AN IMPOVERISHED ARISTOCRAT

Absolute silence pervades the hall, as if so much past cannot bear any sound because otherwise it would crumble, evaporate… a little cough, a pen scratching, the turning of leaves of parchment…

Cees Nooteboom, All Souls

__________________________

In a second-hand book store, near the old Jewish ghetto, I let my fingers run through a pile of old postcards. Someone in the street told me that there used to be more of such shops. “They’ve found a more lucrative use for these spaces”, he said, pointing on our left to a store with only kitschy glassware in the shop window and on his right, a little further on, to the facade of a modern cafe.

I realize that my finger is walking through a past reduced to antique post cards and old books, a finger attached to a body which itself has become second-hand. As mere tourist attraction all too many of those shops with only books and cards can’t survive. They are no longer a living part of a living city in which – like in all Postmodernity – the past is rubbed out as irrelevant. The collection of books, on the opposite side of the street, which I am now glancing through is obviously aimed at casual, hasty passers by, qua price and content tailored to a tourist crowd.

Finally I go back to the first shop an I choose not a book, but on an old postcard showing a jeep with soldiers and their officer plus some girls. On one of the caps the star of the Soviet Army is clearly visible. I realize that I have never had a photograph like this in my hands. Pictures that circulate in the so-called Western World may portray similar situations, but always with our liberators on them – Americans or Canadians.

If I did not realize it all too well, thanks to this postcard I am reminded of where I am in Central Europe, in the Czech part which already in the interbellum had been relatively ‘Western’, but which thanks to the fate of World War II had to figure as part of ‘Eastern Europe’ for more than half a century.

Prague should have been the Navel of Europe – the city where a united Europe could have been born. So many centuries dominated by foreign domination and lack of independence, thus a melting pot of peoples, religions, social classes and other influences. When Czechoslovakia became independent after World War I, the moment seemed to be there for a European history of federal unification. The autonomy of this country and of the city of Prague seemed symbolic of the birth of an autonomous Europe without discord, the produce of all these fructifying differences. A bit frivolous, if not a little crazy as well – after all, Prague gave us Kafka.

Hitler aborted this fetus, the Great Powers stood by and watched. Subsequently they were the midwives of its miscarriage caused by the Soviet Union. Prague had never been itself, except for its few years of democratic independence before the war, it had always been part of a greater power in which it was subordinate. Since Hitler’s take over it was once more occupied. Then again by the Soviets. The question is whether Prague will be independent now, after its Velvet Revolution of ’89.

As the dweller of my beloved Amsterdam I recognize the hatred in Praguers’ eyes with which they look upon the tourist invasion. Precisely at the moment when at last they seem to have freed themselves and could now posses their own town, the city runs the risk of being stolen once again, this time by the migrants of the new economic world, these peaceful soldiers with their money and their planes – the tourists. Just as Amsterdam is stolen from us in the months between April and October.

This afternoon is spend by my companion and me to visit a member of a Bohemian nobility run to seed. This former Lady is the friend of a friend of my American friend, who is now an old woman – for Americans, so it seems, a very good reason to pay a total stranger a visit. Overcome by vicarious embarrassment I dress up in evening wear, even though the reception is round one o’clock. The old lady, whose title remains obscure during our visit, inhabits in a coach house in the courtyard of what probably used to be one of Prague’s palaces. She’s certainly old enough to have forgotten that we came, however she manages to camouflage her surprise in a sovereign manner.

She tells us how she has slowly renovated this former gorgeous coach house as well as a stable and transformed them into this rather tasteless chain of connected rooms. En suite is perhaps the right word, in this case also a flight from the past. This is interesting to hear, as under the communist regime all the land and all the buildings had become state property – including also this building. How she got it remains a mystery, asking this would be too much, after all one is received today. And her principal interlocutor is my friend who is the American friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend.

Going through the elongated house we pass what unmistakably is a separate apartment. Of course we can have a look, ‘the people staying here, friends of mine, are out now’. Thrice during the interview she repeats this story about ‘friends staying with her for some time’. Then, suddenly, I see through all this. The truth is that, in order to survive, our hostess lets this part of her house as a rented and furnished apartment which has been specially designed as such. Noblesse oblige – an aristocrat cannot be a landlord, so all tenants must be ‘visiting friends’.

Then she starts to tell us, as an aside, how for many years she has guided tourists around Prague’s churches, again suggesting that this is some sort of hobby. Everything points towards a paid job, done to make a living. Then we enter a room where the floor is strewn with pieces of paper that together make up a huge map. One is reminded of Borges’ story in which the mapmakers of the King propose to create a map the size of all the King’s territory. You can see different heights of land indicated and legenda that indicate villages and farms. Only a few minutes ago, the old lady was complaining how she was unsure if she could continue to live in her carriage house, after the new democratic order was installed.

