Kundera, Jokes, and Politics: Ist de Žert das Ding an Sich?
Frank G. Karioris
It would be hard to argue right now that contemporary politics are boring. All around the world, something momentous seems to be happening each day – a situation certainly propelled forward by the now ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle. News no longer streams passively from one or other channel, but now comes hurtling at you via social media news feeds – much of which we should be suspicious as to its being “news.” Yet at the same time, it seems harder and harder to take politics entirely seriously. Serious in both senses of the word – in that politics are important and impact our everyday lives; and in that one simply ought not laugh at them. Politics has become something comical, yet simultaneously deadly serious. How are we to react to all of this? When politicians speak, ought we to take them at face value? Do we do this with the knowledge that politicians are often not telling the truth? Importantly, what are we to do with the markedly absurd that has become more prominent in politics than ever before? Here one could think of such examples as Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ or Theresa May’s ad nauseam refrain, ‘Strong and Steady,’ in defending Brexit.
If the political has become more comic, the comic has taken on edges of the serious. The line between a joke and a crime seems to be getting ever thinner. As this comedic turnabout continues, we are forced to reckon with the politics of humor in new ways, as we have begun addressing and reacting to the humor of politics. It is about this to which the title of the essay suggests us to think. A combination of Czech and German, it asks: Is the Joke the thing-in-itself? Looking through the lens of Kundera – particularly his most recent work, The Festival of Insignificance (2015) – allows us to think further through these questions, and expertly pinpoints the crux of comedic politics. This essay, in this way, argues that Kundera’s recent work sheds important light on the comedic potent of politics today, giving us a framework with which to approach our political moment.
Kundera has been a prominent author since the late 60s when he was forced to leave Czechoslovakia for France, which he has made his home for the past 40 years. Beginning in 1995, all his work has been written in French. Having insisted throughout his life that he is not a political or dissident writer, it might seem odd to suggest that he might now be of some assistance with these matters. Yet this is exactly what makes the book so eminently useful in considering today’s politics.
The title of the essay asks: Is the Joke the thing-in-itself? Put more brusquely, I hope for us to reflect on the ways that Kundera asks us to address jokes, and whether he is, in fact, making a joke of his own. Our ability to know whether we ought to laugh at something or not often determines how we situate it – under what rubric or guide. And, thus, to be able to understand anything one must first know whether to laugh at it or take it seriously. It is this conundrum that Kundera has uniquely and consistently presented his readers with, often befuddling critics. Rather than put pen to paper and provide a simple answer, he has found new and ever prescient ways of balancing on the tightrope that is his own particular brand of serious comedy. The Festival of Insignificance is not just par for the course for this notoriously reclusive author, but is patently parodic of the political period it finds itself in.
Kundera’s novella – as, truly, it is not in either the grand or prosaic sense a novel – is comprised of seven brief parts, a style of division well known to his readers. The book twirls through repeated Kundera-esque tropes of cognizant characters who know they’re characters, heady commentary on sex, and single gestures that contain the essence of a person. This repetition is something that is not unknown to Kundera, and is often used by him in pointed fashion. One can recall the lovely idea of the eternally recurring and returning Robespierre to terrorize people throughout the ages in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A Robespierre that occurs once is significantly easier to forget than one that keeps repeating. He is also, at that point, a representation of the farcical nature of politics: a kind of Robespierre meme.
In the book, we follow a group of male friends, or as Part One’s titles suggests you see them: “Introducing the Heroes.” In one particular section, titled ‘Ramon’s Laments for the End of Jokes’, Ramon sets about on an impassioned plea about just that. He says:
“The pleasure of a hoax was supposed to protect you… We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power.”
While one can resist only through not taking it all seriously, the argument here is that jokes no longer have the power that they once had to alter the state of the world. Individuals must now suffer through what they are given, and do not even have humor to medicate themselves against such ills. It is a morose opinion of change to say the least! Yet it is often what, on the surface, we seem to be told. Many on the Left (with a capital L) write off elections as the farcical act that it most assuredly is, while those in the center can’t get beyond the seriousness of what is said to recognize the comedic value of it all. One might suggest that much of this is a further demonstration of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Left Wing Melancholy,’ which – Srećko Horvat has suggested – leads to “a sort of incapability to act at all.” One might wonder exactly what we are meant to be doing. Recently, Emmanuel Macron has been elected President of France, and already the memes and jokes suggest that there is no difference between him and a macaron. Again, we have a joke, but how seriously ought we take this? Is the joke Macron; or, on the other hand, is the joke that all of our possible choices were terrible and thus we are the butt of the joke?
In answer to these questions, Kundera provides us, interspersed with the story of these men’s lives, the story of Stalin and his meetings with his Generals. More specifically, it the story of Stalin’s jokes, told at the expense of his Generals. Stalin tells his Generals a simple story about going out hunting one day. He tells that he trekked into the woods, and, after 13km, sees a tree filled with partridges – 24 of them to be exact. Having only 12 shells for his rifle, he shoots 12 of the birds, gathers them up, and heads back to his house to collect 12 more shells. Returning – what must be three or more hours later – to the tree, he shoots the remaining 12 partridges. In the novel, the four men laugh at the story, but are informed that such a reaction was not what happened when Stalin told them this. The Generals surrounding Stalin remained silent. All of them knew that it was total nonsense, yet they could not annunciate such a belief. They were caught between the comic and the serious, the joke and the political. For to laugh at Stalin surely would not be a great career move, to say the least – a very similar situation occurs in the film To Be, or Not to Be, in which the question of laughing relates to Hitler. It is here where Kundera demonstrates the conundrum of politics today. Not just the inability to laugh seriously, but the impossibility of naming the entire thing a joke. For surely, we recognize, as Marx has quotably suggested, that in its second coming it is all a bit of a farce! Just as the Generals know that Stalin is invariably lying, so too does Stalin know that his Generals know this. In much the same way as Tristam V. Adams elaborates on the ways that empathy under capitalism is always potentially an act and we must act accordingly, so too ought we begin to understand politics and the joke. It is not simply that the joke is on us, but that we can never be certain whether it is a joke and who is to be laughed at.
