Post‑Structuralism under Communist Conditions? The Construction of Identity in Czech Dissident Literature

Czech Dissident Literature of the 1970s and 80s provides many examples of autobiographic writing._1 One can find originally intimate genres like the letters Václav Havel wrote to his wife Olga from prison, which kept some of its private character even when turning more and more into semi‑philosophical essays addressed to a broader samizdat public._2 A fictional work often had an autobiographic background, such as Pavel Kohout’s diary‑novel, Kde je zakopán pes (Where the dog is buried). In this article, I will analyze semi‑fictional works, such as Eva Kantůrková’s Přítelkyně z domu smutku (Female Friends from the House of sadness), which is a collection of memories about the women with whom she shared her cell during her imprisonment on remand in Prague‑Ruzyně. I will also look at Ludvík Vaculík’s Český snář (Czech Dreambook). Although it is written in the form of a diary, it can been studied as more than an authentic document about life in the dissident circles of the time, because several reflections on writing and on the artificial status of the work underline its literary nature.

Generally, it might seem that in the intimate genres, the retreat into the private is motivated by the search for a self‑determinated way of defining or constructing one’s identity under the conditions of a totalitarian state that tries to define and normalize everything and everybody. This is especially true for Czechoslovakia during the officially so‑called period of “normalization” (“normalizace”), which tried to turn back to the normal and to standardize the social and political conditions after the “abnormal” events of 1968.

Nevertheless, the two texts are not starting with a naïve faith in the availability of identity by writing oneself or about oneself. They do not present subjectivity expressing itself directly and authentically through autobiography. Although to some extent these texts have an idealistic view on the impact of autobiography, which found its theoretical expression in the hermeneutic concepts of Wilhelm Dilthey (Dilthey 1989) and his pupil Georg Misch (Misch 1989); but the texts demonstrate a high awareness of the interdependency of subjectivity and language. By this they even anticipate the poststructuralistic critique of the concepts of subjectivity and authorship. Yet they do not grasp it negatively as the impossibility of identity but positively as the possibility to use language in a playful way (Sprachspiel) in order to create a kind of identity, which from the outset is fragmentary and withdraws from any attempts to define it in a totalitarian way.

My thesis is two‑fold: Czech Dissident Literature under the conditions of the so‑called normalization tends towards the use of intimate autobiographical genres. It does so because the very themes of autobiographical literature – i.e. identity and writing as such – become highly virulent under the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state which attempts to normalize and standardize everything. In this respect Dissident Literature of course is highly influenced by the sociopolitical conditions of its time. But on the other hand – and this is the second part of my thesis – it participates in its own specific way in the debate that West European theory of the time is concerned with, i.e. the problem of referentiality and subjectivity, and turns out to be a part of a broader discourse of the time – an East European variant of a global discussion on the questioning of traditional concepts of subjectivity.

I will demonstrate the way my two sample texts deal with these problems by concentrating on the way they design the relationship to one’s physically or intellectually nearest neighbour: in the case of Kantůrková to one’s very real neighbour in a prison cell and in the case of Vaculík to one’s neighbour in mind. First, I will examine Eva Kantůrková’s portaits of her co‑prisoners in light of Paul de Man’s reflections on autobiographical writing and secondly Ludvík Vaculík’s imagination of an intellectual neighborship with the philosopher Karel Kosík in the light of Michel Foucault’s reconstruction of ancient “technologies of the self”.

Eva Kantůrková’s Přítelkyně z domu smutku (Friends from the House of sadness) or: The fictionality of (auto)biographies

Eva Kantůrková emphasizes in the preface to the German edition of her book, its referential character and association with the actual political situation:

Das Buch, das Sie in der Hand halten, ist die Niederschrift meiner Erfahrungen im Gefängnis. Das totalitäre System ließ es zu, Menschen ins Gefängnis zu werfen, die in demokratischen Ländern als unschuldig gelten. Durch die Beschreibung der Gefangenen, ihrer Schicksale und Fälle und auch durch die Beschreibung des Gefängnisses werden die Charakteristika des Unterdrückungssystems herausgestellt, seine Tendenz zu Terror und Rechtlosigkeit. Vielleicht ist das der Grund, warum mein Buch über die Freundinnen aus dem Haus der Traurigkeit als eine Beschreibung des gesamten Systems betrachtet wurde, in dem alle, die dem System distanziert gegenüberstanden, zu dessen Gefangenen wurden (Kantůrková 2003, p. 7).

