Here and There – Prague

Prague is an unusual city, at least as I see it.  I’ve been there a few times, and it seems to be made up of a set of dissonant parts.  There’s the Prague of the Castle, up on the hill, overlooking an old part of town.  There’s the Prague of the city centre, packed with shops, pedestrian areas, and tourists.  Finally, there’s the Prague where people live, with trams, shops, and vistas of not particularly inspiring blocks of flats and houses.  Looking at it now, from thousands of miles away, why does it conjure up this odd picture?

In part it has to do with the visits I’ve made.  I’ve been lucky, as I’ve stayed in a beautiful luxury hotel, south of the city centre and the river.  Tucked away in the ancient neighbourhood of Malá Strana (Little Quarter) on the left bank of the Vltava River, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is located on part of a complex dating back to the 14th century.  Formerly a Dominican monastery, the hotel building incorporates part of the outer wall of St. Mary Magdalene, one of the oldest churches in Prague, which had been built around 1330.  A setting surrounded by history.

In the way you would hope a leading hotel group would, the hotel retains and highlights its distinguished heritage, with its carefully preserved architectural features such as vaulted ceilings, archways and original staircases.  During the rebuilding guests are told, care was taken to protect the artefacts of historical significance that were uncovered.  The most striking find was some of the remains of the church, revealed during the renovation and rebuilding process and now preserved under a glass floor.  It’s a way of showcasing the hotel’s strong ties to Czech history and culture.   In 2007, the hotel was awarded the prestigious “Building of the Year” award presented annually by the Czech government and professional organisations. The hotel was singled out for its especially sensitive and creative approach to reviving and adapting its historical architecture to new use as a luxury hotel.

The hotel’s location is ideal, with its peaceful atmosphere close to the river, only minutes away from the 650-year-old Charles Bridge and a short walk to the popular and historic Old Town Square.  It’s relaxing to meander along the cobbled streets, to goggle at the romantic scenery and passing galleries, and to be tempted by several busy cafés and some of the very best of the city’s elegant restaurants and night scenes.  The hotel is surrounded by palaces, gardens and towers of old Prague, all under the ever-watchful presence of Prague Castle.  Hm, this reads like an advert for Mandarin Oriental!

Ah, Prague Castle.  I think it might be better called the Prague Castle Complex.  There is a castle, but there’s also St Vitus cathedral, the Basilica of St George, and several other smaller palaces, gardens, museums.  All in all the ‘castle’ is the largest ancient castle in the world, covering an area of almost 750,000 square feet.  The site is around 1,870 feet in length and an average of about 430 feet wide.  Surprisingly, from down by the river, it doesn’t look so huge, but once you’ve toiled up the hill to have a look at the various buildings, yes, it is huge.  The complex is packed with wonderful sculptures, impressive buildings, and even the requisite collection of crown jewels that every historical venue must include.  I don’t mean to sound cynical:  it is great place to visit.

Below the castle complex, you can walk to the beginning of the Charles Bridge, a medieval stone bridge that crosses the Vltava River, and takes you into the historic centre of old Prague Its construction started in 1357 and finished in the early 15th century.  The bridge is 1,693 feet long and nearly 33 feet wide.  It is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues and other constructions, most in a baroque style originally erected around 1700, (although I recently discovered that now all of them have been replaced by replicas).

The castle and bridge are complemented by another historic object: The Prague astronomical clock, which is one of the walls of the Old Prague Town Hall, was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest clock still in operation. The clock mechanism has three main components – the astronomical dial, representing the position of the Sun and Moon, as well as displaying various astronomical details; statues of various Catholic Saints, which stand on either side of the clock face; and, finally, “The Walk of the Apostles, an hourly show of moving Apostle figures and other sculptures, including a figure of a skeleton representing death, striking the time. There’s even a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. According to local legend, the city will suffer if the clock is neglected and its good operation is placed in jeopardy; a ghost, mounted on the clock, was supposed to nod its head in confirmation. According to the legend, the only hope for the future was represented by a boy born on New Year’s night.  It appealed to the scientist side of me.

I guess I have been setting a scene, telling you about the long, rich history of Prague.  However, for me that is interesting, but nothing more.  My principal focus is on a man born in 1936 into a wealthy Czech family, which had made its money in real estate development.  The product of a bourgeois family, his background was to have a fateful impact on his life.  His education was circumscribed, and in the early 1950s, he began a four-year apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory assistant.  In what had become a communist country, his privileged background ensured he was not able to enter into any post-secondary school to pursue his interest in a humanities program.  He ended up studying in the Faculty of Economics of the Czech Technical University in Prague but dropped out after two years.

