PART EIGHT. Paths in the Fog
Satire is a thesis art; sure of its own truth, it ridicules what it determines to combat. The novelists relation to his characters is never satirical; it is ironic.
In order to defend himself in a trial that refuses to declare the charge, K. ends up looking for the crime himself. Where is it concealed? Certainly somewhere in his curriculum vitae. "He would have to recall his entire life, including the most minute acts and events, and then to explain and examine it in every regard."
The situation is not at all unreal.
To describe this state of mind, Communist political practice coined the term self-criticism (used in this political sense since the 1930s; Kafka never used it). This usage of the term does not correspond exactly to its etymology. It is not a matter of criticism (distinguishing good features from bad with the aim of correcting faults); it is a matter of finding your offense to let you help your accuser, let you accept and ratify the accusation.
The metamorphoses of Tolstoy's characters come about not as a lengthy evolution but as a sudden illumination. Pierre Bezukhov is transformed from an atheist into a believer with astonishing ease. All it takes is for him to be shaken up by the break with his wife and to encounter at a post house a traveling Freemason who talks to him. That ease is not due to lightweight capriciousness. Rather, it shows us that the visible change was prepared by a hidden, unconscious process, which suddenly bursts into broad daylight.
Gravely wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, Andrei Bolkonsky is regaining consciousness. At this moment his entire universe, that of a brilliant young man, is set rocking: not by rational, logical reflection, but by a direct confrontation with death and a long look at the sky. It is such details (a look at the sky) that play a great role in the decisive moments experienced by Tolstoy's characters.
Later on, emerging from his deep skepticism, Andrei returns to an active life. This change is preceded by a long discussion with Pierre on a ferry crossing a river. Pierre at the time is positive, optimistic, altruistic (such is that brief stage in his evolution), and he disputes Andrei's misanthropic skepticism. But in their discussion he shows himself rather naive, spouting clichés, and it is Andrei who shines intellectually.
More important than Pierre's words is the silence that follows their discussion: "Stepping off the ferry he looked up at the sky to which Pierre had pointed. For the first time since Austerlitz he saw that high everlasting sky he had seen while lying on the battlefield, and something that had long been slumbering, something better that was within him, suddenly awoke, joyful and youthful, in his soul." The sensation is short-lived and vanishes immediately, but Andrei knows "that this feeling, which he did not know how to develop, was alive in him."
And one day much later, like a dance of sparks, a conspiracy of details (the sight of an oak trees foliage, the happy talk of girls overheard by chance, unexpected memories) kindles that feeling (that "was alive in him") and sets it blazing. Andrei, still content the day before in his retreat from the world, abruptly decides "to go to Petersburg that autumn" and even "re-enter government service… And Prince Andrei, clasping his hands behind his back, paced back and forth in the room for a long time, now frowning, now smiling, as he reflected on all those irrational, inexpressible thoughts, secret as a crime, that were connected with Pierre, with fame, with the girl at the window, with the oak, with woman's beauty and with love, which had altered his whole life. And if anyone came into the room at such moments he was particularly curt, stern, firm, and, above all, disagreeably logical… as if to punish someone for all the secret, illogical work going on within him." (I emphasize the most significant lines.) (Let us recall that it is a similar conspiracy of details- the ugliness of faces around her, conversation overheard by chance in the train compartment, intractable memories-that, in Tolstoy's next novel, touches off Anna Karenina's decision to kill herself.)
Still another great change in Andrei Bolkonsky's internal world: mortally wounded in the battle of Borodino, he lies on an operating table in a military encampment and is suddenly filled with a strange sense of peace and reconciliation, a sense of happiness, which will stay with him; this state of happiness is all the stranger (and all the more beautiful) for the enormous harshness of the scene, which is full of the hideously precise details of surgery in a time before anesthesia; and strangest of all about this strange state: it is provoked by an unexpected and illogical memory: when the doctors assistant removed his clothes, "Andrei recalled his earliest, most remote childhood." And some lines farther on: "After the agony he had been enduring, Prince Andrei enjoyed a blissful feeling such as he had not experienced for a long time. All the best and happiest moments of his life, especially those of early childhood-when he had been undressed and put to bed, and when his nurse had sung him lullabies and he had buried his head in the pillow and felt happy just to be alive-rose to his mind, not as something past, but as a present reality" Only later does Andrei recognize, on a nearby operating table, his rival, Anatol, Natasha's seducer, whose leg has just been cut off by a doctor.
The usual reading of this scene: Wounded, Andrei sees his rival with his leg amputated; the sight fills him with immense pity for the man and for man in general. But Tolstov knew that these sudden revelations are not due to causes so obvious and so logical. It was a curious fleeting image (the early-childhood memory of being undressed in the same way as the doctors assistant was doing it) that touched everything off-his new metamorphosis, his new vision of things. A few seconds later, this miraculous detail has certainly been forgotten by Andrei himself just as it has probably been immediately forgotten by the majority of readers, who read novels as inattentively and badly as they "read" their own lives.
One day, with a radiant face, a woman declares to me: "So, there's no more Leningrad! We're back to good old Saint Petersburg!" It never did thrill me, cities and streets being rechristened. I am about to tell her this, but at the last moment I control myself: in her gaze, bedazzled by the fascinating march of history, I foresee disagreement, and I have no desire to argue, especially because just then I recall an episode she has certainly forgotten.
This same woman came from abroad to visit my wife and me in Prague after the Russian invasion, in 1970 or 1971, when we were in the painful situation of being under ban. She was showing her solidarity with us, and we wanted to pay her back by trying to entertain her. My wife told her the funny story (it was oddly prophetic besides) of an American moneybags staying in a Moscow hotel. Someone asks him: "Have you been to see Lenin in the mausoleum?" And he replies: "For ten dollars I had him brought over to the hotel." Our visitors face tensed. A leftist (she still is), she saw the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia as a betrayal of ideals she cherished, and felt it unacceptable that victims with whom she meant to sympathize should mock those same betrayed ideals. "I don't find that funny," she said coldly, and only our status as persecuted people saved us from a break with her.
I can tell lots of stories of this kind. Such changes of opinion involve not only politics but also attitudes generally - feminism first on the rise and then in decline, admiration followed by scorn for the "nouveau roman," revolutionary puritanism supplanted by libertarian pornography, the idea of Europe denigrated as reactionary and neocolonialist by people who later unfurled it as a banner of Progress, and so on.
And I wonder: do they or do they not recall their earlier attitudes? Do they retain any memory of the history of their changes? Not that it angers me to see people change their opinions. Bezukhov, formerly an admirer of Napoleon, becomes his potential assassin, and I like him just as much in the one role as in the other. Doesn't a woman who worshiped Lenin in 1971 have the right to rejoice in 1991 that Leningrad is no longer Leningrad? She certainly does. Her change, however, is different from Bezukhov's.
It is precisely when their interior worlds change shape that Bezukhov and Bolkonsky are confirmed as individuals; that they surprise; that they make themselves different; that their freedom catches fire, and with it the identity of their selves; these are moments of poetry: they experience them with such intensity that the whole world rushes forward to meet them with an intoxicating parade of wondrous details. In Tolstoy, man is the more himself, the more an individual, when he has the strength, the imagination, the intelligence, to transform himself.
By contrast, the people I see changing their attitude toward Lenin, Europe, and so on expose their nonindividuality. This change is neither their own creation nor their own invention, not caprice or surprise or thought or madness; it has no poetry; it is nothing but a very prosaic adjustment to the changing spirit of History. That is why they don't even notice it; in the final analysis, they always stay the same: always in the right, always thinking what, in their milieu, a person is supposed to think; they change not in order to draw closer to some essential self but in order to merge with everyone else; changing lets them stay unchanged.
Another way of expressing it: they change their mind in accordance with the invisible tribunal that is also changing its mind; their change is thus simply a bet on what the tribunal will proclaim to be the truth tomorrow.
I remember my youth in Czechoslovakia. Having emerged from our initial enchantment with Communism, we felt each small step against official doctrine to be a courageous act. We protested the persecution of religious believers, stood up for banned modern art, argued against the stupidity of propaganda, criticized the country's dependence on Russia, and so on. In doing so, we were taking some risk-not much, but still some - and that (little) danger gave us a pleasant moral satisfaction. One day a hideous thought came to me: what if our rebellions were dictated not by internal freedom, by courage, but by the desire to please the other tribunal that was already preparing, in the shadows, to sit in judgment?
That Kafkan poetry reminds me, by contrast, of another novel that is also about an arrest and a trial: Orwell's 1984, the book that for decades served as a constant reference for antitotalitarianism professionals. In this novel, which means to be the horrifying portrayal of an imaginary totalitarian society, there are no windows; in it no one glimpses a frail young girl filling a jug with water; Orwell's novel is firmly closed to poetry; did I say novel?
it is political thought disguised as a novel; the thinking is certainly lucid and correct, but it is distorted by its guise as a novel, which renders it imprecise and vague. So if the novel form obscures Orwell's thought, does it give something in return? Does it throw light on the mystery of human situations that sociology or political science cannot get at?
the situations and the characters are as flat as a poster. Then is it justified at least as a popularization of good ideas? Not that either. For ideas made into a novel function no longer as ideas but as a novel instead - and in the case of 1984, as a bad novel, with all the pernicious influence a bad novel can exert.
The pernicious influence of Orwell's novel resides in its implacable reduction of a reality to its political dimension alone, and in its reduction of that dimension to what is exemplarily negative about it. I refuse to forgive this reduction on the grounds that it was useful as propaganda in the struggle against totalitarian evil. For that evil is, precisely, the reduction of life to politics and of politics to propaganda. So despite its intentions, Orwell's novel itself joins in the totalitarian spirit, the spirit of propaganda. It reduces (and teaches others to reduce) the life of a hated society to the simple listing of its crimes.
In talking with Czechs a year or two after the end of Communism, I would hear from every one of them that now - ritual turn of speech, that obligatory preamble to all their recollections, all their remarks: "after those forty years of Communist horror" or: "those horrible forty years" or especially: "the forty lost years."
I looked at my interlocutors: they had been neither forced to emigrate, nor imprisoned, nor deprived of their jobs, nor even looked down on; all of them had lived their lives in their own country, in their apartments, had done their work and had their vacations, their friendships and their loves; with the expression "forty horrible years" they were reducing their lives to the political aspect alone. But even the political history of those forty years - did they really experience that only as an undifferentiated block of horrors? Have they forgotten the years when they were seeing Milos Forman's films, reading Bohumil Hrabal's books, going to the little nonconformist theaters, and telling hundreds of jokes and cheerfully making fun of the regime? In their talk of forty horrible years, they were all Orwellizing the recollection of their own lives, which, a posteriori, in their memories and in their heads, were thereby devalued or even completely obliterated (forty lost years).
For a trial is initiated not to render justice but to annihilate the defendant; as Brod said: he who does not love anyone, who only dallies, must die; thus K. is stabbed in the heart; Bukharin is hanged. Even when the trial is of dead people, the point is to kill them off a second time: by burning their books; by removing their names from the schoolbooks; by demolishing their monuments; by rechristening the streets that bore their names.
For nearly seventy years Europe lived under a trial-regime. From among the great artists of the century, how many defendants… I shall mention only those who had some significance for me. Starting in the twenties, there were those hounded by the tribunal of revolutionary morality: Bunin, Andreyev, Meyerhold, Pilnyak, Veprik (a Jewish-Russian musician, a forgotten martyr of modern art; he dared to defend Shostakovich's opera against Stalin's condemnation; they stuck him in a camp; I remember his piano compositions, which my father liked to play), Mandelstam, Halas (the poet who was adored by Ludvik in The Joke, hounded after his death for gloominess seen as counterrevolutionary).
