A SINGLE SUBCONTINENT
Stanisław Vincenz built a literary monument to the colossal hermetic monoculture of the Eastern Carpathians. A philosopher, essayist and humanist of the Central European literary canon, Vincenz lived in a time of great geopolitical changes in this part of Europe, where borders repeatedly switched, changing the politics, religion, alphabet, changing the cultural codes. In his monumental tetralogy, On the High Uplands, he managed to record a unique time of civilizations intersecting and mixing. He described the subcontinent of Central and Eastern Europe by it most important feature – the proximity of cultures.
This interview with Taras Prokhasko about Stanisław Vincenz is the first in a series of conversations about crossborder literature and foreign authors who were born on the territory of modern Ukraine and wrote about the intersection of ethnic and cultural groups. The next two will be about Bruno Schulz and Zygmunt Haupt. These interviews, which will become part of the MONO almanac, aim to address the issue of the identity and common cultural code of Central and Eastern Europe.
Roman Malynovskyi: Taras, it’s important for us to address the topic of the crossborder writer, where the border isn’t necessarily political, but cultural. Stanisław Vincenz lived on the border of cultural codes. Who was he when he wrote On the High Uplands? Was he a Pole? A Hutsul? A researcher or a writer? What was his role and what is his place in this mix of notions?
Taras Prokhasko: Vincenz was, foremost, a Carpathian. And this is very important, because he was able to rise above different group interests, giving him a different vision and understanding of things. He became the eyes, ears, head and voice of this land. And this land has many voices. Another thing is that in the Carpathians everything wasn’t so mixed up, the cultures weren’t that close. But all the local cultures were native to Vincenz, because he was from there, from within, and it made him able to compare everything. This is his great strength compared to everyone else who explored and wrote about the Carpathians. Of course he didn’t describe everything, but that’s natural, because every person’s views are selective, and much goes unnoticed beyond them.
But it’s important to note that the image of the Hutsul region visible in every sentence of his epic, On the High Uplands, was a buttress for Vincenz. While translating the first volume of this trilogy, putting myself in his context, I understood what the Hutsul region was for him. It was clear that all the elements and structural components, the people of the Carpathians and their way of life, their views, their everyday philosophy, was a very important base for Vincenz, as a thinker, and, I suspect, as a person. From childhood he was one of them, his first language was the Hutsul dialect, which he learned from his nanny, who spoke to him in Hutsul (Vincenz didn’t know classical Ukrainian). On the other hand, he was interested in different sciences, knowledge and could combine everything. He saw the cultural layers of the Carpathians as a united whole.
Roman Malynovskyi: The name of Stanisław Vincenz has been relevant for decades, but his status has changed over time. Who was Vincenz during his lifetime and who did he become – for the world, Poland, Ukraine, the Hutsuls?
Taras Prokhasko: He was considered a writer who leaned towards anthropology and philosophy, even before he began writing On the High Uplands. He wrote at a time in the 1920s and early ‘30s when there were many literary artists in Poland. It was a time of Polish renaissance, a revival of the Polish state and culture. When Vincenz began writing On the High Uplands, it became clear that he was a niche figure, and by the time he emigrated to France he was already an authoritative philosopher who attracted followers. An important stage was the beginning of his cooperation with the Parisian magazine Kultura. It was then that Vincenz became very important as a symbol of the unity of cultures, frontiers, the building of bridges, which was very relevant after WWII, when intellectuals and progressive thinkers were working on creating an environment of that spirit.
I think he was important to Poland for several reasons: first of all, the Hutsul region was always an important topic for them, because they saw it as a kind of Africa – their own exotic territory. We can’t grasp how important the Hutsul region is for the Poles because to us it seems the region isn’t relevant to them, but in fact it’s a large part of Polish cultural inspiration. Vincenz was writing about this lost Atlantis at a time when the Poles were experiencing a sense of loss of the Hutsul region.
There were several other factors at play: Vincenz was perceived as anti-communist, although he never wrote anything of that nature, other than his essay “Dialogues with the Soviets”, in which there’s nothing anti-communist. But after he emigrated he worked with a cult magazine that was banned in the Soviet Union. The accumulation of these factors made him into a hero, and Vincenz became required reading for the generation of the ‘60-70s.
In Ukraine he was published in 1946, and then in the late ‘60s. By publishing Vincenz, Soviet liberals tried to unveil the non-Soviet truth about the Carpathians. This was possible with Vincenz because he wasn’t a bourgeois nationalist, like Shukhevych, for example, who was banned by the Soviets. At the time, the Soviet Carpathian myth and Soviet Carpathian historiography was horribly distorted, so publishing Vincenz was an attempt to bring something living to the history of the Carpathians. In early independence there was a period of public euphoria whenever someone spoke about us. It coincided with an interest in Vincenz, who wrote about the Carpathians and was published. This was followed by a period when it was questioned why Vincenz was special if we had our own ethnographers. But thanks to the popularization of him and his work by researchers, he is very much revered in Ukraine, just like Parajanov. In the Carpathians he became part of the myth.
But the paradox is that in the whole world it is primarily his essays that are translated, and Vincenz is appreciated as a thinker and philosopher. But in Ukraine he is mostly known for his epic On the High Uplands, while his essays, which are an integral part of his greatness as a figure, are unknown and seldom translated.
Roman Malynovskyi: In this conversation it’s also important for me to explore the phenomenon and uniqueness of the Carpathians during Vincenz’s time as a multicultural territory, a land of migration and blurred, even conditional political borders, but with a universal Central European code. To what extend does multiculturalism define the Carpathians and, consequently, Vincenz’s work?
Taras Prokhasko: One of the main features of Vincenz is his attention to the coexistence and evolution of different cultures. On the one hand, he saw how cultures coexist; on the other, how cultural phenomena spill over from one culture into another, and not only when he was observing, but over many centuries.
Knowledge of antiquity helped him in his work. He was considered to be one of the best experts on Homer and ancient Greek literature. Vincenz was the first to see how close the Iliad and other ancient works were to the Hutsul region, how great cultural layers that were long considered destined for museums were still alive among the Hutsuls. Vincenz saw the strongest logical connections of the Carpathian culture with the Hellenistic heritage, he drew attention to the Vlax Romani dialects and their influence on the Carpathians. He said that the Eastern and Southern Carpathians, where he lived, were the last Atlantis, in the Hellenistic sense, and believed that shepherds and wise men from the Balkans and Greece came here long ago and brought with them their ancient, pre-Christian Hellenistic motifs, including the sun and the shepherding way of life. And for Vincenz, this was very important to understanding the Carpathians.
In Vincenz’s time, several partially isolated cultures were living in the Carpathians. But these cultures were less separated than, say, in Drohobych during the times of Schulz, where the Ukrainian and Jewish community didn’t intersect culturally. This was evident from Schulz’s stories about Drohobych as a Jewish, or rather supranational, city. Instead, Vincenz saw very clearly how cultures crossed in the Carpathians. He wrote a lot about migration routes and said that pathways are the key to history, that everything changes – even landscapes and mountains – but pathways, routes don’t. Vincenz understood that pathways have meaning in the mountains, and he saw the movement of cultures along these paths in space and in the long span of time. And that’s because when you walk in the mountains, you will inevitably make contact with many different loci. Vincenz saw how this functioned and he documented this borderlessness.
He was a researcher, a thinker, a writer. But, most importantly, everything he saw and knew he put down on paper, without any regret, in a sort of ancient Greek way, before there was any division into genres, just great narration. Some think his texts are overloaded with knowledge, others think they’re overly mythological for research. But this is where Vincenz’s greatness lies. And it’s important that, being also an expert on European culture, he showed this to Europe.
The presence of the Hutsul culture in the Carpathians was very important for Vincenz. But so were the Polish and noble cultures. And, of course, Vincenz paid special attention to the most intelligent segment of the mountain population – the Jews. The Jews, who had inns even in the most remote locations, that is, economic activity, were the centers of intellect. The Hasidic Jews who came to the Carpathian towns were the only ones who brought with them science and philosophy. Naturally, they didn’t teach this philosophy to the Hutsuls or the nobles, because neither of them had any need for it, but without a doubt they were educated people who had scholarly books. The figure of the philosopher was Jewish, and everyone who lived in the mountains appreciated this.
Vincenz saw the old Carpathians, he was there for the Austro-Hungarian civilization and even the old magnate Poland. After all, he himself was from a colonial szlachta family. I use the term colonial not as the capture of foreign lands, but a common, general colonization. Everyone who came and settled in the Carpathians colonized them. This process can be compared with the much smaller, but proportionately more concentrated, colonization of central and western America, when representatives of many distinct cultures – Irish, English, German, Dutch – gradually settled parts of North America. The same thing happened in the Carpathians several centuries ago.
