In the 1920s, at the height of Rabindranath Tagore’s reputation in continental Europe, the Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel wrote the following poem:
In green India among quiet
trees that bend over blue water
Time there is spellbound, a cerulean circle,
the clock tells neither month nor year
but ripples in silence
as if from invisible springs
over ridges of temples and hills of trees.
There nobody’s dying, nobody’s saying
goodbye—life is like eternity, caught in a tree . . .
(‘In Green India’, tr. by Ana Jelnikar & Barbara Siegel Carlson, in Kosovel 2010: 96)
This symbolist meditation on timelessness and eternity makes for one of Kosovel’s most explicit tributes to Tagore to be found in his creative writing. A closer look at Kosovel’s collected works however reveals that the Indian poet is by far the most often referred to foreign author. He gets a mention over fifty times. Leo Tolstoy, another figure Kosovel admired, is referred to thirty times and Romain Rolland fifteen. In fact, Srečko Kosovel read Tagore’s works throughout his short and prolific life, convinced as he was that here was someone able to show a new direction out of the crisis Europe in general and the Slovenian people in particular were experiencing in the disillusionment of the post-Great-War years. When Tagore’s works were not yet available in the Slovenian translation, as was the case with Nationalism, Sadhana and Personality, he got hold of them in German and Serbo-Croatian, the languages he could read alongside French, Italian and Russian. Taking ‘lessons’ from Tagore’s philosophical writings, he urged his artistic colleagues to do the same. When in 1925, aged twenty-one and within months of his untimely death, he was getting his first poetry manuscript ready for publication, he decided to give it the title Zlati čoln (The Golden Boat) in direct allusion to Tagore – his spiritual and literary mentor.
Today regarded as Slovenia’s foremost modernist, avant-garde voice of the inter-war years, Srečko Kosovel (1904–1926) started out as a poet in a more or less traditional vein. It was his potential for growth and change that marked him as a modern. In the last four years of his life, he produced a large body of poetry (over a thousand poems, it seems), impressive for its stylistic experimentation and the need to push out the boundaries of acceptable poetic expression. Searching for a form that would reflect and engage with the disoriented reality of the post-world war era, Kosovel kept his finger on the pulse of the present. Convinced also of the value of bringing contemporary literary currents and thought to bear critically on the Slovenian reality, in the 1920s, he was engaging with a great many of the major “isms” of his day: from post-impressionism and Symbolism to German Expressionism, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, and French Dadaism and Surrealism, much of which was mediated to him through new, eclectic Balkan Zenitist movement. This meant – drawing on the poet’s own definition – learning from European artists, rather than following them in blind imitation. It was in this largely European setting that Tagore’s writings came to him as a major literary and philosophical voice of the time. Why did Kosovel feel so drawn to the Indian poet?
While Kosovel’s numerous stylistic metamorphoses as a poet, in which he successfully combined new means of expression with traditional themes and local concerns – his shift from a traditional lyricist to a modernist – can be fruitfully related also to his reading of Tagore, in this paper, I will limit myself to exploring the unexpected links and connections Kosovel surmised between himself and Tagore. This will help us understand why he sympathetically reached out to the Indian poet, as it will also showcase a perception different to the more familiar interpretations of Tagore’s reception within Europe, in which orientalist tropes are closely aligned with imperialist interests. Moreover, as we consider the particulars of Kosovel’s historical positioning, it will become clear that Tagore and Kosovel in fact shared a remarkable set of preoccupations against their respective backgrounds. For like Tagore, Kosovel too understood the pressures and dilemmas pertaining to a culture dominated by another. Interestingly too, with regard to those pressures and dilemmas, he offered some remarkably ‘Tagorean’ answers.
Slovene’s Initial Response to Tagore
When Tagore received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, he was not only the first non-Westerner to be accorded the honour, but also became, in the words of Amit Chaudhuri, “the first global superstar or celebrity in literature”. Slovenes too participated in the ‘Tagoreana’ from the early days of the poet’s international reputation, and their response, as elsewhere in Europe, was shaped by their specific concerns. But perhaps unlike everywhere else, in Slovenia Tagore became included in the school curricula and remains to this day a household name in any moderately educated family. The tribute to him has also been expressed by having one of his aphoristic poems carved into a signpost in the mountains – an unusual, but not an entirely surprising gesture for a country commonly dubbed as a nation of poets and athletes.
