By Guy Debord’s well-worn definition, psychogeography combines subjective and objective knowledge and studies, theory and speculation as well as (in the practice of his own Situationist International) public activism and urban interventionism, function and play. According to Debord’s biographer Vincent Kaufman, for all its apparent seriousness, the term also comprised “an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.” Over the many years since the Situationist “unitary urbanism” and the dérives and détournements of May 1968, the notion has become an umbrella term for “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities” which take “pedestrians off their predictable paths” and jolt them “into a new awareness of the urban landscape.”
Literary history’s penchant for geographically delimited schools or groups tends to reduce the “specific effects of the geographical environment” on “the emotions and behavior of individuals” of Debord’s definition to place-name shorthand. In just the avant-garde context, one oftentimes pitches the Dresden-based Brücke vs. the Munich-operating Der Blaue Reiter group, the Milanese against the Muscovite Futurists, Zurich- as opposed to Paris-Dadaism, or—in the theory of the times—one distinguishes the Moscow as opposed to the St. Petersburg Formalist movement, or among the Prague, Moscow and Copenhagen schools of linguistic structuralism (all, of course, inheritors of the Geneva School), etc. Yet, it remains a muddled issue whether these toponyms can and should act only as convenient classifying labels or how much attention should be paid to the impact of the geographical specificities on the psyches inhabiting them. That all of the above movements and schools formed their poetics and aesthetics in response to the particular political, sociological, historic, architectural, geographic, or even meteorological aspects of their milieu, is only too evident. As is the fact that any particular space in any particular time finds itself, in the words of Henri Lefebvre,
qualified (and qualifying) beneath the sediments left behind by history, by accumulation, by quantification. The qualities in question are qualities of space, not qualities in space. To say that such qualities constitute a “culture,” or “cultural models,” adds very little to the matter.
The present mapping of the interwar Prague and its impact on poetist aesthetics follows the in-between approach espoused by Louis Armand in his monumental anthology of post-1990 Prague poetry and fiction:
There are cities in the world that exercise a particular influence over the minds of writers, artists and historians because they seem to manifest a type of spirit, a genius loci, through which an intellectual vitalism is channelled or communicated. Cities galvanized, in their very substance, by a cultural electricity—a vortex—their names imbued with powers of conjuration.
For the Devětsil generation, the Prague of the 1920s and 30s was not just a city in which to study and (fail to) get a job – it was, first and foremost, an inspiring space to inhabit, in which to live intensely. Karel Teige’s “Art Today and Tomorrow” manifesto, in many senses the harbinger of poetism, published in the Devětsil Miscellany in Autumn 1922, posits one of the chief principles of the Czech avant-garde in the formula: “There’s no need for art out of life or for life, but for art as part of life. […] May art be mental hygiene, just as sport is physical hygiene.” For art to be part of life, it must first of all cease to be, in any sense of the word, institutional:
THE NEW ART WON’T BE ART ANY MORE! Yes, of course. It will be something altogether new and different. But we can also say, only the new art will truly be artistic, and all art so far will appear narrow, exceptional, monstrous or imperfect.
As long as “the beauty of the new art is of this world,” it must engage with its immediate surroundings, the place and time giving rise to it. And, two years later, Teige indeed venerated the city of Prague as “the magic-city of poetism,” the seat of “courage, insouciance, surprise and joy” of “all senses in a carefree style.”
The home where its heart was at its most carefree was the Národní třída (National Avenue), which stretches from the bottom of the Wenceslas Square to National Theatre, extending into the Legions Bridge over the Vltava, thus joining the city’s commercial and cultural epicentres. However, the prime cultural-social milieu fostering the avant-garde lay, at least geographically speaking, opposite the institutional space of the National Theatre: in the cafés running the length of the left side of avenue. For a mid-20s flâneur keen on keeping up with the literary business of the day, the following six establishments would present compulsory stops on a stroll down Národní třída.
