MAXIMUM DIVERSITY IN A MINIMUM OF SPACE
A European, whether he is nationalist or cosmopolitan, rooted or uprooted, is profoundly conditioned by his relation to his homeland; the national problematic may be more complex, more grave in Europe than elsewhere, but in any case it is different there. Added to that is another particularity: alongside the large nations, Europe contains small nations, several of which have, in the past two centuries, attained or reattained their political independence. Their existence may be what brought me to understand that cultural diversity is the great European value. In the period when the Russian world tried to reshape my small country in its image, I formulated my own ideal of Europe thus: maximum diversity in minimum space. The Russians no longer rule my native land, but that ideal is even more imperiled now.
All the nations of Europe are living out a common destiny, but each is living it out differently, based on its own distinct experience. This is why the history of each European art (painting, the novel, music, and so on) seems like a relay race in which the various nations pass the baton from one to the next. Polyphonic music had its beginnings in France, continued its development in Italy, attained incredible complexity in the Netherlands, and reached its fulfillment in Germany, in the works of Bach; the upwelling of the English novel of the eighteenth century is followed by the era of the French novel, then by the Russian novel, then by the Scandinavian, and so on. The dynamism and long life span of the history of the European arts are inconceivable without the existence of all these nations whose diverse experiences constitute an inexhaustible reservoir of inspiration.
I think of Iceland. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a literary work thousands of pages long was born there: the sagas. At the time, neither the French nor the English had created such a prose work in their national tongue! We should certainly ponder this thoroughly: the first great prose treasure of Europe was created in its smallest nation, which even today numbers fewer than three hundred thousand inhabitants.
The word “Munich” has become the symbol of capitulation to Hitler. But to be more concrete: at Munich, in the autumn of 1938, the four great nations of Europe—Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain—negotiated the fate of a small country to which they denied the very right to speak. In a room apart, the two Czech diplomats waited all night to be led, in the early morning, down long hallways into a room where Chamberlain and Daladier, weary, blasé, yawning, informed them of the death sentence.
“A faraway country” of which “we know nothing”: Those famous words by which Chamberlain sought to justify the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia were accurate. In Europe, there are the large countries on one side and the small on the other; there are the nations seated in the negotiating chambers and those which wait all night in the antechambers.
What distinguishes the small nations from the large is not the quantitative criterion of the number of their inhabitants; it is something deeper. For the small nations, existence is not a self-evident certainty but always a question, a wager, a risk; they are on the defensive against History, that force which is bigger than they, which does not take them into account, which does not even notice them. (“It is only by opposing History as such that we can oppose today’s history,” Witold Gombrowicz wrote.)
There are almost as many Poles as there are Spaniards. But Spain is an old power whose existence has never been under threat, whereas History has taught the Poles what it means not to exist. Deprived of their state, they lived for more than a century on death row. “Poland has not yet perished” is the poignant first line of their national anthem, and, in a letter to Czeslaw Milosz some fifty years ago, Gombrowicz wrote a phrase that could never have occurred to any Spaniard: “If, in a hundred years, our language still exists . . .”
Let’s suppose that the Icelandic sagas had been written in English: their heroes’ names would be as familiar to us as Tristan or Don Quixote; their singular aesthetic character, oscillating between chronicle and fiction, would have provoked all sorts of theories; people would have argued over whether they should or should not be considered the first European novels. I don’t mean to say that the sagas have been forgotten—after centuries of indifference they are now being studied in universities throughout the world—but they belong to the “archeology of letters,” they do not influence living literature.
Given that the French are unused to distinguishing between nation and state, I often hear Kafka described as a Czech writer. Of course that is nonsense. Although from 1918 on he was, indeed, a citizen of the newly constituted Czechoslovakia, Kafka wrote solely in German, and he considered himself a German writer. But suppose for a moment that he had written his books in Czech. Today, who would know them? It took Max Brod twenty years and enormous effort to force Kafka on the world’s awareness, and that was with the support of the greatest German writers! Even if a Prague editor had managed to publish the books of a hypothetical Czech Kafka, none of his compatriots (that is to say, no Czech) would have had the authority needed to familiarize the world with those extravagant texts written in the language of a “faraway country” of which “we know nothing.” No, believe me, nobody would know Kafka today—nobody—if he had been Czech.
Gombrowicz’s “Ferdydurke” was published in Polish in 1937. It had to wait fifteen years finally to be read, and rejected, by a French publisher. And it took a good many years more for the French to see his work in their bookstores.
There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context) or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context). We are accustomed to seeing music quite naturally in the large context: knowing what language Orlando di Lasso or Bach spoke matters little to a musicologist. But because a novel is bound up with its language, in nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusively in the small—national—context. Europe has not managed to view its literature as a historical unit, and I continue to insist that this is an irreparable intellectual loss. Because, if we consider only the history of the novel, it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert’s tradition living on in Joyce, it was through his reflection on Joyce that Hermann Broch developed his own poetics of the novel, and it was Kafka who showed García Márquez the possibility of departing from tradition to “write another way.”
What I just said Goethe was the first to say: “National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of Weltliteratur”—world literature—“and it is up to each of us to hasten this development.” This is, so to speak, Goethe’s testament. Another testament betrayed. Open any textbook, any anthology: world literature is always presented as a juxtaposition of national literatures . . . as a history of literatures! Literatures in the plural!
And yet Rabelais, ever undervalued by his compatriots, was never better understood than by a Russian, Bakhtin; Dostoyevsky than by a Frenchman, Gide; Ibsen than by an Irishman, Shaw; Joyce than by an Austrian, Broch. The universal importance of the generation of great North Americans—Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos—was first brought to light by the French. (“In France I’m the father of a literary movement,” Faulkner wrote in 1946, complaining of the deaf ear he encountered in his own country.) These few examples are not bizarre exceptions to the rule; no, they are the rule. Geographic distance sets the observer back from the local context and allows him to embrace the large context of world literature—the only approach that can bring out a novel’s aesthetic value—that is to say, the previously unseen aspects of existence that this particular novel has managed to make clear, the novelty of form it has found.
Do I mean by this that to judge a novel one can do without a knowledge of its original language? Indeed, I do mean exactly that! Gide did not know Russian, Shaw did not know Norwegian, Sartre did not read Dos Passos in the original. If the books of Gombrowicz and Danilo Kis had depended solely on the judgment of people who read Polish and Serbo-Croatian, their radical aesthetic newness would never have been discovered.
(And what about the professors of foreign literatures? Is it not their very natural mission to study works in the context of world literature? Not a chance. In order to demonstrate their competence as experts, they make a great point of identifying with the small—national—context of whichever literature they teach. They adopt its opinions, its tastes, its prejudices. It is in foreign universities that a work of art is most intractably mired in its home province.)
THE PROVINCIALISM OF SMALL NATIONS
How to define “provincialism”? As the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context. There are two kinds of provincialism: that of large nations and that of small ones. The large nations resist the Goethean idea of world literature because their own literature seems to them sufficiently rich that they need take no interest in what people write elsewhere. Kazimierz Brandys says, in his “Paris Notebooks: 1985–87,” that the French student has greater gaps in his knowledge of world culture than the Polish student, but he can get away with it, for his own culture contains more or less all the aspects, all the possibilities and phases, of the world’s evolution.
Small nations are reticent toward the large context for exactly the opposite reason: they hold world culture in high esteem but feel it to be something alien, a sky above their heads, distant, inaccessible, an ideal reality with little connection to their national literature. The small nation inculcates in its writer the conviction that he belongs to that place alone. To set his gaze beyond the boundary of the homeland, to join his colleagues in the supranational territory of art, is considered pretentious, disdainful of his own people. And, since the small nations are often in situations where their survival is at stake, they can easily present this attitude as morally justified.
Kafka speaks of this in his “Diaries.” From the standpoint of a “large” literature—in this case, German—he observes Yiddish and Czech literature: a small nation, he says, has great respect for its writers because they provide it with pride “in the face of the hostile surrounding world”; for a small nation, literature is “less a matter of literary history” than “a matter of the people,” and that exceptional osmosis between the literature and its people facilitates “the literature’s diffusion throughout the country, where it binds with political slogans.” From there Kafka arrives at this startling observation: “What in large literatures goes on at a lower level and constitutes a not indispensable basement of the structure, here takes place in bright light; what there provokes a brief flurry of interest, here brings down nothing less than a life-or-death decree.”
These last words remind me of a chorus by the composer Bedrich Smetana (written in Prague in 1864) with the lines “Rejoice, rejoice, voracious raven, you have a treat in store: soon you will feast on a traitor to our country.” How could such a great musician ever offer up such bloodthirsty foolishness? Was it some youthful error? No excuse there—he was forty when he wrote it. And, moreover, what did it even mean at the time, to be “a traitor to our country”? Someone joining a commando band to slit the gullets of his fellow-citizens? Not at all: a “traitor” was any Czech who decided to leave Prague for Vienna and participate peacefully in German life there. As Kafka said, what somewhere else “provokes a brief flurry of interest, here brings down nothing less than a life-or-death decree.”
A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism that reduces the entire meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland. I open an old mimeographed copy of some lectures that the composer Vincent d’Indy gave at the Paris Schola Cantorum, where a whole generation of French musicians were trained in the early twentieth century. There are paragraphs on Smetana and Dvorák, particularly on Smetana’s two string quartets. What are we told? A single assertion, restated several times in different terms: this “folk-style” music was inspired “by national songs and dances.” Nothing else? Nothing. A platitude and a misinterpretation. A platitude because traces of folk music are found everywhere, in Haydn, in Chopin, in Liszt, in Brahms; a misinterpretation because Smetana’s two quartets are actually a highly personal musical confession, written under tragic circumstances—the composer had just lost his hearing, and these (splendid!) quartets are, he said, “the swirling storm of music in the head of a man gone deaf.”
How could Vincent d’Indy have been so deeply mistaken? Very likely he was unfamiliar with those works and was simply repeating what he had heard. His opinion reflected Czech society’s idea of these two composers: to make political use of their fame (to display pride “in the face of the hostile surrounding world”), it had pulled together the scraps of folklore to be found in the music and stitched them into a national banner to fly above the work. The outside world was just accepting politely (or maliciously) the interpretation that was offered.
THE PROVINCIALISM OF LARGE NATIONS
And what about provincialism in the large nations? The definition is the same: the inability (or the refusal) to imagine one’s own culture in the large context. A few years ago, before the end of the past century, a Paris newspaper polled thirty figures who belonged to a kind of intellectual establishment of the day: journalists, historians, sociologists, publishers, and a few writers. Each was asked to name, in order of importance, the ten most notable books in the whole history of France, and from those combined thirty lists the paper compiled an honor roll of a hundred works. Even though the question as asked (“What are the books that have made France what it is?”) might allow for several interpretations, still the response does give a rather good picture of what today’s French intellectual élite considers important in its country’s literature.
Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” came in first. That surprised one foreign writer. Never having considered the book important, either for himself or for the history of literature, he suddenly saw that the French literature he adores is not the same one the French adore. In eleventh place is de Gaulle’s war memoirs. Such value would almost never be accorded to a book by a statesman, a soldier, outside of France. And yet what is disconcerting is not that but the fact that the greatest masterpieces appear only farther down the list! Rabelais stands in fourteenth place—Rabelais after de Gaulle! I am reminded of an article I read by an eminent French university professor saying that his country’s literature lacks a founding figure equivalent to Dante for the Italians, Shakespeare for the English, and so on. Imagine—in the eyes of his countrymen, Rabelais lacks the aura of a founding figure! Yet in the eyes of nearly every great novelist of our time he is, along with Cervantes, the founder of an entire art, the art of the novel.
And what of the eighteenth- and the nineteenth-century novel, France’s glory? “The Red and the Black” stands twenty-second on the list; “Madame Bovary” is twenty-fifth; “Germinal” thirty-second; “The Human Comedy” only thirty-fourth (Is that possible? “The Human Comedy,” without which European literature is inconceivable!); “Dangerous Liaisons” fiftieth; poor “Bouvard and Pécuchet” come trailing in last, like a couple of breath-less dunces. And some masterworks do not appear at all among the hundred elect: “The Charterhouse of Parma”; “Sentimental Education”; “Jacques the Fatalist” (true, only within the large context of world literature can the incomparable novelty of that book be appreciated).
And what about the twentieth century? Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” seventh place. Camus’s “The Stranger,” tied for twenty-second. And after that? Very little. Very little of what’s called modern literature, nothing at all of modern poetry. As if France’s enormous influence on modern letters had never occurred! As if, for instance, Apollinaire (absent from this honor list) had not inspired a whole era of European poetry!
And there’s something still more astonishing: the absence from the list of Beckett and Ionesco. How many dramatists of the past century have had such power, such influence? One? Two? No more than that. Here’s a recollection: the emancipation of cultural life in Communist Czechoslovakia was bound up with the little theatres that were born at the very start of the sixties. It was there that I first saw a performance of Ionesco, and it was unforgettable: the explosion of an imagination, the irruption of a disrespectful spirit. I’ve often said that the Prague Spring began eight years before 1968, with the Ionesco plays that were staged at the little Theatre on the Balustrade.
One might argue that the honor roll I describe is evidence less of provincialism than of the recent intellectual orientation that gives ever less weight to aesthetic criteria—that the people who voted for “Les Misérables” were thinking not of the book’s importance in the history of the novel but of its great social resonance in France. Of course, but that only demonstrates how indifference to aesthetic value inevitably shifts the whole culture back into provincialism. France is not merely the land where the French live; it is also a country that other people watch and draw inspiration from. And those are the values (aesthetic, philosophical) by which a foreigner appreciates works born outside his own country. Once again, the rule holds: these values are hard to perceive from the viewpoint of the small context, even if it be the prideful small context of a large nation.
THE MAN FROM THE EAST
In the nineteen-sixties I left my country for France, and there I was astonished to discover that I was “an East European exile.” Indeed, to the French my country was part of the European Orient. I hastened to explain to all and sundry the real scandal of our situation: stripped of its national sovereignty, Czechoslovakia had been annexed not only by another country but by a whole other world, the world of the European East, which, rooted as it is in the ancient past of Byzantium, possesses its own historical problematic, its own architectural look, its own religion (Orthodox), its own alphabet (Cyrillic, derived from Greek writing), and also its own sort of Communism. (No one knows, or ever will know, what Central European Communism would have been without Russia’s domination, but in any case it would not have resembled the Communism we did experience.)
Gradually, I understood that I came from a “faraway country” of which “we know nothing.” The people around me placed great importance on politics but knew almost nothing about geography: they saw us as having been “Communized,” not “taken over.” After all, hadn’t the Czechs always been part of the same “Slavic world” as the Russians? I explained that while there is a linguistic unity among the Slavic nations, there is no Slavic culture, no Slavic world, and that the history of the Czechs, like that of the Poles, the Slovaks, the Croats, or the Slovenes (and, of course, the Hungarians, who are not at all Slavic), is entirely Western: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque; close contact with the Germanic world; the struggle of Catholicism against the Reformation. Never anything to do with Russia, which was far off, another world. Only the Poles lived in direct relation with Russia—a relation much like a death struggle.
