Thursday, October 2, 2014

A reminiscence

Radical Philosophy 37 (Summer 1984) published ‘The Latter Days of Philosophy’ introduced by the Editor: ‘The following piece is extracted from a longer article Julius Tomin sent to The Guardian in response to their series on philosophy earlier this year. The Guardian did not publish anything by him.’ Enclosed in it is an episode which I here describe anew.

Walker wrote in The Guardian (January 19, 1984): ‘The Czechs were polite, but they really did not want to hear any of the Marxist-inclined people like Steven Lukes because they had enough of Marxism, and they did want to hear right-wing people like Roger Scruton not because they were any good, but simply because they were conservative and this was new.’

Steven Lukes did not lecture on Marxism in my seminar, but Charles Taylor did; his lecture was not a success. The blame lay entirely with me. Charles Taylor visited my seminar the day my wife returned from hospital bruised all over her face – the consequences of an assault. Zdena Tomin was at that time the only spokesperson of the Human Rights movement Charter 77 left at large; the other two spokespersons were imprisoned. I worked as a night watchman in Prague Zoo and I was at work when our neighbour phoned me that a masked man attacked my wife. Before she was taken to the hospital Na Františku, she asked the neighbour to phone me that I should visit her as soon as possible. So I left the Zoo immediately. Zdena told me in the hospital that before getting into the ambulance, she hid her handbag in a bush in front of our house; it was full of Charter 77 materials.

Instructed by my wife, I retrieved the bag, returned to the Zoo, and spent the night writing a letter to the President of the Republic: ‘Was it to be a murder? Coming home from night-watch I would have been the first to find her dead. Was I to be accused of her murder?’ I typed the letter with as many carbon copies as the typewriter could take, left the Zoo at dawn – it was in June, the nights were short – and distributed the copies putting them into the letterboxes of Charter 77 signatories I trusted. With every copy delivered I began to breathe with greater ease; our chances of surviving the incident were growing. (The letter was promptly published in the German newspaper Die Welt.)

Later in the day I revisited the hospital. The chief nurse refused to let me see my wife; she said that she was in a coma and that the doctor forbade any visits. I told her that I visited my wife in the hospital during the night: ‘I go now to the Central Committee [of the Communist Party] to inform them about the incident. When I come back, I shall insist on seeing my wife.’ When I returned to the hospital after visiting the Central Committee I was allowed to see my wife; she had a severe headache but wanted to go home as soon as possible.

The next day I learnt that my wife was not to be murdered in our house; both she and I were to be abducted. I was summoned to the local police station; the interrogator wanted to know where I had been in the night, why I did not go for the usual night-round through the Zoo. When I then went in the evening to do my night-watch duty, the men in the porter’s Lodge looked at me aghast. They had been told that I had been kidnapped the previous night. The deputy director of the Zoo came to see me, completely drunk: ‘The other night I was told that you were kidnapped and that I should call the police, which I did.’ So I spent the night writing a letter about the incident on the basis of this information, this time addressed to the Minister of Internal Affairs. After returning from the night shift and posting the letter I began to translate it into English. I was in the middle of that work when I was visited by some German students. I had completely forgotten that I had promised them a talk on Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be? Several months previously I had been given the book for that purpose. The students invited me for lunch in Vikárka, a famous restaurant at the Prague Castle. Only some of the group were then supposed to return with me to my flat for the talk, for the flat was too small for the whole group. The students reserved a big hall in the restaurant, just for the group. After the meal, we were about to leave when a torrential rain started to pour down. The Germans paid well, and so we were allowed to stay and have the talk in the restaurant. I devoted my talk to the Charter 77, for its struggle for Human Rights in our country well exemplified Fromm’s notion of ‘to Be’ embraced in preference to ‘to Have’.

That afternoon I brought my wife home from the hospital, and in the evening Charles Taylor came to lecture in my seminar. He offered me five topics. I chose Marxism, for I was sure I could interpret a lecture on Marxism even half asleep. The result was far from glamorous; I was tired and could not do anything but translate what Taylor was saying; I was too tired to interact with him. It was a pity, for we needed a thought provoking discussion on Marxism. In the purges that followed the 1968 invasion of our country by the five Warsaw Pact countries Marxist philosophers turned into anti-Marxists simply as a consequence of being expelled from the Communist Party. In the tense atmosphere of the years that followed it was virtually impossible to have a meaningful discussion about Marxism.

Was it not imperative to overcome such a lack of reflection for the sake of moral and intellectual integrity? Properly challenged and engaged, Taylor could have induced such reflection, but on that evening I was not up to the task. The audience was disappointed, and I realized that we could not afford any more similar performances. For the next lecture, the following day we were heading for an abandoned quarry deep in the woods surrounding the Karlstein Castle. On the way to the railway station I told Charles Taylor: ‘You gave us yesterday a standard university lecture, which is not enough for us. We put our lives at stake for the sake of these seminars, to enjoy free philosophic thought. We do not pay you a penny and yet we ask from you your best.’ Barbara Day reflects on the event: ‘Sitting by a campfire in the June evening Taylor spoke for four hours on Romanticism. Many of those present remember this as the most successful seminar they attended.’ (The Velvet Philosophers, Claridge Press 1999, p. 41)

John Pilger's video 'A faraway country' provides a glimpse into the historical, social, and political situation in which I organized the philosophy seminars.

No comments:

Post a Comment