The good soldier Svejk - buffoon or reality cracker?
A reality cracker is someone who examines people’s perception of reality and then looks for ways to exploit it. In Reality cracking - cracks let the light in I talked about the famous reality crackers Fravia and Orc. When reading the book The Good Soldier Svejk one is always asking the question, is he a buffoon or a reality ? Authorities from ranging from the USA to Nazi Germany couldn’t decide, to be safe they banned it. The book was the inspiration for works like Catch-22,Mash,Forest Gump etc. How could a Czech Forest Gump be subversive ? Why is a book written almost a century ago still important ? Reading books as Nicholas Carr puts it, prevents one from becoming shallow and develops our mind. This is why you should read a book by one of the world’s first trolls and sock-puppets.
To understand the book, one has to understand the author,Jaroslav Hasek,a Czech, and his times. Despite living over a century ago, he actually lived in a similar situation as most of us today. Before WW1, Czechoslovakia was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, contrary to popular belief it was a benevolent empire. Every major ethnic group could elect a representative to a parliament, which for the times was extremely progressive. Most ethnic groups had the right to practice their own language and culture within limits. There are many similarities to the modern the European Union. A struggle between the identity of ethnic groups versus the whole.
Despite all of these privileges and benefits of belonging to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechs, and other ethnic groups wanted independence. Jaroslav Hasek was a Czech nationalist and anarchist, anarchist being a term given to people who wrote satirical short stories mocking the Empire and pamphlets why Czechs should be independent. As a result, he believed he was being monitored by the Emperors secret police, today they are called the NSA, or maybe his friends told Jaroslav Hasek he was just being paranoid.
Jaroslav Hasek would have loved social media due to his dark sense of humor, unfortunately, he was limited to pamphlets and newspapers. Never the less, he made the best of his circumstances. Using a pseudonym, he sent a well written but inflammatory letter to the editor of a Prague newspaper. After the letter was published he then used another pseudonym to write another letter to a different Prague newspaper. In this letter, using inflammatory arguments he refuted the claims of the first letter. Using letters to the editor, he essentially did what was sock-puppets and trolling, he continued to write letters to each newspaper. Unknowingly soon other writers and intellectuals joined the fray. Each sock-puppet would attack these writers and intellectuals to inflame the issue. After a few months, tensions rose, the personal attacks increased. Fearing possible libel or slander lawsuits, the newspapers panicked. It was then Jaroslav Hasek revealed his real identity, that he was arguing with himself, which he found comical. The intellectuals and writers who had joined the fray didn’t share his humor, that he had made them look like fools.
The book opens after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, people reacted similar to the 911 attacks, it was the first assassination to be captured on film. Allegedly the Archduke’s last word where, why ?, why ?, I don’t understand. He was touring Bosnia, a province which had been acquired from the Ottoman Empire two decades previous. Under the Austria-Hungary, schools were built, road and railways constructed, living standard improved for the average Bosnian drastically. Why would the want to kill him ? These are questions people asked after 911, the USA is extremely generous, why would terrorists attack the USA ?
The emperor’s secret police are prowling the streets of Prague, they are worried that more anarchist attacks might happen. They are worried it might spread from Bosnia to Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, the situation escalates and hostilities commence and what would become known as WW1 would start.
The Austrian-Hungarian Empire is caught in a bind, Czechs are suspect, but they need soldiers to fight, they start drafting Czechs. It is into this turmoil our hero Svejk is thrown. Svejk upon hearing hostilities have broken out, tells his landlady he wants to volunteer to defend the empire. His landlady tell him he is insane, why would a Czech want to fight for the emperor ? Svejk tells his landlady, that even though his rheumatism prevents him from walking properly, he must do his duty.
With his prodding, the landlady reluctantly finds a military uniform and a wheelchair for Svejk. He then has her push him down the main street to the recruiting station. As he is being wheeled down the street, he begins to shout patriotic slogans like “Long live the emperor”. His neighbors knowing his reputation as a drunkard and a dog thief gather to watch the spectacle with amusement. A crowd grows and follows him.
The Austrian-Hungarian propaganda machine is desperate for a story which shows Czechs support the empire. Svejk’s antics attract their attention. Newspaper photographers take his picture, the next day our hero is on the front page of all the major newspapers sitting in his wheelchair, with the headlines like “The Czech is willing to die for his emperor”. The newspaper stories say that even though poor Svejk is crippled, he is willing to do his duty, all Czechs should follow his example.
Upon reaching the recruiting station, our hero’s status changes. He goes from an exemplary Czech to a malingerer. The recruiters accuse him of malingering, faking illness so he doesn’t have to fight. He then is sent to a military hospital which specializes in curing malingering. Treatment consists of heavy doses of castor oil coupled with being wrapped in ice cold soaking wet bandages. A few days of the patient having his bowels constantly emptied and constant shivering cured the hardest case of malingering.
Svejk baffles the doctors when he begs them to double his dosage of castor oil and begs them to apply more cold bandages. He begs them to cure him, so he can go fight for the emperor. Eventually, the doctors determine he is insane,Svejk is transferred to an insane asylum. There is fortunes turn, he becomes a military chaplain’s assistant, later a batman etc. Despite Svejk constantly trying to get to the front so he can die for the emperor, he never quite makes it.
Jaroslav Hasek for revealing human nature is often criticized for being racist. In the book, Svejk recounts many stories of his previous experiences. In one of them, a white woman has an affair with a black man and becomes pregnant. The black man then abandons the woman. Upon giving birth, the baby is born white, the mother proudly shows everyone her beautiful white baby. She is a dutiful mother who loves her baby. A few weeks later, the baby turns black like his father. The mother becomes disgusted with the baby and drops it off at the orphanage. Obviously, a white baby turning black is an impossibility, it is comical that Hasek’s critics even consider the possibility. On a deeper level, Hasek is saying in a satirical way, that we judge things superficially. Nothing changed with the baby except its skin color. How did an object of love upon this change become an object of revulsion? Revealing human nature makes people uncomfortable, what is even more troubling is he does it in a satirical way.
This is the question which Jaroslav Hasek never answers. In my opinion, like with the white woman and the black baby, he intentionally doesn’t answer the question. The book is often described as anti-war, this is not accurate. Hasek himself personally was willing to fight for what he believes in. A better description for the book is subversive.
subversive - seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
It is subversive on all levels, it is intended to provoke the person to question society. This explains why the book was banned from Nazi Germany to the USA, it is a dangerous book in that aspect. On a deeper level, Hasek is describing how to survive in a chaotic environment similar to our own. The problems he faced are similar to our own. Svejk whether by accident or genius always manages to find the cracks let the light in and exploit them, and of course while doing this enjoying himself with a good beer.
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