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Milan Kundera 1929–
Czech-born French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Kundera's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 9, 19, 32, and 68.
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Milan Kundera 1929–
Czech-born French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Kundera's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 9, 19, 32, and 68.
Celebrated internationally as one of Europe's most outstanding contemporary novelists, Kundera has lived in exile in France since 1975, and much of his work was banned until recently in his native country, the former Czechoslovakia. He began his writing career as a poet and dramatist before he wrote the fiction that brought him international critical attention, most notably the novels Le livre du rire et de l'oubli (1979; The Book of Laugher and Forgetting) and L'lnsoutenable l'égèreté de l'être (1984; The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kundera's novels represent the psychological motivations, emotional complexes, and erotic impulses of vulnerable characters who question their various aspects of their identities when faced with political events and social values beyond their control. Kundera often infuses authorial commentary into his narratives, presents events in disjointed time frames and from multiple perspectives, and patterns his novels in a manner similar to musical compositions. Dismissing traditional novelistic structures, Kundera uses these narrative devices to illustrate his own aesthetic of the novel, which emphasizes parallel explorations of related themes, active philosophical contemplation, and the integration of dreams and fantasy with realistic analysis. Although some reviewers have considered his work in the context of exile literature or have labeled him a "dissident" writer despite his protests to the contrary, most critics have noted the complex structure of his novels, identifying that component as one of the integral aspects of his art.
Born and raised in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Kundera is the son of Ludvik Kundera, a well-known pianist who collaborated with the famous Czech composer Leos Janácek. Although he once studied piano, Kundera decided at age nineteen that music was not his true vocation. In 1948 he left Brno to study scriptwriting and directing at the Film Faculty of the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. At this time Kundera, like many other idealistic and progressive students who had witnessed the atrocities of World War 11, joined the Communist Party. In 1952 he began teaching cinematography at the Prague Academy, and the next year he published his first poetry collection, Clovek, zahrada širá, which was immediately condemned by the Communists for using surrealistic techniques and lacking universality. Kundera wrote two other volumes of poetry. Poslední máj (1955) and Monology (1957), while teaching at the academy, but he later renounced these works as adolescent and insignificant. During the early 1960s Kundera attained literary prominence in his homeland by serving on the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Writers Union from 1963 to 1969 and on the editorial boards of the journals Literarni noviny and Listy. Meanwhile, he published a critical work about Czechoslo-vakian novelist Vladislava Vancury, Unemi románu (1961), and his first play, Majitelé klícu (1962; The Owners of the Keys) was staged in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Kundera then turned his attention to writing fiction. Despite his esteemed reputation, Kundera spent two years battling the censorship board before his first novel, Zert (1967; The Joke), was deemed acceptable for publication in its original form. In a 1967 speech opening the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers Congress, Kundera candidly admonished censorship and other repressive tactics used against writers. During the so-called "Prague Spring" of 1968, when the push for cultural freedom had reached its zenith. Kundera's novel enjoyed enormous popular success. However, when Russian military forces invaded Czechoslovakia later that year, Kundera was expelled from the Communist Party and released from his teaching position at the Prague Academy, and his works were removed from libraries and bookstores. He eventually fled his native country in 1975 after he was invited to teach comparative literature at the University of Rennes in France. In 1979, after the publication of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the Czechoslovak government revoked his citizenship. In 1980, Kundera accepted a professorship at the Ecole des hautes études en sciénces sociales in Paris. Since garnering international praise for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was later adapted for film and produced in 1988, Kundera has written two additional books of literary criticism. L'art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel) and Les Testaments trahis (1993; Testaments Betrayed), and three novels, L'Immortalité (1990; Immortality). La Lenteur (1995; Slowness), and L'identité (1997; Identity.
Kundera's collection of short stories, Laughable Loves, addresses the illusory nature of love and the consequences of using sexuality to gain power and influence. In these stories, some characters use sexual encounters to exercise their personal power; others see them as a gauge of self-worth. One of his best-known stories, "The Hitchhiking Game," involves a young couple who engage in role-playing while on vacation, but the game ultimately reveals the painful implications of their relationship. In "Symposium" a doctor refuses a sexual encounter with a nurse as an assertion of independence. Many of Kundera's works are dominated by a form based on the number seven. The Joke focuses on Ludvik, a university student who firmly embraces Communist ideology. After Ludvik sends a postcard in which he playfully parodies Marxist slogans to his zealously political girlfriend, she shows it to Zamenek, a fervent, humorless Communist student-leader, who has Ludvik expelled from both the university and the party. Years later, after Ludvik has been drafted into the army and forced to work in a coal mine, he seeks revenge by seducing Zamenek's wife, who, unknown to Ludvik, has been separated from her husband for two years. La vie est ailleurs (1973; Life Is Elsewhere) is a satirical portrait of Jaromil, a young poet, who was bullied by his doting mother to develop an artistic temperament and runs away to write; this novel exposes the way poetry can contribute to the hysteria of revolution and presents Kundera's belief that youth is a "lyrical age" laced with neuroses, romantic illusions, and endless self-contemplation. La valse aux adieux (1976; The Farewell Party) concerns the destructive nature of sexual politics and self-deception. Set in a Czechoslovakian resort town famous for infertility treatments, this novel chronicles the aftermath of a one-night stand that results in pregnancy and addresses such ethical issues as abortion, sperm-banking, and suicide. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting portrays numerous characters who are linked thematically yet never interact. Focusing on the repercussions of forgetting personal and cultural histories, the metaphysical implications of laughter, and how ideological doctrines often lead to deluded notions of good and evil. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting suggests that memory is a form of self-preservation in a world where history is usually distorted by cultural forces. The Unbearable Lightness of Being treats similar themes and centers on the connected lives of two couples—Tomas and Tereza, and Franz and Sabina. Set in Czechoslovakia around the time of the Russian invasion, this novel examines the hardships and limitations that can result from commitment yet also reveals the lack of meaning for life without such responsibility. In addition, each character represents a particular motif that is explored throughout the novel in various contexts, reminiscent of the variations in a musical composition. Immortality is spiked throughout by authorial intrusions commenting on the writing process of the narrative and is the first of Kundera's novels to be set in France. The book considers the way media manipulation, popular culture, and capitalist technocracy distort the perception of reality. Besides presenting a love triangle among its principal characters, Immortality also contains dialogues between such notable literary figures as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernest Hemingway. Slowness, Kundera's first novel originally written in French, is a fictional triptych that features the simultaneous stories of the narrator and his wife (Milan and Vera Kundera) en route to a French chateau; an eighteenth-century chevalier and his mistress engaged in a highly stylized sexual encounter at the same chateau; and a entomologist, an exiled woman ex-scientist, and her groupie who are attending a conference at the chateau on the day of the narrator's arrival. The action of the entire novel apparently takes place in a single location over the course of a single night through a telescoping of time, a device sometimes read as a parody of the classical rules of unity of action. Both The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed discuss Kundera's ideas about the aesthetics of the novel, the former outlining in seven sections the formal development of the European novel and the latter suggesting in nine parts that critics of the novel form have betrayed the profound sense of humor that informs the novelistic tradition, particularly with respect to Russian novelist Franz Kafka.
Throughout his career Kundera has received numerous literary awards, and his novels have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. Kundera has been consistently admired for juxtaposing fictitious and biographical elements in his novels and for simultaneously exploring recurrent themes. Many critics have focused on the political disillusionment that is perceived in Kundera's work, usually in consideration of his close involvement in Czechoslovakian political and cultural turmoils of the twentieth century. But Kundera has claimed that there has been too much emphasis on the politics of his novels, and that he especially dislikes being classified as a dissident writer. While some critics have castigated his narrative techniques as disorienting, usually citing his disjointed plotting, episodic characterizations, and authorial intrusions as principal distractions, a number of critics have appreciated Kundera's style, focusing on his use of humor and his sense of "play" in narration, particularly in terms of the vitality of his erotic themes. Richard Gaughan has observed that comedy and laughter "bring to the surface and make explicit the often hidden and always painful struggle between the equally necessary but mutually exclusive demands of freedom and belief—a struggle that Kundera sees as the characteristic condition of the modern European mind." Although he was recognized as an important literary figure in his homeland early in his career, critical attacks on his writings from Czech quarters "have been unceasing" since he left, according to Karen von Kunes, particularly for what has been perceived as his abandonment of his Czech heritage for the adulation of Western European and American readers and critics.
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Zert [The Joke, 1969; definitive English edition, 1992] (novel) 1967
∗Smesne lasky [Laughable Loves; first English edition, 1974; definitive English edition, 1987] (short stories) 1970
∗∗La vie est ailleurs [Life Is Elsewhere, 1974; definitive English edition, 1986] (novel) 1973
∗∗La valse aux adieux [The Farewell Party; first English edition, 1976; new translation by Aaron Asher, based on Kundera's revised French text, published as Farewell Waltz: A Novel, 1998] (novel) 1976
∗∗Le livre du rire et de l'oubli [The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1980; new translation by Aaron Asher, 1996] (novel) 1979
∗∗Jacques et son maitre: Hommage a Denis Diderot [Jacques and His Master: An Homage to Diderot in Three Acts, 1985] (drama) 1981
∗∗L'insoutenable l'égèreté de l'être [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] (novel) 1984
L'art du roman [The Art of the Novel, 1988] (essays) 1986
∗∗L'immortalite [Immortality, 1991] (novel) 1990
Les Testaments trahis [Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, 1995] (essay) 1993
La Lenteur [Slowness: A Novel, 1996] (novel) 1995
L'identite [Indentity: A Novel, 1998] (novel) 1997
∗Kundera collected the eight stories contained in the original Czech edition of this work from three notebooks of short stories: Smesne lasky ("Laughable Loves"), 1963, Druhy sesit smesnych lasek ("The Second Notebook of Laughable Loves"), 1965, and Treti sesit smesnych lasek ("The Third Notebook of Laughable Loves"), 1968; the original notebooks comprised ten stories; translated editions contain only seven stories.
∗∗These works are French translations from the original Czech manuscripts Zivot je jinde, Valcik na rozloucenou, Kniha smichu a zapomneni, Jakub a jeho pan, Nesnesitelna lehkost byti, and Nesmrtelnost, respectively.
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SOURCE: A review of Life Is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves, in Commonweal, Vol. CI, No. 11, January 3, 1975, pp. 307-9.
[In the following review, de Feo explores the role of eroticism in Life Is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves.]
Many of the characters who populate these two volumes [Life Is Elsewhere and Laughable Loves] by the Czech writer Milan Kundera are deeply affected by the erotic element in their natures. Often their strong sexual instincts surprise them. They may play various games and adopt various roles to free themselves from their repressed skins. They find freedom and release, even creative inspiration, in sex. As they make an effort to explore erotic possibilities, they discover sides of their personalities that have previously remained hidden. For some the revelations result in confusion and pain—ugliness and desperation have been exposed. For others the revelations are cause for wonder and joy—a form of beauty has entered their lives.
Life Is Elsewhere is a comic novel that traces the life of a poet, Jaromil, from his birth to his death. Jaromil's mother, Maman, on whom the author focuses first, is a typical Kundera character. Ashamed and unsure of her body for years, she has an affair with an engineer and rapidly becomes aware of her sexual potential, learning "to savor the pleasures of physical existence." After recording this phase in the life of her body, the author notes the next important change—her pregnancy: "It [her body] ceased to be a mere object of someone else's eye, and became a living body …" Two beings then are born: Jaromil, literally, and Maman, figuratively. Kundera wonderfully describes the physical and emotional bond that exists between mother and child. We can understand why Maman later becomes an almost unbearably possessive mother and why Jaromil comes to regard her with so much reverence and fear.
We follow Jaromil's early creative attempts and the comic manner in which his art matures. Once again we have the link between mother and child—as a painter inspires Jaromil to develop his artistic talent, he inspires Maman to toss off any sexual inhibitions she may still have and to live freely. "If we cannot change the world," he tells her, "let's at least change our lives…. Let's reject everything that is not fresh and new." Jaromil eventually adopts this very philosophy ("the religion of The New"), but he does so, the author suggests, to disguise his longing for physical love. In this case at least, eroticism and art are closely related. Jaromil's sexual impulses find expression in his poetry. After spying on the family maid in the bath, Jaromil is inspired to record the stimulating experience, to give it a certain permanence. During the creative process, however, the concrete is transformed into the abstract, an intensely private experience is concealed by the veil of art. Jaromil is somewhat similar to many of the characters in Laughable Loves whose erotic urges cause them to adopt various roles. His sexual impulses lead him to assume the identity of a lyric poet. Later he even emulates a fictional character he himself has created, for that character possesses the freedom that Jaromil has not quite been able to attain.
At times the structure of Life Is Elsewhere grows too slack—particularly towards the end—and at other times the action is not quite convincing: Jaromil's political activities, for example, or the episode in which Maman works with a photographer who is making a film about Jaromil. But these are minor qualms when one considers Kundera's fine ability to dramatize ideas and to stimulate and entertain the reader in the process.
The characters in the short story collection, Laughable Loves, are a very dissatisfied group who long for some change in their everyday lives, anything that will enable them to achieve physical and psychological freedom. In the excellent story "The Hitchhiking Game," a young man and his girl friend assume the roles of driver and hitchhiker to free themselves from their particular identities and to give vent to their hidden erotic impulses. As is often the case with Kundera's people, they allow the game to get out of hand. They attain their freedom, but they completely sacrifice their identities while doing so. The girl behaves like a whore and the young man begins to treat her accordingly. The game ends in mutual disgust. While sexual freedom is an admirable goal, it can sometimes have devastating results. The young couple failed to realize what a potentially dangerous and unpredictable game they were playing. And now that the game has ended and they have exposed highly unattractive sides of their personalities, what next? "There are still," Kundera reminds us, "thirteen days' vacation before them."
The couple in the equally superb "Let the Old Dead Make Room for the New Dead" also play an erotic game, though here the results are somewhat more satisfying. Meeting for the first time after fifteen years, the couple (a man and an older woman) try to recapture the passion of their first and only sexual encounter. Though they are moderately successful, there is more than a degree of desperation in their effort. They long for their youth, but a return to the past—perhaps an idealized past—is impossible. When Kundera notes that "This time the room was full of light," he is not only contrasting the old sexual encounter with the new one, but he is also suggesting that the couple now fully understand the implications of their act. They are too knowing to engage in blind passion. Their desperation haunts them.
The other stories in this volume are perceptive and quite delightful and they are well worth any reader's time, but I don't think that any of them really succeeds as well as the first two tales. For me at least, Kundera's stories work best when they are very tightly structured and narrowly focused. His stories exploring various Don Juan types, like Dr. Havel, are entertaining, but a little too casually developed, a bit too sketchlike. As a result, they lack the impact and intensity of the earlier tales.
The only other work of Kundera's that has appeared in English was his famous political novel, The Joke (which he made into a film). These two new books reveal a different side of the artist's sensibility and talent, and they are very welcome indeed. Though one may occasionally tire of the author's concern—perhaps obsession is a better word—with the erotic, Kundera's originality, intelligence and witty narrative voice are irresistible.
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SOURCE: "Four Characters under Two Tyrannies," in New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1984, p. 1.
[In the review below, Doctorow examines Kundera's narrative style in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, describing the relation between the characters and themes of his book.]
"I am bored by narrative," Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1929, thus suggesting how the novel has been kept alive in our century by novelists' assaults on its conventions. Writers have chosen to write novels without plots or characters or the illusion of time passing. They have disdained to represent real life, as the painters did a half century before them. They have compacted their given languages, or invented their own, or revised the idea of composition entirely by assembling their books as collages.
Appearing noticeably in the United States 15 or 20 years ago was the disclaimed fiction in which the author deliberately broke the mimetic spell of his text and insisted that the reader should not take his story to heart or believe in the existence of his characters. Disclaiming had the theoretical advantage of breaking through to some approximation of the chaos and loss of structure in life. The subject of these fictions became the impossibility of maintaining them, and the author by his candor became the only character the reader could believe in. John Barth is one writer who comes to mind as having explored the possibilities of this strategy, and the distinguished Czech novelist Milan Kundera in his new book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, continues to find it useful.
"And once more I see him the way he appeared to me at the very beginning of the novel," Mr. Kundera says of one of the characters, who is described standing at a window and staring across a courtyard at a blank wall. "This is the image from which he was born…. Characters are not born, like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor, containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility … the characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them and equally horrified by them…. But enough. Let us return to Tomas."
The question may reasonably be asked if this convention too isn't ready for assault. May it not be too late to return to Tomas? Do we have to be told where he comes from any more than we have to be told where babies come from? There is a particular hazard to the author who intrudes on his text: He had better be as interesting as the characters he competes with and the story he subverts or we may find him self-indulgent or, worse, coy, like those animated cartoons where a hand draws a little animal and colors it in and pushes it along to its adventure down the road.
Even now, in our age, there is a sanctity to the story. Because it is supremely valuable to us—as valuable as science or religion—we feel all violence done to it must finally be in its service. Virginia Woolf's experiment in avoiding narrative, Mrs. Dalloway, discovered another way to construct it or, perhaps, another place in which it could occur. The idea has always been to make it beat with life's beating heart.
Let us return to Tomas. Mr. Kundera has made him a successful surgeon. In Prague, in the spring of 1968, when Alexander Dubcek is trying to make the Czech Communist Government more human, Tomas writes a letter to a newspaper to add his voice to a public debate. Thereafter, the Russians invade Prague, Dubcek is replaced, public debate ceases, and Tomas is asked by the authorities to sign a statement retracting the sentiments of his letter. But he knows that once he does, if he ever again speaks out the Government will publish his retraction and his name among his fellow Czechs will be ruined. So he refuses and for his intransigence is then asked to sign a letter avowing his love for the Soviet Union, a possibility so unthinkable that he quits medicine and becomes a window washer. He hopes that now that he is down at the bottom he will no longer matter to the authorities and they will let him alone. What he discovers is that he no longer matters to anyone. When he was supposed by his hospital colleagues to be thinking of signing the retraction in order to keep his job they turned up their noses at him. Now that he's been declassed for maintaining his integrity, he's become an untouchable.
The first thing to note about this character's fate is that it is a gloss on Orwell: To destroy Tomas, Mr. Kundera is saying, the powerfully inertial police apparatus doesn't have to expend the energy required to torture him. It need only send around an affable plainclothesman with a letter to be signed. Once the policeman appears, no matter how Tomas responds his life is ruined.
The second thing to note is the idea of the exhaustion of meaningful choice. Tomas is one of four main characters born frankly of images in Mr. Kundera's mind. All of them to one extent or another enact the paradox of choices that are not choices, of courses of action that are indistinguishable in consequence from their opposite. He shows us Sabina, a painter, as she is deciding whether or not to keep her current lover, Franz, a university professor. Franz is physically strong. If he used his strength on her and ordered her about, Sabina knows she wouldn't put up with him for five minutes. But he is gentle, and because she believes physical love must be violent she finds Franz dull. Either way, whatever Franz does, she will have to leave him.
Mr. Kundera says Sabina lives by betrayal, abandoning family, lovers and, finally, country, in a way that condemns her to what he calls a "lightness of being," by which he means a life so lacking in commitment or fidelity or moral responsibility to anyone else as to be unattached to the real earth. By contrast, his fourth character, Tereza, the loyal wife of Tomas, suffers an unflagging love for her philandering husband that finally is responsible for his ruin, because it's her unwillingness to live in exile that brings him back to his fate in Czechoslovakia after he has set himself up nicely in a Swiss hospital. Thus, Tereza, the exact opposite of Sabina in commitment and fidelity and rootedness to the real earth, sinks under an unbearable moral burden, weight and lightness, in the Kunderian physics, adding up to the same thing.
So there is a pattern in the subservience of his characters to Mr. Kundera's will. They all exemplify the central act of his imagination, which is to conceive of a paradox and express it elegantly. The paradox he is most fond of is the essential identity of opposites, and he plays with it over and over again, with minor characters as well as major ones and with little essays and one-line observations. For instance, he shows us a dissident Czech emigre in Paris in the act of reproaching his fellow emigres for their lack of anti-Communist fervor, and he finds in him the same bullying quality of mind as in the former head of state, Antonin Novotny, who ruled Czechoslovakia for 14 years. The elegance lies in the image Mr. Kundera uses to make the observation that both the emigre and the former ruler point their index fingers at whomever they address. In fact, people of this sort, Mr. Kundera tells us, have index fingers longer than their middle fingers.
Whether personal or political, all attitudes, stands, positions in the Kunderian vision come up short. He will kill off three of his quartet and allow the fourth to disappear from the book, presumably from a lightness of being; but his true story, the one to which he gives honest service, is the operation of his own mind as it formulates and finds images for the disastrous history of his country in his lifetime. The paradox of the essential identity of opposites describes an intractable world in which human beings are deprived of a proper context for their humanity. The author who ostentatiously intrudes in his characters' lives and tells them how to behave mimics, of course, the government that interferes deeply in its citizens' lives and tells them how to behave. Tomas and Sabina and Franz and Tereza were invented to live under two tyrannies, the tyranny of contemporary Czechoslovakia and the tyranny of Mr. Kundera's despair.
Readers of the author's celebrated novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting will recognize here his structural use of leitmotif, the repertoire of phrases and fancies among which he circulates and recirculates. They will find the same ironic tone and brilliance of annotation of the fearful emptiness of Eastern European life under Communist management. Here too is the author's familiarity with music, his preoccupation with Don Juanism, his almost voyeuristic attention to the female body and its clothes. And the pointed, surreal image: Park benches from the city of Prague, colored red, yellow and blue, floating inexplicably on the Vltava River. Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mr. Kundera knows how to get ahead of his story and circle back to it and run it through again with a different emphasis. But the prose is sparer here, and the Garcia Marquez levitations are not events now, but ideas. There is less clutter in the prose, less of the stuff of life, as if the author had decided to send the myriad furnishings of novels, its particulars, down the Vltava, after the benches. This is a kind of conceptualist fiction, a generic-brand, no-frills fiction, at least in Michael Henry Heim's translation. Mr. Kundera is not inclined to dwell on the feel of human experience except as it prepares us for his thought.
And what is his thought? Asking this question leads to the novel on its own terms. Mr. Kundera is a good psychologist of the rutting male. His idea of love as the occupation by another person of one's own poetic memory is a sweet one. He adds to the meaning of the word kitsch by describing it, first, as an esthetic ideal that denies the existence of excrement and, second, as the inevitable adjunct of political power. "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch," he says. "Everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life … every display of individualism … every doubt … all irony." Thus, "the gulag is a septic tank used by totalitarian kitsch to dispose of its refuse."
It is a not unattractive philosophical bent that sends Mr. Kundera into his speculative exercises. He has a first-rate mind and, like Bernard Shaw, the capacity to argue both sides of a question and make each side seem reasonable in its turn. But every now and then a wryly argued proposition seems flawed, a weakness for literary idea rather than a strength of thought—that a concentration camp, for instance, is defined first and foremost by the complete absence of privacy; it might be argued that slave labor and starvation and mass graves are its primary characteristics. Or the idea, coming from Sabina's walk through New York City, that its beauty, unlike that of European cities, is unintentional, or "beauty by mistake, the final phase in the history of beauty." New York may indeed be unintentionally beautiful, but we are younger than Europe, and, whatever holocaust is in sight, beauty by mistake might just as easily be the first phase in the history of beauty as the last.
One recurrent theme in the book is that the ideal of social perfection is what inevitably causes the troubles of mankind, that the desire for utopia is the basis of the world's ills, there being no revolution and therefore no totalitarianism without it. This idea has currency among expatriate Eastern European intellectuals, and perhaps their bitter experience entitles them to it. But the history of revolutions begins, more likely, in the desire to eat or to breathe than in the thought that man must be perfected. And a revolutionary document like the American Constitution is filled with instructions and standards for civilized life under equitable law; and it is truly utopian, but its ideals are our saving grace and drive us to our best selves, not our worst.
It is not exactly self-indulgence or coyness that threatens The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The mind Mr. Kundera puts on display is truly formidable, and the subject of its concern is substantively alarming. But, given this subject, why are we forced to wonder, as we read, where his crisis of faith locates itself, in the world or in his art? The depiction of a universe in which all human choice wallows in irresolution, in which, as Yeats wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," sometimes sets off the technique of this novel as an act of ego in excess of the sincere demands of despair. Mr. Kundera's master, the prophet Kafka, we can't help remembering, wrote a conceptualist no-frills fiction in which, however, he never appeared.
All this said, the work of reconceiving and redesigning the novel continues through the individual struggles of novelists all over the world, like an instinct of our breed. What is fine and valiant in Mr. Kundera is the enormous struggle not to be characterized as a writer by his exile and by his nation's disenfranchisement, even though they are the conditions his nose is rubbed in by Czechoslovak history. He works with cunning and wit and elegiac sadness to express "the trap the world has become," and this means he wants to reconceive not only narrative but the language and history of politicized life if he is to accord his experience the dimensions of its tragedy. This is in direct contrast to the problem of the American writer who must remember not to write of life as if it had no political content whatsoever. We can hope, with Milan Kundera, not to enact one of his elegant paradoxes in our separate choices and discover that either one leads to the same exhausted end.
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SOURCE: "Kundera and Kitsch," in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 10, June 7-20, 1984, pp. 18-19.
[Below, Bayley explains the meaning and use of "kitsch" in the context of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]
There is always comedy in the ways in which we are impressed by a novel. It can either impress us (if, that is, it is one of the very good ones) with the sort of truths that Nietzsche, Kafka and Dostoevsky tell us, or with the truths that Tolstoy and Trollope tell us. To the first kind we respond with amazement and delight, awe even. 'Of course that's it! Of course that's it!' The second kind of truths are more sober, more laboriously constructed, more ultimately reassuring. They are the truths necessary for fiction, and therefore necessary for life. The first kind contribute brilliantly not to life itself but to what seems an understanding of it. And that too is necessary for us, or at least desirable, and enjoyable.
Milan Kundera's latest novel is certainly one of the very good ones. It is in fact so amazingly better than anything he has written before that the reader can hardly believe it, is continually being lost in astonishment. In manner and technique it is not much different from his previous books, but the story here at last really compels us, and so do the hero and heroine. Kundera's great strength has always been his wit and intelligence, and his particular way with these assets. He was a Nietzschean truthteller rather than a Tolstoyan one. But this new novel [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] dissolves my distinction while at the same time drawing attention to it. Its impact is considerable. Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer.
Salman Rushdie described The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which appeared in English in 1980, as 'a whirling dance of a book', and went on to bury it under all the chic epithets, sad, obscene, tender, wickedly funny, wonderfully wise, 'a masterpiece full of angels, terror, ostriches and love'. It was not as bad as that. But Kundera was like a man let loose among all the literary fashions of the West, grabbing this and that, intoxicated by the display patterns of freedom. On the publication of the book the Czech Government revoked his citizenship. Both this decision and the book itself followed logically from Kundera's early novels and stories, like The Joke, published in Prague during the Prague Spring. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (the title is shorter in Czech and sounds better) used every device of French and American 'fictiveness', and its pornography, though cheerful, was so insistent in repudiating any shadow of Iron Curtain puritanism that it now seems as didactic and determined as the evolutions of Komsomol girls in red gymslips.
Unfair maybe, but circumstances made the book weightless, cosmopolitan. Despite its title, there is nothing weightless about The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In one sense, indeed, it satirises its predecessor. Nor could it possibly have been written by a Frenchman or an American. It is deeply, centrally European, both German and Slav, as Nietzsche himself was both Pole and German. Prague is the centre of this Europe, and with this book we are right back in Kafka's city, where neither Kafka nor Kundera can be published. None the less, Kundera's intelligence has quietly forsaken contemporary Western fashion and gone back to its deep roots, in Europe's old repressions and nightmares, to a time and an art long before the cinema and the modern happening.
Both in Poland and in Czechoslovakia the cinema represented a method of escape into the modernity which the Communist system rejected and forbade. Kundera was a professor of film technology and his pupils produced the new wave in the Czech cinema. His work, even the present novel, has been influenced by film techniques, but they have here been thoroughly absorbed into the forms of traditional literature, and Kundera now seems positively old-fashioned in the way in which he combines the authorial presence with the 'story'. The author is the purveyor of Nietzschean truth, but the story is of the Tolstoyan kind. Lightness of being is associated with the author's voice, with the cinema and sex, with irresponsibility and definition, with politics. Weight or heaviness of being, on the other hand, is associated with love and fidelity, suffering, chance, fiction, form and content ('The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness'), death.
The story has weight, though it is lightly told. A Prague surgeon, an insatiable womaniser, visits a hospital in a small provincial town. He gives a kind smile to a waitress at the hotel, who falls in love with him. She follows him to Prague. She has weight (her whole background is described). They make love in order to sleep together afterwards (he has never been able to sleep with a woman before, only to make love to her). They are necessary to each other, but he cannot give up other girls. At night his hair smells of them, though he always remembers carefully to wash the rest of himself, and Tereza in her unbearable jealousy has nightmares, dreams that are part of the lightness of being. He marries her to make up for it.
He gets a good job in Zurich, but his habits continue, and Tereza leaves him, goes back to Praaue. Realising he cannot live without her, he goes back too, just in time for the Russian invasion. He loses his job, becomes a window-washer, then a driver on a collective farm. With their dog Karenin he and Tereza remain together. Fate is a story; fate is Beethoven's Es muss sein. Karenin dies of cancer, a moving episode—for animals, being powerless, have all the weight lacking in human consciousness. We learn that Tomas and Tereza die in a car accident, but the novel goes on, leaving them at a moment of settled happiness not unlike the tranquil ending of a traditional novel, on what is presumably their last night on earth. Tomas might have been a successful surgeon in Zurich; he might have emigrated to America, as one of his weightless mistresses, Sabina, has done, and lived in the permanent limbo of non-fiction. But his destiny is the Tolstoyan story and Tereza, who could never 'learn lightness'.
In one sense, then, Kundera's novel neatly turns the tables on today's theorists about the novel. It is, after all, ironical that we are now told all the time how totally fictive fiction is, while the writers who hold this view do not in practice make much effort to render their novels thoroughly fictive—that is, convincingly real. When the novel begins to insist that it is all made up, it tends to strike the reader as not made up at all. Kundera's aim is to emphasise that the novel is, or was, true to one aspect of human life, while the free play of thought and consciousness is true to another.
What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites … Which one is positive, weight or lightness?
Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.
Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.
Kundera thus ingeniously suggests that the aspects of life that constitute a novel about it, a determined story, are as authentic as the sense of consciousness, the lightness of being. To understand either we require both. Tomas stands for lightness, Teresa for weight. This sounds as if they were not 'real' characters: but they are, because of the opposition between them.
It would be senseless for author to try to convince reader that his characters had actually lived. They were not born of a mother's womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying 'Einmal ist keinmal.' Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.
Tereza was overcome with shame because her stomach rumbled when Tomas first kissed and possessed her. It was empty from the strain of her travelling and she could do nothing about it. Not being able to do anything about it is the sense in which we live as if we were being controlled by the plot of a novel. Tomas is a personified symbol of the German saying, of the idea that nothing ever happens to us because it can only happen once. Because nothing ever happens we can control it—it becomes as light as feathers, like history. 'Because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the French Revolution have turned into mere words, theories and discussions, frightening no one.' We also read this:
Not long ago I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler's concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period of my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitter reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
Well, it doesn't follow. Nietzschean discoveries, however sensational, in practice leave common sense and common morality much as they were. One such reconciliation with Hitler does not alter the general sense of things, or even that of the man who has made this discovery. Much more important from the point of view of the novel is Kundera's manipulation of two sorts of awareness of things: the light and the heavy, the perpetual and the fictional. It is as if he had decided to write a novel—and perhaps he did—which would acquire its reality by contrasting two theoretical views of how the novel presents it: Virginia Woolf's idea of the perpetual transparent envelope of consciousness, helplessly receiving impressions, and the 'row of giglamps', the sequential and determined tale told by a novelist like Arnold Bennett.
The transparent, envelope of promiscuous Tomas is dragged down to earth by the determined—in all senses—weight of the faithful Tereza. He is compelled against his nature to become a character in a novel, the character that she by nature is. Their relation is both funny and moving, dominating the book and giving it the dignity of fiction and its weight. (Kundera reminds us that the rise of the novel is both the expression of ever-increasing self-consciousness, and its antidote. By representing ourselves in fictions we escape from the unbearable insubstantiality of awareness. In Cartesian formula: we create the Archers, therefore we exist.)
Kundera has always been a flashy writer, his chief interest in sexual discussion and gossip. This is of course so common now as to be standard practice, at least for writers in the West, and it always involves a degree of self-indulgence. His flashiness here becomes an asset, however, blending nicely with his fictive strategy, which is to separate the splendid and various experience of sex—the area of lightness and the will, conquest, curiosity and enterprise—from the heavy, fated and involuntary area of love. Love shapes the novel, sex provides the commentary: a facile arrangement, perhaps, but effective. Like Stendhal, Kundera categorises with engaging relish the different sorts of womaniser, notably those whose obsession is lyrical, founded on a romantic ideal which is continually disappointed and, continually reborn, and the epic womaniser, 'whose inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womaniser strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment).'
Tomas belongs to the second category. Being a surgeon he could not, with his mistresses, 'ever quite put down the imaginary scalpel. Since he longed to take possession of something deep inside them, he needed to slit them open.' Sabina, Tomas's female counterpart, is similarly questing and capricious. For her love is a kind of kitsch, a breaking of faith and truth, spoiling an honest relationship. As an epicstyle female Don Juan she is the ruin of her lover Franz, whose obsession with her is of the lyric variety.
All this schematisation is fairly glib: in his miniature play The Stone Guest Pushkin handles the theme of the light-hearted mistress, and the seducer endlessly fascinated by feminine diversity, with a true depth of art, and it seems likely that Kundera has recalled what Pushkin termed a 'dramatic investigation', and made it diagrammatic and explicit. More compellingly original is the political aspect of lightness, and the fact that, as Kundera perceives, it forms the normal social atmosphere of a Communist state. No one believes any more in the false weightiness of the ideology of such a state, and since that ideology has replaced old-fashioned and instinctive morality the citizens' personal lives are left in a condition of weightlessness.
Sabina associates the kitsch of love with the overwhelming kitsch of the Communist regime, seeing any long-term personal fidelity or integrity as if it were an analogy of that apotheosis of kitsch, the 'Grand March' towards the gleaming heights of socialism. This Kundera suggests is the vilest outcome of the totalitarian kitsch of our time: that it negates any natural and individual pattern of responsibility and weight in private life. Indeed, in a Communist regime there is no private life, but only bottomless cynicism on the one side and measureless kitsch on the other. Sabina had been trained as a painter in the Socialist Realist manner and she soon learnt to practise a subterfuge which in the end became her own highly original and personal style, and makes her rich and successful when she gets away to the West and then to America. She paints a nicely intelligible socialist reality, but with the aid of a few random drops of red paint, or something of the kind, she conjures up an unintelligible reality beneath it, an evocation of meaningless, and therefore to her saving and liberating, lightness of being. She is filled with repulsion when her admirers in the West mount an exhibition, after she has got out, showing her name and a blurb against a tasteful background of barbed wire and other symbols of oppression conquered by the human spirit. This is the same old kitsch by other means, and Sabina, who has a fastidious taste in such things, protests it is not Communism she is rejecting and getting away from, but kitsch itself. 'Kitsch,' observes Kundera, 'is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements … The brotherhood of man on earth will only be possible on a basis of kitsch.'
It is unfortunately typical of Kundera to run a good idea into the ground, to become increasingly entranced in the development of a lively perception until it spreads too easily. It is thus with kitsch, the concept he opposes to lightness of being, and which he deals with in a lyrical analysis in the penultimate section of the novel. The point of this is that though kitsch opposes itself to lightness of being, the true antithesis to kitsch is the weight of love and death in Tereza, the weight with which she envelops Tomas. Kitsch has no answer to death ('kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death'), just as it has no relation to the true necessities of power and love. Sabina is wholly accurate in her perception of the relation between kitsch and Communism: what she loathes and fears is not Communist 'reality'—persecution, meat queues, overcrowding, everlasting suspicion and shabbiness, all of which is quite honest and tolerable—but Soviet idealism. 'In the world of Communist ideal made real', the world of Communist films and 'grinning idiots', 'she would have nothing to say, she would die of horror within a week.'
The term 'kitsch', as used by Kundera, oversimplifies the whole question of the mechanism by which we accept life and open our arms to its basic situations. All good writers, from Homer to Hemingway, have their own versions of it. If we accept his definition, all art would be as full of kitsch—the stereotyped formula of gracious living—as any Hollywood or Soviet film. What matters, surely, as he also recognises, is the purpose behind kitsch today, the ways in which commercial and political interests have taken over and control a basic human need. Kitsch—the word and its meaning—arrived in the 19th century as a substitute for the other kinds of human illusion, religious and chiliastic, which were withering away. 'What makes a leftist is the kitsch of the Grand March.' Yes, but what makes living endurable is the kitsch of life itself Here Kundera, it must be said, makes a nice distinction.
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
Even Sabina comforts herself sometimes with the image of herself as part of 'a happy family living behind two shining windows', but 'as soon as the kitsch is recognised for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness.' By always recognising kitsch, Sabina shows herself incapable of those deep involuntary movements of the soul experienced by Tereza, and by Tomas-with-Tereza. Sabina can only know the unbearable lightness of being.
These are old platitudes dressed up in new styles? Inevitably so, to some extent, and like all Nietzschean demonstrators, Kundera cannot afford to admit the relative aspect of things. Kitsch does not define an absolute concept: it only suggests tendency and style. Kundera has a Continental passion for getting things defined, as when he gives us Tereza's dream vision of her death and Tomas's:
Horror is a shock, a time of utter blindness. Horror lacks every hint of beauty … Sadness, on the other hand, assumes we are in the know. Tomas and Tereza knew what was awaiting them. The light of horror thus lost its harshness, and the world was bathed in a gentle bluish light that actually beautified it.
In spite of this, his ending is imaginative and very moving, as moving as the end of Kafka's The Trial. Indeed Kundera could be said to have written a kind of explication of Kafka's novel, shedding light on its basic allegory and at the same time making use of it for the structure of a new work. Kafka's title is a deep pun. The German word for trial—Prozess—could also refer to the process of living, and it is living which is impossible for Kafka's hero, because all life has been sentenced to death. The strangest moment in The Trial is when the hero, about to suffer execution, sees a light go on in a nearby house and someone lean out of the window. That someone is unaware of his fate, or indifferent to it, as the process of living is unaware of death. Kundera the novelist is exceptionally aware, as Kafka was, of the difference between that process and the state of consciousness, of what he calls the unbearable lightness of being. But whereas living for Kafka was not a feasible process, for Kundera it is extremely so. And for him the real enemies of life are not Death and the Law but kitsch and the politician.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2297
SOURCE: "On Kundera," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 53-7.
[In the essay below, originally published in the periodical La Repubblica on May 5, 1985, Calvino discusses the significance of digressive elements of Kundera's narrative style in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]
When he was twelve, she suddenly found herself alone, abandoned by Franz's father. The boy suspected something serious had happened, but his mother muted the drama with mild, insipid words so as not to upset him. The day his father left, Franz and his mother went into town together, and as they left home Franz noticed that she was wearing a different shoe on each foot. He was in a quandary: he wanted to point out her mistake, but was afraid he would hurt her. So during the two hours they spent walking through the city together he kept his eyes fixed on her feet. It was then that he had his first inkling of what it means to suffer.
This passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being illustrates well Milan Kundera's art of storytelling—its concreteness, its finesse—and brings us closer to understanding the secret due to which, in his last novel, the pleasure of reading is continuously rekindled. Among so many writers of novels, Kundera is a true novelist in the sense that the characters' stories are his first interest: private stories, stories, above all, of couples, in their singularity and unpredictability. His manner of storytelling progresses by successive waves (most of the action develops within the first thirty pages; the conclusion is already announced halfway through; every story is completed and illuminated layer by layer) and by means of digressions and remarks that transform the private problem into a universal problem and, thereby, one that is ours. But this overall development, rather than increasing the seriousness of the situation, functions as an ironic filter lightening its pathos. Among Kundera's readers, there will be those taken more with the goings-on and those (I, for example) more with the digressions. But even these become the tale. Like his eighteenth-century masters Sterne and Diderot, Kundera makes of his extemporaneous reflections almost a diary of his thoughts and moods.
The universal-existential problematic also involves that which, given that we are dealing with Czechoslovakia, cannot be forgotten even for a minute: that ensemble of shame and folly that once was called history and that now can only be called the cursed misfortune of being born in one country rather than another. But Kundera, making of this not "the problem" but merely one more complication of life's inconveniences, eliminates that dutiful, distancing respect that every literature of the oppressed rouses within us, the undeserving privileged, thereby involving us in the daily despair of Communist regimes much more than if he were to appeal to pathos.
The nucleus of the book resides in a truth as simple as it is ineludible: It is impossible to act according to experience because every situation we face is unique and presents itself to us for the first time. "Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion (compassion) or not."
Kundera links this fundamental axiom with corollaries not as solid: the lightness of living for him resides in the fact that things only happen once, fleetingly, and it is therefore as if they had not happened. Weight, instead, is to be found in the "eternal recurrence" hypothesized by Nietzsche: every fact becomes dreadful if we know that it will repeat itself infinitely. But (I would object) if the "eternal recurrence"—the possible meaning of which has never been agreed upon—is the return of the same, a unique and unrepeatable life is precisely equal to a life infinitely repeated: every act is irrevocable, non-modifiable for eternity. If the "eternal recurrence" is, instead, a repetition of rhythms, patterns, structures, hieroglyphics of fate that leave room for infinite little variants in detail, then one could consider the possible as an ensemble of statistical fluctuations in which every event would not exclude better or worse alternatives and the finality of every gesture would end up lightened.
Lightness of living, for Kundera, is that which is opposed to irrevocability, to exclusive univocity: as much in love (the Prague doctor Tomas likes to practice only "erotic friendships" avoiding passionate involvements and conjugal cohabitation) as in politics (this is not explicitly said, but the tongue hits where the tooth hurts, and the tooth is, naturally, the impossibility of Eastern Europe's changing—or at least alleviating—a destiny it never dreamed of choosing).
But Tomas ends up taking in and marrying Tereza, a waitress in a country restaurant, out of "compassion." Not just that: after the Russian invasion of '68, Tomas succeeds in escaping from Prague and emigrating to Switzerland with Tereza who, after a few months, is overcome by a nostalgia that manifests itself as a vertigo of weakness over the weakness of her country without hope, and she returns. Here it is then that Tomas, who would have every reason, ideal and practical, to remain in Zurich, also decides to return to Prague, despite an awareness that he is entrapping himself, and to face persecutions and humiliations (he will no longer be able to practice medicine and will end up a window washer).
Why does he do it? Because, despite his professing the ideal of the lightness of living, and despite the practical example of his relationship with his friend, the painter Sabina, he has always suspected that truth lies in the opposing idea, in weight, in necessity. "Es muss sein!" / "It must be" says the last movement of Beethoven's last quartet. And Tereza, love nourished by compassion, love not chosen but imposed by fate, assumes in his eyes the meaning of this burden of the ineluctable, of the "Es muss sein!"
We come to know a little later (and here is how the digressions form almost a parallel novel) that the pretext that led Beethoven to write "Es muss sein!" was in no way sublime, but a banal story of loaned money to be repaid, just as the fate that had brought Tereza into Tomas's life was only a series of fortuitous coincidences.
In reality, this novel dedicated to lightness speaks to us above all of constraint: the web of public and private constraints that envelops people, that exercises its weight over every human relationship (and does not even spare those that Tomas would consider passing couchuges). Even the Don Juanism, on which Kundera gives us a page of original definitions, has entirely other than "light" motivations: whether it be when it answers to a "lyrical obsession," which is to say it seeks among many women the unique and ideal woman, or when it is motivated by an "epic obsession," which is to say it seeks a universal knowledge in diversity.
Among the parallel stories, the most notable is that of Sabina and Franz. Sabina, as the representative of lightness and the bearer of the meanings of the book, is more persuasive than the character with whom she is contrasted, that is, Tereza. (I would say that Tereza does not succeed in having the "weight" necessary to justify a decision as self-destructive as that of Tomas.) It is through Sabina that lightness is shown to be a "semantic river," that is to say, a web of associations and images and words on which is based her amorous agreement with Tomas, a complicity that Tomas cannot find again with Tereza, or Sabina with Franz. Franz, the Swiss scientist, is the Western progressive intellectual, as can be seen by he who, from Eastern Europe, considers him with the impassive objectivity of the ethnologist studying the customs of an inhabitant of the antipodes. The vertigo of indetermination that has sustained the leftist passions of the last twenty years is indicated by Kundera with the maximum of precision compatible with so elusive an object: "The dictatorship of the proletariat or democracy? Rejection of the consumer society or demands for increased productivity? The guillotine or an end to the death penalty? It is all beside the point." What characterizes the Western left, according to Kundera, is what he calls the Grand March, which develops with the same vagueness of purpose and emotion:
… yesterday against the American occupation of Vietnam, today against the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia; yesterday for Israel, today for the Palestinians; yesterday for Cuba, tomorrow against Cuba—and always against America; at times against massacres and at times in support of other massacres: Europe marches on, and to keep up with events, to leave none of them out, its pace grows faster and faster, until finally the Grand March is a procession of rushing, galloping people and the platform is shrinking and shrinking until one day it will be reduced to a mere dimensionless dot.
In accordance with the agonized imperatives of Franz's sense of duty, Kundera brings us to the threshold of the most monstrous hell generated by ideological abstractions become reality, Cambodia, and describes an international humanitarian march in pages that are a masterpiece of political satire.
At the opposite extreme of Franz, his temporary partner Sabina, by virtue of her lucid mind, acts as the author's mouthpiece, establishing comparisons and contrasts and parallels between the experience of the Communist society in which she grew up and the Western experience. One of the pivotal bases for these comparisons is the category of kitsch. Kundera explores kitsch in the sense of edulcorated, edifying, "Victorian" representation, and he thinks naturally of "socialist realism" and of political propaganda, the hypocritical mask of all horrors. Sabina, who, having established herself in the United States, loves New York for what there is there of "non-intentional beauty," "beauty by error," is upset when she sees American kitsch. Coca-Cola-like publicity, surface to remind her of the radiant images of virtue and health in which she grew up. But Kundera justly specifies:
Kitsch is the aesthetic idea of all politicians and all political parties and movements.
Those of us who live in a society where various political tendencies exist side by side and competing influences cancel or limit one another can manage more or less to escape the kitsch inquisition…. But whenever a single political movement corners power, we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.
The step that remains to be taken is to free oneself of the fear of kitsch, once having saved oneself from its totalitarianism, and to be able to see it as an element among others, an image that quickly loses its own mystifying power to conserve only the color of passing time, evidence of mediocrity or of yesterday's naïveté. This is what seems to me to happen to Sabina, in whose story we can recognize a spiritual itinerary of reconciliation with the world. At the sight, typical of the American idyll, of windows lit in a white clapboard house on a lawn, Sabina is surprised by an emotional realization. And nothing remains but for her to conclude: "No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition."
A much sadder conclusion is that of the story of Tereza and Tomas; but here, through the death of a dog, and the obliteration of their own selves in a lost site in the country, there is almost an absorption into the cycle of nature, into an idea of the world that not only does not have man at its center, but that is absolutely not made for man.
My objections to Kundera are twofold: one terminological and one metaphysical. The terminological concerns the category of kitsch within which Kundera takes into consideration only one among many meanings. But the kitsch that claims to represent the most audacious and "cursed" broad-mindedness with facile and banal effects is also part of the bad taste of mass culture. Indeed, it is less dangerous than the other, but it must be taken into account to avoid our believing it an antidote. For example, to see the absolute contrast with kitsch in the image of a naked woman wearing a man's bowler hat does not seem to me totally convincing.
The metaphysical objection takes us farther. It regards the "categorical agreement with being," an attitude that, for Kundera, is the basis of kitsch as an aesthetic ideal. "The line separating those who doubt being as it is granted to man (no matter how or by whom) from those who accept it without reservation" resides in the fact that adherence imposes the illusion of a world in which defecation does not exist because, according to Kundera, shit is absolute metaphysical negativity. I would object that for pantheists and for the constipated (I belong to one of these two categories, though I will not specify which) defecation is one of the greatest proofs of the generosity of the universe (of nature or providence or necessity or what have you). That shit is to be considered of value and not worthless is for me a matter of principle.
From this some fundamental consequences derive. In order not to fall either into vague sentiments of a universal redemption that end up by producing monstrous police states or into generalized and temperamental pseudo-rebellions that are resolved in sheepish obedience, it is necessary to recognize how things are, whether we like them or not, both within the realm of the great, against which it is useless to struggle, and that of the small, which can be modified by our will. I believe then that a certain degree of agreement with the existent (shit included) is necessary precisely because it is incompatible with the kitsch that Kundera justly detests.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3193
SOURCE: "Estrangement and Irony," in Salmagundi, No. 73, Winter, 1987, pp. 25-32.
[In the following essay, Eagleton considers the various ideological conflicts that inform Kundera's fiction.]
Milan Kundera tells the story in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting of a Czech being sick in the middle of Prague, not long after the Soviet invasion of the country. Another Czech wanders up to him, shakes his head and says: "I know-exactly what you mean".
The joke here, of course, is that the second Czech reads as significant what is in fact just a random event. In the post-capitalist bureaucracies, even vomiting is made to assume some kind of instant symbolic meaning. Nothing in Eastern Europe can happen by accident. The logical extreme of this attitude is paranoia, a condition in which reality becomes so pervasively, oppressively meaningful that its slightest fragments operate as minatory signs in some utterly coherent text. Once the political state extends its empire over the whole of civil society, social reality becomes so densely systematized and rigorously coded that one is always being caught out in a kind of pathological 'overreading', a compulsive semiosis which eradicates all contingency. "No symbol where none intended". Samuel Beckett once remarked: but in 'totalitarian' societies, monolithic structures of meaning, one can never be quite certain what's intended and what isn't—whether there is ominous meaning or not in the delayed arrival of your spouse, the boss's failure to say good morning, that car which has been behind your own for the past ten miles, Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes love with an engineer in his flat, but later she will wonder about the drabness of the place compared to his elegance, that edition of Sophocles on the shelf, the few moments he was away making the coffee. Is it the abandoned apartment of an imprisoned intellectual? Is the engineer a police agent, and was he turning on the cine camera while supposedly making the coffee?
Survival in Eastern Europe demands an awareness of this possible sub-text, a daily hermeneutics of suspicion: but then how, in behaving with such vigilance, is one to avoid becoming collusive with a power for which no event can be accidental, no gesture innocent? How to read without overreading, avoid a naive empiricism without falling prey to semiological paranoia? The most celebrated of all modern Czech writers, Franz Kafka, suspends his readers between narrative and sub-text, the bald appearance of events and the ceaselessly elusive truth of which they might just be dimly allegorical. Such truth is never totalisable, shifting its ground each time one approaches it; there is, perhaps, a metanarrative which rigorously determines the slightest detail of quotidian life but which is always elsewhere. If this is an allegory of the disappeared God, it is also one of the post-capitalist state, a paradoxical condition in which everything is at once compulsively legible, locking smoothly into some univocal story, and yet where history is awash with secrets, whispered treacheries, tell-tale traces. In this drably positivist world, everything lies on the one hand drearily open to view, tediously repetitive and flatly two-dimensional, the mysterious depths of subjectivity drained off from a world which becomes brutely self-identical. On the other hand, nothing is ever quite what it seems; so that a 'postmodernist' eradication of depth, mystery, subjectivity co-exists strangely with a persistent 'modernist' impulse to decipher and decode, a sense of concealment and duplicity.
Kundera's fiction opposes to the sealed-off metanarrative of post-capitalist bureaucracy a set of notably dislocated texts, although not at all in the manner of some sophisticated Western deconstruction. The structural subversiveness of his novels lies simply in the loose capaciousness whereby they encompass different stories, sometimes to the point of appearing like a set of nouvelles within the same covers. This is not the modernist undermining of narrative realism of a Beckett, for whom one arbitrary story generates another equally gratuitous and that another, until the whole text becomes no more than a machine for pumping out tall groundless tales in an honorable Irish tradition. Each of Kundera's stories has a 'sense' to it, and interacts with the others; but it must be allowed to exist in its own narrative space free from metanarrational closure, absolved from the authoritarianism of the 'closed book'. Kundera constantly interrupts himself in order to give the slip to the totalitarian drive of literary fiction, breaking off the narrative to deliver his latest ontological musings, inserting a sheaf of brief philosophical reflections between episodes, airily abandoning the fictional pretence in the interests of historical documentation. All of this is done casually, apparently spontaneously, without modernist outrage or obtrusiveness, utterly bereft of any intense aesthetic self-consciousness or portentous experimentalism. There is no sense of shock or rupture in his texts, no heavily calculated violations of plausibility or deftly engineered incongruities, no calculated cacophony of discourses. For this to happen would suggest that one was still in thrall to some literary orthodoxy one was grimly or scandalously intent on discrediting, whereas Kundera conveys the rather more shocking sense of unconcern, a writer who has, so to speak, just not been told that you shouldn't hold up the narrative with metaphysical speculations about angels and devils, and who would not understand what you were talking about if you were to tell him so. He treats the novel as a place where you can write anything you like, anything, as it were, that has just come into your head, as a genre released from constraint rather in the manner of a diary. No doubt, psychobiographically speaking, this artlessness is the effect of a finely conscious art, but his writing bears none of its traces and communicates instead a quite astonishing 'naturalness', a stunning off-handedness and laid-back companionability which forces the reader genuinely to doubt whether it is in the least aware of its own brilliance. Nothing could be more suspect for the avant-garde West than this spurious naturalisation of the sign, this cavalier lucidity and apparently effortless transparency, which could only for us be yet another craftily contrived style, a cultural sign every bit as eloquent and flamboyant as the laboriously constructed 'degree zero' writing of a Camus or a Hemingway. But our own suspicion of the natural springs from the conditions of a late bourgeois society in which ideology has had several centuries to disseminate itself into the textures of lived experience, crystallizing its devious impulses as the self-evident or commonsensical; in this sense we suspect the 'natural' exactly because ideology has succeeded in its historic task, requiring a violent demystification in fictions which ironise their every proposition. This is not the situation in Eastern Europe, whose political hegemony was only recently installed, moreover, from the outside, and which has therefore had little time or opportunity to flesh itself into a full-blooded phenomenology of everyday life. In such societies, given the grotesque discrepancy between material hardship and the idealising claims of the state, it is ideology which is transparently fictional, portentously self-conscious, the very reverse of spontaneous or self-evident; and the 'naturalness' of the Kundera style, its easy, intimate relation with the experiential, is thus as politically significant as is its conversion of the novel into a space of free-floating discourses in a rigorously codified society. Kundera's relaxed, unfussy lucidity is post-modernist in a genuine sense of the word, an art which becomes possible only when all the heart-burnings and agonisings of modernism proper, its heady transgressions and self-important experiments, can now at last be taken for granted, put quietly to use once shorn of their portentousness. For it is exactly that portentousness which links them, in sensibility if not in doctrine, with the histrionic posturings of the ideological.
"The only thing we can do", comments one of Kundera's characters about the writing of fiction, "is to give an account of our own selves. Anything else is an abuse of power. Anything else is a lie". The paradox of such liberalism for Kundera is that it keels over inexorably into a kind of totalitarianism. The narrative of just one individual becomes a closed book, a sealed, autonomous world every bit as absolute and author-itarian as the absolutist state. Such solipsism is the mere flipside of Stalinism, sucking reality into its own self-regulating logic with all the imperiousness of the central committee. Difference and uniqueness are no salvation in themselves from the dreary self-identity of the post-capitalist state; the unique has an unbearable lightness and frailty about it, as though anything which happens only once might as well not have happened at all. Einmal ist keinmal. If history can be dissolved into pure difference, then the result is a massive haemorrhage of meaning; because past events only happen once they fail to take firm root and can be expunged from memory, having about them the ineradicable aura of pure accident. The past thus perpetually threatens to dissolve beneath the heel of the present, and this plays straight into the hands of the absolutist state, devoted as it is to airbrushing disgraced politicians out of ceremonial photographs. What imbues persons and events with unique value, then, is precisely what renders them insubstantial, and Kundera's writing is deeply gripped by this sickening onto-logical precariousness. Pure difference cannot be valuable, for value is a relational term; but repetition is an enemy of value too, because the more something is repeated the more its meaning tends to fade. Kundera's fiction, both formally and thematically, is given over to examining this contradiction: it must keep different stories structurally separate, exploring the distinctiveness of particular relationships and identities, but always with a profoundly ironic sense of what they share in common, a suspicion that they are in some covert way variations upon a single theme.
The point where difference and identity undecidably converge for Kundera is above all sexuality, linking as it does the unrepeatable quality of a particular love-relationship with the ceaselessly repetitive, tediously predictable character of the bodily drives. What might be thought to be most deviant, stimulating, shockingly unconventional—a sexual orgy—turns out to be hilariously comic in its endless mechanical repetitions, the supposed singularity of erotic love uproariously repeated in a wilderness of mirrors, each individuated body mockingly mimicking the next. Kundera recognizes the profound comedy of repetition, which is one reason why sex is usually the funniest part of his novels: his laughter is that release of libidinal energy which comes from momentarily decathecting the utterly self-identical love-object, the magnificent non-pareil, in the moment of wry recognition that we all share a common biology. The traditional name of this moment is, of course, the carnivalesque, that aggressive onslaught on the fetishism of difference which ruthlessly, liberatingly reduces back all such metaphysical singularity to the solidarities of the flesh. The Farewell Party in particular centres upon fertility, child-bearing, procreation, and like several of Kundera's texts is particularly interested in animals.
The political problem of all this is apparent: how is one to use the fleshly solidarity of the human species as a powerfully demystifying force while avoiding that brutal erasure of differences which is Stalinist uniformity? Kundera's anti-Stalinism is interesting precisely because it refuses to fall back upon an unquestioning romantic idealism of the individual; indeed its carnivalesque impulse presses any such romantic idealism to the point of absurdity. The problem is how to stay faithful to that recognition without lapsing into biologistic cynicism, or, as Kundera might himself put it, crossing over that hairthin border which distinguishes 'angelic' meaning from the demonic cackle of meaninglessness. Reproduction, in every sense of the word, may be a source of emancipatory humor, which is one thing Marx meant by suggesting that all tragic events repeated themselves as farce; but the farce in question is destructive as well as redemptive, which was another of Marx's meanings. The bureaucratic state is itself a contradictory amalgam of romantic idealism and cynical materialism: its discourse is the undiluted kitsch of high-sounding sentiment, whereas its practice renders individual bodies and events indifferently exchangeable. It is difficult, then, to subvert its romantic idealism without lapsing into a version of its own lethal leveling. The image of ungainly naked bodies crowded into a single space stirs Kundera to debunking laughter, but it is also for him the image of the concentration camp.
Every time something is repeated, it loses part of its meaning; the unique, however, is a romantic illusion. This is the contradiction within which Kundera struggles, which can be rephrased as an unrelaxable tension between too much meaning and too little. An order in which everything is oppressively meaningful buckles under its own weight: this is the realm of what Kundera names the 'angelic', which the demonic exists to puncture. The demonic is the laughter which arises from things being suddenly deprived of their familiar meanings, a kind of estrangement effect akin to Heidegger's broken hammer, and which a monstrous proliferation of the supposedly singular can bring about. Meaninglessness can be a blessed moment of release, a lost innocent domain for which we are all nostalgic, a temporary respite from the world's tyrannical legibility in which we slip into the abyss of silence. The demonic is thus closely associated in Kundera's fiction with the death drive, a spasm of deconstructive mockery which, like carnival, is never far from the cemetery. It is a dangerous force, by no means to be euphorically, unqualifiedly celebrated as in the naiveties of some Western deconstruction: it has a malicious, implacable violence about it, the pure negativity of a Satanic cynicism. It is therefore, as Kundera well sees, a tempting lure for the opponents of angelic-authoritarian order, who will be led by it to their doom. The savage irony of the demonic is that it finally dismantles the antithesis of the angels only to conflate the whole of reality indifferently together in a leveling not far from the angels' own. Bodies are interchangeable for both Stalinism and carnival, transgression prized by both revolutionary and cynic. Just as we are precariously positioned by our very bodiliness on an indeterminate frontier between sameness and difference, biology and history, so we must seek to situate ourselves on some almost invisible border between meaning and meaninglessness, embracing all that the angels reject ('shit' is the blunt term Kundera gives to the angelically unacceptable) without settling for that shitlike amorphousness which is Stalinism or nihilism. Happiness is the yearning for repetition, but repetition is what erodes it; the male sexual drive, rather like the authoritarian state, is cripplingly divided between a romantic idealism of the particular (the wife, the permanent mistress) and a promiscuous exchangeability of bodies. The novel records these truths, but is itself an image of them: to write is to cross a border where one's own ego ends, creating characters who are neither imaginary self-identifications nor opaquely alien, but who repeat the self with a difference.
The novel has its inward necessity, its specific structural logic, but it is also a place where the contingency of existence, the unbearable lightness of being, can be reinvented and to some degree redeemed. When Beethoven, as Kundera reminds us, based a quartet on the words Es muss sein, he weaved an idea of destiny out of what had in fact been a casual joke between himself and a friend. Metaphysical truth was born of playfulness; as in Kundera's The Joke a whole metaphysical politics is set in motion by a piece of wit. Human beings, unable to tolerate the frail contingency of their being, must for Kundera rewrite their chance histories as necessity; and this, precisely, is what the novel itself continually does, endowing the accidental with a determinate form. But it is also the characteristic strategy of Stalinism, for which nothing is allowed to escape into pure randomness; and Kundera must therefore write lightly as well as lucidly, bathing what is in the aura of what might not have been. It is for this reason, perhaps, that his narratives are as spare and uncluttered as they are, eschewing the ponderousness of the metaphysical. His cavalier way with them reminds us of their frailness as fictional inventions; and when he speaks in his own voice, the philosophical wisdom he communicates is more the auratic, Benjaminesque 'experience' of the traditional tale-teller than the speculations of a theoretically-minded modernist. What intensities there are in Kundera's work belong, as it were, to the subject-matter rather than to the mode of conveying it, hedged round continually with an irony which represents the borderline between too much meaning and too little, the portentous solemnity of the ideological and the bland dissociation of the cynic.
The dissonance in Kundera between a conventionally romantic subject-matter and a decidedly non-romantic handling of it has itself a political root. For if on the one hand his astonishingly subtle explorations of personal relationships redeems that which Stalinism expels, the ironic pathos with which such relationships are invested is just the reverse of that triumphalistic sentimentality which is Stalinism's ideological stock-in-trade. 'Kitsch' is the name Kundera gives to all such 'shitless' discourse, all such idealising disavowal of the unacceptable; and in the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart reigns supreme. Totalitarian kitsch is that discourse which banishes all doubt and irony, but it is not a grim-faced, life-denying speech: on the contrary, it is all smiles and cheers, beaming and euphoric, marching merrily onwards to the future shouting 'Long live life!' The Gulag, as Kundera comments, is the septic tank used by kitsch to dispose of its refuse. If Stalinism cannot be opposed by romanticism it is precisely because it has a monopoly of it; and this is one reason why Kundera's own critique is bent inevitably towards the materialism of the body, whose joyous affirmations must always be radically double-edged, which knows shit and ecstasy together. Carnival generates a collective imagery which can undermine ideological kitsch; but in the end Kundera is unable to accept this, precisely because he comes to define kitsch as any collective imagery whatsoever. His critique of oppressive ideologies is at root curiously formalistic: what seems wrong with kitsch is finally not this or that enunciation or emotion, but the bare fact that it must be a commonly shareable discourse. This is not simply individualist dissent, of a familiarly Eastern European kind: it is that Kundera seems genuinely unable to imagine any universally shared emotion which would not, by definition, be intolerably banal. It is this which leads him to write that "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch". The best response to this is not to produce the kinds of political argument with which Kundera is doubtless all too familiar; it is simply to point out that any such formulation is untrue to the power of his own fiction. For it is exactly from the irresolvable conflict between the unique and the necessarily repeatable, the fragility of the particular and the comedy of the collective, that his fiction draws part of its formidable strength. To collapse that tension on either side is the real banality; and if Kundera's writing is valuable, it is among other reasons because he makes any such erasure of conflict harder to effect.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1186
SOURCE: "Beautifying Lies and Polyphonic Wisdom," in New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 13.
[In the following review of The Art of the Novel, Meisel focuses on Kundera's treatment of formal devices of the novel genre.]
Milan Kundera has charmed the world with his sonorous fictions—five novels, a play and a volume of stories-although it is formalist rigor as much as charm that distinguishes his first book of nonfiction, The Art of the Novel. A collection of five essays and two dialogues published over the last decade, The Art of the Novel recommends self-effacement as a precept of writing and dooms purveyors of dogma in either literature or criticism. Whatever moral arrangements the Czechoslovak subjects of his narratives might suggest to us, Mr. Kundera as critic is little inclined to dwell upon them. Instead, he dispassionately explains—and with singular instructiveness, as he ranges from Cervantes and Richardson to Kafka, Joyce and Hermann Broch—how novels are made and why; how the novel and its history constitute a specific form of knowledge not to be confused with philosophy, politics or psychology; and why novels are and should be written at all. Linda Asher's translation from the French deftly conveys the lucidity of Mr. Kundera's prose.
The emphasis on the formal aspects of fiction in The Art of the Novel is accompanied by an overt disavowal of any political agenda. Disingenuousas such a claim may sound coming from an Eastern European writer living in exile in Paris, it is nonetheless the first of three working principles in The Art of the Novel. Mr. Kundera bases it on his belief in "the radical autonomy of the novel" as a form, as he puts it in his essay on Kafka, "Somewhere Behind."
The second principle is derived from the first, and it is the rejection of kitsch. Not simply bad or laughable art, kitsch is, in Mr. Kundera's definition from "Sixty-three Words" (his dictionary of the terms and categories that organize his imagination), "the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one's own reflection."
Mr. Kundera's most recent novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, gives us examples of Communist kitsch, American kitsch, fascist kitsch, feminist kitsch—even artistic kitsch. The "Jerusalem Address" in The Art of the Novel bluntly describes the last as "the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling." The "either-or" mentality of kitsch, as Mr. Kundera phrases it in "The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes," is, in the final analysis, the result of "an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge."
Hence the novel's distinctive value as a form. Good novels are not kitsch because they do not take sides in the situations they imagine. The point is perfectly documented in Mr. Kundera's own fiction, and especially in his frequent satirizing of the well-intentioned delusions of Communists and Western individualists alike.
One antidote to kitsch is to write novels according to Mr. Kundera's third principle—what he refers to throughout The Art of the Novel as "novelistic counterpoint" or "polyphony." "Counterpoint," or "polyphony," is, strictly speaking, the play among different kinds of writing—essay, dream, narrative—in a single text. Mr. Kundera's own version of counterpoint, however, has a temporal dimension, in contrast to some of his relatively static models, such as Broch's neglected masterpiece of 1930–32, The Sleepwalkers. The technique also has its roots deep in the history of the novel. With Cervantes, Mr. Kundera argues, the novel discovered multiple perspective; with Richardson, he argues again in "Dialogue on the Art of the Novel," it discovered the "interior life." To these formal discoveries, Mr. Kundera has himself added "chronologic displacement," a term he coins in the book's richest piece, "Dialogue on the Art of Composition."
By means of "chronologic displacement," the novelist can tell crossing or intersecting stories, not only from the alternating perspectives of the relevant characters, but in staggered chronology as well. The yield of this technical innovation is emotionally astonishing. It enlarges the reader's vision by producing resonances and relations among a series of lives that no one individual is in a position to apprehend. Mr. Kundera's polyphonic novels provide this mode of seeing, what he calls a "suprapersonal wisdom."
The Joke, Mr. Kundera's first novel, is a polyphonic tour de farce, although the last two sections of The Unbearable Lightness of Being are probably the most remarkable illustration of polyphony in his work. There the deaths of Tomas and Tereza are mentioned in passing in the novel's sixth section, which is told from the point of view of the novel's other lovers, Franz and Sabina; the seventh section goes back in time to tell the story of Tomas and Tereza's happy retreat to the Bohemian countryside, stopping just short of the accident that takes their lives. Our foreknowledge of their end—and the novel's refusal to allow us to witness it—is unashamedly compelling.
Mr. Kundera's polyphonic novels are, among other things, nothing less than strategies for surmounting one's sense of entrapment in events outside one's control or even awareness—thus the enormous importance he places on Kafka in "Somewhere Behind" and "Notes Inspired by The Sleepwalkers." The quality of the "Kafkan," as Mr. Kundera calls it, is the best precedent for understanding his own fictional world, since it provides an uncannily elegant rehearsal of life as it has recently become in Kafka's very own Prague—that is, Mr. Kundera's.
While it is traditional to view Kafka as an absurdist, for Mr. Kundera such a view is mistaken. To him, Kafka does not represent the breakdown of writing, but a possibility of real existence on which the novel can draw. The Kafkan is an acute sense of "the trap the world has become." It even pressures Mr. Kundera's prose into epigrammatic concision, as though, like Kafka's Joseph K., he were running out of time: "The world according to Kafka: the bureaucratized universe. The office not merely as one kind of social phenomenon among many but as the essence of the world." In fact, Mr. Kundera implies the Kafkan is the characteristic state of the West as well as the East. Unlike the obvious coerciveness of the "police apparatus," however, Western bureaucratization uses milder, more covert ideological instruments such as "the mass media apparatus."
To see Mr. Kundera in the light of this reading of Kafka makes it clear why his essays promise a future for the novel. Instead of tracing novelistic invention by way of the exhausted legacy of Joyce (or "establishment modernism"), Mr. Kundera, through his heightened sense of the Kafkan, suggests that the novel still has unlimited sources of inquiry in the "bureaucratic"; it also has great power, by virtue of the formal devices available to it, over the sense of confinement bureaucracies and kitsch engender. Mr. Kundera transforms the Kafkan by locating its vision in decidedly realist settings, and by imagining a means of "suprapersonal" escape from the claustrophobic universe common to East and West alike.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4064
SOURCE: "'Man Thinks; God Laughs': Kundera's 'Nobody Will Laugh,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29. No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 1-10.
[Below, Gaughan discusses the purpose of laughter and comedy in "Nobody Will Laugh," especially as they relate to the individual and society.]
Comedy and laughter are often important thematic concerns, as well as prominent qualities, of Milan Kundera's novels and stories. At first glance, this seems to be because comedy and laughter are good ways of resisting oppressive codes of conduct and ways of thinking, especially those enforced and imposed by public authorities. But, while comedy and laughter are undoubtedly ways of negating or ameliorating the effects of various kinds of belief, they also do something more. They bring to the surface and make explicit the often hidden and always painful struggle between the equally necessary but mutually exclusive demands of freedom and belief—a struggle that Kundera sees as the characteristic condition of the modern European mind. Comedy and laughter, in other words, are not just corrective responses or antidotes to the imposition of someone else's idea of moral and social order; they are expressions of the mind's attempt to understand itself and its world when the imperatives of beliefs about how life should be are suspended. For this reason, comedy and laughter do not by themselves resolve the dilemmas of Kundera's characters (who are neither entirely free nor entirely defined by beliefs, whether their own or those they are forced to accept), any more than the abstract formulas of order imposed on them do. They are, instead, the conditions under which these characters can experience and explore what freedom is and, at the limits of freedom, the suffering they share with each other.
In Laughable Loves, many of the characters use whimsy, practical jokes, or their imaginative agility to rebel against a grim and monotonous social world and tedious private lives. But the freedom they gain from their ironic detachment and their willingness to view both themselves and others as a comic spectacle also entail a loss of meaning and an isolation that is often as empty as it is sometimes blissful. Their rebellion is mostly negative and leaves them without any firm footing they can use to gain a deeper understanding of themselves or others. This understanding takes place, when it does take place, on the other side of the disorder laughter creates where the shared suffering of being human momentarily appears between the seductive consolations of uncaring freedom and unreflective belief. Of these stories, "Nobody Will Laugh" provides one of the best examples of how comedy and laughter help resist the deadening effects of enforced beliefs, not to achieve some ultimate and satisfying freedom, but to reveal a vanishing common ground where understanding and solidarity are, at least, possible, if only for a time.
Late in "Nobody Will Laugh," Klima, the story's major character and narrator, while trying to explain to his department chairman that the terrible fix he has gotten himself into is simply the result of some misunderstood practical jokes, says, "I shall explain before everyone the things that took place. If people are human they will have to laugh at it." The sage department chairman, however, is less sanguine than Klima and tells him, "As you like. But you'll learn either that people aren't human or that you don't know what humans are like. They will not laugh."
That people will, if they are human, laugh is Klima's last hope and, in some respects, his last illusion. He seems to have good reason to believe that people will laugh, since what has happened to him is certainly the stuff of comedy. Klima, a brash young intellectual, is asked by a stolid and unremarkable schoolteacher, Mr. Zaturetsky, to write a review of an article he has worked on for three years so that the prestigious Visual Arts Journal will publish it. Klima, impulsively and somewhat recklessly, decides not to write the review after he determines that the article is nothing more than a rehash of what others have already said on the subject, but he does not refuse to write the review either. Klima is flattered by the high esteem in which he is held by Zaturetsky and does not want to lose an admirer. He also resents being asked to do the dirty work that the editors of the journal should do. When Zaturetsky presses the issue, Klima begins a prolonged game of hide-and-seek with the persistent and terribly earnest Zaturetsky. Naturally, neither Zaturetsky nor his equally implacable and determined wife is amused, and Klima eventually finds himself hauled before a grim and humorless local committee to explain his actions and give up the name of the woman with whom he has secretly been living. Worse still, Klima's pranks and the trouble they have caused give his faculty colleagues the reason they need to dump such an unorthodox and irreverent (not to mention popular) young teacher. The joke is now on the joker as the very events Klima thought he was controlling turn against him. His only hope is that people will see that everything was just a joke and will laugh. That they do not suggests that Klima may not, in fact, know what humans are like or, more likely and more disturbingly, that something has caused laughter, and with it a part of humanity, to vanish from Klima's world.
Laughter, of course, is not at all easy to explain. One major difficulty is the fact that laughter always has at least two sides. On the one hand, laughter is a way of liberating ourselves from the oppressiveness of our ideas and beliefs. We laugh, as Bergson points out, when we see the fluidity of life outstrip some rigid definition or idea of how life should be. We laugh, in other words, because anything mechanical in character, events, or even words reminds us that life is never quite what we want it to be and that our ideas and beliefs must remain supple and adaptable if our understanding of ourselves and our world is to continue to grow. On the other hand, because it subverts our certainty that things are the way we want them to be, laughter is also discomfiting and nihilistic. For, while it is true that if things were always what they seem to be, there would be no freedom, no room for growth, it is equally true that if things are never what they seem and there is no order or certainty, life would quickly become unbearable.
Laughter's volatile and hazardous nature is one reason why comedy and tragedy are always dangerously close to each other. When all the unforeseen mishaps and misunderstandings that make up comedy do not liberate a character from some narrow conception of himself and his world but instead simply destroy his world, comic misadventure can become something very like a tragic fate. (It works the other way around as well, as any poorly written or poorly played tragedy will readily prove.) Klima's own obviously comic story bears this out. If seen from a slightly different angle, Klima's predicament is not at all unlike the predicament of Oedipus, who also believes that he can control events through his rational understanding and ends up being shunned by his society.
To further complicate matters, laughter, as Bergson shows, is essentially a form of social discipline and renewal. It is society's way of punishing any individual who shows too much of an inclination to withdraw from society into private ideas, habits, or obsessions. The reasons for withdrawing from society do not matter. Even virtue can be a target of laughter if it is deemed excessive or not sociable. Society, for Bergson, is an organism that, like all organisms, does what it must to keep itself alive, and laughter is an almost biological tool to assure the continued growth and development of the social group against all tendencies to inertia, especially the inertia of substituting fixed ideas for the dynamic flow of thought and life itself. This view of laughter makes perfect sense and is very likely entirely true, but it depends on one crucial condition: that society, like its individual members, be responsive to the changing requirements of human needs. But, just as liberation can turn into anarchy and comedy can easily turn into tragedy, the role of laughter in a society, when the society is not an organic outgrowth of its members, can be usurped by institutional force, thereby making the devices of comic correction of individual excesses into the machinery of coercion.
It is just this kind of social world that Kundera constructs for Klima, and this complicates and changes what laughter is and what it can mean. When Klima plays his practical jokes he must rely, like all jokers, on the understanding of those around him, but this is exactly what he cannot find. True, his treatment of Zaturetsky may be a little cruel, irresponsible, and insensitive, and Klima may well deserve to be chastised for his hubristic belief that he can saddle and control events for his pleasure, but this is not what happens. Instead, Klima is isolated, hunted down and punished as if he were a criminal or worse. His real sin, in the eyes of his society, is not that he has been cruel, insensitive, irresponsible, or even arrogant, but that he has not acted according to the rules, that he has expressed exactly the kind of quick intelligence and adaptability that Bergson associates with social health. So what has gone wrong? Why is laughter not, as Bergson argues, a means of social rejuvenation?
Part of the answer is that what society means to Bergson is no longer what it can mean to Kundera. The largely philosophical idea Bergson had in mind has been inverted in Kundera's story. The social needs of human life are here subordinated to rigid formulas embodied in a pervasive bureaucracy that is accountable only to itself. In fact in this story, it is society that has all the qualities Bergson associates with the comic automaton, but, because it also has all the power, no one dares laugh at it. The creation and imposition of social norms is not, as it was for Bergson, an organic and uniquely human process, one that is an extension of the ways individuals are forever creating symbolic forms to make sense of themselves and their world. The norms in Klima's world have become abstract ideas imposed by force as the way experience, both social and personal, is to be ordered and understood.
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that society, as it is understood by Bergson, does not really exist in Klima's world. What Ortega y Gasset calls society, spontaneous social effort and historical action, and what he calls the state, the machinery constructed for public order and administration, have been virtually equated. Society, insofar as it exists at all, exists only as a fugitive shadow on the periphery of the State. What is called society is little more than a rigid and rule-bound abstraction imposed from above. Community has been replaced by more or less random collections of people who have only arbitrary connections to each other and, consequently, no initial way to understand or sympathize with each other. In the absence of understanding and sympathy, rules, not needs or affiliation, define how people will live together and obedience replaces cooperation as the basis of social life. Adaptability and spontaneity, the very qualities Bergson believes the comic fosters, have become the deadly enemies of the state and must be identified and crushed by the kind of social violence that, under other circumstances, is an essential part of the comic.
This change in society, however, is not enough by itself to explain why Bergson's ideas about the purpose of laughter and the comic are turned so completely around. Society, after all, is just one form that human thought takes. To understand why laughter and the comic are no longer welcome, why no one will laugh, it is necessary to understand that in Kundera's story the comic spirit, in the person of Klima, is up against a way of thinking as well as a particular social and political system.
In his "Jerusalem Address," Kundera expresses this conflict in terms of the Jewish proverb, "Man thinks, God laughs." God laughs because as man thinks and takes his thinking seriously, the truth of things slowly slips away from him. Eventually, thinking, and believing that what is thought is true, creates a kind of person Kundera calls, after Rabelais, the agelaste, those who will not laugh. This type of person, Kundera claims, is the mortal enemy of the novelist:
No peace is possible between the novelist and the agelaste. Never having heard God's laughter, the agelastes are convinced that the truth is obvious, that all men necessarily think the same thing, and that they themselves are exactly what they think they are. But it is precisely in losing the certainty of truth and the unanimous agreement of others that man becomes an individual. (Art of the Novel)
What is true of the novelist is equally true of the storyteller, and Klima is, if nothing else, a compulsive storyteller. He relies heavily on his ability to invent stories to seduce his girlfriend Klara, to play practical jokes on Zaturetsky, to fend off the intrusive inquiries of the local committee—in short, to live in his world. Klima, in other words, not only disregards the rules, a dangerous enough thing to do in both his and our world, he goes further and refuses to accept the certainty about life and what life means that is implicit in the rules he is supposed to live by. Klima's sense of humor, as cruel and puerile as it sometimes seems, is nonetheless his way of breaking with the "unanimous agreement of others" so that he can preserve his individuality and freedom in a world that demands both as a sacrifice for an abstract and narrowly defined social order. The only blame that Klima justly bears for what happens to him is his belief that he can saddle and control events. This is a belief that he, albeit unconsciously, shares with the very society he is trying to resist and is really the only guilt that Klima needs to expiate.
That Klima's opposition to his society and its way of thinking is not just political but is, in fact, philosophical, is made clear when he defends his lies and jokes to Klara, who has asked him why he will not lie just once more and write the good review for Zaturetsky that will solve all of their problems:
"You see, Klara," I said, "you think that a lie is a lie and it would seem that you're right. But you aren't. I can invent anything, make a fool of someone, carry out hoaxes and practical jokes—and I don't feel like a liar and I don't have a bad conscience. These lies, if you want to call them that, represent myself as I really am. With such lies I'm not simulating anything, with such lies I am in fact speaking the truth. But there are things I cannot lie about. There are things I've penetrated, whose meaning I've grasped, which I love and take seriously. I can't joke about these things. If I did I would humiliate myself. It's impossible, don't ask me to do it, I can't."
Here, in this seemingly paradoxical explanation, Klima is defending not only himself but also the storytelling imagination. Stories, like Klima's lies, are expressions of truth, even though this truth cannot be fixed in abstract categories. Klima's problem is that his defense of his lies relies on a conception of truth that is diametrically opposed to the conception of truth that underlies and controls his society. For Klima, truth is ambiguous. It takes many forms, even the form of untruth, and, although it is to be taken seriously, it cannot be taken seriously without play and laughter. For Klima to tell the lie Klara wishes him to tell would mean accepting the rules of his society as the truth they pretend to be. It would mean, in other words, that he would have to accept a lie as truth rather than finding the truth even in lies. To do so would not only be personally humiliating, it would be an abdication of what we have come to regard as a quintessential human freedom: the freedom to investigate, without restraint, the kind of world we live in.
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, Klima's belief in the truthfulness of lies is what enables him, and him alone, to develop in the course of the story, to discover his own solitude and powerlessness and to recognize the pain and alienation of others. This deepening of Klima's understanding of himself is especially evident when, to bring matters to a head, he arranges a meeting with Mrs. Zaturetsky, the woman he has come to regard as his nemesis. While she is sitting in his office, the nearly blind Mrs. Zaturetsky, like a latter day Tiresias, brings Klima the unexpected knowledge that he has entirely misunderstood the meaning of his own actions:
The connection between her and the incident, in which we'd both played a sad role, suddenly seemed vague, arbitrary, accidental, and not our fault. All at once I understood that it had only been my illusion that we ourselves saddle events and control their course; the truth is that they aren't our stories at all, that they are foisted upon us from somewhere outside; that in no way do they represent us; that we are not to blame for the queer path that they follow; they carry us away, since they are controlled by some alien forces.
Klima is here brought face to face with the fact that, although he can create stories at will, he cannot control how they unfold and what they will mean. He realizes at last that meaning cannot be determined in advance but can only be discovered as a result of already lived experience, that his comic and critical intelligence must eventually come to roost in the fuller human context of limitation and suffering. Ironically, this apparent loss of freedom is also the realization that frees Klima to act in a way that is contrary to the values of his world and not just in defiance of them: he can incorporate suffering, both his own and that of others, into his playful search for what is true.
This is why Klima, while discovering that he does not have the freedom he thought he had, also comes to see Mrs. Zaturetsky as a faithful and devoted soldier and comes to understand the sacrifices both Zaturetskys have made in this desperate attempt by Mr. Zaturetsky to salvage something unique out of an otherwise drab and anonymous life. The series of comic events of the story coalesce into a kind of tragic fate in which the muted pain of the Zaturetskys and Klima's playful intelligence are laid waste by a society that requires not loyalty or reasoned assent, but only the degrading obedience of the slave.
At this point it would seem that comedy has slipped imperceptibly into tragedy. Klima has lost everything he values and faces the bleak future of being a persona non grata in the workers' paradise. Mr. and Mrs. Zaturetsky, although they have succeeded in bringing to bear the force of the state on Klima, still do not have what they want to have. And yet, Klima does not accept a tragic interpretation of his story. After Klara leaves him, presumably for the editor who set Zaturetsky on Klima's trail in the first place, Klima ends his story with this surprising remark:
Only after a while did it occur to me (in spite of the chilly silence which surrounded me) that my story was not of the tragic sort, but rather of the comic variety.
That afforded me some comfort.
To understand why Klima chooses a comic rather than a tragic view of his own story, it is helpful to keep in mind an old Central European tale that Timothy Garton Ash relates. In this tale, a German general says to his Austrian ally, "The situation is serious but not tragic," to which the Austrian general responds, "No, Mein Lieber, it is tragic but not serious." Like the Austrian general, Klima has come to understand a tragedy, the tragedy of the individual in the modern bureaucratized state (a tragedy not limited to any particular political system), but he cannot regard this tragedy as serious. Tragedy, after all, requires that some value be accorded the individual and his suffering, and this is exactly what is missing from Klima's world. Comedy, on the other hand, being essentially negative, does not require this value and can laugh even at its own demise.
Klima understands, in other words, that the last resource of comedy is to laugh at itself. He himself, as an individual, has become laughable in a world where only force and obedience matter, and this is a new truth to which Klima must now remain faithful. Still, like that "fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood" (Art of the Novel) that Kundera believes the novel is, Klima, for all his faults, in fact because of all his faults, becomes the imaginative realm in this story where no one, including Klima, owns the truth and where everyone, including the Zaturetskys, has the right to be understood.
What gives Klima's story its tragic coloring is that his laughter at himself cannot find its necessary echo. Without some response from others, laughter must turn in on itself and this destroys the traditionally affirmative and liberating qualities of comedy. For Kundera, laughter is not the Archimedean point from which the world can be criticized and changed that it is for Bergson. It is as historically conditioned as the world it responds to and can be nothing but a final futile gesture of human freedom in the midst of the chilly silence of fear and conformity.
Nevertheless, this overlapping of tragedy and comedy serves an important purpose in the story. It is the formal equivalent or correlative of Klima's ambiguous experiences and his uncertainly about what the truth is and how it can be expressed. Just as Klima begins with a comic certainty about himself and ends in tragic doubt about the meaning of the events that affect him so dearly but are not truly his, Kundera makes his story appear alternately comic and tragic so that the comic implications of tragedy and the tragic implications of comedy negate any certainty about which the story is. This suspension of the story between formal categories is the story's own comic subversion of the kind of categories of thought that menace not only Klima but, through him, the story itself. This moment of uncertainty, like Descartes's moment of doubt, is the brief moment of the human mind breaking with any kind of consensus of belief and living the only truth it can be sure of—the truth that it cannot really know anything, that all it can do is play and wonder.
This doubting and uncertain consciousness, the modern mind itself, however, is doomed to fail and disappear. Doubt based on the conviction that truth is forever changing its face and its meaning renders the free individual consciousness unable to replace lost certainties with certainties of its own, thereby making the free individual powerless against any form of belief, especially absolute belief. Lost somewhere between God and History, the radically individual consciousness rejects the blandishments of imperial truth in any of its forms solely for the sake of a mystery it cannot even hope to solve, but nonetheless wishes to explore fully and live out to the end. Pushed to the last extremity, as Klima is, the free individual consciousness has one last recourse; it can contemplate and play with the conditions and circumstances of its own inevitable extinction. This may be, in some respects, tragic, but it is certainly not serious, since this is also a moment of truth in a world controlled by lies, a moment when laughter can at least laugh at itself for laughing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8152
SOURCE: "Kundera's Laws of Beauty," in Essays in Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Spring, 1992. pp. 144-58.
[In the following essay, Hans analyzes Kundera's conception of beauty and shame in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.]
Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being provides a serious revision of our conceptions of the nature of beauty, and in so doing it forces us to reconsider the relationship between the aesthetic and our daily lives. At the same time, the novel itself reflects the changes Kundera has brought about via his Nietzschean assessment of forms. Part traditional fiction, part essay, part lyrical exclamation, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a decidedly impure form, one that celebrates its mixed heritage even as it establishes an essential relationship between shame and beauty. In addressing the linkages between the beautiful and the shameful, the novel also registers the ways in which our attitude toward these most fundamental regions of human existence affect our political disposition as well, for Kundera demonstrates throughout the book that even as all human relationships have something to do with questions of power, so too do the manifestations of power reflect the individual's attitude toward his or her sense of beauty and shame. The ultimate effect of all these revisions of the basic categories of human experience is to raise again the question that Nietzsche first posed for us, to ask us once more what it means to be wholly human, what it would mean if we were finally capable of accepting existence on the terms through which it presents itself to us.
Kundera's most striking appraisal of beauty occurs early in the novel when he is discussing the relationship between coincidences in life and in fiction. He has established that his two main characters, Tomas and Tereza, have met through a series of rather mundane fortuities and thereby irrevocably changed their lives, and this prompts him to discuss the great importance of chance on the outcome of our individual fates:
Much more than the card he slipped her at the last minute, it was the call of all those fortuities (the book, Beethoven, the number six, the yellow park bench) which gave her [Tereza] the courage to leave home and change her fate. It may well be those few fortuities (quite modest, by the way, even drab, just what one would expect from so lackluster a town) which set her love in motion and provided her with a source of energy she had not yet exhausted at the end of her days.
Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities, or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. "Coincidence" means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.
According to our traditional ways of thinking, the kinds of fortuities that prompt Tereza to take an interest in Tomas—and those that prompt him to be interested in her—are not to be taken seriously. We all know how seemingly unrelated things can come together during the initial moments of important relationships, and we tend to denigrate their importance. These coincidences may enhance the memory of first meetings and the like a bit, but they are not to be taken seriously precisely because of their idiosyncratic nature. Tereza would be most foolish to assert that her love for Tomas was important because it was linked from the beginning with the music of Beethoven, or the number six, or books, or park benches. Yet that is precisely what Kundera argues here.
The initial meeting between Tereza and Tomas prompts us to pay more attention to the fortuities in our own lives, for if Kundera can assert that the small coincidences in Tereza's life may well have "set her love in motion and provided her with a source of energy she had not yet exhausted at the end of her days," we must assume that such events can have great power both to transform and to sustain our lives. Why, then, do we tend to disregard them so much? Why act as though these coincidences are largely unrelated to the outcomes of our lives? And why do we in turn expect our writers of narrative fiction to keep the fortuities in their stories to a minimum? Without directly explaining why, Kundera tells us what we are missing when we ignore them:
Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end—may seem quite "novelistic" to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as "fictive," "fabricated," and "untrue to life" into the word "novelistic." Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
Turning the tables on us, Kundera argues that instead of criticizing him for building a relationship between his characters out of such flimsy coincidences, we ourselves are to be faulted for failing to recognize the ways in which similar fortuities shape our own lives.
More importantly, Kundera establishes the fundamental premise of the novel by asserting: "Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress." Instead of creating our lives out of a series of rational considerations about what we should be doing that would be based on various considerations for the future, here we are told that instead we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty. And we do this without realizing it. First and foremost, Kundera has shifted the control of our lives away from any self-aware context and moved it to another location that does its work without any necessary reflection on our part. Unlike Freud's unconscious, though, this location construes our lives in terms of the laws of beauty, a phrase that marks out a considerably different space from one like "libidinal urges" or "the pleasure principle." The motifs in Tereza's life—Beethoven's music, reading books, the number six—have nothing to do with sexual energy per se any more than they concentrate exclusively on the pursuit of pleasure. These are ordering processes that differ precisely because they are self-centered, because they reflect only the interests of the libido or the unconscious forces that urge us into one mode of pleasure-seeking or another. The laws of beauty would by definition be something beyond mere self-interest, something that adds another dimension to our lives rather than something that reduces them to the endless expression of libidinal energies.
Not that Tomas and Tereza don't have active libidos, for they most surely do. Nor is the implication of "the laws of beauty" that sexual and bodily activity in general take a subordinate place to "higher" forms of human expression. On the contrary, the laws of beauty work themselves out most pertinently in sexual and bodily contexts, situations that are not to be separated from Beethoven's music or Tolstoy's novels. If body and soul are not always in accord—as Tereza's rumbling stomach emphasizes—the laws according to which they both operate remain the same, even if we fail too often to recognize this to be so.
Nevertheless, when one considers the fortuities that brought Tereza and Tomas together, "laws of beauty" seems a rather excessive term to apply to them. It is not just that they are fortuities but that they are such slight and meaningless ones. Even Kundera emphasizes their drabness, and their highly idiosyncratic nature seems to deny any linkage to a law, even if in some respects they might have some connection to beauty. The logic of Tereza's interest in Beethoven, for example, is skewed from the beginning, for there is no indication that she properly appreciates the value of the music itself. Instead, she values Beethoven because he symbolizes something "higher" to her, and yet this "higher" sensibility comes not from what others might have suggested about the greatness of his work but rather from the fact that his music was associated with a context that had nothing to do with the music per se. Tereza
had known his music from the time a string quartet from Prague had visited their town. Tereza (who, as we know, yearned for "something higher") went to the concert. The hall was nearly empty. The only other people in the audience were the local pharmacist and his wife. And although the quartet of musicians on stage faced only a trio of spectators down below, they were kind enough not to cancel the concert, and gave a private performance of the last three Beethoven quartets.
Then the pharmacist invited the musicians to dinner and asked the girl in the audience to come along with them. From then on, Beethoven became her image of the world on the other side, the world she yearned for.
If there is beauty here, it has little to do with an aesthetic appreciation of Beethoven's last quartets. Beethoven himself may rightly symbolize in some fashion "something higher," but just what that "something higher" is remains located instead in the special privilege of the private performance of the musicians and the invitation to the pharmacist's house, hardly the sort of things that have to do with beauty.
It is worth noting that as a result of Tereza's interest in Beethoven, Tomas too attends to his music, and consequently Tomas himself establishes one of his own motifs on the basis of "the difficult resolution" to be found in the "Es muss sein" motif in Beethoven's last quartet; it is thus possible for the patterns one establishes on the basis of pure idiosyncracy to bear resemblance finally to their original source. Likewise, it is "co-incidental" in this way that Tereza's rather frivolous use of Beethoven's music becomes more serious when it is connected to Tomas's difficult decision to return to Prague and Tereza, for, as Kundera tells us, the same thing originally happened to the "Es muss sein" formula for Beethoven, which was once part of a humorous anecdote concerning a debt that was owed to Beethoven but was in the end turned into the weighty resolution of the last quartet. These fortuities suggest something beyond mere coincidence, or at the very least offer the possibility that one grows into the full consequences of the coincidences that give shape to one's life.
If we are to take the laws of beauty seriously, though, we have to assume that it doesn't matter that Teresa doesn't understand fully the beauty of Beethoven's music. The laws of beauty as they manifest themselves in her life don't necessarily have anything at all to do with the music, even if the music itself symbolizes "something higher." This is made clear by the complete frivolity of some of the other coincidences connected to Tereza's first meeting with Tomas, particularly the yellow park bench and the number six. Neither the bench nor the number six has anything that intrinsically connects it to beauty; the linkage is a purely idiosyncratic one based on Tereza's life, derived from the emerging motifs that have been established in her past. She herself has conferred special values on these things, and when they turn up again in contexts that may well have further significance for her, their value is increased yet again. The individual items in the motif are, we might say, totally arbitrary. There is nothing in the number six that gives it special value; its value comes only from its place within the lived experience that Tereza places it in, derives from its coincidental connection in her mind with something important in her life. But the pattern that is established on the basis of these arbitrary linkages reflects the laws of beauty and demonstrates the way patterns and motifs are inevitably developed in any domain, regardless of their idiosyncratic origins.
The "Es muss sein" of Beethoven reflects this process very well, for the original context, we could say, is totally idiosyncratic. Beethoven is owed some money, he needs the money and therefore asks the debtor if he can give it to him, and the man asks "Muss es sein?" To which, Kundera tells us, "Beethoven replied, with a hearty laugh, 'Es muss sein!' and immediately jotted down these words and their melody." But the melody is hardly the serious one of the last quartet: "On this realistic motif he then composed a canon for four voices: three voices sing 'Es muss sein, es muss sein, ja, ja, ja!' (It must be, it must be, yes, yes, yes, yes!), and the fourth voice chimes in with 'Heraus mit dem Beutel!' (Out with the purse!)."
This jocular request for money is far from the difficult resolution of the last quartet, and yet there is no reason why the phrase "Es muss sein" should not take on another cast later in Beethoven's life and become a heavier motif about weighty decisions. The phrase itself first has significance only because Beethoven chooses to note it and turn it back on its originator, thereby making fun of the rather serious response to a minor request, and in this way it has no more weight than any other phrase one might pick out of another's conversation to play with. But that idiosyncratic beginning establishes the phrase as a musical motif in Beethoven's life, to which he can return at a later date and translate into a more serious musical enterprise.
Tereza's and Tomas's lives, then, are composed according to the laws of beauty, which means that the coincidental things their own particular situation prompts them to attend to become motifs that reflect the general patterns of beauty and the motifs out of which all aesthetic aspects of the world are constructed. There are laws to their behavior, even if those laws coincide with the purely gratuitous elements of their lives that fate throws in their paths, and those laws give their lives all the beauty they will ever have. Kundera suggests through these characters' lives that our existence is fundamentally aesthetic in nature, even if we fail to recognize this, even if we assume that we are always in rational control of the direction of our lives. Again, he emphasizes that "the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress", when beauty would be the last thing one would likely think about. And again, Kundera does not say that we compose our lives according to the pleasure principle, or on the basis of libidinal flows or the desire for the other or anything like that; he says we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty, establishing that as the fundamental principle out of which the other flows of our lives emerge in turn. Our lives are first and foremost constructed on aesthetic principles, and the patterns we develop reflect laws that go beyond any subjective response to the world.
If existence is fundamentally aesthetic, though, one must ask why humans have resisted this knowledge for so long. After all, if Kundera is forced to assert that he will agree that coincidences are "novelistic" only as long as we do not interpret "novelistic" to mean "fictive," "fabricated" or "untrue to life," we must obviously have a heritage that suggests otherwise. We are normally inclined to do precisely what Kundera suspects: we will look at the coincidences of Tereza's and Tomas's life and belittle them because of their arbitrariness. Their lives look too contrived, we think, for in reality people don't fall in or out of love on the basis of such minor things as the number six or the music playing on the radio. Actually, we probably do know that people fall in love on the basis of such things, but we so along with Aristotle, who preferred his fictions to have probable improbabilities rather than improbable probabilities. And it is precisely that distinction which Kundera is attacking in his novel through the coincidences on which it is based.
Kundera is something of an experimental novelist in the sense that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reflexive and regularly reminds us that it is a fiction, but as we have just seen, this distinction means something to Kundera that it doesn't ordinarily mean to us. If he has asserted that in some fundamental ways our very lives are fictional, if not in the way we think, it follows in turn that fictions are in some ways as real as our lives are, if not in the way we think. If an American writer like John Barth can humorously exploit the divide between fiction and life that engenders paralyzing self-consciousness because of one's awareness of how fictional (hence unreal) one's life really is in some respects and how real (hence fictional) one's fictions have become, Kundera locates the unreality of fictions elsewhere and is not concerned that his "unreal" characters might have nothing to do with the "reality" of our lives.
The characters are "unreal," to be sure. We are reminded of that again and again, most specifically with Tomas, who, we are told, was born of an image and of the saying "Einmal ist keinmal." Yet in spite of this "unreal" birth, Tomas's "life" in the novel takes on as much "reality," that is, "plausibility" and "richness" and "representational accuracy," as any character in a more traditional novel. Kundera does not call attention to the fictional nature of Tomas and Tereza to make us suspicious of the "reality" of their lives any more than he wants us to question in turn the fictionality of our own lives, at least when it comes to the compositions we create on the basis of the laws of beauty. Kundera is denying the value of the distinction "fictive, unreal" as it applies to both novels and lives, at least as it has developed over the past few hundred years.
The border between real and unreal is not something to be demarcated so easily by distinctions between "literature" and "life," and if there are useful and necessary discriminations to be made between the two, they certainly get lost in the endless babble about the unreality of our artificial linguistic and cultural artifacts and the artificiality of the lives we build on the basis of the constructs our culture presents us with. The crucial markers to be established disappear in this chaffering, Kundera would have us think, and we need therefore to return to a consideration of the notion that our lives are first and foremost aesthetic in nature, that we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty.
We compose our lives according to the laws of beauty, but…. There has to be a but in this utterance somewhere, for otherwise we would not have gotten into the trap that suggests "fiction" means "unreal." In some respects this too may only be a coincidence of our culture, but it is a coincidence we have built into a major motif by now, and if we did so, there must be a but that follows after the assertion that we compose our lives according to the laws of beauty. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that but is to be found in Kundera's discussion of kitsch, that phenomenon that truly does intersect the realm of the fictive and the unreal. And in his essayistic fashion, Kundera is quite straightforward in his exposition of our commitment to kitsch:
Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.
The fact that until recently the word "shit" appeared in print as s―has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can't claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don't lock yourself in the bathroom!) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.
It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.
"Kitsch" is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages. Repeated use, however, has obliterated its original metaphysical meaning: kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.
If Kundera's assertions about the place of the laws of beauty in our lives are in striking contrast to our own vision of things, that is because we have adopted a different aesthetic framework in order to convince ourselves that we have a categorical agreement with being. Inasmuch as we are unable to face certain aspects of our existence, expressed here by Kundera under the rubric of "shit," the only way we can bring ourselves to declare the creation good is to live in "a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist." This is the world of kitsch.
Kitsch "excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence," which means that it is an aesthetic based on unreal depictions of the way things are in order to establish a vision in which the world seems at least potentially a pleasing place to us. This view of the aesthetic, of course, is the one best expressed in Nietzsche's famous phrase that "We possess art lest we perish of the truth," and at base such a sentiment reflects a refusal to accept the nature of things at any level. More pertinently still, Kundera elaborates on the nature of the "shit" we deny when he tells us that "kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death." In some respects "the daily defecation session" is no more than a reminder of our bodily natures and hence a demonstration of our mortality, that against which we so strenuously fight. So our world is based on the Bible and on Genesis, on the declaration of the world as essentially good, yet we don't really find it to be so and thus establish an aesthetic of denial rather than acceptance.
It is worth remembering that in contrast to the more famous statement quoted above, Nietzsche was finally devoted to a contrary thesis, one based on "Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and hardest problems," and this is certainly the sentiment of Kundera as well. Likewise, we need to recognize that although Kundera does finally associate kitsch with a fear of death, he begins with "shit," and not only because it is a more graphic depiction of our distaste for life but rather because it reflects something deeper than mere anxiety in the face of death: it manifests our shame. If Genesis asserts that the world is good and urges us to accede to this categorical agreement with being, it also makes clear that the first thing that Adam and Eve feel after they eat the apple is shame. Indeed, as a description of their prelapsarian state we are told in Genesis 2:25, "And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed," a statement suggesting that the distinguishing feature of life after the fall is shame. "Shit" symbolizes that shame, and the consequent revulsion at being human—and the inevitable denial of the categorical agreement with being—that the aesthetic of the West has been based on as far back as Plato's Republic.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, then, establishes two kinds of aesthetic, the traditional one of kitsch, that aesthetic which begins by removing from our purview everything we find unpalatable about the world, and that aesthetic which is based on the attempt to say Yes to life even in its most difficult problems. Both conceptions of beauty are finally based on the essential relationship between beauty and shame, but the one begins by repressing that knowledge while the other embraces it as a necessary aspect of the overall whole. The one creates fictions that are deliberately "unreal," artifacts that are constructed in order to keep us from seeing what is real, and the other creates fictions that, while "artificial," nevertheless approach both the real and a categorical agreement with being.
The laws of beauty operate within both of these visions of the aesthetic, though one is more aware of the fact that the laws of beauty determine the motifs of one's life in the Kunderian perspective, and that is precisely the problem, for when the laws of beauty lose their essential connection to that which we construe as the shameful elements of life, they become disengaged from that which would be a sufficient measure of their "reality." If the real has been put out of play from the outset in the denial of shit, there is no way that the truth value of the aesthetic can be measured, for it has no linkage to the real in the first place. The only way to determine its reality quotient is to look for that which it represses, for when that is found, the aesthetic can be seen as one that is based on kitsch. Likewise, a life that is based on the laws of beauty and on a denial of shit at the same time will inevitably become an unreal life, one that establishes its sense of reality on the basis of kitsch.
If these two kinds of aesthetic were only relevant to the productions of the artistic world, the problem of shit and kitsch would be a relatively meaningless one; they would simply be the standard through which one could establish the validity of a work of art. The problem is that our vision of beauty is not restricted to such a localized environment. Kundera has already told us: "Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good," and if we don't believe this to be the case, the religious and political faiths through which we construct our societies will reflect our refusal to agree with the conditions of being as they are established. This in turn means that our faiths will be based on an aesthetic of kitsch rather than on one that seriously seeks to address the shameful aspects of life: "Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements." In this respect, the fictions with the highest unreality quotient are inevitably political, and they are so because the political system always appeals to our tendencies to want to deny that which is shameful.
Political kitsch is so dangerous because of the mechanisms through which it asserts its power. This is most obviously the case in the realm of what Kundera calls "totalitarian kitsch" because in such a world "everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously)." And whereas we live in more or less pluralistic societies and thus in some respects manage to escape totalitarian kitsch, it is still the case that all political parties and movements depend on kitsch, and life is increasingly overwhelmed by the notion that society is nothing but political parties and movements.
The aesthetic of political kitsch is so dangerous precisely because it seems to saturate virtually every domain in the present world, from the domestic scene to the political movements we all recognize on the evening news. More importantly, the repression of shame that kitsch requires inevitably leads to problems of resentment and the need for victims when the world regularly turns out not to conform to the images of it that one's kitsch presents one with. Kundera gives us examples of the local expression of these problems throughout the novel. In Tereza's case, the embodiment of totalitarian kitsch is her mother, a woman who is determined to find someone to blame for a life gone wrong: "When [Tereza's mother] realized she had lost everything, she initiated a search for the culprit. Anyone would do: her first husband, manly and unloved, who had failed to heed her whispered warning; her second husband, unmanly and much loved, who had dragged her away from Prague to a small town and kept her in a state of permanent jealousy by going through one woman after another. But she was powerless against either. The only person who belonged to her and had no means of escape, the hostage who could do penance for all the culprits, was Tereza." Resentful over the outcome of her life, the product largely of her own choices and the aging process in general, Tereza's mother needs someone to blame for the unfortunate way things have gone and can find only Tereza for a victim. It doesn't matter that the mother's fate is not the fault of the daughter; what matters is that the mother herself find a way of placing the blame for the inevitabilities of her own life onto somebody else.
Curiously, though, Tereza's mother makes another gesture as well, one that would seem to deny the world of kitsch rather than uphold it: "Tereza's mother blew her nose noisily, talked to people in public about her sex life, and enjoyed demonstrating her false teeth. She was remarkably skillful at loosening them with her tongue, and in the midst of a broad smile would cause the uppers to drop down over the lowers in such a way as to give her face a sinister expression." Far from feeling shame in the face of her body and its decaying presence, the mother seems to revel in the most shameless of behavior and even ridicules Tereza when she tries to run from such actions. Rather than reflecting an acceptance of her lot, though, "Her behavior was but a single grand gesture, a casting off of youth and beauty. In the days when she had nine suitors kneeling round her in a circle, she guarded her nakedness apprehensively, as though trying to express the value of her body in terms of the modesty she accorded to it. Now she had not only lost that modesty, she had radically broken with it, ceremoniously using her new immodesty to draw a dividing line through her life and proclaim that youth and beauty were overrated and worthless."
These are hardly the acts of an individual who has put kitsch behind her; Tereza's mother has merely erected her own form of kitsch in order to deny her relationship to death and decay and to attempt to drag others down with her into a utopian community of non-difference: "Tereza's mother demanded justice. She wanted to see the culprit penalized. That is why she insisted her daughter remain with her in the world of immodesty, where youth and beauty mean nothing, where the world is nothing but a vast concentration camp of bodies, one like the next, with souls invisible." If all political images of kitsch are based on the ideal of a universal brotherhood—as Kundera phrases it, "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch"—Tereza's mother makes use of the same kitsch here, simply arriving at the universal brotherhood by a more ruthless way of stripping away the differences among people.
Tereza's mother is a terrorist, a totalitarian who seeks to impose her own kitschy image of reality onto others out of resentment and denial of who she herself really is, and in this she resembles all too much a great many political movements based on resentment and denial as well. Kundera provides an example from his own country to flesh out the seriousness of the problem:
The first years following the Russian invasion could not yet be characterized as a reign of terror. Because practically no one in the entire nation agreed with the occupation regime, the Russians had to ferret out the few exceptions and push them into power. But where could they look? All faith in Communism and love for Russia was dead. So they sought people who wished to get back at life for something, people with revenge on the brain. Then they had to focus, cultivate, and maintain those people's aggressiveness, give them a temporary substitute to practice on. The substitute they lit upon was animals.
All at once the papers started coming out with cycles of features and organized letters-to-the-editor campaigns demanding, for example, the extermination of all pigeons within city limits. And the pigeons would be exterminated. But the major drive was directed against dogs. People were still disconsolate over the catastrophe of the occupation, but radio, television, and the press went on and on about dogs: how they soil our streets and parks, endanger our children's health, fulfill no useful function, yet must be fed…. Only after a year did the accumulated malice (which until then had been vented, for the sake of training, on animals) find its true goal: people. People started being removed from their jobs, arrested, put on trial. At last the animals could breathe freely.
If the occupying forces are to be able to maintain the fiction that the Russian invasion saved Czechoslovakia from certain ruin, someone must be blamed for the horrors the people had to go through. Moving from pigeons to dogs to people who are presumably inimical to the regime allows the Czech people to accommodate themselves to the victims they need, yet cannot admit to. After all, those who come to be victimized aren't really responsible for the fate of the nation, but, as with Tereza's mother, when one cannot fight back against those who are truly responsible—in this case the Russians—one must find someone else to blame or else seemingly die of shame.
In turn it is not an accident that the regime uses shame as its most masterful weapon, tape-recording conversations among the dissidents in order to discredit them by revealing their all-too-human pettinesses, by coercing individuals like Tomas into silence by way of demands for letters that explain their mistaken opposition to the occupying forces, and by making full use of the normal human tendency to buckle under in order to save one's own position in life. Tomas is forced to confront precisely this kind of shame and recognize its dual nature:
Tomas was considered the best surgeon in the hospital. Rumor had it that the chief surgeon, who was getting on towards retirement age, would soon ask him to take over. When that rumor was supplemented by the rumor that the authorities had requested a statement of self-criticism from him, no one doubted he would comply.
That was the first thing that struck him: although he had never given people cause to doubt his integrity, they were ready to bet on his dishonesty rather than on his virtue.
The second thing that struck him was their reaction to the position they attributed to him. I might divide it into two basic types:
The first type of reaction came from people who themselves (they or their intimates) had retracted something, who had themselves been forced to make public peace with the occupation regime or were prepared to do so (unwillingly, of course—no one wanted to do it)….
The second type of reaction came from people who themselves (they or their intimates) had been persecuted, who had refused to compromise with the occupation powers or were convinced they would refuse to compromise (to sign a statement) even though no one requested it of them….
And suddenly Tomas grasped a strange fact: everyone was smiling at him, everyone wanted him to write the retraction; it would make everyone happy! The people with the first type of reaction would be happy because by inflating cowardice, he would make their actions seem commonplace and thereby give them back their lost honor. The people with the second type of reaction, who had come to consider their honor a special privilege never to be yielded, nurtured a secret love for the cowards, for without them their courage would soon erode into a trivial, monotonous grind admired by no one.
Both those who have been shamed and those who have had to demonstrate (or think they would demonstrate) courage want Tomas to sign a retraction in order to keep their fictions about themselves more comfortably in place. Those who are already shamed will be able to feel that their act was a normal one simply because Tomas, a man of considerable integrity, gave way under the force of the pressure too, and those who have resisted the pressures need to keep their grandiose vision of their courageous acts in place through repeated acts of humiliation on the part of others. Either way, shame is avoided as an essential aspect of the human condition, and either way the kitsch of the world increases.
What Kundera has given us, then, is a novel in which the characters explore the relationship between the aesthetic possibilities of the human condition and their connection to the political world of which they are also always a part. The book is based on the assumption that we invariably compose our lives according to the laws of beauty, but it also shows that those laws of beauty can move in two directions, in accord with the conventions of kitsch that dominate our social and political lives through their perpetual denial of the shit of life and the shame that is an inevitable part of it, or in line with an aesthetic that assumes a necessary relationship to the shame that came about in the moment that Adam and Eve ate the apple and that will never disappear from human existence. The latter vision is admittedly an "Impure" one precisely to the extent that, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it reflects the ways in which the shit and the beauty of life are intermingled, but it is also an aesthetic that is devoted to the depiction of what is rather than to a repression of that which we should prefer to avoid in this world. And inasmuch as the novel demonstrates again and again the pernicious effects of a sociopolitical system that is based on the illusions of kitsch, the greater value of the impure form of beauty that Kundera presents us with is made manifest throughout the novel.
The direction of Kundera's aesthetic is reflected in his remarks on the value of heaviness, a commentary that embraces both the weighty decision of Beethoven's "Es muss sein" and the heavy burdens that Nietzsche envisioned through his conceptions of the eternal return and the overman. As the appropriate measure of our relation to heaviness, Kundera calls us to account for the relationship we have established with the animals, a relationship that is totally scandalous in all too many respects. This relationship too derives from our understanding of the first books of Genesis, so it is only fitting that Kundera should return there for his elaboration of our treatment of animals:
The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.
If we asserted dominion over the other animals on the planet for ourselves and invented a God to justify that hubristic act, we know now that our reasons for doing so concerned our need for hierarchical priority, our desire to escape from the shame that would quickly follow in the Bible and from which we ourselves would never be able to escape. To one who is self-conscious, the killing of another animal has to be the most shameful of acts, far more horrifying than the mere recognition of one's own bodily nature and private parts. The endless parade of sacrifice that surrounds the killing of herds for food and the like testifies to our great need to escape from this shame and our thorough inability ever to do so.
But we tried, and when the dominion that the Bible gave to us was not sufficient to help us overcome our shame, we worked on other strategies, reflected most pertinently in Descartes and his attitude toward the animal world:
Even though Genesis says that God gave man dominion over all animals, we can also construe it to mean that He merely entrusted them to man's care. Man was not the planet's master, merely its administrator, and therefore eventually responsible for his administration. Descartes took a decisive step forward: he made man "maître et propriétaire de la nature." And surely there is a deep connection between that step and the fact that he was also the one who point-blank denied animals a soul. Man is master and proprietor, says Descartes, whereas the beast is merely an automaton, an animated machine, a machine animata.
