EVE KOSOFSKY SEDGWICK once wrote of something called the “senile sublime,” a funny, generous, and somewhat revelatory term for the study of geriatric art. She applies the concept, in her book Touching Feeling, to describe:
Various more or less intelligible performances by old brilliant people, whether artists, scientists, or intellectuals, where the bare outlines of a creative idiom seem finally to emerge from what had been the obscuring puppy fat of personableness, timeliness, or sometimes even of coherent sense.
Old people no longer have much of a reason — or, in some cases, the ability — to give a shit about these things, the theory goes. And it does seem possible that, out of this freedom from the constraints of care, a sort of aesthetic truth could emerge, however trembling the artist’s hand. Perhaps — banal, impossible fact — one is never freer than when approaching death. Perhaps there is, in senility, a kind of genius. Perhaps one becomes oneself, as an artist, most fully at the end. It is, after all, Michelangelo’s other Pieta that always made me cry.
While far from medically senile, thank god, one must admit that Milan Kundera is, after all, 86 years old. These days, he’s resting comfortably in the European canon, the scion of that historical myth of the post-Enlightenment novel-with-a-capital-n that begins with Cervantes and continues through Rabelais, Sterne, Diderot, Flaubert, Hermann Broch, Musil, Kafka, and Proust.
His new novel, The Festival of Insignificance, is separated from its predecessor by 14 years and is quite possibly his last. It has no puppy fat at all; it is slight in every sense. One hundred fifteen pages in length, the novel is peopled by lightly-traced, ordinary men leading insignificant lives concerned with largely minor things. Four friends — Ramon, Alain, Charles, and Caliban — stroll about Paris and chat. Alain considers the erotic significance of the belly button. Ramon encounters an ex-colleague who lies about having cancer. Charles and Caliban cater a party, during which a feather falls onto a woman’s hand. Caliban pretends to be from Pakistan, and babbles in a made-up tongue. Charles, meanwhile, thinks about his mother. A boring man explains that women sleep with him because he’s boring. The characters refer, here and there, to “our master” — which is to say to the writer himself — directing their actions, propelling events, and thus relieving them even of the burden of seeming real.
As often occurs in Kundera’s work, there are also periodic historical asides: in this case, Stalin spins a tall tale about shooting partridges, and tortures Kalinin, an incontinent politburo bureaucrat, by keeping him from using the loo. Each section echoes elements of the others, forming something like a hard-to-parse, noisy fugue. But why try to parse it at all, one might ask, when the novel takes pains to declare itself nugatory from the start? After all, news of its lack of substance is dancing right there across the front cover. Yet it can’t escape the enormous weight of Kundera’s long career, and it’s difficult to evaluate without trying to hold it against the rest, without trying to give it some heft of its own.
The irony of this is perhaps too obvious to note. Kundera has, of course, spent his writing life toying with notions of weight and lightness, meaning and meaninglessness, with the serious nature of jokes. In fact, his entire oeuvre may be said to have something in it of what Edward Said called, after Adorno, “late style,” defined, in this case, by a kind of intellectual freedom that allows for the “highlighting and dramatizing […] irreconcilabilities.”
His characters, in classic novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Joke, and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, were themselves allegories of these seemingly irreconcilable dichotomies, banishing the either/or in favor of a perpetual ambiguity that embraces both. John Banville, returning to The Unbearable Lightness 20 years after the fact, found himself surprised that he remembered so little of that book. Kundera’s novels, he wrote, have a tendency to float out of the mind “like a hot-air balloon come adrift.” Banville thought this a flaw, but it’s more like a central characteristic: hitched to ideas and moods rather than realities, airy and fantastical, polyphonic and rich in erotic evanescence, the novels do seem to have an affinity for forgetting. (The fault of the world they exist in, the author might say — but never mind.)
Perhaps an essential thing Kundera’s late style reveals is that the senile sublime has lurked in his prose all along, the real joke being that part of his reputation’s weight is based on something destined — designed, even — to float away, his name graven in stone for having danced so long in air. Again and again, Kundera has refused to take sides — aesthetically, as much as politically — aligning himself instead with a novelistic spirit of relativity and doubt, with things that we can laugh about and then forget. Crucially though, this was presented as an answer to the totalitarianism that so marked Kundera’s age, defying its false certainty and prescribed remembrance through the sort of unsteadiness that makes a joke a joke: “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world,” Ramon says, in Festival. “There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.” But given the extreme to which this novel takes its sloughing-off of weight, one has to wonder what becomes of Kundera’s form of defiant humor when the stakes of resistance seem so slight. In a world where, as Ramon also notes, “jokes have lost their power,” what is left but cynicism and foolishness?
A feather floats below the ceiling at a party, and Kundera devotes an entire chapter to this ultimate triviality, this buoyant, utterly weightless thing. It provokes laughter — even Stalin laughs — and yet in the novel’s laughter there is sadness too. Mortality, another of the author’s bailiwicks, looms large, and amid the sense of endings the laughter seems wry: Charles’s mother is dying, D’Ardelo is pretending to die, a famous artist has just lost her husband. Stalin’s era is drawing to a close. Too, the book feels haunted by a suspicion that the Novel, or at least the tradition of the novel from which Kundera emerged, has entered a period of cultural twilight of its own: to call something insignificant is to suggest that it’s no longer welcome in the world, to say that it’s powerless or unworthy, shading into irrelevance. As Ramon, suggesting yet another possible gloss on the book, offers at the end: “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always.” Despite the novel’s predominant festive spirit, this sentiment touches it with a sort of late-stage gloom: proximity to endings, whether one’s own, or the novel’s, or the communist experiment’s, allows an odd sort of nihilism to emerge.
During a section of historical fantasia, Stalin and his cronies are startled by the sight of a falling angel outside:
“An angel is a sign!” Khrushchev proclaims.
“‘A sign?’ But a sign of what?” moans Breszhnev.
No answers are given, but Kundera (his authorial voice and meta-fictional presence overseeing the proceedings) returns to the question later on: “Indeed, what is that fall a sign of?” he asks. “A murdered utopia, after which there will never be any other? An era that will leave no trace? Books, paintings, flung into the void?” Perhaps Kundera is suggesting that this little novel, written late in life, is itself being flung into a void, of no more significance, in the face of death, than a feather falling through air. But then Caliban falls off a chair and breaks Alain’s (“old, oh very old”) Armagnac — another fall, but ridiculous this time, making a farce of all the falls that came before.
Caliban, which is in fact the character’s nickname, harks of course to The Tempest, not incidentally the last play Shakespeare is known to have written alone. The magician Prospero — who controls the play’s action rather as Kundera does his plot, like a puppet master with his marionettes — has his pageant spoiled by Caliban, the rebellious slave, and uses the occasion to remind his audience of the play’s essential lack of weight, and in turn of his own:
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Critical consensus has it that Prospero’s speech serves as Shakespeare’s own valedictory farewell to the theater (the “globe” here possibly his own stage), and there’s a bit of the senile sublime in the play’s own undoing of itself: for all Prospero’s meta-fictional machinations, he not only forgives everyone, but gives up his art in the end — he, too, melting into air. If, as Harold Bloom put it once, Prospero is concerned with controlling time through a kind of language-magic (we might say “narrative” instead), then Caliban is “time’s revenge against all those who conjure with books.” He disrupts the orderly sequence, unmakes meaning, reminds us of the ultimate insignificance of the thing. It’s a form of revenge seemingly exacted by old age as well: for all our books and letters, for all our insistence on meanings, and morals, and plots, eventually we forget, don’t we, we stumble, we fall, and we die. And what substance does anything have to it then? It would appear that, to Kundera, there’s something quite funny in this, in all this fuss having been made, only to arrive at insignificance in the end. Something quite sad, too, of course. Yet it’s not as though we take nothing of value from it, this having been. In The Tempest, Prospero is set free from his art by the audience’s applause; he’s left them in good humor at least.
Late style, Said wrote, in paraphrase of Adorno, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality,” refusing, in Adorno’s words, “to reconcile in a single image what is not reconciled.” Kundera has always refused reconciliation of this kind. But now he’s whittled the novel down to the joyous refusal alone, to a sublime laughter that frees him from literature, from significance, from the weight of a legacy — Nobel rumors be damned — and finds beauty in uselessness, in actors without audiences, in the gestures of marionettes, in being in a good mood. Death is not reconciled, nor are we reconciled to death — but perhaps the most sublime thing about senility, as Sedgwick envisaged it, is that it doesn’t care about reconciliation at all. Doesn’t care, or just forgot all about it. Who knows what any of this means, in other words, or if it does at all: in the end, Kalinin and Stalin perform some tomfoolery in the park, while the friends watch, then ride away in a horse-drawn carriage as a children’s choir sings “La Marseillaise.”