On one of my first days in Prague, when the reality of what I had just begun was sinking in slowly but also out of nowhere, I found a kind of silly book about the history of the Jews in Prague and of the Golem. It was thin and in English and sitting in what was probably not a wholly authentic Czech bookstore that I had stumbled into while searching for the exit from a castle, but I bought it anyway because the mere act of hold it in my hands somewhat settled the mix of excitement and anxiety that had been sloshing inside me ever since I’d first arrived. Inanimate material made brought to life! Stories from an oppressed people! Narratives designed to refuse simple answers!— This was the stuff of my Watson, I thought.
It’s now about two months later and I’ve finished the book. Sadly, the most remarkable part was learning that the editors felt a mere ten pages of Golem related stories justified titling the whole book, “The Prague Golem." It was simplistic, short, and clearly for tourists, but some of these reductions lent the book a humorous wisdom. For example, my favorite story, titled “The Golem Is Enraged," went more or less like this (actual version about three sentences longer than my paraphrase):
Rabbi Loew, who gave life to the Golem in 1580 to help protect the Jews from a particularly antisemitic priest named Thaddeus, always gave his Golem a daily-plan on Friday afternoons so that he wouldn’t have to speak to the creature on the Sabbath. But one Friday Rabbi Loew forgot to give it such a plan. Come sundown, the Golem started “rampaging around the Jewish Town like a madman." Eventually Rabbi Loew heard about the ruckus, ran out of the Old-New Synagogue and whispered into the Golem’s ear “Go home and lie down in bed." The Golem immediately did so, and Rabbi Loew returned inside.
And that’s about it. Destructive are the powers of inactivity, or, as the book puts it, the Golem’s “inactivity had made him both frightened and angry".
This is one of only four Golem stories that “The Prague Golem" decided worthwhile enough to include within its pages. Aside from being born and being destroyed, all the Golem gets to do is use the Old Testament to help Rabbi Loew find an adulterer (seriously) and ravage the village in his accidental free time. This curiously brief account diminishes the folklore surrounding the Golem— an unfortunate development since the Golem is really the closest thing the Jews have to a superhero (discounting Sandy Koufax). Yet, if we take the book’s composition seriously, treating the limited number of stories to be some sort of intentional, philosophical choice, then each story about the Golem gains additional significance.
Re-examining “The Golem Is Enraged" with this conceit doesn’t change the fact that the story makes for a funny narrative, but perhaps we might now say that it’s funny because it’s an almost hyperbolic caricature of a real life phenomenon. I can easily remember days in college when a class was cancelled and I returned to my room ready to capitalize on my newly awarded freedom, only to waste the time away on sites like Facebook or YouTube. I can often remember thinking afterwards that I should have just taken a nap. Inactivity really isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
But it’s also important to ask: inactivity born from what?— negligence or freedom? Those two concepts are not so easily separated from one another when framed within a relationship defined by control. The final line from the story punctuates this fact; “after that Friday," it says, Rabbi Loew “never again forgot to give his daily plan to the Golem." The Rabbi learns a lesson and the Golem goes to bed. The manipulator grows and learns and breathes, while the manipulated does what it’s supposed to do.
Puppet theatre in the Czech Republic (and previously, Czechoslovakia) seems acutely aware of this dynamic. In the sixties, when Khrushchev replaced Stalin in the USSR, Czech artists were freed from some of the censorship and suppression they encountered in the fifties. In this new cultural environment, Czech puppeteers stepped out from behind their partitions or from beneath the stage to reveal themselves before the audience for the first time. It was a powerful gesture of accountability, a reconfiguration of theatrical space that forced the audience to acknowledge the real powers of manipulation hiding behind the scenes. And for the puppeteers, perhaps it was an admittance of culpability, as well— a means for confronting the irony found in working as a manipulator of automata within a country experiencing its own lack of autonomy.
From what I’ve seen and experienced here, this shift in the puppet/puppeteer relationship seems to have become the dominant aesthetic in contemporary Czech puppet theatre. In the time I’ve been here I’ve yet to see a single puppet show that did not, in some way, acknowledge the presence of the puppeteer. Some shows play with scale by combining people and puppets onstage; others grant the puppeteer a self-awareness that allows him/her to perform as the puppet while also commenting on the performance; and the few that feature no humans in the show still have done away with the scrim, leaving the puppeteer exposed to the audience throughout the performance. In the best of shows, bringing humans onto the puppet stage introduces new dramatic layers to the performance, complicating simplistic readings of the narrative. In the worst of shows, bringing humans onstage feels like nothing more than a lazy cop-out, a means for hiding unskilled manipulation through cheeky self-awareness.
When I mentioned some of these observations about Czech puppetry and recounted the “The Golem is Enraged" to a Czech friend over lunch, she told me of an interview she’d read with Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned first president of Czechoslovakia following the Velvet Revolution. In the interview, Havel spoke about his experience of life after first leaving prison. He said that although he was excited to be out, he’d grown so accustomed to the regimented structure of prison that he felt a part of himself wanting to go back in. His newfound freedom, a strange “gift" born from intentional negligence, had some how left him frightened and angry with himself.
Not to equate prison life under an oppressive regime and my own formal education (although, if you’re a fan of Foucault, you might not see as great a difference), but I couldn’t help but feel resonances with Havel in my own experience since graduation. I, like a fair number of Americans, was enrolled in some kind of schooling system from ages 2 to 22. I’ve no doubt that the combination of excitement and anxiety I felt when I first began my Watson (and still feel, though less constantly) stemmed from my sudden release from this dependent lifestyle.
And I apologize if this sounds quaint or dumb or obvious to anyone— it probably is. But, as I keep discovering in the theatre and in life, intellectually understanding a concept is quite different than living through it.
But speaking of intellectual ideas, in a different, much better book that I found here in the Czech Republic titled "Česká loutka" [trans: Czech puppets] the authors claim that the earliest known writings about puppets come from an Indian agnostic philosophy that speaks of "pakrati”, an ambiguous term that means both “puppet" and “sleeping energy." "Pakrati," a great force lying dormant within a being denied full autonomy. That’s the Golem if I do say so myself.
I feel as though I’ve experienced "pakrati" in some of the best work I’ve seen here, as well as in the people behind the marionettes, and— quite frankly— in the history of the Czech Republic. It’s difficult to put into words (another thing you’ve got to feel to understand), and so I hope you’ll take my word for it. When the marionette’s head turns and slightly bobs as you look it in the eyes; when the manipulator, who has experienced such hardships in her life, glows as soon as she takes hold of the a puppet’s strings; when a friend, who was 8 during the Velvet Revolution, tells me with a smirk about the day he was told to no longer call his teacher “Brother Teacher"— these are moments when I think I feel "pakrati."
The trick, I suppose, it awakening it in yourself. And as I’m now discovering out on my own, that’s taking an on-going search for the right amount of self enforced structure.