PART SEVEN. The Unloved Child of the Family
Small nations. The concept is not quantitative; it describes a situation; a destiny: small nations haven't the comfortable sense of being there always, past and future; they have all, at some point or another in their history, passed through the antechamber of death; always faced with the arrogant ignorance of the large nations, they see their existence perpetually threatened or called into question; for their very existence is a question.
Most of the small European nations became free and independent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus they have their own evolutionary rhythm. For the arts, this historical asynchrony has often been a fruitful thing, as it made for the curious telescoping of different eras: for instance, Janacek and Bartok were both ardent participants in the national struggle of their peoples; that is their nineteenth-century side: an extraordinary sense of reality, an attachment to the working classes and to popular arts, a more spontaneous rapport with the audience; these qualities, already gone from the arts in the large countries, here merged with the aesthetic of modernism in a surprising, inimitable, felicitous marriage.
The small nations form "another Europe," whose evolution runs in counterpoint with that of the large nations. An observer can be fascinated by the often astonishing intensity of their cultural life. This is the advantage of smallness: the wealth in cultural events is on a "human scale"; everyone can encompass that wealth, can participate in the totality of cultural life; this is why, in its best moments, a small nation can bring to mind life in an ancient Greek city.
That potential for everyone's participation in everything can also bring to mind something else: the family; a small nation resembles a big family and likes to describe itself that way. In the language of the smallest European people, in Icelandic, the term for "family" is fjölskylda; the etymology is eloquent: skylda means "obligation"; fjöl means "multiple." Family is thus "a multiple obligation." Icelanders have a single word for "family ties": fjölskyldubönd: "the cords (bönd) of multiple obligations." Thus in the big family that is a small country, the artist is bound in multiple ways, by multiple cords. When Nietzsche noisily savaged the German character, when Stendhal announced that he preferred Italy to his homeland, no German or Frenchman took offense; if a Greek or a Czech dared to say the same thing, his family would curse him as a detestable traitor.
Secluded behind their inaccessible languages, the small European nations (their life, their history, their culture) are very ill known; people think, naturally enough, that this is the principal handicap to international recognition of their art. But it is the reverse: what handicaps their art is that everything and everyone (critics, historians, compatriots as well as foreigners) hooks the art onto the great national family portrait photo and will not let it get away. Gombrowicz: to no purpose (and with no competence either), foreign commentators struggle to explain his work by discoursing on the Polish nobility, on the Polish Baroque, etc., etc. As Lakis Proguidis writes, [Lakis Proguidis, Un ecrivain malgre la critique (Paris: Gallimard, 1989)] they "Polonize" him, "re-Polonize" him, push him back into the small context of the national. However, it is not familiarity with the Polish nobility but familiarity with the international modern novel (that is, with the large context) that will bring us to understand the originality and, hence, the value of Gombrowiczs novels.
Ah, small nations. Within that warm intimacy, each envies each, everyone watches everyone. "Families, I hate you!" And still another line from Gide: "There is nothing more dangerous for you than your own family, your own room, your own past… You must leave them." Ibsen, Strindberg, Joyce, Seferis knew this. They spent a large part of their lives abroad, away from the family's power. For Janacek, that ingenuous patriot, this was inconceivable. And he paid the price.
If a family doesn't succeed in annihilating its unloved son, it humiliates him with maternal indulgence.
Let us go on. I consider the last decade of his [Janacek's] life: his country independent, his music at last applauded, himself loved by a young woman; his works become more and more bold, free, merry. A Picasso-like old age. In the summer of 1928, his beloved and her two children come to see him in his little country house. The children wander off into the forest, he goes looking for them, runs every which way, catches cold and develops pneumonia, is taken to the hospital, and, a few days later, dies. She is there with him. From the time I was fourteen, I have heard the gossip that he died making love on his hospital bed. Not very plausible but, as Hemingway liked to say, truer than the truth. What better coronation for the wild euphoria that was his late age?
And it is also proof that within his national family there were, after all, people who loved him. For that legend is a bouquet set upon his grave.
Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
PART SEVEN. The Unloved Child of the Family