The Value of Literature
The Ethos of the Imagination
Does one reason why an artist's work survive rest on a certain comprehension concerning a hierarchy of values? Jonathan Coe and John Banville wonder whether Milan Kundera's work will last. Banville reckons: "a novel, even a novel by so engag a writer as Kundera, must be judged in terms of art, and not of its moral, social or political weight. There is too much spilt politics in The Unbearable Lightness [of Being]for its own good. What is remarkable, however, is that a work so firmly rooted in its time has not dated." He adds "The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate. And lightness, in art, more often seems like slightness." (Guardian) Coe says: "The feminist case against Kundera has been made often, perhaps never more eloquently than by Joan Smith in her book Misogynies, where she maintained that 'hostility is the common factor in all Kundera's writing about women'. By way of example she cited many passages including a deeply uncomfortable one from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which the narrator makes a secret rendezvous with a female magazine editor who has been putting herself at personal risk by commissioning articles from him. She is so nervous about the encounter, which takes place in an anonymous flat, that she loses control of her bowels." (Guardian)
Both Banville and Coe seem to be ambivalent about Kundera's significance, and both fall back on the problem of creating lifelike characters and situations that they feel Kundera has never been very attentive to. Banville says: "Why had so little remained for me? Is it the result of failing memory, or is there indeed an essential weightlessness to the book? The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a remarkable success when it was published in English in 1984 (this autumn will see an anniversary edition from Faber). Here was an avowedly "postmodern" novel in which the author withheld so many of the things we expect from a work of fiction, such as rounded characters." Coe believes: " Captivated by the philosophical brilliance of [The Unbearable Lightness of Being]...(and no doubt swayed, in the case of many male readers, by its chilly eroticism), Kundera's admirers were happy to accept its use of the existential code as a means of delineating personality; or, to put it in the terms of a more traditional literary criticism, they forgave the thinness of its characterisation. But characters tend to live longer in the memory than ideas."
What we want to try and do is suggest that this dichotomy between ideas and characterisation is an irrelevance within the history of writing: that, as Kundera himself would say, this is a nineteenth century notion of the novel imposing itself on literature, and needs to be countered. We also want to get rid of the idea that Kundera's work lacks great importance because of his attitude to women; that he is caught in a narrow notion of gender that our more enlightened times have little patience for. In both instances we are likely to fall into temporal specificity as the benchmark of values. Into the past for the qualities inherent in the novel; to the present for an ethical system. How to find a way of looking at a writer's work without ready hindsight or presumption? Not an easy task, perhaps an impossible one. But there is a world of a difference between the person who says they don't like watching black and white films, and someone saying that there is a problem with The Birth of a Nation. The former suggests a narrow prejudice based on inclination and technological advancement; the latter indicates a perception based on a much broader notion of value. It is to this broader notion that we want to appeal, and to, amongst others, the philosopher Spinoza, who brilliantly explores in Ethics different emotional states, and their ethical purpose.
With the aid of Spinoza we can say there are certain qualities Kundera's novels lack that might mean they won't quite 'last'. When for example Spinoza talks of derision he says: "derision is pleasure arisen from the fact that we imagine what we despise to be present in what we hate. In so far as we despise a thing, which we hate, thus far we rejoice. But as we suppose that man hates what he derides, it follows that this joy is not very staple." This doesn't mean derision doesn't have its place, but unless it seeks a 'higher' value, it remains a lowly feeling. There are passages in Slowness for example that never quite rise above the derisory, with Kundera bolstering the moments with philosophical musings, but the derisory remains the prominent response. Here the character Immaculata has been rejected by someone she is obsessed by and returns to her dedicated younger lover. In taking out her anger and dismay on the younger man, and as he asks her what is wrong, she says: "please go and gargle, I can't stand bad breath." But, the narrator notes, "he did not have bad breath, he was always well-scrubbed and scrupulously clean, therefore he knew she was lying, yet he goes docilely into the bathroom to do as he is ordered." The bad breath actually belongs to the man who rejects Immaculata, Berck, but she now transposes it on to the one she has power over rather than the one she does not. Yet Kundera can't quite find a higher value in this passage, and we are left feeling contempt for the man with the bad breath (an opportunistic media intellectual), Immaculata (whom Berck had once desired when they were teenagers and whom Immaculata now that Berck is a celebrity wants to seduce), and the young man who "in his pyjamas, will follow on her heels and will stick behind her like an adoring dog, and she wants them to go through the chateau like that, a tragi-grotesque couple, a queen and her mutt."
When Kundera suggests a bit of power on the young man's part things don't improve. "His will to submit has suddenly run out. He is filled with the desperate desire to stand up to this beauty who is humiliating him unjustly. He cannot muster the courage to slap her, beat her, but he feels all the greater need to do something irreparable, something vulgar and aggressive." Kundera doesn't achieve a higher value, but remains within lowly ones: two wrongs don't make a right here; they make for a comedy as Kundera turns the book into a farce. Earlier, a Czech scientist at the same chateau as Immaculata and the others, makes a fool of himself by failing to deliver a speech and instead focusing on the apparent goodwill everyone is feeling towards him as someone who had been unable to practise his profession under an oppressive regime. He milks the glory and then completely forgets the lecture. To protect his wounded ego he admires his still firm body in the mirror, goes down to the swimming pool at night for a swim, and sees a couple copulating. He stands oddly half-naked, and Immaculata and her man turn up. The scene descends into farce and it is often the operative word to describe fiction that seems to seek the truth not out of humour, but in humour. What is the difference? Peter Handke puts it quite well in a Die Zeit interview when he says: "It is always said that Kafka's readers laugh because his prose is so humorous. No, they laughed not at the joke, but at the truth. If something is striking, then one laughs. Humour is, after Goethe, an indication of a declining art. Kafka's art is so pure that it is true. At this, one must laugh." Instead of Kundera aspiring to a truth, in this instance he descends into farce and the higher value is lost.
In Kundera's work this is an occasional lapse; in Martin Amis's it is an active goal. In aProspect interview he says "people assume that it's the gloomy buggers that are the serious onesbut in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny. Yet there are whole reputations built on not being funny. Who's that German writer doesn't even have paragraph breaks?" Is he talking about Handke, or his fellow Austrian who is much more inclined to offer lengthy paragraphs, but would also hardly pass for the humourless, Thomas Bernhard? Amis here doesn't only offer a vague insult; he seems to miss the point of what literature does; what it might be there for. We have plenty TV programmes offering us humour, and we may have it heartily in our life without feeling obliged to parade it in our art. Yet there is an assumption in British fiction that writers have to be funny. In another Prospect piece by Julian Gough, Gough says: "no, the novel has not, in general, been able to seize its freedomit has not gone comic. This has consequences. An unnecessary tragic bias, in something so powerful, will cause a great deal of avoidable suffering. Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its revoltingly sentimental suicide note, depressed a generation and caused a wave of fashionable suicides across Europe."
We aren't at all saying comedy has no place in literature, but while Gough believes that the Ancients saw comedy as superior to tragedy, what matters isn't the comic but theperspective on the tragic. Humour without perspective gives us very little indeed, and partly why philosopher Henri Bergson is right to downplay it in and of itself. "We should begin by defining art in its higher forms: then, gradually coming down to comic poetry, we should find that this latter is situated on the border-line between art and life." (Laughter) Bergson sees that comedy is generally not high art partly because of its closeness to the immediacy of everyday living. It doesn't invite reflection; it benefits usually from a high degree of instantaneousness. Hence the notion that to explain a joke kills it. Comedy often allows us to feel close to our utilitarian self without quite becoming the hyper-sensitive figure great art requires. "Life is action. Life implies the acceptance only of the utilitarian side of things in order to respond to them by appropriate actions." Comedy allows us to deviate from the utilitarian, but not go beyond it. We find in art, Bergson would say, the individual versus the general. "This is the essential difference between tragedy and comedy, the former being concerned with individuals and the latter with classes." When Gough says that as "Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time's Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting" he assumes that central to the praise was the choice of subject matter and the absence of comedy. We would be inclined to agree with Gough that big subjects are no guarantee of great art, but the overt presence of comedy can be a good way of killing it completely. The latter can be a twofold problem. Firstly we agree with Bergson that often comedy can so generalise from the particular that no individuality will be extracted from the material. The result is caricature. The second is that the joke isn't integrated into the book but works like an aside within it. It functions like a joke during a lecture, a way to lighten the mood in a situation that remains social, but if the lecture were to be written up, the asides would add nothing to its content. The further danger is that the jokes become the content and the writer is reduced to a stand-up comedian in literary form.
We might not agree with Handke when he says in the Die Zeit interview, discussing American writers, that "Philip Roth is in the end only a master of ceremonies", but we might apply the principle to other writers less capable of incorporating the comic within a strong perspective. It is when the perspective is weak, when the jokes appear like a way of retreating from that strong point of view, we see the work becoming no more than funny. When Roth says in My Life as a Man, of women in the 1950s, "unattached and on her own, a woman was supposedly not even able to go to the movies or out to a restaurant by herself, let alone perform an appendectomy or drive a truck". If this is Roth on burgeoning feminism, here is Amis on apparently predictable masculinity. "He sensed he was a cliche - and sensed further that he'd even fuck thatup. Let's think. He ran away from home and moved in with a younger woman. Ran away? Linzi only lived across the street. Moved in? He was at a bed-and-breakfast in King's Cross. A younger woman? Mal was getting surer and surer that Linzi was, in fact, an older woman." There are in both writers a feelin of comedic cadence, a sense of moving towards the clever delivery. But Roth makes his point once, and contains the material within the plausible; Amis keeps pushing the humour and eventually obliterates the real into the gag. We see this as Amis adds that "one afternoon while she was enjoying a drugged nap, Mal had come across her passport. Linzi's date of birth was given as '25 August 19...' The last two digits had been scratched out, with a fingernail. Under the lamp you could still see a dot of nail polish...the same vampiric crimson she often used. Opposite, staring at him, was Linzi's face: delusions of grandeur in a Woolworth's photobooth. All he knew for certain was that Linzi had been born this century." Amis puts his sense of observation into exaggeration and condescension. Can we really believe she would scratch out the last two digits on her passport; what are we to make of Linzi's delusions of grandeur in a Woolworth's photobooth? Amis may insist that "as for the so-called socially inferior, I have devoted many hundreds of pages to them, in fiction, and only the lousiest novelist can write with a sneer" (The Independent). But isn't there a sneer evident in the use of Woolworth's in the same sentence as delusions of grandeur? Would it have worked so well if it had been John Lewis's?
We wouldn't disagree with Amis when he says that only the lousy novelists sneer, but we can find plenty of examples in his own work that suggests the lousy, and that returns us to our core topic: the question of values in literature. The narrator says inLondon Fields, "class! Yes, it's still here. Terrific staying power, and against all the historical odds. What is it with that old, old crap? The class system doesn't know when to call it a day. Even a nuclear holocaust, I think, would fail to make a dent in it." Here we might wonder if Amis is one of those perpetuating that class system. He is more than happy to play up class differences in nominal significance. There is the working class Keith Talent, against a wealthier character's son Marmaduke in London Fields; Mal, Fat Lol and Vic poverty stricken and strewn in The State of England. Class is again explicitly mentioned: "So class and race and gender were supposedly gone...all the really automatic ways people had of telling who was better or worse - they were gone...But for those on the pointed end of the operation...it wasn't just a decision...Some would never be admitted."
While there are writers we feel explicitly fighting for a different society which nevertheless arrives at crude writing, there are others who implicitly fight for a different society by seeing the social markers as irrelevant next to the subtlety of characterisation and perspective. If we might feel sometimes that the angry young men of the fifties, like John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow would often play up class conflict all the better to abolish its presence, and others were interested in the specifics of sensibility so that class becomes semi-irrelevant (Sebald, Berger and Ballard), Amis perhaps needs it more than most. It gives his work much of its comic energy, but removes from it much of its 'value', taking into account our remarks concerning Spinoza. The comic isn't a means to an end but the end itself, so ridicule, scorn, mockery and condescension don't find a higher value in honour, dignity, grace and wisdom, for example, but remain lowly values. If someone in a novel shows that they have little time for other people, that their own ambitions are more important than others' sensitivities, then it is important for the writer to show these limitations not from the ready moral point of view that shows them to be bad, but where they are shown to be inadequate.
This would be partly the difference between an average book and a great one: the degree to which the novel can pass through the deepest possible transmutation of values. If the work passes too easily towards the good, or too clearly through the comic, this transmutation cannot take place. The good is the carefully arced, with bad characters either acknowledging the error of their ways or, in one form or another dispatched: killed either by their own hand or others, or banished from the environment. If the comedy is the work's priority, again no transmutation can take place - the joke is the thing. When Handke says we laugh at the truth in Kafka, not at the joke, which merely contains the truth, then we see an example of transmutation. The joke carries a truth far greater than the diversion of the laugh. When Amis says in 'The Coincidence of the Arts' that "Rodney, over the years, had had his face slapped practically out of alignment, so often had his patter gone awry. He was a flatterer - by profession" there is the usual sense of exaggeration: the need for the easy laugh over the restrained observation. When Kafka says in The Trial: "it's often safer to be in chains than to be free", he is taking Rousseau's maxim and turning it inside out, but not for the sake of a quick laugh; more the slow realisation. If man is born free and is everywhere in chains, then birth is but a moment, the chains years of one's life. It might make us laugh but it is much more likely to make us think. Kafka's humour asks us to think twice; Amis's to laugh once.
Gough reckons "two and a half thousand years ago, at the time of Aristophanes, the Greeks believed that comedy was superior to tragedy: tragedy was the merely human view of life (we sicken, we die). But comedy was the gods' view, from on high: our endless and repetitive cycle of suffering, our horror of it, our inability to escape it." But the gods' view isn't that of the humorous; it is the dilution of small concerns that from one point of view are of course tragic, but from another, more cosmic one, not so very important. Gough appears to be confusing the comic with the cosmic, the need to laugh with the need to distance ourselves from petty concerns. Comedy without perspective can often lead to the removal of values rather than the augmenting of them. However, a certain type of irony can give us this sense of perspective without the comic and without offering a weaker value. In Irony, Claire Colbrooke says "tragic irony is exemplified in ancient drama and is intensified by the fact that most of the plots were mythic...In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for example, 'we' the (audience) can see what Oedipus is blind to. The man he murders is his father, but he does not know it. In doing so he not only does more than he intends, he also fulfils a destiny that he and the audience have heard at the opening of the play from the prophet Tiresias, but whose meaning only 'we' fully hear...." Oedipus Rex is ironic, but it isn't comedic, even if much irony is often played for laughs. But the difference between comic irony and cosmic irony is that we don't easily feel superior to the characters in the latter; where we often do in the former, and this is where we frequently have a weakening of values rather than their strengthening. A culture that prides itself on laughter perhaps needs to ask if is this is the wisdom of the gods or the ridicule of the superior. Let us assume that a writer tells us that all life is pointless and without value: do they manage to do so in a way that allows us to feel good about our own bad faith, misplaced desires and confused thoughts, or do they suggest that this is a failing of mankind, a weaker sense of self than we should perhaps aspire to?
This isn't simply about there being no moral point evident in the former instance, and a moral one in the latter. No, it is more that only if the former manages to pass through a version of the latter that it will likely have much validity as art. Ridicule has its uses, but it is as though a minor value as opposed to a major value. In other words a minor value can help us move towards a major one, but is not initself one of great importance. If we laugh at someone being ridiculed and someone asks why we are laughing, and we answer because it is funny, it is as if we are caught in a low tautology: we are laughing because we laugh and no higher value seems to come out of it. But if someone asks why we are laughing and we say that the person is acting pompously, as if they know it all and are in the process of belittling people, we avoid the tautology and arrive at a value that transcends the laughter. Spinoza here meets Bergson. "It need only be noted a comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself. The comic person is unconscious," Bergson notes. "As though wearing the ring of Gyges with reverse effect, he becomes invisible to himself while remaining visible to all the world." The healthy comic perspective will allow the reader to see themselves in the invisibility of the character to himself, and the character may, through the narrative, see the absurdity of his own actions and see the comedic error of his ways."When Spinoza says that "the actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone, but passions depend on inadequate ideas alone we might wonder if laughter is a certain type of passion that initself is not an adequate idea. This is evident if we laugh at someone who staggers along the street and they bounce off one wall and into a lamp-post. If we find that the person isn't drunk at all but is suffering from a debilitating illness which means they can't control their motor functions, what have we been laughing at? The exact same action takes on a very different value according to whether we assume the person has been drinking too much or happens to be disabled. The higher value in our laughing at the drunk man rests on the importance of moderation. There is no higher value to be found in laughing at the person with a disability. If Bergson can say that "comedy can only begin at the point where our neighbour's personality ceases to affect us. It begins, in fact, with what might be called a growing sense of callousness to social life," then what is it that can contain the callous nature of comedy within a value that is not callous, while still allowing for the humorous?
We have invoked Kundera as a figure who is a brilliant writer that nevertheless occasionally fails to find a higher value in his use of the comic. But Kundera is a fine writer partly because he is not unaware of this challenge, and has written about it in various manifestations. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting he talks about two kinds of laughter. "World domination, as everyone knows, is divided between demons and angels. But the good of the world does not require the latter to gain precedence over the former...all it needs is a certain equilibrium of power. If there is too much uncontested meaning on earth (the reign of the angels), man collapses under the burden, if the world loses all its meaning (the reign of the demons), life is every bit as impossible." Kundera then adds: "things deprived suddenly of their putative meaning, the place assigned them in the ostensible order of things (a Moscow-trained Marxist assigned who believes in horoscopes), make us laugh." "Initially, therefore, laughter is the province of the Devil" Kundera says. "It has a certain malice to it (things have turned out differently from the way they tried to seem), but a certain beneficent relief as well (things are looser than they seemed, we have greater latitude in living with them, their gravity does not oppress us." In a version of the devil having not only the best tunes but the best gags also, Kundera reckons while the devil's laughter points out the meaningless of things, the angel's shout rejoices in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth is. This is Dionysus versus Apollo, with Kundera insisting that the angels have tricked us: "their imitation laughter and its original (the Devil's) have the same name. People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely, contradictory internal attitudes."
We often come across a humour that is hollow - a laughter that smooths out a social situation rather than generating anything perceptually new. It is the polite chuckle of someone who laughs at a joke they don't get or that isn't especially funny. But the Dionysian laugh, the devilish laugh, would seem, to Kundera, to be the real thing. This is humour that is willing to be impolite, socially troublesome, and refuse ready hierarchies. Yet no matter how devilish the humour, should it remain on the side ofvalue? This is complicated, and we will leave the problem to one side for the moment and yet remain with Kundera, this time refrencing an essay in The Curtain where he talks about Agelasts. "There are people whose intelligence I admire, whose decency I respect, but with whom I feel ill at ease: I censor my remarks to avoid being misunderstood, to avoid seeming cynical, to avoid wounding them by some frivolous word. They do not live at peace with the comical." This is perhaps where the question of values comes in. Sometimes the darkest of humour, the most apparently cynical of remarks, is required to oppose oppressive forces that gentle humour could not counter. It would be like offering an aspirin when an antibiotic is required. The polite laugh will do nothing to get at the social disease. Ridicule is not initself much of a value, just as antibiotics isn't something we want in our bodies unless we really have to fight something. The best comedy is often the most virulent because it has to fight very strongly a social disease that won't go away without anything less than the use of the ridiculous. Even if the scabrous laughter doesn't topple a regime, it can, at the very least, give a perspective to the people of the injustice, corruption and complacency concerning those in power. Comedy, we are thus saying, is a corrective device; a secondary value. Given the choice between a corrupt government and the opportunity to laugh at it, and a healthy democracy that has little reason to be mocked and scorned who, except comedians, would prefer the former? Obviously it is unlikely that there will ever be such a wonderfully democratic government, and even if there happened to be, we would still see many opportunities in our daily lives where strong, devilish humour will be necessary to counter all sorts of micro power structures.
It is time to return again to Handke's remark (Kafka is funny because he is true; and Handke's belief that the comedic has little place in literature) and Julian Gough's insistence that humour very much does have a place in fiction. "Evelyn Waugh became perhaps the greatest English novelist of the 20th century by applying a flawless, deadpan, comic technique to everything from modern manners to modern warfare. PG Wodehouse developed the purest comic style of his age but, unlike Waugh, felt no need to apply it to real life. The great comic writers do survive, but are seldom seen as great till much later. The tragic bias remains deep in the industry." We would be more inclined to say the bias rests in the culture: a quite different thing. When Gough says that Voltaire was praised for his early tragedies and locked up for his satires this doesn't negate our point, but maybe proves it. If comedy is frequently an antidotal thing, then it is fighting a force that wants to survive, and does whatever it feels it needs to do for that survival. A writer who takes on a government with the tools of comedy, can't be entirely surprised when the government fights back with its tool; oppression. Whether comedy indicates freedom and social change (as in Voltaire), or the forces of conservatism (as in Waugh's work), the comedic is often a means by which to confirm society's values or to counter them, but perhaps they are still too close to the societalrather than the cultural.
