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Historical Vertigo: Observations from the Nick of Time

by Mark Slouka

I moved to Prague the same time I started doing email: two gestures—or embarkations, I suppose—so perfectly opposed in direction and meaning that I’ve come to think of them as linked, a kind of metaphysical push-me, pull-you; a subtle rack, on which I, subtly, am being stretched. The first, I want to say, is stone, goes deep, is mute. The second, like helium, surfaces relentlessly, is all gas and fiber-optic chatter. The first, inevitably, is about the endless negotiations between time and place; the second slips these coordinates, by which human beings have always plotted their position, as easily as . . . what? As nothing I have ever known.

A dissonance worth reckoning with, if only because it is inescapable in our age. To spend a winter walking about Prague—before the great river of tourists that begins to rise in March has transformed the city into a giant bazaar, a marketplace almost medieval in its pageantry and babble of tongues—is to bear witness to an essentially ontological conflict. On the one side is being as inscribed in stone and plaster and brick, in the continual descent of sediment in whose layers our days, and the days of those who came before us, can be found. On the other is the Internet Café (whose vaulted ceiling was built two hundred years before Columbus) in which being has been, quite literally, disembodied, displaced. Dissolved into the new millennium’s version of spirit. At times, standing on some badly cobbled street in the winter dark, the smell of coal smoke in the air and someone’s cell phone digitally chiming the opening notes of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” you can almost hear the two forces crashing into each other like tectonic plates, the one going deep, disappearing, buried beneath the wedge, the other rising like air.

I held off until 2003, stubbornly sending and receiving my letters in envelopes, then bent to the prevailing winds. I say bent, not broke. I may yet bend back. In any case, I sent my first email. A questionable friend plugged the machine into the wall (you’ll pardon me if I marvel at the ordinary for a moment), showed me how to tiptoe into and out of the labyrinth, and voila!—there it was—a space in which to compose my note. Feeling oddly unsure of myself, I typed in a “Hello, just testing” kind of message, maneuvered the pointer to the ‘send’ rectangle, and clicked the mouse, which shall forever be the thing with fur whose chaotic nest of lint and cloth and mattress stuffing containing six squirming babies the size and color of lima beans I found in my father’s typewriter in the writing shed one April when I was six, but never mind. And my message disappeared.

I’ll confess to a certain exhilaration at first. I was the Gettysburg veteran in 1924, all shaky limbs and handlebar mustache, getting into a Model T. I’d sworn I’d never do it. And yet . . . the wind! The speed! So this was the new age I’d resisted so strenuously. It seemed relatively easy, undeniably convenient, faster than a speeding bullet. Often I’d get a reply to my first message while still composing the second, an odd feeling, as though the recipient and I had met somewhere in the dark over the Atlantic. I felt very modern, light, unburdened. I could reach out and tap someone on the shoulder whenever I damn well pleased. I could look up the email addresses of people I had never spoken or written to (I didn’t have anyone particular in mind) and write them . . . something. Never mind what. Contact! Contact! That was the thing. So what if Thoreau’s exhortation had been aimed elsewhere?

While waiting for my emails to materialize out of the ether, I took long walks through Prague. And gravity began to reassert itself. To resist the flooding of the Vltava, the level of the Old Town had been raised by carting in tons of dirt from the countryside, in the process burying the town four meters underground. In some places one could still walk into the basements of buildings and find the outlines of stoned-in windows from half a millenium ago that had once swung out onto sunlight and rain, onto gardens and streets and courtyards. And something about the soil rising up over the doorstep, the windowframe, the sill, burying worlds, moved me. When I passed a construction crew working on a broken water main by the harsh white light of halogen lamps one evening, I glimpsed, beneath the piping, old foundations and ancient sewers made of fist-sized stones and, beneath these, still other, deeper foundations.

Everywhere I turned I saw layer upon layer: stucco walls flayed to brick, brick giving way to stone, stone to a kind of gruel-like mortar. On the Charles Bridge, on the very same cobbles where tourists now bargained for Kafka cups and keychains, the Swedish dead had been piled two meters deep during the Thirty Years’ War. At the Church of Cyril and Metodej, five minutes from my apartment, the Gestapo had laid out the bodies of the Czech paratroopers who had assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. The crypt in which the seven young men had hidden themselves was still there, like a giant’s honeycomb, smelling of damp and plaster, riddled with bullet holes.

Strophe and antistrophe. Back at the apartment, the children asleep or reading, I would plug the computer into the wall and wait for the screen to light up. Wait for the menu, click on the icon, listen to the signals dialing for access. Press ‘enter,’ then ‘enter’ again. I found it difficult to resist. What if something required my attention? And sure enough—I had six unread messages. Or ten. When we went on for a trip to Moravia for three days, where the snow in the forests had begun to melt and where we walked for hours listening to the sound of water running under shelves of ice, I returned home to twenty-three! I’d never felt so important in my life.

