Did Somebody Say End of History?
On Nietzsche’s Three Views of History and the Paradox of 1989
On history against life today
Nietzsche’s three views of history epitomize certain beliefs and systems of beliefs of individuals, countries and nations. Each and every one of them qualify their beliefs through some form of a past, even if those beliefs are based on false premises and misconceptions and it is indeed the case that given the recent ideas of history as being entirely specific to locales, groups of people and landscape, orthodox history as well as revisionist history find themselves in a quandary when confronted with a past that does not entirely or even sufficiently compose their specific present. Nietzsche presents these three types of history in order to push forward the idea that unless we become aware of the stultifying effects of the typical historical readings of the past via the monumental or antiquarian type, we may never be in a position to understand the critical discourse offered by the history for life. It is this third type of history that, for Nietzsche, is least problematic because it does away with the typically reactive forces of identity, language, customs and mythology as well as the false beliefs in heroes, leaders and events that he sees as culprits and de facto destroyers of life itself. In his railing against false history of the monumental and the antiquarian kind, he is in some sense recognizing that it is the ordered structure of religion that allows for and even affirms this destruction and he is again and again returning to the idea that it is Christianity and by extension the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and perhaps even Islam (though Nietzsche does not specifically refer to it), that deal primarily with similar devices to administer society through systems of belief equally stultifying and reactive against that which is noble and a signifier of a pure will to power. The critical view of history, the history for life, was for Nietzsche not only possible but even necessary and essential for the development of culture. In this paper I am going to look for, uncover and analyze some of the ways by which these three types of history play out in Western culture with a particularly close look at Czech culture and the ways they are represented and used. I will propose that the events of 1989 Czechoslovakia and those immediately following had the potential blueprint for a truly existing history for life but had ultimately ceded to the overarching currents of both monumental and antiquarian histories. Similarly I will propose that perhaps a constructed false history is necessary to sustain a critical discourse within culture, and that this false history acts as the true history for life, but only as long as it is maintained that such history in fact functions as a conspicuous false history that gives rise to an eventual truth.
There is a saying in the Czech Republic: “no one steps into the same river twice”. Although perverted, this saying is doubly interesting for that very reason. First uttered by Heraklitos, the meaning of the phrase implies roughly the same ontological problem as the paradox of the Ship of Theseus. If a shipping vessel has been so long and well maintained throughout centuries, where none of the original wood of the ship is any longer present, all replaced during years and years of numerous repairs perhaps many times over, is it still the same ship? Likewise, the river is never the same river because water in it is constantly flowing downstream, is changed, enlarged, shifted, and because water, its main constituent is itself always changing, always present but never there as it once was; can we still call this the same river? Perhaps one can only surmise that the river is only itself, where we recognize the fact that it is delineated by its banks. What gives the river, or the ship, its own meaning and therefore constitutes its very essence and self, is only its form. One can say that the surrounding area or environment is just as important. For us to register that one is in fact looking at the same river, one has to understand that it is the shores that give the river its very shape, something absolutely outside of the concept “river” as such. As long as the parts of the whole ship, give it its shape and delineation in space, as well as its meaning, through keeping its form intact (to a degree), then the ship remains itself also. That the river in fact constitutes a kind of circular system that cannot be arrested in one image, for that image would in a sense destroy the “riverness” of the river, can only be illustrated through very particular means. The river exists in as much as water exists as a system of flowing, a going over and under in a constant state of becoming and at the very same time remains constant. The river would not exist without ground water, without a spring, a delta and its banks. What remains constant is the idea of the river as such, and yet it is a system that is in constant flux and change. If we were to arrest the image of the river or try to define the river in some particular form, say the constitution of the water present in its stream, we destroy the river by affirming its status as that which we are defining, in this case water. River is river and water is water, the former containing the latter.
Interestingly however in the Czech Republic, Heraklitos’ sentence was wonderfully perverted into something like its very opposite. Here the meaning is much more superficial for it means exactly what the saying suggests, especially when the tone of the suggestion takes the form of an imperative. This way, the meaning can be understood as a caution against stepping into the same river, because of some unknown impending danger. This saying was and is used again and again as a warning. “You do not step into the same river twice” translated as “you should not enter this river twice!” Likewise, this version and its original variant can be used to describe the current zeitgeist. In some sense, these early decades of the 21st century, can only be described as civilization, going against its better judgement and stepping into the same river, twice, albeit the same river is now filled with junk and debris, left over and not cleaned since the first time civilization has done so. Both variants of the river paradox seem to apply here. Think of the roaring 20s that gave way to the Great Depression, or the 1890s, which ultimately gave way to the Great War, the prosperity of the 1990s that ended in a global crisis by 2007 and the rise of risk society. In modern times, we tend to think that time is speeding up, and rightly so. Whether it is true, is irrelevant. It only means, that the perception of time has changed so radically, as to make it seem as though there is less and less time. Technology has deliberately set its task to freeing up time for its consumers by inventing a myriad of solutions, unwittingly adding to the problem, as every new solution takes away the time needed from the time freed up by its application. This would make it seem that history repeats itself very rapidly, right before our very eyes. The latest crash of the market, had its variant in the 1980s and then later on the 1990s and so on. Ups and downs repeat with greater rapidity, and bubbles grow and burst faster and faster. Fashion is caught up in emulating and rehashing ideas only 10-20 years old, counting on the short attention spans of the people. Leisure and spectacle, especially those that are prescribed, are thus more and more necessary to fill the void in our loss of selves when confronted by this rapidly changing world.
But what does this have to do with the Czech Republic, or in fact the revolution or history? In the Czech Republic of the 1990s time became for the first time in 50 years something like fluid time. The five decades of that began with zealous Stalinism and gave way to a normalized and heavily administered bureaucratic Socialism must have seemed like a time where nothing much ever happened. Indeed when one looks at the fashion of the day in music, clothing, advertising and window displays, one gets the overwhelming feeling of a bygone past that remained locked up in a time capsule called the State. In the streets of Prague, street musicians played the melancholy songs of the 60s, reclaiming what little was left of the revolutionary spirit of the Prague Spring of 1968. These same songs would later find a “new” audience and a new rejuvenating aura during and just after the Velvet Revolution.
What little fashion there existed entered the public through small stores with Western merchandise called Tuzex. One could buy jeans, perfume and chewing gum with a special currency called Bony. Outside of the chain of these stores, the currency had absolutely no value, but it was in fact one of the most prized commodities during the 1980s. Many of today’s rich and successful businessmen were at one point street dealers of this currency, buying cheap and reselling at high prices, like scalping tickets except at much higher volumes, to people desperate enough for a Levi Strauss. Their image is in a way reminiscent of the drug peddlers of the west, holding down street corners for the odd junkie looking for a fix. On the outside of it, the people as well as the surrounding buildings were caught up in a gray mass of indistinctness, one echoing the other in its weary gloominess and reserved apathy. Walking into a store, one was inevitably almost always greeted with a sour face of a discontented clerk, perhaps an image of a hardboiled Film-Noir detective attitude in a white smock. This attitude spoke to the idea that if no one is doing me any favors, why should I do you any favors in return? It was the typical attitude of the ressentiment felt by a great majority toward the State and their current state of being.
I can only describe this state of being as ahistorical, a state in which change is stultified, growth repressed and the “river” is no longer a flowing system. One had to learn to navigate this ahistorical world with finesse, perhaps a sort of malice in one’s mind. In Nietzschean terms, one would indeed have to resort to ressentiment just to survive. The unspoken motto of the normalization years was, “if you do not steal, you are stealing from your family.” Sheer survival, lack of individual freedom and determination and a notion of the monumental edifice looming always over the horizon, where a sense was felt that another invasion from the West but also from the East was not only possible but inevitable, propelled this ahistorical apparatus forward. This was a time when monumental history was alive and well, when the classrooms and offices were decorated with corkboards on which hung the portraits of long dead demagogues, news of the latest five-year plans and success stories from farm cooperatives fulfilling their plans by 145%. In television news, the news anchor would sooner or later defer to the authority of Lenin and the Revolution. School life was dominated by history lessons of great Soviet men and philosophy found its refuge in a bastardized version of Marxism-Leninism. This was monumental history par excellence and it was lived day to day, life constantly referring itself to the past successes of the Revolution. By the Revolution I of course mean the Russian Revolution of 1917, but also the Communist coup d’état that occurred in February 1948 in Prague, both of which went hand in hand. Naming either would invariably invoke the other as well. Life and history were an edifice against which the forces of ressentiment constantly reacted and this would also ultimately be the very reason for the Velvet Revolution but also for its ultimate failure.
