The Density of Unexpected Encounters

1. 11. 2022 / Derek Sayer

čas čtení 15 minut

(This picture comes from Derek Sayer's upcoming book Postcards from Absurdistan.)

In May 2021, Jill Massino and I organized a roundtable at the annual congress of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in New York. It was entitled The Benefits and Burdens of the “Invisible Suitcase”: Writing Contemporary History as an Outsider.

Some of the greatest historians of the contemporary period are “outsiders” to their country of study, for instance Robert Paxton and Christopher Browning in the case of France and Germany during the Second World War. Outsider perspectives enhance, complement, and complicate existing narratives, and, as such, help to produce a more nuanced and complex portrait of the past. Yet our collective experience is that Western historians of communism in Central Europe struggle to establish their legitimacy among societies that remain attached to an ethnonationalist definition of identity. Also, many people believe that only contemporary witnesses are entitled to speak about contemporary history. This roundtable offered the cumulated experience of four scholars: Marci Shore, Jill Massino, Jan Čulík, and Muriel Blaive. We reflected on the way in which our status has affected our research, our writing, and our reception. As a result, our roundtable also offered insight into the societies we are studying and into the stakes involved in the production of history.

Britské listy has kindly offered us to publish our texts, as well as a few others on the part of colleagues who attended the panel and participated in a very lively discussion. What follows is a contribution by Derek Sayer

Muriel Blaive 

Sometime late in 1992, I was having a beer with the distinguished Czech sociologist Jiří Musil at U Vejvodů, just around the corner from the Sociological Institute on Jilská Street in Prague’s Old Town. U Vejvodů was still a local pub then rather than the noisy, touristy beer hall it became later. The food was indifferent, the service was vintage communist era, but the beer was excellent. I had with me a Specialist Handbook for Collectors of Czechoslovak Postage Stamps which I had recently bought not because I was a stamp collector, but because as a cultural historian I was interested in postage stamps as a medium through which state authorities convey political messages. I showed the book to Jiří, drawing his attention to one set of stamps, issued in 1949 under the title “Political and Cultural Personalities.” (see the picture above)

These stamps commemorated one Slovak, the poet and writer Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, and five Czechs: the writers Vladislav Vančura and Alois Jirásek; the poet Jiří Wolker; the “journalist, politician, and organizer of the antifascist resistance” Jan Šverma; and the “literary critic, journalist, writer, and resistance organizer” Julius Fučík. Jiří couldn’t understand why I was getting so excited. Our different responses to this set of postage stamps—an apparently very trivial, insignificant, everyday thing—illustrate a lot about the respective advantages and limitations of "insider" and "outsider" perspectives on the writing of history.

An odd assemblage of would-be cultural icons

Of the six, Pavol OrszághHviezdoslav (1849-1921) and Alois Jirásek (1851-1930) made it to old age. The proletkult poet Jiří Wolker (1900-1924) died romantically young of tuberculosis, “a student and a socialist / Believing in myself, in steel inventions, and in the good Jesus Christ.” The others were martyrs of the Nazi occupation. Vladislav Vančura (1891-1942) was shot in Prague, one of thousands of innocent Czechs executed in revenge for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak parachutists based in Britain. Julius Fučík (1903-1943) was arrested for resistance activities and hanged at Plötzensee prison in Berlin. His prison writings Report from the Gallows were read by every Czechoslovak schoolchild. Jan Šverma (1901-1944), a one-time editor-in-chief of the KSČ daily Rudé právo, froze to death in the Tatra Mountains during the 1944 Slovak National Rising.

For my friend Jiří, who turned twenty-one the year these stamps were issued, there was nothing remarkable about this pantheon at all. They were wearily familiar figures, part of the wallpaper of the communist Czechoslovakia in which he had spent his entire adult life. But for me, coming from the outside, it was a strikingly discordant assemblage.

Leaving aside Hviezdoslav, who was there as the token Slovak, the odd man out was clearly Alois Jirásek. Apart from being two generations older than the other Czechs, he was at the opposite pole from them politically. Karel Čapek described him as “our most essentially national writer.” Jirásek’s prolific historical novels and plays, which narrate the entire odyssey of the Czech nation from its arrival in Bohemia to the revolution of 1848, made him a household name in his day, the “Czech Walter Scott.” He was a member of the National Committee that seized power in Prague on 28 October 1918 and he sat in the revolutionary National Assembly. When Tomáš Masaryk returned from his World War I exile as Czechoslovakia’s first president on 21 December, it was Jirásek who was chosen to greet him in the name of the nation at Woodrow Wilson Station.

The novelist then headed the list of National Democratic Party candidates for the senate, where he served from 1920-1925. But there’s the rub. These National Democrats, led by Karel Kramář, were an emphatically right-wing party, a party which was banned from standing in the 1946 election because of its betrayal of Czechoslovakia’s interests during the Nazi occupation. Vančura, Wolker, Šverma, and Fučík, by contrast, were all members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Jirásek would certainly not have endorsed Vančura’s famous declaration in 1921, “New, new, new is the star of communism ... and outside it there is no modernity.”

Jirásek’s presence in this company was no less dissonant from a literary point of view. Ever since the Manifesto of Czech Modernism of 1895 threw down the gauntlet against "imitation national songs, versified folkloristic baubles," most of the Czech left had associated itself with international modernism and distanced itself from attempts to create a national art based in local traditions. Vančura was not only a determinedly modernist writer and filmmaker but the first president of Devětsil, the avant-garde group of writers, artists, architects and theatrical performers that dominated Prague’s avant-garde scene in the 1920s, of which Julius Fučík was also a member. In his article “Art Today and Tomorrow,” the group’s theorist Karel Teige dismissed Jirásek’s writings as “commonplace kitsch, repulsive and sentimental.” Ironically, this very passage would be indignantly quoted by the Stalinists upon Teige’s death in 1951 as evidence of his “disregard for all the healthy roots of the national culture, hiding his cosmopolitan propaganda behind pseudo-internationalist slogans.”

Czechoslovak communists appropriated the national heritage

For me, the puzzlement was that Jiří would fail to see the flagrant erasures, the flattening of differences between causes and eras that underpinned this dog’s dinner of signifiers. In what conceivable world could Alois Jirásek, Vladislav Vančura, and Julius Fučík blend in as political and cultural bedfellows?

As I researched further into Czech history, I discovered that there was a historical answer to that question, and it became a central theme of my 1998 book The Coasts of Bohemia. Jirásek was far from being the only nineteenth-century awakener to share the Czechoslovak philatelic landscape with Lenin and Stalin, smokestacks and tractors, miners and construction workers, not to mention student girls bearing doves of peace. After 1948 the KSČ recycled figures, tropes, and symbols from the nineteenth-century Czech National Revival, repositioning them within a teleological narrative in which the communists were, in the title of a famous 1946 text by Zdeněk Nejedlý, “heirs to the great traditions of the Czech nation.” A 1951 stamp commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the KSČ with a montage of “a worker-militiaman and a Hussite warrior” spoke volumes about the ways in which the KSČ was revising the significance of the past to suit its priorities in the present.

This post-1948 “revival of the revival” was manifest in every corner of culture from art exhibitions and films to theatrical productions and book publications, which included a 32-volume edition of Jirásek's works titled “Jirásek's Legacy to the Nation.” Of course this new narrative was a tendentious simplification of Czech history—but no more so than its nineteenth-century nationalist predecessor, as incarnated in František Palacký’s History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia and as popularized in the voluminous novels and plays of Alois Jirásek.

This appropriation was possible, I argued in The Coasts of Bohemia, only because there had always been a strong populist strand in Czech nationalism. This was a consequence of the Germanization of the Bohemian aristocracy after 1620. Centering identity on the Czech language, as the awakeners did, meant rooting it in the people who spoke it, who for the most part were the lower classes. Czech was the tongue of the fields, the factories, and the kitchens, not the salons, the universities, or the offices of state. Tomáš Masaryk was no Marxist, but he insisted in The Czech Question (1894) that “younger writers and poets . . . are seeking a more concrete Czech human being, and they are naturally discovering him in the Czech countryside and in those classes of the people who were least touched by cultural development . . . nationality is perceived as the folk [lidovost]. In the folk [lidovost] Czechness [českost] and Slavness [slovanskost] are definite, concrete, living.”

Despite his conservative politics, there were strong elements of populism in Alois Jirásek too. The critic F. X. Šalda noted in 1930 that Jirásek's protagonists are “the people ... the little folk without historic titles and functions in their everyday struggle with the soil.” The elision of nationality and class in newly created Czechoslovakia was to be enormously consequential, from the land reforms of 1920 (“Today we are ridding ourselves once and for all of that aristocracy that played such an infamous role in the history of our nation, and the especially sad role after the Battle of White Mountain up to the present," explained one parliamentary deputy) to the forced expulsion of three million Bohemian Germans in 1945-6, one of the largest ethnic cleansings in twentieth-century Europe. It proved critical to the legitimation of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia as the authentic representatives of the long-suffering Czech people in the years 1945-48, and it goes a long way toward explaining the communists' widespread support in the 1946 elections and after.