Then there were the quarry of the Nazi tribunal: Broch (he gazes at me, pipe in mouth, from a photo on my worktable), Schoenberg, Werfel, Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Musil, Vancura (the Czech writer I love most), Bruno Schulz. The totalitarian empires and their bloody trials have disappeared, but the spirit of the trial lingers as a legacy, and that is what is now settling scores. Thus the trial strikes at: those accused of pro-Nazi sympathies: Hamsun, Heidegger (all Czech dissident thought, Patocka most notably, is indebted to him), Richard Strauss, Gottfried Benn, von Doderer, Drieu la Rochelle, Celine (in 1992, a half century after the war, an indignant official refused to designate his house a historical monument); supporters of Mussolini: Malaparte, Marinetti, Ezra Pound (the American military kept him, like an animal, in a cage for months under the blazing Italian sun; in his Reykjavik studio, the painter Kristjan Davidsson showed me a large photo of him: "For fifty years it has gone with me everywhere I go"); the Munich appeasers: Giono, Alain, Morand, Montherlant, St.-John Perse (a member of the French delegation to the Munich conference, he was closely involved in the humiliation of my native country); then, the Communists and their sympathizers: Mayakovsky (who today remembers his love poetry and his amazing metaphors?), Gorky, Shaw, Brecht (who is thereby undergoing his second trial), Eluard (that exterminating angel who used to decorate his signature with a drawing of crossed swords), Picasso, Leger, Aragon (how can I forget that he offered me his hand at a difficult time in my life?), Nezval (his self-portrait in oils is on the wall by my bookshelves), Sartre. Some of these people are undergoing a double trial, first accused of betraying the revolution, then accused for services they had rendered it earlier: Gide (in the old Communist countries, the symbol of all evil), Shostakovich (to atone for his difficult music, he manufactured rubbish for the regime's needs; he maintained that for the history of art a worthless thing is null and void; he didn't know that for the tribunal it is the worthlessness itself that counts), Breton, Malraux (accused yesterday of having betrayed revolutionary ideals, accusable tomorrow of having held them), Tibor Dery (some works of this Communist writer, who was imprisoned after the Budapest massacre, were for me the first great literary, nonpropagandistic reply to Stalinism). The most exquisite flower of the century, the modern art of the twenties and thirties, was even triply accused: first by the Nazi tribunal as Entartete Kunst, "degenerate art"; then by the Communist tribunal as "elitist formalism alien to the people"; and finally by the triumphant capitalist tribunal as art steeped in revolutionary illusions.
…the conformism of public opinion is a force that sets itself up as a tribunal, and the tribunal is not there to waste time over ideas, it is there to conduct the investigations for trials. And as the abyss of time widens between judges and defendants, it is always a lesser experience that is judging a greater. The immature sit in judgment on Celine's erring ways without realizing that because of these erring ways, Celine's novels contain existential knowledge that, if they were to understand it, could make them more adult. Because therein lies the power of culture: it redeems horror by transforming it into existential wisdom. If the spirit of the trial succeeds in annihilating this century's culture, nothing will remain of us but a memory of its atrocities sung by a chorus of children.
A curious thing: thanks to the technology of sound reproduction, this ecstatic [rock-] music resounds incessantly and everywhere, and thus outside ecstatic situations. The acoustic image of ecstasy has become the everyday decor of our lassitude. It is inviting us to no orgy, to no mystical experience, so what does this trivialized ecstasy mean to tell us? That we should accept it. That we should get used to it. That we should respect its privileged position. That we should observe the ethic it decrees.
The ethic of ecstasy is the opposite of the trial's ethic; under its protection everybody does whatever he wants: now anyone can suck his thumb as he likes, from infancy to graduation, and it is a freedom no one will be willing to give up; look around you on the Metro; seated or standing, every single person has a finger in some orifice of his face-in the ear, in the mouth, in the nose; no one feels he's being observed, and everyone dreams of writing a book to tell about his unique and inimitable self, which is picking its nose; no one listens to anyone else, everyone writes, and each of them writes the way rock is danced to: alone, for himself, focused on himself yet making the same motions as all the others. In this situation of uniform egocentricity, the sense of guilt does not play the role it once did; the tribunals still operate, but they are fascinated exclusively by the past; they see only the core of the century; they see only the generations that are old or dead. Kafka's characters were made to feel guilty by the authority of the father; it is because his father disgraces him that the hero of "The Judgment" drowns himself in a river; that time is past: in the world of rock, the father has been charged with such a load of guilt that, for a long time now, he allows everything. Those with no guilt feelings are dancing.
Man proceeds in the fog. But when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path. From his present, which was their faraway future, their path looks perfectly clear to him, good visibility all the way. Looking back, he sees the path, he sees the people proceeding, he sees their mistakes, but not the fog. And yet all of them-Heidegger, Mayakovsky, Aragon, Ezra Pound, Gorky, Gottfried Benn, St.-John Perse, Giono - all were walking in fog, and one might wonder: who is more blind? Mayakovsky, who as he wrote his poem on Lenin did not know where Leninism would lead? Or we, who judge him decades later and do not see the fog that enveloped him?
Mayakovsky's blindness is part of the eternal human condition.
But for us not to see the fog on Mayakovsky's path is to forget what man is, forget what we ourselves are.
Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher
Saturday, July 23, 2016
PART EIGHT. Paths in the Fog