Friday, September 24, 2004
The remarkable thing about television is that it permits several million people to laugh at the same joke and still feel lonely.
- T.S. Elliot.
Some writers so capture the soul and spirit of a people that they are identified with them forever after. In England, it was Charles Dickens, in the United States, it was Mark Twain. In Australia it was Patrick White. For the Slavic nations, and to some extent for all Central Europeans, it is the Czech writer, Jaroslav Hasek.
Hasek - a drunk, a roustabout, a wanderer, and at times a full and eager accomplice of Gypsy con artistries - set his comedic odyssey in the midst of the First World War. His odyssey functions as a satire of the war, the leaders, and the army. Hasek delivers a knock-out blow against the System, the Powers-That-Be, hypocrisy and military service written as serials so that Hasek could milk more money from them. Hasek died 81 years ago, at the early age of 39, so every imagination can dictate the end!
His novel was christened as the Bad Bohemian Beer Lover, but now is better known as the Good Soldier Jozef Svejk (Not many languages create Sh sound with S and a simple the hook S?. As a result, there are many versions of the title: Josef Schweik, Schwejk, Shveik, or Shveyk)
Svejk is pronounced like Shvake and rhymes with shake; (Shake with the inserted v for Vrbov) and they say, So, now you're ready to Svejk and shake!
My childhood outdoor dunny, behind the Catholic church in Vrbov, was plastered with images of the Good Soldier Jozef Svejk. However, most observant tourists are bombarded with Jozef’s omnipresent face on beermats in almost every pub in Prague.
Svejkovat, to svejk has since become a common Czech word. Svejking is the method for surviving svejkarna, which is a situation or institution of systemic absurdity requiring the employment of svejking for one to survive and remain untouched by it.
The good soldier Svejk is anything but; a genial ne'er-do-well, Svejk does any and all he can to avoid actually arriving at the front, missing trains, deliberately misunderstanding orders, dodging blockhead officers, anything at all to keep himself safe and undermine as much as possible the equally blockheaded war efforts. At the time, the Czech peoples were under the rule of the Habsburg Empire, had little to no urge to fight for their gilded masters in Vienna, and Svejkism became a kind of term for the Czech's passive-aggressive resistance. Svejk is a common footsoldier - an everyman - who frankly would rather have a beer than fight.
Like the Good Soldier Jozef Svejk, Homer Simpson is a simple little man, ill-equipped to be thrown into the front line of large historical, commercial and political events.
Like the Amerikan Homer, Jozef was a man who never lived, yet who went further in defining the Czechs in the 20th century than perhaps anyone else. So dip into Svejk at Amazon.com and soak the story for a long time by placing the book conveniently somewhere in the bathroom. Reread and laugh out loud ... Study closely the way the most famous of Czech literary character effectively talks himself into being arrested by a secret policeman, and is later sent to the war front.
In the world dominated by power, Svejk is an underdog, the object of manipulation and coercion by inimical social forces that constantly threaten his very existence. Yet, despite the tremendous odds against him, he passes through all the dangers unharmed. Svejk's mythical invincibiliity makes him a modern "epic hero" with whom his compatriots identify and of whose exploits they talk because they see in him "a modem Saint George, the hero of a saga of a single mind's triumph over the hydra of Authority, Regime, and System-of the mind disguised as feeblemindedness in the war with Absurdity in the guise of Wisdom and Dignity-the sense of Nonsense against the nonsense of Sense. And though, to an outsider, next to the spectacular stunts of ancient heroes Svejk's feat-his survival achieved through his own doing, without any embarrassing compromises with those in power-might seem rather trifling, the historical experience of a small nation sandwiched between Germany and Russia suggests to a Czech reader that it also might be an absolute miracle.
Svejk is found to be perfectly fit to serve - revealing the representatives of the system to be even more hare-brained than Svejk pretends to be. Thus, the irony and paradox. It is precisely that sort of scene that generations of Czechs have come to adore: subversive humour and a quiet thumbing of one's nose at authority behind its back. Many would say that it is a typical Czech characteristic, retained after suffering centuries of imposed rule under the Austrians.
And so they've killed our Ferdinand, says Svejk's charwoman, in the famous line that opens the novel, describing the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, 1914. Svejk, busy massaging his knees for rheumatism responds: Which Ferdinand, Mrs Muller? I know two. One is a messenger at Prusa's, the chemist's, who once drank a bottle of hair oil there by mistake. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.
That, in a nutshell, is Svejk: good-humouredly going about his business, oblivious to the gravity of matters at hand. Instead he tells us absurd stories about characters in ridiculous situations, forcing us right away to question his intelligence ...
Last year, in 2003 AD, at Prague's NATO summit a man dressed as the Good Soldier and using Svejk's typical crutches to support himself, appeared at an anti-alliance protest, shouting at the top of his voice: To Baghdad, Mrs Muller, to Baghdad..., showing just how deep the character is etched on the common psyche in Prague.
Svejk is a Czechoslovakian Miracle...a masterpiece about a hero who has not the reputation of Alexander the Great or Napoleon...but somehow surpasses all the famous historical personalities ... In doing the bare minimum to be considered competent, we see the nature of Czech resistance to Austro-Hungarian (and later, Soviet) authority - as Havel put it some fifty years later, it is the power of the powerless - subverting authority from within while seemingly going along with the grandious designs of the ruling elite.
Svejk represents one of the most unique and successful survival strategies ever conceived by man. He helped me to survive the Czechoslovak Kommunist Army, the Iron Curtain crossing, and the Bear Pit of the NSW Parliament and irony is part of my taxing time as the Media Dragon.
Joseph Heller, confessed on his deathbed that if it weren’t for his having read The Good Soldier Svejk he would never had written his American novel Catch 22...
Today in Amerika Homer Simpson is one of the most credible portraits in any art form of an ordinary man, your average Joe Sixpack, not undeserving of comparison with Hasek's Good Soldier Schweik.
Homer is gross - obese, obtuse, lazy, thick-headed, beer loving and close to illiterate. He has a voracious craving for junk food (mostly doughnuts, pork rinds and cheeseburgers) and even junkier television. (I wanna shake of the dust of this one-horse town. I wanna explore the world. I wanna watch TV in a different time zone.) he is a bad neighbour, a sore loser and an atrocious parent. (Lisa, if the Bible has taught us nothing else - and it hasn't - it's that girls should stick to girls' sports like hot-oil wrestling and foxy boxing and such and such.)
He is not just a controversial moral logician (Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen) but a creature deficient in anything remotely resembling a social conscience. (When Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian-born and illegally resident operator of the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store, risks being deported in the wake of a new anti-immigration law, Homer attempts to console him: Oh my God. I got so swept up in the scapegoating and fun of Proposition 24, I never stopped to think it might affect someone I cared about. You know what, Apu, I am really, really gonna miss you.) it has even been hinted that he is afflicted with appalling BO.
Eye on Politics & Law Lords: Simpsons Generation: The third generation of the Good Soldier Schweik
They know that you cannot trust any one source. They know that you cannot trust a particular interview. Rather what they want to know is what’s the story behind the story. So they’re looking for truth and they’re looking for it in irreverent means.
The beauty of The Simpsons, and it’s unique, The Simpsons, because it’s been the most popular show for the last ten years or so, is that it reveals the truth behind society. It tells things as they are, and these people are clever enough to be able to work with those layers of sophistication.
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