Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Renounce action! On Kundera's The Curtain

Over Easter weekend I read Kundera's The Curtain. It's a thumping good read, and I recommend it for the limited space in one's holiday luggage. I warmed to it from the start with its persuasive argument that historical consciousness is inherent to our aesthetic perception of art; a simple truth it now seems. He uses the example of a modern day composer producing a work Beethoven might have written. It would, he says, be "spontaneously felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous. Our feeling for continuity is so strong that it enters into the perception of any work of art". Well, it's strong in those of us who are aware that comparing, for instance, Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française to Tolstoy (as Doris Lessing and Robert Fisk have done) is not the praise those making the comparison think it is. But it seems many see art as a Platonic realm free from the disaster of history. Ironically they tend also to be the ones who insist that novels speak to us of our time, lamenting along the way that there is no Dickens for modern Britain. We need to move on. "[I]n the absence of aesthetic value" Kundera states, "the history of art is just an enormous storehouse whose chronologic sequence carries no meaning. And conversely: it is only within the context of an art's historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen." Yes, storehouses containing piles of artless trash for "book lovers". A modern day Dickens will have moved on.

One problemette I had with The Curtain was Kundera's range of reference in the history of the novel. He celebrates huge, kaleidoscopic fiction: novels by Marquez, Fuentes, Carpentier in South America, Fielding, Sterne, Balzac and Broch in Europe. The one constant reference point that isn't so jaunty is Madame Bovary. I am drawn to the less jaunty. Even when referring to Kafka, Kundera prefers the novels to the stories (at least, he doesn't mention the latter). All this made me uneasy, and while I'm sure it's just the intervention of my own taste for brevity, melancholy and serious peace and quiet, I suspect it's also my piquant sense of aesthetic rightness. Modern works like this (i.e. those that seek to filch respect and attention from that given to earlier works) are equivalent to the Beethoven pasticher and should be discouraged.

Is this for reasons more than taste? But of course. In a small section headed “Action” Kundera uses Hegel's contrast of the world of the epic with that of the novel to suggest why. In the epic of the Greeks, "the freedom to participate in the struggle [for power] and the freedom to desert it guaranteed every man his independence. In this way did action retain a personal quality and thus its poetic form." In the modern era of an organised state, an individual's behaviour is instead determined from outside. So "[if] action is merely the effect of obedience, does it count as action? And how to distinguish the activity of repetitive gesture from routine? And what does 'freedom' mean, in concreto, in the bureaucratized modern world where the possibilities to act are so minute?". One might think here of those many novels following familiar paths in form and content as merely repetitive gestures; obedience to a bureaucratised understanding of the freedom offered by the novel (obedient to the demands of commerce, of readers in want of distraction, of the desire to do a "professional" job, rather than the demands of the work itself).

Kundera says Joyce and Kafka "reached the farthest limits of these questions" yet adds that Sterne in Tristram Shandy had already broached them. He tells of the "only infinitesimal actions" that take place in this massive book, the several chapters it takes for Tristram's father to pull a handkerchief from his pocket and lift his wig from his head:
That absence of action (or miniaturization of action) is treated with an idyllic smile (a smile unknown to either Joyce or Kafka, and that will remain unparalleled throughout the history of the novel). I think I detect a radical melancholy in that smile: to act is to seek to conquer; to conquer brings suffering to others: renouncing action is the only path to happiness and peace.

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