Monthly Archives: August 2013

“Memories come back in bursts of images”: Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love

In 1939, Billie Holiday recorded and sang Strange Fruit. The song was about the lynching of Black Americans in the South, and with lyrics such as “Pastoral scene of the gallant south,/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh…”, it was meant to conjure up familiar scenes of trees, with all their associations of peace, tranquility, shelter, cool breeze, and so on – and then brutally displace that vision by demonstrating how, for Black Americans, those very same trees symbolised the lynchings of blacks that were so prevalent in the South at the time.

Forty-seven years later, in Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet would write:

“The Panthers and I were to give a couple of lectures there [Stony-Brook University]… Just as I was getting into the car to leave [Black Panther] party headquarters in the Bronx, I asked David Hilliard if he was coming with us.

He smiled faintly and said he wasn’t, adding what seemed to me an enigmatic comment.

‘There are still too many trees.’

I left, together with Zaid and Nappier, but all through the journey I kept thinking of what he had said. “There are still too many trees.” So, for a Black only thirty years old, a tree still didn’t mean what it did to a White – a riot of green, with birds and nests and carvings of hearts and names intertwined. Instead it meant a gibbet. The sight of a tree revived a terror that was not quite a thing of the past, which left the mouth dry and the vocal cords impotent. A White sitting astride the beam holding the noose at the ready – that was the first thing that struck a negro about to be lynched? And what separates us from the Blacks today is not so much the colour of our skin or the type of our hair as the phantom-ridden psyche we never see except when a Black lets fall some joking and to us cryptic phrase.” 

That a French modernist writer in the 80s would arrive at precisely the same insight as a song written by a white man and performed by a black jazz singer in the heart of the deep South in the 30s – in almost so many words – is perhaps emblematic of what is so unique about Prisoner of Love. The book is primarily – although by no means exclusively – about Jean Genet’s two years (1970 – 71) spent in the Palestinian refugee camps during the interminably long Palestinian revolution, around the time of Black September; and perhaps it is because Genet himself was a perennial outcast, with neither roots nor a home, forever in rebellion against society, and never bound to a land, a territory or a culture – that empathy, understanding and awareness come so naturally to him, qualities that make Prisoner of Love above all else a searingly honest work. 

Prisoner of Love is neither a story, nor a work of history; it is not a travel memoir, and still less is it a piece of political reportage. If you approach it looking for the narrative coherence of a novel, or the dispassionate analysis of wartime journalism, you will be disappointed. It is, simply – as Genet stresses repeatedly – a series of images. Images of events, of battles, of massacres, of tragedies, of courage and cowardice – but above all else, images of human beings – the fedayeen, with whom Genet spent those two years (and to whom he would return in 1984), and with whom he fell entirely in love. Genet has no respect for the traditional categories of time and space: reminiscent of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the SunPrisoner of Love moves – seemingly arbitrarily – between the ’67 war, the First Intifada, the 1970-71 Jordanian conflict, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the infamous War of the Camps, the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the situation in 1984 – with occasional detours into prior history. It also moves between Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria – and the United States, where Genet was heavily involved with the Black Panthers movement. Yet there are two themes that unite this seeming epitome of disorder: Genet’s obsession with the power of words and images to construct reality, and his constant, ironising self-awareness. These lend the book its distinctive tone and character, and it is upon these that I shall primarily focus.

The role of images and words in building reality and in creating history is a theme Genet almost commences the book with, stating, in its early pages:

“The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them. The Iliad counts for more than Agamemnon’s war; the steeles of the Chaldes for more than the armies of Nineveh. Trajan’s Column, La Chanson de Roland, the murals depicting the Armada, the Vendome column – all the images of war have been created after the battles themselves thanks to looting or the energy of artists, and left standing on the part of oversight on the part of rain or rebellion. But what survives is the evidence, rarely accurate but always stirring, vouchsafed to the future by the victors.”    

In the rest of the book, he applies this framework to analyse the Palestinian revolution. He quotes – repeatedly – Arafat’s statement to him that they – the Palestinians – exist thanks to the fact that in the West, they “take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us.” With great perspicuity – and one could almost say, with great prescience – he examines how vocabulary and the use of words have become weapons in the ongoing war:

“If you’re against Israel you’re not an enemy or an opponent – you’re a terrorist. Terrorism is suppose to deal death indiscriminately, and must be destroyed wherever it appears… very smart of Israel to carry the war right into the heart of vocabulary, and annex the words holocaust and genocide… the invasion of Lebanon didn’t make Israel an intruder or predator… the destruction and massacres in Beirut weren’t the work of terrorists armed by America and dropping tons of bombs day and night for three months on a capital with two million inhabitants… words are terrible and Israel is a terrifying manipulator of signs… sentence doesn’t necessarily precede an execution… if an execution has already been carried out, a sentence will gradually justify it.” 

