Milan Kundera and the Invisible Tribunal


Soviet invasion of Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1968

by James Warner

A recurring idea in the work of Milan Kundera is that the spirit of totalitarianism lives on in our mass media. In a world without privacy, will we all be perpetually on trial?

In his 1994 essay “Blacklists, or Divertimento in Homage to Anatole France,” Kundera quotes from France’s historical novel The Gods Are Thirsty a description of Jacobins sitting in judgment during their Reign of Terror —

On the one hand the indifferent, the lukewarm, the hair-splitters, unmoved by any passion, and on the other, those who gave over to feeling, cared little for rational argument and judged with their hearts. That second group always convicted.

The italics are Kundera’s, and one can feel the satisfaction he takes in France’s capturing of a psychological type, those whose passionate sincerity justifies them in condemning absolutely.

Kundera himself rarely convicts, preferring to muse on the future’s incompetence to judge the past, the incomprehensibility of our younger self to our older self, and the impossibility of truly understanding even those we feel intimately close to. Writing in his essay collections Encounter and Testaments Betrayed about Martin Heidegger, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Maxim Gorky, or Vladimir Mayakovsky – authors he feels we nowadays risk thinking of as apologists for tyranny first and writers second — Kundera always sides with the accused. In “What Will Be Left of You, Bertolt?” repudiating a hostile biography of Brecht, Kundera rejects the idea that the truth about an artist is to be found in his worst failings, and alleges that Europe is “moving into the age of the prosecutors.” In “Enmity and Friendship,” he comments parenthetically on the scandal of French President François Mitterrand’s ties to the Vichy Regine — “I admired Mitterand for his loyalty to old friends. That loyalty was the reason he was so violently attacked towards the end of his life. That loyalty was his nobility.”

Kundera’s The Art of the Novel contains this definition of “collaboration” — “in the course of the war against Nazism, the word ‘collaboration’ took on a new meaning: putting oneself voluntarily at the service of a vile power. What a fundamental notion! However did humanity do without it until 1944? Now that the word has been found, we realize more and more that man’s activity is by nature a collaboration. All those who extol the mass media din, advertising’s imbecilic smile, the neglect of the natural world, indiscretion raised to the status of a virtue – they deserve to be called ‘collaborators with modernity.’”

This characteristic equation of totalitarianism and the mass media has roots in Kundera’s own experience. The countersurveillance tactics the Czech security apparatus used against intellectuals who fell from favor after 1968 – following them wherever they went, photographing anyone who visited them, tapping their phones, rewarding those who informed on them – resemble the way our media now treats the famous or momentarily famous. And a “trial by media” resembles a Jacobin show trial in encouraging onlookers to “judge with their hearts.”

“The trial’s memory is colossal,” Kundera writes in Testaments Betrayed, “but it is a very specific memory, which could be defined as the forgetting of everything not a crime. The trial thus reduces the defendant’s biography to criminography… The totalitarian empires and their bloody trials have disappeared, but the spirit of the trial lingers as a legacy, and that is what is now settling scores.”

As it becomes technologically possible to record more and more of our experience, we create more and more potential evidence, but we can’t tell who will wind up using it. Tereza, a fictional character in Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, photographs the Russians invading Prague in 1968 and gives these photographs to Western reporters. The media lose interest relatively quickly, but the Russians have longer memories, and use photographs from Western newspapers to identify Czech protesters. Tereza learns the naïvete of trusting in technology.

In a non-fictional passage from the same book, Kundera indignantly describes the fate of the Czech novelist Jan Procházka, whose private conversations were recorded by the government, then unexpectedly broadcast publicly over the airwaves to harm his image. Kundera notes in Testaments Betrayed that “because in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he’d never admit in public, and so forth,” any private conversation becomes ludicrous once it is made public. The techniques used against Procházka weirdly anticipate those the fourth estate used soon afterwards to discredit Richard Nixon. In Immortality, Kundera muses on Nixon’s fate, his every utterance pored over by reporters, and identifies Watergate as the moment when the right to ask any question and demand an answer — a right traditionally bestowed only on judges during a trial, but under totalitarianism exercised by the state unconditionally – was appropriated by journalists. WikiLeaks could be seen as as a culmination of this process, treating world leaders the way the Communists treated Procházka – in David Berreby’s words, “It robbed them of that control over self-presentation that’s essential to human dignity and autonomy.”

As late as the 1960s, the transgressions of powerful Western politicians were more likely to be hushed up than exposed. While we might not want to turn back the clock that far, if we lose all privacy we risk becoming the sort of people Kundera defines in Slowness as “Dancers,” politicians who spend their lives performing for an invisible audience – although Dancers would more likely describe themselves as people skilled at managing their own public persona. We become Dancers when we log onto social media and perform in front of the tribunal of our peers.

