The genre of “socially engaged writing” is one whose boundaries are not easily demarcated. Some writers, like Vladimir Mayakovsky, have overtly embraced the role of the artist-in-society and proudly donned the cape of “the agitator, the rabble-rouser”(1). Others, like Milan Kundera, refuse to be formulated by single definitions, instead striving to retain “moral ambiguity”(2) and “the essence of the novel as an art”(3).
The concept of “art for art’s sake” is beautiful, but undeniably fragile. The purely aesthetic essence of a piece can rarely be extracted from its wider context, without losing meaning. Whether or not Kundera chooses to be labelled as “socially engaged”, his philosophy cannot be isolated from Prague, Bohemia and his changing world. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting illustrates the subconscious submersion of the artist in the social and political reality surrounding him. Placed alongside Mayakovsky’s poems Back Home and At the Top of my Voice, it also illustrates the difference in the philosophies of two great writers of different generations, within the socialist system. In effect, the difference is between two kinds of realism – “socialist” and “magical”.
Socialist realism was art with an agenda. Conceived under Stalin, it made use of mass media to “educate” the public about the merits of communism – a kind of institutionalised preaching. As part of Rosta, Mayakovsky schooled himself in making verse accessible to “the planet’s proletarian”(4). Accordingly, he adopted the coarse, simple language of the streets. The stream of topical verse that ensued flowed onto agitational posters that covered the streets of Moscow.
Magical realism is harder to define. Perhaps it is best described as a portrayal of realistic events, infused with a dream-like quality. When the lines of reality and fantasy are thus blurred, the author’s own opinion is obscured. While true of most of his works, the time-frame and setting of events in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is such that Kundera’s view of the yoke of communism inevitably seeps into the text.
Mayakovsky grew up while the communist vision still held the promise of utopia. He joined Lenin’s Social-Democratic Party at age fifteen, and after being imprisoned for his revolutionary activities, emerged with a desire to “create socialist art”(5). The concept of art as an instrument of change first manifested itself in the movement of Russian Futurism. Along with Burliuk, Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh - members of Hylaea - Mayakovsky launched A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. The following is an extract from their 1913 manifesto:
“We order that the poets’ rights be revered:
· To enlarge the scope of the poet’s vocabulary with arbitrary and derivative words (Word-novelty).
· To feel an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time”(6).
This strongly worded piece serves as a precursor for the ones that followed when it comes to style; ideology and its imposition; and – as the emphatic italics suggest - the absolute conviction that the authors are justified.
Although futuristic concerns did not dominate his work, the glory of mechanization was an important theme in soviet life and hence in Mayakovsky’s poetry. Back Home describes how the artist takes pride in his “machine parts”, in being a
Written in 1925 after a trip to America, the land that the USSR looked upon as both rival and model, his yearning for his homeland is evident. It is not without a dramatic sense of martyrdom that he “plunge(s) into communism”, but his exhilaration is palpable. This stems from his passion for socialism and the desire to share it, by employing various artistic techniques. The powerful rhythm and uneven staircase structure, for instance, became a trademark symbol capturing a raw energy. While it gives the verse a fragmented effect, the jagged edges of the fragments create a sharp visual effect.
Yet, there is an extravagance and superfluity to this energy. The use of hyperbole in this concise form is designed to catch attention – like a caricature. Moreover, there is a note of superiority not quite in keeping with the spirit of communism. Mayakovsky cannot help but take pride in his talent and his place in “poetry’s skies”. Condescension aside, Back Home illustrates Mayakovsky’s view of the writer’s role. He feels as much a part of the soviet state apparatus as the proletarian and wishes to set goals parallel to the Five-Year-Plans.
Ideological writing is exactly the sort from which Kundera sought to detach himself. Although initially a Marxist, Kundera never entirely conformed to the tenets of socialist realism. Drawing inspiration from Freud, Mahler, Beethoven, Kafka, the young Kundera evolved his own philosophy about how Marxism could be presented to the world. He was interested in the experience of the individual and believed that it was through this medium that “the communist dogma (could be made) more palatable”(7).
However, all kinds of dogma soon became unpalatable to him. He could not endure a Manichean view of the world, believing that no absolute statements could hold forever. “When you believe in something literally”, he wrote, “You will turn it into absurdity through your faith”(8).
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting refers to the wave of optimism that lifted those with faith in communism, and his disassociation from them. While he watches them “dancing in a ring” with the distance of objectivity, he does not pronounce judgement. He understands the joy of being part of the ring and the headiness of passion, if not its blindness. “They had wings” and, by virtue of his nuanced vision, “(he) would never have any”(9).