All in all life as such was actually not too bad. There were cars, food, television, healthcare, education and so on. The nuclear family was in a sense provided for. There were jobs since everyone was supposed to work, leisure time, which was largely spent in the homeland as travel abroad was restricted, private property, since it was indeed impossible to abolish it, and access, by this I mean access to various forms of media, arts, entertainment, news and so on. These would sometimes come from illegal sources, Radio Free Europe for example, or the samizdat, which was utilized to disseminate information, but also from domestic and legal sources, such as the film industry which was, in some sense, in its heyday from the 1960s through the 1980s. The arts as a whole were heavily supported by the system which saw them as a means for regulating public sentiment through propaganda, but also as a source of national pride. Avant garde film and art were supported with equal measure as were family values and cultural spectacles such as Russian Dances and the mass games called Spartakiada.1
What was lacking was the sense that in the grand scheme of things, the country was stuck in a perpetual cycle of spiritual and individual oppression by the means of the autocratic state, where no one was certain who was running what and whether anyone is directly responsible for anything. The Czech Socialist state of the 1980s, acted as a resounding board for Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil.” Paper pushing became a means to make or break individuals and the neighbor became the monster against whom people would wage war. The neighbor could have been a spy, a collaborator, at worst he could be a card carrying Communist. A hierarchy was in place, one that reversed the order of things from the past, but this hierarchy existed only to support the second Nietzschean notion of history, that of the antiquarian. The new hierarchy established the new customs by breaking with those that preceded it only symbolically. If in the past society was layered from the top to bottom, aristocracy and the rich at the top, large population of the poor at the bottom and an ever decreasing middle class,2 the new Communist society was layered from the bottom up, with the worker in a superior position over the aristocrat. Families of workers would enjoy privileges like stable work and education, while these would be denied to the aristocratic family. This of course posed a problem in record keeping and ultimately a challenge to the whole system. Symbolically this type of system ought to provide means to a people to whom they were invariably always denied, while keeping them away from those that enjoyed them without apology. Realistically, the system was predicated on a premise of familial lineage. Long family trees were established and the status of one’s parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on, determined one’s present status in the social order. This type of ordering of hierarchy changed nothing at all about the previous order, it merely established new customs that needed to be adhered to and followed. A new identity was formed via this new hierarchy, that of the Communist worker who challenged the exploitative bosses of the past. If there ever was a single common ground or purpose behind Czechoslovak socialism, this was it and it was not unlike the systems from other Communist countries of the Eastern bloc. It was this notion that formed the identity of ressentiment of the Communist fighting the forces of evil, capitalism, that itself represented forces of ressentiment against Socialism. Reactive forces continued and continue to fight other reactive forces.
