Peace: The View from Prague

Some time ago, two appealing young Italian women arrived in Prague with a women’s proclamation calling for everything good: respect for human rights, disarmament, demilitarization of children’s education, and respect for all human beings. They were collecting signatures from both parts of our divided Europe. I found them touching: they could have easily been cruising the Mediterranean on the yachts of wealthy husbands (they could surely have found some)—and here they were, rattling around Europe to make the world better. I felt sorry for them because virtually none of the better-known Prague women dissidents wanted to sign. (Understandably, the two did not even try to approach nondissidents.)

The reason was not that Prague women dissidents would disagree with the content of the declaration. Without conferring in any way about it, they all, individually, refused for a different reason: it seemed to them ridiculous that they should sign something “as women.” Gentlemen, with nothing to sign, treated this feminine action with a gallant attentiveness and a quiet smile. Among the ladies, the prevalent mood was one of vigorous distaste, a distaste all the more vigorous since they were not absolved from deciding whether to sign or not and felt no need to be gallant. (Incidentally, in the end about five of them did sign.)

I wondered what aroused this sudden spontaneous distaste among my women friends for associating on the basis of gender. It surprised me.

Only some time later did I come up with an explanation. One of the traditions of the Central European climate is, after all, an intensified sense of irony and self-irony, together with humor and black humor, and, perhaps most important in this context, an intensified fear of exaggerating our own dignity to an unintentionally comic stage, a fear of pathos and sentimentality, of overstatement, and of what Kundera calls the lyric relation to the world. Yes, my friends were suddenly seized with the fear that, as participants in an international women’s venture, they would make themselves ridiculous. It was the fear that they would become “dada,” to borrow a term used by the Czech theoretician of art, Karel Teige; that, unwittingly, they will become funny in the earnestness with which they seek to reinforce their civic opinion by stressing their helpless feminine condition.

Apparently they were seized by a sudden remembrance of how repulsive it was when the vice-president of Czechoslovak television, Mrs. Balás, again and again in her televised talks larded the official “peace” theses with predictable references to women and children, full of fake sentimentality. My women friends among the dissidents undoubtedly know a great deal about the sad position of women in our country. In spite of that they find objectionable even the faint suggestion of feminism in the fact that the declaration in question was strictly a women’s affair. I do not mean to disparage feminism; I know little about it and certainly do not believe it is an invention of a few hysterics, bored housewives, or rejected mistresses. Still, I…

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