The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Designed in Cuba: Cold War Graphics @ the House of Illustration

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary 26th of July Movement and its allies defeated the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in January 1959. The new revolutionary government enacted a wide array of new domestic laws and policies, but Castro always saw the revolution in Cuba as just the beginning of the liberation of the oppressed masses in not just Latin America but war-torn Africa and around the world, wherever the poor and downtrodden were oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial masters.

OSPAAAL

And so the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (in Spanish the Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina – abbreviated to OSPAAAL) was set up to fight globalisation, imperialism, neoliberalism and defend human rights, in Havana, in January 1966, after the Tricontinental Conference, a meeting of over 500 delegates and 200 observers from over 82 countries.

One of the first things the organisation did was establish a magazine to publicise its causes and titled Tricontinental. From 1966 into the 1990s more than fifty designers working in Havana produced hundreds of posters and editions of the magazine which expressed solidarity with the U.S.A.’s Black Panther Party, condemned apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam War, and celebrated Latin America’s revolutionary icons, as well as criticising the ongoing existence of U.S. military bases in Guantanamo Bay, calling for the reunification of North and South Korea and many other radical causes.

The exhibition includes some 33 of the total of 50 or so artists and designers who worked for OSPAAAL, including leading lights such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Helena Serrano, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila.

Unlike artists in the Soviet bloc the OSPAAAL designers weren’t shackled by the deeply conservative doctrine of Socialist Realism, but were free to pick and choose from all the best streams of current art, including Pop Art and psychedelia. They also co-opted images and ideas from capitalist adverts into what they called ‘anti-ads’.

The plan was for the posters to be stapled into copies of Tricontinental, and so distributed around the world. Because the posters were intended to be internationalist they had to use strong primal languages or find inventive ways of conveying their message. If any writing was used it was generally in the three major languages of Spanish, English, French, and sometimes Arabic.

By the mid-1980s heavy trade embargos and sanctions imposed by American had created such shortages that it ultimately forced the organization out of production. By that time approximately 326 OSPAAAL posters had been produced.

Altogether it’s estimated that some nine million OPSAAAL posters were distributed around the developing world. At its peak the magazine had more than 100,000 subscribers, mostly students. At one time, it was common for posters from issues of Tricontinental to be put up on the walls of student community centres.

This exhibition brings together 170 works (100 posters and 70 magazines) produced by 33 OSPAAAL designers, created between 1965 and 1992, which are not only striking and dramatic art works in their own right but shed unexpected insights onto the long history of the Cold War.

The Mike Stanfield Collection

While originally distributed freely in editions of thousands, OSPAAAL posters and magazines are now rare and highly sought-after. The works in the exhibition are all drawn from a single UK private collection – The Mike Stanfield Collection, the largest collection of OSPAAAL material in the world, gathered by British collector Mike Stanfield over a 25-year period. Every work in the exhibition is drawn from his collection.

Posters

The poster designers used every trick in the toolbox of capitalist advertising plus a lot more they invented. The diversity and inventiveness of approaches is astonishing. Obviously the cause, the fundamental political aim of the posters, was deadly serious – but this didn’t stop them using scathing satire to make their points.

And above all they didn’t limit themselves to one aesthetic but seized an extraordinary freedom to experiment, with the result that you see everything from bold typography and photomontage to psychedelic colours and pop culture-inspired graphics, iconic modern imagery or ancient native objects pressed into service, silhouettes, psychedelic reverberating, cartoons and biting satire.

Cuba

The first edition of Tricontinental included an article by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and a folded poster by Alfredo Rostgard, thus inaugurating its two-pronged approach to radical propaganda: text for those who could read, stirring images for those who couldn’t.

Che Guevara (1969) © Alfredo G. Rostgaard, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

It’s almost too obvious to point out but, in the Soviet bloc, the canon of revolutionary heroes from Marx through Lenin, Stalin on down, were all portrayed in real, or heroically socialist realist style. It takes a moment’s reflection to realise how utterly unlike that dull stifling tradition the OPSAAAL images are, freely taking from contemporary pop and op art and psychedelic art.

Africa

The designers were tasked with distilling complex anti-colonial conflicts down into simple but striking images, symbols which would require little or no explanation. This image of African women in traditional costume and carrying their babies in baby-carriers is made vivid and powerful by the addition of the semi-automatic rifles slung over their other shoulders.

The all-consuming nature of the struggle, the need to balance ordinary life with the struggle, the empowered role of women in the struggle, and the lack of facial features indicating that these are just two out of millions and millions anonymous fighters across the continent, are all brilliantly conveyed.

After Emory Douglas (1968) © Lízaro Abreu Padron, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Apartheid

Apartheid was a sore on the conscience of the world throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of the OPSAAAL posters were simple images of oppression. This is unusual in being a more narrative image, with its four pictures showing the progressive, and inevitable, collapse of the repressive regime. Note the use of the four cardinal languages, Spanish, English, French and Arabic.

Day of Solidarity with the Struggle of the People of South Africa (1974) Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Asia

The Vietnam War came to symbolise neo-imperialist Western super-violence against nationalist independence struggles and crystallised America’s reputation as the great enemy of freedom for many Third World countries.

This clever poster shows the word Saigon slowly morphing from being dominated by the Stars and Stripes to bearing the flag of the communist North, suggesting that the rebels would win in the end. As they did.

Saigon, International Week of Solidarity with Vietnam (1970) © Rene Mederos Pazos, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Anti-America

Cuba is just 90 miles from the American mainland.

From the moment Castro’s revolution succeeded, the Americans tried to overthrow it. In 1961 they launched the embarrassing Bay of Pigs invasion which ended in humiliation, but continued making intermittent attempts to assassinate Castro, as well as imposing crippling sanctions on its tiny neighbour.

In response Cuba helped to focus the world’s attention on America as the heartland of neo-colonial oppression. Some of the most powerful images in the exhibition distort and subvert imagery and symbols central to American culture, such as the Great Seal, the Bald Eagle, the Statue of Liberty or, as here, Uncle Sam himself, zapped by the power of the World Revolution.

World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution (1980) © Victor Manuel Navarrete, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Using native cultural heritage

As a way into contemporary liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia or the Far East, some OPSAAAL designers had the idea of taking traditional indigenous artefacts and giving them a modern spin, mostly putting a machine gun in their hands. Some of these aboriginal peoples also represented the very first resisters to the colonial oppression which their distant descendants were now fighting against.

This approach tapped into nationalist feelings in the respective countries, and also made contemporary protesters feel, or realise, that they were in fact part of a long, long lineage of resistance and protest. The ten or so images which used old imagery like this were among my favourites.

Guatemala (1968) © Olivio Martinez Viera, OSPAAAL. The Mike Stanfield Collection

Magazine covers

To some extent the designers’ style was dictated by a shortage of materials, including good quality paper and printing ink, embargoed by the United States. This encouraged the designers to eschew subtlety in shade and contour and favour high-contrast photography and large areas of clearly defined colour. Tricontinental’s often starkly simple covers were printed in four colours by offset lithography.

Anti-America

Although little Cuba suffered badly from American sanctions, during the 60s and 70s there were many radical American supporters of the revolution. The San Francisco-based People’s Press published a North American edition if Tricontinental, and images created by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party newspaper were adapted for use by OPSAAAL.

There are posters here supporting the imprisoned black activist Angela Carter, as well as memorials for various black radicals shot or imprisoned in America. But in a way, it was the imaginative symbols of American oppression which make the most impact.

Tricontinental magazine 33

Anti-apartheid

Apartheid was in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. It was only the most extreme version of institutionalised white racism, which also included the segregation laws in America, so vehemently protested by the Civil Rights Movement.

For me the OPSAAAL posters and Tricontinental cover art are at their best when they embody a really strong design idea, as in this simple but scathing image, a piece of Pop Art collage used to withering effect.

Tricontinental 76

Thoughts

1. Taken together they make up a fascinating review of visual styles and approaches available to political poster makers in the late 60s and 70s. In many ways the magazine covers are even more inventive and biting than the posters. Lots and lots of them have a really strong visual and intellectual impact, like the image – blown up, here, into a wall-sized hanging – of an American astronaut reaching out to the moon while standing on the backs of two prone African Americans.

2. It’s a reminder of just how much conflict there was around in the world in the 1970s when I grew up, with military dictatorships running most of South America, with colonialist regimes and apartheid South Africa still repressing millions of Africans, while millions of others were caught up in brutal civil wars, and then topping everything the nightmare of Vietnam which was promptly followed by the living hell of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

When you factor in that half of Europe was under Communist tyranny and there was an endless diet of scares about whether this or that incident might trigger World War Three, the world I grew up in seemed a much more violent and dangerous place than it does today.

3. This is embodied in the way there are so many guns in the posters. Almost all the native artefacts-updated ones simply put guns in the hands of tribal gods. In the last room in particular, almost every poster seemed to feature a man or woman or sometimes an inanimate object, holding a sub-machinegun. Stepping back from the rights and wrongs of the causes, the final room in particular gave me a claustrophobic sense of violence and fighting going on in every part of the world.

That’s maybe the main feeling the exhibition gave to me, but other visitors will find their own threads and meanings. Above all I defy you not to be thrilled by the sheer inventiveness and exuberance of so many of the works on display.

Installation view of Designed in Cuba at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

And it’s worth pointing out that the curators of the exhibition flew to Cuba specially to interview the surviving OPSAAAL designers and that the exhibition includes the resulting video, in which leading designers such as Alfredo Rostgaard, Rafael Enríquez and Gladys Acosta Ávila explain at length their motivation and approach, the design ideas and technical constraints, which lay behind the Tricontinental phenomenon.

This is another brilliantly conceived and beautifully laid out exhibition from the House of Illustration.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin (1974)

This is a good, deep and thoughtful novel even if, in the end, you disagree with some of its ideas and aims.

It is a) set in the far future, b) in a solar system far, far away, and c) starts off as a variation on the age-old science fiction theme of the innocent who arrives in a new world / new civilisation, notes the myriad of ways in which it is different from his home country / civilisation, and then slowly realises he is a pawn in a murky geopolitical power-play.

At various moments it reminded me of some of the earliest science novels such as Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy in which a sleeper wakes into a drastically changed human society and spends the rest of the book being lectured about the badness of the bad old days, or HG Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes where a Victorian man wakes in the far future to discover not only that an entire cult has built up around him, but that society is fiercely divided into haves and have-nots and his very awakening triggers a violent revolt by the underclass.

In this novel a naive idealist goes to a more sophisticated future culture and finds himself triggering a major revolt of the long-suffering underclass, which is put down with bloody violence. So at moments I had a strong sense of deja vu.

Urras and Anarres

In this variation of the theme, there are two sister planets, apparently of the ‘Cetian’ system, named Urras and Anarres, which (seem to) orbit each other and so appear as each other’s moons.

Both are occupied by human-type entities, who in fact refer to themselves as Mankind. (There are teasing references to two other planets beyond the immediate system, Haina and Terra, the latter presumably being ‘our’ Earth: only towards the very end of the book do we learn – from the Terran ambassador no less – that Terra is indeed our earth, that it is eleven light years from Tau Ceti, that humanity almost destroyed itself and has ravaged Earth’s environment, and was only saved by the arrival of the more advanced Hainish. There is some intriguing speculation that at some point in the remote past all these planets were colonised by humanoids – which would include Earth, p.119.)

