Posts Tagged ‘revenge’

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

If ever you see this book in a store, drop whatever else you’re holding and buy it immediately. I realize that this is rather a strong command, perhaps even invasive, but you’ll do me the credit to recognize that I don’t command this strongly very often. Of course, now there are several versions you can buy online, but shopping online steals from one the joy of discovery that is felt when shopping nonvirtually. When I was introduced to this book in 2006, it was out of print and unavailable anywhere except for the rare used bookstore. Looking at the reviews on amazon.com, it seems that someone at a publishing house scanned an old book without correcting the text – the negative reviews are for the product itself, not the story. If you can find one of the rare old copies, snatch it up; let no one part you from this book.

It’s sort of an allegory, sort of a fairy tale, sort of a myth. It’s about the stereotypical conflict between gender stereotypes; it’s about the role of thought in our lives. It’s beautiful and strange, delightful, wistful, earthily magical. There was a flourishing of Irish writers during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, and Stephens may not be prominent among them, but perhaps he ought to be. James Joyce seems to have a precious jewel that he is proud of possessing, and equally proud of concealing beneath layers and layers of incomprehensibility. W B Yeats is best known for looking to the mythology of other places, sailing off to Byzantium or looking for the second coming of a Hebrew god fused to the Egyptian sphinx. Yeats does write about the Irish myths and legends, but those poems tend to get rather long, and they require a great deal of concentration, more than is consistent with pure joy. Stephens uses simple sentences that a child could understand to discuss abstract concepts that the wisest of adults will take time to ponder.

In the beginning, there are two philosophers and their wives:

In the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom. Their faces looked as though they were made of parchment, there was ink under their nails, and every difficulty that was submitted to them, even by women, they were able to instantly resolve. The Grey Woman of Dun Gortin and the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath asked them the three questions which nobody had ever been able to answer, and they were able to answer them. That was how they obtained the enmity of these two women which is more valuable than the friendship of angels. The Grey Woman and the Thin Woman were so incensed at being answered that they married the two Philosophers in order to be able to pinch them in bed, but the skins of the Philosophers were so thick that they did not know they were being pinched. They repaid the fury of the women with such tender affection that these vicious creatures almost expired of chagrin, and once, in a very ecstasy of exasperation, after having been kissed by their husbands, they uttered the fourteen hundred maledictions which comprised their wisdom, and these were learned by the Philosophers who thus became even wiser than before.

Then one of the philosophers and his wife decide to die, which simplifies things immensely.

Things start to happen when a cat kills a bird. The animals aren’t important in themselves, but the cat belongs to Meehawl MacMurrachu, and the bird is honored by the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora. The leprecauns take MacMurrachu’s washboard, and he goes to the philosopher to ask for help in getting it back. The philosopher tells him where to find their pot of gold, which MacMurrachu steals and hides in a place that is protected by all the fairy folk, including the leprecauns, who are now bound by their own laws not to recover their property. Instead, they go after their opponents’ children. They kidnap the children of the Philosopher, and it’s rumored that they’re the ones who sent Pan to ensnare Caitilin ni Murrachu. But you don’t fuck with a woman of the Shee, especially not if she has fourteen hundred curses, so of course they returned the kids to the Thin Woman of Inis Magrath.

Pan is the Greek god, the one who looks a bit like a satyr and nothing like an Irishman. His attitude doesn’t seem to quite match up with my understanding of him from the Greeks, but when you meet a mythical figure in a novel you accept the author’s interpretation. Pan represents foreign influences; he beguiles Caitilin with his music, but his philosophy is that hunger and emptiness are of the utmost importance and should be pursued for their own sakes. This deliberate choosing of unhappiness seems to me more closely allied to the monotheistic religions, but maybe it really is present in the Greeks and I’ve just been ignoring it. He also seems more closely related to the philosopher than to the other characters, since the ancient Greeks have dominated European intellectual thought since the Renaissance.

To counter Pan, the philosopher enlists the aid of Angus Og, one of the old Irish gods. He comes surrounded with joy and fullness, and Caitilin chooses him. In this conflict between two gods, I see the struggle of Ireland for its own cultural traditions. Will they assimilate with the rest of Hellenized Europe, or will they recover their own Celtic beliefs? It’s clear that Stephens prefers Angus Og to Pan, and if they really are as he portrays them, I quite agree. But once the children are all rescued, MacMurrachu still has the pot of gold, and justice must still be attended to.

Justice is the maintaining of equilibrium. The blood of Cain must cry, not from the lips of the Avenger, but from the aggrieved Earth herself who demands that atonement shall be made for a disturbance of her consciousness. All justice is, therefore, readjustment. A thwarted consciousness has every right to clamour for assistance, but not for punishment. […] It will, therefore, be understood that when the Leprecauns of Gort na Cloca Mora acted in the manner about to be recorded, they were not prompted by any lewd passion for revenge, but were merely striving to reconstruct a rhythm which was their very existence, and which must have been of direct importance to the Earth. Revenge is the vilest passion known to life. It has made Law possible, and by doing so it gave to Intellect the first grip at that universal dominion which is its ambition.

