Science Fiction Studies

#83 = Volume 28, Part 1 = March 2001


Karel Čapek’s Preface to Bílá Nemoc

Translated by Renata Flint, Introduced by Robert M. Philmus

Karel Čapek continues to owe whatever renown he still enjoys outside his native Czechoslovakia (and now the portion of it that has become the Czech Republic) to R.U.R. (1920/21). That, however, is but the first of at least five works of his that are accountable as sf. The others include his penultimate play, Bílá nemoc (“The White Plague, or Sickness, or Disease,” 1937).                

The following text prefaced all three of the editions of Bílá published in Čapek’s lifetime (and many since then).1 But none of the English translations of that penultimate play of Čapek’s—by now, three of them2—includes these authorial remarks, which thus make their English-language premiere in these pages.                

Čapek begins by revealing how the “idea” of the play came to him (in the sense Kingsley Amis is thinking of in his slogan about the “idea” being the “hero” in sf). Most of what he subsequently has to say more or less elaborates (but largely by implication rather than overtly) on his reasons for radically modifying the somewhat Wellsian “idea” that his friend had offered (reminiscent of The Invisible Man [1897]) in favor of Bílá's operative conception.                

At the same time, the Preface invites an understanding of itself as “the author’s” Word on the meaning of his text. Taken as such, it can be deemed, in part, a signal document in support of the Intentional Fallacy (properly understood, contrary to the widespread misconception which would make the very term “intention” verboten). Čapek, after all, at the least misrepresents his own drama, even with regard to its plot details. Contrary to Čapek’s clear implication (in ¶6 below), Galen does “help the suffering” (the Czech word is in the plural)—except for those who are directly instrumental to the Military-Industrial Complex; nor is it the case that Bílá ends with “the crowd” (or “mob”) “trampl[ing] to death” the Marshal as well as Galen (¶7).

It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the Čapek who consistently here refers to himself as “the author” has no understanding of what this play he’d just written is about. It is true that along with the misrepresentations just mentioned, he ignores as well two of Bílá’s four principals, which is also to say the other of Bíla’s chief pairings: Baron Krug, a munitions manufacturer whose name suggests Krupp as his model (just as the Marshal is certainly an amalgam of Hitler and Mussolini), and Dr. Sigelius, the self-promoting head of a state-sponsored clinic, or health institute, who makes Krug look scrupulous by comparison. But it is equally true that even these Prefatory distortions subserve Čapek’s purpose of highlighting a meaning that is indeed in this play.

Anticipating in effect the London staging of his play in translation (under the name of Power and Glory, 1938)—wherein Oscar Homolka played both Galen and the Marshal—Čapek emphasizes a certain affinity between those seeming polar opposites, an interpretation which Bílá itself is privy to but does not stress. And this point, in turn—that Galen gets infected by the Marshal’s kind of morality as an inevitable consequence of their struggle against one another—is subsidiary to what the Preface as a whole is surely intent on doing: theorizing the nature of the 20th-century political innovation now commonly termed totalitarianism.                

That he is groping toward a (ground-breaking) description of that then relatively new phenomenon3 may be evident only to the most attentive reader—and this on account of Čapek’s now-quaint terminology. No attempt has been made to translate the original into up-to-date terms (or, for that matter, to “politically correct” the Preface’s mankind and its exclusivist masculine pronouns)—and not just for the sake of trying to be “faithful” to the Czech, but also (and more) because Čapek’s language entails the “confrontation,” as he “stages” it, between (supposedly) traditional European values (Democracy, Freedom, Human Rights) and the ruthlessness of the Modern Will to Power, which would abolish the Individual in favor of the Interests of the State.                

Čapek insists at the outset that his Prefatory project of theorization is inextricably connected to Bílá’s science-fictional element, or novum, the “white disease.” Those unfamiliar with this play of his may, however, find the connection somewhat obscure, and may likewise be uncertain as to how (and how well) the author’s version of Bílá fits the work itself. Such questions, however, are best referred to the text of the play (which in any of its three translations has been englished capably enough for someone not conversant with Czech to dispel any remaining doubts about what Čapek is getting at in his Preface).4

The idea for this play came from a friend of mine who is a doctor, Dr. Jiři Foustka.5 The proposal was about a doctor who discovers new rays that can destroy malignant tumors. He finds in them the rays of death, and with their help he becomes an autocrat and the inauspicious savior of the world. This idea of a doctor who has in his hands the fate of humanity stuck in my memory. However, in our times there are so many people who have or would like to have in their hands the fate of nations or human beings, I never would have attempted to expand this idea with one more variation if I had not received a second and much more impulsive motive, which defines our time itself.                

One of the most distinctive features of post-war mankind is a retreat from humanity. This word implies a pious respect for life and for human rights, a love for freedom and peace, the striving for truth and justice, and other ethical postulates which have been considered until now in the mentality of the European tradition as a [or the] purpose of human evolution.

