Bohemian Rhapsody

Why Prague fascinates the world.

Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes From the Life of aEuropean City
By Peter Demetz
Hill & Wang; 352 pages; $25

The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality inPractice
By Václav Havel (translated and with an introduction by Paul Wilson)
Alfred A. Knopf; 288 pages; $24

Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, but is it the capital, in addition, of something purely abstract, a quality of mind perhaps–something that might fascinate a puzzled world? Every great city is constructed around a principle all its own–a principle of brute strength in one case, of sensuous delicacy in another, of majesty somewhere else, and mad chaos elsewhere. In Prague, the principle appears to be metaphysical. The entire town seems to have been laid out according to the cosmologies of the Greek myths. Crowds of humble mortals stride the pavements down below while, three or four stories above, on the façades of buildings, a very different crowd of carved stone beings, the Olympian gods and goddesses, throng the upper air, in clear illustration of the dualistic character of all existence: mortals below, immortals above, flesh here, stone there; the ever-changing, the everlasting.

The Olympian sculpted beings come in fantastic varieties. You see winged nymphs and angels, arrow-bearing cupids, fabulously sensual and muscular naked women and men, enslaved Titans bearing the weight of entire lofty buildings on their sinewy backs, bearded philosophers, heroic Communist proletarians, and famous statesmen. On a narrow street in the old Jewish quarter you gaze upward at the cornices and see, of all creatures, the Three Musketeers, direct from the pages of Alexandre Dumas. Just when you were expecting Maimonides! Around the corner, on the roof of a theater, a chariot and team of wild horses are frozen in eternal petrifaction on the brink of hurtling suicidally off the roof, quite as if the immortals, too, have their traffic problems. But what is the meaning of this strange dualism in Prague? Are we to conclude that it is a city of mysteries that will never be fathomed–a city of mysticism and the occult? Or is Prague the capital of reason and lucidity, of light and simplicity–the urban counterpart to the ancient Greek philosophers?

The mystic interpretation–Prague as the city of Kabbalists and demons, of Rabbi Loew and his clay android, the Golem–arose in the late 19th century. It was a bit of late Romanticism, which flourished in English literature, then in German cinema, and reached an apogee of acceptance in 1973 in a stylish volume by Angelo Maria Ripellino called, after a phrase by André Breton, Magic Prague. But the mystic interpretation is exactly what Peter Demetz, a professor of German at Yale, wishes to counter in his own Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes From the Life of a European City. Demetz’s Prague is the city of the late-16th century Emperor Rudolf II (a scientific-minded man, though he did go mad at the end) and the 19th century logician Bernard Bolzano. And it is the city of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš G. Masaryk, in the years after World War I. Masaryk was a professor devoted to the soberest of rational doctrines and the most liberal of sensibilities–the champion, in fact, of American pragmatist philosophy, whose influence he reinforced by importing, direct from Brooklyn, N.Y., a faithful American wife. All of which Demetz admires with an unmistakable passion, for reasons that remain mysterious until the later chapters of the book, when he at last reveals a few pertinent facts about his own life and early experiences.

Demetz, it turns out, is himself a son of Prague. Even now he keenly remembers, from his boyhood days, the funeral procession of President Masaryk, trudging in eerie silence through the city streets in 1937. And Demetz remembers how the Gestapo, a few years later, held him prisoner because of his Jewish mother (his father was Christian). He toiled at forced labor in a special camp for half-Jews. Prague’s tradition of lucidity and reason is, for Demetz, the alternative to ethnic hatred and superstitious bigotry. Lucidity and reason are the ground for liberal politics and for everything that has made Prague, during its better periods, a city of ethnic tolerance and color; and when Prague has undergone worse periods, it is because lucidity and reason have gone down in defeat.

I sympathize with Demetz. I am glad to have his Prague in Black and Gold as a sober corrective to the tipsy lyricism of Ripellino’s Magic Prague. Demetz’s attention to Prague’s Jewish past especially interests me. But I would like to know: What has Prague become in more recent times? The Nazis had their moment, and likewise the Communists, whose special contribution was to enforce a tyranny of irrationalism in the name of rationalism. But times are different now. Does that make Prague at last the city that Demetz, from his exile’s home in New Haven, Conn., has always yearned for? This he doesn’t tell. His Prague in Black and Gold wends its way from the Middle Ages through the uprisings of 1848 and the presidency of Professor Masaryk only to halt, as if stupefied by fear, on the brink of World War II. And so, to get an idea of today’s Prague, we have to open a different book, the new volume by President Masaryk’s institutional heir, Václav Havel, the current president of the Czech Republic (now that the Czechs and the Slovaks have gone their separate ways, and Czechoslovakia is no more).

H avel’s book, immodestly called The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice, is a collection of his presidential addresses from 1990 to last year–which, in the case of any other president, would be a dreary thing. Havel, though, is a genuinely talented writer (even if it has lately become fashionable to say otherwise), and presidential addresses are, for him, merely the latest of his literary genres, following on the plays that he wrote in his younger years and the political essays from his dissident period in the 1970s and 1980s. There is a lightness to these speeches. You feel the man’s personality. He worries out loud about his principles. Is he selling out? The speeches are philosophical. He, too, frets over the relation of the rational to the nonrational.

Havel worries that mankind may have put too much faith in the rational–that, in our cult of logic, we fail to recognize that some things lie beyond our understanding. “The more systematically and impatiently the world is crammed into rational categories, the more explosions of irrationality there are to astonish us,” he says. “We must try harder to understand rather than to explain. The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions, to be applied to reality from the outside; it is also in seeking to get to the heart of reality through personal experience.”

Does this place Havel on the anti-rational side of the metaphysical divide? In certain passages, he does seem to flirt with a mystical approach. The ghost of Martin Heidegger flits about his pages. Elsewhere, though, Havel seems merely to favor a modesty about analytic thought and what it can achieve–which is an attitude that conforms to the spirit of philosophical pragmatism, John Dewey-style. If Havel were a philosopher, it would be fair to demand that he clear up this ambiguity. Mystic or pragmatist–which is it? Ripellino’s Prague or Demetz’s? Havel is a literary man, however, and ambiguity frightens him not at all. You make your way through his presidential speeches exactly as you would through the streets of Prague, trying to reconcile opposites and, in a mood of metaphysical unease, never quite succeeding. That is Havel’s charm, and Prague’s.