Naked Masks: Arthur Breisky or How To Be a Czech Decadent_1

Being a Czech decadent was by no means an easy thing. Among contemporaries from Vrchlický to Dyk, and in the eye of later Czech literary history, the decadence has been seen as a mere replication of foreign fashions (Macura 1990) – imitative as literature, and somewhat ludicrous as lifestyle. Accepting the common premise that “an artist and a writer has to take roots in the midst of what he lives in, and draw his strength from that” (Peroutka 1924, p. 73), one could easily ridicule Czech decadence the way Ferdinand Peroutka did it in his 1924 sociological essay Jací jsme (What we are like):

Some time ago some poets here [u nás] even made aristocratic faces, although all preconditions for it were missing in a nation which that had no aristocracy and which read stories about the aristocracy with the same feeling of distance as stories about Indians. Karel Hlaváček, the son of a worker from Libeň, wrote poems as the last, degenerate descendant of an ancient aristocratic lineage, who on the deserted castle of his forefathers waits for the complete softening of his brain. For a time, some absolutely healthy people here cultivated a sick and decadent literature in the French pattern and some happily married men followed, when writing, in the footsteps of Strindberg assuring that woman is a destroyer and a source of evil. Mostly there was about as much benefit from this as if hirsute poets made a cult of baldness. (ibid, pp. 55–56)

This seeming lack of domestic preconditions for Czech decadence could however lead also to very different conclusions. Just see Jaroslav Podroužek’s interpretation in his 1945 literary biography on Arthur Breisky:

Czech decadence is greater than any world decadence, if only because it is a social paradox. Our nation did not know an unbroken line of cultural development with an aristocratic or patrician cultural tradition or with a firm material saturation. The Czech poet is not decadent from satiation, nor is he a bored nobleman. One is a postal clerk, another a proletarian from Libeň… No Czech poet was crowned as the heir to Antiquity’s Parnassus like Petrarc, no-one experienced the dizziness of triumph and destruction like Torquato Tasso, no-one was visited by the crowned heads of Europe like Voltaire, in no-one did the educated world see a demigod like in Byron… Nor did they experience any great enmity, no pope anathematised them, no-one sought their favour, no Czech poet has been ambassador like Chateaubriand or Voltaire, or cabinet minister like Goethe, simply nothing, nothing, he has not been slandered as Antichrist like Shelley or Byron, his books have not been burned at the stake.

And from this the Czech poet’s zero heritage in the spheres of life experience, adventure, pampering, Czech decadence created a poetic psyche which has already passed through everything and is tired of it.

Therefore Czech decadence is greater than any other legitimate, generically, socially, and biologically organic decadence. (Podroužek 1946, pp. 47–48).

This paradoxical line of reasoning has undoubtedly inspired Robert B. Pynsent, who knows his Podroužek well. But while Peroutka and Podroužek agreed on the decadence’s lack of organic ties to the Czech social or cultural milieu, Pynsent gives the motif of the zero heritage a twist. For Pynsent, Czech decadence sprang from different sources than in England and France, it “arose out of hunger, rather than surfeit” (Pynsent 1973a, p. 169; see also Pynsent 1973b, pp. 517–518), but it was nevertheless deeply marked by and intimately tied to the national, social, and cultural situation in Bohemia. Pynsent goes so far as to conclude: “The Czech decadence was, perhaps, the most Decadent of all Decadences because it had a firmer psychological basis than the western European version” (Pynsent 1973a, p. 170).

Vladimír Macura picks up on Pynsent here, agreeing that for all its emphasis on stylisation, masks, gestures, and rejections of the domestic tradition, Czech decadence was “tied to a legibly authentic, almost domestically intimate experience of ruin, destruction and decay, which although projected on the general context of modern European culture is one way or another of domestic origin” (Macura 1990). This authentic experience, Macura insists, was not only rooted in the social conditions of the Czech decadents or in their reaction to the sad state of Czech cultural and national life. It sprang from the whole way modern Czech high culture was created in the nineteenth century. The Revival model of Czech culture was by necessity artificial, a simulacrum of a fully developed culture that had no social hinterland and that for decades existed outside the realm of the real, in language or texts alone, not only based on mystifications and forgeries, but in itself a mystification or a game (hra) (Macura 1983; 1998). But as Czech high culture began to take social root it had also to break with this essentially mythological model of the Czech nation and accept its historicity, whereby the Czech patriots also had to reject the past that produced this model, that is not only the “void” that preceded the Revival, but also the imitations of culture typical of the latter. Macura sees in this a “striking paradox: Czech culture eventually gets firmly on its legs with a gesture of doubting or directly disclaiming its existence” (Macura 1990). This emancipatory gesture of rejecting the past as nothing is, Macura persists, a recurring phenomenon in Czech culture, asserting itself with particular strength in visions of the fin-de-siècle: “The experience of ‘fin-de-siècle’ as a zero point, in which nothing of the existing values counts, actually allowed Czech culture – full of complexes for being undeveloped – to catch up with the world, to be its equal so to speak in nothingness, in non-being” (ibid.).

