A Polyphonic Spree: Notes on Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel

I have always been obsessed with Milan Kundera, and wanted to figure out why, so I grabbed his book The Art of the Novel, and sat down to take notes. What follows is my account of his account of why he writes the kind of books that he does.

ONE: The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes

In 1935 the philosopher Edmund Husserl diagnosed a “crisis of European humanity”(3) by which he meant the very modernity that Europe bequeathed to the rest of the world, for good or ill. This modernity was a Cartesian quest to mathematize scientific knowledge, as well as a Faustian quest for knowledge-as-power, the personification of which is a rather virile scientist who seeks to “apprehend” and “interrogate” the world much as Kundera’s own character Tomas in ULB (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) wields a scalpel, both in his role as a surgeon as well as in his epic quest to conquer the infinite variety of women in the world. And just as such men reduce women to the status of objects, modernity for Husserl “reduced the world to a mere object of the technical and mathematical investigation and put the concrete world of life, die Lebenswelt [. . .] beyond their horizon. The result is that modernity began a process of the “forgetting of being”(4), the forgetting of what it means to be human (and thus the reduction of what it means to be human to the scientifically discoverable.

But for Kundera the modern era is an ambiguous one, marked by gains as well as losses, and there is another kind of investigation, one begun by Cervantes, that took as its object that which science ignored: “the investigation of this forgotten being,” the human. It, too, seems quite masculine in Kundera’s vision, as its task is to “scrutinize man’s concrete life and protect it against the forgetting of being, to hold ‘the world of life’ under a permanent light“(5, my italics).

The novel’s forward march through time runs in parallel, then, with scientific modernity, and it is charged with the duty of discovering hitherto uncharted territories of the human (in fact, any novel that fails to do so is, for Kundera, an “immoral” one) (6). For example, with Cervantes we get the exploration of man-in-the-world, of adventure; with Richardson, exploration of the psyche, of the “inner” man; with Balzac, man’s place in history; with Tolstoy, irrational man; and with Proust and Joyce, the human sense of time.

What marks the novel’s “progress” most particularly is that it does not discover objective truths about morality, say, as science would claim objective knowledge of the material world. Rather, the novel sees ambiguity and contradiction everywhere it looks, and its sole duty is to undermine those who would seek to impose the scientific, binary, either/or way-of-knowing on the human realm–what Kundera calls “totalitarian truth”(14).

The novel’s progress is itself ambiguous, marked by contradiction, by gain as well as by loss, and Kundera sees it as running in parallel with the decline in religious certainty: when we lost the miraculous infinity of the City of God we began to look for a compensatory infinity, first in the outside world with Cervantes, and then in the depths of the human soul with Flaubert, to take two of his prime examples. Thus while Don Quixote moved freely in an external world that was “open wide”(7) to him (but with little sense of interest in his “inner self”), by the time of Madame Bovary, the horizon of the external world has shrunk, and the novel compensates us for this loss with “one of Europe’s finest illusions”, the “infinity of the soul”. In the 250 years (1605-1856) spanning these two writers, the novel’s concerns have shifted from exploring the peregrinations of the adventurer-hero (across a landscape just beginning to be haunted by the loss of the timeless religious certainties of the past) to exploring the seemingly infinite psycho-geography of a single unique human consciousness.

For Kundera, though, the 20C deprives us of even that compensatory illusion, as the past century brought us to what he calls a series of “terminal paradoxes”(13), wherein, for example, “Cartesian rationality has corroded [. . .] all values inherited from the middle ages”, but has given us nothing to take their place except expediency and instrumental value: humans, like everything else in the modern world, are devalued by the “termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art”(17). Into the vacuum produced by Cartesian doubt leaps irrationality, and voila! Rationality sees itself deposed by a tyrannical unreason, which nevertheless rules our lives with an iron fist (as seen in Kafka and Musil, e.g.).

This does not mean that this is necessarily the end of History (a là Francis Fukuyama), however—the history of the novel or of political progress. Though many, many novelists are content to repeat the discoveries that others have made before them, to peddle wares that confirm the prejudices of their readers and of a society that would like to see itself as the final telos of history, there remain avenues of progress for the novel in the under-explored precincts of its own past: we could investigate the “appeal of play”(15) in the novels of 18C writers who were sceptical of the virtue of verisimilitude—as in Sterne and Diderot; the “appeal of dream” and the limitless possibilities for the imagination to break free from the conventions of realism, as seen in a writer such as Kafka; the “appeal of thought”(16), of philosophical reflection and contemplation—a mode that is definitely a part of Kundera’s own work, but he cites Musil and Broch as exemplary practitioners; the “appeal of time”—specifically, perturbing the temporal boundaries of the individual human life, anchoring them in larger patterns of history, by way of inquiring into the possibility of a sense of “collective” or epochal time.

If these remain possibilities for the novel, the contemporary world is not interested in them, for these are matters of complexity and continuity, and the reductionist spirit of our age is one of simplicity, of ahistoricism, with the horizon of time cut off in both directions by a totalitarian sense of the present moment. In our age, the novel is no longer allowed to be “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”(19).

Kundera’s conclusion is a somewhat dispiriting, if intransigent one: if the novel is to go on progressing, he says, it must do so only by “discovering the undiscovered” in human life, something that is entirely at odds with a technological and technocratic understanding of progress. The novel’s progress cannot be wedded to any understanding of social progress, for the latter is univocal, while the former revels in ambiguity and celebrates contradiction. Kundera sides with the former, with “the depreciated legacy of Cervantes.”(20)

Read the rest of this piece on my Longreads blog

  1. […] final note, the following is quite a bit more academic-oriented than most of what appears on this blog (hysterical realism almost begs to be scrutinised in such a manner, […]

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