Her book can be read and has been read as a document of its time, as a parable of the oppressive system in post ‘68‑Czechoslovakia. Yet it is not only a document of the dehumanizing, humilating power of this system, but also documents the subversive power hidden in the strategies and technologies of constructing one’s self by means of language face‑to‑face with this oppressive system. Although Kantůrková stresses the referential side of her book,

Der Text ist eine getreue Aufzeichnung der Wirklichkeit, stützt sich nur auf eigene Erfahrungen und die Erzählungen der Freundinnen, nichts ist erfunden (ibid., pp. 7–8).

It is the way her co‑prisoners tell their biographies on which she concentrates. She is at least as much concerned with how they present their stories as with the content of the stories. Partly she does this for pragmatic reasons: Whereas to all other women she devotes only one chapter, Helga is the main figure of three chapters. She obviously is placed into Kantůrková’s cell as an informant. To Kantůrková, she presents a biography, which makes her a sympathizer with the Dissident movement. Not only do the inconsistencies in story evoke the author’s suspicions, but also the construction of the story itself. Kantůrková is irritated that the biography Helga presents to her resembles an extract of the life stories of the younger past one could find in the non‑conformist literature:

Těžko rozhodnout, zda Helga vše vymýšlela sama, mě na jejím vypravování fascinovalo, jak posledních třicet let naší historie líčila přesně podle podání, v jakém se traduje v probudilé české beletrii a publicistice. Osudy její a její rodiny, jak je pro mě vymyslela, jsou sukusem těchto děl, jejich zobecnělým výtažkem; bylo až zarážející, jak neosobitě a neživotně vypravovala, bez originality detailů a zvláštností (Kantůrková 1984, p. 99).

Kantůrková sensitively deconstructs the autobiographies that are presented to her by her co‑prisoners. She never condemns the fact that they are untruthful, but tries to get some insight in their personalities, the reasons that make them invent new identities, new or other life‑stories. She notes that these stories are not only invented for the others, but that the story‑tellers themselves take refuge in them in order not to see the often cruel reality. One has to keep in mind, that in the socialist prison‑detention center Prague‑Ruzyně there were not only criminals, but also many people who needed help and not imprisonment, such as the mentally ill or adolescents who had escaped from children’s homes and had become petty criminals.

One example is the elderly woman Mrs. Helenka, paní Helenka, a notorious pickpocket, abandoned by her family, who had been declared as mentally incompetent concerning financial matters. As becomes clear after her sentence, she had been caught for the eighteenth pickpocketing offence after she had escaped from the home for mentally ill in Terezín, where they refused to take her back. The narrative she tells to her co‑prisoners about her former life turns out to be a mixture of dreams of a life she would have liked to have lead – a biography invented for the purpose to fool her listeners. Still an attractive woman, she tells them stories of her good old days, when she was being the queen of the fairs and her mother owned a carousel. She likes to engage in conversation about food and thereby pretends to have some experiences of the better world, but which turn out to be embellished memories of the food in several camps she had been imprisoned in:

A tak přestože ničila všechny úřední listiny, které jí byly doručeny, neboť obsahovaly kormutlivé drobty pravdy jejího života, přestože měla ve vědomí pevně usazený náhradní životopisný příběh, jímž se proti kruté pravdě ochraňovala, přestože usilovala nic o sobě nepovědět, pěna pravdy přece občas ošplíchla obraz, který o sobě vytvářela (ibid., pp. 52–53).

Also other characters, whom the author sympathetically describes, do not always tell the truth, but what seems truthful (and often as well useful) to them at the moment. Majka, the first woman Kantůrková describes and meets in prison, has built up a perfect system of double‑communication with her lover, who had been imprisoned with her, and another boy who can supply her with cigarettes. She takes pleasure in writing long letters to this boy, with whom she has no physical contact and creates another personality by words alone. Having grown up as an adoptive child in a white family, she is one of the few Roma girls Kantůrková meets in prison who is educated and literate. Kantůrková is fascinated by her obsession with writing: She is excerpting, copying, compiling and likes to read aloud her creations, which mostly aim to create a new identity in order to impress men:

Ráda četla nahlas svoje výtvory, většinou motáky mužům, a z dopisů i knih si vypisovala citáty, hlavně verše, měla ve skřínce svou malou soukromou knihovničku, na niž byla nemálo pyšná. Celé dny kreslila nebo něco psala, opisovala své poklady i několikrát a ráda je rozdávala, a měla tedy k hlavní starosti, k té totiž, jak si opatřit cigarety, ještě starosti další, jak si opatřit papír (ibid., p. 20.).

