Professor Lubomír Doležel – now retired doyen of Czech Studies in Toronto

Lubomír Doležel, photo: Barbora Kmentová

Professor Lubomír Doležel, who was born in the Moravian village of Lesnice in 1922, is an internationally respected academic best known for his pioneering work in literary theory and linguistics. After three years at the University of Michigan in the second half of the 1960s, he was invited to the University of Toronto, where he established the study of Czech language and literature. On Friday Professor Doležel received the Czech Foreign Ministry’s Gratias Agit prize for promoting the good name of his native country.

At a reception after the awards ceremony, I asked him how much interest there was in Czech Studies in North America today.

“The interest in languages of small countries like the Czech Republic is very much dependent on the international political situation, and on the particular situation of that particular country.

Lubomír Doležel,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“Czech Studies in Toronto in Canada started in 1968, precisely because there was great interest about developments in the Czechoslovak Republic during the so-called Prague Spring.

“We established then in Toronto a Bohemistic Studies programme in language and literature, ranging from the bachelor’s degree all the way up to doctoral degree.

“That’s still available. But the situation is not good now. Not only for Czech Studies, but also in general for Slavonic Studies in North America.”

So is it the case that the end of the Cold War did damage to the profile of these languages?

“Precisely. It’s a terrible paradox and is something which unfortunately is true, that during the Cold War, during the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, the American military establishment was interested in training many people in Russian.

“There was a very, I would say, rich, a very well endowed grant from the ministry of defence, from the Pentagon, so that Slavic Studies were paradoxically flourishing when political relations were languishing.

“Now it’s very difficult to say and predict, because you know that relations between the US and Russia are wobbly, it could turn either way, though now hopefully it’s improving.

“The trouble is that the Czech language is always a part of this general trend of Slavonic Studies, or Slavic Studies as they call it in North America, because it belongs in departments of Slavic Studies everywhere.”

I’m curious if in the past some at least of the people signing up to do Czech Studies would have been the children of Czech émigrés, which I guess there aren’t any more.

“Definitely. In fact there was a situation after ’68 where these children represented more than half the population in our classes. But it was not really a blessing. We didn’t know really what to teach them. They spoke Czech, so mostly we focused on literature, which they didn’t know, or on general Czech grammar, which they didn’t know.

“But we didn’t have to teach them how to speak Czech. And for some of them even writing Czech was alright, because they were 15, 16 years old when they arrived. But now this source has dried up, completely.”

This may be a stupid question, but is there a difference in the level of interest in Czech Studies in the US and Canada?

“I really couldn’t judge that properly, because I would have to be more involved, which I am not, in following developments in Czech Studies in the United States.

“I only know that at this very moment the Czech programme in Toronto is doing well, surprisingly well. There is a new professor who succeeded me. Her name is Veronika Ambros. She is a…favourite teacher and has a very good knowledge of Czech literature, culture, language and so on.

Veronika Ambros
“I think she keeps the Czech Studies in very good shape. But the trouble is we don’t know what will happen when she will retire.”

What particular aspects of Czech Studies are particularly popular with students?

“Well, I think it is mostly history, cultural history, literature and with a few students have to be linguistically talented to enjoy studying grammar, like studying mathematics. So I would say in that order.”

How has the internet affected the teaching of Czech Studies?

“The internet? Certainly not in direct ways, although indirectly we now have many Czech texts online, so that they don’t have to be typed always, we have a lot of mutual information about other programmes, about ourselves…”

But don’t the students have much, much more access to realie? They can watch Czech TV, listen to Czech radio…

“I tell you…shortly after the end of the Cold War, or just before the end, the Centre for Slavic Studies in Toronto installed a direct transfer of Soviet television and it was extremely popular. It had been practically inaccessible, but here you had it on a platter.

Gratias Agit prize,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“But today I think it’s more a matter of individual interest. Every student can hook on to any Czech newspaper, practically, to television channels…

“Especially I think what has to be appreciated are the screenings of new Czech films, which are done in Toronto regularly. The popular Czech films here like Protector or Kawasaki’s Rose, etceteras, are well known over there.”