Monthly Archives: September 2015

“… the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings, fragmentary thoughts…”: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Art of the Novel’

Two years ago, I read Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, and was very struck by it. On re-reading it this week, I still fond the odd brilliant turn of phrase, the flashes of insight and of wisdom – but I also found the two central claims of his essays, which had captured my imagination last time, to be over-generalised, ahistorical, and even, at times, faintly ludicrous in the sheer, unreflective confidence with which he voices them. All of Kundera’s novels teach us of the perils of certainty. Re-reading The Art of the Novel, I found myself wishing that he would take some of his own advice, when it came to his beliefs about the history and purpose of the novel.

Kundera’s first claim is that the novel is a “European” creation, stemming out of the Enlightenment’s “passion to know” (a quote from Husserl) and, in a sense, embodies “European” history. “We have a history of Europe“, he writes, “From the year 1000 up to our time, that has been a single common experience”. The key to understanding a significant part of that common experience is the novel. Kundera has his canon, assembled chronologically: “with Cervantes and his contemporaries, it inquires into the nature of adventure; with Richardson, it begins to examine “what happens inside”, to unmask the secret life of the feelings; with Balzac, it discovered man’s rootedness in history; with Flaubert, it explores the terra previously incognita of the everyday; with Tolstoy, it focuses on the intrusion of the irrational into human behaviour and decisions; It probes time: the elusive past with Proust, the elusive present with Joyce. With Thomas Mann, it examines the role of the myths from the remote past that control our present actions.” In the late eighteenth century, when readers and writers “signed the verisimilitude pact“, and the novel began to attempt to imitate reality, there was a brief phase when the novel went astray; but it was restored, in a way, by Tolstoy and Proust, and then by the modernists (Borges makes a similar argument in his introduction to Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel).

But this is, in many ways, a bizarre argument. The conception of Europe as a geographically, spiritually and culturally bounded unit, going back a thousand years, is deeply ahistorical. Where, in Kundera’s cultural and spiritual universe, for instance, does the Moorish rule over Granada fit in? How does a thousand-year old history manage to avoid the fact that four hundred of those thousand years were defined by colonialism (and then Empire)? How, indeed, does Kundera manage to even talk about European identity, and the “passion to know” as distinctly “European”, without a single mention of how that very identity was irrevocably shaped by colonialism?

As history, this is bad enough, but as literary history, it’s even worse. Kundera’s canon is Cervantes, Richardson, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Mann (and a few other modernists). Each of these writers, he argues, made some striking advance in our understanding of the human self and the human condition. Missing from his canon are precisely those writers, equally important in the history of the novel, who, as Edward Said points out – cannot be understood without understanding the relationship between “Europe” and its colonies: Austen, Conrad, Kipling, Camus. Kundera would probably simply write them out by fiat: according to him, a true novel must never affirm, must eschew verisimilitude, and must only deal in hypotheticals. But surely this more an arbitrary constraint, rather than a faithful interpretation or historical reconstruction, of the place of the novel in history.

Kundera’s approach, interestingly, seems to be an embodiment of precisely what Edward Said warns against in Culture and Imperialism: that is, to treat novels written in (the geographical) space (that we now know as) Europe as being either about Europe, and/or “parables about the human condition“. The role of the colony in shaping the very identity of the metropolis (cultural and material) is ignored. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera ignores it not only in his sweeping claims about the novel being about the European spirit of enquiry and enigmas of the self, but even in his construction of the literary canon.

His second claim is one made repeatedly as well: that the novel must never affirm, but only “remain hypothetical, playful or ironic.” In his first essay, the claim is somewhat softer: the novel must “take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguitybe obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters)… [and] have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” Insofar as the novel must not reproduce totalitarian thought processes, I find this statement to be uncontroversial. A totalitarian novel, which ignored the complexity and ambiguity of human existence, would be an aesthetic failure before it became a political failure. But through the course of the essays, via discussions on verisimilitude, the claim grows stronger. By the fourth essay, it has split into two: encompassing complexity, and not carrying an “apodictic message”, but rather, as quoted above, being “hypothetical, playful or ironic.” This is somewhat similar to Joseph Brodsky’s praise of Danilo Kis, and his ability to convert political tragedy into the purely aesthetic.

