The world has lost a brilliant satirist and a champion of intellectual freedom
Milan Kundera came of age as a writer during precisely the period in his nation’s history where hostility ran highest toward those who sought to express their thoughts and ideas honestly. He entered and faced expulsion from the Communist Party, struggled professionally for years as a result of having become—in the terminology of John Wick movies—excommunicado, lived through the trauma of Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of Prague in August 1968, and ultimately made the decision to pack up and go to live in France.
Though the Soviet invasion left its imprint on much of Kundera’s most acclaimed work, he had a tendency to lampoon certain tendencies in the modern progressive West that might seem relatively harmless. Maybe a tank will not turn your ancestral home to rubble if you happen to be a writer or public figure in supposedly a free country who contravenes the dogmas of our time. But Kundera was aware of the intense pressure that many people these days feel to assert their bona fides, signal their virtue, make a show of political correctness to bump up their social credit score. Their careers, reputations, finances, and indeed their lives depend on it.
In Kundera’s bizarre, hallucinatory 1995 novel La lenteur (“Slowness”), we meet a pair of intellectuals, Berck and Duberques, who, like the author, live in France. They are both deeply anxious about their standing in the eyes of the cultural establishment. Then Duberques gets an idea. It is the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. He will attend a dinner specially organized for those with AIDS and will make a point of embracing and kissing those guests to show that he is up on the science and does not fear contracting a disease far less transmissible than many fear.
The cameras will capture him in this brave act of compassion, and his reputation as a forward-looking public intellectual will be secure. Berck, in attendance at the dinner, watches his friend carry out the stunt and wants to repeat it, or, more exactly, does not want to do it at all but fears losing points. Then Berck realizes that imitating the actions of Duberque will mute whatever prestige he might gain. He is a mere copycat! Or, then again, that may be Berck’s way of rationalizing to himself his unwillingness to expose himself to risk for a silly reason. But he still has his reputation to think about, so . . . he organizes donations of food for the starving kids of Somalia! Try to top that.
How cannily Kundera satirizes the do-good tendencies so familiar in our time, and the deep self-serving cynicism they often mask. But the gently mocking approach he took to such excesses was a dance around the edges of the dark reality of hard totalitarianism to which moral frivolity and weakness have led and may yet lead.
Kundera knew well that censors who suppress the teaching of the past because things about it offend them—they don’t like what people said or believed at some point in the past, and see fit to act as though such words and ideas never existed—can cripple a nation and make it ripe for conquest and enslavement.
Here is one of the themes of his 1967 essay, “The Literature of Small Nations.” On almost the eve of the 1968 Soviet rape of his country, Kundera warned of the dangers of a people forgetting who they are, a process intimately bound up with declining familiarity with the national history and literature. If you want to resist foreign tribes, the ties that bind your own had better be pretty strong, or you will have nothing but a gaggle of strangers who like to eat at the same McDonald’s, listen to the same pop, and watch the same treacle on their iPhones.
Of course, an essay published in 1967 does not use those precise examples. But Kundera foresaw the slow-motion suicide of other peoples and nations inducted into the cult of instant gratification and willful cultural illiteracy. In “The Literature of Small Nations,” Kundera detailed the ravages of those he called “vandals.” His targets were leftist zealots and moral cowards in Czechoslovakia who defaced and consigned to the memory hole vestiges of a national identity that would not sit well with the international socialist project and the coming Soviet quelching of Czech freedom and culture. But, again, it is uncanny how clearly he envisioned the ravages of cancel culture in our own day.
Milan Kundera, like Franz Kafka before him, understood the role of the writer as grappling with the fundamental absurdity of life and taking stances that would quickly lead to your ostracism, if not at the hands of your own hidebound father, then a progressive social and political culture that loathes and punishes talent and intelligence. The world of letters, and the world full stop, are infinitely poorer now that the pen of Milan Kundera is still.