The Good Soldier

Posted by jlubans on March 03, 2015

Caption: One of several hundred illustrations by Josef Lada. In this scene, Švejk and Oberleutnant Lukáš and the Colonel’s stolen dog that earns both of them a trip to the front lines.

I’ve been re-reading (as is my custom) The Adventures Of Švejk, the comic (and literary) masterpiece by Jaroslav Hašek, anarchist and highly influential Czech writer.
The story tells of Josef Švejk, an infantryman (and former seller of stolen dogs) and his First World War mis-adventures. Švejk is not an insubordinate, yet he gets the better of each situation in which he finds himself, escaping being hung or shot, simply by agreeing with his accusers. When a choleric official calls him an idiot for walking in the opposite direction to which Švejk’s regiment is marching, he replies, innocently, “Humbly report, sir, Yes, I am an idiot.” And then he launches into page-long explanatory (and often bawdy) anecdotes – from an apparent eidetic memory - that may or may not have anything to do with the current circumstance. This invariably drives the questioner to distraction and finally exasperation – roaring, "You bastard, get the hell out of here!"
Literary theorists term Švejk an “Everyman.” I am not so sure. Each of us is a mosaic made up of many tiles, some with which we are born along with many others acquired along the way. For me, Švejk is Švejk; not Sancho Panza, nor Gargantua or any other picaro. Just Josef Švejk, infantryman. And that’s a tribute to the author’s genius. In the book’s 750 pages of dark humor and satire, Hašek makes a strong case against man’s killing man. He lampoons each and every of the petty reasons we use to glorify war.
So, what does Švejk have to do with the workplace?
Unlike Sancho Panza, he lacks a foil like the certifiably quixotic Don. But,
when I read his interactions with his two bosses, Oberleutnant Lukáš and 2nd Lieutenant Dub, I begin to see an interesting type of follower. Lukáš is a company commander, but he shows democratic tendencies. Whatever the SNAFU Švejk gets him into, the lieutenant shows a kindness rarely seen among any of the other mega-arrogant and imperious officers.
On the other side is a classic Prussian autocrat, 2nd Lieutenant Dub. He can’t resist imposing himself (and his rules book) on subordinates, nit-picking at every behavior. His ultimate hope is to catch Švejk in a mutinous act. He warns every soldier, “You don’t know me. You don’t want to know me!” Impotent and officious, Lt. Dub is a pathological portrait of an officio-crat.
What type of follower is Svejk? Star? Sheep? Yes man? I’d have to say he is somewhere between an Alienated Follower (independent thinking and actively, if clandestinely, opposed to the leadership) and a Survivor, keeping his head down. As I think about it, he is much more the alienated follower than the latter. He also reminds me of the Lovable Fools I have known in my careen, one indeed was a Czech! Now I understand just what he was doing when he would knock on my door and guilelessly offer up stories and ideas for the organization. I hope my listening was more like that of Lukáš than Dub.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Skövde Library
Skövde, SE 54128 Sweden

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

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