TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 1.1. Europäische Identitäten, Europäische Realitäten
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Christoph Parry (University of Vaasa)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Kundera and the Crisis of European Modernity

Liisa Steinby (Turku) [BIO]



Milan Kundera, the novelist who emigrated from Czechoslovakia to France in 1972 at the age of 45, offers an interesting case of study when the meanings of the word ‘European’ are discussed. Kundera has appeared as an advocate of European culture; for him “European” is in the first place a cultural concept. However, his view about the capability of European culture to hold out in the modern world has become increasingly gloomy, even to the extent that he now often seems to be lamenting and mourning at the grave of European culture. My aim here is to scrutinize what “European” means to Kundera and how it is connected with his concepts of ‘novel’ and ‘modernity’ and, finally, what, according to him, is now happening or has lately happened to European culture.

For Kundera, the connection between ‘European’ and ‘novel’ is twofold. On the one hand, ‘European’ is an attribute of the novel, as he sees it; on the other, the novel lies at the very core of European culture. As an attribute of the novel, ‘European’ means that the important novels written in different countries should not in the first place be considered as parts of national literatures, but one has to ask what their place is in the common history of the European genre ‘novel’.(1) In demanding a common European perspective for appraising novels, Kundera’s criticism is directed against a nationalistic conception of literature: a novelist should not be regarded as a representative of his/her nation. Kundera says that especially the novelists of “small” European nations (such as the Czechs, for example) are wronged when they are placed into the “small” family portraits of national literatures, instead of showing them in the “large” family portrait of European literature.(2)

But for Kundera the European character of the genre ‘novel’ does not mean just this insisting on a wider perspective of the common tradition of the European novel, but ‘European’ and ‘novel’ have an even tighter connection through the fact that the manner in which the modern novel looks at the world conveys the very meaning of the ‘European’ way of thinking and seeing things. What this involves can be explained by closely scrutinizing Kundera’s view of the novel.

In the opening essay “The depreciated legacy of Cervantes” of his The Art of the Novel, Kundera defines the novel and discusses its history and its place as being at the very core of European culture. He starts by referring to Edmund Husserl’s claim, presented in  The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology published in 1936, that European science and philosophy have forgotten to explore man’s being in the world, after the method of natural sciences became the only recognized mode of knowledge acquisition. But whereas Husserl proposes his own phenomenological philosophy as remedy for this shortcoming, Kundera considers that in fact modern science and philosophy have always been complemented by another mode of inquiry concerned exactly with man’s being in the world. This mode of inquiry is the novel. The modern novel that was founded by Cervantes at the beginning of the 17th century existed parallel to the modern science founded by Galileo and the modern philosophy founded by Descartes.(3) Regarding the emphasis with which Kundera underlines that it is precisely the novel that represents what is essential in modern European culture and identity, it seems even as if he had placed the Cervantesian tradition above the traditions of science and philosophy.

What, then, according to Kundera, is the tradition of the modern novel that Cervantes established? Kundera states that the modern novel was born when Don Quixote launched out into the world and nothing was familiar or as it was expected to be. The world suddenly opened up as infinitely enigmatic and in need of interpretation.  “In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its fearsome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into myriad relative truths parcelled out by men. Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world.”(4) Kundera does not ask or explain why the world had exactly at this point – in the beginning of the 17th century – become fearsomely ambiguous. The “absence of the Supreme Judge”, i.e., the death of God which Nietzsche speaks about two and a half centuries later, was not yet reality in the era of the Counter Reformation in which Don Quixote was born. In a word, it is a historical anachronism to suppose that men at the beginning of the 16th century suffered from the consequences of the death of God. The anachronism can be explained by Kundera’s intention, which is not in the first place to accurately describe the historical development of the genre of the novel, but rather to explain what he regards as essential in the tradition of the modern novel to which he himself is committed and which he, rather conventionally, considers to have started with Cervantes.

