“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
I was reminded of this passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass? last autumn, when Czech and international media were inundated with reactions to the article in the Czech weekly Respekt that mentioned a document from the early 1950s according to which writer Milan Kundera had informed on a man who subsequently spent many years in prison. The reactions were mostly negative and critical and had one thing in common. They wondered how journalists dared to slander a man with a monumental oeuvre and respectable life behind him.
With fire and brimstone against journalists
A few days ago I was reminded of the same passage in Carroll’s book in connection with a similar scandal. This one occurred in France where journalist and writer Pierre Péan published a book entitled Le monde selon K. Having researched Bernard Kouchner‘s shady African financial deals, he presents a rather different perspective on France’s most popular politician, current Minister of Foreign Affairs and Médecins Sans Frontières’s founder.
It is necessary to point out that Péan is no tabloid writer. His work is based on meticulous research. That is why, under President François Mitterrand, he was able to publish, without fear of becoming a laughing stock, of being questioned or taken to court, a bestselling book on the President’s suspicious Vichy past ( Une jeunesse française. François Mitterand. 1934 – 1947). Whether, as his critics claim, he got the facts wrong in Kouchner’s case, is to be decided in the court of law – the Minister’s lawyers are suing him. But this is not the point I want to make here.
Just like the article on Kundera in the Czech Republic, the book has unleashed a media frenzy in France, led by prominent intellectuals. The following quote from writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy sums up their response: This is disgusting and sickening. How dare these pathetic people touch someone who has lived a life of commitment and accomplished great things, risking his own life for causes he believed in? Enough of these show trials, enough of this muck-raking by dwarves like Pierre Péan who thrive on and profit from someone who has achieved something real in his life.
This sort of response by a respected intellectual and wholehearted democrat almost makes one suspect that the two men are having an affair and that Pierre Péan has simply fallen into a trap. Yet Lévy’s reaction is not a one-off response. In his article In defence of Milan Kundera’s honour last autumn in the weekly Le Point he refers to a malicious blow inflicted on a giant by simpletons and non-entities who had a non-authenticated piece of period paper waved in front of their face and immediately accepted it as holy writ.
For the second time within a few months a leading European intellectual has formulated an elitist idea defining who does and who doesn’t have the right to apply the written word – the basic tool of journalism – to towering geniuses. He implies that the right pertains only to those who have properly understood these towering figures and their work. But to understand someone properly does not necessarily mean you have to be servile.
Some time ago poet Joseph Brodsky gave a brilliant description of how people tend to idealise exceptional personalities and how an admirable oeuvre or personal stance by an exceptional person prevents people from seeing his/her human or civic shortcomings: If someone fights against evil he is automatically considered to be the representative of good. Even though he might be a skirt-chaser, a cheat, a bastard. All is forgiven. So whatever might lurk at the bottom of great personalities, their greatness makes them untouchable forever. This applies as much in their early days, as they begin their ascent towards the heights of untouchability, as in later times when they are enjoying a well-deserved rest on their laurels.
No, I really cannot imagine the author of Laughable Loves, not even in his previous life, in his prehistory, taking on the role of a squealer, writes Bernard-Henri Lévy in the article on Kundera mentioned above. But why not? Why should the ability to write good books guarantee an unblemished life? And does the fact that as a young man someone had the logistical skills necessary to organize medical aid in developing countries, endow that person with a life-long immunity to the temptation to enrich himself illegally?
Yes, it would be wonderful, it would be ideal if it always worked like that. Unfortunately, history offers plenty of examples of the opposite. Not even the breathtaking profundity of his intellect prevented philosopher Martin Heidegger from collaborating closely with the Nazis. The brilliant writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a pathological anti-Semite. The writer Maxim Gorky bore witness to the horrifying depth of poverty in Czarist Russia, yet when talking to Western journalists he knowingly denied the existence of the Soviet Gulag. Not to mention a large number of popular politicians, moralists and prigs who later turned out to be involved in sleaze and corruption.
Who is untouchable?
Even the most experienced and serious journalist can make a mistake. It can happen for a number of reasons (haste, reliance on unverified information, manipulation by others). As a result, the feelings of the target of the criticism may be hurt. However, the victim cannot actually be wronged. After all, being wronged suggests injustice, unfairness, iniquity. And this, in turn, implies that the victim is not able to put the slander right and seek justice. Yet this opportunity is available in a free society and the victim can defend his honour against unreliable and distorted information as well as against outright lies. Kouchner has chosen justice, while Kundera chose silence.
In short, this is a risk every famous public figure has to run. In his contribution to the Kundera debate (hier) Václav Havel wrote: To be a good writer and to become famous due to one’s writing is a risky business. However, sometimes you have to take risks. It is in the public interest. Exactly the same applies to the primary task of journalism – making information available to the public. However, if someone denounces those who take the risk – which in a democratic society guarantees the basic freedom of press and opinion – as dwarves and simpletons, he behaves just like Humpty Dumpty. He wants to impose a usage of words that denotes only what he wants to hear or see. It is hardly necessary to point out where this might lead. One of the greatest sins of intellectuals has been heaping false praise on totalitarian leaders and thereby helping to make them untouchable.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 23 February 2009.
We are grateful to Jaroslav Formánek for the permission to publish this text in English.