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

49 thoughts on “An Unexpected Darkness

  1. How well you capture the mystic, Julie. I just watched the video and I have goosebumps 🙂 I think I’m more a child of the sunlight than darkness. Too easy to get dragged under.

    • It’s not something that’s widely advertised by the tourist board. There are ghost tours, which I suspect are cheesy, but there are also small occult tours which will show you some of the sights like the alchemist’s tower at the castle, and the secret society symbols, which are everywhere. I learned about this stuff on my own. I started to notice the symbols and the underlying eeriness of the city not long after I moved here and did some research out of curiosity.

  2. There’s always an underbelly in every city, just hidden from view. This seems particularly relevant here. You’ve cast Prague in a different light, or should i say dark, now.

    The doll’s head would have had me running away. Fast.

    • The doll head.There is no exaggeration in that passage. I still don’t know how I ended up on that back lane. I saw the doll head a little ways back, but kept on moving forward, because I couldn’t believe my eyes. I think it was probably the typically dark Czech sense of humor at work. The most effective “no trespassing” sign ever. 😳

  3. Interesting play of light and shade, the sombre and the bright, the real and spectral. Your narrative enabled my own virtual communication with mysterious depths of perfectly shimmering surfaces of Prague.

  4. I am seriously shivering and quivering here in my light, bright kitchen, thinking about the just slightly below-the-surface darkness so exquisitely limned here in your post. Though I’ve not been there, I think I’ve always seen Prague as a “dark” city – a place of secrets, mysteries, maybe even a little minor menace. My daughter had a frightening night there once, and I’ve read enough Kundera to feel the angst and itchiness associated with this place that feels out of the mainstream even as it hosts its millions of visitors. Your rustic sculpture shots here and on Instagram kind of creeped me out, but that doll? I’d run screaming from that baby! (Oh, and the Prague babies … another horror.) And on this downward spiraling note, I still can’t wait to visit!

    • Well, I hope I added a little zest to your day. Severin’s Journey into the Dark is another book that really captures the spirit of Prague. So spooky. Come on over. I’ll take you for a walk to remember.

  5. Wow Julie, you have put into perspective my vivid memories of a visit to Prague many years ago when we were being led up the stairs of a beautiful old apartment block where we were staying. The stairwell was vast and dark and every so often a door would open and a set pop eyes would peer out at us. What a welcome that was. Your explorations here are truly fascinating with gorgeous pics as ever.

    • Hi Dave- I thought I remember you mentioning an upcoming trip here. Did you change your plans or am I mistaken? Prague is the most architecturally beautiful city I’ve ever seen, but if you linger more than a day or two, which is the usual amount of time people spend here, you will discover how much depth there is.

  6. Very intrigued by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders! Haven’t seen that. This post also makes me think I should revisit Kundera… I went through a strong kick but I could use some refreshing. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting had a big impact on me.

    For some reason, the mood evoked in me by this post reminds me of Catherynne Valente’s book “Deathless,” which is based on the Russian fairytale of Koschei the Deathless. I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. It’s a blend of the mystical and the dark, but also the very sad. There is a chapter on the Siege of Leningrad that is flooring, I think, in its writing. I’ve re-read that chapter many times.

    Totally with you that the blend of dark and light with a bit of roguery is very captivating. It certainly appeals to me in ways!

    • Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is truly one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Like all surrealist works, the plot is convoluted, but when you surrender to the images the spell takes over. You can find it streaming online, but maybe streaming websites are blocked in the US. I will seek out Valente’s book. I read some of her short stories years ago. Absolutely stunning.

  7. Your article has reminded me why I love just wandering around in cities without a particular destination in mind. Czech Republic definitely had this sort of eery allure to it for me as well. I’ll never forget the way I felt walking around in Kutna Hora after visiting the Bone Church, it was foggy and cold and starting to get dark and the streets were totally empty except for those big gothic statues staring down at me. It was such a cool experience! Great article, thanks for sharing!

    • Kutna Hora is an eerie place even in the sunshine. I bet you will never forget your wander through it in the gloom. I believe the best way to feel a city is to purposely get yourself lost in it. So much more interesting than following maps and itineraries.

  8. Sort of remind me of Terence McKenna – The Winter King and the Alchemical Renaissance of Bohemia, youtube video, where he talks about the famous but brief kingdom of Frederick V Elector Palatine King of Bohemia.

    Great post Julie. :-).

    • Thank you for mentioning that video. Just watched it. Wow. I’ve listened to a couple of McKenna’s lectures in the past and he always sets my mind aflame. Now there are others I want to hear. Technology is taking a sinister turn, but I’m still grateful for Youtube.

  9. Ah, isn’t Prague so damn enticing? I visited it only once but it’s a place I’m itching to return to, despite all the stag-dos, men in bikinis, gals in strange outfits and everything inbetween. I’ve got to return. On a nice November weekend with fog and drizzle. Plus, I’ve got to understand how they manage to serve, at the Urquell bar at the airport, two kind of beers in the same mug without mixing them. I tried it and it doesn’t work.
    (I’m really jealous of your adopted hometown, Julie!)
    Fabrizio

    • Hi Fabrizio – I’m very aware that I’m in transit here, so I savor every moment. I hope you can return and dive deeper. November is a good time for the atmosphere and the relative calm. The dudes in banana hammocks are a year-round phenomenon, however. I’ve learned to view them as just another facet of the bizarre cosmos of Prague.

  10. Oh, Julie, your travelogues make me drool with envy and they make my mind wander all around the world. You make Prague (in this and in one other WordPress.com essay) seem like a dreamworld. One picture caught my eye in particular, though: the Absinthe Bar. I picked up a couple bottles in Amsterdam. Didn’t I drink enough?

  11. I have come back to this post for the third time. The quote that comes to me with each reading is by Charles Baudelaire: “What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.” I love how you capture the essence of each city you make your home.

  12. Thanks for the wonderful blogpost and all the photos. You have definetely captured a facet of Prague that not all people can see. The city can be magical and mystical, we just need to open our eyes wide and let the impressions enter right back into our mind. After reading your article I just can’t wait till mid June when I am going in Prague!

  13. Your photos and description of Praha are making my skin tingle too, in a good way. I love hearing that voice when I am somewhere new: the one that beckons me to explore hidden corners and walk down alleys that seem to have no end, the one that led you to an eerie doll’s head.

  14. Prague used to be a great city, but probably it has changed like many other European cities. I loved them the old way. I always felt so much magic in the old towns,. The ancient buildings and castles are all associated with legends. I have read a lot of books about this area, and it’s certainly bound with white and black magic. I don’t think Europe is what it used to be. I regret seeing some changes.

    • I’m sure it has changed a lot since the end of communism. Mass tourism has suffocated a lot of the charm. It’s really obnoxious. When I visited Prague as a tourist, I really didn’t like it and the idea of living here was pushed out of my mind. However, my husband and I decided to give it a try after we lived in Bratislava. If we ended up hating it we could easily move again. But it turned out for the better. I love living here and Czechs are delightful people. They love their country and are very attached to their unique culture. I truly hope that persists.

  15. Thank you Julie for taking us to the “threshold”. (Love that bit). Le seuil. There is a Lovecraft novel called (in French) le rôdeur devant le seuil… (Let me see if I have an english copy here) The lurker at the threshold (Lovecraft & Derleth). The french title is actually close to the original. Threshold, brink, aren’t those much more interesting than what lies beyond? The anticipation of the event may be better than the event itself. 🙂
    Prague really impressed me when we visited a few years ago. One of the few cities in the world where I could easily live for a few months. (And learn Czech!)
    Merci pour ce seuil.
    🙂

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