On forgetting, unpersons, and doublethink: Milan Kundera and George Orwell
One of my favorite authors is Milan Kundera. Yes, I know, I've said it before--I've discussed Kundera's work here and here, as well as here and here.
So, why Kundera yet again (and I doubt this will be the last time)? His work is so rich, and so dense with striking and relevant images, that it just keeps coming to mind. I wanted to try to whet your appetite a bit and see if I could entice anyone who hasn't yet read his books into taking a look.
Probably my favorite work of Kundera's, and the first one I ever read, is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I initially encountered it in an abbreviated version that appeared in the New Yorker magazine in the late '70s.
How to describe its unusual qualities? Kundera himself has tried:
This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance...
It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels...
If you haven't read the book, that probably doesn't tell you all that much. The novel isn't a conventional one with a linear plot; rather, it contains seven sections that are more like rambling and discursive short stories, loosely connected by various themes.
But that's not what hooked me: it was Kundera's utterly unique voice that pulled me in immediately. He ranges widely in topic and tone, continually expounding (and expanding) and commenting on the story in a free-wheeling monologue. Always conversational, his voice is at turns rambling, poetic, incisive, earthy, funny, and philosophical. The voice grabs the reader (at least, this reader) from the outset, and almost never flags or becomes anything less than fascinating, while keeping that same reader continually off-balance and surprised. It is indeed like variations in music, or riffs in jazz.
Although the book is fictional--and, at times, fantastical--Kundera continually throws in meditations on history and politics. The book begins not with an introduction to the plot or to the characters, but to the theme on which Kundera's variations are played: the forgetting of history, both historical and personal:
In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.
The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.
Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, or course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.
For anyone who has also read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, this mirrors--at least partially--the creation of what Orwell called an "unperson:"
unperson - Person that has been erased from existence by the government for breaking the law in some way. An unperson is completely erased from history. All record of their existence is removed...and all party members are expected to remove them from memory.
One of the themes of Orwell's work (which was mostly written in the year 1948, the year of the Gottwald/Clementis hat exchange) is this purposeful distortion and rewriting of history. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell describes the process taken to an extreme in his fictional world:
This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.
Orwell's main character Winston Smith was part of this process. He can describe it, although he doesn't quite understand it:
The past not only changed, but changed continuously. What most afflicted [Winston] with the sense of nightmare was that he had never clearly understood why the huge imposture was undertaken. The immediate advantages of falsifying the past were obvious, but the ultimate motive was mysterious. He took up his pen again and wrote:
I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.
Orwell could not have been aware of exactly what was to happen to Clementis and his photo--after all, his death and the erasure occurred in 1952, years after Orwell's book was written. But he was certainly familiar with similar efforts by the Soviets to rewrite history, and he had used this as his inspiration for the book; art imitates life.
But the effort Kundera describes--to erase Clementis from that moment of Czech history--seems especially absurd. Why absurd? Well, how could the Czech Communists be so silly--and so transparent--as to do away with Clementis's image in a photo that every school kid in the country already knew by heart? How could they think they could get away with the rewriting of a history that was already so well-known? And, as Winston Smith asks in another but strikingly similar context, why would they want to?
So why was Clementis erased from the photo, if his presence was so easy to remember? For future generations, of course, it might be possible to eliminate even the appearance of any jarring notes in the supposedly harmonious symphony of the history of Czech Communism, and so some of the erasure was undoubtedly for them.
But for those contemporaneous with the incident, who knew better, those rewriting history must not have cared how transparent their actions were, because their real aim was probably to teach a different object lesson. Perhaps what they were really saying was not "Clementis the traitor didn't exist" but rather, "Take heed: if you become a traitor like Clementis, you'll become an unperson, too." Perhaps they meant the erasure to be transparent, to demonstrate quite graphically how they had the power to crush a person--not just the body, but the history of the life, as well.
In so doing, they were also relaying another message. They were exhorting the Czech populace to practice what Orwell called "doublethink," saying, in effect, "Even though we know that you know full well that Clementis existed and was even a member in good standing of the Party at one point, we are also saying that you must will yourself to unremember. If we say he didn't exist, then he didn't exist. Who are you going to believe, us or your lying eyes (and your lying memory)?"
Orwell wrote that "doublethink" requires a person:
...to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.
The havoc that such mind games wrought on the people of Czechoslovakia is a major theme of Kundera's work. The effect was pervasive, and the tension reached into almost every endeavor, including love and sex--subjects that occur with great frequency in Kundera's work, as well.
And speaking of love and sex--yes, there was a sexy movie made of Kundera's other great novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But if that's all you know of Kundera, you owe it to yourself to supplement it with some reading; the movie is thin gruel indeed compared to the writing.
In researching this post, I looked for the photo Kundera is describing. Here is Gottwald's Wikipedia biography, which mentions the purges and Clementis's execution. But the photo there doesn't fit the bill; it's a Soviet-art-style propaganda poster of Gottwald with Stalin.
But take a look at this one: its Gottwald, standing on what appears to be a balcony, addressing a crowd, and wearing a fur hat--perhaps the hat, which, like the Cheshire Cat's smile, would be all that is left of Clementis's presence on that day: