Credit: Joe Lennon

Brno from B to Ž: A Tough-Love Guide to the City’s 48 Neighborhoods, Part 11 – Chrlice

Before I had to think of a way to write about Chrlice, I hadn’t thought much about Ernst Mach.

It sounds absurd, but it is true, that only after we have thought about the moon are we able to take up ourselves.

I didn’t know he was born in the little village of Chrlitz in 1838, long before Czech replaced German on the village signs, long before the chateau where he was born became a home for the visually impaired. Long before the hometown he left became the hometown I found.

For every observer is composed really of two observers. Man has two eyes. The right eye is a short step ahead of the left…

Before I started reading Mach’s book of popular science lectures, I didn’t know how weird his mind was, how wild-ranging his work. I couldn’t have imagined how strangely, how surreally, he wrote when he reached for words to say how odd our bodies are:

The retinae, in fact, are exactly like our two hands. They, too, have their thumbs and index fingers, though they are thousands in number; and we may say the thumbs are on the side of the eye near the nose…

Or when he indulged in trippy thought experiments:

Let us suppose ourselves so small that we could take long walks in a forest of moss…

Or when he gleefully geeked out, 19th-century-professor-style:

Thou shouldst have known, thou pygmy natural scientist, that with thy present puny bulk thou shouldst not joke with capillarity!

Or when, half warning, but half delighted, he made science sound transgressive and terrifying…

The crude notion of “body” can no more stand the test of analysis than can the art of the Egyptians or that of our little children. The physicist who sees a body flexed, stretched, melted, and vaporised, cuts up this body into smaller permanent parts; the chemist splits it up into elements. Yet even an element is not unalterable. 

…but then made its transgressions sound joyful:

we could easily build a maple-syrup man on the moon, for the fun of the thing

I was vaguely familiar with Mach’s name – and you probably are too, especially if you were a kid who thought fast airplanes were cool.

The fastest real-life jet planes can go between Mach 3 and Mach 4; Tom Cruise goes a superhuman Mach 10.2 in the 2022 blockbuster Maverick.

Somewhere in between real life and Tom Cruise are the hypersonic missiles that Russia is using to destroy blocks of flats and bodies in Ukraine. According to an article I read last year in the New York Times:

Hypersonic missiles are long-range, highly maneuverable munitions capable of reaching speeds of at least Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound, or more than a mile a second. That speed renders traditional air defense systems essentially useless, because by the time they are detected by ground-based radars, they are already nearly at their target.

As I reread those lines, my eyes kept snagging on the name Mach and the number after it. They stuck out in the sentence like an eye-thumb.

Before I started writing this article, I’d only thought of Mach as a measurement – a word that passed through my consciousness so fast I barely registered it.

But then I started reading his lectures, and walking the streets of his birthplace. I started thinking of him as a boy’s face, squinting through a dusty window in Chrlitz, experimenting with the light as it enters his left eye, then his right.

If we touch S, that is, bring it into connexion with our body, we receive a prick. We can see S, without feeling the prick. But as soon as we feel the prick we find S on the skin.

And as I started writing this article, and thinking about Mach, I noticed his name appearing more and more in other things I read.

Is Ernst Mach trending? I wondered. Is he working his way more and more into the world with every sentence I write? Every moment in Kiev that’s silent when it shouldn’t be?

we could ask whether matter can feel, that is to say, whether a mental symbol for a group of sensations can feel?

No, it’s what’s called frequency illusion – the flaw in human reasoning that makes us think something is more common just because we notice it more.

And how disturbing it is to keep stumbling, in sentences that should be streamlined streaks of information, across a body.

Chrlice is Brno’s far southernmost district, sticking out of the bottom of the city map like a mutant hoof.

The first couple of times I visited, I took the long ride from the center by tram and bus. It wasn’t until my third visit that I realized you can take a train from Hlavák that gets you there in 8 minutes.

And when you step off the train at Chrlice nádraží, you can pretend you’ve left Brno for a small country town…

I was rounding a sharp railway curve once when I suddenly saw all the trees, houses, and factory chimneys along the track swerve from the vertical…

…like when you repeat a word out loud several times in a row, and it starts to sound silly, like a pebble in your mouth, or a bump on your tongue.

Or when you stare at your own hands and they start to seem grotesque and autonomous and grabby, like the hands of an alien.