There was, first and foremost, the Slavia Café at no. 1, where, overseen by the “Absinthe Drinker” painting by Viktor Oliva, the Čapek brothers would meet up with the Tvrdošíjní (“Obstinates”) painters Jan Zrzavý or Václav Špála, where Vítězslav Nezval met his life-long partner Františka Řepová, or where Vladislav Vančura signed the “Communist Writers to Communist Workers” manifesto, which ended up earning him the boot from the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
At a stone’s throw from Slavia stood the Národní Café at no. 13, the hub of the Devětsil group, where Karel Teige held regular meetings with Vítězslav Nezval, Konstantin Biebl, Jaroslav Seifert and many other poets, but also with the Prague Linguistic Circle founding members Vilém Mathesius and Roman Jakobson (the harbinger of the good news of Russian Futurism) or the surrealist painters Jindřich Štyrský and Marie Čermínová (Toyen), whose friendship begun at the café would grow into life-long partnership. The exoticism of the nearby Paukert delicatessen & wine cellar at no. 17 and its display window full of imported luxury foods and drinks was immortalised in Seifert’s poem “Abacus,” likening the addressee’s breast to “an apple from Australia.”
A solemn if somewhat drab witness to days of yore, the old-fashioned Union café at no. 29 was already an “endangered relic” of the past in early 1923, when Čapek was sounding the alarm to save its pristine beauty. Its division into many small salons, booths and compartments offered an exceptionally welcoming environment for group meetings and debates. A hangout popular with writers, artists and architects already in the 1870s, the list of the Union café frequenters in the post-war years reads like who is who of the literature and culture of the period, topped by the prototypical bohemian, Jaroslav Hašek. In the late 1920s, the café also became the haven of all those expelled from the Devětsil Garden of Eden at the National café.
Pompously opened in 1928 at no. 25, the Metro café—its functionalist interior design a reference to the style of the Parisian underground–acted as the modern-day follower to Union’s shabby splendour. What the Union café was to the pre-war years and early 20s, the Metro became shortly after its opening. It was here that, in March 1934, Nezval and Štyrský agreed on the formulation of the leaflet announcing the inception of Prague’s first Surrealist group. Popular with the Marxist intelligentsia, the Metro café became the seat of the Left Front, a collective undertaking which included many different sections (literary, philosophical, cinematic, architectural, economic, sociological, and others) and published its eponymous magazine under the editorship of S. K. Neumann. It was here that the Prague Trockyists had their first skirmishes with the Moscow hardline communists, and it was also here that Vančura was correctly prophesied a violent death by Nezval that the avid palm reader.
The Metro café was built opposite the famous Louvre café and Moulin Rouge wine bar at No. 20. The Louvre café had already earned its reputation as the hub of the German-speaking intelligentsia and artistic circles before World War I, when frequented by Albert Einstein (during his 1911-12 sojourn), and hosting the bi-weekly meetings of a German philosophy group led by Joseph Eisenmeyer and attended by two law students, Franz Kafka and Max Brod. After World War I, Louvre also became the venue of the regular meetings of the Prague Linguistic Circle and, in February 1925, witnessed the founding of the Czech PEN club, presided over by Karel Čapek and playing host, over the years, to such visiting international stars as G.B. Shaw, Marina Tsvetayeva, Paul Valéry, Philippe Soupault, Luigi Pirandello, and many others.
Although located literally in the shadow of the National Theatre and its socially elitist and ideologically censored dissemination of the official version of national culture (all of which the Frejka-Burian 1926 “Liberated Theatre” project sought to free itself of), the cafés provided a cultural space marked by social permeability, personal mobility, ideological deregulation, and internationalism. In fact, the Liberated Theatre took the Národní třída for its stage on which to perform its social activist happenings – as the architect and avant-garde memoirist Karel Honzík recalls,
E.F. Burian […] wanted us to join forces and publicly intervene for the return of the pedestrian precinct onto Národní třída. He suggested that the Devětsil members parade up and down the street in strange tawdry costumes consisting of ultramarine jackets, yellow trousers and red vests. […] In short, EFB wanted to bring the theatre into the streets.
