Beyond Laughter in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Today we explore what it means to “go beyond laughter” as Kundera writes in the last section of the book. Warning: we ask more questions than we answer.

The narrative called Border might be the most intriguing part of the book, which might be why Kundera left it for the end.

Chapter 11 of section 7 begins with provocative question:

Why does the image of the border continually occur to him?

As readers, we wonder the same thing. What is Kundera trying to communicate to us about boundaries? Are they lines written in the sand or do they really mean something?

He follows the question above with the next passage:

He tells himself it is because he is getting old: When things are repeated, they lose a fraction of their meaning. Or more exactly, they lose, drop by drop, the vital strength that gives them their illusory meaning. For Jan, therefore, the border is the maximum acceptable dose of repetitions. 

If you’re not sure what this passage means and how repetition contributes to the loss of meaning, just think of your dreams. You experience your dream in the most intense way and the moment you try to retell it, you are simultaneously interpreting it for the hearer and yourself. In that retelling, the truth of the experience is immediately lost.

But the book references two experiences of repetition that result in laughter. The first is when a comedian counts to 100 in the middle of his act and the second is when that same comedian plays a waltz rhythm with his left hand over and over and over again in the middle of his stand-up routine. In each instance, the comedian’s audience is falling off their seats.

In this case, the repetition signifies a complete and utter lack of meaning. If I were in that audience, I would be laughing with great enthusiasm. There is something radically funny about moments in life that make no sense. I wonder, then, why we such meaninglessness is so hilarious.

Kundera doesn’t answer the questions he provokes directly, but their are subtle and important truths that follow.

Yes, when you cross the border, laughter fatefully rings out. But what if you go still farther, go beyond laughter?

What does it mean to go beyond laughter?

I suspect Kundera is trying to pinpoint the degrees of truth and show how this mirrors their level of hilarity. We find the irony of a situation funny, but not always full-bodied funny. That’s why we use the phrase, “tongue in cheek.” To go beyond laughter means traversing layer after layer of meaninglessness. Is there such a place? How far must one travel past the border to reach it?

In my opinion, however, Jan is mistaken in thinking that the border is a line that crosses a man’s life at a specific point, that it marks a break in time, a particular second on the clock of a human life. No. I am certain, on the contrary, that the border is constantly with us, irrespective of time and our stage of life, that it is omnipresent, even though circumstances might make it more or less visible.

We move from the seemingly trite comedian to the ever-important reality of life in Prague.

Jan had friends who like him had left their old homeland and who devoted all their time to the struggle for its lost freedom. All of them had sometimes felt that the bond tying them to their country was just and illusion and that only enduring habit kept them prepared to die for something they did not care about. They all knew that feeling and at the same time were afraid of knowing it; they turned their heads away for fear of seeing the border and stumbling (lured by vertigo as by an abyss) across it to the other side, where the language of tortured people makes a noise as trivial as the twittering of birds.

The hilarity that precedes the seriousness of this paragraph contrasts the haunting reality in these passages. Kundera, living in France in the 70s and 80s, is surrounded by the height of deconstruction. But there is nothing theoretical about questioning the truth of language. He’s witnessed the linguistic bonds that tie a country together dissolve and their residue is replaced by another history. One that has been rewritten and contains very little truth. He’s teaching his readers what this loss means for individuals, for nations, and for the world.

Since Jan defines the border for himself as the maximum acceptable dose of repetitions, I am obliged to correct him: the border is not a product of repetition. Repetition is only one of the ways of making the border visible. The borderline is covered with dust, and repetition is like a hand whisking away dust.

I suspect the border, as Kundera is articulating it, is the separation between language and reality. This is basic linguistics and the heart of deconstruction is recognizing how utterly fragile and simultaneously powerful language is. For Kundera, and especially for Prague, this power and fragility even has the power to rewrite history without ever calling attention to the revision.

So how do we whisk away dust and find the border? Realizing the border is there might be the first step. According to Kundera, this is one of the truths that Prague has forgotten.

Go Beyond Laughter | Exploring The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera