Prague and My History

    Prague is utterly indescribable in exact terms. It shifts and slides beneath and around all categorical limitations and then what do you have left but impressions? Feelings that can capture much more than any analytical essay could ever hope to convey. For me, my impressions are ones of homeliness, alienation and indescribable insignificance.
    Prague is forever Prague. What it is, is what it will always be and as a foreigner in its midst, walking its narrow avenues and winding streets, I felt just as much a native as a stranger. The charm of centuries-old churches and castles, the endlessly flowing seas of green as you leave the heart of the city, the ugly, flashing casinos, they all coexist in such a way that seems unnaturally cohesive. Prague shouldn’t be able to be what it is, but somehow it works. In its churches I felt a humbled Catholic and in its Synagogues a humbled Jew. I understood and was a part of everything for a fleeting moment and that’s not something I’ve ever felt before. You can walk into any kavarna and feel at peace. Any restaurant is full of laughter, boisterous “Na zdravi!” exclamations and food and beer that is to die for because its all real. It doesn’t feel like there’s a curtain to pull back and discover any shocking truths because the truths are laid bare. You don’t have to suspect if someone loves another because they’re kissing or holding hands or groping blindly in the street like teenagers. You aren’t removed from the human body, shamed and locked behind bathroom and bedroom doors because children pee in the streets and adults pee in the bushes. At water parks, children often wear less than more and so does everyone else because they live without the cultural shame of most Americans. To me that is so liberating and terrifying all at once. The only times I’ve felt a true stranger were due to my own limitations and not any set by Prague.
    Prague is all at once a meeting point of so many things in time and space, and everywhere the dualities and anachronisms are felt. In America everything is subject to, “what is the point?” What is the form and function and reason and can we profit? But here there is a history that is too great to bear. Why are there so many churches? Because they’re there. Because they represent a past and changes that run deep in the blood of the land and people. Art is everywhere. Music is everywhere. Any given night you can see a theatrical performance, or a grand baroque orchestra, or any number of small performers in Old Town Square. A single tram feels like it can take you anywhere where you can see anything and if you wander around on your own two feet enough, you really can. Beautiful, disappointing and even touching graffiti abounds on seemingly every surface but the most important. The new interacts and combines with the old to create something beyond present and past. Even the gaudy, flashing casinos beat out patterns into the night something like an aurora borealis of the most mechanical construction out onto Wenceslas square. Steel interacts with stone and bulbs with candles in a way I’ve never seen before and I don’t think I’ll see again.
    Being here has been the most awesome and humbling experience of my life. Even if I spend a hundred years here, I don’t feel I could truly learn everything. I feel dwarfed by a land and people over a thousand years old and sometimes I’m paralyzed by it. In just the Old Town Square, 27 men were executed and a few hundred years later Gottwald declared Czechoslovakia Communist. Where the Catholics melted Tyn’s chalice into a Madonna, a blinded man destroyed the mechanism to his lifelong masterpiece. Walking around a Hapsburg tomb, a silver statuary for a drowned saint and a Mucha stained glass window all in one grand church. I realized how insignificant I am. I felt the weight of history and buckled in a way I’ve never known before and had to block it out. I felt a necessary lightness and distance in a way everyone has to cope with.
    I feel as if Prague is visible only through a kaleidoscope. Each person sees a unique connection and pattern that is invisible to any other person. No one person sees or experiences the same Prague. If I’ve learned anything, it’s a humble curiosity to continue to meet and experience new cultures, learn new and strange tongues and take what I learn with me to each new adventure. I’m a different person now. Someone who’s tasted, seen, felt and lived a new culture if only for a month and I’m so much better for it.