In order finally to escape from the degradation involved in our own bodily condition and that which stemmed from it—the need to devour other species—we had to take one more step and deny that animals had souls, thereby turning them into mere "automatons" that could be dispensed with as we saw fit, surely the way we continue to view them to this very day. In order, that is, to escape from our own degradation, we had to degrade completely all the rest of the species on the planet, the equivalent mode within the animal kingdom that we already saw at work in the political regimes represented by Tereza's mother and the occupying forces within Czechoslovakia.
For Kundera the degradation of animals reflects the larger human shame put on display throughout the novel: "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it." The kitsch through which we have framed our world—that sociopolitical aesthetic that is nothing more than "a folding screen set up to curtain off death"—has repeatedly attempted to escape from the scandal of its own hypocrisy, yet our need to deny our position in the world has prompted us again and again to degrade ourselves still further in the guise of a higher and purer vision to be found in the kitsch we so desperately want to believe in. There can be no doubt that we have devastated the species on the planet as a result of these urges, and thus one can only conclude that the aesthetic vision upon which our sense of the world has been based has been a complete failure and has shown itself to be morally bankrupt at the core.
The alternative aesthetic imagined by Kundera reflects a break with this tradition even as it acknowledges the chief originator of that break: Nietzsche. Kundera reflects on the moment when Nietzsche's madness overtook him and relates it to the human relationship with animals in order to establish the full difference between the Nietzschean view of things and the kitsch to which it was opposed:
Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman's very eyes, put his arms around the horse's neck and burst into tears.
That took place in 1889, when Nietzsche, too, had removed himself from the world of people. In other words, it was at the time when his mental illness had just erupted. But for that very reason I feel his gesture has broad implications: Nietzsche was trying to apologize to the horse for Descartes. His lunacy (that is, his final break with mankind) began at the very moment he burst into tears over the horse.
And that is the Nietzsche I love, just as I love Tereza with the mortally ill dog resting his head in her lap. I see them one next to the other: both stepping down from the road along which mankind, "the master and proprietor of nature," marches onward.
Our tendency may be to want to quibble with this particular interpretation of the onset of Nietzsche's madness, arguing that Kundera is making far too much of it by suggesting that at this moment Nietzsche both apologizes to the horse for Descartes and steps down from the road on which our civilization continues to march, but given the full weight of existence and the necessary acceptance of it that Nietzsche was devoted to trying to embrace and affirm, there is every reason to think that this is not merely a "poetic"—and hence "fictive" and "unreal"—rendition of the stakes of this touching action on Nietzsche's part.
Like Kundera, Nietzsche was committed to a fundamentally aesthetic view of human existence, one that was both based on the laws of beauty and established through those laws the richness of life in the midst of its most shameful aspects, and if it took Kundera to recognize that the best measure of this new aesthetic was to be found in our relationship to the rest of the animals on the planet, he would be the first to admit that this insight is to be found at the very center of Nietzsche's work and is best represented by his final break with mankind over the shameless treatment of an animal that should not have had to bear our own shame for all these millennia. And if the image of Nietzsche in his madness hugging the horse is a most sobering gauge of the distance between an aesthetic of kitsch and one that embraces life in all of its beauty and shame, it should not deter us from questioning with continuing persistence another possible road for our own species to march on, nor should it keep us from realizing the degree to which our lives continue to be composed according to the laws of beauty even when we least expect it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5984
SOURCE: "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: Kundera's Narration against Narration," in Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 22. No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 84-96.
[In the essay below, Pifer examines the way that Kundera's notion of the novel informs his narrative methods and practice, focusing mainly on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting]
In Milan Kundera's novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator diagnoses the disease of "graphomania." "An obsession with writing books," graphomania has, he says, overtaken contemporary mass society and reached "epidemic" proportions. While graphomaniacs attempt to write their way out of the isolation induced by an advanced state of "social atomization," their obsession with self-expression paradoxically reinforces and perpetuates the sense of "general isolation" that is symptomatic of the disease. Kundera's narrator thus concludes his diagnosis: "The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without."
Diagnosing within his own book the disease of book-writing, Kundera does more than parody the conditions under which his texts are generated and produced. Through his novel approach to novel-writing—most particularly, through the ironic voice of his narrator—he identifies, in order to subvert, some of those linguistic and cultural processes by which the writer isolates himself from others. The "wall of mirrors," cutting the writer's voice off from those "voices from without," makes obvious reference to the solipsistic tendencies of aesthetic creation and self-reflection. It recalls most directly the literary premises and practices of modernism. The monumental narratives of Proust, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner and others tend to dissolve the world of material and social phenomena in the medium of consciousness. Depriving Paris, Dublin or Jefferson County of any reality beyond the prisms of a character's isolated consciousness, the avatars of modernism declared the victory of imagination over the chaos of history and the ruins of time.
To those living in a less heroic literary age, Kundera's "wall of mirrors" further suggests our contemporary sense of the limitations of language and of the literary enterprise as a whole. We are reminded of what poststructuralist critics have to say about the isolation of text from world, the confinement of all writing to the "prison house of language." In contrast to the poststructuralist critic, however, this Czech novelist regards the estrangement of language, a world of signs, from the world of things as a historical rather than necessary condition. It is a condition, in Kundera's view, that the writer must vigilantly oppose, even if his resistance to these solipsistic tendencies may never wholly succeed. In his own fiction Kundera strives to create a kind of writing that, unlike the graphomaniac's, forces open a window to the world of referents beyond language and its system of signs.
The extent to which any work of narrative fiction or history can reflect actual events taking place in a world beyond language is a matter of ongoing critical debate—and I have no intention of entering this theoretical quagmire in the discussion at hand. My interest lies, rather, in the way that Kundera's vision of the novelistic enterprise, and of the novelist's obligations to a world of referents beyond the self and language, governs his narrative methods and practice. This is not to say, however, that Kundera's view of language is nostalgic or naive. Breaking through the "wall of mirrors"—unlocking the circle of the self—exposes both the writer and his readers to uncertainty. To admit the world is to admit ambiguity, contingency, irony—above all, to question. As Kundera has said on more than one occasion, the novel's task is not to answer questions but to raise them. Scrupulously practicing what he preaches, this novelist disrupts conventional narrative structure and sabotages the writer's authority in order to interrogate the text. Sprinkling his narration with rhetorical questions, countering an "obvious explanation" with one he finds "more convincing," the author's narrating persona exposes both the characters and their author to skeptical scrutiny.
In the opening section of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, the narrator confronts his readers with a question: why, he asks, is Mirek, an intellectual whose history is being recounted here, so ashamed of an affair he had, twenty-five years ago, with an "ugly" woman named Zdena? The narrator offers an "obvious explanation" that he immediately retracts, because he doesn't "find it convincing enough." Reluctantly he admits the more convincing explanation, which also proves less flattering to the male ego: cowardly and insecure in his youth, Mirek had "taken an ugly mistress because he didn't dare go after beautiful women."
In his subsequent attempt to remove all traces, all record of his (now humiliating) three-year affair with Zdena, Mirek has, the narrator points out, set himself up as an author—claiming the rights of any novelist over his material. "One of a novelist's inalienable rights," the narrator states, "is to be able to rework his novel. If he takes a dislike to the beginning, he can rewrite it or cross it out entirely." Unfortunately, when Zdena reappears on the scene, Mirek is forced to confront the discomfiting fact that this woman is not his own invention. Kundera's narrator slyly comments: "But Zdena's existence deprived Mirek of his prerogative as an author. Zdena insisted on remaining part of the opening pages of the novel. She refused to be crossed out." While Mirek remains the focus of Kundera's satire here, the author is not above satirizing his own enterprise as well. Novelists will always claim the right to "rework" their novels for the sake of style, structure and effect. Still, the writer's efforts to provide a seamless work of art—ironing out the unsightly wrinkles caused by human nature and history—may implicate him in the same criticism levelled at Mirek. Foregrounding the processes by which the novelist rewrites and revises his material, Kundera undermines the illusion that his text is either timeless or impersonal. As Ann Banfield observes in her study, Unspeakable Sentences, "Only in writing [as opposed to speaking] may the process of revision, which is part of the process of composition, vanish in the finished piece, the 'clean copy,' leaving no sign of what the first or any intervening versions may have looked like." By calling attention to the erasure of those telling "signs" of revision, Kundera undermines the effects by which the written text appears to transcend the ephemeral and contingent conditions of its own production.
"Écriture," Banfield explains in another study, "is the name for the coming to language of a knowledge, whether objective or subjective, which is not personal." Resisting the notion of writing's impersonality—a notion that, as Banfield points out, French writers from Flaubert to Foucault have sought to emphasize—Kundera flagrantly inserts his personal biography into the narrative. Enlisting his narrating persona as guide, goad and agent provocateur, Kundera draws attention not only to the author behind the text but to the way that personal experience motivates the act of writing. "Why is Tamina on a children's island?" asks the narrator of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. "Why is that where I imagine her?" His answer characteristically fails to provide a definite answer. "I don't know," he admits, adding: "Maybe it's because on the day my father died the air was full of joyful songs sung by children's voices."
Undermining the illusion of "knowledge" that écriture creates, Kundera would open his text to uncertainty as well as the personal. Interspersing what Gerald Prince calls "signs of the 'you'" throughout the novel, Kundera's narrator repeatedly addresses and queries the narratee—the "you" implicitly or explicitly being addressed. In this way he opens the text not only to question but, in Prince's phrase, to "another world" outside the novel and its characters, which is "known to both the narrator and the narratee." Enlisting a narrating persona who shares this "other world" and all its problematic conditions with the reader, Kundera abandons the covert operations of an omniscient creator for the overt strategies of a self-conscious narrator.
By inserting his personal background and history into the text, Kundera is not building a "wall of mirrors" around himself as writing subject. Instead, he employs the biographical persona, like the other narrative devices characteristic of his art, to open a window (both literally and figuratively) on the political history of Czechoslovakia and on the invented history of his characters. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, the narrator identifies the "joyful" tune sung by "children's voices" on the day Kundera's father died as the "Internationale": "Everywhere east of the Elbe," he explains, "children are banded together in what are called Pioneer organizations" that teach them to become good communists. On the day that Kundera's father died, Gustav Husak—installed by the Russians in 1969 as the seventh president of Czechoslovakia—received an award from these children's groups. At "a festive ceremony in Prague Castle," the narrator tells us, Husak, "the president of forgetting," is "being named an Honorary Pioneer." At the end of the ceremony, the President's words, amplified over the loudspeaker, drift in through the very window of the room where Kundera's father lies dying: "Children! You are the future!" Husak proclaims. "Children! Never look back!" (italics Kundera's).
Here the author's personal loss, the death of his beloved father, serves as yet another variation on the theme of "forgetting" that informs each section of the novel. The erosion of memory that constitutes Tamina's personal tragedy is identified with the author's personal tragedy and, on a larger scale, with the tragedy of Czechoslovakia under totalitarian rule. In Kundera's unsentimental vision, moreover, children serve as emblems of the mindless "infantocracy" overtaking contemporary culture in both East and West. In the oblivious consciousness of childhood, devoid of past and memory, the author perceives the dire future of postindustrial society. Because, as the narrator later points out, children "have no past whatsoever," they bear no "burden of memory"; hence "childhood is the image of the future." In Western technocracy's enslavement to the blandishments of mass media as well as in Eastern Europe's seventy-year subjugation to totalitarian rule, Kundera detects the same mindless faith in the future. Wooed by the urge to escape history and its burdens, contemporary culture risks losing not only its collective memory but the very source of individual identity.
Calling attention to the biographical author, his history, and the temporal processes that help to erode as well as create written artifacts, Kundera stresses the connection not only between author and text, but between language and identity. The reliance of human and cultural identity upon language, and of language upon memory, is a central theme in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—a theme succinctly dramatized by the ten-year illness that proves fatal for Kundera's father. One major symptom of this disease is the gradual erosion of memory, which causes his father to lose "the power of speech" and ultimately the ability to write a coherent text. "At first," the narrator says, his father "simply had trouble calling up certain words or would say similar words instead and then immediately laugh at himself. In the end he had only a handful of words left…. Things lost their names and merged into a single, undifferentiated reality. I was the only one who by talking to him could temporarily transform that nameless infinity into the world of clearly named entities." In the end, the father's "memory lapses" become so fierce that the dying man has to abandon his "study of Beethoven's sonatas"; "no one," the narrator explains, "could understand the text." The father's writing, like his speech, becomes an incomprehensible jumble: an impersonal void or "nameless infinity" of "undifferentiated" language.
It is through language, Kundera reminds us, that we name or identify not only things but ourselves. Identity, like meaning in a text, arises from difference; and the ability to differentiate one word from another—or one thing, one event, one person, one author, one culture from another—depends on memory. Memory of the past, recorded as history, keeps alive our sense of differentiation and identity; it prevents us from slipping into the "nameless infinity" of "undifferentiated reality." As the novelist's character Tamina comes to realize, "the sum total of her being is no more than what she sees in the distance, behind her. And as her past begins to shrink, disappear, fall apart, Tamina begins shrinking and blurring" as well.
Such "shrinking and blurring," Kundera suggests, befalls each of us as we age, lose our faculties and slowly surrender to oblivion. Not only does the aging Mother, in Part Two of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, begin to lose her sight—she loses her memory and with it her experience of history:
One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country [as Kundera's narrator puts it] came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove [her son] Karel and [his wife] Marketa crazy. Everybody's thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled.
Karel's old Mother, the narrator suggests, has "moved on to the different world" of a second childhood. She has joined "a different order of creature: smaller, lighter, more easily blown away."
Whereas an old woman's second childhood appears natural and even comic, notwithstanding the announcement of death that it brings, Tamina's fate is truly tragic. A young woman exiled from her country and all that she loves, Tamina slides into premature death when she is brought to an island "wilderness" populated by children. There, surrounded by these tiny beings who have no past, no memory, no history, she is consigned to oblivion. On this remote "children's island," Tamina confronts a world hostile to privacy, individuation or difference. "We're all children here!" the youthful inhabitants gleefully shout. Held captive like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, Tamina tries but fails to escape. Making a run for the shore, she spies the children dancing together in a clearing and takes refuge "behind the thick trunk of a plane tree." From this hiding place she watches the children jerk and gyrate to the rhythms of rock music, the din of amplified guitars blaring from a tape recorder set down in the middle of the clearing. "The lewdness of the motions superimposed on their children's bodies," Kundera's narrator observes, "destroys the dichotomy between obscenity and innocence, purity and corruption. Sensuality loses all its meaning, innocence loses all its meaning, words fall apart." Once again taking language as his paradigm, Kundera links the forces of forgetting with the death of difference.
Pitting memory against oblivion, Kundera's novels celebrate difference at every level—starting with the systematic polarities by which language operates to create meaning. Each of these novels, moreover, typically incorporates a variety of types or modes of discourse within its narrative. Interspersing the fictional histories of his characters with passages devoted to philosophical speculation, historical commentary, and even quotations from other published and unpublished texts, Kundera makes contrast or difference both a structural and a thematic principle. The overall effect of this counterpoint is to dispel the intensity of any single, or single-voiced, narration. By disrupting the seamless effects of narration, Kundera wakens his readers from the "spell" cast by art and confronts them with the burden of history. "We who remember," his narrator tells us in Life Is Elsewhere, "must bear witness."
Just as Flaubert employed the devices of realism to undercut Emma Bovary's romantic reveries—and created, in the process, a novel about the dangers of reading novels—so Kundera, at a later stage of the novel's development, employs the self-conscious devices of postmodernist narrative to subvert the lyric spell of his own narration. "Lyrical poetry," he has said, "is a realm in which any statement immediately becomes truth. Yesterday the poet said life is a vale of tears; today he said life is a land of smiles; and he was right both times. There is no inconsistency. The lyrical poet does not have to prove anything. The only proof is the intensity of his own emotions." The novelist, on the other hand, must assume the burden of history and, therefore, of "proof." The distinction Kundera draws between novels and lyric poetry further suggests why so much of his own writing is devoted to speculation and argument. And while the novelist endeavors, through his narrating persona, to present certain conclusions, as well as questions, with vigor and force, this persona also reminds Kundera's readers that the author is no prophet or visionary. Declining the role of omniscient creator, he is simply another limited mortal caught in "the trap" of history. As such, he enlists in his narrative not only the voice of his biographical persona but the timely voices of the author's friends and family, of Czech officials and world leaders, of current dogmas and classic works of literature.
The devices of narrative reflexivity are, paradoxically, the means by which Kundera lays siege to the graphomaniac's self-absorbed, self-reflecting "wall of mirrors." It is in the "mirrored house of poetry," moreover, that Kundera locates this "wall of mirrors" and its isolating effects. Drawing a distinction between novels and poetry that recalls Bakhtin's theory of discourse in The Dialogic Imagination, Kundera celebrates the novel's hybrid language and structure—contrasting the formal freedoms of this genre with the strictures of poetry and its compulsively "lyric attitude." But with freedom comes responsibility; the novel, unlike the poem, is answerable to history. What Kundera's narrator says of his character Tamina, who makes a scrupulous record of her past in order to oppose the forces of forgetting, may also be said of her author: "She has no desire to turn the past into poetry, she wants to give the past back its lost body. She is not compelled by a desire for beauty, she is compelled by a desire for life."
This distinction between poetry and life, beauty and history, informs all of Kundera's fiction. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Tamina's efforts to retrieve, with all its ugliness, the past's "lost body" are contrasted with Karel's preference for poetic oblivion. Earlier in the novel, Karel rhapsodically muses over the stages of his bygone youth. Rather than strive "to give the past back its lost body," he begins to manipulate—and even to dismember—that elusive body for his own gratification. As Karel projects his desire upon the past, conjuring an "idyllic landscape" that never existed, his author likens him to "a collage artist, cutting out part of one engraving and pasting it over another." Taking delight in his finished creation, Karel gratefully contemplates the transcendent power of art: "Beauty," he reflects, "is a clean sweep of chronology, a rebellion against time."
Not only in this passage but throughout the novel Kundera invites us to contemplate the difference between the operation of historical memory—our urgent efforts to retrieve and preserve what has transpired in our experience, no matter how painful or daunting the task—and the immemorial desire of human beings "to turn the past into poetry." "History," as his narrator later remarks, "is a succession of ephemeral changes. Eternal values exist outside history. They are immutable and have no need of memory." Human memory—in contrast to Apollo's lyre—is a mortal rather than divine attribute; and those who exercise it must serve time. Those of us who seek to remember, to "bear witness," must acknowledge contingency in the very act of giving "the past back its lost body." Invoking "chronology" and the ephemeral at every turn, Kundera's skeptical, antimodernist version of narrative undermines the quest for transcendence. Precisely because they are so time-laden, his novels announce "the unbearable lightness of being."
While Kundera's distinction between poetry and prose, art and life sheds light on his enterprise as a novelist, it would be misleading to regard the distinction he draws as absolute. In the preface to his novel, Life Is Elsewhere, the author identifies the relationship of poetry to his own works of prose. In composing this novel, Kundera says, he wanted "to solve an esthetic problem: how to write a novel which would be a 'critique of poetry' and yet at the same time would itself be poetry"—would, that is, "transmit poetic intensity and imagination." Only by "catching [an] image" in the depths of its own linguistic "mirrors," he later suggests, can a novel be said to reflect or represent reality. Like most novelists since Cervantes, Kundera registers a fertile ambivalence about his obligations to art, on the one hand, and to history or actuality on the other. What merits particular attention in his case is the way that his narrative isolates and foregrounds its aesthetic or "lyric" impulse in order to undermine the spell that it casts.
It was Edmund Wilson, writing over half a century ago in Axel's Castle, who first cautioned readers about the tendency of modernist writers to abandon the novelist's traditional, and salutary, ambivalence toward the seductive power of imagination. Expressing admiration for Proust's formidable accomplishments in A la recherché du temps perdu, Wilson nonetheless offers a critical reservation: "The fascination of Proust's novel is so great that, while we are reading it, we tend to accept it in toto. In convincing us of the reality of his creations, Proust infects us with his point of view, even where his point of view has falsified his picture of life" (italics Wilson's). Now, to charge a work of fiction with "falsification" may strike some readers—particularly if they are students of narrative theory—as paradoxical, if not confused. The difference between novels and history, Banfield maintains in Unspeakable Sentences, "is that the fictional narrative statement is immune to judgments of truth or falsity; in fiction, they are suspended. Rather, it [fiction] creates by fiat a fictional reality which can only be taken as fictionally true."
Nevertheless, as Wilson's comment on Proust's "falsification" makes clear, even the most sophisticated readers of narrative fiction may implicitly acknowledge the novelist's traditional obligations to truth or history. Thomas Leitch, in a theoretical study entitled What Stories Are, is more willing to acknowledge the blurred border between fictional and nonfictional narrative, allowing that it is "a difference in emphasis." The "success or failure of a work of history," says Leitch, clearly depends on the status of the implicated propositions" it makes. By contrast, novels—even those that "may propose implicated explanations of historical events"—do not display the same degree of "this commitment." That is why, we might add, Edmund Wilson can both admire Proust's novel and find it guilty of "falsification." Wilson would certainly employ more stringent criteria, or "judgments of truth," when assessing the work of a French historian of the same period.
Still, as Banfield herself points out, the fiction writer's power to create a world "by fiat" can be viewed as a liability by novelists seeking to uphold their obligations to history. The fiction writer, Banfield says, can neither "tell the truth" nor "write a sentence of narration which is false"—which, in other words, "can be taken by readers of novels as false. His or hers is the midas touch which turns all fiction, that is, to fictional truth, and thereby abolishes all distinctions between the true and the false." By insisting, stylistically and thematically, upon the novel's burden of "proof," Kundera would deliver his readers from the "midas touch" of narrative art. By interrogating his text—inviting the reader to question and debate the narrator's assertions—he overtly appeals to those "distinctions between the true and the false" of which Banfield judges the novel incapable. To distinguish a statement of truth from a "lie," Banfield says, there must be "a communication to an interlocutor." Perhaps that is why Kundera insists that his readers adopt the role of interlocutor. He would guard against the hypnotic spell of narrative—the power of Proust's novel to transform, midas-like, the false into the true—and offer, instead, a critique of that power to which all novels, including his own, nonetheless aspire. By curbing the degree of "infection" that "poetic intensity and imagination" visit upon the novel's readers, Kundera would lift the quarantine that seals contemporary writing in a "wall of mirrors" and denies the novelist healthy exposure to history and its "judgments of truth."
The liberties Kundera takes with the categories of fiction and nonfiction, narrative and essay—the way he flagrantly juxtaposes historical reportage and documentary with the symbolic landscape of fantasy and fable—signals his commitment to the political as well as formal freedoms he perceives in the novel-genre. This is hardly surprising for a writer who regards the aesthetic and political processes as springing from a common source and operating according to the same human laws. "The metaphysics of man," he maintains, "is the same in the private sphere as in the public one."
In the "lyric attitude" of the poet Kundera identifies the same totalizing urge, the same desire to create or transform reality in toto, that fosters human faith in a cosmic order or in sundry ideologies promising paradise on earth. The same impulse that compels the poet or writer to seek immortality in song, perfection in art, leads to the creation of larger allied and alloyed structures, including grandiose political schemes. When society allows itself to be carried away by "the lyric attitude," constructing an ideal or "idyll" of absolute order and harmony, for example, the quest ends in collective disaster. That is why Kundera refers to Czechoslovakia's era of communist repression—an "era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalized murder"—as "not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet." Desire for absolute order in the social sphere, like insistence upon absolute truth or meaning in the linguistic, leads to repression. "The impulse to totalization," as Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle summarize Derrida's argument, is linked to "the totalitarian…. The desire for closure, as guarantor of meaning and intelligibility, becomes the instrumentality of repression" (italics theirs).
Observing a similar connection between the totalizing and totalitarian impulse but developing its implications well beyond the linguistic, Kundera tells an interviewer: "Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise—the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith…. The whole period of Stalinist terror was a period of collective lyrical delirium." He adds, "hell is already contained in the dream of paradise and if we wish to understand the essence of hell we must examine the essence of the paradise from which it originated. It is extremely easy to condemn gulags, but to reject the totalitarian poesy which leads to the gulag by way of paradise is as difficult as ever." When the "lyric attitude" spills over from art to life, Kundera suggests, it may take disastrous social and political forms. Fleeing from contingency, desiring to escape the burden of memory and history, the utopian dreamer embraces a nonexistent future, attempting to realize paradise—a perfect world of order, harmony and "eternal values"—on earth.
The consequences, Kundera warns, are dangerous if not fatal: "Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer." The structure is maintained through violence; elements that cannot or will not join the happy circle must be cast out, consigned to the prisons and torture chambers devised by those in charge. The totalitarian hell gradually subsumes its putative heaven.
The implications of Kundera's secular version of heaven and hell are grim. But the dire nature of these observations belies their bracing comic effect in the novels, tricked out as they are by the narrator's characteristic lightness of delivery. Nowhere is this combination of deft narration and dark inference more apparent, and effective, than in the final scene of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The novel draws to a close on the private beach of "an abandoned island" somewhere on the Adriatic, where a small resort hotel caters to vacationers. The island and its shoreline offer a kind of realistic counterpoint to that symbolic wilderness, the "children's island," from which Tamina, earlier in the novel, tries to escape. On the latter island, the symbolic circle of identical children is supplanted by a population of vacationing nudists equally uniform in their nakedness: "They went naked down the steps to the beach, where other naked people were sitting in groups, taking walks, and swimming—naked mothers and naked children, naked grandmothers and naked grandchildren, the naked young and the naked elderly."
Surrounded by this anonymous population, Kundera's protagonists, a young man named Jan and his girlfriend Edwige, make friends with a smaller "group of naked people," all of whom have come to this "natural paradise" seeking to rid themselves of "the hypocrisy of a society that cripples body and soul." By casting off their clothing, the group collectively embraces the ideal of natural freedom, of living "at one with nature." A theory advanced by one member of the group, "a man with an extraordinary paunch," formulates their collective ideal and goal: to "be freed once and for all from the bonds of Judeo-Christian thought." The idyll of "perfect harmony," perfect freedom, "perfect solidarity" requires that the accumulated legacy of the past—the traditions, norms, structures and systems of a civilization, the cultural language by which its members have identified themselves to one another and themselves—be not altered but erased. "Eternal values," as Kundera's narrator has already observed, "exist outside history."
In the nudists' shared dream of a "natural paradise" we detect the "collective lyrical delirium" that in Kundera's view governs all utopian heavens, giving rise in turn to the hell latent in each artificial paradise. As Jan gazes at the mass of naked bodies scattered along the shore, he has a dark inkling of the connection between earthly notions of heaven and the various forms of hell to which they lead. Made "melancholy" by the spectacle of so much undifferentiated, "meaningless" flesh, Jan is suddenly "overwhelmed by a strange feeling of affliction, and from that haze of affliction came an even stranger thought: that the Jews had filed into Hitler's gas chambers naked and en masse." Jan is led to consider the possibility that "nudity" is itself a kind of "uniform." Here Kundera's language evokes a suggestive connection between the Jews' uniform nakedness and the uniforms of their Nazi exterminators. Unable to bear "the sight of all those naked bodies on the beach," Jan suddenly arrives at the startling notion "that nudity is a shroud."
Bewitched by a particularly virulent strain of "totalitarian poesy," the German nature participated in the dream of an Aryan paradise—and stoked the hellish fires of the gas chambers. Genocide, the attempt to erase a people and their history from the face of the earth, is one outgrowth of that totalizing impulse, or "collective lyrical delirium," which makes the nude bathers so eager to free themselves of the fetters of the past. To erase the memory of an admittedly troubled and imperfect history leads not to a brave new world, however, but to the loss of human differentiation and identity. Mass murder, mass extinction, Kundera suggests, is simply the dark fulfillment of mankind's oblivious dream of utopia.
The sunlight that shines on the closing scene of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is tinged with dark irony. The small circle of nudists standing together on the sand look harmless enough as they congratulate themselves on their temporary freedom from the "civilization" that "imprisons" them. But then the man whose single distinguishing feature is that "extraordinary paunch" begins to extol the future and its promised liberation from the strictures of the past. As the group attends to what the paunchy man is saying, Kundera draws this scene and his novel to a close: "On and on the man talked. The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand." More eloquent than any words the nudists can muster is the limp expression of their exposed genitals. Like domestic pets suddenly turned loose from their leashes, these naked organs appear bewildered by their abrupt and unexpected release from bondage; something more than mere clothing appears to have been discarded. Exposed to the harsh glare of daylight, the nudists' bodies inadvertently register the oblivion into which they have been cast: the hell of "undifferentiated reality." The pride of their once private parts has mysteriously vanished with the clothing that constrained them. The body's sudden liberation from social "bonds," from all the trappings of civilization, consigns these sad appendages to the same flaccid existence that, Kundera wittily suggests, the mind's longed-for deliverance from a binding system of difference, linguistic and cultural, would entail.
Sustaining a polyphony of light and dark themes, personal and public voices, Kundera takes full advantage of what he calls the "synthetic power of the novel." By coming at his "subject from all sides," as he puts it, the novelist combines "ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, flight of fantasy." The culminating effect is not of closure but of equilibrium, like the contrapuntal harmony created by "the voices of polyphonic music." The musical analogy is one that Kundera consistently favors. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, his narrator draws an instructive parallel between the novel's structure and the "journey of the variation form" in music. "This entire book," he announces, "is a novel in the form of variations." Likening his narrative to the voyage of discovery Beethoven undertook, Kundera hints at the special attraction that this mode of exploration holds for a novelist attempting to cure himself of the disease of graphomania. "What Beethoven discovered in his variations," the novel's narrator points out, "was another space and direction"—"the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things."
Structuring his novel on a set of stylistic and thematic variations, Kundera, like Beethoven, seeks "another space and direction." It is an other space and direction not only because the territory is new but because it lies beyond the isolated self, outside the "wall of mirrors" enclosing the writer in endless self-reflections. The writer liberates himself by liberating his readers: he does not carry us away in the mesmerizing flow of narrated events or in a lyric flight so compelling that it cannot be examined and resisted. Instead of cutting off our "voices from without," he opens up the text to query and debate. To clear this ground or mental "space" for the reader, Kundera develops his narration, structurally and thematically, as an ongoing process of interrogation, differentiation and contrast. Differentiation discovers a virtually endless variety of entities and identities, of contrasting forms, patterns and poles of meaning. The "polyphonic" text disrupts the flow of narration, cancels its lyric impetus, by juxtaposing unlike elements that insistently retain their discrete and contrary identities. Juxtaposing these contrasting elements—interrogating one tone, stance, concept or style with another as the narrative swerves between sexual highjinks and high seriousness—Kundera's text resists the solipsistic forces that drive its production. Turning the art of narration against itself, the author creates a novel that is at once an artful manifestation of "graphomania" and his bracing attempt at a cure.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5637
SOURCE: "Milan Kundera: Meaning, Play, and the Role of the Author," in Critique, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 3-18.
[Below, O'Brien analyzes "play," intrusive authorship, and the significance of history in Kundera's fiction, particularly in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and, in a brief postscript, Immortality.]
In the world of books, the author is dead and has been for quite a while—as has the traditionally axiomatic idea that the author has some say in what is being said. Yet outside the discussions of authorship taking place within the academic circle, Milan Kundera has experienced first-hand some very real implications of being an author and writing a "dangerous" text. Because of the works he authored before the Russian invasion, Kundera was fired from his teaching post, his books were removed from libraries and universally banned, and he was denied the means to support himself. Until recently, his novels have been read in dozens of languages with the ironic exception of the language in which the novels were written.
The challenge to the common effacement of the author is more appropriately found, however, in Kundera's texts themselves. Kundera's novels give voice to a powerful intrusive author identifying himself bluntly as none other than Milan Kundera. Enriched by the more radical narrative examples of Sterne and Diderot, Kundera weaves an author-figure into his texts with stark autobiographical intrusions that threaten the provocative flippancy with which Roland Barthes announced/pronounced the demise of the author in his famous essay.
Still, on closer analysis, what Barthes says and Kundera does are not as diametrically opposed as one might assume. The focus of this analysis of Kundera and his authorship will be to examine these issues, appropriately concentrating on the degree to which Barthes (the author's executioner) provides a valuable theoretical tool for the exploration of Kundera's authorial stance and for the kind of play that characterizes his novels. Barthes's general sense of authorship and the erotic potential of texts are strikingly close to the kind of reading Kundera's texts invite. Contrary to the position of Nina Pelikan Straus—against which much of what follows can be read—I contend that the intrusive author-figure does not work to demand a strict adherence to historical or political context. In fact, I argue that the opposite is true.
In an insightful discussion of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Nina Pelikan Straus furthers her claim that the novel is intended to be bound inextricably to Czechoslovak history, depending on the understanding that the intrusive author-figure is autobiographical in nature, not a dispersed extension or modality of the writing subject. [Straus, "Erasing History and Deconstructing the Text: Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," in Critique, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 69-85]. She argues that the novel consistently parodies the over-theorization of criticism to the degree that all context is lost in the rush to reveal the chaotic indeterminacy of the text. Most polemical in her attack of deconstruction, she goes so far as to claim that in the novel Kundera is speaking out directly against even the belief that no single interpretation is "right" or should be preferred over another. Straus sees deconstruction as an attempt to turn the more "obvious intentions" of The Book upside down, and she argues that the novel's structure and technique (including the intrusive author) are directly related to the content—the recurring, simple motif that history tends to get lost or erased by others. When she contends that the strong authorial voice functions as protection against "inhuman theories" that would insist on plural meanings, she bluntly denies Barthes in the process:
This is not to say that the anti-deconstructionist critic has no "fun," but that his [or her] fun must be qualified by the awareness that history, and the language which ties us to history, can never quite be "jouissant"—a mere game and plaything for the mind—in the sense that Roland Barthes describes it. The dehumanization of the text into a game without reference to the facts of history is, for Kundera, simply painful.
In claiming that Kundera intends to defend against—and even to satirize—such a critical practice, Straus later argues that his texts support this agenda with his use of "authorial commentary and self-exposure":
Inscribing himself as witness and critic of his own book, Kundera cannot but remind the reader … [that] no reading, except what the author intends, is quite legitimate in his terms; and the facts pertinent to that reading must forever be given priority. (emphasis added)
The voice of the intrusive author, according to Straus, is an intentional narrative device employed to make the text indeconstructible, closed to interpretations that stray from the author's intended agenda.
My analysis is largely propelled by an interest in the question of whether Kundera's use of the intrusive author in his novels challenges the critical assumptions of "The Death of the Author" and related essays. Barthes's most direct statements on authorship correspond in broad terms to the three areas relevant in this analysis: (1) the distinction between the author (the scriptor, the writing subject) and the institutional handling of the term, (2) the author as means of foreclosing on the possibility of play, and (3) the erotic potential of writing. Looking beyond the obvious provocation, one finds in Barthes's work not so much the corpse of the writer, as the "body" reassembled/disassembled in the text itself, though with no algebraic symmetry or recognizable coherence. This "author" is not to be confused with the institutional use of the term, such as Foucault's Author-Function or any "biographical hero" (see also The Pleasure of the Text). The author, as Barthes uses the term, is the subject as "dispersed" in the Text, which is itself the "destroyer of all subject." The "presence" of the "author" is tolerated only insomuch as it promotes play.
The questions suggested, if Barthes is to offer a productive means of approaching Kundera's novels, are twofold: Does Kundera actually appear in the guise of direct autobiography? If he does, does the appearance act to solidify some larger meaning antithetical to Barthes's pluralism? Kundera manages to introduce to the text an author-figure far less "dispersed" than the one suggested by Barthes, while at the same time he uses the opportunity to facilitate (if not demand) play. In this way, Kundera forces a reconsideration of Barthes's theoretical stance or at least calls into question the mutual exclusivity of the bliss of indeterminacy and the existence of a strong authorial voice.
However, in direct opposition to Straus's idea that Kundera uses the author-figure to make his novels resistant to anything but interpretation firmly located in history, it is much more arguable that these intrusions add a sense of play by admitting that characters are not real, questioning motivations, digressing, telling stories, and so on. Although some stories are historically placed, that fact does not mean that they or the author-figure are immovable or in any way privileged. The clearest aim is not to provide answers but to question, and this view is most consistently reflected in the novels' treatment of characterization and theme. Where Straus concludes it must be "painful" for Milan Kundera to see his work taken out of what she sees as its proper context, the interview reprinted immediately after the text of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (the "Afterword") addresses this kind of reading, locating whatever pain he might experience elsewhere: "The stupidity of the world comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything."
In this light, Milan Kundera must be seen as an advocate, not for historical context, but for the kind of interrogation underscored repeatedly by his novels and his polemical statements made in interviews. In particular, the intrusive and inimitable voice of Kundera as author stirs up the text. Take out this intrusive dynamic, and the text is far less radical because it is precisely this "I" that rips away the facade of verisimilitude, that questions the possibility of meaning, and that carries through a recognizable disgust for any system that refuses free play with codes—whether political (Communist or Western), linguistic, or literary. Literature that only provides answers would be as totalitarian as the regime Kundera left behind, and Barthes, too, stresses this capability of writing:
Writing is the art of asking questions, not of answering or resolving them. Only writing can ask a question, and because writing has this power, it can afford to leave questions in abeyance…. When a work is successful, it asks its question with ambiguity and, in that way, becomes poetic.
It may be that the political events around and after 1968 provide a convenient and concrete historical framework that is meaningful, but to translate Kundera's use of historical reference points as a maneuver of closure is simply a more refined way of saying that a text can be read in one way only.
To some extent, the question of the necessity of looking outside the text for historical context is a moot point. The texts provide such reference points internally. Kundera discusses the problem and his use of history in his preface to Life Is Elsewhere:
Even though the story of Jaromil and his mother takes place in a specific historic period which is portrayed truthfully (without the slightest satiric intent), it was not my aim to describe a period…. In other words: for a novelist, a given historic situation is an anthropologic laboratory in which he explores his basic question: What is human existence? In the case of this novel, several related questions also presented themselves…. The novel, of course, does not answer any of these questions.
So, one must question the appropriateness of Straus's characterization of Kundera's pain or her own general sense of urgency, her fear that somehow history is going to be airbrushed out of existence as in the falsified photos mentioned in the vignette opening The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
Actually, there is reason to believe that, of all the interesting and viable implications of the intrusive author, an emphasis on historical context—which must occur at the expense of play—is neither a sufficient explanation of the author-figure's function in the text nor (for what it's worth) close to the agenda of the Kundera who wrote the novels. Such historical placement of the characters amounts to little more than the equivalent of a minimal backdrop or collection of props to stage a drama, and Kundera concludes that the novel that merely illustrates a historical situation is severely limited. Contrary to Straus's contention that the "text is nothing but an effort to recoup literature from its modern self-enclosure and to tie it as closely as possible to physically experienced history," historical context is "secondary matter" to what Kundera calls the problems of existence that he repeatedly stresses are his only interest.
As one might expect of any writer, Kundera repeatedly resists pigeonholing or what he calls "the termites of reduction," and, in comment after comment, he posits the writer as far outside the field of commitment as Barthes did the writers of the New Novel. Perhaps Kundera is even more provocative:
If you cannot view the art that comes to you from Prague, Budapest, or Warsaw in any other way than by means of this wretched political code, you murder it, no less brutally than the worst of the Stalinist dogmatists. And you are quite unable to hear its true voice. The importance of this art does not lie in the fact that it pillories this or that political regime but that, on the strength of social and human experience of a kind people here in the West cannot even imagine, it offers a new testimony about mankind.
In numerous theoretical discussions, Kundera speaks of the need to revitalize the novel in what amounts to the direction of noncommitment, arguing that the "voice of the novel" is hard to hear over the temptation to find any or especially a single truth. The result is a plea to indeterminacy:
A novel does not assert anything; a novel searches and poses questions. I don't know whether my nation will perish and I don't know which of my characters is right. I invent stories, confront one with another, and by this means I ask questions … The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question … In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.
History is important, but only inasmuch as it facilitates insights into self-consciously imagined characters.
Therefore, Kundera's vision of the literary possibilities coincides with Barthes's understanding that the text should enjoy a displacement from social responsibility, play instead of commitment, and eventually (ideally) the bliss of complete hedonistic detachment. Kundera's works share the emphasis of text over context and do so unapologetically at the expense of meaning. Kimball's basic observations in his analysis of ambiguity in Kundera's writing are accurate ["The Ambiguities of Milan Kundera," New Criterion, Vol. 4, No. 5, January, 1986, pp. 5-13]. Though he later accuses the author of "transcendental buffoonery" in his aloofness regarding his writing from any "definite commitment," he correctly highlights the problematic nature of the "terminal paradox" that Kundera embraces: "[Kundera wants] to have it both ways: he wants both the freedom of fiction and the authority of historical fact." Yet the problem begs the question that is fairly resolved when one is reminded that when Kundera talks about the novel in general and his novels in particular, he speaks similarly of his writing not as a "rebus to be decoded" but as a game, sounding all the while unmistakably like one of Barthes's reveries on the pleasure of the text when he says a novel is "a game with invented characters … [that gives you] the joy of imagination, of narration, the joy provided by a game. That is how I see a novel—as a game."
Kundera's penchant for asking questions instead of answering them, combined with an episodic structure and lack of temporal coherence, assures ellipses and ambiguity; this much is self-evident. The effect of the intrusive author-figure, however, is more complicated. Does this author/ narrator, as one would expect (and Straus demands), work to pull the disparate fragments together? However philosophically difficult the notion of one demonstrable self may be, it must be admitted that the authorial voice is a relatively stable feature of a narrative strategy that constantly changes almost everything else. Yet when that voice digresses or asks broad metaphysical questions, the voice of the author-figure works to prevent prefigured answers to a text of questions:
Why is Tamina on a children's island? Why is that where I imagine her?
I don't know.
Kundera exploits this technique repeatedly to assert his aesthetics of ambiguity. The same chapter/fragment that tells of the death of Tereza's dog is interwoven with essayistic authorial commentary, including a story of Nietzsche's stopping the beating of a horse with a tearful embrace. To some extent, the authorial digressions and intrusions add to a certain thematic unity, but only in that they sometimes share a tangential connection; they do not contribute to an understanding as much as they are inconclusive in comparably similar ways. Lodge agrees in "Milan Kundera and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism," when he mentions that "paradoxically, this overt appearance of the author in the text does not make it easier, but harder, to determine what it 'means'" [Critical Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 1-2, 1984, pp. 105-21].
Finally, there is in Kundera's work also a decidedly self-conscious effort toward elaborate linguistic play, an acknowledgment on the level of content and presentation that language is itself indeterminate. Room for plural interpretation and erotic bliss is cleared away in the unpredictable space between the shifting allegiances of signifier and signified. Just as the questions that the novels pose offer myriad possible answers (or none), there is a kind of unsettling recognition in the language of the texts and their parenthetical clarifications of the arbitrary nature of language. The most obvious display of this modern/postmodern notion is in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, especially in the linguistic problems in the relationship of Franz and Sabina.
The unforgettable feature of the time Sabina and Franz share together is the frequency of their inability to understand each other, and that misunderstanding has everything to do with semiotics: "If [people] meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, the [musical compositions of their lives] are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them." And elsewhere: "Although they had a clear understanding of the logical meaning of the words they exchanged, they failed to hear the semantic susurrus of the river flowing through them." Kundera generates an ironically lengthy Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words to take up systematically the topic of their drastically mismatched systems of codes. Indeed, the novel goes further to include discussion of images as signs, pointing out that the meaning of a particular sign—the bowler hat in particular—not only means different things to different people, but also different things at different times to the same person:
Each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with a new one. Each new experience would resound, each time enriching the harmony.
The same phenomenon is found in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, in the parodic section "The Angels," where two American students are giving an oral report for their favorite teacher on lonesco's Rhinoceros. In their conversation, the two girls stumble on the arbitrary nature of semiotics:
"I'm not so sure I understand what all those people turning into rhinoceroses is supposed to mean," said Gabrielle.
"Think of it as a symbol," Michelle told her.
"True," said Gabrielle, "literature is a system of signs."
"And the rhinoceros is first and foremost a sign," said Michelle.
"Yes, but even if we accept the fact they turn into signs instead of rhinoceroses, how do they choose what signs to turn into?"
"Yes, well, that's a problem," said Michelle sadly. They were on their way back to the dormitory and walked awhile in silence.
It is a problem that is never clarified, and the story of two girls trying to figure out what it all means finally, after repeated interruption, reaches a dramatic conclusion, but even that is inconclusive. The girls give their report wearing cardboard rhino horns, but, the author-figure volunteers, it is as embarrassing as if a man had stood up in front of the class and shown off his amputated arm. Still, the girls accept the laughter of their teacher as a sign of encouragement. Next, a girl in the class who hates the two Americans calmly walks to the front of the class and kicks them one at a time, then returns to her seat. The girls read her sign clearly enough (you are making fools of yourself, and I hate you), but the teacher, assuming the kick is a planned part of the presentation, laughs all the more. A surrealist finale of semiotic confusion builds and concludes the story. The kick is the crux of the scene. It promptly recalls the girls' realization that language is no longer working (the class missed their point that the play was comic and instead thought the girls were embarrassingly ludicrous). Without the kick, the miscommunication is ironic, but with it the irony is amplified to a tragic comedy on the failure of language.
Always there is an inherent contradiction in these kinds of critical analyses that take pages upon pages to argue that a novel does not mean anything. So, if only to validate the critical act that Straus so powerfully denies, it is tempting to qualify somewhat—even though Barthes would see no need to justify the text that creates bliss. If Kundera calls into question the ability of his texts to reflect any single truth, interpretation, or historical/political context, many less-Epicurean readers will start to wonder: (1) If the novelist is not only "nobody's spokesman," but—according to Kundera—"not even the spokesman for his own ideas," why should we bother to read the author's books? (2) Is such a maneuver an attempt to shrug off responsibility for what the novel might seem to mean or promote, such as the over-worn and even offensive sexual stereotypes that Kundera's novels seem to perpetuate?
The texts, though fragmented and drastically nonlinear, are hardly complete anarchy. So when the author-figure speaks in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting of an equilibrium of power between "too much uncontested meaning on earth" and the world if it "loses all its meaning," an accurate schematic of the tensions of Kundera's writing might be drawn. An analysis of the sexual politics of his work can function both as an attempt to justify reading novels that question the ability to communicate in a systematically productive way and as an attempt to suggest that his merciless contesting of meaning works to overturn other points where the texts may offer more-or-less misogynist representations.
Initially, however, one way to understand more exactly the way in which Barthes's aesthetics of bliss lives within this apparent contradiction is to look at the traditional approach to literary aesthetics, such as that described in Ames's Aesthetics of the Novel (1928), where a distinction is drawn between the sensuality of the plastic arts and the primarily social value of literature: "If the test of sensuous art is in its effect upon the physical self, the test of literature must be in its effect upon the social self." Consequently a "beautiful book" is one that evokes a deep social response, which "ministers better to the modern self than any art"; such a book suggests "harmonies unheard." Ames suggests that modern art employs sensuality in language, but in the Machiavellian style of Shaw or Brecht, in order to lure the reader/audience into becoming receptive to the social message. Consequently, "the weakness of much modern art lies in its lack of purpose beyond giving a sensuous impression, which by itself cannot possibly absorb a social being."
Barthes and Kundera present an opposite aesthetic understanding that savors the fact that a text is beyond any such social responsibility. Bliss thrives on contradiction, including the admitted cohabitation within the text of both the revolutionary and the asocial. In fact, for Barthes, this edge defines the "site of bliss" itself. When Kimball claims that Kundera "wants it both ways," he focuses on the novels' ambiguity, identifying an erotic surface blasphemously inscribed with distractions and abrasions—what Barthes calls the seam where meaning is lost and everything clashes. This fault line in Kundera's novels is underscored by the intrusive author, who repeatedly strips away false simplicity to reveal not a smooth, codified continuity but a clash of codes and cliche much in the spirit of Sabina's maxim: "On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth."
Literal eroticism (here in the physical sense) is central to Kundera's novels. In part, the unrestrained sexual honesty is responsible for his success, but it also creates problems when the texts seem guilty of propagating sexist stereotypes as readers' sensitivity to matters of gender continues to improve. However, a reading of the novels, combined with an understanding of the kind of play elaborated upon here, suggests that the handling of gender roles and sexual stereotypes in the novels can arguably work to up-end sexist foundations—a specific example of play at work, inverting instead of affirming codes and stereotypes. Just as his novels resist the dissident stereotype in their refusal to accept the good guy/bad guy (Western/Communist)hierarchy that many readers never move beyond, the seeming weak woman/strong man (Tereza/Tomas, Marketa/Karel) misogynist surface of the texts is more likely just that, a surface smooth only from a distance.
With its moment of dislocation and hedonistic incoherence, the sexual act is, in Kundera's novels, a crucial point for precisely the reasons Barthes draws on this metaphor for his articulation of bliss. In an ironic gesture of conjugation, all semiotic systems fall apart in dislocating sexual bliss, leaving contradictions both revealed and reveled in. Appropriately, Kundera describes his erotic scenes as generating an "extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters" and goes on to cite the example of Tamina's making love to Hugo while she thinks about "lost vacations with her dead husband." He repeats the theme in The Unbearable Lightness of Being when Tereza makes loveless love to the engineer; here, too, there is no joining or communication beyond the physical coupling, and this event is simply a representation of what happens throughout the novels on levels more subtle than this obvious example of two people making love for not only different but contradictory reasons. Kundera, therefore, resists the use of stereotypes, as discussed by Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text, where he recognizes "the bliss repressed beneath the stereotype."
It stands to reason that if, as earlier discussed in relation to the Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words, language fails, the cultural and sexual codes and stereotypes constructed from/in language must fail, too. A naive reading of a Kundera text "as though it were natural" (Barthes's definition of the stereotype) abounds with the type of sexual cliche exemplified by Kael's review of the film:
But the young Binoche [Tereza] gives the role a sweet gaucheness and then a red-cheeked desperation…. She verges on peasant-madonna darlingness, but that's what the conception requires [New Yorker. February 8, 1988, pp. 67-70].
Allowing the termites of reduction to go to work will produce a weak character in Tereza and a Don Juan in Tomas, but clearly beneath the surface of such a reading lies the kind of complex contradiction and "terminal paradox" that Edmund White enjoys when he writes that "Kundera's heroes may be Don Juans, but they are shy, apologetic ones; his women are intensely physical beings, but they are also as quirkily intelligent and stubbornly independent as his men." Following the social script, Tereza also sees herself as weak and Tomas strong, but her epiphany, pages before the end of the novel, betrays the inadequacy of the signifiers "weak" and "strong" to explain the complexity of the apparently simple roles. And it is the intrusive author again who brings the reader to examine the issue directly:
We all have a tendency to consider strength the culprit and weakness the innocent victim. But now Tereza realized that in her case the opposite was true! Even her dreams, as if aware of the single weakness in a man otherwise strong, made a display of her suffering to him, thereby forcing him to retreat. Her weakness was aggressive and kept forcing him to capitulate until eventually he lost his strength and was transformed into the rabbit in her arms.
Furthermore, weakness in the texts is hardly gender specific. It is, after all, Sabina who is the epitome of "lightness," with her chronology of betrayals. In Franz is found the inversion of the stereotype suggested by Tereza. Defining love as the expectation of rejection and the renunciation of strength, Franz ultimately is abandoned by both mistress (Sabina) and wife:
[For Franz, love] meant a longing to put himself at the mercy of his partner. He who gives himself up like a prisoner of war must give up his weapons as well. And deprived in advance of defense against a possible blow, he cannot help wondering when the blow will fall. That is why I can say that for Franz, love meant the constant expectation of a blow.
Straus claims that Kundera wishes to "insure that his own discourse will not be deconstructed or its meaning erased." Although the assertion may be primarily motivated by a desire to refute deconstruction (for whatever reason), the intrusive author presents codes and roles in what amount to an already-deconstructed form.
This play, especially in matters as grave as gender-based oppression and exploitation, is necessarily not always playful in a humorous sense. However, that which results from the breakdown of semiotic systems is central to the comic/ironic perspective of all Kundera's works as far back as his first collection of short stories tellingly titled Laughable Loves, where a cynical comic vision hinges on the stereotype or the cliché. As Barthes is interested in innocent language being twisted out of proportion and into bliss, Kundera's comedy resides in the condition of characters who live codes and gender roles as if they were Truth ("as if they were natural"). His short story "The Hitchhiking Game" is an ideal example in the way it begins with a much-abused erotic cliché (picking up the pretty hitchhiker) but ends with a tragic misunderstanding. They are actually lovers on vacation playing a role-change game during a long drive, the girl pretending to be a promiscuous hitchhiker when she is really "old-fashioned." The power of codes is, in these texts, most forcefully revealed when the codes are split open by a realization as dramatic as the already-mentioned kick.
It is fair to say that in writing that is interested in depicting sexuality in an honest way, clichés, restrictive gender roles, and stereotypes that set one's teeth on edge will most likely be included among the props. But if Kundera doesn't slip from them by openly divulging their contradictions, it might be in part a result of the infestation of archaic codes in language, for they are shown consistently to be inverted and subverted just below the surface of the texts themselves.
One final point at which the erotic textual qualities come in contact with the actual erotic themes of the novels is in the repeated associations with the terms "weight" and "lightness." It is possible to interpret these two opposites (among, of course, the infinite possibilities) as alluding to the "weight" of uncontested meaning and eternal return and the "lightness" of a world or a text without meaning. Thus, it is possible to equate Tomas's infidelity and numerous erotic friendships as a rejection of the temptation to believe in a single interpretation of truth. Furthermore, the vacillation of Tomas between lightness and weight could simply represent an extension of humanity's attempt to reach an equilibrium between these diametrically opposed but equally unbearable epistemological attitudes. In contrast to the lightness of the signifier's "instant, not consistent, relationships," Barthes, too, associates weight with stabilized meaning. When Kimball, then, notices that if Kundera's work is a game it is deprived of "authority and weight," it is easy to see that this fact, along with his choice of metaphors, may be exactly what Kundera (not to mention Barthes) would be happy to hear.
Surely it should not be assumed that to grant the obvious, that the author-figure in these texts is a more dynamic, self-acknowledged "author," is somehow to elevate the author to status beyond that of what Barthes calls the "paper character," especially when that figure repeatedly reasserts a textual playground on various levels (linguistic play and play with the semiotic structures that form the foundations of culture). What Kundera calls the joy of a game and Barthes calls bliss is that which flies in the face of meaning and the expectation of meaning—that which condemns mere consumption and promotes nothing but its own indeterminacy.
In a way, the figure of the author substitutes for traditional historical context, but this author-figure in the texts does not "bring things together." He is not functioning in a way as to reinstitute "man-and-his-work criticism" or to resurrect Herder's view of reading as "divination into the soul of the creator." True, much apparently autobiographical matter is presented, but these events are treated, as are the historical ones, as points for questions. At every turn, like the narrator in Tristram Shandy, the author-figure digresses, interrupts, tells stories, meditates, extrapolates, and interpolates—encouraging the same relationship with his text as that of a reader of a text of bliss: "What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again." And if the resulting questions, contradictions, and lack of clear context deprive the reader of recognizable reference points, this also serves to discourage thoughtless consumption. The resulting ambiguity and lack of commitment are not, after all, what consumers expect.
If, however, the analogy is valid and the author-figure in the text acts as a kind of preacher of indeterminacy, it should be mentioned that the texts more correctly preach against the imposition of meaning rather than the entire possibility that some stabilization of meaning might take place. They are not as much nihilist as they are deferring to the reader, paralleling the changing of the guard that concludes "The Death of the Author." It is not surprising that this kind of move would anger those with very specific interpretive agendas—like Podhoretz who scolds Kundera's for his political aloofness, which he maintains is nothing short of "cooperating with your own kidnappers." In fact, by winding the reader through a vertiginous array of perspectives and questions, the urgency to find an answer is itself lost, as is the necessity to divide existence into binary oppositions. Finally, Barthes would undoubtedly see this very representative maneuver as the kind of "violence that enables [the text] to exceed the laws that a society, an ideology, a philosophy establish for themselves in order to agree among themselves in a fine surge of historical intelligibility. This excess is called: writing."
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This analysis of play, intrusive authorship, and the significance of history in Kundera's fiction has focused considerably on The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but Kundera's novels develop contrapuntal patterns and motifs both within and between his particular texts. For example, one could hardly manage a comprehensive analysis of history without discussing The Joke at length, where, "the joke" is History. Similarly, questions about Kundera's intrusive stance in his fiction would need to look to his latest effort, Immortality. Here, the intrusive author is not only named "Milan Kundera" but compares characters in this book to characters in earlier books and lends a copy of Life Is Elsewhere to another character (who never reads it). Immortality is also Kundera's most extended attempt to discuss directly the significance of the author in interpretation. In particular, the novel strongly argues against the idea that interpretation should be constrained by historical or biographical contexts.
Hemingway laments to Goethe how "instead of reading my books, they're writing books about me," with specific disgust aimed at the "army of university professors all over America … busy classifying, analyzing, and shoveling everything into articles and books." And Goethe answers by retelling his nightmare of theater fans that come to see a puppet show of his Faust:
I turned around and I was aghast: I expected them out front, and instead they were at the back of the stage, gazing at me with wide-open, inquisitive eyes. As soon as my glance met theirs, they began to applaud. And I realized that my Faust didn't interest them all and that the show they wished to see was not the puppets I was leading around the stage, but me myself! Not Faust, but Goethe…. I realized that I would never get rid of them, never, never, never.
As if finally to underscore his assertion that actual authors who produce texts should not be confused with whatever/whoever appears in those texts, Goethe aggressively argues the point even further than Hemingway:
"Forget for a moment that you're an American and exercise your brain: he who doesn't exist cannot be present. Is that so complicated? The instant I died I vanished from everywhere, totally. I even vanished from my books. Those books exist in the world without me. Nobody will ever find me in them…. Don't make a fool of yourself, Ernest," said Goethe. "You know perfectly well that at this moment we are but the frivolous fantasy of a novelist who lets us say things we would probably never say on our own."
If the surreal conversation of two dead, distant authors is not concrete enough to make clear what is "painful" in the eyes of "Milan Kundera," Paul's long, drunken speech near the end of the novel is an exaggerated characterization of biographical reading:
We started to talk about all sorts of things. Avenarius referred a few more times to my novels, which he had not read, and so provoked Paul to make a remark whose rudeness astonished me: "I don't read novels. Memoirs are much more amusing and instructive for me. Or biographies. Recently I've been reading books about Salinger, Rodin, and the loves of Franz Kafka. And a marvelous biography of Hemingway. What a fraud. What a liar. What a megalomaniac." Paul laughed happily. "What an impotent. What a sadist. What a macho. What an erotomaniac. What a misogynist."
Immortality, then, argues forcefully both against privileging contextual interpretation and for a playful irresponsibility in the relationship between the author and the authored text. It is not historical context itself that runs contrary to the kind of interpretation I think Kundera's texts invite, but interpretation that exclusively privileges the prop or backdrop at the expense of the questions that resonate beyond both history and authorship.
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SOURCE: "Time and Distance," in Hudson Review, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 247-55.
[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus evaluates "the new 'definitive' version" of The Joke in relation to contemporary history.]
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the animals say to Nietzsche's philosopher-mystic:
"Look, we know what you teach: that all things return forever, and we along with them, and that we have already been here an infinite number of times, and all things along with us."
According to Milan Kundera, this "mad myth" is Nietzsche's means of forcing us to contemplate the horror as well as the beauty and sublimity of life's events in a way which prevents our overlooking them because they are so fleeting. Without some such concept—that an event may return again and again to haunt us—"We would need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment" (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Repetition, recurrence, the myth of eternal return show the weight of history and create the awareness that life has significance and depth. In some fashion, this fact is illustrated in each of the works which follow. Each is concerned with time, and each creates perspective and distance. Each also deals with recurrence, without which time itself is only duration.
[When] it originally came out—in Czechoslovakia in 1965—the publication of Kundera's The Joke, must have seemed like a miracle, though with the crackdown following the Prague Spring three years later, it was one of the first works suppressed and its author banned. In the space remaining, I cannot treat the details that have made the new "definitive" version of The Joke necessary. But since the recent events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it may be time to re-read the novel anyway, for in the interim, history has played an even greater joke on Communism itself, and Kundera's reflections may provide a hint as to why it occurred.
The novel begins as its principal character Ludvik stands at a crossroads in a small Moravian village where he grew up on the day before a festival celebrating the traditional Ride of the Kings, a folk ritual from the remote past. Ludvik, however, has come home primarily to carry out a private act of revenge against someone who had played an important role in the most significant event of his life—his expulsion from the university and from the Party for playing a stupid, adolescent joke. The joke had consisted of sending a postcard with some anti-Party slogans on it to a girl he was courting, and Ludvik means to cuckold the party official who had an opportunity to prevent Ludvik's expulsion but who had engineered it instead. In the town he also sees people from his youth whom he had left when as a student he went to Prague.
Actually, three types of history are present in Ludvik's situation: personal, political, and Moravian. The latter includes the folk traditions inherent in the Ride of the Kings as well as comments about folk music and Christianity later in the novel. Each type of history represents a form of recurrence that Ludvik would rather be without. The desire to lay the blame for all his failures on a single absurd event in the past, always before his eyes, has led him to pursue a needless act of revenge. Communism, "official history," has meant that once out of the Party he has no place in history. And the nostalgic belief in "origins" seems like mindless obedience to a set of rituals repeated aimlessly from the past. During a moment of revelation late in the novel, Ludvik says:
Yes, suddenly I saw it clearly: most people deceive themselves with a pair of faiths: they believe in eternal memory (of people, things, deeds, nations) and in redressibility (of deeds, mistakes, sins, wrongs)…. [Whereas] In reality the opposite is true: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be redressed.
And, in fact, Ludvik's revenge fails, even at the moment of his success. No longer a serious threat, Communism too becomes irrelevant to his personal life. And the Ride of the Kings will always contain a message which "will never be decoded, not only because there is no key to it, but also because people have no patience to listen."
Yet as in most of his novels since The Joke this vision of the quixotic unreliability of history is as liberating as it is a source of despair. Long before the current breakup of the Eastern bloc, the Hungarian Gyorgy Konrad's classic Anti-Politics argued that Russian-style, "official" Communism would increasingly become irrelevant because people would find the means to create spontaneous unofficial social, political, and economic organizations within the official state. And just as a country cannot do without some kind of organization it cannot eliminate history either.
History, recurrence, creates weight and depth and perspective. Painful as such knowledge may be, it provides us with identity and community, two things we will always need. Nonetheless, like Ludvik, we might prefer a version of history which is more humane, essentially private, contingent, semi-official, made up on the run. Perhaps that is what Eastern Europe is learning now, though it is a view of things which, like Nietzsche's myth of eternal return, may essentially be mad.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5549
SOURCE: "Milan Kundera: The Search for Self in a Post-Modern World," in Imagination, Emblems and Expressions: Essays on Latin American, Caribbean, and Continental Culture and Identity, edited by Helen Ryan-Ranson, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993, pp. 233-46.
[In the following essay, Adams highlights the way Kundera's folk heritage informs his concept of identity in both his theoretical writings and his fiction, suggesting reasons for his international appeal.]
Carlos Fuentes has said that the most urgent poles of contemporary narrative are found in Latin America and in Central Europe, and the modern reader automatically thinks of Gabriel García Márquez and Milan Kundera. This paper will look at one of these well-known authors, Milan Kundera, in terms of the Slavic soul representing its geographic standing between East (the land of orthodoxy or ideology), and West (the land of nihilism). Kundera is interesting in this connection because he resists either camp: what he calls the angelic laughter of certainty, of truth, of ideology, and the demonic laughter of infinite relativism, cynicism, and nihilism we have heard so much about in Western philosophy.
Milan Kundera, the Czech writer who has been living in Paris for more than twenty years, and writing for a foreign audience because his books were banned in his own land, does lean toward the abyss (nihilism), does favor what R. B. Gill has called "epicurean accommodation," does opt for the novel of relative truths, but somehow has managed to keep a foothold on the cliff overhanging the modern abyss of nothingness. His particular foothold seems to be a rediscovery of his folk culture, as the comforts found in his early Moravian roots offer him touchstones of identity perhaps not available to other contemporary writers. His philosophical novels offer a compromise between memory and forgetting, between irony and commitment. What might be so fetching about this writer is that, instead of arriving at the modern conclusion that life has less and less meaning in a post-Derridian world, he celebrates those very weaknesses that make us human (angst, confusion, hopelessness, uncertainty, and especially, man's simplicity)as synonymous with beauty. Thus, he turns the modern philosophical world topsy-turvy, because aesthetics has a way of turning to ethics in his post modern fiction … his post-structuralist worldview emphasizes the beauty of the uncertainty. Unlike other modern spokesmen of a bleak and dreary reality, his acceptance of relative truths seems to be a manifestation of a wry Kunderian accommodation to man's powerlessness in post-Stalinist Central Europe.
The goal of this paper is to underscore the role of Kundera's folk heritage in the formation of his world view in his search for self and, in doing that, to consider the source of his international appeal. The investigation will first of all consider Kundera as firmly in the post-modernist camp and then look at some of Kundera's own theoretical statements on fiction and the novel (including revelatory excerpts from six of his novels). Attempting to show how his chosen form of expression—the novel—is the only one capable of expressing his concept of identity in a post-modern world, a transition will then be made from the seemingly value-free post-modern viewpoint to Kundera's other side—where his individual characters are called upon to make choices, and where the destinies of "Der Volk" matter intensely. The transition will use some very recent ideas of Derrida and Lyotard to pose the obvious question: How can a novelist, clearly so postmodern in his techniques and philosophical thrust, be at the same time a heralder of the beauty in a life chock full of irony and chaos?
Jacques Derrida offers a justification for deconstructionist thought in our world that Kundera will echo in both his novels and his own critical writings. If the truth of reason is really our own experience of it, it is relative anyway. So, we need new kinds of "knowledge" to deal with this relative world, new unheard of thoughts, "qui se cherchent à travers la memoire des vieux signes" [sought from the memories of old signs]. This is precisely what Kundera will discover in his folk culture—memories of old signs—which will offer the possibility of an identity, a spiritual or psychological homeland waiting to be repossessed by him.
In terms of history (and Kundera is mainly concerned with man's relationship to the past, to history), his theory was already introduced by Foucault's deconstructionist views that it is just possible that history is made up of interpretation, not fact; that any sign/event is already an interpretation of another sign/event. The goal of history has always been the triumph of meaning, annihilation of the negative, the presence of a truth; but, when this happens, according to the deconstructionists, there is nothing left to do, nothing more to learn. Kundera's view of history has more to do with disorder than triumph of meaning. While his sentimental side yearns for a safe, unchanging, constantly returning, idyllic past, his skepticism tells us that Foucault's view was right: alternative accounts are possible when authorities in Czechoslovakia tear down the old heroic monuments, give the streets new Russian names, and fabricate in the schools a tidy and sentimental account of Czech history. Kundera writes his fiction to awaken doubts or skepticism as an alternative. He insists that the novel is the form to express this doubt, or contradiction. The novel teaches us to comprehend other peoples' truths and the limitations of our own truth, so the novel should be deeply non-ideological: "it is as essential to our insanely ideological world as is bread" ["Interview," Le Monde, Vol. 23, January, 1976]. In another article, "Man Thinks, God Laughs," he says that the novel's wisdom is different from that of philosophy—it is born of the spirit of humor. The novel contradicts ideological certitudes: "Like Penelope, it undoes each night the tapestry that … philosophy and learned men wove the day before." Life is seen rationally, as a:
glowing trajectory of causes and effects, failures, and successes, and man, setting his impatient gaze on the causal chain of his actions, accelerates further his mad race toward death.
Kundera sees human existence (its beauty) located "where the bridge between a cause and an effect is ruptured." At this juncture, there is liberty, digression, the incalculable, a lack of reason, the opposite of eighteenth-century rationalism and Liebniz. So the art born of God's laughter—the novel—is the "art that has managed to create the … imaginative realm where no one is the possessor of the truth, and there everyone has the right to be understood." Clearly, Foucault's view of history as interpretation, or as "alternative accounts" is manifested in this 1985 essay by Kundera [New York Review of Books, June 13, 1985; reprinted in The Art of the Novel].
In Kundera's own fiction, one strongly senses a deconstructionist view of the modern world and an example of Kundera's attempt to deal with the concept of identity in this deconstructed world of his novels. In his 1973 Life Is Elsewhere, the theme is that the poetic viewpoint should not dominate one's life because it is incapable of irony; its only goal is beauty. Because lyricism is never ironic, it risks being totalitarian. In this novel, Jaromil, the young poet, cannot draw human faces, giving the reader a metaphor for an ideology—where only causes, and not individuals, exist, where nuance and irony are absent. At one point the narrator says of Jaromil:
The raw simplicity of the statement made him happy because it placed him in the ranks of those direct and simple men who laughed at nuances and whose wisdom lies in their understanding of the ridiculously simple essentials of life.
Speaking later in the novel of the "adult world" of relativity, Kundera compares it with poetic form:
In rhyme and rhythm reside a certain magical power. An amorphous world becomes at once orderly, lucid and clear, and beautiful when squeezed into regular meters. Death is chaotic, but if it is in rhyme, it is orderly.
He goes on later to say: "The adult world knows perfectly well that the absolute is an illusion, that nothing human is either great or eternal."
In Laughable Loves (1974) Kundera portrays love as a meaningless game, but one area of life where we are convinced we have some control, one area (along with religion) where we try to find our essence, our peculiar identity. Man has little control over most spheres of life, but in love, there is a sense of relative freedom, and that being so, women became, for one of his characters, the "one legitimate criterion of his life's destiny." Women became, for the protagonist, a way of choosing his identity in a society where he was, in every other way, powerless to express himself. Later in the same story, however, the same character complains:
All at once I understood that it had only been my illusion that we ourselves saddle events, and are able to control their course. The truth is that they aren't our stories at all, that they are foisted upon us from somewhere outside, that we are not to blame for the queer path they follow.
The interesting, diverse group of characters in The Farewell Party (1976) try to control their destinies in a fertility clinic where sex is used to trick destiny. They gather to say good-bye to a comrade who has gotten permission to emigrate, and the themes are similar to those in his other novels. One character says: "We really had no choices," after he had carried with him what he thought was a suicide pill for years, feeling that at least in the end, if things turned bad, he could decide his own life or death. The doctor who gave him the pill explains: "… the fake pill allowed him to turn his life into a noble myth," the myth of some control over his destiny. Kundera has also created characters in his novels who equate order with identity, who need to have the authorities establish their identities. An outspoken, and very ideological nurse at the clinic dislikes the emigré's face because it looks "ironic" to her, and she hates irony. All irony was, for her, "like an armed watchman guarding the portal to her future, disdainfully refusing her admittance." Admittance to what? To Kundera's adulthood of irony, or uncertainty, to real life? Kundera asks, "What motivates people to totalitarianism? The longing for order, the desire to turn the human world into an inorganic one?" This kind of Kunderian character needs her identity established for her; she fears that in freedom, in the chaos of uncertainty, she will not know who she is. For Kundera, real life is disorder, chaos, while a willfully imposed order is akin to death.
Kundera's two most successful novels are The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, published in 1978, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984. Both texts are concerned with man's relationship to history and both texts resist a single reading. Both texts need to be considered in any discussion of problems of identity because Kundera himself has equated the absurd chaos in historical events with an individual's life. The two novels keep insisting that understanding the absurdity, the lack of a rational structure in historical events is just one more way to understand his concept of individual identity. Both are inaccessible to our human understanding. The structuralists' view of history is just as mistaken as the poetic view of individual identity: rational cause and effect in history is just as illusory as is the absolute (he would say, childish) concept of apprehending one's individual identity, of knowing who we really are. Control over history and individual identity is a fiction. Both novels place their protagonists in a world where the border is warped between reality and art, or between history and the fantastic, between memory and forgetting. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is called by David Lodge, "a masterpiece of post-modernist fiction." The novel offers several separate stories, some having the same characters which flow (or, as Lodge puts it, "leak") into each other. Themes, motifs and author's comments are repeated. It is a novel in the form of variations, which is not so much manipulation of chronology or point of view as it is a disruption between author and narrator. Milan Kundera keeps leaping over his narrator to appear overtly in the stories. It is in Laughter and Forgetting that Kundera moves back and forth from the historical to the fantastic, where previously introduced motifs and fantastic events are brought together with real facts. (We think of Marquez's magical realism here, and the broader connection between Central Europe and Latin American literature in our era.) As Lodge has said: "The outrages of modern history in those regimes are of such a scale that only the 'overt lie' of the fantastic and the grotesque can represent them."
It is in both The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being that Kundera clearly portrays history as a narrated story, and shows the fabrication of what is called the truth, or shows history as an interpretation. In the more recent novel, Kundera's most philosophical novel to date, he considers such questions as individual responsibility, Nietzsche's 'eternal return,' and chance and coincidence in life. Again, familiar motifs are here: erotic trickery in order to outwit fate, self deception, the limits of human lucidity, and the games of history. The now-familiar technique of mixing history and the fantastic is rampant in this story. The characters have a goal of making decisions, but, since Kundera rejects Nietzsche's eternal return, his characters cannot learn from repeated events, and thus, decisions or actions cannot weigh heavily on them. We are, like his characters, relieved of that responsibility of learning from history. Robert interprets Kundera's sense of "lightness of being" in this way: "If reality were like clockwork, history would have been infinitely organized. Any accident would have affected the whole: there would have to be individual responsibility in history." If individuals are as light and meaningless as historical events, if individuals have no responsibility for these events (as Kundera's narrator suspects in this novel) then how can we determine who we are, where we fit into the scheme of society's fate, its progress, its demise? Kundera jumps into his novel to tell us that history is as light as an individual's life. In fact, as early as 1958, Kundera would write [in "Quelque part la derriere," Le debat, Vol 8, January, 1981, pp. 50-63]:
… les mécanismes psychologiques qui fonctionnent dans les grands événements historiques (apparemment incroyables et inhumains) sont les mêmes qui régissent les situations intimes (tout à fait banales et humaines.).
[… the psychological mechanisms which function in the grand (and apparently inhuman and unbelievable) historic events are the same which rule intimate (and completely banal and human) situations.].
Whether readers understand the novel's quartet of Tereza, Tomas, Sabina and Franz as representing weightiness or lightness, (or probably, as structures or variations on a theme), it is clear that Kundera's fictional mode is now more philosophical than political. He uses Nietzsche as an introduction to Tomas's philosophical quandary between weightiness and lightness, and the reader is led through the philosophical maze of questions concerning individual identity in this world either devoid of individual responsibility or filled to overflowing with personal responsibility. Tomas keeps fluctuating between the negation of both social and personal responsibility, and accepting the burden of Teresa's ponderous love, his country's shame, and his medical work (where he, as a surgeon, claims to be able to find another's identity with the act of cutting open another's body). Tomas finally chooses the responsibility of another's life (weightiness), marries Teresa and moves to a farm commune, and thus has his identity given to him by his circumstances. By Kundera's ironic slight of hand, however, Tomas has also managed to choose lightness of being: he has moved from city to simple country life; he has given up a very controlled medical profession (the weightiness of his beloved work); and, he is now free and away from authorities, living a simpler, rather idyllic life of limited responsibility, freer to define who he is. Kundera has ended his novel ironically; the reader may choose the philosophical stance he prefers as he finishes the novel. Has the protagonist found an identity, or given up the search?
After having looked at Kundera's oeuvre in terms of his being solidly based in the post-modern intellectual camp, it would be beneficial to digress briefly for the purpose of coming at a conclusion from another angle. The original question of this investigation was: How does Milan Kundera, who is solidly post-modern in his theoretical stance and in his fiction, who espouses a modernist (some say, nihilistic or anti-humanist) credo of lack of certainties in life, lack of high tragedy in human events, how does this very modern writer manage to convey the bittersweet beauty inherent in the sometimes absurd, often meaningless lives in his books? How does he successfully shun, as R. C. Porter claims he does, both the literature of incoherence and the literature of absolute ideas? The following brief digression is meant to put his seemingly janus-faced contribution into an historical context.
First of all, intellectuals from Central Europe have always been engaged, have always had an ethical motivation for their theoretical output. The charges of an "arid formalism or political escapism" which members of literature departments level against post-modern theoreticians are just not applicable to Slavic writers. "In the Slavic world, structuralism is seen not as the cerebral play of a few armchair theoreticians, but as a clear-cut political stance…." For Kundera, whose nostalgia yearns for the Bohemia of pre-history, who sees his whole oeuvre [in "Un occident kidnappé," Le debat, Vol. 27, November, 1983, pp. 3-22], "comme une longue méditation sur le fin possible de l'humanité européene" [as a long meditation on the possible end of European civilization], literary theory must be attached to the ethical; and, in fact, the importance of this art (modern literature from Prague, Budapest or Warsaw) does not lie in the fact that it criticizes this or that political regime, but "that it offers new testimony about mankind in a social or political setting which people here in the West cannot even imagine" [Kundera, "Comedy Is Everywhere," Index on Censorship, Vol. 6, November/December, 1977].
Secondly, even Jacques Derrida admits to an ethical, even political thrust of modern literary theory when he writes in Ecriture et la différence that the only way to do battle with Western metaphysical absolutism is through stratagem or strategy. Sounding particularly political, he suggests playing a "double game" or double agent, "serving two sides" or feigning obedience to a system of rule while simultaneously trying to undermine its rule by posing unsolvable problems. He continues: "The question here is to pretend to speak the master's language in order to kill him." This sounds like the strategy of any minority, and defeated group (i.e., Kundera's citizens in post-1969 occupied Czechoslovakia). The key to keeping one's identity intact is that "arriére pensée," a mental reservation, held back so that one does not buy into the ideology completely. Kundera calls it a moment of pause before we give an arbitrary significance to a word. So, Derrida concludes, modern theories need not be so alienated from ethical concerns; they can be, on the contrary, "active interventions." An artist need not be enclosed in some "prison house of language," but rather engaged in very political, ethical pursuits. Milan Kundera elegantly makes that bridge or crossover from aesthetics to ethics, and his motivation is clear in this borrowed quote from a 1983 article: "Only in opposing history can you oppose today's history." By questioning an individual's responsibility in historical events, the individual can better define his responsibility and his essence in contemporary events.
Francois Lyotard, author of The Post-Modern Condition and several other texts considering that state of contemporary knowledge, has said that post-modern knowledge refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Milan Kundera's work is a product of this post-scientific era, an era, according to Lyotard, in which narrative knowledge will be more valuable to us than scientific knowledge. Since, according to most postmodern theorists, language is no longer a system of signs, but "tricks or games," or, to quote Jameson's forward to this text, "a conflictual relationship between tricksters." Kundera's themes of linguistic and historical trickery of sleight of hand are definitely post-modern. But also, Kundera shares with these new theorists the goal of generating new ideas, new kinds of knowledge, and ultimately, a new way of looking at man. Kundera's art offers a way of seeking one's identity in this post-modern world of extremes. He suggests, in his novels, another alternative—beyond those of nihilism or absolute truth.
Each age has its dominant way of the sign, and the things they signify, says Foucault in The Archeology of Knowledge. Lyotard, in The Post-Modern Condition, claims that there are scientific periods of history, but now, there is a revival of the narrative view of truth. He insists that scientific knowledge is based on narrative truth anyway, that theories are just disguised narratives, that philosophy too was just a seductive tale. He gives as examples Plato's "Myth of the Cave," a non-scientific narrative used to inaugurate science, or Descartes resorting to what he calls the "story of the mind" in his Discourses or even Aristotle suggesting that scientific knowledge is composed only of arguments (i.e., dialectics). For Lyotard, narrative is not just a new field of research, but a mode of thinking, fully as legitimate as that of abstract logic.
Another urgent level of Lyotard's text proposes that the narrative must generate the illusion of an imaginary resolution of real contradictions. It is on this level that a real correspondence between Kundera and Lyotard can be made: using as his backdrop real contradictions, (social, political and historical), Kundera creates illusions (a fiction) of imaginary resolutions, or he emphasizes the imaginary aspects of his resolutions. That, then, is another function of mixing the fantastic with the real in these novels. The very idea of "idyll" on which Kundera relies so often, is his "illusion of a resolution." Carlos Fuentes calls Kundera's notion of idyll, "a Communist offering to forget the past, a false remembering." His characters are desperately looking back (into prehistory?), through the memory of "old signs" to find themselves. It is this concept of idyll that will be exploited to suggest a dreamy, almost mythic, remembering of early Moravian folk culture as sedative to the barrage of absurdities in the postmodern world. Kundera defines idyll this way in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: "… an image … like a memory of Paradise" or "… a looking back to Paradise." But, Kundera's ultimate message is that the good old days cannot return because there never was an original, or a model to imitate. The concept of an original is only a disabled metaphor. The narrative, or history, had always already begun, and it changed a little each time in the telling, so now history is a story that never ends. What is myth, but a collection of stories endlessly retold, and Lyotard would add that all discourse is narrative, so really we live in an age when reason or truth is transformed into mythos (myth) and thus all history is myth.
Many of Kundera's contemporaries in Czechoslovakia see him portraying Central Europe as "a Europe raped by Asia … a spiritual graveyard maintained by governments of forgetting," and his idea of history as an "inexhaustible store of cruel jokes." For [Vaclav] Havel, Kundera's history is a "deity capable of deceiving and destroying us, playing tricks on us," and thus real life is elsewhere, outside of history. Real life, for Kundera as well as for other post-modern theorists like Lyotard, is in myth, or in narration, or in interpretation.
In 1964, Kundera wrote The Joke, a cult book for the intelligentsia in Czechoslovakia, and the book that resulted in his expulsion from his homeland and emigration to France. This early novel seems to embody his later themes of history as myth and, at the same time, to provide the rationale for proclaiming Kundera as a modern humanist. The novel deals with folk culture and prehistory in an absurd environment. Ludvic, a clever university student, sends a post-card to his girlfriend (a passionate Stalinist), and as a joke says, "optimism is the opium of the people … long live Trotsky." The result is his expulsion from the university and the Party, and years of labor in the mines. Years later, after a completely unsatisfactory life as a result of that one joke, he is in his hometown, and witnesses the legendary "Ride of the Kings," a folk tradition that will illustrate to him "our world of ever-accelerating forgetting." He writes:
Suddenly I saw it all clearly. People willingly deceive themselves with a double false faith. They believe in eternal memory (of men, deeds, things) … and in rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice). Both are shams. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten, and nothing will be rectified. All rectification will be taken over by oblivion. No one will rectify wrongs; all wrongs will be forgotten.
While watching the "Ride of the Kings," however, Kundera's narrator (whose son was chosen to be this year's King in the parade) reflects on the origin of the legend of the King's Ride:
Where did it come from and what does it mean? Does it perhaps date back to pagan times … The "Ride of the Kings" is a mysterious rite; no one knows what it signifies, what its message is … perhaps the Ride of Kings is beautiful to us at least partly because the message it was meant to communicate has long been lost, leaving the gestures, colors, and words to stand out all the more clearly.
It is in Moravia, Kundera's ancestral land, where he:
had the sensation of hearing verse in the most primitive sense of the word, the kind of verse I could never hear on the radio or on TV … it was a sublime and polyphonic music—each of the heralds declaimed his verse in a monotone, but each on his own individual note, so the voices combined willy-nilly into chords.
This music of variation describes also Kundera's technique of theme building already noted.
Kundera's sense of myth (of history as myth), which his protagonist seems to find in his folk culture, is the key to his love of humanity. Perhaps he believes it is futile to seek to shape the future, or to recapture the past, but it is in these rare moments when his characters fall back beyond history into myth, that Kundera reveals his own nostalgia for human solidarity, some common past which is an amalgam of truth and legend. The narrator's thoughts, while playing the final folk concert after the "Ride of the Kings" is played out, are moving. He says, "I felt a long-forgotten sense of companionship come over me." He and three friends are playing in a noisy cafe filling up with a young, boisterous audience; but, says the narrator:
We managed to forget what was going on around us and create a magic circle of music; it was like being walled off from the drunks in a glass cabin at the bottom of the sea … I felt happy inside of the songs … where sorrow wasn't playful, laughter wasn't mocking, love wasn't laughable … where love is still love, pain, pain and values free from devastation.
This a rare instance, among all of Kundera's novels, where the author describes a freedom from irony, where the author feels no irony, and this instance is in myth, in Kundera's rediscovery of his folk culture. This is Kundera's nostalgia, his own kitsch, his own way of forgetting history—through folk tradition, legend or myth. Predictably, however, he immediately counters with:
I was equally aware that my home was not of this world … that everything we sang and played was only a memory, a monument, a recreation in images of something that no longer was, and I felt the firm ground of my homeland sinking under my feet, felt myself falling … into the depths where love is love and pain, pain, and I said to myself that my only real home was this descent, this searching eager fall, and I gave myself up to it, savoring the sensuous vertigo.
Here is Kundera, the master of "epicurean accommodation"; he has chosen accommodation to an absurd world, not denial or revolt, and he is instantly a post-modern writer. For an instant, I think, we see what is the core of his attraction for modern readers, why he is not a nihilist, why he is not an ideologue. It is his method of accommodation to modern angst.
In his choice of accommodation, Kundera leaves room for the importance of the individual; while institutions and political systems may be absurd, individuals are not. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera is constantly studying individual life, how concrete it is, how varied it is, how beautiful it can be. Most of his characters in this novel have no outside system of reference, so they must constantly make decisions. Human life is celebrated in this novel in all its chaotic progress, and, as Robert has described it, in all its existential contingency. The protagonist's life turns on coincidences; the very beauty of life, however, is in these coincidences.
The characters in this novel live in a non-tragic mode of fiction, in their own brand of twentieth-century folk culture. Kundera sees his characters as central European, representing the flip-side of European history, its outsiders, its victims. It is this historical disenchantment which is the source of their non-tragic character which "se moque de la grandeur et de la gloire" [mocks grandeur and glory]. In Kundera's post-Stalinist Central Europe there are few of the elements of high tragedy like grandeur, high status, or fatal flaw, so it is understandable that what is left is a sense of humor, a sense of humor which allows one to see other points of view, and to seek a measure of values on a human scale. But Kundera also finds beauty in man's sense of discomfort in the modern ideological world. Fuentes explains that while "Central Europe took care to demonstrate that a man need not be an insect in order to be treated as such," there is, when one reads Kundera, a change in Kafka's scenario: "The cockroach no longer thinks he knows; now he knows he thinks." He suggests that even if the future has already taken place and it stinks, maybe the answer for Kundera is "an internal utopia," a real space of untouchable life. Herein may lie the core of his constant preoccupation with sex and love. Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
The symphony is a musical epic. We might compare it to a journey leading through the boundless reaches of the external world, on and on, farther and farther. Variations also constitute a journey, but not through the external world. You recall Pascal's pensee about how man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the infinitely small. The journey of the variation form leads to that second infinity, the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things.
While there is nothing new in this approach to modern life, Kundera is fresh in his ability to see beauty in our very postmodern condition: the common folk, be he comrade, poet, peasant or professor, swimming in a disconnected world, uncertain of its past, of what is its real present, wallowing sometimes in irony, reveling in coincidence. It is Kafka sans insects, with flesh and blood characters in a modern communist society, striving for some sense of joy and vitality. His is neither the literature of incoherence, nor the fiction of ideology. He is capable of satirizing loss of memory, but still offering unlimited possibilities of choices to his characters. He talks about the "semantic hoax" by which the same word can be endowed with the opposite meaning, or with a meaning just a little off, the same successive approximations which he and Lyotard and Derrida use to describe communication in general. I suppose we are talking here about a metonymic and not a metaphoric relation (an associational and not an exact correspondence), and that it applies to Kundera's treatment of historic truth, meaning in language, and possibilities of knowing. Kundera's very ethical goal [according to Carlos Fuentes] seems to be to "discover the yet unknown avenues that depart from history and lead us to realities we had hardly suspected." What is pleasing about this goal is that it celebrates our very post-modern condition; instead of wallowing in the hopelessness of it all, it celebrates our very lack of connection to external codes, to institutions, and heralds the yet unknown possibilities for men—unconnected, demystified, and deconstructed. Kundera's (and Derrida's and Lyotard's) contribution might be as simple as the suggestion that the invariable is only one way of looking at things, that others do exist. Perhaps Kundera's folk culture offers not a collision with these postmodern forces, but an instance of beautiful accommodation.
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SOURCE: A review of Les testaments trahis, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 96-7.
[In the following review of Testaments Betrayed, von Kunes focuses on Kundera's views on the arts of Kafka and Janácek.]
Milan Kundera continues his discussion on the art of the novel in his new collection of essays Les testaments trahis (The Betrayed Testaments), published seven years after L'art du roman (Eng. The Art of the Novel) by the same house, Gallimard. Breaking his traditional structure of seven parts, Kundera examines writers from Rabelais, Hemingway, and Kafka to Kundera himself, and musicians from Stravinsky to Janácek, this time in nine parts, each independent yet—like a novel—united by the theme of betrayed art. He advances his thesis of "the art of the novel being born from humor, i.e. laughing at God," arguing that humor—dispersed in a novel's ambiguity—is the most difficult aspect of art to understand. As in his previous essays, Kundera treats music as an aggressive, mysterious force that has influenced the history and development of the art of the novel.
The central figure of the author's discussions is Kafka, in particular his two works The Castle and The Trial. Examining word by word a passage on the sexual encounter of K. and Frieda, Kundera proves the translators' betrayals: their liberty in adapting Kafka's situations to their own world and epoch or, even more, in replacing Kafka's repetitions by a range of synonyms because of their feeling of being ashamed of his inadequate language. In Kundera's eyes, Kafka remains a misunderstood artist. The "dryness" of his German style, which has been considered a kind of unestheticism—"his indifference toward beauty"—is in fact, Kundera claims, Kafka's esthetic intention and one of the most distinctive signs of beauty in Kafka's prose.
It is not only history that betrays art; it is also the position that a nation holds within nations; whereas a small nation may enjoy the richness of its cultural life, it suffers from an inaccessibility (in terms of its language, history, and culture) in the world arena. Janácek, the composer and musician from Moravia, used a technique of destroying the unimportant in his compositions: only a musical note that conveys something should remain; everything else (variations, transitions) should be left out. This is the very same literary approach that Kundera has adopted for his prose writing. He proudly acknowledges Janácek to be the greatest artist that Czechoslovakia, his own country of origin, has ever had. However, the smallness of his country did not allow recognition of Janácek's genius, just as the provincialism of Prague did not allow Kafka to be recognized as a leading writer of his own time.
Josef K.'s trial takes place on two levels: in the novel and in the criticism of the novel. As critics search for reasons for Josef K.'s guilt, they come up with a spectrum of accusations, another sort of trial, another force qui juge. Is not Kundera himself, however, an additional "power that accuses"? Accusing Max Brod of betraying Kafka (it is solely because of Brod that Kafka's letter to his father is known to the public, in fact to everyone except Kafka's father), or accusing Ansermet of betraying Stravinsky (for suggesting to Stravinsky that he edit one of his symphonies), Kundera accuses too, and he does so in his typically flamboyant, original, and witty way.
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SOURCE: "In Defense of Fiction," in New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1995, p. 30.
[In the review below, Hutchinson addresses the main themes of Testaments Betrayed.]
In 1979, while interviewing Milan Kundera for Corriere della Serra, the essayist Alain Finkielkraut remarked on how Mr. Kundera's style—"flowery, baroque"—in his first novel, The Joke, had become spare and limpid in his later books. Flowery? Baroque? On examining the French edition of The Joke, Mr. Kundera discovered that his translator had sown the book with metaphors. "The sky was blue"? No: "A periwinkle October sky hoisted its sumptuous colors on the masthead." This outlandish piece of literary embroidery was then used as the source text for the Argentine edition, among others. Nor did the book fare any better with Mr. Kundera's original English publisher, who helpfully edited out all the reflexive passages, along with the chapters on musicology, and then changed the order of the various parts. Few writers can have been quite so unfortunate in their appointed go-betweens. But Mr. Kundera had learned his lesson: as a note tells us at the end of the revised French translation of The Joke, he now devotes almost as much time to overseeing foreign editions of his work as he does to writing.
A writer's work can be betrayed in many ways. The French edition of Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs rearranges her furious, rambling prose into three tidy volumes according to theme, utterly destroying the mnemonic logic that binds the narrative together. Auden, who removed a whole article of "verbose rubbish" from his version of Goethe's Italian Journey on the grounds that it did not represent Goethe's views, has himself come back to life as the author of a pamphlet of love poems for adolescents. The preface to a new edition of Ulysses tries to turn Joyce, the most internationally minded of writers, whose alter ego coined one of the most damning remarks ever made about history, into a kind of closet Irish nationalist. The greater the work, the greater the wealth of connotation; to simplify is always to betray.
An essay in nine parts, Testaments Betrayed is in many respects a continuation of The Art of the Novel and, like all of Mr. Kundera's books, is organized along musical lines, each section being both a variation on the title theme and an essay that is itself composed of variations of its own. Many of the themes taken up in the earlier work are here fleshed out in further detail: the art of narrative, the novel as the outrider of modernity, the morality of irony, the confusions of an age obsessed by ideas and indifferent to work and, of course, to the hazards of translation (his own translator here, Linda Asher, has nothing to fear). The book ranges widely, with a cast that includes both writers and musicians—Rabelais, Rushdie, Mann, Musil, Broch, Bach, Janacek, Stravinsky, Kafka and Mr. Kundera himself. It is a defense of fiction and a lesson in the art of reading.
About Rabelais and the invention of humor: humor, says Mr. Kundera, quoting Octavio Paz, is the great invention of the modern spirit, a species of the comic that renders ambiguous everything it touches. The source of that humor is the novel, and the ambiguity it breeds, its refusal to pass judgment, is the novel's morality. The Rights of Man? Prior to the novel, the individual in the modern sense simply didn't exist. The arts had first of all to invent him. For Mr. Kundera, this is of the essence: from Rabelais and Cervantes on, the rise of the novel and the rise of modern society are one, and failure to grasp this reduces the novel to a form of polite entertainment or, what is just as bad, to an ideological skeleton hung with the author's rags.
All of Mr. Kundera's novels are carnivals of misunderstanding, and there is hardly a character in his fiction who doesn't at some stage betray someone or something—husband, wife, family, colleagues, country, ideals. The thematic overlap with the essays is striking, yet there is an important difference: the kind of misrepresentations and betrayals Mr. Kundera explores in his novels are part of the human predicament, a category of existence the author sees as inseparable from modern society—lacking the finished text for our lives, having no certain knowledge as to what the "right" decision might be, we can only take our esthetic instinct for a guide and improvise. But in the testaments he examines in his essays, it is man's works, not his days, that are at stake, and here we do indeed have the finished text, the musical score.
The writer whose work best embodies the thrust of Mr. Kundera's argument is Kafka, whose work, he suggests, has been betrayed on several fronts. His French translators, for example, have destroyed the rhythm of his prose by punctuating his long sentences with semicolons and chopping his paragraphs up into a whole host of shorter ones. (In manuscript the third chapter of The Castle consists of just two long paragraphs; in Max Brod's edition there are four, in one French translation a mind-boggling ninety-five, and Mr. Kundera devotes a whole section to comparing three translations of a long sentence in The Castle before providing his own.) Next come those publishers who, despite Kafka's insistence that his books be printed in large type, chose typefaces so small they must have ruined the eyes of more than one reader. Above all, there are critics who, rather than address the novels' particular achievement within the larger context of European fiction, prefer to immerse themselves in hagiography and speculations about the author's private life. Mr. Kundera is particularly severe on Brod, whom he holds responsible for Kafka's disastrous metamorphosis from novelist into saint; to illustrate this collapse of critical priorities, he cites an essay taken "at random" in which the letters are quoted fifty-four times, the diaries forty-five, the Janouch Conversations thirty-five, the stories twenty, The Trial five, The Castle four and Amerika not once.
Inevitably, this book has its weak moments. There are times when he seems to want to read Kafka for erotic comedy alone, and some of his arguments about the relations between politics and art are shaky. (Blaming the Romantic tradition and all things "lyrical" for the horrors of totalitarianism is as much of a simplification as the kind of reasoning he denounces in the debate surrounding Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party.) And though I understand his despair at the sheer volume of noise surrounding our lives, he should avoid writing about rock music, which, as readers of his novels will have noticed, invariably brings out some of his worst prose.
But these are quibbles. Mr. Kundera's essays should be placed alongside those of that other great emigre, Joseph Brodsky, the one performing for fiction what the other has done for poetry and both men sharing a now-unfashionable belief in the importance of esthetics to ethics. Mr. Kundera, for whom our passion for passing judgment before we have even begun to understand is a sure sign of our depravity, feels that art, by leading us into the labyrinth, can lead us out. He thinks that if we could come to terms with this the world would be a better place. He may well be right.
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SOURCE: A review of Slowness and Testaments Betrayed, in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 18, May 6, 1996, pp. 58-60.
[Below, Tashman faults the structure and characterization of Slowness, then complains about various arguments presented in Testaments Betrayed, finding them "without merit but worth countering."]
In reading Slowness, I did not feel the need, as one does with a strong piece of writing, to establish a distance from it and allow it to work indirectly, and to put it down for a time; and having put it down anyway, I was not eager to pick it up again and resume reading. I disliked the first twenty pages of this novel, which seemed random and directionless; then, in a crazed and rushing confluence of unexplained references and abruptly introduced characters, it caught my interest. Unfortunately, my engagement did not continue; my expectations, at first high because the book is by Kundera, then lowered, and then suddenly raised, were in the end excessive. I have admired Kundera for showing, in some of his other books, a vein of the rarest mineral in contemporary fiction: honesty regarding the state of the novel form. He has offered, elsewhere, constructive efforts out of a retrenched and unpromising aesthetic that draws from film, the bad influences of television and commercial culture, and impersonal developments in the history of the novel. He has also tried to avoid a blurb-encompassing style that currently predominates—even, in England and America, among the highly proficient elite of novelists. In execution and conception, Slowness seems well below standard for him.
Like an old man, Kundera complains strenuously about the modern world. Patience, romance, discretion and memory are the qualities of premodern life he values; today, when all is fast and physical, people are forgetful and brutish. His characters are educated wretches who speculate, worry and exploit others; and they unknowingly repeat one another's words and phrases. Kundera seems to want to establish a connection between the impossible political choices forced by glaring publicity, and the choices that occur in seduction. The action of the novel is slight: an entomologist in contemporary France has a brief affair; the plot of an eighteenth-century French novel, concerning a brief affair, is summarized; the entomologist and the protagonist of that novel meet at the end. I do not understand why the contemporary protagonist is an entomologist; since he could have been in another profession, he should have been. The novel also contains the story of Kundera's writing it. I am tired of books within books; they should be seen, not read.
The rupturing of the unity of time, in the meeting between Kundera's eighteenth- and twentieth-century men, is achieved by strict adherence to unity of place. The contemporary affair, the affair in the eighteenth-century novel, and the writing of Kundera's novel occur in the same chateau, once a residence and now a hotel. The meeting across centuries does not seem to result from the characters' occupying an eternal dimension, as Hemingway and Goethe do in their meetings in Immortality, Kundera's preceding novel. His characters can inhabit the same time, Kundera suggests, because they inhabit the same space. The device may be intended as a metaphor for television and other instantaneous media, which can bring together on a screen events and details from different times; or, more mundanely, it may result from the characters' being products of the author's imagination.
Kundera, as a character in the book, sees one of his characters sitting on a motorcycle. This subjective prerogative, which is perceptual insofar as it operates in thought and fancy, exceeds anything allowed by Bishop Berkeley. The great models, in literary narrative, for overcoming the unity of time are the accounts of the underworld in the eleventh book of the Odyssey and sixth of the Aeneid; Virgil, in following Homer, is even more audacious in including inhabitants of the future as well as the past. In film, where vast transitions can be achieved gracefully, the collapsing of time in a scenic unit can be avoided: as in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, which establishes a beautiful parallel between divided epochs and separated lovers. In the modern novel it has been done successfully in satire—in Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. There is too much emphasis, in the meeting between characters in Slowness, on the incongruity in their apparel.
Unlike Kundera's other novels, Slowness is written in the present tense. The present tense in fiction is like a fly buzzing in one's ear. It is the first novel Kundera has written in French, but it contains passages that would be infelicitous in any language. At times enthusiasm overtakes him: "It is as if she had put a grenade of euphoria into his hand"; "the Asshole is the miraculous focal point for all the nuclear energy of nakedness." Elsewhere an indicative clumsiness obtrudes: "The entomologists are strange boors"; "the place beside him in bed is vacant." The humor in the book is effortful and feeble as well as pervasive. Kundera is a brisk observer—he is particularly good on manipulations of argument in the human rights movement—but in extended discussion he falters. His many digressions have the quality of a dialogue between himself and a gagged auditor; the story seems to interrupt the exposition of opinions, rather than the reverse. An unkind critic might observe that the book's structure resembles that of the Communist bureaucracy formerly in place in Kundera's native Czechoslovakia: The digressions, resembling political speeches, become expositions; the living narrative is demoted to an illustration of general truths; the speaking personages are not characters but functionaries. Kundera's impulse in writing this book seems to have been didactic rather than imaginative.
Kundera's Testaments Betrayed is a stimulating critical entertainment: Intelligent and energetically written, it contains arguments that are without merit but worth countering. It is less diffuse and more carefully organized than his The Art of the Novel (1986); throughout, topics recur like themes in a narrative. Kundera organizes Testaments Betrayed after Nietzsche's books, with each of its nine parts divided into small sections and the presentation of ideas furtive and associational rather than closely or even distantly argued. Kundera is no Nietzsche, but his book is refreshing when compared with academic and nonacademic literary criticism as currently practiced in America. Literary criticism outside universities, in magazines and newspapers, has grown closer to advertising and promotional writing, and because of commercial imperatives is directed mainly to work in which the gap between actual and purported value is greatest. Academic criticism, on the other hand, has discounted immediate response and aims to produce elaborate demonstrations, and it has become a poor stepchild of philosophy; it has also developed its own mannerisms, above all a weird propriety and hesitancy in argument, alternating with brute assertion. In Testaments Betrayed Kundera states his views and writes well—an unusual combination.
Kundera's claims about the history of the novel are fanciful and easily corrected. He confuses the status of the novel in European culture with the distinctiveness of the modern European novel compared with other novelistic traditions. He describes the novel as "that most European of the arts"; I do not see why it is more European than the symphony or the self-portrait, which do not have an equivalent in Japan and China, where the Tale of Genji and Dream of the Red Chamber appeared. Kundera adopts something of the pious tone of poets writing on poetry when he designates as unique to the novel qualities that are attributable to other forms as well. He states that "humor is an invention bound up with the birth of the novel." But the irreverent comic attitude that he views as a modern creation, and as emerging from the novel, is manifest in Aristophanes and Chaucer. He seems to claim that the picaresque novel is exclusively European. But the originator of the picaresque, as best can be determined, was Apuleius, a Roman North African; in Europe the form is distinctively Spanish, but Spain was an Arab and Muslim outpost: The picaresque of Cervantes, while obviously drawing on and satirizing chivalric romance, has qualities reminiscent of the tales in the Arabian Nights. Kundera may be a better writer on music than on literary history; the most instructive portion of the book is his discussion of Janacek's operas, which he champions.
The title of the book refers to its main theme and argument. Kundera is an advocate for writers and other artists who through death or unfavorable circumstances are unable to defend themselves against well-meaning but insensitive editors, publicists and executors who disregard their stated intentions regarding the presentation of their work. He cites several examples of such "betrayed testaments"; his main one is Max Brod's well-intentioned betrayal of his friend Kafka (Brod was also an advocate of Janacek's work). Brod not only disregarded Kafka's written instructions concerning which of his works could be published after his death but also, like a voyeuristic literary biographer, published those instructions. Some of Kundera's other comments along these lines are overheated. He criticizes German publishers of The Castle for printing, in an appendix, passages deleted by Kafka. Since the excised material did not appear in the body of the printed text, I do not see the grounds for complaint. But Kundera is more measured on Brod's sort of activity, which he regards as more common and more complacently accepted today than previously, and as posing a danger to artistic independence. He feels that writers' prerogatives should be defended and their intentions respected.
There are two problems with Kundera's argument. The first—which he acknowledges at the end of the book—is that writers may be poor judges of their own work. The argument that a writer's intentions—if these have been specified and if the writer is a master—should in all cases be respected seems unreasonable, for it assumes that the writer will always be right. The best and truest judges of finished work are readers, not writers. The other and more compelling objection is that posterity, whether it is capricious or validating, is all one can depend on; one cannot master it or bargain with it. There is a limit to the amount of control that any writer or artist has over the dissemination of his work, and when he attempts to overcome it he will appear petulant and peevish. This can be stated in another way: There is a limit to how far readers can determine the intentions of writers, especially deceased writers. If editors and publishers were to follow Kundera strictly, minor writers would benefit; more frequently than superior ones, they announce their intentions to the world. Of course, there are instances of challengeable editing, but in many of these—as in some of the decisions on punctuation in the new Oxford Shakespeare—the issue is not infidelity to the writer's explicit or imputed intentions but taste and literary judgment. Kundera confuses a writer's control over his work's presentation in his lifetime—which is usually, though not always, a reasonable expectation—with control over its reception after he is gone, which is unreasonable. Indeed, over time, as a writer and his contemporaries die, a work's presentation becomes one form of its reception. Writers who follow Kundera's exhortations, and expend energy in battling circumstances they cannot control, will probably not write well.
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SOURCE: "Speed," in New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1996, p. 5.
[In the following review, Goreau outlines the plot of Slowness, admiring its complexity of themes despite its brevity.]
Metaphysical speculation was once happily married to the novel, practiced to great effect by masters like Voltaire and Diderot. Since the end of the Enlightenment, however, the philosophical novel—as opposed to the novel of ideas or the novel of social protest—has become a rarity. Milan Kundera, who has more or less single-handedly reinvented the form for his own use, is careful to point out that his novels are not engaged in the translation of philosophy into fiction. His modus operandi is to bring ideas into play—floating hypotheses, improvising, interrogating.
In roomy, expansive novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and, most recently, Immortality, he uses an astonishing spectrum of instruments to get at meaning. Cutting rapidly from one story to another, interleaving different historical periods, he shifts from anecdote to satire, biography to autobiography, dramatization to historical narrative, ontological meditation to criticism—given voice by narrators who range from omniscient to personal, including an invented "I" whose name happens to be Milan.
But this richness is anything but disparate: Mr. Kundera, who began his artistic life as a musician, creates remarkable unity by sounding a theme, then circling and returning to it again and again with a great breadth of variations. The next theme he introduces might seem at first unconnected, but as he spins it out, the deep affinities gradually surface.
Slowness, Mr. Kundera'snew novel, now translated by Linda Asher, appears to depart from what we have come to expect from him. It is, to begin with, the first novel he has written in French. It is also surprisingly short, less than half the number of pages of his last novel. The action occurs in a single place and, through the novel's witty telescoping of time, over a single night—a sort of parody of the classical unities.
The novel opens with Vera and Milan Kundera driving out from Paris to a chateau in the country to spend the night. A motorcyclist, bent on passing, appears behind them and prompts a banal observation by Vera that people are utterly without fear when they get behind the wheel. At this, the novel's central subject is announced, in a lyrical meditation on speed and time, technology and the body, escape and engagement, memory and forgetting: "The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time … in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear." Speed is the form of ecstasy technology has given us, the novel proposes. It then asks, "Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?"
At the end of this opening, a parallel journey begins, one recounted in a novella Milan has been reading entitled Point de Lendemain ("No Tomorrow"), by Vivant Denon, an 18th-century libertine who chose to remain anonymous. In it, a young chevalier travels by coach to the same chateau 200 years earlier to keep an assignation with the chatelaine. Their lovemaking, drawn out over a whole night, is informed by the elaborate rules of conduct their century affected. Denon's novel, known only to a small circle in its own time and re-published in 1992, has come to represent, the narrator tells us, "the art and the spirit of the 18th century."
The young man on the motorcycle, Vincent, the chevalier's modern counterpart, is the protagonist of the third part of Mr. Kundera's fictional triptych. He has arrived at the chateau for a conference on entomology, also attended by a pretty typist named Julie, a Czech scientist whose career was fatally interrupted by the 1968 Russian invasion, a famous leftist intellectual named Berck (in French, "berck" is a colloquial expression of disgust), a would-be camp follower who is gainfully employed as a television producer and her devoted slave of a cameraman. The complications that entangle them multiply in the course of the evening with increasing frenzy until what looks like comedy turns to farce, ending in a howlingly funny failed orgy.
Taking the ontological temperature of today and of the pre-revolutionary 18th century, Mr. Kundera finds that the speed we love has beggared us of pleasure. Vincent and Julie's rush to make love in public view leads to a rather entertaining misunderstanding with the formers penis, whose eloquent—it makes a speech—but stubborn refusal to cooperate confirms the novel's earlier assertion that in delegating speed to a machine (the motorcycle) we leave the body "outside the process."
Through an accumulating tissue of action and metaphor, the novel is proposing that perhaps real freedom doesn't lie in the jettisoning of all restraint. The 18th century framed its lovemaking in high formality, while we celebrate spontaneity. But look here, Slowness says, the chevalier and his mistress are sexier than their frenetic modern counterparts: "Everything is composed, confected, artificial, everything is staged, nothing is straightforward, or in other words, everything is art; in this case: the art of prolonging the suspense, better yet: the art of staying as long as possible in a state of arousal."
Cutting back and forth between Denon's novel and the chateau's unzipped entomology conference, Slowness floats another hypothesis: that the nature of fame has undergone a profound alteration since the invention of the camera, one that alters the foundation of what Mr. Kundera elsewhere calls our "map of existence." Vivant Denon never claimed authorship of his novel. "Not that he rejected fame," the narrator speculates, "but fame meant something different in his time; I imagine the audience that he cared about, that he hoped to beguile, was not the mass of strangers today's writer covets but the little company of people he might know personally and respect."
The modern part of the novel's triptych lays out the proposition that no one now—in the age of television—can act in the world without imagining a large and invisible audience. The novel then carries this proposition to its absurd conclusion, in a dark burlesque not unlike the one Voltaire used to prove that all is most emphatically not for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
As all of Milan Kundera's other novels do, Slowness deals with the issue of how the novel defines itself—how does the audience novelists write for change the way the writing takes shape? And, like the novel's arrogant intellectual, Pontevin, who chooses to spin ideas for his own pleasure only, do writers risk turning themselves into monsters of selfishness if they choose to remain silent? Since one suggestion here is that form may well be more freeing than its opposite, and that form is inseparable from content, it seems unfair to accuse the novel of overschematizing. Clearly Mr. Kundera is playing with the idea of writing a novel whose form itself recalls the 18th century. And the speeding up to farce at the end of the book is inextricably part of the point he is making. But, for all its audacity, wit and sheer brilliance, I miss here the expansive feel of the earlier novels. There are parts of Slowness that feel uncharacteristically heavy-handed.
Vera says that Milan might be writing a novel without a single serious word, A Big Piece of Nonsense. But Mr. Kundera's attack on the idea of progress in Slowness is very much in earnest, echoed in his most recent long essay, Testaments Betrayed: "History is not necessarily a path climbing upward," he wrote, adding that "the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity)." Modernism, he said, was once synonymous with experiment, but since the invention of mass media, it has embraced "received ideas" with an enthusiasm for conformity that borders on the totalitarian.
Mr. Kundera comes closer to polemic here than in his other fiction, but he is fiercely defending the "spirit of complexity" that the novel embodies. The novel's business, he wrote in The Art of the Novel, is to say to us, "Things are not as simple as you think." So it seems almost churlish to point out shortcomings in a writer of his spirit of play, breadth of reach and perspicacity—all admirably at work once again in Slowness. Much can be forgiven a writer who fearlessly takes on impossible questions like "What does it mean to be modern?"
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Bayley, John. "Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight." Salmagundi, Vol. 73 (Winter 1987): 84-92.
Discusses the dialectic organization of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in relation to the development of the modern novel.
Bold, Alan. "Half Love, Half Joke." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4114 (5 February 1982): 131.
Reviews The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, emphasizing its expression of the problem of existential identity.
Caldwell, Ann Stewart. "The Intrusive Narrative Voice of Milan Kundera." Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 46-52.
Overview of the function of the narrator's voice in Kundera's fiction.
Cooke, Michael. "Milan Kundera, Cultural Arrogance and Sexual Tyranny." Critical Survey 4, No. 1 (1992): 79-84.
Contests Kundera's conception of the novel genre in several theoretical articles as the embodiment of "the European spirit," identifying its flaws and limitations.
Gray, Paul. "Broken Circles." Time 116, No. 24 (15 December 1980): 89.
Review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, focusing on the character's psychological motivations.
Gunn, Dan. "The Book of Betrayals." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4854 (12 April 1996): 21-2.
Concentrates on the effects of misreading and mistranslation in both Testaments Betrayed and Slowness.
Lodge, David. "From Don Juan to Tristan." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4234 (25 May 1984): 567-68.
Evaluates The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the context of Kundera's fictional and theoretical oeuvre.
O'Rear, Joseph Allen. A review of Slowness by Milan Kundera. Review of Contemporary Literature 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 182.
Praises the "laughing, dancing story" of Slowness, finding its conclusion "as evocative of the Marx Brothers as it is of Rabelais."
Petro, Peter. "Apropos Dostoevsky: Brodsky, Kundera and the Definition of Europe." In Literature and Politics in Central Europe: Studies in Honour of Markéta Goetz-Stankiewicz, edited by Leslie Miller, Klaus Petersen, Peter Stenberg, and Karl Zaenker, pp. 76-90. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1993.
Analyzes the public debate between Joseph Brodsky and Kundera over the interpretation of Dostoevski's literary vision in relation to the problem of defining Europe.
Pochoda, Elizabeth. "The Mysteries of the Status Quo." Nation 223, No. 8 (18 September 1976): 245-47.
Examines the personalities of the characters in Laughable Loves.
Ricard, François. "The Fallen Idyll: A Rereading of Milan Kundera." Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 17-26.
Meditates on the representation of the idyll and of beauty in Kundera's fiction.
Rosenblatt, Roger. "The Only Game in Town." New Republic 173, No. 10 (6 September 1975): 29-30.
Explains the playful but paradoxical propensities of the stories in Laughable Loves.
Schubert, P. Z. Review of The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera. World Literature Today 52, No. 4 (Autumn 1978): 663.
Brief review of The Farewell Party, describing it as "a fine blend of politics, sex and humor."
Sosa, Michael. Review of The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera. World Literature Today 62, No. 4 (Autumn 1988): 685.
Summarizes the predominant theme of The Art of the Novel.
Stavans, Ilan. "Jacques and His Master: Kundera and His Precursors." Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 88-96.
Traces the influence of Cervantes, Sterne, and Diderot on Kundera's writings with respect to the circumstances surrounding the creation of Jacques and His Master.
"Behind the Masks." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3527 (2 October 1969): 1122.
Outlines the structure and main themes of The Joke.
von Kunes, Karen. "The National Paradox: Czech Literature and the Gentle Revolution." World Literature Today 65, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 237-40.
Comparative study of the collective and individual impact of Havel, Hrabal, and Kundera on Czech literature before the fall of communism.
Wall, Stephen. "Nuvvles." London Review of Books 11, No. 6(16 March 1989): 24-5.
Details Kundera's methodology in The Art of the Novel.