Friday, July 06, 2007

The Curtain

Milan Kundera is a master of the deftly delivered broad generalisation. His own novels are full of eye-catching propositions which clearly aspire to the status of universal truth.

In this essay in seven parts − a personal take on the history of the novel that of course demands to be taken as the history of the novel − the levels of presumption are occasionally breathtaking. For instance, mediocre scribblers will find that not only is their talent under question, but their moral fibre too:

"A novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral."

Art, which generally serves the collective life of pre-modern people, has for us moderns become the (clearly morally superior) discipline of saying the never before said. In order to get into the soul of things, generations of novelists have had to suppress their own souls, Kundera argues, for their role in life is not to show us their own life, but to show readers theirs. In comparison, he argues, the typically self-fascinated lyric poet is immature.

For Kundera the novel is "the last observatory from which we can observe human nature as a whole." He tracks what he sees as the most important phases in its development, such as the switch from pyschological to existential storytelling. "When the problematic is existential the obligation to give the user a plausible world no longer comes into play. Kafka opened the door to the impossible." (This is perhaps why the implausibility of Lost is that much more intellectually satisfying than that of Heroes!)

Post-modernism has meant a tendency for the arts to "come closer" to their particular nature. So while painters strive to be everything the photographer isn't, novelists carefully refuse to illustrate historical eras or defend least the morally-upright sort of novelists that Kundera takes into consideration.

You can tell from the earlier quoted remarks that Kundera probably doesn't think much of genre writers. It's clear too that he hasn't much time for people that adapt novels into screenplays, because turning a novel into a film involves a decompositon, a renunciation of form. I can however think of several examples where the screenwriter has added form where none previously existed. Re-composition might have been a little fairer.

"The young imitate the young, but the old do not imitate the old," he explains, which is why greats like Picasso and Beethoven challenged the prevailing artistic forms as part of a band or movement when young, but then went down a different, very idiosyncratic route as middle-age set in.

Kundera takes us back to the pages of the Iliad, where the participants in a clearly very silly war nevertheless behave in a way that was unquestionably driven primarily by personal motives and can opt in and opt out of the silliness as they see fit. Compare, he then asks, later societies which relentlessly impose their own moral principles on their members. And the trouble confronting would-be novelists in such societies, he argues, is the velvety-thick "curtain of preinterpretation" that has been draped across the stage of everyday existence.

There's one sentence in this little book I particularly took to. In a way it neatly summarises Kundera's own personal technique for making artistic observations just as much as it provides the rest of us with a format for escaping relativism in our everyday value judgements:

"Each aesthetic judgement is a personal wager, but a wager that does not close off into its own subjectivity; that faces up to other judgements, seeks to be acknowledged, aspires to objectivity."

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