The London Magazine
Multiplying the Light
In November 1989 I walked into a café in central Prague just before one of the big demonstrations in Wenceslas Square. The only seat available was at a small table by the wall, where a man in late-middle-age sat on his own, dressed in an ugly grey suit, with a dark-blue jersey under the jacket. He signalled with a nod that the seat was free. The café, like the street outside, was abuzz with the student euphoria. Only the two of us drank in silence, unremarked by anyone. I finally asked him, as I came to the end of my coffee, if he spoke English or German.
So where was he from?
‘From Europe,’ he answered, abrupt, almost physically recoiling from me and my question, ‘but I am ’fraid my English not so well.’
I soon finished my drink but sat a while longer in the warm, pretending to read, thinking about his strange reply. Finally I plucked up courage, guessing at the accent plus the anxiety. ‘Does that mean Russia?’
‘I am not a political man,’ he answered. ‘Where are you from?’ he went on, defensively. When I said from England, he nodded, pausing again.
‘I from Russia. From Moscow.’ We sat with empty cups on the table and began to talk. That I was not a Czech relaxed him. He was here, he explained, as a guest of Charles University. From the Physics Faculty of Moscow University. He had been invited to give a series of lectures. He glanced across at me for a reaction and I half-smiled. He seemed to agree that it was funny. He laughed and became suddenly expansive, like someone lonely. None of his students were attending lectures or doing any work, so there was nothing for him to do. ‘What can I do?’ he laughed again, gesturing around us. He didn’t seem afraid now. He would stay a few more days and then fly home, he thought. We got up to leave at the same time and parted outside the café. I watched him stroll away through the student bustle.
There will be several teachers in what follows, of which my European friend is only the first. There will be plenty of students too. I was myself
only just out of university and the Cold War was all that I, too, had ever known. So I understood how much this mattered. All the same, with one or two exceptions, I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. I wandered the city, holding my notebook against this wall or that window, earnestly copying into it what was written on the typed sheets stuck up everywhere with bits of Sellotape or blank price labels. I went at it – word by incomprehensible word – until my hand was so cold I could barely hold the biro straight. I’d sit in a café then and wait for the movement to return to my fingers. In the evenings I showed what I’d collected to a family I’d met in which the mother knew some English.
Returning to Prague the following January, I quickly found all the translators I needed. More precisely, I got a job teaching ‘English conversation’. My classroom looked out onto the street where police had beaten students the previous November. This action had triggered the strikes and mass-demonstrations which then led to the regime’s collapse. So to be there felt like going to work at the centre of the universe. There were still lumps of old grey wax in doorways all along the street, from the candles lit in November and December to honour the students’ bravery.
‘English conversation’ turned out to mean telling stories, mainly, and people had plenty to tell. They weren’t always easy to listen to and there were arguments, too, now that people felt free to have them. So songs were a good way to take a break from the stories. The songs were English of course but I asked one class, as an exercise, to translate a Czech one I’d been hearing everywhere. They recognised it the moment I began humming. It had been a hit in 1968. Twenty-one years on, its singer, Marta Kubišová, had stood on the balcony over Wenceslas Square in November and had again sung this unofficial anthem of the Prague Spring.
In January 1990 her song was enjoying a revival. It has a beautiful refrain which was based, I now learnt, on a seventeenth-century prayer. I might have been less surprised if I’d known then that there’s a song on Abbey Road incorporating lines from Thomas Dekker. But this Czech prayer, anyway, was based on words by Jan Amos Comenius and the name stuck, along with the tune. It was a memorable time. ‘Prayer for Marta’ will always be the soundtrack, for me, to that vast collective sigh of relief, heaved from one end of Europe to the other, as the Cold War came to a sudden and apparently peaceful end. I was 23 and stepping, or so it seemed,
into a deliriously hopeful future.
John Amos Comenius (b.1592) was a minister in the ‘Unity of the Brethren’, a community of Bohemian Protestant dissenters. At the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, in 1621, Spanish Imperial troops burnt down his home and library as they over-ran the country. He lost his first wife and his children during an outbreak of plague and then his second wife also. After finding temporary refuge on the estate of a sympathetic nobleman, he left Bohemia forever in 1628. It is above all as a philosopher of education that he is remembered and it says something about our attitude to teaching that England has no equivalent figure. Every year, in the Czech Republic, schoolchildren select a ‘Golden Amos’ (the middle name given him by his teacher), who then ‘reigns’ for twelve months. A major regional newspaper is named after him. High school pupils study his best-known work, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart (approximately the Czech equivalent of Pilgrim’s Progress) and have to answer questions about him in their final exams.
