The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 6

X Gives His Warning

It may have been as a result of this prophetic book that the literary and artistic avant garde in all the cultural centres declared, After Us, the Salamanders!, The Future belongs to the Newts, Newts Mean Cultural Revolution. Even if they don’t have their own art (they explained) at least they are not burdened with idiotic ideals, dried up traditions and all the rigid and boring things taught in schools and given the name of poetry, music, architecture, philosophy and culture in any of its forms. The word culture is senile and it makes us sick. Human art has been with us for too long and is worn-out and if the newts have never fallen for it we will make a new art for them. We, the young, will blaze the path for a new world of salamandrism: we wish to be the first newts, we are the salamanders of tomorrow! And so the young poetic movement of salamandrism was born, triton - or tritone - music was composed and pelagic painting, inspired by the shape world of jellyfish, fish and corals, made its appearance. There were also the water regulating structures made by the newts themselves which were discovered as a new source of beauty and dignity. We’ve had enough of nature, the slogans went; bring on the smooth, concrete shores instead of the old and ragged cliffs! Romanticism is dead; the continents of the future will be outlined with clean straight lines and re-shaped into conic sections and rhombuses; the old geological must be replaced with a world of geometry. In short, there was once again a new trend that was to be the thing of the future, a new aesthetic sensation and new cultural manifestoes; anyone who failed to join in with the rise of salamandrism before it was too late felt bitterly that he had missed his time, and he would take his revenge by making calls for the purity of mankind, a return to the values of the people and nature and other reactionary slogans. A concert of tritone music was booed off the stage in Vienna, at the Salon des Indépendents in Paris a pelagic painting called Capriccio en Bleu was slashed by an unidentified perpetrator; salamandrism was simply victorious, and its rise was unstoppable.

Needless to say, there was no shortage of those who were opposed to this change and stood against “newtmania” as it was called. The most fundamentalist piece of opposition came in the form of an anonymous pamphlet that came out in England under the title X Gives his Warning. The leaflet enjoyed wide circulation, but the identity of its author was never established; there were many who thought it must have been written by some high official in the church, swayed by the observation that X is an abbreviation for Christ.

In the first chapter the author tried to use statistics about the newts, apologising at the same time for the inaccuracy of the figures he was using. The estimated total number of salamanders at this time ranged between seven and twenty times the total number of people on the Earth. It was just as uncertain how many factories, oil wells, weed plantations, and eel farms the newts had under the sea making use of water power and other natural sources of energy; there were not even any estimates of the newts industrial manufacturing capacity; least of all did anyone know how well armed the newts were. We knew that the salamanders were dependent on people for their metals, engineering parts, explosives and many types of chemical, but not only did every state keep strictly secret how much weaponry and other products their supplied to their newts, but we also knew remarkably little about what the newts did with the materials they bought from people once they were down in the depths of the sea. One thing that was certain was that the newts did not want people to know these things; over the previous few years so many divers sent down to the seabed had been drowned that it could not possibly be seen as mere chance. It hardly need be said how worrying this was, both from the industrial point of view and the military. It is obviously very difficult to imagine, X continued in the following paragraphs, what the newts might want of people, or how much they could simply take. They cannot live on dry land and there is no way for us to dictate to them what they do under the water. Our respective living environments are completely and unchangeably separate. We require a certain amount of work from them, but in return we give them plenty of food and provide them with raw materials and products such as metals that, without us, they would not have at all. But even if there is no practical reason for any animosity between ourselves and the newts there is, I would say, metaphysical reason: contrasted with creatures of the surface we see creatures of the deep abyss; creatures of the night with creatures of the day; dark ponds of water with bright, dry land. The boundary between water and land has somehow become sharper than it used to be: our land borders on their water. We could live perfectly well separate from each other, exchanging no more than certain goods and services, indefinitely; but it is hard to rid ourselves of the fear that that is not how things will turn out. And why not? I am not able to give you any precise reasons; but this fear is nonetheless with us; it seems like some kind of intuition that one day the sea itself will turn against the land to settle the question of who lives with whom.

I have to admit that this anxiety is somewhat irrational, X went on; but it would seem like a great relief if the newts came out against mankind with some kind of demands. We would at least then have the chance to negotiate with them, we would be able to make various concessions, contracts and compromises with them; but this silence of theirs is a thing of horror. This incomprehensible reticence makes me afraid. They might, for instance, wish to ask for certain political advantages for themselves; legislation about the newts is, to put it bluntly, outdated in every state of the world and is not worthy of the dignity of a creature as civilised as the newts nor of a creature so strong in numbers. There is a need to work out new rights and responsibilities for the newts, and to do so in the way that will be of most advantage to them; their working conditions must be improved and they must be better rewarded for the amount of work they do. There are many ways in which their circumstances could be improved if only they would ask for it. Then we would be in a position to make certain concessions and bind ourselves to proper contracts with proper pay; at the very least this would buy time for a number of years. However, the newts ask for nothing; all they do is raise their output and order more supplies; now is the time when we need to ask where, on both sides, this will all come to an end. We used formerly to talk about the yellow peril, or black or red; but they were at least people, and we can at least have some idea of what it is that people will want. But even if we still have no idea how to defend ourselves or even whom we are to defend ourselves against there is one thing that is quite clear: that if the newts stand on one side then the whole of mankind will be on the other.

People against newts! The time has come when it needs to be formulated thus. It must be said frankly that the normal person has an instinctive hatred of the salamanders, he loathes them - and he is afraid of them. There is something like a chill veil of horror that has fallen over the whole of mankind. How else are we to explain this frenetic worldliness, this insatiable thirst for fun and debauchery, this orgiastic abandon that has taken control of peoples minds? There has never been a comparable collapse of morals since the time when the Roman Empire collapsed under the onslaught of the barbarians. This is more than the fruit of unprecedented material prosperity, it is the desperation born of suppressed fear and anguish at the thought of our own overturn and annihilation. Drink deep the last goblet, for tomorrow we die! What a disgrace, what a punishment! It seems that God, in His terrible mercy, wishes to allow nations and classes to perish if once they have begun to rush down the road to destruction. Are we to read mene tekel in fiery letters at the feast of mankind? Look at the words written in light shining all through the hours of darkness on the walls of our debauched and dissolute cities! In this way we human beings are already comparable with the newts: we live more by night than by day.

If only these salamanders were not so horribly mediocre, exclaimed X in his anxiety. It is true that they are, to some extent, educated, but this has the effect of limiting them further as all that they have taken from human civilisation is that which is the most commonplace and useful, things that are mechanical and repeatable. They stand at the side of man like Wagner at the side of Faust; they learn from these books like the human Faust but with this difference, that this is all they want and suffer from no doubts or questions. The most horrifying thing is that this type of civilised mediocrity, educable but dull and complacent, exists on such a large scale; millions and thousands of millions of individuals all the same; or rather, perhaps I am mistaken, and the most horrifying thing of all is that they have been so successful. They have taught themselves to use machines and numbers, and they have shown that that is all that is needed to become masters of the world. All parts of human civilisation that are without purpose, that are playful, fantastic or antiquated, they have ignored; in this way they have ignored all that makes man human, adopting only that which is purely practical, technical and utilisable. And this pitiful caricature of human civilisation has achieved awesome things; it builds wonders of technology, renovates our old planet and is even a source of fascination of people themselves. From Wagner, his apprentice and servant, Faust learned the secret of success and of mediocrity. Mankind has either to engage in an epoch-making conflict of life and death with the newts or he will become like the newts, never to regain his humanness. As far as I am concerned, X concluded sadly, I would rather see the former.

