“Tutte le grandi opere (proprio perché sono grandi) sono in parte incomplete.”
“All great works (precisely because they are large) are in part incomplete.”
I struggled with this simple and disarming statement Milan Kundera had made in an interview. He makes statements that often sound like pronouncements, and you should ask: What makes a work ‘great’ and are ‘We,’ as a culture and community of readers, in agreement on this greatness? I then realized that Kundera was provoking me.
My annoyed Self had asked: If we are in agreement, what is that is ‘incomplete’? How do I know it is ‘incomplete’? Is the story unfinished? Does ‘incomplete’ mean that there is a deficit, a fault, either on the part of the writer or the reader (Me)? In thinking (and while reading the rest of the interview) I realized that Kundera was broaching a concept of the novel that might seem alien to American readers. The novel of ideas. A literature of ideas cannot be complete because ideas are infinite by definition.
First…I was reading Joseph Brodsky’s essay on Marcus Aurelius in On Grief and Reason when I had discovered the Kundera interview. Brodsky had suggested that were an ancient Roman to time-travel to our day, he would find the world utterly alien to him, except for some items, such as a bed, the sky, etc., and the ancient Roman would not recognize other human beings until he encountered one on horseback, since his culture used horses in agriculture and in war.
My friend Claudio pointed out the error in Brodsky’s example in a way that brought me around to Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He explained that the Romans were the Americans of ancient times in that they were Empire-builders: pragmatic and seldom theoretical. Latin philosophy was little more than interpretations of more ancient authors, mostly Greek and Egyptian. Brodsky’s ancient Roman, after the initial shock, would feel at home in the modern U.S. The point — and though not Brodsky’s original intention — illustrates Vico’s corsi e ricorsi which we know through Nietsche’s as the ‘eternal return’ or ‘eternal recurrence.’ The US and its allies are the Roman Empire. Europe is Greece and China is the Persian Empire. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with the ‘eternal return.’
Kundera argues that, while the imagination should use the novel as a playground of ideas, the psychological novel is dead, replaced by psychological cinema. We know that Utopia does not exist and the twentieth-century – the most violent in human history if we consider how systematic, organized, and efficient killing others had become. Utopia does not exist. What we are left with is Ambiguity. For Kundera the novel is political and historical and he argues that ‘incompleteness’ is the knowledge that there are limits to ‘memory’ and that not everything can be glimpsed in one artistic expression. ‘Incompleteness’ is the modern condition since we have lost any parameter, any shared boundary, to decide when an existence is complete. The novelist must comes to terms with it.
“Se non è così, il romanzo perde la sua forma, la sua “chiarezza architettonica” diventa oscura.”
“When you finish reading a book, you should be able to remember the beginning. If not, the novel loses its form; its ‘architectural clarity’ becomes obscure.”
Okay, you say that Kundera is a bit too serious and I read for ‘entertainment.’ While I don’t think that Kundera would see “reading for escapism,” in such a statement, he might ask why there is a need to escape in your version of modern life. We moderns need to ‘escape’ because we cannot ‘explain’ our reality. Shakespeare was entertaining, but was not entertainment. A legitimate answer might be: “Work challenges my brain and I look to escape anxiety and stress.” We don’t use leisure time to elaborate — a higher form of entertainment — and stress and anxiety have become identical. It is a vicious circle and it is here that I find Kundera provocative and yes, polemical.
People read for entertainment. There is no argument there, for reading for that purpose has not changed one iota since the printing press first made books readily available. People stood on the docks here in America waiting for the next Dickens installment with the same fervor as readers jammed stores waiting for the next J.K. Rowling novel. Reading is a leisure activity and it is a moral choice. I read rather than watch television or, well, you fill in the blank. How you spend your leisure time is a moral act, possibly a political one.
Kundera’s call for the imagination is to explore ideas and not necessarily come up with neat answers is probably European in temperament. “Essai” as Montaigne would intend the word: “a try, an attempt.” In modern parlance, the journey and not the destination. I believe that what Kundera rejects as “psychological novel” is the escapism into our subjective Self. He is encouraging readers to look out at the world, use their cumulative education and life experience — all functions of culture — to question everything they see and what they are told. In that sense, he is political; and in the same sense, a novel is political-historical.
Do we know ‘greatness’ because our education system tells us that certain books are great? The two writers that Kundera admires most – Robert Musil and Hermann Broch – are probably not in the forefront for most American readers. As a Czech, Musil and Broch are part of his literary tradition. Kundera has his reasons for applauding them as writers and he marshals his evidence elsewhere in his works for that admiration; but ‘ideas’ are what Kundera suggests that novels should explore through characters, plot, and fictional ‘techniques.’
