Anti-Agency: The Rhetorical Situation, Guilt, and the Power of Laughter in the Novels of Milan Kundera
It is perhaps a noteworthy coincidence that the publication of Milan Kundera's first novel, The Joke,
roughly coincides with the publication of Lloyd Bitzer's essay "The Rhetorical Situation" in which Bitzer proclaims that "rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to situation, in the same
sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question" (Bitzer 5). If we assume this to be the case, then we can say that the Prague Spring of 1968 and the events which led up to it are the rhetorical
situation which created the novels of Milan Kundera. Those events are the question to which his novels are the answer. 1
And what is his answer? How does Kundera understand Czech history? How does he explain a revolution that was fueled by good intentions and supported by intellectuals and idealists, but which either murdered or imprisoned tens of thousands of people? How did something which seemed so good turn out to be so bad?
The title of Kundera's first novel definitively answers this question. History is a joke that can be potentially understood in two distinct ways that are as follows: either the essence of history is a
joke--it manifests itself in the form of a joke in which the counter-productivity of human agency is a function of history, or history merely is, and humanity frames history, comprehends history, or makes sense of
history through the trope of the joke. According to the logic of the latter assertion Kundera equates history with a joke because that is the only way for him to rationalize or "understand" history. The
counter-productivity of human agency, the lack of weight, the unbearable lightness of being is a reality so oppressive and so fearful that the "joke" is the only human metaphor which can encompass history and
in so doing presumably avert nihilism, defeatism, and psychosis or whatever other ills might accompany understanding history as it "truly is." For the purpose of this discussion it does not matter which of
these two definitions of history is more clearly borne out in the novels. It's entirely possible that both exist simultaneously. What's important to note is that in both definitions the counter-productivity of human
agency, this anti-agency if you will, is the archetypal manifestation of the "history-as-joke" motif.
It is tempting to see Kundera's characters as lacking any agency at all. It's tempting to
suggest that his characters are laboratory mice wandering blindly through history without ever "getting" anywhere, and Bitzer's essay seems to confirm this notion. "The Rhetorical Situation" is
highly deterministic. It allows for little agency. For Bitzer both rhetoric and human action (agency) are products of situation (history). 3
This is true for Kundera as well; situation creates his rhetoric. His characters are born of history. Nevertheless, his characters do act. They are not without agency. Kundera's novels exist somewhere in the midst of this paradox.
History determines his characters, but his characters also shape history by way of the phenomenon of anti-agency. This means that the effects of their actions are consistently contrary to their goals. According to Kundera human agency worsens the problems that agency attempts to alleviate, or at best does little to alleviate the problems while creating numerous less-desirable side effects.
Kundera's novels provide more than a few examples of this dynamic. In The Joke Ludvik sends a postcard to Marketa with the dual intention of teasing her (in the short term) and flirting with her (the long
term goal being her seduction). The postcard accomplishes neither of these goals. Rather, it becomes the vehicle by which Ludvik's peers orchestrate his demise. His action, his agency, has a very undesirable side
effect, but this does not stop him from acting further. He plots revenge against Zemanek, the ringleader of the Communists who sentenced him to prison, and executes an intricate plan to seduce Zemanek's wife, Helena.
This plan backfires when he finds that Zemanek is having an affair with a younger woman, and is happy to be relieved of the burden of Helena. Helena, distraught by the discovery that Ludvik's love was a ruse, attempts
to commit suicide by consuming an entire bottle of analgesics. Her plan also fails because the bottle which she thought was filled with analgesics contained only laxative pills. The important point to note here is that
people do act; they have some kind of agency. People have an effect on themselves and the world around them. The problem is that the result of human agency (history) is a joke, and a bad one at that. 5
Examples of anti-agency are not limited to The Joke. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being Teresa expresses her opposition to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by photographing the Russian invaders and
giving her film to foreign tourists and journalists in the hope that her pictures will get published in Western newspapers. She hopes that the Western powers might come to the aid of her weak, defenseless
Czechoslovakia. They do not, and later her photographs are used by the Russian secret police to find and punish those who resisted the occupation. Teresa later thinks, "How naive they had been, thinking they were
risking their lives for their country when in fact they were helping the Russian police" (142). Once again, a person acts, but the result of that action is not what was intended by the actor, but something worse,
something contrary to the actor's original intent, anti-agency.
Anti-agency as the counter-productivity of human action is not limited to Kundera's characters. It is for Kundera a master trope through
which he understands the history of the Czech nation, and ultimately, all of human history. This is most apparent in his discussion of the 1948 revolution in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Kundera says of the
revolutionaries: Suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the feeling of sending something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original
idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. (9) Here Kundera clearly suggests agency. The revolutionaries created something - a monster, over which they had no control. Their agency, however, is perverted and
counter-productive. The socialist society and the totalitarian state that they built was worse for many of them than the capitalist oppression which they had presumably escaped. In this respect anti-agency functions not
as a perversion of a single will, but as the perversion of an intellectual-political movement, a unity (joining, merging) of thousands, even millions of wills. From this point of view, it is not difficult to extrapolate
that all political, social, artistic, and even bowel movements are subject to this dynamic. It is in this way that Kundera argues that history (as a whole) is a joke. 6
To define history as a joke
is the ultimate Nietzschean solution to the problem of history. It's joyful pessimism. A joke inspires laughter at an absurd association, and according to Kundera we must laugh at history because it contains, it
engenders, it argues for the existence of, the most absurd kinds of associations, namely cause & effect relationships. To not laugh at these associations would be a sign of psychosis. 7
Nietzsche describes the comic impulse as "the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity" (The Birth of Tragedy 60). This is what "the joke" is for Kundera, and this is how his novels function - as a discharge of his own nausea over the fate of his nation, as a discharge of the nausea that is created by anti-agency. This nauseous discharge is a formula for salvation over history in Nietzsche.
"She alone [art] knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror of the absurdity of existence [the joke of history] into notions with which one can live" (The Birth of Tragedy 60). For Nietzsche, and later writers who read Nietzsche, laughter becomes a tool of the will to power.
Both Mikhail Bakhtin and Georges Bataille discuss the power of laughter over the absurdity of existence, and the novels of Milan Kundera can be seen as a continuation of this theme. Bakhtin
elaborates on the power of Laughter in "Laughter and Freedom." He says that "laughter presents an element of victory not only over supernatural awe, over the sacred, over death; it also means the defeat
of power, of earthly kings, of the earthly upper classes, of all that oppresses and restricts" (305). 10
Bataille affirms the power of laughter in Guilty: "The Condition of Laughter is knowing how to resolve life's ordinary difficulties" (102). He also emphasizes the redeeming nature of laughter: "The laughter I'm thinking of necessarily expels misfortune" (102). Moreover, Bataille asserts that "laughing at the universe liberated my life. I escape its weight by laughing" (16).
Kundera's assertion that history is a joke is, in this light, a cry of victory over the pervasive force of anti-agency. It saves him from "the horror of the absurdity of existence." However, Kundera
problematizes this notion in his novels by also addressing the notion of guilt. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he discusses whether or not people should be held responsible for their anti-agency. Some Czech
Communists, for example, defended themselves by saying: "We didn't know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!" (176). In response to this Tomas poses the following
Whether they knew or didn't know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a
Tomas stops short of calling for vengeance, but he insists that the Communists are guilty for condemning the nation to decades of virtual enslavement. He calls for no action on the part of the wronged.
Rather, he implies a course of action for those who bear the guilt. His response is the Oedipus story:
Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel
innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by "not knowing," he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes. (177)
As always, anti-agency is at work in the
novel. In response to the publication of Tomas' letter, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968, effectively putting an end to the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring. 11
In the novel, at least, Tomas' ingenious formulation causes an extremely ill side effect - Russian tanks in the streets of Prague. No surprise here. History is a joke.
What's particularly interesting about this
scenario, however, is how Kundera deals with the question of guilt. He tactfully avoids calling for the kind of vengeance that often couches itself under the guise of the term (euphemism) "justice." Nietzsche
talks about revenge and those who seek it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
But thus I counsel you my friends: Mistrust all in whom the urge to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and
the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be
pharisees, if only they had--power. (212)
For Nietzsche these "Tarantulas" who speak of justice seek mainly to effect revenge, to hurt the people in power. They have turned their backs on life,
but Tomas is not one of them. He does not seek revenge. 12 Nevertheless, he insists on the guilt of the Communists, and wields the heavy hammer of Oedipus to make this point. 13
Why? Why is it necessary to insist on the guilt of those who acting in good conscience (trying to relieve the suffering of the working class, opposing capitalism) created a monster? Why can't he merely laugh at this phenomenon?
In effect, he does laugh at it. By superimposing the fictional event of Tomas' letter on the year 1968, right before the Russian invasion, Kundera invites this response. He ingeniously invokes the absurd
in order to lead the reader away from a reading that might seem to condone vengeance. He invites the reader to laugh at the futility of human action. In fact, a careful examination of the novels reveals that this is one
of Kundera's more common rhetorical devices. Take, for example, Kundera's description of the 1948 revolution in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. After the somber story about Gottwald, Clementis, the hat, and the
propaganda machine that wrote Clementis out of Czech history, Kundera interjects the following story which the reader hears from the point of view of an unknown auto mechanic: 14
The mechanic leaned down over
the engine and said, "Right in the middle of Prague, Wenceslaus Square, there's this guy throwing up. And this other guy comes along, takes a look at him, shakes his head, and says, 'I know just what you
This little blurb perfectly demonstrates the typical Kunderan response to the absurdity of history - laugh at it. His formulation in this instance is eerily Nietzschean. This unknown man is actively
discharging the nausea created by history, and it's hilarious. Laughter leads the reader, and Kundera, away from despair and toward the Nietzschean affirmation of life. But is this enough? Does it suffice to say that
laughter is the answer? Kundera remains, to the end, in the midst of this paradox. To the question "Does history create people?" he says, yes. To the question "Do people create history?" he says,
yes, but that anti-agency subsequently perverts everything that people create. Only those in power, those who can rewrite the past, have real power over history, but even they cannot control the present or the future
functions of history. Even they lie prostrate before the power of anti-agency.
About the power of laughter Kundera is equally paradoxical. Laughter is for him a form of salvation, but it is by no means the complete
answer to the problem of history. Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being laughs at the absurdity of his situation, but his laughter does not save him from his fate, nor does it markedly improve his situation. Ludvik
in The Joke lives an absurd life, executes an absurd plan, and ends up in an absurd situation, but his lot is not really improved by the laughter that his situation generates. In the end, laughter is perhaps only a
partial solution, but it is, finally, the only available option for Kundera, and the reader, to choose. Laughter is the only way for humanity to deal with "the horror of the absurdity of existence" (The Birth
of Tragedy 60). Readers of Kundera's novels may find only a partial salvation in laughter. We can laugh at his characters just as we can laugh at our own existence. In either case laughter can not stave off the
inevitable. Anti-agency is the sure result of action, just as decay and death are the sure results of life.
Alan Taylor, The University of Texas at Arlington, 1994
"Laughter and Freedom." Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Contemporary Critical Theory. Ed. Dan Latimer. New York: Harcourt, 1989.
Banerjee, Maria Nemcova. Terminal Paradox: The Novels of Milan Kundera. New York: Grove, 1990.
Bataille, Georges. Trans. Bruce Boone. Guilty. Venice, CA: Lapis, 1961.
Bitzer, Lloyd F. "The Rhetorical Situation." Philosophy and Rhetoric 1.1 (1968): 1-14.
Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Harper, 1988.
---. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Trans. Michael Henry Hiem. New York: Penguin, 1981.
---. The Joke. Definitive Version. New York: Harper, 1967.
---. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Lover's Story.
Trans. Henry Michael Hiem. New York: Harper, 1984.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner. New York: Vintage, 1967.
---. "Thus Spoke Zarathustra."
Trans. Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1954.