Prague-ing

  • Why do I procrastinate so much on blog posts, even to the extent of not blogging about a trip until well after it’s over? Because, while coming up with the ideas (i.e., the jokes) is trivial, writing the connective tissue is a pain in the ass.
  • Bulleted lists are easier. Expect me to fall back on them more often.
  • So, Prague. It was nice. Really nice. Nicer than Amsterdam even.
  • Like a fool, I somehow expected that, since it’s been less than two decades since the Velvet Revolution, Prague would still be some sort of backwards city in consonant-intensive Eastern Europe, grateful for any tourists it could get.
  • I dramatically overestimated how long it would take for a former Communist stronghold to become Disneyland, a.k.a. the college backpacker capital of the world.
  • I’m told there are two reasons for this transformation: (1) castles and cathedrals that weren’t completely reduced to rubble by WWII, and (2) cheap beer (less than $1 a pint). Of course, factoring in the cost of airfare and hotels, you’d have to drink hundreds of beers to save money. But we are talking about college backpackers.
  • Have you heard of Jan Hus? A century before Martin Luther, he was already pulling the same shtick: condemning the selling of indulgences, advocating a return to Christ’s original teachings, etc. Of course the Catholics burned him at the stake. This led to the Hussite Wars, which I guess I would’ve learned about had I stayed in high school long enough to take AP Euro. Anyway, there’s a big statue of Mr. Hus in Prague’s Old Town Square (you can see a photo of it on Hus’s Wikipedia page). Get this: the statue is glaring angrily at a nearby Catholic church. As you might have gathered, I’ve never been much of an art critic, but I think I more-or-less understood what the sculptor was getting at.
  • I also saw the biggest telescope in the Czech Republic.
  • Oh, yeah: there was a conference. It was about complexity or something.
  • Seriously, it was an excellent conference, except that the lecture room wasn’t air-conditioned. As a direct result, I can remember very little of the talks. (Is it better to contribute to global warming or to experience it?)
  • If you’re ever in Prague, definitely visit the Museum of Communism (“back-handed bribes accepted in our gift shop”), especially if you’ve never been to a Soviet-bloc country before (as I hadn’t). Learning about the 19th century’s worst idea on a North American campus is different from learning about it on Wenceslas Square.
  • Unfortunately, when I visit European cities like Amsterdam and Prague, I can never completely forget that I’m walking through a big murder scene. (“Thank you, waiter, for bringing me my chicken! And thank you, as well, for not deporting me to Theresienstadt or shooting me into an open pit! When you get a chance, could you maybe refill my water?”)
  • Why does Prague have one the best Judaica collections in the world? Because the Nazis shipped their loot there, expecting to open a historical museum about the human bacillus they had successfully eradicated. (There is such a museum today, but run by the bacillus itself.)
  • Speaking of which, have you heard of the Golem? It was a clay robot allegedly built in the 1500′s by Rabbi Judah Löw of Prague. This robot, you see, went rampaging around, causing random destruction, until the townspeople agreed to halt their anti-Semitic attacks. (A bit like the IDF in Lebanon.) According to legend, the Golem’s remains are still in the attic of Prague’s Old-New Synagogue, and can be reanimated if necessary. The attic is closed to visitors, but the guidebooks say that recently some great rabbi was allowed to ascend to the attic, and “returned white and trembling.” (As a friend of mine remarked, they forgot to mention that the old fellow was also white and trembling before he went up the attic.) In any case, the Golem was apparently out of service when most needed.

32 Responses to “Prague-ing”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    1. what about kafka ?

    2. the man in the blue shirt on the left is looking angrily at you.

  2. Scott Says:

    1. what about kafka ?

    Yeah, I went to his house. Then I felt like a doofus tourist for visiting an author’s house without having read any of his actual books. So I bought The Trial and read it on the flight back to Toronto. Alright, I skimmed toward the end. The entire novel is basically a depressing joke that takes way too long to get to the punchline.

    (See why I didn’t say anything before? Now this whole thread will become another referendum on what a caveman I am for not pretending to like things that I don’t.)

    2. the man in the blue shirt on the left is looking angrily at you.

    Good point!

  3. secret milkshake Says:

    Hus & husites: Hus was a pretty enlightened figure (a theology don at Chrales Uni) and pretty brave and honest guy when you come to think of it – but the husites were one bloody disaster. Disaster that took quarter of century and quarter of entire population of Bohemia to get over. Husites were pretty much suicidal jihadists everybody was afraid off. The rebelion that started after Hus was ceremonialy burned on church council in Konstanz was much about peasant poverty and Kings abuses of power as it was about religion. Pretty much the whole society disintegrated while Pope was sending repeated Crusades to Bohemia and everybody was busy murdering everybody else. While other cuntries had renaisance, Bohemia had this religious and class warfare, truly of civic war proportions, folowed by plague pandemics.

  4. Scott Says:

    Thanks for the Cliff Notes, milkshake!

  5. Anonymous Says:

    read the castle sometimes, it’s better.

  6. paul beame Says:

    Though it mostly takes place in New York, Michael Chabon’s wonderful The Amazing Adventures and Kavalier and Clay gives an entertaining and insightful perspective on the Golem, events in 20th century Prague, and the origins of the modern comic superhero.

  7. Scott Says:

    Thanks for the recs!

  8. Johan Richter Says:

    Wow, Scott you’ve really got excellent taste. “The Trial” really is bad. In fact I consider it to the most overrated classic work of litterature.

  9. Jud Says:

    Oh, you haven’t really experienced “The Trial” until you’ve seen it with your high school German class in a New York theater – in German, of course. Only thing I remember is that every minute or two someone was yelling [phonetic spelling] “Yozef Kah!”

    OTOH, it’s hard to claim this stuff is irrelevant when the guvmint apparently expects similar methods to produce “intelligence” vital to protecting Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo and similar installations vitally important to Our Way of Life.

  10. secret milkshake Says:

    The first half of Metamorphosis was very funny but then it kind of limps, till the end. Still, it is pretty short and concise, from a dude who hardly ever finished any piece he worked on.

  11. wolfgang Says:

    Scott,

    Lubos is on vacation in his home country. Perhaps you will run into him …

  12. Scott Says:

    Wolfgang: While there’s nothing in life I’d enjoy more, I’m already back in Waterloo.

  13. Jonathan Katz Says:

    One of my favorite short stories of all time is “The Hunger Artist” (by Kafka). Take a half-hour to read it and see what you think. (On second though, I’m guessing you won’t like it but what the hell…)

  14. Scott Says:

    Yeah, The Hunger Artist was pretty good. I also liked The Metamorphosis. Maybe Kafka’s surrealist despair works better in short stories than novels.

  15. Cheshire Cat Says:

    “The entire novel is basically a depressing joke that takes way too long to get to the pounchline.”

    “In fact I consider it the most overrated classic work of litterature.”

    “The first half of Metamorphosis was very funny but then it kind of limps, till the end.”

    Keep the laughs coming, guys!

    P.S. “litterature” – how’s that for a Freudian slip?

  16. Scott Says:

    Just when I was starting to worry that the sneers of the Kafka-snobs were all in my imagination…

  17. Douglas Knight Says:

    The Czech Republic as rich as Portugal (in PPP).

    secret milkshake
    The rebelion…was much about peasant poverty and Kings abuses of power as it was about religion.

    You could say similar things about the Reformation.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    “The entire novel is basically a depressing joke that takes way too long to get to the punchline.”

    “In fact I consider it the most overrated classic work…”

    “… not pretending to like things that I don’t”

    You are not suppose to “like” it,
    it sounds strange to “rate” it,
    it does not really have a “punchline”, and it is not a “joke”. It is indeed depressing.

    “another referendum”

    Another? where were the earlier ones.

  19. chris Says:

    I agree, Kafka’s short stories and essays are vastly more enjoyable than his “novels”. Especially the little tidbits of poetic insight that can be appreciated even when there isn’t a global point. (A bit like my life, come to think of it, except without the poetic insights). He always struck me as a poet in the wrong industry.

  20. John Sidles Says:

    To my knowledge, the only Kafka story about complexity theory is An Imperial Message.

    It is very short — more like a theorem about cognition than a story.

  21. Johan Richter Says:

    P.S. “litterature” – how’s that for a Freudian slip?

    That’s right, make fun of us foreigners for our spelling errors. I am pretty certain though that my English is better than your Swedish:-)

  22. Anonymous Says:

    the imperial message –

    yeah this one is about hypercomputation, or its impossibility. it is part of the trial too.

  23. Niel Says:

    Apparently Kafa was not a constructivist. The Imperial Messaage asserts the fact you can never learn the message of the Emporer, because there is no finite route the messenger can take to you; however, you have still somehow learned that there is such a message.

  24. John Sidles Says:

    Rounding out the Shtetl/Kafka theme is this delightful play about Kafka and Reb Nahman, which links to this wonderful essay on informatics, which is provided by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

    The point being, that the above essay (written by a obviously skilled and hilariously literate librarian) provides a charming and IMHO realistic portrayal of the perspective in which the present-day complexity literature may come to be viewed in the coming centuries.

    The above is provided as a stimulus to those who agree with Paul Wolpe’s lead-off editorial in the June 16, 2006 Cell, which asserts “Scientists have an obligation, individually as well as collectively, to reflect on the ends, not just the means, of scientific work. Ethical conversation should be part of `normal science’ in every laboratory, academic center, and corporate office.”

  25. walt Says:

    Kafka’s short stories are better than his novels, which were not published in his lifetime, and were supposed to be burned on his death. (His executor ignored this clause of his will.) Pace Anonymous, I read somewhere that in fact Kafka intended all of his works to be comedies, and that he would read them aloud to his friends, who would laugh.

  26. Paraphrene Says:

    This post has been removed by the author.

  27. Paraphrene Says:

    Kafka was translated, I’m sure? I tried reading The Metamorphosis, and now I know why he wanted to burn it. Unless it was a bad translation. It was a bad analogy. They seem to live in a world where people turning into giant insects is a natural phenomenon. They would have hired a priest, unless they really did hire a priest. I only read up to the part where their reactions stopped making sense, and my mind rejected it.

  28. Anonymous Says:

    What did you think of the figure of a Jew holding a moneybag next to the clock in Old Town Square? I guess 15th-century Prague wasn’t exactly politically correct.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Talking of Kafka’s short stories, my favorite one is “the great wall of china”. Highly recommeded.
    –kunal

  30. Scott Says:

    What did you think of the figure of a Jew holding a moneybag next to the clock in Old Town Square? I guess 15th-century Prague wasn’t exactly politically correct.

    I missed that! I did see the golden Hebrew letters (“kadosh kadosh kadosh”) over the crucifix on the Charles Bridge, which a Jew on trial for blasphemy was apparently forced to pay for as a humiliation.

  31. Johan Richter Says:

    Oh, I think they were politically correct. After all, Huss could tell you what would happen if you were not politically correct.

    It is just that they had a different opion of what was PC.

  32. ano Says:

    Here is a poem called “The Golem”, written by Borges:

    If, as the Greek maintains in the Cratylus,
    a name is the archetype of a thing,
    the rose is in the letters that spell rose
    and the Nile entire resounds in its name’s ring.

    So, composed of consonants and vowels,
    there must exist one awe-inspiring word
    that God inheres in — that, when spoken, holds
    Almightiness in syllables unslurred.

    Adam knew it in the Garden, so did the stars.
    The rusty work of sin, so the cabbalists say,
    obliterated it completely;
    no generation has found it to this day.

    The cunning and naivete of men
    are limitless. We know there came a time
    when God’s people, searching for the Name,
    toiled in the ghetto, matching rhyme to rhyme.

    One memory stands out, unlike the rest –
    dim shapes always fading from time’s dim log.
    Still fresh and green the memory persists
    of Judah Leon, a rabbi once in Prague.

    Thirsty to know things only known to God,
    Judah Leon shuffled letters endlessly,
    trying them out in subtle combinations
    till at last he uttered the Name that is the Key,

    the Gate, the Echo, the Landlord, and the Mansion,
    over a dummy which, with fingers wanting grace,
    he fashioned, thinking to teach it the arcana
    of Words and Letters and of Time and Space.

    The simulacrum lifted its drowsy lids
    and, much bewildered, took in color and shape
    in a floating world of sounds. Following this,
    it hesitantly took a timid step.

    Little by little it found itself, like us,
    caught in the reverberating weft
    of After, Before, Yesterday, Meanwhile, Now,
    You, Me, Those, the Others, Right and Left.

    That cabbalist who played at being God
    gave his spacey offspring the nickname Golem.
    (In a learned passage of his volume,
    these truths have been conveyed to us by Scholem.)

    To it the rabbi would explain the universe –
    “This is my foot, this yours, this is a clog” –
    year in, year out, until the spiteful thing
    rewarded him by sweeping the synagogue.

    Perhaps the sacred name had been misspelled
    or in its uttering been jumbled or too weak.
    The potent sorcery never took effect:
    man’s apprentice never learned to speak.

    Its eyes, less human than doglike in their look,
    and even less a dog’s than eyes of a thing,
    would follow every move the rabbi made
    about a confinement always gloomy and dim.

    Something coarse and abnormal was in the Golem,
    for the rabbi’s cat, as soon as it moved about,
    would run off and hide. (There’s no cat in Scholem
    but across the gulf of time I make one out.)

    Lifting up to its God its filial hands,
    it aped its master’s devotions — even to the least –
    or, with a stupid smile, would bend far over
    in concave salaams the way men do in the East.

    The rabbi watched it fondly and not a little
    alarmed as he wondered: “How could I bring
    such a sorry creature into this world
    and give up my leisure, surely the wisest thing?

    What made me supplement the endless series
    of symbols with one more? Why add in vain
    to the knotty skein always unravelling
    another cause and effect, with not one gain?”

    In his hour of anguish and uncertain light,
    upon his Golem his eyes would come to rest.
    Who is to say what God must have been feeling,
    Looking down and seeing His rabbi so distressed?