In the Bruncvik´s Cauldron
(May 2002, Tallinn - Tartu, Estonia)
I am coming to you from the Czech Lands, a small country situated in the centre of Europe with the Latin name Bohemia. This word became the basis for the French word Boheme (boém) or the English expression Bohemian. There is a reason for me bothering you with foreign languages as they will serve me perfectly well in supporting my claim that the coincidence of the famous term Bohemia, which is, as you all know, a generic name for the fun-loving easy-going artists, with the name for the Czech Lands and the Czechs is rather characteristic.
I am coming to you from quite a small country in the centre of Europe to say, here in Estonia, a few words about the contemporary Czech literature and about the young poetry in particular. When preparing this lecture, however, I decided to divert a bit from the narowly conceived topic, as I realized how little we know about each other and how many elementary things we should make clear at the very beginning, so that we could later map out and identify the specific territory of literature.
Let me start with a brief historical excursion in order to point out certain facts which moulded the Czech mentality.
First Attempt: Czechs in Cauldron
According to a scientific theory The Czech Lands were cut out by a huge meteoric stone, which explains their shape resembling a cauldron festooned with the range of mountains on the border. The chronicler Kosmas, the first great Czech writer took notice of this fact as early as 1100 when he wrote that it is a region encircled with mountains which amazingly stretch along the periphery of the entire country, creating the impression that the country is surrounded and protected by one uniterrupted range of mountains. The shape of the Czech valley (note the geological term for this type of valley - cauldron subsidence) may have inspired the creators of the legend according to which the coat-of-arms of Bohemia originally featured a real iron cauldron. We do not know what this cauldron was filled with, though. Considering the great popularity of soups, we may assume that it was a vessel full of thick broth. The inhabitants of the Czech Lands have always felt safe in their cauldron. At the same time they have been frustrated by the fact that they cannot look over its brim to see the vast world outside. Naturally, this sense of small-mindedness growing out of the limited geographic flight and outlook was also reflected in the intellectual and spiritual sphere. This trauma already burdened the mythic Czech ruler Bruncvík who left for the foreign lands to gain, through chivalrous deeds, a new coat-of-arms for his country which would be more dignified than the one with the cauldron. After many adventures he returned home with a lion whose life he had saved during his travels and who had become his servant and the Czech heraldic animal since. This legend seems to reflect the age-old effort of the Czechs to shake from themselves the curse of confined closeness and the desire to compare to the large nations. Up to the present day, often thoughtlessly, we have been trying to catch up with our Western neighbours just to shut ourselves away in our cauldron again, speaking highly of what we have cooked so well. That is the eternal Czech paradox: on one hand, having an eye on something, on the other hand, the conviction of our own brilliance and exceptionality. Where does this special form of national pride come from?
I think it rises out of a paradigm I would refer to as the paradigm of Czech heart.
During the middle ages and the Renaissance, it was fashionable to depict the Old Continent as a human body whose members and limbs were made up of countries. The Czech Lands used to be rendered in these maps as the heart of the graceful Virgin Europe, and this concept seems to persist in our country. The Czech Lands may not only be perceived as the symbolic heart of the continent; since ancient times they have played a significant role in its history. That is where the first nation-wide reformation movement emerges, preparing grounds for the later rise of the European Protestantism. That is where the devastating Thirty Years´ War, the first war affecting the whole of Europe, started as a consequence of the anti-Habsburg uprising; that is also where, in fact, the Second World War started, following Hitler´s occupation of Czechoslovakia. It cannot be a coincidence, a poet may say, that down below in the bowels of this country we find the flaming red semi-precious stones called Czech garnets. They are believed to be drops of blood on the stabbed heart of Bohemia which is beating on despite all the wounds inflicted upon it. And it must keep beating, as there is no living body without a heart. That si why the Czech people often say: we will survive everything. And as if the confinement in the Czech valley was not enaugh for the local people, they descend into vaulted taverns - stone strongholds - to engage in neverending debates about the exceptional nature of the Czech destiny, creating the distinctive Czech philosophy of life whose creed was most accurately stated