Monday, January 23, 2006

Milan Kundera, Dostoevsky and Sentimentality

The New York Times Book Review archive is a treasure trove. They have made all of their book reviews since 1981 public and they are easily searchable online. So whenever I am getting bored I type in some name in the search bar and lo and behold, I get to read some very well written and informative review of authors and books I love. The reviews are also reasonably middle-brow, which suits amateurs like me.

So I think I was looking for some article on Tristram Shandy and I found this essay by Milan Kundera which he wrote as an introduction to his stage adaptation of the Eighteenth century French novel Jacques the Fatalist by Diderot, a book which I have not read. There are many insightful observations in it about the history of the novel and what the purpose of art should be but what intrigued me was what he had to say about Dostoevsky and sentimentality. He has written about the evils of kitsch and sentimentality eloquently in his novels The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Immortality and others. But here he makes even greater claims. He says:

"Man cannot do without feelings, but the moment they are considered values in themselves, criteria of truth, justifications for kinds of behavior, they become frightening. The noblest of national sentiments stand ready to justify the greatest of horrors, and man, his breast swelling with lyric fervor, commits atrocities in the sacred name of love. When feelings supplant rational thought, they become the basis for an absence of understanding, for intolerance."

He then, rather surprisingly, goes on to criticise Russians (Kundera had to flee from his country after the Russian invasion of Prague) and particularly Dostoevsky for living in the middle ages and being sentimental.
"What irritated me about Dostoevsky was the climate of his novels: a universe where everything turns into feeling; in other words, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth."

There are a few problems which I find with Kundera's assertions. First, while it is true that many of the Dostoevky's characters are sentimental, this is not specific to Dostoevky. The poor and miserable drunkards that we find in so many Russian novels are not artificial creatures created to manipulate readers into submission but rather, they are true Russian types. Perhaps it was Gogol who created the first in his classic short story The Overcoat.

Also calling him "medieval" is definitely wrong. Perhaps no one understood the contradictions between the modernistic ideas of progress based on science and rationality and the essential nature of human soul, better than Dostoevky. At many places in his novels there are explicit references to Marx, Proudhon, Bakunin and the utilitarian economists like Bentham and Mill whose ideas form the basis of the modern conceptions of man and his place in society. Notes from Underground is actually a response to the Russian writer Chernyshevsky who popularized the utilitarian philosophy in Russia. Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Possessed (I haven't read it so far) and The Brothers Karamazov (specially the final court scenes) are prophetic critiques of the utopian experiments that resulted in most of the horrors of last century, which in fact also forced Kundera to live a life of exile. Dostoevsky's solutions ("return to the church, respect the patriarchal authority of Czar") were perhaps medievalistic, yes. But that's what makes his whole vision of human condition even more tragic.

Finally, in championing reason Kundera forgets that reason can also (in fact in most cases it does) act as a mask for the will and can lead to the same atrocities that he condemns sentimentality for. There can be no arguing with Kundera that we can never trust feelings as arbiters of ethical behavior but can we trust reason? Nietzsche thought otherwise and so did Dostoevsky. If Nietzsche is considered the most modern of all philosophers, there is no reason why Dostoevsky can not be considered anything but equally modern.

P.S. Found another article in the archives by the Nobel Prize winning Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky who responds to Kudera's arguments, much more eloquently and with far more authority than this humble post of mine. It is long and dense but worth battling through.

Also the "featured author" page of Milan Kundera.

Nabokov's opinions on Dostoevsky are also worth going through. They are funnier!


Casey said...

Freakin' great blog! And amen to this post in particular... I think we have to be on the threshold of a return to sentimentality (or at least to sincerity), and I offer as evidence (drumroll) EMO kids. In all seriousness, how long could the kind of ironic self-reflexivity of our era sustain people?

Alok said...

thanks casey! I think we already have too much of sentimentality in our popular culture...yes I agree too much of ironic self-reflexivity is kinda boring but so is stupid sentimentality. perhaps what we need is the "right" kind of honest and uncynical display of genuine sentiments.

thanks again for visiting!

anurag said...

going through your older posts. The new ones are too cryptic for me :)

I wish there could be some meter to judge the truth in sentimentality, since logic doesn't work there. In crude terms, I always feel urge to classify it into two type, the essential and the induced (induced by popular culture and can-do-without types). But the problem is that with time 'the induced', tastes, smells and looks like the 'the essential'. The bigger problem is that we don't reach a solution to it if either we leave it (intuition) or overanalyze it.

In arts, I feel 'good' sentimentality is the one which gives more degrees of freedom. I think, this is the problem people find with Dostoevsky. His prose is no doubt great, but its too tight and inescapable. But as you said, he is great in saying that rationality is no better than sentimentality.

Alok said...

And i feel embarrassed about most of my older posts :)

I don't really agree that logic doesn't work with feeling. There are complex debates around these things but what i feel is that thought and feeling are not separate they work together and complement each other. Only when you try to separate the two there is a problem. for me pure thought is fine but pure feeling doesn't lead me anywhere. it doesn't result in any "useful" awareness, doesn't help in seeing things differently etc. an ideal situation would be a good mix of both and most of my favourite films do fall in that category. there are some pure-thought films like most of Godard for example which are great artistic achievements as well.

I also have no problem with induced sentiments if i can be convinced somehow of honest intentions. it is difficult to explain but somehow i manage to get a feeling of how honest the work is. it must have something to with the freedom that you talk of.

anurag said...

actually, although I wrote logic doesnt work, i was also trying to fit some logic by saying there are types and some are better than the other.

it is difficult to explain but somehow i manage to get a feeling of how honest the work is.

I am finding that a problem too, to get the right feeling :(

Anonymous said...

"perhaps what we need is the "right" kind of honest and uncynical display of genuine sentiments."

When I read this I thought of Renoir, specifically La Regle du Jeu.

Anyway, I wholly concur with this thought.

abcd said...


I loved this piece of writing. And thank you for showing all those links. This line from Brodsky came as a much looked for tenet, in that it lucidly expressed a nebulous line of thinking in me:
"And it's his esthetics that give rise to his ethics and his sense of history - not the other way around."

I know, old post, but new for the one who sees it for the first time.