Slovak literary essay in the context of social and cultural development

The term essay for particular literary or journalistic texts in Slovak literature started to be used only since the 1880´s. The literary historian Rudolf Chmel  states this fact in his introduction to the anthology of Slovak literary essay Thought and Form (Myšlienka a tvar) published in 1981. Of course, texts nowadays called essays were written before, approximately since the 1850´s. But even so, quite a long time had passed since the first publication of Montaigne´s Essais in 1580. However we were not the only ones to experience such a delay due to objective historical circumstances. The situation was almost identical in all neighbouring countries and essays started to be written during the 19th century but the art of writing them was fully developed only in the following century when literature became more differentiated and the main features constituting an essay were defined in more precise and concrete terms. The original meaning of the word essay (to try out) has been replaced by a new definition that came from the very nature of the text. We now know that the essay is a text original both in content and style, that authors avoid using technical terms in favour of straightforward description, aphorism and paradox and that each essay brings up problems rather than solutions. The author then guarantees its persuasiveness. Personal approach to pressing social, scientific or literary issues is essential. These issues have to provoke the author to express his opinion. The essay is usually open in its content as well as form. That depends entirely on its personal nature. Without leading personalities in culture (literature and art) no essays can be written.

            The beginnings of Slovak essay, as I have already mentioned, date back to the second half of 19th century. That was the time of our national revival (in fact the national revival of the whole of Central Europe) and stabilization of our language. Nation and language were the most frequent subjects of essays in those times. From the three leading personalities of our national revival movement (Ľudovít Štúr, Jozef Miloslav Hurban, Michal Miloslav Hodža) J. M. Hurban was the one most inclined to writing essays. He was a strong and versatile person, powerful prose writer, journalist, founder of magazines, editor and passionate organizer of political, cultural and literary life. Most representative of his essays is the one titled Slovakia and its literary life, published in 1851. His son Svetozár Hurban Vajanský – poet, prose writer, journalist, editor and organizer of  political, cultural and literary life – had the same affinity to writing essays. And according to Rudolf Chmel he was the first to use the word essay  in 1880 when the monthly magazine Slovenské pohľady was restored (continuing in the tradition of a magazine founded by his father in 1846 under the same name). The real development of Slovak essay writing  came only after World War I. with the independent Czechoslovak Republic.

            The social and cultural situation of Slovaks changed considerably at that time. Instead of being an opressed ethnic minority in the Austro-Hungarian Empire they became one of two equal nations that formed an independent state. At last they were given their own schools (secondary and university level) and thus an opportunity to catch up with the more advanced neighbouring nations. Education was no longer controlled by the Church only and pervaded  all spheres of public life. Weak tributaries of prewar cultural life grew stronger and formed a powerful stream. There was an increased production in literature and art. This favourable change also affected  the situation in Slovak essay writing. The major subject of the genre was still  literature, but because literary work did not serve as an alternative to politics anymore, literary essays also turned away from politics, finally focusing on its own subjects. The leading figure of the first postwar decade was Štefan Krčméry, poet, critic, esthetician, literary historian, journalist, refounder and chief editor of the reknown magazine Slovenské pohľady. He was inspired by H. Bergson´s philosophy and  B. Croce´s esthetic and the main source of inspiration in literature for him was impressionism. Krčméry´s essays – all concerning literature – are based on associativeness which was the underlying force of  his thinking. Krčméry´s associativeness stemmed from his perception of literature (and culture and society) as an organic whole in which one can move in time and space and discover similarities or differences between authors, works, schools and epochs. Krčméry spent his youth – the stage of life when one´s personality is formed – in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And he was strongly influenced by its multilanguage, multicultural and controversial multiethnic milieu. He identified himself with the Slovak nation but from a cultural point of view he was a true Central European, if not European. This fact became the main impulse for his writing, for his texts.

            During the 1930´s considerable growth was evident in Slovak literature and other arts. Since the 1920´s literature was open to several modern streams (such as impressionism, expressionism, symbolism) and this trend continued at a much faster pace in the following decade. A group of Slovak surrealists was formed, inspired by French surrealism and the Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval. Modern French and Czech Catholic poetry had strong influence on many poets belonging to the so called Catholic Modern. Traditional realism in prose was replaced by lyrical tendencies that eventually led to naturism. Its leading authors (Dobroslav Chrobák, Margita Figuli, František Švantner) tried to find a modern form of prose in folk tales, namely in demonic tales. Although thematically they kept to the Slovak village, they no longer perceived it  as a social fact, for them it was merely an esthetical fact. A separate group of poets (Laco Novomeský) and prose writers (Peter Jilemnický and others) influenced by the Russian revolution gathered around the magazine DAV introducing the practice of proletarian poetry a socialist realism into Slovak literature.

            All this great stir between the wars was encouraged substantially by literary critics who played an important role in the making of modern Slovak literature. Namely young critics studying in Prague (Alexander Matuška, Michal Chorváth, Jozef Felix) contributed to its progress by vehemently renouncing Slovak pettiness, mindless traditionalism, leniency in criticism etc. All three of them (namely Felix as a Romance scholar and translator who informed the literary public about French, Italian and Spanish literature) not only applied the highest criteria while evaluating literary works but they also stood up for their beliefs. Their contribution to the genre of essay is evident. Alexander Matuška proved himself as an essayist par excellence, he was very conscious of esthetic aspects of his texts, putting large amounts of „forming“ energy into them. As he said, he didn´t want to just write something and vanish from the reader´s sight and memory. On the contrary, he wanted the public to be aware of him as long as possible, in fact he wanted to be remembered forever which is something that his colleagues did not desire so strongly. That is why he formulates each sentence so precisely, bringing it carefully to the point, always works with hyperbolas and aphorisms to give more weight to what he meant to say and, of course,  to arouse the reader´s attention. He is witty and sarcastic quite often because he wants to assert his truth in spite of everybody. This self-centredness (focus on text form) should not be confused with narcism. There is a  serious effort hidden behind it to elevate this awkward and conservative nation, that keeps dwelling in the past, to a cultural level comparable with the rest of Europe. When speaking of true values in Slovak literature (Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, Janko Kráľ, Andrej Sládkovič), or European literature (Dostoyevski, Tolstoy etc.), his irony and sarcasm is replaced by genuine admiration.