She, as well as Helga, in some way collaborates with the authorities. This becomes clear when she hands over some official writings to the referent with no adressee. Nevertheless, Kantůrková trusts her because she feels that Majka has created some “natural solidarity”. Kantůrková stresses, that one of the first things she had learnt in prison was not to be rash in one’s judgement about others, because there might be good as well as bad reasons for hiding the truth:

Ve vězení se brzy naučíte, že nic a nikdo se tu nemá posuzovat překotně; pravda musí být zakrývána, ať jsou pro to důvody dobré nebo špatné (ibid., p. 21).

So what Kantůrková gets interested in is not so much to what extent the stories her co‑prisoners tell her are in accordance with the truth, but by which reasons and in which way they build up their own stories. Another Roma girl she likes very much fascinates her exactly for her talent to tell.

V sedm večer […] usedla Andy na zkřížené nohy a začala mluvit. […] sedmá večer, to byla její hodina, splétala si vlasy do copánků a mluvila a mluvila. A ať bylo to, co mi vyprávěla pravda nebo výmysl, ať to byly příběhy vypůjčené nebo její, Andy byla ve vyprávěních duše vzácná a bohatá, měla obrovskou představivost a vzácný dar líčení. Mluvila a usmívala se, usmívala se a mluvila, úsměvem sama smazávala přísnou reálnost líčeného (ibid., p. 67).

And when Kantůrková compares Andy and Helga, who both presented to her fabrications of their life‑stories, Andy’s way seems to her like poetry, “Andy composed poetry, by her narratives she floated away to love, while Helga fabulated for the purpose of life”._3 When listening to Andy she didn’t care about the difference between fact and fiction; Andy seemed her to be Andy even with her invented stories, like Helenka she just couldn’t live without her dreams. Helga on the contrary always was arousing her suspicion:

Bylo to zvláštní: Andinu vymýšlení jsem se ochotně poddávala, nenapadalo mě zkoumat, kam sáhá výmysl a odkud začíná realita; nezajímalo mě to. Andy byla Andy i se svým básněním, jako Helenka nemohla žít bez svých snů; Helga ustavičně probouzela mou podezíravost (ibid.).

Of course such a concept of the other does not mean a total withdrawal from the concept of subjectivity. For Kantůrková there still is something like the core of each one’s personality. This „something” under the extreme conditions of prison is very important, it is what makes the difference between Majka’s and Helga’s denunciation. Although she is writing for the authorities, she probably once again is not writing the truth and Kantůrková can rely on her in critical situations. When she collapses the first time in prison, it is Majka who succeeds in calling a doctor to their cell on a Saturday afternoon.

If Kantůrková keeps hold of subjectivity, in her concentration on the way her co‑prisoners present their biography to her is included the implicit insight, that all biographies to some extent are fictitious. Here there is a parallel to Paul de Man’s thoughts about the relationship of referenciality and fictionality in autobiographies. De Man questions our traditional understanding of autobiography:

We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self‑portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium? (De Man 1984).

It is exactly this process of producing one’s life or biography by telling it that Kantůrková gleans from her fellow prisoners and then relays in her book.

Ludvík Vaculík’s Český snář (Czech dreambook) or: Technologies of the Self

The question of the relationship of referentiality and fictionality in autobiography is one of the main issues in Ludvík Vaculík’s diary‑novel Český snář (Czech Dreambook)._4 It is structured as a series of entries that – almost day by day – provide a record of a period a little longer than a year. Vaculík succeeds in producing an authentic simulation of his everyday by means of notes on his work as the main organizer of the samizdat Edice Petlice, on his love life, his family and, as referenced by the title of the novel, his dreams. In Kantůrkova’s novel the question of the truth of a (autobiographical) story of life is posed by the characters she meets in prison. In Vaculík’s Dreambook it is the writer himself who poses the same question. He does this implicitly by choosing the semi‑fictional genre of a diary‑novel, but also explicitly by several reflections on the topic of writing. In the beginning, he explains his choice of writing a diary by his inability to write anything anymore. He feels too much absorbed by his duties as organizer and main editor of his samizdat‑edition. Throughout the whole book, we find as a leitmotif the wish to accept no new projects and to end up the edition with this very last project – a wish Vaculík never realized. In this way, the writing of the diary is an attempt to invent another identity for himself, an identity closely connected with writing. After working for nearly a year on it, he reflects on a suggestion that a collegue and friend, Jiří Kolář, to whom Český snář is dedicated, had given him:

Je tomu rok, co mi ve Slávii pravil: „Když nemůžeš psát, tak piš, člověče, o tom, proč nemůžeš psát! Zapisuj, co vidíš, slyšíš a co ti napadá. Vypracoval sis na to už svůj styl ve fejetonech, který jsou přeci báječný!” Když prý to budu dělat rok, budu mít knížku. Dokonce možná stvořím nějaký „nový román”, protože co je dnes román a kde je? Pravil také, že když budu pravidelně psát, že mi něco dá. Začal jsem o tom uvažovat, a nejvíc mě lákalo, že mi něco dá! (Vaculík 1990, p. 448).

Not only does he consider the impact that paying attention to and noticing the details of every‑day‑life has on his writing, but also the way his writing influences his (real) life.

He discovers when he looks through his old student diaries that his current life is only variation on the life he speculated he would have:

Potom jsem […] přečetl své deníky dělnické a studentské, a co vidím: že já mám vůbec napsáno vše. A že jsem si to napsal naprosto včas. Pozdější prací jsem své názory a postoje už jenom varioval a ilustroval. Nebyl jsem nikdy moudřejší ani schopnější, než jsem byl do dvaceti let. Všecko se splnilo, došlo na mé nejhorší tušení, zatímco mé hojivé naděje neměly v ničem pravdu. Nejenom úspěchy, ale i všecky své nezdary, poklesky i pády jsem si jakoby předepsal do partitury a potom je přehrával (ibid., p. 21).

By writing a diary, Vaculík tries to get hold of his self not only face to face with the official power, which influenced his life by prohibiting him to work in his job as a journalist and to publish and by keeping him under surveillance and interrogating him from time to time. To escape from this kind of definition of himself from outside, from the side of power, he chooses to nearly ignore it in his entries, for example he does not mention the interrogations in detail. But he is highly aware of the indirect influence the regime still has on his life as a dissident and an editor of samizdat publications and tries to evade as well any cliché of a dissident. In the beginning he describes a debate that he evoked among the members of the Dissident community by a feuilleton Remarks on courage (Poznámky o statečnosti), where he asks for the status of courage for strong personalities and for average people. Most of his fellow dissidents, among them Václav Havel, criticized the feuilleton because it could be read as a condemnation of dissidents who sought for the role of a hero (when becoming imprisoned) and thereby lost touch with the average people who are not as strong and nor willing to enter into conflict with the state. Confronted with this critique, Vaculík complained that it keeps inside what he calls “our, the dissident, cyklotron of thinking and acting”._5 He does not conform to the unwritten rules of the dissident movement when he refuses to sign a letter of protest for Pavel Kohout, who is not allowed to return from a visit to Vienna. He argues that everybody, including Pavel Kohout himself, knew that it would happen. All these are examples of his efforts to preserve as much freedom as possible and not to submit to some expected reactions of protest.

In this context, writing the diary‑novel itself is a strategy to gain sovereignty over the definition of one’s self and to become independent from the official and unofficial (dissindent) way of reading it. The concentration on the private, intimate side of his life is part of this strategy.

In this respect it is also important that he frequently goes to the countryside, to a weekend house they own in Dobřichovice, a small town near Prague. There he builds up an idyllic counter‑life: It is a strictly place for family, where his relationship to his wife is intact and he never goes with his lovers. Except for reading, he does not work on any editions. He works in the garden and gathers with few friends, primarily with the dissident philosopher Karel Kosík, who is the nearest neighbour. They speak about the garden and if they discuss writing, then rather how and why they write than what they write about. Several times Vaculík expresses in his diary the wish to read what Kosík is writing.

So even here writing is viewed as practice, as an ongoing activity, and as a consequence does not have to be result‑oriented. It is the only alternative and an escape from ‘reality’. Dobřichovice cannot be a real refuge, and this becomes clear from the very outset, when Vaculík first mentions the place with the laconic sentence: “Máme v Dobřichovicích dům, ale nemůžeme v něm bydlet.” (ibid., p. 11) (“We have a house in Dobřichovice, but we can’t live in it.”).

Michel Foucault when recapitulating his studies on sexuality and truth (Foucault 1988) confronted two (of four) “truth games” related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves:

(3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality (ibid., p. 18).

He focuses on the technologies of the self and reconstructs examples he finds in Greco‑Roman philosophy in the first two centuries A.D. and in Christian spirituality and the monastic principles developed in the fourth and fifth centuries (ibid., p. 19). His conclusion reads:

There has been an inversion between the hierarchy of the two principles of antiquity, “Take care of yourself” and “Know thyself”. In Greco‑Roman culture knowledge of oneself appeared as the consequence of taking care of yourself. In the modern world, knowledge of oneself constitutes the fundamental principle (ibid., p. 22).

