On Kundera and “Why”
Here’s an exchange I’ve had often enough to assume that, if you’re reading The Essay Review, you’ve probably had it too:
So, what do you do?
I’m a writer.
(Intrigued, like they are wondering if I maybe have a lot of baggage)
Oh really. What do you write?
Well, I write nonfiction.
(Stymied? Mildly let down? Actor’s choice how to play it)
When the fictioneers and poets say they write fiction and poetry, they are asked what kind. That’s how the conversation goes for them. I’ve checked. We alone in the trinity are asked why, like it requires justification, like we turned down an offer from a way more prestigious college to attend the one we’re at. There’s gotta be some kind of story here, the question seems to imply. One doesn’t grow up dreaming of writing nonfiction. Something, surely, must have happened. Which isn’t wrong. The American language arts curriculum does not incorporate nonfiction. Well, that’s not entirely true. When my 4th grade teacher found the day’s lesson plan a bit thin, she’d sometimes declare 15 minutes of journal time. But her other move was to have the entire class do the Macarena, so that should tell you something about the value she assigned to nonfiction. There are exceptions, sure, but on the whole U.S. children are not given models that allow them to conceive of nonfiction as an art they can pursue, which also means that the New Acquaintances of the nation do not have models for conceiving of it as an art you can come to want to pursue. So they ask why.
The answer that I’ve settled on is, “Because I can’t make shit up.”
By way of illustration, here is a memory I keep coming back to. For a few years in the ‘90s, Warner Bros. had a string of retail stores. When I was lets say seven, on a spare afternoon while out visiting family in Chicago, my mother took me to the mall with her, where there was the only WB store I would ever see. She wore a jean jacket with a patch of Bugs Bunny ironed onto the back for most of the decade, and I realize now that this is probably what she’ll be offstage purchasing.
At the back of the store was a toy spacecraft for children to play inside. It was shaped like an interstellar PVC pipe: hollow grey tube, brailled on the outside with fake nuts and bolts. This was an inspired bit of retail strategy. Kids like me loathed trailing mothers like mine around clothing stores. We would nag and tug. By redirecting our energy, the store unburdened our parents of us, enabling them to spend more time and, by extension, money.
The aesthetics of the tube called to me in the way of a blanket fort or the space beneath the table in a restaurant booth—that kind of gentle snugness that feels like hiding inside a secret. When I got on my knees and crawled through the porthole entrance at the center, there were maybe four or five other kids inside. The interior was lined with switchboards and light panels and televisions playing Marvin the Martian segments on loop. The light panels flashed, but in a pre-programmed, non-interactive way. Ditto the toggles on the switchboards—flipping them did nothing. And yet: the handful of children inside were twisting knobs and pressing buttons and engaging in any matter of serious spacecraft operations.
A boy on the right side of the tube turned to me. “Did any of the enemy ships see you board?” he said.
“Oh good,” he said, giving a throaty blast of relief. “That was a close one.” Then he flipped a switch and stared intently at the lights to determine if it was the right one.
This kid—Lucas, why not—is the only one I remember interacting with. In a well-rendered scene, the others on board might flesh things out with some nice secondary-level dialogue, peppering one-liners into my back-and-forth with Lucas. This right here, for instance, might be a good time to have one of them blurt something vaguely space-sounding—“Starboard secure,” perhaps. Maybe in a bellow. That kind of cleanness of action feels a bit too contrived, though. My early childhood memories are patchy and so obviously not screenplay-precise that we’d both know I was full of shit were I to present this scene as such. This is the same reason I’ve never been a good liar: I cannot convince myself to get on board with my own fictions. Frankly I feel like I’m barely getting away with the reimagined introduction to Lucas, which, because my imagination is so lacking, took me a really long time to come up with. The only reason I even mention these supporting characters is to illustrate something I can state with swift economy: that everyone in the spacetube was fully invested in the premise of being in space, absorbed in tasks of maintenance, space combat, steering, etc. I was alone in thinking it was all incredibly stupid.
I don’t remember much about how the next few minutes unfolded, but I do remember looking around slack-jawed at the proceedings. The thing that drew me to the log, the desire to be confined snugly within it, became pronounced. Or rather, what became pronounced was the distance between that desire and the zeal with which the other children were inhabiting the space. I did not care to be a star commander in flight, just as inside a blanket fort I never cared to be a knight jousting in defense of his high ground. I simply wanted to enjoy being in the tube, to womb into the cloistering physicality of it. But in the ensuing minutes, observing the chasm between myself and the other kids, what I came to feel was that I was fundamentally deficient.
The problem, as I felt but was too young to articulate, was that playing astronaut was a hollow activity. Every few moments one of the kids would contrive some kind of issue, then scramble around frantically for ten or fifteen seconds, and then declare the issue fixed. Starboard secure, in a bellow. It was all lifelessly arbitrary: no established stakes, no agreed-upon principles, meaning these kids were existing exclusively within their own individual imaginations, alone together. The ability to make believe requires a mechanism that can override the reality of the world you are in for the world in your head, and that was the deficiency I felt: that I lacked the capacity for basic childlike imagination. That I was incomplete in a very primal way.
I looked around. Everyone was engrossed. In a sort of desperate state of dejection, I threw my arms into the air and stepped outside of the tube. It was, I observed, rooted to the floor. But no matter. I examined the faux riveting. I walked up and down the length, tapping in inspection. I stood and stared at it for a bit. Then I crawled back in.
“Uh, Lucas,” I said. He was toggling the switchboard. “I think the gas tank broke.”
How to describe his face in that moment? You know how, just as Doc Brown is about to travel into the future, he sees the Libyans coming for him down the road? How he doesn’t popcorn with frantic alarm, but instead develops the far-off look of a man beaten by his own constipation? It was kind of like that, but with the cherubic flavor of a young Midwestern child. He looked like someone confronted by his fate and forced to defy it.
Lucas grabbed the air in front of him with both hands. “I’m going out,” he said, and then lifted the air up and slammed it over his head, latching it shut at the neck. I can still see him reaching through the porthole to plant his palms on the outside of the tube. He is readying himself to thrust out of the ship, into the void of memory, for this is where it ends for me. I once saw an episode of Sex and the City in which one of the characters, hoping that maybe the reason for her romantic troubles was that she was a lesbian, turns to a lesbian friend in an elevator and lays one on her. Then she pulls away with a look of resigned confirmation. “Definitely straight,” she says. “Yeah,” says the other woman, “You are.” That’s more or less what this moment was for me, only in fumbling for a sense of wonder instead of sexual identity. I so thoroughly absented myself from the rest of the time I spent in that tube that I don’t remember any of it.
This is when I first registered my inability to get on board with my own fictions. What remains loud in my mind all these years later is how meek I sounded in my suggestion to Lucas, like I wasn’t sure if I was doing make believe right because it just felt so fucking dumb. I couldn’t even look him in the eye as I mentioned the busted tank, and as he swung out the porthole I stood there blinking, incapable of suspending my own disbelief.
This would soon come to manifest in my relationship with literature. It’s not all too present with other mediums, and I cannot claim to explain why, other than to say I never learned to enjoy the act of reading in the way that I naturally took to glomming the TV for hours. So in middle school I’d grow incredulous at a page-long description of a sunset, or really any physical description that didn’t serve the plot. It struck me as being just as arbitrary as the obstacles the children in the WB spacetube contrived for themselves. Did his slender nose curl down into a broomy mustache? Did it really? The trouble for me was that, since fiction writers have control over every aspect of their work, every coincidence felt contrived. “The polka dots on Kimmy’s dress were red,” a passage might read, “the same shade of red as her blouse was in chapter 3, when that bad thing happened. So, you know, heads up.” That kind of foreshadowing hit me as utterly meaningless. Worse, though, was when a writer would massage personal convictions into the mind of a character, trying to balance the authorial positions of, 1) having something to say and, 2) not existing within the world of the piece to be able to say it. Attempts were clumsy at best: “Seasons passed, the children grew, and Jack and Belen continued to struggle evermore toward harmony, unable to fully free themselves from strife, that most natural state of man.” Or, “And as he walked out of the bodega and resignedly pulled the tab on his Sunkist, Jeb suddenly knew that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would continue without end, for blame never lies with the victim, and how do you solve a conflict in which both sides consider themselves to be the victim, just as was the case with he and that other guy reaching for the last Fanta in the cooler at the same time. So thought Jeb.”
This is what Geoff Dyer refers to in Out of Sheer Rage as, “watching the author’s sensations and thoughts get novelised, set into the concrete of fiction.” Dyer gets so weary of this, he says, that, “perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.”
What I would have given to hear that suggestion in my youth. Despite my frustrations with reading, I loved language in a deep way, and this was a circle I couldn’t seem to square. It was maybe another deficiency, I figured, and I’d live my life as one of those people who declares with defiant pride that “I don’t read,” even though I could not otherwise identify with the kind of person who’d say something like that. It wasn’t anti-intellectualism, just…well, I thought reading sucked.
It was not until late high school thought I found a book I considered genuinely engrossing. There was a band I was somewhat obsessively into, and in one song the singer references a book he loves, one about a ship on a circumnav. I went on a lyrics forum to try to figure out the name of the book, considering my kinship with the band so vibrant that I’d surely be moved by the same art that moved them. The answer I found was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
This turned out to be wrong. I read the book, there’s no ship. But I loved it regardless. It totally floored me. The framework of the book is not the fictional world within it, but the narrator’s own grappling with Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return. The narrator is not of the characters’ world. Rather, they are of his. He examines them as a case study for his own philosophical questioning, not setting his thoughts in the concrete of fiction, but rather always coming back to the writer’s mind on the page, utilizing fiction within a larger framework instead of as the framework itself. The first of the book’s seven sections establishes the theories the narrator is confronting and puts the main characters, Tereza and Tomas, into motion.
The second section begins like this: “It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother’s womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying ‘Einmal ist keinmal.’ Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.”
Bruce Springsteen said that the first time he heard Bob Dylan, it kicked open the door to his mind. That’s what this paragraph did for me. It was like being liberated. Kundera reached into my past, into that little grey tube, and tapped me on the head, and I looked up and said, “Oh thank god, we don’t have to pretend like we’re in space.”
Acknowledging the fundamental fictiveness of his characters, Kundera is able to transcend the traditional structures of narrative and loose himself from the concrete of fiction. He reveals the ending halfway through the book. He intermittently pauses the action to discuss how he developed certain scenes and premises. And it is all in service of the primary function of the book, the narrator’s grappling with his own mind.
In researching about Kundera’s narrative voice in the book, I stumbled upon a sort of off-brand Sparknotes site, something called Shmoop.com. (The banner on the company’s Twitter feed reads, “To Shmoop or not to Shmoop?…Jk. Always Shmoop.” It’s transcendently stupid branding, and so I’m quite self-conscious to be basically saying, As Shmoop dot com says… But I guess that’s what I’m doing, so:) As Shmoop dot com says,
Interestingly, [Kundera] accomplishes with his novel everything that, according to his novel, we can’t do in real life. He disrupts the linearity of time by telling a non-chronological narrative. He achieves a mini-version of eternal return by repeating the same scenes a second or third time. He claims…that his characters are “his own unrealized possibilities,” which means he’s using the novel as a way of giving weight to and taking responsibility for his decisions – he gets to compare his own life with different possible outcomes (as represented by his characters). The novel explores the human struggle to give our lives weight despite its necessary and unbearable lightness. And the novel itself is the narrator’s attempt at doing just that for himself.
It’s that last sentence that I find most compelling. Though he uses fictions, they are, again, contained within the greater framework of the writer’s mind on the page, and are used as a means for interrogating it.
Here’s a real, non-contrived coincidence. In Out of Sheer Rage, two paragraphs after suggesting that we should maybe avoid the novel altogether, Dyer dedicates a full page-length paragraph to Kundera. He praises Kundera’s famous novels from the ‘80s, but never refers to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, though published in 1984 and Kundera’s most famous by far. Instead, Dyer focuses on 1988’s Immortality. What he says is that Immortality is “full of ‘inquiring, hypothetical,’ or aphoristic essays…but compared with these, my favorite passages, I found myself indifferent to Kundera’s characters. After reading Immortality, what I wanted from Kundera was a novel composed entirely of essays, stripped of the last rind of novelisation.” He then says that Kundera’s next book, Testaments Betrayed, provided just that.
Perhaps I’m being overly semantic, but I think Kundera had already provided a book entirely of essay, and that the use of novelization and fiction does not make something less essayistic. The essay is expansive enough to incorporate the use of fiction within it as a tool, and Kundera deploying Tereza and Tomas in order to navigate his own consciousness is no different than Amy Leach sending us out into a field to twirl around our friends and sing fictional songs at one another as a way of understanding the spatial interplay between the sun, earth, and moon in ‘Sail On, My Little Honeybee,’ or George Saunders beginning ‘Thought Experiment’ by directing the reader to “Imagine the following scenario,” whereupon he offers up some hypothetical situations with hypothetical characters. These are essays by any definition, and they utilize devices of fiction in just the way Kundera does in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. You can no less require an essay to be free of novelization than you can require it to be free of hypotheticals or of song.
Perhaps Dyer is just stating personal taste here, that he found Kundera’s use of fiction as an essayistic device to be underwhelming. Which is fine, but all I can say is that, reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the first time, I became invested in the characters in a way I’d never been before, not despite the fact that their fictiveness was acknowledged, but because of it. I do not mean to suggest that Kundera was the first person to utilize the novelistic form as an essay or that this is somehow newly revelatory. Rather, it is to say that he was both of those things in the narrative of my own reading history, which, again, was rather poor and insipid and plodding. And in many ways it remains so; Kundera didn’t change my tolerance for reading in a macro way, just as your first love does not change your worldview on humanity so much as it shocks you into beginning to understand your place in it. What Kundera revealed to me was the kind of literature I love. He provided me with a model for a form I could identify with, even if I couldn’t yet name it, not least because the words “A Novel” were right there on the book’s cover. What I’d come to learn was that Kundera was telling me I feel an affinity for the essay. That it is a mode I can become engrossed in. That I find it to resonate as the truest form of literature, in a way much deeper than mere factual fidelity. Perhaps that should be how I answer the why question from now on.
The Walker’s Work: Drifting Essays and Political Responsibility
To blow the dust and distraction from his mind, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would lay belly-up in a rowboat on Switzerland’s Lake Bienne. He’d shove off from St. Peter’s Island, row to the lake’s center, then stow the oars and ease onto the boat’s floor, straight-backed, until he could see nothing but sky, hear nothing but chop on the gunwales. There, for mounting, blissful hours, he would drift.
“I let myself float and drift wherever the water took me . . . plunged in a host of vague yet delightful reveries, which though they had no distinct or permanent subject, were still in my eyes infinitely to be preferred to all that I found most sweet in the so-called pleasures of life.”
