Cliché is as ubiquitous as the weather in certain cities. Through a process of continual self-portraiture by the curators of cliché (those lacking in particular faculties of imagination), a repetition amounting to the erosion of originality, they shape for us the inexorable stasis of the lauded, and lamented, locale. Attempt a retreat into the landscape of the Lake District and one is found bound and gagged by the forces of Wordsworth, or venture to look upon the Liffey without Mr Bloom ambling into view. It is possible the inverse is true, that cliché is the progeny of the city, that perhaps the inanimate is the founder of this dynasty of, well, the inanimate. Whatever the causal beginnings, we are nevertheless ruled by it. Amid the spires of Prague, it is Kafka who reigns, he who waits in ambush, he in a dozen cafes and museums and sparrow-faced in advertisement.
Setting Saturday’s three sheets to the wind, I sail inevitably to the centre of town: Na Můstek, the bridge. Certainly a confusing name, given the stark lack of proximity to any (non-questionable) body of water, unless one has spent considerable time lost in the eponymous Metro station wherein the remains of the mystery crossing can be seen. On the surface, amid the bottle-necked throng, upon this ‘bridge’, I found myself assaulted. In his city, there is only the briefest of respite from his presence. There, wielding reference wildly and insistently – Kafka. Always.
He utters the word: Verkher. Intercourse. The German term ambiguously straddles definitions, alternatively social, sexual, and, altogether more banal: traffic. It is the final word in The Judgement, and it strikes me. As the hero Georg Bundemann reached his acrobatic terminus, I too reach my owned pointed conclusion. Here, at the juncture of the Old Town and the New, is the very heart and expression of Verkher. A rip-tide of the inebriated, forced between avenues and vendors: of kebabs, of beer, of drugs, of flesh. Some continue in stumbling transit, others pause and solicit. Prostitutes call into question the virility of those who decline their service, dealers answer all vetoes with guarantees, refusing to comprehend the negative. One voice among the many proudly declares the presence of a ‘Midget,’ somewhere amongst his hidden entourage ‘the biggest midget in Prague!’. Among this circus is a crude, modern intercourse, and with it the injustice of a new, or to avoid a possible oxymoron: newer cliché, of which the city is the victim. It is a crass, enforced identity, a parasitic image. It began perhaps at Bílá Hora, the White Mountain, but occasions when Prague has become an unwelcome host are numerous.
The foundation myth of the capital is humble and bizarre. No murderous twins, nor canid milk-nurse. In the Czech legend of Libuše, a ruler and Cassandra who foresaw the construction of Prague, we have an equally accurate prophesy of the endemic tendency to outsource one’s administrative responsibilities – with lustful urgency she granted power to a ploughboy, Přemysl, her lover. The Bohemian princess happily relinquished her rule. This was a pattern repeated with various degrees of frequency, though with less romance, throughout the history of the city. At times the beating heart of empire, a capital of kings and their curiosities, at times a less central satrapy, even at times an independent, roguish religious state – the Czechs were, even in empire, nevertheless proudly and naturally themselves: a Slavic salient thrusting unmutilated into the Germanic heart of Europe. The passing of power from ruler to distant ruler had little ill-effect.
But with the forces of Bohemian rebels in 1620, at the Battle of the White Mountain, this repetition occurred with a decisiveness that stripped it of all future potency. Protestant Czechs attempted to rise against their Catholic masters in Austria, and were met on a hill outside Prague by a vastly superior force. I take an antique bus through satellite streets, unpeopled and unflattered in the summer sun, to the site of the ill-advised skirmish. The city-proper lies below, it’s red-rooftops and spires seem a world away, even the enormity of the TV tower is belittled by the distance. The housing estate which circles the once bloody ground is forgotten by all but those who live there. Nothing of this elevated place indicates its past impact on the panorama available from its untidy height. But with defeat on this unhallowed hill, the Czechs finally succumbed to the rigid and oppression style of foreign rule they had evaded for so long.
Prague was subsumed into empire, brought once again into the Hapsburg fold. To speak of it was it refer to a province, with all that was contemptible about such status. This reasserted control endured for centuries. Silenced were the descendants of Jan Hus whose spiritual critiques did not fall lightly into the suggestion-box of the Catholic Church – just as Catholic emissaries had a less than delicate descent from the windows of Prague castle, hurled from the towers in the famous Defenestration (an insult repaid at Bílá Hora). Hus’ followers had fought with radical, pre-national patriotism for their immolated icon. This period of self-determination was long past. The relative autonomy of Bohemia, and the jewel at its heart, that facilitated a flourishing of scientific and cultural eccentricity, died, along with the upstart ringleaders, post-bellum. Culture, as in any conquered nation, was politicised and punished, suppressed like an intangible rebellion. Identity was lost along with land and lives.