Macura thus sets up something close to a Catch 22: Czech decadence has, to be decadent, to reject anything “naturally” or “conventionally” Czech, but this gesture of negation not only inscribes it in an archetypically Czech tradition, it also puts it in the service of a project it by nature had to rebel against: the development of Czech national culture. And eventually most poets connected to the decadence succumbed to this logic or accepted this lot, as did also their most important journal, the Moderní revue (Med 1995, pp. 48–52; Pynsent 1973a, pp. 188–194). Arnošt Procházka ended up (as Viktor Dyk) in radical anti-German nationalism, Jiří Karásek followed Czech cultural developments closely, and his novel Gotická duše (A gothic soul) (1900) contains a long meditation on the lot of the Czechs (Chapters IX–XI),_2 Karel Hlaváček wrote his Sokolské sonety (Sokol sonnets) simultaneously with his work on Pozdě k ránu (In the small hours), and even his Mstivá kantiléna (Vengeful cantilena) can be read as an allegory of the Czech cultural or national situation (Pynsent 1994), etc. According to Pynsent, “[o]nly one Czech decadent divorced himself entirely from his country, was entirely European, entirely outside the tradition of Czech literature, entirely devoted to the Decadent aesthetic ideal, and this was Arthur Breisky, an epigone” (Pynsent 1973b, p. 518)._3

This brings us to the main theme of this paper: Arthur Breisky and his burdensome life as a Czech dandy. Breisky_4 was born in Roudnice nad Labem in 1885 and died in New York on July 11, 1910. From 1899 Arthur attended secondary school in Louny, where in 1902 he met Božena Dapeciová, the early and, it seems, fatal love of his life. Arthur’s student years were characterized by extensive readings of anything from Nietzsche to Baudelaire and Wilde, and a proclivity to mystifications and decadent self-stylisations (as documented in Breisky’s many letters to Božena and in the memoirs of relatives and friends). In 1903 Breisky failed at the school-leaving examination (the maturita), allegedly because he refused to use the Emperor’s full title (Podroužek 1945, p. 25), and in 1904 – parallel with his break with Božena – he got a job as a minor customs official in Teplice and from 1907 in Děčín. In May 1910 Breisky fled from his accumulated debt problems to the USA, where soon after he was killed in a lift accident.

Breisky began publishing in 1905, writing book reviews, essays on contemporary English, French, and German literature (he spoke all three languages), and prefaces to his own translations of authors like Albert Samain, James Huneker, Arthur Symons, or R. L. Stevenson, published by Breisky’s close friend K. H. Hilar in his Moderní bibliotéka series. Breisky’s only book, Triumf zla (The triumph of evil), a collection of seven imaginary portraits also appeared here in February 1910. From 1908 Breisky contributed to Moderní revue, which in 1909 published two central essays of his, Quintessence dandysmu (The quintessence of dandyism), and Harlekýn – Kosmický clown (Harlequin – a cosmic clown). His small oeuvre includes also two short stories and a lost play, of which more will be said later.

A constitutive trait in decadence is its emphasis on style, on masks and poses, on artificiality as a precondition for genuine art, and – very central in the Czech context – on mystifications. This is true for social roles, Jiří Karásek equipping himself with the fake noble ze Lvovic, as well as for gender roles, as expressed with sublime sophistication in Karásek’s recently published letters to Eduard Klas._5 And finally mystifications or a systematic play on “frustrated allusions” (James L. Kugel’s term, see Pynsent 1994, p. 7) are integrally woven into decadent texts themselves. Again, Hlaváček’s Mstivá kantiléna may serve as a literary example, while Arthur Breisky’s life and writing can be said to represent the most radical Czech attempt to realize these principles in one coherent semantic gesture.

