Notes on “the philosophy of love” in Four Seasons by Božena Němcová

“Philosophy of love in Božena Němcová? Nonsense!” is what a literary historian, as well as a historian of philosophy, would say. Němcová was a spontaneous and supreme writer of belles-lettres. Working with precisely defined concepts and rational argumentation, moreover in the spirit of some sort of scholastic doctrine, was completely alien to her. Nevertheless in her life as in her works, Němcová touched upon several general questions, especially of a moral and social nature. Qualified answers to these have up to now been usurped by religious faith and secular wisdom. Where these traditional authorities cease to be credible for a modern person is a place open to free thought. Moreover, even a literary artistic work must have a certain consistency; if not based on the logic of rational argumentation as science necessitates, then based on the logic of an inner sense. Therefore one cannot yet speak here of philosophy, nor of a “world opinion.” It is rather a generalized experience and knowledge (“truth”), a practical principle and position, shared and used in everyday life. These need not be derived from higher principles, their thought leads to their elemental systematization (with the help of inner criticism), etc. Here we already stand on the brink of philosophical thinking. In literature we often find such rudiments of philosophy in every step. For the most part unwittingly, in the concrete statements of literary characters, in their reactions to events and their partners’ actions, eventually in authors’ judgements and commentaries to their behavior, less often and more or less coherently in the literary figures themselves (inner monologues, thoughts, declarations, polemics, personal confessions, life plans and balances, etc.). Němcová did not go this far, however, therefore rather than talking about her “philosophy of love” let’s talk about her opinions about love, her perception or concept of love. My – within the realms of possibility – philosophical approach to the chosen topic should be apparent from the fact that I will not attempt to “extract” Němcová’s conception of love from her literary characters. I want to take them – and through them, Němcová – “for their word.” One cannot read their opinions about the basic questions of life simply as their literary esthetic characteristics. I am mostly interested in explicit statements about love – perhaps precisely what “bothers” literary critics about literary works as manifestations of an incoherent “tendency.” But just as it is impossible to stop literary scholars from judging philosophical works from the literary artistic angle, it is impossible to stop philosophers from examining literary artistic works from the philosophical angle. It is only not advised to mix the two approaches and to extrapolate conclusions for one area from valid findings in the other.

The small prose Four Seasons was Božena Němcová’s contribution to the handwritten collection dedicated to Josef Václav Frič for New Year’s 1856 by his Prague admirers. Since the collection was not intended for a wider public (publication was not considered), Němcová did not have to take censorship into account. The personality of the addressee, the radical rebel Frič, could have inspired her to an exceptional openness. This is all the more important because the theme she chose for her contribution was so deeply personal, even intimate, so highly political for its time: it was about love as the meaning and substance of individual life and as the tool and goal of social reform. The misgivings, aroused even today by the genre classification of Four Seasons, are typical. It is undoubtedly an artistic literary figure (“lyrical sketch,” “four-part poem in prose” – Jaroslava Janáčková), at the same time one must not disregard certain program components which place Four Seasons in the proximity of tendencious art with ideological and political aspirations (statement, protest, manifesto). This genre ambiguity of Four Seasons adds to its often repeated “mysteriousness” and explains why the story is the subject of many new interpretations.

Let us first attempt an inventory of the main images and motifs of Four Seasons. The work has four parts or chapters, which correspond to the four seasons of the year (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter), the four stages in the life of a girl or woman (childhood, youth, adulthood, old age), eventually to the four out of five phases of drama (the last two, peripeteia and catastrophe, are combined into one here).

1st Season
The scene: chapel in the castle, the altar is made up of statues of Christ and St. Mary Magdalene; she, “her beauty graceful,” snuggles to Christ’s feet, in her face “boundless love and devotion are revealed.” A young girl enters the chapel, kneels next to Mary Magdalene and begs of her: “Oh Holy One, inspire my heart with your grace, that I might attain His favour! she whispers ardently, and it seems to her as though the white arm were given life, as though she were pressed by it to the charming bosom, to the ardent heart of the graceful woman.” Religious love thus blends into a blossoming erotic love, into which is blended ardent feelings of love for Christ with love for the saintly sinner. The girl kisses and embraces Christ’s knees and prays “to Him” as if he were her lover. She cries and doesn’t know why: “They are the tears of ignorant, sacrosanct craving!” Did Němcová share the church’s opinion on the positive value of ignorance? And is this desire for love “sacred” as such, or simply because its addresse, or object, is Christ? Or is Christ here but a symbol of the exceptional, ideal man? And should we understand this tangle of amorous feelings just as an expression of ignorant girlish desire, or is the ambiguity of the ideal of “love” to a certain extent intentional, part of a program?

