For Catholics, Holy Thursday is a very special day, for it celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper of Jesus. But for National Public Radio, that’s just fodder for very timely mockery. On Thursday night’s All Things Considered, NPR aired a smug book review by author Cara Hoffman titled online "A Rollicking Critique of ‘Absolute’ Religious Fervor." Hoffman was promoting a 1922 science-fiction novel that NPR proclaimed was "visionary" in its insights (especially in reference to Bush’s America being "hoodwinked into war for nine years over a source of fuel"):
It lifts the veil on the dystopic slapstick of politics and religion, and, through wit and surrealist speculation, delivers the reader to understanding like administering a pill to a dog in a spoonful of peanut butter -- or, should I say, the Eucharist to the supplicant in the form of a waxy white wafer.
Hoffman dwelled over the words "waxy...white...wafer." This insult might sound insensitive on any day, but the decision to air this comment on this evening seems transparently intentional. A Catholic NPR listener surely could have heard this on the drive to church. Hoffman was commenting on a 90-year-old book, but it had to air on this night, or in this week?
Hoffman might claim she is speaking about herself and other religion-bashing NPR leftists, that they were fed knowledge like dogs taking a pill. But I cannot imagine Hoffman writing (or NPR editors accepting) a book review in which Muslims in their sacred rituals are placed right next to dogs in a metaphor. Would they imagine that could be interpreted lightly? It surely sounds like NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard could hear from listeners 202-513-3245 or at email@example.com.
NPR anchor Robert Siegel introduced the book review this way: "Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so ahead of its time, so visionary, that it seems almost to predict the future. And if that book just happens to be hilarious, well, so much the better. Author Cara Hoffman knows of such a book, written nearly a century ago, and she recommends it for our series You Must Read This."
On her Twitter page, Hoffman previewed the commentary with the tweet: "Check out my essay for NPR's You Must Read This:... religious fundamentalism can be pretty hilarious..."
The novel Hoffman was pushing is called The Absolute at Large, by Czech writer Karel Capek, who apparently was a left-wing "pragmatist" of the William James variety who'd "graduated" from the simple Catholicism of his mother, who used to pray for him as a child and his diseased lungs:
So it is with the full weight of my geek cred that I tell you: You must read Karel Capek's "The Absolute at Large." A piece of genre work so hilariously sophisticated, revelatory and stealthy, it delivers one of the highest subtextual critiques of modern society while achieving the lowest of lowbrow accomplishments, among them making the reader spit her drink, split her sides and suffer a full three minutes of post-hilarity hiccups.
In "The Absolute at Large," the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance as the world is overtaken by fundamentalist religious fervor caused by an invention called the Karburator that produces free energy and releases God or the Absolute as a by-product, something initially mistaken by the novel's protagonist as a poison gas because of the way it affects people's behavior.
Once God is unlocked from all of the places it resides, a multiplicity of religions spring up -- the church of industrial machinery and the church of the merry-go-round compete for worshippers while the businessman who invented the Karburator hides in the mountains away from the deleterious side effects of new energy, one of which is giving money to the poor.
I also love this novel because of the scenes that take place in harried newsrooms, with baffled reporters struggling to turn out papers amidst an outbreak of madness that threatens to engulf their objectivity. Capek's dialogue is fantastic, his characters richly drawn. But his vision of a world transcendently captivated by an apparent higher calling and then hoodwinked into war for nine years over a source of fuel is so prescient, it makes the novel seem like it was written today.
Naturally, Hoffman favorably compared the author to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. NPR's excerpt didn't quite capture the horror Capek had for God "taking over" people in his vision, as in the Karburator's inventor:
I suffered through some horrifying phenomena. I read people's thoughts, light emanated from me, I had to struggle desperately not to sink into prayer and begin preaching about faith and God. I wanted to clog the Karburator with sand, but suddenly I began to levitate...There have been several serious cases of workers in the factory seeing the light. I don't know where to turn, Bondy. Yes, I've tried all isolating materials that might possibly prevent the Absolute from getting out of the cellar: ashes, sand, metal walls, but nothing can stop it. I've even tried lining the cellar walls with the works of Professors Krejci, Spencer, and Haeckle, all the Positivists you can think of; if you can believe it, the Absolute penetrates even things like that.
More and more, people became possessed by religious fervor. "At the Petrin telegraph station, religion broke out like an epidemic. For no earthly reason, all the telegraph operators on duty were sending out ecstatic messages to the whole world, a sort of new gospel saying that God is coming back down to earth to redeem it . . .[The Minister of Defense] uddenly saw the light at his villa in Dejvice. The following morning, he assembled the Prague garrison, spoke to them about eternal peace, and exhorted the troops to become martyrs..."
This is where NPR finds the "visionary."
PS: Not surprising: Hoffman dearly loves the late AIDS activist and bugs-on-the-cross-of-Jesus artist David Wojnarowicz. The historic figure with whom she most identifies? Anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman.