THERE is a nineteenth-century Romantic called France Prešeren (1800-1849) who, in Slovenia, is still widely celebrated today as both a major poet and an unrivalled icon of national culture. In one of his most famous compositions, The Baptism on the Savica (1836), which describes the violent conversion of the country to Orthodox Christianity in no less than five-hundred stirring verses, Prešeren tells the epic story of two pagan lovers called Črtomir and Bogomila.
When the warlike Christians massacre their heathen adversaries, Črtomir – a proud warrior – is forced to retreat to a castle in the mountains and it is there that he meets his beloved. Although the beautiful Bogomila had been a devoted priestess of the fertility goddess, Živa, he discovers that she has now converted to Christianity and she asks Črtomir to join her in the new faith. Naturally, her partner is extremely reluctant to embrace this foreign religion and yet she manages to convince him that it is now impossible for them to be together unless they are united in Christ. It is Črtomir’s great passion for Bogomila that finally leads him to renounce the ‘error’ of his ways and gracefully accept her wish. The act itself denotes the wider loss of Slovene identity. However, the hero then receives a second major surprise as Bogomila explains that if he truly loves her then he must also respect her desire for them to part. Whilst this sounds like a contradiction, the reason for this request is that Bogomila wishes to remain chaste and devote the remainder of her life to Christ. Completely encapsulated by her divine beauty, symbolic of heaven itself, the hero agrees and, in the final scene, accepts his baptism into the Church. As the poem ends, we are told that neither Črtomir nor Bogomila will see one another ever again, or at least not on this plane of existence.
Slavoj Žizek, a modern-day Slovene philosopher with decidedly Marxist tendencies, tells us that the poem depicts his people’s tendency to compromise and that it is a “humiliation of paternal authority” in the sense that the average Slovene
is living proof and/or the remainder of a compromise, of compromising one’s desire, of choosing the wrong side in an ethical choice.
He also insists that this tragic story has actually helped to shape his country’s social structure on account of
the spread of alcoholism in Slovenia where, if one is to believe detailed clinical reports, the typical family constellation involves a humiliated alcoholic father cornered by the mother (his wife) into a double-bind: the mother implores him to cure himself, yet simultaneously her between-the-lines message to him is that he is too weak to do it, so that she effectively propels him in the direction of more drinking.
Whilst, in my opinion, this wholesale demonisation of the Slovene character represents one of the more pernicious examples of self-loathing, there is something far more interesting to take away from Prešeren’s sorrowful stanzas. Indeed, the fact that this drama is used by Christians to substantiate or reinforce the religious ‘destiny’ of Slovenia itself, is perhaps ironic in that the enduring charms of Bogomila – unlike those of Lilith, Eve and countless other anti-heroines – are used, not to vilify women or present them as the scourge of the material world, but as a convenient means of overcoming the pagan condition. Feminine seduction, then, is apparently justifiable when it is performed in the service of the Christian religion.