Anyway, these are just intriguing grace-notes of the kind science fiction writers love teasing their readers with and science fiction readers love working up into elaborate theories.

More central to the story is that 170 years before it begins, technology on Urras led to the development of spaceships which could voyage to its ‘moon’, Anarres. The first arrivals were disappointed to discover the supposedly green planet was in fact a mostly windswept desert of dust, where only rare regions had even low-lying trees, where there were no birds or land animals, for life was still at the fish stage.

Initially, the Urrasti mined the new planet, sending back metals and petroleum which had become rare on Urras due to over-development. But some kind of social revolution was taking place on Urras, led by a woman philosopher and social reformer named Odo. Odo developed a pacifist, anarchist, communitarian, vegetarian, holistic philosophy in several books – the Prison Letters and the Analogy (p.74) – and her teachings spread, threatening to undermine the materialist Urrasti way of life, leading to ‘the Insurrection’ in the year 747. (Odo had a husband, mentioned once, Aseio, p.157)

And so the authorities – ‘the Council of World Governments’ (CWG) – on Urras realised a clever way to square the circle would be to pack off the entire sect of ‘Odonians’ to their ‘moon’, where they could put all their utopian visions into practice, and also continue to provide the raw materials Urras required.

And so, over a course of 20 years, some million Odonians were ferried up to Anarres, at first settling what became the capital city, Abbenay (which means Mind in the new language they began to use), slowly moving out to colonise the other regions (and discovering just how barren and inhospitable Anerras is).

Shevek

And it’s at this point that the narrative opens, focusing on the experiences of the young Anarresti physicist, Shevek. It opens with Shevek boarding one of the rare (only ten or so a year) cargo flights which travel from Anerras back to the ‘mother’ planet, Urras. The populations of the two planets remain in touch, but – as you might expect – as their social systems, languages and customs have diverged, so suspicion and reserve have arisen on both sides. (In fact, again only towards the end of the book, we learn that the emigration involved signing certain Terms of Settlement which mandated that no Urrasti were allowed off their occasional cargo ships.)

The narrative proceeds by alternating chapters describing Shevek’s arrival on Urras, with others giving flashbacks to his childhood, boyhood, and young manhood on his home planet. This sounds like a gimmick but it works wonderfully well, in the second half of the novel the alternating timezones create a powerful rhythm and create a deepening emotional connection with the supremely clever but naive, idealistic and yet troubled Shevek.

In other ways, it is is slowly, through the slow revelation of Shevek’s backstory and experiences, that the book reveals its depths.

Initially, we are led to believe that Anarresti society is a Utopia – a non-materialistic, communal society, where there is so little personal property that there aren’t even personal pronouns (no ‘my’, ‘your’, ‘his’ or ‘her’s), where children are raised communally, where everyone works voluntarily and eats freely from the communal refectories, there is no profit motive and no power complexes, in fact no government, just ‘syndicates’ which specialise in particular areas of work, and a central administration of the division of labour (DivLab) which uses computers to organise the population’s work rotas.

‘We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners.’

If they are mostly brain workers, then every tenthday (they don’t have seven-day weeks, they have ten-day ‘decads’) they will be rotated to some kind of manual labour. They speak Pravic, a language invented to be rational and without all the words for possession, ownership and exploitation. Anyone beginning to display such tendencies is (mildly) criticised for being a ‘propertarian’, or told to ‘stop egoising’ and put the community first.

The sexes (there are two sexes, named men and women) are completely equal, participate equally in work and decision making and scientific study etc, and sex is easy and casually available as and when couples feel the need, with no shame or taboos. If couples partner up, fine, if they break up, fine, just as Shevek’s parents split up when he was small, and he was brought up in a communal centre.

Because Anarres is relatively impoverished, there is no waste and everyone lives frugally. Because there are no land animals, everyone is vegetarian.

In other words, Anarres – at least to start with – has very much the feel of a hippy Utopia circa 1974.

Shevek on Urras

When Shevek arrives by rocket on the mother planet Urras – heralded as ‘the first visitor from the moon in 170 years’ – he of course discovers that, although its inhabitants have more goods and services, their society is unrecognisably different from his communal homeland. Urrastis are ‘propertarians’, society is ruled by the profit motive, everyone has titles and formal terms of address (unlike the simple one-word names of Anerras which, we learn, are allotted by computer).

The first time he is taken to the two-mile-long shopping street – Saemtenevia Prospect in the capital city, Nio Esseia (p.110) – Shevek is made physically ill by the excess and the waste.

And so on. As is standard with this kind of ‘innocent abroad’ narrative, we are made to see the corruption, waste and greed of our own wretched capitalist system via a description of a supposedly ‘fantasy’ civilisation as seen through the eyes of an archetypal outsider.

As well as the fondness for titles and possessive pronouns, Shevek discovers (i.e. Le Guin satirises) various other aspects of Urrasti-American culture. Shevek discovers that women on Urras are second-class citizens, very much confined to the home as housewives, and banned from the university, which he finds unnerving and bizarre.

He can’t believe the staggering scale of the conspicuous consumption, the myriads of different clothes, along with the numerous forms of address and politeness, none of which exist on simple, honest Anerras.

He is appalled at the way everything is packaged and wrapped, even the wrapping paper is wrapped in wrapping paper. Waste upon waste.

He goes to the theatre and doesn’t understand the play which is full of snide references to copulation which never actually mention the fact; everyone titters and guffaws but he doesn’t understand their hypocritical shying away from the basic facts of life.

He goes to a museum and is appalled by all the relics of bloodthirsty barbarity it contains.

Shevek the physicist

The institution of the University looms large and makes me realise I haven’t yet explained that, as well as some trade between the two planets, there is also intellectual exchange, and that Shevek is an intellectual prodigy.

The descriptions of his childhood are used to explain Anerras’ utopian social structure to us, but also to bring out Shevek’s unique vision, his intellectual precocity. We are shown Shevek quickly outdoing his college teachers, one of whom in particular – the sneaky Sabul –  suffers from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the much better-endowed intellectuals of the richer, larger mother planet, and so sends some of Shevek’s graduate work back to academics on Urras.

It is this – Shevek’s intellectual promise – which leads to the invitation from leading academic figures on Urras to visit them, to take a rocket journey back to the home planet, and to the extended passages where the disorientated visitor is shown round this brave new world by his hosts – all this allowing Le Guin to make her points about the unattractiveness of materialism, capitalism, conspicuous consumption, the oppression of women which this simple, honest, open man is introduced to.

Politics

But again, as you might well expect for this kind of storyline, there is trouble in paradise. We slowly learn that Urras is divided between two power blocs, the runaway capitalism and conspicuous consumption of A-Io, and a rival state named Thu, an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Ring any bells? It would have done in 1974, when this aspect of the story would have been an obvious reference to the way the world was divided between two rival superpowers, super-capitalist USA, and the ruthlessly authoritarian Soviet Union which practiced every kind of tyrannical practice in the name of the ‘proletariat’.

It turns out that the scientists – and so the political leaders – of A-Io and Thu have both realised that Shevek’s physics is teetering on the brink of a major breakthrough in the understanding of spacetime, a new theory called ‘transilience’ which could, potentially, lead to the development of vastly more powerful forms of instantaneous communication and maybe transportation across stellar distances.

Thus, as you might have predicted, on one level the novel turns into a kind of Cold War thriller, in which Shevek – who had naively come back to the mother planet seeking to establish ‘brotherhood’ and a new understanding (p.121) – slowly realises that his smiling, obliging hosts in A-Io are after his knowledge, but so are agents of Thu who have been sent to ingratiate themselves with him, namely Dr Chifoilisk who tries to persuade him that Thuvians are revolutionaries, like the Odonians. He becomes a pawn in the power politics of Anerras.

Indeed, Shevek eventually becomes so disillusioned that he throws in his lot with the inevitable ‘underground’ movement, getting in touch with them in their haunts on the derelict Old Town part of the capital city, and becoming the symbolic figurehead of an immense protest march of the underclass which wins through the city streets to the Capitol Square, where Shevek makes an inspiring speech about brotherhood and solidarity just before state security helicopters open fire on the crowd, massacring unarmed women and children, and Shevek makes a getaway, helping a mortally wounded man to a hideaway in a derelict warehouse where he stays with the man till he dies of blood loss and shock.

This as well, reads like an only slightly paranoid version of the police state many liberals thought America was in danger of becoming in the final stages of the Vietnam War, with mass civil disobedience leading to atrocities by the National Guard.

From that point onwards Shevek freely expresses his disgust with Urras:

‘There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and a wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is `superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box – Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man.’

Utopia and universities

In the preface to this novel, Le Guin explains how she came across anarchist writings, for example of Kropotkin, and found these a more attractive alternative to the more authoritarian Marxism as, indeed, many well-heeled bourgeois academics and writers have. How wonderful to live in a world with no bosses, no state and where everyone co-operates willingly for the common good!

And, at least to begin with, the description of the utopian arrangements on Anerras for work or sex or education or relationships or family or farming or building and so on come across as idyllically simple and fair and soul-building, allowing each to contribute to society voluntarily, how and as and when they wish.

And it is a central flaw or issue with the book that virtually all the characters are intellectuals: Shevek’s school and college career leads straight into a job in the university (though with breaks for quite demanding manual labour); his wife Takver is also an academic, a marine biologist; their friends are writers or fellow intellectuals, and they are all shown having extended arguments about the soul of man, and justice, and property and ownership and communal living and so on. And when he arrives on Urras it is to join the faculty of the famous Ieu Eun university and mix with, yes, more lecturers and professors who spend all their time talking about society and justice and so on.

In fact, although it is regarded as a masterpiece of science fiction, The Disposessed could be considered a sort of campus novel, a tale of two university campuses, and all its lead characters are almost exclusively academics.

He crossed the campus on his way to a lecture. (p.171)

Because Shevek is a young man finding his way in the central chapters about his life on Anerras (aged 24 on p.156 as he falls in love with the marine biologist) and because so much of the book has the feel of an undergraduate debating society, it is a surprise to learn that he has just turned 40 at the point where he decides to take the fateful trip to Urras, and has – by that point – spent over ten years working on the problem of Simultaneity – the General Theory of Temporality.

Towards a subtler picture

The essentially white liberal bourgeois academic milieu and the prolonged and high-minded debates about social organisation and justice sometimes give it the feel not only of a campus novel, but of a very 1970s campus novel, with all the characters, whether radical or reactionary, worrying about the advent of The Revolution as if it’s just around the corner, just the way people used to talk about The Revolution in the 1970s.

And, as mentioned, the book has a lot of rather cliched themes – the innocent traveller to a more corrupt culture and the solitary idealistic figure who becomes the trigger for a violent insurrection.

BUT. But but but… I found the second half of the book steadily improved, grew richer and deeper and – crucially – was less expected and predictable. In the alternating flashback chapters we come to ones which describe a really profound drought which affects Anarres and leads to a disastrous famine. Food is short all over, and Shevek volunteers to go and help with famine relief.

Now we begin to see cracks in the high-minded fabric of the utopia. Now we see people not mucking in together, people behaving selfishly, people trying to protect their own. And, during the extensive description of this time, Le Guin emphasises that the entire communal lifestyle is only possible because it is necessary. Part of the reason there is no conspicuous consumption and waste is because there just aren’t enough resources on Anarres to make very much more than basic recycled cotton clothes, and the dreariest of simple vegetarian diets.

