Friday, May 01, 2009

Beyond The City

     I say this from my own experience: the city is a bad place, unhealthy and entirely injurious to humanity. I do not even mean the dust, smoke, bad air and other horrible dangers to both health and morals that lie in wait for the man on the street. I mean the unhealthy and truly terrifying fact that the city-dweller cannot ordinarily see the moon and the stars. The true autochthon of the center of town cannot see the Big Dipper or Polaris on account of the streetlights; and because of the buildings no one knows whether the full or new moon is shining; even if they did know, to them it would be six of one and a half-dozen of the other.

Big Dipper, Vermont, June 2006

     As far as the stars are concerned, their astral and planetary influence on human destiny is strongly in doubt, and as far as the influence of the moon is concerned, educated people only recognize its important to the extent of the tides, the palolo worm,1 the growth of certain plants and bacteria, and perhaps also on sleepwalkers, poets, lovers and cats. I, however, am not concerning myself with these effects; I am concerned with the fact that if a denizen of the streets lifts his eyes from the ground, he cannot see the twinkling of the stars in the sky, and cannot see the face of the moon. If goes out on the threshold of his building, he does not even meet his nearest neighbors Venus or Jupiter. He is not permitted to direct his steps by the moon. He doesn’t even know if the night sky is black or white. He lives in a starless cavern like an olm,2 but he does not realize it. The olm probably does not realize it either.

     The man on the streets lives in the city, and sometimes in a very large one, but he does not live in the universe, for he does not live under the stars. He lives among a million people, but not among a million stars. His world ends in Vysočany or Bubeneč3 instead of ending at Arcturus or the Milky Way; it’s really quite a small little world, for it does not go on into infinity. It doesn’t even matter if you study the star charts or can differentiate Altair from Albireo;4 it is more important to just be able to convince yourself whenever you want that the stars are still up there and that the cosmos exists. The man on the street has to go all the way out to Zbraslav5 to spot the universe; but the man at the periphery is in the universe as soon as he stands at his own door and looks up. If people met at night under the stars instead of under lamps, I think that they would not be easily able to talk about politics or the terrible state of things; it’s easier to talk of love, of the next day, and of other quiet and serious things under the stars. Under the stars you can go crazy or fall in love, but you can’t get really aggravated. Secret astral influences do exist; the stars have a powerful influence on a person who looks at them, but they have no influence on someone who reads the glowing advertisements for the Lyon Works6or reads theater reviews at lunch. A man under the stars is a participant in the grandiose glory of the world; he is crowned by those stars themselves.

     The effect of the moon is more profound. I don’t even mean the splendor of the moonlit night, the supernatural beauty of the Ottoman crescent, or the silver palaces on the moon7; I have the lunar phases and quarters in mind. A man who lives in the street conducts himself by the calendar; he knows it is the first or the fifteenth or the seventeenth, by which he is fatigued by everything brought to him by the merry-go-round of time. His time is not sacredly and lightly inscribed in the phases of the moon. His life is not divided into heavenly quarters, and does not consist of light and dark periods. When he pays his rent on the first it is no eternal recurrence of time as it is when the moon is full. The time between two full moons is more profound and solemn than the time which comes between the first and the last. Time for a man of the city is a mere date, is it just a number and in no way a heavenly phenomenon; it does not come from eternity, which is the time of the universe. A man who sees the face of the moon lives not by the ticking clock on the wall, but by the secretive timepieces of the planets; consequently he measures time, by very long feet, if I may say so.8

     The last time I moved I intended to move alone to a wild and abandoned part of the city, but instead I found that I had moved much farther away: out to the moon and to the vicinity of the stars.



1 ["The worm lives in the shallow waters in the coral reefs. During its main breeding season , which occurs on the second or third day after the third quarter of the moon in October or November, the worms produce segments which are engorged with sperm or eggs . These segments break off at sunrise, rise to the surface, and release their gametes into the sea . The local villagers and fishermen collect these segments in large quantities as it is a popular delicacy. The gelatinous mass of worms is baked or fried and then eaten." (courtesy here. Mmmm. "Mblalolo" in the original, which is fascinating to me, as it does not seem like a permissible syllable onset a Malayo-Polynesian language. [EDIT: Fijian has a prenasalized "mb" permissible as an onset; not sure about the "l," though.]
2 [The olm. Sure, I could have said "salamander, but it's actually a close translation, and of course, I love little words I rarely see used.]
3 [Both of these are districts of Prague, recently added (1/1/1922) as of the time of the writing, and therefore suitably remote.]
4 [A suburb of Prague at the time. I think Čapek would find it funny that it is now one of the outermost districts of Prague itself, the city proper having grown significantly since the 1920s.]
5 Arcturus--the clear, reddish star in the constellation of Boötes, hurtling through the cosmic abyss at a speed of 500,000 kilometers per hour [see, the real footnotes are just as ridiculous as mine--Andrew]; Altair--one of the stars in the summer constellation of the Eagle; Albireo--the name of the topaz yellow and sapphire-blue double star forming the southern end of the Swan or the Northern Cross, one of the three significant constellations of the summer sky.
6 A former silk merchant on Železná Street in Prague [Thank God for these footnotes, because if this needed to be explained to citizens of Prague in the 1920s, I and Google couldn't do a thing about it]
7 [The original says "Ottoman half-moon," and I love Čapek too much for a [sic], but am also too pedantic not to point that out. I have no idea what he means by "silver palaces," that's for sure.]
8 [Originally "by very long ells/elbows," the word for the unit of measure "ell" being exactly the same as the part of the body, instead of just being etymologically related as in English.]


qk said...

This is the first time I've actually taken the time to visit "blogger" in a few solid weeks...and this post did not disappoint! These Capek translations always transport me to a happier place.

Thanks!! (Both for the translation itself, and the opportunity to learn a new word...definitely had to look up "autochthon". (Can I make up for it by knowing that Polaris should be right about where that shadow on the house is?))

Eric said...

I chuckled at the picture you posted. Was that taken from Crummy Street in VT's largest city?

Andrew said...

Yes, Eric, and here's another detail:

I'm pretty sure I didn't have a tripod yet, and was using the Impala as a camera stabilizer when it was up at the top of the driveway.

And the window the dipper is pouring into is that of my childhood room.