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úterý 17. června 2014

Protesting texts: Farewell to the painter

The name: Zdeněk Šputa. The age: 97. The place: Prague and an ancient windmill near Pecka castle in northern Bohemia. The person: a man of principle, a painter of great artistic merit, invention and discipline, who sadly passed away last week. And the question: what's the right attitude for an artist to take when surrounded by the dictates of a totalitarian regime? 

Only the true connaisseurs of art would know about Šputa's work, its quality and depth. And only a few people would be aware of the immense sacrifice this man performed during the communist era in order to keep his personal, moral and artistic integrity in synergy. After his early exhibitions, that enjoyed wide public success, the Art Committee suggested, that Šputa changed his style and declined the impressionist touch in his work, as it allegedly showed Western and capitalist tendencies. Šputa then voluntarily stopped to exhibit his work for more than thirty years. His first exhibition after the Velvet Revolution enjoyed immense success. Impressed by Šputa's personality, art and attitude, I dedicated one of my Oxford essays to him. Reprinting its excerpt now, years later, I feel like taking a toothpick and angrily stabbing into the very visible flaws it contains; also, my own perception of the whole issue has changed. In any case, bravely enough, here it is. Couldn't paste the pdf here, so excuse the poor formatting and a number of missing footnotes. The original title is Protesting texts. 

Hundreds of pages have been devoted to answer the question, whether a writer has a greater responsibility as regards his moral choices, than a representative of a less exposed profession. Various conclusions have been reached by different authors; the premise of this essay, however, is the affirmative answer.
Adjusting such an assumption to the scope of this essay this means, that under no circumstances should a writer tacitly support (or even serve) a totalitarian ideology, because any such ideology is, above all, harmful to freedom of expression - the elementary condition of creativity. Assuming further, that a writer cannot possibly remain without taking a position, we have to conclude, that the only morally integral attitude for a writer confronted with totality, is protest.

After the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, the era of so-called normalization began. Its intention was to apply the ultimate communist doctrine in politics and the official aesthetics across the cultural scene. A number of the greatest writers (including Milan Kundera or Josef Skvorecky) were put on the list of prohibited authors: their already published works were withdrawn from circulation and libraries, while their new works were not to be published. Many of the prohibited authors emigrated and continued their careers abroad[1], contributing to Radio Free Europe, founding exile editions and publishing houses and sending the forbidden Western literature and periodicals back home whenever possible.
Those authors who despite the political persecution remained in Czechoslovakia (Vaclav Havel, for example, had several opportunities to leave the country; the communist establishment would, in fact, have welcomed that, because jailed or free, Havel was a threat to the regime through his unceasing ordinary, honest, civil attitudes. From the interview of Lou Reed with Havel for the Time Europe Magazine: I asked him why, when he was told to leave his country, he chose to stay and face certain punishment, not once but twice. He told me, "Because I live here.") engaged themselves in developing the underground, unofficial, alternative cultural scene, which, at the same time, was the platform of political opposition – the dissent.[2][3] Other artists, who for various reasons would not wish to become part of the dissenting scene, chose a voluntary internal exile instead.[4]
Besides the unofficial culture, there was, of course, an official one, too: the relatively simplistic, pro-regime literature as well as the large production of apolitical genres - detective stories, humoristic prose, children books, lyrical poetry, etc., which – despite lack of political threat in it - was still subject to censorship.
Finally, one could often find cultural platforms that were on the edge between the official and the dissenting scene: authors, filmmakers and playwrights, who tried their best in implementing anti-regime content and political satire into their work. They regularly got in clash with the censorship authorities, which forced them to make smaller or bigger compromises, both stylistic as well as moral.
If we limit ourselves to only two of the abovementioned categories (the dissenting literature and the official literature, that tried to sneak dissenting ideas to the public) and apply the earlier assumption, i.e. that the role of an author face to face with totality, we are left with further questions: Was the dissenting scene efficient, considering, that its production would have only reached a minority of the audience? And was the opportunity to remain official in order to smuggle moral content on stage or into a book worth the cost of making a moral compromise?

“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean? I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society," as they say. The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don't want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.”[5]

What a brilliant expedition into a mind Havel provides: The greengrocer is the typical mainstream citizen of the time. He probably has a little country house 50 miles from Prague, where he spends his weekends – the only islands of relative freedom, when he goes fishing on a Sunday morning at six o’clock, takes his portable radio with him and listens secretly to the silent voice of Radio Free Europe. He is anxious about his family and the modest wealth – his cottage and his old Skoda car. He is maybe the member of the local branch of the communist party, he votes for what he is told to vote for, he signs what he is given to sign, just not to be bothered, to guarantee that his son is admitted to high-school. Would this man be interested in the secretly circulated samizdat texts, containing a thorough critique of the regime or in joining the private performance of The Garden Party at Vaclav Havel’s cottage? Certainly not. He would be afraid: Participating on dissent in any way meant the ultimate disqualification from most spheres of professional and social life. It meant that one’s children would not be allowed to study. It meant occasional arbitrary searching of one’s flat by the police or being put into custody with no reason every now and then. It meant significant inconvenience.

