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The Remnants of Modernity

Two Essays on Sarmatism and Utopia in Polish Contemporary Literature


Przemyslaw Czaplinski

Polish culture after 1989 has been defined by conflicts surrounding the remnants of modernity, phenomena marginalised during communism. The book considers two such phenomena: the search for a common tradition and the disappearance of utopia. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, romanticism provided a common tradition. After 1989, its place was assumed by Sarmatism, an elite and xenophobic pre-modern cultural formation, into which contradictory values were introduced, creating an explosive mixture of emancipation and populism. The second remnant, the heritage of utopia, is addressed in works whose critical visions of change are not comprehensive projects, but rather rebellions. They begin with a questioning of authority, and lead to a posthuman definition of humanity and interspecies solidarity.
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Conclusion: An Uncertain Whole


In this book, I have offered readers two stories. The first concerned changes in the approach to tradition; the second, the disappearance and return of utopia. These two narratives were linked by the notion of remnants. The introduction of this concept to the interpretation of literature in recent decades has allowed us to see the way that literary play with remnants – considered by Baudrillard a non-productive circulation – has led to the emergence of new concepts of freedom, human identity and literature. Freedom and identity are now defined more modestly, and literature – more boldly.

Modern man was immodest in his desire for freedom. He strived for nothing less than full autonomy, and this included freeing himself from tradition. A certain type of protagonist I have discovered in literature, meanwhile, seeks a means of re-rooting himself in the past, but does not want to be determined by it. Though seemingly at odds with his aspirations, he turns to Sarmatism: archaism incarnate, a mix of state and national megalomania, an interweaving of patriotic xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny. Little of Sarmatism should remain today given the continuing two-hundred-year war that modernity has been waging against tradition. If, however, Gombrowicz was correct when he wrote that Sienkiewicz’s Trylogia has allowed Poles to once again love themselves, to see their own beauty, to narcissistically settle for the national body and immerse themselves in erotic autarchy, then the real struggle between modernization and tradition has taken place not in relation to progress, but...

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