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Památník rozloučení / Monument to a Parting


Památník rozloučení / A Monument to Parting

It is fitting that I should seek to add this photograph as the first item in the Automat Svět database. This for several reasons, one of which is chronological. In June, 2019, I travelled from Prague's Hlavní nádraží to Ostrava for a conference on the Python programming language. This was a number of days after the memorial pictured had been vandalised. I had been hoping to go and meet some people involved with Python as I was working on a web application and had been working on my own for a number of months with no formal background in computing. I did not manage to meet anyone to this end but did meet Ostrava, a town whose history rhymes with the history of Birmingham and the Black Country, the region of Britain I was born in. Seeing it, I resolved to return home for some time, to work on the application and see what was happening on the ground with all of the upheaval, the lies, the anger and resentment, and the fear of Brexit.

I was untethered at this time. I had been living in the Czech Republic for several years by now - six and a half years in this stretch and eight of the last fifteen years - and had gone to some lengths to engage with its culture and history while struggling to find stable, gainful employment. This land, of course, had seen more than its fair share of history. The memorial reaches back to the early days of the second world war when Sir Nicholas Winton MBE, a stockbroker and ardent socialist who was close to Labour party luminaries such as Aneurin Bevin, organised for 669 primarily Jewish children to travel from Czechoslovakia to Britain. Winton's parents were German Jews who converted to christianity having moved to Hampstead and London. Winton had worked in Hamburg, Berlin, and Paris, and had learned of the dangers of Nazism from his family. After Kristallnacht, the events of which were not as some may assume, confined to Germany and Austria but took place also in the strategically important Cechoslovakian border lands, the British parliament had decided to permit refugees to pass into Britain provided they were younger than 17, had a place to stay, and that the sum of £50 could be deposited to ensure their eventual return.

It was hatred of a different kind that I had felt to be in the ascendent from my time at university where I studied politics either side of the turn of the century. Though I was to discover it much later, Edward W. Said summarised these times in the heartbreaking preface to the 25th Annniversary Edition of Orientalism, written in New York in May, 2003: "As I wrote these lines, the illegal and unsanctioned imperial invasion and occupation of Iraq proceeds, with a prospect of physical ravagement, political unrest, and more invasions that are truly awful to contemplate. This is all part of what is supposed to be a clash of civilizations, unending, implacable, irredemiable." If I had not read Orientalism and still indeed have not read most of it, so painful it is to confront its reality, I was intuitively and temperamentally committed to its message, that "we still have at our disposal the rational interpretive skills that are the legacy of humanistic education" and that "[a]bove all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow." This was far from where we were as a society then. The hatred I felt all around me led me, at the end of that same year, to move to the Czech Republic for the first time.

Erik Tabery, the editor of a current affairs magazine in the Czech Republic, in a book which might be translated variously as as Abandoned Society or Forsaken Society, and which takes on the history of the Czech lands from Masaryk to Babiš, bemoans the decline of the humanities in the Czech Republic. It was an article in Tabery's magazine, Respekt,1 that helped ensure that my own forages in the ill-defined foothills of the humanities these last few years would return regularly to one of Czechslovakia's (and Europe's) greatest writers, the humanist, Bohumil Hrabal. It was in 2013 into 2014, my first year back in the Czech Republic that I would enter a competition to translate a lesser known story by Hrabal and then, at the time of the centenary of his birth, catch a glimpse of the magazine's cover which showed Hrabal with a dog collar around his neck attached to a leash; Hrabal, it was said, had permitted himself for a period during the years of Normalisation, to be controlled by the communists.

