29 May 2011


     Alice considered a little.  "I like birthday presents best," she said at last.
    "You don't know what you're talking about," cried Humpty Dumpty... "there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents--"
     "Certainly," said Alice.
     "And only one for birthday presents, you know.  There's glory for you!"
     "I don't know what you mean by 'glory,'" Alice said.
     Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.  "Of course you don't-- till I tell you.  I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
     "But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,'" Alice objected.
     "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean-- neither more nor less."
     "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
     "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master-- that's all."
     Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again.  "They've a temper, some of them-- particularly verbs: they're the proudest-- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs-- however, I can manage the whole lot of them!  Impenetrability!  That's what I say."
     "Would you tell me, please," said Alice, "what that means?"
     "Now you talk like a reasonable child," said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased.  "I meant by 'impenetrability' that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life."
     "That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

"A word... means just what I choose it to mean-- neither more nor less."  Could there be a clearer credo for a would-be solipsist, all of whose efforts go towards "virtualizing" the world rather than taking account of it?  Humpty Dumpty's language is so malleable that, so long as actuality makes no claim-- so long, that is, as he doesn't fall off his wall-- internal contradictions can be glossed over or blustered away.

Of course verbs (actions) are harder to argue away than adjectives (descriptions), and concrete nouns seem to be harder still: Humpty flies into a passion when Alice speaks of his 'cravat' as a 'belt,' implying that he's an egg.  He insists on staying on his wall because his pride maintains an imaginary schema of cause and effect which doesn't include the actual likelihood or consequences of falling.  Unlike someone psychotic, he doesn't quite believe he's invulnerable, but like any good narcissist, he refuses to register what he knows, that his seeming "impenetrability" is a brittle assemblage of fragments, which remains unbroken only at the cost of his not moving.  When Alice asks, "Don't you think you'd be safer down on the ground?" his anxiety-- which should impel him towards self-preservative action-- is instantly replaced with grandiosity: 

     "Of course I don't think so!  Why if ever I did fall off-- which there's no chance of-- but if I did--"  Here he pursed up his lips, and looked so solemn and grand that Alice could hardly help laughing. "If I did fall... the King has promised me-- with his very own mouth-- to-- to--"
     "To send all his horses and all his men," Alice interrupted, rather unwisely.

Never interrupt a narcissistic in the act of burnishing his outer shell.  He might fall to pieces.  Luckily for Alice, she's able to mollify Humpty Dumpty's pride long enough for him to explain the first verse of "Jabberwocky" before his fall.

22 May 2011


What would we do if the Divine behind the gods were suddenly made manifest?  What would Shakespeare's exiled Duke's "books in running brooks, sermons in stones" actually sound like?  It might sound like Karel Čapek's 1927 comic romp The Absolute at Large.  

The great Czech satirist is probably best-known outside his native tongue for inventing the word 'robot,' in his play R. U. R.  His wit is nearly as sharp as Twain's or Swift's, if less savagely indignant.  'Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.'  In The Absolute at Large, the engineer Rudolf Marek has invented the Karburator, a machine which produces the "complete combustion" of any fuel placed into it.  This total fission reactor results in "the utilization of atomic energy without any residue whatever," that famous energy from the single glass of water that was said to be able to power New York for a year.  

As with all such Magian gifts, however, there's a philosophical side effect: "Spinoza teaches... that matter is only the outward manifestation, only one phase of the divine substance, the other phase of which is spirit... Fechner teaches that everything, everything that is, is penetrated with the divine, that God fills with his being the whole of the matter in the world... Leibniz teaches that physical matter is composed of psychical atoms, monads, whose nature is divine."  The machine's sublimation of matter also liberates this immaterial, undifferentiated divinity--"the Absolute"-- which diffuses a peculiar spiritual exaltation in the vicinity of its release.

Despite the inventor's misgivings about the wisdom of setting the Absolute at large, the entrepreneur G. M. Bondy puts the Karburator into production. Pretty soon, chaos ensues. All people close to  the machines are affected by this uncontainable phlogiston-like 'radiation,' to an extent no doubt proportional to the square of their distance from its source.  An epidemic of millenarian unselfishness breaks out: bank presidents empty their vaults and give the money away; factories are turned over to the workers, who are too busy joining and propagating new religions to keep on working; economies collapse as Karburators are installed everywhere; and the only safety lies in getting as far away from them as possible.

Marek has fled to a valley among high mountains, where "the Absolute is still latent, it still lies under a spell, hidden in everything, in these mountains and forests, in the sweet grass and the blue sky.  Here it does not rush about all over the place, waking terror or working magic; it simply dwells in all matter..."  One day the arch-materialist Bondy turns up, his bouncy capitalist optimism replaced by convalescent weariness:

     "Come now, what's wrong with you?" Marek pressed him after a painful silence.
      Bondy raised his arms..."It's got me too... me!"
      "What, religion?" shouted Marek, recoiling as though from a leper.
      Bondy nodded.  Was it not a tear of shame that trembled on his lashes?  Marek whistled softly.  "What--it's got you now?  My poor old fellow!"
     "No," cried Bondy quickly, wiping his eyes.  "Don't think I'm not all right at present... I've beaten it.  But, do you know, when it came over me, it was the very happiest moment of my life.  You have no idea, Rudy, what tremendous will-power it takes to shake that off."
     "I can well believe it," said Marek gravely.  "And tell me, what sort of... er... symptoms did you have?"
     "Love for my neighbour," Bondy whispered.  "Man, I was frantic with love.  I would never have believed it possible to feel anything like it... [but] I've thrown it off.  Rather like a fox that gnaws its own leg off when it's caught in a trap.  But I'm still confoundedly weak after the struggle... Is it all clear up here?"
     "Quite clear; not a single trace of it so far.  You can only sense it... in Nature and everything; but then one could do that before--one always could, in the mountains."

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us to find out that the apparently selfless exaltation the Absolute engenders is just a deeper and more pervasive constituent of narcissism.  Different Karburators produce distinct gods, with associated fanaticisms.  Soon the world is engulfed in religious wars, with different groups and countries trying to destroy one another's Karburators.  When the machines have finally been eradicated, 198 million people have died, one tenth of the world's population in 1927.  (Čapek died before the onset of World War II which, fought over far less exalted aims, resulted in a mere sixty million deaths.)  

Not everyone is relieved to be delivered from the Divine.  A policeman is telling stories in a bar after his shift:

     "There was a raid on... a den."
     "What sort of den?" inquired Mr. Rejzek.
     "A Karburator den, sir.  They had set up a tiny Karburator down there out of an old pre-war motor.  A very low crowd has been going down there and holding orgies."
     "What kind of orgies do you mean?"
     "Oh, disorderly behavior.  They pray and sing and have visions and prophesy and perform miracles, and all that sort of business."
     "And isn't that allowed?"
     "No, it's forbidden by the police.  You see, it's something like those dens where they smoke opium.  We found one of them in the Old Town.  We've routed out seven of these Karburator caverns already.  An awful gang used to collect there: vagrants, loose women, and other doubtful characters... It's a breach of the peace... [Anyway], I think this one was the last of the Karburators." 

Wasn't that a passing allusion to the apostles and Mary Magdalene?  Čapek isn't necessarily mocking the idea of an Absolute; he's only mocking man's perverse use of it as an intoxicant.  Marx would have approved.