Milan Kundera In Seven Themes

Milan Kundera, the Czech-born, French-naturalized novelist — I avoid the standard appellation “Czech novelist” out of respect for Kundera’s own reasons for rejecting it — died last week. I will not describe him as the greatest or most important European novelist since World War II, as some might, not because I question that judgment but because I am wholly unqualified to make it. For me to call Kundera the greatest novelist since WWII would be nearly equivalent to calling my mother the greatest mother I have ever had. I simply have little patience for literature of this era, and therefore spend almost no time on it. More accurately, then, I may say that Kundera is the only European novelist of the post-WWII period who has any ultimate importance to me. Specifically, he is almost the only fiction writer of this era who has broken through my general disdain for the trivialities and pretensions of the time, and, contrary to my skeptical expectations, offered me something surprisingly salutary, precisely because he exhibits a mind and manner not so tiresomely, predictably limited by the tone and trends of our time. 

Rather than attempt any general overview of his works and style, or a detailed discussion of my personal history with his books — such things, perhaps, for another time — I will merely express here my appreciation for some of the themes and reflections that immediately spring to mind when I hear the name “Kundera,” a few of the ideas that made this most idea-driven of novelists so uniquely attractive to my young intellect, and that continue to linger in my mature thought as touchstones in my own way of thinking, almost in some cases with the force of spiritual axioms, if you will. And as a way of defining this list, while honoring the author’s memory, I will limit myself to seven such ideas, or motifs if you will, since Kundera regarded a division into seven parts as something of a magic formula in his own writing.

The circle dance.– Kundera teaches, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting most trenchantly, that the essence of progressive totalitarianism as it presents itself, and perhaps even wishes to see itself, is not the gulag or the midnight raid, but the sunlit, cheerful unity of the happy collective whose members, to express the joy of their shared vision, find no fulfillment greater than that of joining hands and moving together in a circle while singing. Humanity reduced to the pure, childish essence of the circle of togetherness — intrinsically closed to questions or dissent, by definition excluding anyone who would dare to stand outside its unbroken wholeness — is the perfect image, not of the truth of collectivism in practice, but of its means of effectiveness and progress. The lure of the infantile dream of belonging, expressed above all through the fundamental lyricism of the collectivist totalitarian mind.

From Life Is Elsewhere:

Lyricism is intoxication, and man drinks in order to merge more easily with the world. Revolution has no desire to be examined or analyzed. It only desires that the people merge with it; in this sense it is lyrical and in need of lyricism.

Smiling.– One of the most memorable of Kundera’s many striking observations of unnoticed undercurrents of modernity: Today, thanks to photography, we are inescapably inundated with realistic representations of people’s faces — in newspapers and magazines, on book covers and advertisements, everywhere — and in almost every one of those ubiquitous photographs, the subject is displaying a wide, cheerful smile. Throughout all history prior to our era, as we consider all the great statues, busts, and paintings, of people both famous and unknown, we immediately realize that almost none of those people are portrayed smiling, and perhaps none of them smiling widely — unless in the manner of a devilish grin or satyr’s sneer. Today, by contrast, anyone who poses for a photograph is told to smile, and we regard a posed picture as unsatisfying if the subject is not smiling enough. No smile-inducing context is required. We are not, for the most part, looking at the smile of victory, or that of relieved suffering, or that of elated recognition of a long-awaited friend, or the involuntary response to a great joke. We are looking at, and looking for, smiles for smiles’ sake, smiles without context or apparent cause. What does this suggest? It suggests that we late moderns regard the big, unprovoked smile — the expression of unthinking cheerfulness and childlike friendliness — as the definitive or essential expression of human existence. The fact that no previous age — not one — ever shared our belief that the uncaused smile, the smile as default condition of the soul, was the most natural, beautiful, or representative expression of the human face, is extremely telling. Unthinking cheerfulness and childlike friendliness embody our notion of the human essence or ideal, and only ours. Since Kundera focused my attention on this, I have always enjoyed looking at the standard photographs of him on book covers — always either completely unsmiling and stern, or just barely hinting at a grin. Antimodern in this sense, which is his precise sense.

