I've been thinking about the evil empire, and asking myself what's wrong with the phrase that President Reagan used to describe the Soviet Union. It's pithy, simple, memorable and, at least in the generally accepted meaning of the word "evil," reasonably accurate. We are, after all, talking about a country where dissent is not tolerated, where "unpalatable" ideas cannot be openly exchanged, whose citizens cannot freely leave, where the gulag remains a constant threat, and whose neighbors live in justified fear and subjugation. Remember Afghanistan? Remember Poland?
For that matter, remember Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring of 1968 that attempted to give socialism "a human face" -- and the Soviet tanks that followed in August. "If someone had told me as a boy," the Czech novelist Milan Kundera says in a conversation with Philip Roth in an afterword to his novel "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," "one day you will see your nation vanish from the world, I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn't possibly imagine. A man knows he is mortal, but he takes it for granted that his nation possesses a kind of eternal life. But after the Russian invasion of 1968, every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe . . . . Nobody knows whether they will succeed. But the possibility is here. And the sudden realization that such a possibility exists is enough to change one's whole sense of life."
Central Europe, lest we forget, is the birthplace of psychoanalysis, structuralism, dodecaphony, Bartok's music, Kafka's and Musil's new esthetics of the novel -- the central "impulses," as Kundera calls them, of modern cure -- and "the postwar annexation of Central Europe (or at least its major part) by Russian civilization caused Western culture to lose its vital center of gravity. It is the most significant event in the history of the West in our century, and we cannot dismiss the possibility that the end of Central Europe marked the beginning of the end for Europe as a whole."
The Index on Censorship says that Kundera is one of some 500 contemporary Czech writers whose works can no longer be published in their native land. After the Soviet invasion in 1968, his books were removed from the public libraries there. Since 1975 he has written in exile in France, and the Czech government revoked his citizenship in 1979. He has seen the other side of paradise, and the rulers of paradise don't like the vision.
In "Laughter and Forgetting," Kundera writes, "the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." It sometimes seems a losing struggle. "The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia," he writes in that same novel, "the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten."
In a letter to The New York Times on Nov. 4, Sidney Hook wrote, "There are degrees of moral evil in the world, and neither we nor our allies are free of it. But let us remember: because no one is free of moral fault, it does not follow that all are equally at fault." It is good to remember that. But the problem with using the catchy little handle "evil empire" -- so reminiscent of the film "Star Wars" and its stirring, upbeat music -- to describe the Soviet Union, as our president has done, is less with what it says, which seems to me true enough and amply demonstrated, but with what it is clearly meant to do: conjure up mythological images of a primitive battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil -- a kind of latter-day Manichaeism that when the Manichees were in their heyday before the 6th century the early Christian Church threw on the bonfire along with the adherents to the heresy. Nothing productive, nothing helpful comes of it. It's an answer that not only precludes questions but obviates the need for them. And that is the real problem.
Kundera said: "The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything." Milan Kundera asks the right questions, and the hard ones.