Afterword to Hidden History | Aesthetics | Essays

Afterword

It is far from easy to explain why Otokar Březina’s work has provoked in its readers such unusual interest, and why that interest has persisted until the present day. Nor is it easy to explain in a way which would lend expression to the reader’s amazement at Březina’s versatility, as well as at the continual changes and dynamism of his work, which later played an indispensable role in the development of modern Czech poetry and essay writing. From the time Březina’s work began to appear it was as accepted in the Czech intellectual circles associated with the journals Moderní revue and Katolická moderna and distinguished literary and philosophical societies as it was at workers’ recitation evenings, clearly refuting claims that his work is exclusive and abstruse. Indeed, the poems and essays admired by Březina’s contemporaries have lost nothing of their power and impressiveness today. Behind the dry official records of Březina’s early years lies the dramatic inner life of a poet, a life which evolved on an aesthetic level from naturalism to Symbolism, and on a philosophical level from a decadent pessimism to an evolutionist affirmation of life. Otokar Březina was born in Počátky on September 13, 1868 as Václav Ignác Jebavý. The records of the Girls’ Lower Secondary School register in Jaroměřice nad Rokytnou cast
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light on his external Kierkegaardian “life-stations”: he attended primary and lower secondary school in Počátky and a provincial higher secondary school in Telč, and was later enrolled at schools in Jinošov, Nová Říše, and Jaroměřice. Perhaps his work as a poet began when as a twelve-year-old student Václav Jebavý composed a cycle of his verses as a farewell present to his schoolmate Alois Čermák. At the higher secondary school in Telč he experienced his first friendship with František Bauer, to whom he dedicated some early poetry. In June 1886 his first lyrical and epic compositions were published in Jaro (Spring) under the pseudonym Václav Danšovský. Some time later he began publishing realistic humoresques, sketches, and long short stories in the magazines Orel and Orlice (The Eagle). In the autumn of 1887 he met Anna Pammrová in Jinošov. The content of their correspondence — which, except for an interval of three years, continued until the poet’s final days — has become a testimony to Březina’s enormous determination in his struggle to find the meaning of life and of creative writing. By the time of the deaths of both his parents within a week of each other in February 1890, which was of crucial importance to the poet’s further spiritual development, he had worked for two years on the ultimately destroyed and never-published Román Eduarda Brunnera (The Novel of Edward Brunner). He read widely from the ancient philosophers and mystics in the Nová Říše monastery library, and for many years he also studied contemporary poets and thinkers
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(especially Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Poe, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche). By 1892 his poems began to appear regularly in Niva (The Mead) and Vesna (Spring), later in Moderní revue, Rozhledy (Outlook), Almanach secese (The Art Nouveau Almanac), and Nov˘ Ïivot (New Life), now under the assumed name of Otokar Březina. During the short period when his creative powers were at their peak, he published five volumes of poetry: Tajemné dálky (1895; Secret Horizons), Svitání na západû (1896; Dawn in the West), Vûtry od pólÛ (1897; Winds from the Poles), Stavitelé chrámÛ (1899; The Temple Builders), and the long poem Ruce (1901; Hands). These received the notice of the foremost critics of the day and surpass all other Czech literature of that period in their importance. With his reputation as a poet thus established, he turned his attention to the essay form. The essays that were eventually to comprise the collection Hudba pramenÛ (The Music of the Springs) began to appear in periodicals starting in 1897. In this period his work began to receive formal recognition, such as a prize for “poetic works to date” from the Svatobor Association and a similar award from the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences. In June 1913, the year of the first complete edition of his poetic works, Březina was elected an associate member of the same body, and became a full member in May 1923. In 1919 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Charles University in Prague, and by Christmas 1922 he had been offered an honorary professorship at Masaryk University
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in Brno, which he declined. Perhaps more importantly, Březina was twice nominated as the Czech candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1921 and 1928). On the occasion of his sixtieth birthday he received a prize from the Czechoslovak state of one hundred thousand crowns, which he donated to Svatobor. He died on March 25, 1929 in Jaroměřice nad Rokytnou. Beginning at the turn of the century, Březina’s poems and essays began to appear in magazines and anthologies in many other languages and complete translations of the first volume of essays, Hudba pramenÛ, have been published in German and Swedish. But this edition of Hidden History is the first complete translation of any of his works to be published in English.