Even though this project did not quite pan out in the end, Národní třída provided the matrix for the social contact and livelihood on which the Prague avant-garde could thrive. The telephone still not quite yet embedded in popular consciousness and private use, cafés became the nodal points of a network enabling of collective activity. As Seifert later on reminisced in his book of memoirs, Všecky krásy světa (All the Beauty of the World):
No-one went to the cafés for the coffee only, which was proverbially dismal. Its cost—two crowns—was an entrance ticket to a nook of warmth (in the winter) and of thick smoke (in the summer). But the friendly atmosphere was always worth the while.
On the axis street of the avant-garde movement, however, the cafés had a location particularly suitable to literary industry for yet another reason: they sat side by side with the nation’s most prestigious literary publishing houses and newspaper editor offices. The Topič bookshop (no. 9) was the place in Prague to go to when searching for the latest news on French surrealism. The Borový publishing house (No. 18), from the 30s onward, was the exclusive publisher of Nezval and Teige, often illustrated by Štyrský and Toyen. Borový having moved into the Topič bookshop, no. 18 was then occupied by KMEN, or the “Club for Modern Publishing,” a publishing collective concentrating the efforts of some of Prague’s most important avant-garde publishers, attracting the interest of the Čapek brothers, the political thinker Ferdinand Peroutka. Also at no. 18 resided the editor’s office of Lidové noviny, whose journalism was of such high level and aplomb as to found its own “school” of journalism (led by such legendary men of the press as Eduard Bass or Karel Poláček).
That the Devětsil “headquarters” at Národní café also played host to the meetings of Prague Linguistic Circle helps to account for the unparalleled readiness and speediness with which some of its prominent members came to Nezval’s rescue in the famous Naše řeč affair. The most influential magazine on the theory and practice of the Czech language, Naše řeč (Our Speech), led by its editor-in-chief, Jiří Haller, served as a mouthpiece for Bohemists and Czech philologists promoting the most extreme purist and archaic standards of language. When presented with Nezval’s Kronika z konce tisíciletí (A Chronicle from the End of a Millennium, 1929)—an experimental text full of morphological and syntactical neologisms—Haller’s review, unsurprisingly, launched a vitriolic attack on the perceived “awkwardness” of Nezval’s style, the “ineptitude” of his handling of language, and the overall “defectiveness” of his first novelistic attempt. The Circle’s collective response took the form of a lecture series on the related questions of linguistic correctness, literariness and the poetic function. Together, in taking a collective position on the questions of linguistic norm, it was by far not only the illustrious Jakobson that opposed the prevailing sentiment among Czech philologists of the period and sided with Nezval’s poetic experimentation, but the entire Czech “wing” of the Circle—Mathesius, Mukařovský, and Havránek. In so doing, they also acknowledged the common basis between Nezval’s poetist creation and their own theoretical examination of the modern Czech standard and poetic language.
Thus, the collective action and public activism of the Czech avant-garde sprang from the hub at Národní třída, whose cafés acted as conduits—and publishing houses and editor offices as outlets—of shared energy. The Devětsil could publish their revue, circulate their manifestoes, co-author books and have them illustrated by the period’s prominent painters and photographers, only because its members lived and created in each other’s pockets at the café tables on Národní třída. Connected to the mutual proximity and concentration typical of the main actors and the stage of the interwar avant-garde cultural life is another trait of Prague’s geography that shaped the psyche of its creative inhabitants. Prague, compared to other urban “names imbued with powers of conjuration” for the European avant-garde (London, Paris, Berlin, Rome), is marked by the relative smallness, compactness and well-preservedness of its historical centre. Even during the mass spread of municipal transportation, the landmark of its skyline, also the centre of the nation’s political power (Prague Castle), sprawling on the hilltops of Hradčany, was accessible only via the crummy winding streets of the Lesser Side – and only on foot. The revolutionary project of the first Prague bus line operating up (and down) the steep Nerudova street, from March 1908 to November 1909, which also sought to supplant the abolished tramline over Charles Bridge, was discontinued due to its impracticality and failure rate. Instead, a tram connection between the Lesser Side Square and the Castle was built in the course of the 1910s and 20s, which nevertheless circled around the Castle’s ramparts and reached the historical district in a roundabout way and from afar, via Chotkova, along Marian Ramparts and from Pohořelec. Thus, Prague’s historical epicentre remained sealed-off from industrial urban progress to a degree unparalleled in e.g. Paris, London, or Berlin.
