Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


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

Weimar Culture by Peter Gay (1968)

The complex of feelings and responses I have called ‘the hunger for wholeness’ turns out on examination to be a great regression born of fear: fear of modernity. The abstractions that Tönnies and Hofmannsthal and the others manipulated – Volk, Führer, Organismus, Reich, Entscheidung, Gemeinschaft – reveal a desperate search for roots and for community, a vehement, often vicious repudiation of reason accompanied by the urge for direct action or for surrender to a charismatic leader. (Weimar Culture p.100)

It took me a while to figure out what this book was for, what it’s about. I had to read the first half twice before the penny dropped.

It’s a relatively short book, 150 pages in the old Pelican paperback edition which I’ve got, and is divided into six chapters, with a 20-page historical overview at the end. The need for this appendix highlights the main thing about the text: it is emphatically not a history of the Weimar Republic. It is not even, despite the title, a history of Weimar culture. It is a series of six essays showing how certain highly specific, and limited, aspects of Weimar culture helped to fatally undermine it.

The chapters are:

  1. The Trauma of Birth: from Weimar to Weimar
  2. The Community of Reason: Conciliators and Critics
  3. The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power
  4. The Hunger for Wholeness: Trials of Modernity
  5. The Revolt of the Son: Expressionist Years
  6. The Revenge of the Father: Rise and Fall of Objectivity

Analysis of chapter 2

To take a sample chapter, the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter is not about intellectual life as a whole in the Weimar republic: it focuses on the founding of several important institutes outside the established universities, including the German Academy for Politics (1920), the Warburg Institute (1921), The Institute for Social Research (1923) and the Psychoanalytic Institute in Berlin (1910). (Gay has a special interest in psychoanalysis and is the author of a major biography of Sigmund Freud.)

The stories behind each of these organisations is fairly interesting, in a gossipy sort of way (Warburg was a borderline psychotic, apparently), but it’s only at the end of the chapter that Gay makes his point, which is that – although these are the bodies which went into exile when the Nazis came to power and therefore had a large influence abroad – at home they were relatively little known and had little or no impact.

This point only really becomes obvious in the last few pages where he contrasts the modernising innovativeness of this handful of institutes with the prevailing worldview of most academics and further education institutions in the Weimar republic, which were incredibly conservative and close-minded. We tend to think of students as fairly radical and subversive. Not in Weimar Germany, apparently.

Gay describes a widespread phenomenon known as Vernunftrepublikaners or ‘rational republicans’. This was the label given to intellectuals who only reluctantly gave assent to the establishment of the Weimar Republic, who supported it with their heads, while their hearts and souls continued to lie elsewhere.

So the ‘Community of Reason’ chapter amounts to a gossipy surf through the sector, with a conclusion that the most interesting thinkers in this area were ineffectual or irrelevant, while the majority of academics and students remained resolutely against the new liberal government.

Analysis of chapter 3

The same sort of structure is used for chapter three, ‘The Secret Germany: Poetry as Power’.

This takes the form of a sequence of shortish sections each describing a German poet who lived during – or was revived during – the Weimar period, being: Stefan George (1868-1933), Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), the Romantic poet Hölderlin (1770-1840), Kleist (1777-1811) and the playwright Büchner (1813-1827).

The pen portraits of each writer read much like the short introductory essays you used to get in old-fashioned student introductions to literature, books with titles like ‘An introduction to German poetry’ – short intros with a smattering of biographical facts, some generalisations about the work of their circle (the George circle seems to have been a particular phenomenon of Weimar). But Gay doesn’t actually quote or analyse any of their poetry, so you are left none the wiser about their abilities or styles.

Again it is only at the end of the chapter that we come to the point: all these writers were emphatically anti-rational, their writings over and over emphasising the importance of spirit and sensibility, community and authenticity – in both the writers and the style of their critics and readers.

Rilke became the dubious beneficiary of German literary criticism, a kind of writing that was less a criticism than a celebration, intuitive in method and overblown in rhetoric, a making and staking of grandiose claims, a kind of writing mired in sensibility and pseudo-philosophical mystery-making. (p.54)

Gay finds in the popularity of living poets like Rilke and George, and in the revivals of Hölderlin and Kleist, a morbid obsession with death, unreason, an ‘exaltation of irrationality, a blissful death wish’ (p.66). The blurring of the dividing lines between passion and religion led to ‘shapeless but impassioned religiosity’. It fatally led to poets being placed above thinkers or, as in Heidegger’s case, thinking itself becoming a kind of poetry, a kind of rousing rhetoric. Obscure but impassioned, it paved the way for fanatic barbarism.

