On Various Aspects of Going /by/ the Underground in Bohemia
Martin Pilař, Ostrava University
(Dr. Martin Pilař is currently doing research at the Department of Slavonic Languages and Literatures at Glasgow University)
For the British the being in an "underground" may have various meanings. One of the most common ones is to use a certain way of travelling. That sort of travelling which cannot be seen from the surface and is widely used by people in a hurry. Here in Glasgow it always offers to its users the possibility of coming back to the starting point of their voyage [esp. to the the sleepy individuals or those who are not in a hurry]. But - according to many philosophers - moving in circles is not a totally useless way of traveling. At least for the artists and the scientists interested in the humanities it seems to be one of the most important kinds of human movement. The London "underground" is rather different from the Glasgow one. It offers to the pilgrim a chance of reaching a certain point that radically differs from the starting one. In a few words, a London underground pilgrimage may be commenced at an A station and finished at a B terminal. At the same time we should not forget that there also exists the Circle Line in London that seems to be a foster-father to its Glaswegian distant relative. You need not worry, I am not going to bother you with the semiotics of travelling. It has been done many times [e.g. by Roland Barthes] and - by the way - the semiotics of the Prague underground and the totalitarian names of its stations have been described in one of the essays of Vladimír Macura.
I am going to offer you some basic information of what is increasingly being called the phenomenon of the Czech literary undeground. After the end of the Prague Spring in August 1968 the English word "underground" started to be used so frequently that after November 1989 it really was not easy to understand what a Czech speaker saying the "underground" has on his mind. Only one thing seemed to be sure - that the speaker probably did not mean a mode of travel, because the Prague underground in this sense of the word is called "Metro" in Czech. The spectrum of the possible meanings of the word the "underground" has become a little bit narrower now. But any kind of optimism would be rather premature, because the expression "the Czech political and cultural underground" offers such a wide range of meanings that even now it cannot be easily defined. E.g. when we read advertisments for the 68 Publishers in Toronto from the 70s and the 80s we are offered "books in Czech - by leading contemporary Czech writers both from the Prague underground and in exile." But when a literary historian has a closer look at the list of advertized authors by 68 Publishers, he will find only a single representative of what is now called the Czech literary underground. It is the name of Egon Bondy, who is also known as an almost legendary character of a few narratives by Bohumil Hrabal. As I know from personal discussion with Bondy, he did not agree with the publishing of his manuscripts in Canada and he even does not own any copy of the two of his books printed due to the activities of Josef Škvorecký and his wife. It was only in the 90s when the difference between the wider and the narrower senses of the word "underground" began being distinguished and when the narrower sense of the word began to be understood as a term pointing to a certain literary phenomenon. Although systematic study of this phenomenon has not yet gone very far and although the phenomenon is not a matter of a very remote past, it seems to be possible to define the phenomenon. I will try to do this later. Now I feel that this rather general opening paragraph of my essay should be followed by something more concrete. Speaking about literature I should use texts. Let us have a look at two poems. They are not generally known to the Czech reading public and I really do not wish them to be used in Czech textbooks and anthologies. I do not like the concept of "typization" which was so popular among the false prophets of social realism. I hope that these texts are not typical! I am offering them to you just because I am persuaded that there is something provokative in them or maybe even moving.
These days, editors have a difficult time
I have read of a strange phenomenon
I have been following contemporary thinking very attentively
17th November 1988
(translated by Jan Čulík) This poem was written by Ivo Vodseďálek exactly one year before the Velvet Coup in November 1989. It is a strongly biographical text, there is no poetic licence in it. We can read it as a "totally realistic" statement. In the blank space between the lines we can feel the author's pride that after 40 years of writing for the drawer he still adheres to his highly ethical approach towards the fact of writing. His free-verse confession poses important questions: Can we reach a realistic picture of the developments in Czech literature, if we follow its schematic and widely used division into the three main streams: official, samizdat and exile? Is it absolutely necessary to publish your writings in order to become influential? What is more important: publishing to become widely known or silently thinking in solitude and sharing your ideas only with a couple of friends? Vodseďálek's questions are rather tricky and unpleasant. I cannot promise to you to answer them properly. But fortunately I can supply you with a few basic facts about Ivo Vodseďálek at least. He was a founder and an editor of the Půlnoc [Midnight] samizdat edition which existed in the period 1950-1955. Together with Egon Bondy he was also its main author. Among guests of the Půlnoc edition we will also find the name of Bondy's friend Bohumil Hrabal who was deeply influenced by this unofficial literary activity of the 50s. There existed only about 5 typewritten copies the published texts, because the main aim of this samizdat edition was not to offer the texts to wider reading public, but to avoid their destruction by the secret police. Therefore it would not be quite proper to compare the Pulnoc edition with the numerous and widely known samizdat editions of the 70s. Vodseďálek entered the context of printed literature with five volumes of his of his collected works in 1992. Undoubtedly this was one of the most unusual debuts in Czech literature. The most influential and important collections of his poems were those from the beginning of the 50s [The Poetry of Embarrassment, Ukraine in Blossom, The Death of a Joke etc.] and his late poetry [e.g. The Confession, Lost Caution]. To sum it all up, Vodseďálek was together with Bondy and Hrabal one of the pioneers of the Czech literary underground, though Hrabal broke its unwritten laws as early as in the 60s by officially publishing his censored texts.