After half a century of state-owned country-seats all the old owners of houses and land begin to reclaim their property. Our Lady is part of this movement. She explains that the map on the floor outlines the former estate of her family, about eighty kilometers southeast of Prague. She is also busy to accurately record which part of the Czech Republic is hers, in order to let her children have their inheritance.

 

One of the Bohemian castles

Is this then irony, a double revenge on the aristocracy? First our Lady and her family were expropriated by the Soviets and lost their estate; then she ‘expropriated’ a coach house belonging to another noble palace and lived in it; now in its turn this house is again expropriated by the new republic, perhaps to be given back to another former noble; and she reclaims her former castle.

Nothing in her behaviour or speech indicates that she is aware of her ambiguous state of affairs. What she does, is bewailing the fact that under communism artisans have disappeared and that the workers are no longer motivated. She is convinced that everything is still fine in The West – stating this as if the new Czechoslovakia is not yet part of it, as if she expected from that quarter unmistakably traditional workman’s support for her new building plans. She seems to want to have her cake and eat it: Remaining in the coach house as well as recuperating the old estate, living in the future as well as living in the past.

Timidly I attempt to explain her the contents of my PhD on labour discipline and work motivation, which concludes that with us there has also been quite a change. In vain. Being a sensible citizen, I comply with the prejudice of my current mistress. Thanks to her old age she may not live to see how her new won world will be swamped by our Western indifference.

All this reminds me of Tucholsky’s book with photo’s: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles… My old Praguer aristocrat is not the only one who reflects on her past and, like Alice in Wonderland, would like to disappear in a whole. One of the pictures that Tucholsky offers his reader shows two men with bloodied heads, both equipped with leather cuirasses. His text tells you that these are two judges in the year 1940, who inflicted one another with what in German is called a traditional Schmiss – a cut in the face of members of the Teutonic upper classes, the sign of virile resilience. The cold heart was obviously well shielded while they marked the other with this emblem of medieval chivalry, this in an era when the German factories were engaged in the assembly line production of the most abominable modern automatic weaponry.

 

Tucholsky himself, with ‘Schmiss’

In another photograph which Tucholsky titled ‘Democracy’, you observe a set of little shields next to a door frame of undeniable allure. The first one reads: Nebeneingang für Boten u. Dienstpersonal, dort – Entrance for delivery personnel, servants over there – complete with an index finger for those who did not read or understood the word dort. Beneath this little text we read: Aufgang, nur für Herrschaften – Entry, only for gentlemen.

Too bad that during my visit I did not bring such a beautiful enamel plate with me, I would have liked to offer it as a gift for my Prague Lady. Tucholsky hit nails on their head, such a man he was. A third photo shows a collection of carriages on which he comments: ‘Revolutions used to be simpler. The symbols were so convenient then. The palace of a ruler … the Bastille … golden carriages. Help yourself, please. But today …?’.

Mrs. W…rova, as I will call her here, admittedly lives in her carriage house, but has no carriages anymore. However, there are what seem to be genuine and costly icons hanging against her rather vulgar wall of wooden laths. Will shehave to come in possession of her estate, once more, to be able to hang them properly and then leave them to her children or even grandchildren who in turn will fall prey to a postmodern revolution in their heads?

Poor Europe! Goodman invented the expression ‘the moral geography of the city’, a map not coloured in with houses, shops, streets, squares and stations. Thus a world filled with natural goods, but as a chart with places highlighted for the opportunities they afford one’s erotic impulses. A geography of emotions.

Something like this must have moved Ingeborg Bachmann to write these verse:

Liegt Böhmen noch am Meer, glaub ich den Meeren wieder.
Und glaub ich noch ans Meer, so hoffe ich auf Land.

[Is Bohemia still lying on the seaside, I shall believe in seas.
Believing in the sea, I hope to reach the coast.]

Bohemia by the sea! Back home, I will greet gulls flying on drizzly winds. When my trains enters Amsterdam Central Station, I shall realize that only at that moment do I arrive in Bohemia. Prague is Amsterdam is Venice… Ai, this postmodern world of indifference – that is what it is, despite all these postmodernist philosophers of ‘difference’ of ‘différance’. Perhaps not yet so really, but certainly in the making. Wishful thinking – fearful thinking.

The lonely, blasphemous prayer of an atheist in Prague, accompanying a hard-won candle bearing the image of Our Lady:

Maria Stella Maris

light on dark, open oceans
intellectual, skipper without god
no sextant
course unknown

Consolatrix

take me afar
but never to the mainland of securities
protect my doubt
make her stronger

Amen

Sierksma, summer 1991

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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