Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

"[F]orgetting...is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation (Renan quoted in Loomba 1998:196)
So I just finished this Milan Kundera novel and I must say that it was well worth the time (despite falling behind on course work!). While the theme of 'forgetting' is hardly the most unique with it being prevalent in books as diverse as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Beloved, it was definitely the first book I have read that has shed the action/concept of laughter in such a negative light! Laughter proves to be very cruel and mechanical in the text whether dealing with children giving a presentation on their reading or awkward moments during funeral rites or even during an orgy.

The book is divided into seven parts, and is composed of several short and abrupt chapters - yet there is no discernible plot. As the story flows from a first person narrative to second person and back, the stories of the various characters (often very sexual) and the overarching historical context congeal and become indistinguishable - leaving the reader buzzing with ideas but perplexed about how to explain what they read! Some passages and lines stood out especially which I will record here for future perusal:

"It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting" (p.3)

"The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assasination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten." (p.7)

"Graphonmania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:

  1. a high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;
  2. an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant feeling of the isolation of the individual;
  3. a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation. (In this case I find it symptomatic that in France, a coutnry where nothing really happens, the percentage of writers is twenty-one times higher than in Israel. Bibi was absolutely right when she claimed never to have experienced anything from the outside. It is this absence of content, this void, that powers the motor driving her to write.)" (p.92)

"Litost is a Czech word with no exact translation into any other language. It designates a feeling as infinite as an open accordion, a feeling that is the synthesis of many others: grief, sympathy, remorse, and an indefinable longing. The first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog...Litost is a state of torment caused by a sudden insight into one's own miserable self" (p.121-122)

" 'Laughter on the other hand,' continued Petrarch, 'is an explosion that tears us away from the world and drops us into frigid solitude. A joke is a barrier between man and world. A joke is an enemy of love and poetry. So let me tell you again - and don't you forget it - Boccaccio doesn't know a thing about love. Love can't be laughable. Love has nothing in common with laughter.'
'Yes!' said the student enthusiastically. He saw the world as divided in two: half love, half joke. He knew that he belonged, and would always belong, to Petrarch's army" (p.144)

"Over the last two hundred years the blackbird has abandoned the woods for the city - first in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, then several decades later in Paris and the Ruhr Valley. Throughout the nineteenth century it captured the cities of Europe one after the other. It settled in Vienna and Prague around 1900, and journeyed eastward to Budapest, Belgrade and Istanbul. Globally, the blackbird's invasion of the human world is beyond a doubt more important than the Spaniard's invasion of South America or the resettlement of Palestine by the Jews. A change in the relationship of one species to another (fish, birds, people, plants) is a change from of a higher order than a change in the relationship of one or another group within the species. The earth does not particularly care whether Celts or Slavs inhabited Bohemia, whether Romanians or Russians occupy Bessarabia. If, however, the blackbird goes against nature and follows man to his artificial, anti-natural world, something has changed in the planetary order of things" (pp.196-197)

"At the beginning of man's erotic life, Jan said to himself, there is arousal without climax; at the end there is climax without arousal. Arousal without climax is Daphnis; climax without arousal was the girl from the sporting goods rental place." (p.204)

"The male glance has often been described. It is commonly said to rest coldly on a woman, measuring, weighing, evaluating, selecting her - in other words, turning her into an object. What is less commonly known is that a woman is not completely defenseless against that glance. It if turns her into an object, then she looks back that the man with the eyes of an object. It is as though a hammer had suddenly grown eyes and stared up at the worker pounding a nail with it. When the worker sees the evil eye of the hammer, he loses his self-assurance and slams it on his thumb. The worker may be the hammer's master, but the hammer still prevails. A tool knows exactly how it is meant to be handled, while the user of the tool can only have an approximate idea" (p.209)