|< Return to Famous Science Fiction Writers|
< Return to Famous Catholics
The Religious Affiliation of Acclaimed Czech Writer
(Karel Čapek is known best as the man who coined the word "robot")
Karel Capek is regarded as one of the three great figures of Czech literature, along with Jaroslav Hasek and Franz Kafka.
From: Ivan Klima (translated from the Czech by Norma Comrada), Karel Capek: Life and Work, Catbird Press/Garrigue: North Haven, CT (2002), page 20:
Capek wrote: "Malé Svatonovice [Male Svatonovice], my birthplace, is known for its shrine of the Holy Virgin, admittedly not as poweful as her shrine at Wambierzyce, but nonetheless just as miraculous. My mama would walk there with me to make an offering of a small wax model of a human torso, so that my lungs would be strengthened; those wax torsos, however, always had a woman's breasts, which gave rise to the peculiar notion that we boys didn't have lungs, and to the futile expectation that, under the influence of my mother's prayers, they would grow on me."
Klima, pages 21-22:
The world of childhood accompanies every author throughout his life... In the novel An Ordinary Life, the hero, a railway official, writes about his childhood, how his mother "used to take me by the hand to a miraculous place of pilgrimage to pray for my health; she sacrificed to the Virgin Mary a little wax bust for me, because she said my lungs were weak. I was deeply ashamed that for me she had sacrificed a woman's bust, it humiliated me, it affected my pride in being a man..."
Klima, page 11:
Sixty years and more after his death, the arguments are forgotten, along with the polemics, the passions, the accusations, and the envy - but the work remains. More of Capek's work has survived than has that of the majority of his Czech contemporaries. it is interesting that, even though Capek became famous first and foremost for his plays, today he seems to speak to readers more with his novels and stories, and even his journalism: his perceptive essays on the spiritual problems of Europe, the role of the intelligentsia, and the dangerous trends leading to totalitarian thought, as well as his splendid columns about everyday things and ordinary people, about their interests, hobbies, and passions.
Klima, page 34:
...Karel, devotee of modern life and technology... sneered at everything that seemed old-fashioned and conservative, confided to the poet S. K. Neumann: "Much melancholy has devolved upon mankind, and it is detestable to me that might will triumph in the end . . . Art must not serve might . . . I think I am slowly becoming an anarchist, that this is only another label for my privateness, and I think that you will understand this in the sense of being against collectivity."
Klima, pages 41-43:
Capek's doctoral work at Charles University in Prague was in philosophy and esthetics, but in truth he had been studying philosophy his entire life, and during his youth he published well-informed analyses of philosophical works. Shortly before the beginning of the war he attended a series of lectures on American pragmatism. The lecturer was the future president of the republic Dr. Edvard Benes, and it was he who awakened Capek's interest in this philosophical approach. Capek prepared a well-grounded paper on pragmatism, which was published in 1918 as "Pragmatism, or a Philosophy for a Practical Life." It was not a very long essay, but we cannot pass it by for one very simple reason: Capek accepted the basic tenets of this philosophy, and for nearly his entire life deduced from them a way of solving fundamental social and human problems about which he wrote so urgently. It will be useul at this point to mention at least briefly this almost forgotten philosophical school of the Anglo-Saxon world.
Klima, pages 45-46:
To properly consider pragmatism, we must return to the beginning of the twentieth century, a time of sharply accelerating scientific and technological development. Many thoughtful people felt that the explanations of the world found in traditional religions could not satisfactorily respond to questions that had been disturbing people for centuries. Nor could philosophy, which was increasingly becoming an academic discipline far removed from life and its problems. People thus found themselves in a spiritual vacuum, without intellectual or moral support. The "great ideologies" of nationalism and the Marxist theory of so-called dialectic materialism attempted to fill this vacuum. Marxism in particular proclaimed that it knew the truth about all societal (and scientific) problems, and it offered its radical and singularly correct dialectical method, which was allegedly capable of exploring the most complex processes in society and nature, and finding solutions. Marxism was accepted by the social democratic parties organized at the Second International as a theory which offered a revolutionary remedy to the societal problems of its time.
Like Marxism, pragmatism also responded to the contemporary societal and spiritual situation through its focus on the practical problems of people's lives. However, the similarity between Marxism and pragmatism ends there. Pragmatism had much more modest ambitions and more ssuredly did not attempt to change the societal order by revolutionary means. According to William James, one of its main proponents, pragmatism was not supposed to serve any particular purpose; rather, it was intended to be "a method of settling metaphysical disputes which otherwise might be interminable . . . The pragmatic method . . . is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true?" Such an approach also, understandably, had consequences for a conception of truth: "If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle." Whether the Earth was created by God or evolved the way materialists say is not important, simply because no practical consequences for the life of humankind follow from it. Useful argument should concern only questions which have some practical meaning. A man can be a materialist, just as he can believe in God - let him follow what he is more comfortable with; what will bring him more delight or be more truthful for him than anything else. It is important, however, that he not force his truth upon others. Morever, what we recognize as truth should not be in conflict with sound reasoning, and it should stand up to close scrutiny. The pragmatists' attitude toward truth was relativistic. "The practical value of true ideas," James reasoned, "is thus pimarily derived from the practical importance of their objects to us . . . 'The true,' to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as 'the right' is only the expedient in the way of our behaving."
Pragmatists responded to the dominant philosophers of their time by reproaching them for being too remote from life, for holding real human problems in contempt. According to James, "[t]he more absolutistic philosophers dwell on so high a level of abstraction that they never even try to come down. The absolute mind which they offer us, the mind that makes our universe by thinking it, might, for aught they show us to the contrary, have made any one of a million other universes just as well as this. You can deduce no single actual particular from the notion of it . . . What you want," he told his American audiences, "is a philosophy that will not only exercise your powers of intellectual abstraction, but that will make some positive connexion with this actual world of finite human lives."
It is entirely possible that the first impulse which led Capek to pragmatism was political. The young writer-philosopher wanted to express defiance toward the powers that had unleashed the war and that for the majority of Czechs embodied national and social oppression. Nevertheless, Capek remained true to this philosophy throughout his life, and it was in its psirit that he sought a way out of the great conflicts that often formed the content of his work, and this surely cannot be explained by a wartime preoccupation.
About Capek's play R.U.R., his best known work. Klima, pages 78-79:
...this period of Capek's life was also a time of great ideologies that proclaimed unquestionable, all-encompassing truths and solutions. Capek, however, refused to accept any simplified, ideological view of the world. In 1920, he published in a journal a philosophoical piece in which he had Pilate talk with Jesus's follower Joseph of Arimathea about truth (this piece was later collected with similar stories in the book Apocryphal Tales).
Critics around the world offered countless interpretations of the play's message and of what exactly the robots symbolized. For no other of his works did Capek write so many comments. Perhaps the most precise characterization of the play's aim appears in his 1923 article for The Saturday Review (London), in which he reacted to a debate, with George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton as participants, that had taken place following the play's London premiere.
Klima, pages 85-89:
. . . I wished to write a comedy, partly of science, partly of truth. The old inventor, Mr. Rossum (whose name means Mr. Intellect or Mr. Brain), is no more or less than a typical representative of the scientific materialism of the last century. His desire to create an artificial man - in the chemical and biological, not the mechanical sense - is inspired by a foolish and obstinate wish to prove God unnecessary and meaningless. Young Rossum is the modern scientist, untroubled by metaphysical ideas; for him scientific experiment is the road to industrial production; he is not concerned about proving, but rather manufacturing. To create a homunculus is a mediaeval idea; to bring it in line with the present century, this creation must be undertaken on the principle of mass production. We are in the grip of industrialism; this terrible machinery must not stop, for if it does it would destroy the lives of thousands. It must, on the contrary, go on faster and faster, even though in the process it destroys thousands and thousands of other lives . . . A product of the human brain has at last escaped from the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.
Capek continues by enumerating the truth of the individual characters. Helena is right, Busman, even the robots are right. All are right, in the moral sense of the word, and they advocate their truths on the basis of ideals... Thus did the author himself explain the play's message (or at least one of its messages) in the spirit of his relativist philosophy. For that matter, he explained the majority of his writing from this period in the same way, and in some of his works he succeeded in embodying his theory of truth more organically. In R.U.R., however, as he says with disappointment, he did not succeed very well: the ending of the play speaks against all truths being of equal weight, and the author himself obviously sided with Alquist, who resisted Domin's technocratic vision. And after all, it was the realization of this vision that, in the end, brought the world to the catastrophe in which all people, without exception, perished. That all of them could have been guided to their truths by equally sincere beliefs is, at the moment of total catastrophe, or little significance - and the author proved himself to be aware of this by the way in which he constructed his characters, by the time on stage he gave Alquist in comparison with the others. I would say that, as should be in a work of art, a vision triumphed over a thesis. A vision of the destruction of the world, brought on by the terrible machinery of production, eclipsed the thesis that each has his own noble idealism.
Now for my other idea, the comedy of truth. In the play, the fatory director Domin establishes that technical progress emancipates man from hard manual labour, and he is quite right. The Tolstoyan Alquist, to the contrary, believes that technological progress demoralizes him, and I think he is right, too.
In September of 1921, Lidove noviny began publishing, each Monday, a chapter of Capek's novel The Absolute at Large... The premise of Capek's new work was within the realm of science fiction. A Czech inventor, Marek, discovers how to obtain an incredible amount of energy by splitting the atom. Capek precisely describes this (for his time) audacious concept, and foresees humankind on the threshold of a new era that offers abundance in all areas of consumption. However, when Marek's invention is in operation, it produces a singular side effect: also present in the atom-smashing process is a non-material and therefore indestructable substance which, when unleashed, affects people's behavior in unexpected ways. This substance might be given the name God, or the Absolute, and its effect on people seems to be positive, without exception. That is to say, people who come into contact with the Absolute turn into saints dedicated to doing good deeds, and they lose interest in their ordinary activities. At the same time, the Absolute reaffirms people's belief that their individual convictions and faith are uniquely true.
Klima, pages 97-98:
The premise develops quickly. An industrial tycoon, Bondy, visits the inventor. At first he expresses understandable incredulity regarding the revolutionary invention, but he nevertheless agrees to examine the Karburator, as the atom-splitting machine is called. While doing so, he is contaminated by the Absolute, which induces in this cynical industrialist a sensation of floating, as if overcome with holy exaltation. He also envisions that, as a source of energy, Karburators are the invention of the future and a splendid prospect for a highly lucrative business, and so he immediately starts producing them.
The consequences of an abundance of inexpensive energy are overwhelming. The manufacture of all goods rises sharply, their prices fall sharply at the same time, of course, there is an increase in the numbers of those who have been contaminated by the Absolute.
Capek skillfully made use of this science-fiction premise for the purpose of contemporary satire. Modern society cannot function well when people are driven to do nothing but good works. Says the Karburator's inventor:
I suffered throgh some horrifying phenomena. I read people's thoughts, light emanated from me, I had to struggle desperately not to sink into prayer and begin preaching about faith and God. I wanted to clog the Karburator with sand, but suddenly I began to levitate . . . There have been several serious cases of workers in the factory seeing the light. I don't know where to turn, Bondy. Yes, I've tried all isolating materials that might possibly prevent the Absolute from getting out of the cellar: ashes, sand, metal walls, but nothing can stop it. I've even tried lining the cellar walls with the works of Professors Krejci, Spencer, and Haeckle, all the Positivists you can think of; if you can believe it, the Absolute penetrates even things like that.
More and more, people become possessed by religious fervor. "At the Petrin telegraph station, religion broke out like an epidemic. For no earthly reason, all the telegraph operators on duty were sending out ecstatic messages to the whole world, a sort of new gospel saying that God is coming back down to earth to redeem it . . ." The Minister of Defense "suddenly saw the light at his villa in Dejvice. The following morning, he assembled the Prague garrison, spoke to them about eternal peace, and exhorted the troops to become martrys . . ."
Is it possible to eliminate the Karburator from the world? It is not. The moment some begin to protest against it, their adversaries begin to defend it. The Roman Catholic Church at first repudiates the Absolute, then declares it to be nothing other than the God to whom we hve clasped our hands in prayer since childhood.
It appears that modern society cannot exist unless people turn into saints. Capek describes the religious delirium of the Karburator factory's board of directors with sarcasm, and even moreso when saintliness overcomes bank employees: "They opened the vaults and handed out the money to anyone who came in. They finished by burning bundles of banknotes on a bonfire in the main lobby."
The plot develops episodically. At times it seems as if the author simply wanted an excuse to write a satire about the behavior of the Agrarian Party and its supporters, at other times about freemasons, journalists, scientists (or pseudoscientists, rather), bureaucrats, politicians and diplomats, so that he might put to good use his flair for aphorisms and paradox: "Thus there came into the world an unlimited abundance of everything people need. But people need everything except unlimited abundance." . . . "You can have a revolution wherever you like, except in a government office; even were the world to come to an end, you'd have to destroy the universe first and then government offices."
The story of the revolutionary invention and its consequences continues. On the one hand, the world is flooded with a multitude of products; on the other hand, there is an outbreak of mass unemployment. As the number of Karburators increases, so does the number of men and women who, having seen the light, profess the most disparate fiaths, and become followers of holy leaders - a merry-go-round owner named Binder proves to be one of them, and another is the swimmer Kuzenda, who levitates and preaches from a dredge on a river. If people stand in opposition to each other, convinced that they and they alone have found the one true fauth, they must, in Capek's world, necessarily come into conflict...
