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AMERICAN TRANSCENDENTALISM AND/IN BULGARIAN CULTURE

Albena Bakratcheva

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The process of spiritual emancipation in Bulgaria preceded and called forth the recent political one. And in this very process of spiritual emancipation the writings of American transcendentalism, mainly those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, acquired a peculiar, hardly ever expected significance to Bulgarian culture.

Art was considered to be the only means of achieving what was actually unachievable under the totalitarian dictatorship. Since socialist reality seemed frozen and unchangeable, dissatisfaction with it took on the form of poetically transformed activity. The communist regime seemed to have provided a dead eternity that was draining out lives, dreams, talents. Not a few Bulgarian poets and writers found it possible to spiritually survive only by means of literarily achieving generally unseen visibilities. "Something must happen / in our verses at least", a Bulgarian poet put it in the early seventies. Thus the nature of literature, of art itself was being loaded with the additional significance of spiritual salvation; what was unusual in this otherwise traditional concept of literature was the desperateness it was grasped with.

Even a brief allusion to American transcendentalism would suggest a mode of expressing the essence of this trend in Bulgarian culture - the justification of life in terms of art. The reverse was also true - art was justified in terms of life, i.e. morals. Moreover, some authors adopted a role clearly resembling the Emersonian poet-priest, in their artistic "sermons" stating the equation between art and morals. The poetic vision, perceived as a capacity of seeing beyond the visible and of poetically revealing the generally not-seen, was turned into both a direct way to spiritual survival and an indirect way to express oneself. Thus grasped at, the poetic vision took on the character of a counter-official ideology.

The individualistic longing for a worthwhile living under totalitarianism had many faces, indeed, but it usually came close to the idea of building oneself up to the height of one's own conceptions (Thoreau) or the principle of self-reliance (Emerson). This kind of art-life experience in Bulgaria was actually a form of a peaceful, self-preserving disobedience to the regime.

With such a preparation at hand the very appearance in 1981 of a volume of American essays entitled Civil Disobedience was no wonder and turned into a symbolic act: later on "civil disobedience" was to become the slogan of Bulgaria's tender revolution. Though mainly through translations, WALDEN was also known to the inwardly disobedient Bulgarian readers. Praised most for its stress on individuality and individual capabilities, the masterpiece of American transcendentalism provided in totalitarian Bulgaria an unexplored and artistic way of self-preservation, a metaphorical solution. No wonder that almost immediately after the political change new Bulgarian translations of Thoreau and Emerson were called forth.

It should be accented that the works of American transcendentalism were known in Bulgaria quite in time for them to get the most thorough reception and, hence, to be more influential. The eighties and the early nineties were the best time for the questions asked in Bulgaria to find most satisfying answers in those works. Moreover, they are achieving even greater significance in the rather complicated, often misleading situation in present-day Bulgaria, when a supporting point is needed by every elevated spirit.

* * *

Another provocation calling forth a study of American transcendentalism and its correspondences to Bulgarian culture is the existence of much earlier Bulgarian translations of both Thoreau and Emerson (not to speak of Whitman) dating from the first two decades of the century. The appearance of these translations seems to have been quite in pace with the then ongoing processes in Bulgarian culture.

In the beginning of the century Bulgarian literature was mainly solving the problem of overcoming of the outworn descriptive realism and was mostly preoccupied with European literary modernism. What is important here is that together with the changed perspective towards the artefact went a newly acquired self-consciousness on the part of the author: the mere imitator of reality turned into an unique Artist. The creative individual was already seen as demigod.

This new-born artistic individuality was undoubtedly what put together and brought about the first Bulgarian translations of Thoreau's WALDEN, Emerson's SELF-RELIANCE and Nietzsche's ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA quite at the same time. A crucial aspect of the Bulgarian reception of American transcendentalism was introduced.

* * *

Along with it another one was laid bare. The worshipping of nature has always been inherent in Bulgarian culture, a long folklore tradition backing it. A book subtitled LIFE IN THE WOODS as Thoreau's or an essay headed NATURE as Emerson's could not help provoking the attraction of an unexpected intimacy from abroad.

Quite characteristic of Bulgaria's spiritual life at the time, dunovism was another factor that most definitely led to the publication of Thoreau and Emerson. Petar Dunov (1864-1945) was the type of the Eastern priest-philosopher and had nothing to do with the traditional orthodox preachers Bulgaria knew. Later on he was to become a world-wide known spiritual leader with followers everywhere (Einstein among them). Dunov preached for the supreme task of man on earth to be the intimate interrelation with the original cause of existence, with the divine, with the infinity. This was in itself a religious doctrine that constantly tended to turn into mysticism and thoroughly repudiated the church; it proclaimed a life style in the open air, amidst the elements. Dunov's numerous followers lived outside society and as simply as possible: their sacred ritual became the daily meeting of the sunrise.

It is worth the while for parallels to be drawn between dunovism and American transcendentalism. Even a few brief quotations would suggest evident similarities: Thoreau's motto "Simplify! Simplify!" (WALDEN) or his conviction that "To see the sun rise or go down every day would preserve us sane forever" (Journal, III) or Emerson's idea of the Poet-Priest or his statement that "In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature" (NATURE), etc. Besides the fact that Dunov preached exactly at the time when Thoreau and Emerson were first published into Bulgarian, there is still another provocation for such a comparison to be made. In the end of the last century Dunov studied for a while not elsewhere, but in Boston; this was still Thoreau's and Emerson's New England, bearing a lot of the transcendentalistic spirit.

* * *

The works of American transcendentalism have always been open to numerous interpretations. The ones they provoked and are still provoking in Bulgaria do have something in common and it is their commitment to certain periods of spiritual emancipation and artistic devotion. Regardless of all the differences in political and cultural circumstances, the appearance of Thoreau and Emerson in Bulgarian first in the beginning of the century and then in its end, gained significance that prevented them from remaining mere cultural fortuities.

 

 

© Albena Bakratcheva, 1992
© Publisher LiterNet, 15. 07. 2000
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Publication: John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies. Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, 1992 (Fellowship Paper).