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The Voracious Vltava

    The Vltava is the heart of Prague. It divides new from old, west from east and to this day connects the modern city to its ancient past. Older than the oldest Czech settlement, the Vltava has been and will be, rushing forward through time, wholly unconcerned with the city built around it.
    Most settlements created by man have been on the shores of, around, or very nearby bodies of water in order have a clean, moving source of life which everything relies on. While absolutely necessary in the past, these bodies of water now mostly act as relics due to our self-made independence. We can travel anywhere and buy cases of bottles of water, or cans of food, or clothes nearly anywhere in the world. The Vltava is one of the few examples of nature that reasserts its power over mankind. The glassy, untroubled surface in days can swell and burst, drowning the buildings, roadways and citizens of Prague. Even with advances in disaster relief, in 2002 it crumbled buildings and took lives neither judging nor caring. Still, despite its destructive potential, Prague has build kavarnas on its islands, concrete in its currents and spanned its width with bridges. The people live everyday beside it surrounded by stone and steel and the river beats on. The Vltava ties the city to the natural world despite the endless rows of apartment buildings and shops that stretch into the sky. It brings life and chaos into the self-imposed and imagined structure that mankind believes it to have control over. People look over their cups of coffee into its waters, take romantic paddleboats, kayaks and canoes across it. They toss bits of torn bread into the water at mangy and gleaming swans and ducks and eat overpriced dinners on boat tours every night and day. They embrace it and forget that it is capable of anything else.
    Here and there yellow buoys float, bobbing on the surface of the water, covered in iridescent neon yellow stripes. Modernity breaks through the timeless river and an endless battle takes place. The Vltava drags the city backwards into the past and humbles it, while the city pulls it forward into the future and obsoletion. It is the one part of the city that truly never changes. Empires rise and fall, glorious churches and monuments are raised and destroyed, but the Vltava flows ever onward, a testament to the spirit and determination of the Czech peoples.

History in Stills; Past versus Future

    When visiting the sleepy town of Hartmanice last weekend, I was most affected by the pictures of homes and buildings that had been leveled when their German inhabitants were expelled after World War II. Jiri Weil’s “Mendelssohn Is on the Roof,” provides an interesting glimpse into the Czech viewpoint of Germans during the German occupation of Prague.
    At first the idea that almost two million Germans were forced from Czechoslovakia, even in light of the second world war, seems horrendous. The linking of a culture to a blood-thirsty political faction is ignorant and prejudiced, but that’s what started the war in the first place. The language Weil uses when writing from the perspective of the Germans is harsh, cruel and painful. Every site they visit they claim to be originally German as if they must find German roots in order to allow the continued existence of said locations. What’s most powerful is the fact that everything is from a Czech perspective. We can see the outrage, disbelief and hatred in his portrayal of Heydrich. We can see the anger that expelled over a million Germans in a process of revenge that’s startling when viewed before and after.
    In the Harmanice Synagogue, ten side-by-side photos of ten houses and establishments are compared in a before-and-after style about seventy years apart. Large, but simple homes and pubs that fill the landscape are obliterated, often leaving no trace that they ever existed. Homes representative of lives and families are wiped clean and in their place, green fields dotted with trees spread out to the horizon. It’s a very removed and cold glimpse that greatly contrasts the fires and cruelties of war, much like Weil’s story. His character’s walk like monsters in human skin. They appraise the worth of hundred and thousand year old monuments and drop lines about concentration camps as easily as a comment on the opera they’re attending. In one of the utmost expressions of class and elegance, dressed in finery, the lives of people are bandied about and dealt with far behind the scenes. The narrator even expresses his preference to the days in which he had a direct hand in the action, specifically torture and interrogation. Now he’s been relegated to doing the behind-the-scenes work and things just happen in letters and correspondence. It’s removed much like the photos in Hartmanice. While records of mid-war events and massacres are often shown, what history remembers most is the stark contrast of what was and what is. The homes of Germans and the emptiness. Dresden and the rubble. Camps of hundreds of starving prisoners and pits of their corpses. It’s harsh and strikes the mind, leaving a deft blow insisting that it be remembered and acknowledged. All we have is the before and after left when the how fades away.
    For a wounded and bleeding nation that had been traded and pillaged and dominated by one empire after another, the opportunity for revenge presented itself and blurred the line between villains and heroes. The history of Germans and Czechs are nearly impossible to separate due to their intermingled lands and cultures and will continue to be so. Despite a struggle for individuality after so long, one cannot erase the influences of the past. Weil’s story is proof of the memories that still pervade the Czech consciousness.