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In particular it was František Xavier Šalda, the founder and progenitor of the Czech critical essay, and Otokar Březina, the most prominent personality of the poetic essay, who laid the foundations for the future development of this genre in Czech letters. Březina realized very early on — stimulated by his reading of Maurice Maeterlinck or by the oft-repeated demands of his friends and editors — what versatility was possible in this form of expression. In December 1896, he informed Anna Pammrová of his decision to attempt “artistic essays on philosophical topics.” Some time
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later he gave a more detailed explanation to Sigismund Bouška:
I am not opposed to the idea of writing a book of prose in due time. I will write one. Fiction always used to be the dream of poets. Charles Baudelaire, one of the most profound representatives of a whole new movement (higher and more powerful than Verlaine, though he did not possess Verlaine’s enchanting melody of the word), dreamed of it, as did Mallarmé. One must read such prose as may be seen in some passages of the mystics, some pages of Nietzsche, Przybyszewsky, or Péladan, not to mention others, to believe how much refinement, affection, profundity, passion, eruptive force may be poured into several free, unbound sentences, musical and sparkling with light, soaring from the depths of one world into another.

It is hardly coincidental, then, that Březina’s essays were first published in the 1890s — the period when the first and, in the opinion of many critics, the best essayistic works in Czech appeared. Here the essay is understood as a specific form that is of an artistic, literary-critical, or feuilletonistic nature, on a variety of subjects, whether literary, philosophical, or socio-cultural. The author endeavors to gain complete artistic mastery of his material and therefore abandons scientific efficiency in favor of the freshness and originality of a freer literary form. Other features of the genre give it flexibility, such as the
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essay’s conscious subjectivity, a characteristic of this form since Michel de Montaigne. The author’s subjectivity and originality are reflected not only in the essay’s composition but also in its phrasing. It thus stands to reason that this new mode of self-expression resulted in a form entirely different from other literary genres. Literary theorists have emphasized that the essay form can be described as linked to “dialogized monologue” — turning a monologue into a dialogue or “a dialogue with oneself.” This can be taken as evidence of the genre’s experimental character, in the Šaldian sense of the essay as creative experimentation. Furthermore, the linguistic form of the essay has its own specific history: at the turn of the century a high level of stylistic refinement — perhaps even too high — was required. F. X. Šalda’s programmatic essays influenced a generation’s spiritual development. He not only emphasized the need for a new style, but also underlined the close connections between life, art, beauty, and work, exhorting artists to participate in the eternal struggle for a new view of reality and a fresh evaluation of artistic expression in all its forms. Šalda’s program also deeply affected Březina, who in 1892 wrote to František Bauer his impressions and spoke of Šalda as “one of our first critics who can breathe the soul of a work of art.” Though Šalda was not the sole inf luence, he undoubtedly helped Březina to find his own way through the labyrinth of modern aesthetics and pointed out to him the basic requirements and aims embodied in the emerging spirit of Symbolism.
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At that time Březina stood at a crossroads in life: either he would retain his previous methods and forms, remaining fashionable but conventional, or he would embark upon a course as yet unexplored in his country. He came to the painful realization that in the changed conditions of the “new art” outlined by Šalda he could no longer take full responsibility for The Novel of Edward Brunner and that he should begin searching for a form different from the thematic prose of his early writing. Březina thus came to realize the necessity of creating a prose which would correspond to these new conditions in every aspect — in intellectual content, in form, and in linguistic value. And so, just as Šalda in the sphere of criticism created a unique and unmistakable form for the essay, so too did Březina in the sphere of poetry.

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The cycle of Březina’s monumental works was concluded by his fifth volume of poetry, Ruce, but his struggle to grasp reality only appeared to have been completed. He persisted in it with no less intensity in his never-completed sixth collection of verse, Zemû (The Earth). The further elaboration of the intellectual, thereby clarifying and refining some of the basic concepts of Březina’s aesthetic vision of the world — such as beauty, love, joy, and pain — was transferred from this collection into pieces intended for Hidden History, which was published, however, only posthumously.
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Hidden History is first and foremost an artistic expression of life’s positive quality and one of the richest sources of Březina’s artistic and aesthetic views. His first volume of essays was written in the same period as his collections of poetry, and in a certain sense it completes the spiritual and imaginative process of his verse, drawing it closer to the reader. While these early essays are still strongly connected with questions of art, the essays comprising Hidden History shift the focus from art to life. Otakar Fiala, Březina’s editor, considered the earlier volume, written over a period of six years, to be a transitional book in the sense that it represents a sort of intermediate stage linking the author’s mature artistic, aesthetic, and philosophical attitudes with those he had arrived at when he was still writing verse. After the publication of Hudba pramenÛ in 1905 Březina went through a prolonged period of literary silence, though his views on art and life did not change to any considerable degree. Hidden History represents a fuller realization of the basic, unifying theme that had appeared in places in Hudba pramenÛ. In the later volume, individual motifs continue to mingle and intersect with one another — they are both interchangeable and changing in a hierarchical manner. Fiala depicts the totality of these changes thus: “Knowledge is obtained through work; knowledge leads to unity; unity contains redemption.” Moreover, the essays of Hidden History represent a well-composed whole. As Fiala has noted:

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In contrast to Hudba pramenÛ, which is unified by the poet’s glowing being, illuminating the mysteries of art and existence, Hidden History offers a closed system of ideas in a strictly balanced composition that may be rewritten by a simple mathematical formula: [3+3+(2+2)]. The first three meditations show the three different aspects of art which are, essentially: knowledge in the first meditation, love in the second, and the struggle for a new human reality in the third. While refuting ‘art for art’s sake’, Březina is cognizant only of art for the sake of life. The celebration of life in all its aspects of beauty and horror is the theme of the second part of the book, which again contains three meditations. The third part, containing four meditations, expands on the aim of humanity and the means of achieving it.

The central theme of the first group of three — “The Sole Work,” “A Reflection in the Depths,” and “The Meaning of Struggle” — is the general question concerning the meaning of art, which by this time had become for Březina a matter-offact aspect of life. The foremost task of life now is not merely to heal the deepening skepticism of men, to teach them the ability to differentiate between good and evil, but rather to make men and nations brothers through a common vision of reality. The social function of art is most conspicuous in “The Meaning of Struggle”: art becomes the most important liberating force in the never-ending fight for a new order in the world.
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The second group of essays begins with “The Present,” which was considered by Březina himself to be the best expression of his ultimate knowledge, and it may also be taken as an expression of the poet’s cosmic optimism. This essay occupies an important place in Hidden History for other reasons as well: it is the last essay written for Šalda and the last work published during Březina’s lifetime. The celebration of the present is the leitmotif of the essay — an intensive longing for a unification of everything and everyone. By imbuing the earthly struggle of man with cosmic significance, “The Present” points the way for the essays that were published only after the author’s death. “The Work of Death” (1930) was the first of these posthumous essays, and it is essentially the same celebration of life conquering death as is found in “The Present.” Šalda held “The Work of Death” in high regard, referring to sentences worthy of “a present-day Master Eckhart educated in modern natural and social sciences.” He recognized astutely that this was far superior and overcame some of the shortcomings of the early essays. As Šalda observed, these first essays were characterized by “an excessive abstractness of thought, a lack of analysis consistently directed at the core of reality and as a result, the overeager optimism of a harmonizer.” In “Hidden History,” which ultimately lent its name to the whole volume, Březina came to the conclusion that, in fact, everything that forms the inner life of a man, a nation, and the whole earth — and not only the great historical upheavals,
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but every single, seemingly insignificant event of the human mind — helps to create the hidden history of humanity. Language in particular belongs to the basic means through which humanity achieves the “télos” of this history. “An Edifice on High” — originally called “Práce” (Labor) — heads the final grouping of Březina’s “meditations.” Similar to the poem Ruce, this essay is a supreme celebration of physical and mental work. The essay “The Word” becomes an exaltation of language as an instrument of human knowledge and understanding, in which man stores everything that has been successively acquired through his senses and through his work. The final essays of Hidden History, “The Glare of Freedom” and “Peace,” represent the highest values attainable by humanity in its development.

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Most of the essays comprising Hidden History originated during the turbulent years of the First World War when Březina witnessed the pain caused to man by the oppression of nations and aggression. His extraordinary inner strength and certainty are proven by the fact that he did not lose his belief in man and his creative abilities even in those most difficult years. As Šalda commented:
There are those in this country who think that Březina was a superficial illusionist who had lost his
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grip on reality and who composed his architecture of words on the basis of mirages. This is a great mistake. Both Březina’s verse and his essays show how tragically realistic his vision was: his harmonization is usually painful and does not deny anything of the terrible dissonances of human fate on this planet. This view is disciplined and far from the superficial optimism with which we are inundated nowadays. He knows only one single redemption from the pain of separation: through creative work, in love, with ceaseless energetic effort.