Breisky’s home in Northern Bohemia enabled him to turn his life into the mystification he coveted. When at week-ends he travelled to Prague, he left the customs official in the train and stepped into the coach “like an English dandy or a blasé Frenchman” (z Lešehradu 1935, p. 83). Emanuel z Lešehradu describes his appearance like this: “Breiský gave half the impression of a boxer, half of a shop assistant or a Jewish sales representative in groceries. His face had a prim expression, his eyes ironic, a contemptuous smile and with his English haircut and casual attitude and behaviour he wanted to assume the interesting pose of a dandy” (ibid, p. 82). Breisky dressed and dined far above his standing, but as Pynsent remarks, “for some reason no one seems to have regarded him as ridiculous” (Pynsent 1973b, p. 519), his friends obviously respecting the rules of Breisky’s game. Podroužek describes hilariously how Breisky at his first (it seems, only) meeting with Karásek tried to outdo the latter in aristocratic self-stylisation. Having invited himself with a letter written in French, Breisky pretended to be shocked when hearing that a ze Lvovic had to work at a post office (Podroužek 1945, pp. 66–67).

Living in Teplice or Děčín not only facilitated the appropriation of the dandy mask, it also allowed Breisky to escape the confines of Prague centred national culture. Just as often, his weekend trips went to nearby Dresden, where it seems he also lived a dandy’s life. To stress his own cosmopolitanism Breisky deliberately abstained from writing – or more precisely publishing – anything on Czech literature. As Luboš Merhaut observes, “The gesture of overlooking the domestic context of authors and readers became a significant part of his mystifying stylisation” (Merhaut 1994, p. 155),_6 and in this sense Breisky drove the deconstruction of the closed national cultural geography initiated by the 1890s generation (David-Fox 2000) to the extreme.

Breisky presented his aesthetic programme very coherently in his essays and literary criticism. His approach is strictly anti-naturalist: art is higher than life, and far more important. An artist’s task is to fashion – with a wholly rational approach to the creative process – a work of pure aesthetic beauty, beyond any mimetic or moral norms, and in so doing the artist (poet) has absolute freedom to use elements of exaggeration, absurdity, pose, paradox, mystification. The juxtaposition life – art is at times very sharp, and many of his portraits of his favourite authors (Samain, Rebell etc.) stress how these fled from the dullness and profanity of the everyday into the far more beautiful world of the artificial and fictional, a world which is then portrayed as more sublimely truthful than mere reality, as in the final words of his essay on Balzac: “But isn’t it necessary to believe a beautiful mask more than reality?” (Breisky 1996, p. 77). All this corresponds well with the decadent-symbolist code of the Czech 1890s also, to which Breisky thus contributes more with pointed wording than with new aesthetic doctrines.

One can of course read Breisky’s cultic adoration of literature and fiction autobiographically, as a defence of his flight from his own trivial life. There is, however, more to Breisky than mere escapism or despair. In his essay of 1909, dedicated to Karásek, Kvintesence dandysmu, Breisky does present the dandy as “an enemy of the whole world. He protects himself before its unclean touch with the games of veils [závojové hry] of his mystifications”, but the lack of respect or love for life does not lead the dandy to withdraw from the human comedy, only to play a very special role in it. So the dandy performs for himself, he is a perfect individualist, and egoist, and in complete control of his emotions and passions. Dandies are never natural; they are “artists of mystification… They never allow anyone to see inside their souls. If they speak about themselves, they never say the truth.” Nature, life, fate will always defeat those to dare to try to escape their dictate, but until it happens – and the dandy is capable of suffering and dying with a smile on his lips – the dandy is “the knight of the present day”, turning his life into a “triumph of the artificial” (quotations from Breisky 1996, pp. 128–136; some translations from Pynsent 1989, p. 175).

In this reading Breisky stresses not only the tragedy or futility of the dandy’s striving, but also the playfulness of dandyism and decadence, as also emphasised elsewhere in Breisky’s essays: not mask vs. reality, but masks in the plural, games of veils, a play with style: “Style is after all everything in art, only though style does literature become art. The closer a literary work is to its artistic ideal, the better is manages to cover the old, well-known skeleton of a thought in unknown costumes of new colours and perfumes” (Breisky 1996, p. 34). Breisky is full of praise of aesthetic eclecticism (admiring this quality in Wilde), as he is of borrowings and sampling from other works. In 1907 he quotes Wilde’s dictum: “In a very ugly and sensible age, the arts borrow, not from life, but from each other” (ibid, p. 49), and in a 1909 comment on the many borrowings in Stevenson’s work he notes how irrelevant it is where the author finds his inspiration, if only he is capable of shaping these impulses according to his own artistic intentions (ibid, p. 111). In consequence of this viewpoint Breisky abolishes any strict hierarchy of genres. An essay or a piece of literary criticism may be just as valuable as prose or poetry, if only it lives up to the requirements of subjectivity and style. Pynsent’s calling Breisky an epigone thus loses some of its punch in the light of Breisky’s own artistic ideal, and as Jiří Pelán writes, “it is dubious how at all to work with the concepts of original and derived in [Breisky’s] case” (Pelán 2001, 248).

And now finally to Breisky’s own mystifications. In 1909 a volume of stories by R. L. Stevenson, The Suicides’ Club, was published in Breisky’s translation and with his own preface. The collection included two small short stories, praised by one critic (Breisky’s old enemy from secondary school, Jindřich Vodák!) as the highlights of the book. The texts were written by Breisky himself, and only this praise made him confess to the authorship in a narrow circle of friends (Krecar 1919, p. 130)_7 Breisky multiplied the mystifying gestures further in the construction of both texts: the first one, Báseň v próze (Na okraj Ropsovy Mors syphilitica) (Poem in prose [In the margin of Rops’s Mors syphilitica]) was equipped with the following translator’s note “This Stevenson miniature was discovered posthumously in an album of Rops’s drawings, which was in his possession, written with a pencil with small letters on the backside of the drawing Mors syphilitica” (Breisky 1997b, p. 110). The story itself, a young syphilitic meeting the knight of death who offers to heal him if he will forever stop loving, turns out in the end to be only a dream, after which the young man dresses up and puts on a perfect make-up returning to his face its old seductiveness, after which he commits suicide.

And even the second text, Zpověď grafomanova (The confession of a graphomaniac), a first person narrative of incest and betrayal, ends first with the narrator confessing that nobody believed his story until he published it in a book praised by Walter Pater and Swinburne, after which he was locked up in an asylum (his last remark being “How happy I am to be through with these brutal facts!”), and then with a pseudo-documentary postscript in which the author, “Stevenson”, tells us that this was a confession by Richard Hudson, an English poet ignored at his time (which was more occupied with the process against Wilde!), a dandy who committed suicide, hanging himself while covering his face in a silk veil so that no-one should see it ugly. “[Hudson] mystifies, if he tells that he has ever published a book” the author-narrator assures us, since he himself had found the cited manuscript (written in French, and faithfully translated by the author-narrator!) on Hudson’s writing desk in the evening after his suicide (Breisky 1997b, pp. 118–128). Both stories thus make up a whole Chinese puzzle of fictions within fictions, an illusionist’s game with veils.

Similar techniques are used in Breisky’s Triumf zla, a collection of seven imaginary portraits (a genre cultivated by Walter Pater, Marcel Schwob and others) of what appears as Breisky’s spiritual ancestors from Nero and Tiberius to Baudelaire and Wilde. In terms of genre, the seven texts are a mixture of essay, fiction, biography and literary criticism, playing with, but utterly disloyal to historical facts. In his preface to the volume, stylised as a letter to the author, Karásek praised the choice of method: “It is of course necessary that an artist, when thus approaching these characters from the past, should have a certain courage for artistic mystification and the knowledge that he can never lie enough to reach the truth, his truth, for which he is longing.” (Karásek 1927, p. 135). When Merhaut sums up the common theme of the book as the “tragic encounters of hedonists with their mundane surroundings”, and describes its basic model as “an irreplaceable and supreme conflict within the individual between the will to allembracing creativity and a banal life culminating in the acceptance of the mask and unstoppably heading towards the tragic end” (Merhaut 1994, p. 164) he is only partly correct, as he overlooks the playfulness expressed in and with several of the essays.

Mystifying gestures abound at several levels, and often very carefully displayed. Renesanční hostina (A renaissance feast) evokes the hedonistic atmosphere of 16th century Florence by means of a fictive letter from a certain Luigi del Riccio to a friend;_8 the essay called Poslední stránky z deníku lorda Byrona (The last pages of the diary of Lord Byron) opens with an author’s note explaining that the following is all fiction, an apocryphal autobiography, but based on studies of Byron so careful that the probability that he would have written the following is high; Baudelaire, demaskovaný (Baudelaire, unmasked), is a reflection on the justification (or lack thereof) of publishing his correspondence, an act labelled both “a cruel blasphemy against the artist mask of the author” and an interesting light on the mysteries of the artist and his life (Breisky 1997b, p. 81; in this essay Breisky does use the art – life dichotomy in a rather static way, operating with a public mask and an altogether different person beneath). The final essay of the collection, simply called Oscar Wilde, is full of wit, elegance, puns and jokes, echoing the voice of its subject. The plot is that a certain Harry Good in the Vatican Galleries meets Oscar Wilde, several years after his alleged death in 1900. This death, we learn, was a mystification, and Wilde now lives happily in Rome under the name Giulio Romano. “I knew when I had to die to become immortal”, Wilde explains (ibid, p. 92), continuing with a review of the obituaries and books on him, published after his death. If Wilde has learned anything since the days of his public life, then first of all that “a modern dandy plays his role ŕ part ” (ibid, p. 101), and if Wilde sums up in a sombre tone that “life is a drama, whose author is a bungler” (ibid, p. 106), he immediately returns to his own hedonistic aestheticism, his – and the essay’s – last sentence being “I never forget beautiful things” (ibid, p. 107).

