:: Article

Augury of Ashes

By Frank Garrett.

“Everything recompenses for fire, and fire for all things…”—Heraclitus

Augury of Ashes

On a cold Thursday afternoon in January 1969, twenty-year-old Czechoslovakian student Jan Palach doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire in front of Prague’s National Museum as a protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. Three days later, he died in a hospital; among his effects was a letter signed Pochodeň č. 1, or Torch #1.

A month later, eighteen-year-old student Jan Zajíc would become Torch #2–the second person to self-immolate in Prague as a protest against the occupation. Zajíc’s act, however, would have an even larger focus. He would light himself on fire on the twenty-first anniversary of the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia in 1948.

The 1989 Velvet Revolution began with the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Palach’s suicide, which prompted waves of anticommunist protests in what would be known as Palach Week. By year’s end, these events, with several others across the region, would determine the end of Soviet-sponsored communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Since the Velvet Revolution, a cross rooted in the cobblestone in Wenceslaus Square marks the spot where Palach fell.

For Christians, the cross symbolises sacrifice. In this case, however, a more problematic interpretation might be possible. The Roman state crucified Jesus, which, according to doctrine, was nevertheless an act of self-sacrifice. In Palach’s case, it seems that the would-be philosophy student would have been more a victim of the state had he continued to live under the occupation. When Palach sacrifices himself, he escapes out-and-out political martyrdom while redefining the boundaries of the political self. He takes his own life in an attempt to animate the body politic.

Jan Palach memorial plaque

Jan Palach memorial plaque at the Philosophy Department of Charles University, designed by Olbram Zoubek


Socrates is fittingly credited for founding Western philosophy by shifting the emphasis of wisdom from the natural sciences to ethics and politics. Socrates teaches us how to live well.

At the age of seventy, Socrates’s enemies in democratic Athens brought him to trial on trumped up charges, like not believing in the gods and corrupting the youth. By insisting that his conscience was clear and that the gods in whom he was accused of not believing were the very ones who had compelled him to a life of the mind, we can see the danger of Socrates and, more generally, of philosophy, especially in a society ill-equipped to appreciate or acknowledge a purpose higher than the arbitrary law of the land. By arguing for a universal measure of justice, his defence came to undermine society itself.

In rejecting escape and exile and by willingly drinking the hemlock, Socrates became the first of many philosopher-martyrs, who teach us as much about death as about life.


After working tirelessly for Czechoslovak independence during World War I, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk became Czechoslovakia’s founder and first president in November 1918. Under his leadership, Czechoslovakia became a beacon of democracy in Central Europe. It would remain so until the Communist take-over thirty years later.

Before becoming involved in politics, however, Masaryk was a philosopher. He earned a PhD from the University of Vienna, where he studied under Franz Brentano. Afterwards, he worked in Leipzig, where he befriended the Moravian-born father of phenomenology Edmund Husserl.

In his habilitation thesis Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization, Masaryk analyses the causes of suicide as a mass phenomenon in modern society. Although he acknowledges early in the work that self-sacrifice is “considered to be the highest human virtue,” he excludes it from his sociological survey. After examining physical and cultural factors, Masaryk diagnoses Halbbildung as the true cause of suicide. The German word Bildung can denote education, formation, training, and culture; halb is the adjective half. He concludes that a society that only half educates and cultivates its people–intellectually, morally, and spiritually–will be more likely plagued by suicide, which would in turn serve as that society’s greatest indictment.


The Greek word pharmakon, from which we get our word pharmacy, can mean either poison or cure. Philosophy makes much of this ambiguity, even as far back as Plato, who writes that Socrates regards writing itself as a pharmakon.

Near the end of the Phaedrus Socrates relates the myth of Theuth, who presents his many gifts, including that of writing, to the Egyptian King Thamus, who will judge the benefits and burdens of each. Theuth offers letters as a cure for forgetting, declaring that written language will make the Egyptians wiser by improving their memory. The king, however, reckons that the true purpose of letters is simply reminding his people of something already forgotten. He insists that this alphabetic technology, the gift of letters, will, in fact, produce forgetting. When Egyptians rely solely on writing to remember, they will be reminded from the outside with foreign signs. They will no longer trust authentic memory that emanates from their souls.

Detail of Jan Palach’s Grave

Detail of Jan Palach’s Grave, designed by Olbram Zoubek


A little more than four months before Palach died, a Pole named Ryszard Siwiec lit himself on fire during a festival in Warsaw’s Tenth-Anniversary Stadium. He is considered to be the first person to self-immolate as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. His immolation was captured on film. In the footage, he can be seen shouting his protests and pushing away the people who have come to his aid. After the flames are snuffed out, the police haul the still conscious Siwiec away.

At university Siwiec had studied philosophy. During World War II he fought in the Polish Home Army, the main underground resistance organization. After the brutal defeat of the Warsaw Uprising, the Germans left the Polish capital in ruins. The stadium where Siwiec self-immolated was built primarily from the rubble.


Chapter 23 of the Lotus Sutra narrates the story of the Medicine Buddha, who, upon having sacrificed all worldly possessions, comes to make the ultimate sacrifice. To prepare, he adorns his body with jewels. He swallows incense and swigs fragrant liniments as part of his terrible Eucharist. He anoints his head with oil. Then, in one painstaking gesture, he ignites the incendiaries.

The light that shines from the fiery Medicine Buddha as he burns heals the world even as it chars his flesh and extinguishes his life. His death illuminates those who receive the light and heat of the medicinal flame.


There is a point at which the fat of a human body begins to leak out through the cracks of charred skin, adding fuel to the fire. At this point, the body itself becomes a torch that can burn for several hours even after flames have consumed the gasoline on the skin’s surface. Clothing acts as a wick, pulling the fat toward the fire. Should the heat be sustained at a high enough temperature for a long enough time, bones will vitrify, turning to glass.


What is a face? The Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas writes that the face is a disruption of the epistemological parameters within which we place another person. That is, the face already exceeds everything we can ever know about someone else. It is both the site of one’s identity (as a sign of sex, gender, ethnicity, and age, for example) and the undoing of that identity (by way of performance, of masking ourselves).

Lévinas also writes that our encounter with otherness and difference in the face of the other person mirrors our encounter with death. In both instances, we confront something that does not make sense. In the death of a friend, we face someone that both is and is not what remains after death. The corpse retains the lifeless face but no longer signifies the person who lived. Otherwise, why would we need to display photographs of the dead at funerals? In this way, the dead body becomes an empty symbol, which only underscores the fact that the living body was already a breach in our understanding.

Detail of Jan Palach memorial plaque

Detail of Jan Palach memorial plaque at the Philosophy Department of Charles University, designed by Olbram Zoubek


Palach’s family originally interred his body in Prague’s Olšany Cemetery. In 1973, in an attempt to demolish the shrine that had built up around the grave, the secret police exhumed the body, cremated it, and sent the ashes to his family about 25 miles north of the capital. His former grave was given to someone else. A year later, his mother was allowed to inter Palach’s remains in a local cemetery.

In autumn 1990 the urn containing Palach’s ashes was exhumed and “returned” to Olšany Cemetery.


The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka was teaching at Charles University in Prague while Palach was a student there. Patočka, like Lévinas, had studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, becoming an heir to the philosophical tradition of Central Europe.

At the time, Patočka also mentored a young Václav Havel, who would become the first democratically elected President of Czechoslovakia since the 1948 Communist coup. Both Patočka and Havel would be signatories of Charta 77, a seminal human rights document from 1977 that would attempt to hold the Communist government accountable for its implementation—and violation—of human rights.

Patočka would die later that year from a brain hemorrhage after police “interrogation.”


Sculptor Olbram Zoubek would come to make the death masks and tombs for both Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc. Since 1990 a metal copy of Palach’s death mask has hung on the façade of the Philosophy Department of Charles University, across from Jan Palach Square.

About a mile away from Jan Palach Square, on the other side of the Vltava River, stands Zoubek’s Memorial to the Victims of Communism. The figures reiterate the one on Palach’s grave. It is as if ashes constitute the bodies in various stages of dissolution.

Memorial to the Victims of Communism

Memorial to the Victims of Communism, designed by Olbram Zoubek, Jan Kerel, and Zdeněk Holzel


After his death, Klement Gottwald, the first Communist President of Czechoslovakia, would have his body displayed in a mausoleum atop Vitkov Hill in Prague. In 1962, his badly embalmed body was cremated and placed in an urn inside a sarcophagus. After the Velvet Revolution, Gottwald’s ashes—along with the ashes of several other communists—would be removed from Vitkov Hill and placed in a common grave in Olšany Cemetery, yards away from Jan Palach’s grave.


Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who was the same age as Jan Palach, studied film in Prague in the late 60s. In 2013 her three-part miniseries Burning Bush was broadcast on Czech television. It depicts Palach’s self-immolation and the political aftermath of his death.

To the director, the strange half-echo of the Polish word palacz in the student’s name must have sounded like an affront to decency. In Czech, there is not an easy association between Palach and fire. In Polish, however, only the final consonant separates the two words: Palach as palacz—he who smokes, he who stokes the flames. Palach—this fire-man.

In an early sequence of Holland’s miniseries, after the opening credits, a tram conductor uses a crowbar to wrench the rail point in Wenceslaus Square from left to right, signalling a shift, a change of direction. The camera follows him into his booth, where a box of matches rests on a small table. On a window ledge sits a pack of smokes. The scene cuts to a woman tugging at a wilful child wearing a red knit cap. Cut to a man on the street lighting a cigarette. The smoker moves out of frame, revealing the word lékárna on a shop window: pharmacy. This, too, is a story of fiery medicine and an antidote to oppression told within the visual semiotics of fire.


The Czech president recognizes people who have made outstanding contributions to democracy, humanity, and human rights by electing them to the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Among the recipients of the highest class are Ryszard Siwiec, Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc, Jan Patočka, and Václav Havel.

Jan Palach: Charles University Multimedia Project (http://www.janpalach.eu/en/default/index)
Day Blakely Donaldson’s The Self-Immolators (http://theselfimmolators.freeforums.net/)
Thomas G. Masaryk’s Suicide and the Meaning of Civilization, trans. William B. Weist and Robert G. Batson (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970).
Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush. TV mini-series. Prague: HBO 2013.
Thanks to Chris LaFleur for conversations about fire.
All photographs by Frank Garrett.


Frank Garrett

Frank Garrett is an independent philosopher, writer, and translator. Recent publications include “Forgotten Art” on Prague’s late-communist public art (Transitions Online); “Saying Celan in Silence,” an essay on and translation of Edmond Jabès’s poetry dealing with the death of Paul Celan (Black Sun Lit); “Negative Hermeneutics and Translation: The Unworkable Poetry of Wisława Szymborska” (in Zeta Books’ Translational Hermeneutics); and a translation of Robert Rient’s “No Blood” (Bahamut, forthcoming). He blogs at My Crash Course and lives in Dallas.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 11th, 2015.