Slowly, in a number of scenes, we come to see that even people raised from childhood in an egalitarian society can become selfish, jealous, snide, threatening and violent, if the circumstances are correct.

These scenes – and the commentary of the characters such as Shevek and his wife and best friends discussing them – are genuinely interesting reflections on human nature in an entirely invented culture and civilisation, coming under pressure.

Keng

Similarly, towards the end of the novel, after the climactic massacre in Capitol Square, Shevek manages to evade the sinister, black-clad security forces, and his friends in the ‘Underground’ smuggle him to the neutral city of Rodarred, where he seeks asylum in the Terran Embassy. (A setting which gives rise to all kinds of intriguing contrasts between the physique of the Anarrasti – big and haired all over – and of the Terrans – slight and smooth). And here he meets the slight, smooth-faced female ambassador whose name, Keng, suggests she is of Chinese ancestry.

Here a number of threads are tied up.

  1. Keng arranges with the authorities of A-Io that Shevek can return to Anarres unharmed (in fact he will be carried there by a ship of the fourth race of humanoid mentioned, the Hainish)
  2. The climax of Shevek’s mission is that he explains that he has developed the theory which could lead to Transilience and a technology of instantaneous communication (it is here we learn from Keng that the planets we’re on are eleven light years from Earth i.e. messages to Terra take at least 11 years there and 11 years back, so instant messaging would transform all the humanoid civilisations). And he asks Keng if she can arrange for the crucial handful of physics equations to be beamed to all the humanoid planets simultaneously, so no one culture gets exclusive use of them.

So they have a fascinating conversation, the slight Terran ambassador and the hulking hairy Anarresti. But what pleased me because it was unexpected and yet seemed psychologically true is that, after Shevek has finished a long speech about how much he now hates and detests Urras and its grotesque capitalist luxury and inequality… what was strangely moving is that the ambassador then makes a speech in which she explains that, from the perspective of the ravaged, ruined Earth, Urras is Paradise!. Sure it has its inequalities and tensions, but her home planet is desolate, barren, a place of ruins and total poverty. At least Urras has life and invention and colour and exuberance.

It’s not a very profound fictional move, but it exemplifies the way this slow-building but eventually wonderful and moving book looks at themes and ideas which, to begin with, seem rather stereotyped and over-familiar, and then subjects them to more penetrating examination than you’re used to in the generally sensationalist genre of science fiction.

Time and meaning

And it’s symptomatic of the way the book leans towards a more ‘serious’ tone and attitude, that the final chapter isn’t triumphalist or doom-laden, it doesn’t end in flames or indeed anything very decisive. Only here, right at the end, do we learn about the opposition stirred up to Shevek’s idea of travelling to Urras among his fellow anarchists and communalists.

Like people everywhere, it turns out that they can be quite as paranoid, suspicious and vindictive as anyone else – Shevek is treated as a traitor, his wife is cold-shouldered at her work, and even their ten-year-old daughter is bullied and victimised at her learning centre.

All this reinforces the metaphysical strand at the heart of the book, that life isn’t a fixed state, happiness isn’t something you achieve and then relax. Life is a continual process, and its meaning derives from the union of past and future in a continual flux.

This issue – the question of the meaning of human existence in an endlessly changing world – maps beautifully onto Shevek’s intellectual concerns as a physicist trying to reconcile two completely different theories of time, he devotes his life to seeking:

the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity in a general field theory of time,

The fact that Le Guin was raised in the home of two successful academics at first glance helps explain the limitations of the novel – as I’ve mentioned – to a cast list mostly made up of academics and intellectuals who spend nearly the whole book having philosophical discussions,

But on the upside, it means that she does manage to capture the feel of academic research, the mundaneness of it. The scene – a sequence of a few days – where Shevek – after a disastrous social outing on Urras where he gets humiliatingly drunk on champagne which he’s never drunk before – tells his servant to close ad lock the doors, allow no-one admission, and then spends day after day sitting at his desk, getting up, walking round, staring out the window and… suddenly sees the solution, the answer, the way to reconcile the two contradictory ways of thinking about and measuring time… this scene for me marvellously captures the joy of silent, entranced, intellectual effort, and its deep rich rewards, as you become aware of your mind unfolding a huge new way of seeing life.

In a smaller but comparable way, it may occur to the reader that, the alternation of the chapters, which alternate between the ‘present’ of the main narrative, and a series of flashbacks – all of which are bound together by a narrative which starts with Shevek leaving his home planet and ends with him returning – in their structure reflect Shevek’s attempt to integrate a linear and a circular theory of time. That the narrative structure in some sense embodies the theory of integrated time which Shevek is working towards…

Conclusion

It’s not a perfect book, and many elements have dated in ways I’ve indicated. But at its core is a really serious attempt to engage with a number of issues – about politics and society, about the possibility of a fair and just civilisation – about the life of the mind – and above all about time and our place in time’s flux – which are rare to encounter in any genre of fiction.

The Dispossessed is not wonderfully written. But it is wonderfully and seriously imagined.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – the florid revenge of Gulliver Foyle, a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport and a terrifying new weapon has been invented
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Edith Tudor-Hart and Wolfgang Suschitzky @ Tate Britain

This is a one-room, FREE display of the wonderfully evocative 1920s and 1930s black-and-white photos of the Jewish émigrés, Edith Tudor-Hart and Wolfgang Suschitzky.

In fact, despite the name difference, they were sister and brother, two Austrian Jews born and raised in Vienna (Edith born 1908, Wolfgang born in 1912), who fled the Nazis, settled in England, and made a major contribution to documentary photography and film in mid-20th century England.

Their father was a social democrat who was born into the Jewish community in Vienna, but had renounced Judaism and become an atheist. He opened the first social democratic bookshop in Vienna and the family home was a meeting place for left-wing intellectuals.

Edith Suschitzky trained in photography at Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus in Dessau by which time she had become a fervent socialist, eventually a communist, and vowed to dedicate her art to documenting the lives of the poor.

A child stares into a Whitechapel bakery window (circa 1935) by Edith Tudor-Hart

In 1933 Edith was jailed for a month in Vienna after acting as a courier for the Communist Party. Upon release she married a British medical doctor, Alexander Tudor-Hart, who left his wife and two children to be with her. (Tudor-Hart was himself an active member of the British Communist Party who would volunteer to serve as a doctor on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39). And so the couple fled Vienna where she was in jeopardy twice over, for being a communist and a Jew.

Demonstration outside the Opera House, Vienna (about 1930) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Peter Suschitzky, Julia Donat & Misha Donat

Once settled in London, Edith continued her photography, photographing the working class in the East End and then undertaking trips to depict poor communities all round England – from the south Wales coal miners, to the unemployed in Jarrow, to working families in London’s East End.

Gee Street, Finsbury, London (1936) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Scottish National Portrait Gallery

She worked for several British magazines – The Listener, Picture Post and Lilliput among others – and earned a modest income as a children’s portraitist. There was always a completely separate strand to her work which was about health and education, especially of small children, something that dated back to her early enrolment, aged just 16, in a course with Maria Montessori in London, where she at one stage planned to become a kindergarten teacher.

Later, in England, alongside her photos of the poor and deprived, she also took numerous photos of children in clinics and health centres and exercising healthily outdoors. As if contrasting the misery and poverty and deprivation of 1930s England with what might be if only we could organise society’s resources rationally.

Ultraviolet Light Treatment, South London Hospital for Women and Children (c. 1934) by Edith Tudor-Hart © Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Wolfgang Suschitzky

Edith’s younger brother, Wolfgang, fled Vienna a little after Edith (in 1935) and although he, too, settled in England, his photography was strikingly different in style and approach. He too took mostly street scenes of ordinary people, but his work is more consciously poetic, carefully arranged and lit.

Backyard, Charing Cross Road (1936) Wolfgang Suschitzky

Light and shade and shadow, and the glimmer of dust in sunlight or fog and mist attracted him.

Westminster Bridge, London (1934) Wolfgang Suschitzky

Whereas Edith’s work focuses relentlessly on the day to day poverty of the working classes, Wolfgang’s, as the wall label puts it, ‘displays an affection for the city in which he found freedom and safety’. Probably his best-known photos are from a series made on the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. They can be interpreted as a) street scenes from the London he came to love b) a memorial to his bookseller father (who took his own life in 1934 in despair at the collapse of Socialism in Austria) c) a tribute to books and their readers as symbols of intellectual and imaginative freedom which need to be treasured and defended.

Charing Cross Road/Foyles (c.1936) by Wolfgang Suschitzky

Spies

In fact Edith’s story has an extraordinary extra dimension: she was a Soviet spy. And not just any old spy but played a key role in the recruitment and management of the Cambridge Five spies including Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

She was instrumental in recruiting members of the Cambridge Spy ring, which damaged British intelligence from World War II through to its discovery in the late 1960s.

During the early 1930s Edith’s former lover Arnold Deutsch was teaching at the University of London, but was also an active Soviet spy, recruiting British students to spy for Russia. When, in 1934, Kim Philby and his Austrian wife Litzi Friedmann arrived back in London from Vienna, Tudor-Hart – who had met and got to know them in Vienna – suggested to Deutsch that the NKVD recruit them as agents. After some vetting, a direct approach was made to Philby and he became the KGB’s longest-serving and most damaging British spies.

Entwined lives: Kim Philby and Edith Tudor-Hart

Edith had been placed under surveillance by Special Branch soon after her arrival in Britain, but despite this she was able to carry on espionage activities. In addition to Philby, she also helped to recruit Arthur Wynn for the Soviets in 1936. In 1938–39 Burgess used her to contact Russian intelligence in Paris. When the rezidentura at the Soviet Embassy in London suspended its operations in February 1940, Edith acted as an intermediary for Anthony Blunt and Bob Stewart, passing on their messages to the Soviets.

In 1950 Edith was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to take a series to be titled Moving and Growing, showing children undertaking healthy music-and-movement style exercise, often outdoors.

From the series Moving and Growing (1951) by Edith Tudor-Hart

But they were to be among her last photographs. Following Kim Philby’s first arrest in 1952, Edith was brought in for interrogations by MI5 agents and her apartment was searched several times. She burned many of papers, notes, journals and many of her negatives in order to protect herself. What a loss!

Despite the searches and interrogations MI5 were unable to prove evidence of her espionage, so she was left at liberty. However, Edith’s mental health was not good. She had divorced Tudor-Hart in 1940, and had to cope with the fact that their only child, a son, Tommy, born in 1936, was severely autistic, and was placed in mental institutions from the age of 11, never to be fully released.

How hard that must have been for a woman who had taken so many life-affirming photos of happy little children at innovative health centres or playgroups or dancing in the sunshine.

So later in the 1950s Edith abandoned photography altogether and moved to Brighton, where she opened a tiny antique shop on Bond Street and lived in the flat above it in genteel poverty until her death in 1973. It was only 20 years later, after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, that files about her were released and a newspaper article first revealed her role as a Soviet agent and spy.

And that her relatives, namely her brother Wolfgang’s children, first learned of their aunt’s scandalous double life. This led to research, the writing of a biography, and last year a documentary was released about her double life. This is the trailer:

Conclusion

So this modest one-room display of 49 photos by just a brother and sister ends up unfolding a story of huge historical, artistic and psychological complexity and poignancy.


