Authors: Milan Kundera
The man at the hotel reception desk is nice, nicer than people usually are at reception desks. Recalling that we were here two years ago, he warns us that many things have changed since then. They have developed a conference room for various kinds of meetings, and built a fine swimming pool. Curious to see the pool, we cross a very bright lobby, with great windows looking out onto the park. At the far end of the lobby, a broad staircase leads down to the pool, large, tiled, with a glass roof. Vera reminds me: “Last time, there was a little rose garden here.”
We settle into our room and then go out into the park. The green terraced lawns descend toward the river, the Seine. It is beautiful, we are enchanted, we decide to take a long walk. A few minutes along our way, there suddenly looms a highway with speeding cars; we turn back.
The dinner is excellent, everyone nicely dressed as if to honor the times gone by, whose memory hovers beneath the ceiling here. Beside us are seated a couple with their two children.
One of these is singing loudly. The waiter leans over their table with a tray. The mother stares insistently at him, trying to get him to say something flattering about the child, who, full of himself from being looked at, stands up on his chair and sings still louder. A smile of pleasure appears on the father’s face.
A magnificent bordeaux, duck, dessert (a house secret)—Vera and I chat, contented and carefree. Then, back in our room, I turn on the television for a moment. There, more children. This time, they are black and dying. Our stay in the chateau coincides with the period when, every day for weeks, they showed the children of an African nation whose name is already forgotten (all this happened a good two or three years ago, how could anyone remember all those names!), ravaged by a civil war and by famine. The children are thin, exhausted, without the strength to wave away the flies walking about on their faces.
Vera says to me: “Aren’t there any old people dying in that country as well?”
No, no, what was so interesting about that famine, what made it unique among the millions of famines that have occurred on this earth, was
that it cut down only children. We never saw an adult suffering on the screen, even though we watched the news every day, precisely to confirm that unprecedented phenomenon.
So it was completely natural that not adults but children should revolt against that cruelty of their elders and, with all the characteristic spontaneity of children, should launch the renowned campaign “The children of Europe send rice for the children of Somalia.” Somalia! Of course! That famous slogan has brought the vanished name back to me! Ah, what a pity the whole business is already forgotten! They bought bags of rice, an infinite number of bags. The parents were impressed by this sentiment of planetary solidarity in their little ones, and they gave money, and all the institutions pitched in; rice was collected in the schools, hauled to the ports, loaded onto ships headed for Africa, and everyone could follow the glorious rice epic.
Immediately after the dying children, the screen is invaded by little girls six and eight years old, they are dressed like adults and have the appealing manner of aging flirts, oh it’s so cute, so touching, so funny, when children act like
adults, the little girls and boys kiss on the mouth, then comes a man holding an infant in his arms, and as he’s explaining the best way to wash the diapers his baby just soiled, a beautiful woman approaches, opens her mouth, and sticks out a terrifically sexy tongue, which then penetrates the terrifically good-natured mouth of the baby-carrying fellow.
“Bedtime,” says Vera, and she turns off the television.
