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The unbearable lightness of being cancelled Milan Kundera introduced us to the Devil's laughter

Any dissenter becomes an enemy (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)


December 20, 2021   5 mins

Forty years ago, if there was one novel you could count on educated readers having read and loved, it was The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. First published in an English translation in America in 1980, it took the temperature of the age as no other book did.

It was the great novel of the end of European Communism: a novel of ideas and eroticism, the surreal and the naturalistic. In tone intimate and ironic, it seemed to take its readers into its confidence, assuming a high level of curiosity and scepticism, large-mindedness and mirth, but also anxiety, lest waking from one nightmare was no guarantee that we wouldn’t fall headlong into the next.

We didn’t read it as we read polemic — the characters were too vivid to allow us to forget we were reading fiction — but it was conjecturally high-risk in a way that other novels weren’t. Laughter and Forgetting: the very concatenation of those words promised an original ride. So we hung on, rubbing our eyes as though waking from a long sleep, curious to read whatever Kundera had written earlier and impatient to read whatever he would write next. Today, the laughter has fallen silent and, except among a few aficionados and readers without an axe to grind, Kundera himself is all but forgotten.

The forgetting of Kundera’s title is the state-sponsored forgetting essential to totalitarianism, allowing that totalitarianism insinuates its way into the most private corners of our lives. The novel’s opening reads like a fairy tale told by a historian. “In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace…” Next to Gottwald on the balcony is the Foreign Minister, Vladimir Clementis. It is cold and, noting that Gottwald is bareheaded, Clementis takes the fur hat off his head and puts it on his leader’s. Four years later Clementis is hanged for treason and “immediately airbrushed out of history”, which means being airbrushed out of this and all other photographs as well. Inspect the photograph today and the only evidence that Clementis was ever on that balcony is the fur hat on Gottwald’s head. So tellingly comic is the image that one wants to push it further into surrealism and remove Gottwald too, leaving only the hat to hover Magritte-like in the snow.

We have our own vocabulary to describe what the Czech Communist party did to Clementis 70 years ago. We say it “cancelled” him. It is, I think, instructive to trace cancel culture’s political origins in the mindset of totalitarianism.

The cruel irony is that Kundera’s novel has itself become the object of the very cancelling it describes. Little by little, whether by malevolent design (which is hard to prove) or by subtle changes in the literary/political zeitgeist (also hard to chart) Kundera and his novels fell out of favour.

He had left Czechoslovakia for France in 1975 and never returned when it was safe to do so. Why was that, some wondered. A willing exile is not the same as a forced one: did he remain in France in order to keep his distance from people who could reveal a secret? Rumours of his having earlier sold out a colleague to the Communist authorities began to circulate. Vehemently denied and never proved though this accusation was, a whiff of deception, not to say betrayal, remained. Not impossibly, some people wanted it to remain in order better to sell or explain a disaffection that had other causes. A Kundera who forged his own biography was a Kundera whose books might also lie to us.

The world was changing; subtle re-evaluations of the contributions of Soviet Communism among those very intellectuals who would once have been Kundera’s admirers, compelled them to think again about him or, as was more convenient, to forget about him altogether. Ideological enemies of the Left were no longer automatically embraced. New sorts of crime, more insidious but not necessarily any less terrible than those which Kundera had made his reputation excoriating, required new and no less vigilant policing. Universities began to take on the aspect of commissariats. You might say that Kundera’s ironic tone, once so bracing, now sounded stale, tactlessly assertive and masculinist. No one was going to ask this question in so many words, but did irony even have a place in literature any longer?

In a marvellous flight of inspirational fancy in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Kundera describes two kinds of laughter: the Devil’s, which denies “all rational meaning to God’s world”, and which by its very maliciousness permits “a greater latitude in living”; and the Angel’s, which is no laughter at all, but a horrible fabrication of it, declaring the beauty and goodness of everything on earth.

Once a longing for unitary meaning turns into a cult or ideology of that meaning — as Soviet Communism was — any dissenter from that cult becomes its enemy. To cancel, in our culture, is to deny such dissent the space to breath in.

“I too danced in a ring,” Kundera writes. “It was the spring of 1948.” That has the wistful tone of a confession — an allowance that the yearning to join such a dance is inescapable if you are young — albeit the confession of someone who dances in a ring no longer. 1948 was the year of the Communist coup d’etat in Czechoslovakia. A time of victorious celebration if you were of the Angel’s party, and for that short time, who wasn’t?

You held hands, your hearts overflowing with joy, and danced in a ring of perfect unanimity. It might remind us of the rapturous welcome Jeremy Corbyn was given in Glastonbury by thousands upon thousands of popular music orgiasts, already gathered to dance in a giant ring, and for whom adding Corbyn to their objects of unquestioning worship was a small step. Kundera’s dancers, “fleeing rest and sleep, outstripping time”, finally grow wings and soar above the earthly Prague. The fantasy that buoys them is the same fantasy that briefly enabled Corbyn’s supporters to believe they were flying.

Discussing the surprising omission of Kundera and his long-time admirer Philip Roth from the list of Nobel Prize winners, the French Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut speculates that the charge of misogyny levelled at both writers has something to do with it. “The Stockholm jury was ‘woke’ before the word appeared,” he says. I wish to stay out of using ‘woke’. Words when they come with poisoned tips promote hostility, not accommodation. We all have our sore spots.

Myself, I bridle at expressions of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, I don’t think even the clearest evidence of it in this or that novelist’s work disqualifies them as novelists. A ferocious, convicted anti-Semite the French writer CĂ©line might have been, but he wrote a couple of fine novels. He made us see the world as we previously had not. Sometimes, in the discomfort we feel reading or looking, is to be found art’s true purpose.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia weakened itself when it airbrushed out Valdimir Clementis but kept his hat. To cancel is to forget, and to forget diminishes not only the forgotten but the forgetter. It is also, as Kundera’s great novel demonstrates, to forgo the liberation there is in laughter — laughter not as the Angels understood it but as the all-disparaging Devil did — the power to question and criticise and scorn, to leave the dance of shared conviction and refuse the ecstatic fantasy of flight.


Howard Jacobson is a Booker Prize-winning novelist.


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Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago

A fine essay. And noting the fall from modish approval of a non or even anti-communist writer like Kundera is timely indeed, as are the prescient associations of “cancellation” with the totalitarian outlook. The discussion of “angelic” or ideological laughter applies in spades to modern British comedy; and would have applied to the younger “comedians” of the late eighties. These are points which should be noted and heeded. My only addition would be to suggest that this process has deep roots. I well recall that when “Lightness” came out as a film, an old acquaintance from school, already soaked in the worst that radical Cambridge could brew, dismissed the work, the original and the author with a grimace of contempt and, of course, would not explain himself. Argument, in which we had engaged so freely when younger, was now beneath him; and expressions of opposition were, in any case, expressions of ignorance or heresy. Had he let me speak in Kundera’s defence, he would have hated me. I was, long before the word was coined, in the process of a slow “cancellation”, albeit in stages and by one person. These are the persons who have been running the show for some time, now; and the slow squeeze of their continuing advance is being felt with greater intensity and by greater numbers than ever before.

Last edited 2 years ago by Simon Denis
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Well said. I must confess to not having read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but I have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and was rather taken by the writing. I think I need to read Laughter and Forgetting and perhaps re-read Lightness as I am now older and times are different so, perhaps I will get somehing different from them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

The Joke is worth reading too.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

The unbearable rightness of getting the author’s name wrong. Kinda proves the article’s thesis.

George Stone
George Stone
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

I would like to hear a defence, but I fear what you will get is the same refusal to discuss it – as we all know all discourse is an exercise in power relations (just ask M.Foucault)

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Great writing from an intellectual.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I thoroughly enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Partly because the writing is wonderful, partly because those of us who found success with the ladies hard work are always fascinated by stories of those who effortlessly collect them.

I suspect Kundera just went out of fashion rather than being consciously cancelled. If the point of the article is to highlight the cancellation of ideas, by intellectuals and the publishing world, more obvious targets could have been found. That cancellation is a tool of totalitarianism also has many more obvious examples.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Yeah, great writer that Michel Kundera. I prefer the work of his rebellious younger brother, Milan, meself.

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

To focus on a typo, and ignore the argument, brilliant. I must stop, I’m so in awe of your intellect I must go and sit in the corner for a while and weep at my own inadequacy.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

I did not get the argument

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Neither did Prashat!

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Lee Jones

No need for shame. Counselling available on request.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

The UnHerd subeditor has been cancelled and sent for re-education.

George Stone
George Stone
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

?

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

Meanders a bit.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Hell hath no fury like an Utopian scorned.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

They’d gaslight you and say it’s not happening.

James B
James B
2 years ago

Forgive me for lapsing into hyperbole. A brilliant, brilliant article by a brilliant writer – one whose contribution to literature and thought in general outstrips the vast majority of the Planet.

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
2 years ago

Progressives silence – they don’t debate. When was the last time you saw an actual debate (two people on stage arguing a side) on global warming, abortion, etc?

Last edited 2 years ago by Gunner Myrtle
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Great idea

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago

I think we should cancel Michel Kundera, particularly as he doesn’t exist.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Milan Kundera’s old hat.
His old fur hat.
That one.
That joke.
To stir the glum.
And rile the woke.

“: 
 the Devil’s, 
, and which by its very maliciousness 
”
Would mischievousness not be a better word? The problem today is that “poking fun” is seen as crude or malicious. That is poking fun at gloried and admired figures. Perhaps older generations view “poking fun” differently to how younger generations see the phrase. The older generations had been starved of entertainment in the past. Many folk had no TV at all until the late 1960s or 70s. And then, say, a little bawdy humour was bound to be the name of the game for many.

