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Joseph Romano

ITAL-398
Truth Processes and the Novel under the Aesthetic Regime
In his essay The Novel and !urope" #ilan $undera emphasi%es the uni&ue role that literature'
speci(ically the novelistic (orm' occupies in relation to philosophico-political discourse) *e +egins +y
(raming the representation o( !uropean consciousness as historical' The sequence of discoveries ,not
the sum o( -hat -as -ritten. is -hat constitutes the history o( the !uropean novel" ,$undera /.) In that
sense' the !uropean su+0ect' as -ell as the novel' (alls under the -eight its o-n particular historical
moment' -hich al-ays already includes past historical moments as a residue that carries over into the
present) This historici%ation o( !uropean consciousnesses mani(ests itsel( in the novel Ignorance in its
preoccupation -ith ho- the individual su+0ect ,particularly the e1iled one or emigr2' i)e) Irena. relates
to universal' and s-eeping' ,!uropean. historical developments) #oreover' it is through the novel3s
e1ploration o( Irena3s inner li(e -here $undera rein(orces his claim that the novel is a privileged
instrument (or revealing the am+iguity o( the epoch 4o( the #odern !ra5 -hich6li7e all that is human
6contains in its +irth the seeds o( its demise" ,$undera /.) 8nli7e philosophy and science' -hich
3(orget +eing'3 it is the am+iguous truth that 3only the novel can uncover3 that indicates the site o(
resistance to totalitarian sym+olic discourse' -hether this discourse ta7es the (orm o( ideology'
policing' economic coercion etc) Through the disclosure o( totalitarian discourse and its teleological
unity that +ecomes the dictatorial regime3s tool o( hegemony' speci(ic truths must +e e1cluded (or the
institutional structure to mani(est) The e1cluded truth is the truth o( -hat theorist Jac&ues Ranci9re
terms the aesthetic regime) The aesthetic regime inaugurates a particular conception o( art -hich +egins
-hen' at the end o( the eighteenth century' art started to sel(-consciously articulate itsel( to itsel()
Ranci9re claims that this particular identi(ication o( art' -hich can +e distinguished (rom other
regimes +ased on the relationships they sustain +et-een art and other -ays o( doing or ma7ing)))It is
-ith respect to this identi(ication that the (irst sense o( aesthetics as a su+-discipline o( philosophy
+ecomes signi(icant) It emerges in order to interpret the ne- (orms o( e1perience generated +y these
practices)))" ,Tan7e :.) ;or Ranci9re' the aesthetic regime underscores art3s a+ility to engender a ne-
sensi+le e1perience -herein e&uality can +e discerned" ,Tan7e :.) Though $undera typi(ies the truth o(
the novel as 3am+iguity'3 it is precisely the novel3s capacity (or enunciating am+iguity' dissensus'
parado1' and tension that ma7es it the e1cluded other discourse in totalitarian regimes' and hence the
position o( li+eratory struggle)
Kundera's Grecian Return
$undera3s novel Ignorance re(lects this conception o( literature as resistant to totalitarian and totali%ing
discourse) *o-ever' (or $undera' his literature' and the literatures o( other novelists ,due to this vie-
that the novel is a !uropean construction.' are intimately tied -ith !urope3s history' and the -ay it has
a((ected and shaped its su+0ects) *ence' in Ignorance one sees the am+iguous truth o( the novel evident
in +oth its (orm and content) <peci(ically' the (ormal techni&ue (or communicating $undera3s
am+iguous truth lies in the -ay in -hich the myth o( =dysseus' and the >ree7 epoch in general'
threads the idea o( placelessness and e1ile throughout the content o( the novel)
The (irst instance o( this (ocus on the >ree7ness o( !urope occurs as the lin7 +et-een the (irst
and section chapter) The recounting the genealogy o( nostalgia' originating in the >ree7 language' is a
(ormal techni&ue that $undera employs to immediately historici%e and de-center the conception o(
!uropean consciousness in Ignorance.This %ooming out o( narrative scope' displays $undera3s
-illingness to ma7e tena+le the multiplicity o( !uropean culture and history' -hich mar7s the (rame o(
!uropean consciousness) In this section' $undera traces the various etymologies o( the -ord nostalgia
or nostos, and thus (oregrounds the importance o( !urope3s linguistic and narrativistic inheritance (rom
the >ree7s) ?y representing the various -ays in -hich !uropean languages e1press this concept o(
nostalgia or return' $undera lands upon this synthesis o( a de(inition@ In that etymological light
nostalgia seems something li7e the pain o( ignorance' o( not 7no-ing) Aou are (ar a-ay and I don3t