A brief comparison of two great city-poems by two great city-poets, the one dedicated to Paris, the other to Prague, will illustrate the striking contrast. The opening of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” famously apostrophises the Eiffel Tower as the “shepherdess” to the “bleating flock” of the bridges, denounces “the ancient world” of the “Greeks and Romans” and immediately sings of “automobiles,” of “hangars at the airfield” and of “a pretty little street” praised for its “factory charm” and “youth.” Prague makes its famous cameo later on, and the dissonance between the hypermodern Paris and the ancient pristineness of Prague Castle could not be more pronounced:
Horrified you see yourself etched in the agates of Saint Vitus
You almost died of sadness the day that you lived
To see yourself like Lazarus bewildered by the day
The hands of the clock in the Jewish quarter run backwards
And you too crawl slowly back through your life
While climbing to Hradčany listening at night
To the Czech songs of the taverns
Although written after more than twenty years of progressive urban industrialisation since Apollinaire’s “Zone,” Nezval’s poetry collection Prague with Fingers of Rain depicts a far more rural landscape. “City of Spires” enumerates “fingers of a cemetery in May,” “fingers of autumn crocuses,” “fingers of gold,” “fingers of asparagus,” “fingers of cuckoos and Christmas trees,” and juxtaposes “the sunburnt fingers of ripening barley and the Petřín Lookout Tower” with “the cut-off fingers of rain and the Týn Church on the glove of nightfall.” The eponymous poem, “Prague with Fingers of Rain,” despite listing Prague’s signature historical monuments, repeatedly insists on its indefinability and incomprehensibility to the casual observer: “It is not in anything […] That you are unique in this world that you cannot change even if they destroy you”; “It is not in anything / Not in anything that can be uttered by a glib tongue that can be described in a tourist guide / It is in your whole being in its mysterious disposition.” And its Whitmanesque list of the city’s manifestations of the poetic spirit (“I am the tongue of your bells but also of your rain / I am the tongue of your grapes but also of your doss-houses…”) ends on a note of invocation:
To future generations I bequeath my experience and a long sigh
For the unfinished song which wakes me which lulls me to sleep
That I lived and walked about Prague […]
For time flies and there’s so much left I want to say about you
Time flies and I have still not said enough about you
Time flies like a swallow lighting up the old stars over Prague
Nezval’s poetic vision of Prague, compared to Apollinaire’s high-tech invocation of Parisian urbanism, is markedly rural and ancient. Opposed to Apollinaire’s “youthful” charm of his Parisian “factory street” and the sense that the city’s breakneck speed of development renders even the cars “ancient,” is Nezval’s conviction of Prague’s immutability, akin to the permanence of “the old stars” over the city, which will make it possible for future generations to remember him who “lived and walked about Prague.” Stephan Delbos, editor of From a Terrace in Prague, echoes Nezval’s and many other poets’ sentiment when phrasing the difference of Prague as a city space in these terms: “Therein lies the startling tension of Prague, and its power to inspire: The city’s rulers, inhabitants and visitors have changed drastically, while its physical nature has remained much the same.”
