Books April 2019
Midnight in Prague
A review of Karel Teige: Captain of the Avant-Garde by Rea Michalová.
Karel Teige’s death in Prague in 1951 might best be described as cardiac arrest caused by heartbreak. Teige was then approaching his fifty-first birthday. Living in a city that had influenced and been influenced by European modernism—think of the heritage of Alphonse Mucha, Franz Kafka, and Frank Kupka—he had dreamed of artistic and political revolution. Brilliantly, he carried into new idioms the banner of French Surrealism—and, less brilliantly, its attendant Trotskyism. Karel Teige: Captain of the Avant-Garde, by Rea Michalová, is a valuable document that reveals the hidden history of artistic modernism and Stalinist reaction in Central and Eastern Europe.
After he died, Teige’s influence extended throughout the flourishing avant-garde in Central Europe (while living in Sarajevo I read him in Slovene). But he perished as an outcast: isolated, threatened, and silenced. The Stalinist regime in power in Prague considered a surrealist art critic a major menace to its order. They were doubtless correct to do so, for the memory of Teige led to the Prague Spring of 1968 as well as the liberation of 1989, guided by such figures as the writer Milan Kundera and the playwright Václav Havel. The publication and republication of works by and studies of Joyce, Kafka, and the Czech and Slovak Surrealists epitomized the struggle of the Czechs in 1968, even as they faced Russian tanks. These efforts symbolized their aspirations, even as slobby, riotous hippies embodied the radical uproar of that year in Chicago. But the rebels in the East had little need of the hallucinogens to which those in the New World were drawn. The drug of choice in the socialist world was freedom, and that was quite enough.
Although Surrealism in its Czech iteration transformed verse in that language (and influenced Slovakian poetry), it faced a serious challenge after World War II, along with its manifestation in Romania. Could surrealists defend democratic and modernist culture in an atmosphere of communist militancy? The new generations in both countries had seen in Surrealism a combative alternative to “socialist realism” during the Russian chill of the 1930s. This view may be perceived as an absurdist fantasy. But just that violent outcome was realized in Titoite Yugoslavia.
Teige’s companions included Jaroslav Seifert, a Nobel literature laureate in the pregnant year of 1984. In 1922, the two had been expelled from communist literary journalism together for publishing in “bourgeois” media. That detail reminds one of the neo-Borgesian chronicles of the radical Serbian author Danilo Kiš (see my “Five Yugoslav classics” in The New Criterion of May 2000), which reflect the struggle of Central and Eastern European leftist intellectuals to realize their dreams of popular cultural enrichment, dreams destined typically to lead them to Auschwitz and the gulag. But the Bukovinan poet Paul Celan disproved (in the name of the fossilized Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg) the fraudulent enlightener Theodor Adorno’s arguments that European culture could not survive the Holocaust.
The volume under review was assembled with Habsburg-style thoroughness. It records Teige’s protean involvement with nearly every dimension of the modernist experiment, from architecture—perhaps his most authentic professional métier—to the research developed by his neighbors, the Prague Linguistic Circle identified mainly with the Slavicist Roman Jakobson. Teige’s ideas were never anything but original—in 1920, for example, his uniquely inspired leftism led him to exalt painters of life over mere artists, holding Van Gogh superior to Cézanne and the Douanier Rousseau in higher esteem than Picasso.
As an omnivorous mind in a legendary city of the imagination and a revolutionary feverish in his appetite for the unanticipated challenge, Teige represented Czechoslovak culture between the wars as a force to reckon with in Europe and the East. The Prague intellectuals engaged profoundly with everything new. Teige promoted French writers while his colleague Karel Čapek gave the world a new paradigm of alienation with the word “robot,” derived from the common Slavic word for labor. Perhaps because Prague bridged the gap between the medieval and the modern, its writers perceived the dangers in excessive experiments with the human. Prague produced the story of the golem, an animated clay figure created by Kabbalistic means to protect the ancient Jewry, but which ran amok; it also conceived of the aforementioned robot, a similarly inert instrument of alleged progress, which defeats its human inventors. Prague survived the marching minions of Nazism and Communism with unique comprehension of its tragic destiny. But Teige and his peers could not give up the idea of revolution.
The Prague surrealists who gathered around Teige are as yet little known outside Central and Eastern Europe, and naming them will have little resonance for readers, although this volume includes sufficient images to stir, one hopes, some interest in them. Teige’s own output begins with evidence of unmistakable talent in watercolors and oils of Czech landscapes, done in his early teenage years, and continues with his discovery of photography and his self-proclamation as “the first Czech Cubist.”
Teige’s intellectual growth exemplified that of a provincial prodigy in a “devouring” development process. He had to know everything about art and politics, as well as their intersection in architecture and urban planning. The Czechs and other Central and Eastern European nations had been held back by the long Habsburg twilight, in which they “suffered” from economic modernization, cultural tolerance, and a rich tradition of dissidence. As André Breton noted, Teige was a worthy successor to the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus. Like Hus, Teige was a victim of suppression, but also like Hus, whose persecution by Rome was vitiated in 1999 by the Polish Pope St. John Paul II, Teige represented an eternal hope.
Teige entered his Hus-like Calvary in May 1946, when the ascendant Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Division “requested” a “written self-criticism.” Teige had spent his entire life in self-interrogation and self-examination. Why add to this fruitful set of habits a perfunctory, ideological “confession”? An explanation is obvious: brutes had overrun Prague, not unlike the robots described by Čapek. When German imperialists subjugated the Czechs, the world paid attention. Czech resistance fighters were coordinated from London during the Second World War. But after the war, the spirit of Chamberlain dominated the global horizon; Sovietism was perceived as permanent. It remained for the Czechs to regain their liberty on their own. The struggle was long and demoralizing. The Czechs were derided by the Titoite Yugoslavs as cowards who let the Germans and Russians subdue them.
The end of Czech modernism, for a generation, came with the execution of a Trotskyist literary critic and companion of Teige, Záviš Kalandra. He was used absurdly in a proceeding aimed far and wide, with a net thrown out to catch Slovak anti-Nazi heroes no less than enthusiasts of Surrealism. Kalandra and three other defendants were executed in 1950. (Their reputations were rehabilitated in 1989, and Kalandra was honored as a national hero.) But Teige’s Prague was now a bastion of arbitrary oppression, reminiscent of Kafka’s castle. Frightened, Teige died from a weak heart. The Communists did not need to arrest, frame, and slay him directly.
When Kalandra was killed, Breton protested to the French poet Paul Éluard, a former surrealist turned Stalinist hack. David Lodge noted in The Washington Post in 1992 how Kundera evoked this moment in modernism: the Czech novelist saw young Communists dancing in the streets to celebrate the purge, and he imagined Éluard among them, reciting “one of his high-minded poems about joy and brotherhood,” in a ritual that causes the dancers to rise into the air. This is the fantasy in which all revolutionaries indulge, and by which Karel Teige and others vanished from the world. We will not see their like again.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 73
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