7no- -hat has +ecome o( you) #y country is (ar a-ay' and I don3t 7no- -hat is happening there"
,$undera 3.) This concept o( homelessness' the al-ays de(erred return' and the speci(ic -ord
ignorance'" re(er +ac7 to the title' dra-ing attention to the constructedness o( the te1t itsel() This sel(-
re(le1ive maneuver holds import (or the -ay in -hich $undera vie-s the novel3s place in the history o(
!uropean consciousness) I( the novel is not sel(-a-are as a discourse itsel(' it cannot occupy or retain
the am+iguity o( its o-n representation) I( Ignorance -as not sel(-conscious in this -ay' $undera3s
argument made in The Novel and !urope" -ould not hold) In addition to this particular (ormal
signi(icance' $undera through his sel(-re(le1ive move' situates Ignorance in the +roader !uropean
pro0ect o( 7no-ledge' and thus ena+les the novel to articulate (rom this position that other 7no-ledge'
the 7no-ledge e1cluded in regimes' +oth philosophical and political' that marginali%e the tension-(illed
truths o( the aesthetic regime)
;urthermore' this narrativistic (raming device serves more than a (ormal purpose) $undera
em+odies this operatic moti( into the content o( the novel' and through (ield o( content $undera3s novel
engages -ith its contemporary historical moment +y representing the e1iledBemigr2 C%ech su+0ect) ;or
$undera' this overlap and (luidity +et-een (orm and content is temporal) *ence' in Ignorance the
(ormal aspect is rooted in the historical' etymological' and ontological (oundations o( !uropean culture'
-hile the content is re(lected in the present' through the protagonist Irena' and the constellation o( post-
communist !astern !urope' and contemporary Destern !urope) *ere' already' one notes the
(undamental similarity +et-een Ranci9re and $undera3s conception o( the aesthetic as historical and
politicalE through artistic techni&ue' $undera (oregrounds' in a resistant non-totali%ing manner' the
investigation o( !urope and the !uropean consciousness indicated through this idea o( the 3return4s5 o(
the e1ile)3
Aet' the +lan7eting theme o( nostalgia also allo-s $undera to -eave the *omer3s The Odyssey
as an interte1t that mirrors' and acts as a (oil (or the characters Irena and the 3motherland3 or 3homeland)3
It is this (ricative relation -hich elucidates $undera3s o-n notion o( the novel3s am+iguous truth) In
Ignorance' the return is the path o( the 7no-ing -hile nostalgia is the state o( un7no-ingE yet' these
t-o terms' though opposed ,or perhaps (alsely opposed.' are mutually constitutive) *ence' $undera is
a+le' through interte1uality' to represent his o-n conception o( aesthetic truth' the truth that is not an
3either-or' +ut rather has the a+ility to +ear the essential relativity o( human a((airs'" and come (ace to
(ace -ith the a+sence o( a supreme ar+iter'" and thus' the novel3s -isdom" is the -isdom o(
uncertainty" ,The Novel and !urope" 3.) The interte1t o( The Odyssey opens a space (or this
re(lection to ta7e place during the recounting o( the =dysseus myth' as $undera descri+es =dysseus3
choiceE Rather than ardent e1ploration o( the un7no-n ,adventure.' he chose the apotheosis o( the
7no-n ,return.) Rather than the in(inite ,(or adventure never intends to (inish.' he chose the (inite ,(or
the return is a reconciliation -ith the (initude o( li(e." ,Ignorance F.) The oppositions adventureBreturn
and 7no-ingBun7no-ing' signi(y the de-centeredness o( not only =dysseus3' +ut also Irena3s
su+0ectivity) <he is caught in this -e+ o( linguistic opposites that simply +y +eing +orn C%ech'she
inherits -illingly or un-illing' an inheritance that is the condition o( possi+ility (or her European
su+0ectivity) *ers is a !uropean su+0ectivity +ecause her present historical moment re(lects analogously
the tensions o( adventureBreturn) ?rea7ing o(( ties -ith her o-n homeland' Irena chooses adventure)
?ut as the retelling o( The Odyssey indicates' this choice implies displacement and uncertainty) Irena
never 3really3 returns home' to the place o( one3s o-n country and language' yet +y the logic o( her
,historical. desire she has to someho- ma7e the attempt to return) Aet' and perhaps this is the strongest
statement Ignorance ma7es' she never (ully succeeds) <he (ails +ecause the !uropean su+0ect is
homeless (or $undera in that a truly united !uropean consciousness implies a loss or lac7@ that o(
national identity) *o-ever' $undera3s pro+ing o( this politico-aesthetic (ollo-s the logic o( the truth o(
the novel -ith its re(usal o( totali%ing discourse such as that o( The #odern !ra' -hich has cherished
