Professor Peter Steiner - finding water in the Deserts of Bohemia


In this week's programme we talk to Professor Peter Steiner, who wrote a fascinating book about Czech literature. He was born in Prague and left in 1968 to go to America. He taught at Michigan and Harvard before settling at the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches in the department of Slavic languages and literature.

Is there anything interesting you could tell us about your exodus?

"Not really. I was about 22 years old and was fed up with the system, so I skipped the town. I had many jobs: I was loading trucks in New York, I was a handyman, and then I got a fellowship at Yale and returned back to my intellectual pursuits!"

You've written a number of highly respected academic books, particularly on Russian Formalism, and the book we are particularly interested in today, an overview placing Czech literature in the 20th century, which is called 'The Deserts of Bohemia', which was published by Cornell University Press in 2000. What was the impetus for you wanting to write a book, which somehow gave a framework for Czech literature in the 20th century?

"Well, I know Czech literature rather well - or intimately - so I was very interested in the confrontation of ideas and decided that the dominant function of Czech literature is not an aesthetic or poetic one but rather a political one, so I wrote a book about it."

Something drove you to say that there was something very determining in the political context in terms of Czech literature, and that writers have been very involved in the political culture. For example, if you look at Capek and his relationship with Masaryk - or Havel of course.

"But you can look even further back - if you look that Czech literature was created as a social institution in the political process of constituting an imagined community. Czechia didn't exist, and to exist in the 19th century meant that they had to have their own literature. And so it is an institution that was used very politically. It was basically a social construct."

To focus on your book 'The Deserts of Bohemia', it's divided into six chapters, and you focus on writers throughout the 20th century, I was very interested in the first chapter, where you look at Jaroslav Hasek's 'The Good Soldier Svejk' in a very interesting way, because you link it metaphorically and etymologically with dogs, and through dogs to Kafka and also to Diogenes the cynic. Here's an extract from your chapter on Hasek:

In the world dominated by power, Svejk is an underdog, the object of manipulation and coercion by inimical social forces that constantly threaten his very existence. Yet, despite the tremendous odds against him, he passes through all the dangers unharmed. Svejk's mythical invincibiliity makes him a modern "epic hero" with whom his compatriots identify and of whose exploits they talk because they see in him "a modem Saint George, the hero of a saga of a single mind's triumph over the hydra of Authority, Regime, and System-of the mind disguised as feeblemindedness in the war with Absurdity in the guise of Wisdom and Dignity-the sense of Nonsense against the nonsense of Sense." And though, to an outsider, next to the spectacular stunts of ancient heroes Svejk's feat-his survival achieved through his own doing, without any embarrassing compromises with those in power-might seem rather trifling, the historical experience of a small nation sandwiched between Germany and Russia suggests to a Czech reader that it also might be an absolute miracle.

So this is the miraculous survival of the dog and the underdog. I'm going to leap ahead to your last chapter in the book, which focuses on Havel, a name well known to a western audience. This chapter focuses on a play he wrote called 'The Beggar's Opera', and you also wrote a preface to this English-language edition. This is of course a play that's known to a western audience, because it's originally an 18th century play by John Gay and then by Bertholt Brecht, earlier in the 20th century. What did Havel do with this story of the underworld? How did he use it to say something about the situation in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia?

"I think that what Havel did with Gay's original - and you know Gay's original is a brilliant play - he basically focused on a communicational disorder, which characterized Czechoslovak society in the 70s, and using this model of duplicitous communication, where it is very difficult to understand what the speaker is saying, because he has many aims in mind. He means what he says and simultaneously he does not mean what he was saying. So it is a very complicated, very laminated type of a discourse, where basically you have to guess what your interlocutor has in mind, and the more complicated it gets, the more difficult it is to realize what he means. So it is a chaos, a communicational chaos, in which virtually nobody trusts anybody else, which of course suits the authorities alright. As long as the population does not communicate or cannot communicate, it is a relatively pliable instrument. But on the other hand of course this is true also about the authorities, because at a certain moment the chain of command becomes equally difficult. So you can look at the end of the communist experiment as basically the disintegration of the chain of command within the Czechoslovak repressive mechanism. What triggered the so-called Velvet Revolution we will never know, because probably there are too many actors there with contradictory desires and inability to communicate - or unwillingness to communicate straightforwardly. In American English this is called a double-bind. 'Catch 22' by Joseph Heller made this famous, but I think that what Havel actually masterfully did was to emulate this communicative duplicity and to project it onto the text of Gay."

You wrote very interestingly about the premiere of the play in your introduction. Here is a bit from that, which contextualizes the text, as it were:

Three hundred friends privately invited to see the play had a hard time finding the obscure site of the premiere. It was quite comical, the wife of a prominent dissident who was in attendance told me: a number of cars were cruising around Horni Pocernice at dusk, but no one dared stop and ask for directions for fear that the event might be compromised. And Krob cleverly incorporated the audience's all-pervasive apprehension into his production of The Beggar's Opera, opening it with an act not envisioned by its author. This is how John Kean, with a penchant for the dramatic, describes Krob's creative improvisation that occurred just when everybody expected the performance to start:

A tall man with a menacing face stepped front stage from behind the drawn curtain. Artfully, in slow motion, he lit a cigarette, which glowed brightly in the darkness of the makeshift theatre....The speechless man carefully aimed a smoke ring in [the audience's] direction, then began eyeing them defiantly....He stared coldly at each person below and beyond the stage, beginning with the first row and working his way gradually sideways and backwards,one person at a time....By the time the third smoke ring cirded overhead, everybody present had the feeling that something was amiss. It seemed that trouble had entered the theatre-even that they might well each have to pay a heavy price for choosing to drive to Horni Pocernice....The man completed his sinister inspection, then slipped silently behind the curtain. Time seemed to stop, as if fate's turn had now come. The hearts of the audience thumped. Their brows sweated, their bottoms remained riveted to the creaky chairs.

This curious "inspector" was none other than Krob himself. And if his action brought into the open what would otherwise have remained hidden in the viewers' minds-the fear of secret police presence in their midst-they could have relaxed. Miraculously, there were no secret police on the premises that evening.

That extract wonderfully communicates the context in which so much Czech literature has been created in the 20th century, and I think that your book is a splendid and very imaginative, playful interpretation of some of the major writers of the 20th century. I think that anyone who has a familiarity with Czech literature would do well to read the book and learn a lot about the connections, the very complicated connections that there are.

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.