The Short Century: the Fin de Siecle in Contemporary Czech Literary Studies. A few general reflections, assertions and observations

L. M., bratru v triku
Contemporary values fundamentally influence the way in which we interpret the significance of past events; the way in which we index connections and inter-texts in the overlapping layers of an archive; the way in which we make our way across and along these various layers; and in the types of layers and ideas that compel us to undertake such a task in the first place. In the past ten years, continuity has been a heated topic of discussion. The period following the upheavals of 1989 has been marked by an awareness of the discontinuity and chaos affecting social, economic and cultural relations and the scholarly analysis of these relations. A number of liberal arts scholars, who until then had not been able to publish, tried to shed light on the murky layers of modern intellectual history and its connection with the contemporary situation. Their authority was based in part on a memory of forty years of “standardised” history. The subsequent period was characterised by a desire for a general re-evaluation of the current approaches, rather than an actual search for new methods. But what one saw instead were the shortcomings that plagued the humanities: the continuing disintegration of the body of knowledge, the uncertainty, the shadow of inconsistency and truism, the futile attempt to break through doors that have long stood open.

In the 1960s, the generation of students of J. Mukařovský and F. Vodička considered the period of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries as one of many subjects on which they could build their scholarly careers. When one recalls Mukařovský’s study of Karel Hlaváček and issues of style located “between poetry and the visual arts”, one might assume that the subject was simply handed on from teachers to students. In fact, however, it was the discontinuity of the cultural and intellectual history of the 20th century that led those scholars to the theme of the Fin de siecle; on the one hand, they moved on chronologically from study of post-revival themes and on the other, they moved back from study of the inter-war avant-garde. (Study of certain topics of literary history mediated to the students the method applied in the works of their teachers.) In both cases, there was a striving to reconstruct a line of development, a striving that was one of the distinguishing features of the ethos of the cultural movement of the 1960s.

From the end of the 1950s on, many scholars have focused on the theme of the Fin de siecle; in the past twenty years, it has been one of the most popular topics in the humanities. In Europe, many monographs and special studies have been published on the subject. Methodological debates in history and art history have developed out of the changing interpretations of the subject. Like the inter-war avant-garde, the art and literature of the turn of the century have attracted the attention of philosophers and researchers in the fields of history, art history, sociology and psychology, leading to a whole series of debates. This yielded a place for encounter, collaboration and confrontation of methods and interpretations. Today, the Fin de siecle is not just one theme among many, but rather a defining theme. The state of research on the Fin de siecle and the way people talk about it indicate an ability to come to terms with the neglect of the modernist theme in the Czech humanities in the 1970s and 1980s. Or rather, to come to terms with the research focus on the intellectual and artistic sources of the 20th century and its moments of crisis. Some of the monographs on this subject that were published abroad in the last thirty years have fundamentally changed the interpretation of culture at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. They have also introduced new methodological approaches. Although these were applied in the field of cultural history, they should not be overlooked by literary scholars of the period (C. E. Schorske, A. Janik and S. Toulmin, P. Hanák, J. Le Rider, M. Anderson, etc.). Here, of course, there is no space to summarise the contexts that these works treated. One should, however, keep in mind the interpretive structures that they introduced to the study of modernist culture and its impact on society. They also provide a possible point of reference for Czech themes and how these are related to European modernism, while avoiding models of national culture and comparison of influences._1

The development of research on the Fin de siecle and Czech modernism, as represented by monographs published in the 1960s (J. Brabec, M. Červenka, L. Lantová, Z. Pešat, E. Strohsová), as well as parallel work on editions of the writings of Šalda and Neumann and preparation of the fourth volume of the academic History, was restricted during the Normalisation period and relegated to the sphere of private research. This was partly because the lives and research activities of the scholars studying these themes were greatly restricted. It also had to do with the themes themselves. By the end of the 1960s, thorough study of the intellectual currents of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries had cast doubt on the linear developmental model of connections between so-called “progressive actors” in the 19th century and the avant-garde. While the art historians Wittlich and Vlček published general studies treating the stylistic features and distinctiveness of the Fin de siecle over a twenty- to thirty-year period, literary scholars could hardly undertake such a project. This does not mean that they did not treat similar issues; the relevant studies, however, were adapted to the contexts in which they were written. For a long while, the anthology of studies by Karel Krejčí was the last work of comparative literature to be published. It was followed by J. Opelík’s monograph on Josef Čapek and Eva Taxová’s thesis on essay writing at the end of the 19th century. In the 1980s, editions of essays, poetry and Kritické rozhledy a glosy short prose were published with insightful afterwords. In the mid 1980s, Česká literatura (Czech Literature) published studies on decadence (J. Med, R. B. Pynsent), which boded well for the future. For Czech literature, however, it was publications by J. Kudrnáč,_2 and his London contemporary Pynsent, which signalled a new heightened interest in the phenomena of the Fin de siecle. Following his monograph on Zeyer, Pynsent published profiles of individual decadent figures, as well as a lengthy general analysis of the decadent trend in Czech literature._3 The points of emphasis in these studies, which differed from the structuralist historiography of the 1960s, foreshadowed later research developments: for example, the need to abandon the anxiously guarded framework of national literature, as well as conventional notions of central and peripheral figures and phenomena; the need to expand the model of literary phenomena with reference to the material and concepts of intellectual and cultural history.

In the approach to the phenomenon of the Fin de siecle, one can clearly see the tension between the two discontinuities that the literary historian has to confront today: the discontinuity of the discipline, respectively, of the humanities as a whole; and the discontinuity of the historical horizon of the 20th century, characterised by a progressive loss of general coherence. Both are characteristic of the information age. The ironic result of the (un)availability of knowledge is that the discontinuities constitute the essential link between the themes of the Fin de siecle and the questions posed today: how are memory and history related? What are the possibilities of a more general overlap of knowledge? What underlying assumptions do we make when we identify and justify the connections that have been obscured by antiquated layers of interpretation? Are such connections justified? The artistic and scholarly modernism of the last third of the 19th century was one of the first to express hesitations about the obviousness with which modern knowledge made claims to general applicability. It drew attention to spheres of meaning that had been neglected until then or banished from the realm of discourse. As Foucault would put it, they were shrouded in silence, like everything irrational. By contrast, political modernism often confirmed fears of the processes of modernisation; for example, in the use of irrational and historically based prejudices in the ideology of the mass parties. The questions that were first formulated by the modernism of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries are still relevant. Today, however, it is considerably more difficult to pose these questions as a result of the ideological disputes of the 20th century, which, although they sought different socio-political solutions, always tried to belittle their opponents and relegate them to obscurity. It is as if the act of posing these questions raised the threat of similar ideological disputes, in imitation of power relationships.

The period after 1989 introduced a seemingly obvious freedom of choice in subject and methodology. It also introduced a necessary, hitherto concealed, confrontation with developments in literary scholarship and interpretations of modernism abroad. It is not clear, however, whether this confrontation actually took place or if we are still postponing it._4 While the translation of works into Czech may be useful to the scholarly public, the development of the field has always been determined by original Czech studies. The issue is not whether this public is more or less informed; naturally, to be well informed is the goal. Rather, the issue is whether this public is able to develop its own historical thinking with the help of the intellectual sources appropriated for this purpose. This means that one should not merely heap up footnotes and catchwords referring to a whole complex of issues, which would seem to demonstrate the objectivity and knowledge of the author. Rather, one should analyse these issues from the perspective of Czech literary history (in a territorial rather than a national sense).

The discontinuities discussed above, however, cause considerable difficulties. The desire to fill in the gaps in historiography first must come to terms with the need to formulate basic theses, which one suspects have already been posited many times over. Again and again one is convinced of the inadequacy and reductionism of the interpretations proposed, and of their contextual limitations, which is in the nature of things. One also runs up against a twofold problem. On the one hand, many separate phenomena and groups of phenomena have not been analysed or studied in the genres typical of the discipline (monographs, typological and comparative studies, editions). On the other hand, it is very difficult to trace the extent and overlap of theoretical and specific historical issues over the course of the 20th century. The general outline seems to be lost under the layers of individual details, polemics and avant-garde concepts. Contemporary philosophers assert that this is the way things are. (Is it the way they should be?) They assert that the problem of meaning has once and for all disintegrated into an infinite network of interpretations and opinions; that what one has to do is submerge oneself in it and move along the boundaries of this network. Needless to say, the less adroit will get stuck and suffocate; the more adroit, convinced of their skill and playfulness, have already been caught without even knowing it. This kind of skill replies to every direct question with an ironising shrug of the shoulders and a hedging interpretation; or rather, not an interpretation, but an “understanding”, as they say today. Its task is to set the question aside as no longer essential, the sort of question that one can only smile at. This is the sophistry of our era. It presents itself as an anti-ideological, non-normative strategy. Its one-sided and often snobbish superiority, however, masks the uncertainty of this kind of thinking. Trained to dance on eggshells, it is narcissistically satisfied when it perfects this dance. But what has it really understood? Here, in the nature of the contemporary intellectual situation, I shall seek one of the reasons why literary and art historians who made their debut in the last decade focused their attention on the period at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, the time of Umwertung aller Werte.

In this essay, I shall try to provide a general outline of the current situation, without claiming to be above it. The current situation manifests three kinds of symptoms:
A) a terminological uncertainty. On the one hand, this is evident in the use of ambiguous terms that are too broad and often hackneyed; these are not further clarified. On the other hand, this uncertainty is evident in the use of intricate terms that, while trying to do justice to the complexity of an issue, only end up producing a long list of characteristics that are often unconnected, contradictory or, at best, barely comprehensible when juxtaposed.
B) The decentralisation of the main genres of literary history (monographs, general studies).
C) The problematic and obscure character of the criteria for historical evaluation (also handicapped by the abovementioned symptoms). One moves in a field where the extremes are, on the one hand, an all-embracing uncritical point of view that equates phenomena of different significance; and on the other hand, an acceptance of conventional opinions that are not further tested against the source material, whether for polemical or other purposes, or so that part of the problem can be shifted in front of the parentheses as if it were already solved. (Often, however, the method of analysis does not lend itself to clear conclusions, which are formulated instead in terms of what is considered more important, “neglected”, material that has “not been studied thus far”, etc.)

I shall now look at a few publications that entered this context in the past decade and yet received little attention, although they were all admirable achievements. They open up a different perspective, although they also manifest some of the abovementioned symptoms._5 (I shall not, however, provide an overview of the thematically related literary studies produced in the period in question.)

Ten years ago, Luboš Merhaut’s monograph Cesty stylizace (The Paths of Stylisation) was published. It was important for its assessment of many “secondary” authors and so-called peripheral literary phenomena of the Fin de siecle, as well as for its description, analysis and historical typology of a stylistic feature of this literature – (self-) stylisation. Working his way through rich layers of source material, the author uncovered more and more aspects of this mutable phenomenon, whereas earlier scholars had simply accepted Mukařovský’s concept. Thanks to its versatile theoretical model, the study opened up a perspective on one of the literary and existential forms of the turn of the century, a period that has been described only in a piecemeal fashion in Czech literary history. At the same time, the book was saddled with certain difficulties: because of the breadth and diversity of the material that was brought together under the unifying concept, the author was often compelled to resort to the method of enumeration in his outlines of various stylistic features or constellations of features. (In these lists, a great many of the attributes were incommensurable.) At times, the examples followed on from one another in a chain; the interpretive line broke down into a series of monograph sections connected by reference to the feature of stylisation.

The author of the monograph on “stylisation, the periphery and mystification” was, in 1995, also one of the chief organisers of the Moderní revue (Modern Revue) exhibition, conference and anthology. Along with the publication about Volné směry (Free Directions), this three-part project initiated a number of thematic anthologies focused on the turn of the century. The two abovementioned books made a genuine contribution to the field; some of the chapters in Moderní revue, for example, mapped out the entire thirty-year publication history of the journal. It has to be said, however, that subsequent similar publications were of an inferior standard, although some were beautifully designed (Zajatci hvězd a snů [Prisoners of Stars and Dreams], which treated the Catholic modernism and the journal Nový život [New Life]). This decline was particularly manifest in the uneven quality of the various contributions._6 The anthologies published had the seeming advantage of being able to present the given subject from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective. (The publications also functioned as exhibition catalogues and were distinguished by some of the qualities of that genre.) This meant that there was a diversity of approaches, materials and points of view. But there was also a negative side: the anthology, the various sections of which were often restricted to the most basic assertions and a few examples, substituted temporarily for a monograph. A set of short studies of this sort, however, even with a bibliography, cannot take the place of a monograph; that is, a work that is written from a consistent point of view and is long enough for a comprehensive, conceptual description of figures, institutions and movements. The genre potential of the monograph was dispersed in the series of individual perspectives. While this plurality of perspectives was a plus, something fundamental was lost. (Thus, due to the shortage of funded contributors, the editors of the book on Moderní revue had to abandon the idea of chapters on Arnošt Procházka and Jiří Karásek. This created a paradoxical impression, considering that they had been the main figures of the journal, and meant that basic information, which would have been included in these chapters, had to be moved into other sections.)_7 In anthologies, the subject under consideration, be it a journal, a movement or a figure, tends to get broken down into various activities, correspondences or so-called “connections”. When a great many authors are contributing to an anthology, it is difficult to ensure consistent use of terminology. (It would be a plus if space were given to the definition of terms.) Instead, editors usually include a general historical essay that is supposed to provide, along with a list of important dates and a bibliography, a broad framework for the other essays. This sort of approach gives the reader access to a wide range of information about the given subject. It leaves aside indefinitely, however, the general outline of the subject and the consequences that an interpretation of the subject would have for furthering the understanding of the literary and intellectual phenomena of the Czech Fin de siecle._8

The organisers of the exhibition and book about Moderní revue were aware of the limitations of the project. They followed it up with the publication of Arnošt Procházka’s first work, Prostibolo duše (The Brothel of the Soul). The edition included, for the first time, the visual counterpart to the prose, the cycle by Karel Hlaváček. (A. Procházka, K. Hlaváček, Prostibolo duše, edited by L. Merhaut and O. M. Urban, Brno, Publishing house of Pavel Křepela, 2000 [orig. 1895, 1897].) While it looked like a bibliophile edition of rare prints, it included afterwords that treated the historical importance of Procházka’s poetry collection._9 (L. Merhaut, Prostibolo duše Arnošta Procházky [Arnošt Procházka’s Prostibolo duše], pp. 57–70; O. M. Urban, Prostibolo duše Karla Hlaváčka [Karel Hlaváček’s Prostibolo duše], pp. 71–90.) The densely written afterwords also pursued a number of other aims: to sketch profiles of the two figures; to put their creative achievements in the relevant context; and to draw connections between them and the present. Typically, they let the source material speak for itself. Merhaut, who has studied the history of polemics extensively, outlined Procházka’s historical significance and the dynamics of his personality by looking at connections between events in the literary field of the Czech Fin de siecle. As in his study of Moderní revue, Merhaut presented Procházka’s polemical stands as landmarks in his career/life path. Taken together, Merhaut’s studies provide a more substantial portrait of Procházka. It is typical of the 1990s, however, that this portrait is scattered over editorial commentaries and studies of source material, which always seem to start from the beginning all over again._10

Of the proceedings of various conferences, the volume treating Emanuel Chalupný is exceptional. Unlike the anthology about F. V. Krejčí (Literární archiv [Literary Archive], no. 13–15), it has something in common with the publications considered here, although it was not published for an exhibition. The contributions by J. Zumr, M. Petrusek, E. Voráček and M. Havelka addressed a number of philosophical-sociological questions concerning the changing social and societal relations and scholarly analysis of them in the first half of the 20th century. From the perspective of literary history, Jiří Brabec’s study of Chalupný as literary historian and critic was of particular interest. The nature and dynamics of an entire decade were sketched out in a section that concentrated on Chalupný’s polemical interaction with the work and figure of T. G. Masaryk, which was played out on an axis of balance-vindication. After the turn of the century, secessionist factors came into conflict with traditionalist trends in the rival proposals for reform of the modernist concept. Brabec’s analysis let Chalupný’s inconsistency and provocativeness stand out in the relevant contexts; it then linked them up again in a portrait of a personality that tried to make sense of Chalupný’s ambiguity. From the study of Chalupný’s relation to Březina’s work, for example, one could see why the critic, on the lookout for a Neruda-esque tradition, noted the exceptional nature of L. Klíma’s debut. By tracing Chalupný’s attempt to construct a Czech intellectual tradition (Jungmann–Havlíček–Neruda), Brabec uncovered an intellectual current at the beginning of the century, parallel to the traditionalist undertakings of A. Novák and M. Marten. Nonetheless, in several instances one might object that it is no longer tenable, in an analysis of an intellectual concept and its discursive implementation, to distinguish between the “outer” and “inner” inspirations of a work. One thinks, for example, of the conclusion of the study (the transformation of Chalupný’s post-war relationship to Masaryk, p. 191). The preceding analysis had pointed rather to the need to look for a model explaining the formation of a person’s career/life path in terms of the specific organisation of the intellectual field. The disjointedness of the career/life path was balanced out in the context of the circulation of values in this field, which was, at the same time, transformed by each event. (Cf. Emanuel Chalupný, česká kultura, česká sociologie a Tábor [E. Ch., Czech Culture, Czech Sociology and Tábor], Prague, Filosofia, 1999.)

The projects undertaken by the Thyrsus publishing house have made valuable contributions to the understanding of Czech modernism. For example, after the unjustly neglected collections of early poems and memoirs of Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, it published the writings of Arthur Breiský, which enriched our knowledge of early 20th century Czech literature with a portrait of the Czech Dandy. A wealth of facts was accumulated and corrected in the commentaries to these editions, dusting off layers of conventional misinterpretations from some personalities and phenomena. Typically, little notice has been given to this meticulous work; studies continue to be published that shamelessly repeat the same old nonsense. The publishing house temporarily scaled down its activities, but still managed to publish a short book of Jiří Karásek’s letters to Edvard Klas (Milý příteli… [Dear Friend], edited by L. Heczková, A. Zach and G. Zemanová, 2001)._11 The treatment of the subject was indicative of the trend that one saw in the most recent publications on Czech decadence (see below); these were works in which a literary-historical perspective was presented in a strong theoretical framework, influenced by disciplines concerned with categories of otherness (gender, psychoanalysis). At the same time, however, they showed the weaknesses of such an approach, which had the advantage of a comprehensive framework, but the disadvantage of trying to group diverse and many-layered source materials under newly defined terms. On the one hand, this attempt restricted the potential historical significance of the terms by not taking account of the original contexts in which the terms had been formulated. On the other hand, the reader was bewildered by the considerable degree of uncertainty in the redefinition of the terms.

What was, at first sight, a trifle – an intermittent correspondence from 1901 to 1907 – in this edition proved to be a rich source for comparative analysis of methods of self-stylisation at a time when those who took part in the battles of the 1890s were compelled to remodel their strategy in the context of the modernist debate._12 In the first decade, the critical and literary field was gradually transformed in two waves. Karásek’s nostalgic, melancholy, retrospective variations helped to shape one aspect of this transformation. The edition supplemented the epistolary repertoire of the period, which included the well-known correspondence of F. X. Šalda (with M. Marten, Z. Braunerová, A. Sova, R. Svobodová, and others). It also provided opportunities to make typological comparisons. The editor of the collection, Libuše Heczková, however, chose another approach in her afterword, which was necessarily restricted for reasons of space. She identified the places where the speaker in Karásek’s letters defined his identity. It must be noted that this edition was directly connected to the thesis that Heczková defended in 2001 at the Charles University (Zkušenost tří samot. K některým otázkám recepce díla Friedricha Nietzsche v české kultuře konce 19. a počátku 20. století: T. G. Masaryk, F. X. Šalda, Růžena Svobodová [The Experience of Three Solitudes. The reception of the work of Friedrich Nietzsche in Czech culture at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century: T. G. M., F. X. Š, R. S.]). The section of the thesis, which outlined the theoretical framework for analyzing the prose of R. Svobodová in terms of the concept of ornament, from a gender oriented, philosophical perspective, was published as an article. (The femininity of ornament, cf. L. Heczková, Chtonické křivky ornamentu. Několik poznámek na téma žena, obraz, pravda a Růžena Svobodová [Chthonic Curves of Ornament: Woman, Image, Truth and R. S.], Česká literatura 49, 2001, no. 5, pp. 519–530.) One of the central themes of the letters – intimate emotion, eroticism – provided ample material for the scholar’s longstanding interest in the study of gender. The approach, which set aside the question of the dialogic character of the correspondence and projected Klas as “fictive, and at the same time receptive, alive”, might strike one as extreme. For analytical purposes, however, one can restrict the interpersonal space to the space determined by one voice, representing the hypostatic textual unit as a whole. The pronounced political orientation of gender studies was manifest in the evaluation of decadent sexual stereotypes. At the same time, however, the author tried to avoid this conceptual danger in the afterword and developed her own terms by concentrating on the text. One could, however, only guess what these might be; the middle section of the afterword was difficult to follow because it did not distinguish between textual and extratextual (presumed) reality. The outline of the interpretation of historical terms delimiting personal identity and its impact on methods of self-stylisation, as provided in the afterword, was thought-provoking, on account of its openness. In places the author accepted, rather too uncritically, formulations about contemporary literary life and the people who played a part in it. At the same time, it was not clear how these undefined categories (“neo-romantic and classicizing trends, the consistent individualism and extreme aestheticism of Moderní revue”) were related to the central idea of the afterword. At the end of the book, the condensed description of Klas’ prose presented one of the contexts that Karásek constantly referred to. The imaginativeness of the description was undermined, however, by the use of the problematic term Art Nouveau (secesnost), which was immediately relativised: this raised the issue of the function of the concept of “fragment” in Art Nouveau literary style._13

Hana Bednaříková’s study Česká dekadence (Czech Decadence, Brno, Centre for the Study of Democracy and Culture, 2000) was a commendable attempt to interpret the specific features of the Czech modernist version and its connection with the situation in Europe. An ambitious undertaking that was long overdue. The core of the study was the section entitled “Text”; it was originally a dissertation and this was strongly reflected in the published work. The author interpreted the work of Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic from the turn of the century, using the theoretical model of the “decadent physis”, or “anti-physis”, borrowed, in modified form, from French literary studies and psychoanalysis. I shall leave aside the question of the obscure structure of the text as a whole. (The term “context”, for example, was never explained, as if it were self-evident that in it the original meaning blended with the metaphorical meaning; that is, with the historical situation or even the discourse. The concluding section, entitled “Interpretation”, suggested that prior to that there had been no interpretation.) Likewise, I shall leave aside the theoretical linguistic mannerisms that obscured the author’s point. I shall look rather at the first section entitled “Context”, which manifested the symptoms discussed above. It gave the impression of something that had been added on. The need to come to terms with the historical dynamism of the term “decadence” was manifest in the juxtaposition of issues connected with the term. Yet the main problem, the relationship between the terms “modernism” and “decadence”, was not clarified. The haste with which terminological problems were resolved was also reflected in the failure to distinguish contemporary meanings from meanings attributed by later interpretations. This was manifest, for example, in the unquestioned use of the term “transitional era” for the end of the 19th century._14 One might also object to the choice of “context”: the French situation was certainly the basic source for European modernism as a whole. Nonetheless, the Czech version has to be considered in terms of the relationship to Vienna, Munich, Berlin and even to the Russian themes introduced by Masaryk. Moreover, the study as a whole failed to deliver the specific qualities of Czech decadence promised in the title. This may be due to the analytical method, which was essentially an analysis of motifs. While it tried to provide a description of the style of Czech decadent literature, it tended towards a typological comparison of variations (a monograph framework) rather than a literary-historical definition of a stylistic issue. This meant that the author could move freely and ahistorically from the 1890s to the first decade of the 20th century in her application of the model, without considering the conditions in which the stylistic and self-stylising transformations had occurred. (The passages on criticism were sometimes confused – M. Marten, the alleged similarity between L. Klíma and A. Breiský.) At the same time, unlimited space was opened up for arbitrary interpretation.

A note in conclusion: the symptoms of the present situation outlined above can also be regarded as a promise of new opportunities for literary historiography. In particular because of the concomitant emphasis on the need to ground interpretation in the source material. This is indicative of a reaction to the liberation experienced in the past twenty years in the area of literary interpretation. It is indicative of a reaction to the adoption of a priori (and often random) models of reading, which reflect a greater or lesser degree of interpretive licence. It appears that the historicising of the field, however, is not something that can be taken for granted. Walter Benjamin, as the editor of his fragmentary work put it, extolled a concept of history in which the material would have the greatest weight and the theory and interpretation would retreat into the background. The first step would be the introduction of the principle of montage into the writing of history; the next step, analysis of each detail as it gained independence, revealing the crystal of totality within it._15 We have to grapple with the difficulties and pitfalls discussed above, or the crystals will lie before us like membra disiecta. It is indicative of the seriousness with which the phenomenon of early modernism turns to us and urges us to walk down well-trodden, but collapsing paths.

Translated by Kathleen Hayes.
Czech version in revue Pěší zóna 2003, n. 12–13.


One can see the impact of the cultural history debates of the 1980s on the later work of several Czech historians (Otto Urban, Jiří Kořalka). Kořalka, for example, attended meetings on the theme of Young Vienna, organised by Austrian scholars in the mid 1980s.

Cf. his studies of the 1890s (Česká dekadence. Příspěvek k hledání jejího typu [Czech Decadence. A description of type.], Sborník prací filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity [Anthology of the Humanities Faculty of Brno University], Literary Series [D], vol. 31, no. 29, pp. 67–74; Z typologie literárních let devadesátých [The Typology of the Literature of the 1890s], Sborník prací filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity, Literary Series [D], vol. 34, 1987, pp. 25–35.) See also his essays on F. Kaván as a poet, on J. Karásek ze Lvovic, A. Breiský and other short “Art Nouveau” (secesní) prose (in the anthology Vteřiny duše [Seconds of the Soul], 1989). He followed these studies up with a synoptic interpretation of the literature of 1890–1914, once again employing the term “Art Nouveau” (in Literární archiv [Literary Archive] no. 28, 1997). The concept, which had been elaborated in the 1980s, was considerably expanded to cover more material. The term “Art Nouveau”, used to describe stylistic features of the prose of the turn of the century, retained the stylistic connotations of art history. When it was applied to the entire range of literary-historical phenomena of the turn of the century, however, it ran up against the differences between the spheres of literature and the visual arts; the resulting definition was too broad. “Art Nouveau” (secese) became a proverbial bag into which one could stuff anything at all, as R. Jakobson once said of the term “realism”.

In the 1990s, scholars abroad made substantial contributions to the study of Czech modernism with the first general works on the transformation of literary aesthetics and methods of literary criticism and historiography. (Annalisa Cosentino, Realismo scientifico e letteratura. Teoria, critica e storiografia ceca [1883–1918], Buloni editore, Rome 1999.) Catherine Servant treated the origin and development of Czech criticism from the 1860s to the 1890s (C. Servant, Critique et nation. La naissance de la critique dans les lettres tchéques [années 1860–1890], École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris 1998). Theses treating writers of the Czech Fin de siecle were submitted at Cambridge and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. (David Chirico, Karel Hlaváček and the Decadent Intertext, Cambridge 1995; Kathleen Hayes, The Prose and Polemics of Karel Matěj Čapek-Chod, London 1997, cf. also her articles Grotesque Paradox and the Works of Karel Matěj Čapek-Chod, The Slavonic and East European Review 2000, vol. 78, no. 2 [April], pp. 267–300, and Images of the Prostitute in Czech fin de siecle Literature, The Slavonic and East European Review 1997, vol. 75, no. 2 [April], pp. 234–258). In the States, the historian Catherine David-Fox studied the relations between the Czech modernist enclave and the European centres, and the projection of nationalist conflicts into the Czech modernist debate. (Thesis, The 1890s Generation: Modernism and National Identity in Czech Culture, 1890–1900, Yale University 1996, cf. also her articles Czech Feminists and Nationalism in the Late Habsburg Monarchy: The First in Austria, Journal of Women’s History 1991, vol. 3, no. 2 [Fall], pp. 26–45, Vltava Diverted: The Czech Crisis in Antonín Sova’s The River, East European Politics and Societies 1992, vol. 6, no. 2 [Spring], pp. 170–190, and Prague–Vienna, Prague–Berlin: The Hidden Geography of Czech Modernism, Slavic Review 2000, vol. 59, no. 4 [Winter], pp. 735–760. Scott Spector recently published an extensive analysis of the Prague contexts of Bohemian German literature, mainly from the perspective of German studies. (S. Spector, Prague Territories. National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka’s fin de siècle, University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London, 2000.)

This does not really have to do with the fact that the key works of the past thirty years have not been translated. They were and are available in the major languages of the world. One can argue as to whether or not it is necessary for the development of the field to translate retrospectively the major theoretical and historical works (as Czech scholars have always insisted). Perhaps this is a luxury. Perhaps translators should focus on contemporary works in the humanities. In this connection, one can appreciate the undertakings of the Barrister&Principal publishing house. From the major work by C. E. Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna. Politics and Culture (1961/1979, Czech trans. 2000), it has moved on to recently published works, as has the Carolinum publishing house, in particular its historical and sociological edition plan (Gary B. Cohen, P. Bourdieu).

I shall not treat the new collections of older articles, such as the posthumous publication of Dialogy o kráse a smrti [Dialogues about Beauty and Death, 1999] by Lumír Kuchař, an excellent anthology of short texts, which also includes an edition of correspondence and other material related to J. Karásek, M. Marten, Z. Braunerová and others. Likewise, I shall not treat V. Tomek’s publications with a historical focus (for example, Ve jménu svobody. Ideje a proměny českého anarchismu na přelomu 19. a 20. století [In the Name of Freedom. Czech Anarchism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries], Manibus Propriis, Prague 1999) or J. Růžička’s lengthy monograph on H. G. Schauer (Litomyšl 2002), the work of long years of study.

The literary history section in the work on Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic, Sen o říši krásy [Dream of the Realm of Beauty], which takes no account of the research to date and repeats the conventional mystifications, is of an inferior standard.

Likewise, in contrast to Zajatci hvězd a snů, the historian Pavel Marek’s work had the merit of an overarching authorial point of view (for example, Český katolicismus 1890–1914. Kapitoly z dějin českého katolického tábora na přelomu 19. a 20. století [Czech Catholicism 1890–1914. Chapters from the history of the Czech Catholic camp at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries], Gloria, Rosice 2003). He looked at his subject from a historical perspective, drawing on extensive study of the sources, and thus made a significant contribution to the study of Catholic modernism and its counterparts. In many respects, he repaired the interpretive violence done by M. C. Putna’s book about Catholic literature, in particular the section on the turn of the century (Česká katolická literatura v evropském kontextu 1848–1918 [Czech Catholic Literature in the European Context 1848–1918], Torst, Prague 1998). Other studies by P. Marek are also relevant to the subject (Apologetové nebo kacíři [Apologists or Heretics], 1999, and his book about K. Dostál-Lutinov (with L. Soldán, 1998). One should also mention works by S. Batůšek (Katolická moderna [Catholic Modernism], 1996, Přátelství básníků [The Friendship of Poets], 1997).

In many respects, these publications with a thematic focus have repaired the damage done by a phenomenon I would call the “conference plague” (the same applies for conference proceedings). Although the organisers strive for a thematic cohesiveness that might contribute to discussions in the field and a deeper understanding of the given phenomena, one is usually faced with digressions and arbitrariness, given the egotism of scholars of Czech literature. Often it seems to me that the contributors will do no more research on the topic than is necessary for a fifteen-minute presentation, which, like the other presentations, doggedly insists on its own point of view. In this context, innovative contributions either go unnoticed or seem, paradoxically, “inappropriate” among the dozens of incidental papers.

O. M. Urban’s assertion that, “particularly in Procházka’s case, one sees a new form in its early, chaotic phase”, seems overstated, more wishful thinking than anything else. It may contradict the analysis outlined by Luboš Merhaut, who treated Procházka’s collection as a programme or manifesto of decadence in Bohemia, a literary supplement to the theoretical postulates of “absolute decadence” (p. 67).

Two years ago, Otto M. Urban published an art-history monograph on Karel Hlaváček, the fruit of ten years of study on Hlaváček the artist. (Urban was one of the few contributors to the anthology about Moderní revue to produce a partial summary of his conclusions.) Neither art nor literary historians paid it much attention, despite the fact that it included virtually all of Hlaváček’s artwork, a considerable amount of his criticism and an analysis of Hlaváček’s highly contemporary imagery in relation to 20th century art-history motifs. At the very least, one has to appreciate the effort that went into the biography of Hlaváček. In my opinion, the overall design of the monograph was symptomatic: the attempt to create a highly detailed mosaic often obscured the features that accounted for Hlaváček’s originality. As a result of the almost obsessive fascination with particulars, these substituted for the context, even in places where one might have expected to find an art-history interpretation. For example, the fine summary of Hlaváček’s ornament and graphic techniques invariably tended towards a confusion of observations on other matters. As for the terminological crisis, the first chapter about decadence was symptomatic: instead linking contemporary and later interpretations. “There is no simple, universally accepted definition. In studies of decadence one finds a wide spectrum of views,” Urban repeatedly insisted. But he did not manage to produce even an approximate definition out of the network of parallels and context. (Otto M. Urban, Karel Hlaváček. Výtvarné a kritické dílo [K. H. Artwork and Criticism], illustrations and texts edited by O. M. Urban, prepared for publication by Dagmar Magincová, Arbor Vitae in collaboration with the Egon Schiele Centre in Český Krumlov, Prague 2002.)

In addition, Thyrsus followed up on the short but informative work by A. Zach on the history of publishing (Nakladatelská pouť Jiřího Karáska ze Lvovic [The Publishing Pilgrimage of J. K.], 1994), and the cultural history guide Stopami pražských nakladatelů [On the Trail of Prague Publishing Houses], 1996, with the publication of a study on the circulation of printing blocks with artwork by F. Kaván for Nový kult (Příběh štočků [A Story of Printing Blocks], 2002). Bit by bit, the history of modernist book culture at the turn of the century acquired depth in Zach’s bibliographical works on cultural history. In his solidly systematic texts, traditionally marginalised phenomena were shifted to the centre of attention (thanks also to the sophisticated, detailed and yet concise work at Thyrsus). Zach is no ardent bibliophile, but rather a historian, who, through his focus on detail, presents segments of the reality of cultural production – the working day of the aesthetic endeavour.

This is an important resource for scholars, however; thus far, very few authentic materials shedding light on Karásek’s youth have been identified. This collection of letters is the first more extensive set of his correspondence to be published.

“The short, fragmentary non-stories have all the features of Art Nouveau – lyricism, visual and rhythmical ornamentation. Surfaces are filled with the colourful shapes of flowers and trees, lifeless things; the narration flows through rippling shades of repeating natural and urban motifs. Plot is restricted (insofar as it appears in the texts, it disturbs their magnetic suggestiveness). Plot is entirely subordinate to the curves of ornament” (93).

For that matter, R. B. Pynsent’s article on the theme of transition (Česká literatura 36, 1988, pp. 168–181) has been cited incorrectly in a number of publications discussed above. The title is K mortologii české dekadence (interstatualita) [The Mortology of the Czech Decadent Interstate], and not K morfologii… [The Morphology…].

Cf. Rolf Tiedmann, Einleitung des Herausgebers, in W. Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, Gesammelte Schriften V/I, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1982, p. 13.