X now gives you his warning, the unknown author continued. It is still possible to shake off this cold and slimey ring that is wrapped around us all. We must rid ourselves of the salamanders. There are already too many of them; they are armed, we know almost nothing about the power of their weapons and they could well turn them against us; but a danger for us more horrible than mere strength and numbers is the success, nay triumph, achieved by their lack of self worth. We do not know what it is that we are to fear more; the technology they have taken from human beings, or their sinister, cold and bestial cruelty; but the two of them together create something inconceivably terrifying and almost diabolic. In the name of culture, in the name of Christianity and mankind we must free ourselves from these newts. And here he called on an unnamed apostle:

You madmen, stop feeding the newts! Stop employing them, eschew their services, let them move away somewhere else where they will feed themselves just like any other sea creature! Nature herself has already created order in her copious bounty; but only if people - human civilisation and human history - will stop working for the salamanders!

And stop providing the newts with weapons, end their supply of metals and explosives, send them no more of the machinery and equipment made by man! We do not give the tiger his teeth or venom to the snake; we do not stoke the fires of volcanoes or undermine our dams. Let us ban supplies to any of the seas of the world, let us place the newts outside the law, let them be cursed and banished from our world, let there be a League of Nations to unite us against the newts! The whole of mankind must be prepared to defend its existence with sword in hand; let the king of Sweden, the Pope of Rome or a union of nations call a world conference to unite all the civilised states of the world, let us create a united world - or at least a union of all Christian nations - wherewith to oppose the salamanders! We are today at a turning point. Under the terrible pressure of the salamander threat, it is possible for man to behave responsibly and create a United States of the World to avoid a world war with all its countless victims. May God will it! If it is His will, then the newts will not have come in vain and will have been the instrument of God.


This pathetic pamphlet excited wide support among the general public. Old women, in particular, agreed that there had been an unprecedented decline in moral values. On the other hand, the business pages of the newspapers pointed out it would not be possible to reduce the goods supplied to the newts without causing a serious decline in human industrial output and a crisis in many other areas. Agriculture had come to depend on an enormous demand for maize, potatoes and other crops used for newt fodder; if the number of salamanders was reduced there would be a sharp decline in the market price of foodstuffs which would bring farmers to the brink of ruin. The trades unions suspected Mr. X was just a reactionary and declared that they would not allow anything that would impede the supply of goods to the newts; the working man had only just achieved full employment and a proper wage and now Mr. X was wanting to snatch the bread from their hands; the working class is in sympathy with the newts and rejects any attempt to lower their standard of living or deliver them, poor and defenceless, into the hands of capitalism. As far as any League of Nations against the newts was concerned, they denied that there could be any serious political circumstances when it could be needed; there were indeed both the Society of Nations and the London Convention in which sea-going states bound themselves not to equip their newts with heavy weaponry. Needless to say, it is not easy to persuade any state to disarm if it cannot be sure that no other seagoing power is not arming its newts in secret and thereby raising its military power at the expense of its neighbours. Likewise, no state or continent is able to force its newts to move somewhere else, simply because that would have the undesirable effect of raising the industrial and agricultural output, not to mention the military power, of other states and continents. And objections of this sort, which any thinking person would have to acknowledge, were raised everywhere.

Despite all this, the pamphlet, X Gives his Warning, had far reaching effects. Movements to oppose the newts spread to almost every country in the world and a variety of organisations such as The Association for the Elimination of the Newts, The Anti-Salamander Club, The Committee for Human Protection were established everywhere. Newt delegates at the thirteenth session of the Commission for the Study of Newt Affairs in Geneva were insulted when they tried to take part. The boards that fenced off the coastline were daubed with threatening graffiti such as Death to the Newts, Salamanders Go Home etc. Many newts had stones thrown at them; no salamander now dared to raise his head above water in daylight. But, despite all of this, there was no sign whatever from them of protest or attempt at retaliation. They were simply invisible, by day at least; and the people who peered through the barriers saw no more than the endless and wearily soughing waves.  “Just look at these monstrosities,” they said with hatred, “they won’t even show themselves!”

And it was this tense silence that was suddenly broken by the thunder of the Louisiana Earthquake.

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34