This essay was soon to be read as a hidden message as Breisky disappeared in May 1910 and then in July was reported dead in New York. The circumstances of his death – he died in a lift accident, his head allegedly crushed beyond recognition – invited speculations that he had found a corpse in the hospital and seized the opportunity to start afresh. This perception was reinforced by the inaccuracies in the reporting of what had happened, the deceased being described in Hlas národa as a “26 year old Israelite” (Lešehrad 1935, p. 86; see also Marks 1996, p. 140 for a slightly different account), much to the confusion of the family as Arthur was neither Jewish, nor circumcised (Breisky 1997a, p. 314). Tales that Breisky had been seen in Africa, in America, etc. etc. kept reoccurring even in the 1920s and 1930s (Lešehrad 1935, pp. 86–87), and in 1964 Ivan Růžička in Kulturní tvorba presented the rather fantastic theory that Breisky had “reincarnated” as the author B. Traven, a mysterious character living in Latin America and writing in German, as B. Traven read backwards was to stand for NEW ART(hur) B(reisky) (Růžička 1964, p. 16)! The theory was immediately rejected,_9 but it confirms Vojtěch’s verdict that “the ironic mask of self-stylisation, which Breisky systematically built as a critical position or tool, together with the unexplained features accompanying his death, founded the story of Breisky which continues also until [today]” (Vojtěch 1999, p. 603).

We suggested with Pynsent that Breisky was the Czech decadent most emphatically devoted to the Decadent aesthetic ideal, and that this had to cause problems in an environment so fundamentally foreign to these principles. Jan Herben dismissed Breisky in 1911 as “artistically an utterly confused mind [hlava] and morally just a reflection of his art” (Herben 1911, p.14), whereas his friends inevitably were more sympathetic. Hilar praised him for the “enviable unity of his life. It was a mystification” and calls him “a clown for whom life was just a changing room for costumes” (Hilar 1925, p. 188, p. 190). Krecar agrees that Breisky “lived his most interesting essay-short story” (Krecar 1919, p. 130), and z Lešehradu too – who more than the others stresses the impossibility and slight ridiculousness of Breisky’s pose – notices that Breisky only once in his life lost his mask (a motif also present in Hilar 1925, p. 188), when he was going bankrupt and could find no way out: “Then Breiský was scared by the naked, grimacing, cruel mask of reality” (z Lešehradu, 1935, p. 85), and was forced to leave the country.

This note of hopelessness was emphasised after Breisky’s death. An unnamed friend wrote to Krecar: “Yes, he was a talent, perhaps too much so, and he felt anxious within the tight walls of our life’s Asia” (cited from Podroužek 1945, p. 121), and later critics have also focussed on this claustrophobic aspect of living in Bohemia. Jirát stresses how the pressure towards (petty-)bourgeois conformity was particularly strong in Bohemia, allowing only for imagined adventures, and he claims that Breisky was and remained a writer (“literát”) only, incapable of becoming the dandy he dreamt of being (Jirát 1945, pp. 137–138, p. 128), while Pynsent comes close to contradicting his own statement about Breisky’s emancipation from the domestic context when concluding that “Breisky was, unwillingly but aggressively, a Czech, a member of a decayed part of the great decay” (Pynsent 1973b, p. 522). Implicitly, this statement also inverts our opening image of decadent artificiality in a very non-decadent Czech environment: if the whole Czech situation was in decay, the Decadents became its truest, most authentic interpreters!

Looking at Arthur Breisky’s literary afterlife, two conclusions offer themselves: one is that it is easier to be a Czech decadent, the longer you are dead – the interest in and positive appraisal of Breisky’s work has been growing rapidly in recent decades_10 – and the other is that Breisky’s oeuvre has invited a telling amount of different readings with regard to its place in literary history. The standard interpretation is to see him as “the conclusion, the winding-up of the Decadence” (Pynsent 1973b, p. 522), or as a phenomenon bordering on anachronism in the European cultural context of 1910 (Jirát 1945, p. 127, see also p. 139)._11 But in 1925, Breisky’s friend Hilar insisted in an updated version of his obituary from Moderní revue that Breisky with his life instinct was a “predecessor of Appolinaire, Cocteau, Marinetti, Ehrenburg and Morand, burning with the hunger to see overseas cities, the faces of other races, oceans of an unknown industry, mechanisms, waterfalls, the noise of railways, bars, grillrooms, wagon-lits, dancing, new intoxications, narcotics, cigarettes and prostitutes” (Hilar 1925, p. 185–186), i.e. essentially as a forerunner of the 1920s avantgarde. Also Merhaut sees in Breisky more than the final cry of Czech decadence, at one point placing Breisky’s mystifying stylisation between late decadence and the bohème role (bohémství) and later claiming that Breisky’s project crossed the confines of decadence, moving in the direction of expressionism (Merhaut 1994, p. 159 and p. 168)._12 Bednaříková sees similarities between Breisky and Ladislav Klíma (Bednaříková 2000, pp. 74–77, p. 106), and finally Pelán argues that Breisky’s programmatic aesthetic eclecticism and his use of travesty or even “prefabricated elements” from other artists point in the direction of post-modernism (Pelán 2001, p. 252).

