Jan Kameník - Poet or Mystic?

The work of Jan Kameník is often regarded as particularly striking and indeed unique in Czech literature. It is not a large oeuvre: five volumes of poetry, a collection of stories, and a few other individual texts. There are two principle reasons for Kameník’s unusual standing within Czech literature. The first is that the author of poems and stories narrated in a male voice and signed with the name Jan Kameník is in fact a woman, Ludmila Macešková (1898–1974). The second is the interconnection of the author’s literary work with her practice of mysticism: Kameník/Macešková is sometimes spoken of as the only poet-mystic in Czech literature, and some interpreters have taken his texts as authentic records of mystical experiences.

L. Macešková published her first collection, Okna s anděly (Windows With Angels), in 1944 in the series Tvar edited by Bedřich Fučík and Vilém Závada in the publishing house of Josef Richard Vilímek. The author was 46 years old, and this relatively late debut came after bitter experiences. She had not finished her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts (where she had studied with Jakub Obrovský and Max Švabinský) because of her marriage to Josef Rón in 1921, and after a dramatic divorce in which she had to give up custody of her son Dalibor as well as all property she lived in desperate circumstances. She had no solid employment and covered her most basic needs by drawing fashion designs and patterns and by contributing articles to fashion magazines. She began at that time to take part in an association called Psyche, led by the occultist and popularizer of mysticism, K. Weinfurt. There she met her second husband, Jiří Maceška, and in 1932 she gave birth to her second son, Ivan. This marriage also ended in collapse, in effect in 1945 although formally five years later. During this period L. Macešková suffered from tuberculosis of the bone, and further ailments gradually accumulated, exacerbated by her poor circumstances and loneliness. From the early 1950s she lived with Marcel Kabát, 17 years her junior, and he cared for her until her death. She died in 1974 at the age of 76.

The fate of Macešková’s literary oeuvre was almost as dramatic as her life. According to the author herself her debut volume, Okna s anděly, was soon sold out, but with the exception of a single review it was ignored by critics (which was likely due to its appearance during wartime). After Okna s anděly followed a second collection, Neviditelný let (Invisible Flight), in 1947, which also garnered minimal attention. After 1948 Ludmila Macešková was forbidden to publish for political reasons and she only finally gained a degree of recognition at the end of the 1960s. Bedřich Fučík and Vladimír Justl prepared a program titled “Remembering the Words of Jan Kameník”, which was performed in the Viola theater in Prague. After repeated requests and extended complications Macešková was finally accepted into the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, which provided not only moral satisfaction but financial assistance as well._1 Perhaps the greatest unexpected source of satisfaction was her “second debut” in 1968: the publication of her most important poetry collection Pubertální Henoch (Henoch the Adolescent) by the publishing house Dialog, based in Most. Ivan Diviš and Josef Jedlička, among others, played an important role in getting this work published. However, neither Pubertální Henoch, nor the sonnet collection Malá suita pro flétnu (Small Suite for Flute) published in 1971, nor the volume of stories Učitelka hudby (The Music Teacher) of 1970 were able to generate wider public response, for understandable political reasons. Over the next twenty years Jan Kameník once again disappeared from the Czech literary scene – although not quite entirely. In 1978 Zápisky v noci (Notes Written at Night) appeared in samizdat, and in 1982 Pubertální Henoch was re-issued in Munich in the exile series Poezie.