[page 89] Such was the explanation of the destructive war, both the invented war (Capek placed the novel at the beginning of the 1950s) and the real, recently ended war. Behind the genially formulated sentences of a tavern get-together, we hear the views of Capek the philosopher. He rejected absolute truths, especially insofar as they were intended to stand above people's lives and practical concerns. He found the cause of societal conflict to be above all intolerance - in this his polemics were directed indirectly against fashionable Marxism, which sought the cause of all conflict in the disparate relationships between individuals or entire groups ("classes") and the means of production, that is, in the areas of economics and property ownership.
For Capek... the revolutionary stance was an expression of negativism which presupposed that, for the creation of a better world and better relations, it was first necessary to eliminate the old world and its relations by force. For the majority of its proponents, that meant expropriation, the deprivation of rights and, if need be, the wholesale slaughter of all whom the revolutionary leaders consider their enemies. Revolution, which for leftist writers meant the purification and renewal of humankind, was for him no more an expression of an immoral, corrupting force that let off steam above all by destroying values.
Klima, pages 147-148:
Capek responded to Wolker's praise of hatred in his 1924 article, "Why Am I Not a Communist?" "In one of his ballads Jiri Wolker says: 'Deep as you can go, poor man, I see hatred.' This is a terrible word, particularly because it is entirely the wrong one. For deep in the hearts of the poor is a remarkable, beautiful cheerfulness. The worker at his machine likes making jokes far more than does the owner or director of the factory . . . and if someone in a household is singing, it's far more likely to be the maid, scrubbing floors, than her mistress . . ."
In February 1925, Capek published in the journal Pritomnost a rather short article entitled "On Relativism." It was a defense of his theory of knowledge against any and all theories making claims to the absolute truth.
Klima, page 185:
Socialism is good when it comes to wages, but it tells me nothing when it comes to other questions in life that are more private and painful, for which I must seek answers elsewhere. Relativism is not indifference; on the contrary, passionate indifference is necessary in order for you not to hear the voicees that oppose your absolute decrees . . . Relativism is neither a method of fighting, nor a method of creating, for both of these are uncompromising and at times even ruthless; rather, it is a method of cognition. If one must fight or create, it is necessary that this be preceded by the broadest possible knowledge . . . One of the worst muddles of this age is its confusing of the ideas behind combative and cognitive activity. Cognition is not fighting, but once someone knows a lot, he will have much to fight for, so much that he will be called a relativist because of it. The only way not to be a relativist is to be a monomaniac. Choose the better part: Mary, who listens to the only truth, or Martha, who "was careful and concerned about many things." Of course, "many things" includes things that are trifling and odd, unknown and rejected; it includes the whole of reality.
Several years later, Capek used the New Testament story about these two followers of Christ as a topic for one of his Apocryphal Tales. But while in the evanglist's version Jesus reproaches Martha and praises Mary, who "chose the good part," Capek sides with Martha, who was diligent in her service. To be diligent in one's service became the credo of Capek's life, and he therefore supported anything that would give people a zest for work, for life, for creating a free society. His philosophy called for each individual to seek the positive in this world, so that he can "'lift himself' with every step taken under his own power."
In 1932, Capek published a book entitled On Public Matters, or Zoon Politikon, on which he gathered together his important articles on social and political topics from the previous eight years, including the essays "Why Am I Not a Communist?", "On Relativism," and the previously-mentioned articles on the dangers of technology and on Americanism. The final third of the book consists of a series of articles published that same year in the weekly Pritomnost, containing more personal essays on political and civic issues, collectively called "On Myself and Weightier Matters," from which the following excerpts are taken.
Klima, page 222:
In The Mother, just as in The White Plague and The First Rescue Party, Capek wanted to express his opinions on the current political situation, on the predicament of a Europe threatened by war. He is said to have written this play with unusual enthusiasm, and with its ending he was clearly turning to his fellow citizens, challenging them to defend their homeland in the event it was attacked.
Some critics saw in the play a fundamental change in Capek's beliefs, primarily his abandonment of his pacifism and abstract humanism. But this was a superficial judgment. Capek remained essentially himself even in The Mother, no matter how unusual the clear, militant closing line was for him. Here, too, the clash is more between principles than between characters. The men are willing to die for some higher ideal, for honor, or even to set a record. The mother stubbornly defends her right to have her family live rather than offer their lives for ideals she doesn't comprehend.
Webpage created 2 August 2005. Last modified 24 August 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: email@example.com.