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Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

Nam June Paik (1932 – 2006) was a Korean American artist. He worked with a variety of media and is considered the founder of video art. He is credited with an early usage (1974) of the term “electronic super highway” in application to telecommunications. (Wikipedia)

This is a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Korean-American artist Nam June Paik, a collaboration between Tate Modern and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

It’s the most comprehensive survey of the artist’s work ever staged in the UK, bringing together over 200 works – from early compositions and performances, to sculptures, photos and paintings, magazines and drawings – through to rooms full of videos and large-scale television installations, and a final room which is a large scale, pulsating and very loud, multi-media rock installation.

Sistine Chapel (1993) Courtesy of the Estate of Nam June Paik

The Korean War ended in 1953 with South Korea saved from communist tyranny, and the country which saved it – at such cost in blood and money – the USA, proceeded to invest heavily in the South, fuelling a technology and consumer boom.

Paik developed as an artist during this boom and right from the start was interested in the incongruity of a still, in many ways undeveloped, traditional and Buddhist culture taking on the trappings of Middle American consumer capitalism. Hence his frequent images and assemblies playing with and highlighting the clash of these two cultures.

TV Buddha by Nam June Paik (1974) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

When he, inevitably, traveled to America, he was put in touch with other opponents of the swamping consumer culture, the Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, or the collection of artists musicians and performers at the Black Mountain College, North Carolina, which was home to all sorts of eminent artists and performers, notably the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Cage had an explosive impact on young Paik – he showed him that art can be made out of anything, incorporate any technology, and use chance and randomness. A man on stage twiddling through radio stations can, in the right circumstances be a work of art. A television showing an endless loop of imagery, or weird incandescent patterns you’ve generated to be played through it… or a TV with a magnet on top which distorts the images, or a large magnetic loops around the front with a fluctuating current going through it which makes the images bend and distort.

Why can’t all or any of this be art? After all, this was the age of the atom bomb and the Cold War, when the entire world might be reduced to a smouldering cinder in half an hour if someone pressed the wrong button. How could you possibly go on painting like Rembrandt or Constable in a world like that?

You needed something that responded to the urgency and the crisis of the times. And television seemed to be the new medium, the one through which entertainment and government lies poured in equal measure. A medium which could potentially be used for education and to bring the world together. Or to promote lies and ideology which would tear the world apart.

Why not address its ever-growing centrality, deconstruct it, take it to bits, satirise it, parody it, build sculptures out of it?

TV robots by Nam June Paik

Room by room

This exhibition feels really comprehensive. It’s massive and feels packed with stuff, but still manages to be imaginatively spaced and staged. Its twelve big rooms contain:

Introduction

Paik travelled to work in the US, Germany and Japan. He always questioned not just national borders but professional demarcations – and liked working with collaborators, not just artists, but dancers and musicians, and also fleets of technicians who helped him build robots and experiment with TV technology.

Buddhism. Many of his inventions use Buddhist motifs, from the image of a Buddha statue relayed via a CCTV at the start, to the penultimate room which contains a single lit candle with a camera pointing at it, and the image of the flickering flame reproduced on screens and projected onto the wall.

TV Garden

‘A future landscape where technology is an integral part of the natural world.’ The idea is supposedly related to Paik’s Buddhist feel for the way everything and everyone is connected in the spirit world and, increasingly, in a world dominated by new technology. But it is in fact a load of rubber plants with TV monitors arranged among them.

TV Garden 1974-1977 (2002) Tate Modern 2019. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Gooogling images of this, you can see that in some places the plants were set among stones in what looks like an actual low-growing garden. Tell you where would be a good place for these – the greenhouse at the Barbican.

Global Groove

According to the wall label:

‘This colourful fast-paced video mixes high and popular cultures, with imagery from traditional and contemporary, Western and non-Western sources.’

Far out, man! Look at the crazy picture distortion and mirroring effects! Top of the Pops 1973!!

From quite early on you get the feeling that all of this – the obsession with TV, the notion of the global village, lumbering robots, pop music and pop videos – it all seems incredibly dated. When I saw that the magnets placed around TV sets were being used to distort speeches by Richard Nixon I realised were in that kind of art, art gallery, curatorial time loops which is obsessed with the 1960s and their crappy hangover in the 1970s. The Vietnam War, the Beatles, Allen Ginsberg chanting blues to his harmonium, Woodstock, Watergate – yeah, man, it was all one heavy trip.

Even in the massive multi-media ‘experience’ which climaxes the exhibition in which a disorientiating stream of intercut images and clips and sounds and music are projected onto the walls and ceiling of the final room, I was astonished when prolonged clips came up of Janis Joplin singing her heart out. She died of a heroin overdose in died 1970.

In one darkened room is a huge wall of TV sets with other big TV monitors on the other walls and it seems to be playing a kind of multinational, global mashup of videos from various cultures, all treated to look over-coloured, cut-up and treated and all playing to… a soundtrack of Beatles songs! – titled Video Commune (Beatles beginning To End) and dating from 1970. Old. Old, old, old.

It is all just about near enough to be sort of familiar, but also old enough to smell musty like grandad.

Electronic music

Paik actually studied to be a classical musician and was an extremely able pianist. Some of the clips of Beethoven featuring in various vidoes are played by him. But when he moved to Germany in 1956 and met Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, it blew his mind daddy-oh.

In 1963 he hosted a one-man show at a villa converted into a gallery stuffed with immersive environments and sculptures which required audience involvement. There were musical instruments modified by the artist, three customised pianos in the Cage manner (Cage composed quite a lot of music for pianos which had had nuts and bolts and screws and elastic bands inserted between the keys or into the wires. They’re surprisingly listenable. Paik took this approach to the next level.

Zen for Wind took lots of random dangling objects which a breath of wind made brush against each other, jingle jangle. Visitors could record their own sounds and snippets on tape recorders and hear them reproduced at random through loudspeakers.

Paik’s friend the German artist Joseph Beuys destroyed one of the pianos and Paik liked it so much he left it on display. Ah, those were the days. Such rebels, back in a time when rebellion had meaning.

Some of Paik’s Cage-like music, some of the dangling objects and one of the pianos are on display here in this exhibition. It was ironic to read on all the wall labels how Paik wanted his visitors to interact with the pieces and then turn to them to find them all protected by plastic covers or behind tripwires which set off alarms.

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern

No, children, you could play with these dusty old toys once upon a time, even smash them up for fun, but now times are very different and every scrap of paper and piece of old cable which was ever handled by a Great Artist is now a precious Work of Art, which would fetch millions on the current art market, and so must be protected, curated, catalogued and carefully stored away.

That’s what happens to avant-gardes – they fall into the hands of galleries and curators where their entire disruptive, anarchic charge is neutralised, surgically removed, and replaced by polite wall labels and security barriers.

Merce Cunningham

There’s a room devoted to Paik’s collaborations with and riffing off the work of Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, including the film Zen for Film a, blank film ‘exploring themes of emptiness, boredom and random interference’ – and Merce by Merce by Paik.

Charlotte Moorman

As a thoroughly trained classical musician Paik was well placed to make his comment that sex was everywhere in art and literature and yet almost completely absent from the classical canon.

Why is sex, a predominant theme in art and literature, prohibited ONLY in music?

(For a start that shows the extreme limits of his knowledge of contemporary and pop culture: I think even a casual examination would have shown him that popular songs, jazz, blues, rock’n’roll, pop and rock music is OBSESSED with sex.)

So he set out to address this glaring error in a collaboration with classical cellist Charlotte Moorman which lasted for nearly thirty years. Basically, these involved getting Moorman to play the cello in various states of undress, topless, bottomless, totally nude, or with various objects taped onto her boobs, for example mirrors, or what looked like little display cases.

This was such a 60s idea it made me giggle. What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding, man? A big quote from Moorman is printed on the wall of her saying that, in the age of nuclear weapons and Vietnam, you couldn’t expect artists to make art like in the old days. She became known as the Topless Cellist.

Thus there are films of performances which involved Charlotte playing the cello nude, or with mirrors or even small TV monitors taped to her breasts, or playing a TV monitor as if it was a cello, or playing a man sitting in front of her as if he was a cello and, most impressively, climbing topless into a column of oil drums filled with water then climbing out again.

The idea that having women strip off, taking their clothes off or taping things to their boobs, would somehow revolutionise music or put the sex back into classical music is so laughable as to be sweet and quaint.

If there’s one thing that Charlotte Moorman is not, it’s sexy. She looks like a nice young lady who’s decided to take her clothes off to make a statement. But just taking your clothes off does not make you sexy, as anyone who’s been in a gym or swimming pool changing room and looked around knows: it just makes you someone who’s taken their clothes off, often enough a rather pitiable sight. Here she is, combining Paik’s two themes, playing a cello made of television sets.

Charlotte Moorman with TV Cello and TV Eyeglasses (1971) Peter Wenzel Collection

Joseph Beuys

Paik encountered the Zero Group in Dusseldorf in 1961, which included the eccentric German artist Joseph Beuys. They remained close friends and made various collaborations. One of the later ones is a long video of Beuys on stage somewhere, standing wearing his trademark hat and army flak jacket and howling howling howling like a coyote into a microphone.

This room contains a full-sized Mongolian yurt, because Paik felt very in touch with the Mongolian part of his heritage. It’s an impressive object, easily big enough to bend slightly and walk into. It was Paik’s contribution to the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

Mongolian tent by Nam June Paik (1993)

The Sistine Chapel

As mentioned above, the penultimate room contains a flickering flame with a camera pointing at it, and projected on the walls. But this pales into comparison with the elaborate scaffolding which projects a mashup of footage onto the walls and ceiling of the final room all to a deafening rock and blues and classical splice track.

The sound is impressive and the images are sort of immersive, but what really impresses is how much bloody scaffolding and structure it took to project these images. I wonder if the same effect could be achieved nowadays with a fraction of the equipment… as in the nearby exhibition of contemporary immersive artist, Olafur Eliasson. And if so, the thing is impressive less for its effects, than for indicating how laborious and heavy and complicated it was back in 1993, to achieve something which can be done with a few hidden projectors nowadays…

Installation view of Nam June Paik at Tate Modern. Photo by the author

Nothing dates faster than old TV

Well, OK, some things do, bread for example. Or pop music. But not much dates faster and more completely than televison. Watching TV clips of Richard Nixon or John Cage or Janis Joplin or hearing tracks by the Beatles from the 1960s conveys a deep psychological sense that we have stepped back in time not just a few decades, but back into what, is now, a different century – a time which is fast becoming incomprehensible in its political and artistic naivety and optimism

I really enjoyed the exhibition because of its quaint sense of being dated and old. I liked the quaint old bakelite TV sets Paik made his television robots out of, or the extremely ancient tape recorders on which he made his cutting edge music compilations in the 1960s.

But nothing dates faster than old visions of the future. Paik’s wall of video monitors is wonderfully redolent of the 1980s, of MTV and the TV generation. But the future would turn out not to be about walls of TV screens, but screens which are so small you can put them in your pocket or possibly be projected onto your glasses (still waiting for that to be perfected).

This is a beautifully assembled and laid out and clearly explained exhibition, and it explains why Paik was clearly one of the early international art superstars but – Tate’s promotional video includes the slogan THE FUTURE IS NOW. But this exhibition is all about THEN, and quite an outdated THEN at that. To me it ranged from the dated, to the very dated, to the really antique.

Some ancient robots and gizmos by Nam June Paik at Tate Modern.

A fascinating look at the world of a pioneer of TV art, or art for the TV age – but really bringing home the fact that that era, the TV era, is long gone, and we are well into a completely new era, of boundless new communication technologies, bringing with them new social ideas and issues, and new geopolitical threats, which have as yet been very little explored by artists.

Paik appears to have been the grand-daddy to the modern world of video art, a granddad whose pioneering work more or less ended around the same time as the analogue era, sometime in the mid-1990s. He was the great pioneer of analogue visual technology, a revered ancestor. Let’s tap the temple bell, and make a bow to his cheeky, funny, loud and inventive achievements.

Curators

  • Dr Sook-Kyung Lee, Senior Curator, International Art (Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational), Tate
  • Rudolf Frieling, Curator of Media Arts, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
  • with Valentina Ravaglia (Tate) and Andrea Nitsche-Krupp (SFMOMA).


Related links

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The Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire 1867-1918 by John W. Mason (1985)

This is another very short book, one of the popular Seminar Studies in History series. These all follow the same layout: 100 or so pages of text divided up into brisk, logical chapters, followed by a short Assessment section, and then a small selection of original source documents from the period.  It’s a very useful format for school or college students to give you a quick, punchy overview of a historical issue.

This one opens by summarising the central challenge faced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it entered the twentieth century: how to take forward a fragmented, multi-cultural empire based on traditional dynastic and semi-feudal personal ties into the age of nationalism and democracy where every individual was, in theory at least, a citizen, equal before the law.

On page one Mason locates four key failures of late imperial governance:

  1. the failure to solve the Czech-German conflict in the 1880s and 1890s
  2. the failure to develop a genuine parliamentary government in the late 1890s
  3. failure to solve the Austro-Hungarian conflict in the early 1900s
  4. failure to solve the South Slav conflict in the decade before World War One

PART ONE The background

1. The Hapsburg Monarchy in European History

The Hapsburg monarchy lasted 640 years from 1278 to 1918. It was a dynastic creation, never attached to a specific country. In 1867 (following Hungary’s defeat to Prussia in the war of 1866) the state was organised into the so-called Dual Monarchy, with the Hapsburg ruler titled the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary. This gave Hungary more autonomy and respect than it had previously had.

The name ‘Hapsburg’ derives from Habichtsburg meaning ‘Castle of the Hawks’, located in what is now the Swiss canton of Aargau. During the eleventh century the knights from this castle extended their power to build up a position of growing influence in south Germany.

Meanwhile, the eastern March – the Oster Reich – of Charlemagne’s massive empire was granted to the Babenberg family in the tenth century and they held it for the next 300 years.

In 1273 the electors of the Holy Roman Empire elected Rudolf of Hapsburg to the office of Holy Roman Emperor. In the 14th century the Hapsburgs acquired Carinthia, Carniola, Tyrol, Istria and Trieste to their domain. In the 15th another Hapsburg was elected emperor and from 1438 till the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806 the Crown remained almost continuously in their house.

When King Louis II of Bohemia and Hungary died without issue in 1526, both his crowns passed to the Hapsburgs. This marked a turning point because up till then all Hapsburg land had been German-speaking. Now the Hapsburg administration had to take account of various non-German nations with their own independent histories.

This leads to a Big Historical Idea: just as the countries of the West were beginning to develop the idea of the nation state, central Europe was going down a different path, towards a multi-national empire.

Even more decisive was the role the Hapsburgs played in defending Europe from the Turks. Twice, in 1529 and 1683, the Turks laid siege to Vienna, a very under-reported and under-appreciated part of European history.

The Turkish threat had effectively been repulsed by the start of the 18th century and the Hapsburgs embarked on their new role in Europe which was to act as a counterweight to ambitious France, starting with the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14).

The long rule of the Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) saw her undertake reform and centralisation of the administration. But her power in central Europe was challenged by Hohenzollern Prussia under Frederick the Great (1740-86). During this period, Poland was partitioned and Austria was given from it the southern province of Galicia, which she retained right up till the end of the Great War.

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) unleashed the ideas of nationalism and democracy across Europe, both of which struck at the heart of the multi-ethnic and hierarchical structure of the Empire.

Under Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, Austria had arguably been part of the continent-wide movement of reform associated with the Enlightenment, take for example their legislation to remove many of the restrictions placed on the Jewish population.

But the twin forces of nationalism and democracy were such a threat to a multinational polity that from this point onwards the Hapsburgs and the empire they led, became a reactionary force, embodied in the machinations of their legendary Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich (foreign minister from 1809 to 1848).

In 1848 revolutions took place all across Europe, with no fewer than five in capitals controlled by the dynasty – in Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Croatia and in northern Italy (territory which the Hapsburgs had seized after the defeat of Napoleon). Hapsburg forces put down the revolutions in four of the locations, but it required the intervention of the Russian army to defeat the revolutionary Hungarian forces. The Magyars never forgot this bitter defeat.

In the Crimean War (1853-6) Austria kept neutral from both sides (Britain & France versus Russia) which weakened her role in Europe. In 1859 France supported the desire for independence of Piedmont, the north Italian state ruled by the Hapsburgs since the defeat of Napoleon, and hammered the Austrians at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. In response the Hapsburgs introduced some administrative reforms, but in 1866 lost another war, this time against Prussia under Bismarck, decided at the Battle of Sadowa.

Seriously weakened, and now definitely deprived of all influence in a Germany unified under Prussian rule, the Emperor’s politicians were compelled to bolster the Empire’s authority be devising a new agreement with the large Kingdom of Hungary to the East.

2. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise

Hence the Compromise or Ausgleich of 1867 which recognised the sovereign equality of two states, Austria and Hungary, bringing them under the rule of one man, Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. The dual monarchy wasn’t the same as a federation, constitutionally it was unique. But it bolstered the Hapsburgs a) territory b) manpower. Crucially it provided a bulwark against the Slavs in the Balkans, quelling pan-Slavic sentiment.

The drawback of the Compromise was that it was essentially a personal agreement between the Emperor Franz Josef and the Magyar ruling class. Even liberal and progressive German-speaking Austrians felt left out, and that’s before you consider the numerous other nationalities contained within the empire.

PART TWO Domestic affairs

3. The Nationality Questions

The Treaty of Versailles entrenched the idea of national self-determination preached by American President Woodrow Wilson, and resulted in the break-up of the empire into a host of new nation states based on ethnicity. Viewed from this angle, it looks as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foredoomed to collapse. But all the histories I’ve read there was no such inevitability. This one wants to scotch two assumptions –

  1. that all the nationalities thought they’d be better off outside the empire (many realised they wouldn’t)
  2. that all the nationalities were ‘at war’ with imperial authorities; many weren’t, they were in much sharper conflict with each other

In the West the state and the nation were closely aligned; but in the East you can see how they are in fact distinct ideas. The state is an administrative unit and in Central and Eastern Europe was based on ancient rights and privileges of rulers, often going back to medieval origins.

From the mid-nineteenth century these traditional ideas were challenged by a concept of ‘nation’ based on ethnicity, culture and language. Otto Bauer the Austrian Marxist made a famous categorisation of the peoples of the empire into ‘historic’ nations, those which had an aristocracy and bourgeoisie and an independent national history;

  • Germans
  • Magyars
  • Poles
  • Italians
  • Croats

and those who don’t:

  • Czechs
  • Serbs
  • Slovaks
  • Slovenes
  • Ruthenians
  • Romanians

Most modern commentators include the Czechs in the list of ‘historic’ nations.

The Germans

In the western half of the empire the Germans made up 10 million or 35% of the population of 28 million. Nonetheless the administration was thoroughly German in character. The official language of the empire was German. The great majority of the civil servants were German, 78% of the officers in the army were German. The cultural life of Vienna, the capitalist class and the press were overwhelmingly German. Three political parties dominated from 1880 onwards, which adopted the three logical policies:

  1. The Pan-Germans looked beyond Austria to a nationalist union of all German peoples under Bismarcks Prussia
  2. The Christian Socialist Party under Karl Lueger aimed to unite all the nationalities under the dynasty
  3. The left-wing Social Democrats aimed to unite the working class of all the nationalities, thus dissolving the nationalities problem

The Czechs

Third largest ethnic group (after the Germans and Hungarians) with 6.5 million or 12% of the population. In Bohemia roughly two fifths of the people were German, three fifths Czech.The Czechs were the only one of the minorities which lived entirely within the borders of the empire, and some they were bitterly disappointed by the Compromise of 1867, which they thought should have recognised their identity and importance. Czech nationalists thought the deal left them at the mercy of German Austrians in the West and Hungarians in the East.

From the 1880s the struggle between Czech and German expressed itself in the issue of the official language taught in schools and used in the bureaucracy. The Czech population increased dramatically: Prague was an overwhelmingly German city in 1850 but 90% Czech by 1910. Germans found it harder to dismiss the Czechs as peasants Slavs, as Bohemia rapidly industrialised and became the economic powerhouse of the empire.

The Poles

The Poles were the fourth largest group, in 1910 4.9 million or 17.8% of the western part of the empire, most of them living in Galicia. Galicia was a) a province of Poland which had been obliterated from the map when it was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria in the 18th century b) at the north-east fringe of the empire, beyond the Carpathian mountain range.

The Austrians needed the support of the Poles to make up a majority in the parliament in Vienna, and so made so many concessions to the Polish Conservative Party in Galicia that it enjoyed almost complete autonomy, with Polish recognised as the official  language, Polish universities and so on.

The Ruthenians

Only three fifths of the population of Galicia was Polish; the other two-fifths were Ruthenians. The Ruthenians belonged to the same ethnic group as the Ukrainians but were distinguished by adherence to the Latin/Greek Uniat church. The Ruthenians were the most socially backward group in the empire and very much under the thumb of the politically advanced Poles, responding by setting up a peasants’ party.

Conservative ‘Old Ruthenians’ gave way to ‘Young Ruthenians’ in the 1880s, who sought union with the 30 million Ukrainians living to their East. The more concessions the central government made to the Poles, the more it alienated the Ruthenians. After 1900 Ruthenians and Poles clashed over electoral or educational issues, sometimes violently.

The Slovenes

1.25 million or 4.4 per cent of the population of the Austrian half of the empire, the Slovenes were scattered over half a dozen Crownlands, and lacked even a written literature in their own land. Even mild efforts at nationalism, such as setting up a Slovene-speaking school, were fiercely opposed by the German majorities in their regions.

The Italians

770,000, the smallest national group in the empire, with Italian-speaking areas in the Tyrol and along the Adriatic coast, which had quite different concerns. In the Tyrol the Italians fought against the dominance of the Germans. Along the Adriatic they were a privileged minority among a Slav majority.

In May 1915 Italy betrayed its treaty promises to Germany and Austria-Hungary and joined the Allies because Britain and France promised Italy possession of the Tyrol and the Adriatic Littoral (and money).

The Magyars

10 million Magyars formed 48% of the population of Hungary. The Magyars dominated the country, owning, for example 97% of joint stock companies. It was dominated by ‘Magyarisation’ meaning fierce determination of the magyar ruling class to impose uniformity of language across the territory. If minorities like Romanians or Slovenes agreed to teach their children Hungarian and support Magyar rule, they could become citizens; otherwise they were subject to fierce discrimination. The Magyars didn’t want to exterminate the minorities, but assimilate them into oblivion.

Budapest was three quarters German in 1848 and three quarters German in 1910. Mason tells us that all attempts to reform the Dual Monarchy ultimately foundered on Hungary’s refusal to abandon its unbending policy of Magyarisation.