The first opportunity for a fully fledged reception of Kameník’s work came in 1993 with the publication of Zápisky v noci. Jaroslav Med edited the volume and wrote a commentary that evoked discussion on two main points: his classification of Kameník as a Catholic poet and his interpretation of Kameník’s poetry as “rather a record of spiritual practice and only in the second instance, and as it were incidentally, poetry”._2 The classification of Macešková as a Catholic poet is plausible primarily at the beginning of her literary career. She published her first poems in 1943–1945 in the magazine Akord, and her debut volume Okna s anděly was published by Fučík in the Vilímek publishing house and begins with an inscription from Jan Zahradníček’s Jeřáby (Cranes). Macešková maintained personal contacts with Catholic-oriented authors – she corresponded not only with Fučík but also with Med, Věroslav Mertl, Ivan Diviš, and others. The main difficulty with categorizing Ludmila Macešková as a Christian author is her religious syncretism: she took inspiration from Hinduism and Buddhism as well as from Christianity. Indeed, this aspect of her writing and mysticism has been noted by all her commentators, including Med. Nonetheless the influence of Zahradníček on her early work is beyond doubt, as is the influence of Paul Valéry and Otokar Březina. Petr A. Bílek has aptly characterized Kameník’s position within Czech poetry._3 Among various trends in Czech poetry (such as the understanding of poetry as testimony, e.g. in Jiří Kolář or Jan Zábrana; or as game, e.g. in Ivan Wernish, Pavel Řezníček, and Emil Juliš) Bílek also identifies a mystical trend that can either overlap with or work against the other trends. This developmental line begins with Březina and continues through the late Vladimír Holan to Ivan Jelínek, and Kameník also belongs here. Despite her mystical inclinations, P. A. Bílek sees the word and its possibilities as one of the main themes of Kameník’s poetry. Macešková’s poetry is most often compared to Holan’s. The most frequently cited description of Kameník’s work is Fučík’s characterization of Okna s anděly: “Somewhere between Jan Zahradníček with his thirst for truth, and Vladimír Holan with his courage to form.” For her part Ludmila Macešková wrote very unflatteringly about Holan in her journals: “Criticism of the beautifully turned sentence, elegantly touching shit with a pair of tweezers.” Beyond these literary affinities Ludmila Macešková’s work is often compared with that of Kolář (Mistr Sun o básnickém umění [Master Sun on the Art of Poetry], Nový Epiktet [The New Epictetus]) and Josef Palivec,_4 whose translations of Valéry Macešková knew well. Pubertální Henoch also has elements in common with Chrlení krve (Spitting Blood) by Diviš._5 Kameník’s prose texts have been compared to the early work of the Čapek brothers, to Richard Weiner and to Ladislav Klíma._6

Attempts to identify various literary influences and to pinpoint Kameník’s place in Czech literature often go hand in hand with the defense of poetic autonomy in his work, as a corrective to the excessive exclusivity often attributed to him. Med, for example, presents Kameník as a poetmystic or even primarily as a mystic who, although “writing lofty poetry, actually didn’t want to write poetry at all”,_7 and whose verses represent “rather a record of spiritual practice and only in the second instance, and as it were incidentally, poetry”._8 Precisely for this reason Med regards Kameník as a unique phenomenon in Czech literature, whose volume Pubertální Henoch represents a mystical text that is absolutely unprecedented in modern Czech literature. Marcel Kabát, Macešková’s long-time partner, takes a radical position in this regard. In his afterword to the edition of Kameník’s journals he rejects all literary influences on her work; for him Kameník’s poems emerge “from the direct pressure of internal experience, without external sources, [and] they are the solitary punishment for a spiritual experience that is difficult to comprehend for anyone who has not had those experiences”._9 Other authors, however, such as Jiří Pelán a Milan Exner in particular, counter that “poetry for Kameník was an independent activity, operating in accordance with its own rules”._10 They emphasize Macešková’s finely chiseled formulism, evident not only in her own original work (her favorite genres were the sonnet and sestina) but also in her translations of Valéry, Nerval, and other French poets.

