Josef Čapek, a Limping Pilgrim

Josef Čapek is less brilliant, less the virtuoso, less extrovert than the other Čapek Dioscurus. It might sound paradoxical, but Josef Čapek – painter, man of the world of shapes and colours, space, the external – is infinitely more introverted. And his art! This introversion made a thinker of Josef Čapek. But not a thinker in any professional sense. After reading all the books and essays in which Čapek immerses himself deepest in those issues that matter to him most we will not hesitate to deny him the title of philosopher. Čapek laid no claim himself to the title; the truthfulness of thought which he sought was of a type other than the truth of a systematic construction. It never occurred to Čapek that the last secret of being could be teased out via the roundabout way of a conceptual lacework, delicate as breath. His thinking was also delicate, but with a quite different sense of urgency and drama to it. Josef Čapek was a seeker after practical wisdom; that is thinking for life and death. Practical wisdom, as Čapek understood it, gives life its ultimate stability in the face of the key crossroads and experiences which always give the human being his human individuality from a person’s views as a person (or can do so if one does not shrink from them out of cowardice or vacuity). As a seeker after wisdom Čapek simply lives in thought and thinks through life. This gives him a kinship with numerous ancient thinkers and writers, often from distant cultures, the Greeks of Classical antiquity, the ancient Chinese and the late-medieval seekers of God and the truth, quotations from whom abound in his work about the Limping Pilgrim. Čapek shares with all of them an utter dignity and honesty that prevent him from swerving even an inch from his own inner centre of gravity, from experimenting, tinkering with thought and ideas. This is that ponderousness which never retreats from its basic issues, the ponderousness with which the pilgrim pursues the Absolute, haltingly and with leaden feet. But to the extent that Čapek is one in spirit with all those who think but a single thought, who are internal monoideists, this does not mean that he was detached from his times or that he was attempting some kind of artificial and unnatural timelessness. On the contrary, as the author of a study on the creative character of his own day and age (Volné směry, 1913), he evinced his acute awareness of just how connected he was with the times. And there the facts of what concerned him so vitally were already clearly enunciated.

...the entire nineteenth century is a period of the complex and passionately lived life of individuals and collectives. At the centre of this exhilaration religion ceases to have its general validity, and within the broadest circumference intellectual excitement sets about everything by which humanity feels newly challenged. Thus, new components of social and ethical life have arisen, new conditions in the life of the state, in politics and in the movements of the masses, new ideas of how things might be organised, new views, new scientific hypotheses which have proved partly capable of compensating for the loss of religious faith.

In all fields of human endeavour the need and demand for new creations has applied. [...] A natural faith in and an immediate submission to this dynamic euphoria may conceal within it the new humanity’s capacity for spiritual and ethical synthesis, no less strong than the erstwhile concepts of religion. The need for a faith, which is as deep-seated in modern man as it was in his believing forerunners, certainly does not seem to have been posited on the divine principles of the old religions. [...]

The modern atheistic spirit, too, flares up towards the unknown with something like religious fervour; it is, however, boldly self-assertive and does not seek help and a final absolution from above. It is all action, an intense radiation that casts its light upon everything: it seeks to penetrate and overcome the matter that it acknowledges; and by most remarkable feats it seeks to loosen the narrow confines of three-dimensional space and mechanical time, to overcome the laws of gravity, velocity and all by which chemistry and physics are organised...

The particular matter with which the wisdom of Čapek will engage is the spirit of this “atheistic age”. The spirituality of an age for which the place of God in the scheme of things remains unoccupied. The spirituality of an age of technology which seeks to refashion and metamorphose all that is given; an age which takes that which already is as a springboard from which to strike up towards higher things, yet to be attained. An age for which the world, the external, nature, matter exist. Čapek even heads his study with quotations from a “materialist poet”, Walt Whitman. Yet he is concerned with spirituality – and not matters technical and the external organisation of affairs, to which manageability, government, mastery are everything. In short, what the youth-fully rampageous Josef Čapek is driving at here is the question of man’s autonomy in nature and the world, the question of the spirit’s place in a humanistic period where man is the highest form of life in creation, where man has taken upon himself the task of making sense of the universe.

This task may, even in Čapek’s formulation, remind one a little of Titanism – although we shall see how he steered clear of this pitfall. None the less, a core of Romanticism is, of course, there, and just as the whole second half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century are a curious amalgam of Romanticism and Positivism, just as these putative contrasts coalesce in their most typical representatives, for instance, the Balzacs, Comtes, Wagners, Hackels, indeed, even the poets and artists of the twentieth century, so too the young Josef Čapek was full of both at once. With this entire trend he inherited his main problem, which we might call the great dialectical problem of the humanist period: man at once in nature and as the vanquisher of nature, man comprehensible in terms of the world, but at the same time making sense of and interpreting the world. In this sense one could say that the entire nineteenth century is somewhat Hegelian, simultaneously humanistic and titanic.

