Sages and Holy Fools - Milan Kundera

WHAT JASON M. WIRTH likes about Milan Kundera is that the Czech writer prefers fog to absolutes. His “universe of the novel” is concerned less with ideal theories and abstractions than with the complex suchness of things. Like all great writers, Kundera celebrates the ambiguity of human existence — the epiphanies of the everyday.
The book takes its title from a passage in one of Kundera’s early novels The Joke, where the central character, Ludvik, says at one point:
We lived, I and Lucie, in a devastated world: and because we did not know how to commiserate with the devastated things, we turned away from them and so injured them, and ourselves as well.
Ludvik eventually reaches an awakening to a humble solidarity with human beings in their ineluctable folly and contradiction. He realizes that messy lived experience does not conform to preset ideas. And this preference for existential contingency over metaphysical necessity is what Wirth identifies with the true art of the novel, the comic savvy of fiction.
This savvy comes from a certain form of “idiocy,” which Wirth identifies with the modern tradition of the novel stretching from Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to the Central-European fictions of Broch, Musil, and Kundera himself. These form Wirth’s favored band of literary brothers. But there is no hint of Eurocentrism here. Wirth’s preferential option is deeply universalist.
The breadth of Wirth’s scholarship is staggering. His scholarly interests and sympathies are not confined to modern fiction but range over several great wisdom traditions. He traces the compassionate wisdom of devastated things back to the practices of Mahayana Buddhism (Wirth is himself a Buddhist priest) and to the Biblical tradition of the holy fool, typified by St. Paul when he celebrates the “nothings and nobodies” (ta onta) of this world and writes: “Though I am an idiot with regard to the logos, I am not one with regards to knowledge.” Or, again: “I am a fool for the sake of Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10). Wirth locates this same “idiot wisdom” in the legendary sermon of St. Francis to the birds, which teaches a carnal hermeneutics of ordinary life, turning mundane chaos into divine comedy. Idiot sages see ultimate truths in “the least of these.” Or, as another of Wirth’s favorite mystics, Stanislas Breton, aptly observed: “Francis peached to the birds as simply as to people, as if he read on this earth and its faces of shadow and light the universal transparency of the Sign of contradiction.”
Such wisdom is a folly for cheerless ideologues. It signals a mad mercy celebrated by the great spiritual traditions, East and West. But the idiot type is also a fragile creature whose inordinately excitable sensitivity cannot bear too much of this world. Holy fools suffer before the “unbearable lightness of being,” while never abandoning the daring of affirmation. It is a real dilemma: how to remain compassionate toward all sensate beings and still stay sane? Not easy. That is precisely the audacity — though never the heroism — of both wisdom teachers like Jesus and Siddhartha, and modern fictional characters like Don Quixote, Prince Myshkin, and the comic narrators of Kundera’s novels.
Opposed to idiocy is kitsch. The good novelist, Wirth argues, awakens us from the perjury of kitsch, defined as “the attitude of those who want to please the greatest number, at any cost.” Kundera’s novels perform a conversion from fake lyricism to the play of the comical. They return us to the “laughing gods” of Meister Eckhart and Hafiz. This mutation from philistinism to comic compassion is, Wirth argues, a fundamental experience in the curriculum vitae of the novelist:
separated from himself, he suddenly sees that self from a distance, astonished to find that he is not the person he thought he was. After that experience, he will know that nobody thinks he is the person he thinks he is, that this misapprehension is universal, elementary and that it casts on people the soft gleam of the comical.
The epiphany of commiseration, suddenly revealed, is the silent, deep reward for the novelist’s conversion. It makes us “fools for God” and brings us back to our senses. In this respect, we may say that Wirth’s book is as much a spiritual exercise as it is a literary exegesis. It expresses the ambidextrous labor of both a cultural critic and a practiced teacher.
Following Kundera, Wirth holds that kitsch is a form of perverse idealism. It is a way of seeing without seeing and thinking without thinking — a cult of pseudo-appearances and simulacra. Opposing the closed system of kitsch, we have the “open system” of art, a breathing living ecology that begins ever anew. Kundera and Broch locate this openness in the “universe of the novel,” where humor and irony serve as catalysts of the existential difference and complexity that kitsch denies. In the realm of kitsch, no one laughs; everything and everyone is serious, deadly serious. For kitsch never questions anything and adheres to a categorical agreement with the status quo (the tyranny of dogma).
Kitsch is a disease of spirit, but it is also a pathology of politics. The totalitarian fallacy of fakery is found not only in fascism and Stalinism — Kundera’s Prague endured both — but also in the political maladies of the post-truth United States. When fraudulence reigns supreme, the questioner, as philosopher or novelist (or both), has a critical role to play. Kundera’s appeal could not be more timely:
In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.
Holy idiots inhabit the world as singularities that are often unrecognizable and unacceptable to the public. The idiotic life is wise and merciful, but it is rarely popular. In this respect, it is crucial to distinguish, as Wirth does, between good and bad idiocy: between wise fools who trump power (“exposing themselves,” like Lear’s fool, “to feel what wretches feel”) and hollow buffoons who trumpet power.
The relevance of this distinction to contemporary political life in the United States could hardly be more apt. Coming conflicts may well take the form of a “Battle of the Clowns,” where Saturday Night Live and the Trump administration would face off in deadly combat. Wirth’s book — cleverly composed, hugely erudite, and always elegant — offers the reader a deep and timely hermeneutics of folly.
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