The CurtainAn Essay in Seven Parts
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Milan Kundera
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780060841867
The Consciousness of Continuity
They used to tell a story about my father, who was a musician. He is out with friends someplace when, from a radio or a phonograph, they hear the strains of a symphony.
The friends, all of them musicians or music buffs, immediately recognize Beethoven's Ninth. They ask my father, "What's that playing?" After long thought he says, "It sounds like Beethoven." They all stifle a laugh: my father doesn't recognize the Ninth Symphony! "Are you sure?" "Yes," says my father, "Late Beethoven." "How do you know it's late?" He points out a certain harmonic shift that the younger Beethoven could never have used.
The anecdote is probably just a mischievous little invention, but it does illustrate the consciousness of continuity, one of the distinguishing marks of a person belonging to the civilization that is (or was) ours. Everything, in our eyes, took on the quality of a history, seemed a more or less logical sequence of events, ofattitudes, of works. From my early youth I knew the exact chronology of my favorite writers' works. Impossible to think Apollinaire could have written Alcools after Calligrammes, because if that were the case he would have been a different poet, his whole work would have a different meaning. I love each of Picasso's paintings for itself, but I also love the whole course ofhis work understood as a long journey whose succession of stages I know by heart. In art, the classic metaphysical questions—Where do we come from? Where are we going?—have a clear, concrete meaning, and are not at all unanswerable.
History and Value
Let us imagine a contemporary composer writing a sonata that in its form, its harmonies, its melodies resembles Beethoven's. Let's even imagine that this sonata is so masterfully made that, if it had actually been by Beethoven, it would count among his greatest works. And yet no matter how magnificent, signed by a contemporary composer it would be laughable. At best its author would be applauded as a virtuoso of pastiche.
What? We feel aesthetic pleasure at a sonata by Beethoven and not at one with the same style and charm if it comes from one of our own contemporaries? Isn't that the height of hypocrisy? So then the sensation of beauty is not spontaneous, spurred by our sensibility, but instead is cerebral, conditioned by our knowing a date?
No way around it: historical consciousness is so thoroughly inherent in our perception of art that this anachronism (a Beethoven piece written today) would be spontaneously (that is, without the least hypocrisy) felt to be ridiculous, false, incongruous, even monstrous. Our feeling for continuity is so strong that it enters into the perception of any work of art.
Jan Mukarovsky, the founder of structural aesthetics, wrote in Prague in 1932: "Only the presumption of objective aesthetic value gives meaning to the historical evolution of art." In other words: in the absence of aesthetic value, the history of art is just an enormous storehouse of works whose chronologic sequence carries no meaning. And conversely: it is only within the context of an art's historical evolution that aesthetic value can be seen.
But what objective aesthetic value can we speak of if each nation, each historical period, each social group has tastes of its own? From the sociological viewpoint the history of an art has no meaning in itself but is part of a society's whole history, like the history of its clothing, its funeral and marriage rituals, its sports, or its celebrations. That is roughly how the novel is discussed in the Diderot and d'Alembert Encyclopédie (175172). The author of that entry, the Chevalier de Jaucourt, acknowledges that the novel has a broad reach ("nearly everyone reads it") and a moral influence (sometimes worthwhile, sometimes noxious), but not a specific value in itself; and furthermore, he mentions almost none of the novelists we admire today: not Rabelais, not Cervantes, not Quevedo, nor Grimmelshausen, nor Defoe, nor Swift, nor Smollett, nor Lesage, nor the Abbé Prévost; for the Chevalier de Jaucourt the novel does not stand as autonomous art or history.
Rabelais and Cervantes. That the encyclopedist did not cite either one of them is no shock: Rabelais hardly worried about whether he was a novelist or not, and Cervantes believed he was writing a sarcastic epilogue to the fantastical literature of the previous period; neither saw himself as "a founder." It was only in retrospect, over time, that the practice of the art of the novel assigned them the role. And it did so not because they were the first to write novels (there were many other novelists before Cervantes), but because their works made clear—better than the others had—the raison d'être of this new epic art; because for their successors the works represented the first great novelistic values; and only when people began to see the novel as having a value—a specific value, an aesthetic value—could novels in their succession be seen as a history.
Theory of the Novel
Fielding was one of the first novelists able to conceive a poetics of the novel: each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones opens with a chapter devoted to a kind of theory of the novel (a light, playful theory, for that's how a novelist theorizes—he holds jealously to his own language, flees learned jargon like the plague).
Fielding wrote his novel in 1749, thus two centuries after Gargantua and Pantagruel and a century and a half after Don Quixote, and yet even though he looks back to Rabelais and Cervantes, for him the novel is still a new art, so much so that he calls himself "the founder of a new province of writing . . ." That "new province" is so new that it has no name yet! Or rather, in English it has two names—novel and romance—but Fielding refuses to use them because no sooner is it discovered than the "new province" is . . .