153. The Hidden Geography of Czech Modernism

Katherine David-Fox and Steven Beller

Katherine David-Fox comments:
Although most Czech literati of the 1890's generation rejected the possibility of emigration, and indeed rarely left Bohemia, these writers complained of an ideological and aesthetic claustrophobia in their native land. Much of the decade between 1890 and 1900 was marked by their rebellion against the "official" national culture and various normative categories associated with the national movement.

In the work and thought of the young generation, I identify a shift in the symbolic and strategic function of Prague. Earlier 19th-century Czech intellectuals and politicians were intent on fortifying a Slavic Prague as the "central place" of Bohemia and the Czech nation. For the modernist of the 1890's, Prague acquired a new role, as a component of a European city-network.

My research, in summary, illuminates two roads to European urban centers which 1890's writers pursued and, in each case, the corresponding vision of modernist culture represented by this road. A "road to Vienna" took shape as a connection between the Czech journal Rozhledy in Prague and Die Zeit in Vienna, the latter founded by the trend-setting Jung-Wiener Hermann Bahr. The person most responsible for cultivating this connection was also the most important Czech literary figure in Vienna, the poet, Josef Machar. The second path was the "road to Berlin," represented by the intense literary relationship between Stanislaw Przybyszewski, the Polish writer who was at the center of Berlin modernism in the mid-1890's, and ArnoŠt Procházka, the editor of the Czech journal, Moderní revue.

Both of these developments can be viewed not only as a way out of a provincial national culture, but as an attempt to come to terms with the German-speaking worldCan indirect answer to the central problem in Czech history. I also argue that these two roads represent two orientations in European modernism in general, with the Vienna road embracing political and social responsibility and the Berlin road reinforcing the apolitical, sensual, and decadent currents in Czech culture.

Steven Beller comments:
Katia David-Fox has provided a most interesting account of how Czech modernists tried to make contact with the international world of fin-de-siécle modernism through the at first surprising, but on second thought obvious, cultural entrepôts of Vienna and Berlin. After all, the Czechs were not supposed to be interested in the German-speaking world; on the other hand, German and German literature was the "sea" they had to cross to get to the rest of Western Europe, and at the same time the medium by which they could reach it.

Her comparative description of the two German cultural capitals, as seen from a Czech modernist perspective, reminds me of the supposed discovery of the principle of abstract art, when Kandinsky is said to have praised a picture by Schmidt-Rottluff, only to realize that the picture was upside down on the easel. I say this because David-Fox describes how the more "progressive" Czech modernists found their connection in Vienna, with the writer Hermann Bahr, in his role as co-editor of the progressive, left-liberal periodical, Die Zeit while the "decadent" wing of the Czech modernists found their connection in the "decadent" Berlin of Przybyszewski and his circle. She relates this all convincingly and, I think, correctly: there was a progressive, politically committed, left-liberal Vienna, with which Czech modernists could try to co-operate, and there was a "decadent" Berlin, which cultivated an aestheticist detachment from the ugly world of politics. What is so interesting about this "cultural geography," though, is that it is the absolute reverse of the relationship usually encountered in the literature about Berlin and Vienna.

Usually fin de siécle Vienna is seen, à la Schorske, as the center of a politically alienated, aestheticist culture, in which the sons of the bourgeoisie retreated from the hostile world of politics into the temple of art. Berlin, on the other hand is best known as the home of naturalism, of Hauptmann and the followers of Ibsen, and, while the transition from "modernist" modernism to "decadent" modernism has been chronicled here, Berlin is not generally seen as a city in which the cultural elite gave up any connection to politics and indulged instead in aestheticist decadence. David-Fox sees it in reverse, but she need not necessarily be wrong just because everyone else sees it the other way. Instead, I would suggest, we need to see the "cultural geography" of Central Europe in more than just the one dimension of bipolarities, or even the two dimensions of a network; instead we need as many dimensions as there were cultural groups, for each group could link up with a myriad of others, depending on the chance and circumstance of personal connection and the serendipity of perusals of journals (which might have been lying about the coffeehouse). The point is that there were "modern" and "decadent" modernists in both Vienna and Berlin. It just so happened that the Czech modernists got what in retrospect looks like the wrong end of the stick, but in reality there may not have been a "wrong" and a "right" end. The fact that the "modern" Czech modernists found their connection to progressive, politically committed Viennese modernism through Hermann Bahr is in many ways ironic. Bahr was the "Yellow Rolls Royce" of Vienna 1900, he is the narrative thread running through almost all the major moments of that story. He began as a German nationalist, a Wagnerian, became a socialist, then was to be found "overcoming naturalism" and proposing an "art of nerves" (where the Czechs found him), with at first some sort of pan-Austrian political agenda, but then pushing art as the surrogate for an Austrian identity. Then he went off and became religiously Catholic in Salzburg. By 1914 he could be found jumping onto a very Teutonic version of the Austrian war bandwagon, with his in retrospect embarrassing "Letter to Hofmannsthal;" by 1918 he was dramatic director of the Burgtheater, looking for Czech plays to stage. Then he was involved in the Salzburg Festival, and becoming more and more a conservative Catholic sage. His were not, in other words, very steadfast convictions. In many ways, he was the embodiment of the inconstancy of the modern spirit, but he was never all that convinced or convincing about the political side of modernism, for which the Czech modernists were so ardent. The people at Die Zeit who were politically committed to the sort of program the Czechs supported were Isidor Singer and Heinrich Kanner. It is an interesting thought, one which David-Fox suggested to me and which she might want to elaborate on, that in contacting Bahr the Czechs actually stumbled on the progressive liberal culture of the Jewish side of Vienna 1900, for both Kanner and Singer were Jewish.

This would be ironic on many levels, especially considering Machar's not infrequent antisemitic comments. First, in their drive to gain access to international modernism, the Czechs ended up going through the German "sea." Yet their contacts in Vienna–and Berlin–were arguably with either non-Germans &$40;a Pole) or with individuals who were seen as only questionably "German" by German nationalists: Singer and Kanner. At one point, David-Fox quotes the Czech writer Schauer as saying that Vienna was not truly cosmopolitan, for to be so one had to start off with some national identity. If Czech modernists wanted to be part of international modernism, but still as Czechs, the modernism with which they linked up, in Vienna at least, was part of "Jewish&$0148; Central Europe. If they tried as best they could to avoid German Jewish writers in Prague, they ended up finding them in Vienna. This sort of irony points to something very significant which emerges from David-Fox's presentation: there was not one monolithic Central European modernism, but many, even within the same national group, and within one city. Delineating the &$0147;cultural geography" turns out to be quite a complicated matter. This conclusion just shows how valuable the initial attempt of David-Fox to describe it has been.

Steven Beller and Katherine David-Fox spoke at an EES Habsburg seminar on February 18, 1998.


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