Going for a hike above the town of Polhov Gradec, you will come across a sign bearing the following line: “Travna bilka je vredna velikega sveta, na katerem raste”. In Tagore’s own English translation: “The grass blade is worthy of the great world where it grows.” Given its location, tucked away amid the trees flanking the white dolomite path, one cannot help wondering about the intentions of whoever put it there. Was it meant to alert the passers-by to the beauty of “the great world” above Polhov Gradec? Or was it there to raise our awareness of the natural environment, urging us to respect, not destroy what may be small and seemingly insignificant? Was it an expression of small-minded patriotism or an invitation to rise above it?
Whatever the case may be, the two interpretations of the above quote seem paradigmatic for a small nation, living at the crossroads of many competing cultures, Slavic, Romanic, Germanic, and others. They signpost the characteristic tension Slovenes have always felt towards home and the world, where, particularly in matters of culture and literature, ethnocentric and cosmopolitan directions have vied for supremacy since the first stirrings of national consciousness in the sixteenth century. How then was the Indian champion of world humanity received amongst the Slovenes in general and by Kosovel in particular?
Soon after 1913, it was the enthusiasm (backed by translation) of some of Slovenia’s foremost writers that introduced Tagore to the general reading public and generated an unprecedented response to any literary figure of international stature. Following some of the early translations done by Miran Jarc (1900–1942) and France Bevk (1890–1970), it was the talented poet Alojz Gradnik (1882–1967) who devoted himself to translating Tagore’s works. During the war, he came across a copy of The Crescent Moon in a bookshop in Trieste, and taken by what he read he decided to introduce as much of Tagore’s poetry as was then available in English to Slovenian readership (cf. Bartol 1961). One after another, the following titles came out: Rastoči mesec (The Crescent Moon, 1917; sold out within months and republished in 1921), Ptice Selivke (Stray Birds, 1921), Vrtnar (The Gardener, 1922), Žetev (Fruit Gathering, 1922) and Gitandžali ali žrtveni spevi (The Gitanjali: Song Offerings, 1924). These collections are being reprinted to this day. Alongside many newspaper and journal articles about the poet, as well as translations of his novels (The Home and the World, The Wreck, Gora), essayistic writings (Sadhana, excerpts from Nationalism, and The Religion of Man) and the staging of two of his plays, The Post Office and Chitra at the Ljubljana City Theatre, Tagore can be said to have found a permanent place in the Slovenian letters.
Slovene’s initial response to Tagore, however, was largely dominated by extra-literary factors rather than any authentic appreciation of the writer’s sensibility. Slovenes had their own political axe to grind with the Austrians. In the first substantial article entitled Last year's rivals for the Nobel Prize (1914), Tagore’s winning of the Nobel Prize is juxtaposed to the defeat of the Austrian poet Peter Rossegger. In the same year that Tagore’s name was put up for the consideration by the Swedish committee, the Austrians had their own candidate, Peter Rosseger, whose name for Slovenes was associated less with literary credentials than with an aggressive Germanization policy pursued against Slovenes in Southern Carinthia and Southern Styria.
Against this background, the author of the article sets “a spiritual giant of enormous horizons” in opposition to a parochial writer who “fans the flames of nationalist hatred”. Tagore is celebrated for his love of humanity as opposed to love of nation. His patriotic songs are not “boisterous fighting hymns”, but seen as perfect expressions of “his universalism”. Tagore's patriotic sentiments are admired for their lack of anger or envy towards the oppressors, for upholding the high moral ideal that “the love of humanity is above all nations” (Lokar 1914: 246). In spite of the narrow politicized framework in which the discussion of Tagore is positioned by this article, the poet’s vision of India’s anti-colonial struggle is nevertheless portrayed with some insight. Here is ‘a patriot’ whose voice is tuned to the deepest harmonies of humanity, refusing to surrender the task of his country’s liberation from under foreign rule to a nationalist agenda.
Indeed, Tagore critiqued both imperialism and its anti-colonial nationalist derivation, to eventually argue that imperialism and nationalism are two faces of the same monster (cf. Tagore 2002). After his own brief involvement with the Swadeshi movement, the first popular anti-colonial movement in India sparked off by Lord Curzon’s proposed partition of Bengal in 1905, Tagore rejected both imperialism and nationalism. He withdrew from the movement once he saw the close alignment of Swadeshi with Hindu revivalism giving rise to communal violence. But even as he rejected the anti-colonial variety of nationalism, seeing it as basically flawed in that it was top-down and elitist, riding roughshod over many people’s lives, particularly the Muslim and Hindu poor, he held onto – and this is often missed – to an anti-imperialist or anti-colonialist position (cf. Collins 2008). In fact he gave his anti-colonialism a significantly broader base, envisioning it as “a larger search for liberation” (Said 1994: 265) grounded in a universalist ethos.
