Lyric Poetry, the Novel, and Revolution: Milan Kundera's Life Is Elsewhere

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Do novels or poems of high literary merit provide any particular guidance about the idea of revolution, or can we say only that different novels and poems express different points of view? Part of the issue, certainly, depends on how and where one draws the line in regard to the works worth considering. There are those who would argue that even if one can agree on a common list of literary classics, moral chaos reigns among the great works themselves, whether they are novels, poems or plays. Richard Posner, arguing that literature has no wisdom to offer about the nature of justice, declares that "the world of literature is a moral anarchy; immersion in it teaches moral relativism."(1) Declaring that "the classics are full of moral atrocities ... that the author apparently approved of," he cites the apparent approval of "rape, pillage, murder, human and animal sacrifice, concubinage, and slavery in the Iliad," "anti-Semitism in more works of literature than one can count, including works by Shakespeare and Dickens." He points to novels of high literary merit that "disparage the modern project of liberty and equality" and others that "presuppose an organization of society in which a leisured, titled, or educated upper crust lives off the sweat of the brow of a mass of toilers at whose existence the novelist barely hints" (312). Claiming that moral wisdom is unrelated to aesthetic quality, Posner argues that "the moral content of a work of literature ... is merely the writer's raw material--something he works up into a form to which morality is no more relevant than the value of sculptor's clay as a building material is relevant to the artistic value of the completed sculpture" (313). If Posner is correct, then it would surely be a waste of time to consult even the best novels or poems about revolution, because they would not have any wisdom to offer, about revolutions or anything else.

Posner's thesis that aesthetic merit has nothing to do with moral insight is, parodoxically, affirmed with the kind of persuasive power that only imaginative literature possesses in one of the great contemporary novels about the idea of revolution, Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere. (2) ("Idea of revolution," rather than revolution itself, since the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 was more like a coup than a revolution, though its partisans thought of it as a true revolution.) It should be emphasized at the outset that although Posner's thesis is certainly affirmed in Life is Elsewhere, it is also significantly narrowed. Lyric poetry, according to Life is Elsewhere, may have great aesthetic merit despite lacking truth and insight, but novels do not have such leeway. In any case, Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere provides an excellent test case both for Posner's thesis and as a starting point for inquiry into the relation between the idea of revolution on the one hand and novels and poems on the other. Jaromil, the protagonist of Life is Elsewhere, is a passionate supporter of the 1948 Communist revolution in Czechoslovakia and, not incidentally, a lyric poet. It is central to the novel that the reader believe Jaromil is indeed a gifted poet, a poet in the tradition of Shelley, Keats, and Rimbaud, to each of whom--and many other famous poets--Jaromil is repeatedly compared throughout the novel. The novel demonstrates how the same impulses and attitudes that lead Jaromil to become a poet also shape his enthusiasm for what he sees as a true revolution-even though his uncle calls it a "putsch," adding sarcastically: "It's easy to make a revolution when you've got the army and the police and a certain big country behind you" (170). The uncle, who is so uncultured that he believes "Voltaire had invented volts" (172), understands what is going on very well: "The Communists had most of the power already, and they made this putsch so they could have all of it" (171). Jaromil, on the other hand, gives his mother an explanation that is more hopeful but less accurate: "He explained to Mama that what was happening was a revolution, and that a revolution is a brief period when recourse to violence is necessary in order to hasten the arrival of a society in which violence is forbidden" (173). …