Tag: Modernism

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


The Arc of Modernity: From Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The following is a little potted something that I give to my students when we are trying to puzzle out what it means to be ‘modern’, to work towards an understanding of what historical continuity connects  Hamlet to L20C works like The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I include it here as an addendum to my previous post: before you go emailing me about how historically vulgar and Olympian it is, I’d just like to say that it is a bit, yes, vulgar and  Olympian, a bit of a caricature of intellectual history. But young students need to see history in such broad bush strokes to care about it at all, to feel it is relevant to their experience of the world as it feels like it stands now. I reproduce it here because, increasingly, I feel, a lot of contemporary literature has abandoned even this vestigial inkling of historical awareness. So many writers today feel as if they can safely ignore the efforts of those who have written before us, those modernists hose who have wrestled with one or another version of this narrative: Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, Brecht, Borges, & etc, are now safely consigned to the dustbin of literary history, so easily forgotten in the search for the next Booker short list nominees. Writers today are free to write in any mode they choose, to write, even, as if 19C realism is in no way compromised or problematic. And yet questions of form and of form’s relation to ‘reality’ were obsessively debated by our forerunners –why are they not now?

     I have no answer to that last question, but it is by no means rhetorical.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in part an inquiry into what it means to be human in a world which is making the transition from the stable certainties of medieval Christendom to the dynamism of modernity. Hamlet feels personally bound to those Feudal ties of belonging, which unite peasant, yeoman and aristocrat into one mutually supportive, but static “Great Chain of Being”, ties which also demand that he be the agent of vengeance when he sees those supposedly eternal, natural laws being trampled upon by his uncle and mother: at times, the ideological certainties (such as the Divine Right of Kings) that derive from Ptolemy’s geocentric universe seem to provoke in him both religious and filial fervour, for to avenge the memory of his father would be to strike a blow for an equally threatened cosmology, an understanding of the cosmos that has placed Mankind at its very centre, and that is shot through – from the greatest of men to the smallest of flowers – with meaning.

Yet, if Hamlet keenly feels the pull of such “ghosts” of the pre-modern past he is no less haunted by the uncertainties unleashed by the modernity in which he has been schooled, as he spends much of the play doubting the meaning of the very presuppositions which would guide his actions (if ever he could only bring himself to stop questioning and, finally, act). For Hamlet’s melancholy, while perhaps partly due to his constitution, is a by-product of modern life: if Descartes helped usher in scientific modernity by instructing us that the only way to sweep away the cobwebs of myth and tradition was to methodically doubt what we think we “know” until we arrive at that which is indubitable, he also failed to find that final primary thing that could not itself be doubted. Science itself, while building on Descartes’ method, has taught us to distrust what “seems” true, and like Horatio, require sensory proof before we believe. And though micro- and telescopes have enabled our “insight” into the “true”, physical nature of the world to straddle vast distances of space and squeeze into the tiny spaces between atoms, such intellectual tools tell us nothing about what remains about the “meaning” of modern life.

The answer most moderns usually give is that “life in the abstract may no longer have meaning, but my life has meaning for me”. We feel this way because modernity has created us as individuals, something unheard of in feudal Europe (or any other world historical culture). The very forces that gave birth to early modern science also unleashed capitalism, such that humans increasingly began to discover their identities and their lives’ meaning not in the communal relationships of village life, but in the socio-economic exchanges characterized by life in the modern city: according to the economists of the Industrial Revolution (L18C, roughly contemporaneous with the political revolutions in America and France) we are “utility-maximizing rational individuals” – Homo Economicus – calculating, solitary creatures whose primary aim in life is to increase our pleasures and minimize our pains, or, as the more stirring words of the American Declaration of Independence puts it, our primary rights and duties centre chiefly around around “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.


What I’m Doing Here

Years ago, when I was a very lost first year undergrad, I had an inspiring professor named Dr. Tim McNamara (below) who succeeded at the near-impossible: at getting a motley collection of over-worked young engineering students and military cadets to pay attention in a dreaded, required freshman English survey course. The heft of the Norton Anthology of English Literature that we lugged to class along with our Optics, Mechanics and Chemistry texts, combined with the fragility of its 1000+ onion skin pages (as well as with the impenetrable density of its type), cast an ominous pall over the room as we slouched in our chairs awaiting not Infinite Jest, but  Infinite Boredom.

But Dr. McNamara won us over immediately. He did so by showing to us why (and how) Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Donne, et al. were not just some random resinous garden gnomes who somehow stubbornly insisted upon persisting in the junk-yard of history. No sir! They were, rather, living and -yes- breathing distant relatives, the kind of knowing, naughty Uncle Wise Guys who would wink at you even as they declaimed some important weighty truth about the human condition, the uncles who would “playfully” slap you in the face in one of their “pretend” boxing matches, but who would also slip a five dollar bill into your coat pocket while you were looking the other way -a gift you would only discover after the visit had long ended, after you had been shuttled back to the banal perils of quotidian reality.

There was always more than a little twinkle in Dr. McNamara’s eyes at the start of what seemed like each & every class. This was when he would intone, like a caffeinated whiskey priest, the name the writer with whom we would be grappling that day, and then pause and stare us down. These pauses were at first just a beat, but became increasingly stentorian (and proportionally hilarious to us callow engineers) as the year wore on. But we also loved what followed the pause, for each new (to us) writer who were going to spend that particular day testing ourselves against, was always, as Dr. McNamara put it, the “best”, “first” or “most” of his or her age, genre or nation. And Dr. McNamara really meant it, but there was also something else, something impishly playful, which told us that we were his nieces and nephews, and that despite our best efforts to evade him, that he’d be giving us a good slap across the face real soon.

Thirty years on, I now forget the who-was-what-and-when, but phrases like “unparalleled observer of human nature”, “greatest stylist of his generation”, and “champion of wit” linger and mutate in my imagination, forming ever-new combinations, but are always anchored by one thing: by the incredible, unforced, but mischievous ardour in his voice: it was a voice characterized above all by a sense of transport, by the enthusiasm* of one who knew the joy of discovering (and then sparring with) the Master. And Tim (as Dr. McNamara soon insisted we call him) was inviting us, just as he himself had been invited, to box. Later on I came to understand that Tim’s approach was kind of analogous to what the philosophers call Kantian aesthetic disinterest**: whether discussing his love of Shakespeare (“simply the greatest writer of all time!” -now that is one that I actually do remember) or asking us about engineering, about our own lives, about our hopes and dreams, Tim seemed, at those moments, to lack an ego: what was superlative or unique about other writers, and about other people in general, was what interested him.

Listening to his lectures you got a sense that Tim was trying, in spite of the odds, to let those writers speak to us unmediated, to gain us access to (to borrow from Milan Kundera) “the one millionth part” of them that makes them separate from the mass of humanity, of that which makes them unique, inimitable, of that which makes their art theirs and theirs alone. It’s a very modernist notion: the idea that artists must forge a unique, individual style, that artists are “at war” with clichés of all kinds, that it is human particularity that keeps us awake and alive as readers, as writers . . . and I am well aware of just how unfashionable, in academic circles at least, that idea has been in the past few decades. But what I’ll be doing here in subsequent posts is following in what my imagination chooses to remember as the footsteps of my first mentor, Dr. Tim: I’ll be looking closely at the work of some writers I admire, writers who, if they share anything at all in common, it is a fascinated, avuncular mistrust in the protean nature of a world into which they, like their characters, find themselves thrown -writers whose literary innovations are a fully human response to the increasingly inhuman competition in what Milan Kundera in a slightly different but related context called “the trap that the world has become”. If so, we can only hope that we have inherited our uncles’ and aunts’ best gambits. For we conduct our lives in a whirlwind: call it “late”, “transnational” or “neo-liberal” capitalism; call it modernity; in any case our existence is predicated upon forces of ever-accelerating centripetal movement, and it has been ever since at least the late 18C, just when the novel also started coming into its own. Ours is a world distinguished by “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”, where “all that is solid melts into air“, and where we, like the artist, are compelled to innovate, summoned by an imperative to keep pace.

But whether human nature either bends or breaks under such pressure is a question that writers of fiction are in a better position to ask than are the political or literary theorists, for, as I see it, one of the things fiction can do for us better than theory is to dunk our imaginations into a full-on sensory immersion acid bath -or, to mix my metaphors, into punching ourselves sufficiently awake that we can attempt to confront this ever-shifting “reality”. Socio-economic and cultural vectors are fired at us just as they are launched at an author’s characters from all angles, and we, readers and writers, vicariously participate in lives that can be as formed by as much as tested by them. And we scrimmage most regularly with those writers who most make us feel or think something new, something we didn’t feel or think before.

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Milan Kundera actually claims that novels that fail “to uncover a hitherto unknown segment of existence [are] immoral.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but I do know that novels that fail to try to tease something new out of existence – and, inextricably, out of language – are downright boring. And so in the entries that follow I will be attempting to grapple with the work of a number of late 20C writers who themselves try to Quixotically joust with the whirlwind. If my method is to read these works “as if” writing them -that is, to try to unpack them and see how they were put together- it may become apparent to some readers that I tend to favour writing that breaks from some or many of the conventions of realism: writing that might prompt an “As IF!” response from readers expecting those conventions to be followed. There has been much debate about this over the past ten years or so in the American literary press -debate centred on what James Wood called “hysterical realism” in the “sociological” fiction of the “bastard children of Charles Dickens” (writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo and even Zadie Smith). This debate had been sparked, in part, by a 1996 article Jonathan Franzen wrote in Harpers concerning the apparently bleak future for fiction: entitled “Perchance To Dream”, Franzen asked whether the experimental novel retained any cultural relevance today. I suppose that the entries in this blog will attempt to comprehend that question more fully, if mostly indirectly.

It is an old debate, however. Earlier in the past century it was one that famously centred on two heavyweights of literature: the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the Literary Critic Georg Lukacs.Capture

It would be nice to return to that specific text sometime. But first I am going with my gut with two opening gambits: first, to some short stories by T.C. Boyle, and then to Milan Kundera’s aesthetic meditations in The Art of the Novel. But I will close this first sortie with a passage from Brecht:

Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new [. . .] If we wish to have a living and combative literature, which is fully engaged with reality and fully grasps reality, a truly popular literature, we must keep step with the rapid development of reality.

 

Postscript: I haven’t spoken with Dr. Tim since taking his class, but I write this as if still, in some sense, his student, with an eye looking out not so much for paternal approval as an avuncular bang on the ear.

 

*Enthusiasmos (Gk) – from enthous ‘possessed by a god’ – COED

**Aesthetic disinterest may seem cold and detached, but it isn’t neutral. From the indifference of the object to the disinterest of the subject – or from the former’s superfluous self-exhibition to the latter’s ungrounded reception – the experience of beauty is one of distance and separation. This distance is not a mere absence; it is something positively felt. When I contemplate something that I consider beautiful, I am moved precisely by that something’s separation from me, its exemption from the categories I would apply to it. This is why beauty is a lure, drawing me out of myself and teasing me out of thought. Aesthetic experience is a kind of communication without communion – Steven Saviro, “Without Criteria: Kant and Whitehead” 10.