Cultivated Good-for-nothing

Translated by Paul Wilson

THE GENTLE BARBARIAN is Bohumil Hrabal’s drifting collection of anecdotes about his friend the graphic artist Vladimír Boudník, known for his “Explosionalism,” applying abstract expressionist techniques to metals and other raw materials, a meeting place of aestheticism and industrial production. It’s a true hangout narrative, depicting a bohemian lifestyle in mid-century Prague. Jaroslav Hasek is mentioned at one point, and the adventures of the two men, along with the ornery poet/”left wing Marxist” philosopher Egon Bondy, have a Svejkian good-for-nothing quality that makes them lovable.

In one episode, the narrator and Vladimír start collecting graffiti from public restrooms, and despite being caught in a women’s room and taken to be gay lovers, the project is considered a resounding success by the artist. Egon Bondy learns of this and caps off the section as he often does, with a jealous rant: “Jesus, you two miscreants are stealing my thunder and you don’t even know you’re doing it. Just now I’ve been sweating out a sentence: Sexus is anonymous; Eros has an addressee. We’re all in the same sexual boat, but everyone sails under his own erotic flag. Goddamn it! I’ll have to swallow a kilo of pills again tonight, just to get a little sleep!”

After the long middle part full of anecdotes of carousing, art-making, factory work (with lesbian proletarians), meandering conversations in the streets at night, and the small town aspects of big city living, the final third part, a short text Hrabal read at an exhibition, is one of the best artist pep talks I’ve ever read. Here is a statement for the artist’s ethos.

Think about Vladimír, who felt at home wherever he was. Think of how his studio was always where he happened to be at the moment. Think of how he had the eyes of a child and those of a scientist as well, eyes that looked closely at what was around him, so that he imbued things of little apparent worth and meaning, things people scorn, with nobility and great beauty, though it may have been on a surface no larger than a handkerchief.

And while Hrabal sees an aristocratic sensibility in the proletarian Vladimír, these lines to me speak to the materialist line of knowledge that art, when it’s in touch with life, can’t seem to help but validate.

You who are simply observers should try, as Vladimír did, to peel back the skin of matter, to get inside the membranes that cover animate and inanimate forms. Don’t be afraid to perform a vivisection, not just on yourself but on all things, because that is the only way you can find lifelong pleasure and rejoice in the knowledge that human eyes have evolved so that, through them, matter might see itself and recognize its own million-faceted beauty.

Matter pondering matter. Well, what else are we?

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