Prague, this dramatic and suffering centre of Western destiny, is gradually fading away into the mists of Eastern Europe, to which it has never really belonged. This city – the first university town east of the Rhine, the scene in the fifteenth century of the first great European revolution, the cradle of the Reformation, the city where the Thirty Years War broke out, the capital of the Baroque and its excesses – this city tried in vain in 1968 to westernize a socialism ‘that came in from the cold’.
The picture of Atlantis comes to mind. And it’s not just the relatively recent political annexation of Prague which has made this city seem so far away and vague. The Czech language, so inaccessible to foreigners, has always stood as an opaque glass between Prague and the rest of Europe.
Everything known about my country, outside the borders of Bohemia, has been known at second hand. Czech history has been based on German sources. The work of Antonin Dvořák and Leoš Janáček has been discussed without a knowledge of their correspondence, their theoretical writings, their milieu. And even now people are looking at the relationship between Prague and Kafka without knowing anything about Czech culture. And ‘brilliant’ speculations have been advanced about the Prague Spring without any knowledge of the newspapers and magazines of those days. The great wave of structuralism that has swept over the entire world originated in Prague, but most of the work of the founder of that school has not been translated because it analyses Czech novels and poetry which are unknown abroad.
It often strikes me that the known European culture harbours within it another unknown culture made up of little nations with peculiar languages, such as the culture of the Poles, the Czechs, the Catalans and the Danes. People suppose that the little countries necessarily imitate the big ones, but that is an illusion. In fact they’re quite different. A little guy’s outlook is different from a big man’s. The Europe made up of little countries is another Europe; it offers another perspective and its culture is often completely at odds with the Europe of big countries.
It’s noon and I’m sitting under a gaudy parasol
Prague is stretched out at my feet
I see it as I’ve imagined enchanted cities
I see it as the dream of capricious builders
I see it as a throne, as the home town of magic
I see it as a volcanic citadel carved into the rock by a feverish madman
If one wanted to make a distinction among the various cultural periods in Europe, between those influenced by the spirit of rationalism and those inspired by the irrational, one could say that the latter have dominated the history of Prague: the Gothic, the mannerism of the late Renaissance and especially the Baroque.
During the decline of the Renaissance, the court of Emperor Rudolf II became the European centre of esoteric knowledge and fantastic art. At that time Kepler, the astrologer and astronomer, worked in Prague, as did Archimboldo, the Salvador Dalí of the sixteenth century, and the great Jewish humanist Rabbi Loew, who according to legend created the first artificial man, the golem.
The Thirty Years War, which ended Rudolf’s reign, was a catastrophe during which the Czech people nearly vanished, because the country was forcefully reconverted to Catholicism and Germanicized. The hypnotic spell of Baroque art assisted in the gigantic brainwashing used to change a Protestant Slavic nation into a German Catholic one. All these statues, expressive and theatrical, all these churches, fascinating and exuberant, are just the ‘flowers of evil’, the fruits of oppression. (This complicity between beauty and evil is typical of Prague, and we have all been initiated into it since our childhood.)
Not only did the Baroque era bring about the full flush of architectural and musical beauty, but it also stifled free thought, literature, the novel and philosophy – all of which, for the next two centuries, the sixteenth and seventeenth, were nearly non-existent. The absence of rationality and realism was made up for by an over-development of the irrational and the fantastic – legends, fairy-tales, ecstasy, the morbid imagination. The extraordinary one-sidedness of our literature, whether written in Czech or in German, developed at this time. From then on the magical was always to be immeasurably more important than the realistic. Quoting a poem by Nezval, André Breton rightly called Prague ‘the magical capital of Europe’.
In the streets of Prague Franz Kafka could have met only one great German writer of the preceding generation: Gustav Meyrink, an author of tall tales. In 1902 Meyrink published in Simplicissimus his first tale, ‘The Burning Soldier’, the story of a military man who suddenly comes down with a fever that keeps rising, first to a temperature of 200 degrees, then to 220, until everything around him begins to burn and everyone flees from him. This is a metamorphosis – unexplained, unjustified – of a man into a monster. Ten years later, Franz Kafka would write his first famous story: a tale in which Gregor Samsa, in a manner equally unexplained and unjustified, turns himself into a beetle.
