PART NINE. You're Not in Your Own House Here, My Dear Fellow
Without a doubt, this or that sentence of A la recherche du temps perdu could be better written. But where could you find the lunatic who would want to read an improved Proust?
What means does an author have at his disposal to make himself understood for what he is? Hermann Broch hadn't many in the 1930s and in an Austria cut off from Germany turned fascist, nor later on in the loneliness of emigration: a few lectures explaining his aesthetic of the novel; then letters to friends, to his readers, to his publishers, to his translators; he left nothing undone, taking great care, for instance, over the copy on his book jackets. In a letter to his publisher, he protests a proposal for a promotional line on the back cover of his novel The Sleepwalkers that would compare him to Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Italo Svevo. His counterproposal: that he be compared to Joyce and Gide.
I can't repeat it too often: the value and the meaning of a work can be appreciated only in the greater international context. That truth becomes particularly pressing for any artist who is relatively isolated.
Prague represented an enormous handicap for Kafka. He was isolated there from the German literary and publishing world, and that was fatal for him. His publishers concerned themselves very little with this author whom they barely knew personally. In a book on this problem, Joachim Unseld, the son of a leading German publisher, shows that the most likely reason (I consider the idea very realistic) why Kafka left his novels unfinished is that no one was asking him for them. Because if an author has no definite prospect of publishing his manuscript, nothing forces him to put the finishing touches on it, nothing keeps him from moving it off his desk for the time being and going on to something else.
To the Germans, Prague was just a provincial town, like Brno to the Czechs. Both Kafka and Janacek were therefore provincials. Kafka was nearly unknown in this country whose population was alien to him, while Janacek, in the same country, was trivialized by his own people.
I will never get to the bottom of the Brod mystery. And Kafka? - what did he think?
In his 1911 diary, he tells this story: one day the two of them went to see a cubist painter, Willi Nowak, who had just finished a series of lithograph portraits of Brod; in the Picasso pattern as we know it, the first drawing was realistic, whereas the others, says Kafka, moved further and further off from their subject and wound up extremely abstract. Brod was uncomfortable; he didn't like any of the drawings except for the realistic first one, which, by contrast, pleased him greatly because, Kafka notes with tender irony, "beyond its looking like him, it had noble and serene lines around the mouth and eyes…"
I am always surprised by peoples amazement over Kafka's (alleged) decision to destroy all his work. As if such a decision were a priori absurd. As if an author could not have reasons enough to take his work along with him on his last voyage.
It could in fact happen that on final assessment the author realizes that he dislikes his books. And that he does not want to leave behind him this dismal monument of his failure. I know, I know, you'll object he is mistaken, that he is giving in to an unhealthy depression, but your exhortations are meaningless. He's in his own house with that work, not you, my dear fellow!
Another plausible reason: the author still loves his work but not the world. He can't bear the idea of leaving the work here to the mercy of a future he considers hateful.
And yet another possibility: the author still loves his work and doesn't even think about the future of the world, but having had his own experiences with the public, he understands the vanitas vanitatum of art, the inevitable incomprehension that is his lot, the incomprehension (not underestimation, I'm not talking about personal vanity) he has suffered during his lifetime and that he doesn't want to go on suffering post mortem. (It may incidentally be only the brevity of life that keeps artists from understanding fully the futility of their labor and making arrangements in time for the obliteration of both their work and themselves.)
Aren't these all valid reasons? Of course. Yet they weren't Kafka's reasons: he was aware of the value of what he was writing, he had no declared repugnance for the world, and-too young and nearly unknown- he had had no bad experiences with the public, having had almost none at all.
Kafka's testament: not a testament in the precise legal sense; actually two private letters; and not even true letters, in that they were never posted. Brod, who was Kafka's legal executor, found them after his friend's death, in 1924, in a drawer among a mass of other papers: one in ink, folded and addressed to Brod, the other more detailed and written in pencil. In his "Postscript to the First Edition" of The Trial, Brod explains:
"In 1921… I told my friend that I had made a will in which I asked him to destroy certain things [dieses unci jenes vernichten], to look through some others, and so forth. Kafka thereupon showed me the outside of the note written in ink which was later found in his desk, and said: 'My last testament will be very simple: a request that you burn everything.' I can still remember the exact wording of the answer I gave him: '… I'm telling you right now that I won't carry out your wishes."
Brod evokes this recollection to justify disobeying his friend's testamentary wish; Kafka, he continues, "knew what fanatical veneration I had for his every word"; so he was well aware that he would not be obeyed and he "should have chosen another executor if his own instructions were unconditionally and finally in earnest."
But is that so certain? In his own testament, Brod was asking Kafka "to destroy certain things "; why then wouldn't Kafka have considered it normal to request the same service of Brod? And if Kafka really knew that he would not be obeyed, why, after their conversation in 1921, did he write that second, penciled letter, in which he elaborates his instructions and makes them specific?
But let's drop it: we'll never know what these two young friends said to each other on a subject that was, by the way, not their most urgent concern, since neither one of them, and Kafka especially, could at the time consider himself in serious danger of immortality.
His [man] well-being depended on his freedom from being seen.
Shame is one of the key notions of the Modern Era, the individualistic period that is imperceptibly receding from us these days; shame: an epidermal instinct to defend one's personal life; to require a curtain over the window; to insist that a letter addressed to A not be read by B. One of the elementary situations in the passage to adulthood, one of the prime conflicts with parents, is the claim to a drawer for letters and notebooks, the claim to a drawer with a key; we enter adulthood through the rebellion of shame.
An old revolutionary Utopia, whether fascist or communist: life without secrets, where public life and private life are one and the same. The surrealist dream Andre Breton loved: the glass house, a house without curtains where man lives in full view of the world. Ah, the beauty of transparency! The only successful realization of this dream: a society totally monitored by the police.
…When I arrived in France from that Czechoslovakia bristling with microphones, I saw on a magazine cover a large photo of Jacques Brel hiding his face from the photographers who had tracked him down in front of the hospital where he was being treated for his already advanced cancer. And suddenly I felt I was encountering the very same evil that had made me flee my country; broadcasting Prochazkas conversations and photographing a dying singer hiding his face seemed to belong to the same world; I said to myself that when it becomes the custom and the rule to divulge another person's private life, we are entering a time when the highest stake is the survival or the disappearance of the individual.
There are almost no trees in Iceland, and the few that exist are all in the cemeteries; as if there were no dead without trees, as if there were no trees without the dead. They are not planted alongside the grave, as in idyllic Central Europe, but right in the center of it, to force a passerby to imagine the roots down below piercing the body.
I am walking with Elvar D. in the Reykjavik cemetery; he stops at a grave whose tree is still quite small; barely a year ago his friend was buried; he starts reminiscing aloud about him: his private life was marked by some secret, probably a sexual one. "Because secrets excite such irritated curiosity, my wife, my daughters, the people around me, all insisted I tell them about it. To such an extent that my relations with my wife have been bad ever since. I couldn't forgive her aggressive curiosity, and she couldn't forgive my silence, which to her was evidence of how little I trusted her." He smiled, and then: "I divulged nothing," he said. "Because I had nothing to divulge. I had forbidden myself to want to know my friends secrets, and I didn't know them."
I listened to him with fascination: since childhood I had heard it said that a friend is the person with whom you share your secrets and who even has the right, in the name of friendship, to insist on knowing them. For my Icelander, friendship is something else: it is standing guard at the door behind which your friend keeps his private life hidden; it is being the person who never opens that door; who allows no one else to open it.
I don't believe that Kafka asked Brod to destroy his letters because he feared their publication. Such an idea could scarcely have entered his mind. The publishers were not interested in his novels, why would they have cared about his letters? What made him want to destroy them was shame, simple shame, not that of a writer but that of an ordinary individual, the shame of leaving private things lying about for the eyes of others-of the family, of strangers-the shame of being turned into an object, the shame that could "outlive him."
And yet Brod made these letters public; earlier, in his own will and testament, he had asked Kafka "to destroy certain things"; and here he himself published everything, indiscriminately; even that long, painful letter found in a drawer, the letter that Kafka never decided to send to his father and that, thanks to Brod, anyone but its addressee could eventually read. To me, Brods indiscretion is inexcusable. He betrayed his friend. He acted against his friends wishes, against the meaning and the spirit of his wishes, against the sense of shame he knew in the man.
