Sunday, February 7, 2010

Milan Kundera and the decline of values

On page 49-50 of The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera writes, “The world is [in] the process of the disintegration of values (values handed down from the Middle Ages), a process that stretches over the four centuries of the Modern Era and is their very essence.
“What are man’s possibilities in the face of this process?”
Before getting into those possibilities, consider an article published by Dan Elliot of the Associated Press: .  He entitles it “Federal law barring lies about medals is tested.”   In 2006 a “Stolen Valor Act” toughened a law that forbids anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned.” 
“Attorneys in Colorado and California are challenging the law on behalf of two men charged . . .”  As I understand it, these men (or their lawyers) are saying they shouldn’t be forced to do the 400 hours of community service and pay a fine of $5,000” because the First Amendment protects their right to lie.  There are screwed-up people everywhere – screwed up in all sorts of ways – and unscrupulous lawyers willing to defend them, but notice in this case that should these lawyers and their deranged clients win, a “value” will be weakened.  We see the “process of the disintegration of values” at work.  Interestingly enough, the defendants complicit in the disintegration of this particular value valued it enough to falsely claim that they possessed it.
Kundera refers to three novels by Hermann Broch: Pasenow, or Romanticism; Esch, or Anarchy; Huguenau, or Realism.  Kundera says that Broch finds three possibilities [in the face of the process of the disintegration of values]:
“The Pasenow Possibility.”  This possibility is to hang onto the values regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.  One gathers that Broch, and probably Kundera, don’t value this possibility as much as Pasenow does.  “Pasenow’s story culminates on his wedding night.  His wife, Elisabeth, does not love him.  He sees nothing ahead but a future of lovelessness.  He lies down beside her without undressing.  That ‘twisted his uniform a little, the coat skirts fell open and revealed the front of his black trousers, but as soon as Joachim noticed, he hastily set things right again and covered the place.  He had drawn up his legs, and so as not to touch the coverlet with his glossy boots, he strained to keep his feet on the chair beside the bed.”
“The Esch Possibility.”  Esch accepts the idea that the traditional values have disintegrated, but surely some new values must be possible and so he searches for some value to believe in passionately. Esch is ready to denounce Nentwig to the police, but upon meeting Nentwig he can’t recall what his complaint was; so instead he denounces Bertrand because he is homosexual. 
“The Huguenau Possibility.”  Huguenau is utterly without values.  “The absence of moral imperatives is his freedom, his deliverance.  There is a deep significance in the fact that it is he who – without the faintest sense of guilt – murders Esch.”
Where shall we put the Attorneys who want their clients to be able to lie about their military honors?   If they are sincere about believing the First Amendment guarantees the rights of their clients to lie about their military honors, perhaps they are in the Esch Possibility.   But if they are just in it to make a buck, they have embraced the Huguenau possibility.
And what of their clients, the defendants who claimed honor they didn’t deserve?  They don’t seem to fit any category.  They are liars to be pitied or ignored.  But their lawyers are participating in the process of disintegration and using them as tools.
Kundera adds two other possibilities to Broch’s three: Kafka’s K who is so devoted to the system that he maintains solidarity with the decision to execute him.  And Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik who gets by by being (or pretending to be) a good-natured fool.
Throughout the four centuries Kundera refers to, the Christian option has maintained its collection of values.  Let us call it a tradition.  Kundera would snort in disgust at that, but I would hasten to point out to him that he accepted the experimental system called Marxism at one time, Marx who called religion the opiate of the masses.  Marxism has largely collapsed, disintegrated to use Kundera’s term.  If Marxism and other experiments collapse, will that not leave the tradition more or less in tact?  Kundera values Heidegger’s parts of Heidegger’s philosophy, but apparently not the part that values authenticity.


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