Reading Writing Right, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Tajemství písma, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“Rubner!” said the editor-in-chief. “Go and take a look at that graphologist, Jensen. He’s doing a demonstration tonight for members of the press. They say he’s quite a sensation, that Jensen. Write me a few lines about it.”

“Yes, Sir,” muttered Rubner, with just the right amount of subordinate unwillingness in his voice.

“But make sure it’s not a swindle,” said the editor-in-chief, gravely. “Keep a close eye on it, as far as you can. That’s why I’m sending an experienced chap like you…”

*

“…So, gentlemen, those are the main scientific principles of what is properly called ‘psychometric graphology’,” said Jensen, concluding his theoretical explanation in front of a throng of journalists. “As you can see, the whole system is constructed on purely empirical laws. Of course, the use of such precise methods is so extremely complicated that I can’t possibly demonstrate them in any great detail in the course of a single lecture. So I’ll just restrict myself to an analysis of two or three examples of handwriting, without going into the whole theoretical process… Do any of you gentlemen have any examples of handwriting?”

Rubner, who’d been waiting for just this moment, immediately proferred the great man a handwritten sheet, whereupon the graphologist put on his magic glasses and looked at it.

“Ah! A woman’s hand,” he announced, grinning. “A man’s writing is normally more expressive and more interesting but, after all…” Muttering something he continued to stare at the sheet of paper. “Hm, hm,” was all he said from time to time, shaking his head as he did so. There was complete silence.

“Might this be… from someone close to you?” the graphologist asked suddenly.

“No, not at all,” said Rubner.

“All the better!” said the great Jensen. “Listen, the woman’s lying! That’s my first impression from her handwriting. Lies! More lies! An incorrigible liar! But she’s certainly a very low-class type. An educated person wouldn’t find much to talk about with her… And she’s terribly libidinous – her handwriting could almost be described as voluptuous. And it’s so untidy! Goodness knows what her home must look like!

“So those are the first traits, as I mentioned before. The first thing you recognise about people is their individual traits, that’s to say their inner character, which is expressed almost mechanically. And it’s precisely the characteristics that a person tries hardest to hide or suppress that are the first object of the actual psychological analysis. So, for example,” he continued, resting the tip of his index finger on the tip of his nose, “this woman would be unlikely ever to tell anyone what she really thinks. She’s superficial, but superficial in two senses. On the one hand, she expresses herself superficially and she has many mundane interests, but she’s using all that to cover up what she thinks. On the other, even that hidden self is terribly banal – I’d call it immorality tempered by laziness. For example, her handwriting is so sensual as to be quite unpleasant – and that indicates extravagance – whilst being vulgarly blasé at the same time. Nevertheless, she’s too wedded to home comfort to embark on sensual adventures. Of course, should the opportunity present itself…, but that’s as may be.

“An unusual combination of lethargy and verbosity. When she actually does something she’ll go on about it for hours. She’s morbidly self-centred and it’s obvious she doesn’t love anyone. The only reason she’d hit on a man and try to persuade him she cares for him and loves him is for her own comfort. She’s one of those women who can turn any man into a weakling – a weakling in the face of all that boredom, all that never-ending chatter and all that demeaning mundanity. Look at how she writes the beginning of words and sentences – with broad, airy strokes. She’s someone who wants to be boss and is, indeed, the boss. But she lacks energy and holds the whole thing up with pretend importance and verbal barrages. Perhaps that most insidious of tyrannies: the tyranny of tears. And it’s interesting that, after each flourish, there’s a noticeable constriction. She’s trying to hold something back, she’s always afraid – probably of something coming to light that would threaten her material comfort. Behind this there has to be something very worrying and carefully concealed. Hm… I don’t know, maybe something from the past. And it’s only after that reaction that she manages to gather enough strength, or re-engage with the power of routine, in order to give a conventional finish to the word. You can see how she’s regaining her confidence: just look at that extended, self-satisfied tail on the last letter. So you see, gentlemen, how the first impression of deceptiveness has been confirmed by analysis and how a detailed analysis tends to confirm that initial, superficial and more or less intuitive impression. I call this final concordance ‘methodological verification’.

