Transparency or nudity

They say it’s not important to know, but to know someone who knows.  I know another variant that recommends having the telephone number of an expert on hand.  This variant isn’t very appropriate here, because, despite the thousands of new mobile phone lines with new contracts recently, only one out of ten Cubans owns a telephone.  I have no way to prove it -and much less to call the expert, because I am one of the nine unfortunate ones-, but it must be one of the lowest densities on the continent.  And, speaking of mobile phones, the fees are quite high and… But, what am I doing talking about phones, if I was thinking about something else?

I happened to go to make a phone call at the home of a neighbor who always has the television on and saw fragments of The Round Table program.  It caught my attention the fact that they were commenting on the content of e-mail messages sent and received by a group of citizens who are, I suppose, very important to the government, given the special attention that is devoted to them.
They say that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. In Czechoslovakia, after the Prague Spring and Russian occupation, secretly recorded conversations among opposition intellectuals were broadcast on the radio.  The same thing happened in the GDR [German Democratic Republic], and it’s assumed that it happened in the rest of the countries that made up the socialist bloc.   It was laughable to me to see these journalists reading such brash phrases as: “the trip from Santa Clara to Havana cost so many CUC’s” or “I need so many CUC’s to complete the swap.”

My neighbor thought it outrageous that one of them said that the bit about the ticket prices was a lie.   And she even started to tell me the story of how much her last trip to the capital cost.  And while she told me, I started to mentally review how low the theme about the revelations or uncoverings has degenerated.
In the beginning, it was about heroic socialist versions of James Bond, revealing important enemy plans, thwarting attempted attacks and flaunting gold watches given to him by his bosses on the other side as a sign of confidence.  With time and repetition they ceased to amaze us, as television serials inspired by his exploits lost luster, or as screenwriters’ talents faded, or as the audience’s boredom increased, or all at once.  In 1989 there was surprise.*  Huge “revelation”.  For a change, this time the agents weren’t infiltrated into the ranks of the enemy, rather into their own.   And their concern was not to obtain information, but ivory, drugs and other little things.  This story—televised in chapters like a soap opera—needless to say, did not have a happy ending.

Then, sometime in the nineties, in keeping with the “Mine first” slogan printed on store bags, the Tabos and Suchels, backed by men in black shirts, submerge themselves into the world of national organized crime.  And it ends in the “revealing” of the Black Spring of 2003.  Quantitatively, the decrease is obvious.  From facing off the greatest empire in the history of mankind to keeping under control a minuscule group of people who do not practice or preach violence.  And if we remember that in some cases the agents turned out to be the leaders of their respective organizations, let’s not even go there.

And bordering on farce—how could it be otherwise—I vaguely remember a certain exchange, old refrigerator for new, a “double agent” with a woman’s alias and an invitation to eat goat and to get back, which ended in –coincidentally- the revelation of recordings.

In keeping with the original idea, I’ve sought out an expert, someone who knows.  In this excerpt appears what I need to complete the post, and it’s much better written.  I transcribe here a section of the ninth part of “Testaments Betrayed” by Milan Kundera:

I am looking at a window across the way.  Toward evening the light goes on.  A man enters the room.  Head lowered, he paces back and forth: from time to time he runs his hand through his hair.  Then, suddenly, he realized that the lights are on and he can be seen.  Abruptly, he pulls the curtain.  Yet he wasn’t counterfeiting money in there; he had nothing to hide but himself, the way he walked around the room, the sloppy way he was dressed, the way he strokes his hair.  His well-being depended on the freedom of being seen.

Shame is one of the key notions of the Modern Era, the individualistic period that is imperceptibly receding from us these days; shame: an epidermal instinct to defend one’s personal life; to require a curtain over the window; to insist that a letter addressed to A not be read by B.  One of the elementary situations in the passage to adulthood, one of the prime conflicts with parents, is the claim to a drawer for letters and notebooks, the claim to a drawer with a key; we enter adulthood through the rebellion of shame.

An old revolutionary utopia, whether fascists of communist: a life without secrets, where public life and private life are one and the same.  The surrealist dream André Breton loved: the glass house, a house without curtains where man lives in full view of the world.  Ah, the beauty of transparency!  The only successful realization of this dream: a society totally monitored by the police.

I wrote about this in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Jan Prochazka, an important figure of the Prague Spring, came under heavy surveillance after the Russian invasion of 1968.  At the time, he saw a good deal of another opposition figure, Professor Vaclav Gerny, with whom he liked to drink and talk.  All their conversations were secretly recorded, and I suspect the two friends knew it and didn’t give a damn.  But one day in 1970 or 1971, wit the intent to discredit Prochazka, the police began to broadcast these conversations as a radio serial.  For the police it was an audacious, unprecedented act.  And, surprisingly, it nearly succeeded; instantly Prochazka was discredited; because in private, a person says all sorts of things, slurs friends, uses coarse language, acts silly, tells dirty jokes, repeats himself, makes a companion laugh by shocking him with outrageous talk, floats heretical ideas he’d never admit in public, and so forth.  Of course, we all act like Prochazka, in private we bad-mouth our friends and use coarse language; that we act different in private than in public is everyone’s most conspicuous experience, it is the very ground of the life of the individual; curiously, this obvious fact remains unconscious, unacknowledged, forever obscured by lyrical dreams of the transparent glass house, it is rarely understood to be the value on must defend beyond all others.  This only gradually did people realize (though their rage was al the greater) that the real scandal was not Prochazka’s daring talk abut he rape of his life; they realized (as if by electric shock) that private and public are two essentially different worlds and that respect for that difference is the indispensable condition, the sine que non, for a man to live free; that the curtain separating these two worlds is not to be tampered with, and that curtain-rippers are criminals.  And because the curtain-rippers were serving a hated regime, they were unanimously helped to be particularly contemptible criminals.

When I arrived in France from that Czechoslovakia bristling with microphones, I saw on a magazine cover a large photo of Jacques Brel hiding his face from the photographers who had tracked him down in front of the hospital where he was being treated for his already advanced cancer.  And suddenly I felt I was encountering the very same evil that had made me flee my country; broadcasting Prochazka’s conversations and photographing a dying singer hiding his face seemed to belong to the same world; I said to myself that when it becomes the custom and the rule to divulge another person’s private life, we are entering a time when the highest stake is the survival or the disappearance of the individual.

Translator’s notes:

The excerpt from Milan Kundera was taken from the orginal English translation published as: Testaments Betrayed, An Essay in Nine Parts.  It is from Part 9, section 8.

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