I mention this because there are some striking parallels between the ancient technologies Foucault describes and the way Vaculík is writing about himself or writing himself in his diary‑novel. Foucault explicitly mentions the importance of writing, be it notes, letters or diaries, for the antique culture of taking care of oneself (ibid., p. 27). And “in addition to letters, examination, and askēsis” he mentions as “a fourth technique in the examination of the self, the interpretation of dreams” (ibid., p. 38). Vaculík sometimes is obsessed with noticing, i.e. paying attention to and describing and thus taking care of his physical condition, of his love life and of his dreams. What I find interesting is not the superficial parallel as such, but the parallel in what both devotions to technologies of the self aim to. Foucault after having deconstructed or even destructed the modern concept of subjectivity goes back to antiquity to reconstruct other forms of understanding the self and practicing the self and links it with the notion of identity._6 Vaculík is confronted with a system of power which seeks to define and determine him and his actions and which is even doing so in an indirect way when his negative attitude towards the system determines him to become a member of the dissident movement. In this situation Vaculík takes refuge to techniques described by Foucault in order to gain some undetermined space for his self respectively for his own invention of his self by writing.

Although written under totally different political and existential conditions than the theoretical texts by Paul de Man and Michel Foucault, the literary texts by Eva Kantůrková and Ludvík Vaculík deal with similar problems: All of them rethink the concept of identity critically. Sceptical towards the traditional notion of authenticity, they would rather search for subversive strategies to design the self outside of role expectations, official or unofficial, and take fictionality into account which is implied in all constructions of identity. What I wanted to demonstrate here is that these texts are related to a broader contemporary context of thinking beyond their reference to the direct historical context of “normalized” Czechoslovakia.

This text was originally delivered under the title “Coercive and Selective Neighborship: The Construction of Identity in Czech Dissident Literature” at a workshop on the theme of “Neighborship” held June 13.‑14. 2008 at the Eberhard‑Karl University in Tübingen.


See also Kubíček 2004.

On Havel’s Dopisy Olze and their development into “a coherent textual whole of high cultural relevance” see Ibler 2008.

„Andy básnila, povznášela se vyprávěním do lásky, kdežto Helga fabulovala účelově pro život.” (ibid., p. 98).

On the topic of Vaculík’s Český snář as a reflection on writing and on the relationship of referentiality and fictionality see also Richterová 1991.

“náš, disidentský, cyklotron myšlení a činů” (ibid., p. 18).

“First, what is the self? Self is a reflexive pronoun, and it has two meanings. Auto means ‘the same’, but it also conveys the notion of identity. The latter meaning shifts the question from ‘What is the self?’ to ‘What is the plateau on which I shall find my identity?’” (ibid., p. 25).


De Man, Paul: Autobiography As De‑Facement, in: Idem: The Rhetoric of Romanticism. Columbia University Press, New York 1984, p. 67–81.

Dilthey, Wilhelm: Das Erleben und die Selbstbiographie, in: Günter Niggl (ed.): Die Autobiographie. Zu Form und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1989, p. 21–32.

Foucault, Michel: Technologies of the Self, in: Technologies of the Self. A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst 1988, p. 16–49.

Ibler, Reinhard: Zur Typologie und kulturellen Funktion von Václav Havels ,Dopisy Olze‘ (Briefe an Olga). Zeitschrift für Slawistik 53, 2008, č. 3, p. 259–270.

Kantůrková Eva: Přítelkyně z domu smutku [1984]. Československý spisovatel, Praha 1990.

Kantůrková, Eva: Freundinnen aus dem Haus der Traurigkeit, aus d. Tsch. v. S. Klein. Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, München 2003.

Kubíček, Tomáš: Obrana pamětí. Čas a skutečnost v české literatuře sedmdesátých let, jejich povaha a důsledky aneb Co způsobuje narativ. Česká literatura 52, 2004, č. 3, p. 324–354.

Misch, Georg: Begriff und Ursprung der Autobiographie, in: Günter Niggl (ed.): Die Autobiographie. Zu Form und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1989, p. 33–54.

Richterová, Sylvie: Co psát a k čemu to vest. Český snář Ludvíka Vaculíka, in: Idem: Slova a ticho (1986). Arkýř, Praha 1991, p. 107–125.

Vaculík, Ludvík: Český snář [1981]. Atlantis, Praha 1990.