This is also how we must look at the events of 1989. We must identify the essence of ressentiment in order to understand the progression of events leading up to and since the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Today, some 25 years after the November revolution, we may safely surmise that the promise of that particular revolution went largely unfulfilled. Capitalism did not bring with it the long awaited utopia where “truth and love triumph over lies and hate,” (a phrase that Vaclav Havel used to refer to his idea of good vs evil, Capitalism vs Communism) it only reversed the hierarchy back to its original state in which it existed before the Communist coup. It realigned itself with the monumental history of the era of the First Republic (1918-1939), restructured the antiquarian history to give it a more Western look and left nothing to critical discourse by silencing all opposition (to be labeled a Communist today is tantamount to virtual death, it is in the same faith that one calls somebody else a racist in order to disable them socially and render their point of view irrelevant). If revolutions of the past were the brain child of the Left, the recent revolutions utilized the properly directed forces of ressentiment of the Right, the same Right that had controlled the past via monumental and antiquarian histories for centuries. The one major success of the 1989 revolution was the way in which it managed to inscribe the Left with the stigma of evil that the Left had used in the past but was never successful to inscribe within the Right. As an object of ressentiment of the Right, the Left, through its symbolic victory during the Russian revolution and its eventual inability to produce a viable alternative to Capitalism, constituted an evil through this perceived success, an even greater evil perhaps precisely because of its grand failure. This is of course Nietzsche’s idea of the master/slave morality in a nutshell. In either case, the revolution of the Left or the revolution of the Right, what is perceived as good by one party is necessarily perceived as evil by the other. The master does not recognize the bad. The master morality is a self-affirming good that exists for its own sake. It takes a reactive force, the slave morality to change the master’s good into an evil. It is through ressentiment that slave morality actually changes the master’s good into evil and its own bad into a good. What we are properly speaking of here is the inability of the individual to be separated from the herd and therefore the inability of any kind of state to facilitate a critical discourse either of its past, its present and invariably its future. The active forces of critical history run counter to the reactive force of the herd mentality and therefore will necessarily fall prey to its ressentiment.
One therefore has to suppose that the failure of the Velvet Revolution, indeed of any revolution, lies in the Nietzschean notion of slave morality. This morality reappropriates the same exact values against which it struggled because as a subject of resentment and as a reactive force, it cannot create new values to replace the old. Therefore it was not at all a surprise then that the old faces of the old regime appeared and reappeared again and again in different places and under different guises, as politicians, businessmen, laborers and so on, throughout the 1990s and beyond, a strange “eternal return” if ever there was one. The river paradox works here almost as a joke.
In Deleuze we read that Nietzsche used the principle of slave/master relationship to reverse the idea of Darwinian evolution. “Struggle is not the principle of the motor of hierarchy but the means by which the slave reverses hierarchy. Struggle is never the active expression of forces, nor the manifestation of a will to power that affirms – any more than its result expresses the triumph of the master or the strong. Struggle, on the contrary, is the means by which the weak prevail over the strong, because they are the greatest number. This is why Nietzsche is opposed to Darwin: Darwin confused struggle and selection. He failed to see that the result of struggle was the opposite of what he thought; that it does select, but it selects only the weak and assures their triumph.” 3 What applies to evolution, surely can apply to revolution especially when struggle is invoked and since struggle and revolution go hand in hand throughout history. As a force of ressentiment against the ruling power, revolution is essentially reactive, this assures that whatever the outcome, it will never reach the creative essence of active potential. The typical outcome of revolution is that values, customs and institutions remain essentially unchanged, what changes is their name and who names them. In other words the act of naming (in the post-communist milieu we have to think of the act of naming something as renaming) seemingly changes the thing itself while it remains entirely unchanged. A slave value therefore does not change the old master value, because there is no original master value, only the old slave value to be renamed. The revolution therefore deals primarily with a representation of struggle through its renaming of old values and eulogizes the past through a very specific monumental history by alluding to the past as something to be erased by the action of that very struggle, a struggle of the good and great men against the evil master. It takes on the guise of the greatness of the few for the benefit of the many when both are indeed rooted in ressentiment toward the master that is actually a reconstituted slave morality amped up as a singular force.
With all the potential at its disposal, the Velvet Revolution did produce incredible results in the short run, while ultimately falling prey to its own ressentiment in the long run. The governing body was in part composed full of promising “young” leaders, artists, writers, playwrights, musicians, actors, and yet in just less than a decade this promise gave way to a homogeneous system of bureaucracy that not only reflected that of the corporate West, but in many ways also looked and felt like the old bureaucracy of the recent communist past.4 Monumental history is seldom replaced by anything other than a different version of a similar monumental history. And because monumental history deals primarily with the “effects” of history, 5 it is no wonder that it is an easy substitute for a problematic past that cannot be reconciled by a critical discourse among a diverse populace. According to Nietzsche, in order to break the cycle of recurrence of the same catastrophes and the desire for powerful men, in other words to break the old truism that history repeats itself, a truthfulness is needed, a “fact in its precisely depicted character and uniqueness.” He continues, “until then monumental history will not find such complete truthfulness to its advantage: it will always approximate, generalize and finally equate differences; it will always weaken the disparity of motives and occasions in order, at the expense of the cause, to present the effect monumentally, that is, as exemplary and worthy of imitation.”6 Not only does this notion surface in the fabric of society that believes itself to be modeled on another, it also surfaces in its reverse, that is in its denial of another previous monumental history. This kind of society sees as the same the effects of a failed state as it sees the effects of a successful one. The ressentiment of the Czech populace that was directed at its Communist past saw in it only the latent effects of the total and absolute mismanagement of social life.
