Vaclav Cilek: "Prague: Between History and Dreams" - digging through the layers of an ancient land

Vaclav Cilek

"Relationships created over hundreds of years can't be easily destroyed - relationships to those complicated yet ordinary things: wood, soil, the landscape. The unique awareness in mind and heart of those things that form the essence of a place is called genius loci - something that cannot be given a name, but to which we always return." Welcome to Czech Books. Those were a few lines from the beginning of a fascinating new book by the 49-year-old Prague writer, geologist and philosopher, Vaclav Cilek. It's called "Prague: Between History and Dreams" and offers an extraordinary journey into the different layers of the past and present of Prague and the towns and countryside around. The book is full of unusual and quirky insights - historical details, legend, philosophical reflection and observations from everyday life - a refreshing alternative to the rather dull, ponderous style beloved of the writers of guidebooks. Vaclav Cilek is quite simply different. For a start, he is well known as the Czech Republic's foremost expert on tunnels, caves and catacombs. As he told me when he came to visit our studio last week, this fascination colours his writing.

Vaclav Cilek
"I was a caver, in fact, and I was in close touch with the earth. You are getting into the interior of the earth; you are touching the stones. I love the moss and so on. So in fact I have felt to be impregnated by something that I try simply to translate into words."

"Prague is a house with a thousand floors. We live on the upper four or five levels, only vaguely aware of the rest. Yet, thanks to fossils from Prokop valley, mushrooms from the Nebusice woods, and the age-old yew trees below Prague Castle, we can touch the mysteries of ancient lives and passions that have sprung from this magical place. The city reveals much of itself and keeps many secrets. We can move through it vertically - from one level to another - or horizontally, from place to place. Or we can experience it as a collection of atoms, an immense person - a living being. Prague lies just north of the geometric center of the historic kingdom of Bohemia, which, combined with Moravia, forms today's Czech Republic. The relationship between Prague and the rest of the country is so intimate that it is impossible to understand Prague without the Czech countryside, and without knowing Prague, it is impossible to comprehend the Czech Republic. Prague is located on a spot where continuous Slavic settlement goes back to at least 650 A.D. Before that time, twenty successive ceramic cultures, each with its own stories, music and ornaments, flourished and then died. Twenty lost civilizations, twenty Atlantises! Their spirit and art have disappeared into time immemorial."

In his interest in science Dr Cilek is no amateur. He is one of the Czech Republic's most respected geologists, director of the Geological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and his reputation in his own scientific field is every bit as strong as his reputation as a writer.

In "Between History and Dream", Vaclav Cilek is continuing a rich tradition in Czech writing of combining the arts and sciences - a tradition most famously reflected in the work of the immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub who died five years ago. One critic described Holub's poetry as "mathematics with blood in it", and there is something of the same in the writings of Vaclav Cilek and the way that he scrapes away at the history of the places around us.

"I believe that when you are coming to a place which has its own spirit of the place, or maybe let's call it the spirit of the time, then you should know how old it is, when it was built, not to get drowned in too much detail, but simply to have at least some basic information about what it is and how it functions. It is hard facts and hard dates, it is a kind of science, but the science is always just a part of knowledge, of the recognition of things. This is the rational part. And then are coming the irrational things, like ideas, dreams, reflections, poetry in fact. So I think that I am not the only person who thinks that if you want to grasp a kind of reality - let's call it that - you have to combine a science - in this case historical dates - with dream-like poetical reflection of the place."

"You may notice, by the Pohorelec tram station, a memorial of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. They had a small astronomy observatory in the garden of a nearby school. Emperor Rudolf II used to come here. Sharp-eyed Tycho Brahe was the best practical astronomer of his period, sitting over a pile of his collected astronomical observations but unable to sort it out. He lived like a knight: His house was always full and noisy, and he loved wine and good company. Johannes Kepler was the opposite - his weak eyes prevented him from observing the stars. His irregular salary was one-tenth of Brahe´s, and he sent most of his money to his wife. He loved humble evenings spent in solitude over mathematical formulae. He was not so much interested in astronomy as in harmonia mundi, harmony of the universe. His mind was sharp, he was the best theoretician of his era, and, in a house at the end of Charles Bridge, he discovered his two first laws of planetary orbits - the greatest scientific accomplishment ever made in Prague. Space travel, cell phones, and global positioning devices are all directly linked to this discovery."

