Milan Kundera on the totalitarian mind

I’ve been rereading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, in the back of which is an interview with Kundera from the late ’70s/early ’80s, given by Philip Roth.

His words here seem as important as ever. These days, grand utopian visions as such may be a little thin on the ground, but the impulses he references take other forms as well. In particular, I think they should remind us of that perennial delusion of omnipotent security so many of us seem to subscribe to, borne, of course, by fear. We really are True Believers in power: the power of science and technology ultimately to solve all human problems, the power of military strength to create a world free of anger and violence, the power of punishment to generate goodness.

Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise – the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. André Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.

Referencing the poet Paul Éluard, who publicly turned on his friend Závis Kalandra when the latter, in 1950, was sentenced to death by “the rulers of paradise,” he goes on:

People like to say: Revolution is beautiful, it is only the terror arising from it which is evil. But this is not true. The devil is already present in the beautiful, hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever. Nowadays, people all over the world unequivocally reject the idea of gulags, yet they are still willing to let themselves be hypnotized by totalitarian poesy and to march to new gulags to the tune of the same lyrical song piped by Eluard when he soared over Prague like the great archangel of the lyre, while the smoke of Kalandra’s body rose to the sky from the crematory chimney.

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