It was precisely this high ideal underscored by the article that was to resonate so strongly with Kosovel, who aimed for a like-minded resolve with respect to Slovenes and their struggle for political and cultural autonomy. In fact, from its beginning, Tagore’s popularity in Slovenia was connected less with the romantic side of Orientalism that looked towards India for a redemptive spiritual injection and saw in Tagore above all “the exotic and bearded Oriental prophet” (Petrović 1970: 13), than with a sense of identification with the poet and his people, derived from a perceived common goal of striving after political and cultural independence. For it was the political circumstances of the early decades of the twentieth century, as Slovenes were caught in the cross-fire of a number of aggressive nationalisms (external and internal), that in large part galvanised Kosovel to grapple with the problematic of nation, nationalism and nationhood. In an important essay he wrote in response to Tagore’s book Nationalism and entitled it Narodnost in vzgoja (Nationhood and Education), we see him striving for a definition of Slovenianness that – even as it remained sensitive to the particular needs of his people and espoused their right to self-determination – refused to yield to an inward-looking or a separatist stance.
Srečko Kosovel: Life and Background
For a country that achieved full political sovereignty nineteen years ago, Slovene language and literature can be looked at as mainstays of cultural identity, and are often imbued with a strong nationalistic sentiment. It has been argued that smaller Slavic cultures have forged an exceptionally close link between language, literature and politics. Literature has often served as a sacred shrine to national values, and language itself has been seen as a national value. Given this importance, violations of traditionally sanctioned forms have constituted, for some, direct attacks on the national body itself (Djurić 2003: 80; 66). Real and imagined threats to Slovenian existence in the inter-war period created a climate in which traditionalism and domesticity were the prescribed modes. Kosovel understood this, and so kept his most radical avant-garde experiments in the drawer, away from prying eyes, where they were to remain for the next forty years, before given due recognition by the literary establishment.
Born in 1904, in the small town of Sežana some twenty miles away from the city of Trieste, Kosovel was brought up in a well-established and respected family as the youngest of five children. His father Anton was a school teacher and headmaster who taught in Slovene. He belonged to the generation of teachers who, in keeping with a strong tradition of defending and cultivating their language and culture against a millennium of foreign rule and assimilative pressures, still felt their vocation as a national mission. At the time of Kosovel’s birth, both Trieste and the Karst—the limestone hinterland to the east of the city, from which the region takes its name—were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as was the territory that later became Slovenia. Anton’s proud Slovenian stance often got the family into trouble with the Austrian authorities. Soon after Srečko was born, they were made to move to the nearby town of Pliskovica. Two years later, they were forced to move again, this time to Tomaj, where they settled for good.
Tomaj was a village of a slightly more than 600 inhabitants, predominantly wine and wheat producers, battling the harsh conditions of the wind-swept, arid landscape of the Karst. Anton Kosovel was also a musician (a choirmaster and an organ player) with an avid interest in farming. He made sure that his children were given a broad education spanning cultural and economic matters. By the age of seven, the Kosovel children were learning French, Russian and German, and the Kosovel household attracted artists and intellectuals seeking a haven for open discussion in what were politically turbulent times.
After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Slovenes joined the newly-founded nation state of South Slavic peoples: the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. (In 1927 it was officially renamed Yugoslavia, “yug” meaning south.) Enthusiasm for the creation of the new state, which offered guarantees against Italy and Austria, and the possibility of national emancipation, and the opportunity for cultural and economic development was, however, mitigated by the fact that a large number of Slovenes (and Croats) remained outside the borders of the newly established state. The Treaty of Rapallo (1920), fulfilling some of Italy’s territorial claims conceded by the secret Treaty of London in 1915 (when Italy joined the Allies), allocated large swathes of ethnically Slovene territory, including Kosovel’s native region, to Italy. Coupled with losses to Austria along Yugoslavia’s northern border, one-third of the Slovenian population effectively remained outside the boundaries of the newly-formed state.
If Srečko inherited some of Anton’s passion for Slovenian matters (and notwithstanding the fact that Srečko did not follow his father’s wishes to become a forester and help develop the region), he took from his mother, Katarina Stres, a defiant streak and a deep curiosity about the world. As a young girl with little formal education, Katarina had rebelled against her own parents, refusing to marry the man that they had chosen for her. She ran away from her native village of Sužid to the city of Trieste—the cosmopolitan hub of old Austria and then the seventh largest port in the world. There she had taken up with a Greek noble family, the Scaramagnas, as a nanny for their two daughters.
Srečko with his parents
Srečko’s happy childhood years were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. A new front opened up along the river Soča (Isonzo), not even fifteen miles to the west of Tomaj, where some of the fiercest fighting between the Austrians and Italians took place. His parents sent the twelve-year-old boy, together with his sister Anica, to Ljubljana (Laibach, as it was known then, was a provincial town of some fifty thousand inhabitants at the Empire’s southern extreme). By then he had already seen the horrors of war from up close, and his childhood innocence soon passed into knowledge of death.
For the remaining decade of his short life, Kosovel lived in Ljubljana, returning home only for the summer and during term breaks. He harboured ambivalent feelings towards his newly adopted home, at once a new center of Slovenian culture and the provincial backwater of an erstwhile Empire. In many ways, Trieste was more a “home” to Kosovel than was Ljubljana. Its importance for Kosovel is unsurprising, given that it was the closest urban center to his childhood home, and that it was of great historic and cultural importance for the Slovenian people. While today the city is predominantly Italian—Slovenes forming a small ethnic minority—turn-of-the-century Trieste had a larger Slovenian population than Ljubljana. It was an important center of Slovenian culture, where its institutions were established soon after the revolutionary year of 1848, and the Slovene political party Edinost (Unity) was founded there as early as 1874. Before the war, the Kosovel children would often take in a play by Strindberg or Ibsen at the popular Teatro Verdi or Teatro Rossetti, as well as performances at the Slovenian Theater House (founded in 1903 as the first Slovenian theater).
In the decades leading up to the collapse of the Empire, however, the city’s multiethnic composition, thoroughly shaken up by war and further unsettled by old, revived enmities between Italians and Slavs, crumbled into factions vying for political pre-eminence, with Slavic propagandists championing the rights of the Slovene and Croat populations and Italian nationalists wanting to “redeem” the city, seeing it as a natural part of a unified Italian body politic. Ethnic bigotry erupted, and with the political barometer decidedly pro-Italian, Slavs became the butt of persecution.
In 1920, the seat of Slav cultural life, the Narodni Dom (National House) was torched by a mob with the consent of the Triestine police and authorities. This signaled the beginning of enforced assimilation, a doctrine which gained broad legitimacy as fascists came into power in 1922. Policies adopted between 1924 and 1927 “transformed five hundred Slovene and Croatian primary schools into Italian-language schools, deported one thousand Slavic teachers (personified as ‘the resistance of a foreign race’) to other parts of Italy, and closed around five hundred Slav societies and a slightly smaller number of libraries” (Sluga 2001: 48). Kosovel’s father was forced to retire for refusing to abide by the Italian-only language policy, and was replaced by a more pliant Slovene, Ivan Kosmina. This brought the family severe financial difficulties. They even lost the roof over their heads, since their accommodation was tied to Anton’s teaching post. By 1926 non-Italian names had to be Italianized. By 1927, shortly after Kosovel’s death, the use of Slovene was prohibited in public. Periodicals were banned and political parties dissolved. Many intellectuals and artists were forced into exile.
If Italian irredentism was one major source of grievance and concern for Kosovel, the other was Yugoslav unitarism, as the centralising tendencies of Belgrade were becoming more prominent. It was against a climate in which it seemed vital to keep a separate Slovenian identity, in order to hold out against assimilation, that Kosovel’s particular treatment of the Slovenian national question needs to be considered. The post-war situation alerted Kosovel in a most powerful way to the pathology of nationalism and the raising of barriers along ethnic lines, where being Italian, German, Slovene or other, overrode notions of a shared human identity or precluded the possibility of hybrid or multiple identities. It was also the cosmopolitan city of Trieste that sensitized him to models of identification that could either accommodate difference (the city before the war was a place where diverse groups were able to share the same territory without too much conflict) or violently repress it (as was the case once the city and its environs were designated as exclusively Italian and assimilation became the order of the day). The shifting political geography of the Adriatic region at once corroborated a sense of national identity and undermined it. The multiple names Kosovel was obliged to adopt as governments changed hands (under Austrians, Srečko meaning ‘lucky’ became Felix, under Italians, he was Felice), reflect the political and cultural pressures he was under. Similarly, adoption of three passports in so short a life must have thrown the notion of nationality as something organic to one’s identity seriously into question.
His task therefore became twofold: to show that “nationalism was a lie” (Kosovel 1974: 31) and to salvage the concept of narod (a people) from being hijacked by nationalism: “A narod for us can only ever mean a nation which has freed itself from nationalism” (Kosovel 1977: 624). Driving a wedge between nationhood and nationalism meant for Kosovel demarcating the important sense of national selfhood from a self-indulgent celebration of one’s own identity. Nationhood required a measure of selflessness, lest it should lead down “the wide road of national egoism” (Kosovel 1977: 67). Vital input for thinking through these issues Kosovel got from Tagore’s book Nationalism (1917).