Březina’s “eternal longing” for a harmonization of all contradictions of life and art, further augmented by a detailed elaboration of form and language, his longing to embrace the world in the totality of its changes and to arrive at the original unity of all beings, was the intellectual point of departure for his generation of artists before World War I. In his sometimes overly-rich metaphorical language, he strove to express in words all the infinite changes of the “hidden history” of the human soul, earth, and cosmos. Although these changes take place in an invisible manner, as if under the surface, they nonetheless remain the moving force which underlies all of life. And it was especially in his essays that he was able to find the space to contemplate freely all the problems associated with achieving synthesis. His search for the inner core or unifying meaning of this synthesis — its coherence with truth, beauty, and action — was a life-long effort. The compelling inner necessity to satisfy fully and truthfully the need for the
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essence of things, became, if expressed in more general terms, the concrete expression of man attempting to achieve unity with himself and the world. Březina’s creative dream of a “clairvoyant and mysterious man” visualizes this man from a cosmic perspective without ever losing sight of his immutable connection with the earth. Březina’s man, “a single mystic unity in millions who were and will be,” never surrenders, even though he suffers from either “the awareness of his insufficiency” or the insufficiency of his environment. He never waits passively in isolation, unable to break it, but continues to struggle relentlessly. And his struggle is not only with his own insufficiency, at the “decisive moments” of life he struggles to overcome chaos, fear of death, and even death itself. Death is now visualized not as the negation, destruction, or termination of everything, but, paradoxically, as one of the forms which aids in the realization and elaboration of the dream of a higher life on earth. To know death is also to master it. The most important tool in realizing this mastery is an active love and conscious respect for all manifestations and forms of life. It is only through understanding the deep coherence of love and respect for life that man can achieve inner freedom. Through a permanent fight with death, freedom can also be achieved by a whole nation. And it was to freedom, as the highest stage of humanity’s and the individual man’s spiritual development, that Březina devoted “The Glare of Freedom,” one of his most characteristic essays.
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Like the struggle for a richer and fuller life — “the struggle for everything” of the Czech philosopher Ladislav Klíma — the struggle with death is fought not only by an individual but always by a certain community of people. Šalda is correct in stating that Březina’s dream was never individualistic, but all-embracing from the very start. Evidence of this is the manner in which the poet shifts from “I” to “we” in his poetry, as confirmed by a frequency dictionary: the seventyseven occurrences of “I” in Tajemné dálky diminish to only three in Ruce six years later. Conversely, the four occurrences of “we” in Tajemné dálky increase to thirty-three in Ruce and and as many as forty-three in Zemû. Březina’s concept of redemption through a higher form of human community is even more evident in his essays, which frequently return to the themes of social inequality, the humiliated, poverty, and misery. The poet’s deep conviction in the importance of spiritual reality leads him to argue for the permanent necessity of love, a love which is able to overcome pain. This is the core of Březina’s humanistic ideals of brotherhood, which are so often emphasized in his art. He expresses a great longing for a collective, for peace. Indeed the final essay of this volume, “Peace”, is not only the climax of the book but also of Březina’s poetic and intellectual activity in general.

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In Czech literary history, Hidden History occupies an exceptional position by virtue of its equally exceptional character, even though thus far its importance has not been fully understood and appreciated. It is considered to be the most mature example of Czech poetic prose up to that time. According to the Polish literary critic Józef Zarek, the mere existence of essays of this caliber is an utter novelty in Czech literature, calling them “a work so unique that we may have difficulty in finding analogies with them in present-day literature.” And a prominent Czech critic, Miroslav Červenka, stated that these essays are meant to “present the reader with the drama of ideas themselves, the drama of human collectives, cosmic processes, and even earthly matters.” While Hidden History undoubtedly contributes to an understanding of Březina’s poetry, it is also his most intrinsic and most systematic aesthetic confession, resonating in later Czech artistic and literary criticism. It was Karel Teige, the leading theorist of the Czech avant-garde in the interwar period, who acknowledged Poetism’s debt to Březina in the movement’s manifesto. Yet the fact that Březina’s essays make the understanding of his poetic work more accessible does not mean that we should consider them as mere explanatory commentary on his verse. The essays represent an autonomous work of art. Even when he was fully occupied with the study of other thinkers, such as Indian philosophers and medieval Christian mystics, Březina was conscious of his own art and preserved his complete independence and critical distance.
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Březina’s essays remain difficult to classify and they have occupied an unusual position in Czech and European literature from the time of their publication. To whatever genre we assign these essays, the fact remains that Březina gave concrete expression to Šalda’s principle of synthesism, and he tried to realize in these essays his theoretical ideas about time, art, and the human community. Březina’s essays, which turned as far away as possible from the concreteness of prose, — and this can also be considered their substantial contribution — intervened in the sphere of poetry and represent a completely new type of essay writing, unequaled thereafter. — Petr Holman Prague, September 1996

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