Yet most of all, Genet understands how words and images fulfill a desperate – and essential – human need for a narrative, a narrative to believe in, to hold on to, and to fight for, a narrative that, because it is both beyond and larger than a single individual, can become the rallying point for a movement or a struggle. Here, he bears striking similarities, in his writing, to the remarkable Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, who also focuses on the power of myth in the building of nations, societies and communities. In Kadare’s The Siege, a story about the Ottoman Turks’ besieging of an Albanian Castle as a precursor to a wholesale invasion of Albania, the semi-mythical leader of the resistance, one Skanderberg, keeps up a seemingly futile opposition, doomed from the start, and destined to destruction. Yet, as the protagonists of The Siege realise, through this concerted act of resistance, Skanderberg is creating a myth of the Albanian nation that will outlast the Turkish conquest, and allow a return to the past once the time of the Turks is over. Skanderberg is building an Albania in the heavens, one that – unlike the Albania that is contained in castles, farms and homesteads – is indestructible.

What is remarkable is how the songs of the fedayeen, that Genet records, express an almost identical thought, through almost identical imagery:

” ‘And if Palestine never came down from the Empire of Heaven to dwell upon earth, would we be any less real?’ So sang one of the fedayeen, in Arabic.”

So the Palestinian Revolution, for Genet, is not simply about regaining lost land, but simultaneously rediscovering – or reconstructing, or constructing, or creating – whichever word you prefer – a Palestinian identity, a sense of peoplehood and nationhood. So:

“The Palestinians wanted to be an entity – wanted to leave an image of themselves as a single whole, historically, geographically, politically. Even when they were scattered to the four winds they wanted to form an indivisible and unchanging block in the midst of the Muslim universe and of the universe itself. ” 

Yet, Genet accepts none of this uncritically. His sense of self-awareness brings an ironic perspective both to the Revolution that he has committed himself to, and his own description of it. He worries repeatedly that words only end up “blotting out” reality; the quasi-Nietzschean view according to which language is a distorting mirror (words as “rainbow-bridges”, that is, carriers of illusion) – and so, his own account of the Revolution is nothing more than an exercise in obfuscation and omission:

“But what if it were true that writing is a lie? What if it merely enabled us to conceal what was, and any account is, only eyewash? Without actually saying the opposite of what was, writing presents only its visible, acceptable and, so to speak, silent face, because it is incapable of really showing the other one.”

As for the Revolution itself, Genet is dubious about the “fantasy” it seeks to protect; the internal fissures within the movement itself, and the doubtful motives of many for endorsing a movement that, from distance, “looked like Delacroiz’s Liberty on the Barricades”, because “distance, as often happens, lent a touch of divinity.” And he understands too, that “Palestine”, like any essentialising entity, hides beneath its still facade of uniformity, a boiling cauldron of difference and dissent:

“Like the word France, the word Palestine means different things to different people – peasants, aristocrats, financiers, the fedayeen, the leading families and the new bourgeoisie. None of these groups or individuals seems to suspect that these differences exist, and that they may eventually lead to conflicts. The word Palestine will one day no longer mean what it seems to do now, namely a common accord. Instead it could stand for a fierce class struggle.”

It is like speaking about the mountains. Every person who tells us what the mountains mean to him, “speaks for himself.”

It is this combination – of image-obsession and a keen, ironic awareness – that is at play, again, in Genet’s writing of the Palestine itself – the lost homeland. This, of course, is a theme that no book on Palestine can ever avoid – and we have discussed before, on this blog, the works of Ghassan Kanafani, Elias Khoury and Ibrahim Nasrallah that treat this theme in their own way. At the beginning of the book, Genet comes upon two fedayeen circumventing the ban on card-playing in the camp by playing a card game – with a set of imaginary, non-existent cards. In a beautiful paragraph, Genet describes how this scene comes to symbolise, for him, the Palestinian movement:

The game of cards, which only existed because of the shockingly realistic gestures of the fedayeen – they’d played at playing without any cards, without aces or knaves, clubs or spades, kings or queens – reminded me that all the Palestinians’ activities were like the Obon feast, where the only thing that was absent, that could not appear, was what the ceremony, however lacking in solemnity, was in aid of.

