February 5, 2000

1. Kafka

While reading the final chapters of The Trial, I was impressed by the cathedral scene, which is certainly one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. And I was struck once again by Kafka’s obsession with moonlight; at the end of the novel, when Joseph K. is brought to a quarry to be executed, we’re told that “the moon shone down on everything with that simplicity and serenity which no other light possesses.” The worst chapter in the novel is, in my opinion, Chapter 8, the chapter about Block. It’s the only chapter that ends with the phrase, “[This chapter was never completed.]” Perhaps Chapter 8 should have been published in an appendix, along with the other unfinished chapters. If Kafka disliked that chapter as much as I do, that might explain why he left it in an unfinished state. I suspect that Kafka would be pained to hear that Chapter 8 is now read all over the world.

Why do I dislike that chapter so much? It’s perverse, morbid; it shows the utter degradation of a human being. Like K., Block is a client of a lawyer named Huld. Block’s attitude toward Huld is one of trembling submission; “the client ceased to be a client and became the lawyer’s dog. If the lawyer were to order this man to crawl under the bed as if into a kennel and bark there, he would gladly obey the order.”

2. Nietzsche

I’m fascinated by Nietzsche’s remarks on the ideal poet: “he will scent out those cases in which, in the midst of our modern world... the great and beautiful soul is still possible, still able to embody itself in the harmonious and well-proportioned and thus acquire visibility, duration and the status of a model, and in so doing through the excitation of envy and emulation help to create the future.”1 I’m fascinated by the idea that an imaginative writer can “help to create the future,” can mold and inspire people. Nietzsche’s ideal poet is the opposite of the modern poet; the modern poet doesn’t depict a “great and beautiful soul,” but rather concentrates on the morbid, the perverse, the sadistic, characters like Block.

When I read Nietzsche’s remark at our discussion group, one person said that Nietzsche’s “great and beautiful soul” would be awfully boring, and nobody in our group thought that Nietzsche’s ideal poet was possible or desirable. But Nietzsche’s idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem; after all, Greek and Latin poets generally depicted people who were larger-than-life, better than actual people. As Aristotle said, “Sophocles might be called an imitator of the same kind as Homer, for they both represent good men.”2 Greek sculptors also depicted people who were super-human, but close enough to us that we respond to them. Greek art had an idealizing tendency. Renaissance culture, which followed ancient models, also had an idealizing tendency. Is an idealizing tendency possible today? Will Nietzsche’s ideal poet arise in our time?

3. Kundera

Kundera’s book, The Art of the Novel, contains a chapter on Kafka. I was pleased to see that Kundera shares my view that Kafka is fundamentally a humorous writer: “When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.... The comic is inseparable from the very essence of the Kafkan.”3 Kundera argues that Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is about an offender who seeks punishment, while The Trial is about an arrested person who seeks his offense, who seeks an answer to the question, “What have I done wrong?” I think this is a mis-reading of Kafka. K. isn’t preoccupied with the cause of his arrest.

Paul Goodman, author of a book called Kafka’s Prayer, says that the reader may wonder why K. is arrested, but K. himself “takes the unknown charge quite for granted.”4 Goodman’s book is a penetrating Freudian view of Kafka and Kafka’s work. Kundera’s disdain for Freudian interpretations has, in my view, caused him to fall into some mis-readings of Kafka. But Kundera’s Art of the Novel is a masterpiece of literary style, while Goodman’s book is unimpressive as literature. It’s difficult to make Freudian theories into good literature; Freudian theories can be applied everywhere, and they must be used with restraint and taste.

The Spanish philosopher Ortega wrote, “The genre of the novel, if it is not yet irretrievably exhausted, has certainly entered its last phase.”5 Pessimism about the future of the novel is widespread. But Kundera doesn’t share that pessimism; Kundera is bullish on the future of the novel. He thinks that future novelists can explore four avenues: play, dream, thought, time:

PlayKundera praises Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste: “They reach heights of playfulness, of lightness, never scaled before or since. Afterward, the novel got itself tied to the imperative of verisimilitude, to realistic settings, to chronological order.”6 Kundera is fond of the older novelists, of the pre-Balzac novelists. He’s fond of their wide-ranging, free-spirited approach; they admit frankly that they are writers, novelists, they don’t try to create a realistic world.
DreamKafka achieved “the fusion of dream and reality.... His enormous contribution is less the final step in a historical development than an unexpected opening that shows that the novel is a place where the imagination can explode as in a dream.”
ThoughtMusil and Broch made the novel “the supreme intellectual synthesis. Is their achievement the completion of the novel’s history, or is it instead the invitation to a long journey?”7 Broch seems to be Kundera’s favorite novelist, the novelist who had the greatest influence on him.
TimeThe novelist of the future can break the boundaries of one lifetime, and discuss an entire civilization, an entire millennium. “Aragon and Fuentes have already tried this.”8

While lavishing praise on Kafka, Broch and Musil, Kundera is less fond of Joyce and Proust. He doesn’t think that Joyce and Proust are in touch with modern realities: “The time was past when man had only the monster of his own soul to grapple with, the peaceful time of Joyce and Proust. In the novels of Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, the monster comes from outside and is called History ... it is impersonal, uncontrollable, incalculable, incomprehensible — and it is inescapable.”9

I reject the notion that we’re controlled by outside forces, that the modern world is a trap. I believe that we can find peace and freedom within ourselves, perhaps with the help of Zen. Kundera’s description of the world may be true of Stalin’s Russia, or of Stalin’s Prague, but it isn’t true of the world that I live in. The modern economy isn’t an economy of obedient functionaries, like the economy of Kafka’s time. The modern economy prizes initiative and creativity. The industrial age has given way to the information age, but Kundera doesn’t take account of this change.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a fan of the modern world, I’m not more fond of the modern world than Kundera is. I disagree with some aspects of Kundera’s description of the modern world, but I share his view that the modern world is an inhospitable place for culture. Kundera wrote, “The novel cannot live in peace with the spirit of our time;” it must develop “against the progress of the world.”10 I agree. I agree that the modern world, pervaded by business, media, etc., is not a friendly environment for the novel, for literature in general, for any type of higher culture. Where I differ with Kundera is that I believe it’s possible for us to retire from the world, to create a space within ourselves that is beyond the reach of historical forces.

Descartes called man the “master and proprietor of nature.” Kundera says that man is no longer the master of anything, he “is master neither of nature (it is vanishing, little by little, from the planet), nor of History (it has escaped him), nor of himself (he is led by the irrational forces of his soul).”11 There is a deep truth here, but Kundera has carried it too far; man has more mastery than Kundera thinks. Kundera goes on to say that if God is no longer master, and man is no longer master, then the earth is hurtling through the void with no one at the steering wheel. “There it is, the unbearable lightness of being.”12 No, I don’t agree! It’s true that being is light, but this lightness isn’t at all unbearable. Zen teaches us to become as light as being itself, Zen teaches us not only to find the lightness of being “bearable,” but to rejoice in this lightness.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Assorted Opinions and Maxims, #99 back
2. Poetics back
3. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, Harper & Row (paperback), V, 2, p. 104 back
4. IV, 7 back
5. Notes on the Novel back
6. I, 8, p. 15 back
7. ibid, I, 8, p. 16 back
8. ibid back
9. ibid, I, 6, p. 11.

Hasek wrote The Good Soldier Schweik (or Švejk). I recommend the translation by Cecil Parrott (illustrations by Josef Lada). Parrott also translated a volume of Hasek’s short stories, and wrote a biography of Hasek. back

10. ibid, I, 10, p. 19 back
11. ibid, II, p. 41 back
12. ibid back