The wider political background of Kosovel’s life is important, since it is precisely from this historical juncture that Kosovel gained his sense of intimacy and shared concerns with Tagore. When he thought of the troubles of Primorska (the Slovenian Littoral) under Italian rule, he aligned them with the “unnatural act” he saw in the “colonisation of the non-European peoples” (Kosovel 1977: 65–66). Therefore, rather than seeing in Tagore’s attraction for Kosovel yet another predictable response coming from the West from within the romantic and orientalist tradition of Europe’s enchantment with Eastern thought and art, I propose we see it instead in terms of a situational identification where sympathies are forged between individuals and inspirations derived from a sense of shared predicaments (cf. Hogan 2004: 26).
It is indeed true that some of the qualities Kosovel perceived in Tagore, notions such as “simplicity”, “naturalness”, “child-likeness”, as also his comparing the power of Tagore's language to that of the gospels (Kosovel 1977: 509, 558, 561), are all part and parcel of the dominant tropes that guided the imaginations of Europeans when they turned towards the East in the early decades of the twentieth century, and which have since been criticized for their orientalizing thrust. But to stop here would be to stop short of more fully appreciating why Tagore was so important to Kosovel or how even some of these same concepts might have actually contributed to the project of (cultural) emancipation both poets shared. Without disputing the basic premise that when Western thinkers drew on Eastern thought – the religious and philosophical ideas of India, China and Japan – they did so in line with their own goals and pursuits, these ideas would often serve to question Europe’s established role and identity, rather than assert it (cf. Clarke 1997: 27). The talk of “crisis” or “sickness” besetting Western civilization and of the need to turn “Eastwards” for cure that constitutes the more radical early 20th-century orientalist discourse, certainly applies to Kosovel, and can explain some of his enchantment with Tagore.
Furthermore, as Imre Bangha has pointed out with respect to Hungary, Tagore’s greatest supporters were to be found among the readers and writers who were born or lived in regions “lost” after WWI. These writers would often sympathise with the Indian freedom struggle as opposed to the colonizer’s viewpoint (Bangha 2008: 15). Something similar can be said of Kosovel whose hometown had been “lost” to Italy following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Certainly, within Europe, there were many individuals and groups who celebrated Tagore, and their response was framed by their perceived sense of commonality and joint purpose with the Indian poet. They genuinely looked to Tagore (and/or Gandhi) for moral sustenance as well as alternatives to some of the thinking that drives imperialist ideologies, seeking to substitute the old mechanistic and dualistic ways of thinking for a more holistic paradigm.
For Kosovel, reading Tagore meant encountering a voice that shared some of the age’s deepest cultural and intellectual concerns, spanning nationalism, scientific and technological revolutions, environmentalism and feminism alike, and which helped him think through some of these pressing issues. It is therefore more in the spirit of parity that Kosovel approaches Tagore, as opposed to an Eastern guru at whose feet one should sit, or, following the colonial mindset, “an Oriental” who deserves to be patronized.
Kosovel turns ‘East’Tagore’s place among artists and intellectuals Kosovel respected – artists he felt were conscientious in their creative ambitions, striving to broaden existential and imaginative possibilities of art – is secured not from some robust act of appropriation, but through a strong sense of shared concerns grounded in an anti-imperialist, universalist ethos. Tagore was perceived to be a kindred spirit, not because Kosovel was suffering from some kind of a fantasy – what after all could a young, still anonymous poet, barely out of his teens, have in common with a mature, world-renowned figure of Tagore’s stature? – but because he was able to identify with him and his historical predicament of colonial subjugation.
He developed this sense intimacy with the Indian poet particularly as he thought of the troubles of Primorska under Italian rule. He also understood that, like Tagore, he had been delegated to the large ideological constructs of the “East.” Here I am referring to the tradition of representation that predates fascism and goes back to the Enlightenment, in which “Eastern Europe” or “the Balkan East: is imagined as the Western half’s lesser other. In this representational framework, Germans and Italians were seen as cultural equals: bourgeois, modern, nationally evolved, and essentially “Western,” while Slavs were backward peasants, lacking national consciousness and “Eastern” (Sluga 2001: 2). Such mental geography was instrumental in influencing political decisions and historic events. What helped justify and consolidate the Italian claim to authority over the disputed Adriatic border region was their alleged racial, cultural and linguistic superiority.
In that sense both Tagore and Kosovel were projected as belonging to an inferior and governable race, Indian and (Balkan) Slav respectively, with Western Europe seen as the centre of the world. But if Kosovel could understand the violence of a colonial encounter, he could also understand the opportunities that came with cross-cultural contact. With energy worthy of Tagore, his artistic temperament in the final instance celebrates the meeting of “East” and “West,” and he extends the notion of “East” to encompass Asia:
We happen to be living at the crossroads of Western and Eastern Europe, on the battlefront of Eastern culture with Western, in an age which is the most exciting and the most interesting in its multiplicity of idioms and movements in politics, economics and art, because our age carries within itself all the idioms of the cultural and political past of Europe and possibly the future of Asia (Kosovel 1977: 178).
The reference to Asia is no doubt an allusion to Tagore’s own understanding of Asia’s future relationship with the world, which Kosovel was familiar with from reading Nationalism. And the fact that Kosovel saw his own position defined in terms of an “East-West” juncture – at once a point of division and contact – enabled him to relate to Tagore’s own idea of a new emancipated individual – “new man” – who would somehow be free of these divisions.
It will not do, as Tagore wrote in his essay Purba o Paschim (East and West), thinking of the relationship between the British and the Indians, “to blame them alone”. We have to be prepared to “take the blame on ourselves” (Tagore 1961: 138). Both Tagore and Kosovel, for all their affection for their respective countries became their respective countries’ harshest critics. Both transformed – what Ashis Nandy has so aptly characterized with reference to Tagore – “passionate self-other” debates into “self-self” debate (Nandy 2005: 82).
In the same way that Tagore, despite the violence and humiliation of foreign rule, refused to succumb to a dismissal of everything British or, conversely, an uncritical valorization of everything Indian, Kosovel too made it a point to discriminate between imperialist forces that deserve all reprobation and Italian culture which may or may not be implicated by these forces. Both strove to override politics in an open acceptance of what they felt was commendable in any given culture, laying themselves open to charges of denationalized surrender.
In a lesser-known poem entitled “Italian Culture”, Kosovel makes it quite clear that his quest for liberation had to be larger. With a reference to Gandhi, this poem once again demonstrates how Kosovel was searching for alternative cultural models: as Slovenian institutions were under attack in Trieste, Gandhi was launching his Non-cooperation movement on the Subcontinent to oust the British.
The Slovenian National House in Trieste, 1920.
The Workers House in Trieste, 1920.
Wheat fields in Istria on fire.
Fascist threat during the elections.
The heart is becoming as tough as a rock.
Shall Slovenian workers’ homes
continue to burn?
The old woman is dying at her prayers.
Slovenianness is a Progressive Factor.
Humanism is a Progressive Factor.
A humanistic Slovenianness: synthesis of evolution.
Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi!
Edinost* is burning, burning,
Our nation, choking, choking.
(Kosovel 2008: 137)
What makes this poem interesting is that the crisis it describes is transformed into a self-questioning, in which violence and retaliation as a means of asserting one’s identity (evocation of Gandhi is appropriate indeed) are superseded by an universalist and a humanist perspective. Slovenianness, if it is to progress in evolution, must not surrender humanist ideals. Or, as he wrote to his French teacher Dragan Šanda: “A nation only becomes a nation when it becomes aware of its humanity” (Kosovel 1925, 1977: 323–324). Both Kosovel and Tagore believed in the perfectibility of human beings.
In line with some of the most imaginative anti-colonial or anti-imperialist responses across the globe, Tagore’s and Kosovel’s liberational stances thus commanded a pull away from separatist nationalism towards a more integrative and pluralistic view of human community. What they sought was much more than the simple departure of the colonizers: there had to be a complex transformation of the colonized, else alien hegemony would merely be replaced by a home-grown one.
The universal philosophy of Tagore clearly struck a chord with Kosovel who saw his native region affected by imperialist forces, perceived as similar to those that subjugated India. Furthermore, he understood the plight of his native region in the larger context of the plight of all who are – in his own vocabulary – “beaten,” “downtrodden,” “subjugated.” If the suffering of his own people was a symptom of wider social forces – namely those of capitalist Europe with its imperial onslaught on the rest of the world, and an outlook promoting sharp distinctions between races and civilizations – then Kosovel felt the solution too had to be sought at a global scale, in the ascendance of a new social order. Certainly for those writers who resisted the civilizational crisis in anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist terms, the Russian revolution of 1917 offered a realistic hope, however short-lasting, for the ideal of a new, non-exploitative, classless society. Moreover, it unleashed what Timothy Brennan has argued was “a full-blown culture of anti-imperialism for the first time” (Brennan 2002: 19, emphasis original). This last point is crucial if we are to understand the final aspect to Kosovel’s sense of identification with Tagore, in which the Indian poet is aligned with the proletarian movement, the connection Kosovel made in a lecture he delivered to the miners in Zagorje shortly before he died. Indeed, seeing in Tagore a spiritual and intellectual kin, Kosovel co-opted him into the ranks of those “intellectuals, famous artists and scientists” who had taken up “a relentless fight against injustice and violence” and who had “joined the proletarian movement” (Kosovel 1977: 27).
Stressing the links between the inter-war avant-gardes, the colonies and anti-imperialist consciousness, Brennan submits that “the Russian Revolution […] was an anticolonial revolution”. This he takes to mean in “its sponsorship of anticolonial rhetoric” which “thrived in the art columns of left newspapers, cabarets or the political underground, mainstream radio, the cultural groups of the Popular Front, Bolshevik theater troupes”, meeting with responses and contributions from “the various avant-garde arts”. Brennan cannot overstate the implications of the revolution for the “the idea of the West”. It “delivered Europe”, he says, “into a radical non-Western curiosity and sympathy that had not existed in quite this way before”. It “altered European agendas and tastes by situating the European in a global relationship that was previously unimaginable” (Brennan 2002: 192–193).
The idea of social revolution was now combined with anti-imperialist thought. This was because an analogy was being made between the capitalist’s exploitation of the worker and imperialist’s exploitation of the colonized. For Kosovel – no blind admirer of the Soviet experiment – the “proletariat” was more or less interchangeable with the “suppressed” or “humiliated man,” (in Slovenian, like in Bengali, the word for “man” is gender neutral) suggesting a more universal human condition. Though the poet was not himself always above a dualistic view of the world that pitted suppressors against the suppressed, in the final instance he did not permit himself the luxury of thinking that the solution to the “world problem” lay in a simple reversal of these dichotomies and the power structures they entailed: “In our innermost being, there are no classes or nations” (Kosovel 1977: 102).
When Kosovel turned towards “East” for inspiration, anticipating a “new morning,” this morning, he said, would come “in a red mantle,” hence its irradiating core was Russia and not primarily “the Orient” of Tagore (Kosovel 1977: 93). And yet, of course, the two were closely related. In an important aspect of Kosovel’s identification with Tagore, therefore, the anti-capitalist and anti-colonial struggles converged, so the “East” became as much the promise of a new world order associated with the Bolshevik Revolution as it was evocative of the old romantic “Orient” that would help heal the deep spiritual “crisis” of the post-War European generation.
At Home in the World
I have stressed the links and associations that Kosovel surmised between himself and Tagore, and which extended his vision beyond the borders of Europe, to suggest that Kosovel’s poetry is part of a more complex, global configuration of anti-imperial politics and ethics. Painfully aware of the historical realities of his time, where a handful of Western powers had brought an overwhelming part of the globe under imperial control, Kosovel, like Tagore, deplored the fact that the meeting of cultures had come for the most part on the back of conquest and colonization, rather than in a spirit of free exchange, but argued, against the odds, for a non-hierarchical dialogue between cultures. How to resist foreign impositions and yet not bar oneself from the discoveries of the modern age, whether in science, technology, economics, politics, art, or literature; how to adjust creatively and retain agency as opposed to imitate slavishly or conform unthinkingly, and what are the implications of global expansion for cultural identities – were questions that preoccupied both thinkers. And these shared concerns were at least in part a result of being exposed to the same globalizing forces such as capitalism and imperialism and of intuiting common goals arising out of the consciousness of inhabiting one world as opposed to separate cultural enclaves.
Both artists stressed the role of the individual and creativity. Kosovel, sharing in the conviction of the post-war generation that art was as powerful in directing life as politics and economy were, became a champion of an aesthetic revolution. And “artistic form”, he would insist, “is but the artist’s personal relationship with life (my emphasis)”, so that the revolution Kosovel defended meant above all an on-going revolution of artistic expression in direct response to life (Kosovel CW III: 657). The courage to live out life’s contradictions and give it shape in art was for him a mark of true existence.
Kosovel’s raison de etre of human beings was unambiguous: “I live, therefore I can create”. The model of authenticity was dropped in favour of a model of creativity. “History does not repeat itself, but it creates itself,” Kosovel wrote, “so our model should not be in the past, but in the living present that we feel inside us”. Non-elitist in sensibility, he explained: “Whatever that life may be, the main thing is that I live it; that for me is enough”. It is on this affirmative stance towards – and respect for – lived life that Kosovel took inspiration from Tagore: “Every person’s life is important, and Tagore is right in saying that human existence is justified by the mere fact that we live” (Kosovel CW III: 87).
Such affirmative philosophy was the driving force behind Kosovel’s numerous projects, most of which were cut short by his untimely death. As with Tagore, there was a strong public side to his personality, and he pursued the needs of both his private and public self with equal zest and determination. Poetry for Kosovel was a vital creative force in social transformation; a powerful vehicle for ideas to be translated into social reality. In this respect too, his outlook bore close affinities with the Indian poet-educator. Kosovel invested a lot of energy into setting up an alternative cultural space within Slovenia, in which Slovenes would engage in an open dialogue with the world. His clarion call was high-sounding indeed:
We need to raise our country to the heights of the countries of the world, to the breadth of human rights, to the depths of ethical problems. That for us is the cultural mission of Slovenianness (Kosovel CW III: 60).
Driven by this mission, Kosovel came to participate fully in the literary life of the metropolis. A student of Romance and Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Ljubljana, he soon became active as a writer, editor, founder of journals and associations, public speaker, and an initiator of many original and progressive ideas, of which, his world-aspiring and world-absorbing notion of Slovenianness was one.
Tagore’s vision for India followed a similar trajectory. His whole life was lived under colonial rule, and yet throughout, he would reiterate with undiminished conviction that there was one “great fact” about his age, and that was the meeting of human races. “The human races have been exposed to each other, physically and intellectually. The shells, which have so long given them full security within their individual enclosures, have been broken, and by no artificial process can they be mended again”. This for Tagore was an irreversible fact of global modernity that required everyone to make a mental readjustment (Tagore 1996: 71). It meant our countries needed “to harmonize our growth with world tendencies […] to prove our worth to the whole world not merely to admiring groups of our own people […] to justify our own existence.” Problems which had previously been of local make began affecting much larger areas. Solutions were no longer to be found “in the seclusion of our own national workshops” but had to be sought in cooperation with different cultures, through intercultural negotiations (Ibid.: 76). With this aim in view, Tagore set up a world university, Visva-Bharati, to promote such exchange of knowledge and ideas between cultures, East and West.
What clearly binds these two poets across the vast geographic and cultural space dividing Slovenia and India is that they were able to imagine alternatives to a bipolar, racial view of the world. Their vision was driven by an integrative view of human society and culture. Perhaps more urgently today than ever, Tagore and Kosovel can challenge us to think about ourselves along more inclusive and dynamic lines, whereby our local and specific allegiances become a non-conflictual base for reaching out to the world, surrendering neither, while enriching both.
As Tagore put it in Gitanjali poem no. 12:
The traveller has to knock on every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander
through all the outer worlds to reach
the innermost shrine at the end.
(Tagore 2004: 25)
And Kosovel in the poem Who Cannot Speak:
You have to wade through a sea
of words to come
to your self. Then alone,
forgetting all speech,
go back to the world.
(Kosovel 2010: 66)
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 From his letters and journals it can be established that he read Sadhana in German, as also Personality (Persönlichkeit, Kosovel 1977: 683). Nationalism was available to him in German or Croatian (tr. Antun Barac), both published in 1922. Poetry, however, he read in Alojz Gradnik’s Slovenian translations.
This movement formed around the review Zenit (Zenith), a leading journal for the dissemination of new art and culture in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. With a strong international orientation, publishing articles in the original languages (French, German, Russian, Flemish, Hungarian, Italian, and Esperanto), it became a lively platform for introducing and debating the most contemporary trends in the art world. It was also amongst the foremost European avant-garde journals of the 1920s, alongside Der Sturm, L’Esprit Nouveau, 7 Arts, De Stijl, Vesc/Gegenstand/Object etc. First launched in 1921 inZagreb (Croatia) by the controversial figure of Ljubomir Micić, then transferred to Belgrade in 1923, the journal produced 43 issues before it was banned by the authorities in 1926 on the grounds of alleged Bolshevik propaganda.
 Most recent addition to Tagore’s translations into Slovenian is a selection of Tagore’s short stories, cf. Tagore 2010.
 For a time Rossegger was closely linked with the nationalist organisation called Südmark Schulverein, which aided German-language schools in ethnically Slovenian or mixed territories.
 An article on Gandhi was published in 1922 in the newspaper Slovenec. Kosovel may also have read Romain Rolland’s book, Mahatma Gandhi (1924). His notes reveal that he was planning a lecture on “Tagore and Gandhi: two solutions to the question of nationhood” (Kosovel 1977: 746) as part of the activities of the Literary and Dramatic Club Ivan Cankar he co-founded with his colleagues.
[*] Edinost (“Unity”): a Slovenian political association, a printing press and the name of the main Slovene daily newspaper, published in Trieste, the premises of which were attacked several times by Italian fascists in the 1920s, and finally burnt in 1925.
Published in Parabaas September, 2010.
Illustration of Sokovel is taken from Slovenia Cultural Profiles.