Kundera and Kitsch
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, translated by Henry Heim
Faber, 314 pp, £9.50, May 1984, ISBN 0 571 13209 X
There is always comedy in the ways in which we are impressed by a novel. It can either impress us (if, that is, it is one of the very good ones) with the sort of truths that Nietzsche, Kafka and Dostoevsky tell us, or with the truths that Tolstoy and Trollope tell us. To the first kind we respond with amazement and delight, awe even. ‘Of course that’s it! Of course that’s it!’ The second kind of truths are more sober, more laboriously constructed, more ultimately reassuring. They are the truths necessary for fiction, and therefore necessary for life. The first kind contribute brilliantly not to life itself but to what seems an understanding of it. And that too is necessary for us, or at least desirable, and enjoyable.
Milan Kundera’s latest novel is certainly one of the very good ones. It is in fact so amazingly better than anything he has written before that the reader can hardly believe it, is continually being lost in astonishment. In manner and technique it is not much different from his previous books, but the story here at last really compels us, and so do the hero and heroine. Kundera’s great strength has always been his wit and intelligence, and his particular way with these assets. He was a Nietzschean truth-teller rather than a Tolstoyan one. But this new novel dissolves my distinction while at the same time drawing attention to it. Its impact is considerable. Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer.
Salman Rushdie described The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which appeared in English in 1980, as ‘a whirling dance of a book’, and went on to bury it under all the chic epithets, sad, obscene, tender, wickedly funny, wonderfully wise, ‘a masterpiece full of angels, terror, ostriches and love’. It was not as bad as that. But Kundera was like a man let loose among all the literary fashions of the West, grabbing this and that, intoxicated by the display patterns of freedom. On the publication of the book the Czech Government revoked his citizenship. Both this decision and the book itself followed logically from Kundera’s early novels and stories, like The Joke, published in Prague during the Prague Spring. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (the title is shorter in Czech and sounds better) used every device of French and American ‘fictiveness’, and its pornography, though cheerful, was so insistent in repudiating any shadow of Iron Curtain puritanism that it now seems as didactic and determined as the evolutions of Komsomol girls in red gymslips.
Unfair maybe, but circumstances made the book weightless, cosmopolitan. Despite its title, there is nothing weightless about The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In one sense, indeed, it satirises its predecessor. Nor could it possibly have been written by a Frenchman or an American. It is deeply, centrally European, both German and Slav, as Nietzsche himself was both Pole and German. Prague is the centre of this Europe, and with this book we are right back in Kafka’s city, where neither Kafka nor Kundera can be published. None the less, Kundera’s intelligence has quietly forsaken contemporary Western fashion and gone back to its deep roots, in Europe’s old repressions and nightmares, to a time and an art long before the cinema and the modern happening.
Both in Poland and in Czechoslovakia the cinema represented a method of escape into the modernity which the Communist system rejected and forbade. Kundera was a professor of film technology and his pupils produced the new wave in the Czech cinema. His work, even the present novel, has been influenced by film techniques, but they have here been thoroughly absorbed into the forms of traditional literature, and Kundera now seems positively old-fashioned in the way in which he combines the authorial presence with the ‘story’. The author is the purveyor of Nietzschean truth, but the story is of the Tolstoyan kind. Lightness of being is associated with the author’s voice, with the cinema and sex, with irresponsibility and definition, with politics. Weight or heaviness of being, on the other hand, is associated with love and fidelity, suffering, chance, fiction, form and content (‘The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness’), death.
The story has weight, though it is lightly told. A Prague surgeon, an insatiable womaniser, visits a hospital in a small provincial town. He gives a kind smile to a waitress at the hotel, who falls in love with him. She follows him to Prague. She has weight (her whole background is described). They make love in order to sleep together afterwards (he has never been able to sleep with a woman before, only to make love to her). They are necessary to each other, but he cannot give up other girls. At night his hair smells of them, though he always remembers carefully to wash the rest of himself, and Tereza in her unbearable jealousy has nightmares, dreams that are part of the lightness of being. He marries her to make up for it.
He gets a good job in Zurich, but his habits continue, and Tereza leaves him, goes back to Prague. Realising he cannot live without her, he goes back too, just in time for the Russian invasion. He loses his job, becomes a window-washer, then a driver on a collective farm. With their dog Karenin he and Tereza remain together. Fate is a story; fate is Beethoven’s Es muss sein. Karenin dies of cancer, a moving episode – for animals, being powerless, have all the weight lacking in human consciousness. We learn that Tomas and Tereza die in a car accident, but the novel goes on, leaving them at a moment of settled happiness not unlike the tranquil ending of a traditional novel, on what is presumably their last night on earth. Tomas might have been a successful surgeon in Zurich; he might have emigrated to America, as one of his weightless mistresses, Sabina, has done, and lived in the permanent limbo of non-fiction. But his destiny is the Tolstoyan story and Tereza, who could never ‘learn lightness’.
In one sense, then, Kundera’s novel neatly turns the tables on today’s theorists about the novel. It is, after all, ironical that we are now told all the time how totally fictive fiction is, while the writers who hold this view do not in practice make much effort to render their novels thoroughly fictive – that is, convincingly real. When the novel begins to insist that it is all made up, it tends to strike the reader as not made up at all. Kundera’s aim is to emphasise that the novel is, or was, true to one aspect of human life, while the free play of thought and consciousness is true to another.
What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites... Which one is positive, weight or lightness?
Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.
Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.
Kundera thus ingeniously suggests that the aspects of life that constitute a novel about it, a determined story, are as authentic as the sense of consciousness, the lightness of being. To understand either we require both. Tomas stands for lightness, Teresa for weight. This sounds as if they were not ‘real’ characters: but they are, because of the opposition between them.
It would be senseless for author to try to convince reader that his characters had actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying ‘Einmal ist keinmal.’ Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.
Tereza was overcome with shame because her stomach rumbled when Tomas first kissed and possessed her. It was empty from the strain of her travelling and she could do nothing about it. Not being able to do anything about it is the sense in which we live as if we were being controlled by the plot of a novel. Tomas is a personified symbol of the German saying, of the idea that nothing ever happens to us because it can only happen once. Because nothing ever happens we can control it – it becomes as light as feathers, like history. ‘Because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the French Revolution have turned into mere words, theories and discussions, frightening no one.’ We also read this:
Not long ago I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period of my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
Well, it doesn’t follow. Nietzschean discoveries, however sensational, in practice leave common sense and common morality much as they were. One such reconciliation with Hitler does not alter the general sense of things, or even that of the man who has made this discovery. Much more important from the point of view of the novel is Kundera’s manipulation of two sorts of awareness of things: the light and the heavy, the perpetual and the fictional. It is as if he had decided to write a novel – and perhaps he did – which would acquire its reality by contrasting two theoretical views of how the novel presents it: Virginia Woolf’s idea of the perpetual transparent envelope of consciousness, helplessly receiving impressions, and the ‘row of giglamps’, the sequential and determined tale told by a novelist like Arnold Bennett.
The transparent envelope of promiscuous Tomas is dragged down to earth by the determined – in all senses – weight of the faithful Tereza. He is compelled against his nature to become a character in a novel, the character that she by nature is. Their relation is both funny and moving, dominating the book and giving it the dignity of fiction and its weight. (Kundera reminds us that the rise of the novel is both the expression of ever-increasing self-consciousness, and its antidote. By representing ourselves in fictions we escape from the unbearable insubstantiality of awareness. In Cartesian formula: we create the Archers, therefore we exist.)
Kundera has always been a flashy writer, his chief interest in sexual discussion and gossip. This is of course so common now as to be standard practice, at least for writers in the West, and it always involves a degree of self-indulgence. His flashiness here becomes an asset, however, blending nicely with his fictive strategy, which is to separate the splendid and various experience of sex – the area of lightness and the will, conquest, curiosity and enterprise – from the heavy, fated and involuntary area of love. Love shapes the novel, sex provides the commentary: a facile arrangement, perhaps, but effective. Like Stendhal, Kundera categorises with engaging relish the different sorts of womaniser, notably those whose obsession is lyrical, founded on a romantic ideal which is continually disappointed and continually reborn, and the epic womaniser, ‘whose inability to be disappointed has something scandalous about it. The obsession of the epic womaniser strikes people as lacking in redemption (redemption by disappointment).’
Tomas belongs to the second category. Being a surgeon he could not, with his mistresses, ‘ever quite put down the imaginary scalpel. Since he longed to take possession of something deep inside them, he needed to slit them open.’ Sabina, Tomas’s female counterpart, is similarly questing and capricious. For her love is a kind of kitsch, a breaking of faith and truth, spoiling an honest relationship. As an epic-style female Don Juan she is the ruin of her lover Franz, whose obsession with her is of the lyric variety.
All this schematisation is fairly glib: in his miniature play The Stone Guest Pushkin handles the theme of the light-hearted mistress, and the seducer endlessly fascinated by feminine diversity, with a true depth of art, and it seems likely that Kundera has recalled what Pushkin termed a ‘dramatic investigation’, and made it diagrammatic and explicit. More compellingly original is the political aspect of lightness, and the fact that, as Kundera perceives, it forms the normal social atmosphere of a Communist state. No one believes any more in the false weightiness of the ideology of such a state, and since that ideology has replaced old-fashioned and instinctive morality the citizens’ personal lives are left in a condition of weightlessness.
Sabina associates the kitsch of love with the overwhelming kitsch of the Communist regime, seeing any long-term personal fidelity or integrity as if it were an analogy of that apotheosis of kitsch, the ‘Grand March’ towards the gleaming heights of socialism. This Kundera suggests is the vilest outcome of the totalitarian kitsch of our time: that it negates any natural and individual pattern of responsibility and weight in private life. Indeed, in a Communist regime there is no private life, but only bottomless cynicism on the one side and measureless kitsch on the other. Sabina had been trained as a painter in the Socialist Realist manner and she soon learnt to practise a subterfuge which in the end became her own highly original and personal style, and makes her rich and successful when she gets away to the West and then to America. She paints a nicely intelligible socialist reality, but with the aid of a few random drops of red paint, or something of the kind, she conjures up an unintelligible reality beneath it, an evocation of meaningless, and therefore to her saving and liberating, lightness of being. She is filled with repulsion when her admirers in the West mount an exhibition, after she has got out, showing her name and a blurb against a tasteful background of barbed wire and other symbols of oppression conquered by the human spirit. This is the same old kitsch by other means, and Sabina, who has a fastidious taste in such things, protests it is not Communism she is rejecting and getting away from, but kitsch itself. ‘Kitsch,’ observes Kundera, ‘is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements... The brotherhood of man on earth will only be possible on a basis of kitsch.’
It is unfortunately typical of Kundera to run a good idea into the ground, to become increasingly entranced in the development of a lively perception until it spreads too easily. It is thus with kitsch, the concept he opposes to lightness of being, and which he deals with in a lyrical analysis in the penultimate section of the novel. The point of this is that though kitsch opposes itself to lightness of being, the true antithesis to kitsch is the weight of love and death in Tereza, the weight with which she envelops Tomas. Kitsch has no answer to death (‘kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death’), just as it has no relation to the true necessities of power and love. Sabina is wholly accurate in her perception of the relation between kitsch and Communism: what she loathes and fears is not Communist ‘reality’ – persecution, meat queues, overcrowding, everlasting suspicion and shabbiness, all of which is quite honest and tolerable – but Soviet idealism. ‘In the world of Communist ideal made real’, the world of Communist films and ‘grinning idiots’, ‘she would have nothing to say, she would die of horror within a week.’
The term ‘kitsch’, as used by Kundera, oversimplifies the whole question of the mechanism by which we accept life and open our arms to its basic situations. All good writers, from Homer to Hemingway, have their own versions of it. If we accept his definition, all art would be as full of kitsch – the stereotyped formula of gracious living – as any Hollywood or Soviet film. What matters, surely, as he also recognises, is the purpose behind kitsch today, the ways in which commercial and political interests have taken over and control a basic human need. Kitsch – the word and its meaning – arrived in the 19th century as a substitute for the other kinds of human illusion, religious and chiliastic, which were withering away. ‘What makes a leftist is the kitsch of the Grand March.’ Yes, but what makes living endurable is the kitsch of life itself. Here Kundera, it must be said, makes a nice distinction.
Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.
Even Sabina comforts herself sometimes with the image of herself as part of ‘a happy family living behind two shining windows’, but ‘as soon as the kitsch is recognised for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness.’ By always recognising kitsch, Sabina shows herself incapable of those deep involuntary movements of the soul experienced by Tereza, and by Tomas-with-Tereza. Sabina can only know the unbearable lightness of being.
These are old platitudes dressed up in new styles? Inevitably so, to some extent, and like all Nietzschean demonstrators, Kundera cannot afford to admit the relative aspect of things. Kitsch does not define an absolute concept; it only suggests tendency and style. Kundera has a Continental passion for getting things defined, as when he gives us Tereza’s dream vision of her death and Tomas’s:
Horror is a shock, a time of utter blindness. Horror lacks every hint of beauty... Sadness, on the other hand, assumes we are in the know. Tomas and Tereza knew what was awaiting them. The light of horror thus lost its harshness, and the world was bathed in a gentle bluish light that actually beautified it.
In spite of this, his ending is imaginative and very moving, as moving as the end of Kafka’s The Trial. Indeed Kundera could be said to have written a kind of explication of Kafka’s novel, shedding light on its basic allegory and at the same time making use of it for the structure of a new work. Kafka’s title is a deep pun. The German word for trial – Prozess – could also refer to the process of living, and it is living which is impossible for Kafka’s hero, because all life has been sentenced to death. The strangest moment in The Trial is when the hero, about to suffer execution, sees a light go on in a nearby house and someone lean out of the window. That someone is unaware of his fate, or indifferent to it, as the process of living is unaware of death. Kundera the novelist is exceptionally aware, as Kafka was, of the difference between that process and the state of consciousness, of what he calls the unbearable lightness of being. But whereas living for Kafka was not a feasible process, for Kundera it is extremely so. And for him the real enemies of life are not Death and the Law but kitsch and the politician.