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A Czech Dandy: An Introduction to Arthur Breisky Author(s): Robert Pynsent Source: The Slavonic and East
A Czech Dandy: An Introduction to Arthur Breisky Author(s): Robert Pynsent Source: The Slavonic and East

A Czech Dandy: An Introduction to Arthur Breisky Author(s): Robert Pynsent Source: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 51, No. 125 (Oct., 1973), pp. 517-523 Published by: the Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies Stable URL: Accessed: 16-01-2018 18:08 UTC

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A Czech Dandy: An Introduction to Arthur Breisky Author(s): Robert Pynsent Source: The Slavonic and East

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A Czech Dandy:

An Introduction to Arthur Breisky


The Decadence was a reasoned reaction to the

bourgeois values in the latter half of the 19th c

dents attempted to create a world of intense sen

reaction to a world of absolute financial values. Theirs was a world

of artistic aristocrats in reaction to a new Europe of newly dubbed

and newly lorded merchants and industrialists. The artist was the

only sort of human being who had the capacity to increase the per?

ceptive power of the senses and thus create a new world of the senses,

a beautiful world fit for the aristocrat of the soul to live in. To

create this new beautiful world the Decadents needed new, beautif

concepts, and so they indulged in foreign words, neologisms, a

suggestive symbols and images which played on as many of t

senses as possible. The Decadence was an exaggeration of Roman

cism, an exaggeration of both what was grotesque and what w

beautiful in Romanticism. Where the Romantics were men of phy

cal, political, sometimes metaphysical action, the Decadents we

men of aesthetic and sensual action. The Romantics found their

adventure in the countryside, in war, in revolution or in a garret the Decadents found their adventure in their study. The Romanti

however strong their Weltschmerz might have been, were essentia

social animals; the Decadents were animals of psychic isolation. Th Romantics sought some sort of new order in things; the Decadent

were nostalgic about the disintegrating old order. The Roman

saw man as subservient to nature; the Decadents saw nature as su servient to art. Thus the artist became an Ubermensch; in Englan

and France this Decadent superman was divorced from the so

and national problems of the country he was writing in; in Bohe

he was not. In England and France the Decadent's attitude to l

and literature arose out of ennui, saturation with life, a surfeit o experience; in Bohemia the Decadent's attitude to life and literatu arose out of hunger for experience, the will to break down the b scheme of 19th-century Czech literature with its obsession for r

chronicles and sentimental historicism. The English and Fren indeed even the Austrian Decadent hero, was often the last o aristocratic line; like Oscar Wilde's Lord Henry, they had kno

Robert Pynsent is Lecturer in Czech and Slovak Language and Literature at

School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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everything. The Czech Decadent hero was po

less and often haunted by the idea of national

Decadent writers resembled their own heroes: Karel Hlavacek

started as a Sokol poet and then wrote ironical, melancholy poe

and violently colourful anti-feminist art criticism and died you

of poverty and phthisis; Arnost Prochazka, the doyen of Decadenc

in Bohemia, was a sad man depressed by the Bohemian politic

and social situation; anti-German, anti-bourgeois, anti-Communist,

he remained true to his high-flown aesthetic credo and his civ servant mentality till his death in 1925; the nationally conscio

homosexual Jifi Karasek ze Lvovic, who treated himself to his arist

cratic title ten years after he began publishing, remained a Decade

poet right up to his last collection in 1946 although he publishe tirade against Decadent art in 1903; Louisa Zikova, the only fem

Decadent in Bohemia (we remember the only British female De

dent, George Egerton), died having published only one small volum

of melancholic verse; other Czech Decadents like Viktor Dyk, S.

Neumann, or even Antonin Sova, turned away from aestheticism t

concentrate on social and political problems; Otakar Aufednic

turned to writing banal escapist historical romances and literat

for children. Only one Czech Decadent divorced himself entire

from his country, was entirely European, entirely outside the tra tion of Czech literature, entirely devoted to the Decadent aesthetic ideal, and this was Arthur Breisky,1 an epigone. Arthur Breisky was born in 1885 m Roudnice, Bohemia, and died

in a lift accident in New York in 1910. Podrouzek doubts wheth

he actually died,2 but his only real reason for doubt seems to

Breisky's 'imaginary portrait' of Oscar Wilde, who suddenly appear in 1909 in the Vatican Gallery. In this portrait Wilde tells his com

panion, Harry Good, that a friend had got hold of a corpse a

exchanged it for his in the Paris hotel-room and so Wilde had been

able to live to become immortal.3 It is possible that Breisky rea

put another mangled body in the New York lift. He certainly emu

lated Oscar Wilde, or rather, his own fanciful idea of what Os

Wilde was really like.4 The rumour that the popular German write Ben Traven was actually Breisky is possible, but highly unlikely.

