Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"...a path into a labyrinth of distorting mirrors...": Walking Praha, City of Kafka and a European Capital

The streets of Praha.

Our train arrived from Krakow at 745 AM.  It was late leaving the night before, moving one way to ditch a car, then changing directions altogether, before finally making its way out to the Czech Republic.  There was not a lot of sleep to be had. I had not been for four years, Caroline since 1989.  Every time, I come I think of Mr Liang, my old history professor from Vassar, who helped me think about Prague, the police, and the cycles of history here, freedom from 1918-1938, annexation of the Sudetenland, war, independence from 1945-48, the communist years of repression, the 1968 Prague Spring, 1989, when a peaceful revolution transformed this land.  It’s a space of hope for those of my generation. “It’s a splendid beautiful city,” he used to say, “like Paris.”

But this comes with a caveat.  Havel, the leader of the country, noted that when they had nothing they had something to talk about, sometimes over hot water, pretending it was tea.  Once Capitalism came, they had everything but the old conversations. 

Arriving this time, we continued that feeling.  Amidst the crowds converging to see the old capital, we walked from the train station.  Caroline recalled arriving, the information booth giving her a hotel.  That December day of 1989, it was like she was discovering a lost jewel. Today, the train station is a mall, full of people in on the old secret. 

Prague is a European capital, a part of the European Economic Community, subject to all the whims and pressures of all these spaces.  But there is all that history below the streets. It still lingers, always looking, reminding us, taking us to a feeling, away from the US I feel more disengaged from.  The cruelties of the US politics, our leadership’s emulations of the rhetoric of Goebbels, the erosion of democracy to the whims of capital. 

 In the US, I fight but I also have to live my life, taking in the places and spaces I love. Its good to be alive exploring this gem. 

So we made our way to the river, greeting the curvy streets, the ducks and morning, the sleep we did not get on the bumpy train the night before, grasping at us now that we were here, as we walked over the Manesuv Most to the Mali Strana. 

Regrouping, we drank smoothies and stumbled into the Kafka Museum, one of the most fascinating museums one can stumble into.  Thinking about Kafka, its impossible not to think about a world of writing. Marquez locked himself in his room when he first read the Metamorphosis.  George Louis Borges suggested his friend, Max Broad, who disobeyed Kafka’s request to burn his manuscripts on his death was one of the great literary heroes of the 20th century. 

So we walked into the old museum, showing black and white footage of the Prague in which Kafka walked, the sound of a crow and old world music.   The horror of Krakow was still there.  We’d done pretty well for a few days in Krakow, taking in our fears, and the beauty of the remains, the Klezmer music, the knowledge that the Jews did survive.  But the horror of being encircled, walled in by forces of darkness, in a ghetto by a wall that seemed to resemble to like gravestones, as if you were in a cemetery, these feelings were hard to shake.  Kafka seemed to write with a premonition, aware of the stench in the air, the stigma, the association of Jews with blood rituals that dated back centuries, reignited in 1899, when a young woman was murdered and a Jew was blamed, fears of blood rituals re emerging. He seemed to be aware the Jews were always the other, the dark, infectious Golem, the boogyman chasing the small child. 

Between the Town Square and its clock tower and his works to school and work, Kafka felt caught.
“This small circle contains my life,” he wrote in his diary, describing his life as a labyrinth, years before the magic realists borrowed from this metaphor to reconsider their worlds on the outside, in relation to the center, the individual strolling through the streets of the city, navigating between what it real and what is thought, between themselves and a minotaur. 

The agitated age with assassinations and dynamite, the anarchists who snabbed Sisi in 1898, shot McKinley 1901, Plehve and Grand Duke Sergi in 1905, and the crescendo of violence of 1914, it tormented Kafka. So, he wrote and thought about writing. “I am nothing but literature and want to be nothing else.”  He found a merging of creative passion in this space. He went to theater and wrote about it.  In the Town Square, he dreamed about imperial purity and revolution staged simultaneously.  

He loved and gravitated to women, but with ambivalence.  He rejects Felice, Julie, and Milena, who perished in Ravensbruck in 1944.  “You justify my anguish,” he wrote Millena.  She was his ‘fire.” But he rejected her, finally settling with Dora, his last companion. One gets the feeling that he could never be happy. 

A vegetarian for a short period, he wrote: “Its easy for vegetarians, they eat their own flesh.”  Writing, he was more and more in touch with a human self-destructive dementia.

“The war has lead us into a path into a labyrinth of distorting mirrors.  We stumble from one fictitious vision to another bewildered visitations of false prophets and characters, who with their cheap recipes for happiness, merely cover our eyes and easy to that because of the mirrors we fall from one dudgeon to another.  

Walking through the Kafka museum, its hard to shake the memories of Krakow and the mythic struggle to liberate the town from the clutches of the dragon. The dragon is vanquished.  But it re emerges again and again. 

We lock up our foes. 

We lock ourselves up.  Yet the penal colony extends through a century of thinking. Kafka tried to get out of Prague.  The museum includes a copy of a mimeographed request, in duplicate.  The system penalizes, containing us in a hall of mirrors, surveilling us, as we look for directions to the castle. 
We walk well into the afternoon.  It’s a moody rainy afternoon in Prague. So we make our way back to our room where we spend the rest of the afternoon, looking at rooftops, napping.  I make my way out for a stroll exploring the beauty of the streets, later enjoying a beer with the girls, looking at the rooftops, as the sun goes down. The city looms below, music playing in the background, the sounds of the city everywhere.  The memories of conversations we continue.

“I think I like Prague more than any of the other cities we’ve visited,” muses number one.

“I am not charmed by it,” notes number two. “It looks like another tourist city.”

The dialectic of the capitalistic city open up a conversation about this spaces where dreams come true for a second.   But what has it become?  Around us, Europe is changing.  Hungry seems to be embracing Russia, yet again, even after the 45 years of occupation it enduring.  For now Europe is holding. But amnesia is everywhere, particularly in the US, where rhetoric is vengeful. But one can find it here.

A young woman with a Unicef card asks for money. I give her some. 

“She wasn’t working for Unicef,” noted a woman by me. “She was a gypsy.”

The hatred is everywhere.   People seem to fear that same old boogeyman.

On our way out of Krakow to the train for Praha.

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