Ladislav Klíma and the Klímaesque in the Czech Underground

But I slipped into a sewer and triumphantly swam away among the excrement, – and then suddenly everything vanished.
How it Will Be After Death – Ladislav Klíma_1

Over forty years after his death, Ladislav Klíma’s works, concepts and philosophies became, once again, a major contributor to the progressive literary production of the Czech lands. The environment in which these works, concepts and philosophies were revived, that is, Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule, and undergoing the process of aggressive “Normalization,” gave them new significance. To those of this time who stubbornly strove onward to create forward thinking, and freely conceived art in a regime that forbade it, and refused, despite the gravity of its possible reprisals, to be “Normalized,” this significance certainly did not go unnoticed. This collective came to be known as the Czech Underground or “Second Culture,” and among its major protagonists was the rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, who in 1973 and in a later creative outing in 1979, called upon Klíma’s services to express the Underground’s cause._2

On these two occasions, The Plastic People performed pieces adapted chiefly from Klíma’s short story How it Will Be After Death, these were adapted lyrically by the Plastics’ saxophonist, Vratislav Brabanec and conveyed musically under the direction of bassist and founder member, Milan Hlavsa._3

For the purposes of this essay, I have employed a term ‘Klímaesque’ as a part of the title in order that I am able to separate Klíma’s observations from Klíma himself. The major tropes of Klíma’s philosophy of significance here – which I shall shortly elaborate upon – are to be found in other persons who have influenced the Czech Underground, and who I would, therefore, also like to discuss in this essay. However, mainly due to the absence of translated works of Klíma in their respective times of activity, it is quite safe to assert that certain of these important influential figures could not have been exposed to Klíma’s works directly._4 I hope to demonstrate, however that there is something that we can identify as ‘Klímaesque’ – that is, concordant with Klíma’s ideas whilst not necessarily directly informed by them – present in the work of these persons, who are also important progenitors of the character of the Underground. It is the Underground, then, and particularly The Plastic People of the Universe, as opposed to Klíma himself, which is the common denominator of this essay.

In order to proceed, a summary of Klíma’s relevant philosophies and an analysis of these philosophies at work in his story, How it Will Be After Death are necessary.

The pivotal axis of Klíma’s philosophy is the assertion that pure subjectivity is in fact the only certainty._5 A sovereign existence is achieved through the recognition, therefore that one’s own will is the only subject of any agency at all, in all of existence. The logical symptom of this assertion is that ‘the world’ is in actuality a very different entity from that which it is traditionally perceived to be. Instead of being absolute and inflexible, and that which ultimately subjugates its inhabitants, the roles are reversed. The world is in fact ‘absurd’ and a void upon which, as Zumr puts it, “a sovereign individual will imprint meaning.”_6 Klíma describes his simple, ultimate synopsis of ‘the world’ as Ludibrionism: that “the world is an absolute toy of my absolute will… the world is what, at any moment, I wish to have of it.”_7

The reduction of the role of the world to absurd and inconsequential, and the promotion of the human will to a potentially sovereign one is what opens the door to the chief Klímaesque concepts. Firstly of ‘the game,’ and secondly of the possibility of transcending your surroundings, however oppressive. Josef Zumr puts it in these terms: “[…] a free existence, even if it is mired in an absurd world.”_8

As the world is not to be taken seriously, to use it as a field of play is deemed a legitimate act. Meaning is also achievable at the hands of one who has accepted his sovereignty through “will as consciousness,” the only true certainty._9 It is no accident that this seems to be a development of Nietzsche’s Übermensch as development of Nietzschian ideas was a major concern of Klíma’s theoretical writing._40

