Science Fiction Studies

#79 = Volume 26, Part 3 = November 1999

Kamila Kinyon

The Phenomenology of Robots: Confrontations with Death in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.
Karel Čapek’s 1920 drama R.U.R. is a science fiction landmark. The play achieved immediate popularity in the United States, where it was performed in a translation by Paul Selver. Although valuable in its introduction of Čapek’s work to an English-speaking audience, this translation unfortunately eliminated the character of Damon who, as I will discuss, is central to the play’s philosophical themes.1 Despite its initial popularity and lasting significance, R.U.R. has received relatively little critical attention, much of the existing criticism focusing on problems of genre.2 In this paper, I will consider Čapek’s play not only as an example of its genre but, more importantly, as a carefully constructed philosophical reflection on major epistemological and ethical issues. Čapek was a philosopher before becoming a writer of fiction, and as I will argue, his play contains an implicit criticism of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and of Kant’s categorical imperative.

R.U.R. traces how biomechanical beings become humanized through their development of independent self-consciousness. Robots, created to work for humans, initially behave as automatons, programmed in speech as in action. But the robots deviate from the attitudes and behaviors humans have prescribed for them. A number of factors contribute to these deviations and thus to the eventual rebellion of the robots and the massacre of their human masters. Among these factors are the “křeč robotů” (“robot’s cramp”), the introduction of pain nerves in their manufacture, and experiments to increase their “irritability.” For their development of self-consciousness and for their humanization, however, more crucial moments in the play occur in the robots’ individual and collective confrontations with death. In addition to the “stali jsme se dušemi” (“we have become souls”) scene, where robots respond to the death of humans in a scene of collective conscience, the play also emphasizes three individual confrontations with death. The first is Radius’ refusal to serve humans and his insistence that they can place him in the stamping mill: “Můžete mne poslat do stoupy.” The second is Damon’s sacrifice of himself for the good of the robot group. The last is Primus’ willingness to sacrifice himself for his beloved Helena. I will discuss each of these examples in turn.

In order to understand what Čapek means by the development of independent self-consciousness, we must turn to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind: “And it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained; only thus is it tried and proved that the essential nature of self-consciousness is not bare existence, is not the merely immediate form in which it at first makes its appearance, is not its mere absorption in the expanse of life” (233). This reference to Hegel—and my references to Kant below—should not be seen as a critical imposition, since Čapek was familiar with German idealism, which was the dominant philosophy in the intellectual scene of his time. In his doctoral dissertation on American pragmatism,3 Čapek is often critical of Kantian and Hegelian views, preferring instead the ethical precepts of the pragmatists Peirce and Dewey. In R.U.R. Čapek’s portrayal of the individual’s or the group’s relation to death, whether of the self or of the Other,4 evokes a number of philosophical concepts, ranging from those of Kant and Hegel to those of Gustav Fechner, whose concept of the group soul is mentioned in Čapek’s dissertation.

Throughout my essay, I will draw on diverse philosophical sources whenever they are relevant to explicating characters’ confrontations with death. As I will argue, robot leader Radius’ response to death is motivated by his obsession with becoming master/lord of humans (pán lidí). This psychology may be best understood through the lens of Hegel’s philosophy of the master as explicated in the Phenomenology of Mind. In Hegel’s view, a master or lord is defined by his willingness to risk life for recognition, as registered in the gaze of the slave or bondsman. Radius certainly fits this characterization, since he fearlessly pursues his search for pure prestige. Radius’ ultimate failure to become lord may also be explained in Hegelian terms. Hegel stresses that the trial by death—the struggle for recognition between master and slave— paradoxically precludes the possibility of mastery. The lord is defined as such by risking his own life while seeking the annihilation of his opponent; however, a dead opponent can no longer recognize the lord. The lord’s prestige is thus dependent upon the slave’s subservience: the master, ironically, needs the slave. Radius experiences this Hegelian paradox when the humans over whom he wishes to be lord are killed in a robot massacre.

A contrast to Radius is provided in the play’s other robot leader, Damon. Introduced in the play’s last act and cut out of Selver’s translation, Damon perceives the relationship to death differently from Radius. Unlike the narcissistic Radius, Damon apparently believes in the importance of individual sacrifice for the benefit of others. Kant’s concept of duty clarifies Damon’s shifting responses to self-sacrifice. According to the Kantian notion of the categorical imperative, it is one’s duty to behave in such a way that one’s actions can be generalized into a universal principle. Actions should not be performed selfishly, since they should benefit the group as a whole. Furthermore, duty should be followed as a formal principle, for the pure sake of duty itself rather than for a concrete purpose. When Damon demands that Alquist perform experiments on living robots, he imposes the categorical imperative of unquestioning duty towards “the law” as such, disassociated from any concrete reason for the action to be performed. Yet the viability of following one’s duty without regard to results is brought into question. When obedience to the categorical imperative forces Damon to confront his own death, he becomes aware of his individuated identity, and his desire to live comes into conflict with his obedience to the general law.

Through the characters of Radius and Damon, Čapek is expressing an implicit critique of Hegelian and Kantian ethical precepts. This is not to say that the play offers any escape from these ethical systems. In Alquist’s final speech, responding to Primus’ readiness to sacrifice himself for his love Helena, the Hegelian obsession with mastery becomes dominant. Having admired the humble and altruistic nature of Primus’ behavior, Alquist ironically reverts to an obsession with dominion. He claims victoriously that man will once again become lord of the universe. The philosophical issues invoked by Čapek throughout R.U.R. are not clearly resolved. In diaries and interviews, Čapek expressed uncertainty about the ending of his play, feeling unsure about its implications. While I cannot hope to resolve the play’s contradictions and ambiguities here, I believe that much can be clarified by mapping, throughout the play, the dialectic of individual and group confrontations with death.

Unfortunately, many of the philosophical implications of Čapek’s play have become lost in English translation. Radius’ narcissism and his desire to be lord of men differ from Damon’s evident belief in sacrifice for the good of the group. When Damon’s character was cut from Selver’s 1923 translation, some of his lines being given to Radius, these intricacies of characterization were lost. While Damon was restored in Novack-Jones’ 1989 translation of the play, there are still linguistic subtleties that are bound to be lost in any translation. To mention one example here, I will argue that the word pán (master/lord) forms a complex semantic web throughout the text. The master/slave relation, initially developed through the characterization of would-be lord (pán) Radius, is emphasized as well at the end of the play when Alquist, in a closing monologue, anticipates the expected lordship (panování) of future humanity. In Novack-Jones’s English translation, the word pán becomes, in different contexts, “sir,” “lord,” and “master.” This leads to a shift, however slight, of connotation. As part of my explication of the philosophical implications of Čapek’s play, I will thus need to draw attention to differences between the Czech original and translations into English by both Selver and Novack-Jones.