divine rightful punishment and avoided the sick as if they carried the plague, tolerant natures expressed brotherhood and took pains to demonstrate that there was no danger from their company. Thus it came about that Duberques of the National Assembly and the intellectual Berck had lunch in a famous Paris restaurant with a group of people with AIDS; the meal proceeded in fine spirits, and, not to miss an opportunity for setting a good example, Deputy Duberques had invited the cameras to come in at dessert time. The moment they appeared on the threshold, he rose, approached one of the sick men, raised him up from his chair, and kissed him on the mouth, which was still full of chocolate mousse. Berck was caught short. He understood immediately that once it was photographed and filmed, Duberques’s great kiss would become immortal; he stood up and thought hard whether he too should go kiss an AIDS person. In the first phase of his thinking, he rejected that temptation because deep inside he was not entirely sure that contact with the sick mouth was not infectious; in the next phase, he decided to surmount his caution, figuring that the shot of his kiss
The French children rushing to help their little African friends always remind me of the face of the intellectual Berck. Those were his glory days. As is often the case with glory, his was instigated by a defeat: let’s remember: in the eighties of our century, the world was struck by the epidemic of a disease called AIDS, which was transmitted during sexual contact and which, early on, rampaged mainly among homosexuals. To stand up against the fanatics who saw the epidemic as a
would be worth the risk; but in the third phase, an idea stopped him in his course toward the seropositive mouth: if he kissed a sick man too, that would not make him Duberques’s match; quite the opposite, he would be reduced to the level of a copycat, a follower, a minion even, who by this hasty imitation would add still greater luster to the other man’s glory. So he settled for staying put and smiling inanely. But those few seconds of hesitation cost him dearly, because the camera was there and, on the nightly news, the whole of France read on his face the three phases of his uncertainty, and snickered. Thus the children collecting bags of rice for Somalia came to his rescue at exactly the right moment. He took every opportunity to pelt the public with the fine dictum “Only the children are living in truth!,” then took off for Africa and got himself photographed alongside a little dying black girl whose face was covered with flies. The photo became famous the world over, much more famous than the one of Duberques kissing an AIDS patient, because a dying child counts more than a dying adult, an obvious fact that at the time still escaped Duberques. But the man did not
consider himself beaten, and a few days later he appeared on television; a practicing Christian, he knew Berck to be an atheist, which gave him the idea of bringing along a candle, a weapon before which even the most obdurate unbelievers bow their heads; during the interview he pulled it from his pocket and lit it; with the perfidious purpose of casting discredit on Berck’s concern for exotic lands, he talked about our own poor children, in our villages, in our outer suburbs, and invited his fellow citizens to come down into the street, each carrying a candle, for a grand march through Paris as a sign of solidarity with the suffering children; then (suppressing his mirth) he issued a specific invitation to Berck to come join him at the head of the procession. Berck had a choice: either participate in the march, carrying a candle as if he were Duberques’s choirboy, or else dodge it and risk the blame. It was a snare he had to escape by some bold and unexpected act: he decided to fly off straightaway to an Asian country where the people were in revolt, and there shout out loud and clear his support for the oppressed; alas, geography was never his strong suit; for him the world divided into France and
Not-France, with its obscure provinces he always mixed up; so he stepped off the plane in some other, tiresomely peaceful country, whose mountain airport was frozen and underserviced; he had to stay there eight days waiting for a plane to take him home, famished and flu-ridden, to Paris.
“Berck is the martyr-king of the dancers,” commented Pontevin.
The dancer concept is known only to a small circle of Pontevin’s friends. It is his great invention, and perhaps regrettably, he never developed it into a book or made it a subject for international symposia. But he doesn’t care about public renown, for which reason his friends listen to him with all the greater amused attention.
not power but glory; his desire is not to impose this or that social scheme on the world (he couldn’t care less about that) but to take over the stage so as to beam forth his self.
Taking over the stage requires keeping other people off it. Which supposes special battle tactics. The battle the dancer fights, Pontevin calls ““moral judo”; the dancer throws down the gauntlet to the whole world: who can appear more moral (more courageous, more decent, more sincere, more self-sacrificing, more truthful) than he? And he utilizes every hold that lets him put the other person in a morally inferior situation.
If a dancer does get the opportunity to enter the political game, he will showily refuse all secret deals (which have always been the playing field of real politics) while denouncing them as deceitful, dishonest, hypocritical, dirty; he will lay out his own proposals publicly, up on a platform, singing and dancing, and will call on the others by name to do the same; I stress: not quietly (which would give the other person the time to consider, to discuss counterproposals) but publicly, and if possible by surprise: “Are you prepared right now (as I am) to give up your
All politicians nowadays, Pontevin says, have a bit of the dancer in them, and all dancers are involved in politics, which however should not lead us to mistake the one for the other. The dancer differs from the politician in that he seeks
April salary for the sake of the children of Somalia?” Taken by surprise, people have only two choices: either refuse and discredit themselves as enemies of children, or else say “yes” with terrific uneasiness, which the camera is sure to display maliciously, the way it displayed poor Berck’s hesitations at the close of the lunch for the people with AIDS. “Why are you silent, Doctor H., while human rights are being trampled in your country?” Doctor H. was asked that question at a moment—in the midst of operating on a patient—when he could not respond; but when he had stitched up the open belly, he was overcome by such shame for his silence that he blurted forth everything one could want to hear from him and then some; after which the dancer who had harangued him (and here’s another grip in moral judo, a specially powerful one) snapped: “Finally. Even if it does come a little late. …”
Situations can arise (under dictatorships, for instance) where it is dangerous to take a public position; for the dancer a little less dangerous than for others, because, having stepped into the spotlight, visible from all angles, he is protected by the world’s attention; but he has his anonymous admirers who respond to his splendid yet thoughtless exhortation by signing petitions, attending forbidden meetings, demonstrating in the streets; those people will be treated ruthlessly, and the dancer will never yield to the sentimental temptation to blame himself for having brought trouble on them, knowing that a noble cause counts for more than this or that individual.
Vincent raises an objection to Pontevin: “Everyone knows you loathe Berck, and we’re with you on that. Still, even if he is a jackass, he’s supported causes we consider good ones ourselves, or, if you insist, his vanity has supported them. And I ask you: if you want to step into some public dispute, call attention to some horror, help someone being persecuted, how can you do it nowadays without being, or looking like, a dancer?”
To which the mysterious Pontevin replies: “You’re wrong if you think I meant to attack dancers. I defend them. Anyone who dislikes dancers and wants to denigrate them is always going to come up against an insuperable obstacle: their decency; because with his constant exposure to the public, the dancer condemns himself to
being irreproachable; he hasn’t made a pact with the Devil like Faust, he’s made one with the Angel: he seeks to make his life a work of art, and that’s the job the Angel helps him with; because don’t forget, dancing is an art! That obsession with seeing his own life as containing the stuff of art is where you find the true essence of the dancer; he doesn’t preach morality, he dances it! He hopes to move and dazzle the world with the beauty of his life! He is in love with his life the way a sculptor might be in love with the statue he is carving.”
who aspire to change the world. Change the world! In Pontevin’s view, what a monstrous goal! Not because the world is so admirable as it is but because any change leads inevitably to something worse. And because, from a more selfish standpoint, any idea made public will sooner or later turn on its author and confiscate the pleasure he got from thinking it. For Pontevin is one of the great disciples of Epicurus: he invents and develops his ideas simply because it gives him pleasure. He does not despise mankind, which is for him an inexhaustible source of merrily malicious reflections, but he feels not the faintest desire to come into too close contact with it. He is surrounded by a gang of cronies who get together at the Cafe Gascon, and this little sample of mankind is enough for him.
Of those cronies, Vincent is the most innocent and the most touching. I like him, and my only reproach (tinged with envy, it is true) is for the childlike, and to my mind excessive, adoration he devotes to Pontevin. But even that friendship has something touching about it. Because they discuss a lot of subjects that captivate him—philosophy, politics, books—Vincent is happy to be
I wonder why Pontevin does not make his very interesting ideas public. After all, he hasn’t got such a lot to do, this Ph.D. historian sitting bored in his office at the Bibliotheque Nationale. He doesn’t care about making his theories known? That’s an understatement: he detests the idea. A person who makes his ideas public does risk persuading others of his viewpoint, influencing them, and thus winding up in the role of those
alone with Pontevin; Vincent brims over with odd, provocative ideas, and Pontevin, who is captivated too, straightens out his disciple, inspires him, encourages him. But all it takes is a third person turning up for Vincent to become unhappy, because Pontevin changes instantly: he talks louder and becomes entertaining, too entertaining for Vincent’s taste.