Tuesday, November 11, 2008

As Long Dark National Nightmares Go...

I've been teaching Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting this semester, remarkably, at the same time as the election. Reading about the kinds of state abuses of power that Kundera describes, and the controlling of the national history, the national narrative, and the minute details of citizens' lives, I have to say that our own last eight years kind of come into a different perspective.

Indeed, the United States has presided over some atrocities, most specifically related to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, and other names for torture. And admittedly, the domestic wiretapping certainly echoes of the sorts of abuses that Kundera describes in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia (isn't it funny how the name of that once-nation sounds strange again?).

But reading of exiles, executed traitors of the state, excommunicated writers, poets and historians, I can't help but think that eight years followed by the promise of major change without the threat of tanks rolling into town one day to dismantle the government certainly feels different than the kind of rolling into town that the inauguration in January will be.

And more subtly, but as importantly, I'm thinking about the sexuality in Kundera's book. Everywhere affairs, orgies, threesomes, random gropings in mechanic's shops. It's not that I have a problem with sexual variety (that'd be hypocritical at least), but it's the kind of nihilism that Kundera's sex scenes exhibit. And they're there in virtually every episode. The one prospect of amorous coition is thwarted in the novel, and what is left is often described as rape, castration, or at best, ridiculous contortions of the body.

I'm not in a position to take our national temperature in the bedroom (although my impulse is to say that it's fairly tepid right now), but to read the absence of desire in Kundera's sex scenes is to discover what a kind of national hopelessness feels like, and after eight years where the political scene verged on hopelessness, I realized how much hope I was able to maintain all along.

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