New Approaches to Dissident Writing: Beyond Resistance and Revisionism

697. Sunday, 6 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 307, Hynes

Program arranged by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages

 I. "January in the Village: Egon Bondy between Protest and Soliloquy," Jonathan Bolton, Harvard Univ.

II. "Variations on a European Theme; or, The Function of World Literature in Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting," Joshua P. Beall, Alabama State Univ.

III."Czesław Miłosz as Cultural Critic," Magdalena Kay, Univ. of Victoria

Jessie Labov, The Ohio State University

Detailed Description:

During the Cold War, it was common to read Central European writing through the lens of dissent, opposition, and resistance; moral pathos was a major key for both Western scholars and those from the region. Classics works of both dissident and exile writing – from Czesław Miłosz‘s The Captive Mind to Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – often acquired their special charge through the perceived moral superiority of their authors. In the 1990s, this model was quickly replaced by a "revisionist" one that rejected binaries of opposition and collaboration. It tended to highlight semi-official writers, or to emphasize moments of complicity, ambivalence, or ambiguity even in the writing of "dissidents" themselves; after all, it is impossible to oppose a system without in some way participating in it. This revisionist model too has now become ossified and rigid. The Cold War Orwellian model is inadequate, but so is the simple gesture of "rejection of binaries." This panel endeavors to read dissident and exile writing in a way that explores its moral charge without caving in to moral pathos but still seeks to explore its moral charge.

Jonathan Bolton's paper, "January in the Village: Egon Bondy between Protest and Soliloquy," looks at the complicated figure of Egon Bondy – counter-culture guru, inspiration to the Czech music underground, and key figure in the Czechoslovak dissident movement in the early and mid-1970s. Bondy took a public oppositional stance toward the Communist government, but his extensive writings from the 1970s have never been translated into English and have never been incorporated into Western histories of Central European dissent. Bolton's paper asks why not, and suggests that older heroic views of dissent are unable to assimilate certain genres of "protest writing," including Bondy's rambling hundred-page soliloquies and his roman-a-clef dystopias. Bondy's January in the Village is a case in point, an early meditation on the formation of Charter 77 that closes with a bizarre vision of a Mayan apocalypse come to Prague. Bolton seeks to open up a wider range of "dissident writing" for the Western literary historian, pointing toward a literature of protest that sidesteps traditional categories of Western analysis, but still needs to be read in terms of its opposition to the Communist regime.

In “Variations on a European Theme, or the Function of World Literature in Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” Joshua Beall considers one of Central Europe’s best-known “dissident” writers. Kundera’s 1975 novel Kniha smíchu a zapomnění (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) launched him to worldwide fame, caused the in absentia revocation of his citizenship by the Czechoslovak regime, and is often regarded as exemplary of dissident writing. Kundera’s novel makes intertextual references to several other works of World Literature that have traveled, to use David Damrosch’s definition, “beyond [their] own place[s] and time[s].”  Beall argues that these references blur the distinction between Europe’s West and East; he uses recent debates about the nature and function of World Literature to sidestep the obsolete question of whether or not Kundera is authentically dissident and to focus instead on the no less problematic issue of Kundera’s cognitive mapping.  Although Kundera aspires to canonization within the “Western” world canon, his West is based on an ideologically compromised imaginary geography that his novel purports to reject.

Magdalena Kay, in “Czesław Miłosz as Cultural Critic,“ turns to another powerful exile writer who has nevertheless been criticized for his political choices by some Polish poets and critics. She asks what happens when we view Miłosz as a critic not just of Communism, or Romantic martyrdom, or of the aggressively capitalist west, but as a cultural diagnostician and philosopher in the style of Yeats and Eliot. These writers used their cultural status in order to address the perceived deterioration of twentieth-century society. Using such figures as touchstones, Kay envisions a different Miłosz, a global figure who is more than a Polish émigré escaping Stalin and speaking out against the evils of Communist regimes. Kay reads Miłosz against the grain, focusing on a religious strain in his writing: what sorts of absolutes confront us when we have worked through historicity? Is the project of transcending binaries and passing through temporal experience necessarily a religious project? If not, how should we conceive of it? Kay‘s paper seeks to answer these questions by taking Miłosz as a great critical voice confounding the binaries that often structure criticism of Central and Eastern European writing.

JONATHAN BOLTON (Panelist) is Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. His publications include Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism (Harvard University Press, 2012; winner of the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize), as well as In the Puppet Gardens: Selected Poems, 1963-2005 (Michigan Slavic Publications, 2007), his selection and translation of over a hundred poems by the Czech poet Ivan Wernisch. He has also edited Nový historismus / New Historicism (Host, 2007), an anthology of articles on New Historicism for Czech readers. He has published a number of articles on twentieth-century Czech literature, including "Writing in a Polluted Semiosphere: Everyday Life in Lotman, Foucault, and de Certeau" (in Lotman and Cultural Studies: Encounters and Extensionsed. Andreas Schonle, 2006); the article on "Czech Literature" in a roundtable on East Central European literatures since the fall of Communism, East European Politics and Societies 23:4 (November 2009): 561-563; and the entry on "Czech literature" for The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. His paper on Egon Bondy draws on his book on Czech dissent, but covers new ground and is part of a larger project on the evolution of the Czech counter-culture from oral to written genres over the course of the 1970s and 1980s.

JOSHUA BEALL (Panelist) is an assistant professor of English at Alabama State University.  He is the author of “Prosaic Irony: Structure, Mode, and Subversion in The Good Soldier Švejk” in The Comparatist 36 (2012).  Most recently, Dr. Beall presented a paper titled “With His Right Hand Raised in a Stiff Salute: National Trauma in Walter Abish’s How German Is It” for the seminar “Modernism, Catastrophe, and Collective Memory,” which he also co-chaired, at the 2012 ACLA Conference in Providence, RI.  A book on narrative form and nationalism in Central European modernism is in progress, as is an article on sexuality and politics in the films of Czech New Wave director Jiří Menzel.

MAGDALENA KAY (Panelist) is an associate professor of English at the University of Victoria. She is the author of In Gratitude for All the Gifts: Seamus Heaney and Eastern Europe (University of Toronto Press, 2012) and Knowing One's Place in Contemporary Irish and Polish Poetry: Zagajewski, Mahon, Heaney, Hartwig (Continuum, 2012). Her articles on twentieth-century poetry have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, New Hibernia Review, Polish Review, World Literature Today, and Comparative Literature Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and her B.A. from Harvard University. Her primary field of specialization is twentieth-century poetry and poetics.

JESSIE LABOV (Presider) is Assistant Professor in Slavic & East European Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University. She has written on the film industry in Eastern Europe, samizdat, dissent, and underground culture during the Cold War, and new models of disseminating culture online. Her current publishing projects include a co-edited volume of essays with Friederike Kind-Kovacs, From Samizdat to Tamizdat: Transnational Media During and After Socialism (forthcoming Berghahn 2012), and a monograph entitled Transatlantic Central Europe.

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