#79 = Volume 26, Part 3 = November 1999
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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