Championing Enlightenment Values Translations Present Contemporary European Fiction's Concern for Truth and Reason

Article excerpt

THE DEFEAT OF THE MIND

By Alain Finkielkraut Translated from the French by Judith Friedlander Columbia University Press 165 pp., $32

SLOWNESS

By Milan Kundera. Translated from the French by Linda Asher HarperCollins. 156 pp., $21

VOLCANO AND MIRACLE: A SELECTION FROM THE JOURNAL WRITTEN AT NIGHT

By Gustaw Herling Translated from the Polish

by Ronald Strom

Viking

277 pp., $24.95

THE SHOVEL AND THE LOOM

By Carl Friedman

Translated from the Dutch by Jeannette Ringold

Persea Books

176 pp., $20

Throughout this past century - and with renewed energy in recent years - the values of the Enlightenment have been attacked from many sides: by religious fundamentalists hostile to the claims of reason; ethnic chauvinists scornful of the claims of a common humanity; and moral relativists and deconstructionists skeptical about the Enlightenment goal of universal truth.

In The Defeat of the Mind, French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, who came of age in the 1960s and embraced many of the nostrums then current, urges a return to the Enlightenment values so recently dismissed as "Western," "male," and "elitist." He makes a lucid and persuasive argument that individuals of all cultural backgrounds will find more freedom and justice in a society that embraces Enlightenment ideals than in a society founded on ties of blood, race, religion, or so-called national culture.

Even as the writers of many European nations raise distinctive voices expressing and reflecting the accents of their particular "cultures," it is possible to sense a larger, more genuinely international culture in the process of developing. Czech-born Milan Kundera, who has lived in France for more than 20 years, has already penned two nonfiction books in French and now offers his first fictional work in French: Slowness, a lighthearted divertimento that pays tribute to the charms of Enlightenment France.

On a visit to an 18th-century chateau-turned-modern-conference-center, the narrator takes the opportunity to contrast the stately, measured pace of that bygone age with the current age's addiction to speed. "Slowness" juxtaposes the love story depicted in an 18th-century novella, Vivant Denon's "Point de'lendemain," with the affair of a lovely woman and an anxious intellectual too intent on impressing his peers to appreciate the relationship she offers him. The postmodern Romeo is more interested in the momentary, soon-to-be-forgotten prestige of being seen with a beautiful woman. Kundera further associates the speed of the modern age with its lack of privacy and its obsession with image and style over substance, memory, and reason. He makes his points with a touch of comic ribaldry.

One of the entries made by the Polish expatriate writer Gustaw Herling in his voluminous journals, a selection of which are published under the title Volcano and Miracle, is a rebuttal of an attack made by Kundera on Dostoevsky for elevating passion over the Enlightenment value of reason. …