Thursday, December 04, 2008

More on Kundera affair
and the meaning of truth

from sign and sight:

Salon.eu features an English translation of an article by Martin Simeka, editor-in-chief of Respekt, in which, with the Kundera affair in mind, he remembers his father Milan, "a committed communist in the fifties, a reformed communist in the sixties" who needed the Prague Spring to turn him into a dissident. His son remembers going with his father to meetings of banned Czech writers where people like Karel Pecka and Zdenek Rotrekl who were imprisoned in the fities rubbed shoulders with those who had enjoyed years of privileges in the communist system before changing their tune and finally looking back in literary form at the system they had helped to create. "The Kundera affair is explosive because it destroys this generation's domination of literature that was meant to explain the past in a more truthful way than life itself with its banal and embarrassing truths such as those represented by a crude police document stating that a Mr. Kundera informed on a Mr. Dvoracek. In Czech society literary fiction has effectively replaced real memories that nobody wanted in the past and nobody wants to hear and evoke today. Incidentally, Kundera's novels were particularly successful in fulfilling this task of literature.

"There is also an English translation of the conversation between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik from last week's Gazeta Wyborcza. Here, too, the talk turns to Kundera. Michnik asks Havel why the media was so bent exposing Kundera with such schadenfreude. Havel replies: "The media are out to make a profit. And as we know, 'small earthquake in Chile, not many dead', is not news. But if the media can say that 'XY' was an informer or that he got divorced or raped someone, they will do it because it brings them profit. And to some media profit matters more than substance or truth."

From the Conversation with Vaclav Havel

Q: I can’t avoid the case of Milan Kundera. I read your contribution to the debate and completely agree with your point of view. In all our post-communist countries we have drug warehouses, that is, secret police archives. And we have drug addicts who are supposed to look after them but instead they keep taking the drugs and then get up on the stage to expose yet another informer. How does this mechanism work: someone discovers a piece of paper that does not bear Kundera’s signature and suddenly the Czech papers say in unison: “Kundera is no longer God!” He has never been God, just a writer. What does all this mean?

A: This matter has not been properly resolved in any post-Communist country. Some managed it better, some worse, but none has managed it well. Clearly, something needs to be done about it. We can’t just lock it up and say we’re not interested because, after all, it concerns our past lives.

Following the Velvet Revolution I suggested that a group of five trustworthy, intelligent people from the dissident movement should be brought together and given one year to think of a solution. But instead of this, hasty decisions were taken: first came the law of lustration, then its amendment, and so on. And as a result, we have an absurd situation when a list of names is read out on TV with millions of people watching, only to find out nobody knows if the names belonged to victims or informers. And then people are advised to go to the archives and check for themselves. But who, out of those millions who watched, will go and check? It’s an absolutely irresponsible way of dealing with it, destroying someone’s life but putting everyone into the same bag.

Q: But it does say something about a society that has the need for this sort of thing.

A: This matter is also linked to the progress of civilization. The media are out to make a profit. And as we know, “small earthquake in Chile, not many dead”, is not news. But if the media can say that “XY” was an informer or that he got divorced or raped someone, they will do it because it brings them profit. And to some media profit matters more than substance or truth.

Q: If a 20-year old read your essay “Power of the Powerless” today, what lessons could he learn? If a young person asked you today how to live, what would your advice be?

A: The basic imperative:

“To live in truth”

has its tradition in Czech philosophy but basically has biblical roots - it does not mean just the possession or communication of information. Because information, like a virus, circulates in the air so one person may absorb more and another one less. Truth, however, is a different matter because we guarantee it with our own self. Truth is based on responsibility. And that is an imperative that is valid in every age. Obviously, it takes slightly different forms today. Luckily, you don’t have to hang portraits of a Havel, or a Klaus or a Kaczyński in the shop windows anymore and of course we no longer live under totalitarian pressure -- but that doesn’t mean we’ve won. We still need what I refer to as an “existential revolution” even though it might look different in different places
.

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Previous posts about Milan Kundera

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