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Kundera and the Crisis of European Modernity
Liisa Saariluoma [BIO]
Milan Kundera, the Czech born author who in the 1970s emigrated to France, insists that the novelistic achievement of an author should not be assessed in the “small” context of the national culture but in the “great” context of the history of the novel. The novel is for Kundera a European phenomenon, indeed the core of Europeanness. This is so because what Europe is, it owes to its culture, and for Kundera the novel occupies the central place in European culture. In spite of his often expressed admiration of the literature and the spirit of Enlightenment and his contempt for Romantic sentimentality, in his aesthetics of the novel, Kundera follows the line of Romantic thinking that assigns to the novel a particular cognitive function, namely the task of exploring the human experience of living in the world, a task allegedly neglected by science, the dominating form of knowledge in Modernity.
According to Kundera, we presently live in a cultural crisis which originated in the beginning of the 20th century and has since continuously aggravated. In this crisis, Europe has lost the consciousness of being defined by its culture. Kundera’s view is highly pessimistic: we live in the time of the final decline of culture and of Europe. The source of Kundera’s cultural pessimism is his original identification with the vital ideals of modernity: the trust in the possibility of directing the course of History, the irrefutable value of individuality and the high esteem of culture – or, more specifically, of art - as a realm of freedom and beauty. As he becomes convinced that these ideals that flourished in the early European modernity can never – or never more – be realized in our world, he regards this as the end of culture and of Europeanness.