The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Kundera On Nostalgia For The Present

In Identity (HarperCollins, New York, 1998, pp. 40), Milan Kundera has Chantal thinking nostalgically about her love, Jean-Marc, but:

Nostalgia? How could she feel nostalgia when he was right in front of her? How can you suffer from the absence of a person who is present? (Jean-Marc knew how to answer that: you can suffer nostalgia in the presence of a beloved if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more; if the beloved’s death is, invisibly, already present.)

Sometimes when I’m looking at videos and photos of loved ones I find myself overcome by a curious melancholia, a wistfulness of sorts. I’m perplexed; why is this so? These people, whose images I am gazing at, whom I love and care for, are still very much with me; they continue to enrich my life. Why does the sight of them introduce a sensation that is ‘nostalgic’, akin to the feeling that one might get on gazing at a scene never to be re-staged, a vista never to be viewed again? (The images I speak of are not ones that should be properly productive of nostalgia: they are way too recently produced for that, and even the sense of time elapsed cannot account for the depth and pathos of the associated melancholia.)

Kundera is right, of course, that this is because we have anticipated a future without our loved ones; we are not content to live in the present; we must look ahead as we always do. Our joy at the presence of our loved ones then, is always mingled, always touched and inflected, by a hint of terror; indeed, this fear, this paralyzing nightmare which flickers at the margins of our thoughts, might be what makes our joys of love quite so sweet. Parents know this the best perhaps, but lovers do too. Just like a jealous lover torments himself by thoughts of the times before he met his beloved, of those she loved and left, of a time when he was non-existent in her romantic calculus, we inflict ourselves on the pain of an imagined future that is bereft of those we love. As we walk side by side by those we love, we imagine ourselves alone, unable to share what we see with that pair of eyes which now supplements ours.

There is another reason too, I think, for reactions similar to mine–where we are looking at images of loved ones who still live with us. We have experienced losses in the past; we have spent much time gazing at visual mementos that remind us, again and again, of what we have lost. The act of viewing an image has itself become infected with a particular kind of superstitious threat: to look on too long is to tempt fates, to turn this gazing into all we might have left. And images themselves threaten: this is what your loved ones are reduced to; this is all that shall remain. We might shrink from the act of capturing images, afraid that we are tempting fate; perhaps we should be content with the concrete. And, of course, the present.

Kundera On Virtuous and ‘Timid’ Centers

In Immortality, (HarperCollins, New York, 1992, pp. 75) Milan Kundera writes:

Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance…

There is something Nietzschean about the kind of center that Kundera has in mind.

The classical, geometric center of the circle ‘avoids extremes’ by maintaining a safe, antiseptic, boringly equal distance from every point on the circumference. (And there are an infinite number of these ‘extremes’, so this feat takes some doing, a wonderful and exhaustive precision of sorts.) This kind of center, when manifest in our psychological and intellectual dispositions, can lead to a rather banal sort of moderation, an insipid, ‘timid’, overly cautious, scared-to-try-the-deep-end character. This kind of personality will have no ‘style‘; it will all too easily blend into the background. It will experience little terror and so, perhaps, little beauty. (‘For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure’?) This character has little virtue to speak of; it has found its path by avoidance, not experience.

The second kind of center though, one best imagined as one that holds, in addition to the ‘remarkable balance’ alluded to above, a tension in its connections to its extremes. This is the tension of the bowstring drawn tight, just right: any more, and it snaps; any more, and the arrow does not reach the target. The tension restrains the extremes; it holds them in check; the center represents, as it were, the sum total of the interacting forces acting on the center through its relationship with the points on the periphery. It is the tension in these relationships that holds the center in place, and grants it its gravitas.  This center is not the slave of the extremes, as the previously ‘timid’ center was, which shrank from contact. Rather, it holds its ground, confident it can avoid the collapse, the fall, the descent into the abyss. It walks to the edge of the cliff but no further; it does not retreat, unwilling to experience the vertigo that is an inevitable accompaniment to the beauty of the view that can only be glimpsed from the rim.

Note #1: The full excerpt from Immortality reads:

Now, perhaps, when the end of the century provides us with the proper perspective, we can allow ourselves to say: Goethe is a figure placed precisely in the center of European history. Goethe: the great center. Not the center in the sense of a timid point that carefully avoids extremes, no, a firm center that holds both extremes in a remarkable balance which Europe will never know again.

Note #2: It is perhaps not a coincidence that Kundera invokes these contrasting notions of the center in the context of speaking about Goethe, who after all, did write ‘Nature and Art‘, which ends with:

Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free.

Here again, we glimpse the notion of a virtuous balancing of freedom by constraint.

Kundera on the Novel’s Powers of ‘Incorporation’

In ‘Notes inspired by The Sleepwalkers(by Hermann Broch), Milan Kundera writes:

Broch…pursues ‘what the novel alone can discover.’ But he knows that the conventional form (grounded exclusively in a character’s adventure, and content with a mere narration of that adventure) limits the novel, reduces its cognitive capacities. He also knows that the novel has an extraordinary power of incorporation: whereas neither poetry or philosophy can incorporate the novel, the novel can incorporate both poetry and philosophy without losing thereby anything of its identity, which is characterized (we need only recall Rabelais and Cervantes) precisely by its tendency to embrace other genres, to absorb philosophical and scientific knowledge.

The modern novel is often said to begin with Miguel CervantesDon Quixote, but as Kundera’s sweeping claim and the history of the novel suggests, precise markers of provenance do not do justice to such a polymorphous entity. For Kundera is right about the novel’s well-known and enduring ‘powers of incorporation’: the philosophical novel is a commonplace as are novels in verse.

But I am not sure he is correct about the incorporation going in just one direction.

The novel that seeks to provide a coherent statement of a philosophical doctrine–either through its main narrative, the actions or pronouncements of its characters or even by its form–has incorporated philosophy into itself, but it is just as plausible to suggest the philosophy in question has compelled the choice of the novel as the form for its statement. That is, the philosophical doctrine has ‘incorporated’ the novel into the various forms necessary for its statement. The novelist could have after all, written a philosophical tract, but chose the novel instead; it is the chosen vehicle for the delivery of the doctrine.  And perhaps that is because the nature of the statements, arguments and conclusions at hand, indicate to the novelist that this is the correct choice to make. It is no coincidence that certain philosophical doctrines–such as existentialism, for instance–have such extensive flirtations with the novel; their central principles are often best expressed and illustrated by its form and structure. (The novelist appears as a philosopher, one obliged to turn to the novel’s form.)

Similarly for a poem in novel form. The poet’s statement is such that it demands the novel as its form; in doing so, poetry incorporates the novel into the various forms of its expression.

What these remarks suggest, I think, are two things. One, that both poetry and philosophy are perhaps not as well defined–in either form and content–as might be imagined by some. Second, an insistence on the unidirectional nature of the inclusive capacities of the novel runs the risk of rendering it an entirely indeterminate entity. (The experimental efforts of avant-garde and postmodern novelists might have already done that, of course; more to the point, that might not be such a bad thing for the novelists that lie in our future.)

Postscript: In a comment on Facebook, my friend Maureen Eckert offered the following perspicuous comment:

This “incorporation direction” issue applies in a very interesting way to Plato’s texts, too. At this point, these texts are typically assumed to be Philosophical – literary works: their philosophical content has incorporated the literary form and content. And yet (in historical context of 4th century BCE Athens) the dialogues are, well, a literary genre that has incorporated philosophical content. The Socratic logoi as a genre ended up having a participating writer, Plato, and we now perceive the texts as predominantly philosophical. It seem that the direction of incorporation not only goes both ways, but also that our perceptions of these directions varies and switches. There’s very little stability, just as you say.

Note: The essay on Broch is included in The Art of the Novel, Perennial Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1988.   Excerpt on page 64.