Lives Journal 5

Ivan Cankar

 

THE SLOVENIAN PEOPLE AND SLOVENIAN CULTURE

 

Ladies and gentlemen!

 

In this heated election battle there is much work to be done and very little time to lose. So excuse me if this lecture is not as thorough as it should be for so important a subject. Consider, therefore, this lecture to be only an attempt, maybe even only a failed attempt to achieve a greater and more thorough piece of work. However, it seems to me that it is right now, in these stormy times that we should be talking about the Slovenian people and Slovenian culture, – for never before has there been so much preaching and so many empty words about the nation and nationality, about the people and culture! –

 

I

 

For a long time now I have been a writer and have heard many a bitter rebuke in these difficult years, many a severe reprimand and also – something that has been particularly painful – much nonsensical praise. But every rebuke, reprimand and expression of praise has contained the verse to which I have grown so accustomed that it should be written on my grave:

»That is not for the people!«

You write only for a select few, you toil only for a few people, all this time you have starved only for a small number of people; for the people do not understand you, they are alien to you and your work; you are alien to them and their lives!

That is what it was like for me and others fare no better.

In the theatre in Ljubljana they put on beautiful modern as well as classical dramas. And the following morning they sing out all over Ljubljana that amiable song:

»That is not for the people!«

Our people do not like such things, our people are not mature enough for such things, do not offer our people cakes when they are hardly used to corn mush! And it’s true – modern or classical dramas disappear shamefully from the stage and on the stage appears peasant art, on whose forehead are written the catchwords »by gosh« and »got’im!« –

That is what it is like for theatre and others fare no better. In Ljubljana, Slovenian artists display their paintings and sculptures. No-one denies that their art is great and pure. But all the bells of Ljubljana immediately sing out that amiable song:

»That is not for the people!«

Our artists do not work for the people, they do not know the people and the people do not know them. So may they starve and continue to live miserably as they have starved and lived miserably so far! Our people do not need art, they have lived without it thus far so may they live without it to the end! And truly: our artists fled abroad, every one of them, taking their art with them. For in their wisdom they realised that it is nevertheless a little more pleasant if they starve abroad than if they starve at home where their soup is additionally seasoned with reproaches and scoffs.

That is what it is like for art and it is no better for science.

Some young people, some idealists, felt the need to tell the people not only about the antichrist and about the parish priest but to show them, those who were hitherto blind, the path to reason and the truth. But their ears too picked up the drone of our national anthem:

That is not for the people!

Old leaders and those who know the people deride them saying: What do our people need reason and the truth for! If they had reason they would become aware of their poverty and would grow furious; if they saw the truth they would flee from the churches – and where would that leave the parish priest and the antichrist, these two of our holiest national idols, these two pillars of Slovenian life during the turbulent decades? –

All you labourers on the field of Slovenian culture: put on your boots, pull tight your belts and tie up your bundles, for –

»That is not for the people!«

 

*

 

Both Slovenian political sides agree that our people are not cultured. This means that sometimes even the worst of enemies enjoy peace and quiet and embrace each other fraternally. Once, in Vienna, the representative of the nation announced to the whole world: Our people are culturally one hundred years behind; our people are stupid and backward! And at once rang out a thousand bells on the green hills of the Slovenian homeland: Defamer of the people! Our people are not stupid or backward, our people go to church, listen to the sermons and go to confession, our people do not like your foreign culture, our people need no more than the word of God and the idol of our forefathers! ...

So both sides agree and neither side knows how much bitter truth is hidden in this uncultured cultural struggle, in these cultured words about lack of culture!

 

*

 

When I first heard that brutal reproach: You are not working for the people; none of you are working for the people! – I was deeply saddened. It is natural that one is distressed if a spokesman for the people tells you directly: You are superfluous, you and your work are unnecessary! All of you go and hang yourselves in Laterman’s boulevard; the people will know about your righteous end as much as they knew about your life and work! ... My feeling was similar to that of a man who has been walking three long hours in the night and is tired out and sleepy; when finally he thinks he sees the bright window of his home he suddenly realises in fear that he is standing at the same crossroads from which he started out on his miserable trek...

What then?

I did not doubt for a second that the people were speaking the truth and that the church bells sing out the clear song: this so-called cultural activity is a fruitless loss, like water disappearing in sand. And that that the wise-man’s words about the gallows in Laterman’s boulevard were just...

In this state of pain and dejection a merciful man grabbed me by the arm and led me into an inn. He opened wide the doors, stretched out his arm and spoke these wise words:

Do not grieve, my friend! For in truth none of you are working for the people; all your efforts and sufferings are unnecessary if you believe you are offering something to the people; the people do not understand you just as you do not understand them! – But, my friend: sursum corda! You are not working for the people but you are working for the nation; you are not suffering for the people but you are suffering for the nation; you are offering something to the nation and the nation will be grateful to you!

