It’s been a while since I’ve done a “digested read”, and in 2020 I’d like to begin with the later essays of Milan Kundera, which I have only read superficially in the past: doing this kind of exercise really helps me think my way through an author’s own thought processes, and it may even turn you on to reading MK’s books for yourself (note: I have done it before for Kundera’s earlier book, The Art of the Novel).

So here is the first of 9 sections from his 1993 book Testaments Betrayed: An Essay In Nine Parts—all of which will also be subsequently gathered together for a Longread…

PART ONE—The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh

The Invention of Humor

Rabelais’ novel, Gargantua and Parabel, which initiates the history of the novel—a history which, K would say, is contiguous with that of modernity itself—has at its core another invention which is unique to the modern: humor. The novel lacks seriousness, makes no claims to truth, no faithfulness to an external reality, even though its pages “marr[y] the not-serious [with] the dreadful” (3-4). It also contains things modern novelists, burdened by the legacy of 19C realism, often feel nostalgic about: the “delightful libert[ies]” that the first novelists took with form,

an astounding richness; it has everything: the plausible and the implausible, allegory, satire, giants and ordinary men, anecdotes, meditations, voyages real and fantastic, scholarly disputes, digressions of pure verbal virtuosity.

Like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,  this first novel seems, in how it portrays sheer wickedness with glee, almost immoral.  What does Rabelais want us to think about it all? Answer: he wants us to see it all ironically, ambiguously. He wishes us to withhold moral judgement, suspend it, at least while we are reading his book. And humour is the key to helping us do just that:

Says Octavio Paz: “There is no humor in Homer or Virgil; Ariosto seems to foreshadow it, but not until Cervantes does humor take shape. . . . Humor,” he goes on, “is the great invention of the modern spirit.” A fundamental idea: humor is not an age-old human practice; it is an invention bound up with the birth of the novel. Thus humor is not laughter, not mockery, not satire, but a particular species of the comic, which, Paz says (and this is the key to understanding humor’s essence), “renders ambiguous everything it touches.” (5)

The Realm Where Moral Judgment Is Suspended

K’s readers often do not get what his own sense of humour is about, and desire a straightforward message and moral seriousness from him (6). But

Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice, accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac—that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it. (7)

This suspension of judgement is what allows the novel to become itself and not merely a fable, to be populated not by stock representations of good and evil (or other abstract ideas), but by modern individuals—which, “as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws” lie parallel to the birth of the rights of man, and even to the founding of the nation state (8). The novel, teaching us “to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from [our] own”, in fact invents us, in a way, as moderns. Europeans are thus all (says E.M. Cioran) “children of the novel”.


Under modernity the gods retreat from view, and even continued belief in them is predicated upon the [Cartesian] self’s understanding [I think, therefore I am, therefore God exists, run The Meditations]. So, for Heidegger,  “thus the gods eventually departed. The resulting void is filled by the historical and psychological exploration of myths.”

To be “profane” means to be “outside the temple” the profanation of sacred texts takes them out of the temple and puts them under human, skeptical, scrutiny. Laughter at sacred truths (as in Rabelais) is the “worst [profanation] there is. For religion and humor are incompatible.” (9)

Kundera gives Thomas Mann’s Novel Joseph and His Brothers as a 20C example of modern profanation in action: the novel dryly mocks biblical scripture, yet was greeted with respect: profanation is not a part of official culture, we have all moved outside the temple. Thus the bullying of Christians under Czech communism make K, an atheist, feel protective of them, because atheism was the new religion, which the Christians were being punished for “profaning”(10). K sat in their church feeling a profound ambiguity about matters of faith.

The Well of the Past

Since birth of the novel is coexistent with the birth of the individual qua individual, it is part of the essence of the novel to ask what an individual is and where his essence resides(11). Dostoevsky would situate it in our “Weltanschauung“, our “personal ideology”. But for Tolstoy none of us choose those ideas which form our outlook. Thomas Mann goes still further: timeless myths and archetypes speak through us from “‘the well of the past'”. Modern lives are thus “‘imitation[s] or continuation[s]'” of “‘certain mythical schema'”(12). Thus in Joseph and His Brothers Jacob is a continuation of aspects of Noah and Abel, etc.

Coexistence of Various Historical Periods Within a Novel

Kundera’s own The Jokeexemplifies the idea of the past speaking through us, as his four main characters each experience a crisis of belief in a different form of communism, each itself rooted in the European past:

Ludvik: the communism that springs from the caustic Voltairean spirit;

Jaroslav: communism as the desire to reconstruct the patriarchal past that is preserved in folklore;

Kostka: communist Utopia grafted onto the Gospel;

Helena: communism as the wellspring of enthusiasm in a homo sentimentalis. (13)

Similarly, in Life is Elsewhere, his poet-protagonist carries with him echoes of the modern poetic tradition, and in Immortality history intrudes still further into the present. And that Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses independently arrived at the same formula suggests to Kundera that the novel has given each of these writers the same transnational aesthetic task: to employ history in the novel so as to take revenge upon it (14-15).

The History of the Novel as Revenge on History Itself

History itself is too large to be subject to our wills: it is we who get caught up in it, not the other way round. It is an “inhuman force that—uninvited, unwanted—invades our lives from the outside and destroys them”(15). The history of the novel, on the other hand, emerges from our capacity to make free choices, and can be seen as humanity’s personal revenge on the impersonality of history (16). Each new artist personally and retroactively redefines this preceding history: it carries with it no inherent teleological trajectory or notion of progress: Rabelais’ writing becomes a novel (or the proto-novel) in his successors’ eyes, if not his own.

But have we reached the “end of history” in both senses of that phrase? It’s philosophical meaning is one thing, but the end of the novel’s history would be for Kundera a nightmare from which we could not ever wake up.

“How sweet it would be to forget the monster that saps our brief lives as cement for its vain monuments. How sweet it would be to forget History!” (Life Is Elsewhere) If history is going to end (though I cannot imagine in concrete terms that “end” the philosophers love to talk about), then let it happen fast! But applied to art, that same phrase, “the end of history,” strikes me with terror; that end I can imagine only too well, for most novels produced today stand outside the history of the novel: novelized confessions, novelized journalism, novelized score-settling, novelized autobiographies, novelized indiscretions, novelized denunciations, novelized political arguments, novelized deaths of husbands, novelized deaths of fathers, novelized deaths of mothers, novelized deflowerings, novelized child-births—novels ad infinitum, to the end of time, that say nothing new, have no aesthetic ambition, bring no change to our understanding of man or to novelistic form, are each one like the next, are completely consumable in the morning and completely discardable in the afternoon. To my mind, great works can only be born within the history of their art and as participants in that history. It is only inside history that we can see what is new and what is repetitive, what is discovery and what is imitation; in other words, only inside history can a work exist as a value capable of being discerned and judged. Nothing seems to me worse for art than to fall outside its own history, for it is a fall into the chaos where aesthetic values can no longer be perceived.(17)

Kundera’s plea here feels compelling to me. But wherein lies that bulwark of aesthetic value?

Improvisation and Composition

Before the 19C formulated what the “realist” novel was permitted to be, fecund improvisation and playfulness reigned in the court of the novel. Then planning and composition entered, to wed content to form in a more rigorous manner, producing the apparent “paradox” of “the more calculated the construction machinery, the more real and natural the characters”(18). So there is no going back to that easier, freer “pure improvisation” of the 18C except through the corsets of “admirable construction” the 19C (19).

Novelists as different as Broch (in The Sleepwalkers) and Rushdie (in The Satanic Verses) solve the problem of blending the two similarly, via the formal concept of the “polyphony”—establishing a musical pattern to the novel by bringing their novels’ various narrative voices in at regularly repeating, (“rhythmic”) intervals (20-21). In Rushdie’s case, the strictures of 19C psychological (individual) realism are transcended by allowing the characters’ multinational histories a voice within their own voices:

…it is in them that the aesthetic wager of the novel is concentrated, for it is their parts [of the novel] that enable Rushdie to get at the fundamental problem of all novels (that of an individual’s, a characters, identity) in a new way that goes beyond the conventions of the psychological novel: Chamcha’s and Farishta’s personalities cannot be apprehended through a detailed description of their states of mind; their mystery lies in the cohabitation in their psyches of two civilizations, the Indian and the European; it lies in their roots, from which they have been torn but which, nevertheless, remain alive in them. Where is the rupture in these roots and how far down must one go to touch the wound? Looking into “the well of the past” is not off the point; it aims directly at the heart of the matter: the existential rift in the two protagonists. (21, my italics)

In the Shadow of Great Principles/The Clash of Three Eras

Asking difficult questions about are past may seem blasphemous to some ears, but as Kundera has said elsewhere, a question is a scalpel that cuts through totalitarian dogma, and leads us toward an honest “uncertainty” by cultivating within us readers that key quality of all good novels: ambiguity. And it is the job of serious literary criticism to meditate on that very ambiguity, and on how the particular novel under examination has created it anew….

We should not denigrate literary criticism. Nothing is worse for a writer than to come up against its absence. I am speaking of literary criticism as meditation, as analysis; literary criticism that involves several readings of the book it means to discuss (like great pieces of music we can listen to time and again, great novels too are made for repeated readings); literary criticism that, deaf to the implacable clock of topicality, will readily discuss works a year, thirty years, three hundred years old; literary criticism that tries to apprehend the originality of a work in order thus to inscribe it on historical memory. If such meditation did not accompany the history of the novel, we would know nothing today of Dostoyevsky, or Joyce, or Proust. For without it a work is surrendered to completely arbitrary judgments and swift oblivion. Now, the Rushdie case shows (if proof is still needed) that such meditation is no longer practiced. Imperceptibly, innocently, under the pressure of events, through changes in society and in the press, literary criticism has become a mere (often intelligent, always hasty) literary news bulletin.

This is not how The Satanic Verses was  treated, however. This was literature as news bulletin–wither about how the author offended believers, or about how those believers threatened the rights of the author. The book itself was not so much forgotten or ignored as it was “transformed from a work of art into a simple corpus delicti […] the text of the book no longer mattered, it no longer existed”(23-25).

But novels , when viewed as novels, as works of art, do something far more dangerous than merely blaspheming or offending via philosophical attack: these

the guardians of the temple can easily defend it on their own ground, with their own language; but the novel is a different planet for them; a different universe based on a different ontology; an infernum where the unique truth is powerless and where satanic ambiguity turns every certainty into enigma. Let us emphasize this: not attack but ambiguity. (25)

Rushdie’s novel made everything in its universe ambiguous, however, including the culture industry and the novel itself–both aspects of the so-called “Western modernity” that Rushdie’s “carnival of relativity” explores along with those earlier belief systems (aspects of which he actually often in fact celebrates) (26). And there no longer being serious literary criticism, this was lost upon western critics. Perhaps this is because, in moving beyond the modernity of Europe, we are moving beyond the novel? (27)

The European Novel/The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh

The European novel is that transnational phenomenon which can trace its roots to the birth of European modernity, and to that “relay race” which began “first [in] Italy with Boccaccio, the great precursor; then France with Rabelais, and Spain with Cervantes and the picaresque novel.”(28). The fruits of influence spread out from there to embrace the entire globe, including “the novel from below the thirty-fifth parallel” with Chamoiseau, Garcia Marquez, etc. (29) as the global south’s “culture of excess” reinvigorates an increasingly barren global north’s “tedium of gray” (30). The spirit of Rabelais lives on….

As a youth, Kundera read Rabelais to his bunk-mates in the workers’ dormitory. They loved how Panurge comically berated and harassed a woman, and they also loved how he met his inevitable comeuppance for doing so. Their delight in Panurge’s obscene liveliness was rooted in their capacity for a key invention of the modern: humour (32).

Humor: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humor: the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that conies of the certainty that there is no certainty.

But humor, to recall Octavio Paz, is “the great invention of the modern spirit.” It has not been with us forever, and it won’t be with us forever either.

With a heavy heart, I imagine the day when Panurge no longer makes people laugh.

As goeth humour, so goeth the modern novel?

(To be continued!)