"Heroes of the Working Class"? Work in Czechoslovak Films of the New-Wave and Postcommunist Years

By Owen, Jonathan | Framework, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

"Heroes of the Working Class"? Work in Czechoslovak Films of the New-Wave and Postcommunist Years


Owen, Jonathan, Framework


If we are to believe the pop u lar ste reo type, embraced domestically as well as abroad, Czechoslovak culture and the theme of work make for an incongruous and unhappy mix. In a 1992 survey investigating the Czech public's perceptions of the Czech national character, "laziness" was one of the most prominent characteristics cited.1 A number of the Czechs' most beloved literary representatives indeed reinforce the notion of a culture unconvinced of the virtues of hard work: Jaroslav Hasek's iconic literary creation The Good Soldier svejk (whose illustration once adorned every Czech workplace alongside the slogan "Take it easy") is easily seen to exemplify a placid, work- shy sensualism, while the equally eminent Karel Capek went as far as to write a jocular quasi- manifesto, "In Praise of Idleness," extolling a disengaged, almost Zen- like inactivity.2 If Slovak identity seems less firmly wedded to such associations than in the Czech case, internal and external cultural represen ta tions of the lazy, anarchic, and hedonistic Slovak still abound.3

Yet, such generalized perceptions and self- definitions belie, at the least, a complex reality. Czech o slo vak i a's twentieth- century experiences of "really existing socialism" may have fostered and even sanctioned much badly and unwillingly performed work, yet communism's official ideology of course expounds the virtue and plea sure of (physical) work and emphasizes the necessity of intensive labor in the building of a socialist future. It is worth recalling that this ideology was neither alien nor marginal to Czechoslovak po liti cal life prior to 1948, and that it established its totalizing grip with considerable pop u lar support. Moving beyond "orthodox" communist principles, there are other important and influential Czechoslovak cultural movements that valorize work. The 1920s avant- garde movement Devetsil is perhaps best known for propounding a leisure culture of breezy irrationality and epicurean delight, yet Devetsil devised a dualistic program whose alternative pole was a Constructivist vision emphasizing labor efficiency and rationalized, streamlined production. Gustav Machatý's Extase/Ecstasy (CS, 1933), the work of a filmmaker loosely connected with Devetsil, may be remembered for its overt eroticism, but it closes with a paean to the virile, collective joys of physical labor. For the philosophical currents of Marxist revisionism that emerged in the liberalized 1960s, work is not simply potentially pleasur able but integral to our human identity. According to the de cade's key Marxist phi los o pher, Karel Kosík, "man" forms himself "in work and through work," his concrete transformation of the world comprising the means by which "socio- human reality" is constructed.4 In an implicit attack on the reifying, dehumanizing condition of the worker in modern socialist as well as capitalist societies, Kosík insists upon work as our chief possibility of selfrealization, of "praxis," and urges the restoration of a Renaissance- era unity of work and creation.

If these valorizations are essentially the diverse sprouts of Marxist soil, alternative traditions also can be said to privilege work. Václav Havel, in his important essay "The Power of the Powerless," cites the principle of "smallscale work" (drobná práce), as formulated by the found er and first president of the Czechoslovak state, T. G. Masaryk. Advocating "honest and responsible work" that might "stimulate national creativity and national self- confidence," that principle apparently "took root in Czechoslovak society" and achieved wide, resilient success.5 The Masarykian ideal may increasingly be stifled under the enforced slackness of late socialism, yet the activities of Havel and his fellow dissidents, as Havel notes, can themselves be considered a form of "small scale work." Indeed Havel's conception of dissidence renders it closely comparable to our typical experience of work. Effective dissidence is, above all, a matter of concrete, "oft- repeated and consistent" actions that are imbricated in everyday life. …

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