(30th August 1919 - 1st September 1941)
(Institute of Czech Literature, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague)
Jirí Orten died at the age of 22. He nevertheless left behind significant work, especially poetry. Orten belonged to the so-called war generation, which entered literature at the end of the 1930s and was formed in opposition to the previous avantgarde generation. Orten's poetry - often as a result of the poet's tragic predicament - tended to be revered as a cult. Young poets used it as a source of inspiration after the Second World War and in the 1960s and 1970s.
Orten's real name was Jirí Ohrenstein. He came from an assimilated Jewish family that lived in the ancient town of Kutná Hora in Central Bohemia. Jirí Orten grew up in a harmonious family environment. His father was a middle class businessman, his mother was an actress in the local amateur theatre. Orten's uncle on his mother's side, Josef Rosenzweig-Moir, was an anarchist poet at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jirí Orten had two brothers who also had a creative talent: the elder brother Ota, whom Jirí Orten worshipped, wrote poetry, was a theatrical director and actor (he used the pseudonym Ota Ornest), the younger Zdenek was also a well-known actor after the Second World War (his stage name was Zdenek Ornest).
Between sixteen and seventeen, Orten sympathised with the communist movement and published poetry and essays in Haló noviny and Mladá kultura. Soon however, he became fully absorbed by poetry and the theatre. At summer student camps in 1935 and in 1936 he met friends of his own age. He did not complete the last years at secondary school, but followed his brother Ota to Prague in order to study at a drama school. He passed the entrance examination in 1937, until then he supported himself as an archivist and studied languages. He took part in the cultural activities of the younger generation. He acted in experimental theatrical groups and published poetry and essays. In the summer of 1938 he spent a month in Paris - this was his only trip abroad. After Bohemia and Moravia had been occupied by Germany in March 1939, as a Jew, he was no longer allowed to travel. Some of his friends and his brother Ota managed to emigrate to Great Britain as late as summer 1939. Orten refused to go, probably afraid he would cease being a poet if he went abroad.
Jirí Orten was a most outstanding representative of the so-called "war generation" in Czech literature. This generation saw the world quite differently from the previous avantgarde generation. The avantgarde generation (including for instance the poets Vítezslav Nezval, Jaroslav Seifert, Konstantin Biebl), who started writing in the 1920s, admired the communist revolution. In line with revolutionary ideas, the avantgarde poets aimed to conquer the world by their poetry and to transform it. The avantgarde poets created images of a glorious future.
On the other hand, Orten and the members of his generation (Kamil Bednár, Zdenek Urbánek, Ivan Blatný, Josef Kainar, Jirí Kolár) experienced a crisis in their formative years. Then they were affected by the destruction of Czechoslovakia and by the catastrophe of the Second World War. They did not trust any "great ideas" or generalised truths. They could not see what the future might bring. This is why they concentrated on the present, the way they experienced it, and on the actual plight of human beings. Existentialist philosophy became very important for them, as well as spiritualism, which did not need to be anchored in religious faith. The poet was no longer an adventurer, an explorer, a joyful conqueror. He was now a perceptive, anxious, "listening", attentive, "witness". On 19th March, 1939, Jirí Orten wrote in his diary, "I have been born on this earth for nothing else except to bear witness, being tied down by my weight, by my heaviness and by my lightness."
Deníky (The Diaries) are in fact Orten's most extensive and most significant work. Orten kept a diary from the beginning of 1938. The Diaries consist of three volumes which the author named according to the colour of their covers, Modrá kniha (The Blue Book) (until December 1939), Zíhaná kniha (The Striped Book) (from December 1939 until December 1940) and Cervená kniha (The Red Book) (from December 1940 onwards. It was unfinished, the last entry being dated one day before Orten's fatal accident). The diaries contain all Orten's poems, not only those he included in the three collections published during his lifetime and in the other two that he had made ready for publication and that were published after his death. They also contain Orten's excerpts from books he had read, records of dreams, conversations, letters, encounters. With regard to personal matters, the Diaries reflect Orten's relationship with "Vera" (actress Vera Fingerová). This was a stormy relationship with several dramatic twists. In the summer of 1938 Orten would not believe that he was the father of the child she was expecting and refused to marry her. Vera was forced to terminate her pregnancy. At the end of 1940, the relationship ended with what Orten saw as her "betrayal". Henceforth, the poet tormented himself and those surrounding him.