You can’t say that the Carpathians were “our God given land”, because everyone there was an outsider. Of course there are native people who live there, but in the case of the mountains, they too are colonizers in one way or another, just older ones, especially in the mountains that Vincenz describes. That’s why in the Carpathians there’s a different ethic in understanding who is “ours”. Long before Vincenz, but also in his time, there was a rule in the Carpathians whereby “ours” is someone who’s Hutsul, Ukrainian, Polish, Rusyn or someone else, but a local – someone who was born and raised there. Vincenz was one of their own, he belonged to the Hutsul region, he didn’t come there from outside.
Communication differed with each group that came. Vincenz wrote a lot about this, and it’s one of the greatest tragedies of “Truths of the Ancients” – the ancient times end with the arrival of the organized state bureaucratic machines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its laws, rules and services. For the first time the Carpathians encountered a foreign element. It was the same with industrialization, when entrepreneurs and tourists came to the Carpathians. Many strangers appeared in the Carpathians, and the conversations with these categories of people were very different, as were attitudes towards them.
I suspect that the people Vincenz spoke with naturally trusted him more than, say, Shukhevych, who came from Lviv to do anthropological research. Even though he was Ukrainian and carried the Ukrainian idea, Shukhevych was an outsider, he wasn’t quite one of them, he came from outside and asked questions. Vincenz asked question from within, and he listened the way you listen to one of your own.
Roman Malynovskyi: Stanisław Vincenz wrote his trilogy On the High Uplands having lived nowhere else than the Carpathians, and this was enough to describe a colossal culture. How, having written a monumental text about a hermetic culture, was Vincenz able to create one of the most important texts of Central and Eastern Europe of the 20th century?
Taras Prokhasko: Walter Benjamin spoke of two typological figures of the narrator, and Vincenz embodied them both. There is Benjamin’s narrator who sits in one place and describes what happens there, and then there is the narrator who travels and carries messages or tells stories along the way. Vincenz combined both of these. That is why his view on the Hutsul region was so unique. One the one hand, he sat in one place and all the cultures scurried around him, and he told strangers about them. On the other hand, despite the fact that he was Carpathian, because of his education and his elevation – I don’t mean his greatness, but rather this ability to see scale – he was able to perceive everything that happened here in the Carpathians from the point of view of a world traveler who came, looked and saw. His view from outside was in perfect proportion with his look from within, which is something I’ve never seen in anyone else who wrote about the Hutsul region.
Most importantly, he was able to transform a naturalistic view into a structural one; Vincenz universalized everything. In his time, Hutsul culture was seen as something hermetic: a menagerie or a freak show. And it was believed that everything was preserved that way because it was closed off. But Vincenz saw the dynamic of Carpathian culture over time, as a part of the history of the European continent. He singled out the structural elements of the Carpathians and showed that it wasn’t a local exotic or fictional area, but a kind of interpretation of the universal human experience. He was the first to say that this was a model, a structure. He said it was a center, a magnet that holds together many surrounding cultures. Vincenz substantiated this well in his essays, in which he develops philosophical and historiosophical ideas that are extremely important to understanding Europe as a whole with a constant interplay of many different cultures.
I realized something when I was studying biology (by the way, Vincenz also studied biology): there are different people and different ways of thinking. There is a physiological principle. There are people who see the world ecologically, that is, they see everything together. You can live some place, even without being a writer, and seeing the whole. Vincenz saw the world ecologically. He saw a territory as an ecotype. He sees how everyone lives their own life, but he also sees moments of interaction and coexistence. Even if it is absolutely neutral, that too is the truth. There are people who, on the contrary, live on the border but are driven by nationalist ideas. Isolation and sticking to one’s group are just as important on the border as crowding together and overflowing. There are people who see all of this ecologically, all these ways of living together, and Vincenz is one of them. Therein lies the strength of his perception of the world.
People who rise to a certain height see everything differently. I don’t know, perhaps this has something to do with the mountain experience? Because when you climb a mountain several times and see how the mountains coexist, everything becomes different. When you walk between them you can’t imagine that the mountain is here, and another one is over there. And when you see the ridges that seem to bump up against each other, you have a completely different perspective. This may be a risky version of mountains, but as a metaphor of Vincenz’s creativity and worldview, it’s a good “point of assemblage”. You simply can’t image that this thing you are walking by, this mountain, is completely different when you climb up it and see how it looks in his sea from above. That is how Vincenz perceived the world.
