November 2, 1999

To those who are new to this newsletter on philosophy and literature, I say, “welcome to Phlit.” To those who were with us last month, I say, “welcome back.”

1. Kant

I never had much interest in Kant. I haven’t even read his chief works, such as his Critique of Pure Reason. He seemed to have little relevance to modern thinkers like Nietzsche, Freud and Jung. He didn’t seem to create literary works, but rather dry, obscure, quasi-scientific works. But now suddenly I’m eager to read Kant. Here’s why:

I’m the moderator of a book discussion group that meets monthly at a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. We’re called a Philosophy Discussion Group, though we range throughout the humanities — history, fiction, art history, etc. There’s usually only three to five people at the discussions, but the small size of the group hasn’t prevented us from having some lively meetings. Perhaps our best discussion was last month’s discussion of Kundera’s The Joke.

The group is currently reading Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, in the abridged version published by Penguin. I wasn’t looking forward to reading Schopenhauer since I’m familiar with his work, but once I started reading, I was captivated by the clarity of his style and the depth of his thought. And this isn’t the first time that the discussion group has forced me to read something that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, forced me to discover (or re-discover) a great book.

Schopenhauer was deeply indebted to Kant, and often discusses Kant’s ideas. Kant was the leading champion of the view that the world we perceive and the world that really exists are two different worlds. Example: we see a flower of a certain color. A bee, who sees a different spectrum of light, sees the same flower quite differently. Which is the “real” flower? My flower or the bee’s flower? What is the flower in itself, apart from any perceiver? We cannot know, said Kant. We cannot know the thing-in-itself.

We perceive things in space and time, but according to Kant, space and time don’t pertain to the real world (to the “thing-in-itself”), but only to the world as perceived by man (the phenomenal world, as Kant would say). As I thought about this idea — so vast, so abstract, so difficult to grab hold of and bite into — I was suddenly struck by its resemblance to the ideas of Einstein, Freud and Jung. Is it possible that Kant anticipated these three giants of twentieth-century thought? Is it possible that the work of these three thinkers was a confirmation of Kant’s theory? Didn’t Einstein say that space and time aren’t absolute, but relative to the perceiver (the perceiver’s position, speed, etc.)? Didn’t Freud say that time doesn’t exist for the unconscious? That the distant past can come to life in dreams? And didn’t Jung speak of the “relativization of time and space in the unconscious,”1 which makes possible psychic phenomena? “Nobody can say where man ends,” said Jung. “That is the beauty of it, you know; it’s very interesting. The unconscious of man can reach God knows where. There we are going to make discoveries.”2

2. James Van Praagh

James Van Praagh is perhaps the most well-known American psychic. His books have become bestsellers, and his TV appearances have generated much interest. He has a website. His chief claim is that he can communicate with the spirits of the dead. Though you probably don’t think that this is possible, if you see him performing, I think you’ll find it hard to deny that he really is communicating with the dead. The source of his remarkable ability is twofold: a natural proclivity, manifested at an early age, and long years of study and practice.

If he really can communicate with the dead, consider the implications: our view of death changes; we can’t regard death as complete extinction. Our whole view of reality changes; if a spirit can communicate, we have to explore the question, what is a spirit? What is matter? What is man? What is the unconscious? “Nobody can say where man ends.... The unconscious of man can reach God knows where. There we are going to make discoveries.”

People have warned me, “don’t mention psychic phenomena on TV, you’ll ruin your reputation.” But I’m writing for readers who are more interested in truth than respectability. I’ll leave it to academics to ignore psychic phenomena and achieve respectability. Aristotle said, “Plato is a friend, but truth is more than a friend.”

3. Kundera

Last night, I picked up Kundera’s book, The Art of the Novel, wondering if it would be suitable for our discussion group. I was deeply impressed. It’s literature about literature — one of my favorite genres. It’s a semi-philosophical work, a witty, profound, cultured book. I was fascinated by a chapter called “Sixty-three Words.” This chapter consists of sixty-three definitions — or rather, sixty-three aphorisms (Kundera points out that the Greek word for definition is “aphorismos”). A few of these definitions are humorous:

LETTERS They are getting smaller and smaller in books these days. I imagine the death of literature: Bit by bit, without anyone noticing, the type shrinks until it becomes utterly invisible.

Others are serious:

COLLABORATOR ....In the course of the war against Nazism, the word “collaboration” took on a new meaning: putting oneself voluntarily at the service of a vile power.... Now that the word has been found, we realize more and more that man’s activity is by nature a collaboration. All those who extol the mass media din, advertising’s imbecilic smile, the neglect of the natural world, indiscretion raised to the status of a virtue — they deserve to be called “collaborators with modernity.”

Such passages as this reveal Kundera as a fighter against philistinism, a fighter for culture, a fighter for culture by example as well as by precept. And isn’t that the best that can be said of a writer?

In the last edition of Phlit, I suggested that one of you, my dear subscribers, might write a biographical sketch of Kundera, but no one took up the suggestion. My curiosity about Kundera drove me to scour the web for information, but all I found (as often happens with web searches) was links, links to more links, fancy fonts, fancy wallpapers, etc.

Finally, in despair, I wrote e-mail to Friğrik Rafnsson, a Kundera fan from Iceland:

Re: the elusive Kundera
I’m curious to know: Is Kundera still alive? In good health? Living in Paris? Reclusive, or receptive to visitors? Involved in contemporary Czech affairs? Has children? Did he have the military camp experience that Ludvik has in The Joke? Does Ludvik = Kundera? Was his father killed by the Nazis, as Ludvik's father was? Etc., etc.

I received the following response:
Dear sir, I recommend you to re-read his novels, it’s all that counts. As you probably know, in The Art of the Novel he says that he wants, just like Flaubert, to disappear behind his work.

Thus I found myself in a debate about whether literature is subjective or objective. I began by asking, “did Flaubert really disappear behind his work?” Flaubert endowed his most famous character, Madame Bovary, with his own distaste for everyday reality; he once said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Flaubert said that he didn’t want to have children: “I desire my flesh to perish, and have no wish to transmit to anyone the humiliating impotencies and the ignominies of existence.”

True, Flaubert aimed to be objective, just as Kundera aims to be objective and to ‘disappear behind his work,’ but I don’t think either Flaubert or Kundera succeeded in attaining objectivity. Their work is all the more vivid and absorbing because it reflects their own feelings and experiences. Flaubert’s most interesting work, in my view, is his letters.

Kundera disagrees. Kundera thinks that we should ignore the creator, and concentrate on the creation: “The moment Kafka attracts more attention than Joseph K., Kafka’s posthumous death begins.... I refuse to put the Letters to Felice on the same level as The Castle.” But Kafka himself (according to his friend, Max Brod) liked biographies and autobiographies more than any other kind of literature. Indeed, Kafka took pains with his famous Letter to Father, and treated it as a literary work to be preserved with his other works; one might say that it was a Letter to Posterity, not a Letter to Father.

The best literature blends subjective and objective elements. Kundera and Flaubert aspired after objectivity, but didn’t attain it. I admire their fiction, but I disagree with their fiction-theory.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 4 back
2. C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, “1957” back