Disclaimer: The author is Czech on his mother's side and Slovak on his father's side, with the appropriate sense of humor given that background. The following may not appeal to some readers.
Jára Cimrman makes the front page of the Los Angeles Times on Monday, August 1, 2005 in an item by Jeffrey Fleishman with the headline Winning Ways of a Loser and the subhead "Czechs choose an eccentric genius with little luck as their greatest countryman of all time. The problem is, he never existed."
Admittedly this is one of those extended feature articles run in the top leftmost front page column, a little human interest and humor to balance the hard news. And it's August, the dog days of summer, so not the time to be too serious (or is that Sirius?) - we all need a break. Bush is off to Texas for a month-long vacation, after all. (And in case you don't remember, in the summer, Sirius, the "dog star," rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is in conjunction with the sun, and ancient astronomers believed that its heat added to the heat of the sun, creating a stretch of hot and sultry weather. They named this period of time, from twenty days before the conjunction to twenty days after, the "dog days" - after the Dog Star. So it’s a bad joke.)
But this story of Jára Cimrman isn't even news - or what happened with him is a swirl of events that began in January in Prague and landed in the Los Angeles Times on everyone's doorstep as August began. The problem is these "Greatest of All Time" television polls the BBC started a few years ago.
In these pages we have covered the BBC and French polls and found the greatest Brit of all time was Winston Churchill, followed closely by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, then by Diana, Princess of Wales. The greatest Frenchman? Charles De Gaulle was first, of course, followed by Louis Pasteur, then Abbé Pierre, then Marie Curie. Canada chose Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier, the man credited with being the founding father of Canada's health-care system, as the greatest Canadian of all time. In this summer's AOL poll, done along with a series of shows on the Discovery Channel, we voted Ronald Reagan the greatest American of all time. You can review that here with its links to previous items, like the penetrating view of the French polls from Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis. Curiously the idea failed in South Africa, where apartheid-era leaders cracked the top one hundred of the polling and the show was cancelled. In the Netherlands the contest got everyone grumbling about the citizenship of Anne Frank, who spoke and wrote in Dutch, but who officially was German. That got everyone all messed up.
But the subject here is the Czech poll, and how these folks just don't take anything seriously. (Think of The Good Soldier Svejk - the novel by Jaroslav Hašek which was the Catch 22 of its day with Svejk unwittingly, perhaps, undermining the whole war, the first one, not the second, with his literalness and naiveté. )
Way back in January you would find this in the Prague Post:
Show looks for 'greatest Czech'
But fictional character tops polls in TV popularity contest
Candidates for the 'greatest' Czech include writers, rulers - even fictional characters.
Matt Reynolds, Staff Writer, Jan. 27, 2005
So what happened?
Jara Cimrman helped design the Eiffel Tower and rewrite a Chekhov novel - but only in the world of make-believe.
Nevertheless, the Vienna-born traveler and musician may win a Czech Television (CT) contest called the "Greatest Czech of All Time."
Two weeks into the voting, which began Jan. 1, Cimrman was leading the pack - which includes historical worthies such as St. Wenceslas and Franz Kafka.
"We'd like to stress that although viewers can vote for anyone," CT spokesman Martin Krafl said, "Cimrman can't win because he's not real."
Votes are cast by mail, Internet, and mobile-phone text messages. Eligible is "anyone who was born, lived or worked in the Czech Republic who made a significant contribution to society."
... Also a front-runner, and also disqualified for being imaginary, is Svejk, the dimwitted World War I soldier who confounds his superiors with good intentions and painfully simple logic.
Balloting ends at the end of January. Each of the top 10 finalists will be the subject of a 40-minute documentary, to be shown in May. Czech TV promised to include Cimrman in its final show, June 11, when viewers choose the final pecking order.
Collecting the nomination votes took place during January 2005, the top 100 were announced on 5 May and the final evening took place on 10 June 2005. Here are the winners, and all real people -
But why not Jára Cimrman?
1.) King Charles IV - 68,713 votes
2.) Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk - 55,040 votes
3.) Václav Havel - 52,233 votes
4.) Jan Amos Komenský
5.) Jan Žižka
6.) Jan Werich
7.) Jan Hus
8.) Antonín Dvořák
9.) Karel Čapek [yes, he gave us the term "robot"]
10.) Božena Němcová
11.) Bedřich Smetana [that low?]
According to Wikipedia Jára Cimrman in merely a popular Czech fictional character created by Jiri Sebanek and Zdenek Sverak. The character made his first appearance on a regular radio program Vinárna U pavouka (Wine bar "By the Spider") on December 23, 1966.
And so on and so forth.
One of the reasons for why the character was created was to make fun of the Czech nation itself, its history and national peculiarities. The aim was not to create an artificial national hero.
The Žižkov Theater of Jára Cimrman was founded later as a natural consequence of the story. The theater is one of the most frequented theaters in Prague.
... Jára Cimrman proposed the Panama Canal to the US government, including a libretto for an opera of the same name. He reformed the school system in Galicia. With Count Zeppelin he constructed the first rigid airship using Swedish steel and Czech wicker (the wicker being for the cabin). He was deported from Germany as an anarchist and his personal documents carried a note that he was "a source of unrest." This led the Swiss company Omega to offer him a job to improve the fly-wheel for their Piccolo line of ladies' watches. Simultaneously, he introduced (and performed for some time) the function of an obstetrician here under the difficult Alpine conditions. He led investigations about the life of arctic tribes who eat their fellows and once on the runaway before one furious tribe, he missed the northern pole by mere seven meters. In Paraguay he founded the first puppet-show. In Vienna he founded a criminologist, music and ballet school. For a long time, he led a huge correspondence with G.B. Shaw, but unfortunately the dogged Irishman didn't reply. He invented yogurt. He voluntarily helped many great figures: on his own back he brought forty five tubs of pitchblend to the basement of Mr. and Mrs. Curie, he assisted Prof. Burian with his first plastic surgery, he reworked the electrical contact on Edison's first bulb, he found an underlease for Mr. Eiffel. He is the creator of the philosophy of externism. Because of his enthusiasm for natural sciences, he discovered the monopole (as opposed to the then well known dipole), but this discovery fell into oblivion and later it was confusedly adopted by 20th century economists.
Well, Czech Television announced publicly that only real people can participate in the contest, and the votes for this guy were not valid. Amusingly Britské listy, a Czech Internet magazine, published an article that strongly criticized the decision and the incompetence of the Czech Television in dealing with a situation that did not fit their previously prepared scenario. That's here if your read Czech. Also in Czech is this, the petition for returning Cimrman back to "The Biggest Czech" competition, addressed to the Czech television folks (closed after 37,387 signatures). And here is the announcement by Czech Television of a special award for Cimrman.
Cool. But what this all means?
Over at In the Fray on June 23rd you might check out When optimists should be shot:
"I am such a complete atheist that I am afraid God will punish me." Such is the pithy wisdom of Jára Cimrman, the man overwhelmingly voted the "Greatest Czech of All Time" in a nationwide poll earlier this month. ...
Who is Jára Cimrman? A philosopher? An inventor? An explorer? All of these things, yes, and much more. After a few days of investigation here in Prague, this is what I have uncovered:
Born in the middle of the 19th century to a Czech tailor and Austrian actress, Cimrman studied in Vienna and Prague, before starting off on his journeys around the world - traversing the Atlantic by steamboat, scaling mountains in Peru, trekking across the Arctic tundra. Astounding feats soon followed. Cimrman was the first to come within seven meters of the North Pole. He was the first to invent the light bulb (unfortunately, Edison beat him to the patent office by five minutes). It was he who suggested to the Americans the idea for a Panama Canal, though, as usual, he was never credited. Indeed, Cimrman surreptitiously advised many of the world's greats - Eiffel on his tower, Einstein on his theories of relativity, Chekhov on his plays (you can't just have two sisters, Cimrman is said to have said - how about three?). In 1886, long before the world knew of Sartre or Camus, Cimrman was writing tracts like, "The Essence of the Existence," which would become the foundation for his philosophy of "Cimrmanism," also known as "Non-Existentialism." (Its central premise: "Existence cannot not exist.")
