Kafka´s Paranoia and Gollum´s Inferiority Complex

New chapter from Sinclair Nicholas' "The AmeriCzech Dream"

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff Published on 08.01.2007 10:27:57 (updated on 08.01.2007) Reading time: 42 minutes

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Written by Sinclair Nicholas
Re-published with permission

One time I was walking around in the Vinohrady Jewish cemetary when I just happened to look up and, right in front of me, there stood a tombstone with the name Franz Kafka engraved on it. It very much surprised me to realize I was standing in front of Kafka´s grave; it was a tall, simple cement pillar that was shaped like the Washington Monument. It was the only gravestone that looked like that; there were a bunch of pebbles lying on top of its sloped sides. I later asked various people what these pebbles meant, but no one could tell me, until finally one Jewish lady informed me that, instead of flowers or candles, the Jewish tradition is to place a pebble on top of the gravestone; she speculated that the pebble lets others know that someone else has been to the grave, and the stone represents a thought about the dead person. I doubt that a loner like Kafka would care, but there were far more thoughts about him than about any other person burried in that cemetary.

As I looked at his engraved name, I remembered a short piece he wrote, called A Dream, in which a Mr. “K” sees an artist writing on a tall gravestone, then Mr. “K” sinks downward into the darkness of the grave; as he lies on his back, looking up at the tall gravestone above him, he see his own name racing across the stone in powerful strokes. I wonder whether Kafka requested a tall gravestone before his death, or if someone just happened to pick a tall gravestone. Considering that story, and his description of the tombstone as “tall,” it seems like an interesting question.

Shortly before coming to Czechoslovakia, I had read several books by Franz Kafka and, at that time, Kafka struck me as a disturbed paranoic. He had a tendency to portray society as this dark force that was cold, cruel and probably out to get him. The origin of the word paranoid is from Greek para (beyond, outside of) and nous (mind, thought), meaning a paranoid person is someone out of his mind, insane; but, I no longer think Kafka´s paranoia came from an unstable mind; I believe he had a sensitive mind that reflected the unstable society surrounding him. Is it possible for an entire society to be somewhat sick or insane, while the paranoid man is actually the one who is sane? I think yes, even if it does seem unlikely. One can feel sinister paranoia in Kafka´s writing, but I think he had valid reasons to feel that way, which makes me wonder whether I should even classify him as paranoid. I would never have come to that opinion if I had not come, eighty years after Kafka had been burried under that tall tombstone, to the same city he lived in all his life. I began to feel mysterious, darker elements of Czech and Germanic societies (Germans and Czechs lived in the same society for centuries, so a Czech who thinks Czech society is completely different than German society should consider those centuries of coexistence, and the fact that Kafka was as much German as Czech). These gloomy social attributes influenced Kafka´s writing. I began to see what I think he saw, as I shall soon explain.

Kafka wrote about things to come; his writing was nearly prophetic if it weren´t for the zeitgeist that had informed his writing, though some of his writing does have an uncanny, mystical feeling once we superimpose history over it. For example, at the end of his story The Penal Colony, Kafka creates a legend that a cruel and inhumane leader (who designed the execution machine that is described in the story) will arise again and lead his followers to conquer society. It sounds as though Kafka predicted the rise of Hitler (though there have always been evil crackpots who want to take over the world). Also, the story has a very detailed description of that execution machine; the prison official who shows the narrator the machine, and who intricately describes every detail as to how it operates, obviously admires the ingeniousness of this death machine while never considering, at all, the inherent inhumanity and cruelty of the machine. There was a complete absence of morality, which was the most important point to the entire story. This story forewarned of the Holocaust, it predicted the rise of a society that logically and efficiently used an amoral, machine-like system to exterminate millions.

When I read a German company´s bid for equipping the death camps, which included a detailed document of the parameters for the incinerator, as well as the tiniest of technical details concerning the exact measurements, materials and design for the carts that would haul the dead bodies to the incinerator, it felt exactly like I was reading Kafka´s story. The similarities are even more obvious if one reads the story as Kafka originally wrote it, in German. Totally absent from that German company´s bid was any indication of the immorality of creating such an inhumane system. They were just interested in winning the government contract, the immorality of turning millions of people into corpses was completely overlooked, it was an unquestioned premise, much like the person who was placed in Kafka´s machine in order to demonstrate its brilliant construction. The heart of Kafka´s story pointed out a mentality that had not yet completely surfaced, it had not become embodied by a government, but it became the monstrous status quo, in Hitler´s Germany, some years after Kafka´s death. Kafka felt the dangers and terror of constructing an amoral nation (which is inevitably immoral); he could sense the amoral, machine-like system coming, and wrote his story so that it quite resembled the nightmarish qualities of the Holocaust.