A mere matter of months before I would see the desecrated memorial shown above, I read one of the last passages of the second part of Hrabal's confessional autobiographical trilogy, Vita nuova. Having by now familiarised myself with the conventions of the kind of unofficial lustration which is a feature of many the cultures of postcommunist countries, I had seen and heard various denunciations of significant figures and the often mythical defences made of them - little or nothing was new here - and by the time I approached this passage, I was convinced that Hrabal ought to pass any such session of moral mooting. Periodically lost in these unpunctuated scenes, however, I read with horror as Pipsi, Hrabal's wife and the narrator of the trilogy, described a time that Hrabal was asked, as part of a theatre crew in the 1960s, to demolish the pulpit and decoration of a synagogue. He asked his friend, Vladimír Boudník to come along and see the "devastation" since an artist should be present at everything including an execution. This is a scene in which Hrabal takes home a load of firewood and, at Boudník's urging, the crown of David. Pipsi, who was born to a German family in the Sudetenland, had had friends and family both who had idolised Hitler; her mother and her friend, Lizaj, had travelled to Vienna to see Hitler and they had hated the jews ever since. The trilogy opens, indeed, with Pipsi marginally-situated in Prague without a permit for a place to live; as she goes to see her old friends, they list their woes in order to forfend her asking for a place to stay, blaming the defeat of the Reich, their pecunary embarrassment, and anything else that comes to mind on the jews. The desecrations continued with Pipsi describing the time in the mid sixties that the Jewish cemetary in Libeň was covered with countless truckfuls of soil and waste. It was at this cemetary, she says, that with Vladimír she learned of the immensity of the fate of the Jewish people.

I was later to learn that Hrabal was to give the crown of David from the synagogue in Libeň to Arnošt Lustig the writer and survivor of Terezín, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. Hrabal's writings, meanwhile, covered the horrors of fascism, Stalinism, and extremism of every kind; neither did they overlook the Romani genocide.2 Too Loud a Solitude, the small book he considered his masterpiece and which he was enabled to write by what compromises he was forced to make in the 1970s, might be considered a handbook of the short twentieth century. Indeed, some days ago, I discovered that there is a book on Bohumil Hrabal's Short Twentieth Century, which makes sense as he outlived Eric Hobsbawm's familiar definition by a handful of decliningly productive years.

Anyway so, over the summer I went home away from all of this here-ubiquitous history and I see the ratcheting up of fear, bitterness, hatred, and various mutual antagonisms as Britain entered what may or may not prove to be the Brexit endgame. So where were we? Where was the land Sir Nicholas Winton's parents had moved to as one of the approved enemies of Germany in the build-up to the Second World War? Britain's two mainstream parties, The Conservatives and Labour, appeared to be in denial about racial hatred. Boris Johnson, open in his admiration for a man, Donald Trump, who had locked up children away from their parents and effected a "muslim ban", has said that "Islam is the problem" and otherwise turned a blind eye to islamophobia in the party he leads. This is to say nothing of the barely-discussed Windrush scandal, the associated destruction of documents such as landing cards, and, more generally, the clumsily racist and variously legally questionable hostile environment policy. Labour, meanwhile, appears to be impregnated with the kind of insidious intellectual tendencies which the Jewish community in Britain might be forgiven for thinking appear to bear some relation to those which informed Czechoslovakia's Slánský trial. Europe in general has a problem with populist parties in coalition govenments. Britain has two historically-dominant parties which have effectively broken into ineffectual coalitions, the most extreme factions of which have come to the fore. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour's current leader, was one of too few in his party to oppose both the Iraq war and austerity. It might more plausibly be argued than he has himself managed to get across that both of these trends have led to the country becoming fractious, angry, and bigotted if not nigh on ungovernable. Nevertheless, and though we may grant a handful of nuances here and there relating to media coverage, his understanding of the disastrous policies Tony Blair's government pursued from the beginning of this already unenviably brutal century has evidently led him and many of his comrades down a path which implicitly at best marks a different broad brush approved enemy. Consequently at the recent general election, the country was faced with a choice of at least one of two forms of hatred. The result thereby would have been depressing and alarming no matter what, but it may be argued that Johnson's admiration for President Trump, his hand-picked team's ignorance of the deadly seriousness of the history and present dilemmas of Northern Ireland, and his party's long-term willingness to leverage the most illiberal characters of the Visograd 4 group to needle the European Union, betrays an indulgence of far more than the one form of hatred it is most keen, with implausible deniability, to claim for its own.

