Years before the twin towers were felled along with many humans, there was a novel called “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, written by Milan Kundera.
I myself confess I had a long love affair with Milan Kundera’s writing in my 19-22 year old time, many years ago, around the time his book, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” was made into a movie. Even then, I appreciated that Kundera was not writing about real seeming people but using each character to embody a philosophy, concept or philosophical principle. Especially female characters were parts, not whole people, which didn’t make his books any less compelling. Everything ,including countries, is reduced to, or to say it more accurately, crafted into a symbol or metaphor or complicated idea or ideas.
Ironically, although I remember well “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, while I also read Kundera’s book, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”, I have since forgotten everything about it, except the title, which is a wonderful, evocative title and great words to ponder together and separately on 9/11/14, the 13th anniversary of 9/11/01.
Before digging up descriptions and quotes about the book and title, I give my associations to the concepts.
Forgetting has terrible connotations in history. The whole point of historians is that we operate from the assumption that we want to remember as much as possible of the past, what was perceived at the time, the actual artifacts of human existence that remain from whatever time period, and usually one of the main branches of history involves the study of humans atrocities towards other humans, the repetitive cycle of carnage that no time period escapes. I remember in high school taking history classes and being overwhelmed by how much detail about countries and people’s warring with each other on small and grand scale, how much blood was involved in almost every aspect of human endeavors and progress; this is the stuff of history class and explains to me now why I loved studying more abstract subjects, like math, languages, poetry and literature. As the Big Friendly Giant in Roald Dalh’s novel “The BFG” explains, humans are unique in their continuous conscious killing of other humans and their justifications for it. As humans are illogical and delusional anyway, we seek to build memorials and museums and write books and engage in all kinds of activities that aim to document our own genocide and mass killings of each other, whether so called soldiers or civilians; besides systems like the bees and ants and other creatures in nature have with worker bees (for the sake of making honey or preserving the group), humans are also I think unique in separating soldiers and armies of humans and how we view killing them versus how we view killing of civilians and criminals. All are ultimately human and all are acts of murder.
This is not a departure from the topic of 9/11. Lots of humans died. Humans did this to each other. Some of the killers were planners nowhere near the killing site. We have developed, of course, highly sophisticated ways of killing each other and of killing many people at once. All killing has a form of terror to it.
Anyway, there is a fascinating dialectic between laughter and forgetting. In or with tears we remember and feel the pain linked to that memory; in laughter we momentarily forget. The act of laughing is defiant of the moment that came before, even if it was a verbal joke. Before and after there is thought. During laughter there is bodily action and release; even the heart rate and breathing changes; is this our G rated version of the orgasm?
Here is a link to an interesting study on laughter and the brain/body
This provides interesting insight into laughter as a form of bonding and the strange fact that we cannot tickle ourselves…
Where and how did laughter originate? Do any other a animals laugh? This article suggests apes and monkeys come closest to smiling and laughing like behavior. Intuitively, I feel it is a built in mechanism for surviving trauma. For all the pills people attempt to concoct that would presumably eradicate trauma and PTSD forever-take a pill to lose all memory of the trauma-it’s debatable whether we want to forget atrocities or work through them and diminish their power, shine brighter despite them, and not think of them most of the time but never forget. Why do we humans biuld countless elaborate unsatisfying memorials next to huge replacement buildings and whole cities? To forget and remember at the same time?
9/11 is a great example of the crazy dialectic we humans hold of forgetting and “moving on” from terrible traumatic loss. The day after it happened I think politicians were already talking about rebuilding and getting on with so called “normal life”; meanwhile, New Yorkers could smell 9/11 for months and the dead were being dug out and searched for night and day for I don’t remember how long. Nothing made any sense. The twin towers had every size, shape, nationality and religion of people working and in them and the planes all dying; yet, people started hating and looking for groups of innocents to blame. Afghanistan was the place to go and kill more people. How many innocent families from babies on died those months? Did it bring back any of the dead?
Should those responsible be held accountable for their horrible crimes? Of course. This I would never dispute. A lot of my job involves identifying the abuser and helping the abused to properly see that they were victims of unspeakable acts that should not have happened to them. This work may involve forgiveness but usually it is self forgiveness and acceptance. Anger and horror are freeing emotions for those who have witnessed and experienced the unspeakable and live to tell the tale.
Which brings me back to Laughter and Forgetting. Here I will quote from a great blog post I found about this book:
“In Kundera’s world forgetting is an unescapable sin. Our existence is constantly marked and affected by forgetting. Memory is fragile and fleeting, yet memory and only memory determines the individuals we are. In the political sense, forgetting is the power of communism, memory – its worst enemy. In Russian occupied Bohemia the prime minister is the minister of forgetting. The collective memory is altered, transformed, changed, or erased to fit a new regime. Without memory, the people are fleeting in a void. Indeed: ”
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” (Kundera)
And laughter? I won’t quote the odd story in the post from the book about laughter originating with the devil. Its a sad view of laughter. I think laughter is what keeps most humans from totally losing hope. I told a patient today that it’s good we both can laugh at ourselves. The people who’ve experienced the worst of mental illness and emotional suffering, I find usually have a wonderful sense of humor. This same patient today both cried fully and laughed her ass off with me.
As the study mentioned above shows, laughter is mostly good medicine for humans. We must have hope despite and in the face of great pain and suffering. I personally view life ultimately from the existentialist point of view. It is by definition completely absurd. The only way to go on and keep living is to do so by fully embracing the absurd. I think the dialectic of hope is that life is pointless and horrible things keep happening for no reason whatsoever and at the same time we engage in meaning making while knowing this and knowing it is absurd. To operate from there is to accept fully without forgetting, to accept the absurdity of being human, to laugh through our tears, to create and destroy, to embrace the moment and let go… To play next to grave sites…