by Hašek´s Švejk in his famous sentence: To chce klid! - Take it easy! Up to this day this slogan has been decorating the walls of pubs, taverns and bars, and we very often find it on beer mugs and glasses. It surely would be agreeable to consider the Czechs to be the nation of some Diogeneses in tuns, the community of unassuming stoics who has reduced all their pleasures to a glass of beer and a good-natured company around the table, content with their peace, engaging in witty philosophizing, dong no harm to anyone. Indeed, in the Czech Lands you meet a large number of pub philosophers for whom it takes one acute gloss to tear the imaginary hair out of the divine silver beard. They are Bohumil Hrabal´s cousins. They are not, as it is often wrongly judged, mere drunkards and babblers. Here we have something to do with real poets; beer, the Czech national drink, does not cloud their minds but, on the contrary, blows them out as the wind rippling a barley field shining in the middle of the night. In this case, the exclamation "Take it easy!" means "Remain prudent! Do not act hastily, better get it off your chest!". This is an ideal Czech model. Unfortunately, things may often get out of hand and a number of Czechs, like Diogenes, may find themselves in the tun, but rather in a role of another well-known literary figure, drunkard Mr. Brouček. He often ends up in a barrel because of his over-indulgence in malt liquor. Mr. Brouček represents rather the Czech tendency to sink into apathy, cynicism and dumbness than the Czech stoicism. Mr. Brouček´s only concern is his belly and personal petty problems. His world ends where he can feel the lost hole of his belt. František Malý, writer from the turn of the 20th century, managed to render the model of Czech - Mr. Brouček - in one of his poems when he wrote: Water your heart in the Czech manner / Water it with the flood of beer / The sadness goes away / The nostalgia passes / Spit at your heart as well. Let me, at this point, mention again the popular Czech creed "Take it easy!", said so often by men raising their glasses of beer, and disclose its second, darker meaning. It is symptomatic that the Czech word klid (ease) is related - the etymologists claim - to the Greek klydzó, i.e. I am swilling it down. Truly, the ease I have mentioned seems to also blend with the state of torpidity in which naughty Mr. Brouček brings himself through the power of beer. The conclusion we can draw from all the above is: The Czechs like to present themselves as a nation of smart guys, which have for centuries managed to evade the pitfalls of fate using the three main weapons: prudence, cunning and sense of humour. It has been the case so many times. Very often, however, the apathy, numbness and disunity of the crowds of people like Mr. Brouček caused major national failures.
I have attempted to illustrate the two contrary features of the Czech national temperament - if it is possible at all to discuss such thing as national mentality or temperament - using two well-known literary figures: Hašek´s good soldier Švejk and Mr. Brouček, conceived by Svatopluk Čech.
Švejk follows the line of the positive popular philosophers - Diogeneses - while Brouček stands for the reverse of the medal - the negative simple-minded townsmen.
To make things more complicated, I will now reveal to the Estonian listener a significant fact which I have concealed so far. The Czech Lands, or the present Czech Republic I should say, consists of two principal historic territories: Bohemia as such and the territory called Moravia. For fereigners, both territories seem to blend into one. This situation may be compared to the condition of unicellular twins which the people outside the family cannot tell from each other. However, their differences within the family are apparent. Let me at this point proceed to the second attempt, which can be called:
as it will be poetry that will become our distinctive criterion, as the spirit of Bohemia and Moravia is markedly demonstrated in it. Interestingly, in the Czech Republic, the division of poetry into Czech and Moravian, the one created on the Bohemian territory and the one originating from the territory of Moravia, has been exercised up to the present day. We do not come across such division in prose very frequently. The reason for it may be that poetry is genuinely predestined to be wedded with the genius loci of its origin; it is often virtually imbued with such genius. Poetry, albeit airy, should always rise out of crude soil, as without this tangible tenacious essence, its force and authenticity somewhat diminish, its impact vanishes away. This unity of poem, the secret of poem and the earthy essence of human existence can be beautifully illustrated on the medieval ritual of the royal couple copulating in a ploughed furrow. Not only the conception of a descendant was the point in this case. It was a ritual in which three kinds of moisture combined: man´s sperm, woman´s wet and soil moisture. Such magical union gave rise to a successor whose right to the throne could not be challanged by anyone. He was the true son of his country.
