Picking up the check at Democracy Cafe

The rummy stumbled out of the cafe, no one cared enough to call him a cab. Left at the table was an oddball pair, looking at the havoc their dinner party had wrecked before them. It had been quite a party, but now the waiter was coming with the bill, and there was awkward silence.

Decadence and disregard for the price of the meals and drinks and debauchery had been immense, and the check had quite a few zeros on it. Long gone were the guests who ran up this outrageous total, leaving the last two to settle and square away the bill at Democracy’s Cafe.

So it is true in reality, as it is in the cafe. A new Democratic Congress and a lame duck President share this table long sat at by corporate fat cats, lobbyists, corrupt congressmen, their hangers-on, entourages and various other party goers who had partied like rock stars in the early 2000s. Now the check is due.

Sadly, the last sweet kiss good-bye to the Republicans is that the bill did not come due during their watch, which is why they are taking being expelled from the restaurant with little to no fanfare. They knew this was coming, and like a dinner guest with no change left in their pocket, they went to the bathroom and never came back. They didn’t even leave a 20 spot to even pretend like they wanted to settle accounts, because they knew they did not need too.

So, the lame duck and sacrificial lambs, who were happy just to get to the table even if the party was obviously winding down, now face a tab of outrageous proportions. The housing market has cooled, the trade debt is outlandish, and somehow some of the party goers had gotten a second tab open, a second duel deficit, that too was suddenly these to poor soul’s responsibility. And not even figured into the total is the price to cover the fight that broke out early on, and all that was broken during its fray.

And while they sit there, just now fully understanding their miserable fate while the hooligans of the Gatsby party variety have gone home to sleep it off and wait for these two to take the fall. Because they know the responsibility and debacle of the check will be pinned on those left at the table, freeing them up to return in 2008 to go hog wild again, hands washed and cleaned of their previous indiscretions.

So be wary if you find yourself at the table when the check comes at Democracy’s Cafe. Those who ran up the tab are long gone, but owners of the restaurant, the American people, will not remember that because they do not remember what happened last week. And in 2007, when the economy shitbags because the checks are due, it is not the Republican decadence the people will remember, it will be the Democrats shaking them down to pay for the bill that they will.

And the President will just sit there, wondering exactly how much he can sneak away in a doggy bag.

———–

No top 5 tonight, because right now I am on roof top patio somewhere in Brooklyn  entertaining beautiful girls whose port of calls are listed from around the world.

Seeing in the future publish works. Let’s hope I got the time right in US/Pacific, my ability to operate clocks and calendars is legendary.

Academic Years II


Lace

Like the Pixels

The pixels
laid singly
or in short segments
pixilated sand
intricately woven
into a meaningful
pattern
pixie dust
spread
to simulate
complexity

My world grows
takes new form
until it gets
to the point
where it can be
flipped,
flopped
flooped
it’s the flooping
that makes it
distinctly mine

Moments
are the pixels
of being
by which we color
the larger
tapestry
of our lives
living
in the instant
in the now
is our floop

–Robyn Elaine Serven
–November 8. 2005

Scheduling Reminder

Just below this you will see I have bumped ek’s scheduling post back up near the top. If you DO want a slot, go ahead and sign up. If you prefer to have a floating slot, please post a comment to that effect in THIS essay.

You are NOT required to have a regular slot. But as we get closer to launch date (yippeee!)we need to get a little tighter on how the FP is run.

Anytime more than 3 hrs has passed since the last post by a CE (Contributing Editor) you are welcome to post on the FP. UNLESS someone is scheduled for that slot!

Anytime 90 minutes has passed since a post by an FP’r….Armando, Turkana, OPOL, ek, or me…..you are welcome to post on the FP. UNLESS someone is scheduled for that slot!

We will soon (when OTB gets back) start putting up the days schedule for all to see! Until then, any transgressions are explicitly forgiven!

The requested restriction on posting only meta is gone and forgotten, the FP is now wide open under the rules laid out above.

For those who have not discovered it, on the essay composition page there is a button under “other options” that allows Editors to switch from the FP to the recent list and vice versa.

If you are confused as to whether you are a Contributing Editor or not, first see if you have that button! If you do, you are an Editor. This means you are REQUIRED under pain of the most horrid curses and hexes to post an ORIGINAL non-xposted essay once a week. Or at least pretty close to that!

If I hadn’t made this clear or you still have questions or you wish to curse me back….have at it in the comments below!

But if you wish to sign up for a slot please do it in ek’s essay for ease of correlation.

Thank you!

A Poem for Pinche

Oh this will be easy, because I just know Pinche will never read this poem,  having vowed never to read poetry — I believe he said something to the effect it’s … icky.

So here’s a poem just for you, Pinche, even though you will never read it.

Poem for Pinche

It’s very bad,
It’s awful rotten,
These asshat poems,
By hell begotten.

Pinche vowed,
To close the door
On poems by poets
Evermore.

O how I tremble!
How I quake!
To think my work
Such dire mistake!

From Pinche’s words
oh dare I think
that all my poems
verily stink?

Ah no, alas!
That cannot be!
For lo! The stink
It comes from he!

My fiery rage
Will never die
Till Pinche repents
His evil lie!

For poems are good,
And poems are neat
And I’m a poet,
Cute and sweet.

I shall not stop
’cause Pinche cries
‘gainst poetry
and gives it pies.

So stay away,
I shall not stop!
I’ll write my poems
Until I drop!

The end.  😛

senator edwards, it’s me, pfiore8

cross-posted at dKos

Senator, if you mean this:

Enough is enough. When Congress comes back next week, they should stand firm and make their position clear:  No timeline, no funding. No excuses.

Then I’ve got to ask you: Are you ready to show up?
———————

We need somebody to show up, Senator Edwards.

Sir, we are drowning under the weight of bold speeches and big ideas.

Things are serious in our country. We don’t need rhetoric. So I have to ask you… I need to know: are you willing to show up?

Will you show up with the rest of us on September 15 in Washington DC? Senator, please read srkp23’s diary and meet people who are all about showing up.

Senator, will you show up at the opening session of Congress, stand on the steps of our great Capitol, and demand, on behalf of your country:

Enough is enough.  No timeline, no funding. No excuses.

Will you walk from the steps of the Capitol and show up at the White House and tell George W. Bush:

“Enough is enough. No timeline, no funding. No excuses.

Senator, we are desperate. You want bold? You want to build defining moments? You want to pull away from other politicans, pundits, and candidates? Then put it on the line, for us. For your country. Go all in and show up!

—————————-
h/t to TomP and his diary:  John Edwards on Iraq: No timeline, no funding. No excuses

—————————-
ps… Senator, if you really want to blow me away, get the other candidates to show up.

Katrina: Two Years Later

( – promoted by pico)

Rather than write another diary on the second anniversary of Katrina, I thought I’d provide a set of resources for people who are interested in reading more, and from a diverse set of viewpoints.  These are newspapers, political blogs, and personal stories, and together they help fill in the giant web of impact that Katrina had on this country, and the distance we’ve come since, and the distance we still need to go.

Naturally, “Two Years Later” is the banner headline at nola.com, a site whose combination of Times-Picayune reporters and informal bloggers helped rocket it to premier place for Katrina coverage during and after the storm.  The mood here is generally upbeat, with articles like “Generosity Banishes Katrina Despair“.  My own stomping grounds held a meeting with speakers who vowed to shut down the MRGO, a shipping inlet that had devastated local marshland and given Katrina’s surge an easy route to attack the parish.

More interesting, though, are the comments left by people telling their own stories of survival and rebuilding.  The city still faces massive problems, especially when it comes to racial and class issues, the insanely high murder rate, and the directionless local government.  But things are getting better in small ways, around the city.

The traditional media is also “celebrating” with some commemorative stories. CNN notes that the coast is “still struggling“, and MSNBC bizarrely puts Bush at the center of their coverage, while the always-dependable BBC has a multimedia presentation with photographs and interviews. 

At DailyKos there’s a slew of diaries today, but I’d especially recommend mlharges’ graphical display of flooding and casualties, Where They Were Found – The Data Tells The Story, and a first-time diary by a New Orleans Councilwoman, New Orleans: Mission NOT Accomplished, which details the difficulties that we face today.  Katrina-related diaries (see here and here) are all over the site this week.

Of bloggers writing locally, be sure to check out A.M in the Morning, written by a woman who returned to the city earlier this year to dedicate herself both to the rebuilding effort and to political advocacy.  Cotton Mouth tackles the efforts along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, while Katrinacrat and Yatpundit (I love those names!) post on Louisiana issues.

In less-exciting news, I’m infuriated by this post (it appears on a couple of blogs) that’s so disconnected from reality that it makes a mockery of all the real issues that these areas face.  We all have a tendency to want to spice up our arguments with powerful rhetoric, but when that powerful rhetoric overtakes the facts, we’re headed down the wrong path.

An ode

 
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Midnight Cowboying – Karl Rove, You Magnificent Bastard

You have to give it Rove, his last kiss good-bye was one of the sweetest. The news cycle this week was suppose to be non-stop coverage of a resigning Attorney General. You know, a monumental event as the keeper of the rule of law steps down in disgrace, one of the highest position in the land. Roberto Gonzalez was the purest symbol of the utter contempt the Bush Administration had for the Constitution and our collective social contract. He deserved to be roasted in the international, national and local press as the subservient lackey of cronyism that he was. 

But Karl Rove had his boy’s back. He had an ace in the hole that would kill any and all discussion of Gonzo by the talking heads. He had something that involved at least a few of the meaty morals Americans love. The fall from grace of a powerful figure. Adultery. And best yet, gay sex in a public space. It was even signed sealed and delivered by a Guilty plea and fines paid. He held it in his sleeve till Roberto was ready to meet him in Texas. He had been sitting on for months.

So on Monday, minutes after Bush and Gonzo’s pressers, the Senator Craig story appeared on The Hill. Minutes. Go check the time stamps. Once everyone realized that this scandal already had a plea entered, the firestorm was started. The Gonzo story was not nearly as sexy as a Senator trying to hook-up in a toilet stall at a public restroom in an airport no less.  News programmers far and wide dumped the rather boring sound bites of Gonzo leaving town for the sex scandal. By the next news cycle, Gonzo wasn’t even making the top fold, it was all Senator Craig, all the time. The only other happy person about this was Michael Vick. He was like Rep. Gary Condit on 9-11. Yep, I still remember that shit.

It was a brilliant play, though, Rove knew America and the media would latch on to PottyGate and let Gonzo slip out of town. This is why I always loved Karl, he was a master of being 50 steps ahead of the spider. He could twist the media around like silly putty, and press it on newspaper and make the story contort to any of his whims. He was a true avatar of meta. Evil, but a genius. I will always remember him as the one the Democrats could never pin down or control, or even put up a fight against. He owned them. Pure and simple.

Even as the spin masters of the left sat in their war rooms on Monday, they were confused about how to tackle the news cycle. Their softball issue of Gonzo leaving DC in disgrace had been supplanted by gay sex scandal of a Republican Senator. Even that is brilliant.

Do they come out and condemn him for being a hypocrite? Do they use the family values card? Was he entrapped? How could the spin that without coming off looking like complete and utter assholes. They couldn’t, which is why you didn’t hear a peep out of them. Well, played Karl.

And of course, all the talking points they had assembled on Gonzo were now for a second tier story. KARL! Why do you hurt so good! I mean, that was a great two-fer. And all you had to do was destroy a man’s life.

See you in Texas Karl, but stay out of the Senators race in the Lone Republic. Your boy is dumb as a box turtle and I got a true-blue war hero on my ticket. And plus we will be playing on my home turf, not yours, not matter what Bushie tells you. You will have to face a meta avatar of the left, though I am sure you would enjoy the challenge for once.

God knows the Democrats in Washington couldn’t give you one. Ever.



Stay you,
you magnificent bastard,
you.

———–

My Five Favorite Things Today:

1) Tube Map for Miss South Carolina
http://www.morningto…

2) How to Spend $1,000,000 USD on Food a Day
http://www.bocajoesc…

3) Why the Zune is Brown
http://tumbl.us/post…

4) This Modern World: It’s like we shot a whole country in the face!
http://images.salon….

5) This Girl Will Kick Your Ass
http://www.youtube.c…

Pinche Tejano, Over and Out.

Is the Pony/Pie/Hide rating system too cutsie?

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Grace

This is a test of my first diary at DocuDharma.  It is also a bit of personal philosophy.

With reference to the phrase: start as you mean to go on, I give you this…..

GRACE

There is a fine line between
a wise woman and an old crank.

It is not physical
  measured in wrinkles.

It is not spiritual
  measured in piety.

It is not scholarly
  measured in degrees.

It is not ego
  measured in abilities.

It is knowing just how much to say
  to pique someone’s curiosity.

It is knowing when to keep silent
  but smile and nod.

It is knowing what is really
  worth remembering.

It is knowing what is necessary
  to forget.

Cronesense
2000

Open Thread

A Christening

Poem du Jour:

Art Link
Body

The Body

Some people call it
pornography…
people who quite probably
think my existence is
pornography personified.

But it’s just a bunch of
blood red dots on a
yellow background
a stark symbolization
of much of my life

I say to them (to you?)
eliminate war, the worst obscenity,
from my tv news, from the planet,
from existence, from conception
and then we’ll talk

–Robyn Elaine Serven
–October 28, 2005

Profiles in Literature: Karel Capek

Greetings, literature-loving Dharmists! (do we have a group name yet?)  This is a crosspost of my dailykos series, profiling famous and not-so-famous names in literary history.  Last week we spent time in West Africa with the former president of Senegal, who also happened to be a cultural theorist and excellent poet.  Our subject this week was also involved with politics, although on a much more modest scale: he was friend and informal adviser to Czechoslovakia’s first elected president, Tomáš Masaryk

Since the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina two years ago this week, one of this author’s novels has become uncomfortable to read, because he had once imagined in agonizing detail the destruction of the Gulf Coast due to humanity’s meddling with nature.  Join me below for an extended discussion with a true visionary, and one of the foremost liberal humanists of the 20th century.

It is time to read Capek again for his insouciant laughter, and the anguish of human blindness that lies beneath it.
  This said, the most important thing about this writer remains to be noted – his art.  He is a joy to read – a wonderfully surprising storyteller of some fairly astonishing and unforgettable tales.

– Arthur Miller

Though I’m likely to cover a host of lesser-known writers in this series, the relative obscurity of Karel Capek confuses me most.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying, since his résumé is intimidating: novelist, playwright, photographer, philosopher, humorist, journalist, children’s author, gardening expert, artist, etc.  But here we stand decades later, and Capek’s fame lies mostly in a footnote to a single word, and an inaccurate footnote at that. 

Biography:

Karel Capek was born in what is now the Czech Republic, but what belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire when he was born in 1890.  In a period of less than a decade, the Czech lands saw the birth of three titans of early 20th century literature: the raucous Slavic Cervantes Karel Hašek, the moody Jewish-German genius Franz Kafka, and the relentless innovator Karel Capek. 

By the time the Czech lands achieved their independence, the Czech language and identity were still struggling to define themselves after having been nearly obliterated during centuries of foreign rule and forced use of German.  Some groundwork had been laid in the 19th century by good (but not great) poets like Erben, Nemcová and Neruda, but Capek’s virtuoso skill with the language and his expansion of that skill into such disparate genres as newspaper editorial, science fiction fantasy, and technical handbooks made possible later Czech writers like Kundera, Škvorecký, Hrabal, Klíma, and Havel.

The bulk of his creative output took place between the World Wars, and Capek recognized that one of the most destructive forces at work in interwar Europe was the belief that all humanity could be brought under a single political framework “for the greater good”.  Like Dostoevsky, he had an instinctive fear of Universal Solutions, recognizing the seeds of authoritarianism whether in fascism, communism, religion, or even science (remember that this was the age of eugenics).  Capek transformed these fears into fantasy landscapes of the human race’s worst qualities run amok, where dreams of perfection inevitably turn destructive.

But unlike many writers of dystopian fiction, Capek is never bitter or misanthropic – his love for the human race leaps off the page in warm caricatures.  He was a cynic with a sense of humor.  He was a pessimist who loved photographing puppies.

Nor did his fears about the future lead him to facile detachment from society or civic duty: he maintained a close friendship with the first elected president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, himself a philosopher and writer.  The two held a long epistolary correspondence which was later collected into a book, and Masaryk was a frequent guest at Capek’s salon-like gatherings. 

Today, most of Capek’s limited contemporary fame comes from a single word in a single play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a satire about the promised scientific utopia and the clash of good-intentioned ideologies:

HELENA: It is said that man is the creation of God.
DOMIN: So much the worse.  God had no notion of modern technology.

– Prologue, p. 41

R.U.R. assured Capek’s immortality, although in a slightly inaccurate way.  While writing the play, he struggled to find a new word for his artificial hominids, settling on the clumsy labori.  His brother and frequent collaborator Josef suggested the much more felicitous robot, from the old Slavic stem rab-, suggesting labor or servitude.  Practically overnight, a new word entered our common vocabulary.

When the Oxford English Dictionary claimed “robot” as his invention, Karel proved himself a class act: he wrote a letter explaining that his brother was actually the word’s creator, asking them to amend the entry. 

Capek died at the tragically young age of 48, although it was probably for the better: his death came on the eve of World War II, and his vehemently anti-Nazi sentiments would not have ensured him a happy ending.  His brother Josef was dragged off in a brutal march to a concentration camp, where he died in 1945.

A Catastrophe of Our Own Making:

ON DAMS OF MISSISSIPPI A THOUSAND MEN NOW AT WORK STOP IF ONLY STOPPED RAINING STOP WE NEED SPADES SHOVELS CARTS AND MEN STOP ARE SENDING HELP TO PLAQUEMINE THOSE BEGGARS ARE IN A FINE OLD MESS

Late in his sci-fi masterpiece War with the Newts, Capek envisions the American Gulf Coast being obliterated as a first sortie in the war between humanity and nature.  Until 2005, this chapter had seemed a frightening fantasy – and I’m sure a generation or two from now, it’ll feel the same way.  But at this moment in history, and for those connected to the tragedy of Katrina (we “celebrate” two years this week) the images ring too close to reality to read as comfortably and as innocently as when they were first written:

The whole coast from Port Arthur (Texas) as far as Mobile (Alabama), it was said, had been inundated during the night by a tidal wave; everywhere could be seen wrecked or damaged houses.  The south-east of Louisiana (from the Lake Charles-Alexandria-Natchez road) and southern Mississippi (as far as the Jackson-Hattiesburg-Pascagoula line) was plastured over with mud… The most serious loss of life would most likely have been along the coast.

– p. 304

In the novel, the destruction is not the result of a powerful hurricane, but of the human race’s idiotic attempt to master nature, here represented by a newly-discovered species of intelligent salamanders (Capek uses the term interchangeably with “newts”).  Enslaved, subjected to experiments, and forced into manual labor, the newts eventually discover their ability to organize and fight back. 

Why the Gulf Coast?  Well, Capek understood a bit about the racial politics of the United States, and the newts’ treatment as a lesser species sometimes mirrors the post-war South’s treatment of people of color.  See if you don’t get chills when newts are lynched after women accuse them (somewhat ridiculously) of rape, or at the minstrel show “Sally and Andy, the Two Good Salamanders”.

I’m making this novel sound grim and despairing, but it’s actually a rich work bursting with humor, literary experiment, and genuine affection for a misguided race that can’t help but screw up its own planet.  Capek packs the pages not only with straightforward narrative, but with scientific papers, newspaper articles, illustrations, allegory, telegrams (see above), depositions, advertisements, interviews with real-life celebrities … and finally, the novel disintegrates in the epilogue, as an uneasy reader criticizes the author for having such an apocalyptic vision.

The fictional author pleads that it isn’t his fault for following the story to its logical conclusions.  In a tirade that’s gained a lot of unintentionally accumulated meaning thanks to the global climate debate,  he begs the reader to understand why he can’t save the narrative from the people who inhabit it:

They all had a thousand absolutely sound economical and political reasons why it’s impossible.  I’m not a politician or an economist; I can’t change their opinions, can I?  What is one to do?  The earth will probably sink and drown; but at least it will be the result of generally acknowledged political and economic ideas, at least it will be accomplished with the help of the science, industry, and public opinion, with the application of all human ingenuity!  No cosmic catastrophe, nothing but state, official, economic, and other causes.

– p. 340

Newts remains arguably the best of Capek’s science fiction, but other works are worth exploring, as well.  The most interesting from a political point of view is Factory of the Absolute (sometimes translated as The Absolute at Large), which shows how well-meaning ideologies can contribute both to gloomy dystopia and to the eventual destruction of the planet.  In Absolute, businessmen, politicians, armies, and religions all fight to create a human paradise on Earth, and through the impossibility of this goal they all contribute unwillingly to the destruction of the very ideal they envision.

The Pursuit of Knowledge:

  “You see that footprint over there?” said the snow-covered man, and he pointed at an impression about six yards from the side of the road.
  “I see it; a man’s footprint.”
  “Yes, but how did it get there?”

The other major concern of Capek’s art was epistemology: how do we know what we know?  Though it’s a constant presence in his work, he explores this theme directly in two exceptional short stories, “Footprint” and “Footprints”

“Footprint” has no real plot to speak of: two strangers cross paths in a snowy landscape and notice the print of a shoe in the middle of the snow.  At first they attempt to explain the print’s appearance as a natural phenomenon (Did someone hop there?  Did a bird drop a shoe?), but as each attempt fails, their ideas shift from the physical to the metaphysical, to the religious, and finally to the bare contemplation of a phenomenon that offers no explanation, and no excuse for being.  The two strangers part ways, deeply moved by the experience.

“Footprints” was written later and feels a little more cynical.  This time, the two characters are unable (afraid?) to contemplate the footsteps fully, so they settle into convenient fictions that allow them to sleep easily at night. 

But random footprints are cake compared to the impossibility of knowing ourselves – and each other.  In a trio of novels – Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life –  Capek dove headfirst into the delicious unknowablity of the human experience.  In each the narrative mode is different – sometimes first person, sometimes split between multiple, conflicting narrators – as the author explores the slipperiness of identity, both internal and external.

On Madmen and Artists:

Things get a bit more complicated in his final novel, the powerful but baffling The Life and Work of the Composer Foltýn, an unfinished work which exists in English only in a difficult-to-find and inferior The Cheat.  Capek again employed the multi-narrator model, but where he’d earlier used it to show the difficulty of pinning down a single life, here all the narrators agree: the self-made poet and composer Beda Folten was nothing but a sham.  In chapter after chapter, we watch the title character lie, cheat, and steal his way into D-list celebrity, leaving his path strewn with wrecked lives.

Sounds simple enough, but Capek throws in some curveballs that make this easy reading highly suspect.  First, Folten’s mania is practically clinical, which may absolve him from his moral shortcomings (insofar as we can’t really use a madman to derive moral lessons). Second, some of the characters develop a plan for revenge that turns out far, far crueler than any of Folten’s petty crimes: against all odds, he ends up gaining our sympathy because of their brutal mistreatment of him. 

So what exactly are we supposed to derive from that?

I’ll be honest: I have no idea, and that may be due to the unfinished nature of the work (although I doubt it – his widow described what he’d intended with the remaining chapters).  What I can say is that it’s the best-written and most involved of all his novels, equally adept at humor and pathos, often within the same short chapter.  Despite being in his deathbed, Capek was firing on all cylinders here.

Here’s a great example: in the wonderful third chapter, Folten’s college roommate – a pedantic older student, now Dr. V. B. – remembers how he blasted the young composer’s pretentious use of fuzzy, romantic terms to describe his “art”:

Whenever I hear or read that kind of prater about spiritual crystallization, formative pre-essence, creative synthesis or whatever they call it, it makes me ill.  My God, people! I think to myself, stick your nose into some organic chemistry (not to mention mathematics) and you would be hard pressed to write at all.  For me, that’s the greatest calamity of our time: on one hand, our ability to work with microns and infinitesimal quantities with a precision nothing short of perfection; and on the other hand, we’ll let our brains, our feelings, and our thoughts be controlled by the haziest words.  I’ve always understood music; I felt in it something like a great and pure architecture, like one finds in numbers; but occasionally something disgustingly and cuticularly human creeps into it.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoy that final line, with its perfect neologism “cuticularly” (pokožkove).  Working within the constraints of a developing language, Capek had excellent taste to know when a new word was warranted, and the disgust of the anti-social Dr. V. B. feels perfectly expressed by the dead skin of fingernails.  Of course, the Doctor is right: Folten has no idea what he’s talking about, so he hides behind a bunch of grand-falutin’ words and ideas that he hardly understands.

The payoff is even better.  Hating each other intensely, Folten and Dr. V. B. live “with knives drawn”, and finally the sham artist figures out how to avenge himself on his roommate.  Implying that he’d slept with the Doctor’s love interest, Folten pounds out a mockingly bawdy tune on the piano.  The intensely angry and humiliated Doctor loses his ability to express himself in that precise language he so treasures:

It was as if he had punched me in the face.  It was a vulgar, cooing melody, an execrably crawling and oozing lasciviousness. 
  Foltýn only squinted his eyes against the brightness and played, played, played that whiny waltzing beastliness, swinging his whole body, with his mouth contorted, with an air of intoxicated fervor.  I knew that he was slandering Pavla with that filth, that he was disrobing her in front of me, that he was mocking me: she was here, she was here, and the rest… well, you know. “You son of a bitch!” I bellowed.

Capek died while finishing one of the final chapters, written from the point of view of a “true artist”, the voice teacher Jan Trojan.  What begins as another encounter between the narrator and the sham Folten slowly turns into a manifesto about the nature of art.  Trojan uses the book of Genesis as a metaphor for art: not just God the creator, but a specific attitude towards the creative process:

I’m no scholar – only a simple musician, but this is what it means to me: in the beginning, it’s only you, formless and empty material; you yourself, your “I”, your life, your abilities, all that is only matter: there’s no creation, only empty existence…You have to divide light from darkness, so that the materials take shape; you have to divide and constrain so that clear contours emerge and things stand before you in full light, as beautifully as on the day of their creation.  You create only up to the point that you give shape to the material: to create is to break down and always, always to design finite and concrete limits in the material, which is otherwise limitless and empty.

The last words Capek ever wrote were a plea to would-be artists: the material is already all around you.  Your job is not to create more material, but only to lend the existing material clarity and shape.

In a rapidly-changing, chaotic interwar Europe, that’s precisely what Capek did.

Links:

– Complete online texts of R.U.R. and War with the Newts at eBooks@Adelaide
– The Karel Capek website, which includes an extensive biography
– Karel Capek at kirjasto
Films based on Capek’s works, from the Internet Movie Database

Excerpt from “Footprint” and the Arthur Miller quote taken from Toward the Radical Center: a Karel Capek Reader, Catbird Press. Excerpts from War with the Newts taken from the Northwestern University Press edition, translated by M. & R. Weatherall.  Translated excerpts from Foltýn are my own.  All images from Wikimedia Commons; the book cover of War with the Newts comes from the 1955 English-language edition (Bantam #A1292).  Crossposted at dailykos and Progressive Historians.

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