Our culture comes to us through food and language. Food is sensual – pleasure and necessity; we remember the love with which a grandmother put a piece of pie in front of us, the thought of the groaning holiday table. And if food reinforces the sensual memories of our families, language allows us to see through a culture’s eyes, words filled with history and nuance, words coming from old derivations that are microcosms of our linguistic (and cultural) history. But for this time, let’s ignore those two and move on to the broader culture – music, art, movies, novels – that America both creates and synthesizes. Great art speaks to all of us, but each speaks to each of us. Some art doesn’t travel well; some artifacts move people of one culture far more than they do those of another – an incongruence between us, perhaps, in what we find “congruent” with reality. We pass our culture on to our children in off-hand remarks, the way we frame debates, the jokes we retell. We don’t do this consciously, but that culture saturates our conversations.
Another way of looking at the “tales that shouldn’t be told” is to see the superstitious “facts” as like the honor hypocrisy pays to virtue: in this case, subjectivity pretends to objectivity. People believe there should be reasons; they may be stupid but they aren’t unconscious, they aren’t fatalistic. They are merely grasping at what they want to be facts that sustain narratives they “feel” deeply. They’re lazy but they do want someone somewhere to have “proved” it. Blogs & google have restrained my worst tendencies that way – though I still have them. I suspect we all have certain narratives in the backs of our minds and so, without realizing it, that form is like a magnet for reinforcing data while contrary data isn’t attracted and never finds a place in our heads.
If we’re honest with one another and if we don’t only know people who have the same narratives we do, conversation can test our narratives. Sometimes, of course, we hold them so firmly that we just talk past one another. Still, sometimes we realize we’ve been fooling ourselves. Most often, I suspect, we find a larger pattern that was beyond our imagination. For instance, some find it impossible not to see the wealth of one nation taking from the wealth of another. They see a pie; they notice there are fewer pieces for them when the neighbors visit; they fit all into that narrative. But a broader, longer perspective throws that assumption into question.
Czech skepticism often seems at variance with the mid-western American culture that ethnic group did much to shape. The Cimrman plays provoke a laughter at a Middle-European absurdism. When Cimrman is voted the greatest Czech of all time, we realize how much the fun fits into the Czech narrative; the Czechs take pleasure in irony and like to keep a joke going. And how delightful is the pretense of this hero – moving through history, never noticed but always there.
Later, Woody Allen’s Zelig is similar, but this isn’t the usual strand of American humor. Still, those immigrants brought one thread in the many that woven together are our collective imagination. When we encourage eccentricity and intellectual diversity, we encourage that narrative as well as nothers. None of us will be sympathetic to all – indeed, that would lose the power of the multiplicity. If they don’t remain foreign and if we don’t retain an ability to treasure and nurture our own culture, we lose our ability to appreciate but also to test theirs. If we empty ourselves, we have nothing to offer. Perhaps we need to also note that this can only be maintained if we retain a universal respect and a universal individual responsibility for the communal good. We can, of course, only maintain our ability to imagine if we don’t see it as an ability to coerce others to this vision. So, of course, we return to the old idea – the open marketplace of ideas – but it is a marketplace of imagination, of culture, of realities that are somehow congruent with this one and therefore help us understand it better.
Many of us, even in our closest bonds, find ourselves outsiders, almost voyeurs. And I suspect that some of our differences, ones that in many ways enrich our lives and lead us to greater understanding and tolerance also make us feel a bit out of step, a bit alienated. We are always navigating the difficult waters between inclusion and exclusion, between the stasis of our home comfort zone and the adventure of the unknown ports.
And so, I come to my marriage. America’s “collective dreams” would be a good deal less complex and interesting if they didn’t include the dreams of people like my husband as well as my own. But I’m not always sympathetic. I think that has to do with the inchoate unconscious “collective dreams” Michael Yon described. We share a great affection for our country; both of us think of ourselves as primarily Americans, of course. But some archetypal surrealism pulls him in a way that it doesn’t me. This summer has brought that home yet again.
