In Praise of Bernardism

In “The Good Soldier Schweik” we find the following episode: a certain teacher at a commercial academy who had deserted from the front avoided being court-martialled and hanged by pretending he was the victim of his genes and enumerating the most varied maladies and disasters that had befallen him and his family. “Lord, you should have seen how glad they were to discharge him from the army,” wrote Jaroslav Hašek, “and just in case it should come in useful about five rookies occupying the same cell all jotted it down on scraps of paper. It went something like this: Father alcoholic. Mother prostitute. 1st sister (drowned). 2nd sister (train). Brother (from a bridge). Grandpa † wife, paraffin, set alight. 2nd grandma (gypsies, matches) + etc.” It didn’t help the poor fellows much at the time, but the opinion that a person is more or less the automatic outcome of inherited traits and surrounding influences, has deep roots. The technical term for such a conception of a human as a being determined, that is directly controlled, by inner and outer circumstances, is determinism. We even come across it today, most often in the popular form of an excuse, when we try to explain our failures, dubious deeds or simply our inertia to others, and above all to ourselves.

I do not wish in any way to question the fact that certain propensities and aptitudes, for example a tendency to get certain illnesses, really are passed on genetically from parent to child, nor to deny that our environment and experience are to some extent responsible for forming us – I am just concerned with to what extent this is true and above all the fact that we are not doomed to be the passive victims of these influences.

            Allow me now to look at it from a rather different angle: not long ago England saw the death of a certain Jeffrey Bernard, a well-known journalist, drunkard and hothead, a legendary figure in London’s bohemian circles. I don’t know which aptitudes he inherited and which he absorbed from his surroundings, the only thing that is certain is that his intense manner of living left its mark on him, and so his last years were spent in a wheelchair, with amputated legs and non-functioning kidneys that forced him to undergo regular dialyses in hospital; moreover, he was dependant on the help of hired nurses, with whom he waged a running battle for a letup in his strict regimen as, for instance, he was not only forbidden to drink alcohol, but he also had to strictly regulate other fluids quite harmless to one’s health. How do I know all this? In this situation, which we needn’t hesitate to call depressing, Jeffrey Bernard published a weekly newspaper column under the title of “A Wretched Life”, full of observations and black gallows humour, mostly directed at himself. He even let his newspaper send him – in a wheelchair and accompanied by a nurse – on a trip to Morocco and he wrote an article about how on arriving there he had immediately collapsed and spent the rest of his stay fighting for his life in hospital. (I mention this with such admiration, because although I can move my upper and lower limbs reasonably well, even if I am to travel no farther than a nearby town, I can immediately think of at least a thousand good reasons for not going). One day, however, Bernard decided that he had had enough of it; he wrote a declaration that he was not interested in undergoing another dialysis (I suspect this was influenced by the fact that he was not allowed to smoke during the six-hour procedure) and, in spite of the doctors’ emphatic warning that he would die within a week, he had himself taken home. When his friends came to persuade him to think again, he replied that he couldn’t, because how would it look if he kept changing his mind. And he died.

            It may surprise you that after such an introduction I begin talking about culture, but I  only intend it to serve as an illustration of what I am saying. We can still remember how warning lamentations were to be heard immediately after the November revolution, claiming that our book market, television, theatres and cinemas would be flooded with commercial trash from the West, which would push out valuable original Slovak art, thus condemning it to languish and die, while our defenceless children would be exposed to Disney kitsch. Thus our beautifully illustrated Slovak children’s books, full of interesting ideas, would become a thing of the past, to say nothing of the harm this cultural garbage would do to our minds. These lamentations, at times apocalyptically menacing, at others warmed by a gentler flame, can still be heard today, but among the loud sobs it is increasingly possible to discern motives that have nothing to do with art.

            Of course, I am not claiming that there is a shortage of trash to be found in bookshops, in the cinema or on television; there really is more than enough of it. Fortunately, it does not have such a direct influence on original Slovak works as the lamenters prophesied; if no more than one or two Slovak films are made in a year, it is not because American films have flooded our distribution network, nor are new television programmes lacking on our screens because they have been pushed out by western action films and serials; after all, enough room is always found for endless repeats of old Slovak productions and films and, so far as Slovak literature is concerned, I would venture to say that in spite of all the problems, it is now experiencing one of its most productive and most dynamic periods. Regardless of this, voices calling for an official ban on commercial trash anger me as an expression of an attitude. Somewhere in the background I can hear a quiet, but clear voice: “My father was an alcoholic, my mother a prostitute, my sister drowned herself, my brother jumped off a bridge, and therefore I have no choice but to buy my children Disney kitsch and look on helplessly while they spend hour after hour watching mindless American films full of sex and violence. For heaven’s sake, do something about it!” I confess I get angry when I see how healthy adults try to pass on to state, church or other institutions decisions which are fully within their power and authority. I had small children, too, but I also knew what they were likely to be watching on television and if I judged it to be unsuitable for them, I wasn’t afraid to chase them away from it. By the way, this rarely happened, because I am convinced that young people should build up their resistance – both physically and mentally. I myself read some trashy literature as a child, and maybe that is why it has no attraction for me nowadays, not even the attraction of forbidden fruit. One thing is certain: the fact that the bookshops didn’t stock the Children’s Bible didn’t make me buy them a book about how Pavlik Morozov denounced his kulak father to the Soviet authorities.

            Deterministic wailing, itself not very melodious, is heavenly music to the ears of the state. For the state is a convinced determinist: it believes that the ideal situation would be if it could determine what its citizens should eat and drink, how they should dress, spend their free time, what they should read, what films and television programmes they should watch and, ultimately, what they should think. Well, perhaps from its own point of view, it is right, because it is easiest to govern a citizen determined in this way. In fact, the poor state cannot really be blamed for this; it has this conviction in its genes and unless its citizens think of better tasks, more useful things to occupy its time, it will automatically begin to do what it is genetically determined to do. If, moreover, we give it a pretext, as with this trash literature, it will very soon begin to decide for us not only what is trash, but also what is valuable art, and before we realise what is happening, it will protect us from the dangers of commercials and classified advertisements with a 23% value-added tax. (When it comes to pornography, it will choose a more differentiated approach. Judging by the words of the prime minister – “If someone wants to look at beautiful bodies, let them pay for it” - this pleasure will be reserved for the nouveau-riche elite and everyone else will have to miss out. (Serves them right – they should have tried harder.)

            In fact, determinism is not such a simple matter as it seems at first sight. I recall that under the last regime, which really did want to decide about everything, my daughter once came home from nursery school and with a mysterious expression on her face announced to us: “Uncle Lenin died so that we can be healthy.” It’s true, she didn’t know what she was saying, but she was still willing to believe it. When she was ten years old, she didn’t even believe that before he was married Lenin was called Ulyanov. (From that point of view, the proposal that school children should learn by heart the preamble to the constitution need not be utterly futile.) One person whose father was an alcoholic happily follows in his father’s footsteps, while another does not touch alcohol all his life. Or, to return to the example I have chosen, one person faces the impact of trash by lamenting, another by founding a publishing house and producing good-quality literature, above all, Slovak literature. What I want to say is that, even in the most difficult of situations, we still have the opportunity to decide and act. That, among other things, is the basis of human dignity. Let us follow the example of Jeffrey Bernard, even though we need not immediately resort to his extreme solution. Let us keep our dignity, so that we can respect ourselves, then others will have to respect us, too. Even the state.

P.S. For the most part American films really are unbearable hotchpotch – they are fairytales for adults with the IQ of a four-year-old. There may be no more violence and sex in them than in real life, but what is terrible about them is the indifference they show in avoiding the crux of the story and concentrating on technical details. But even so, I can’t understand how it is possible that we are afraid of American films, but we are not afraid of Slovak reality.

Translated by Heather Trebatická