Standing In A Prague Sunbeam
As regular readers know, I’m working on a book about what lessons we can learn from the experiences of those who lived under Eastern bloc communism, to help us identify and resist the soft totalitarianism quickly emerging here today. In my interviews so far, the most striking thing I’ve learned is the power of fellowship and small-group solidarity. Recently I read Sir Roger Scruton’s 2014 novel Notes From Underground, a love story set in Prague, in the final decade of Czech Communism. The narrator is Jan Reichl, a young man condemned to a marginal life because his parents had offended the regime, and Betka, the woman who draws him out of the shadows and into the world of dissidents. Scruton based the story on his extensive experience working with the Czech resistance.
In these passages, Jan describes the experience of going to a seminar held by Rudolf, a dissident professor, in his apartment. Intellectuals like Vaclav Benda held these events often, as a way of building community and keeping memory alive under repression (I wrote about this in The Benedict Option). Scruton writes in the novel:
He told me that I could join his seminar, and that they were reading the Two Studies of Masaryk by Patočka. It was one of the books that Mother had worked on, and which had been taken away from beneath her bed. I asked him how I could obtain a copy. He said it wasn’t necessary, that the relevant pages would be read aloud. And he added that there would be special seminars from time to time, with visitors from the West, who would inform us of the latest scholarship, and help us to remember.
“To remember what?” I asked.
He looked at me long and hard. “To remember what we are.”
I was made to understand that anybody who was anybody in the life of the mind had been driven from the system, and that the “parallel polis” to which Rudolf belonged was the true place of refuge, the temple where ancestral gods kept vigil over our collective soul. Moreover, he implied, just by being washed up in this way on the shore of dissidence, deprived of all weapons and without the instruments of worldly success, you showed your superior title to the life of the mind. He swept the air as he spoke, including books, furniture, a few gloomy pictures, and the enigmatic Betka in his gesture, and emphasizing the impassable gap between the hope contained in this cluttered interior and the unending nothingness outside.
In the new kind of night, Rudolf read, into which the soldier goes without purpose, lies the reality of sacrifice, and in sacrifice an awareness of freedom. My own reality as a soul, whose nature is to care, is brought home to me; in the moment of sacrifice comes an intimation of the meaning that daylight had bleached away. In that moment I break out of the prison of the everyday, and there, in life at the apex, I experience the only form of polis which we may now attain, the “solidarity of the shattered.”
He went on to compare us to those people in the ancient world whose city has been destroyed and who have been led away into slavery. No motive remains that will keep us to the path of honor and justice. We steal from each other, even what we love. We become scavengers. And when one of us shows that it need not be so, that he, for one, is prepared to make a sacrifice, there is suddenly joy and light and for a brief moment we remember what we were. And then we go back to captivity, for we have nothing else.
They were simple thoughts. But Rudolf linked them to such a wealth of philosophy and culture that I found myself shaking with desire for the path of truth and sacrifice that he described. He held my attention as the hand of eternity holds the apple of time, and I watched as the thin dust of humanity was blown across that apple and then polished away. My underground life, I saw, had been another form of selfishness and fragmentation. I had been avoiding even the fear that I should have been feeling, the fear that I saw all around me and which, had I opened my heart to it, would have saved my mother from her fate.
And this, about what it meant to Jan to be in the room with others who shared his beliefs:
Never since Dad’s death had there been guests in our apartment. I associated hospitality with the gatherings of apparatchiks, with their expensive leather coats and plump mistresses wrapped in fur. Hospitality belonged to the unapproachable world of them, where it signified not kindness or compassion but the insolence of privilege.
Yet, here before me was the vivid disproof of that: powerless people offering and receiving gifts. A new dimension of being was outlined before me in a dramatic tableau that invited me to change my life. Someone was talking next to me of a poem that ended with just those words — musíš změnit svůj život, you must change your life. The poem was by Rilke, whose Duino Elegies had found their way into Dad’s trunk, and the discussion of it spread like laughter through the gathering. I smiled at Rudolf, and then at Betka. I did not mind that the bread was stale or the cheese hard and acrid, with the texture of a toenail. That was the way we lived. I was standing in a sunbeam, and had lost all consciousness of the surrounding storm.
Discovering the integrating and inspiring power of community — that’s going to be one of the lessons I explore in the new book. What Scruton writes about here as fiction parallels what I’m learning from talking to those who lived it.