After finishing two years of military service, he managed to get a position as a stagehand in Prague’s Theatre ABC.  Theatre drew him.  He studied dramatic arts taking a correspondence course, and in 1969, his first full-length play was performed in public, The Garden Party, part of a series on the Theatre of the Absurd, winning him international acclaim. Others followed, including The Memorandum (which was taken to New York).  However, from  1968, his plays were banned from the theatre world in his own country, and he was unable to leave Czechoslovakia to see any foreign performances of his works. To remind you, 1968 was the year of the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek introduced reforms to liberalise an oppressive communist regime.  For a brief period,  it seemed reform might be possible in Czechoslovakia, only to be crushed later in the year by more than 500,000 Soviet soldiers.

I am, of course, describing the early career of Vaclav Havel.  If theatre was his great love, circumstances made him a leading dissident.  That reputation was consolidated in 1977 with the publication of the Charter 77 Manifesto, written in part as a protest against the imprisonment of a Czech ‘psychedelic rock band’. Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted in 1979.  His political activities resulted in multiple imprisonments by the authorities, and constant government surveillance and questioning by the secret police, including almost four years in prison from May 1979 to February 1983.

I don’t want to write a biography, however.  There are well written accounts of his life already.  What I do want to do is to explain why his essays, especially The Power of the Powerless, are, for me, so important.  While Prague is a great city, a historical treasure trove, each time I went there it was with Havel on my mind.  I loved the city, but I was never able to forget the man and his impact.

Havel wrote ‘The Power of the Powerless’ in October 1978.  It was originally meant to be the basis of a planned book of Polish and Czechoslovak essays on the nature of freedom. Each of the contributors of this book were to have received a copy of Havel’s essay and then to respond to it.  That plan was foiled, but his essay was published.

If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do.  It is a clear and determined critique of totalitarianism.  Once read, you won’t forget the opening lines:  “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent’” This is, of course, a deliberate play on the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto (‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism’).  Havel continues, “It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting.”

The essay goes on to analyse the Soviet system of the time, and the way in which it had completely embraced the lives of people under the regime.  In a famous section, he explains the significance of a sign on a shop window:

“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 head-quarters 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.

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit …  The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” …  if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient; he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

I could continue to quote from Section III of Havel’s paper.  Actually, I’d like to think you will want to read the whole essay.  Havel manages to be both analytical and yet frightening, demonstrating how completely the communists had enveloped Czechoslovakian citizens in a degrading and demeaning system, but almost without their being aware this was the case.  Later, when writing about being a dissident, Havel said, “we never decided to become dissidents.  We have been transformed into them, without quite knowing how, sometimes we have ended up in prison without precisely knowing how.  We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.”  From his perspective, change had to come through ideas, throwing off an ideology, rather than from fighting in the streets.

Havel’s Civic Forum party was central in the revolution that toppled the Communists in 1989, the ‘Velvet Revolution’.  He appointed President once the communists were booted out and was  re-elected in a landslide the following year.  Havel was a change agent.  He played a key role in dismantling the Warsaw Pact, and in enlarging NATO membership.  Some of his decisions were less popular in the Czech Republic than they were overseas, especially his opposition to Slovak independence, and his criticism of the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II.

After a ten-year spell as president, Havel retired from a political role.  However, he continued as a public intellectual, and wrote and spoke on humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil action and democracy.  Among other awards and recognition he was awarded the US Freedom Medal in 1994.  His speech on receiving the medal was titled In Our Postmodern World A Search for Self-Transcendence.  It begins: “There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.  It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, arises from the rubble.”  It ends: “Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.”  It must have been a shock for his American audience. As far as I am concerned, he was one of the great 20th Century political intellectuals.

Visiting Prague always made me think about the contrast between the Czech Republic and Australia.  In one sense, there is no basis for comparison.  Prague is a demonstration of the amazing history of more than one thousand years that Czechoslovakia has experienced in its varieties of ‘nation’.  Our recorded history is briefer, and far less colourful:  our rich indigenous history is lost.  That’s not the issue, however.  Rather, the comparison is about intellectuals.  As we appear to be failing to address the need to take a major step in our relations with Indigenous Australians, I ask myself, where is our Havel?  Our leaders seem skilled in taking a few steps, not always forward, before slumping back into party politics and blame.  We’re not looking back over a millennium, but we do have nearly 250 years of embarrassing history.  Will we ever have our ‘Prague moment’?