Thursday, January 11, 2007

Where Robots Come From

We continue our exploration of Chestertonian books from Dover Publications. But before I proceed to today's topic, I want to mention another title, which it perhaps one of the funniest titles in the Dover collection: Great English Essays from Bacon to Chesterton . Hee hee! (Good thing it's lunchtime.)
--Dr. Thursday.

According to the introduction in the Dover edition of today's book, the word "robot" was invented by Josef Capek, older brother of Karel Capek (1890-1938), in 1920, from a Czech dialect word meaning "drudgery" - and it was introduced in Karel's play, "R. U. R." - "Rossum's Universal Robots" - a play about humanity, labor, and pride. Its importance lies not only in its hints and overtones of the dangers in the misuse of science and technology, but also in its opening of the question of what labor and work and employment - and humanity - is for. Such a deep, but universal topic remains as important now as it did when Pope Leo XIII wrote his Rerum Novarum in 1891, beginning the current phase of "Catholic Social Teaching" with its focus on human labor, the family, and the State. I won't say it is a pleasant play, but then my purpose here is not to review the play - merely to give a bit of "stage-setting" (no pun intended!) of today's selection.

R. U. R. by Karel Capek.

Humanity, and man's purpose on earth - and labor, and the Social Thing - is a famous Chestertonian topic, covered in many places from What's Wrong With the World and The Outline of Sanity to hints in Fatber Brown stories like "The Invisible Man" (which has mechanical men too!) and ILN essays. Such a play, which soon appeared in English (it was on Broadway in 1923) would quickly attract GKC's attention:

There was a debate the other day about the play of "R.U.R.," the Bohemian play about Robots, or mechanical men. It took place at the theatre where this and other stimulating and problematic plays have been presented; I happened to take part in it, and found myself arguing with Mr. Bernard Shaw. As I did so, there came on me that mysterious and elusive feeling of which Wordsworth wrote, and which many psychologists have noted as a mystery of the mind. It seemed, somehow, as if it had all happened before, possibly in some previous existence. Surely this was not the first time I had argued with Mr. Bernard Shaw. Surely I had done it before; many, many times before. But, despite these weird recurrences, I should be very glad to do it again, for it seemed to me that the debate left off precisely at the point at which it came in sight of the true difference. And the difference does not merely concern him and me, but hundreds of other people who are thinking what can be done with modern mechanical civilization.
[ILN July 14, 1923 CW33:134]
GKC mentioned another of Capek's works in a different place, and though our play is not mentioned directly, there are important overtones and suggestions which play into its topic, and so I shall quote it at length:
I see that Mr. Karel Capek has written a most amusing and disarming little book about Italy, and among other foreign critics I think he is a thousand times more likely to be right because he continually confesses that he may be wrong. This attitude is so startling in an art critic, that I hail it with the veneration due to something great and heroic; and all the more so because I think he is wrong. He thinks that Christianity died with the Gothic and the Byzantine and that Catholicism, something different and practically Pagan, came in with the classical and the florid. There are a hundred answers to this; over and above an obvious query about Catholicism only beginning about the same time as Protestantism. Perhaps the shortest answer is to point out that the very period which plastered all the churches with naked cherubim and saints looking like sun-gods was the period that produced some of the most sensitive and humble and sympathetic of all the great Christians of history; that people like St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis of Sales and St. Theresa walked in some such wilderness of white new marble and glaring tropic gold; their souls as delicate and transparent and tenderly coloured as any window of the Middle Ages. The real explanation is not that they thought so much more of gold and marble, but that they thought so much less of them.

Christianity or Catholicism (and, with best wishes to Mr. Capek, they are not different) is something more than a mood. It is something more like an event; an event like a baby being born in a family. The parents know they will have hundreds of moods about the baby; ranging from something approaching idolatry to something drifting towards infanticide. But the fact is not altered, and other things including moods, are adjusted to the fact. There can be all sorts of discussions in the family about the best style of toys for the baby; just as there are all sorts of discussions about the best style of art for the Church. There is a Golliwog School as there is a Gothic School; there are people who do not feel a wax doll from the Lowther Arcade as too florid or foolish, just as there are people who do not feel a Madonna of Murillo as too like a wax doll from the Lowther Arcade. There are others who would have every puppet in the nursery as perfect in form and balance as a Greek god in a temple; like that little figure of the Flying Mercury which was knocked off a motor-car in one of Mr. Wells's novels and picked up by a child, who preferred it to all his Punches and Teddy Bears. There is an endless and equal quarrel between the classic and the fantastic. It can always be said that reason and order are better than unreason and anarchy; and answered that there lies beyond our reason a world of wilder and more wonderful mysteries; and answered again that pure harmony is really the same as perfect liberty; and answered yet again that a more perfect liberty would seem to our limited vision imperfect. It is quite true, on the one hand, that the straight limbs of the Greek hero, or even the straight lines of the stiff Egyptian god, may be in truth a still whirlwind of perfect motion and energy. It is true again that there is something in us at once antic and domestic. Something for which a thing is not quite familiar unless it is a little outlandish. Something that is more at home with the goblins than the gods. That dispute can rage round the dolls of the nursery as round the idols of the temple. But those of us who are really concerned to apply it to the nursery or the temple do not really treat the differences as differences of deep or allegiance; they are a matter of means and not of ends. We, in the sense of those whose allegiance is the same as mine, do not feel about these schools of taste as the modern critics imagine, when they treat them as schools of thought. We like the doll that is as graceful as a dryad or the golliwog that is as hideous as a gargoyle. We pit them against each other and urge that this or that will be the more educational emblem; but we are not in the last resort thinking about these things. We are not merely comparing pleasures or merely pleasing ourselves; for to us a child is born.
[GKC, The Resurrection of Rome CW21:374-6, emphasis added]

Ah... did you hear Handel's music there? I did. I quoted at length for the sake of that last line, for that hints at the crisis of "R.U.R." - and indeed at the mystery of creation, and the role of man-and-woman as co-creators... Capek's play is only 58 pages long: it is powerful, and well worth the energy and time - and thought.


  1. I heard about R.U.R. a little while ago and it had piqued my interest. I didn't realize that it was so short. At 58 pages long, it would be perfect for a weekend read after football season is over.

  2. To an anonymous commenter: Yes, I deleted your comment.

    Say! Why not get your own blog to express yourself?

    Then you won't have to wait until Thursdays when I post.

    After all, as GKC said when he started his own paper, "every citizen ought to have a weekly paper of this sort to splash about in ... this kind of scrap book to keep him quiet."

  3. I read R.U.R. last year, and I thought it was very good. The author led an interesting life.

    A contemporary link to Chesterton is that a major character is named "Alquist" (No 'H,' though).

  4. Anybody read Capek's "Apocryphal Tales"? That was another book of his that had caught my eye.


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