The other characteristics of Prague as psychogeographical space, the narrowness, steepness and compactness of its central parts, is so marked as to turn flânerie and strolling into the key means of transportation across much of the city. It was, again, Apollinaire whose brief March 1902 visit to the city inspired him (after a mere two days) to write the famous “Prague Stroller” short story, unwittingly establishing the tradition of all the writing done whilst/through walking about the city. Although surprised, in the opening matter-of-fact account, at the city’s modern cosmopolitanism (and Francophilia), Apollinaire again quickly resorts to the city’s mythologisation. Not only does he mis-transcribe the name of his hotel, “Na Poříčí” as “Porjitz” (as if deciphering ancient Hebrew), but on his first stroll through the city, the narrator is joined by the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus (here appearing under the name Isaac Laquedem), doomed to forever roam the earth until Christ’s second coming. In the streets of Prague, however, Ahasuerus’ trespass is a felix culpa, and he himself a happy sinner:
I walk without ceasing, and will still be walking when the fifteen signs of the last judgment are manifesting themselves. But I do not follow roads to Calvary; mine are happy. […] My sin, sir, was a sin of genius, and I ceased to repent of it a very long time ago.
Nezval’s 1938 book-length poem in prose, Pražský chodec (The Prague Stroller), begins on Národní třída on 9 June 1937, as he is submitting the manuscript of his new poetry collection, Absolutní hrobař (The Absolute Undertaker) to the Topič Publishing House at no. 9, and opens with a tip of the hat to its famous precursor and his “image of the Prague stroller”:
After all it was Apollinaire who thusly named his Prague-based text – and I daresay he was among the first to evoke in me what I call the “new sensation.” It seems to me in poetry, such a “new sensation” is all that’s ever at stake. Only once such a “new sensation” has appeared can everything become meaningful anew. […] It was this “new sensation” which gave me a new feel for cities. And it is this “new sensation” that leads, even today, my steps around Prague.
Nezval’s Prague Stroller is partly a travelogue of his twelve-month walk around the city between June 1937 and June 1938, partly a memoir of place-evoked reminiscences of his avant-garde years (which, as he himself foresees, are about to come to a grinding halt), written in the tone of “emotion without emotionalism”:
This “new sensation” turns me into a tuner transposing everything he comes across into one key: the key of emotion without emotionalism. This “new sensation,” which seizes me in my instantaneous encounters with just about anything, doesn’t hierarchize beauty according to whether it is or isn’t important, but instead it wanders under the open skies and through the very centre of life. This “new sensation” is turning me into a Prague stroller.
Especially lively are Nezval’s memories of André Breton and Paul Éluard’s 1935 visit to the city – Prague becomes haunted by these Parisian ghosts and those of Štyrský and Toyen (already more Paris- than Prague-based), and in various places Nezval engages in an imaginative Prague/Paris comparison, as when he likens the ancient parts around the Strahov monastery behind the Castle to Paris’s Montmartre: “What would Parisian poetry be without the pungent dust falling down from the ancient Montmartre?” And in his Prague Stroller, the urban space becomes a palimpsest of socio-historical-literary texts, an architectonic record of “all that is intransient about the people’s wonderful imagination.” A typical passage, blending Prague’s mysterious past and intoxicating presence in one apostrophe, reads like this:
Whenever one watches Prague from up here [behind Prague Castle], as she lightens up, one by one, her lights, one feels like happily plunging headlong into the deceitful lake reflecting the bewitched hundred-spired castle. This sensation, which seizes me almost every time I hear the evening bells over the black lake of starry roofs, has long been fused in my mind with some notion of an absolute defenestration.
Although freely associationistic in the best surrealist fashion, Nezval’s imagination still keeps conjuring up phantoms of ancient past – here, of the 1419 and 1618 defenestrations.
This long-past spectre of upheaval and war comes, toward the end of the book, to haunt the present. “The alarming thought” crossing Nezval’s mind as he is finishing his memoirs, that “there might come the day on which Prague would have to be evacuated” is, of course, no mere flight of fancy, but—with the Munich treaty only three months away—an impending danger. From there, Nezval imagines
Prague like a thousand-room apartment whose inhabitants have left for holidays. There are cities that couldn’t bear such a fantastic thought-experiment. There would be nothing left of them should their people leave them. Prague can, though. With Prague, the thought is bearable, for she wouldn’t cease being miraculous even if only preserved over the corpses of us all. She’s fated to outlive us all, to outlive all of our qualities with which we’ve failed to grow up to her grandeur, her mysteriousness.