The greengrocer would have been very likely, though, to be a frequent visitor and fan of the Cimrman Theater – an officially approved scene, that enjoyed wide popularity and – even after the interference of the censorship authorities - offered high quality entertainment.[6] Occasionally, political irony or a subtle anti-communist remark appeared in the presented plays.

How did this theater work? – It’s major device was mystification: in the time of late Austria-Hungary, there used to be a Czech genius – a universal talent (dramatist, writer, musical composer, scientist, explorer, sportsman, philosopher and much more), whose name was Jara Cimrman. By a hardly comprehensible accident, this personage and its heritage had been entirely forgotten so a group of devoted scientists (the actors of the Cimrman Theater) has decided to start looking for the lost bits and pieces of Cimrman’s fascinating life story. It turned out that he wrote a number of stage plays, for which forgotten manuscripts the “cimrmanologists” look everywhere across the Czech Republic. Every five years, they find a new manuscript and they produce it in their theater. Before each show, a methodical seminar takes place, at which the cimrmanologists interpret the play to follow, they talk about its historical context, fill in the gaps in Czech historiography, which, before Cimrman’s heritage was detected, would have remained mystery, etc.

At first glance, this looks like a genre and a topic far away from anything similar to a political satire. – Cimrman’s plays (currently counting 14 with a 15th upcoming) are comedies, dealing with the most trivial and vaudeville-like plots and characters. There were numerous lines, however, which had very little comedic potential within the actual play, but that managed to satirize the political reality of normalization in Czechoslovakia:

Beginning of the 20th century, a country house kitchen. There is old Hlavsa – the owner of the house and an occasional visionary in one person, who reads his prophecies out of looking into the oven, his son – Franta, Mr Ptacek – the rich owner of several mines, who came to get a future-vision of who will his daughter marry, and finally Mr Death who has just entered to take old Hlavsa. Being the visionary, he knew that he’d die today, so he is not anxious at all, he just asks Mr Death to take a seat for a while and wait before he settles a few matters. One of those is handing over his house to his son. After old Hlavsa ceremoniously lists all the property he shall devise to his son, Franta declares that he doesn’t want to inherit any property whatsoever.

Hlavsa            But why?
Franta            I don’t want to be rich.
Ptacek            He doesn’t want to be rich! That is unheard of. Are you insane?
Hlavsa             No, nooo. It’s just that once we really heated up the oven very much and we saw … quite incredible things. My son got a little frightened.
Ptacek            But this looks like that wealthy people are supposed to suffer from some kind of a bankruptcy or what?

(Ptacek asks for another vision out of the oven – he wants to know, what is that bad fate of wealthy people. Mr Death argues, that this is holding him up. Finally, they agree, that Hlavsa will heat up the oven for the last time a tell, what’s the future of the rich Mr Ptacek.)

Hlavsa            I see a tower and a wheel.
Ptacek            That is the mining tower. My favourite mine, “Terezka”!
Hlavsa            It doesn’t say “Terezka” on its gate. It says “Petr”.
Ptacek            That is strange - I don’t have any Petr in my family. Only perhaps if Terezka married some Petr..
Hlavsa            Wait…there is “Petr Bezruc”.[7]
Ptacek            Bezruc…? Isn’t that the poor socialist poet? But it is very unlikely that I would name my mine after him. Only if he perhaps bought it from me. Well…That is possible. - Write, bard, write – and as soon as you have twenty million, come we’ll settle our accounts! – Yes, that must be it. Thank you, Mr Hlavsa. I am satisfied with your prophecy.
(Death laughs sarcastically)
Ptacek            Mr Death? What is that?
Franta             Maybe you won’t really sell it. Maybe they will just take it away from you.
Ptacek            (laughs) Young sir! Haven’t you ever seen a mine? A mine is only a deep hole in the ground. They can take your wallet from you, your car, your… But a mine - nobody can take a mine away from you.
(Death laughs again)
Ptacek            Mr Death – you’re just laughing all the time. Do you know what this means? Couldn’t you just tell us?
Death             We are not allowed to tell those things.
Ptacek            Or at least suggest?
Death             We are not even allowed to suggest…[8]

This is an excerpt from The Visionary, a one-act play of the Cimrman Theater. The suggested “bankruptcy of the rich” is the prediction of the communist expropriations and confiscations of most of the privately owned property and the efforts of the communist regime to equalize the middle and upper classes with the proletariat, sending the children of rich families to do manual work, imprisoning the wealthy “capitalists” or sending them to labor camps while transferring their properties on to high communist officials.[9]