This autonomy of Man within nature and at nature’s very foundation revealed itself to Čapek as embodied, above all, in art. We might not be mistaken in believing that his enthusiasm for modern art and his endeavour to start from reality in order to reach beyond it was rooted here. And we also know the depth of his conviction that art, as he understood it, was not an intellectual game for a select circle; that art, with its aspiration to create a new reality, was an elementary human need which struggles to the surface with the same intensity in the magical drawings of the Magdalenian or the primitive Bushman as in those “most modest arts” of shop-signs, the pottery or folk art sold at fairs, souvenirs, old and new photographs; in all of this, in, say, the exuberance with which the country interior decorator captures the austere and harsh reality of death on the face of a dead woman in a coffin, Čapek sensed the same stirring that led him towards art, a stirring from inside outwards that does not slavishly copy what is already there, but genuinely goes beyond it, though without becoming untruthful; since man, man’s inner self, human imagination is also a reality, and one that is more emphatic and more responsible than that which is presented passively.

But I do not wish to repeat shadow-fashion what the better qualified have said before, but will turn instead to the document which shows how Čapek not only felt compelled to express through his creative art that human dimension that is more than the ready-made, but also how he struggled with it intellectually, endeavouring to apprehend it with the mind alone, at one remove. Not only to realise, grasp this transcendence artistically, but also to experience and clarify this “more” to himself in its entire extent, in its entire vital significance. I want to speak of the Limping Pilgrim.

The Limping Pilgrim is evidence for Čapek’s humanism – and also evidence of how he distanced himself from all manner of “humanist excesses”.

The limping pilgrim hobbles along life’s path – what immense, remote perspectives are evoked by these words. The oldest, most ancient philosophemes are linked by the image of a path.

Parmenides encountered the Truth “on the path through creation that leads, unharmed, the man who knows”. This is a path which, rather than just being walked along, itself leads us. Heraclitus of Ephesus saw that the path up and down, the path of origin and extinction, is one and the same. In a sophistical tale, Hercules encountered, at the crossroads of life, Pleasure and Goodness. Making one’s way, not knowing where from or where to, but in the hope that one will not be abandoned by the kindly gods who know the final destination – that is how life appears to old Socrates. Čapek is attracted to this image as he is to those on whose minds the image was engraved: Comenius, say. But with him, the pilgrimage really is from the unknown to the unknown, from darkness to darkness. “I was not – I am – I shall not be”, thus does Čapek at one point describe the line of our path, of our finite time. This trinity with its clear reference to time, this double frontier of our own dynamic, which at one and the same time moves and is at rest – interval and movement, an unease which can move forward: that is the path, that is our time. With their image of peregrination, the oldest philosophemes are hinting at the connectivity of being, time and man; the limping pilgrim travels the same path but with a heavy, fantasy-free, non-speculative tread. He proceeds slowly and his feet lift off the ground with difficulty: one is rooted to it forever, unable to haul itself off it; the world, nature, matter exist for him. The world is for him an enormous reality which no metaphysical trick can make disappear. And no power of suggestion can free the pilgrim of it. The world is full, charged with existence, it does not rest on the bottom of nothingness. Nothingness, Čapek muses in an even later work, Psáno do mraků (Inscribed on the clouds), was never possible; the material world, with its attributes of space and time, has lasted since the beginning of time. Its dynamic is also everlasting, as is the immeasurability of real and possible movements and actions in it.

But the condition of limping does not merely mean this realistic acceptance of facts, a cleaving to that which exists according to experience and common sense. Total resorption into reality is not remotely possible for man; and the very fact that we are forever transcending reality in some way, not always proceeding through life with legs of the same length, means limping. Hegel of old used to maintain that man is something like a sick animal, from the biological point of view an incomplete, imperfect creature. To this too is linked the image of the man with a limp. Yet this constant infirmity would not interest us as such if it were not counterbalanced by something else, an incapacity to adapt to what is near, to something other, something great, unknown, remote and problematic. And the lame person is quite happy about his infirmity:

Thus, then, thanks to the shorter, less mobile leg by which his way through life is afflicted, something extra has been granted him: his awareness of both his shorter leg and certain things in life and the world is a little more impelling and a little stronger. Then, gathering strength and gratifyingly submissive composure, he observes such grand phenomena as the sky and distances, and such very small ones as, say, a bird or even just a butterfly. (p. 15)

Thus in limping he discovered something positive. And he speaks to us to convince us of it. It is a strange type of humanism, you tell me, which sees an irremediable defect in man! Whatever the case, I believe that what gives Josef Čapek’s humanism its specific quality is precisely that. Man is for him no successor to God, no god or demigod. On the contrary, his exterior inspires no particular enthusiasm since it lacks harmony and strength, being constitutionally weak and flawed. One might add that his flaw is insuperable. The classical humanists of the nineteenth century saw it differently: defects for them belong exclusively to the past and the present, but not to the definitively human. Consequently it often happened that, for them, man was an infinite, total, universal being, a titan who seeks to make sense of the universe, a ploughman hitched to the universal plough, the liberating Word of heaven and earth. The moment man extricates himself from the clutches of illusion that have obscured total reality from him, the moment he rids himself of metaphysical and mythological visions, he immediately becomes a kind of complete being, a kind of hero of the cosmos who as much issues from the forces of the world as he himself is the key to unlocking their sense. In Čapek’s conception, to be a total being, a sensate being with some access to the universal, does not come to one automatically, as a gift of nature, so to say, but only after a struggle with something that impedes our being one, and then again never entire and flawless, but only in the human way – partially, privately, without being definitive. Man may be one who tries to make sense of things – but can only do so to a finite degree. This finiteness manifests itself first and foremost as mortality. Mortality is the most obvious expression of finiteness, but it is not of itself its basis, its essence. Hegel and the young Feuerbach thought mortality was but the tribute which man must pay to his own inner infinity, the infinity of his spiritual essence as the latter is made manifest in society and history. For them death was merely the certainty that one’s individuality is not one’s real substance, that one’s substance is of a general and spiritual nature; the very sen se of an individual’s death is the transcending of his finiteness. With them death acts against individuality. In Čapek’s conception, on the contrary, death individualises. The thought of death – by no means as of something sentimentally wept over or blotted out – serves to ensure that life as finite is lived the more intensely, lived out more for the self.

Here, however, and contrary to custom, the end of all our doings is placed at the very beginning, to become thereby something of a starting-point, something of a key to all that follows. Or, let’s put it another way: in the certain knowledge of the end we can start by drawing a line under all those things and places that we must leave behind and, having taken stock of all that’s most important, enter an approximate total at the foot of the balance sheet to end all balance sheets. (pp. 24–25)

So death becomes the threshold of what is real and what ultimately matters, what I live by the moment everything external and ephemeral that death checks, blocks and dismisses ceases to work or apply. And so the idea of death is something radically distinct from all vanitas vanitatum. Death is not even the confirmation of a universal nihil, nor is it evidence that man in his spiritual core is the master of, and the one who makes sense of, all reality: death is the opportunity to face what remains most securely concealed from us in life, since we think we have to deal with more urgent matters, but these are in fact distractions. Death, however, concentrates; only under its severe gaze are we made whole – we are not merely as one engaged in doing this or that, whether it is important or not, but as ephemeral man, living in the face of all creation, in relation to its eternity, and thus we are to all intents and purposes alone sub specie aeterni.

Death does one more thing besides individualising life, making it fully ours: it dramatises it. Life is not a mere fact like an atomic structure, a crystal, or a sunset. Life is action, a dramatic event where something is at issue, even in the case of a trivial, wretched life that does not effervesce with some superficially rich content. Even a life that is not placed at the world’s helm and a life beyond the limelight of the world’s great dramas has an inner dramatic quality, plots with which nothing can compare and which are, or may be, also full of depth. Čapek eulogises life, vegetative life, the simple life the roots of which are in what is nearest to us, just as with plants and trees, a life which, rather than leaning towards animal images, tends to parallel mildews and mosses, wasteland weeds, corn-stalks and the lilies of forest shades. It goes without saying that this kind of life need not apply generally, but is only ever private; that it is not as important to others as it is to itself; but the private significance, the private sense is, finally, the entire point of being human, and belonging to the whole is indirectly also the sense of the whole.

The path of the limping pilgrim is human time. Human time, that line between birth and death, is possible only where the end is, at each stage, already present in advance. On this path meetings occur and this is the sum of the pilgrim’s adventure. The limping pilgrim is passive, perhaps even too passive.

Of course, he will have to fight and liberate someone on the way. The path leads through being. Where from and where to? “From one uncertain place to another even less defined. In truth I am going from no-where to nowhere, merely wending my way in something; it is not places through which my path takes me: much more is it a kind of duration, a tension in time, perhaps no more than a state.” (p. 36). “From where, to where?” is a question which serves a double awareness. On the one hand an awareness of the vast whole in which we have been given our place and from which we emerge so strangely – nature and the material universe clearly behave as if we, our individuality, our inner selves and life do not matter, and yet our inner selves, life and individuality are here. Affinities are everywhere; they are immeasurable and disappear into the indeterminate. The affinity of our living arising out of the biological tank that is the universe is undeniable. But the biological layer itself emerges from somewhere or other in the anorganic underlay; so is that all? To be able to say definitively whence and whither would mean to have surveyed the whole once and for all down to the deepest depth, while to decline to reply to the question of whence and whither means to acknowledge that being within the whole remains unrevealed – at least, in the positive form endowed with some content that our intellect usually calls knowledge. Thus awareness of the whole is simultaneously accompanied by a second awareness – that is ignorance. We do not know where to and where from. This also means that we do not know what we are heading towards. Neither nature, nor a different beginning and origin, but also the end to which we are tending, are capable of dictating their demands to us without demur and without remainder. Even if it were true a hundred times over that nature cares only about the species, the whole, the group, that the individual is a mere instrument – life is, when all’s said and done, merely ours. And so the awareness that ensues from the question “Where from – where to”, at once general and negative, is the overarching question, a kind of knowledge of ignorance, docta ignorantia. It is at once scant and boundless. This boundlessness is manifested in that with it we acquire a new relationship to ourselves – from the point of view of immeasurability and eternity.

