Saturday, July 02, 2016

part 1 The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh

If I were asked the most common cause of misunderstanding between my readers and me, I would not hesitate: humor. I had only recently come to France, and I was anything but blase. When a famous professor of medicine asked to meet me because he admired “The Farewell Party”, I was most flattered. According to him, my novel was prophetic; in my character Skreta, a doctor who treats apparently sterile women at a spa by injecting them secretly with his own sperm from a special syringe, I have hit on the great issue of the future. The professor invites me to a conference on artificial insemination. He pulls a sheet of paper from his pocket and reads me the draft of his own presentation. The gift of sperm must be anonymous, free of charge, and (here he looks me in the eye) impelled by a threefold love: love for an unknown ovum that seeks to accomplish its mission; the donor's love for his own individuality, which is to be perpetuated by the donation; and, third, love for a couple that is suffering, unfulfilled. Then he looks me in the eye again: much as he admires my work, he does have one criticism: I did not manage to express powerfully enough the moral beauty of the gift of semen. I defend myself: this is a comic novel! My doctor is a crackpot! You shouldn't be taking it all so seriously! "So," he says, suspicious, "your novels aren't meant to be taken seriously?" I am baffled, and suddenly I realize: there is nothing harder to explain than humor.

The removal of gods from the world is one of the phenomena that characterize the Era. The removal of gods does not mean atheism, it denotes the situation in which the individual, the thinking ego, supplants God as the basis for all things; man may continue to keep his faith, to kneel in church, to pray at his bed, but his piety shall henceforward pertain only to his subjective universe. Having described this situation, Heidegger concludes: "And thus the gods eventually departed. The resulting void is filled by the historical and psychological exploration of myths."
The historical and psychological exploration of myths, of sacred texts, means: rendering them profane, profaning them. "Profane" comes from the Latin pro-fanum: the place in front of the temple, outside the temple. Profanation is thus the removal of the sacred out of the temple, to a sphere outside religion. Insofar as laughter invisibly pervades the air of the novel, profanation by novel is the worst there is. For religion and humor are incompatible.

Over the course of the Modern Era, nonbelief ceased to be defiant and provocative, and belief, for its part, lost its previous missionary or intolerant certainty. The shock of Stalinism played the decisive role in this evolution: in its effort to erase Christian memory altogether, it made brutally clear that all of us-believers and nonbelievers, blasphemers and worshipers- belong to the same culture, rooted in the Christian past, without which we would be mere shadows without substance, debaters without a vocabulary, spiritually stateless.
I was raised an atheist and that suited me until the day when, in the darkest years of Communism, I saw Christians being bullied. On the instant, the provocative, zestful atheism of my early youth vanished like some juvenile brainlessness. I understood my believing friends and, carried away by solidarity and by emotion, I sometimes went along with them to mass. Still, I never arrived at the conviction that a God existed as a being that directs our destinies. Anyhow, what could I know about it? And they, what could they know? Were they sure they were sure? I was sitting in church with the strange and happy sensation that my nonbelief and their belief were oddly close.

As a young writer, in Prague, I detested the word "generation," whose smell of the herd put me off. The first time I had the sense of being connected to others was later, in France, reading Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes. How was it possible that someone from another continent, so distant from me in itinerary and background, should be possessed by the same aesthetic obsession to bring different historical periods to coexist in a novel, an obsession that then I had naively considered to be mine alone?

Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humor: the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that conies of the certainty that there is no certainty.
But humor, to recall Octavio Paz, is "the great invention of the modern spirit." It has not been with us forever, and it won't be with us forever either.
With a heavy heart, I imagine the day when Panurge no longer makes people laugh.

Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher

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