In his novel The Trial he describes a court proceeding in which the accused is guilty of something that is never known and is not relevant to his guilt. I think it is usually argued that this was a manifestation of Kafka´s feeling about being a Jew in Eastern Europe, that his novel was about antisemitic persecution in his society, but there is also a totalitarian side to that novel that does not necessarily relate to being a Jew in Eastern Europe (though racism, like totalitarianism, is similar in its opposition to individualism). The judge, as well as the institution he represents, is all powerful, whereas the individual is powerless and of no consequence. The accused man´s guilt is presupposed, just like a typical Communist secret police arrest. Once arrested, there was no question as to the arrested person´s guilt. The accused would not have been arrested if he were not guilty. In good time he would be charged, and of course found guilty, then sent to a gulag or a uranium mine. The arrested man was not really awaiting a trial, he was awaiting a conviction. The entire court proceeding in Kafka´s The Trial is really a conviction based on no real evidence. All court proceedings under Communism had this same flaw since individuals did not have basic rights. Under Communism, writing or publicly saying the word “shit” could result in a lengthy prison sentence. That might sound impossible, but it actually happened in Czechoslovakia. The accused sat in a jail for six months before he even got a trial, then he was charged with using language that offended the public standards of decency. I am sure that a long prison sentence for saying “shit” was quite offensive to all those Czechs who had more humane standards of decency, but this did not matter. The institution was all-powerful over the individual (who was fundamentally without rights).

Kafka was predicting the rise of totalitarianism, the loss of all individual rights and the attendant slavery of individuals in the society. He sensed a predisposition for his society to make institutional rights usurp individual rights (or perhaps individual rights had never really had any historical significance or precedence). It seems to me that there must have been a certain social and psychological inclination towards this kind of society before it actually existed formally as Communism, thus Communism took root (with the help of many thousands of cheering Czechs in Venceslav Square) then that already existent mentality became embodied in the Communist government. Kafka died in 1924, but his writing very accurately predicted the social conditions that would arise with Hitler´s Germany or Stalin´s USSR (or Gottwald´s Czechoslovakia).

If Kafka was not consciously aware of this social tendency, then he was at least subconsciously aware of it, and this is why it came out in his writing. He would seem paranoid except that the Holocaust and the Iron Curtain are historical realities; quite enough individuals in these Germanic and Slavic societies agreed (or did not openly disagree) and thereby helped create and support these political systems that forced society to collectively surrender the individual rights of each citizen. Whether we speak of The Third Reich or The People´s Communist Government, we are speaking about institutions that successfully suppressed or even removed the rights of individuals. The argument is that we should sacrifice our individual rights for the good of all, for the future of our nation or our people; but, once all those individuals had surrendered their rights (or were thrown in prison for refusing to surrender those rights) then nothing remained but tyranny, fear and uncertainty. Individuals who did not agree with the institution probably felt paranoid and thought that the rest of society was quite treacherous (because it actually was). An informant or collaborator could be anyone, maybe your co-worker or your next door neighbor. I had not considered all of this when I read Kafka´s works, or perhaps I did not have any experience with the social mentality that is characteristic of such systems, so Kafka at first just seemed far too paranoid. Then I flew to Cz and slowly began to understand why he wrote what he wrote.
I got an apartment in a four story business school that was about to open its doors for the first time. The local basic school principal had negotiated (I think through the town hall) that the building´s administrators would reserve me a place to live since I was teaching English to the town´s children. I don´t think they were very excited about my living there, but they consented. Then I negotiated with the business school´s president that I would organize the school´s new library in exchange for free rent. So I had a small, but nice, one-room apartment on the top floor. I had a shower, toilet and sink, as well as two chairs and a bed, some dresser drawers, and even a hotplate and a manual typewriter. I bought some paper for my typewriter, a teapot for my hotplate, and felt content.

Before the Velvet Revolution, this same building had been a regional Communist training school, so there were thousands of books on Leninism and Marxism on the library´s shelves, as well as world literature- many copies of the author´s work if it particularly pointed out the evils of capitalism. There were plenty of copies of novels like “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck or books by naturalist authors like Zola or Dreisser. The president of the school commanded that all those books be burned in a furnace, though I had wanted to keep one small shelf of them to remember the building´s past; besides, the idea that the Communists banned or burned “Imperialist/Capitalist” works while the Capitalists burned “Communist/Socialist” works seemed ominous and ironic (and why burn Steinbeck?). Out with the old and in with the new. I spent my time filing and shelving new textbooks on marketing, advertising, public relations, etc., which would teach future MBA students how to be successful capitalists. The building seemed a perfect metaphor for the entirety of Czech society:  a Communist school suddenly converted to a Capitalist one; same people, different rules.


Apartment for rent, 1+KK - Studio, 32m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 1+KK - Studio, 32m2

Hodonínská, Praha 4 - Michle

Apartment for rent, 2+1 - 1 bedroom, 65m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+1 - 1 bedroom, 65m2

Koubkova, Praha 2 - Nové Město

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 66m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 66m2

Thurnova, Praha 6 - Břevnov

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 46m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 46m2

