Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I have just finished Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and am amazed, disturbed, perplexed. This is only the second Kundera offering I have read (the first was, of course, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). I admire the unconventional, creative mix of metafiction, autobiography, political discourse, magical realism. Kundera's peculiar talent for connecting so many disconnected things is both enlightening and frustrating--it's hard to hold it all together, but I am fascinated by the connections. I am still too amazed, dazed, and confused to write a coherent book review, but I wanted the opportunity to ask those of you who love this book why you love it so much. I am not sure that I do. Its cold philosophical observations, its desire to trample over every taboo--I am just not sure about it at all. I have come to expect gritty, even perverse, eroticism from Kundera--but his frequent romanticism of rape, even pedophilia, even if for "noble" magical realist and symbolic purposes, left me not wanting to fit some of these disconnected pieces together. I just wanted to forget that I had read certain sections of the "novel". I did very much enjoy Kundera's multi-angular discussion of memory--personal memory, political memory, societal memory. It's amazing how he weaves intimate autobiographical vignettes or fictional narratives into the larger social context as he explains that communism wants to create a future by erasing the past. The opening chapter has a strong visual example of this. Kundera explains that in February 1948 two communist leaders walked onto a balcony to address a crowd in Prague, and a famous photo was taken of the two men. Years later, one of the men was hanged for treason; therefore, he was erased in the "official" version of the photo. This desire to erase, rather than work through, the past is a central strand of this collection of essays and narratives. The two images he discusses can be seen here:

One last thing I wanted to mention (out of the many intriguing passages/concepts that I did like from the book) is a poignant character sketch of one of the central characters, Tamina. Kundera explains that Tamina is a true listener, never interrupting those who speak to her, not even for simple agreement. Because of this, she is well loved. This is something I have been thinking a lot about lately, especially in the wake of reading the previously mentioned Nouwen text. It seems that the desire to always agree with others, to connect our stories to theirs, can often be a means to project ourselves upon them rather than to listen to them. Kundera writes:
"The phrase 'It's absolutely the same with me, I...' seems to be an approving echo, a way of connecting the other's thought, but that is an illusion: in reality it is a brute revolt against a brutal violence, an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy's ear by force."
Kundera recognizes the great difficulty of allowing the other's "otherness", the recognition of a disjunction that leads to the violence of difference. We sometimes (not always) want to cover others up with our talking, even if this covering masquerades as an act of concern or connection. This is a simple, yet profound and challenging psychological insight.
I recognize that this post is disjointed--and I must admit my experience of the book is as well. What has your experience been with Kundera in general, and with this book in particular?

What I Missed this Week

How annoying that the one week that I am sick flat out in bed, struggling to go and teach, we have two fascinating speakers visit our university. In one week I have missed both author/educator Frank McCourt and poet/ex-Black Flag member and hardcore pioneer/ all around angry guy Henry Rollins! What an unlikely coupling. Of course, they did not speak on the same night, and probably don't know each other. But I think they probably both have some pretty,um, interesting things to say. I am curious to know if any of you have ever heard Rollins, in particular, do his krazy "spoken word" thang.
Here are some vids of each of them, just to remind me of what I missed!

Interestingly, the McCourt lecture was free, whereas Henry Rollins' gig cost a ridiculous 20 bucks. Real punk rawk, Henry. Interesting that he rants and raves about the dumb downed products of corporate America, yet you have to practically be a yuppy yourself to afford to go see the guy. At that price, not even sure I would have gone if I was well.
Just for fun, here is a clip of Rollins on Drew Carey--one of those exciting little YouTube gyms.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Isn't This Lovely?

"Towers" by Headlights

Backstage Sessions: Headlights - Towers from Hard to Find a Friend on Vimeo.

You can find all kinds of good stuff, including fun "backstage sessions" on this great music blog.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Loneliness at the Heart of the Human Condition?

A good conversation that I had with a good friend last night caused me to think back over some reading (Henri Nouwen and Blaise Pascal) I had been doing over the summer. My friend and I were talking, and I mentioned what I perceived as the essential “aloneness” of the human condition—that we are trapped within our own individual “conceptual frameworks", that no other human being can really understand the way our narrative has woven itself together. But can even we understand the events of our lives, our responses, how we are constantly changed and changing, and how all this fits together to form our “story”? We seem to be isolated from ourselves in our lack of self awareness and constant desire to deceive ourselves. Even when we desire to be honest, we have problems interpreting ourselves. I guess I basically agree with my dear Blaise Pascal that both the self and the other are mysteries, full of contradictions. He also says that in recognizing this we are led to a point of despair that leads to faith rather than “scientific” certainty, faith in God and in others—both evidenced not in “knowable” data, but through relationship.

In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen observes that our culture continually keeps us in a “state of anaesthesia” so that “ we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us”. The source of this panic is a debilitating fear of loneliness, a fear that causes us to run to people, planning, activities, books, anything to keep us from dealing with our “human predicament”. Nouwen refutes the cultural assertions that being lonely means that you aren’t around the “right” people, haven’t found the “right” partner--loneliness, he says, is at the core of the human condition--and people, things, special experiences can’t take it away. He even makes a fascinating claim that this paralyzing fear of recognizing our own aloneness has led to a decline in cultural creativity. He asks:
“Does not all creativity ask for a certain encounter with our loneliness, and does not the fear of this encounter severely limit our possible self-expression?”

Nouwen also claims that when we cling to others to rid us of our loneliness, “we are, in fact, driving ourselves into excruciating relationships, tiring friendships and suffocating embraces”. He claims that we often burden others with “divine expectations, of which we ourselves are often partially aware”. When these “Messianic expectations” are not met by another person, we resort to what Nouwen sees as a “violence of thoughts--violating the mind with suspicion, inner gossip or revengeful fantasies”.

Okay, enough for today…

Sunday, February 3, 2008

What Should I Watch Next?

I talk about films quite a bit in all of my classes. So much, that my students often bring films to me that they love and want me to watch. Right now, I have four films loaned to me by students that I have kept TOO long. I never seem to get around to watching them. They are: Unbreakable, Requiem for a Dream, Pi, and Sicko. Please let me know what you know about these films--and let me know which I would watch first. I seem to have some of the most comment-shy friends on the blogosphere. Please don't be shy! I want to hear what you think.

I have always really wanted to watch Reqiuem, but have been quite afraid--have heard some horror stories about it (the intensity and trauma of it).