La Bohême

La Bohême

Stoddard Martin visits Prague by proxy

PRAGUE, CAPITAL of the TWENTIETH CENTURY: A Surrealist History, by Derek Sayer, Princeton University Press, 2013

There is a mystique about Prague which makes it for some the most alluring of European cities. This may have partly to do with geography. It stands at roughly the centre of the continent, occupying more or less the same position as Kansas City in the United States, a centrality which persuaded President Wilson to choose the otherwise relative backwater as locale for a monument to Allied victory in World War I. That catastrophe, along with Wilson’s war aims of the Fourteen Points, brought into being the hybrid nation ‘Czechoslovakia’ and made Prague a capital city for the first time since arguably the greatest previous European catastrophe, the Thirty Years’ War.

Prague’s hinterland had always been called Bohemia and was a major part of the Hapsburg and Holy Roman empires. Bohemia’s history is illustrious and tragic. One of its native heroes, Karl IV, was elected emperor in the 14th century, but his imperial capital was demoted and reduced to a backwater after the Battle of White Mountain in 1618. Germanic dominance for centuries kept Czech preponderance in abeyance, though Bohemia never stopped being a crossroads, with shifting populations of Poles, other Slavs, Jews, Gypsies and refugees sharing its urban if not rural spaces with the two larger ethnic groups. This polyglot mix with its variety of religions, generously seasoned by heresy – another local emperor, Rudolf II, made Prague ‘the magic capital’ of Europe in the late Renaissance by attracting alchemists and other seekers for a philosopher’s stone – no doubt contributed to our modern transmogrification of ‘Bohemia’ into a Cockaigne of the mind.

In eclipse for three hundred years, Prague’s reversion to capital status in the 1920s and ’30s was followed by re-demotion under the Nazis; liberation was succeeded by communization in the late ’40s; the glorious ‘spring’ of ’68 gave way to occupation by Soviet tanks; finally Prague re-emerged as unmolested capital in the Velvet revolution of 1989, but only two years later lost nearly half its territory in a ‘velvet divorce’ with Slovakia. All of this may place it at the centre of the grand sweep of events which marked what the late Eric Hobsbawm called ‘the short 20th century’, but whether it justifies a book entitling Prague ‘capital of the twentieth century’ is another matter. Several other European cities come to mind – Berlin, Rome, Moscow, even in a different colouration Warsaw or Vienna – and the book itself makes a case for Paris as truer ‘surrealist’ capital, with New York and possibly even L.A. – particularly after World War II started – not far behind.

What then is the point that Derek Sayer is making – or is the book’s title just a provocation akin to the surrealist antics that are its true subject? I may just have answered my own question. In any case, where we are going isn’t Prague exactly but an iconoclastic cultural fantasy-land whose emergence counter-intuitively came in an epoch when totalitarianism was striding the continent like a colossus. Or maybe on inspection ‘counter-intuitive’ is not the appropriate term. Surrealism was never quite the anarchic, free-spirited movement it seems. Adherence or not to Stalinist dogma fractured it in the ’30s; and like fascist aesthetics, contrasting Futurism in Italy of the ’20s with the anti-Entartete Kunst ‘cleansing-war’ in Germany of the ’30s, its practitioners diverged in product as in prejudices. Salvador Dali, the ‘surrealist’ probably thought of first and foremost by posterity, languished for a spell under excommunication for his apparently crypto-fascist attitudes, and the two great ideologues of the movement – André Breton and Louis Aragon – spent much of their maturity not speaking to one another.

For those who need a Virgil to guide them through the labyrinths which this book’s author, as well as its subject, evidently favour, Breton is the man, or perhaps his onetime mate Paul Éluard, with whom he travelled to Prague for a Surrealist internationale in 1935.This event is the pivot on which the book balances its dual subject – ‘the reception they found in the city merged to create a single rose-tinted memory’ – but the pair would soon embody the movement’s fissiparous tendency. Breton was in ’35 undisputed commander-in-chief, Éluard his loyal aide-de-camp. The double-entendre may be apt: though Surrealism saw itself at the forefront of sexual liberation, Breton was like many Communists homophobic, and Éluard’s more ambivalent nature contributed to a split. Aragon, who fell afoul of Breton’s political line in this pivotal year, was equally ‘confused’ when it came to sex dogma. On one occasion when the group was conducting ‘Recherches sur la sexualité’, Breton said, ‘if this promotion of homosexuality carries on, I will leave this meeting forthwith’; Aragon retorted:

It has never been a question of promotion of homosexuality. This discussion is becoming reactive. My own response, which I would like to elaborate upon, isn’t to homosexuality so much as to the fact that it has become an issue for us. I want to talk about all sexual inclinations.