But my efforts were useless: the “Slavic world” idea persists as an ineradicable commonplace in world historiography. I open a volume of the “Universal History,” in the prestigious “Pléiade” series: in the chapter called “The Slavic World,” the great Czech theologian Jan Hus is irremediably separated from the Englishman John Wycliffe (whose disciple Hus was) and from the German Martin Luther (who saw Hus as his teacher and precursor). Poor Hus: after being burned at the stake at Constance, now he must suffer through a dreadful eternity in the company of Ivan the Terrible, with whom he would never want to exchange a single word.
Nothing beats an argument from personal experience. In the late nineteen seventies, I was sent the manuscript of a foreword written for one of my novels by an eminent Slavic specialist, who placed me in permanent comparison (flattering, of course; at the time, no one meant me harm) with Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bunin, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and the Russian dissidents. In alarm, I stopped its publication. Not that I felt any antipathy for those great Russians—on the contrary, I admired them all—but in their company I became a different person. I still recall the strange anguish the piece stirred in me: that displacement into a context that was not mine felt like a deportation.
Between the large context of the world and the small context of the nation, a middle step might be imagined: say, a median context. Between Sweden and the world, that step is Scandinavia. For Colombia, it is Latin America. And for Hungary, for Poland? After emigrating, I tried to work out a response to that question, and the title of a piece I wrote at the time sums it up: “A Kidnapped West, or the Tragedy of Central Europe.”
Central Europe: What is it? The whole collection of small nations between two powers, Russia and Germany. The easternmost edge of the West. All right, but which nations do we mean? Does it include the three Baltic countries? And what about Romania, tugged toward the East by the Orthodox Church, toward the West by its Romance language? Or Austria, which for a long while represented the political center of that ensemble? Austrian writers are studied exclusively in the context of Germany, and would not be pleased (nor would I be, if I were one of them) to find themselves returned to that multilingual hodgepodge that is Central Europe. And, anyhow, have all those nations shown any clear and enduring wish to form a common grouping? Not at all. For a few centuries, most of them did belong to a large state, the Hapsburg Empire, which in the end they wished only to flee.
All these comments relativize the import of the Central Europe notion, demonstrate its vague and approximate nature, but at the same time clarify it. Is it true that the borders of Central Europe are impossible to trace in any exact, lasting way? It is indeed! Those nations have never been masters of either their own destinies or their borders. They have rarely been the subjects of history but almost always its objects. Their unity was unintentional. They were kin to one another not through will, not through fellow-feeling or linguistic proximity, but by reason of similar experience, of common historical situations that brought them together, at different times, in different configurations, and within shifting, never definitive borders.
Central Europe cannot be reduced to “Mitteleuropa” (I never use the term), as it is called, even in non-Germanic tongues, by people who know it only through the window of Vienna; it is polycentric, and looks different seen from Warsaw, from Budapest, or from Zagreb. But from whatever perspective one looks at it a common history emerges: through the Czech window I see, in the mid-fourteenth century, the first Central European university, in Prague; in the fifteenth century I see the Hussite revolution foreshadowing the Reformation; in the seventeenth century I see the Hapsburg Empire gradually constructing itself out of Bohemia, Hungary, Austria; I see the wars that, over two centuries, would defend the West against the Turkish invasion; I see the CounterReformation, with the flowering of Baroque art that would stamp an architectural unity on the whole of that vast territory, right up to the Baltic countries.
The nineteenth century triggered patriotism in all those peoples who refused to let themselves be assimilated; that is to say, Germanized. Even the Austrians, despite their dominant position within the empire, could not avoid having to choose between their Austrian identity and membership in the great German entity in which they would be dissolved. And how can we not mention Zionism, also born in Central Europe of that same refusal to assimilate, that same desire of a people—the Jews—to live as a nation with their own language? One of Europe’s fundamental problems, the problem of the small nations, is nowhere else manifested in so revelatory, so focussed, and so exemplary a way.
In the twentieth century, after the First World War, several independent states rose from the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, and thirty years later all of them but Austria found themselves under Russian domination: a situation utterly unprecedented in all of Central European history! There followed a long period of anti-Soviet revolts: in Poland, in bloodied Hungary, then in Czechoslovakia, and again in Poland, at length and powerfully. To my mind, there is nothing more admirable in the Europe of the second half of the twentieth century than that golden chain of revolts, which, over forty years, eroded the empire of the East, made it ungovernable, and tolled the death knell of its reign.
THE CONTRASTING PATHS OF THE MODERNIST REVOLT
I don’t believe that universities will ever teach the history of Central Europe as a separate discipline; in the dormitory of the hereafter, Jan Hus will always be breathing the same Slavic exhalations as Ivan the Terrible. In fact, would I myself ever have made use of the notion of Central Europe, and so tenaciously, if I had not been rocked by the political drama of my native land? Surely not. There are words drowsing in the mist that, at the right moment, rush to our aid. Merely by being defined, the concept of Central Europe unmasked the lie of Yalta, that deal-making among the three victors of the war, who shifted the age-old boundary between the European East and West several hundred kilometres over to the west.
The notion of Central Europe came to my aid on another occasion, too, this time for reasons having nothing to do with politics; it happened when I began to marvel at the fact that the terms “novel,” “modern art,” and “modern novel” meant something other for me than for my French friends. It was not a disagreement; it was, quite modestly, the recognition of a difference between the two traditions that had shaped us. Our two cultures rose up before me, in a rapid historical panorama, as nearly symmetrical antitheses. In France: classicism, rationalism, the libertine spirit, and then, in the nineteenth century, the era of the great novel. In Central Europe: the reign of an especially ecstatic strain of Baroque art and then, in the nineteenth century, the moralizing idyllicism of Biedermeier, the great Romantic poetry, and very few great novels. Central Europe’s matchless strength lay in its music, which, from Haydn to Schoenberg, from Liszt to Bartók, over the course of two centuries embraced in itself all the essential trends in European music; Central Europe staggered beneath the glory of its music.
What was “modern art,” that intriguing storm of the first third of the twentieth century? A radical revolt against the aesthetic of the past; that is obvious, of course, except that the pasts were not alike. In France, modern art—anti-rationalist, anti-classicist, anti-realist, anti-naturalist—extended the great lyrical rebellion of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. It found its privileged expression in painting and, above all, in poetry, which was its chosen art. The novel, by contrast, was anathematized (most notably by the Surrealists); it was considered outmoded, forever sealed in its conventional form. In Central Europe, the situation was different: opposition to the ecstatic, romantic, sentimental musical tradition led the modernism of a few geniuses, the most original ones, toward the art that is the privileged sphere of analysis, lucidity, irony; that is, toward the novel.
MY GREAT PLEIADES
In Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” (1930-43), Clarisse and Walter play four-hand piano, “unloosed like two locomotives hurtling along side by side.” “Seated on their small stools, they were irritated, amorous, or sad about nothing, or perhaps each of them about something separate,” and only “the authority of the music joined them together. . . . There was between them a fusion of the kind that occurs in great public panics, where hundreds of people who an instant earlier differed in every way make the same motions, utter the same mindless cries, gape wide their eyes and mouths.” They took “those turbulent seethings, those emotional surges from the innermost being—that is to say, that vague turmoil of the soul’s bodily understructures—to be the language of the eternal by which all men can be united.”
This ironic comment is aimed not only at music; it goes deeper, to music’s lyrical essence, to that bewitchment which feeds festivals and massacres alike and turns individuals into ecstatic mobs. Musil’s exasperation with the lyrical reminds me of Kafka, who, in his novels, abhors any emotional gesticulation (this sets him radically apart from the German Expressionists) and who, as he said himself, wrote “Amerika” in opposition to “style overflowing with feeling”; Kafka thereby reminds me of Broch, who was allergic to “the spirit of opera,” especially to the opera of Wagner (that Wagner so adored by Baudelaire, by Proust), which he called the very model of kitsch (a “genius kitsch,” he said); and Broch thereby reminds me of Gombrowicz, who, in his famous text “Against Poets,” is reacting both to the deep-rooted Romanticism of Polish literature and to the view of poetry as the untouchable goddess of Western modernism.
Kafka, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz . . . Did they make up a group, a school, a movement? No; they were all solitaries. I have often called them “the Pleiades of Central Europe’s great novelists,” and, indeed, like the stars in the constellation, each of them was surrounded by empty space, each of them distant from the others. It seemed all the more remarkable that their work should express a similar aesthetic orientation: they were all poets of the novel, which is to say, people impassioned by the form and by its newness; concerned for the intensity of each word, each phrase; seduced by the imagination seeking to move beyond the borders of “realism” but at the same time impervious to seduction by the lyrical; hostile to the transformation of the novel into personal confession; allergic to the ornamentalization of prose; entirely focussed on the real world. They, all of them, conceived the novel to be a great antilyrical poetry.
KITSCH AND VULGARITY
The word “kitsch” was born in Munich in the mid-nineteenth century; it describes the syrupy dregs of the great Romantic period. But Broch, who saw the connection between Romanticism and kitsch as one of inverse proportions, may have come closer to the truth: according to him, kitsch was the dominant style of the nineteenth century (in Germany and in Central Europe), with a few great Romantic works standing out from it as phenomena of exception. People who experienced the secular tyranny of kitsch (an opera-tenor kind of tyranny) felt particular irritation at the rosy veil thrown over reality, at the immodest exhibition of hearts forever deeply moved, at the “bread drenched in perfume” that Musil speaks of. Kitsch long ago became a very precise concept in Central Europe, where it represents the supreme aesthetic evil.
I do not suspect the French modernists of having succumbed to the lure of sentimentality and pomp; but, without a long exposure to kitsch, they had not had occasion to develop a hypersensitive aversion to it. Only in 1960, thus a hundred years after it had appeared in Germany, was the word “kitsch” first used in France; yet the French translators of Broch’s essays, in 1966, and of Hannah Arendt, in 1972, both still avoided the term and instead used the translation “art de pacotille” (cheap art), thereby rendering incomprehensible their authors’ thinking.
Rereading Stendhal’s “Lucien Leuwen,” with its fashionable drawing-room conversations, I pause over the key words that capture the various attitudes of the participants: vanité, vulgaire, esprit (wit—“that vitriolic acid eating at everything”), ridicule, politesse (“infinite manners, no feeling”), bien-pensant(right thinking). And I ask myself, What is the French word that expresses the worst aesthetic reprobation the way the notion of kitsch expresses it for me? It finally comes to me: it is the word vulgaire, vulgarité. “M. Du Poirier was a creature of the utmost vulgarity, a man who seemed proud of his crass, overfamiliar ways; thus does a pig wallow in mud with a kind of voluptuous pleasure that is insolent toward the spectator.”
Scorn for the vulgar inhabited the drawing rooms of Stendhal’s time just as it does today’s. To recall its etymology: “vulgar” comes from vulgus, “people”; “vulgar” is what pleases the people. A democrat, a man of the left, a battler for human rights, is obliged to love the people, but he is free to disdain it haughtily for what he finds vulgar.
After Sartre had cast political anathema upon Camus, and after the Nobel Prize had brought jealousy and hatred down on him, Camus felt very uncomfortable among the Paris intellectuals. I am told that he was further distressed by the label of “vulgarity” that was attached to him personally: his lowly origins, his illiterate mother; his situation as a pied noir (a Frenchman from Algeria) sympathetic to other pieds noirs—people so “overfamiliar” (so “crass”); the lightweight philosophy of his essays; and so on. Reading the articles in which such lynching occurred, I note this passage: Camus is “a peasant dressed up in his Sunday best, . . . a man of the people with his gloves in his hand and his hat still on his head, stepping for the first time into the drawing room. The other guests turn away, they know whom they are dealing with.” The metaphor is eloquent. Not only did Camus not know what he was supposed to think (he disparaged progress and sympathized with the Algerian French) but, graver yet, he behaved awkwardly in the drawing room (in the actual or figurative sense): he was vulgar.
In France there is no harsher aesthetic reprobation than this. Reprobation that is sometimes justified but that sometimes also strikes at the best: At Rabelais. And at Flaubert. “The primary characteristic of ‘Sentimental Education,’ ” the famous writer Barbey d’Au-revilly said, on its publication, “is vulgarity, first and foremost. . . . In our view, the world already has enough vulgar folk, vulgar minds, vulgar things, without further adding to the overwhelming number of these disgusting vulgarities.”
I recall the early weeks of my emigration. As Stalinism had already been unanimously condemned, people readily understood the tragedy the Russian occupation meant for my country, and they saw me as wrapped in an aura of respectable sadness. I remember sitting at a bar with a Parisian intellectual who had given me much support and help. It was our first meeting in Paris, and I could see grand words hovering in the air above us: persecution, gulag, freedom, banishment from the homeland, courage, resistance, totalitarianism, police terror. Eager to drive off the kitsch of those solemn spectres, I started describing how the fact of being followed, of having police microphones in our apartments, had taught us the delectable art of the hoax. A friend and I had switched apartments, and names as well; he, a big womanizer who was regally indifferent to the microphones, had pulled off some of his finest exploits in my studio. Given that the trickiest moment in any amorous adventure is the breakup, my emigration worked out perfectly for him: one fine day the girls and the ladies arrived to find the apartment locked and my name gone from the door, while I was sending off little farewell cards from Paris, with my own signature, to seven women I had never seen.
I’d meant to amuse this man, who was dear to me, but his face gradually darkened until finally he said, with the sound of the guillotine blade dropping, “I don’t find that funny.” We remained friendly, but we were never friends. The memory of our first encounter serves as a key to understanding our long-unacknowledged difference. What held us apart was the clash of two aesthetic attitudes: the man allergic to kitsch collides with the man allergic to vulgarity.
“One must be absolutely modern,” Arthur Rimbaud wrote. Some sixty years later, Gombrowicz was not so sure. In “Ferdydurke,” the Youngblood family is dominated by the daughter, a “modern high-school girl.” She is mad for the telephone; she disdains the classical authors; when a gentleman comes to call she “merely looks at him and, sticking a small wrench between her teeth with her right hand, offers him her left with total nonchalance.”
Her mother is modern, too: she works with a “Committee for the Protection of Newborns,” is active against the death penalty and for civil liberties; “ostentatiously offhand, she sets out for the toilet” and emerges from it “prouder than she went in”; as she grows older, modernity becomes the more indispensable to her as the sole “substitute for youth.”
And Papa? He, too, is modern; he thinks nothing but does everything to please his daughter and his wife.
In “Ferdydurke,” Gombrowicz got at the fundamental shift that occurred during the twentieth century: until then, mankind was divided in two—those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. Then History began to accelerate: whereas, in the past, man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk; the status quo was in motion! All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which meant that a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and a rebel, at the same time!
When Camus was attacked as a reactionary by Sartre and his bunch, he got off the famous remark about people who had “merely set down their armchair in the direction of History”; Camus was right, but he did not know that the precious chair was on wheels, and that for some time already everyone had been pushing it forward—the modern high-school girls, their mamas and their papas, as well as all the activists against the death penalty and all the members of the Committee for the Protection of Newborns and, of course, all the politicians, who, as they pushed the chair along, kept their laughing faces turned to the public running along behind them and also laughing, knowing very well that only a person who delights in being modern is genuinely modern.
It was then that a certain number of Rimbaud’s heirs grasped this extraordinary thing: today, the only modernism worthy of the name is antimodern modernism. ♦
(Translated, from the French, by Linda Asher.)
Credits: This article originally appear in 2007 in The New Yorker.