Years ago, a popular student at a university with a fondness for leftist politics cracked a joke to a girl he was interested in. She was taking a course with a characteristically progressive bent, and she was so engrossed in her work that she’d seemingly forgotten he existed—so he offhandedly poked a bit of fun at her progressive politics, hoping to at least elicit a reaction.
When he returned to school, he was instantly summoned for meetings with university officials. She’d relayed his little wisecrack, and while he maintained his benign intentions, the officials dourly insisted that his words were offensive. Though he hoped that at least one of his fellow students would defend him after the incident became public, not a single person spoke up on his behalf.
You might find the contours of this story reminiscent of humorless dispatches from college campuses across the country, or the latest cancel culture mob churning out a tsunami of tweets aimed at transforming some anonymous person’s awkward moment into a career-ending debacle. For me, this story brought me back to my senior year at Columbia University, where in the span of eight months, a girl who wrote a satirical essay titled “Venmo Me For My Emotional Labor” about being fed up with clueless oversharers was cruelly attacked across social media for her lack of “basic human empathy” (without a shred of irony, I might add), and the university’s 116-year-old marching band, which had performed irreverent performance-slash-comedy shows to enliven campus spirits during finals season, voted to disband in the name of providing “relief to the present suffering of the Columbia community.”
That particular narrative, however, was not taken from Yale or Amherst, but from the pages of The Joke, a Czech novel published in 1967 by the writer Milan Kundera. The unlucky jokester, a man named Ludvik, is the novel’s protagonist, and the university officials are campus representatives of the Czech Communist Party.
The Joke follows Ludvik’s life after he is expelled from both the university and the party for his quip, sending him into a life of bitter resentment toward peers too cowardly to defend his character. The book presents an all-too-recognizable portrait of a society rife with ideological conformity, institutional overreach, personal cowardice, and humorlessness, in which people face outsize consequences for minor transgressions as their peers watch in silence, too afraid to challenge the party line and suffer the same fate. With his ill-fated joke, Ludvik wanders into the crosshairs of this enforced orthodoxy, and his swift fall from grace is a troubling illustration of its crushing influence on the humanity of everyone involved.
During his years of exile, Ludvik harbors special contempt for a state official named Zemanek, whom he’d considered a friend and who actively pushed for Ludvik’s expulsion from university. Years later, Ludvik strikes up an affair with Zemanek’s wife as a long-awaited act of retaliation. But their tryst fails to yield the sweet revenge Ludvik had hoped for. Instead, his years of fury culminate in a shockingly affable run-in with Zemanek, who has evidently forgotten their shared history.
Musing upon this encounter, Ludvik concludes that it is futile to harbor bitterness toward the past, because the injuries it inflicts will inevitably be forgotten. With this realization, Ludvik makes a grudging peace with his fate at the university, reconciling himself to never having the chance to right the wrongs he suffered. It’s an optimistic ending, reflecting a belief in reconciliation even in the absence of true justice. Yet tracing the arc of Kundera’s later stories, the prospect of such neat reconciliation drifts further away, even as the injuries inflicted by ideologically driven betrayals increase.
The Joke was published during a brief period in which Czech culture was allowed a relative degree of freedom, with liberal activists pushing for change and mediums like literature and film becoming outlets for coded dissent. This spirit continued through the following year, with Kundera becoming an important advocate for free speech during the Prague Spring, a short period of political liberalization and mass protest that led to the partial decentralization of government authority. While Kundera harbored reservations about the continued harshness of the intellectual climate, he enjoyed enough artistic freedom and witnessed enough reformist spirit to arrive at an optimistic view of the future, in which the problems created by ideological repression could be overcome and ultimately forgotten.
As the halting liberties that guided his earlier work suddenly disappeared, Kundera’s tone began to change. Displeased with the Prague Spring reforms, Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in August of 1968, ushering in an era of rigid Communist normalization. Kundera remained in the country, continuing his calls for reform, but the scrutiny and repressiveness finally became too much to bear. His subsequent two novels, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, were published in 1979 and 1984, after he’d fled in exile to France, where he would remain for the next 40 years.
Accordingly, these books take a far bleaker tone than The Joke, trading a hopeful sense of bygones for dire warnings about the totalitarian threat to free expression, artistry, and personal trust. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting directly addresses the 1968 Soviet invasion as Kundera traces a series of narratives from inside occupied Czechoslovakia. The stories, which often veer into magical realism, include a treasonous Communist leader who is scrubbed from Czech memory, two acquiescent schoolgirls who turn into angels after dancing in a circle, and an island occupied by a group of vicious children who operate in accordance with a harsh mob mentality. These narratives are largely disparate, unified by themes like the alarming malleability of collective memory and the power of laughter as a threat to social conformism. Unlike in The Joke, where forgetting is a panacea to remedy past mistakes, in this novel it plays a more nefarious role, serving as a tool of an intrusive state that aims to control and vanquish private memories.
Laughter, too, carries a deeper significance in Kundera’s later work, with humor escalating from an indictable yet recoverable offense to an existential threat to the workings of a totalitarian society. By Kundera’s telling, laughter is sometimes a tool of the figurative devil, allowing for a temporary reprieve from the seriousness of an otherwise austere life—but in Czechoslovakia it is more often a tool of so-called angels, who form tight circles to laugh and rejoice in themselves for adhering to their bleak moral codes, reinforcing society’s oppressive conformity. Kundera much prefers the laughter of the devils, but in the dark world of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the angels win out, drowning his words with their “fearsome laughter.”
This grim vision endures in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Kundera continues his examination of Czech inner life during the Communist regime. Again, the novel addresses the Prague Spring, following a group of intellectuals whose lives are disrupted by the Soviet invasion, including a doctor who shares a provocative political theory in a Communist newspaper and is driven into exile and out of medicine forever. Kundera again intersperses literal reality with elements of the surreal, including a smiling dog and a character who experiences terrifyingly realistic yet fantastical dreams. His abandonment of The Joke’s realistic settings in favor of boundary-blurring worlds with few rules for behavior speaks to his belief in the Communists’ bending all that existed of Czech life to the singular purpose of perpetuating their power. The novel’s magical realist style illuminates the collapse of once commonly held conceptions of public and private boundaries, which are replaced with strict, intrusive rules governing nearly every aspect of life. Under these conditions, the free-form worlds of his later books become a deceptive reprieve from the regimented society of The Joke, with their surreal lightness actually used to depict a world that is ever more regimented and divorced from humanistic ideals.
Kundera’s fears and progressive disillusionment were not unique to him. The darker space into which his writing descends is reminiscent of the alarm sounded by the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind, a political treatise that appeared nearly two decades earlier, in 1953, about the dangers of totalitarianism. Published only five years into the Soviet takeover of Poland, The Captive Mind overflows with urgency. Milosz presents a dark analysis of a totalitarian world run by servile intellectuals, whose dedication to ideological uniformity is so complete and so cowardly that it wholly eliminates the potential for provocative thought and artistic creation.
Where Kundera’s work is rooted in the themes of laughter and forgetting, Milosz’s book draws on the Orwellian notion of “doublethink,” the phenomenon in which party intellectuals condition themselves to accept two contradictory beliefs at once, creating an alternate reality steeped in willful deception. Doublethink is crucial to the fabric of society in Orwell’s 1984, allowing party officials to write off inconvenient facts and deny objective truths with the earnestness and firm conviction that usually accompanies honesty.
In The Captive Mind, Milosz emphasizes the characteristics of doublethink as a critical feature of the most dysfunctional totalitarian societies. He writes about the practice of Ketman, the act of paying lip service to Islam while harboring secret reservations about the faith, delineating forms of this attitude—like National Ketman, the practice of publicly displaying nationalistic sentiments while privately holding alternate allegiances, and Ethical Ketman, the practice of overcompensating for unethical, ideologically motivated behaviors with a stern adherence to personal morality—that are widespread throughout totalitarian states. These habits produce social conditions in which privacy is limited, inner lives are violated, and behavior is policed by people who often know better, creating citizens who are too restricted or obedient to create meaningful art or even live meaningful lives. These bleak depictions sent from a heavily indoctrinated Polish society are a dire warning about the pervasiveness and complexity of the totalitarian threat to human consciousness, which can metastasize into a formidable emptiness in every corner of thought and life itself.
The timeliness of The Joke and the resonance of Milosz’s work run far deeper than the sorry state of university culture alone: America may not be a totalitarian state, but it has plainly developed totalitarian habits of thought, which have become pervasive throughout media of both ideological camps. On the right, we have media outlets producing reports that omit politically inconvenient information, divert followers to irrelevant trivia, and devote absurd amounts of airtime to widely debunked conspiracies, sowing chaos and radicalizing thousands. These outlets flourish in no small part due to the separate odiousness of left-wing media. Emboldened by the comparative moral vacuousness of the right, these platforms make an effort to crystallize their own set of political beliefs into facts while couching their bias in moralizing, high-mindedness, and canned phrases about fighting for truth and accountability—i.e., the language of doublethink. In the same way that Fox News structures its coverage atop assumed notions about the crookedness of the Clintons or the failures of the Obama administration, so too does The New York Times select stories based on its own institutional opinions, which are embedded at the sentence level in even some of the most well-reported journalism, betraying an institutional standpoint on everything from the unfitness of Donald Trump for office to the use of the term “Latinx” and attempting to solidify as “facts” progressive social and political notions that a large fraction (and sometimes the vast majority) of the country vehemently disagrees with.
Beyond their efforts to enshrine their opinions as objective reality, both sides also share an unwillingness to let people think for themselves, seemingly afraid that presenting too many provocative counterarguments or glimpses into the other side will endanger their standing in the battle for narrative dominance. While one can easily imagine these powers wielded as a tool of narrative control (and need look no further for examples than the social media ecosystem inhabited by 1.4 billion Chinese citizens), danger doesn’t always come down from the diktat of an overbearing regime—it can flow upward from the zealousness of a self-righteous crowd.
Kundera does offer one source of optimism, though: Even in his earliest work, he understood the power of laughter to cut through stifling nonsense. Humor is a “tool of the devil” because it is a potent challenge to a conformist social order, throwing its absurdity into undeniable relief. Even the most rigid regime has no defense against laughter—it is perhaps the one form of criticism that is entirely reflexive, and it is hard to rebut a joke that is funny precisely because it’s true.
Ani Wilcenski is Deputy Literary Editor at Tablet magazine.