Arnošt Lustig once attended a hockey match where he heard a number of antisemitic cries from the spectators behind him. This reminded him of "Bohoušek" Hrabal (he invariably used such diminutives, a feature of Czech, to describe his friend) and how he had once said "let the lower orders speak, you'll learn of the state of the water in Czech watercourses." In Vita nuova, the second volume of his autobiography, Pipsi passes judgement on the people who come eagerly to watch the destruction of the Jewish cemetary. She feels the hatred from many of her fellow citizens and, knowing what she knows of the Holocaust, she is disgusted by it all. There are many people in Britain and elsewhere who, reading of the desecration of a memorial in the Czech Republic may shrug and dismiss it as a feature of postcommunist states. There is something to that: there is a history in this part of the world of dumping on the inconvenient facts of history, burying them deep; what is more, there is a history of a sense of powerlessness, of a shrug followed by a grunt that it was somebody else that did it, that it was them up above did all the harm and all the hate. The Czech Republic, however, is a European country, and the water flowing through its waterways is little different from that found elsewhere on the continent, or that, indeed, found in the country now once again attempting to hold itself aloof from the continent. The referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Union was decided just over a week after a sitting Labour MP was murdered by a far right extremist. Britain's current Prime Minister was associated with Vote Leave which has been found to have put out ads following the murder despite having agreed to suspend campaigning. We ought to have been and ought now to be alert to this, since according to Sinclair Lewis, "capitalism is fascism plus murder" and there has been a lot of the latter about, with an evident thirst for more. Johnson has most recently provoked the anger of the parents of one of the victims of a terrorist attack. Repeatedly, he has declined to acknowledge that his words have consequences. Jeremy Corbyn's stewardship of Labour, meanwhile, has prompted the intervention of the chief rabbi of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Ephraim Mirvis. Whatever way you look at it, the kind of hatreds that led to so many parents in Czechoslovakia sending their children to what they could only hope must be a better future, have become mainstream while the values of humanism have become the preserve of a marginalised and untolerated fringe: the enemy of the people.
In September 1, 1939, W. H. Auden writes:

Accurate scholarship can
unearth the whole offence
from luther until now
that has driven a culture mad.

To this, one can all too effectively parry with Isaiah Berlin who, in an introduction to Five Essays on Liberty, writes "As an eminent philosopher of our time once drily observed, there is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth, when it is discovered, will prove interesting." Whether Jeremy Corbyn would recognise this passage as containing anything in the way of English irony is unknown, though it might well be that he would first have to improve his reading habits.
The footnote of this passage leads us to C. I. Lewis who, in Mind and the World-Order, wrote "If the truth should be complex and somewhat disillusioning, it would still not be a merit to substitute for it some more dramatic and comforting simplicity."
It is admittedly something of a shock to return from here to the level of dialogue we witness with "Brexit"; the very word, after all, would not survive a single draft by a competent sub-editor familiar with George Orwell's The Politics of the English Language. It is no wonder Britain's foremost fictional pub landlord can say that "nobody knows what Brexit is". But if it would be healthy for our cultural gatekeepers to be a little more sceptical towards meme-ready neologisms long before they are baked into slogans such as "Get Brexit done", this is still to say little of the staggering level of dishonesty from the off. Because Johnson's metier is "dramatic and comfortable simplicity" untethered from the truth. What is more, if we can expect anything in the next few years by way of scholarship which reaches for accuracy with an awareness that truth in human affairs is more slippery than it appears to us in relation to science, they will likely have their work cut out trying to explain just how it was that those who have been telling truths that were both complex and disillusioning, have been repeatedly thrown under a London bus.
The truths they were telling? That every step in this hybrid war over Brexit has been, to borrow from Churchill now, "underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English". Churchill was speaking of submarines. I am speaking about information campaigns and our informational infrastructure.
Because we have created a too-unregulated market of ideas, and permitted that market of ideas to become woefully distorted. As a result, the truth candidates we are seeing, resemble, in the ways we ought not on a moment's reflection to desire, our current crop of broadly "populist" and certainly cannonically illiberal political candidates; this while the journalists, and the publishers, and the curators, are all being chosen through filters and selective perception, based upon their ability to drive "engagement". Engagement, so defined, boosts drama, yes, but not always comfort. Drama and anger, presented as righteous anger but observably out of control and certainly untethered by any higher conventions of ethical thought from whichever admixture of grounded traditions you choose, is rather the mood movement of the day. Now there are already some promising responses to this, but none of our current crop of leaders are paying attention to that, so far has the market of ideas gone that corporate lobbyists, publishers apt to deny they are publishers and talking of a neutrality they do not aim to define, and those people we call philanthropists rather than oligarchs or globalists, have the ear of our current technocratic leaders. Because right now we can choose from populists and technocrats, and the latter are all reading from the same book of thoroughly discredited neoliberal shock therapy.

