David Foster writes of the “reset” button. I wanted to thank him in a comment, but it lengthened. And as he begins with the mistranslation, I should begin with an apology: I still know no Czech. But a memory from the eighties came so powerfully, I wanted to share it.
In those years, we hosted various musical and academic visitors. My language incompetence was a difficulty: fluent English wasn’t always an aid in getting those visas. Often a scholar or musical group was substituted for the requested one; visa granting was erratic and subject to bureaucratic whims.
But I remember vividly a group sent to a conference, around 1983 or so. One of the local Czechs, a family dedicated to the language (the father had taught Czech at A&M, his brother at UT), invited them to visit their farm. The folk singers were given tea and cake; sitting in the farm’s front yard, with grasshopper pumps near the house and broad land and skies behind that, they chatted. But then, they stood and began singing acapella with deep and strong voices an old hymn – one they knew well, but never sang at concerts, they said. The resonance came from their hearts. I didn’t know the language and decades have come between. Perhaps it was this one (or this) . If not, the simplicity and clarity were similar. It was a breathtaking moment.
They – and other visitors – were surprised by the bumper stickers sold at festivals – S Panem Bohem (Go with God – similar to the English Godspeed) but was still said at parting by some of the older generation, speaking Czech-Tex, words long submerged as customs were defined by the Warsaw Pact.
Texas may be brash but part of its love for individualism is also a love for tradition, respect for the past – we sometimes forget how important that is, how it makes us resilient, and how necessary. Perhaps most of us consider religion of the highest importance in this heritage and the Czechs that settled here retained their religious roots more than in most other states (perhaps because it was settled by the more rural Moravians; the free thinking Bohemians tended to go to Chicago and spread out from there). Perhaps it is because rural life always remains closer to natural law, to religion, to the past, to the family. But the greeting itself – often rote, with only a dim sense of the religious – remained a reminder: one best forgotten when God – definer of custom, arranger of priorities, absorber of passions – was the state.
Skvorecky was at a later conference. The folk singers moved around him, none coming close. It was like he was dangerous – well, I suppose he was. There were always someone sent to report. Later, he caught the bitter sweet moment as another singer, standing at the edge of the deck, looked at a Texas sky.
In so many ways, our national mission has been to keep alive the distinctive America vision, the one of the founders. And we’ve done it in ways direct and indirect, conscious and unconscious, providing that tea and open farm yard to express an ancient belief. If we no longer do that, if we no longer leave spaces for conscience and belief and civility, if the state touches all as it did there, if it makes our language a series of evasions, then it isn’t just this country that has lost, but those that came upon the evidence of their own pasts, in a sense, something essential to who they are protected by the essential nature of who we are. Surprised by the bumper sticker, they were reassured. Surprised by the echoes of the old language in the new century, their sense of their identity was strengthened. I don’t need to spend much time worrying if Texas is a museum – it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain the past within its growing present. And that examples of a truly open society need to remain – not just for our sakes but that others can see it as possibility. And it always seemed a sign, somehow, that language could become, again, real – not a series of evasions.