The anachronistic interpretation of Don Quixote as the first modern novel has, in fact, a tradition of two hundred years. Since German Romanticism, Don Quixote has been regarded as the first problematic hero and the story about his adventures as the beginning of the modern novel. In this interpretation, the contradiction between the fantasy world of the chivalric romances, represented by the poor hidalgo who had turned mad by devouring too many of these romances, and reality is regarded as the opposition between two different but equally justifiable world views, namely idealism and realism. This anachronistic interpretation has for example survived in Georg Lukács’s Theory of the Novel in which Don Quixote is seen as a modern, problematic hero whose inner world does not correspond to the realities of the outer world.(5) Kundera knew Lukács’ work well and relied upon it in a previous study on the Czech avantgardist novelist Vancura, written in Czech and also called The Art of the Novel.(6) The same idea of the problematic existence of modern man, modelled in the novel, remains his basic view, even if he in his works published in the West, as far as I know, never mentions Lukács. The “forgetting” of Lukács may well be explained by the fact that Lukács later became the most important Marxist literary theoretician of the 20th century, whereas Kundera who had spent his youth in the service of the communist revolutionary movement in Czechoslovakia after his emigration resolutely renounced Marxism as an untenable, dangerous doctrine which is in sharp opposition with the spirit of the novel.

For Kundera, the modern world is the world of uncertainties, and the novel was born as an image and a model of that world. It is remarkable how Kundera emphasizes the cognitive uncertainty as the characteristic of the modern world and of the novel. A novelist does not know how things in the world of man are, but he explores and unveils things, inquires into them and experiments with them.(7) Indeed, the task of the novelist, as Kundera describes it, resembles that of modern science in that science also continuously produces new information about how things are, instead of presenting a complete system of knowledge, as the pre-modern – the ancient and medieval – concept of knowledge demanded. But the “truths” presented by the novel appear in Kundera’s view to be even more uncertain and transient than scientific truths, because the novelist is constantly conscious of the fact that they are partial truths which may be refuted or corrected when additional factors are taken into consideration or previously unknown variations of things appear.

According to Kundera, the devotion to the adventure of exploring the world is essential to the tradition of the modern novel as initiated by Cervantes. Such an exploration in a novel is to inquire through fictive characters and situations into the various possibilities of man’s being in the world.(8) For Kundera, these possibilities are not produced by specific historical circumstances, even if historical circumstances may prefer the realization of some human possibilities to others.(9) Kundera’s world of man is rather anthropological than historical. A novelist regards different possibilities of being – conscious of the fact that his inquiry into these possibilities never reaches the “ultimate” truth because things can appear differently in different constellations and may assume new and even opposite meanings.

Even if every novelist is a follower of Cervantes in this inquiry into the possibilities of being human, important parts of his legacy have been lost according to Kundera. Not all the modes of exploring human possibilities are fully exploited, because since the 19th century the novel has followed too narrowly the doctrine of literary realism. Kundera analyzes these neglected parts of the Cervantesian legacy, like the playful and the dreamlike narration, and wants to restore them as modes of the novelistic exploration of the world.(10)

As an advocate of the novel – and Kundera says that he believes in the novel even when he has lost his faith in almost everything else(11) – he speaks of what he regards as the essence in European culture. For him ‘European’ means a spirit of exploration, of the recognition of the infinite complexity of things and hence of acknowledging the relativity of truths. ‘European’ is thus conceived as an attribute of the culture, its characteristic attitude towards the world, namely precisely the sense of plurality and complexity, of the relativity of truths and, consequently, of irony.(12) Here ‘European’ does not only appear as something opposite to national, but is positively defined. It is obvious that ‘European’ in this sense is something that Kundera finds unique in the whole world, even if he does not waste much energy in searching for something comparable elsewhere.

The ‘European’ contra the ‘national’, Europe contra the rest of the world – in addition to these pairs of oppositions Kundera displays a further pair of oppositions in which ‘Europe’ is defined through its ‘Other’. This is a geographic, political and cultural opposition – which is not that between the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’ World, i.e., between Europe and America. Kundera regards the Americas as a extension and a frontier of European culture, not as its opposite. Neither is the opposite of Europe for him the ‘Third World’. Kundera does not belong to those intellectuals who regard it as necessary to defend the rights of the oppressed Third World against the political, economic and cultural hegemony of the “First” World, nor does he criticize the Eurocentrism of our thinking. Instead of seeing Europe as a threat to non-Europeans, he on the contrary finds that Europe, as a cultural and spiritual entity, is threatened, both from the outside and, more fatally, from the inside, as Europeans no longer understand their own distinctive character.(13) But already before Europe was fatally involved in this process of destroying itself by failing to understand its own essence, a part of Europe was abolished by its ‘Other’, non-Europe – the name of which for Kundera is the East, i.e., Russia.(14) This opposition derives, of course, from Kundera’s Czech experiences, especially stemming from the year 1968 and thereafter, as Russian tanks suffocated the Czechs’ endeavours to build their own version of socialism. Kundera describes this poetically as the “fall of the eternal Russian night” over his native country and as the death of Europe within a part of it.(15) (Later he claimed that nobody who experienced 1968 could at that time predict that the “eternal Russian night” would last just two decades.(16)) ‘East’ meant thus for Kundera ‘night’; he claimed that Russia had never partaken in Western Enlightenment thinking, its rationalism and scepticism, but had always followed the course of  autocratic Byzantium.(17)

It is easy to question Kundera’s account of the ‘East’ and the opposition he sees between ‘Europe’ and that ‘East’. As for example Joseph Brodsky has remarked, Marxism was imported to the Soviet Union from the West.(18) Furthermore, one may ask whether the characteristic Soviet administrative machinery that extended its power to every aspect of life, with the aim of building the best possible world for the people, was not a typical product of the Western Enlightenment-rationalistic thinking. Enlightenment rationalism – if ‘European’ shall be defined through it – did not consist only of unending exploration, incessant questioning and scepticism, but also, in opposition to this, of the faith in reason and rationality. In fact, Kundera knew this very well from his own experiences as a young revolutionary in Czechoslovakia.

A characteristic trait of Kundera as novelist is his tendency towards abstraction in presenting the fictive world, and it is the same tendency he seems to display as he speaks of the phenomena in the real world. All features that are not relevant for developing the theme that the author is presently examining are eliminated from his characters. It has been asked, if he has not possibly emphasized the remaining traits to too great a degree, thus allowing too little room for the reader’s interpretations. Does this reductive tendency not counteract the sense of complexity, plurality and ambiguity? Kundera seems to have the same tendency when he draws a picture of the history of the novel in very broad (and inaccurate) strokes, or as he defines the concept ‘European’ through its sense of complexity, plurality and relativity of truths only, disregarding its opposite, but equally characteristic tendency towards faith in reason and the rational controllability of the world. A similar oversimplification is found in his self-portrait as an author: after his emigration to the West he suppressed from his public image everything that would remind of his Communist past and that does not agree with the spirit of the novel, as he now understands it.(19)

Already before the publication of his first novel The Joke in 1967, Kundera was well-known in his home country as a lyricist and as a playwright. He was also a convinced and active Communist and builder of the new world, and his poetry expressed his faith in this mission.(20) Even during this “orthodox” Communist period he was a “European” in the sense that he insisted that the windows had to be opened for the newest Western avant-garde poetry, especially French surrealism.(21) But undoubtedly being European, at that time, primarily meant for him participation in the world historical process of building socialism, a project based on the Hegelian-Marxist belief in reason and the rational controllability of the process of history. After he lost his faith in this project and its grounding philosophy, he labels the political and ideological claim of the rational controllability of the world as a “lyrical” attitude typical of inexperienced youth. In the lyrical attitude, the lack of the experience of the world is compensated by ideas and sentiments that are greater than life.(22) This kind of psychological “explanation” does not do justice to the extremely influential current of modern European thinking which derives from the Enlightenment belief in human reason and in historical progress and which in the 20th century lead to efforts to build socialism, which revolutionized whole societies.

