Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A first blessing....

The first day in another country overloads the senses. A jet-lagged body soaks in stimuli like a sponge: an omni-present odor of lemon grass in the hotel, people’s faces, puff jackets with hoods rimmed in fur, the raw edges of early spring, the cobbled streets, a profusion of Baroque, patterns of signage – and hopefully, the traffic patterns.

In Prague pedestrians have the right of way, but trams trump everything. “Pozor!” means look out – and should be taken seriously. Brown arrows with white letters point out historical monuments, but it takes a while to figure out which. At first pass, the Czech language looks like a jumble of consonants with lots of inflections and a predominance of v’s and j’s, z’s and c’s.

It’s a lot to take in. We walked enough to get down basic bearings. Then, jostled and over-stimulated, we repaired to the slower cadences of the St. Agnes Convent and Museum.

Royal blood coursed through the veins of Agnes of Bohemia (1211-1282), and her parents sought a marriage of advantage. Engaged first to Henry, son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, Agnes was packed off to imperial court, only to have that union thwarted by a local duke who wanted to wed his own daughter to the emperor’s son. Henry III of England emerged as a potential mate, but the emperor challenged the union. He wanted to wed Agnes himself.

At this point, Agnes intervened, choosing for herself a life of prayer. To safeguard the plan, she secured consent of the pope and land from her brother.

Along the Vltava River, her convent now houses a stunning collection of medieval religious panels and statuary, many devoted to Christ and his mother. In most of these, Christ is an infant, nestled in the arms of his mother and nursing at her breast. As Margaret Miles argues in A Complex Delight (University of California, 2008), early medieval religious art featured the infant Jesus, not the dying Christ. A nurturant mother, not a dying man, captured the medieval imagination.

Over and over again, in icons and statuary and paintings, we gazed on a child, latched onto the breast of his mother, nursing so eagerly we could almost hear him sucking. And on the face of the mother, a smile of infinite peace.

That smile blocked out the blast of the trams, the bustling of the streets, the riot of Baroque.

I held that smile with me for the rest of the visit: it was our first blessing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

When is a square not really a square....

Wencelaus Square is not really a square, but a long rectangle. At one end is the National Museum, a proud monument to Czech culture. At the other end is Na Prikope, a long sloping street. Once the former moat for the old city of Prague, the street encircles the old city with a string of temples to the gods of commerce, international corporations like Nike, Apple, H&M, Boss, Express.

This square which is not really a square is long enough for Soviet tanks to roll down in impressive array, as they did in 1968. This square which is not really a square is wide enough for the flames of Jan Palach’s self-immolation protesting the Soviet occupation to be seen at Na Prikope, the other end of the square. This square which is not really a square is vast enough to gather people, for whatever purpose they need to gather. In 1968 they demonstrated, ushering in the Prague Spring; in 1969 they watched silently, as a Prague winter descended; in 1989 they celebrated wildly, as Vaclav Havel, playwright not Soviet puppet, assumed the presidency. In 2015 they simply march from store to store, bags ever thicker with purchase.

A friend remarked: “The Communists were in power; they were all out for themselves. Now, the capitalists are in power; they too are all out for themselves. Nothing’s changed.”

But something has changed: capitalism will be harder to challenge. People wear the enemy on their feet; they march in shoes branded with swooshes. People write their screeds on computers bearing apples, the original fruit of temptation. Once a country filled with craftspeople, these former-craftspeople now work in a burgeoning “service economy,” importing their leather from Italy, their woolens from Bulgaria, and their woodcarving from Russia. Soon the Czech will import their glassware and crystal from -- Bangladesh?

A statue of King Wencelaus mutely surveys this latest occupation. Behind him is the Baroque fa├žade of the National Museum, symbol of a culture that remains a political force more potent than weapons. After all, Jan Hus resisted Rome with the power of his preaching. Franz Kafka mocked in his fiction the very state he served as a functionary. Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic, was a playwright. Preacher and playwrights, artists and writers: traditionally they’ve served as the shock troops of Bohemia.

Were Wencelaus to lead them, how would he wage his campaign? Interviewing activist-writer-intellectual Ivan Klima after Havel re-established Czech independence in 1989, Philip Roth observed the change between Soviet occupation and this new independence: “For you, nothing was allowed, but everything mattered. Now you’re more like us: everything is allowed, nothing matters.” (Ivan Klima, The Spirit of Prague, Granta Books: 1994).