Notes from Underground

15. 3. 2017

Roger Scruton, Notes from Underground, Beaufort Books, New York, 2014, 244 pgs.

Roger Scruton, who has celebrated his 70th birthday this year, is a philosopher, a farmer, and a gentleman. He resides on his farm near the town of Malmesbury in the southeast of England. This fact has earned him the right to use the title“the philosopher from Malmesbury,” a reminder that there was another fellow philosopher of the same domicile but of very opposing views—Thomas Hobbes. Roger Scruton, originally a professor of aesthetics, has authored forty books dealing with vastly different themes: ranging from aesthetics of architecture, music, conservatism, modern philosophy and the New Left to sexual desire, fox hunting, beauty, wine, environmentalism and God.

He has also composed two operas, conceived a TV series for the BBC (concerning beauty) and written several novels. The most recent one, Notes from Underground, has been published this year. The book deals with love, nostalgia, life in Prague under the totalitarian rule during the 1980s, the lives of dissidents, the sacred human dignity, the strife for meaningful existence, it deals with faith, betrayal, disappointment and the unfulfilled promises of November 1989. The book is not only about love between the two main characters, but also about love of Roger Scruton for Prague and the Czech language.

The book itself is incredibly lyrical, with purposefully ambivalent language and formulations, leaving much—including the climax—open to reader’s interpretation.

Scruton is a fitting person for the job of writing a book about the life in Prague thirty years ago; between 1979 and 1989 he actively assisted Czech dissent, helped to smuggle in censored books, recruited Western lecturers for illegal seminars of “underground university” (typically held in private apartments). Between 1979 and 1989 he visited the country frequently, until his arrest by the so-called State Police and, at the time irrevocable, expulsion from the country. He returned after the fall of communism in 1990 and held his first public lecture in the town of Brno, in which he called for the ban of the Communist Party. For his contribution to the return of freedom to the Czech Republic he was awarded A Medal of Merit (I. Class) by the late President Václav Havel.

Notes from Underground is written in the form of a retrospective of the main character, Jan Reichl, who, at his university office in Washington, D.C., ponders about the life he led as a member of political dissent.

He was not allowed to attend university, because his father had been put in prisons in the seventies, where he also died: his only crime being organization of an informal reading club, discussing with friends authors like Kafka, Dostoyevsky and Camus.

Jan stays with his mother in Prague, works as a cleaner and spends most of his time “under ground”—in metro. He likes to read books belonging to his father, Czech classics, and also authors from the period of late Austro-Hungarian Empire: Franz Kafka, Joseph Roth and his Radetzky March, or Stephan Zweig and his World of Yesterday. Yet most important is F. M. Dostoevsky, whose Notes from Underground he carries on himself at all times. He decides to pen several short stories under the title The Legends and sign them as “Comrade Androš,” the name coming from the term “underground”—a comrade from underground.

His mother, who transcribes dissident litera- ture on a typewriter, then makes several copies of his Legends, until, one day, she is arrested too.

Young Jan leads a solipsistic life, submerged in books, thoughts, in metro, observing the passengers. During his metro commuting, Jan seeks an eye contact with young women and imagines short lived amorous relationships with them. Short lived, as they never leave the realm of imagination.

This way he meets Betka. He follows her from the metro, onto a bus and then to the park of Divoká Šárka, where he loses track of her. After the arrest of his mother, Betka appears at his door to return books by several dissidents copied by his mother. The Legends is among them. She likes them and in no time guesses their author. She voices an opinion that a campaign for his mother’s release from prison ought to be organized in the West, with the help of media.

Needless to say, he falls in love with her. Betka then introduces him to the lives of dissidents. At illegal seminars at Rudolf’s, discussing Patočka’s essays about T.G. Masaryk, they experience “the solidarity of the shaken.” Jan believes, just as it is written in Rilke’s Elegies, that it is possible to change one’s life and to live “in truth.” She takes him to her apartment at Újezd and they become lovers. He finds out she loves and plays music, and works as a nurse at Children’s Hospital at Hradčany; he also learns that she has come to view their relationship as her mistake.

Accompanied by Betka, Jan discovers and learns to appreciate the beauty of his hometown Prague, as well as philosophy, literature and music. Betka’s passion is renaissance and baroque music, with the composer Leoš Janáček above all. Jan meets other people from the dissent; Pater Pavel, a Catholic priest, who has been banned from his profession. Pavel is a mystic, an existentialist, who believes that God has withdrawn himself from the world; God is silent and to us, people, it befalls to love the silence he has created, his absence from the world.

But how is it possible to love absence?

At home Jan reads Bible Kralická belonging to his mother and finds handwritten notes in it. “And there is no truth in us,” says epistle of St. John.

“But it is in Him,” she wrote in. Jan realizes he does not really know his mother and has no understanding of her faith.

Betka introduces him to an employee of the American embassy (“How come she knows such people?”), who makes and honors a promise to inform the West about the situation that his mother faces.

Another interesting dissident whom Jan meets writes about communist language, phraseology, and jargon under the pseudonym of Petr Pious. His real name is said to be Ivan Pospíchal and he goes by the name Karel. (That happens to be a real person; his name is Karel Palek and under the pseudonym of Petr Fidelius he wrote a legendary opus Language and Power.)

However, all is not rosy between Jan and Betka; she is a mystery to him, he cannot bring himself to trust her fully and suspects she is hiding something from him. Their dealings often end with her in tears. Eventually she decides to reveal to him where she really belongs, where her true home lies. They travel far from Prague, to the region of Šumperk, which used to be populated by Sudeten Germans. Near a small village lies an uninhabited farm, now owned by her family. The farm was stolen from the Germans, her family belongs to the communist nomenclature and she has rebelled against them. This desolate place, full of memories of long gone people has become her true home. “That night we were lying close to each other. Betka’s tears on the pillow were mixing with mine… We were a man and a woman in our sweet sorrow… Sad joy of those days remains with me. It is my most treasured memory and to me the only known reason of my life.”

Next day she takes him for a stroll to an old, abandoned church building, her church. There she tells him they both must pray and be grateful to God. The church visit constitutes a wedding ceremony in their minds. On the way back they cannot keep their eyes off each other and silently make love. Then follows a return to Prague and they bid each other farewell.

There has been an American guest at Rudolf’s seminar, professor Gunther, from New York. He claims his country is not such a bastion of individual freedom as they, oppressed by communist dictatorship, tend to think. A consensus is growing in America that rights should protect societies, as it is written by liberals such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. He speaks about the women’s rights, gays’ rights and the rights of minorities. He warns against corrupt and conservative ideas of freedom. He mentions Richard Rorty and his theory of truth. The truth is only what is useful to a group, a society. The truth means power, according to Nietzsche and Foucault.

Jan finds it in line with the communist doctrine. “On whose side is he, actually?”

Gunther continues that when it comes to the abortion rights, communist Czechoslovakia is more progressive than the U.S.A.

Women constitute an oppressed class of citizens, a woman is the victim of pregnancy, weighed down by the patriarchal structures. Jan hears Newspeak in it.

Gunther then finishes his lecture with the notion that whatever the actual lack of freedom for the Czechs is, the women in U.S. find themselves in the same situation.

Pater Pavel is seething with anger but it is Betka who furiously accosts Gunther.

“When you tell this to your students in America, do they report on you to the police? Is your life in danger?”There is something personal in the way she says it.

Next time he sees Betka, she is crying. She complains what a horrible person Gunther is. She makes love to Pavel, but it is a joyless, tired affair. He then cries as well, and although she kisses him tenderly, she then sees him off unceremoniously.

Jan follows her and finds out she heads to the Children’s Hospital at Hradčany. The following day the rift between them grows. After lovemaking she requests a special favor from him; to go and see Dvořák’s opera Rusalka on Friday. He, in his wounded pride, refuses; he would rather go to a seminar at Rudolf’s. She cries.

Pater Pavel awaits him in front of the apartment and asks him to go and have a drink. Gunther is a decent man but his philosophy comes from the Devil himself. They go to Obecní Dům for some wine, where they are arrested by the State Police. Pater Pavel is being driven away in one car, Jan in another.

A policeman who is having a conversation with him in the car is very clever and cynical. He says that one of the things he likes about his job is being able to read the books popular among dissidents. Books have created the Czech reality, but one tends to forget that for the Czechs there is no other reality than the books. Only people who have been formed by books can determine the right of their nation to exist by asking the question “Kde domov můj?” (“Where my home lies?”) The answer is: in books.

“The dissidents have resisted us by their books, and our reaction has been to ban these books—this is as stupid as it gets.”They take Jan out of Prague and in the night they release him into surrounding woods. He is told to “consider himself lucky.”

He gets home in the morning and finds out the State Police have arrested all people attending Rudolf’s seminar, including Gunther. Betka’s apartment is empty, all her things are gone. She has left. First he thinks she has left for her farm in the north of Moravia; but then he realizes she has taken off because she had known about the upcoming raid.

He goes to the Children’s Hospital at Hradčany. A nun tells him that Betka—Alžběta Palková—has asked her to reveal everything to him—everything about her severely handicapped daughter Olga, whom she, among other children, looked after at the hospital. Olga’s prospective treatment can only take place in Boston, U.S.A. Betka has received the permission to emigrate only recently.

Pater Pavel had been, before he was banned from his profession, a vicar in that small abandoned church in Šumperk region. Betka was young, he was her priest and mentor, most likely her lover and the father of her child, Olga. Olga was born handicapped, he was imprisoned. Betka’s only life’s goal was to help her daughter. She had an agreement with the State Police and she was hoping to capitalize on it. She was supposed to report on Jan and when she found out that he was not a danger to the communist regime she fell in love with him. She wanted to protect him, and Olga. That was the reason of her pleading with him to go and see the performance of Rusalka; she had known about the upcoming raid. She then sent pater Pavel to lure him away. She may have even had a premonition about officer Macháček’s curing Jan from his love.

It is the time of Gorbatchev’s Perestroika. Jan’s mother is soon released from prison. Jan dates several girls, but none can fill Betka’s shoes. Berlin Wall goes down, offices of Communist Party make place for branches of Občanské Forum (Civic Forum). Communist symbols are replaced with posters of John Lennon, Michael Jackson and Anežka Česká (St. Agnes of Bohemia). And as Karel would say, it was progress from a kitsch with teeth to a kitsch without any. Jan sees someone who is making speeches and looks and sounds like pater Pavel. He speaks about the need for a new type of politics, of anti-politics, which will set us all free. Clichés and phrases just like those from Gunther, far removed from the mysticism of pater Pavel. Jan can hardly recognize him.

“Officer Macháček must have been pleased that our new president has enjoyed his position owing to books, some of which had been written in prison… That was the reality now and the books were powerless… Prague has become a modern city. Fast food, porn shops, travel agencies and multinational chains have stimulated our new experiences and we have found out that no experience will ever be entirely new… Slaves were liberated and have become idiots. Pop music is thumping in every bar, where not so long ago we used to whisper about Kafka and Rilke, Mahler and Schoenberg, Musil and Roth and ‘The World of Yesterday’ whose passing was so touchingly lamented by Zweig.”

Some former dissidents are in business, some have become somewhat bitter, and some are in politics. Prague has become a replica of Disneyland.

Prof. Alžběta Palková, who emigrated during the last years of Communism, has published a book at a university in New York. It deals with unofficial culture of the dissent and is being widely praised in the world of academia. It is dedicated to Pavel in the memory of our beloved Olga. The chapter about samizdat (illegal publishing) heaps praise on The Legends by comrade Androš as an example of “fenomenological realism.”Their author, young Jan Reichl is compared to Samuel Beckett. That leads to an invitation to university in Washington, D.C. Only it does not bear fruit— no publication, nothing… Jan, a sardonic Czech intellectual in the midst of American university. “How am I to explain (to my young American students) that there were days when books were as important as life itself…it was a crime to own them and even bigger crime to disseminate them. To us, they were sacred. How to explain that a sentence taken from a mortal world and definitely formed on a page has the power to go straight through one’s heart and can be of the same importance as a flash of love or the matrimonial promise. Looking back at the solidarity of the shaken I do realize now that it was, just as the officer Macháček had said, a literary invention. In there was an intoxicating love that had changed my life, forever bound me with a person who loved me in a mutually shared world of imagination and who was trapped in the real world of mistrust. I am looking back at that moment and I know now that it was the time when my life was perfect, spiritual and lived to its fullest potential, having been written in the magically purest Czech.”

The head of university department (“…a leftist liberal, of course, because only leftist liberals can reach the top echelons of the academic pyramid in the U.S.”), very polite, flashing smiles, inevitably lets Jan go, and doing so he passes him a parcel from prof. Palková. Unwrapping it, he finds another one, with a hand written message from Betka: “To my mistake.”There lies the only remaining illegal copy of The Legends by comrade Androš. The copy he had forgotten on the bus when he saw Betka for the first time and followed her to Divoká Šárka Park.

Well, so much of the book. I am sure that my synopsis cannot do justice to its fascinating depiction of love and searching for the sacred, to its richness of language and tender lyricism of the story. Among the works dealing with the Czech dissent it is a novel of pivotal importance. Who would have thought that the romantic lyrical rendering of the lives of dissidents would be written by Roger Scruton, of all people… On the other hand—why not? He certainly possesses talent, memories and—distance.

And last but not least, let me elaborate on the two central characters. John O’Sullivan (former editor in-chief of National Review), in his review of the book in the March issue of The New Criterion, sees the character of Betka in a much more positive light than that of Jan. According to him she is a strong, independent woman maneuvering in a minefield and protecting those that are dependent on her. Jan comes off as a weak, self-centered nihilist. (At a conference in Warsaw this summer with Scruton and Sullivan present, John’s wife shared with us that she had thought it impossible to fall in love with a literary character only to be proven wrong in case of her husband and Betka.)

Now, to be sure, Betka is charming, strong and fragile at the same time, and more mature than Jan. (She was 26 at the time, Jan was 22). He, in contrast to her, did not understand much and was only beginning to learn. On the other hand she was hiding things from him. I find that important and not altogether innocent. He was immature but she did not play an open hand.

With all this said; would I fall in love with her?


Roman Joch

is the Executive Director of the Civic Institute in Prague. He is a commentator and lecturer on political philosophy, international relations, with an emphasis on US Domestic and Foreign Policies. He is the author of several monographs and expert studies including: American Foreign Policies and the Role of the US in the World (Studies OI, Prague 2000), Why Iraq? Reasons and Consequences of the Conflict (Prague 2003), and (together with Frank S. Meyer) Rebellion against the Revolution of the 20th Century (Prague 2003).

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