To earn his living Breisky followed Nathaniel Hawthorne, a

  • 1 Breisky never put a diacritic on the 'y' of his name, even if his admirers often did a

do so.

  • 2 Cf. Jaroslav Podrouzek, Fragment zastfeneho osudu, Prague, 1945, passim.

  • 3 Arthur Breisky, Triumf zia (first published, Prague, 19io) p. 77. All quotations in this article come from the second edition, ed. Dalibor Holub, Koniggratz, n.d. [1970].

This edition includes the essay * Quintessence dandysmu', which does not belong in

Triumf zia.

  • 4 It is significant that E. Lesehrad dedicated his translation of Wilde's Dorian Gray (Prague, 1927) to the memory of'Artura Brejskeho [ski], uctivace Oskara Wilda [mg!]'.

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CZECH DANDY: INTRODUCTION TO A. BREISKY 519 author who was perhaps his model in other things, and work

minor customs official in Teplice and Decin, coming into

for occasional weekends dressed way beyond his means as a

super-dandy. For some reason no one seems to have regard

as ridiculous. Fin de siecle literary philosophers like Jif i Karas

Emanuel Lesehrad accepted that uniformed Teplice wa

reality and dandified Prague artistic dream. Breisky imagined self to be socially superior, as a result of his artistic aristocra

all save three of his contemporaries. He attempted the W

aphorism in Czech. He was a cosmopolitan; he spoke G

English and French. He translated Robert Louis Stevenson,

Symons, and the French Parnassian Albert Samain into Cz

despised Czech as a minor language, but made it into a

expressive' language by excessive use of English, French, and

loanwords and copious quotation in all three languages. Apart from his creative work, between 1903 and 1910 he

critical articles on, amongst other, forgotten, names: Sara

hardt, Arthur Schnitzler, Frank Wedekind, Heinrich Mann, S

Zweig, Maurice Barres, Albert Samain, Stendhal, Charles

laire, Honore de Balzac, Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, George

Max Beerbohm, Oscar Wilde, R. L. Stevenson, and A. C. S

burne. Most of these essays were published in Stfepy zrcadel5 remain hidden in the unworthily dusty volumes of Moderni Otherwise he published his translations of Stevenson, Klub se

(Prague, 1909), including two stories of his own,6 which h

off as Stevenson's; indeed the most revered Czech critic of th Jindfich Voddk, said that these two stories were by far the b the selection.7 The collection of seven imaginary portraits, T zia, was published in 19io.8 Breisky's talent was only apprecia

the aesthete minority of his time and, even today, he is s

name to most Czech literary historians.9 Breisky was not writer, but he was the logical consequence of important w

namely of the lumirovci, J. V. Sladek, Jaroslav Vrchlick^ and Zeyer. Sl&dek was the great editor and selector of European l

6 A. Breisky, Stfepy zrcadel, ed. Jarmil Krecar, Prague, 1928. A limited edition


  • 6 All quotations in this article come from a recent edition of these two stories, which

were included in an anthology of * tales of mystery' called Gas a smrt, ed. Jan Dvorak,

Koniggratz, 1970, pp. 46-63.

  • 7 Podrouzek, op. cit., p. 92. Vodak probably was, at this time, even more revered than

the verbalist, F. X. Salda, though he did not have the academic reputation of J. Vlcek.

  • 8 The subjects of these portraits were Tiberius, Nero, Michelangelo et ck, Watteau, Byron, Baudelaire, and Wilde.

    • 9 His name does not appear, even in the index, in Slovnik ceskfch spisovateld (Prague,

1964) nor, of course, in the new dictionary CeHispisovatelezpfelomu ig. a 20. stoleti (Prague,

1971). Even the Novaks leave him out in their encyclopaedic fourth edition of Pfehledne

dljiny literatury ceske (Olomouc, 1936-9).

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ture, Vrchlicky the translator and a europeanised the Czech literary lang over the cosmopolitan responsibilitie

He expressed his cosmopolitanism

also in his dandyism, for the dandy over the world; the dandy has absolu

ality. The dandy is the embodimen

Breisky, in his essay 'Quintessenc

druhy muzu: dandyove a ostatni

otroci. Dandy pfekonava zivot svym

lent to the 'gentleman'. (The conti

the gentleman as similar British u

man has many interests in life, espec

is interested only in himself, in wha

sentences of Richard Hudson, the g

manova', exemplify this: 'Jsem ny

slunce z oblohy. Byl bych ho mene

New Hedonist imagined by Lord

The Picture of Dorian Gray. The dan

himself which never control him.