The Romanians

The largest non-Magyar group in Hungary, about 3 million, their aspirations were ignored in the 1867 Compromise, and the Hungarians’ intransigent policy of Magyarisation drove more and more to think about joining the independent Kingdom of Romania, just across the border from Hungarian Transylvania, and the forming of a National Party in 1881, which slowly poisoned Austria’s relations with Romania.

The Slovaks

The Slovaks were the weakest and least privileged group in the Hapsburg Monarchy, 9% of the population, a peasant people who had lived under Magyar domination for a thousand years. The 1867 Compromise made the Czechs and Croats second class citizens but condemned the Slovaks to cultural eradication. From the 1890s they started co-operating with the Czechs and slowly the idea of a combined Czech and Slovak nation evolved.

The Croats

9% of the population of Hungary. They had a national history and a strong aristocracy and considered themselves in direct touch with the Hapsburg monarchy. By an 1868 compromise Croatia received autonomy within the Hungarian state, but the head of the Croat state was imposed by the Hungarian government and the rule of Count Khuen-Héderváry was so repressive that Croatia became the seat of a movement to unite all the empire’s South Slavs.

The Serbs

About 2 million Serbs lived in the empire, divided between Dalmatia, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. They didn’t have an independent national history until 1878 when the Congress of Berlin created a small state of Serbia independent of the Ottoman Empire, from which point every perceived injustice against the Serbs prompted calls for a pan-Slave movement, and/or for a Greater Serbia. The biggest incident on the road to collapse was the Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the majority of whose population were Serbs.

The Jews

The Jews made up about 5% of the population in both Austria and Hungary. From 1850 Jews moved in large numbers into Lower Austria, overwhelmingly from poor rural Galicia (Poland), a large number of them migrating to Vienna, where they came to dominate cultural activity out of proportion to their numbers.

The Jews became so prominent in the Hungarian capital that some called it Judapest. The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus joked that ‘the Jews control the press, they control the stock market, and now [with the advent of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis] they control the unconscious’.

The success of Jews in business and the stock market and banking created an association between ‘Jew’ and ‘capitalist’ which complicated class conflict and led to an easy demonisation of the Jews as responsible for much of the exploitation, low wages and fat profits of capitalism.

4. The economy

The Hapsburg Empire was behind Germany, France and Britain in industrialisation. It didn’t have large stocks of coal, it had no large ports, parts of it (like Galicia) were split off from the empire by high mountains; the great Hungarian Plain was designed for agriculture not industry.

It was a predominantly agricultural economy: in 1910 agriculture made up 50% of the Austrian economy, two-thirds of the Hungarian. Most of the trade was between Hapsburg regions and nations; the 1867 Compromise established a free trade area throughout the empire.  Only a small percentage of GDP came from exports.

In Hungary serfdom was only abolished in 1848. For most of the period, Hungary was characterised by Magyar landlords, sometimes with very extensive holdings, lording it over illiterate peasants of the various nationalities. That’s one reason why nationalist grievances became mixed up in economic ones. Only in the decade before the war did Hungary begin to industrialise.

Industrialisation was funded by banks which remained firmly in German and Hungarian hands. The industrial heartland of the empire was the Czech Crownlands (Bohemia and Moravia) which developed a strong textiles industry and then iron and steel, metallurgy and engineering. This became another source of tension between Czechs and Germans, because many of the industries remained in the hands of German managers, backed by German hands.

(Remember the passage in Ernst Pawel’s biography describing the end of the Great War, the declaration of independence, and the way the new Czech government immediately a) renamed all its businesses and industries in Czech and b) undertook a wholesale replacement of all German bureaucrats and business men with Czech replacements.)

The late 1860s saw a mounting fever of speculation which led to a stock market crash in 1873 and a prolonged depression afterwards. This led to low growth, and poverty among the urban proletariat and among rural peasants, which led to the rise of nationalist and populist parties.

5. The politics of Dualism

The Austrian (i.e. German-speaking) Liberal Party ruled after the 1867 Compromise. But that compromise had alienated the Czechs whose MPs didn’t even attend the parliament. But it was the massive financial crash of 1873 which ruined the Liberal Party, associated as it was with business and the banks.

In 1871 there was an attempt by the conservative aristocrat Count Hohenwart to reform the monarchy and turn it into a federation, who drafted some ‘Fundamental Articles’ which were intended to give the Czechs parity with the Hungarians, but this was fiercely opposed by the Hungarian prime minister, Count Andrássy. The Czechs never trusted the dynasty after that, and boycotted the Vienna parliament.

In 1879 Franz Joseph asked his boyhood friend Count Taaffe to form a new government and Taaffe went on to govern till 1893, passing a series of reforms which echoed those of Bismarck in Germany, such as extending the franchise, workers health and accident insurance, limiting the working day to 11 hours etc.

But when he tried to tackle the German-Czech issue by breaking up Czech provinces into smaller units based along ethnic lines, his plans were scuppered by the Poles, the Clericals and the Feudals, and the German Liberals and he was forced to resign. Over the next twenty years three parties emerged:

The Social Democrats

This left-wing party emerged from the trade union movement in 1889 and its soft Marxist outlook focused on economic and social reform cut across ethnic lines and so was a force for keeping the empire together. At the Brünner Conference of 1899 they called for the transformation of the empire into a democratic federation of nationalities.

The Christian Socials

Founded in 1890 by the phenomenally popular Karl Lueger who became mayor of Vienna 1897-1910, based around a devout Catholicism which linked democratic concern for ‘the small man’, responsible social reform, anti-semitism and loyalty to the dynasty. Turning artisans and small shopkeepers into a strong anti-socialist, anti-capitalist, pro-Hapsburg bloc.

The Pan-Germans

The extreme anti-semitic Pan-German Party founded by Georg von Schönerer. Starting as a liberal he grew disenchanted and wanted a) to separate out the German-speaking areas from their Slav populations and b) unite with the Reich. In 1884 he led a battle to nationalise the Nordbahm railway which had been financed by the Rothschilds. He failed, but gained wide support for presenting the plan as a battle of the Jews versus the people. Although small in numbers, the Pan-Germans spread vicious racist ideas and their supporters were prone to violence.

The end of parliamentary governance

The next government of Alfred III, Prince of Windisch-Grätz, was brought down after two years because it agreed to allow a German secondary school in southern Styria to have parallel lessons in Slovene at which point the German National Party rejected it, voted against it, and brought down the government.

The next government was led by a Pole, Count Kasimir Felix Badeni. In 1897 he tried to settle the perpetual conflict between Czechs and Germans by moving a law that said that from 1901 no official should be employed in Bohemia or Moravia who wasn’t fluent in German and Czech. Since most Czechs spoke German, this was no problem for them, but hardly any Germans spoke Czech and there was uproar in parliament, with all kinds of tactics used to stall the passage of the bill, riots broke out on the streets of Vienna and then Prague. Franz Joseph was forced to accept Badeni’s resignation, and the Vienna parliament never had the same prestige or power again.

It couldn’t function properly and legislation was from 1897 passed only by emergency decree via Article 14 of the constitution. Government was no longer carried out by politicians and ministers but by civil servants. The Germans and the Czechs continued to obstruct parliament

Several more ministries tried and failed to solve the nationalities problem, while the emperor accepted advice that extending the franchise to the working class might help create a mood of social solidarity. So a bill was passed in 1907 giving the vote to all men over 24. But it was irrelevant. By this stage parliament didn’t govern the empire, bureaucrats did. Extending the franchise brought in a new wave of socialist parties, which combined with the nationality parties, to make governing impossible. During the parliament of 1911 no fewer than 30 parties blocked the passage of all constructive measures in parliament.

6. Vienna – Cultural centre of the Empire

Traditional liberal culture was based on the premise of rational man existing within as stable, civic social order. By the 1890s this society was beginning to disintegrate…

The political crisis in late nineteenth-century Austria-Hungary was caused by the bankruptcy of liberalism. The result was the sudden growth of a number of anti-liberal mass movements. In the cultural sphere the consequence of the breakdown of liberalism were no less dramatic…

Mason distinguishes three phases or artistic eras in this period:

1. The 1870s

In the 1870s students formed the Pernerstorfer Circle, seeking an alternative to liberalism, which they rejected and found inspiration in early Nietzsche, his writings about the imagination and the Dionysian spirit, leading to veneration of the music dramas of Wagner. The most famous member was the composer Gustav Mahler.

2. The 1890s – Young Vienna

Aestheticism and impressionism, focus on the fleeting moment, in-depth analysis of subjective psychology. A moment’s reflection shows how this is a rejection of rational citizens living in a stable social order, and instead prioritises the non-stop swirl of sense impressions. The leading writers of the Young Vienna literary movement were Hugo von Hofmannstahl and Arthur Schnitzler, with his frank depictions of the sex lives and moral hypocrisy of the Viennese bourgeoisie.

3. After 1900 – Kraus, Loos and Schoenberg

The Jewish journalist Karl Kraus published a fortnightly magazine, Die Fackel, in which he flayed all political parties and most of the writers of the day. He carried out a one-man crusade against loose writing, sentimentality and pomposity. Mason doesn’t mention something Ernst Pawl emphasises in his biography of Kafka, which is that plenty of Kraus’s journalism railed against the Jewish influence on German prose, criticising its importation of Yiddishisms and other impurities. It was this attitude which led Pawl to diagnose Kraus as a leading example of the ‘Jewish self-hatred’ of the period.

Adolf Loos was a radical architect who despised any ornament whatsoever. He designed a starkly modernist house which was built in 1910 opposite the imperial palace and was a harsh modernist critique of the wedding cake baroque style of the empire.

Arnold Schoenberg thought Western music had reached the end of the road, and devised an entirely new way of composing music based on giving each note in the scale an equal value i.e. leaving behind traditional notions of a home key or key tones, i.e. 500 years of tradition that a piece of music is composed in a certain key and will develop through a fairly predictable set of chords and other keys closely related to it. Schoenberg demolished all that. In his system all notes are equal and their deployment is based on mathematical principles. Hence his theory came to be known as ‘atonality’ or the ‘twelve tone’ system.

And looming behind these three was one of the most influential minds of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud, the conservative and urbane Jew who did more than almost anyone else to undermine the idea of the rational, citizen or the rational human being. In Freud’s theory most of the activity of the human mind is unconscious and consists of a seething mass of primitive drives and urges. For the early period, from his first formulation of psychoanalysis in 1895 through to the outbreak of the First World War, Freud concentrated on the sexual nature of many or most of these urges, and the psychic mechanisms by which human beings try to repress or control them (via psychological techniques such as displacement or repression).

But the experience of the Great War made Freud change his theory in recognition of the vast role he now thought was played by violence and a Death Drive, which matched and sometimes overcame the sex urge.

Whatever the changing details, Freud’s theory can be seen as just the most radical and drastic attack on the notion of the sensible, rational citizen which were widespread in this time, and at this place.

Leading not only Mason but countless other critics and commentators to speculate that there was something about the complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and something about the thoroughness with which it collapsed, which led to the creation of so many anti-liberal and radical ideologies.

All the art exhibitions I’ve ever been to tend to praise and adulate 1900s Vienna as a breeding ground of amazing experiments in the arts and sciences. Many of them praise the artistic radicalism of a Loos or Schoenberg or Egon Schiele as a slap in the face to boring old bourgeois morality and aesthetics.

Not so many dwell on the really big picture which is that all these artistic innovations were the result of a massive collapse of the idea of a liberal society inhabited by rational citizens and that, in the political sphere, this collapse gave rise to new types of political movement, anti-liberal movements of the extreme left and extreme right, to the Communism and Fascism which were to tear Europe apart, lead to tens of millions of deaths and murder and torture, and the partition of Europe for most of the twentieth century.

PART THREE Foreign affairs

7. The Dual Alliance

In international affairs the thirty-six years between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the start of the Great War in 1914 were dominated by the Balkan Problem or the South Slav Question.

In the 1600s the Muslim Ottoman Empire had extended its reach right up to the walls of Vienna. The Ottomans were held off and pushed back so the border between Christendom and Islam hovered around south Hungary and Bulgaria. But the Balkans contained many ethnic groups and nationalities. Slowly, during the 19th century, Ottoman rule decayed causing two things to happen:

  1. individual ethnic groups or nations tried to assert their independence from the Ottoman Empire
  2. each time they did so tension flared up between Russia, who saw herself as protector of all the Slavs in the Balkans, and Austria-Hungary, who feared that the creation of a gaggle of independent states in the Balkans under Russian control would inflame her own minorities and undermine the empire

The Congress of Berlin was held in 1878 to try and adjudicate between the conflicting claims of Russia and Austria-Hungary, and the host of little countries who wanted independence from the Ottomans.

This section details the long history of the complex diplomatic policies adopted by successive foreign ministers of the empire, which all had more or less the same goal – to preserve the integrity and security of the empire – but changed in the light of changing events, such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, and so on through to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which led to the Bosnian Crisis of the same year, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

What’s striking or piquant is that the three autocracies – Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – had a really profound interest in maintaining their semi-feudal reactionary regimes, and this was highlighted by the fact that they periodically signed variations on a Three Emperors Alliance (1881) – but that they kept allowing this fundamental interest to be decoyed by the festering sore of countless little conflicts and eruptions in the Balkans.

So that by 1907 Germany came to see its interests as tied to a strong Austria-Hungary which would prevent Russian expansion southwards; while Russia came to see itself as faced by a Germanic bloc and so sought alliance with France to counterweight the German threat. And so Europe was divided into two armed camps, an impression cemented when Italy joined a pact with Germany and Austria-Hungary, despite historic antagonism to Austria, with whom she had had to fight wars to regain territory in the north.

8. The Drift to war

One way of thinking about the First World War was that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir apparent to the crown, was without doubt a scandalous event but that it gave the Austro-Hungarian Empire a golden opportunity to smack down cocky little Serbia and thus re-establish the empire’s authority in the Balkans, which had been steadily slipping for a generation as a) more Balkan states became independent or b) fell under the influence of Russia.

After all, the empire had intervened in 1908 to annex Bosnia-Herzegovina with a view to creating a South Slav bloc of nations under her protection. Seen from her angle, this was one more step of the same type. Although, admittedly, a risky one. Her annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 led to a six-month-long diplomatic crisis which nearly sparked a European war, and there had been further, limited, Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. Most people thought this was more of the same.

So Austria issued a fierce ultimatum which was impossible to fulfil and prepared for a quick brutal suppression of Serbia. But she hadn’t anticipated that Russia would mobilise in favour of what was, after all, a small nation, with the result that the German military weighed in giving Austria-Hungary a promise of unconditional support; and when both of them saw Russia proceeding with its war mobilisation, the Germans mechanically and unthinkingly adopted the dusty old plan which had been perfected decades earlier, a plan to knock France out of any coming conflict with a quick surgical strike, just as they had back in 1870, before turning to the East to deal with a Russia they were sure was enfeebled after its humiliating defeat against Japan in 1905.

But the quick surgical strike against France failed because a) the French were supported by just enough of a British Expeditionary Force to stall the German advance and b) the Russians mobilised, attacked and advanced into East Prussia quicker than the Germans anticipated so that c) the German Chief of Staff Moltke made one of the most fateful decisions of the 20th century and decided to transfer some infantry corps from the Belgian wing of the German attack across Germany to staunch the Russian advance. Thus contributing to the German sweep across northern France coming to a grinding halt, to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, and to four years of grinding stalemate.

All the parties to the war miscalculated, but it was arguably the Germans – with their bright idea of a quick strike to knock France out of the war – who did most to amplify it from yet another in a long line of Balkan Wars to an international conflagration.

What comes over from this section is the hopeless inability of historians to come to a clear decision. Some historians, apparently, think Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy in the decade leading up to war was aggressive; others think it was impeccably defensive.

There is no doubt that the emperor was devoted to peace. Franz Joseph ruled the empire from 1848, when he was 18, to 1916, when he was 86, and if there was one thing he’d learned it was that whenever Austria went to war, she lost. And he was proved right.

9. War Guilt and the South Slav Question

On one level the problem was simple: about twice as many Slavs lived inside the empire (7.3 million) as outside (3.3 million). In the age of nationalism it was unlikely that the ultimate unification of these Slavs could be prevented. The question was: would this unification take place within the empire’s border i.e. at Serbia’s expense; or outside the empire’s borders, under Serbian leadership a) at the cost of the empire losing land (including most of its coastline in Dalmatia) and Slav population to Serbia b) the new Serbian state itself coming under the strong influence of Russia.

Mason discusses how this threat could possibly have been averted if the empire had made any sort of overtures to the Serbs, had courted the South Slavs. All Serbia wanted was better terms of trade and access to the sea. Refusal to countenance even this much resulted from the Austria-Hungarian Monarchy’s internal tensions, above all from the entrenched but anxious rule of the Germans and Magyars, nearly but not quite majorities in their own domains. Their inflexibility brought those domains crashing down around their ears.

10. World War One and the Collapse of the Empire

The book goes on to emphasise that, just because the empire collapsed suddenly at the end of the Great War, doesn’t mean it was doomed to. In fact for most of the four year war onlookers expected it to last, and spent their time speculating about the territorial gains or losses it would have made, but not that it would disappear.

He gives a military account of the war which emphasises the simple fact that the much-vaunted Austro-Hungarian army was simply not up to the task its politicians had set it. Chief of the General Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf intended at the outbreak to take out Serbia with a lightning strike, then move his corps north to Galicia to face the Russians who it was expected would mobilise slowly. But the Austro-Hungarians were repelled by ‘plucky Serbia’ and Conrad moved his forces north too slowly to prevent disastrous defeats to the Russians, who seized Galicia and Bukovina before Christmas.

In the first few months the empire lost 750,000 fighting men and a high percentage of their best officers. It’s a miracle they were able to carry on which they did, but at the cost of taking injections of better trained, better-armed German troops (remember the proud, tall, well dressed, well-fed Reich German soldiers lording it over their starving Austrian allies in the final chapters of The Good Soldier Svejk) and coming more or less under German military command.

Amazingly, in spring the following year, 1915, combined Austrian-Germany forces drove the Russians out of Galicia and seized most of Poland, defeated the numerically stronger Italian army along the Isonzo River. By 1916 the Alliance powers controlled a substantial slice of foreign territory (Poland, Russia, parts of the Balkans) and seemed to be sitting pretty.

The Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer wrote a book about the collapse of the empire, The Austrian Revolution, in 1925 which argued that the empire defined itself by its opposition to Tsarist Russia and dependency on Hohenzollern Germany. Certainly when the Bolsheviks seized power in St Petersburg and sued for peace, half the reason for fighting – and even be scared of the Slav menace – disappeared at a stroke.

Internal collapse

As we’ve seen, the Austrian parliament ceased to function properly before 1910 and government was run by civil servants and made by decree (the background to the novels of Franz Kafka with their infinitely complex and incomprehensible bureaucracies). Parliament was suspended from March 1914 to May 1917 because the ruling classes feared it would simply become a forum for criticism of the Crown. In 1916 the prime minister Count Stürgkh was assassinated. On November 1916 the Emperor Franz Joseph died and the crown passed to his great-nephew Archduke Charles, aged 29. The change in leadership gave an opportunity for the central powers to approach the Entente with suggestions for peace in December 1916, which, however, foundered on Germany’s refusal to cede territory back to France.

When Charles was crowned in Hungary he missed the opportunity to force the Hungarian prime minister to consider reforms, to extend the franchise, to give more rights to the non-Magyar minorities, and generally to compromise. On one level, the failure to effect any reform at all in the basic structure of the Dual Monarchy, led to its collapse.

But the most important event was the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. If the Romanovs, why not the Hapsburgs? When Charles allowed parliament to sit again in summer 1917 initially the calls weren’t for dissolution, but for reform which gave the nationalities autonomy and rights. But during the summer Czech radicals published a manifesto calling for an independent Czech-Slovak state.

The winter of 1917-18 was harsh with widespread food shortages. There were widespread strikes. In the spring Czech prisoners of war began returning from Russian camps bearing revolutionary ideas. But the Hapsburgs were not overthrown. Mason suggests this is because what in Russia were clear, class-based animosities and movements, in Austria-Hungary were diverted into nationalist channels.

Even when America joined the war in April 1917, the Allies still didn’t call for the overthrow of the empire but its reform to give the nationalities more say. According to Mason what finally changed the Allies mind was the German offensive in Spring 1918. It became clear Austria-Hungary wouldn’t or couldn’t detach itself from Germany, and so the Allies now threw themselves behind plans to undermine the empire from within i.e. supporting Czech, Polish and Slav politicians in their calls for the abolition of the monarchy. In the summer they supported the Czechs. In September 1918 they recognised a Czech-Slovak state. Unlike the other minorities the Czechs existed entirely inside the empire, to recognising their independent state was effectively recognising the dismemberment of the empire.

The failure of the German spring offensive in the West, and the Austrian summer offensive against Italy spelled the end. In September Bulgaria sued for peace. In October Austria and Germany asked President Wilson to intervene. At the end of October the Czechs and Yugoslavs proclaimed their independence, followed by the Magyars and the Poles. On 11 November 1918 Emperor Charles abdicated. The Hapsburg Monarchy ceased to exist.

PART FOUR Assessments

Mason recaps some of the arguments about the fate of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, by now, I feel I have heard hundreds of times. For example, that right up to the end most commentators did not expect the empire to collapse but for the strongest minorities, such as the Czechs, to successfully argue for parity with the Magyars, for more rights and privileges. Karl Marx thought the nations without history needed to be tutored and guided by the more advanced ones i.e. the Germans.

One school sees the collapse as due to the internal contradictions i.e failure to address the nationality question i.e. failure for any serious politician at the top, even Franz Ferdinand, even Charles, to do anything to palliate the nationalities demands which would have meant diluting the stranglehold of the German-Magyar ruling elites. The elites never accepted the nationalities question as a fundamental issue, but always as a problem which could be temporarily dealt with by clever tactics.

A completely opposite view holds that it was the First World War and the First World War alone which led to the collapse of the empire. Supporting this view is the fact that even radical critics and keen slavophiles like the Englishmen Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed as late as 1913 thought the empire was growing, and simply needed to be converted into a federal arrangement of more autonomous states, maybe like Switzerland.

PART FIVE Documents

Nineteen documents kicking off with hardcore economic tables showing, for example, populations of the various nationalities, index of Austrian industrial production, Austria’s share of world trade, steel production, harvest yields.

More interesting to the average reader are:

  • Mark Twain’s eye witness account of the army marching into parliament to suspend the sitting discussing  the 1897 legislation to make Czech equal with German in Bohemia and Moravia, which spilled out into riots in Vienna and Prague
  • Leon Trotsky’s impressions of the Austrian socialist leaders i.e they are smug and self satisfied and the extreme opposite of revolutionary
  • an extract from the memoir of George Clare who was a Jew raised in Vienna and gives a vivid sense of the frailty of Jewish identity, the assimiliated Jews’ shame about his caftaned, ringleted Yiddish cousin but also his sneaking envy for their authenticity – this is exactly the sentiment expressed by Kafka in his reflections on the Jews
  • the impact of Vienna on the young Adolf Hitler, who lived in Vienna from 1908 to 1913 and a) hugely respected the anti-semitic mayor Karl Lueger and b) loathed the multi-ethnic culture and especially the ubiquity of Jews
  • memoirs of the Jewish socialist leader Julius Braunthal, who emphasises the peculiarly powerful fermenting role played by Jews in all aspects of Austrian life, society and culture
  • a society hostess describing the meeting in 1902 between Rodin and Gustav Klimt

And then excerpts from more official documents, being a letter from the leader of the 1848 revolution, the key articles from the Dual Alliance of 1879, prime minister Aehrenthal’s proposed solution to the South Slav problem, census figures about Slavs inside the empire, a report on relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary,


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Books

Milan Kundera on Franz Kafka (1979)

In 1979 the Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a short essay about the works of fellow Czech and Prague inhabitant, Franz Kafka. The essay was titled Somewhere behind.

Throughout it Kundera uses the adjective ‘Kafkan’, which seems perverse of either him or the translator, because everyone else in the English-speaking world talks about the ‘Kafkaesque’.

Four elements of the Kafkaesque

Anyway, Kundera sets out to define what the ‘Kafkaesque’ consists of, and comes up with:

1. It describes a world which is an endless labyrinth which nobody can escape or understand, run according to laws nobody remembers being made, which no longer seem to apply to humans.

2. K.’s fate depends on a file about him which has been mislaid in the Castle’s vast and inept bureaucracy. Kafka’s world is one in which a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy). Kundera says this notion of a supra-human realm begins to invoke the theological.

In his opinion this dualism led early commentators to interpret Kafka’s stories as religious allegories, not least Kafka’s friend and executor Max Broad, who saw his friend as a deeply religious writer. Kundera disagrees because this view ‘sees allegory where Kafka grasped concrete situations of human life’. I certainly agree that many of the scenes, especially in The Trial, are imagined and described in great and lucid detail.

He also makes the interesting point that when Power deifies itself it automatically produces its own theology. Thought-provoking…

3. The punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done. Worse, the punished become so oppressed by the sense of their own guilt, that they set about finding what it is they have done wrong, so that Joseph K. sets out to review every word, thought and deed from his entire life. The punished beg for recognition of their guilt.

4. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but in its core, in its gut, is horrific.

Against a sociological or Marxist interpretation

Just recently I read an essay by the Marxist literary critic György Lukács, who claimed that Kafka’s fiction was, at its heart, or root, a response to contemporary capitalism:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing. (The Meaning of Contemporary Realism by György Lukács, p.77)

Kundera rejects this and it’s worth quoting his reasons:

Attempts have been made to explain Kafka’s novels as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word. But there is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

Neither does the Kafkaesque correspond to a definition of totalitarianism. In Kafka’s novels, there is neither the party nor ideology and its jargon nor politics, the police, or the army.

So we should rather say that the Kafkaesque represents one fundamental possibility of man and his world, a possibility that is not historically determined and that accompanies man more or less eternally. (p.106)

Kundera’s rejection doesn’t have the conceptual depth of Lukács who, after all, doesn’t describe Kafka’s works as a critique of capitalism on the basis that they describe or analyse any specific aspect of a capitalist society. Lukács bases his claim on the notion that Kafka’s works, taken as a whole, convey the worldview of bourgeois alienation, which modern capitalism produces. Even if it doesn’t describe any of the details of a capitalist society (factories, banks, modern technology etc), it still conveys the mood.

Kundera’s quick paragraphs are a useful reminder of just how uncapitalist the settings and events of some ofKafka’s stories are: The Castle in particular is set in a sort of 18th century, pre-industrial Ruritania, completely remote from the modern world.

But Kundera is, in fact, wrong to say:

There is almost nothing of the constituents of capitalism in Kafka’s universe: not money or its power, not commerce, not property or owners or the class struggle.

In The Trial Joseph K works in a bank. He is a senior figure in a bank, in competition with the Deputy Director, lording it over innumerable clerks, and holds meetings with a number of businessmen clients. ‘Nothing of the constituents of capitalism’? Arguably, The Bank is the central institution in capitalism.

Similarly, in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa is not only a travelling salesman, but his father’s business went bankrupt owing large debts to the company which Gregor works for, and Gregor’s job there is based on a deal that part of his salary is deducted to pay off his father’s debts. He is a sort of debt slave, and this accounts for the tragi-comic way that, after he awakens as a giant beetle, Gregor’s first response is not horror at what’s happened to him but anxiety at the fact that he’s going to be late for work, and indeed the first incident after the transformation, is the arrival of the company’s Chief Clerk wanting to find out why Gregor is late.

So, no, Kundera is wrong. Of Kafka’s three great masterpieces, two of them are set in very capitalist institutions – a bank, and in the sales and marketing of a clothing company – and the second also features as key plot components the ideas of business, bankruptcy, debt, salary and commission.

On reflection many of the constituents of capitalism feature in Kafka’s universe: money and its power to shape individual lives, commerce, the ownership of property, business owners (Gregor’s Chief Clerk or the bank’s Deputy Director). Kundera seems oddly blind to these basic facts.

The nature of totalitarian society

Fundamentally, Kafka’s stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers, and Kundera compares them with his own first-hand experience of totalitarian society in communist Czechoslovakia. He pauses to focus in on a particular aspect of the totalitarian society:

Totalitarian society, especially in its more extreme versions, tends to abolish the boundary between the public and the private; power, as it grows ever more opaque, requires the lives of citizens to become entirely transparent. The ideal of life without secrets corresponds to the ideal of the exemplary family: a citizen does not have the right to hide anything at all from the Party or the State… (p.110)

(This, incidentally, is what terrifies me about political correctness; the way it holds everyone accountable to impossibly high standards of perfect, immaculate, blameless behaviour, while expanding its surveillance and judgement into every aspect of everyone’s private lives, stretching back decades, and raining down hecatombs of career-ending criticism on anyone who is caught out saying, thinking or doing the wrong thing. They think they are creating a utopian society; I think they are creating a total surveillance state.)

Kundera’s novels often address the theme of the abolition of privacy by the intrusive state, and it is interesting to have this element of the Kunderesque identified as being part of the Kafkaesque, too. Thus, as  Kundera points out, Joseph K. is in his bed when the two officers come to arrest him – what more personal place is there? And in The Castle, K. can never get away from his two ‘assistants’ who watch over him even when he’s making love to Frieda.

Death of privacy.

The phantasmal office

Kundera quotes a sentence from a letter by Kafka which contains, Kundera thinks, one of his greatest secrets:

‘The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.’

Kundera points out that Kafka saw what millions of other office workers failed to even though it was in front of their noses, which is the surreal and fantastic quality of office life: how individuals are converted into data which can be stored, lost, misquoted, fought over and generally come to distort every aspect of their lives. Our credit ratings, our passport and tax and National Insurance details, our criminal records, all of it is held on files which can be hacked or stolen. What we like to think of as the reassuring ‘reality’ of our lives can be twisted out of all recognition with the click of a mouse.

This situation is, when you reflect on it, bizarre, and Kafka perceived it to an unusually intense degree, and so:

transformed the profoundly anti-poetic material of a highly bureaucratised society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never seen before. (p.114)

The novel as discovery of aspects of the human condition

Lastly, Kundera is struck by the way that Kafka accurately predicted an entire aspect of man’s experience in the 20th century without trying to.

Many of his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, became Zionists or communists etc, and generally devoted an enormous part of their lives and thought and writings to commentary and speculation about contemporary and future society. And yet all of their works and most of their names have vanished into oblivion.

Kafka, by complete contrast, was a very private man who cared little or nothing about contemporary politics and barely mentioned it in his works or letters or diaries, a hypochondriac obsessed with his own personal life, oppressed by the domineering figure of his father, enmeshed in a complicated series of love affairs, and yet —

It turned out to be this shy, socially awkward and intensely solipsistic individual who, giving little or no thought to ‘the future’ or society at large, created works which turned out to be staggeringly prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

Thus, for Kundera, Kafka is a prime example of his central belief in the radical autonomy of the novel, his conviction that the really serious novelists are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity in a way that no other science or discipline can.

— Obviously Kundera excludes most authors and fictions from this faculty; he is talking, in a rather old-fashioned way, about the Great Novelists. But I think he makes a good case that the serious novel is an exploration of human potential and that Kafka is a striking example of it, a man who failed to complete any of his three novels, who only wrote about twenty short stories, and yet who is universally regarded as a kind of prophet or discoverer of an entire realm of human existence.

Somewhere Behind

And the title of the essay, Somewhere Behind? It’s a quote from a poet Kundera quotes elsewhere in his works, Jan Skacel, which runs:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it

Kundera goes on to suggest that History itself is like the poet in the sense that it brings to light, through new combinations of circumstances, aspects which were always latent and potential in human nature.

History does not invent, it discovers. Through new situations, History reveals what man is, what has been in him ‘for a long long time’, what his possibilities are. (p.116)

Thus Kafka experienced certain aspects of human nature to such an extent, so powerfully, that he described and portrayed them with an intensity no-one else ever had.

He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial practice, not suspecting that later developments would put these mechanisms into action on the great stage of History. (p.116)

The real poet, author, novelist discovers something new about human nature and human potential in the world, something

no social or political thought could ever tell us.

Kundera or Camus

I’ve just read a similar-length essay on Kafka by Albert Camus who, by contrast with Kundera’s cool, concise and cerebral analysis, comes over as much the worse writer. There is more food for thought in a page of Kundera than in all fourteen pages of Camus’s overblown, superficial and pretentiously name-dropping text.

Coda

Still, stepping back a bit, reading Kunder, Camus and Lukács  makes me wonder whether there are maybe two types of critic of Kafka: the ones which base their analysis solely on the novels and The Metamorphosis, and the ones who take into account the full range of Kafka’s weird and diverse short stories.

For although Lukács and Kundera fundamentally disagree about the possibility of a political interpretation of Kafka, they both refer solely to the novels and The Metamorphosis because this trio of texts are very much of a piece and convey a homogeneous message about paranoia, bureaucracy and totalitarianism.

Such interpretations are harder to sustain if you start to consider The Great Wall of China, the stories in A Country Doctor, or the final works with their weird focus on animals, such as The Burrow or Josephine the Singer or Investigations of a Dog.

Do critics like Lukács and Kundera completely ignore the stories because their greater variety and weirdness complicate and/or undermine the simplicity of the axes they want to grind and the points they want to make? For these works neither Lukács’ nor Kundera’s master ideas really fit.

There is, in other words, a kind of inexplicable surplus in Kafka’s oeuvre (relatively small though it is), an excess of meaning, or of vision, which goes – in my opinion – way beyond the scope of any rational theory to explain or analyse.


Related links

Related Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Reviews of Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)
1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)
1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity
2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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