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.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture and the making of the Gay Male World 1890 - 1940 by George Chauncey

George Chauncey presents a vivid portrait of New York gay male culture in the years between 1890 and 1940. It is a rich, highly documented study that relies on evidence ranging from interviews and biographical accounts by gay men, to the less friendly testimony of police spies and citizen vigilantes attempting to contain this milieu. The result is a panorama of gay neighborhoods and meeting places that thrived during this period.

The book begins with scenes of an active 1890s “subculture of the flamboyantly effeminate ‘fairies’…who gathered at Paresis Hall and other Bowery resorts.” Many of these men are described as prostitutes directly employed by the owners, or passively encouraged because they enticed customers. While Chauncey is quick to point-out that this “was not the only gay subculture in the city,” it does begin the book on a sensationalist note (Chauncey, p. 34). It might have been more useful to progress from interviews and biographies showing private gay home life, relationships and friendships, which would have illustrated the solid foundation of gay community, but the beginning would have been less exciting.

From this unfortunate start, Chauncey progresses improvingly by depicting the attitudes of men who defined themselves positively as “queers” and “fairies.” This counters the myth that all gay men at the time had internalized the dominant culture’s negative image of them. Self-esteem existed prior to the activism of our current period. The book progresses from the Gay Nineties through the 1930s, when a number of proudly gay entertainers headlined Greenwich Village and Harlem night spots widely attended by the straight community. Chauncey does not pretend that the 1890s through the 1930s were free of harassment and prejudice. He spends a great deal of time highlighting assaults upon the gay male community during this period. But one cannot deny the evidence of a thriving public and private gay culture before World War Two.

While the elaboration of life from home to street is fascinating and opens the reader to a world presumed invisible if non-existent, Chauncey is a historian with a wider purpose. A common assumption is that US gay culture progressed, in a linear trajectory, from concealment to free expression; from oppression to acceptance. “The Whiggish notion that change is always ‘progressive’ and that gay history in particular consists of a steady movement toward freedom continues to have appeal” to the LGBT community and its optimistic allies (Chauncey, p. 9). Chauncey offers evidence that gay male culture was more visible, tolerated and permeable to outsiders between 1890 and 1930 than it was between 1945 and 1960. He claims that a “post-war reaction has tended to blind us to the relative tolerance of the pre-war years” (Chauncey, p. 9). Our lack of knowledge about this early 20th Century flourishing oasis is largely due to the success of post-war repression.

Despite the eye-opening, socially progressive purpose of the author’s work, his relative exclusion of lesbians will rankle with some readers. Chauncey self-consciously explains that “the book focuses on men because the differences between gay male and lesbian history and the complexity of each made it seem virtually impossible to write a book about both that did justice to each” (Chauncey, p. 27). This justification rings a bit hollow, since lesbians and gay men lived in the same neighborhoods and frequented many of the same social spaces.

Chauncey should be congratulated on his extensive coverage of African American life. Unlike his justification for excluding lesbians, Chauncey does not argue that the differences between Caucasian and African American history “made it seem virtually impossible to write a book about both.” While many white gay clubs excluded African American men, Harlem of the early 20th Century has a bountiful history of gay neighborhood cohesion, clubs and drag balls, which the author portrays in enthusiastic detail.

Gay New York may have its flaws and blind spots, but it is a significant adjunct to LGBT history. The myths of invisibility, isolation and self-abnegation are aptly countered by its testimony. It depicts a strong, vibrant and cohesive community that thrived for a period before being driven underground by prejudice. While the author’s coverage of post-war suppression is difficult to read, it is an important episode to face. The chronology from a more open and tolerated gay culture to one that was repressed, warns us that the forces of intolerance are persistent. We must be vigilant in order to retain recent LGBT gains.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York. Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

For review of a LGBT book on anarchist support for LGBT rights during this time in US history, see: