Thought for the Day: Kundera on the Nature of Vandals

Currently in my reading pile is Milan Kundera’s A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe. It contains a number of old essays and speeches, some from back in the 1960s. This passage, from a speech in 1967 in Prague at the Czech Writers Conference, certainly applies to America today. Given that he had to deliver that speech under the shadow of Communist censorship, drawn your own parallels with today’s scene.

Who is a vandal? It is absolutely not the illiterate peasant who in a fit of fury sets fire to the rich landowner’s mansion. The vandals I myself run into are all of them educated, pleased with themselves, socially well situated, and not especially resentful toward anyone. The vandal, rather, is that prideful narrow mind, pleased with itself and ever ready to claim its rights. The proud narrow-minded fellow believes that the power to fit the world to his own image is among his inalienable rights and, since the world is largely made up of matters beyond his capacities, he adapts the world to his image by destroying it. Thus, an adolescent knocks the head off some statue in a park because the statue infuriatingly seems a better human than he; and since any act of self-affirmation brings man satisfaction, he does it with delight. Men who live only in the contextless present, who know nothing of the historical continuity around it and who lack culture, can transform their nation into a desert with no history, no memory, no echoes, and untouched by beauty.

Vandalism in our time comes not only in forms condemned by law. When a committee of citizens or bureaucrats managing a project decrees that some statue (or chateau, or church, or age-old linden tree) is useless and must be eliminated, that is just another form of vandalism.

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