Ten girls lay on the floor
My bright white horn lies in her lap
The birds beyond the window begin to sing
(translated by Paul Wilson)
This poem of Věra Jirousová was set to music by the legendary underground rock band The Plastic People of the Universe at the very beginning of their artistic career. We can see here several tendencies which occured very frequently in the second wave of the Czech underground after August 1968:
Firstly we should notice the dreamy atmosphere (partly influenced by American psychedelic rock music) combined with four-letter words used so that maximally provocative contrasts could be reached. It is necessary to add that at the same time Czech underground groups admired roughness of the New York avant-garde represented by Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Nico etc. And secondly - the roots of Věra Jirousová's poem take their strength from typically European traditions like Old Greek mythology and decadent tendencies of the "fin de siecle". Mythological and decadent inspiration proved to be extremely fruitful in the following decades and it should be added that this tendency had not been caused by studying post-modern philosophy. It was something absolutely spontaneous. The best authors of the third generation of the Czech underground followed this tendency during the 80s and the 90s, the result of which were novels and collections of a very high standard. Jáchym Topol was highly praised for his novel Sestra /The Sister/ which is set in the economical and political turmoil in Prague after 1989. The novel offers a very strange combination of the myths of North American Indians and typically Catholic understanding of religion symbolized by The Holy Mary of Czestochowa. One of the most popular contemporary Czech poets of these days [mostly among young people] uses the pseudonym J.H.Krchovský, which itself sounds rather decadent. (The name can be translated as "a graveyard man"). Krchovský's decadent stylization can be easily recognized even from his photographic portrait reprinted on the cover pages of all his collections of poems. His lines with their never limping rhythms and euphonic melodies offer numerous samples of perfect craftmanship. But especially in important rhymes or at the closing lines Krchovský shocks his readers with irony or sarcasm reached by surprising usage of colloquial or sometimes even vulgar words. But let us go back to the psychedelic poem of Věra Jirousová from 1970. It should be noticed that her poetry was translated by Paul Wilson, the Canadian rocker who lived in Prague and played with The Plastic People for some time. He was forced to move out of Czechoslovakia after the publication of Charter 77. His good knowledge of colloquial Czech helped him to become an important translator of Hrabal's work to English (e.g. I Served the King of England). Thus - even when living on the American continent - he stressed connection between the authors of the Pulnoc samizdat edition from the early 50s and the new wave of underground culture of the early 70s.
Now, with a certain amount of knowledge of the poetics of underground literature we can try to set aside the phenomenon of Czech literary underground from the wider meanings of the word "underground". Martin C.Putna, a representative of the younger generation of Czech Catholic criticism, is the author of an essay called Mnoho zemí v podzemí (Many Grounds in the Underground). Here he points out that being a part of the underground should be connected with the will of a person to leave a settled system of values. Those people, who became banned only under the pressure of external political change, should not be ranked among the "underground". The main condition of becoming a part of the underground is a conscious refusal of the so called "normal world". A proper member of the underground rejects the values of the normal world and is disgusted by them. Putna speaks of the four steps which usually lead a person to the underground:
1/ being disgusted by the official world and its culture
Putna realized that even now - after focusing on the requirement of the will to leave established values - the spectrum of various "undergrounds" is extremely wide: It may include old Greek Cynics, various revolting religions and sects, as well as the non-conformists of the past few decades, e.g. the American Beatnics, hippies, punkers, anti-communist dissidents and - last but not least - the Czech underground. Putna was absolutely right when he felt that it was possible to distinguish the Czech underground from the general meaning of the word. The Czech literary underground is gradually becoming to be used as a term describing certain literary activities which have something in common:
Practically no Czech reader knew about the activities of the authors of the Půlnoc edition, but the medium of rock music in the70s was so widely popular that no censorship could stop it. To some extend it could be said that the first wave of the underground literary activity was brought about by a few independent artists who frequented the same pubs and cafes and successfully tried to save their texts from destruction. The second wave of the underground literary activity could be called a movement. It had certain political indications - though they seldom overcame the longing for absolute freedom of artistic creation, which was not possible under Husák's government. The trial of the members of underground rock groups from Prague in 1976 caused a wave of solidarity among political dissidents and was a very important impulse for the creation of organized opposition known as Charter 77. Most of the imprisoned rockers signed the Charter after they had been released, but this should be understood first of all as another act of solidarity. The representatives of underground culture felt that their place was not among the shadowy establishment of Charter 77. They had artistic, and later even spiritual ambitions, but not political ones. Especially Ivan Martin Jirous kept repeating, after he had been released from prison, that the concept of "the undergroud" is based on "conscious intellectual effort" and on spiritual qualities in life. The rockers and their fans had a rather provocative image. This is why Jirous had to face many attacts on his alleged nihilism and negativism (even from some of the banned intelectuals, e.g. prof. Václav Černý). Václav Havel - both as an artist and a politician - deeply sympathized with the longing for freedom which he found in the music and the lyrics of the underground artists. In his essay on the rock project of the Plastic People called Hovezi porazka (The Slaughter of the Cattle , 1984) Havel wrote:
"I do not think that this music is nihilistic. On the contrary I feel something deeply liberating, purifying, elevating and in certain way salutary in the fact that the pain of life is so harshly shouted out, presented in such a suggestive way, revealed in such a warning manner.[...] It seems to me that as far as a man is able to play and sing in this way, everything cannot be lost." It is possible to speak of dissidents and the underground [and Václav Havel did it quite often] as of members of a paralel polis, because adherents of both groups protested against the absence of political and artistic freedom in the communist state. Therefore the culture of this polis was frequently called the paralel culture. This provoked Ivan Martin Jirous to coin a new term, namely the second culture: "The final goal of our underground literary activity is to create a second culture. The culture independent of official channels of communication, of social appreciation and of the hierarchy of values, determined by the establishment." In his opinion the second culture cannot wish to destroy the currently existing establishment simply because this would drive it straight into the arms of another establishment.
In the conditions of such terminological chaos it was inevitable to try to overcome it by a definition which would come near the truth and could be generally understood. This was for the first time made by Johanna Posset who after studying various source, tried to sum up the main features of the Czech literary underground. It was not in a study concentrated on this topic, but in her diploma thesis written at the University of Vienna about Czech samizdat periodicals. Her characteristics is basically right, but it will be better to comment on it in order that we could avoid misunderstanding:
1] Radical refusal of exerting pressure of any kindThis point should not be understood merely as a political based on well-known ideas of Gandhi. In the less conspicuous meaning of such a refusal we can alsofidn a relationship to the idea of cultural continuity, which is very often a limiting factor of artistic freedom. The representatives of the underground literary activity did not wish to become a part of cultural history. Their answer to the pressure of communist cultural policy was not an open and organized political struggle. They set out to ignore the regime's pressure and violence. This authorities found this attitude so offending that numerous leading personalities of the underground were either imprisoned or forced to move out of Czechoslovakia.
2] No necessity of having a fixed artistic programmeThe authors of the Půlnoc edition developed programmes of "total realism" (Egon Bondy), "poetry of embarrassment" or "awkward poetry" (Ivo Vodseďálek and his "trapná poezie") and "explosionalism" (Vladimír Boudník). These artistic programmes can be interpreted as personal ways of getting rid of the very influential heritage of surrealism. None of the programmes was felt as obligatory for the others. In the underground of the 70s and 80s the poetics of "total realism" and "poetry of embarrassment" was refreshed as well as late surrealism. But these ways of seeing reality and writing about it were not thought to be more important than any way of spontaneous or even naive writing.