Rousseau recalls this moment of inspirational seclusion in Reveries of the Solitary Walker, his unfinished manuscript of ten essays framed by ten reflective walks, published in 1782, four years after his death. In 1762, charged with apostasy and labeled the “antichrist” by his own pastor, Rousseau fled to the mountainous French province of Neuchâtel. After three years of refuge in the town of Môtiers, a mob of religious accusers surrounded and stoned his house, forcing poor Jean-Jacques farther east, to even more remote environs, into a small, island cabin on Lake Bienne. Even though he writes Reveries from the comparative safety of his final years, when he was free to roam Paris’s Ménilmontant and Rue du Chemin Vert without fear of being rounded up and beaten, Rousseau recounts this precarious time on St. Peter’s Island as the happiest in his life. His days spent tracing the shore there, botanizing, observing, and dreaming, marked the impetus for his legacy as our founding literary flâneur, a term Charles Baudelaire would later solidify in his pioneering criticism. As characterized in his posthumous collection, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, Baudelaire’s flâneur is an indulgent, flamboyant, meandering watcher, a dandy with more purpose, a moseying essayist, an artist who attempts to embody the essence of a space’s life by traversing through it, often haphazardly.
To the flâneur, Baudelaire writes, “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define.”
In other words, the flâneur’s a communist without the drab façade—an individual and wild artist amid the masses, capable of adeptly capturing the “heart of the multitude” in inventive, mimetic strokes.
“Thus,” Baudelaire continues, “the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”
If the body of literature is a grid of conventions and restrictions—a city, let’s say—full of written and unwritten codes of conduct, the flâneur is the one who snips the caution tape, hops the turnstile, blends in, embeds, takes notes, and reports back with peculiar, mischievous observations. The flâneur writes essays—lyrical, unclassifiable, energetic ones—because there is no act more essayistic, it seems, than walking the unwalkable terrain, pushing against those otherwise petrified, entrenched forms of illustration and articulation.
We have Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a more contemporary iteration of flâneurhood, in which Benjamin walks among and exhaustively examines those ornate, glass-roofed Parisian arcades, the nineteenth century’s spectacle of rising consumerism and commodification, as well as Benjamin’s The Writer of Modern Life, an ode to his critical ancestry of Baudelaire, who in turn owed homage to Rousseau’s solid brickwork, who in turn owed homage to Plutarch (his favorite writer), who in turn—whether they encountered him or not—shot back bifurcated, unending reverberations. Petrarch and his “Ascent of Mont Ventoux” comes to mind, as well as Sei Shōnagon, who was not much of a stroller but whose work is infinitely preoccupied with the customs and decorum of movers-through. If nothing else, too, The Pillow Book fittingly precedes and fulfills that Baudelairean concept of the flâneur’s mission to render the “multiplicity and flickering grace of all the elements of life.” And of course there’s Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” and Thoreau’s “Walking,” and seemingly all of Joyce’s narrators are walkers, and Sebald’s too, and Beckett’s too, and much of Annie Dillard’s essays are physical/cerebral amblings, and Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice (just naming favorites now), and James Agee’s Brooklyn Is, and obviously many, many more.
These waters of essaying walkers run deep and wide, but to trace one of the strongest, clearest tributaries, we might return to the fifth walk in Reveries, right after we have reclined in the boat on Lake Bienne, when Rousseau reveals the nature of his passion for walking-as-reverie. It is maybe the first time this has been done, at least this plainly and successfully, where a writer pulls the curtains back and examines what it is exactly that makes him think, in what conditions he finds the most clarity and freedom, and how he gets there. He draws us a map:
“The heart must be at peace and its calm untroubled by any passion. The person in question must be suitably disposed and the surrounding objects conducive to his happiness. There must be neither a total calm nor too much movement, but a steady and moderate motion, with no jolts or breaks. Without any movement life is pure lethargy. If the movement is irregular or too violent it arouses us from our dreams; recalling us to an awareness of the surrounding objects, it destroys the charm of reverie and tears us from our inner self, bowing us once again beneath the yoke of fortune and mankind and reviving in us the sense of our misfortunes. Complete silence induces melancholy; it is an image of death.”
