Saturday, April 22, 2006

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways…

Some of my comrades are, perhaps, baffled by the fact that I can head for the archive in the morning to photograph yet more of Toyen’s book illustrations, then proceed to sit glued to a library chair for five or six hours straight, and then go home to plant myself on the couch and move around bits of text or rummage around in Teige’s Svět, který voní until I fall into a stupor or think to check my email. (I have been told that I look dauntingly preoccupied at the library.) Am I simply insane? What is it about my dissertation that makes it such an endless source of fascination and entertainment?
“Thou art more temperate…” Well, not quite.
As is my custom, I have stumbled upon a topic rife with delightful things to explore. While at some future time I will have fun analyzing specific works of art and contemplating their composition, colors, and iconography, for the time being my attention is largely elsewhere. Since Toyen did not, to our knowledge, write about her thoughts, beliefs, adventures, or favorite reading matter, it is important to understand the world in which she lived and worked. Fortunately, First Republic Prague was an extraordinarily exciting place. Not quite as wild as Berlin, as sought-after as Paris, or as politically charged as Moscow, it certainly had elements in common with all three, as well as with other legendary cities of the day. Full of its own brilliant thinkers and creators, it was also (with Brno) a showcase for everything new and interesting from the rest of Europe.
This means that I get to look not only at what Toyen’s friends, colleagues, and contemporaries wrote about her and one another, but at their opinions about countless other things.
—I get to read about music halls, cafés, and bars.
—I get to learn about Czech feminism (it existed then).
—I get to observe the struggles and disputes of various leftist groups, some of whom approved of surrealism and some of whom did not.
—I get to find out about prostitution in 1920s Prague.
—I get to know which avantgardists were more political and which more spiritual.
—I get to read Hlas and Nový hlas and find out about at least some aspects of 1930s sexual liberation (and read all the personal ads from lonesome gay men seeking partners for hiking trips and the like). Likewise, to learn that at least some people in the 1920s wanted to believe Smetana was bisexual, although I don’t know on what evidence (Same author listed Benvenuto Cellini as gay when clearly he slept with anyone of any gender who would have him and probably some who wouldn’t. Said author seemed excited to report that Rosa Bonheur was a transvestite as well as a lesbian… yawn.).
—I get to find out that Communist and other political material was more heavily censored than Nový hlas (although Hlas had a fair number of cuts).
—I get to read French outrage at the 1929 censorship of the Czech translation of Maldoror.
—I get to ponder the significance of the Ivan Goll surrealist group to the Devětsil group, and thus how the Goll group’s ideas fed into Czech surrealism before those of Breton.
—I get to read about Le Grand Jeu and likewise contemplate how its ideas connect to Devětsil and Czech surrealism via Josef Šíma, Richard Weiner, and the Hořejší translations of Grand Jeu texts.
—I get to go to exhibitions of interesting stuff like Czech caricatures (tomorrow?).
—I get to hang out in places frequented by the surrealists, like the Lucerna and U staré paní (the latter a former favorite drinking haunt of Štyrský and Nezval, I gather).
—I get to examine police files and learn how often Nezval was publicly intoxicated (and that he owned a Renault). Where has Štyrský’s file been hidden? Inquiring minds want to know.
—I get to see the fashions of the 1930s and learn that not everyone took the German nudist movement very seriously.
So, clearly I can move about from the sublime to the ridiculous on a daily basis. It’s a divine life. Too bad I have less than two months left of my grant. Then again, I suppose we wouldn’t want the dissertation to get too long. My committee might not like that.


Blogger Julia said...

Do you ever get the feeling that you are stepping into another time when you dive into your subject? Periodicals seem to have that transporting effect when you emerse yourself into a pile of them, of all subjects but from the same time.

Which reminds me of course, of the pleasure of stepping into the world of books such as the Lord of the Rings, and diving into Tolkien's own world. (And with the proper illustrations there are surely enough poems in his collection to create a year's worth of a poetry journal.)

That's my roundabout way of suggesting that perhaps these interests are tied together!

April 23, 2006 9:55 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

I daresay you're right. That sense of going into a whole different world... Hmm, First Republic as counterpart to Middle Earth?

April 27, 2006 8:49 PM  
Anonymous Dirk said...

Sounds great!

April 29, 2006 6:00 PM  
Blogger pk said...

I think there are many of us who would gladly swap our lives for an immersion in historic Prague surrealism!

Hey Karla, if time, energy and motivation ever allow and should you know of suitable sites, I would be more than happy to hear of any Czech bookart (or prints or etchings etc) available. I don't speak Czech but I've never found ignorance to be an impediment!

I've posted Lada (of course!) and some illuminated manuscripts but I'm always on the lookout for materia obscura and eastern Europe is always under-represented.

Anyway, enjoyed the read and I'll have to wander back sometime and look through your archives and salad...err..sidebar.

Good luck with the diss.

I'm at: peacayATgmailDOTTLEDcom

(don't worry if you can't help or whatever...I was just passing and saw the light on ;)


April 30, 2006 1:04 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

Hi Paul, thanks for stopping by! I know I've run across sites that have a lot of scans of interwar book covers and such--mainly antikvariaty, I think. I'm not sure I saved the URLs. But I will keep an eye out.

April 30, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Some illustrations located already: Zrzavý's for Mácha's Maj at

May 01, 2006 10:10 PM  

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