"I have the feeling that there exist a kind of correspondence between your inner landscape or 'inscape' as I call it and the outer landscape, that both are influencing each other. If you want to know who you are, simply you can look out of the window and observe the landscape around you, and then you may start to understand yourselves without any psychoanalysis."

"Is the world established on some simple general mathematical principles according to which God built the universe? Kepler spent most of his life contemplating these questions. The search for the number six is described in Kepler´s book, Six-Cornered Snowflake, which marked the beginnings of scientific crystallography. One winter afternoon, walking down from a meeting with the emperor at the Castle, he observes the snowflakes falling onto his coat and counts the corners. There are always six. He asks himself, why six and not five or eight? Which principle selected the number six from all possible numbers? He speculates on the soul of the Earthb - does it have a cubic form, since a cube has six planes? Does this soul project its shape and the number six through the water vapor to form snow, influencing everything under Heaven?"

A passage from "Between History and Dreams", taking us to the 16th century Prague of Rudolf II. If you don't buy into the popular myth of Prague as a place of mystery and magic, this probably isn't the book for you, but I think that even the less romantic reader will find much of interest. One thing that appeals to me in Cilek's writing is the way that he makes connections. For example, in his chapter on the National Cemetery on Prague's Vysehrad, he offers some fascinating thoughts on the rise of nationalism in 19th century Europe reflected in this quiet corner of Prague. Elsewhere, he asks himself: why did Baroque sculptors in the 17th and 18th centuries fill churches with chubby and slightly distasteful statues of cherubic little boys? He offers a very humane answer. This was a time when three out of five children died, so mothers coming to church loved to imagine their children as fat, smiling and happy. Baroque kitsch turns into something humane and touching. Here is Vaclav Cilek's version of the story of the famous Infant Jesus of Prague.

"A Sacred Object Nearby, the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Malá Strana has a world-famous small wax statuette of Little Jesus of Prague at a side altar. The statuette is considered one of the most sacred religious objects of Bohemia. The Little Jesus came to Prague from Spain sometime after 1555 as a wedding gift. It was donated to the church in 1628 during the Thirty Year War. In 1639, the Swedish general Banner was planning an attack against Prague. In every church in Prague, monks were praying day and night, and in this church, the Carmelites held special services in front of the altar with the Infant Jesus statue. The small figure had previously been known to help people who had prayed before it, but this time it was asked to save an entire city. Just a few days before the attack, Banner unexpectedly withdrew his armies. The rumor was that a secret messenger visited and threatened him with some unknown disaster. A similar event occurred two years later near Regensburg, where Carmelites were praying in front of the copy of Infant Jesus. In both cases, people attributed the armies' withdrawal to the Son of God, mediated via the small wax statue. Copies of Little Jesus were exported by missionaries to Mexico and other countries. What is considered so miraculous about the image of the boy Jesus? Is it the transformation of a small, vulnerable child into a mighty King? The poetic image of a little boy traveling through a perilous world who overcomes danger and obstacles by gentleness and forgiveness was as powerful in Prague as among the Indians of Mexico. Here we are touching what is perhaps both the greatest strength and weakness of Catholicism—it is so impregnated with ancient imagery that one wonders if this kind of religion is a new form of paganism or a vast pool of sacredness where everyone can catch a fish of his or her own."

The Infant Jesus of Prague, in the city's Lesser Quarter. I'll end the programme with one more reading, this time from the very end of the book, where Vaclav Cilek reflects on the reasons why we need again and again to look for meaning in the fragments that remain of the past.

"The reasons we visit and return to historical places deserve consideration. Beyond the obvious beauty of the art of previous ages, there may be other reasons. Being no islands, we need to be connected to art, history and nature like knots on an ancient Oriental carpet. Historical places help us live more than one life. They evoke feelings from the depths of shared collective memory. Places are like mirrors and give us a new awareness of ourselves. Continually confronted with the mixture of sacredness, beauty, suffering and death, we realize that there is more than just one culture. We want to belong to this never-ending story. Ships are safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships were built for, according to a sign that I read on the door of a church. Heave the anchor! Travel, read, seek, and if you are lucky you will hear the echoes of voices that will still sound when fish swim in the cathedral."

Vaclav Cilek's "Prague: Between History and Dreams". The book is also illustrated with watercolours by the American architect Barbara Froula. If you want details about how and where to purchase the book, you can go to the website

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.