My major current research and writing project is a book entitled Prague at the End of History: Postcards from Absurdistan, which is the follow-up to my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (2013) and the culmination of a trilogy that began with The Coasts of Bohemia (1998). What follows are extracts from the prospectus for the book prepared for Princeton University Press, who also published the two earlier volumes.
The image above is Viktor Oliva’s 1901 painting The Absinthe Drinker, which hangs in the Café Slavia in Prague.
THE PRAGUE TRILOGY
Prague at the End of History: Postcards from Absurdistan
Why do Czech policemen always go in threes? One to read, one to write, and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.
old Czech joke
Prague at the End of History: Postcards from Absurdistan will be the final volume in a loose trilogy of cultural histories that take the city of Prague as an alternative vantage point from which to interrogate the dreamworlds of modernity and provide an immanent critique of what Karl Marx called the illusions of the epoch.
Within this remit each volume has a distinct chronological focus and thematic preoccupations. The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) used Prague’s experience from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries to explore questions of national identity and historical memory. Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (2013) zoomed in on modernism in the Bohemian capital during the first half of the twentieth century, with a particular concern with the fraught relations between avant-garde art and revolutionary politics. Prague at the End of History will concentrate on the period from 1938 to the present and focus centrally on issues of power and resistance.
I summarized my case for why the cultural history of Prague should be of particular interest to students of modernity in the introduction to The Coasts of Bohemia:
For all but twenty years between the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Prague has been an appendage of Vienna, Berlin, or Moscow. But provinciality is in the eye of the beholder. In reality Bohemia has been a frontier zone, over which the armies of competing European modernities—Reformation and Counter-Reformation, empire and nation, fascism and democracy, capitalism and communism—have repeatedly rolled back and forth. All have left their imprint on its society and culture; Prague is a pentimento of different ways of being modern, European, and, fitfully, western. Such a history, I submit, is central to the understanding of anything we might want to call the modern world. From the vantage point of London, or Paris, or New York—or, not so very long ago, Moscow—it is possible to identify history with progress, to ascribe to it providence, directionality, and meaning. It is possible to write modernity in the singular, and to prattle about “the end of history.” Such fables are believable precisely so long as the Bohemias of this world are forgotten. Viewed from Bohemia itself, the modern condition looks somewhat different. It is a chiaroscuro of beauties and terrors, whose colors are invariably more vibrant, and whose depths are very much darker, than our anemic narratives of progress are apt to acknowledge. Modernity was never either singular or simple. It was always a “postmodern” polyphony, in which the fragile stabilities of location and identity rested on the uncertain vicissitudes of power.
Like its predecessors, Prague at the End of History will provide a wide-ranging cultural history of the visual arts, architecture, music, literature, theater, and popular culture of the era. Discussions of creators and their cultural artifacts are the building blocks out of which the book is written. Though there will be some familiar names like Milan Kundera, Miloš Forman, or Václav Havel, much here will be new to most Anglophone readers. Booklist noted that Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century reintroduced “dozens of figures, many long forgotten or scarcely known to non-Czechs, into our understanding of twentieth-century cultural history.” Prague at the End of History will do the same, bringing the story told in the two earlier books up to the present day.
These books are aimed at a broad educated readership. While they meet the highest standards of scholarship (the notes and bibliography to The Coasts of Bohemia ran to 90 pages and Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century to 114 pages) and have been applauded for their “extraordinary erudition, encyclopedic knowledge, sure-footed orientation in the scholarly literature, memoirs and correspondence, literature and art,” they are largely free of jargon, avoid much in the way of overt theorization, and seldom directly engage with academic debates in the field. Instead, I weave a tapestry out of empirical details, sticking closely to primary sources and as far as possible letting the people who populate my pages speak in their own multiple and varied voices.
Reception of the previous volumes
Continuously in print for almost 20 years, The Coasts of Bohemia is standard reading on university courses across the world, including within the Czech Republic. It is also widely listed on travel websites and in travel guides (e.g. the Michelin Green Guide to Prague) and is the first item of recommended reading in the Handbook for Fulbright Grantees in the Czech Republic.
On its publication in 1998 Coasts was extensively reviewed in book trade journals (starred in Kirkus Reviews, listed as an Outstanding Academic Title of the Year by Choice), newspapers (the Financial Times, the Vancouver Sun, the Washington Times, the Czech daily Lidové noviny) and magazines (Times Literary Supplement, New York Review of Books, New Republic, Foreign Affairs) in addition to academic journals.
Reviews were overwhelmingly positive. R. J. W. Evans described Coasts in the New York Review of Books as “a rich and intricate story … the most stimulating introduction to [its] subject in English, or … any other language,” while Steven Beller, in a lead review in the Times Literary Supplement, considered it “a masterful essay on the ironies and tragedies of both the cultural history of the Czechs and Czech culture’s history of its own past.” The late Tony Judt, in a lengthy review essay in The New Republic, commended it as “an ambitious, elegantly written, and sympathetic account of the art, the literature and the politics of the Czech people, immune to the usual self-serving national illusions … a delight.”
Published in 2013, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century won the American Historical Association’s 2014 George L. Mosse Prize for “an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since the Renaissance,” and received honorable mentions for the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies’ Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize for “the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences” and the Czech Academy of Sciences Institute of Czech Literature’s F. X. Šalda Prize for “an exceptional contribution to art history and criticism.” This is the first time a foreign language work has been thus honored in 17 years of the Šalda Prize. Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century was also selected as a Financial Times History Book of the Year.
I know of 36 reviews (and 15 other press mentions) of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century to date, including lead reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Education, Architectural Review, Financial Times, and The Australian. As with Coasts the vast majority of responses have been very positive.
Descriptions have included “a wonderful book,” “beautiful and phenomenal,” “written with verve, wit, and a playfulness that matches that of its surrealist subjects,” “rich, dense and entertaining,” “an impressive narrative,” “vivid and engaging … refreshing in its originality and bold in its scale,” “thoroughly researched, highly informative,” “beautiful, erudite, fascinating … a tour-de-force of modern European intellectual history,” “compelling,” “captivating,” an “exciting book … inviting future reflection,” “erudite, comprehensive, well-illustrated and witty,” “thoroughly engrossing,” “continually illuminating,” “remarkable, unusual and fascinating … giving the readers an incredibly rich and diverse picture of modern Prague,” “an intimate and absorbing experience [that] slowly, unobtrusively deconstruct[s] the reader’s understanding of history,” “brilliantly written,” a “fabulously good read” and a “real page-turner,” that is “a joy” and “a pleasure” to read (Marci Shore adds, “in a sultry kind of way”).
Style and method—the Benjaminian inspiration
“Can a research professor ever have written a book quite so triumphantly eccentric and persuaded a major academic press to publish it so splendidly?” asks Nicolas Rothwell in his review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in The Australian. Though my departure from the norms of conventional academic writing has annoyed some critics, it is fundamental to what I am trying to do .
My inspiration for these books is Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. I do not believe it is the job of the historian to “make sense” of history because I do not believe history as such has any sense. My aim is rather, in Benjamin’s words, to let “the rags, the refuse” that are erased and excluded in most academic attempts to impose coherence on history “come into their own,” in the hope that the flash of sudden illumination might help us wake from our dreaming. Both Coasts and Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century build their case not by way of a conventional narrative but through assembling a montage intended to paint a picture of the complexities of an epoch rather than to “explain” it.
To pursue the visual analogy further, the picture I paint bears more resemblance to a cubist canvas (or a surrealist collage) than a “realistic”—which is to say, an illusionistic—academic painting. As I warned in the introduction to Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century,
Whether in the writing of history or the visual arts, such a twist of perspective does not produce an immediately legible surface. There is work for the reader to do. But the fragmentation of the field of vision may in the end give us a much firmer grip on what Milan Kundera, following the surrealists, has called “the density of unexpected encounters.”
The “fragments” out of which these books are composed function as images in the sense given by Walter Benjamin or Humphrey Jennings (in his Pandaemonium). Jennings characterized his images as “quotations from the writings of the period in question … which either in the writing or in the nature of the matter itself … contain in little a whole world.”
In this trilogy, my images include not only “quotations” from paintings, photographs, operas, and songs as well as literary and other texts, but also persons, places, dates, incidents, buildings, monuments, rituals, and much else—anything, in fact, that is capable of taking on symbolic value or assuming cultural significance. I have since elaborated on this methodology in my short book Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences, which began life as “an opportunity to clarify … why I had given my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century the subtitle ‘A Surrealist History.'”
Why “Prague at the End of History”? Why “Postcards from Absurdistan”?
“What … makes Prague a fitting capital for the twentieth century,” I argued in the introduction to Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, “is that this is a place in which modernist dreams have time and again unraveled; a location in which the masks have sooner or later always come off to reveal the grand narratives of progress for the childish fairy tales they are.” From this point of view Prague at the End of History will be the capstone of the trilogy. Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century dealt mainly with the first half of the century, but the unraveling came mostly in the second.
I title Prague at the End of History with deliberate irony, because during this period Czech history has been declared at an end no less than three times: by the Nazis, who incorporated Prague in 1939 into a Reich they believed would last a thousand years; by the communists, who proclaimed socialism “achieved” in 1960; and by triumphant western democrats, who thought (in Francis Fukuyama’s words) the 1989 revolutions heralded “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” All were proved spectacularly wrong.
Far from leading to the end of history, whether in its fascist, communist, or liberal-democratic variants, the dreamworlds explored in Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century have repeatedly disintegrated to return us to a state of banal surreality that Czech dissidents dubbed Absurdistan. Though they were referring specifically to Czechoslovakia during the years of “normalization” after the Soviet invasion of August 1968, I employ the term metaphorically, to denote an existential condition as much as any definite time or concrete place.
Absurdistan is what modernity looks like once we take the modernist blinkers off. Its features have been unsparingly exposed in Prague’s twentieth-century literature and arts as well as in Czech popular culture, often by way of a rich vein of frequently vulgar comedy that stretches from Franz Kafka’s Castle and Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Švejk to Milan Kundera’s Laughable Loves, Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, and Václav Havel’s The Memorandum. Such literary works are important sources for this book—as are their visual counterparts, like the photography of Vilém Reichmann, Miroslav Hák, Libor Fára, Emila Medková, Eva Fuková, and later Jan Saudek, the collages of Jiří Kolář, the films of Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, David Ondříček, and others, and the animations and other works of Jan Švankmajer and Eva Švankmajerová.
Absurdistan is a place where, as the surrealist poet Petr Král remembered while in exile in Paris in the 1980s, you can turn a corner and stumble across “the Russian steppes between two baroque domes, like an antechamber of the Gulag comfortably situated in the suburbs of Paris or Munich.” The “quaintly named domeček (little house), where … communist torturers made tomato puree out of male genitalia … tucked away behind the exquisite Italianate Loreta Church in Hradčany” that I wrote about in The Coasts of Bohemia comes into view. Absurdistan is a place where the future is always certain and the past is eternally unpredictable. In Absurdistan, the shop next door doesn’t have any bananas, this is the shop where we don’t have any meat. In Absurdistan, announces Radio Yerevan, Soviet jazz will not be played. Ivan Ivanovitch has fucked his balalaika.
These are all communist era jokes, but as Praguers know the essentials of Absurdistan were here before communism and will still be here after it. The novelist Jiři Weil knew exactly where he was when the workmen ordered by Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich to remove the bust of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn from the roof of Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall started to haul down “Wagner, the greatest German composer; not just an ordinary musician, but one of the greats that helped to build the Third Reich,” because he had the biggest nose.
Post-communist Absurdistan remains home to the fictional universal genius Jára Cimrman, who was voted “The Greatest Czech” in a Czech Television contest in 2005 ahead of Jan Hus, Comenius, Tomáš Masaryk, Václav Havel, and other bona fide national heroes. And where else but in Absurdistan would the prime minister have to resign because his chief of staff and lover had been using military intelligence to spy on his estranged wife, as happened to Petr Nečas and Jana Nagyová in 2013?
Absurdistan is the graveyard of modernist illusions, the place where the pipedreams of progress come crashing down to earth. Absurdistan is the place where Bob Dylan wrote “Desolation Row” (“They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” the song begins; and I think of the Slánský trial). Absurdistan is tailor-made for the surrealists’ black humor, that “SENSE … of the theatrical (and joyless) pointlessness of everything” that André Breton called “the mortal enemy of sentimentality.”
Above all, Absurdistan is no place for kitsch. I use the term here as Milan Kundera defined it: “the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.” “Humor,” Kundera writes, is “the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others … the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty that there is no certainty.”
