Polish nineteenth century propaganda at work

This is how Matejko presented the Polish king Jan Kazimierz. (The moment: defeated and hopeless, Jan Kazimierz, king of Poland, fleeing the invading Swedish armies, in an act of desperation, pledges his kingdom to Virgin Mary).

This is basically in keeping with the Sienkiewicz image of him as the saintly wimp who helplessly flees his enemies and can at most manage a few whispers about the tormented motherland. The fact that the king later abdicated the throne helped to cement his "loser" image. It also depends much on the King's portraits in French clothing: he is frenchified, and therefore spoiled, effeminate and over-gentle.

It was this image of him which attracted me to him; his abdication; and especially his subsequent correspondence (now lost) with this first cousin, Queen Christina, formerly of Sweden, who had also once resigned her crown but then changed her mind and decided to seek kingship again by standing in the election for the Polish throne which Jan Kazimierz had just vacated. I wanted to recreate that correspondence: what an opportunity to write on some fantastic themes: about kingship, womanhood, active versus contemplative life; and, as it also turned out, religion. (When conducting her campaign -- and the correspondence -- I found out -- Christina stayed in Hamburg in the house of prominent Jews; a wave of religious upheaval passed through Hamburg at the time on account of the (some would say false) Messiah Jacob Frank, about whom Gerson Sholom writes that he is modern Jewry's best kept secret).

A pretty good outline of an epistolary-novel in mind, I began to read on Jan Kazimierz. And what a surprise awaited me. Far from frenchified dandy, this is how Jan Kazimierz liked to present himself:

Manly and brave; Turkish rather than French; the hero of the Thirty Years' War (in which he fought as a mercenary) and of the battle of Beresteczko where he personally led the fighting for three days. Nor was he much of a loser: yes, during the Swedish invasion in 1556 he had to, briefly, flee the country (hence the painting); but he returned the very next year as a result of a victorious guerrilla campaign which effectively destroyed the military might of Sweden. Far from being a loser, Jan Kazimierz was actually a tough-as-leather survivor.

In fact, there was altogether too much of fearless man of action about Jan Kazimierz. His military idea of manhood as fearlessly attacking the enemy frontally, frontally and repeatedly, without let up, without quarter, and never, never, never yielding an inch did not lend itself well to the management of the peace-time politics of a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. Constitutionally unable to compromise, he occasioned instead a series of constitutional crises; until, in the end, the only way out of the last one was -- abdication.

He was defeated, yes, but he was not a wimp.


And so, it turns out, the correspondence between Jan Kazimierz and Queen Christina would not have been much in the way of a discussion of the relative merits of the active and the contemplative life which I had once imagined it to be. It was probably interesting to read, but not the novel I wanted to write.


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