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.

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