(This is an English translation of an essay by Josef Jedlicka. Originally published in Czech in "Ceske typy" [Typical Czech heroes], Prague, 1992.)
The brigand Vilem is not a typical Czech literary character. His girlfriend Jarmila is one neither. Karel Hynek Macha never created a representative figure which the Czech nation would accept as an example of typical or symbolic Czechness.
Nevertheless, if we analyse the features which make up the Czech national character - we cannot ignore Macha. On our behalf, he has expressed something hidden, something denied - a part of his work has deeply affected us, although we did not really want this.
Macha has defined the ultimate achievement of Czech lyrical poetry - once and for all, his work is the most superior example of the genre. He offered us himself as an embodiment of authenticity, rebellion, and heroism of the intellectual.
It is absolutely not true that - after a brief, regrettable misunderstanding - Macha soon became to be celebrated as the greatest Czech poet and the prince of poetry. Only outsiders such as young Neruda, weirdos such as Arbes and specialists such as Marten promoted Macha for decades, while the official Czech critics always regarded Macha as one of the names that the young and poor Czech literature could not do without, but his work was often placed - with the help of a few quotations, taken out of context - in a context where it never belonged.
A hundred years had passed before the critic F. X. Salda documented Macha´s true greatness and before his whole work started being the subject of serious analysis and provoked truly informed admiration.
It is also typical for Macha´s position in Czech literature that the victorious communist intelligentsia after the 1948 communist takeover was really embarrassed what to do with Macha, his work and his proudly independent personality. I remember the discussions about whether Macha should be even included in Czech literature - there were times that he was excluded from school readers.
Some of the Czech national prejudices are incredibly lasting. This can be documented by the fact that the same criticism against his work was made during Macha´s lifetime as 150 years after his death.
In 1836, in the year that Macha´s May was published, Josef Kajetan Tyl published in Kvety (Blossoms) his famous criticism of May, outlining the arguments which then pursued Macha for generations. Tyl admits that May has made a profound impression on him, but he says that the whole poem sounds false, it is a trick, produced by a smug individual who only pretends to be deeply in sorrow - that the atmosphere of the poem is unoriginal, borrowed and - what´s worse - unCzech. Tyl criticises Macha for allegedly wasting his talent on "trifles", as though more important things are not needed at the moment.
Arbes understood rather well the crux of the Macha controversy. Tyl is uncapable of judging Macha objectively, but he assumes a defensive position towards him. Maybe Tyl understands Macha, but for ideological reasons he does not WANT to understand him and he is NOT ALLOWED to understand him by his environment. Tyl feels that Macha´s cultural role is very much different from his own. Tyl only believes in his own approach to reality and thus condemns Macha´s "cosmopolitanism". Tyl argues that what the Czechs must do is to serve the national ideal, pursue everyday educational work and create patriotic Czech art...
This is a dispute that has been going on for more than a hundred years on a more general level. It is a dispute between two versions of Czech patriotism - or, to be more precise, it is a dispute of Czech patriotism and a spiritual approach which is criticised as a treachery of Czech patriotism.
The Czechs have usually regarded only the small, untiring, everyday work as proper patriotism. There has always been so much to do: to reform the Czech spelling, to publish a dictionary, to found schools and associations, to organise physical exercises, to write Czech cookbooks, to translate foreign literature, to fight in the Austrian parliament for one´s nation, to learn how to manage communal affairs, to free oneself from the influence of capital and to try to catch up -with Europe, with America, with the Soviet Union...
We have always had so many tasks to fulfill that we included a kind of compulsory satisfaction with little achievements in the concept of our patriotism. We have always easily accepted that we are not original and when a specialist of international stature did grow up amongst the Czechs, like the scientist Jan Evangelista Purkyne, we were proud of him, but we loved him just for going to a local pub for an occasional beer.
Amidst all this petty patriotic work anyone who refused to submit oneself to our patriotic discipline, who wanted to engage in his own innermost existential struggles on Czech territory, who understood his Czechness in broad, creative, international terms - was regarded as a nuisance. We really hated the consequences of such an attitude - such an attitude was an attack against our idyllic patriotism.
The first critics accused Macha of being "alien, non-Czech". In the 1870s, Josef Durdik provided meticulous evidence of this. Finally there was proof: it was now possible to pigeonhole Macha as an "imitator of Byron". This was nothing disgraceful - the Czechs have always liked characteristics such as "the Czech Goethe" or "the Czech Paganini".
Durdik found exact correlations to many of Macha´s verses providing concrete references to particular lines of Lara, Corsair and The Prisoner of Chillon, thus depriving them of their disturbing mysteriousness. Then it was easy to go on in the analysis and to prove that Macha´s plot was "thoroughly unCzech", the individual motifs were "unCzech", that Macha´s landscape wass totally foreign and that Macha´s philosophy, as it was put by the great Czech historian and politician Palacky "did not contain any ideas".
It is one of the greatest mysteries of Macha and one of the greatest miracles of poetry as such that today, when we look at Macha through the prism of excellent and exhausting structuralist and phenomenological analysis, we must admit that all the 19th century findings about Macha were correct - or, almost correct.
A brigand, dressed in a coat with a red lining like a carbonari, an aristocratic leader of a group of conspirators is quite unthinkable in the Czech Lands, in a country where even notorious criminals have always repented in prison and humbly weeded vegetables in the prison garden alottment. Czech girls are not "as pale as an amaranth, withered in the spring" and they do not pine away in a white robe on a cliff. It is obvious that the plot of May does not take place near the pond in Doksany (now called "Macha´s Lake") but that the lake is a lake in Italy....
Everyone who in the name of patriotism has condemned and rejected Macha´s work, everyone who has tried to interpret this incredibly early manifestation of existential anguish as a patriotic tirade - all these people have eventually succumbed to Macha´s magic and accepted the arbitrariness of his composition.
Because in spite of all rationality and all ordinary common sense, in spite of all the pedestrian, pragmatic patriotism, in spite of the homey comforts in which we all wish to live undisturbed, in spite of political manipulation which aims to deny us everything great, strong and authentic, since Macha´s times, above the dark hills, a rosy day arises in Bohemia, the morning breeze´s sweet wafting directs the white geese´s flight and bends upon the hills the youthful saplings. We tremble over the sound of a broken harp and get intoxicated on the aroma of wild flowers on barren land and before we become quite old and evil or inhuman, we sometimes do hear, across the vast distances, even across oceans and the mad hubbub of the world the voice of the turtle-dove calling to love.
Because, after all, the truth of the poet is always more that the truth of everyday experience. It is the truth of the poet which leads us to become more human - full human beings.