Blaming History

By Tomasky, Michael | The American Prospect, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Blaming History


Tomasky, Michael, The American Prospect


SO THE ASSIGNMENT IS "A BOOK THAT CHANGED MY view of politics." Harder than it sounds. I will confess that when I was a younger man, I was far more likely to think of records, as we used to call them, as life-changing, and if pressed, I could probably to this day defend the proposition that The Basement Tapes taught me as much about America as did, say, either John Steinbeck or V.O. Key.

I could name something predictable by Schlesinger or Hofstadter, or one of those seminal works on the 1960s or Watergate that I and most other American liberal males of my generation display on our shelves and in select cases have actually read to completion. But the idea of "life changing" led me to reach into the memoryhole for those rare occasions when reading a book so fired my mind that, while I was immersed in it, I could think of nothing else. You know the feeling: You can't wait for work or class to finish so you can plow back into the book; as you near the end, you actually slow down because you don't want it to stop and can't imagine not being able to read it anymore.

IT TURNS OUT THAT IT'S A NOVEL, Milan Kundera's The Joke, that met for me the above criteria: The book is quite political and contains within its pages lessons about how people adapt to the larger political contexts in which they live. These are lessons that were and are more universal than one might assume--given that Kundera was assaying totalitarian society--about what can happen when the stirrings of the soul are thwarted by the imperatives of the state.

At the time, I was in graduate school, reading lots of political philosophy and a smattering of political science. I was also more or less alone in New York City. I guess the larger world and the solitary individual's precarious place within it were very much on my mind. I needed both meditative context and comic relief, and The Joke provided them.

You may know the basic story. Ludvik, a young Communist of the late 1940s, becomes besotted with a woman. Where he is laconic and diffident, she is ardent and pure. Rather than spend a summer yielding to his romantic advances, she chooses to go off to some Communist youth camp. She writes him letters, but they fail to express sufficient remorse at being away from his side and instead emphasize the camp's "healthy atmosphere" and her optimism about the future of humankind. …

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