Kundera did not want to be labelled as a political writer because he primarily considered himself an artist and story-teller. He found the dissemination of messages through art particularly distasteful. However, his own experience of the political events in Czechoslovakia could not be removed from his consciousness; it often formed a backdrop for his novels. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting refers to a time when “intellectual” became an expletive, and people “revolted against their own youth”(10). It draws upon the cyclical nature of history; revolutions are conducted and ideologies are created with the best of intentions, but somewhere along the way the vision is lost. Those who sense the distortion of the vision then try to retrace their steps in a process Kundera calls “Stalking a Lost Deed”(11). The Prague Spring of 1967, whereby Dubcek introduced liberal reforms, may have been one manifestation of the “stalking” process. Traditionally, however, it doesn’t work. The dogmatists intervene or, in the case of Czechoslovakia, the Russians invade.
Kundera sought to establish that even the reign of the dogmatists cannot last. The world is in a constant state of flux. To believe in something literally is to ascribe permanence to it, which is ultimately a delusion. The lasting reality is that of personal experiences and human relationships. Mirek, Tamina, the student, Kundera – each one is “as much a rewriter of history as the Communist Party, all political parties, all nations, all men”(12).
The novel’s protagonists all have independent lives that do not intersect, but each one has a presence and a role in the universe like each “note in a magnificent Bach fugue” (13). By drifting in and out of their lives, Kundera replicates the variations of a musical masterpiece in his literature. This creates the surreal quality that characterises magical realism. He does not attempt to explain the supernatural elements in their experiences and, through his authorial reticence, lets metaphor and reality overlap. The open-endedness of the stories, reminiscent of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, allows Kundera to introduce ideas while escaping allegations of preaching.
This is not to say that he does not make any strong statements. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a novel “about forgetting and Prague, about Prague and the angels”(14). Through the beauty of the language, the reader feels pathos for a nation forgetting its culture and identity under repressive communism. There is obvious resentment in the reference to communist leader Gottwald, and overwhelming irony when he mentions his treading of the same balcony as Kafka. Indeed, irony that forms the cornerstone of Kundera’s literary philosophy. It provides perspective, so that the self-importance of all leaders, writers, and adherents of dogma is eclipsed by the cruel comedy of Fate.
Irony helps us understand the references to laughter and “angels”(15). According to Kundera, there are two kinds of laughter: of demonic or angelic origin. The former acknowledges the futility of existence, while the latter is simply an imitation by those who do not fully understand the Divine Joke. Irony also governs the misunderstandings between people who view the same situation differently and will never have access to each other’s minds. Mirek and his girlfriend, for instance, will never know the other’s personal, apolitical reasons for fidelity or infidelity to the communist cause - nor will the rest of the world.
Finally, the clarity of vision that comes from understanding life’s irony removes the need for kitsch. For Kundera, of all “aesthetic evil(s)”, kitsch, “the beautifying lie”,(16) is among the most serious. Beauty lies in originality, and in the struggle to lay bare the world in all its ugliness. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting does not attempt to cloak the grittiness of existence. The stripping of privacy in communal life is represented by brutal, graphic imagery on a metaphorical island. Tamina lives like a somnambulist, forgetting the love she held dear and learning to submit silently to abuse. In the end, death is the only escape from the “children’s” totalitarian state.
“Kitsch” is one of the many points of conflict between the artistic philosophies of Kundera and Mayakovsky. As the “irrepressible bard of the Russian Revolution”, the glossing over of reality was one of Mayakovsky’s main strategies while constructing agitprop. He was widely considered to have potential that could have extended far beyond “communist kitsch”. The constant extolling of the socialist system also helped him create a certain level of self-delusion. Among the last pieces written before his suicide, At the Top of my Voice reflects the internal conflict of a painfully idealistic man.
Addressed to posterity, the poem attempts to validate and “expound those times and (the poet)”. Never does he overtly express doubt; what filters through is a sense of frustration at suppressed creativity. Mayakovsky is not unaware of the irony of life; there is a subtle wryness underlying
in my teeth too.”
There is a yearning too for immortality, which he sacrifices at the altar of his cause. As in Back Home, he decides that his verses will be weighed for their utility on the scales of time. This is diametrically opposed to what Kundera, the disciple of the Aesthetic, hoped to achieve. Mayakovsky confers the status of weapons on words, wanting them to be seen as part of the process that eliminated hunger, “prostitution”, “tuberculosis”. Clasping the utopic vision of the “far communist future”, Mayakovsky wants the “pointed lances of (his) rhymes” to contribute towards a tangible difference. To this notion of holding the reins of life, Kundera may have responded with a sardonic grin; he left Mayakovsky’s circle of angels to join the “falling” existentialists(17).
Kundera’s anti-deterministic attitude is why his work lacks the urgency of Mayakovsky’s explosive verse. They simply have different views of the transformative power of literature. While Mayakovsky rejects the “theory of distance” and the concept of waiting for “conditions to ripen” (18) before writing, Kundera embraces it in his measured, retrospective writing. While Mayakovsky strives to transplant esoteric poetry in plebeian soil, Kundera frowns at the oversimplification of art when used as a means to an end. Perhaps Mayakovsky’s tone is self-righteous and his presentation of the system inexcusably one-dimensional. However, the poet found it difficult to come to terms with Stalin’s bloody purges and enforcement of collectivisation. Despite his personal misgivings, Mayakovsky remained committed to the ideals of Marxism in spirit. After all, message-oriented literature leaves little room for a balanced handling of the other side.
It is interesting to see how far the two accounts of socialism and views of art overlap with each other. Mayakovsky’s contempt for the Professor’s “erudition overwhelming” accords with Kundera’s version of events. It also hints at how people and concepts were dismissively “airbrushed…out of history” by the tools of propaganda (19). The glorification of
is in keeping with the violent enforcement of game rules when it came to the children of the island.
This is not to belittle Mayakovsky’s stature as an artist. His work represents an epoch of radical change in Russian history as well as literature. Despite his muted disillusionment, At the Top of my Voice encapsulates the dynamism of revolution and the reinvention of poetry to reach the masses. This is illustrated by the short, effective phrases; the colloquial language; the onomatopoeic
Although Kundera and Orwell may not have appreciated discarding classical language in favour of Newspeak, Mayakovsky elevated word-novelty to an art form (20). In The Art of the Novel, Kundera defined beauty as being “the suddenly kindled light of the never-before-said”. Through originality, Mayakovsky brings beauty to the most unglamorous concepts. Their motivations may have differed, but Mayakovsky and Kundera similarly attached importance to everyday life. For Mayakovsky, being a “champion of boiled water” is a necessary part of the many factors determining the course of history (21). For Kundera, the random patterns of the universe are illustrated through ordinary individual experiences. “Tanks are mortal, pears eternal”(22).
The written word is the by-product of the presumption that someone is going to be interested in what is being communicated; thus, all writers are inherently self-important. Evidently, volatility in society inevitably breeds a reaction from artists of the time, and hence social engagement. However, while all writers have opinions, it is not necessary that they attempt to impose them through overt preaching. Mayakovsky adopted a hectoring tone out of perceived necessity, in order to communicate the message of Marxism. Kundera has a definite stance on the “desert of organised forgetting” (23), but at the same time understands that communism’s children are “not all that bad” (24). The former added a new dimension to literature through his bold, purpose-driven and deliberately simple style; the latter did so by being ambiguous and deliberately complex. Ironically, in their individual ways, the ultimate ambition of both artists seems to be to “bring together the extreme gravity of the question and extreme lightness of the form”.(25) Perhaps the distinction in their creative philosophies is just a question of different kinds of laughter.
Hind Essoussi is currently reading History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her interdisciplinary research interest explores the ways in which art has historically been used for political purposes in an international relations context. This paper is an abridged version of her dissertation at the London School of Economics in 2009.
(1) Vladimir Mayakovsky, At the top of my voice (1930)
(2) Milan Kundera and Linda Asher, The Art of the Novel (2003), pg 139
(3) Kundera, The Art of the Novel, pg 139
(4) Mayakovsky, At the top of my voice
(5) Mayakovsky, Autobiography (1923)
(6) Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk, Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (1913)
(7) Jan Culik, Milan Kundera
(8) Kundera, Laughable Loves (1999)
(9) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1999), pg 68
(10) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg 13
(11) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 9
(12) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 22
(13) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 8
(14) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 165
(15) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 61
(16) Kundera, The Art of the Novel, pg. 135
(17) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 68
(19) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 3
(20) Orwell, 1984 (1949)
(21) Mayakovsky, At the Top of my Voice
(22) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 29
(23) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 159
(24) Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, pg. 185
(25) Nora Griffin, Life is short, reading is long (2007)