Content 18+ I have just finished a splendid old book by the famous Czech author Milan Kundera called in English The Joke. Kundera is a master writer, of course, not a pamphleteer or agenda-pusher, and so when I say that I was much struck by the similarities between the characters in the novel and those of the 'postmodern' 'Woke' Society, I am not pushing an agenda either.
I mean to say that I am merely fascinated by how identical appears the general mentality of today's 'progressive' Utopians and Kundera's crowd of post-WWII Communist 'idealists'. I think they would adore each other. And I am pretty sure that today's crew will follow the same path to irrelevance, even absurdity, as did the fictional but real-life-like figures in The Joke.
The novel centers around Ludvik, an ardent and dedicated young Communist Party member and also a university student. He seems to have his future well in hand; he is liked and respected by his peers, albeit on the condition of his continuing unblinking obedience to Party dogma. All of these young firebrands are swept up in the Tide of the Times, certain that their destiny is to reform and reshape the world and make it a Worker's Utopia, a Proletarian Paradise.
Naturally, in order to do this they must flush the past away and get rid of all its bad apples. No argument, no compromise. Only the.No Nonsense Party dictum. No fucking nonsense AT ALL. Because nobody is going to laugh his way into OUR Utopia, understand?. There is no room for anecdotal tomfoolery. No room for the small and eternal -- room only for the great and the contemporary. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?) The evil past must be corrected at all cost !.
So Ludvik’s environment is narrow and it's all very doctrinaire. The usual 'power to the people' sermons. The committees and meetings. (Sort of like today's Affinity groups and Diversity Training.) And everything will be fine and dandy for those willing to remain in lockstep with the ideals of the 'revolution'.
The problem is that Ludvik has a few screws in his brain, which -- if not completely loose -- are not adequately tight. In other words, he is not a robot. So one day he sends a postcard containing a mocking jibe to his just-as-communist girlfriend Marketa, who is away at ideology training summer camp. He pretends to support none other than Trotsky -- arch enemy of the New Revolution. Good Godlessness ! It seems to Ridicule the Party !!
The joking postcard falls under the watchful eye of camp authorities, and before you know it, Ludvik is in deep doo doo. . Sure enough, other questionable aspects of his character -- previously noted but sufficiently innocuous to be ignored in his periodic evaluations by the university and Party honchos -- abruptly re-surface, suddenly emitting the most unpleasant and ill-portending odors. A Traitor in Our Midst !!
Ludvik apologies, indeed grovels, but he is dismissed from the Party and kicked out of the university. The last nail in his coffin is driven by none other than his best friend Zamenek who, in a room of 100 people, denounces Ludvik in no uncertain terms and calls for his expulsion. 100 hands go up in support of Zamenek’s proposal. . 'Get thee hence, Reprobate!'
Now adrift, his life in tatters, Ludvik is soon conscripted into the army. He ends up working in the coal mines for the next nine years. He falls in love with a nondescript yet hauntingly compelling (to Ludvik) girl he sees standing outside the cinema of the grim, sooty, uneventful town of Ostrava, and they come to love each other. Ludvik will never forget this love, this plain and plaintive woman whose barren and tragic soul is interwoven with the desolation of his own inner conflct . But it remains unconsummated and it comes to nothing. Having been gang-raped earlier in her life, she wants nothing to do with physical love and so repels Ludvik's desperate advances. He drives her away. His life is now puny, ruined, a void..
Years later, having resurrected himself somehow, he returns to the town and sees some of his old Comrades. Times have changed. Except for one thing: Ludvik’s inexhaustible bitterness. His life seems hopelessly truncated. Nothing can save him unless he can somehow avenge these past inequities.
Meanwhile, the 'revolution' never happened. It petered out, and people have changed. Jazz has replaced the old traditional folk music, and the youngsters are laughing and hooting and fucking themselves crazy. Riding around on motorbikes. Life for them is fun, frivolous, superficial. They don't understand the now defunct old jargon, the discarded slogans, the uncompromising manifestos of a generation whose dreams that once bordered on mania now seem irrelevant and are treated with indifference by the new blood . Commodification. Dialectical Materialism. Radical Democracy. Tribal Society. Relations of Production. And on and on.
They don’t care.
The novel ends on a sad note, but somehow elusive and beguiling, for such is the skill of Milan Kundera . The old guard have come to play folk music and celebrate an ancient tradition called Ride of the Kings. But in the end, they are drowned out by the raucous voices of the disobedient and irreverent young. The drunken young.
Only Ludvik's erstwhile friend and ultimately betrayer Zemanek (who shows up with a beautiful new girlfriend) appears to have adjusted, gliding effortlessly from the old days to the new, almost seamlessly exchanging the words of his day-to-day and working vocabulary from past to present -- not missing a beat -- compared to the terminally damaged Ludvik, who can never shed his self-consuming wrath.
What is this significant passage -- this chance meeting between the two former friends and rivals -- meant to convey? Is it supposed to represent the ultimate triumph of superficiality? Or is it a wry tip of the hat to those who can accept the ephemeral nature of things?
Zemanik says to Ludvik (who hates him intensely in speaking of the new generation): "They're different. Even their vocabulary is different. They don't care about our successes and failures. You won't believe this, but on the university entrance exam they don't even know what the Moscow Trials were. Stalin is just a name to them. And imagine, most of them don't know that there were political trials in Prague...It doesn't reflect well on their education. But for them there's liberation in it. They've simply not admitted our world into their consciousness. They've rejected it.".
