The Czech nation has participated in the history of the West for a very long time. It is old and at the same time it is very young, because it nearly disappeared under the intense Germanization which took place after the Thirty Years War, and it has reappeared for the second time on the European stage only in the nineteenth century. Its face is therefore both old and childlike; this ambiguity about its age is the first characteristic that leaps to the eye.

It is not thanks to armed force or to political cunning that the Czech people are still alive today, but thanks to the huge intellectual work that resuscitated its written language. Whence this second observation: the Czech nation was born from its literature, through its literature, and the nation is thus necessarily tied to the destiny of its literature and of its culture.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Czech nation has been on the threshold of death. The Czechs know that they could easily have resigned themselves to disappearance inside the German nation, and that, if they do exist, it is because they have chosen to exist. And this is the third surprising point: their existence today is a choice, a project, or, to use an expression dear to Pascal, a wager.

Indeed, Czech intellectuals of the nineteenth century had the courage to ask themselves with great lucidity: would it not be better, from the point of view of humanity, to participate in the great German culture, more refined and developed, than waste intellectual strength by creating a new culture for a small nation? Would the Czech culture be able to find its specificity again? And would it be able to transmute it into an irreplaceable value?

Let us be reminded here that, at about the same time Czech literature was being reborn, Goethe expressed his well-known idea on world literature. According to him, national literatures were no longer very significant, because the time of world literature had come. This coincidence made the Czech wager more difficult, but at the same time gave it a very important dimension. This is the fourth feature without which Czech literature cannot be understood: to become a part of world literature was not only a difficult task, but also a vital need. Czech literature needed to join the community of world literature, because only in such a supranational space could it find protection and a guarantee of freedom.

Let me explain what I mean: a big nation resists only with difficulty the temptation of considering its own way of life as a supreme value and of imposing it without remorse upon the rest of the world. A small nation, on the other hand, cannot afford such ambitions. It does not dream of refashioning the world to fit its own image, but longs for a world of tolerance and diversity where it could live in equality.

The Goethean concept of world literature implies precisely this space of tolerance and diversity where a work of art does not stand for a national achievement or prestige, but only for its own value, and where the cultures of small nations can maintain their right to specificity, distinction, and originality.

During the twentieth century, this vital need for a supranational space has found its fulfillment in an almost symbolic way in two circles of Prague, without which, in any case, modern Western culture is unthinkable.

The first circle (der Prager Kreis) was that of German-speaking, Jewish writers gathered around Max Brod and Franz Kafka. Raised above the struggles between Czechs and Germans they achieved for the first time a real integration of Czech, German, and Jewish traditions of the Czech lands. In this sense, it is significant that Max Brod not only saved the work of his friend Kafka from being forgotten, but has also made known to Europe the Czech work of Jaroslav Hasek. It is equally symptomatic that the greatest Czech composer of our century, Leos Janacek, might have remained unknown but for Brod’s obstinate defense and exegesis.

The other circle was the so-called Prague Linguistic Circle, which consisted of an international constellation of German, Russian, and Polish linguists centering on Czech scientific work, and was the birthplace of structuralism. The Czech avant-garde—poets, painters, theater people—clustered around this group, giving rise to the inimitable climate of Prague modernism. While the French avant-garde could never completely abolish a cultural Franco-centrism, instinctively considering other avant-gardes as mere byproducts of the Parisian activity, Czech modernism managed to live in that precious space which Goethe called world literature.

It was this climate that enabled Czech literature to answer the fundamental question asked a century before: is it capable of enriching world literature as a whole?

In Hasek’s famous novel, while the successor to the Hapsburg throne is being murdered in Sarajevo, thus starting the First World War, Svejk is at home with Mrs. Muller and tends to his rheumatic legs. “So, they’ve killed our Ferdinand,” she says. Svejk is surprised. “Ferdinand? Really? But which one? The one who used to pick up dog turds? Or that apprentice hairdresser who once drank the hair lotion by mistake?”


This is not ignorance or stupidity speaking, it is the refusal to concede History a value, to grant it seriousness. The depth of blasphemy contained in The Good Soldier Svejk has never been fully assessed: what is to my mind the greatest comic novel of our century was written on the most cruel subject one could imagine—war.

It is not war that is grotesque in Hasek’s novel, but History, that is to say the concept which pretends to rationalize the irrational stupidity of war, pretending to give it sense. European thought formed by Hegel and by Marx conceives of History as being the embodiment of reason, seriousness par excellence. The unserious, the absurd only have a place on the edge of History, or against the background of its seriousness.

The Good Soldier Svejk brutally disrupts this order of things and asks a question: what if that rationalization which means to present the chain of events as reasonable were only a mystification? What if history were simply stupid?

At the time that Svejk was wondering whether the murdered Ferdinand was the same fellow who used to pick up dog turds, Kafka wrote in his diary: “Germany has declared war against Russia. Afternoon, swimming pool.” He undoubtedly did not experience war as a German did, conscious of belonging to a great nation engaged in the making of history, but as a Jew from Prague, who knew that neither the Jews nor the Czechs were making history, but were submitting to it.

