Elegies to Failed Revolutions: The Antipolitics of Hiking
“Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it.” - Henry David Thoreau
The 1969 Czechoslovak comedy ‘Ecce Homo Homolka’ begins with a funny but terrifying scene. A family is taking their Sunday off to enjoy a day in the forest. Nearby a young couple is awkwardly beginning to make love and are in a state of half-undress when a woman’s voice pierces through the serenity of the scene calling for help somewhere in the distance. The voice continues her cries for help as the couple start putting their clothes back on and to pack up their belongings. The Homolka family is also upset. In their minds their one day off completely ruined by an insensitive miscreant who they believe is playing a trick on them. In the next scene dozens of people are fleeing the forest and we witness a long caravan of cars heading back toward the city.
What makes this scene so horrifying and funny are the angry reactions of the vacationers as they fend off the possibility that there truly could be someone in need of help and that there were dozens of people nearby who could have helped, but did not and have instead run away, recalling the now infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964 where a number of witnesses to her stabbing did not report the crime because each thought that someone else was already doing it. Now called the ‘bystander effect,’ the murder of Genovese was actually much more nuanced and a few witnesses did indeed attempt to call for help, but the legend, rather than the true story, is so compelling, because it provides a glimpse into the psychology of crowds and the individuals that comprise them.
But back to the film. Another possibility is that the woman indeed was playing a cruel joke, knowing that the forest was full of Sunday vacationers and the only way to enjoy the forest alone was to shatter the serenity with cries for help that she knew would go unanswered. The ‘she’ would eventually turn into a ‘they,’ a cacophony of voices, male and female, all crying for help. The film touches on just these sorts of representations of the political and social contexts of the era. By 1969 the Prague Spring and the Communist thaw were coming to an ignoble end and Czechoslovakia was at the beginning of a long period of normalization and a return to ‘official’ and conservative Communism marked by total surveillance of all citizens and the ‘soft Stalinism’ of the Brezhnev years. The beginning of the film plays on the vicissitudes of ordinary life in which small insignificant details, moments of anonymity, privacy, and rest appear much more significant and important, because the majority of the film sees the Homolka family, three generations stuffed into a small Prague apartment, trying, but failing to escape one another into their own private lives, where they could be, for a brief moment, truly alone. Through various circumstances, the vortex of family life sucks them back in each time one of them finds an opening of respite for themselves. Allegorical in nature, the film satirizes the state as the abstracted embodiment of the family. There is no escape either from the family or from the state apparatus, with the single exception being when taking a walk to get cigarettes from the local tobacconist.
The private may be in its strictest sense apolitical or perhaps antipolitical. It may be a site free from the kind of harried politics from which people that have lived under totalitarianism tended to escape. But even in democratic societies, retreat into privacy is a necessary component of daily life, because in our pockets exists an entire abyss of politics ready to suck all life into it. Even behind the most innocuous of subjects beamed through the mirror screen of the always-connected phone lurks a potential act of vigilante (anti)social justice and the means by which to escape it have been progressively hacked away. This is among the reasons why the hike or a walk has emancipatory potential, not because of some redemptive quality of the act, but precisely because it lacks the very substance through which political acts function. To be apolitical means, but isn’t always, a conscious act of resistance to be subsumed into the world of politics. To be apolitical is the ultimate political act today. The point is not to simply retreat, but to retreat consciously, first from the state, second from the network, third from the ideological structures that compose the first two, and lastly, by one’s choosing, from the family. This rather unassuming plot point was what made Ecce Homo Homolka so compelling in 1969 and what subconsciously drove the underground dissident scene for the next two decades.
In the Czech New Wave, roughly tracking the years 1960 – 1969, a common theme of many of its films was escape, often in the guise of comedy and absurdity. The Homolka trilogy, whose last film was released at the height of Czechoslovak ‘normalization’ represented by the Gustav Husak presidency, follows the Homolkas on their quest and their failure to escape the daily minutiae of really existing socialism. Other films, most notably by the filmmakers Jiri Menzl and Milos Forman, The Fireman’s Ball, Closely Watched Trains, and Rozmarne Leto navigate the labyrinthine world of the mundane but menacing traps of social interaction and their political implications and the ways in which individuals retreat into themselves and away from others as a form of psychological coping with life’s absurdities. After emigrating to the US, Forman would later touch on this notion while filming in the US with One Flew Over a Cuckoos Nest, where the main character retreats into clinical insanity instead of dealing with the real world as it really is. Echoes of his socialist anxieties.
In socialist Czechoslovakia the word for hiking was ‘tramping’ and it was as much an overt anti-political movement as it was a recreational activity. The two notions were in essence intertwined. In Czechoslovakia tramping developed in tandem with the Scout movement in the early 20th century. Since inception, tramping was essentially an anti-authoritarian movement, breaking away from Scouting because ‘tramps,’ its self-appointed members, saw the Scouts as too militaristic, obligingly following rules and falling into rigid hierarchies. The political history of tramping should be noted. The Nazis suppressed tramping in 1938 and the Communists in 1948, despite many communists having been one time tramps themselves. The popular efflorescence of tramping in Czechoslovakia, occurred in the 1960s and 1970s around the same time that the dérive, the revolutionary urbanist walkabout, was gaining traction in Paris. But while the dérive was an overtly political act, meant to elicit ‘emotional disorientation’ in the subject through wayfinding and the creation of ‘situations’ by getting lost in places within the city, tramping was in essence the reverse side of the same coin. In France, young Marxists were engaging in the act of walking so that they could experience the city as other and to get close to that which is lost within bourgeois experience. If familiarity breeds complacency and eventually contempt for the other, the dérive was an act of cutting the ties between saccharine bourgeois existence and its reactionary political underpinnings.
In Czechoslovakia young people were increasingly disenchanted with political bureaucracy and its attendant surveillance state. They were not as interested in exploring the inner cities the way the Situationists were, there was no great society to be found there, no random situations through which to summon personal experiences other than those in some way mediated and managed by the state. The presence of the watchful eye of the secret police, the spies and nosy neighbors, were felt in the city, the undergirding problem of course being that it was indeed the individual, rather than some abstract notion of the state itself, that was doing the watching. Many people recall tattletale neighbors and coworkers as the source of a lot of discomfort and potential danger, and though much of the real danger was overstated, it nonetheless comprised a kind of background white noise of paranoia and films from those days, from comedies to thrillers bathed in that paranoia in a way that recalls the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. What was at stake was social status, the reputation and future of individuals and their families, not the possibility of going to prison for one’s political views or the danger of reeducation camps or hard labor, harbingers of communist politics of the 1940s and 50s USSR. Czechoslovak society was at this time strictly middle class, not by choice, but by a strange twist of societal flattening and acquiescence to the symbolic order of the day. Plagued by housing shortages and long waiting lists, a ban on travel abroad except to Soviet-friendly states, an indifferent bureaucracy, a secret police and a network of coerced and paid informants, full and mandatory employment in a society that detested layabouts, families similar to the fictional Homolkas made tramping into a literal getaway.
Tramping was done primarily on the weekend since this was the time of reprieve from the work week, which was, in the context of ‘full employment,’ the only time that people could exercise their privately held political will. Out of tramping rose the subculture of cottagers, essentially older and aging tramps who’ve settled down and built more permanent wooden or brick and mortar structures, or bought up and restored abandoned cabins and cottages. After the Second World War tramps often headed to the borderlands vacated through the forced removal of the Germans, a post war effort to de-Nazify the countryside by the Czechoslovak government outlined in the Benes Decrees. These borderlands are still today some of the least populated areas in Central Europe. In the wake of the German removal, entire towns and villages were razed and returned back into a state of nature. Tramping and ‘cottaging’ arrived in these areas precisely because they were so remote. After the war these areas became hosts to a network of weekend and vacation homes called ‘osady,’ many set up on the meeting grounds where tramps attended their version of the Indigenous ‘potlatch,’ called a ‘potlach’ in Czech, a word with its root in ‘tlachat,’ meaning to speak or gab. Since its early days, tramping was connected to the culture of the indigenous ‘American Indian’ but also to the culture of the West in stark contrast to the Eastern-facing socialism and its Pioneers. Every weekend dozens of tramps dressed like the Marlboro man (a dress code that even women followed) descended on forest glades, mountain tops and fields with their US Army surplus gear, hunting knives and set about to engage in what amounted to a re-creation of a nomadic indigenous social gathering channeled through Western middle-class society. Cowboys and Indians pulp fiction written by Czech and German authors was read voraciously and communal games and feats of strength, acoustic country western song and dance were de riguer, in what was essentially a budding hobo culture of train hopping, and long distance hiking. Since many tramps were still in their youth, a potlach became for many an opportunity for courting and sexual encounter in an atmosphere of relative freedom and revolutionary idealism.
Ecce Homo Homolka was an absurd allegory which held that in a politically and culturally isolated country with restricted travel, the need for escape from politics and culture was a necessary component of daily life. The evidence for this isn’t simply anecdotal. During the 60s and 70s, the state apparatus, the police and the secret police (StB) did as much as they could to suppress, but not entirely eradicate the culture of tramping. Police patrolled the forests and potlachs became subject to random searches and seizure of property, sobriety tests and jail sentences. The opening scene in Ecce Homo Homolka paints a start picture of the paranoia that gripped the country. The imagined hostile police presence even in the place where one goes to escape, to rest and regenerate, is felt in the reaction of the main characters to the cries of help in the distance. It is a reaction of contempt and disgust, a strange reaction to have to someone who is exhibiting signs of distress and need. The scene makes a lot more sense against the background of a total state of surveillance, in which even the most harrowing scenario of a woman crying for help gets turned into a possible ploy by the secret police.
Having failed to achieve peace through escape, the Homolkas are at the end of the film at each other’s throats, blaming one another for the miserable lives they lead in the small, squalid interior of a downtown two bedroom apartment, squabbling and attempting to reconcile. The absurdity and comedy of the final scene reaches a sublime level when Hedus, the daughter-in-law, bursts into tears as she recounts her squashed dream of becoming a dancer to her flabbergasted husband, a dream that crumbled under the weight of marriage, children, familial responsibility, and brutal reality. The only thing that can save the situation is for Hedus to dance. The TV is broken and what comes out of the radio is the sound of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ How can one dance to this? The fade to black is thus accompanied by a bizarre juxtaposition of the Homolkas awkwardly dancing, while arguing, to the bombastic notes of the future anthem of the European Union.