After his emigration to France, Kundera does not allow his poetry or his plays to be translated and published in the West and forbids new editions of them, even in his home country. He wants to be renowned as a novelist only, and he regards as justified the demand that the “sins of his youth” – his poetry, his plays, his Communism - have to be forgotten.(23) However, the first crisis of European modernity that Kundera experienced was the loss of his faith in the rational controllability of the process of History. The depth of this crisis manifests itself very clearly in his writings. The protagonist in The Joke, an alter ego of young Kundera himself, says that after loosing his faith in History and the collective (that is) able to control it, he feels like being in a constant state of falling, i.e., without a ground to stand on.(24) If we would like to give a psychological explanation for Kundera’s view of the human condition in modernity, we could probably say that it is from here that Kundera’s conviction that modern man’s basic experience is the loss of all certainties derives. It seems that Kundera afterwards projects this uncertainty to be valid for the whole period of modernity, starting in the moment that Don Quixote left his home and noticed that he did not recognize the world. The first crisis of modernity would then be the crisis in which the modernity as uncertainty, as it is displayed in the novel, was born. That European modernity conveyed for a very long time, at least till the postmodern era, an opposite tendency to this, too, namely the trust in man, his reason and the practical controllability of the world, is forgotten by Kundera or, more interestingly, this tendency is represented as a children’s disease of European youth.

As Kundera emigrated to the West, he had already chosen his Europe and his Enlightenment anew. Faith in progress and the controllability of history had been replaced by the sceptical tradition of Enlightenment, represented for him by Voltaire’s sarcasms and Diderot’s doubt of the controllability of things.(25) These were the new guidelines, along which he defined the task of the novel in the new, gloomier world.

As History does not appear as governable any more and had instead become a suffocating coercive power falling over individuals and nations, the novel, or art in general, appears as the only space of freedom left for human beings.(26) The novel is now conceived as an escape from the trap which History has turned into, a trap in which the realization of human possibilities is highly restricted. Art in general, but especially the novel, is for the individual and his/her experience of the world and against all kinds of coercion; it displays the remaining possibilities and brings them into the light of reflection. The only realm of freedom is the freedom of knowledge and beauty in the novel.

At the end, however, also art and the novel, for Kundera the core of European culture, wither away. This is for Kundera the last and definitive defeat of European culture that actually amounts to the end of Europe.  The first defeat had been the violent death of European art, as it had to submit to the censure and control mechanisms of the East. Under these circumstances – in the art world ruled by the doctrine of socialist realism – the novel had died. What was left of it was senseless muttering, because nothing was allowed to be questioned or examined any more.(27)

But the novel has encountered its final end, according to Kundera, as Europe itself everywhere, also in the West, has lost its understanding of its own being.(28) This has taken place in the era of mass media and ‘imagology’ in which we presently live. The ubiquitous and levelling noise of the mass media, the continuous flow of uniformly formatted information makes novelistic questioning and inquiry into the matters impossible. By ‘imagology’ Kundera actually means the ‘imagocracy’ of our society, the hegemony of images in our culture. The image has replaced the word as the main mode of presenting matters. The image suggests the immediate perceptual presence of the matter, and the hegemony of images implies manipulative influencing of mind, whereas presenting the matter in words repeats an analytic intellectual process and invites the reader to the use of his/her own judgement. Under the rule of imagology, the “great” ideological truths are not replaced by the “small” and transient novelistic truths, but by a constantly shifting flow of pictures in which really nothing can be discerned.(29)

According to Kundera, we live at the moment in a Europe which has given up its cultural identity. Europe has ceased to see the things like the modern novels used to see them; we live in an era after the death of the novel. Consistent with this, Kundera’s latest great novel, Immortality, is from 1990. After that he has written in three short novels – Slowness (1994), Identity (1998) and Ignorance (2000) - and several essays only nostalgic, sarcastic or desperate comments on the once glorious history of the novel, by now forever gone and surviving only in the cultural consciousness of some nostalgically backward looking individuals, like himself.  