What had hitherto appeared to me perfectly natural, namely, the fact that we distinguish the vertical so perfectly and sharply from every other direction, now struck me as enigmatical.

There’s a tiny house by the tracks, painted with gingerbread bricks. A miniature hunchbacked babička out front. And a miniature child who looks like he might be eating a brick from the house of his own grandmother.

If you pass through the station and over the pedestrian bridge, you descend into a quiet suburb of family houses. Most of them are built in that cool mid-century style so common in Czechoslovakia – facades of gray and beige sparkly cement, glass bricks, rose-brambled verandas.

These retro villas make me nostalgic for an era I never lived through. A place I only live in now, when it’s no longer that place.

Slowly, gradually, and laboriously one thought is transformed into a different thought, as in all likelihood one animal species is gradually transformed into new species.

If you keep walking north, a narrow alley leads you onto Ernst Mach street. Then to a crossroads with a small bell tower. Then a slight rise. A soft right. The former core of the old village.

The home for the visually impaired. The town hall / post office / wine bar / as many things packed into the former chateau as possible.

There’s a small park with a new wooden sign, made to look old, that says “Roznberk,” and a blue metal sign on a bridge, made to look official, that names this small creek the “Ryjo-Grande.”

Here, as with so many places in Brno, the past isn’t gone, but it’s been obviously remodeled so many times that, even when it pretends to be in a single, stable past, it does so with a weary wink that lasts too long.

It’s as if the place is saying to you: “We both know I’m acting like one thing, when really I’m many things, I’m no thing at all. But of course, the same is true of you.”

It is always, thus, the crude notion of substance that is slipping unnoticed into science, proving itself constantly insufficient…

It’s as if I’m walking through the heart of things, unable to touch their edges.

Mach described reality as a

viscous mass, at certain places (as in the ego) more firmly coherent than in others.

So the self in the world is like a knot in a piece of wood, or a clot in the bloodstream. A body in a street, obstructing another body’s vision. A word in a sentence.

Suppose we were to attribute to nature the property of producing like effects in like circumstances; just these like circumstances we should not know how to find. Nature exists once only.

But for every sentence I write with the name Mach in it, a million more that don’t contain his name are also entering the world. Like these:

We feel that the real pearls of life lie in the ever changing contents of consciousness, and that the person is merely an indifferent symbolical thread on which they are strung…

When I found out Mach was born in Chrlice, but left when he was still young, to pursue academic fame in Vienna, then Prague – I thought about the wounded pride Brno takes in all the famous people who left Brno to become famous in more famous cities.

Mach, Mucha, Placzek, Hrabal, Masaryk, Kundera, Kaprálová, Gödel, Čapek, Šafránková…the list of Brno escapees is illustrious.

What a convenient defense mechanism, to be able to drop these names.

I mean, to use them, but be free of the burden of what such great names – representing such great minds, such great talents – might lay on a town that fully claimed them.

If we aren’t, after all, a city of great artists, great scientists – if we are not a great city at all – we can be free, we can be weird, we can slip under the radar.

You speak of Domitian, Vespasian, and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, you call upon all the names of the Roman Emperors that occur to you, but the dog does not stir…

But whose radar?

That’s the beauty of that expression; it never has to name the enemy.

So I can get away with thinking: Mach left Brno long before the part of it he left was Brno. Long before he wrote:

It will now perhaps be clear to you that new thoughts do not spring up suddenly. Thoughts need their time to ripen, grow, and develop in, like every natural product; for man, with his thoughts, is also a part of nature.

So then Mach never technically left Brno.

So I can have it both ways.

I can splice Mach’s words with mine, but pretend they leave mine unsevered.

I can say Brno is my city, but I can hold it at arm’s length like my alien hands.

When I found out Mach was from Chrlice, I thought I’d found a way to write about it.

I’d use his name, and his words, and they’d help me say something about his birthplace.

And they have, but they’ve also helped me perforate it, pass through it.

You see, physics grows gradually more and more terrible. The physicist will soon have it in his power to play the part of the famous lobster chained to the bottom of the Lake of Mohrin, whose direful mission, if ever liberated, the poet Kopisch humorously describes as that of a reversal of all the events of the world; the rafters of houses become trees again, cows calves, honey flowers, chickens eggs, and the poet’s own poem flows back into his inkstand.

Out there at the edge of Brno, at the edge of reality, Chrlice exists once only. And I have missed it.

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