The Enduring and the Passing

We are told that we should not abandon ourselves – above all, not in these times - to feelings and sentiments, emotions and moods; we are told to believe in reason.

We do believe in reason, which is the measure of things; our trust in man is actually a faith in this mighty power of his.

But reason becomes warped, it calculates over-prudently and instead of advancing in knowledge it rationalises in the shallows.

And reason – which is worse still – has turned insubordinate, it has mutinied; human reason has become inhuman; there is no lord whom it would acknowledge above itself; and in the first place, not conscience. Originally the guarantor of measure, reason ruthlessly and fanatically oversteps all measure now; and out of it comes every kind of unreason; everything absurd, everything mad in our age, everything irrational is from the rational; and the universal ruin, which will not spare even the birds to cry over the waters, that too is being planned by reason.

Not abandon ourselves to sentiments and feelings? It seems that precisely in a world of calculating and dehumanised reason, the liberating and humanising significance of feelings comes to the fore – feelings, which are our prominent or stealthy guests at least in the blessed moments of daily life, in those times when silence seizes us and holds us, when the golden treasure of personality begins working in us, whatever we have in our depths, in the song of the riverbeds deepest down.

Who could be so impoverished that he does not have them? Who could have fallen so wretchedly in his human condition that – having them – he would spurn them?

Even those feelings and sentiments of ours which nail us to the cross of nostagia and torment our lives, because we are not able to fix our devotion either on the universal spaces in their frozen distance, or on the nearby chill all round us – those feelings too, though they give us nothing on which we can lean, on the contrary, they multiply the thinking reed by the reed that feels, they also are purifiers by their sorrow.

And those other, Pushkinian feelings, of equal weight, are positively reinforcing. They too expose us to transports of emotion, trembling and tears, but at the same time they create in us a new compactness; they build us up, they do not pull us down.

And in the first place the feeling of self, the feeling of one’s own dignity and personal freedom, through whose power we think about ourselves and also we reflect on ourselves, through which we are able to perceive and to experience in our general and individual human character; and not to stop there, not to remain bound in fashionable, self-indulgent analysis, but to set ourseves personally in motion, mindful of the old and strenuous words: “ You have to, you must,” or the softer, “You should.” Even if a man, acting according to this ethical priciple, were predestined a hundred and a thousand  times to failure, even if his service were only a service in vain – nothing could ennoble him more. Because the spirit-crushing machinery which they call objective law can spoil, but it cannot preclude, our human effort. Because even if institutions are our modern fate, it will still, even now, matter more what we are, each one of us, individually, than merely that we are. Whoever succumbs here, whoever lets himself slide, betrays the society which he was born into without any merits of his own, but for which he should make his greatest and most personal effort; it is only thus that – from the feeling of self – he will guard his human integrity, that which makes him an individual human being.

To appeal like this, in our age and in our situation, for each to take on his work of responsibility and overcome weakness of spirit, is high-handed, certainly, and naive. Very much so, if the appeal concerns itself only with solitary desires and impulses.

But alongside the self-feeling of individuality and together with it, there is the self-feeling of the society to which we belong.

This society spent the greater part of its existence in a struggle for its social being, for bare life, for bread. When, however, it achieved – already as a national society and in our times – if not actually comfort, if not actually an abundance, at least a sufficiency of bread, but bread that was linked with the denial and the degradation of national honour, with the deforming of humanity, here – wonder of wonders, wonder most wonderful and moving – the self-feeling and pure moral code of this nation was revealed. With food its appetite increased, but also the sour tang. And therefore it did not become compliant, therefore it did not give the whole of its heart to the thing it was engaged in. It withdrew the heart when it became aware that the standard of living can and must include the moral standard also; when it perceived that it should not be merely – as was said – “a manufacturer of steel and corn”, that it could be and should be something higher than that.

A small and petty nation? It surpassed itself then. It was not found trivial and venal; and that is an honour to it, like few other things in its history. Štúr could not have written of this people that it was a footstool. And Janko Kráľ could not have cried out in desperation that it was rotten wood and a glass broken in a thousand pieces and dust swept to and fro by every wind and trampled grass on a footpath ...