It was only by reading the opening chapters twice that I realised Gay’s intention is not at all to give a panoramic overview of Weimar culture. It is not even to explore particular sectors, like poetry or film. It is to build up a collective indictment of the way leading intellectuals, institutions, writers and poets, historians and philosophers, refused to embrace the values of modern urban democracy – and so paved the way for Nazism.

Martin Heidegger

Take the notorious Martin Heidegger, notorious because he was both one of the seismic philosophical presences of the century, and because he undoubtedly gave help and support to the Nazis. Difficult and obscure though his work is (and he wrote it using words and terminology which he invented solely for the purpose) its central themes are comprehensible enough: rejection of the city, of urban life, of business, of politics, of democracy. Embrace of primitive being, primal existence, preference for living (as Heidegger did) a primitive existence in a retired rural area, wearing peasant costume, thinking weighty troubled thoughts.

Gay gives a pen portrait of Heidegger not to offer any analysis of his work or importance as a philosopher, but to show that a direct line links him with the anti-Enlightenment Romanticism of Holderlin; to show how deep and powerful the anti-modern, anti-democratic spirit was in German cultural life.

As a tiny symptom of this prevailing mood Gay points out that the Nazi Party was, of course, a political party, but it always referred to itself as a movement, a mass movement of spiritual and cultural regeneration and purification. Something above party and politics.

And this rhetoric fell right into line with the rhetorics of poets like Hölderlin and philosophers like Heidegger.

What Heidegger did was to give philosophical seriousness, professorial respectability, to the love affair with unreason and death that dominated so many Germans in this hard time. (p.85)

Summary

So: I thought this book would be an introduction to the cultural life of the Weimar Republic, but it really, really isn’t. Much the reverse: Gay shows how intellectual trends like a yearning for the order and hierarchy of the old Empire, combined with a widespread revulsion against modern urban life, and the cult of nature, primitivism, the rejection of the intellect and worship of ‘authenticity’, ‘depth’ and rhetorical power – how all this created an intellectual and cultural environment which was tailor-made for the advent of Hitler, with his appeal to people’s deeper, more ‘authentic’ emotions, his dismissal of foreign democracy and decadent cosmopolitanism, his appeal to the ‘true’ German spirit, founded in blood and suffering – his demand for unquestioning devotion.

And the remaining chapters ram this message home.

There is a long section about German historians of the 1920s (of pretty limited interest to anyone who isn’t themselves a professional historian) which indicts them for tending to glorify great Leaders of the past (Frederick the Great) as embodying German values of Kultur, an idea which German intellectuals considered superior to the decadent tinsel of Paris culture, and to Britain’s shopkeeper mentality.

The Weimar years saw the tremendous growth of the ‘Wandervogel’, community groups for the young which promoted outdoor activities and folk culture. Although some were supposedly socialist, Gay emphasises that their politics was shallow: it was a great surf of emotional enthusiasm looking for a direction, for a Leader.

Later chapters deal, in the same brief manner, with a number of other cultural peaks. The famous film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is taken as typical of the confusion of aims and objectives common among Expressionist artists and film-makers. They too wanted a return to nature, a breakthrough to a more spiritual world – and yet they specialised in conveying confusion, fear, ugliness and extreme emotions. These weren’t attitudes suited to the calm, business-like give and take of democratic politics.

Gay has a longish discussion of Thomas Mann’s most famous novel, The Magic Mountain, whose main thrust seems to be that the novel is a working-through of Mann’s conflicted emotions about culture and democracy. The characters of the novel, living high in an Alpine sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis, on the face of it want to recover and live — but there is a tugging undercurrent romanticising death, with characters romantically attracted to extinction, to vaporous fantasies about ceasing upon the midnight with no pain. Even for so sensible a figure as Mann, death is just so much more glamorous and interesting than humdrum existence.

In fact, Mann is taken as a paradigm of Weimar attitudes: he had written patriotic gush when Germany had entered the Great War, had slowly become disillusioned as the war ground on, had been one of the early ‘rational republicans’ giving reluctant support to the Republic and, by the end of the 20s, had come to appreciate its virtues and to be an active supporter of democracy.