“I said ‘low-class,’ but that doesn’t derive from the primitiveness of the script, but from its disorderliness. The writing is a pretence, it’s making itself out to be prettier than it really is, and the cause of all that is pettiness. This person takes refuge from life’s little problems in a sort of fussy precision. She’s careful in placing the dots on the ‘i’s but, with respect to really important matters, she’s sloppy, lacking in discipline, immoral… in short, a slut.

“Most troubling of all are the commas: the handwriting generally leans to the right, as is usually the case, but the commas lean to the left, giving the unsettling impression of dagger blows to the back. There’s something malicious and cunning about it. Putting it rather figuratively I’d say this woman would be capable of stabbing a man in the back, were it not for consideration of her own comfort… and for lack of imagination.

“Well, I think we’ve finished with that one. Does anyone have a more interesting example?”

*

Rubner came home that night looking like thunder.

“Thank goodness you’ve arrived!” said Mrs Rubner. “Have you had something to eat, dear?”

Rubner scowled at her. “Don’t you start again!” he growled.

Mrs Rubner looked at him in amazement. “I beg your pardon! What am I starting again? I only want to know if you’d like your supper.”

“Exactly,” said Rubner with revulsion. “The only thing you can talk about is food, food, food. You and your banalities! It’s so demeaning, all that chatter, all that mundanity… and it’s so boring!” He sighed and waved a hand dispiritedly. “It’s what turns grown men into weaklings!”

Mrs Rubner put her knitting on her lap and looked at him carefully. “František,” she said, clearly alarmed, “has something gone amiss?”

“Ah!” Rubner blurted out. “Now you’re full of concern again, aren’t you? But don’t think you can pull the wool over my eyes! There comes a time when a man sees through all the deception, my dear. When he realises he’s being put upon for someone else’s comfort… and out of mere sensuality! Ugh!” he groaned. “It’s just awful!”

Shaking her head in disbelief, Mrs Rubner was on the point of saying something but thought better of it. So she took up her knitting again and, apart from the rapid clicking of the needles, there was complete silence.

Eventually Rubner took a good look at the room. “What a mess!” he hissed. “Disorder and slovenliness! Of course, when you’re faced with one of life’s little problems you take refuge in orderliness and fussy precision, but when it comes to important matters… What are those rags doing on the floor?”

“I’m mending your shirts,” whispered Mrs Rubner, scarcely able to speak.

“So, you’re mending shirts are you?” said Rubner, grimacing. “You’re mending shirts! And of course everyone needs to know about it if they choose to pay us a visit. Isn’t that so? And then half a day spent talking about mending shirts! And you think that makes you the boss? Well, let me tell you, I’m putting a stop to it!”

Mrs Rubner gave a painful sigh. “František! What have I done to upset you?”

“How should I know?” was the gruff reply. “I don’t know what you’ve done. I don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re hiding behind your back. I don’t know anything about you. Not a thing! And all because you’re cute enough to hide what’s inside you! I don’t even know your past.”

The anger boiled up in Mrs Rubner. “I beg your pardon! This has gone beyond a joke! If you say one more word…” She made a superhuman effort to control herself. “František,” she gasped, horror written on her face, “what’s got into you?”

“Ah!” Rubner snapped back triumphantly. “That proves it! What are you afraid of, eh? Something that might slip out and endanger your comfy little life here, eh? It’s an old story, isn’t it? Even in the midst of comfort we won’t turn down an opportunity for a little adventure, will we?”

Mrs Rubner was sitting stock-still, as if turned to stone. Eventually she whimpered, “Husband, if you have something against me, for heaven’s sake tell it me straight!”

“I have nothing,” Rubner pronounced, relishing the irony in his words. “Nothing! I don’t have anything against you at all! Because it’s a matter of nothing – isn’t it? – if a man has a wife who is undisciplined, who is vulgar, who is lazy, who is extravagant and who is terribly sensual! And, even worse, is of such low class…”

Sobbing, Mrs Rubner stood up, dropping her knitting to the floor as she did so.

“And you can put a stop to that as well,” her husband shouted disdainfully. “That’s the most cunning tyranny – the tyranny of tears!”