It is surrealistic itself sometimes to observe the tergiversations of these quondam friends and allies in the sillons of a cultural revolution. The Communist party had no time for what it regarded as ‘pornography’ by the ’30s, and the author of Irene’s Cunt was called to account; Breton meanwhile was happy to alter the name of the movement’s journal from La révolution Surréaliste to Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. On the other hand, Aragon would continue editing a magazine for Le Parti Communiste Français during the epoch of the show trials in Moscow, while Breton had scarpered to Mexico to pen manifestoes for Leon Trotsky. If this seems to bespeak a less than Stalinist posture, consider that when Éluard dared to publish a poem in Aragon’s mag, Breton not only made a final break with him but enjoined his colleagues to ‘commit themselves to sabotaging Éluard’s poetry by any means at their disposal’. Those who imagine this movement to have been more or less a blithe child of Dada and/or grandpa to postmodernist ‘play’ are wearing very dark glasses. ‘Disgusted,’ Sayer tells us, ‘Max Ernst and Man Ray followed Paul [Éluard] out of the group.’ Breton managed to get away to New York after the war began. His arrival there, according to Marcel Duchamp, ‘was the moment when the American avant-garde was born.’

Has ‘Bohemia’ then always been something other than the land of Cockaigne of our fond imaginings? On the evidence of this incarnation of it, one might say yes. But that is not this book’s message, and such attention as it devotes to the other half of its subject – the capital of Bohemia proper – tells a different or at least more sympathetic tale. The Prague surrealists, so less well known, had their own political and aesthetic schisms as one might guess, and Sayer catalogues them; yet Prague in his view, echoing others’, has a claim to embodying surrealism itself. Of all cities, anyhow in the European world, it the best example of it – that is his argument, taken in descent from Walter Benjamin, who (also in 1935, as it happens) labelled Paris ‘capital of the Nineteenth Century’. Benjamin’s touchstone was Baudelaire, whose great book begins with the phrase ‘fourmillante cité’, metamorphosed by T. S. Eliot in his great poem to ‘Unreal City’, from which provenance it should not be much effort for us to accept ‘surreal city’ in continuation. ‘This book,’ maintains Sayer, ‘tries to do for our recent past – which is to say for Walter Benjamin’s present – what The Arcades Project did for his: to rummage amid the rags and refuse of yesterday’s modernity in the hope of uncovering the dreamworlds that continue to haunt what we fondly believe to be today’s waking state.’

The rags and refuse he ransacks in Prague include works of Kafka and The Good Soldier Svejk; of Milan Kundera and of Václav Havel. They include the Starry Castle, the Hradčany and Suicide Lane. They include bartered brides from Smetana, ‘Granny’ from folk tradition and circus girls playing with penises in cartoons by Toyen. They include remnants of old street grids from the time of Karl IV, gnarled alleys of the Ghetto, a modernist monumental Trade Fair Palace, Frank Gehry’s and Vlado Milunić’s contemporary Dancing House. Nowhere is Sayer more adept than in describing architecture and its role as symptom of and comment on cultural progression. That Prague is a mishmash of ages he extols. That a building designed for merchandising should become a seat of communist officialdom is just the kind of oxymoron he sees as typifying. ‘Prague doesn’t let go… This little mother has claws,’ Kafka famously said; its metamorphoses are evidence of intrinsic strength more than of tragedy. Sedimentary layers are the city’s essential identity. Compare them to the marvellous rigidities of Haussmann’s Paris and the point becomes clear: Prague is ‘bohemia’; Prague is ‘surreal’ – more so evidently than predominantly modernist New York, Huguenot/Wilhelmine Berlin, 18th/19th century imperial Vienna, even a Rome whose three ages are quite clearly demarcated. Go to Prague, the book urges. See for yourself.

For those who have been there, this intellectual, historical, geographical excursion may call up memories, phantoms, desire, nostalgia. For those who have not, it may seem somewhat hallucinatory. There is no easy path through it, and its great walls of rhetoric scintillate and distract the reader from his way. That, one presumes, is part of the intention: to envelope you in an ethos from which there is no sure egress; to hold you there long enough so that a kind of Oblomov syndrome sets in. Nerviness to get on – to the point, to an exit – begins to lose grip and, as if you were sitting over some greenish libation in a smoky café, with fog out the window and dank of river on the air, you start to slip into a mild acceptance. A fiddle plays somewhere, or accordion. And who is that pallid creature loitering over there, and what language is it – or is it many – massaging my ears? You begin to think yes, this is where I belong, or anyhow find myself, and am inclined to stay. It may be a bit weird or disjointed, but in a quite seductive way, and besides I’m inexplicably beat or, no – oddly content – so why should I stir? I have come to a place which seems to accept me, for now. Maybe it’s just shrugging its shoulders, or doesn’t care; whatever, it is enough. Let the rest float. Tomorrow may be tragic, but… what is that aura descending? sheer whimsy? dolce far niente? No, I recognize it: isn’t it our old and sweet shape-shifting friend – la vie de bohème?

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