The Arts of the Novel: Heidegger and Kundera on the Forgetting of Being

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One of the most persistent, but unusual features of Martin Heidegger's philosophy is his attempt to wed his understanding of the importance of the concrete, sensual and embodied language of poetry and art to his consideration of the seemingly abstract question about the meaning or the truth of being. Many post-Heideggerean thinkers have suggested that this odd coupling does not serve either poetry or ontology very well, and have tried to show how it forces Heidegger to miss what is really going on in art, which seems to have nothing to do with the question of being.1 In this essay, I address this problem by exploring the Heideggerean motifs in Milan Kundera's work, primarily by examining the sense which Kundera gives to the phrase "the forgetting of being." I focus in particular on Kundera's collection of essays The Art of the Novel' and his novel Immortality.31 argue that Kundera's theory of the novel provides a way of thinking about the question of being literarily. I show that when we reconsider Heidegger's philosophy in the light of this literary formulation and in light of the significance of literary genre, we are presented with an understanding of the meaning of the truth of being in modernity that weds ontological significance to concreteness.

In "The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes," the lead essay in The Art of the Novel, Kundera starts up an ambivalent dialogue with Heidegger. To begin with, Kundera is somewhat critical of Heidegger for carrying over from Edmund Husserl a certain monocular perspective on history, particularly with regard to the historical meaning of the modern era. Focusing on the Husserl of the Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology4 and the Heidegger of "The Question Concerning Technology,"5 he claims, first, that both philosophers take up the traditional philosophical narrative that sees Descartes has having inaugurated modern European philosophy and science, but secondly, that they do this in order to explain the pickle into which Europe has gotten itself. Since Kundera sees the greatest insight of modern Europe as its attentiveness to the self, he particularly highlights the paradoxical consequences that Husserl's exposition of modern Europe's crisis and Heidegger's exposition of modern Europe's forgetfulness of being have for the self which modern Europe has constructed. However, for Kundera, any sense in which Husserl and Heidegger have revealed the paradoxes inherent in the existence of the modern self will be incomplete because their vision of history is too one-sidedly philosophical. While he endorses the ambiguities that their thought has probed, he rejects their characterization of this ambiguity as wholly philosophical.

To my mind, this ambiguity does not diminish the last four centuries of European culture, to which I feel all the more attached as I am not a philosopher but a novelist. Indeed, for me, the founder of the modem era is not only Descartes but also Cervantes. Perhaps it is Cervantes whom the two phenomenologists neglected to take into consideration in their judgment of the Modem Era. By that I mean: if it is true that philosophy and science have forgotten about man's being, it emerges all the more plainly that with Cervantes a great European art took shape that is nothing other than the investigation of this forgotten being."

Thus, Kundera sees the philosophical bias towards absolutes reflected in a history that occludes the development of the novel, wherein meaning is always mediated through the perspective of a particular character.

Nonetheless, in Kundera's use of the phrase "the forgetting of being" in this quote, we can also see the beginnings of what turns out to be a massive gesture of appropriation that positively links Kundera's work to that of Heidegger. Kundera explicitly associates his theory of the novel with the existential and ontological themes of Heidegger's work. For Kundera, the primacy that character has in his theory of the novel depends on the opportunity that the examination of character affords us for understanding and interpreting different existential possibilities, in the sense that these terms have in Being and Time. …