Oct 4, 2007

In Which I Once More Talk About Books. This Time- Milan Kundera.

Okay, so as much as I sometimes put on annoying airs of smarty-intellectual-ness, I've got a heart that's in love with pop culture. I mean, really- my last two posts included cartoons and video games. And, my love of pop culture seems to seep over into my bookish side every so often. For instance, nearly every time I hear the title The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I think of John Cusack in High Fidelity looking into the camera and saying;

"Hey, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right?"

So, when I recently read Milan Kundera's big, important, existential novel, I couldn't help but think of Cusack's snarky record store owner saying the above, and going on to describe how he's just kidding, but that his favorite book is, actually, Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash by Johnny Cash.

But, I'm sure you'll all be pleased to know, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, indeed, about girls. Sure, it's about a bunch of other stuff, too. But there are several bits about girls in there. Also, death and communism. In any case, it's awesome and you should read it.

There were a few things about the novel that I found oddly disconcerting, and I don't mean that in a bad way. In fact, "oddly disconcerting" here is intended as a compliment. I actually really liked how strange the book was. The two things that struck me immediately were that it was very, very light on dialogue, and that that most intriguing and active character in the book is the narrator.

When I think of stories, I usually think of people talking. In fact, I remember showing my dad a short story that I'd written once and he said, "This is just people talking. It's like CNN with aliens." In retrospect, he was right, but I find speech extremely central to written fiction. To have Kundera, then, simply describe speech are broadly paint pictures of multiple conversations gave many parts of the book a ghostly distance for me. And a "ghostly distance," like something that is "oddly disconcerting," is a good thing. I like having my expectations messed and biases challenged. I am, in general, a fan of things strange, and the distance at which Kundera constructed his characters was a strangeness that I quite liked.

However, the narrator is hardly distant. I hesitate to call the narrator Milan Kundera. While he does, indeed, present himself as the author of the book in question, meta-commenting on events a la Kurt Vonnegut, the persona of the narrator is too... I think "godly" is the right word... to be the presence of the author himself. He goes so far as to say how he created his various characters, how elements of his own life played into their creation, and even how he's digressing, and he should really get back to the story.

The active nature of the narrator also contributes to the ghostly distance through which the reader must reach for the characters. In conventional novels, the narration takes the role of environment- it is the air that the characters breath, the water they drink, the ground they walk on, etc. It is what the characters move through. In Unbearable Lightness, though, the narration is a mediation. By digressing, presenting events out of sequence, and in general making his own presence the largest in the room, the narrator is a third party between the reader and the characters. You see and hear what he shows and tells you. Yet, Kundera pulls it off grandly. He's like a stage magician who says in his act- "This is fake. My illusions are all deceptions," and who then impresses you with his performance more, not less, because of his admission.

I'm generally scornful or suspicious of dichotomies, but I do like the theme that Kundera comes up with in the book. A sort of subtitle of the book is The Unbearable Heaviness of Being, and the give and take between lightness and weight is one of the central themes of the novel.

Now, I generally don't like dichotomies, because all too often they're extremely facile. For instance, I believe that the political landscape is far more complicated then a simple dichotomy between "liberal and conservative." There are gradations and irregularities that such categories cannot take into account.

However, Kundera introduces his dichotomy as something that entails complexity and conflict from the outset. And, his seems to be a tool for understanding the world, not the thing of understanding itself. And, I found myself curiously identifying with Kundera's characterization of lightness and weight, and how they can both be destructive in their own way. An excess of responsibility or a complete lack of boundaries can both be stultifying. The novel seems to be crying for this existential middle ground, which I like, actually.

But, the best written part of the book, and what I really want to talk about, was Kundera's bit on kitsch.

I've always been fascinated by propaganda posters, both from the U.S. and abroad. Communist propaganda, in particular, is particularly fascinating. Everyone in Communist propaganda, it seems, has been injected with a certain mixture of steeliness and joy. Everyone has their shovels or pitchforks or whatever other agrarian/industrial instruments that they happen to use, and seem just thrilled to be whatever they're doing. They people are all bathed in this sort of golden light of stoical worker productivity that seems to suffuse everything. Do a search for "soviet propaganda" and you'll probably get a ton of examples of what I mean.

Anyway, Kundera has a great summation for this. "Kitsch," he says, "is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word; kitsch excludes everything from it's purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." And later, "When the heart speaks, the mind feels it indecent to object. In the realm of kitsch, the dictatorship of the heart remains supreme. Kundera goes on to say that there's all manner of kitsch- Communist kitsch, American kitsch, liberal kitsch, conservative kitsch, Christian kitsch, etc. Kitsch, he admits, is inescapable.

I like this characterization of kitsch and propaganda, and when I was reading it, I couldn't help but think that there, of course, would also be Japanese kitsch. Mentioning this to Kori a while back she said, "Well, yeah. Do you think Hello Kitty ever takes a shit?" I have to agree that she doesn't. Hello Kitty, I think, lives a gleefully shitless existence.

But, I think that there are different degrees of kitsch, and, to take Kundera's idea a bit further, I think that the differences in degrees have to do with how the kitsch in question relates to shit.

In the world of Hello Kitty, there is no shit. None. Hello Kitty lives in an improbable universe where shit never needs to be denied because it is never even produced. So, I think I'll call the first degree of kitsch Hello Kitty kitsch. This type of kitsch is basically harmless, and easily subverted.

But there is another, worse form of kitsch. In those old Soviet propaganda posters, workers seem overjoyed simply by the fact that they have a sickle or hammer to grip. Their work, it seems produces nothing but energy and joy. It seems that one merely has to grip a tool, and rays of joy will emanate from it.

But obviously, industry and agriculture require toil. Work is a world of sweat and blood and shit, and those old propaganda posters take away all of the sweat and blood and shit and replace them, as if by cruel alchemy, with an indistinct joy.

This kitsch, this propaganda kitsch, is dangerous. In the world of Hello Kitty, one simply does not think of shit. In the world of propaganda, though, shit is the enemy, and, when it appears in the real world, an aberration. Propaganda kitsch, I think, is the type of kitsch that tells you that killing your personal life for the sake of your job is admirable, that breaking the veneer harmonious loyalty by dissenting is something worthy of shame, and that sexual quirks are sources of guilt. This is the kitsch of those old Soviet posters, and the kitsch of religion and self-help books. This kitsch is the sort of thing that is something actively contrary to what it means to being a balanced human being.

But, much like Kundera, I'm digressing a lot. I could go on and on about Kundera's other asides and digressions, riffing on what he says and whatnot. But, instead of that I'm just going to recommend the book. I don't agree with all of the ideas and conclusions that Kundera comes to, but The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a high-quality mind-tickler. I can see myself reading it again, which doesn't happen often with books.

Also, it's about girls.


inkandpen said...

Great essay. I wish I had insightful commentary, which I don't, but it seemed wrong to enjoy an essay so much and not say anything. So there. Said.

Joseph said...

I second inkandpen. I've heard you say a lot of these things before; I'm glad you finally got around to writing 'em down.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

I'm glad you liked the book so much! I think I may have to look at it again because I didn't find the narration and lack of dialog palpable. I didn't notice till you said something... so I may have to re-investigate.

I would also agree that one the reason the book is so wonderful
is, as you said,

"And, his seems to be a tool for understanding the world, not the thing of understanding itself."

and the book has been just that for me. it's made me think quite a bit.

Interestingly, my favorite part of the kitsch commentary was different.

"The feeling induced by kitsch must be a kind the multitudes can share. Kitsch may not, therefore, depend on an unusual situation...
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."

And in this way I think Japan loves kitsch. Hello Kitty is only such an icon because we all share in the swoons of "that's so cute" together. Her cuteness--and lack of shit--creates a common social thread.

But more than the digression on kitsch, the part of the book that I can't shake and was most impressed by, is, as I've told you, the part about the motifs in our lives.

anyways, cheers to more conversations about books.