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A Degenerate World


Jerzy Jedlicki

Edited By Elena Rozbicka

Modernism and pessimism seem to go hand in hand. What are the sources of the historical pessimism we see in the legions of writers and thinkers over the past three centuries who saw modern civilization as degenerate and despicable, happily marching to its own doom? Why did so many educated and intelligent people despise the innovations that were the work of their contemporaries? This book focuses on English and Polish thought during the 19 th and early 20 th centuries, a time of relative political stability and great success in science and industry, when many nevertheless voiced concern that Europe is moving in the wrong direction, to its own destruction. After WWI, these warnings became even more dire and have left their mark on the European culture of our times.
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Ever since I wrote A Suburb of Europe (Jakiej cywilizacji Polacy potrzebują) in the 1980s, I have been intrigued by the question of why so many educated and intelligent people would have such a low regard for the innovations that were the work of their contemporaries or even themselves. Or conversely, why on earth would people create such a civilisation in which they feel so bad. One could respond that some people are the builders and makers, while others are simply unhappy and disgusted by nature, and that malcontent and misanthropy are fairly common characteristics among intellectuals, who also happen to be the main source of fare for a historian of thought. That answer doesn’t quite satisfy me. There are plenty of intellectuals who have an optimistic view of progress in its various forms. Secondly, in the texts of these angry or bitter accusers of modernity, whether we agree with them or not, one can find many acute and prescient judgements which demand that the historian pay closer attention.

I had intended to follow up my earlier book with a continuation encompassing the years 1890–1914, looking into the Polish intelligentsia’s attitudes towards the modernist crisis in European culture. This endeavour would require me to differentiate what was purely Polish from what were merely adoptions of Western intellectual positions towards the innovations in technology, customs, philosophy, and the arts.

The Polish disputes regarding modernity are coloured by Poland’s geographical and political position in Europe...

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