When one looks at the underlying causes of this ressentiment one cannot get the sense that what is actually being resented is the inability of the state to procure and supply the populace with material wealth. Ressentiment toward corruption and power is one thing, the lack of stuff quite another. Power corrupts and corruption itself is equally difficult to mete out under Communism or Capitalism. Capitalism itself works on an inherent inscription of corruption within the system, therefore corruption is inseparable from Capitalism. It is the notion that Capitalism brings not only wealth and relative freedom, but also competition, crisis and insecurity that was not part of the Velvet Revolution’s program. What was part of the program however was the idea that with the revolution the West would bring with it all the cultural and material wealth that people wanted. In some sense, the whole notion of the revolution and its reasoning behind it was amply summed up by Slavoj Zizek when he wrote “the noble struggle for freedom and justice turned out to be little more than a craving for bananas and pornography.”7
What can be said about the post-Communist era is that in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire, what should have been a clear moment of the rethinking of the historical past from the critical perspective, a move toward the Nietzschean unhistory, a kind of (un)timelessness in which history is in the service of life rather than its suppression and destruction, or at the very least a move toward the “end of history” as such, ended up a redoubling of the old deeply ingrained resentments kindled by the fire of the revolution. Already in the early 1990s the present took on the appearance of the kind of future promised by the revolution, a radical reversal and return to old habits with a new shiny exterior. It is no wonder that McDonald’s was one of the first Western fast food restaurants to open almost as soon as the last of the protesters moved out of the streets and went back to work. Society reconstituted itself along the lines it believed it would have moved had it not been for the Second World War, a kind of Ayn Randian industrial Capitalism with businessmen in tailored suits leading the way. It took upon itself the responsibility of assuming the characteristics of a Western society as it saw them in popular films from 1970s and 1980s America and Western Europe; comedy, romance, action adventure, thriller and so on. Commercialization and pastiche, these became the signs and symbols of new freedoms and culture. Of course these were simple simulacra, not at all representative of the true culture on the ground, in the really existing Capitalism of the day. Yet these simulacra were seldom acknowledged as such. Even today it is quite difficult to discern whether Czech culture believes itself to be a culture separate from the idea of Western culture in general and American culture in particular. It is this identification with something other that gives Czech post-Communist culture its character. This other is almost always the dominating or dominant ethos. One can easily see the parallels between historical notions of Czech culture by drawing on the other cultures from which Czech culture gains its characteristics, starting with Austria-Hungary and Germany, moving through Soviet Russia to America in the present. In this sense, Czech culture was essentially never “free” but always subject to a whole array of influences stemming from the overt presence of its other. The reason this should be is entirely rooted in the problematic relationship this small nation has with its own monumental and antiquarian versions of history. These versions necessitate that a culture is in constant comparison with other cultures, its own other, and that it should strive to continually grow and better itself. Nietzsche offers a succinct description of this deadlock by stating that “only by filling and overfilling ourselves with alien ages, customs, arts, philosophies, religions and knowledge do we become something worthy of notice.” 8 To add to this list one must also think of technology, fashion and entertainment, for these are today the measure of success. This was Nietzsche’s bone to pick with Hegel, who left history to be read dialectically through peaks and valleys, in which the masses always move with the flow of others, their leaders, fashions and trends. Such view of the “power of history” he says “practically at every moment turns into naked admiration for success and leads to the idolatry of the factual.” 9
Nietzsche’s criticism of Germany serves as a poignant example of a parallel between nations with similar traditions and histories, namely Germany of the 19th Century shortly after its independence and Czechoslovakia in the 20th century shortly after the revolution. He writes, “we thought we had come back to being natural; but we merely chose to let ourselves go, we chose indolent comfort and the smallest possible degree of self-control” 10 and he continues, “all is colorless, worn down, badly copied, careless, each man follows his fancy, but not a strong thoughtful fancy, rather according to laws prescribed at one time by general haste and at another by the general craving for comfort.”11 Is this not the same criticism that could be leveled at the empty mindedness of the zeal with which society, culture and politics, including the economic system, were turned over from a strictly Eastern austerity into the spectacle and bombast of simulacra from the West? Is Czech not just simply borrowing its culture from foreigners because it does not know, and cannot know, what true Czech culture is? And does not ressentiment also function against one’s own culture via its rejection by way of appropriating the style and character of other cultures one thinks better or superior? This is the core of the failure of monumental and antiquarian histories and certainly the reason for the failure of neoliberal Capitalism in the post-Communist era. Its pitfalls are represented in the gaps that separate living people and the myth of long dead “great men” of history and idealized images of foreign cultures.
