Automatons on the Go; or, Are You R?

Well, I have walked across the cobble-stoned, statue-lined Charles Bridge, among the tilted tombstones in the Jewish Cemetery, and up and down the steps of opera houses, museums, and watchtowers. Yet can I truly say that I have come to know Prague? After all, I had little contact with its people—apart from those going through the motions of vending tickets or opening doors—and have no grasp on their language. Exploring a city per pedes is not necessarily a first-hand experience. So, I am continuing my tour of Prague and make up for my lack of Czech encounters by resorting to the supposedly second-hand experience of reading.

It was in a small cafe in the Little Quarter below Prague Castle that I entered the world of Karel Čapek (1890-1938), whose bust (pictured here) I later spotted at the National Museum. I had just purchased Toward the Radical Center, a collection of Čapek’s writings in an English translation, works including the once tremendously popular R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a play that enjoyed a successful Broadway run in 1922-23 and was more than once produced on US radio. It was one of his shorter pieces, though, that served as an introduction and makes me want to read more of Čapek’s prose, reduced as I am to the second-handedness that is translation.

Now, I have no way of knowing whether Čapek indeed “seems totally Czech,” as aforementioned (radio) playwright Arthur Miller remarked in the foreword to the book. If Mr. Miller’s impressions are anything to go by, I wish I had met and talked to some of his country(wo)men.

Čapek found the wonder in the everyday, the miracle in the mundane. Sure, he wrote fantastic stories and futuristic plays; but his shorter works tell us about the thoughts of his cat, the life of his vacuum cleaner, the common cold. He had “Praise” for “Clumsy People” through whose mishaps inanimate objects come to life and as the result of whose ineptitude the civilized world came into being through the division of labor and the creation of specialists (and robots) it made necessary.

It is to Čapek, or rather his brother and collaborator Josef, that we owe the word “robot,” an early model of which, the Golem, was created in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, later ones (pictured above) being displayed at the city’s Toy Museum. In our approach to travel, we can be rather mechanical; we seem automated rather than animated. So, after long walks on stone, concrete, and cement—among hundreds of travelers seeing the same sights, following the same guide book, and taking the same snapshots—I can finally put my feet up and listen more closely to the heart of Czech culture.

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