Ladislav Hofman, a Wistful Historian


Ladislav Hofman, a Wistful Historian


The name of Ladislav Hofman (1876-1903) does not belong to those widely known thanks to school education. However, he has never disappeared from the attention of Czech historiography completely although he died early, at the age of 27, and his works comprise about thirty mostly shorter studies. Interestingly enough, one can find a reminder of him in every decade after his death and the reminders differ from each other, as the way he is presented also illustrates the transformations of Czech spiritual climate. His position in Czech historiography and Czech culture in general started establishing immediately after he died, during the first decade of the 20th century. The uninformed may be surprised at the necrologies speaking about his exceptionality as a man and as a researcher, about "the best of the best", about geniality and a grievous loss of a prematurely sealed fate. The first part of Hofman's collected works (L. K. Hofmana Sebrané spisy, 1904) containing research studies and papers is published at an unparalleled speed, already in the following year. The editors, Hofman's colleagues and contemporaries, Julius Glücklich and Kamil Krofta are simultaneously preparing the publication of part two, an important event not only for the historical domain but also for literature. Even though not coming out until 1905, the book was still published within an admirably short time compared with the usual practice in that publication segment. The second part of Hofman's works is subtitled "Miscellaneous Works" and apart from several demonstrations of his own literary efforts it comprises in particular his personal diaries and correspondence. Although the edition is deliberately inconsistent (the editors restricted passages that they found to be socially unacceptable), the second part brought a very detailed picture of the thinking and feeling of the man at the turn of the 20th century, "enfant perdu" of the Czech fin de siècle. Compared with a number of personal diaries originating in the 19th century, of which the existence of diaries is typical, those written by Hofman significantly differ by their double construction focus: they are not only a tool of the clarification of a way towards one's own identity but also a historical resource on the most topical issues created intentionally for future historiography. This is a key to the interpretation of Hofman's personality and works, as the unity thereof is composed of permeation of his artistic and historical perception, which is reflected already in the selected title of the presented work "Ladislav Hofman, a Wistful Historian" referring to the principal thesis that unlike other historians and researchers in general Hofman cannot be explicated by presenting exact facts.

The publication of Hofman's diaries, which suddenly revealed his most intimate and until then hidden inner world, uncovered an interesting fact concerning his closest friends. Posthumously, through his commentaries, Hofman encouraged them to pursue his own aim, i.e. to look at themselves in a new light and "set out" for a journey to themselves. The appeal of Hofman's legacy was so binding that the traces thereof can be found until the 1920s, in particular on the occasion of the erection of a headstone on Hofman's grave in Brno. Not only the words spoken, not only the participation of important representatives of Czech research and culture (Josef Šusta, Julius Glücklich, Arne Novák, Viktor Dyk and others) but also the sculpture monument unveiled in November 1928 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Hofman's death emphasise - and determine for the future - that their, the living ones', significance yields to his memory. The symbolism of the sculpture presenting three female figures in a deep sadness is a metaphor of his unfulfilled life accompanied by the threat of tuberculosis appearing in his family's medical history, of which he actually died, by harrowing doubts as to whether he would have enough time and be able to create grand work. However, pain (the statue on his grave could bear that name) was not a destructive component of Hofman's work as some historians of the latter half of the 20th century believed (F. Kutnar, T. Vojtěch). On the contrary, in his credo presented in his diary he expressed his idea of a historian becoming the author of a grandiose work only if his soul is "softened by pain" through which - not purely rationally - he is able to see as far as to the most concealed places of human personalities and doings. Hofman's approach to the subject of history is one of a creator, not of a man practising - no matter how perfectly - a profession he was trained for. The tragic prickle of the knowledge of human fate is always, not only under the specific circumstances towards the end of the 19th century, substantial for creators, whom we tend to seek solely in the artistic domain. Regarding Czech literature, this was precisely expressed e.g. by poet František Halas, a generation younger than Hofman, presenting the idea that only sadness is "centripetal", concentrates the strength of the perception of life as well as the creative image being a reflection thereof. Although Czech poetry has many other similar examples, Halas is mentioned deliberately due to his translations of several books of poetry by Polish Romanticist Adam Mickiewicz, to whom Hofman dedicated his most extensive study (Adam Mickiewicz, 1900), whereas Dziady - ceremonies for the dead - dominate Halas's translations, Mickiewicz's works as well as Hofman's interest in those works.

A similar term is used by literary historian Arne Novák nicknaming Hofman's home "the temple of exequies" with reference to the family's predisposition to tuberculosis (the term "exequies" comes from Latin, denoting festive burial ceremonies). Thus, we have found additional argumentation for Hofman's connection with art and justification of calling the researcher a "wistful historian". It is typical that his legacy was reminded of mainly by representatives of literature during the first half of the 20th century. Besides above-mentioned Arne Novák, a close friend who understood the wistful tones of Hofman's moods and his sense of beauty, they included Viktor Dyk, a writer, poet and politician. Dyk saw the deceased Hofman predominantly as a symbol of a progressive youth movement, the so-called "progressivism", which prompted the young generation of the late 1880s and early 1890s to protest against the then politics, culture and ethics. In this sense Dyk dedicated to Hofman two novels (Konec Hackenschmidův, 1904 and Prosinec, 1905) from a planned tetralogy aimed to depict that specific Czech atmosphere from the beginnings of the movement to the extinction thereof. Hofman also became the argument of a polemic between Dyk and T.G. Masaryk in the period press in 1905-1910.

Hofman acquainted himself with Masaryk's name and works during his attendance of a grammar school in 1887-1895 in Hradec Králové, a town whose genius loci shaped his personality and became his intellectual home while his physical home was in a nearby village, Černilov. His interest in Masaryk was aroused by professor Jindřich Vančura. Impressed in particular by Masaryk's Česká otázka, Hofman looked forward to his studies at the Faculty of Philosophy in Prague also because he would have the opportunity to meet the author, so popular among secondary-school students, in person. His enthusiasm however soon vanished. Expecting energy and a glowing brightness in analysing problems, which Masaryk's books implied, he met a "lifeless, worn, austerely grey figure", as he noted down in his diary. Moreover, he who encouraged young people to cut down idols was becoming one, was reluctant to accept criticism, little sympathetic to emerging modern art, too didactic, and free of any passion. Although Hofman did not support many of his ideas, he seemed to adopt Masaryk's authority to measure, for the rest of his life, his judgements on topical issues of the time.

A few years after Masaryk, as the third-year university student, he first met professor Jaroslav Goll, whose seminar of History he attended. Goll soon noticed a talented student and decided to pay special attention to him. Since Goll himself had literary ambitions, he appreciated the young History student's exploration of the space between research and literature. In order to keep him within "pure" history, Goll assigned him a subject far from literature and, thus, the study Husité a koncilium Basilejské v letech 1421-1422 was written and published in 1901. In the latter half of the 20th century, when Hofman's generation was no longer alive, Czech historiography allocated him a place in the context of the so-called "Goll School" and, thanks to the aforesaid study, ascribed research interest in the Middle Ages to him. Both the theses are wrong. Hofman was a complete personality already when he came to university and Goll influenced mainly the progress of his career, arranging scholarships at universities in Berlin and Paris for him, seeking a job where Hofman could devote his time to research, assigning him tasks on a regular basis (usually review obligations), and constantly appealing to his will to cope with all problems, which was relevant especially after no job in Prague was available for "the best of the best" and he had to accept the job of a library clerk in Brno. The position was a good, perhaps even enviable, one in terms of salary but Hofman did not find that important. Leaving Prague, he lost all his close contacts and stimulating intellectual environment, which inspired him to ask questions and seek answers. Brno, a foreign - predominantly German - town, emphasised his loneliness, contributing to a rapid progress of the illness of which he died as early as on 3 November 1903. The opportunity to see links between Hofman's personality and his literary legacy did not arise until the discovery of his diaries.

Hofman kept accusing himself of dilettantism, fidgetiness, which prevented him from concentrating on a single problem deeply and in the long term. However, looking at that rather small set of his works with the benefit of hindsight, one will find out that even seemingly distant topics are connected by the author's personality. From his early years at the grammar school he was intensely immersed in national and social issues and uncompromisingly tested his own religious faith. He sought a reflection of those three history forces in both collective and individual activities, seeing the precondition of action as the key attribute of true humanity in them. Hofman saw the pinnacle of achievement in a work of art - in particular in a literary work - embracing the greatest strength to influence human lives. All the said elements he found in Mickiewicz, which is why Hofman's study on him is so suggestive. It depicts what permanently occupied Hofman's mind, filled his diaries and what we could call the anatomy of a creative act in a compact form, for within a closed destiny.

Hofman's translation from French of Psychologie des foules by Gustav Le Bon, which he named Duše davů, was his first published work (in 1895). His paper concerning the Czech translation of Friedrich Nietzsche's Unzeitgemäßen Betrachtungen (in Czech Nečasové úvahy) published in January of Hofman's death year, 1903, was the last one. This is a symbolic framework for the inner world of a tragic solitaire, who passionately desired to leave a trace that would not disappear after his departure. Finding a consistent picture of the spiritual climate of the late 19th century both in his private notes and research works, this work endeavours to confirm that his efforts were successful.