But Mrs Rubner didn’t hear the last bit, because, fighting back her tears, she’d already disappeared into her bedroom.

Chuckling theatrically, Rubner couldn’t resist opening the door and poking his head inside: “And I’m sure you wouldn’t be averse to the old dagger-in-the-back, if it wasn’t for your home comforts!”

*

That evening Rubner betook himself to his local. “I’ve just been reading your article,” said Mr Plečka, looking over his glasses. “The one where you go on about that famous graphologist, Jensen. Is there anything in it?”

“There certainly is,” said Mr Rubner – “I think I’ll have the steak, Mr Jančík, but make sure it’s not too tough –. Listen, the man’s incredible, that Jensen. I saw him yesterday, and the way he analyses handwriting is totally scientific.”

“So it must be a swindle,” Mr Plečka retorted. “I’ll believe anything except science. It’s like with those vitamins: when they didn’t exist, at least you knew what you were eating. And now you haven’t a clue what’s in a piece of steak. The Devil take it!”

“But this is something else altogether,” Rubner protested. “Unfortunately it would take too long to explain to you everything about psychometrics, automatism, primary and secondary signs and such like. Suffice it to say that that man can read someone’s handwriting like a book. And he gets that person spot on, so much so that you can almost see them right in front of you. He’ll tell you what they’re like, about their past, what they’re thinking, what they’re hiding… simply, everything! And I saw it with my own eyes!”

“Get away with you,” muttered sceptical Mr Plečka.

“Well, let me give you an example,” said Rubner. “There was a man there – I won’t tell you his name, but he’s very well known – who gave Jensen an example of his wife’s handwriting. And Jensen takes one look at it and starts off: The woman can’t be trusted an inch. She’s slovenly, terribly sensual and superficial, lazy, extravagant, gossipy, bossy and she’s got an unsavoury past. And not only that, but she want’s to murder her husband! I tell you, that man went as pale as a sheet, because it was all true, word for word. For instance, he’d lived happily with her for twenty years and never noticed a thing! In twenty years of marriage to that woman he hadn’t noticed even a tenth of what Jensen could see at first sight! That’s quite something, isn’t it? Surely that’s enough to convince even you, Mr Plečka.”

“What does amaze me,” Mr Plečka fired back, “is that the husband was such a nincompoop that in the whole of twenty years…”

“But what you have to bear in mind,” Rubner hastily interjected, “is that the woman was such a consummate liar, and in any case he would have been quite happy with her if it wasn’t for that. A happy man has no eyes! And not only that, but he didn’t have these precise scientific methods to hand. It’s like this: to the unaided eye, something might look white, but scientifically it’s all the colours combined. Experience counts for nothing, my friend. Nowadays you need precise methods. So don’t be surprised that that man hadn’t even guessed what a monster he had at home. And all because he hadn’t approached it scientifically!”

At this point, the landlord, Mr Jančík, joined the conversation: “So has he got himself a divorce now?”

“How should I know?” said Rubner, nonchalantly. “I’m not interested in that sort of nonsense. All I’m interested in is how you can read from a piece of writing what no-one would otherwise ever notice. Just imagine you’ve known a fellow for years and years, you think he’s kind and good, and all of a sudden – smack! – you find out from his handwriting that he’s a thief or a dirty rotten scoundrel. Never ever take anyone at face value: it’s only by this sort of analysis that you can find out what really lies inside.”

“That’s all well and good,” said a pained-looking Mr Plečka, “but then you’d be afraid of ever writing to anyone.”

“Exactly,” said Rubner. “Just think what this scientific graphology will mean for criminology, let alone anything else. They’ll be able to jail a fellow before he’s even stolen anything. As soon as they see that his handwriting displays secondary thief-like traits, he’ll be off to Pankrác Jail before he can even…

“Goodness gracious! It’s ten o’clock. I’d better be getting back home.”

“What’s the hurry, all of a sudden?” grumbled Mr Plečka.

“Well, you know how it is,” said Rubner, somewhat sheepishly. “The missus will only be moaning that I’m forever leaving her on her own.”

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