Nezval’s invocation to Prague ends on an arguably very un-avant-garde sentiment, coupling the intimation of the impending annihilation of a whole generation with the faith in the continuation of the urban space whose ancient backwardness never impeded the making of the poetist “new,” but turned out its constant source of fascinated inspiration. The beauty of the poetist “new” was indeed always “of this world,” attuned to the particular psychogeographical settings of the poetist “magic city.”
Whether sprawling around in the cafés on Národní třída like Teige, or strolling up and down the narrow winding alleys of the Hradčany and Lesser Side like Nezval, the poetist/surrealist avant-garde of the 20s and 30s wrote manifestoes, poems and travelogues in and about Prague. That even eighty years later, one World War and one Communist “eternity” later, their works have still a fairly unchanged extra-textual referent, that the effects of city’s “geographical environment” on “the emotions and behaviour” of its inhabitants are still largely the same now as then, that the Prague in which Nezval “lived and walked” in 1938 is still the Prague of 2014, is as good a proof as any for the “magic city’s” intransience.
Excerpted from ABOLISHING PRAGUE: ESSAYS & INTERVENTIONS, ed. Louis Armand (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2014).
*The accompanying image shows the French and Czech Surrealists, March 1935. From left to right: Toyen, Bohuslav Brouk, Jacqueline Breton, André Breton, Vítězslav Nezval, Jindřich Štyrský (seated), Vincenc Makovsý, Paul Eluard, Karel Teige
 Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” (“Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography,“ Les Lèvres Nues [6: 1955], online at http://library.nothingness. org/articles/SI/en/display/2t.
 Vincent Kaufman, Guy Debord: Revolution in the Service of Poetry (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 114.
 Joseph Hart, “A New Way of Walking” (Utne, July/August 2004): 41.
 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) 230.
 Louis Armand, “Introduction,” The Return of Král Majáles (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010) 1.
 Karel Teige, “Umění dnes a zítra,” Sborník Devětsil (Prague, Autumn 1922): 197; my translation.
 Teige, “Umění dnes a zítra,” 198; my translation.
 Teige, “Umění dnes a zítra,” 202; my translation.
 Teige, “O humoru, klaunech a dadaistech” (1924), collected in Svět, který se směje (Praha: Akropolis, 2004) 88; my translation.
 The following exposé follows the detailed account in the recent Baedeker through avant-garde Prague, Praha avantgardní, eds. Kateřina Piorecká & Karel Piorecký (Prague: Academia, 2014) 36-95; my translation.
 Qtd. in Praha avantgardní, 59.
 Jaroslav Seifert, Všecky krásy světa; my translation. Qtd. in Praha avantgardní, 18.
 Jiří Haller, “Kronika z konce tisíciletí” (A review of Vítězslav Nezval’s novel A Chronicle from the End of a Millennium), Naše řeč, 14.7 (1930): 153-63.
 Pavel Fojtík & František Prošek, Pražské autobusy 1925–2005 (Prague: Dopravní podnik hl. m. Prahy, 2005) 4-10.
 Guillaume Apollinaire, “Zone,” trans. Nikki Georgopoulos, From a Terrace in Prague, ed. Stephan Delbos (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011) 42-3.
 Apollinaire, “Zone,” 45.
 Vítězslav Nezval, “City of Spires,” trans. Ewald Osers, From a Terrace in Prague, 88-9.
 Nezval, “Prague with Fingers of Rain,” trans. Ewald Osers, From a Terrace in Prague, 90.
 Nezval, “Prague with Fingers of Rain,” 91-2.
 Stephan Delbos, “Preface,” From a Terrace in Prague, 7.
 Guillaume Apollinaire, The Heresiarch & Co, trans. Anne Hyde Greet (University of Michigan: Doubleday, 1965) 7.
 Nezval, Pražský chodec (Prague: Československý spisovatel) 14; my translation.
 Nezval, Pražský chodec, 16.
 Nezval, Pražský chodec, 34.
 Nezval, Pražský chodec, 35.
 Nezval, Pražský chodec, 87.
 Nezval, Pražský chodec, 87.