Archive for April 1st, 2014

Happy birthday, Milan Kundera! A few of his thoughts on “true human goodness.”

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014
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The birthday boy in 1980

Today is the 85th birthday of Czech writer Milan Kundera. The Czech Republic apparently has a lot of feelings about the event and the author, who has written only in French since the mid-1980s. From Radio Prague:

“Critics like Jiří Peňas from the Czech daily Lidové noviny have argued that Milan Kundera owes the Czech Republic nothing and that if anything, on the occasion of the author’s 85th birthday it is Czechs who could offer him thanks. In an opinion piece published Tuesday, Peňas reminded readers that Kundera’s novels cast a positive light on Czechoslovakia during the Iron Curtain, informing the West that the country was, culturally-speaking, not a Russian governorate where locals “blew their noses in the tablecloth”.

“In his Op-ed, Peňas alluded to the weight of Kundera’s “absence”, a question that has come up routinely since the Velvet Revolution. Why? Examples abound: when Mr Kundera allegedly visits friends in the Czech Republic it is incognito to avoid detection; when he was awarded state honours by the late president Václav Havel, he chose not to attend; and he has forbidden any of his new work to be translated into Czech. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in 2006, was the last.”

birthday cakeHis publisher Miroslav Balaštík said on the occasion: “For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.” I’ve just discovered the author for myself. I know… I know… I’m late to the table. My battered copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is heavily penciled, with all sorts of marginalia now. Those who have read it will appreciate his addition to the annals of literary canines, with Teresa’s dog Karenin – not to mention a very memorable pig as well. Since I am holed up right now, taking care of an ailing and disabled (but very beloved) dog, I thought a few of his animal-loving remarks would be pertinent for the occasion:

poopsie2

Please get better, Poopsie.

“The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.

The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of the hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game – a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars’ – and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice on his dinner plate and apologize (belatedly!) to the cow. …

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”