Retraction: Verbal Sorcery or Concrete Task?

26 Apr

this is me, every week, holding Unbearable Lightness

 “How can one state categorically that a thought he once had is no longer valid? In modern times an idea can be refuted, yes, but not retracted. And since to retract an idea is impossible–

merely verbal, formal sorcery, I see no reason why you shouldn’t do as they wish. In a society run by terror, no statements whatsoever can be taken seriously. They are all forced, and it is the duty of every honest man to ignore them…”

{Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being}

About a week ago, I convinced myself that I could finally afford to buy The Unbearable Lightness of Being. With a little extra, unexpected money in my pocket, I went to the book store and picked up the same copy I had been coming in once a week to thumb through. The copy that was beginning to show signs of wear due to my greedy fingers. I have never been so excited for a book. I’ve never thought so long about whether or not I should purchase a book. And, maybe that’s a sign that I really love this book, or maybe, it’s a symbol for how I am utterly daunted by some of the things I’ve read in this book.

Literally, some of the chapters make me wonder what I’m doing wrong. They make me think about being a better person, a person who hungers for philosophy and eloquent conversation. But most importantly, I am reminded of some fundamental truths that I had long ago decided for myself and perhaps haven’t been living up to.

The above quote is one that stuck out to me the first time I read the book. It is a quote from a surgeon in Czechoslovakia during the Communist takeover. It is a quote from a character that makes one appearance, a character without a name, yet it seems so important to me. The quote itself is said quietly during a conversation the chief surgeon is having with the main character, Tomas, about retracting an essay he had sent to an anti-Communist magazine.  And, the result of retraction: Tomas is able to keep his job.

In the first part of that quote, the surgeon says, “How can one state categorically that a thought he once had is no longer valid?” He later says, “In a society run by terror, no statements whatsoever can be taken seriously. They are all forced, and it is the duty of every honest man to ignore them” These, I believe are the two most important parts of the quote. The first part begs the question of retraction: Is it possible? And the second part says that while it might not be possible to physically snatch a thought from the air once it’s left your mouth, it is possible to pretend certain things have not happened.

When I read this quote, I am left wondering who is right? Tomas, who refuses to retract his statement for fear of looking weak. Or, the surgeon, who believes that Tomas’ place is at the operating table, who begs Tomas to think of the lives he would save if he could just ignore the shame and do what is best for the “greater good.”

I have a feeling that many people feel that the surgeon is right. But, I wonder. Tomas’ essay has the potential to inform, teach, and incite people. It has an audience much bigger than an operating table. How many lives could be changed or saved by Tomas’ words?

Of course, we don’t know what he wrote. We don’t know if the essay was worth it. But, negating the fear of weakness, aren’t the other reasons for refusing to retract equally as strong? And again, like the quote suggests, is retraction even possible?

Can people unhear things? Unread them? Isn’t the idea of retraction just a facade, a symbol of giving up? There are so many ways to interpret the quote. I hardly know where to begin. Does anyone else have any ideas on retraction? Is it possible? Is it worth it?


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