I continue to think of “The Power of Powerlessness,” especially in light of last week’s shooting in Connecticut. May we in the U.S. have the courage to confront power as Havel and his peers did—not just this week or next month, but long after the news reports fade, and the next inevitable scandal or atrocity captures our attention. May we heed Havel’s warning that systems built on lies work “only as long as people are willing to live within those lies.” May Havel’s courage and persistence embolden our own.
The call went out over the weekend to mark the first anniversary of Vaclav Havel’s death on December 18 by wearing short trousers. I spotted a woman outside the library this morning in rolled-up jeans in what I think—hope—was a response to the call (though maybe she was just being stylish).
Later in the day, beneath the big statue of St. Wenceslas at the head of Wenceslas Square, I saw a man who’d obviously rolled up his pants legs in homage to the country’s truly beloved first president.
Back in December 1989, during Havel’s inauguration as president of Czechoslovakia, someone took a picture of him in trousers that barely reached his ankles. Havel later said he’d adjusted his pants during the ceremony, and the photo was snapped before they’d had a chance to settle, but a colleague, Jan Solc, who worked in the Czech president’s office in the 1990s, claimed Havel had a penchant for short trousers dating back to his years as a political prisoner. Every time his captors came for him, they’d shout, “Havel, make yourself presentable,” and Havel would hoist his trousers up. “He kept doing it the whole time he was locked up,” Solc said.
The intent of today’s tribute, as the organizers of “Short Trousers for Vaclav Havel” explained on an English-language website, was to create a “gesture that is humorous, non-violent but significant and perhaps even very Czech-like.”
Far more moving, though, was the small throng of people gathered in Wenceslas Square at dusk, lighting votives in the shape of the famous Havel heart (he always signed his name with a heart), piling slips of paper and more candles around a photo of Havel. Someone was playing guitar, and people were making big hearts from red balloons, and the whole thing had the flavor of the 60s—or maybe it’s because as I was leaving, I came across a much smaller memorial, with its own votives and supplicants, dedicated to Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, two students who immolated themselves in this same square in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Havel was a reluctant politician who objected to the term “dissident” because he didn’t want to be seen as a “professional malcontent,” but rather as a person who was simply attempting to “live within the truth.” Two months before he became president, he told a friend, “I’m a writer, not a politician. I would like to be a kingmaker, but not a king.” In his first days as president he used a scooter to navigate the marble hallways of Prague Castle.
It’s easy to relegate much of what Havel did and said during his courageous life as a playwright and political activist to the gray Communist past of this part of Europe. But as I was reminded yesterday, reading his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel has much to say to us about our own time, place, and the systems to which we pledge our allegiance:
“The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.”
“A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”
“It may even be said that the more room there is in the Western democracies (compared to our world) for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it. It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies.”
“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country … we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. … This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure. There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it as an occasion for spiritual testing. … Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way that distraction, in Pascal’s use of the word, takes us away from God. Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves.” —Albert Camus, Notebooks
I miss my cookbooks—though there wouldn’t be much point in having them here. Our kitchen has only a few staples (salt, pepper, olive oil), and we don’t want to spend money stocking the cupboard, so we make do with what we’ve got. Leftovers reheated or enhanced, take-out (sebou) soups and lasagnas, simple pasta sauces, a roast chicken. Today it’s cabbage soup, inspired in part by an old New Yorker article I began reading over breakfast. As I downed the day’s portion of muesli and yogurt and read about traditional Russian cuisine—pickled cabbage and smoked meats—I began concocting a soup in my mind. Such is culinary life in a country with a short growing season and long winter.
Something as simple as the evening meal returns me to myself—I love to cook—even as it takes me away from the familiar. (When’s the last time I made anything with kielbasa, or klobasa, as it’s called here?)
Even the act of buying fish the other night came close to Camus’s spiritual test. Trying in my non-Czech to tell the woman at Tesco that I wanted two pieces of salmon, I felt the language-bearing regions of my mind running through their circuits, scanning the possibilities: duecenti grammi? docientos gramos? zwei Stück? dos trozos … ? I finally shrugged and began pointing as the woman moved her knife back and forth across the fish’s flesh. At last the knife paused just where I wanted it—
Ano! I cried happily. Ano!! Yes!!
