Abroad at Home

Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence.  That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar.  At least I do.  For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high.  Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion.  Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera.  (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.)  Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them.  The same was true of the change in currency.  I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good.  Money for nothing, or nothing for money?

Currency is highly symbolic.  Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad.  And I’m not picking on the UK here.  When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns.  This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power.  Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian.  We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back.  Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return.  Who can see the future?

Impermanence is part of being human.  Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture.  The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971.  Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender.  I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it.  If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was.  That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence.  If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender.  It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted.  The symbol itself, it seems, has changed.  And that applies even at home.

Read Until Ragnarok

Wpa-marionette-theater-presents-rur“The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” quoth Hamlet. Shortly after the Velvet Revolution, my wife and I were shown about Prague by a friend who’d grown up in Communist ruled Czechoslovakia. As we watched the changing of the guard, he told us how Václav Havel, the final president of Czechoslovakia, had been a playwright and appreciated the need for pageantry in such civil ceremonies. I remember being impressed with what this playwright had accomplished while America had just survived being ruled by a lackluster comedic actor whose major contribution had been the myth of trickle-down economics. Havel was at one point selected as ranking high among the world’s top hundred intellectuals. Somehow Bedtime for Bonzo just didn’t seem to be worth bragging over.

Within another year or two, Czechoslovakia would dissolve, but the world would remain impressed by the Czech playwright. Karel Čapek was another Czech author and playwright of considerable import. Čapek, “public enemy number two” of the invading Nazis, died before the National Socialists could reach him. His brother died in Bergen-Belsen. Čapek is the author of the play R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. Indeed, he coined the term “robot,” around which this play revolves. Over the holidays I finally had a chance to read R.U.R., and I was immediately struck by how prominent the meme of God appeared, and also how prescient Čapek was. Like his contemporary Franz Kafka, Čapek had an unsullied vision of human propensities. Not having seen a production of R.U.R., or knowing how it would play out, I was nearly buried under the layers of meaning that such a brief piece could convey. Harry Domin, the general manager of R.U.R., supplies the world with robots for the easement of human labor. These robots eventually acquire souls, through human tampering, but also rely on humans for their reproduction. All of humanity, save a sole survivor kept alive to make new robots, is destroyed. Alquist, the last man alive, realizes when one robot will lay down its life for its mate, they have become a new Adam and Eve, and humanity’s existence is truly at an end.

Although I’ve read about robots since I was a child, I didn’t know about R.U.R. until my daughter joined her high school robotics club. Robots have, in many ways, dominated my life since. Although Čapek’s play is funny in parts, it is dystopian and profoundly troubling. Our robots have evolved since the period of World War I, just after which the play was written, but our moral sensibilities have not kept pace. Helena, the eventual wife of Domin, feels that robots should be given a soul. At first they feel no pain, mental or physical. Once they acquire these, however, they begin their inexorable march to the elimination of humankind. Reading of how technocrats believe that our true function is now to service the robots who do much of our work today, while unemployment just won’t release its grip on the flesh, my thoughts go back to Karel Čapek, Václav Havel, and William Shakespeare. The playwrights create, but the actors just ape.