A poet, too, should be the genuine descendant of his country. As mentioned before, both in Bohemia and Moravia these links manifest themselves significantly. Let me open again with a short excursion back to the history: Moravia was a focal point from which Christianity began to spread across Bohemia in the 9th century. At that time, a literary language codified by St. Cyril, alias Constantine, had already existed there. When Bořivoj, the Czech prince, paid a visit here to meet the Moravian ruler, Moravia had been spread with white pre-Romanesque churches for several decades. The legend says that as a pegan, the Czech prince had to dine on the floor. Amazingly, the Czech peganism and Moravian religiosity seem to linger on. To put it more accurately: the poets of Czech origin are mostly atheists while the Moravian ones incline to spiritualism and faith. This is linked to another trait: Moravia is more conservative than Bohemia. The poetic experiment has thrived more in Bohemia. Another point: Moravia has no large city of European calibre as Prague, which makes it more rural, the life in the country here is more authentic, preserving - in some places with a great degree of pride - the old traditions, which have been lately remelted in the pot of young poets. Prague is a black hole pulling into its mouth a tremendous number of people from all over Bohemia, which may be the reason why no other significant centres operate in the Bohemian context as far as art and poetry are concerned. The situation in Moravia is different. Apart from Brno, the traditional capital city of Moravia, there are also stand-alone art communities in the cities of Olomouc, Ostrava and Zlín. A totally different position has Těšín Silesia, a small part of the country near the Polish border where the literary production of the large Polish minority comes from.
Let me get back to Bohemia once again - interesting development has been seen in the North of Bohemia, the area neighbouring with Saxony. It is perhaps the only Czech region defining itself in opposition to the Prague centre. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that it is the territory which was mostly settled by the Germans before the war. The local young writers do not feel unrooted. On the contrary, some of them, being from Czech-German families, seek to reconstruct the lost memory of this border region in their poems. The Eastern Bohemia with its persisting tradition of national revival is also a specific part of the country.
Bohemia is the country of the Husittes, can be carnal, even barbaric: note the horde of the Hussites taking the body of freshly buried king Wenceslas out of the grave, pouring wine down his throat, or the first or second Prague defenestration, during which political opponents were thrown out of the windows. The actors of this event on both sides thus became one of the first performers in Europe. Finally: in astrological terms - Bohemia is Leo, Moravia Sagittarius.
The south, both the south of Bohemia and Moravia, is interesting and different from the rest of the country. I refer to it as the Czecho-Moravian mediterranean range. The south of Bohemia is dotted with hundreds of fish ponds and dozens of picturesque historic towns; southern Moravia yields excellent grapevine and is undermined by dangerous casks full of wine. Almost nobody writes poetry there, poetry is lived there, as my friend, a wine-grower, says.
Very well. We have outlined the Czech mentality, become familiar with the Bohemian and Moravian specific characteristics, using contemporary poetry as the criterion for its segregation, thus arriving at the issue which originally was to be the main topic of my presentation. What is the young Czech poetry like then? I must admit that without translations of the texts by my contemporaries I can hardly answer this question?
We are living in the time which does not favour poetry very much. (But what epoch really did?) The biggest sceptics even wind its end. The life is getting faster and the delicate souls fear that human beings will not be able to cope with further escalation of this pace. Inadvertently, the people´s fears of the first steam engines and trains come to our minds, when 40 km/h speed was considered dangerous to life, was believed to drive people insane, and 60 km/h speed was to make people´s skulls gape. None of it proved to be true. I do not want to imply that everything is in perfect order. I just want to suggest that people have always tended to exaggerate and dramatize, and, also, that a member of the young Internet generation does not have to be necessarily alienated from poetry. The pressure of the media and consumption is immense but strong and free personalities never give in to it. Most people do, but let us not pretend that art was ever meant for the masses. Yes, in the times of the so-called "real socialism" atempts were made to produce art on a so-to-speak mass scale. But what has become of it? First and foremost, poetry has been and will always be a matter of the nation´s elite, elite in the best sense of the word.
