The Sagittarius Circle: The Idea of the Native, discusses Bulgarian literary modernism


This study consists of five chapters: one introductory chapter, three main chapters and a concluding/summarizing chapter.

The first chapter, INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM OF THE NATIVE, lays out the literary-historical and theoretical context of the problem of the native in new Bulgarian literature by investigating the following contextualizing fields: 1. Mythology, Folklore and the Problem of the Native; 2. The Problem of the Native and National Identity (The Western Model – Lateral Ethnicities; The Eastern Model – Vertical Ethnicities); 3. Pencho Slavejkov – The Modernist Understanding of the Native; and 4. Geo Milev – The Avant-Garde Understanding of the Native.

The First World War as a social and cultural crisis caused many intellectuals to return to the beginnings of human culture and to start questioning the meaning of human destiny as a whole. Using mythology they found solutions to issues concerning collective as well as individual identity and also began to ask questions such as „Who are we?” and „Who am I as a part of this we?” The rise of modernism was accompanied by an increasing disappointment with the course of history, which led to a renewed examination of mythology that remained dominant until the end of the 1920s. The cosmological myths Pencho Slavejkov interprets are universal, which helps him reach pan-human understandings – one of the main goals of modernist literature. Slavejkov laid the foundations of a new modernist understanding of the concept of the native, which arises from an interpretation of myth that displaces history. In his reading of mythological motives, Geo Milev rejects certain aspects of archaic mythology, such as its function as an explanation for the creation of the world. Instead, he focuses on issues around the individual. He also rejects myth’s normative and sanctioning function, since for Milev the problems facing the modern soul are beyond good and evil. Milev borrows the idea of the collective orientation of archaic mythology, albeit on the subconscious level of the archetype. He examines questions concerning the individual, but against the backdrop of a mythological time and space.

The second chapter – THE SAGITTARIUS CIRCLE: CONCEPTUALIZING THE TRADITION – outlines concepts of the native that members of the Sagittarius Circle inherit and conceptualize within the following thematic frameworks: 1. Mythology and Folklore as Approaches to the Native; 2. The Sagittarius Circle and Hristo Botev; 3. The Sagittarius Circle and the Bulgarian Revival; and 4. The Sagittarius Circle and Pencho Slavejkov. 

While for modernist writers, mythology and folklore are important as an opportunity to escape reality, the leader of the Sagittarius Circle, Dr. Konstantin Gulubov, rejects this very possibility. For him, it is important for art to be close to reality. Through the Sagittarius Circle, Bulgarian culture finds new solutions and new deliverance from the intellectuals’ identity crisis; these solutions are made possible by redemption, which, for its part, demands a return to earlier beliefs as a means of purification. While Slavejkov and Geo Milev find it necessary to return to pre-modern and cosmological traditions, Gulubov sees salvation in a return to the Bulgarian Revival period. Most likely due to his stronger ties to expressionism and the influence of Geo Milev, Chavdar Mutafov ascribes a greater significance to mythology as a stepping stone to reaching the native.

Summing up some of this chapter’s arguments, we can conclude that unlike Geo Milev, Asen Raztsvetnikov and Nikola Furnadzhiev, who were influenced by the revolutionary phase of the Bulgarian Revival and more specifically by the poetry of Hristo Botev, the members of the Sagittarius Circle were influenced more by the Revival’s evolutionary-enlightenment phase. In this sense they can be said to belong to the rightist camp of Revival heirs. The Sagittarius Circle’s concept for reaching the native differs from that of Pencho Slavejkov precisely with respect to its most crucial aspect: individualism. The Sagittarians oppose Slavejkov’s elitist conception of art’s function, instead attempting to come closer to the many or „the People.”

Chapter Three – THE SAGITTARIUS CIRCLE AND THE PARAMETERS OF THE NATIVE – explicates the circle’s actual understanding of the native, which can be divided into the following general directions: 1. The Sagittarius Circle and Oswald Spengler; 2. The Search for the Physiognomical; 3. Between West and East; 4. Between the Future and the Past; 5. Between the City and the Village; 6. Between Criticism and Preaching; 7. Between the Banal and the Exceptional.

In striving to be more concrete and to more clearly differentiate culture from civilization, Oswald Spengler makes rather extreme claims. The Sagittarius Circle’s understanding of the native unfolds both in agreement and disagreement with his concepts. Whereas for Spengler the West has reached its final form of culture, pure civilization, which is expressed in the total rationalization of culture, for the Sagittarians Bulgarian culture will catch up with the West precisely by following the path of rationalism. However, its emotional foundations should not be entirely abandoned, because in such a case civilization triumphs over culture.

The explanation presented in this chapter outlines the understanding of what native culture should be, which is achieved via a synthesis that balances out opposing starting points. The most fruitful synthesis the Sagittarians attempt to make is between mimetic and anti-mimetic traditions in art. Primarily in the work of Chavdar Mutafov traditions of the native are sought in eras that favor an anti-mimetic (Neo-Platonist) conception. These are the epochs that inspire expressionism, namely: the archaic (eastern and western), the medieval (eastern and western), the gothic and Romanticism. We can add to this list expressionism in part and modernism as a whole. According to Konstantin Gulubov, the traditions of the native can be sought in epochs that favor a mimetic (Aristotelian) conception. These include Antiquity (eastern and western), the Renaissance (eastern and western) and the Enlightenment. To this list we can modernity itself.