When Handke insists Kafka is true rather than funny, he would seem to be using truth here very fundamentally to mean a value that goes beyond the easily humorous or the societally abrasive. Kafka doesn't offer easy laughs or ready satire: one reason the Kafkan or Kafkaesque has such a lasting resonance rests on its refusing to have an immediate target, nor an immediate function. In other words it isn't criticising anything in particular, and doesn't want an instant, humorous response. It goes beyond giving us a laugh and goes beyond providing us with a message. This would be the sort of truth Handke expects from literature: as he says in an interview with June Schlueter "what one really wants with writing is that beauty achieves permanence." (Studies in 20thCentury Literature)
This is where the value of literature resides in its absence as a function: it isn't there to make us laugh or to change society. So what is literature there for if we disagree so fundamentally with Gough's claim that "no, the novel has not, in general, been able to seize its freedomit has not gone comic", as he invokes the problem with Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. It is not Goethe's fault that many people killed themselves after reading his book, just as many reading Steppenwolf could respond in ways narrower than Hermann Hesse's aims. As Hesse says: "these readers, it seems to me, have recognized themselves in the Steppenwolf, identified themselves with him, suffered his griefs, and dreamed his dreams, but they have overlooked the fact that this book knows of and speaks about other things, besides Harry Haller and his difficulties." Hesse shouldn't have written a less tragic book than Steppenwolf so that his readers wouldn't misconstrue his purpose. All Goethe and Hesse could hope for were good readers; readers willing to read the book and find not only their own hopes and fears within it. When Handke quotes Ingeborg Bachmann's "I long for you, reader" he adds, "I don't look down upon readers. All I want is to be read." But the writer cannot control the reception of a book, and can only hope for the subtlest and most nuanced of receivers, those who will find more than themselves in a work. If someone says a book talks to them, then they must also acknowledge it is talking to others too, and not always in quite the same way. Is the good reader one who acknowledges this?
When Martin Amis defends the importance of humour he says: "I mean, look at them all: Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Smollet, Fielding, they're all funny. All the good ones are funny. Richardson isn't, and he's no good. Dostoyevsky is funny: The Double is a scream. Tolstoy is funny by being just so wonderfully true and pure. Gogol, funny. Flaubert, funny. Dickens. All the good ones are funny." But the question isn't whether there is humour in the book, but whether the humour in it happens to be true or not. Does it play for laughs or plumb for meaning? If it finds laughs in its search for meaning then all well and good, but to make the humour the point and purpose seems to deny some of the values we have been seeking out. "Immoderate laughter is a sign of weakness", Cesare Pavese says in This Business of Living, "just as much as weeping. They both leave you utterly exhausted. In general, everything that robs you of your senses is a sign of weakness. The greatest weakness is to die." Pavese of course did exactly that; taking his own life just as young Werther did almost two centuries earlier, and ostensibly over a love affair too. But it would seem that Pavese's death was, in Al Alvarez's terms, born, not made. It wasn't a failed love affair that killed him, but a failure that would go much further back. "Today I see clearly that from 1928 until now (1950) I have always lived under this shadow." But Alvarez says in 1928 Pavese was already twenty: from what we know of his desolate childhood - his father dead when he was six, his mother of spun steel, harsh and austere - the shadow was probably on him much earlier: at twenty he simply recognized it for what it was." (The Savage God)
Some might insist that Pavese's remark about immoderate laughter being a sign of weakness marks him out as an agelast, but we need to differentiate between the humourless and those who demand so much from humour that the ready laugh needs to be earned rather than offered. As a rule a stand-up comedian will be much funnier than even Flaubert in Bouvard and Pecuchet, or Roth in Portnoy's Complaint. The humour for the comedian is the raison d'etre and the context often provides for laughter's proliferation. It is the done thing to have a few pints and listen to a comedian, but literature would seem to demand a sobriety in imbibing that is matched by a sobre realisation that literature's purpose is not to be funny; never to be easy on the reader but hard on them.
In Roberto Bolano's brilliant short story 'Days of 1978', near the end of it the narrator says: "this is where the story should end, but life is not as kind as literature." Here a character B meets someone else, U, at a party and argues politically with him, sees him and hears about him over a period of time, before meeting him again at another party. At this party B tells the story of a Russian film (it is obviously Andrei Rublev), and U is in tears after the telling. This is more or less where the narrator says the story should end. But instead it continues for another page or so and the main character hears that this person he barely knew had got off a train going from Spain to France, and had taken his own life. Why do we mention Bolano's story? Perhaps to say that just as literature isn't about the easy dichotomy between the humorous and the humourless, nor is it about the optimistic versus the pessimistic. Bolano is, here, nothing if not "a gloomy bugger", as Amis would say, but it is often the serious ones that cannot help but see a story through to its deepest value. This value might remain inexplicable, but that is part of the purpose. If the story had ended with B and U friends thanks to the way in which B talks about Andrei Rublev, then the story would have suggested no more than that U could be a difficult character on occasion, yet capable of reconciliation with others, but Bolano indicates that there are sides to people that cannot be explained and explored: that at a certain point we have to admit defeat in the face of a person's existence. It is often this inexplicability comedy cannot easily reach, as if the humour demanded suggests a certainty the so-called serious writer resists. When the narrator says that U confuses Marx with Feuerbach, Che Guevara with Frantz Fanon, he talks about his "crackpot erudition', but Bolano doesn't utilise this for comic relief, he instead wants to try and comprehend something of this man's fragility. This is what R. D. Laing would call ontological insecurity. "If a position of primary ontological security has been reached, the ordinary circumstances of life do not afford a perpetual threat to one's own existence, If such a basis for living has not been reached, the ordinary circumstances of everyday life constitutes a continual and deadly threat." Is U so moved by the description of the film because it is about someone who manages to build a bell after claiming his father taught him how to do it, only for others to discover that actually his father hadn't taught him at all: he built it on the basis of watching his father work and remembered how he did it, and cries with relief when the bell works because he had no idea whether it would work? The young bell builder trusts his instincts and survives. It is as though U doesn't and can't: he is riddled with ontological insecurity.
Many a comedic character will show his insecurities, but this is the social insecurity of somebody who feels awkward in social situations; the ontologically insecure feels terrified in the face of being. Perhaps it might have resided partly in a childhood trauma, but that doesn't mean it can be reduced to that, and certainly the framework by which one lives in the wake of that incident creates its own world of fragility. Thus when Alvarez talks of Pavese's desolate childhood - we wouldn't entirely agree with his take on the Italian writer. But we might muse over the very seriousness of Pavese's work: the sense in which it was excavating a crisis it could never bring to the surface. When Handke wonders whether there is a place for the comedic in literature, it rests partly on the problem of whether one can get to the bottom of the character even if you accept that there is no bottom, rather than staying close to the surface and offering a comic explicability. Bolano in his brilliant short story knows that there is a value he is seeking out that possesses an onto-logic, and that logic concerns a certain notion of insecurity. This is one that can't be explored on the social surface, but must find its meaning in the ontological depths - and thus in the unfathomable.
Yet perhaps for writers like Amis and Gough, searching out the unfathomable is simply a sign of failure, and they would be in good company: T S Eliot hints at something similar in his essay on Hamlet. Seeing the play as a failure next to the achieved art ofMacbeth or Coriolanus, Eliot says that Shakespeare cannot quite find the dramatic means by which to express Hamlet's mother's guilt. Eliot acknowledges that we all have this problem on occasion: "the intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a study to pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feeling to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions." (Hamlet and his Problems) Yet for Eliot artistic creation resides in its containment: we must make art as we make a well-tailored suit.
When Elliot says, "probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the "Mona Lisa" of literature", we might suggest that if Hamlet has proved so important a Shakespeare play it is partly because what many want from art is that it be 'interesting' - that it is not contained unto itself. Of course to say that in the modern era, with its uncertainty principles and its constant sense of change, we need art that is irregular and messy is a certain type of fallacy: the fallacy of expressive form. But if art too easily settles for creating a contained world then it can seem like it lacks attention to the messiness that we seek in aesthetic experience as much as we are drawn to the order contained by it.