We might continue from here and trace the walking essay to its broader permutations, winding through the emergence of psychogeography, an aesthetic branch of the Situationist movement, designed as a reaction against the allegedly restrictive, dictatorial configuration of Europe’s urban environments, to the closely related “Theory of the Dérive,” or drifting, Guy Debord’s 1956 surrealist project involving rapid, unpredictable, and seemingly irrational movement through urban landscapes. In an excellent foreword to Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Walks, a Rousseauesque journal of Fitch’s sidewalk exploration of Manhattan, published in 2014, Craig Dworkin submits a paraphrased dérive manifesto of Debord’s that could easily stand in for a definition of the “place-based” or situational essay:
“. . . the pedestrian traversal of an urban mise-en-scène; a narrative perspective located at the intersection of an individual’s sensations and the abstraction of a collective community; surreal juxtapositions of mundane details; fragments in parataxis against the smooth rational space of gridded projections; and the subjective warp of the documentary record.”
All this to say that the impulse to digress, as we already know, lies deep in the essay’s bloodline.
It is difficult—it takes effort, courage—to wander. It is a word we use almost exclusively in hyperbole, and have thus diluted (e.g. “I wandered into this charming deli one day,” or “The movie was boring, and my thoughts wandered,” or “My fiancé and I loved our romantic getaway in Sarasota, where we wandered the beach and collected sand dollars.”). Real wandering is a desperate, grasping act. True wanderers, true flâneurs, are in physical or intellectual danger when they do so. They are at risk of violent, public, aesthetic failure. Wandering is an artistically rebellious move because it contradicts the measures set in place to ensure that art behaves, that it remains predictable and auxiliary alongside commercial life. Wandering is anti-genre, anti-capitalist, and anti-structure. Wandering is anarchic and urgent because all important art is anarchic and urgent. Because we are—as a political and social species—boring. We are always at risk of sliding into that boredom, and wandering is our way out. Despite Modernism’s attempt to shake us from our trance, we remain obsessed with illusion, perfection, and clean practicality. We want detailed, painless directions, and we want our heads down as we travel there. We are rarely aimless. We despise idleness, and we are taught the perils of prolonged introspection. We repent for our sloth. We praise purpose, and we praise product. We praise art, sometimes, but we are slow to acknowledge the messiness of its process, the ugliness of imprecision. So, as a strategy to combat this intolerance, we might do well to think of the essay as a mascot for that process, a champion of exciting occasions of doubt and misdirection, a tradition of literary sidesteps, U-turns, and dead-ends. A written equivalent of Picasso’s trick—a canvas left blank in parts, unfinished and unashamed.
The walking essay owes its reader nothing and everything, in that it has no destination—no solid, expectable outcome or goal—but is only successful if its writer devotes full awareness to its unfolding, and sacrifices him or herself to the potential of severe failure. Its writer must be willing to blindly follow the fragment, knowing full well it may narrow and disappear at any moment. That’s where a sort of truer, essayistic bravery kicks in.
In our current political moment, when the richest and meanest of us take office and the vulnerable seem more and more vulnerable, it can feel necessary or convenient to respond directly in our nonfiction, calling ourselves activists and social justice warriors, allies and advocates, filling the content of our essays accordingly, writing toward an argument, with or against an ethical cause, but it remains equally necessary to interrogate our responsibility to the craft of our institution, and to consider the ways in which our manipulation of that craft may enact a more authentic, artistic form of resistance. We can concoct a false sense of bravery within ourselves by generating off-the-cuff, topic-motivated content that might make us feel useful and heard for a brief, cheap moment, but we’ve got to also spend time asking the difficult questions of ourselves, questions that prompt and demand the stylistic relevance, originality, and utility we’ve come to expect as readers and writers of the essay. Namely: How may we invent forms that surprise and refresh? How may we invent forms that resist? And finally, in a climate that feels steadily hostile toward the subversive and experimental, social and stylistic alike, how may we invent forms that place our bodies and words in the effort against that sentiment? Rousseau did it by taking a walk.