Milan Kundera, Ambiguous Prophet

Trevor C. Merrill

“Those no longer able to see reality with their own eyes are equally unable to hear correctly,” writes Josef Pieper. “It is specifically the man thus impoverished who inevitably falls prey to the demagogical spells of the powers that be.”

Pieper wrote these lines aboard a ship bound from New York to Rotterdam. Many of the other passengers, he observed, exchanged generalities gleaned from travel guides, having failed to notice during their visit “those frequent small signs in the streets of New York that indicate fallout shelters” or “those stone-hewn chess tables … placed in Washington Square by Italian chess enthusiasts.” They had lost their eye for the specific, tangible detail, “the intensity of observation required simply to say, ‘The girl’s eyes were gleaming like wet currants’ (Tolstoy).”

In Pieper’s essay, a great novelist’s grasp of reality provides an antidote to our dulled perception and weakened resistance to ideological seductions. The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera has argued something similar. The more modern man “advanced in knowledge,” he writes in The Art of the Novel, “the less clearly could he see either the world as a whole or his own self …” By exploring “man’s concrete being, his ‘world of life,’” the European novel, beginning with Don Quixote, set out to redress that blurred vision and self-forgetting. Its anti-romantic, lucid spirit, Kundera says, stands opposed to the reductive simplifications of both mass media and totalitarian ideology.

In September 2020, Kundera received the Franz Kafka Prize, an award co-sponsored by the city of Prague. The selection furthers an ongoing rapprochement with his native country, which, after forty years, recently restored the ninety-one-year-old author’s citizenship, and where his novels—written in French since 1995’s La lenteur (Slowness)—are again cleared for translation into Czech.

Even as such lifetime accolades pile up, however, Kundera’s career has drawn to a close. He published The Festival of Insignificance, a slight, winsome retrospective of favorite themes, in 2013. That novel—almost certainly the author’s last—was widely reviewed, but had little cultural impact. It seems ages ago that Kundera, exiled in France, his books banned in what is now the Czech Republic, still ranked among the world’s most celebrated writers. His fame reached its height with the 1988 film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, featuring Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche speaking their lines in English with heavy Czech accents.

In the minds of many, Kundera and his specific political and national context were bound inseparably together. And so, once he was no longer surrounded by the dissident’s aura, his meditations on life behind the Iron Curtain felt passé; a new regime, and a new set of global concerns, had taken over: “… when communism vanishes, Kundera’s insights into humans under communism lose immediacy, too,” wrote novelist Jane Smiley in 2006.

A lot can happen in a decade. Those certain that the situations in Kundera’s novels were unique to the Soviet era, and that they were thus shrinking in history’s rearview mirror, turned out to be mistaken. In 2016, an essay by philosopher Ryszard Legutko argued that EU-style neoliberalism had become an oppressive ideology like the communism he and others in the Polish Solidarity movement fought to overthrow. More recently, Rod Dreher draws on the experience of Christians under Soviet rule in Live Not by Lies, a handbook for Americans faced with soft totalitarianism. Kundera’s novels now seem less like reports on a bygone disaster, and more like crystal balls showing aspects of our own society, and foreshadowing what could happen if current trends accelerate.

This past summer, as American journalists applauded the toppling of Ulysses S. Grant’s statue, Helen Andrews tweeted out a passage from Laughable Loves, Kundera’s 1968 short story collection, in which a character compares having a rational debate with an ideologue to talking with a madman who thinks he is a fish and insists that we are all fish:

Are you going to argue with him? Are you going to undress in front of him and show him that you don’t have fins? Are you going to say to his face what you think? … If you told him the whole truth and nothing but the truth, only what you really thought, you would enter into a serious conversation with a madman and you yourself would become mad.

Despite having been written half a century ago, the excerpt captures the risks of falling into an ultra-contemporary trap. If (say) Othello is charged with racism, to argue that it is actually about racist stereotypes may seem like a win for Shakespeare. But it is in fact to concede implicitly that Othello is merely enciphered discourse about race, thus playing into the hands of those who would make art the handmaid of ideology. We overturn the cage, but do not truly escape it. As Andrews put it, sometimes rational debate is “not just pointless but demeaning.”

Others have invoked Kundera as an Orwell for the digital era. Writing in Quillette in 2019, Ewan Morrison quoted from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory”—to frame an argument about online obfuscation of Marxist atrocities. A line from the same novel—“People fascinated by the idea of progress never suspect that every step forward is also a step on the way to the end”—serves as the epigraph to a chapter in Dreher’s book. And so Kundera’s observations about the tactics of totalitarian states and the paradox of rationalist optimism have proven as evergreen as his insight into ideology gone mad.

One recurrent scenario in his fiction illustrates the way totalitarianism sucks the fun out of everyday life. We use the term “Kafkaesque” to describe injustices inflicted by faceless bureaucracies; “Orwellian” denotes invasive surveillance and the airbrushing of history. Perhaps we should use “Kunderian” for attempts at humor that meet with shaming or cancellation (after which, often enough, the jokester repents of his joke and issues a groveling apology).