word 'fashion', for he is fashion him

zeni, nikdy nepodlehajice svym citum

nepodlehaji silnym brutalnim affekt

stvi nebo zlost'.12 This does not me he is simply a mask: Toza, afektace

za tim duchaplnost a senzitivni s

krasne to prostfedky k zpestfeni ziv

the dandy-artist as, for example, i

pised everything around him except tected himself against the stupid vul means of his mask, his dandyism. Th of his surroundings: 'Hfich, jak smes

neco proti sve vuli a touze.'15 The d

suits of his surroundings: Byron wri

  • 10 'There are only two types of men: dandies

the conquered. The dandy overcomes life with hi

  • 11 'I no longer have a mirror. It would

have b

sun. I should have missed that less.' 'Zpoved' gr

  • 12 'Never natural, never submit to their feeling

a certain bravura; they never submit to bestial

or anger.' Stfepy zrcadel, p. 94.

  • 13 'Pose, affectation, mystification and ridicule

and sensitive heart, even a masochistic heart?t

of life.' Triumf

zia, p. 55.

  • 14 Ibid., pp. 28 ff. When treating 'classical' them

manner of Landor in his Imaginary Conversations.

  • 15 'Sin, what a ridiculous word! Sin is when

or against our heart's yearning.' 'Zpoved' grafo

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zvyk'.16 The dandy has no respect for woman and heterosex

'Tragikou Dona Juana je, ze hledaje zeny-vyjimky, nach tut^z zenu, zenu-typ. Nenachazeje pfirozene ukojeni sve

prcha od zeny k zene, od zklamani k zklamani.'17 Nero o

one woman in his life and killed her. Breisky writes, in his

attack on Sarah Bernhardt's autobiography Ma double v

'Staleta kultura dokumentuje neschopnost zen, stvofiti o

umelecke dilo, k n?muz je zapotfebi vyjemn?losti intell

prace a analysy'.18 A woman could have no brains and was t

not admirable. A woman, in loving a man, wants to be lo

man so that she can suck some part of his life's blood ou

A dandy may be loved, but he may never love.19 Breisk

Titian and Michelangelo love young men and boys; Richar

loves his mother; Byron is depicted as bearing mildly ho

sentiments of love towards Shelley; Tiberius and Watteau ar thropists; the young hero of 'Mors syphilitica' dies because

women. One is tempted to be cynical and say that the d

not love women, because it is normal to love women.

Breisky's dandy, the Czech idea of the dandy altoget

different from Baudelaire's or Barbey d'Aurevilly's, even f

Wilde's and Richard von Schaukal's. It was more intense. In

reading Breisky one has the feeling that his dandyism is not

social aggressiveness as it is sometimes in Wilde and Sch

Certainly his basic ideas on dandyism come from these f unlikely that he knew Hazlitt's remarks on dandyism), bu

they played with society and social form through dandy

becomes a pathological dandy, a sort of literary megalo

When he describes Nero, Tiberius, Richard Hudson, he is des himself, his own emotions; this is what Jifi Karasek admire

this is the ultimate intention of the Decadent artist. Breisky'

hero always becomes the only complete being in his society;

disappear in the dandy-hero's scorn. And then the dandy

faced with the worthlessness of existence. Tiberius

nevedel nikdy, jak ziti. Narodil se blazeovan^. Nikdy nepoznal, co to

znamena se radovati. Pri pohledu na ruze neubranil se p?edstav? vadnuti, uvedomel si je zvadle, s opadlym listim. Pri pohledu na

  • 16 'There is nothing I loathe more than custom.' Triumf zia, p. 58.

  • 17 'The tragedy of Don Juan is that he is looking for the exceptional woman, but only

finds the same woman over and over again, woman as a type. Of course he cannot satisfy

his desire and so he flees from woman to woman, from disillusion to disillusion.' Ibid.,

p. 60.

  • 18 'Hundreds of years of culture document that women are incapable of creating an

original work of art, for which they would need the refinements of intellectual work and

analysis.' 'Sarah Bernhardtova v Drazd'anech' (Modernl revue, XXI, Prague, 1909, p. 114).

  • 19 Cf. especially Byron and the graphomaniac, Richard Hudson. Both loved, but not

in the way society expected them to love.

