We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.
— Milan Kundera, The Festival of Insignificance
Kundera experienced a world in which meaning and meaninglessness, value and valuelessness, significance and insignificance were indistinguishable — the world of lived communism. Having lived in communist Czechoslovakia and having himself been a member of the Communist Party there, Kundera had been allowed to slip away into exile because he had dared to write a book titled The Joke.
In The Joke, a young man loses his position in the Communist Party because of a joke, because the Communists didn’t have a sense of humor. As if to prove Kundera’s point, the Communists didn’t find The Joke to be funny, and Kundera lost his position in the Communist party, who went further and made it illegal for him to work. The did, at least, have the decency to look the other way as he slipped out of the country, but that’s literally the only good thing I’ve ever heard a communist government to have done. Thankfully, for the art of the novel.
So Kundera knows first-hand about the existence of possible worlds where it seems impossible to prevent the world’s headlong rush into danger. Those of us who understand complex systems theory also agree with him that we can neither overturn nor reshape the world — at least, in any way where the outcomes are certain and there won’t be any unintended consequences.
Given this reality about the world, what possible reactions could we have? Shall we despair and become nihilistic — and decide to just burn it all down? Shall we become resentful and misanthropic? Or shall we come to realize that we shouldn’t take a world we cannot possibly control seriously in the least?
Understanding that the world is something we cannot control is accepting the tragic view of life. We cannot knowingly control what happens, which hardly means we don’t have an effect. An accidentally dropped handkerchief can outrage an Othello.
This, of course, is not how we want to have an effect, but it’s the most likely path. I can spend a lifetime writing poems, plays, and articles and have little to no effect on anyone, let alone the world at large, or just the right person will see just the right thing at just the right time, and I’m a world-famous writer. It’s all out of my control. I can only continue to write and hope for the best. It’s all a game, and I simply cannot take it seriously. Yet, I must play the game seriously in order to have a chance at all.
Comedies and tragedies are full of people who are busy taking the world oh-so-seriously. When the society within the story punishes the heroic creator of new values, we have tragedy; when we laugh at the shortcomings of those taking the world too seriously, we have comedy. In the former, we have the creation of new values; in the latter, we have the dissolution of old values. Both need to take place for cultural/societal evolution to take place.
These are the literatures of seriousness (alongside the epics, of course). Once the new is made, the old is dissolved, we end up with romances such as the unserious works of Shakespeare’s later years, such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest and even earlier plays not typically called “romances,” such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But we’re not there yet. Heck, I’m not quite there yet. My plays are mostly tragedies. That seems to be the developmental stage we’re in as a culture, in the midst of a transition, when everyone is taking everything oh-so-seriously. The corruption of our institutions are being exposed. We’re in a period of decadence, especially among the elites, and that decadence is being exposed. The elites are all at war with each other — the philanthropists and the universities are fighting the megacorporations while relying on their money and trying to emulate their corporate structures, and the government is fighting against them all and trying to absorb them more completely into itself— and they are busy using the rest of us as pawns in their power struggles. And everyone is taking all of these power struggles among the elites oh-so-seriously, while no matter who wins, it will be the elites in charge, continuing to run things as usual, with the artists reflecting what they believe.
Yet, if we understand this, and if we understand that it’s all a game, and if we understand that we cannot control it — and we understand that they cannot control it, either — how seriously can we take it all? This doesn’t mean we don’t try to live virtuous lives. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to live more productive lives or more beautiful lives or more peaceful lives or more interesting lives. Quite the contrary! Now you can in fact live such lives as these, because you will no longer be anxious about the world and making sure you can make a “real difference” when you cannot possibly know what difference you will ever make. So you might as well change what you can change in yourself, enjoy your life, enjoy your children and your spouse or significant other or friends.
You know, things more important than politics.