David Kordahl

Kundera Would Hate This

In Internet, Lit on 2010/11/29 at 4:37 am

First, the offending quote: “Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”

The above impertinence comes from the novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by the Czech émigré Milan Kundera. I came upon this quote in college, during a phase of reading the Great Metafictionalists, and until today, it’s all I remembered of the passage from which it’s lifted. Although I haven’t followed Kundera’s recent work very closely, I remember being so impressed by the book’s ambitious mingling of tropes—a paragraph of history following an imposition of fiction chasing a rumination on philosophy—that I was quick to forgive any disagreements I held against its fundamental tenets. With the start of a project like the Homing Pigeon Experience, however, I decided to reread his objections against self-expression for the Common-Man—a Common-Man who, unfortunately, probably looks at least a little like me.

The argument, if it can be called that, comes in fits and starts, buried as it is in polyphonic prose that uses the situations of individual characters to rub resonances into the bluntly stated conjectures. Since as a Common-Man I owe Kundera (a literary superstar and Nobel-shortlister) little fairness, I’m not even going to mention the frame stories. Cut straight to the didacticism: in Part Four, Lost Letters, the narrator—who I’m perhaps unfairly conflating directly with the Real Kundera—says that it’s the essence of the Writer to have a desire to define his universe completely, to bar all outside sources from competing with the truth of the created world inside his books. This is why, when he observes a “mass epidemic” of graphomania (which he idiosyncratically defines as an “obsession with writing books,” the obsession “to have a public of unknown readers”), he deems it enormously pernicious:

”If general isolation causes graphomania, mass graphomania itself reinforces and aggravates the feeling of general isolation. The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”

So despite his personal graphomania (as demonstrated obviously by the fact of the book’s existence as an object in the reader’s hand), Kundera allows that a mass generalization of his own personality traits might culminate in an apocalyptic conclusion—the future of “universal deafness and lack of understanding” of the opening quote.

Now, the most obvious tack might be to attack Cranky Old Kundera as a guy who doesn’t (didn’t) get it, who circa 1978 couldn’t possibly have understood all the Web 2.0 interactivity that the future media would bring, but in terms of mass communications, I’m not sure he’s so wrong. How many times have we all read in the comments sections below newspaper articles statements beginning with the modifier, “I haven’t read the article yet, BUT…”? Kundera—who, don’t get me wrong, is cranky (see, e.g., “Beauty has long since disappeared. It slipped beneath the surface of the noise—the noise of words, the noise of cars, the noise of music, the noise of signs—we live in constantly. It has sunk as deep as Atlantis,” a quote that I’m not even taking all that far out of context)–might have thought that it was going to be an overpopulation of books that would drown meaningful discussion, but it’s hard to pretend that history hasn’t come up with a viable substitute. I know that I’m not innocent of lazily gazing into my computer monitor, clicking on random hyper-links in an attempt to find some stimulation, somewhere, that will take me away from the mental strain that work requires of me. If you’re going to tell me that the general tenor of Big Media has grown progressively more elevated since the rise of the Internet, then I’ll be aware that anything could be in store for the rest of the conversation—from black holes in Bermuda to the spiritual sustenance of a Palinite Twitter feed.

And yet…and yet…surely he doth protest too much. When I first read Kundera’s objection, my immediate response was, Geez, what a snob. Why should I read his writing?, and that response still makes some sense to me. Perhaps the response to Kundera should be the natural response of the Common-Man to the self-proclaimed Writer: a pat on the head, accompanied by an admission of, “Purty interesting, though.” What I’ve come to know is that one needn’t arrive at the same conclusions as a Writer to find his works both instructive and satisfying. (See Sontag for more on this.)


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