Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kral Majales

In the spring of 1993 I spent a few weeks in Prague wandering about the streets and staying briefly with a Czech couple in their cramped apartment on the outskirts of the city.  Most of the time, however, I rented a cheap room at the Hotel Merkur, which featured hard narrow beds, thin sheets and shared bathrooms down the hall.  I remember my room had an ancient radio that received only one station. I would lie in bed at night listening to somber dirges and reading Ivan Klima's novel Love and Garbage.

I was surprised, then, to run across the photo at left.  It's a picture of Allen Ginsberg outside the Merkur.  In 1968 he had been invited by the Czech government to come to Prague.  They very quickly dis-invited him after he was crowned the King of May (Kral Majales) and led an unsanctioned and very joyous parade through the streets of the city.  Ginsberg subsequently wrote a poem about his ejection from the country while taking a jet from Prague to London:

And the Communists have nothing to offer but fat cheeks and eyeglasses and
lying policemen
and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the
and the Communists create heavy industry but the heart is also heavy and the beautiful engineers are all dead...
People may not remember it today, but there was a kind of hipster rush to Prague immediately after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.  The ex-pat scene was breathlessly compared to Paris in the 20s.  By the time I rolled through in '93, that "scene" had already moved on.  Budapest or Krakow were where it was at, or so the guide books said.  There are two things you can usually be sure of.  If it's in a guide book or if I am present, the scene has definitely moved on.  The beautiful engineers are dead.

Anyway, after running across this photograph, I searched through some old boxes in the basement and found the diary from those years, which included the following sketch:
Sitting at the train station--the de riguer soot-blackened train station.  At the tattered restaurace, the tables cloths are soiled with ash and axle grease.  What a bedraggled country this is, a gray-undershirted-peeking-through-a-1970s-double-knit-jumper of a country.  Yet all around me there is filthy magnificence.  Art noveau columns rise to my left and right, and between them a stained-glass archer draws back his bow while a virginal maiden gathers her gown before her begrimed white breasts.  Below, at the tables, Turks cut currency deals amid the cigarette haze.  Cracked speakers blare out English techno-pop and  a Czech next to me coos in his soft, melodic tongue to a bruised tart with deep-set Eastern European eyes.  It's 9:15 pm, the eleventh of May, and I sit here scribbling notes about my surroundings. 
Over twenty years have passed since I was in Prague.  I doubt I'll ever get back (despite having dutifully rubbed the toe of some martyr's statue that is said to guarantee one's return).  Ginsberg never went back, which is fitting.  According to legend, the May King is a fertility figure. During his brief reign he is allowed to impregnate any woman in the village.  When the day is done, though, a ritual sacrifice commences.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Escape Routes

Spring Break officially begins on Friday at 4:00 pm, which means it actually began yesterday around noon. Considered on its merits, there is something a little dubious about having a one-week hiatus in the middle of the term.  It's a custom observed nowhere else but education, and higher education specifically. Apparently it traces its origin to the 1930s when college swim teams annually migrated to Florida for pre-season practices.  No doubt, too, it received a boost from the 1961 movie Where The Boys Are.  And there's also no doubt that it's here to stay.  One can only imagine the undergraduate uproar --to say nothing of the chamber of commerce commotion--were someone to suggest doing away with it. 

I mean other than an economic boon to bar owners and warm weather resorts, it has little value.  It certainly lacks academic or pedagogical value.  It ruins the week beforehand and sometimes a few class days afterward.  It's just a bad idea.

But it's here, so I'll take it.  And now if you'll excuse me, I have to make a dash for the Swiss border...

Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Usage of "On" in Titles

The literary antecedents of blogging are easy to identify. Montaigne was a proto-blogger, one as willing to explore the ethics of cannibalism as his own bowel movements. Orwell certainly qualifies, especially his As I Please columns in which he wrote about English cooking, good-bad books and the cultural rhetoric of penny postcards. I would also add MFK Fisher to this list, and Boswell's London Journal would have made a fascinating blog.

A good argument could be made that the golden age of proto-blogging occurred in the 19th century. One thinks of Lamb, Hunt, De Quincey on opium and certainly William Hazlitt, whose companionable essays on a variety of topics are still worth reading. Here, for example, are a few of the subjects he turned his attention toward in volume I of Table Talk:

On People With One Idea
On the Ignorance of the Learned
On Will-Making
On Vulgarity and Affectation
On Going on a Journey
On Great and Little Things
On the Disadvantages of Intellectual Superiority
On the Fear of Death

This is to say nothing of his On the Pleasures of Hating, a blog post if I ever read one.  There is just something so wonderfully straightforward about the setting forth of one's take on this or that bit of nothingness. And, in effect, that's all a blog post really is: a momentary turning of one's attention on the minutia of some common or narrowly delimited realm of everyday life.  There's a woman whose blog I often read who writes exceptionally well about knitting.  Knitting, for heaven's sake. Another features objects found in used books (postcards, old shopping lists, lost mash notes), and still another features photographs and reflections on old motorcycles.

My own meager efforts could easily be reformatted into a series of essays entitled "On This" or "On That."  Take yesterday, for example. It furnished any number of possible Ons:

On Students Who Don't Show up for Advising Appointments
On Checking Out Books Last Checked Out by Dead Colleagues
On Whether it's Ever a Good Idea to Swear in a Classroom
On Sleeping in Your Office

All of these occurred yesterday.  Well, not sleeping in my office, but I did have a conversation with a colleague about a now retired professor who was discovered to be living in his office and had to be asked to move out.  The point is that blogging on the ephemera of the day has a proud tradition in literature.  It's all too easy to lampoon the self-absorbed blogger rambling on about nothing of importance.  Serious people get on with life, so the argument goes.  They have no time for the twaddle of most blog posts.  Hazlitt knew this sentiment.  In The Conversation of Authors, he wrote,
Happy is it, that the mass of mankind eat and drink, and sleep, and perform their several tasks, and do as they like without us -- caring nothing for our scribblings, our carpings and our quibbles; and moving on the same, in spite of our fine-spun distinctions, fantastic theories and lines of demarcation, which are like chalk-figures drawn on ballroom floors to be danced out before morning!
Most blogs posts--like most of those 19th Century essays on life's ephemera--are useless.  They don't contain much in the way of practical instruction or advice.  Even so, as Hazlitt also knew, they contain over and above such information "a stock of common sense and common feeling."  He writes,
It is to this common stock of ideas, spread over the surface, or striking its roots into the very centre of society, that the.. writer appeals, and not in vain; for he finds readers. It is of this finer essence of wisdom and humanity, "etherial mould, sky-tinctured," that books of the better sort are made. They contain the language of thought.
The best blogs are just that: the language of on-going thought danced out before morning.  Reading or writing one, of course, is not a very practical pastime, but neither is it entirely a waste of one's time.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...