The Diaries do not include some of Orten's attempts at prose and drama, many of which are not central to the author's output. Some of these works are texts a clef, with heroes based on real characters, such as the novel Malá víra (Little Faith) from 1938-1939 or the short, horrifying and dream-like prose Eta, Eta, zlutí ptáci (Eta, Eta, Yellow Birds) from December 1938. Orten's play Blahoslavení tií (Blessed are the Quiet, 1941) was inspired by a piece of prose written by his friend Zdenek Urbánek "Florián", from Urbánek's book Úzeh tmou (Sunstroke from Darkness, 1940). Poetry is the kernel of Orten's work. Orten's poems are based on tunefulness, a poetic atmosphere, suggestive repetition and the art of rhyme. They always lead to a climax. A statistical analysis has shown that the words death, love, God, dream and pain are the most frequent nouns in the diaries. These are also frequent themes in Orten's poetry.
The author's creative development can be divided into two periods. His first work Cítanka jaro (Reader of Spring, 1939), which was published under the patronage of Orten's older friend and poetic example of the war generation Frantiek Halas, some poems included in Cesta k mrazu (The Journey towards Frost, 1940) and Ohnice (Charlock, 1941) set the tone for the first period. Naivism, an intimate relationship to things and all living creatures predominates. Love is seen as a total fulfilment, repose and security (the woman loved merges with the image of mother). The theme of death is projected mostly into images of destruction, passing, parting. The lyrical hero defends himself from the insensitive "big world" by enclosing himself in a small world, in childhood, permeated by a feeling of security. Poetry and tenderness occasionally act like magic spells.
In 1940, Orten underwent an internal crisis. In the summer of that year, he worked as a labourer on a farm in Kutná Hora. Then he returned to Prague and was no longer allowed to leave. As a Jew, he was also expelled from the conservatory and could only rarely meet with friends. He took on odd jobs, such as clearing snow, for a time he was employed on staff of the periodical Zidovské listy (The Jewish Newsletter). His mother stayed in Kutná Hora, his younger brother Zdenek had been placed in a Prague Jewish orphanage. It was now risky for Orten to publish even under a pseudonym, since he was exposed to denunciation by anti-Semitic newspapers. He had no illusions about what was in store for him. In this extreme situation, made even worse because his relationship with the girl he loved had come to an end, when "everything had been taken away from him, everything had been completely torn apart" he went on writing feverishly, poetry in particular. He found inspiration in some texts from the Old Testament (the theme of Job, the long poem "Jeremiáuv plác", "The Lamentations of Jeremiah", 1940). Orten's poems are now less and less characterised by melodiously merging forms and by intimate tenderness. They become more dissonant, harsh and agressive (especially the collection Scestí, Led astray, included posthumously in Dílo Jirího Ortena, Jirí Orten's Works, 1947). The motif of death emerges with terse and cruel insistence - "Look, lunatic bailiffs /going along a godless street / to snuff out lives" (Cerný obraz, A Black Picture). The poet's dialogue with his childhood, with his false girlfriend and with God is the subject of Orten's nine extensive poems Elegie (Elegies, posthumously, 1946). Eventually, the lyrical hero finds only one solution: to accept the desperate situation without any consoling illusions, to hold out in spite of everything and to "sing until the end" (the poem "Scestí"). In June 1940, Orten wrote in his diary: "But I adore those blind people, who try to walk without a white stick. They may keep falling over, they may keep stumbling, but they do manage to walk, supporting themselves. "
0n 30th August 1941, on the day of his twenty-second birthday, Jirí Orten was knocked down in a Prague street by a German ambulance. A friend took him to the General Infirmary in Prague, but as a Jew, Orten could not be treated there and had to be moved to a different hospital. Two days later, he died.
Orten's poetry has produced a very strong response in Czech literature. Some of his friends and some younger poets formed a group in 1945 and gave it the name of Orten's collection Ohnice. After the arrival of communist totalitarianism in February 1948, Orten became unacceptable and could not be published for a long time. His work was seen as "poetry of the dying upper classes" and as "degenerative muck". These condemnations were very similar to statements made in the anti-Semitic newspapers during the Second World War which saw Orten's poetry as "Jewish perversion" and the "degeneration of morality". But the generation of Czech poets of the 1960s (Josef Hanzlík, Jirí Grua, Antonín Brousek, Ivan Wernisch) greatly loved and admired Orten. His emphasis on morality, on personal, non-ideological responsibility and purity were in complete harmony with the beliefs of this generation of poets. Authors and readers have been attracted to Orten's work as a result of the poet's tragic predicament and his premature death. Jirí Orten's poetry became a model for the work of many young Czech authors in the 1960s and even in the 1970s.