Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Shalom Robot

It was sometime in January of 1921 that a Czech playwright named Karel Capek presented R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). His brother helped him coin the word Robot from the Czech word for drudgery or servitude. The story is about a woman who goes to Rossum's Robot factory on a mission to liberate Robots who are manufactured to have all of the features of a human except (they believe) a soul. It ends badly for humanity as the Robots revolt and exterminate every human except one. Many of these usual themes would come to be explored within thousands of subsequent works of fiction.

About a hundred years before the premiere of Capek's play Mary Shelley (age 19) was vacationing with friends when she was challenged in a contest to write the scariest story amongst those staying at Lord Byron's villa in Switzerland. Rising to the challenge she wrote a book about Dr. Frankenstein who creates a living being out of non-living parts. This story also ends badly as the creature kills several people before killing himself.

Go back even further but remain in the same general area of Central Europe and you will come across the story of Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, a 16th century Rabbi who it was said created a Golem to protect the Prague Ghetto from anti-semitic attacks. That word comes from the Hebrew gelem which means raw material. A Golem is a living being created from entirely non-living material. They are said to have all the features of a human except for the gift of language which if they had it would be evidence of a soul. The good Rabbi's Golem also gets out of control and goes on a killing spree. It is said that this very Golem still rests in the store room of a Synagogue in Prague and even killed a Nazi officer during WWII.

It seems that the Golem story is featured in many classic tales told in Czech culture and Mary Shelley would likely have absorbed these. It seems that Frankenstein was the former name of a city in Silesia and it has also been argued that on their way to their Switzerland vacation with Lord Byron the Shelley's stayed briefly at Castle Frankenstein where a notorious alchemist is said to have experimented with human bodies.

Gustav Meyrink wrote a novel called Der Golem in 1915 which inspired several movies including The Golem: How He Came Into the World in 1920, the same year in which Capek wrote his play. It seems clear that the story of Frankenstein owes a great deal to the Golem story. It seems equally clear that one cannot have a full understanding of Capek's Robot story without acknowledging the influence of the Golem myth which had been prevalent within the cultures of Central Europe, particularly in Czech culture.

---
Side note: Another participant in Lord Byron's scary tale challenge was his doctor John Polidori who wrote that week The Vampyre which spawned a whole other genre.

2 comments:

Me: The Sequel said...

hmm...something seems different. Is this a new template?

Note to self: must visit blogs more often instead of just reading feeds! :)

JakeJakob said...

I looked into switching to WordPress like you did but this new Blogger template is quite pretty and more easily edited.