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Between Poison Gas and the Atomic Bomb: Karel Čapek's "The Absolute at Large"

Yuki Shimada
Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Culture, Media and Society)

Karel Čapek is known as the Czech writer who gave the world the word, "robot." There is a new Japanese translation of one of his novels, titled The Absolute at Large (1922).

The Absolute at Large, or The Factory of Absolute, is a tragicomedy caused by the development of technology for manufacturing the "absolute" in the factory. The engineer Marek invents the "Karburator," a machine that can completely combust a small amount of matter to create a large amount of energy. Today this is the atomic power. The machine, however, simultaneously releases the "absolute" (god) from within the matter. This "god" does not appear, but rather showers on people in a form of ray , giving them divine inspiration, revelation and even abilty to work miracles. Bondy, the shrewd president of the company, finds out about this, he buys the rights to the Karburator and markets it across the world. As a result, the "absolute" released at factories with a Karburator "creates" infinitely industrial products like autonomic machine which supplies itself materials and produces without workers. It continues to provide the world with an abundant of manufactures, causing economical collapse and triggering a war concerning the interpretation of what the absolute, or god, is. The story is a science-fiction novel in which people's utopia turns into a death-topia.

We could use the Second World War or today's religious conflicts to point out the foresight of the novel. However, the attraction of the story is rather in the way of representation for new technology.

When this work was published serially in the People's Newspaper (1921-1922), the memory of horrible poison gas used in the First World War was still quite raw. On the other hand, the atomic energy was beginning to be investigated by some scientists. And so the imagery of poison gas is used for describing the radiation, or the light of the "absolute". Bondy interprets his divine ecstasy caused by the "absolute" to be an effect of laughing gas or something similar. The engineer Marek wears a gas mask to protect himself from the "absolute," and puts every kind of literary material up on the wall, such as books on philosophy and prayer books, newspapers and records of proceedings etc, in an attempt to prevent the ray from permeating in vain. These reveal the difficulty of perception and recognition when people encounter a new technology. Of course, poison gas (particle chemical matter) and radiation (electromagnetic matter) differ in the influence on the human body as well as the method of prevention. The similarity, however, of how they both cause an effect before people are aware of it, made the author use poison gas as a representation for understanding radiation. In an age when radiation was not generally known, they had no choice but to take the image of an already known substance to describe it. Ungraspability of unknown medium is described as a failure preventing the radiation even with written words, which is the medium of communicating knowledge.

We have experienced the atomic bomb, and still we cannot help but imagine the mushroom cloud when we hear the word "atomic." The Absolute at Large is a piece of work that could only be born from the memory of poison gas and during a time of the birth of atomic energy.

Karel Čapek, translated by Itaru Iijima, The Absolute at Large, Heibonsha Limited Publishers, 2010

Yuki Shimada
Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Culture, Media and Society)

Graduated from German Literature Department of Faculty of Humanities, Ibaraki University, and entered current post after time in Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Majors in body image and media theory. Published titles include "Dressing Up" (coauthored, Suiseisha), "Master German Grammar in 30 Days" (coauthored, Natsumesha), and published articles, "Symbolization and Dotting of Condoms - in Aids Prevention Campaigns Since 1987" (in "Waseda Bl辰tter")etc.