What are the ideas behind the Brown University Czech Literary Anthology? The answer to this question is in this excerpt:
“So they killed our Ferdinand,” […]
“Which Ferdinand, Mrs. Müllerová? […] I know two Ferdinands. One is the pharmacist Průša’s servant and once drank a bottle of some hair tonic by mistake, and then I know one more Ferdinand Kokoška who collects dog turds. Neither one is much of a loss.”
(Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk)
Let's stare at the text above for a while. It is an illustration of how people process the same stimulus differently (even among the people who speak the same language). On hearing about the violent death of Ferdinand, most people in this context would immediately think of the heir to the Habsburg throne. The news therefore leads people to imagine some serious consequences: a wave of arrests, a war, drafting, and deaths and casualties. In contrast, Švejk concludes that Mrs. Müllerová’s news is hardly relevant because he immediately ties it to two very insignificant Ferdinands whose death would have little impact on the world. Such differences arise because each of us applies our own immediately accessible assumptions and premises in determining the informativeness of a text (or any sort of stimulus).
Materials in Czech are fine tools to explore this intricate process of reading. Superpowers came and went all throughout Czech history, including the Habsburgs as seen in this excerpt. Drastic shifts in political and cultural climates have left traces in every aspect of Czech culture; the Germanized last name of Švejk’s cleaning lady (Müllerová) is only the tip of the iceberg. Texts produced in this culture reflect the instability of what is considered the truth or the absolute (a favorite topic in Karel Čapek’s texts!). You will observe that reading Czech texts sometimes seems like peeling an onion with an infinite number of layers.
Texts from this often-interrupted and non-linear culture will serve as an excellent starting point for studying what is involved in understanding text. They will take students far beyond language learning and the study of a national culture. Welcome to the Brown Czech Literary Anthology.