The history of the Czech Republic is marked by the stains of the ‘Human Condition’, and the significance of both the history and the phrase have influenced Czech poet Vítezslav Nezval’s collection of poems, Woman in the Plural, first written during the inter-war years and recently translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novicka in this new edition.
As a nation, Czechoslovakia rose from the ashes of the Russian revolution, when the Tsar and his family were sacrificed in 1918 on the altar of Marxist ideology. Ideology is contagious, and when it chimes with a need for change it becomes a driving force. After the First World War, when the old Austro-Hungarian empire finally crumbled beneath the weight of the region’s collective war-mongering, the Czech and Slovak peoples, who had been ruled for over three hundred years by powerful Habsburg princes, yearned for change. But as they say, be careful what you wish for. The inter-war years went by fast. In 1939 Hitler may have shared the empire building aspirations of the old empiricists but his approach was far more sinister. When Nazi Germany was finally overcome, the Russians also invaded Czechoslovakia and communism became a reality instead of just a dream. Poet and playwright Viteslav Nezval died ten years before the Prague Spring of 1968, but in 1936 his poetry still bathed in the vision of a classless society, of the kind that Karl Marx advocated.
Nezval was a leading surrealist poet, who aligned himself with the ideas of the French surrealist movement, the disciples of Dadaism – an artistic movement that printed its own licence to write, paint and draw exactly what it liked, while flying like a suicidal pilot in the face of rationality. Surrealism is a little like jazz; it dismantles accepted standards of beauty and replaces them with deliberate disharmony. In the visual arts this disharmony appears to us as hidden themes, disunity and danger. At times it shocks us. In poetry the medium of words can make metaphor, the grand trope of poetry, seem obscure to the point of no longer making sense. The connection between metaphor and dreams was widely explored by Karl Jung, but in this collection Nezval gives his dreams a female form, while the metaphors become increasingly disjointed – the substance of a dream.
‘The thrushes of their tanned shoulders drive summer
out of every mousehole
They lie like soaked bedsheets
And their fingers read the alphabet of the blind in the grass’
‘When I feel I am most faithful to you
I deceive you most
You deceive me most
You who would like to buy up the world
You most delicate you most faithful’
You really get a sense of Nezval’s love for women, and it is beautiful. It does not deify women or idealise them. Women appear as the stuff of dreams and fantasy but a fantasy that is edgy and highly experimental, even by today’s standards. These women come in ‘countless variations’, sometimes sweet but frequently antagonistic; they are feminists in a man’s world hastening in modernity ‘like the cocking of a rifle’s hammer’.
Czechoslovakia was eventually torn apart by communism, but Nezval didn’t seem to see it coming. Marx also wrote about women. He perceived their suffering as integral to the suffering of everyone. For him, the Human Condition had to be politicised. Misery, goes the dream, could be banished by a classless society, one in which every single citizen had his or her place (since both should live as equals). The only trouble was that the Human Condition is not a politically solvable problem; it is the problem of the nature of humankind, and our intrinsic ability to be simultaneously good and evil, to be just and horrendously unfair. Arguably, Marx didn’t see this, although perhaps Nezval perceived it in his dreams, when he wrote, ‘(…) her footsteps draw near I can already hear them/They startle the pigeons of countless Venices (…) O coffined streets/I sense her approaching like we sense the approach of our death’. He seems to get the drift.
Any Cop?: Reading while sober is not recommended.