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Laughter, Forgetting and Cynicism in Paris: Kundera, Obama and the Climate Talks

If you are lucky, you have read a novel or two by the great Czech writer Milan Kundera.

I confess that for a time in the early and mid 80s I held no writer in higher esteem than he. And very little in the intervening years has changed my opinion on that score.

All these years later, I still have vivid images in my head of the scenes he sketched out in his wonderful books.

One of the more indelible of these is the opening scene of the Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which goes like this:

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off he fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section make hundreds of thousands of copies of the photography taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

The incident described in the text is rooted in the real life history of Eastern European Communism, when governments of the Soviet bloc regularly and brazenly manipulated past and present events so as to insure the ideological reliability of social narratives.

As paradoxical and strange as it might seem at first, this governmental brazenness in matters of deception was rooted in a certain respect on the part of the tyrannical governments for the populations under their control.

In their drive to manipulate the past, they were implicitly acknowledging existence of a national collective memory and the ability of normal people to use their intelligence to maintain it and to nurture it.

It is precisely because they feared the persistence possibility of the “untrained” national memory coming to the fore, that felt they had  to take such draconian measures to deform it and manipulate it.

Fast forward to today, 36 years after the publication of Kundera’s masterpiece, and Obama’s appearance at the climate talks in Paris.

There, a few days ago, the US president made an impassioned plea, replete with invocations of Martin Luther King and the need not to cede to cynical fatalism—and people wonder what I mean when I talk about the baroque in today’s world when we have a leader whose entire Presidency has been built on the cynical manipulation of imagery giving us lectures about the dangers of ceding to cynicism—a  mere six years after he himself personally oversaw the sabotaging of the very conservative and insufficient goals of a previous version of the same climate conference in Copenhagen.

The result? Nary a word anywhere about the contradiction, nary a word about the brazen cynicism of the act. Indeed not one member of the mainstream press had the “bad taste” to bring up that matter of Obama’s actual record on the climate crisis.

In short, we have arrived at the reality of a civic space (or what passes for it in the minds of most) that is almost completely without actionable memory.

Had the Communists understood that the key to the control of social discourses lay not in respecting, and therefore reifying the idea of social memory (and then subsequently deforming it), but rather in training the public to place no value whatsoever on memory, they’d probably still be in power.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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