Kundera sees creativity in decline. (Gallimard / HarperCollins )
Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher
Harper: 192 pp., $23.99
"Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself?"
Milan Kundera asks this question in writing about the painter Francis Bacon, one of many cultural figures he addresses in his commanding, compelling new collection of essays, "Encounter." It's a question that resonates throughout the book. To what degree can we be distorted by violence and fear — in short, by history — and still be ourselves? Kundera sees this distortion everywhere, a distortion that art engages. As the author looks at contemporary culture, his skepticism curdles into pessimism. In a world increasingly disinterested in art, when do we cross the border and forget what art has taught us about being human? Would we even realize that we crossed that border?
Kundera writes about authors, composers and artists from whom he continues to learn and by whom he continues to be delighted. For the last few decades, he has lived in Paris, early on as an exile from communism in Czechoslovakia and, in the last 20 years or so, by choice. "Encounter," like several of his other recent books, was written in French, though he'd certainly reject being called a French writer. Kundera rejects all labels, and, like his admired writer Vera Linhartova, he is happy enough to be simply "elsewhere." This elsewhere is a place always one step ahead of the categorizers — be they the secret police, the dissidents, or the academic critics.
Kundera encounters figures who strove to remain "elsewhere" as long as possible: among them, Rabelais, Beethoven, Fuentes, Schoenberg and Anatole France. Kundera always makes the stakes clear, and here he returns to themes that will be familiar to those who admire his novels. He focuses on powerful images — like the beloved dog that can't make a sound while subjected to painful experimentation because its vocal cords have been removed — that are arresting in their own right and resonant as metaphors. The pressure of history is never far from the scene, but it doesn't overwhelm the possibilities for eros and laughter. In Kundera's universe, the "scandal of forgetting" wipes away the "scandal of repetition," making possible both great creativity and total idiocy. Art refuses both, creating a cultural memory with which we can live.
Creativity, according to "Encounter," is something found mostly in the past, while idiocy has washed like a wave over almost all of culture today. In a biting essay first written to mark the 1995 centenary of the birth of cinema, Kundera declares film's two great contributions to be the acceleration of stupidity and the massive invasion of privacy. He sees us entering the era of post-art, "a world where art is dying because the need for art, the sensitivity and the love for it, is dying." In the past, people made art even in the most extreme situations to keep "fully deployed the whole range of feeling and thought." Kundera fears that our contemporary culture has forgotten this dimension with a resulting shrinkage in our emotional and intellectual life.
Kundera knows he sounds nostalgic, and for this champion of modernist work, the simple longing for the past would never suffice. He describes a form of nostalgia "that projects a lamented past into a distant future, that transforms the melancholy evocation of a thing that no longer exists into the heartbreaking sorrow of a promise that can never be realized." Kundera's task in "Encounter" is similar to the challenge he has taken up in his earlier essays and fiction: to remind us of the aesthetic promise of great art so as to stimulate not just melancholy longing for the past but a desire for spaces of freedom from the deadening noise all around us.
For Kundera the enemies of art are sentimentality and kitsch. Modernist artists in the 20th century rebelled against the inheritance of Romanticism because they recognized that, as romantic themes were refitted for popular consumption, they degenerated into clichés and banalities. In "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," Kundera described kitsch as the denial of the muck that is an inescapable facet of human existence. Along with this denial, sentimentality transforms genuine emotion into self-congratulation: How good we are to have so much feeling!
The artists and writers with whom Kundera keeps company in "Encounter" produce counter-currents to the tide of kitsch and sentimentality in which we swim. They offer not only intellectual challenges but strong emotional attachments, no matter how crazy powerful feelings may seem in a world warped by banality, easy irony and noise. "The ludicrous element in our feelings," he writes of composer Leos Janácek, "does not make them any less authentic." Embracing the ludicrous without denying the possibility of deep emotional connection has marked Kundera's writing from the very start.
Kundera's essays express enduring aesthetic loyalties and provide unexpected aesthetic sparks that remind readers of a fuller range of authentic thought and feeling. We should be grateful for the encounter.
Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of "The Ironist's Cage."