September 22, 2000

Welcome to Phlit! Phlit is celebrating its first birthday; this is the twelfth issue.

1. Aphorisms

A new restaurant opened near my house. Its motto is “Fun People, Great Food.” Here we have a trend of our time: esteem for people who are “fun.” People were once esteemed for character, now they’re esteemed for personality. People were once esteemed for moral virtues, and for their pursuit of high ideals; now they’re esteemed for smiling, for being “fun people,” for catching the tune of the group. Inner-direction has been replaced by other-direction, to use the terms of the sociologist Riesman.

Professional In recent years, “professional” has become one of the highest compliments that a person can receive. One who is “professional” draws a sharp line between his career and his personal life; he doesn’t allow personal feelings to intrude on his work life. The aspiration to be “professional” makes people into robots.

If Communism in China ever collapses, those who will be most saddened will not be the Communists themselves, but rather the so-called “dissident writers,” the overseas Chinese who make a comfortable living as “dissident writers.” Some of these people may be genuine dissidents who have suffered for their convictions, but others have discovered that life in the West is sweet for those who can pass themselves off as “dissident writers.” These pseudo-dissidents have no interest in literature, except as a tool for acquiring prestige, publicity and money. They’re experts at public relations and networking. They’ve learned that Western writers and journalists can’t refuse a request for support from a “dissident writer.” Pseudo-dissidents are skillful enough to return to China, spend a few days in prison, and then return to the West covered with glory. They tremble at any indication that Chinese Communism may be crumbling. They regard other “dissident writers” as rivals, and feel nothing but loathing for them; as the Chinese saying goes, “literary people loathe each other” (wen ren xiang qing).

The greatest enemy of a tranquil mind is outrage against injustice. Swift inscribed on his tomb, “I have gone where savage indignation can no longer lacerate the heart.”

George W. Bush, American Presidential candidate, said in a recent speech, “I come from Midland, Texas, and the motto of Midland is ‘the sky is the limit.’” Can you imagine an American Indian saying, “the sky is the limit”? An Indian wouldn’t say that because he isn’t preoccupied with progress and development. Furthermore, an Indian doesn’t feel himself to be the master of nature, he feels himself to be part of nature; he doesn’t subscribe to Descartes’ view that man is the “master and proprietor of nature.” In our time, people are moving away from the rationalism of Descartes, moving away from the view that man is the master of nature, and moving toward a greater appreciation of non-Western cultures.

Virtue Virtue is not the performance of an uninterrupted series of good actions. Virtue is the love of good actions, the constant intention to perform good actions, the desire to be better today than you were yesterday, and the willingness to admit that you have erred.

Highest compliment for a writer: “You didn’t make that up yourself. Tell me, who did you copy that from?”

2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I enjoyed Kundera’s first novel, The Joke. Methinks his first was his best — his most natural, his most spontaneous. The Unbearable Lightness of Being strikes me as somewhat contrived, as if Kundera were following certain theoretical principles, following a recipe. The plot is swallowed up by philosophical asides; in The Joke, on the other hand, the plot had considerable vitality.

But Unbearable Lightness is not without virtues: like all of Kundera’s works, it’s clear, readable and highly intelligent; it sheds much light on Communist society; it contains some interesting ideas and some memorable scenes. Nietzsche said (apropos of Schopenhauer) that the value of a philosopher’s work lay not in his Big Ideas but in his Little Ideas, his casual observations. This is also true of Kundera’s work. In Unbearable Lightness, the Big Ideas are rather dull, but there are many interesting little observations. The book begins with some remarks on Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence: “Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.” This is a misinterpretation of Nietzsche; in fact, it stands Nietzsche on his head. Nietzsche opposed the notion that life — everyday life, life as we know it — is meaningless. Nietzsche opposed nihilism, he was the champion of life, of reality, just as Zen is. Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence is anti-nihilism, it celebrates everyday life by accepting its repetition. Kundera’s “unbearable lightness of being” is nihilistic, un-Nietzschean, un-Zennish.