As is well known, in other countries and nations quite different traditions grew up. It is not a human being, but a class, a nation, a state, or a race that is the conveyer of all rights and is the sole object of respect, is sovereign: nothing is above it, and nothing can morally restrict its will or prerogatives.6 The state, the nation, and the regime is compressed within an all-powerful authority. The individual, with his freedom of spirit and conscience, with the right to live, with human self-determination, is completely subordinated, physically and morally, to the so-called group. In other words, the individual is dependent on an autocratic and imposed system.                

Basically, the mentality of political authority, as things stand now with the world, aggressively confronts the European tradition of moral and democratic humanity. Year by year this conflict spreads more threateningly internationally, but at the same time it is a very important internal question for each nation. In today’s Europe, this conflict is expressed by the tension of chronic war and by a growing tendency toward violent and murderous solutions to political questions.                

While today’s world-conflict can be defined conceptually as economic and social or can be explained in biological terms of the struggle for existence, the most dramatic aspect of it is the collision of two big antagonistic ideals. On one side is the moral ideal of one humanity, of democratic freedom, of world peace and respect for the life and rights of each human being. On the other side is the dynamic, anti-human ideal of power, supremacy, and national or other expansion, for which violence is a welcome means and human life only an instrument. These days—to speak in everyday parlance—it is the conflicting ideals of democracy versus the unlimited and ambitious ideals of dictatorship. This particular conflict, in its own tragic actuality, was an impulse for writing Bílá nemoc.                

It could have been cancer or another illness instead of the made-up “white sickness.” The author has tried to bring the individual motives and even the setting of his play into a fictitious sphere so that it would not be necessary to think about either real illness or real states and regimes. Moreover, he felt the leprosy to be to a certain extent symbolic of the deep [moral] decline in the white race. This epidemic seems to be for today’s population like a return to the plague of the Middle Ages. The author deliberately introduced the whole dramatic situation of conflict in terms of murderous epidemics, because the ill and pitiful person is an impulsive and typical subject of humanity, his dependence on an obliging moral system is the deepest. Two major world-views confront one another over the so-called bed of pain, and in their conflict the life or death of leprous mankind is determined. The person who represents the will to power [the Marshal] will not be stopped by compassion for human pain and terror, while the other person, who fights against him in the name of humanity and life, refuses to help the suffering because he himself, fatally, adopts the inexorable morality of the struggle.7 One day there will be a lot of dying and killing if there needs be a fight over this problem. In the world of war, peace itself has to be a hard and persistent fighter. And, on the contrary, the representative of power and strength becomes someone who begs for human help while he is suffering in silence under the unstoppable machinery of carnage that he himself has started. From this point of view, the author recognized the hopeless weight of the world-conflict that we now experience. In this conflict, we do not merely see black and white, good and bad, justice and injustice, for there are large values and irreconcilable difficulties that are encountered on both sides; but what is threatened in this conflict are the inherent rights of human life.                

In the end, it is only a crowd without greatness or compassion that callously tramples to death both representatives of the opposing forces. Here are your people, Galen; here is your nation, Marshal;8 and we all have our historical conflicts in which the final success is uncertain. There is only one thing beyond dispute, which means that, again, human life will pay for this with pain. It does not matter how the war finished; during the war-rage the white plague is closing in. There is only one thing sure: that man is left without salvation in his own suffering.

The author is aware that this unavoidable and tragic end is not a solution, but that there is a true struggle taking place in our time and space among the real human powers. We are not able to resolve this verbally; the solution has to be left to history. Perhaps we can put our faith in the future nation, just like the two honest and sensible people at the end of the play.9

But the final decision is left to political and spiritual history. In this, we are involved not only as members of the audience, but also as fellow fighters who have to know on which side of the world conflict lies the entirety of human rights and the entire life of a small nation.10

I am extremely grateful to my neighbor, Milada Vlach, for her assistance in this project, and especially for helping me come to terms with what Čapek is saying [RMP].
                1. At the time of Čapek’s death (on Christmas Day 1938, or a little over a month after the [German] Nazis took over the Sudetenland), three editions of Bílá had appeared, though the second and third were really reprintings of the first (except for the addition mentioned in note 5 below).
                2. For 50 years Bílá was available in English only in Paul Selver’s translation of it as Power and Glory (1938). An alternative translation, by Michael Heim—the basis for the first (and still perhaps the sole) American staging of the play (which has also, I believe, not been produced in England since its 1938 premiere run)—came out in 1988. It has recently been joined by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter’s rendition (again as The White Plague).
                3. In its entries for totalitarian/ism—i.e., for both the adjective and the noun—the OED’s earliest citation is a 1926 translation of an Italian book on Fascism, followed by quotations from 1936-37. The inference this lends itself to, that the very word-concept was still in the process of gaining currency (and not just in English) at the time Čapek was writing his Preface, is borne out in multiple ways.
                The book which the OED refers to, Luigi Sturzo’s Italy and Fascismo, testifies that totalitario received the denotative impress that its English counterpart now has sometime in the early 1920s, from Giovanni Gentile (speaking not as the philosopher he otherwise was [or so H.S. Harris claims, 161ff.], but rather as a ventriloquist for Mussolini [who presently made Gentile his Education Minister]). Confirming this, Jean Pierre Faye traces the passage of the formulaic use of the term—viz, stato totalitario—to Germany (where Carl Schmitt coins the phrase Der totale Staat in 1931/32: Faye 1:49) and Spain (where Franco begins promoting the estado totalitario toward the end of 1936: Faye 2:719n3). But, in all of these uses, totalitarian state preserves its Hegelian inheritance— which is to say that it carries positive value, being an approbative term.
                The history of its perjoration begins with Sturzo, whose critique of totalitarianism largely anticipates Čapek’s (see n. 6 below), even if the latter’s is foreseeable, especially, from Scene 6 of Adam stvořitel (Adam the Creator, 1927), one of the plays that Karel co-wrote with his brother, Josef. In any case, however, Čapek’s Preface reflects a level of critical theorizing of totalitarianism which remained rather rudimentary until the late 1940s. (Cf. George Sabine’s original account of “The Totalitarian State”—the exact contemporary of the Bílá Preface—with his postwar revisions, which, among other differences, lengthen it by 50%.)
                4. Readers in need of further assistance may also want to see the commentary on Bílá in the foregoing essay of mine on Čapek and Selver (esp. §1).
                5. The name of Čapek’s would-be helpful friend he divulged only in the third edition of Bílá. Possibly Čapek’s change of mind had to do with the appearance of Dělo života (“A Life’s Work,” 1937), a play, presumably an autobiography (and no doubt replete with “philosophical” reflections), but in any event a book whereby Foutska made himself a public figure.
                Following Dělo (for which Čapek supplied a Preface), Foustka published Hrst o zubech (“A Handful About Teeth,” 1942). The title isn’t quite as peculiar in Czech as the English equivalent might suggest, but is odd enough to call attention to its metaphorical aspect. At the same time, it strongly implies that Dr. Foustka was a D.D., not an M.D.
                6. Sturzo in effect clarifies a good part of Čapek’s meaning here. By way of substantiating his contention that “the chief theorist of Fascism has been Professor Giovanni Gentile,” Sturzo says: “He [Gentile] has maintained that the state is an ethical reality, ... is itself force, law, morals—an All” (128).
                7. Čapek is referring to Galen’s scheme, tantamount to blackmail, of keeping his cure for the “white disease” secret, and employing it on Krug and his ilk only if they agree to renounce their bellicose ways. The point about Galen, then, is analogous to the argument that Lewis Mumford was (I believe) the first to make about the Allies in WWII: that in the conflict with Hitler, they presently interpolated Nazi “values,” as reflected in the means adopted for defeating Germany. (Mumford’s signal piece of evidence, by the way, is not the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, but the monument that the Allies erected after the war to commemorate their bombing of Stuttgart.)
                8. Čapek, of course, is here addressing each of the two characters whom he has been representing (and also misrepresenting) as constituting the opposition on which Bílá hinges. Typically for him, he is leveling a curse against both houses in pointing to the mindless and destructive mob as embodying Galen’s communistic as well as the Marshal’s fascistic ideal.
                9. Čapek must be referring to Paul and Anna, Krug’s son and the Marshal’s daughter.
                10. This is as close as Čapek comes in his Preface to expressly indicating that Bílá especially concerns Czechoslovakia.

Čapek, Karel. Bílá nemoc. Prague: Fr. Borovny, 1937.
─────. Four Plays [R.U.R., The Insect Play, The Makropulos Case, The White Plague], trans. Peter Majer and Cathy Porter. London: Methuen, 1999.
─────. Power and Glory [also see The White Plague], trans. Paul Selver and Ralph Neale. London: Allen and Unwin, 1938.
─────. The White Plague, trans. Michael Henry Heim. [“Plays in Process,” vol. 9, no. 1.] New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.
Faye, Jean Pierre. Langages totalitaires. 1972; rev. ed. [2 vols. as 1.] Paris: Hermann, 1973.
Harris, H.S. The Social Philosophy of Giovanni Gentile. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1966.
Sabine, George H. “The Totalitarian State.” In A History of Political Theory. New York: Holt, 1937. 764-68. Sturzo, Luigi. Italy and Fascismo, trans. Barbara Barclay Carter. London: Faber and Gwyer, 1926.

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