“Teeth-for-that”* said Ollie imperiously to Stan, as an excuse for squashing a cream bun on the face of the hostile shopkeeper whom they are in a spat with standing dejectedly before them.
Stan with a smile tips his hat towards the shopkeeper. “What’d you do that for?” says Ollie.
“I thought you said, Tip your hat.”
It’s bound to hurt, but now it’s a laugh.
What was malicious is rendered mischievous.

As for Glasto, and the Jeremy moment, it was like for the crowds seeing someone in the flesh whom they had only seen on TV. That’s always so thrilling. Isn’t it?

*Deliberate incorrect spelling

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Milan Kundera’s old hat
His old fur hat
That one
That joke
To stir the glum
To rile the woke folk

“:
, the Devil’s, 
, and which by its very maliciousness 
”

Would mischievousness not be a better word? The problem today is that “poking fun” is seen as crude or malicious. One may poke fun at one’s peril at admired or praised individuals. Perhaps older people view “poking fun” differently to how younger people do. Older people had scrapped back in the old days for any entertainment they could get. Poking fun was a staple of music hall, I imagine.

“T*t-for-t*t” says Ollie to Stan in a pompously relaxed manner, by way of excuse for his and Stan’s having just squashed a cream bun or two into the face of the hostile, impetuous shopkeeper whom they are in a spat with and who stands dejectedly before them. Then Stan smiles and lifts his hat off his head, tipping it towards the shopkeeper.
“What’d you do that for?” says Ollie.
Stan: “I thought you said, Tip your hat.”

What was malicious was rendered mischievous.

As for Glasto and the Jeremy moment, it was like for the crowds seeing in the flesh for the first time someone whom they had only seen on TV. That was naturally thrilling for them, I imagine. As it would have been when seeing in the flesh many of their favourite pop bands.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Beyond the main thread of this article, does it give wiggle room to cancel? With reading between the lines:
– if an author (Celine) is anti-semitic their books can still be seen on their own merit.
Fine, or too much creative endeavour may be lost (per separate Hensher article on books we will never see). But:
– if a politician is seen as anti-semitic (e.g. Corbyn) are you saying by extension their policies can still be seen for their own merit.

Despite perhaps an opposite intent, does Corbyn’s cancelling crowd get a free pass here?

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

The comparison between politics and art is not helpful because a work of art exists independent of the artist.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

I agree, largely, which is why I wrote the above. However, the wiggle room for people to exploit this nuance is the very devil in the divide.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

It’s an interesting question. If I watch a film with Mel Gibson or Jane Fonda, for instance, I believe that I am able to judge to the film on its own merits without being influenced by my opinions about them. Actually, I dislike both of them but I have enjoyed their work on occasion. I do not like to ‘cancel’ people or works of art. I am not interested in punishing people or having political enemies either. Of course, I avoid giving money to people I consider objectionable. In the case of Rooney, I think her writing is bad so the decision is really easy. In most cases, I know nothing about the actors, the director, or the writer, etc. Probably I have supported many artists with bad opinions. This is normal. When I look at a painting in a museum, I know very little of the life of the artist. Maybe it is better this way. But in politics I will judge differently because public office brings power and discretion to make decisions.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago
Reply to  JP Martin

The article here seems to set aside from art the French writer Celine’s anti-Semitism – in a way that perhaps only the tormented can. The excerpt below is from a later Unherd article on the German writer Ernst Jungen, where Celine’s views are referenced from amid the German occupation of Paris:

“A fĂȘted intellectual, and a lifelong francophile, he (Jungen) befriended the city’s cultural elite, socialising with Cocteau and Picasso as well as the collaborationist French leadership and literary figures such as the anti-semitic novelist CĂ©line, a monster who “spoke of his consternation, his astonishment, at the fact that we soldiers were not shooting, hanging, and exterminating the Jews — astonishment that anyone who had a bayonet was not making unrestrained use of it”.”

Forgiveness is perhaps easier after the death of a tormentor and the passing of contextual “events”. To have forgiven Celine at that time of the war, when he was artfully writing whilst urging the extermination of others, would, surely, have been harder for those leaving Paris in a boxcart? Whilst cancel culture now is pernicious, and a refuge of rogues, this still reminds me of a work colleague in the 1980s inked with a wrinkled concentration camp number. What might he have said too, then or now, of the unbearable lightness of being annihilated at the behest of such an author? No easy answers – but banning things in the long term generally invites additional risks.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
dasgupta.sucheta
dasgupta.sucheta
2 years ago

Much as I have personally borne witness to the libertarian right’s cancelling of the left authoritarians if only for the sake of vested interests, upwardly mobile insecurities and other similarly wrong reasons, I immensely enjoyed Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as well as some of his other stories. Two words I learnt from my readings — kitsch which finds expression in Tagore, Durgapuja and other Bengali(st) fetishes and litost. The last is what Indian women routinely perform to demoralise one another. Thank you, Howard, for your lovely article that recalled these memories.