The Benjaminian inspiration

Reception of the previous volumes

  • The Coasts of Bohemia
  • Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century


Postcards from Absurdistan

Viktor Oliva’s 1901 painting The Absinthe Drinker, which hangs in the Café Slavia in Prague.


My forthcoming book Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, which will be published in August 2022, is 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 western conceptions of modernity and provide a critique of what Karl Marx called the illusions of the epoch. A major inspiration for this project has been Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. I approach twentieth-century Prague as Benjamin approached nineteenth-century Paris, as a site in which to excavate what he called the dreamworlds of the age. All three books are published by Princeton University Press.

I summarized my case for why the modern history of Prague should be of particular interest to theorists 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.[1]

While the books complement one another, each is meant to stand alone. The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) took a longue durée approach, using Prague’s historical experience from the mid-18th to the mid-20th centuries to explore questions of national identity and historical memory in relation to shifting constellations of political power.   Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (2013) zoomed in on the Bohemian capital during the culturally vibrant first half of the twentieth century, with a particular concern with the fraught relations between avant-garde art and revolutionary politics.  Postcards from Absurdistan is a companion and sequel to Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, which concentrates on the half-century from 1938 to 1989. Offering more twisted tales of politics and the arts, its central focus is on issues of power and the subject.

These books are aimed at a broad educated readership.  While they have been applauded by Czech critics for “extraordinary erudition, encyclopedic knowledge, sure-footed orientation in the scholarly literature, memoirs and correspondence, literature and art,”[3] they are free of jargon, avoid overt theorization, and seldom directly engage with academic debates.  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 voices.

coasts of bohemia cover

The Benjaminian inspiration

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 or excluded in academic attempts to impose an artificial coherence on history “come into their own,”[4] in the hope that the flash of sudden illumination might help us wake from our dreaming.  All three books build their case not by way of a conventional academic argument but through assembling a montage intended to paint a picture of the complexities of an epoch rather than to “explain” it. 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.”[5]

The “fragments” out of which these books are composed are intended to function as images in the sense given by the filmmaker 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 or both have revolutionary and symbolic and illuminatory quality. I mean that they contain in little a whole world—they are the knots in a great net of tangled time and space—the moments at which the situation of humanity is clear—even if only for the flash time of the photographer or the lighting.[6]

Benjamin likewise speaks of “dialectical images” in which “it’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” This “moment of awakening,” he goes on, “is identical to the ‘now of recognizability’ in which things put on their true surrealist face.”

I have 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.'”[7]

making trouble.jpg

Reception of the previous volumes

The Coasts of Bohemia

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 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) as well as academic journals.

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,”[8] 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.”[9]  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.”[10]

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century

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,”[11] 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”[12] and the Czech Academy of Sciences Institute of Czech Literature’s F. X. Šalda Prize for “an exceptional contribution to art history and criticism.”[13]  This was the first time a foreign language work has been thus honored in 17 years of the Šalda Prize.  Prague was also selected as a Financial Times History Book of the Year.[14]

I know of 47 reviews (and 15 other press mentions) of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, including lead reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Education, Architectural Review, Financial Times, and The Australian.[15] 

Comments include “a wonderful book,”[16] “beautiful and phenomenal,”[17] “written with verve, wit, and a playfulness that matches that of its surrealist subjects,”[18] “rich, dense and entertaining,”[19] “an impressive narrative,”[20] “vivid and engaging … refreshing in its originality and bold in its scale,”[21] “thoroughly researched, highly informative,”[22] “beautiful, erudite, fascinating … a tour-de-force of modern European intellectual history,”[23] “compelling,”[24] “captivating,”[25] an “exciting book … inviting future reflection,”[26] “erudite, comprehensive, well-illustrated and witty,”[27] “thoroughly engrossing,”[28] “continually illuminating,”[29] “remarkable, unusual and fascinating … giving the readers an incredibly rich and diverse picture of modern Prague,”[30] “an intimate and absorbing experience [that] slowly, unobtrusively deconstruct[s] the reader’s understanding of history,”[31] “brilliantly written,”[32] a “fabulously good read” and a “real page-turner,”[33] that is “a joy”[34] and “a pleasure” to read (Marci Shore adds, “in a sultry kind of way”).[35]


“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 The Australian.[36] 


Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century was translated into Japanese in 2018 and Czech in 2021. It has been widely and favorably reviewed in the press in both countries.

Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History

The entire story of this nation between democracy, fascist subjugation, Stalinism and socialism … contains within it everything essential that has made the twentieth century the twentieth century. This perhaps makes it possible for us to pose more substantial questions, to create perhaps more meaningful myths than those who have not undergone this anabasis. In this century the nation lived through perhaps more than many other nations, and if its mind was alert, perhaps it knows more too.  

Milan Kundera, speech at Fourth Congress of Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, Prague, 27 June 1967

Though it makes no claims to comprehensiveness, Postcards from Absurdistan provides an unusually wide-ranging exploration of the visual arts, architecture, music, literature, theater, and popular culture of the era.  Discussions of the lives and works of individual creators are the building blocks out of which the book is written.  Though there are 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.”[2]  Postcards from Absurdistan does the same, bringing the story told in the two earlier books up to the fall of communism in 1989.

“What … makes Prague a fitting capital for the twentieth century,” I argued in 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.”[37]  From this point of view Postcards from Absurdistan is the capstone of the trilogy.  These were the years of peak unraveling.

