Spring Edits, Velvet Living: Atwood, Kral and Gorbanevsky
How could I possibly join the convention of writers in Prague for a festival, focused on the Soviet/Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, without getting stirred up, and in my Southern-American speak, all a twitter? Quite frankly, I’ve tired of the 60s, primarily because I am the 60s: Generation X and a bottle of guilt. What I remember about the time of the peace-love-sex-and-drug movement of the 60s, which spilled well into the 70s, is an incredible optimism. The problem is that a lot of me and mine, naively, believed it. Little did I know that some people I would very likely have wanted to call friends were dying to save a radio station in Prague, 21 August 1968, two days before my second birthday.
Before arriving in Prague on 28 May ‘08, I’d prepared myself for another history lesson: One more Vietnam, more, more, which would eventually lead into debates about Iraq. On the first day we’d heard from Gary Younge, Michael McClure, and Paul Auster, who’d read some of his recent and not so recent pieces about the 60s. Vietnam, Nixon, Agent Orange, all the stuff that informed my formative GenX nightmares. I grew up knowing that my American world was sad about something; I watched my mother avoiding the horrors on the six o’clock news and my maternal grandparents look down at the floor and bow their heads when I’d ask about their big black & white photo of JFK, which wasn’t with the family portraits. His photo was hung on the side of the stairway to the attic, in direct view of people who came in the back door.
That evening, Petr Kral, Czech poet and essayist, changed the tone by posing pertinent questions. “Do you feel that your imagination is different than the imagination of those generations that succeeded us?” Kral asks. Hallelujah! I think under my breath. Suddenly I feel like I’m at a Southern church revival, where an energetic preacher takes the podium, and proceeds to stirs up the crowd, where you rejoice for one of two reasons: because the spirit is really moving, or because you are able to move and get some blood flowing into your sleeping backside. “Do you think that in the 1960s, whether we’re talking about the beatniks or surrealists or any other avant garde people, do you feel that when we belong to these [groups] that we are greater visionaries than young people today?”
Kral also observes that in ‘68, the revolt in what was Czechoslovakia was broader, that he and his contemporaries “were able to see further into the world…we had solidarity with the Germans” and “felt connected.” I felt connected as he went on to describe an awareness of a “broader revolt behind all of those political agendas,” as a true GenX’er, I’ve always felt that something greater has been going on. What Gore Vidal now calls “coincidence”.
I felt that GenX might become a part of the conversation. When Margaret Atwood continued the discussion, citing how in the 60s “the rules changed”. I was resistant at first, imagining that the feminist writer would spoil Kral’s momentum. But Atwood surprised me, referring to the topic. She cited three factors: “short skirts, the banishment of the girdle and ‘the pill’” leading to marked changes in personal behavior. She pointed to a “window of time” between the discovery of penicillin, which cured venereal diseases, and the invention of the pill, before AIDS came along and “scared everybody.” Most GenX’ers can also remember it: the time before AIDS. I remember the relief of not having to worry about getting a girl pregnant. Little did I know. Before AIDS is the only time in my life I can remember when it seemed people didn’t go around feeling horrible about themselves, being born bad.
Listening to Kral and Atwood, I realise that perhaps one of the reasons I identify so passionately with the Czech people is invasion. I’ve felt like our GenX lives have been invaded from the day the powers-that-be of the world intruded into Mrs B’s eighth grade class and changed the name from “History” to “Social Studies.” There I was, learning to read, write and reason, when, as Atwood noted, the rules changed. Suddenly we were catapulted and forced from an eighth grade classroom to an eighth grade learning factory and into a system from which it has taken me thirty years to recover. Teachers with whom you developed relationships and they, in turn, provided guidance and evaluation were replaced by computer sheets filled with dots and stubby, lifeless Number 2 pencils without an eraser — progress.
The rules changed a lot. Little did we know that the powers-that-be were preparing us for new ways of becoming more productive drones, at university level with what Allan Bloom described as “a great disaster” in The Closing of the American Mind: the MBA — a degree “created as the moral equivalent of the MD or law degree… ensuring a lucrative living by the mere fact of a diploma that is not the mark of scholarly achievement.” Before closing the mind, one has only to consider that the current immigration rules in the UK are based on a points system that in most cases, awards full standing to anyone with an MBA, yet requires others to overcome enormous checks and hurdles.
