantic in Latin America, where nations that had recently gained independence from Spain were seeking to forge their own cultural identities while dealing with the same questions about spirituality, science, and technology as other modernists. They were likewise facing the threat of a new colonial power: The United States of America. Their response was a cultural movement that became known as modernismo. According to literary critic Cathy Jrade, modernismo “proposed a worldview that imagined the universe as a system of correspondences, in which language is the universe’s double capable of revealing profound truths regarding the order of the cosmos.” One of the movement’s representatives, the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó, famously urged the young people of his country to seek spiritually meaningful lives and to avoid the pitfalls he saw in consumerist, technology-based US culture.

Published in 1900, his essay Ariel urged his country’s youth to seek a synthesis between reason and passion. “Never give up to utility or passion but a part of yourself. Even within material slavery there is the possibility of saving inner freedom: that of reason and feeling. Do not try to justify, through the absorption of work or combat, the slavery of your spirit,” he said. For Rodó, freedom of the spirit was epitomized by ancient Athens, a society where the “conception of life was realized in the concert of all human faculties.” Interestingly, Wyspiański shared Rodó’s love of ​​Greece so much so that he came up with a plan to rebuild the Wawel, the royal castle in Krakow where the kings of Poland have been buried since medieval times, in the style of the Acropolis.

But if Greece is the emblem of the “Ariel” that Rodó hopes that Latin American youth will follow, the United States is its Calibanesque* opposite:

North American life effectively describes that vicious circle that Pascal indicated in the pursuit of well-being with no end beyond the self. Its prosperity is as great as its inability to satisfy even a basic conception of human destiny [… ] there is no doubt that US civilization as a whole produces a singular impression of insufficiency and emptiness. And if, with the right given by the history of thirty centuries of evolution presided over by the dignity of the classical and Christian spirits, one asks what is the guiding principle in it, what is its ideal substratum, what is the purpose beyond the immediate concern for the practical […] one will only find, as the formula of the ultimate ideal, the same absolute concern for material triumph. Deprived of any profound traditions that might guide them, this nation has not been able to replace the inspiring ideality of the past with any higher, disinterested conception of the future. They live for the immediate reality of the present, and therefore subordinate all activity to the selfishness of personal and collective well-being.

When reading these words about the USA, I struggle to believe that they were written in 1900 and not in 2020. This description, though harsh, reflects our current reality. With this inability to “replace the inspiring ideality of the past with any higher, disinterested conception of the future,” in 2016 we elected Donald Trump, a president for whom the most important thing is a positive image and a booming stock market (at the expense of the environment).  “The immediate reality of the present” is more important than the future. And while a year ago at this time I might have argued that Trump seeks “personal and collective well-being” – at least for some US Americans – his handling of the pandemic indicates that this is not so.

For too many US Americans, ecological destruction is not a problem of grave concern; the harsh realities of many countries in the world – often created directly by US imperialist policy – are not our responsibility. Like many I have spent the last four years struggling to understand the reasons for this toxic nostalgia, this great fear that has led us to the election of a president whose words and actions demonstrate dangerous excess. I also wonder how we can resist racism, xenophobia, the normalization of war, and the denial of reality – issues that, however, existed in the United States well before Trump’s election and will likely continue in the future.

Stanisław Wyspiański did not comment directly on the United States, and Polish attitudes toward the US have been generally positive throughout history. But I believe there is much to be learned from Wyspiański’s comment on the social division of the Polish people – a class division that, although we deny it, also characterizes US society. In the drowsiness of wedding guests paralyzed by the magic of chochoł, we see an image that rings true for us today: a society more or less paralyzed, lacking self-understanding, and easily seduced by a straw man’s spells.

This widespread irrationality in the US might seem surprising given our current intellectual climate among those with more formal education. In reaction to postmodernism and the politics of a “post-truth,” various movements of skeptics have emerged who believe that science should be the basis of all our decisions. There is a lot of promotion in the educational field of the STEM disciplines; meanwhile, fewer university students choose to study the humanities, which are sometimes threatened at the institutional level. Religious practice – even in a traditionally very religious society like that of the United States – has diminished. Efficiency and market requirements exert influence over all aspects of life, even – through the rise of social media – our most intimate relationships. Indeed, Rodó’s description of the US as a society hyperfocused on reason at the expense of spiritual concerns continues to ring true today.

The Enlightenment and Excesses of Reason: Too Much of a Good Thing?

According to Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, the populism and demagoguery we see in today’s world – Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK the advent of ultra-right parties in Europe, Ergogan’s power in Turkey, and Modi’s nationalism in India – are all part of the same phenomenon. In his 2017 book The Age of Anger, Mishra observes that our economic system and our Enlightenment values ​​have not afforded us a full understanding of human nature. With a fear of change, a loyalty to the familiar, and tendencies toward vanity and loneliness, we are not rational. The conflicts of our age reveal that a political, economic, and educational system that presupposes rationality – without considering people’s emotional or spiritual needs – can neither characterize the human condition nor promote the development of a better world. For Mishra, the European intellectual project of the 18th century has become the basis of politics at the global level:

From its inception in the Enlightenment, the modern world was driven, and defined, by the self-affirming autonomous individual who, condemned to be free, continually opens up new possibilities of human mastery and empowerment. His project was deemed crucial to the collective escape, beginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from prejudice, superstition and a belief in God, and into the safety of reason, science and commerce. Since then, freedom has been synonymous with the developing natural sciences, new artistic forms, free trade and increasingly democratic civil society and political institutions.