Surely that doesn’t begin just there somewhere, beyond some border, beyond an end of something; we’re already bang in the middle of it. [...] It passes through us, permeates us, enfolds us here just as much as in the hereafter, on the other side; it’s already here, among us and in us. Life is just one of its manifestations, one of those that are accessible to us at least fragmentarily, if not more, at least a little through our senses. [...] I’ve read more than once that the Gate of Eternity faces us all everywhere, it is everywhere, anywhere, wide open. [...] You asked where I’m going from and to. We’re on the same journey: I’m hobbling through the Gate of Eternity (pp. 43–44).

What can be met on this path in the company of the limping pilgrim? Will the journey take on a shape somewhat different from how we shape it daily as we hurry on towards different things without the pain in our foot forcing us to think about the path itself?

But the answer is already obvious: have we not already discovered things so great that they take our breath away? Have we not already encountered the immeasurability of being which, at the same time, urges us on and conceals itself from open view? We were first to meet the mystery (rather than question) of being. Inseparable from it, though, is the next thing: anyone to whom the whole has become so insistent, who has been addressed by being, who has a sense of the eternity in which we continuously are and from which – whether we know it or not – we are unable to take a single step back, discovers that he has a soul. Our Limping Man has something in common with Socrates of old, in that his knowing ignorance, fired by the insistence and unanswerability of the last “whence and whither”, is at the same time a concern for the soul, tés psychés epimeleisthai.

Against the solid backdrop of what is given and certain, against the backdrop of the permanency of existence which reveals itself through age-old laws, forces, the superpower of matter and forces, something not fully defined quivers: our human question as to the final “whither”. Not everything in the world is done for ever. We can appreciate this from the fact that we ask the question and find no answer. The answer will not come from anything external; we cannot read it in the sky or on the earth; in the final questions we cannot latch onto or rely on anything that pertains to another; no such thing can be the final authority and reply.

Matter may rule to the uttermost limits – but the soul remains the maximum of how far and how high the evolution of life has been able to go. And no Übermensch perhaps; I do not like that Nietzschean arrogance. Man is quite enough for me. Man with a soul. A being of unease. Yes, unease over change and perdurance. Over time-boundedness and eternity, over life and death. Unease at the sense of all of this. And what if the soul is naught but unease, mere apprehension, a weakness, a mute call of despair into the giddy void? It is not much, but, ultimately, it is everything. The soul is the ultimate and supreme question that life is capable of asking within an individual. But a question is not an answer. No, it isn’t. – Perhaps with a single exception, at this very point: to the effect that by this point the question is simultaneously the answer (pp. 75–76).

Thus dialectically does the pilgrim seek to proceed from the question itself, from ignorance, from negation towards the answer, the positive and the substantive. If life, conscious life, cannot find ahead of it in the universe that which it craves – sense, purpose, that does not mean it is sense-less and purposeless. At least under this condition, the soul is wide open, the soul, guardian and shepherd of the question, of the relation to the whole that is. For the man of today, what was once seen as clear and given, as a gift from the hand of God, has again become a question – but that means increased, not reduced responsibility, it means living within the whole, breaking out of human smallness and the snail-shell mentality that constantly and automatically dogs a man. The whole world is a kind of seeking to overcome the self; material aimlessness is overcome in life, life in awareness, and awareness is purified in man into pure intellectuality, a constant relationship to the final, constant and so eternal things. These formulations by the pilgrim may not be entirely clear, they may not be refined enough. But they do show what is at issue: even under the greatest bias towards nature, it is to stress that man is a turning point, that if he now receives no answers from God, from that which is higher, he also cannot have them dictated to him by nature, that is, by that which is lower. Even an ordinary life, as Čapek said later, must be touched by a dose of metaphysics. Not the metaphysics that comes from speculation, but that which we are.

This impact of total being on life is the essence of the soul. Anyone capable of relating to the whole, anyone who has a sense for the honor generis humani, has a soul. In contrast to this there is in man an aspect which shortens his perspective and breath, an aspect that exists no less than his soul: the aspect of personal success in life, which constantly measures his own against another’s, which clambers up the social ladder, seeing only functions and actions, the aspect for which the path of life changes into a career, which thinks, feels and lives for that career alone. Gain, advantage and loss, strife, these endless perspectives of our all too human arithmetic – this is the domain of the Person that competes with the soul for dominion over man. The soul cannot count, at least not in the usual way; its field is the infinite, and in that the part is not less than the whole; in it neither obvious progression, nor gain nor loss is actually possible – the soul desires to live, and live to the full, because it is in relation to the whole. And because it is in relation to the whole, to everything, the landscape of the soul is solitude. Not the kind that closes off against other people. The kind that together with what is its own constitutes that other humanity.

The Person is, then, the second meeting on the path of life, which is simultaneous with meeting the soul. The Person is the soul’s double, which acts for it so perfectly that to many preoccupied with their own Person it never occurs that behind its broad shoulders there is also another being, tender and unassuming, quiet, solitary and taciturn, without whose blood, though, the Person would not survive an instant. The Person lives off transfusions: all our relationships in life are finally relations to the great Whole, whereas the Person desires to live off its own self: it is self-sustaining in Comenius’ sense of the expression.

We have already said that in Čapek man is not solely a being of sense, of the whole, infinitude, eternity, that he is not such a being automatically. A man does not have a soul in the same way that he has arms and legs. He only has a soul if he is willing to go into battle and make great sacrifices for it. And doing battle and making sacrifices does not yet accord him the role of undisputed master and interpreter of things, but only makes sense of his private life, his private human dignity and majesty.

The soul has to be fought over with the Person. The reason why is rooted in our finiteness: the Person is the latter’s exponent. The Person stands between the soul and the whole like an opaque shield ever on stand-by; only at odd moments does one manage to peek round the edge and glimpse the uncircumscribed firmament of heaven.

The pilgrim refers to his Person with utter bitterness, almost treating that as the embodiment of evil. The Person is demonic, it is the demon of smugness, he says. The soul does not stand in battle against the body, if we understand the latter as materiality and sensuality, but against the Person. The ’bodily’ aspect belongs to the Person only to the extent that our natural, animal aspect embraces those selfish instincts that make us, as it were, the centre of all our actions and which the Person seizes on almost as its own, found property the minute it sets about erecting its own realm, the realm of ’this world’. The way the “limping pilgrim” speaks of Person may at first evoke the impression that the Person is a pure parasite in the overall plan of life, something totally superfluous that can be dispensed with.

Thus, then, encountering one’s Person is one of those great adventures on the way, a not insignificant adventure because the Person is a creature of great danger to the man. It has no respect or regard for him at all, and how could it indeed, since, given how it is, it did not come, unlike him, directly from the workshop of creation? Its origins lie somewhere quite different and I daresay it is not a little proud of the fact. – So who did create it if it was not given birth by a mother? – Much as many other detrimental things, it was created by man himself, and having elevated it above himself, he bows in obeisance before its supremacy. And yet it is not constructed out of any better matter, nor is it in any way more attractive than he: in none of these respects has it any grounds for coming the high and mighty over him. [...] And yet always and through and through – no matter how barely distinguishable from man – it is a secondary product, artificial and to a large degree a parasite on his physical and mental juices. Unhappy people are sometimes said to be victims of their own dark instincts, their passions; but how many of them are victims of their Person! Of that insidious monster which clings to his body with thousands of tiny hooks; which dons him and masquerades as him, speaking his language, imitating his gestures and behaviour (pp. 67–68).

The Person, we hear elsewhere, is social in origin: we have to cut the cloth of our nature to the pattern of society, the average style currently worn in society, which can be copied and adopted readymade, and this makes our lives easier. That which palliates, alleviates our life acts on our inner weakness and cowardice: it is complaisant towards our tendency to hide from duties, obligations, predicaments. Finally, our smugness breeds a bias in favour of our Person: we desire superiority, we compete with others, and our Person, which is an entirely external posture, a role, something objective, real and imposing, tangibly abets us therein. In short, the Person is a false, objectified version of the mental, metamorphosed and reduced to a thing.

We need to be convinced that “Person” in Čapek’s sense is not a mere construct, that it is a circumstance that anyone can identify in himself and others. Life carries this falsehood with it all the time. Man is incapable of being – fully and without remainder – truthful, some would say: sincere. Sincerity is precluded by our very essence – as certain moralists have sought to formulate it. Understandably, Čapek does not go to such quaint extremes. Yet there is the question of whether the vital meaning of the Person has been properly conveyed by him. True, in a fascination with Person there is something demonic, which at every moment makes us into something other than what actually feel we are, something that makes us lie instead of telling the truth; instead of people we see masks, instead of reality a mummery – in short a world of semblances instead of the world of actual reality, instead of ontos ón, as the philosophers of old put it. On the other hand it is surely probable that without this principle of finiteness man could not exist, live, at all. This principle of our degeneration is inseparable from man. It suffices for us to look a little further into other effects of the Person to become convinced of this. It goes without saying that the Person is a largely social creation, but cum fundamento in re, that is in natura. This is precisely why man must create his Person and subject himself to it since, unlike other natural creatures, he is no mere organ of creation, like a crystal, an ear of wheat or a bird in the air – but, being in the midst of existence and incorporated in it, he is also something independent. Čapek himself says at one point: “We share with nature a noble origin, being parts of the universe and of the same materials as it. Many an ungood then starts from this human particle’s having the fateful mania of doing his own thing, constituting himself as a Person” (p. 144). This surely means that our individuality, our solitariness in nature, is connected with the Person – as likewise the individualisation of our soul. This independence, this simultaneous engagement and disengagement, means that there must always be active within us two contrary tendencies, a dual direction and current of life: one that resides in the assimilation of being – essentially not finite – by our limited self, and one that brings our disengaged and finite self into connection with and dependence on the immeasurable and eternally unmastered. These two tendencies, as closely connected with human life as systole and diastole are with the movement of the heart muscle, are basically what we call Person and soul. Both are involved in any, even the slightest impression; in some way or other even the merest glance, any simple visual quality contains the infinity of existence – but this perception cannot merely be, it must also serve us, mean something in the context of our practical objectives, hence it must be conventionalised, classified, given a label in words, and be deprived of its originality. By the joint forces of both, soul and Person, we eventually arrive at what Čapek describes so tellingly about human life: a complex tableau played out in a single Person.

[...] you see, there’s plenty of things for a man to be able to find fulfilment. But then there’s many an empty space in him to be filled. As you see me here, I’m a little bit like that shell in the hands of the child that that chap St Augustine was watching. Yes, I’m that shell (man); and the little boy, bailing out the ocean with it, that’s me as well (isn’t it in the end the I-Person who is trying to make the immeasurable finite?); and St Augustine, taking a lesson from it, well, craving his indulgence, that’s also me a bit (the soul that knows about genuine infinity and about the vain actions of the Person). And actually, when I stop to think, the ocean, that’s partly me too – at least as much of it as that kid sloshed about with his shell (the ocean of being). [...] I’m none too keen on metaphors, but the great asset of parables is that they do fit some situations to a T. (p. 47; the commentaries in brackets are Patočka’s.)

Of course, since both antagonists are indissolubly present in our lives, that does not make them any the less antagonistic, and each tries to control the field as exclusively as possible – which would lead consequently to the suppression of the victorious partner himself. After all, the Person supplies itself discretely and shamelessly from the soul; admittedly, the soul cannot take its content from the Person, the Person having nothing to give (it is pure taking), but it could not survive without it since otherwise it would merge with all creation. In reality, the result of antagonism in ordinary life is suppression of the soul into the function of a mere servant who has no independent voice, who has no leading part in the drama of life, who is non-assertive and unobtrusive; as soon as it so subjugates itself, order and equilibrium take over biologically and socially – assuming of course that the Person is clever and successful enough to have its way. If it does not subjugate itself, if the soul, that is, our non-objectified component, our link with infinity, wakes up, if it demands its right, then suddenly our movement among things, our vital reactions become disordered, unpredictable; in life things happen such has have not happened before – life does not run on automatically, it begins to be aware that it is not of a piece, that it has – a limp. For the Limping Man is finally nothing other than this man with his two basic organs, of semblance and truth, realities and reality, parts and the whole. Man with an organ of finiteness with which he adjusts limitless reality in such a way as to be able to live in it, so as to be a match for it, to take control of it and subjugate it to him, and with his link to infinity, which invariably tells him – whenever he aspires to lay down the law to the final truth – that that truth is not in his power, that he does not rule over it, on the contrary, it rules him. Thus it transpires that, for all its passivity, the soul is at the root of its own ethos: the soul is its own truth and as a consequence thereof, as we shall see in due course, its own good.

So the soul is truth, but in life it is at many disadvantages vis-à-vis the Person. One of these is the soul’s perennial uncertainty. The soul is not anchored in unproblematic, objective knowledge, but in knowing ignorance, an enigma par excellence! Accordingly it is never, even relatively sure of itself, the way one can be sure of objective truth. Hence the plethora of ever-repeated musings of the limping pilgrim on the essence and destiny of the soul. Does it come from Nature? Or from something even vaster? Is there something like the soul of Nature that speaks to us in the landscape and of which the things and beings of this fold in Nature’s gown are a component? Will our soul disperse one day, when our material structure decomposes, and regress into the universal soul-state of Nature? All these questions are just a game; they cannot have and do not have answers.

So this uncertainty, which resides in the immateriality of the soul, gives the Person another disadvantage; but the soul has a powerful ally. Only now can we say out loud what had previously only been hinted: why the soul is associated with death. That ally is none other than death itself. This is where the Person’s self-interest ends, it has run out of plans and calculations; no devices and no rationalisations are of any avail to it; at this point reason and spirit desert to the enemy. But from the soul’s point of view the ages of man also take on striking contours: the three islands of life, childhood, maturity and old age, suddenly appear against the backdrop of the sea that is the universe; the first, the island of children, a garden of magic and fantasy, is at the same time the home of valour and the first yearnings for joy and tenderness; on the big, middle island the Person resides with his places of business and amusement, but also the neighbourhoods of the poor; the island of the old, grey and bare, has spots of great radiance. A biological age, an age of fighting for existence, an age of conciliation. “Man has been granted ample opportunities to come to terms with the things of life. They can be measured in terms of thirst, existential tactics and conciliation. Conciliation does not strike me as the worst of these options, the conciliation that the whole of nature contains within it.” (p. 138). It would be wrong to interpret man’s fighting for his soul and against his Person as a fight of the individual against the social, against integration into human society and its objectives and needs. The world and life of men is shared, communal. The soul in society – that is where ethics come in. The world of the Person is narrowly utilitarian, it is a world of personal, egotistical expediency. “Ethics until decreed otherwise, sacrificed at any moment to the individual’s profit, to the benefit of the parts, to the mentality of the majority. Ethics so abused as to become a mere polemical fly-swat” (p. 155). The yearning for Good appertains not to the Person, but to the soul; the will to have a conscience: “[...] feelings, nay more, an appreciation of solidarity with the human community and thereby – of course – some sense of complicity. Complicity in the woes of the world that come about with the connivance of this human community” (p. 157). Responsibility for everyone and everything – that is what the soul feels and demands, the soul as whole and total in this relation as it is in all others. Any particular man is human society, unless elbowed out by the allcontriving, all-technicalising, all-mobilising Person, and provided he has, and wants to have, a conscience. – And obviously, travelling with the limping one we shall also discover art, books and pictures, which are the actual voice of his soul. “I don’t want yarns, I want the Word! I don’t want information, I want knowledge! I don’t want half the truth, but I’ll be happy with total enchantment! I want books that I can read again and again, that will always have something to tell me, something to buttress my ideas, something to invigorate me.” [...] “Eternal youth” (pp. 176 –77). There is only one great thing that the pilgrim does not encounter on his way. That thing is God. Once, later, Čapek said that he was sure he would love God more than life (Psáno do mraků [Inscribed on the clouds], p. 319) and that while the idea of God may have cost humanity a great deal, it also gave it a great deal. Čapek’s atheism is not blasphemous. Nor is it the “conjectural atheism” of so many modern titans who see, or saw, in God the usurper of humanity. For Čapek, God is the unoccupied spot in the geometry of life’s vanishing points. He is something great, but beyond the axis of our life, something to which Čapek is incapable of relating by either deed or thought. And since, if he is to be quite frank, he does not know God, he must cope with his final human task alone, alone with his soul.

There is something melancholic about this conclusion, no exuberant pride springs from it. Čapek’s wisdom has a manly despondency, but it is neither aggrieved, nor given to artifically heroic posturing.

But Čapek’s melancholy, charged with the heavy encumbrances of life, but not faint-hearted or convulsive, is also a happiness. In The Limping Pilgrim (p. 156) Čapek had already said that he was a happy man, repeating it in the tragic Inscribed in the Clouds: “Actually I am a happy man. But don’t have many opportunities to show it. Why, how should a man be unhappy if he has in him the many loves that can make one happy?” (p. 123). Čapek’s melancholy does not spring from being – without God – rid of substance and sense. Substance and sense are given him by the struggle of the soul and struggling for the soul. His melancholy stems from the fact that man, although he is a being of such significance, is too feeble for the task of constituting the sense of the university. “The universe’s stellar mantel is not made to man’s measure. What a giant man would have to be to be impelled to invent gods!” (Inscribed in the Clouds, p. 156). “There being no God, creative nature may have ventured too far in man. She launched him on a trajectory which, lacking any farther or higher destination, would only have a sense and purpose within itself. – An adventure or task imposed should be borne with bravery.” (Inscribed in the Clouds, p. 323.) These are typical expressions of Čapek’s solid realism, his attitude without illusions, yet with faith and hope. It is as human as it is possible to be; so natural, so vital, so fragile.

I will not and cannot pursue here the evolution of Čapek’s views as we see them in his second book of essays. This book took a different form: it is no longer in the form of a dialogue with his true self, but in the form of aphorisms, rare in Czech literature. To be able to read a book of aphorisms without getting bored is an indication of the author’s ingenuity, but Čapek wants more. His aphorisms are the interior diary of one who, from basking in cumbrous glory, from wallowing in his gloomy brand of happiness, has fallen among the horrors of a terrible collective, and thereafter also a personal, unhappiness. This melancholiac of human weakness has now been assailed by moments when the wisdom given him by life, the wisdom of a soul fallen silent in its solitude, was to bear alone, without the assistance of a higher reality, the onslaught of the most terrible, most incendiary action, when bit by bit he began to lose the props of social life, lived through the calamity of Munich and what followed, lost his brother, when bread turned bitter in his mouth and all his thoughts gravitated persistently towards a single painful blow, when his own private jeopardy was already looming, ready to tear him away from his family, from those to whom he cleaved with the greatest, most devoted love. From being once sweet and deep and, despite everything, alluring and full of hope, the world became a degrading and humiliating ruin and ultimately the mere ashes of substance made thoroughly negative and only ever injurious. Inscribed in the Clouds is a book that tells what the soul’s wisdom is to man at the moment when the light goes.

What was it to him? In short: he remained true to it and it to him. “Wistful, bitter, but true,” he writes in late 1938. “Although I am suffering, I still believe, still hope: I’m alive! What will become of me if bale descends? What will become of everyone?!” (Inscribed in the Clouds, pp. 253–54). And that is practically the only personal reference to have entered a book that is otherwise given over entirely to the life of the soul, its ideas, thoughts, hopes, its self-encouragement. We will not go into its philosophical motifs, which continue consistently along the Pilgrim’s way. Its political motifs will suffice to show how firmly planted he is.

Humanity, liberty, justice, right being dragged through the mud? Good, one day they will rise therefrom, right from the very bottom. People may understand it better, be better instructed, if a great cry of humanity, liberty, right and justice goes up from the deepest depth, from the dust of the earth, from its veriest bottom! (p. 254)

Things are bad, woeful, people have lost their way, they’re giving in to crazy dreams, and only facts, facts, it is said, will bring them back to the true path and cure them. All else is just fancy, only facts are the real, salutary thing. – As if facts (especially those crushingly evil ones) didn’t also call for some belief; facts are no permanent, eternal value, what is and ever will be such is the capacity for belief: belief that today’s facts may one day be set right and surmounted – brought to naught by better facts; belief that what may today be a fact ten times over will tomorrow be a past monstrosity... (p. 258)

Here too Čapek remains true to his idea of not reducing man, not spelling him out as the sum of what is ready-made, not relieving him of responsibility, and not depriving him of the chance of the real life. “For many of us almost the entire world collapsed that autumn of 1938. We are living among ruins, our ideas of the justice of history, the value of morality and the solidity of truth sorely shaken – what wretchedness, and yet – what a task for life!” (p. 262). And one of the most characteristic, and perhaps most profound ideas: “A tragic sense of life is absolutely not the same thing as a negative sense of life” (p. 272). That, I think, best encapsulates the content of Inscribed in the Clouds: Čapek’s melancholy is here growing into the tragic. Man’s terrestrial predicament, as Čapek senses it, is fundamentally tragic: a gigantic task, actually beyond our capacities, but there’s no escaping it; all pathways are closed, pathways of courage through the objective powers of Nature and history, pathways of pusillanimity, pathways of naked individual privacy – all are closed by real man, the real soul itself. And so he strides, head held high, and enters an open plain, where thunder rolls and where the outcome is certain; only its when and where are uncertain. And so went the Limping Pilgrim himself at moments when he was assailed by a blow that subverted his personal privacy once for all

You who in prison
weave your wistful, dressed-up dream of life,
why – is your faith in life no more
than a sign of despair [...]?
that life in which you so believe is surely your slayer;
what else is that faith of yours but despair?

Not by life, but by human cruelty do I feel myself injured
– and yet life enfolds within it all that is human:
what is man if not life? am I myself not life?
if not believing in life – where am I to find trust in myself?
while yet I live, be I unhappy, be it despair that consumes me,
I want to believe in life – and, despairing, yet I despair not!

Then there are tiny snatches of nature that surface like a memory from a different sphere of life into these dark or grey lines: autumn grass that refuses to be ploughed in, shepherd’s purse flowering beyond the barbed wire, these are symbols of a resurgent, if trampled-on will to live. “The gods, I have it for a certainty that they know all in advance, are unacquainted with hope; man himself created hope out of his mortal strength.” Time and again he fights his way back during the last painful travail when the choice is either to let oneself go or rise up once more. And this potent soul, which once knew so much wondrous and bitter happiness, always manages to rise up again. What tenderness and beauty of home pervades his verse about woman, the soul, home; these are among the most touching lines ever written in Czech. The soul rings out in them with the same force as in the days of ease, and as if with an accompaniment from another world, its own accompaniment of tragedy. And one last time, the last appeal of that strong soul, returning to life, willing to trust it, and yet fully aware of the tragic in it.

Back to life, or into the throat of death, –
what will there be at the end of the path? Thousands
go, you are not alone... will you, won’t you
be lucky?
The day of the great journey has arrived,
you have been long prepared for this:
life’s harvest or death’s –
but you are going home – you’re going to your home!

Translated by David Short.


The author uses the KLN edition of 1937 (ed.)

The author uses the Borový edition of 1947 (ed.)