- Milan Kundera:A Modern History of Humor amid the Comedy of History
"Rabelais's Merry epic has turned into the despairing comedy of Ionesco, who says, 'There's only a thin line between the horrible and the comic' The European history of laughter comes to an end."—MILAN KUNDERA (TESTAMENTS BETRAYED 35)
"Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear?"—MILAN KUNDERA (SLOWNESS 4)
While there are certainly funnier writers than Milan Kundera, probably no major modern author of fiction has pursued the subjects of humor and laughter as persistently and thoroughly as the writer of Laughable Loves, The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It is ironic then that at the very beginning of his extended treatise on modern aesthetics, Testaments Betrayed (1993), Kundera observes, "If I were asked the most common cause of misunderstanding between my readers and me, I would not hesitate: humor" (6). The entire book then becomes in a sense a clarification of his position on the subject, but not before he has articulated what is at stake for him in all this by referencing Octavio Paz's assertion that "Humor is the great invention of the modern spirit" and by claiming that this humor's birth, coinciding with that of the novel in Rabelais and Cervantes, is absolutely fundamental to modern European culture (5). [End Page 130]
It is perhaps because such aesthetic, social and moral elevation of humor is inevitably attended by a concern for its well-being that the subject has remained, thematically and as a structural principle, at the core of Kundera's work. However, Kundera's history and aesthetics of humor are also inseparable from his own biography, as the writer himself claimed in a New York Times interview with Philip Roth in 1980.
I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror. I was twenty then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn't fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.(Laughter and Forgetting 232)
Here Kundera not only provides a readily comprehensible biographical context—a Czech's experience of Soviet domination—but also an indication of his own understanding of that slippery term "humor." For Kundera it is that which defies the monolithic delimitation of discourse, of political correctness, recalling "the superbly heterogeneous universe of those earliest novelists" that he sees at the beginning of modern Europe (Testaments 4). In this he reflects an obvious kinship with Mikhael Bakhtin, whose polemical notions of the carnivalesque both found a model in Rabelais and were formed in the context of early to middle twentieth century Stalinist state oppression. Kundera's valuation of the "ambiguity" in humor identifies what Bakhtin had called "heteroglossia" and likewise associated with the rise of the novel. Both men were subjected to state aggression because of their intellectual resistance to absolute State power, Bakhtin's intellectual circle being subjected to arrests and the writer himself forced into internal exile, Kundera removed from his own academic position at the Prague Film Academy while having his books withdrawn from bookshops and libraries.
Nevertheless, there are limitations on how far such attractive parallels might be taken. What made Bakhtin an ideological rallying point at the end of the twentieth century was that he had conceptualized humor, specifically in Rabelais and His World, as serving a collectivizing impulse, stressing an irrepressible desire of "the people" driving history, and explicitly contrasting this with merely bourgeois pleasures. Bakhtin may have written against totalitarian Communism, but he harnessed humor to a Hegelian sense of historical momentum. Like Marx, he took up the notion of a comic narrative break serving an adjustment of an apparently inevitable historical course.1 If Bakhtin had viewed laughter, and specifically carnivalesque laughter, as an interruption of the quotidian rhythm of life, he had nevertheless contained this laughter within what Stallybrass and White describe as a "generous but willed idealism" (10) by equating it somewhat one-sidedly with rebirth...