a dream o( humanity (inding one day unity and everlasting peace out o( the diversity o( its separate
civili%ations) Today' at last' the history o( the planet has +ecome an indivisi+le -hole' +ut unity is
assured +y everlasting' circulating -ar) Dorld 8nity means@ no escape' (or anyone' any-here" ,The
Novel and !urope" :.) The !uropean su+0ect' +ecause it is overdetermined historically' cannot escape
this tension) There is no transcendental e1pression o( pathos in Ignorance as an escape or su+lation o(
this tension +ecause that -ould-+e pathos can e&ually represent the signi(ier o( Totalitarian Truth) This
type o( pathos -ould demonstrate a provincialism' -hether or not it mani(ests collectively or
individually)
Aet' this &uest remains ,not permanently' rather indeterminately. Irena3s &uest@ Repeated' the
-ords too7 such po-er that' deep inside her' Irena sa- them -ritten out -ith capital initials@ >reat
Return) <he dropped her resistance@ she -as captivated +y images suddenly -elling up (rom +oo7s read
long ago' (rom (ilms' (rom her o-n memory' and may+e (rom her ancestral memory@ the lost son home
again -ith his aged motherE the man returning to his +eloved (rom -hom cruel destiny had torn him
a-ayE the (amily homestead -e all care a+out -ithin us' the rediscovered train still mar7ed +y the
(orgotten (ootprints o( childhoodE =dysseus sighting his island a(ter years o( -andering)))" ,Ignorance
/.) *ence' her 3return3 home ta7es on all the historical -eight o( this >ree7 narrative o( nostalgia and
displacement) 8pon her return to Prague' $undera renders Irena3s homelessness in something as simple
+ut signi(icant as the (act that she +rings ?ordeau1 instead o( +eer to dinner@ Irena +lames hersel( (or
having committed an act o( poor taste -ith her case o( ?ordeau1' (or thoughtlessly underscoring
everything that stands +et-een them@ her long a+sence (rom the country her (oreigner3s -ays' her
-ealth) <he +lames hersel( the more +ecause the gathering is so important (or her)))" ,Ignorance GH.) In
something as seemingly trivial as the opposition o( -ineB+eer Irena3s condition o( homelessness in her
homeland +ecomes elucidated) In typically $underian (ashion' the ?ordeau1 +ecomes a meta-sym+ol'
(or her emigr2 li(estyle and her pangs o( nostalgia (or (eeling grounded' or 3at home)3 In this sense'
cultural e1change ta7es on an ultimate importance (or the nostalgic !uropean su+0ect) #oreover' it is
the very +eginning o( her 3return'3 -here Irena con(ronts her de-centeredness as a !uropean' through a
misperception' misapprehension' or error' rather than as C%ech or ;rench) It is in this misrecognition
that her su+0ective position is revealed +oth diegetically and e1tra-diegetically)
The European Su!ect under "istory
Irena3s character also stands as a point o( 0u1taposition o( s-eeping historical events in
Ignroance) This preoccupation o( the narrative' speci(ically' the role o( communist and post-communist
regimes in !astern !urope' as essential to the history o( her homeland' is thus her history) It har7ens
ho- her status as an emigr2 in ;rance has someho- 7ept her a-ay (rom the historical developments o(
her homeland) *o-ever' the claim made here is that $undera evinces the (act that Irena does
e1perience the historicity o( her homeland y the very fact that she #ives a$ay from it) *er conversation
-ith <ylvie at the +eginning o( the novel illustrates this notion' +ut the signi(icance o( the communist
event in !urope deserves (urther analysis)
$undera pro+lemati%es this historical conception o( the !uropean su+0ect +y raising Irena3s o-n
su+0ective position into a #aster <igni(ier@
!urope3s Communism +urned out e1actly t-o hundred years a(ter the ;rench Revolution
too7 (ire) ;or Irena3s Parisian (riend <ylvie' that -as a coincidence loaded -ith meaning)
?ut -ith -hat meaningI Dhat name could +e given to the triumphal arch spanning those
t-o ma0estic dates" The Arch o( the T-o >reatest !uropean RevolutionsI =r the Arch
Connecting the >reatest Revolution -ith the ;inal RestorationI ;or the sa7e o( avoiding
ideological argument' I propose that -e adopt a more modest interpretation@ the (irst date
gave +irth to a great !uropean character the !migre ,either the >reat Traitor or the >reat
Jictim' according to one3s outloo7.E the second date too7 the !migre o(( the set o( The
*istory o( the !uropeansE -ith that' the great moviema7er o( the collective unconscious
(inished o(( one o( his most original productions' the emigration-dream sho-) And it -as
at this moment that Irena (irst returned to Prague (or a (e- days ,Ignorance G3.)
