…when everyone else is standing.
But I’ll get into that momentarily. For now – I just finished another excellent book by Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Calling it a book seems crude somehow, for in these pages Kundera no less than invites you to dive into the fundamental workings of society at large and humanity in the specific.
Aphorisms glide from character to paragraph, and beyond recognition there is an understanding that articulates itself so fluidly you hardly notice since you agree so enthusiastically.
Kundera is one of about three or four authors that makes me feel less lonely. Once I told my cousin this, and he seemed alarmed. “You’re lonely?” he asked, surprised. Perhaps it’s the wrong word. I’m not lonely in the sense of feeling isolated or without social groups. This loneliness is one of ideas and calculations: sharing a way of evaluating life that makes me feel less alone in the world. Like when you’re arguing a point to someone who does not get it, then a third person says, “I agree with what she’s saying…” and goes on to explain why you’re not insane.
So it was with great anticipation that I put in a order to my local library for Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. (They bought it for the library: how cool is that?)
Topless at the beach
As an activist for an unpopular or misunderstood cause, I get tired. I recently realized that it can take a special kind of strength to stand up for this type of cause. For instance, it’s easier to stand up for “women’s rights” or “equality” among humans because this has long been accepted as something worthy of consideration – even though not even close to 100% embraced. Also, as a woman, it’s to be expected that I’d be for my own rights. (I know, that’s not always the case.) Easy to extend that to other humans, too.
“Animal rights,” however, is not something that most in a crowd would cheer. (Unless it’s protection of dogs and cats, who are our domestic family and therefore “closer.”) Though at its heart, being for “animal rights” means something quite kind — animals, since they have a capacity to feel and suffer, should, as with humans, not be subjected to confinement and slaughter: neither your cat, your dog, or a pig; simple, at its core — yet instead animal rights is often connected with people one does not like or an “agenda” against farms, jobs, or even you.
And so I had an epiphany: It’s easy to stand up when everyone else is standing up around you. (If they’re all sitting down, there you are … lonely. Alone in your cause. And also quite brave.)
You might then understand my delight in reading the following passage in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which explains the Clevise family who believe it is a woman’s right to go topless at a beach:
As I have said, the Clevises were forward-looking people, and they held progressive ideas. There are many kinds of progressive ideas, and the Clevises always supported the best possible progressive ideas. The best progressive ideas are those that include a strong enough dose of provocation to make its supporters feel proud of being original, but at the same time attract so many adherents that the risk of being an isolated exception is immediately adverted by the noisy approval of the triumphant crowd. If, for instance, the Clevises were not only against tops but against clothing in general, if they announced that people should walk the city streets naked, they would surely still be supporting a progressive idea, but certainly not the best possible one.
It’s just bacon, folks. You’re not cool.
This same feeling I have toward “local food” or “farmers rights” or a number of things that sound good and are easy to get behind with enough “noisy approval” to feel confident and righteous in that stance. Note that this does not mean this stance is BAD or WRONG, it’s just not a tough position to take – or even a needed position to take unless you are actively affecting change beyond eating a “local” product – when supported by so many.
In addition, those rights — of farmers, say — should not come at the expense of an “other” in this case an animal. To say economics justifies oppression is to ignore or forget the trajectory of history: we adapt, we find new “products” from which to profit. And as with use of animals, all must be examined to avoid counter oppressing another “other.” It’s entirely possible – the rise of “Fair Trade,” for instance, and groups such as the Food Empowerment Project, and Farm Forward, all show a collective will to move forward sustainably and kindly.
Similarly, the bacon fetish of the last decade. By now, it’s reached the mainstream, the masses, who cry for its inclusion in all foods, proudly. Bacon is the modern cigarette. One wants to be seen with a greasy strip hanging from the lips.
The other day in line for an order at a local bar, the bartender asked a patron ahead of me if she wanted a slice of bacon in her Bloody Mary. Immediately, the man standing next to her took this as a signal for the floodgates of approval to open, and laughed with her saying “of course” and “how can anyone refuse bacon,” to her agreeing “who wouldn’t want bacon?” thereby bonding over a commonly held tiresome ethos that one is somehow “edgy” or cool for wanting bacon in their life.
Earlier in the book, Kundera cleverly relates why it’s difficult for individuals to care about others outside or “beyond their world’s border.” In this specific passage he’s relating this trait through a story of some freaky island of kids who are attacking an adult, Tamina.
Her misfortune is not that the children are bad but that she is beyond their world’s border. Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses. Calves are outside human law, just as Tamina is outside the children’s law…they want to hurt anyone beyond their world’s border only in order to exalt their own world and its law.
This view is consistent with one of the more common reactions people have to my (or others) being active for animals: “What about the humans?” (As if they are mutually exclusive: can one not act on behalf of animals and humans? Also, how many of those doing nothing to help either humans or animals are asked this question?)
In Kundera’s books, stories are on a pathway to union throughout, coalescing into one greater meaning by the finish. What seemed like sugar, oil, and flour was now cake batter. And damned good batter.
Kundera opens The Book of Laughter and Forgetting with a betrayal: From a balcony, communist leader Klement Gottwald addresses the masses in 1948 and suffers from a cold, exposed, bald head. His comrade, Vladamir Clementis, to his left, removes his own fur hat (presumably he carried two hats) and places it on Gottwald’s head unbidden. A photo of them marks the beginning of Communist Bohemia.
The photo is plastered on posters everywhere, known to every child and adult.
But then, in just four short years, everything changes. Clementis, charged with treason, is hanged. He’s not only erased from the living, but removed from history as well.
Soon, all instances of poster #1 are completely removed from Czeck society. Gottwald stands alone on the balcony, erased from history.
Kundera’s vignettes (for the book is a series of loosely related vignettes connected by the title’s theme) asks us to question the relationship between history and power, closely tied to “forgetting.” The amnesia is both self-inflicted and by means of propaganda of the powerful.
In US history, we can cast a large net of forgetfulness or re-framed actions through the lens of the Columbus story, or many other repeated “beginnings” to our world today. In my own work, I’m interested in memory loss as a preserver of self, but much more as a device to manipulate the masses. Claims such as “happy cows,” and “humane meat” are among the friendly propaganda designed to appeal to inherent human kindness and mask the animal behind the end product. Forgetting.
In a kind of remembering, there is one place he describes one of the characters, Tamina, quite poignantly. It’s actually changed my own awareness of how I’m listening (or not listening) to someone else I’m engaged with. I’ve long seen the connection between likeability and listen-ability (that is, when you listen to someone they like you more) but Kundera brings in another element.
Though he’s not really using Tamina as the golden standard of interaction, he makes a strong point about the nature of conversations and human nature. Excerpted here:
Everyone likes Tamina. Because she knows how to listen to people. But is she really listening? … I don’t know, and it’s not very important. What matters is she doesn’t interrupt anyone. You know what happens when two people talk. One of them speaks and the other breaks in: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…” and starts talking about himself until the first one manages to slip back in with his own “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…” The phrase … seems to be an approving echo, a way of continuing the other’s thought, but that is an illusion: in reality, it is … an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy’s ear by force…The whole secret of Tamina’s popularity is that she has no desire to talk about herself.
I would love to hear more from other readers their impressions of Kundera’s inclusion of laughing and the utility of laughter in the book. Here, I read laughter as absurd, and it’s mocked, it’s tourette’s syndrome, it’s a spasm.
Kundera contends there are “two laughters” which we can no longer tell apart. One is the devil’s the other the angel’s: the devil’s “original laughter,” and the angel’s “imitation laughter.” The angels are in authority, presuming to know best for humanity.
Kundera’s ideas can easily be used out of context – in fact, though this quote appears in his book, someone forgets to attribute the source on Good Reads and instead lists it as a “Kundera quote:”
“Living is being happy: seeing, hearing, touching, drinking, eating, urinating, defecating, diving into the water and gazing at the sky, laughing and crying.”
Kundera in fact attributes this quote to Parole de femme published in 1976 (written by author Annie Leclerc), and we must not take it as his view.
Leclerc’s book is a picture to hold up as a way of explaining what’s outside the frame: that is, laughter as a fart.
Kundera uses the analogy of running couples, and advertisers and political parties using the image of laughing to sell their product to others. He writes, “We’re happy…we’re in agreement with being!”
Hidden behind these smiles is the amnesia, tying us into the forgetting.
Kundera further explains, through a character, the poet Petrarch, that laughter is an “explosion” isolating us:
“Laughter…is an explosion that tears us away from the world and throws us back into our own cold solitude. Joking is a barrier between man and the world. Joking is the enemy of love and poetry…Love can never be laughable. Love has nothing in common with laughter.”
Though I understand that humor is often used as distancing, I disagree that love and laughter are not connected. There is truth to those running laughing couples, which enables their being co-opted by advertisers.
Should I read this book?
Whether to examine your own actions in society or to find a less lonely place to occupy for the 3.5 days it might take you to read this book, it’s a refreshingly candid portrayal of the seemingly unchanging relationship between power (elected Gods) and the people – applied literally to the external (you and a political leader or company executive) or internally (your ability to affect change).
Kundera is a critical thinker but quite compassionate. If for no other reason, read this book to gain hope that such a person exists.
Plus, his stories are engaging (and often echos of his Unbearable Lightness of Being in some of the more erotic passages).
And, as Kundera cautions within these pages,
The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question.
It’s not about the standing itself, perhaps, but the strength it takes to get into and maintain a standing position. (Squats?) (Laughter?)