THR Web Features   /   July 19, 2023

Man Thinks, God Laughs

Remembering Milan Kundera

Jason M. Wirth

( Darius K/Unsplash.)

The novelist Milan Kundera died at the age of 94 on the eleventh day of July this year. Assessing his remarkable literary accomplishments at the end of his life, we might begin by recalling a curious fact about its beginning. Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, on April Fool’s Day, a piece of serendipity to which he attributed “metaphysical significance.” From the playful juxtaposing of those antinomies—the lightness of the fool and the heaviness of philosophy and metaphysics—Kundera created the animating tensions of his fiction. 

Kundera’s novels have irritated and even scandalized some readers because of their allegedly masculinist libertinage and other violations of current political correctness. Although it is difficult to imagine that such improprieties will cease to be a touchy subject, Kundera insisted that depicting something in a novel does not imply that one is promoting it. The novel does not advocate for a personal position, but rather investigates the complexity of the full range of the human condition, even while reflecting on the debris that the grand march of history has left behind. It attempts to tear through the “curtain of preinterpretation” and challenge our habits of collective misperception. Things are always more complicated than our reigning orthodoxies would have them be. 

Recent obituaries tend to replicate the journalistic habit of contextualizing Kundera and his work by placing it in a grand narrative about Eastern Bloc communism or the Prague Spring or the alleged loneliness of being a political exile in France. Kundera, however, in both his essays and novels, adamantly resisted such characterizations. Novels explore what our habits of thought obscure. Significant truths in his novels are often revealed in the most unexpected places. Dogs, for example, who often haunt the background of Kundera’s novels, should not be regarded as mere background elements, insignificant creatures filling the negative space between important narrative destinations. 

Consider Karenin, the canny canine in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The relationship between the novel’s two central characters, Tomas and Tereza, is a living hell, but their dog Karenin knows nothing of such anguish. She joyfully plays the same game with the jelly roll every morning. Unlike Tomas the incurable philanderer, she has no compulsion to find something new. Unlike Tereza the seeker of permanence, she is untroubled by any idealistic notions about the best that has been. For humans and their linear search for happiness, the present is never good enough, and life is always elsewhere. Karenin, however, is happy in the circle of her life. Enacting the truth of Nietzsche’s eternal return, she affirms the jelly roll game each morning in all its sublime insignificance. 

Properly appreciating such humble, creaturely truth, we can also see the value of Kundera’s final novel, Festival of Insignificance. Widely derided as a listless fall from form in which nothing of significance happens, it was in fact an artful affirmation of Karenin’s instinctive wisdom. It is not just that we humans live in a world of overwrought ideological conflict, the novel subtly shows, but that we are unable to grasp the insignificance of death. In an essay in Encounter, Kundera reflected on a passage from the disgraced novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s From Castle to Castle. Céline contrasted the death by cancer of his dog (“by far nothing so beautiful, discreet”) with the fanfare of human death: “[T]he trouble with men’s death throes is all the fuss…somehow man is always on stage…even the plainest men.” 

Although, with his death, Kundera the person is once more dragged on stage. Festival of Insignificance, his final gesture as an author, modestly celebrates quotidian characters and events. Kundera resists any resolution that requires discovering or promoting the one true meaning of everything. Life quietly goes on without drama or anguish and without a grand historical background. Characters playfully perform pranks and make small-scale plans. When Stalin is mentioned, it is with minor and unexpected anecdotes. A waiter, who pretends that he is from Pakistan, reflects that “there’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power.” Perhaps resistance grows more futile, but it is hard for me not read this novel as Kundera’s cynical (in the playful sense that originated with Diogenes the Dog) preparation for his own death in a world that still cannot take a joke. This marked the full turning of the circle, taking us back to his first novel, The Joke, in which the central character is sent to a gulag for joking about Leon Trotsky. 

Central to Kundera’s cynicism in a world that thinks it has all the answers is the novel’s refreshing humility. When accepting the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society in 1985, Kundera mentioned that he had always been inspired by the Jewish adage, “Man thinks, God laughs.” He liked to imagine that the medieval French comic genius (and former Franciscan monk) François Rabelais “heard God’s laughter one day, and thus was born the idea of the first great European novel.” It pleased Kundera to think that “the art of the novel came into the world as the echo of God’s laughter.” This laughter undermines our ready truths and self-assured certainties, a disturbance that many of us find unsettling. This laughter gave rise to one of Kundera’s most memorable phrases: “But if God is gone and man is no longer master, then who is master? The planet is moving through the void without any master. There it is, the unbearable lightness of being.” 

