In a similar vein, Mark Twain lived through his fair share of tumult and tragedy, both personally and on a national scale. Slavery, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and the premature deaths of both his wife and daughter all affected his sensibilities and expression. Yet, both the man and the nation have nurtured an amazing satirical wit that cuts through the mediocrity and pandering that plague so much of the public sphere today. We are taught to believe that we cannot say anything spontaneous, write anything incriminating, or express any ideas that are not part of a cohesive self-promotional campaign, and this has a result of diluting our creativity to a point where it loses almost all flavor. This has never been a problem for the writer or the Czech people.
Throughout his later writing, themes of skepticism of, and disenchantment with, revolution, democracy, and capitalism are paired with a retention and purification of his affections for individual human beings, and illustrated by his intelligence, empathy, and wit. In fact, according to a recent article commemorating him in Harper's, "research can find few elements of the age that Mark Twain did not burlesque, satirize, or deride." He unfailingly chose the liberties of the individual over the ambitions of the state, pitting the force of his intellect against the "peacock shams" of the world's "colossal humbug." But he was not spiteful, as he clarified when he said:
"When I build a fire under a person, I do not do it merely because of the enjoyment I get out of seeing him fry, but because he is he is worth the trouble. It is then a compliment, a distinctions; let him give thanks and keep quiet. I do not fry the small, the commonplace, the unworthy."
Likewise, the Czechs do not poke fun at negligible nations, or bully defenseless victims. They endeavor without malice to shine a public light on national stereotypes and flaws, but for some reason it is misinterpreted abroad and the international community tends to overreact. For instance, Czech artist David Černý’s Entropa exhibit, which mocked each self-important sovereign European nation with equal mercilessness, was condemned as insensitive and inappropriate, when in fact it was an insightful commentary on the countries of the EU and their self-perception and views of one another. The installation subscribed to a Czech school of thought called Mystifikace, or Mystification, which is explained by Zdeněk Dostál on Radio Praha as the following:
“We don’t like systems, political systems. It comes from history because for a long time we were under the system of the Austrian monarchy, then under the Russian occupation. So in the present day it’s still [topical]. So maybe it’s because of that. But I think we, as Czech people, we like to play, we want to have fun, and we are able to watch ourselves from [a detached point of view], and that’s why this sort of sarcasm or mystification is part of us. And I think it’s good because you don’t take yourself as seriously. Yeah, it is a joke, but if you look deeply it’s a joke with a deep topic. It has always been the case that a king needs a clown by his side to see the truth.”
It seems that on a global scale, we cannot take a joke, or see intelligent art for what it is.
Luckily for the endlessly scathing Mark Twain, he did not allow his autobiography to be exposed to the public eye until 100 years after his death. Unfortunately for the Czech Republic, they cannot take up a similar strategy, and will have to sustain the unsolicited criticism of other countries until... Well, probably forever.