It took a fierce fight with the censorship back then in 1984 so that these passages could remain in the play. Surprisingly, the Visionary has been played in unchanged version since 1984 until today. Even more surprisingly: according to Ladislav Smoljak, the audience – back then as well as today – laughs at exactly the same moments.
The Cimrman theater plays, though, would not have been so easily allowed to remain on program: Shortly after the Charter 77, the regime replied with a counter-initiative, the so called Anti-Charter, a manifesto denying the values promoted by Charter 77 and accusing its signatories of anti-socialist attitude. Following some reluctance and hesitation, both of the leading protagonists – Ladislav Smoljak and Zdenek Sverak – signed the Anti-Charter, after it had been signed by a large number of Czech artists and writers. “We had no other option, but to sign this,” Ladislav Smoljak says today. “If we refused, they would have certainly closed our theater down.” 
But would they, really? And if they would: What if an arbitrary, unfounded act, such as closing down an extremely popular theater just for the reason of his two protagonists not having signed a humiliating, pro-communist pamphlet, would motivate a public protest, an uprising that would have shaken the firm position of the communist power? - This is a mere speculation. It may likewise be presumed, that the theater would have been closed down, its two protagonists would have returned to their original professions (both Sverak and Smoljak used to be high-school teachers) and nothing would have happened. The country was still occupied by the allied armies of the Warsaw Pact that attacked the country in August 1968 and there was nothing easier for Moscow to give a sign and make the armies suppress any larger movement that could undermine the communist authority. People were afraid. Artists and writers were afraid, too.
But what if…?


“Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.
The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children's access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself. The executors, therefore, behave essentially like everyone else, to a greater or lesser degree: as components of the post-totalitarian system, as agents of its automatism, as petty instruments of the social auto-totality.”[10]

What a shift: The greengrocer might even become a dissident, because he suddenly realizes that what keeps the regime powerful is fear and indifference, and he feels urged to express his refusal to live in the atmosphere of fear any further. The only means of doing this, is courage. He might start attending the private readings and performances of Havel’s plays, because all of a sudden, he would easily identify with the heroes:

Staněk            And how was it in there?
Vaněk             Where?
Staněk            Can our sort bear it at all?
Vaněk             You mean prison? What else can one do?
Staněk            Did they beat you?
Vaněk             No –
Staněk            Do they beat people up in there?
Vaněk             Sometimes. But not the politicals.
Staněk            I thought about you a great deal!
Vaněk             Thank you – (Short pause)
Staněk            I bet in those days it never even occurred to you –
Vaněk             What?
Staněk            How it’ll all end up! I bet not even you had guessed that!
Vaněk             Mmm –
Staněk            It’s disgusting, Ferdinand, disgusting! The nation is governed by scum! And the people? Can this really be the same nation which not very long ago behaved so magnificently? All that horrible cringing, bowing, and scraping! The selfishness, corruption, and fear wherever you turn! What have they made of us, old pal? Can this really be us?
Vaněk             There was a piece by you on the TV the other day –
Staněk            You can t imagine what an ordeal that was! First they kept blocking it for over a year, then they started changing it around – changed my whole opening and the entire closing sequence! You wouldn’t believe the trifles they find objectionable these days! Nothing but sterility and intrigues, intrigues and sterility! How often I tell myself, wrap it up, chum, forget it, go hide somewhere – grow apricots –
Vaněk             I know what you mean –
Staněk            Anyway, you must have steel nerves to be able to bear it all and in addition to keep doing the things you do.
Vaněk             Like what?
Staněk            Well, I mean all the protests, petitions, letters – the whole fight for human rights! I mean the things you and your friends keep on doing-
Vaněk             I m not doing so much –
Staněk            Now don’t be too modest, Ferdinand! I follow everything that’s going on! I know! If everybody did what you do, the situation would be quite different! And that’s a fact. It’s extremely important, there should be at least a few people here who aren’t afraid to speak the truth aloud, to defend others, to call a spade a spade! What I’m going to say might sound a bit solemn, perhaps, but frankly, the way I see it, you and your friends have taken on an almost superhuman task: to preserve and to carry the remains, the remnant of moral conscience, through the present quagmire! The thread you re spinning may be thin, but – who knows – perhaps the hope of a moral rebirth of the nation hangs on it.
Vaněk             You exaggerate –
Staněk            Well, that s how I see it, anyway.
Vaněk             Surely our hope lies in all the decent people –
Staněk            But how many are there still around? How many?[11]

Only by joining the dissent, the greengrocer would have signaled by means of explicit protest, that the conditions communist regime offered were unacceptable to him, because remaining neutral and indifferent meant tacit support of the regime, no matter how much did one privately disagree with its principles.