According to Mishra, the well-intentioned Enlightenment project has not paid off for all. This has provoked resentment from the Hindu nationalists who support Modi, the ISIS terrorists who tried for several years to create an Islamic state, and the US Americans who, blaming undocumented immigrants for their lack of stable employment, have supported Trump’s racist and xenophobic agenda. Mishra goes on to assert, “Billions of the world’s poorest are locked into a Social Darwinist nightmare. But even in advanced democracies a managerial form of politics and neo-liberal economics has torn up the social contract. In the regime of privatization, commodification, deregulation and militarization it is barely possible to speak without inviting sarcasm about those qualities that distinguish humans from other predatory animals – trust, co-operation, community, dialogue and solidarity.”

For Mishra, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, with their emphasis on reason as the most important faculty of the human being, ignored people’s emotional and spiritual needs, and now we are living with the consequences. Looking at Mishra, I see echoes of various 20th century thinkers, especially those who wrote in the decades immediately following World War II and the explosion of the atomic bomb. According to Frankfurt School philosophers Teodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their essay The Dialectic of Enlightenment, “For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion. Once the movement is able to develop unhampered by external oppression, there is no holding it back. Its own ideas of human rights then fare no better than the older universals.”

According to them, the Enlightenment – which began with the ancient myths of Homer and the Bible, when direct experience was replaced with representation and consciousness was divided b between subjective and objective spheres – is totalitarian, absorbing all experience and each worldview in its rational process.

To understand the political divisions plaguing the US today, we must accept that human beings are not fully rational. However, in addition to the categories of rationality and irrationality, I would also like to speak of the conflict between moderation and excess – an overabundance of repressed emotion that is not found. only in right-wing movements, but also in some left-wing movements. For Adorno and Horkheimer the Enlightenment had been excessive in its rationality. For Mishra, an excess of reason has fostered an excess of emotion in the form of the anger that we see today.

Resisting the Straw Man

What is the solution? I believe the modernists might be able to offer some guidance. While Wyspiański’s straw man seduces the masses like the demagogues of today, I would look for a possibility in the thought of Rodó. Obviously there are many weaknesses in this thinking: the lack of any discussion about the reality of indigenous people in Latin America and a critique of the United States made without ever having set foot on US soil. Carlos Fuentes comments that the book would have been stronger if Rodó had cast his critical gaze not only on the United States, but on Latin America as well: “He would, perhaps, have arrived at similar conclusions: we are both, North and Latin Americans, still projects of history, incomplete societies, working models, not paradigms of perfection.”

Despite all his weaknesses, Rodó’s dynamism and lack of dogmatism are, in my opinion, urgently needed in today’s world. While he admires US American energy and our national penchant for hard work, he also recognizes the value of contemplation, cultivating an active inner life, and the need to think before acting, to see if one’s desires and goals really conform to one’s life. the noblest values. He admonishes the young, “And while guarding yourselves against any violation of your moral nature, while aspiring to the harmonious expansion of your being in every noble sense, remember at the same time that the easiest and most frequent of violations is, in the present character of human societies, that which forces the soul to deprive itself of […] the life of disinterested meditation [and] ideal contemplation.”

It is difficult to imagine how today’s youth would react to Rodó’s words. Several psychologists have investigated the effects of current technology on subjectivity and human relationships, and they have commented that in our age of instant communication, we are losing our capacity for attention, empathy, and authentic connection with one another. Instead of reading an entire newspaper, we only read articles that confirm the points of views that we already have. As such, we lack contact with – and empathy for – people whose opinions we do not share. Perhaps that is why in many countries today we see so much fear and anger directed toward those perceived is different; perhaps, in this somnolent state, we are seduced by the words of our own straw man, Donald Trump. Rodó, while fully defending democracy, criticized its tendencies toward vulgarity and mediocrity – tendencies that are seen more clearly than ever in our age of instant communication.

However, Rodó expresses the faith that the youth of America – and that includes North America – can resist this vulgarity through attentive thought and belief in a better future. “Thought will conquer, inch by inch, by its own spontaneity, all the space it needs to affirm and consolidate its kingdom among the other manifestations of life,” he asserts. He expresses faith in our ability to build a better society, promoting the unity of reason and passion found in Ariel, instead of the rage, violence and vulgarity that Rodó has located in the figure of Caliban. Our world yearns for a balance between reason and passion, intelligence and emotion, practicality and spirituality, a healing of divisions and moderation of excess, so that Ariel – instead of Wyspiański’s Calibanesque chochoł – might be the one we choose as our guide.




*Many critics have commented on the problematic nature of Rodó’s use of the dichotomy between Ariel and Caliban. In Shakespeare’s Tempest, evil and vulgarity are associated with an indigenous person from a colonized land. This is particularly problematic in the context of Uruguay, a country founded on settler colonialism. For the purposes of this essay, however, I am choosing to accept Rodó’s Shakespearean metaphor in the way he intended it – where Ariel represents synthesis of reason and passion, while Caliban represents barbarism and excess.

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