December 04, 2014

I Had a Dog AND A CAT: Throwback Thursday

Ah, the wonders of the Dewey Decimal System!

I Had a Dog AND A CAT, by the Czech novelist and playwright Karel Čapek, written as Europe cowered under the shadow, if not yet the jackboot, of Nazi Germany, and containing, as well as humourous stories about his beloved pets, pointed asides on such topics as dog Eugenics and the need to prepare for the birth of a Super-dog; the current vogue for Dobermans and Alsatians; the lack of a Czech national dog (but if this race existed, Čapek opines, its exemplars would undoubtedly be fattish, small and lie behind the stove and bark a lot); this book, I was saying, shares a shelf in the Central City Library's basement with Richard Dawkins's The selfish gene, three memoirs by the good-humoured animal collector Gerald Durrell, and An illustrated guide to common soil animals by H. Pauline McColl, all classified as 591.5, "Behaviour".

For his anti-fascist stance which he shared with his friend Tomáš Masaryk, the Czechoslovak president, the Gestapo declared Karel Čapek "Public Enemy Number 2" in Czechoslovakia, as if to say "Just wait til we get our hands on you". They never did, however, because Čapek died on Christmas Day 1938, a few months after France and England signed the Munich agreement which handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, but before the actual invasion. Čapek was an Anglophile who visited England often and was friends with George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton, and he seemed to have lost the will to live after Munich. His friends urged him to leave the country, without success. They had no better success at urging him to eat more. When he died, one of them said that the cause of death was "a stab in the heart from Neville Chamberlain's umbrella".

When the Nazis marched in, they didn't actually know Čapek had died, and did indeed go looking for him, and for his brother Josef, a noted writer, poet and artist, who contributed drawings in his trademark playful, primitive style of dogs, cats, and an occasional human, or human legs, to I Had a Dog AND A CAT. Josef was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and died in Bergen Belsen in 1945.


Before coming across I Had a Dog AND A CAT, I only knew Karel Čapek as the man who brought into the world one of the best purpose-made words ever, "Robot" (he always capitalised it), from the Czech word robota, heavy labour, in his famous anti-utopian comedy R.U.R.; I knew he was considered a sort of non-hardcore Science-Fictiony type, along the lines of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. But then I found another book in the library, published in 1990 on the 100th anniversary of his birth, with a foreword by a big fan of his, Arthur Miller.

Called Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, it includes such gems as an act from the play "Lives of the Insects", with Mr and Mrs Dung Beetle waxing ecstatic -- "Our little capital! Our golden treasure!"-- over their dung ball (the stage direction is something like "Enter an enormous ball of manure pushed by two dung beetles"); a piece on gardening called "Legs and the Gardener"; one on, well, clumsy people, called "In Praise of Clumsy People"; and the irresistible "In Praise of Idleness". True idleness: not rest, and not repose. Rest is related to work, either recovering from or preparing for, and idleness must bear no relation to work. And repose implies activity, and pleasure. Idleness calls for neither. In fact, "It calls for nothing at all".

"And when a person is through idling", Čapek concludes, "he arises and returns as if from another world. Everything is a little alien and distant, distasteful somehow, and strained; and it is so.. so strange, that... a person has to take a little rest after being idle; and then after resting, lounge around for a while; and then relax a little more, then devote himself to a certain amount of inactivity, and only afterwards is he able to recover his strength and begin to do something completely useless."

You can read all of  "In Praise of Idleness", indeed all of Intimate things, the book where it first appeared in 1936, in the Universal Library of the Internet Archive.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 22:00


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