Wuchterlova, Praha 6 - Dejvice

After several weeks of living in that building, I realized that I felt this slightly paranoid feeling that had been growing. I imagined that people were watching me and were out to get me, especially since many of the building employees were quiet and watchful; several of them looked at me blankly and never smiled, which was a bit unnerving since I was used to being open and friendly with strangers (especially if they are strangers with whom I would be in daily contact). But some of these strangers seemed bent on remaining strangers, and this gave me an unsettled feeling. My feeling made me keep thinking of Kafka and the paranoic feeling in his stories and novels. I got that feeling mostly from the Czech building administration and personnel, which I suspect was largely the same administration and personnel that existed when this same building had been dedicated to training Communists. Some of the top employees had been fired, but everybody else probably got their jobs back when the building reopened as a business school. As I said, same people, different rules. Sometimes I looked into their eyes and thought I saw something unpleasant, dislike or perhaps a touch of contempt, and I did not like seeing this in their eyes since I was always kind and offered them a friendly smile, but perhaps I was being too American for their tastes. Americans have no fear of direct eye contact with strangers, but I think Czechs have a tendency to avoid it, or give this blank stare. Too much direct eye contact from a stranger seems too forward for many Czechs, which is the reason Americans seem too forward for many Czechs.

I started wondering if the maid who came each day to straighten my room was using the opportunity to spy on me from up close, perhaps she went through all my private things, but then I decided a maid would not do such a thing and I was just being paranoid, though a few times it seemed like the things in my private drawers had been handled, examined. The contents of my drawers seemed slightly more orderly than what I remembered them being, though I couldn´t be sure. The idea that I was possibly paranoid, and had no real evidence or reason for feeling this way, was very unpleasant. I had never felt such a prolonged sense of paranoia. Regardless, I did not much like how the maid rearranged everything in my room whenever I was gone. I did not want a maid coming into my apartment at all, but they insisted it was necessary.

One time I was ill and did not go to school to teach, I was lying in bed when the maid unlocked the door, marched in with a strange self-assuredness and mumbled something to herself in an unpleasant voice, then went to the windows and slung open the curtains (paranoics prefer closed curtains). I got the feeling she thought it was her room and she could do what she pleased, as though I were the bothersome guest who kept messing up how she wanted things arranged. When she saw me watching her from my bed, her attitude completely changed. She quickly left. I had seen a second side to her that I had not seen before.

Then a small situation caused me to think of a test. I had a hole in my favorite pair of long underwear and wanted to patch them. I thought a square of material from a small tea towel would be perfect for making the patch, although I would have to cut a piece from the towel. I considered how to go about buying the towel (back then they cost about five crowns, which is less than an American quarter), then I suddenly came up with a strange plan. It occurred to me that if I cut a piece out of the towel and then hide it under all of my private belongings in the drawer, then the only way the maid would discover this cut tea towel would be to dig in my private things; she would have to dig beneath my shirts, socks and underwear, then under my books, photographs, letters and a lot of other personal papers and documents, in order to discover this towel that I would hide on the very bottom of my drawer. There would be no way for her to find that little tea towel without thoroughly snooping through my private drawer. If they mentioned the cut towel to me, then I would know that the maid was unacceptably examining and touching my private possessions; I would finally know whether or not my strange paranoia was justified.

It also occurred to me that I should replace the towel that I had cut, so I took an identical towel from a public bathroom on a different floor. This way she could not say she was digging through my things in order to find the missing towel since there was no towel missing in my room (although she should of course not dig in my drawers to look for a missing towel, regardless). It seemed worth cutting a hole in the tea towel, and going to all the other trouble, to test these people. In describing this scenario, it sounds like a Kafka narrative, a paranoid man who devises some elaborate, agitated and distressful plan to find out if he is an insane paranoic or is right to feel paranoid. I had become sneaky, and I did not like such vague feelings of paranoic pressure making me feel like a sneaky, aberrant sociopath. That mysterious feeling of pressure caused me to design that plan; it was like a small act of sabotage to the system that was making me feel that pressure. It seemed unlikely that such a scheme would work, but I was at least entertained in devising it.

Three days later, as I was walking out of the building, the head of the custodial department, who was standing behind the reception desk in the main lobby, started screaming (in Czech) at me and wildly waving that tea towel in the air. There were several other people walking through the lobby- students, professors, as well as business people, and they all stopped in amazement to watch the show. The look on her face was utterly hateful, it seemed like she was yelling at a dog who had shit on the carpet and she was rubbing his nose in it. That was the feeling of the entire scene, but I was not used to this kind of behavior from a hotel or apartment representative, it quite shocked me to see her angrily yelling and waving this tea towel repeatedly; such public attacks are unheard of where I had come from, I had never experienced such a thing, but I was ready for it since she had unknowingly fallen into the very plan I had created. I was angry to see that she had foolishly stepped into my trap and then had the nerve to feel self-righteous about it. I took out a wad of money and slapped it on the counter and told her to shut the fuck up about some stupid tea towel. She took the money and quit yelling (it was enough money to buy a lot of those towels).

Why had the maid been inspecting everything in my private drawers? She had no reason, and no right, to do that. I discovered that they had no respect for a person´s privacy and that they thought it completely appropriate to publicly scold a person over the smallest of infractions. I was right, they really were watching me and had apparently been out to get me. They also seemed to think it was acceptable that the maid had dug through my drawers, which was something she would have been immediately fired for if this had occurred in the United States, and the director lady would have been fired for acting so completely unprofessionally towards a guest (or she would at least be forced to apologize). The correct behavior would have been to take me aside and speak to me privately (and kindly) about the tea towel, but I doubt even this would happen in America since this would be tantamount to admitting that they had dug through my private drawers- which is a much worse offense than cutting a cheap tea towel; in addition, I now know Czech society well enough to know it was completely normal to steal such things under Socialism, but it had suddenly become a horribly heinous offense when I did it (and the only reason I did it was to demonstrate all of this).