There is an essential difference between the novel on the one hand and memoirs, biography, autobiography, on the other. A biography's value lies in the newness and accuracy of the real facts it reveals. A novel's value is in the revelation of previously unseen possibilities of existence as such; in other words, the novel uncovers what is hidden in each of us. A common form of praise for a novel is to say: I see myself in that character; I have the sense that the author knows me and is writing about me; or as a grievance: I feel attacked, laid bare, humiliated by this novel. We should never mock such apparently naive judgments: they prove that the novel is being read as a novel.
That is why the roman a clef (which deals with real people with the intention of making them recognizable beneath fictional names) is a false novel, an aesthetically equivocal thing, morally unclean.
Of course, every novelist, intentionally or not, draws on his own life; there are entirely invented characters, created out of pure reverie; there are those inspired by a model, sometimes directly, more often indirectly; there are those created from a single detail observed in some person; and all of them owe much to the author's introspection, to his self-knowledge. The work of the imagination transforms these inspirations and observations so thoroughly that the novelist forgets about them. Yet before publishing his book, he must think to hide the keys that might make them detectable; first, out of the minimum of consideration due persons who, to their surprise, will find fragments of their lives in the novel, and second, because keys (true or false) one puts into the reader's hands can only mislead him: instead of unknown aspects of existence, he will be searching a novel for unknown aspects of the author's existence; the entire meaning of the art of the novel will thus be annihilated.
Novelists have always resisted that biographical furor whose representative prototype, according to Proust, is Sainte-Beuve with his motto: "I do not look on literature as a thing apart, or, at least, detachable, from the rest of the man…" Understanding a work therefore requires knowing the man first - that is, Sainte-Beuve specifies, knowing the answers to a certain number of questions even though they "might seem at the furthest remove from the nature of his writings:
What were his religious views? How did he react to the sight of nature? How did he conduct himself in regard to women, in regard to money? Was he rich, was he poor? What governed his actions, what was his daily way of life? What was his vice, or his weakness?" This quasi-police method, Proust comments, requires a critic "to surround himself with every possible piece of information about a writer, to check his letters, to interrogate people who knew him…"
Yet, surrounded as he was "with every possible piece of information," Sainte-Beuve managed not to recognize any of the great writers of his time - not Balzac, nor Stendhal, nor Baudelaire; by studying their lives he inevitably missed their work, because, said Proust, "a book is the product of a self other than the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices'; "the writers true self is manifested in his books alone."
Proust's polemic against Sainte-Beuve is of fundamental importance. Let us make clear: Proust is not criticizing Sainte-Beuve for exaggerating; he is not decrying the limitations of Sainte-Beuve's method; his verdict is absolute: that method is blind to the author's other self; blind to his aesthetic wishes; incompatible with art; directed against art; inspired by hatred of art.
…none of the three collections of stories Kafka himself put together for publication (Meditations, A Country Doctor, A Hunger Artist) is presented here in France in the form Kafka gave them; these collections have simply disappeared; the individual stories constituting them are scattered among other things (among drafts, fragments, and such) by chronology; thus eight hundred pages of Kafka's writings become a flood where everything dissolves into everything else, a flood formless as only water can be, water that flows and carries along with it both good and bad, finished and unfinished, strong and weak, draft and work.
Brod had already proclaimed the "fanatical veneration" with which he surrounded each of Kafka's words. The editors of Kafka's work show the same absolute veneration for everything their author touched. But understand the mystery of absolute veneration: it is also, and inevitably, the absolute denial of the author's aesthetic wishes. For aesthetic wishes show not only by what an author has written but also by what he has deleted. Deleting a paragraph calls for even more talent, cultivation, and creative power than writing it does. Therefore, publishing what the author deleted is the same act of rape as censoring what he decided to retain.
What obtains for deletions within the microcosm of a particular work also obtains for deletions within the macrocosm of a complete body of work. There too, as he assesses his work, and guided by his aesthetic requirements, the author often excludes what doesn't satisfy him. Claude Simon, for instance, no longer allows his earliest books to be reprinted. Faulkner explicitly stated his wish to leave no trace "but the printed books," in other words, none of what the garbage-can scavengers would find after his death.
The sequence Kafka chose for the stories in his collections is disregarded because the only sequence considered valid is that dictated by life itself. No one cares about the artist Kafka, who troubles us with his puzzling aesthetic, because we'd rather have Kafka as the fusion of experience and work, the Kafka who had a difficult relationship with his father and didn't know how to deal with women.
For authors' rights to become law, it required a certain frame of mind that was inclined to respect the author. That frame of mind, which took shape slowly over the centuries, seems to be coming undone lately. If not, they couldn't accompany a toilet paper commercial with a passage from a Brahms symphony.
I examine the new version of the French law on authors' rights: the problems of writers, composers, painters, poets, novelists take up a minute part of it, most of the text being devoted to the great industry called "audiovisual." There's no question this immense industry requires entirely new rules of the game. Because the situation has changed: what we persist in calling "art" is less and less the "original expression of a unique individual." How can the screenwriter for a film that costs millions prevail with his own moral rights (say, the right to prevent tampering with what he wrote) when involved in its creation is a battalion of other persons, who also consider themselves authors and whose moral rights are reciprocally limited by his; and how claim anything at all against the will of the producer, who though not an author is certainly the film's only real boss?
When a conflict arises in this new climate, those who violate authors' moral rights (adapters of novels; garbage-can scavengers who plunder great writers with their so-called critical editions; advertising that dissolves a thousand-year-old legacy in its bloody saliva; periodicals that reprint whatever they want without permission; producers who interfere with filmmakers' work; stage directors who treat texts so freely that only a madman could still write for the theater; and so on) have general opinion on their side, whereas an author claiming his moral rights risks winding up without public sympathy and with judicial support that is rather grudging, for even the guardians of the laws are sensitive to the mood of the time.
With Kafka's "testament," the great legend of Saint Kafka/Garta is born, and along with it a littler legend - of Brod his prophet, who with touching earnestness makes public his friends last wish even as he confesses why, in the name of very lofty principles, he decided not to obey him. The great mythographer won his bet. His act was elevated to the rank of a great gesture worthy of emulation. For who could doubt Brod's loyalty to his friend? And who would dare doubt the value of every sentence, every word, every single syllable Kafka left to humanity?
And thus did Brod create the model for disobedience to dead friends; a judicial precedent for those who would circumvent an authors last wish or divulge his most intimate secrets.
A television broadcast: three famous and admired women collectively propose that women too should have the right to be buried in the Pantheon. It's important, they say, to consider the symbolic significance of this act. And they immediately suggest the names of some great dead women who, in their opinion, could be moved there.
A fair demand, certainly; yet something about it troubles me: these dead women who could be moved right over to the Pantheon, aren't they now lying beside their husbands? Certainly; and they wanted it so. What then are we to do with the husbands? Move them too? That would be hard; not being important enough, they must stay where they are, and the wives that have been moved out will spend their eternity in widows' solitude.
Then I say to myself: and what about the men already in the Pantheon? Yes, the men! Are they perchance in the Pantheon of their own will? It was after they died, without asking their opinion, and certainly contrary to their last wishes, that it was decided to turn them into symbols and separate them from their wives.
After Chopin's death, Polish patriots cut up his body to take out his heart. They nationalized this poor muscle and buried it in Poland.
A dead person is treated either as trash or as a symbol. Either way, it's the same disrespect to his vanished individuality.
Ah, it's so easy to disobey a dead person. If, nonetheless, we sometimes submit to his wishes, it is not out of fear, out of duress, but because we love him and refuse to believe him dead. If an old peasant on his deathbed begs his son not to cut down the old pear tree outside the window, the pear tree will not be cut down for as long as the son remembers his father with love.
This has little to do with any religious belief in the eternal life of the soul. It's simply that a dead person I love will never be dead for me. I can't even say: "I loved him"; no, its: "I love him." And my refusing to speak of my love for him in the past tense means that the dead person is. That may be the seat of man's religious dimension. Indeed, obedience to a last wish is mysterious: it goes beyond all practical and rational thought: the old peasant will never know, in his grave, if the pear tree has been cut down or not; yet for the son who loves him, it is impossible to not obey him.
Later on, writing The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I immersed myself in the character Tamina, who has lost her husband and is trying desperately to recover, to gather, scattered memories so as to reconstruct a person who has disappeared, a bygone past; it was then that I began to understand that a memory doesn't give us back the dead person's presence; memories are only confirmation of his absence; in memories the dead person is only a past that is fading, receding, inaccessible.
Testaments Betrayed (1993) - An Essay in Nine Parts By Milan Kundera
Translated by Linda Asher
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
PART NINE. You're Not in Your Own House Here, My Dear Fellow