Radius: The Slave Becomes Lord.
  Radius is the first robot to emerge as an independent self-consciousness, in Hegel’s sense of this term. Radius’ willingness to die for recognition distinguishes his motives from those of Damon and Primus, who risk their lives for the benefit of others. Damon follows the dictates of duty; Primus follows the dictates of romantic love. Radius, by contrast, thinks only of his own status, desiring to become “pán lidí” (“lord of humans”). Hegel specifies that to become an independent self-consciousness, one should be willing to confront death purely out of a desire for prestige. This view is summarized by Alexandre Kojève5 in his influential “Lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit”:

All human Desire—the Desire that generates Self-Consciousness, the human reality—is, finally, a function of the desire for “recognition.” And the risk of life by which the human reality “comes to light” is a risk for the sake of such a Desire. Therefore, to speak of the “origin” of Self-Consciousness is necessarily to speak of a fight to the death for “recognition.”
Without this fight to the death for pure prestige, there would never have been human beings on earth. (7)

By this definition, Radius is conscious indeed. In a conversation with Helena, he reveals both fearlessness and contempt for humans:

RADIUS: Pošlete mne do stoupy.
HELENA: Mně je tak líto, že vás usmrtí! Proč jste si nedal na sebe pozor?
RADIUS: Nebudu pro vás pracovat.
HELENA: Proč nás nenávidíte?
RADIUS: Nejste jako Roboti. Nejste tak schopní jako Roboti. Roboti dělají všechno. Vy jen poroučíte. Děláte zbytečná slova.
HELENA: To je nesmysl, Radie. (57)

RADIUS: Send me to the stamping mill.
HELENA: I am so sorry that they will put you to death! Why weren’t you more careful?
RADIUS: I will not work for you.
HELENA: Why do you hate us?
RADIUS: You are not like Robots. You aren’t as efficient as Robots. Robots make everything. You just command. You make unnecessary words.6
HELENA: That’s nonsense, Radius.

Although Radius is shortly to reveal his narcissism, these initial assertions indicate his belief in the general superiority of robots over humans. Robots should be elevated above their lords because of their relationship to the object of their labor. Radius’ statement that “Robots make everything. You just command” illustrates the inherent paradox of the master-slave relation as explicated by Hegel. Initially it is the master who is an independent self-consciousness while the slave, who merely follows the master’s commands, is a dependent self-consciousness. This, however, is not a lasting relation, because the master becomes dependent on the object of the slave’s labor. The true master is the slave who has overcome his own bondage: “Just as lordship showed its essential nature to be the reverse of what it wants to be, so, too, bondage will, when completed, pass into the opposite of what it immediately is: being a consciousness repressed within itself, it will enter into itself, and change round into real and true independence” (Hegel 237). It is through labor, through the shaping of the object, that the slave gains superiority over the master. In Radius, the robot who challenges the master, one can see Hegel’s master-slave dialectic at work. As Radius stresses, it is through active labor that he and other robots have become superior to humans.

In his praise of action, Radius may initially be seen as progressive. Kojève writes, in summary of Hegel, that a positive social progress may be expected to result from the labor of the slave: “If idle Mastery is an impasse, laborious Slavery, in contrast, is the source of all human, social, historical progress. History is the history of the working Slave” (20). Radius refuses, however, to take part in such historical progress through labor, regressing instead to an earlier stage of the dialectic. Radius replays the initial battle in which the relation between master and slave first becomes established. His response to bondage is one of pure negation, since he attempts to assert lordship through destruction, breaking statues in the library.

Radius is arrested at a point of the dialectic at which he has not yet become a social being. Importantly, Radius does not see himself as just one of many robots who, through their work, have become superior to the group of humans. Rather, Radius is aware of himself as an isolated consciousness. He has reached the Hegelian moment at which a consciousness first becomes aware of itself, gaining the ability to say “I.” Kojève writes: “Man becomes conscious of himself at the moment when—for the ‘first’ time—he says ‘I.’ To understand man by understanding his ‘origin’ is, therefore, to understand the origin of the I revealed by speech” (3). Radius passes through this primal scene of coming to consciousness in the following passage:

RADIUS: Nechci žádného pána.
HELENA: Nikdo by vám neporoučel. Byl byste jako my.
RADIUS: Chci být pánem jiných.
HELENA: Jistě by vás pak udělali úředníkem nad mnoha Roboty, Radie. Byl byste učitelem Robotů.
RADIUS: Já chci být pánem lidí.
HELENA: Vy jste se zbláznil!
RADIUS: Můžete mne dát do stoupy.
HELENA: Myslíte, že se bojíme takového potřeštěnce jako vy? (Sedne ke stolku a píše lísteček.) Ne, zrovna ne. Ten lístek, Radie, dáte panu řediteli Dominovi. Aby vás neodvedli do stoupy. (Vstane.) Jak nás nenávidíte! Copak nemáte nic na světě rád?
RADIUS: Já dovedu všechno. (58)

RADIUS: I want no lord.
HELENA: Nobody would command you. You’d be like us.
RADIUS: I want to be the lord of others.
HELENA: Then they would certainly appoint you as an official in charge of many Robots, Radius. You could be the teacher of Robots.
RADIUS: I want to be lord of humans.
HELENA: You have gone mad!
RADIUS: You can send me to the stamping mill.
HELENA: Do you think we are afraid of a lunatic like you? (Sits at the table and writes a letter.) No, not at all. Radius, give this note to Central Director Domin. So that they don’t take you off to the stamping mill. (Gets up.) How you hate us! Is there nothing on earth that you like?
RADIUS: I can do everything.

It is in the above exchange between Radius and Helena that Radius first uses the word “I” (“Já”) in reference to himself. In Czech grammar, it is possible to construct a sentence without the explicit subject “I.” The verb ending in itself implies that the subject is first-person singular. This implied form is what Radius uses in the lines: “Nechci žádného pána” and “Chci být pánem jiných.” But when Radius stresses that he wants to be the lord of humans, not of robots, he then switches to the explicit “I” form: “Já chci být pánem lidí.” Radius’ wish for mastery is expressed through an actual mastery of language, as indicated in his acquisition of the word “I.” After stressing that he does not fear death (“Můžete mne dát do stoupy”), Radius once again emphasizes the importance of his own ego. It is significant that he answers Helena’s question, “Is there nothing on earth that you like?” with a reference to himself: “I can do everything.” Radius is apparently willing to sacrifice himself not for the good of the robot group but, rather, to gain recognition for his individuated ego.

Radius associates the “human” not with altruism and self-sacrifice but with violence and narcissism. It is only by the latter definition that his own behavior might be deemed human. Radius’ impulse towards violence is described by Helena to Dr. Gall, who enters the scene shortly after Radius tells Helena of his desire to be “lord of humans.” After testing Radius’ reflexes, shining a light in his eyes, and pricking him with a needle, Gall concludes that Radius’ consciousness has developed beyond that of earlier robots. Gall differentiates between Radius’ rebellion and the earlier robot manifestation of “křeč robotů,” in which robots would drop everything, stand rigidly, and grind their teeth:

DR. GALL (Usedne): Hm, nic. Zorničky reagují, zvýšená citlivost a tak dále.— Oho! Tohle nebyla křeč Robotů!
HELENA: Co to bylo?
DR. GALL: Čert ví. Vzdor, zuřivost nebo vzpoura, já nevím co.
HELENA: Doktore, má Radius duši?
DR. GALL: Nevím. Má něco ošklivého.
HELENA: Kdybyste věděl, jak nás nenávidí! (59)

DR. GALL (sits): Hm, nothing. The pupils are responsive, a heightened sensitivity et cetera—Aha! This was not the robot’s cramp!
HELENA: What was it?
DR. GALL: The devil knows. Defiance, rage, or revolt. I don’t know.
HELENA: Doctor, does Radius have a soul?
DR. GALL: Don’t know. He’s got something ugly.
HELENA: If you only knew how much he hates us.

While the “křeč robotů” was seen as a physiological malfunction, Radius’ act seems to indicate a conscious will. The word křeč has multiple associations in Czech. It may be translated as “cramp,” “spasm,” or “convulsion.” Křeč may be associated with pain and with orgasmic pleasure. In Selver’s 1923 translation, “křeč robotů” is translated as “robot’s cramp”; in the 1989 translation by Novack-Jones, it becomes “Robotic Palsy,” which is somewhat further from the connotations of the Czech original. Radius evidently suffers from neither cramp nor palsy. His rebellion, rage, or uprising is caused by the workings—the spasms and convulsions—of Mind or Spirit.

But despite Dr. Gall’s disassociation of Radius’ behavior from the earlier “křeč robotů,” there are important similarities between the two forms of behavior. Both the “křeč robotů” and Radius’ rebellion constitute robot refusal to carry out the work set forth by the master. Both indicate a possible coming to consciousness as manifested through speech; in the “křeč robotů” the robots’ grinding of teeth may be an ur-form of speech. Both entail a risk of the “malfunctioning”—or rebelling against—robot’s life. And both are associated, through Helena’s comments, with the possible acquisition of a soul. A comparison of Radius’ deviation with “křeč robotů” is important for an understanding of how robot consciousness evolves. The phenomenon of the “křeč robotů” is introduced in the prologue, when Hallemeier describes it to Helena:

HALLEMEIER: Jsou to jen Roboti. Bez vlastní vůle. Bez vášní. Bez dějin. Bez duše.
HELENA: Bez lásky a vzdoru?
HALLEMEIER: To se rozumí ... jen časem ... Někdy se jaksi pominou. Cosi jako padoucnice víte? Âiká se tomu křeč Robotů. Najednou některý praští vším, co má v ruce, stojí, skřípá zuby—a musí přijít do stoupy. Patrně porucha organismu.
DOMIN: Vada ve výrobě.
HELENA: Ne, ne, to je duše!
FABRY: Myslíte, že duše zač íná skřípáním zubů? (32-33)

HALLEMEIER: They are just Robots. Without their own will. Without passion. Without history. Without a soul.
HELENA: Without love and defiance?
HALLEMEIER: That goes without saying ... only occasionally... Sometimes they sort of lose it. Something like epilepsy, you know? It’s called the Robot’s cramp. All of a sudden one of them will throw down everything he’s holding, stand, grind his teeth, and then he must go into the stamping mill. Evidently a malfunction of the organism.
DOMIN: A flaw in the manufacture.
HELENA: No, no, that’s a soul!
FABRY: You think that the soul begins with a grinding of teeth?

Although the “křeč robotů” indicates the possibility of a coming to consciousness, it is not yet associated with a full self-awareness. The robots grind their teeth but cannot yet say the word “I.” Their nonconformist behavior results in their death, but this behavior seems to be the product of a mechanical spasm or some external agency rather than coming from within. The robots cannot yet become human in the “křeč robotů” because they cannot feel pain, not having been manufactured with pain nerves. Nor does their action involve a true confrontation with death. They do face destruction as a result of the “křeč robotů,” since they are placed afterwards in the stamping mill. This is not a reason for fear, though, because they have no experience of the concept of mortality. Although the “křeč robotů” may be seen as a preliminary form of consciousness, the robots who experience this cramp have not yet achieved independent self-consciousness by Hegel’s definition of the term. Not only are they unaware that they are risking their own lives, they also lack the desire to destroy the Other, a defining characteristic of the self-consciousness of the master in Hegel’s concept of lordship and bondage.

Unlike the robots experiencing “křeč robotů,” Radius has an awareness of his own mortality as well as a desire to obliterate the Other. Radius follows the requirements for the acquisition of independent self-consciousness set out by Hegel: “Each must aim at the death of the other, as it risks its own life thereby” (233). While Radius is well on his way towards becoming master, however, he falls into the trap against which Hegel warns. Hegel stresses that a dead adversary can no longer recognize the victor’s position: “This trial by death cancels both the truth which was to result from it, and therewith the certainty of self altogether. For just as life is the natural ‘position’ of consciousness, independence without absolute negativity, so death is the natural ‘negation’ of consciousness, negation without independence” (233). The condition of robots after the human massacre becomes a “negation without independence.” Not only do the robots lack recognition by humans, they also lack the ability to reproduce themselves, since the recipe for robot production has been destroyed by Helena.

Radius could have become lord had he remained content to master his opponents dialectically. As Kojève writes: “It does the man of the Fight no good to kill his adversary. He must overcome him ‘dialectically.’ That is, he must leave him life and consciousness, and destroy only his autonomy” (15). Radius could have been capable of such dialectical overcoming. It is because of his mastery of language that he is able to influence masses of robots towards rebellion. An example of Radius’ use of propaganda may be found in the new robot manifesto: “My, první rasová organisace Rossumových Universálních Robotů, prohlašujeme člověka nepřítelem a psancem ve vesmíru” (72) (“We, the first racial organization of Rossum’s Universal Robots, proclaim that humans are enemies and outcasts in the universe”). It is specifically through the restructuring of discourse that Radius comes to power; however, the propaganda is directed not at dialectical mastery but at annihilation: “Roboti světa, nařizujeme vám, abyste vyvraždili lidstvo”7 (73) (“Robots of the world, we order you to exterminate the human race”). Since Radius is responsible for annihilating the self-consciousness of the Other, he can no longer be recognized as lord.

The above discussion of Radius’ character reveals his egoistic desire to attain power. Ostensibly, he serves the interests of the robot group. He seems concerned with robots’ rights when he states “roboti dělají všechno” (“robots do everything”). Furthermore, he seems to be serving group interests when he formulates the robot manifesto as though it represented the beliefs of the collective “we.” These ostensible reasons for bringing about the revolt are, however, only veils for a self-serving will to power. In this sense, Čapek’s characterization of Radius is reminiscent of his similar characterization of communist leaders. Čapek’s concern for the misuse of Marxism by Czech communists may be seen in his 1924 essay “Proč Nejsem Komunistou?” (“Why Am I Not a Communist?”). Čapek writes:

Buržoasie, která zde nedovede nebo nechce pomoci, je mi cizí; ale stejně cizí je mi komunismus, který místo pomoci přináší prapor revoluce. Poslední slovo komunismu je vládnout a nikoli zachraňovat; jeho velkým heslem je moc, nikoli pomoc. (8) (The bourgeoisie, which cannot or does not wish to help, is foreign to me; but equally foreign to me is communism, which instead of help brings the flag of revolution. The last word of communism is rule and not salvation; its big slogan is power [“moc”], not help [“pomoc”]).

Radius follows this “last word of communism.” He facilitates the robot revolt because of his desire to rule, motivated by considerations of “moc,” not of “pomoc.”8 As the play progresses, the robots suffer a guilty conscience. They believe that they hear the voices of the humans they have massacred. Through this birth of collective conscience, a new stage of robot humanization is reached.

