The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I woke up at 3:49 a.m. last night, unable to fall asleep again. So I finished reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by 5:30. It’s definitely my favorite novel of his, so far – I’ve also read Identity, Immortality and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I’m 4 generations removed from my Bohemian (literally) ancestors and one generation removed from from speaking Czech as a second language, so I feel a strong interest in Kundera’s writing. It’s not at all a connection – the language, the culture is lost to me, but I believe it’s important to know one’s roots, to know where things came from, and what is happening as a result of that history in the present day. I may be far removed The Old Country, but the fact that they emigrated 125 years ago not only affects my personal history, but the history of a country an ocean away. This is why One After the Other at Arthouse was so engrossing. I was surprised that the person at the front desk gave me an odd, sideways look when, after viewing the 2nd floor, I asked if they had any materials on the history of the building. I was even more surprised when I was handed a dogeared, faded Xerox copy.

I don’t consider myself a writer because it doesn’t come naturally to me. Being an artist is a little different – the ideas have always come through me ever since I could hold a pencil. But I still have my doubts about that because 1) I’m don’t feel educated enough to be sure that my technical execution is up to snuff. Even so (with all the crappy drawings and pop graffiti abounding since 2000), 2) I’m never in the right place at the right time. Life constantly humbles me: my face is forgotten by people I’ve come across several times, I forget people’s names and faces that I’ve met several times, things rarely turn out right in general (which to me means completely, idealistically perfect). Thus it always surprises me when I’m complimented on anything. I think others manifest what’s in between my head, or my 7 grams, better than I could even begin to, which is why I’m sharing this passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, among some other fragments forthcoming.

Some time ago, I went across Paris in a taxi with a garrulous driver. He couldn’t sleep nights. He had chronic insomnia. Had it ever since the war. He was a sailor. His ship sank. He swam three days and three nights. Then he was rescued. He spent several months between life and death. He recovered, but he had lost the ability to sleep.
“I’ve had a third more of life than you,” he said.
“And what do you do with that extra third?” I asked him.
“I write.”
I asked him what he was writing.
He was writing his life story…
“Are you writing it for your children? As a family chronicle?”
He chuckled bitterly: “For my children? They’re not interested in that. I’m writing a book. I think it would help a lot of people.”
You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts… Graphomania is not a mania to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a mania to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). In that sense, the taxi driver and Goethe share the same passion. What distinguishes Goethe from the taxi driver is not a difference in passions but one’s passion’s different results.
Graphomania (a mania for writing books) inevitably take on epidemic proportions when a society develops to the point of creating three basic conditions:
1) An elevated level of general well-being, which allows people to devote themselves to useless activities;
2) a high degree of social atomization and, as a consequence, a general isolation of individuals;
3) the absence of dramatic social changes in the nation’s internal life…
But by backlash, the effect affects the cause. General isolation breeds graphomania and generalized graphomania in turn intensifies and worsens isolation… In the era of universal graphomania, the writing of books has an opposite meaning: everyone surrounded by his own words as by a wall of mirrors, which allows no voice to filter through from outside.

First written in the 1970’s, this passage is ahead of its time. Is this “graphomania” what we’d now call blogging? And re-read it substituting all the writing-oriented words with “photographer” and “artist.” Let me know what you think. It seems this is part of the quandary artists face in the 21st century. The issue of separating art from the design, craft, trade, etc. while still engaging patrons and/or the general public indicates that something fundamental has changed.

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