Questions of Identity: Czech and Slovak Ideas of Nationality and Personality
Budapest, London, New York:
Central European University Press, 1994, 244 pp.
With apologies to Magritte (and respect for the multivalence of his vision) one might say of Questions of Identity, "Ceci n'est pas un livre." It is not that Pynsent lacks a topic: he is dealing with the development of a national identity as it emerged in the early nineteenth and as it has re-emerged in the years following the break-up of the east bloc; it is not that he lacks erudition: he commands most of the pertinent primary and secondary sources in most of the pertinent languages (Czech, Slovak, German, Latin). But the structure he has chosen for his ideas works against him, and the ideas themselves are all too often willful. The result is disconcerting.
The resurgence of nationalism in Central Europe, that is, in the region of its birth, cries out for the historical contextualization. Pynsent takes two closely intertwined cases&emdash;the Czech and the Slovak&emdash;and would seem to oblige. In the second chapter, "The Myth of Slavness: Pavel Josef Safarík and Jan Kollár," he deals extensively with the seminal National Revival Period, and in the fourth and final chapter, "Czech Self-Definition through Martyrs," he devises a martyrology ranging from the tenth-century King Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czechs, to Jan Palach, the Czech student who set fire to himself in protest against the Soviet invasion of his country. The first chapter, which he calls "Questions of Identity and Responsibility in Václav Havel," has little to do with the case, since most of what Havel has written about identity and responsibility predates his metamorphosis into a politician and is concerned with identity of self and individual responsibility rather than nationhood and nationality. But while the Havel chapter can at least be nominally construed as tallying with half of the book's subtitle&emdash;Havel is a Czech and does treat issues of personality&emdash;what are we to do with "The Decadent Self," which considers the philosophical underpinnings of the European Decadent movement with only passing reference to Czech (let alone Slovak) writers?
It is one thing to "demythify" the ideologically purblind: a jingoist here, a would-be scholar there; it is quite another thing to dismiss the deliberations of minds like Frantisek Palacký, T.G. Masarýk, and Jan Patocka as mythopoeia. Yet Pynsent sees fit to do just that, presumably because these men have to some extent become myths themselves: Palacký as the "father of Czech history," Masarýk as the "philosopher-king" who masterminded and led the First Republic, and Patocka&emdash;most recently&emdash;as a dissident hounded literally to death by his interrogators. All three were active in the political arena, where such oversimplifications are inevitable. Pynsent oversimplifies in the opposite direction, rejecting Palacký's claim for the democratic underpinnings of Hussite thought, rejecting the existence of a subsequent democratic ideal in Czech history and its development in Masarýk and Patocka, rejecting the democratic nature of the First Republic as a myth (p. 186). But Palacký was a meticulous historian with a positivist, not romantic bent, Masarýk and Patocka (the latter a major disciple of Husserl) sophisticated philosophers at home in a number of disciplines. Their ideas on nationality deserve a more even-handed treatment than they receive here 8 .
8 For just such an evenhanded treatment of Masarýk in a context similar to that of the book under review, see Ernest Gellner, "The Price of Velvet: Tomáš Masarýk and Václav Havel" in the Budapest Review of Books, 1992/4, pp. 135-41.
Throughout the book Pynsent shows a penchant for barbs and slurs, from the gratuitous characterization of a critic as an "amateur psychologist" who "writes with the elegance of a three-legged dromedary chasing a mosquito" (p. 139) to the unsubstantiated representation of Rudolf Slánsky, who was purged and executed in 1952, as the "vile but greatly pitied Communist boss" (p. 230). It is somehow at one with an even more disturbing penchant of his, namely, that of pooh-poohing every attempt to make sense of history. Given the disastrous consequences of trying to impose a sense on history in the twentieth century, a certain skepticism is warranted. However, by denigrating all attempts to search for a sense&emdash;that is, by putting brilliant thinkers like Masarýk or Patocka on a level with nineteenth-century romantics and twentieth-century jingoists&emdash;he may épater a few bourgeois but he will have served the cause of scholarship less creditably than he would otherwise have done.