Prague’s magical heritage, then, was at once preserved and perfected in the work of Kafka: his great innovation did not consist of instilling the novel with an imagination of the fantastic. He was completely faithful to the tradition of the magical capital. But he went radically beyond all his predecessors (and this is what distinguishes his ‘Metamorphosis’ from the writing of Meyrink) by filling the fantastic with the real (the reality of minuscule observations, but also of social vision), so that his dream-ridden imagination did not become, after the romantic fashion, a kind of escapism or pure subjectivity, but rather a delving into real life and a way of unmasking it, of taking it by surprise.
He was the first writer to bring about (before the Surrealists proposed it) an alchemical blending of dream and reality, and to create an autonomous universe in which the real seems to be fantastic and the fantastic unmasks the real. Modern art owes the discovery of this alchemy to the Prague heritage of Franz Kafka.
Jaroslav Hašek was born in the same year as Kafka and died one year earlier. Both remained faithful to their home town and, according to legend, they met at the same Czech anarchist meetings.
It would be hard to find two writers more fundamentally different. Kafka was a vegetarian, Hašek a drunk; one was proper, the other eccentric; Kafka’s work is considered difficult, coded, hermetic, while Hašek’s has become very popular, though it is not considered to be ‘serious’ literature.
Though seemingly so different, these two artists were children of the same society, the same period, the same climate, and they spoke about the same thing: humanity facing a society transformed (in Kafka) into a gigantic bureaucratic machine, or (in Hašek) a military machine: K. facing the trial or the castle, Schweik facing the totalitarianism of the Austro-Hungarian army.
About the same time, in 1920, another Prague writer, Karel Čapek, told in his play RUR the story of robots (it’s from his play that the newly coined Czech word robot was derived, and it soon became international). These robots, made by man, begin to fight against him. Because of their insensitivity and their self-discipline, they eventually eliminate mankind from the earth and establish their own empire of order. This picture of humanity disappearing under the wave of fantastic totalitarianism runs through all of Čapek’s works like an obsession, a nightmare.
Right after World War I, when the rest of European literature succumbed to a radiant vision of the future and to the eschatology of revolution, these writers in Prague, by contrast, were the first to disclose the hidden face of progress – its dark face, menacing and morbid.
Indeed, these writers are the best representatives of their country: what they have in common is the disabused outlook of this other Europe of little countries and minorities. They have always been the victims rather than the initiators of events: the Jewish minority (Kafka), surrounded by other peoples but isolated from them by its own solitude and anxiety; the Czech minority (Hašek), annexed to an Austrian Empire whose politics and wars were meaningless to it; the newly born Czech state (Čapek), also a minority, lost amid a Europe of big nations rushing towards the next catastrophe, and never being consulted.
To write a great comic novel about war, as Hašek did in The Good Soldier Schweik, is something that would be hard to imagine happening in either France or Russia. Such a book presupposes a particular notion of comedy (one which concedes nothing, which undermines seriousness everywhere), and a particular way of looking at the world. Jews or Czechs have not usually identified themselves with history or thought that its events were either serious or intelligible. Their age-old experience has taught them to stop worshipping this goddess History and eulogizing her wisdom. Thus the Europe of little countries, insulated against the demagogy of hope, has had a more clear-sighted picture of the future than has the Europe of big countries, always so ready to become intoxicated with their glorious sense of historical destiny.
What makes the books of Kafka and Hašek immortal is not their description of the totalitarian machine, but the two great Josephs (Joseph K and Joseph Schweik) who embody two basic human responses to this machine.
What is Joseph K’s attitude? At all costs he wants to understand the court, which is as opaque as the will of God in Calvin; he wants to understand it and to make himself understood. In this way he becomes an eager culprit: he rushes to the interrogation in order to arrive on time although no one has ever set the time of the meeting. When the two executioners lead him to his death, he shelters them from the regard of the municipal police. The court is no longer an enemy to him but an inaccessible truth which he is pursuing. He wants to confer meaning on a meaningless world, and this effort costs him his life.
