Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Milan Kundera: The Primeval Attraction of Circle Dancing

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (published in English in 1980), the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote about the deep human desire of character in the novel--Madame Raphael--to combine with a group of other people who have unified set of thoughts and statements and actions (from p. 89): 
Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.
A few years ago, I was having a friendly argument (and yes, it is possible!) about some campus cause of the day. I was arguing that the factual and analytical claims behind the cause was misguided. My friend mulled over my comments, and then responded that I might be right about the argument, but he thought it was valuable for students to have the experience of participating in a broad-based social actions. So if the argument for the cause itself was at least plausible, he had a default position of acting and speaking in direct support of such movements--even if he had not much considered the underlying merits or was dubious about them. My friend saw positive value in circle dancing. 

I feel the emotional pull of circle dancing. I even participate from time to time. But not often. I'm more likely to find reasons and make distinctions about why I don't feel comfortable joining up or signing off. My inner curmudgeon wants to recoil---and recoil hard--from any intensely unified group. Instead, I want to read, write, think, discuss, and draw distinctions. Mind you, I'm not confident my friend is wrong, and I'm not making a case in defense of my leanings. Even when it comes to nonparticipation in groups, I don't necessarily want to be grouped with the nonparticipants.