Which is all very well, but as Edward Said (again) reminds us, playfulness and irony are luxuries that many do not have. In his introduction to Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain, Said points out that in places were the sheet anchor of existence itself has become unmoored, where daily life has no stability amidst continuing violence, separating the political from the aesthetic is no longer a matter of artistic choice. Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun remains one of the finest novel that I have read, as well as being a politically committed work in precisely the way that Kundera takes great pains to denounce. It must be said that there is a certain arrogance to taking specific “European” social and political backgrounds, and developing a universal aesthetic theory of the novel on the basis. While he does mention Octavio Paz at one point, it would seem that for Kundera, novelists outside Europe do not exist. There is no Mahfouz, no Tayeb Salih, no Ghassan Kanafani, no Elias Khoury; the political and social context out which their writings emerged is not discussed; on the other hand, we are to take the European condition as defining once and for all time what will be the “spirit” of the novel.

Much as I now am no longer quite so impressed with The Art of the Novel, there remain flashes of Kundera’s regular brilliance. The distinction between Proust and Kafka, for instance, is particularly striking:

“For Proust, a man’s interior universe comprises a miracle, an infinity that never ceases to amaze us. But that is not what amazes Kafka. He does not ask what internal motivations determine man’s behavior. He asks a question that is radically different: what possibilities remain for man in a world where the external determinants have become so overpowering that internal impulses no longer carry weight?”

And on language:

“Metaphor seems to me indispensable as a means of grasping, through instantaneous revelation, the ungraspable essence of things, situations, characters.”

When I inevitably sit down to read The Art of the Novel a third time, it will be for these.


Filed under Czech Republic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Milan Kundera, Milan Kundera

Samuel Delaney, Language, and Representation

I just read Samuel Delaney’s novel Babel-17 and (accompanying) novella, Empire Star. Babel-17 won the Nebula in 1966, and would probably find a place on most Science Fiction canons. The interesting thing about reading Babel-17 in 2015, however, is that it rests upon a largely discredited scientific theory: a strong version of the Sapor-Whorf Hypothesis. As its protagonist, Rydra Wong puts it:

“… most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought… but language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language…. When you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.”

Babel-17 is an invented “analytically perfect” language that is used as a secret weapon in an inter-galactic war. It’s mastery not only results in mental ascent, but even physical superiority. While it is well-accepted now that language has an influence upon cognitive processes, its influence is nowhere near as strong as Delaney puts it in Babel-17 (for a lucid discussion, see Guy Deutscher’s The Language Game). This makes many of the central events in Babel-17 – and indeed, its central plot – at odds with science.

While time and science have not been kind to Babel-17, the book is perhaps the best example of how science-fiction grounded upon a falsified thesis can nonetheless be a great read. Like the other SF masters of the 60s and 70s, Delaney has a great sense of plot and pace. His protagonists race across the galaxy to decipher the alien language, and the narrative is pock-marked with entertaining starfights, intrigue and treachery, and the craters of love. However, Delaney is not simply a gifted plotter: like M. John Harrison and James Blish, he is a wordsmith as well. In the first chapter, I was pulled up short by this marvelous line:

“… he needed another moment to haul himself down from the ledges of her high cheekbones, to retreat from the caves of her eyes.”

And this could be right out of A.S. Byatt at her best:

“I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences, and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express – and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt anymore: that’s my poem.”

Empire Star, on the other hand, fares much better against the march of time – perhaps because it is a novella about time paradoxes themselves. Reading it, I was strongly reminded of Robert Heinlein’s classic 1941 short story, By His BootstrapsIn both stories, time loops back upon itself, and characters meet their past and future selves again and again, as realisation begins to dawn slowly. Like in By His Bootstraps, Delaney parses out his revelations piecemeal, leaving the readers in deep confusion for much of the novella, and without any satisfactory resolution at the end (think of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and the lingering feeling of non-fulfillment with which one finishes that book. But that, in the end, seems to be the nature of time-paradoxes. Trite to say, but they would hardly be paradoxes if they could be resolved.

