Friday, May 8, 2015

Why in May?

On Wednesday May 20 I shall read in front of Balliol Homer’s Iliad. Why in May? Thirty five years ago, in May 1980 I was visited in Prague by Roger Scruton and Kathy Wilkes. Both visits were memorable. Roger came on Saturday May 10 or Sunday May 11. I was in bed, holding a hunger strike in protest against the continued harassment of my philosophy classes by the Secret Police. I had just written a letter of complaint, addressed to the Minister for Internal Affairs bearing the date of May 10; I gave Roger a copy of it. When I was summoned to the Police on May 21, the Police had on their desk an English version of my letter, published in New Statesman on 16 May 1980. As I have learnt from Kathy Wilkes, Roger went to a park with one of my students, Lenka Dvořáková; together they translated the letter (Roger was learning Czech) and Roger published it. I appreciated his speedy action. The letter was as follows [where an explanatory remark is needed I put it in square brackets]:

‘Mr Minister, On Wednesday 7 May at noon I delivered in person to the Federal Ministry of Internal Affairs a letter in which I informed you about my serious worries that servants of your department intend once more to misuse the 19th paragraph of law 40/74 which empowers members of the security forces ‘to demand the required explanation from anyone who could contribute to the clarification of matters important to the investigation of a civil offence, or other breach of statutory duty, or help in the search for missing persons or property’. I then let you know of my serious anxiety that members of the security forces would like to misuse the above paragraph in order to impede me and my friends from engaging in our joint study of the elements of philosophical thought.

On Wednesday the 7th at seven o’clock in the evening I wanted to give a class on Aristotle’s Metaphysics in my flat, to a few of my friends. I told you [in my letter] that, should my anxieties prove justified and the security forces, under your command, prevent me by force from lecturing on Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book 1, I would in protest begin a 10-day hunger-strike. Mr Minister, let me describe to you the manner of my last interrogation following the invitation ‘to give an explanation in accordance with paragraph 19 of law number 40/74; and in the case of non-attendance to face a summons’.

As I informed you in my last letter, I was invited to the police station on Františka Křížka no. 24. I accepted the invitation and came at three in the afternoon: I waited a moment in the entrance hall until the arrival of an elderly gentleman, who informed that he was not acquainted with the matter, and the investigating officer was on his way. Then he began to talk about music, and its part in the life of the nation, saying that, so long as our country lives, so too will we play the music of Smetana.

He turned to the subject of baroque music, and of the deep impression which it leaves in the human spirit: ‘Without music, Mr Tomin, I could not imagine my life. I do not want to reproach our modern youth; nevertheless, nowadays young people do not understand music as we older people understand it. Bach said that all men should learn to understand music, and it is true that, in my case, I did not grasp the meaning of Smetana’s Bartered Bride as I now do. As a boy I could not understand my mother when she asked me to sit in the meadow and listen to the song of a skylark. Music is like love. Sensible women tell us that best lovers are men between forty and fifty. Take Beethoven, for example. How pure and sensitive a soul, and yet how revolutionary was his music! He would have been killed among the first by the Nazis, for they could not understand such music. So gentle a man, and how loved by women! His nephew took advantage of it, indeed appropriating for himself as mistresses the women who loved his uncle. But Beethoven needed to express, in love just as in music, sensitivity before all other things. And so he lived, in the end, with a hunchback.’

The elderly gentleman in civilian clothes recounted that he worked as an extra in the Theatre, and that he had managed to talk about art with our greatest artists. He described to me the structure of a violin, and the art involved in making one and mentioned that he had discussed the problem with some of our greatest scientists. [Probably no vain boast; the officers of the Secret Police could discuss any time anything with anybody they chose; anyone daring to spurn their advances was bound to face dire consequences.] Then, changing the subject, he referred to the concerts arranged for the Prague spring festival, and commented on the various performances of Smetana’s My country. ‘Mr Tomin, how Smetana must have loved Czech people; what beautiful relations must he have had with the peasantry!’

At about 5.30, the elderly gentleman with musical interests was replaced by a young man, also in civilian clothes, who announced that I could have been sentenced for damaging the interests of the state abroad, and he began to read extracts from the foreign press which described, for the main part accurately, the harassment by the police of our Wednesday discussions of philosophy.

Shortly after half past six I was transferred to the police station at Bartolomějská Street [the Police headquarters]. There members of the Secret Police worked on me. Two of them in particular impressed themselves on my memory. Policeman A – they neglected to introduce themselves – walked around the interrogation office, and every time he passed me, struck me bluntly on my head, and then he pulled my hair, saying, ‘Don’t go to sleep here, Mr Tomin’. He took a step to the door, a step back, and repeated the performance. I could relax only during the five steps he sometimes took towards the window and the five steps back to me. For variety, policeman A merely pulled violently at the hair of my temples, one side when going to the window, and the other side when walking to the door.

Another policeman stayed in the room meanwhile, standing motionless by the window. They did not interrogate me, but conducted a dialogue between themselves. A: ‘Could this be a philosopher?’ B: ‘Fortunately his philosophy can be seen through by a little child.’ A: ‘He is crazy and belongs to a mental hospital.’ A: ‘They say he has a doctorate. I would like to know what he gave for it.’ B: ‘He is in the business for money, what can you expect? He must have bought the degree as well.’ After some time A exclaimed: ‘We forbid your lectures! And you will listen to us! And get up! You will stand up when I talk to you!’

I recalled, Mr Minister, the second paragraph of law 40/79 concerning the security forces [i.e. the police]: ‘The security forces help the citizen to exact his rights and to maintain his dignity and personal freedom in accordance with the law and interests of our socialist society.’

I remained sitting. Policeman A and B jumped on me, pulled me up to my feet, seized me by the collar of the shirt and pushed me to the wall. Policeman B: ‘Don’t lean against the wall! Don’t make our wall dirty! Take one step forward!’ I made one step forward. Policeman B: ‘Now we see that you can learn obedience! And it didn’t take very much.’ So I went to sit down. They shouted, and demanded that I stand up; then jumping again on me they twisted my arm behind my back, and finally through me to the floor. When I tried to lift at least my head policeman A hit it down. They were breathing heavily, and moving wildly around the room. Policeman A kicked my head and, for a moment, they jumped on me once more and, by twisting my arms, raised me almost to my feet before letting me fall again. Then they took my legs and began to lift them, in order to hold me standing on my head. [Had I had a headache, it would have been unbearable.]

At last, no doubt through fatigue, they called for help and with the help of a third policeman made me sit down on the chair. Others arrived and were told: ‘Imagine! He has been lying on the floor again! What an exhibitionist!’ Their reply was: ‘He should be in a mental hospital. Everyone knows that!’ After a while B picked some of the official record paper: ‘We warn you; stop your lecturing activities immediately. Otherwise we prevent it by every lawful means. Do you take this warning?’

I dictated and they wrote in the record: ‘I cannot accept this warning since it involves a contradiction. I am certain that there are no lawful means in our country’ At this moment they interrupted me, saying that I had no right to the words ‘our country’ since my country is England. The official record then remained unfinished and unsigned.

The group of policemen who had worked on me for two hours left, to be replaced once more by the elderly gentleman who had spoken previously to me about Smetana’s My country. He seemed a little tired now, and so he spoke about his father whom he loved very much, and who smoked a hundred cigarettes a day. In the mornings he would cough heavily and he was now very ill; they all, mother an children, had to sit continually in the atmosphere of cigarette smoke. Apparently this habit of his father’s had begun in the war, and it was for this reason that the elderly gentleman remained a non-smoker. He spoke of his mother who had prophetic dreams which would be confirmed on the radio in the mornings. He himself was a materialist; nevertheless it seemed to him that dreams could be transmitted, just as radio or television waves are transmitted, through space; a doctor had explained to him that the brain is more sensitive at night and able to pick up influences which would not affect it by day.

Then policeman B returned with his company, and I was taken to Konviktská St where I was detained for 48 hours in a cell. The reason for the detention was not given. When I at last got home I learned that during that same evening [of May 7] eleven of my friends were taken from my flat, interrogated and detained for forty-eight hours. Mr Minister, I thereby announce that on Wednesday 7th at 6.30 pm in the evening I began a ten day hunger strike.’

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