1 Cf., e.g., the entry “Novel (European)” in “Sixty-three Words”. –M.K.: The Art of the Novel. Trans. Linda Asher. London 2000, 144.
2 E.g. Kundera “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out”. – Granta 11, 1984, 105 ff.
3 “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”. – The Art of the Novel, 4-5.
4 Ibid., 6.
5 Georg Lukács: Die Theorie des Romans. Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der grossen Epik. Berlin 1920, 100-106.
6 Cf. Kvetoslav Chvatik: Die Fallen der Welt. Der Romancier Milan Kundera (Trans. from Czech into German by Susanna Roth). München and Wien 1994, 38ff.
7 Cf. “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”; the entry “Novelist (and writer)” in “Sixty-three Words”, 144-5.
8 Cf. the entry “Novel (and poetry)” in “Sixty-three Words”, 143-4.
9 E.g., “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel”. –-The Art of the Novel, 39.
10 “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”, 15-16.
11 “Jerusalem Address: The Novel and Europe.” – The Art of the Novel, 164-5.
12 E.g., “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”.
13 E.g. Jason Weiss: “An Interview with Milan Kundera.” -  New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 8, 1986, p. 407; Jordan Elgrably: “Conversations with Milan Kundera”. – Peter Petro (ed.): Critical Essays on Milan Kundera. New York 1999, 59ff; Kundera: “On Criticism, Aesthetics, and Europe”. – The Review of Contemporary Fiction 9, 1989, p. 14; Ian McEwan: “An Interview with Milan Kundera”. – Granta 11, 1984, 24.
14 Cf. e.g. Kundera: “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out”.
15 Cf. e.g. the definition of the word “Central-Europe” in “Sixty-three Words” (The Art of the Novel, 124-5), or in “Introduction à une variation”. – M.K.: Jacques et son maître. Hommage à Denis Diderot en trois actes. Paris 1981, 18: “[F]ace á l’éternité de la nuit russe, j’ai vécu à Prague la fin violante de la culture occidentale telle qu’elle avait été concue à l’aube des Temps modernes, fondée sur l’individu et sur sa raison, sur le pluralism de la pensée et sur la tolerance. Dans un petit pays occidental, j’ai vécu la fin de l’Occident. C’était ca, le grand adieu.” Cf. Alan Finkielkraut: “Milan Kundera Interview”. – Petro (ed.), 35f.; ibid., 44: “Central Europe represents the destiny of the West, in concentrated form.”
16 Cf. Ignorance. Trans. Linda Asher. London 2003, 12-13.
17 Cf. Kundera: “The Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out”; Ladislav Matejka_ “Milan Kundera’s Central Europe.” – Petro (ed.).
18 Peter Petro: “Apropos Dostoyevsky: Brodsky, Kundera and the Definition of Europe”. – Leslie Miller et al. (eds.): Literature and Politics in Central Europe. Columbia, SC, 80. Cf. also Michael Cooke: “Milan Kundera, Cultural Arrogance and Sexual Tyranny.” – Critical Survey 4, 1994.
19 Cf. Kundera’s introduction to the Czech version of The Joke, cit. Fred Misurella: Understanding Milan Kundera. Public Events, Private Affairs. Columbia, SC, 164.
20 Cf. Robert C. Porter: Milan Kundera. A Voice from Central Europe. Arkona 1981; Antonin J. Liehm: “Milan Kundera: Czech Writer”. – Aron Aji (ed.): Milan Kundera and the Art of Fiction. Critical Essays. New York, London 1992; Milan Jungmann: “Kunderian Paradoxies”. – Petro (ed.).
21 Cf. e.g. the interview with Elgrably, 56.: “From an early age I read Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Breton, Cocteau, Bataille, Ionesco and admired French surrealism.”
22 Kundera’s novel Life is Elsewhere (1973) is a study of this youthful lyrical attitude.
23 Cf. note 21.
24 The Joke. London 1992, 316.
25 Cf., e.g., Testaments Betrayed. An Essay in Nine Parts. Trans. Linda Asher. London 1995, 13, 80; The Art of the Novel, 24.
26 “Here I am making a declaration of involvement in the history of the novel, when all my novels breathe a hatred of history, of that hostile, inhuman force that – uninvited, unwanted – invades our lives from the outside and destroys them. Yet there is nothing inconsistent in this double attitude, because the history of humanity and the history of the novel are two different things. The former is not man’s to determine, it takes over like an alien force he cannot control, whereas the history of the novel (or of painting, of music) is born of man’s freedom, of his wholly personal creations, of his own choices.” Testaments Betrayed, 16.
27 “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes”, 14-15.
28 Cf. note 15.
29 Immortality (1990) is Kundera’s great novelistic study of the contemporary world ruled by imagology.

1.1. Europäische Identitäten, Europäische Realitäten

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