The story of Stalin and his Generals comes to a boil, with Stalin finally refusing to exert his will any further, asserting that it is the end of people’s belief in his daydream. At this point, in dramatic fashion, angels begin falling from the sky. Reminiscent of some of the political landscape in the past few years, it is more than slightly ominous. What is most prescient for the purpose of this essay is a question Kundera asks the reader: “What is the fall a sign of?… Jokes that no one will ever laugh at again?” As we begin falling, jokes become harder and harder to laugh at.
Kundera has been painting his vision of politics void of laughter since his first novel. Published in 1967, his first novel was titled simply Žert; or, in English, The Joke. The book is and was a political tour de force, striking a match to the embers that had been building in Czechoslovakia at the time. With the Prague Spring of ’68, the volume quickly was taken underground and censured. It is a complex story of a student who is a member of the Communist Party, and the inability of the Party or his girlfriend to take a joke. The first joke that the title refers to is a few short sentences written on a postcard that the main character, Ludvik, sends to his girlfriend. Ludvik, an ardent Communist with a sense of humor writes: “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” He is soon after sent to a camp to work as a penal laborer. In this situation, it is simply the inability for the Party to recognize a joke, and because they are unclear what is or is not a joke, they assume it all should be taken seriously. In the Preface to the 1982 English version of the book, Kundera gives us an insight into the story, stating, “When, in 1980, during a television panel devoted to my work, someone called The Joke a ‘major indictment of Stalinism,’ I was quick to interject, ‘Spare me your Stalinism, please. The Joke is a love story!’” For all Kundera’s assertions here that the joke is the-thing-itself, it is crucial to keep in mind that a joke, for all the laughter it causes, is always already a representation of the thing-in-itself in the world.
Politics is a fast paced world, where the wheel keeps spinning and makes it hard to keep up. As we think about whether to laugh at today’s news, tomorrow’s news is already in front of us. With information always coming in, there is limited time to process it and determine its shape. Kundera once said, fittingly, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” A now famous quote, it sheds light on the way that power never fails to construe new ways of continuing and incorporating the elements that we are unable to resist.
Rather than leave you thinking this whole thing might have been a joke, it is crucial to reiterate the fact that Kundera is able to continually beg the question without succumbing to the melancholic fall. With that, I would like to come back to his book The Festival of Insignificance. In stunningly humorous fashion, the book concludes with both an exit and a call to arms. It is left to the reader to decide who is being called to, and for what cause. Stalin has disguised himself in a hunter’s jacket, and is chasing Kalanin, one of his Generals. They walk through a garden in France, causing quite a scene. Amongst those gathered is a group of children who begin singing. Singing ‘La Marseillaise’, the reader must imagine that they are singing: “We shall have the sublime pride; Of avenging or following them.” It is this disarmingly earnest scene with which Kundera concludes the book. Rather than a melancholy belief in the intransigence of the world, we see children singing out the old and ringing in the possibility of the new.
Let me finally turn to a well-known political comedian: Slavoj Žižek. In his idiosyncratic fashion, Žižek recounts the myth that under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe there was a department of the secret police whose job it was to make up jokes against the regime, his jokes have a “positive stabilizing function.” Continuing, Žižek discusses the ‘mother of all jokes’: “we all know what this joke was: ‘Do not eat from the tree of knowledge!’ – the first prohibition is a joke, a perplexing temptation whose point is not clear.” God is quite the jokester here, as must many of our politicians who believe us unable to recognize the joke any longer. Kundera, here acts as a brilliant conduit to shine light on exactly who is playing a joke on whom, suggesting that maybe we are the ones being laughed at even while we laugh at Donald Trump’s tweeting, giggle at Marine Le Pen, gawk at ‘hot Liberal’ Justin Trudeau, and snark about Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of charisma.
Frank G. Karioris is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Critical Gender Studies at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He works on issues related to higher education and gender, specifically looking at masculinity and issues of sociality/sexuality.
The featured image on this post is by Jeremy Simmons. Jeremy is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others. He is also the editor of the Cincinnati Book Review.
 Milan Kundera (2005) The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York: Harper Perennial.
 Milan Kundera (2015) The Festival of Insignificance. New York: Faber & Faber, p75.
 Aflie Bown (2017) Advancing Conversations: Srećko Horvat, Subversion. Winchester: Zer0 Books, p11.
 Tristam Vivian Adams (2016) The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books, pg52.
 Kundera 2015, p93.
 Milan Kundera (1982) The Joke. New York: Harper & Row.
 Milan Kundera (1996) The Book of Laugher and Forgetting. New York: Faber & Faber, p4.
 Slavoj Žižek (2014) Žižek’s Jokes. Edited by Audun Mortensen. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pvii.
 Žižek 2014, pviii.