Prague Diary

Miroslav Holub

One of the latest cartoons by Vladimir Rencin – who belongs to that strong group of poets of the political drawing which flourished in this country during the Seventies and Eighties – shows two middle-class gentlemen with glum crestfallen faces. The gents are saying: ‘The good old times – wine, women and the Communist Party ... ’

It could be said that the Party was both lethal and fun. The sharpness of the cartoon is a sign of the times, of a situation in which intellectuals can be seen as the determining factor of public life, given that official stupidity is unable to create anything but restrictions. The situation also raises questions that have to do with the constructive role of the intellect. On the one hand, there is the very memorable fact of highly competent brains having survived beneath a twenty-year sediment of repression and depression; and there are those new politicians who, perhaps thanks to the President’s personal initiative, have been so agile in the field of foreign policy – another fact, and a fact without local precedent since 1938. On the other hand, although the thing is, so far, rather small-scale, intellectual weaknesses have emerged: insufficient decisiveness, an inclination to be emotional, and to overestimate the immanent values of the spirit and individual life, in comparison with the letter, and with tangible practice. The letter does not look too good at present. Calls for morality have a beautiful resonance above the devastated environment: but they hardly promote the productivity of labour, gross national product or working discipline. In the past, complaints could be pinned, if in vain, on the ruling regime. Nothing much can be pinned on anyone nowadays.

Adam Michnik from Poland said a similar thing at a conference on Ethics and Politics held in Bratislava in April, at the prompting of Vaclav Havel: it is neither the USSR nor the Communists that pose a threat now – we are the threat.

The struggle with the dull intellect or the ruling class is over. Another struggle has begun, with the ruthless and cunning laws of the market, and not every member of the new administration seems to be fully aware of this. Not everyone is ready to admit that neither the poet’s nor the politician’s word carries the weight it used to. The word used to erode stone. The word was the fuse in the time bomb that exploded after 17 November. Today the word is again only a word, a poem is only a poem, and the everyday weight of things is elsewhere. Or at least somewhat elsewhere.

In Bratislava, Michnik reminded me how easy it was to become a politically significant producer of words. In 1974 I was invited as a fairly well-known poet to the ‘Warsaw Autumn’, a poetry festival. There was also an official Czechoslovak writers’ delegation – official, and therefore rather mediocre. When the delegation found out about my presence, and especially when the Polish press mentioned my name instead of the delegates’ names, there was pique, and the delegation filed an official complaint at the Polish Writers’ Union, where Michnik still was at the time. The Poles replied that this was a festival of poets, not of official delegations. In accordance with the middling intellectual standards of official bodies, the Czechoslovak delegation sought help by phone from the Prague Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry did not hesitate to dispatch a diplomatic protest about my presence in Warsaw. The Polish Foreign Secretary put the démarche in cold storage for four days, however, and when the festival was over, he informed them that there was no Holub on the scene. So it was easy to become a political phenomenon by means of a mere reading of mere poems. When fighting dull intellect, you always feel more significant than you really are. And now we have to revise the estimate of our significance.

I have mentioned the intellectual and moral competence of people who for twenty years were not allowed to stick their heads up above the parapet of anonymity. They are the ones who are now creating the cultural climate, as shown both by the Bratislava Conference on Ethics and Politics and by the literary conference at New York University where over fifty Czech writers were delivered for a week, as one of the few items fit for export. Another feature of cultural life has also become visible, in the shape of a psychological problem for those people who would form the artistic underground anywhere else in the world, and who found in the totalitarian system a moral blessing for their kind of life: as far as this country was concerned, a protest against anything became a protest against that one thing.

In February we were coming back from a ‘cultural evening’ in Carlsbad, the spa-town in western Bohemia. The proceeds of the occasion were to be given to patients undergoing dialysis for kidney failure (I can’t get rid of the personal impression that such a patient is much more important, humanly and existentially, than an artist with a permanent one per ml of alcohol in the blood). The landscape around the car was as dark as only Central Europe can appear three months after a time of political darkness. ‘What’s the situation like in your trade?’ I asked a psychiatrist I greatly respect, although I am an immunologist myself. Doctor Honzak answered: ‘Asylums are full. As soon as they opened the borders, lots of borderline individuals rushed in. For them, the social – collective excitement, that is to say – is a biological requirement: but at the same time they can’t stand very much of it. Also, we have lots of our own borderline individuals – neurotic or slightly psychopathic individuals, for example, who can’t take the period that follows a time of collective stress, the relaxation that follows the tension which had given them weight, especially moral weight.’ I was staring into the dark and I was musing wistfully about the process known in biology as differentiation, which looks quite all right if it’s cells you’re dealing with, but a bit risky if it’s human beings. After years of wine, song and the Communist Party, I could understand much better what Alexander Kluge meant by his Artisten in der Zirkuskoppel: ratlos.

I’ll explain the expression. This nation is in a circus cupola on a flying trapeze and falls for the illusion that it can talk its way out. Not even Christian ritual can help in a place where you need new technologies and a new and efficient political apparatus. I can’t believe that Anton Pelinka, in Bratislava, was speaking casually or rhetorically when he mentioned the nefarious consequences of a policy that overestimates its inner value and prefers it to political goals. The Czech Prime Minister, Petr Pithart, said, also in Bratislava, that an exaggerated emphasis on morality can sometimes take the place of professionalism, even in politics, and that an exaggerated, accentuated morality is a fallen morality. The psychologist J. Nemec added: ‘Morality is not talked about. It either is, or is not.’ And it certainly can’t serve as a substitute for political economy. It cannot be an ‘inner value’ if outer values are lacking. The ordinary citizen is in a position to observe this, having broken the bonds of the Communist nomenklatura, while eagerly cultivating the climbing roses of the illusion that he can achieve Western living standards by means of an Eastern working performance.

The situation can be defined by a joke from the distant Thirties: socialism is a system in which the people, by their heroic efforts, overcome obstacles that would have never otherwise arisen. Ordinary men and women in teams, not so much ‘the people’, have to solve riddles given up by their inventors twenty years ago, in the days when the people thought it was about time to terminate their ‘heroic efforts’. On top of this, the sweet-smelling but often stupefying and even toxic idea of exorcism is taking root in many institutions. We must cast out not only Communists but also the structures that originated during their rule, and not only on their advice.

This phenomenon is prominent, at least for me, in scientific institutions, where everything done in the course of the last twenty years must be bad, although in some cases no one knows in what way it is bad. Restructuring and exorcism require days and weeks, even months, of industrious squabbling at meetings, where a holy enthusiasm – partly deducible from the fact that the zealot slyly heads for the top job – fogs over the simple truth that it is high time to start working and to show that we are not so badly off in science, even within institutions such as the Academy of Sciences, or this or that institute passively established after the Russian model. The Russian model was a prevention of ideas in philosophy and in all the humanitarian departments, but it failed to hinder meaningful activity in the natural sciences. Nevertheless, even in this field, we act as if the only way forward is to re-establish the structures we had twenty or forty years ago.

I do recognise the need for purification, even exorcism, in some places, but I do not recognise this need as likely to produce a substitute for the working performance, and I don’t recognise it as the key question of the moment. In a couple of years there will be more time and more information on the new conditions. One can’t suppose that the hidden forces of our former overlords – in particular, the erudite forces of the former state police – will be unable to exploit the hysterical mood which accompanies all forms of exorcism. And the returning indifference or uncertainty of ordinary citizens will contribute.

If I were asked to offer a metaphorical summary of what is going on, I would tell the following story from a small village near Prague. An old man died. His life had been filled by work, and by disappointments of all kinds. His last wish was a religious funeral, from the church to the grave. The church, not much used lately, was administered by the Administration for Historical Monuments. The neighbours, the band, the priest, still persecuted until quite recently but now resettled in a good parish, all arrived at the given hour, as did the funeral car with the coffin and the wreaths. The music played and the procession set out for the church. It never got there. It turned out that the church door was so rusty it could not be opened, not even by force. The funeral got stuck in a spot which was, in fact, the bus terminal. The coffin was half-pushed out, and the priest began to preach and pray. When the bus came, the funeral guests begged the driver to stop a little farther down the road, where he was followed by the passengers, who had been looking on with interest. Folk music came out of the windows of the houses around, sparrows chirped on a disintegrated roof, and the local dark forces, still nesting in the local administration building, undoubtedly smiled their dark and secret smile. So there you go with your religious funeral. There you go with your care for historical monuments. In that old jolty car was a dead man, one of the nicest I have ever known. And nothing could be done about it.

Our nation has a special gift. We can adapt, and move fast. But then, very often, we stop short, and discover that nothing has been fully prepared and that very little has been done.