My youthful ignorance of his name was nothing unusual for an Englishman. The Way of Light, one of the fullest accounts of his thought, remains a difficult book to get hold of in English if you live, as I have done now for many years, in a small town nowhere near the British Library. It’s not available to read online. Neither Abebooks nor Alibris has ever heard of it and the London Library has no copy. Amazon’s verdict, I’m afraid, comes closest: ‘not currently available’. So how is it, in these days of hyperconnectivity, that one of the earliest works to predict a globally connected culture – and to suggest how we should prepare for it – can neither be read in English nor even (shock) purchased online? That English-speakers should be so little aware of it is additionally curious because it was actually written in England.
The book proposes England as the location for a new ‘College of Light’, where education was to be drastically rethought in response to the divisions which had opened up across Europe. This College would at once begin – employing staff ‘chosen from the whole world’ – with the task of training a new generation to resist the dangers of a parochial outlook. One of Parliament’s most consistent calls, in the run-up to and even during the English Civil War, was for decentralisation and reform in
education. New elementary schools and regional universities were needed as counterweights to the duopoly of Oxford and Cambridge. Comenius was invited to England in 1641 to address parliament as the philosopher of these proposed reforms.
But Parliament in the autumn of 1641 was too self-absorbed: it never heard him. So he wrote The Way of Light instead, at the home of a fellowémigré in the City of London. While here he was offered a job at Harvard University, to engage with indigenous Americans, but after completing the book he resumed his wanderings – to Holland, then Sweden, then Prussia, Transylvania, then Poland again. He eventually settled in Holland, where The Way of Light was published in 1668. But that final version retains his earlier hope for England’s central role. Its long dedication is to the Royal Society, as the body best suited, now, to carry on the work of what he had called, a quarter of a century earlier, his ‘College of Light’. So the original architect of modern education finally succeeded in offering this book to England.
He presents himself from the outset as a bringer of news from the war zone. Comenius’ achievement can be understood only in the context of the Thirty Years’ War and Bohemia’s centrality to it. He is, he says, a man whose life ‘has gone down in sorrows and his years in lamentation.’ But for him the only possible response to the catastrophe is clear: ‘the better instruction of the young in all matters, from the most elementary and fundamental…’
There’s a clairvoyant quality to what he has to say about ‘attention’, for example – how to develop the power of attention in children and how easily it can be damaged. The College of Light was to be a space clear of ‘distraction’, where fundamental problems could be broached and resolved. He likens our powers of attention, when damaged, to a broken mirror ‘distracted among several objects…’ producing ‘uneven, distorted and monstrous conceptions.’ What might he have made of social media? A properly functioning mind, by contrast, acts as a ‘transparent, concave instrument’ through which ‘rays of light can be gathered, united and condensed in such a way that they come together to a point.’
The scientific imagery is no coincidence. He urges the Royal Society to continue its exploration of ‘truth in the domain of Nature’: the continual referencing of light, of mirrors and lenses are a tribute to the new learning,
or to the ‘new mysteries’ being uncovered ‘day by day’. But he argues also that the reform of knowledge through science must be matched by an equally urgent study and reform of our ethical life, the life which will determine the use we make of the new discoveries. For him the reformation of our ethical life is a religious issue – he was a man of his times.
That concern about the ends to which science should be employed is of course still with us. In You Must Change Your Life (2012) the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk picked up on the scale of this ambition. For Comenius, he writes, education no longer merely instructs children in how to behave but aims ‘to transform the pupil’s soul into a speaking mirror of totality’. He calls The Way of Light ‘the original gesture of world improvement.’
The copy of The Way of Light which I eventually read arrived via an ‘inter-library loan’. A blue-mauve hard-back in excellent condition, it had not come far. The label pasted inside the front cover read ‘University College of the South West’, as Exeter University was known until the 1950s. It had been published in 1938, that most fateful year for AngloCzech relations. To find pages of the translator’s introduction and the dedication uncut surprised me, until I turned to the text itself. Its pages too were uncut. It was with something stronger than surprise that I realised the book in my hands had not once been read.