What about ‘entertainment’? Again, my friend Claudio pointed to two Italian words worth mentioning. Letteratura is something you read to improve yourself; it implies technique and ideas. Narrativa is what you read for entertainment alone. Kundera is letteratura, Grisham is narrativa. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera rails against kitsch. In using the word ‘kitsch’ he advances Broch’s condemnation of ‘dumbing down’ literature to readers. ‘Mind candy.’ This may sound ‘elitist’ but Broch argued that when reality is prepackaged and readers are not forced to think, they become anesthetized and prone to sentimentality. Again, Broch’s choice of word, ‘sentimentality,’ points to Flaubert’s novel L’Éducation sentimentale or an ‘education in feelings,’ where ‘feeling’ is hard-earned. Broch saw and Kundera sees ‘kitsch’ as a prelude to political manipulation. Broch saw Vienna as kitsch. He would interpret the Victorians as kitsch and most of Paris as kitsch. Kitsch is where society has become a Confederacy of Dunces with citizen-readers. Think of the intellectual distinction (and moral choice) of not supporting the war in Iraq BUT supporting the troops, admitting that the premise for war was unjust, because sentimental rhetoric had misled most people. Here, I might interject that the medieval concept of “error” meant to “wander off the road.” The Italian language retains the double meaning of “wander off the road” and “making a mistake” in errare. That is why Dante is still relevant in the modern world. A heretic’s ‘sin’ is that he misleads others. An unrepentant heretic is a matter of important political consequence since it forces persecution and draws attention to ‘belief.’
I look at Kundera’s art as a tilted circle that is properly called an ellipse. It appears like a circle, which suggests redundancies, but when tilted you see his ideas falling off and through the orbit like dust as the music plays. It could be his beloved Leoš Janáček or it could be Antonín Dvořák. Kundera may quote Heidegger’s “Sein und Zeit” [Being and Time] and argue the ethical and moral implications of lightness or weight of being. I heed Kundera’s comments about “kitsch.”
Whether it was the the Blackshirts of Mussolini’s Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale or the Brown Shirts of the SA in Broch’s time, both Broch and Kundera saw the propaganda of home and hearth accepted without reservation in sentimental literature that manipulated the emotions of viewers. It is in the act of viewing, accepting without question, that Broch and Kundera saw the dangerous of consumerism and materialism. Kundera’s provocative statements about the novel apply to all forms of Art. Kitsch is not about Truth; it is an expression of bourgeois society. Kitsch is a way to be plus royaliste que le roi. Excessive exuberance. To convey the realities of modern life, Kundera would argue, is to show complexity, whereas reality television shows are not about real-time reality, but ‘entertainment’ that denies anesthetizes critical thought. It is melodrama.
Kundera witnessed, the Soviet invasion of the Czech Republic in 1968, the subject of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Broch was placed in a concentration camp, but was freed by the Nazis after Hitler received letters of protest from notable writers. It is true that Hermann Broch and Milan Kundera, through their discussions on ‘kitsch art’ are criticizing capitalism, because ‘kitsch art’ is born of material consumption, but they are not criticizing democracy or saying that Art must be elitist. Kundera, in some reviews, is dismissed as elitist. Art that elitist is not Art. Art is Art when it speaks to everyone. Shakespeare is universal. Broch and Kundera were issuing a warning that human intellect can be deceived, seduced, and betrayed by ‘kitsch.’ Sentimentality deceives because it keeps the reader enthralled to emotions and suborns Intellect; seduces because Subjectivity clouds over Objectivity; and it betrays the reader into the hands of those who can abuse power.
Michel Foucault taught us that contemporary society is about the image, where sexuality and physicality are the new mantra. We are guided by an impersonal power to invest all our energies and all our time in cultivating our bodies to live a life of entertainment and sexual fulfillment. Everything around us has become a reminder of our own incompleteness. If we spend our energy this way, we do not have the energy to change society. We’re in the Matrix: what we think is an escape is actually another device of the System. We may think that a thought is an ‘alternative’ but we’re still in the Matrix. The image is the narcotic and kitsch is the delivery system.
Literature is indeed a consumable commodity on the ‘open market’ but, as Kundera suggests, the educated, intelligent reader knows how to read a book and laugh and struggle and find that entertaining. Laughter is a recurring theme in Kundera’s novel. Literature like language is about sharing. Art that is denied, dismissed, because it challenges and provokes is what compels the imagination to reconsider reality. ‘Kitsch’ denies imagination by reducing everything to facile answers to difficult questions, like Being. In that sense, Kundera is the “critique des beautés calomniées,” or the “critic of beauty slandered.”
In the end, our creativity and our imagination deserve a better end. In the end, as Kundera said in his adopted French, ‘Dans le désert qui gagne?’… ‘Who wins in the desert?’