Brexit is peak post-truth. Britain, and England, and Europe, come to that, must not be.

So are there in fact any grounds for optimism or are we to bank on complete societal breakdown, all out nuclear conflict, or an ecological collapse where Gaia consumes us?

Certainly, we ought not to underestimate the risks. British exceptionalism and American exceptionalism, certainly as a system of thought with claimed predictive power, are each as irrational as the other, which is not to say that either or both have not been exceptional - in the sense of relatively formiddable - in their day. Britain, according to a historian who ought to know, may currently be having a Reichstag Fire Moment.3 How many citations and how many perspectives could I choose from right now to make the point that America is certainly witnessing a constitutional crisis? Europe then, despite the typically-untethered regard of the section of the British elite who are pro-Europe in the sense of being for the European Union, may need another cultural revolution. Australia is on fire. Have you looked at South America and / or the Amazon rainforest recently? Let's be honest, put your finger on a map and it's probably not looking great right now. Has there been a time when looking at the truth meant confronting quite as much as now? Other than then? Is it any wonder the market in freshly baked factoids and alternative facts is so hot? If I had a penny for the number of times people advised me to stop reading the news, stop informing myself for fear I will only get depressed from it all.

So, to our responses. Because how about let us try to found this conversation (and how about let us frame this as a conversation) in the best of the European, and the British (etc. etc.) values and traditions.

And let us also remember and honour the memory of Sir Nicholas Winter. Let's live and communicate and digest the wonders of the world around us and the variety of human beings and human society so that we have to make the effort to remember him.

Bohumil Hrabal through Pipsi, or Pipsi through Bohumil Hrabal, or Vladimír Boudník, or Egon Bondy, or whoever it was first came up with it - and maybe, so tight they were as a community, they might not even be able to tell you if you could return to ask them - said that the jewish graveyard at Libeň might be uncovered in five hundred years or so. Having seen so many changes in eras by the end of the eighties when he was writing his autobiography, that was the kind of historical scale he was looking at. Right now, we need to zoom out on our mental maps and find ourselves. There are places we don't want to revisit again. We are just around the corner, and it seems to me far too often, there is a flag on it, or a pin, marked "your destination".

krozruch, December, 2019

  1. It is possible that Tabery was not in fact in charge of this issue (I seem to recall as much) and even if it were the case that he was, the pace and resources that define the parameters of most magazine journalism lead, occasionally at best, to rash, ungrounded, and, above all, that Twitter catnip, controversial statements with little space given to the paragraphs of qualifications and disclaimers which might be found in literary criticism or history. This article may have touched a nerve in me but it seems to me an expression of something deeper not only in Czech nature, nor merely in our own society, but in a human desire to knock down those who, though in gutter, are looking up at the stars.

  2. Sadly, as Jiří Pelán notes in Bohumil Hrabal: A Full-Length Portrait, "Hrabal is unusual as one of the tiny minority of Czech writers who - beyond the parameters of sociological documentation, so by pure empathy - have drawn unusually sensitive pictures of the gypsy community."

  3. To my mind, Evans here underestimates the degree of pain suffered by the ordinary working person under neoliberalism. The fear of communism he mentions was historically a brake on precisely the kinds of inequality, poverty, and instability that we see now, and industrial lives, paradoxically, were at the times of greatest European stability, existentially healthier than the kind of lifestyles and jobs we see today in our deskilled world marked by the enclosure of the communicative commons.

Památník rozloučení / Monument to a Parting
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