In The Joke, Kundera’s first novel, Ludvik Jahn recalls an episode from his student days in the early 1950s. One summer, frustrated by her silence, young Ludvik sends a postcard to his girlfriend, who is away at a party training course:

“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”

The postcard’s recipient is brought in for questioning by the comrades in charge of the training course. By the time Ludvik returns for the fall semester, his fate is effectively sealed. His only hope is to engage in self-criticism. But this is less a matter of strategic self-preservation than of submission to the crowd’s will—as he goes back over his past behavior, Ludvik comes to believe that he was truly in the wrong:

I … stood (we all stood) before the Revolution and its Party with permanently bowed head, and so I gradually became reconciled to the idea that my words, though genuinely intended as a joke, were still a matter of guilt, and a self-critical investigation started up in my head …

He accuses himself “at least ten times to various committees and commissions” and finally again at the plenary meeting of the district party secretariat. It is all to no avail: he is expelled from the party and the university by a unanimous vote. Even his teachers and closest friends raise their hands in approval of the decision.

This pattern has resurfaced frequently over the last decade. Each of us can come up with his own favorite examples. Take the 2017 dismissal of British conductor Matthew Halls as director of the Oregon Bach Festival. Halls had—in jest—imitated a southern accent for the benefit of longtime friend Reginald Mobley, a black counter-tenor. He was overheard, and the eavesdropper reported him to festival organizers for making a racial slur. Mobley insisted he took no offense, but Halls lost his job all the same, others having come forward to accuse him of sexism.

The following summer, Jaap ter Linden, a Dutch cellist, was invited to be a guest conductor at the very same Oregon Bach Festival. But the invitation was rescinded after a Eugene Weekly blog post reported that in 2015 Linden had previously been sidelined from his job as a guest conductor at Oberlin Conservatory for … uttering a racial epithet.

Once more, what was meant as a lighthearted joke was perceived as deeply offensive. Standing before rows of empty chairs, the foreign conductor remarked that ever-decreasing rehearsal attendance reminded him of a Dutch children’s book called Ten Little N——s. Linden seems to have used the word, which carries far less explosive charge in the Netherlands, in blissful ignorance of his transgression, and without any intent to provoke. In the moment, nobody was charitable enough to call him on it, but he was later hit with a Title IX complaint and barred from working with students. He would say that, thanks to what he had experienced, his “sensitivity has grown.”

Kundera may write about the victims of enforced ideological conformity, but, as he is at pains to point out in essays and interviews, he is no engagé intellectual à la Sartre or Camus. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a dissident character says: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” That same character, however, goes to great lengths to erase from his own past a liaison with an ugly woman because he is embarrassed to number her among his erotic conquests. The “struggle of man against power” line has been quoted by Kundera fans as an anti-totalitarian mantra. Few have noted that the author’s point is not to endorse the statement, good and true though it may be, but to shine an ironic light on the one who utters it.

If such irony risks discrediting the genuine heroism of those who resist oppression, it also combats the tendency to idealize them. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera recalls his encounter with a woman who, under Stalinist pressure, had refused to confess to imaginary crimes. Her courage rendered her useless as an instrument of party propaganda. She escaped execution, and was eventually reunited with her son after a fourteen-year prison sentence. When Kundera visited her some years after her release, he witnessed this same woman subjecting her son to a miniature show trial for having overslept and arrived late for breakfast.

Totalitarianism, then, is not just a system imposed from above by power-hungry ideologues. It is also—perhaps above all—a structure of human relations that subsists at both small and large scales, the personal and the political intertwining and echoing each other. And this structure, Kundera suggests, arises not only in countries where one ideological position is mandatory, but also in “free” countries where in principle everybody has the right to his own way of looking at things. How true this has proved to be.

When The Joke earned him praise as an anti-Stalinist, Kundera retorted that the book should be read simply as a work of fiction, rather than as a political tract. “Spare me your Stalinism,” he said. “The Joke is a love story.” This attitude sat uneasily not only with French anti-Stalinists, but also with American conservatives, who wanted to embrace Kundera but feared he was unintentionally hurting their cause. In 1984, Norman Podhoretz, then Editor-in-Chief of Commentary, published an “Open Letter to Milan Kundera” in which he chided the novelist for pushing his aversion to political engagement too far:

… you write a novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, containing a brief episode in which an anti-Communist Czech émigré in Paris is seen by one of the characters as no different in kind from the Communists back in Prague (both being equally dogmatic), and virtually every reviewer gleefully cites it by way of suggesting that in your eyes Communism and anti-Communism are equivalent evils.

Kundera, Podhoretz concludes, although himself a formidable advocate of European culture, serves up an alibi for those who wish the demise of Western civilization. The leftist intellectuals who praise his work are all too happy to let an exiled novelist relativize away inconvenient moral and political differences on their behalf.

Podhoretz had a point back then; perhaps he still does. Kundera has argued that a novel worthy of the name conducts “an inquiry” rather than staking out “a moral position.” Indeed, he says, the true novelist relinquishes moral certainties, welcoming ambiguity and allowing the work’s internal dynamics to override his opinions: attuned to a “suprapersonal wisdom,” Tolstoy ceased to pass harsh judgment on Anna Karenina, as he had in early drafts. She then blossomed into one of literature’s great creations.

This is the writerly attitude par excellence—a searching, nonjudgmental curiosity. But as Jane Austen, Henry James, and others have demonstrated, a novelist can abstain from heavy-handed moralizing, and even cultivate ambiguity, as Austen did while revising her books, and yet still bring a trenchant moral sensibility to bear. The novel remains a means of exploration and discovery. But in the hands of these masters it charts not only illusions and paradoxes, but also generous and selfish acts and misjudgments of character (Austen’s heroines may at first mistake fecklessness for nobility, but the novelist is leading them—and us—to a correct estimation). As R. R. Reno has pointed out in a recent essay on James, authors of this stripe seek to make right behavior, such as a strengthened resolve to do good, look appealing, but without concealing its difficulty. They may also show, in Piers Paul Read’s words, “that invariably unhappiness results from the indulgence of disordered passions.” Their works are thus probing and inquisitive, and firmly anchored in reality, but they also offer a clarity and sanity that goes beyond corrosive skepticism.

By contrast, Kundera’s aims are epistemological rather than ethical or moral; or rather his ultimate commitment is to what he has called “the spirit of the post-Renaissance West,” characterized by “reason and doubt,” “play and the relativity of human affairs.” “It is not the Christian who judges here,” writes François Mauriac of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. “[T]he lack of moral perspective impoverishes the humanity created by Proust, narrows its universe.” Despite Kundera’s sympathy for Christianity—a sympathy that led him, in the midst of Stalinist persecution, to accompany his believing friends to mass—the same could be said of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which lightness and weight, the laughter of angels and the laughter of devils, dance and whirl around each other until they are practically indistinguishable.

But although Kundera, who views both theological doctrine and totalitarian diktat with the same suspicious eye, writes novels without a stable moral center, he also has insights that harmonize with a Christian worldview better than he himself may realize. If one theme in his work deserves a second look today, it is perhaps not his analysis of totalitarian oppression as such, but rather his critique of the “lyricism” underlying both individual abdications and revolutionary fervor. The term comes from Hegel’s Aesthetics, where it designates the lyric poet’s inward focus, his way of bringing every subject back to the fascinating mystery of his own soul. Kundera has broadened the idea beyond its artistic context, using Hegel’s word to define a kind of juvenile self-absorption. “I have long seen youth as the lyrical age,” he writes in his essay The Curtain, “that is, the age when the individual, focused almost exclusively on himself, is unable to see, to comprehend, to judge clearly the world around him.”

Fleshed out, the concept comes to life as delicious comedy. One tale in Laughable Loves features a young hospital intern who “with self-love would gaze peacefully into his own heart, overlooking the insignificant details of the outside world”:

… Flajsman very often, if not uninterruptedly (and with self-love), saw himself; so he was continuously accompanied by a double and this made his solitude quite amusing. This time he not only stood leaning against the plane tree smoking, but he simultaneously observed himself with self-love. He saw how he was standing (handsome and boyish) leaning against the plane tree, nonchalantly smoking.

Confronted with a young woman’s apparent suicide attempt, Flajsman concludes (erroneously, and with a touch of self-congratulation) that he is himself to blame. In a darker key, Ludvik, the central character in The Joke, learns to regret his past indifference to others, whom he viewed as little more than sources of feedback, judges scoring his performance:

A wave of anger washed over me, anger against myself, at my age at the time, that stupid lyrical age, when man is too great a riddle to himself to be interested in the riddles outside himself and when other people (no matter how dear) are mere walking mirrors in which he his amazed to find his own emotions, his own worth.

For Kundera, as for Pieper, the artist must puncture this bubble of self-regard to acquire a wider, more outgoing vision, a process that Kundera has likened to Saint Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus. This transformation, abrupt though its first shock may be, is in fact a never-ending struggle, requiring an ascetical practice. Just as Pieper recommends “a regimen of fasting and abstinence” from “the visual noise of daily inanities” as a means of cultivating a sharper perception, so too does Kundera say that the novelist must “know how to silence the cries of his own soul” in order to attend to the “secret, barely audible voice” of what Flaubert calls “the soul of things.”

Whatever reservations I may now have about the absence of moral ballast in Kundera’s vision, I owe the Franco-Czech maestro more than can adequately be expressed here. He was a formative artistic and intellectual influence, and by leading me to the work of René Girard, he was also indirectly responsible for my religious conversion. François Mauriac regretted Proust’s idolatry of art, but this did not prevent the French Catholic novelist from deeply admiring In Search of Lost Time. “To those who follow him,” Mauriac writes of Proust, “for whom he has marked out a trail toward unknown lands … it remains to reintegrate Grace into this new world.” A worthy task for writers in our day might be to ask where—and if—in the universe of Life is Elsewhere and The Unbearable Lightness of Being such a project of reintegration could be fruitfully carried out.  

Trevor C. Merrill is the author of The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard (Bloomsbury). His essays and reviews have appeared in Education & Culture and The American Conservative, among others.

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