Let us think here of two antithetical positions concerning the value of literature: Tolstoy's in What is Art? and Hermann Broch's in Geist and Zeitgeist. Tolstoy says "one indisputable sign that distinguishes true art from counterfeit art is the infectiousness of art. If a man, without any effort on his own part and without any change in his situation, having read, heard or seen a work by another man, experiences a state of mind which unites him with this man and with others who perceive the object of art in the same way as he does, then the object which calls up such a state is an object of art." Broch sees things in slightly different terms. Distinguishing between beauty and the good in art he says: "good work must be able to connect in a certain way to the epistemological nature of art, to the discovery of new insights and new forms of seeing and experiencing that confer the character of universal truth not just to fine arts or to literature but to the entire range of art." Tolstoy would generally suggest that it is the new-fangled that is getting in the way of great art; Broch would be inclined to see that it has to go through the new. Tolstoy says: "art in our society has become perverted to such a degree that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very notion of what art is has been lost, so that, in order to speak of art in our society, one must first of all distinguish true art from counterfeit." Broch says: "it is almost as though literature had been obliged to go through all the hells of art for art's sake before it could undertake the extraordinary task of bringing all esthetic elements under the dominion of the ethical." Interestingly Broch sees the comical coming out of the aesthetic and into the ethical, and some might see in much art of the 20th century that this is consistent with the absurd. "Almost as though all the old value associations had really to be experienced completely, in order that the comical - a component that was lacking in Goethe's totality - might develop out of the decay of the pathetic." Tolstoy is interested in ethics as much as Broch, but sees modern art as a useless diversion and not a necessary stage, seeing much contemporary work "a means of brutalizing and corrupting people."
The most important difference between Tolstoy and Broch rests perhaps on the religious values of Tolstoy, and the absurdist values of the Austrian writer. Tolstoy points up the importance of God in art; for Broch the significant resides in death. "Everything we know as 'value' and which deserves that name aims at the nullification and overcoming of death." Any comic vision evident is not based on a set of presuppositions; more on the horror of their absence. Here we have two ostensibly antithetical positions, but perhaps they are not so far apart if we insist that both demand meaning. One seeks it in the religious depths of our culture; the other in the absurd realisation that we have nothing but death awaiting us. What neither position accepts is art as diversion, as a means by which to entertain us. A value in literature must go beyond the diversion and console us in the face of impending death. Thus when we opened on comments by Banville and Coe on Kundera, what we wanted to do was rescue Kundera from cosmetic criticism that doesn't go far enough: that can attack him for being dated while we feel like the criticisms made are in danger of being modish. After all, modishness is just datedness before the event. If we are to ask what matters in Kundera's work it isn't that he is politically incorrect, but that he hasn't been nuanced enough in his exploration of character and ethos. Equally, we wouldn't want to say that his work is shallow because he doesn't create properly rounded characters that reflect 'life'. We wouldn't be finding value in Kundera's work - we would be falling into ready values about what art happens to be.
What matters most is the creation of value, the acknowledgement of a certain unavoidable hierarchy. This is one that needn't be fixed, whilst acknowledging it can't simply be tampered with either. In other words scorn is usually a lower value than wisdom, dishonesty than truth, humility more important than arrogance. But in certain circumstances the lower value might be necessary to conquer a corruption elsewhere. Humility in the face of Royalty for a Republican would be worse than arrogance, which could be used to counter the assumption that power is natural. Scorn can be used to go against received wisdom, evident in an instance when someone is told to obey their betters aware that these 'betters' are exploiting them. And of course then there is lying over honesty, that rickety thought experiment used to counter Kant's categorical imperative. If you were hiding a Jew in your basement, would you tell the truth to the Nazi who is looking for him?
Yet of course all things being equal truth is better than dishonesty and so on. If art has an ethical purpose it perhaps rests on this problem: of accepting that values are universal in principle and variable in practice. But if the artist does not understand the subtlety involved in this relationship between the universal (whether towards the religious or towards the mortal) the art will fail. If we see very occasionally this failure on Kundera's part, and see it frequently on Amis's, then we cannot merely reject the artist on the too ready values of our present age. We must try and see in their ethos a failure in the presence of the universal, and the subtlety of the hierarchy of values. Anything less is to take the pulse of our times, or settle too easily for the values of the timeless.
© Tony McKibbin