In his book of essays, The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera discusses the death of that particular art form. Such a death, he argues, is brought about when the novel removes itself from history, as in the literature of the Soviet Union where novels could only confirm the official line of things and by doing so remain entrenched in the status quo. For Kundera, therefore, the spirit of the novel depends upon its historical position, a place that allows it to reveal the human condition to us from beneath the mind-numbing effects of the actual. Novels are, Kundera says, “part of a process which is the conquest of being,” participating in a “succession of discoveries” that are related to the historical process itself.
The idea of the historical process as a succession of discoveries that unfold and enrich humanity, is a humanistic perspective, and literature, and the novel, are without a doubt art forms driven by humanity-enriching purposes. Nevertheless, in our own analyses of the historical process, we have seen that history has never been a humanity-enriching progression. In fact, what we have discovered is that historical evolution has taken humanity further and further away from itself into the segregating tribalism of the national state or religious sects. History has been a process of dividing humanity instead of developing its potentials through unity. For this reason, we talk about the anti-human historical process – but if history is anti-human, what does that tell us about the novel’s role in that development? And, if we agree that our historical process needs to be redesigned in order to eliminate its anti-humanism and make it authentically human for once, what should the novel’s role in that revolution be?
In the first place, however, Kundera’s perception of the nexus between the novel and the historical process is a limited one. He is right to point out the way the novel’s evolution has reflected social changes, but he is mistaken in seeing that reflection as the means itself when the real nexus is the analysis of what it sees, and, through that analysis, its power of being critical.
What dictatorial censorship, like the Soviet one, must do is castrate the novel by chopping out its ability to criticise. Made impotent in its critical faculty, the novel is thereby rendered useless. Kundera’s argument, therefore, is that chopping in any form, even by well-intentioned capitalist editors, is potentially deadly for the novel itself. But a very dangerous question arises here: Is criticism only possible, therefore, because the anti-human historical process is so humanly flawed?
If this is so, then we have to ask ourselves if a truly-human process of progressive history would eliminate the need for criticism, which in turn would create a debilitating process for the mind akin to those created by dictatorship?
Or, in other words: Is the novel important to us only because the System (civilisation) we are immersed in is so defective?
We believe that Kundera, from his experience with Stalinism, would agree that it would. However, beginning an authentic-human historical process is not the same as completing the historical process, which was the purpose of communism.
By understanding the creative forces of humanity in a positive, universal way, guided by art, science and technology rather than ideology and religion, would be far more transformative than the evolutions and incomplete revolutions that have so far been produced by any anti-historical processes we have.
Rather than dying, the novel would be in the front line of this pro-humanity transformation: both as an analyser and a critique of the new process. The novel, therefore, will not die with authentic-human history, rather its current moribund prestige will be rekindled and rejuvenated as wider appreciation will be made of its essential role in human (Sapiens) evolution.
Kundera admits in his book that the novel itself could have had a different history. He points to the different callings that the novel makes: The call to play (Tristan Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist); the call to dream (Kafka); the call to think (Musil and Broch); the call of time (Proust). There are other calls: the call to freedom (Joyce’s Ulysses); the call for justice (Zola, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy).
But the novel, like humanity has been more fettered than liberated by the anti-human historical process and our novelists now need to imagine new callings that can transcend the anti-human and embrace the calling toward an authentic Sapiens humanity. Yes, an evolution toward human authenticism, centring history as a process of human-progress, would imagine more callings as the abstract and conditional perspectives of individuals are opened up. One of the major victories that humanity would gain through an authentic-human historical evolution would be the liberation of minds beyond the actual and into the abstract and conditional realms of the potential.
Where Kundera is most definitely right and acute in his book, is when he speaks of the Spirit of the Novel, and that Spirit needs to be analysed and continually vindicated in opposition to the spirit of the market-place or the spirit of selling books. Novels are meant to be written, published and read: and this implies distribution and/or accessibility, but it does not imply sales. A novel’s success has to be measured by how much pleasure it has produced by doing what novels do best, which is … to stimulate the mind. But even here we need to be careful of over-simplifying success: A novel that can stimulate the minds of millions might be considered more successful than another which only managed to reach a handful of readers, but the quantitative degree of that success is no real reflection of the qualitative importance of the two books. A book that is never read may be qualitatively far superior than another that is consumed by billions. We see here the importance of accessibility and distribution: a great, human civilisation would be geared towards ensuring the accessibility of quality. An authentically human ethics would have to always prioritise the production of quality above quantity in art.
Kundera says that “the spirit of the novel is the spirit of complexity,” a spirit which is also antithetical to the reductionist spirit of the market-place and its demands for simplicity.