No Shit, Man, Life is Tough

Kitsch

The theory of opposites continues in Part six, “The Grand March.” This is purely Kundera, straying from the story for most of this section of the novel.

In essence Kundera ponders the theological question: Is man really created in the image of God? If so we must think of God as having intestines and therefore defecating as we do or if He lacks intestines, we are not created in His image
.

Shit is a more onerous theological problem than is evil. Since god gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.

It was only after Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise that they and henceforth we felt disgust concerning our shit.

Therefore Kundera finds the argument between creationists and the evolutionists as not the important conflict, but rather the division between those who “doubt being as it is granted to man from those who accept it without reservation.” To me that means a separation between those who are disgusted with some aspects of man’s existence--his shit for example--from those who accept all of man’s existence, including his shit.

Behind all the European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being.

Enter the concept of kitsch, a German word that came into use in the nineteenth century. Now in English it means “art or literature of little or no value.” The metaphysical meaning for Kundera

is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

So as the word was adopted into other languages it took on a definition opposite to its original meaning.


The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s--- has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim that shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch.

The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death.

Kitsch is a denial of man’s total essence, the reality for man, who must deal with his shit and his mortality.

As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the contest of non kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

American kitsch as of the writing of this book in 1984 was sprinkled with such phrases as “our traditional values,” “the barbarity of Communism.” How many current phrases of American kitsch can you recall?

and so on and so forth. Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion.

Diane McCormick

Kundera’s chapter entitled “The Grand March” blind-sided me when I first read it as it didn’t really seem to fit in with what came before or with what followed. Kundera offers many definitions of kitsch, but since I like concrete definitions, I preferred this definition:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!

The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.

In essence, then, kitsch is simply an overgeneralization of a valid feeling; it’s the point at which an honest emotion is turned into false sentimentality, a stereotype, if you will.

The Grand March, it turns out, is the term Kundera uses to describe the false beliefs underlying the leftists, particularly the Communists:

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles not withstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March

Now, I assume he’s not saying that “brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness” are bad things. Instead, he seems to be saying that when we follow them blindly we can be manipulated by others. One person’s “justice” may well be another person’s “injustice.” Do we really want to be “brothers” with everyone? Don’t we have enough family problems already?

Ironically, the unhappiest person in the novel, Sabina, is the strongest opponent of kitsch:

…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. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza; on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth show through

Though, Sabina herself is shown to be subject to a kitsch-like idea of a perfect family home, she is able to recognize her own feelings as kitsch and thus escape from its deception:

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

“For none among us is superhuman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.”

The difficult part, then, seems to be finding the proper balance between sentimentality and objectivity. If one sees life “too realistically,” and that almost sounds like an oxymoron, you’re likely to be a very unhappy person.

Can you be considered a “serious” artist unless you focus on the dark side of life? After all, life in the 20th century civilization is depressing, right? But is a sentimental work necessarily false? Do all, or even most, people end up angry and alienated in life? People seem to want “happy endings?” If that’s true, won’t most people work toward a happy ending? Won’t at least some of them attain that happy ending, even if they have to overlook certain “realities?” If so, how do you show these people without writing kitsch?

Couldn’t Kundera’s ending with Tomas and Tereza deeply in love be considered “kitsch”? Realistically, shouldn’t they have just split up because of Tomas’ mistreatment of Tereza? Does that mean Kundera is not a serious writer?

Of course, it also raises questions about our own attitudes toward life. If you followed this blog through Christmas, you certainly found that Christmas is Kitsch as far as I’m concerned. The more sentimental the better. Aren't Christmas presents supposed to spoil kids or grandkids? What do you mean there’s no Santa Claus?

On the other hand, my daughter has criticized me as being the least sentimental person she’s ever known, and I have to admit I hardly ever look back to good times. Give me the moment. Give me truth straight up.

On the third hand, though, I might be just a little sentimental about Gavin's "pahtah." It's hard not to be sentimental over someone who loves his grandpa that much, particularly when you're the grandpa.

2 thoughts on “No Shit, Man, Life is Tough

  1. I was very interested to read your comments on kundera’s conceptions of kitsch.
    I an currently trying to write a masters thesis on kundera’s appropriation of the 20th century existentialist cannon in creating his characters, and the parallels to be drawn thematically between him and writers such as camus, sartre and kafka.
    I’m not sure i agree with your reading of ‘the grand march’, though: i thought it was less about the ‘false belefs underlying communism’ and more to do with a fundamental human need to simply lose oneself in a similarly minded throng. in this context communism simply provides a convenient backdrop.
    the grand march, and its by – product ‘kitsch’, are a stategy to avoid the meaningless but complex reality of life in a world without grand ideals, a way to hark back to a time when humanity was united without compromising our reason by resorting to God.
    the fact that sabina is the character who most clearly perceives this makes her the voice of lucidity within the novel, the figure who recognises ‘absurdity’ (in the camus sense) and tries to revolt against it by lying about her past until the americans no longer know she is czech. Her unhappiness, in my reading, has less to do with the fact that she is wrong to disbelieve the ideals but more to do with her perception that it would be bad faith to believe it for a person who recognises the fundamental absurdity of the modern condition.

    a final question: why are you so keen to suspend dibelief, to the point of recoil at a present, self conscious narrator?

    anyway, feel free to email me with any comments or replies.

    ivo

  2. First, if you’re writing your master’s thesis on Kundera, I’d probably defer to your interpretation. Although I do have a MA in Arts and Letters, neither Diane nor I were not trying to read Kundera with the kind of depth that we would have been expected to do for a Master’s thesis. In other words, we, or at least I, did a “cold reading” of the book without referring to any critical literature.

    I’m sure that if I had widely read the critical literature my views would be different than those I expressed here. Furthermore, it’s been two years since I read the novel, making it even more difficult for me to offer any particular insights into the work.

    I did suggest that The Grand March is used to “describe the false beliefs underlying the leftists, a category, ironically, that I include myself in. I think he includes all socialists, anyone who professes a “brotherhood of man” philosophy in this category. It’s simply that the Communists were the extreme example of this group, the ones who exploited the beliefs that all leftists have faith in.

    Sabina may represent the ultimate irony, the person who sees “the truth,” only to discover that seeing the “truth” does guarantee any kind of happiness, and may, in fact, bring the opposite. In a sense, she may well represent all the existentialist writers you mention, though I don’t know enough of the details of their personal life to safely conclude that this is true. It seems to me that often those who look critically and accurately at life, as we find it, will be depressed. Some of my favorite authors, like Thomas Hardy, have certainly been accused of writing “depressing novels.”

    Although I have gained some appreciation of modern novelists who will not allow their readers to “suspend disbelief,” I still prefer literature that immerses you in an alternate reality, allowing the reader to see the world for a little while from a totally different viewpoint than they would normally hold. Once you’ve finished the novel and put it down, you can then compare that viewpoint with your own and, perhaps, draw new conclusions about the “real world.”

    On the other hand, it may just be a blind preference that I developed from reading novels that were written that way for over 40 years now.

What do you think?