I did not understand this profound wisdom, but my friend who was merciful explained this in a very pleasant way:

Look at this large, smoke-filled, poorly lit room! Look at these people! Their faces are rough, their eyes express more worry and hate than learning, their hands are heavy and awkward, their clothes patched and crumpled, their breath smells of brandy... See, these are the people! Their cheeks are rough from being burned by the sun, their hands are heavy and awkward because they are tired by heavy work, their eyes are filled with worry and hate because they have seen injustice and their breath smells of brandy because champagne is expensive... See, these are the people! ... Stand up in front of them and read them some Maeterlinck or Wedekind and they will say to you: Do not mock, scoundrel, for your ears are long ... And they will also say: Pay up, culture, what you owe my work, then bow down to me that I too may bow down to you ...

So, my friend, we have seen the people, let us now look at the nation.

The nation was sitting in the drawing room and was already a little drunk. The room was bright and pleasant, the tables were set. And at the tables sat the happy, loud-voiced nation dressed in black.

Its face was red and hot; wine was seeping from its cheeks, its eyes were burning with joy for life. A handsome man got up from the table, knocked the ring on his finger against a glass and began to speak:

Ladies and gentleman! As we are so finely gathered here it is necessary that we show the damn enemies who we are! What is the Slovenian nation? The Slovenian nation is being trampled upon – waiter, shut the doors so the smell of the people with their brandy and tobacco will not reach us – it is being trampled upon I say! But it is unjust that our nation should suffer this contempt and scorn: its culture has come very far – that’s it shut them – the damn people! – and our nation has stepped in line with other mighty nations! So we can proudly sing...

And the hymn »Slovenec sem ...« [»I am a Slovenian«] resounded magnificently through the room: Then they wanted to sing »Hej, Slovani« [»Hey Slavs«] but their heads bowed and their voices died away... The people left early because they were tired while the nation stayed under the table and slept...

 

*

 

My friend was cruel but all truth is cruel.

He showed me the nation as it is in its midnight enthusiasm, which is most sincere and which most clearly reveals the state of our culture... Our national feast-days, our culture’s great fairs, were nothing more than midnight enthusiasm ... With what pomp they greeted the first Slovenian art exhibition! One would have thought the day of resurrection had suddenly dawned, that our art was saved, our culture rehabilitated and that we can step shameless before the nation that gave birth to Michelangelo! But hardly had the sun gone down, the honourable speakers escaped to the inns and smirked and laughed: That was a joke! Never seen anything like it! Did you see those scribbles? I wouldn’t give a halfpenny for it all! Jakopich says he has painted a saint but he resembles a Ljubljana rascal or a vagabond from Trieste more than a saint! I prefer one of those worthless drawings they sell behind St. Nicholas’! ...

– A little earlier you mentioned resurrection day! – says the young poet in surprise.

The speaker mercifully reprimands and instructs him: Resurrection day, culture, art, science – these, dear little poet, are midnight ghosts! A wise patriot calls on them by day because he knows they do not come; and at midnight he leaves them alone! ...

The second story, which I have already once related, is even more pleasant. They prepared a great assembly, a great manifestation in favour of a Slovenian university. The hall was packed full of the educated, enthusiastic, respectable nation dressed in black; the people were nowhere to be seen and it was better that they were not there: they would have been as out of place in the hall as a manual labourer in the editorial office of the »Piccolo«. The speakers took their turns to address the public; there was a long line of them. They spoke so that the earth trembled and tears welled up in my eyes for I am a sensitive soul. That evening I was convinced that the Slovenian nation was saved once and for all, or that it would be saved at the latest the next morning at dawn.

After the ceremony the honourable speakers went to an inn, wiped their perspiring brows and smirked:

So much work for such nonsense! Why do we need a university! Even if we had three of them: one in Ljubljana, one in Shishka and one in Vrhnika, – I would go to Vienna! –

– But you spoke so well! – says the sensitive poet in surprise. The speaker grows angry:

Speak! Do you think I will speak about our lack of culture? Am I not a patriot? Learn to distinguish between ideas and words, between intelligence and enthusiasm! We speak about culture because we do not have it; if we had it we would keep quiet about it! –

And the poet bowed his head in shame...

The third story is also quite pleasant.

