Sweat and Blood to Save One’s Soul: The Principles of Work and Suffering in Čapek’s RUR

‘O Adam, Adam! No longer will you have to earn your bread by the sweat of your brow; you will return to Paradise, where you were nourished by the hand of God. You will be free and supreme; you will have no other task, no other work, no other cares than to perfect your being. You will be the master of creation.’ (RUR, 21) Early on in Karel Čapek’s RUR, Domin makes this declaration to Helena regarding the goal of Rossum’s Universal Robots, unveiling one of the main themes of the play: The question (asserted affirmatively by Domin and others) that progress is a good in itself, whereby man heads toward and can reach a state in which he need not work; and in this state he can perfect himself as the master of creation. The turn of events, however, reveal that man, who is not just a body but also a spiritual being, needs work, and even needs suffering for his soul as he needs work for his body. In losing these two things—work and suffering—he will lose lose touch with his own nature, with communion with others, and with the enjoyment of nature that befits him. 

Forward Unto Destruction

Domin and his colleagues present human value as contingent upon what one can do—that is, a utilitarian value; but they also assume that man can and will reach perfection in a state in which he is free to do what he enjoys. Fabry and Busman articulate that the ‘human machine’ was ‘imperfect,’ and ‘too costly.’ (17) His slowness, limitations, and essentially all his inability to do things with machine-like efficiency (output over input) constitute imperfection, perfection therefore meaning the ability to accomplish quickly. Fabry later says, ‘Any acceleration constitutes progress.’ (18) If perfection is the full, realized potential of a thing (where its full potential meets its full actuality), then human perfection consists in doing. Hallemeier confirms this by saying, ‘The timetable is the most perfect manifestation of the human intellect.’ (44) Later, Domin states that after proliferation of the robots, ‘[p]eople will do only what they enjoy. They will live only to perfect themselves.’ (21) While the emphasis still remains on doing, on perfection arising from one’s own action, this presents not a utilitarian approach but a hedonistic view that assumes the basic goodness of man: Left to his own devices, and left to do whatever he enjoys, man will not destroy himself but perfect himself. 

However, the story does not show this to be so: Rather, humans are prone to destroy. When Helena explains to Domin that she thought making the robots a ‘little bit human’ would mean they’d understand humans and hate them less, he responds (contradicting his earlier assumption of the basic goodness of man), ‘Oh, Helena! No one can hate more than man hates man! Transform stones into people and they’ll stone us!’ (58) This is more or less confirmed at the end when the robot Damon says that to be people you have to conquer and murder. (74) 

Not only do humans destroy one another, but they ruin themselves as whole, as when they stop procreating. When Helena asks Alquist why this has happened, he responds: ‘Because human labor has become unnecessary, because suffering has become unnecessary, because man needs nothing, nothing, nothing but to enjoy—Oh, cursèd paradise, this. [He jumps up.] Helena, there is nothing more terrible than giving people paradise on earth! Why have women stopped giving birth? Because the whole world has become Domin’s Sodom!’ (35) The end of child-birth might well signify an end of life itself except as mere existence, for existence lived only for oneself is not real living. The robots, whose universal self-mandate—adopted from their human creators—is ‘Work must not cease’, (48) also cannot procreate as they desire to. Thus, without work, man will cease to do good for others and his species as a whole, serving only himself; but the alternate idea of meaning and value lying in efficiency is also opposed by the efficient robots’ inability to fulfill the seemingly ingrained call to be fruitful and multiply. 

Gifts of Blood and Sweat

Suffering, in turn, is shown to be good, even necessary, for the soul. One of the robots states: ‘We were machines, sir, but from horror and suffering we’ve become. . . We’ve become beings with souls.’ (75) The reader finds no explanation for exactly why suffering produces a soul, but he receives clues through the robots Primus and Helena, the ‘new Adam’ and ‘new Eve’ of creation. Alquist awakes, startled by the robot Helena’s sounds of laughter—which to him, as a sign of mirth and joy, denotes personhood. Preceding this laughter, robot Helena has told robot Primus about a beautiful little spot that none goes to but her, where there’s a house and a garden, and two dogs with puppies. She takes them into her lap, cuddles them, ‘not thinking about anything and not worrying about anything. Then,’ she says, ‘when you get up you feel as though you’ve done a hundred times more than a lot of work. Really, I’m not good for much of anything. Everyone says I’m not cut out for any kind of work. I don’t know what I’m good for.’ (80) This picturesque scene signifies work in the garden—hearkening back to the garden of Eden, where in man worked, but not laboriously—and new life, as well as enjoyment of these things. Moreover, robots Primus and Helena emphasize the communal aspect lost by the self-centered, hedonistic man: They each offer to sacrifice the self for the other, not out of self-neglect, but out of sincere love: ‘We—we—belong to each other’, Primus says. (83) These beacons of hope illuminate the purpose of man—or of God’s creation, since no explanation is given for why these two robots (among others on which Dr. Gall experimented) develop ‘personhood’ (as Alquist implies), and the others only independent intelligence—that man’s purpose is to work, to rule over the land, not to use it for his own ambition but to enjoy it. 

Suffering in robots Primus and Helena seems to have produced in the soul the fruit that work produces in the body: Passion, power, fulfillment, strength. ‘Take me instead!’ The new Adam says. ‘I was made exactly like her. . . on the same day! . . . Cut into this breast—I won’t scream, not even sigh! Take my life a hundred times—’. If the soul suffers for the same reason the body suffers—the presence of an evil, or lack of a good—robots Primus and Helena show that suffering has given them to know not only evil—death—but good: Communion, love, joy, self-sacrifice, and beauty. For, as Alquist alludes to in his ending monologue, it is the sixth day, on which man as the ‘crown of creation’1 was made, that makes clear the purpose of the seventh, the day of rest: To enjoy that which is good—that is, creation—in communion with one another. Putting together Domin’s Genesis reference to Adam’s return to paradise and Alquist’s Genesis reference to the sixth day, Čapek paints man’s prideful progress back into paradise, where he meets his end, for God ‘placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life;’2 whereas robots Helena and Primus embrace suffering as a means of self-sacrifice and love, and understand life not as work but as resting in the good, in the fruit of work, in communion with others. 

  1. So called by Alquist (35), as well as by Pope St. John Paul II in his 1998 encyclical, Dies Domini. 
  2. Genesis 3:24 (KJV). 

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