Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Good Soldier Švejk discussion: Book One “Behind the Lines”

Švejk goes to the war
Illustration by Josef Lada
Picture source

Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking them, and weaklings like that are the very people who cause most harm to culture and character. They would like to see the nation grow up into a group of over-sensitive little people—masturbators of false culture of the type of St Aloysius, of whom it iw said in the book of the monk Eustachius that when he heard a man breaking wind with deafening noise he immediate burst into tears and could only be consoled by prayers.

People like that proclaim their indignation in public but take unusual pleasure in going to public lavatories to read obscene inscriptions on the walls.

In using a few strong expressions in my book I have done nothing more than affirm en passant how people actually talk.

We cannot expect the inn-keeper palivec to speak with the same refinement as Mrs Laudová, Doctor Gurth, Mrs olga Fastrová [ed. note—people of Hašek’s time who wrote on morals and behavior] and a whole series of others who would like to turn the whole Czechoslovak Republic into a big salon with parquet flooring, where people go about in tail-coats, white ties and gloves, speak in choice phrases and cultivate the refined behaviour of the drawing-room. But beneath this camouflage these drawing-room lions indulge in the worst vices and excesses.

I do not know whether I shall succeed in achieving my purpose with this book. The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say ‘You’re about as big an idiot as Švejk’ does not prove that I have. But if the word ‘Švejk’ becomes a new choice specimen in the already florid garland of abuse I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language.

From the Epilogue to Part One, “Behind the Lines”
As evidenced by the quote Hašek thinks everyone is worth hearing, even (or maybe especially) a simpleton like Švejk. The “wise fool” device has been used many times, yet Hašek throws in some twists which maintain freshness in this work. I will link Ian Johnston’s lecture on The Good Soldier Švejk again since it covers the book so well. All I can do is add a few points (and I’m sure some will be repetitive) on my reaction to the work.

Book One introduces us to Švejk (pronounced Shvayk) and the world he inhabits. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria has just been assassinated and World War I unfolds around Švejk, “who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile…“. In this section, Švejk is called up again into the army, imprisoned and examined, becomes personal assistant to an army chaplain, is lost in a game of cards to a lieutenant, and causes the lieutenant to be sent to the front.

We rarely get a glimpse inside Švejk’s mind during Hašek’s narration—at times Švejk can be an indefinite entity to the reader. In his asides, Hašek can be screechy at times, especially regarding religion (more on that later), but they can also provide information and help move the story along. His discussion on dogs and dog-thieves (Chapter 14, Section vi), for example, sets up the next part of the story. The narrator almost always treats Švejk with tenderness, commenting on his sweetness and charm.

Švejk is a wonderful creation. He does not develop or expand his limited self-awareness. He isn’t always consistent. Is he really a imbecile? He readily admits he is a half-wit, yet his perceptions often cut through to the heart of a matter. Although he constantly frames events through past experiences or anecdotes, his comments usually have nothing to do with the action or surreptitiously insult those around him. He claims to be honest but his dog business is a fraud (although he feels he couldn’t profit from it because he was so honest).

As an Everyman, Švejk can be seen as an ordinary (or below ordinary) person in extraordinary times. He claims he wants to do good. “I always want to put something right, to do good, but nothing ever comes out of it except trouble for me and all around.” Unfortunately this is the limit of his self-awareness. In wanting to do good, he rarely does anything of his own initiative—he is always following orders. Doing exactly as he is told, however, causes much of the trouble. He responds to commands with enthusiasm (which is usually questioned) and, if given any leeway in performing a duty, will choose an approach that only makes sense to his addled mind. I think it becomes clear to the reader that Švejk really is the half-wit he claims to be (see the comments for some reconsideration), but his actions highlight the absurdities that go on around him. Early in this section he is examined again by army doctors, but their psychiatric tests strike even Švejk as “even stupider nonsense.” Švejk occasionally utters insights that are a little too sane for those around him: “Except for my legs I’m completely sound cannon-fodder.”

The target of Hašek is not just the war, but bureaucracy in all areas of life that controls us. The nameless, faceless bureaucrats are given names and faces in this book so they can be mocked. In Švejk's world no one questions the system, instead blindly following orders to survive. Figuring out how to rig the system for personal benefit usually represents the only initiative shown. Švejk becomes the wrench in the bureaucratic system in several ways. First, he always cheerfully follows orders, much to the chagrin of the issuers—they do not know how to react to a lack of resistance except to question his motives. Second, he follows the orders as close as possible. Because a catastrophe usually follows his adherence, the system is shown to be flawed when operating as claimed. Third, Švejk continually distracts those around him. His assumptions may be incorrect (leading his escorts to get falling-down drunk since they believe Švejk is to be hanged) or he may be literally following orders (raising money for the chaplain by saying “whatever you like”, so Švejk says the chaplain had knocked up a fifteen year-old girl). Those around Švejk have to adjust for his presence, creating extra work just to avoid unpleasant outcomes.

Hašek’s view is that any bureaucratic system, whether government, religion or military, takes over the life of all that participates in it. While education is presented as an antidote, it is a partial one at best. Any system set up in this manner allows others to control your life regardless of their competence. Hašek highlights the arbitrary nature of the justice system under such bureaucrats, but examples of randomness are shown in every other sanctioned system. Being in these systems reduces people to passive, non-caring individuals whose actions are guided solely by trying not to make a mistake. Each system absolves the individual of personal responsibility, reducing them to reactive creatures (at least according to Hašek). Offices that used to hold great power and great responsibility now perform cruel and arbitrary acts in order to mask their current impotence, ignoring the 'responsibility' part of the equation. “[P]etty thieves … were a thousand times more honest than the blackguards who sent them there [jail].”