What is Schweik’s attitude? At the beginning of World War I, which started with the invasion of Serbia, a completely healthy Joseph Schweik has himself pushed right across Prague in a wheelchair to report to the draft board. He lifts his two borrowed crutches and shouts with warlike enthusiasm, ‘To Serbia! To Belgrade!’ All the citizens of Prague who see him are greatly amused and laugh at him, but the state cannot do anything against Schweik. He apes perfectly the gestures of the people in power around him; he repeats their slogans; he participates in their ceremonies. But since he doesn’t take them seriously at all, he turns them into an enormous joke.
During a military mass, attended even by the soldiers in the prison, the chaplain Katz, who’s always drunk, delivers a long sermon against the soldiers’ sins. Schweik, in his long prison underwear, begins to sob noisily. He pretends to be so moved by the chaplain’s words that he makes his companions snicker. The spirit of buffoonery protects the integrity of Schweik’s humanity, even when he is totally manipulated by an army at war. Schweik has managed to live and to survive in a meaningless world because, unlike Joseph K, he refuses to look for any meaning in it.
It’s fascinating to see the continuity that connects the fictional and real Prague: these great figures of the imagination, Schweik and K merge with life itself. Although it’s true that the novels of Kafka have been taken off public library shelves, today’s Prague keeps re-enacting them. That’s why they are so well-known there and why they are quoted in daily conversations in Prague – just as often as are the deliberately more accessible works of Hašek.
We saw thousands of Joseph Ks during and after the famous trial of Slansky in 1951. At that time there were innumerable trials of every kind – condemnations, dismissals, reprimands, persecutions – and all this occurred while the guilt-ridden victims, engaged in ceaseless self-criticism, wanted dearly to understand the court and make themselves understood by it. Even up to the last minute they did their best to find some sense in the workings of the senseless machine that was crushing them. Eager culprits as they were, they were ready to help their executioners all the way to the stake, and kept crying, ‘Long live the Party!’ (They saw moral grandeur in their own grotesque dedication. The poet Laco Novomeský after he came out of a Communist prison, wrote a cycle of poems to the glory of this fidelity. The people of Prague nicknamed these poems ‘Joseph K.’s Gratitude’.)
Schweik’s ghost is just as alive in the streets of Prague. Sometime after the Russian invasion in 1968 I went to a big student meeting. The students were waiting for Husák, the new party leader, who had been appointed by the Russians and was supposed to speak. He could not utter a single word, because everyone started shouting, ‘Long Live Husák! Long Live the Party!’ The shouting went on for five minutes, then ten minutes, a quarter of an hour, until, finally, Husák, getting redder and redder, was forced to leave. Surely it was Schweik’s genius which suggested this unforgettable tactic to the students.
In these two cries of ‘Long Live the Party!’ – the cry of those condemned to the stake and the cry of the students facing Husák – I see two extreme attitudes towards totalitarianism. But it was the literature of Prague that had defined those extremes some thirty years earlier.
‘Enough psychology!’ Kafka wrote in his diary, a remark that Jaroslav Hašek could have written just as easily. Who is this Schweik who acts like an imbecile and who, regardless of the situation, comes out with the most inappropriate speeches? What is he really thinking? What does he feel? What could prod him towards such inexplicable behaviour? The popular and seemingly easy flow of the novel should not obscure the unusual and unconventional way in which the character of Schweik is actually constructed.
The anti-psychological attitude of the Prague authors preceded by ten or twenty years the famous example set by those American novelists who stripped their tales of all introspection. The Americans did so in the interest of action and events, trying to seize the world from the outside, by its visible and tangible aspect. The Prague approach was somewhat different: it did not consist of a love of manly adventure or of external description, but of a new way of looking at humanity.
This new look at humanity can be seen in a striking fact: the two Josephs have no past. What is their family background? What was their childhood like? Did they like their father, their mother? What were their past stages of development? We know nothing, and it’s this nothing that constitutes a break with past literature. For what had always excited writers above all was their search for psychological motivation, their reconstruction of the mysterious link between past and present actions, and their pursuit of ‘Things Past’, in whose web is held the astonishing infinity of the soul.