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krasnou kuzi granatoveho jablka pfe

roze^ran^. Nedochazel uspokojeni v


This is part of

the fin

de siecle syndr

physically towards the end of the b^ti tou bledou, krasnou, znavenou

miluji. Jako jed vnika v mou krev a

symptomy otravy. Horecka mnou

zachvacuje.'21 Breisky is alone, a spir

decay of the Austro-Hungarian em

but aggressively, a Czech, a member


Breisky can, however, be seen in a wider context; even as the

culmination, the winding-up of the Decadence.22 He was, so to speak,

the receiver of bankrupt European literature. He embodied all the

qualities of the Decadence in one small book and a number of

scattered articles and stories. He used every writer he read to build

up his own literary personality; this was the Decadent idea of renewed

experience of the artistic experience of others. We have seen this

to a certain extent in his treatment of the dandy. We see it again in

his 'imaginary confession', 'Watteau rozcarovany', when we com?

pare it to Walter Pater's 'A Prince of Court Painters' in Imaginary

Portraits (1887). Physically these are two different Watteaus;

Breisky's is ugly where Pater's is le bel serieuxP But psychologically they are much the same. Both are restless; both despise the society

they paint. Both suffer from a pathological desire for 'even the

simpler graces of life'.24 In Pater this tortured psyche is more hinted at through the eyes of the girl who describes his life. In Breisky it is

analysed. In 'Watteau rozcarovany' we see, perhaps more strongly

than in any other work, a certain cruelty in Breisky's artistic method.

Like Mademoiselle de Maupin and Lord Henry Wotton he dissects

the subjects he studies and holds them live and pulsating on the

  • 20 'He never knew how to live. He was born blase\ He never knew what it was to enjoy

himself. When he looked at a rose he could not prevent himself from thinking of its fading;

in his mind he saw it withered, with drooping leaves. When he looked at the beautiful

skin of a pomegranate, he imagined its centre eaten by worms. He found no satisfaction

in beauty because he was always aware of its transitoriness.' Triumf zia, p. 18.

  • 21 'Boredom is ceasing to be that pale, beautiful, tired midnight rose, whose fragrance

I love so much. Like venom it penetrates my blood and I am beginning to experience

the most terrible symptoms of poisoning. A fever shakes me and the horror of emptiness

is beginning to close in on me.' Ibid., pp. 64-5. The nexus of beauty and poison was rife

in Baroque, Romantic and Decadent literature. Its epitome is the^mm* fatale.

  • 22 But he never attempts 'mysticism' like many Decadent writers, though he some?

times expresses himself philosophically.

  • 23 Walter Pater, Imaginary Portraits, London, 1929, p. 9. Pater uses bel instead of beau

for the sake of euphony, but the Romantic cliche la belle serieuse is also behind it, and so

Watteau takes on a certain feminine beauty as well as a certain gravity.

  • 24 Imaginary Portraits, p. 4.

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operating table. It matters not what his lancet pierces, nor w

forceps draw out, as long as the result is an analytic dream. B

Richard Hudson is the culmination of the Decadent Pierrot and

his death a somewhat cynical comment on Gerard de Nerval's

death. Richard Hudson hanged himself with a beautiful golden

chain on a street-lamp near Piccadilly. He was dressed as a clown

with a silk veil over his face so that those who found him would not

be offended. He had a volume of Thomas Chatterton's poems in his pocket. 'Mors syphilitica' and 'Renesancni hostina' are a cul? mination of the various other Decadent (Baroque) treatments of

death. Breisky acknowledges the Decadents and Symbolists, starting

with E. A. Poe, as his literary forbears. He calls them the great

'generace romantiku', the generation of Romantic poets, poets who

still showed the Romantic generation's 'velike smutky, jeji odpor

k realite, jeji chimericke touhy, jeji nudy a unavy a jeji aspirace

po neznamem a vecnem'.25 The way he characterises them is a good summary characterisation of his own writing.

25 'great sadnesses, opposition to reality, chimerical longings, boredoms, wearinesses

and aspirations to the unknown and eternal'. Stfepy zrcadel, p. 9.

Jifi Karasek ze Lvovic's essay on Breisky in Tvurcovea epigoni, Prague, 1927, is interesting;

it is essentially an expanded version of his preface to Breisky's Triumf zia. K. H. Hilar

has a short article on Breisky, whom he characterises as 'ironicky, unudeny dobrodruh,

vydavajici se na lov za svou chimeVou' (an ironical, bored adventurer setting out to hunt

his chimaera), in his collection of essays, Odlo&ene masky, Prague, 1925. Lesehrad has a

dull study of Breisky in Bdsnkke iivoty, Prague, 1935. Otherwise Breisky was just a name oc?

casionally mentioned in articles, e.g. Salda, 'Nove* pfeklady z Balzaca do ceStiny'

(Novina, I, Prague, 1908), Salda, 'Poznamka k poznamce' (Novina, V, Prague, 1912),

and in studies devoted to those who knew him, e.g. in Miroslav Rutte et al., K. H. Hilar,

Prague, 1936, and in Otakar Storch-Marien's memoirs, Sladkoje Ht, Prague, 1966.

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