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Prague on the Vltava

New York used to be my favourite city, until I discovered Istanbul. Along the way I visited Prague (in 1999), and was fleetingly charmed by this Bohemian city on the Vltava, but my experience was vitiated by the stifling rationalism of the social theory conference I was attending at the time, where the Rawls and Habermas aficionados were not exactly welcoming to my Foucaultian poststructuralist approach to the social.

Now, on my second visit, I am discovering Prague, with my partner, as it should be experienced, bathed in the beneficent light of an interdisciplinary conference on the Arts and Sciences.

Prague is irresistibly beautiful, partly because it was spared the destruction of allied bombing during WW 2, which left its astonishing architecture intact, spanning a history from the early middle ages to the present. And because it is human history, it was at times as bloody as any other nation’s history. Small wonder that, in an interview, Michel Foucault rejected the idea that human affairs can be adequately grasped by means of the model of meaning, or language; for Foucault a better model is that of battle or war, because humans are always trying their best to wield power over others. (Anyone who doubts this, should take the time to view Godfrey Reggio’s film, Naqoyqatsi – A World at War – where even sporting and business relations are presented as a variety of merciless war).

It is probably because Prague is so advantageously situated in central Europe that it has always been a contested city. The Premyslid family, its first ruling elite – which was apparently founded by the legendary Princess Libuse, its first ruler – was no exception to bloody internal strife; in 935 AD/CE Prince Wenceslas (who later became the Czechs’ most familiar patron saint) was murdered by Boleslav, his brother. The Premyslids were succeeded by the Luxemburgs, and under the rule of Charles IV – King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (1346-78) – Prague thrived. During his benevolent reign Prague exceeded London and Paris in size, and he is credited with establishing Charles University, the first in central Europe.

The Habsburg house succeeded the Luxemburgs, producing at least one ruler creative enough to bring the spirit of the Renaissance to Prague because of his love of the arts and the sciences, namely Rudolph II. No sooner had he died, however, than the terrible 30-year war between Protestants and Catholics was triggered in Prague (1618) by the defenestration (literally, the throwing out of a window) of two Catholic governors by Protestants at Prague Castle. Understandably, this war was followed by a serious cultural decline, until an 18th-century revival which continued into the 19th century.

Only in 1918 did Prague become the capital of a Republic independent from the Habsburgs, but it had to wait till the ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989, after enduring Nazi occupation during the Second World War, followed by four decades of repressive communist rule, before the city and the country would enter a new era of democracy with Nobel-Prize winning writer Vaclav Havel as its first President. Eventually capitalism would transform the city and its people – not always for the better. When I was here in 1999, not long after abandoning communism, there was still plenty of evidence of the hospitality that usually forms part of a collectivist mentality, while today everything carries a (usually quite hefty) price tag. One restaurant owner told us that in Europe only Paris is more expensive than Prague. Even the churches, which are free to enter in a city like Rome, charge an entry fee.

One encounters quite a lot of nihilistic art in Prague – a three-storey tall wall painting of layers of car-wrecks filled with skeletons, one upon one another, carries the caption: DEATH, and three huge, bronze sculptures of babies in a park have heads without noses and eyes, with bar-codes where these organs should be. Similarly, on the steps leading up a hill into a park overlooking Prague, five nude bronze figures of a man, one diagonally behind the other, show progressive signs of erosion, so that the last one only has two tattered legs left. The meaning is not difficult to decipher, and is consonant from one artwork to the next: in each case, one witnesses a variation on the theme of dehumanisation. And in the present century of increasing signs of technophilia, at the cost of a genuine appreciation of being-human, it is eerily accurate – in fact, it has already been proposed in the US that, for ‘security reasons’, infants should be barcoded; human identity being exchanged for a cipher.

This kind of art is appropriate in a city which, not even a century ago, was still home to Franz Kafka, that master of the absurd in the art of the novel. Visiting the little house where Kafka lived for some of his short life in what is now called Golden Lane, near the splendid Gothic cathedral of St Vitus, situated within the walls of Prague Castle, is to experience a kind of sensory oxymoron. After all the Gothic beauty and testimony to ecclesiastic-architectural and political power, the humble space of Kafka’s home, where novels as significant as The Castle and The Trial were penned, unrecognized for some time to come, impresses on the visitor the contrasts constituting the fabric of human life, which sometimes shift unpredictably as time passes – today those two novels are acknowledged as belonging to literature of the highest quality.

Prague’s history is resplendent with many more creative figures than the few that I have mentioned so far, of course; too many to list here. Suffice it to mention only a few more. Mozart lived here for a while, and played on, among others, the organ in Dietzenhofer’s 17th-century Church of St Nicholas – the most opulently decorated representative of the high baroque in Prague, where some of the most important paintings in Prague are to be seen, too, namely the so-called Passion cycle by Skreta. Unlike many paintings of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and the subsequent Pieta, this series captures the darkness and abjection of the event graphically and movingly.

One should not forget Dvorak and Smetana either – two composers without whom the history of music would be the poorer, as would the history of cinema without the film that inserted Czech culture into the history of cinema – Jiri Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains of 1966. Nor could one forget Nobel Prize-winning playwright and recently deceased President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. And in the world of tennis, Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl carved a memorable space.

Most recently, of course, that marvellously hedonistic novelist, Milan Kundera, has alerted literary-minded people all over the world of the existence of the Czech people, and of their chequered history, including communism, which was briefly given a ‘human face’ by Alexander Dubcek in the 1960s, before the Russians forcefully re-imposed their brand of repressive, orthodox communism. Even people who have not read Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being may recall the dramatic entry of Soviet troops into Tomas and Teresa’s Prague as it was presented in the film based on the novel.

It goes without saying, therefore, that Prague is well worth a visit, but be prepared to cough up more than the customary South African prices for food – good coffee costs about double (cappucino three times) the price we pay at home. At least the beer is not everywhere expensive (if one avoids the places where the tourists are ‘milked’), and includes what is probably the best in the world: the original Pilsner Urquell.