It’s a tale of two cities. There is the Prague that travelers meet as they enter: an endless succession of socialist concrete apartment houses, socialist sportsfields, socialist parks with socialist cement statues. The hotel we inquired about was unknown to most socialist passersby, and when we finally reached it, we found a modern concrete block, geared to earning foreign currency (some through the services of socialist call girls). The socialist clerk behind the desk was morose and offered the minimum of German or English for information. (Quite different from the one or two people I had stopped on the street, who had a nostalgic spark in their eyes when I addressed them in French. Ah, the Paris connection!)
It was late afternoon, and all we could do was to stare from our 10th-story window in the direction of real Prague, the second of the two cities. But it was so far that we saw nothing.
The next day we took the socialist subway, built on the Paris model but functioning somewhat unsocialistically—that is, very well. We got off at the fifth stop (the third was the Gottwaldowa cultural center, a cement wedding cake) and found ourselves in a Florence of the North! This Prague is a dormant princess—a German one, I may add. Its center, with centuries of art, is majestic and subtle, aristocratic and bourgeois, imperial and Catholic. The Hradcanny castle quartier assembles exquisite architectural marvels, and looking down from the bastion walls you may easily count 50 church steeples—Romanesque, gothic, and baroque—beautifully harmonized. Not only churches: palaces, squares, parks, narrow medieval streets, 19th-century opera, fine statues—all of it bequeathed by the nobility, the church, the empire, or the bourgeoisie. The mark of the Communist regime is only desolation; it built nothing, but only conspired to let the past peel off the walls.
As we turned a corner, we saw the Charles Bridge. It was a religious experience. Imagine a stone bridge, so simple that it fills your eyes and soul at once. None but an art- and learningloving emperor of the “Dark Ages” (Charles IV) would dare build this bridge, then place on its dark sandcolored parapets the black metal statues of saints with gilded crowns, scepters, and crosses. Cars are not allowed; the bridge lives with ordinary humanity, connecting two old parts of Prague like a holy wedding band. At every corner, the streets and squares surprise you with styles, from the 14th to the 19th century. A walk through the old city is like promenading through time, at least as much as in Vienna (Prague too was the capital of an empire), almost as much as in Paris or Rome (both of which are, after all, much more ancient).
Now this was the good news. The bad news is that almost all structures, from the cathedral on Hradcanny to St. Jakob, are in bad repair, the walls peeling and leprous, the churches “closed for restoration,” many buildings practically in a state of collapse. Is this the consequence of ill will, neglect, or lack of funds? Probably all three, but in some places restoration is proceeding, such as on the house where Kafka lived. At every turn Prague breathes an ancient cultural tradition: its church music, its private circles where members read great literature, its cafe terraces, museums, princely palaces, even the tiny workshops behind the castle where alchemists and goldsmiths used to work. (Emperor Rudolf II’s court alchemist was none other than astronomer Kepler.)
Outside the city’s beautiful core, there spreads to infinity the most desolate postwar “living area” I ever saw. The concrete blocks perfectly symbolize Marxist thought and its conception of man. In the city of two Karls—the emperor and Marx—what else can the inhabitants be but morose, unsmiling, often brutal in their contact with each other and with visitors? Restaurants and cafes serve inedible food, waiters are impatient and rude, the clients poorly dressed. It is an all-around proletarization.
Prague provides a great lesson in political philosophy, by its juxtaposition of culture and barbarism. The first is represented by the extraordinary richness of cityscape. Italian, German, Czech, and Flemish architects passed through here, working for bishops, and noble families endowed with tested and subtle taste. These past patrons knew what they wanted and discussed it with their artists. (Only the late-bourgeois of the 19th century and the yuppy generation of this one submit to the “interior decorator” and his showroom taste.) Prague—Catholic, Hapsburg-imperial—became a miracle of harmony by which the excellence of taste dared express itself in many styles. This town is the crowning beauty of Catholic Central Europe; it suffered from no bombs.
Now it suffers from barbarism. This jewel box is squeezed by endlessly stretching Stalinist blocs, the proof that regimes and their art are in subtle correspondence. Ideologues do not build but construct; they mechanize inner life because it is the source of imagination and incalculable desires. Nowhere did I understand Marxism as fully as at Sankt Jakob Platz. In their greed for the dollar and the deutsche mark, the gray and nameless authorities (one inevitably thinks of Kafka, whose windows happen to be nearby) must have decided on its restoration to attract tourists. But there seems to be a glee (Schadenfreude) on the notices posted: “temporarily closed to the public”—or no notices at all, disinforming you thereby that you stand on architecturally sacred ground and that you could be in a wonderland, had the authorities not decided otherwise. In short, I recommend Prague to lovers of beauty and to the students of art (although the two are not necessarily the same), as well as to those in need of a lesson in the finer type of destruction that Marxism inflicts on God’s and man’s handiwork.