Nations on Münchhausen’s string

15. 3. 2017

Rigels Halili, Naród i jego pieśni. Rzecz o oralności, piśmienności i epice ludowej wśród Albańczyków i Serbów [A nation and its songs. About orality, literacy and popular epic poetry among Albanians and Serbs], Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, Warszawa 2012

Michał łuczewski, Odwieczny naród. Polak i katolik w Żmiącej [An eternal nation. A Pole and a Catholic in żmiąca], Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Mikołaja kopernika, Toruń 2012

A low ceiling sticky with soot, a stove, a few earthen pots, a mud floor. On a bench—a minstrel with a bizarre “instrument” with a short arm, a V-shaped sound box and a single string making a jarring sound. Before him, on the floor or on a stool, a “master”: sometimes a scribe, of peasant origin himself, sometimes a village teacher or a Franciscan, and half a century later the image gets even more grotesque: a foreigner, namely an American, with a phonograph bullhorn, which seems sewn from leathery wings of a bat. A powerful stench of sheep is hovering in the air. Or, in another narrative, the walls are a bit thicker, the patterns on earthen mugs are a bit different (but the odor of sheep is the same), sitting on a stool is a priest in a thread-worn cassock, the cottage dwellers looking at him both with respect and distrust. And this is supposed to be the stuff from which states will emerge—with silvery jets, university departments of native history, closely cropped recruits and martyrs standing with their backs against a wall and waiting for the shooting?!

Breakthroughs in humanities are more difficult to notice than in natural sciences, and the two works under discussion had all that it takes to gather dust on one of the least accessible shelves of an academic bookshop. A monographic history of some backwater village? Arguments of folklorists on the origins of some folk songs? Mon Dieu, who reads such books today besides a handful of ethnographers or regional historians?

And yet… Michał Łuczewski may already speak about a grand slam: in the course of six months he received the Stanisław Ossowski Prize, the most important distinction awarded by the Polish Sociological Society, the highly valued Józef Tischner Prize awarded by publishers, and he has been nominated to three other prizes. The other freshly baked Ph.D., Rigels Halili, is still waiting for such honors—his book, published in Poland and in Polish, has yet to find its way to readers in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Tirana but its reception may lead to revolutionary consequences.

And yet there is no denying that they chose arcane subjects, seemingly being too literal in their understanding of the aphorism which recommends to people intending to impress the world that they should start with their own village. Michał Łuczewski described the story of Żmiąca—a village in the Beskid Wyspowy mountain range, seventy kilometres from Krakow— and he investigated the process of national identity being formulated. It is true that Żmiąca enjoys certain renown in the narrow academic community—sometimes it is half-jokingly called “the longest researched village in the world,” for the first monograph on it was published in 1903 by the great Polish sociologist Franciszek Bujak. Half a century later, in the heyday of Stalinism, research work in Żmiąca was started by Professor Zbigniew Wierzbicki (he published the results ten years later), and in 2002 Michał Łuczewski appeared on the banks of the Żmiąca Stream, also publishing his work a decade later. But even among Polish historians or ethnographers (until now at least) it would be futile to expect familiarity with the life of the village, which for centuries functioned in the orbit of the St. Claire Sisters Monastery in Nowy Sącz.

It is no different in the case of Rigels Halili, who as a starting point for his investigations chose the argument of Serbian, Bosnian and Albanian scholars concerning the time and place of origin of a corpus of epic songs sung in Albanian in Kosovo, in the north of Albania and in the part of Montenegro inhabited by Albanians, known as “kreshnik songs” (kângë kreshnike). Just like in the case of Żmiąca, the phenomenon of epic songs from the Balkan territories is not unknown to many humanists: most of them have heard about the “Kosovo cycle,” the titanic figure of Vuk Karadžić, one of the 19th-century “founding fathers”; philologists and historians, who had to do some reading about Homer, surely remember how important for understanding of The Iliad and The Odyssey was the research on the functioning, transmission and modification of epic poems in the community of illiterate minstrels. But Gorna Trnova, Sjenica, Brisë or Gjakova/.akovica— villages in eastern Bosnia, Albania, Sandžak or on the Kosovo plain—remain as unfamiliar to the general public as Żmiąca. It is true that these names cropped up for a while in journalist’s reports and on military maps during the post-Yugoslav civil wars a decade ago—which, by the way, clearly shows what the stakes are in the ethnologists’ arguments and what processes were unleashed by “awareness raisers,” latter-day followers of Herder wandering around a century and a half ago with notebooks and looking for the national spirit. “Dressed in sheepskin coats, wandering from village to village, they were nursing folklores and other knick-knacks. Until they spawned a lot of strange national signs. It was a hook—and now they are themselves hanging on this hook”— wrote Miłosz perhaps too sardonically in his poem “A toast.”