In the decades covered in this book Prague saw the end of Tomáš Masaryk’s democratic first Czechoslovak Republic following the Munich Agreement of September 1938, the German invasion of 15 March 1939, six years of Nazi occupation, and the murder of more than a quarter of a million Czechoslovak Jews in the Holocaust; liberation by the Soviet Red Army in May 1945, the ethnic cleansing of three million Bohemian Germans by their forcible expulsion from the country in 1945-1946, Klement Gottwald’s communist coup of Victorious February 1948, and the Stalinist terror of the 1950s; the creative explosion of the 1960s cultural thaw, the reform communism of Alexander Dubček’s Prague Spring, the Soviet-led invasion of 21 August 1968, and twenty years of so-called normalization under Gustáv Husák. The periodand an eraends with the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, which catapulted the dissident playwright Václav Havel into Prague Castle and precipitated the breakup of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992.

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 in eastern Europe heralded “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[38]  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 this book have repeatedly disintegrated to return us to a state of banal surreality that Czech dissidents dubbed Absurdistan. 

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 photographs of Miroslav Hák, Emila Medková, and Jan Lukas, the collages of Jiří Kolář, the paintings of Mikuláš Medek, the graphic art of Vladimír Boudník, or the films of Alfréd Radok, Miloš Forman, Jiří Menzel, and Věra Chytilová.

Absurdistan is a place where, as the Czech 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.”[39]   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, 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 long before communism and will still be here after it.  Back in the nineteenth century Karel Sabina, the librettist for the “national opera,” Bedřich Smetana’s Bartered Bride, turned out to be an Austrian spy. The novelist Jiři Weil knew exactly where he was when he had the workmen ordered by Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich to remove the statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn from the roof of Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall start 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.[41] 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 tailor-made for the surrealists’ black humor that André Breton called “the mortal enemy of sentimentality.”[42] It 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.”[43] 


The Wikipedia entry on “modernity”—a pertinent source in this context, since what is at issue is commonsense understandings of the term—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. [45] 

Like almost all western concepts of modernity, this is fairly obviously an ideal-typical generalization from western experience—and a very partial western experience 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, so too are other facets of the modern experience.  There are 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 organization of social life, but they are mass-democratic only in name.  Alongside the flags, anthems, parades, and the rest of the rituals of the national state, both fascism and communism politicized 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 camp, the gulag, the block committee, and 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 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 epitome of Giddens’s “society … which … lives in the future, rather than the past.”  What better exemplifies the 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”? 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. 

Postcards from Absurdistan is not meant to be a treatise in social theory, and it will not provide 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 book 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.

[1] The Coasts of Bohemia, pp. 16-17.

[2] Brendan Driscoll, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Booklist, 18 June 2013.

[3] Lenka Bydžovská, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Umění/Art, Vol. 42, No. 5, 2014, pp. 576-8, at  Along with her collaborator Karel Srp, Bydžovská is the world’s leading authority on Czech surrealism.

[4] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 460-64.

[5] Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, p. 7.

[6] Humphrey Jennings, Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers (London: Icon Books, 2012), p. xiii-xiv

[7] 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”.

[8] R. J. W. Evans, “The Magic of Bohemia,” New York Review of Books, October 21, 1999.

[9] Steven Beller, “The Shadow on the Pavement,” review essay in Times Literary Supplement, 1 January 1999.

[10] 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.




[14] “Books of the Year,” Financial Times, Weekend Arts + Life section, November 30, 2013.

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut) on Virtual Memories Show, May 8, 2017 (Podcast), at

[18] Jakub Beneš, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century on Habsburg (H-net), March 2015, at

[19] James M. Robertson, “The Great Blank Space Beyond the Wall,” review essay, Contemporary European History, Vol. 25, No. 1, February 2016, pp. 177-89.

[20] Karen Ackland, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in ForeWord Reviews, 21 May 2013.

[21] Thomas Ort, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Slavic Review, Vol. 73, No. 2, 2014, pp. 378-381.

[22] 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.

[23] 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.

[24] Filipová, “Dark pieces in a Modernist puzzle.”

[25] (Anonymous) review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Publishers Weekly, 28 January 2013.

[26] Pavel Kolar, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Kunstform, Vol. 17, No. 5, 2016.

[27] Barber, “Artistic capital, revived.”

[28] Jim Burns, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Northern Review of Books, June 2013.

[29] Mead, “Bohemian rhapsody.”

[30] 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.

[31] Esther Galfalvi, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Gorse, 5 March 2014, at

[32] “New Books and Extracts,” Dublin Review of Books, Issue 38, 1 July 2013.

[33] Jan Baetens, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Leonardo, Vol. 47, No. 2, April 2014.

[34] Claire Morelon, review of Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century in Social History, Volume 39, No. 2, 2014, pp. 292-293.

[35] Shore, “Surreal love in Prague.”

[36] Rothwell, “At the Crossroads in Prague.”

[37] Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, pp. 10-11.

[38] Frances Fukuyama, “The End of History,” The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-18.

[39] Petr Král, Prague (Seyssel: Editions du Champ Vallon, 1987), pp. 114-15.

[40] Coasts of Bohemia, p. 13.

[41] 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.

[42] André Breton, Anthology of Black Humor (San Francisco: City Lights, 1997), pp. vi-vii.

[43] Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Grove, 1998), p. 135.

[44] Milan Kundera, Testaments Betrayed (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 32-3.

[45] 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.”