3] Stressing the authenticity in life (the alternative ways of living, e.g. in independent communities)When Posset speaks about life in independent communities, this is not very lucky or well chosen, because it may create associations with hippies and Western students' riots at the end of the 60s. The representatives of the Czech underground prefer speaking about living in a "merry ghetto". Both politically and culturally they lived in a kind of voluntary ghetto, they felt its absurdity but did not lose their sense of humour. In these aspects their culture was a typical product of kafkaesque and švejkian Prague cultural milieu.
4] Stressing authenticity in art (realism, colloquial language and slang, breaking social and cultural taboos)This does not need any commentary, but it may be useful to repeat again that these features were not absolutely obligatory [e.g. for the neodecadents]. Using colloquial language and slang was quite natural because the core of the underground writing in the 70s was produced by young workers who missed out on higher education and - with an exception of a few leading personalities - had absolutely no intellectual ambitions. Potential reading public of the underground literature consisted mainly of the members of the "merry ghetto". The underground authors were writing mostly about the "ghetto" and for the "ghetto". In some ways, it is one of Central European paradoxes that some "classical" titles of the underground literature slowly and surely become an integral part of national literature.
5] Disagreement with totalitarian structuresThis feature, listed by Posset, proved to be not quite correct. If the disagreement with totalitarian structures were an important distinctive feature of the Czech literary underground, we could expect that after November 1989 the Czech literary underground would have died. Nothing like that has happened. Nevertheless it is probable that the new followers of the artistic ideals of the underground have been using different terminology. Maybe the above mentioned features of the Czech underground will be gradually dissolved in rather general meanings of such fashionable words like "independent" or "alternative".
Anyway it is evident that the time of the "merry ghetto" is a matter of the past. In my opinion the Czech underground faces two main possibilities of moving forward: the "London" alternative and the "Glasgow" alternative. A few solitary personalities will probably travel in the London way. In a crowded underground they will try to find their individual, "independent" artistic pilgrimage (e.g. like Jáchym Topol and J.H.Krchovský in recent years]. The others will choose the Glasgow underground and will be returning to the beginnings defined by the founders of the Czech literary underground of the early 50s and 70s. Both these possibilities could bring remarkable results. Maybe not so much to the "sacred" values of national literature, but definitely to the authors themselves and to a couple of their friends.
Summary of the basic facts about the Czech literary underground:
Definition [after Johanna Posset]:1. Radical refusal of any kind of exerting pressure and committing violence
2. No necessity of having a fixed artistic programme
3. Stressing authenticity in life [alternative ways of living, the "merry ghetto"]
4. Stressing authenticity in art [realism, colloquial language and slang, breaking taboos]
5. Disagreement with totalitarian structures [critical attitudes to any establishment and its set of recommended values]
Periodization and characteristics:
1. the late 40s and the early 50sEgon Bondy - "total realism": The reality is so absurd and full of contrasts that a plain description is the best way of expressing it. No metaphors are needed.
poetry: Total Realism, Hammered Prague, Remnants of an Epic etc.
Ivo Vodseďálek - "poetry of embarrassment": Fascination by fantastic irrationality of Stalinist newspeak. Trying to reach such irrationality in one's own poetry.
poetry: Poetry of Embarrassment, Ukraine in Blossom, The Death of a Joke
Vladimír Boudník - "explosionalism": Fascination by everyday objects and scenes from factories and proletarian Prague. Using them to express maximally abstract qualities of existence [esp. in experimental graphics].
diary: One Sixth
Bohumil Hrabal:Followed the activities of his friends and was deeply influenced by them. Inspiration in Poldi Steelworks: his best poem - Beautiful Poldi, his first short story - The Steelworks Owner [Jarmilka]
2. the 70srock groups: The Plastic People of the Universe [e.g. LP Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned]
texts similar to manifestos: Egon Bondy - The Disabled Siblings [novel]
Ivan Martin Jirous - The Report about the 3rd Czech Musical Revival [essay]
the greatest success in poetry: Ivan Martin Jirous - Magor's Swan Songs [combination of Christian poetry with "total realism" ]
3. the 80s and early 90s
neodecadence: poetry of J.H.Krchovský - The Nights after the Which No Morning Comes
spontaneous combination of various mythologies:
Jáchym Topol - I am Crazy about You, The War Will Come on Tuesday [poetry], The Sister [novel], The Angel [novelette]
Note: Up to now only a few shorter examples of the Czech literary underground have been translated to English.