On Possessing Possessive Collections

At the museum we visited yesterday, the UMPRUM, there was a collection of old books and prints and in particular a Kralice Bible from the early 17th century that meant a lot to me in the context of the ideas about collections presented in Utz by Chatwin and also in our every day life.
What is most striking about the archiving and display of texts in a museum is that the very purpose of a book is often being completely ignored. Since the beginning of their conception, books have served as mediums to introduce and share ideas. Books are tactile. You can see, smell and touch the words. You can hold the binding and admire the language, but not through glass. In their infancy books were rare, having to be copied by hand, but later, after the ability to mass produce them was created, books are now made and dispersed by thousands to millions of people across the world in dozens of languages. The most popular of these of course is the Bible. Kralice Bible
The Kralice Bible printed in 1613 that I fixated on wasn’t closed like many of the other books. Instead it was open to a particular page, the beginning of the Book of Job. I wondered, why the Book of Job? Of any of the choices, why that one? And then I recalled the story. The Book of Job tells of a man whose faith in God is challenged by Satan, who believes it only perseveres so long as he has a nice life. To prove the contrary God kills his family, ruins his home and livestock, and effectively takes away everything that he loves and cares for and still Job worships him. What better representation to have of the Bible if you can only show a single page, but a tale of blind faith?
In Chatwin’s Utz, the title character feels similarly about his porcelains as I do about books. “Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years, and their collections returned to circulation…,” and I see some sense in this idea. There are tremendously few things in this world made to not be touched or handled in some way and to lock them up behind glass to gather dust seems a waste. Despite whatever efforts we may have to preserve the past, everything will become the dust it collects, but humans fight nature in a vain attempt at immortality. It’s ironic because as the narrator of Utz says, “things are the changeless mirror in which we watch ourselves disintegrate,” even though we try to be just as changeless.
In the context of a museum, collections feel inert like material cemeteries. Cemeteries with the corpses out on display. Well preserved, but dead or frozen all the same. In a city, collections of monuments forge and maintain identities. With Prague for example, one can see Jan Hus dominating the center of Old Town Square or Zizka atop his horse above the city. Here and there Kafka rides on the shoulders of a disembodied suit while Hasek’s bust sits on an iron horse. St. Vaclav too rules over the square named after him in another equestrian statue. The big difference though, is accessibility. You can touch these things. You can look at the from every angle. If you want to, you could climb them (although I don’t recommend doing so), but in a museum relics are kept under lock and key and glass and vault. In Utz, Utz questions if his own collection really belongs to the People, when they are more felt and appreciated under his own watch, although at times they bind and restrict him.
There is no absolute as to how collections and objects should be treated. Is something representative to a culture possessed by everyone of that culture? Should they be allowed to own such relics or merely visit them at the schedule of an institution? Although they own the people and create an identity, does this identity restrict more than it asserts national identity? The pages of a book are meant to be turned, but should beauty and history not be preserved when possible? Honestly I don’t know. Much like most other parts of the beautiful city of Prague.

Identity in Time

    I actually had this blog in mind before when I talked to someone last week. His name is Danny and he’s 30. It was last Monday, the third, around eight at night and we walked along the Vltava to look at the flooding.
    His name is now Danny (formerly Josef), and when I asked if he was Czech, he told me something that I’d never heard before. He said “No, I’m not Czech. I’m Czechoslovak.” In the past year that I’ve spent studying Czech, people have asked me if that’s what they speak in Czechoslovakia, and I’ve had to correct them by saying that such a place doesn’t exist anymore. I was visibly confused and asked him what that means to be “Czechoslovak.” Danny said that technically he is from Slovakia, but as he’s thirty, he’s spent part of his life in a unified country that he feels was stronger than its divided parts. Every discussion I’ve had about Russia leaving the Czech Republic has been in favor of their departure, but I’ve never heard much about the split of Czechoslovakia except that it happened. Hearing someone personally identify with a state that no longer exists, was jarring. He has a sister here and another in France, but his parents are both still where he grew up in Slovakia. He spent about ten years abroad in the UK between Scotland and Ireland and insists that Slovak is no easier than Czech. He’s also anglofied his own full name from his original Czech one. I asked what he does here and he told me that he works for a high fashion retail store I’ve never heard of.
    Danny’s viewpoint was from an originally Slovak side, and my experience from Czech foreign exchange students at UT for example has been that they generally want nothing to do with Slovakia. They constantly made jokes and ragged on the one Slovak girl who was there at UT and insulted her knowledge of Czech. They told me that they didn’t feel like they received any benefit from Slovakia. Danny told me about a poll that ranked the wealthiest people in the Czech republic and the second and third positions were held by Slovaks. For some reason that made Czechs resentful because Slovaks were “taking Czech jobs and money.” What I found most interesting about this was the immediately available parallel of Mexicans and Texans. There are comparable feelings of resentment towards a people who have always been inextricably linked to “Texans.” Even more interesting are the links between Texas and the Czech Republic just in image and shared media.
    In a way, Danny felt even more representative of Prague because he wasn’t simply an open and shut national Czech. He felt part of a complicated history with roots into the past, national identity and political struggles, which I feel is very representative of Europe, some nations having changed hands so many times that their own identity is a patchwork that much like Prague, functions as a whole in harmony despite it’s many seemingly conflicting parts.

Kafkaesque Connections and Confusions

    The story by Kafka I will be focusing on for this blog is The Judgement, and the particular character is that of the narrator Georg’s father and his relationship to the “friend in Russia.”
    From the very beginning of the text, Georg’s “friend,” is described as having a business that “had flourished to begin with but had long been going downhill,” and skin “so yellow as to indicate some latent disease.” These facts tie in closely to the story of Georg’s father whose role in the family business has been declining due to his age. Both Georg’s friend and father have lessening prowess in business and in health. Each are men “one could be sorry for but could not help.” Georg reasons that asking his friend to return home and give up his foreign business affairs would be akin to telling him that “all his efforts hitherto had miscarried, that he should finally give up, come back home.” That is why Georg tells him little to nothing of any real importance in their correspondence. During this time Georg has been running more and more of the family business and has left his father to decay at home after the death of his mother. Georg neglects to tell him all of the business details, instead choosing to neglect him all together, only realizing in the end that “the care he [means] to lavish there on his father might come too late.” Georg mistreats both his “friend,” who I believe to be a metaphorical extension of his father, and his actual father.
    The lines between Georg’s father and his friend blur as his father forgets, discounts and then confessing to conspiring with the friend in Russia. His father confronts him, saying that Georg has been “playing [his friend] false all these years… and that’s why [Georg] had to lock [himself] up in [his] office,” so that he could lie in his letters to Russia. Georg’s father talks about himself in a “meta” sense, condemning Georg’s treatment of himself by condemning his treatment of his friend. This conjures the image of his friend “lost in the vastness of Russia… the door of an empty, plundered warehouse,” behind him. Russia all along seems more of a metaphoric distance representing what time and aging have done to his father. At one point, his father even says, “ ‘your friend hasn’t been betrayed after all… I’ve been representing him here on the spot,’ “ coming as close to an admittance of their shared identity as he does in the whole story. He admits that he’s “established a fine connection with [Georg’s] friend,” and has Georg’s customers “in [his] pocket.” Georg’s father “knows everything a hundred times better,” than Georg himself and compares his worsening condition to that of the friend in Russia. With all of these connections it reveals that The Judgement is a trial and test unto itself. Georg’s father has watched and waited to see how he treats his friend in Russia who may or may not exist, and sentences him to death when he is found to be unsatisfactory.
    What is most difficult about the text is that at some point, there are ties between Georg and his father, Georg’s father and his friend and thus Georg and his friend. They seem to be facets of the same central conflict. The entire situation seems wholly artificial and reality is consistently shifted so that the relative existence of Georg’s friend is unknown, but the evidence is overwhelming in suggesting that both his friend and father are the same person, if not inseparably intertwined. Even with such evidence, I admit to still being unable to exactly divine the point of Kafka’s tale. It resists concrete interpretation and so keeps an alluring quality about it, revealing something new each time to the patient and attentive reader.