How it Will Be After Death can be read as an application of these ideas through a work of fiction. Its protagonist, Matthias Lebermayer receives the revelation of the non existence of absolute reality and flirts with the power of sovereign will in the true version of the world in which he finds himself – where the labels of alive or dead; truth or fiction are no longer relevant._11 This flirtation with the ‘sovereign will’ that follows his revelation could be interpreted as ‘the game’ mentioned earlier. In terms of the story, this plays out in his temporary metamorphosis into a rat, in order to escape the demands, anger and violence of other characters._12 His exploits are a series of trials where he fluctuates between triumph and temptation. The incidents of triumph in the story are strictly connected to Lebermayer embracing the power of sovereign will, as he does when he transforms himself back from the form of a rat:

“Triumphantly, I ran through the streets, quick and light as never before, paying no heed to my surroundings.”_13

Lebermayer also expresses triumph when he succeeds in refusing to capitulate to the perceived world, choosing even excrement over a lie:

“But I slipped into a sewer and triumphantly swam away among the excrement…”_14

At his finest moments he casts off the cowardliness of capitulation:

“Like a coward, I had persuaded myself all my life of certainties which never existed, – now I am more noble, having seen through this entire comedy…”_15

At the same time, however, Lebermayer is horrified by the menacing implications of these new truths. He laments the lack of any indicators: that the church steeple, an indicator that pointed the way to God, is gone and that man is “[…] a wretched dry leaf, a plaything for black winds”. Unable to accept that, in true reality, his achievements and the love of his wife count for nothing, he desires once more for the whole experience to be a dream – he is tempted to reject the revelation and submit to the lie. The bulk of the story depicts Lebermayer’s struggle as he fluctuates between sovereign will and the temptation to capitulate._16

Twenty years after Klíma’s death, an environment emerged in his homeland that appeared to appropriate his ideas. The field of play and atmosphere of grotesque absurdity were perceived to have transcended the realm of fiction, and were now a tangible physical reality in the lands of Klíma’s birth.

Following the installment of a communist establishment in the Czech lands in 1948, ideas that may have been considered the anarchic ramblings of the ‘enfant terrible’ of Czech writers started to find a new resonance among certain artistic contemporaries who had suddenly had this establishment unwittingly thrust upon them._17 Yet another twenty years on – on the advent of Soviet ‘reoccupation,’ as the Czech lands were forcibly ‘Normalized’ back alongside the party line – this new resonance of Klíma’s ideas appeared to be replaced by a complete realisation of them. This realisation should not be attributed purely to the environment in which the artists found themselves. It should be recognised that it was fulfilled through the artists themselves.

Klíma recognised that the essential prerequisite for a Czech nation that, in his terms, took freedom into its own hands and did not capitulate before “recognised necessity” was a creative personality: something that Klíma felt the nation lacked since its heyday during the Hussite Rebellions and had never been regained._18 A key player in the Czech Underground, Ivan Jirous, claimed that Klíma’s requirement had been met in the birth of the Third Czech Musical Revival around 1973._19 He compares its participants directly, in fact, to the first Hussite pilgrims. His description of this ‘merry ghetto’ in Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival seems to show a community that corporately fulfills Klíma’s maxim of ‘sovereign will’:

It is a community for the mutual support of people who want to live differently, for whom the desire for mental and spiritual satisfaction stands higher on the scale of values than the attempt to gain the material security offered to them by the establishment at the cost of repudiating everything that makes them free beings with a unique individuality._20

Following the example set by aesthetic and literary non-capitulation, communities of people, like minded in the desire for existence outside of the ‘recognised necessity’ of the surrounding regime, and inspired by the Klímaesque premises found in unofficial music, attempted to live out such an existence. In this attempt, happily foregoing the privileges of the first culture – like Lebermayer, triumphantly swimming among the excrement.

To comment on the Klímaesque in the lyrics of The Plastic People of the Universe, is, in the same breath, to comment on the Klímaesque in the poetry of Egon Bondy.

Bondy is the link between the generations of 1948 and 1968 in the Underground and is the dominant source of Klímaesque ideas upon The Plastic People. From the period described earlier by Jirous, the verse of Bondy was adopted almost exclusively for the lyrics of The Plastic People’s production.

It is worth noting that Bondy’s influence, unlike the influence of others, is one that is directly exposed to Klíma’s ideas. As Bondy himself explained in his 1990 lecture, The Roots of the Czech Literary Underground, Klíma was the major philosophical input for Bondy and his resistant community, and most importantly upon the reactionary forms of literature that they created._21

What Egon Bondy realised – and this shall be revisited in other examples in this essay – is that, within certain ideological environments, Klímaesque ideas attain a strong political agency.

Bondy and his literary entourage hoped to formulate an offensive aesthetics against the suppressive communist establishment. What they arrived at was Poetry of Embarrassment (trapná poezie) and Total Realism (totální realismus)._22 The rationale behind Total Realism was simply that, as the current perceived world, or, ‘reality’ was so grotesquely absurd, the most effective way to confound it was to simply hold a mirror to itself, thus a politically loaded ‘total’ reality was employed. Among the methods of this employment was the mimicking of official rhetoric: the use of, in Bondy’s words, “[…] the pseudoesthetics of Stalinist mythology for its very refutation” amplifying it “[…] to the very verge of vertigo and ad absurdum”._23 This is an important Klímaesque trope evident in many of the Underground’s influential texts, and, one that I shall return to in examples which will hopefully clarify the political agency of this method.

The best way to demonstrate Poetry of Embarrassment is to cite examples in Bondy’s Poetry, put to music by The Plastic People on the record, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned.

The very basest of bodily functions recur in Bondy’s poems. The honesty of them withholds absolutely nothing from their reader, and the reader is confronted with social taboos. The reader experiences the embarrassing deterioration of the alcoholic in Francovka and Around the Window (Okolo okna) which is echoed in the clumsy cadence of the closing lines:

I bought some Francovka
it’s cheaper than rum
drinking it so oft
is making my mind go soft

May flies in the air are swirling
under the moon’s muddy shine
my belly hurts me after wine
and my brain’s in pain

Discontent with the quality of human life in the poem Twenty (Dvacet)_25 is manifested through “spewing” and “vomitting,” and the reader may feel the urge to follow suit after reading the graphic language of Constipation (Zácpa)_26

In my belly a hard stone turns
in my bladder a flame burns

My bowels are rotting I sense
or like a lump of dung they’re dense

Bondy’s American Beat Generation counterpart, Allen Ginsberg recognised the political agency of such candidness in his works of protest against the creative strangulation he felt to be inherent in the American establishment. We see it employed in the references to nakedness as vulnerability, and the graphic sexual slang in Howl._27 But nowhere more so than in his late work, Sphincter where he reflects on his life, based on the effectiveness and longevity of his sphincter’s performance in the roles it has had to play in his life. I would personally prefer not to repeat the more graphic parts here but it ends thus:

Hope the old hole stays young
till death, relax

Through a Klímaesque view of the world: seeing it as “absolute toy” of “absolute will,” poetry of embarrassment succeeds in provoking establishment ideals. By employing ‘the game’ upon a world that is meant to be taken seriously, one negates this proposed seriousness._29

By introducing Ginsberg into the essay, I open the way for other influential figures on the Underground whose ideas parallel with those of the Underground’s interests, those whom I have termed in this essay, ‘Klímaesque.’ A further theme illuminated by Bondy’s verse is the political agency to be found through giving the impression of idiocy or insanity. As Bondy proposes in Nobody (Nikdo), perhaps it is not so stupid to be stupid:

Nobody nobody nobody
never nowhere ever
got anywhere

Perhaps I?
such an idiot
in the end am not

In ‘the game’ idiocy or insanity ceases to be an affliction. It becomes an option. An option of considerable impact, and one which is present in various of the musical and literary influences of The Plastic People.

A particularly good example of this is Captain Beefheart’s Ant Man Bee. Examination of its lyrics may give one the impression of the ramblings of a deranged imbecile. Beefheart overemphasises the clumsy vernacular speech, and through it deliberately encourages an unsophisticated, uneducated persona. His inimitable performance style and musings over “White ants runnin’, Black ants crawlin’ Yella ants dreamin’” and “Brown ants longin’” suggest he is in harmless delirium whilst, simultaneously, a powerful social critique is being made._31 Beefheart’s persona reminds me of a character familiar to Czech readers, Josef Švejk: his apparently undeliberate and harmless stupidity gives him license to exasperate and heavily critique authority, and in a Klímaesque way gives him the ability to survive through the absurdity that surrounds him. Beefheart, as a Švejklike model of defiance, shows us the significance of idiocy as an artistic tool.

As well as being an innovative musical influence, perhaps the Plastic People saw an otherwise invisible political significance in The Doors’ Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar), where the supposedly harmless slurred ramblings of a depressed alcoholic may in, fact, come to represent a strategic player in an effective counter culture._32

In America, Ginsberg passes sentence on the anticommunist rhetoric of the American establishment and the supposedly free press. Once again playing dumb is used politically to compound the insult levelled at the system. He uses broken English and feigns illiteracy to suggest what kind of mind the establishment aims its rhetoric at:

America it’s them bad Russians
…The Russia wants to eat us alive…
…Her wants to grab Chicago…
…Her wants our auto plants in Siberia…
…That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read…

The Plastic People use similar vernacular verse for a song on the Happy Hearts Club album, the short refrain, Me and Mike, which is the work of another Beat Generation writer, Kurt Vonnegut._34

It surely must be worth noting the influence of Vonnegut and his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel which represents the peak of his particular idealism, simply because it appears on a record almost exclusively dominated by Bondy’s texts._35 Despite this, this short passage from Slaughterhouse-Five – which, in terms of the novel, occurs as an airplane of optometrists on which Billy Pilgrim and his father-in-law are travelling crashes – finds its way onto the Plastics’ seminal work.

Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Slaughterhouse-Five, is another Švejk-like figure. The “[…] clown in his toga and [uneven] silver shoes” bobs up and down in his seemingly harmless and ineffectual way over the absurd terrain of Nazi Germany and later witnesses the unexplainable absurd act of the fire-bombing of Dresden._36 He is however, as Mark von Winkle terms it, one of Vonnegut’s ‘outcast crusaders.’ His entire existence is a rebellion, and he is really only viewed as a ‘nobody’ instead of a hero in the eyes of the perceived world, which, as we know from Klíma, is of no significance._37

Like Lebermayer, Billy Pilgrim has received the revelation – with the vital intervention of aliens – that concepts such as time, life or death are merely false indicators and are to be ignored. An outer-earth perspective shows him that significance itself is insignificant and his survival becomes easy when the Tralfamadorians enlighten him with the simple philosophy: “Ignore the awful times and look at the good ones.”_38

Authoritarian opposition in Slaughterhouse-Five and other books of Vonnegut’s with similar themes, are represented by the hero’s family. In this novel it is Billy’s daughter who plays tempter. She attempts to draw him out of his revelation back into capitulation using emotional blackmail, or, through threats of putting him into a care home, as she already has done with his wife._39 Billy however resists and realises his duty to impart these truths upon the rest of the world, “[…] prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls.”_40

A further connection to the Czech Underground was a common belief on the part of Vonnegut in the ideal existence of ‘mini-civilizations.’ In Vonnegut’s mind, this was what a human was designed for, and that all the dysfunctional symptoms in the characters of his novels are attributed to ‘sick societies’. The community described earlier in this essay by Jirous, a ‘merry ghetto’ or ‘happy hearts club,’ appears to be a model of Vonnegut’s ‘folk society’._41

American Underground band, The Fugs, were a significant and well documented influence on The Plastic People of the Universe._42 With the song Kill For Peace, they ingeniously employ the Klímaesque trope of confounding the absurdity of the false and perceived reality by holding up a mirror to its inherent weakness: a brilliant example, also, of the politically potent aesthetic of Bondy’s Total Realism in action._43

The title, Kill for Peace, alone is an oxymoron – the notion that peace will be achieved through killing is paradoxical and absurd, however, this premise is not dissimilar to patriotic propaganda of the time, which, for instance, may have been pro-Vietnam.

This type of oxymoron is precisely the type employed for a propagandist ‘sound-byte’ and its manipulation here has a direct parallel to the Total Realism aesthetic of employing the pseudoesthetics of Stalinist mythology for its very refutation. As with Total Realism, its realism removes irony and the result is an uneasy humour as one encounters the stark sincerity of horrifying inhumanity:_44

The only gook an
American can trust
Is a gook that’s got
his yellow head bust…

The Beefheart/Švejk-like naďve honesty once again achieves a potent political agency. As Josef Švejk does, this naďve and embarrassing honesty completely negates the system and its ideology, precisely by complying with it. Compare the sentiment of the Fugs’s passage with this one:

“They didn’t bring any pressure on you at the police station, did they?”
“Why of course not, Your Worship. I asked them myself if I had to sign it, and when they told me to do so I obeyed. After all, I wouldn’t want to quarrel with them just because of my signature, would I? It certainly wouldn’t be in my interest to do that. There must be law and order.”
The Good Soldier Švejk: Chapter 3, ‘Before the Medical Experts’

I will finish my discussion of evidence of the Klímaesque present in The Czech Underground’s influences with a parallel between the plight of Matthias Lebermayer in How it Will Be After Death and similar struggles betrayed in the verse of Allen Ginsberg.

In the poems Howl and America there exists an evident fear of capitulation, a constant temptation to just comply with the society that Ginsberg critiques and attempts to exist outside of. As he says in Howl, the best minds of his generation had been coaxed into capitulation, drawn from the truth of the sewer and seduced by the lie. Minds who “[…] gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried… or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality”. Later he gives this perceived reality a name, “Moloch” and personifies it in terms of a biblical demon._47

In America this demonic personification occurs again. Time Magazine is a siren that seeks to tempt Ginsberg back into capitulation by making the lie attractive through its persuasive journalistic rhetoric. Its cover stares at him as he passes it. Although Ginsberg could not have been exposed directly to Klíma’s philosophy, the parallel is clear: this fear evident in his poems is a Klímaesque temptation to bend to the will of ‘the world’ despite the revelation of its insignificance. To lay aside the burden of the sovereign will, in favour of the comforts found in accepting the oppressiveness of the rotten establishment around you.

This temptation was a reality for Jirous, The Plastic People and their accompanying ‘merry ghetto,’ and the harshness of the reprisals of noncapitulation was also familiar to them._48 The perceived ideological environment into which they were thrust was one where the Klímaesque dangers were no longer merely fictional, like those inflicted upon Lebermayer, or, figurative like Ginsberg’s drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality. This environment, however, inadvertently contributed to the emergence of Klíma’s prophesied collective of creative individuals who could physically manifest Klíma’s philosophy as did their Hussite ancestors. Like Lebermayer, they found a personal triumph in the Underground into which they had been forced. If there is a common thread to be found in the influences on the Underground mentioned here, perhaps it is that the very (perceived) environment in which the artist finds himself requires a ‘Klímaesque’ response.


London Magazine. Vol. 16, no. 2, p. 42.

Ivan Martin Jirous: Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival, p. 11.

Ibid. p. 6.

London Magazine. Vol. 16, no. 2, p. 36 (Introduction by Paul Wilson).

Josef Zumr: Ladislav Klíma; A Free Existence in the Absurd World, p. 4.

Ibid. p. 3.


Ibid. pp. 4 and 6.

_9 Ibid. p. 3.

Ibid. p. 2.

How it Will Be After Death (London Magazine, 16, 2) pp. 43–44.

Ibid. pp. 41 and 46.

Ibid. p. 42.

Ibid. p. 46.

Ibid. p. 44.

Ibid. pp. 44–45.

Ladislav Klima: A Free Existence in an Absurd World, p. 1.

Ibid. p. 4.

Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival, p. 1.

Ibid. p. 10.

The Roots of the Czech Literary Underground… pp. 2–3.

Ibid. p. 2.

Ibid. p. 2.

Francovka – Velká Kniha (1951–52) and Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (1975) London 1978.
Around the Window – Mala Kniha (1952–53) and Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. Translated by Marek Tomin.

From Zápisky z počátku let sedmesátých (1972) and Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (1975) Translated by Marek Tomin.

From Velká kniha (1951–52) and Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (1975).

From Howl and Other Poems. First Published 1956 – “Who copulated ecstatic and insatiate…” “who broke down crying in gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons” (see Bibliography for my online source).

From Cosmopolitan Greetings. First Published 1986.

Ladislav Klima: A Free Existence in an Absurd World, p. 3.

From Básně Egona Bondyho od sprna 1954 do září 1958 and Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (1975) Translated by Marek Tomin.

From the album Trout Mask Replica (1969).

From the album The Doors (1967).

From Howl and Other Poems. First Published 1956 (see Bibliography for my online source).

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) p. 113 and Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (1975).

Chris Hale [Kurt Vonnegut]: The Rise and Fall of Idealism, p. 3.

Slaughterhouse-Five, pp. 24 and 115.

[Kurt Vonnegut] Behaving Decently in an Indecent Society, p. 1. Ladislav Klima: A Free Existence in the Absurd World, p. 3.

Slaughterhouse-Five, p. 85.

Ibid. pp. 17–22. Behaving Decently in an Indecent Society, p. 5.

Slaughterhouse-Five, p. 21.

Behaving Decently… p. 7. Vonnegut’s thoughts on mini-civilizations are inspired by the findings of a Dr. Redfield documented in his article, The Folk Society (American Journal of Sociology, 1947).

Paul Wilson: What’s it Like Making Rock’n’Roll in a Police State… p. 2.

From Fugs Second Album, (1966).

The Roots of the Czech Literary Underground… p. 2.

‘Gook’ is a derogatory insulting slang term that has been used to describe Vietnamese. I include it in this essay on the strict understanding that I, just as The Fugs never advocate the sincere use of this word in its intended derogatory context.

Jaroslav Hašek: The Good Soldier Švejk, p. 25.

Howl (1956) parts I and II – see Bibliography for online source.

The Plastic People were arrested in 1976 and served a prison term. Jirous served several prison terms. What’s it Like Making Rock’n’Roll in a Police State… p. 1


Bondy, Egon: The Roots of the Czech Literary Underground in 1943–53. Transcription of a spoken lecture (Prague–New York 1990).

Hale, Chris: The Rise and Fall of Idealism. Taken from The Kurt Vonnegut Essay Collection –… (Year not specified).

Ginsberg, Allen: Howl (1956) America (1956) and Sphincter (1986). Found online at

Hašek, Jaroslav: The Good Soldier Švejk. First Published 1923. This edition: Penguin Books, London 2000). Translated by Cecil Parrott.

Jirous, Ivan Martin: Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival. Found in The Merry Ghetto, a catalogue published with record Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. Paris–London 1978.

Klíma, Ladislav: How it Will Be After Death. Written between 1906–1909. Translated into English by Paul Wilson and published in London Magazine, Volume 16, Number 2 with A Note on Klíma by Paul Wilson. Shenval Press, London 1976.

Vonnegut, Kurt (Jr.): Slaughterhouse-Five, First Published, 1969 (London: Vintage, 1991).

Von Winkle, Mark: Behaving Decently in an Indecent Society. Taken from The Kurt Vonnegut Essay Collection –… (Year not specified).

Wilson, Paul: What’s it Like Making Rock’n’Roll in a Police State?: The same as anywhere else, only harder. Much harder. Lecture handout (Originally published in Music Magazine, February 1983).

Zumr, Josef: Ladislav Klíma: A Free Existence in the Absurd World. Lecture handout: Source and Publication not specified. Year of publication not specified (c. 1986–1990).