Underground Modernity: Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989 9789633863985

The literary scholar Alfrun Kliems explores the aesthetic strategies of Eastern European underground literature, art, fi

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Underground Modernity: Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989

Table of contents :
Notes on Translation and Transliteration
Part I Typology
The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989: An Effort to Interweave Concepts
Paranoid Schizophrenia: Dissent, the Underground, and Cultural Fissure
Subverting Official Claims to Centrality: Overcity/Undercity, City/Country, East/West
Verticality as Metaphor: The Romantic Era and the Underground as a Historical Location
Part II Figures, Works, Groups
Last Exit: Egon Bondy’s Anti-flâneurs under the Wheels of Madame Prague
Urban Disaffiliation: The Swan Songs of Ivan Martin Jirous
Disgusted in Bratislava: Vladimír Archleb’s Lyrically Vulgar Dandyism
Christ Quieted: Marcin Świetlicki, Kraków, the Underground, and Pop
The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation: Jacek Podsiadło’s Road Story en Route to Bratislava
My City’s Me, It’s Many: Peter “Firefly” Wawerzinek, the Palaverer of Prenzlauer Berg
Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground? The Topol Brothers’ Psí vojáci Songs
Romani and Vietnamese in Prague: Jáchym Topol Bids Farewell to the Tripolis Praga
A Detour to Moscow: Vladimir Makanin’s Underground, or the Snare of the Subterranean
“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”: Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscow as a “Junkspace” of Cultures
Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation: Andrzej Stasiuk’s Post-Socialist Warsaw
Aggressive Localism: Stasiuk and Andrukhovych as Secretaries of the Provincial
Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”: Tot Art and the Orange Alternative as Chefs of the “Semantic Porridge”
“It All Started in Gdańsk!”: Berlin’s Club of Polish Losers
Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground
Index of Illustrations
Name Index

Citation preview

Underground Modernity

Leipzig Studies on the History and Culture of East Central Europe Volume 6 Series editors: Christian Lübke and Stefan Troebst

Underground Modernity Urban Poetics in East-Central Europe, Pre- and Post-1989

Alfrun Kliems Translated by Jake Schneider

Central European University Press Budapest–New York

© 2021 Alfrun Kliems English translation © 2021 Jake Schneider Published in 2021 by Central European University Press Nádor utca 11, H-1051 Budapest, Hungary Tel: +36-1-327-3138 or 327-3000 Fax: +36-1-327-3183 E-mail: [email protected] Website: www.ceupress.com All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the permission of the Publisher. ISBN 978-963-386-397-8 (hardback) ISBN 978-963-386-398-5 (ebook) ISSN 2416-1160 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Kliems, Alfrun, 1969- author. | Schneider, Jake, translator. Title: Underground modernity : urban poetics in East-Central Europe, pre- and post-1989 / Alfrun Kliems ; translated by Jake Schneider. Other titles: Underground, die Wende und die Stadt. English Description: Budapest ; New York : Central European University Press, 2021. | Series: Leipzig studies on the history and culture of East Central Europe, 2416-1160 ; volume 6 | Includes bibliographical references and indexes. Identifiers: LCCN 2020043778 (print) | LCCN 2020043779 (ebook) | ISBN 9789633863978 (hardback) | ISBN 9789633863985 (pdf) Subjects: LCSH: Underground literature--Europe, Eastern--History and criticism. | Literature, Experimental--Europe, Eastern--History and criticism. | Counterculture--Europe, Eastern-History--20th century. | Performing arts and literature--Europe, Eastern--History--20th century. Performing arts and literature--Europe, Eastern--History--21st century. | Cities and towns in literature. | Urbanization in literature. Classification: LCC PN849.E9 K5713 2021 (print) | LCC PN849.E9 (ebook) | DDC 809/.8947--dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020043778 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2020043779

Contents Acknowledgements..................................................................................................vii Preface .........................................................................................................................xi Part I Typology The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989: An Effort to Interweave Concepts............................................................................. 3 Paranoid Schizophrenia: Dissent, the Underground, and Cultural Fissure.................................................. 21 Subverting Official Claims to Centrality: Overcity/Undercity, City/Country, East/West....................................................... 37 Verticality as Metaphor: The Romantic Era and the Underground as a Historical Location....................49 Part II Figures, Works, Groups Last Exit: Egon Bondy’s Anti-flâneurs under the Wheels of Madame Prague................... 61 Urban Disaffiliation: The Swan Songs of Ivan Martin Jirous....................................................................79 Disgusted in Bratislava: Vladimír Archleb’s Lyrically Vulgar Dandyism....................................................101 Christ Quieted: Marcin Świetlicki, Kraków, the Underground, and Pop..................................... 115 The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation: Jacek Podsiadło’s Road Story en Route to Bratislava...........................................133



My City’s Me, It’s Many: Peter “Firefly” Wawerzinek, the Palaverer of Prenzlauer Berg.......................... 143 Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground? The Topol Brothers’ Psí vojáci Songs.................................................................... 165 Romani and Vietnamese in Prague: Jáchym Topol Bids Farewell to the Tripolis Praga................................................183 A Detour to Moscow: Vladimir Makanin’s Underground, or the Snare of the Subterranean............................................................................195 “Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”: Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscow as a “Junkspace” of Cultures............................ 209 Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation: Andrzej Stasiuk’s Post-Socialist Warsaw.............................................................. 227 Aggressive Localism: Stasiuk and Andrukhovych as Secretaries of the Provincial............................. 241 Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”: Tot Art and the Orange Alternative as Chefs of the “Semantic Porridge”....... 253 “It All Started in Gdańsk!”: Berlin’s Club of Polish Losers................................................................................. 265 Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground....................................................... 281 Bibliography.............................................................................................................289 Index of Illustrations................................................................................................317 Name Index...............................................................................................................319

Acknowledgements As we all know, a book is never written by one person alone. Every author is indebted to a plethora of predecessors, interlocutors, mentors, students, and random sources of inspiration. Nevertheless, I will limit my thanks on this occasion to the colleagues and friends at the University of Leipzig’s Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), an institution that for many years has provided me with intellectual and organizational freedom, with invaluable input, and with academic eureka moments. Leipzig was where Mathias Mesenhöller encouraged me, at an early stage of the project, to trace underground modernity all the way back to German Romanticism, and where we collaboratively wrote together the chapter on E. T. A. Hoffmann from two different points of view—that of a historian and that of a literary scholar. This volume is an abridged translation of my German-language monograph Der Underground, die Wende und die Stadt from 2015. Thus, much of the book owes its present form mostly to Jake Schneider who has translated it into English with boldness, idealism, admirable linguistic insight, and finesse. I would also like to thank Erin Troseth who provided the kind of important editorial support that allowed the book a transition toward a thoroughly completion. As “fellow pedants,” Jake and Erin ran charming conversations on the (electronic) binding margins on obscure words (“imbosh art”), whether to opt for “booze” or “hooch,” and the Danish comedy series The Olsen Gang. Finally, Florian Ruppenstein copyedited the outcome both faithfully and speedily. I would also like to thank Martin Machovec for giving me some friendly notes regarding the Czech underground and for generously sharing his stupendous wealth of knowledge, so that some mistakes from the original did not make it into the English version. I would also like to thank the peer reviewer for his instructive and helpful comments. I am grateful to several institutions and their representatives. Linda Kunos from Central European University Press has patiently and expertly supervised the book’s publication. It was Stefan Troebst who initiated its inclusion in the series Leipzig Studies on the History and Culture of East Central Europe. Finally, this translation was made possible with the help of the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Notes on Translation and Transliteration Wherever possible, I have cited published English-language translations of the original sources. In these cases, I have specified the English title and translator in the bibliography. If there was no existing translation—which was often the case—we created one. In addition to Jake Schneider, who not only translated my text, but also the German prose of Peter Wawerzinek, Feridun Zaimoğlu, and—with some linguistic assistance—the Czech lyrics of Ivan Jirous, new literary translations of quotations and extracts were also provided by Marián Andričík (for Vladimír Archleb), Donna Stonecipher (for Jacek Podsiadło), and Marek Tomin (for Egon Bondy, Ivan Martin Jirous, Jáchym Topol, and Ivan Wernisch). The translator’s names are indicated in each case. They all have provided artful English renditions of sometimes untranslatable-seeming prose and poetry in order to give a taste of these writers’ work even to readers who lack a command of Czech, German, Polish, Russian, Slovak, or Ukrainian. The frequently idiosyncratic spellings and neologisms are faithful to the work of underground authors such as Egon Bondy, Ivan Martin Jirous and Jáchym Topol, as witnessed in their published English translations by Alex Zucker, Marek Tomin, and others. As for transliteration, I used the Modified Library of Congress System for Russian and Ukrainian, except in the case of common spellings of personal names, e.g. “Dostoevsky.” For authors of works referenced in Russian and Ukrainian, I revert to the transliterated spellings, such as “Dostoevskii,” or “Iurii,” in the bibliography.

“The City” Ivan Wernisch There is forest all around, so thick it is impenetrable even to the whistles of trains. Neither the cries of door to door purveyors, and malicious gossip, and mysterious intimations of horrors, nor even daredevils with flame throwers, or prospectors, or health inspectors, can get much deeper than the fringe. And yet: Believe me when I say that I’m not talking about a city in the middle of a forest, but a city that lies above the passageways. That’s how they all live here: above passages. They are constantly hearing something new about the strange goings on in the underground, about city cellars, and tunnels of the conspirators. Apparently, there are even small lakes down there. As well as dungeons, and sprawling palaces, which may well be inhabited by someone. And also stables and gardens, and harbors. And up above, everyone is waiting for some specific reports. Still, from time to time, some wondrous animal comes running out of the forest, one perhaps even worthy of admiration, and most certainly never before seen by anyone at close range. And the beautiful, horribly bizarre animal struts around the city in front of everyone. Yes: The forest is strange and probably beautiful and most strangely it constricts the city, which grows smaller day by day, even though there are more and more buildings and people, as well more rumors and mysterious conspiracies. And above all the underground spaces lined with bricks and paved with faintly luminescing stones… Oh my Lord! (Translated by Marek Tomin)

Preface Yes: The forest is strange and probably beautiful, and most strangely it constricts the city, which grows smaller day by day, even though there are more and more buildings and people, as well more rumors, and mysterious conspiracies. And above all the underground spaces lined with bricks, and paved with faintly luminescing stones… Oh my Lord! —Ivan Wernisch, “The City”1

This isn’t about a city in the woods, writes Ivan Wernisch in his poem “The City.” Rather, as the formerly Czech underground artist’s prose poem has it, city-dwellers live “above the passageways” (Wernisch 1992, 80). For Wernisch, disquiet comes to the city from below. Out of a hidden labyrinth with outstretched tendrils, rumors and conspiracies taunt those on top, preoccupying them until they are no longer on the watch for the classical Other of the urbs, the mythical encroaching forest—they are too fixated instead on the ground literally swaying under their feet. And with that, we have already covered all three of this book’s guiding themes: the underground as an aesthetic convergence, the Wende (or turning point) of 1989–1991 as a moment when social uncertainty stepped into the light, and the city as the site of the first two themes’ tangible manifestations. As I shall elaborate below, these three issues are to the core of what constitutes “underground modernity” in the following argument. To move into analytical terms, Wernisch’s text describes the systematic setting for an artistic approach based on a radical postulate of verticality and a historical perception of crisis, both elements hanging in the air in East-Central Europe from the 1980s to the early 2000s—and perhaps far beyond. The city serves as the approach’s frame of reference, both in the foreground and the background. Its central topos is the conflict between autonomy and heteronomy, between utopian and dystopian tendencies. In short, it aims to illuminate the underground as a socio-poetic reflex of modernity. The urban texture, more than anything, is the underground’s signature and the contrasting foil in which it inscribes itself. Insofar as Wernisch’s subject is the sub-urban in the literal sense, his main objective is to contest the officially 1

Translated by Marek Tomin (Wernisch 1992, 80).



asserted city and the established spatial hierarchies. Marginality is the ingrained rhetorical device here. And yet while the metaphor of a margin operates on a dialectic of center versus periphery, traditionally seen as the metropolis versus the countryside or indeed “the forest,” the underground seeks out competing territories in the center itself. Its aesthetic topoi and loci, as they are commonly understood, are confounded, a bit doomed, and always questionable. Most importantly, the underground generates them not outside the urban nucleus but beneath it. As an intrinsically metropolitan aesthetic of the intra-city or rather sub-city, the underground turns against a preexisting “colonization of urban space” (Lefebvre 2003, 21; italics in the original). It turns against any and all political prerogatives, social conventions, and commercial imperatives. Certainly, it turns against power and anything remotely canonized, as well as “the establishment” and its internalized assertions. I hypothesize that the city, with its (poetic) stylization as society’s privileged sphere of negotiation, is the precondition for any underground. Second, I propose that in a departure from previous postulations, the aesthetic phenomenon of the underground in East-Central Europe is by no means knotted to the state-socialist context. Indeed, it has endured since the Romantic period, subtly adapting its poetic and rhetorical strategies, and perhaps it survives in the essence of postmodernism. The chapters that follow will take up these considerations by looking at selected poetry and prose, but also films, music, and art from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, the later Czech and Slovak Republics, and East Germany. The volume is divided into an introductory section, essays on phenomena and artists, and an afterword. The introductory portion consists of theoretical chapters: The first presents the three basic conceptual terms underground, the epochal change of 1989, and city and their mutual relationships. The second chapter discusses the state of communication in East-Central Europe before 1989, positions the underground within it, and identifies the consequences of that positioning for poetics. Along the way, I also explore the relationship between the underground and popular culture, crossing the East versus West dividing line as well as 1989’s caesura in my comparison. The third chapter investigates the polyvalence and interdependence of center versus periphery claims through which, and under whose auspices, underground art operates: overcity versus undercity, city versus country, and East versus West. Finally, the fourth chapter uses a story from the (German) Romantic period to historically and systematically situate the underground as a setting. Although the actual period under investigation spans the 1980s and 1990s, a retrospective view of precursors and early forms of underground culture seems



indispensable. As early as the 1950s, in Poland, Andrzej Bursa and Edward Stachura were writing in opposition to the conformism and banality of a routinized, orderly working life dependent on the state. Around the same time, the Czech writers Egon Bondy and Ivo Vodseďálek experimented with the spectrum of aesthetic and existential deviancy with their concepts of Total Realism (Totální realismus) and Awkward Poetry (Trapná poezie).2 Central analytical aspects for exploring specific differences include the status of marginality and self-marginalization; the emphasis on the urban environment and intra-urban displacement rather than displacement to the country; narcissistic transgressions, and auto-aggressions. Specifically, there is a recurring motif of defiling and destroying the cityscape that culminates in an obsession with dying in the city or by the city’s hand as a kind of “last exit.” If the introductory section allows us, by inductive reasoning, to speak of the “underground” as an aesthetic phenomenon with its own specific poetics, the body of the book illustrates, expands upon, and deconstructs that poetics. In these chapters, I will introduce authors, characters, works, and groups that played paradigmatic roles in shaping underground aesthetics in East-Central Europe or that compel us to refine generalized findings. As alluded to earlier, the epochal year 1989, in German called Wende, draws special attention, both in its historical sense of the collapse of European communism and in the metaphorical application of its literal German meaning, “turning point.” One final consideration is whether the pathetic and existenticial concept of the underground, by existentializing urbanity (and its hardships), has now evaporated in favor of prima facie post-heroic, integrationist artistic practices. On that thought, the book concludes by observing that the term “underground” has subsumed all manner of early, barely marginal unconformist and unorthodox acts under its common code.

2 Trapná poezie is also translated into English as “Poetry of Embarrassment” (Machovec 2004, 349; 2019, 180).

Part I Typology

The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989: An Effort to Interweave Concepts The Underground What is meant by the term underground? I will begin with a rough sketch. The underground in East-Central Europe cannot be demarcated as a group phenomenon; neither does it exhibit a fixed style or a predominant expressive direction. In all cases, however, it locates its mythical setting, the constitutive topos of its origins and affinities, in the city. This holds true both before and after the 1989 revolutions, both inside and outside East-Central Europe. In addition, the underground tends to be marked by a specificity of artists’ and intellectuals’ performative stances that emphasizes independence from any authorized statement. That certainly bears a connection to (Western) pop culture that spanned the boundaries of the rival political systems. Aside from their obvious differences, pop culture and the underground have a number of commonalities. They share ritualized, anarchic gestures of rebellion—with or without a cause. This goes along with an absolutization of the banal, the quotidian, and very often the offensive. Pop and the underground share an ambivalent and tactical relationship to the masses, to branding and consumption; they are committed to the cause of subverting high culture and determined to grind down its canon, its educational touchstones, and its artistic ideals. Both pop and underground art systematically provoke reactions to their authors. Conceptually, they set out to blur the distinction between creator and creation—with all the anticipated consequences, albeit not always genuine ones. Thus they share an accusatory attitude and/or sentimental opposition to an “out-of-touch,” poetically ignorant “establishment.” And yet the underground radicalized this aesthetic program into a manifest impulse of textual destruction—wrecking art and ultimately the self for poetic ends—whereas pop quickly acquiesced to its own digestion into “the establishment.” Beyond a doubt, to be underground under socialism was to be literally, politically undercover: subject to bans, informants, imprisonment, and exclusion under the law. In order to claim a comparable experience of repression and subversion, pop had to explicitly dramatize the exclusionary force of arts’ gatekeepers. Regardless, the performance of an existentially subversive aesthetic is


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

common and integral to them both, reflected in forcibly broadened expressiveness and an explosive use of language as well as a fondness for fragmentary and superimposed images. Banality, vulgarism, obscenity, and brutalism belong to this ostentatiously skeptical and desperate aesthetic that seeks art’s decomposition and its totality. Embedded within this are flaunted lifestyles and standards of living purporting to certify an art that is deliberately performative. I will get back to this structural analogy between the underground and pop shortly.3 The aesthetic of the true underground as it took shape on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s—excluding several pioneers—would be unimaginable without its embeddedness in rock music, folk, and blues; in performance art, happenings, and actionism. Like the alternative scene—beatniks, hippies, punks, and New Agers—the underground fits into the counterculture classification and likes to enact its craving for identity and authenticity in the medium of music. In East-Central Europe, its impulses had their roots in Western subcultures and youth cultures, and indeed had a reciprocal impact on them. The experimental gesture was complemented by a symbolic language that crossed borders and political systems: long hair, drug use (as available), appeals for peace and free love, happenings, and the inevitable concerts. But I reiterate: the underground is not designated by a fixed style. Like pop, it draws on many techniques and takes inspiration from various schools and movements, above all the historical avant-gardes and neo-avant-gardes. Its closest affinities are to Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and the Fluxus movement. It combines a range of dissimilar styles, incorporates religious symbols and practices, exalts the banal, and blurs the postulate of originality (Pompe 2009, 13–72). Another resemblance between the underground and pop is how hard it is to put a finger on the sources of its aesthetic. Furthermore, the underground and pop aim to cross boundaries between high art and low, good taste and bad. Religious traditions are welcome in the underground, but so is Susan Sontag’s “camp sensibility.” In his novel or manifesto Invalid Siblings (Invalidní sourozenci), published in 1974 as samizdat, Egon Bondy found a striking image to encapsulate this blend of sources: On her chest, my cousin wore symbols of antiquated sacred rites in an enchanting, artistic combination along with countless naïve historical anachronisms such as Buddha with a Star of David, a cross with a swastika crucified on it, Quetzalcoatl’s tail feathers with the Ford logo, and plenty else. (Bondy 2002, 24; translated by Alfrun Kliems) 3 For example, Thomas Ernst, who discusses underground authors of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg scene and the Czech writer Jáchym Topol in the context of pop culture (Ernst 2005, 46–9, 63).

The Underground


This mixture of styles could also be classified as camp or campy in Susan Sontag’s use of the term in her essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964). The techniques of quotation, combination, persiflage, and collage are all present in the sweater Bondy describes, which also suggests an inborn trait of the underground: a kind of primitivist tribalism. Her sleeves, we learn, bear likenesses of her friends. What connects the underground with the avant-garde is the imperative to blend life and art. With modern decadence, the underground shares the dandy’s flagrant eccentricity and radical rejection of the bourgeois routine. Even the weighty religiosity of the baroque period is raw material for its quarry, just as it idolizes Romantic poets.4 That said, the preeminent frame of reference is the bohemianism of the American Beatniks, led by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who referred to themselves as “subterraneans” (Clements 2017, 2–3). Their gloomy, urban-inflected writing called forth enigmatic imagery and symbolized a rejection of happiness and a condemnation of technology, embodying aimlessness, vagrancy, escapism, and passivity: an after-party of ennui. In short, it was an anti-attitude. The parallels between Egon Bondy’s Total Realism and American Pop Art of the same period are largely structural. In the 1990s, Bondy realized that the aesthetics of his Total Realism, as with Ivo Vodseďálek’s Awkward Poetry, had in fact anticipated movements such as Pop Art and Hyperrealism in certain key respects (Bondy 1994, 7).5 He writes that Eastern Europe had nothing and everything at once—to wit, “bebop (strictly forbidden and punished, of course), S&M (with the exclusion of homosexuality), vagabondage, begging, theft […]. We became the vagrants and the homeless, and, in line with the political situation of that period, the exiles in the most literal sense of the word” (Bondy 2006, 55). Instead of drugs, there was “fruit vermouth,” instead of Zen Buddhism, para-mysticism. In hindsight, the “aesthetic category of banality” had begun “to overlap bestiality” (2006, 55–7). And Pop Art had aesthetically exploited the “aggression of the trivial” found in commerce, consumerism, and advertising, just as the underground had exploited the “aggressiveness of the trivial which in Czechoslovakia of 1949–1953 consisted of omnipresent Stalinist fetish and slogans” (2006, 57).

4 Concerning the Czech underground, see Pilař’s argumentation on “cult fiction” (Pilař 2011). 5 Even more striking about the observation was Bondy’s characterization of the aesthetic parallels on the one hand and the “allegedly diametrical political experience” on the other (Bondy 1994, 2–7).


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

Martin Pilař therefore draws broad distinctions between the American beatniks and the underground in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and Eastern Europe at large. While writers of Anglo-American literature have quasiautomatic license to express themselves as outsiders, the writer’s role differs in the cultures of East-Central Europe. First of all, Pilař points to the traditional understanding of the writer as acting in the service of the collective, making reference to the dilemma of “small” literatures. Second, the beatniks had access to a global attention market, unlike underground authors such as Bondy and Vodseďálek, who were known to the initiated and to state authorities at most (Pilař 2005, 94–8). Pilař also rejects Martin Machovec’s tongue-in-cheek comment that the underground fully matured only in the United States and Czechoslovakia (2005, 98).6 Yet, like Machovec, he also stresses that we must remember the structural analogies, typological similarities, and commonalities in lived experience. The American beatniks styled themselves as outsiders, rebels, and victims. Their life-permeating art, their ecstatic scream poems, their experimental jazz prose, their tackling of such explosive topics as violence, addiction, and sexuality—including open homosexuality—inspired the subcultures that followed. These aspects were analyzed by Richard Svoboda with regard of the Slovak underground writer Andrej Stankovič. Svoboda concluded that the “orientation toward empirical spheres of perception” was related to the “constant references to physiological necessities”—typical of the underground—including “a great diversity of forms of urination, defecation, and sexual gratification” accompanied by “uninterrupted reminders of biological determinism,” reminders of the base and the trivial. In this fashion, underground works function “as part of a provocative and demythologizing campaign against idealized social and existential constructs” (Svoboda 1996, 17). If the Eastern underground is almost reflexively classified within a realm labeled “dissent,” the same can be said more mildly of its Western counterparts. The latter group could not expect the goodwill of society and its commanding heights, nor—as counterculturalists—did they wish to. Although individuals had more options for steering their personal fates, they ultimately could not expect general well-being. Subjectively, narratives of exclusion and repression 6 See the comment on Czech underground und American beatniks in Machovec (1991, 42). Machovec, however, specifies the discussion later (Pilař 2005, 98). In addition to Machovec’ remarks on the beatniks, see James (2019, 63–78) and, in a more comprehensive way, Zita (2018), who offers fascinating background to the reception of the Beat Generation in the United States and the Czech lands. In both works, due attention is paid to the translation process.

The Underground


were central to the self-assertions of both groups. However, there is no doubt that, in the East, strictly enforced publication bans and aggressive editing regimes heightened the contrast in presentation of an ontologically oppositional aesthetic—facilitating it, if you will. Without preempting the later demarcation from other articulations of dissent, such as exile literature or samizdat, I contend that the underground was less an absolutization of resistance, dissidence, and nonconformity than an expression of them. A key factor for analyzing the underground is therefore its treatment of life as a totality; self-stylization and self-mystification are part of the creative work. Accordingly, underground art proves remarkably receptive to mystical and religious milieus, celebrating a post-bohemian culture that denounces conventional bohemians as play-it-safe squares. Helmut Kreuzer has defined the term “bohemian” as referring to “marginal artists and authors, their ‘divergent lifestyles,’ and their milieu.” For him, bohemianism requires a critique of civilization and presupposes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of nature as well as a “tendency toward a cult of the genius and the Übermensch,” an “enthusiastic image of the artist,” and an “awareness of the mutual affinity of all ‘artistic natures’ as opposed to all others,” but especially as opposed to “the bourgeois middle class.” Drawing on the original meaning of bohemian as a word for “gypsy,” Kreuzer turns his gaze to the beatniks and the “provotariat” (Kreuzer 1968, 42–50).7 In the underground, however, this social cohesion corresponds to a game with tribal imagery, featuring topoi of the community, the clan, the (Native American) tribe, and the pack, all of which rest on a primordial order. As is typical in clans, expressive rituals organize coexistence.8 Underground art makes intensive use of cross-references, photographic documentation, dedications, and cryptic allusions that are legible only to those initiated and chosen, reaffirming an understanding of “us” versus “the masses.” The clan, the tribe, and the pack are fantasies of a male-dominated, untamed, and “liberated” community, a form of “true” brotherhood among the equivalent of a breed of pet. Admittedly, this holds especially true for the male-dominated underground canon that I draw on in this book, while I do feel the underrepresentation of female artists. Yet, I think this might be due to the stress upon the performative aspect of the artistic expressions considered. With regard to the Berlin Prenzlauer Berg scene, Birgit Dahlke has observed that the women active in the underground “avoided bohemian postering.” Thus, they were marginalized thrice: first, their 7 See also Clements (2017, 118–47). 8 Distinctly and visibly seen, for example, in photographs by Czech underground artists such as Bohdan Holomíček, Ivan Kyncl, Abbé Libánský, Ondřej Němec, and Jan Ságl.


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

texts experienced disregard within the scene; secondly, as a rule, the State Security (Stasi) bothered less to record their activities; and thirdly, academic hindsight tended to overlook them after 1989 (Dahlke 2015, 164).9 As to the latter, I may have stepped into that trap myself. The English word underground corresponds to the German Untergrund, the Polish podziemie, Czech podzemí, Slovak podzemie, and Russian podpol’e. It refers to the underworld as well as to a subculture seeking to subvert established modes, and associates subversive movements. In both German and the Slavonic languages, it hints at its years of illegality in times of occupation and military resistance, especially during World War II. Ultimately, though, every conspiring revolutionary, every forbidden work of literature, and every undesirable artistic exploit is situated underground, so that the term has not quite outgrown its semantic core of forbiddenness in those languages. It merely requires friction with whatever is “above,” usually “power,” “the establishement,” or “the system.” Unlike the native German and Slavonic versions, the English word underground implies an aesthetic designation. By the time the beatniks emerged in the United States, the term’s connotations had associated it with youth subcultures. Since then, it has been borrowed from English by all the languages mentioned without necessarily developing identical or corresponding semantics, associations, or usages in each. No matter how that is described, I am not primarily concerned with the term itself, but rather with what it signifies, which in my view is in a specific toolkit of aesthetic techniques. The word underground is remarkably vague and, for instance, virtually absent in the Hungarian context, which is why experts there such as József Havasréti, Zsolt Horváth, and Endre Kukorelly favor the terms neo-avant-garde, alternative, and counterculture (Havasréti 2006).10 Czech, in contrast, has used the loanword for quite a while and even shortened it to the slang androš; the Slo-

9 See Weronika Parfianowicz’s observation on the Czech musician Miroslav (Mirek) Vodrážka, whom she considers one of the very few underground artists who dealt with gender issues. From time to time, he signed texts by feminizing his name into “Mirka Vodrážková” (Parfianowicz 2018b, 171). 10 See József Havasréti’s and Zsolt Horváth’s discussion in their volume on underground as alternative culture and neo-avant-garde (Havasréti and Horváth 2003). Gábor Klani­ czay, for instance, specifies the Hungarian underground as “youth subculture” (Klaniczay 2015, 172). “Be forbidden!,” the motto of the artist Tamás Szentjóby, serves as a guiding theme through Klaniczay’s overview of Hungarian independent film, music, and happenings of the 1980s.

The Underground


vak case is similar.11 Ivan Martin Jirous justified the borrowing from English by pointing at the political dimension of “to go underground,” adding that it would have been “suicidal” to speak of podzemí in the years of post-1968 totalitarianism (Jirous 1990, 1). Martin Machovec subjoined in 2019 that the terms “underground” and “under-the-ground” have “not been clearly defined in Czech culture so far” (Machovec 2019, 25). He consequently translated podzemí as “under-the-ground” to point out the difference to the concept of underground. The word andegraund does sound more artificial in Russian.12 However, it can be tied to both meanings of underground by way of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (Zapiski iz podpol’ia) from 1864. In this context, it is a leitmotif related to freedom. For some, the freedom of underground people in basements is absolute and extreme; for others, it is a negative freedom. Dostoevsky uses podpol’e for underground, which means “under the floor” as much as “under the ground.” The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka interprets Dostoevsky’s Underground Man as a figure aware of his ontological alienation, vainly imagining himself as “different” and “special” yet cognizant of his own mediocrity and inanity. As a “negative anonymous figure,” the man torments himself in the underground with the realization that although he could fight his way through to freedom, he could never escape the inanity of existence (Patočka 1980, 86–7).13 That the literally Underground Man became compatible with the modern sense of underground is shown by Vladimir Makanin (see below). The Czech musician Pavel Zajíček, cofounder of the underground band DG 307, also reports that a publishing house was determined to release his private writings from the 1970s and 1980s as Notes from the Underground, although he had proposed another—more innocuous—title (Zajíček 2002, 7). Martin Pilař, for his part, calls attention to the vertical dimension that the underground emphasizes. Its works “not only deal with the circumstances of people ‘down below,’ but simultaneously refer to ideals that [would] stretch past the horizon of the everyday” (Pilař 1999, 144–45). Specifically, that means that 11 The underground musician Josef “Bobeš” Rössler explains the origin of androš as Moravian (Rössler 2009, 9). 12 Christopher Ely, for example, uses the title Underground Petersburg for his study of Russian reform-era populism. He concentrates on how “a few dozen radical activists managed to persevere against one of the world’s most powerful states” (Ely 2016, 1). Ely also mentioned Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, who for him seems “to represent the social invisibility of someone ‘under the floor’ of an apartment” (Ely 2016, 26). 13 Martin Putna plays with the double meaning of the word underground in his interweaving of underground and religiousness in his essay “Many Grounds in the Underground” (Putna 1993). He also discusses Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in combination with “underworld” (podsvětí) and, literally, “overworld” or “heaven” (nadzemí).


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

primitivity, filth, and objectionability are always set alongside “eternal” concepts such as freedom, the infernal, and the divine. In Polish culture, the English word underground and its Polish equivalent, podziemie, are associated much more strongly with anti-Nazi resistance and the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. For that reason, Michael Fleischer employed the deliberately misleading term overground for his investigations into the Gdańskbased Tot Art movement—a usage that has yet to catch on (Fleischer 1994, 11). In Poland, the so-called “third circulation” (trzeci obieg), starting in the 1980s, refers to a cultural split under the state socialist system between official (“first circulation”) and unofficial (“second circulation”) activities and publications. The term pertains to the Polish alternative movement in general, which is—like elsewhere—characterized by spontaneous performances, garage rock, street happenings, youth and hippie culture, expressive poetics, punk music, graffiti painting (Wertenstein-Żuławski 1991). After 1989, Mirosław Pęczak names it “alternative circulation” (obieg alternatywny) (Pęczak 1992, 97). Yet, unlike in Czechoslovakia, the concept of underground was not made explicit, but rather was implied in practices of “third circulation,” alternative and youth culture. In contrast to Xawery Stańczyk, who in his groundbreaking overview on Polish alternative culture rarely resorts to the term “underground” (Stańczyk 2018), Weronika Parfianowicz speaks of a “bruLion generation” and relates the latter explicitly to the Czech “RR generation,” the abbreviation standing for the underground magazine Revolver Revue (Parfianowicz 2018a, 189–92). In accord with Parfianowicz, I will address three of the bruLion authors as representatives of the underground: Jacek Podsiadło, Andrzej Stasiuk, and Marcin Świetlicki. As for the German example, Peter Wawerzinek, I shall subsume parts of the Prenzlauer Berg scene of East Berlin as “underground,” although their works were labeled in exhibitions, anthologies, and films after 1989 as Poesie des Untergrunds (2009), and not “Underground Poetry,” which is a slight but significant difference (see above). In my own work, underground acts as a terminological bookend, derived more from an expressive and fulfilled etymology than from its divergent, evolving, and contextual usages. For example, Martin Pilař begins his monograph Underground, a study of the Czech literary scene, with what he admits is a banal observation: that it “does not take strenuous intellectual effort to conclude that the literature of the underground is literature that needs to hide” (Pilař 1999, 13). However, the statement overlooks two integral components of the phenomenon. First of all, the underground is not congruent with a hiding place, neither semantically nor in lived performance practice. More accurately, it is a game of

The Underground


hide and seek that employs concealment and revelation, camouflage and disclosure, coding and aggressive decoding, with purposeful awareness. Secondly, the “down below” of the underground is far more than a hiding place. Rather, it belongs to mythical topography, or along the lines of Lothar Müller, who here combines all three guiding terms of “underground modernity”: “All mythology is topography. If the modern age has a mythology, the site of its story and of its ties is the big city” (L. Müller 1988, 14). Indeed, this mythotopography is deeply rooted in the realm of artistic imagery. Helmut Lethen rightly observes that there is hardly any literature without “mineshafts, tunnels, basements, or caves.” The Romantics even saw themselves as “mining engineer[s] of the spirit” (Lethen 2007, 50, 56). Similarly, Werner Nell argues that the idea of an underground is “tied to the constituent conditions of the very same social relationships that this space was conceived and formed—and at times seeks to assert itself—against” (Nell 2012, 99). In his view, these disturbances from the underground, as Ivan Wernisch describes them in his city poem, have an aspect of the sacred, the messianic. As well as the horizontal perspective, the underground introduces a vertical viewpoint whose multivalence and ambiguity, Nell says, should be analyzed through historical, theoretical, and artistic lenses. When it comes to the underground, the metaphors break down into aesthetic and moral preferences, which Gertraude Zand describes as an semantic field that privileges “earthiness, baseness, primitivity, darkness, uncanniness, and irrationality”: By nature, the underground is said to be situated “down below” morally and philosophically too: as a Dantean inferno and a diabolical underworld; as a world of urges and desires, of irrationality and the unconscious. The criminal sense of the underworld is another linked formulation of this same concept. (Zand 1998, 149)

Thomas Ernst sums it up more generally in his essay “Subversion.” In his view, underground literature corresponds to the subversive act of “going under the radar” in order to practice productive disobedience along the way, in order to disrupt the system’s rules—but also the system’s generic assemblages (Ernst 2008). In later writings, he supplemented the general term underground with the concept of underground literature (Ernst 2013, 397–99). Unsurprisingly, sociology situates the phenomenon of the underground in the realm of subculture(s); the two words’ shared metaphor of verticality already suggests this. However, studies of subcultural milieus tend to focus on marginal groups with fairly clear outlines: social minorities, delinquents, teenagers, migrants, and even women. The common denominator seems to lie in a subordinate power distance, albeit vaguely defined at times. Such investigations


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

examine spaces cut off from the “rest”: frequently ghettos, slums, and outlying urban areas (Schwendter 1981, 11–2). After all, in practice, the subculture of the urban fringe (equating “marginal group” with “outskirts”) dominates the discussion and virtually screams for attention. When this results in active and emphatic productive disobedience, we more often come across the term counterculture, which remains blurry as a self-ascribed or external label. This term also postulates the presence of a dominant, canonized culture against which individuals or groups can rebel. Culture and subculture indicate conflict between an establishment and an anti-establishment, a forced negotiation of cultural hegemony and recognition. In this framework, subculture is fixed into a coordinate system of political, cultural, and aesthetic axes that are never constant in their mutual demands—or even their own positions. The concept of subculture and the term applied to it depend on time frame, political situation, method, and perspective (Raab and Soeffner 2003, 804). In his encompassing monograph The Creative Underground, Paul Clements employs “the wide-ranging subject of a ‘creative underground,’ to encapsulate cultural resistance through ‘art’ and creative sociocultural practices that oppose hegemony and ‘systems’ to preserve the status quo” (Clements 2017, 1). He starts from repesentations of utopia, then focuses on communitarian groups, goes on to retrace manifestos of Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and Situationists as well as theoretical positions of the historical avant-garde. Clements, too, stresses concepts of resistance and counterhegemony, concentrating on “participatory ‘arts’ practices,” on leisure and non-(paid-)work activity as opposition, and on the “transgression of the boundary between art and everyday life” (2017, 12–6). Yet, whereas Clements’ understanding of underground as a “collection of heterotopias,” in which “marginality looms large,” seems close to my own thinking, he only passingly considers the city as the creative point of reference of underground modernity (2017, 10, 12). Moreover, while “underground” as a term and an idea is indeed often connected to the empirical and conceptual field of resistance, subversion etc., as an ideal type, it negotiates in a fundamentally different fashion, negotiates for something fundamentally different. Unlike sub/counterculture in the sense outlined above, the underground lacks a horizon at which to seek recognition. Rather, it is founded on the postulate that social recognition is fundamentally impossible, indeed that this impossibility is a defect or aporia of the modern condition. In ever-novel turns, its art articulates this aporia as a scandal that any effort to include an aesthetic, group, or stance could veil but never heal. In my understanding, the underground rests on a mythotopography of verticality and remains entangled in it. I will explore its origins, modes of articulation, and implications below.

The “Wende”: Pre- and Post-1989


In its principled stance symbolized by a vertical image, the underground comes closest to Surrealism, whose subject matter can be seen as the epistemological side of the modern impasse. The connections between Surrealist poetics and underground aesthetic strategies will be discussed separately. Anja Tippner takes a critical view of the link between Surrealism and the underground, believing that they have at most an “unstable alliance”: after all, Surrealism is a school of artists, not a “sociological formation” (Tippner 2009, 263): “The ‘sur’ in Surrealism refers less to a social environment than to an aesthetic technique: investigating and tapping into the unconscious or subconscious in order to awaken the powers that will help liberate a society paralyzed by convention” (2009, 271). For Tippner, this is compounded by the problem, which has “not adequately” been solved, of situating them as topoi. Moreover, because of the underground’s “disinterest in the political,” it does not appear to her to be “an avant-garde or post-avant-garde phenomenon either” (2009, 278, 269).

The “Wende”: Pre- and Post-1989 The German term Wende, or turning point, serves here as a shorthand for the manifold upheavals in East-Central Europe after 1989. Virtually no language besides German employs this visual metaphor with remotely similar connotations. Comparable terms for historical upheavals do exist elsewhere, such as przełom in Polish or přelom in Czech. Nevertheless, these are not used as topoi specific to “1989.” And yet this code word seems workable and beneficial precisely because it is vague in terms of structural history. At the same time, it is an expansively fertile rewriting of that destabilizing moment. German historians such as Martin Sabrow might prefer to call East Germany’s collapse in the autumn of 1989 the “Peaceful Revolution,” but as fitting as the moniker might be, it bears little if any connection to the underground poetics I am seeking to investigate here.14 Rather, I am pondering the rupture’s ramifications on the concepts and practices of the underground (and its art). I am concerned with their ability to persist at all under the new circumstances, but also curious about their structural affinity to pop, already touched upon. Both elements seem indispensable if we are to comprehend and classify underground adequately as a phenomenon. To some degree, the “Wende” served as a litmus test for the underground’s functional mechanisms and temporal conditions. In other words, is the underground a response? And if so, a response to what? 14 A summary of the debate about 1989 as “Peaceful Revolution” is offered by Weiss (2010).


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

Before 1989, underground was code for two things in East-Central Europe. While its exponents were subscribing to American and Western European models, they were also subject to the political and aesthetic semantics discussed above. The year 1989 transformed the circumstances of all forms of art and public space in the region. While censorship, infiltration, and bans on publishing or performance largely vanished, new selection mechanisms arose in the form of state subsidy policy and the market. At first blush, these ironically led to a homogenization of expressions of life and lifestyle. Indeed, as the Slovene activist and artist Nataša Velikonja wrote: The attitude was not mosaic-like but interventional; they targeted not a ghetto but society as a whole; their domicile was not a structure but a situation. They were aiming straight for the center, the mainstream. They interrupted the monotone march of social and political routine with their distorted music and rhythm and their transgressive appearance, image, and vocabulary, implanting into it cultural nonconformity and disloyalty as the main emancipatory guidelines. They were becoming the mainstream. (Velikonja 2006, 486)

This undoubtedly biased, rather melancholy conclusion has a systemic punch line. The underground appeared to lose any conspicuous options for radically dethroning political authorities the moment those authorities ceased to act authoritarian and could be voted out of office, a fact that diminished the authorities’ vulnerability to criticism. Likewise, the commercial realm is only free in a formal sense; society proved to be structurally forged and its normalizing drive was shown to be substantial. Obviously, those involved with underground art and life reacted to the change. In her study on the Czech scene after 1989, Weronika Parfianowicz assembles according statements on the future place, or “home(land),” of the underground by artists such as Ivan Martin Jirous, “Blumfeld” alias Lubomír Drožď, or Jan Klamm. Their contributions debate the opportunities and limitations that came with political freedom, the categories of victory and defeat in the face of the market revolution. Mostly, they search for “the status of alternative culture at the moment when that what once was underground became mainstream,” or “pop-underground” (Parfianowicz 2018b, 171–72). Warily, Xawery Stańczyk states that the Polish underground and alternative scenes only “slowly integrated” after 1989: This atrophy was partially caused by the very nature of the communication practices characteristic for the phenomenon of alternative culture. Informal and bottom-up actions remained very transient, liquid and ephemeral; what contributed to its advantage in the 1980s, proved inadequate when confronted with the aggressive capitalist economy and new, liberal political system. (Stańczyk 2018, 777)

The “Wende”: Pre- and Post-1989


Also skeptically, Jan Klamm suspects that the term post-underground becomes pseudo-underground, a mere “community of people who are fine together” (Klamm 2015, 15). Klamm thus considers post-underground a historical concept, well documented in group pictures, various archival files, and countless memories, yet without any effective relevance for the present (2015, 15). In a more optimistic vein, Blumfeld expresses the hope that the “new” underground constitutes some sort of “other” option within a “monocultural monster of consumption” (Blumfeld 1990b, 5). Somewhat vaguely, he attests unbroken relevance to underground in a plural society, prescribing it a “move diagonally to the mainstream, but especially against or outside of the mainstream. A move through the territory of cultural and social minorities, and perhaps even through the territory of minorities while being within these minorities” (1990b, 5). Similarly, in the 2010s underground veteran František (Čuňas) Stárek proclaimed that the underground community was still alive. He used the term ­proto-underground to point out, that there was a prior movement in the 1960s that broke ground for the later underground in Czechoslovakia (Stárek 2016, 30–1). Miroslav (Mirek) Vodrážka, a “senior” underground artist like Stárek and Bondy, even suspected a rejuvenated underground to become the “new postmodern gospel” (Parfianowicz 2018b, 173–4). In a radically different manner Jáchym Topol, one of the best-known figures of the Czech underground with now legendary status, pointed out the consequences of 1989. According to Topol, upon the end of authoritarian state socialism, the underground ceased to exist, having lost its raison d’être. In Topol’s view, it may live on in China, Vietnam, or other authoritarian zones, but it is gone from Eastern and certainly Western Europe, to say nothing of the United States. Topol denies that there could be an underground aesthetic technique either outside of or subsequent to the context of state socialism (Topol 1994b, 10–1). All the same, this parting gesture seems freighted with a certain stylization. Topol’s aesthetic is classic underground—a characterization that holds for both his pre- and post-1989 work, as closer analysis will show. Likewise, I will draw upon writings by his contemporaries, such as Yuri Andrukhovych, Marcin Świetlicki, and Andrzej Stasiuk, to show (potential) pathways for underground aesthetics across the chasm between epochs. Yet it remains indisputable that that very moment—when newfound freedom of speech, travel, and expression came hand in hand with fundamental social destabilization; when previously ironclad authorities toppled; and when, last but not least, artistic production that had been operating under state subsidy and repression was either discontinued or reconfigured—marked a fundamental shift in the conditions and con-


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

notations of aesthetic techniques. Nevertheless, the works of Andrukhovych, Świetlicki, and Stasiuk disprove Topol’s assertion, as I will show. Namely, they accomplished a complex spatial turn that allowed them to update an underground aesthetic by adapting its poetic and rhetorical strategies. To reiterate, the underground under state socialism was indubitably also forbidden, and its members were politically persecuted. From exile in Canada, Josef Škvorecký wrote with fitting acerbity that in the East, the underground was no “advertising label” (Škvorecký 1988, 35). Of course, in principle, his statement permits the existence of an underground in the West, if not a satisfactorily “real” one. Yet this is not a question of political ratings, nor of moral points for style, but rather of political assumptions and aesthetic consequences. The underground guru Egon Bondy, who died in 2007, saw this more serenely and did not perceive the disappearance of overtly repressive “overlords” as a problem for underground art. In the early 1990s, Bondy still judged the scene to be highly attractive for broad swathes of young people, saying: “The history of the Czechoslovak underground is by no means at its end: it goes on despite the changes of the establishment” (Bondy 2006, 58). And in a peculiar about-face, Topol follows Bondy’s account in a gesture very befitting of the underground. He reclaimed the underground as a group phenomenon by folding it into his own ego with the declaration “The underground is me!” (Topol 1994b, 10). By the mid-1990s, anti-system pop culture crossed a tipping point and exploded. Instead of pop culture incorporating mass culture, now everyday life internalized pop. “Mainstream of the minorities” is the phrase that Tom Holert and Mark Terkessidis coined for this switch from subversion to leveling: “Where dissidence once availed itself of consumer culture, consumer culture now availed itself of dissidence. Anything that promised identity via difference was useful” (Holert and Terkessidis 1996, 6). Against this backdrop, the 1989 revolutions can be read as part of a consumption-driven acceleration of globalization, which nullified horizontal and vertical differences, cultural distinctions, and dethroning gestures alike. One challenge to this reading is the all-too-conspicuous cyclicality of such diagnoses of decadence. Another is that underground assemblages were already so “sold out” by the late 1980s that the underground was already performing for a global(ized) audience—just as it was exhibiting analogies to and obvious divergences from pop. Upon closer inspection, aesthetic developments in the Western (capitalist) and Eastern (socialist) hemispheres followed strikingly parallel and structurally analogous courses, with some caveats. Consider in particular that the post-heroic consumption society and the merger of mass culture and defiance culture

The City


became apparent on both sides of the Curtain in the late 1970s, provoking aesthetic reflexes—including the underground. Here, in my analysis, the year 1989 (or the “Wende”) is a boundary marker to chart out and to cross. In this investigation of the underground, it encodes a fundamental blurring of borders, encompassing political systems, socioregionalism, and diachrony. For all its local roots, the issue is a broader one: around the same time Holert and Terkessidis were postulating the collapse of pop-cultural dissidence in the mainstream, Jáchym Topol was arguing that the (Eastern) underground, by disappearing, had spared itself that same fate. Both declarations are easier to pronounce than to prove. Both of them give off the same pessimistic air of mourning. And they both seem inaccurate to me for similar reasons.

The City The city, in whatever form, has been intrinsic to the art of the last two centuries, and in the twentieth became its most essential topos—its thought pattern. Not only were artists reacting to increasing urbanization, but they administered to the needs of the urban in all its variety and elevated the (modern) city to an expression of thoroughgoing transformation. This produced euphoric interpretations on one side and desperate rejections on the other. By urban art, I mean writings, manifestos, films, or songs that take a specific city as a point of departure, list a city’s name in their titles, contain topographical references to actual cities, or deal with topoi of materially urban life, with solidly urban existence. However, art that invokes the city as subject matter should not be seen exclusively as a “reflex of big-city reality.” Andreas Mahler employed the paired terms city-text and text-city. His city-text signifies a link to existing cities. Text-city refers to the autonomy of text, to its capacity for creating autonomous cities of reference in art (Mahler 1999, 12–4).15 Franz Kafka’s Prague belongs to this second category, as do Charles Dickens’s London and Émile Zola’s Paris. In the end, no matter how much the cities of art borrow from reality, they are always and above all spaces of fiction and imagination. It is only a short leap from this idea to Heinz Paetzold’s meta-urbanist statement that “today’s usage of ‘urban’ still contains an audibly normative note of cosmopolitan worldliness. This holds an aesthetic kernel: humans’ casual and 15 See, for example, Donald James’s argument that the “immaterial city is an imagined entity relating to urban experiences” (James 2000, 47).


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

ludic treatment of their sensory and intellectual assets are stimulated by social interactions in the urban lived environment and are also embodied within it” (Paetzold 2005, 282–3). In the underground, Paetzold’s urban game leads to the frontiers of existence where the city sets its characters on a path marked last exit. Now in contrast to that “normative note,” the Slovak philosopher Miroslav Marcelli suggests that for all the playful references to the modern city, it is hard to withstand, a place to literally run away from—although every departure is balanced out by the security of a return ticket. Citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marcelli attests that the city is home and exile, identity and alienation. For him this double role makes the city a backdrop that cannot be shaken off, even by those who turn their backs to it: “We can do nothing else but resign ourselves to our internment in the city” (Marcelli 1999, 187). Likewise, the underground cannot escape the city, nor does it wish to—in spite of escapist tendencies and disaffiliations, as we will see in specific cases. The underground had various reasons for often using the surrounding countryside for its projects. First, cities provided a certain anonymity and thus protection, not to mention numerous meeting places. In small towns and villages on city margins, however, authoritarian control over event venues fell away with the drop in population density. Second, the sense of outsiderness doubled in the countryside, as Sylvia Sasse describes it, speaking of the happenings Journeys to the Countryside (Poezdki za gorod) that the Moscow Conceptualists began embarking on in the 1970s. They traveled outside of Moscow and practiced “practical aesthetics” by celebrating travel itself as knowledge. Their modes of transport—bus, streetcar, subway— served as “vehicles of vision,” as conveyances for alienation, which in the end even rendered the change of scenery irrelevant. Taking a seat in the vehicle sufficed to call forth imagined movement (Sasse 2006, 280–2). Third and finally, “this flocking out into nature” avails itself of “escapist tendencies and seeks a utopian place outside society rather than in it,” writes Anja Schwanhäußer in her study of Berlin’s “cosmonauts” of the underground (Schwanhäußer 2010, 206; italics in the original). Escaping the city also means escaping the city center, which according to Roland Barthes is the same as the geographical center of a European city—in keeping with Western metaphysics, which is in search of the medium metaphysicum: “all its cities are concentric; but also, in accord with the very movement of Western metaphysics, for which every center is the site of truth, the center of our cities is always full: a marked site, it is here that the values of civilization are gathered and condensed” (Barthes 1984, 30). As applied to the city, the church is the site of spirituality, the department store signifies commerce, the offices

The City


stand for the exercise of power, and the banks for the transfer of money—with language found on the squares and in the cafés. Peter Zajac draws another, ineluctable, link between the urban and the underground. For him, the underground is tied, firstly, to an ambivalent understanding of the underworld in Vergil’s use of the word and, secondly, evokes Dante’s positioning of “down” as infernal. He thus derives metaphysical associations from a fact of urban infrastructure: In one respect, the city’s underworld developed out of the location. The term “underground” initially related to technical infrastructure: the transit network, the municipal sewer system, the distribution systems for water, heat, and electricity. The urban underground transformed into a complex social network and to some degree became a film on the surface. (Zajac 2014, 148)

What now sets apart the urban topography of the underground is its aesthetic play with peripheral places, non-places, and heterotopias à la Marc Augé in Non-Places (1992) or Michel Foucault in Of Other Places (1967). And thus the underground opts against the center—for the very reasons Barthes asserts on a city center’s behalf. Augé’s “non-places” (non-lieux) possess limited symbolic resonance due to their nature as thoroughfares. Because such non-places—such as train stations, airports, highways, and shopping malls—have such weak connotations, they have a very restricted contribution to identity. Yet of course that only strengthens their potential for enabling identification with non-identity (Augé 2008, 63–4). Managers, freelancers, and hitchhikers alike enact their personal essence as otherness in locations of interchangeable ephemerality, even if merely in the status symbol of the cardboard coffee cup. Their romantic clichéd model is the wandering storyteller; their twenthies-century archetype is the jet-setting reporter; and their contemporary type is the blogger with his MacBook—the placeless observer. Another space category to be discussed is “junkspace” by the architect Rem Koolhaas (Koolhaas 2002). Junkspace refers to the spatial setting of Augé’s “non-places.” It is “what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout” (2002, 175). Junkspace makes a reference to the entropy of sprawling urban proliferation, concentrates on mirrored surfaces, abolishes any sense of direction, channels streams of humanity and transforms inhospitable vacant zones into dwelling places. Like Augé’s “non-places” its prototypes are airports, malls, and office complexes. Meanwhile, Foucault’s un-conveyable heterotopias exist outside social positioning: psychiatric hospitals, restrooms, cemeteries, fairgrounds, hospitals, and orphanages, but also trains and ships. Heterotopias are “realized utopias.”


The Underground and the City, Pre- and Post-1989

They possess an internal organizing principle that identifies them as others of society—set up to discipline the anomalous or foster perfection. Frequently they are spatially demarcated, operate at their own pace, and are both open and isolated. One can enter them, but only “by special permission” and after one has committed a “certain number of gestures” (Foucault 1997, 335). The city of the underground shifts between these two topologies: “non-places” and “other places.” Its only irreducible element is itself: the city. After all, the city calls into play a paradigmatic figure of modernity, a regular in the texts discussed here who reappears in some cases after remarkable metamorphoses: the flâneur. According to Leonhard Fuest, in the modern age, “like his big-city backdrop, [he is] destined to take on a quality that is equally restless and unsettling” (Fuest 2008, 101). In essence, this book picks up where Fuest’s observations on the “poetics of inaction” left off: with the moment of “going berserk” as the end of flânerie. After Charles Baudelaire’s “sluggish steps,” Siegfried Kracauer’s “desperate strolling,” Franz Hessel’s “suspiciously friendly strolling,” and the “combative strolling” of Robert Walser, Fuest perceives a denouement of “going berserk,” of losing it, as in Thomas Bernhard’s “overexcited” urban rant or in the resentment of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann.16 In these examples, he asserts a potential specific to or only possible in recent years: the ability to run amok, which is represented in these pages by the urban wanderers Egon Bondy and Marcin Świetlicki. Fuest observes a “hegemony” of hurriedness and speculates that the energy this releases causes an “internalization of irritating urban impressions in the form of melancholy reflections” to veer into “externalized violence” (2008, 167). This is also evident, he believes, in the aesthetic technique of hurrying. For underground poetics, it became virtually integral.

16 These quotations were drawn from the table of contents of Fuest’s book (Fuest 2008).

Paranoid Schizophrenia: Dissent, the Underground, and Cultural Fissure They are constantly hearing something new about the strange goings on in the underground, about city cellars, and tunnels of the conspirators. —Ivan Wernisch, “The City”17

Everyone in state socialism was paranoid. For some, it was because they suspected the others were undermining the system; for their counterparts, it was because they believed the system had long been rooting around in their desk drawers. Behind this succinct diagnosis is one of this book’s core notions: that the underground (in East-Central Europe) is the outcome and culmination of a split or disconnect in society that can be metaphorically compared to paranoid schizophrenia. This analogy has an ironic twist when Susan Sontag employs it in Illness as Metaphor (1978), attributing illness’s representation as a function of inner character flaws to a culture of blaming the victim. Here, we will be looking at the polar opposite case: how the disconnected portion contributes to the schizoid constellation. The underground requires the circumstances of a split to operate, and it reproduces them aesthetically and performatively. Ivan Wernisch’s poem “The City,” which introduces this book, offers the beginnings of a poetically distilled clue. Born in 1942, Wernisch was one of the authors who were prohibited from publishing in Czechoslovakia under the state socialist regime. This prose poem dates from the early 1990s. The city that Wernisch poetically invents is full of rumors that the objects of all its above-ground residents’ desires are concealed beneath the cobblestone streets. With simultaneous longing, suspicion, and anxiety, the denizens above await news from below. What they hear are phantasms of subterranean lakes, gardens, and palaces. And what they finally see before them is a “mysterious animal” from the forest. Wernisch’s second poem, “This City,” makes things clearer. The reader—addressed directly—is asked to imagine he had bought a melon at the market, but when he unwrapped it, the melon turned out to be a woman’s cleanly severed head, obviously foisted specifically upon him. And the misfortune is far from 17 Translated by Marek Tomin (Wernisch 1992, 80).


Paranoid Schizophrenia

over, for inside the head is a container, inside the container is a piece of a paper, and on the page is a map: You unfold the map and what do you see? A detailed map of Buštěhrad! Oh woe! It’s even worse than you expected. The woman, as you can see, was not just murdered. You, too, are the victim of spies, Sir. It will be best if you run fast. Where? To the aunt in the countryside? To the Křivoklát forest? Anywhere, but away from here, dear friend. This city is full of spies! (Wernisch 1992, 15; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Wernisch’s cities are places of obsessive concealment and disclosure, of persecution, obscuration, and revelation, but also of corresponding delusions. Wernisch has no interest in solving the case forensically; what he does care about are fixations, hallucinations, and the spread, removal, distortion, and corruption of thoughts. There is no correlation between the delusion and the reality. The paranoiac requires no one to give chase. And yet, conversely, Joseph Heller’s semi-humorous observation in his popular novel Catch-22, published in 1961, is also valid: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” The two realities may be congruent, or they may not be—whichever the case, they are mutually independent. The underground cultivates this plurality of realities. Hence, in Wernisch’s hands, everything becomes fantastical. A split and a more permeable ego are both aspects of the clinical definition of paranoid schizophrenia. These characterize the circumstances of writing in the countries of the Eastern Bloc before 1989 but also figure prominently in subsequent underground works. Broadly, in a paranoid-schizoid position, the subject and the external world are split into “good” and “bad” objects. As the “outcome of this splitting,” they “attain a relative independence of one another, and each of them becomes subject to the process of introjection and projection” (Laplanche and Pontalis 1988, 299), therefore a projection outwards of whatever is a cause of displeasure within. The rejected parts become delusions. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis take this further: “The ego, because of the ‘lack of integration,’ has only a limited tolerance of anxiety. As means of defense, aside from splitting and idealization, it uses denial (disavowal), which seeks to divest the persecuting object of all reality, and omnipotent control of the object” (1988, 299; italics in the original). A split culture, like a split personality, can no longer reconcile its mutually incompatible elements. It radicalizes simplifications necessary for self-regulation—in the vein of “good” versus “bad,” “permitted” versus “prohibited,” and “normal” versus “abnormal”—and renders these into unambiguous, idealized, or demonized parameters. The “official” culture imagines that the split-off culture, having been deemed unsuitable, poses a fundamental threat to its institutional functioning. The official culture then perpetuates the intrinsically de-

The City


structive act of splitting into articulations that either conform to or threaten the system so as to maintain a fantasy of purity and control. Peter Deutschmann’s article “Socialism and Schizophrenia” focuses on schizoid self-image and investigates the usage of the concept of schizophrenia in various discourses in order to map the dispositions of society and individuals under socialism. Deutschmann models a basic pattern of the term’s functional practicality and potency. He also identifies its semantic fertility in view of literary concepts such as psychopoetics (Deutschmann 2007, 142). Specifically, Deutschmann analyzes a precursor text of the underground, Bohumil Hrabal’s short story “The Schizophrenic Gospel” (“Schizofrenické evangelium”), written sometime between 1949 and 1952, a period during which Hrabal was personally and artistically associated with Egon Bondy’s circle (2007, 185–90). In his “own” gospel, the narrator describes Jesus Christ’s birth in Prague’s socialist working-class neighborhood of Libeň, the voices that Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) hears, and his belief that he can save the world. Hrabal superimposes voices, layers, and psychoses until the layering finally gives way to a dream in which the Christ Child and his twelve friends drink cow’s blood by the liter in a slaughterhouse then regurgitate it all over themselves and their fellow streetcar passengers. The surreal, intricately structured, and yet obscenely relocated text not only anticipates aesthetic techniques of the underground but even explicitly calls its own metaphysical contamination a schizoid game. Deutschmann intentionally limits the works and articulations under his investigation to those that overtly invoke the concept of schizophrenia and relate it to a sociocultural circumstance (2007, 151–4). He dismisses the inclusion of semantically adjacent terms such as duplication, splitting, falsehood, or (self-) contradiction, considering these as overstretching the limits of his conceptual analysis. In contrast, the present text will subscribe to a broader approach that permits a correspondingly broad field of vision. First, I will discuss the split of EastCentral European literatures into three separate production contexts with divergent aesthetic implications: “official” literature, exile literature, and samizdat. This summary will also situate the underground within or among these spheres and against the backdrop of assuming a fundamentally paranoid-schizophrenic constellation. One element that is therefore neglected and only addressed in the individual analyses is actual pathologization, especially involuntary commitment to psychiatric institutions as a systematic tool for neutralizing the regime’s opponents.


Paranoid Schizophrenia

The Circumstances of Splitting Off We were accustomed to split-offs like the crumbling of buildings. The grayish background set the scene for our aloofness. —Bert Papenfuß, “Falling out of Love”18

Split-offs, writes Bert Papenfuß in his retrospective of the Prenzlauer Berg district, were a core experience of the Berlin underground community, which had no hope of political or moral authorization from the state, critical church-based groups, or institutions in exile. The community saw itself as “conspiratorial nudity batteries”19 (Papenfuß 2009, 15), as vehemently private and anti-political: “Every other anarchist was a split-off. As anti-authoritarians, we were authoritarian enough to know which way the state was blowing” (2009, 15). The scene itself did not escape being infiltrated and spied upon by those who became some of its foremost figures, including the poets Sascha Anderson and Rainer Schedlinski. Jan Faktor wrote about them, about the life of shadow-legality and illusion. He pointed out that the scene rejected the term underground as overblown. The guiding concept of Faktor’s retrospective examination is fear, or double fear: for some, fear of punishment for the liberties they had taken; for others, the fear of discovery that tortured those who, as “informal employees” of the Ministry for State Security (the Stasi), held a systemic split within their own persons. The toxic sibling of fear is untruthfulness: “the cushion around us was artificial, the lies piled up; the fakeness, the stagnation of productivity was no accident” (Faktor 1993, 97). Faktor asks: how can authentic literature be produced in a creative space whose integrity is a sham, where double agents are inscribing the very things they reject into the scene? “The state-ordered hypocrisy that we so despised and did not want to participate in reproducing was smuggled in and disseminated wholesale—without the least awareness of the catastrophic consequences for art” (1993, 105). But at the end of his reckoning, in a reversal typical of underground poetics, Faktor identifies aesthetic potential in precisely this moral and personal disaster. He saw it, namely, in the work of corrupted poets, such as Anderson, who 18 Translated by Jake Schneider (Papenfuß 2009, 15). 19 Translator’s note: A Nachtspeicher (“night-storage heater”) is a battery-powered electric heater that is charged using cheaper nighttime electricity and then used for heating during the day. Papenfuß punningly alters this to Nacktspeicher (“naked-storage heater” or “nakedbattery”): something scandalous quietly gathering body energy to heat things up later.

The Circumstances of Splitting Off


had adopted society’s traumatic splitting as their life stories—and made it into their literary production. Only rarely, and perhaps nowhere outside Prenzlauer Berg, is the art of paranoid schizophrenia woven in such a pure form. A fissure in the structures of communication, evident in virtually all countries in Eastern Europe before 1989, goes beyond the split Faktor describes. This is the breakdown or splitting of literatures into the “official,” samizdat, and exile cultures, as occasioned by authoritarian state socialism in its various forms. These cultures’ confusing multiplicity of voices, mutual references, rejections, and unmistakable silences leads to the thesis of a cultural system with multiple schizophrenias. This neuroticism is already apparent from the fact that none of the concepts can be understood, let alone explained, without the others. Just as there was no “official” literature sui generis, samizdat and exile writing had no specific aesthetic to distinguish them. However, each production context cultivates specific poetic physiognomies that become apparent by contrast. The term “official” literature is used here in quotation marks because it presented itself without any attribution as such. In terms of traits intrinsic to these works, there is scarcely any suitable bracket. It would be unjust to classify all “regime-friendly” works as automatically artistically inferior. Many of the samizdat and exile critiques were graciously taken in stride—with limitations. The “official” culture was able to predict more or less what it was permitted to publish, exhibit, film, and perform—at the price of accepting interventions in content and form.20 Those who went into exile produced their work free of formal restrictions, though often enough with an unfree mind, only to fail in the market for lack of a receptive readership. Global careers such as those of Milan Kundera and Witold Gombrowicz are exceptions that prove the rule. Some writing made it back into the home country and was printed as samizdat or—in the case of Poland—in the “second circulation” (drugi obieg).21 Samizdat, or self-publishing,22 for its part, rested on the shoulders of a small few who secretly read officially undesirable manuscripts and passed them on or copied and distributed them. Ann 20 Already in August 1984, Václav Havel wonders what “parallel culture” might mean and calls into question that the “official culture is subservient to some official ideology, naturally bad” (Havel 1992a, 277). 21 For the Polish samizdat obieg, I would prefer the figurative term “circuit” rather than “circulation,” but the latter word is long established in research. See, for instance, the comprehensive in-depth discussion of Polish independent publishing in Duplicator Underground (Zlatkes et al. 2016). 22 The Russian poet Nikolai Glazkov used the Russian word samizdat (a combination of sam sebja izdat) for his uncensored writings already in 1947.


Paranoid Schizophrenia

Komaromi uses the term extra-Gutenberg phenomenon (Komaromi 2008) and argues in her monograph Uncensored that the material circumstances of the creation and circulation of samizdat literature reconfigure, above all, the relationship between author and reader (Komaromi 2015). Friederike Kind-Kovács expands on this point in her study Written Here, Published There, where she focuses on the practice that “self-publishing and publishing in the West offered authors two legitimate routes to audiences. Their production, circulation and reception frequently went hand in hand” (Kind-Kovács 2014, 8–9). The resulting “parallel polis,” in Václav Benda’s words, offered not only an alternative book market but potential access to home theaters, reading groups, and private galleries as well (Benda 1988). However, the organizers’ ability to support themselves was often imperiled by their relegation to unskilled labor or unemployment. Their daily lives were subject to intimidation, observation, home searches, manuscript seizures, involuntary commitment to psychiatric institutions, imprisonment, expatriation, and, in extreme cases, violent attacks and (attempted) assassination. Still, these distinct production and reception networks remained closely interrelated and had porous boundaries. Publishing houses in exile, such as Czech Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto and Polish Instytut Literacki in Paris, published books not only by émigrés but also by authors still in their home countries, and sometimes even licensed editions of the “official” circulation. The exchange also went the other way: the Prague-based samizdat series Edice Petlice and the illegal Warsaw-based publisher NOWA both put out works written in exile. While the split in the arts was structurally analogous throughout the region, its characteristics varied from country to country. In the 1980s, unofficial literature had a vanishingly small readership in Czechoslovakia compared to the People’s Republic of Poland. Monitored compartmentalization was still functioning in Czechoslovakia and East Germany, but in Poland under the Solidarność, books from “second circulation” and from exiled writers were already making it into the catalogs of state-run publishing houses. From the mid1980s on, the Hungarian and Yugoslav literary apparatuses also allowed various works by dissenters and emigrants into “official” circulation, permitting them to be printed and sold after a certain cooling-off period. Nevertheless, even in places where the authorities tolerated unofficially published literature, exhibitions in unofficial galleries, and alternative music at bars on the urban outskirts and in rural cultural centers, the disconnect endured until 1989: a ubiquitous feeling that a dark Other was looming in the room. Meanwhile, the underground responded with aesthetic strategies that, instead of seeking to overcome the split’s circumstances, brought social paranoia

Underground versus Dissent


and the shattered totality of life into their art, elevating this incorporation into an aesthetic principle. In this sense, the underground constitutes not a phenomenon of splitting, but a reflex in response to it.

Underground versus Dissent The works [of the underground] were understood by their creators to be apolitical, even though they often provoked a political reaction. —Milan Knížák, “Underground as Convention”23

The underground poet Milan Knížák describes the underground as more a convention than a political statement. Yet even in cases where its members had no (concrete) political intentions with their music, literature, or art, they were labeled political dissidents merely by virtue of subscribing to a concept of art that lay outside official cultural doctrine and standard modes of expression (Knížák 2000, 108). Yet underground art aims neither to convince others of its harmlessness nor to loosen its confinement, nor even to expose delusions. In this book, I will use the terms dissent, dissentient, and dissident sparingly. For individuals, artistic dissent primarily means not hiding representations critical to the system behind coded references, a practice that literature published by state-run presses was forced to engage in, especially during “ice ages” of cultural policy. Rejecting the imperative of encipherment permitted undisguised (personal) expression in literature, film, art, and music. In the late 1970s, Eastern European dissent—as it is most often conceptualized today—organized itself as a movement constituting a communication circuit that emerged independent of political control and state censorship. In other words, it served as a group-specific form of articulation whose objective, broadly put, was to break the state monopoly on belief systems and to demand freedom of both opinion and artistic expression. Dissidents certified their rejection of the regimes through their lifestyles and their artistic production, through intellectual non-conformism, and through artistic and cultural resistance. By that measure, the underground was intrinsically dissentient. Still, it had reservations about dissent as a movement. Initially, though, the two groupings were connected by core observations and causes, as Václav Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” (“Moc bez23 Translated by Jake Schneider (Knížák 2000, 100).


Paranoid Schizophrenia

mocných”) a key text of Eastern European dissent, pithily expresses. In Havel’s words, a “specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent’” (Havel 1992b, 127). Like the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their day, Havel’s manifesto seeks to give meaning, form, and scale to crude displeasure—although he is equally uncomfortable with “dissidents” and the “opposition.” The backbone of Havel’s own position, he contends, drawing on Jan Patočka,24 is the desire to “live in truth,” which he claims cuts across political systems: humanity must take responsibility beyond personal survival and also beyond the department store.25 The source of this responsibility is a sort of internally consistent identity, a focus on individual integrity, “an existential attitude” (1992b, 169), or “an intrinsic moral aspect” (1992b, 171). For Havel, this is the condition for the survival of a modern society: “Living within the truth, as humanity’s revolt against an enforced position, is, on the contrary, an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility” (1992b, 153). At base, this is a radical affirmation of the modern postulate of identity, which calls twofold for emancipation and for morally responsible self-fidelity. Under the conditions of state socialism, this clearly implies politicization, albeit a politicization unintended by its actors. Alluding to Havel’s essay, the former dissident Jan Urban wrote “The Powerlessness of the Powerful” (“Bezmoc mocných”) in the 1990s, seeking an explanation for the phenomenon of a dissident establishment that had ultimately shown to be politically impotent. According to Urban, this dissident establishment had split the world into dichotomous realms: the “dissent me” and the “regime them” (Urban 1993, 6). In that hermetic seal, the very most the scene could accomplish, in its “eloquent passivity,” was to delight Western politicians and finally to lose itself in the “success of words” (1993, 8): “freedom writers” as surrogates for “freedom fighters” (1993, 10).

24 Aviezer Tucker offers a fascinating background to the relation between philosophy and politics in Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 dissident movement (Tucker 2000). See also Bolton (2012, 201–38), Williams (2016, 114–29), and Falk (2003, 199–256). 25 See Havel’s comment on socialism, consumerism, and the “post-totalitarian system”: “I do not wish to imply by the prefix ‘post-’ that the system is no longer totalitarian; on the contrary, I mean that it is totalitarian in a way fundamentally different from the classical dictatorships, different from totalitarianism as we usually understand it” (Havel 1992b, 131). And: “In highly simplified terms, it could be said that the post-totalitarian system has been built on foundations laid by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society. […] And in the end, is not the grayness and the emptiness of life in the post-totalitarian system only an inflated caricature of modern life in general?” (1992b, 145).

Underground versus Dissent


If the artistic underground was dissentient in Havel’s usage of the term, it certainly was not in Urban’s usage. Whereas Havel attributes everything to individual attitude, Urban focuses on ties to a movement with set political purposes. The two might coincide, but not necessarily. Christian Schneider lays out this divergence with recourse to Hegel’s concept of the “malcontent” (Querulant). In Schneider’s view, the intellectual legitimacy of Eastern European dissidence before 1989 rests upon the existence of competing political and ideological systems. After all, a dissident is someone who “cannot be present in one system.” To some extent, he merely exists via internal and external ascriptions (Schneider 2002, 13–4). As Schneider would have it, the dissident is an idealized figure who “helps to revive the heroic substance of the universe of bourgeois values” (2002, 14). By demanding institutions such as democratic elections, civic participation, and freedom of belief and opinion, the dissident criticizes axioms of the socialist world in which he lives. He holds up an alternative to the reality of his experience, one which cannot be made manifest because it would require a systemic change. To some degree, Schneider’s dissident insists on the possibility of a reality that cannot be realized in the place where he lives. The only reason he is not a “madman,” a “schizophrenic,” or a “fool” is because he can point to a system that truly exists, a real alternative—or at least that is his assumption. In the public consciousness, dissidents exist in the plural, as a social group. The basic norm of individuation, as intended by Václav Havel and others, returns, in the political routine, to classification within a collective. In other words, the focus on a group with the traits of a movement necessarily comes into conflict with the core of dissident behavior à la Havel. The inwardly directed appeal for fidelity must, under group pressure, be subordinated to an ideal, of whatever kind, or else it subordinates itself voluntarily. It is forced to destroy the hope of individuality, the claim of personal autonomy. What Jan Urban overlooked in his retrospective account of dissent, what Havel likewise failed to see, is the contradiction between a political movement and a personal ideal, a contradiction that according to Christian Schneider can only be resolved in art. For him, the logical conclusion is that the attempt “to develop dissidence as a new self ” always leads to the “problem of loneliness.” Indeed, “for all its attention to commonalities—without which it would be powerless—the dissident attitude has its foundation in the ability to disrupt for itself the total socialization of the individual” (Schneider 2002, 24).


Paranoid Schizophrenia

Consequences: “Me,” “Us,” and “Them” The underground is a mental attitude of intellectuals and artists who consciously and critically determine their own stance toward the world in which they live. It is the declaration of a struggle against the establishment, the regime. —Ivan Martin Jirous, “Report”26

In Czechoslovakia, the split in language and culture was acknowledged more openly and described in plainer terms than in any other Eastern European country. There, after the quashed Prague Spring, the forces of restoration publicly coined the concept of “normalization” (normalizace), which inadvertently implied a lurking abnormality. During this period, Ivan Martin Jirous wrote a manifesto for the underground that would extend far past his own reach. For him, the underground represented not only a movement against “the establishment” but also an affirmative position for (and in) illegality, as there was no maneuvering room within the bounds of the legal. He compares the rock band he had led, The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), with the Hussits, a Bohemian pre-protestant Christian movement in the fifteenth century. The prohibition of the Plastic People in the 1970s was a crucial factor in the emergence of the Charter 77 protest movement. In Worlds of Dissent, Jonathan Bolton follows Jirous’s line of argument, particularly investigating how Havel and Patočka harnessed the underground for Charter 77 (Bolton 2012, 115–51). The starting point was the group of trials initiated in 1976 whose defendants were not limited to members of the Plastic People; indeed, the trials were a concerted effort against the underground itself. History remembers the hearings as “the trial of the Plastic People,” whereas “in fact there was no such thing” (2012, 115–6). Bolton inverts the traditional reading: “the ritualized reference to the ‘trial of the Plastic People’ does not account for the influence of the music underground on Czech dissent; in fact, it does just the opposite, obscuring how underground artists and thinkers joined the larger project of articulating an oppositional identity in the 1970s” (2012, 117). 26 Translated by Paul Wilson and Ivan Hartel (Jirous 2006, 30). All quotations from Jirous’s manifesto follow their translation.

Consequences: “Me,” “Us,” and “Them”


This project first required Havel and Jirous to meet,27 then there needed to be an overlapping social circle and letters of support from outside sympathizers, such as Heinrich Böll, who spoke out for the “boys” in the band. “Havel saw them as members of an innocent youth culture—uncompromised, uninterested in the corrupt world of ‘politics,’ and in a real sense inarticulate” (2012, 136). Young, authentic, innocent artists who “just” wanted to make music. This “apolitical” and “secularized” reading of the underground by Havel, Bolton writes, not only neglects the role of Egon Bondy but paints Jirous as much younger— and therefore less experienced and more naïve—than he actually was at the time. Bolton concludes: “Rather, we should pay attention to the extremely careful mythmaking skills of Jirous and Bondy and ask how Charter 77 learned these skills as well” (2012, 143). Havel wanted to win over the philosopher Jan Patočka as a spokeperson for the Charter primarily to give the movement moral and ethical stature. Patočka in turn, exhibit these traits in his letter of sympathy for the underground, written in December 1976. In only a few pages, and citing a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, he equates the underground with “young cosmonauts” (Patočka 1981, 205–7) who land on a planet whose inhabitants are being manipulated and deceived. But the young innocents are, in fact, not “simpletons, no Candides who let themselves be persuaded that they are citizens of the best of all possible worlds” (1981, 205). Actually, Patočka hoped that the members of the young community would “live their own lives, the content of which, the very ‘living’ of which is every man’s nonnegotiable responsibility, one he feels all the more, the greater the outside efforts to influence him therein.” And he hoped they would not give in to “evil, frequently even criminal, confusion” or “play the other’s game” (1981, 206). His hopes came true, to some degree, as early as 1975. In Jirous’s “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival” (“Zpráva o třetím českém hudebním obrození”), partly inspired by his work with the Plastic People, he called for a departure from the socialist consumer society and appealed for alternative ways of life and an intellectual turning point, rung in by Marcel Duchamp’s pronouncement: “The great artist of tomorrow will go underground” (Jirous 2006, 16).28 Michael Kilburn sees Jirous’s manifesto as the “theoretical basis for a national movement of spiritual rejuvenation through autonomous culture” (Kilburn 2008, 191). And indeed, Jirous invokes the word obrození (revival), recalling the 27 See, in particular, Putna on the friendship between Havel and Jirous (Putna 2011, 167–74). 28 Jirous employs Duchamp’s use of “underground” with verve: “He meant the underground as a new mental attitude of an honest artist who reacts against dehumanization and prostitution of values in the consumer society” (Jirous 2006, 16).


Paranoid Schizophrenia

robust period of the National Revival (Národní obrození) in the nineteenth century. Zdeněk Nebřenský, on the other hand, considers Jirous’s manifesto to describe the underground as a global movement, addressing rather “bureaucracy and commercialization” than communism: “The Report is less about anti-communist resistance, than an apocryphal text on Western civilization” (Nebřenský 2018, 30–1).29 Than again, Martin Machovec suggests that the report contains nothing new at all, but reproduces well-established radical positions, namely that of a “passive resistance” (Machovec 2016, 2014).30 In his reflection on its origins, structure, and function, Machovec points out: “Czech underground was simply a new expression of age-old artistic and spiritual ambitions, striving for something new, unconventional, more free” (Machovec 2019, 205). Jirous considers two character traits fundamental to underground art: “rage” (zběsilost) and “humility” (pokora). Rage designates the will to live and create without compromises or taboos. Humility, meanwhile, designates the flip side of going berserk, for the underground must also resign itself to an existence at the margins of society and of society’s awareness. His “Report” concludes by examining the cultural split and its implications. Although the underground was theoretically formulated and established as a movement in the West, artists from its circles who had achieved recognition through contact with the “official” culture (in Jirous’s terminology, the “first” culture) did not artistically survive the encounter. Their work had been “engulfed” by it, he contends, degraded into consumer goods and sterilized. In the state-socialist East, however, the “first” (or “official”) culture wanted nothing to do with the “second” culture—and vice versa. But that was in fact what permitted the emergence of an uncorrupted “second” culture to begin with.31 Jirous does not clearly outline what he means by the “second” culture (Machovec 2019, 203). But it is doubtful that it includes the realm of “established” samizdat: Jirous did not value the “shadow establishment” very highly (Pilař 1999, 19–20). Its emergence, as well as Jirous’s disinclination toward it, is con29 For a broader perspective on Czech underground and Western counterculture in the 1960s, see Nebřenský (2018), and Tuckerová (2014, 136–9). 30 In his article on Bondy as an apologist and theorist of the underground, Machovec outlines similarities and differences between Bondy and Jirous. In short, he depicts Jirous as equating underground with individual social and mental radicalism, whereas Bondy considers it, in a rather detached philosophical approach, as a “metamorphosis of a revolutionary proletariat” (Machovec 2016, 213, 224). 31 At the end of the “Report,” Jirous declares: “The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a second culture: a culture that will not be dependent on official channels of communication, social recognition, and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment’s embrace” (Jirous 2006, 31).

Consequences: “Me,” “Us,” and “Them”


sistent with Gertraude Zand’s observation that in keeping with social power relations, the 1950s underground still operated under a split between “me” and “them.” The 1970s and 1980s were marked by a broader resistance movement, a more mature oppositional awareness that generated a split into “us” and “them.” This is, in fact, the duplication of collective compulsion that Havel saw as a dilemma. But Zand writes that it calls into question the “feeling of total outsiderness” that contributes to the underground’s sense of identity (Zand 1998, 53). Jirous’s statement that the underground was an intellectual or social movement whose followers had neither the desire nor the opportunity to participate in the official side of literature produces one of the contradictions characteristic of the very idea of the underground (Jirous 1990, 1–3). Even as it rejects legality and officiality, these contradictions become its benchmark, its counterpole. Accordingly, one of the underground’s main critiques of dissent was that the organizers of “established” samizdat gave recognition to the “first circulation” by seeking dialogue with its representatives. To do so ran fully counter to the ethos of underground radicalism. Yet the increasing treatment of the underground as a “third circulation,” especially in Polish discourse, necessarily assumes the presence of circulations “one” and “two” as frames of reference. In this context, Xawery Stańczyk underlines that Polish “third circulation” did not depend on the other two circulations, although it was often labeled as “second circulation.” Rather, it was independent, self-relient, unstable, heterogeneous: a “wibbly-wobbly ramp” (Stańczyk 2018, 733). Nonetheless, the underground defined itself as an assertion of distance from anything that seemed established or privileged, anything that enjoyed authority (even critically), anything that could be claimed as such. By that definition, it already contrasted with “official” culture but also with exile culture and established samizdat, whose semi-institutional distribution channels it employed all the same. Diedrich Diederichsen has suggested two ways to untangle this multilayered knot. First, Diederichsen draws a distinction between subversion and protest. Protest can make accusations, unlike subversion. The latter’s rejoinders draw on the (linguistic or moral) underpinnings of power. Logically, subversion criticizes protest for accusing domination of “making mistakes, although successful domination is even worse than the miserable, blundering, goofy kind” (Diederichsen 1993, 38). Second, Diederichsen deliberately eschews the term dissident for participants in uprisings against immediate discrimination along racial, social, gender, ideological, political, or other lines. He prefers to interpret the dissent identity as a declaration of “beliefs,” in whose name even uninvolved parties can endure marginalization and exclusion. However, dissidents generally engaged


Paranoid Schizophrenia

“with the primary [discourses] to give their own existence legitimacy” (Die­ derichsen 1991, 73). Discussing the East German context, Peter Geist drives the point home: “True subversion, as the group consensus holds, would have to break through this power-fixated logic” (Geist 2009, 22). In his 1985 essay, “The Semiotics of Samizdat,” Miroslav Červenka discussed the effects of splitting, repression, and paranoia on artistic production, beginning with a small observation. In printed form, books express authority by their sheer status as “physical entities” (Červenka 1996, 367).32 It has sloughed off its manuscript nature, with all its spelling errors, corrections, and handwritten comments cleaned away. Transcripts circulating as samizdat, however, are full of such indications of the author’s existence and the contingency of his work. Both he and the production process—the copyist—are almost in the presence of, or in conversation with the reader. A second problem of communication theory, related to this intimacy, lies in the question of the minimum readership that could qualify as a “public.” After all, “public is by definition tied to quantity” (1996, 370). The limited circle of readers also often consists of people who know each other and have close relationships. Červenka stresses that the authors’ strategies for responding to this problem of inadequate “rump communication” (1996, 371) have implications for the works’ content and formal fabrication.33 He breaks these down into four types: First is resignation and relegation to the private sphere. The works become more self-contained, philosophical, and microcosmic. Instead of being aimed at readers, they are literally written for the desk drawer. Second is the opposite path: to an international public. Here, allusions to national specificity, historical events, and major cultural figures are dialed down to a minimum and the language is given a scaffold for the sake of translatability. These texts are often overly explicit, leave very little up in the air, and avoid the ambiguity of allusions.

32 He points out that “anybody who has read samizdat publications that never got rid of their transcription errors or even their interlinear corrections knows how the communication process is disrupted by undesirable material elements left over. I, for one, find that reading a samizdat text is often a torture chamber of conjecture, with repeated attempts to restore the correct original version, i.e. which is free of anything that is not a sign” (Červenka 2018, 23). 33 Here, I prefer Jake Schneider’s figurative translation of “rump communication” (torzovitá komunikace) rather than “fragmented communications” (Červenka 2018, 27) in the printed English version.

Consequences: “Me,” “Us,” and “Them”


Third is ignorance of the situation, which is neither addressed nor characterized but is nonetheless omnipresent. Fundamentally, this is a variation on the widespread idea of the modern artist as an absurd, ghettoized Sisyphus. Finally, the fourth type’s response goes on the offensive by adapting to the situation, taking it as its subject, and often favoring genres such as diaries, notes, literary correspondence, or memoir as forms of testimony for posterity. However, a reader who is not already familiar with the dissident scene can scarcely derive any general messages from the metonymy and synecdoche of the code words. One example is the Moscow Conceptualism, whose works Sylvia Sasse characterizes as a “rhizomatic network”: “It becomes clear that the private relationship technique, the personal network of connotations in the ‘infinite’ structure of meaning, creates a new privatism, a hermeticism that structurally connects to totalitarianism’s will to exclude” (Sasse 2003, 300). This poetics reveals itself “associatively when creating connections, dissociatively when creating meaning” (2003, 308). The artistic consequences that the underground drew from daily splitting and paranoia largely fit into this fourth type and have at their core a gesture and aesthetic that Caius Dobrescu describes thus: “In the case of archetypal heroes, the idea is to sabotage any entrenched form of authority, to create an atmosphere of distrust toward any attempt of ‘cultural manipulation’ on the part of an omnipresent yet invisible ‘system’” (Dobrescu 1998, 123–4). This leads us back to Diedrich Diederichsen’s aforementioned notions about subversion and its techniques. He listed related practices, including “spontaneous references to a ‘below’ in a hierarchical power topos” as well as cultivating “intelligence agency metaphors” (Diederichsen 1993, 35).

Subverting Official Claims to Centrality: Overcity/Undercity, City/Country, East/West There is forest all around, so thick it is impenetrable even to the whistles of trains. Neither the cries of door to door purveyors, and malicious gossip, and mysterious intimations of horrors, nor even daredevils with flame throwers, or prospectors, or health inspectors, can get much deeper than the fringe. —Ivan Wernisch, “The City”34

In underground art and beyond, spatial references and tropes serve as concise, catchy codes for negotiating social, cultural, and other collective hierarchies. The dominant spatial metaphor, already inscribed in the very word underground, is vertical. This chapter will discuss its implications. However, the protagonists and authors of the underground repeatedly return to horizontal code words and topoi of varying conventionality, assigning them key functions in their work. On some occasions those horizontals are artistically verticalized, such as when Andrzej Stasiuk flips up the steppe’s dead expanses into the mirrored façades of Warsaw. Others act as dual markers of a central vertical dichotomy, as in the Ivan Wernisch poem above, while still others remain, by and large, conventionally in place. Yet, in line with the earlier discussion on the urban condition of the underground, it is always a cityscape that sets the structure of the narrative space. Apart from the obvious construction of overcity versus undercity, this fixation on the urban is reflected in guiding dichotomies such as center versus periphery, city versus country, and settlement versus wilderness: all of them variations on the assumed theme of place versus non-place. In East-Central Europe, another pattern of poetic self-representation appears to be a reflexive response to a specific experience of repression. That is the feeling of being peripheral—which in fact dates from before Sovietization and has persisted since the political transformation. A passage from Yuri Andrukhovych provides a good illustration: “I allow myself to add: A province, however, where everyone knows they are actually in the center because the center is everywhere and nowhere so that, from the heights and depths of one’s own study, one can easily gaze down at everything else including New York and 34 Translated by Marek Tomin (Wernisch 1992, 80).


Subverting Official Claims to Centrality

Moscow” (Andrukhovych 2006, 125). Andrukhovych could not have expressed it better, this East-Central European intellectual gesture of being at the peak of a global Parnassus despite one’s peripheral location. Yet the location’s irony plays with a central questions of the underground: how valid are spatially encoded hierarchies, and how they are constructed? The politics of this question are tied to the effort to decentralize a centralized, if plural, world anew by zooming in on entrenched non-places in fiction. Setting a story at the bottom corner of the “canvas” is the performative anti-aesthetic. The one gradient that is never seriously questioned is the urban versus rural divide. New York, Moscow, Paris, London, and soon Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Delhi are weighed up against Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw, Lviv, Budapest, and Bucharest, just as Prague Castle is juxtaposed against Libeň and Smíchov, the Warsaw Old Town against Praga and Grochów, downtown Bratislava against the concrete high-rises of Petrželka, the Upper West Side against the Bronx. But around the comparatively and internally revalued metropolises—those symbols of the modernity myth, those fulcrums of their creative work—the underground artists paint a band of nothingness. For Ivan Wernisch, the non-urban space beyond is the woods. To enter or to leave the city, the intruder or runaway must conquer the wilderness, crossing a distinct border. The space of the woods is “impenetrable.” Hardly anyone makes it past its fringes. The city in the woods is the center around which Wernisch’s poem revolves. The poem has earned its title, for the city sparks the action. The city constitutes the narrative epicenter, and the poetic speaker adopts its perspective. The city is at the intersection of the horizontal (mythical) and the vertical (dramatic) axes. The “wondrous animal” roams the same streets whose residents whisper about the catacombs and the gardens (Wernisch 1992, 80). The woods and the city take turns in their spatial value according to a catastrophic scenario. The city simultaneously swells from within and shrinks from without. Everything in its space is a claim revoked with each subsequent sentence in favor of new claims about what is marginal, peripheral, central, above, and below—and when. However, the apocalypse can only strike the city, that place among the placeless. On Wernisch’s pathways, the underground runs beneath the paradigm of the megalopolis versus the metropolis—preferring an idiosyncratic, inflated schizophrenia due to a dialectic of contempt. That is, both centrality and marginality are universally and mutually contested, only to be re-asserted from an anti-center that is located so far in the bottom corner of the canvas as to be ostensibly out of reach of the “lethal” mainstream.

The Space between Center and Periphery


The Space between Center and Periphery i know a guy named holger from cowville, I wanna say schachtaudorf, he runs around the city now, hair’s never seen a dryer, wears a load of shit, calls himself pussy muncher, loves a big ol muff dive and says: you gotta give local rock bands a shot. holger’s got no attitude, holger’s got no style, holger’s such a knucklehead the teakettles toot but that godforsaken zombie has sübcültüre. —Feridun Zaimoğlu, “Fuck Your Subculture, You Schmucks”35

The Turkish-German author Feridun Zaimoğlu invokes the classic centerperiphery theme, contrasting Kiel or Berlin to “cowville”: the countryside. In doing so, he turns the horizontal setting into a vertical dialectic. The German country mouse still seems so strenuously maladapted. For the “metropolitan kanak nugget,”36 he remains a “bag o’ square,” a “white wanker,” a middle-class up that scurries beneath anything canonized. This is certainly true for an immigrant who has spent his life in the city, in ghettos that cowville confounds with down. And from this starting point, the speaker gives “sübcültüre” (for subculture) a Turkish-inflected twist, satirizing Zaimoğlu’s own “Kanak lingo,” that “Immigrantese” that simulates authenticity. While “Kanak lingo” conjures associations of the underdog rapper, it also represents pop at its purest: superficial, commercial, fetishistic, and manipulative. Meanwhile, it bears the auto-aggressiveness that imbued proto-pop.37 For this same reason—its low-resistance digestibility—Zaimoğlu can use this lan35 Translated by Jake Schneider (Zaimoğlu 1996, 89). 36 Kanake (kanak) is a racially charged German pejorative term of abuse for immigrants from Turkey and the Middle East, which Zaimoğlu has famously re-appropriated in his book Kanak Sprak (1995). He uses sprak as a pidgin version of the German word Sprache (language). Etymologically, Kanak refers to the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia (kanaka maoli). See David Williams: “Like young urban African-American males who reclaimed the word ‘nigger,’ a similar phenomenon occurred in the late 1980s among urban Turkish youth, who proudly adopted ‘Kanake’ as a self-appellation” (Williams 2013, 216). Thus Kanak writing refers to a strategy of “self-barbarization,” it rebels against the dominant German culture, employs aggressive modes of writing, hypermasculinity, performativity, repulsion, and fascination. 37 This, at least, is shown in an interview with Zaimoğlu conducted by Julia Babel (Zaimoğlu and Babel 2006, 166), where Zaimoğlu points out that social erosion puts everything to test—including ethno-identities.


Subverting Official Claims to Centrality

guage as a tool for questioning hegemonic speech patterns and the markers of “nativity” and “foreignness”—and with them, the direction of the axis of exclusion. A few more notions about the axiology of the center and periphery may help us to classify the underground and its use of horizontal hierarchies. If the anthropologist Clifford Geertz holds that there is “nothing in the suburbs that was not first in the old city” (Geertz 1983, 74), the semiotician Yuri Lotman argues the exact opposite. In his view, the periphery “is the area of semiotic dynamism” (Lotman 1990, 134), not the Old Town. He sees the center as normative and prioritized, but ultimately lacking original creative impulses: “the peripheral genres in art are more revolutionary than those in the centre of culture” (1990, 134). Radical creativity occurs in the marginal zones. As places of the ostracized, Lotman accords these areas the potential for a dissent that authorities would otherwise be able to successfully monitor, were it to occur in the center. At the same time, the center’s power to define allows it to absorb peripheral impulses and to neutralize them—centralize them—through appropriation. Its domination over the modes of life is therefore not dictatorial (1990, 134–5). Nevertheless, “center” and “periphery” are not set in stone; they can fluctuate and swap positions. Only in those motions do they constitute the dynamically conceived model of the semiosphere. In the margins, Albrecht Koschorke states, “the codes of the semiosphere dissolve, break into fragments, and multiply” (Koschorke 2012, 30). The inherent opposition between center and periphery gives rise to the boundary as a qualitative factor, a specific area of accelerated semiotic processes that occur with ever greater activity on the periphery, only to penetrate the core structures (Lotman 1990, 131–42).38 For Koschorke, part of what makes the semiosphere model attractive is that it is “pervaded by internal barriers” and that centers and peripheries “multiply and generate countless interference patterns” (Koschorke 2012, 31). While Lotman adds nuance and fluidity to the bipolarity of the twin concepts of center versus periphery, Henri Lefebvre systematizes the analysis of spatial production and proposes viewing the spatial and temporal structure by way of three aspects in The Production of Space (1974): “the perceived-conceived-lived triad” (Lefebvre 1991, 40). First, “perceived space” (espace perçu) refers to the sensory mechanisms through which we materially structure and perceive space: by smelling and hearing, by moving and situating the body, and so on. This spatial praxis is then discursively decoded in “conceived space” (espace conçu), 38 Defining the boundary, Lotman writes: “The boundary may separate the living from the dead, settled people from nomadic ones, the town from the plains; it may be a state frontier, or a social, national, confessional, or any other kind of frontier” (Lotman 1990, 131).

The Space between Center and Periphery


where spatial knowledge is (re)produced and space is designed and planned. Finally, both aspects are suspended in “lived space” (espace vécu), which is used in social relationships, given symbolic connotations, and reopened for dissent, for spatially constructed and enacted opposition, and for counter-spaces that contest existing hegemonies. As lived space, all space is dynamic and fluid, not only marginal or peripheral space. According to Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution (1970), the city represents a historically specific configuration of space, one that is characterized by its centrality and hence by a formal criterion that emerges from a concrete social context. Here, centrality is not referring to power and the presence of its institutions per se, but to the remarkable density of collisions, gatherings, accumulations, encounters, convocations, mediations, and compensations: “Anything can become a home, a place of convergence, a privileged site, to the extent that every urban space bears within it this possible-impossible, its own negation—to the extent that every urban space was, is, and will be concentrated and poly(multi) centric” (Lefebvre 2003, 39). Lefebvre’s analysis draws into the city the tension between the central and the peripheral, including their creative borderlands, making it relatively easy to resolve the divergences between Geertz and Lotman. Accordingly, the categorical power of space presents a crucial problem for Lefebvre, but the problem is situated within the city, not between city and non-city. To begin with, Lefebvre doubts that a space as varied as an industrial city can be homogenized administratively. The diversity of its heterotopias would suggest otherwise. Yet they, and therefore genuine urbanity, are still endangered. For Lefebvre, this urbanity of the urbanized society comprises the synthesizing antithesis of more powerful forces of homogenization in the form of authoritarian violence. He summarizes them with the words commodity, consumption, domination, and product. These are what propel the “colonization of urban space” (2003, 21; italics in the original). Lefebvre describes this process using the example of a street: “The street became a network organized for and by consumption” (2003, 20). The city dwellers can no longer freely occupy its space through actions such as spontaneous demonstrations. All that remains are authorized festivals, parades, and street markets—mere caricatures of such a seizure of space. It would take an “urban revolution” to counter the city’s commodification: “The conception of the urban also strives for the re-appropriation by human beings of their conditions in time, in space, and in objects” (2003, 179; italics in the original). However, Lefebvre’s recourse to colonial imagery suggests a line of thought that was intensively discussed by postcolonial theory on spatial hierarchies. Finally, let us consider how these concepts may help us understand the underground’s spatial aesthetics.


Subverting Official Claims to Centrality

With an eye to Lefebvre and some affinity to Lotman’s model of the semiosphere’s boundaries, the geographer Edward Soja formulated a “thirdspace” concept that emphasizes the infinite complexity of “lived” space (Soja 1996, 53–82).39 This space crosses the center versus periphery paradigm by exposing movements, exchanges, hybridities, congruences, and transitions: “a fully lived space, a simultaneously real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual, locus of structured individual and collective experience and agency” (Soja 2000, 11; italics in the original). Through its open-endedness, it proves to be exceptionally resistant to any and all schemes of power. According to Soja, we have to account for all three modes in order to challenge “the interconnectedness of perceived, conceived, and lived spaces” (2000, 12).40 Despite methodological and theoretical differences, some of them significant, similar notions to Soja’s can be found in the writings of Edward Said and Homi Bhabha, who likewise describe “third spaces” as more than interstices between dominant poles: they are presented as fluid, flexible, and unstable, yet as spaces in their own right and with their own features, not merely in-between situations with the connotations of being dependent and wedged in place. To get around this dilemma, Doris Bachmann-Medick applied this third space, or in-between, to cultural practices such as translation. In her view, such quasi-spaces prompted by action are constituted “by an unstable state of communication” that frequently “gains its own tension and mobility from the displacement of people and objects and from the clash of culturally divergent modes of behavior” (Bachmann-Medick 1998, 22). This makes the space a mobile, emergent topos, if not a metaphor. Yet it escapes the dangers of romanticizing and essentializing that so often plague discussions not only about (presumptive) culturally marginal or gray areas but about phenomena of subcultures and countercultures as well. 39 Soja spells his concept as one word, “thirdspace,” while Bhaba uses “third space.” I will follow both when quoting. 40 According to “thirdspace,” it might be also worth discussing the phenomenological concept of “thirdness” by Charles Sanders Peirce, who deals with categories like monads, dyads, and triads. Concerning his “thirdness,” see: “By the third, I mean the medium or connecting bond between the absolute first and last. The beginning is first, the end second, the middle third. The end is second, the means third. The thread of life is a third; the fate that snips it, its second. A fork in a road is a third, it supposes three ways; a straight road, considered merely as a connection between two places is second, but so far as it implies passing through intermediate places it is third. Position is first, velocity or the relation of two successive positions second, acceleration or the relation of three successive positions third. But velocity in so far as it is continuous also involves a third” (Peirce 1931, 337).

The Underground and the Margins


These dangers are all the more potent given the underground’s fondness for enticing poetic self-representations that are liable to be transferred from a work itself into an analysis of its creation. Wernisch’s poem “The City” offers just such a third site of desire. In particular, its final stanza identifies the gardens and pathways under the city in the woods as what are truly alive—the same things that provoke fear, astonishment, and rapture in “normal” city dwellers. Wernisch’s subterranean realm emerges as a heterotopia that has vertically slipped through from the in-between zone (between nature, woods, wilderness on the one hand and civilization, city, heteronomy on the other). At the same time, it represents a synthesis whose relatively higher position is emphasized. And it is a comment on the relevant hierarchies of appreciation. The poetic third space is subject to these hierarchies and crosses their prerequisite binary structures of spaces one and two. Which leaves for the individual analyses the question of whether and to what extent the underground is in fact allowed to forge true lived space out of its spatial interpretations and fantasies in artistic and performative acts. And now, let us return to the topos of marginality touched upon earlier, a topos so integral to the self-fashioning of the underground.

The Underground and the Margins The periphery is not a peristase, but a periphora, a peripherein or perisherestai, which means carrying around, moving around, driving around until you’re dizzy because you’ve missed the highway exit or lost sight of the sign for Downtown. —Hannes Böhringer, “Periphery Means Carrying Around”41

Hannes Böhringer’s conclusion is partly a posture. Essentially, Böhringer celebrates something that is far more often decried: the “fraying” of the cities, their sprawl into the countryside. He envisions this development as a natural nestling and intertwining of streets, housing developments, filling stations, big-box stores, riding stables, airfields, and junkyards. For him, however, the center is no longer draining the periphery, but in fact the periphery is pulling off the artistic trick of re-naturalizing the unnatural. Just as Roland Barthes suspected a congruency between the European city center and the metaphysical tendencies 41 Translated by Jake Schneider (Böhringer 1998, 360).


Subverting Official Claims to Centrality

of the West, Hannes Böhringer identified a cosmological or rather eschatological notion that would soon be transcended. The center was “no longer a point (center from kentron, meaning sharp point) for a compass to draw its circle around” (Böhringer 1998, 362). One of the first texts to recoil from Böhringer’s utopia was Egon Bondy’s underground vision Invalid Siblings, published in 1974 as samizdat. He also saw the periphery as the custodian of naturalness. Invalid Siblings portrays a classic dystopia, a contaminated city surrounded by polluted water and devastated by incessant wars. Its regular residents take refuge in subterranean compounds or enormous residential high-rises, fleeing the soiled surface to dwell like cockchafer grubs that cling to the city’s worthless riches. In the meantime, above the tunnel cities, outside the towers, and preferentially at the wasteland’s remaining margins live the “invalids”:42 committed to tribal pacts yet mentally and physically unbounded, dancing expressively and drunkenly, devoted to spirituality and their own self-mystification. Concerning the ritual character of these performances, one might cross-check the shamanist visions of Bondy’s works with Atilla Grandpierre’s manifesto Punk as a Rebirth of Shamanist Folk Music, published in 1984 (Grandpierre 2016). In that sense, Bondy’s invalids are ideal figures of the underground paradigm.43 Indeed, their performative outsider communities invariably serve as alternatives, not only accusations. These alternatives are based on archaizing patterns of community; on metaphors of clan, (indigenous) tribe, or pack; and on primordial forms of cohesion. Bondy’s apocalypse is the opposite of Böhringer’s vision of transcending the unnatural through the natural.44 Ultimately, for the invalids, the “city and the people in it became to them similar to what the jungle and the animals in it were to the prehistoric man. They lived in them, but not with them. They lived above them” (Bondy 2002, 52).

42 The word invalidní (důchodci) refers to a person with a disability pension. This is why the novel’s title is also translated as Disabled Siblings. See: “The whole idea of a disability pension for undergrounders is part fantasy, part reflection of the fact that many in the underground did work at various menial and deadend jobs simply as a way of freeing up maximum time and energy for concerts, happenings, and other creative pursuits; some indeed had a disability pension, like Bondy himself ” (Bolton 2012, 125). 43 See on Bondy’s shamanism Jurza (2015). 44 Concerning the Czech underground scene, Martin Machovec names the theme of apocalypse as “a key building block” (Machovec 2019, 85–103). Apart from Bondy’s novel, Machovec referes to Vratislav Brabenec, Svatopluk Karásek, J. H. Krchovský, Milan Knížák, František “Fanda” Pánek, and Pavel Zajíček.

The Underground and the Margins


Expressive rites at the narrative level correspond to such rites at the poetic level and at the level of the authors themselves. Underground art as expression is defined ritually. It makes extensive use of cross-references, dedications, and cryptic allusions that are legible only to those initiated and chosen. It cements itself as the simultaneously undomesticated and conspiratorial, unleashed, and “true” brotherhood of actuality. This conceals another inherent verticality that goes strangely unacknowledged. Bondy’s novel also includes a “down” even further below that of the excluded horde. There are still the people in the tunnels, the underclasses who are adapted to the dystopian hierarchy and who accept their servitude. When most of humanity eventually perishes in a flood, the invalids on a ship are the sole survivors. And after the water has drained away, “there was no more need for the invalids to destroy the cities, which were so despicable to them” (2002, 183). At first glance, Bondy’s cityscape is scarcely consistent with the underground’s fondness for the urban. Yet this dystopian vision betrays its fixation on the city as an affirmative frame of reference: whenever nature and the surrounding countryside do come into play, they are lethal. Above all, the catastrophe of the corrupt city is what carves out the marginal spaces where Bondy’s protagonists live their unconventional lives. The alternative lifestyle illustrated by the invalids, the novel itself, and the bricolage of the sweater worn by Bondy’s cousin, as described earlier, are again urban, perhaps hippie-esque, but by no means pastoral. The text sends the invalids on sorties through the devastated space, as would only be possible in a city: They never went for a “walk” into the city center, where trams and autobuses bring together tens of thousands of people, who want to enjoy themselves. […] They avoided the center in a wide circle, looking for suburban pubs, boozers, bars, buffets and bistros” (Bondy 2002, 64; translated by Alfrun Kliems).

In the process of drifting, to use the term from urban studies, the invalids virtually create a second, decentralized city. The theory of drifting (dérive) is one of the basic Situationist practices, “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences” (Debord 1958, 19). The Parisian Situationist Guy Debord touted this movement as the drifting of vagabonds through urban space. Unlike presumably superficial (bourgeois) flâneurs in the tradition of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, the Situationists sought stimulation and a blurring of borders, expected and almost aspired to get lost, and planned for and cultivated a loss of control. They saw any routine for strolling through town as suspicious. For them, the center was a refuge of the unsavory. Meanwhile, they landed on the word construction to describe the environment: graffiti on memorials and buildings; housing blocks with movable partitions and translucent components;


Subverting Official Claims to Centrality

a change of urban scenery from one moment to the next, between brightly lit and twilight neighborhoods; counterfeit transportation timetables.45 Bondy’s invalids similarly prefer places that are peripheral, profane, improvisational—and yet artfully staged. Like the Situationists, they choose meeting places with “psycho-geographical” auras; they celebrate a volatile mood, a culture of living in the moment. Concerts that go unrecorded heighten the invalids’ “physiological sensitivity,” opening imaginative space, heightening the intensity of their perception. Bondy’s novel says goodbye to the city as formed by official power structures. He portrays the urban condition as devoid of an alternative, thus elevating its volatile boundary zones to an alternative lived space for his characters. In contrast, drawing on Polish writing, Michael Fleischer asserts that the overground (as he calls the underground) ascribed new prominence to the countryside (Fleischer 1994, 131). Fleischer bases his claims on the scattering of performance art, concerts, and happenings around the landscape as well as on the topology of literary production. Both arguments seem shaky. At first, Fleischer’s arguments appear to be corroborated by Martin Pilař’s statement that the underground is located “in any circumstance at the periphery, since in the center it would cease to be what it is, it would forgo the basic prerequisite of its existence” (Pilař 1999, 20). Yet Pilař’s periphery is inherently intra- or sub-urban. Consider his invocation of one of the Prague underground’s founding myths, in which Honza Krejcarová, daughter of Milena Jesenská and later a muse of the underground, walks into the famous Café Slavia by the Vlta­ va River (1999, 16). Pilař also claims that the departure from the center was tantamount to the dissolution of traditional poetics. The poets Egon Bondy and Ivo Vodseďálek, the artist Vladimír Boudník, and others staged their nonconformist lives as artistic bohemians in the 1950s by starting to eschew downtown cafés in favor of pubs, lunch counters, and inns on the urban rim, where Pilař presumes a shift in “discursive environment” accompanying the spatial shift (1999, 16). In his view, by moving to the seedy outskirts, the group was able to liberate itself from Surrealism’s overpowering aesthetic and lay the groundwork for their later roles as major figures of the Prague underground. But we are, once again, at the urban outskirts: the underworld, in Wernisch’s visual language—not the forest beyond it. Fleischer’s observation about the countryside is not entirely off the mark. In fact, the “woods” do play a critical role for underground poetics. As a refuge of wild beauty, they correspond to the mythical undercity. In most cases, 45 My account of the Situationists draws on Schwanhäußer (2010, 146–74), Hecken (2006, 21–37), and Ohrt (1990).

The Underground and the Margins


the country and the provincial serve as foils for the city. In quite unoriginal fashion, provincialism is less a geographical location than a topos: a life of conformity, consumerism, and small material pleasures—rule-abiding and straightforward. At the same time, the (ostensibly) excluded periphery serves as an established, readily legible horizontal code for a fundamentally vertical displacement: in fact, the idealized marginal life always situated itself beneath the urban society. Even when that meant going to the suburbs for lack of literal tunnels, or hauling guitars and amps to a village, the sender, addressee, and message were always natively urban. The underground in East-Central Europe is situated on the edge of the statecontrolled cultural machinery, outside the opportunities of the “first” (or “second”) culture. Centrality, conceived as the socialist public, becomes a limitation tangible in the own underground body and work. It is executed and imposed through a deeply “provincial” apparatus, which sanctions official spellings of words, dictates who appears onstage, stipulates how often a writer or artist may leave the country, and approves rock concerts. As the pestilence of Egon Bondy’s “swill” has long been issued by the authorities above, the underground blots out the dignity of the power center—not in favor of the country, but in favor of the “genuine” big (and free) city. Consequently, the underground marginalizes itself and initiates a game of musical chairs between center and edges by defiling, injuring, and occupying the center without seeking centrality itself. In view of the previous section, on paranoid schizophrenia, the underground aspires neither to persuade anyone of its harmlessness nor to expose the delusion of power: it has no “therapeutic” aspirations. Instead, it indulges the apparatus’s paranoia by opting directly for sabotage, subversion, and self-exclusion without an agenda, targeting all rules or forms of containment. The underground declares as centers those worthless places that are located away from historic and legendary nuclei and far from tourist itineraries. It devalues places that have been colonized à la Lefebvre. Although its articulations can be read as a challenge to a normative center, they never rebel against the city as such, only against this city as it is defined. In the 1970s the Russian underground performer and writer Dmitri Prigov created such a dual imagination of Moscow and Belyayevo, a bedroom community where Prigov and other Moscow Conceptualists lived. Prigov invented not only his subversive other, the “militiaman,” a grotesque caricature of a Soviet policeman, he also appropriated the peripheral district Belyayeva as his urban center. In one of his “militiaman” films, he proclaims from the balcony of his


Subverting Official Claims to Centrality

residential block that Belyayevo is the “true capital city” of Moscow and the “Duchy of Prigov.”46 The underground’s marginalization and self-marginalization function on multiple levels. If we take the underground to be a kind of life as an art form, akin to bohemianism, the phenomenon can be situated at both the outer and lower margins of society in terms of social categories such as income, gainful employment, and (socialist) public service. This marginalization can then be further reconstructed in the West and reconnected to the East as a double exclusion accounting for emigration and exile. At this point, if not earlier, reflecting on whether to stay or leave often raises the issue of “betrayal”: paranoid schizophrenia. This book approaches this set of symptoms from a historical, not a clinical, perspective.

46 Tomáš Glanc compares Prigov’s underground performance with that of Bondy, and calls both authors “egomaniacs” exploiting a “megalomaniacially staged auctorial authority” (Glanc 2017, 125–6).

Verticality as Metaphor: The Romantic Era and the Underground as a Historical Location The hither and thither of the stairwell, the temporal movement and passage that it allows, prevents identities at either end of it from settling into primordial polarities. —Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture

Homi Bhabha’s placement of his “third space” on the staircase offers a compelling image of a threshold zone of exchange, hybridity, and volatility (Bhabha 1994, 4). But in his choice of imagery, Bhabha also points to another distinctive element: because the poles are connected vertically, Bhabha is playing with the notion of (precariously) hierarchical values and cultures. Bhabha’s monograph The Location of Culture (1994) analyzes many such (literary) locations as topoi. However, the vertical metaphors that figure into the underground conceal another, far more fundamental, assumption than Bhabha’s anti-essentialist dynamization of spatial dichotomies. Decoding this assumption allows us to place the underground in historical context and hence to identify its essence within the philosophy of history. I will approach this here by closely analyzing a story from the German Romantic period. This approach proceeds under the assumption that underground art is a response to a fundamental problem of modernity that has been visible from the very beginning. The underground comes to grips with this problem through literature—and therein lies the key to the aesthetic methods discussed in this book.

This chapter is based on Alfrun Kliems / Mathias Mesenhöller. “Vertikalität als Metapher und der historische Ort des Underground. Eine Erzählung E.T.A. Hoffmanns” [Verticality as metaphor and the underground as a historical location. A story by E.T.A. Hoffmann]. In: Unter der Stadt. Subversive Ästhetiken in Ostmitteleuropa. Ed. by Mónika Dózsai, Darina Poláková and Alfrun Kliems, 16–26. Cologne – Weimar – Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2014.


Verticality as Metaphor

The Short Story and Its Central Conflict In December 1813, the Leipziger Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung published E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Poet and the Composer” (“Der Dichter und der Komponist”). At the time, Hoffmann still regarded himself as more of a composer than a writer, and his story is rooted in earlier ideas he had about the Romantic opera, especially the relationship between librettist and composer. Hoffmann rewrote these art-historical discussions as a dialogue in his story, to which he lent a dramatic frame narrative permitting a dual reading. The frame narrative renders the text a probing commentary on art history and even the philosophy of time.47 To outline the plot in brief: the main section shows two old friends who, in an embattled city, meet again by chance. Ferdinand, a poet, has made a successful military career for himself whereas Ludwig, a composer, lives the life of a poor hermit. For their conversation, they move to the “small side-room” (Hoffmann 1989, 192) of a coffeehouse. Ferdinand takes off his uniform and the dialogue about art theory unfolds. Ludwig argues for the primacy of music over words, and Ferdinand repeatedly concedes his points. Suddenly, the clamor of the “general alarm” outside penetrates the room and Ludwig shifts to another plane: “What is to become of art in our harsh and turbulent times? Will it not perish, like a delicate plant that turns its drooping head in vain toward the dark storm clouds behind which the sun has vanished?” (1989, 207). But Ferdinand grabs his uniform and gun, rebuking Ludwig’s inability to recognize the “armor-plated giant” of wartime, which moves “among the degenerate breed” and ushers in a “blush of morning” signifying faith, dedication, and therefore art. Then he leaves for battle. This main section is preceded by a frenetic opening: The enemy was at the gates, guns thundered all around, and grenades sizzled through the air amid showers of sparks. The townsfolk, their faces white with fear, ran into their houses; the deserted streets rang with the sound of horses’ hooves, as mounted patrols galloped past and with curses drove the remaining soldiers into their redoubts. (Hoffmann 1989, 189–90)48

47 Some of the observations follow the biographical approach of Rüdiger Safranski (2007, 279–91). 48 All quotations from Hoffmann’s short story “The Poet and the Composer” translated by Martyn Clarke (Hoffmann 1989).

The Short Story and Its Central Conflict


The locals run for their lives, while Ludwig completes a score in his garret. Not until a grenade tears off part of the roof does Ludwig follow the rest of his neighbors to the basement: Here the entire household was gathered. In a quite untypical fit of largesse the wineseller who lived downstairs had made available a few dozen bottles of his best wine, and the women, fretting and fussing but as always anxiously concerned with physical sustenance and comfort, filled their sewing-baskets with many tasty morsels from the pantry. They ate, they drank, and their agitation and distress were soon transformed into that agreeable state [in the original gemütliches Behagen] in which we seek and fancy we find security in neighborly companionship; that state in which all the petty airs and graces which propriety teaches are subsumed, as it were, into the great round danced to the irresistible beat of fate’s iron fist. […]. Tenants who scarcely raised their hats when meeting on the stairs sat arm in arm beside each other, revealing their innermost feelings in mutual warmheartedness [in the original wechselseitige herzliche Teilnahme]. (Hoffmann 1989, 190)

Finally, the bombardment ends, and the next morning the attackers enter the city—along with Ferdinand, whom Ludwig then encounters. The character of Ludwig bears core similarities to Hoffmann himself, not least his life circumstances. In Ferdinand, we can identify ideological and biographical traits shared by Hoffmann’s childhood friend Gotthard Friedrich von Hippel. Even the surprise reunion in Dresden took place, albeit half a year before the battle for the city, during which Hoffmann genuinely had a similar experience with his neighbors. The outcome of the military conflict diverges from history, as Hoffmann’s narrator exhibits astonishing indifference toward the existing political and military configuration. All this is a significant departure from Ferdinand’s blazingly patriotic dramatic discourse (Safranski 2007, 284–5). Meanwhile, the text reflects highly critically on a structural shift behind the “conflict du jour” and its outcome. At heart, the story centers on the relationship between art and politics, or more precisely, on possible aesthetic stances toward the political realm. Superficially, it deals with the specific relationship between poets and (opera) composers. Hoffmann’s Ludwig character praises music as a holistic art form that privileges genius. At the same time, he makes his poet friend an offer of reconciliation, saying that, ultimately, “poets and musicians are closely kindred members of one church” (Hoffmann 1989, 195; italics in the original). But his offer is not accepted. As the text merges this failure with the war, war then serves as more than just a tension-heightening backdrop. Rather, the war’s direct intervention in the art theory discussion, its causation of Ludwig’s experience in the basement, and foremost, this latter experience itself all prove to be expressions of one fundamental conflict. What happens to


Verticality as Metaphor

those aesthetic hopes and possibilities in view of the political realm’s violent expansion? For that is precisely what war is here: radical politics, the political realm with its purest force and interventionist power. And that is also the reason for indifference to specific enemies: from the text’s perspective, war—that is, politics itself—is the problem. What is destiny? Why dramatize it? Napoleon Bonaparte had posed these questions to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe a few years earlier, saying, “Politics is destiny.” This elevation of politics to an absolute is a signature of the modern age. It proceeds from the modern discovery of history in the narrower sense and the basic assumption of a trend toward an open-ended, contingent, and fundamentally “different” future that diverges from past and present circumstances and models. In the modern age, politics has become a struggle over this future, or least it has been framed and mythologized in those terms. Therein lies the unique grandeur of politics—as well as its total, totalitarian potential: “The political sphere has become expansive. It occupies passions, hopes, and desires that previously had no business in the political, public realm. Hoffmann becomes acquainted with a politics that is preparing to become ‘totalitarian’” (Safranski 2007, 273–4). For Hoffmann, art must take a stand on this ambition and this potential. Like Friedrich Schiller, he elevates art to an absolute. For him, it becomes a comprehensive expression of and stand-in for humanity, for life. This applied foremost to music, which he considered the quintessential art form. Here is the message of Hoffmann’s basement scene, where he succeeds precisely where Ludwig failed in his debate with Ferdinand, which gratifies him with an aesthetic “mutual warmheartedness” as the neighbors express their “innermost feelings”—the same “innermost feelings” that Ludwig has just imbued in his score. And that is demonstrated throughout the conversation with Ferdinand until Ferdinand dons his uniform again. In contrast, Ferdinand’s war poetry remains out of Ludwig’s reach. The dichotomy could be summarized as life-art versus political art. More broadly, “The Poet and the Composer” is part of a discourse that is arguably integral and formative for modernity. Jürgen Habermas takes this a step further: Since the close of the eighteenth century, the discourse of modernity has had a single theme under ever new titles: the weakening of the forces of social bonding, privatization, and diremption—in short, the deformations of a one-sidedly rationalized everyday praxis which evoke the need for something equivalent to the unifying power of religion. (Habermas 1990, 139)

Or, from another angle, in regard to the discovery of history and the elevation of politics as discussed above: the story is about closing the gap created

The Horizontal Option and the Vertical Option


by decoupling the “space of experience” from the “horizon of expectation,” as contended by Reinhart Koselleck 1989 in an essay of the same title. Alienated subjectivity, epistomological splitting, and an objectified life constitute the suffering of modernity itself, the modern condition and its set of dichotomies from German Idealism to Karl Marx to Michel Foucault to Jürgen Habermas. In this conflict between art as life versus politics and alienation, the subject is the same as that of “The Poet and the Composer.”

The Horizontal Option and the Vertical Option Hoffmann enacts three possibilities for art—the art of living, that is—in view of modernity’s split. First, he considers Ferdinand’s political aesthetic: art in the service of war and war as a catalyst of art. The story rejects this option. In the figure of Ludwig, two retreats are presented as alternatives: a vertical one and a horizontal one. The reunion and the hope for a connection of friendship and intellect leads the poet and the composer to one of Hoffmann’s notorious side-rooms, where the conversation takes shape once Ferdinand has set aside the insignias of his political role. The discussion is open and intense—but it founders all the same. Midway through it, the alarm is sounded and Ferdinand grabs his armor. Before leaving, he declaims on the nature of war in the style of Ernst Moritz Arndt, a sentiment that rings tinny and hollow after their emotive exchange. The musical friends fail to forge an inner connection even though they have retreated from public space. In fact, the public sphere proves to be inescapable—at least horizontally. The private sphere, the bourgeois space of withdrawal, is a chimera, a site of interaction that cannot ensure true exchange because the sphere of external authority (war) is liable to penetrate and dictate the debaters’ roles at any moment. Bourgeois society is shown to be the servant, not the counterpart, of politics. Yet this scene is preceded by a contrasting scenario of a successful union. The residents of the building, who have escaped the political sphere’s bombardment by fleeing to the basement, find this togetherness in a vertical retreat that stimulates an “agreeable state” (Hoffmann 1989, 190) of dancing, storytelling, communication, and generosity. They have entered a concrete utopia, if you will. Tellingly, the true personal experience upon which Hoffmann based the literary scene occurred in a stairwell (Günzel 1979, 261–2)—the very location Bhabha so fondly employed. The shift to the basement is part of Hoffmann’s metaphorical treatment. The aestheticized activities in the basement are borne out of existential fear, out of a state of emergency—but they result not from Ferdinand’s enthusiasm


Verticality as Metaphor

for it, but from the fair of the emergency’s imposition. Who declares victory “up above” is irrelevant: no matter what, aesthetic life and art can only be successful beneath the politicizable domain: not within the bourgeois system and its parlors. The keenness of this premise, and thence the link to the underground of the late twentieth century, are revealed when we consider the connotations of social verticality in the self-image of modernity. The metaphor of the “underneath” is a response to a specifically modern presumption: that of horizontal liberty. Accounting for this expectation in our reading reveals why Hoffmann’s story is so instructive for situating underground concepts in modernity. “Up” and “down” were sharply accentuated in the stratified societies of the early modern period. Yet this social hierarchy was understood to be the natural order. Accordingly, class membership, the exercise of privilege, and exclusions from participation were imagined to be much more distinct and more static than their true distribution. By contrast, the modern revolutionary fantasy bore the promise of a citizen society that is equitable in legal and, to a point, material terms. This model of society was envisioned as open to exchange and expression and thus broadly inclusive and inherently horizontal. Because the semantics of the term underground presume a sealedoff “over,” the sheer existence of the underground postulates that that promise has failed. It highlights a performative grievance at the persistence of a “netherworld” that is not just comparatively worse-off but systematically excluded. This strident dual gesture of an imposed and self-imposed exclusion, there at the aesthetic core of underground concepts, is inconceivable in a stratified society where such exclusions are considered “natural.” In modern society, however, vertical separation is scandalous. Indeed, it constitutes the scandalous element, bar none. Fragmentation and alienation are not contingent in modernity; they serve as modernity’s ineluctable aporia. So too in Hoffmann’s “The Poet and the Composer.” Even as the aesthetic escape into the concrete utopia of the basement bomb shelter represents a happy moment during an existential emergency, it also sends a clear message: this happiness cannot exist in horizontality. The promise of a thoroughly inclusive society, one that embraces all people in their fullness and unites them, is a chimera. The basic conflict of the modern age is ultimately unresolvable. In the underground, art and life cancel each other out—and the wounds up above are left to fester. This sets it apart from revolutionary concepts but also from Bhabha’s third space. The former notions harbor hopes that a better society will emerge from defying and overthrowing the current system. The latter notions pledge at least an “easing” of social conflicts once spatial entities have dissolved.

The Dilemma of the Underground, Pop, and Counterculture


The Dilemma of the Underground, Pop, and Counterculture That brings us back to the relationship between the underground, pop, and counterculture that I touched on in the introduction. Tying these concepts together poses an immediate dilemma on the literal, semantic level. If the underground seeks to intervene in the culture of the “overworld,” it must “go up” permanently—and thus disintegrate. This sounds like a rhetorical trick, I admit, but it may well have a salient core that helps explain the resigned ending of Hoffmann’s story. Along these lines, Thomas Hecken devotes a long section of his conceptual history of pop culture to the underground (Hecken 2009, 167–258). Hecken acknowledges the diversity of both phenomena and leaves them vague by refraining from defining his subject. Anja Pompe, at the very least delimits the negative space of what pop is not. Pop is not an artistic trend or school, she holds, for its aesthetic techniques are unoriginal. Nor is it a movement—due to lack of a normative agenda and organizational integration. And lastly, it is not a mentality, in other words, not a political and aesthetic attitude of protest. As a project, it does not require a teleological culmination, given that “pop is both complete and self-sufficient in the provisionality of its results” (Pompe 2009, 25). Underground and pop share significant structural attributes. Neither pop nor the underground constitutes an artistic trend or school with a consistent, characteristic style, and neither can be called a movement with an agenda. However, it is arguable that the underground could be a political and aesthetic attitude of protest, a mentality—akin to Helmut Kreuzer’s interpretation of bohemianism (Kreuzer 1968). Hecken’s chapter on the underground begins by examining the neo-avantgarde, using the Situationists as prime examples of both, the underground and the neo-avant-garde. Despite their common aesthetic tools and gestures, Situationists rejected pop, accusing it of compulsive consumption, cultural fetishism, and selling out. Meanwhile, Hecken even calls Andy Warhol, with his 1960s art films, a member of the underground. But when crowds began flocking to see Warhol’s films, the New York Times ran the headline “The Underground Overflows” (Hecken 2009, 183). Hecken places pop and the underground in fluctuating contexts by sometimes using terms like counterculture, and other times drawing on theories of subculture by Stuart Hall, Talcott Parsons, and John Milton Yinger, and throwing in such phenomena as rock music and folk rock, the hippies, and the New Left. This is not mere terminological negligence. It reflects political, but also performative and aesthetic variations, on the dilemma raised above. When outsider and underground interventions are successful, they necessarily move


Verticality as Metaphor

upward and inward, where they risk losing their identity. In the United States, the risk reversed, and an eager-to-appropriate mainstream quickly scared off subcultures all over again. A superimposition of the underground onto subculture, alternative culture, and pop culture, comparable to Hecken’s argument, was published in the ethnographic book series Berliner Blätter back in 1997. Despite the edition’s broadness, the author Roland Lindner adopts a more exacting approach to terminology by emphasizing prefixes. For Lindner, subculture is not simply a “sub-unit” of culture, it is also subterranean, an observation visible in the guiding category of primitivism. Its emblematic folk hero is the Gypsy—a figure present in underground works of Egon Bondy, Andrzej Stasiuk, Yuri Andrukhovych, and Jáchym Topol.49 Subculture steadily associates “gypsies” with allusions to vagabonds, adventurers, hobos, and outlaws—anti-citizens—but also invokes the “noble savage.” Its icons resemble bohemians in their eccentric marginality, but Lindner notes a specific affinity to the subterranean that could complete the concept of underground alongside the subversive aspect. Nonetheless, he opts for subculture as his umbrella term (Lindner 1997, 5–12). “What is pop? That depends on what we place on the other side: the underground, mainstream, rock, or good music,” quips Markus Heidingsfelder in his monograph on pop as a system (Heidingsfelder 2012, 14). For him, the “descriptive list that knows no up or down” replaces unity (2012, 24, 27). In other words, anything can be linked by meaning to anything else, non-hierarchically, like an infinitely absorptive list. Which is why there is also “countercultural pop” (2012, 50). Still, pop is somewhat a self-contained entity, a frame of reference, a “circuit”: “Pop generates itself by operations recursively linked to other operations according to set rules, producing what we then call pop” (2012, 59–60). First and foremost, pop seeks alliances for “self-definition,” especially with movements tied to youth, defiance, protest, rebellion, and risk (2012, 465–503). As ambiguous as this terminology appears, it is the countercultural milieu that pop culture draws upon is just as fragmented. Yet most of its major figures felt systematically confronted with the dilemma of being either inconsequential or appropriated and hollowed out, a dilemma I see as a structural problem of the underground. In Global Players (2005), Sascha Lehnartz describes this manifold dialectic of subversive youth and oppositional cultures and their usually successful, from the vantage point of a player in the pop culture business, absorption into the mainstream (Lehnartz 2005, 127–60). He also addresses the complaints about such acts of appropriation and recycling leveled by each new “counterculture” 49 Concerning Topol and Stasiuk, see also Parfianowicz (2018a, 201).

The Dilemma of the Underground, Pop, and Counterculture


or its (often generational) successors. Radical countercultural protest thus proves to be the most productive reservoir of symbols of each era’s mainstream. It remains to be seen whether this process changes the society and forces politics to follow or whether, conversely, cultural and political changes dictate when an aesthetic innovation generalizes or dissipates. Relevant to us is that underground concepts, by scandalizing modernity’s aporia, are the resentful stepchildren of modernity and cannot escape its logic. In the name of unredeemed full inclusion, they must devise ever-new “nether” aesthetics. This necessity is even greater given the striking capacity of modern (and postmodern) societies to absorb, even devour, subversion and confrontation. In so doing, they can continually heighten their consistent potential for alienation. The aporia of modernity is not only pervasive, it is self-regenerating. In this context, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “The Poet and the Composer” can be read as an exploratory sketch of underground art. A century later, Walter Benjamin declared that Fascism aestheticizes politics, and “Communism responds by politicizing art” (Benjamin 2002, 122). Hoffmann’s dialogue proclaims the two strategies well-nigh interchangeable. For Hoffmann, when aesthetics becomes involved with politics, aesthetics is defenseless against its art-destroying totalitarian tendencies. He shows this vividly through the example of Ferdinand, whose art in the service of the people’s war marked a new, perhaps countercultural, position for its time. Yet even Ludwig’s aesthetic, anti-political reconciliation efforts succumb to Ferdinand’s final, degrading last words. The story begins and ends with the arch-political word “enemy.” That leaves only the “concrete utopia” of the basement—quite literally a “non-place.” E. T. A. Hoffmann makes no attempt to expand it into the world above.

Part II Figures, Works, Groups

Last Exit: Egon Bondy’s Anti-flâneurs under the Wheels of Madame Prague

Fig. 1: Funeral of Milan Koch

In 1974, the Prague beatnik Milan Koch was run over by a tram car. The silver lining of this is that his death inspired a paradigmatic piece of underground art that distilled underground’s art innermost poetics. Egon Bondy, the guiding spirit of the Prague underground, a neighbor and close friend of Koch’s, dedicated a poem to the deceased and set it under a photograph of Koch’s funeral. It was run as a death notice in the Plastic People’s Calligraphic Chronicle (Kaligrafická kronika) (fig. 1). One of the pallbearers shown in the photo is the poet Egon Bondy himself. Here is his epitaph, in which he turns his friend’s death into an occasion for an artistic statement:


Last Exit The angel took us Koch Letting him first Be crushed by tram for this purpose. They had to collect him fifty meters along the tram track. Now we have no small advocate on the paradise islands. Because he loved us. (Machovec 2001, 180; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

The work of Mikhail Bulgakov had long exposed readers to the idea of the tram as a death machine. It is all too easy for city residents to end up under its wheels—just as, overall, modern literature has presented the topoi of city and death as almost hysterically entangled. Nevertheless, Bondy’s obituary for Koch contains something new: a sardonic play on mortality that transcends the death cult. In a way, it is a knowingly irreverent gesture of superiority by a total outcast. At the same time, Bondy’s six-line poem represents a view whose creation performatively mirrors the writer’s own life experience: art as life as art. It also embodies the concept of total art, including the paranoid, absurd, and eagerly violent tendencies that totalism always encapsulates and broadcasts, not least as reflected in the aesthetic of the underground death. Here, characters are not just cleanly decapitated like Bulgakov’s Berlioz, they are crushed, shattered, steamrolled. Their form is decomposed—all intactness broken, including the poetic form. In this sense, Bondy’s traffic accident victim evokes Georges Bataille’s concept of “formless” (informe) which celebrates the destruction of “pretty” poetics. In the belief that any supposed permanence or stability is ultimately the root of a deep-seated, virtually transcendent revoltingness, the destruction is shown to be revolting. Any object or body possesses a form with no prospect of endurance; at any moment, it can be destroyed, run over, or crushed: “What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm” (Bataille 1985, 31). The concept of formlessness views and enacts this ever-anticipated degradation of anything corporeal as a metaphor for the utter absence of steady sense or meaning (Menninghaus 2003, 343–55). Thus, Koch’s poetic deformation gives rise to an aesthetic that, in typical underground fashion, embraces self-mystification, irony, rudeness, and pathos. What is factually an everyday accident on the city streets becomes, in the textual and photographic interplay of Bondy’s death notice, an excessive illustration of the underground itself. Bondy launches his poem with a pun on the word “angel” (anděl), which is also the name of a transit hub (Angel Station) in Prague-Smíchov. Likewise, the Czech word “isle” (ostrůvek) means “paradise”, but is also the word for a pedestrian island for crossing the street. Both puns meld extremes of exaltation and banality.

The Dilemma of the Underground, Pop, and Counterculture


Bondy’s poetic overlay of Koch’s rolled-out body with the “greatness” of the spokesperson follows the same principle. This is a case of martyr worship made drastic: equal parts blood-spattered and satirical, flirting with the naïveté of popular piety. The same is true of the phrase “for this purpose,” which plays with the theological notion of theodicy. All in all, these are aesthetic strategies of a perpetual border breach between life, art, and death that endangers authors, characters, and author-characters in equal measure. They correspond to a transgressive poetics fundamentally distinct from taboo-breaking. The latter is a discretionary, intrinsically isolated act (even when serial) in pursuit of an achievable political, aesthetic, or other goal whose attainment annuls its purpose. Michel Foucault contrasts this with transgression, defined thus: “transgression incessantly crosses and re-crosses a line which closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration, and thus it is made to return once more right to the horizon of the uncrossable” (Foucault 1977, 34). In other words, this distinguishes underground art from politically revolutionary attitudes and actions. From formal and topological standpoints, Bondy’s poems soon became a point of reference for the Prague underground, which adopted its systematic affinity to the myth. In 1995, Jáchym Topol published a novel titled Angel Station (Anděl), codifying the eponymous transport hub in Prague-Smíchov as the central site of the underground.50 As early as 1979, the band Extempore and its bandleader Mikloš Chadima had retold the death on the tracks in a mixture between performance art by the group Civilizing Impulsivists (Civilizační impulsivisté), punk music, and Dada sound poetry. “Under the Tram” (“Pod tramvají”) is written in the voice of the dying man, who describes in jocose double rhymes the nauseous sensation of no longer being able to see his arms and legs: “Under the tram / I lie alone / with its heavy weight / on my stomach // I’ve lost / legs and arms / amputated by wheels / when I fell under the tram. // I want to vomit / when I look at myself / neither legs nor arms / I’m completely lost” (Extempore 2001; translated by Alfrun Kliems). The song begins like swaying ballroom waltz in triple meter and later mixes in cries of agony, like vocal exercises, into the spoken lyrics. This is followed by an instrumental overlay, a minute-long acoustic “attack” that crescendos to the point of unbearability, then pauses for a few seconds and begins again. “Under 50 In 1916, Jaroslav Hašek’s collection of short stories “Some Reports by the State Detective Jandák“ (“Nĕkolik raportů státního detektiva Jandáka”) refers to the Smíchov district, with detectiv Jandák pursuing a person who takes the tram at the Anděl place. Also, Marek Švehla opens his biography of Ivan Martin Jirous, like Bondy a leader of the Czech underground, with a description of Smíchov, where Jirous lived (Švehla 2017, 11).


Last Exit

the Tram” tears apart the instrumental force with the repeating moments of silence and vice versa, expanding what was, in its opening moments, a deceptively pleasant song to an existential plane. When artists such as Bondy or Extempore approach death as dismemberment, reflecting aesthetically on the horror and elevating it to myth, their use of irony and low puns, Dada, and the grotesque does not undo the horror. In fact, their laughter compounds the scandal. But here too, the underground does not simply proceed as “revolutionary” or “politically engaged” art; it opts for a fundamentally different stance toward the lived world: transgression, not rebellion. The essential pathos of its language, imagery, and music refutes the label of kitsch—by aggressively incorporating kitsch. They specifically make a mockery in order to get a grip on a reality that mocks all hope. Instead of pointing out concretely vile “circumstances,” they celebrate the innate revoltingness of modern existence. The underground does not spare its urban post-flâneurs. Where it seems to offer a grotesquely conciliatory perspective on collapse, a compromise between existential thought and performance, in fact it does the opposite. Bondy’s runover speaker, as the loving spokesperson for urbanity, is conceived as a blasphemy against all possible orthodoxies.

Egon Bondy, the Underground, and the Center Egon Bondy, born in 1930 as Zbyněk Fišer, was the central figure of the Prague underground. For him, life on Neruda Street in Prague’s city center was, without exception, the subject. In 1949, Fišer, under the fictitious “Jewish” pseudonym Egon Bondy, and Milena Jesenská’s daughter Honza Krejcarová coedited a samizdat poetry anthology called Jewish Names (Židovská jména). He deliberately published it under a Jewish-sounding name to protest the increasing anti-Semitism in Czechoslovakia (Machovec 1995, 5–8). Bondy continued to publish under this pseudonym for the rest of his life—except for his philosophical works.51 However, he did not achieve his status as guru of the underground until the 1970s, when the Plastic People recorded legendary tracks setting some of his poems to music. His status rose through adaption and cross-media alteration, popularization, and deliberate exaggeration.52

51 Concerning the anthology Jewish Names and the “chosen path of pseudonomy and anonymity” of Fišer-Bondy and Krejcarová-Silberstein, see Drubek (2017, 62–4). 52 The Plastic People set Bondy to music, and Paul Wilson smuggled the songs into the

Egon Bondy, the Underground, and the Center


Fišer was a general’s son with a middle-class upbringing. After the Czechoslovak coup d’état of February 1948, his father was demoted. The younger Fišer carefully navigated the margins of illegality, but he was able to attend university, studying philosophy and psychology, and became a Maoist. He supported himself as a night watchman in the National Museum, worked at the National Library, and eventually earned a PhD in 1967 for a thesis completed six years earlier.53 The same year, he began drawing disability benefits. By then, he had been harassed, spied upon, and subpoenaed, and temporarily committed to psychiatric units. Many of his manuscripts were destroyed. After the fall of communism, Bondy moved to Bratislava in protest against the division of Czechoslovakia. Around the same time, it was revealed that he had provided information to the secret police (Jirous 1997, 419–26; Blažek 2016). He died in Bratislava in 2007. Bondy first encountered the Prague Surrealists in the 1940s. He soon adapted their poetics into his own concept: during his studies, he and Ivo Vodseďálek invented Total Realism (Totální realismus) and the technique of Awkward Poetry (Trapná poezie), poetic reactions to widespread paranoia, socialist totality, and the whims of the state. Bondy and Vodseďálek parodied all of it: the language of paranoia, the slogans of protest banners, newspaper editorials, politician’s speeches. Their poetry imitated the mixed metaphors, stuttering meters, and inept rhymes of Socialist Realism (Pilař 1999, 32–54; Zand 1998, 91–112). In 1974, Invalid Siblings (Invalidní sourozenci) was published as samizdat and quickly became the bible of the underground. However, I am primarily interested here in the 1950s poetry collections of Total Realism and Awkward Poetry, which still bore Surrealist influences: Prague Life (Pražský život), Hammered Prague (Ožralá Praha) and Remnants of an Epic (Zbytky eposu). These works combined “classic” Prague topography with a drastically vulgarized version of everyday experience under socialism (“shitting,” “fucking,” “boozing”). For example, in the poem “ON THE TRAMS ON THE NATIONAL THEATER, AND ON THE RAILINGS OF THE ST. WENCESLAS CHAPEL” (“PO TRAMVAJÍCH PO NÁRODNÍM DIVADLE I PO MŘÍŽÍCH HROBU VÁCLAVOVA”), Bondy’s flâneur scrawls the word “shit” (hovno) all over the Vyšehrad fort, which was the erstwhile seat of the Přemyslid dynasty, as well as Prague Castle, and the trams near the National Theater. This is followed by a neverending list of things the speaker considers to be “shit”: “shit government,” “shit democracy,” “shit freedom,” “shit family,” “shit love,” “shit in your books,” “shit

West, where the record Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (1978) was released. Concerning Bondy as myth, see Hrtánek (2007, 64–9) and Mainx (2007, 163–5). 53 To get insight into Bondy’s philosophical writings and political thinking, see Kužel (2018).


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on your shirt,” “shit in your head / in your heart / and in your pants,” “shit headless / and crowned / stinking shit”: through shit from shit you were born in shit you live until you’d shat yourselves empty for shit you work in shit you love each other from shit to shit your life pushes you on shit you adore shit alone is your only shit is your creed. (Bondy 2014, 563–6, translated by Alfrun Kliems)

The word “shit,” repeated through more than thirty stanzas, structures the poem sonically and gives it the rhythm of a litany. In stanza 7, it alludes to Paul Éluard’s 1942 poem “Liberty” (“Liberté”). Éluard’s speaker decorates everything in his path with the same word: houses, notebooks, the dawn and the sky, lamps, fruit, bodies, and lips. Not until the final stanza does the reader find out that the word the speaker is writing on the world is liberté. In contrast, in Bondy’s poem, all hope seems to have fallen by the wayside, along with dramaturgical subtlety and poetic exuberance, not to mention discretion. Meanwhile, the litany is reminiscent of the meaningless stock phrases of state socialist propaganda, mirroring both their functional structure and their bluntness. By the time the constative tirade finally turns into a revolutionary appeal and the speaker assigns “shit” a socially revolutionizing dimension, the poem has long moved past its initial offensive outburst and gone up in a puff of smoke. Into other poems, Bondy directly inserts the prefabricated formulas and socialist slogans, along with motifs such as leaflets, uniforms, and banners. He employs chants and loudspeaker announcements, combining them with concrete details of a banal daily routine: grocery stores, apartment buildings, parks, people taking walks, couples in love, corner pubs, artists, and drinkers. This last element—an appearance by the underground figures themselves— renders the tension twofold. Firstly, the figures and the speakers are socially marginal, sticking out (or rather down) from the heroized proletarians of propaganda and the mass of majority norms just as much as they diverge from ordinary people. Secondly, in the poetic act, the spoken-of speaker becomes a self-overelevating poet-god. The poems tend to stage this poetic act as a movement—specifically, as a walk through the city. In this, Bondy invokes a time-honored character and rewrites him for his own purposes: the flâneur. His observant prowlers are unmistakable descendants of Poetist and Surrealist Prague enthusiasts such as Jaroslav Seifert and Vítězslav Nezval, who for their part were inspired by a Frenchman: Guillau-

Egon Bondy, the Underground, and the Center


me Apollinaire. In 1902, Apollinaire came to Prague and composed “Strolling through Prague” (“Le Passant de Prague”), a sort of travelogue featuring his authorial character as a “Wandering Jew.” Nezval took up the concept of the “Strolling through Prague” again in 1938, when he published his own memoirs under the same title, but in Czech: Pražský chodec. Yet the flâneur, despite currently idling, is at heart a bourgeois resident of a bourgeois world. This characteristic may be more pronounced, as with Walter Benjamin, or less so, as with Charles Baudelaire. As such, the flâneur draws on the intra-bourgeois oppositional aesthetic of rare beauty. This pattern is also paradigmatically evident in Nezval’s figure of the chodec, meaning “walker” or “stroller”: an amalgam of a pilgrim and a recreational promenader who is immersed in the city until it becomes his lover, unleashing a “new feeling” for a genius loci that requires a “new poetry” (Nezval 2003, 17–8). But although Nezval was aware of the danger that all Prague poetry “would be blanketed by more and more epithets about this city” (2003, 53), not only does he outdo himself in tossing out epithets as the ultimate flâneur and viewer of the city, but he even plays the keyboard of Prague epithets (eternal, unique, mystical, dark, magical, mysterious) (2003, 154–63). And here comes Bondy to deliver the “new poetry” Nezval ordered, although not quite what Nezval had in mind. Rather, Bondy’s characters are post-flâneurs on indolent walks who opt for naked mockery and low puns. In Bondy’s central concept of aimless “wandering” (chození), there is always a political aftertaste of fear: there are spies on their tail and, with them, the threat of arrest. Despite that fear, the behavior of his poetic subjects is, shall we say, conspicuous: they are tramps, strange birds who have made the rounds and seen better days. From the official standpoint, they are marauding, bellowing, graffiti-scrawling hooligans. In Bondy’s collection Hammered Prague, one of them, “VLADIMÍR AND I GO OUT DRINKING” (“S VLADIMÍREM CHODÍM PITÍ”) makes company with the figure of Vladimír, an allusion to a friend of Bondy’s, the Explosionist Vladimír Boudník:54

54 Starting in 1949, Boudník wrote some manifestos of Explosionism, in which he requests people to let their brains “explode” by gazing at the stains and scuffs on plaster walls finding shapes and patterns in them. Boudník was creating art in an Explosionist spirit of free association (Pospiszyl 2005, 61–95; Pilař 1999, 99–134). See also Tomáš Pospiszyl on Boudník’s work: “Fighting against the dismissal of his work as the product of psychological pathology became a lifetime struggle for Boudník” (Pospiszyl 2017, 45).


Last Exit VLADIMÍR AND I GO OUT DRINKING When the sun’s still winking We sit together in the inn At the table within Vladimír tells stories now and then And I listen to them While with his sixth beer he’s busy He tends to get a little dizzy On his eighth mug of beer He breaks into song and cheer While he sings with delight My poems I recite In the corner sits a cop Wearing his new mackintosh (Bondy 2014, 494; translated by Marek Tomin)

The poem shows that for private poetry to occupy public space is a self-deluded gamble: a secret policeman is already waiting at the next table. Gertraude Zand considers such sardonic tricks to be a major catalyst of Total Realism: “provocation versus passivity.” For Zand, the poems were aimed not to spur writers to “escape into thin-skinned defensiveness” nor to “withdraw into an illusory world” (Zand 1998, 143–5), but to engage by challenging themselves unlike the (literally) silent majority. But our understanding of the underground, its specificity and its distinctions from dissidence, is instructed by regarding the provocation’s form, which is the poem itself, not its—unstated—subject. It is a question of stylistic devices. The primary devices here are Bondy’s coarse rhymes verging on silliness and his language laced with colloquial Czech (obecná čeština) and spoken Czech (hovorová čeština), both of whose phonetics and morphology depart from the standard language. Elsewhere, as in the shit litany, Bondy intensifies his lines with an obscene Czech, which he then tops up with lexically and morphologically archaic interpolations (Gammelgaard 1997, 40–1). The foundation of Awkward Poetry is about toying with bad taste and shoddy workmanship. In this respect, Awkward Poetry partly anticipates a global experiment that would soon be highlighted by Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp,’” then later by the New York–based No Wave, as well as Wolfgang Müller and Blixa Bargeld’s Brilliant Dilletantes (Geniale Dilletanten), succeeded a generation later by Ber-

Egon Bondy, the Underground, and the Center


lin’s Club of Polish Losers (Klub Polskich Nieudaczników). Intentional and unintentional misspellings (dilletantes), “unspeakable” dissonances, stylistic missteps, and a failure of artistic craft. In the spirit of Joseph Beuys’s maxim that “Everyone’s an artist!” the audience is called upon to abandon the “categories of compulsively scrubbing housewives” (Schandt 1982, 30). “Ingenious” is defined as “intensive intensity when exploring the material” (W. Müller 1982, 10), and the consumer of art is summoned to aesthetic production.55 Along similar lines, in 1975, Bondy’s close companion Ivan Martin Jirous would wax utopian about the unfinished and the primitive in his “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival” (“Zpráva o třetím českém hudebním obrození”), proclaiming that someday everyone would make art and “express himself through an unrepeatable, individual creative act” (Jirous 2006, 26). The center of focus is not technical skill, but a Dionysian ecstasy, a proverbial creed of life as creativity, which pays tribute to “authenticity” or “genuineness” in opposition to “fakeness.” Resonating with this viewpoint, Jirous and Bondy, despite their educated intellectualism, each saw themselves as “working-class [men] of the people who [were] not afraid of vulgarity or vulgarisms,” as Jonathan Bolton demonstrates (Bolton 2012, 130). However, what makes the early underground so peculiar and distinctive is that despite prefiguring this poetic democratization, it insists on following in the avant-garde’s elitist footsteps. Its aesthetic invective takes aim not solely at the apparatus of power, but also at anyone who has quietly conspired with it, who has participated in the system—any system. On the other hand, the many insider allusions and personal references recognizable by only a small circle are not the only obstacles to comprehension. Those profanities and vulgarisms are another. A “workingman” might use such words himself on the job or in a bar but would not expect to see them or approve of their presence in art. Placed in their new contexts, extreme speech and vernacular language become codes whose aesthetic intentions only admit insiders, demarcating them and turning them into conspirators:

55 The misspelling of dilettantes as dilletantes was reputed to be a mistake. But on the other hand, see Wolfgang Müller’s explanation: “The double l sounds like babbling. It speeds the word up and stops it at once. Thus it produces a double space and simultaneously displaces the spatial duplication. By the way, the babbling made one of the t’s redundant” (W. Müller 2013, 46).


Last Exit The “magic” symbol, the exclusive code, goes beyond occupying and violating external territory. In its provocative nature, it draws attention to itself, confounding interpretation for all outsiders who lack the keys or have not confidently mastered them: their distance from the cabal of conspirators becomes tangible. (Raab and Soeffner 2003, 786–805)

The poetic subjects, which in Bondy’s work both constitute and reflect an underground conspiracy, come across as social outcasts. As touched upon earlier, this is partly a result of conscious self-marginalization for the sake of reinforcing such exclusive codes. They succeed in “violating external territory” by advancing on terrain that does not belong to them in view of their stylized posturing. Specifically, the poems are almost exclusively set in the historic, symbolically laden, “majestic” center of Prague: the Vltava River, the castle district, Charles Bridge, the Old Town, the Lesser Side, the Jewish Quarter, and Kampa Island. All these places are historic, literary, and touristy for good reason. They are topoi marked as beautiful, dignified, and classical: as both sublime and sublimated. Bondy’s characters penetrate these spaces by scribbling, propelled by their use of common language and trivialized forms. The underground comes to the surface and defiles the center, or so we could describe the essence of Bondy’s transgression. It is a matter of contesting timeworn semantics of centrality, hierarchies of space and therefore aesthetics, and collective access rights to the symbolic capital of society. Against this backdrop, when instead of making love, people “fuck” and go on binge-drinking tours, and when instead of keeping their digestion private, they take a “shit” and comment on it in a deluge of shit graffiti, these transgressions have an impact on the locations’ semantics. They destroy—or at least try to destroy—the places’ sanctity, especially the myth of Magic Prague, which Bondy works hardest to debunk: “I LIVE IN THE CAPITAL / of magic / in Prague / That doesn’t mean shit to me / and that’s it” (Bondy 2015, 579; translated by Alfrun Kliems). However, his attack on the myth’s monumentality is not all. After this statement, the speaker meets the aforementioned Milan Koch on the Charles Bridge. The baroque sculptures of the bridge loom above them—and follow them into the church, where they are seized by a fear that the devil will visit them at night. The same topos appears in “Magic Nights” (“Magické noci”), which became a cult song when the Plastic People set it to music: MAGIC NIGHTS TIME HAS COME The Devil loves Koch more than some Magic nights time has come

Streetwalking the Margins of Prague


We live in Prague—that’s the place The Holy Ghost will show his face We live in Prague—that’s the place. (Bondy 2015, 580; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

In this way, re-coding gave way to mutual appropriation. As vehemently as they reject the city and language of Nezval’s “Strolling through Prague,” whose characters move through the traditional parts of town, Bondy’s poems still engage with Nezval: they are not, after all, set in working-class housing developments or new socialist buildings. They re-sanctify the aesthetic of the profane. Or, better put, they perform the absoluteness invested in the concept of Total Realism and the exaltation inherent in exaggeration. The concept of Prague becomes a spiritual home of the underground—its mythology. And the center fights back: with arrests, spying, and prohibitions, but also through the power of its inscribed codes. Bondy is inspired most directly by the literary tradition in his reproduction of the equation of the city as a woman, a canonical comparison in the poetry of Prague.

Streetwalking the Margins of Prague If Surrealism and Poetism primarily represented the figure of Prague as a mysterious seductress, a romantic female lover, and occasionally a mother, Bondy turned her into a suburban hussy, a bit scruffy and very free-spirited. In his writing, the marginalized anti-flâneur meets the autonomous prostitute. Readers would again encounter this configuration in underground literature of the second generation and later. It makes an early appearance in 1955 in Bondy’s poem “Under the Riverbank” (“V Podbřeží”). The poem is divided rhythmically into three. In the first section, the speaker—who imagines himself as a crow—records nocturnal observations of the bank of a river, which despite the lack of a name is clearly identifiable by its scenery as the Vltava. The second section continues with rhyming couplets describing the river. The third poses questions about how “boring” it is “to love someone platonically,” that aesthetic ideals are “bullshit,” and who or what the speaker might be if not, like the crow, an “odd fish” that is not truly at home anywhere—except in the gutter, or “cesspit.” From the very title, we see a wordplay with the word “down” that is difficult to reproduce in translation; the prefix “by” (po) in the word pobřeží (riverbank, coast) is replaced with “under” or “down” (pod):


Last Exit DOWN BY THE RIVER’S EDGE I sat like a magpie in a hedge So hungry I could eat a president A different verse I always invent Whenever my mouth waters at the thought Of hot or cold meats that would hit the spot I watched as the river by me rolled As it’s always done, so I’ve been told Ever since at U Fleků the beer’s been sold Sewer gasses gush from the waterway On its waves, gobs of spittle sway As do the fair undines on display […] Majestic city! Oh! Mystic bride! Oh! My heart is overflowing like rising dough As winter darkness descends Prague Castle its way over the horizon wends Amidst the sound of the saddest neighing call Did that mare not recall That on her back she once carried Emperor Rudolf While I’m freezing my arse off Observing her infused with erudition anew As I squint at the red sky Yet again, my hunger makes me want to spew At least I should go for a little jog around here But who knows if I’ll find another spot Where the Lord God can’t see my lot Because he’s too embarrassed to come near Of the sewer there’s an overwhelming reek It’s gushing out beneath my feet Like a Carlsbad hot spring Or like Biebl Kostantin56 The waters bubble and squeak

56 Konstantin Biebl was a Czech poet and member of the Communist party. In the 1920s he joined the avant-garde literary group Devětsil. He committed suicide in 1951.

Streetwalking the Margins of Prague


In the sewer the rats perish by gas As bubbles keep rising from the watery mass It’s getting darker all the while Glory in vain, it can’t be helped! – Prague is not my ideal The desert is more my deal (Bondy 2014, 541–6; translated by Marek Tomin)

What follows is a representational triad of woman, river, and city stems from an old literary tradition of personifying cities and rivers and female and identifying cities by their local body of water. Specifically, Prague and the Vltava River (and Bohemia) have been mutually allegorically linked in countless pieces of writing, compositions, and images over the centuries, joining them in a kind of semantic symbiosis. Likewise, both city and river have been paid pictorial tribute in the form of evolving feminine fantasies. Incidentally, the Czech word řeka (river) is feminine, as is the name Praha (Prague). And that great river Doesn’t bark or crow Somewhat paralyzed is the city’s spinal flow By now in utter silence aquiver Quivering like the moon on a frosty night Like a painting gleaming bright Patches black and patches white Like my former lover Her hair all a flutter Her mouth so long without a rinse Dirty and unwashed Like a certain orifice Sprawling like a swine Lazily stretching while supine Sweaty on the soiled bedding She rarely wears clean undies as she’s spreading With high and mighty certitude, as if bound by a marriage tie She uses her big toe to lightly scratch her thigh Sometimes she yawns, sometimes she gives herself a smile On a whim, she ignites with passion in just a while Though the best option might be to flee I always fall for that old whore’s tomfoolery (Bondy 2014, 544; translated by Marek Tomin)

Bondy’s double overlay presents a poetic innovation—as do, even more so, his re-identification of the Vltava as a corrupted cesspit of sewage and Prague as a


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scruffy, Bohemian (in both senses) floozy. This contrasts equally sharply with romantic ideals of women and with normative socialist lifestyles and gender roles. The Vltava is a stream of stinking, filthy, poisonous soup, lethal even to rats. A libertine with unkempt hair, lolling about in sweaty bed sheets, stretching her “little hole” and scratching her calves with her toenails. The exclusively coded, life- and art-contaminating model for such performances of “female wantonness” is Bondy’s partner at the time, Honza Krej­ carová. When they met in 1948, Krejcarová had just completed the erotic collection of poems In My Father’s Garden (V zahrádce otce mého).57 That encounter began a relationship that would last years. For Bondy, Krejcarová represented an “unsocialized and unsocializable element” (Kopáč 2011, 14–5): a nymphomaniac, liar, beggar, provocateur, poet, and mother who writes, in her collection Clarissa, that her red-painted “fingernails are too long for revolution” (Pynsent 2004, 362). The other model is Princess Libuše from Cosmas of Prague’s twelfth-century The Chronicle of the Czechs. Prague’s cathedral deacon reports that the princess lazed in bed unbecomingly in front of men, holding court and conducting government business from between the sheets. Later chronicles would disseminate this image.58 So this is Prague, the “true” Prague, the metropolis of the underground: toxic and putrid, sensuous and lackadaisical—as much now as a millennium ago. This allusion, incorporating both historical legends and Prague’s landmark St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, Rudolf II, and yes, the Vltava River, fits with Bondy’s poetry’s ambivalent relationship with preexisting or perceived traditions. The symbolic center is defiled, disfigured, de-mythologized—but not replaced. The Prague imagination is not decentralized; in fact, the myths are immediately reconstructed. This peculiarity becomes even clearer if we compare it to one of the underground’s direct sources of inspiration, the urban poetics of Group 42 (Skupina 42). The group, whose name refers to the year of its establishment, considered itself a loose, post-avant-garde coalition of artists of all kinds who lacked a manifesto or agenda but shared a common interest: the modern major city as a phenomenon formed by and forming people. Specifically, they focused on the 57 For a further discussion of Krejcarová and Bondy, see Slovo a smysl 28 (2017), a special issue devoted to the work and life of Honza Krejcarová . 58 See Cosmas’s description of the Czech princess: “She, meanwhile—as is the wanton softness of women when they do not have a man whom they fear—reclined very softly deep in a painted coverlet, propped on an elbow, as if she had just given birth to a child” (Cosmas 2009, 41). On the role of Princess Libuše and gendered politics in the chronicle, see Wolverton (2015, 120–8).

Streetwalking the Margins of Prague


reality of peripheral objects, experiences, and zones: the topographical margins and the suburbs (Pešat and Petrová 2000). They embarked themselves there, sending their literary observers to find what Angelo Maria Ripellino would describe thus in his instantly legendary essay: Picket fences, shanty towns, crumbling slum dwellings, walls pockmarked like tarantulas, deserted tram termini, aqueducts, slaughterhouses, streetlamps atop high poles, huge depots of refuse and tandlmark odds and ends, love hotels, rat-trap taverns, tarred urinals, réclames smeared across rundown buildings—such is the gray landscape of the Group’s pictures and verses. (Ripellino 1994, 59, italics in the original)

Most of all, Group 42 “was the first to begin surpassing the framework of the word” so as to “discover previously hidden layers of big-city aesthetics” (Vlček 2001, 218). This is how Josef Vlček explains the group’s attractiveness to alternative people and members of the underground in the 1980s. Poets such as Ivan Blatný, Josef Kainar, and Jiří Kolář shifted their attention from the center to the suburbs, drawing inspiration from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for expressive imagery but also Western civilization in general. This leaves behind the Surrealism of Vítězslav Nezval, whose flâneur creed was so attracted to and repulsed by working-class neighborhoods that he could not find any prevailing tone for them besides depression. Depression, in turn, obstructed his need for a “new feeling” like that of Apollinaire, and so Nezval abandoned his self-perceived need to find a voice for these districts: What a shame that none of the three neighborhoods of Vinohrady, where I lived, neither Košíře, Smíchov nor Nusle-udolí, found an arbitrator in my own imagination or in any other literature, who with his beneficial magic and the most slightly poetic entrancement could have convinced me to bear leastwise the living condition to which I was shackled in these neighborhoods.” (Nezval 2003, 68; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Bondy’s poems of the 1950s steer clear of both, magic and entrancement: employing Nezval’s artificially elevated language and surmounting it in decentralized urban civilization. They only occasionally join the walk to the periphery and would rather focus on the myth of modernity and day-to-day life than on ecstasy and history. This bears an archaic element that receives its specific timbre from a combination of smug disgust, outrageousness, pessimism, and sarcastic or simply offensive ruptures of both formal and semantic continuity. This divides the emerging underground from the conventional avant-garde.


Last Exit

Ultimately, this includes the radical individualism through which Bondy pits his poetic subjects against the city as a society in a pointed show of antisocialism, postulating an “I” as an adversary of “them.” Thus he recodes Prague in literature, making it less magical and less mysterious at first glance—but employing the rejected myth as an echo chamber for his own mystification of the underground, which only superficially relates to Group 42’s cause. In place of their conception of the subject, which operates through the figure of the “eyewitness,” Bondy’s poetic speaker steps in as the “subject-demiurge,” creating and destroying the world (Mainx 2007, 96). In this poetry too, femininity plays a mythical-allegorical function that evokes everything but a new discourse of gender. Femininity appears as the dangerous and polluted Vltava River, as river undines (nymphs) and ancient goddesses, as a princess, as an immortal girl, as a virgin or the death-bringer, a whore and yet not for sale. The second generation of the underground would carry forth these aestheticized fantasies of femininity, as did Vlastimil Trešňák in his 1982 poem “Madame Prague” (“Madam Praha”) from exile in Sweden or Jáchym Topol in his Prague novels. What a fatal city, that Prague. Everyone is its (or her) victim—and therein lies the representative function of the figure of Milan Koch for Bondy’s poetic cosmos. Koch, killed by that paradigmatic urban prop, a tram car—likewise ubiquitous in Bondy’s work—becomes the victim of an underground myth created by his literary executor, Bondy. A victim of self-stylization as self-empowerment that comprises an aesthetic intervention in that urban space, whether imagined physically or poetically. Unlike the post-bourgeois flâneur, the Bondy of the 1950s takes his vagabond members of the underground on a countercultural intervention. By scribbling over the traditional center and attempting to rewrite it instead of applying genuine novelty to the periphery, he aims to make it his topography, his underground place. This also explains the sardonic seriousness with which his celebrated nonconformity and his self-appointment as “national poet” coincide. Bondy’s anti-flâneurs and their author appoint themselves the reincarnated Golem of Prague. A new legend of “Bondy of Prague.”59 Furthermore: via Koch, feminin59 See Tuckerová, who analyzes the samizdat film We live in Prague… (My žijeme v Praze…) by Tomáš Mazal and Pablo de Sax (the alias of Pavel Veselý). Both followed Bondy through his city, where Bondy, for example, stops near a small house by the Old Castle Steps and refers to Gustav Meyrink, author of the novel The Golem (Der Golem), published in 1915 (Tuckerová 2015, 198–202).

Streetwalking the Margins of Prague


ity, and the twisting of the two into a Mary Magdalene–like structure, the early underground poems lend themselves an almost Christian legitimacy. God, the poet-demiurge, justifies his mythopoetics by taking part in mortal agony. There is the meaning behind Milan Koch’s death as sublimated into Bondy’s poetry: that he perfectly served the living. “Out of love.” Death is the final, redemptive exit. This Romantic legacy, this affinity for myth, and these eschatologically active connotations are always present in the underground across every offshoot and concrete formulation. They remain there even when Egon Bondy’s like-minded friend among the living tries to escape them: Magor, the alias of Ivan Martin Jirous.

Urban Disaffiliation: The Swan Songs of Ivan Martin Jirous My Bonnie lies over the ocean My Bonnie lies over the sea My Bonnie lies over the ocean Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me —Scottish Folksong

In a way, every work of art is a prisoner’s smuggled-out message: an attempt by an individual incarcerated in subjectivity to communicate with the outside world. This image is unusually apt for describing Ivan Martin Jirous’s poetry collection Magor’s Swan Songs (Magorovy labutí písně). In fact, the manuscript was composed in prison, smuggled out during the release of a fellow inmate, and circulated as samizdat, then slipped illegally over national borders and published by the exile publishing house Poezie mimo domov, whose name “Poetry Outside the Homeland” describes the place of publication just as aptly. The question of a home base, and the lack or loss thereof, figures centrally in Jirous’s poetry, particularly in Magor’s Swan Songs. Initially, for Jirous, that home meant the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands and his birthplace of Humpolec, then it meant Stará Říše, the Moravian town of the Catholic publisher and poet Josef Florian, and then Prostřední Vydří, his later refuge—but also Prague, where Jirous kept an apartment for many years. However, he always commuted there and never became obsessed with the city like Egon Bondy did. Jirous lost both homes upon his imprisonment (Švehla 2017, 417). Another loss of home, as in community, comes with the departure of friends and companions across the Iron Curtain. This is the subject of the series “My Lovers Are Over the Oceans” in Magor’s Swan Songs. In view of his vanished affiliations and his own disaffiliation, his poetic speaker appears as a disintegrated subject, more ruptured than violated. As the writer of influential artistic manifestos, the guiding spirit of the band the Plastic People of the Universe, and the author of an extensive body of poetic work under the pseudonym Magor—which means something like moron, wacko, loony, or nutcase—Jirous joins Egon Bondy as an intellectual father of the Czech underground, a classic in the eyes of his successors.60 60 J. H. Krchovský and Jáchym Topol explained in an interview that (and why) for them


Urban Disaffiliation

Jirous and the Swan Songs Ivan Martin Jirous was born in Humpolec, in southern Bohemia, in 1944. He studied art history in Prague in the 1960s and was editor of the magazine Výtvarná práce. After the publication was shut down during the “normalization” period, he began moving from one unskilled job to the next. To escape the draft, Jirous committed himself to a psychiatric institution, where he met Egon Bondy in the early 1970s; the two would become friends and companions. Jirous was imprisoned various times, first for “sedition” as the leader of the Plastic People and then for circulating underground manuscripts. Between 1968 and 1989, he spent a total of more than eight years in prisons in Nové Sedlo, Valdice, Prague’s Ruzyně and Pankrác districts, and elsewhere.61 As mentioned earlier, prison was also where Jirous wrote Magor’s Swan Songs, arguably his poetic magnum opus, which made the rounds as samizdat starting in 1985—before his release—and was published in Munich soon thereafter, in 1986.62 The original 183 numbered poems were conceived as a sixpart poetic diary. Stylistically, they bear elements of Dada, realism, banality, and vulgarity, alternating between plebeian attitudes, spiritual religiosity, and intellectual reflection. The collection begins: How much more stress can I take Oh Lord, before it makes me break? My frustration will persist So long as you insist Humbly I overcome my fears Today I’ll ask you in my prayers To put the Golem’s Shem In my mouth, beside this poem (Jirous 2017, 16; translated by Marek Tomin) […]

Bondy and Jirous were already “classic authors” (Krchovský and Topol 1998, 4–9). 61 For more detail, see the biography of Jirous by Marek Švehla, especially on Bondy and Jirous meeting in the psychiatric world in Bohnice and their tense relationship (Švehla 2017, 212–9). 62 In 1998 Martin Machovec edited the first collection of Magor’s lyrics under the title Magor’s Sum (Magorova summa). See Jirous (1998).

Jirous and the Swan Songs


Composing an elegy is no picnic When you’re surrounded by cons sucking dick And every rhyme seems wrong To describe how one sucks another’s dong Lest I be accused of disturbing the peace again I’ll simply make a note now and then That I saw a convict lick Another criminal’s dick (Jirous 2017, 37; translated by Marek Tomin)

Eugen Brikcius, another friend of Jirous, and to whom the poem is dedicated, devoted special praise to this “shem prelude” and its reference to the legendary Golem of Prague, which is brought to life when the shem—a slip of paper inscribed with a name of God—was placed under its tongue (Brikcius 2013, 20–2). Now Jirous demands the shem in order to “poeticize”—and then launches into his song, as if upon some kind of negative verbal inspiration: mocking, obscene, jolting, and awkward. In Hebrew, ha-shem, “the name,” is a reference to God himself, as he once presented himself to Moses in the burning bush, selfidentifying as the Tetragrammaton YHVH: “the Greek word Tetragrammaton means nothing more than the four-letter name of God. It is also known as the Shem HaMephorash, the ‘hidden name revealed’” (Kilcher 2013, 11). By the Romantic period, according to Andreas Kilcher, the magically lifegiving name-word became a “metaphor for aesthetic productivity” and the Golem became a “metaphor for a work of art” (Kilcher 1999, 159). In this context, the shem enables the speaker to go on with what follows: visually shocking blasphemy, contempt, accusations, and expressions of fear, hatred, loneliness, love—the divine love that Bondy ascribed to the run-over Milan Koch. Jirous’s poetry would be unimaginable without its Judeo-Christian foundation, without its categorical senses of hope and sin. In Magor’s Swan Songs, the underground becomes epic once and for all. Although the image has its roots in a Greek myth, in which a dying swan intones one last plaintive song of overpowering beauty, the educated class of the early-modern period turned it into a cliché for an artist’s final masterpiece. Jirous’s collection digs beneath the bromide and alludes to Plato’s Phaedo dialogue, which prominently recounts and reflects on the legend of the swan. In the dialogue, Socrates’s student Phaedo tells of his master’s execution and final conversation with his disciples. The dialogue centers on a philosophical discussion of dying, humans’ relationship with death, the soul’s immortality, beauty, and divinity. With parallels to Plato’s work, Jirous’s speaker—a politically condemned poet-philosopher—has a conversation, possibly his last, with his


Urban Disaffiliation

(physically absent) friends. Magor’s Swan Songs address erstwhile companions, exiles, and Jirous’s family, partner, children, and friends. They deal with confinement, the restrictiveness of being isolated from political developments and routine family life, from destiny, and from art. Rather less calm than Socrates, Jirous keeps changing the subject to himself: “The authentic person of a real place and a specific time turns at once into a literary mask, a stylization” (Trávníček 1996, 185). Jiří Trávníček interprets this as a “thirst for communication” that only writing can quench (1996, 186). And later, he recognizes a pattern: even before and after prison, Jirous is tirelessly occupied with alternating, overlapping, intertwined images of self, such as “heretic, as ruthless person and blasphemer; as the kindhearted guy at the regular’s table; as grim hermit, desperate man and jokester; as a playful ironist, social rebel and charming lover; as a naïve casual writer, comrade with a big heart and a huge huddle of combatants” (Trávníček 2000, 47). To a radical degree, even for the underground, Jirous blurs the distinction between the speaker and the writer, between art and life, by filling his texts and his presentation—of them and of himself—with excessive cross-references. The poems are overloaded with actual names, figures, and events; glosses and comments on political or historical situations; book-review-like insertions; and allusions to artworks both canonical and apocryphal. Magor’s Swan Songs is a monstrosity of references, requiring a supplementary guide for the uninitiated reader. It is part of a lifelong campaign of self-mystification that should be seen an aesthetic practice, one that heightened Jirous’s charismatic authority in the underground and beyond. This is joined by a second peculiarity, which Radim Kopáč accurately termed “prison spirituality” (Kopáč 2013, 27). Indeed, the speaker’s prayers to God and reflections on divinity pervade the collection. This situates the work squarely in the tradition of prison poetry by the likes of Jan Zahradníček. But its tributes to Jakub Deml and Josef Florian, authors of Catholic modernism and mysticism, go beyond the circumstances of prison.63 Jirous’s poetry combines laconic wit and vulgar rudeness with deep religious exploration—but without drawing contrastive tension that pits reality and art against the structures of socialist propaganda, as do Bondy’s blasphemies. Instead, in the hands of Jirous, the elements are reinforced by their uniformly serious and deadpan presentation. The Slovakian-born underground poet Andrej Stankovič undertakes a similarly heterodox spiritual return to the Christian tradition and likewise moves past quotations and code words. In both cases, popular piety and naïve devotional poetry are the entryway—a legacy of the avant-garde’s culturally oppositional affinity for the “primitive” and “indigenous,” which in turn leads back 63 For the catholic spiritual orientation and the underground, see Putna (2017, 725–801).

Jirous and the Swan Songs


to a romantic popular optimism viewed as authentic. Martin Pilař writes this of Magor’s Swan Songs: Bohemian “rustic baroque resonates in Jirous’s short poems, which recall prayers to the saints, the exploration of consciousness and the confession of one’s sins.” This feeds a “candid naïvity” like Jirous’s reclaimed origins in an “old farming family” (Pilař 1999, 90–1). Martin Putna’s interpretation transcends these conclusions when he identifies Jirous as a literary offspring of a “holy fool,” a Russian yurodivy, someone whose spiritual ethos undercuts society’s morals and disturbs the aesthetic ­order: French poètes maudits as well as American beatniks represent the archetype of the yurodivy—and they lead straight to the Czech underground and Magor. To the one who asked for a “heaven’s gate of one’s own.” To the one whose name he called himself was “Magor,” not Jirous. (Putna 2011, 22, italics are mine)

Jirous laid claim to the name and relied on it for his own self-reflection. He often unites his speaker, the fool, and nature; his subjects point to a complex, post-dogmatic notion of religion. One final, related peculiarity is suggested by the topos of the swan, which Jirous calls his favorite animal. In Phaedo, the swan is described as free of fear: “Though indeed mankind, because of the own fear of death, malign the swans, and say that they sing their farewell song in distress, lamenting their death” (Plato 2002, 34–5). According to Plato’s Socrates, this is untrue; swans, being in Apollo’s domain, possess prophetic powers and predict “the blessings of Hades” (2002, 35). And this is why they greet death without fear; their final song should be understood as a happy one. Charles Baudelaire disagrees. In “The Swan” (“Le cygne”) from 1860, he presents the swan as the quintessential exile from time and place. The speaker strolls through a modernized Paris, melancholically remembering its past form, someone “whose memories are as heavy as a stone” (Baudelaire 1955, 81). Conversely, the poem evokes the eponymous swan, who once wandered into the city and across the cobbles, stretching its dry neck skyward for water or solace, but in vain: “As though he sent reproaches up to God!” (1955, 81). To the flâneur in the poem, the swan appears simultaneously majestic and ridiculous. A symbol of all the agony of Ovidian grief. If the swan were more dignified, it would bear its loss calmly. Instead, it is melancholy like the flâneur, who settles into his melancholy over “his” lost Paris. Harald Neumeyer considers this constellation and explicates the juxtaposition of swan and flâneur: “The swan knows a place of non-exile, unlike the flâneur. Thus the swan can very precisely identify the cause of his loss, again unlike the flâneur. The swan raises its voice only briefly in anger toward God; the flâneur’s gaze is not directed at God” (Neumeyer 1999, 124).


Urban Disaffiliation

From this standpoint, Jirous’s prison poems take the side of the swan against the flâneur—against Bondy. Against the others who have become flâneurs of the world, companions gone into exile. Taking a stand against geographical dispersal, Jirous fixes the location of his Bohemian-Moravian home base, the village: community. And formally, he further reinforces his adoption of Baudelaire’s stance by ending “My Lovers Are Over the Oceans” at that line of the folksong. Yes, he wrestles with his God, but he never quotes the refrain, “Bring back, bring back / Oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me,” a refrain that would come closest to matching the reproach of Baudelaire’s stranded swan. Yet the tone of Magor’s Swan Songs remains peculiarly accusatory, wistful, and defiant, somewhere between Plato and the modern age.

Exile, Music, Community It is a commonplace of research that the literature of exile is constituted, implicitly or explicitly, by the foil of “home,” by the defining rupture between remembered home bases and experienced cities of exile, by familiar landscapes and foreign-feeling locations. The idea of a person’s native place, as a subjective category of identification, takes on a much sharper outline under the conditions of exile than in the minds of those who have remained home—if only in their own perception (Said 1994, 159–60). One reason is that the circumstances of exile cast extreme uncertainty on a person’s identity. Another reason is that the substance of these terms—home base, homeland, native country—is born foremost out of a loss, a (potential) disappearance. Jirous turns this description on its head by invoking a loss in situ. His poetic cycle “My Lovers Are Over the Oceans,” Song IV of the Swan Songs, comprises 20 poems in 170 verses. The cycle responds to the departure of a great many companions, allies, and friends to the West, mostly to its cities, which are staged here as mythical sites of longing and imagined memory. The poetic Jirous accompanies his characters, all of them borrowed acquaintances from the early underground, to their new, global homes. He does this using the same technique of enumeration that, in pop and the underground, otherwise serves to engender a hermetic atmosphere of intimate insiderness. This way, Jirous’s speaker withdraws from home into an Elsewhere—leaving behind the “I” of the poem, who is forced to remain after imprisonment in a kind of double internal exile. The concept of “homeland,” usually predicated on spatial integration, becomes an expression of a negative relationship. The set of the forcibly excluded becomes universal. Together with those who have fled, the homeland abandons those who have stayed behind. With its repression,

Exile, Music, Community


even the homeland becomes eerily un-homey, as communication dries up into poetry. All pacts are voided: Writing drags on without Brikcius so sketchy and so hideous Without Evžen, I find it hard to get on with life I pine after him like he were my wife As Brikcius and Liska head off to an Oxford pub, I’m gasping here with nausea: one more jab to the gob! As Evžen and Tomáš drink in Oxford at The Clover, I’m stuck with jailhouse goulash: yet again I’m bending over! As Tomáš and Brikcius kneel for me in church the day calendar thinks it’s hilarious: that I’m left here in the lurch! The hand fate dealt me is mean in Manhattan, Voják made his break clean Sanders I didn’t get to meet What I’ve not done by now, I’ll never complete. […] You all go for strolls in Paris64 and here I am in the pokey peering at the same barred doorway Another cabbage-grating season the long fall night and the short fall day instead of blabbin’ or blasphemin’ I’d better start to pray Thy will be done, dear Lor’ but before I’m last in the pickle jar I’ll dutifully obey. […] 64 For the rhyme scheme, read “Paris” in French pronunciation as “Paree.”


Urban Disaffiliation Vráťa explores Prater Park Brother Karásek in Switzerland puts his life in heaven’s hands. Provence is where Charlie treads. Am I the only knucklehead? An old Lao Tse quotation: A wise man need not leave his nation. You’ll never find a smarter sage, my country is now my cage. When poets feel demaened a day to Vienna they plan their getaway. Writing phallic blues lyrics was one of Míra Skalický’s tricks but off he hopped to Austria – saying write them for me, impostria. So I sing the blues and elegies because old Charlie’s headed overseas down to the Australies. A little gibe came to me, in my chagrin here by the monastery of Jičín: O poets, you’re all such dunces, how could you pass up your chances! Beyond the big puddle Hutka’s quite befuddled he puckers like a fish: leaving was rather foolish Pavel Wilson is over the pond with his wife Helena he did abscond with dearest Helena Wilson Paul is across the ocean for us that means Amen, oh yes indeed, Amen. Across the sea the Wilsons did flee, ouch, overseas, while here, plowing through are we, plowing on in humility, till our fatality. (Jirous 1998, 441–51; translated by Jake Schneider)

The historical context of “My Lovers Are Over the Oceans” is the intensified persecution of the underground, which began on March 30, 1974, when a concert in Rudolfov, near České Budějovice, was violently broken up, culminating in the artists’ trials of 1976 (Machovec et al. 2012, 158–208; Bolton 2012, 115–51). The en-

Exile, Music, Community


during pressure that followed drove many major figures from the scene to emigrate by the late 1980s. Abroad, the émigrés did stay in touch with each other and with those who remained, and—not insignificantly—founded publishing houses in exile, globalized platforms of a sort that published smuggled-out writings. Nevertheless, this continual bloodletting weakened domestic opposition (Jirous 1990, 3). From the hindsight of 2012, Jirous spoke of a “gaping wound” (Jirous 2012, 233). Added to this, as Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa observed of the Plastic People, was the fact that the underground’s playful lightheartedness diminished after the political trials of 1976. Fear and mistrust began to creep into the “family” and there was a rise in suspicion, snitching, interrogations, and imprisonment (Hlavsa and Pelc 2001, 173). Finally, as more and more people made the decision to leave the country, the question of staying or leaving became a heavily disputed matter of faith, just as it did in the Prenzlauer Berg scene of East Berlin. For Jirous—as for Egon Bondy and Václav Havel—to escape into exile was always out of the question (Švehla 2017, 411–3, 435–6). Indeed, “My Lovers” contains a less-than-subtle accusation that his departed companions are sitting around the bars and pubs of Oxford, strolling around Manhattan or Paris, visiting the Prater in Vienna, enjoying their lives in play-itsafe Switzerland or adventurous, exotic Australia—at any rate, eating better food than home-grated cabbage and “jailhouse goulash.” That characterization was probably just as remote from most emigrants’ lived realities as any yearning exile poem was from the realities of the “homeland.” They not only went their separate ways, but also developed their separate imaginations. We will return to this. Be that as it may, Jirous kept his bitterness in check for long passages, leaving the topos of betrayal unspoken—in keeping with his basic notion that it wasn’t individuals who had left home, but home that had left him, as an individual. Hence, he reconstructed that community of home, in the aforementioned mode of the cryptic list: Vratislav “Vráťa” Brabenec, Eugen “Evžen” Brikcius, Jaroslav Hutka, Svatopluk “Sváťa” Karásek, Tomáš Liška, Jiří “Starý” Němec, Miroslav “Míra” Skalický, Karel “Charlie” Soukop, the Canadian Paul “Pavel” Wilson and his Czech wife Helena Wilsonová, Karel Voják, Pavel Zajíček. The allusions to works, places, events, experiences, connections, relocations, and relationships form a web of concreteness that simply cannot be accessed without insider knowledge—or annotations. Similarly, in his biography of Havel, Martin Putna describes underground literature as primarily a form of testimony: To bear witness of the worldview the community shares as a whole, and of the destinies of every single member. The uninitiated outside world is often unable to understand all the allusions, nicknames, references, and codes, which were communicated inside the community. NAMES play a key role: names of concrete persons, their des-


Urban Disaffiliation tinies transform into collective, and step by step into national myths. (Putna 2011, 172; capitals in the original)

With regard to the Russian Lianosovo Group and the later Moscow Conceptualists, Sascha Wonders (pseudonym of Sabine Hänsgen) and Günter Hirt (pseudonym of Georg Witte) suggest that samizdat and underground coincide with a microcosm on the margins where “the medial anachronism, and the forced regression into a pre-Gutenberg era turn into a culture of homelinenessin-the-writing [in the original Schrifthäuslichkeit]” (Hirt and Wonders 1998, 27). The German neologism conveys not only a poetry of the spoken word, but most importantly a “culture of dedication,” implying an emphatic “dignity of the name” (1998, 29). The previous chapter touched on this last function of mythmaking or auto-mystification through impenetrable insiderness in connection with Bondy. Now, Jirous is essentially portraying the myth from the inside, celebrating the underground as a community, even a clan. In his Retroactive Diary (Zpětný deník) from 2012, the artist Viktor Karlík thinks back to the clan as the prime adhesive of the underground. It was a “community,” a “family” that needed “to be together” (Karlík 2012, 4–5). “My Lovers” tightly sequences the names and their unexplained, unclarified stories into a poetic leadership of the “merry ghetto” scattered across “the diaspora,” as Jirous writes at the end of the poem.65 Meanwhile, the “furious namedropping” stands out as a method for asserting (sub)cultural, generational, and regional identities. This will be variously apparent in the coming chapters and is one of the striking links between the aesthetics of the underground and pop. Another link is the central role of music. Jirous began collaborating with the Plastic People of the Universe in 1968.66 He had met the musicians, fronted by Milan Hlavsa, at a club in Prague’s Smíchov district and convinced them to tag along the following day to a happening in the countryside organized by his sister, the artist Zorka Ságlová (Hlavsa and Pelc 2001, 37–8).67 A decades-long 65 For a good account of the ghetto theme, see Tuckerová (2015, 193–6) on the “merry ghetto” and the remains of the “triple ghetto” in the Prague underground. Jirous also referred to a “mental” and a “spiritual” ghetto in his writings. 66 My account of the story of the Plastic People draws on personal reflections by Hlavsa and Pelc (2001) and Jirous (2008) as well as on academic ones from Riedel (2001, 15–29), Machovec (2001, 155–99), Vlček (2001, 201–64), and Bolton (2012, 115–24). 67 Ságlová’s project “Throwing Balls into Bořín Pond” was her first Land Art happening. The group threw 37 blue, green, and orange balls into a pond. The colored balls formed a floating picture on the pond’s surface. See also the photographs of Ságlová’s husband, Jan Ságl (Ságl 2013).

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artistic collaboration ensued. Hlavsa describes the event as an instructive initiation for the group, which had little or no knowledge of the history of music, art, or literature and associated theory (2001, 48). Among the principal inspirations in their artistic education was the Velvet Underground of Lou Reed and John Cale, which was briefly mentored by Andy Warhol. Apart from the Velvet Underground’s minimalist style, Jirous and the Plastic People were inspired by the Fugs, the (white) blues of Frank Zappa, and his Mothers of Invention. It was an amorphous, global rebellion. In a reference to the role Warhol played for the Velvet Underground, Eugen Brikcius nicknamed Jirous “Varholec.” Overall, there is an obvious similarity to Beat Generation mythology. Citing the young Bob Dylan, Heinrich Detering writes that this generation revolved around the “holy outlaw,” the “amoral moralist and martyr,” who “rebels against the universal consolidation of power, corruption, vanity, and self-righteousness, an unwilling guerrilla,” an “impious saint” (Detering 2007, 19). Yet religious content is never more than a metaphor for Dylan, whereas for Jirous it comes across as sincere. Dylan’s savior qualities are imposed, Jirous’s self-constructed. Ivan Martin Jirous uniquely merged both arts—words and sounds—and not only in his own life story. He also makes a point of prominently combining them in his manifesto from 1975, “Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival” (“Zpráva o třetím českém hudebním obrození”), which elevated “rage” (zběsilost) and “humility” (pokora) to fundamental conditions for underground creativity (Jirous 2006, 31).68 But he also lists a third integral component, the performative poetics of the underground as a clan or tribe. All three elements tie in with a dream of a culture of oral magic, archaic simplicity, primitivism, and dilettantism as reliable signs of authenticity—a culture that could also be regained from the spirit of (punk) music as shall be demonstrated below with regard to the Hungarian musician Atilla Grandpierre (Grandpierre 2016) and his manifesto on punk shamanism. “Don’t be afraid of commotion,” Jirous begins the “Report,” quoting Mao Zedong.69 He then describes a pilgrimage of artists from Prague to a concert in Líšnice. In the expansive winter landscape, Jirous witnesses musicians and fans transforming into fifteenth-century Hussites entering the battlefield—to keep the Antichrist at bay or, in this case, to dispel a deputy party secretary from the 68 On the “Report” see, for example, Bolton (2012, 115–51), Tuckerová (2014), Nebřenský (2018), Machovec (2019, 185–211). 69 In Zdeněk Nebřenský’s view, the reference to Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution” already implies that Jirous does not ascribe a peripheral Czech or East-Central European meaning into the underground, but a global one (Nebřenský 2018, 28).


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concert (2006, 9). Jirous’s strategic evocation of the Czech national myth does not end with this image. First, take his use of language, which is most comparable to a sermon. Jonathan Bolton has also pointed out the frequent recurrence of the word oslovovat (to address, to speak to) in the text (Bolton 2012, 127). The Hussites were concerned with how they addressed their listeners, giving free-wheeling sermons in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Similarly, Jirous sounds the rallying cry that after the English songs, everyone should sing in Czech. Moreover, he phrases his accounts of the underground’s history, its positions on art theory, and the purpose of happenings in remarkably approachable, clear language. Second, the literary heritage of the Hussites consists mostly of religious songs and battle hymns. Roman Jakobson remarked on these in an essay on the poetry of the Hussite period in 1936: “Any appeal the style may engender on its own is severly condemned for causing the reader ‘to direct his attention more toward the signs than toward what is being signaled.’ The role of sound instrumentation is restricted to highlighting and enlivening the content, to enhancing its expressiveness” (Matejka 1988, 225). To a certain extent, Jirous situates the underground songs in this tradition; together with Jeff Nutall and Egon Bondy, he proclaims that because people do “shit, piss, and screw,” the “troubadours” of the underground should sing about that too (Jirous 2006, 18). At the same time, Jirous’s musical aesthetic draws on the religious movements of the late Middle Ages and compares their rejection of aesthetic or intellectual perfection as mere craftsmanship to the musical practices of the Hussites. Under their rule, “instrumental music declined” and “organs were not permitted” (Baumann 1978, 79). Under Jirous’s watch, the stage makes room for rock music, pyrotechnics, and brass instruments; anything can be used as an instrument, from an iron chain to a vacuum cleaner to a typewriter. The performance is pointedly transformed into a ritual act with elements co-opted from spiritualism, Kabbala, and Celtic mythology, including animal sacrifice (of chickens). Third, and most conspicuously, comes the underground’s recourse to history for the sake of legitimating and exaggerating its own conflict with “the establishment,” whose most junior official can be promoted to Antichrist. Compromises toward any type of conformity—such as a haircut—are no less than temptations of the devil.70 Veronika Tuckerová, for instance, counts sixteen repetitions of the word “establishment” in Jirous’s “Report” (Tuckerová 2014, 135). This casts the Communist Party as the successor of the global Catholic clergy power, which the Hussites opposed in their ideal of a church free of property 70 Concerning the police campaigns against young people with long hair, see, for instance, Pospíšil and Blažek (2010).

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and a spirituality free of material interests. Just as Jirous, in Jonathan Bolton’s telling, was “alive to the romance of small groups held together by music and the spoken word” (Bolton 2012, 127), his manifesto contains concrete echoes of the political and communal ethic of the Hussites, whose radical wing, the Taborites, advocated a theocracy with communal property ownership. More precisely, the “Report” presents the new community in terms very similar to those of the Magor’s Swan Songs: “We are speaking about the people who live together in a mental ghetto that is not surrounded by walls but is scattered throughout an alien, unfriendly world” (Jirous 2006, 29). Around the same time, Egon Bondy fictionalized this community of values within a ravaged society in his novel, already mentioned several times, Invalid Siblings, that “Bible of the underground” that Pavel Zajíček gushed about, stating it was like a fairy tale: the celebration of the body and the motif of the festival, dance, and music as acts of sociopolitical protest (Bolton 2012, 126). Jirous’s “Report” practically represents the catechism of Bondy’s gospel. Traces of many aspects of the new doctrine, as seen in the lives of its prophets, already existed among the avant-garde under the label of bohemian: a “master–disciple relationship”; the transitory nature of art, social relationships, and existence; joyful, gregarious deviance; “intensified existence”; “nihilistic disengagement”; and “extremist nihilism” (Kreutzer 1968, ix–xvi). In the case of this last item, this was in opposition to socialism’s political religion and theology. However, carrying these aspects over into a genuine counter-religiosity or alternative spirituality is one central aspect of Jirous’s underground concept that makes it truly novel and not merely a radicalization. A second aspect is the deliberate emphasis on performativity. Veronika Tuckerová has analyzed Jirous’s manifesto in an essay carving out linguistic characteristics and literary references. She points to the performative aspect of the text as having “a highly performative function; it not only describes, but forms a community by naming it, by bringing the underground community to life” (Tuckerová 2014, 142). This went beyond directly identifiable artistic events and was expressed in multitudes of photographs and amateur films, in happenings staged as weddings and weddings treated as happenings,71 in drinking sprees, dance, and repeated shows of ecstasy. The third aspect, linked to the previous two, is the transcendence of social life into an archaicized community, clan, or even canine pack.

71 Here especially, the concerts and performance actions were announced as “Musical Festival of the Second Culture” (“Hudební festival druhé kultury”), starting with a wedding in Postupice (I/1974), followed by the Second Festival in Bojanovice (II/1976), and the Third Festival in Hrádeček (III/1977).


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Yet where bohemians are concerned, new never quite means new. On the contrary, the subject matter of these aspects has roots as deep as the Romantic period, a time held in higher esteem as more innovative. It is only one link in a long chain, as Ferdinand Tönnies famously proposed in Community and Civil Society (1887), designating community as the Other of the rationalized and alienated civil society: “real,” “organic,” “genuine,” and “a living organism” (Tönnies 2001, 19). Using Tönnies’s terminology and drawing on Georges Bataille and others, JeanLuc Nancy’s The Inoperative Community (1983) rejected as fantastical the thesis of a community constantly and inescapably eroding from civil society. According to Nancy, community means being together or being with and sharing: Community, which is not a subject, and even less a subject (conscious or unconscious) greater than “myself,” does not have or possess this consciousness: community is the ecstatic consciousness of the night of immanence, insofar as such a consciousness is the interruption of self-consciousness. (Nancy 1991, 19; italics in the original)

However, it can only ever be “inoperative” and can never be produced by force of will: “This is why community cannot arise from the domain of work. One does not produce it, one experiences or one is constituted by it as the experience of finitude” (Nancy 1991, 31; italics in the original). Meanwhile, the “lost community” is a widespread and simplistic fantasy or figment. In fact, it is impossible to lose, “a gift to be renewed” whose traces are still present in the last “social desert” (1991, 35). It turns out to be a bastion of immanent transcendence and abiding resistance: “Community is, in a sense, resistance itself. […] At bottom, it is impossible for us to lose community” (1991, 35). In her exploration of political romanticism, Ethel Matala de Mazza evaluates the productivity of Nancy’s notion of community with its strong ties to Friedrich Schlegel’s project of a New Mythology. She finds that it is not normative and does not require any “prerogative for harmony among equals,” not even in the weak form of a “normative self-reflection” along the lines of Jürgen Habermas’s ethics of discourse. As a practice, not a state of being, it presents the option of an “aesthetic of ‘im-parting’ that banks on nothing more than the togetherness of singular individuals” (Matala de Mazza 1999, 38). This certainly describes the underground’s communitarian ambitions according to Jirous: to celebrate coming together through practices, images, and discourse; to perceive themselves collectively as one for all their diversity. This raises two questions: First, was this project objectively successful? And second, what about the discrepancy between Nancy’s “inoperativeness” (désoeuvrement) and the creative optimism inherent in any agenda?72 72 For an interesting reflection of the quasi-mystical experience of liberty through commu-

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In the context of analyzing aesthetic processes, it appears futile to evaluate success. Our understanding of the underlying poetics is sharpened by the observation that Jirous both anticipates and debunks Nancy’s notion of the inoperative community that cannot be produced, only enacted. In fact, this is precisely where his spiritual religiosity is systemically sited. Jirous transfers the creative act of transcending immanence into a transcendental act of its own. His performative aesthetic banks on a redemptive power. Its execution or assumption is left up to the community. This culminates in the paradigmatic metaphors of belief, love, and victimhood—a romantic invocation of Saint Paul’s triad and its pathos of a heroic, confident resignation to the world, which resonates quite clearly in the figure of the fool. Belief, in this case, designates a belief in the possibility of freedom in community—a community founded in a (poetic) calling and deeply meaningful deviance. Love does refer to physical (free) love, but serves more as an expression of expanding the meta-norm for ardent empathy. Finally, victimhood refers to authoritarian insults, most implicit in the not-only-literal imprisonment, which makes a claim on metonymy and thereby directly contradicts Nancy’s thesis of an inoperative community. This delight in one’s own suffering is also what decouples the underground of Jirous from Nancy, yet restores its normativity, the absoluteness of a transcendence out of reach. In Vratislav Brabenec’s epilogue to Milan Hlavsa’s memoirs of his period with the Plastic People, Brabenec writes that humanity lost its memory upon the arrival of the printed book and the libraries and archives that accompanied it: “Yet in former times we were able to understand wolves; today we can’t even communicate with our dogs.” He adds: “This isn’t a good afterword. And I know that, my honored reader. But even a little song written out of love hasn’t to be good. It only matters that it was really written out of love” (Brabenec 2001, 189–94). The experiment with community ends by absolutizing the myth.

nity, see Michel Maffesoli: “a new and (envolving) trend can be found in the growth of small groups and existential networks. This represents a sort of tribalism which is based at the same time on the spirit of religion (re-ligare) and on localism (proxemics, nature)” (Maffesoli 1996, 40).


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Off to the Country! Last night as I lay on my pillow Last night as I lay on my bed Last night as I lay on my pillow I dreamt that my Bonnie was dead —Scottish Folksong

“My Lovers Are Over the Oceans” is divided by a peculiar fracture that I have hinted at earlier. On one side is the runaway homeland, the intimacy of shared memory with friends’ places of exile, the displaced community of the underground. And on the other side, there is the revocation of that “love” expressed in the prisoner’s mild-at-first accusations and in the representation of Western metropolises as a unitary meta-city of thrills and satisfaction. As if tugged by the gravitational force of bitterness and the fundamental topoi of community and home, the diction of the figurative language shifts, partway through the poem, from primitivist to traditional/archaic. This is followed by poetically excluding the emigrants. The painter Otakar Slavík and the composer Bohuslav Martinů are addressed by name. While the speaker practically revels in the thought that Slavík, who emigrated to Vienna, would never rest in the peace of Bohemian soil, he adds a sardonic punch line by mentioning Martinů. Martinů had fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis, moving to the United States by way of Paris, and had then returned. After the communist putsch in 1948, he went to Switzerland, where he died shortly thereafter. Twenty years later, in 1979 and under cover of night, the Czech secret service exhumed his body, transported it to Czechoslovakia, and held a state funeral that was more of an assault than an honor. At the same time, Jirous introduces classic motifs of late-Romantic and exile literature: the arrival of winter chill, the grayness and desolation of autumn, withering hydrangeas: The Hrochův Týnec cemetery Is for exiles out of bounds Otakar Slavík they’ll not bury Beyond its wall, on its grounds Týnec is a desolate place So desolate it makes your flesh crawl For Otakar there is no space On the other side of that wall

Off to the Country!


Sad is Týnec town Ever so sad, beyond consolation For Ota’s wreath there’s no location No place to lay it down Above Slavík’s place of rest No one will ring a bell Týnec will not say farewell As on his grave fresh soil is pressed Elsewhere in Europe he’ll shuffle off this mortal coil Týnec won’t be the place, it won’t be Týnec town Unless like Martinů he lies down Many years later in his native soil (Jirous 1998, 453; translated by Marek Tomin)

The speaker is most irritated by state propaganda’s ready reminders of the exiles’ banishment. Where Jirous, true to form, tries to use irony to break the propaganda, the rhetoric doesn’t catch—after all, the act of withholding someone’s final resting place, a form of exclusion beyond death, retains a threatening, damning edge. The words “homeland” (domov) and “fatherland” (vlast) do not appear anywhere in the poem. Vladimír Macura, who has written about the blurry semantics of these concepts in Czech (Macura 1995, 139–52), explains that in their place, the central symbol of the “cottage” (chaloupka), with its connotations of country, village, idyll, and a rural life of simplicity, was integral to the collective self-reflection of modern nationhood for the literature of the National Revival that began in the late eighteenth century. The topos of the cottage communicates simplicity, openness, modesty, hospitality, closeness to nature, religiosity, and a whiff of Bethlehem and messianism. This made it elemental to the dominant Czech self-conception, as it helped distinguish Czech identity from Habsburg aristocrats and the German bourgeoisie and later provided a reference point for propaganda about a proletarian, agrarian socialism (Macura 1996, 51–64). “My Lovers” plays off this same symbiosis of homeland and ruralism as it juxtaposes images of nature and village life against the names of the emigrants’ series of chic metropolises. The objective context is a “return to the land” by members of the underground and other alternative cultures, beginning in the 1970s, in response to increased scrutiny and police violence in the cities, most of all Prague. Soon people asked themselves, Vienna or Bory? Should I leave the country or head for the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands? The “back-to-thelanders” set up communes in what they called “shanties” or “barracks” (baráky).


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The trend was not dissimilar to its beatnik and hippie equivalents (Stárek and Kostúr 2010, 8).73 The Czech baráky could be actual barracks in the English sense of the word, but also stables; former pubs; abandoned farms or houses, on the edge of the village if possible; isolated farms, preferably in sparsely populated areas; or areas depopulated after the postwar expulsion of Sudeten Germans. They were to reproduce the actual or intended role of cottages: as communication hubs for the community and as symbolically laden locations, ascribed traits such as popular character, ties to nature, simplicity, and humility—to use a keyword from the “Report.” This was a thoroughly national return to roots: From the meatpacking plant moans and moos across the sea Brabenec cruised his tunes secretly on the jukebox over there he couldn’t give a fox Sea, your isle will float over into midnight Suécia my living suicide in Czechia the blossoming wilted hydrangea in Vladice this late September Friendly faces going extinct diaspora ghetto merry in pink like a wick that’s nearly blinked like a wick whose glow has gone small our life here is no life at all The blossoming wilted hydrangea late autumn is brisk this year I live suicidally here in Czechia sea, your island will float over into midnight Suécia In my memories of Prague, the capital fades into a gray gap the places you left impalpable white grass grows there on the map

73 The volume of Stárek and Kostúr maps thirty-one underground communes in Czechoslovakia and marks parallels to the American hippie movement.

Off to the Country!


To me the city looks gray but sprinkled with a leper’s white pimples soon down from the hills hurry Bondy’s mad wolves (Jirous 1998, 458–60; translated by Jake Schneider)

One of this book’s principal theses is that the city can be considered the prime condition for underground art; the contradiction here is only superficial. First, this was only a tactical retreat by a preexisting, genuinely urban group as a result of the authorities’ intensified control over the urban centers. Second, there is an element of opportunism at play. The underground, with its fondness for happenings, needed large spaces and preferred locations where it could circumvent the public performance ban through “private invitations.” But, crucially, the city remained the artistic frame of reference, not least because both audience and artists tended to shuttle between the city and the country. The cities, especially Prague, were the sites of planning, invitations, and coordination. On the weekend, the “weekenders” (víkenďáci) traveled out to rural areas with likeminded people, made urban-inspired art, then returned to the cities. Still, the relocation did have an impact on the art of Jirous. Its effects are perceptible in the resentment of the oppressed and downtrodden homeland in his metaphor of the “meatpacking plant” and in the figure of the Bohemian lion dozing “under a moldy flag.” But most telling is the poetic adoption of a set of associations shared with Viktor Dyk’s 1917 poem “The Land Speaks” (“Země mluví”). In it, Dyk styles death for one’s country as a mystical fusion with native earth, which addresses the future victim in a threatening courtship: “If you leave me, I live on / If you leave me, you will die” (Dyk 1921, 73–4). By the time the communists had adopted it, this stanza had become literary and political anathema, an anti-verse repeated with “monotonous arrogance,” as Ferdinand Peroutka writes from his February exile of 1948 (Peroutka 1984, 128–9). A generation later, the figure of August exile of 1968 Jiří Gruša spoke of the “primal song of the Bohemian Demeter” brewed in the “poisonous kitchen of national art” (Gruša 1984, 227–8). It is hard to miss the link with the earth’s threat from Dyk’s poem when, in “My Lovers,” Slavík’s grave in Týnec is deserted with nobody to weave a wreath for him. Similarly, another stanza, “You go with whisky, we drink a beer” (Jirous 1998, 456),74 evokes the anti-imperial cliché of the simple and honest Czech man (or Bohemian) contrasted with the fine gentlemen of the world. In the end, they are traitors after all: Slavík, who forgets the Czech lion (Jirous 1998, 452), and 74 In the Czech original: “Ty u whisky, my nad pivem.”


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Brabenec, who doesn’t “give a fox” that the pubs back home still—secretly— play his music. But also: Skalický runs out of luck in Vienna with his “phallic blues lyrics”; Hutka regrets the “foolish” decision to leave and quietly “pukers like a fish.” “While here, plowing through are we, / plowing on in humility, / till our fatality”—candid, down-to-earth art farmers. Keep in mind that this “here” is not Prague, the gray city, leprous “with a leper’s white pimples,” voids left by the departed. Rather, it is some nowheresville like Týnec. The poem establishes Týnec as the onomatopoetic antithesis of the metropolitan cities of the Western world with populations in the millions; no other place name appears as often. By blurring, seizing upon, and abandoning the cities but sonically highlighting Týnec and placing it at the heart of the “song,” Jirous turns the periphery into the aesthetic center. The core is a regression to the rural and national poetics of the National Revival, as seen in the final stanzas, which invoke and reinterpret Egon Bondy. Bondy’s “wolves” comes from Bondy’s poem “It’s raining raining” (“Prší prší prší”), set to music, as so often, by the Plastic People. In it, Prague is in dark mist and the speaker, the devil disincarnate, asks if this is the end. The sun “is dead,” “ghosts swarm” through the streets, “everyone’s afraid “ of a “spooky phantom” crossing the sky—“the devil or deep blue sea?” And finally: “The wolves come down from the hills / And the lights went out” (Bondy 2014, 602).75 For Jirous, however, this becomes a revenge fantasy: the country striking back against the toxic, abandoned, betrayed traitor of the city. The cottages, modernized into barracks, summon forth the wolves. In the end, “My Lovers Are Over the Oceans” aborts the attempt to add “homeland” to the underground’s arsenal by incorporating it into a domain of “higher,” placeless community. By drawing a city versus country opposition, atypical of the underground, as a coping mechanism for the community brain drain of exile, the poem regresses into the horizontally defined conflict of anti-modernist national romanticisms. In Jirous’s Swan Songs, home, community, and redemption prove to be infectiously horizontal poetic categories whose content can scarcely be extricated. Jirous’s attempt at disaffiliation—a belonging and a yearning for belonging that cannot, or can only, be satisfied by spatially or poetically ducking

75 The Czech poem goes: “Prší prší prší / víc nežli se sluší / ďábel mi sedí na duši // Mlha si sedla za okna / po celém městě je tma / je konec nebo se mi to jen zdá // Slunce mrtvé stojí / strašidla se rojí / všichni se bojí // Po nebi jde hrozný tvor / je to lepra nebo mor? / vlci jdou z hor // I elektřina přestala svítit / a plyn nechce od sirky chytit / a vrány se rozkřičely smíchy” (Bondy 2014, 602).

Off to the Country!


out—has roots deeper than E. T. A. Hoffmann in the oktroi of harmonization of the early Romantic period. Its implication is an integration-fixated disintegration of both the artwork and its underlying poetics. In “My Lovers,” “Magor” remains a stance of foolish authority. And “homeland” remains the ant lion among the topoi: impossible to escape once one has stepped past the edge of its funnel-shaped pit trap.

Disgusted in Bratislava: Vladimír Archleb’s Lyrically Vulgar Dandyism Boredom becomes an element in the process of production with its acceleration (by machinery). The flâneur protests with this ostentatious languor (Gelassenheit) against the process of production. —Walter Benjamin, “Central Park”76

Vladimír Archleb spent most of his years in Bratislava, many of them in Rača, a residential district among the vineyards on the city’s outskirts. His poems never explicitly name this city, although they often invoke it. It is a socialist Bratislava of pervasive ennui, a monotonous routine, and all-powerful cheap hooch. This is a dull, apathetic world. Archleb seemingly needed neither concrete topography nor city history to set the coordinates of his poetry. Bratislava—as “the city”—is a constant presence in Archleb’s poems. It is unambiguously Bratislava that gives contour to his poetic work. In fact, the setting is even more present in Archleb’s writings than in the work of Andrej Stankovič, the “postmodern bagpiper” and pope of the Slovak underground who linked its scene with the Prague underground.77 Stankovič’s nameless city, similarly, is grounded in neither toponymy nor topography and, in fact, most closely resembles Prague. Accordingly, most Slovak underground poets have long left their apparent local ties unacknowledged. But uniquely, Archleb’s poetic characters are flâneurs as defined in Benjamin’s maxim above: provocateurs of time in the ostinato of the unnameable Bratislava. Archleb gauges whether and how a flâneur figure can survive as a dandy in an inescapably vulgar world. To place this peculiarity in context, let us start by excavating the literary history behind his urban poetics through an examination of turn-of-the-century and interwar Slovak literature. In doing so, we will outline the topoi associated with Bratislava. 76 Translated by Lloyd Spencer and Mark Harrington (Benjamin 1985, 47, italics in the original). 77 Stankovič, born in 1940, moved with his parents to Prague in 1946. He spent his childhood in the Slovak town of Prešov. The expression “postmodern bagpiper” was inspired by a poem by Ivan Wernisch, who dedicated it to Stankovič (Marks 1992, 5).


Disgusted in Bratislava

The City, That Unloved Wasteland It is a commonplace of literary history that the city has long been unpopular in Slovak poetry. When not ignored altogether, the city has been condemned as a den of iniquity or a non-native thorn in the nation’s side. Marcela Mikulová’s treatment of modern Slovak literature, focusing on Janko Jesenský, begins with just such a statement, for example (Mikulová 1998, 101). Similarly, Katarína Badžgoňová starts her observations on contemporary Slovak prose by stating its traditionally dominant anti-urban character (Badžgoňová 2020, 139–42).78 Yet this thesis is disproved by literature from the turn of the twentieth century if not earlier; beyond all rural clichés of foreignness and nativeness, various poets from Jesenský onward have made the city respectable for poetry. Jesenský paved the way for Laco Novomeský, Vladimír Reisel, and Ján Smrek. Decades after Jesenský’s debut, the village was still seen as the refuge of national values and safe haven for a Slovak writer, but the overall picture shifted for good with the literature of the interwar period, especially that of the DAV group, which traced its name (meaning crowd) to the journal DAV founded in 1924. For all the ambivalence toward urbanity, the Davists embraced Bratislava as a city of modernity and vitality. The critic Andrej Mráz also described this shift as a “fresh breeze” necessary to establish a “new” rhythm of life, a life to which (Slovak) cities would “give birth” (Mráz 1931, 66). With an international orientation and an avant-garde poetic approach, the left-wing Davists rejected more than just the anti-urban reflex but also the concomitant prejudices and resentments against Germans and Czechs that were articulated in the aversion for the city (Badžgoňová 2020, 140­–1). Their art overtly aimed to abolish what Ludwig Richter described as a “rough opposition between worldliness (svetovosť) and the Slovak national character (slovenskosť)” (Richter 1979, 75). Thus, the form and theme correspond very neatly with an ideological disconnect. Long-established Slovak anti-urbanism by no means vanished with the Davists, modernists, and avant-gardists. Bucking a trend toward increased portrayals of urban themes, Slovak writers continued to reject the city in explicit terms, calling it not just an amoral, chaotic, and genuinely anti-aesthetic place, but a foreign—either Hungarian or German—non-place.79 78 See also Bílik (2011) and Hučková (2011), who focus on both the city and the small town in Slovak literature. 79 See, for instance, Pavol Minár, who illustrates how the Slovak city functions as a space of oppositions such as city versus village, departure versus arrival, window versus door (Minár 1998).

The City, That Unloved Wasteland


Turn-of-the-century Slovak literature set out to shape and preserve the nation as an organ of a suppressed people and its language, which for centuries had been in danger of being extinguished by Germanization and Magyarization (Habaj 2005, 24). Janko Jesenský was not free of this tradition and the conflict invested in it. His rapprochement with the city was certainly skeptical and hesitant (Mikulová 1998). Jesenský draws a contrast, for instance, between the native Slovak mountains’ therapeutic salvation of the self and cities’ artificial noise, their addiction to pleasure, and the disturbing indecipherability of their gestures, languages, and movements. In his poems, the channelized Danube is a visual symbol of the self-alienated subject’s containment in the city. Twenty years later, the same pattern held for Ivan Horváth, whose 1928 book of short novels Man on the Street (Človek na ulici) served as a “mission statement” that Michal Habaj reads as the “epitome” of Horváth’s body of work, functioning as a “prose manifesto” for the ambivalent treatment of the city by the “second modernity” (Habaj 2005, 127). Horváth’s “man on the street,” the vagrant Tomáš Jurga, is no “man of the crowd” à la Edgar Allan Poe. Rather, he strolls through urban space as a prototype of a “surplus person”—and seems entirely unbothered by this (Kuzmíková 2006, 88). Another element: the most consistent Slovak city poet, the Davist and born urbanite Laco Novomeský, was accused by Ján Poničan, one of the group’s cofounders, of “looking down on things from above, from Prague, while we [see them] from within” (Poničan 1975, 318). Poničan aims to remind Novomeský that he has come from “outside”—although outside does not primarily mean outside the nation. From another angle, Novomeský is accused of putting art ahead of the people. By framing “looking down on things from above” as a form of outsiderness, Poničan compounds the marginalization of interwar urban experimentalism with a vertical exclusion. Novomeský closely corresponded and cooperated with the Prague Poetists, an avant-garde group of artists who combined a sense of play, casualness, and exoticism with Constructivism. The first, ludic, aspect was a defining element of Novomeský’s work and indeed left a lasting mark in the poetry of the Slovak underground, especially that of Augustín (“Gusto”) Dobrovodský and Andrej Stankovič. Prague and Poetism were one thing. Then there was Paris. The Davists and their sympathizers outside their inner circle, such as Emil Boleslav Lukáč and Ján Smrek, proved to be in love with not just cities in general, but Paris in particular. Smrek’s Paris poems from the 1930s reflect his own view of the “alpha of the artistic denomination” (Smrek 1968, 80–1): a civility that was celebrated as an essential element, an unbridled desire for variety and momentum, a vitalist zest for life tied to the city (Petrík 2008, 25–30). Significantly, Paris was also the


Disgusted in Bratislava

reference point of the Slovak Surrealist group, the Nadrealists, such as Vladimír Reisel (Winczer 2000, 162–80). This focus on Paris allowed them to forget that Bratislava was urban only in the modern sense of a recently industrialized provincial town—and no more. This raises the added factor—a discursive condition of interwar production, but also socialist-era and contemporary urban literature—that Bratislava lacked a readily available mythopoetic reservoir like those of Paris and Prague. Pavol Minár’s classification of interwar prose furnishes a possible explanation. In his framework, Bratislava’s geographical proximity to symbolically saturated cities such as fin-de-siècle Vienna and Budapest generated an “explosion of symbols” that permitted Bratislava’s “differentiation and disintegration” in literature. Bratislava’s explosive adoption of repertoires of “foreign” symbols began to make the city synonymous for “over there”—instead of “here” or “ours” (Minár 1998, 122). Yet according to Michal Habaj as an “artery of cultures,” Bratislava bohemia allowed its members to switch comfortably among the codes of various places and groups: “of Pest, Vienna, the Jews, the Slovaks, metropolitan Europe, or popular folklore” (Habaj 2005, 25). Jozef Tancer has nonetheless identified some specific stable markers in depictions of Bratislava, alias Pressburg, alias Pozsony, across travel writing: as a precarious but appealing border town with its own local archetype for “marketing” purposes. But this image is attached to a visible artifice with commercial intent. No matter how (remarkably) constant and evolutionarily stable this image seems at its core, Tancer demonstrates its much greater semantic instability, even randomness. Bratislava was imagined as epochal border town, he writes, as a hybrid of cultures, as a city between East and West, or as the Porta Hungarica (Tancer 2013, 14–23, 193). This is a cliché designed for consumption, in which the residents of today’s Bratislava may choose to morph into the reborn ghosts of a bourgeois Austro-Hungarian lifestyle—disregarding the proletarianization and Slovakization of Bratislava between the world wars, not to mention the city’s ethnic homogenization after World War II. Both developments are mostly absent as themes from Bratislava literature of the 1960s to 1980s, which includes a phalanx of poets such as the established names Miroslav Válek and Ľubomír Feldek. Feldek co-initiated the urbanophile Trnava Group (Trnavská skupina). Much less known were the underground poets who moved between Bratislava and Košice, among them Archleb as well as Erik Groch, Oleg Pastier, Tomáš Petrivý and Marcel Strýko—along with the aforementioned Dobrovodský and Stankovič.

Archleb, Bratislava, and the Underground


Archleb, Bratislava, and the Underground Vladimír Archleb, also known by his nickname Rachel,80 was born in 1953. In the 1970s he began writing poems, which were published exclusively in samizdat through the end of the Cold War. Denied admission to art school in Bratislava, he supported himself with a job at Juraj Dimitrov Chemical Enterprises (CHZJD) and died in 2007 of the toxins he had inhaled there. As a writer, Archleb was part of the Slovak underground. More confidently than many of its poets, Archleb made the topic of urbanity his own and found a new unprecedented voice that was much more sonorous than the fast-paced, playful, sometimes grating sound of Andrej Stankovič. His voice is more melancholy, with an undertone of what feels like assiduously suppressed rage. His speaker is a desperate flâneur who struggles to cope with “urban internment,” as Miroslav Marcelli calls it: “If you escape the city, you only extend its borders. The city automatically turns dissidents into missionaries. This statement of one’s inability to escape from its hold undoubtedly involves resignation” (Marcelli 1999, 189). Archleb’s prison is the ruralized, socialist Bratislava of his era, a proletarian metropolis detached from any polyethnic bourgeois culture, Parisian daydreams, or visions of a borderland, wonderland, or third space between East and West. With forlorn resentment, his poems confront this reality, this everyday perception of an infinite vacancy and an aesthetically and morally emptied and leveled city. Aversion and tedium, rejection of all heroizing historicism, but a subject that heroically looks things in the eye: these are all universal underground gestures. Accordingly, Peter Zajac situates Archleb’s poems in the tradition of the poetry of Egon Bondy, Ivan Martin Jirous, and, yes, Stankovič, whose aesthetic he characterizes as “obscene” and “frivolous.” Whereas Zajac classifies the poetry of these artists as “shameless poetry” (hanebná poézia), Archleb writes a “shamefaced poetry” (nehanebná poézia). In Archleb, Zajac observes a sense of reservation, an austerity of language that keeps him from crossing the line from objectionable or vulgar to brazen—preferring to stew in that same resentment toward day-to-day monotony and organized stultification. According to Zajac, Archleb’s lewdness lies in his aesthetics. The key to it, and to his work, is the word “cheap” (lacný), which translates also as “simple” or “straightforward”:

80 The nickname comes from an acronym that serves as motto: “Ráno vstaň / A dokonči báseň / Celkom ako / Homér / Ešte spitý / Lacným vínom.” In English: “Rise early / And finish the poem / Just like / Homer / Still drunk from / Cheap wine” (Archleb 2008).


Disgusted in Bratislava

[His] poetics of deforestation or clear-cutting is marked by a perception of the atmosphere, of objects and feelings, that seeks to distill the fundamentals. The prosaic language of the verse and the sometimes basic rhymes are like an ironic echo of Poetism. What is lewd here: the cheap work, cheap life, cheap wine, cheap relationships, cheap words, cheap rhythms. (Zajac 2009, 22)

Archleb plays overt games with value judgments in the very title of his poetry collection Račan Select (Račianský výber). The wine sold under this brand was a middling blend of white wine, a socialist mass-market product. With this reference, Archleb was not only making a (self-)ironic swipe at the notion of “selection,” but a tongue-in-cheek joke about the quality of his own poems. By invoking Rača, a prototypically peripheral district of Bratislava, in the title, Archleb is also drawing attention to the originally German wine-growing town that was founded in the late thirteenth century and become part of Bratislava in 1946. Rača is also a colloquial word from a South Slavic rootmeaning fence. The vineyard district is one of the villages annexed after World War II, along with Prievoz, Trnávka, and Petrželka with its socialist-era apartment blocks. Besides cheap versus expensive, Archleb’s key dichotomies include inside versus outside, imprisoned versus free, and, importantly, sober versus drunk. Our gaze keeps wandering out of an interior space, but the windows are barred, the streets under surveillance, and the landscape bleak—especially during an alcohol shortage, an all-too common occurrence that vexes the speaker of Archleb’s poems. For the national holiday, the center of the (as always, unnamed) city is festooned in red. Alcohol prices are raised so high that all joy is lost: “after a couple of days the pay is all gone / and so I walk around the city dry / and that’s the greatest hell” (Archleb 2008, 14). For as long as the money lasts, the speaker keeps drinking, spouting tirades against “the establishment.” Over and over, Archleb’s poems ridicule Socialist Realism, its propagandist reality, and its ideological manipulation. Yet they forgo a subversive affirmation for a better replacement. When the “official” Slovak artists meet in a poem to make art or to enrich the Slovak language with new coinages, they first must check their appointment books—while the rest of the country wishes them luck. The Socialist Realism Boris Groys interpreted as “ideological signification” (Groys 2003, 155), Günter Erbe identified as “propagandistic overpainting of reality” (Erbe 1993, 10), and Andreas Guski described as an “axiological semiotic system” (Guski 1994, 41–2) is at the center of Archleb’s disgust, a disgust reflected in the overpowering parades, flags, and confederates in the crowd that combine to overpower public space. Back to Marcelli: “The spirit of these parades also hovered around city squares on ordinary days and emptied them. Hence, the power concentrated in these locations had both centripetal and centrifugal

Archleb, Bratislava, and the Underground


effects: it drove in the pathways of institutional procedures, only to repel the ‘private’ conduct of individuals” (Marcelli 1999, 198). Archleb’s grim flâneur also surrenders to displacement, for remaining on the street would only further depress him and reduce him to a herd animal. After making a malicious comment about a book title in a store window to the effect that a “slave’s head” (otrocká hlava) would soon be watching over them, he returns home and lies down with a book, weary of the city (Archleb 2008, 54, 39). Of course, a flâneur who has emigrated into the private sphere is a paradox and a failure. Archleb’s poem “Colorful Shop Window of a Bookstore” (“Pestrý výklad kníhkupectva”) is heightened by the grotesque swan song toward an aesthetic “harmony of spirits” that does succeed in the private sphere, akin to the harmony that E. T. A. Hoffmann’s community of neighbors find in the basement. In Archleb’s case, in “Journey” (“Cesta”) a tour guide emerges from the speaker’s refrigerator to provide company and suggests setting off to find a pterodactyl. And before long, the tour guide is standing around in the kitchen with the winged dinosaur, getting drunk: “I took to my bed / the pterodactyl started puking / in the morning there were little inconveniences” (2008, 32). But the encounter does not end in murder as in another poem: “I slew a cockroach / now the dead beetle lies in the corner / with legs folded against its body / like for a last prayer” (2008, 55). After the public space has been destroyed by the authorities’ discretionary powers—from identity checks to omnipresent informers to alcohol rationing— the private sphere atrophies as a space for social exchange and only permits book fetishes or solipsistic hallucinations. Or, at the other extreme, it causes corruption, disgust, and “rot” (hniloba)—as captured in images of depression and gonorrhea, like in the poem “I’m Lying in Bed” (“Ležím v posteli”): “what rot caught up with me there / I’m lazy like a dog / without enthusiasm I go for stroll / in the stupid streets of the city” (2008, 38).81 Neither of the two once-sociable settings, the public and the private sphere, can be filled with “life.” Experiences of emptiness and loss are everywhere; there is “no salvation on the horizon” for the speaker returning from the night shift. There is only monotony: goulash and beer, “bloody stupid movies” and a “sweatsoaked seat.” Nowhere “the bells of a little white church,” nowhere redemption. Instead, everything in reach is a “slave’s life” (otrocký život) (2008, 53).

81 The Slovak verb predvádzať sa means performative gestures like in “show off ” or “strut one’s stuff.”


Disgusted in Bratislava

Archleb and the “Psychopathology of Affluence” Goulash, beer, and cinema are insignias of modern mass consumption, marking the defeat of the proletarian hardship that had once characterized daily life in early industrial cities. Socialist regimes also took credit for working people’s opportunities to consume. Hence, it is only superficially odd to speak of the societies of East-Central Europe in the late Cold War as “societies of surplus.” That they were, and combined with the dictatorial sterilization of other aspects of life, that surplus generated an emotion it always prompts in more exacting minds: boredom. One way to escape boredom is to radicalize. Vladimír Archleb’s wife, Tamara Archlebová, dubbed her husband “boilerman-poet” (kuřič-básnik) in her epilogue to the posthumously published Račan Select, placing him in the romantic tradition of radical lifestyles as a total artist who lived out his humanity—who was active with both mind and body and spared neither. Thus Archleb, according to his wife, joined “Gusto” Dobrovodský as one of the last of his kind, at least in Slovakia (Archlebová 2008, 91). No matter the intention, this trope of “the last” upstanding person, the last of the Mohicans, “the last of his kind” also invokes a leitmotif of kitsch. This statement is also an apt comment on Archleb’s poetry and self-stylization, which leads us to a concept originating with the American homosexual underground of the early 1960s: Susan Sontag’s “camp,” which is “something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques” (Sontag 2009, 275). According to Sontag, “camp” is “a good taste of bad taste”, more of a “sensibility” than an idea (2009, 291). To be precise, it is a way of experiencing the world that translates dandyism for the age of mass culture by reveling in vulgarity and no longer holding it in contempt. It is devious, exaggerated, stylized, artful, fantastical, dramatic, passionate, serious, naïve, and anachronistic. According to Felix Johannes Enzian, the notion of camp involves “the alchemical transformation of cultural toxic waste into poignancy”: “To avoid becoming boring, bad taste requires at least as much dedication, instinct, and finesse as good taste. It is about the art of being ironic and dead-serious at the same time, which goes hand in hand with a thoroughly radical attitude” (Enzian 2014, 13). Sontag’s writing complements this: “The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence” (Sontag 2009, 289). In no small part, this good taste in vulgarity and the dandyesque aspects of Archleb’s “disgust of satiation” (Aurel Kolnai) or “life disgust” (William Miller) seem to have set his work apart from “shameless poetry.” Thus he distinguishes his flâneur from the tramp or drifter

Archleb and the “Psychopathology of Affluence”


who is more popular in the underground. This link is exemplified in “A Picture from Summer” (“Obrázok z leta”) from May 1979: a picture from summer the summer country doesn’t look like in my childhood any more it’s not that Poussainesque landscape where satyrs with nymphs move in lush green where wine is healthfully poured in lovely cups oh Lord—where has that golden tinge of clothes gone noble faces with Roman noses athletic calves now it’s kind of different for real no little idyll there’s no place left you can take a break meadows look so terribly unwholesome full of waste paper and all sorts of smut that I’d rather have a standard bed where for heaven’s sake is that lovely smell of new-mown hay grass freshly growing up blue sky with tiresome insects today there’s no little idyll for real I even don’t know where to take my babe out to the theater to the cinema lest she was bored everything seems ridiculous to me and to her obviously too I’m rather silent about that nature because I don’t want to scare her the bushes are full of pederasts and voyeurs and that was also a shock for me (Archleb 2008, 20–1; translated by Marián Andričík)

One possible summary: nature is over, defeated by urban decay. The poem reads as a variation on the urbanite’s confinement, no matter how far out he strays—in this case, no farther than the nearest park, which serves as the scruffy successor to some erstwhile “landscape.” We are shown the boredom and the impossibility of escape despite the usual recreational options (theater, cinema). The (socialist) urban landscape has been hollowed out aesthetically, historically, and semantically. And it has gone downhill: sex offenders abound in the bushes and someone must be at fault for everything being covered in “waste paper” and other trash. Corrupted nature, corrupted civilization, a post-moral society. Here, Archleb parts ways with the likes of the heavyweight poet Dominik Tatarka, who rhapsodized the city parks of Bratislava—especially Mountain Park,


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Janko Kráľ Garden, and Bratislava Forest Park—as a cultivated natural anti­ thesis to the devastation of human relationships. Yet Archleb’s “A Picture from Summer” obtains its full dramatic effect primarily from its reference to Nicolas Poussin and his 1664 painting Summer. It would be hard to find a poetic subject more artificial or world-weary than this implicit conflation of the poet’s own childhood with early modern Europe. Indeed, this baroque artifact is eschatologically inflated itself; Poussin made the painting at the end of his life as part of a seasonal cycle. This pompous allusion is followed by elements of other Poussin landscapes, which Archleb colors with naïve simplicity and clichés climaxing in the diminutive “little idyll” (idylka). The sentimental longing expressed here fits perfectly with the keyword “cheap” but is a terrible match for the refined gesture of the Poussin reference. The reader is irritated by the smug admission that pederasts and voyeurs in the bushes could disturb even the speaker. After all, a genuine snobby aesthete in the tradition of Oscar Wilde would never be “shocked” by such a thing. Let alone admit it. While disrupting the sublime with banality is a common underground aesthetic technique, Archleb’s game with grandeur “falls apart” here and descends into vulgarity, corroborating Zajac’s observation that Archleb’s “lewdness” lies in his aesthetics. Therein lies the very essence of camp: the eccentrically overblown gesture, the stylization that breaks down in excess, the ardently boorish failure to be appropriate. Yet seriousness and passion shine through strongly enough to fascinate rather than embarrass the reader. Archleb does not stop at the explicitly obscene—he leaps past it. Aby Warburg and Georges Didi-Huberman, who expanded on Warburg, traced the figure of the nymph from classical sculpture to European painting and onward to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, the photography of László Moholy-Nagy, and the paper frottage works of Pablo Picasso. In their interpretation, the drapery of the partially exposed nymph gains its own “figural autonomy” and in fact becomes a “pathos formula of desire” (Didi-Huberman 2006, 24–6). In Poussin’s 1636 painting The Triumph of Pan, Didi-Huberman sees a groundbreaking treatment of the modern nymph. At the center of the canvas, near the unbridled bacchanalian ritual, a white piece of cloth seems to imitate human form: “The bacchanal of the antique gods always leaves the laterarriving people visible pickings: that huddle, that pivotal rest, that beautiful rag. Frustrating the fate that it gives anthropomorphism, the human form has in fact evaporated. But it remains present as suspense […] as the last possible form of human desire. Something like a rag of time” (2006, 27). This scrap of cloth is where Archleb’s reminiscence begins, for Poussin’s Summer is his poem’s reference point. And yet his speaker mourns for the

Archleb and the “Psychopathology of Affluence”


artist’s earlier paintings, “where satyrs with nymphs move in lush green.” The gods’ wine-fueled orgies have left the landscape as uninviting, as have the harvesters in Summer, whose fervor is all gone but for “waste paper” and “smut.” These have nothing in common with the beautiful rag that Didi-Huberman describes. The poem declines to satisfy the “last possible form of human desire” any more than our hope for the redemptive force of kitsch. In the world of kitsch, Summer only survives as a mass-reproduced print on the living room wall. With similar subtlety, Archleb’s writings sublimate the underground’s constituent axiom of verticality. First, this is transferred to the poetically enacted continuum of high culture (Poussin) versus popular culture (cinema). The second step is a lachrymose inversion of the usual correspondence of de-facto power with lowness and moral superiority with highness. In the crucial third step, both value judgments dissipate in a purely aesthetic game that nullifies “high” and “low.” Not only beauty itself is in the eye of the beholder, but its very definition—and therefore all hierarchies. That is a radical move even for the underground. Still, it matches the aesthetic sensibility of a queer intellectual New York subculture in the increasingly repressive years before the Stonewall Riots, which, at least in Sontag’s view, were not marked by a hope for inclusion. Rather, Sontag perceived camp’s aristocratic neo-aestheticism as a new avant-garde that bore contempt for all politics and morals as vulgarities. It is in this context of global modern underground attitudes and aesthetics that Archleb’s “A Picture from Summer” places itself, including its steadfast abstention from local toponyms. Archleb belongs to the radical underground also because he not only departs from the mainstream and the canon but negates all tradition, including avant-garde tradition, in order to address the scandal of the modern human condition writ large, not a specific historical situation. After all, in his choice of foils he still could have passed over the paintings of Poussin in favor of Janko Jesenský’s curative Slovakian mountains. Equally, he could have invoked “conventional” losses such as that of the coffee house, which is ubiquitous in Central European literature but which Archleb never seems to miss. His poems are guided neither by the anti-urbanist tradition nor by political opposition, even when they seem, at first blush, to build on established leitmotifs. Which space has been hollowed of history, myth, and hope? Not Bratislava—the world. The vulgarly twisted dandy-flâneur is not just some ghost of the rebel bandit and legendary national hero Juraj Jánošík reincarnated between Soviet-style concrete high-rises and Old Town alleyways. Nevertheless, the camp reading oversimplifies Archleb, for the comical element that Susan Sontag claims is central to camp—a delight in playing with


Disgusted in Bratislava

vulgar taste—is periodically interrupted here by an emotion that departs from ordinary passion: Archleb’s aforementioned sense of disgust.

Beyond Camp: Disgust Winfried Menninghaus defines the “strong sensation” of disgust as a “state of alarm and emergency, an acute crisis of self-preservation in the face of an unassimilable otherness, a convulsive struggle, in which what is in question is, quite literally, whether ‘to be or not to be’” (Menninghaus 2003, 1). In addition, alluding to Friedrich Nietzsche, he conceptualizes disgust as a “spontaneous and especially energetic act of saying ‘no’” (2003, 2), and lists three elementary characteristics of it: “(1) the violent repulsion vis-à-vis (2) a physical presence or some other phenomenon in our proximity, (3) which at the same time, in various degrees, can also exert a subconscious attraction or even an open fascination” (2003, 6). Menninghaus thereby expands our view of what is disgusting and then, in a case-by-case discussion, restricts it to a specific set of phenomena that trigger a quasi-automatic response of resistance in the observer. These include physical, generally biological, objects of disgust such as a rotting corpse, malodorous smells, pus, excrement, insects, or reptiles. But they can also be supplemented by Aurel Kolnai’s moral disgust as “disgust of satiation” (Überflussekel), which he systematically distinguishes from fear, hatred, or contempt (Kolnai 2004, 63). This disgust represents an insufferable nuisance, which follows upon overindulgence of sweets, sex, alcohol, or “resting in bed for too long” (2004, 63)—an enjoyment which becomes not just boring but disgusting. It is obvious that the experience of disgust, as a quintessential pattern of human subjectivity, relies on socially conditioned aesthetic and ethical judgments.82 Vladimír Archleb’s poetry does not reject or protest. It is disgusted. This is notable because although, unlike in Surrealism, overt disgustingness is not part of the primary aesthetic arsenal of the underground, it is specifically incorporated in the works of many of its exponents—whereas Archleb is comparatively 82 For Kolnai, conditions of satiation are, for instance, “that one experiences a certain loss of the sense of time, a feeling of timelessness, of being turned in upon oneself, of sterility, of an endless and ever-increasing condition of self-satiation, a kind of giddiness, a disorientation of one’s life and a feeling of entering an almost celestial realm from which one would wish finally to return to a drier and more invigorating air. This holds of every kind of pleasurable dallying, which has at last become aimless and perhaps also for certain other specific conditions. Even perhaps, when these are bound up with enduring inactivity, health, and well-being, they can for most human beings, become disgusting in this sense” (Kolnai 2004, 64).

Beyond Camp: Disgust


restrained in this regard. He treats it similarly to how he treats the obscene: he jumps right past it, presenting it as a perception that is present in the voice of his poetic subjects. In “A Picture from Summer,” the fields are not simply mangled, they are “terribly” (strašne) mangled. Not only is the idyll no longer an idyll, it is no idyll “for real” (to fakt). Some of his other poetic subjects seem almost paralyzed by aversion. When they finally obtain what they have been longing for, after an extended wait, they are sickened (Archleb 2008, 33). They aren’t enthusiasts of camp. But neither are they holy fools in a secularized time of worldly ersatz religions in which aesthetics have replaced the sacred. With the strong poetic affect of his “no,” Archleb uses ahistorical Bratislava to clear the stage of hope and consolation in a show of futility. And he is visibly fascinated by the insufferable nuisance that this reproduced vacancy creates.

Christ Quieted: Marcin Świetlicki, Kraków, the Underground, and Pop One day this city will belong to me. But for now I walk around. For now I look around. For now I sharpen my knife. Put it on—take off my knuckles. Spat upon. Spat upon. They spat on my back. —Marcin Świetlicki “Spat Upon” I’m lying and staring at the ceiling. This city once was mine for about five minutes. —Marcin Świetlicki “Spat Upon (74)”83

In his series of poems “Spat Upon,” Spat Upon 2,” “Spat Upon (44),” and “Spat Upon (74),” Marcin Świetlicki appears as an apocalyptic Christ and meets his no-less-spectacular end between a multiplex cinema and a cemetery—all in nearly a single decade, from 1992 to 2003.84 Thus, his series comes across as a compressed self-reflection on the underground between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, between socialist modernity and capitalist postmodernity, staring in the face of pop. In the early 1990s, at an evening in Kraków to honor the Nobel laureate poet Czesław Miłosz, Świetlicki astonished the audience with his poem “Spat Upon” (“Opluty”). Instead of giving a conventional reading, he bellowed the lines of the opening verse—“one day this city will belong to me”—into the audience (Gmyz 2001), accompanied by his band, Świetliki (Fireflies). This fantasy of the poetic speaker’s violent occupation of the polis reenacts the thesis of the failure of utopian modernity, a notion integral to underground art. After this 83 All quotations from Świetlicki’s poetry translated by Alfrun Kliems. For the motto, see Świetlicki (2011, 150, 368). 84 Świetlicki’s band, founded in 1992, has played the songs “Spat Upon,” “Spat Upon 2,” and “Spat Upon (44)” in various versions at its concerts. In 1996 the poem “Spat Upon” was published in Świetlicki’s collection 37 Poems about Vodka and Cigarettes (37 wierszy o wódce i papierosach).


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metaphysical indication of the underground, “Spat Upon 2” and “Spat Upon (74)” reflected the underground’s own failure soon thereafter. This reflects a characteristic tendency manifested here in the games Świetlicki plays with the ever-skewed flâneur figure. This chapter will show the poetic speaker’s Christian contours against the backdrop of Polish literary tradition.

Anti-politics of the Concrete Marcin Świetlicki was born in 1961 and has lived in Kraków since the 1980s, where he studied Polish literature, dropped out of the university, completed his military service in the Polish People’s Army, and then scraped by in a number of jobs, including security guard, secretary, firefighter, and proofreader for the newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny. He published his first poems in the late 1970s in youth magazines such as Radar and later in underground magazines such as NaGłos, bruLion, and Arka. In 1992, he founded the post-punk band Świetliki and has since made a name for himself as a musician, crime fiction author, actor, and presenter. Today, this biography reads like a clichéd blurb about any pseudo-adventurous young author. But the important detail lies elsewhere: Świetlicki, just as Jacek Podsiadło, was a member of the bruLion group. And, as Podsiadło was, Świetlicki was quickly classified as an “O’Harist” and a “barbarian” after he referred to writing in service to the nation as the “poetry of slaves.” This statement earned him a “rebel” label and the distinction, whether accusation or complement, of being the “most prominent poet of the bruLion generation” (Dunin-Wąsowicz 2007, 227).85 The Polish underground magazine bruLion was first published in 1986. The word means notebook, scratchpad, or doodle. As a journal title, it evokes a sense of something unfinished, dashed off—aesthetic modes of production, then, that aim at authenticity and individuality. Spelling it bruLion or in English “scratchPad” also sparks associations with the French words brut (raw) and lion (lion)—and also brûler (to burn). The magazine set out to affront the Polish public by making the case for pornography, sexual revolution, and legalization of drugs; by burning books; and by printing a speech by Heinrich Himmler and an interview with a porn star—all of which amounted to flinging everything that was declared marginal and intolerable in the face of normative culture. According to Przemysław 85 My account on the bruLion generation draws on Klejnocki and Sosnowski (1996), Marecki et al. (2002), Klejnocki (2004), Wieczorek (2005), and Dunin-Wąsowicz (2005).

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Czapliński the idea was to confront the extreme (Czapliński 2002, 55). Karol Maliszewski writing in the magazine Nowy Nurt in 1995, called the bruLion poets “barbarians” (barbarzyńcy), a label that quickly stuck (Maliszewski 1999). The bruLion barbarians were opposed to—and loathed—what they saw as ethically and politically contaminated poetry as written by the poets of the New Wave (Nowa Fala) surrounding Stanisław Barańczak, Julian Kornhauser, and Adam Zagajewski. These poets, along with Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, and Jan Polkowski, were not spared the attacks of the bruLions. Thus Maliszewski, for instance, managed to rekindle a historical conflict, the nineteenth-century quarrel between the “classicists” (klasycyści) and the “romantics” (romantycy) (Klejnocki and Sosnowski 1996, 81–95). Meanwhile, Tomasz Burek coined a less-flattering epithet: the “New Polish School of Kitsch” (Śliwiński 2000, 14). The bruLion poets were criticized in part for undermining the Romantic paradigm in their poetry—in other words, for not connecting their work with the fate of the nation; for refusing to make the ethical commitment to bear witness in their writing; and for being unwilling to write “engaged literature.” Accordingly, the debate placed the bruLion poets in different categories: Marcin Baran, Krzysztof Koehler, and Artur Szlosarek were classicists; Tadeusz Pioro and Andrzej Sosnowski were avant-gardists; and Jacek Podsiadło and Marcin Świetlicki were O’Harists—a reference to the urban poetry of the American writer Frank O’Hara (Orska 1998). Krzysztof Koehler was among the first to apply the term “O’Harism” (o’haryzm) to Świetlicki’s poetry (Koehler 1990, 141–2). He accused it of lacking both aesthetic value and a national orientation, of abounding in rhetorical gestures, and of borrowing from pop. Even without fleshing out the concept of O’Harism with more specific poetic traits, in 1995 Maliszewski took it up in his attack on the barbarians. As he saw it, the barbarians were distinguished by their use of concrete language, references to private life, and incorporation of quotidian facts. Incidentally, Świetlicki later retaliated against Koehler, using the term “Koehlerism” (koehleryzm) (Świetlicki 1990, 39–41). As contentious as Świetlicki’s and Podsiadło’s O’Harist label may be, Joanna Niżyńska points out that the people so categorized felt charmed by the association: “the poets eagerly embraced it, whether as a sign of poetic cross-fertilization with the foreign, or as a performative gesture of removal from the native” (Niżyńska 2007, 464). But at the same time, the same poets drew inspiration from Rafał Wojaczek’s Turpism (Turpizm), which was a term coined from the Latin turpis (ugly), and from the Polish poètes maudits Andrzej Bursa and Edward Stachura. Marcin Baran poetically celebrated the bruLion writers—including himself—as “sensual mystics,” “verbal test pilots,” and “songsters of confession” (Ba-


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ran 2004, ii–iii). In this context, Małgorzata Warchol-Schlottmann pointed out Polish literature’s varying approaches to the use of slang. The barbarians, on the one hand, share a lively vernacular that strives to free itself from any lyrical service to the nation, or, to quote Świetlicki, from “slave poetry.” But one of the ways the poets of the Polish New Wave and the bruLion writers differ is the function of colloquial language in their work. While the New Wave still used slang to unmask the highly manipulative “official” language of state socialism, for writers such as Andrzej Bursa, Marek Hłasko, and Edward Stachura, common speech already served to characterize social environments such as those of vagrants, homeless people, and drunks (Warchol-Schlottmann 2009, 230). This is distinct from the bruLion poets, whose linguistic base coat was angrier and more aggressive. Readers and reviewers alike claimed to see in Świetlicki, even more than in his counterparts, an authenticity that he elevated to a poetic concept by consistently giving his protagonists an “underdog” role that hinted at the person of the author. Świetlicki was deliberate in blurring the borders between the stylized poet himself and his poet characters—not least by founding a band, which supplied musical accompaniment as he recited his poems on stage. In characterizing Świetlicki’s poetic agenda, Marian Stala also alludes to a pair of lines from 1992 about climbing the steps to the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science: “No metaphors: / an authentic story” (Świetlicki 2011, 58). For Stala, this vital verse exemplifies a private, “individual mythos” (Stala 1997, 193). Self-inflation beyond the shadow of a doubt. Likewise, Piotr Śliwiński describes the essence of Świetlicki’s early poems thus: “Resistance, opposition and claims to opposition, displayed arrogance, the famous un-joinability [in the original nieprzysiadalność], dysfunctionality, and an unwillingness to comply—these are the interchangeable qualities of his poems’ heroes” (Śliwiński 2002, 145). Śliwiński saw this spirit of rebellion disappearing in Świetlicki’s later collections—only to be replaced with a hubristic, autobiographical frustration in 1994’s deathly narcissistic volume of poetry, Schism (Schizma) (Śliwiński 2003, 3). That provoked Paweł Panas to defend Świetlicki’s authenticity and unswerving modernism (Panas 2005, 149). Świetlicki had committed the ultimate rebellion in 1988 with the poem “For Jan Polkowski” (“Dla Jana Polkowskiego”), which sparked a fierce dispute among the literary generations. The poem was read, and indeed intended, as a manifesto in verse, a frontal assault against the politically overwrought Poetry under Martial Law of the 1980s, which was a literary response to the declaration of martial law in Poland from 1981 to 1983 and the repression that followed. Among the authors of that group, the manifesto-poem singles out in its title Jan Polkowski, a member of the Generation of ‘76 who published in samizdat or

Anti-politics of the Concrete


in “second circulation” (drugi obieg). Poets such as Polkowski, Tomasz Jastrun, and Antoni Pawlak debuted in or around the founding year of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR). Polkowski, only eight years older than Świetlicki, was active in the Solidarność and had aesthetic affinities to the earlier New Wave. Świetlicki’s poem “For Jan Polkowski” ends as follows: Instead of saying: I have a toothache, I’m hungry, I’m lonely, both of us, four of us, our whole street—they say quietly: Wanda Wasilewska, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Józef Piłsudski, Ukraine, Lithuania, Thomas Mann, the Bible, and at the end a little something in Yiddish. If the dragon still lived in this city, they’d flatter the dragon to death—or hole up instead in some corner to write poems —little fists for threatening the dragon with. (Even love poems would be written in a dragon alphabet…) I look the dragon straight in the eye and shrug my shoulders. It’s June. That’s obvious. There was a thunderstorm here this afternoon. Dusk will fall first into the perfectly square city squares. (Świetlicki 2000, 278–9; translated by William Martin)

Although Świetlicki himself considers his poem “For Jan Polkowski” an unsuccessful poem, it is an illustration of Świetlicki’s “anti” attitude—nonchalant, caustic, resigned, and defiant all at once—that earned him the label of an “engaged outsider” (Czapliński and Śliwiński 1999, 297). In the 1995 poetry collection Cold Countries 2 (Zimne kraje 2), incidentally, he would compose a reply to the discussion, renaming the poem “Not for Jan Polkowski” (“Nie dla Jana Polkowskiego”) (Wickowski 1997, 111; Orska 2006, 112–3). On behalf of the personal and the concrete, his poem “For Jan Polkowski” lodges an appeal in favor for preserving the subtle things of reality rather than subsuming them into political causes such as “liberation.” He rejects mystical “reality” of nationhood, defies the subordination of love itself to issues of power, and finally, dismisses the mythological murmur of allusions, which he instead satirizes here. The writer Wanda Wasilewska, who was accused of being a Soviet collaborator and propagandist of Socialist Realism, is juxtaposed against the Romantic ideal of the exiled poet, Norwid, a pioneer of modernism and an ardent ad-


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mirer of Charles Baudelaire. They are followed by Józef Piłsudski, the marshaldictator of the Second Republic. Next, as a sign of Świetlicki’s political stance toward the East—and an invocation of an eternal source of phantom pain for Poles—comes “Ukraine, Lithuania,” the lost Eastern Borderlands (Kresy). Then we have Thomas Mann as a shibboleth of cosmopolitan education, followed by the indispensable Bible in the discourse of the messiah to the nations. And finally, “at the end a little something in Yiddish,” as if glorifying memory could set anything right or as if it were ever right to begin with. This is genuine mischief, and is inflated further still with a reference to the old Polish myth of the girl-eating dragon under the Wawel Cathedral. However, for Świetlicki, the poetic nation, in its ridiculous gesture of protest or submission that extends into the language, wasn’t able to escape. And the poetic “I”? He shrugs and states the obvious: “It’s June.” A sunny month, but for the thunderstorm, the dusk, and the “perfectly square city squares.” Yet the seasonal reference, the storm mentioned in passing, and the evening twilight are in fact taking a potshot at the ironic, moralizing tradition to which Polkowski belongs; it specifically targets the best-known poem of the Poetry under Martial Law literary scene, Zbigniew Herbert’s “Report from the Besieged City” (“Raport z oblężonego Miasta”), published in 1982. If Herbert’s poem speculates when “the siege” began, either “two centuries ago” (with the partitions of Poland), in September 1939, or in December 1981 to evoke the eternal victimhood of Poland (“we here are all suffering from the loss of a sense of time”), Świetlicki replies with the succinctly callous: “It’s June. That’s obvious.” Herbert’s speaker takes an evening walk, lamenting Poland’s constant suffering under an endless series of “barbarians,” betrayed and forgotten by the world: “the Goths the Tatars the Swedes the Emperor’s troops regiments of Our Lord’s Transfiguration / who could count them.” In contrast, “For Jan Polkowski” restricts itself to: “There was a thunderstorm here this afternoon.” And Świetlicki’s speaker maliciously points out that the bourgeois parks are the first to drop away in the darkness. Summarizing the classifications of Świetlicki’s poem, Dariusz Pawelec stresses that the allusion to Herbert concludes a particularly deliberate departure from discussing political subjects in poetry. He writes that Świetlicki pushes sarcasm to the point of categorically refusing to consider ethical questions in poetic communication (Pawelec 1999).86 This final point seems dubious, however. 86 See his statement: “In the Polish poetry of the 80s Marcin Świetlicki’s poem is the sum of the reception of Herbert’s ‘Report from a Besieged City.’ In the sphere of aesthetic possibilities his text stylized the contaminated poetics of Herbert and Polkowski. Parallelisms,

Anti-politics of the Concrete


Herbert, a member of the Generation of ‘56, constructs his poetry around neoclassical borrowings: echoes of the myths of Antiquity and the pathos of the heroic. Take this example, in “Report from a Besieged City”: cemeteries are growing the number of defenders shrinking but the defense continues and it will continue to the end and if the City falls and one man survives he will carry the City inside him on the paths of exile he will be the City we look into hunger’s face the face of fire face of death the worst of all—the face of betrayal and only our dreams have not been humiliated (Herbert 2007, 417–8; translated by Alissa Valles)

In other words, a sole survivor is enough to maintain “the City,” even in a foreign land, in exile: “he will be the City.” This one person will carry the spark of civilization away from the barbarian hordes and re-kindle it elsewhere or back at home. What Świetlicki argues for aesthetically is not this agon of ethics, this pathos of an anthem of resistance—although he is also shaking off its high-minded tone. Nor is he calling for the apotheosis of the individual. In fact, he wants to retain, even insist upon, both. For while Herbert’s “one” escapee is a random man whose survival derives its value from his reduction to the metonymy of the collective, Świetlicki cares only about “his” skin: “his” being the indistinguishable poetic speaker, empirical author, and media artist, as discussed above. In short, he’s concerned with the universal individual and his contradictory life as a counterpoint to survival in the service of the collective. He pits the radically individualist, concretistic strain of the Romantic era against its collectivist, abstract strain. He is primarily rejecting the “us” and “ours” of dreams—but not, as Pawelec claims, the underlying pathos. Whereas Świetlicki calls Poetry under Martial Law the “poetry of slaves,” provoking accusations of cynicism, his poetics are anything but lower-case cynical. In fact, they exemplify laconic upper-case Cynicism (in the ancient Greek sense) as an ethical stance. At its core, this is a heroism that is close to the concept of the hero, a demigod with absolute individuality. Also, and perhaps for this reason, Świetlicki’s poetry refrains from envisioning the city as a refuge and code word for civilization, let alone a place worth preserving. repetitions, and combinations intensify the ironic diction, which glide into sarcasm” (Pawelec 1999, 179).


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The City, the Underground, and Christ “It is perhaps the concreteness of the names coupled with the sense of synchronized motion—a certain paradoxical harmony between the city’s everyday cacophony, the speaker’s physical rush, and the movement of his thoughts,” writes Joanna Niżyńska about Frank O’Hara’s urban poetics (Niżyńska 2007, 474). By names, she means O’Hara’s insertion of cigarette brands, train timetables, and retail signs that offer a “peephole” into the “zeitgeist” of New York. O’Hara’s poetry, with its radical focus on personal experience, everyday moments, impressions, and subjectivity, inspired a number of young Polish poets who had been seeking alternatives to the national Romantic paradigm, especially after several translations appeared in Poland in 1986. One of those poets was Świetlicki. His cities are also in motion. The poems are focused on superficial urban space, its denizens, and the observing speaker in its midst. Yet unlike O’Hara, he accords a much more important, even crucial role to introspection. Świetlicki’s speaker broadens the view of the city, but not of himself, implanting himself within the “urban rush” to give his thoughts a reflexive energy. Describing this self-exclusion from the intense bustle of the contemporary city, Świetlicki coined the term nieprzysiadalność, which Piotr Śliwiński refers to in his characterization above. The coinage translates as something like “unapproachability” or “un-joinability” a kind of post-café aloofness practiced by someone who prefers to sit alone in public. The word’s cumbersomeness mirrors the attitude it signifies—and yet it has entered Polish slang. As an urban history of the underground, Świetlicki’s “Spat Upon” series therefore combines the reductionism of Frank O’Hara with the poetics of the interwar Polish Skamander school, specifically the style and subject matter of Julian Tuwim. At the same time, the poems’ Christian associations recall Edward Stachura, the legendary eccentric poet and songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s who became a cult figure for alternative youth after his suicide in 1979. “Spat Upon” goes beyond the poetic speaker’s self-exclusion and, inverting it, relates a fantasy of the subject seizing, appropriating, and subordinating the city: One day this city will belong to me. But for now I walk around. For now I look around. For now I sharpen my knife. Put it on—take off my knuckles. Spat upon. Spat upon. They spat on my back. But I ignore it—I walk around the city.

The City, the Underground, and Christ


I walk around the city: Planty Park, Szewska Street, Main Square. I walk around the city: Main Square—Szewska Street—Planty Park. Spat upon. Spat upon. SPATUPONSPATUPONSPATUPONSPATUPONSPATUPON… One day this city will belong to me. But for now I walk around, look around. But for now    nothing. Then one day on the Vistula river a pirate ship will sail with five mastheads and twenty guns. And they’ll ask: —Which one’s Świetlicki? And then I’ll stand in the middle of the market and I’ll point my finger: —That one. That one. That one. That one. That one. That girl. Kill this one. Snuff her out. This man. This girl. EVERYONE! KrakówandNowaHuta. SodomandGomorrha. FromSodomtoGomorrha youtakethetram. I walk around the city. I walk around the city. Spat upon. Spat upon. Spat upon… (Świetlicki 2011, 150–1; spelling in the original, translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Like Herbert, Świetlicki presumes an urban state of emergency, but he puts the shoe on the other foot: his city is the attacker, not the victim. Instead of being imagined as a metonymic survivor, the One is metaphorically the object of humiliation and the avenger at once. We are supposed to imagine not a happy


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idealist amidst unhappiness, but someone with dreams of vigilante justice, a self-righteous egomaniac gone mad. Has he even been spat upon? Or is he just paranoid about whatever might be happening behind his back? In contrast to Herbert’s “look into hunger’s face the face of fire face of death,” his victimhood is an ontological one, evoked by the city rather than projected upon the city as code for humanity. There arises a twice invoked, twice violated allusion to Christ. It emerges from the One’s coupling of the humiliation and justice topoi then is immediately concealed in the grotesque distortion of the New Testament story of suffering paired with apocalyptic purification à la Bertolt Brecht’s Pirate Jenny of the Threepenny Opera (Dreigroschenoper), premiered in 1928: They’ll run in evr’y door and grab the first man they see, they’ll throw them in chains and they’ll drag them to me and ask me, “should we kill ‘em or free ‘em?” They’ll ask me, “should we kill ‘em or free ‘em?” As the clock strikes noon there’s not a sound in the harbor when they ask which ones have to die. And then loud and clear you’ll hear me saying: “All of ‘em!” And when your heads roll, I’ll say: “Whoops there!” And that fifty-gun galleon keeps its eight sails awaving till it’s vanished with me… (Weill and Brecht 2000, 16–8; translated by Michael Feingold)

Brecht employs subtle, sinister sardonicism and drops hints about ambiguities such as the true nature of Jenny’s humiliations or the ship’s flag, which is only identified in the title “Pirate Jenny.” In contrast, Świetlicki’s adaptation seems to be foaming at the mouth, overexplicit, simultaneously redundant, and stripped down in its imagery. The poetic subject, with his overt madness, is unreliable. Both aspects suit the subject matter. Jenny’s social-revolutionary dreams of revenge remain in the realm of the possible and therefore retain the ease of the penultimate. Świetlicki’s lyrical violent fantasy deals with the finality of destiny, compounding its impact through the intertextual contrast. Jenny has a name, a place—the hotel—and a prospect for the future: the freedom of the sea. Świetlicki’s unnamed post-flâneur runs around armed, unlike Jenny, with brass knuckles and a knife but with no goal beyond the destruction he longs for. Destruction is a goal of its own. Redemption, not liberation: the Apocalypse. Hence, the poem drags the Imitation of Christ, the kenotic model for “automatism of humiliation and resurrection” (Uffelmann 2010, 18), all the way from the demand for nationhood down to the poetic speaker. This twists and oversimplifies Christ from global savior to mere judge and apocalyptic selfredeemer. A speaker given such a Christian inflation can neither be taken seriously nor surpassed in seriousness. The poem portrays an “absolute” subject

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reduced to his private rage, one who experiences his apotheosis in that very rage. The city to be destroyed is the inverse of the characters. For Brecht, it remains a nameless dream-symbol for human circumstances. Świetlicki gives the urban backdrop eschatological freight by merging it with Sodom and Gomorrah; at the same time, as an O’Harist, he concretely names Kraków and its Stalinist retort of a suburb, Nowa Huta. Nowa Huta sprouted as a proletarian socialist “corrective” to bourgeois Kraków. It is comparable to other industrial cities in East-Central Europe such as Stalinstadt (later Eisenhüttenstadt) in the former East Germany or Sztálin­ város (later Dunaújváros) in Hungary. They all have an intended symbolic value for their era, which was ambivalently fulfilled in each of them. And their social structures are all dominated by blue-collar workers who arrived from rural areas, causing “under-urbanization,” to use Iván Szelényi’s term (Szelényi 1996, 294). Paired with conservative, Catholic Kraków, Nowa Huta constitutes a broad symbol for Poland old and new. Unlike Zbigniew Herbert’s “City,” Nowa Huta does not just represent the “genuine” Poland, it blurs the supposedly clear distinction between old and new in one fell typographical swoop: “Sodom and Gomorrah.” This is further underscored by the speaker’s intracity tram ride. Finally, given the contextual awareness of “Spat Upon,” the poem should also be read in light of the 1918 poem “Christ of the City” (“Chrystus miasta”) by the aforementioned Skamandrite Julian Tuwim. Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz has proposed classifying the bruLion poets as successors of the poets who gathered around the journal Skamander in the 1920s, pointing out their commonalities. Both groups broke with traditional national piety and poetic patriotism and were fascinated with vitalism and unbridled expression but refrained from adopting any one binding artistic agenda. Tuwim, the Warsaw poet among the Skamandrites, provoked a literary scandal in 1918 with his early poem “Spring” (“Wiosna”), which portrayed the metropolis’s spring awakening as an unfettered, pagan rite, bursting with indecent sexuality—a vision that offended his contemporaries. The poem drew an ecstatic image of a city in heat. Aesthetically, it united formal virtuosity with thematic plainness, thus postulating that anything was sayable, portrayable, and acceptable, from the most trivial to the most base. In turn, “Christ of the City” casts the urbanites—who in Świetlicki’s hands remain an amorphous “they” behind the protagonist’s back—as an ambiguous multitude of sinners and the disgraced who, in orgiastic unison, stomp out a wilde dance on a bridge:


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They danced on the bridge, They danced all night. Roughnecks, butchers, destitutes, Hanged men, thieves and prostitutes, Syphilitics, cutthroats, losers, Scoundrels, and vodka boozers. They danced on the bridge, They danced until dawn. Beggars and bitches, Madmen and snitches, They danced on the street

As in Świetlicki’s “Spat Upon,” one person, a stranger, stands out among them and sparks their initial fury: “They scowled at him, / They shrugged, / They spat.” A drunkard drew near, slurred out, “Who are you?” But he remained silent. Magdalene drew near: She knew him, she told them… He wept… It became quiet. They whispered something. Fell down. Wept. (Tuwim 2004, 64–5; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Four times, they ask “Who are you?” but the stranger holds his tongue, receiving their spittle and their threats—until Mary Magdalene, from among the mob, finally recognizes him, and he starts to weep, whereupon the rest of the people on the bridge erupt in tears. The poem closes with this image of crowds on their knees before the Christ they had taken for an enemy—a reconciliation between Dionysian ecstasy and civilized self-control. Their representatives, Christ and Dionysus, stem from the mythical depths of the urban (Głowinski 1962, 240–51). Świetlicki’s version is another story. His Christ, armed with brass knuckles and a knife and reduced to an apocalyptic avenger, also has patience—but he is not waiting to reconcile with or to heal the masses. He is awaiting the day his poetic subject takes power over the city and its annihilation. This is joined by Świetlicki’s self-stylization as Kraków’s provocative enfant terrible, which has

Spat Out: Après nous, le pop?


no correspondence in Tuwim’s work and marks the shift from the avant-garde to the underground. This performative element, which deliberately muddies the distinction between the author and the speaker, compounds the poetic affront of the Messiah allusion as well as the fear provoked by the poem’s uninhibited aggressiveness. This heightens the divisive and non-conciliatory impulse in Świetlicki’s aesthetic, which seeks out the poem’s summoned destruction if not of the city directly, then of any tranquility remaining for those “besieged”— which would then, following Herbert’s logic, destroy the metonymic city once and for all.

Spat Out: Après nous, le pop? If Świetlicki’s poetry was said to have conjured a “new privacy,” this seems redundantly overexplicit. At most, the word “new” can represent a new version of something, not an outright disconnect. Such a disconnect would be contradicted by the “privacies” of Tuwim, Bursa, and Stachura, all three poets with abiding appeal, especially for the underground. Paweł Próchniak affirms the tie to Bursa, attributing a “youthful imagination” to both Bursa and Świetlicki and calling them “a little naïve because of their trust and simplemindedness, but at the same time brutal, enraged, and—most importantly—passionate” (Próchniak 2001, 51). Second, this supposed “privacy” is mistaken. Świetlicki’s drive, his mission, and his aesthetic technique are radically directed toward a public impact. His intentions are genuinely political; he is agitating for no less than a revolt. If “Spat Upon” is a battle cry for a rebellion, for an annihilating uprising and the exclusive domination of the subject, the articles of surrender were signed just a few years later. Both are rare documents among the underground’s gestures of desperation. In 1996, Świetlicki’s band Świetliki recorded the song “Spat Upon 2” for the studio album Cacy Cacy Meat Machine (Cacy Cacy Fleisch­ maschine). It contains the panicked capitulation: “I’m leaving.” The paranoia remains, but the aggression has been redirected inward, before morphing into an urge to escape. In the song’s lyrics, as in Zbigniew Herbert’s claim about the Western powers in “Report from a Besieged City,” the buccaneers have failed to show up: I was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong. This city will never be mine.


Christ Quieted

I was wrong. This city will never be mine. I was wrong. The city really belongs to Grzegorz Turnau, Zbigniew Preisner, and priest Tischner. I was wrong. This city will never be mine. I was wrong. The city really belongs to the pigeons the sightseeing tours. I was wrong. I was wrong. I don’t walk around anymore. I ride. I ride around in taxis. I ride around in taxis. I was wrong. I was wrong. Please, don’t look at me. Please, don’t look at me, I’m leaving. Please, don’t talk to me, I’m leaving. I was wrong. This city is everywhere. This city will never be mine. I was wrong… (Świetlicki 1996; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Most crucial, to begin with, is the list of the victors. The pigeons, the aerial rats of any city, give the poem a mangy element. Ridiculing commercialized, street-clogging mass tourism is standard practice for an urban intellectual, but that makes the text even more revealing. Grzegorz Turnau is a popular Krakówbased songwriter; Zbigniew Preisner writes internationally successful neoromantic film scores. The priest, theologian, and philosopher Józef Tischner was a pioneer of the Solidarność and a critical intellectual and moral authority in capitalist Poland. In short, the city that Świetlicki’s poetic “I” once claimed to possess now belongs to “conventional” dissidents, commerce, and (in his view) shallow entertainment. The spectrum is so broad that it preserves the earlier claim of taking a stand against everyone. Yet at the same time, it is tacitly narrow, encompassing only a handful of unusually successful (public) figures. The rebel who has been demoted from desperado-flâneur to taxi passenger—quintessential roles for a failed artist or intellectual—in fact represents a nameless, ahistorical majority. Indeed, it was the same nameless, ahistorical crowd that, in “Spat Upon,” both spouted the animus and was that hatred’s target. At first glance, we have lost his sup-

Christ Quieted


posed exceptionalism (“Please, don’t look at me.” / “Please, don’t talk to me.”) and his thirst for a fight (“I was wrong.” / “I’m leaving.”). But let us glance again. The self-abasement of the poetic speaker in “Spat Upon 2” arguably has Christian connotations. He has not lost anything in the masses he has encountered and does not want a part in them any more than before—he wants to be an absolute subject, no longer spat upon, simply ignored. This goes along with the two poems’ formal kinship, which comes into focus when we compare them with a third poem from the series, “Spat Upon (74)” from 2003: This city once was mine. But no longer is. I no longer walk around, I no longer drive around, I’m lying. I’m lying and staring at the ceiling. This city once was mine for about five minutes. Once this city was mine. Now it belongs again to the old men and the youngsters of Generation NOTHING. They hire each other fuck each other, the old men and the youngsters of Generation NOTHING. I no longer walk around, I’m lying, behind the window they built me a multiplex cinema, on the other side the cemetery expands slowly in my direction. Once this city was mine. Not anymore. (Świetlicki 2011, 368; capitals in the original, translated by Alfrun Kliems)


Christ Quieted

“Spat Upon” is told in a present tense couched as “preliminary” yet dominated by the future, of the extinction fantasy. The Polish verb tenses in “Spat Upon 2,” meanwhile, are in the past. “Spat Upon (74)” retains none of the future, or at best hints at it with the image of the overgrown cemetery. Instead, the simple past (“Once this city was mine”) has dominated just as the “I” is paralyzed. This twofold tendency of immobilization and futurelessness, along with a major drop-off from the second poem to the third, corresponds to a withdrawal of rhetorical energy. In “Spat On (74),” the expressive chain of repetitions is dialed down to a mere reverberation, and this instrument of energizing, highly obsessive, redundant loops falls apart. The first poem generates its basic mood of manic aggression through repetition—first a whispered litany, then an upper-case bellow—of the word “spat upon” along with the refrains of “I walk around the city” and “SodomandGomorrha,” each repeated once or several times. By contrast, “Spat Upon 2” pares down the statements while inflating the now-desperate mania further still by repeating, ad nauseam, “I was wrong” and “This city will never be mine,” using anaphora in nearly all subsequent stanzas. All that remains of these in “Spat Upon (74)” is the latter statement, as well as the fourfold claim that “Once this city was mine.” Less haunting are the duplication of “the old men and the youngsters of the generation NOTHING” and the loss of mobility, entombed in bed. These are just sufficient to establish the poems’ kinship and the speaker’s identity, thus opening up the rhetorical lacuna. Only then do we perceive the erasure of the manic aggression—and of the poetic speaker himself. Expelled from a multiplex movie theater, he receives a warm welcome by the cemetery, which takes him in prematurely like an exhausted man gazing at the ceiling of a burial chamber. Even the retrospective victory and the former ownership of the city are diminished by the pithy line “for about five minutes”: it no longer makes a difference. Christ is not returning, neither to avenge nor to redeem. Where did he fail? Trenchantly, in a triumph of clichés, the music videos of the poems’ song versions reinforce these conclusions for the first and second poems. The black-and-white video of “Spat Upon” shows Świetlicki alternately reciting the poem on stage, his face reflected in a shard of a mirror, and riding the tramline to Nowa Huta. “Conventional” signifiers of Kraków are scarce. Meanwhile, the video of “Spat Upon 2” is bathed in warm shades of yellow, guiding us with clip-art-like cuts through touristy nighttime Kraków and the empty morning streets. The video captures two clips straight from a travel brochure: the Main Market Square (Rynek) and Wawel Castle.

Spat Out: Après nous, le pop?


In the poem “Spat Upon (74),” the dying speaker’s last glimpse of the new cityscape is of the consumer-optimized multiplex cinema. The videos of the two poems before could not possibly be further apart. But catchy consumability is equally characteristic of Grzegorz Turnau’s songs, Zbigniew Preisner’s film music, and even many of Józef Tischner’s reflections on ethics. Those stand for the “old-timers,” and the subject of “Spat Upon 2” feels trapped between them and the “boys” from Generation Nothing (Generacja Nic), as between the cemetery and the multiplex movie theater. The term Generation Nothing harkens back to an essay by the leader of the punk band Cool Kids of Death, Jakub “Kuba” Wandachowicz, born in 1975, which was published in early September 2002 in the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and provoked a heated debate. Both the topoi and aesthetic techniques of Generation Nothing resemble approximately contemporaneous movements: Generation Golf in Germany and Viktor Pelevin’s Generation P in Russia (Schwartz 2016). The main themes were aesthetic superficiality; social disinterest; brands and consumer culture; withdrawal into individualism, careerism, drug use, and conformism; ubiquitous hedonism in the West; a capitalist battle to survive in the West; and, more generally, the lived realities of people born in the 1970s who were severed from the certainties of the world they were raised in. Identifiable poetic antecedents include American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. In the account of his generation’s situation, Wandachowicz lamented the “dangerous lack of ideas” in art that subordinates itself to the “anonymous customer” as if to an “idol,” art whose producers have been pressed directly into commercial advertising—a recurring trope of the new disgust toward the “ongoing stupidity” (Wandachowicz 2002). This is not the place to go into a diagnosis of the times that have emerged since the turn of the century, which often tie into Max Horkheimer’s and Theo­ dor Adorno’s “culture industry,” usually unintentionally and always with reduced complexity. In the case of Świetlicki and the underground, the ambiguity is only twofold. First, there is the irony that after the accusations of individualism and barbarity, the poem “Spat Upon (74)” accepts the “superficial” and the “NOTHING” as labels for a radical, utilitarian subjectivism. It also reflects this in a poetics with a hyper-concrete compulsion to name-drop and to peddle experiences. Second, and more importantly, Świetlicki’s poetry does not simply decry the underground’s difficult relationship with pop; instead, it mirrors it through Świetlicki’s choice of images and motifs, his rhetorical style, and his pragmatic contradictions. “Spat Upon (74)” and both preceding poems have long become videos for public consumption on YouTube. In other words, the distinction between “Spat Upon” and Grzegorz Turnau and Józef Tischner no longer exists.


Christ Quieted

The exclusion is so omnipresent that it makes anyone who talks about it a fool. And the inclusion is so conciliatory that only a fool could deny it. On one level, Sascha Seiler writes, pop poems directly invoke famous names, film titles, quotes, labels, and advertising slogans—as does Świetlicki’s best-known “brand poem,” “McDonald’s” (1996). On a second level, pop poems extract and popularize a “rebel without a cause” attitude from the effect-laden, provocative underground repertoire. And on a third level, pop poems (as lyrics) can take on an independent life of their own, as with those of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits (Seiler 2008, 156–7). In short, everything is or becomes pop, or else it dies off. The revolt never yields what it hopes for. It is supremely subjective and senseless—subjectively absolute.

The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation: Jacek Podsiadło’s Road Story en Route to Bratislava And suddenly we knew that we would go to Bratislava, to Egon, the bright reference point on the gloomy firmament of our youth, who with his shiny red polka-dot tie lit up many a dark night. —Jacek Podsiadło, “Total and Realistic Thanksgiving Pilgrimage”87

Thus, in the style of an epiphany, begins Polish writer Jacek Podsiadło’s story of a fictitious pilgrimage to Bratislava to find Egon Bondy, the one-time guiding spirit of the Prague underground. Bondy had moved to Slovakia in protest of the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Podsiadło’s story was published in 2008 and turns out to be a series of reflections about Bondy, writing, art in general, cowboys and Indians, friendship, chance and death, a neighbor with her leg in a cast, Bratislava, and the joy that can come from the unreserved admiration evoked in the story’s whole title: “Total and Realistic Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to the Holy Relics of Egon Bondy, Father of our Fathers and Apostle of Healing Work, in the Year of Our Lord 1352 According to the Rhaeto-Romanic Calendar” (“Podróż dziękczynno-błagalna, totalna i realistyczna do świętych relikwii Egona Bondy’ego, Ojca Ojców naszych i apostoła uzdrawiającej pracy, roku Pańskiego 1352 według numeracji retorumuńskiej”). The first-person narrator never does get to meet the underground legend Bondy, founder of Total Realism, however. At least not in person. As I will show in the following, what does take place is an aesthetic exchange between two poetologies, as a dialogue between two generations and, last but not least, as a dialogue between underground and pop. This chapter also connects, in a broader sense, to the topic of youth culture, understood here as “the young” allegedly taking over the reins from “the old.” Jacek Podsiadło is almost thirty-five years younger than Egon Bondy and stands for the underground of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like Świetlicki, Podsiadło emerged from the Polish bruLion formation, whose underground poetics as represented in the magazine of the same name linked to pop culture 87 All citations from Podsiadło’s short story “Total and Realistic Thanksgiving Pilgrimage” translated by Donna Stonecipher. For the motto, see Podsiadło (2008, 245).


The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation

more strongly than earlier generations had done. For Podsiadło’s generation, the Czech poet Bondy, whose underground activity dates back to the 1950s, was, however, still a “shining light.” Bondy’s spell as an idol of an alternative youth remains unbroken, as can be seen in the above quote from Podsiadło’s story.88 This chapter will also explore the poetics of failure inherent in the underground, and more specifically, Podsiadło’s subversion of the “Bondy” trope through a show of grotesque hero-worship. Podsiadło, who belongs to the same generation as Topol and Stasiuk, revives the figure of Bondy as the destination of his road story in order to ask whether Bondy’s poetics still have something to say. He answers his own question poetologically by using mild paradox to subvert Bondy’s literary methods. Podsiadło’s narrative can be read as a fictionalized reflection on the continuity and discontinuity between the underground and pop culture, both of which figure here as potentially subversive forms of expression before and after the political and social upheavals following 1989. In an equally programmatic way, Podsiadło’s travel essay has two generations of the underground miss each other for the sake of launching a poetological discussion about the underground and its absorption or destruction by pop culture. Jacek Podsiadło was born in 1964 and rambled around Poland for years, trying his hand as a farm laborer in Masuria, as a security guard in Warsaw, and as a journalist for Radio Opole. He belongs, along with Andrzej Stasiuk and Marcin Świetlicki, to the younger group of writers who published in the above-mentioned underground magazine bruLion, founded in Kraków in 1986. Podsiadło’s mystification of the “Bondy” figure also makes use of an aesthetic of the seemingly unfinished, the hastily scrawled. These are techniques programmatically employed by the bruLion writers in order to create the impression of authenticity and individuality. Piotr Śliwiński identified the keywords of his poetry as love and path combined as “on the path—to love” (Śliwiński 2002, 154). Although his devotional poem “Confession” (“Konfesata”) was less controversial than Świetlicki’s “For Jan Polkowski”, it shows the general direction of his poetry, diverging from Świetlicki’s work in its deeply felt religiosity and a dithyrambic style (Śliwiński 2001, 158). Although Podsiadło may well have been more visible as a poet, his narrative mystification of the Bondy figure employs a similar aesthetic of the seemingly unfinished or dashed-off—techniques that the bruLion writers used deliberately to stage their own stylized authenticity and individuality. Just as deliberately,

88 Bondy was well known in Poland. See, for instance, the remarks on Bondy and his reception in Poland by Szczygieł (2010) and Parfianowicz-Vertun (2013).

On the Road to Bratislava


his travologue has two generations of the underground miss each other, poetologically postulating the underground’s survival in the guise of pop.

On the Road to Bratislava In 2008, Podsiadło came out with the short-story collection The Life and in Particular the Death of Angélique de Sancé (Życie, a zwłaszcza śmierć Angeliki de Sancé). The title’s allusion to the popular and schmaltzy historical novels Anne Golon published between 1956 and 1985 is to be understood as programmatically ironic. Podsiadło draws on the chronotope of wandering, where the journey itself is the goal, for the encounter, or rather non-encounter, between his characters. It is less a matter here of covering the distance between A and B than it is about a life on the road. The terms path and journey already had a manifest presence in Podsiadło’s poetry. His globetrotters, we might say, are all anti-tourists. His road story “Total and Realistic Thanksgiving Pilgrimage” inscribes itself into the tradition of the genre that has dominated the literatures of East-Central Europe for two decades: around the same time as Podsiadło’s story takes place, the Czech writer Jáchym Topol set out for Wołowiec to visit the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk (Topol 2007). Stasiuk’s autobiographical work How I Became a Writer (Jak zostałem pisarzem) from 1998, in turn, is itself shot through with the narrative devices of the underground.89 Podsiadło sends his first-person narrator and his friends on an imaginary literary road trip to Bratislava, where the older Bondy lives. His story begins with a reflection about writing novels, about the authenticity of the written word, and what it feels like to be a character in a novel. The first-person narrator wants to write a road movie, which is why he sets out on his journey in the first place. He starts out in the company of a certain Patison, who is “submerged in his reading of the typescript like a garden cucumber in vinegar” (Podsiadło 2008, 241). Patison is then replaced by Młody, “the young one,” Śliwa, “the plum,” and Księżniczka Pankroka, “Princess Punk Rock.” The group travels in an old Mitsubishi, which is given the name Cherry Rocket (Wiśniowa Rakieta). Cherry

89 Only a few examples for the fetish of being on the road through East-Central Europe are Wolfgang Herrndorf ’s German novel Tschick (2010), Jáchym Topol’s road story City Sister Silver (Sestra, 1994), Andrzej Stasiuk’s On the Road to Babadag (Jadąc do Babadag, 2005), Miljenko Jergović’s Freelander (2007), and Iva Pekárková’s Truck Stop Rainbow (1989).


The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation

Rocket functions as a space and time capsule with a pile of unread books by and about Bondy on board, along with an adequate supply of beer. Even the occasion for the trip is absurd: the young Poles receive a text message informing them that a friend offered his seat to Egon Bondy on the tram yesterday. So the group hits the road, since it was Egon who had once inspired the bruLion friends “with his mystical presence” to abandon their trip to Mount Carmel as quickly as possible for a beer—or else they all would have likely become “altar boys in white socks” (2008, 245). The Poles had wanted to visit Bondy once before; that time they had made an appointment with him, but they ended up not going. An appointment, after all, is the “enemy of freedom and improvisation” (2008, 247). Bondy had waited for them with opened bottles, but: “we failed.” This time, they set off without an appointment, but with the goal of “paying their homage directly to Egon Bondy,” on a pilgrimage to the “place consecrated by Egon Bondy’s presence” (2008, 245). In Olomouc they meet an “Interesting Person” (Ciekawy Człowiek), a reference to a popular TV format that the Club of Polish Losers in Berlin also co-opts, as we will see in more detail at the end of the book. The “Interesting Person” initiates a further leitmotif of Podsiadło’s road story: the (male) characters’ enthusiasm for cowboys and Indians. The former are said to sleep with their heads on cactuses with their horses as blankets. And didn’t Old Shatterhand, lying flat on the ground with his Winchester on his knees, shoot dead many of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savages” (niewinny dzikus) hidden in the bushes? As a matter of fact, he did not. Ruptures and cracks like this, unreliable narration and amalgamations—in this case of lager-than-life images of the Wild West—characterize Posiadło’s amplification of clichés. This is particularly true when he introduces the cliché patriarch Karl May, who was one of the first figures to walk the line between formulaic fiction and self-fashioning as a pop-culture figure. In Olomouc, the narrator thus chooses an appropriately oversignified name: Dziadzia Benito, Grandpa Benito. This is followed by a longer passage on the meaning of names, which are said to make a person more than himself: “I associate this name with the proud Benito Juárez” (2008, 250). The Mexican freedom fighter again evokes a novel by Karl May—and subtly denounces its political implications. Citing the figure of Juárez also recalls Bondy’s method of Total Realism, given that Benito Mussolini was named after Juárez. Today of course, the narrator muses soon thereafter, he would rather be called “Vaudeville Bill from Louisiana” (2008, 250). In other words, business, the market, and the state run together in the same authoritarianism. Freedom always becomes perverted and every underground ends up as pop culture—while every form of pop cul-

Podsiadło and Bondy: Modes and Idolatry of the Underground and Pop Culture 137

ture has its own underground content. Posiadło’s trivia contains far-reaching reflections about his own methods and contexts. The journey continues. Slovakia proves to be a paradise as in a “Slovak video clip” (2008, 250). Beer is overabundant and the sun is shining. The Poles on their way to “Bondy” sit around killing time in Bratislava’s cafés and beer bars in the great “inland port” (2008, 251) of Bratislava. In a bar they meet Retoroman, a friend with roots in Romania who is described as a Gypsy. Together they pay backhanded homage to the hippie movement: We climb onto our hobby horses, each onto his own, and float in the smoky air. For a moment we are eternal hippies and their shirts made out of the flowery curtains they stole from their own mothers. I go into raptures, unbutton my shirt, and brandish my chest and the Young’un says I could win any folk festival just with my looks […]. (Podsiadło 2008, 251)

Soon after, they realize that they left Bondy’s address behind in Poland. But then they run into his neighbor, whose leg is in a cast, on Bratislava’s market square, and she takes them with her. Bondy is not home. However, the group is not disappointed at all—on the contrary. After meeting the woman from the apartment below Bondy, they are excited also to meet his next-door neighbor, who lives wall-to-wall with their idol. And they take the opportunity to film Bondy’s mailbox. Looking for somewhere to sleep for the night, they end up at a cemetery complete with a crematorium and escape from there into the urban wilderness of Central Europe. For lack of a cactus and a horse, Podsiadło’s narrator rests his head on a molehill and covers himself with a map of Bratislava. The next day he returns to Poland, again after a series of detours. “The times are confused. The trails are twisted. The shadows deep” (2008, 261).

Podsiadło and Bondy: Modes and Idolatry of the Underground and Pop Culture Podsiadło’s “Total and Realistic Thanksgiving Pilgrimage” is highly associative on several levels: phonetically, metaphorically, and in terms of its content and writing strategy. It oscillates between a forced banality in imitation of Bondy’s Total Realism, friendly irony, and a certain religious and philosophical aura. There are allusions to war songs from the time of the Warsaw Uprising, statements about the hippie period, older Hollywood productions such as Bonnie and Clyde, the Danish comedy series The Olsen Gang, and references to the Majdanek concen-


The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation

tration camp. Distorted proverbs and idioms, onomatopoetic combinations, and language games overshadow the plot. While the text appropriates Bondy’s poetic models and puts aside its own poetics for a while, this happens so demonstratively that the latter remains present. This literary appropriation is neither imitation nor subservience nor fealty: “If I didn’t happen to be on a mystical but also realistic trip to Bratislava, I would definitely pause in my race for nothing and write a poem, about butterflies as fibers of the sun, about silver feet, bends of fate, and blossoms of the lotus or something along those lines” (2008, 247). Poetic images like “butterflies as fibers of the sun” evoke Podsiadło’s own poetry. However, the group (of travelers) as a society beyond society, the provocative use of nonsense, the pointed banalities, and of course the central code word “Bondy” provide enough ingredients of the underground aesthetic to signal the line of tradition—and thus demonstrate the departure from it. At the same time, other classical elements of the underground aesthetic are missing or are toned down. There is little of Bondy’s evocation of bodily needs in Podsiadło and what remains is handled “discreetly” and inoffensively. The same is true for the universal paranoia, socialist totality, and state despotism that the Central and Eastern European underground translated into an art of totality in reaction to the state socialist system’s claim to totality. Bondy literally and programmatically parodied everything: the language of socialist propaganda, the sayings and slogans on demonstration banners, and politicians’ speeches. He presented aspects of life in socialism in crooked metaphors, false meters, and ungainly rhymes. Podsiadło turns this into a technique of mild paradox, of the language game mentioned above, without a claim to comprehensiveness, let alone totality. What is missing most are the underground’s aggressive profanities and sexualized vulgarities, not to mention the over-signified vacancy of “Bondy” at the very core. On this point, Podsiadło writes: Of course I haven’t read any of these books. I fancy I could read them somewhere along the Way. But I have read the title of the Plastic People of The Universe record many times, the title Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. I have to confess that I fell terribly in love with Egon Bondy on this tour. I know a lot about him already. I appreciate him and avoid him from afar. I learned a lot more about him from my own imagination than I could have from books. See for yourselves. (Podsiadło 2008, 246; italics are mine)

See for yourselves. In other words, see it in this text, which takes up Bondy’s underground poetics and inscribes itself into that aesthetic tradition—yet breaks with it. To put it emphatically: Podsiadło’s road movie moves in the direction of pop culture. The underground, its practices, and its norms are everywhere here—but primarily as reminiscence and ancestry.

The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation


According to Diedrich Diederichsen and similar theorists, historically speaking, this is precisely what constitutes the evolutionary superiority of pop culture. This superiority means that pop culture, unlike the underground, can become dominant, established, and mainstream. In a radically individualized society, the products and modes of production of the former underground become a neutralized, normative quantity. It is no longer possible to derive “a general cultural oppositionality” from the conceptual pair of mainstream/underground: “Outwardly, formally, this distinction has lost its general meaning as a way of describing culture” (Diederichsen 2003).

Farewell to the Underground Podsiadło wrote a ruggedly horizontal road story. Without utopia. Without totalitarianism. Not only are there no strong vertical motifs, images, or structures in the story, but the narrator rather pointedly evicts from the Cherry Rocket the only representative of the underground he actually meets: Patison, his traveling companion at the beginning of the journey, is not allowed to come along on the trip. Identified as a “mountain man,” he is declared a “dark character from our native soil” (Podsiadło 2008, 242). And sure enough: without Patison everything immediately becomes lighter, more easygoing, and more carefree. Młody the Young, his replacement, symbolizes the exchange of old (underground) for young (pop culture) not only by virtue of his name but also because of his always available credit card and functioning cell phone. As far as Patison is concerned, don’t get me wrong. His heart’s in the right place, his soul is below the belt, and he drags his liver two and a half meters behind him. He has a certain dark honor. We love and appreciate him very much, but we couldn’t handle him anymore. That’s the only reason why we had to exclude him from our group. For his own good and ours. (Podsiadło 2008, 246–7)

It is here, at the latest, that we come to sense a fissure in the farewell scene, with the addendum “for his own good” appropriating the rhetoric of modern apparatuses of repression. The group does quickly begin to miss the mountain man. His stories about underground horses and the black sky above can’t be replaced by the trivia of the road trip. And: in all of us there beats the heart of a Patison, Podsiadło writes at one point. Still, one might add. The gaps around which the text revolves, so enjoyably, attain a sense of defiance and desperation. The expulsion of the old does not take place without sorrow, commiseration, and a feeling of loss—but it is done unrepentantly and brooks no alternative.


The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation

Patison, whose name evokes a word for pickled pumpkin, embodies the classic, self-chosen underground in attitude and appearance. This observation and its implications can be explained by turning our attention again to the aesthetic practices of the underground. Its basic metaphorical system is vertical, which is already evident in its chosen name. This name essentially pits its “under” against an implied “over.” The underground—as I contend here—should be understood as the performative articulation of the accusation that there continues to be something that is “below” or “underneath,” and not just in terms of being incrementally worse off, but that is rather fundamentally excluded. Podsiadło’s Patison embodies this accusation. In a modern society, the double gesture of being excluded and of excluding oneself, the vertical segregation that seems to me to be at the aesthetic heart of concepts of the underground, points to a scandal. To be precise, it points to the prime scandal in modern society’s constitution: fracturing and alienation are not contingent to modernity but form its ineluctable aporia. The fact that the underground’s representative is thrown out of the car, and that the pilgrims never end up meeting Bondy in Bratislava does not mean, however, that the text is dismissing the poetics of the underground. It rather stages an inevitable farewell to underground modalities. The journey of the narrator to Egon Bondy does not, then, ultimately fail because of the latter’s absence, but because the figure “Bondy” is no longer historically accessible to the figure “Podsiadło.” By excluding Patison, Podsiadło also calls into question the pathos of the counterculture as well as its rejection of society. Along with his sincere admiration there is also a certain indifference—and, more important still—a genuine incomprehension of the convulsions of modernity. It may, then, not so much be a global consumer capitalism as such that brings about the new framework, but rather an increasing incomprehension of the emphatically underground and heteronomous impulse to scandalize. It is this incomprehension that betrays an eroding belief in history. In light of this, concepts of the underground could become as illegible as they would have been in the early modern period, and the term could itself dwindle into a catchall code for any manner of slightly marginal nonconformist acts that are before their time. That would mean, however, failing to understand the underground for what it was and perhaps still is, namely part of the ruthlessly waged battle of modernity. With an equal lack of sentimentality, we would also have to consider the ability of modernity to come to terms with this conflict and its capacity for absorption and integration. But to what degree can we then speak of a conflict between generations, between young and old? Podsiadło’s intertextual appropriation of the poetic

Farewell to the Underground


method called “Bondy” is more of an intergenerational strategy of taking something up and passing it on. This demonstrably leads Podsiadło to flee not only into escapism—understood here as an escape into the bosom of poetry—but also into the associative web of pop culture once insubordinate patterns of the underground are appropriated and attenuated as pop. Here I would like to take a concluding look at the bruLion formation and its successors. In 2012, Przemysław Witkowski published a call to arms entitled “Slay the Old Poets!” in the magazine Przekrój. Witkowski accuses the old poets—by which he means the bruLion writers—of having lost their anarchist attitude and of having become servile to the literary establishment. Their poems, he charges, have become hermetic and indecipherable for anyone not familiar with the “postmodern codes”; they are caught in the “kingdom of the private and the individual” (Witkowski 2012, 42–3). The young generation surrounding Konrad Góra, Szczepan Kopyt, and Tomasz Pułka, Witkowski writes, represent a “truly” left, militant demand for another society. When asked about the bruLion poet Marcin Świetlicki, Pułka responds indignantly that he is “not interested in corpses.” Such naïvely provocative desecration of the dead is a far cry from Podsiadło’s strategy for detaching from the underground. Podsiadło’s travel narrative is rather a thoughtful perspective on interlocking times, on the poetics tied to these times, and their ongoing development or recoding. Podsiadło’s transgenerational continuation of the Bondy project is not an isolated case. It seems that the revolutions of the 1990s robbed the underground of the former Eastern Bloc of options for radically discharging political authorities, as the latter ceased to rule in an authoritarian way and simply no longer functioned as targets—and, not least, could just be voted out of office. At the same time, while the commercial sphere became formally free, society was still structured around power and exerted a considerable normalizing pressure. By the mid-1990s, oppositional pop culture around the world had reached a tipping point: instead of pop culture incorporating mass culture, everyday life was internalizing pop culture. To bring up Tom Holert and Mark Terkessidis again: “Where dissidence once availed itself of consumer culture, consumer culture now availed itself of dissidence. Anything that promised identity via difference was useful” (Holert and Terkessidis 1996, 6). From this perspective, the revolutions of 1989 can be read as part of a consumption-driven acceleration of globalization that invalidated horizontal as well as vertical differences, cultural distinctions, and gestures of defection. However, the notion that the epochal changes of 1989 rendered the underground obsolete is called into question by, for one thing, the underground’s striking proximity to typically modern diagnoses of cultural decadence and narratives of decline. For another, the underground framework before 1989 was already undermined


The Joy of Failure, or Underground and Generation

to the point that, by the late 1980s, it was operating in a global(ized) network of reception—just as it exhibited analogies (as well as obvious differences) to pop culture. Suffice it for now to point to the basic fact of Podsiadło’s failed journey of a wild young man to a wild old man: without a utopia, without totality or realism meaning anything to him anymore, the younger man seems older. More world-wise, more cheerful, more accomplished at the indifferent use of technical means and poetological set pieces. The text presents its narrator as a representative of a calmer generation that has grown old prematurely. Even more: by suggesting a new trajectory in its appropriative amalgamation of historical poetics, it implies a future generation of pop writers who start out old—neither naïvely taken in by the great promise of modernity nor indignant about it being broken. All that said, Podsiadło’s process of detachment from the underground is also a reflective view of interlaced time periods and their poetics. His road story closes with a passage whose writing style recalls another idol of Central European literature: the Czech Bohumil Hrabal and his palavering narrative. Palaver is the English translation of Hrabal’s coinage “palavering” (pábení), which he used to describe his narrator’s overflowing speech patterns. Hrabal’s fictional characters are at the center of the next chapter about Peter Wawerzinek. Podsiadło may well have said goodbye to the underground, but he is writing his way directly into the literary tradition of Central Europe: Somewhere behind us was Egon Bondy and his weird but no longer closed world for us, in which every day counts four times. Bratislava with its parks and crematoria, Anna Maria, and Ivan, and the children in the house, in the middle of which a tree grows. And almost forgotten the fine that some Slovak idiots have ordered us to pay in some Slovak jerkwater town, because Śliwa wanted ice cream, and everyone wanted beer, and nobody wanted to look for a place where you could properly park the Cherry Rocket, as if you could always park it almost in the door of the store, as if you were just throwing a cosmic cherry anchor from the Cherry Rocket’s deck, and it hooked to the door of the grocery store or in the cosmic tree next to it, and prrr, dignified vehicle, we go for beer and ice cream. (Podsiadło 2008, 260)

My City’s Me, It’s Many: Peter “Firefly” Wawerzinek, the Palaverer of Prenzlauer Berg so this is her—how long has this filth been pushing my body over the rooftops the subway that plows the earth howling (half-city: shit you discharge you pus randy ulcer stinging in the body of the slobbering spinster so she plucks you out burns you off splash some acid on—there! you mud hole —Frank-Wolf Matthies, “The City”90

Franz Kafka once called Prague a “little mother with claws” (Kafka 1958, 14), which is a touching image compared to one of Frank-Wolf Matthies’s raucous anti-Berlin-outbursts: “you mud hole / barricaded […] wasted, basted / in crappiss-sperm-smog-gasoline […] asphalt-encoded, island of filth in a filthy / sea pussy-soft madonna” (Matthies 1985, 41–2). At the same time, Matthies’s words express a helpless rage and an aesthetic ineptitude in contrast with Kafka’s subtle cringing at Prague. Matthies’s poem, a strikingly mangled declaration of love for the poem’s implicit “you” (the city), represents a rather marginal poetics within the artistic milieu subsumed under the heading “Prenzlauer Berg,” an East Berlin neighborhood. Commenting on some of the neighborhood’s figures, Gerrit-Jan Berendse has identified a remarkable pattern: East Berlin bohemianism “did not admit urban localities into its art and thus did not let [the city] become a subject of its work” (Berendse 1999, 41). This demarcates these artists from American Beat and, it can also be said, from the Prague underground. As well as Matthies, exceptions to this peculiar departure from the city include Kurt Bartsch, Adolf Endler, Lothar Trolle, Bernd Wagner, and Peter Wawerzinek.

90 All quotes from Frank-Wolf Matthies and Peter Wawerzinek (Matthies 1985, 41–3; Wa­ wer­zinek 1991) translated by Jake Schneider.


My City’s Me, It’s Many

These exceptional figures’ lives and routines of “lived art” do in fact resemble those of the beatniks and the underground. Disquiet, transience, social disconnection, and recalcitrance are crucial elements of a life like that of Matthies, who was born in Berlin in 1951. To earn a livelihood in East Germany, he cobbled together work as a poet, machinist, mortician, waiter, taxi driver, dispatcher, conscientiously objecting non-combat soldier, shoe repairman, trench digger, ice cream salesman, projectionist, and camera assistant. He was politically persecuted, imprisoned, and later released. In 1981, he emigrated to West Berlin. Similarly, in Peter Wawerzinek’s 1991 novel Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos (Moppel Schappiks Tätowierungen), the character of Moppel Schappik moves from Mecklenburg to Berlin, where he gets by as a letter carrier, a waiter, a drunkard, i.e., a “bar loafer” (Wawerzinek 1991, 129), a womanizer, a truck driver, a gravedigger, and a janitor—equipped with a typewriter and always on the move through Berlin. Mostly, Moppel Schappik is a city walker with the “sidewalk in his blood” (1991, 85), a country boy who has evolved to suit the urban environment. He has “patterned himself into a typical big-city type” (1991, 7). Yet he remains a villager with a “Mecklenburg waddle” (1991, 135), the perfect participant-observer. As the simultaneous “recipient” and “transmitter,” Moppel Schappik absorbs the noises and conversations of Berlin and spits them out in blended form. Thus he is always at risk of derailing the first-person narrator—a narrator who acts variously as a creator, an observer, and as Schappik’s persecutor: “His essence splits apart with every paragraph” (1991, 92), the narrator writes, complaining about the difficult character under his watch. Wawerzinek’s Berlin poetics borrow deliberately from Alfred Döblin, but a comparison to Bohumil Hrabal’s Prague stories is even more revealing. With his polyphonic restlessness, Moppel Schappik could already qualify as a Hrabalian “palaverer”: a chatterbox, a whisk who leavens the discourse. Whereas Matthies thrashes around poetically, Wawerzinek’s novel opts for an ironic, often even comical, urban prose with leitmotifs of decentralization and self-fragmentation. Concretely, the text works its way through the dissident scene of Prenzlauer Berg in a divided Berlin, whose eastern half has been proclaimed the “capital of the German Democratic Republic” (GDR) and seems at once claustrophobic, walled-in, horizontally outstretched, and deeply provincialized. We come to recognize a literary underground that is thoroughly specific and bears strong aesthetic links to both the prewar period and subversive poetics outside Germany yet differs from these in crucial respects.

Linguistic City Versus Urban Walking: Scenes of Prenzlauer Berg


Linguistic City Versus Urban Walking: Scenes of Prenzlauer Berg The existence of the “Prenzlauer Berg scene” as a stock phrase suggests that East Berlin developed a clearly defined center of opposition in the 1980s. In fact, there never was one Prenzlauer Berg as a singular subversive school or orientation, nor indeed a unified GDR underground. The degree to which the artists in and around this historic Berlin district were tied together by a tangible program, an at least implicitly shared utopia, an aesthetic common denominator, or a collective impulse was perhaps even less than in other scenes. What we do observe are plural gestures of marginality, efforts at nonconformist art, and alternative ways of living. In this general sense, the code word “Prenzlauer Berg” represents a site of unauthorized happenings; a focal point of underground rock and pop; and a place where banned or repressed literature was read and written, where theater was performed in private apartments, and where unofficial art galleries and illegal magazines sprouted up (Böthig 1997; Mann 1996, 129–30, 141; Dahlke 2015). And of course it was a place of free love, fierce arguments, and more drug-taking adventures than in the rest of the city and the country. Looking back, Bert Papenfuß describes this Prenzlauer Berg freedom using echoes of the pack motif familiar to us from the writings and self-narratives of Jáchym Topol and Andrzej Stasiuk: “We were vain as noble savages, blandishing and rejoicing in each other” (Papenfuß 2009, 15). This we contains, “at the simplest level, verbal gestures of collectivity, poets hinting at plurality” as Philip Brady notes (Brady 1995, 5). He contends that, distanced from the system, such artwork brought the players together, regardless of the disparities in their views and aesthetics: “poems, differently exploring and expressing a sense of shared activity” (1995, 5). Brady’s outsider analytic view shows a certain effort to integrate his subject within a coherent whole. Ironically, the people who broadly generalized the neighborhood included its harsh retrospective critics—some of them renegade former neighbors—who after 1989 called the scene a “Stasi allotment garden” (Wolf Biermann) or, writ larger, a “Stasi plantation” (Adolf Endler), or who dubbed it a “bell jar” (Peter Laudenbach), a “provincial” place, a “hideaway,” or an “enclave” (Brady 1995, 1). Hence, the singular “Prenzlauer Berg scene” is equally a construct of ex-postfacto battles of interpretation that sometimes corroborate the very fractures they write rings around. The literary confrontations of the 1990s were pervaded by rural imagery. For one thing, this carries the implication that the Stasi-infiltrated neighborhood


My City’s Me, It’s Many

was once village-like, rural, and moral.91 For another, it reflects the anguish of that period’s writings: anguish caused by the semantic shrinking of Berlin that came with the Wall, and the ruling SED party; anguish over the “provincial town” of Berlin—a town with no (big-city) alternative. Both schools of poetics, dissident and post-dissident, cultivate urban self-hatred. Even when they are not enacting that hatred overtly, it is ultimately what motivates them to turn their gaze away from Berlin. One of these schools of writing has been described using the term “languagecritical” (sprachkritisch), which Gerrit-Jan Berendse contrasts with his “urban school” within East Berlin oppositional writing. The language critics, linguistically oriented writers such as Stefan Döring, Jan Faktor, and Bert Papenfuß, sought ways to speak out against provincialism by obsessively deconstructing the language. Their theory-laden poetry uses regional dialects, borrowings from foreign languages, sprinklings of archaic German, slang, onomatopoeia, jargon, argot, sexist language, and scatology. Their poems twist, dissect, and parody empty political usages. They generate rhythm through enjambment, broken-up stanzas, transgressive punctuation, and interminable lists. They employ avantgarde stylistic tools to which the underground is also partial. Papenfuß called this Kwehrdeutsch, which can be translated as “asquew-German,” with an intentional misspelling of quer, here meaning “askew.”92 It often was criticized for being sealed in a highly self-referential bubble, for its mistrust of the poetic subject (Hasenfelder 1991). The city metaphor is scarcely tangible in these poems. Indeed, it is as absent as any individual speaker. Instead, these writings deal with the heterophony of speaking itself, a radical aestheticism that requires neither a flâneur nor any other observer. Take, for example, Stefan Döring’s poem “east days in lost berlin” (Döring 1989, 78), whose verses explore (the possibility of) speaking about the “discrepan-city” (Kolbe 1990, 77) more than they explore the city itself. This aspect fundamentally distinguishes Döring’s way of imagining Berlin from that of Peter Wawerzinek: Döring withdraws from the city in favor of the meta-level of a superficially placeless language. Nevertheless, Döring’s polyphony is also genuinely urban. Likewise, the poetic techniques of the language critics are structurally parallel to those of the ur91 Sascha Anderson and Rainer Schedlinski were, on the one hand, confidentional informants (IM=Informelle/Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter) of the Stasi (State Security Service), but on the other hand as artists they inspired the scene. See Böthig and Michael (1993), and Huberth (2003). 92 Gerrit-Jan Berendse translates the made-up term as “slant German”: “an indication of [Papenfuß’s] aversion to authority of any kind, including that of grammatical rules enshrined in the German dictionary Duden” (Berendse 2015, 153; italics in the original).

Linguistic City Versus Urban Walking: Scenes of Prenzlauer Berg


ban school that focused on “conventional” underground concepts. The former group blends together definitions, phrases, and poetic lines, making the poems seem as if they had been repeatedly smashed. The latter group disassemble and cross-blend images from the surfaces of the “first” and “second” Berlin, the upper and lower cities, transferring between them. In the words of Adolf Endler: “Here goes, I grab the handle of the street water pump / For consolation, to pull that second city’s voices up” (Endler 1980, 1; italics in the original). Prenzlauer Berg, daily life, the Berlin Wall, and the regime are all present in the language critic poetry—albeit coded with utmost artifice. This sparked the claim that this very art had made Prenzlauer Berg into a ghetto of both aesthetics and lifestyle. Heiner Müller and Volker Braun railed against the younger generation of poets as “pseudo-entities” (Scheinexistenzen) who in fact only mimicked preceding generations of the avant-garde, supplying “delayed” and secondhand “copies of trends” but, at most, only simulating rebellion (Braun 1988, 110; H. Müller 1992, 288). By the mid-1990s, some segments of the public had come to understand the Prenzlauer Berg scene as a code word for betrayal, self-satisfied seclusion, and deceptive provincialism. Around the same time, literary scholars started classifying and drawing distinctions. At the end of the decade, Gerrit-Jan Berendse proposed his distinction between disparate schools, contending that Berlin’s urban literature had already transcended the supposed “scene ghetto” during the GDR period. Its “vagabond fictional personifications” had propelled the “amorphization of the Prenzlauer Berg image,” he maintained (Berendse 1999, 58). “It seems as if the bums and tramps of Burroughs’s and Kerouac’s novels were resurrected in East German form. Yet in their evident deviancy, rather than attaining a dissident status, they illuminated the limits of their options as ‘free agents’” (1999, 56). In Berendse’s view, Adolf Endler, Frank-Wolf Matthies, and Peter Wawerzinek marketed themselves as “Beatniks of the East” who took on themes and techniques of American predecessors—yet without copying them. It is based on this observation that this chapter analyzes Wawerzinek’s novel Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos as its main subject, rather than language critic poetry. The explosive, extroverted inflation of the subject as outcast and the manically sensualist urbanity of the “urban school” epitomize underground art. By contrast, the hermeticism of the language critics places it in the lineage of the avant-garde. Its aesthetic originality and membership in the GDR’s literary underground can only be negated on political grounds. It is equally marginal and subversive in relation to high culture, far from being politically or poetically sterile. At first, Stefan Döring’s poem “east days in lost berlin” seems rather removed from Matthies’s meaning-defying Berlin poetry. As stated, the two techniques ran parallel. Specifically, they were both concerned with the subject of the


My City’s Me, It’s Many

­ ivided city. In view of the national border that ran through the city, they cond fronted a question that arose in no other metropolis: Was the place they were writing about even a city at all? How could they cope with the rupture in its topography, the historical discontinuity, the severed mythopoetic tradition? The city could no longer be used—much less imagined—as a city. This deeply felt anomaly also explains why such hysterical hopes for a renaissance were piled on Berlin literature in the years after 1989 (Schirrmacher 1998; Steinert 1995). The Wall took concrete form in people’s disconnected lives and relationships (Leeder 1995). The spate of emigrations following Wolf Biermann’s forcible expatriation in 1976 brought a series of fresh crises in East Germany. The impulse to take flight continued unabated. Among the consequences for “autonomous” or “other” GDR literature, Ekkehard Mann lists a restructuring within the scene that began with a mass exodus from 1984 onward (Mann 1996, 77–8; Dahlke 2015, 166). Thomas Ernst describes this period using an image of the scene: “bleeding out” (Ernst 2013, 401–2). While more and more members of the underground moved to the West, others were permitted to join them on temporary reading tours. Still others had filed applications for exit visas or received publication offers from Western publishers. This gave rise to resentment, mistrust, and atomization in a scene that was already chafing from competing leadership claims, generational conflicts, and aesthetic antagonisms (Mann 1996, 256–8). It only made matters worse when the disappearance of the Wall and the intra-German border left the East German dissidents without a unifying national map. Prague and Warsaw could be framed as metonymic examples of nation-states that had been occupied during the World War II and later sovietized. Their national utopias served as contested yet unifying symbolic alternatives. This was not the case for the amputated capital of the “socialist nation” of the GDR, which had not retained any serious irredentist option after Germany’s defeat and its war crimes. After all, the Wall had always comprised a manifest consequence of a history that had catastrophically imploded under its own weight. According to Jan Faktor, the result was an auto-aggressive “bite inhibition” (Faktor 2000, 41) by opposition members toward the regime. Externally and sociologically devastated like only Warsaw, but without that city’s resilience and yearning for restoration, both Berlins developed an underlying ahistoricism that was only compounded by neighborhood rearrangements and intellectual bohemians’ migrations to the former working-class districts of Kreuzberg in the West and Prenzlauer Berg in the East. As hollowed out as the former metropolis was, the emergence of the “Berlin Republic” after 1989 prompted a peculiar shift in direction: “Since the fall of the Wall, the city that had grown outward into its surrounding countryside for seven centuries has been growing inward for the first time” (Wefing 1998, 52). Evidently, this goes along

Infiltrated Identities: Moppel Schappik Drifts through Berlin


with an urban, hedonistic sense of life, which Phil Langer sees foreshadowed in Wawerzinek’s Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos: “The movement inherent in the current topos of ‘Berlin’ seems obvious: it leads inwards into the much-vaunted new Center [in the original Mitte], in a straight line, without detours” (Langer 2002, 22–4). This last trend, at least, seems diametrically opposed to the ethos of Wawerzinek’s novel. However, Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos is a clear echo of the plunge out of history. There is little or no overt evidence there of the incipient shifts in urban tectonics. Wawerzinek’s representation of Berlin stays underneath the sea changes of the era. Phil Langer argues that Wawerzinek’s throng of characters and voices suspends the historical significance of the places they traverse, rendering the years after 1989 interchangeable and shrinking historic events into meaninglessness (2002, 120). Thus, Wawerzinek reduces the very fall of the Wall to a farce, which he hints at in a grotesque scene that the character of Erna Holtfreter recounts to the narrator and calls the “calamitous beginning” of “it” all. Occurring either in 1972 or 1983, Erna Holtfreter’s story is set at the corner of Oderberger Street and Eberswalder Street, where she looks out the window observing the “Rambo guards on the concrete horizon”—i.e. the Berlin Wall between Prenzlauer Berg and the West. One of them, Moppel Schappik, hurls the first cobblestone over the border wall. This develops into a surreal game of “Wall tennis” against an unseen Western opponent. The syntactically disintegrated, punctuation-free account is laden with political and historical keywords and allusions, including “CIA,” “Pol Pot,” “Endsieg Suspense,” “whisky” versus “vodka,” and “Dachau” (Wawerzinek 1991, 105–15). History appears devoid of meaning and context in this textual rubble scattered with mythical ruins, famous names, and products, around which daily life takes its surreal form. “The Germans have not overcome a thing. The Germans are ahistorical” (1991, 62).

Infiltrated Identities: Moppel Schappik Drifts through Berlin The twofold “rubble heap” of (East) Berlin is Peter Wawerzinek’s obsession, his drug of choice: “When I came to the city,” starts his 1990 novel NADA (NIX), “I was drunk. The houses were babbling. The cars were tottering. The balconies were vomiting on street corners. A traffic light slumped over” (Wawerzinek 1990, 49). This “first confrontation,” Andreas Erb writes, “becomes a like-minded encounter in which the subject and object are equally intoxicated” (Erb 2005, 28). We should add that it is not clear who in this interaction is the subject and who the object. As with the first-person narrator in NIX, Moppel Schappik and Berlin are also intoxicated by each other; they meld with each other. According


My City’s Me, It’s Many

to Erb, Moppel Schappik makes the city his own through “reckless trajectories of consumption”: “excesses of alcohol, drug experiments, innumerable and untrammeled liaisons with women, and overall a life lived among assorted jobs, bars, courtyards, and garbage cans” (Erb 1998, 169). Conversely, Berlin bends its new resident to its will, and Schappik accedes to that upon reflection: “To be part of the orthopedics of any city is always to feel displaced by it. So that’s being weaned off the self, means serving as a passerby” (Wawerzinek 1991, 7). For Adolf Endler, Schappik is a “city monkey.” By having him brachiate from place to place, Wawerzinek muddies Prenzlauer Berg’s topography rather than clarifies it. In any case, his cognitive urban aesthetic requires the character’s bodily involvement. And that of the narrator, who is rushing to keep up, noting down where and when Moppel Schappik eats lunch, buys socks, drinks beer, and meets up with his “sipping societies” (1991, 11). Along the way, we learn that he doesn’t like button-down shirts or weddings but is a fan of schnitzel. He proves to be a drunkard, a flâneur, a malcontent, a libertine, a tramp, a palaverer, a dissident, a dreamer, and a loner who seeks company in some faraway place. He calls himself a “man of the crowd” in reference of the Edgar Allan Poe character who constantly wanders, likewise followed by a narrator who fails to reveal the character’s secret (1991, 60). Moppel Schappik is like the city he drunkenly merges with: the multitude of details blur his features instead of sharpen them. One reason is that the book itself claims he is not there. Another is that the book plays with identity, repeatedly splitting and renaming: Moppel, alias Schappik, alias Moppel Schappik, alias narrator (alias implicit author, alias empirical author). Wawerzinek has hinted several times that he himself might be Moppel Schappik. But mostly, the narrator admits his lack of control over his hero, whose adventure he is accountable for—to a literary scholar, for example, who might dismiss the story as pure drivel. In fact, Schappik’s memories stretch back to his childhood in Mecklenburg and generally abound with autobiographical traces of the author, Wawerzinek. Accordingly, Julian Preece reads the novel as “Wawerzinek in his various fictional incarnations” (Preece 1998, 68). Wawerzinek was born in Rostock in 1954 as Peter Runkel and arrived in Berlin in the 1980s. In 1956, his mother had left him behind in East Germany when she fled to the West. He spent several years in orphanages before being adopted. After an apprenticeship as a textile designer and an unfinished stint in art school, he supported himself variously as a gravedigger, diner car waiter, carpenter, telegram messenger, and janitor. During the Prenzlauer Berg years, he and his friend Matthias BAADER Holst (sic) performed a kind of “nonsense pogo,” as Peter Geist would call it, at salon readings. Before 1989, Wawerzinek published his prose in unofficial newspapers.

Infiltrated Identities: Moppel Schappik Drifts through Berlin


Like the text and the city, Wawerzinek’s protagonist Moppel Schappik remains disorganized, fragmentary, and changeable. He is also a “man of the crowd,” particularly so because he absorbs and reflects his environment. Considering the variety and polyphony of spaces and characters on his path (correspondent, writer, barber, doorman, nurse, tourist, sausage eater, neo-Nazi, retiree, many waitresses, and even more drunkards), Moppel Schappik functions as a sounding box, or a cavity resonator that amplifies the voices of the neighborhood. He receives and reproduces the voices of the city—like a drain that collects all the murmurings before they slip off into oblivion: The quiet in the courtyard makes it feel as if all words had come together through the central drain, the spoken having mingled with the unexpressed, as if the metropolis were brushing its teeth over this basin, as if you were in danger of being flushed away by the flow of your own words, the force of all the words of strangers, goners, people long forgotten, amongst hoots, whistles, stutters, screams, stammers, and words chosen with care, all with a GLUG extinguished, evacuated. (Wawerzinek 1991, 134; capitals in the original)

Schappik’s reflective absorption retains whatever has flushed away. Nothing becomes history, neither a time nor an identity. No single voice can claim to be authoritative. And so the text pastes in poems by his grandfather, newspaper clippings, selections of his mother’s correspondence, poems, medical records, interrogation transcripts, and a list of well-known and obscure DDR realia under the heading “TYPICAL OF THIS COUNTRY.” Berlin is not only a capital, but a “capitAltogether” that can virtually be generalized through a mass of concrete details (Wawerzinek 1991, 8; capitals in the original). It is very tempting to compile these manifold urban impressions into Moppel Schappik’s own identity, perhaps through the eponymous tattoos. It is as if the city were quite literally inscribing itself in him. Tattoos are symbols of demarcation and exclusion, voluntary or imposed identity markers that—theoretically—imply a painful procedure in the past. In that sense, Schappik’s body is physically engraved by urban experience. And yet this image does not quite fit the text. Moppel Schappik participates in all manner of experiences, but no suffering is evident, let alone a painful or identity-giving initiation ceremony. Neither does the style share the aggressiveness of the other texts discussed in this book. Even the genre’s typical ridicule of squares and stuffed shirts seems ironic or zany here. And the constant alcohol consumption seems empowering if anything. It has little in common with the boozing of Venedikt Erofeev’s and Vladimir Makanin’s protagonists, who inflate it to sacred self-destruction. Before a concluding poem, the last sentences of Wawerzinek’s narrative read as follows:


My City’s Me, It’s Many

On the day the city speaks, Moppel Schappik is drunk again, shouts obscene things through sleepy alleys at the earliest hours, totters past two snoozing citizens, opens the next bottle, cackles and smokes, and uses the whole city as an ashtray. “He doesn’t fret about himself,” Marie tells us, “just blathered on too much all night, didn’t get trap shut, shame I’m no reporter.” (Wawerzinek 1991, 155)

Moppel Schappik does not “fret about himself ” or the world. The drinking here is not out of rage or desperation or for some higher symbolic purpose, but for fun, because sitting around, taking things in, shooting the breeze is enjoyable. The resulting text enjoys itself too. That respect makes it is closer to language critic poetry, as Gerrit-Jan Berendse’s classification system would initially suggest. And yet the gap persists. For all the superficial language games that verge on the silly, Wawerzinek’s aesthetic technique has a genuinely political effect: he avoids all pathos. The first page sets out how often a dreaming Schappik has conversed with Mikhail Lermontov “about that very thing: ME THE HEROES OF THE NEW AGE? A Novel of Cheerfulness” (Wawerzinek 1991, 7; capitals in the original). There is none of the pointed, heavy, and inhibited artistry of Vladimir Makanin’s game with Lermontov in Underground, or A Hero of our Time (Andegraund, ili Geroi nashego vremeni). For another instructive comparison, take Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) protagonist, Franz Biberkopf ’s encounter with Berlin: “And there were roofs on the houses, they soared atop the houses, his eyes wandered straight upward: if only the roofs don’t slide off, but the houses stood upright” (Döblin 2004, 5). Frightened, the young man flees into the foyers of buildings to process the shock of the city’s throngs—among which he gets increasingly lost until he finally finds his own way. The crystal clarity of Wawerzinek’s allusions to Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz makes the difference striking. The yawning gap in Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos is the theme of failure and collapse, a theme otherwise so central to the avant-garde and the underground. And then it is written off as persiflage and openly contradicted: As Moppels go, […] they have eternal bad luck from early on. Whatever they start has a bad or strange ending. […] Real Moppels always miss the nipple and, to their parents’ astonishment, suckle their fill, belch beautifully, look well-nourished […]. They thrive on misfortune, achieve beauty through failure. (Wawerzinek 1991, 77–8)

For Moppel Schappik, the city, modernity, and his non-identity are not causes of suffering in the slightest. Instead, the text celebrates giving oneself over to the city as a passionate experience. It does not even see the radical poetics of an intertwinement of the world, text, narrator, character(s), and author as a loss— more as a form of liberation, even empowerment.

Infiltrated Identities: Moppel Schappik Drifts through Berlin

Fig. 2: Peter Wawerzinek, Window Collage



My City’s Me, It’s Many

Fig. 3: Peter Wawerzinek, Collage of Prenz­lauer Berg

Horizontal Berlin


It is through this sabotage of pathos that Wawerzinek shaped his response to the political implications of the historical postwar Berlin—at the very moment when (national) history was returning to Berlin. Before Wawerzinek began writing the novel in the 1980s, he made the eminent decision to ignore this return to the surface, almost vehemently. At another level, anything historical in this novel is broken down into tiny pieces and thereby stripped of its dignity. Accordingly, Wawerzinek employs key underground techniques and subjects just as he replaces or undercuts central underground topoi. From a dialectical standpoint, Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos is anti-underground. Specifically, this holds for the highly pathos-ridden theme of marking an existential exclusion vertically. Wawerzinek’s Berlin lacks such exclusions. It is flat. And yet, from its approach to space, we come to recognize that the verticals of the underground have been flipped sideways into horizontals.

Horizontal Berlin Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos was published in 1991 by Unabhängige Verlagsanstalt Ackerstraße and illustrated with many black-and-white collages consisting of cut-up, rearranged, and painted-over street maps of the eastern Berlin districts of Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, and Mitte. In one collage, the reader peers through a painted window with a flowerpot on the sill. Behind the window is a map that shows the path of the overground express train from Jannowitzbrücke to Alexanderplatz (fig. 2). In another, we see a torn heart in dark shades of gray; the tear line passes directly through the words “Prenzlauer Berg.” In still another collage, the clippings of maps are arranged between blocks of graph paper; elsewhere, they move into a watercolor-like, quasi-organic abstraction. A sketched route leads from map cutout A through a dense tangle of lines on a white background to map cutout B (fig. 3). And finally, at the end of the book, a circular map cutout, again labeled “Prenzlauer Berg,” hovers amidst the stars: the moon. Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos evokes two sets of emotional associations that fit anti-underground dialectics: oppression and liberation; arbitrary despotism and paranoia. On one side, they call up an open-ended, mentally flexible space, the “drifting” (dérive) of Guy Debord, who took apart and rearranged city maps for his 1957 “psychogeographic” guide of Paris. Like the works of the Situationist Debord, Wawerzinek’s collages irritate viewers, give them pause, and disorient them. Wawerzinek calls into question ingrained urban knowledge and repurposes a straightforward informational medium into ambiguous art. Wawerzinek, like Debord, takes an “objective” representation of


My City’s Me, It’s Many

space and superimposes a personal emotional perception. But it is not Moppel ­Schappik’s. There is a trenchant incongruence between the text and the illustrations. While Moppel Schappik roams through, absorbs, and reproduces broad swathes of the city, the collages, especially those bearing a discernibly named district, are focused on Prenzlauer Berg. The collages counteract Schappik’s recipienttransmitter status, silence him, and send him back to the Prenzlauer Berg scene like some malicious quip. The neighborhood hovering above us in the final illustration is just as uncanny as the mysterious walking route traced on the map, recalling a secret agent or detective story. The visual representation of space serves as a gateway to danger and repression in this cheerfully anarchic text. This reflects the author’s own divided relationship with Prenzlauer Berg. Peter Wawerzinek played a peripheral role and never made it into one of the scene’s inner circles. He was too radical, too impulsive, a theoretical novice.93 Later he would comment on this publicly himself, albeit somewhat cryptically: The Prenzlauer Berg scene must finally be judged as what it has been all along: an overloaded freighter, a brain-ship, a barge that sees itself as something bigger. Chartered by a crew who saw themselves as the destination and who told outsiders they were headed for A. R. Penck-ville. A as in airs, ascent, anarchy. R as in respite, repute, and rum. (Wawerzinek 2010, 23)94

Such allusions were already present in Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos, for example, when Moppel Schappik recites the text of his ID card at a salon reading, unleashing a hysterical storm of enthusiasm among the pseudo-subversive “Protoand Neo-Ginsbergs” (Wawerzinek 1991, 147). Or when the opportunist Heinz Günti Lechz—who is half-snitch, half-revolutionary—blends buzzwords from the “Wende” period with drunk political opinions and rude social criticism while the narrator claims not to like his own “literary character” but to be powerless to get away from him. Lechz’s words become the “dental plaque” of those who would have knocked his teeth out for the same utterances a few months earlier: “And that’s why I don’t like my new literary character. He talks too much for my taste” (1991, 58). As a “psycho-geographical” concept, Prenzlauer Berg is uncanny and contemptible at once. These passages radiate a claim on centrality 93 In this sense, Jan Faktor said that “real rebels of the scene” like Wawerzinek were sneered at and marginalized (Faktor 1993, 100). 94 A. R. Penk (the alias of Ralf Winkler) was a German painter, writer, and drummer. In the 1980s he was expelled from East Germany. With his figurative paintings influenced by cave paintings, mythic pictograms, calligraphic signs, and African tribal art, he is one of the most well-known German neo-expressionist painters.

Horizontal Berlin


and dominance within the aesthetic opposition, a claim that seems inescapable—like the power of the overcity in the vertical aesthetic. In Wawerzinek’s Window Collage, the axes collide head-on: the view through the window frame does not extend outward horizontally but becomes a vertical bird’s-eye view upon the cartographic abstraction of the city. But the greater source of irritation is the flowerpot in the foreground of central East Berlin. Distant and unreal, the city center lies past the comforting geraniums. Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos provincializes Berlin subliminally, and thus more effectively. Wawerzinek accomplishes this with a technique of contrasting mythically oversold promises with banal reality. In the case of the collage, we see this in the contrast between the houseplant and downtown Berlin, with all its labeled attractions. In a tirade about the center’s dinginess, he writes: “The country’s inhabitants stand outside the display window and watch their capital city as it orders another vanilla ice cream and sticks it in” (1991, 62). A privilege of the sophisticated small town. The “capital of the GDR” seals itself off from the countryside and gobbles resources to breed a suitable center artificially—yet remains a “desolate orgy of all postwar periods,” provincial in time and space (1991, 62). In Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos, Phil Langer sees allusions to the Golden Twenties: the poetic references to Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the interest in pluralistic and hedonistic lifestyles. Meanwhile, Susanne Ledanff (more accurately) sees East Berlin as “a place provincials project upon” (Ledanff 2009, 223). That includes Schappik. In the beginning, he is full of hope and excitement: “Because the city is made for an audience. And the audience loves wants the most breathtaking sensation of all sensations. The sensation-sensations. That is the city” (Wawerzinek 1991, 7). And later on: Someone must have persuaded him that Berlin was the only city you could move to, as they used to say. From there, according to the hardliners of wanderlust, you’d go on to London, New York, or straight to Australia. And so Prenzlberg [Prenzlauer Berg] became a bit of Canadian woods, Friedrichshain had a whiff of the Mediterranean, and somehow the subways all took you slightly toward Rome and Athens. Anyone who had dipped his feet into the waters of the Müggelsee would doubtless go surfing in the Atlantic. (Wawerzinek 1991, 43)

The desperate attempts to snatch a breath of London, New York, Sydney, or Rome in the erstwhile metropolis are absurd illusions: the Müggelsee is still in Köpenick. Gerrit-Jan Berendse’s conclusion of amorphous borders in Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos can be clarified by showing that, on the one hand, the space of imagination is opened to the wide world, only to be narrowed once more, making the confinement more agonizing. Then there is the claim that Berlin is closed off from its hinterland. The text itself refutes this with the presence of


My City’s Me, It’s Many

Fig. 4: Peter Wawerzinek, Stray Dog on the Prowl

Horizontal Berlin


Moppel Schappik, a transplant from Mecklenburg, and the routine mentions of all manner of provincialisms. Brought back to earth, Berlin spreads out into the East German landscape and merges with it. Potential and disappointment are both further sharpened in the concrete context of the city center. Roland Barthes has attributed the city center’s extraordinary symbolic function to the notion that European cities’ concentrically circular layouts correspond to Western metaphysics. The center represents a site of truth: “to go downtown or to the center-city is to encounter the social ‘truth,’ to participate in the proud plenitude of ‘reality’” (Barthes 1984, 30). Elsewhere, Barthes ascribes an “erotic dimension” to the periphery’s logical push inward. Erotic as in craving contact: “Still better, the center-city is always experienced as the space in which certain subversive forces act and are encountered, forces of rupture, ludic forces” (Barthes 1988, 200; italics in the original). It is where one meets the Other, becomes Other oneself, and experiences a ludic space that permits the revision of firmly established identity clusters. Like many underground protagonists, Moppel Schappik takes all this as a broken promise. A center, as he sees it, has long served to hypnotize its visitors, lull them, and satisfy only their most superficial needs. It deceives, cheats, simulates: “A center is a city’s best rug to sweep all crises under. It gets away without the chamber-pot stench of farther-off precincts, avoids the fierce-assoot debate over sickness, smog, endangered June bugs, and sugar shortages” (Wawerzinek 1991, 28–9). If reality—“real life”—ever happens, it happens on the margins, never in the polished center that only pretends accessibility but is it in fact deeply corrupted. Swept under the rug of Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos is the silence of the departed. The GDR’s national stage around Alexanderplatz is mentioned rarely in the novel, but it receives prominent placement in those few instances. One time, the recently arrived Moppel Schappik follows his tourist herd instinct downtown, giving the text a chance to “capture the practical uselessness of all this concentrated loathsomeness” (1991, 29): this ensemble of monumentality, compulsive showmanship, surveillance, and discipline. Meanwhile, the naïve country bumpkin’s fascination once again exposes downtown Berlin as extremely provincial. And finally, another collage shows a mangy dog leaving piles of droppings at various spots on the map, the largest of them on Marx-Engels-Square (fig. 4). This image is even more caustic when we consider that “Moppel” is a slang term for a small plump dog and that the character himself resembles a stray dog on the prowl. Otherwise, the area—especially Alexanderplatz, with its overplayed significance in literary history—seems hazy, and its reclaimed core significance seems to have been deliberately stripped away and decentralized.


My City’s Me, It’s Many

Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos uses topoi, techniques, and aesthetic methods that are typical of the underground: paranoia, delight in bodily functions, defilement, fragmentation of self, inverted spatial hierarchies, and denunciations of “the establishment” as aesthetically and politically illegitimate. What is specific to the novel is that it uses comedy to immediately undermine any tinge of sentimentality or pathos. Instead of pitting a “down” against an “up,” or even recoding the horizontal following the example of Ivan Martin Jirous or Andrzej Stasiuk, Wawerzinek telescopes the antagonisms inside each other, just as identities infiltrate each other and narrative entities cancel one another out. Thus he succeeds in dissolving or provincializing centralities—those of the official power as much as those of an almost equally official opposition. Consistently anti-hierarchical, Wawerzinek’s novel likewise does without a counter-hierarchy, a utopia present in any dystopia. Rather, Moppel Schappik’s Berlin is dingy, uncomfortable, polyphonic, and pervasively uncanny. But in the end, along with a loss of self, it does offer an experience of desire. Wawerzinek’s underground inspiration and techniques are clear to see, and even the underlying emotional agenda is implied, but defused—as if in fear of the imminent return of the history that the text diminishes.95

Pasted Cities: Wawerzinek Between Döblin and Hrabal Wawerzinek’s collages blur the borders between verbal and visual art forms. They correspond to his textual montages: composed of fragmentary, surreal linguistic materials and perpetually transgressing grammatical, syntactic, and orthographic rules. The discrepancy in tone and imagery within his aesthetics is even more revealing when Moppel Schappik pronounces: Everyday buzzing, rattling, thrumming, hissing, humming, honking and quacking, crumbling, stinking, and enticing wafting, freezing, stumbling, sweating under our belly folds, butt pinching, pulling on palms, chest pain, head-itching, blundered shrugging, what we feel against our will, every sense and non-sense put together is art, its end and its beginning. (Wawerzinek 1991, 19)

95 It would be worth the while to compare Wawerzinek’s collages to the later works of other Prenzlauer Berg poets, e.g. Bert Papenfuß’s and Ronald Lippok’s Psychonautikon Prenzlauer Berg which also contains imaginary cognitive maps of the district (Papenfuß and ­Lippok 2015).

Pasted Cities: Wawerzinek Between Döblin and Hrabal


For him, anything humans experience, including head-itching and buttockpinching, is art-worthy. Compared to other underground aesthetics, Wawerzinek’s is noticeably painless, harmless, especially here. Similarly, his explicit references to Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz are slightly misleading. Franz Biberkopf ’s realistic suffering finds no echo in Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos. To be sure, both characters—Biberkopf the convict and Moppel Schappik the villager—have been thrown into the city as a plane of existence. According to Harald Jähner, they both use it as a “megaphone” (Jähner 1990, 97). But while Döblin uses the pasted city to place his character in sharp outline, to equip him with a conventionally modern, stable self and thus render him capable of suffering, Schappik essentially never comes into focus and virtually dissolves into fresh fragments—into pleasure. Upon closer inspection, Wawerzinek’s wordplay resembles urban poetry of a very different order, that of Bohumil Hrabal. The Prague-based Hrabal likewise pastes and interweaves, mixing Prague legends with a guidebook for chess players and passages from investigation reports, and placing formal phraseology alongside vulgar gutter Czech and the plural languages of the old Tripolis Praga’s nations. While Wawerzinek aims his gaze at the gap between reality and socialism in East German daily life, Hrabal shows a similar interest in the conflict between traditional, often religious, daily routines and socialist secular demands. Both of them typecast and desecrate propagandist discourses and both find aesthetically kindred characters to stand in for them as commentators. In Hrabal’s case, it is the “palaverers” (pábitelé), ceaselessly jabbering suburbanites from the eponymous 1963 story collection. Hrabal attributed the term “palavering” (pábení) to the poet Jaroslav Vrchlický, who had once used it as an expression for indolence. Hrabal’s palaverers are simpleminded folks whose monologues flow in uninterrupted streams, rising like “yeast dough.” As much as Wawerzinek, Hrabal loves allusive camouflage: disguised incarnations of himself and his traits or alter egos enacted throughout his works. As palaverers, his characters are given to incessant and unbidden exaggerations of stories, bizarre neighborly disputes, peculiar deaths, anecdotes, grotesque sagas, political developments, and amorous escapades. Mostly, they discuss these things in pubs, for which this specific Czech genre is called “barroom gossip” (hospodský kec). Bohemians consumed by gab, they talk to themselves if necessary, stretch every anecdote out of proportion, do not take truth especially literally, and are indestructible on their ways around the city, although they are constantly getting into dangerous situations. Hrabal himself commented on his commentators, saying that the palaverers made his stories foam up the way yeast foams beer (Hrabal 1988, 354). In that sense, Moppel Schappik–Wawerzinek is a palaverer—the palaverer of Prenzlauer Berg.


My City’s Me, It’s Many

In light of all this, let us classify the novel in three steps. First, with Moppel Schappik, Wawerzinek presents a sort of “bite inhibition” to borrow Jan Faktor’s use of the phrase. This contrasts with Frank-Wolf Matthies of the epigram, whose poetry is innately more drastic, direct, desperate, and aggressive. His poetics remain to be analyzed within the mode discussed here as “verticality.” Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos, in modifying the axes of central underground techniques, points directly to the unique dilemma of fundamentally oppositional art in East Germany. Second, for all Moppel Schappik’s attitudes to consumers, as noted by Andreas Erb, the novel cannot be counted among the pop-literary Berlin books of its time. It is indicative that Susanne Ledanff coined the term “surreapolis” for such treatments of a magical, fairy-tale-like place that metaphorically enacts Berlin trends (Ledanff 2009, 459). Third, Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos might seem to exercise restraint within the scope of this analysis, placing it closer to Bohumil Hrabal’s palaverers. Still, a scene like the one in which Moppel Schappik, in “conventional” underground style, sits among punks, writing a “poem of rage and gnashing teeth,” pressing into it “whatever sweat and hysterics, honking horns and fumes squeeze through to him” seems plenty unsavory (Wawerzinek 1991, 64). As does the pasted-in, brash language. Twenty years later, in 2010, Peter Wawerzinek was awarded the prestigious Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his autobiography Raven Love (Rabenliebe). The book is about childhood and about the countryside: “away from the stupid city, the stupid urbanites, their stupid events and Russian nightclubs, away from the bottle that I fall prey to when I have to breathe in the urbanites’ stupidity” (Wawerzinek 2003, 69–70). Moppel Schappik, who moved “so he wouldn’t have to take up cudgels for his homeland” becomes down-to-earth. He pursues his yearning to “grow grass on the paths of his thoughts” (Wawerzinek 1991, 94). Wawerzinek’s character shares that yearning with the protagonists of Andrzej Stasiuk and Yuri Andrukhovych—but the latter characters run away, only to return to their own doom. Just as Wawerzinek free-associated and pasted things into Moppel Schappik’s Tattoos, in Raven Love he inserts children’s poems and newspaper clippings about neglected and murdered children, scraps of memories, descriptions of nature, and reflections on motherlessness. As Jörg Magenau writes: He lets [his text] rise like bread dough with wordplay and inserts newspaper clippings about abandoned children and other quotes without ever making clear what this is meant to prove, then stretches it out further still with strained metaphors like snow that falls promptly at all significant moments of life. (Magenau 2010, 19)

Pasted Cities: Wawerzinek Between Döblin and Hrabal


A desperate, sad palaverer whose wit has fallen by the wayside. What remains is Moppel Schappik’s perhaps most poetic, most underground verse: “PRANCE SHOUT SMASH SING: I am a firefly of this city” (Wawerzinek 1991, 155; capitals in the original).

Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground? The Topol Brothers’ Psí vojáci Songs He came dancing across the water With his galleons and guns Looking for the new world And that palace in the sun. —Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”96

Filip Topol, born in 1965, and the original front man of the Czech band Psí vojáci (Dog Soldiers), and his elder brother Jáchym, born in 1962 and the teenage music group’s first lyricist, were doubtless familiar with these verses from Neil Young’s song “Cortez the Killer.” The song, first recorded in 1975 for Young’s Zuma album, reflects upon the “black legend” (leyenda negra) of colonialism, specifically referring to Hernán Cortés’s brutal conquest of the Aztec Empire. In 1979, a few years later, the downfall of the city of Tenochtitlán appeared as an emblematic subject in the song “Cities” (“Města”) by Psí vojáci. The song’s message and aesthetic are at some remove from Young’s folk-rock ballad, but significant thematic material is borrowed from it. “Cities” exemplifies the pattern of borrowing from popular myth to inflate contemporary radical protest by aesthetic means—by a method that transcends hemispheres and political regimes. This marriage of rock, pop, punk, and the underground is systematic and anything but random. The most relevant aspect to our discussion here is the myth’s link to urbanity. On that basis, this chapter will primarily consider two works by Psí vojáci and read them comparatively. In addition to “Cities,” I will look at Burning Pigeons (Hořící holubi), a concept album recorded in 1996 with sophisticated lyrics by Filip Topol. The album raises the question of the underground’s historical and categorical boundaries.

96 Quotation from the booklet to Neil Young’s and Crazy Horse’s Zuma album (Young 1975).


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

Et in Arcadia Ego: Native Americans, Shamans, and Trance In response to the release of Jáchym Topol’s novel City Sister Silver (Sestra) in 1994, Balduin Winter wrote an essay proclaiming that the “day of spat-out protest songs” was over, once and for all. The “countless stories that assail [Jáchym Topol] with the Wende challenge him to another, broader form” (Winter 2000, 76). The next chapter here, about Jáchym Topol’s Prague prose, will demonstrate the reasoning for Winter’s observation. However, the notion that Jáchym and Filip Topol had spent the preceding period “spitting out” protest songs is easily disproved by their debut album. None of it has been “spat” out, certainly not the lyrics. If he wanted to or not, the Topol brothers’ anti-regime father, the playwright and prose writer Josef Topol, a signatory of Charter 77, exposed his sons to dissent from an early age. The brothers were later forbidden university admission. Jáchym Topol was forced to work as a boilerman, among other jobs, and escaped military service by having himself committed to a psychiatric hospital—not the only person to choose that route. In 1985, he founded the underground periodical Revolver Revue, which is still published today as a magazine of literature and culture. Seven years earlier, in April 1978, the thirteen-year-old Filip Topol had performed songs with lyrics by his sixteen-year-old brother at Václav Havel’s country house in Hrádeček—as an opening act for the Plastic People of the Universe. The following year, Filip founded Psí vojáci with his friends and classmates Jan Hazuka and David Skála. In 1980, Psí vojáci was banned from performing, as were other bands from the alternative music scene.97 From then on, the band played under a series of other names and abbreviations in semi-legal spaces, including in clubs of Prague’s Žižkov neighborhood.98 Jáchym Topol wrote most of the band’s early lyrics. Even after founding the band Národní třída (National Street), he continued recording albums with his brother, including an album of 97 See, for example, Trever Hagen’s comments on the “New Waves” of the Czech musical underground (Hagen 2019, 117–38), and Tomáš Jirsa on the afterlife and cult status of the band, the audience’s yearning for authenticity, and the self-destructive performances of Filip Topol (Jirsa 2017). Also Jaroslav Riedel on the band in his edition of their songs (F. Topol 1999, 14–9). 98 In Martin Machovec’s chronology, the first underground generation consists of Egon Bondy and his circle, the second generation is represented by Ivan Martin Jirous and his friends, and the third generation centers around the Topol brothers (Machovec 2019, 142). Yet, for Trever Hagen the Topol brothers belong to the second underground generation that “was still connected to the same places, events, and people and thus served to innovate and extend the Merry Ghetto” of the first generation (Hagen 2019, 127).

Et in Arcadia Ego: Native Americans, Shamans, and Trance


his Prague novel City Sister Silver in 1994. In August 2011, Psí vojáci announced that it was splitting up. Filip Topol, his body ravaged by his excessive lifestyle, died in 2013 at age 48. The band’s Czech band name, Psí vojáci, refers to the Dog Soldiers military society of the Cheyenne tribe in North America, popularized by Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man (1964) and its 1970 film adaptation, which was directed by Arthur Penn and starred Dustin Hoffman. In Filip Topol’s preface to the edited collection of lyrics published in 1993, the allusion of the band’s name is tied into a mystification of self and world that extends far beyond any adolescent romantic impulse: “To one third I’m a little dog / to the second a human being and to the third wind / I’m afraid, or thank God, that isn’t a joke” (F. Topol 1993, 3). In the meantime, Jáchym Topol had titled a poetry collection Landscape with Indians (Krajina s Indiánama, 1988). His poems are quintessentially underground, grappling with the suffering of ragged landscapes that are contaminated ideologically and otherwise. The poetic figures are persecuted, repressed by moles, paralyzed or paranoid, plagued by hallucinations. They ride trams without destinations, roaming through the night on quests for love and sex. With their references to Native Americans, Filip and Jáchym Topol are participating in a specific tradition of 1960s countercultural movements and, more generally, in a critique of civilization. Stuart Hall was very quick to observe American hippies’ pastoral and arcadian spirit (Hall 1969, 170–92). Slogans like “Back to Mother Earth” went hand in hand with a utopian escapism that gave way to noble-savage rural communes. Along similar lines, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter classify pan-nativism as a byproduct of advanced urbanization: “From the start, Mother Earth was a pure projection of countercultural ideas onto aboriginal peoples. Ironically, many of these ideas have subsequently been taken up in Native communities, and have become a central component of the emerging pan-Indian identity” (Heath and Potter 2006, 274). In the 1990s, Jáchym Topol translated Native American myths into Czech with particular fascination for the hybrid figure of Coyote (Topol 1997). In “Cities,” Psí vojáci gives this animal figure pride of place. The Topols’s aim is to symbolically overturn a semantic association: precisely because dogs, jackals, and, later, coyotes are used in “white” linguistic contexts to mark something as cravenly threatening, mangy, and base, they can be reclaimed as totems of naturalness and primal dignity. This is also about a presumed, canonical slippery slope of civilization, a binary of civilization and wildness that “Cities” applies counter-normatively as a dichotomy of the primal and human versus civilization. The specific innovation of the Native American topos, as opposed to the origin myths favored by the avant-garde, lies less in its clearly esoteric connotations than in its pop-cultural references. The anti-civilization reference points


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

are not supposedly authentic vestiges such as folk songs or tribal masks; instead, the latter turned to a repertoire of precedence claims that had been expressly and recognizably produced for consumption. This background casts aesthetic techniques such as those of the Budapest underground band Galloping Coroners (Vágtázó Halottkémek, VHK), founded in 1975, in a new light. When their “shaman punk” exalts canine symbolism, this is not an artifact of a local ethnic tradition. In fact, it localizes a globally available code. The Galloping Coroners attracted attention beyond Central and Eastern Europe through Gábor Bódy’s film Dog’s Night Song (Kutya éji dala, 1983), in which the director adapts recordings of the band’s concerts and, through a character who is both astrophysicist and musician, recalls its bandleader Atilla Grandpierre, who held a doctorate in astrophysics (Szemere 2001, 66–9). Before their breakup in 2000, the Galloping Coroners combined psychedelic hardcore with dog howls, screams, percussion, and chants. With music of rage and trance, they enacted imagined pagan rituals on stage. Masks and feather headdresses were paired with a kettledrum, a glockenspiel, and a fiddle. Their performances incorporated reverence for Attila the Hun and the glorification of nomadic life and sun-worship, envisioned the re-conquest of lost paradises, and invoked cosmological questions, the magic and fundamental forces of nature, and the reception of signals from space. Grandpierre’s manifesto Punk as a Rebirth of Shamanist Folk Music, published in 1984, provided a theoretical angle. Invoking Béla Bartók’s notion of natural, liberated folk music, the manifesto contended that punk was recovering the radicalism of shamanistic ritual music. Both types of music were claimed to induce a state of ecstasy in their players and audience, restoring the world to a symbolic order. Punk, for Grandpierre, updated the internally coherent radicalism of ancient peoples and cultures for the present day: Totem music—the music of shamanistic ceremonies—was a working and effective magic for its creators, one which produced ecstasy. And, through its force, it elevated the participant’s relation to himself and to the world into a symbolic order. In this way, the first step toward practical action was taken. Music meant preparation: mobilizing and accumulating all available force, the rhythmic intensification of the self and the will, and reactivating hidden abilities. (Grandpierre 2016, 242)

In this conception, totem music can also be seen as a version of “speaking in tongues,” which Diedrich Diederichsen describes in the jazz context, where singers and performers become recipients or “instruments of a higher being” (Diederichsen 2014, 219, 311–2). Grandpierre then pits both—totem music and punk—against a common, estranged Other of authoritarian, rigid, “serious” music: the allegedly revolutionary school of twelve-tone serialism. A ­ lthough it

Et in Arcadia Ego: Native Americans, Shamans, and Trance


might well be a modern technique of composition, he argued that it did not represent “authentic” music or “new culture” in the sense of an intimate connection between artist and listener. Alexander Pehlemann later described the Galloping Coroners’ shamanism as “anti-civilized neo-barbarism in an urban transfiguration” (Pehlemann 2014, 131). And Anna Szemere sums it up: The later albums of the band moved increasingly from reflective toward restaurative nostalgia. [...] The once-shocking and ecstatic cacophony of the stage sets and costumes, which signified shamanism in its most stylized from, became replaced with rituals attributed to “my Hungarian predecessors.” Costumes that included fish and feathers covering the musicians’ bodies were disposed of in favor of shiny satin tunics. The iconography, visual and poetic, is yet another representation of old Hungarian history steeped in mythology. (Szemere 2013, 251)

On another level, audible in Grandpierre’s “first step toward practical action,” the anthropologist Kathryn Milun interprets the Galloping Coroners’ performance as primarily a “powerful counter-hegemonic practice” (Milun 1991, 17– 8), a countercultural intervention in a Hungary that was at once socialist and patriotic. Milun proceeds to point out that the Hunnish/Avaric/Magyar/shamanic emphasis of the Galloping Coroners poses a challenge to the Hungarian official culture—especially its self-legitimizing appropriation of the Christianization story centered on Stephen I of Hungary. Therein lies the band’s dissident potential, which distinguishes it from the hippies and New Agers of the West, she contends, asserting that only Central and Eastern European shamanism could be truly “counter-hegemonic.” Milun’s observation is dubious. Indeed, more broadly defined anti-modern resentment akin to that in the West seems more prominent than the energy directed against a concrete regime. What distinguishes punk from twelve-tone music is not a differing degree of artificiality, but punk’s playfully low complexity level and its incorporation of vernacularly “trashy” imaginaries. The effect is the same as with the topos of the Native American. In the end, Grandpierre’s musicological manifesto, including its theoretical reflection on Bartók and the twelve-tone serialists, is not as much a critical commentary as an aesthetic expression. Rather than a work of musicology or cultural studies, it’s poetry—indeed, pop poetry: Since these characteristics came into being not as results of scientific research but in a spontaneous way, from below, produced by the people, identical forces must have been at work in calling these two syndromes forth two to three thousand years apart. It also implies the forces defying space and time that called folk art into being—challenging oppression, tragedies in history—are at work today, just as much as they were when people lived in a natural unity with themselves and their environment. (Grandpierre 2016, 256)


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

The Psí vojáci and the Galloping Coroners shared an expressive recitativelike rhythmic speech; a thematic preference for a mythical, prehistoric natural world; apocalyptic visions; and prefabricated images of the archaic. In their performance of “Cities,” for example, precisely intoned, monothematic staccatos gather force for minutes with the aim of putting the listeners in a trance. Their music “was dominated by the piano as lead instrument which, along with the punk-like rhythms of the drums and bass, created a peculiar combination of rock techniques, free jazz, blues harmony, modern chanson, and classical music, employing sudden switches between minor melodic chords and cadential dissonances, and [Filip] Topol’s fierce declamation and screaming of elaborate poems” (Jirsa 2017, 70). In 1986, Ivan Martin Jirous called this literally “imbosh art.” Imbosh is an obscure word for the foam that comes from the mouth of a hunted deer, and Jirous sees “imbosh art” as the death cry of a hunted animal. Psí vojáci’s music is “supple,” Jirous writes, “carried by the piano” of Filip Topol as much as by the lyrics, which create a “new mythology”: anachronistic, exalted, hysterical, expressionistic, and relentlessly erotic (Jirous 1997, 231–2).

The Colonial Apocalypse: “Cities” That a third of Psí vojáci’s songs deal with the city and urban life does not distinguish them much from other Czech bands such as Národní třída, DG 307, The Plastic People of the Universe, Garáž (Garage), and Extempore. The cities of 1980s city songs are degenerate and ailing: civilization’s monsters that are themselves full of ghosts. The young generation appears hopeless, lacking any future but conformity. The poetic subjects come off as paranoid, and their urban lives seem both inevitable and nearly intolerable. At times their resignation is mixed with resistance and irony. However, Jáchym und Filip Topol’s 1979 song “Cities” gives the subject a singular turn. It is a song about the subjugation and murder of the original indigenous Americans and begins with the destruction of their cities, the city as a place of innocence before it mutates into a dystopia where the enslaved are forced to live. Over the course of 120 lines, the colonial theme evolves into a protest song in the guise of a myth, consistently universalized by recurring passages such as “it will happen here and then elsewhere”:99 99 In his novel The Devil’s Workshop (Chladnou zemí, 2009), Jáchym Topol lets his characters ask similar questions about the Shoah: “If it happened here, can it happen again?” (Topol 2013, 32). His young western “bunk seekers” head for the dark sites of Eastern

The Colonial Apocalypse: “Cities”


Lurching along, into the streets of tainted meat! / Lurching along, into the arms of yearning purveyors! / With a revulsion for all things glossy! / Raging on the strings of orogeny / That is the calm / That opens the circles of hell / To the verge of bitterness; / And with the candle discarded / The day of quenching is nigh / And he forgot to paint on / An eighth day! / A day when retiring to solitary repose / Is accompanied only by desire / And a ninth day!—a servant day / So that bodies in restful oneness / Bear fruit not only through work / In a tempest, scream into the gale / When at night beneath the gutters / The wind is raging, tearing at lungs / When / When seventeen of your darlings / In white hospital coats / And graveyard boots / Go hop and iamb and dactyl / And hop and iamb and dactyl / And hop and iamb and dactyl / Carrying the gloves of the future / Full of love and rubberless / Sunk into their own selves / In the silence of the great Festivities of Self-appointment / It will be in a country called Land Without Bread / And with a bloodied kitbag / And without roads / And over stones / And on hands / And on knees / Where fish perish without moaning / Where hunters deaden their senses with boar spittle / A clearing opens through death’s thicket / Meanwhile / A snake of boot heels crisscrosses a road / And heads South / Undressing cities of purgatory and entering / Through a gate where heads / Are flushed out and tongues are weighed / It will happen here and then elsewhere / We’re walking along / Feeling like we’re merely the others / As if waiting for the roof to rupture / And when the light breaks through / It will happen here and then elsewhere / But the army of shadows says farewell all too easily / The lingering heroes of the night with their swords and camps / Claw their way back / It was but a moment when you hiccupped with hope / It will happen here and then elsewhere / After all, Cortés and his people came out of the forest / And on the seventh day the men went up onto the plains / And caught sight of the cities / And lashed out at the markets and canals / And with hollow snaps sharp canines crush steel skulls / For ages they waited, now scrambling over the walls, bursting into galleries / For ages they waited, for sand swallows up greedily, gobbling its fill / For ages they waited, struck down from the walls / Only in death they stretch out their arms, finally becoming eagles / For ages they waited, audacious is the joy of lengthy slaughter / Joy to the victors, for ages they waited / The stench stretches nostrils, the tonsils / Of parched throats struggle / The ponies of death, the carriages of death / Lakes of death, for ages they waited / Midnight swept out the lairs! / The eternally hungry / Reel until the final moment of overeating / After all, even mana came down from heaven once / Striking empty heads with indignation / That was before we had reached the cities / Enveloped by the darkness of towers and a drooling moon / And the eternal hangover that comes from bitter sermons / And with a lesson lurking behind our backs / They forced us to march through the cities / They forced us to live in them / It was hard to escape from the infernal riverbanks / You couldn’t flee through the orchards / They’d even carved up the courtyards with walls / Every avenue grew massive with trees / Taking on the weight of passing years / And we reaped a harvest / Far from the hills and the gullies / And the dogs forced us / To focus / To process / What had been done / To show gratitude / Lend an ear / To what had been made Europe, visiting mass graves and concentration camps. The novel tells a story of “dark tourism,” i.e. of the commercialization of bleak history.


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

ready / Divide / Carve up / What had been accomplished / And slowly they became people / The years weighed heavy on them / Like dogs’ bellies full of rocks / Hardly anyone got lost / Hardly anyone escaped from the terror of Hollowfilth /100 It was hard to hide in regions where they kill animals / Only a few sentences about the eternal struggle of hunger and pride were bound into books / With a mangy back and a gravedigger’s self-assurance / Hunting in the kitchen with sticks and stones / With the eternal pride of cold nights / All manner of people with the unremitting sickness of supplication, the sign of beasts / Their tails between their legs, the murky / Sign of recovery, tongues out, the white sputum of sickness / Now merely exhausted and abandoned by rage / Wisened by fear and struck dumb / A dog! / With a wavering scamper he hurries his run / And drags his belly into the earth / Beat on drums made of dog hide! / And raise the roof / With shinbone flutes! (F. Topol 1999, 38–41; translated by Marek Tomin)

On stage, Psí vojáci performs the song in ten minutes of rhythmic talk-singing. The pseudo-refrain, “and hop and iamb and dactyl” (á hop á jamp á daktyl) evokes an ecstatic Indian yell gone mad, responding with sardonic anguish to artistic optimism and to the notion of civilization as a cultivating force. The screams serve as disturbing, isolated sound-symbols—as intervening estrangement à la Bert Brecht. Later, the song slows down, and its overemphasized long vowels give it the feel of a dirge. The drums and electric guitar dominate, or—in Filip Topol’s words—“tame” the piano. The marching rhythms vary in speed, accelerating at the moment the lyrics address Cortés and his men but slowing down when describing life behind the walls of the native city. The whole text is over-articulated—almost taking “iamb” and “dactyl” literally—and pointedly stretching out the letters y and ý at the ends of lines. Thematically, the song is conspicuously close to Neil Young’s rock ballad “Cortez the Killer,” recorded with Crazy Horse several years earlier. But at first, aesthetically and poetically, the two songs seem worlds apart. A comparison might illuminate our analysis. He came dancing across the water With his galleons and guns Looking for the new world And that palace in the sun. On the shore lay Montezuma With his coca leaves and pearls In his halls he often wandered With the secrets of the worlds. 100 In the Czech original: “hrůza prázdnohnusu.”

The Colonial Apocalypse: “Cities”


And his subjects gathered ‘round him Like the leaves around a tree In their clothes of many colours For the angry gods to see. And the women all were beautiful And the men stood straight and strong They offered life in sacrifice So that others could go on. Hate was just a legend And war was never known The people worked together And they lifted many stones. They carried them to the flatlands And they died along the way But they built up with their bare hands What we still can’t do today. And I know she’s living there And she loves me to this day I still can’t remember when Or how I lost my way. He came dancing across the water Cortez, Cortez What a killer. (Young 1975)

Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” like most of his works, is a drawn-out improvisation that ranges, on stage, from ten to twenty minutes. It opens with an instrumental, in which Young presents the main theme on lead guitar. His singing joins in with a steady melancholy, accompanied by drums, bass, and rhythm guitar. After launching into the first verse and the repeated line “What a killer,” the song fades out in another instrumental. Navid Kermani sums up the song’s impression on listeners: “The connection produced by the beautiful, doleful melody, the leisurely rhythm, the whining guitar riffs, and Neil Young’s reedy voice is so strong that each successive shock only makes it seem more stable” (Kermani 2002, 76). Crazy Horse achieves the same effect that Psí vojáci and Galloping Coroners strove for, but more pleasantly. The band lulls itself and its audience into a trance by “repeating the identical” and progresses into a truly ecstatic momentum by leaner means (2002, 98). Or, as Diedrich Diederichsen interprets it: Neil Young develops an “alphabet of ruggedness” (Diederichsen 2014, 12).


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

This aesthetic “beauty,” with all its rhyme and rhythm, goes along with the romanticization of Native Americans that Young has so often been accused of, a romanticization he would perpetuate in such later songs as “Pocahontas” (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979) and “Like an Inca” (Trans, 1983). The lyrics of “Cortez the Killer” don’t detail the plunder and genocide; nor does he need them to. The eight verses’ fascination rests on a simply constructed binary. On one side is an idyll. On the other are the “galleons and guns” of Cortés, followed by the devastating attack implied by the epithet “killer” and presumed as common knowledge. The lyrics likewise expect listeners to know that the Aztecs made human sacrifices to their furious gods. Beautiful women, proud men, the palace in the sun, a people as sturdy as a tree: the song invokes fixed topoi, clichés, and popular myths that are as commonplace as cowboys and (Prairie) Indians—which Young uses prima facie for a bitter critique of civilization. The real jump is not the introduction of an “I” in the penultimate verse; in fact, it comes before the mystifying images that introduce the killer: “He came dancing across the water.” It is hard to imagine more beauty and grace in one image. Similarly, the final line is charged with equal parts bewildered resignation and accusation, together with—almost—a whiff of affection. By the time we reach the dancer over the water, the binary construct has long been leveraged—before it shifts with the question of the “I” character’s identity. Is it a nameless participant, a universal observer, or the singer himself? The listener is welcome to decide. This “I” could just as well include the killer Cortés, who in a departure from the popular tale is not searching for gold—an element conspicuously absent from Young’s Conquista-topoi—but for utopia: “looking for the new world / in that palace in the sun.” The speaker has destroyed what is longed for, a past and future promise of love. It is as unreachable as ever: “still can’t remember when / or how I lost my way.” Navid Kermani, who reads this and other Neil Young songs from the perspective of Persian mysticism. In The Book of Those Killed by Neil Young he expresses it thus: Because of this verse, “Cortez the Killer” is an epos about humanity: its steadfast, illogical belief that what is now is not everything; that redemption is possible; that we are loved. This belief is as realistic as the existence of an Aztec princess in today’s Mexico City; the catastrophe of the beginning as hazy memory, the complicity in a guilt over something whose precise composition we don’t even know precisely—doubt at being human, at belonging to the same species as a killer like Cortez. ­(Kermani 2002, 79)

In that light, to accuse the text of misrepresenting historical reality in the preColumbian Americas is beside the point. Even the concrete colonial murder is

The Colonial Apocalypse: “Cities”


only the superficial subject of debate. Rather, this is about the problem of civilization itself, about the design and destruction of the utopian, about inner strife that extends down to the individual level. To achieve this message, the protest requires the (popular) myth—which must be identifiable as such. Like Young’s song, Topol’s “Cities” needs little more than a historical fragment, a code name—the same as Young’s. It attaches the universal disaster to a concrete metaphor: the destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and its reconstruction by the Spanish. Topol’s opening reads like a response to Young’s first line, contrasting their poetic agendas: “In a jolted run into the street of the sick masses!” It is a distorted reflection, a dialogue on the same subject, which is clearly humanity (as Kermani suggests) and not the conquest of Mexico. Psí vojáci set about exorcizing the glimmer of hope that, as Kermani points out, was left in “Cortez the Killer.” Topol forgoes an individual, identifiable protagonist, such as Hernán Cortés, in favor of the “city.” As the plural in the title suggests, the city appears twice. First, it is the city of the conquered, which only survives in the memory of the markets, canals, and riverbanks, present in alleyways, gardens, and spacious courtyards—before the occupier’s walls “carved up the courtyards.” It also appears as the city of the conquerors, a place of horror, imprisonment, and agony—in short, as hell. This hell is furnished with so many literary allusions and anachronisms (rain ponchos, hospitals, latex condoms) that it can claim the plural on its own, representing cities in general, which have come to be this way and are no longer distinct. Most importantly, however, “Cities” renounces the catchiness and the approachability that made “Cortez the Killer” one of the most prominent rock ballads ever. This is true of both its performance and lyrics. Psí vojáci subjects listeners to an aggressive, harsh, and cacophonous lecture with fluctuating perspectives, scalpel-like cuts, and irresolvably dense images. Syntactic links are left vague; semantics are unstable. Jáchym Topol’s teeming language blasts away any narrativity, which Neil Young preserves so elegantly. The links are subtler and more cryptic, and the end is more uncompromising in both its resignation and its accusation. The repeated irony in “Cities,” which “Cortez the Killer” avoids, makes it no more tolerable. In fact, the irony worsens the brutality by relativizing the basically empathetic wordplay of “hop and iamb and dactyl.” Both sets of lyrics use omission as a device. “Cortez the Killer” leaves out violence and annihilation, reveling instead in pastoral scenes. Conversely, “Cities” briefly sketches the pastoral element while extensively confronting us with excessive violence by way of excessive language. Its scenes and images allude to two reference texts, the Apocalypse and the Inferno from Dante’s


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

Divine ­Comedy: “Through me the way into the grieving city / Through me the way into eternal sorrow / Through me the way among the lost people” (Dante 1996, 55). The urban world of Jáchym and Filip Topol is a città dolente where sunlight (“that palace in the sun”) is definitively absent with at most a “drooling moon” giving light in the sky—a place dominated by poverty, hunger, estrangement, suppression, and obtuseness. And it’s a world where the brutal editing technique turns the one-time process of conquest or apocalypse into an abiding state of painful death akin to medieval visions of the hereafter. But without paradise. Nags of death, a stench in their nostrils, the safety of the grave, bloody foam, grinding fangs, crushed skulls, and the “sick mass” of the opening verse are eternal and inescapable. Outside, beyond the cities with their pennedin courtyards, dead gardens, and martyred riverbank, there is only the “Land Without Bread,” recalling Luis Buñuel’s film Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (1932), a picturesque documentary of death in the mountains of Northern Spain. The new masters kill the dogs and use their hides as drumskins and their hollowed bones as pipes. The dog, the animal conventionally associated with Native Americans—from the Aztec cóyotl to the Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne—becomes a victim. Even worse, the masters force the speaker to train the dogs intimidating, attacking, and fighting others: “And slowly they became people.” Sick and cowering, shedding hair and starving, the dying totem debased into human form concludes the song as a metonymy for the universal Conquista. This time, Cortés does not come dancing across the water; he bursts out of the woods to destroy the original city and to erect, upon its ruins, the Moloch we falsely call civilization. It remains unclear whether the surviving language, the ecstatic chant-singing, and the piercing cries bear new hope akin to the Galloping Coroners’ pronouncement of recovering the shamanic age’s lost unity in punk. The lyrical vitality and psychedelic aspects of Psí vojáci’s performance of “Cities” suggest this. But the lyrics themselves offer no support for such a reading. They consist of pure despair, inflated, like Young’s protest, by the poetic mythologization of popular topoi from the contemporary countercultural movement. An elementary difference is that “Cortez the Killer” employs these topoi to existentialize Cortés, whereas “Cities” uses them to eschatologize his myth.

The End? Psí vojáci recorded Burning Pigeons (Hořící holubi) in 1996, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and twenty-seven years after “Cities.” I bring us to con-

The End?


sider this album in order to point out fundamental shifts in the band’s aesthetic and locate their historical context.101 First of all, the rage has gone up in smoke. Where “Cities” combined postpunk rock with explosive language, drastic imagery, and intonation full of rich vocal sounds, Burning Pigeons is electronic pop music. Two esoteric-seeming pairings of xylophone and organ set the basic sound, and recurrent echo effects are used to overlap voices or make them reverberate. Carefully sampled-in street noises correspond to the lyrics, commenting on or interpreting them. Overall, the sophisticated composition is a coherent whole, both musically and thematically.102 The songs, written by Filip Topol, all revolve around the same story from different perspectives. The protagonists are “the prince,” “the man,” “the woman,” “the squirrel,” “the tree,” the titular burning pigeons—and, over and over, “the city.” The first and final songs are about the prince. Between them are seven episodes featuring the squirrel, the tree, and pigeons, followed by five “man” episodes: (1) a man enters the city, (2) a man crosses the city, (3) he takes a look, (4) he turns around and sees a woman, and (5) he approaches her. In the opening song, the “clueless” prince overtakes a tram, crosses the street, and feels a sense of nothingness under the scorching sun. Three healthy pigeons come over to join him. The squirrel observes the man and can already see the approaching pigeons, their bodies falling in flames to the ground like a “fiery rain” (ohnivý dešť). The sky they fall from resembles “sliced-open gums” (vyhřezlá dáseň). Later, as “the man,” or “the prince” will enter the city, cross it, and break the menacing silence with his footsteps, hearing whispered prophesies wherever he goes. This reading of the prince as the man seems plausible, at least. A doppelganger or split personality could be compatible with that interpretation. The man sees a burning pigeon that has fallen from the sky: “The man stopped / and began to swallow. / In his mouth bulged the taste of the city” (F. Topol 1999, 239). The next song continues:

101 More or less in the middle of this period, Filip Topol called the underground in 1990 by no means a music style but rather a “spiritual attitude,” hinting at Jirous’s manifesto “Report on the Third Czech Music Revival” (Jirous 2006). See Jirsa (2017, 68). 102 Tomáš Jirsa claims that is was impossible for the band to change its underground cult status: “Whereas the band’s mid-1990s compositions and recordings bade farewell to its underground past and ‘sound,’ its concert practices adhered to this past, due to the lack of acceptance for their new work by audiences and in media discourse” (Jirsa 2017, 72).


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

And then the pigeon began to change. In the glare of a flamboyant fire, it stretched, grew upward, and secretly thinned. The man could not even cover his eyes. He stared, because that poor creature turned into a beautiful woman. She smiled in the glow of the fire, as if the flames surrounding had given her such a love that it’ll break the heart of the man And the man stepped forward. (F. Topol 1999, 239; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

The man approaches the woman and embraces her: “Silence began to freeze everything over / the color disappeared / and the embrace wasn’t pleasant” (F. Topol 1999, 240). In the final song, the prince returns, feeling his inner emptiness start to fill and a gentle warmth spread within him—but threaten to scorch him. As in “Cities,” the city described in this enigmatic, carefully composed story in fourteen songs is no one particular place; it is a mythical city, but unlike Tenochtitlán, it is not made accessible by allusions. So often, the events are apocalyptic and the city is infernal: “It was like a leprosy in front of him / The towers and the houses looked like warning talons / or spoiled teeth” (1999, 238). A dominion of ghosts whose buildings breath and whose cities reek. The morass swirls on the ground. Whispers, clamors, and rumors encroach from every side. But the “district” the prince-man comes from is likewise “empty” and “tinny”, dominated by “standstill” in these “horrible years,” in which thousands of pigeons plummet in flames from the sky with “bluster,” “roar,” and “stink.” The subject matter is characterized by general decline and decay, not rural antiurbanism. In one song, the squirrel speaks anxiously to its beloved tree, which has suddenly gone cold and silent. Even Filip Topol’s squirrel song remains vague— though in the music, a sample of a chainsaw is inserted at the end of the song, an indexical sound-symbolism that resolves the situation’s ambiguity. This reintroduces the opposition of “nature” and “city/civilization,” but within urban space—not through the conventional dichotomy of “healthy countryside” versus “sick city.” This corresponds to the opposition of “holy” and “profane.” The city can offer nothing but decay, traffic noise, and chainsaws. In the end, the prince escapes the implicitly malicious streetcar by crossing himself. “And the tram gazes after him quietly,” according to the album’s final verse (1999, 240). Two further recurring dichotomies are “hot” versus “cold” (touched upon earlier) and “male” versus “female.” Like the other dichotomies above, they are normatively ambiguous and mutually disconnected, serving as unitary prin-

The End?


ciples. For example, one pigeon suffers from both painful heat and freezing cold and blames the merciless pigeon-god, wondering whether she is now an angel, a devil, or a falling star. And although “pigeon” (holub) is grammatically masculine in Czech, the text refers to them with the pronoun “she” (ona)— prefiguring the woman who will later emerge from the bird’s ashes. In fact, she is the real main character of the song cycle, making the gender binary its strongest polarity. Sigrid Weigel considers this to be the unifying structure of the urban myth. Walls divide spaces primarily tied to gender, she argues. The untamed, natural attribute of femininity always remains on the outside. Unlike the male hero, it cannot reconcile the split by seeking adventure in the chaotic and demonic, cannot bring the competing parts of the self into a regulated harmony: “To imagine cities as having female-coded natures, bodies, or images is only possible because cities are not conceived as inhabited or populated by female subjects. This dialectic finds its cohesion in the gaze of the active male subject, whether he enters the map as an urban planner, a conqueror, a flâneur, or a writer” (Weigel 1995, 36). In the major modern city, Weigel discerns the same pattern, except that it is no longer a question of who is inside or outside the wall, but of restricted passageways that impose implicit boundaries between public and private, permitted and prohibited. The city becomes feminine as a place of perpetual penetration (Weigel 1990, 180–204). The pigeon-woman’s relationship to the city is more complex than a simple equation. And yet it evokes a similar penetration. Given the context of the Topol brothers’ writing and performance, the “prince” calls forth a dual set of associations: the city as Prague and the woman as the princess and fortuneteller Libuše, whose legend was recorded by Cosmas of Prague in his twelfthcentury chronicles. In the legend, Libuše foretells the development of a great white city around her palace on the Vltava River. When the men quickly rebel against being ruled by a woman, the princess sends messengers to the countryside to summon Přemysl the ploughman to her royal court. Alongside him, Libuše establishes the Přemyslid dynasty—the dynasty that ruled Bohemia for centuries (Cosmas 2009, 40–9). Since then Libuše has been considered Prague’s representative, its dominant code word. In the song, of course, the story is turned on its head: a prince enters the city, becomes a common man, and after a brief encounter with a woman becomes a prince again. The woman is beautiful, but their embrace is one-sidedly icy and almost lethal—although it drives away the prince’s inner emptiness. In any case, this reading invokes another tradition: the topos of the city as a lover, a topos extensively elaborated on in the case of Prague. The Surrealists took to this sub-


Anticolonial Myth, Pop, Punk—and the End of the Underground?

ject, among them Vítězslav Nezval. In his 1936 poetry collection Prague with Fingers of Rain (Praha s prsty deště), the speaker is a foreign conqueror who approaches the city from various perspectives then, toward the end, summarizes: Remember me That I lived and walked about Prague That I learned to love her in a way no one loved her before That I learned to love her as her son and as a stranger That I learned to love her with the free heart of a fancy-free man with free dreams and desires That I learned to love her as a man who owns the future That I learned to love her as no one loved her before As her son and as a stranger (Nezval 2009, 62; translated by Ewald Osers)

Nezval describes an ascent into the city and into many roles and configurations of love for it/her (Vojvodík 2006, 340–8). The process Nezval vividly enumerates is minimized in Burning Pigeons. Because of the established literary trope of Prague, Filip Topol can do without mnemotechnical enumerations and explicit details of urban space, allowing him to focus on his reinterpretation of the fatal attraction. In the Surrealist poetry of Prague, Anja Tippner observes an ephemeral poetics of everyday, ambivalent movement patterns and decentralized perspectives. She determines that the borders of Prague, “for all their decentralism, can still be viewed from Prague Castle even in the surrealists’ writings” (Tippner 2009, 169). Similarly, Filip Topol decentralizes his cast of characters, but they too can still be “viewed” from a mythical center: from the position of the woman. Or, if you will, from Vyšehrad, the royal seat of the legendary Princess Libuše, the prehistoric center. The pagan era is also evoked by the tree gods, the pigeons/ doves, and the squirrel, which served as an oracle in Norse folk religion. Even the prince making the sign of the cross seems like a pre-civilized figure of piety. The dove not only symbolizes the Holy Spirit but also bears its ancient associations with love, harmony, and innocence. Thus, in the apocalypse of the modern city, the submerged better self of the city repeatedly emerges—not unlike the imagined version of pre-Columbian Tenochtitlan. Fully in the traditions of the femme fatale and the quasi-colonial victim, when it comes to gender issues, underground aesthetics usually prove ignorant to the point of stupidity. Upon a man’s touch, Filip Topol’s woman fades and freezes over yet continues to give out the all-consuming fire. However, the character remains as erratic and polysemous as the overall text. With knowing distance, the text closes with the stopped tram looking at the prince, who is burnt in his love for Prague. Is he redeemed or damned?

The End?


Kathryn Milun also highlighted the increasingly nationalist traits in the Galloping Coroners’ dissident potential because “they remind audiences that it is the animist and not the Christian heritage which is more ‘deeply’ Hungarian” (Milun 1991, 22–3). In the years since, Atilla Grandpierre has left the Galloping Coroners. His later band projects could be described as esoteric Hungarian ethno-folk rock whose impulse to affirm its national identity outweighs its critical bent. Together with its rising degree of commercialization, his music’s “underground-ness” has largely eroded since the Velvet Revolution era of 1989. Psí vojáci seem to be a similar story, despite their greater complexity and more advanced aesthetics. Both the song “Cities” and the album Burning Pigeons are examples of highly artificial, resolutely mythopoetical urban literature. Their inverted topoi employ or imply emblematic and legendary—and therefore popularly clichéd—mythical figures and landmarks. But by using this material, they create subjectively signified intra-topographies that function supertemporally and are highly eschatologically charged. Yet while “Cities” inscribes itself in a global, countercultural landscape of sound and subject matter, Burning Pigeons operates with national, or at least local, mythologems and a hermetically sealed poetics. Or, as Tomáš Jirsa puts it, the band entered “the world of ‘commercial’ pop” (Jirsa 2017, 76). The emphasis of the album is placed on polarity and reciprocality (holy versus profane, hot versus cold, masculine versus feminine); meanwhile, the vertical images of squirrel and tree, the falling pigeons, and the woman’s upward growth do not play dominant or defining roles. Nonetheless, set pieces of the underground are maintained: the urban space of terror that both attracts and repels. Even so, the myth no longer serves to exaggerate any general protest, however fundamental. Instead, it is abstracted from any historical referents, rendering it absolute and thus timelessly mystical. The myth serves an adapted aesthetic that, depending on taste, either overcomes or nullifies the subject versus object dilemma: dissolving the scandalousness of modernity in the eternal pain game of poiesis. The underground, as Jáchym Topol also pronounced in 1994, had come to its natural end with authoritarian state socialism. Its presence, as an aesthetic technique, could at most be anticipated now in the dictatorships of Asia (Topol 1994b, 10–1). That this pronouncement was false in two respects—diachronically and synchronically—is the central thesis of this book. One source of support for this thesis is Jáchym Topol himself, as a novelist.

Romani and Vietnamese in Prague: Jáchym Topol Bids Farewell to the Tripolis Praga Back again at the intersection. As ordinary as they come, the kind civilization spews out like a copy machine: trams, buses, cars, moms and bums, crowds back and forth, in and out of the subway, winos and screaming tots, established residents, gypsies, chinks, beggars and spooks, baby carriages with brand-new participants, smog. Above it all. —Jáchym Topol, Angel Exit103

This is the Prague of Hooks, the hero of Jáchym Topol’s novel Angel Station (Anděl) from 1995.104 By the mid-1990s, not much was left of the old CzechJewish-German myth of Prague, which had been replaced by a post-socialist confusion of physiognomies and roles: Laotians and Vietnamese, Ukrainians and Poles, Gypsies and Slovaks—the “foot soldiers of globalization” (SchmidtHäuer 1999, 43). But Topol’s portrait of this blend of multiple provenances is more than a timely reflection on the phenomena of globalization. Rather, his Prague novels City Sister Silver (Sestra) from 1994, and Angel Station take up the theme of diversity in order to tell stories of the underground. Both books were adapted as films a few years later, in collaboration with the writer. In these novels, Topol describes a divided city that functions as the ideal city of the underground in that the categories “rich,” “established,” and “official” are only present to give contrast: “under,” after all, presupposes a “ground.” The emphasis in both novels is on the sociocultural fissures in the urban space after the collapse of communism. They are works utterly removed from the dominant trend of reviving the multicultural legacy of the Central European cities through a romanticizing retrospective vision of the Czech-GermanJewish Tripolis Praga and its store of memories. 103 All quotations from Topol’s novels City Sister Silver (Topol 2000) and Angel Exit (Topol 2017) translated by Alex Zucker. For the motto, see Topol (2017, 65). 104 The character’s name in the Czech novel is Jatek. The name Jatek refers in Czech to “slaughterhouse” (jatky). In the English translation, Alex Zucker creates the speaking name Hooks. Finally, Vladimír Michálek’s film adoption of Topol’s novel chose the name Mikeš instead of Jatek.


Romani and Vietnamese in Prague

Prague as Locus Communis Prague’s multicultural legacy encompasses at least three topoi. First, there is the former Tripolis Praga: the German, Jewish, and Czech “city of three peoples.” Second, there is the Slavic topos of the “Golden City” (Zlatá Praha)—a city that flourishes and thrives at the hands of its Czech population. Finally, there is the topos of “Magic Prague” (Magická Praha), whose architecture and history are connected to Rudolf II, his astronomers, and his passion for alchemy and mannerism. These topoi have made Prague a multifarious canvas for many writers since the turn of the twentieth century. For the Germans and the Jews, Prague was a ghetto, a linguistic enclave, and a frightening labyrinth; meanwhile, for the Czechs, it was a vibrant capital city. Literature by authors from these three groups continues to reproduce the myth of multicultural Prague to the present day—regardless of how much or little the groups actually interacted and how contrived their cultural, national, and linguistic differences ultimately were.105 These authors include such figures as Max Brod, Viktor Dyk, Jaroslav Hašek, Franz Kafka, Egon Erwin Kisch, Gustav Meyrink, and Franz Werfel. Each of them cultivated images of the golden, magical, or maternal city— images that have traveled all the way down to late-twentieth-century writers such as Angelo Maria Ripellino and Claudio Magris. The cityscape to which they pay tribute is highly overdetermined in literature, reserved for its idiosyncrasy and coziness, for magic, mysticism, and morbidity. The notion of Prague as the city of three peoples has been a commonplace since the mid-twentieth century if not earlier. As a literary topos, it is a turn of phrase transmitted from generation to generation. The topos of the city of three peoples seems as inherent to Prague as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and Wenceslas Square. It appears in many different contexts and functions as a condensed image as well as an ambivalent narrative.

Topol Twists the Convention in Angel Station Jáchym Topol presents Prague as a multicultural place of memory as well, but he turns away from convention. In the following, I will examine his novel Angel Station along with Vladimír Michálek’s film adaptation, Angel Exit, in terms of a shift from the Tripolis Praga to a global city of and for the underground. 105 See, for instance, Colombi (2016), Nekula and Toman (2012), Čapková (2012), and ­Spector (2000).

Topol Twists the Convention in Angel Station


Topol casts Prague in a different light than how it is portrayed in contemporary novels by Michal Ajvaz, Daniela Hodrová, and Miloš Urban, whose works do not fundamentally outright jettison attributes traditionally ascribed to the city, though they all do shift away from the center and commit a “monstrous (re)mythification of the ordinary” in the periphery (Kratochvil 2006, 13). Daniela Hodrová moves the farthest off, focusing on Žižkov and Vinohrady, down-to-earth working-class districts that, in Eduard Schreiber’s words, are “closer to grief, closer to suffering, closer to troubles” and have “less sheen, less gold, less magic” (Schreiber 2001, 16). This again alludes to Vítězslav Nezval’s “Strolling through Prague,” in which Nezval abandoned his self-perceived need to find a voice for these districts. Jáchym Topol’s Prague novels contain hardly any of the traces or common connotations of German-Jewish-Czech Prague. In Angel Station and City Sister Silver, Topol not only replaces the groups but also realigns values: from the elitist Prague modernism shaped by written language, he moves by way of gutter slang to the speakers of a post-Babylonian “Kanak language.” As already mentioned above, “kanak” (Kanake) is a racially charged German pejorative term of abuse for immigrants from Turkey and the Middle East, which Feridun Zaimoğlu has famously re-appropriated in his book Kanak Sprak (Zaimoğlu 1995). In the late 1980s, immigrants “proudly adopted ‘Kanake’ as a self-appellation” (Williams 2013, 216). Thus Kanak writing and Kanak lingo rebel against a dominant culture; they employ aggressive modes of writing, hypermasculinity, performativity, repulsion, and fascination. Another reading of this depiction of contemporary Prague might consider its implied refutation of socialist internationalism or its perversion of former ideological standards. I will not pursue these lines of argument at this point but only suggest them for discussion. Angel Station centers around an intersection in the Prague district of Smíchov called Anděl, meaning angel in Czech. A pharmacy called Zum Engel (which uses the German word for angel) was once located here, and this supposedly gave the square its name. The Smíchov district, located on the left bank of the Vltava, is in the fifth borough of Prague and was once an industrial suburb. In the nineteenth century, it was filled with gardens and villas, but by the turn of the century it had become nothing but a dismal factory landscape. Later, during the socialist era, subway tunnels were dug underneath the tramlines and the station was first given the rather untraditional name of “Moscow Station.” In 1990 the station was renamed in “Angel Station.” Because of the office and shopping complex “Smíchov Gate,” built here a few years ago, the area around Anděl Square is now referred to as Prague’s West End. But now back to Topol’s Prague and his novel. It is a drug novel. If you will, it is also a post-1989 novel set at the crossroads and on the threshold of a new


Romani and Vietnamese in Prague

era, just after the political changes of the fallen Iron Curtain. Although the book deals heavily with drugs, it is a far cry from the provocation of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) or the rage of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1955). Topol’s underground book was doubtless inspired by the American Beat Generation but also structurally resembles works from a later drug era that were inspired by punk and transmitted through pop culture, such as Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh. Hooks, a drug dealer, is trying to get back on his feet in Prague and live a “normal” life with Lyuba. He fails. Together with his lover Vera, he eventually winds up intoxicated in Paris and invents a miracle drug based on his own blood. This sucks him back into the drug trade. The narrative set pieces are framed by the story of Nadia, a young girl whose foster parents beat her. The story is interspersed with the visions Hooks has had at the intersection on Anděl Square: hallucinatory images of red flames over Prague and of its subterranean chasms. For Joseph Vohryzek, the intersection also symbolizes Sodom (Vohryzek 2013, 165). When Topol describes urban landscapes in Angel Station, we hear the buzz of neon lights, the screech of sanding machines and circular saws, the clatter of trams, the creak of cables in the wind, the gurgle of pipes, and the shriek of sirens. In the midst of this pool of urban noises, the German-Jewish-Czech history of Prague makes an appearance: As he passed by the synagogue, he could smell the urine. How many generations of drunks had pissed there since the war. Under the archway, against the battered door. There were flyers posted there, he deciphered the letters and found out: The Perun Society was accepting female members, the Association for a More Beautiful and Dutiful Prague was growing, and the Tatra Smíchov Boxing Club was promoting total calm. […] He lifted his head. He knew what he would see above the whole everchanging, amoeba-like set, the stage of everyday life, you might say, was an inscription carved in Hebrew and Czech: “Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near.” Oh, definitely. Definitely, Hooks thought to himself. (Topol 2017, 106)

Topol’s description of the synagogue evokes the former Jewish population of Prague, and the city’s Jewish architectural legacy. Topol’s Prague functions like a palimpsest—or rather, a bulletin board. New layers are pasted onto the past, onto the synagogue. Announcements, posters, and proclamations bear witness to other times and inhabitants, to social, cultural, and political shifts, without completely effacing older layers. After all, closed and decaying buildings like the synagogue remain in the landscape, carrying traces of historical memory even if most passersby treat them as no more than a public urinal. Hooks stands out from the crowd precisely because he would rather look up at the inscription, thus tearing his gaze away from the everyday notices on

Topol Twists the Convention in Angel Station


the walls and façades of the city. Topol’s character points out the details of these reminders of history but denies himself any paste of his own by being radically present in the moment. The synchronic and diachronic fissures, antagonisms, and genocides remain irreducible and unexplorable. Hooks preserves awareness of historical layering in city-dwellers’ memory by burying the sentimental mementos. He, however, does not pursue the traces of the “old” multiculturalism. He leaves fresh marks instead, reading the city anew from his own perspective—that of an outcast, an erstwhile underground artist turned paranoid drug addict. The inscription in Hebrew and Czech in the passage above recalls the beginning of the novel, which describes a Christmas mass, and the novel’s epigraph, a biblical Psalm: “Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snares of the fowlers: the snare is broken, and we are escaped” (Psalm 124:7). Smíchov thus spans many pages as a place where religions and languages commingle. There is some disagreement on the origins of the name Smíchov. It could refer to “mixed” (smíchaný) but it could also derive from “laugh” (smát se), as several legends would have it. Topol chooses this version: in his telling, Klestka the liquor smuggler once gave mirrors to the residents of Smíchov. That morning, the neighborhood erupted in laughter and the name “Laughtown” (Smíchov) was born. But this story had replaced an earlier one, the exotic rituals of the Košíře Gypsy neighborhood of Indian descent, who quarreled with the rest of Smíchov. Later, the established locals were joined by Polish Chassids whose rabbis were said to have seen an angel floating over the intersection. In Angel Station, Smíchov is shown to be a place pulled in many directions where faiths, languages, cultures, and time periods overlap. Not only does Topol interweave topoi, he relativizes their content and repeatedly dismisses ascribed traits as unreliable. Angel Station presents Prague’s current inhabitants in all their facets. Their form reflects the idea of the underground as outcasts en masse. They are outsiders: losers, drug addicts, vagrants, dealers, whores, cult members, and shady profiteers of recent political changes: “And the underground, playing its classic offstage role, returned to one of its oldest haunts and turned into the underworld” (Topol 2017, 74). Like Alex Zucker in his translation, Topol’s Czech original plays on the opposition of “underground” (underground) and “underworld” (podsvětí) (Topol 1995, 77). Strictly speaking, Angel Station does not portray a sudden transition, at least not for everyone. When Hooks outlines the last few years of late-socialist Prague, he makes clear that corruption, brutality, and repugnance were not historically specific to the transitions of 1989. They existed previously in identical form: menacing police officers, workers far from being socialist heroes, decaying tenements, abusive neighbors, and paranoia of being taken for an informer.


Romani and Vietnamese in Prague

The current inhabitants of the city are not, in fact, new. They have only gained visibility, calling attention to the city’s social fragmentation rather than demonstrating its diversity as a linguistic home. They turn Prague into a classic divided city: “On the hill there was snow; in the city, slush. Down around the intersection hookers and pimps swarmed, perverts, addicts, rapists, like insects on an open wound” (Topol 2017, 78). Through a motif that also figures in Vladimir Makanin’s Escape Hatch, Yuri Andrukhovych’s post-socialist Moscow or Andrzej Stasiuk’s Warsaw, the novel intensifies the up/down split of the shining hilltop and filthy streets, through the topography of the maw or pit: Somehow he got there. Standing again at the Angel Exit intersection, and now he saw the pit too, people were disappearing into it. […] He watched the blood, falling down from the clouds. He stood there and saw people vanishing into the pit. […] He saw the red sky and watched. Took from people what they gave him, and there was a lot of fear and filth in their pain. He went back to the pit and loitered around the intersection. And the sky was red. He knew he had to find … something within himself, down by the bottom, in the depths gaping like the chasm of the pit. He reached inside himself, within, sidestepping the crush of the streets, the people. (Topol 2017, 54, 56)

It is easy enough to identify the “pit” at Angel Station as the entrance to the metro. It is equally easy to apply the image to the broader novel—as the sinkhole Hooks will ultimately escape. Martin Putna considers downward motion to be characteristic of Topol’s whole work. Topol’s staircase, according to Putna, leads continually “down,” “from the quasi-Bohemian world of the underground in Angel Station and Sister City Silver to the station district of the homeless people and the people from the garbage dump” in later novels and stories (Putna 1994, 210). But the path down in Angel Station is more than mere social slippage. For Hooks, the maw is omnipresent, a bloody vision. It will only shut the moment he leaves everything behind and dares to enter the “beginning of all things.”