The best that can be said of the “unbearable lightness of being” is that it captures the nihilism of our time, it captures the state of mind of people who lack religious faith, lack moral faith, lack political faith, and have nothing to believe in. If we accept the “lightness of being,” it ceases to be “unbearable”; it’s only unbearable if we want it to be other than it is. The message of Nietzsche and Zen is to perceive the lightness of being, to accept it as it is, and to celebrate it.

But if this novel’s Big Ideas are unimpressive, many of its little insights are penetrating, such as the following insight into the nature of vertigo: “What is vertigo? Fear of falling? Then why do we feel it even when the observation tower comes equipped with a sturdy handrail? No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”1

One of the novel’s main characters, Tomas, is a doctor. Kundera says, “he had come to medicine not by coincidence or calculation but by a deep inner desire. Insofar as it is possible to divide people into categories, the surest criterion is the deep-seated desires that orient them to one or another lifelong activity.”2 Here again Kundera shows his gift for shrewd psychological insight. Incidentally, Kundera does such a good job of putting himself into the mind of a doctor that one almost suspects that he was a doctor himself.

Around 1970, a congressman visited my parents’ house for a political-social evening. He sat on the floor — as my father long remembered, and remembered with disapproval. This incident came back to me when I read the following passage in Kundera’s novel: “Sitting on the floor when you had guests was at the time [late 1960s] a gesture signifying simplicity, informality, liberal politics, hospitality, and a Parisian way of life. The passion with which Marie-Claude sat on all floors was such that Franz began to worry she would take to sitting on the floor of the shop where she bought her cigarettes.”3 Here again Kundera shows his gift for minute observation; in this case, the truth of the observation was confirmed by my own experience.

Perhaps more than any other work, Unbearable Lightness brought the term “kitsch” to the attention of the West. Hermann Broch, the Austrian novelist whom Kundera reveres and emulates, wrote an essay on kitsch, and this essay may be the origin of Kundera’s interest in the term. Kundera tells us that “‘Kitsch’ is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century.... Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”4 Kundera says that Communist kitsch is exemplified by the May Day parade in which everyone smiles; “the unsung motto of the parade [was] ‘Long Live Life!’”5 In The Art of the Novel, Kundera says that the “need for kitsch [is] the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.”6 “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.”7

An example of American kitsch is, in my view, The Greatest Generation, a bestseller about the World War II generation written by the TV journalist Tom Brokaw. It’s silly to call an entire generation “great,” but it makes people feel good. It’s also silly to say that the World War II generation is the “greatest,” greater than the Civil War generation, etc. But it makes people feel good to think that they’re part of the “greatest generation,” and TV journalists are in the business of making people feel good, they know how to catch the tune of kitsch.

If kitsch is “the absolute denial of shit,” what should we call art that denies everything positive in the world, everything positive in human nature? What should we call art that dwells on everything shitty? Anti-kitsch? Anti-kitsch (can someone come up with a better term?) dwells on the negative, the ugly, the irrational. Kundera himself often lapses into anti-kitsch, as in his violent fantasy of women forced to march around a swimming pool, being shot by a man who is suspended above the pool in a basket.8 The best art, which seems beyond the capacity of today’s artists, avoids the excesses of both kitsch and anti-kitsch.

Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness is a cold work, and no one will shed a tear over the human relationships that it describes. But like The Joke, it becomes warmer and sweeter at the end. Unbearable Lightness ends with a chapter on country life, a chapter so vivid that the reader is convinced that Kundera must have lived in the country himself. This final chapter is a dog story, a touching story that must have caused many tears to flow.

In conclusion, permit me to quote Goethe: “a man’s virtues are his own, his faults are those of his time.” Kundera is imperfect, but so is every writer. Kundera’s virtues are virtues that no other contemporary writer possesses.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. II, 17 back
2. V, 7 back
3. III, 6 back
4. VI, 5 back
5. VI, 6 back
6. VI back
7. Unbearable Lightness, VI, 8 back
8. ibid, VI, 10 back