But it was too little, too late. Gay shows how outnumbered he was.

Gay’s thesis

In each chapter, in each movement and sector he looks at, Gay discerns the same underlying pattern: worship or glorification of the irrational, savage criticism of urban life, of business, of politics. Grosz et al tend to be admired nowadays for their scathing satires on political corruption. Gay interprets them as banging another nail in the coffin, with their communist, anti-republican propaganda.

For a democracy to work a culture must believe in it, must want it. It must have enough functioning civil servants and politicians who believe in its structures and institutions, who support its values and ideas, to keep it working.

Gay singles out the second-phase Bauhaus under the influence of László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers from about 1925 onwards, determined to work with modern materials and confront modern design challenges, as an epitome of what should have been happening.

What Gropius taught, and what most Germans did not want to learn, was the lesson of Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment: that one must confront the world and dominate it, that the cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind of modernity. (p.106)

But Gropius was opposed, even within his own school, by more radical voices, communists who wanted to overthrow the existing system. Meanwhile from the outside, the Bauhaus faced right-wing nationalist opposition throughout its existence and was, finally, closed down by the Nazis soon after they came to power.

Gay’s book shows how, from top to bottom, from university historians to avant-garde film-makers and artists, from arcane philosophers to youth movements, from its architects to many of its leading politicians, the majority of the Weimar Republic’s intellectuals despised it, hated its ‘shallow’ urban values, despised the business-like compromises and deals which democracy requires.

Being passionate artists or historians entranced with Germany’s military past or philosophers of ‘Authenticity’, they preferred passion, blood, Kulturdas Volk, intuition… almost anything except reason and moderation.

Basically, the book could have been better titled The Weimar Republic and its Enemies. Or maybe The Weimar Republic: The Enemies Within. Or The Intellectual Malaise of the Weimar Republic.

After Hitler came to power it was common for foreigners to say, ‘How can Hitler and his gang of thugs have taken over the country of Bach and Mozart?’

Gay’s book goes to show how little the people who said that understood the Germany of the 1920s and 30s. His book explains the failure of intellectuals not so much to oppose Hitler (there were plenty of communist intellectuals who wrote, painted or acted against Hitler) but to do the more practical and needful thing – to actively support the Weimar democracy.

His book shows how the lack of support, indeed the widespread lack of understanding of what is required for a functioning democracy, goes a long way to explaining why the Weimar republic collapsed: not enough influential people believed in it or wanted it. They didn’t necessarily support Hitler but – on the evidence Gay presents here – for all sorts of reasons, they actively opposed the republic and the spirit of modern, secular, urban democracy which it represented.

Gay’s authority

And Gay speaks with more than academic authority. Peter Joachim Fröhlich was born in Berlin in 1923, at the height of the hyper-inflation which racked the Weimar Republic in that year. In 1941 he emigrated to America where he changed his surname to Gay, a close translation of Fröhlich which means ‘cheerfully’.

Gay studied history at the university of Denver, gained a PhD at Columbia, and then taught at Yale University from 1969 until his retirement in 1993. He wrote 25 history books, several of them becoming bestsellers, including a massive biography of Sigmund Freud (1988), and this study of Weimar culture.

So Gay was German, his friends and family were German. He was an impressionable teenager in the world he’s describing, and he mentions that some of his conclusions are drawn from direct conversations with key players in Weimar – Hannah Arendt (formidable intellect in her own right and one-time partner of Martin Heidegger), Walter Gropius, first director of the Bauhaus, and so on.

Reading through Gay’s systematic indictment of the leading minds of the Weimar Republic, marvelling at all the ways that German intellectuals failed to support, or actively undermined, their nation’s first attempt at democracy, tends to:

  1. profoundly worry you about the German national character
  2. make you distrust carping, sneering, ‘subversive’ public intellectuals even more than you already did

As I read the very last page with its poetic oration for the exiles forced to flee the advent of Hitler, I had a thought which Gay doesn’t mention. Maybe all the famous exiles from Hitler’s Germany, from Einstein to Brecht, from Schoenberg to Koestler, from Kurt Weill to Billy Wilder – if, as Gay suggests, they simply weren’t capable of supporting a sensible modern culture, well then maybe they could only thrive abroad in the stable environment provided by capitalist, democratic America. They were quite literally not capable of running a country of their own.


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