2nd Season
The girl is still in the throes of an inner unrest – in her “small room” (folk dwelling?), as in the garden “under the orange-tree” (in the environment of the castle?). While at first the girl’s awakening sensitivity was supported by religion (Christian love), now she receives clear lessons on love as a universal principle of nature. Even the mere breeze is “playful,” trees incline toward one another romantically, butterflies, “those sweet-toothed flirts,” fly around various groups of little girls, “here one kisses, there he kisses, until finally dead-drunk all over with the honey of sweet mouths he lurches onto a green leaf to rest.” One such “happy-go-lucky philanderer” defends himself from the objections of “the companion of his own kind, her head tied up in a scarf” with the open hedonism of all creatures of nature: “Wish me these sweet delights, sister! Oh, well indeed, how short our life is; and should I not derive pleasure from it?” This hedonistic “male” type of argument corresponds with pubescent boys’ dreams rather than girls’. It is as if the internal subject of the story considers this promiscuous pleasure-seeking of nature as being exemplary for people. What lesson is implied here for an emotionally hesitating girl? The ideal girlish desire here is merely confronted with the instinctive sensuousness of the animal world; deeper reflection is still missing.

At the end of the chapter an enchanting appearance suddenly rises before the girl’s eyes: a mysterious flower, on the stem of which stands a maiden of unprecedented beauty, in whom the girl recognizes the “goddess” (of love?) who kisses her on her brow. “Yours evermore, whispers the maiden blessed…”

What is the goddess of beauty’s (nature?) relation to the god of love (Christ)? To whom or to what (which love) is the girl dedicated? The remaining two chapters offer indirect and ambiguous answers to these questions.

And just on the side let us mention the rather banal scenery, props and language clichés of the first two chapters, subjected the sentimentalistic style of the time. To a certain extent they are inconsistent with the deep reflection and critical intent of Four Seasons as a whole.

3rd Season
Here the scenery and atmosphere of Four Seasons changes abruptly. The girl’s sentimental delight is replaced with cruel life experience. Instead of a naive “girl,” there is a bride. Her wedding procession, however, seems more like a path to the scaffold: as if the priest were preparing to cut out the “fervent, vestal heart” in order to place it “as a sacrifice onto the altar of a cold god.” A closer examination of this statement reveals the radicalism of the author’s conception of love: the “cold god” is evidently the institution of marriage. Instead of achieving a union of “two loving hearts,” the girl voluntarily submits herself to slavery. The author herself, however, added to the uncertainty of this standpoint by inserting into her narration this perfidious alternative: “Oh bride alas! … You have sinned! – To another you have given your soul, to another your body, and the devil had folded you whole into his arms!” And this is happening before the sublime image of the one who “preaches to her a sermon of divine, free love, with which there is no need of promises or oaths!” At first glance, one gets the impression that Němcová is here retreating from a radical rejection of marriage as a whole to a mere refusal of marriage without love. In the end of the quotation she returns to a decisive apotheosis of divine “free” love, which is its own value and sanction (it doesn’t need religious or civic confirmation, it even rules them out).

By enforcing a strict dichotomy between the soul and the body, christianity contributed to the development of spiritual love, at the same time, though, it allowed the dubious separation of physical and spiritual love. This is not entirely the same as the situation condemned in Four Seasons, when a woman has “given her body” to one man, and to another her “soul.” If Němcová had in mind for the first instance marriage (as if it were impossible with love, i.e. based on an authentic feeling of love), in the second instance free love (as if free love were impossible “without love,” i.e. without an authentic feeling of love). Here Němcová differs from the Christian (Catholic) standpoint, according to which only marital love is sacred (marriage is one of the sacraments). Němcová considers only ideal “free love” to be sacred. Even if we overlook the inappropriate parallel between the opposites “love or marriage” and the opposites “freedom or slavery,” it is nevertheless apparent that Němcová’s conception of love is purely a spiritual-physical experience. In the above-mentioned passage (about the sin of the woman, who gives one man her soul and to another her body), besides free love, Němcová expressly defends its spiritual-physical substance and integrity.

The fact that Němcová uses the language and symbols of the Gospel in Four Seasons, or that she makes Christ the guarantor of “sacred free love,” does not justify the attempts at a Christian interpretation of this prose (Felix Vodička, Hana Šmahelová, Jana Bartůňková, Alena Zachová et. al.).