This man of unmatched genius would have been bestowed the honor of "Greatest Czech of All Time" if not for the bureaucratic narrow-mindedness of the poll's sponsors, whose single objection to Cimrman's candidacy was that "he's not real."
... How should we interpret the fact that Czechs would rather choose a fictitious character as their greatest countryman over any of their flesh-and-blood national heroes - Charles IV (the 14th-century Holy Roman Emperor who established Prague as the cultural and intellectual capital of Europe), Comenius (the 17th-century educator and writer considered one of the fathers of modern education), Jan Hus (the 15th-century religious reformer who challenged Catholic orthodoxy), or Martina Navrátilová (someone who plays a sport with bright green balls)? The more cynically inclined - many Czechs among them - might point out that the Czech people have largely stayed behind their mountains for the past millennia, with little interest in, or influence on, happenings elsewhere in the world. Cimrman is so beloved because he is that most prickly of ironies: a Czech who was greater than all the world's greats, but who for some hiccup of chance has never been recognized for his achievements.
Personally, I like to think that the vote for Cimrman says something about the country's rousing enthusiasm for blowing raspberries in the face of authority. Throughout its history - from the times of the Czech kings who kept the German menace at bay through crafty diplomacy, to the days of Jan Hus and his questioning of the very legitimacy of the Catholic Church's power, to the flashes of anti-communist revolt that at last came crashing down in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution - the Czechs have maintained a healthy disrespect for those who would tell them what is best or how to live their lives. Other countries soberly choose their "Greatest" from musty tomes of history, but the Czechs won't play this silly game. Their vote for a fictional personage, says Cimrman's co-creator Sverak, says two things about the Czech nation: "that it is skeptical about those who are major figures and those who are supposedly 'the greatest.' And that the only certainty that has saved the nation many times throughout history is its humor."
Cimrman - if he were with us today - would agree. A man of greatness, he was always a bit skeptical of those who saw themselves as great, or who marched forward under the banner of greatness. As Cimrman liked to say, "There are moments when optimists should be shot."
The Los Angeles Times:
Humor is the only correct way to act in life?
... he's the quintessential Czech underdog, the enigmatic patriot in a small country whose sardonic humor is born of a history of being conquered and oppressed.
... "Cimrman started out as a joke on ideology and science. He played an important role during the communist regime," said Jirina Siklova, a writer and former dissident. "Through him, it was possible to make jokes not just on science but on the ideology of the communists." Cimrman remains a bit of escape for today's Czechs who are insecure that "democracy may not be a paradise from our troubles," she said. "But through him we are still able to laugh."
... On a muggy night not long ago, a waiter in a blue apron poured beer in the Cimrman Pub, a stone cavern where the sound of traffic fades. Young women who might liven up the place had yet to arrive; intellectuals were scarce, although there was a solitary figure draped over a book in the corner. The Cimrman Theater next door was closed. The troupe had taken the show on the road.
"It's a pity Cimrman wasn't allowed to be selected the best Czech in history," said the waiter, Tomas Janik, sensing, as many Czechs do, that the contest was rigged - another conspiracy from above. "Cimrman's exactly the person who should win. Humor is the only correct way to act in life." A couple strolled in and sat against the wall. Janik drew two beers, the glasses sweaty in the heat.
... Who, after all, could be known for discovering the snowman, co-designing the Panama Canal and advocating driving in the middle of the road? How many other Czechs have a museum dedicated to them that features inventions such as a famine spoon, with its hole in the middle, a hot potato holder, a case for lucky fish scales and the triple hammer, able to drive or extract three nails simultaneously?
Janik wondered how Cimrman's distinctive voice, honed for decades mainly by Sverak, now in his late 60s, will survive when he and the writers are gone. "They are the best Czech humorists - no one else can do Cimrman," he said. "When they stop, it won't carry on."
Others believe that Cimrman, whose motto was "It's better to begin eternally than to finish once and for all," will always be there, a comical ghost in the wings, a twist of humor when things get too serious.
That'll do nicely.