Sometimes a passage in a book that is otherwise not very (subjectively) memorable sticks with a person for life and this passage from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera — left behind after a visit from “The One,” which gave the book added significance — was truly the stone tossed into the pool that left eternal ripples. I read it in 1986. I know this because among the volumes of “The Examined Life” is one that records this moment.

We’re not all designed the same way, but we all (it seems to me) want to belong somewhere to something. We’re born into a family and belong there. It’s the prototype for our whole lives, maybe. It feels good to belong, to be accepted, understood, wanted.

There’s something even a little scary about NOT belonging — maybe our primordial memory KNOWS the truth about people which is that they are capable of killing the stranger, the odd man out. “Us vs. Them” seems to be built into us.

In 1986, when I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I had only been back in the US from China for two years and the memories of the stories I’d heard of life during the Cultural Revolution were still — well, ARE still — pretty vivid in my mind. One of the milder stories is about one of my students who was subjected to extra political study just because she was a little bigger and whiter (yes) than the people around her. And why? She’d shown promise as a swimmer when she was very young and the government and put her in a special program for kids they thought might turn out to be Olympic material. She’d had a better diet, more exercise, and a different life than the other students. Of course, when her early promise wasn’t realized, she was back in the “normal” world to learn how to teach English. It wasn’t only these stories. In China I’d lived an experience very, very, very few (none?) of the people around me had lived, and I’d felt strangely at home in that very foreign country.

On top of THAT most of my life people had said, “Kennedy you’re WEIRD.” Even at the international school where I was teaching ESL most of my colleagues had linguistics degrees and many made a point of letting me know that my English masters degree was not the best training for teaching ESL, after all, they’d studied LANGUAGE I’d only studied words actually being used to express ideas.


This “us vs. them” thing? I don’t think we humans can overcome it.

Kundera called it “circle dancing,” and wrote,

“Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia fro the depths of human memory. …All her life she had looked for a group she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church, then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement, then in the pro-abortion movement; she looked for them among Marxists, the psychoanalysts…she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis…I, too, once danced in a ring. It was in the spring of 1948. Communists had just taken power in my country, the socialist and Christian Democrat ministers had fled abroad, and I took the other Communist students by the hand…then one day I was expelled from the Party and had to leave the circle. That is when I became aware of the magic qualities of the circle. Leave a row and you can always go back to it. The row is an open formation. But once a circle closes there is no return…” (Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kundera is right. Circles form around labels that may or may not even mean the same thing to all the dancers, and soon belonging to the circle means more than what the label actually represents. Words are slippery things. And maybe it’s human nature (for some? all?) to cling more tightly to the circle than to continually examine what the circle comes to represent. It seems like many of the world’s biggest cataclysms — like the Protestant Reformation — have resulted from someone examining the circle’s doctrines. Of course, that results in the formation of new circles, new cataclysms, on and on. It’s not pretty.

I’ve only belonged to a couple of circles. After my experience with the last circle (which was great) I had a better understanding of myself and a deep appreciation of my dad’s advice, “Don’t join anything, MAK.” I might still be “weird” but I don’t hear that any more. I hear, “You’re probably the coolest friend I’ve ever had.” Yep. What does that mean? Ultimately, I think, the most dependable, most honest, circle to which I can belong is that of being happy with myself.

Circle Dance

I met Milan Kundera when one of the Great Loves of My Life (GLOML) left behind a book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I thought it was amazing and, after that, tromped down the hill to downtown San Diego (then a rather dilapidated shabby place) to local used bookstores to get the rest of Kundera’s books. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I read about the Czech Spring, all the hopes and the crumbling of those hopes. Kundera’s books are semi-autobiographical and quite intimate in a way. Love and friendship combine with politics. This little bit from Wikipedia explains Kundera and the world revealed in his novels.

In 1950, his studies were briefly interrupted by political interferences. He and writer Jan Trefulka were expelled from the party for “anti-party activities.” Trefulka described the incident in his novella Pršelo jim štěstí (Happiness Rained On Them, 1962). Kundera also used the incident as an inspiration for the main theme of his novel Žert (The Joke, 1967). After Kundera graduated in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 Milan Kundera was readmitted into the Party. He was expelled for the second time in 1970. Kundera, along with other reform communist writers such as Pavel Kohout, was partly involved in the 1968 Prague Spring. This brief period of reformist activities was crushed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Kundera remained committed to reforming Czech communism, and argued vehemently in print with fellow Czech writer Václav Havel, saying, essentially, that everyone should remain calm and that “nobody is being locked up for his opinions yet,” and “the significance of the Prague Autumn may ultimately be greater than that of the Prague Spring.” Finally, however, Kundera relinquished his reformist dreams and moved to France in 1975. He taught for a few years in the University of Rennes.[] He was stripped of Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979; he has been a French citizen since 1981.

Having (at that time) only very recently spent a year living under a fairly repressive regime in the Peoples Republic of China, I was still sorting out my own feelings about totalitarian Communism. That is not something every American has to do on the level of someone who has lived under it. I had been hired by it, paid by it, sheltered by it and, at the same time, had experienced through the recounting of friends’ experiences, the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. Most of those who had suffered were “different.” They spoke English as a result of working with the American Army in WW II (known in China as the “anti-Japanese War”). They might have been descended from landlords or intellectuals. They might just be taller and “whiter” than others, with athletic talent. They might have spoken up at some point against totalitarianism — as did the writer Lao She in his science fiction novel, Cat Country in which Communism is called “everybody shareskism.” It warned against following the lead of Stalin’s Russia… The list of “crimes” committed by people who suffered during the Cultural Revolution is pretty long…

The party spied on people (including me). My students spent several evenings a week in “Political Study” which was simply a way to make sure no one was ever alone. My students, who were being educated to become English teachers, had EXTRA political study every week to compensate for the evils they were subconsciously imbibing by studying this odious language. It was a crime to be different.

This passage in the book the GLOML left behind struck me as being true. Kundera is speaking of his own experience in the Prague Spring.

“That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back.” Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

That passage stuck with me all these years. There might be safety in a circle (“circle the wagons”) and it might be a “sacred symbol” but it doesn’t go anywhere. Its possibilities are closed. It is finished.