So the leprecauns give the police an anonymous tip about the dead philosopher and the Grey Woman buried under the philosopher’s house. The thought life of Ireland had its first obstacle with foreign influences, and now it is challenged by modernity. The leprecauns fight to free the philosopher from the police, but he just turns himself in the next day. Then, randomly, his children find the pot of gold and return it to the leprecauns.

How could they thank the children whose father and protector they had delivered to the unilluminated justice of humanity? that justice which demands not atonement but punishment; which is learned in the Book of Enmity but not in the Book of Friendship; which calls hatred Nature, and Love a conspiracy; whose law is an iron chain and whose mercy is debility and chagrin; the blind fiend who would impose his own blindness; that unfruitful loin which curses fertility; that stony heart which would petrify the generations of man; before whom life withers away appalled and death would shudder again to its tomb.

There’s a similar feeling of justice in The Scarlet Letter; people punish in order to make offenders suffer, but the punishments tend to drive the offenders further from society instead of reintegrating them into it. Hawthorne ascribes reconciliatory justice to God; Stephens to the Earth and the fairy folk. As an American, I have a troubled feeling about human justice. We have more people in prison than any other nation on earth. We have more people in prison than some countries have people. One third of the African-American men in my age group are in prison, right now. While other countries are closing empty prisons, ours are full to bursting. Part of this is a problem with the justice system, which tends to convict rather a lot of people (particularly nonwhite males) for fairly minor offenses. Part of this is a problem with the laws, which require imprisonment for something as small as having marijuana in the house. Part of the problem is that we can’t seem to think of any other method of punishment but to lock offenders away with other offenders, so that whatever diseases of thought that lead to crime grow and become even stronger. Part of the problem is that the prison industry sees tons of money changing hands, so lawmakers have no incentive to change a system that is actively harming the people it is supposed to be helping. Part of the problem is that American culture is strongly motivated by revenge, so most of the people I meet don’t see a problem with giving those punks exactly what they deserve. If they didn’t want to go to jail, they shouldn’t have gotten caught. American culture also tends to valorize criminal activity; most styles of popular music celebrate some form of crime, and films and television tend to make law enforcement look ineffective or corrupt. The prison problem seems the natural result of a society based on the idea, “Fuck society!” The leprecauns have their pot of gold again, the natural order has been restored, so let’s free the philosopher! How un-American is that?

The Thin Woman goes on a journey to Angus Og, just as her husband did before, but she takes a different route and meets different people along the way. Well, one person is the same, but their encounters with her are vastly different. The Thin Woman and Angus Og call all the clans of the fairies to their aid. All the old gods (except the Sleepers, of course), all the leprecauns and cluricauns and Shee and anything else, all march together to break the philosopher out of jail. But there are no weapons or hatred or thirst for revenge – this section of the book is called The Happy March. They come singing and dancing, smiling and loving and joyful.

Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale; not heeding the malignant eyes and the cold brows as the sons of Balor looked sidewards. And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass – the awful people of the Fomor . . . and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods. . . .

I’d like to return to the country of the gods. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’m willing to believe that might be it.

I find it difficult to explain precisely what about this book I love so much. It touches my heart in a place that is deeper than words, deeper than conscious thought. Maybe there are some genetic memories at play, these thought patterns echoing in the subconscious bequeathed to me. My face may proclaim the Dutch part of my heritage, but I have a whole clan of redheaded Irishmen behind me as well. I believe that this is why the Celtic myths resonate more strongly with me than the Judeo-Christian ones. I suppressed this feeling for a long time, but Christianity just feels weird and wrong to me. There’s an inexplicable rightness to books like The Crock of Gold, or Byatt’s Ragnarok, that I don’t feel in monotheism. I’m not saying that I’m becoming Druid, or Wiccan, or any of the earth religions, but the belief in one god seems as limiting as believing in none at all.

The primary lesson seems to be one of balance. Thought balanced with belief, struggle balanced with happiness, scarcity balanced with generosity. There are some of the misogynistic stereotypes to be expected from a story a hundred years old, but they’re balanced by equally reductive/destructive stereotypes of men. One of the things that I admire about Norse mythology is that everyone has a ‘heim,’ a home. There is a place where everyone belongs. Celtic myths seem to have this same inclusiveness. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like an outcast, so an inclusive ethic appeals to me. Christianity tells its followers to put ‘the family of faith’ first; there’s an us/them, believers/damned binary opposition that runs through the center of it. Nature doesn’t have any binaries. There are always exceptions, slippages, creatures in the middle ground. Therefore, I trust faith systems that don’t rely on artificial binaries – God/Devil, good/evil, heaven/hell. Life is more complex and beautiful than that.