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Karel Čapek: 1890-1938

The father of "robots" was a top ideologue of the free interwar Czechoslovakia

Most of you enjoy a relaxed and happy Christmas. But for some people, Christmas may be terrible - or fatal. Top Czech writer Dr Karel Čapek died on December 25th, 1938, exactly eighty years ago, due to pneumonia that he contracted while undoing the harm caused by a flood to his rural villa in Strž.



Čapek and Olga, 1932

To some extent, he was hiding there from the suddenly self-confident violent pro-fascist beasts who were flooding him (the #1 symbol of the old democratic system who was still alive and in the country) with hate mail, nasty phone calls, broken windows, diatribes in newspapers – which is why we may say that the fascists have chased him down as an animal. His brother, a comparably famous painter Josef Čapek, died of tyfus in a concentration camp, Belsen-Bergen, in April 1945 (pandemics killed tens of thousands of people there), days before the camp was liberated by the British and Canadian forces. Their work was semi-censored during communism as well and Karel Čapek's widow, actress Olga Scheinpflugová, was prevented from doing her job.



The events from Karel Čapek's last moments through 1989 (or 2018?) look so gruesome. But everything was so rosy during his productive years. He was born in Little Saintsville, a village near Trutnov with just 1500 inhabitants today. He was a great student. Newspapers already published some poems he wrote when he was 14. But Čapek began to seriously write literature around 1920 when he was 30, two years after Czechoslovakia was created.

His plays included The Outlaw, R.U.R. (Rossum Universal Robots – after his brother gave him the idea, he introduced the word "robot" to the world, one derived from "robota" which is "work" in most Slavic languages but "drudgery/forced serfs' labor" in Czech; R.U.R. was one of the earliest plays involving artificial humans), Pictures from the Insects' Life (insects personify human character traits), The Makropulos Affair (on immortality, Leoš Janáček wrote an opera), Adam the Creator (destroys the world and makes a new one), The White Disease (a conflict of a pacifist doctor and a fascist boss), The Mother.

Čapek's novels: The Absolute at Large (a vision on consumer society, literally from Czech: Factory Making the Absolute; the invention of a "carburator" that emits the good and God as a byproduct spreads and makes people nice and religious, before it collapses the markets and a war has to erupt to eliminate the "carburators"), Krakatit (a prophesy of nuclear-like weapons in 1922), Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life, War With the Newts (a satirical dystopia – a bunch of inferior sea animals emerges from the water and starts to behave like German Nazis), Life and Work of Composer Foltýn.



But Čapek also wrote five travel books, a charming guide for gardeners, Dashenka – or the Life of a Puppy, a biography of a puppy written for kids, and lots of other things including tons of newspaper articles because he was really making his living as a journalist much of the time. Add some great translations of French poetry and script editing for the Vinohrady Theater. It's not hard to understand that he died as a rich 48-year-old man – his wife inherited assets worth 2.652 million crowns, about 3,000 times the average monthly salary.

He has been nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature 7 times but never won it. The most annoying refusal was the last one, in 1938. The fascist Zeitgeist has finally replaced him with a much more shallow and less valuable feminist Pearl Buck who became the first female U.S. winner of that prize.

Čapek was one of the "Friday men" ("Pátečníci", note how Slavic languages typically replace words like "men" with playful suffixes) who attended a weekly intellectual party on Friday afternoon, in Čapek's villa in Prague-Vineyards. Aside from the elite of literature and arts of that time – Peroutka, Bass, Poláček, Vančura, Kopta, Rabas, ... – the first two presidents of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, used to be guests, too. (And Masaryk's son Jan, later a minister of foreign affairs, attended, too.) He's been the boss of the Czechoslovak Pen Club and many other things.



Masaryk and Čapek. Čapek – an informal spokesperson of the first president – also published the book "Dialogues with TGM", interviews with the president-founder.

The First Republic – we mean the 1918-1938 interwar Czechoslovakia – was a democratic, Parliamentarian, capitalist, prosperous, peaceful country maximally nurturing its culture, music, sensitivity, tolerance and Karel Čapek was among those who have really contributed much to that image.

So you may imagine that when Hitler took over Germany in 1933, Čapek started to be nervous. There were always people who felt "inspired" by the fascist revolution in Germany and they included some Czech writers, too. Rudolf Medek was a particularly disappointing example. Folks like that started to urge Čapek to emigrate – as soon as 1934 – because he could become unnecessary and end up in a concentration camp.