The two works, treating two ends of the Central European maelstrom or perhaps nationalist magma, differ in methodological excursions and fascinations of the authors. Michał Łuczewski, who started with the classic toolset of a sociologist— the poor inhabitants of Żmiąca had to answer dozens of questionnaires and they were subjected to participant observation!— was enchanted with classic historical research, pouring over source documents: hence the visits to Małopolska archives and the story finely weaved from dozens of extant memories and documents. Rigels Halili, a cultural anthropologist, casts an even wider net, reaching for the communication theory and collective psychology theory, setting the discourse on south Balkan songs and their evolution in the familiar dramatic dichotomy orality-literacy, not sparing us detailed linguistic analyses but also gifting us with real jewels—biographies of bards, “awareness raisers” and bibliologists, painstakingly reconstructed in the footnotes. At the same time behind the investigative curiosity of both authors, like a plumb core, lies the most important question, once asked by Renan: when does a nation start? How is it possible that it emerges at all, turning the “locals”—illiterate, dialect-speaking, territorially (mountain villages) and socially isolated, lacking any wider agency or historical awareness—into obedient soldiers, voters, social activists and, let us repeat it once more, martyrs?

Seeking an answer, both researchers had to wade through whole libraries of relevant literature. As we know very well, the debate on “ethnogenesis,” especially of the people living east of the Rhine, in the 19th century mostly deprived of their own states, has been going on—even if we ignore Meinecke and Znaniecki—at least since the times of Ernst Gellner, Will Kymlicka, Andrzej Walicki or Miroslav Hroch. Both authors had done their homework diligently and took this opportunity to relate—excellently—the arguments between the schools of modernists, ethnosymbolists and primordialists (the last term, imported by them into Polish, does not sound too elegant in our language but is indispensable for people discussing the origins of the nation). But both of them clearly wanted to remain loyal to the cases described, returning from theoretical considerations to the description of the nationmaking phenomenon on the example of Żmiąca peasants—or classifying, rectifying and adapting the corpus of songs which served as a kind of “blueprint” for shaping modern national identity.

In their investigative toil, both researchers experience growing amazement: how is it possible that a certain phenomenon came into being (Łuczewski does not even refreain from using the term “miracle”), that a thing happened which did not have to happen at all? In the middle of the 19th century in Żmiąca there were “Imperials”— peasants regarding themselves as loyal subjects of the Austrian Emperor and looking at “Poles” (meaning the feudal lords with their retinues) with fear and hate, which they were to express during one of the most dramatic episodes in the 19th-century history of Poland. During the “Galician revolt”—a peasant uprising instigated in February 1846 by the imperial Vienna fearful of rebels and revolutionaries among the nobility—Galician villagers destroyed several hundred manors and viciously killed almost three thousand landowners, clerks and priests.

In the same period the Ottoman Empire was retreating from the Balkans at glacial pace, leaving behind resentment of the Christian raja towards the “Turks” (as all Muslims were called then), megalomaniac ambitions of the leaders, dreaming about “Great Serbia,” “Great Bulgaria” or “Great Albania” with completely phantasmagoric borders but also communities practically without any elites capable of managing the nation-making process. Two facts are worth highlighting, mentioned by Rigels Halili in the footnotes: The first is the agenda suggested by Vuk Karadžić to the Serbian prince Miloš Obrenović in 1822 (teaching to read and write the prince himself and a few other nobles; opening a school for their children; publishing books about Serbia in European languages and decreeing some laws by the prince so that “Serbia would to some extent look like a European state”). The other fact is even more striking (and even more carefully hidden in the footnotes): the first collections of Albanian folk songs compiled by researchers were published from mid-19th century to early 20th century in Florence, Vienna, Trieste, Alexandria and Sarajevo. It shows the circle of connections and influences, the orbits along which the first Albanian scholars were moving—but also the scale of dispersion, “unrecognition,”the make-believe nature of the being of the nation whose fragility and almost underground existence bring to mind the Khazars from the famous novel by Milorad Pavić.

When writing about issues as delicate—and at the same time variously mythologized by every generation—as the origins of the nation it is impossible not to enter into arguments with the legion of researchers and ideologues sitting on their shoulders—however, both authors evinced both tact and courage. Michał Łuczewski boldly confronts the conceptions dominant in Polish historiography, claiming and arguing that—at least in the case of Żmiąca but also, pars pro toto, the whole “peasant Galicia”—the most important role was played not by emancipatory ideologies focused on modernization and spreading rational and civic-minded attitudes but—as the author himself puts it—by “conservative ideologies.”“So instead of the dominant conception »reformers from the ranks of the nobility—Kościuszko—Romanticism—radical democrats—popular (progressive) movement«, I propose the following conception: »Barzans— proponents of ultramontanism—popular (conservative) movement«. In this sense Kościuszko had no impact at all on the development of the national ideology among the peasants. He was not so much the reason but the consequence of the nationalisation of the masses. The peasants invoked his heritage when they were already Poles”—writes the author of “The Eternal Nation,” to some extent explaining why the subtitle of his book is “The Pole and the Catholic in Żmiąca.”

In an endearingly unbiased way, Rigels Halili recreates the increasingly bitter argument between literary scholars supported by their governments as to “which songs were first”: Albanian ones, written down since the second half of the 19th century, or those, which were known to the European elites two generations earlier—“ Slavenoserbian,” soon to be called Serbian? It is true that Albanian songs were perceived in terms of the earlier known Serbian or New Greek epic works and they were regarded as derivative. Similarities of motifs, execution and metric forms are striking—analyzing the work of successive generations of scholars, Halili shows that tracing the origins and connections between anonymous works is an effort which overshadows the achievements of paleontologists: after all jaw bones or mitochondrial DNA are much easier to measure than dispersed fragments put down by far from unbiased amateurs. At the same time he leads us to the conclusion that any reflections on the precedents for the songs are doomed to a high degree of arbitrariness, given the fact that—at least since the time when they entered the living stream of culture—we are dealing with constant borrowings, influences, “creative contamination.”

In their conclusions—which do not take the form of noisy declarations—both authors put the ultimate lie to any “primordialist” reflection, that is an analysis preserving the belief that the nation is an eternal and homogenous entity characterized by special moral virtues. It is difficult not to hear history chortling at the fact that in contemporary Poland such a belief is held most staunchly by the peasants from Żmiąca—fifth or sixth generation descendants of those who spoke with horror about the “Poles” and when the good Emperor gave them such an opportunity, they did not hesitate to hack them with a saw. Michał Łuczewski is not even trying to hide the fact that the title “The eternal nation” is delicately ironic, no less than the triumphalist” cover with the heraldic Polish eagle spreading its wings against a nobly golden background. Also Rigels Halili’s reflections on how the myth of the Kosovo Battle of 1389—eagerly used in Serbia and both Yugoslavias (the royal and communist one)—was created in the second half of the 19th century, through reshuffling and appending the existing corpus of songs, will not be especially uplifting for the uncomplicated Serbian patriots.

And yet—and I see it as one of many great virtues and distinctive features of both works— these half-smiling books are not derisive and their authors do not take particular satisfaction from their “deconstructive” efforts. It would seem that having accumulated such knowledge on nation-making processes, their contradictions and meanders, nothing would be easier than pop the balloon with adequate media publicity, announce not even the “death of the nation” but simply its nonexistence. Careers of contemporary pop-intellectuals—late grandsons of the 19th-century “great masters of suspicion”, that is Nietzsche, Marx and Freud—show how trendy it is to take values, faiths and loyalties into pieces, to triumphantly jerk the tails of dead or at least much ailing lions.

But both Łuczewski and Halili are too honest for that. For in the course of their research they realized that this peculiar union—even if born of a dream, of aspirations of might, of well-intended fabrication, even if “»the nation« is in fact a movement of national ideologues,” as the Polish scholar aphoristically puts it at some point—does exist, more than any other idea shaping the life of large communities and their members.

„I would like to know at last—sighed Zbigniew Herbert, writing a poem with an untypically literal title “Reflections on the problem of the nation”— where self-delusion ends / and a real union begins,” to state resignedly:

„frankly speaking I don’t know
I am only recognizing

the existence of this union

it is revealed in the paleness

in the sudden rushes of blood to the face

in the roar and flailing arms

and I know that it may lead

to a hastily dug pit”

“Each one of us is wrestling and we are fighting for what it means to be a Pole and the process leading to that—as I have tried to show—is chaotic and unpredictable. Only with the benefit of hindsight we can show how it happened in particular cases—writes Łuczewski in line with Herbert.— Why at the end of it all are we Poles anyway? Whatever you say, it is a miracle.”

This is not a capitulation of a researcher, this is a recognition of the multiplicity of paths but also of the peculiar ability of the human species

to label and hence exteriorize values. The charming 18th-century liar and cosmopolitan, Baron Münchhausen, regaled us with stories about pulling himself out of a quagmire by his own hair and about weaving together a string while climbing on it—but since Łuczewski’s and Halili’s books concern an illiterate people, which become a nation, would it not be more appropriate to invoke the eminently rustic image of a lump of butter appearing in a swinging pail of milk?

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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