The reality remains that in the radical version of her critique of marriage, Božena Němcová openly advocates “free love,” which can be understood as a defense of open love. (Only later will it be revealed that her concept of “free love” is deeper). She did not only condemn the woman who betrayed her beloved man because of her marriage to a man whom she didn’t love; she condemned as a betrayal every marriage, that is even marriage to a loved man. True, i.e. free love, is incompatible with the institution of marriage. “Marriage out of love” is contradictio in adjecto. That a woman gives her body in marriage to an unloved man is just a secondary consequence of marriage by which the woman relinquishes her personal freedom (and therefore even “divine free love”). From this perspective it is then possible to consider Christ as a guarantor of open love.

Since there can be no question of scientific study in Four Seasons, it isn’t quite clear what extent of generality can be attached to the refusal of marriage here; whether Božena Němcová rejected the insitution of marriage out of principle, or emphasized a generalized experience (her personal encounter with countless unhappy marriages). The confessional tone of Four Seasons indicates, however, that not only the inner subject of this prose, but the authorial subject, close to Božena Němcová, upholds the first fundamental position.

The idea of compulsory sexual relations with an unloved husband immediately after the wedding night (when he gains the “right”) is demeaning and infuriating for a modern emancipated woman, whom Němcová no doubt was. But it’s not marriage as an institution enslaving women that is to blame, as its radical opposers claimed, but rather the false dichotomy of soul and body, which permitted the division of women’s love into physical and spiritual, devoting each part to someone else. Radical feminism is in a way counterproductive: it de facto accepts the male hedonistic position, which can do very well without a woman’s “soul,” not to mention that from the perspective of traditional (religious) conjugal ethics, everything is “in order.”

In the morning, when the bride sees her “virgin bed stained by the man who has remained alien to her soul,” she falls to her knees and prays: “Holy Mary Magdalene, stand by me!” But for what does she pray to the saint? To give her strength to refuse the institution of marriage and defend her right to authentic love according to her own free will and choice? Or to be able to gain space for the higher “free love” within the marital union and remain true to herself, to have the strength to “sin”?

4th Season
Tortured to the death, the woman walks up a steep hill, her dress torn and her feet bloody. Nowhere does she see an exit, nowhere hope. She thinks of suicide. She dreamed of love, she would have embraced the whole world, but people respond with misunderstanding and resentment. “My veneration of love they call a sin; for my love of freedom – they crucify me, when I speak the truth, it is evil, and if I tell a lie, they rail at me!” (The suggestive firstperson of this confession unintentionally turns the reader’s attention to the authorial subject). The woman apparently succumbed to the pressures of conventional morality, what else could her statement mean: “In ignorance I sinned against you, my holy love! I did not go unpunished! I did penance! And now, purged through the flame of pain, brought to understand, I throw myself at your feet, almighty, holy love!” The woman prays again to St. Mary Magdalene (patron saint of fallen women!). And the gloom disappears, the earth becomes green once more, flowers breathe a sweet fragrance, the nightingale warbles, a chorus of angels rings out from the mountain etc. “The nymphlike maiden (not Mary Magdalene?) inclines to the woman, takes her up in her arms and carries her to a luminous throne, where the woman sees her majestic image [!?] in its living beauty!” Beautiful girls come toward her, they call her “sister.” The most beautiful of them “kneels with her at His feet, rejoicing with ardent countenance: This is our God! This God is Love! Love and you will be saved!”

The series of thus far mentioned personifications (“gods,” or “goddesses”) of love is not so clear. One must not overlook the argument that there can be ex definitione only one “god” – at least in our monotheistic tradition – at the absolute top of the hierarchy of supernatural beings. If there are more, the word “god” becomes empty, or it is a metaphor for different “god-like” beings, about mere “minor gods” among whom exist certain relations, which should at least be designated. Here the woman first flings herself (after repenting) at the feet of “holy love;” here the god personified as love is apparently – though he is never named – Christ. Then the woman is carried by the “nymphlike maiden” to the “luminous throne”, where she sees “her majestic image in its living beauty.” How else can this can this statement be understood, other than that she identifies herself with the goddess of love? Finally at the end of the chapter, the woman kneels “at His feet,” who is here addressed as “our God! This God is Love!” These expressions, taken from the Gospel, suggest the image of Christ as the personification and symbol of love; no longer just love between individuals (man and woman) but all-encompassing love as the principle and meaning of life. But the accompanying images (“nymphlike maiden” etc.) overshadow the christian associations and allusions, and cover religious love (people’s love for God, God’s love for people) over with secular human love (a person’s love for another, for people). It’s worth pointing out that we won’t find the excited conclusion: “Love and you will be loved!” in the text of the Gospel. Němcová presumably created it from two parts: “love!” (God, your neighbor, your enemies etc.) and “you will be saved,” which is very frequent in the Bible and is found in various circumstances. In the entreaty “love!” the absence of any grammatical object (including the possible reflexive “yourself”) is significant. Němcová apparently wanted to stress the universality of “free love” as a cosmic, natural and history-making principle; love as an instrument of correction and renewal of life. Last but not least love as the meaning and substance of life of individual men and women, who have achieved moral antonomy and freedom.