In Ljubljana a monument was erected to Presheren and they prepared a great celebration. Who was being celebrated: Presheren, his monument, or father Janez Bleiweis, or mayor Hribar has not yet been established; what is certain is that the nation has not yet seen so great a celebration; all were enthused beyond measure, particularly because they did not know why. All the nation knew about Presheren was that he liked to drink wine, that he lived outside wedlock and that he sang romantic songs; all they knew about the monument was that it is unspeakably tasteless – but the celebration was nice and it was a nice day too. It was a nice day and the evening was even better. Never had so much cvichek been drunk in Ljubljana, never had so many speeches been made, whole streams of the loudest phrases trickled down the streets and flowed into the Ljubljanica. The nation was enthused and was manifesting its steadfast patriotism in style – and the feast was a circus of awkward cheerleading and drum-beating pan-Slavism. Presheren’s monument was at the fair but Presheren’s spirit was not; the nation was at the fair but the people were not! –

The people did not arrive until the afternoon. And the people did not celebrate; they were not enthused, not by Presheren’s monument, not by the pan-Slav drum, not by the flood of clichés. The people came to greet the man who fifty years ago had felt in his despair and in his pain what the people now see for themselves – a bright goal on the mountain: »The greater part of the world belongs to the children of Slava. We will find the way there –«

That is when the immense gap between the people and the nation became manifestly clear. Maybe they both felt this great distance, the people and the nation – maybe they both saw this infinitely wide and fathomless gulf, which has always separated them and which is full to the brim with the putrid water of putrid clichés ...

 

*

 

The situation is as follows: the people are alien to culture while the nation knows it only by name and uses it as an excuse for drunken enthusiasm. Our culture hangs in the air, lives a life of its own – and when some day it disappears, no eye will shed a tear over it, the nation and the people will carry on living their lives in peace and in war as they have lived this far. The people have their church and their sermons just as they had them three hundred years ago; as for the nation, Marko Pohlin also satisfies its enthusiasm; – and after all we now have so many famous names that they would suffice for one thousand national feast-days...

The truth is being proclaimed by both sides: culture is needed neither by the people nor by the nation! –

 

*

 

What is culture? What is the meaning of this word which we are all so familiar with and which is at the same time so terribly alien to us? Literature, art, science – these are only external expressions, documents of the nation’s culture, documents of the nation’s artistic and material wellbeing. Our Slovenian culture, in its present state, is the result of all our artistic and material efforts since the beginning of the nation’s conscious existence and to this day. – The history of the nation’s culture and the history of the nation itself is the history of political, social and economic development.

 

 *

 

Until recently it was even unwise to talk about Slovenian national culture. The history of the Slovenian nation is the history of a serf, a farmhand who has served since time immemorial and who has grown so accustomed to serving that servitude has become his nature. For centuries he served politically and socially the lord who was closest to him; for centuries his enslaved soul trod in the dark night the road that leads to Rome. The first joyous sign of the freshly sprouting culture manifested itself in the time of the Reformation. In the second half of the sixteenth century Primozh Trubar and Jurij Dalmatin erected the first great monument to Slovenian culture. It is narrow-minded and unreasonable to say that that great movement was only a religious movement and that, therefore, it had no more significance for the Slovenian nation than that it was a small step from one church to another, from one spiritual servitude to another. In this as in all important cultural struggles, it was the great but dormant longing for freedom present amongst the people that was released. The religious reformers were the initiators of this longing and were those that led it towards the goal. In this struggle against the tradition of servitude those first ones used the weapon that is literature and thereby wrote the first document of Slovenian culture: the first document of longing for freedom, for greater wellbeing of body and soul. –

And because they did this, they were met by the fate that met the vast majority of artists and writers: exiled from their homeland they perished in obscurity while their work was destroyed by the Church of Rome using fire and the sword... The Slovenian nation sank into even greater servitude, its back bent under a heavy yoke...

 

*

 

The other great cultural movement were the peasant uprisings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Every inch of freedom won by the people is a step forward in culture. Those desperate peasants whose desperation pushed them to crazy heights of bravery, who burned down the manor houses and who stood up against the emperor’s army with scythes, flails and pitchforks, those peasants who hung reeves and drove noblemen to pull ploughs, were no less workers on the field of Slovenian culture than Trubar and Dalmatin. – Matija Gubec who in Zagreb was made to sit on a red-hot throne and was crowned with a red-hot crown and given a red-hot sceptre to hold in his hand deserves to be remembered forever with a bronze throne on Mark’s Square and a crown of gold. – Trubar and Dalmatin wrote in their books a memorial to their great work while the revolting peasants wrote it into the stony Slovenian earth with their hot blood...

For they were met by the fate which is the fate of the vast majority of artists and writers: they died in shame and their work was destroyed with fire and the sword! ...

 

*

 

No work done by man to achieve freedom, i.e. for the benefit of culture, ever disappears; neither fire nor the sword can destroy it forever! – It was the blood of those first workers of ours that made fertile the field of all our later culture. And when the harvest ripens, when the scythes are ready, we will remember the martyrs! –

 

*

 

One hundred years and more the Slovenian nation lay on the ground, a slave of foreign nobility. It grew accustomed to servitude like a horse grows accustomed to a horse-collar. It surrendered and humbled itself to such an extent that it could no longer imagine either itself or its neighbour not being chased by a reeve with whip in hand. That nice tale about Peter and Paul by Trdina is particularly true and just (...........). (this slave-like Slovenian soil would dishonour the sole of a free man!) The nation was roused only under the influence of a fresh wind blowing from France; the Slovenian nation’s eyes too lit up when in Paris the light of the great French Revolution flared up... and Vodnik greeted Napoleon’s sceptre with enthusiasm... Well, this rebirth was like a momentary [awakening], when one shakes himself and one’s eyes sparkle... Napoleon left – and if the people had previously been beaten with whips they were now beaten with scorpions.

What it was like for the Slovenians in the time between Napoleon and Franz Josef is described by Dr. Lonchar in his brochure The Political Life of Slovenians:

»The social, cultural and political situation of Slovenians in the pre-March period was hopeless. The local nobility was completely lost; the aristocracy was estranged from the nation and worked for German, Italian and Hungarian interests. It was by Slovenian hard labour that they grew rich to the detriment of the Slovenian nation. The bourgeoisie too was un-Slovenian in spirit and partly also of non-Slovenian extraction. Small businesses and traders depended on the foreign nobility and foreign officials and therefore adapted their thinking and their behaviour accordingly... The peasant was not free but subject to the lord of the castle. He was crushed by the compulsory labour and the tithes as well as heavy taxes... Serfdom had a negative effect on the morale of the Slovenian nation, making it servile and humble like a slave in the face of nobility, which is understandable if the nobleman’s officials included stewards who boasted: “I am the fourth person of the Godhead on Earth!” –« 

*

 

In the second half of this sad period lived and wrote the greatest Slovenian poet, Presheren. The political and social circumstances he lived in, the way he and his closest friends lived, disappeared and died, were the first and terrible signs of the new age. Presheren lived like a proletarian and wanted to hang himself before he was saved by death; Andrej Smole, an idealist, lived a tumultuous life and died in misery; Chop drowned.

The life, work and death of these people are a tragedy which has yet to be written and which opens wide the door to our nation’s past and its future up to the days we live in.

The gulf between the nation and the people had never before opened up as clearly as it did in Presheren’s time. Presheren was a great poet and the people no longer understood him; his poems, sung from the heart, resounded and died away without an echo – the people did not hear them. The people no longer knew those who gave up their body and their soul at the people’s altar. There began a long series of tragedies, a terrible series which is not over to this day. The whole length of our culture’s steep road has been sprinkled and rendered fertile with blood and tears.

All our great and just poets, artists and academics who with honest thought and power of will built up our culture’s edifice – they all paid for their actions with their happiness and their lives. To the nation they loved they were foreigners, in the best of cases they were unknown, usually they were mocked and ridiculed. The book of Slovenian culture is written not in letters of gold but in letters of blood.

About why it was this way and why it had to be this way – I will speak tomorrow! –

 

*

Ladies and Gentlemen!

 

I have been told by some otherwise very intelligent and clever people that I spoke yesterday in a way that was not understood by the people. This is simply a curse that plagues me. I came to formally protest against the idea that we Slovenian writers and artists do not work for the people, that the people do not understand us – and look, yet again they have failed to understand the protest. This is really sad and it pains me; believe me I cried when I heard it and read it... So I ask you dear ladies and gentlemen: if amongst you there is a university graduate or educated patriot who does not understand my words, contact me and it will be my pleasure to explain what is necessary...

As the occasion is fitting, let me mention another particularly curious thing that happened to me in Trieste. A patriot was writing and saying that I do not understand the circumstances in Trieste and that the people of Trieste do not understand the Carniolans and that it would therefore be better if I stayed in Ljubljana (and the people of Ljubljana would tell me to stay in Vienna) – in other words: what the hell brought you here, go back where you came from. – In one sense the patriot was right in saying that I do not understand the situation in Trieste. For I was not aware that the patriots in Trieste had thrown Unified Slovenia into the Adriatic Sea and that we now again have seven Slovenian provinces. Being a humble Slovenian writer and pan-Slovenian socialist I thought I was at home everywhere I set foot in the Slovenian homeland. I now see that the patriots acted differently and I accept this as a fact. As for us social democrats, we will remain pan-Slovenian as we were and we will stick firmly to our national autonomy, which will not include just the surroundings of Trieste but all of Slovenia from the Adriatic to the Drava! –

Last night I spoke about the nation and the people, about the terrible fate of our culture and the misery of our artists and writers. Let me say some more on this sad subject! –

 

II

 

Not long ago I saw some workers who were neither professionally nor politically organised. They were sitting in close groups, men and women, in a filthy, stuffy inn; in front of each couple there was a bottle of brandy. Never before have I seen such drained, sunken faces – drained and sunken from heavy labour, from poor living conditions and from brandy. They were singing folk songs – hoarse shouting without melody and without words... As I watched them and listened to them I felt sick – not sick from the stuffy air which billowed from the inn as from a lime-kiln, nor from the smell of alcohol – but sick through shame and rage.

 

In anger and shame I wondered: are not even these uneducated, unorganised people whom the respectable cultured nation has disdainfully rejected and whom it calls brutish – are not even these people doing something for the culture? Does not all culture rest on their exhausted shoulders as Greek culture once rested on the shoulders of the helots and Roman culture on the shoulders of slaves? Is not the work of these disdained, unknown people the foundation on which we build our culture’s tower of Babel that is now almost touching the clouds? ... Our culture’s tower of Babel is touching the clouds and those that carry it on their weary shoulders cannot see it for their blurry eyes are cast downwards! ...

I could hear their wild, indistinct shouting and hung my head and went on my way in shame...

 

*

 

A few days later I visited a friendly family in Ljubljana and they offered me tea to drink. The flat was arranged according to an unusual, very artistic taste. I saw furniture, collected and chosen by an attentive, sensitive hand and mature eyes so that all the precious antiques: skilfully carved Carniolan chests, wardrobes, old chairs, majolicas from different times and places, gilded belts and headdresses from old Slovenian national costumes with golden thread – all these things went pleasingly and naturally together with products of more recent date.

The room was pleasant and the people in the room even more so. Their young faces, happily smiling eyes, relaxed gestures – all full of life! No past, no memories, no regrets, no fear; a cheerful gaze happily considering a happy future!

I spoke with them; their clear voices revealed intelligence of spirit and of heart. All the beautiful things that our culture had given birth to were known to them and dear to them, had become part of their hearts and understanding. It was with the ease and insouciance of a child that they had plucked the golden fruits which the tree of our culture had borne; that tree which had sprouted up from the ground rendered fertile by the hard labour and corpses of our artists and writers ...

As I stepped out onto the road I remembered those drunken, drained and worn out people... God knows if it was not a wicked turn of fate that made the cultural work of these people, who were like living corpses buried alive, take such a strange course and that in its final run it changed into the friendly smile of the beautiful, innocent Melita ...

And I remembered the young exhausted worker women dressed in dusty rags who aged prematurely – who are born and work and drop into an early grave, – who lived without seeing life. God knows if it was not the wicked will of fate that made the life and work of one of those workers for the culture take such a strange course, that in its final destination it changed into the bright gaze of the black-eyed, innocent Anka ...

 

*

 

Culture developed, inevitably, in parallel with political and social developments. On the political and state scene, the power of the bourgeoisie came into effect while on the social scene the power of capitalism predominated. And all culture, at least its external manifestations became bourgeois and capitalistic; in other words culture was at the service of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. The vast majority of people were makers of culture through their work, but were not its consumers... Chinese kulis dig for diamonds in the Transvaal which are then worn by ladies in New York; female workers in Belgium produce precious and highly artistic lace which is then worn by demimondaines in Paris... Dragotin Kette continued in Presheren’s vein and wrote immortal verse; he died at the age of twenty-three in great poverty and the people do not know of the great value of his verse, which has been seized upon by the small portion of bourgeois youth that is fond of art...

 

*

 

Just as modern capitalist society has seized the people’s hands and the people’s work because it has taken possession of the means of production, in exactly the same way it has also enslaved those who work with their intellect. The writer, the artist and the academic are just as much farmhands and slaves of bourgeois society as are factory and railway workers and miners. Culture is unthinkable without material wellbeing, without material culture. Whoever has succeeded in acquiring the means for producing material culture has at the same time succeeded in possessing culture and has hired it to be his maid... Just as the backbreaking labour of millions and millions of people creates wellbeing and comfort for a small minority of people, in the same way the fruits of art are a source of joy and entertainment for this small minority alone...

