At the same time I see that the academy has its ways of inuring too many of its chosen ones against a compulsion to apply their research and writing to contemporary issues that ought to demand all of our attention. Perhaps it’s that American campuses are so leafy and idyllic, allowing us to pretend that this utopic vision is but the world on a micro-scale.
Diski’s essays on death hold these things together brilliantly, somehow even beautifully. Her writing, which weaves without warning between a methodical, detailed account of treatment and the daily life of the dying and more ethereal, abstract passages, suggests the experience of losing lucidity and finding it again that a drugged body undergoes. It is to the LRB’s credit that they let Diski, who has been writing regularly for the publication since 1992, do whatever she damn well pleased. And in this way, Diski transcends her clinical status as body-cum-puzzle-piece to be wedged in a machine; she is throughout an active observer and writing subject, who tells us on the other side of chemo that, “the entire process makes me think of clubbing baby seals.”
Early in the hour-long film, “The Judicial Murder of Jakub Mohr,” the central protagonist, a patient in a psychiatric ward, shouts in Czech, “My words are not my own!” [“Moje slova nejsou moje!”]. He is on Kafka-esque trial for saying out loud what is visibly true: a series of wires—“Threads!” rebukes the prosecutor—extend from his back and connect to an ominous box, which is held by a man who in turn dictates in whispers what the patient says. At one point, Mohr lists to the jury in indignation what he has become: a gramophone, a radio, an instrument. He is something between human self and machine, a cyborg, his agency mediated by the state and psychiatric institution.
Traveling around Europe in the midst of all this, conducting dissertation research on the Czech interwar avant-garde and its relationship to other major artistic centers of that period, I could not but think about renewed border controls in the EU territory within the context of, and in comparison to, travel in the period between the two World Wars. At that time, Europeans (as well as travelers from further afield) enjoyed a newly open, post-war terrain. The physical movement of bodies, facilitated also by new and faster modes of travel, helped to open up an unprecedented level of exchange between artists and intellectuals of diverse backgrounds and languages. In that brief window of freedom of movement between the two World Wars, Paris was a hub of such traffic, and many visitors came from Prague.
“The problem I have with contemporary culture is that today everything is treated as a product. Culture is a huge and shiny supermarket. As all products are announced as ‘brilliant,’ the risk inherent in buying those product falls entirely to me. In that respect, I often miss ‘my butcher’ and ‘my baker’ and ‘my vegetable lady,’ people I could rely on. These days, shopping and consuming—including consuming culture—have become more difficult. In such a context, I behave like any other cultural consumer: I buy books randomly, because I’ve heard of the author or the title, or I know the publisher’s taste, or a friend recommended something to me.”