Then he draws a breath and further observes:"They impress me. I admire them exactly because they are different. They love their bodies,. We neglected ours. They love to travel. We stayed put. They love adventure. We lived our lives at meetings. They love jazz. We insipidly imitated folk music. They're devoted to themselves. We wanted to save the world. With our messianism we nearly destroyed it. (my italics)
All the while Ludvik fumes. His time of servitude in the mines. His lost chance with Lucie. He had dreamed of punching Zamenek. But now he can do nothing but watch his old foe walk away with the beautiful and politically indifferent young woman.
Now fast forward to the present. And here we find ourselves confronted with the same inevitable slogans and buzzards: Woke. Binary. Patriarchy. Micro-aggression. Benevolent sexism. White Fragility. These and many more: such is the catch-all verbiage of those who are going to perfect the planet and yet whose mindset often seems stuck on the platitudes of their own sound-bytes and slogans. Such are the words of those whose solution to all problems is to get rid of the past, to denounce all the old white men and their old white histories..
They are fools, of course, this latest batch of Utopian revolutionaries. . Life is much more complicated than just shooting the tsar and his family. It's not going to fix anything. And this lesson has been taught...and forgotten....a thousand times in the human chronicles. . Real life, the real seeds of human meaning are to be found in the day-to-day, the narrow streets, and unrehearsed chatter of life among the pigeons and sparrows. In the small details. In the love affairs and dreams of people that you and I will never ever hear about, just as the people of the future will never ever hear about us: you and me.
As the poet Wallace Stevens says in "Sunday Morning", 'we live in an old chaos of the sun' -- and it is our destiny to keep rediscovering ancient truths even as we rejoice in change and forge our way forward, stumbling across new surprises as we go. It is impossible to 'love' the masses. It is possible only to manipulate them, herd them in a certain direction, and proclaim that this is the path to Utopia.
There is no Utopia. And, to quote L. P. Hartley, the British novelist: “The past is another country. They do things differently there.”
But, alas, the present over-intellectualized, grimly idealistic stampede will go on until it finally burns itself out amid its clomp-clomp insistence on conformity, its gray-flannel rigidity, its lack of a sense of humor or recognition of irony, or ability to laugh at the absurd -- displaying in the end just a striking and scary penchant for the mass cruelty which only Great Causes are capable of, whenever the champions of these great causes have wormed their way to power.
Some of their ideas will take root and justifiably so -- but the fanaticism will abate.And then will come the correction, the push-back of those who have grown tired of being dictated to, and who want to reclaim their right to be fully human -- human in all its vicissitudes and imperfections. Merely human. Not looking for manifestos and crusades. They will not want to 'save' the world. They will want to live in it. And the best and most insightful of them will understand completely that the world will abide when they are gone, and turn green in the springtime without them. And the only committees with be committees of leaves.
And that's where the Utopians of today, and all their slogans, trainings, and condemnation of everyone they deplore -- all those unwoke, dirty, unworthy people -- are headed. To the laughing boneyards of history.
Sometimes, I come across old hippies.Or at least I did when I was still living in America, and even that is getting dated now. Usually they wear their long hair in a pony-tail and, well, they just have that look. The old guard. And as an old man now myself whose youth was spread out across the famous '60s', I grow pensive and occasionally (spurred on by beer, if the truth be known), I think about it all. I miss the music in particular, just like the aging characters in The Joke missed the folk songs of their timeless heritage.. So I will go on YouTube now and then and listen to the young Bob Dylan telling me that “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” . Or Peter, Paul, and Mary, and see and hear once more, in her prime of youth, my beloved Mary Travers.
(It’s funny that people the world over still sing “I Did It My Way” and “Strangers in the Night” at Karaoke when the suds are flowing, Frank Sinatra. But they never sing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”)
And for a second I am back there. For a second I hear their truth and I believe them again.Because they too were going to change the world and make it better. Then I realize that if they changed the world at all, they did it in ways more subtle than they could ever have imagined. They did not free the world from its chains. They did not cause white people and black people to come together and love each other. They did not put an end to war.
In fact, from the long-haired, turned-on, free love generation came the Wall Street Yuppies pounding cash registers in the ensuing years, some of them ex-hippies themselves who had merely 'grown out of it' and traded in their tie-dyes for neckties. And the long-tressed Earth Mother in ‘granny dresses’ and bare feet and twinkles of love in their eyes either either transformed into hairy-legged tight-lipped feminists or just got old and fat and forgot about everything.
If they changed the world at all, it was not because of their slogans and anti-war songs, most all of which are now forgotten. They changed it because they touched us, touched me, not with their placards, but with their hearts. Their beating human hearts..Somehow, somewhere along the way they did this. They were not just guitar strummers and fiddlers and marchers in demonstrations. They had lives. They lived, loved, (maybe even hated) and got old. Mary Travers died of leukemia a long time ago
Utopians past and present will never let a human heart stand in the way of their implacable, jaws-rigid asphalt march to the Destruction of the Infidel and the Construction of Perfection. Yet they too go the way of all flesh.
Me? Myself? I turn old amid flash floods of spontaneity and juvenile delinquency of the stars, and the freshly cut grasses in the fields after desultory machines finally pass through and go away. And where the aftermath of new green smells is always a signal for nostalgia, and evoke as much in me..