The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Prague Spring

This morning I was reminded (over at Belgravia Dispatch) of the Prague Spring. The bare bones of the case are summarized here:
The reforms that enabled this growing freedom were - in the words of Alexandr Dubcek - an attempt to create "Socialism with a human face," and came to be known as the "Prague Spring." They were also considered to be terribly threatening by those in power in the Soviet Union, as they compromised the uniformity of the Soviet bloc.
The Soviet Union and its satellites began to more vocally criticize the renegade Czechoslovak Republic. This political pressure from around the bloc peaked in the summer of 1968. The Czechoslovaks didn't listen.
Over the night of August 20-21 1968, Warsaw Pact forces (with the exception of Romania, which refused to participate) invaded Czechoslovakia,
beginning a 20-year period of occupation and "normalization."
This "normalization" was a great increase in repressiveness, with the regime's thought police ready to punish any perceived subversiveness in arts, letters or music.

The greatest study of the Prague Spring and its aftermath is Milan Kundera's overwhelming novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. It is a coming to terms with the knowledge that communism, even more than most forms of repression, cannot permit the freedom of thought and memory which makes great art possible:
There are all kinds of ghosts prowling these confused streets. They are the ghost of monuments demolished—demolished by the Czech Reformation, demolished by the Austrian Counterreformation, demolished by the Czechoslovak Republic, demolished by the Communists. Even statues of Stalin have been torn down. All over the country wherever statures were thus destroyed, Lenin statues have sprouted up by the thousands. They grow like weeds on the ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.
Kundera's characters (excluding the enigmatic Tamina) are the degenerati of post-1968 Prague, intellectuals robbed of their means of expression. And this is one of the most striking dimensions of this amazing book: written about this despairing cultural waste land, by a man steeped in its practices, it is nonetheless a profoundly moral novel. Allowed to say nothing worth hearing, walled off from their own past by relentless revisionism, these lost souls have only their bodies left.

The Legacy Project has an interesting excerpt from a 1980 interview, in which Kundera makes this point more explicitly:
The basic event of the book is the story of totalitarianism, which deprives people of memory and thus retools them into a nation of children.
There is so much more in this novel than I can do justice to here. It includes a precis on the lightness of Being, with more content packed into two pages than the bloviating novel of that name manages in three hundred; stabbing insights into interpersonal relationships; a blistering criticism of "the Idiot of Music" and the replacement of intellectual order with the purely visceral appeal of new pop music; and, as Michael Ondaatje said of Underworld, multitudes.

But Kundera's greatest achievement is the careful illustration, in many-faceted mirrors, of the way in which communism must, for its own survival, crush the minds and souls of its subjects. May we, the happy children of the West, never forget how lucky we have been.