PART FIVE. A la Recherche du Present Perdu
Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one, I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two, but the acoustico-visual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.
And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories, which affect the mind deeply, like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don't realize how schematic and meager their content is.
When we study, discuss, analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it's happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.
We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day, we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present - the concreteness of the present - as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet; so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination. We die without knowing what we have lived.
What is a conversation in real life, in the concreteness of the present moment? We don't know. All we know is that conversations on the stage, in a novel, or even on the radio are not like a real conversation. This was certainly one of Hemingway's artistic obsessions: to catch the structure of real conversation.
The search for the vanished present; the search for the melodic truth of a moment; the wish to surprise and capture this fleeting truth; the wish to plumb by that means the mystery of the immediate reality constantly deserting our lives, which thereby becomes the thing we know least about. This, I think, is the ontological import of Janacek's studies of spoken language and, perhaps, the ontological import of all his music.
…he [Janacek] wrote his own libretti for his two most audacious operas, the one, for The Cunning Little Vixen, based on a newspaper serial, the other on Dostoyevsky - not on one of the writer's novels (ensnarement by the unnatural and the theatrical is a greater threat in Dostoyevsky's novels than anywhere else!), but on his "reportage" of the Siberian prison camp: From the House of the Dead.
This is how kitsch-making interpretation kills off works of art. Some forty years before the American professor imposed this moralizing meaning on the story, "Hills Like White Elephants" was published in France under the title '"Paradis perdu," a title that has no relation to Hemingway (in no other language does the story bear this title) and that suggests the same meaning (paradise lost: preabortion innocence, happiness of impending motherhood, etc., etc.).
Kitsch-making interpretation is actually not the personal defect of some American professor or some early-twentieth-century Prague conductor (many conductors after him have ratified his alterations of Jenufa); it is a seduction that comes out of the collective unconscious; a command from the metaphysical prompter; a perennial social imperative; a force. That force is aimed not at art alone but primarily at reality itself. It does the opposite of what Flaubert, Janacek, Joyce, and Hemingway did. It throws a veil of commonplaces over the present moment, in order that the face of the real will disappear.
So that you shall never know what you have lived.
Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
PART FIVE. A la Recherche du Present Perdu