Insider vs outsider: the relationship between Czech nationalism and communism

Thinking back on that conversation in U Vejvodů, what strikes me most is the limitations of “internal” and “external” perspectives. Jiří undoubtedly knew much more about Czech history and culture than I did. It was not ignorance but familiarity that blinded him to the importance of things whose strangeness I thought obvious. The couplings of Jirásek and Fučík, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nationalist and communist narratives were so ubiquitous a part of his surroundings that they went unnoticed. It was only my distance, my coming from somewhere else, that made them seem incongruous. This was a clear-cut case of Marci Shore’s ostranenie, where the familiar is made strange. My perception of the personalities on these stamps as a surreal assemblage helped launch what I believe was a productive exploration of the filiations between nineteenth-century nationalist and twentieth-century communist narratives, which would yield conclusions many Czechs might not be comfortable with: most obviously, they undermine the widespread belief that communism in Czechia was an alien imposition on an intrinsically democratic culture. This is not to say that to be an outsider made me in any way an objective, neutral observer. For Jiří was right: from a Czech point of view, there was nothing at all surreal about these couplings.

The pantheon on the stamps struck me as odd only because I brought a different set of expectations to bear—expectations, for instance, that the political and literary chasm that separated Jirásek from Wolker, Vančura, Šverma, and Fučík would count for more than their respective roles in a national narrative in which endurance, resistance, and martyrdom are recurrent motifs. My perspective was no less conditioned by history, but it was conditioned by a very different history, in which one’s language is not a cathedral and a fortress and those who write in it are not regarded as representatives of the nation whether they want to be or not.

An imperial language and a small nation

I was born and raised in Britain, which not so long ago ruled a quarter of the world. I later emigrated to Canada, where they speak English too. In fact, I can be pretty sure of finding someone with whom I can communicate in my native tongue almost anywhere I go. And many of them will not be my compatriots, even if English happens to be their native language too. In short, I do not belong to one of Milan Kundera’s small nations. “The concept is not quantitative,” he explains, “it describes a situation; a destiny: small nations haven’t the comfortable sense of being there always, past and future; they have all, at some point or another in their history, passed through the antechamber of death; always faced with the arrogant ignorance of the large nations, they see their existence perpetually threatened or called into question; for their very existence is a question.” To put it another way, what made the stamps seem odd was precisely that “arrogant ignorance.”

Alois Jirásek titled one of his novels, which is set in the rural environs of his hometown Hronov during the first half of the nineteenth century, U nás (four volumes, 1897-1904). U nás is a potent phrase in Czech. Depending on context, it can mean “among us,” “at our place,” “in our village/town/region/country,” or simply “here” (which would be my preferred translation in this instance). It sometimes has a touch of the communal imperative about it: we do things this way, this is how things are done here. It always has a weight of attachment. It is impossible to translate it with a single English phrase; the brilliance of Jirásek’s title lies in its playing on these multiple connotations, gathering up the domestic and the national into a single sentimental semiotic bundle in which—to use another common Czech phrase—everything is malý, ale naše (little, but ours).

The ultimate reason why the phrase u nás cannot be easily translated into English is not linguistic. As Wittgenstein said long ago, languages are bound up with forms of life. U nás, here, in the land of the malý český člověk (little Czech guy), your home is not your castle, the world is not your oyster, and your navies don’t rule the waves. But you will find yourself in a warm—if sometimes suffocating—familial embrace of fellow speakers and fellow survivors. “A small nation resembles a big family and likes to describe itself that way,” writes Milan Kundera, a family in which “everything and everyone (critics, historians, compatriots as well as foreigners) hooks the art onto the great national family portrait and will not let it get away.”

There is no Archimedean point outside language from which we can look down and establish definitive, objective truths. Different languages constitute their worlds differently. To be an outsider cuts two ways. It may allow you to see things insiders do not. Marginality has its advantages, and ostranenie can be a powerful methodological tool. But if you immerse yourself long enough in another history, language, or culture, what you take for granted will also at some point begin to appear strange and in need of explanation. Learning the language of the other may help you see things about yourself that otherwise remain invisible. For me, this is the major benefit of writing contemporary history as an outsider, even if it doesn’t overcome the perpetual imposter syndrome that inevitably comes with the job. What begins as mutual incomprehension may end as mutual enlightenment. Milan Kundera calls it “the density of unexpected encounters.”

Biographical note. Derek Sayer is a British/Canadian sociologist and cultural historian. He is the author of a trilogy of books on Czech history, all published by Princeton University Press: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998); Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (2013, translated into Czech as Praha, hlavní město dvacátého století, Volvox Globator, 2021); and Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, which will be published in the United States on November 1, 2022 and in the United Kingdom on January 3, 2023.



Obsah vydání | 3. 11. 2022