peteg's blog - noise - books - 2006 12 31 Kundera BookOfLaughterAndForgetting

Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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More introspection from the Czech master, a dry run for his four-years-in-the-future Unbearable Lightness of Being. I have to say that Teresa and Sabina resolve into foxier women in the latter than poor Tamina does here.

This is fairly standard territory for him, combining sex, politics, literature and authorial interjection in a ramble about the necessity of memory and the power of laughter. He gets the big quote from the book out of the way on the first page:

It is 1971, and Mirek says that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Kundera is never short of an idea or shy in defending one. What sticks in my memory is his characterisation of "the two types of laughter" in The Angels (the first one, p61 in my English translation):


Angels are partisan not of Good, but of divine creation. The Devil, on the other hand, denies all rational meaning to God's world.


Things derived suddenly of their putative meaning, the place assigned to them in the ostensible order of things ... make us laugh. Initially, therefore, laughter is the province of the Devil. It has a certain malice to it (things have turned out differently from the way they tried to seem), but a certain beneficient relief as well (things are looser than they seemed, we have greater latitude in living with them, their gravity does not oppress us).

The first time an angel heard the Devil's laughter, he was horrified. ... [U]nable to fabricate anything of his own, he simply turned his enemy's tactics against him. He opened his mouth and let out a wobbly, breathy sound in the upper reaches of his vocal register ... and endowed it with the opposite meaning. Whereas the Devil's laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel's shout rejoiced in how rationally organised, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything was on Earth.

... And seeing the laughing angel, the Devil laughed all the harder, all the louder, all the more openly, because the laughing angel was infinitely laughable.

Laughable laughter is cataclysmic. And even so, the angels have gained something by it. They have tricked us all with their semantic hoax. Their imitation laughter and its original (the Devil's) have the same name. People nowadays do not even realise that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two ompletely contradictory internal attitudes. There are two kinds of laughter, and we lack the words to distinguish them.

His extended meditation on Litost (ask Google) is quite amusing in a Eurocentric way.