For the past two weeks, I’ve spent as many mornings as I can in Prague’s Municipal Library. It’s a five-minute walk from our apartment, across Old Town Square, which this time of year is crammed with holiday kitsch and bad food of the sort that makes me feel virtuous heading off to the reading room with my backpack and a bottle of water.
The Municipal Library is a mostly quiet place, built, I’m guessing, in the 1920s, with big open reading rooms on balconies at opposite ends of the building. Not every seat has an electrical outlet—a bit of a problem—but you can bring food and drink in, and check your coat for free. I wear ear plugs to ward off distractions and noticed a man my age doing the same the other day. Most of the people who come here seem to be doing serious work.
(One of the great pleasures of a European existence, however brief, is the chance to work in buildings like this. In Spain in the 1980s, I spent most of a month working in a Renaissance library in Granada. The librarian let me take breaks among the roses in the courtyard garden he also tended.)
It helps that I can’t understand much of anything around me in the Municipal Library. In his “Library of Babel,” Borges speaks of “impenetrable books” thought to correspond to past or dead languages, of “dialectical” tongues and “incomprehensible” volumes “ninety floors farther up.” Scanning the shelves of Czech tomes to my left as I sit in my little cubicle pretending to write, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a Borges story, where books are written in a “Samoyedic Lithuanian dialect of Guarani, with classical Arabian inflections.” As my Czech phrase book points out, it’s possible in this country to construct an entire sentence without vowels:
“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries,” writes Borges, who was himself a librarian. The sentence begins his “Library of Babel,” which I found by Googling “libraries in literature” in the universe we call the Internet.
I thought of both Borges and the Internet today when we visited Prague’s Strahov Monastery, whose two extraordinary library halls—one theological, one philosophical—date from the 18th century.
To peer into either is in some sense to peer into the human mind, with its crannies and nooks, its rows of compartmentalized knowledge doubled up against one another, its airy heights and dark cupboards, its thirst for the divine and insistence on reason, its devotion to beauty and fascination with the macabre. (The corridor outside the Philosophical Hall is lined with curiosity cabinets. “That’s the first hammerhead shark I’ve seen in the Czech Republic,” my husband remarked as he surveyed the rather gruesomely dessicated contents of one cabinet.)
Also on display: book bindings from the Strahov collection, including a bejewelled Bible; breviaries; a parchment map showing Europe as a virgin; an illustrated account, in Czech, of an early expedition to the New World; geographical and astronomical globes; an ingenious “book wheel” that lets scholars compare as many as a dozen volumes simultaneously …
Perhaps the Strahov’s 18th-century visitors thought about these halls as we (seem to) think about the Internet, or as the unnamed users of Borges’s Library of Babel think, at least initially, about their institution:
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon.
On a day when Prague’s streets are slicked with ice and dangerous to navigate, when the news from the U.S. is grim, it’s heartening to remember the warmth that books possess. I’m hardly an Amazon fan, but I’ll give them
this—the Kindle is aptly named.
Zlatá Praha, golden Prague, city of spires and bells. They go off at odd hours (less so in the winter, it seems, than summer, when they routinely woke me at 3 a.m.—or maybe it’s because the windows are closed now, and it’s harder to hear). But you hear them. Sitting at the kitchen table, reading, you hear a faint something through the skylight.
Because we’ve avoided getting Sim cards, we have no cell phones, and the land line in the apartment won’t work if wireless is plugged in, so we’re blissfully ping-free and can almost pretend we’re in another century, living lives clocked by belltowers.
Yesterday I saw a blue van parked in a median street near a tram stop. The van was filled with bells—brass bells, four or five of them, each a couple of feet wide. I have no idea why the van was there, or where the bells were headed. I went back this morning, hoping to get a picture, but it was as if I’d dreamt it. The van was gone. I can only imagine where, or which of the city’s spires now holds its cargo. Imagine being the driver of such a van—a person tasked, as in a fairy tale, with the job of delivering bells. I’m reminded of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan, with its poignant image of a pilot whose job it is to fly through the skies delivering letters—an image whose romance is now all but lost to us (the UPS delivery truck doesn’t come close).
Not long after we’d spotted the bell-man and his bell-van, we walked past one of Prague’s more famous monuments, the Powder Tower, in time to hear three musicians in Renaissance get-up play a trumpet fanfare from a crenellated rampart. It was around 2 in the afternoon, and there weren’t many people on the square below, and there was no obvious reason they were playing, but it somehow made sense in this sound-besotted town. (With a population of just over a million, Prague has three top-notch symphony orchestras, three opera companies, a major conservatory, countless ensembles, a serious early music scene, and god knows what else.)
For a while this morning I went chasing after blue vans, hoping to find the one with the bells. Eventually I realized I was following a van belonging to the Czech postal service. Without meaning to, I’d completed an imaginative circle: the postal service logo is a post horn, a musical instrument once used to sound the arrival or departure of the day’s mail.
I’ve been thinking about photography. We’re just back from an overnight trip to Česky Krumlov, in south Bohemia, where we toured the home of the late-19th-, early-20th-century photographer Josef Seidel. Seidel made his name doing portraiture, panoramic views, and processing amateur film—a kind of turn-of-the-century Kodak shop. He equipped his relatively small, two-story house with rooms for developing and printing film, copying postcards, storing glass plates, making portraits, and selling images to the public. (There seems to have been precious little space left over for poor Frau Seidel and their three boys.) In his top-floor studio, Seidel and his staff captured the likenesses of their neighbors in Česky Krumlov—the newly engaged and married and born; people in costumes or on bicyles or posed at tables, looking studious; soldiers on their way to war and in need of a memento (one hoped it wouldn’t become a memento mori) for their families.
You can see Seidel’s studio from the street—a big, glassed-in enclosure that looks like a greenhouse and gave the photographer the natural light he needed in a pre-electric era. I found myself wondering what the neighbors thought when the building went up in the 1890s—Curious? Alarmed? Thrilled at the prospect of having their picture “taken”?
The verb is telling. In the early days of photography, many (including Balzac) believed the process of being photographed robbed you of some part of your being. Did the men and women who posed before Seidel’s canvas backdrops, who gave themselves to his lens, fret about what they might be losing in the transaction?
Do we? Even on a Monday afternoon in mid-December, Česky Krumlov’s cobblestoned streets and Baroque buildings were doing overtime as photographic backdrops for tourists, mostly Asian, who were compulsively taking each other’s pictures with smart phones.
I’d been reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida on the bus ride down from Prague and kept thinking about his observation that every photograph contains “that rather terrible thing … the return of the dead.”
Maybe that’s why, offered the chance to have our portrait taken with a digital camera in Seidel’s 19th-century studio for a mere $8, I said no.
In the past, friends have urged me to “take a lot of pictures” when I travel. I seldom do (this blog is a stretch). I’m not a good enough photographer, and I find the business of taking pictures gets in the way of experiencing whatever I’m trying to experience. Barthes seems to have put his finger on that as well: “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory … but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.” Years of doing and seeing plays have taught me to relish what’s fleeting—yesterday’s visit to Josef Seidel’s house, for example; the long bus ride back to Prague in the blue of twilight; last night’s superb performance of a Dvorak opera in the city’s decadent bon-bon of a theater, the Národní Divadlo—images imprinted on my mind and nowhere else.
The last—and first—time I was in Prague, I learned to look up. (Credit actually goes to the young British tour guide who told us on day one to look up. “I have to remind myself,” she said.) The city is full of surprises one, two, seven, ten stories up.
This time I’m learning to look down. Credit my friend Irene Butter, in Ann Arbor, who told me a few months ago about the Stolperstein that’s been set into the pavement in front of the house where her father lived in Elmshorn, Germany, outside Hamburg. It’s a small brass tile inscribed with his name, year of birth, and the all-too-stark facts of his life and death in the Holocaust.
I found the tile earlier this fall on a visit to north Germany and photographed it for Irene. I’ve since read up on the astonishing Stolperstein project of artist Gunter Demnig, begun in 1994 in Cologne and now numbering more than 30,000 across Europe. These mostly obscure Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” mark the places where victims of the Holocaust—Jews, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, members of the resistance, others—once lived.
Prague has its sobering share. This afternoon, as the day was sliding into an early dusk, I took a walk around our neighborhood and found maybe a dozen. I can only imagine the stories—the terror—that lie behind these small, matter-of-fact tiles sitting just inches from buildings that now house lawyers’ offices, banks, apartments, and—to my shame—the corner store where I’ve been buying groceries on my way home from the library.
Irene tells us a woman in Elmshorn looks after her father’s Stolperstein, and I’d like to think people here do the same. One, belonging to a single man named Benjamin Rosenstein who died at Terezín, is sunk into the pavement on a street not two hundred yards from our apartment. Looking up from his Stolperstein, I see six windows in the kind of quaint, lopsided building that makes you take out your camera.
Can I imagine the man who lived here, my almost-neighbor? Born in 1886, died in 1942. The math gives me a jolt: 56, my age, when he perished—that evocative word Daniel Mendelsohn examines in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million:
“Perish … from the Latin verb pereo … always suggests to me a realm of possibilities far beyond the mere fact of death—a feeling that’s confirmed by a glance at the entry in the rather old Latin dictionary I own: To pass away, come to nothing, vanish, disappear, be lost; To pass away, be destroyed, perish; To perish, lose life, die … To be lost, fail, be wasted, be spent in vain; To be lost, be ruined, be undone. Given what I know, now … I have come, myself, to prefer perish over all other verbs, when I speak of those who died.”
Say a prayer at the sight of these little golden squares, so easy to miss. Remind yourself to look down.
In our first week in Prague we’ve attended five concerts. This afternoon we see Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre, where Mozart premiered the opera in 1787. We’re hoping it’ll be a bona fide production and not tourist schlock, though it can be hard to predict, especially when the venue is on the beaten tourist path. We’ve learned to avoid musical offerings that include the words “best of” or “greatest hits.”A violinist friend tells us the Czech phrase for ensembles that play what are clearly tourist-only concerts is “the who’s-available orchestra.”
The other night we chanced on a 5:30 p.m. concert by the Martinú Quartet in the recital hall at the Rudolfinum—two hours of complex, dense, impeccably performed string music for the astonishing sum of $7.50 a ticket. No schlock here—just dazzle, passion, the swell of instruments coming at each other like waves to a beach. As it happened, I’d loaded a batch of Virginia Woolf onto my Kindle that morning, and after the concert I read her 1921 essay “The String Quartet,” in which she writes:
“Here they come; four black figures, carrying instruments, and seat themselves facing the white squares under the downpour of light; rest the tips of their bows on the music stand; with a simultaneous movement lift them; lightly poise them, and looking across at the player opposite, the first violin counts one, two, three—”
I’m always hunting for the right book for the right trip. Too often I fail. It’s like trying to anticipate the clothes I’ll want or need, which is so much more than a matter of reading weather reports (here, too, I’ve failed: too much black, no jeans). I hadn’t thought of Woolf but suddenly the other day I wanted her—that companionable voice, that sharp and painterly eye—so I nabbed her from the Kindle store. To my knowledge she never visited Prague, but it’s as if she’s here now, and was with me three nights ago, listening to Debussy:
“The gentleman replies so fast to the lady, and she runs up the scale with such witty exchange of compliment now culminating in a sob of passion, that the words are indistinguishable though the meaning is plain enough—love, laughter, flight, pursuit, celestial bliss—all floated out on the gayest ripple of tender endearment—until the sound of the silver horns, at first far distant, gradually sounds more and more distinctly, as if seneschals were saluting the dawn or proclaiming ominously the escape of the lovers.”
The Martinú Quartet’s rendition of Debussy’s 1893 string quartet—his one and only—had been a gloriously tangled foray into sound, a liquid excursion into an underwater grotto, alternately furious and fragile, with ripples, yes, of “tender endearment …”
Unlike my musicologist husband, who at concerts zeroes in on things like key changes and harmonic development, my mind wanders. After a while I thought about the middle-aged man and woman in front of us at the Rudolfinum—he with hair like Einstein’s, she with something like a thatched roof atop her chiseled features. Or the elderly man beside me, with his scrimshawed face. Further down the row sat another man with a forehead as mottled as quail eggs. And a few more rows in front of us. a man who, before the concert began, held his program within a half-inch of his left eye and squinted; at intermission I saw him putting drops into the same eye, and I wondered how long before sight vanished altogether and he’d be left to absorb his music in the dark.
The later-afternoon concert drew a distinctly elderly crowd, with all manner of hunched and dragging and idle limbs, stooped shoulders, matted coiffures, spectacles and canes. I could only guess at the hardships these men and women had experienced—war, the aftermath of war, a half-century of Soviet occupation. I assumed the people around me were good guys, but maybe not? What if the man beside me was a former agent, a neighbor given to snitching on neighbors? (The cover story in this week’s Prague Post is about just such a man.)
Woolf, it turns out, shares my wandering eye. I’m glad she’s here:
“… it’s all a matter of flats and hats and sea gulls, or so it seems to be for a hundred people sitting here well dressed, walled in, furred, replete. Not that I can boast, since I too sit passive on a gilt chair, only turning the earth above a buried memory, as we all do, for there are signs, if I’m not mistaken, that we’re all recalling something, furtively seeking something. Why fidget? Why so anxious about the sit of cloaks; and gloves—whether to button or unbutton? Then watch that elderly face against the dark canvas, a moment ago urbane and flushed; now taciturn and sad, as if in shadow. Was it the sound of the second violin tuning in the ante-room?”
“Do travel-loving artists have a point, that roots strangle the imagination as a tune worm strangles thought?” —Norma Mandler
In my favorite airport, Schiphol, the departure screens beckon: Gothenburg, Vienna, Bombay, Madrid, Cairo, Prague. Each a trinket, a sign, an emblem of a heart’s desire. It seems no matter where I’m flying—and I’ve flown to many of these very cities, from this same airport—I want to be at another gate, another lounge, with another set of passengers going to a more exotic destination. This time my endpoint is Prague, and yet I’m drawn to the lounge next to us, Gothenburg, where I flew four years ago to give a paper. I know what lies at the end of each route: know the airport with its polished marble floors and bright gift shops (glass in Prague, hiking and spa gear in Gothenburg). And yet … this one or that, here or there? It’s all tricked out in the word destination, isn’t it? Or “departure,” as if to fly somewhere is to part yourself in some way, separate one component from the rest, leave not just home but the self you know so well in order to take on another culture, language, cuisine, and perhaps identity for a sum of days. Always, I suspect, beneath this is the desire, deep-seated, to make a clean break of it all: discover a new world, a heretofore hidden self.
Maybe that’s what’s going on at the airport: what kind of person will I be if I board the plane for Cairo instead of Prague, Madrid and not Birmingham?
Depart, from the Latin dispertire: “to divide.” With its nod to the archaic “to die.” We shall depart this life …
Each trip offers its own metaphors. The sign of Pra/, for example, with its various endings, signaling the possibilities of travel, the various ways you can behold a place—this city—depending on your point of origin. Mine is Pra with a “gue” tacked onto the end. French, I suppose, but also American, though pronounced like the blunt German “Prag.” The ending I long to claim, of course, is the lilting Czech “ha,” with its implicit laugh—irony being at the core of this city.
Here in the Municipal Library where I’ve come in an effort to untangle my imagination from the roots of home and work, someone has built a column of books, a hollow tower with mirrors at both top and bottom so that when you poke your head inside, the thing looks as if it goes on forever.
But it’s an illusion, and the column itself something of a nod to a vanishing species. Today I’m mostly surrounded by people with laptops and iPads and e-books, although across from me a man in his forties is stuck deep in a tome sprinkled with maps and building plans and long paragraphs in Czech, with its dazzling diacritics—the little cockeyed haĉeks positioned, like caps, over Rs and Cs and Ss in what strikes me as another gesture of irony, for surely the Czechs know how this small mark dashes the hopes of any Anglo seeking to speak their language.
And so I’ve settled for Prague, which I find both prosaic and exotic, as I’ve found the other cities to which I’ve de-parted down the jetways at Schiphol. It’s in the anticipation and aftermath of travel, I suspect, that we most untangle the imagination. Or perhaps I simply haven’t been here long enough to undo the ropes, whose knots are ever tighter in our wired/wireless world. I love and loathe the little “connected” icon at the bottom of my computer screen. When I lived in Spain 25 years ago, I had to rely on the post office and Telefónica for contact with home, which was expensive and infrequent. In the apartment we’ve rented here in Prague, the mailbox sits empty. Friends have asked where they can send a Christmas card, and we’ve told them we’re not even sure of the postal code and don’t have a key to the box. From that, at least, we are truly departed.