In Testaments Betrayed, Kundera notes that many people “change their mind in accordance with the invisible tribunal that is also changing its mind; their change is thus simply a bet on what the tribunal will proclaim to be the truth tomorrow. I remember my youth in Czechoslovakia. Having emerged from our initial enchantment with Communism, we felt each small step against official doctrine to be a courageous act. We protested the persecution of religious believers, stood up for banned modern art, argued against the stupidity of propaganda, criticized the country’s dependence on Russia, and so on. In doing so, we were taking some risk – not much, but still some – and that (little) danger gave us a pleasant moral satisfaction. One day a hideous thought came to me: what if our rebellions were dictated not by internal freedom, by courage, but by the desire to please the other tribunal that was already preparing, in the shadows, to sit in judgment?”

The present and the future both try us, but according to vastly different criteria. Kundera’s sensitivity to the complexities of collaboration and culpability is one of his artistic strengths — a part of the same subtlety that informs his accounts of sexual seductions, where neither party is entirely in control, and the shifting balance of power makes it hard to assign blame.

One writer Kundera does put in the dock is Paul Éluard. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera reproaches Éluard for failing to condemn the hanging of the writer Záviš Kalandra, following a show trial in Prague in 1950. Kundera accuses Éluard of putting his loyalty to Stalin ahead of his loyalty to a personal friend. Kundera refers to this incident elsewhere, “not to blacken the name of Éluard,” as he told Alan Finkielkraut in a 1982 “Cross Currents” interview, “but to understand more fully the lyrical dimension of man.” Yet in a long list of defendants in Testaments Betrayed , Éluard is the only one singled out for censure as an “exterminating angel” — a reminder that detachment and perspective are harder to attain when one’s own circle is impacted.

1950, a time of Stalinist terror in Czechoslovakia, was also the year of an arrest which decades later caused Kundera himself to undergo trial by media. According to archival data released in 2008, it was Kundera who, in 1950, as student head of his dormitory, reported that a visitor had left a briefcase in a fellow student’s room. The briefcase belonged to pilot Miroslav Dvorácek, who was spying for the West – Dvorácek was arrested and spent many years in labor camps. Kundera has denied any involvement in this incident and the evidence seems inconclusive — but the Czech and international reaction provides fresh evidence that nothing will draw as much attention to an author as a single reported misdeed and that, once we hear an allegation about a writer’s youth, it becomes hard not to read their work in the light of that allegation.

The temptation is to be resisted – one thing we still need novelists for is encouraging us not to rush to judgment. I am fond of the account in Kundera’s Slowness of how a fictional Czech entomologist came to lose his job  – “One day, with no warning, a dozen notorious opponents of the regime surged into his office and demanded that he give them a room  where they could hold semi-clandestine meetings. They were playing by the rules of moral judo: turning up by surprise and making a little audience of observers all by themselves. The unexpected confrontation put the scientist in a complete bind. Saying ‘yes’ would immediately entail disagreeable risks: he could lose his position, and his three children would be barred from the university. But he hadn’t enough courage to say ‘no’ to the micro-audience who were already taunting him in advance for cowardice. He therefore ended up agreeing and despised himself for his timidity, his weakness, his incapacity to resist being pushed around. So, to be accurate, it was timorousness, not courage, that eventually got him driven from his position and his children driven from school.”

Before reading Kundera, I would not have thought of dissidents as “playing by the rules of moral judo.” Yet we all know this sport – using claims to victimhood as a source of power, manipulating others into making a symbolic commitment to a cause, or responding to a situation we don’t understand by leaping for the ethical high ground. Kundera’s fictional scientist is brought down by such moves, and it’s only in memory that he retrospectively transforms his cowardly “yes” into “a voluntary, free act, the expression of his personal revolt against the hated regime.” As Kundera writes in “The Total Rejection of Heritage, or Iannis Xenakis” — “Such are the Splendors and Miseries of memory: it is proud of its ability to keep truthful track of the logical sequence of past events; but when it comes to how we experienced them at the time, memory feels no obligation to truth.”

Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party in 1950, reinstated in 1956, and expelled again in 1970. Those expulsions were the result of one kind of trial, but his last trials will be trials by biographer – part of why in his work he pours scorn on literary biographers. A character in The Incredible Lightness of Being asks, “Do you know what effort literary historians have put into reconstructing in detail the sex lives of, say, Voltaire or Balzac or Tolstoy? No such problems with Czech writers. It’s all on tape. Every last sigh.”

Piece originally published at Open Democracy |

About the Author:

James Warner is the author of a novel, All Her Father’s Guns, published in 2011 by Numina Press. His short stories have appeared in many publications.