It all started because of injured pride. In 1574, during the celebrations following the coronation of Henri de Valois as King of Poland, Polish nobleman Samuel Zborowski was insulted, then made a terrible scene and killed a man who happened to be trying to mediate. Samuel Zborowski was banished by decree, and made his way to Stefan Batory’s court in Transylvania. Two years later, partly thanks to the efforts of the Zborowski family, Batory became the new Polish king elect. Ignoring the sentence that was still in force, Samuel Zborowski returned to Poland with the king. However, the Zborowski family’s hopes were soon disappointed, and they started to plot against the king. In 1584, Samuel marched on Krakow with an armed unit. In this situation, the Royal Chancellor, Jan Zamoyski, gave orders for the decree from 1574 to be enforced: Zborowski was caught, and without being tried for staging a coup d’état, in May 1584 he was beheaded.
Rymkiewicz’s book investigates the freedom of the Polish nobility. As presented here, the anarchic freedom of an individual is only justified when exercised in the name of communal freedom. In that case, the individual desire for greater freedom acts as a foundation for the community to have it too. Zborowski is not the victim of his own arrogance and sense of impunity, but the victim of powers that abuse the law and try to limit human liberties. Here Zamoyski and the king are the classic embodiment of politicians who place themselves beyond public control, while Samuel Zborowski is the man who reveals their impunity.
"Samuel Zborowski" is the last in a three-part saga about the First Polish Republic. The trilogy is significant because from "Hangings" (2007), via "Kinderszenen" (2008), to this latest book Rymkiewicz has been building exit roads out of postmodernism. Postmodernism created the concept of the end of “the people” as a sovereign entity that chooses its own governments and parliaments; Rymkiewicz contrasts this with the image of “the people” who will owe their subjectivity to permanent readiness to rebel against authority. In reply to the view that meaning is lost and gone, Rymkiewicz tells a story about heroes who make it themselves; in reply to the idea that the national state is lost and gone, he tells a story about a community which, through murder or sacrifice, sanctifies itself and bestows sanctity on the Republic. In writing all this, Rymkiewicz shows that it is possible to override postmodernism – including pluralist culture, tolerance, human rights and the dissolution of any kind of collective subject. Yet in Rymkiewicz’s work the road to this new era obliges one to give up caring about one’s life or the lives of others.
Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz (born 1935) is a poet, essayist, playwright, translator, literary historian, and Professor at the Institute for Literary Research within the Polish Academy of Sciences.
What an unfortunate idea! What a fatal decision! Though of course no one decided it – it was simply a dreadful twist of fate. It was bad luck and a desire for wealth that pushed the Polish knights, exporters of grain and ox hides, to the east. In other words, to a place where there was plenty of room for their grain and their oxen. It ended as it was bound to end. It ended – as we can only see clearly now, four centuries later – disastrously. Now we can also see that, if inexorable fate was pushing us somewhere, if we absolutely had to move from our homes at that point, we should have gone not to the east, not to the south-east, but in the opposite direction – to the west. Instead of occupying and civilising the uncultivable steppes, all that endless scrub, a wasteland all the way to Crimea and the Sea of Azov, with farmsteads scattered across the void, we should have occupied and civilised, in our Polish manner, the small Lutheran duchies of the German Reich, the walled cities of the local electors and the rich villages of the local bishops. We should have sought new pastures for the Oleśnickis’ sheep on the banks of the Rhine and the Moselle. The sixteenth-century Republic was powerful, and expansion was its natural means of existence. Anything that is powerful, anything that is large, expands, overflows and spreads out – that is what life demands, and if life demands something, there’s nothing to be done about it. We have to obey life, we have to obey its mysterious summons. Expansion was probably a necessity and couldn’t have been avoided. So, instead of civilising the uncivilised (and uncivilisable) wasteland, we should have civilised another civilisation. Not only would it have been more advantageous for us – the combination of our civilisation with that of the Lutheran and Calvinist dukes and electors – it would also have been in harmony with the direction in which our species has expanded since time immemorial, moving from east to west – that is the only direction it wants to go, not the opposite way. And if it improvidently undertakes a journey from west to east, it is painfully punished by fate. Why that is so, no one knows, because that sort of thing can never be known. Maybe snails travel from west to east, maybe birch trees move from north to south. Ask a dendrologist or a snail biologist about that, I’m no expert on those things. I only know about people, and I can see their fate. The mysterious tendency of our species, the mysterious imperative of evolution, encoded into human genes, the mysterious code that was once imprinted (that once imprinted itself) on human life, are what cause our species to migrate from east to west, and only from east to west – it is not capable of migrating successfully from west to east. Mankind’s demographic march only goes in one direction. Centuries pass by, and it keeps going in the same direction. But in the early sixteenth century, the Oleśnickis from Oleśnica could not have known about all this. Nor could they have know the most vital fact – that their efforts were in vain, that they would fail to support themselves in the east, that they would never conquer Crimea, and that their Polish civilisation would never manage to civilise (in its Polish manner) the vanquished terrain, because the decision they had made was contrary to the laws of progressive evolution, and their whole idea was contrary to the code that was encoded in life. Nor could they have known that in moving out to the east, marching in that great Polish procession which went in the wrong direction, they were acting to their own disadvantage, and also to Poland’s disadvantage. When the Oleśnickis travelled east, the Zborowskis appeared at Oleśnica. They were the owners of Oleśnica for almost a hundred years – as the Geographical Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom informs us, at some point towards the end of the sixteenth or at the start of the seventeenth century one of the Zborowskis (we don’t know which, but it may have been Jan, son of Piotr) sold Oleśnica to the Lańckoronskis. Why didn’t the Zborowskis move away from Oleśnica and from Rytwiany, like the other great families, why didn’t they travel east, like so many of their kinsmen and cousins? Weren’t they attracted by the idea of settling somewhere on the Dnieper or the Dniester? Or somewhere near the Black Sea coast? They may well have considered something of the kind (perhaps the place in Podolia called Zborów on the River Strypa vaguely bears witness to the fact; it was founded in the sixteenth century and was probably their property for some time), but they never had time to realise these plans, because they were prevented from doing so by Stefan Batory, who resolved to destroy them – and who succeeded.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones