Sunday, January 11, 2009


     Everyone says that there used to be more snow. Where the snow has gone I do not know, and the meteorologists have not yet explained it in the least. But the fact is that in some olden times there was snow like crazy (for example, Prague appears completely snowed in on Šimon’s etchings1) and in the old engravings you see sleighs in the Prague streets; every year as kids we employed snowballs, long toboggans and sleds and wrote figures in the snow and stomped out signatures and faces and built snowmen far superior to those of the current generation. That is a phenomenon as indisputable as camping by the river, fires, and other natural occurrences that enchanted our childhoods. What made it happen I do not know; but it is not, in short, the way is was. In any way.

     Recently I saw a snowman, right in Brno, I believe, and I wondered if the scales had not fallen from my eyes. Out of nowhere, a few steps from the tram lines, I met a pagan deity, blood brother to some prehistoric stone carving. Fat, gigantic, monumental, terrifying, and official: an idol, simply. A snowy god. Kids have forgotten the proper rituals (they do not bow before their god or bring it human sacrifices) but they have set up an idol anyway out of some atavism, the bigger, the better.

     A bit farther on I find an attempt at a ramp: only a few fingerlengths long and still sprinkled with sand, and every little kid comes running that way trying (in vain) to get a good amount of sliding in. And a bit farther on the street they endeavor to make a mild slope; and already it is full of sleds, one kid lying on his stomach on each one and straining to get five centimeters downhill. Well, it won’t work, there isn’t enough snow, it barely covers the uneven and frozen mud; but they kick at the earth, rebound, dig forward inch by inch in the eternal hope that their sleds will suddenly burst into motion and go—and go—hey, is that not the eternal dream of flight, that a bit of magical power bearing one effortlessly from place to place? Is that not at the core of the ancient fairy tales about the magical cloak, the seven-league boots or winged horses, that ancient myth of superb and enchanted flight? To be borne aloft! If not over seven mountains and seas at least down half a meter of road; to be conveyed instead of ordinary walking by a magic vehicle which runs under its own power, albeit one you have to help. To drag a toboggan or sled up a hill and then loose it downwards: this isn’t just sporting delight in movement, but a fairy-tale, wondrous delight, an instinctive dream of physical thrill. Kids are living mythology, children are the pagan prehistory of humanity. The oldest tradition in the world is being a proper kid.

     You see—scarcely had I begun to worship snow than gods displayed their agreement, for as I wrote—flake by flake—snow has begun to fall on the city. Truthfully, it is only a light and wet dusting at the moment; the first sparrow on the opposite roof is hopping through the snowy crust right up to the eaves; it would be difficult to make a proper snow diety out of this, and even harder to fly down the bumpy slope of Říční Avenue2 on some magic vehicle. But this thin white covering at least signifies that in these awful, corrupted and right gloomy times there is still a place for the pagan strength of life: for fairy-tale elements, telluric3 traditions, magic and wonder, that still remain-—nothing at all: for the snow melted before I finished this paragraph and it has again become dark and soggy wherever I look.
There can be no doubts: there used to be more snow, and the snow itself was better, more solid, more substantive than the flurries of today. Entirely right: où sont les neiges d’antan?4



1 Painter and graphic designer František T. Šimon (1877 to 1942) created a cycle of tinted engravings called “Prague,” published in 1911)
2 In the Malá Strana in Prague. Čapek lived at No. 11 for many years, and wrote many of his books there.
3 terrestrial, extending from our globe
4 [French] “Where are the snows of yesteryear? A verse from the “Ballad of the Ladies of Bygone Times” by François Villon.

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