“Stali Jsme Se Dušemi”: The Birth of Collective Conscience.
In the third act of Čapek’s play, following the robot massacre, the robots experience a sense of remorse for their past action. This remorse results in a transformation of the robots into a collective spirit/soul. In a crucial passage, a group of robots speaks to Alquist, the last surviving human. In a metaphoric equation that has been lost in the two published English translations, the robots explicitly say “stali jsme se dušemi”—”we have become souls,” not Selver’s “we have acquired souls” or Novack-Jones’ somewhat closer “we’ve become beings with souls.” The Czech word duše can mean either the individual soul or the group spirit (as in the Hegelian universal spirit). Both senses of this word are drawn on throughout R.U.R. The wording of the statement “stali jsme se dušemi” is significant. First of all, it is important that the robots claim “we have become spirits/souls” not “we have acquired spirits/souls.” The wording of their statement indicates that they serve as figures for spirits rather than just possessing individual souls. Yet the use of the plural form dušemi, though it references a potential collective, implies that these souls have not yet merged into a Hegelian notion of a unified and single universal Spirit. A close reading of the passage in question can lead to a better understanding of Čapek’s notions of conscience and of the function of spirit and soul:

ALQUIST: Roboti nejsou život. Roboti jsou stroje.
2. ROBOT: Byli jsme stroje, pane; ale z hrůzy a bolesti stali jsme se—
2. ROBOT: Stali jsme se dušemi.
4. ROBOT: Něco s námi žápasí. Jsou okamžiky, kdy do nás něco vstupuje. Přicházejí na nás myšlenky, které nejsou z nás.
3. ROBOT: Slyšte, ó slyšte, lidé jsou naši otcové! Ten hlas, který volá, že chcete žít; ten hlas, který nařiká; ten hlas, který myslí; ten hlas, který mluví o věčnosti, to je jejich hlas! Jsme jejich synové! (109)

ALQUIST: Robots are not life. Robots are machines.
2. ROBOT: We were machines, sir; but from terror and pain we have become—
2. ROBOT: We have become souls.
4. ROBOT: Something struggles within us. There are moments when something enters us. Thoughts come upon us that are not from within us.
3. ROBOT: Hear, oh hear, people are our fathers! That voice that calls, that you want to live; that voice that laments; that voice that thinks; that voice that speaks of eternity. That is their voice! We are their sons!

Conscience arises from hearing the voice of the Other and from responding to the pain this voice causes. Conscience is not an inner voice arising from the heart of the subject; it is an external voice that is carried in the traces of memory. Conscience thus becomes a linguistic construct.9 The robots hear the voices of people who are no longer alive, having been murdered in the robot rebellion. The voice of conscience is thus not a personal possession of a subject who is taking responsibility for individual actions. Rather, conscience serves to place the subject into a larger historical context that involves a sense of responsibility and guilt for the group’s past actions.

The robots serve as figures for a plurality of souls that yet implicitly belong to a single group collective: “Stali jsme se dušemi” (“We have become spirits/souls”). This brings to mind several possible philosophical notions of soul and spirit. First of all, one might consider a Hegelian notion of the robots’ position. Hegel stresses the importance of relating the individual to the collective: “Conscience is the common element of distinct self-conscious-nesses” (650). The statement “stali jsme se dušemi” reflects this view because it relates the individual soul to the robot group rather than treating the soul as an individual possession.

The philosophy of the soul expressed by the robots is also closely related to the ideas of Gustav Fechner and William James, both of whom Čapek discusses in his doctoral dissertation. Čapek examines the notion of the group soul, deliberating on the significance of “oneness within the plurality” (“jednotu v mnohosti”) (50). The following passage on group spirit is part of an explication of Fechner’s influence on James:

Je možno pojmouti vesmír jako Fechner: jako svět oduševnělý ve všech částech, jehož jednotlivá vědomí se spolu skládají ve vědomí vyššího řádu.... Zemře-li někdo z nás, je to “jako by se zavřelo jedno oko”: jeho myšlenky však trvají v duši země, vstupují tam v nové vztahy a kombinace, rostou tam a vyvíjejí se; naše vlastní postřehy nás přežívají v širšim životě země. (Pragmatismus 52)

It is possible to conceive of the universe in the manner of Fechner: as a world filled with souls in all its parts, whose individual consciousnesses gather together into consciousnesses of a higher order.…When one of us dies, it is “as though one eye had closed”: his thought, however, persists in the earth, enters there into new relationships and combinations, growing there and evolving; our own observations survive us in the larger life of the earth.

As Čapek stresses, James was highly influenced by Fechner’s idea of the relationship of the individual soul to the greater unity of Spirit. In the robots’ statement “stali jsme se dušemi,” traces of Fechner’s and James’s philosophy may be found. Particularly relevant is Fechner’s idea that the thoughts of a dead person remain and take on new combinations. The robots are not able to escape the voice of the humans they have killed, because these consciousnesses actually have not been obliterated, even in death. In their experience of having become souls yet still remaining part of a larger group unity, the robots furthermore seem to confirm Fechner’s and James’s idea of a larger “I” into which individual consciousnesses merge.

The idea of a group soul may also be found in other scenes of R.U.R. For example, shortly before the massacre of humans, Hallemaier feels that he, as an individual, is filled with the souls of all people. He says: “Byla to veliká věc být člověkem. Ve mně bzu čí milion vědomí jako v úle. Miliony duší se do mne slétají” (99) (“It was a great thing to be a human. Millions of conscious-nesses are buzzing within me as in a hive. Millions of souls are flying into me”). Hallemaier here conceives of his own body as a sort of repository for the collective consciousness and conscience of all humanity. The hive serves as a fitting metaphor for the group soul, since the hive is the ultimate emblem of cooperation, evoking a multiplicity of voices enclosed in a single, orderly unity. Even Hallemaier’s death does not obliterate the millions of souls that have flown into him, because the robots have “become souls.” Through their symbolic transformation into Spirit—as composed of a multiplicity of souls—the robots merely constitute a transformation of the souls that had earlier buzzed within the hive of Hallemaier’s body.

Throughout the “stali jsme se dušemi” dialogue, conscience is treated as a collective phenomenon. This does not, however, imply that conscience always functions analogously in all members of a group, as a universal principle. As the third act unfolds, it becomes evident that conscience may be an individual matter. As he confronts death, Robot leader Damon confronts a divided sense of responsibility. As I will argue, it becomes impossible for him to be responsible both towards himself and towards others. Therefore, he can no longer be regarded as an anonymous part of the collective soul.

Damon: Being Toward Death and Daemonic Individuation. The philosophical significance of Damon as a character does not seem to have been previously recognized—and for good reason, since he was completely cut from Selver’s 1923 translation. With reference to Selver’s translation, Abrash has pointed out that “the bowdlerization of Čapek’s original text is astonishing” (185). Damon has been reintroduced to English-speaking audiences in the 1989 translation of Novack-Jones. Damon’s role is philosophically significant, since his experience of split duty at the moment of his death poses a challenge to Hegelian and Kantian notions of collective duty. Damon, who enters the play as a figure for group rule, comes to symbolize, rather, a daemonic notion of individuated conscience.

Through his name, Damon draws attention to the Platonic notion of the daemon.10 Of course, since Damon’s name also evokes the legend of Damon and Pythias, the name itself is split in its reference. I will argue that at the moment of his death, Damon’s discourse becomes symbolically daemonic in accord with the Greek notion of this word. The daemon is an ambiguous figure for conscience in Plato, as in the writings of the Stoics. The signifier itself is split in its reference, since daemons reside in an ambiguous realm between the human and the divine. The word daemon means “divider,” which makes the concept an apt reference to the language of conscience that divides the subject. When Damon stutters into self-awareness, his discourse reveals a daemonic language of ethics that undermines any notion of a universal sense of duty. As I will argue, a split between the self and others is introduced as Damon confronts death.
Čapek repeatedly expresses criticism of the universal notion of duty. In his essays and philosophical writings as well as in his fiction, Čapek reveals his concern for the individual as separated from a standardized notion of group ethics. In Čapek’s time, Kantianism was dominant in philosophy departments. A form of neo-Kantianism was popular in literary circles as well, as William Harkins discusses in his comprehensive study of Čapek’s life and times. In his 1920 text, Čapek compiles a set of definitions of words that he considers important. In his definition of povinost (duty), Čapek responds to Kant’s metaphysics of morals, according to which “duty is the necessity of acting from respect for the law” (Kant 495). Čapek introduces his entry on duty as follows: “Je to kouzelné slovo, tak mocné, že kdyby ho nebylo, byl by je musel Kant vymysliti” (31) (“It is a lovely word, so powerful, that if it didn’t exist, Kant would have had to invent it”). Čapek is here expressing sarcasm concerning the Kantian categorical imperative11 that functions as an unambiguous, universal principle, true for all people regardless of the specific contingencies of particular circumstances. According to Čapek, there are two spheres of morality: “conscience,” which does not allow much, and “duty,” which allows what conscience does not. The executioner serves as an example of the atrocities that may be justified by “duty.” Čapek writes ironically that even the executioner is not an unkind and unsympathetic person; he is merely performing his duty and his conscience is clear. Čapek ultimately asserts that it is the “I,” however, not the “we,” that is the true voice of conscience: “Já je zároveň slovo svědomý a slovo činu” (16) (“I is simultaneously the word of conscience and the word of deed”).

When the robot Damon first enters R.U.R., his discourse is that of the “we,” self-certain and prescribed, coinciding with his alleged identity as a generalized figure for “vláda” (meaning “rule”). Damon’s identification with “rule” is revealed when he is first introduced to Alquist, the last person remaining after the massacre of humanity.

3. ROBOT: Je ti nařízeno—
ALQUIST: Mně? Mně někdo nařizuje?
3. ROBOT: Vláda Robotů.
ALQUIST: Kdo je to?
5. ROBOT: Já Damon.
ALQUIST: Co tu chceš? Jdi!
DAMON: Vláda Robotů světa chce s tebou vyjednávat. (107)

3. ROBOT: You are commanded—
ALQUIST: Me? Somebody is commanding me?
3. ROBOT: The rule of the robots.
ALQUIST: Who is that?
5. ROBOT: I Damon.
ALQUIST: What do you want here? Go away!
DAMON: The rule of the robots of the world wishes to negotiate with you.

Damon here posits his identity as subject in terms of the symbolic rule of the robots whom he represents. Significantly, Čapek uses the word vláda (rule, government) rather than the more personalized vladař (ruler). Damon thus posits himself not as an individual filling the slot of ruler, but as an abstract principle for “rule” itself. Damon’s impersonation of a generalized abstraction becomes lost in translation: Novack-Jones translates “vláda” as “ruler.” Yet it is precisely to the power of abstraction that Damon appeals when he successfully challenges Alquist’s imperative that he go away, positing himself not as a singular “I” but, rather, as a representative of the rule of the robots of the world. Damon seems to embody the categorical imperative in his issuing of commands, expecting these commands to be followed by virtue of the fact that they represent universal principles.

A change in Damon’s character comes about as a result of his command to Alquist that he conduct experiments on living robots. When Damon initially issues this command, he is thinking about the good of the group as a whole rather than himself as an individual. He does not guess that Alquist will choose him as the experimental victim for the benefit of future robot survival. Oblivious to the result his command will have, Damon orders Alquist: “Dělej pokusy na živých Robotech. Najdi, jak se dělají!” (110) (“Conduct experiments on live robots. Find how they are made!”). Damon does not listen to Alquist’s list of explanations as to why he could not succeed in this endeavor. Alquist protests that he has never murdered before, that he is too old, that he cannot hold a scalpel, that his eyes fill up with tears, and that, in general, he just is not competent for the task at hand. To each objection, however, Damon responds by merely reiterating the imperative “Vezmi živá těla ... živá těla” (110) (“Take live bodies ... live bodies”). The rule of Damon is imposed linguistically, through the imperative form, rather than through any justification of the content of the commands.

Damon serves as a Kantian figure for the law, his commands following the logic of the categorical imperative. He expects his instructions to be followed without question or reason, merely out of pure duty, out of respect for the “rule.” Damon does not remain a Kantian for long, however. His discourse ruptures his earlier identity as “vláda” when Alquist chooses him to be the victim of the first dissection. It is apparently against his will that he asserts his individuated self at this dramatic moment of fear and trembling. Damon exclaims “Já—proč právě já?” (111) (“Me?—Why me exactly?”). The personal voice is a flaw in Damon’s discourse, an unwelcome crack in the self-certain categorical imperative of duty. This “já” is not the “já” with which he introduced himself, but is rather an indicator of his impending individuation. The dash, a device Čapek uses throughout the play, suggests hesitation12; Damon is no longer following a prescribed text. If Damon were still embodying the categorical imperative of duty, he would not have interposed a concern with his own “I” as distinguished from the group as a whole. Kant writes: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law” (496). Alquist challenges Damon with “Ty tedy nechceš?” (111) (“You don’t want to?”). The stress here is on the “ty” (“you”), a pronoun that is not necessary in Czech since the verb ending makes it clear that the second person singular is intended. Alquist is thus confronting Damon with the fact that he is making an exception of himself from a rule that was intended to be universal. Damon denies this implied accusation by replying “Půjdu” (111) (“I will go”). During the course of the dissection, Damon struggles to be as impersonal as possible. For example, when commanding Alquist to cut into him, Damon uses the infinitive form “řezat” (“to cut”) rather than addressing Alquist directly, with the imperative form. Damon thus generalizes and abstracts the moment of the dissection, excising both his own individuality and that of his executioner.

It is evidently impossible to cut the self out of discourse, however, since at the moment of death the personal voice again elides the rule. Damon stutters into an acknowledgment of his subjectivity through the exclamation “ži—žiju” (113) (“li—I live”). The stutter indicates that the emphasis this time is on the subjective ending “-ju” (“žiju”). Thus Damon’s self-identity is born through a flaw in speech. The connection of individuation with stuttering indicates that the language of the subjective “I” precludes the will, coming to the individual by way of a rupture in the smooth functioning of the expected ideological system. The certainty of the Kantian categorical command is undermined by the unwilled intrusion of the self. Damon attempts to cut back into a more public register, since after exclaiming “ži—žiju!” he reverts to a more impersonal generalization through the words: “Je—je—je lépe žít!” (“It—it—it is better to live!”). Yet the categorical law of the group here loses its certainty because it can only be expressed through the stutter.

The culminating conflict between self and group rule comes at the moment of Damon’s death: “život!—Já chci—žít! Je—lépe—” (114) (“Life—I want— to live! It—is better—”). There is only one letter separating “Já” (I) and “Je” (it), but this letter is crucial in distinguishing the self from the generalized categorical law. In this line, Damon first mentions himself as a subject wishing for life. The more general statement “je—lépe—” (“it—is better—”) is left unfinished and must be completed by the conscience-plagued Alquist, who fills in the last “žít”—“to live.” It is while confronting death that Damon becomes aware of his absolute singularity, the apprehension of death making him aware of himself as subject; however, Damon is apparently caught between two contradictory movements, since he cannot make of himself a gift of self-sacrifice for the robot group while simultaneously retaining his apprehension of himself. The split in responsibility at the moment of death indicates an implicit move away from the Kantian notion of the categorical imperative towards a much more ambiguous notion of conscience.

The apprehension of an authentic and individuated self at the moment of death is reminiscent of the philosophy of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, a spokesman for the Charta 77 human rights declaration of 1977. As Derrida discusses in The Gift of Death, Patočka posits the apprehension of death in terms of the daemonic.13 Patočka writes: “The responsible man as such is a self, an individual who doesn’t coincide with any role that he might happen to assume—something Plato expresses through the myth of the choice of destiny” (qtd in Derrida 52). Patočka is here referring to the “Myth of Er” in Plato’s Republic. At the end of Plato’s utopian treatise describing the ethical position of individuals within a community, the daemon enters as a force of individuation, because each soul chooses its own particular daemon that will follow it through life as its singular protector.14 When confronting death, Damon gains responsibility; he refers to himself as a subject, no longer merely playing the role of the group leader who imposes duty on others. It would, however, be an oversimplification to say that responsibility to the self as subject should come first. Patočka, in spite of his Heideggerian stress on responsibility towards the self, concludes that there is an inherent split between the individual and the group that inevitably leads to the sense of guilt. Patočka writes: “individuality has been related to infinite love and man is an individual because he is guilty, always guilty with respect to that love” (qtd in Derrida 52). This definition of individuality as the guilt of split responsibility bears particular relevance to the experience of Damon, who is caught between the self and others at the moment of his death and who therefore cannot maintain his role as univocal “rule.”

The guilt resulting from split responsibility is experienced as well by Alquist, who hears the voice of the dying Damon even while, like Lady Macbeth, he must wash the blood of Damon from his hands: “Ach, mé ruce, mé ruce! Budu si vás do smrti ošklivět?” (114) (“Oh, my hands, my hands, will I despise you forever?”). Alquist’s personal “conscience” is here in conflict with his public “duty.” Unlike the executioner mentioned in Čapek’s Critique of Words, Alquist cannot rest assured that he has followed the imperative of absolute duty. The dissection of Damon for the good of the general collective has failed to produce the secret of life, but even if it had succeeded, Alquist’s split decision whether or not to sacrifice Damon would not have led to a univocal moral answer. The voice of the individuated dying Damon leads to an inevitable moral dilemma.

Primus: The Offer of Self-Sacrifice. Damon’s experience of doubt and terror in his confrontation with death contrasts with Primus’ expressions of fearlessness. Immediately following the scene of violence in which Damon’s dying words echo from offstage, Robots Primus and Helena come onto the stage. They examine the laboratory exper-iments through which the new recipe for robot manufacture is being sought. As their conversation turns to the subject of mortality, Helena expresses her consciousness of pain and her consequent fear of death, while Primus speculates that death may actually constitute a new coming to consciousness:

HELENA: Já nevím, Prime. Mně je tak divně, já nevím, co to je: jsem jako pošetilá, ztratila jsem hlavu, bolí mě tělo, srdce, všechno bolí—A co se ti mně stalo, ach, to ti neřeknu! Prime, já musím myslím umřít!
PRIMUS: Není ti někdy, řekni, Heleno, jako by bylo lépe umřít? Víš, snad jenom spíme. Včera ve spaní jsem zas mluvil s tebou.... Mluvili jsme nějakým cizím nebo novým jazykem, protože si ani slovo nepamatuju.... Já sám jsem tomu nerozuměl, a přece vím, že jsem nikdy nemluvil nic krásnějšího.... Když jsem se tě dotknul,15 mohl jsem umřít. (116-117)

HELENA: I don’t know, Primus. I have such an odd feeling, I don’t know what it is: I’m distracted, I feel as though I’d lost my head. My body hurts, my heart, everything hurts—And what has happened to me, ah, I can’t tell! Primus, I think that I must die!
PRIMUS: Don’t you sometimes feel, Helena, as though it would be better to die? You know, perhaps we are only sleeping. Yesterday, I spoke to you again in my sleep....We spoke in some foreign or new tongue, because I can’t remember a word.... I didn’t understand it myself, and yet I know that I have never spoken anything more beautiful.... When I touched you, I could have died.

Helena’s pain indicates her newly found consciousness of her now human body. In contrast to the “stali jsme se dušemi” scene, in which the pain of conscience turned the robots into figures for souls/spirits, the above scene shows that robots can become not only souls but also bodies. Primus’ rejoinder shows yet another stage in robot humanization. Not only have robots acquired bodies that feel pain, they have also begun to dream. Primus may be the first robot to experience dream reality, an experience that he associates with the acquisition of a new language. Primus’ newfound dream experience has in turn given him the capacity to philosophize about the meaning of death and the possibility that consciousness may continue after death. In addition, death becomes eroticized in its association with love. Primus believes that touching Helena may bring about his death, but he derives evident pleasure from this thought.

As Primus and Helena continue to converse, each comes to a sense of self-consciousness through the double awareness of mortality and love for the Other. Alquist intrudes into this romantic exchange between Primus and Helena, threatening to dissect Helena in order to seek the secret of robot manufacture. It comes as no surprise when Primus offers to die in Helena’s place; he has already established his readiness to confront death for the sake of the Other.

ALQUIST: Tak tedy, milý Prime, já—já musím dělat nějaké pokusy na Gallových Robotech. Záleží na tom všechno další, rozumíš?
ALQUIST: Dobrá, doved’ to děvče do pitevny. Budu ji pitvat.
PRIMUS: Helenu? ... Hneš-li se, rozbiju ti hlavu!
ALQUIST: Tak tedy rozbij! Jen rozbij! Co budou pak dělat Roboti?
PRIMUS (vrhne se na kolena): Pane, vezmi se mne! Jsem stějne udělán jako ona, ze stejné látky, stejného dne! Vezmi si můj život, pane! (Rozhaluje kazajku.) Âež tady, tady! (120)

ALQUIST: So then, dear Primus, I—I must make some experiments on Gall’s Robots. Everything hereafter depends on this, you understand?
ALQUIST: Good, take the girl to the dissection room. I will dissect her.
PRIMUS: Helena? ... If you move, I’ll smash your head in!
ALQUIST: So smash it then! Go ahead and smash it! What will the Robots do then?
PRIMUS (falls to his knees): Sir, take me! I was made exactly like her, from the same material, on the same day! Take my life, sir! (Opening his shirt.) Cut here, here!

Alquist’s stuttering repetition of the word “I” may reveal his split sentiments about his identity as experimenter/executioner, a role that the rule of the robots has thrust upon him. It seems that Alquist’s memory of the stuttering Damon, whom he had so recently murdered in the name of experiment, has affected the characteristics of his own speech. It is only through Primus’ offer of self-sacrifice that Alquist regains his lost faith in love and life. This newly found faith is expressed in the play’s final monologue:

“A stvořil Bůh člověka k obrazu svému: k obrazu Božímu stvořil ho, muže a ženu stvořil je. I požehnal jim Bůh a řekl: Rost’tež a množte se, a naplňte zemi, a podmaňte ji, a panujte nad rybami mořskými, a nad ptactvem nebeským, i nad všemi živočichy, kteří se hýbají na zemi.”... Kamarádi, Heleno, život nezahyne! Zase se začne z lásky, začne se nahý a mali čký.... Nyní propustíš, Pane, slu žebníka svého v pokoji; nebot’ uzřely oči mé—uzřely-spašení tvé skrze lásku, a život nezahyne! (Vstává.) Nezahyne! (Rozpřáhne ruce.) Nezahyne! (122-123)

“And God created man in his own image: in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said: Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish in the sea, and the birds of heaven, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”.... Friends, Helena, life will not die. It will begin anew from love; it will start out naked and tiny.... Now, Lord, you will release your servant in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation through love. Life will not perish! (Rises.) Will not perish! (Raises his hands.) Will not perish!

The language of this last paean of hope is significant. Alquist invokes the Christian God as Pane (lord); the final “e” indicates the imperative form. The word pán had been used earlier in the play by Radius to indicate his desire to become master of humans: (“Já chci být pán lidí”). Radius’ destructive wish to be master/lord (pán) is replaced in this last speech by a religious ideal in which God is lord (pán). Alquist’s invocation of the lord signifies his Christian humbleness; he becomes a mere servant. This entails, for Alquist, a relinquishment of his earlier position as pán. In his previous conversation with Primus, in which he had demanded that Helena be the next sacrificial victim of his dissections, Primus had addressed Alquist as pán, pleading that Alquist take him in Helena’s place: “Pane, vezmi si mně” (“Sir, take me.”). Čapek thus makes subtle variations on the word pán throughout R.U.R. These associations become inevitably lost in translation. In the English translation by Novack-Jones, there are three words used for the Czech pán: Radius wishes to be master (“pán”); Alquist is referred to as sir (“pán”); Alquist refers to God as lord (“pán”).16 There is perhaps no way to avoid this loss in translation, since no single word in English can be used for all contexts. It is important, however, to note how pán is used in the Czech original, since this word is crucial for understanding the nuances of how the master-slave relation is defined.

In Alquist’s final monologue, the human and robotic will to power, the desire to assert the self as lord of others, presumably becomes subverted. Instead, in line with the progression of the Hegelian dialectic, a universal duty is accepted, the submission to the higher master, God. A renewed faith in God is in turn a way to overcome fear of the play’s other master, Death. As Hegel writes in the “Lordship and Bondage” chapter of Phenomenology of Mind, death is “the sovereign master” (237). But, ironically, Alquist’s recitation of the Biblical discourse includes within itself God’s imperative that humans should rule over all living things: “Panujte [rule/be lord] ... nad všemi živočichy.” In the Czech translation of the Bible, the imperative panujte (“rule”) once again contains the word pán (“lord”). By his repetition of the Biblical text, Alquist suggests that Primus and Helena, like future humanized robots, are meant to dominate a different species, presumably the animals. Such will to power over the Other may seem dangerously similar to the psychology exhibited by humans earlier in the play in their attempts to dominate the “non-human” robots. Similarly, the robot desire to dominate the human, the non-robotic Other, is likewise evoked. It was this dangerous desire, of course, that had led to the ultimate massacre of humanity. It may thus seem strange that Alquist, the altruist and would-be peacemaker, recites a text about the importance of dominion. After all, what has just impressed him about Primus’ behavior was its humbleness and readiness for self-sacrifice. Yet instead of eulogizing Christian humbleness, it is the Christian theme of lordship that obsesses Alquist in his concluding words. Apparently oblivious of the negative implications of panování, Alquist recites the Biblical text as a way of regaining faith. Overcoming the fear of death, he sees a new beginning to the historical process through the new Adam and Eve, Primus and Helena.

Čapek evidently had mixed feelings about the ending of R.U.R. He wrote in a letter to his wife Olga: “Bylo mi nedobře Olgo a proto jsem hledal ku konci skoro křečovitě nějaké vyřešení dohody a lásky” (qtd in Buriánek 136) “I was unwell, Olga, and so I was looking almost křečovitě [madly/ spasmodically] for some resolution in agreement and love.” It is an interesting slip that Čapek here uses the very word křečovitě which is so important in R.U.R. The “křeč robotů” (“robot’s cramp”) represents a moment of slippage, a deviation from the prescribed text. Čapek too is taken over by a křeč when he contemplates what he takes to be an excessively sentimental and optimistic ending for his play. Like his character Alquist, Čapek apparently misses the ambiguous implications of the final speech, which by no means indicates a “clear resolution in agreement and love.” Čapek expresses uncertainty whether the ending is really believable or whether it has slipped into a conventionalized and prescriptive mode of discourse. Yet Alquist’s recitation of the Biblical text, with its emphasis on lordship (panování), indicates that there is no easy escape from the lordship and bondage relation. Perhaps life will not perish, but the next cycle of history may be as violent as the previous one. Alquist, like the robots of the text, resorts to fixed phrases, his speech becoming externally determined. Yet for a reader or spectator of the play, the ending contains more ambiguity than Čapek’s letter admits. The ending of R.U.R. does not allow for a smooth or simple narrative closure.

1. For a discussion of the Selver translation in comparison with the more recent Novack-Jones translation, see Abrash.

2. McNaughton’s essay is an example of genre-based criticism.

3. Čapek’s doctoral dissertation, “Pragmatismus Čili Filosofie Praktického života” (“Pragmatism or the Philosophy of Practical Life”), focuses on the work of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. In his introduction, Čapek critiques the tenets of German idealism, including the Hegelianism of Bradley (7). Čapek’s critique of Kant is particularly evident in Section Five, in which Hans Vaihinger’s establishment of “Kantian Studies” in Germany is discussed (25). In Čapek’s time, interpretations of Kant were largely influenced by Vaihinger’s reading of Kant’s idealistic positivism.

4. When considering robots’ confrontations with death in R.U.R., it is important to differentiate between their apprehension of their own possible death and their apprehension of the death of the Other. Hegel uses the term “Other” in Phenomonology of Mind and I will use it throughout my paper. The Other may be defined as that which is separate from the self, external to self-consciousness. Within the context of R.U.R., the Other whose death the robots apprehend varies. For Primus, the Other is his love Helena. For the robots who “have become souls,” the Other is manifested through the voice of the humans they have massacred.

5. Kojève reads Hegel through the lens of Marx’s thought, bringing out the social implications of the Phenomenology. Kojève gave a series of lectures in Paris in the 1930s, explicating his reading of Hegel. Although Čapek wrote R.U.R. in 1920 and although he didn’t know of Kojève’s reading, it is useful to refer to Kojève’s summary. This summary reflects a type of interpretation of Hegel’s text that would have been well known during Čapek’s time. Both Čapek and Kojève spent time in Germany. Both would have been exposed to analogous interpretations of Hegel, including those of F.H. Bradley, who emphasized the relationship of the individual to the community. There are, of course, important differences. Kojève was sympathetic to Marxism and to a Marxist reading of Hegel. Čapek, by contrast, was critical both of Marx and of Hegel. Through the character of Radius in R.U.R., Čapek may be offering his critique of the master-slave relation as it is understood by readers of Hegel who approach his text from a Marxist standpoint.

6. All translations included in this paper are my own. In this particular passage, Radius makes the peculiar remark “děláte zbytečná slova” (“You make unnecessary words”). This is not a Czech idiom; indeed, it sounds as strange in Czech as it does in English. Former translations of the play have evidently tried to correct the Czech original. The phrase “děláte zbytečná slova” is translated by Novack-Jones as “utter empty words” (66) and by Selver as “You do nothing but talk” (48). Radius is, however, evidently concerned with labor and he transfers the word “dělat” (“to make”) from his discussion of physical labor (“roboti dělají všechno”) to his discussion of the useless labor of making unnecessary words. The exact wording of the Czech original is important for understanding Radius’ psychology as a defender of the manual labor of the robots. Significantly, when Radius engineers the robot revolt, in which humans are massacred, he chooses to save the life of one human, Alquist, who is like the robots because he makes things with his hands: he builds houses. By contrast, Radius has contempt for those who only know how to make words.

7. It is interesting to consider Radius’ use of slogans in light of Čapek’s theory of language. Toman discusses Čapek’s mistrust of political propaganda and of journalists’ fixed phrases. In the 1920s, Čapek was influenced by the writings of Kraus. In a 1934 review of Kraus as critic of language, Čapek writes: “Words, thoughts, and ideas motivate or sanction reality.... General slogans replace conscience, as he [Kraus] shows: not only the massacres in trenches, but also this is war—this corruption of the spirit, this thoughtlessness and untruth....” (qtd in Toman 97). When Radius uses slogans in R.U.R., he is not only instigating the massacre of humans, he is also instigating a massacre of language. Through a false use of words, Radius corrupts the very spirit that the robots are just beginning to develop.

8. R.U.R. is not the only work of fiction in which Čapek encodes implicit criticism of the misuses of Marxism. In his 1936 novel War with the Newts, Čapek parodies Communist propaganda. The manifesto of Mr. Povondra states: “Working Newts! The hour is at hand when you will come to realize the whole burden of the slavery in which you live (7 lines cut by censor) and when you will demand your rights as a class and as a nation! (11 lines cut by censor)....” (158). Čapek reveals a general mistrust of slogans, manifestoes, and formulaic language in Kritika Slov (Critique of Words). This more general concern is often instantiated through parodies of Czech communist slogans.

9. The connection between language and conscience recurs in R.U.R., becoming important not only in this collective scene, but also in Damon’s later encounter with individuation through language, as he stutters into self-awareness. See below.

10. Damon’s name, like other character names in R.U.R., is surely significant. McNaughton and Bengels have both pointed out the resemblance of robot creator Domin to “Dominus” and of Helena to Helen of Troy. Unfortunately, the symbolism of the name Damon has escaped critical attention due to the excision of this character from Selver’s 1923 translation. There is also a character named Damon in Čapek’s 1924 novel Krakatit. For an analysis of the Damon in Krakatit, see Eagle.

11. Čapek’s critique of Kant in Kritika Slov may have been influenced by F.H. Bradley’s reading of Kant. Čapek mentions Bradley in his dissertation and was obviously familiar with his work. In his Ethical Studies, Bradley includes a chapter on “Duty for Duty’s Sake,” in which he explicates Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative. Bradley critiques the categorical imperative as follows: “‘Duty for duty’s sake’ says only ‘do the right for the sake of the right’; it does not tell us what right is.... It tells us to act for the sake of a form, which we saw was self-contradictory.... We saw that duty’s universal laws are not universal if that means they can never be overruled” (Bradley 97). Like Čapek, Bradley concludes that a collision of duties is unavoidable.

12. Dashes, indicators of hesitation, are used both for human and for robot characters. Helena and Domin both stutter and hesitate at those moments when they break out of their prescribed scripts. Hesitations particularly occur whenever their conversation touches (obliquely) on sexual matters. For example, Domin discusses Rossum’s experimentation with hormones and asks whether Helena understands it. She responds “N-n-nevim” (16) (“I d-d-don’t know”).

13. This is in contrast to the Christian notion of the demonic. Like Patočka’s writings, R.U.R. is filled with contrasts between Greek and Christian concepts. The religious Nána, for example, views robots as demonic beings who were created against God’s will: “To je proti Pánubohu, to je dáblovo vňuknutí, dělat ty maškary mašinou” (43) (“It is against God, it is the demon’s influence, to manufacture those farcical monsters by machine”). Yet Damon’s name is spelled with an “a” rather than an “e,” pointing to the ancient Greek daemon. This is particularly appropriate given Damon’s stuttering individuation at the moment of his death.

14. In Daemonic Figures, Lukacher reads the Platonic notion of the daemon as a figure for the language of conscience, which individuates the subject. Lukacher writes: “The daemon is a figure for the God that dwells in language and, by virtue of this daemonic function of language, allows human beings to be called into their humanity” (7). Significantly, individuation comes about as the result of an externally determined language that precludes the will. This makes an interesting analogy to the language of Damon, who is individuated by means of an unwilled stutter.

15. “Když jsem se tě dotknul” has a double meaning in this context. Primus may intend the phrase in the literal sense “when I touched you” or he may be using the phrase metaphorically, in the sense “when you were touched” (by my words). Selver translates the line as “When I touched you.” Novack-Jones translates it “When I saw that my words touched you.” Both interpretations are possible.

16. In the Selver translation, Alquist’s last monologue is omitted. The play ends with Alquist’s statement to Primus and Helena: “Go. Adam—Eve.” For a discussion of Selver’s omission, see Fox.

Abrash, Merritt. “R.U.R. Restored and Reconsidered.” Extrapolation 32 (1991): 185-192.

Bengels, Barbara. “‘Read History’: Dehumanization in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.” In The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction, eds. Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982. 13-17.

Bradley, F.H. Ethical Studies. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1951.

Buriánek, František. Karel Čapek. Praha: Československý spisovatel, 1988.

Čapek, Karel. Kritika slov: Dvaapadesát nedělňich čtení. 1920. In V Zajetí Slov, ed. Miroslav Halík. Praha: Dilia, 1969. 11-124.

─────. Pragmatismus čili filosofie praktického života. Praha: F. Topič, 1925.

─────. Proč nejsem komunistou? 1924. Mňichov: Kamený Erb, 1957.

─────. R.U.R. 1920. Praha: Aventinum, 1931.

─────. R.U.R. 1920. Trans. Paul Selver. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1923.

─────. R.U.R. 1920. Trans. Claudia Novack-Jones. 1989. In Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, ed. Peter Kussi. Highland Park, NJ: Catbird Press, 1990. 34-109.

─────. Válka s Mloky. Praha: Československý spisovatel, 1953.

─────. War with the Newts. 1936. Trans. Ewald Osers. Highland Park, NJ: Catbird Press, 1985.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1995.

Eagle, Herbert. “Čapek and Zamiatin—Versions of Dystopia.” In On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, eds. Michael Makin and Jindřich Toman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992. 29-41.

Fox, Mary Ann. “Lost in Translation: The Ending of Čapek’s R.U.R.” ICarbS 4 (1981): 101-109.

Harkins, William E. Karel Čapek. New York: Columbia UP, 1962.

Hegel, Friedrich. Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. J.B. Baillie. London: Allen and Unwin, 1964.

Kant, Immanuel. “Foundation for the Metaphysic of Morals.” In Philosophic Classics, Vol. II, ed. Walter Kaufmann. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1968. 492-500.

Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. New York: Basic Books, 1969.

Lukacher, Ned. Daemonic Figures. New York: Cornell UP, 1994.

McNaughton, James D. “Futurology and Robots: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.” Renaissance and Modern Studies 28 (1984): 72-86.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. S. Halliwell. Warminister: Aris and Phillips, 1988.

Toman, Jindřich. “Karel Čapek, Karl Kraus, and the Theory of the Phrase.” In On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium, eds. Michael Makin and Jindřich Toman. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992. 87-108.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home