The absurdity of modern life under such bureaucracies takes on greater significance during The Great War, where military leaders fail to recognize or adapt their tactics to adjust for new realities, while half-wits like Švejk recognize that their only purpose is to be cannon-fodder. (Side-note: I am halfway through the book and there has only been one instance of action at the front relayed—it will be interesting to see if and how the front will be portrayed). Hašek holds the military in special disregard because the discipline imposed masks a lack of reason--you do what is asked solely to keep from bigger problems. Švejk blindly follows orders because he is an imbecile, frustrating his superiors who expect resistance. Since a system cannot anticipate every outcome and bureaucrats are stripped of the ability to reason, anarchy ensues when something out of the ordinary occurs. Freedom is mentioned often but is only an illusion, while those that seek it are automatically suspect. There are many instances, but I’ll provide two short quotes that encapulate Hašek’s attitude (and yes, they may appear completely out of the blue out of context):

“[P]olice headquarters presented the finest collection of bureaucratical beasts of prey, to whom gaols and gallows were the only means of defending the existence of the twisted clauses of the law.”

“Try hard to think that Austria rests on these enemas and victory is ours.”

In a world where statements like these make sense, absurdity has triumphed. Higher principles are laughed at—all that matters to everyone is what is in it for them. If it has the potential to control your life, Hašek is against it, which includes religion. Otto Katz, the chaplain at the garrison gaol, drinks heavily, whores around, gambles, makes up prayers and invents Masses. Originally Jewish, his current position is viewed as a business transaction. “His sermons were of an abstract character with no connection whatsoever with life today” (much like the entire bureaucratic structures). The narrator shifts his tone at the start of Chapter 11, launching a diatribe against organized religion. Yet Hašek is more successful in playful descriptions and soft pokes, such as when a sports cup is used in place of a chalice, hempseed oil is substituted for sacramental oil or Boccaccio’s Decameron fills the purpose of a breviary. Individuals that seem to care about the soldier’s souls are painted as hysterics. Services become elaborate pantomimes void of meaning:
“The service and sermons were a marvelous thrill in the boredom of the garrison gaol. It was not a question of getting nearer to God, but of the hope of finding on the way in the corridor or in the courtyard a fag-end or a cigar-end. A little fag-end, lying about hopelessly in a spittoon or somewhere in the dust on the floor, stole the show and God was nowhere. That little stinking object triumphed over God and the salvation of the soul.”

The ultimate question from Hašek, unasked but seemingly implied, is where could God reside in such a world? And how is man to act in such a world? Does the half-wit Švejk hold the philosophical key? “Maul halten und weiter dienen! (“Grin and bear it and get on with the job!) That’s the best and finest thing of all.” Švejk proclaims variations of this throughout—“We muddle along as we can.” Hašek is not implying any answer to those questions yet, content with mocking everything. Let's see where he takes us through the rest of the book...

5 comments: said...

Thoughtful article, although I would tend to disagree with the description of Švejk as an idiot. He certainly plays one because it suits him. I think the perspective of the authors own life story is important here: a lot of this is autobiographical (and Hašek was definitely no nitwit). The original Švejk from 1912, in a collection a short stories, was certainly feebel-minded in the Forrest Gump style, but the Švejk of the novel becomes more and more clever and nasty as the story moves on. There is no doubt that he is political, he states in part 1, chapter 14 that "such an idiotic monarchy ought not to exist". Whatever else he says and does ought to reflect this; it's about the only time he speaks his mind.

Dwight said...

Thanks for the comment. As I move on into Book 2, I'm noticing a change in Švejk...I'll definitely keep an eye out on his development and further change.

I was reconsidering how to describe him in Book One and your note makes me wish I had thought about it more. I think a better description would be to say he is simpleminded...most of the time. And while he makes perceptive and judgmental statements at times, he also contradicts himself quite a bit.

(I've tried to suprress saying "Does Švejk contradict himself? Very well, then Švejk contradicts himself, Švejk is large, Švejk contains multitudes" but I can't hold it anymore. )

Regarding the autobiographical nature, Cecil Parrott's introduction (in my copy) highlights some of Hašek's life that shows up in the book. Although I took as more the circumstances/settings of those events and not necessarily meant as a comparison between Hašek and Švejk.

Thanks so much for the note!

balen said...

I agree with Jomar Hønsi. Švejk only plays the fool in order to secure the most comfortable position for himself and also as a sort of resistance. I would not be surprised if the character was in some way inspired by African American slaves who pretended to be dumb and slow in order to hinder their oppressor's work.

You must look at Jaroslav Hašek's commentary from his point of view in order to understand them. He was an anarchist and an atheist. Reconsider the author's political and religious ideas with this in mind.

The author places a character based closely upon himself in the book, by the way. He is the one year volunteer that was once the editor of a nature magazine.

Dwight said...

I understand and see Hašek placing his outlook in the book, both in and from Švejk as well as the other characters and the situations in which he places him. There’s no disagreement from me that Hašek intended a very political and subversive work, using his own experiences as a basis.

But I’m not sure I agree that Švejk “plays the fool in order to secure the most comfortable position for himself and also as a sort of resistance.” While he does the latter part (improve position and provide resistance), I don’t think he is playing at anything or carrying out a calculated gambit. I get the feeling Švejk is closer to a force of nature, simply playing himself as he is. While he is simpleminded, he also understands to some extent how he is undermining authority, but to what extent that is planned seems ambiguous to me.

That he can be calculating is clear from the way he responds to different levels of authority, acting (outwardly) obsequious to higher-ups, pushy with underlings. But again, to what extent that is intended to show Švejk as simply playing the fool instead of being one is not clear to me.

Thanks for adding to the discussion--I appreciate Hašek more and more as I see things can be interpreted in many different ways.

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