My youngest daughter has decided to turn her vacation into one long Milos Forman festival; her friends come over and they watch Fireman’s Ball, Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, Amadeus; today, she’s been watching Ragtime, both the first time through and then with the critic’s narration. Forman is a formidable talent; I can see that – the growth of these films as he gained recognition, budgets and stars is interesting. And I appreciate the fact that my teenager wants to see him grow, enjoying the old films as well as the new. But I feel, as I watch them, what I also feel as I hear the old polkas. The rhythm, the myth are not mine; I feel a resistance to Forman’s sense of malevolent or at least indifferent institutions, a chaotic & generally unfeeling world best approached with cynicism, the pointlessness of much that we do. But then I am also moved by a crowd singing Krasna Amerika, but not like I am by other lyrics and other rhythms. When the great Brave Combo comes out of the speakers at the Czech Stop in West on I35, where poppy seed loaves and sausage kolaches are sold 24/7, I laugh and think, well, this is great. But the rhythms of polkas are not the rhythms of my heart. And I’d just as soon keep the orchestra of accordions on a “I’ve heard there is one” level.
Thirty-five years ago I joined my life with a chronicler of this culture; for most of my previous life, his was one of the dominant ethnic groups in my world. And I do appreciate it intellectually – my respect is great for this small, stubborn, intellectual, musical, witty country. We’ve been lucky in seeing some of the old, tough guys – Josef Skvorecky (and here) was amazing. The documentaries of the Kaplans are moving. And “Call to Dudy” is just weird.
It isn’t that I don’t respect the heroes my husband does – they are quirky and interesting and incredibly stubborn and retain a quiet integrity with irony – but I don’t feel the kind of emotional response to their works I feel for others. I’ve inherited different icons and different heroes; my family looks at the world in a different way than his does. What we venerate, what seems true to us comes from the way our parents framed the world, comes from hundreds of years of history. Sometimes I suspect its become part of our DNA. Designs, artists jokes my old friends loved show up again in Tex-Czech culture.
Sometimes the old surfaces in an unpredictable way. For instance, my college roommate married a guy who began his education in a one-room schoolhouse in the Czech belt of Nebraska. At first, he and a friend (who ended up becoming a pretty good photographer) spoke no English. He eventually chose to do a master’s thesis on the Czech movies of the late sixties; he was attracted to an art form not developed until a couple of generations after his ancestors left Bohemia.
That farmer/scholar from David City had spent his whole life in America, his parents had before him. But that old culture’s modern artifacts spoke to him, somehow, as they do to my daughter, who is only half-Czech and that half has been in this country for well over a hundred years. These amuse me, but only up to a certain point. Then I find myself feeling that it isn’t just the language that is different but something else I can’t put my finger on but which I still feel, after all these years, only from the outside and only with my mind. But my daughters feel it from within.
The collective sense of a narrative is one congruent with reality as we know understand it. Let’s take for instance one of the great Czech literary heroes, the good soldier Svejk. This novel is witty and charming; we love Svejk – who is a bit of a con man and not unlike Brer Rabbit. He, too, finds that one of the best ways to be thrown in a briar patch is by pretending he doesn’t want it, by outsmarting the fox. So, he consistently wanders away from the front, while constantly asking directions toward it, proclaiming his desire to fight valiantly for the Austrian empire. (This is also the strategy of Charles Chesnutt’s “The Passing of Grandison” but, then again, it is always the strategy of clever people oppressed by less imaginative ones.) That this kind of inspiration has its uses is no doubt true. But that it is likely not to succeed when faced with real brutality is also true. The story has always been that a well-worn copy of the novel was left on the table beside piles of burned out cigarettes in the apartment of Jan Masaryk before he was pushed backward out of the high window – in what was long described as his suicide. Of course, everyone knew that Svejk’s is not the path of suicide; it is the path of quiet, ironic, even despairing resistance. Nor would that path seem strange to Havel, who informed an interrogator that he enjoyed their conversations because it gave him material for his plays – an irony that was apparently lost, since this was recorded as a sign of Havel’s willingness to collaborate; this opinion was not likely to come from someone who had actually seen (or at least understood) Havel’s plays.
Heroes – those people who help us find something within us – are understated in Czech literature and art. They are quirky. Certainly that is true of a current example of Czech sensibility: Cimrman. Every year the Czech Department at the University of Texas puts on one of his plays; back in Prague, the monthly productions of his works are immensely popular, people standing in line in the cold for tickets. Indeed, “[t]he affection which the Czech nation has for Jara Cimrman is so strong that he was recently voted the unofficial winner of a poll conducted by Czech television to find out who was the greatest ever Czech.” He was, however, disqualified, merely because he doesn’t exist. (Giving rise to petitions requesting he be re-considered since that that was but a minor objection.)
Cimrman, introduced n 1967. is the creation of Zdenek Sverak with his friend Jiri Sebanek. (Sverak was the protagonist and writer of the Oscar-winning Kolya, directed by his son.) Sverak explained to Collin O’Conner of Radio Praha:
I was shocked by it. [I was amazed that] Cimrman had infected this nation to such an extent that people would consider him as the greatest ever Czech. First and foremost, I would see it as an expression of our sense of humour. I also think the objective of this sort of survey is difficult. It’s hard to measure great Czech figures such as Charles IV, Jan Hus, Comenius, etc. against each other. It’s a difficult task and so I think people might have decided that the only thing they could be certain about was a sense of fun and amusement.
He went on to explain as best he could the remarkable success of his creation as he understands the Czech vision:
It says that it is sceptical about those who are major figures and those who are supposedly ‘the greatest’. And that the only certainty that has saved the nation many times throughout history is its humour.
Sverak and Sebanek developed whole pre-play routines in which critical papers which explain Cimrman’s genius are read. Cimrman was ingenious, for instance, in solving a basic casting problem; he wanted his characters to fly off to Africa, but given an all Czech (so pretty much all-white) cast, he created an African tribe of Albinos. No problem is beyond his ability. In another, a play is set in a forest tavern, an appropriate choice for a tavern owner who knew that it was location, location, location that determined the size of clientele and who really just didn’t like people.
So, Czech retains its ten cases and its heroes their eccentricity. Irony, humor, stubbornness – these encouraged a people to remain doubters in that long period between the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and independence in 1918, turning back to a Protestantism outlawed for all the generations between. And led this group, when landing in Texas in the late nineteenth century, to begin their own denomination, loosely adhering to the beliefs of Hus and taking as its motto the understated “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”
And so, I respect the “other” I recognize as skeptical, ironic, witty, stubborn and intelligent. But it remains the “other” – much as the polka rhythms don’t move my soul. And yet, my children are moved – active in that church, active in trying to record the old Czech speakers before they die out, enjoying those Czech movies and the Czech moves on the dance floor. The American collective dream includes this irony and those strong beats as well as that of my mother’s Scots/Irish judgments and my grandmother’s German cake.
I suspect, however, that for our country to work, our collective culture needs to keep in mind that old motto: allowing liberty in all that is not essential, but always remembering there are core beliefs, a core essence. What is essential is the kind of liberty that not only encouraged that church to grow in the black land areas of Texas but a liberty that allows an army of Davids to draw from that great variety that makes up the American consciousness, lend itself to a “collective dream” that is broad, energizing, and inclusive. And probably we need that irony, it gives us another narrative, one molded by a history not always triumphant or cheerful, but that found in humor something that saw them through. Some of us are always going to feel a bit out of step with any particular piece of art or strongly held belief. But, then, how can anyone not love Cimerman, no matter how “foreign” the sensibility he embodies. And if I don’t feel it as mine, I can see it as possibility – seeing in it another set of assumptions, another narrative that finds its facts in our experience. I may not feel this art in my gut; after all these years, I still can not assimilate it – but I’m thankful it remains a part of our “collective dream.”