Blowing-up of Stalin Monument in Prague, 1962
Prague at the End of History and modernity as kitsch
The Wikipedia entry on “modernity”—a pertinent source in this context, since what is at issue is commonsense understandings of the concept—quotes Anthony Giddens’s characterization of modernity as
a shorthand term for modern society, or industrial civilization [that is] associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy. Largely as a result of these characteristics, modernity is vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a society … which, unlike any preceding culture, lives in the future, rather than the past. 
Like almost all western concepts of modernity, this is fairly obviously an ideal-typical generalization from western experience—and a very partial one at that. Seen from the vantage point of Absurdistan, this is the kitsch version of the modern condition.
While all of these features of modern society are visible from twentieth-century Prague, which has flitted uneasily between various easts and wests over the decades, so too are other facets of the modern experience. There are, for instance, economic institutions that are indisputably modern and heavily industrial, but which are not linked to a market economy: Five Year Plans and the rest of the apparatus of a command economy, which was simultaneously an extraordinarily powerful instrument of social control.
There are political institutions that play a key role—in the jargon of the communist state, the leading role—in the organization of social life, but they are mass-democratic only in name. Alongside the flags, anthems, parades, and the rest of the participatory rituals of the national state, both fascism and communism politicized the minutiae of the everyday and policed it through a vast machinery of surveillance, while refining the spectacle of terror as an instrument of power.
These, too, are quintessentially modern phenomena: nothing says twentieth-century quite like the concentration camps, the gulag archipelago, the party committee, and the theater of the show trial. Nor can we begin to conceptualize this modernity without addressing processes of nation-state making that are centrally grounded in genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, and xenophobia.
I can see no good a priori reason for regarding democratic modernity as the norm and totalitarian modernity as the deviation. The Nazi and communist versions of the end of history might indeed be regarded as the hubristic epitome of Giddens’s “society … which … lives in the future, rather than the past.” What better exemplifies the supremely modernist “idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention,” after all, than the Nazis’ “triumph of the will” and the communists’ “scientific socialism”?
It might similarly be argued that the totalitarian fusion of state and economy promised to be a “vastly more dynamic” instrument for transforming the world than the messy and unpredictable institutions of a market economy and mass democracy. Certainly this was how it appeared when Hitler was building autobahns and making the trains run on time and Stalin was industrializing Russia while the West languished in the depths of the Great Depression.
At the least, Prague’s variety of modern experiences might induce us to expand our understanding of what is and is not part of the modern condition—or whether there is such a singular thing at all. Better yet, we might want to venture down the path opened up by (among others) Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, and Zygmunt Bauman, and ask whether these are not but two sides of a single coin. “Since Nietzsche,” Weber wrote in an address delivered at Munich University in 1918, “we realize that something may be beautiful, not only in spite of the aspect in which it is not good, but rather in that very aspect. You will find this expressed earlier in [Baudelaire’s] Fleurs du mal.”
If we were to develop a gallery of Absurdistan’s modern social types in the manner of the German sociologist Georg Simmel, they would have to include the revolutionary, the true believer, the apparatchik, the torturer, the collaborator, the political prisoner, the informer, the black marketeer, the survivor, the refugee, the exile, the dissident, the outcast (I have in mind the photographer Miroslav Tichý, whose extraordinary story I shall most certainly tell in this book), and Václav Havel’s unforgettable Prague greengrocer whose cynical complicity allows the whole show to go on. The interesting question is how many of these have their counterparts in the democratic “West”?
Prague at the End of History is not meant to be a treatise in social theory, and it will not attempt to provide definitive answers to these questions. But it will, I hope, serve up more than enough food for thought for those who wish to ponder them further.
My hope would be that in place of Kundera’s beautifying mirror of kitsch, my postcards from Absurdistan will act as a more unheimlich looking-glass in which we can recognize aspects of ourselves in the other and vice versa—and shudder as well as laugh, caught short by the sudden recognition of Rimbaud’s truth: “Je est un autre.”
 The Coasts of Bohemia, pp. 16-17.
 Brendan Driscoll, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Booklist, 18 June 2013.
 Lenka Bydžovská, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Umění/Art, Vol. 42, No. 5, 2014, pp. 576-8, at http://ceenewperspectives.iir.cz/2016/01/11/prague-capital-of-the-twentieth-century-a-surrealist-history/ Along with her collaborator Karel Srp, Bydžovská is the world’s leading authority on Czech surrealism.
 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 460.
 Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, p. 7.
 Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (London: Icon Books, 2012), p. xiii-xiv
 Derek Sayer, Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2017). See especially pp. 65-74, where I discuss Benjamin’s Arcades, Jennings’s Pandaemonium, and Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy as exemplars of “surrealist histories”.
 R. J. W. Evans, “The Magic of Bohemia,” New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999.
 Steven Beller, “The Shadow on the Pavement,” review essay in Times Literary Supplement, 1 January 1999.
 Tony Judt, “Freedom and Freedonia,” review essay in New Republic, September 1998, reprinted in his When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010 (London: Penguin, 2015), pp. 85-104.
 “Books of the Year,” Financial Times, Weekend Arts + Life section, November 30, 2013.
 Marci Shore, “Surreal love in Prague,” Times Literary Supplement, 10 January 2014; Marta Filipová, “Dark pieces in a Modernist puzzle,” Times Higher Education, 30 May 2013; Andrew Mead, “Bohemian rhapsody,” Architectural Review, 12 July 2013, pp. 103-4; Tony Barber, “Artistic capital, revived,” Financial Times, 3 May 2013; and Nicolas Rothwell, “At the crossroads in Prague,” The Australian, 15 June 2013.
 Miloš Ondrášek, “Na křížovatce [At the Crossroads],” review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Čechoaustralan [The Czech-Australian], Autumn/Winter 2013, p. 5.
 Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut) on Virtual Memories Show, May 8, 2017 (Podcast), at http://fearofasquareplanet.com/fear-of-a-square-planet-12/
 Jakub Beneš, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century on Habsburg (H-net), March 2015, at https://networks.h-net.org/node/19384/reviews/65480/benes-sayer-prague-capital-twentieth-century-surrealist-history
 James M. Robertson, “The Great Blank Space Beyond the Wall,” review essay, Contemporary European History, Vol. 25, No. 1, February 2016, pp. 177-89.
 Karen Ackland, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in ForeWord Reviews, 21 May 2013.
 Thomas Ort, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Slavic Review, Vol. 73, No. 2, 2014, pp. 378-381.
 Andrea Talabér, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in European Review of History/Revue Européenne d’histoire, Volume 21, Issue 6, 2014, pp. 933-5.
 Andrea Orzoff, “A Resolutely Non-linear History,” review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Austrian Studies Newsmagazine, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 2014.
 Filipová, “Dark pieces in a Modernist puzzle.”
 (Anonymous) review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Publishers Weekly, 28 January 2013.
 Pavel Kolar, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Kunstform, Vol. 17, No. 5, 2016.
 Barber, “Artistic capital, revived.”
 Jim Burns, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Northern Review of Books, June 2013.
 Mead, “Bohemian rhapsody.”
 Michael Lowy, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe, Vol. 21, issue 1, 2013, pp. 117-20.
 Esther Galfalvi, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Gorse, 5 March 2014, at http://gorse.ie/prague-capital-of-the-twentieth-century/
 “New Books and Extracts,” Dublin Review of Books, Issue 38, 1 July 2013.
 Jan Baetens, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Leonardo, Vol. 47, No. 2, April 2014.
 Claire Morelon, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Social History, Volume 39, No. 2, 2014, pp. 292-293.
 Shore, “Surreal love in Prague.”
 Rothwell, “At the Crossroads in Prague.”
 Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, pp. 10-11.
 Frances Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18.
 Petr Král, Prague (Seyssel: Editions du Champ Vallon, 1987), pp. 114-15.
 Coasts of Bohemia, p. 13.
 Jiří Weil, Mendelssohn Is on the Roof (Evanston: Northwestern University Press), p. 8. I told Weil’s amazing life-story, including how he survived Stalin’s purges (and wrote the first novel about them, Moscow—The Border), the gulag (and wrote the first novel about them, The Wooden Spoon), and the Holocaust, in The Coasts of Bohemia, pp. 228-31.
 André Breton, Anthology of Black Humor (San Francisco: City Lights, 1997), pp. vi-vii.
 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Grove, 1998), p. 135.
 Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 32-3.
 Antony Giddens, in Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 94, as quoted in Wikipedia, entry titled “Modernity.”
 Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds), From Max Weber (London: Routledge, 1970), p. 148. See also Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust.
 See Václav Havel, The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the State in Central Europe (London: Routledge, 1985).