Yet lightness and uncertainty are invaluable ways of knowing the world and our place in it. Plato and Aristotle, each in his own way, argued that philosophy was born in the wonder that emerges when our certainties collapse. Wonder and a healthy cynicism about our grand historical certainties are what made Kundera’s work such valuable investigations of reality. Although his fictions’ proximity to philosophy is striking, Kundera resisted being characterized as a philosophical novelist. In an interview with the writer Christian Salmon, the latter suggested that Kundera’s novels could be characterized as “phenomenological.” Although Kundera could appreciate Salmon’s point, he confessed that he was wary of such terms because he was “too fearful of the professors for whom art is only a derivative of philosophical and theoretical trends.” The novel is not philosophy by other means. It does not illustrate philosophical ideas or stealthily make philosophical arguments. 

Reflecting in The Art of the Novel on two of his literary models, Hermann Broch and Robert Musil, Kundera observed that they “brought a sovereign and radiant intelligence to bear on the novel.” This did not mean, however, that were trying to “transform the novel into philosophy.” Instead, they tried, as did Kundera, “to marshal around the story all the means—rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative—that could illuminate man’s being.” This was the novel’s aspiration to “supreme intellectual synthesis.” 

Philosophy, by contrast, argues to prove a point and, with its own multifarious means, tries to be right and reach conclusions. Kundera’s novels, however, are expansive and support irreconcilable yet arguably valid points of view. They employ polyphonic complexity and are rife with irony and ambiguity, all the better to explore the full range of human experience. One could drop (as Broch did in the final book of his masterpiece, The Sleepwalkers) a philosophical essay into a novel, and it becomes a point of view among points of view, an element among elements. Even Kundera’s authorial voice in his novels, while providing acute, even aphoristic philosophical commentary, is subject to the same irony. It is finally no more than one perspective among many. Nor does its “authority” lead to resolutions or secure conclusions. 

Late in his life, the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert argued that stupidity stems from the need to conclude. Kundera did not come to conclusions. Nor did he try to convince others to share his beliefs. Such proselytizing led, he wrote in Testaments Betrayed, to becoming a “man of conviction,” a person whose thinking has “come to a stop” and “congealed.” In the fog, the novelist searches, cherishing not the answers but the questions. “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything,” Kundera told Philip Roth in an interview. “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.”

Living as we all do in a world that is governed by the obvious, Kundera was uneasy with those that Rabelais disparaged as the agélastes, from the Greek meaning those who do not laugh, who have no sense of humor. If they were not so destructive, the agélastes would be no more than comical, as indeed they are, but they are still the ubiquitous police of the serious, the relentless protectors of gravity. Hence the need for the subversive laughter of fiction. Not only does laughter render the world ambiguous (and once again open to investigation), but laughter is itself ambiguous. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera discussed laughter’s two irreconcilable sources. One provenance is the disobedient devil, the fallen angel who has no allegiance to the ordained way of things. In the trap the world has become, where the order of the day seems set in stone, devilish laughter is the refusal of the agélastes’ official account of being. The other provenance is angelic, delighting in truth, tittering in the joy of pure obedience. “Their laughter has no object,” Kundera elaborated, “it is the expression of being rejoicing in being.” 

If there were only angels, we would live in the hell that we call paradise on earth, a world of kitsch where everything is as it should be (and those who disagree are re-educated or canceled or executed). If there were only devils, however, human affairs would become as light as feathers, and nothing would be sacred. “The good of the world, however, implies not that the angels have the advantage over the devils…but that the two sides are nearly in equilibrium,” Kundera observed. “If there is too much incontestable meaning in the world (the angels’ power), man would succumb under its weight. If the world were to lose all its meaning (the devils’ reign), we could not live either.”

Kundera’s suspicion of the angels is neither smug nor hateful, but rather the humility of what Kundera called “the wisdom of uncertainty.” Laughter does not administer the truth from on high. “While I do not detest” the agélastes, Kundera conceded in The Curtain, “I give them a wide berth.” 

Who knows what the agélastes will make of Kundera now that he is no longer with us? Kundera knew that the dead have no rights. They cannot protest the claims and recriminations of the living. But it is important to remember that, although we mark the passing of Kundera the person, it is his works and not his autobiography that he bestowed. He was rightly suspicious of the culture of fame and celebrity and endeavored to protect his privacy. Kundera thought that writing demanded a certain kind of sobriety and inner conversion in which we meet others in the fog where we again wonder about a world that everyone else takes for granted. “In order to hear the secret, barely audible, voice of the ‘soul of the thing,’” Kundera remarks in The Curtain, “the novelist, unlike the poet or the musician, must know how to silence the cries of his own soul.” 

In the later years of his long life, Kundera worked hard to tidy up his works, supervising and revising translations, and deciding on the final form, contents, and appearance of his oeuvre. He presented his works, not himself, to those that would find their dogged humility and sense of wonder and humor inspiring, even liberating. The work of the novelist is not to promote one’s own inner or outer life but to produce works that, for all their difficulty and ambiguity, seek to illuminate the ever-unfolding mystery of all things human.