This idea of the lost homeland that exists as a crystallised, unchanging – yet absent – vision is something we see in the works of Kanafani and Khoury, where in fact this becomes a point of contention: the generation of the nakba, for whom the Palestine of 1948 remains an unchangeable, eternal absent reality comes into conflict with the generation of the First Intifada and the PLO, for whom Palestine is the future that must be built from scratch (remember the passionate declamation of the revolutionary leader in Khoury’s Gate of the Sun: the homeland isn’t oranges (from the destroyed Palestinian village); the homeland is us!” Genet’s description here speaks volumes:

“Every district in a camp tried to reproduce a village left behind in Palestine and probably destroyed to make way for a power station. But the old people of the village, who still talked together, had brought their own accent with them when they fled, and sometimes local disputes or even lawsuits too. Nazareth was in one district, and a few narrow streets away Nablus and Haifa. Then the brass tap, and to the right Hebron, to the left a quarter of old El Kods (Jerusalem). Especially around the tap, waiting for their buckets to fill, the women exchanged their greetings in their own dialects and accents, like so many banners proclaiming where each patois came from.”

For a book that is, self-proclaimedly, nothing more than a succession of images, Genet’s sense of imagery is sharp and beautiful. I conclude with two of my favourite:

“There are the trees again – I haven’t really conveyed how fragile they were. The yellow leaves were attached to the branches by a fine yet real stalk, but the forest itself looked as frail to me as a scaffolding that vanishes when a building’s finished. It was insubstantial, more like a sketch of a forest, a makeshift forest with any old leaves, but sheltering soldiers so beautiful to look at they filled it with peace.”


“It was the Palestinian phenomenon that made me write this book, but why did I stick so closely to the obviously crazy logic of that war? I can only explain it by remembering what I value: one or another of my prisons, a patch of moss, a few bits of hay, perhaps some wild flowers pushing up a slab of concrete or granite paving stone. Or, the only luxury I’ll allow myself, two or three dog roses growing on a gaunt and thorny bush.

Moss, lichen, grass, a few dog roses capable of pushing up through red granite were an image of the Palestinian people breaking out everywhere through the cracks.”

By turns tranquil and savage, calm and brooding, detached and passionate, filled with biting political commentary, vivid descriptions of historical events, and above all, the most deeply personal of memories and individual interactions, poignant and never failing to move deeply, I add Prisoner of Love to that list of books, such as Returning to HaifaGate of the Sun and A Time of White Horses, that have taught me more about Palestine than any work of history or journalism. Because, as Genet says himself:

“Historians’ discovery of new sources and new interpretations make no difference. They try to replace so called archetypal images with others. But are they truer? Neither truer nor less true, since they’re all images from the past. Historians may demolish a legendary hero whose image, accurate or not, fascinates us still. But they’ll only be able to replace it if they provide facts and explanations that we can sympathise with and assimilate, if they create new images that give us something we can talk about.”


Filed under Jean Genet, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

“We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives”: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Warning: Some minor spoilers about the endings of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451.

In the Republic of Gilead, built upon the ruins of a United States torn apart by economic, social and environmental conflict, women have been reduced to breeding machines. Offred, the protagonist of the story, is a “handmaid” – that is, a woman specifically selected for the role of producing offspring, through copulation with one of the rulers of the society, known generically as “commanders”. Sexual intercourse outside that strictly defined boundary is punishable with death or exile to the “colonies”; any form of rebellion against the established order is similarly treated. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred attempting to shape her own life – through resistance, submission or escape – in this society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic novel – belonging, I think, rather clearly to the dystopic tradition through its use of certain common elements: a future world, an oppressive order, a combination of force and ideology to maintain that order, and a protean resistance movement. Nonetheless, in certain respects it is a rather atypical dystopic novel, and I think this is evident in a vivid and striking way through the character of the protagonist and narrator, Offred. Through an analysis of her character one can also, I think, come to a better understanding of some of the main themes of the story. So, here goes:

When I think of great dystopic novels, three immediately come to mind: 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Though very different from each other in their own ways, they are similar in that the protagonist(s) in each of these stories – Winston Smith (and Julia), John the Savage and Guy Montag – are all clear, unambiguous rebels, taking on the System through a series of consciously defined acts of rebellion, acts which they are aware put their lives at risk, acts which they carry out nonetheless because they believe in resisting the System. Offred, however, is a far more ambiguous character. She is not brainwashed or willingly compliant, like many of the persons she interacts with. She has not succumbed to the ideology but neither is she willing to act against it. So, at one point, she goes as far as admitting:

Is this what I would die for? I’m a coward, I hate the thought of pain.”

And, at another point, when the she spots the summary execution of someone else on the street, her immediate reaction is: “What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.” And even when she does commit acts of rebellion, they are not motivated by ideals of resistance – simply pure physical need. Indeed, it is Offred’s friends and companions who are actively involved in the resistance movement, but Offred herself is almost completely passive – things happen to her, and she responds to them, events move her, but she never moves – or even tries to move – them. This makes Offred a less inspiring character than a Winston Smith or a Guy Montag, but I also think that it makes her a truer character, and one easier to identify with – for the truth is that most of us aren’t actually willing to put our lives on the line in order to resist power. 

(Let me put it this way: Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451 is Edward Snowden. But for one Edward Snowden, there are a million others who feel the same way, but do not act. Offred stands for – speaks for – thinks for – those million others.)

Concomitant with the ambiguity in Offred’s character is the ambiguity in the conclusion of the novel itself. Again, here, Atwood seems to depart from the canonical dystopic novels. At the end of 1984, Winston Smith is broken; at the end of Brave New World, John the Savage dies; and at the end of Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag escapes and meets others like himself. Contrast this with the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale:

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, is interesting because of its conscious insistence on leaving threads untied, loose ends as they are, in resisting the idea of a conclusion. And once again that, perhaps, makes it truer to reality.

In other respects, The Handmaid’s Tale is a solid dystopic novel, treating the themes of power, ideology and resistance with a subtle and deft touch, creating a world that is different enough to be terrifying, but not so alien that it is incomprehensible, and creating characters that are instantly recognisable. There is, for instance, that ironic breakdown of the useful-work-versus-useless-toil dichotomy:

“Sometimes I think those scarves aren’t sent to the angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the wives busy to give them a sense of purpose.”

There are sharp – and beautiful descriptions – of the sense of alienation, hopelessness and entrapment that are the lot of anyone who is disenfranchised and has lost control over the shaping of her own life:

We lived in the gaps between the stories…

“… the amount of unfilled time, the long parenthees of nothing.”

“I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor…”

I am a blank here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

There is, of course, the compulsory account of the workings of ideology, in a way that the oppressed comes not only to accept her oppression, not only to endorse it, but – most horrifying of all – to identify with it (Kundera makes a similar point in The Joke when referring to defendants pleading for punishment in show trials – as does Orwell in Animal Farm):

I have once again failed to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.”

This works, as it always does, through language and images. One point that emerges clearly from the writings of Ismail Kadare on myth is that a central issue of contestation is who will have the power to define the existence and content of myth; similarly, here it is about the power to control vocabulary and image – in other words, what images come to mind when certain words are mentioned? Consider:

“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons, of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me…  now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, through black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.”

The body being envisioned as a vehicle of fertility implies that Offred’s very thinking – her conceptualisation – of herself is in the specific terms, the language of fertility – and as we know, rebellion against language is the most difficult rebellion of all. The message is clear – he who has power to define the meanings of words, and the images that are associated with them, has power simpliciter. The point is made with striking clarity in Aunt Lydia’s peroration to the (potential) handmaids, as they are being trained for their new roles:

We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.

Perhaps one of the best scenes in the book is the Dionysiac episode in which the body of a condemned rapist is ripped to shreds by the assembled women bears strong resemblances not only to some of the scenes in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, but also exhibit another method of control – providing one avenue for the release of all the emotions, all the energy, all the violent hatreds that are suppressed elsewhere through force and ideology, providing one tightly controlled and defined avenue to power that somehow makes suppression at all other times acceptable, and the need to rebel less urgent (Sundays for factory workers!). Part of the greatness of this book lies, I think, in its refusal to identify one, monolithic locus of tyranny operating through particular forms of control, and one particular form of resistance. Atwood understands (in an almost Foucauldian vein) that power and control operate at all levels of society, tailored to the specific circumstances in question – and resistance takes the appropriate form itself. In this sense, the book is a more subtle exploration of the theme than, say, Brave New World (soma and genetic engineering) and Fahrenheit 451 (book burning and television), where the forms of control – and therefore, forms of resistance – are more clearly defined, and thus more… essentialistic. Once again, we come back to the point about ambiguity – at all times, The Handmaid’s Tale refuses eschews reductionism – but nor does it makes things so complex that the narrative loses force.

Lastly – Atwood is a rare writer who combines a great sense of plot and pacing with poignant and moving language. I leave you with three particularly striking passages:

“I sit in my room at the window, waiting. In my lap is a handful of crumpled stars.”

“The way we’re talking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo.” 

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”


Filed under Margaret Atwood

“I felt the oppressive lightness of the void that lay over my life”: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Joke’

The Joke was Milan Kundera’s first novel. The themes that he would develop to a much greater degree in later works (particularly Life is Elsewhere) are found here in a somewhat protean form: the hopelessly entangled relationships between youth, love, lyricism and revolution, backgrounded by a State veering towards totalitarianism. Ludvik, the protagonist of the story, is a student and dedicated Communist party worker in a Czechoslovakia in the process of being formulated after the 1948 Revolution. Himself often humorous and irreverent, Ludvik attempts to draw the attention of a woman he is wooing by sending her a “joke” designed to shock her too-serious self into laughter – a joke in the form of a polemical statement written upon a postcard:

“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.”

His letter is intercepted by the authorities who fail to see the funny side of things. Branded as a Trotskyite and an enemy of the Revolution, Ludvik is forced to resign from the Party, expelled from the University, and packed off to compulsory army service (with no guarantee of return) in a faraway provincial town. His failed “joke” expands thus to define his entire life, and the rest of the book is a continuation of his story, so defined.

Through an account of the events of Ludvik’s life, Kundera explores a number of important and interrelated themes. At the heart of the story lies the idea of how a combination of youth and idealism can swiftly petrify into a totalitarianism that brooks neither dissent nor – even worse – humour (remember Mark Twain’s words – against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand). So, the initial attraction of the revolution, with its stated communist philosophy, is bewitching and enthralling:

“… what had attracted me to the movement more than anything else, dazzled me, was the feeling (real or apparent) of standing near the wheel of history… inaugurating an era in which man (all men) would be neither outside history, nor under the heel of history, but would create and direct it.” 

I am reminded at this point of Yuri Trifonov’s beautiful novel, The Impatient Ones, which is about the Russian social-revolutionary Narodnaya Volya (“Land and Freedom”) movement in the 1870s, that culminated in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. A central refrain of the movement – made up in large numbers of students – was the need to “give history a push, the old nag!” The idea of being in a position in which you can actually give history that push is, as Kundera writes, intoxicating. But in the hands of the youth, it is also dangerous, because:

“Youth is terrible; it is a stage trod by children in buskins and a variety of costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand.  And history is terrible because it so often ends up a playground for the immature… a playground for easily roused mobs of children whose stimulated passions and simplistic poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.”

Ludvik’s fate is therefore explained by his falling foul of an ideology that claims dominion over history, and must logically, therefore, claim infallibility. As his friend points out to him: “no great movement designed to change the world can bear sarcasm or mockery, because they are a rust that corrodes all it touches.”

This twin sense of both danger and delight presented by such an ideology is aptly summed up by Ludvik’s friend, Jaroslav the musician, when he muses upon Ludvik’s advocacy of a particularly “socialist” form of music that must replace jazz and other such forms in the aftermath of the revolution:

He had the look all Communists had at the time. As if he’d made a secret pact with the future and had thereby acquired the right to act in its name…. yet his ideas corresponded to our innermost dreams. They elevated us to a historic greatness.”

The sense of infallibility – and therefore, the desire to control – extends to all domains of life, including – and especially – art. The relationship between art, politics and nationhood is the second major theme that pervades the book. The Party man Zemaneck, for example, loves to sing Moravian folk songs because they give him the appearance of being “a man of the people“. Folk art is promoted by the government for just this purpose. But the connections go much deeper than that. Much like Ismail Kadare’s writings, Kundera’s work too exhibits the awareness that art is often the point of contestation – and creation – of our very identity. So Jaroslav, for instance, believes that:

“My love for it dates back to the war. They tried to make us believe we had no right to exist, we were nothing but Czech-speaking Germans. We needed to prove to ourselves that we’d existed before and still did exist. We all made a pilgrimage to the sources… the folk song or folk rite is a tunnel beneath history, a tunnel that preserves much of what wars, revolutions, civilizations have long since destroyed aboveground.”

All nations claim to be rooted in a glorious antiquity, through chains that have often been stretched, frayed and worn, but never broken. The chain of culture is one such: and that is precisely how art becomes involved in the politics of nationhood, and perhaps why “apolitical art” is a contradiction in terms. Through folk music, Jaroslav traces the lineage of present-day Czechoslovakia all the way back to the great, 9th century Moravian Empire – and the grandeur of that Empire is what reflects upon the contemporary nation, glorious in light of its glorious past. This is why Ludvik calls for a break with jazz and a resumption of the folk tradition:

Jazz is quick to develop and change. Its style is in constant motion. It had traveled a precipitous road from early New Orleans counter-point to swing, bop and beyond. The New Orleans variety had never dreamed of the harmonies used in today’s jazz. Our folk music, in contrast, is a motionless princess from bygone centuries. We have to awaken it. It must merge with the life of today and develop along with it. It must develop like jazz: without ceasing to be itself, without losing its melodic and rhythmic specificity, it must create its own newer phases of style. It isn’t easy. It’s an enormous task. A task that can only be carried out under socialism.

[Why socialism?] The ancient countryside had lived a collective life. Communal rites marked off the village year. Folk art knew no life outside those rites. Poets create in order to express themselves, to say what it is that makes them unique. In the folk song, one does not stand out from others, but joins with them. The folk song grew like a stalactite. Drop by drop enveloping itself in new motifs, in new variants. It was passed from generation to generation, and everyone who sang it added something new to it. Every song had many creators, and all of them modestly disappeared behind their creation.  

Capitalism had destroyed this old collective life. And so folk art had lost its foundations, its reason for being, its function. It would be useless trying to resurrect it while social conditions were such that man lived cut off from man, everyone for himself. But socialism would liberate people from their isolation. They would live in a new collectivity, United by a common interest, their private and public lives would merge.”

By now, art has become entirely subordinated to the political project – it is, in fact, no more than one element that sustains the political project, lacking any defining characteristics of its own. From the viewpoint that art partly reflects and partly shapes culture, there is now a pre-determined culture that art must reflect and shape. Perhaps that is why the phrase “totalitarianism” is used for such ideologies – their attempt to exert control over every facet of life.

Much as he does in Life is Elsewhere, Kundera engages with the idea of love as an offshoot of these themes. Thus, Helena is “looking for love, desperately looking for love, a love I can embrace just as I am, with all my old dreams and ideals, because I don’t want my life to split down the middle, I want it to remain whole from beginning to end…“, a love that entails “body and soul, lust and tenderness, grief and frenzied vitality, desire for vulgarity and desire for consolation, desire for the moment of pleasure as well as for eternal possession.” This all-encompassing love must be total (recall Jaromil in Life is Elsewhere telling his fiancee that “either you love me entirely, or you love me not at all – there is nothing in the middle), it must reject anything less than complete, any ambiguity, and it is entirely lyrical. The parallels are striking, and need no explanation.

Yet the message – if one can use that word – of the book seems to be that such philosophies, whether of love or of politics, are ultimately no more than myths, and must suffer the eventual fate of all myths – debunking and replacement. The manner in which the Ludvik-Helena affair plays out bears witness to that, and the eroding popularity of folk music and folk traditions, documented painstakingly and painfully by Jaroslav, over the years, bears witness to that. Myths can exert great power and influence while they last, and indeed history is a series of myths, but they are all temporary. And in the end:

Their message will never be decoded… because people have no patience to listen to it in an age when the accumulation of messages old and new is such that their voices cancel one another out. Today history is no more than a thin thread of the remembered stretching over an ocean of the forgotten, but time moves on, and an epoch of millennia will come which the inextensible memory of the individual will be unable to encompass; whole centuries and millennia will therefore fall away, centuries of painting and music, centuries of discoveries, of battles, of books, and this will be dire, because man will lose the notion of his self, and his history, unfathomable, unencompassable, will shrivel into a few schematic signs destitute of all sense. Thousands of deaf-and-dumb Rides of Kings will set out with their piteous and incomprehensible messages, and no one will have the time to hear them out.”

And that seems to lead, irrevocably, to utter pessimism. As Ludvik looks back in the aftermath of his affair with Helena, one that turned out entirely opposite to what he expected, one that seems to be a byword for his entire life (one vast, irrevocable joke), he laments:

“I was seized with regret about this day, not only because it had been futile, but also because even its futility would be forgotten…”

Myths then, at the end of the day, fail in their very basic function: they fail to provide any lasting or permanent meaning to life, the meaning that every human being is perpetually seeking but which, like Aeneas’ shore, is always receding, with or without the oars of myth driving the ship of history onwards.

The Joke is dark, pessimistic and devoid of hope, but it is utterly compelling.


Filed under Czech Republic, European Writing, Milan Kundera