A peculiar feeling of self has sometimes thrust upon this community the idea that it is an enclave, that it can order its affairs all on its own, without regard for its surroundings; an idea which has often proved to be inopportune.

We will not be able to escape from our position or our location. We too are making our way in a civilization “which”, in the spectacular formulation of Saint-Exupéry, “once upon a time accomplished great things, which filled its apostles with burning zeal, vanquished the powers of violence, and liberated enslaved peoples”, but which today “cannot find inspiration and cannot turn to its faith”; in a civilization which – let us add – is barbarised and barbarising, which a man by the name of Einstein gazes on with dismay at the hour of his death, but where there is never any sign of a new Rousseau or a new Tolstoy, who – taking upon himself the risk of ridicule – with the tremendous power of his simplicity and naivete would nail that civilisation to the stocks in its apocapalyptic viciousness; we will find ourselves ever more in that civilisation, tumbling into it all by ourselves, and driven into it also. But we too can contribute to ensuring that human society does not change before our eyes and with our participation into a beehive or an anthill, that it will remain human and become more human; we too can contribute our humble share to this end, if we act on the conviction that a common thought without a plurality of nations is just as impossible as nations without a common thought.

In nationalism – for which the great reproach the small, while they gigantically cultivate their own – there is no salvation. Is there in patriotism? And not, rather, in its denial?

That may seem an old-world standpoint, now outmoded. A great deal has “gone out of mode”; fortunately there are values which continue enduring.

The simple and fundamental endures. The sense of truth, right and justice endures. Sympathy endures, and conscience. Love, loyalty and hope endure.

Love binds us to this country, to its natural features, to the bending of its grasses and cornstalks in the wind, to the murmur of its waters and mountains, to the silence of its stars and hidden ores.

Loyalty binds us to the language of this country, to its people – to the smooth velvet of young cheeks and the wrinkles of old age, to this people that wandered in the mournful pilgrimage of history, ground in the mills that ground it, ground away at it yet never ground it down, journeying by bends and turnings that marked it in every possible way, and yet did not divert it from its course.

Hope binds us to the strivings of the human being in this country, because this human being, stained as he was with the spittle of contempt in his degradation and feared in his defiance, wanted no more – no more, but also no less – than to be a human being.

Nature, historical pilgrimage, the strivings of man: even if it was only our human, all too human illusion that in our country these are different from elsewhere, it was a blessed illusion: one that sustained.

Were we preserved by the objective law of things? For certain. And apart from that, also – by love, loyalty and hope.

Something has happened, we must look again at ourselves, at our developing identity, so that we do not lose ourselves, so that we will feel who we are.

Something has happened, and we must again look into the past, which for us is not a piece of old lumber, a fetish or an idol, nor even merely a legend or a myth; to look there, not so that we can live off what once was and entrust ourselves to tradition, to extinguished lives and immobilised energies, to lights that have burnt out – for we, after all, have our own life and times. Rather, so that we can give back to ourselves what we ourselves have taken away. For ultimately it is not just natural beauty, not just history, not just the desire of man in our country for a human life, which we may fruitfully hold to now and in the future; in the last analysis it is everything elevated, non-transportable and unchangeable, which our national genius has created on this basis under its own name, driven by what a poet called “the divine discontent of the soul”.

If we are to raise ourselves out of our troughs and continue on our road, we must bring to mind this elevated thing, perceive it newly and come to love it thoroughly.

Not grandiosely, rather solemnly and pensively, so that in the silent twilight with narrowed eyes we may see clearly what otherwise we seldom see at all.

Our national genius has realised itself most strikingly in wood and in the word; in a word about the evil of the day, written on sand, and in a word torn from eternity, found for something that had no name and graven in boards; in a whispered word and a word mightily intoned; in a word graceful as a lovesong and severe as a chorale; in a word spoken measuredly and also – “with the pains of a sob choked back in the throat”; in a word christened with the burden of our national fate and the sadness of human destiny.

This word did not have the power, alas, to avert terrible things; but it did and it does have the power to make terrible things easier to bear.

Listen to it.


Translated by John Minahane