In 1934, Čapek responded angrily: "We the writers won't allow anybody to kick us out of our nation. [...] There's only one good answer to this question: to give a proper thrashing to those who propose such things. I am not a Marxist but I will never allow e.g. S.K. Neumann to be removed from the Czech literature, although he is a Marxist, while he also wrote The Book of Woods, Waters, and Hillsides; or Singing of the Silence."

Indeed, the anti-fascist Čapek wasn't a Marxist, either – he also wrote the essay "Why I Am Not a Communist", one of the reasons why he wasn't embraced by the communist regime after the war.

The pro-fascist folks saw him as a "weak man" – and even contemporary critics like to say that he wanted to kill "bad emotions" but he killed all emotions. The Catholic critics saw him as too materialist or relativist. Čapek has had a spinal disorder throughout his life which is why he didn't have to serve in the army – he was classified as "Category C" during the draft. This has been repeatedly used to attack the writer. But it was the "genre" of his literature that was so insulting to the fascist folks. Playing with gardens, insects, puppies and using all these things to separate good and bad character traits was something they hated.

Even in 1938, Čapek actually worked on politics a lot. He tried to save Czechoslovakia in some way. He was constantly exchanging letters with President Beneš but also with some Germans... On September 29th, 1938, The Munich Treaty was signed and the Sudetenland was annexed by Nazi Germany. Čapek was really, really pissed of by the betrayal by the French and the British – and as a promoter of the alliances, he was often viewed as a compatriot responsible for that failed reliance. Needless to say, he was threatened – as the "#2 enemy" of the Nazis (not bad!) – and some British writers escalated the recommendations that Čapek should leave Czecho-Slovakia (now castrated and renamed). Mister Esquier visited Čapek and told him to leave the homeland. Čapek reacted anxiously:

I don't want anything and I don't need anything. What I have wanted, doesn't exist. What I have needed, has been taken from me. Even England used to be my beloved land. Mr Chamberlain has taken it from me. Can you return my homeland to me? My country? Why are you interested in me if you were disinterested in my country in Munich?
Peroutka and others reported that Čapek's world had really died and he found his continuing life in the post-democratic system to be just a caricature of his former self. He wasn't ready to understand the "jam" that would arrive, he said. That's perhaps why he was dying, as his wife and others said, while sitting on a chair and fully conscious, like a kid who obeys instructions. He spent his last moments by apologizing for his dying and listing the scholars who should be sent the apology. Female journalist Milena Jesenská said that "Čapek didn't fight, didn't struggle, didn't combat, he just terminated his breathing and his life. If you want, you may keep on believing he died due to bronchitis and pneumonia." I would describe this statement as a touching description of a basically materialist perspective that rationally figures out that the costs of a continuing life exceed the benefits.

In December 1938, there were some disgusting attacks against him that I don't want to describe in detail. After Munich, ex-president Edvard Beneš was already exiled. Čapek stayed in Czechia. Pneumonia caused by the flood killed him on December 25th. There was an impressive funeral on December 29th – which was the "actual funeral of the First Republic". The hatred against Čapek continued after his death. So the National Theater refused to hang a black flag, some dailies didn't inform about the death, and other newspapers were suddenly full of views that he was a "left-wing freemason priest" (yes, both Čapek brothers were freemasons, like other famous men) spreading "philosophical softness" in books whose heroes were "weak parasitic plants". Even the funeral was labeled a blasphemy, Čapek was identified with the softening of the will to sacrifice oneself for his country.

Čapek was about as left-leaning as the First Czechoslovakia. It was still a decidedly capitalist country with a fierce peaceful competition between companies – and also political parties. I think that many of Čapek's works are cute and playful, others are prophetic. I am convinced that his satirical plays and novels against fascism are analogously deep as George Orwell's 1984, among other things (and Orwell and Čapek were also comparably left-leaning). And I don't really see much philosophical softness. He wasn't afraid of anything – and the anti-fascist flavor in his works of the 1930s really proved his courage.

When I was between 10 and 14, our elementary school teacher of Czech, Ms Ema Bezděková, was an enthusiastic Čapek fan – and a proud member of the Society of Čapek Brothers. She also had an "atlas" – a giant collection of photographs and newspaper articles and other things linked to Čapek's life. She was often showing these things to us, praising the capitalist Czechoslovakia. She needed lots of courage herself to do such things during communism. "Someone has a car, I have the atlas," she often boasted. A classmate always added "and I have an auto-atlas [of maps for driving]".

Where does the hatred for someone as innocent and balanced as Karel Čapek comes from? A few months ago, we could see some shocking reappearance of it in the form of Robert Burton Pynsent, a British bohemist. You know, Pynsent is the kind of a guy whom I categorize as a stunning aßhole after three sentences that he says, and maybe 20 seconds after I see him. He seems to belong to the same subspecies as Peter W*it and many other staggering jerks. For example, when asked why he picked the Czech language as a prospective literature expert who sucked at French, he brags that he had no clue what language he should pick and someone just told him to pick something weird ;-) so he picked the first weird language in an alphabetical list.

He has absolutely no natural relationship to the Czech language, the Czech literature, the Czech anything (in 1984, he signed a protest against the Nobel prize for Jaroslav Seifert, a Czech writer), and he boasts that he is just working as a bohemist by serving some entertainment to some audiences (his "entertainment" included the comparisons of Mein Kampf with The Grandmother, a romantic novel about country by Božena Němcová – both were nationalist). He means the superficial entertainment about topics that he's not even interested in, usually packed as lame attacks. He is said to have read a lot and know lots of facts about the Czech literature – but I don't really think that he has understood what he's read. Like Otesánek, Pynsent ate everything and turned it into big šits that he is throwing around.

OK, so he was also asked what he have thought about Čapek. Pynsent said that "everything was wrong about him". Not exactly an accurate appraisal that could lead to a fruitful conversation. To clarify his reasons to believe that everything is wrong with the writer, Pynsent said that Čapek was a petite bourgeoisie author (who was mostly appreciated by politicians). Ouch, that gotta hurt.

What's your problem with petite bourgeoisie? Indeed, this could be an appropriate categorization of his social belonging and values (just like it is OK for Charles Dickens and others) and that's exactly what has made him great – and what has made Czechoslovakia a happy paradise within the frustrating totalitarian sea of the 1930s. "Petite bourgeoisie" really means that somewhat broad segments of the urban population – intellectual occupations, self-employed people of various kinds etc. – are proud enough about their class but they also live to imitate the "big capitalists". The small capitalists are also expected to be rather pragmatic – and Čapek was an immensely rational and pragmatic, indeed.

Because "big capitalists" do lots of fancy things and nurture lots of special character traits, this imitation is what elevates the whole society. Needless to say, the totalitarian systems of the 20th century have done the opposite thing: their "elites" were obliged to imitate the lowly people if not the rabble. What is the better strategy to improve a human society? It is surely the petite bourgeoisie's approach.

Pynsent sometimes claims not to be a leftist (although he also calls himself a classic contemporary postmodernist, keen on making the historical truths relative – which, as far as I can say, does mean he is a leftist). But the very usage of "petite bourgeoisie" as a pejorative term unmasks that he is thinking as a Marxist ideologue. The term "petite bourgeoisie" wouldn't be used at all or it would be viewed as a synonym for some "middle class", perhaps with some fancy positive flavor. It was purely Marx and his disciples who have coined the idea that "petite bourgeoisie" is a bad thing.

You know, the communist regime did use the term "petite bourgeoisie" with the Marxist, pejorative meaning. And the communist regime sometimes liked to say something negative about Karel Čapek. But as far as I remember, it has never promoted the idea that Čapek was a "petite bourgeoisie" author. Everyone would understand that they're throwing away much of literature because it's obvious that much of literature and culture is being born in the minds of "petite bourgeoisie". You must be a stinkier aßhole than the average communist ideologues to sell such ideas. Mr Pynsent is such a stinkier aßhole.

Pynsent has never given any legitimate justification of his negative appraisals of Čapek. He said that "the better critics already knew that Čapek sucked during Čapek's lifetime". Oh, really? What I see is a bunch of obnoxious, malicious fascists whose contributions to literature or the mankind couldn't compare to Čapek's at all – and who have faded away unlike Čapek who has stayed with us, at least to some extent. Or Pynsent says that the young people don't real Čapek today. Great. The young people don't do many important and good things today – does it prove that these things aren't important or good?

Folks like Čapek are extremely underestimated today. At some level, he was "just a writer" or "just a journalist" but in reality, he was also a bright mind and a "zoon politikon" behind the scenes that has crystallized the social thinking that the First Republic needed to preserve its foundational ideas and to keep on growing and advancing. As I said, the Nazis called him the "#2 enemy" in Czechoslovakia – which is flattering. On the other hand, when the rest of Czechia was occupied in March 1938, the Gestapo tried to arrest Čapek. They had completely missed that he had been dead for 3 months, despite the memorable funeral. So much for the German perfectionism.

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