Kafka does not renounce introspection, but no matter how much we pursue K’s reasoning from one chapter to another, it’s never the richness of his soul which dazzles us. K’s reasoning is strictly defined by the authoritarian and tyrannical situation in which he is completely absorbed. The novel as written by Prague authors does not ask: What is the hidden treasure of the human psyche? But rather: What are the possibilities for humanity in the trap that the world has become? The spotlight is focused on just one situation and on the human being who confronts it. It is this situation alone which yields the ‘infinite’ that must be explored to the end.
It was during the very period when Marcel Proust and James Joyce were reaching the limits of mastering introspection that this declaration, ‘Enough psychology’ – expressed in Prague by Kafka and Hašek – marked another artistic direction for fiction. Twenty or thirty years later Sartre was to speak of his intention to concentrate no longer on characters but on situations – ‘all the elementary situations of human life’ – and to try to grasp their metaphysical nature. In the artistic climate existing after World War II, the direction Prague novelists had taken much earlier became more familiar. But it is in their work that we can discover the original meaning of this change in orientation: inner motives no longer mean much in a world where outer forces are gaining more and more power over man.
This new orientation of the novel, which rejects the conventions of the psychological novel, is therefore linked historically to a foreboding about totalitarianism. This coincidence is charged with meaning.
In his well-known biography of Kafka, Klaus Wagenbach expatiates on Prague and its culture without knowing Czech and really without knowing what he’s talking about. It’s easy to understand, then, why he sees Prague as nothing but a provincial city – cut off from the world, a little old-fashioned – into which the work of this great solitary figure fell like a meteor off course.
At the time of Kafka, Prague was anything but provincial. First, being the capital of the Czech people, Prague was enjoying a lively and challenging new sense of national identity.
Secondly, because the Czechs had an international orientation in fending off a German influence, they had become very cosmopolitan: pro-English, pro-Russian, but (in the realm of the arts) especially pro-French.
Finally, this dynamic and modernist Czech culture was living on intimate terms with the culture of the German minority in a competitive and fruitful manner.
Yes, there was the Prague of the Czech minority (450,000 people at the beginning of the century) and there was the Prague of the German minority (33,000 people, mostly middle-class and intellectual) but there was also the integrated Prague, where the bilingual Kafka lived. And not just him but all his friends – Jewish writers such as Max Brod, Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch and Oscar Baum – who, because they were above nationalistic quarrels between the Czechs and the Germans, could draw upon and integrate the traditions of both peoples.
In his diary in 1911 Kafka describes his encounter with the painter Wili Nowak, who had just finished a series of portraits of Max Brod. In the manner of Picasso, the first drawing was a faithful likeness, whereas the others moved further and further away from the original model until they reached a terse degree of abstraction. This was the first (but not the last) experience Kafka had with Cubism. The diary reveals Kafka’s interest and understanding, which contrasts amusingly with Brod’s discomfort; Kafka recounts it all in a tone of friendly irony.
People love to speculate endlessly about the relationship that Kafka may have had with the Czech anarchists (a relationship that has never been proved), but they forget about his much more obvious and important contacts with modern Czech art.
From the beginning of the century, Czech Prague participated passionately in the adventure of modern art. It was at that time that the ties between Paris and Prague became intricate: the Czechs Alfons Mucha and František Kupka heavily influenced French painting, and the impetus of Parisian Cubism found no response that was richer than, or as original as, that in Prague before the war.
Max Brod nicknamed the group of Jewish writers around him and Kafka der Prager Kreis – the Prague Circle. After 1925 people began to speak about another Prague circle, one of linguists and aestheticians (Vilém Mathesius, Jan Mukařovský, Roman Jakobson, and others) who created the term ‘Structuralism’ and proclaimed themselves to be ‘Structuralists’. Before the outbreak of World War II, Roman Jakobson left Prague and went to America, where Structuralism was to become the dominant way of thought in the decades to follow.
All of which did not happen by chance: Prague was one of the most dynamic centres of modern thought and artistic sensibility.
Several factors can account for why Prague became the cradle and the first centre of Structuralism: the moral prestige of the young Republic and President Masaryk, a great defender of democracy admired by all of Europe and the author of an impressive philosophical work which left its mark on structural linguistics; the welcoming and cosmopolitan climate, so open to foreign influences, which allowed Czech, German, Russian and Polish linguists to pursue the same investigations; the native tradition of Czech Formalist aesthetics (the Aesthetic School of Prague at the end of the nineteenth century) and intense linguistic investigations (centring around Vilém Mathesius, Masaryk’s student, before the war); and finally, and especially, the dynamic Czech avant-garde, which found its best friend and ally in Structuralism.
The work of Czech Structuralists can be characterized by its taste for concrete analysis, the breadth of its scope (encompassing everything from modern poetry to medieval texts, from Ĉapek’s prose to folkloric and ethnographic research), a love of clarity and an eagerness to get to the bottom of things. The fussiness and dogmatism that marked the later stages of Structuralism were unknown to these pioneers.
The alliance of Structuralist theory and modernism after World War I constituted a unique phenomenon. Usually the theories that are spun around modernist movements are mere apologies. That was not at all the case with Structuralism in Prague. What linked it to the avant-garde was a more general goal: the urge to grasp and defend art in all its particularity.
If a novel (or a poem or film) is just content poured into a form, then it is nothing but a disguised ideological message; its artistic nature falls apart. An ideological interpretation of a novel – which is constantly and everywhere being urged on us – is as simplistic, as much a mindless flattening-out of things, as is the ideological reduction of reality itself. If we insist on the particularity of art, we do so not to escape reality. Far from it. This insistence is because we want to see a tree in a tree, a painting in a painting; it’s a resistance against the reductionist forces that maim humanity and art.
The Prague Structuralists, in treating the work of art as an organism in which everything is both content and form, and in which nothing can be reduced to the terms of another language, (language of ideological explication) served to defend the irreducibility of man himself. It’s as though they shared with Kafka, Capek and the others a typically Prague-anxiety in the face of the reductive forces that were drawing relentlessly closer out of the depths of the future.
French Surrealism is often explained as a revolt against Western rationality, against Cartesian coldness. But strangely enough this counter-rational revolt was quickly transformed into a new rationalistic wave of theoretical manifestos which have left far deeper marks on French consciousness than did the fascinating irrationality of Surrealist art.
Czech Surrealism had no reason to revolt against Czech rationalism, which simply didn’t exist; Surrealism represented, on the contrary, the organic fulfillment of the artistic tradition of Prague, the confirmation of its irrational nature.
Because it is steeped in Czech cultural history, this so-called Czech Surrealism (which is nothing but an outgrowth of native avant-garde tendencies, especially ‘Poetism’) had, in the context of the national literature, an influence incomparably larger than had French Surrealism on the whole of French culture. Nearly all of the important figures in modern Czech culture have been influenced by Surrealist enchantment, imagination, possibilities. Even the public at large in Czechoslovakia is surprisingly open to its brand of beauty. The first time I ever heard the poetry of Vitězslav Nezval, the greatest Czech Surrealist, I was a boy of ten spending the summer in a Moravian village. In those days students who spent their vacations with their peasant relatives would recite Nezval’s poems as though bewitched. During evening strolls out across wheat fields, they taught me all the verses in his Woman in the Plural.
Because there were no aristocracy and upper classes in Czech society, the Prague avant-garde was much closer to ordinary people and to the working world and nature. This situation influenced Nezval’s imagination. In my memory I can still see Nezval, with his wild red face, as he keeps repeating the word concrete, an adjective that for him embodied the basic quality of modern imagination, that he wanted charged as fully as possible with feelings, felt life and recollections.
‘Instead of the lily, the symbol of chastity,’ he said, ‘I prefer the actual one I broke one morning when I was a kid playing hide-and-seek.’ Another time he said to me: ‘Isn’t it surprising to come across a distinguished man who can’t understand modern poetry simply because he’s always looking for allegories in it?’ Nezval hated the ‘ideologues of art’ who did their best to reduce poetry or painting to the clichés of meaning, to the poverty of message. In the thirties, along with the other Czech Surrealists, he discovered and espoused Kafka, and he would make fun of all those who saw in The Castle the state of grace, or hell, or God, instead of recognizing in it the concrete absurdity of our times.
To understand the magic of the imagination not as an ersatz version of life but as an ‘intoxication with the concrete’ – that’s what strikes me as the deepest direction of Czech Modernism. This outlook linked the Surrealist Nezval to his opposite, Vladimír Holan, whose poetry has often been compared to that of Rilke or Valéry. And yet Holan’s poetry – peopled with peasants, maids, drunks and criminals – collapses under the ‘weight of the concrete’ and in that way is radically distinct from the poetry of Rilke and Valéry.
What other work could better demonstrate the originality of Czech modernism, its hunger for the concrete, its plebian flavour, than the music of composer Leoš Janáček? Along with Kafka, he is the greatest personality in modern art in his country. Nobody knew this better than Max Brod, who not only preserved and championed the work of Kafka but (and this is less well-known) defended the work of Janáček with the same fervour. He wrote marvellous analyses of his musical compositions, translated his operas into German and published in 1924 the first biography of him. Brod’s struggle for this neglected though brilliant composer was so passionate and so important that Kafka did not hesitate to compare it with that of the French intellectuals on behalf of Dreyfus.
What is astonishing about this music (and the greatest drawback in popularizing it) is that it cannot be categorized. In the last symphonies of Mahler and in the first works of Schoenberg, musical Romanticism had exhausted all of its possibilities. The young generation buried Romanticism with glee, and with it a whole era that had thought of music as the mirror of the soul, as a form of confession and self-expression. At this crucial moment, Janáček decided he could give music another direction. Nobody else saw that direction. And he pursued it all alone.
He, too, was opposed to Romantic music, but his argument against it took another form: he criticized it not for expressing the soul and its moods, but for failing to do so; for having cheated; instead of revealing naked feelings, Romanticism had offered us clichés, empty gestures, mere posturing. He wanted to rip off the masks that concealed the truth. That’s why he didn’t reject music because it was expressive. On the contrary, he wanted to eliminate every note that would not be an expression of pure and naked feeling. He therefore arrived at a musical language of an amazing economy and eloquence.
But to talk about the truth of feeling – isn’t that just harping on a cliché devoid of all meaning? No. Before Olivier Messiaen, before Edgar Varèse, Janáček was enthralled by concrete music, by the noises of nature, by bird songs; but above all (and in this realm he stands alone and is without followers) Janáček studied spoken language and its intonations, its melodies, its difficult rhythms; he snatched fragments of words overheard in the streets, in the markets, among the crowds at the railway station, indeed everywhere – as though he were a nosy photographer (even the groans of his dying daughter did not elude him) – and he transcribed them all into his notebook. There exist thousands of these musical jottings, now kept in a museum, which bear witness to how serious his research was: it was a search after a musical semantics. It’s as though he wanted to set up an emotional vocabulary of melodic formula, as though he wanted to grasp the mysterious link between music and psychology.
Whatever may be the objective value of this work, it typifies the direction of this composer’s mind. He wanted to free himself from music made out of other music (a little like a writer who might want to avoid just making ‘literature’), and he looked for new sources of musical utterance that would be closer to psychology and more tightly connected with life. He wanted to end up not only with a new form of beauty – a new sonority, a new form of melody, a new construction – but also with a greater accuracy (psychological accuracy) of the musical unit, convinced as he was that music belongs to the humanities.
His efforts were neither Utopian nor quixotic. He succeeded in creating in the last two decades of his life, between fifty and seventy-four (he’s certainly the greatest old man in the history of music), a marvellous oeuvre: incomparable choruses, and a new concept of the opera – he wrote five that are masterpieces.
In the year of his death, Janáček wrote his last, and most beautiful and astonishing, opera, his true musical legacy: The House of the Dead, based on the novel by Dostoevsky. How did it come to him, this impossible subject, designed to offend the public, this dry report of prison life, without plot or intrigue? Why did he choose this grim setting which had no link whatsoever with his own life?
Of course it’s true that the music, violently modern, instantly changes this nineteenth-century penal colony into a concentration camp, and that audiences are bewildered by a drama that could not possibly be more up to date. But in 1928, in those peaceful years? Which of our latterday evil nights transmitted this bleak picture to Janáček?
I don’t know how to explain this phenomenon: there are no fewer than three great artistic monuments in this century that my country has built, which are the three panels of a triptych portraying the hell that was to come: the bureaucratic maze of Kafka, the military idiocy of Hašek, the concentration camp despair of Janáček. Indeed, between the creating of The Trial in 1917 and The House of the Dead in 1928, everything had already been said in Prague, and History had only to make its entrance in order to mime what fiction had already imagined.
The famous 1948 coup in Prague not only brought about trials à la Kafka or idiocy à la Hašek and prisons à la Janáček but also annihilated a culture that had foreseen these very developments. We still can’t grasp exactly what happened then. After a thousand years of a history that had been western European, Czechoslovakia became an Eastern European country. It became the site where the West – which traditionally stands for the very image of the colonizer – would henceforth be colonized. It was also where Western culture – which everyone regards as possessive and aggressive – was destined to lose its identity. What a historical irony it is that this ‘colonization of the West’ should have taken place in a country that never colonized anyone.
Immediately after the Prague coup, a major campaign was organized ‘against cosmopolitanism’ – by which the Communists meant Western culture. Instantly, the entire modern intellectual heritage of my country was blacklisted. It was then that Jan Muka?ovský committed intellectual suicide and renounced all of his great Structuralist work. It was then that Vladimír Holan shut himself up in his Prague apartment as though voluntarily in solitary confinement; he still hasn’t come out.
And yet that wasn’t the end of it. The nation’s cultural vitality held out and gradually regained the ground it had lost, thanks to the stubbornness, the common assent and the cunning of the people: what had been banned returned to the stage in the 1960s. And that was the real war, the war of a culture fighting for its life, for its survival.
One of the biggest battles in this war was waged over Franz Kafka. In 1963 Czech intellectuals organized an international conference in a Bohemian castle where the reputation of this tabooed writer was rehabilitated. Russian ideologues will never forget such disobedience. In the official Russian documents that were used to justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it was duly noted that the first sign of Czech counter-revolution had been Kafka’s rehabilitation.
This argument looks absurd, but it is less stupid than it is revealing: the invasion was not only the victory of ‘dogmatic Communism’ over ‘liberal Communism’ (the current explanation of the event) but also – an aspect that will in the long run loom larger – the definitive annexation of a Western country by the civilization of Russian totalitarianism. And I do mean civilization, not the Russian political system nor the state. It is not because he would have been anti-Communist, nor because he would have opposed the military interests of Russia, that Kafka provoked this outburst of rage in Moscow. No, rather it’s because Kafka embodies another culture, foreign to the colonizers, and one they cannot absorb. At the same time that the Russians are politically advancing against the whole world, they are regressing culturally towards their own Byzantine past.
Like a burning leaf of paper on which a poem is disappearing . . .
The culture of Prague is a thousand years old. It was at its peak between 1910 and 1940. After a bloody intermission, the sixties ushered in the last echo of a long history. It was then that this culture woke up into a world where its own darkest dreams had become reality. Although swallowed up by the night of totalitarianism, Czech culture has still known how to reflect upon totalitarianism, to judge it, to be ironic about it, to analyse it and finally to transform it into an object of its own intellectual experience. The ingenuity of the little country has been able to penetrate the arrogance of the big country. The Czech spirit of buffoonery has undermined the horror of serious ideology. Its sense of the concrete has been a way of resisting the greatest reductive forces that History has ever unleashed. Out of this multiple collision was born a whole group of works, a new theatre, cinema, literature, a whole way of thinking, along with a new sense of humour, an entirely unique and irreplaceable intellectual experience. For, as Vladimír Holan said:
Only Christ would know how to portray
Pontius Pilate’s wife.
The West was never able to understand at the right time the meaning of this creative explosion, blinded as it was by its own politicized (and also reductive) vision of things: on the one hand (the stupidity of the Western left), it could only see in this explosion a confirmation of the vitality of socialism; or on the other hand (the stupidity of the Western right), it refused to grant any value to anyone standing behind the façade of a Communist regime. A curtain of Western misunderstanding was added to the Russian Iron Curtain.
The Russian invation of 1968 swept away the generation of the 1960s and with it all preceding modern culture. Our books are buried away in the same cellars containing those of Kafka and the Czech Surrealists. The living who have been killed are now lying side by side with the dead, who are thereby doubly dead.
Let it be known: it is not just human rights, democracy, justice, which no longer exist in Prague. It is an entire great culture that today is
Like a burning leaf of paper on which a poem is disappearing . . .