Words Overheard
By: Laura M.Tom ( April, 2003 Volume 3 No.4 )

This interview is condensed from two conversations Philip Roth had with author Milan Kundera in November 1980 after reading a translated manuscript of his "Book of Laughter and Forgetting. "

PR: Laughter has always been close to you. Your books provoke laughter through humor or irony. When your characters come to grief it is because they bump against a world that has lost its sense of humor.

MK: I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror [in Czechoslovakia]. I was 20 then. I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn't fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.

PR: In your last book, though, something else is involved. In a little parable you compare the laughter of angels with the laughter of the devil. The devil laughs because God's world seems senseless to him; the angels laugh with joy because everything in God's world has its meaning.

MK: Yes, man uses the same physiologic manifestations--laughter--to express two different metaphysical attitudes. Someone's hat drops on a coffin in a freshly dug grave, the funeral loses its meaning and laughter is born. Two lovers race through the meadow, holding hands, laughing. Their laughter has nothing to do with jokes or humor, it is the serious laughter of angels expressing their joy of being. Both kinds of laughter belong among life's pleasures, but when it also denotes a dual apocalypse: the enthusiastic laughter of angel-fanatics, who are so convinced of their world's significance that they are ready to hang anyone not sharing their joy. And the other laughter, sounding from the opposite side, which proclaims that everything has become meaningless, that even funerals are ridiculous. Human life is bounded by two chasms: fanaticism on one side, absolute skepticism on the other.

PR: What is so characteristic of your prose is the constant confrontation of the private and the public. But not in the sense that private stories take place against a political backdrop, nor that political events encroach on private lives. Rather, you continually show that political events are governed by the same laws as private happenings, so that your prose is a kind of psychoanalysis of politics.

MK: The metaphysics of man is the same in the private sphere as in the public one. Take the other theme of the book, forgetting. This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life?. But forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting. A nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self. Politics unmasks the metaphysics of private life, private life unmasks the metaphysics of politics.