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Kmen: A Faraway Magazine About Which We Know Nothing

From: Comparative Literature Studies
Volume 44, Number 1-2, 2007
pp. 51-66 | 10.1353/cls.2007.0034

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Why Kmen?

Why should we read Kmen [The stem], a small, leftist Czech cultural magazine of the early 1920s? The journal's pages are crumbling in ill-funded Prague archives and, even where accessible, remain written in Czech. As with most literary magazines, most if not all of the contributions by notable writers—Franz Kafka, Roman Jakobson, Jaroslav Seifert, Franz Werfel—have been published elsewhere in multiple languages, almost all of them more widely spoken than Czech. Many of these notable contributions, furthermore, appear in Czech in translation only—we don't need to turn to Kmen's yellowing pages to find these texts in some original, native environment or to gain access to the modernist quasi-aura of a text's first mass-reproduction. Kmen was short-lived or, rather, its quality and purpose radically changed course several times before it petered out; its circulation was never large. Even if critical attention were to turn to the "minor literature" Kafka actually referenced in a well-known journal entry, Kmen falls short of the mark since a primary purpose of the journal was to represent texts originally written in German, English, French, and Russian. Inconvenience and these arguments for its continued obscurity aside, however, there are reasons to resist Kmen's continued absence from literary history. In the unknown and disappearing stories told relationally on Kmen's pages, among the lines and bylines, translation credits, and advertisements, Kmen gives us a glimpse of the mechanisms of modernism at work, how its international character was transmitted, and how its internationalism signified a glimpse not just of a Prague or a Central European modernism, but of an international modernist culture emerging in tension and in tandem with strong local inflections.

By virtue of an essay purportedly about Kafka and Prague culture, the vocabulary of "major" and "minor" literature has become common currency in literary studies. Indeed, the idea of Prague's interlinguistic literary relations has attained a kind of critical vogue in literary and cultural studies—a vogue resulting not from a sudden interest in Czech language and culture or a recognition that its contributions ought to be included in the study of European literary modernism, but from Deleuze and Guattari's famous essay Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. This essay introduced the vocabulary of "major" and "minor" literature, in which a "minor" (provincial or ethnic) literature such as Prague German-Jewish exists in a politically subversive relationship to the major literature (such as the German tradition of Goethe) with which it shares a basic grammar and vocabulary. Deleuze and Guattari borrow this vocabulary from a journal entry in which Kafka discusses Czech and Yiddish as minor literatures (in which category he does not include his own German-language writing). Unfortunately, much of the critical discourse surrounding this topic has, like the essay that generated it, lacked familiarity with Czech literature and culture—one of the "minor" literatures in question in Kafka's journal—and so the particularities of Prague's multilinguistic and multiethnic cultural relations have not entered fully into these discussions. The merits of this essay with relation to Prague culture, Kafka studies, or literary and cultural studies have been more broadly discussed elsewhere. Whatever the essay's ultimate critical value, however, the long-term excitement surrounding "territoriality" and "minor"/"major" linguistic and literary relations confirms that concepts at the forefront of critical debate and political reality today were also at the forefront of Prague culture at this time—in highly concentrated form. The particular clarity with which Prague culture can lay bare intercultural and interlinguistic dynamics that are by no means peculiar to it make the city a privileged territory for anyone interested in understanding modernism(s) as a European phenomenon, as a process of intercultural interaction. If its bilingual, tri-ethnic status is rather peculiar, this status also renders Prague exemplary, a model of a broader European cultural life that generally transpires over greater physical space.

For this reason, in part, Prague is becoming recognized as an important modernist center, inspiring a growing number of studies and exhibitions. These tend to focus on Czech or German culture, however, and comparatively little on cultural (as opposed to explicitly political...