Discover more from Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
Only at the end (the end of a love, of a life, of an era) does the past suddenly show itself as a whole and take on a brilliantly clear and finished shape.
Many years ago as a graduate student I was reading a great deal of non-fiction thinking that is where I must look to learn about the world. How limited my view was. A dear friend gave me The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and told me to read it, which I did, quickly followed by his other major works. In the last year I found myself circling back to Kundera from a different prompt, as he was one of the primary defenders and proponents of the legacy of Hermann Broch, a writer I have been thinking alongside of late. Kundera was keenly aware of what emerged from the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the significance of its passing. I have no capacity to offer any judgement on Kundera’s life and work, look elsewhere for that. Instead, fragments from some essays.
‘The Umbrella, the Night World, and the Lonely Moon’ (1991).
In our times it has been easy to betray friends in the name of what are called convictions. And to do so with moral righteousness. A degree of wisdom is indeed required in order to understand that the positions we adopt are but imperfect and probably temporary hypotheses, which can be made to seem like truths and certainties only by the blinkered.
I ask some Europeans: Do you remember the European moon? What shape is it when waxing, what shape is it on the wane? They don’t know. The same day, I hear a woman speaking on the radio about the twenty-first century, space travel, trips to distant galaxies, blahblahblah. I’m sure she doesn’t know the moon either, at least not the one above her head. People have stopped looking at the sky, that obsolete ornament that will surely soon be replaced by something more entertaining, and more practical.
‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ (1984).
It’s enough to read the greatest Central European novels: in Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, History appears as a process of gradual degradation of values; Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities paints a euphoric society which doesn’t realize that tomorrow it will disappear; in Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, pretending to be an idiot becomes the last possible method for preserving one’s freedom; the novelistic visions of Kafka speak to us of a world without memory, of a world that comes after historic time. All of this century’s great Central European works of art, even up to our own day, can be understood as long meditations on the possible end of European humanity.
Now it seems that another change is taking place in our century, as important as the one that divided the Middle Ages from the modern era. Just as God long ago gave way to culture, culture in turn is giving way.
But to what and to whom? What realm of supreme values will be capable of uniting Europe? Technical feats? The marketplace? The mass media? (Will the great poet be replaced by the great journalist?)
Or by politics? But by which politics? The right or the left? Is there a discernible shared ideal that still exists above this Manichaeanism of the left and the right that is as stupid as it is insurmountable? Will it be the principle of tolerance, respect for the beliefs and ideas of other people? But won’t this tolerance become empty and useless if it no longer protects a rich creativity or a strong set of ideas? Or should we understand the abdication of culture as a sort of deliverance, to which we should ecstatically abandon ourselves? Or will the Deus absconditus return to fill the empty space and reveal himself? I don’t know, I know nothing about it. I think I know only that culture has bowed out.
‘Man Thinks, God Laughs’ (1981).
When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was merely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors.
… during the Thirties of our own century, another great novelist, the Viennese Hermann Broch, would write: “The modern novel struggles heroically against the tide of kitsch, but it ends up overwhelmed by kitsch.” The word Kitsch, born in Germany in the middle of the last century, describes the attitude of those who want to please the greatest number, and at any cost. In order to please, it is necessary to confirm what everyone wants to hear, to put oneself at the service of received ideas. Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel. Today, fifty years later, Broch’s remark is becoming truer still. Given the imperative necessity to please and thereby to gain the attention of the greatest number, the aesthetic of the mass media is inevitably that of kitsch, and as the mass media come to embrace and to infiltrate more and more of our life, kitsch becomes our everyday aesthetics and moral code. Up until recent times, modernism meant a nonconformist revolt against received ideas and kitsch. Today, modernity is fused with the enormous vitality of the mass media, and to be modern means a strenuous effort to be up-to-date, to conform, to conform even more thoroughly than anyone else. Modernity has put on kitsch’s clothing.
The Art of the Novel (1986).
If the novel should really disappear, it will do so not because it has exhausted its powers but because it exists in a world grown alien to it.
But alas, the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art. Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet's history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind. And it doesn't much matter that different political interests appear in the various organs of the media. Behind these surface differences reigns a common spirit.
This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel. The novel's spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: "Things are not as simple as you think." That is the novel's eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off. In the spirit of our time, it's either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless. The novel's spirit is the spirit of continuity: each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel. But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only. Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow.
‘The Czech Wager’ (1981).
In Hasek’s famous novel, while the successor to the Hapsburg throne is being murdered in Sarajevo, thus starting the First World War, Svejk is at home with Mrs. Muller and tends to his rheumatic legs. “So, they’ve killed our Ferdinand,” she says. Svejk is surprised. “Ferdinand? Really? But which one? The one who used to pick up dog turds? Or that apprentice hairdresser who once drank the hair lotion by mistake?”
This is not ignorance or stupidity speaking, it is the refusal to concede History a value, to grant it seriousness. The depth of blasphemy contained in The Good Soldier Svejk has never been fully assessed: what is to my mind the greatest comic novel of our century was written on the most cruel subject one could imagine—war.
It is not war that is grotesque in Hasek’s novel, but History, that is to say the concept which pretends to rationalize the irrational stupidity of war, pretending to give it sense. European thought formed by Hegel and by Marx conceives of History as being the embodiment of reason, seriousness par excellence. The unserious, the absurd only have a place on the edge of History, or against the background of its seriousness.
The Good Soldier Svejk brutally disrupts this order of things and asks a question: what if that rationalization which means to present the chain of events as reasonable were only a mystification? What if history were simply stupid?