            The founding of the Slovak State (1939, subordinate of the Third Reich) led to a confusion of values in culture and literature. Slovak nationalism grew stronger as could be expected (poets of the Catholic Modern group succumbed to it and after 1945 most of them emigrated) and so called spiritual tendencies became more prominent even in critical reflections. It should be said, however, that the main trends in Slovak prose and poetry from the 1930´s continued to live their own life, even if the régime did not approve and tried to direct the cultural sphere towards national socialism with little success. During the existence of Slovak State (1939 – 1945, later called Clerical Republic by writer Dominik Tatarka because it was led by a priest) critical reflections of national and Christian origin (in literature and sciences) appeared more often (L. Hanus, J. Kútnik-Šmálov, J. E. Bor etc.). Even in this atmosphere there was one extraordinary author, poet, prose writer, essayist and translator Pavel Strauss. He came from a Jewish family (during the war had to spend some time in a work camp at Nováky) but later became a Catholic and held his new belief for the rest of his life. During the war he was not allowed to publish and after February 1948 when the Communists came to power his Christian outlook became undesirable. His poems and essays were published mostly abroad (in Rome) and he was accepted by the régime much later. Even so, majority of his works were published only after 1989. Strauss´s essays do not persist on  emotions or stylistic constructions, they are based solely on intellect. The author enriched the genre by a style that is highly philosophical and concise. Strauss addressed a number of issues. As a writer and physician he was mainly interested in human fate and its ethical dimensions. His attitude can be characterized as Christian humanism with stress on the word humanism.

            After the Czechoslovak republic was restored in 1945 there was more space for literary work and critical thought. However, this period lasted only until February 1948. Pro-Soviet influences were evident from the very beginning and not only as a result of liberation by the Red Army, but also as a result of disappointment at the attitude of Western countries that did nothing to prevent the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Among prominent authors were mainly those who fought in the 1944 anti-Nazi Uprising (including three already mentioned critics Matuška, Chorváth, Felix). After 1948 all literature was totally under the control of ideology and politics and individual approaches were not acceptable. Views were  clearly established and authors could only elaborate on them. It was a difficult time for essayists. But the régime went through different stages, some harder, some more relaxed. During the latter (e.g. from 1956 until the end of 1960´s) some real jewels appeared. The début of poet Milan Rúfus in 1956 was an act not only literary but also moral, pointing out the false optimism of previous literary achievements. By the way, this outstanding poet wrote a number of essays with a moral message which were just as popular as his poetry. At that time the main moving power was represented by literary magazines where problems of art and society were solved. Among other genres it was again time for the essay. In 1968 the Czechoslovak Republic became a Federation which meant equal rights for both nations – Czech and Slovak – after a long period of an assymetrically organized state. This event had its influence on literature too. The writer Vladimír Mináč, who was undoubtedly in favour of socialist nature of literature and against everything modern, in his essays reflecting the role of Slovakia in history rejected the class view of nation and became very popular. Mináč´s essays are based on strong arguments and conceptuality, they are clearly written using unambiguous formulations. He is a born polemic and fighter, his arguments are always reasonable but his texts are also emotionally powerful, full of images and sensuous accuracy which enhance their impact.

            The democratization process was suppressed by Russian tanks in 1968. The new political leadership with Gustáv Husák at the head denounced social, political and cultural development before August 1968 as antisocialist, Dubček´s reforms were called rightist opportunism and progressive tendencies in art were labeled as attempts at implanting bourgeois ideology. If the régime wanted to stay in power, repressions were inevitable. These affected public life as a whole, but mainly the cultural sphere. Artists became divided into three camps: legal, dissident and emigré. The most active among authors who were banned from publishing  was Ivan Kadlečík who kept in touch with the Czech dissent and there he published in illegal samizdats. A former literary critic, he became an outstanding essayist. Critical reflections did not allow him to name everything that had so drastically changed his life. And so, instead of literary works he reflected his own fate. Critical activity was replaced by essays which were closer to prosaic form linked with reinforced creativity. We perceive the range of themes – nature, art, music –  as „forms“ of  his own life. His writing is dominated by the idea of unity of life (including death), earth and universe.

            When all barriers broke down in 1989 it seemed that there is nothing to prevent the flood of creative energy in culture and art. It did not happen. Authors felt uneasy in the new situation. Their social status suddenly changed. Slovak literature and art is still trying to find new meaning or meaningfulness of the creative process. The number of published works is quite high, the range of subjects, motives, approaches and methods is also wide; the postmodern is fashionable. But society – at least its cultural part – still awaits a work that would be a real event. Every historical change is usually followed by an outburst especially in publicistic genres. The essay was revived (Ladislav Ballek, Pavel Vilikovský, Pavel Hrúz) and it is good to know that this form of writing was also adopted by women writers who often address specific issues related to the female part of population (Etela Farkašová, Dana Podracká and others). The essay is mostly a reaction ad hoc which is why this genre is so temporary by nature. It can hardly be expected to form a continuous line. But even one at a time can please the heart of the reader and stir something inside him. And that is probably its true mission.

Translated by Alena Redlingerová