The present Breisky vogue seems to support a reading like Pelán’s that emphasises the contemporary appeal in the slightly subverted play with the decadent codes in Breisky’s work, allowing us to see also the humour in it, and not just an elegantly masked existential tragedy. If one is finally to place Breisky’s mystifications (and more generally the mystifications of Czech decadence) in a broader national- cultural framework one may return again to Macura and his characterization of the function of mystifications in the Czech revival. The strong presence there of elements of playfulness, the unclear borders between serious and non-serious, between real and fictional, between mystification and fact, were given by a context in which Czech national high culture had to appear as a contradiction in terms, a phenomenon possible only in the realm of imagination. By contrast the decadents wrote at a time when all culture had been “nationalized”, leaving Czech art – from the decadent point of view – in a position where it was too national to be culture. Hence seemingly individual acts of mystification like the ones of Breisky attain also a national dimension: they created a room, even if again in the realm of the fictional only, where art could be truly free from the burdens of nationality, truly cosmopolitan, and hence true art._13


P. Bugge’s study was originally published in the third issue of Slovo a smysl 2005, No. 3 (pp. 135–148). Due to an editorial misunderstanding, the author was not given the opportunity to check the proofs before the text went to print and the article therefore appeared in an unfinished version. For this reason we are republishing Bugge’s article, this time in definitive form, with our sincere apologies to the author. The Editors

In his memoirs, written in 1931–32, Karásek tries to counter the critique of Moderní revue and the movement it represented as an artificial import from abroad, and as isolated from contemporary Czech social and political life (Karásek 1994, p. 48, pp. 128–129).

In a later essay Pynsent strongly emphasises the impossibility of Breisky’s project, labelling him a freak (Pynsent 1989, p. 173).

The trouble with Breisky starts with his name. Breisky himself used the conventional ending on a long vowel (ý) in letters etc. until 1907, while in a letter to Procházka of May 1908 he wrote: “If I write my name without the length mark [čárka], it is not for aesthetic reasons or to deny my Czechhood, but according to my birth certificate” (quoted from Merhaut 1994, p. 152, note 1). The birth register has, however, Breiský (see Merhaut’s preface to Breisky 1997a, p. 8), so we cannot tell what is fact and what is self-stylisation. The spelling has varied a great deal in later texts (even the form Brejský can be found), as has the spelling of his first name (with or without the “h”).

Eduard Klas was the pen name of the writer Vladimíra Jedličková. When Jedličková early in their correspondence revealed her identity and hence her gender, Karásek insisted upon upholding the fiction of Klas as a man. Karásek therefore used the masculine in all addresses to Klas/Jedličková, arguing that first he could talk more intimately and openly to a man, especially to a fictive one (!), and secondly that “if Eduard Klas is not a man, then nor am I. At least I am not in the direction in which the world understands ‘masculinity’, and if you said about me that I ‘don’t love women’, I ask you to understand it so that I don’t love them the way men love them. But a suffering human being, whoever it is, is my brother.” (Karásek 2001, p. 13)

An inventory of the books in Breisky’s library and numerous comments in his private correspondence (collected in Breisky 1997a) reveal that Breisky followed contemporary Czech literature very closely. Pynsent claims that Breisky “despised Czech as a minor language” (Pynsent 1973b, 519), but offers no evidence in support of this theory, which seems dubious. The closest one gets to a standpoint from Breisky on the inferior position of the Czech language in a European context is a small caustic comment from 1909 on Stefan Zweig’s generally positive review of a German translation of a collection of poetry by Otokar Březina. Breisky’s sarcasm is, however, directed toward the German (!) Zweig’s surprise that such a small nation with such an unknown language (“The tragic prison of the language!” quotes Breisky from Zweig) can produce such a great poet, rather than against the Czech language itself (Breisky 1996, 104–105).