Another striking feature of L. Macešková’s work is her use of a male pseudonym. It is worth noting that the male narrative voice appears in her poetry before her adoption of the pseudonym. In 1944 Macešková published poems under her own name but written in a male voice in the journal Akord. She adopted the pseudonym at the instigation of Fučík, publisher of her first volume of poetry, who according to Kabát feared the widespread prejudices against women authors. In the issues of Akord that followed publication of her first book Macešková already starts using the name Jan Kameník. Kabát claims that Ludmila Macešková thought up the pseudonym herself _11 with reference to free-masonic spiritual symbolism, while Věroslav Mertl attributes the pseudonym to Fučík._12 Some elucidation of the pseudonym can found in L. Macešková’s work itself: it is occasionally explained in conjunction with a verse from the poem “Windows With Angels” from the volume of the same name: “What you [God] have thrown at me – O, long ago – and struck me with directly is stone [kámen], stone, stone to the core: I bear its wound on my being as an emblem.”_13 A female author taking a male pseudonym is an unusual, although not unique, phenomenon in Czech literature; another example is the prose writer Felix Téver (actually Anna Lauermannová, 1852–1932). The case of Macešková, however, also involves consistent use of a male narrative voice in almost all poetic and prosaic texts (with a few exceptions). Uncovering the identity of an author whose anonymity is amplified by her choice of a male pseudonym becomes intertwined with the theme of mysticism, lending the texts a further, mysterious dimension._14

Whether to understand Kameník’s texts as the testimony of a poet or of a mystic – in other words, whether the esthetic or religious function is perceived as dominant – depends to a large degree on the reader’s own decision. One can understand these two possibilities for interpreting Kameník’s texts – i.e., either as literary or as religious texts – as resulting from their natural polyfunctionalism. I believe that in the case of Macešková’s poems and stories a “literary” reading is more appropriate than a “religious” one for the simple reason that these texts bear external signs of literary communication, i.e., the author decided to publish them with a particular publisher, in a particular series or edition, etc. Jan Kameník’s journals, however – of which only fragments have been published – are a different matter. We can regard Macešková’s poems and stories as literary texts for the simple reason that they function primarily as literary communication. Rather than trying to decide whether poetry or mysticism predominates in Macešková’s work, it is more profitable to trace how and through what means mystical experience is expressed in her texts.

However much one should avoid exaggerating the exceptionality of Kameník’s position within Czech literature – either by overlooking literary influences or by pointing to absolutely unique creative processes and sources of inspiration – it is still difficult to find another author whose work attracts the attention of readers and critics in the manner of Macešková/Kameník: a woman author with a male pseudonym writing on specifically mystical themes.


Correspondence between Ludmila Macešková and the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, in Revolver Revue 1998, No. 38, pp. 145, 146, 148, 149, 153, 155–156.

Jaroslav Med: Slov marné pokusy to nikdy neoznačí. In: Jan Kameník: Zápisky v noci. Český spisovatel, Prague 1993, p. 79.

Petr A. Bílek: Poselství bezmocné věštkyně. Nové knihy 1993, No. 25, p. 3

Milan Exner: Několik poznámek na okraj díla Jana Kameníka. Tvar 4, 1993, No. 37/38, pp. 20–21.

Zita El-Dunia: Subjekty v poezii Jana Kameníka, unpublished master’s thesis. Charles University, Philosophical Faculty, Prague 2002.

Jiří Pelán: Překlady Jana Kameníka. In: Jan Kameník: Překlady. Triáda, Praha 1996, p. 230.

Jaroslav Med: Výjimečnost básnické osobnosti Jana Kameníka. Proglas 4, 1993, p. 74.

Jaroslav Med: Slov marné pokusy to nikdy neoznačí. In: Jan Kameník: Zápisky v noci. Český spisovatel, Praha 1993, p. 79.

Marcel Kabát: Doslov. In: Jan Kameník: Mystické deníky. Trigon, Praha 1995, p. 73.

Jiří Pelán: Překlady Jana Kameníka. In: Jan Kameník: Překlady. Triáda, Praha 1996, p. 238.

Marcel Kabát: Nebyla žádná naděje. (Interview of Robert Krumphanzl with M. K.) Revolver Revue 1998, No. 38, s. 121.

Věroslav Mertl: Jan Kameník. Tiché zahrady. Nakladatelství Host, Brno 1998, s. 173.

Jan Kameník: Okna s anděly. J. R. Vilímek, Praha 1944.

Josef Jedlička: Ediční poznámka. In: Jan Kameník: Pubertální Henoch. Dialog, Most 1969, pp. 51–53.