Similarly to such individuals who were brave enough to express the “we will not live in such conditions, in such a country, under such government and laws”, by the means of personal moral choice encapsulated by their protest, any author should have been willing and able to express his or her “I will not write and publish under such conditions”: A writer who went on publishing, no matter how much political satire he would have incorporated into his work, provided a broader message, that there is nothing that incredibly wrong with the regime, because despite the general misery, one can still enjoy a good book or show and that – by the means of humiliating compromises with the censorship and with the official aesthetics doctrine - one can still somehow survive, or even prosper. (As long as they complied with the censorship, all of the officially approved artists were very well paid and their standard of living would have been very superior to the poor reality most other people, including the dissidents, had to handle.) Avoiding explicit protest, assimilating to the restricted conditions, finding ways how to occasionally trick the censorship and pretending to be a supporter of the regime every now and then just in order to keep the chance to remain a published author or playwright and keep at least a minor public influence, was too much of a moral sacrifice: any such power or influence would have been discredited, because one could only preserve it by the means of surrendering to compromises, by bargain with a totalitarian authority.
Remaining on stage or on the book-sellers’ counters meant to be the greengrocer, who placed in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" and who, therefore, helped the communist regime to survive by surrendering to the collective fear.

While the Cimrman theater was providing people with intelligent entertainment during the twenty tough years of normalization, the dissent developed a diverse underground structure, an alternative platform to the totalitarian technology of power; the transition to democracy was only successful, because there were enough leaders, who were morally undisputed and ready to take up public functions – many of them emerged from the rows of writers and artists of the Charter 77 movement.
Nowadays, the Cimrman theater is as active as ever, its original plays being performed in unchanged wording, i.e. with the political subversions. Surprising: unlike many of Vaclav Havel’s plays, which are seemingly difficult for the current young generation to understand and identify with, the Cimrman’s innocent former anti-regime jokes are very well understood even among teenagers.
Paradoxically, the Cimrman theater does more good today than back in the 1980s: it reminds the young generation, that once upon a time, one could not freely tell what he really thought, that one had to find smart, discreet ways how to do so on an official platform.

[1] Distributing any of the prohibited books abroad or getting involved with the exiled political opposition was criminalized by § 112 of the Criminal Code: „A Czechoslovak citizen, who damages the interests of the republic by distributing or enabling the distribution of untrue information about the situation in the republic abroad, shall be punished by up to three years of imprisonment.“ Together with the provisions criminalizing the „arbitrary leaving of the country“, the writers having chosen exile had no chance to return back home.
[3] § 100 of the Criminal Code: „Who out of his hostility towards the socialistic social and state establishment motivates at least two people against the socialistic social and state establishment of the republic, shall be punished by imprisonment from six months up to three years. (…) Should the offender commit the above by means of printed media, film, radio, television or other similarly efficient way, he shall be punished by imprisonment from one up to five years.“  (This provision served as the legal grounds of Vaclav Havel’s numerous imprisonments.)
[4] Zdenek Sputa, for example, one of the most talented Czech post-war painters, refused to exhibit his work after he had been asked to alter his style according to official aesthetics. For thirty years, he had been creating and storing his paintings in his studio. His Prague exhibit in 1992 enjoyed enormous success, not only because of the quality of Sputa’s work, but also for the moral integrity, the artist had kept during the decades in silent protest.
[5] Moc bezmocnych (The Power of the Powerless), Havel, Vaclav. Prague: Lidove noviny, 1990, p. 5
[6] Ladislav Smoljak, the director of the Cimrman Theater remembers, that two seats had to be reserved at each show and at rehearsals for the censors.
[7] Petr Bezruc, a Czech poet of early 20th century, would have been very much promoted by the communist propaganda.
[8] Smoljak L., Sverak Z.: The Visionary; play of the Cimrman Theater, first performed in 1984 in Prague
[9] Most property of Vaclav Havel’s family was confiscated and young Vaclav, despite his apparent literary talent and the intention to write, had to become chemical lab technician.
[10] Moc bezmocnych (The Power of the Powerless), Havel, Vaclav. Prague: Lidove noviny, 1990, p. 11
[11] Protest, one-act play by V. Havel, first performed in 1979 in Vienna

2 komentáře:

  1. I can´t understand why do you help buliding of a false myth about "Hero Havel". You should consider, that if he would be real threat for communist regime, they would remove him. You fatefully underestimate their nature, power and abilities. They could literally destroy every one, they wanted. So if Havel lived his relatively comfortable live (own flat, weekend house, mercedes, enough money), he either covertly cooperated with regime, or served as snare for real regime enemies. If he would leave country, he would be nobody, if he stayed, he became a "hero".
    Sorry for my english.

  2. http://www.chomsky.info/letters/19900301.htm