The fourth chapter – THE SAGITTARIUS CIRCLE IN THE ARTISTIC AND CULTURAL CONTEXT OF THE 1920s – thematically differentiates and examines various relationships, including: 1. The Sagittarius Circle and Nikolay Liliev – The Relationship to Symbolism; 2. The Sagittarius Circle and Elizaveta Bagryana; 3. The Sagittarius Circle and Nikola Furnadzhiev; 4 Dalchev’s Poem „Carts” and the Idea of the Native.

The circle’s criticisms of symbolism follow several main arguments: symbolism is cut off from reality; the individual is isolated from the other individuals who created meaning for him; and that symbolism has assumed an elitist character. The Sagittarians’ reworking of symbolism is similar to Botev’s reworking of the mythological layers of Bulgarian folklore. Mythology and symbolism first have to be declared anachronistic, because they preach escape from reality and escape from history; only then can they be correlated to reality and history.

Bagryana’s confirmation of chthonic beginnings, the primitive connection with the earth, and the vanished feminine in poetics once again point towards mythology. However, Gulubov argues that using ritual and mythology as a starting point is not the path for reaching the native. For him, mythological man represents a bygone phase in Bulgarian culture.

The Sagittarius Circle’s concept of the native, which is rational, historical and based on the tradition of modernity, is to a certain extent opposed to Furnadzhiev’s conception, which is irrational, ahistorical and based on the pre-modern tradition.

By summarizing several of Gulubov’s conclusions about Dalchev’s poetry, we can come closer to their understanding of the concept of the native. First, the native is a complex phenomenon consisting of heterogeneous elements and hence must be examined in its entirety. Second, to achieve the native, one must begin with reality, and more specifically with Bulgarian reality, examining it from a cultural point of view. Third, the native can be achieved via a synthesis of opposing forces. Fourth, approaching native reality has to occur along three paths: via the senses, the mind and the intuition. The native must not be merely rationalized, but also experienced.

The fifth, concluding chapter – THE SAGITTARIUS CIRCLE’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE CONCEPTUALIZATION OF THE PROBLEM OF THE NATIVE – lays out and analyzes the circle’s contributions to understandings of the native along the following four lines: 1. Toward a Conscious Europeanization; 2. For an Organic Unification with Western European Values; 3. The Native as Equal in Value to the Foreign; 4. Visions of the Native in the 1920s. 

The idea of a conscious Europeanization is one of the Sagittarius Circle’s most valuable and original ideas. Influenced by Spengler, Gulubov argues that Bulgarian culture has to maximally unite with the culture of Western European peoples; however, it should borrow achievements from Western Euorpe’s most mature stage, and not from its state of decline. Thus, Bulgarian culture’s function is defined not only as playing the role of a bridge between East and West, but also as acting as a unique cultural filter that lets through only the West’s mature cultural achievements while refusing to succumb to the „infection” of Western civilization. The desire for this process to be conscious and controlled has led to the enrichment of an idea inherited from the Bulgarian Revival. Konstantin Gulubov emphasizes the fact that the path to achieving a sense of one’s own identity passes not only through the phase of absorbing the West’s higher cultural values, but also through a deep knowledge of one’s self. By championing the idea of Bulgarian culture’s uniqueness and by pointing out that it already has numerous valuable characteristics, Gulubov warns of the danger of copying or mechanical borrowing, which lead to cultural gray-out. The idea of the equal value of one’s own culture is examined as a continuation of the Enlightenment idea of self-determination, albeit within the circumstances of globalization.

In the book’s closing section – Visions of the Native During the 1920s – Konstantin Gulubov and Atanas Dalchev’s viewpoints on the native are summarized. They are characterized by a fundamental change in outlook on the pre-modern tradition; mythology and folklore are rejected as stepping stones to the native. Gulubov and Dalchev’s concept synthesizes the realist and symbolist traditions, even while essentially rejecting them. Chavdar Mutafov’s vision of the native is perhaps the most complex and far-reaching. He is able to discover stepping stones to the native through mythology as well as through unmediated every-day reality. Mutafov achieves the native both through the folkloric-mythological tradition, as well as through Western European culture. Elisaveta Bagryana remains closest to Pencho Slavejkov’s concept of actualizing mythological layers so as to create a contemporary symbolism. Bagryana’s idea of the native is realized via a return to primitivism and sensuousness in poetry. While going beyond symbolism, Bagryana is nevertheless its heir in terms of the metaphysical and anti-mimetic direction of her poetry. The final vision of the native discussed in this study is that of Nikola Furnadzhiev; it represents a wide-scale return to myth. While Pencho Slavejkov and Geo Milev approach mythology via folkloric images, Furnadzhiev seems to speak through mythology itself. This vision represents a wholesale return to the primitive, a return to mythological consciousness. It gives rise to shared experience beyond the categories of human reason, beyond the historical sense of continuity and causality.

In light of the observations and analyses presented in this study, we can conclude that the Sagittarius Circle’s agenda and literary practices actually represent Bulgarian culture’s first global project – one whose example can help us navigate the contemporary circumstances of globalization. 

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