Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Larry Wolff's "The Idea of Galicia"

Larry Wolff is professor of European history at NYU, and director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. His research focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, and his books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Venice and the Slavs: The Discovery of Dalmatia in the Age of Enlightenment, and Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud’s Vienna.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 is actually one of my favorite pages in The Idea of Galicia. It describes Alexander Fredro, the greatest comic dramatist in Polish literature (sometimes called the Polish Molière), sending a live captured bear from the Carpathian Mountains in 1826 as a welcoming gift to the new governor of Galicia (the province was part of the Habsburg monarchy and ruled by the Habsburg emperor from Vienna with a governor named by the emperor). Fredro writes a comical letter to present the bear to the governor, and I quote the letter on page 99:
“My Prince! I hasten to send to Your Highness a bear from the Beskidy mountains [a range of the Carpathians]... The pious and loyal physiognomy promises much, and it is to be supposed that cubs will find in him a worthy preceptor. I believe that it would be well to be reassured for the future by the Italian manner of his sweetness and of his good conduct; there may also exist among his numerous talents that of singing.”
I then discuss the ways in which this letter is not simply comical, but suggests an imperial-provincial dynamic: the wildness of Galicia represented by the bear from the mountains, and the loyalty of the Galicians to the governor and the emperor implicit in the “pious and loyal physiognomy” that Fredro claimed to see in the face of the bear (as well as Italianate sweetness, “good conduct,” and even musical talent). Still, Fredro and the governor both knew that a wild bear was a wild bear, and might take you by surprise.

The purpose of the book is to explore the whole history of Galicia, from its creation in the 18th century to its abolition after World War I, through a study of the “idea” of the place: how people who lived there, or governed there, thought about the province (for instance, its supposed wildness). This becomes a kind of labor of historical archaelogy, since Galicia has been gone from the map since 1918, and only exists today as a memory or phantom. Still, it’s a meaningful memory for the people who live in that territory today (southern Poland and western Ukraine), and even for the great number of Polish-Americans, Ukrainian-Americans, and Jewish-Americans, whose families emigrated from Galicia. Jewish ethnography still often makes use of the category of the Galitzianer.

The other thing I like about page 99 is the discussion of Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, the younger son of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Franz Xaver was a musician like his father, but, alas, not nearly as talented, and he left Vienna to try to make his career in the provinces, that is, in the province of Galicia. He initially approached Galicia with a very condescending Viennese attitude, but he came to regard it as a kind of home and formed connections with Polish musicians and noble families (he gave piano lessons to their children). Franz Xaver fell in love with the wife of a Habsburg bureaucrat who worked for the governor, and that kept bringing the musician back to Galicia even though he meant to move on. In 1826 (on page 99), Franz Xaver was leading a performance of his father’s Requiem in the Ukrainian church of St. George in Lviv, marking the 35th anniversary of his father’s tragically early death.
Read more about The Idea of Galicia at the publisher's website and visit Larry Wolff's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue