An Unexpected Darkness

Long ago, the pagan princess Libuše had a vision. She stood at the edge of a cliff and pointed to the wooded hill on the other side of the Vltava. “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.”

In Prague, the darkness is golden. The fog shimmers with a metallic phosphorescence. In the rainbow rays of light that shine through the stained glass, everything is shadow. Behind the fairy tale facade, a parallel story unfolds. That which seems too perfect often hides a secret.

But for her, darkness did not mean infinity. It meant a disagreement with what she saw, the negation of what was seen. The refusal to see. – Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

In the post-Renaissance years, Prague became a vortex of the occult. Some say that it forms a triangle of white magic with Lyon and Turin. Emperor Rudolf II summoned astrologers, mathematicians, alchemists, fortune tellers, necromancers, artists, writers, musicians. All of them magicians of chaos and mystery. Rituals were performed, incantations written. Secret societies coalesced. Their traces are still visible to those who know what to look for. Owls, the red cross, the square and compass, the all-seeing eye.

The Czech name for Prague is Praha, which means “threshold”. The last step before you enter the portal.

Severin stood in the shadows of the balconies and wondered why his heart was pounding. Was it because of this city, with its dark facades, the silence over its large squares, its decayed passion? He always felt as though invisible hands were brushing against him. – Paul Leppin, Severin’s Journey into the Dark

The magicians may have died off, drifted away, or gone underground, but the magnetism remains. Sparkly vapors that seep into the art, literature, and film. The humor is tinged with sarcasm. The beauty is spectral. Chiaroscuro imagination. Without darkness, there can be no light.

The river, the river. The swans’ angelic drift. If you speak to them softly, they will surround you and listen. During the religious years, an idealist was drowned in the Vltava and resurrected as a saint of flowing waters.

Water sprites steal the souls of drunken men who tumble into the current. And yet, they still come: jolly gangs of men celebrating the death of freedom. Public humiliation for the man of honor. Day-glo mankini, fishnet stockings, afro wig, wedding veil. Not so long ago, one of these revelers – a British man – went missing. His body was fished out of the river many days later. The water sprites have retreated to the depths with their prize.

Bubble makers fill the squares with glistening orbs. Tour groups shuffle behind raised umbrellas, a parade of the bovine. Buskers broadcast their contrived jubilation. It is here, among the exuberant masses, that the specter of Kafka wanders in eternal alienation. His wail pierces the din. Woe to those few who can hear it.

I do not speak as I think. I do not think as I should and so it all goes on in helpless darkness. – Franz Kafka

The energy is mischievous, not malevolent. The more I surrender, the deeper she leads me into her ever-changing labyrinth. Streets and alleys unfurl, never to be found again when you purposely seek them out. Follow me. This way. A voice like a struck bell’s fading resonance. Such intoxication, this eerie circumambulation.

Dead end. I blink and shake off the incandescent fugue. How did I end up here, on this hidden lane? A grimy doll’s head greets me from a gatepost. Crows caw down from on high. A row of storage sheds stands before me. The doll’s eyes stare heavenward. Lifeless rapture. My skin tingles. Eyes are watching from somewhere. The gate is wide open. How far do you want to go?

And so the enchantment emanates from Praha, to the gentle countryside, where rustic sculptures stand guard and strange lights materialize and effigies of witches are still burned every April 30th. Where is the line between reverie and existence?

No other Czech work invokes this question than the 1970s surrealist film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Based on the gothic novel by Vítězslav Nezval, it is a fantastic frenzy of horror and temptation. The film unfolds, a succession of some of the most gorgeous cinematic images I’ve ever seen. The rich, shadowy film tones of the era intensify the mood. Rather than fear, the film conjures an alluring unease. Vampire grandmother thirsting for youth. Is her lover really her brother? What does it mean, this blood that now flows from her body? It is all so scary and seductive, this metamorphosis.

May the power of these spells be broken – Vítězslav Nezval, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders