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The Unbearable Lightness of Being (part 5 chapter 2)

2006-08-22 20:49

  2

  Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.

  Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You're the ones responsible for our country's misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

  And the accused responded: We didn't know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

  In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?

  Tomas followed the dispute closely (as did his ten million fellow Czechs) and was of the opinion that while there had definitely been Communists who were not completely unaware of the atrocities (they could not have been ignorant of the horrors that had been perpetrated and were still being perpetrated in postrevolutionary Russia), it was probable that the majority of the Communists had not in fact known of them.

  But, he said to himself, whether they knew or didn't know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn't know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?

  Let us concede that a Czech public prosecutor in the early fifties who called for the death of an innocent man was deceived by the Russian secret police and the government of his own country. But now that we all know the accusations to have been absurd and the executed to have been innocent, how can that selfsame public prosecutor defend his purity of heart by beating himself on the chest and proclaiming, My conscience is clear! I didn't know! I was a believer! Isn't his I didn't know! I was a believer! at the very root of his irreparable guilt?

  It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing, he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

  When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your not knowing, this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you've done? How is it you aren't horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

  The analogy so pleased him that he often used it in conversation with friends, and his formulation grew increasingly precise and elegant.

  Like all intellectuals at the time, he read a weekly newspaper published in three hundred thousand copies by the Union of Czech Writers. It was a paper that had achieved considerable autonomy within the regime and dealt with issues forbidden to others. Consequently, it was the writers' paper that raised the issue of who bore the burden of guilt for the judicial murders resulting from the political trials that marked the early years of Communist power.

  Even the writers' paper merely repeated the same question: Did they know or did they not? Because Tomas found this question second-rate, he sat down one day, wrote down his reflections on Oedipus, and sent them to the weekly. A month later he received an answer: an invitation to the editorial offices. The editor who greeted him was short but as straight as a ruler. He suggested that Tomas change the word order in one of the sentences. And soon the text made its appearance-on the next to the last page, in the Letters to the Editor section.

  Tomas was far from overjoyed. They had considered it necessary to ask him to the editorial offices to approve a change in word order, but then, without asking him, shortened his text by so much that it was reduced to its basic thesis (making it too schematic and aggressive)。 He didn't like it anymore.

  All this happened in the spring of 1968. Alexander Dubcek was in power, along with those Communists who felt guilty and were willing to do something about their guilt. But the other Communists, the ones who kept shouting how innocent they were, were afraid that the enraged nation would bring them to justice. They complained daily to the Russian ambassador, trying to drum up support. When Tomas's letter appeared, they shouted: See what things have come to! Now they're telling us publicly to put our eyes out!

  Two or three months later the Russians decided that free speech was inadmissible in their gubernia, and in a single night they occupied Tomas's country with their army.

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