The Visualization of Prague in Underground Film In the year 2000, Vladimír Michálek directed a film adaptation of Topol’s novel, giving it the title Angel Exit and its protagonist the name Mikeš (standing for Jatek from the Czech novel and Hooks from the English translation). The film brought underground poetics onto the big screen. Especially given that Topol took part in the adaptation, I will consider Michálek’s film here as an independent contribution to the underground and incorporate it in my investigation. More than any other film in the post-communist era, Vladimír Michálek’s adaptation conveyed an underground image of Prague. The film was controver-

The Visualization of Prague in Underground Film


sial among the Velvet Generation106 precisely because its unsettling images of Prague were ill-suited to winning over “normal” audiences. Michálek’s digital camera filmed Topol’s drug novel like a drug trip. The result is an ingenious transposition of Topol’s associative stream of language. The film blurs the novel’s urban outlines. The hallucinatory stream of images scarcely includes any topographical markers of Prague. The two-minute title sequence introduces the film by shattering the notion of Prague as the Golden City, or the magic place. The sequence is made up of images, voices, and snatches of music and sounds. The rhythm of the rapid cuts is dictated by the audio, especially an ambulance siren and the sounds of trams. Michálek’s prologue superimposes Christmas kitsch, global commerce, and bloody slaughter. In mere seconds, close-ups guide the eye from a dying Christmas carp, its mouth gasping for air, to a dog eating the remains of the carp on the street, to an ambulance with flashing lights, to people rushing by. Again and again, similar details come into focus until concentration shifts from the holiday bustle to the slow suffocation of the carp. The image sequence creates a leitmotif between the fish blood, a plastic Santa Claus framed by palm trees, and the red dusk over Prague. The way shots are edited together can either aid or obstruct the viewer’s establishment of spatial coherence (Mahne 2007, 93). Angel Exit unambiguously frustrates the viewer’s experience of space. For one, traditional landmarks of Prague such as the Vltava, the Little Quarter, Old Town Square, or the Prague Castle are missing. This makes the film’s setting unclear at first. Second, the chronological sequence of events is constantly interrupted by hard cuts. Third, there are no gradual transitions between the shots, which has the effect of intensifying sequentiality. Fourth, the viewer must keep up with a moving camera that is constantly panning and zooming through space—and not only that, the pan shots are (rapidly moving) whip pans. Fifth, the aural repertoire of street noise, Christmas music, and sounds of slaughter destroys the illusion of a space visible in its totality. Spatial information gets lost in this web of references, correspondences, and contrasts. Through all this, Michálek’s film turns holiday-season Prague into a conglomeration of details, colors, faces, movements, and sounds. Michálek films Prague as a settlement of outcasts, where the street is a place to con and to kill— or be killed. His images, in any case, clash starkly with the notion of a peaceful 106 The so-called Velvet Generation (Sametová generace) is a description of Czech cinema after 1989, which links directors as different as Saša Gedeon, Jan Hřebejk, Vladimír Morávek, Bohdan Sláma, Jan Svěrák, and Michálek. Most of these directors make reference to the Czechoslovak New Wave (Nová vlna) of the 1960s and focus on realistic microworlds, social relationships, and family backgrounds.


Romani and Vietnamese in Prague

Advent season, and the viewer only begins to relax once the camera settles on Anděl Square, drenched in red evening light, and the story begins. These images hardly invoke the traditional multiculturalism of Prague. And yet they do: the opening sequence of the film plays with the ruins of the Tripolis Praga myth more thoroughly than the novel does by not even taking the myth into consideration. In his film, Michálek creates a Prague with an incredible allure, putting forward an autonomous view of the city that has much less to do with the “real” post-socialist city than with the concept of the underground. By appearing as a parallel universe, Michálek’s Prague comes across as inscrutable. Life is filmed from below. Angel Exit is about (sub)urban survival—which many of the characters fail to achieve in the belly of the city: they are murdered or give themselves the “golden shot.” The death of the fish in the opening sequence is their symbolic representation. The cityscape portrayed in the film reflects the struggle for survival on the street and in back alleys. The deep red and blue-gray hues of the spectacular images give the urban landscape an expressionist flavor, creating a new form of magic and mysticism—a mysticism of the underground. Michálek’s film almost seems to convey this mysticism more effectively than Topol’s text. However, this is due not to their different media, but to their different final images. In the film, the girl Nadia is cast as a Gypsy; in the book, her ethnic affiliation is undetermined. Like the other characters, Nadia is an outsider; she was raised by an old woman and is acquainted with pagan practices. After her surrogate mother’s death, Nadia makes her way from the country to the city and stays with a Prague couple who then abuse her. In the film, the main protagonist saves the girl and disappears with her in the metro tunnel of Anděl Station. In the book, Nadia does not survive, and only for Hooks does the maw close over the Anděl Square. The final image, in which the gray-blue maw of the Prague subway swallows the two figures, sentimentalizes the survival of the “right ones.” The ones who survive in the film are, idealistically, the least corrupted by either group—they have neither become well established, nor have they alienated themselves from all order. The ending may come across as kitschy or melodramatic, but it allows for the continued existence of a “true” underground alongside the Prague underworld.

The “Kanakification” of Prague in City Sister Silver In his novel City Sister Silver, Jáchym Topol dissociates himself from the Tripolis Praga topos completely. Published in 1994, a year before Angel Station, Topol’s novel was the subject of lively critical debate. Its principal revelation in critics’

The “Kanakification” of Prague in City Sister Silver


eyes was its language, its use of obecná čeština: a mixture of spoken, colloquial, and written style laced with slang, argot, and neologisms. It was also the Czech Republic’s greatest post-1989 novel, a work that both takes stock of history and critiques its own time.107 For more than five hundred pages, the reader rides along with the stream of consciousness of the main character, Potok, a character whose name—like Jatek—onomatopoetically points back to the novelist: Topol/ Potok. In Czech, potok means “stream” or “river.”108 Potok is a former underground artist roaming through his hometown, postsocialist Prague, in search of his “sister”—an imaginary lover who remains vague throughout the story. Together with friends, Potok founds an “ORGANIZATION,” which in fact is more of a gang than an association of friends. The ORGANIZATION is a youth cult and is both family and business club for a group of former undergrounders, punks, self-styled priests, businessmen, urbanites, and country folk. Eventually, Potok is forced into hiding. His travels take him first to Berlin and then on an odyssey deep into Eastern Europe before his final return to Prague. Potok blends his Praguers together and is a blend himself. He possesses all the ingredients to be a “true” inhabitant of the Tripolis: he is claimed to have “yellow Slavic blotches” and be a “Celtic somnambulist, Germanic dummkopf, Jewish ganef, transnational AIDS… stud [with] incipient raw graphomania, insane heavy adolescence, and good old schizophrenia” (Topol 2000, 57–8). His Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, and Jewish roots make company with an artistic nature, a creativity that is bound to arise from the mixture of cultures. What those claims lead the reader to suspect—that Potok is carrying on the traditions of “Old Prague” pseudo-biologically in his own person—does not hold water. Other indicators confirm that Potok is made in the mold of a transcultural type according to Wolfgang Welsch’s model. In favor of the notion of global cultural networks, Welsch rejects homogenizing and distinguishing ideas about culture ideals. What is unusual about his approach is that he also applies it to the micro level. In other words, for Welsch, the incessant mutual interpenetration of contemporary cultures does not begin at the macro level. We must also be able to think of the transcultural provenance of all individuals, the fact that we are all “cultural mongrels”: “There is nothing that is absolutely foreign anymore. Everything is within inner or outer reach. Nor is there anything that is absolutely local anymore. Authenticity has become folklore, simu107 See, for instance, Bílek (1994), Správcová (1995), Novotný (2002, 45–59), Hřebíček (2003), Šanda (2003). 108 Rajendra Chitnis doubts that link. Like Antonín Alenka (1994), he reads Jícha, a friend of Potok, as “a self-parodic past incarnation of Topol” (Chitnis 2005, 109–10).


Romani and Vietnamese in Prague

lated local flavor for the others—a group to which the native has long belonged himself ” (Welsch 1992, 11). In Topol’s brash diction, he puts this as follows: “so crafty Bog sent these ragged Gypsy women with their deadened urchins out into the world, into the metropolises, so people could see… poverty and how it dulls you, get it?” (Topol 2000, 470). The narrator sees Gypsies as the noble savages of the modern age. They also appear in City Sister Silver. Topol calls them “barefoot brownies,” or “Balkan-Ugro-Finnish-backwoods Romany types” (2000, 51). Their competitors for space in the city are Asians, who, Potok claims, will inherit it. The cultural hodgepodge in the cities—first and foremost, Prague and Berlin (here called Berlun)—incorporates every variety of difference and plays with them to the point of unrecognizability or inconsequence. City Sister Silver nevertheless goes on for pages developing a new form of cosmopolitanism and putting forward a plea for nomadism, non-belonging, and ambiguity. Nothing is as it seems, so therefore nothing ought to be inflated above the rest—no single ethnicity, culture, or language. In the novel, “a destitute Romanian concentration camp escapee turned out to be a Portuguese pickpocket … a Bulgarian divinity student […] turned out to be an Indian witch,” and “Serb dissidents turned into Bosnian Muslims” (2000, 75). Later, in the Berlun chapter, the characters are summed up thus: “We are all Kanaks. The megarace of the tunnel” (2000, 229). Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese, or Hmong mountain people—wherever they come from, they remain on the margins. Spit out onto the streets of Prague, they run straight into its gutters—and feed Potok’s underground, where he welcomes them into his ORGANIZATION. Cynically, it propels the blending of cultures and the globalization of Prague forward: “our ground floors and cellars turned into a Laotian initiation camp… and bastard Bohemia’s hardened arteries got hit with a fresh dose of Asia” (2000, 53). In the novel, the underground functions as a meta-race or synthetic ethnicity: “We were a Kanak kingdom, boys solid as birches, girls sweet as virgins, eurotrash for the most part” (2000, 230). In other words, we are one people, one tribe. Attitude is vested with the dignity of ethnicity, nation, or national affiliation. In Topol’s hands, “Kanak people” fulfill the criteria of legitimate modern collective identities, which include nationality. Not insignificantly, nations, empires, and regions share a horizontal spatial imagination. By contrast, Topol’s “megarace of the tunnel” comes from below. In general, the novel is dominated by vertical images and motions, such as the sedimentation, overgrowth, and infiltration of local pasts. David Williams traces Topol’s focus on the “tribe” to the novel’s position within the literature of a ruined Eastern European landscape. The works in this

The “Kanakification” of Prague in City Sister Silver


body of literature portrayed fractured post-socialist countries as tribal societies in which some have succeeded while others failed: “Topol’s [novel] confirms the existence of a ‘tribe’ of east Europeans, to whom I have previously refered as Trümmerleute or ‘people of the ruins’” (Williams 2013, 146, italics in the original). Williams reads Topol’s union of Kanaks less as a unanimous ethnic tribe than as a political class, an “international underclass” (2013, 147).109 Yet Topol creates a different collective construct for the city—not only Prague—that is a subcultural, not high-cultural option. On this basis, the “whores [are] a tribe,” too. If everyone’s a Kanak, it doesn’t matter who sleeps with whom, where people come from, or where they’re going. It is only the attitude that counts, the mistrust of every authorized form of expression—and herein lies the connection to the underground. “We are all Kanaks” does not unequivocally refer to anyone and everyone, but to the inhabitants of the other city, the underground city, which remains closed to tourists, or to Prague’s “normal” residents, however they may be classified. But “we are all Kanaks” also means: we are one people, we come from the same (global) tribe—which is not to forget that the “we” group is also marginalized, as conveyed by the catch-all pejorative term Kanak. In contrast to the bulk of Prague literature, Jáchym Topol’s post-identity Prague sets out to bridge cultural, linguistic, and social rifts. This amalgamation is targeted at but not limited to post-socialist Prague: it can also function as a megalomaniacal urban vision. With this vision, Topol proposes the Prague of today as an ideal city of the underground. But as with every ideal, this ideal city falls short when it comes to reality. The final pages of the novel attested to the rise in racism in and around Prague and the assertion of a categorical craze for purity that will only end, once again, with genocide—a major subject of the book—this time in a pogrom against Gypsies. Topol concludes his Eastern European tour de force with a view of the postsocialist shifts in the Prague cityscape. A view that prefigures the phobia of glass as a phobia of the West in Andrzej Stasiuk’s Warsaw literature: Many remarkable buildings had sprung up at Golden Cross, actually not that many, but their shiny glass walls gave the pedestrian, squeezed suddenly beneath a lower horizon, an impression of abundance that greatly amplified any feelings of inferiority […] and I run aground. It was unbelievable, I mean I was practiced in hallways, walls, holes, trapdoors, me and Micka had learned together, jump, scramble, crawl, 109 In detail: “In Berlin, Topol uses the metaphor of ‘Kanaks’ to refer to an international underclass (largely consisting of ‘eurotrash,’ ‘on the way back to Europe’) who among themselves speak an improvised Esperanto, thus providing another opportunity for Topol’s linguistic adventures” (Williams 2013, 147).


Romani and Vietnamese in Prague

fly, smash, go! But here it was a no-go. Not a single garage or barred window or service entrance, and the skyscraper’s walls were smooth… (Topol 2000, 487)

That the underground’s embeddedness in the city serves more than a spatial function is visible in the use of language. Topol’s characters communicate in a metalanguage or “megalanguage” (megamluva) integrating words from eradicated peoples. Language, in turn, generates a diversity of native tongues that goes beyond concrete urban spaces. For Potok, this is the credo of the novel he would like to write: Only I’d write mine in Kanak. On the body of a changed world, in the ruins of the former time, I’d open the first glorious chapter of Kanak literature! I’ll write the book in raw post-Babylonian, the way I heard it on my wanderings through the past, present, an future. […] an the crates full of my book, no, make that stacks of crates, will read: Fragile! Very fragile! Seulement pour Kanaks! (Topol 2000, 243)

Anna Förster shows how Topol renews the language of literature by drawing “from the marginalized, from those living in the subway ducts or on the rubbish dumps of urban civilization.” Language does no longer represent a “monolithic whole, but an eclectic amalgam. [...] In the interplay of constant de- and reterritorialization, language is constantly kept in motion, forced into a constant ‘becoming’” (Förster 2014, 68). With his Prague novels, Topol shines a demystifying light on post-socialist Prague as an erstwhile supra–code word for Central Europe—as opposed to a nostalgic update of the Tripolis Praga, the multicultural region of Central Europe, or the multiethnic Habsburg Empire. In Topol’s Prague literature, these spaces are abandoned in favor of a local globalism. This turns out not to be postimperial at all. In fact, it is deeply un-imperial: it either refrains from spatial references or it verticalizes them. This produces a Prague that is a mishmash of fantastical assortment that melts into the subcultural urbanity of “Kanak-hood.” As a code word, it is no longer historically defined: it is based in the moment. This vision indulges a romantic excess, if you will. But unlike numerous fictional and regional-historical representations of cultural plurality in Central Europe, its sentimental edge is sanded down by its rough-and-tumble aesthetic and its overall ironic attitude. That distinguishes Jáchym Topol from writers like Andrzej Stasiuk and Yuri Andrukhovych.

A Detour to Moscow: Vladimir Makanin’s Underground, or the Snare of the Subterranean With her small mind she scented too quickly that I was below her, if you measure it roughly, that is socially. She was fallen (in the classical sense), but she fell only to the ground, low, at the very feet. I, in comparison, was Underground, under the ground, was too much myself—that’s what for her, with her modest experience, was alarming. —Vladimir Makanin, Underground, or A Hero of Our Time110

With this passage, the narrator of Vladimir Makanin’s 1998 novel Underground, or A Hero of Our Time (Andegraund, ili Geroi nashego vremeni) pits a specific “up” against a specific “down”: as frames of existence inside and outside the status quo. The socially subterranean comes across as eschatologically sublime. By identifying his own status as below society’s verticals, the narrator turns his own fall into metaphysical and moral high ground. The flirtation with the social “underbelly” as a camouflage for living in truth (“too much myself ”) postulates a fall of existential if not eschatological and satanic dimensions. From this vantage, the girl who has “only” fallen to earth appears representative of an abandoned social banality that is juvenile at heart (Makanin 1998a, 171). It is hard not to see something adolescent about this conceit. The trick of the novel, which when it was published was celebrated as the literary event of the year (Buida 1998), lies in its employing such a hackneyed underground affirmatively while exposing this as a ploy—and dignifying it within literary history.

110 All citations from Makanin’s novel Underground translated by Alfrun Kliems (Makanin 1998a). The quotations from Makanin’s short story Escape Hatch translated by Mary Ann Szporluk (Makanin 1997). For the motto, see Makanin (1998a, 171; italics in the original). In the Russian original: “на землю” and “под землeй.”


A Detour to Moscow

The Unredeemed Underground Hero, the Cellar, and Literature Underground is not Makanin’s first novel to be assembled around a vertical spatial metaphor. Previously, in 1991, Escape Hatch (Laz) envisioned a double over and under the ground. Both novels prove that Makanin sees no reason why perestroika should have rendered the topos irrelevant. After all, both novels place the artistic underground within a chain of tradition that began long before state socialism. In the title alone, Makanin is alluding to two classics of Russian fiction: Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Geroi nashego vremeni) from 1840 and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (Zapiski iz podpol’ia) from 1864.111 This deliberate, albeit skewed, claim to tradition lends the novel a subtext according to which underground poetics are inborn in the modern condition through the very logic of their constitution. This includes aesthetic strategies that enable Makanin to contest established spatial hierarchies. In that vein, Hinderk Emrich interprets Dostoevsky’s cellar as a “metaphor for a higher consciousness, a consciousness outside the immediacy of a life of ‘abstract’ endeavors” (Emrich 1996, 232). Matthias Thibaut’s interpretation goes a step further. For him, the paradoxes of the underground are that “on one side, the sensitive Romantic era’s self-infatuated sense of omnipotence, and, on the other, the sense of powerlessness of the modern self, which, having finally forfeited its transcendental justifications, now betrays reality in masochistic enthusiasm, are two aspects of the very same tendency” (Thibaut 1990, 150). Thus, this chapter on Makanin directly ties in with the notions about E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “basement” story discussed at the beginning of this book. We will see that Makanin’s protagonists are similarly processing the promise of an all-inclusive society, which is to say, a society that encompasses and unites not only all people, but all people in their fullness. Makanin’s characters come to discover a chimera, an aporia of modernity, in that promise. His texts draw their conclusion in a radically verticalized set of guiding metaphors, a conclusion that also gives the work an explicit historical sounding board. And in the process, it ties the aesthetic phenomenon of the underground to a time when, by popular conception, it did not yet exist.

111 See Angela Brintlinger (2004, 49): “As Lermontov highlighted the hero for the late Romantic era, Makanin is trying to identify what kind of hero lives in fin-de-siècle postSoviet Russia.”

The Unredeemed Underground Hero, the Cellar, and Literature


In Underground, the main character Petrovich is a has-been, perpetually destitute writer who makes the rounds of 1990s Moscow.112 He is a “mossy UGnik” (in the original замшелый агэшник, short for “undergroundnik”), an underground artist who struggles to make ends meet (Makanin 1998a, 377). “The halls are my empire,” he says (1998a, 263). “They lived in apartments, I lived in hallways” (1998a, 19). Petrovich finds a common denominator for his transitory, peripheral existence: My idea (like a youthful arrow, well, this is true) already in those [Soviet] days flew higher. At his arrowhead, the sublime idea of God’s fools and jesters, independent of the change of the powers, was already sparkling. Underground as escort—God’s escort of the vain humanity. (Makanin 1998a, 452).

Petrovich remains unredeemed through all the changes in society. At the same time, he is resigned to be a redeemer reduced to a “guide.” Which fundamentally calls into question whether humanity is redeemable within history and casts doubt upon “the modern project” altogether. Whereas Underground also (or primarily) functions as a realistic novel of Moscow offering a diagnosis of the times, Escape Hatch chooses not to pin down its setting and reflects more the Romantic writing strategy of a historically unspecified, fantastical, cryptic place and time. Makanin takes his protagonist Klyucharev (literally “Keyman”) to a real parallel world beneath the unnamed metropolis: an earthworks structure inhabited by artists and intellectuals. Despite the superficial dissimilarity in their poetic dispositions, both books share urban roots and the theme of the (creative) underground. Most importantly, they share a central question about inverting the sociopolitical positioning of “below” and the aesthetic and eschatological claim implied by “above.” Christiane Schuchart clearly identified how this element functions: The “above/below” dichotomy uses a spatial relationship to describe ideological and social models and thus to interpret reality. […] In Underground, the “below” or the underworld is assigned the meaning of sublimity or truth (semantic paradox: sublimity below) through the underground’s mental and material independence. (Schuchart 2004, 52)

The crucial, unstated point is that the “semantic paradox” is not isolated but points to a fundamental aporia already present in Dostoevsky’s glorification of the basement, as examined earlier. 112 See also Alla Latynina’s statement that this is “literature like a big virus” (Latynina 1998, 12), and Andrei Nemzer’s “short guidebook” on Makanin’s Moscow (Nemzer 1998, 183).


A Detour to Moscow

Unlike the other artists presented here, Vladimir Makanin, who was born in 1937, personally belonged to neither the artistic nor political underground before perestroika. He did not continuously suffer and was not politically persecuted. Makanin’s books were published and discussed. But he was not a socialist star writer either. He chose abstruse themes, described the social fracturing of Soviet society, and favored experimental forms. Biographically, in other words, the empirical author Makanin did not participate in the interplay between marginalization and self-marginalization that was characteristic of the underground. And literary history has not labeled him as such; he is usually considered a member of the Moscow School. So if Makanin’s Petrovich exhibits the classic features of an underground existence, including the paranoid and schizophrenic aspects, Schuchart interprets this as a “literary projection of a lifestyle unrealized by the author Makanin” (Schuchart 2004, 238).113 Large sections of the text itself support the opposite conclusion. It can be read as a sarcastic satire of the hollow presumption of the underground pose. Therein lies its ambiguity. Makanin’s novel provokes speculation as to whether it is the fictional enactment of a life not lived, admiration for a stance not taken, or calculated denunciation of a walk of life. Makanin composed a text that simultaneously employs, references, and discards underground aesthetic modalities. Petrovich roams around a rundown 1990s Moscow. As a former underground artist, he is caught between the newly established writer’s guild and the former literary apparatchiks. The plot includes two murders committed by him, his subsequent eviction from a dormitory, a stay at a homeless shelter, and forced admission into a psychiatric asylum. Petrovich’s brother Venia, a politically persecuted painter who was institutionalized during the Soviet era, serves as a complementary character and semi-doppelganger. Petrovich lives exclusively in typical transitional spaces—“hallways”—and these are referred to using slang terms for “dormitory” (obshchaga), “shelter” (bomzhatnik), and “asylum” (psikhushka). Angela Brintlinger also interprets the asylum as a “refuge of another sort,” a “stripped-down version of outer society” that “forces Petrovich to confront the most basic of human needs—the need for empathy” (Brintlinger 2004, 51, 57). His only possession and constant companion is a typewriter, a symbol of his earlier life as a writer; however, Petrovich neither writes anything nor, therefore, has anything to publish. But this situation is foremost a product of his own attitude, as he admits: 113 See also Mark Amusin (2010, 303–4), who interprets the main hero as Makanin’s alter ego.

The Unredeemed Underground Hero, the Cellar, and Literature


And when here and there, after the Gorbachev changes, the people of the underground jumped out of the underground and by daylight began with all their power to make a name for themselves (and they became slaves to these names, invalides of the past), I stayed true to myself. I did not need to make up for anything. The need to publish book after book, take a post, manage a magazine became only a temptation, and then a banal routine. (Makanin 1998a, 388)

The candid snapshots, numerous character profiles, parentheticals, overlapping flashbacks, reflective passages, and varying repetitions make the novel feel plotless, fragmentary, and fleeting. Schuchart attributes to it a remarkable “intertextual allusiveness” beginning with the title itself (Schuchart 2004, 6). The principle of its composition relies on capturing moments that seem haphazardly pasted together along the way, only to reveal a meaningful linear structure at the end. The novel’s topography is constructed similarly. More than just reflections of Petrovich’s precarious situation, the transient locations he passes through can be linked into a disconnect that crosses Moscow and even Russia. Take the dormitory: its upper stories are for the better-situated, the lower stories for the outcasts (and Petrovich “in the hallways”). The community is presented as a formless, un-formable multitude whose individual members are permanently at risk of having their cover blown. The dormitory is a place of prowling, eavesdropping, blurting, and snitching. It is home to onetime informers and communist officials, unemployed people, post-socialist profiteers, beggars, prostitutes, stranded artists, award-winning writers and, of course, average citizens. Surprisingly, the Moscow dormitory develops into a macrocosm of Russia, where everything is about “conquering territory,” expressed here by the magic words “square meterage” (2004, 46). The intertextual traces that Makanin leaves throughout his text have a similar function. The chapter titles trace a modern Russian/Soviet canon, alluding to not only Dostoevsky and Lermontov, but also Mikhail Bulgakov, Anton Chekhov, Venedikt Erofeev, Nikolai Gogol, Maxim Gorky, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Ivan Turgenev. Literature plays a role in defining the identity of Makanin’s character. It is the template to which Petrovich is trimmed, to which he adjusts until life merges with delusion and fantasy. This corresponds with notions of the “total” underground, but also diverges. While underground artists like the Moscow Conceptualists—such as Ilya Kabakov, Andrei Monastyrsky, and Dmitri Prigov—openly aim to subvert high culture, Petrovich views canonical Russian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as his “collective judge.” Petrovich subordinates himself to the echoes of this literature and to the symbols of “Dostoevsky” and “Lermontov.” The “real” Petrovich lives out the “fictional” experience of their prose. He is embedded in a literary frame of reference that, to name one example, has already


A Detour to Moscow

described his murders including the moments that triggered them in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Prestupleniye i nakazaniye) from 1866. Meanwhile, Petrovich has a similar name and personality to Lermontov’s Pechorin from A Hero of Our Time.114 Petrovich is less calculating than Pechorin, but the heroes of their respective times have much in common: their passivity toward historical developments, their disobedient attitudes, their exhibitionism, their lack of heroism, their basic misanthropy, their cultivated ennui and indifference, and their staunch, contented otherness that climaxes in Petrovich’s joyful response to a manuscript’s rejection: “Applicable to an author, the little word other was a flattering award” (Makanin 1998a, 384; italics in the original). In addition, Petrovich is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s thoroughly pre-ironic “basement people” and their reflections on an underground that is internal and existential. Lermontov’s and Dostoevsky’s works are reframed as responses to fundamental problems of a fragmented era. In the world of Makanin’s novel, Petrovich, whose first name is never mentioned, presents himself as a virtually “classic” undergroundnik. His supposed “anachronistic insistence on underground status” (Schuchart 2004, 55), his stubborn absolutization of art as an all-encompassing expression of life, and his steadfast resistance to the authority of what is asked of him make him a Romantic hero. The illusion of personal integrity is so meaningful to him that he does not even stop short of murder. His uncompromising view of writing—as it culminates in non-writing—elevates him from the masses of novel characters. So too his contemplation of the underground as society’s subconscious, his recurring contrast between “me” and “them,” individual and group. Accordingly, he both acknowledges and disrupts the Romantic discourse on genius: “Every undergroundnik from time to time does say ‘genius,’ ‘ingeniously,’ ‘we are both geniuses’ and the like. We pronounce this (for others) razor-sharp word without ceremony, being very familiar with it. Without the word ‘genius’ there is no underground” (Makanin 1998a, 121). The common Russian term podpol’e refers either to a space under a house, usually the basement but sometimes even a crawlspace under the floorboards, or to the political underground. Since the 1970s or earlier, the titular English loanword andegraund has referred to an aesthetic disposition, an artistic sense of life as creativity—akin to the Romantics’ cult of genius. Makanin sets Underground in an era that conceptually links lifestyle to creative work. For him, the underground becomes a semantically determinative 114 See also Holt Meyer’s study on Lermontov’s novel, in which he sees three main components, also relevant for Makanin’s Petrovich: wandering around, strangeness, and recording (Meyer 1995, 154).

The Unredeemed Underground Hero, the Cellar, and Literature


space. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, an intellectual civil servant with writerly ambitions, Petrovich presents his conversations with himself or his “quasi-dialogue-like narrative monologue” to the reader as an aesthetic confession (Schmid 1986, 268). Though he is allegedly not writing, he bequeaths to his readers a concoction of uninterrupted narrative and speech that he has, again allegedly, overheard. Both characters reveal themselves to some extent through their act of narrating as peddling. Yet, Nina Efimov draws a line from the apartment of the Underground Man to the apartment of Petrovich: “To hide from mankind, the Underground Man had an apartment that was his shell and case, while Makanin’s protagonist lives in the nooks and crannies of the dormitory. Ultimately, his body is the only ‘shell and case’ he can give his consummate selfconsciousness” (Efimov 2007, 150).115 The Underground Man and the undergroundnik are of the same tribe, the same faith (or potential faith): “The tribe of underground people, born in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, is also a cultural heritage” (Makanin 1998a, 191). Furthermore, Petrovich testifies to the underground’s genealogy among hermits and dissidents. His list ranges all the way from hermits (“interior emigrants”) to “real” emigrants and dissidents of the underground. Once someone has adopted this lifestyle, there is no way of going back that would not amount to apostasy and betrayal of the cause, which is the modern human condition. Petrovich’s traitor is of the “arriviste pig” variety, someone who “earns his living on the back of the shadows of the underground writers, like elsewhere they earn their living on the back of miners working like a dog” (1998a, 184): With his white hands he takes our underground coal dust, dirt, and fire. He picks small pieces of coal embedded in our skin—collects them, scratches them off, and as quickly as he can smears them over his dangling cheeks, but also over his forehead, neck, shoulders, and hands, so that he would appear blacker and with his white eyeballs (at least) look like an emaciated miner who just came out of the shaft” (Makanin 1998a, 184).

Makanin never erases the inverse hierarchical reference of the word “below.” Fallen behind the underground, the miner who here has crawled out of the mineshaft symbolizes the quintessential established dissident: an aura pirate, a person who exudes the aura of a dissident; an impersonator, someone who falsely gives the impression of being a dissident without being one. As untruthful market leaders in truth, the old, classic dissidents have long been secure, posturing inhabitants of the “above.” The traditional lineage of the “below” also involves intolerance of self-canonizing tradition—the “traitor” in the basement. 115 For the connection between Petrovich’s murders and his typewriter, see Efimov (2007, 150).


A Detour to Moscow

The treatment of space in Underground fits the image of Moscow, but there are no well-known squares or famous street names in evidence. Only the metro, in occasional appearances, is given a featured role as an intermediary between toponymy and myth. Karlheinz Kasper writes: “Moscow only appears in the novel as the mythical place of intellectuals turned night watchmen and the concentrated collective subconscious of the second culture” (Kasper 1999, 453). There are few hints in the novel of a big city experiencing an economic boom. Instead, it presents marginal spaces, areas, and buildings that are near enough to the city center that Petrovich can always reach them by subway. The subterranean network of the metro mirrors the above-ground hallways of the dormitory: How disgustingly they built these decades in Moscow at the top of the ground, and how successfully […] they designed the metro, station by station, below the ground. It’s not only me who feels the emotional security under the earth. Many of us gravitate toward under the arches, away from the day’s eyes. Why? (Makanin 1998a, 275)

In answering this “why,” Makanin further inflates the notion Kasper alluded to above, that the “second culture” is society’s subconscious: “The underground is society’s subconscious. And the underground’s opinion is always consolidated. Either way it has meaning” (Makanin 1998a, 468).

The Subterranean as a Failed Alternative In Escape Hatch, a few years before Underground, Makanin depicts a city whose underground is omnipresent—but more as a failed alternative than as society’s subconscious. Here too, art can only be successful beneath the realm of the potentially political, not alongside it, and not within the “bourgeois order” and its social spaces. Escape Hatch portrays a parallel society under the ground. The protagonist Klyucharev, an average man with intellectual ambitions, is able to access this place through an ever-narrowing opening, the downward escape hatch. Tatyana Novikov reads Makanin’s character as a Russian Prometheus, a “transformation of the classical rebel-philanthropist creator figure” (Novikov 2007, 82). The setting is a half-abandoned city whose residents take refuge from the impending darkness. The telephone lines have been cut. The stores are locked, their windows smashed in. There is no gasoline left. Some people have managed to escape to the country, and the rest try their best to hide. The “class anger” (Makanin 1997, 56)—clearly the cause of their misery—grows fiercer and fiercer, especially targeting the city’s remaining intellectuals.

The Subterranean as a Failed Alternative


The novel begins at twilight and ends before nightfall. Several times during these hours, Klyucharev squeezes through a gap leading underground and reaches a brightly lit space reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Crystal Palace. There he finds a glistening world that has everything: most importantly, conversation and adequate light. It is tastefully decorated, bright, and cozy, with lamps “from the splendid days of Pushkin” (1997, 14). For unspecified reasons, the inhabitants feel obliged to live cut off from the other half of the country: “That’s just how things have turned out. But we’re suffering, you know. Your life up there is our life too—try to understand us correctly” (1997, 13). But such statements from a buried world come across as formulaic pleonasms. The speeches of the subterranean palace dwellers soon ebb into loquacious chatter and catchphrases. Still, Klyucharev feels drawn to life beneath, and not only for the rich array of goods. He calls it the flood of thoughts. In his eyes, the grandeur of cultivated speech down there, the elocution, is like an invigorating elixir that sets the people apart from the “creatures who crawl or creep” above (1997, 50). He eavesdrops on their speeches, treasures the spirit of conversation, and all but idolizes the declaimers. He describes the act of squeezing through the escape hatch as a “masculine” act, although it seems more reminiscent of birth than penetration (1997, 88). Still, this not-so-original, in fact rather ordinary, metaphor suits the averageness that Makanin has endowed in his “keyman”: a character who is not too smart and not too simple-minded, an alter ego of average intelligence. Klyucharev risks the integrity of his body to reach the subterranean paradise, for the hole he sneaks through seems to be narrowing by the hour. Makanin’s upper and lower worlds determine and reflect each other—and expire together. Up above, in the city, its denizens have been living without power, mostly in the dark. Down below, streetlights are shining but the inhabitants are running out of oxygen. Outside, or up above, the masses are in charge: this is the mob or herd whose forces Makanin’s protagonist and his friends are fleeing. They fear the masses’ susceptibility to manipulation, their sinister toughness, and their capacity for rioting and rage. Meanwhile, down below, the masses are only a topic of conversation, albeit the dominant one. Discussions there revolve around the community, the public, and whether to love the masses despite everything or simply to hate them. At first, Escape Hatch serves as a rather simplified parable for the final days of socialism and its inverted parallel worlds. The novella reflects the three options: the “official” gloom, the dissent underneath, and exile—which, here, means escaping “to the country.” The hole, with its variable narrowness, could be viewed as a symbol of censorship, but it also dramatizes the claustrophobic sense of doom and gloom.


A Detour to Moscow

When Birgit Harreß investigated Dostoevsky’s work from an anthropological perspective, she interpreted his “mousehole” as a metaphor for existence, a space rooted in earthliness or, following C. G. Jung’s archetypes, a shadow.116 The Underground Man does not aspire to Leo Tolstoy’s ideal, she writes, according to which “humans at work should remove themselves from their self-orbiting thoughts” (Harreß 1993, 122). On the contrary. And he prefers places “that are self-contained but accessible to society” (1993, 135). These classifications of the basement can be applied unaltered to the society of Makanin’s escape hatch. Yet his space under the earth is not conceived as the underground. We cannot find a true life here under the false one, as in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s basement. Both “up above” and “down below,” there are traces of an anonymous unruliness decorated with aesthetic props from the genuine underground: “There is some adolescent graffiti, of course. Teenagers are the same everywhere and take pleasure in testing themselves in that borderland between speech and obscenity” (Makanin 1997, 14). Klyucharev observes that these symbols or graffiti are immediately painted over. The battle for spatial sovereignty is waged in both worlds and won by “the establishments” of each. Clearly, the graffiti artists are the true underground, a juvenile group within the dissent that occasionally makes its voice heard but remains in the darkness, which is to say, under the “second circulation.” The novel’s real conclusion is charged with even greater resignation. For all his sympathies, Klyucharev remains in neither of the two worlds but instead empties his own space in the earth, a private cave. Supposedly, he begins digging it to bring his family to safety if they need to leave their apartment on their own. The hole in the ground on the outskirts of a district of high rises, atop a canyon, is a refuge for surviving and overwintering away from all society. But while Klyucharev is digging, almost like an animal, he attains deeper and deeper states of consciousness that reveal a more profound intrinsic motivation: “What can one do, it’s not intuitive so much as subintuitive, terrestrial thinking, which adopts the experience of the other without even having admitted it to consciousness—that is what is guiding him” (1997, 26; italics not in the Russian original). 116 See also Lonny Harrison, who argues that Dostoevsky’s “underground” means a wider concept of the unconscious mind manifested in concrete metaphors and archetypical symbols: “But ultimately Dostoevsky’s underground is also the generative plane of awareness, the bedrock, if you will, the archetypical ground of transformation, where the archetypes reside and express themselves in the journey of the self. Through trials, initiation, knowledge, and awareness, and the full transformative process of death and resurrection, the self is born and the hero’s journey completed (until the next cycle)” (Harrison 2016, 74–5).

The Subterranean as a Failed Alternative


The passage suggests a disenchantment with lifestyle aesthetics—not originality or consciousness or authenticity, but the inevitable lament about the modern establishment. At a friend’s funeral, Klyucharev concludes that his experiences with downward escapism are an illusion that inevitably hides death: The pit becomes deep quickly; at first its opening is like a gap, like an ordinary hole, then for a time the pit is spacious and suggests the possibility of a cave, but in the end the deadly form of four right-angled corners conquers the space of the earth and the pit becomes what it now will be—a grave.” (Makanin 1997, 64–5)

The world of Escape Hatch is not only inverted—in that the overcity is desolate, abandoned, and dangerous while the undercity is elitist and elevated. It is also a world entirely devoid of hope. The subterranean realm only superficially promises utopia, a joyous moment during an existential crisis, one that would have been impossible on a horizontal plane.117 In fact, this space of hope is occupied by inhabitants whom the text denounces as cynical chatterboxes. They are only pseudo-interested in the fate of the “normal” people. Their speeches are eloquent and interesting but lack content or indeed any outer impact. The light remains theirs alone—and consumes the oxygen. According to one of Klyucharev’s daydreams, the downwardly receded intelligentsia is responding to the desertion of entire swathes of the city by tossing up canes for the blind—to be used once the last upper light bulb extinguishes. For his part, Klyucharev responds with the dual gesture of imposed exclusion and self-exclusion, an identifying feature of core underground aesthetics. After all, he could choose to stay in either world. The darkened above-ground world certainly remains open to frightened individuals and mutinous multitudes alike. The underworld, which will still have light for a while longer, offers him another place to stay. Or, as Marc Lipovetsky puts it: “Even Klyucharev’s hope of finding shelter in a personal ‘escape hatch’—a cave he has dug for his family—cannot materialize: the crowd destroys the cave. Nevertheless, ­Klyucharev finally chooses not to depart to the underground world. Moreover,

117 Sally Dalton-Brown sees the devastated society in Makanin’s story as “divided into two isolated segments, unable to function, each equally doomed, not only by circumstances, but also by an inability to work together, to help one another.” But she points out that it ends with hope of overcoming the social disaster. For her, the funeral scene, when a group of men buries the dead friend, symbolizes a future “brotherhood” (Dalton-Brown 1984, 230–1). See also the pit-motif and the up/down split in Yuri Andrukhovych’s postsocialist Moscow, Jáchym Topol’s Prague, or Andrzej Stasiuk’s Warsaw.


A Detour to Moscow

he leaves the hatch and enters the horrible reality of the surface world, in which he has no place” (Lipovetsky 2007, 99). Yet both freedoms are freedoms until death. Klyucharev, recognizing this, rejects both options and digs his own private cave, knowing that it will also be a grave. The promise of redemption or utopia is a chimera.

Petrovich as a Template for an Underground Character Much the same realization has already condemned Petrovich, the later undergroundnik, to predestined failure. His return to the dormitory house poses a challenge for multiple interpretations. On the one hand, it presents us with the inclusion of an outsider, the resolution of the aporia. But when Petrovich is joyously welcomed back into the lap of society, Makanin restores the initial order that has gone awry. He reestablishes Petrovich as one among many and grinds down his claim to otherness by making his life more comfortable. At the same time, the happy ending implies a rejection of the concept of underground as conceived here—the enactment of an existentially subversive aesthetic that desires a rupture and seeks the totality of art. We are left with a ploy. Makanin’s Underground also places banality, vulgarity, obscenity, and brutality on display. The book absolutizes the ordinary, the trivial, and the offensive. Petrovich’s base needs to “chow down,” “get sloshed,” and “screw” are treated extensively and virtually rendered sacred. His movements through Moscow are like a brachiation from bender to bender founded in a farcically invoked authorial myth: So I was needed. Needed precisely as a loser, as a kind of an apparent writer, because the prestige of a writer in the early post-Soviet times was still high—so puffed up and high that if I were real, with published books, photos of mine in one or two newspapers, they would be afraid to come and call at my door, even drunk. (Makanin 1998a, 19; italics in the original).

Petrovich uses the template of an underground figure that consumes both Dostoevsky’s holy fools and Lermontov’s desperate cynics. All in all, we are given a bundle of myths stylized to the point of friendly mockery. The exhibitionist anti-hero emerges declaiming the original Romantic-era concept of the writer as a visionary and a prophet but stretching it practically to the point of absurdity. His acts of self-exposure leave us disturbed more than empathetic. His pathos rings unbearably hollow. At the same time, his character’s excessive clichés render ridiculous the basic failure of the vertical option. Structurally, they continue the exaggerations of the Escape Hatch parable and Klyucharev’s shallow

Petrovich as a Template for an Underground Character


infatuation with the subterranean intelligentsia. The scandal of the inauthentic is inescapable. And it is neither a sign of socialist society nor a result of the historic upheavals of 1989 and beyond. Rather, the book’s ostentatious embeddedness in literary tradition and its extensive co-option of and references to these sources identify the historical, systematic site of aesthetic urgency: the aporia of modernity. Hubert Spiegel, in reviewing Makanin’s Underground, called its Russian dormitory a “microcosm” that “mirrors the whole country” and resembles “Dante’s purgatory,” a “hell of petit-bourgeois types and proletarians dominated by alcohol, violence, and hollow sexuality” (Spiegel 2003).118 Makanin’s text sets a trap of exoticism that is captured in Spiegel’s review. While this study reads Underground as an aesthetic (urban) commentary on the modern-age dilemma, the review reduces the novel to a shorthand for contemporary Russia as the epitome of uncivilized disorder. It might also be an attempt to externalize general problems of modern societies. But first and foremost, both the novel and its reviewer are participating in a sparring match over the supposed exoticism of Eastern European civilization, a game that especially colored internal and external discussions about the region after 1990, whether as a partial source of political identity or as a cultural marketing strategy. Two writers who affirmatively interweave the exoticism of the periphery with underground aesthetics are Yuri Andrukhovych and Andrzej Stasiuk. In 1993, Andrukhovych’s novel The Moscoviad (Moskoviada) also returns to the dormitory topos and draws a picture of Moscow that Makanin’s dystopia conceals in the shadows. Andrukhovych’s novel also treats the capital and the broken-up empire as metonymically linked.

118 Spiegel’s interpretation differs here from Lipovetsky: “This model of freedom is shaped by the obshchaga and linked to the latter through the system of oppositions and confrontations. Therefore, being a mirror image of the obshchaga, Petrovich’s underground freedom is not free enough, and the disintegration of the obshchaga and its mentality devalues the existential postulates of the underground men, leaving the ‘hero of our time’ virtually with nothing and suddenly transforming the obshchaga into his spiritual motherland and the object of nostalgia” (Lipovetsky 2007, 107; italics in the original).

“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”: Yuri Andrukhovych’s Moscow as a “Junkspace” of Cultures Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout. —Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace”119

The setting of Yuri Andrukhovych’s 1993 novel The Moscoviad (Moskoviada) connects it to Vladimir Makanin’s writing. But its aesthetic, along with its numerous subjects and their treatment, bears a striking closeness to Jáchym Topol’s Prague books: the topoi of race, ethnic mixture, and unreliable attributions; the reflex of ruined notions of purity described in drastic, poetic language; and an underground that doubles as an underworld. Although Topol’s deconstructed reference point is the self-contained Tripolis Praga, whereas Makanin maintains a domestic Russian perspective, The Moscoviad investigates a post-imperial trauma. Andrukhovych discusses a destroyed notion of a greater border empire, which leads him, in turn, into Andrzej Stasiuk’s neighborhood. At the same time, his postcolonial underground and city fantasy reveals more radical aesthetics—not least through its intertextual embeddedness in the author’s poetry, in which Andrukhovych proposes an urban counterpoint—the Galician city of Lviv—to the devastation he discovers in The Moscoviad. For Andrukhovych, Lviv constitutes a real city, a European city. This play throughout the novel with mutually referential objects, categories, and tones of voice makes Andrukhovych’s poetics seem more distinctly postmodern than those of Topol, Stasiuk, or Makanin. Meanwhile, their biographies show similarities. Like Topol, Yuri Andrukhovych comes from the artistic underground of the Soviet period. Born in 1960 in Ivano-Frankivsk, he began writing poems for Ukrainian samizdat in the 1980s and then, after 1985, publishing some of his work officially in state-run publishing houses such as Molod, the press of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (Komsomol). That 119 For the motto, see Koolhaas (2002, 175).


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

same year in Lviv, with Viktor Neborak and Oleksandr Irvanets, he cofounded the performance group Bu-Ba-Bu, whose name stands for burlesque, balagan, and buffoonery and connotes a shambles or chaos.120 Tamara Hundorova designates the group initiative as underground culture and writes, “philosophically and aesthetically, this literature was influenced by high-avant-garde culture, but it also practiced forms characteristic of mass culture” (Hundorova 2001, 259). Other critics have called the Bu-Ba-Bu style “Ukrainian neo-baroque” (Ivashkiv 2007, 42), because “baroque art was perceived as the only aesthetically fruitful and organically autonomous aesthetic form that had developed in the history of Ukrainian literature” (Hundorova 2019, 119). The movement is avowedly situated in urban space. The group’s readings combined poetry with ballet and classical orchestral music, light art, costumes, rock, and punk. Starting from a position of subcultural marginality, Bu-Ba-Bu was soon seen as a central phenomenon of youth culture (Hundorova 2008, 245). For Hundorova, “the group was born out of the friendship and the youth of these three men of letters [Andrukhovych, Irvanets, and Neborak]; that is, it was a bohemian phenomenon” (Hundorova 2019, 103). The Bu-Ba-Bu generation invoked traditions of the American Beat Generation and interpreted them afresh, especially the artists’ outcast posturing, “creating a supra-self ” (2019, 105). Compared to those of other underground writers, Andrukhovych’s selfnarrative is reticent but likewise centers on the accusation of a “fake,” aesthetically ignorant “power.” Even if his approach is less existential or extroverted, he also absolutizes daily life, lives insistently by totality of poetic expression, integrates art and life, and this potentially violent envelopment is mirrored in his aesthetics.121 Andrukhovych in 2004 proclaims that his artistic maxim is “to connect everything to everything.” On the surface of the text, this maxim is manifested in “phonetic effects, the rhythmic sharpness of rock ‘n’ roll, richness, precision, and—most importantly—entirely innovative and startling rhymes, a drastic and unusual lexis that places archaisms alongside slang, and euphoric grandeur alongside boundless obscenity” (Andruchowytsch 2004, 62). The reality that goes with this aesthetic is that of junkspace. 120 According to the formation Bu-Ba-Bu, I draw here on Hundorova (2019, 103–118; Naydan 2006; Andryczyk 2002). See also descriptions of group performances such as the multimedia “Chrysler Imperial” happening (Hrycak 1997). 121 In the context of the book it would be worth comparing Andrukhovych’s urban aesthetic with the younger Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, who explores a (pop) punk style in his novels like Big Mac (Big Mak, 2003), Depeche Mode (Depesh Mod, 2004), and Anarchy in the UKR (Anarkhy in the UKR, 2005).

Moscow and the Junkspace of the Cultures


Moscow and the Junkspace of the Cultures “Junkspace” is the title of an essay of architectural criticism by Rem Koolhaas. Describing the term, he writes: “Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course, or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout” (Koolhaas 2002, 175). Derived from space junk (trash left behind by humans in space) junkspace refers to the entropy of sprawling urban proliferation. With its mirrored surfaces, junkspace abolishes any sense of direction, generating infinite, almost seamless, buildings and replacing physiognomies with pure praxis. Using functional obstacles that double as aesthetic disturbances, junkspace channels streams of humanity and transforms inhospitable vacant zones into dwelling places. Its prototypes are airports, train station shopping centers, gas stations, malls, and office complexes. “Junkspace is authorless, yet surprisingly authoritarian,” writes Koolhaas (2002, 185). Like a despot, it stirs up the high with the low, the private with the public—mixing it all together. This produces a formless hodgepodge that “replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition” (2002, 176). Junkspace, Koolhaas continues, “is sealed, held together not by structure but by skin, like a bubble” (2002, 175–6). The owl pellets of the built environment constitute cities’ user interface and structure the culminating daily existence of its denizens: their leisure, their culture, their language. In Eastern Europe, this is part of the same “turbo-urbanism” that Kai Vöckler perceives in the post-socialist cities of the Balkans (Vöckler 2008). It follows the picturesque “world of bazaars” as described by Karl Schlögel (Schlögel 2005, 19). Junkspace is an undifferentiated, ubiquitous, and uniform utilitarian space that colonizes the city. In a sense, it is the architectural counterpart of convenience food. Koolhaas’s conclusion fundamentally diverges from the observations of ­Thierry Bardini. The latter sociologist’s concept of junkware similarly refers to what modernization leaves behind after running its course. However, Bardini sees these remnants as fragments with creative potential that merely require recycling. In other words, they aren’t trash after all; they are—in the case of genetics—the 98.5 percent of genes unnecessary for coding proteins. And yet they represent an indispensable cushion of information despite the impossibility of predicting the specific forms they will take. For Bardini, the paradigm shift in genetics extends to the cultural sphere as a whole, especially archives and the Internet. Hence, junkware becomes the master trope of (Western) cultural thought: “Junk is the organizing principle of that which cannot be organized, the operating mode of that which has no function (yet). Junk is, and, I claim, junk rules” (Bardini 2011, 24).


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

This differs from Koolhaas’s view of junkspace, observations emphasizing the same things to be found aesthetically in the works of Jáchym Topol and Andrzej Stasiuk. Andrukhovych is most thorough in converting it into a literature of consummate dystopia. His images are “conventional” at first. Moscow in The Moscoviad is “the city of a thousand and one torture chambers,” “a tall advance bastion of the East in anticipation of conquering the West,” “Asia’s last city, from whose drunken nightmares fled the anemic, Germanized monarchs.” It is “the city of syphilis and hooligans, the favorite fairytale of armed hobos” (Andrukhovych 2008, 76):122 It only knows how to devour, this city of puke-covered courtyards and crooked picket fences […]. This is the city of losses. It would be nice to level it. To plant again thick Finnish forests, introduce bears, elk, deer: let them graze around the moss-covered Kremlin ruins, let perches [sic] swim in its rivers and lakes returned to life, let wild bees focus on storing honey in the deepest fragrant tree cavities. This land needs a rest from its criminal capital. (Andrukhovych 2008, 77)

Excretions, ruin, and periphery. Claims that cultural space is a narrative of submission while nature-romanticizing destruction is hope of redemption. These themes, by now familiar to us, are intimately interwoven with the topos of a shattered empire whose legacy is an aggressiveness that encompasses all things, including text and language. Who should enter this Moscow but the Galician literature student Otto von F., a child of the lost imperial counterworld. Mark Andryczyk reads this name as Otto of (Ivano-)Frankivsk (Andryczyk 2005, 240). Like Lviv elsewhere in the novel, the city of Ivano-Frankivsk serves as a transfigurable foil of Moscow. Although the place name is omitted, when a Russian shows Otto fifty-year-old picture postcards from Otto’s hometown, the latter asks in shock, “What did they do to it?!” (Andrukhovych 2008, 50). Otto cannot recognize his city in the photos; it was so “beautiful” (i.e., European) once upon a time. He accuses the Russians of senselessly destructive rage and the Ukrainians of a servile assimilationist mentality: “Evidently, the natural desire of our ancestors to turn into Great Russians as quickly as possible led to certain adaptive mutations” (2008, 52) that had been manifest as far as Lviv. The words “colorless” and “pigeyed” are among the kinder descriptions applied here to Ukrainians who have willingly mutated into “Great Russians” (2008, 52). In his rage, Otto paints the fading colonial center of Moscow as a site of disorder, a place outside all or-

122 See the published translation of Andrukhovych’s The Moscoviad by Vitaly Chernetsky (Andrukhovych 2008).

Moscow and the Junkspace of the Cultures


der—and ascribes to it the annulling nature of the steppe, an existential power to homogenize, engulf, and annihilate: But now, when I drink acrid beer in the midst of a wasteland surrounded by poles and barbed wire, when the wind tosses my wet hair in all directions, when around me is one great Asian, sorry, Eurasian plain, sorry, country, with its own rules and laws, and this country has a tendency to grow to the west, swallowing small nations, their languages, customs, beer, swallowing also larger nations, destroying their chapels and coffeehouses […]. I cannot just sit and watch silently with my arms crossed. (Andrukhovych 2008, 50)

That last line is a cliché. Like its counterparts in so much underground writing, the ambivalently portrayed protagonist of The Moscoviad doesn’t “do” much of anything at first, but simply traverses urban space observing, writing, boozing, and raving. Again and again, this space is drawn vertically in central passages, although it may be reflected up or down, may alternate or reverse direction. The underground is composed of secret boarding houses and department store catacombs, secrete government tunnels and subway air shafts. The literary antecedents of these places come from Dante, Homer, and Vergil—as well as the processes their works depict: apocalypticism, collapse, paranoia, duplication— all of which are more heightened than cushioned by the funfair, slapstick, and grotesque fantasies from the poetic repertoire of Bu-Ba-Bu. Otto von F. lives in a dormitory, studies literature at the Literary Institute Maxim Gorky, works on an epic poem in Ukrainian, and writes letters to the fictitious King of Ukraine, Olelko the Second. On a rainy morning in spring, he leaves the dormitory to start a subversive newspaper with a friend of his. But then he postpones their meeting to go out drinking. He also plans to buy a gift at the Children’s World department store, but first he winds up in a beer hall, then at the house of Galya, a Russian snake-charmer, then a fast-food joint, and finally in the basement of Children’s World, where he is apprehended by the secret police. With great difficulty, he manages to escape their giant rats through the subway tunnels. Up above, he sees Moscow’s streets falling apart in a Great Flood—like deluge and he just barely makes it to Kyiv Station, where he takes the night train home to Ukraine—but not before shooting himself in a panic. And now, en route, he writes to the king about his “unsuccessful round-theworld journey” (Andrukhovych 2008, 185). The closing, crucial sequence of the novel is a banquet in the KGB catacombs followed by a symposium of the dead. Disguised as Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Lenin, and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the secret rulers of Russia appear and plan to restore the empire, and in fact, to expand it globally. As ghosts of the past, they cannot be exorcized—certainly not in an era in which the very lowest


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

will rise to the top, as one of the masked figures prophesies. The figures of the underworld unanimously call for mass deportation. While banishment and forced migration have been part of Russian policy since time immemorial, it climaxed under Stalin’s dictatorship. Millions of people were “resettled” within the country: criminals, deviants, members of the opposition, social groups labeled class enemies, and members of “suspect” ethnic groups such as Estonians, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, and the Ingush people. Now, deportation becomes the rallying cry of the monsters of Russian history, who have been literally condemned to the underworld. According to the old leaders, expulsions would cause the amputated limbs of the empire to grow back together. Cultural mixture is the key to regaining the empire, they claim. To keep its decline at bay, the peoples of Europe and Asia should be thoroughly trawled once more: Supporting in all possible ways the idea of great transfers of population, we will thereby also generate completely new, phantom nations and ethnic groups with names so twisted that they will be ashamed of them themselves: Rossiacs, Ukralians, Karelo-Mingrelians, Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Netherbaidzhanis, Sweeks, Gredes, Frubeks, Byeloswabians, Kurdofranks, Jerattlers, and Carpatho-Ruthenians. (Andrukhovych 2008, 175)123

The stew of names functions as a form of semantic power (“they will be ashamed of themselves”) and colonial destruction of identity through de-differentiation to imperial ends. Andrukhovych’s grotesqueness has significant links with the definition and workings of junkspace. But the urban space he describes is not primarily a victim of this colonial blurring of profiles. More importantly, it is an extensive junkspace of culture. Within this space, authentic belonging gives way to inhospitable, random passageways of attribution. Simultaneously “authorless and authoritarian,” in Rem Koolhaas’s words, this movement can be taken as code for a post-socialist culturally colonial imperialism. For Andrukhovych, junk phenomena do not merely proceed eastward down a one-way street: they are produced and reproduced polycentrically. In the Moscoviad, this is articulated as pure resignation, which seems quite necessary in view of the central trope of overpowering imperialism. But it doesn’t end with the power fantasies of history’s ghostly giants. In fact, the Galician Otto von F.—still complaining about the pig-eyed nature of the Moscow-ized 123 In the Ukrainian original: “росіяків, укралійців, карело-мінгрелів, чербословатів, румунголів, нідербайджанців, шеків, гредів, французбеків, білошвабів, курдифранків, жиздоболів та карпатських русинів” (Andrukhovych 2000, 129–30).

Moscow and the Junkspace of the Cultures


Leopolitans—has long appropriated the entropic view of race. The text magnifies the imperial corruption of its protagonist, whose German name includes the patronymic Wilhelmovych (son of Wilhelm), is no accident. In the depths of the dormitory, Otto hears someone singing. He follows the sound and finds Tatnaketea, from Madagascar, taking a shower. He approaches, embraces her, and she bends over without looking at him: “And this is an invitation. Or a challenge. The black orchid lets you in. […] She yields to you as if she was a slave girl, although you cannot know how slave girls do it, perhaps, on the contrary, they resist or encourage” (Andrukhovych 2008, 20). The student later recalls that whatever the woman’s nationality or party affiliation, her race was of no interest to him: “Indeed, I liked it that her skin color was different. With my dick for a few unforgettable minutes I united two distant continents, cultures, civilizations” (2008, 50). In other words, the showering woman’s skin color interested him indeed— and in an archetypally colonial way: as a dark-skinned object of desire. The same act that leads Otto to fantasize about a pan-racial fulfillment of “cultures of the world, unite” is executed by the power logic of the imperial ghosts. However, Otto is more dishonest because, as their victim, he does not admit to his appropriated perpetrator status. Per-Arne Bodin reads this and other sex scenes in the novel as expressions of European and international desire aimed at the declining empire. Thus, Otto’s Russian playmate Galya symbolizes a Ukraine united with Russia. His friend Astrid stands for the “West” and the dark-skinned Tatnaketea “represents the international theme in the novel” (Bodin 2007, 99). In this perspective, Bodin overlooks that even Otto von F.’s later interlocutor Sashko, an operatic KGB man, confronts him about Tatnaketea and overtly accuses him of racism and sexual assault, of an “illegal sex act”, and of rape (Andrukhovych 2008, 130–1). During the rape scene, Tatnaketea remains passive, nameless and silent, at the mercy of the physical and semantic acts of her rapist. He, in turn, cannot or will not see the parallels between her apparent willingness and the Ukrainians’ lamented adaptability to membership in Greater Russia. Instead, he gushes about a union of cultures, continents, and skin colors in the style of imperial apologia. Yet soon thereafter, he is again identifying the tragedy of empire as its efforts to “unite the un-unitable.” Junkspace, writes Koolhaas, “pretends to unite, but it actually splinters” (Koolhaas 2002, 183). It splinters the consciousness of its inhabitants most of all. The Moscoviad shows the collapse of utopia into dystopia. Or worse, into entropy. The scandalization of power and exclusion, staged vertically in the novel, goes beyond the desperate aporia of the underground art we have seen so far to show the rape victims becoming rapists. This novel not only questions the


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

“kitsch of ‘friendship of nations’” (Hundorova 2019, 205). Tamara Hundorova also emphazises the setting of the rape in “the basement.” As to Hundorova, “the powerless colonial subject […] wants to demonstrate his overman-erotic aggression,”—which results in the stew of nation names, and in the rape. To her, “the totalitarian subject, being a ‘castrated’ victim of the empire, with its egocentric desires, is a clandestine aggressor and conquerer” (2019, 207). Alienation becomes historically, socially, and culturally ubiquitous. This strips the distinctions between victims and perpetrators and makes them uniform: an imperial, inescapable junkspace of cultures. Solomea Pavlychko calls Otto von F. the most conflicted protagonist of contemporary Ukrainian literature: “Hating [Moscow], he also hates himself, his weakness, his inner emptiness. Ukrainian prose has never had a hero this empty and alienated” (Pavlychko 1996, 17).

Two Dead in Drunkspace: Otto and Venedikt Otto von F.’s odyssey through the Russian capital is so violent and so sodden with drink and delirium that reviewers could not help but see in the “alcoholfueled monologues” (Magenau 2006, 18) a reference to Venedikt Erofeev’s canonical Moscow: To the End of the Line (Moskva-Petushki) of 1973.124 Erofeev’s book, which circulated in samizdat, “played a tipsy godfather to this late-Soviet phantasmagoria in which drunkenness becomes the state of the world,” as Wolfgang Schneider has it (Schneider 2006, 52). In both works, drunkenness is not caused by alcohol exclusively. The city, too, can be intoxicating in a way—virtually a classic topos of modernity. But indeed these are both books about drinkers that utilize the motif of a drug-induced blurring of borders quite liberally, even by underground standards. They elevate inebriation to a “state of the world.” In Moscow: To the End of the Line, the hero of the poem, named Venichka (a nickname for Venedikt), is still suffering from his morning hangover when he tries to acquire more alcohol at Kursk Station. He then boards the suburban train to Petushki, which he never reaches. At the end of the day, he finds himself back in Moscow, where he is tailed by four men and eventually murdered in a stairwell not far from the Kremlin. During the train ride, Venichka rambles incessantly: about philosophy, literature, and European art; about ethno-psychology and Soviet daily life; about drinking, women, the Russian “spirit,” and God. Dirk Uffelmann, who classifies Erofeev’s text as an “alcoholic poem,” discerns in it a “metaphysical exaltation of alcohol consumption” and provides a 124 See, for instance, Uritskii (2001, 217–8).

Two Dead in Drunkspace: Otto and Venedikt


“dual alcoholic/Christian reading” placing the poem in the context of kenosis (Uffelmann 2010, 796, 812). He situates Erofeev’s Christlike first-person narrator in the tradition of self-abasement as suffering: “The abased Christ supplies the model of the hero’s habitus and the poem’s forms of representation alike” (2010, 810).125 Beyond their boozing, Venichka and Otto von F. share the same unfulfilled hope for redemption: the train, the horizontal escape. After all, at the end of the day—with a bullet in his head—Otto von F. takes the train to his hometown of Kyiv, the same form of transportation that once united the empire. For Erofeev’s protagonist, it is the suburban train to Petushki whose stops structure the text—without making clear whether the trip occurs in reality or in delirium. Whatever the case, he never does reach Petushki, the curative, jasmine-scented countryside, with its peaceful birdsong—and nor does Otto leave Moscow except in a hearse. Erofeev—who personally led an underground life as a boilerman, guard, signalman, road worker, and alcoholic, far from the official literary circuit—created in Moscow: To the End of the Line a self-mythologizing text that fits seamlessly with the others discussed in this book. His protagonist and namesake also positions himself outside the system: “I’ll remain below and from below I’ll spit on their social ladder. Right, spit on every rung of it” (Erofeev 1994, 41).126 Venichka’s journey proceeds through an increasingly hazy, hallucinatory “drunkspace” whose stations or stages are marked by the place names along the line to Petushki—only to end back at Kursk Station, whose forecourt, restaurant, and liquor store were described as a central location of Moscow at the beginning of the story. Every path through the city, Venichka claims, has always led him inexorably to Kursk Station. However, he has never once managed to find his way to the Kremlin. Now, finally, as he tries to escape four pursuers who seem to have appeared out of nowhere, he suddenly beholds the seat of power: “The Kremlin shone before me in all its splendor” (1994, 160–1): I, who have passed through all Moscow, up and down, drunk and sober, I’ve never seen the Kremlin, and, when I went hunting for it, I always ended up at the Kursk Station. And now, finally, I see it when the Kursk Station is more necessary to me than anything on earth! (Erofeev 1994, 161) 125 According to Oliver Ready’s study on Russian writers and foolishness for Christ, many scholars “have argued for seeing the Venichka of Moscow-Petushki as a version of the yurodivyi, an analogy which has been extended to the poema itself as a gesture of yurodstvo and to its author” (Ready 2017, 83–4). Ready himself calls this an “attractive interpretation,” but strives to differentiate it (2017, 217–84). 126 See the translation of Moscow: To the End of the Line by H. William Tjalsma.


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

Svetlana Gaiser-Shnitman interprets the four pursuers as an allusion to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse as played by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Uffelmann points out that they can also be read as a reference to the four soldiers who crucified Christ (Uffelmann 2010, 813). Venichka also dies in Moscow. He is apprehended by the four figures, who push him to the ground and pierce his neck with a shilo, a “huge awl with a wooden handle” (Erofeev 1994, 163–4), akin to a screwdriver. At that, the narrator’s torrent of words breaks off. It is fitting to note the resemblance between the murder weapon and a bodkin, a compositor’s tool for positioning and removing pieces of type. Venichka, the character in the novel, never had a chance. The Kremlin had always been there. The excursions to Venice, Paris, London, and New York that he took in conversations with his fellow travelers were nothing but poetry. And Kursk Station, the gate to redemption, withdraws from him like a fata morgana at the very moment he truly needs it. Moscow doesn’t let him get away any more than it lets the equally liquor-inspired Otto von F. One of the last stops in Otto’s story, too, is the square outside a train station—in this case, Kyiv Station—and an angel keeps reappearing as a messenger of death. Yet as Otto leaves the steppe-like city on a wooden board, he manages to convince himself he is going home: “Since tonight I am not running away but coming back. Angry, empty, and with a bullet in my skull to top it all off ” (Andrukhovych 2008, 185). And he is able to dream of a European Ukraine on the Danube. He too has a deadly foreign object in his body, and yet something ghostly lives on to voice hope: “The main thing is to survive until tomorrow. To make it to the station called Kyiv” (2008, 185). The postmodern device of a double and therefore open ending pits The Moscoviad decisively against the finality of Moscow: To the End of the Line that is staged metaphorically by its murder weapon and reinforced by its final sentence: “And since then I have not regained consciousness, and I never will” (Erofeev 1994, 164). Venichka’s downfall takes place in a solidly forged, inescapable urban space. Otto’s death occurs in the shattering of this imperial assemblage, leaving a gap for light to shine through. This corresponds to another historical and poetic difference related to Erofeev’s treatment of verticality. He relocates the verticality to the character. Ve­ nich­ka’s futile horizontal movement causes him to plunge deeper and deeper into himself—all the way to unconsciousness and death as the epitome of the below. He is not a “positive” character, but a shady, inebriated, and paranoid one—a nearly manifest victim of his “circumstances.” Unless, however, we read the voice from offstage based on the concept of kenosis as a “minimal representation of resurrection, of post-mortem continuity.” What remains, Uffelmann writes, is the “paradox familiar from the Christian message”: “Either he

Kitsch, Irony, and Europe, or “Oh Lviv!”


is ­unconscious and is not speaking or he is speaking and conscious (in some form)” (Uffelmann 2010, 842–3). This distinguishes Venichka from Andrukhovych’s morally compromised Otto von F., who first becomes a colonial perpetrator himself then moves into a grotesque underground where he encounters the same powers who kill Venedikt. In the phantasmagorical Beneath the author has Otto massacre the figures in imperial masks, who turn out to be sawdust-filled scarecrows.127 Then he “apparently” shoots himself to escape the rat henchmen. This is followed by his ascent to the train station and the beginning of the ending, as previously described. So while Erofeev inscribes the underground into his protagonist, Andrukhovych externalizes it, giving Otto more room to maneuver for both good and evil ends. Yet the underworld in The Moscoviad is not a place of authenticity contrasted with an estranged ground level but the space in which the true crimes—including Otto’s—transpire, a space in which the imperial, ethnicityswallowing junkspace of cultures is in fact conceived and enacted. The Moscoviad can be read as a rejection of the classic Soviet underground, whose tools and themes it perpetuates while inverting their valuations: the aesthetic opposition is ascribed a pseudo-heroic resignation that ultimately amounts to preferential treatment of, if not participation in, the imperial status quo. By contrast, the colonially seducible but essentially European Galician Otto withdraws from appropriation—even if only at the cost of his life. Still, his speech succeeds in escaping apocalyptic language and postcolonial entropy.

Kitsch, Irony, and Europe, or “Oh Lviv!” The masquerade of the powerful is only one of many motifs and techniques that The Moscoviad owes to the carnivalesque concepts of Bubabism. Tamara Hundorova classifies both as types of pop-cultural writing that turn Venetian style and postcolonialism into a specific brand of carnival kitsch (Hundorova 2008, 236). Bu-Ba-Bu was by no means “concealed” in the underground, Hundorova continues. In employing techniques such as dramatized poetry and incorporating such poetry into sound art and rock music, it quickly conquered the 127 It would be worth exploring the aesthetic connection between Andrukhovych’s The Moscoviad and the works of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, in particular the mannequins and dolls. Schulz’s “sanatorium” in Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglasses (Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą, 1937) could be interpreted as another kind of underground space.


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

youth theater scene of Kyiv, then the Leopolitan opera, and finally Ukraine at large. The group’s success was in part thanks to its way of kitschifying national commonplaces as pop culture, spreading Ukrainian patriotism with an ironic touch, and presenting an entertaining, ambiguous poetics whose central approach constituted a sort of “paronomastically-oriented double-meaningness of words, phrases, and images” (Naydan 2006, 457). Beyond this, the period of Soviet decline and collapse of communism elevated the Bubabists, with their radically creative wit, catchy provocations, and sexualized metaphors, to a dual status, being both symbols of the democratic transition and pop stars. Hundorova traces Bu-Ba-Bu’s success to an exploitation of—skewed—kitsch that skillfully fluctuated between affirmation and subversion.128 In quite postmodern fashion, Bubabism mirrors away kitsch’s illusions and inflates its tastelessness in order to subvert it—but also profit off its marketability. In this, it is closest to conceptualist Sots Art, which, taking cues from American Pop Art, sought to undermine state socialist canons by desecrating authoritarian icons, re-contextualizing official slogans, and throwing in “incompatible” derivative elements. Accordingly, Hundorova ascribes a didactic impulse to the Bubabists, for they exposed the demonic side of kitsch and “show on stage how easily the masquerade becomes a putsch and a putsch turns out to be a masquerade” (Hundorova 2008, 245). The Moscoviad reflects this ambiguity of burlesque similarly in literary form. When the Russian ghosts of history rave about an imperial understanding among peoples, the demonic aspect of this post-comunist kitsch is plainly evident. For Neil Lazarus, for instance, post-comunism and post-colonialism are “spectres haunting” (Lazarus 2016). The Moscoviad mirrors this very intertwining. Upon closer inspection, this is only one aspect of Andrukhovych’s poetics. He employs a much more conciliatory, even affectionate, aesthetic—along with a different concept of the underground—when discussing his foil to the postimperialist dystopia of Moscow: Galicia, its cities, and, foremost, Lviv. Lviv plays a vital role in the works of Yuri Andrukhovych. In 1991, Andru­ khovych dedicated, for instance, several ballads to the city in Exotic Birds and 128 For a detailed aesthetic view, see Solomija Pavlychko (1996, 14): “Eclecticism still reigns: formalism, free verse, rap-influenced recitation all thrive side by side. The principal transformation in poetry, as well as in prose, had not to do with form but with diction. In the last years, urban sounds, anxieties, cynicism, and crude humor have won admission to the palace—no, make that the pub—of art.” Also Michael Naydan (2005, 24–7): “They offered a vibrantly alternative creative energy to a young, urban audience that, following decades of cultural stagnation under the Soviets, thirsted for newness and innovation.”

Kitsch, Irony, and Europe, or “Oh Lviv!”


Plants (Ekzotychni ptakhy i roslyny). Some years later, he published Songs for the Dead Rooster (Pisni dlia mertvoho pivnia), a collection of poems that bear much more worldly reference points but keep returning to Lviv. Their aesthetic is more “underground-y” than the early, slightly dreamy poems. There is more boozing, puking, and grumbling. Finally, And the Third Angel Sounded, with its flirtation with the Apocalypse, rose to become “the Lviv song” when the band Mertvy Piven (Dead Rooster) set it to music. Andrukhovych casts Lviv more explicitly as a code word for the battle between center and periphery in his essays on Central Europe. In one of these essays, “The City-Ship” (“Misto-korabel”) from 1994, Andrukhovych attempts to extract unity from the “various” Lvivs. On the one hand, the German-Jewish Lemberg differs from the Polish Lwów, which differs in turn from the Ukrainian Lviv, which has nothing in common with the Latin Leopolis. On the other hand, Andrukhovych represents Lviv as a historical whole—a ship of ghosts or fools. Precisely because the city is woven through with competition and coexistence, its gaps, its battlegrounds, and the stubborn creativity of its diverse patchwork population groups can be dramatically celebrated. Situated on a drainage divide between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, Lviv is reminiscent of a Noah’s ark fully loaded with endangered species. By way of their shared heraldic animal (the lion), Andrukhovych draws a connection to Venice by sending his “ark” to the more cheerful, more cultivated south (Andrukhovych 2018, 65–6). It is a declaration of love spoken with friendly irony. Simultaneously, Andrukhovych largely dissolves the historical lines of conflict. He invokes an image of Lviv as the “Ukrainian Piedmont” but without naming the counter-vision of the “Polish bulwark”—the enemy is all but omitted (Rudolf 1993, 75). Instead, the text formally revels in the historical polyethnicism of Lviv and Ukraine, a plurality that has mostly disappeared or contracted into a Russian/Ukrainian duality. As with the vision of ethnicities he presents in The Moscoviad, Andrukhovych’s poetic principle is that of enumerating, but this time, instead of a malicious distortion, it is a carefully composed, onomatopoetic lyrical gesture of naming actual Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Czech and Germans. Even the most chronologically remote ethnic splinters are included (Goths, Alans, Celts). Formerly ostracized groups are given equal placement (Gypsies, Tatars, Turks). Mythical tribes, especially from the Odyssey (Cyclopians, Laestrygonians), are inserted alongside completely far-flung relations (Basques, Etruscans, Ethiopians) and non-ethnic groups (Capuchins, Carmelites, Jesuits, and Rosicrucians) (Andrukhovych 2018, 67). With a cheerfully light touch, the entire world is shipped on the ark of Lviv. Andrukhovych encodes the city as a counter-vision to the imperial junkspace of cultures.


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

Poetically, Andrukhovych’s work operates as all literature that treats losses of space with varying degrees of nostalgia does. These works are united by a common poetics evidenced in an obsession with taking inventory of lost territory, as seen in Andrzej Stasiuk’s writings on Central Europe. Meanwhile, Andrukhovych’s poems display an attitude to the underground topos that has more in common with Ivan Wernisch’s established pattern of a “city [...] above the passageways” that appears much less alive than its underbelly (Wernisch 1992, 80). To situate Andrukhovych in this tradition, let us consider the example of “Underground Zoo” (“Pidzemne zoo”) from Exotic Birds and Plants, which was also set to music by Mertvy Piven. That “Underground Zoo” is set in Lviv is implicit: the poem’s epigram is a verse by Bohdan Ihor Antonych from May 1936, which ends: “Beneath the city, as though in fairy tales, whales, dolphins and tritons live / in water thick and black as tar, a hundred of them in awful cellars / ghostlike ferns, griffins, drowned comets and bells. / O ticket made of stone, when will the next flood sweep you away” (Antonych 2010, 157; translated by Michael M. Naydan). Antonych, a native of the Lemke region who also lived in Lviv, is considered one of Ukraine’s most significant modern poets; Andrukhovych repeatedly refers to him. Next, in his four-stanza poem, Andrukhovych uses the first two lines of Antonych’s poem as motto and expands on it, mimicking its images and fantastical techniques. In his telling, the space beneath the city is inhabited not only by sea creatures but also by “lions, dozy and yellow,” “flying zebras, antelopes, and horses,” “shadows of monkeys,” “mammoths as meek as cows, / and mastodons. Like a warm sump / waves the stony forest of animals, / fled from huntsmen.” At last, the final stanza leaves this paradise and calls on the principle of the underground already hinted at in the “stone” from the end of the third stanza: People live under the ground of the city. Pilgrims and pikemen, who hide their wings in sleeves— A penny, and again the circle of faded and vicious entertainment is unleashed. All the same—the beer at the market stall, wedding fiddles, lanterns, horseshoes, kisses, tears, love, and darkness… Under the city. Only the city is gone. (Andrukhovych 2002, 90–1; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Andrukhovych’s zoo poem implies a nature-disowning city on the surface and a civilization that takes cheap pastimes as a life credo. This is juxtaposed against a peaceful, multisensory paradise, but one that is contaminated from the title

Kitsch, Irony, and Europe, or “Oh Lviv!”


onward, which invokes a “zoo”: an artificial arrangement. And yet, both interpretations of civilization’s supposed progress as a descent can coexist. The (upper) city is gone once and for all, perhaps because it has literally disappeared from the surface through downward rotation. Or perhaps because it is no longer possible to speak of a city without its fantastical Other. However, it seems neither necessary nor sensible to play the interpretations against each another, whether the poem is a general critique of civilization or a comment on a concrete process of “urbicide” (Karl Schlögel) through World War II and Sovietization. Likewise, from the motto and the context of the work, an allusion to Lviv is tempting to read in, but in fact almost any other Sovietized Eastern European city would fit the bill—as would the later image of the Ark of Peoples set against the modern polyethnicity of the space flattened into a junkspace. On another level, the poem connotes the underground via individual psychology. “[I]n the holes of our souls” locates the last line of the first stanza in the underground zoo. The condition of the city (Lviv) is also the condition of its residents. By extension, denouncing the historical process of alienation translates into a subjugation of self, indeed a subjugation within threadbare-seeming customs (“beer on the market stall,” “wedding fiddle,” “kisses, tears, and darkness”). This polyvalent underground has human inhabitants too. The poem refers to “pilgrim and pikeman.” This combination seems odd at first glance and deeply ambiguous upon reflection. Superficially, the pilgrim seems self-evident: a refugee who sallies forth on a spiritual journey. The historic pikeman, by contrast, is associated with a weapon for defending his town or city. More generally, the Ukrainian word “citizen” (mishchukh) is rooted in “city” (misto). Today the term mishchukh symbolizes more of a philistine or square enacting a kind of authoritarian cowardice. Both derogatory terms are expressions of class-based, rural, and revolutionary resentment against free citizens. Could they be potential code words for urban self-assertion? For a theorist of cities, pilgrims are more interesting. They travel to the city as believers: modern tourists before their time, if you ask Boris Groys. In his essay “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction,” Groys only concedes “true” durability to the utopian city, asserting that tangible cities are provisional by principle. Yet the utopian city, he argues, lies beyond the horizons of history. Only the pilgrim, between arriving and striking out again, experiences an allegedly static eternity that is the pilgrim’s very goal—provided that the pilgrim travels onward. Only under this proviso will the pilgrim remain unfamiliar with the story of the place, familiar only with his or her own story. Which explains Groys’s pronouncement: “Romantic tourism is a machine designed to transform ephemerality into monumentality” (Groys 1997, 95–6).