Comenius’s reasons for selecting England as the home for his College of Light are worth reflecting upon. England was ideally suited, he argued, because ‘by aid of navigation, access shall be easy from every country of the world and from which in turn communication can be made to every country’. Francis Drake’s circumnavigation ‘gave us a prelude and a prophecy of this sacred and universal concert of the nations’.
This is why thinking through the past can help at the moment – precisely because its concerns are not a perfect fit with our own. It allows us to take a break from our partisan attachments. Today we might think of Drake principally as the ‘master thief of the unknown world’, as a Spain-hater, as a participant in two slaving voyages in the 1560s. Those in favour, by contrast, recall perhaps his role in defeating the Armada.
Comenius was clearly far from immune to the appeal of this inveterate foe of all things Catholic – as we’ve seen, his home and library had been burnt down by Spanish troops. His view of Drake certainly drew upon the sectarian feelings of the day. But there was another more considered side
to his admiration, which he got from Francis Bacon – Bacon’s efforts to effect ‘the universal reform of the Sciences’ were Comenius’ other chief reason for wanting to establish his College in England. Bacon had viewed the circumnavigation as primarily a technical achievement, promising ‘the further proficience, and augmentation of all science’. ‘We cannot believe,’ Comenius now wrote, ‘that this amazing art of travelling rapidly round the world was revealed to men merely for the purpose of commerce… that we should grow familiar with the gold of Peru or intoxicate ourselves with the tobacco of Brazil...’
Navigation, for Comenius, was by its very nature ‘such as to multiply the light… By it communications have been opened up between men scattered through the various continents of the earth and islands of the ocean… hitherto… ignorant of each other. By it our knowledge has been made more complete…’ The College would promote a world-view adequate to what had been opened up by the new technologies, chiefly navigation and printing. Comenius often paired these, praising them in similar terms. Printing is the means by which ‘the lights of several ages’, or insight ancient and modern, ‘can be prevented from staying within the bounds of a single nation, island or continent, and may be spread throughout the entire globe’.
While the College of Light would have a single location, ‘Schools of Light’ could and would be set up anywhere ‘because the requisites for them are everywhere at hand – for everywhere there are those who can learn, I mean the children, those new-comers in our world, all naturally quick to look around them and to learn what everything is, and for what purpose, by what means it exists or comes into being’. Those running the schools, the ‘Colleagues of Light’, would regularly communicate so that ‘they may not be in ignorance of the condition of the world as a whole’. This would be a cooperative venture – those involved ‘must copy the bees and the ants rather than the flies and the spiders’.
In this College, along with those staff recruited from the four corners, ‘Rays of light’ from all cultures and centuries shall be brought to bear on this unprecedented new question of how we are to cohabit a single world. Humankind is inspired everywhere by ‘universal notions, original and innate’, and these ‘remain the same for men and women, for the child and the old man, for the Greek and the Arab, for the Christian and the Mahommedan, for the religious and the irreligious.’ The world is intended
for the common use of all these and not for ‘appropriation’ by anyone to their ‘own purposes’. Comenius corresponded with the Ottoman Sultan and engaged in respectful dialogue with Muslim theologians in a way that was highly unusual for his time. In a draft letter to Louis XIV he compared the religious tolerance obtaining in the Ottoman Empire favourably with Europe’s state of upheaval – for which Louis was of course partly responsible. It’s not known how or whether Louis responded.
The starting-point for this universal project was a root-and-branch re-invention of the human subject, organised round a central and innate appetite for learning: ‘every man has inborn in him the desire to know… and then to communicate to others what he has learnt.’ He proposed a new global language, suggesting Chinese or Italian as possible models. It’s interesting from the perspective of 2020 that the English language doesn’t get a mention here. It is surely ironic that a book written in England, dedicated to its foremost learned society, calling for the creation of a world language, should remain so completely unknown in, of all places, England.
Comenius comes across as the prototype of all those who have invested their hopes, wisely or not, in this country. There have been many such since: indeed, the introduction to my hard-to-find and hitherto un-read copy of The Way of Light told its own remarkable story of how Anglophilia, let it only strike root, may grow up into the hardiest of shrubs.
Translating seventeenth-century works of Czech philosophy has never been a solid business proposition. E. V. Campagnac agreed to translate it in the 1920s, but was unable to work on it in the Bodleian Library (where the only copy of the book in England was then to be found). The passionately Anglophile Otakar Vočadlo therefore ‘caused a very clear manuscript copy’ to be made of the one in the Bohemian Museum in Prague. In other words, somebody, possibly Vočadlo himself, copied the whole book out by hand, in Latin, and sent it to Campagnac.
The resulting translation was completed in the late Twenties but almost a decade would pass until it appeared. It was, as the introduction delicately puts it, ‘one thing to get a book ready for publication, and another to get it published, especially if it is not of a kind to attract many readers’. It was finally produced ‘at the expense of people who were prepared to lose their money’ – Liverpool businesspeople plus some funding from the Czechoslovak Legation. That they assumed there was no public for it is
specially poignant, given its eventual date of publication: 1938.
Vočadlo grew up close to the Sudetenland, annexed by the Nazis with British complicity in the same year. He wrote very movingly to the New Statesman about how that betrayal felt as a Czech Anglophile. He was a highly gifted linguist: he knew approximately 25 languages and had taught at London University during the 1920s. At the same time he had taught extra-mural classes in a project run jointly by Cambridge University and the Workers’ Education Association. Striking miners in Coalville, unemployed dockers in Birkenhead and textile workers in Bradford were all beneficiaries.
In the early 1930s he returned to Czechoslovakia where both he and his Anglophilia miraculously survived the war. In a radio broadcast for the BBC at Christmas 1945, he reflected on how it was to attend the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s. He had been arrested by the Gestapo after Heydrich’s assassination in 1942. ‘Last Christmas I was in Buchenwald,’ he calmly announced, on air. ‘And before that in Auschwitz and before that in the fortress of Terezin. But never mind. I’m in Cambridge now.’He recalls trying to cheer fellow-inmates in Buchenwald by teaching them English, such was his love of the language, just as Primo Levi taught people Italian. One night, with dozens of his comrades due to be transported the following day – to ‘mock-tribunals in Dresden’ or ‘to Mauthausen or other extermination camps’ – Vočadlo describes reciting Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, as his fellow-inmates lay ‘in their 3-tier bunks around the walls’.
‘But never mind. I’m in Cambridge now.’ There is surely a subtext here. Munich gets a mention but the betrayal – he has the grace not to spell it out – the betrayal had been not of a single country only but of a common civilisation and of England’s share in that common civilisation. That share had remained valid for him, even or perhaps especially in that roomful of condemned men. What he wrote about it less than a year later is a tissue of references to Shelley and Wordsworth and Shakespeare as well as Keats.
I wonder if he was at any level consciously aware, speaking into that microphone, of his fellow-Bohemian and the efforts he had made three centuries earlier to reach an English audience. It’s not impossible. That The Way of Light was ever translated was largely down to Vočadlo’s good offices and it is a book expressing the efforts of a great man to reach English
men and women with news of why the world needed them to rediscover their better selves. There is to this day a scholarship at King’s Cambridge in Vočadlo’s name.
He returned to a teaching post in Prague only to be ‘retired’ by the Communists in 1950. Banned from any teaching, he edited a Czech translation of Shakespeare. Rehabilitated in 1968, he gave a series of lectures on English literary themes, in honour of an old English friend, F.L. Lucas, who had campaigned against the policy of appeasement. He was sacked again in 1970 and not permitted to leave the country a year later to receive, in London, together with Noam Chomsky, a medal from The Institute of Linguists. The medal was accepted instead by his 8-year-old granddaughter, Karolinka (now Hughes), who can still remember the dark blue velvet dress she wore for the occasion. Today she lives in Prague and herself works as a translator.
Anglophilia in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 was everywhere. I strolled into that marvellous job in Prague with nothing more to recommend me than being in the right place at the right time and from the right country. And I know I have benefited there from being English on many many other occasions. But where you happen to be from is not something you’ve ever ‘earned’ exactly and awareness of this can give rise to misgivings.
Anglophilia is one of the less well-explored reasons why so many from that part of the world headed our way once they could. The newspapers of course would take the line that the scale of the migration was what counted and I don’t doubt there’s something to that. But why would we be so reluctant to explore any other side to this? Why weren’t we flattered by their wanting to come here? Was it because people didn’t know about the history of it and how far back it reached? The English may have hosted Comenius but to this day very few have ever heard of him. For all Vočadlo’s belated efforts, the book he wrote here has indeed proved to be ‘not of a kind to attract many readers’. I think we were unwilling to take this longer view because admiration has a flip-side – namely the expectation that you can live up to it. Their Anglophilia raised questions about whether we still deserved it. I put it to you that we found that question increasingly uncomfortable and that also is part of why these people began to become such a problem.