I do not care much for “modern art,” and regard the general over-intellectualism of so much of what passes for art in late modernity as an indication of little but a lack of seriousness about fundamental human experience, and also a lack of the passionate sincerity of perspective (including ironic perspective) that a great artist must have in order to project a unified understanding of reality and human nature through his work. Having said that, Kundera has moderated my skepticism about modern art, and even led me to see some merits that I might have overlooked, to a degree that would never have been possible without his strenuous and impassioned plea, stretched over many books, in defense of modernism of a certain sort. Specifically, and this applies especially to literature, and secondarily to music, Kundera sheds great light on the divisions within modernism itself, and particularly on the tribe to which he belongs, namely the antimodern moderns. That is, the artists (Kafka and others, often of Central European descent) who seek to advance and refine the forms of art in the conscious and intellectualizing manner of modernism, but do so in the name of critiquing and expressing profound reservations about the defining ideas of modernism itself (progress, the fascination with material expertise, the deification of the future, and the romanticism of “collective humanity” as such).

As philosophy in the modern world devolved ever more fully to the materialism of the pre-Socratics, and thus helped to unseat the philosopher himself as the archetype of the knower and wise man, in favor of the material scientist, the novel — modernity’s unique literary invention — has developed as something of a substitute for philosophy, the latter having ceded its essential (Socratic) role as investigation of human nature, which is to say of the soul and its subtleties. When among the ancients, we read Plato and Aristotle above all to learn what a human being is, what his motives are, and what his experience means. But when among the moderns, Hobbes and Locke being so bluntly reductionist on these most urgent questions, we find ourselves depending on Swift and Cervantes, Austen and Sterne, Dostoevsky and Kafka, for our most persuasive and plausible insights into the full richness of human experience. It would be false to say that the novelist is the modern philosopher, and indeed that is not what Kundera is saying. Rather, his insight is that, much like philosophy in the proper sense, the novel in the proper sense is a form of literature in which fundamental questions are raised, and possible alternative approaches to those questions offered, but always with a certain degree of irony or an understanding that the real goal is not to settle upon definitive and final answers, but to join and foster the great and endless conversation about the questions.

Nobody has brought more clarity, or more profound significance, to the word “kitsch,” than Kundera, whose entire body of work and driving sensibility may be described, even defined, as the effort to refute and reject kitsch. Kitsch, as he tirelessly explains, most famously in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is not simply “bad art” or “tastelessness.” It is rather, to use his most direct definition, “the absolute denial of shit” (in the literal sense of the word), which is to say the refusal to acknowledge the reality and inescapability of those aspects of (private and public) life that do not fit neatly into our prettiest ideals and our immature desire for tidy and lyrical perfections. He observes that kitsch grew naturally and inevitably out of nineteenth century romanticism, with its Rousseauean notions of primitive, natural goodness, the purity of the passions, and the supposedly corrupting effects of society and civilization. Progressivism, utilitarianism, Marxism, all forms of utopianism, and in the end all social and political perspectives based on unquestionable certitudes and the indignant blocking of one’s ears to exceptions or rational doubts — these perspectives are the psychological lifeblood of the “kitsch attitude,” which extends far beyond works of art as such, and is in fact “an integral part of the human condition,” to which everyone is susceptible to some extent. Kitsch, he says, “is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.” (Think of the tone of every political advertisement for any party or candidate, and how the advertisement presents its picture of what life would be like under the governance of that party or candidate.) Kitsch, regardless of its source, presents an ideal that rejects the intractable imperfections of life and aspiration: folly, filth, corruption, failure, stupidity, vested interests, unfairness, ulterior motives, impure thoughts, unanswered questions, collateral damage, blood. When any single kitsch-promoting political movement (and all movements are kitsch-promoting) becomes exclusive and dominant in a society, then we enter the realm of what he calls totalitarian kitsch — the ideological picture of undefiled purity, the circle dance, which everyone must join and share, and for the denying or questioning of which a man will be imprisoned or executed.

