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Miroslav Balaštík: In praise of Martin Putna, recipient of the 2011 Tom Stoppard Prize

May 18, 2012


Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

It has already been stated, but in view of the context, I would like to emphasise again that even though this year’s Tom Stoppard Prize has been awarded for the book “Václav Havel: A spiritual portrait within the framework of Czech culture”, the person we wish to honour is not Václav Havel but the author Martin C. Putna alone. And he is not just receiving this prize for the book referred to – we would like to highlight all of Putna’s work in recent years.

All the same, let me begin with his Havel book, in which Putna identifies the two dominant lines that influenced the life and thinking of Václav Havel. In one, which he calls the paternal line, there is a clash between scientific rationality and esoteric humanities, while the second, the uncle line, is bohemian, hedonistic and clownish.  I would suggest that in the work and activities of Martin C. Putna too it is as if two lines are, at first glance, welded together. The first is marked symbolically by his received name, Christian. Here I see Putna as a great spiritual and above all academic figure, a literary historian, student of religion and Russian studies expert, an exceptionally talented analyst and interpreter. I admire Putna’s erudition, his language skills and broad interests, including late antiquity (the monograph “Origen of Alexandria”, or his books on the reverberations of ancient culture in modern literature: “Greek Heaven Above Us” and “Ancient Basket”), Russian culture and history (“Russia Outside Russia” on Russian emigration, 1917–1921), American religiosity (“Portraits from the Cultural History of American Religiosity), homosexuality (“Homosexuality in the History of Czech Culture”) and above all literature, in a monumental, to date two-volume opus examining Czech Catholic literature.

There is also the name Martin, referencing the god of war, Mars, and symbolically revealing Putna to be a person who is passionate, polemical and provocative and somebody who has since the 1990s participated fully in social debate, clearly forming opinions and positions without regard to authority or friends. Putna the author of “Angry Critics and Genial Essays” and “Kraft Book”, Putna the moderator, and above all Putna the author of numerous journalistic texts and essays.

However, even if I attempt to separate these two fields of his personality, they are both present always in Putna’s work to some extent. And it is just their diffusion that creates the inspirational tension that his texts drip with. The academic work is made current in the sense that subjects that are thousands of years old manage, in his rendering, to tell us something of importance about our own time and place. Putna the academic never merely records facts but composes them into a story that also finds space for his own position on them. His Mars-like passion suffuses both his academic work and essay style, a language that manages to make even complicated constructions readable and accessible, which for an academic is a huge gift.

On the other hand, his fiery journalism, linked to his academic erudition, does not translate into mere absorption into some stance in social discussion. His political texts bring to the debate a historical perspective and connections that allow him to consider the disputed subject with a degree of distance, and not to limit the issue to mere pro and anti.

It is this combination of academic erudition and humility with provocative passion that has been joined so wonderfully in the book for which he is today receiving the Tom Stoppard Prize.

At the beginning I said that the prize is not for Václav Havel. Allow me to be so bold as to suggest that it couldn’t be either, because Putna’s book is not only about Václav Havel. What it conveys is deeper, taking in more than one human life, no matter how extraordinary. Its subject is the common situation of an intellectual in the second half of the 20th century. An intellectual who is dramatically confronted by the spirituality within him and external to him, one who loses the certainty of a rationalist and atheist of the new age but is incapable of going back. In other words, an intellectual who KNOWS that God is, but who is unable to BELIEVE in him. An intellectual who is constantly searching for a new name for God, because he can no longer communicate with him but only about him. And Martin C. Putna has succeeded in exceptionally subtly interpreting this drama, which gave Havel’s life a unique story, in his book.

And it is also not merely a book about Václav Havel because its deeper subject connects it to Putna’s other books which, despite all the variety of the stories, circle – it seems to me – around the same point. Around the border where Christianity and above all Catholicism is confronted by that which defies dogma IN A DIGNIFIED MANNER. Whether in art (and above all literature), the intellectual legacy of antiquity, homosexuality or a modern era that is non-Catholic or in which non-confessional religion is spreading – here Putna finds an inspirational reflection that newly illuminates one side or the other. At the spot where a devotee of Jesus and a descendant of Mars meet.

On behalf of the entire jury, let me congratulate Martin Putna on the Tom Stoppard Prize.

Miroslav Balaštík


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