St. Vitus’ Vehement Verisimilitude

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As a place of contradictions and paradoxes, some of the most powerful places in Prague are churches despite the majority of Czechs identifying as being atheist or otherwise unaffiliated. I myself don’t possess any ties to organized religion, but I do consider myself very spiritual and whether you are religious or not, Prague is a very spiritual place.
Monuments to architecture, worship, art and form, churches abound all over Prague. Still, one must reconcile that in addition to their beauty, they came at a cost. Aggressive and costly religious reform by conquest built most of the Catholic churches in Prague and even if they weren’t built to be Catholic, many were made so. The most stunning and famous church in Prague, St. Vitus Cathedral, has been here for hundreds of years in some form or another and will be my focus.
Daniela Hodrová describes St. Vitus as “a place of supernatural encounters, a place of apparitions,” and it does evoke a strange sense of mystery and power. When first entering the church, I was struck by the beautiful stained-glass windows and massive pillars surrounding the pews. As our tour group made our way through it, Slowly the church became more and more bizarre. In the center of the pews is a mausoleum for members of the Hapsburgs. Off to one side of the pulpit is a carving of Prague hundreds of years old. Just around the corner, a silver monument towers over the tourists and holds the body of a canonized saint. At once St. Vitus is tomb and sanctuary, artifact and reliquary. It explains Hodrová’s description of a strange scene in which Christ himself “descends from the arms of the cross and strides towards the alter,” where “he serves Mass.” Prague and St. Vitus in particular are not bound to the laws of reality. They exist beyond it, bringing the past and future together in the present.
Libuše prophesied, “I see a great city whose glory touches the stars,” and I believe that when it touched the stars, it pierced the heavens. No other place I’ve been to has such majesty, mystery or magic. In St. Vitus I sensed that, “the Cathedral is the place where [one] might come closest to self knowledge.” It’s been the focus of the greatest Czech writers in a history of tradition down to Hodrová herself. I too feel the pressure, the impetus to capture this city in words that fly too fast for my hands to accurately capture. In class last week I wrote on the back of the only sheet of paper I had and tried to capture Praha, to capture its majesty and depth and I failed utterly, but not because I’m necessarily a bad writer, but because it isn’t possible. From Hodrová to Kafka to Neruda, each of them capture only facets of Praha. Much akin to the story of the three blind men describing an elephant, they describe most precisely what bit of it they grasp.
Built upon the foundations of previous churches, St. Vitus holds history within as a part of itself and achieves the goal that so many churches strive for as places for introspection. It’s unwilling and refreshing. St. Vitus demands your utter being and I could not help but find out a little more about myself.