Just as Beckett strips man to his biological essence, Kafka strips history to the bare will for power, which is ahistorical and has no content outside itself. While for Hasek the language of history sounds like babble, the Tribunal or the Castle are mute; without self-justification, without ideology, they are pure power that does not even try to explain the “why” of its existence.

About the time Kafka let his surveyor wander through the labyrinths of the Castle, Karel Capek wrote his play RUR, in which robots (those machines created by man) take over the world. The non-historical will for power suddenly appears under the features of a fantastic totalitarianism, the step forward of which has been substituted for what one thought was historical progress.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the great philosopher of small Denmark, Kierkegaard, formulated the first important answer to Hegel, by opposing to the impersonal rationality of history the irrational reality of the individual. Seventy years later, the three great novelists of another small country attacked historical rationality itself, directly and in an unforgettable way.

I have quoted Hasek, Kafka, and Capek to show very briefly that Czech culture (and the culture of the Czech territory) has joined that great discussion which is world literature, and that it began to speak about things which only it could talk about. And it talked about them not only in its novels, but also in its poetry, its painting, and its music.

I would like, moreover, to stress that all the cultures of the small Central European countries have, at the beginning of the twentieth century, become important centers for world culture, to which they have bequeathed Viennese psychoanalysis, the structuralism of Prague, the new aesthetics of the novel through the works of Kafka, Musil, and Broch, the dodecaphonia of Vienna and the music of Bartók, and, at last, the absurd theater of Witkiewicz. All these small countries have shown a dynamism typical of young nations, together with the experience of ancient nations, and have supplied a new and surprising vision of the world which, often enough, shocks through the lucidity of its relentless skepticism born of defeats and experiences painful to a degree unknown to bigger peoples.

And just when Central Europe experienced its biggest flowering, the absurd sentence of Yalta split in two this great seat of modern Western culture and allowed its major part to be incorporated into Russian civilization. Once again, history appeared to the eyes of Czechs the way it appeared to Hasek’s: as the embodiment of nonsense and stupidity.

The persecution of art in Russia resembles that in Czechoslovakia, but its historical significance is different. The terror in Russia, cruel as it is, does not threaten the existence of the Russian nation; it is but a phase in the history of a relatively young civilization, which likely has an immense future ahead of it.


On the other hand, the same persecution in Czechoslovakia aims at nothing less in the long run than the death of Czech culture, to which, as I have said at the beginning, the existence of the nation itself is inseparably bound. Russian totalitarianism’s cultural concept is absolutely incompatible with the spirit, the wager, of Czech literature.

First: The unity of the world as devised and realized by Russian totalitarianism destroys the only frame within which Czech literature can survive, the frame of world literature in the Goethean sense of the term, that is to say, this space where the different visions of the world meet, confront, and complete each other, and where the originality of work and culture is spontaneously considered as an asset and as a value.

Second: The Czech nation has always been a part of the West, of its common history, which runs from the gothic through the Reformation, and from the Reformation up to modern times. It is true that Czechs have historically had a certain sympathy for Russia as a Slavic nation. However, from the moment Russia reaffirmed itself, under Soviet rule, as a distinct civilization, grafting the Marxist ideology on the old messianic, anti-Western tradition of its past, it became incompatible with the essence of Czech culture. It tears Czech culture forcibly out of its thousand-year-old setting and attempts to incorporate it within a history which is wholly alien.

Only this radical incompatibility between the essence of Czech literature and that of Russian totalitarianism can explain this apparently paradoxical phenomenon: between 1948 and today, Czech culture has known one of the greatest moments of its history. Indeed, by an almost biological reflex, it has been able to summon up all of its strength to defend against the cultural colonization coming from the East, and has managed to create, in spite of the regime, against the regime, alongside the regime, mainly during the Sixties, considerable room for freedom which it has filled with its own creations.

The Russian invasion of 1968 put an end to the cultural emancipation of the country and has rapidly, and in full consciousness, led to the gradual strangling of Czech literature. Since then, and up to our day, contemporary Czech literature (at least that which rises above the level of pure propaganda or simple entertainment) has been banned from all the printing presses of the country, and therefore practically remains only in two forms: as typewritten literature, or printed in a foreign country.

And yet these tragic conditions have given Czech culture still greater lucidity and a still greater interior freedom. In the shadow of its own death, Czech literature lives through its great era, always true to the essential character of its destiny: it entered the European stage as a gamble, and this it still remains: can a nation, by only the strength of its own culture, resist against such concentrated political pressure? And for how long?

But today it is not only itself which is involved in this wager: is there still room for a small nation in this world of superpowers? In times when immense civilizations are starting to collide, is the Goethean concept of world literature, as a space for tolerance and diversity, anything more than an anachronistic dream, spent long ago?

But the wager of Czech literature is more general still; in the world of total politicization, does culture itself still possess independence, weight, meaning? Is the death of a literature a tragedy, or a mere episode?

This wager of Czech literature challenges more specifically the Western world as such. Does it still exist sufficiently as a cultural unity, with enough solidarity and vitality to feel the amputation of one of its members? Or is the West too, unconsciously, preparing itself for its own demise?

A hundred and fifty years ago, Czech literature took a wager which did not concern anyone but itself. Today, that wager affects the whole Western world.

This Issue

January 22, 1981