On the actual use of history for life
One of the few ways, or maybe even the only way to come to terms with a problematic history is to invent another one to take its place. Or even more precisely, to supplement the existing problematic history, it is necessary to invent a history to be a counter-point to that which is problematic. The history for life in Nietzsche’s thought is the reconstituting of the past that pushes forward into the future and in effect preserves the present without recourse into ressentiment. According to Nietzsche this act of reconstituting the past can be accomplished through a process of forgetting, though not any kind of absent-minded forgetting or repression, but a willed forgetting, a forgetting capable of producing “the antidotes to the historical” that Nietzsche called “the unhistorical and the superhistorical.” 12 The function of the unhistorical is to unhinge culture and society from the forces of ressentiment produced by the historical, especially the kind of historical moments speaking specifically of the monumental and the antiquarian. The unhistorical is a kind of attempt at prevention of a retroactive social Darwinism by which history is almost exclusively used as a template for elevation of the superior reactive forces against the inferior reactive forces. Neither is good for Nietzsche and he counters this tendency by suggesting the unhistorical lives of cows could in some sense serve as a better template for culture, though not by its herd mentality or docile nature, but precisely by the cows’ ability to forget. The cows do not speak of happiness because they do not feel the need to express it, they live it directly. Similarly then, the cows do not speak of the culture of the cow, the history of the cow or contemplate the nature of the cow, because their experiences are also directly lived. Nietzsche presents a definition of the unhistorical and superhistorical by saying that “by the word ‘the unhistorical,’ I denote the art and the strength of being able to forget and enclose oneself in a limited horizon: ‘superhistorical’ I call the powers which guide the eye away from becoming and toward that which gives existence an eternal and stable character, toward art and religion.”13 Forgetting, art and religion are therefore for Nietzsche the necessary supplement to culture, the unhistorical the limiting factor within which culture ought to operate, to be properly isolationist so that it is uniquely particular, drawing on the self and experience, yet at the same time outwardly directed so that it does not fall prey to its own self-importance and narcissism, so it functions in proper universality, and the superhistorical that is the stabilizing force that also functions as a component of constant becoming through a dynamic balancing act, a natural type of equilibrium that never remains static, because in complete balance and stasis nothing could actually happen. Art, forgetting and fake history are also the components of the practical ways toward the history for life.