In that former Communist training school there was no respect for privacy, they felt that the room belonged to them since it was in their building, so everything in the room, including my underwear and photographs, could be examined by them if they so wished. I had learned something about Czech society that I have seen again and again, since then, over the years:  a lack of respect for the individual´s privacy or other basic rights, and a tendency towards persecuting individuals, often publicly, through the authority of their various institutions. This mentality is the reason so many Czech government bureaucrats think they have the right to use their small domain of institutional power in order to abuse all those powerless citizens. People in the institutions believe the individual should fear their power. Kafka wrote about this mentality. The surrealistic elements of his stories suddenly became far less surrealistic.

I had a talk with the building director about the incident, and explained that I thought it highly inappropriate that the maid was digging through my drawers, even through my underwear and personal documents and photographs. I deeply despised the spying nature of such activities, and the fact that this strange new society did not seem to find anything wrong with it. I told them to stay completely out of my room, but they quickly made the argument that they must dump the trash from my room´s trashcan. I told them they could dump the trash and that is all, I very firmly expressed that they WILL NOT touch one other thing in my room because as long as I am living in that room, it is mine and not theirs. I told them they did not have the right to touch my things, not ever, unless they ask me first or have a search warrant issued by the courts and served to me by the police. I was quite angry, but to this day I believe I had the right to feel angry and was right about everything I said. I told them not to even so much as open my private drawers in the first place, because it is an invasion of my privacy; my privacy is a personal right that should never be violated; if a person commits that violation, he or she should be held responsible. I told the director that the maid and the maintenance director should be fired because they both violated my privacy. Of course no one got fired, but from then on that maid and her supervisor gave me dirty looks (I suppose because I was a despicable tea towel vandal). I considered them quite petty and malicious (there are quite enough Czechs who fit that description), the maintenance director and the maid knew I did not like them any longer, nor did I hide my dislike, rather I constantly asserted my rights and pushed them back to where I knew they belonged. I have often battled with certain types of individuals within Czech society. I rub them the wrong way and they rub me the wrong way. Some Czechs still possess a totalitarian and institutionalized mentality that causes them to invade my basic rights as an individual. Their world still functions through fear, they feel less fear when they persecute or create fear in others. Now that I am considering it, it seems I have spent a lot of time struggling in Cz over what are essentially violations of my basic rights as an individual; such violations occur far less frequently in America. Whenever I have said such things, I have often heard, “If you don´t like it here, then go home.” To which I always reply, “I am home.” A lot of Czechs think that if you are a foreigner then your home is obviously elsewhere; I suppose they think I have been on a fifteen year vacation here in Cz, and Škvorecky has been on a thirty-five year vacation in Canada.

After that tea towel episode, I knew I had reason to feel paranoid, just like Kafka had reason to write stories with a paranoic feel to them. They really were watching me closely and apparently did not much like me; it seems to me that they would have enjoyed discovering something much worse than a cut tea towel to bring as a suit against me. Such behavior seemed so very unkind, but there is much more of this type of behavior in Cz than what I have experienced in America. Under Communism, there had always been a reward for being with the institution and against individuals. Ass-kissers, informants and collaborators, under Communism, were always given a pat on the head and permission to go to the Adriatic Sea. I have always very deeply despised that mentality and that kind of behavior. These same maids might have been doing the same thing before the revolution, they might have been spies and informers who searched the Communist school attendees´ underwear drawers to discover and report any suspicious evidence to their superiors. Collaborators and informers permeated Czech culture during the Communist era, the whole society had forty years of training in this, and it still operates at times with a sneaky and spineless inclination towards treachery. Too many people look for a reason to offend or injure others. Am I being paranoid? I do not think so; but, in order to eliminate my paranoia, I decided not to worry in the least what Czech society thought of me- although, over the years, I have gradually made psychological and behavioral compromises in order to assimilate into Czech society. Still, I think Czech society has forced me to become, somewhat, what I would describe as a benevolent sociopath, which is similar to a sane paranoic. I do not fear standing on my own, even if it must be against a crowd, and I find that philosophy more necessary in Cz than in America.

It seems to me that in Cz many people have an inclination to create problems for others, but if another person genuinely has a problem, with which he or she needs help, then it is not anyone else´s problem. For example, if I am in my car, I am never surprised to be abused by some other driver, but I would be surprised to see another driver stop to help me if my car breaks down. Members of Czech society are not very inclined to come to the individual´s aid, everyone will often silently watch while an individual gets abused by some institution or by another individual. On a long subway escalator that is crowded with people there is often an eerie silence, a total and complete silence that I doubt I will ever get used to. I never heard that kind of public silence in Spain or Italy or England or the Netherlands or America. A novel like The Trial was written by an author who lived in a culture quite different from British or Spanish culture. Part of the world became very free for each individual citizen, another part of the world did not. I can´t say why such a cultural and psychological division happened between the East and the West, but a division really did occur; it will be many more years before Czech society closes that gap, but that is Czech society´s job. The West has no desire to integrate into the East, although the West quite welcomes the East to integrate into the West. The West is not the side that needs to come in from the cold.