Of course, the messages I received could hardly be called letters; the majority were something else: notes, afterthoughts, ephemera, doomed to their nanosecond, then floating away in the bitstream. And form followed function, by and large. This was the medium of the present tense, a world of dashes and ellipses, of missing salutations and truncated thoughts, of speed over content, speed over reflection, speed over everything. I found myself answering in kind, tapping out a line or two, getting done. And when I did take the time to write a letter-length message in which I actually described something, or speculated about someone, or recalled some time or other, it seemed forced, even unnatural. Simply put, history did not fit here. I was using the wrong tool for the job, hammering a nail with a putty knife, digging a trench with a file.

We all accommodate the world differently, negotiate toward different ends. There is no universal Greenwich time for the soul. Some buy a new set of golf clubs; others find Jesus. Still others build bombs. My sense of true, or plumb, required a smaller adjustment. I bought a pen. And not just any pen, but a steel-nib pen, meant for dipping. And a good bottle of blue-black ink. And that evening when my wife and I returned from our walk, after I’d read to the kids and we’d put them to bed, I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a letter. It took a while. The pen blotted, or skipped. I dipped too much or not enough. My handwriting, like everyone else’s in the world, had gone to hell. I made a mess, smeared ink on my fingers, awkwardly crossed out what I couldn’t delete, compensated for afterthoughts with carrots and arrows, grew irritated when the ink ran out mid-thought or mid-sentence.

But it felt right, somehow. Appropriate. Perhaps even necessary. I learned how to hold the pen so the ink wouldn’t blot, so my L’s wouldn’t disappear on the downstroke. I learned how to dip the pen and touch the rim of the well with the nib just enough to draw the excess. I learned how to sense when the ink was running out, and dip in time. And I grew to love—don’t laugh, there is a kind of love we can feel for the things that suit us—the imposed slowness of it, the messy physicality of it, the complicated rhythm of write, dip, touch, think, write. I began to see the beauty of constraint, to appreciate the things it can force from us. I began to understand the shaping force that a less malleable medium can exert on us.

A less malleable medium—it seemed a fine metaphor for life. Maybe even a synonym. After all, didn’t we, each and every one of us, spend our years shaping the none-too-malleable mediums of opinion and power and love that surrounded us, and being shaped by them in turn? And weren’t we the men and women we were in large part because of how we had responded to the forces around us? How many of the things we did—falling in love, getting married and unmarried, having children and watching them grow at heartbreaking speed—were friction-free?

I continued taking my walks through Prague, listening to the sediments settling, like Joyce’s snow, over the living and the dead. And I continued writing my letters, both by nib and by byte, trying to understand what it was, precisely, that I found so nourishing about the one and so depleting in the other. Was it the “oldness” of the earlier technology that brought it into alignment with the city I lived in? No. One of the things I found least appealing about Prague was its hawking of its own history, the ubiquitous dates on cups and tee-shirts and key rings, the way it kept licking and licking every ribbed vault and architrave until they were raw. An uncritical obsession with antiquity, I knew, could be as much a fetish as the new age’s obsession with newness.

But if it wasn’t history I was after, what was it then? It came to me gradually, as insights will. I realized that what I found most compelling about the city I lived in was not just its inescapable verticality, the sudden scent of some other century on a streetcorner at dusk, but its arguments: the weedy battlements above the tennis courts, the fourteenth-century church between the Soviet-era warehouses, the Rococo ornamentation on the façade above the KFC. The cobbles rising through the cracked cement.

It was this seething, this dialogue, that I missed in the digital world. Email was a done deal. It was efficient. It was pleasant. It was, essentially, commercial. It was like the men and women in the tourist stalls along Parizska Street, who could say please and thank you and we have a smaller one and here is your Visa card in English and Italian and French and German, but nothing else. It was a conveyor belt, superbly designed to handle compact little parcels of information, disguised as communication. It was the cement.

It’s night. The windows are open. The courtyard smells of lilacs and kerosene, knedliky and metal. And this is what I believe: that most of us, whether we realize it or not, live in a steel-nib world: slow, messy, full of all-too-visible deletions and clumsy afterthoughts. A Prague of sorts. We may hate it, find it absurd, long for some cleaner place. Perhaps we should. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we evolve away from who we are. But it’s what’s best about us.

 

Mark Slouka is the author, most recently, of the novel God’s Fool (Vintage Books, 2003). A contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, he teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University and divides his time between New York and Prague. (9/2003)


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