A concrete example: the lord of the manor lives in a beautiful villa, half an hour away from the city. The plan for the villa was drawn up by an artist/architect, it was constructed by builders, painted and decorated by painters and artists, the statues were erected by the sculptor, the garden tended by the gardener. When the workers and artists finished their work they all carried on with their lives while the lord of the manor came and took up residence there as if he had built and decorated the villa himself and as if it were his rightful and well-deserved home... In the evening he puts on his black suit made for him by a tailor, a little earlier he has had a light supper prepared for him by a cook, then he sits in his carriage, made by factory workers and driven by a driver, and goes to the theatre to see a play or an opera written by an artist in honour and for the entertainment of the lord of the manor and which is put on by actors or opera singers; behind him in the box sits the servant in livery, to clap or whistle instead of his lazy master, and after this the lord of the manor may go to a restaurant to have a second supper and perhaps also read a humorous article written by me for the lord of the manor to help his digestion...

This is a concrete example but it seems to me that it reveals both the ridiculousness and the injustice of the way capitalist society works. The lord of the manor will of course reply in anger and offence: They are all paid: the architect, the builder, the painter, the sculptor, the gardener, the tailor, the driver, the factory worker, all including the writer who wrote the play and the composer who wrote the music for the opera, even the walk-ons are paid... and perhaps even Cankar did not write his article for free...

After all: only a wily man from Ribnica managed to teach his horse to live without food; but as soon as the horse got used to this he died...

The worker and the artist are in the service of capital, nourishing it and multiplying it with the power of their hands and their intellect, constantly accumulating ever greater material and artistic culture... It is only in their hands and in their intellect that capital has come alive, that the means of production have begun to function... The capitalist receives a rich blessing, sits in the restaurant and digests...

 

*

 

For the Slovenian nation this development of culture was a much greater misfortune than for all other nations. Our bourgeoisie developed very slowly; not long ago the majority of our bourgeoisie consisted of foreigners who were hostile to the Slovenian population and Slovenian culture. The vast majority of this so-called Slovenian bourgeoisie is still very young and directly descended from the peasants and the workers.

It is strange and thought-provoking that the youth and peasant origin of our bourgeoisie are of no benefit neither for the bourgeoisie itself nor for the people and least of all for culture.

In other nations the bourgeoisie has preserved or at least acquired culture, or even just pretends to love and understand it and plays the role which used to be played by the rich aristocrats and bishops – kind protectors and at the same time cruel masters of culture and those that create it.

The majority of our bourgeoisie resembles an awkward butcher who knows neither how to read or write and who has never heard a thing about art or science and who unexpectedly wins the lottery jackpot. Now he is a fine gentleman. He buys a carriage with two pairs of horses, puts his top hat on at a cocked angle, on each one of his ten fat fingers he slips three diamond rings, drives down the promenade and shouts to the people: take off your hats, I am an aristocrat! ...

One respectable, honest and educated politician stated publicly in Ljubljana the other day: I am a bourgeois, we are the bourgeois party. And he who said this is the son of a poor farmer and it is clear from a mile off that he still wears hobnailed shoes.

I know many others who would never sit at the same table as workers in their work-clothes ... in Ljubljana there are many of them and in Trieste too there is probably no lack of them. I once saw a young gentleman who was ashamed because his mother who was dressed in peasant style went down the road together with him; he walked one step ahead of her and pretended not to know her.

These upstarts of ours, these butchers with their cocked top hats are only bourgeois on the outside, are only aristocrats on the outside. The only virtue of the foreign bourgeoisie and aristocracy which is that they protect and help nurture culture, or at least enjoy it, is completely absent from our bourgeoisie. I know a gentleman in Ljubljana who is an aristocrat from head to toe, a great patriot and enthusiastic about all one hundred of our national idols or how many of them there are. He has been elected to various necessary and unnecessary committees, almost every evening he presides one or other necessary or unnecessary meeting – in other words, a pillar of the Slovenian nation, one of the most distinguished and meritorious of pillars... And I asked him: Have you read this or that? – No. I do not read modern Slovenian literature as a matter of principle. – Have you seen the exhibition? – No, I do not go to see exhibitions as a matter of principle! – No, I do not go and see plays as a matter of principle! –

– Look, this principled patriot is typical of these enthusiastic Slovenian patriots. He constantly talks about culture, is offended if anyone denies the Slovenian nation its culture and yet does not so much as move his little finger for it; he is and wishes to remain narrow-minded – but with principles! –

 

*

 

The members of our bourgeoisie who have preserved or gained a sense for culture are very few in number. So few that on their own they can no longer keep the company known as Slovenian culture up and running. Nowadays, the consumers of what artists and writers produce are mainly girls from the more well-to-do households, female teachers and grammar school pupils. The bourgeoisie has turned its back on culture, no longer pays those that produce it and Slovenian culture is facing bankruptcy.

 

*

This bankruptcy is terrible, more terrible and more shameful for the nation than if all the Slovenian banks went bankrupt. This bankruptcy is terrible and shameful and has lasted several long decades; unemployed workers stray about like beggars from one corner to another, from one place to another.

The day when the ruined company that is Slovenian culture will be healed and expanded is a long way away yet; but it will be healed and expanded by the Slovenian people! –

 

*

 

The principled patriot asks enthusiastically:

Why do you poets not compose for the people, why do you artists not paint for the people, why do you scholars not write for the people?

How much hypocrisy in this question and how much stupidity!

Human society as it stands this day, robbed the working population of an education and any superior culture because it needed it to work in the fields, in the factories, on the railways and in the mines. That is how it used the hands of slaves and the work of slaves to build the foundations for culture and material wellbeing. Then it hired and enslaved artists and writers and academics to build the beautiful edifice of art and science on these foundations... And now that the time to pay up has come, the edifice being almost finished, the ruined company comes and asks: Who hired you? Why are you not working for the people? I do not need your art, I did not order it! Work for the people! You, Zupanchich, go off to the railway and read your sonnets to the fireman! You, Lajovic, drag your piano into the mine and compose a symphony for the miners! You, Groshelj, go to the mill and explain Darwin’s theory to the working women! And you, my dear Cankar, go and read your short stories to the scoundrels of Ljubljana! –

Artists and writers were forced by the evolution of human society to alienate themselves from the mass of the people; the evolution of culture forced them to continue building where their forefathers had begun. And as today’s capitalist society has taken possession of all work, both physical and intellectual, as this society has refused to give the people any culture and refuses even nowadays to give it the art of reading and writing – it was inevitable that the gap between the artists and writers and the people kept getting wider. They were alienated from the people, and the society which alienated the people from them has itself turned its back on them now. It has turned its back on them and is now mocking them by saying: Why are you not working for the people?

 

*

 

This is how the servants of bankrupt Slovenian culture nowadays live the terrible life of an unemployed factory worker.

You are aware of how miserably our poets and artists from Presheren onwards have lived. And the misery is increasing as the number of these so unnecessary artists and writers is growing while there are no customers for the company has gone bankrupt... I used to write about the fate and life of artists but people only half believed me and thought I was telling romantic stories. But not one word is exaggerated, not one word is untrue – the truth itself is so cruel and so ugly that it is difficult to describe it and there is no need for any fantasy whatsoever.

 

Perhaps you are acquainted with the history of the Ljubljana sugar mill,

(The life there, Kette and Murn.)

The exhibition in the Salon Miethke gallery, Vienna (Grohar’s starvation).

Tratnik in Munich (for a cup of coffee – a landscape).

Smrekar’s postcard from Munich.

Our life in Vienna – in the Studentenheim.

Zupanchich’s Across the plain – much fame, few cigarettes.

My book – which the bishop set fire to – my flats – more humorous.

Academics find neither publishers nor printers. – That’s not for the people!

 

*

 

Now the question is: where is the way out of this bankruptcy, this unemployment? The principled patriot gave us a nice, precise answer to this question without even wanting to when he asked in a mocking tone: Why do you not write for the people? –

He gave us a nice fair answer and told us what we had already felt for a long time and wanted in our hearts: may it happen as it should happen: with the people to the people. When it perishes – and I pray this will happen soon – this rotten society with all its capital sins, then that which our artists and writers built in its cruel bondage must not die with it. Then it will be evident that our artists and writers, enslaved by the unjust and dishonest society were working for the people; and once the people place their heavy foot on the neck of this false nation and this false patriotism, the people will pluck the fruits from the tree that the cultural serfs planted for their ungrateful masters and fertilised with their hearty blood! – All that they did and created, all that our artists, writers and peasants suffered and died for– from Trubar and Dalmatin, from Matija Gubec and the revolting peasants – to Presheren and Kette and all those who suffer and work in the shame-filled present – all this will one day be the free property of the free people! –

  

*

 

The principled and enthusiastic patriot becomes afraid when he hears such words. He is afraid and says: But I too am for the people! He says this especially when elections are looming. For the principled and enthusiastic patriots are strangely obsessed with representing the people wherever, whenever and in any way possible. – But I too am for the people! –

Fear of the people and disdain for the people ooze from him. He sticks religiously to some old dusty traditions he calls national idols; the people are still something that sits or stands before him, he shouts »hello« three times and disappears not to be seen again – until the next elections. For him the people are nothing more than a tricolour flag which criss-crosses Slovenia, stopping at various national fairs, so the papers can then write: »Our valiant compatriots from Trieste have come too.« –

But as soon as the people are roused, as soon as they see that the tricolour is not all that matters but that corporal wellbeing comes first and only then national celebration – the patriot is offended and shouts and speaks ill of the people who have so suddenly and so unexpectedly extricated themselves from the tricolour flag. This radical patriot would be happiest if the Slovenian people that have grown tired of merrily greeting the leadership programs because they have too many other worries – if all these people left for America, or even the moon. – With every word, every gesture, every action, the top hat wearing patriot shows that he finds the people repulsive, that he is simply afraid of them. With every word in each of his election programs he shows that he likes – not the people, but the humbleness of the people. As long as the people are humble, as long as they believe in empty clichés, as long as they carry the flag all over the homeland and erect triumphal arches and maypoles for these top-hat and tails wearing idols – then the people are the nation and are called our good, faithful people. – As soon as they become aware of their power and their rights – then they immediately become the misled people, the bewildered people, or with one word: the people – and the patriot turns away from them in disgust... This is the best explanation: an enthusiastic patriot is in favour of people’s rights but not the people’s right. The people’s right is only one – while there are very many rights and they have so many different names; in Trieste they call them idols. These idols – I would really love to see once what they look like – are a source of great enthusiasm for the patriots; they hate that one, great, last right because they are afraid of it; and when the social revolution wins for us this last great right, it will also have won for us the great culture of the people – and then there will be no more room neither for the idols, that are otherwise worthy of all respect, nor for the nation, nor for its sentimental patriots! –

May it become patently clear to these involuntary friends of the people how hollow their patriotism is and that it means something contrary to love for the people – in the end they ask so innocently: How am I not a friend of the people? I am! – That is what they are like, like the Carniolan clericalist who kisses the parish priest’s hand then wonders: Me a clericalist? What is clericalism? ...

(A story about peasants.)

 What hatred for the people? What is hatred for the people? I am a friend of the people! – He is a friend – but last night the rascals stole his fur coat! –

 

*

 

Not long ago I met a man who has lived with workers for fifteen years now. When he joined them people spat at him, even the parish priest humiliated himself to such an extent that he spat in his mouth – go away you godless person, antichrist! – When he began teaching the workers, to make them first of all aware of the injustice which made them slaves, – he did not find a room in the whole place and was forced to hide with his friends at night on some field or meadow. Wherever he appeared, there immediately appeared a couple of gendarmes. And it was not rare that he found himself contemplating his cultural work between four walls and living off the state. He even had to escape the homeland and flee to Switzerland – but of course he returned after a couple of months and continued his work.

Now, fifteen years later, those workers are professionally and politically organised, and are culturally far superior to many patriots who are university graduates; there is no more smell of brandy, the singing is no longer devoid of melody and words – but I do not believe the words would be to the liking of the patriots; their library is well-stocked and I found to my pleasure that the books are well used and even the books the patriots say are not written for the people show signs of wear... I saw then and there what true, brave, persistent work is; work that is not afraid of anything, that does not waver and never despairs. When I saw this great work I felt my own work was very insignificant and of hardly any use. For I discovered the only path which can save the people from servitude, save culture from its present-day bankruptcy, save artists and writers from shameful unemployment, contempt and humiliation! –

 

*

 

The only road is the people’s struggle, a ruthless struggle until such time as the last barricade falls, until the final goal is reached! The struggle for complete social and political liberation – cultural freedom cannot exist without social and political freedom. For as long as the people will be slaves of society, slaves of this anonymous nation – they will continue to live in bondage and culture too will be humiliated and devoid of rights. The struggle for the liberation of the people is a cultural struggle – and whoever speaks ill of this struggle, whoever says it has dishonest goals, is an enemy of the people and an enemy of culture.

 

 

 

EDITORS NOTE

Although over one hundred years have passed since Cankar’s lecture entitled The Slovenian People and Slovenian Culture was held on two evenings – the 24th and 25th April 1907 in the hall of the Workers’ Centre in Trieste, and although the text is inevitably marked by the period in which it was written, it nevertheless contains a whole series of razor-sharp socio-critical formulations, which considered more broadly with a sense for »textual metaphor« even nowadays sound astonishingly pertinent (no less so than Cankar’s plays), especially in the context of present-day »neo-capitalism« as comments on the Eastern European socialist intermezzo. The relationships: the people – the nation, the people – culture, the nation – culture (national and »supranational«), politics – culture, the poor – the rich, the right – the left (Cankar ibid.: »both Slovenian political sides«) are key focal points of the unrelentingly truth-loving (Cankar ibid.: »all truth is cruel«) essayistic analysis of the Slovenian ethnic phenomenon in »space and time«. Edinost, the journal of the political association of the same name at that time in Trieste, complained about the lecture saying that due to radical criticism from central Slovenia it is unsuitable for Slovenians from Trieste who lie exposed at the fringes.

(editor I. A.)

 

 

 

Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich

 

 

 

Slovenian (gajica)

Slovenian (bohorichica)