Sometime in 1970s Czechoslovakia a small group of writers wrote a short radio play relaying their “research” inside a small cottage in the village of Liptakov in the northern mountains of Jizerske Hory. What they “found” were the belongings, writings and paraphernalia of the “greatest” forgotten Czech, Jara Cimrman. Of course the findings were fake, so was the village, and equally fake was Cimrman. The play was intended to provide historical and anthropological evidence into the life of one of the country’s most accomplished and unappreciated geniuses of the modern era. The writers of the play decided to use the informal name Jara and not the formal Jaroslav as a device to place him directly among the masses, the people of the mountains, and the people of Czechoslovakia as a whole. Jara has the connotation of being spoken by the friend, the family or the people that know that person well. Jaroslav is typically reserved for formal gatherings, introductions and is used among strangers and acquaintances. The difference also resides in how and where the name would be used. Jaroslav might be used in an official document, as the heading for a poem, or even when one addresses a dignitary. Jara on the other hand gets used in familiar company. A further distinction lies also in the informal use of the name Jara as opposed to another version Jarda. Jara also carries with it certain familial connotations as Jara is an even greater reduction of the already informal common name Jarda. Jara would be used as a term of endearment even to those who would otherwise be using the name Jarda, which has a much harder, coarser, perhaps more masculine overtones. Jaroslav connotes a certain distance from the subject. We never get to experience the person fully from this distance. Let’s also not forget that the name Jaroslav is derived from the root “jaro,” Czech for spring. Prague Spring is immediately at our disposal to draw parallels as is the idea that spring is the symbol of rebirth and growth after a whole season of decay and death, the winter season. Cimrman is used here as a cleansing figure to wipe away the decades and centuries of “bad” history, the “bad” and drawn out winter of discontent that was epitomized by Stalinist and Austro-Hungarian empires. Jara is a stand in for Jaro in more ways than one.
It does not seem as though the idea was to ever use the figure of Cimrman as anything other than a figure of good, the artistic and the inventive that the Czech nation deems itself to be. In a world where the need for some sort of salvation usually comes from without, this was a device by which the salvation is already here, it is within and it is not being recognized. Czech history is riddled with invasions, occupations, war, famine and death as well as a thousand year history of overcoming, artistic creativity, resilience. Cimrman, though somewhat resembling a Christ figure, is indeed rather treated as the Pythonesque Brian to the real Christ, he is the everyman qua overman.
Cimrman is handled in a very chaotic and also rhizomatic way by being portrayed as singularly committed to everything he does, but he does everything, which means he is never truly committed. He is at once a composer, poet, artist, writer, inventor, criminologist, philosopher, botanist, geologist, physicist and so on, but above all he is a playwright and it is through “his plays” that the Czech nation gets to experience its fake history.
The smart move on the part of the writers of the plays and the inventors of the figure of Cimrman was that they did not set him as a character in any “current” events, events occurring at the time of the Communist occupation and subsequent normalization. This meant that Cimrman and the plays were essentially non-reactive, though they did react to the events in an ironic way. The move was actually one of simple evasion. Knowing that writing satirical plays would cause unwanted, unnecessary, and bothersome censorship from the bureaucracy, they decided to place Cimrman in an era where he would instead play a prophetic figure, during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. His plays would be directed against the bureaucrats in the castle of Prague by way of the aristocrats in Vienna. Through the plays, Cimrman set up his characters as the archetypes of the many figures that occupied the world of Czechoslovakia during the time of the heaviest administration of every aspect of normal life; the lascivious doctor, the ignorant teacher, the apathetic bureaucrat, and counter them with positive characters that were no less exaggerated in their positive qualities. He would use these characters to paint the picture of the future by way of the past. In one particular play a local village visionary scryer makes a prediction that a coal baron who had just paid him for a reading was going to possibly have all of his coal mines taken away from him. The playwright never mentions “nationalization” as a way for the State to take these mines away, but that was the point. He also never mentions that it will be the State that will do this. Evasive comments and vague language are used as a device to mask the intent of fake history within a fake history, a play created by a playwright that was created by playwrights writing a play about him.
What we get through the plays, and there are now more than 15, is a complete picture of a man that never was, a man meant to supplement the history for life of a whole people. Though this was not the point of the writers when they began, this is certainly a reading that necessitates a development.
Interesting to note is the fact that this kind of history was also never meant to be a “feel good” memory of a nostalgic past. Czech culture thrives in irony and self-flagellation and such is the story of Cimrman. Many of Cimrman’s forays into writing and executing his plays and maneuvering the era that he inhabited read much like K’s struggle to get access to the Castle in Kafka’s book of the same name. There is probably much in common between the figure of K and Cimrman. K never does achieve that which he sets out to do. As K moves up the bureaucratic ladder to get access to the Castle, he is met with more and more diversion that steer him away from his true goal. He is perpetually stuck below the castle. Cimrman, likewise fails at pretty much everything he does, but he does it in such a spectacular way that one must in a way see his failures as beautiful victories. In a world where the division in society runs as the binary division between those “below” the Castle and those “above and in” the Castle, this is in fact the true history of Czech people. Cimrman is set to be the bridge between the two, because he himself never believes himself to be of the common people. He is found to be constantly raging and railing against the vulgar and the common idiots that surround him. But when his efforts to rise from the very vulgarities he deplores, he finds that there is no one at the top to receive him. He is always shoved back into the swill of the gross pubs and village theaters where he does bits for beer and writes jokes on napkins in an exchange for food.
Whether or not Nietzsche’s history for life was meant to be real or fake is not exactly the point I would like to develop, but it is this fake history that Cimrman represents that is of greater use in a world that is laden with problematic history. His plays make jokes about that which is considered problematic, but ultimately they make jokes about themselves. They use the device of monumental history of the genius Renaissance man to undercut it because it is he, the failed monumental personality that is highlighted and as a result acts as the particular to the universal ideology that fails. His constant failure is what gives him his status as hero, because in a culture where failure is virtue, this can only mean that he failed the best.
Cimrman was actually voted as the number one Czech some ten years ago in a public poll and against the will of the public was disqualified from the running,14 a final grand failure that was in itself a victory. The poll dealt only with “actually living” dead people. In such a company, Cimrman was the odd man out, he never truly lived. This was of course an instance when history came closest to serving life rather than destroying it and even this was ultimately reversed. Cimrman exists alongside other mythical figures, but he does not embody the seriousness with which those other mythical figures reconstitute the monumental past, he is therefore subject to wider criticism whereas other mythological figures are beyond it. He is also a figure that deals specifically with a recent past and is therefore also subject to criticism from those who lived it, even if those that lived it had done so in ressentiment. In the plays Cimrman is however free in the sense that despite his many setbacks he continues to live and work creatively, like the river that is constantly changing and active, well into his old age, free of ressentiment toward those that may have wronged him. To think of the spirit of the Czech people, one must necessarily think of Cimrman, the greatest genius that never lived.
1 Michl, 13. Here I am referring to research by Jan Michl who did an extensive study of state funding for the arts during the late Communist era of the Czech Republic. His focus is on applied and fine arts and film.
2 The middle class was primarily composed of wealthier land and business owners whose families would eventually be able to buy their way to freedom in the west. Most left before the coup in 1948 and many more just after the Soviet invasion in 1968.
3 Deleuze, 82.
4 This is not surprising however. In his 1991 book Why So Easily?, Czech sociologist Ivo Mozny dissects the reason why the 1989 Velvet Revolution happened and why it happened so easily, as a smooth transition from one day to the next. His thesis is that while outwardly there was “real” resistance from the State and the ruling apparatus to the dissident alternative, it was nonetheless ready to relieve itself of its power as soon as it was able. The dissenting political power which was largely in exile was nonetheless very organized, having roots in the ruling elites and moneyed classes of the prewar years and only waiting until the right moment in history to assume power again. What constituted the dissent in Czechoslovakia were according to Mozny the “right” people coming from the “right” kinds of families. It is no wonder then that the type of political and economic system that was introduced after 1989 closely resembled that of the neoliberal western powers, places where many of these families spent their self-imposed exile and where their children were educated.
6 ibid, 17.
7 Zizek, vii.
8 Nietzsche, 24
9 ibid, 47
10 ibid, 25
11 ibid, 26
12 ibid, 62
13 ibid, 62
14 I remember when this poll was active and when Cimrman was still the actual winner. The Czech Wikipedia states that in Britain, King Arthur was also in the polls for the running for Greatest Briton. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nejv%C4%9Bt%C5%A1%C3%AD_%C4%8Cech
Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press. 1983
Michl, Jan. “Institutional Framework Around Successful Art Forms in Communist Czechoslovakia.” Budapest: Open Society Institute. 1999
Mozny, Ivo. Proc tak snadno? (Why So Easily?). Prague: SLON. 1991
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. Indianapolis:Hackett Publishing. 1980
Zizek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. New York: Verso. 2011