A Legend of Sorts



Scholar Alfred Thomas is very clear about his intentions in his new book Prague Palimpsest: Writing, Memory, and the City, recently published by Chicago University Press; and these intentions have much to do with some of the more trendy currents in academic literary criticism. He tells us in his introductory remarks that he did not want to write a book like Peter Demetz's Prague in Black and Gold from 1997 — one of my favorites about the magical Czech city — "in which Prague emerges as a grand historical narrative punctuated by the intervention of great men — Premysl Otakar II, Charles IV, Jan Hus, Rudolph II, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and T.G. Masaryk."

Thomas hoped to break with this model, and so has presented Prague "as a constantly rewritten or revised text in which history and imagination, memory and forgetting have been impossible to disentangle." That explains the use of the word "palimpsest" in his title — a parchment that has been written over numerous times, with the older text improperly erased, and so faintly showing through the newer layers of writing. As the author puts it: "Envisaging Prague as a palimpsest allows us to understand the city's historical as well as cultural ability to efface all evidence of those who have tried to monopolize it."

Thomas' book, which is comprised of five chapters and an epilogue, is steeped in literature. He begins by analyzing what he calls the foundational legend of the city's beginnings and the woman who started it all, Princess Libuse. This legend, he argues, has been repeatedly reinvented over the centuries "to accommodate the ideological interests of medieval rulers, Renaissance antiquarians and 19th century nationalists."

He then moves on to the Prague ghetto, one of the most famous Jewish quarters in all of Europe, and its most famous offspring, the golem. Like the Libuse legend, says Thomas, there isn't one single text that defines the notorious hulking servant of a famous rabbi, but rather numerous writings in all sorts of mediums: plays, stories, novels.

Next up comes Prague's most famous Jewish son, Franz Kafka, who may have written in German and have had an uneasy relationship with his homeland but whose modernist masterpieces, many in unfinished form, had a remarkable influence on Czech literature, to say nothing of their effect on writers throughout the world.

Chapter four considers several writers, only one of whom had direct ties to Prague, but all of whom helped transform the city through their works into what the scholar calls "a modernist metropolis." They include Guillaume Apollinaire, Vitezslav Nezval and Albert Camus, with some comments along the way about another influential literary Frenchman, André Breton.

The last essay considers writing in the post-World War II period by several prominent Austrian and German writers, and the "elegiac treatment" of Prague in their novels and poems, especially in the light of the widespread destruction caused by the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Finishing it all off is an epilogue that analyzes two more novels and two films about Prague after the fall of communism in 1989. As the author writes, "In spite of their apparent break with the modernist treatment of the city, I argue that these 'postmodern' narratives share a tendency to recycle literary motifs in a self-conscious manner that makes them a continuation of — rather than a rupture with — the modernist past."

As this synopsis makes clear, there is much high-toned critical language sprinkled throughout Thomas' pages, but one of the most interesting facets of the work is that this academic filigree does not impede the narrative's flow or clog it unnecessarily as can sometimes be the case with contemporary academic criticism. In fact, you can scurry right past these passages — which have been added, it seems, to help prove the critic's bona fides among his colleagues — and learn many wonderful things, whether it be literary, historical or mythological.

Some of the most intriguing insights come in the chapters on Jewish subjects, an unavoidable subtopic for any writer dealing with Prague, even one like Thomas, who doesn't appear to be Jewish himself. For example, in his second chapter, he states that in its earliest incarnations, "the golem was merely an east-central European counterpart to the myth of the sorcerer's apprentice made famous by Goethe. The earliest narrative of a recalcitrant golem does not even take place in Prague but was attributed to Rabbi Elijah of Polish Chelm (d. 1568). This story of a golem which crushes its creator to death attracted the attention of the German Romantics Jakob Grimm, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Achim von Arnim, all of whom were fascinated by the gothic motif of an artificial creature which is brought to life by mystical incantations and magical formulas."

Affluence and Influence

Thomas points out that it was only in the 18th century that the golem legend became attached to Prague, "largely through his alleged creator, Jehudah Loew ben Bezalel (ca. 1520-1609), the chief rabbi of the city during the reign of Emperor Rudolph II and known in traditional Jewish culture by the acronym Maharal.

"Significant about the anchoring of the golem legend in Rudolfine Prague is its historical as well as legendary implications. Loew was associated with the magnificent and brilliant court of Rudolph, who made Prague his capital and its imposing castle (Hradcany) his personal residence. Rudolph's reign coincided with the golden age of central European Jewry, its affluence and influence reflected in the many synagogues erected in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, including the Meisl (1592), the Munk (1599), and the Cikán synagogues (before 1613).

"It has been maintained that the 'magical' atmosphere of Rudolfine Prague and Rabbi Loew's posthumous reputation as an alchemist may have provided an appropriate setting and backdrop to the invention of the golem," continues the scholar. "It is even possible that the growing eastern European Jewish cult which formed around the 17th century grave of the Maharal in the famous cemetery and which reached its high point in the early 20th century contributed to the immense popularity and diffusion of the golem legend … . Important in this connection is the significance of the rabbi's grave not only as a site of veneration among rabbinical Jews from Poland and Bohemia, but also as a site of memory, a vital link to the golden age of central European Jewry in the 16th century."

Thomas makes clear that this kind of historical detail is just fine, but as far as his thesis is concerned, the golem legend's origins are far less important than "the way it has been obsessively revised and rewritten throughout the modern period. Most versions of the story involve the insertion of a talisman (shem) inscribed with the Hebrew word for 'God' or 'truth' (emeth) into the lifeless golem's chest, forehead, or mouth; only with the effacement of the first letter (aleph) and the formation of a new word, 'death' (meth) does the golem drop down lifeless. This alternation between inscription and effacement serves as an effective metaphor for the status of the legend as a palimpsest: every time a new version is written, the previous version is partially effaced and partially preserved."

Thomas then goes on to dissect a poem by the great 20th-century South American writer Jorge Luis Borges called "El Golem."

There's nothing at all wrong with any of this thesis building, but the book distinctly exists on two levels. Those more interested in the alternate level — passages about Prague as an everyday reality throughout the ages — may have to wade through the literary analysis to find the other rich detail that's on view.

However, it's worth the effort since by picking through the text, interested readers can discover wonderful anecdotes and little-known factoids about one of the most bewitching urban terrains in the world, while also possibly getting some insight along the way about the grand literature the city has also bequeathed to us all.