In spite of my respect for cultural relativity, I shall make this judgement:  Western social psychology is far better for the well-being of each individual than is the Eastern mindset. Czech society has been gradually shifting over the years towards what I consider a more Western society, meaning individuals feel less and less fear of institutions and society as time passes. For instance, a lot of the Czech youth today seem much more open towards others and are less fearful over Czech society. They behave as though they live in a Western, open society. Before the revolution, society operated much differently; immediately after the revolution, society was not accustomed to the concept of individual rights being more important than the institution´s rights (which so often attacked individual rights in the name of the collective rights of the people, whoever they were). That is why they thought they had the right to instigate private investigations that violated my individual rights (in the name of the institution) and that is why that maintenance director lady thought she could chew me out in front of everyone (on behalf of the institution). Consequently, under Communism some Czechs were legally digging through other Czechs´ underwear drawers, and people like me and Kafka felt paranoid. Individuals were always being put on trial for absurd reasons, and many still do not understand that it is no longer legal to sniff other peoples´ underwear- not even in the name of whatever almighty institution they think gives them the power to do so.


We say in English that familiarity breeds contempt; there is a lot of truth to that saying. Two friends become roommates and think things will be wonderful, then they find out that living together is something altogether different than they initially expected. They did not have any experience or idea as to what their new closeness might create. It is the same when two people get married. They are in love and have no idea what kind of mutual contempt can eventually arise from their marriage. If they had known, they probably would never have gotten married, but sometimes ignorance can work out for the best. In a successful marriage this phase of contempt is overcome, the couple have a thousand fights and a thousand reconciliations until eventually the fights decrease since more tolerance, understanding and acceptance seems a better option than fighting all the time; the relationship turns into a deeper friendship that did not exist when the two lovers were blindly in love with each other and did not know each other so well. But of course, before this deeper relationship can happen, the honeymoon must end and the familiarity must breed its contempt; overcoming that contempt is what makes a marriage or a friendship stronger.
I can remember feeling hatred for my parents or my siblings when I was a child. There was too much familiarity in living with these other people, but that word “familiarity” is also etymologically related to the word “family,” thus it is understandable that there can be feelings of contempt within one´s family since it is the most familiar situation possible to breed such contempt; however, there is also a feeling of love in spite of that occasional contempt.

My relationship with Czech society went through similar stages. When I first came to the country I saw no error in the Czech nation, Cz was my Bohemian dreamland where I could have great cultural experiences. Bohemia also had beautiful mountains where I learned to ski and snowboard, it had a fascinating language, some great traditions, and many other unique features that captured my admiration and imagination. I was in love with Prague and the entire Czech nation, like falling in love with a woman. Then, very gradually, I became more and more familiar with my new country, and a feeling of contempt crept into the relationship, but since I had married into the nation (by marrying a Czech woman and having Czech children), I had no choice but to overcome that contempt, which I have constantly tried to do (and shall not cease from trying to do). I recognize that there are many things about my own personality that have become Czech, so I have no choice but to come to peaceful terms with the Czech nation since I do not hate myself. It has its good points and weaknesses, its wonderful traits and its really bad traits; essentially, it is a nation like any other. I know the nation very well since I have lived here for so many years. Ultimately, it is not a bad place to live or I wouldn´t be here.

My ability to overcome the contempt, which my increasing familiarity with Czech society bred, is exactly why I believe I have the right to criticize my Czech nation- and I have an outsider´s viewpoint that can at times give me an advantage in seeing the Czech nation even more clearly than Czechs themselves might see it. This is also why I do not accept Czechs thinking that, since I am a foreigner, they have the right to be angry with me for any criticism I offer. I am not a foreigner, I just look like one to you. I do not wish to have a psychological relation to this nation in which I feel like the outsider, nor do I wish to feel like the master, and I certainly cannot be the slave; I wish to be a friend. I am offering any criticism the same way I would offer criticism to my own family:  with a sense of love and understanding behind it. My loyalty and love for the Czech nation is what helped me be brave about my criticism of Czech society and the Czech national character. I view my criticism as an attempt to help Czechs see themselves more clearly or objectively; the same applies to my criticism of Americans. I actually do not enjoy writing some things that have felt unpleasant, but necessary, to write.

For example, here is an idea that several times I had decided I should not write about because I think it will not be pleasant for Czechs to read, but it seems significant to me, and if I must describe national character accurately, then it seems necessary to write about this strong impression that I experienced, repeatedly, when I went to the cinema and watched the film, The Two Towers (Lord of the Rings).