Apparently, the above-mentioned Mr. Brouček had never read poetry. Mr. Brouček never talks about poems, Brouček, on principle, says "rhymes", and this diminutive is to be perceived as having a strong pejorative tinge. Rhymes are worth nothing because they cannot be utilized or consumed as salami, a loaf of potato dumpling or a colourful nylon jacket from a Vietnamese vendor.
The point is that poetry, in its essence, is the most earnest and ambitious art. It makes considerable demands on the recipient and the modern people cannot often meet such demands. It presumes the involvement of eyesight, intelect and emotionality. Hence, the essence of poetry itself seems to be in contradiction with the ideals of the modern world which looks up to dynamism and speed. That is part of the reason why the attempts to promote poetry in the media tend to fail. Simply, poetry is impossible to integrate in the clip schemes of the modern visual media. For example, the second "non-commercial" channel of the Czech Television presented for several years the series called Poetry - A Foreign Word. The songwriter Jiří Dědeček tried to visualize poetry and support it with musical background. The results were often awkward, even ridiculous. It became obvious again that the TV rhythm does not suit poetry very much. In fact, it did poetry a disservice.
It is often said that the times when literature and its creators had a significant impact on public affairs is gone. And again, it is a matter of the media, TV in particular, which is the cheapest and the most passive source of information as opposed to the Internet which counts with user´s active approach and offers a chance to stop (that is one of the reasons why I think that the Internet is the environment where poetry may assert itself; we can browse in it as in a book). Literature cannot make it on the TV screens. There is a reason for it - literature, in its essence, is slow and earnest. In contrast, the television is fast and neurotic. If the writers of today want to exercise influence on public affairs, they have to make it to the TV, they must be seen. They cannot only speak out through their books. However, for the reasons I have already pointed out, the TV shows featuring poets or prosaists are often failures. Never mind. The poets do not have so much influence on the general course of events the way they did a hundred years ago. Nevertheless, another important mission remained assigned to them: their verses are to intervene in and develop the good inside the people, they are to resonate within ourselves for some time, to be a pause without which it is hardly possible to wander through the life.
The Czechs of Mr. Brouček´s lot see the contemporary poets as effeminate unstable personalities and, most of all, lunatics. However, this is not a problem of the last decade. Some 30-40 years ago, Bohuslav Reynek, a significant poet and graphic artist, wrote the following line: I am a lunatic in my own village... There is nothing wrong with lunacy itself. The problem is that the word lunatic has been lately identified with the word fool. Let us ignore it. When Jaroslav Seifert, the later winner of the Nobel Prize for poetry, told his relatives about his intention to become a poet, they responded: That´s no good, boy. Nobody reads poetry anymore these days. Consider something more practical. That was around 1914!
Similarly, the youngest poets are often looked down upon with contempt. Naturally, this may from time to time generate in the writers a sense of uselessness, chilling anxiety, which is subsequently reflected in their poems.
During his recent visit to Prague, Alessandro Baricco, a successful Italian author, said that there is no such thing as young poetry in Italy. The Internet culture and the business hinterland of writers´ projects, including the editing policy of most of the publishing houses of all kinds, offer young people different alternatives how to express the emotianality of their generation. Action, integration of genres with the possibility to make use of all the available resources of the multimedia spectrum, the necessity of apparent success, this all tells against the publishing of poetry. All this leads to a significant conclusion: art is being visualized, the word as such is not enough, or, to put it more accurately, the word is becoming incomprehensible and is being replaced with the icon.
The crisis of poetry is often discussed in the Czech Lands as well. I assume that in Estonia the situation is comparable. The current condition, however, is not so tragic as presented by Alessandro Baricco above. While in sweet Italy la lingua angelica is said not to serve the poets anymore, in dismal Bohemia and, in particular, next door, in Moravia, poetry has been prospering so far. Approximately 500 collections of poems a year are published there. With simple calculation we come to the satisfactory result: Taking into account 10 mil. inhabitants, there is one poet to 20 thousand people, including the numerous groups of children and young people. The Italians cannot come close to such result! You may raise a just objection that the quantity may be at the expense of quality. Certainly. Out of the 500 books of poems, approximately 20-30 are worth attention. Nevertheless, it is still quite good for such a small nation.
So far I have been talking here about the written poetry, published either in a form of book or electronically. Undoubtedly, this is essential for the nation´s culture and the culture of language. Besides, in Bohemia and Moravia there is spoken poetry, poetry of narrated story, which I mentioned earlier in relation to Bohumil Hrabal and Hašek´s Švejk.
And do not blame me for referring repeatedly to the pub in my presentation. There is a good reason for it, as numerous Czech literary achievements originated in a pub.
The outstanding Czech writer and journalist, Jan Neruda, wrote in one of his feuilletons in 1872 the following sentences: "How the idea blooms here over a beer! A manifold company usually gathers on such occasion, different walks of life, different views, ideas, and the pints are always there."
Different attempts to take the pubs away from the Czechs were recorded throughout the history. The most frightening of them all was Prince Břetislav´s effort to ban the pubs as early as 1039! He did not succeeded, fortunately, and the Czech artists have had a place where they could found associations, draw up manifestos and recite poems.
Like Neruda, young Czech poets are sociable creatures and it is the pub where they like to meet the people suffering from the similar "handicap". They are grateful for each reader and that is why they often participate in tours, the so-called "literary border raids" around the Czech Lands. Poetry reading in clubs and pubs is a common thing. The festivals of poetry and author´s parties take place all year round. Since last year we have even had one megafestival in Olomouc - it is an intrnational event called Poetry without Frontiers. It was conceived and organized by Martin Pluháček, the owner of the Brno publishing house Petrov, whom the people from the field consider a man who can do anything. May it be a credit to him that a great portion of the money earned on Michal Viewegh, author who is commercially successful but condemned by the critics, spends on the publishing of books of poems. So people recite, declaim and read. In Prague, there is even a café where peotry reading takes place almost every evening.
The young Czech poets associate in groups which, however, do not define themselves as opposed to the others by means of manifestos or programmes. They are often groups gathered around magazines or rather loose communities formed on regional principle. Moreover, the groups often intermingle. The only group manifesto published in the Czech media during the past two years was the manifesto issued by the Dodecadents movement. Later on, the manifesto of Supermarketing appeared on website ceskaliteratura.cz - although, in this case, it was rather a joke. The young Czech poets know each other in person and watch closely the work of their peers. This is not a problem, as the best current production is concentrated in two Brno´s publishing houses - the one mentioned earlier, Martina Pluháček´s Petrov, and Host, publishing books as well as a monthly on literature, Host, which is probably the most influential Czech literary magazine. Apart from Host, other literary magazines putting emphasis on poetry are published in Moravia: Aluze in Olomouc, Texty in Vsetín, Psí víno (Fox Grape) in Zlín, and around the town of Český Těšín Weles was established. Its board of editors is based in Brno, but it remains spiritually associated with the Silesian Beskydy mountains. Prague´s Literární noviny (Literary Newspaper) was the best-known literary weekly in the 1960s. Today the guilded letters of this trademark rather disguise a political weekly led by the well-known environmentalist Jakub Patočka. Hence, the title Literary Nespaper is quite misleading. On the other hand, Tvar (Shape), published in Prague every other week, has a purely literary character. Tvar dedicates a large space to literary studies and reviews. It does not offer so much original literary production. I would also like to mention Souvislosti (Implications) and Revolver Revue, grouping the people from the former underground scene.
What are the implications of all this? What direction will the literary production and literary life in the Czech vally take? Václav Jamek, a well-known Czech writer, asked in his lecture held in Udine, Italy, a following question: Will the Czech literature survive the year 2020? He finds its situation at the beginning of the 21st century bleak. My today´s presentation may sound a bit more optimistic but when I finally realize how often people consider the end of fiction, a shiver runs down my spine. The mere existence and frequency of such thoughts must signal something. We are witnessing the rise of a literary eschatology. I really do not know what befalls the Czech literature. But one thing is certain: if literature really ceases to exist by 2020, we, the young generation of writers, will be to blame. Take it easy, I should exclaim now in the Czech fashion. Yes, let us think twice about the things we should do. May this ease be perceived as necessary concentration before the binding and unique creative act.
Thank you for your attention!