Sunday, December 21, 2014

Prague in Black and Gold by Peter Demetz

“I wish to sketch a few selected chapters of a paradoxical history in which the golden hues of proud power and creative glory, of emperors, artists and scholars, and restive people, are not untouched with the black of suffering and the victims’ silence” (Demetz, p. xii).

Above is the key sentence in Peter Demetz’s preface to Prague in Black and Gold, which explains both the title and his approach to the city’s history. Prague was a distinctly multi-ethnic mix. Though it was divided largely between Czech and German populations, Jews comprised a significant minority (peaking at 25% of the citizenry in 1705), followed by a small but prominent population of Italians.

As a professor of  Literature at Yale and former resident of Prague, Demetz is true to his word, offering “sketches” rather than extensive, methodical chronology. After a tedious but foundation-setting first chapter on the origins of the city, the author presents some colorful depictions. King Otakar, Emperor Charles IV, Jan Hus, Rudolph II, Mozart and T.G. Masaryk, are all presented in individual chapters where they overlay, influence and are influenced by a changing cultural variety residents. Prague in Black and Gold is a series of moments set in historical order. Demetz will rush through 150 years within two pages, then will lovingly describe an episode or individual for most of a chapter. The author focuses on what he thinks is significant or what interests him personally. The Polish Kings, who ruled Prague from 1471 to 1526, get a few scattered sentences over two pages, while Mozart (who only visited Prague four times) rates a chapter.

Demetz writes what he likes, adding a great number of personal impressions to his history. But what he writes is insightful and not infrequently lyrical. There is little place for the personal among our modern, clinical, more scientific schools of history. Undeniably, an impersonal, empirical approach is most often going to yield a less prejudiced, factual representation of events. But Demetz’s highly individualistic account presents an astute angle that teaches much and is rarely boring.

One area where it would be helpful for Demetz to learn from more evidenced-based historians concerns documentation. There is a fine, chapter by chapter bibliography, but no footnotes or endnotes. With such undisciplined scholarship, a good writer can carelessly and convincingly fabricate. Notes are both evidence and markers. They permit information to be verified and keep a writer from straying too far from fact. Historians who do not supply evidence and make their books a collection of impressions or free-hand writing, are merely storytellers. For example, the execution of Jan Hus is presented as a calm, poetic and dignified end to a man of great integrity. After the wood around his stake was lit, the author writes that Hus simply “began to sing aloud.” Then, “when the flames blew in his face, he only prayed silently and after a while died” (Demetz, p. 145). It is hard to imagine that any human being could maintain such serene piety, without crying-out in anguish, while the flesh was being melted from his bones. Maybe Hus was capable of displaying a behavior different from the rest of humanity; but there is no way for us to know since the event is presented without citation.

Prague in Black and Gold is a pensive, melancholy rumination by a capable writer. Demetz feels deeply and struggles concerning his subject. Much of his conflicted perspective is rooted in his own history there: his Jewish mother deported to her death by the Nazis; his life interrupted by totalitarian Communist take-over and personal exile. The “paradoxical history” of creative “golden hues” and “black suffering” in Prague is also that of the author. While the personal invades and skews the historical picture, it presents a unique and often perspicacious view that only someone who has lived the black and gold can write.

Demetz, Peter. Prague in Black and Gold. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.