Blog Post #2- Piecing Together People and Prague

    The first thing I noticed walking around Prague, were the seemingly infinite microcosms throughout the whole city. From the street massive walls tower over you, store fronts, posters and displays advertising a restaurant, a bakery, a goods store, a casino, etc. From outside, most of these places blend into the environment, but once you step in, you enter a different world and atmosphere simultaneously within and without the city. From behind a mug of Chai tea, I was separated only by floor to ceiling windows from a couple of people just on the other side waiting for the tram. I was extremely aware of the transparent, yet present barrier.
    Prague seems to me a place which one cannot know without exploration. You can walk every street, but it’s the small and intimate environments in which you really see how the people interact. Almost every time I look up at someone, I find their eyes already trained on me. Smiles are rare and tentative until I break out in one myself (although it’s usually because I feel uncomfortable and instinctively smile out of nervousness), and then they’re returned. Attempts to speak with locals who know little to no english are met with laughter and bashfulness. I fumble over the incredibly little Czech I know despite studying it for over a year and am left with strange sense of satisfaction. A moment was created and then passed. A moment entirely alien and intimate at the same time. Another day and a middle-aged man with a heavyset brow is looking at me with a look of annoyance that I’ve handed him bills which would require too much effort to change.
    While it seems sometimes that communication and social interaction is very cold, I see people extremely comfortable with their surroundings. I’ve discovered that it isn’t uncommon at all to see a young couple kissing passionately whether it’s in front of the senate building or off a beaten path on Petřín hill. There’s very much a sense of personal freedom and no one really says anything about what anyone else does. Not directly to them anyways. People are perfectly content to either ignore, stare or make their own comments to each other. It’s vastly different from America in which there is a sense that how one acts in public is an almost civic duty. One feels compelled to act according to strict social code of actions in a land where everyone feels entitled to speak their mind and confront one another. As a land of freedom, people are incredibly bound. Here in Prague I’ve seen adults holding children up to pee in the streets, teenagers groping each other and people blowing smoke in nearby faces carelessly. It is a city of countless cultures and countless times and it all blends seamlessly so that it feels out of place to react to anything you might feel strange. A sense of, “it is what it is,” pervades the city and in a way it’s a comfort.

Blog Post #0- Prague as a Waking Dream

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    The location most intriguing to me in Hodrová’s Prague, I see a city…, is the Jewish ghetto. Hodrová describes and approaches the ghetto with a sense of fear and mysticism from her outside perspective. Reality warps around her as she tells the tales of the Prague golem and of Hana Kalman, a girl who is simultaneously modern and Jewish fairy tale.
    Throughout the course of the novel, the duality of Prague is discussed feverishly like a dream. The author is constantly in a state of unsureness as to what is real or fake. heaven or hell, cold reality or harsh magic. Her first recounting she describes as “another dimension, lurking beneath everyday reality,” brought to life like “Rabbi Löw’s clay Golem.” Beneath the “tongues” of every house lurks the possibility of a magical shem, but like a dream, Hodrová wakes and realizes that just as the death of “The Wandering Jew,” that she witnesses, “the demise of the Jewish Quarter [is] only apparent.”
    Along with the dreamlike account of the Jewish Quarter, Hodrová’s language when describing the Jews (especially Hana Kalman), are uncomfortable and alien. Hana is described as having “dark, Semitic eyes,” wearing a skirt of old “Sabbath table-cloth,” and possessing a special charm effected by “some ancient ritual gesture.” Hodrová’s reasons her discomfort with the Jewish quarter being “closed off to [those] who are goyim.” The separation between native Czechs and Jews is extremely pronounced, “goyim,” being a term used by Jews to derogatorily refer to non-Jews. Non-Jew Czechs are forever separated and outside, living alongside, but not a part of the Jewish culture. The Jews are a part of the duality of Prague as well as everything else. They are and are not, shifting between fantasy and reality, together with Charles Bridge and the National Museum, but also existing in a different state of flux from everything else.
    The duality of Prague, the strongest theme throughout the text, meets divided in time and space. Prague is at once past present and future. Memory, fantasy, reality, dreams, fears and history all intertwined and uncertain. Alongside the veraikon are the old gods Svantovit and Černoboh and behind all of the leaders are the strings of a puppet. Immobile statues walk and blood spills across the grounding, staining the earth like memories. The present is inseparable from the past and I get the sense that Hodrová feels chained to the past as well, chained to an immobile and certain future of antiquity and anachronism. I wonder if I too will feel the history and if it will be as immutable and ever-changing to myself as it is her.