the last observatory

Milan Kundera – The Curtain

The Novel as foundational art form, as the moral engine that manufactured European culture and society: Milan Kundera's firmness on this point is definite. Modernity and the Novel are coevals – the latter stands as the most complete expression of the Enlightenment project that we can hope to have, secular, ironic, pluralist. Within its galleries homo faber and homo ludens finally merge, finding a medium at once gravely humorous and humorously grave.

If Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with the invention of the human – those shifting states of interiority and sceptical self-awareness – Kundera asserts the claim of the Novel in this regard. “Western society,” he writes in his earlier essay collection Testaments Betrayed, “habitually presents itself as a society of the rights of man; but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself as such and to be considered as such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own.”

The art of the novel is our most effective riposte to priestcraft... While the latter craves the formal fixity of ritual and dogma – including their political aspects - the novel flourishes in an atmosphere of doubt. While religion enshrines purity and spiritual vigour, the novel enjoys an ethical hygiene all its own. It recognizes the ill-wrought, lopsided brokenness of the average human being, even as religion chivvies us to attain a glassy perfection. It liberalizes discourse, as religion endeavours to purge and straiten it. And religion earns itself, too, the especially Kunderan anathema reserved for kitsch – what Nabokov once termed poshlost – as does totalitarianism as such, and the gaudy simplifications of socialist-realist art and police-state surveillance, etc. (Not to forget those for whom Rabelais coined the name 'agelasts' – joyless wraiths incapable of laughter...) The 'secular tyranny of kitsch', as Kundera has it, derives its sway over people from a cynical appeal to the desire for Komfortismus, easy consolation – making dupes of us all. On contrary, the novel of Kundera's great tradition shuns such cheapening, is constantly at sword's point against the hypocrisies of power. Kundera elaborates a theory in which history – as mobilized in nation states and war and the clash of ideologies – is set in opposition to the history of the novel, the radiant diachrony in which the art exists beyond the blind impersonal forces that buffet mankind. “Here I am making a declaration of involvement in the history of the novel,” he adds in Testaments Betrayed, “when all my novels breathe a hatred of history...”:
...of that hostile, inhuman force that – uninvited, unwanted – invades our lives from the outside and destroys them. Yet there is nothing inconsistent in this double attitude, because the history of humanity and the history of the novel are two very different things. The former is not man's to determine, it takes over like an alien force he cannot control, whereas the history of the novel (or of painting, of music) is born of man's freedom, of his wholly personal creations, of his own choices. The meaning of an art's history is opposed to the meaning of history itself. Because of its personal nature, the history of an art is a revenge by man against the impersonality of the history of humanity.

('L'histoire du roman en tant que vengeance sur l'histoire tout court.') Kundera's conception of the 'history of humanity' assonates with that given form in Tolstoy's War and Peace, for example. Throughout that great work (Tolstoy was loath to describe it as novel), History figures as the oceanic indestructible... In the epilogue Tolstoy subtly dramatizes the tragic opposition between the chronos of historical time and the kairos of fictive time – Pierre Bezukhov, having survived the battle of Borodino and capture by the French, now married to Natasha and installed as a respectable homme d'affaires, conceives a new enthusiasm for what will – beyond the limits of the book – become the Decembrist movement: we know, of course, that the leaders of the revolt were later executed as traitors; and have no reason to suppose that Pierre's fate will be any different. Tolstoy's epic rounds itself up – but history proceeds across the stormlit landscape, insensible of the lives swarming below, its dark thunderheads laden with lightning....

Kundera further deepens his thesis of the novelist's essential attitude to History-with-a-capital-H in his new suite of essays, The Curtain (La Rideau):

Because History, with its agitations, its wars, its revolutions and counter-revolutions, its national humiliations, does not interest the novelist for itself – as a subject to paint, to denounce, to interpret. The novelist is not a valet to historians; History may fascinate him, but because it is a kind of searchlight circling around human existence and throwing light onto it, onto its unexpected possibilities, which, in peaceable times, when History stands still, do not come to the fore but remain unseen and unknown.

The novel will defend its autonomy to the last. Kundera proposes that its essentialism – its sovereign right to scrutinize life in its very existential nakedness – must be the chief guarantee of its validity. The Curtain – like its predecessors, The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed – is arranged as a fascicle of brief ruminative excurses. Crisply tied together by a number of unifying themes, they orbit the central notion of the Novel as the premier means of making sense of, lending definition to the human condition. Kundera valorizes this most amenable form with great intensity. The concept of Weltliteratur comes quickly to the fore, and Kundera makes it clear that only the novel has license to be a supranational mode, uninterested in political or social imperatives, triumphantly decontextualized – only by considering itself against the tapestry of the history of its internal development, can a work properly call itself a novel. Moreover, for Kundera, it's the generous panopticism of the form that warrants its supremacy: Ernesto Sábato “...says explicitly that in the modern world, abandoned by philosophy and splintered by hundreds of scientific specialties, the novel remains to us as the last observatory from which we can embrace human life as a whole.”

And the curtain itself? As per the fugue-like structure of his essays, Kundera recurs to the idea of the 'curtain of pre-interpretation' - “A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.” Here we have presented the elementary beginnings of the novel, its impulse towards demystification. It abolishes the sickly lyricism of the Romantic forms, the solipsism of lyric poetry, and turns its gaze on the world's festival: “If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a 'myth', that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.” Tearing the curtain means, among other things, breaching the valances of self-deception, the political lie, delusions about our place in the scheme of things, false consciousness; it means minting afresh our perceptions, besoming clean the lumber-room of our premade assumptions... The novelist is the arch-individualist, the inheritor of a tradition that will not overwhelm and absorb him; a refuser of the obsolescence of the efforts of his forebears (there is much still to learn from the example of Rabelais), one who makes it his business to 'seek out the never-said', to bring to bear on human experience articulate energies wrought to a fine pitch; an ironist and humourist in the old style... Cleanly translated by Linda Asher, The Curtain sorts well with the arguments of Kundera's earlier essays – reads rather as a coda and reprise of them - and confirms him as still one of the most passionately convinced of the novel's practitioners.

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