On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 1

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For some writers, there’s nothing like a good death sentence.   Merely describing a death, for some writers, is ecstatic and revelatory.  In doing so these writers feel as if they are bearing witness to death while proclaiming a new beginning.  There is a sense of pathos, meaning, and liberation from the dead in such descriptions.

By speaking in an Apocalyptic Tone, one is, so to speak, transformed.  But, most importantly, this transformation is based on describing some kind of disaster to the reader.

Milan Kundera, who is internationally known for novels such as the Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, is one of these writers.  But what makes him unique is that the death sentence he pronounces or describes involves the enunciation of comedy, on the one hand, and his commitment to its legacy, on the other.

In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera argues that comedy changed everything.  According to Kundera, comedy announces the death of tradition, certainty, and religion.   But, at the same time, it announces a new tradition which is born in the wake of death.  For Kundera, the origin of this new tradition, which bears witness to the death of the old tradition, has a proper name.

Kundera names the herald of death and the father of a new tradition: Don Quixote.

Kundera’s words echo Nietzsche’s “Madman” aphorism in the Gay Science where Nietzsche’s madman announces “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”  But as God dies, something new is born: the comic novel.

As God slowly departed from the seat whence he had directed the universe and its order of values, distinguished good from evil, and endowed each thing with meaning, Don Quixote set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize.  In the absence of the Supreme Judge, the world suddenly appeared in its tiresome ambiguity; the single divine Truth decomposed into a myriad of relative truths, parceled out by men.  Thus was born the world of the Modern Era, and with it the novel, the image and model of that world.

Kundera deftly moves from Don Quixote to Descartes and then Hegel to describe the new world that the novel is the “image and model.”  What does this mean?  Kundera repeats the words “to take” twice to indicate what is at stake:

To take, with Descartes, the thinking self as the basis of everything (and not God), and thus to face the universe alone, is to adopt the attitude that Hegel was right to call heroic.

To take, with Cervantes, the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty, requires no less courage.

Let’s spell out what Kundera is saying: For the philosopher “to take” him/herself as radically alone, without God, is courageous.  And for the novel “to take the world of ambiguity” and to be “obliged” (that is, ethically charged) to “face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths” is also courageous.  Kundera pronounces this courage and he identifies with it.  It is his.

But, according to Kundera, the novel is more heroic than the philosopher because it challenges man’s moral “desire” for “a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished.”   This desire is a religious desire and a philosophical desire that is inherited from what the Enlighteners would call the ancients.  For Kundera, modernity challenges orthodoxy on this specific point regarding good and evil.  And, for Kundera, it is Don Quixote who bravely travels into the world and says no to the desire for a world “where good and evil can be clearly distinguished.”

The comic novel, in other words, is the herald of the death of God and the courageous embrace of a world in which good blends into evil and vice versa.  According to Kundera, the “inability” to distinguish between good and evil “makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.”

In other words, a normal individual would rather accept the world of the Bible where good and evil are clearly distinguished than accept the novel.  For Kundera, the comic novel “courageously” says no to such a world.  It denies its existence.  In making such a claim, Kundera is basically rewriting Neitzsche’s madman aphorism in terms of the comic novel.  As I noted, Kundera insists that Don Quixote “sets forth into the world” while “God slowly departs.”

In other words, the fool arrives after the death sentence from God has been pronounced.  For Kundera, the two coincide.  The fact of the matter is that we are led into the modern world by a fool.  Furthermore, Kundera implies that the wisdom of the fool is the wisdom of the comic novel.  For Kundera, this wisdom is existential.  The fool and not the normal individual who desires a clear understanding of right and wrong  is the hero.  The fool courageously embraces ambiguity.  But this is not simply a description of an ubermesche (overman) or a modern existential ideal.  No.  For Kundera, what is more important that such courage is the tradition that is passes on.  As Kundera argues, Don Quixote lives on from generation to generation but he disguises himself.

Kundera traces a path from Don Quixote to Kafka and he spots Don Quixote in the disguise of Kafka’s Land Surveyor:

Isn’t that Don Quixotre himself, after a three-hundred-year journey, returning to the village disguised as a land surveyor?

What we have here is a comic tradition.  But things have changed.  Unlike Don Quixote, the Land Surveyor’s “adventure is imposed on him.”  He is forced to wander in ambiguity.  How can one courageously accept this?  To be sure, the latter day Don Quixote cannot freely embrace ambiguity as his predecessor did.  He is not heroic.

The new message is Apocalyptic and Kundera is describing it for us. The herald of this message is Kafka.  Now the land Surveyor lives in a world which is not simply ambiguous; it is dangerous.  The world may kill this comic character! It deprives the fool of his freedom.  Perhaps Kafka’s Land Surveyor (from The Castle) marks the death of a legacy?

After Kafka, Kundera wonders: is the novel dead?

But if Cervantes is the founder of the Modern Era, then the end of his legacy ought to signify more than a mere stage in the history of literary forms; it would herald the end of the Modern Era.  That is why the blissful smile that accompanies those obituaries of the novel strike me is frivolous.  Frivolous because I have already seen and lived thorugh the death of the novel, a violent death (inflicted by bans, censorship, and ideological pressure) in the world where I spent much of my life and which is usually called totalitarian.