“Cherboslovats, Romongolians, Sweeks”

Tourists make pilgrimages to the permanent monuments of a city and in passing monumentalize their pilgrimage sites, which can be anything: a monument, a gravesite, a shopping district, a center of nightlife. The modern metropolis, Groys continues, was once future-directed, self-improving, and provisional. Conversely, its inhabitants perceived the country as monumental in the sense of immutable. Pilgrims were the first to (literally) see this differently. However, between pilgrims and tourists, the monumentality was transferred once again: from the space into the person. Since then, travelers have been monumentalizing themselves. City-dwellers and non-city-dwellers alike travel constantly so as to “look monumental to each other” (1997, 108). But neither group opts for self-reflection as a “vertical movement from the limitations of self to universality and transcendence.” Instead, they choose an “endless horizontal, touristic trip from one monument to the next” and therefore remain “insurmountably schizophrenic” (1997, 108). Andrukhovych prefers the vertical model, the voyage to the undercity as a voyage into the depths of the urban soul. The text situates pilgrims and pikemen just before the upper rotates into the lower, the banal into the lively, and the city is swallowed up. Then Andrukhovych puts forward a remarkably skeptical, nuanced appropriation of the urban underground topos. Tamara Hundorova credits Andrukhovych not only with inscribing decadence into Ukrainian postmodernism and advancing it but also with carrying on the mythical/fairy tale-like hopes of Bohdan Ihor Antonych—as he does in “Underground Zoo” (Hundorova 1997, 118). This observation seems even more fitting when applied to the Galician or (Central) European city as a whole. The city serves as an almost unswervingly idealized leitmotif of the poems and essays and is the direct foil of The Moscoviad. The latter book features the aforementioned postcard, Otto’s constant (self-) identification as a Galician, and the recurrent reflections on a cultural difference. I will cite one of the differences as an example, which in its studied conciseness enacts the antagonism between two worlds down to the nuances of tone, style, and visual language. Otto’s friends guide him, still sober in the morning, to a beer bar: You thought, Otto von F., following the tracks of old-time Galician notions, that a beer hall [in the original пивбар] must be a cozy and dry cavern on an old cobblestone street, marked by the sign of a cute little Devil with a round indulgent belly, where the lights and music are low, and the bartender uses the unfathomable expression, “What would be the gentleman’s wish?” You hoped your buddies would bring you into some such amber-saturated paradise that the rain, thunder, boom, pestilence, fear, putsch, famine cannot reach? Instead you have the beer hall on Fonvizin Street, an incomprehensible construct, a Lego pyramid, something like a hangar in the middle of a great Asiatic wasteland overgrown with the first May weeds. A hangar

Kitsch, Irony, and Europe, or “Oh Lviv!”


for the drunks… And it can fit a few thousand of them… a colossal waiting area in front of the gates of hell… apocalyptic entertainment for throats and bladders. (Andrukhovych 2008, 34–5)

Going on about militarism, coarseness, unfriendliness, essential incivility, and Asia, the page-long harangue against the Moscow junkspace does more than diverge from the concepts of center and periphery that underpinned Andrukhovych’s Central Europe essays. It also points out the inherent power of the anti-imperial and postcolonial aesthetic to become an authoritarian counterclaim once again. Before we discuss this power systematically, let us investigate the relationship between center and periphery in an aesthetic setting that excellently complements the Moscow of The Moscoviad: Andrzej Stasiuk’s Warsaw.

Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation: Andrzej Stasiuk’s Post-Socialist Warsaw For decades they’d been getting out of trains and suburban buses […] to invade, to conquer downtown with its wonders, glitz, and glamour. From Łochów, Małkinia, Pustelnik, Radzymin, Poświętne, Guzowacizna, and Ciemne, from all those little backwaters with their cockerels crowing at five in the morning, their fire stations and flat, ploughed horizons, where instead of the sun the great city rises like a mirage magnified by the tales of those who have been there, seen it, touched it, or heard the legend. —Andrzej Stasiuk, Nine129

Andrzej Stasiuk is seen chiefly as a witness to the non-urban, to a decaying, dreary, “authentic” periphery—as a writer whose characters tend to freeze in Galicia.130 Nevertheless, his Warsaw novel Nine (Dziewięć), published in 1999, bears a striking closeness to the urban prose of Jáchym Topol and Yuri Andrukhovych in its breakneck poetic pace and its topology. Stasiuk likewise uses underground techniques of self-exclusion and “pollution” of the center to draw a mutual relationship between vertical/social and horizontal/cultural postulates of marginality. However, unlike equivalents in the works of Andrukhovych and Topol, Stasiuk’s urban clash of civilizations is not about ethnicities, languages, or religions. It is about the tension between city and country within Warsaw. For him, city and country represent the center and periphery of a “heartland” with national integrity. Stasiuk’s Warsaw is not composed of fraying ethnic strands. Far from it, the city is ethnically indifferent and therefore ethnically self-contained. The city thus conceived is juxtaposed against a “genuinely” connected hinterland, which is seen as polyphonic, polyethnic, and positive. This ties into a quintessentially modern theme, which Stasiuk pursues further in his essays on Central Europe: a categorical discomfort with the city. 129 All quotations from Stasiuk’s novel Nine translated by Bill Johnson. For the motto, see Stasiuk (2008, 89–90). 130 A recently published volume on Stasiuk’s oeuvre does not deviate from this pattern (Rabizo-Birek et al. 2018).


Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation

As we consider the image of planar cities and their urban devastation, we will focus on this discomfort and only touch on the question of the city’s “ups” and “downs.” Stasiuk’s view of Warsaw is more concerned with the notion that the city’s doom is inscribed in its choice of location: on the plane.

Andrzej Stasiuk and the Underground Stasiuk, like Topol and Andrukhovych, belongs to a broadly conceived underground. His earliest publications came from the group that formed around the magazine bruLion, whose pet themes were calculated to snub the Polish public, as already described in the chapter of Jacek Podsiadło and Marcin Świetlicki. Narrative patterns of the underground are also fundamental to Stasiuk’s later selfnarrative in his 1998 autobiographical work How I Became a Writer (Jak zostałem pisarzem). There, Stasiuk—with his origins at culture’s marginalized edge—serves the ball straight into center court. He describes how he dropped out of school, deserted the army, was seized and imprisoned; how he stayed afloat for years with odd jobs; how he wrote on the side—and finally turned his back on Warsaw (Stasiuk 1998). In this description, Stasiuk writes himself into the performative poetry of the underground without needing to invoke the U-word himself. He also gives this narrative a final, anti-urban twist, which we will return to. The autobiographical How I Became a Writer, which Stasiuk has also called “chronicle of a mental formation” (Stasiuk 1998, 70), employs the familiar dichotomy of “then” and “now.” In narrative loops, the chronicler regrets that things are not as before 1989 and will “never be the same” after 1989. Where is the line between irony and sentimentality? It is ultimately drawn by the modern game of presenting and violating pathos, a game the underground perfected. In keeping with the dramatic code-abidance of a predominantly male underground, Stasiuk’s reference environments also reproduce the clichéd topoi of “masculine” behavior. As with Podsiadło and Topol, these codes serve as markers of like-mindedness: reverence for Native Americans and Romany, road movie-style movement, music, and nature-inspired code words for groups of outsiders: “We lived like animals. In packs” (1998, 11)131 131 In his study on Polish alternative culture, Xawery Stańczyk draws on Stasiuk’s works to illustrate the desire “to be together” (bycie razem) but differentiates “communality” (wspólnotowość) from “feasting together” (współbiesiadowanie), while both serve as central items of alternative community life (Stańczyk 2018, 231–2). At the time, he quotes with some astonishment a number of former underground activists who explain that alcohol, let alone drugs, were difficult to come by, and thus inadequately prominent in the according texts (2018, 232–6).

Nine and Warsaw’s Invasion by the Margins


Similar to Topol with his “ORGANIZATION,” Stasiuk’s narrator celebrates a tribal elitism that is only superficially disrupted: “We didn’t want for hell be folk. And so in some vague way, we felt the chosen. Quite tribal laws ruled that feeling” (1998, 122). In an almost intoxicating way, the text strings these signifiers like beads: places, cigarette brands, types of vodka, names of bars, bands, songwriters, songs, writers, pieces of writing, and popular tunes. Mirjam Goller interprets Stasiuk’s confession as a “post-autobiographical biography of a writer” conflating travel and space with intoxicating narcotics. Correspondingly, Goller interprets Stasiuk’s declaration of his move to the periphery as a “freshly appreciated retreat” (Goller 2006, 289–303). In the end, we are left with a character woven together out of what he has read, heard, and partaken in. The text composes a virtually characteristic hero of the underground as a counterpart to the pop-modern angry young dandy. The prominence in Stasiuk’s and his fellow writers’ work of intoxication, excretions, and violence points back to the themes of defilement and (self-)destruction.

Nine and Warsaw’s Invasion by the Margins The characters of Stasiuk’s novel walk, rush, and ride through Warsaw on foot, by bus, and by tram from the outskirts to the center and back. Along the streets, the locations the text serves up are “non-places” à la Marc Augé. While the storyteller follows the characters, the city itself becomes another, unnamed protagonist of the novel. Alongside the book’s eight human characters, Beata Czechowska counts the city as the ninth. For her, Stasiuk’s Warsaw is a “muddy cardiogram” (Czechowska 2007, 67). She views Paweł as the main person of the novel, whom she sees as confined, like Josef K., in a Kafkaesque urban space (2007, 64). As the novel begins, the unsuccessful shopkeeper Paweł wakes up one morning to find his apartment ravaged. The following characters successively emerge from the city without much introduction: Jacek, a casual drug dealer and a friend of Paweł. Then Bolek, an unscrupulous, nouveau-riche profiteer to whom Jacek owes money. They are later joined by the thug Blondyn (“blond man”) and the peaceful Paker (“iron man”) from the countryside. The female characters are Bolek’s lover Syl; Irina the Russian prostitute; Zosia the saleswoman; and Beata, a mystic and a friend of Jacek. The living circumstances of them all are unpleasant to varying degrees, they have assorted links to one another, and they shepherd the reader all around Warsaw, especially its suburbs and outskirts. Streets and intersections serve as a guiding theme and lead us from one bar to the next. Some characters pass the


Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation

tests of urban culture; others die trying. The dramatis personae are neither freed from their unfortunate positions nor granted narrative justice. Characters are hunted down, raped, beaten, imprisoned, and run over. Then the novel comes to an abrupt end. For Przemysław Czapliński, this is ample cause to warn readers in his review of Stasiuk’s novel, which he reads as crime fiction: he warns them of its loose ends, its excessive vulgarity, its simple characterization, its aimlessly meandering arcs, and the simultaneous construction of too many stories. These are accusations that the underground, like pop, gleefully incites (Czapliński 2011, 48). Agnieszka Wiencek makes these roots explicit when she calls Nine a “scratchpad novel” (powieść-brulion), which, appropriately, explains its incomplete plot, its numerous dead ends, and its narrative feints (Wiencek 2001, 78). The novel is set in a mafia-occupied Warsaw, where by design nothing can succeed. Indeed, Nine is not very psychologically fleshed out. It employs explosive language and a frantic narrative voice, blends spaces with characters, sublimity with obscenity, and hopes for integrity with urban decay. Most importantly, the novel splits this Warsaw vertically into an overcity and an undercity—while pitting the horizontal center against the outskirts, the city against the country. Stasiuk’s post-socialist Warsaw is populated by newcomers and receives “a fresh dose” of the country every day, just as Topol’s Prague gets its “fresh dose of Asia” (Topol 2000, 53). The center is invaded by and from the periphery, which sends “scouts” to settle in groups (“packs”) in Warsaw’s belt of high rises and then creep closer to the center. Yet the center proves to be a fata morgana; this is how the outskirts-dwelling natives of the “planar landscape” understand the city center and its business. Still they wind up back at the edge, at Różycki Bazaar. Furthermore, their movement is not a one-way trip, and all forays from the periphery into the city lead straight back to the country: “Express trains set out in all four directions. A long-distance train pulled into Central Station after an overnight journey. Nothing needed to be added or subtracted” (Stasiuk 2007, 188). The to-and-fro does not result in a true exchange. “The intention is not to bring the periphery into the center, but to elevate it to an alternative center of its own,” writes Christian Prunitsch in a general comment on Stasiuk’s body of work (Prunitsch 2005, 48). In Nine, the periphery has not even gone from the irreducible other to the alternative. At first, the blurred seam of country and city only marks the failure of both the civic expansion and the rural invasion. Only in his Central Europe essays does Stasiuk resolve this tension in favor of a revaluation, a shrugging fantasy of doom. Warsaw as well as Moscow: the very locations of these “planar cities” condemn them to be leveled.

Nine and Warsaw’s Invasion by the Margins


Nine, too, presents Warsaw as steppe-like—as Andrukhovych presents Moscow. The narrated relationship with the surrounding countryside evokes the typical associations of surging tide, gusting wind, and drifting sand. Where the novel directly addresses the fate of the place, it opts for historical/vertical imagery. Again and again, like Andrukhovych and especially Topol, Stasiuk creates false-bottomed spaces: passageways, catacombs, underpasses. From out of these spaces, almost recalling Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the zombies rise: OK, that won’t happen. But the resurrection is everywhere. On Marszałkowska the tarmac cracks and they crawl out; on the Aleje the pavements open and it’s the same. You’re sitting in McDonald’s on Świętokrzyska, with your Big Mac, and wham, the flooring, concrete, everywhere crumbles, and there’s a dead body, and another, everywhere, at the traffic circle, in the Passageway, the lawn at Saski Garden peels and they pop up like mushrooms or those German garden gnomes, on Powstańców Square, Defilad Square, across the parade ground […]. It won’t be all nice and genteel like before, like in the cemeteries out in Wólka and Bródno and Wola, where it’s deserted, no one’s around, plus they’re all in tidy rows with their arms crossed the way they were left… Here it will be different. (Stasiuk 2007, 70–1)

In Nine, the imagery dead crawl upwards. His danse macabre is a warning about the stubbornness of people who have been swept under the rug. It conceives Warsaw as the junction of axes, the intersection of the horizontal and vertical traumas of marginality. He thereby exposes the time’s verdict: devastation. Stasiuk likens these axes of desperation more fully than any other author described here. Stasiuk’s Warsaw functions as a completed urban disaster: a zombie city. He describes this in more detail in his 1998 essay collection “My Europe: Two Essays on So-called Central Europe” (“Moja Europa. Dwa eseje o Europie zwanej Środkową”) which he published with Yuri Andrukhovych. There, he writes that “building the capital on the corpses” after 1945 and “bringing wagons of bricks from the whole country,” which in turn came from “city wrecks” was a “macabre celebration of resurrection,” to which villagers from the peripheries were invited (Stasiuk 2001, 117). Ten years later, in 2008, Sylwia Chutnik introduced a female twist on the necropolis theme. Her novel Pocket Atlas of Women (Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet) focuses on the fates of women on Opaczewska Street in Warsaw’s Ochota district. One of her variations on Mary/Maria is the Jewish woman Maria Wachelberska (Wachelberg), who once managed to escape the Warsaw Ghetto through the sewer system, the “canal,” surviving the German terror only to fall victim to the Russians. Now, every day, she crosses the vegetable market what was once the place where her mother died trying to protect her from rapists: “That isn’t a pilgrimage to Auschwitz, where on can lay down flowers in front of a barrack.


Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation

This is a personal confrontation with the slaughterhouse, where she herself, her mother, her friends, her neighbors played the main characters. That won’t easily be forgotten” (Chutnik 2008, 95). Chutnik has her Maria rot away in a former bomb cellar, but not without placing the mother of all mothers—“Mother Warsaw”—at her side for consolation. Her narrative voice contrasts this encounter in the “moldy cellar” with Forefather’s Eve (Dziady) by Adam Mickiewicz, the Romantic festival for the dead that fueled a masculine, national spirit of resistance. As with Stasiuk, this is not just a tie-in to critiques of Warsaw’s reconstruction strategy after its destruction in World War II. Unlike Yuri Andrukhovych, for example, Stasiuk is barely interested in the mark the Soviets left on the city. The expansion that concerns him is not a tangible one, but a metaphorical colonization by political power. In drawing on the topos of expansion, he joins Tadeusz Konwicki’s Warsaw novel A Minor Apocalypse (Mała apokalipsa) from 1979. Konwicki’s own colonial fantasy centers on the Warsaw Palace of Culture, a “toxic site of urban planning” in Ioan Augustin’s usage. Augustin defines this as a “site that, due to the exercise of force […] lacks coherency, urban logic, or a human scale and that, due to the dimensions of its construction […] also radiates onto surrounding areas, producing toxified places that, with the spread of these toxic ‘germs,’ likewise lose their character over time” (Augustin 2005, 376; italics in the original). The gargantuan Palace of Culture, a “gift” to the Polish people, was designed and constructed by Soviet architects in the 1950s and placed away from the city’s historic center. As an icon of Stalinist architecture and a symbol of communism, it continues to dominate Warsaw and the discourse about Warsaw after 1989 (Omilanowska 2010, 130). Unlike Konwicki, Stasiuk neglects the iconic Palace.132 However, both writers are united in their view of Warsaw as a planar city of steppe-ification and of devastation (Czechowska 2007, 70). For Stasiuk and Konwicki, Asia has arrived in Europe: “My city is reminiscent of the famous city of Irkutsk. It was once a crippled European city, today it is a healthy Asiatic village, a kishlak. I am enslaved to this city” (Konwicki 1999, 157; italics in the original). Like Stasiuk, Konwicki returns to the motif of the centuries-old necropolis: “A city crippled at dawn, raped by its occupiers, quartered by its conquerors, and strangled by the lariats of Asiatic hordes. Once I crawled back into this city’s corpse.” (1999, 156; both translated by Richard Lourie).

132 See one of Stasiuk’s rare references to the Palace of Culture: “while the palace casts its great shadow across the bare branches of the maples. Half the city could have fitted into that shadow standing shoulder to shoulder” (Stasiuk 2008, 28).

Nine and Warsaw’s Invasion by the Margins


Stasiuk sees today’s Warsaw primarily as a city colonized by the West. This view is even more pronounced in his essays than in Nine. The first-person narrator in How I Became a Writer, who always imagines all evil coming from the metropolis, perceives an entropy of foreign rule in flat Warsaw (Stasiuk 1998, 47). The Westerners “came in a land of but thousand mirrors, found themselves between gigantic glass surfaces […] and could watch their endlessly reproduced mirror image.” Their Europe is encircled by a “cordon made of mirrors” (Stasiuk 2001, 115). Glass is the mythical medium of deception, the material that Stasiuk most associates with the West. At the same time, the mirrored reflection of the urban landscape is code for what Maria Janion diagnoses as Poland’s self-perception in her study The Uncanny Slavdom (Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna). The author points out the “colonial advance” of Christianity that once led to a “Latinizing Westernization” of Polish culture, resulting in the obliteration or repression of earlier Byzantine and pagan Slavic influences. Her central thesis is that cultural homelessness generates Freudian uncanniness (Janion 2006, 124–75). Janion uses the terms homelessness and uncanniness to describe Poland’s treatment of its double historical role: as a colony (of Russia and “the West”) but also as a colonizer (of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus). In its collective memory, according to Janion, Poland is caught between self-abasement and haughtiness, between its mythical roles as an eternal victim and an eternal warrior for Christianity. Her accusation of Polish literature is that, despite “pious wishes and mendacious assertions,” its Poland is a “poor, flat, and largely national-Catholic monolith” instead of a “multicultural country” (2006, 330). We must keep this conclusion in mind as we classify Stasiuk’s phobia of glass. The glass doubles and radicalizes the plane’s pessimistic thoughts when Nine repeats the psychologically airtight flatness of the colonized colonizer Poland, in a kind of 90-degree rotation, as a mirrored façade. This leads the novel’s characters into an authorless madness, free of intentionality, producing that same outside authority that structures the urban fata morgana of the post-1989 period. The glassed-over, authorless city thus stretches beyond its own edges. Despite its post-socialist boom, Warsaw comes across as peculiarly villagelike, pagan, and rural—but no “country” (in the sense of an idealizable plurality or authenticity) is to be seen in the corrupt suburbs. Rather, Stasiuk contaminates the topographies by establishing metonymic relationships between city and country, the city’s center and its other districts, by way of olfactory perceptions and images of traffic, but also through disruptive visual links: Friday morning, and the usual stream of cars from Ochota to Praga, from Żoliborz to Mokotów and back again, bringing to mind geometry. The planes of the build-


Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation

ings superimposed on one another, all coming to rest against the plane of the sky. The eastern light crumbled against the straight edges of the roofs. Below, shadow, the puddles not yet thawed, ice reflected in glass, multiplied and magnified images. (Stasiuk 2007, 184)

Maria Janion’s monolith has fallen apart here, leaving nothing in its place—except dystopia. The melting of the topographies of city and surrounding countryside, the blurring of big-city contours, and the privileging of the periphery over the center as a setting dictate the characters’ urban dislocation. In a very literal sense, they no longer have a fixed locale. The horizontal/geographical and vertical/social exclusions determine, mirror, and intensify each other. None of the characters in Nine are situated or socially accepted. Aside from their social marginality, they are also in the midst of a universal criminality. The latter element is genuinely anti-social and again marks the characters’ (self-) exclusion. To further illuminate the significance of crime in the novel, let us draw on Walter Benjamin’s urban philosophy, specifically his observations on the kinship between flâneur and detective and the detective’s preformation in the flâneur, or the detective-flâneur (Herzog 2009, 15–21). This analysis does not read Nine as a crime novel so much as a social novel (of the city), which in many ways resembles the novels of Jáchym Topol and Yuri Andrukhovych. As in those books, there is criminality, robbery, murder, theft, drug dealing, sexual offenses, and a wide range of minor and major criminals— but no one “case” to crack, no sleuth, and no plot. It therefore lacks the crafted structure of a detective story, which typically comprises an initial loss of order, a (personal) investigation, and an (at least partial) restoration of order. By the same token, we are missing the metonymy of the loss of order in a single crime or complex of crimes. More generally, Bart Keunen identifies the relationship between the city and the crime genre: “Urban crime fiction is organized by the actions of heroes who are tested for their ability to survive in urban culture. […] Crime novelists often refer to spatial settings which compensate for the loss of collective value systems” (Keunen 2004, 113). In this respect, Nine is genuine, unadulterated urban crime fiction. Stasiuk puts his characters through a veritable test of wits to see if they can survive in the socially dystopian urban terrain. At the same time, the characters Stasiuk creates are modernized, distorted variations on the reflective, observant flâneur. These flâneurs have indeed lost their dandyesque touch because they are rushing, not strolling, through an inhospitable space. Still, they find time to observe, to ponder their observations, and to share them at length together with their interpretations. Paweł can thus be read as both an urban detective and a man on the run from his pursuers, fleeing with no destination. Such is

Nine and Warsaw’s Invasion by the Margins


the fate of the flâneur-detective in post-socialist Warsaw. He is a man of the crowd, but he wants to hide in it, not merge with it. His observing has outlasted any intention. This concept can be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), which is about a metropolitan observer who leaves his people-watching spot in a coffee shop to follow a man through the city and into the entertainment district. He glimpses the flash of a dagger under the man’s cloak. But there is no (visible) crime, no deed. In the end, the narrator gives up his chase. In his eyes, the mysterious old man becomes a “man of the crowd,” an eternal wanderer, a “genius of deep crime” seeking company, revelation, and concealment in the city. Walter Benjamin’s conflation of the flâneur and the detective is belied by the intention mentioned earlier: on one side, there is the aimless flâneur, and on the other, there is the detective, the epitome of the deliberate, observing citydweller—comparable to Poe’s pursuer from the coffee shop. The two figures are indistinguishable to an onlooker, which is incidentally one of the detective’s intentions. Harald Neumeyer points out a clear oversight in Benjamin’s comparison: “Because Benjamin also conceives of the flâneur as an observer rather than gawper, he has no problem assessing the detective as a manifestation of the flâneur, for whom ‘curiosity’ is the sole ‘focus of observation’” (Neumeyer 1999, 34). Neumeyer doubts whether Benjamin’s associated thesis—that any clue would lead the flâneur to a crime—can really define the figure adequately. If you ask Neumeyer, a flâneur chasing a lead is no flâneur. Stasiuk’s Paweł is not a sleuth on a case either—but he plays a structurally analogous role, and the analogy is corroborated by the atmosphere of mystery, danger, and omnipresent crime. Rather than pursuing one crime, the novel pursues criminality at large. Stasiuk’s narrative model is less a question of whodunit than of what happened, as a social novel would ask. The text lets the reader sense the city through Paweł’s eyes and body and take in its disparate, volatile information—tricky clues to decode. Strictly speaking, “solving the case” has become impossible. Benjamin was still convinced he could capture the city on film. Moreover, he wrote in Berlin Chronicle in 1932 that the silhouette of a city’s built environment could no longer be approached on wheels from its train tracks and stations. Better from a car, because “railways are beginning to be out of date, are no longer, generally speaking, the true ‘gateways’ through which the city unrolls its outskirts as it does along the approach roads for motorists” (Benjamin 1999, 599). Still, the city, suburbia, and the country retained scraps of distinguishing features. The train station had endured as a place of passage and confluence, but the more flexible automobile had allowed experiences of other transitions.


Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation

Train stations come back into more prominent play for Stasiuk. But their tunnels, arching roofs, and underpasses do not serve as entrance halls for travelers to pass through on the way to a grand view of “something.” In fact, they are not epistemologically distinct from the bus stations, tram stops, intersections, and interchanges where Paweł keeps finding himself. Essentially, these are places that are both amorphous and heavily regulated at once. They are places of passage, classic non-places in the terminology of Marc Augé, poorly marked and permeable in character. But they don’t lead anywhere. They don’t connect to a place, only to the next in-between space. Stasiuk’s post-socialist Warsaw consists only of Augé’s transit zones, places which have temporary occupants: day spas, shopping malls, and public transit settings that become “inhabited spaces” and constitute a world “thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral” (Augé 2008, 63). The notion of Benjamin’s purlieus is evident, if at all, as a lacuna in the observer’s landscape of desires. Thus melted into a total dystopia, Stasiuk’s Warsaw loses its identity as an object and enters the uncanny status of a subject, as an unnamed character of the novel. With distinct hints of the Romantic thriller, the text semantically anthropomorphizes the city, its fixtures, its apartments, and its stores. The buses haul their “bellies” around and taunt people with their honking. The darkness is “filled with electric stars strewn by the pantographs of the trams toward the Bethlehem night” (Stasiuk 2007, 11). The city “hides, halts, gives time to those who have nothing to do” (2007, 15), “the apartment buildings [take] deeper root” (2007, 21), and the “incessant bubble of the roundabout […] wheezes like a sick windpipe” (2007, 57). Smells, noises, even pieces of buildings trespass the characters’ bodies and become part of them: “Like wind going through him, like being empty inside, filled with nothing but pieces of the city—like a silent film speeded up inside him” (2007, 29). The city is painted as a broken creature and the character is portrayed as a destroyed neighborhood. The urban environment becomes a challenge or trial, a superior and hostile opponent in a game; it drags down its residents into its existentially devastated non-existence. This goes far beyond a radicalized form of the mirroring technique.

How Much “Young Poland” Is Lurking in Stasiuk’s Nine? Stasiuk’s horror scenario resembles a theme that is classic in Polish modernity (but not limited to it): a discomfort with the city especially as articulated by the Young Poland (Młoda Polska) movement—but unlike the work of the Skamander group surrounding Julian Tuwim and the later avant-garde. Wojciech

How Much “Young Poland” Is Lurking in Stasiuk’s Nine?


Gutowski even attributes a “resolute anti-urbanism” (Gutowski 1993, 189) to the literature of Young Poland, which ushered in the modernist shift in Polish literature around the turn of the twentieth century. For all the group’s studious rejection of urban ways of life, the city was still its primary topic. Its writings depicted urban chaos, doom in and by the city, preferably clad in motifs and symbols that elevated decay to an existential and metaphysical level. Like the novel Nine, the poetry of Young Poland lives off the tension between its fascination for the urban and its desperate complaints about urban forms of devastation. Only later would the modernists of the Kraków avant-garde (Awangarda Krakowska), led by Tadeusz Peiper and Julian Przyboś, see in urban civilization a creative discretion over earthly creatures and formless entities that require (urban) humans to give them shape. The parallels between Stasiuk’s novel and Young Poland are palpable in a passage from Nine in which Jacek takes a walk leading out of the city into the greenery of nature. When he turns around, he beholds Warsaw and sees “a crimson glow in the east and the black silhouette of the city as heavy as a mountain” (Stasiuk 2007, 120). The outlines remind him of mountains rising from the ocean. After this view of the metropolis, Jacek loses the will to leave the city and turns around. His resigned yet authoritarian moral lesson is that “people should stay where they were born” (2007, 121). The scene shares an intimate correspondence with Leopold Staff ’s sonnet “The Sadness of the City” (“Smutek miasta”) from 1910. There, the poetic speaker imagines leaving “the filthy inner city” where even “the houses choke.” The shine of the sunlight-bathed bricks is “delusive” at best in an urban world presented as cramped, fossilized, and polluted. This impression is contrasted with the speaker’s recollection of the vital energy inherent in the quiet pace of rural life. The imagined walk in nature, on even ground, promises him blessed wholeness and an arrival somewhere (Staff 1955, 188).133 Knowledge of nature’s existence beyond the urban Moloch redeems the speaker from the realities of jumbled streets, urban canyons, and overcrowded tenements. For Young Poland, according to Heinrich Olschowsky, “the more 133 Polish original: “Z sercem ściśniętym w piersi, jak śródmieście brudne, / Gdzie się w uliczkach wąskich, a gwarnych jak młyny / Brakiem tchu duszą domy: w wieczornej godziny / Smętek patrzę przez okno, jak podwórze, nudne. // Widzę czerwone dachy i szare kominy, / Które zachodnie słońce stroi w złoto złudne / Pod niebem szarym z dymu… A gdzieś, hen, są cudne / Błękity, szumne drzewa i wolne równiny. // Jak trudno wierzyć choćby w rośną trawę polną / Tu, gdzie jedynie wróbel przypomina wolną / Przyrodę, skrzydłem tłukąc się o rynien ścieki. // A tak mało do szczęścia teraz starczyć może: / Iść w zmierzch z głową odkrytą pod zachodnią zorzę / Zielonym brzegiem cichej, przedwieczornej rzeki” (Staff 1955, 188).


Planar Cities and Their Urban Devastation

dreary and restrictive society was perceived, the more metaphysically free nature was conceived. Serving as a sanctuary for the secessionist individual, nature is built up to be so radical compared to the world it opposes that people even disappear from [nature]” (Olschowsky 1979, 56). In How I Became a Writer, Stasiuk accuses Young Poland and its leading exponents of “tossing out epithets” (Stasiuk 2002, 109–10). This mean jibe is easily overlooked among the endless litany of works and poets that the speaker namedrops with varying degrees of admiration. This seems an odd attitude considering Stasiuk’s own characters’ country escapes in Nine and other works. But Stasiuk’s linguistic treatment of the topic demonstrates that he is joining the ranks of urban modernists in their specific brand of “epithet-tossing” anti-urbanism. For all its urban ugliness, the Warsaw of Stasiuk’s Nine is a highly poetic space. The brutality of the description is repeatedly intercepted by space-structuring metonymies. Many of the anthropomorphisms are almost tender. Their syncretistic overlays generate the placelessness I have mentioned—while permitting the narrative space to spread into metaphysical space, like Staff ’s walk in “The Sadness of the City.” Stasiuk creates spaces of interplay and configurations of the disparate that go beyond a mere discomfort with the city. Warsaw may be cursed—but it’s desirable. For instance, when the scent of prosperity settles on the metropolis and extends outward over the countryside, it gives the metropolis an inescapable, immaterial presence: Now he looked toward Bracka and felt desire. It hung in the air. Everything gave off a scent that penetrated the panes of the displays and showcases, drifted like smoke or fog or heavy gas. It filled the narrow street and rose over the roofs; the wind spread it across the sky over all the neighbourhoods. […] The glum outskirts, the shacks out in Wygoda. The pathetic workmanship of recycled bricks and insulating board in Białołeka, the merciful green of Siekierki, hiding all those houses where in winter people piss in a bucket on the porch. […] All this had to yield, because the smell came from the sky and filled their dreams, and life without dreams is useless, a shoe without a heel. (Stasiuk 2007, 43)

Stasiuk and Staff each infuse their urban desperation into artificial poetic techniques. Both stretch their urban spaces conceptually into the country, as the alleged “other.” For Staff this is already art, whereas for Stasiuk the country appears “authentic,” “ahistorical”—but also corruptible. The village dreams of the city, using the urban texture as a canvas for its own ideas. In both cases, it would be over-simplistic to take a “city/country dichotomy” as code for a value conflict, as Elżbieta Rybicka does, compressing it into a binary of foreign versus domestic, civilization or modernization versus nature (Rybicka 2003, 41). In his crime fiction, Stasiuk does take a few exploratory steps into the country as a counter-model to the crime of the post-socialist big city. He goes back to

How Much “Young Poland” Is Lurking in Stasiuk’s Nine?


where, as one of his characters discovers, commercial networks still get passed down through the generations—a place of sowing, harvesting, and perseverance. Nevertheless, Nine always pulls its characters back to the center, scheming their doom. The principle of centrality is pervasive at any cost: Paweł followed, having nothing else to do in this place, where everyone showed for a moment only, coming from all directions to intersect with the others and then vanish, their trails like a spider’s web spreading, yet sooner or later they returned to the center here, sooner or later everyone had to pass through this tunnel, though it held nothing special. […] A giant piece of machinery, the source of all movement, the axis of the city, a magnetic point, because otherwise everything […] would fly off into space like shit thrown at a propeller. […] When he passed the toilets […] he realized that his own life was no different, that from the beginning he’d wanted to be at the center, in the navel, pupil, arsehole of the city, and that his imagination had raised a series of shining, supernatural images of downtown in which both the glow and the chill created a perfect mirage. (Stasiuk 2007, 122–3)

Only Stasiuk’s subsequent change of direction toward the periphery—Galicia— offers redemption in the country. The country does not escape contemporary resignation but still remains “authentic.” Even the country’s genuineness proves to be—often fatally—flawed. But in contrast with Warsaw, the country is not the flaw. With the conclusion of irredeemability and the existential scandal, Stasiuk, in his later fiction, de-radicalizes the protagonists’ dislocation. His work loses the vertical reflexes of the “horror” layer and the ambiguity that make Nine an underground novel. Indeed, in Galicia, Stasiuk writes about the “flat land” without a radical or disturbing verticalization (including a historical one). And desperation gives way to palatable melancholia.

Aggressive Localism: Stasiuk and Andrukhovych as Secretaries of the Provincial What does Riga have to do with Odessa, Bucharest with Vitebsk, Wrocław with Belgrade, Leningrad with Berlin, Łódź with Prague? Yet the fact that they are all labeled on the map of Central and Eastern Europe is indeed meaningful. It demonstrates that they have been points on a grand historical arena and that they have been marked by that in one way or another. —Karl Schlögel, “New Urbanity in a New Europe”134

These are the words of Karl Schlögel, who exposed a large readership to these urban landscapes. Without question, Schlögel romanticizes and essentializes East-Central Europe. At the same time, his observations keep a certain distance, almost skittishly, from any encroaching interpretation. That might well serve the expectation that an academic text should be objective. It might also be attributed to his tactful restraint as a geographical “outsider.” In any case, it certainly stems from a tender relationship with urbanity. Yuri Andrukhovych and Andrzej Stasiuk are a different matter. They also demonstrate romantic inspiration. But if their writing’s sharp-edged language and imagery set it apart from Schlögel’s essays, their works also stand in a socionarrative contrast to Schlögel’s urban textuality. They take a position that this chapter will describe as “aggressive localism.” Andrukhovych, from Ukraine, and Stasiuk, from Poland, likewise effect literary exoticization and identification of the (exotic) self and subject matter, but they do so aggressively, making reference to the underground in late socialism and its urban poetics. In a pointed reversal, they not only inflate their “own” regions with all their remote corners, but as they write “their” cities, they paint them as consistently more rural, more pagan—more “local.” They transmute them into metropolitan villages—midpoints or centers of a periphery that repeatedly impinges upon them and ultimately takes over—as I have shown for Stasiuk’s Nine and Andrukhovych’s The Moscoviad in previous chapters. 134 Translated by Jake Schneider (Schlögel 2005, 187).


Aggressive Localism

This turn away from the underground’s fundamental aesthetic and political constitution will be outlined below. My purpose for also reconciling Andrukhovych’s and Stasiuk’s essays with the concept of the underground is to follow that concept’s path across the inter-epoch chasm of the year 1989. However, it should be noted that the main features of these literary findings were made in the politico-historical context before Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in spring 2014.

Melting Topography Both Andrukhovych’s and Stasiuk’s previously discussed urban novels compound and twist together the center-periphery axes employed by the “classic” underground. Here, topography melts along horizontal and vertical axes of (self-)exclusion. For these purposes, horizontal exclusion is geographical and vertical exclusion is social. First, there is the city/undercity perspective, which regards in versus out as the root of up versus down. Then there are the intersecting dichotomies of countryside/metropolis and East/West: horizontal categories whose authorial use, upon closer inspection, adapts elements from the vertically expressed aesthetic of the earlier underground. This sharpens the ever-aggressive dual gesture of victimhood and superiority. In both authors’ essays, this central aspect of marginality and self-marginalization is accomplished by emphatically inscribing a country/city binary into what had been a primarily intra-urban displacement. Nevertheless, the urban texture remains the site in which the dimensional extension manifests. Because the motif of horizontal marginality extends the motif of the sub-urban rather than replaces it, it still pursues the basic purpose of subverting “official” claims to centrality and contesting socially enforced spatial hierarchies. “Center” and “periphery” go from being societal assumptions to being metaphors of exclusion. The first-person narrator makes his own exclusion abundantly clear. The narrator fundamentalizes it through inflation or converts it into a restored underground poetics. The technique of Andrukhovych’s and Stasiuk’s essays is like that of the city novels. They aestheticize locations that compete with the center and that contravene the status of the spaces publicly seen as privileged. Their chosen locations are no longer in the urban core but are normatively “beneath” it. But also “beside” it: in the country or in the West. If the earlier underground resisted an already urban “colonization of the urban space” (Lefebvre 2003, 21; italics in the original) and employed the city as a metonym for all society, Andrukhovych and Stasiuk use the city as a broken

Central Europe and the Authority of the Region


mirror that breaks the reflection of a largely trans-urban society. Both positions are against spatial organization by political prerogatives, social conventions, or commercial imperatives. They stand against power and anything canonized and established—or asserted as such. These are acts of undermining that take the author’s marginalization as a prerequisite and consequently frame this impulse to resist as aesthetically auto-aggressive. Paul Virilio waxes pessimistic about the future of cities. He predicts the rise of more and more (large) transnational states with invisible borders and (small) national ones with visible crossing points. In his vision of the future, ersatz entities such as nation and culture will crumble and people will never find permanent places to settle. In Virilio’s scenario, metropolises become the capitals of capitals, congealed into a kind of global city. In the same breath, Virilio foretells the abolishment of countries. The first community was the tribe, “a village of the past,” followed by the “modern village,” then the market town with “the urban family,” then the bourgeois family, which the Industrial Revolution shrank into the “nuclear family.” Finally, in the postindustrial megalopolis, there is the “single parent” or the “drifting individual” (Virilio and Brausch 1993, 81). And yet, Jáchym Topol resurrects the tribe—the stage at the beginning of Virilio’s chain of development—in his “own” Prague. Topol’s “Kanak” meta-race from his 1990s Prague novel City Sister Silver (Sestra) calls forth an urban counter-concept with tribal behavior as a primary aim. By contrast, Andrukhovych’s and Stasiuk’s urban prose creates postindustrial metropolises like those prophesied by Virilio, metropolises as expansive territories that impinge upon the countryside—and vice versa. Perhaps it is the all-devouring steppe of Andrukhovych’s Moscow or the greenbelt conquering Warsaw in Stasiuk’s crime novel.

Central Europe and the Authority of the Region In their essays, however, Andrukhovych and Stasiuk take a stand against the dilution of the rural margins of Central Europe. One critic wrote that the essays “would sooner poetically capitalize on decaying environments than on a Western society” (Fetz 2002, 58). Another critic pointed out that the interest of Western readership would benefit from the authors’ infusion of an “existentialism nostalgic for the Eastern Bloc” (Killert 2002, 42). What appeals to the “Western” reader are quotes like the following, from one of Stasiuk’s essays in “My Europe: Two Essays on So-called Central Europe” (“Moja Europa. Dwa eseje o Europie zwanej Środkową”): “Living in the center means living nowhere. When every place is equally close or far, a person is seized by an aversion against travel because the whole world increasingly resembles one big village” (Stasiuk 2001, 85).


Aggressive Localism

In his arguments about the general leveling of the European landscape, Stasiuk highlights an element that makes his particular region of travel, “Central Europe,” worth visiting and inhabiting. Underscoring the contrast with the equalizing center, he writes that this untamed space ought to have a coat of arms with “twilight” on one side and “emptiness” on the other: “A beautiful crest with ambiguous contours that you can fill in with your imagination. Or with dreams” (2001, 102). Andrukhovych does not follow Stasiuk’s lead when it comes to showcasing the mysteriousness of Eastern Europe. And more than Stasiuk, he is also concerned with Central European urban centers, above all the historic Lviv, that testify to a vanished world in which cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities still coexisted with fluctuating peacefulness, still coinhabiting one territory. Where the last two chapters focused on the relationship between two metropolises, Moscow and Warsaw, and the countryside surrounding them, the essays bring in another space: the region of Central Europe. Through this topos, an impulse to resist becomes operative, directing resistance against the city as a center or midpoint. Andrukhovych associates a long list of key words with Central Europe. But for him, it does not count as a center at all; it is a “province.” A province, however, as he crucially continues, “where everyone knows they are actually in the center because the center is everywhere and nowhere so that, from the heights and depths of one’s own study, one can easily gaze down at everything else including New York and Moscow” (Andrukhovych 2006, 125). This encapsulates it almost perfectly: a Central European’s cultivated feeling of living at the center of Europe, in a periphery yet surrounded by East and West. For indeed, Central Europeans can never put Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow, and New York out of their minds, especially since Vienna, and then Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw lost a large measure of their metropolitan character during the political ruptures of the twentieth century. And the act of poetically exploring aspirations for an unreachable center always, by nature, relativizes home. In this discussion, Andrukhovych is drawing links to notions about Central Europe that a phalanx of writers have contemplated before him. If we consider the discourses about Central Europe as a whole, the key word might be the region’s “authority.” This term is used in a double sense: a region with authorship that demands authority—less so the regional analytical discourses of historians and political scientists than the poetic references to Milo Dor, Danilo Kiš, György Konrád, Claudio Magris, Czesław Miłosz, and, possibly the most prominent voice on this list, Milan Kundera, who, like Andrukhovych, illustrates the region’s variability but then emphasizes its marginality:

Empires, or Kundera Reads Palacký: An Excursion


Central Europe is polycentric and looks different from different vantage points: Warsaw or Vienna, Budapest or Ljubljana. […] Central Europe never was an intentional, desired unit. […] The cultures of the individual peoples had centrifugal, separatist tendencies; they far preferred to look to England, France, or Russia than one another; and if in spite of that (or perhaps because of that) they resembled each other, it was without their will or against their will.” (Kundera 1991, 18)

In his 1984 essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” Milan Kundera had no more desire to restrain Central Europe geographically than those who entered the conversation before or after him.135 Its conceptual location was the true subject of the debate throughout the essay, which mythologized Central Europe in romanticizing and often nostalgic terms, at times with a conspicuously didactic bent. Unlike Andrukhovych and Stasiuk, Kundera also uses Central Europe as a synonym for the “West.” Its myth can be boiled down to catchwords depicting it as quintessentially multicultural, polyethnic and polyglot by nature, more rational than rationalism, magically mysterious, provincial but not narrow-minded, suitable for modernity by virtue of its obsession with history, and intellectually virile through its awareness of tradition.

Empires, or Kundera Reads Palacký: An Excursion “Assuredly, if the Austrian State had not existed for ages, it would have been a behest for us in the interests of Europe and indeed of humanity to endeavor to create it as soon as possible” (Palacký 1948, 306), wrote the Czech historian and politician František Palacký on April 11, 1848 in his famous open letter to the German Committee of Fifty, the provisional parliament (Vorparlament) in session at St. Paul’s Church (Paulskirche) in Frankfurt. Palacký listed two reasons he would not be participating in the Frankfurt National Assembly. One of them was that Frankfurt was to be promoting the German cause, and as honorable and democratic as that cause might be, he as a “Czech of Slavonic blood” (1948, 304) could not take part in it if he traveled to the city on the Main River—precisely because a people’s association was to convene there in place of the federation of German princes. Palacký went on to characterize himself and his tribe:

135 Kundera uses Central Europe for the West as well—in opposition to Stasiuk und Andrukhovych. In reference to Zygmunt Bauman’s classification of a “detemporalization of space,” Adam Kola sees the protagonists of the latter two writers as prototypical tourists, whereas Kundera’s figures travel through a “labyrinth of a library” (Kola 2002, 148).


Aggressive Localism

The nation is a small one, it is true, but from time immemorial it has been a nation of itself and based upon its own strength. Its rulers were from olden times members of the federation of German princes, but the nation never regarded itself as pertaining to the German nation […]. The whole union of the Czech lands, first with the Holy Roman (German) Empire and then with the German confederation, was always a mere dynastic tie of which the Czech nation, the Czech Estates, scarcely desired to know anything and to which they paid no regard. (Palacký 1948, 304)

This captures the historic dilemma of St. Paul’s Church—and with it, the dilemma of German history for more than a century: national democracy and imperial tradition were colliding. Palacký’s second reason for not participating was this. As much as the great historian of a “Czech nation” would call for self-determination and cultural respect, Palacký opposed the decline of the Habsburg Monarchy. In the end, after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, he was resigned to it. But in 1848, Palacký wrote: You know, gentlemen, what Power it is that holds the entire East of our Continent. You know that this power, now grown to vast dimensions, increases and expands of itself decade by decade in far greater measure than is possible for the countries of the West. You know that, secure at its own centre against practically every attack, it has become, and has for a long time been, a menace to its neighbours; and that, although it has unhindered access to the North, it is nevertheless, led by natural instinct, always seeking, and will continue to seek to extend its borders southwards. You know too, that every further step which it will take forward on this path threatens at an ever accelerated pace to give birth to, and to establish, a universal monarchy, that is to say, an infinite and inexpressible evil, a misfortune without measure or bound, such as I, though heart and soul a Slav, would nonetheless profoundly regret from the standpoint of humanity even though that monarchy be proclaimed a Slavonic one. (Palacký 1948, 305)

This vision of, in Edmund Burke’s words, the “overwhelming power and ambition of Russia” is Palacký’s lead-in to his quoted defense of Habsburg imperialism that began this section: “Think of the Austrian Empire divided up into sundry republics, some considerable in size and others small—what a delightful basis for a universal Russian monarchy!” (Palacký 1948, 308). Thus Palacký distills down two options for “small nations” to approach “empires”: either they can reject and denounce them as overgrown tyranny, or they can affirm them as protective spaces indifferent to ethnicity. These are two poles of a spectrum for representing imperialism. And this is a question of how to represent imperial or post-imperial relationships—not how to historically analyze the essences of political and social power structures. The generally self-victimizing label “small nation” is relative and normative. The normative, generally accusatory implication of “small” is “threatened.” That

Empires, or Kundera Reads Palacký: An Excursion


is, “imperially” threatened. But what is an empire? Leaving aside the complexities of etymological history and political theory, an empire is the institutional other of the nation-state. Only with the idea of the nation-state are empires in the modern sense made visible and problematic. Or, to paraphrase Marc Beissinger, an empire is essentially any quantity that has been successfully labeled an empire (Beissinger 2005, 4–45, 236–41). Sometimes a good one, but more often an evil one. Both empire and region, vis-à-vis nation, are functionally complementary concepts of a structurally aggressive self-image. This may hold true in general for spatially framed narratives (Friedrichs and Mesenhöller 2013, 189).136 While the topos of repressive imperialism largely held stable in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the topos of the empire as a home for many peoples diminished in nostalgic hindsight. But it was also updated in the classifications of regional history—as in Kundera’s “The Tragedy of Central Europe.” Milan Kundera is much too complex of a writer to reduce him to this essay; likewise, it would be intellectually inadequate to restrict Palacký to his letter to the Frankfurt Parliament: “But was it a small nation? I offer you my definition: the small nation is one whose very existence may be put in question at any moment; a small nation can disappear and it knows it” (Kundera 1984, 35). With his concept of Central Europe, Kundera, in this regard a legitimate heir of Palacký, plays the same cards of a “good” or “evil” empire—with the “small nation” as the joker. And thus he carries forward Palacký’s dual notion of empire. On one side is the “Dark Empire,” Soviet imperialism, a cross of sorts between Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka. On the other side is the myth of a Central Europe gleaned from a somewhat ahistorical picture of the Habsburgs. Kundera plays a dream of transnational coexistence against a nightmare of universal conformity. No empire can survive alone on the road of (cultural) repression. And no nation has invented itself without recourse to the discursive universals of its era. Kundera merely popularized a long-established translation of postimperial claims into demarcation and power—and joined the ranks of Friedrich Naumann, Giselher Wirsing, Oskar Halecki, and others. If we take a closer look at the operative notions of space here, such a claim is hard-baked into the ideas of “Europe-In-Between” (Zwischeneuropa), “East-Central Europe,” and “Central Europe” alike. 136 See also: “If the imperial imagination was either ousted by nationalizing conceptions of the past or proved their resource or complement, the best chance for imperial or quasiimperial history to weather the age of national history lay exactly in its modal analogies and semantic proximity to the latter, and regional, areal and continentalist histories show parallel patterns” (Friedrichs and Mesenhöller 2013, 189).


Aggressive Localism

First off, “Central Europe” had to fend off the label of “Eastern Europe.” And Kundera was not the only one to play this three-note chord of “Russian barbarians,” “wise Central Europeans,” and the “ignorant West.” At once, this addresses the meta-narrative that precedes efforts to construct a Central Europe and that must precede it because any center requires poles: the East/West dichotomy. Triadic tropes pair well with integrative concepts, and so Kundera situates Central Europe within this opposition and a series of others: the dilemmas of freedom and equality, anarchy and dictatorship, progress and deracination. Central Europe seems like less of a dialectical synthesis than the best of worlds between the radical extremes. This sort of East/West narrative also underpins the essays of Andrukhovych and Stasiuk, serving as their guide to the impossibility of communication between East and West. By nature, such an “in-between” status cannot be constructed without a supra-regional frame of reference. More concisely than in prior debates, Andrukhovych and Stasiuk present Central Europe as a postmodern third space that is more than interstitial. It is fluid, unstable, and flexible yet, at the same time, in a position of existential exposure and at risk of being pulverized. Still, they see Central Europe as a specific, independent space—in a sense, a center of its own. It is plain to see the echoes of postcolonial concepts of an affirmative third space for negotiation, interference, and translation. Andrukhovych’s and Stasiuk’s praise of the periphery was not without precedents in Central European literature, such as the Polish literature of “small fatherlands” (małe ojczyzny) and various rural literatures. Yet both writers’ language is pointedly rougher and more brutal. Their images and characters are more direct and relentlessly lack distance. These aesthetic techniques are direct successors of those that operated in the underground of the urban center. However, what at first seems stripped of nostalgia in fact conveys a deeply emotional representation of Central Europe. Their pathos, in turn, carries a basic aggressiveness—which again echoes the postures and poetics of the underground. Ultimately, both writers’ texts on identity are about longing for specific integrity and defending their own “Westernness,” rejecting the “East,” and demonstrating particularities as a (relative) post-1989 East. The result fits with the self-exclusion established earlier—and reinforces, deliberately or otherwise, what the “West” always saw or looked for in the exotic “East”: the anti-urban, pagan fields, fields that Karl Schlögel defies by parading his colorful cityscape within them. Thus, it is more of a bitter punch line than a genuine inversion when Andrukhovych in 1999 writes, (auto-) aggressively, that Central Europe is now only an “American invention of a few disgruntled dissidents” (Andrukhovych 2018, 85).

Aggressive Localism


Aggressive Localism Against this backdrop, let us return to Andrukhovych’s and Stasiuk’s treatment of the city, urbanity as a code for general centrality, and the city’s relationship with the “country.” The syntagma of “aggressive localism” refers to an attitude to writing that in an authorial and authoritarian way privileges the local over the global—over the amorphous authority of the junkspace city. We will now consider three writing strategies that guide the city portrayals in The Moscoviad, Nine, and the essays. The strategies connect to the basic constellations of pop and the underground: an obsession with name-dropping, a penetration of the provincial, and, finally, a literary marginalization and an assertion of the identity of both self and subject. First: The essays’ orgies of name-dropping seem almost manic, even more than in the novels. The litanies of towns, rivers, streams, writers, brand names, ethnic groups, and languages go on for entire passages. The technique is applied most commonly in nostalgic contexts and uses operations that Alois Woldan has called “cataloging and taking inventory” (Woldan 2005, 229). Mark Andryczyk, with reference to music, calls the technique “sampling” (Andryczyk 2005, 237). He describes Andrukhovych’s rearrangement of originally disparate items, creating a new context of meaning. The musical metaphor takes us a step further. Both authors’ Central Europe combines isolated segments, versions, and effects into what is known as key mapping. For Andrukhovych and Stasiuk, the same mechanisms produced a literary mapping of Central Europe. Using these and other techniques, Stasiuk’s and Andrukhovych’s texts compose veritable cabinets of curiosities out of Central Europe—with a fondness for whimsy, grotesqueness, morbidity, and magic. The web of signifiers that emerges is hyper-enciphered and highly clichéd. Presumably, only someone with shared experiences—most likely, but not necessarily, a compatriot—could decode it. The implicit gesture underscores the authorship via its region, reclaiming it for itself. At the same time, the authors flirt with the reader’s noncomprehension, the languages’ incomprehensibility, the muteness of the topoi, and the inside jokes’ ample requirements of foreknowledge. The myth always remains dim enough to preserve its originating creator’s sad smirk as the allknowing one. The bounty of nomenclature extracted from the rural periphery or inserted as a ruralization of the city further insinuates that only the country can provide a sprawling richness of symbols that have long been depleted in the center. Stasiuk’s “fresh dose” of country, borrowing from Jáchym Topol (Topol 2000, 53), which streams into the center every morning only to degenerate into the “suburbs,” is a consequence of migration from the exoticism-spewing periph-


Aggressive Localism

ery. The same holds for the chimeric nations in the Moscoviad—but also for Andrukhovych’s catalog of all the people who had once settled in the regional center that was Lviv, among them “Arnauts, Argonauts, Tatars, Turks, Arabs, Scots, Czechs, Moors, Basques, Scythians, Karaims, Khazars, Assyrians, Etruscans, Celts, Goths, White and Black Croats” (Andrukhovych 2006, 27–8) and so forth. The center is relative for both authors, but its biodiversity is always external. Only one page after this catalog of people, the cheerful ethnic mixture is described as neither idyllic nor painless: facts that also held true aside from all mythologies (2006, 29). These rampantly multiplying names are guarantors of the existence and authenticity of the narrative space. Their tendrils reach into the urban sphere and jumble it together, making the iconographic arsenal, the physiognomies, the ruined landscapes, and the place names at once unique and interchangeable. The litany’s totality generates a gestalt that nullifies the small details and, in the process, conjures a significant component of the myth of Central Europe as described above. Second: The country encroaches upon the city, penetrates it with smells and crowds, and drags it into provinciality. With their narrative departure from ethnic homogeneity toward historically multiethnic cities such as Lviv, Andrukhovych and Stasiuk seem at first to be consistently yielding to the plurality of the countryside in topographical terms as well. As Christian Prunitsch writes, “the diversity of the periphery increasingly replaces the traditional monism of the center” (Prunitsch 2005, 48). On its own, the plurality of the periphery seems to be an assertion too.137 For contrast, let us return to Topol’s novel City Sister Silver. Topol portrays Prague as a site of post-socialist chaos where old-time residents live alongside newcomers, including Vietnamese and Americans, who in the subcultural urbanity of “Kanak-hood” blur together with the Czechs, transforming a multiethnic space into an ethnically unnameable one. No ascription emerges in the end, and all talk of diversity becomes obsolete. In contrast, Stasiuk’s 1998 memoir How I Became a Writer (Jak zostałem pisarzem) employs the historical dimension but also a regionally specific, pluralized origin in “small fatherlands.” But here, unlike in Nine, the occupation of Warsaw by its margins set a clear direction: Nobody from the Śródmieście district moved to Praga, but it had to be populated with something. Later it was populated by the sons and daughters of Mazovia and 137 On the peripheral perspective and a „de/re-centralization of Europe“ in Stasiuk’s work, see also Cieński (2015).

Aggressive Localism


Podlasie. […] Hence the lyric mood and the melancholy. Willows, pipes, shepherds, cows, autumn fogs and fumes over the potato fields. (Stasiuk 1998, 26; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

In contrast with that of the novel, the city here, down to its very center, has lost its defenses against rural and provincial spaces. What remains is a vision of its occupation by the flat countryside, by the plain—and the sabotage of its metropolitan nature. In the underground context, this too violates established claims to space. The dimensional extension has definitively rotated the axis from a vertical opposition to a horizontal one. This chimes with Jean Baudrillard’s travel observations in America (1986), where he interprets the American desert as a sign of “absolute horizontality” in which differences are leveled and cultures are fragile and superficial (Baudrillard 1989, 2). For Baudrillard, Salt Lake City and its alter ego Las Vegas are urban desert constructs, metaphors of emptiness seeking to ban horizontality. Similarly, Andrukhovych and Stasiuk poetically equate the city with foreignness, exemplified by industrialization and concrete high-rises from the East and hyper-consumerism and glass walls from the West. By comparison, their narrators elevate the distinctive traits of the region and provinces into a “slow space” and fantasize about its conquest. Przemysław Rojek describes the overall aggressive tone of Stasiuk’s work as a balancing act between East and West, between slow and fast, between old and new Europe. Whereas Stasiuk’s successful essays about Central Europe pursue an aggressive, obsessive “penetration of nothingness,” as Rojek contends, his travelogues about Germany are an “artistic fiasco” (Rojek 2011, 459). All that is left of the underground’s pessimistic exclusion and self-questioning are the topos of euphoric marginality and the aggression. Gone is its originally implicit failure, which had once lent the aggressiveness legitimacy. The defense of Central Europe, deliberately focused on the countryside, presents a deeply anti-urban spatial fantasy of power. This defense privileges cities that fit into the idealized schema of a multicultural past. However, they are less interesting as cities or metonyms of social power issues than as prisms of a reethnicized territory set against “outlandish” civilization. Third: I have one more remark on writing strategies as market strategies. It is hard to avoid thinking of an intended audience for the texts. This goes along with the observation that the new boom in Central European literature during the decade after 1989 was greeted sympathetically by Western critics. To conclude, let us return to Jáchym Topol. His novel The Devil’s Workshop (Chladnou zemí) from 2009 articulates something most responses to Andru­


Aggressive Localism

khovych and Stasiuk omit: that for Western readers, Central Europe is terra incognita because it is off the tourists’ beaten track. Topol’s novel is a cynical send-off of the modern culture of remembrance. His tourists to the East are the “bunk seekers” (pátrači po pričnách): But some of them took to the road, heading for the East, all on their own, with a backpack and a credit card from their parents, and went digging through the damp ruins of Poland, Lithuania, Russia—in short, everywhere mass graves were common. The seekers, like drops of water, seeped into the underground currents of mysterious East, so it was no surprise they often sank to the bottom in anguish.” (Topol 2013, 32; translated by Alex Zucker)

One could also argue that the mysterious continent is the West’s own darkly exoticizable, ostensibly subconscious yearning for authenticity, guilt and atonement. Where Topol further pursues the impulse of the underground he imitates, the readers of Central European writings in the school of Stasiuk or Andrukhovych still encounter its scandalous aesthetic. But it is no longer the scandal of subverting two-dimensional entities such as (historical) region, nation, or cultural landscape. In the essays, the vertical/social narrative order is undermined by the horizontal/geographical one. This instrumentalizes and reinforces the latter order: “The idea of historical regions allowed for a translation of postimperial fantasy into claims to dominance, or at least influence—of transnational past into international ambition, legitimated as a continuation of longue durée cultural affinities” (Friedrich and Mesenhöller 2013, 169; italics in the original). At the same time, both aesthetics lose the fundamentally playful, ardent attitude of the “classic” underground in favor of an aggressive localism. The success of both writers’ fiction and essays relies in no small part on their mythical inflation of their “own” textual spaces on the path to thoroughgoing exoticization. This is done in the—purposefully blurry—guise of a post-imperial, sentimental assertion of the region. A sort of recherche de l’espace perdu. Or not perdu. More like paradise regained. As of late, the reminiscences of picturesque diversity or a shared house of cultures have been facing off with a repressive imperialism. This time it comes colonizing from the West, with its global brands and its mirrored glass architecture. These developments are not imagined as discoveries or pledges but are compiled aesthetically as scenarios of destruction—literally so, in Stasiuk’s imagined scenes of Warsaw. On the other side, Andrukhovych shows the continuance of an amorphous post-Soviet East that crosses a tipping point into civic erosion and chaos and then, in the spring of 2014, into annexation and war. What remains is the anarchy of the center.

Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”: Tot Art and the Orange Alternative as Chefs of the “Semantic Porridge”

Fig. 5: Dwarf Graffito (Egon Fietke)

Walking around Wrocław in the late 1980s, one graffito was virtually impossible to escape: the dwarf.138 The scribbled caricature could be spotted just about anywhere, but especially on top of the white paint on walls where the police had blotched over anti-regime slogans (fig. 5). It was the emblem of a movement that went by the name Orange Alternative (Pomarańczowa Alternatywa), which began in 1981 and soon prompted copycats in other Polish cities. One of its sources of inspiration was Waldemar “Major” Fydrych, whose other nom de guerre was the “Commander of Festung Breslau” (the Fortress of Breslau, Wrocław’s former German name). Fydrych began calling himself “Major” in the 1970s. The nickname allegedly stems from his attempt to avoid military service by faking a psychiatric condition during his health screening. He was said to have addressed the psychologist as “Colonel” and referred to himself as “Major” (Cioffi 1999, 175). His credo concerning the urban condition was: “The street is a place of confrontation, a meeting place, a complex of certain paranoid notions, in which people are up to their necks. But the street can be a harmonic phenomenon as well, if actionism takes place on it in different form of happenings” (Fydrych 1991, 71). 138 While most of the photographers are unknown, Egon Fietke could be verified as author of this picture. See the catalogue on the Orange Alternative (Fydrych et al. 2008, 32).


Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

Even earlier, Major had begun orchestrating street performances that often parodied the language of the regime and maintained a consistent air of nonsense. But the orange dwarf was his most successful stunt. It outlasted the fall of communism and became a (commercialized) fixture of Wrocław’s local color. Initially, because of its supposedly harmless irony, the dwarf represented a striking response to authorities’ attempts to dominate (literal) text in public space— by whitewashing over it, among other strategies. The Orange Alternative’s inconsequential games with absurdity and nonsense are conceptually parallel to projects by the Tot Art group (short for Total Art), which was active in the 1970s in the Tricity metropolitan area of Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Sopot. Both groups’ performance art is grounded in historical avant-gardes and deliberate references to Expressionism, Constructivism, Futurism, Surrealism, and Dadaism.139 Unlike the other chapters of this book, this chapter will be a sort of prologue to the next chapter. It serves to introduce an aesthetic tradition that is helpful for classifying the Berlin Club of Polish Losers. And that suits the genre of source material we will discuss: the art form of the manifesto.

Tadeusz Peiper and the City as an Organism In 1922, the Constructivist Tadeusz Peiper published a manifesto titled “Metropolis, Mass, Machine” (“Miasto, masa, maszyna”). Like Georg Simmel’s 1903 work The Metropolis and Mental Life, his manifesto concludes that humans were not made for the city, which hampers their urge to move, confines their horizon-attuned gaze, and gives them polluted air to breathe. Nevertheless, the human organism adapts to the city and vice versa. This mutual rapprochement results in novel emotional relationships between humans, the machine, and the metropolis. Peiper’s call is to “say yes to the city, to its most profound essence, which distinguishes it from other fields” (Peiper 2002, 268). He explicitly emphasizes the city’s cultural and creative aspect. If it at first seems amorphous and hostile to life, it still has “an idea of organic unity” (2002, 268). This is apparent in the architecture, the masses’ coexistence, the flows of traffic—and in poetry. Peiper argues that machines and the masses are modern phenomena with a 139 On the influence of the absurd and the historical avant-gardes see Lisiunia Romanienko: “It was the dramaturgical interactions inspired by the avant-garde theatrical performance genre known as Theater of the Absurd that significantly contributed to the dismantling of Soviet repression” (Romanienko 2007, 134).

Tot Art Reads Peiper


fertile reciprocal impact on art. Art should emulate principles such as expediency and constructiveness. The city’s “organism hypnotizes the individual with a new image of order, and a new idea of order. And even if the internal needs of art did not demand regeneration of constructive principles, this new image of order would automatically have to be extended into artistic creation” (2002, 268–9). With that, Peiper’s poetics breaks with the Romantic-inspired worship of the past and emotional exuberance and instead favors strict stylization, linguistic compression, and distillation along Constructivist lines. These attributes on their own would dynamically represent most expressions as expressions of the surface. At the same time, he shows fascination for collective forms of perception and post-auratic art, whose reproducibility he appreciates. “Metropolis, Mass, Machine” was attacked fiercely and immediately. Its critics accused the mastermind behind the Kraków avant-garde of “urbanism” (Rybicka 2003, 229–30). Traditional writers such as Stefan Żeromski saw it as a noxious copy of Western European patterns. They perceived it as undermining Polish national culture through “foreign” influences, as an attack upon the rural, indigenous spirit of native art. Peiper defended himself and counterattacked with a polemic against his opponents’ anxious insistence on backwardness (Olschowsky 1979, 29–30). More than sixty years later, the Gdańsk-based movement Tot Art used a spin on Peiper’s title as the name for a happening: “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory” (“Miasto–Masa–Masarnia”). This distorted reprise signals a distinction, not just between generations, but between varieties of modernism. Tot Art is oriented more toward Surrealist and Dada techniques. Or, as one of the organizers put it: “We felt sentimental of our elder brothers, the Futurists and Dadaists, also the Expressionists, and Pop Art artists” (Stańczyk 2018, 594). Its aesthetic of “semantic porridge” (semantyczna bryja or brei semantyczna) is the diametrical opposite of Peiper’s poetics.

Tot Art Reads Peiper The “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory” happening on the evening of May 23, 1986 at the University of Gdańsk is considered the founding moment of Tot Art. The performance was initiated by Paweł “Koñjo” Konnak and Zbigniew Sajnóg. The artists were soon joined by Dariusz “Brzóska” Brzóskiewicz, Paweł “Paulus” Mazur and Wojciech Stamm, the alias of Lopez Mausere, who would go on to cofound Berlin’s Club of Polish Losers in the 1990s. The group called itself the Transitorial Tot Art Formation (Formacja tranzytoryjna Totart) and


Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

Fig. 6: Tot Art Manifesto “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

Tot Art Reads Peiper


organized magazines, performance art, readings, and concerts under various names (Fleischer 1994, 84–8; Stańczyk 2018, 587–94).140 Looking back, Paweł Konnak described the founding performance as a “post-artistic event.” The stage looked like the “dream of a paranoid person.” Pink placards on the wall read “The Big Sajnóg” (Wielki Sajnóg) and “The Big Fool” (Wielki Dureń). The auditorium was decorated with plaster masks by Sajnóg and Konnak’s magazines. On stage, Sajnóg performed suspiciously decadent “punk nihilism” in a rubber coat (Skiba et al. 2010, 2). Primitivist painting, masks, Viking helmets, body painting, costumes, and pornographic materials were seminal for this and other performances of “metaphysical anarchism” whose orchestrators proclaimed elsewhere: “We’re going to war! There might be victims!” (2010, 8). For the former bruLion author Marcin Sendecki, Tot Art was the “rearguard of national culture” (Sendecki 2011, 50). Tot Art’s performances were always manifesto-heavy, and the flyer for “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory” was one such example (Fleischer 1994, 85–7). (fig. 6) We first notice a counting rhyme amidst Polish childish scribbles: “ecie pecie ecie pecie / tobie leci mnie / NIE LECI / raz dwa trzy / miesiączkę masz ty” (1994, 85). In English, this roughly translates as: “Eeny meeny miney moe / watch your blood flow / BUT NOT AWAY / three two one / your monthly blood’s your own.” The text, which is typographically removed from this frame, resembles a hectographed copy of a thesis. The nails or screws drawn onto it might be alluding to a pamphlet nailed to the wall or door à la Martin Luther, or perhaps they are a reference to Julian Przyboś’s 1925 poetry collection Screws (Śruby) from 1925, a seminal Constructivist text. The text itself is subdivided into the headings “The categorical negative manifesto of what’s going on here” and “The provisorical positive manifesto of what’s going on here.” Later, the text punningly lists the categories “thesis,” “antithesis,” and “prosthesis” as “situational manifestos” (manifesty sytuacyjne), an allusion to the Paris Situationists. It goes on to elaborate what Tot Art, or Total Art, is not about: not about “esthetic convulsions,” not about “presumed time lines,” not about the “absurd postulation of newness” let alone the conflation of life and art; not about the “foreign” community; and not about an “audience orientation”: Tot Art is a sufficient community on its own. And: “This is not FLUXUS” (Fleischer 1994, 85–6). 140 The spelling of Tot Art is in analogy to Sots Art and Pop Art. Tot Art was also the name of a Moscow group founded by the Russian artists Natalia Abalakova and Anatoly Zhigalov in 1979 (Abalakova and Zhigalov 1998). They also tried to “revive the ‘art-into-life’ spirit of the historical Russian avant-garde” (Bryzgel 2017, 43).


Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

The concept of time seems critical. The references to the “absurd postulation of newness” and “presumed time lines” reject tradition categorically—yet the text cites its antecedents at length from the Situationists to Fluxus to René Magritte and all the way to a spoof of Hegel and Marx with the thesis/antithesis/ prosthesis triad. And, of course, Tadeusz Peiper. While Peiper employs the future-facing term “presence” (teraźniejszość) with the modern paradigm of progress, Tot Art presents an ahistorical status quo or a hybrid of “nonprocedural regressive traits with progressive ones.” Time loses “its meaning in situations without beginnings or endings” (1994, 85–6). This, in turn, evokes the concept of “detour” (détournement) as proposed by Guy Debord and the Situationists, which is about a recontextualization that disrupts meaning and therefore power. Whereas Peiper was enthusiastic about boldness and novelty and celebrated the constructive impulse, Tot Art’s exaggeration, nonsense, irony, and amalgamated references deconstruct both the fantasy of purposeful progress and the inherent premise of a temporal horizon. Therein lies the joke of the superficially jokey, deadpan game of allusions. Tot Art abolishes all distances and temporal hierarchies between tradition and the avant-garde; between the avant-garde, the neo-avant-garde, and the post-avant-garde; and between the center and periphery: “It doesn’t make sense to ascribe something to someone to present the sources to define the direction” (1994, 85). The “thesis” is followed by and negated by the “antithesis.” The flyer phrases it in a proclamatory tempo: “Tot Art is adequate that’s why…” reads the text ten times running—and concludes with a double negation: “Tot Art is a fake that doesn’t exist” (1994, 86). And, in a text composed soon afterwards: “A tot-system totalizes the society, a tot-society produces a tot-art” (Skiba et al. 2010, 26). It is only logical that the city—or any topos of location—no longer plays a role. Together with time, space becomes fluid, transitional; as Xawery Stańczyk has it, Tot Art functions as an open “transitorial platform” (tranzytorium). “Urbanism” and “newness” are replaced by “adequacy” (adekwatność) as markers of value or non-value (Stańczyk 2018, 634–5). Elsewhere, adequacy is declared to be the “Tot Art container” (Skiba et al. 2010, 13; Stańczyk 2018, 642–6). In that sense, Tot Art does not postulate some all-encompassing ideal like universal philosophy or universal art but, instead, the radical entropy of poetic acts without compromise. Tot Art uses the aforementioned technique of “semantic porridge” developed by the group’s members to systematically sabotage the semantic comprehension of statements. Like the manifesto itself, the stories and poems are syntactically correct and make sense superficially—but are so contaminated with messages from other semiotic contexts that it becomes impossible to identify precisely when they semantically cross the line into silliness. In the case of the

Dwarfs and Politics: the Orange Alternative in Wrocław


flyer for “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory,” that starts with the detour of the first two Peiper words in the title, which goes on to replace the final word “machine” (maszyna) with “butcher shop” (masarnia), meaning also slaughterhouse. In the Tot Art performances’ Viking helmets and violent, pornographic fantasies, Paweł (Koñjo) Konnak discerns a “Sarmatian” (sarmacki) underground, which, for him, seamlessly connects with the early modern Sarmatianist movement, tying into traditional ideologemes that reject anything appearing nonconservative, non-xenophobic, non-Catholic, or non-messianic (Skiba et al. 2010, 102–4, 193). This attitude alone undermines any claim of minority status. Partly on that basis, Michael Fleischer used the term overground to demystify Polish underground poetics analytically (Fleischer 1994, 11). Yet Fleischer’s punch line of a label, overground, misses the mark because the aspect of time and the detour keep coming back. Where Fleischer examines developments and draws lines with the earnestness of Peiper, Tot Art has given up this notion of tradition and uses Sarmatianism—or any other set of symbols—to recontextualize and nullify symbolic power. Thus, in its hubristic desperation, Tot Art begins to mock politics’ competing promises of inclusion—classic underground repertoire.

Dwarfs and Politics: the Orange Alternative in Wrocław The Orange Alternative formed after the student strikes of 1981 and took its name and color from the strikers’ bulletins, which were published by Waldemar “Major” Fydrych and others. Fydrych, an art historian born in 1953, had been staging stunts in which artists read a letter of support for Lenin in front of the students, sang hymns to Stalin outside the zoo’s monkey enclosure, and paraded on the anniversary of the October Revolution distributing toilet paper and sanitary napkins. In general, the Alternative preferred to orchestrate its nonsensical street happenings on communist holidays and historical anniversaries, but it also added Christian festivals and important opposition anniversaries to its calendar to confuse matters.141 After 1989, Fydrych withdrew to Paris, where he later styled himself president of Poland’s government in exile. Gradually, the dwarfs lost the force of their subversive ambivalence and became city mascots. They were even celebrated in a bronze memorial. The orange-tinted reminiscences drifted into trashy political culture. In the 1980s, the dwarf was a brilliant, unemotional 141 On the Orange Alternative, see Pęczak (1991), Tyszka (1998), Fydrych (2002), Kenney (2002), Bruner (2005), and Stańczyk (2018, 70–6, 315–39).


Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

Fig. 7: Waldemar Fydrych, “Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism”

Dwarfs and Politics: the Orange Alternative in Wrocław


visual formula for reclaiming the city, which is what made it so successful. Later, it transformed into an emotional symbol of resistance. Today, more than two hundred miniature bronze dwarfs can be seen around Wrocław; they are now a tourist attraction. The Orange Alternative’s happenings were structurally parallel to comparable performance art in other cities of East-Central Europe and generally fit within the phalanx of Euro-American subcultural art. Other examples are the street-art performances of Vladimír Boudník in Prague; the Polish Academy of Movement (Akademia Ruchu, AR) and its street happening “Happy Day”; the fake posters of Ján Budaj, or Július Koller’s “Pink-Pong Monuments” in Slovakia, and Jiří Kovanda’s performances on the streets of Prague. Most of them were likely subject to the same premise of creativity that Kathleen Cioffi ascribes to the Orange Alternative: “They rejected professionalism, lyricism, irony, and Romanticism and embraced amateurism, satire, defiance of the authorities, and above all, laughter.” Concept art as “hybrid guerrilla theater” (Cioffi 1999, 174). Similarly, Berenika Szymanski sees Fydrych’s art less as social protest than as theatrical rebellion, which she places outside the realm of the Romanticinspired, messianically charged resistance of the Solidarność (Szymanski 2012, 215). After all, the dwarfs had “subversively” infiltrated the “practical world” as “imaginary creatures” (2012, 222). On the contrary, Bronisław Misztal emphasizes the Orange Alternative’s thoroughly political content: The “‘non-political’ profile of the Orange Alternative should be read as if the movement opted for the true alternative.” In that sense, he sees it as a genuine “social movement” (Misztal 1992, 75–6). The debate stretches back to the years when the Orange Alternative was still active, during which supposedly more serious leaders of the opposition and the strikes recognized that the group were “more political” than Tot Art but still lightweight or flat-out ridiculous. Few people shared the opinion later expressed by Jan Przyłuski: “The Orange Alternative are the yesman of Solidarity, uncompromising provocateurs, intelligent enough to apply the method of non-violence and to achieve measurable effects” (Przyłuski 2011, 64). Fydrych’s 1981 “Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism” (“Manifest surrealizmu socialistycznego”) might not provide much clarity of interpretation, but it does lend some insight into his understanding of art and politics.142 (fig. 7) On a basic level, the manifesto concurs with André Breton’s dictum that the only valid relationship with this world is rejection. The reader is directly addressed at the start: “It is worthwhile to see whether the cancer of rationalism did not indeed 142 All citations from Fydrych’s manifesto translated by John Targowski (Fydrych et al. 2008, 24).


Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

devour Your mind” (Fydrych et al. 2008, 24). This is followed by vague generalizations sanded down to pseudo-provocations: fantasy and imagination are limitless, illiterates are smarter, and the losers are better than the winners. The gate to a psychiatric hospital could scarcely deter a surrealist socialist’s deviations any more than the previously defeated philosophers could: “The philosophers—finished. The politicians have always remained surrealists. Let us love the politicians. The philosophers defeated. Let us love the politicians. We shall soon get rid of the philosophers” (2008, 24). Meanwhile, Surrealism has managed to survive the worst times in city bathrooms: “For nowhere is there such a close relation between relief and the aesthetic feeling” (2008, 24). Philosophical treatises are rejected along with realistic narratives in favor of a “world in newspaper clippings.” All in all, this is a murmured, incoherent, and not very discomfiting threat: “We have prepared very perfidious tricks for Your ordered Knowledge. Do not count on it. For there is no place for piety” (2008, 24). It all gives a superimposed air of rebellious and eclectic harmlessness, including Fydrych’s aesthetic program, which makes repeated allusions to André Breton and his postulate in 1924 that good taste is a fault: “Amid the bad taste of my time I strive to go further than anyone else.” Regardless, the Orange Alternative never achieved the irritating, even agonizing, degree of nonsense that Tot Art reached with much less gestural effort.143 Still, Fydrych’s poetic attitude, or at least its intentions, can be classified among the aesthetic strategies of “subversive affirmation.” Sylvia Sasse and Caro­line Schramm define this overarching category as “inhabiting discourse in the language of the discourse,” a “co-option” of that language (Sasse and Schramm 1997, 317–8). The transgressiveness of these strategies lies in their constant shifting of boundaries and always lies in the desire aimed at the (powerful) discourse. Examples of subversive affirmation would include Egon Bondy’s Total Realism, Ivo Vodseďálek’s Awkward Poetry, and of course Soviet Sots Art (short for Socialist Art) and Western Pop Art. Disregarding all their differences, these are all about calling things into question by superficially taking them seriously and reenacting them: writing styles are simulated and re-encoded, symbols and iconographies are re-contextualized, and mass uprisings, demonstrations, and slogans are portrayed “realistically”—and thus surrealistically twisted and subverted. All on purpose, as explained. 143 Micha Braun draws attention on the resistentional capacity of the (socialist) body: “Rather, the body, as the first and primary subject and object of imagination, as carrier and medium of fantasy and potential for aesthetic resistance, opposes a purely rationalist, ideological view of mankind” (Braun 2017, 202).

Dwarfs and Politics: the Orange Alternative in Wrocław


Whether an individual case was more than a silly gesture—whether it was subtlety, naïveté, inflated radicalism, or aesthetic hypocrisy—was equally contentious in the West, in the various East-Central European cities, and in Wrocław. Similarly contentious was Dieter Kunzelmann’s Munich Subversive Action and the notion of an “un-blinded” homo subversivus who responds to omnipresent repression by living an experimental life (Reimann 2009, 99). Middle-class West Germany took that at face value as an incitement to revolution and reacted with hysteria. Living an experimental life was likewise true of the Paris Situationists with their psycho-geographical city walks, which opened up new routes for disruption. In Berlin, this exploratory journey crossed the borders of the occupation zones and thus transcended the Iron Curtain. In 1984, Bert Papenfuß, Jan Faktor, and Stefan Döring responded to the meaningless language of socialist slogans with their collective manifesto “Zoro in Skorne,” writing entire passages of it in thieves’ cant, including the title, which translates roughly as “Discomfort in Art.” In a text that is highly fragmented, deliberately “out of control,” and scrambled to the point of incomprehensibility, the trio pronounces that “not servitudi- but tumultaneous” is its “mutual outrage.” In a swipe at established dissident wisdom, the manifesto declares that politics cannot be met with anti-politics, can be “tackled neither with alternative, nor anti- nor any other a-politics […] but only with UNCONTROL-/ Lability such as in a peonedge [in the original Schalxtum]” (Böthig 1997, 94–97; spelling in the original). Or with oscillating concepts. In his thoughts on trivial poetry, Faktor had previously written that subversion meant reduction and destruction of the context and the clarity of language, invoking ugliness (“poetic filth”), masturbation, and exhibitionism—abhorrence of markers of commitment such as soundplay, rhythm, and assonance (Faktor 1990, 87–102). Faced with such cocktails of creative stances, older writers criticized the younger generation of Berlin poets as “pseudo-entities” who were, in fact, merely mimicking avant-gardes of the past. In his previously cited critique of the Prenzlauer Berg poets, Volker Braun writes: “They include stimuli, associations, and impulses among the junk; they lodge, amidst the meaningful wordgarbage, secret feelings and thoughts that, clearly, have more to express than mass-produced festive art. Technically, it is a reprise of the avant-garde’s insipid manual operation, barely processed” (Braun 1988, 110; italics in the original).144 After 1989, this evolved into an accusation of a “simulated rebellion” (W. Müller 1992). This is an accusation that expresses a longing for a pragmatic 144 Nevertheless, as Birgit Dahlke puts it, “even where the disjuncture between the aesthetic approaches of the different generations became apparent, it was [...] always accompanied by a genuine sense of personal solidarity” (Dahlke 2015, 168).


Backstory “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory”

poetics of resistance, which Papenfuß, Faktor and Döring specifically did not wish to satisfy—insisting instead on the principle of semantic porridge. Somewhere in there, between revolt and simulation, between poetic radicalism and radical aesthetics, between punk, Tot Art, the dwarf uprising, and post-Surrealism, lies the chasm out of which the Club of Polish Losers would ultimately climb. Prompting us to ask: What options did the underground even have after 1989?

“It All Started in Gdańsk!”: Berlin’s Club of Polish Losers The likes of us are not many in this town. Just a few, maybe a dozen or two. The rest are people of success, standoffish and cold-blooded specialists […] We endure the terror of those other people’s perfection. Their presence intimidates us. And they like it that way because they live in fear of losing the creative monopoly they claim for themselves. — The Club of Polish Losers, “Little Manifesto”145

“The point of repetition is there is no point,” writes David Foster Wallace in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest (Foster Wallace 1996, 118). Following this recipe, Berlin’s Club of Polish Losers (Klub Polskich Nieudaczników/Club der Polnischen Versager) remixes subcultural and countercultural traditions ad absurdum into a cult of ostentatious contempt for meaning. In a paradigmatic example, P ­ iotr Mordel and Adam Gusowski’s video series A Conversation with an Interesting Person stages four-minute interviews as a ritualized loop of persiflage. One of them asks the questions, and the other plays the “interesting person,” such as Lech Wałęsa, Reinhold Messner, “Wolfgang Amadeus Chopin,” August the Strong, or Darth Vader. Reinforcing the neo-Dada effect, the interviews also play with the backdrop of Berlin, whose identifiable locations are put on display yet incorrectly identified. Charlottenburg Palace is pointed out as the winter residence of August the Strong; the Berlin TV Tower stands in for the Paris Eiffel Tower; the basement of a typical basement stands for an engine room, an artist’s studio, or an institute of hygiene; a lake on the city’s outskirts serves as the flooded Oder wetlands. The comical discrepancies between language and image simultaneously accentuate, undercut, caricature, and affirm the topos of globalized randomness and urban blurring. Similarly, the club juggles ethnic ascriptions as sociocultural discoveries, temporarily discarding the question of whether the failures or losers are meant 145 Translated by Jake Schneider (Klub Polskich Nieudaczników 1996, 1).


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

to be Poland, or “Polishness” (polskość)—or whether these particular Poles have failed (as Poles). Whatever the case, the club’s flirtation with societal “loserdoom” borrow from underground traditions. The Polish Losers exoticize themselves, seal themselves off, offensively desecrate heroes, and engage in the destruction of meaning. At the same time, the Club of Polish Losers ethnicizes and translocalizes the concept of the loser while primarily shifting it from an attitude to a postulate. On closer inspection, Mordel and Gusowski are rearranging “conventional” underground themes and techniques into hyper-redundant, post-ironic entertainment. The routine they perform grinds down the Losers’ provocativeness in a domesticating effect that resembles a sort of underground—or post-pop—spinoff. That observation comes into clearest relief through comparison. By the time the club was founded in the autumn of 2001, the quintessential pop-cultural loser, Homer Simpson, had already become an established brand and his subversive potential was waning. The Simpsons’ path to paradigmatic dominance by way of mainstream cartoons and youth entertainment reflects the transformation of “wild” pop and the domestication of its underground echoes. At the same time, this illustrates the dwindling provocativeness of public claims of failure. Ultimately, debates over the youth-endangering role model Bart Simpson (“underachiever and proud of it”) have faded away since the 1990s (Dale and Foy 2010). Flaunting social failure, in other words, is obviously no longer a viable way of scandalizing vertical exclusion. If this assumption proves true, the loss of the scandalousness of underground aesthetic techniques would deprive the underground of its central raison d’être. That is the basic background to which the poetics of the Club of Polish Losers is responding.146

Sausage People, Losers, and a Manifesto against the Impertinence of Perfection The Club of Polish Losers’ founding members were the Polish artists Joanna Bednarska, Mariusz Bednarski, Adam Gusowski, Piotr Mordel, Leszek Herman Oświęcimski, and, from Tot Art, Wojciech Stamm alias Lopez Mausere. Years after arriving in Berlin in the 1980s, they founded the Club of Polish Losers 146 For the Polish alternative scene of the 1980s, see Xawery Stańczyk’s observation of an “affirmation of dilettantism” combined with the “logic of degradation” (Stańczyk 2018, 124–32).

Sausage People, Losers, and a Manifesto against the Impertinence of Perfection 267

there on September 1, 2001 at 5:45 a.m. Date and time were chosen because it was the anniversary of the German army’s invasion of Poland. First on the centrally located Torstrasse, in Berlin’s Mitte district, and since then on equally central Ackerstreet, the Polish Losers have organized concerts, dance nights, bilingual readings, exhibitions, and film screenings. They have put out the magazine Kolano, run a publishing house, shot films, and moderated radio broadcasts. Finally, the novel The Club of the Polish Sausage People (Klub Kiełboludów), by Leszek Herman Oświęcimski and published in both German and Polish, serves as a kind of manifesto for the group. Both this manifesto-novel and the group’s name flirt with affirming, or even glorifying, failure. This is certified by the Club of Polish Losers’ dissemination of an unrelentingly trashy comedy aesthetic that proclaims “the worse, the better” while revealing the inner ingeniousness of its compositions. A key to their workings lies in the foil of Germany/Berlin: the punch line of the poetic agenda consists of intermingling ethnic ascriptions and social claims. First, as banal as it sounds, this approach requires a (major) city where immigration is an established subject or can be made into one. In other words, the group required a critical mass of immigrants who could make such games about outsider status relevant. Dirk Uffelmann also sees the majority society’s growing awareness of the “presence of a migrant community” as a critical factor that permitted the triumph of the club’s concept (Uffelmann 2011, 128). In fact, since time immemorial, cities have emerged and grown through migration from the surrounding countryside, from provincial towns and borderlands, from abroad, from other metropolises, from “foreign” cultures, and from distant continents. The arrivals’ institutional establishment and self-organization in neighborhood communities are constants of (European) urban history, as are the resulting tensions with longer-term residents. These elements are accompanied by feelings of alienation, efforts at self-assertion, a force of dislocation perceived as existential, and the process of coming to terms with that force. Ultimately, a development like the Polish Losers required a post-nationalistic discursive situation where there was awareness of the late-modern vision of a nationally self-contained (urban) society, but belief in this vision was limited. Acceptance of cultural plurality, if not an affinity to it, were already common, but avant-gardism could still claim these attitudes as its own. For an aesthetic like the club’s to catch on another prerequisite is the existence of a “scene” and enough of an adequate audience that finds such games with failure provocative—or having a certain appeal. This audience, when doubtful, might be perceive itself as not fitting in, as being a failure or being at risk of becoming one—as measured against its own expectations or internalized external expectations. This social capital of the scene, which is associated less


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

with ethnicity than with social structure, references the majority society and resonates with it. So, in that sense, Berlin is the intrinsic location to which the Club’s claims of dislocation and failure are tied. The city plays a correspondingly central role in the Club’s artistic concept. It is claimed as the arena of a contradictory exclusion, as is strikingly apparent in the novel The Club of the Polish Sausage People. Its topography and semiotics play a vital role in the series Conversations with an Interesting Person. And on a meta-level, as a space for cultural events, Berlin guarantees the losers’ success. To begin with, Berlin represents the stereotype of German perfection, pars pro toto. No less ironically, against this foil, both the magazine Kolano and Oświęcimski’s manifesto-novel enact the cliché of Polish people as incurable romantics, drinkers, and passionate mustache-wearers who incessantly boast of their national genius. They (c)overtly look up to the Germans, viewing them as confident, goal-oriented, industrious, and consistent—while seeing themselves as imperfect, shy, and insecure. The vehicle for this satirical exploration of German-Polish auto- and heterostereotypes is the story of three “sausage people” who have been created from sausage meat in a Polish laboratory to cross the German customs border as living products; though caught on the way, they manage to escape. Hermann Wurstmann (“the Big Sausage Man”) makes it to Berlin and scrapes by with unskilled jobs. Markus Schnauzel (“the Thin Sausage Man”) works at a hospital while completing additional training at the library of a monastery in the Teutoburg Forest. Adalbert Pien (“the Thick Sausage Man”) is adopted by a farmer as his son. All three of them, given the gleeful epithets of “salted staff members,” “smoked creatures,” and “potential victims of a Western European butcher” share addictions to writing and alcohol. They finally reunite in Berlin, and the novel ends with the vow of brotherhood on Torstreet 66, at the Club of Polish Losers. With the conventionally modern approach and set of metaphors, Berlin appears as a bodily machine that grinds through human beings: People leave the house, join other citizens going to work and school, forming a large stream, then little rivers, running to the station to then fall into the main arteries and nodal points where bus, tram and metro lines intersect. Everything is done smoothly and mechanically. This order can sometimes be interrupted by a breakdown of the escalator or by a man lying prone with medics and resuscitation devices circling around. (Oświęcimski 2002, 32; translated by Alfrun Kliems)

Borrowing a cliché from the modern big-city novel, Oświęcimski acts out a Germany cliché in the style of the Romantic artist trembling before the metropolis, employing a technique that mixes high-culture and pop-culture r­ eferences,

Conversations with an Interesting Person


methods, and elements. He flattens the objectivity of reportage and on-location journalism into banality; uses set pieces from spy novels, both their grotesqueness and their Hollywood fluff; inserts comic-like snippets; plagiarizes and parodies Friedrich Nietzsche and Stanisław Przybyszewski; and explains Kazimierz Dąbrowski’s theory of “positive integration.” But most of all, the text elucidates the “poetics of sloppy implementation” (poezja zlewnej urzeczywistnia), or bad writing, that was already applied in Tot Art.147 Developed over the course of narrative, it can in turn be applied to the novel itself and to the art of the Club of Losers, “because the forms that it assumes are metaphorical ones, pseudoforms—random semantic and architectural constellations. In the poetry of bad writing, therefore, the fullest is realized—originally existing in folk poetry and the human play, but lost in culture—the fusion of aesthetics and existence” (Oświęcimski 2002, 55; translated by Alfrun Kliems). The novel becomes part of a performance when the text stages its author, the translators, and an entire group of authors as founders of the “Club of the Sausage People,” which corresponds to the actual Club of Polish Losers, which in turn references the manifesto of the novel from the Club’s magazine, Kolano. While the novel follows its sausage people halfway across Germany, Kolano focuses on Berlin as a foil upon which migration is represented. This is entirely true of Conversations with an Interesting Person.

Conversations with an Interesting Person The Conversations with an Interesting Person video series, created by Piotr Mordel and Adam Gusowski, relies on a principle of repeating structural running gags. The project has produced more than fifty conversations, which are accessible on YouTube.148 Its locations are visually spoofed, and the interviewee characters have little in common with their namesakes apart from their assigned names and a few coded costume pieces. The communication drifts into a dance around Dada space—or founders altogether. At the end of each piece, the interviewer (Gusowski) pronounces the conversation a success and invites the viewer to the next episode with the catchphrase “until next time on…” Meanwhile, the set of these videos has the quality of a high school theatrical sketch, the dialogue is overtly unscripted and hesitant, and the punch lines 147 See Dirk Uffelmann: “Bad writing—this is the only positive argument presented in the novel—grants an aesthetic surplus of de-automatization” (Uffelmann 2011, 118). 148 See the interview collection on YouTube: http://www.polnischeversager.de/das-gespraechmit-einem-interessanten-menschen/ (Accessed March 12, 2020).


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

are deliberately harmless. The overall effect of Conversations with an Interesting Person is fumbling and clumsy, limited in its means of expression, its resources, and sometimes its wit. Nevertheless, the viewer simply cannot decide whether its two Losers are really sending up the clichés of celebrity interviews. According to the standard script, Gusowski’s brief introduction of the “guest,” always Mordel, is followed by the question of where they are, something the viewers can see for themselves in the background, but a question which the interviewee answers by supplying an outrageous setting. For example, in one video, Gusowski sits with Mordel as Dieter Kosslick, former director of the Berlin Film Festival (Berlinale), in front of his new “grand cinema”: a crooked leanto in a courtyard. In another, Gusowski interviews Darth Vader in the engine room of the “company spaceship”: a boiler room. Other stagings include: Reinhold Messner (spelled “Mässner”) answering questions on a Himalayan summit: a snowy park in Berlin, with people strolling by, crossing through the shot. “Energy baron” Tomasz Omietański pointing to his nuclear power plant: the Zeiss Planetarium on Prenzlauer Alley. Wojciech Fibak, the “snow tennis star,” interviewed at his friend Björn Borg’s snow tennis court in Uppsala, Sweden, where we see a typical Brandenburg field with wind turbines in the background. The guest characters function similarly. Familiar names are spoofed or given new roles; alternatively, absurd fictional characters are assigned famous names. Bedřich—spelled Polish-style as Bedrzych—Smetana is a Bergbau specialist. Bergbau is the German word for mining, but it could be read literally as “mountain building.” Indeed, Smetana boasts of having built the neighborhoods of Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg und Lichtenberg, each of which has a mountain in its name.149 Simultaneously, it plays with the German meaning of “rubble” (Trümmer), which refers to the ruins of Berlin after World War II. The character of Willy Wonka owns a chocolate factory in Roald Dahl’s children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, played by Johnny Depp in its 2005 film adaptation. However, Gusowski and Mordel prefer to pin the Willy Wonka name tag on a staid employee of the Berlinale, the administrator in charge of both fire safety and women’s affairs. Their Wonka must watch all the festival’s films and advise all the judges, who have left the building to drink lattes during the screenings. In cases where the name and public role seem to match, the interviewee Piotr Mordel can be counted on to invent a grotesque story, sometimes satirical and sometimes inspired by a pun. For example, his Karl Dedecius, accurately introduced as a translator, plans to start a language school headquartered in Tropical Islands, a themed indoor beach resort near Berlin. At the language school, he 149 On the motif of the ruins in post-socialist literature, see Williams (2013).

Conversations with an Interesting Person


wants to teach English, Russian, and Polish battle cries to “radical right-wing young adults and immature senior citizens” because shouting neo-Nazi slogans in German is outlawed. Mirosław Kopernikus, a researcher in Chile, reports that he is protecting the Earth from outer-space threats and warns that a giant potato is racing at light speed toward the Earth, where it will collide head-on with the Internet—an allusion to the nicknames of the Kaczyński brothers. Polishness is a central theme. Both the journalist Gusowski and his interview subject Mordel speak German with Polish accents. The guests are often with a Polish background. Apart from the Poles, there is a panopticon of fictional characters. Take the millionaire Jozef Skorniak, the “richest man on Ackerstrasse” who “invests in recyclables”: he buys beer bottles and returns the empty bottles for the deposit. Dr. Bartek “Psycho” Kempinsky, director of the field office of the Polish Academy of Science in Psychology and Sports, is employed as a doping developer in the field of “psycho-doping.” His colleague Dr. Sebastian Apostel wears a surgical gown and face mask and stands outside a coin-operated bathroom, dubbed an “urban plastic surgery box,” which is poised to revolutionize cosmetic surgery in Germany and make it dramatically cheaper. These characters are what permit the Polish Losers their freest and often finest games with grotesqueness. Just as the locations pretend to be elsewhere, usually somewhere bigger, more beautiful, and more impressive, Mordel’s guest characters report on unbelievable successes and even more abstruse plans. They are representatives of an underestimated world-class people whose strokes of genius and fantastical inventions routinely astonish Gusowski the interviewer. The stereotype of national Polish delusions of grandeur is mirrored ironically in biographical self-inflation. Yet its absurdity always remains on the sympathetic side, a flirtation with madness juxtaposed against (German) perfection. Conversely, Berlin, which is repeatedly on display under many misnomers and which harbors many strenuous big-city ambitions, is cut down to size by the dingy facts. But it doesn’t go any deeper. The Conversations’ aesthetic, situated somewhere between amateurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, trash, and anti-beauty, borrows heavily from the arsenal of the underground. Yet it doesn’t aim to use the underground’s painful effects or its blatant, disturbing gestures to create any kind of existential scandal. Hence, the similarity of the techniques raises a basic question: Is this just a generalization of yesterday’s provocation into today’s available convention, a clumsy use of eroded weapons by the underground’s heirs? The Club of Polish Losers allows us to revisit Jáchym Topol’s thesis, quoted at the beginning of this book, that an underground would be impossible in the post-ideological age. The most famous of the Polish figures to whom Mordel and Gusowski give voice is Lech Wałęsa. In front of a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, cor-


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

rectly identified in this case, the resistance hero repeats the same sentence nine times in three minutes, a monotonous loop of a soundbite: “It all started in Gdańsk!” The resolution comes in the last quarter of the interview: “…where I founded a highway construction company.” That is why, Wałęsa explains, he (!) has reunified Germany and torn down the Wall: to source concrete rubble for his highways. If the construction is delayed, he promises to put the Wall back exactly as it was. The video was filmed in autumn 2009 and plays on the Polish government’s campaign from that year, “It Started in Gdańsk,” which had also been presented in Berlin. On the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the campaign aimed to publicize Poland’s crucial pioneering role in the historic transformation of 1989. At the beginning and the end of the video, a chyron at the bottom of the screen reads: “20 years since the Fall of the Wall: A Special Broadcast from the ARD Studio in the Capital and Polish Wave Germany with Lech Walesa [sic].” The satire gets an additional surreal, spoofy spin because Mordel and Gusowski conduct the interview in German but only play the original audio track at low volume in the background while the two of them read the exact same script over it with studio acoustics and the fumbling hesitations of a simultaneous interpreter. This goes hand in hand with the mispronunciation of the interview subject’s name, pronounced first as an unfamiliar German might read the Polish spelling—Valesa—followed by the correct pronunciation, which sounds more like Vawensa. The episode’s nonsense poetics once again pushes the formal journalism imitation while incorporating the stylistic principle of repetition (“It all started in Gdańsk”), and thus this single episode encapsulates the series. First, there is the dual destruction of meaning through literal non-sense and repetition. Consistently serial, the Conversations maintain their unwavering structure of introducing the “interesting person,” identifying the fictitious location, conducting the interview as a rejected conversation or flight of fancy including the disconnect between speech and visuals, saying goodbye to the guest, wishing him well, and inviting the viewer to the next interview. If each individual interview remains aesthetically inconsequential, the series as a unit coalesces into a highly condensed representation of a news or talk show in its ritual function. In so doing, it renders this very ritual banal and undercuts television’s self-claimed status as a democratic informational medium. Meaningless on its own, here the medium only generates pseudo-meaning via public media’s presumption of authority. The presentation of propriety that is inscribed in news broadcasts as a genre is identified as a fetishistic illusion. At the same time, instead of producing monotony, the dependable circular structure guarantees suspense through its variation. The Conversations move

Conversations with an Interesting Person


within the parameters of minimalism, whose basic concept Brian Eno summed up with the statement “repetition is a form of change” (Ross 2007, 511). This is reinforced by the austere ready-made props and costume pieces: for example, using a random wig to designate August the Strong. It is also reinforced by the rhetorical, pared down, sluggish speech and the quiet instrumentals during the opening and closing credits. The comedy emerges from the liberating loss of tension whenever there is a deviation from the pattern. Moreover, the minimalist production values correspond with a motif that the underground often returned to, expanded, and re-signified: the flâneur. Taken as a whole, the Conversations can be read as a new version of the flâneur’s stroll in a four-minute format. Gusowski and Mordel also move around the city observing, and thus present it in a specific interpretation—except that their movement is not shown, only the “stops” at more and more locations. However, this jumping type of walk produces a much less pronounced sense of discontinuity or fragmentation than does Andrzej Stasiuk’s linguistically shattered Warsaw. Still, the medium of film affords a rather unique form of displacement through the aforementioned disconnect between dialogue and visuals and the misidentification of what is shown. In numerous cases, this causes a peculiar interweaving and blurring of borders that can be connected to Roland Robertson’s term glocalization and viewed as a glocal image of city and native territory (Robertson 1995). The identifications parallel the immigrant figures themselves: they are ripped out of contexts from around the world and inserted into a Berlin text, which in the process becomes a new text, one appropriated by the insertions. A procedure that someone like Jáchym Topol treats as tragic and dystopian now seems casually comical and minimalistically subdued. The contradiction is obvious to the viewer but doesn’t affect the protagonists—though it does have an impact on claims about the city. By verbally suppressing the city beneath recourses to global metropolitan landmarks (the “Eiffel Tower”) and showcasing it in pledges of glamor (a basement as a spaceship), the series makes Berlin seem like a small town by contrast: provincial, humdrum, unremarkable. Again in keeping with underground practices, Model and Gusowski rarely appear at Berlin’s main symbolic sites, preferring everyday, dingy locations, Foucauldian heterotopias, and non-places in Marc Augé’s sense of the word. While heterotopias refer to anti-utopian spaces whose internal organizing principle makes them society’s other (in this case, the cemetery, urinal, basement, crypt, or storage space), non-places are locations that are poorly marked symbolically, are often transitory in nature, and rarely become landmarks of identity or history—such as the nameless streets on which so many of the Conversations take


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

place and the uncomfortable apartments with plastered-over wiring, exposed pipes, old sinks, peeling wallpaper, and crumbling plaster. But in many instances, the aesthetic techniques and effects of these videos dramatically stand out from those of the “conventional” underground. Because of the form of their appropriation, neither the impoverished dilapidation nor the locations’ lack of distinguishing features produce dismay or even accusation. Furthermore, their misrepresentation as something larger, more important, conveys a sense of hope as if they could still amount to something—as could the ludicrous ideas of some interview subjects. A sense of hope, mind you—not hope itself. To quote Pierre Bourdieu, “television is a formidable instrument for maintaining the symbolic order” (Bourdieu 1998, 16): “Symbolic violence is violence wielded with tacit complicity between its victims and its agents, insofar as both remain unconscious of submitting to or wielding it” (1998, 17). In other words, television prompts good spirits in what is truly a lamentable existence. For all the Conversations’ implicit critique of the media, by this reading, they largely reproduce the structure of television’s entertainment. Over the years, these interviews as an artistic synthesis achieve a formidable crossing of urban space, making the city of Berlin into their discursive arena. This should be taken literally. On their epic virtual walk, the Polish Losers cover Berlin in a web of conversations. In turn, this makes the Conversations part of a Foucauldian discursive practice: language is tied to a location, which might be an institution, a monument, a shed, a field, or a street—and ranges very widely in various Berlin discourses. The Conversations might re-mark the space and perhaps leverage the discourse—or else stage the initial local conversation as the discourse-definer. Either way, these are purely chimerical acts of insubordination, for the true location at hand is the Conversations themselves: they form a heterotopia of their own. Their clientele is the clued-in viewer who watches the videos on YouTube, an anti-utopian space possessing an internal organizing principle and its own timeline: technically open-ended but semantically self-contained. In this space, we repeatedly encounter a theme that I have touched upon before but that now merits closer inspection: exoticism.

Non-provocation When Dirk Uffelmann writes that the Club of Polish Losers’ “artistic strategy goes beyond self-immunization and matures into successful cultural management” (Uffelmann 2011, 121), he is commenting not so much on the members’ particular art as on the Club’s own meta-concept. It might not be a coincidence



that the club moved to a location near the Kaffee Burger, a venue on Torstreet with the slogan “Prenzlauer Berg, now in Mitte too,” opened by members of the scene there. Kaffee Burger hosted regular readings by Wladimir Kaminer, who has described himself as privately a Russian and professionally a German writer. This spatial proximity also proved structural in terms of the economies of attention and the meta-level of the aesthetic techniques at play: both Kaminer and the Polish Losers set out to exoticize themselves. When the Club of Polish Losers was founded, the German and Polish press reported that the “Slavic spirit” was making inroads in cool and calculating Berlin, that the “barbarians from the East” would be spreading melancholy and doubt amid German compulsions for performance and perfection. Later, the Club was ascribed a “typically Polish” sense of humor that the German public encountered predominantly with irritation, as Brigitta Helbig-Mischewski and Marek Graszewski concluded: this brand of humor was “still difficult to get across in German official culture (interdiscourse), unlike the attractiveness of the ‘Slavic spirit’” (Helbig-Mischewski and Graszewski 2006, 321). Reviews, criticism, and even in some cases academic treatments of the subject (re)produced a series of stereotypes that steered the project’s reception in a predefined direction. Thus they adopted its ethnocultural semiotics more than they debated them. In 2003, Adam Gusowski gave an interview for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. Asked what was meant by losers or failure, he responded, “In Polish fairy tales, the weaker one gets the happy ending. The same holds for Russian folklore. Ivan is the youngest of three brothers, dimwitted, clumsy, and fairly sappy” (Wünschmann 2003, 4–5). This reference to the body of Slavic traditions overlooks the truth that the defense of the underdog is not a feature specific to Russian or Polish fairy tales but is common to the genre as a whole. It is a narrative phenomenon, not an ethnic one. Fairy tales in all cultures contain victorious losers. To be precise, the consolatory, humility-seeking, and hope-giving surprise of the power reversal, and the news of the small, underestimated character’s triumph over the giant qualify as defining characteristics of the fairy tale. At the same time, the ethnically stereotyped recourse to fairy tales adopts a moral claim, a sort of superiority. The tales themselves attribute to a small, seemingly naïve person with a pure heart and a deeper perspective. Fairy tales transmit a story of success and its underlying mechanisms. After all, the club is certainly an artistic success story, just as those of other immigrants to Germany in the period since 1990. Some of the best-known examples are the Czech-born Libuše Moníková, the Bosnian-raised Saša Stanišić, the Bulgarian-born Ilija Trojanow, the Japanese-born Yoko Tawada, the Turkish-born Feridun Zaimoğlu, and, of course, the Russian-born Wladimir Kaminer. Most of these writers arrived in


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

Germany as children or grew up bilingual, and all of them have contributed to shaping contemporary German literature. This new literary development is critically reflected in terms like Turkish turn by Leslie Adelson (2005) and Eastern European Turn by Brigitte Haines (2015). Thus, writers try to distance themselves from concepts such as “guest worker literature,” “foreigners’ literature,” or “migrants’ literature”, rejecting “a schematic rhetoric of self and other predicated in incommensurable partners in dialogue” (Adelson 2005, 25). From early on, Hans-Peter Kunisch has commented on this phenomenon in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s most prominent newspapers, with an aggressive directness and a lack of analytical depth. As he sees it, those authors’ success is due in no small part to the “romantic and exotic rundown” of their CVs, which are a far cry from those of ethnic Germans who suffer under the weight of their “own dreary biographies”: “In the age of fateless middlebrow readership, the ‘interesting’ biography is becoming young writers’ most important media copy alongside a decorative face. Foreigners coming from ‘exciting’ regions where mysterious things could still happen have a geographical advantage in that regard” (Kunisch 2000, LIT 1). Setting aside the inadvertently funny error of “geographical advantage,” Kunisch’s fundamental mistake may well lie in the assumption common to traditional aversions against “mediocrity,” “center,” and “(petit) bourgeoisie”: that a “fateless middlebrow” exists—as in the middle class or Virginia Woolf ’s children of educated men. In fact, the fate of that group seems to be a motive for the aesthetic and poetic shift that might lend plausibility to talk of the underground’s end. Also, the blurbs about authors “from immigrant backgrounds” should be contextualized among trends in literature promotion that generally seize on “interesting” experiences of marginality, from being a “moving man” (Clemens Meyer) to a “lighting technician at an independent theater” (Antje Rávic Strubel), not to mention long-distance travel and periods of living abroad (Christian Kracht). Still, Kunisch’s critique contains a kernel of truth that merits investigating. Many protagonists in the body of work identified as migration literature examine their countries of origin. They also pledge to scrutinize their countries of residence from a “foreign perspective.” Under the microscope are those people without “romantic and exotic” life stories, people who might appreciate an account of their own familiar, yet alienated customs: a duplicated colonial gaze with a sprinkling of narcissism. The external observers gratify their subjects’ need for self-exoticization. The discursive agreement grows tricky when it cements ethnicized lines of rhetoric, solidifying the Other’s minority status and role in the production process of a narcissistic fetishism of difference.



When Wolfgang Welsch posits that “authenticity has become part of folklore” (Welsch 1992, 11), we should be examining not the folklore, but the folklore business of a normalized attribution industry, which may especially hold true for the migration literature (Stanišić 2008). Birgit Menzel and Ulrich Schmid write about Kaminer at Kaffee Burger: “Kaminer picks up his German clients precisely where they stand with their own clichés about the East” (Menzel and Schmid 2007, 20). Similarly, Dirk Uffelmann argues that recent Polish immigrant literature, and specifically the Club of Polish Losers, makes an active habit of “self-Asianization” or “self-barbarization”—engaging with and parodying the majority discourse. He concludes: “Higher or lower literary quality might play a role regarding success or the lack thereof, but one should refrain from taking this connection for granted. As the example of the ‘Club of Polish Losers’ demonstrates, there are unpredictable boom times for paradoxical self-deprecations” (Uffelmann 2011, 128). In classifying, let us relativize. If you leave aside the function and logic of the “ethnicity” topos for a moment, the Club of Polish Losers appears to be just one local cultural club among many. It inserts itself in a landscape of “polycentrically organized archipelagos and alliances of local scenes,” as Susanne Binas asserts for nearly all major European cities, from a music history perspective, in her concept of “sound shifts.” According to Binas, the various music scenes have long coexisted and interacted and have formed firm alliances defined by years of accumulated group knowledge. These are entities with multiple directionalities within a transient nightlife. While clubs and labels constantly sprout up, expand, close down, and reopen, genres and styles mix with local and regional and global sounds. The borders are fluid; they neutralize each other. Dance culture also cultivates an “emphatic notion of transculturalism and hybridity” (Binas 2002, 70–2). This is the reality in which the Club of Polish Losers operates. After all, it is not only a Polish club, it is—perhaps more deeply and more specifically—a Berlin club. Nevertheless, the developments in Torstreet and Ackerstreet cannot be separated from location-independent production. Christian Höller writes that the “spacious geography of floating ‘pop imageries’ […] is topographically inscribed into an increasingly engineered cyber-world” yet “always tied to manifest individual venues” (Höller 2002, 90). Let us return to this matter of inscribing oneself in the urban text of Berlin and helping to write it, which I already touched on in describing the concept of glocalization. Mordel and Gusowski deal extensively with the sets of symbols associated with Berlin and “Poland versus Germany.” The audience can hardly consider Berlin’s set of symbols to be anything but globalized anymore. By the same to-


“It All Started in Gdańsk!”

ken, the Polish Losers’ “schizo-national” events produce, reproduce, and undercut national stereotypes all at once, but they scarcely limit themselves to German-Polish topoi. Indeed, they incorporate TV producers, movie stars, musicians, and athletes from around the world and thus the ubiquitous names and symbologies of a global popular culture that is definitively native to Berlin (among other places). Building on these figures, as Brigitta Helbig-Mischewski has analyzed with doubtless accuracy, Mordel and Gusowski repeatedly choose enactments that exaggerate feelings of humiliation and degradation faced by Eastern European immigrants in Germany. Following her interpretation, the “transformation of humiliation” in recent Polish immigrant literature is driven, by way of an “imaginary radicalization of one’s own otherness,” to an otherness that takes cosmic, metaphysical dimensions. The Losers’ own foreignness is transferred onto exoticized fantasy creatures and sci-fi aliens (Helbig-Mischewski 2009, 172). The original concrete differences are diluted into human universals, into the basic anthropological constellation of an individual cast out into a hostile world (not only a hostile environment). But the twist is that Diedrich Diederichsen described strikingly similar mechanisms for the 1950s African American community: a link between racism, diasporic experiences, and the production of nomadology kitsch, science fiction, and pop music. During bohemian Harlem’s boom time, its “modern eccentricity” was attributed again and again to its blackness—instead of to the eccentricity inherent in every avant-garde movement. One artist learns to resign himself to the stereotype while the other learns to toy with it as a resource. The latter type, whom Diedrichsen calls the eccentric, “operates, so to speak, in a role assigned to black people, which he tries to undermine in various ways for both the white audience and the clued-in black audience, but cannot afford truly endangering the persuasiveness of one of his roles” (Diederichsen 1998, 120–1). So too the Club of Polish Losers, which attaches ethnicization to its aesthetic strategies in all the respects outlined above—with the result that the Club’s stunts and campaigns are not interpreted as the pop-cultural references that they primarily are, but that they are instead essentialized as Polish and conventionalized as a topos. Most importantly, however—even in the case of supposedly “Polish” humor—this is about a glocal concept of pop. The Club named itself correctly: Polish is just a modifier. The core of its art is described by the noun Loser. The underground allows for social failure and loserdoom from a bourgeois perspective and even inflates it. Ultimately, it roundly rejects society’s super-



structure and makes peace with its own exclusion. It takes that exclusion as a given even when most of its deliberately anti-system aesthetics have finally been absorbed by the mainstream. Meanwhile, the regenerative energy to introduce ever-new poetics of marginality feeds off a fundamental discomfort with the social status quo, off an unacceptability of vertical exclusion as a generational scandal, and off the unkept promise of modernity. The Club’s concept of the loser is something else. When the project began on September 1, 2001, exactly on the 62nd anniversary of Germany’s assault on Poland that started Word War II, the Slavic loosening of Prussian perfectionism was welcomed with amusement. By then, rock and pop were already the musica franca everywhere, from Downing Street to Zehlendorf, and “Kanak Sprak” (Zaimoğlu 1995) was established as part of a difference industry in the “mainstream of minorities” (Holert and Terkessidis 1996). Some tens of thousends of Poles had registered addresses in Berlin, not counting undocumented and naturalized immigrants. Most were focused more on work and on establishing themselves than on their “national spirit.” The Polish Losers’ auto- and heterostereotypes were chimerical from the start: sentimental longings for a bugbear. The Club claims subversiveness by enacting longstanding historical clichés, which are catchy because they convey normalcy to an insecure society with an ethnocultural narrative that seems so quaintly retro. The Club composed its mission statement in 2000. In closing, let us return to the “Little Manifesto” (“Mały Manifest”), which is the epigraph to this chapter: The likes of us are not many in this town. Just a few, maybe a dozen or two. The rest are people of success, standoffish and cold-blooded specialists […]. We endure the terror of those other people’s perfection. Their presence intimidates us. And they like it that way because they live in fear of losing the creative monopoly they claim for themselves. (Klub Polskich Nieudaczników 1996, 1; translated by Jake Schneider)

None of this mission statement is true. But in fact, its sentimental untruthfulness is what made it especially worthy of endorsement in the scene around Torstreet at the time. If we can speak of any failure here, it is an aesthetic one. The Club of Polish Losers proved to have a poetically parasitic relationship to the underground. We might ask whether this is an instance of pop or if the underground went pop.

Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground It’s sure to upset a lot of people—and that is also what I’m aiming for, to cause a scandal, especially at home. It’s a punk gesture, intentionally primitive and vulgar, fecally pubertal. —Elena Jelebova alias David Černý, Entropa

The artwork Bulgaria, which Elena Jelebova is defending in the quote above, represents an example the underground’s “surfacing” up “above,” attaining respectability as proven by its political patronage. Bulgaria was part of a larger work titled Entropa, which was funded by the Czech government and unveiled in January 2009 at the European Council building in Brussels. Jelebova’s contribution to the massive sculpture represented her country of Bulgaria as a collage of “Turkish” squat toilets. One little catch: Elena Jelebova does not exist. My subsidiary example leads me to a conclusion of the whole book and brings us back to a phenomenon that I touched on in the introduction: the “upgrading” of the underground and of the plural, double-helix-like dialectic of subversive aesthetics. This goes hand in hand with the absorbency of the mainstream, especially in democratic market-based societies—including the mainstream’s ability to absorb complaints about those very mechanisms of appropriation and exploitation that are voiced by the countercultures in question. Once again, let us briefly investigate Jáchym Topol’s remark that the underground was over after 1989, having lost its preconditions for existence upon the replacement of repressive mechanisms with the logics and forces of the market. In fact, it was after the epochal year of 1989 that Topol published City Sister Silver, a novel that portrays Prague as a highly verticalized urban space and continues to employ all manner of underground aesthetics. Moreover, his thesis about the end of the underground exhibits four typical distortions: First, Topol overlooks the enmeshment of the underground’s family tree with the modern condition, with its constitutive aporia, with the subject–object split, with its gap between an open “horizon of expectation” and the constructed “spaces of experience,” and with its clash between alienation and promises of inclusion. And he overlooks the evidence that these phenomena were common to their era across the boundaries of social systems. Second, Topol fails to see the specific associations of the vertical metaphors he himself imposes on his work within the context of the modern promise of


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inclusion, and he therefore underestimates underground claims’ potential for scandal. A scandal is possible as long as this promise holds up and with it the fantasy of the shapeable future, the political myth. But those factors do not require any “totalitarian dictatorship.” Any form of modernity suffices. For example, Martin Pilař concludes his findings about the underground in 1999 with the remark that the underground is obviously capable of continuing “its” poetics under contemporary conditions (Pilař 1999, 98). Third, and accordingly, Topol misses the dilemma facing modern countercultural interventions: their Sisyphean structure is not an accidental corruption. It is a systemic reflection of the circumstances whose constitutive logic they exist in response to. As an accusatory child of modernity, the underground cannot escape modern dynamics. Modernity continually pushes the underground visually “upward”—and the underground perpetually devises new aesthetics from “down below.” Its poetic occasion is not just fundamental, but also self-regenerating. Fourth and finally, Topol’s dictum relies on a strong topos that makes it possible to narrate an otherwise intangible transformation, but the topos does not stand up to closer scrutiny. He means the end of the two-bloc system and with it of authoritarian state socialism: the German word “Wende,” or turning point of 1989, used here metaphorically for plural ruptures but intended to signify a supposedly singular experience. As a historical marker, that metaphor might be useful, but in terms of a structural twist or turn, labeling the “East” as exceptional misses the mark. One reason is that fundamental turning point experiences, as in times of destabilization and attempts of processing it, can also be found outside East-Central Europe. Specifically, more recent debates over postmodernism and globalization deal with the same issues. In the case mentioned above, it wasn’t a work by Elena Jelebova, but the Prague underground artist David Černý. To mark its assumption of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, the government of the Czech Republic commissioned a work by him. In turn, Černý was meant to recruit twenty-seven artists from the twenty-seven EU member states. They would each create a sculpture in the shape of their country’s outline that symbolized their nation with clichés commonly ascribed to it. Before the meta-artwork was created, Černý presented the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a catalog containing sketches of the twenty-seven sculptures, descriptions of each project, and the names and bios of the artists. None of the commissioning politicians seems to have tripped over the idiosyncratic title Entropa or asked why the coordinator had scarcely elaborated on it. Černý’s catalog was written in the prevailing EU political vocabulary:

Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground


Europe is unified by its history [and] culture […]. More or less diverse countries are intertwined by a network of multidimensional relationships that, in effect, results in an intricate whole. From within, we tend to focus on the differences between the individual European countries. These differences include thousands of important and unimportant things ranging from geographical situation to gastronomy and everyday habit. (Černý 2009)

The text describes the proposed meta-sculpture as an EU puzzle aiming to portray that diversity: a sixteen-by-sixteen-meter installation, a European frame composed of pipes with the national sculptures as puzzle pieces. If any pieces were removed, the frame would lose its purpose: to fit them together. The proposal was approved. After the unveiling, Bulgaria was the first to gripe: about those squat toilets. Then the Germans complained that their autobahns resembled a swastika. Poland did not recognize itself in the potato field where four Catholic priests were raising a rainbow flag. Sweden had disappeared into an Ikea flat pack, and the Netherlands had sunk into the North Sea, from which only a few minarets protruded. Lithuania’s baroque cherubs were peeing across the border and the notoriously Eurosceptic United Kingdom was, prophetically, missing. But in the end, the real scandal was that Černý had never approached those twenty-seven international counterparts. Instead, he had sat down with Czech artist and art historian friends and fabricated names, CVs, sketches, and project descriptions from A to Z. The sculpture was not a representation of Europe, but a spoof of such representations and their absurdity.150 Its provocation bore a message. Entropa is a pun on entropy, the equally distributed disorder that always develops in closed systems, a term that has spread from physics to the social sciences to everyday vocabulary. Entropa is tied to chaos, meaninglessness, and misinformation: “Every imperfectly insulated cup of hot coffee, every star, and every microbe produces entropy and increasingly clutters the universe with it” (Rauchhaupt 2006, 64). Of course, Černý and his friends intended that the “hoax” would come to light when the work was unveiled, at the very latest: “We knew the truth would come out. But before that we wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself […]. We do not want to insult anybody, just point at the difficulty of communication without having the ability of being ironic” (Černý 2009). There were echoes of laughter, scraps of praise, more furious criticism, and in the end a meek apology by the Czech government to everyone who had been offended. They should have known. Ever since David Černý had made a name for himself in 1991 by painting a memorialized tank pink, he had never produced 150 Entropa now resides in the Techmania Science Center in Plzeň.


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a politically painless or unironic work of art. However, Černý’s commissioned works have little common ground with his earlier underground activities. His Entropa stunt is also missing a radical core of pathos: it is only playing with the last glittering shards of it. With its superficial offensiveness and facetiousness, it demonstrates that claims of identity are no more than fabrications or silly clichés. Along the way, it abandons the desperation at the fiery core of art by the likes of Yuri Andrukhovych or Andrzej Stasiuk, art that aggressively defends local identity. Or art that proclaims self-exclusion, like in the “Spat Upon”-series of Marcin Świetlicki, and in the Bratislava poetry of Vladimír Archleb. David Černý’s art illustrates and corroborates Sascha Lehnartz’s observations to that effect in the chapter here on E. T. A. Hoffmann. In Hoffmann’s “The Poet and the Composer” the essence of underground modernity can be detected: a layering of ideas, the physical underground, the spiritual relationship of art and life, and the social upstairs-downstairs hierarchy. As to Lehnartz, meanwhile the performative layer and the descriptive layer are united by a basically distant, ironic attitude, which holds that modernity—with its epistemological, aesthetic, and social aporias—is tolerable (Lehnartz 2005, 127–60). The attitude suggests that its absorbency is unworthy of regret or celebration, just as much as its tendency to devise ever-new poetics of objection and to quarrel over fluctuations in inclusion and exclusion. The scandal is bearable. So is it even a scandal at all? Whether you see this as a new stoicism or as sheer levity, the implication is that the act of perceiving modernity’s aporia eliminates or at least immobilizes modernity’s constitutive logic. And it therefore also nullifies the fantasy of a shapeable future and the hopes and fears derived from that fantasy, the myth of politics, and, last but not least, the tensions of working through alienation, subjectivity, and inclusion. On the surface, this chimes with Diedrich Diederichsen’s conclusions: “That was always the dialectic, at least when it came to subcultures in pop music. They have always had a desire for the mainstream to which they sold their own underground-ness, which then posed a problem for them” (Diederichsen 2003). In a radically individualized society, Diederichsen goes on to argue, products and production methods of the former underground have become a neutralized, normative quantity. The dichotomy of mainstream versus underground no longer spawns “any general cultural oppositionality.” Rather, “Outwardly, from a formal viewpoint, this distinction has lost its overall meaning as a description of culture” (Diederichsen 2003). On the other hand, this observation is in line with earlier notions, such as Peter Bürger’s view in his Theory of the Avant-Garde from 1974 that the avantgarde alternates between emancipation and reintegration. But also Ilona Schäckel’s conclusion about the Prenzlauer Berg scene, that “the literature for-

Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground


merly anchored in the underground” had been sucked “into the undertow of the official discourse” even before the turning point (Schäckel 1999, 43). Calling the underground “over” is meant to speak to an actual, profound transformation or even to belong to the tradition of complaining. Another issue is that absorption mechanisms and their denunciation are more pronounced in democratic market-based societies, but such societies do not have a monopoly on them. One example, which can be seen as metonymic for all its individuality, is Vladimir Makanin’s Petrovich, when he insults a writer who previously belonged to the underground but has now “made it”: With his white hands he takes our underground coal dust, dirt, and fire. He picks small pieces of coal embedded in our skin—collects them, scratches them off, and as quickly as he can smears them over his dangling cheeks, but also over his forehead, neck, shoulders, and hands, so that he would appear blacker and with his white eyeballs (at least) look like an emaciated miner who just came out of the shaft. (Makanin 1998a, 184; translated by Alfrun Kliems).

Apostasy, betrayal, exploitation, and piracy of the “vibe.” Sounds like the accusations of “sold-out” aesthetics in the commercial mainstream of the West. And still, the perceptions of the underground being “over” might have something to them once we discard the political systems argument. Lehnartz’s essay is instructive here—more so as a source than as an analysis—if we consider the text’s attitude. Lehnartz departs from the pathos of “countercultures” with an immense ease. He imbues it with an indifference to, if not a genuine incomprehension of, the spasms of modernity. In light of that, global consumerist capitalism might not in fact be the cause of the reformation. Rather, the signs of decreasing understanding for vocal underground and outsider artists’ appetite for causing scandals have brought a visible erosion in the modern belief in history. Thus, the status of a city so central to the underground shifts fundamentally in the manifesto-essay “The Coming Insurrection” (“L’insurrection qui vient”) first published in 2007 by the Invisible Committee (Comité invisible), to name one prominent recent example. Here, the city appears as an octopus extending its tentacles horizontally: “it is one single urban cloth, without form or order, a bleak zone, endless and undefined, a global continuum of museum-like hypercenters and natural parks, of enormous suburban housing developments and massive agricultural projects, industrial zones and subdivisions, country inns and trendy bars: the metropolis […]. All territory is subsumed by the metropolis” (The Invisible Committee 2009, 52). Building on Yuri Lotman’s concepts of the semiosphere and its center’s lack of creative impulses, the Invisible Committee perceives a universalization of cultural sterility inside and outside that center, in its restless expansion into


Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground

its peripheries. In the past, the historic city centers and downtowns had represented sites of revolt. Today, they are corrupted by consumption and tourism, inscribed in the “metropolis’s organizational structure.” The “coming insurrection” against this horizontal totality that the authors propose will now emerge neither from a manifestly vertical underground nor from the conquered periphery but from local or unevenly spread, mobile, networked, explicitly deterritorialized communities. On the one hand, this connects more clearly to conventional anti-system doctrines than to the underground. The goal of the coming community is militant, revolutionary society shaping. It is not primarily a scandalizing, directly “purposeless” coming together of like-minded people like Egon Bondy’s community of invalids, Ivan Jirous’s “weekenders,” Andrzej Stasiuk’s “packs,” or Jáchym Topol’s post-Babylonian “Kanak-hood.” On the other hand, beyond the aesthetic component, the sociological/vertical opposition and indeed every relational or spatial set of metaphors (up/down, ahead/behind, inside/outside) have disappeared in favor of amorphous images of placelessness, as shown with Peter Wawerzinek’s alter ego Moppel Schappik drifting through Berlin, or Jacek Podsiadło’s “tour group” failing Bondy in Bratislava. Almost logically, an apocalyptic tone and the talk of the end times, no longer diluted by illusions, lifts the “The Coming Insurrection” out of the sphere of politics and history. Contrary to appearances, this is not a political manifesto borne of or offended by the modern pledges of history: it is a poetic apocalyptic fantasy of a rage directed against everything and therefore directionless, a prophecy. More literally than ever, we read utopia here as non-place. One final image. In 2013, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho released the film Snowpiercer. It shows yet another apocalypse like those that increasingly seem to be occupying artists’ minds and the public discussion. The movie is set on an icy earth whose few human survivors live on a train that constantly circles the planet. As Dietmar Dath writes: The tail of the train is inhabited by poor, hopeless people in rags, while the engineer sits at the front. The metaphor is superb, for it dispenses with the vertical pattern of “you up there, us down below,” which essentially expired with feudalism, and replaces it with a horizontal order regulated by all manner of gates in which the people are more defrauded the farther they fall behind the totality of the incessantly advancing social dynamic. Energy and information only increase in the direction of travel. These are the guiding variables of both axes that set the dimensions of what was once known, in a simpler age, as “building production capacity.” (Dath 2014, 10)151 151 After the release of Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite (2019), the vertical spatial setting in the fiction would merit some deeper analytical thinking.

Conclusion or, Entropy of the Underground


My response to Dath’s assumption that “the vertical pattern […] essentially expired with feudalism” is clear from the preceding pages. Nevertheless, his viewpoint on the innovation and content of the horizontal metaphor seems fitting to me. If this metaphor amounts to more than an outlier among creative responses to today’s era, that would indeed prompt us to ask about our era and update the way we talk about postmodernism and post-history: as the era after utopia and after the scandal of its aporia. Then, examining the poetics of the underground would bring another fresh perspective on modernity as an anti-pragmatic period. That is if—and only if— the all-encompassing inclusion, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “agreeable state,” and “the mutual warmheartedness” (Hoffmann 1989, 190) of dancing, storytelling, communication, and generosity vanishes from the horizon of the cultural imagination and if the aesthetic techniques of the underground do indeed become as illegible as they were in the early modern period. All of which still seems preferable to the concept’s degeneration into a catchall code for any manner of mildly marginal nonconformist acts. The underground was (or is) much more: the esthesis of a fundamental conflict of modernity, waged with full poetic ruthlessness.

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Index of Illustrations Fig. 1: Funeral of Milan Koch Machovec, Martin. “Od avantgardy přes podzemí do undergroundu.” In Alternativní kultura. Příběh české společnosti 1945–1989, edited by Josef Alan. Prague: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2001, p. 180. © Kalligrafická kronika / The Plastic People of the Universe. Fig. 2: Peter Wawerzinek, Window Collage Wawerzinek, Peter. Moppel Schappiks Tätowierungen. Berlin: Unabhängige Verlagsbuchhandlung Ackerstrasse, 1991, p. 15. © Peter Wawerzinek. Fig. 3: Peter Wawerzinek, Collage of Prenzlauer Berg Wawerzinek, Peter. Moppel Schappiks Tätowierungen. Berlin: Unabhängige Verlagsbuchhandlung Ackerstrasse, 1991, p. 37. © Peter Wawerzinek. Fig. 4: Peter Wawerzinek, Stray Dog on the Prowl Wawerzinek, Peter. Moppel Schappiks Tätowierungen. Berlin: Unabhängige Verlagsbuchhandlung Ackerstrasse, 1991, p. 59. © Peter Wawerzinek. Fig. 5: Dwarf Graffito (Egon Fietke) Fydrych, Waldemar, Bronisław Misztal, Agnieszka Couderq et al. (Eds.). Pomarańczowa Alternatywa: Rewolucja Krasnoludków/Orange Alternative: Revolution of Dwarfs/Orange Alternative: Revolution der Zwerge. Warsaw: Fundacja Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, 2008, p. 32. © Egon Fietke. Fig. 6: Tot Art Manifesto “Metropolis, Mass, Meat Factory” Fleischer, Michael. Overground: Die Literatur der polnischen alternativen Subkulturen der 80er und 90er Jahre. Eine Einsicht. Munich: Otto Sagner, 1994, p. 85. Fig. 7: Waldemar Fydrych “Manifesto of Socialist Surrealism” Fydrych, Waldemar. “Manifest surrealizm socialistycznego.” In Pomarańczowa Alternatywa: Rewolucja Krasnoludków / Orange Alternative: Revolution of Dwarfs / Orange Alternative: Revolution der Zwerge, edited by Waldemar Fydrych, Bronisław Misztal, Agnieszka Courderq et al. Warsaw: Fundacja Pomarańczowa Alternatywa, 2008, p. 24. © Waldemar Fydrych.

Name Index Abalakova, Natalia 257 Adelson, Leslie 276 Adorno, Theodor W. 131 Ajvaz, Michal 185 Alenka, Antonín 191 Amusin, Mark F. 198 Anderson, Sascha 24, 146 Andrukhovych, Yuri 15, 16, 37, 38, 56, 162, 188, 194, 205, 207, 209, 210, 212, 214, 219, 220, 221, 222, 224, 225, 227, 228, 231, 232, 234, 241, 242, 243, 244, 245, 248, 249, 250, 251, 252, 284 Andryczyk, Mark 212, 249 Antonych, Bohdan Ihor 222, 224 Apollinaire, Guillaume 67, 75 Archlebová, Tamara 108 Archleb, Vladimír (Rachel) 101, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 284 Arndt, Ernst Moritz 53 Attila the Hun 168 Augé, Marc 19, 236, 273 Augustin, Ioan 232 August the Strong 265 BAADER Holst, Matthias 150 Bachmann-Medick, Doris 42 Barańczak, Stanisław 117 Baran, Marcin 117 Bardini, Thierry 211 Bargeld, Blixa 68 Barthes, Roland 18, 19, 43, 159 Bartók, Béla 168, 169 Bartsch, Kurt 143 Bataille, Georges 62, 92 Baudelaire, Charles 20, 45, 67, 83, 84, 110, 120 Baudrillard, Jean 251 Bauman, Zygmunt 245 Bednarska, Joanna 266 Bednarski, Mariusz 266 Beissinger, Marc 247 Benda, Václav 26

Benjamin, Walter 45, 57, 67, 101, 234, 235, 236 Berendse, Gerrit-Jan 143, 146, 147, 152, 157 Berger, Thomas 167 Bernhard, Thomas 20 Beuys, Joseph 69 Bhabha, Homi K. 42, 49, 53, 54 Biebl, Konstantin 72 Biermann, Wolf 145, 148 Binas, Susanne 277 Blatný, Ivan 75 Blumfeld. viz Lubomír Drožď Bodin, Per-Arne 215 Bódy, Gábor 168 Böhringer, Hannes 43, 44 Böll, Heinrich 31 Bolton, Jonathan 30, 31, 69, 90, 91 Bondy, Egon xiii, 4, 5, 6, 16, 20, 23, 31, 32, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 56, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 79, 80, 81, 82, 84, 87, 88, 90, 91, 97, 98, 105, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138, 140, 141, 142, 262, 286 Bong, Joon-ho 286 Borg, Björn 270 Boudník, Vladimír 46, 67, 261 Bourdieu, Pierre 274 Brabenec, Vratislav (Vráťa) 44, 86, 87, 93, 96, 98 Brady, Philip 145 Braun, Micha 262 Braun, Volker 147, 263 Brecht, Bertolt 124, 125, 172 Breton, André 261, 262 Brikcius, Eugen (Evžen) 81, 85, 87, 89 Brinkmann, Rolf Dieter 20 Brintlinger, Angela 196 Brod, Max 184 Brzóskiewicz, Dariusz (Brzóska) 255 Budaj, Ján 261 Bulgakov, Mikhail A. 62, 199 Buñuel, Luis 176


Name Index

Burek, Tomasz 117 Bürger, Peter 284 Burke, Edmund 246 Burroughs, William S. 5, 147, 186 Bursa, Andrzej xiii, 117, 118, 127 Cale, John 89 Catherine the Great 213 Černý, David 282, 283, 284 Červenka, Miroslav 34 Chadima, Mikloš 63 Chekhov, Anton P. 199 Chitnis, Rajendra 191 Chutnik, Sylwia 231, 232 Cioffi, Kathleen 261 Clements, Paul 12 Cohen, Leonard 132 Conrad, Joseph 247 Cortés, Hernán (Hernando) 165, 172, 174, 175, 176 Cosmas of Prague (Cosmas Pragensis) 74, 179 Czapliński, Przemysław 117, 230 Czechowska, Beata 229 Dąbrowski, Karol 269 Dahlke, Birgit 7, 263 Dahl, Roald 270 Dalton-Brown, Sally 205 Dante Alighieri 11, 19, 175, 207, 213 Dath, Dietmar 286, 287 Debord, Guy-Ernest 45, 155, 258 Dedecius, Karl 270 Deml, Jakub 82 Depp, Johnny 270 Detering, Heinrich 89 Deutschmann, Peter 23 Dickens, Charles 17 Didi-Hubermann, Georges 110, 111 Diederichsen, Diedrich 33, 35, 139, 168, 173, 278, 284 Döblin, Alfred 144, 152, 157, 160, 161 Dobrescu, Caius 35 Dobrovodský, Augustín (Gusto) 103, 104, 108 Döring, Stefan 146, 147, 263, 264 Dor, Milo 244

Dostoevsky, Fyodor M. 9, 31, 196, 197, 199, 200, 201, 203, 204, 206 Drožď, Lubomír (Blumfeld) 14, 15 Duchamp, Marcel 31 Dunin-Wąsowicz, Paweł 125 Dyk, Viktor 97, 184 Dylan, Bob 89, 132 Dzerzhinsky, Felix 213 Efimov, Nina 201 Eliot, T. S. 75 Ellis, Bret Easton 131 Éluard, Paul 66 Ely, Christopher 9 Emrich, Hinderk 196 Endler, Adolf 143, 145, 147, 150 Engels, Friedrich 28, 218 Eno, Brian 273 Enzian, Felix Johannes 108 Erb, Andreas 149, 150, 162 Erbe, Günter 106 Ernst, Thomas 4, 11, 148 Erofeev, Venedikt V. 151, 199, 216, 217, 219 Faktor, Jan 24, 25, 146, 148, 156, 263, 264 Feldek, Ľubomír 104 Fibak, Wojciech 270 Fišer, Zbyněk. viz Egon Bondy Fleischer, Michael 10, 46, 259 Florian, Josef 79, 82 Förster, Anna 194 Foster Wallace, David 265 Foucault, Michel 19, 53, 63, 273, 274 Freud, Sigmund 233 Fuest, Leonhard 20 Fydrych, Waldemar (Major) 253, 254, 259, 261, 262 Gaiser-Shnitman, Svetlana 218 Gedeon, Saša 189 Geertz, Clifford 40, 41 Geist, Peter 34, 150 Ginsberg, Allen 5, 186 Glanc, Tomáš 48 Glazkov, Nikolai I. 25 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 52 Gogol, Nikolai V. 199

Name Index

Goller, Mirjam 229 Golon, Anne 135 Gombrowicz, Witold 25 Góra, Konrad 141 Gorky, Maxim 199 Grandpierre, Atilla 168, 169, 181 Groch, Erik 104 Groys, Boris 106, 223, 224 Gruša, Jiří 97 Guski, Andreas 106 Gusowski, Adam 265, 266, 269, 270, 271, 272, 273, 275, 277, 278 Gutowski, Wojciech 237 Habaj, Michal 103, 104 Habermas, Jürgen 52, 53, 92 Hagen, Trever 166 Haines, Brigitte 276 Halecki, Oskar 247 Hall, Stuart 55, 167 Harreß, Birgit 204 Harrison, Lonny 204 Hašek, Jaroslav 63, 184 Havasréti, József 8 Havel, Václav 25, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 87, 166 Hazuka, Jan 166 Heath, Joseph 167 Hecken, Thomas 55, 56 Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 29, 258 Heidingsfelder, Markus 56 Helbig-Mischewski, Brigitta (Brygida Helbig) 275, 278 Heller, Joseph 22 Herbert, Zbigniew 117, 120, 121, 123, 124, 125, 127 Herrndorf, Wolfgang 135 Hessel, Franz 20 Himmler, Heinrich 116 Hippel, Gotthard Friedrich von 51 Hłasko, Marek 118 Hlavsa, Milan (Mejla) 87, 88, 89, 93 Hodrová, Daniela 185 Hoffman, Dustin 167 Hoffmann, E. T. A. 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 99, 107, 196, 204, 284, 287 Holert, Tom 16, 17, 141 Höller, Christian 277


Holomíček, Bohdan 7 Homer 213 Horkheimer, Max 131 Horváth, Ivan 103 Horváth, Zsolt 8 Hrabal, Bohumil 23, 142, 144, 160, 161, 162 Hřebejk, Jan 189 Hundorova, Tamara 210, 216, 219, 220, 224 Hutka, Jaroslav 86, 87, 98 Irvanec’, Oleksandr 210 Ivan the Terrible 213 Jakobson, Roman O. 90 James, Donald 17 James, Petra 6 Janion, Maria 233, 234 Jánošík, Juraj 111 Jastrun, Tomasz 119 Jergović, Miljenko 135 Jesenská, Milena 46, 64 Jesenský, Janko 102, 103, 111 Jirous, Ivan Martin (Magor) 9, 14, 30, 31, 32, 33, 63, 69, 77, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 97, 98, 105, 160, 170, 177, 286 Jirsa, Tomáš 166, 181 Juárez, Benito 136 Jung, C. G. 204 Kabakov, Ilya I. 199 Kafka, Franz 17, 143, 184, 247 Kainar, Josef 75 Kaminer, Wladimir W. 275, 277 Karásek, Svatopluk (Sváťa) 44, 86, 87 Karlík, Viktor 88 Kasper, Karlheinz 202 Kermani, Navid 173, 174 Kerouac, Jack 5, 147 Keunen, Bart 234 Kilburn, Michael 31 Kilcher, Andreas 81 Kind-Kovács, Friederike 26 Kisch, Egon Erwin 184 Kiš, Danilo 244 Klamm, Jan 14, 15 Klaniczay, Gábor 8


Name Index

Knížák, Milan 27, 44 Koch, Milan 61, 62, 63, 70, 76, 77, 81 Koehler, Krzysztof 117 Kola, Adam 245 Kolář, Jiří 75 Koller, Július 261 Kolnai, Aurel 108, 112 Konnak, Paweł (Koñjo) 255, 257, 259 Konrád, György 244 Konwicki, Tadeusz 232 Koolhaas, Rem 19, 209, 211, 212, 214, 215 Kopáč, Radim 82 Kopyt, Szczepan 141 Kornhauser, Julian 117 Koschorke, Albrecht 40 Koselleck, Reinhart 53 Kosslick, Dieter 270 Kostúr, Jiří 96 Kovanda, Jiří 261 Kracauer, Siegfried 20 Kracht, Christian 276 Krchovský, J. H. 44, 79 Krejcarová, Jana (Honza) 46, 64, 74 Kreuzer, Helmut 7, 55 Kukorelly, Endre 8 Kundera, Milan 25, 244, 245, 247, 248 Kunisch, Hans-Peter 276 Kunzelmann, Dieter 263 Kyncl, Ivan 7 Langer, Phil 149, 157 Lao Tse 86 Laplanche, Jean 22 Latynina, Alla 197 Laudenbach, Peter 145 Lazarus, Neil 220 Ledanff, Susanne 157, 162 Lefebvre, Henri 40, 41, 42 Lehnartz, Sascha 56, 284, 285 Lenin, Vladimir I. 213, 218, 259 Lermontov, Mikhail Yu. 152, 196, 199, 200, 206 Lethen, Helmut 11 Libánský, Abbé 7 Lindner, Roland 56 Lipovetsky, Marc 205, 207 Liška, Tomáš 85, 87

Lotman, Yuri M. 40, 41, 42, 285 Lukáč, Emil Boleslav 103 Luther, Martin 257 Machovec, Martin 6, 32, 44, 80, 166 Macura, Vladimír 95 Maffesoli, Michel 93 Magenau, Jörg 162 Magris, Claudio 184, 244 Magritte, René 258 Makanin, Vladimir S. 9, 151, 152, 188, 195, 196, 197, 198, 199, 200, 201, 202, 203, 204, 205, 206, 207, 209, 285 Maliszewski, Karol 117 Mann, Ekkehard 148 Mann, Thomas 119, 120 Mao Zedong 89 Marcelli, Miroslav 18, 105, 106 Martinů, Bohuslav 94, 95 Marx, Karl 28, 53, 218, 258 Matala de Mazza, Ethel 92 Matthies, Frank-Wolf 143, 144, 147, 162 May, Karl 136 Mazal, Tomáš 76 Mazur, Paweł (Paulus) 255 Menninghaus, Winfried 112 Menzel, Birgit 277 Messner, Reinhold A. 265, 270 Meyer, Clemens 276 Meyer, Holt 200 Meyrink, Gustav 76, 184 Michálek, Vladimír 188, 189, 190 Mickiewicz, Adam 232 Mikulová, Marcela 102 Miller, William 108 Miłosz, Czesław 115, 117, 244 Milton Yinger, John 55 Milun, Kathryn 169, 181 Minár, Pavol 102, 104 Misztal, Bronisław 261 Moholy-Nagy, László 110 Monastyrsky, Andrei V. 199 Moníková, Libuše 275 Morávek, Vladimír 189 Mordel, Piotr 265, 266, 269, 270, 271, 272, 273, 277, 278 Mráz, Andrej 102

Name Index

Müller, Heiner 147 Müller, Lothar 11 Müller, Wolfgang 68, 69 Mussolini, Benito 136 Nancy, Jean-Luc 92, 93 Napoleon Bonaparte 52 Naumann, Friedrich 247 Naydan, Michael M. 220 Neborak, Viktor 210 Nebřenský, Zdeněk 32, 89 Nell, Werner 11 Němec, Jiří (Starý) 87 Němec, Ondřej 7 Nemzer, Andrei 197 Neumeyer, Harald 83, 235 Nezval, Vítězslav 66, 67, 71, 75, 180, 185 Nietzsche, Friedrich 112, 269 Niżyńska, Joanna 117, 122 Norwid, Cyprian Kamil 119 Novikov, Tatyana 202 Novomeský, Laco 102, 103 Nutall, Jeff 90 O’Hara, Frank 117, 122 Olschowsky, Heinrich 237 Oświęcimski, Leszek Herman 266, 267, 268 Ovid 83 Paetzold, Heinz 17, 18 Palacký, František 245, 246, 247 Panas, Paweł 118 Pánek, František (Fanda) 44 Papenfuß, Bert 24, 145, 146, 263, 264 Parfianowicz, Weronika 10, 14 Parsons, Talcott 55 Pastier, Oleg 104 Patočka, Jan 9, 28, 30, 31 Pavlyčko, Solomija D. 220 Pawelec, Dariusz 120, 121 Pawlak, Antoni 119 Pęczak, Mirosław 10 Pehlemann, Alexander 169 Peiper, Tadeusz 237, 254, 255, 258, 259 Pekárková, Iva 135 Pelevin, Viktor O. 131 Penck, A. R. 156


Penn, Arthur 167 Peroutka, Ferdinand 97 Petrivý, Tomáš 104 Picasso, Pablo 110 Pilař, Martin 5, 6, 9, 10, 46, 83, 282 Piłsudski, Józef 119, 120 Pioro, Tadeusz 117 Plato 81, 83, 84 Podsiadło, Jacek 10, 116, 117, 133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 228, 286 Poe, Edgar Allan 103, 150, 235 Polkowski, Jan 117, 118, 119, 120 Pompe, Anja 55 Poničan, Ján 103 Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand 22 Potter, Andrew 167 Poussin, Nicolas 110, 111 Preece, Julian 150 Preisner, Zbigniew 128, 131 Přemysl the Ploughman 179 Prigov, Dmitri A. 47, 199 Princess Libuše 74, 179, 180 Próchniak, Paweł 127 Prunitsch, Christian 230, 250 Przyboś, Julian 237, 257 Przybyszewski, Stanisław 269 Przyłuski, Jan 261 Pułka, Tomasz 141 Putna, Martin C. 9, 31, 83, 87, 188 Rávic Strubel, Antje 276 Ready, Oliver 217 Reed, Lou 89 Reisel, Vladimír 102, 104 Richter, Ludwig 102 Riedel, Jaroslav 166 Ripellino, Angelo Maria 75, 184 Robertson, Roland 273 Rojek, Przemysław 251 Romanienko, Lisiunia 254 Rössler, Josef (Bobeš) 9 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 7, 18, 136 Rudolf II 72, 74 Runkel, Peter. viz Peter Wawerzinek Rybicka, Elżbieta 238


Name Index

Sabrow, Martin 13 Safranski, Rüdiger 50 Ságl, Jan 7, 88 Ságlová, Zorka 88 Said, Edward 42 Sajnóg, Zbigniew 257 Sandburg, Carl August 75 Sanders, Ed 85 Sasse, Sylvia 18, 35, 262 Schäckel, Ilona 284 Schedlinski, Rainer 24, 146 Schiller, Friedrich von 52 Schlegel, Friedrich 92 Schlögel, Karl 211, 223, 241, 248 Schmid, Ulrich 277 Schneider, Christian 29 Schneider, Wolfgang 216 Schramm, Caroline 262 Schreiber, Eduard 185 Schuchart, Christiane 197, 198, 199 Schwanhäußer, Anja 18 Seifert, Jaroslav 66 Seiler, Sascha 132 Simmel, Georg 254 Skála, David 166 Skalický, Miroslav (Míra) 86, 87, 98 Škvorecký, Josef 16 Sláma, Bohdan 189 Slavík, Otakar 94, 95, 97 Śliwiński, Piotr 118, 122, 134 Smrek, Ján 102, 103 Socrates 81, 82, 83 Soja, Edward W. 42 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. 199 Sontag, Susan 4, 5, 21, 68, 108, 111 Sosnowski, Andrzej 117 Soukop, Karel (Charlie) 86, 87 Spiegel, Hubert 207 Stachura, Edward xiii, 117, 118, 122, 127 Staff, Leopold 237, 238 Stala, Marian 118 Stalin, Iosif V. 214, 218, 259 Stamm, Wojciech 255, 266 Stańczyk, Xawery 10, 14, 33, 228, 258, 266 Stanišić, Saša 275 Stankovič, Andrej 6, 82, 101, 103, 104, 105 Stárek, František (Čuňas) 15, 96

Stasiuk, Andrzej 10, 15, 37, 56, 134, 135, 145, 160, 162, 188, 193, 194, 205, 207, 209, 212, 222, 225, 227, 228, 229, 230, 231, 232, 233, 234, 235, 236, 237, 238, 239, 241, 242, 243, 244, 245, 248, 249, 250, 251, 252, 273, 284, 286 Stephen I 169 Strýko, Marcel 104 Švehla, Marek 63, 80 Svěrák, Jan 189 Svoboda, Richard 6 Świetlicki, Marcin 10, 15, 20, 115, 116, 117, 118, 119, 120, 121, 122, 123, 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132, 133, 134, 141, 228, 284 Szelényi, Iván 125 Szemere, Anna 169 Szentjóby, Tamás 8 Szlosarek, Artur 117 Szymanski, Berenika 261 Tancer, Jozef 104 Tatarka, Dominik 109 Tawada, Yoko 275 Terkessidis, Mark 16, 17, 141 Thibaut, Matthias 196 Tippner, Anja 13, 180 Tischner, Józef 128, 131 Tolstoy, Leo N. 204 Tönnies, Ferdinand 92 Topol, Filip 165, 166, 167, 176, 177, 178, 179, 180 Topol, Jáchym 4, 15, 16, 17, 56, 63, 79, 134, 135, 145, 165, 166, 167, 170, 175, 176, 179, 181, 183, 184, 185, 186, 187, 188, 189, 190, 191, 192, 193, 194, 205, 209, 212, 227, 228, 229, 230, 231, 234, 243, 249, 250, 251, 252, 271, 273, 281, 282, 286 Topol, Josef 166 Trávníček, Jiří 82 Trešňák, Vlastimil 76 Trolle, Lothar 143 Tucker, Aviezer 28 Tuckerová, Veronika 76, 90, 91 Turgenev, Ivan S. 199 Turnau, Grzegorz 128, 131 Tuwim, Julian 122, 125, 127, 236

Name Index

Uffelmann, Dirk 216, 218, 267, 269, 274, 277 Urban, Jan 28, 29 Urban, Miloš 185 Válek, Miroslav 104 Velikonja, Nataša 14 Vergil 19, 213 Veselý, Pavel 76 Virilio, Paul 243 Vlček, Josef 75 Vöckler, Kai 211 Vodrážka, Miroslav (Mirek) 8, 15 Vodseďálek, Ivo xiii, 5, 6, 46, 65, 262 Voják, Karel 85, 87 Vrchlický, Jaroslav 161 Wagner, Bernd 143 Waits, Tom 132 Wałęsa, Lech 265, 271, 272 Walser, Robert 20 Wandachowicz, Jakub (Kuba) 131 Warburg, Aby 110 Warchol-Schlottmann, Małgorzata 118 Warhol, Andy 55, 89 Wasilewska, Wanda 119 Wawerzinek, Peter 10, 142, 143, 144, 146, 147, 149, 150, 151, 152, 155, 156, 157, 160, 161, 162, 286 Weigel, Sigrid 179 Weiss, Peter Ulrich 13 Welsch, Wolfgang 191, 277


Welsh, Irvine 186 Werfel, Franz 184 Wernisch, Ivan xi, 11, 21, 22, 37, 38, 43, 46, 101, 222 Whitman, Walt 75 Wiencek, Agnieszka 230 Wilde, Oscar 110 Williams, David 39, 192, 193 Wilsonová, Helena 86, 87 Wilson, Paul (Pavel) 64, 86, 87 Winter, Balduin 166 Wirsing, Giselher 247 Witkowski, Przemysław 141 Wojaczek, Rafał 117 Woldan, Alois 249 Woolf, Virginia 276 Young, Neil 165, 172, 173, 174, 175, 176 Zagajewski, Adam 117 Zahradníček, Jan 82 Zaimoğlu, Feridun 39, 185, 275 Zajac, Peter 19, 105, 110 Zajíček, Pavel 9, 44, 87, 91 Zand, Gertraude 11, 33, 68 Zappa, Frank 89 Żeromski, Stefan 255 Zhadan, Serhiy 210 Zhigalov, Anatoly 257 Zita, Antonín 6 Zola, Émile 17