Four Seasons reflects the conception of love connected to the second phase of the historical stuggle for women’s emancipation. In the first phase, the movement for emancipation strove for “women’s liberation” in the sense of achieving equal rights with men within the ruling legal order and conventional morality. The main issues were women’s access to education, the right to independent behavior and freedom of expression without male patronizing; and making women’s voices be heard (see Božena Němcová: To Czech Women et. al.). In the second, radical phase of the struggle for emancipation, women wanted to assert their own distinctive world vision in practical life. They refuse all prejudices and obstacles that prevent them from achieving this (in extreme cases even the institution of marraige).

In Four Seasons our attention is especially attracted to her idea of “free love,” which we don’t encounter anywhere else in the works of Božena Němcová (let alone in the works of other Czech writers from this time). There is nothing strange about her renunciation of conventional marriage (“marriages of convenience,” parents arranging marriages because of property etc.). This was a common theme in European social critical journalism and literature since the end of the 18th century. The sentimental, romantic and realistic-critical literature of the 19th century then gradually revealed the powerful moral and political potential contained in the struggle for the elimination of women’s “sexual slavery” connected to the overall process of social democratization. It pointed to its existential dimension (the meaning of human life, the irreplaceable place of love within it). One of the key documents of the Great French Revolution is the Declaration of Women’s Rights (1789), upon which Mary Wollstonecraft based her famous work Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the Czech context, this expolosive issue – still in the light tone of rococo – was handled by Theodor von Hippel, especially in the writings “Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber” (1792) and “Über die Ehe” (1774). But Němcová could have only know these works from hearsay. Literary works about the fate of women were decidedly more well known; in Czech broader intellectual circles, primarily the stories and novels of George Sand made a big impression. (Let us remind ourselves that Hanuš Jurenka translated exclusively for Němcová George Sand’s story The Warbler.)

Where did Němcová get inspiration for her criticism of the traditional position of women in marriage and society and for the utopian vision of their life and actions in the spirit of “free love”? Her friends played a critical role in her education; in two cases – the philosophers František Tomáš Bratránek (1815–1884) and František Matouš Klácel (1818–1882) – it can be specifically documented. Both were her friends, both were members of the Augustinian order in Staré Brno. In the religious sense, their thinking was decidedly unorthodox; they were both philosophically close to the teachings of the idealist dialectitian G. W. F. Hegel. Bratránek could have influenced Němcová’s first eye-opening, that is the first phase of her emancipation efforts. His opinions about love and marriage are contained in his manuscript “Des Lebens Urworte” (published only in 1971), in which he offers his philosophical interpretation of Goethe’s cycle of poems “Urworte.” Orphisch. In 1851 Bratránek dedicated his manuscript to Laura Hanuš, the wife of Ignác Jan Hanuš (1812 to 1869), the third philosopher-Hegelian, known in Němcová’s circle of friends as “Hynek.” In his letter from 23. 7. 1852, Klácel writes about his “Urworte.” He was very happy that “Božena [Němcová] read them from lady Laura and found great joy in them; for I hope that she, being very impressionable, learned much from them, especially seeing in them the mirror of herself and many of her friends, certainly she used [them] to know herself more deeply.” What does Bratránek say about our topic? He assumes that both sexes are evidently equal. Precisely because of their originality and distinctiveness they are both equally needy of mutual completion and this completion is equally indispensible for them. Only in the dialectical unity of different individuals, man and woman, can there be a whole person. For people to fight for their ideals, “one heart needs another heart;” from here the instinct for “one complete pleasure of life” gushes from the human heart. Bratránek ridicules the petty-bourgeoisie, who pit “marriages made in heaven, making the angels happy” against earthly marriages obeying “the vulgar proverb manger, boire, coucher ensemble, c’est le mariage, ce me semble.” (Eating, drinking, sleeping together, that’s marriage it seems to me). According to Bratránek, “the secret of love lies in the unconditional mutual sexual surrender of individuals who complement one another.” Lovers’ mutual knowledge is the self-knowledge of each through knowledge of the partner. Because a human’s spirit and body are not dual (“zweierlei”), but one (“einerlei”), human love must be one as well – spiritual and physical love. By uniting in love men and women fulfill the “basic instinct and law of life” and become free personalities, as in “their own lawmakers.” Their law is their own conscience. Entering into marriage is also “opening a dark abyss”, out of which may come the greatest unhappiness and evil. If an external institution should take the place of conscience, it would mean the ruination of love and all of human life. For example, property rights dealings in the marriage contract turn marriage into a “privileged dirty trick.” Elsewhere Bratránek describes marriage from which love has vanished, as a “protracted prostitution,” which the petty-bourgeoisie glosses over with sentimental phrases; they don’t have the courage to break the unbearable chains of conjugal slavery, and as slaves they simply try to get around them.