(After finishing the book(s), some quick googling informed me that Babel-17 is said to have influenced both Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and China Mieville’s Embassytown – two books that I love to bits. Embassytown itself draws from the Sapor-Whorf hypothesis: its central premise is that alien beings with no physical brain-mouth filter find it impossible to lie, and are therefore easily colonised by human beings. The influences are clear. About The Dispossessed, I’m not so sure. Curiosity held me for a little while more, until I came across this fascinating article about an invented script exclusively for women, in medieval China:

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband’s homes. So somehow — scholars are unsure how, or exactly when — the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend — and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women’s script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.



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Filed under Samuel Delaney, Speculative Fiction

The Sultan’s Seal on Sargon Boulous

The Sultan’s Seal blog has an interesting essay discussing the life and work of the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos, whose poems I have loved (whenever I can get my hands on a translation). It also includes a beautiful (and, I suppose, topical) translation of the poem “The Refugee Tells“. I find this essay particularly interesting, because it extols the Boulos for being “an uncommitted wanderer”, “free[ing] text of its historical onus… [to push] it back into the broadest possible human context.” As always, I wonder whether this is strictly possible – whether one can liberate oneself from the essential situatedness of human beings (including political situatedness), and find refuge in an abstract “human context.”

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Filed under Iraq, Sargon Boulos

Edward Said and Carl Jung

Last year, while reading Danilo Kis’ book of short stories, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I was particularly struck by an observation made by Joseph Brodsky in his Introduction. After observing that European totalitarianism was a theme that was treated often in the 20th century, Brodsky went on to write:

By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors [Koestler, Orwell etc]. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”

That critical distance allows the aestheticisation of tragedy in a way that makes the work of art all the more impactful, is not new. I’ve read it before, in analyses of the scene from the Aeneid, where Aeneas sees his ancestors’ statues in Carthage, and of course, in Eliot (“poetry is an escape from emotion).

Recently, I have been re-reading Edward Said’s beautifully rich “Culture and Imperialism“, and I came across this quotation from R.P. Blackmur, on Yeats’ poetry:

“His direct association with Parnell and O’Leary, with the Abbey Theatre, with the Easter Uprising, bring to his poetry what R.P. Blackmur, borrowing from Jung, calls ‘the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.’ (Blackmur, Eleven Essays in the European Novel, p. 3).

I haven’t read Blackmur’s book (it’s unavailable in India), so I don’t know the context in which Blackmur used this phrase, and I’m not entirely sure what Said means by it. I looked up what Jung seemed to mean by it; he uses the phrase in a lecture at Yale, saying that “if, therefore… a person should be convinced of the exclusively sexual origin of his neuroses, I would not disturb him of his opinion, because such a conviction… particularly if it is deeply rooted… is an excellent defence against the onslaught of the terrible ambiguity of an immediate experience.” This interpretive article opposes the terrible ambiguity with “the reassurance of logical systems.” The point, I suppose, is that distance allows you the luxury of fitting the experience in a systemic context of prior and subsequent causes, temporal and logical sequences, and allows you to explain it by imposing symmetry and order upon it.

Immediately after, Said goes on to write:

“Yeats’ work of the early 1920s has an uncanny resemblance to the engagement and ambiguities of Darwish’s Palestinian poetry half a century later, in its renderings of violence, of the overwhelming suddenness and surprises of historical events, of politics and poetry as opposed to violence and guns (‘The Rose and the Dictionry’), of the search for respites after the last border has been crossed, the last sky flown in.

I suppose that, in applying Jung’s words to the poetry of Yeats and Darwish, Blackmur and Said are trying to say that immediacy of experience can liberate you from the explanatory structures that distance will impose. Art that expresses – or embodies – the ambiguity of an immediate experience is not inferior with art that sublimates it with the benefit of distance.

There will be two very different kinds of art, of course. But perhaps the point is that contra Brodsky, we need the “faults of urgency” as much as we need the aestheticisation of distance, and neither of the two are inferior to each other.

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Filed under Edward Said, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Postcolonial Theory