World literature and the melting pot of Central Europe | Blogads

World literature and the melting pot of Central Europe

by henrycopeland
Saturday, January 6th, 2007

Fans, foes and former residents of Central Europe should enjoy Milan Kundera’s essay in the January 8 New Yorker. Since its not online, I’ll quote generously:

There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context) or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context.) We are accustomed to seeing music quite natually in the large context: knowing what language Orlando di Lasso or Bach spoke matters little to a musicologist. But because a noval is bound up with its language, in nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusivitly in the small— national — context. Europe has not managed to view its literature as a historical unit, and I continue to insist that this is an irreparable intellectual loss. Because, if we consider only the history of the novel, it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flauberts’s tradition living on in Joyce, it was through his reflection on Joyce that Hermann Broch developed his own poetics of the novel, and it was Kafka who showed Garcia Marquez the possibility of departing from tradition to “write another way.”

(And what about the professors of foreign literatures? Is it not their very natural mission to study the works in the context of world literature? Not a chance. In order to demonstrate their competence as experts, they make a great point of identifying with the small — national context of whichever literature they teach. They adopt its opinions, its tastes, its prejudices. It is in foreign universities that a work of art is most intractable mired in its home province.)

I explained that while there is a linguistic unity among the Slavic nations, there is no Slavic culture, no Slavic world, and that the history of the Czechs, like that of the Poles, the Slovaks, the Croats or the Slovenes (and, of course, the Hungarians, who are not at all Slavic), is entirely Western: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, close contact with the Germanic world; the struggle of Catholicism against the Reformation. Never anything to do with Russia, which was far off, another world. Only the Poles lived in direct relation with Russia — a relation much like a death struggle.

But my efforts were useless: the “Slavic world” idea persists as an ineradicable commonplace in world historiography. I open a volume of the “Universal History,” in the prestigious Pleiade series: in the chapter called “the Slavic World,” the great Czech theologian Jan Hus is irremediably separated from the Englishman John Wycliffe (whose disciple Hus was) and from the German Martin Luther (who saw Hus as his teacher and precursor.) Poor Hus: after being burned at the stake at Constance, now he must suffer through a dreadful eternity in the company of Ivan the Terrible, with whom he would never want to exchange a single word.

Between the large context of the world and the small context of the nation, a middle step might be imagined: say, a median context. Between Sweden and the world, that step is Scandinavia. For Columbia, it is Latin America. And for Hungary, for Poland?…

The fundamental shift that occured during the 20th centurey: until then, mankind was divided in two — those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. Then History began to acceleerate: whereas, in the past, man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk; the status quo was in motion! All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which mean that a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and a rebel, at the same time!

Facebook comments

Our Tweets