“One Can’t Survive without Holes in the Brain”: Hrabal and the Gnosis of the Real

Malynne Sternstein, University of Chicago

A few years shy of the tenth anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution,” not long after Hrabal’s defenestration, Milan Kundera, in his familiar ambiguating tone, said of the writer: “If anyone wants to give a name to the era after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, he would have to call it the era of Bohumil Hrabal”

What, precisely, might this statement mean? The ambiguity ranges across scope – does Kundera designate the era after 1948 or after 1989? – and, precisely as a function of this vagary, makes the implication that Hrabal’s import is somehow conditioned by the era of institutionalized forgetting stretching from 1948 to (beyond?) 1989. This may seem a faint praise on Kundera’s part, but I think it is precisely this problem of a conditioned, or contingent, resonance to Hrabal’s prose, and poetry for that matter, that makes his work inviolably alternative. There is no compromise to the conditioned response of Hrabal’s prose, no failure inherent in its historical punctuation. If there are two ways to manipulate the condition of autocratic rule, cynical realism or dissidence, Hrabal found a third. This third way, I venture in this essay, is bound up with a grappling with the Real, in Lacanian terms, prefiguring the total structure of the social mandate and of what is permissible. Along these lines, the following opinion, from his memoir Kdo jsem, is set in relief:

I don’t so much do what I want as what I don’t want, I know that one has to piss into the wind, that one is to set fire to oneself with something that can’t be put out. I am alone before my judge and my inner judge is great at questioning, it is simultaneously an accusation and a defense, I am my own prosecutor and my own defense. My style of writing carries with it a premature crossing of parallel lines, it interrupts itself because it can’t go forward along a mechanical path, but only on the path of the interrupted inner monologue, touched by external events.

To do what one knows one does not want to do belies the need for “holes in one’s brain.” The laxity of correspondence in law, the acknowledgement of the necessity of the breakdown of systematicization that is implied in both statements, including the embrace of “premature” transgression, are, I argue, evidence of Hrabal’s conviction in a third route that is underpinned by, paradoxically, gaps, interstices, fissures, all the stuff of what Lacan designated the Real, replete with its unappropriated freedom. Pissing into the wind means spattering oneself with urine. That the process of expression is articulated here in a manner analogous to so many scenes of scatological celebration in his novels leads me in this essay to research the place that scatology assumes – beyond thematics – in Hrabal’s work.

Attempting to go beyond a Baxtinian reading of the realm of the “down below” as carnival subversion or, more precisely, inversion, toward marking out a sense of Hrabal’s scatology as positive pigmentations of the Lacanian Real (in the manner of Slavoj Žižek’s rehearsal of Lacan’s Real) is the intention of the essay. Delving further into the tripartite model of Real, Symbolic and Imaginary to allow for a Real Real, Symbolic Real and Imaginary Real, pace Žižek, I hope to show that Hrabal’s episodes with pigeon droppings, premature ejaculation, and whirling turds, to name just a few, are nothing less than the engagement with that which has been shunted by the regulative principles of social identity. By navigating Hrabal’s scatology into the universe of partial objects (Freud’s phallus, breast, feces and Lacan’s additional membership of voice and gaze, and, later, a nod to urine!), I hope to see in Hrabal’s moments with the body’s non-correspondential and non-referential actions a gesture of the “third way” of survival that does not demand reaction or forgetting: self-interruption.