According to Krecar, Breisky only added the two stories when asked to find new material to supplement a weak collection. The mystification survived the author’s death – in 1920 the Stevenson volume was published again in the same shape, but now without the translator’s name! (Merhaut 1994, p. 165).

Merhaut (1994, p. 163) sees only forebodings of doom in this essay and does not notice the jocular tone in which the author of the letter that constitutes the essay with decadent irony mocks the moralizing warnings that for a moment were allowed to scare the hedonists of the portrayed renaissance party. Even the title of the book may be interpreted as ironic or as a mystification (Kudrnáč 1992, p. 10), the evil triumphant in these essays and evocations (the subtitle of the book) being not the seeming evil committed by several of Breisky’s heroes, but fate, the unbearable and oppressive pettiness of the everyday world surrounding these heroes, whose identity or genius conversely in much are conditioned by this evil.

See for instance the contributions by Prokop H. Toman and Ladislav Loubal in Kulturní tvorba Vol. 2, No. 8, p. 10 (February 20, 1964), and an unsigned article in the same journal of April 16, 1964 offering a summary of a Spanish article on who was really hiding behind the pseudonym B. Traven.

See also Marks 1996, pp. 138–140 for a discussion on the various theories on Breisky and Traven. This was not the only mystifying incident related to Breisky. In 1908 he had written a drama Zločin Viktora Klase (The crime of Viktor Klas) for a competition organized by the Vinohradské divadlo. The play was not accepted, and the manuscript disappeared, only to cause a scandal in the mid 1930s when Breisky’s old friend Hilar, now director at the National Theatre, announced the staging of a new play. Hilar was accused of having stolen Breisky’s missing text, the play was withdrawn from production, and even this manuscript has disappeared. Finally, Podroužek’s 1945 book on Breisky can best be described as an “imaginary biography” (Jirát 1945, p. 125), fully in the tradition of Breisky’s own imaginary portraits. In short, we cannot tell what is fact and what is fiction in Podroužek, as Václav Černý complained in his otherwise favourable review of the book (Černý 1946, p. 126).

Breisky does not appear in Arne Novak’s history of Czech literature from the 1930s (English translation 1976), and is mentioned only once in passing in Dějiny české literatury IV (on p. 30; the volume was completed in 1969, but could be published only in 1995). Pynsent’s 1973 article seems to be the first contribution to the Breisky revival to which the numerous articles and publications quoted in this paper testify. Walter Schamschula brings a thorough discussion of Breisky’s work in his Geschichte der tschechischen Literatur – Von der Romantik bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg (1996, pp. 452–454). See also Vojtěch 2004 for a general discussion of developments in the study of the Czech fin-de-siècle since the 1960s.

Pelán agrees with Jirát that the anti-natural aesthetics of the dandy was rapidly becoming antiquated in the early years of the 20th century, and he even suggests that Breisky’s escape to New York may have been motivated also by a recognition of the limits of his cultural vision (Pelán 2001, p. 244; but see also Pelán’s conclusion quoted below, which stresses the forward-pointing elements in Breisky’s aesthetics).

Vojtěch points out that Merhaut has a double reading of Breisky, at times stressing the dualist nature and at times the unity of Breisky’s personality, and sees it as proof of the unsettling character of his work (Vojtěch 1999, p. 605–606).

This interpretation modifies Ute Raßloff’s theory that there has been an oscillation in Czech literary and cultural history between periods of “serious” and periods of “non-serious” mystifications or creations of myths, in which culture in the Czech national revival and in the Stalin era represents periods of seriousness, and the various persiflage and parodies connected with the modern break-through around 1900, and the various late 20th century post-modernist games represent period of non-seriousness (Raßloff 1999, pp. 188–191). A thorough discussion of mystification as a broader literary phenomenon can be found in Merhaut 1994, pp. 133–138.


Bednaříková, Hana: Česká dekadence. CDK, Brno 2000.

Breisky, Arthur: Střepy zrcadel. Eseje a kritiky (Spisy AB, Svazek 2). Thyrsus, Praha 1996.

Breisky, Arthur: V království chimer. Korespondence a rukopisy z let 1902–1910 (Spisy AB, Svazek 1). Thyrsus, Praha 1997a.

Breisky, Arthur: Triumf zla. Dvě novely (Spisy AB, Svazek 3). Thyrsus, Praha 1997b.

Černý, Václav: (Review of) Jaroslav Podroužek: Fragment zastřeného osudu [Arthur Breiský], Kritický měsíčník, vol. 7, 1946, pp. 126–29.

