Milan Kundera’s The Joke

The JokeFirst, an apposite quotation from Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind.” The free intelligence (in truth, a tautology, but a useful one nonetheless) admits of no preconceptions, no foregone conclusions, and revels in its own curiosity, taking upon itself willingly, to borrow from Wordsworth, “the burden of the mystery,” the burden of not knowing. Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke describes such a conflict, foregrounded in the central protagonist’s expulsion from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia for the crime of telling a joke in a private letter to a friend. The novel is an exploration of the influence of a totalitarian ideology (in this case, communism) on human beings and the failed efforts of that ideology to control, subjugate and mold its adherents.

The story itself is divided into different first-person accounts, with a chronology that begins in the present, takes a detour into the past, and then picks up once more where it initially left off. Ludvik Jahn is a student in a Moravian university and a particularly enthusiastic member of the Communist Party when his love interest, an uptight woman with whom he had been corresponding, turns in a letter he wrote as being “subversive.” Poking fun at her rigidity and humorlessness, he concludes one of his letters: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” which results in his dismissal from the Communist Party, expulsion from the university (only those advancing the cause were entitled to an education) and compulsory labor in a military-owned mine, where he languishes for the next seven years of his life. Reflecting on his youth and the indiscretion that proved so costly, Jahn recalls:

Looking back on my state of mind at the time, I am reminded by analogy of the enormous power of Christianity to convince the believer of his fundamental and never-ending guilt; I also stood (we all stood) before the Revolution and its Party with permanently bowed head, and so I gradually became reconciled to the idea that my words, though genuinely intended as a joke, were still a matter of guilt, and a self-critical investigation started up in my head: I told myself that it was no accident those thoughts had occurred to me, that the Comrades has long been reproaching me (undoubtedly with reason) for “traces of individualism” and “intellectual tendencies”; I told myself that I had taken to preening myself on my education, my university status, and my future as a member of the intelligentsia, that my father, a worker who died during the war in a concentration camp, would never have understood my cynicism; I reproached myself for letting his working-man’s mentality die in me; I reproached myself on every possible score and in the end came to accept the necessity of some kind of punishment; I resisted one thing and one thing only: expulsion from the Party and the concomitant designation of enemy; to live as the branded enemy of everything I had stood for since early childhood and still clung to seemed to me a cause for despair.

I reproduced this rather lengthy quotation because it illustrates perfectly Kundera’s criticism of totalitarian Marxism: like Christianity, it humbles its adherents with calls to be self-critical (consider Catholic confession, for example, or third wave feminism’s odious “check your privilege”), but the standards against which members are judged are lofty and unattainable, resulting in an internalized sense of guilt. Kundera brilliantly describes the samokritika sessions, in which party members got together to denounce one another for such bourgeois tendencies as individuality (“individualism”) or artistic or intellectual interests that were viewed as elitist, such as preferring classical music to folk music. The result is indoctrination rather than education (the teachers, says Jahn, had “pamphlets for brains”) and an impoverished cultural and historical tradition reduced to the struggle between wealthy and working class, bourgeois and proletariat. Much later in the novel, another character returns to this comparison between Christianity and Marxist ideology:

And when I think of the most passionate Communists from the first period of socialism in my country […] they seem to me much more like religious zealots than Voltairean doubters. The revolutionary era from 1948 to 1956 had little in common with skepticism and rationalism. It was an era of great collective faith. A man who kept in step with this era experienced feelings that were akin to religious ones: he renounced his ego, his person, his private life in favor of something higher, something suprapersonal. True, the Marxist teachings were purely secular in origin, but the significance assigned them was similar to the significance of the Gospel and the biblical commandments. They have created a range of ideas that are untouchable and therefore, in our terminology, sacred.

This notion of the sacred is incompatible with the very concept of education, whose foundational principles are doubt and skepticism. What is at stake in such a worldview is, as Kundera understands, the entirety of the humanistic tradition:

Today history is no more than a thin thread remembered stretching over an ocean of the forgotten, but time moves on, and an epoch of millenia will come which the inextensible memory of the individual will be unable to encompass; whole centuries and millenia will therefore fall away, centuries of paintings and music, centuries of discoveries, of battles, of books, and this will be dire, because man will lose the notion of his self, and his history, unfathomable, unencompassable, will shrivel into a few schematic signs destitute of all sense.

A half century after this brand of education was foisted on unsuspecting students in communist regimes, it has rebranded itself and returned to plague and corrupt universities, now in the Western world, reducing history, literature and philosophy to “schematic signs destitute of all sense” and playing off of the insecurities and grievances of its students to shield itself from what would otherwise be fatal criticism. And the result, now as then, is blind obedience and servile conformity.

But The Joke is not a political pamphlet, nor can it be reduced to an indictment of ideology or indoctrination. Its characters are human: complex, fallible, subject to the time and the place in which they are born and yet striving, desperately, to transcend these limitations and find (or construct) some authentic meaning or purpose. Reflecting on his life, misspent in forced labor and exile, Ludvik comes to understand the absurdity of this task of meaning-making: “even if I were able to wipe these few pointless days out of my life, what good would that do, when the entire story of my life was conceived in error, through the bad joke of the postcard, that accident, that nonsense? And I was horrified at the thought that things conceived in error are just as real as things conceived with good reason and of necessity.” This, ultimately, is the joke played on Ludvik: that despite the fact that the events that constitute his life – his expulsion from the communist party and the university, his forced labor in the mines, his perpetual status as a potential subversive/enemy of the state – are the product of “accident” rather than conscious endeavor, they belong to him, and he to them, as much as if they were freely and consciously chosen.