There was this character in the film that kept making me think of the Czech nation; the resemblance kept coming to my mind, the way one might see some familiar looking person and think to oneself, “My goodness, that lady sure does remind me of my Aunt Betty.” The character that kept making me think of Czech society was Gollum, the creature who has been somewhat deformed by his long possession of the ring of power, a ring he doted on in his cave for many years until he had become psychologically enslaved by it. I do not know whether doting on a ring in a cave can figuratively be applied in some accurate way to Czech history, but anyway it was actually Gollum´s personality and character that made me repeatedly think of the Czech nation, so let me describe Gollum´s character, as well as his reactions to his situations. Forgive me for going into so much detail about Gollum, but it seems very important to describe him.

Frodo, the Hobbit hero of the story, decides to spare Gollum´s life if Gollum will be a guide who helps them on their mission. Gollum feels grateful that his life has been spared (or perhaps he is still frightened about the continuing possibility of physical pain and death) and so he agrees to be the guide (though we should contemplate the threat and pressure that obtains his agreement). Out of necessity, Gollum begins calling Frodo “master.” Perhaps this is because Gollum´s former master, the ring of power, is now in the hands of Frodo. For reasons that are not quite clear to me, Gollum is not capable of the kind of respect, bravery and honor that would make him an equal with Frodo. He lacks the nobility, or higher moral sense, that a free, self-respecting man has, and which makes true friendship possible. Gollum cannot be Frodo´s friend, though Frodo tries to offer this, but Gollum is not capable of it, he is only comfortable, or perhaps only understands, having a master to fear and serve. Possibly he has been in this sort of situation all of his life and has been trained to act subservient. Gollum´s loyalty comes from fear, and he is therefore hard to trust; he will easily turn on his master if, in (safely) doing so, he sees the possibility to further his own ends. The animators did quite good animation work, you can take one look at Gollum and see that he has a twisted and deformed backbone, which is intended to indicate his internal psychological or spiritual condition.

The aims or intention of Gollum´s master are his master´s responsibility (the master also must be responsible for the morality of whatever command he gives Gollum), meaning Gollum doesn´t have much sense or need for morality because this is not relevant to him as a slave, he must obey his orders and hope he has a kind master who will share his bread with him and not beat him. Throughout the story, Gollum keeps having this internal struggle as to whether he should betray his new master. He argues with himself insanely about this, and keeps fluctuating between hatred and loyalty (or is it fear?) for Frodo the Hobbit. The heart of the issue that Gollum has to deal with in his own soul is what I believe comes down to a decision to either embrace evil (by committing an act of betrayal that serves his own selfish desires), or embrace good (by truly becoming Frodo´s friend). The definition and truth as to what “loyalty” means is an interesting subject to ponder. Perhaps those “Loyal Subjects,” under feudalism and monarchies (and later systems), in reality felt little sense of loyalty since the government was a force that often oppressed them. There is a choice to be made when becoming loyal, a choice that does not actually exist under conditions of tyranny.

This decision of whether or not to betray Frodo (and the difficult struggle in making that decision) is particularly important for Gollum since it is his own semi-recognition that he is faced with making a moral decision:  he can help a friend fulfill his positive moral duties (a mission that will rid middle earth of a fascist, totalitarian evil that is trying to overtake the planet and enslave everyone on it), or he can ignore all those larger, seemingly ethereal issues, and betray Frodo so he can get the gold ring and go back to live in his cave in peace. Gollum doesn´t particularly possess much recognition of morality; it is, after all, just another immaterial word, but he is able to see that Frodo is good and that to betray him would be wrong, though (damn it!) he could get back that gold ring of power if he forgets about this pleasant feeling of friendship he has begun to feel towards Frodo. Wouldn´t it be better to not have any feeling towards, and not really care about, Frodo? Selfish greed or selfless heroism, which will Gollum choose? Tolkein of course presupposes that Gollum has, in some ill-lit and confusing corner of his mind, a weak conscience that can be rescued; if rescued and attended to, his conscience can then shine through the windows of his soul. He can become an upright, self-assured and confident creature. He will be happier if he does so, but he is perhaps only very dimly aware of this, and is more inclined to think it doesn´t actually matter (so he may as well get the gold ring).

But Gollum does have a choice to make, meaning he has free will, he has responsibility for who he is and who he becomes, and he has an obligation to others to be good and honest and trustworthy. I haven´t seen the resolution of his dilemma since I have not yet seen the third film, but I read the books many years back and I think that damned gold ring gets the best of Gollum, in the end, and gets him killed. However, the Czech national character is alive and well, so let my comparison end the same way The Two Towers ends, with Gollum´s weighing of the decision. I believe enlightened Czechs, who certainly have an awareness of their history and their nation that is much deeper than my own, can ponder Gollum´s character without me making some socio-political or historical lecture out of it. Let me instead ask that you juxtapose, onto your contemplations, a couple of those wise proverbs that Czechs have honored over the centuries: 1. Sing the song of whoever´s bread you are eating. 2. If you want to live with wolves then you must howl with them.

Please do not think my comparing the Czech national character to Gollum is some condemnation, I do not intend it that way and recognize, thanks to my half-Czech soul, that reality is always more complex, far more complex, than history books can ever be. Besides, Frodo the Hobbit also has some traits that remind me of Czechs. Like Hobbits, Czechs want to have their comfortable little home and their little garden where they can be peacable and live in peace, they are not a violent and bellicose people, they would most prefer to have no troubles from the world and cause no trouble to the rest of the world. Don´t bother others and expect that they will not bother you. Czechs have never wanted to rule the world, it is enough for them to have their small place in the sun and live a peaceful life where the ale is well-made. I think that is admirable; it is truly a shame that all the other nations in the world do not live by this same philosophy. From this Hobbitish perspective, I even understand the Czech aversion to foreigners:  All Czechs are asking is that all these strangers/foreigners quit stepping on their carefully cultivated tomato plants. However, I think it is more the case that other Gollum-Hobbits are sneaking into gardens at night to steal all the tomatoes, then the next morning they claim they saw some stranger standing by that same fence a few hours previous.


Pavel Tigrid (the emigrant, dissident writer) had two great wishes he mentioned before his death. One of those was that the Czech nation would feel truly penitent, and express heartfelt sorrow, over their treatment of Sudeten Germans after World War II. I understand why that was such a great desire for him; it was a desire that came from his unending love for his nation. He believed this would represent the Czech nation finding its conscience and allowing it to shine through the windows of its soul. It was his nation, and he fought all his life to bring it into freedom; once that was accomplished, he probably began to recognize other improvements that would make his nation better.

He probably upset a lot of Czechs in expressing that particular desire as one of his last wishes, but I believe he was a better and wiser man than most. His own mother was killed in the gas chambers, yet he thought he should feel regret over the cruelty and injustice of Czechs against Sudeten Germans? He understood that it is up to the German nation, all of its citizens, to feel a deep and painful regret over what they did, together, under the Third Reich. Tigrid´s job was to find forgiveness in his heart, and I think he did; but, he also understood that it was his personal responsibility to feel his own painful regret over what his nation did to the Sudeten Germans. It was wrong and should be acknowledged as such. He probably died at peace with his life and with the world, which is how a man should die. The resolution of Tigrid´s life is also the best resolution for Czechs as a nation:  forgiving of the past wrongs committed upon it and repentant for the past wrongs it has committed. Such a national settling of historical accounts would be good for the soul of the Czech nation, and Tigrid knew that.

It seems to me that Czech society has repeatedly managed to disappoint or even break the hearts of its greatest citizens; perhaps this is normal since a poet or a philosopher´s ideals probably never exist in their purest forms on the planet earth, but I perceive that this is a more common occurrence and a larger problem for the Czech nation´s spiritual leaders, in relation to their fellow citizens, than for the spiritual leaders of other nations. These leaders were often forced to live elsewhere (like Komensky), or were killed (like Hus) or were imprisoned (like Havel). For example, Czechs all adored Karel Kryl (the emigrant dissident singer), but what was his view of Czech society before he died? I think he felt that his nation had disappointed him. Tigrid probably felt the same, but was just too noble to even say it.

When the revolution occurred, Kryl euphorically told Czechs (in reference to some of his ubiquitous song lyrics) that Czechs are no longer digging dirt with their teeth, meaning (I think) that, as of the revolution, Czechs were no longer degraded and oppressed slaves. This song lyric also relates to the line, “It is better to die standing than live on one´s knees,” because he meant to say Czechs aren´t even on their knees, but are scraping up dirt with their teeth. But I think he came to realize something (which might be related to why he decided to live elsewhere than Cz, and perhaps Tigrid went back to France for the same reason, or Havel lives in Portugal, and a very large percentage of those Czech emigrants euphorically came back after the revolution, then decided they would prefer going back to America, Canada or their other home countries). It is something that Czech society should consider:  It is easy to think one belongs to a good and noble people if one´s people are forced to live under an oppressive occupation or under an authoritarian government. In such a situation, it seems that the unfortunate people do not get to show their noble character and worthy qualities because they are not free to do so.

But the real test is what that nation does, and what qualities it demonstrates that it possesses, once it is free. Karel Kryl would probably agree, if he were living today, that Czech society seems to still be on its knees, and this obviously from an act of free will. Therein lies the biggest problem in the Czech Republic:  it isn´t financial, though this lack of a strong and noble spirit has caused bad economics, it isn´t environmental, though it has created a bad environment, it isn´t social, though it has caused rife corruption, injustice, violent crime and the deaths of innocent Romany Czechs.

Maybe the Czech situation is similar to the story of the Jews; after they were released from Egyptian bondage, they ended up wandering in the desert for forty years because they were too busy worshipping the golden calf to obey the ten commandments and live rightly. Plus a lot of them started whining that it was better as Egyptian slaves since one had enough food and water and no larger concerns over one´s existence (just as Czechs had more security, and bread was cheaper, under Communism). I cannot make each Czech citizen change into an optimistic and upstanding citizen who possesses the courage of his convictions (the first step would be to get some worthy convictions) so that collectively the Czech nation develops a straight and strong backbone, which allows it to stand tall and splendidly (like the incredibly noble bearing of Masaryk); I also recognize that there obviously exists quite enough noble Czechs to cause a revolution.
The only way I can contribute to an improvement in Czech society is to try to live my life as people like Tigrid or Kryl or Masaryk believed people are capable of living. That is all the individual Czech can do as well, some of whom I have met and recognize their noble qualities. They call me friend and I deeply trust them and love them as friends; but, I also see a hell of a lot of scoundrels and cheaters, and officious little deputies who have become intoxicated with just the tiniest bit of power over others, and a petty streak of jealousy and vengefulness, drivers insulting me because I prefer to drive like I have some sense, or people (often women) treating me coldly and glaring at me in open contempt rather than expressing genuine kindness. It is easy to say that I am complaining to no effect since we are speaking about individuals, but I tried to think of an unpleasant experience with an American when I was in America for two months last summer, and I honestly could not think of even one upsetting treatment from strangers in America, though here it happens frequently, and I see it happen frequently between Czechs as well, so it isn´t just my being a foreigner that is the problem. It is about transitioning from a closed society to an open one, though I realize the difficulty of changing into an open society if such a thing has never existed in the thousand years that Czechs have lived along the Vltava and Labe rivers. Perhaps Czechs had an open society during the first twenty years that democratic Czechoslovakia existed (1918-1938), but I seriously doubt it, though I don´t care to do the research and analysis to find out since it isn´t really the point.

A student of mine, who is a very intelligent top manager at one of the biggest companies here in Cz, asked me what “open society” means when I used that term in one of our discussions. I suddenly realized the difficulty in explaining to a blind man what the color blue looks like. I finally came up with this basic definition: an open society means you do not feel like you are constantly struggling in society against every other member of society, but rather you feel more like you are working in it together. I suddenly realized, as I explained that to him, that I sounded like one of those old Communist black and white propagandic film shorts where the proletarians are holding hands and collectively marching towards their great golden future of perfected Socialism, brothers in the united family of Communism. I saw this look of sardonic disbelief in his eyes and had read his mind, then I realized why it is even harder for a Czech to imagine, or to collectively create, an open society where people really do feel more united and it isn´t just silly government propaganda. It comes down to society inherently and naturally possessing a national sense of community, an environment where each person feels like he has respect and appreciation from every other member of society, which is a society that collectively supports each individual. This kind of mentality creates a positive environment, where if you drop your wallet there is a very good chance someone will come and knock on your door to return it to you (with the money still there), or if someone gives their word, or makes a gentleman´s agreement, you can reasonably trust in it. In an open society you have the pleasant feeling that a stranger is not an enemy, but a potential friend, that everyone is a neighbor, and far more often than not this proves to be the case (since most people believe in and act upon that proposition). There is a feeling of kindness floating around, strangers can smile at each other, or even talk to each other, and it is not strange or offensive. An open society operates fearlessly whereas a closed society operates fearfully.

I accept the Czech nation as it is, even if I complain and grumble, like a typical Czech, about all the bad things in the society around me. A Czech friend of mine (a samizdat criminal you will read about later) put it to me this way:  “Czechs would complain even if every Czech was sitting his ass on a solid gold toilet seat.” It is Czech nature to complain, so I will try to only complain about those things that should rightly be complained about:  the things that might be capable of being changed for the betterment of the Czech nation (which, now that I think about it, means anything and everything that I think deserves a complaint). I still believe this nation is slowly heading in the right direction. Things are steadily improving, even if most Czechs like to complain that this is not the case.

I believe in people, even if some individuals have forced me to stop believing in them. I view each individual as innocent until proven guilty, as a potential friend rather than a possible enemy. I will always try to be an optimist, I invite my fellow Czechs to join me, and to think about how they can personally make some tiny improvement in the daily existence of their fellow Czechs- not because the Party said so, and not because some seemingly over-idealistic and moralistic foreigner has written to do so, but because it feels good to pass on positive energy, and because it is pleasant to live in a society where most people are doing that. Czechs now have their basic freedoms, the individual is now legally protected from social or political persecution, but what Czechs do with that freedom will form the future national identity of their nation. Perhaps, one day, no one will know that Kafka´s stories were paranoic for a reason, and I will think Gollum´s inferiority complex has nothing in common with the Czech nation.

About the Author:
Sinclair Nicholas washed up on the right bank of the Vltava as part of that first and biggest expat wave that was driven by the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution. In "91 he began teaching Czech children to speak English at an elementary school. At that time, due to so many questions from some of his teenaged students (questions like, "How is different, Mr. Teacher, between "fuck off," "fuck up" and "fuck over?"") Sinclair began writing scurrilous phrasal verbs in a notebook, which evolved into his first and most infamous book, Wang Dang American Slang. The book was printed in 1992 with a first printing of 40,000 copies; He used the royalties from American Slang to start his publishing house, WD Publications, and spent the next decade writing and publishing many more of his own books (www.wdpub.cz has all titles as well as an online ordering system).

His latest book, The AmeriCzech Dream, is currently available only as a Czech translated version (you can get it at Luxor), but he will publish the original English manuscript sometime this year (likely this fall). However, we have some of his original, as-yet unpublished chapters available right here at expats.cz– in fact, these original English chapters are not available anywhere else except at this website, so we hope you enjoy the unique reading opportunity.

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