This passage is loaded -ith the a(orementioned concepts o( !uropean su+0ectivity) ;or one' this
passage is -ritten in the re(lective narrator3s voiceE one 7no-s this is the 3author3 spea7ing' the te1t
spea7ing' and thus there is the implication o( the novel itsel( as a historical !uropean o!ect as much as
the !uropean su+0ect is historical) There(ore' the content o( this passage has signi(icance (or the
statements the te1t ma7es as a -hole)
*ere' the !uropean su+0ect is caught under the grand specters o( the ;rench Revolution and the
Communist one) ;or $undera' this displaced su+0ectivity seems to have to +een ta7en o(( the set o(
The *istory o( the !uropeans" and implies that it is the pro0ect o( Ignorance to place this su+0ect' as
indicative o( !uropeanness' +ac7 onto the historical stage ,Ignorance G3.) ;urther' novelistic truth is on
display once again in the conception o( this !uropean emigr2-su+0ectivity' as Irena' or the !migr2" is
either the >reat Traitor or the >reat Jictim' according to one3s outloo7" ,Ignorance G3.) Aet' the te1t
does not ta7e sides' and chooses to demonstrate instead the 3relative truth o( all human a((airs'3 since the
su+0ect is thought or not-thought according to one3s outloo7)" The novel cannot ta7e sides and la+el
Irena as Jictim or Traitor +ecause the truth process o( the novel is communicate the polysemous
meanings o( this type o( su+0ect) *ence' this notion coheres -ith $undera3s conception o( the novel3s
essence as comple1ity) !very novel says to the reader@ 3Things are not as simply as you thin7)3 That is
the novel3s eternal truth)" ,The Novel and !urope" 9.) #oreover' this conception o( the !uropean
,Irena3s. su+0ectivity as historical' har7ens $undera3s other claim that the novel3s essence is continuity)
!ach -or7 is an ans-er to preceding ones' each -or7 contains all the anterior e1periences o( the novel"
and that the spirit o( our time" is too (irmly engrossed in the present to recogni%e its o-n historical
character) In this sense' Ignorance re(lects these claims in +oth its (orm and contentE the interte1tual
narrative device o( The Odyssey' and Irena3s return4s5 indicate the ma0or preoccupations o( Ignorance
that are articulated in the mode o( novelistic truth in a historici%ed manner)
=verall' this concern -ith ma7ing meaning' -ith ma7ing comp#e%ity' is -hat Ranci9re claims is
the li+eratory truth o( the aesthetic regime@ This identity +et-een 7no-ing and not 7no-ing' +et-een
activity and passivity' is the very (act o( art in the aesthetic regimeE it radicali%es -hat ?aumgarten
called con(used clarity" into an identity o( contraries" ,The &esthetic 'nconscious /F.) $undera
cultivates this 3con(used clarity3 using an almost identical argumentation as Ranci9re -ith his
employment o( The Odyssey' (or Ranci9re claims -ith >iam+attista Jico3s conception o( the 3ne-
*omer3 as the poet -ith the identity +et-een -hat he -ants and -hat he does not -ant' -hat he
7no-s and -hat he does not 7no-' -hat he does and -hat he does not do) The e1istence o( poetry is
tied to this identity o( contraries' to this gap +et-een speech and -hat it says" ,The &esthetic
'nconscious ()*. This truth' (or Ranci9re and $undera' is the site o( 3Resistance3 to Totalitarian Truth'
or the discourse that totali%es meaning) ;or Ranci9re and $undera' the truth o( the novel' the truth o(
art' is to e1hi+it the truth that does not (it' that lives on the +order' the truth o( Irena and the displaced
!uropean su+0ectivity)
Dor7s Cited
$undera' #ilan' and Linda Asher) Ignorance) Ne- Aor7@ *arper Collins' /KK/) Print)
$undera' #ilan) The Novel and !urope")
*ttp@BBK----)ny+oo7s)com)li+rary)lausys)georgeto-n)eduBarticlesB:L8G)
Ranci9re' Jac&ues' Me+ra $eates' and James <-enson) The &esthetic 'nconscious) Cam+ridge@ Polity'
/KK9) Print)
Tan7e' Joseph J) +acques Ranci,re- &n Introduction) London@ Continuum' /KGG) Print)