Even if Bratránek’s conception was at times hard to understand due to his speculative method of interpretation, it nevertheless contained some deep observations and daring moral and socially critical judgements, the non-conformity of which verged on anarchism. We unfortunately have no
direct evidence of how Němcová understood Bratránek’s reflections and “what she got out of them,” even though Klácel promised Bratránek that he would ask Němcová to read his work once more and tell him of her impressions.

As to the second phase of Němcová’s emancipation ideas and efforts, her propagation of “free love” as the means to renewal of life, we can mention at least one unmistakable source: French utopian socialism and communism, introduced to Němcová by Klácel. Let us pass over sporadic allusions to this theme in the social criticism of the time; there can be no word of open propagation of free love until utopian socialist literature, for example that of Charles Fournier (1772–1835), and especially in utopian communist literature, where the abolition of private ownership was applied to marriage as well (“socialization of women”). In this respect Étienne Cabet (1788–1856) took it to the furthest limit. F. M. Klácel informed Němcová of Cabet’s revolutionary ideas on marriage in his “Letters from a friend to a lady friend on the origin of socialism and communism” (1849), in which he gleaned much from Lorenz von Stein’s writing “Sozialismus und Kommunismus des heutigen Frankreichs” (1843). In the “Letters” Klácel relates in undisguised agreement Cabet’s opinion: “Cast aside marriage as an unjust establishment, which enslaves and gives the body over in exclusive ownership to another person.” Or: “The family must disolve, for it disperses affections and brings discord to brotherly love.” Klácel is even more straightforward in his “Testament;” among the principles of his utopian Community is article 5: “The Community is Great Brotherhood and Great Sisterhood. Every adult man is a Brother and every woman is a Sister.” He is at his most straight-forward in article 6: “Each member is or was married.” Klácel’s “Testament” originated in the year 1879, and as such was written after Němcová’s death (1862). Nonetheless, it is unquestionably an expression of his opinions, which he upheld long before this text, and according to which he tried to live – even with Božena Němcová.

The conclusion of Four Seasons, however, takes a different direction from the context of Němcová’s friendly discourse with her philosophical informants about marriage and its pitfalls, and can be understood as a celebration of a utopian community of devotees of love as a life principle and an instrument of social renewal. In this lies Němcová’s personal contribution: she brought a concrete positive vision with a powerful emotional charge to academic deliberation about the degrading relations between the sexes. Her idea of a “divine free love” does not limit itself to the demand for an ideal relationship between men and women as individuals, but acquires the characteristics of a general project for people’s communal awareness based in love. She doesn’t mean love in the religious (Christian) sense, which people receive as a gift from God and is aimed away from the world, but worldly secular love, the work of an awakened person, who celebrates him/herself as divine. Women’s distinctive view of the world and Němcová’s concrete female ethos and pathos of this concept go further than the feminist efforts of the time focused only on women, for they demand the transformation and cooperation of both sexes. By dedicating Four Seasons to the “rebel” Josef Václav Frič, Němcová demonstrates her solidarity with the young generation, freer in its opinions and more advanced, and expresses the hope she places in it. We can rightly understand Four Seasons as “a lyrical stylization of social utopian projects of the time justified with women’s existentialist and psychological experience” (Jaroslava Janáčková).

Translated by Caroline Kovtun

Czech version – Jaromír Loužil: Poznámky k “filozofii lásky” ve Čtyrech dobách Boženy Němcové. In: Literární archiv č. 34 – Božena Němcová. Památník národního písemnictví, Praha 2002, s. 17–25.