The force of this stripping of identity, of this provincializing, is not simply a product of real politik. The people of Prague continually lost the endless battles of a cultural war, until their expressions of discontent were formed in the language of their conquest, in German. Could a Boudicca, Herman, or Hannibal, address their troops in Latin without conceding their hopelessness? The new vocabulary was used to describe a new discomfort. Becoming other. It can be read in the work of the inescapable Kafka. The great unease is an historic cultural inheritance, evident in the (somewhat necessarily) enigmatic prose, behind which one can perceive the shades of the Austrian authorities, in castles or courtrooms.
Recall that most famous of his works, think on the radical alienation of The Metamorphosis. Consider Prague lying stricken in the Samsa household. Awakened like Gregor in this new century, the city finds itself monstrous, in the grip of a terrifying loss of identity – or, unchanged, but assaulted by the altered perceptions of all those around it. What was noble is now lowly, verminous. Man may be metamorphosed by war, or by insidious judgement, and the ancient city is not exempt from such a process. Transformed by the death of patriots, by the alterations of its identity in Kafkaesque discomfort, and as I observe in the masses around me, by the exploitation of another cliché.
Witnessed in the modern intercourse: the new and stateless invasion of the expropriating impulse of this new cliché, that of Prague as pleasure. A constant traffic of those with this unshakeable mantra seek the city, repeat it until buildings fade of their significance, and the dormant landmarks stand whitewashed of history. What fresh perception of the city have been dictated and delivered! The taunts of sex-workers, rivers of alcohol and the absurd advertisement of the biggest-smallest in town. Rushing past me in the night is evidence of a new foundation, a new myth, and proof that no city is eternal. It is not impropriety, for me prudishness is an absent instinct, but the obscenity of the oblivious which sets me pondering in the crowd. Their antics are my own, are the acts of the modern traveller: that stone skimmed on a darkened pond, the benighted sampler of clichés. There is flux in the labyrinthine alleys, the winding paths themselves are altered, all is in flux. The prostitutes, the grotesqueries of excess and ignorance, the lacking in knowledge, the blindness to heritage. An idea is thrust into the city, and it responds by bowing to it, by becoming it. The idea is no more than pleasure, and this the city, a dutiful subject, provides. Tonight I see the happy coincidence of shallowness and emptiness. What was the city, and what is it? There may be no answer, other than a continuum of changed perception – or it that conception? For the characteristics of place are as much thought into being as observed. What the new conception entails is indulgence, what it creates are dual mirrors, reflecting no more than a surface, one to the other.
This transit and the city pass as ships in the night, without any communication beyond the one spreading its complicity: the new cliché into which both fall like emissaries from towers; towers which now may not have been, towers from a history ignored and unimportant. Empire has passed, or is itself rethought, and this new conquest has its collaborators. Prague is now subject to annexation by anecdote, it is altered daily by the exported fables, stowed away in the memories of visitors, imported and exported, subtle variances in image to meet the expectations of the mantra that created and recreated it – the erosion of cliché at work. The battle is lost again. The city is as Bundemann, tumbling from the bridge, thought guilty and fit for demise, a forced suicide for the creature brought low by judgement.
So Prague is a province once more, acquired by the expectations of its guests and moulded in their image, each arriving to find their self-portrait hung on Charles Bridge, on the spires of St. Vitus’, on the cajoling purveyors of pleasure. The city is once again at the mercy of non-native whim. Am I guilty too? Reporting on such victimhood, have I not also victimised? Perhaps this is inevitable, perhaps too: universal. I stand swaying at Můstek, I could stand in the core of any city, where each evening Bílá Hora must be fought again. In Hanoi or Vienna, in London, in New York or Kinshasa, in Paris or Tokyo, Cairo or Bangkok. What is a place when history is defeated, when it yields to judgement, and becomes cliché? The battle is everywhere, the war is endless. Victory on the White Mountain depends on the intentions of all those who cross this Bridge, between the Old Town and the New.
By Craig Simpson