David-Fox, Katherine: Prague–Vienna, Prague–Berlin: The Hidden Geography of Czech Modernism, Slavic Review, vol. 59, no. 4, 2000, pp. 735–760.

Herben, Jan: Drobnosti, Besedy Času, vol. 16, no. 2, 13 January 1911, p. 14.
Hilar, K. H.: Artur Breiský, In: K. H. Hilar: Odložené masky 1907–1920. Aventinum, Praha 1925, pp. 185–190.

Jirát, Vojtěch: Doslov k životopisu, In: Podroužek (1945), pp. 125–139.

Karásek ze Lvovic, Jiří: Artur Breisky, In: Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic: Tvůrcové a epigoni. Kritické studie. Aventinum, Praha 1927, pp. 134–136.

Karásek ze Lvovic, Jiří: Vzpomínky. Thyrsus, Praha 1994.

Karásek ze Lvovic, Jiří: Milý příteli… (Listy Edvardu Klasovi ). Thyrsus, Praha 2001.

Krecar, Jarmil: Podvržená kniha, In: Knihomil – o knihách, lidech a událostech, vol. 2, Ludvík Bradač, Královské Vinohrady 1919, pp. 129–131.

Kudrnáč, Jiří: Předmluva, In: Arthur Breisky: Triumf zla, ROAD, Praha 1992, pp. 7–12

z Lešehradu, Emanuel: Artur Breiský, In: Emanuel z Lešehradu: Básnické životy. Studie a vzpomínky. Nakladatelství Al. Srdce, Praha 1935, pp. 79–89.

Macura, Vladimír: Znamení zrodu. H&H, Jinočany 1983; 1995 edn.

Macura, Vladimír: Fin de siècle jako české trauma. Literární noviny 1990, no. 11, p. 5.

Macura, Vladimír: Problems and Paradoxes of the Czech National Revival, In: Mikuláš Teich (Ed.): Bohemia in History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1998, pp. 182–197.

Marks, Luděk: Dandy ze severu. Host no. 5, 1996, pp. 135–143 (originally In: Vokno no. 13, 1987).

Med, Jaroslav: K ideovému profilu Moderní revue, In: Otto M. Urban and Luboš Merhaut (eds.): Moderní Revue 1894–1925. Torst, Praha 1995, pp. 45–52.

Merhaut, Luboš: Breiského životy, masky a zpovědi. In: Luboš Merhaut: Cesty stylizace, Ústav pro českou literaturu AV ČR, Praha 1994, pp. 152–169.

Mukařovský, Jan–Pešat, Zdeněk–Strohsová, Eva (eds.): Dějiny české literatury IV. Victoria Publishing, Praha 1995.

Novák, Arne: Czech Literature. Michigan Slavic Publications, Ann Arbor 1976.

Pelán, Jiří: Dandyovská estetika Arthura Breiského. Česká literatura, Vol. 49, no. 3, 2001, pp. 243–253.

Peroutka, František: Jací jsme. Obelisk, Praha 1924.

Podroužek, Jaroslav: Fragment zastřeného osudu [Arthur Breiský ]. ELK, Praha 1945.

Pynsent, Robert B.: Julius Zeyer: The Path to Decadence. Mouton, The Hague–Paris 1973a.

Pynsent, Robert B.: A Czech Dandy: An Introduction to Arthur Breisky. The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 51, 1973b, pp. 517–523.

Pynsent, Robert B.: Conclusory Essay: Decadence, Decay and Innovation, In: Robert B. Pynsent (Ed.): Decadence and Innovation: Austro-Hungarian Life and Art at the Turn of the Century. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1989, pp. 111–248.

Pynsent, Robert B.: Desire, Frustration and Some Fulfilment: A Commentary to Karel Hlaváček’s Mstivá kantiléna, The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 72, 1994, pp. 1–37.

Raßloff, Ute: Mystifikationen als kulturelle Praktik – der Fall Jarmil Křemen. Anzeiger für Slavische Philologie (XXVIII–XXIX), Sondernummer zur 3. JFSL-Tagung, Salzburg 1999, pp. 173–193.

Růžička, Ivan: Traven demaskovaný. Kulturní tvorba, vol. 2, no. 4, 23 January 1964, p. 16.

Schamschula, Walter: Geschichte der tschechischen Literatur II. Von der Romantik bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg. Böhlau, Köln 1996.

Vojtěch, Daniel: Život je dramatem, jehož autorem je břídil. Česká literatura, Vol. 47, no. 6, 1999, pp. 597–607.

Vojtěch, Daniel: The Short Century: the Fin de Siècle in Contemporary Czech Literary Studies, Slovo a smysl/Word & Sense, vol. 1, no. 1, 2004, pp. 244–262.