Roman Malynovskyi: I also want to touch upon the subject of common names as points of contact. How much are the names of Vincenz, Schulz, Haupt and many others today a bridge between Eastern and Central Europe? Should we use these names today to speak about a common Central European cultural code and common cultural paradigm?
Taras Prokhasko: I think that all those names, their ideas and lives, and even their biographical geographies show that Central Europe isn’t fictional, that it’s a reality with its own content and strong donor-recipient connections with the rest of Europe: Central Europe takes and adapts a lot, but it also gives back a lot. Even if you go beyond this list of names, you see how many ideas by these embodiments of Central Europe are defining and revolutionary for the culture, philosophy, literature and art of Western Europe.
For wise people, people of good will, they are common heroes of a common history. But for people who rely on ideological constructs, they are enemies and threats, all because much about them can’t be explained from the point of view of national history. And that’s how everything coexists. There are some people for whom this single subcontinent is good and they want understanding; and there are those who use these names and their stories as evidence for their personal concepts that are unrelated to reconciliation.
In my opinion, it’s very important that these names become better known among people who are ready to consume culture. I think this is possible if, in the consumer sense, these writers are well presented, like Kafka. I think out of the ones you named, Schulz is headed in that direction, with the only difference that he was born a little further east and it’s harder for him to get any more attention. Though Schulz’s situation is also better than Vincenz’s because he has admirers among Jewish intellectuals around the world. Vincenz should be interesting for the Poles, because he talks about a very important part of Polish cultural identity. But again, some modern Polish ideologues object, or ignore him at best, because he isn’t patriotic enough.
Roman Malynovskyi: Ukraine is the largest territory in Europe with significant Polish, Jewish, Armenian and German populations. What remains in this country of the multiculturalism that Vincenz, Schulz and Haupt wrote about?
Taras Prokhasko: The most important thing that remains in Ukraine of that multiculturalism is the surprisingly noteworthy pluralism of the Ukrainian people. In Ukraine, despite the arguments and disagreements, despite the rudeness in behavior towards one another, there is a remarkable tolerance of different elements and an ability to self-organize into ecological systems, despite cultural differences. This is a great blessing of Ukraine. A very good sign that points to this is the fact that there haven’t been any serious interethnic conflicts in Ukraine. Even the existence of several denominations and churches is evidence of the tradition of coexistence. This is part of the upbringing, a fragment of the cultural genesis that exists even in everyday life. From this point of view, it seems to me that the Polish-Ukrainian conflict of the 1940s was a good lesson of what can happen to good neighbors if there are too many external factors, of which there were many. I don’t want to say that this was all done by agents, that those who participated were innocent. No, everyone was guilty, but it wouldn’t have happened in Ukraine without outside triggers. In the long run, I think Ukraine will coexist with different cultural elements. I suspect that soon the Muslim element will become a big factor in Ukraine. And I don’t rule out that there will be more migrants and interweaving.
Biographical note: Stanislaw Vincenz was born on 30 November 1888 in Sloboda Rungurska village, today Sloboda, Kolomyia Raion, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. He attended gymnasiums in both Kolomyia and Stryi. He studied biology, law, psychology and philosophy at universities in Lviv and Vienna, and in 1914 defended his Ph.D. dissertation on “The philosophy of religion of Hegel”. He was mobilized at the start of WWI. After being demobilized, he lived and worked in Warsaw. In 1939, during a visit to his family estate in Ukraine, he was arrested by the NKVD. After his release, he and his family secretly crossed the Hungarian border. He lived in Hungary, Germany and France before moving to Switzerland in 1946. He worked with the Paris-based periodical Kultura that was founded by Jerzy Giedroyc. He was an essayist and author of the tetralogy On the High Uplands, which includes the novels The Truth of the Ages, New Times, Periwinkle Wreath. He died in 1971 in Lausanne.
This interview is part of the MONO almanac, developed within the framework of the Gaude Polonia scholarship programme of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland, with the support of the Urban Space 100 grant program, Ivano-Frankivsk City Council and City Grants program of Teple Misto platform.
The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).