In effect, Kundera is telling us, by virtue of his own personal witness, that the novel was killed by the Totalitarian world.  This world, in contrast to the novel, lives in accordance with “one single Truth.”

But this is not enough of a death sentence. Kundera says that the novel is a “cemetery of missed opportunities.”  They include four appeals: to play, to the dream, to thought, and to time.

Kundera notes authors for each appeal.  They include, respectively, Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot (appeal to play); Franz Kafka and the Surrealists (appeal to dream); Musil and Broch (the appeal to thought); and Proust (the appeal to time).

In an Apocalyptic tone, he notes that they all belong to a “cemetery of missed opportunities.”  Milan Kundera has personally witnessed their death.  He has witnessed the political death of the novel and the death of all of these appeals.  However, at this moment of description, in the face of this death, Kundera pronounces a new life for the novel. He pronounces a new purpose in the post-totalitarian era.

In a world in which everything is caught up in a “veritable whirlpool of reduection” the novel’s raison d’etre is to “keep the ‘world of life’ under a permanent light and to protect us from the ‘forgetting of being.’”

To courageously accomplish this mission, the novel must battle that which will reduce its complexity.  But there is something more important that this great task.  In a moment which challenges the modern idea of overcoming tradition, Kundera embraces one.  Kundera tells us that the “novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity.”  In other words, although Kafka’s novel suffered the fate of history and politics, although it died, and althought the novel is a “cemetery of missed opportunities.” it is still a legacy.  And it is this legacy that was given to Kafka by Don Quixote.  Kundera, in effect, takes this legacy up. 

He does this after he announces that he is not attached to the future, God, Country, the People or the Individual.  He is, rather, attached to the “depreciated legacy of Cervantes”:

But if the future is not a value for me, than to what am I attached? To God? Country? The People? The individual?  My answer is as ridiculous as it is sincere: I am attached to nothing but the deprecated legacy of Cervantes.

What I find so astonishing about this confession is that Kundera’s move to attach himself to this legacy parallels the decision made by Walter Benjamin at the end of his essay on Kafka.  There, Benjamin mentions his favorite Kafka aphorism, which is entitled Don Quixote.  There, Benjamin likens himself to a Sancho Panza who, like Kundera, attaches himself to the legacy of Don Quixote.  Before Benjamin takes on this legacy, he begins by citing Kafka’s aphorism:

A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and thus enjoyed a great and profitable entertainment to the end of his days.

To this, Benjamin adds a new description of Sancho Panza:

Sancho Panza, a sedate fool and a clumsy assistant, sent the rider on ahead.

To be sure, Benjamin rewrites Cervantes’ Sancho Panza as a Sancho Panza in Kafka’s clothing.  And strangley enough, Benjamin notes that Sancho Panza “sent the rider ahead” which implies that Sancho Panza sent the legacy of the fool out into future generations.  In an earlier blog, I called this the schlemiel tradition.

What I would like to note here, however, is that Kundera also sees this tradition.  And, as like Benjamin before him, Kundera lovingly attaches himself to it.  However, Kundera’s attachment is made in the wake of death; namely, the death of God.  Benjamin isn’t as explicit about the Apocalyptic in his taking on the tradition.  Rather, he does so by way of allusion.

Kundera spells out what we can see in Benjamin’s words.  The assumption of this tradition is “ridiculous and sincere.”  Kundera’s words imply that he is a schlemiel author, a simpleton, who, in taking this tradition on, is “sincere” yet “ridiculous.”   This, I would argue, outweighs the ambiguity and complexity of the novel.  This sincere and ridiculous assumption of the schlemiel tradition includes all of the appeals of the novel to time, play, dream, and thought.

Most importantly, Kundera is telling us that in a world where good and evil are hard to distinguish, the most moral person of all is he who commits himself, in the most ridiculous and sincere way to the schlemiel tradition.

When God departs and Don Quixote arrives, Milan Kundera, like Sancho Panza is faced with a question and a new imperative: in the midst of God’s departure, should one follow the schlemiel and – as I suggest elsewhere, in my reading of Benjamin’s understanding of tradition – become the schlemiel?

Kundera answers yes in the most ridiculous and sincere way.  For Kundera, ridiculousness and sincerity – not cynicism and nihilism – survive by virtue of one thing: by taking on the “deprecated legacy of Cervantes.”

The question, for schlemiel theory, is how this tradition of the fool compares to the other hidden tradition of the fool which follows in the wake of prophesy.  As I point out in my earlier blog entry on the “schlemiel as prophet,” that tradition is Jewish.  But for both the fool arrives after God departs.  And for both, the fool initiates a new tradition.

(Please note that, though I said I would address the cynical schlemiel in this blog entry, I took a detour.  I hope to come back to it in tomorrow’s blog entry.)

2 thoughts on “On the Apocalyptic Tone of Comedy – Take 1

  1. I loved the essay on Kundera!

    From MILAN KUNDERA’s “LAUGHABLE LOVES” last paragraph of the last story Eduard and God:

    “And so Eduard occasionally sits in church and looks dreamily at the cupola. Let us take leave of him at just such a time: It is afternoon, the church is quiet and empty. Eduard is sitting in a wooden pew and feeling sad at the thought that God does not exist. But just at this moment his sadness is so great that suddenly from its depth emerges the genuine living face of God. Look! It’s true! Eduard is smiling! He is smiling, and his smile is happy. Please keep him in your memory with this smile.”

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