Hašek: the good soldier Švejk

Any piece of writing about The Good Soldier Švejk is bound to discuss one particular question: is Švejk a sly fox who is able to manipulate social circumstances to his benefit, or is he an utter idiot whose lack of grasp on basic reality causes the powers that be to dysfunction in spectacular ways?

The beauty of Hašeks writing is that it keeps both interpretations open, and never collapses into either one of them. Despite the multitude of situations Švejk stumbles into during his travels, it is never clear whether one interpretation or the other provides a better fit for our protagonist. Or, indeed, if either interpretation can be said to apply to these very situations – neither Švejk nor the institutions of First World War Austro-Hungary are unambiguous on this point.

The fastest way to summarize the storyline of The Good Soldier Švejk is to say that the aforementioned Švejk stumbles from one situation to another, and at every stumble along the way he causes the routine ordinariness of the war effort to collapse upon its own logic. While the war in and of itself was every manner of madness and chaos, the institutions set up to manage its logistics followed certain rules and routines, and the appearance of a certain good soldier threw these institutions out of joint. His very presence caused the wartime routines to misfire, and the only possible response the institutions could muster was to send him along to the next situation.

Every modern institution works by its own routines, logics and expectations. This is not unique to First World War Austro-Hungary, although war puts a certain pressure upon the institutions involved. It follows from the ever more specialized areas of knowledge and expertise that are entrusted to run our institutions. Hospitals have certain ways of doing things, as have prisons, universities, municipal administrations and so on. These ways are, for the most part, contingent upon particular traditions within particular discourses, which means the only way to know them is to be a part of the institutions in question. They do not follow from necessity or reason, but through gradual accumulation of knowledge by repeated actions over time, and the only way to understand them is to have seen them in action. Learning by doing, as it were.

The fact that every modern institution has its own rules, rituals and informal ways to go about things, means that no one particular individual can be reasonably expected to know them all. Just as no one is expected to be a doctor, plumber, constitutional scholar, gourmet chef and rocket engineer all at once. By virtue of the sheer accumulated knowledge in each field, no one can know the internal logics of every field. It takes years of education and dedication to master even a single field, let alone a multitude of them. Knowledge is fragmented, just like the modern world.

However, it is possible to know just enough about the autonomous practices of each particular institution to know which kinds of signals will cause which kind of response. While the underlying logic might be obscure or unknown, the knowledge that certain acts engender certain responses is enough for those who want to communicate with the institutions in question. A trivial example of this can be as simple as knowing that turning in a certain form will cause a certain thing to happen. A more engaged understanding is that the workaday routines of any given institution can be disturbed by engaging in certain kinds of behaviors, which prompt extraordinary responses.

Most modern institutions force their logic upon their subjects. If you go to a hospital and are not literally on fire, you are most likely asked to sit down and fill out a form. Nothing will be done until you have filled out that form, and depending on how you fill it out, you will be treated differently – in both senses of the word. Veterans of the field – i.e. fellow or past patients – will tell you to fill in x rather than y, and the particular logic of the institution is ever so indirectly foisted upon you. There is a shared expectation that you act in certain ways while you attend modern institutions, and these expectations are constructed jointly by the subjects in the know and common subjects like yourself.

Švejk, our hero, manages to throw a wrench into the internal machinations of every institution he visits by not acting in accordance with these expectations. Early on in his adventures, he is thrown into a garrison prison, due to some minor mishap. A field priest holds a fiery sermon about repentance and forgiveness, and Švejk does the least expected thing of all. Rather than taking the sermon as the empty verbiage everyone else (the priest included) understands it to be, he arises and cries with utter conviction at the sentiment expressed. Such honesty had never before been seen within the prison walls, and no one is quite sure what to do about it. Švejk is sent to the priest’s office, and ends up in his employ – and thus escaping.

No indication is ever given as to whether the sincere idiot Švejk was actually genuinely moved by the insincere sermon, or if the sly fox Švejk knew that this was the only thing he could possibly do to escape his confinement. Both interpretations are valid, and during your reading of the books, I would suggest keeping both possibilities in mind as the events unfold. Not least due to the inherent possibility that it does not matter if Švejk is the one or the other, and the possibility that modern institutions respond the same in either case.

I would also suggest that you read the Good Soldier Švejk as a manual in modern resistance and sabotage tactics. You are not limited to simply doing what the authorities tell you to do – you always have the option to comply with the appropriate levels of idiot sincerity or sly insincerity needed to undermine whatever overall ambition the powers that be might have. You, too, can grind modern institutions to a halt by throwing a wrench into their internal workings.

Bring a friend.

Hašek: the good soldier Švejk

One thought on “Hašek: the good soldier Švejk

  1. Good article. I tend to lean toward Švejk being sly rather than a lucky dolt, although I recognize both interpretations are possible. There is a Czech film version where he Svejk is a sweet-eyed idiot from 1957, and there’s a German 13 part television version from 1972 where he’s clearly in the know. It’s interesting to watch the two Svejks act out the different interpretations. There are other film versions, but these two stand out for me as representing the 2 interpretations of Svejk most clearly.


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