Naturalism was a dominant idea in 19th century Europe, with its vision of man as a subject to biological and social rules. The turn of the century saw aliances between art and political anarchists, a lament over what was perceived as a general stage of decadence in Western civilization and a return to a revolt against the hope of naive confidence in unlimited progress. The French review, Le Symboliste published works inspired by Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Laforgue,showed an appreciation for the role of symbols after Baudelaire and Emanuel Swedenborg. Arthur Symons' book on symbolists, quoted in Miłosz' History of Polish Literature:
“Here then, in this revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, against materialistic tradition; in this endeavor to disengage the ultimate essence, the soul, of whatever exists and can be realized by the consciousness; in this dutiful waiting upon every symbol by which the soul of things can be made visible; literature, bowed by so many burdens, may, at last, attain liberty, and its authentic speech. In attaining this liberty, it accepts a heavier burden; for in speaking to us so intimately, so solemny, as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes itself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual.”
In Poland, the publication titled Życie [Life] printed translations of Edgar Allen Poe, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Swinburne and others. The editor, Zenon Przesmycki, was known for a translation of Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat". Young writers were more likely to relate to Schopenhauer's appeal to withdraw from fatalistic determinism and Nietzsche's re-definition of the individual as a self-sustaining value-creating entity than to the positivists of the last decade. The positivists were seen as a reflection of defeat to utilitarianism. Religion was on the decline, yet science could not provide any foundation for value. Arthur Górski is quoted by Miłosz as a spokesman for "Young Poland", describing the dark pessimism of a continued search for meaning in a universe increasingly seen as mechanistic without room for pity or compassion:
Over all souls a terrible darkness is spreading in which even doubt is extinguished; nothing is certain but horror and pain; all walls between the real and the incomprehensible are broken. There is nothing but a dust of souls tossed by fate and crashing against each other over the abysses. ”
Górski also describes the revolt against the trite meaningless life of a 'philistine/bourgeois' that later became the 'organization man' or simply a 'bureaucrat':
“As disillusionment with the life of society and with its typical product, a modern philistine, grew, ties between the individual and that society loosened; disgust and protest against the banality and soulless existence of the organized mass increased . . . More sensitive and profound minds, after having lost their respect for the philistine and their sympathy with social movements, began to withdraw from life and look for its other, more durable values...
Stansław Przybyszewski became the editor of Życie [Life] and "Young Poland" became known as Przybyszewski's Moderna. In 1899, he published a manifesto called Confiteor (original Polish full-text)*, an exerpt from this is found in Miłosz:
“Art has no aim, it is aim in itself; it is the absolute because it is a reflection of the Absolute - the Soul. And since it is the absolute, it cannot be enclosed within any frame, it cannot serve any idea, it is dominant, it is a source from which all life comes.
Art stands above life; penetrates the essence of the universe; reads to the ordinary man a secret, runic writing; interprets all that exists from one eternity to the other; it knows neither limits nor laws; it knows only the duration and power of the soul; it binds men's souls to the soul of the universal nature and considers the soul of the individual as a phenomenon of that other soul.
Tendatious art, art-pleasure, art-patriotism, art possessing a moral or a social aim ceases to be art and becomes a biblia pauperum for those who do not know how to think or who are not educated enough to read proper textbooks. For such people, wandering teachers are necessary - not art.
To act upon society in an instructive or moral sense, to foster patriotism or social instincts through art means to humiliate art, to throw it down from the summits of the Absolute into the miserable accidentality of life, and the artist who proceeds that way does not deserve the name of artist. A democratic art, an art for the people, is even lower. An art for the people is a hideous and platitudinous banalizing of the means used by the artist; it is a plebeian act of making accessible what, by the nature of things, is not easily accessible. The people need bread not art; when they get bread, they will find their path themselves...
Art so conceived becomes the highest religion, and the artist becomes its priest. He is personal only by an internal power with which he re-creates states of soul. Besides that, he is a cosmic, metaphysical force through which the absolute and eternity express themselves. He is holy and pure, regardless of whether he presents the most terrible crimes, uncovers the most hideous dirt, or raises his eyes toward heaven and penetrates the light of God. ”
Przybyszewski shared the naturalist vision of man as a product of the blind forces of evolutionary determinism that shapes our thoughts through instincts; he turned to concepts that 'have no definition in human language", that of the 'naked soul' expressing itself through art and creating value. Przybyszewski called for the artist to explore the very essence of reality and to create value through art, in a world deprived of values.