The dismayed looks I saw in the 70s on the faces of my teachers, or my Mom when trying to help me with my new homework, are similar to what I see on the faces of young people photographed in August ‘68 Prague. Bloom explains: “True liberal education requires that the student’s whole life be radically changed by it, that what he learns may affect his action, his tastes, his choices, that no previous attachment be immune to examination and hence re-evaluation. Liberal education puts everything at risk and requires students who are able to risk everything.” Perhaps that is why Paul Auster was able to participate in demonstrations as he saw fit, and be “crazy” as he described. When Paul Auster read from his recent article in The New York Times, he described his mindspace, his young world consumed with Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr, his impending conscription in the armed forces: “Being crazy struck me as a perfectly sane response to the hand I had been dealt — the hand that all young men had been dealt in 1968.” Auster’s arguments are perfectly logical to me. I accept his characterizations forty years on and apply them to the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s. As far as I’m concerned, I find AIDS too precise — no needs for tanks and guns.
That evening, Natalia Gorbanevskaya had been given the Spiros Vergos Prize for Freedom of Expression. Gorbanevskaya’s story made me sit up, and take note: on 25 August 1968, she and seven fellow Moscovites went to Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The accounts make me think of the hostile way anti-war and free-election protestors get treated today in the United States, or how similar voices get dissolved in the UK. Gorbanevskaya and compatriots sat peacefully in Lobnoye Mesto with a Czech flag and signs which read “We Lost Our Best Friends”, “Hands Off the CSSR” and “For Your Freedom and Ours”. In turn they were accosted by angry citizen informants, or “Seksots”, and later tried and sent to various camps and prisons. Gorbanevskaya was sent to a mental institution and forcibly injected with psychotropic drugs for a number of years.
One morning, in the hotel dining room watching Gorbanevskaya, I tried to look past her nervousness and erratic behavior. Her languages are Russian and French, so my only option was to observe. She’d befriended fellow poet Elena Schwarz, and together they made their way through the days of the festival in Prague. Gorbanevskaya could not sit for very long, spoke very loudly at times and seemed frustrated. When she went onstage to accept her Spiros Vergos award, she appeared to me to leap back to her seat in an instant but first acknowledged her fellow Samizdat writers, for keeping underground literature alive under Brezhnev’s nose. Whatever her anxiety, I imagine much of it was injected by the Soviet authorities years ago. During the Prague Writers’ Festival, I wondered what our desire to observe was injecting her with now. Later, with a translator, she commented onstage “I feel like an exhibition.”
Celebrities are exhibitions. Kurt Cobain was no Jimmy Hendrix, but he was just as larger-than-life to some people. I am perplexed as to why, in the US and UK in particular, we crave the tragic genius figures. Consider Amy Winehouse for example. She’s gone from a healthy, accomplished singer to a malnourished parody of a street junky. Or Courtney Love and Anna Nicole in the US. If anyone forcibly subjected an animal, say dog or monkey, to the lives these people lead there’d be activist groups protesting in the streets.
“The rules changed a lot.
Little did we know that the powers-that-be were preparing us
for new ways of becoming more productive drones.”
A native of Czechoslovakia, Tom Stoppard, in his recent hit play Rock ’n’ Roll sets the drama in Prague — through the 1968 Prague Spring, Soviet invasion and Velvet Revolution. At one point, a character named Jirous has been arrested and put in gaol for mouthing-off to an undercover agent, who’d invaded his table at a pub with unsolicited comments about his long hair — not entirely unlike Gorbanevskaya’s encounter with Soviet Seksots. The agent calls Jirous a “big girl,” to which Jirous retorts “bald-headed Bolshevik.” Another character, Jan, reacts to an assertion that Jirous is in gaol because he spoke back to a policeman: “No…The policeman insulted him about his hair…It makes the policeman angry, so he starts something and it ends with Jirous in gaol. But what is the policeman angry about? What difference does long hair make? The policeman is angry about his fear. The policeman’s fear is what makes him angry. He’s frightened by indifference. Jirous doesn’t care. He doesn’t care enough even to cut his hair. The policeman isn’t frightened by dissidents! Why should he be? Policemen love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith. Nobody cares more than a heretic.”
Later another character summarizes the dilemma by reporting a conversation with Jirous in goal: “The tempter says, ‘Cut your hair just a little, and we’ll let you play.’ Then, the tempter says, ‘Just change the name of the band and you can play.’ And after that, ‘Just leave out this one song’…It is better not to start cutting your hair…’ ”
In the next, first-anniversary issue of ONE Magazine, we’ll continue our journey through Prague, with reports and comments including the robust Czech and Russian panel discussions. I’ll end for now with an insight from another illustrious literary Bloom, Harold: “…being matters more than knowing.”
To be continued…
Martin Belk is the editor of ONE Magazine, as well as Writer in Residence at Polmont Young Offenders Institution. Extracts from his first book-length manuscript, Pretty Broken People: lipstick, leather jeans, a death of New York, were published in ONE Magazine, Issue 2.