Remembering Jan Palach, 1948-1969

Today is the anniversary of Czech student Jan Palach’s death. Palach died on January 19 1969 after suffering for three days in hospital from self-inflicted third-degree burns. On January 16 1969, Palach, standing at the top of Wenceslas Square, at the foot of the steps of the Czech National Museum, poured petrol over his head and lit it on fire, to the horror of passersby. Palach left a short and succinct suicide note in which he stated he took this action:

Because our nations are on the brink of despair we have decided to express our protest and wake up the people of this land…

He signed the note ‘Torch Number One’. The idea was that Palach would be first of many students to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague in August of 1968 in this way. Palach, and others, were disappointed chiefly with the compromosing attitude of Alexander Dubcek and his government following the invasion. Palach’s protest was also directed at the new censorship which the period of ‘normalization’ embodied. In particular, his protest was directed at this new censorship and the pro-invasion newspaper, Zprávy, which Palach and his comrades wanted to be taken out of circulation. [1]

The greatest, and grimmest, irony perhaps of Palach’s death was that, as Paulina Bren notes, it simply served to reinforce the new state of censorship rather than rattle it. Bren writes that:

That day’s evening radio news included just a brief and official government report of the incident and made no mention of the of the suicide note… The next day, as Palach lay dying in  a hospital from his burns, the now Moscow-controlled Radio Prague distributed a memorandum to its staff forbidding anyone to broadcast programs or segments on Palach. The only exception was made for the youth broadcasting division, which was ordered to provide carefully crafted information on Palach and his suicide with the sole purpose of deterring young listeners from following suit. [2]

Palach’s death, and his funeral, managed not to cause – as the death and funeral of student Jan Opletal had done thirty years previously  and would do again in the future- a swelling of national sentiment that turned into political unrest. Instead, by allowing the funeral arrangements to be left in the hands of the student body of the city, and allowing people to line the streets as he was taken from the Arts Faculty in the city to Olsany cemetery, there was no sense of not being allowed to grieve. President Svoboda, on 20 January, gave a special television address to the nation stating that ‘without you, comrades and friends, neither Comrade Dubcek nor I can or want to govern.’ [3] International news, film footage of the funeral can be viewed on the British Pathé website here and Charles University’s dedicated site to Palach here.

While the decision of Palach to set himself on fire in protest is largely put down to inspiration from Buddhist monks in Vietnam, there is a theatricality to Palach’s decision that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the new openness that the Prague Spring represented. It might be better understood, in some ways, as a form of action art (akcní umení). As Pavlína Morganová notes in her book on Czech Action Art, “the arrival of Soviet tanks in August 1968 brought a definitive end to this blossoming in Czechslovak culture [from 1964-1968].” This was a period that saw Czechoslovak culture engage with avant garde practices including fluxus and much more besides. One of the key effects of the Soviet invasion, and the period of “normalization” that followed on Czech art was that it necessitated a shift in where art could happen and be made in the country. As Morganová also notes

It was in the seclusion of private alternative spaces or nature that Czech body art and land art developed during this period. Nature, where it was easy to avoid the gaze of secret police agents and informers, became for many a starting point for small-scale land art often closely linked to body art. [4]

This might perhaps provide us with another way to understand Palach’s form of protest. By lighting himself on fire in the centre of the city, at the foot of one its most famous buildings, he took his private thoughts into the public sphere. It would be ridiculous to extend the metaphor too far by claiming his act as an art action or performance, a kind of body art, but his violent protest has transformed the site, and the wider city in which he made this protest.

Palach’s legacy in the city is plain to see. The square in front of the Arts Faculty of Charles University where he was a student, formerly Náměstí Krasnoarmějců (Red Army Square) is now named for him. At the spot where he burned himself alive in front of the National Museum, a memorial cross is laid unevenly into the footpath, bulging out, as if struggling. It is a powerful memorial.

There is also a small plaque to both him and Jan Zajíc, another student who self-immolated, near the base of the statue of St. Wenceslas in the square where he died. And now, there is another physical reminder of Palach and his action. A sculpture designed by American architect and grandson of Czech emigrants, John Hejduk, has been installed on Jan Palach Square in Prague. This impressive structure, entitled “The House of Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide”, was drawn up by Hejduk in response to David Shapiro’s poem The Funeral of Jan Palach. Shapiro’s poem, whose text is on the slab that forms the base of the structure, was published in his third collection A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel in 1971. The poem reads:

 

When I entered the first meditation
I escaped the gravity of the object,
I experienced the emptiness,
And I have been dead a long time.

 

When I had a voice you could call a voice,
My mother wept to me:
My son, my beloved son,
I never thought this possible

 

I’ll follow you on foot.
Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up.
It was raining on the houses;
It was snowing on the police-cars.

 

The astronauts were weeping,
Going neither up nor out.
And my own mother was brave enough she looked
And it was alright I was dead. [5]

Shapiro’s poem was apparently inspired by a statement of Palach’s mother accidentally picked up by microphones. In an interview with Pataphysics magazine in 1990, Shapiro said that

Jan Palach was a young man who burned himself to protest against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and even to this day his grave, or lack of a grave as it were, is a very political situation. But a personal funeral becomes a public funeral: what his mother said was picked up by a microphone – ‘My son, my beloved son, I never thought this possible. I’ll follow you on foot.’

The new monument, inspired by Shapiro’s poem, was originally designed by Hejduk for a class project with his students. A temporary wooden version was previously on view in Prague in the 1990s, but this new version is to be permanent.

Palach’s legacy then is assured, but what it will mean in the future, is uncertain. As ever, in memorialising, there is the possibility that his death, and the reasons for it, be forgotten.

______________________________________________________

[1] Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp.272-273.

[2] Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010, pp.30-31.

[3]  Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, p. 273.

[4] Pavlína Morganová, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Charles University Press 2014, pp.22-24.

[5] David Shapiro, “The Funeral of Jan Palach”, A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, New York, 1971.

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