Kundera, Rhinoceros, and group work

I have often thought about the classroom scenes in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. There’s a scene where two American girls, Michelle and Gabrielle, present their report on Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. They are enrolled in a summer school course for foreigners in a small town on the Rivera. They do their work dutifully, writing down every word that the teacher says. They have concluded that Ionesco has the characters turn into rhinoceroses in order to create a “comic effect.”

So now they’re about to give their oral report, and they don cardboard rhinoceros masks for the occasion. They let out “short, shrill, breathy sounds”; the teacher, Madame Raphael, answers these sounds with her own version.

Now an Israeli girl named Sarah takes this opportunity to come up and kick both of them from behind. The class starts howling. The two girls start crying. Madame Raphael interprets their crying as laughter and decides that the prank was part of a plan. She, too, starts laughing; the girls, hearing her laughter, cry all the harder and begin writhing. Madame Raphael takes this writing for a dance. She takes their hands, and the three begin dancing in a circle. Then something strange happens. They begin to rise up into the air, higher and higher as they circle around. Now the ceiling yields to them, and they rise through it. The chapter concludes (in the translation of Michael Henry Heim, Penguin, 1981):

First their cardboard noses vanished, then only three pairs of shoes remained, and finally the shoes vanished as well, leaving the stupefied students with nothing but the brilliant, fading laughter of the three archangels from on high.

What is going on here? First of all, the girls miss the point of Rhinoceros, because they are inexperienced and have no one to guide them to a better understanding. No one challenges the idea that the play’s main purpose is to be funny. (It is indeed a very funny play, but it is also a scary allegory of group conformity.)

Missing the point of Rhinoceros, they unwittingly reproduce it. Madame Raphael, whose goal is to affirm whatever they do (and thus to bring them over to her own beliefs) misses the point as well. She takes their tears for laughter, laughter that coincides with her own. She starts up a circle dance with them–and this great success, the success of agreement and ascension, results in their vanishing in the upper air, with only the traces of laughter remaining (like the Cheshire Cat’s grin).

In the name of creativity, the two girls are trying to do exactly what the teacher wants. Both they and the teacher miss the point of Rhinoceros, and the teacher misinterprets what is going on in their presentation. All these misunderstandings result in the upward-spiraling circle dance, which isn’t too different from a world of rhinoceroses. The laughter of the angels and the stampede of hoofs have something in common.

What does this have to do with education? A lot, but the lessons are not direct. It points to some of the problems with group work and the problem of reading something for what one wants to see in it, not what’s there. Perhaps these problems are related: Michelle, Gabrielle, and Madame Raphael join hands and make a perfect world of something disturbing–by misinterpreting it entirely. They rise up into the air because they are not grounded. There is nowhere else for them to go. They become angels of unavowed error.