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 mans 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 mans existence–his shit for example–from those who accept all of mans 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 cant 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 dont 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 mans 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.
Kunderas chapter entitled The Grand March blind-sided me when I first read it as it didnt 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; its 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 hes 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 persons justice may well be another persons injustice. Do we really want to be brothers with everyone? Dont 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, youre 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 thats true, wont most people work toward a happy ending? Wont 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?
Couldnt Kunderas ending with Tomas and Tereza deeply in love be considered kitsch? Realistically, shouldnt 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 Im concerned. The more sentimental the better. Aren’t Christmas presents supposed to spoil kids or grandkids? What do you mean theres no Santa Claus?
On the other hand, my daughter has criticized me as being the least sentimental person shes 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.