Kundera’s intrinsic hatred of kitsch as a sort of political corruption of art and life, and his painful, relentless efforts to excise any hint of it from his own thought and work, may be seen in a hundred episodes in his novels. One such case which springs immediately to mind comes from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He describes events from his personal history in Czechoslovakia, in which he was under intense scrutiny by the government, had been effectively rendered persona non grata, and was thus denied the freedom to work for pay. A young female magazine editor of his acquaintance helps him get a job anonymously, at great personal risk to herself. When her efforts are uncovered, the secret police interrogate her, after which she and Kundera meet secretly to discuss how to answer any future interrogators. During this time together in a friend’s small apartment, the woman, literally sick from nerves, has to excuse herself repeatedly to run to the bathroom. Kundera, analyzing the complexities of the human spirit in a time of anxiety and crisis under totalitarian repression, describes a moment during this meeting when he is stricken with an absurd, random desire to rape the woman with her disobedient bowels — to rape “this brave girl, my friend,” he emphasizes touchingly, to highlight the incommensurability of the feeling. 

If a serious writer or thinker of any kind could absorb one lesson from Kundera, it ought perhaps to be this constant self-scrutiny in search of uncomfortable or ill-fitting truths that undermine those hints of the kitsch attitude that always threaten to corrupt one’s truthfulness in favor of the emotionally satisfying, purifying prettiness of a world without doubts, complicating factors, or ironic distance.

Connected with his rejection of lyricism and kitsch in their political and aesthetic aspects, Kundera was a relentless opponent of all ideological positions which by their nature would seek to limit or censure as “inappropriate” or “undemocratic” thoughts or points of view which do not happen to suit the pieties of our time. Hence, he was strongly critical of the psyche-molding certainties of feminism, and in particular defended the now-taboo notions of “machismo” and “misogyny” against the reductionist activism of the feminist critique, seeing them instead as two legitimate, alternative expressions of the male psyche, both of them important in the history and social reality of the human species, and each derived from different conditions (not illnesses but conditions) of individual development.

A clear example of this point, from his personal definition of misogyny in The Art of the Novel:

From our earliest days every one of us is faced with a mother and a father, a femininity and a masculinity. And thus marked by a harmonious or disharmonious relation with each of these two archetypes. Gynophobes (misogynists) occur not only among men but among women as well, and there are as many gynophobes as there are androphobes (men and women who live in disharmony with the masculine archetype). Both these attitudes are fully legitimate possibilities of the human condition.

The “legitimacy” he asserts here (along with the legitimacy of machismo), contrary to the ideological puritan’s will to deny reality, may be inferred from the theoretically infinite examples of actual living humans who exhibited one or another of these attitudes, and whose character and achievements, informed by one or another of these attitudes, were the source of great works, important achievements, world-altering ideas, and in general the thriving and surviving of civilization.

As one who lived much of his life under communism, and who was of course a member of the communist party (a participant in the circle dance) in his younger years, Kundera in his mature writing was always a highly effective warrior in defense of the individual mind, and specifically of a person’s works — of his testaments, to use one of Kundera’s key terms. His greatest novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, begins with a wonderfully comic but true example of the unavoidable necessity of every progressive movement, namely the need to correct and rewrite not merely the past in general, but especially the past of the movement itself, so as to continue its blood-soaked journey toward a more perfect future without ever having to admit that the movement itself, just yesterday, was beset with impurity, or in violation of its own latest definition of “progress.” We do not have to guess what Kundera would make of today’s progressive trend, in publishing, filmmaking, and public discourse, of reissuing, remaking, or adapting past works in order to render them “more inclusive,” or “less offensive” to “vulnerable groups” or to “modern sensibilities.” “One day,” he writes in the introduction to his play, Jacques and His Master, “all past culture will be completely rewritten and completely forgotten behind the rewrite.”

Spoken by The Master in the play:

Death to all who dare to rewrite what has been written! Impale them and roast them over a slow fire! Castrate them and cut off their ears!

(In the above essay, the quoted passages from The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting are translated by Michael Henry Heim; all others are translated by Linda Asher.)

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