August 16th, 2017

It just might be a good time to revisit this quote from Milan Kundera on circle dancing

I think you’ll see why.

It’s from the Czech author Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which he wrote in the late 1970s:

Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.

I came across The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in an excerpt published in The New Yorker around the time of the book’s English publication, 1980. The first paragraph of the book in its New Yorker version hit me with great force as soon as I read it, which is unusual for me. I understood immediately that I was in the presence of brilliance of a particular and unusual sort, a writer who said things in a way that resonated deeply with me. The work managed to mix political and philosophical observations with a fanciful fictional narrative (not exactly a novel but rather a series of linked and unconventional stories) all told in the idiosyncratic and blunt voice of an exceedingly perceptive and reflective author.

I’ll leave it to another exceedingly perceptive and reflective author—John Updike, in his original review of the book—to describe it:

This book…is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out…

…[T]he mirror does not so readily give back validation with this playful book, more than a collection of seven stories yet certainly no novel, by an expatriate Czech resident in France, fascinated by sex, and prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination, and recent Czech history. Milan Kundera, he tells us, was as a young man among that moiety of Czechs–“the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half”–who cheered the accession of the Communists to power in February 1948. He was then among the tens of thousands rapidly disillusioned by the harsh oppressions of the new regime: “And suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the strange feeling of having sent something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. So those young, intelligent radicals started shouting to their deed, calling it back, scolding it, chasing it, hunting it down.”

Kundera’s prose presents a surface like that of a shattered mirror, where brightly mirroring fragments lie mixed with pieces of lusterless silvering. The Communists idyll he youthfully believed in seems somehow to exist for him still, though mockingly and excludingly. He never asks himself—the most interesting political question of the century–why a plausible and necessarily redistribution of wealth should, in its Communist form, demand such an exorbitant sacrifice of individual freedom? Why must the idyll turn, not merely less than idyll, but nightmare?

The position of a writer from the Socialist world in the West cannot but be uncomfortable. He cannot but despise us for our cheap freedoms, our more subtle enslavements; and we it may be, cannot but condescend to his discovery, at such heavy cost to his life, of lessons that Messrs. Churchill and Truman so roundly read to us 35 years ago.

That probably tells you more about Updike’s politics and quality of mind (see much more here) than about Kundera. However, I actually think that, although Kundera doesn’t directly spell out the answer to that “most interesting political question of the century,” the answer is inherent in everything he writes. In fact, come think of it, the answer is even subtly implied in that paragraph I quoted at the outset of this post, and it resides in that single word “forced.” In the inevitably vain effort to realize a dream that goes against human nature and reality, one must force compliance or abandon the dream. That necessity for force appeals to the worst in human nature and ultimately attracts the worst human beings rather than the best.

3 Responses to “It just might be a good time to revisit this quote from Milan Kundera on circle dancing”

  1. Lizzy Says:

    Yeah, recalled this book as soon as they started erasing Confederate history a few years ago…*sigh*

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “In the inevitably vain effort to realize a dream that goes against human nature and reality, one must force compliance or abandon the dream. That necessity for force appeals to the worst in human nature and ultimately attracts the worst human beings rather than the best.” neo

    There it is, right there. Why all collectivism’s in time evolve into tyranny.

  3. Ymar Sakar Says:

    We All Fall Down.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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