Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Life Lived for the Retelling--Milan Kundera's "La Lenteur"

I first bought Milan Kundera's "La Lenteur" on impulse in a Paris rail station some years ago, and subsequently read it on a trip to Brussels. I looked up the English translation of the book title and was surprised to see it as "Slowness," which is technically correct but sounds wrong in English. In French, "la lenteur" has (at least for me...which is another problem altogether touching on the degenerative nature of language) the connotation of a certain sensuous slow-time. I recently re-read this book on a cross country flight to Las Vegas. The fact that high-speed air travel offered me the rare, distraction-free occasion to mull over the ideas he touches on in that book is not without its irony.

In the book, Kundera sets up a contrast between eighteenth and late twentieth century aesthetics as regards sensory experience, speed, memory and audience. His premise is that speed is the form of ecstasy with which the technology revolution has gifted man. He contrasts a runner who feels entirely present in his body, conscious of his breathing and the sensation of his feet pounding against the pavement, with the sensory experience of a man who delegates the faculty of speed to a machine...(poorly no doubt translated by me) "as such his body is no longer part of the equation, he gives himself over to a speed that is incorporal, immaterial, pure speed, speed for its own sake, ecstasy speed." Kundera feels that there is a secret bond between slowness and memory, and speed and the ability to forget. The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of the memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity with which one can forget. The term "ecstasy speed" to the contrary (he later associates it with some "apparatchik of eroticism"), what Kundera is really celebrating is the lost quality of slowness. He weaves in two parallel stories to contrast the presumed sensibility of the eighteenth and late twentieth century.

The twentieth century story involves a young man who is a hanger on in an intellectual group in Paris that prides themselves on their libertine outlook. They are libertine to the degree that their pleasures are cerebral rather than sensual and to the degree that the conquest of pleasure is not about pleasure itself, but about conquest and victory. Not surprisingly they admire the Marquis de Sade, and a certain Sadeian aesthetic pervades in their intellectual disgust for the outside world and retreat into an artificial world and the economy of human interaction, as demonstrated by the ways in which the members of the group undermine each other. Their privilege is that of a certain degree of intellectual cognizance and their scorn is reserved for individuals who are inept or lack self-awareness. de Sade's work is mainly concerned with the privilege of power and the pure hatred of the strong for the weak (Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman). Although dramatized in pornography, the de Sadeian focus is political satire, with characters who play for life and death stakes. His characters tend to be representations of abstract ideas. Meanwhile, the focus is more individual in Kundera's "La Lenteur" and the victim is personal vanity. Despite the fact that the generalized pettiness and self-preoccupation of the Kundera characters prevents them from being individually sympathetic, the quality of his prose and characterization makes the tragedy of their condition rather poignant.

The members of Kundera's clique have developed a theory of "dancers"--generally media and political figures who uphold certain causes "or rather their vanity upholds those causes" not because they believe or disbelieve in the causes, but because those causes offer them opportunities to take center stage and showcase themselves in photographic media moments--kissing AID's victims on the mouth or swatting flies away from the body of a child during the Somalian famine. Similar in spirit to de Sade's imagined world where one person's pleasure can only come at the expense of another's pain, Kundera's dancers must displace each other to occupy the center stage. Their objective is to transform their lives into works of art, which will move and impress onlookers. That audience takes the form of the mass of anonymous, invisible spectators at the other end of the television screen. In this objective, the Kundera dancers find themselves in a brutal (and hilarious in a bitter-sweet manner, because the stakes are so low) competition with each other.

Central to Kundera's story is the idea of the resonating shell where no action or communication is private and everything is amplified for the viewing pleasure of a broader audience. In the eighteenth century part of Kundera's story, that audience constitutes a limited group of people from the same privileged social class, who also share similarities in their outlook upon life. In this group, everyone knows each other. In the twentieth century part of the novel, the audience is an invisible, mass audience. The privileged audience of the eighteenth century, as embodied in Choderlos de Laclos's "Dangerous Liaisons," is concerned with cleverness and refined sensibilities; Kundera's mass audience of the twentieth century is concerned with tableaux of moral "beauty" and superiority, however the sub-plot and parallel story has similar paramaters to the eighteenth century story because the protagonist is simply vying for the attention of his own intellectual clique.

In both worlds, where the attention of the larger audience is sought, disclosure is the weapon of choice. The central conflict faced by the eighteenth and twentieth century protagonist is whether to communicate a certain experience or keep it for themselves. In both episodes, the case could be made that the protagonist was, to a certain degree, ridiculous. Each story involves a one-time encounter with a mystery woman. The difference is that the eighteenth century protagonist actually engages the woman and enjoys the experience, whereas the twentieth century protagonist disconnects from the entire experience completely because at the very moment it takes place, the sole importance of the encounter lies in its becoming a story to be retold, for the purpose of impressing his friends. The young eighteenth chevalier determines that there is no explanation for what he experienced and that the public perception of his dignity would be ambiguous were it to be disclosed. He decides to keep the narrative to himself. We last see him leaving the chateau of the mystery woman in a long, slow carriage ride back to Paris, where he is engaged in the agreable passtime of sensual recollection. By contrast, the twentieth century protagonist has nothing agreeable to recollect. His self-preoccupation and omnipresent inability to live or remember his experiences outside the context of their perception by a larger audience produces an overwhelming feeling of humiliation. He gets on a motorcycle and speeds back to Paris, trying to forget the actual circumstances of the event as soon as possible.

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