The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Humans losing touch with humour
Review by Shelley Walia

Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts
by Milan Kundera.
Faber & Faber, London. Pages.280 £ 16.99.

THERE are essays which are serious or entertaining; and this essay has both. There are very few that give a fresh perspective on art and existence and force the reader to reassess his own life and views on the art of the novel.

Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine PartsLike Rabelais, Milan Kundera’s "Testaments Betrayed" has an astounding richness; it has every thing: the plausible and the implausible, allegory and satire, ordinary men and anecdotes, meditations and scholarly disputes, voyages real and fantastic and, on top of all, digressions of pure verbal virtuosity. Such digressions of Kundera, though disquieting, are full of informative connections and rather original re-readings of Rabelais, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Mann, Hemingway, Faulkner, Musil, Kafka and Salman

Rushdie. Kundera nostalgises "for the superbly heterogeneous universe of those earliest novelists and for the delightful liberty with which they dwelt on it".

He praises Rushdie as well as Rabelais for their fundamental notion of humour which is bound with the birth of the novel. He goes back to Octavio


Paz to elaborate on this: "There is no humour in Homer or Virgil; Ariosto seems to foreshadow it, but not until Cervantes does humour take shape . . .

Humour is the great invention of the modern spirit." Take for instance

Rabelais’ "Fourth Book" in which Pantagruel’s boat meets a merchant ship carrying sheep. The merchants make fun of Panurge who cleverly buys a sheep and then chucks it into the sea. This moves the other sheep to follow suit.

The merchants frantically cling on to their fleece, but are themselves dragged into the sea. As they drown, Panurge holds forth on the miseries of this world and the fortunes of the next. And when admonished by Frere Jean as to why he had paid first before taking possession of the sheep, he gleefully retorts: "By God, I got a good fifty thousand franc’s worth of fun for it."

One can here ask what the purpose of the scene could be? Does it have a moral? Is it an attack on the merchant class? Or is the writer annoyed by such heartlessness? What is obvious is the ambiguity of the purpose of the novel with a deep-seated obsession with the underlying element of humour, which can never be denied; whosoever denies it has not understood Rabelais’ art of the novel.

Kundera is of the opinion that joy lies in responding to the humour rather than in passing any moral judgement: "From the view-point of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil." Judgement has no place in the novel and it least of all concerns the writer. This is Kundera’s chief thrust at the outset.

Kundera examines the experience of banishment - his own as well as that of Stravinsky, Conrad, Nabokov and Gombrowicz — and a moving assault on the changing moral judgements and persecutions of art and artists from Celine to Mayakovsky to Rushdie. He is a fervent guardian of the ethical privileges of the artist and the reverence due to a work of art and its creator’s desires. The betrayal of both is one of the central arguments of the book.

For example, Kundera has a second look at Kafka and reprimands the disfiguring lens forced on his writings by his comrade and literary executor, Max Brod. The title of this book, "Testaments Betrayed" has allusions to Max Brod’s betrayal of Kafka’s presumed appeal that his writing be destroyed after his death. In Kundera’s view, Brod betrayed Kafka by creating the parable of the tormented saint whose novels express the nasty retribution in store for those who do not pursue the course of uprightness and rectitude.

Translators and literary critics resort to irrelevant judgements always looking "for a position (political, philosophical, religious, whatever) in a work of art rather than searching it for an effort to know, to understand, to grasp this or that aspect of reality." Kundera shows how one of Stravinsky’s friends, the conductor Ernest Ansermet, attempted to distort his music; and how a biographer befuddled Hemingway’s work with his life. This comes as an unswerving clash with the autonomy of art.

Milan Kundera unwaveringly stands up against the building of a system, especially that which springs from one’s ideas. He doggedly resorts to Nietzsche’s command that we should never "corrupt the actual way our thoughts come to us". Like music, we must go on playing with our ideas, an exercise quite familiar to Kundera, the virtuoso pianist who believes in the autonomy of art. The case is argued through the works of modern artists like Stravinsky, Kafka, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Witold Gombrowicz and the Czech composer Leos in his earlier work, "The Art of the Novel".

The chapter on Stravinsky is rather fascinating, especially for its far-fetched analogy of two halves of a soccer game to the rhythmic development of music and the novel in Europe. He explains: "The caesuras, or halftime breaks . . . do not coincide. In the history of music, the break stretches over a big part of the 18th century (the symbolic apogee of the first half occurring in Bach’s ‘The Art of the Fugue’, and the start of the second half in the works of the earliest Classical composers); the break in the history of the novel comes a little later: between the 18th and the 19th centuries — that is, between Laclos andd Sterne, on the one side, and, on the other, Scott and Balzac."

Kundera is here emphatically arguing that modernism has been a "third (or overtime) period" in which the supreme works of fiction have tried to re-establish the first half by rebuffing "any obligation to give the reader the illusion of reality: an obligation that reigned supreme throughout the novel’s second half." This is achieved through the "playful transcription" of Dickens by Kafka or the rewriting of Diderot by Kundera, in his play "Jacques and His Master", and Stravinsky’s transformation of the entire history of music and settling down in it as if it were his abode.

Modern-day fundamentalism might get provoked by Kundera’s thesis that religion and the novel are incompatible and, therefore, the novel concerns itself with humour or, in other words, "profanation" literally meaning (in Latin) "outside the temple". Thomas Mann has done it in "Joseph and His Brothers" by revealing how God is the invention of Abraham. Profanity is not an offence but an element of customary behaviour; is it not apparent that Rushdie wants to show that "the Holy Scriptures make us laugh"?

Fiction thus comes to our defence in countering any notion of shame which "is one of the key notions of the Modern Era", Kundera argues, "the individualisti period that is imperceptibly receding from us these days; shame: an epidermal instinct to defend one’s personal life; to require a curtain over the window; to insist that a letter addressed to A not be read by B."

"Like a dog!," Kundera quotes Kafka’s K. as saying when he is dying of his stab wound; "it was as if the shame of it must outlive him." Kundera comments: "The last noun in "The Trial": "shame." Its last image: the faces of two strangers, close by his own face, almost touching it, watching K.’s most intimate state, his death throes. In that last noun, in that last image, is concentrated the entire novel’s fundamental situation (which is the) transformation of a man from subject to object experienced as shame).

The meaning attributed to words can never have a one-hundred-percent guarantee, being always contaminated by their opposite. Structuring and categorising reality is not all that simple. Can we really attain a more realisable view of things in this world of mere representations underpinned by nothing but the non-transparency of language? Thus we distrust the very notion of reason, and the idea of the human being as an independent entity.

This deep-seated scepticism and the world of fiction burns away the intellectual ground on which objectification stands. It is the subjective that presents the rallying point against any "body-snatching" ideology.